Hard to believe it's already been ten years…Thank you to everyone for your support throughout these wonderful years. This story has brought me so much joy, and I know it's touched a few people in very special ways. I look forward to finishing this over (hopefully) the next year or so.
But the fun won't end there! We'll still have Tao Yi Gaiden, War and Soul, and a new RenMei fic in the manga universe – DragonHead! I'm excited to share all of these with you, and I really hope you'll enjoy them!
You can credit lack of time, energy, and losing my notebook for this wait.
"Vector to the Heavens" from the Kingdom Hearts 1.5 soundtrack assisted greatly in the second half of this chapter.
Disclaimer: The anime/manga Shaman King and its characters were created by Hiroyuki Takei. All original characters made specifically for this fanfiction and any tie-in/spinoff pieces were created by Jezebel Parks.
A Gift of Love – Chapter 102: Their Means to the Heavens
Through the pain, HoroHoro found the strength to look up at the brilliant flashes of light. Rong and Li stood in front of him, blocking the Spirit of Fire's flames with a combined shield of furyoku. Despite their best efforts, some of the attacks were still able to get through. The heat and power were so intense that the two Wei warriors couldn't possibly stop it by themselves.
Li tossed her sister her last vial of antipyre. Rong splashed a very minimal amount on the burn that was steadily creeping up her forearm. She recorked it and glanced behind her.
She tossed the bottle to him. He caught it and looked at it, then back at her.
"But what about you?! You're the one taking the brunt of the attacks!" He offered the vial to her, but Rong turned her head and gave him a rather condescending grin.
"Aokun, you think that I haven't experienced worse pain than this? Compared to everything else I've been through, this bastard's flames barely tickle." She turned back to her shield. "We have to keep you safe until Ren and Pin-Mei figure out how to escape Suo's curse. As much as I hate to say it, neither of you can do this on your own."
HoroHoro looked to the dome of darkness a good fifteen feet away from them. Suo had waved her fan and captured Ren in the light that had emerged from it. Pin-Mei, of course, had panicked and tried to run to him. Before anyone could make a move to save either, the light had encircled them, taking the shape of a dome before turning pitch black. Rong and Li had tried to break through it, but it had been no use.
Hao had begun his assault the second they had vanished. At first, HoroHoro had decided to try and defeat him single-handedly, but even with Hao's power significantly weakened, the Spirit of Fire had been too much for him. He took a severe beating, which led to Rong and Li taking over the fight. Now he just sat there, helpless to do anything.
He clenched his fists. Dammit, Ren! What the hell's taking you so long?! Don't tell me you actually fell for that hag's tricks!
The area suddenly became immensely bright. He looked to the dome just in time to see beams of light shining through it. Then it exploded, sending shattered pieces of the barrier into the air.
Among the falling shards stood Ren and Pin-Mei, their heads bowed, their bangs hiding their eyes.
"It was a good attempt, Suo," Ren said. "But once again, you've underestimated us." He lifted his head and smirked at her. "No matter dirty tricks you try to pull, I'm never leaving her side."
Pin-Mei lifted hers as well, a bright smile on her face. "And of course, I'm never leaving Ren's side, either."
"I'd say, 'Try again,' but I really don't want to waste any more time on mirages."
Hao faked a laugh. "How clever." He jerked his head around to glare at Suo. "You promised that if I gave you enough furyoku to carry out your sorry excuse for a plan that it would doom the both of them and assure my victory. What happened?"
His pion fanned herself rapidly, glancing about in a nervous manner. "I-I'm just as surprised as you are! Everything was working in our favor until Hua showed up!"
His eyes narrowed. "You allowed that meddlesome woman into the realm?!"
"Of course not! I have no idea how she was able to enter on her own!"
Hao lifted a hand. "It was an absolute waste of furyoku to bring you back, and I'm not going to waste what little I have left. I'm through with y-"
A bolt of lightning struck the ground between the two. Hao stared at the scorched earth for a moment, then slowly looked up to see Pin-Mei had taken a step forward, her eyes hard.
"Hands off, Hao," she said fiercely. "If anyone's going to send Suo back to the hell she crawled out of, it's going to be me."
As she moved to make good on her threat, something held her back. She looked down to see that Ren had grasped her hand tightly, their fingers intertwining.
Her eyes trailed up to meet his. He gave her an amused smirk, but one that still subtly showed how much he cared. She gave him a smile of her own, her cheeks slightly pink, then squeezed back.
"Not to put your revenge on the back burner, but I'd like you to assist me for a minute while that idiot over there gets his act together."
"Shut up and start using the cleanser I gave you, Aokun."
As the two went on bickering, the Tao couple turned to each other. She gave him a sweet smile.
"Of course, darling."
He faced forward. "Alright then."
They let go of each other's hands. Ren drew Houraiken. Pin-Mei waved to Li, who tossed her a long box. While it was still in mid-air, she snapped her fingers. The fans broke free from their case and flew to her. She caught them, and gave her hands a small shake to brandish her weapons.
"SPIRIT OF THUNDER!"
Furyoku engulfed both their weapons, Ren's taking the familiar form of a Kwan Dao, while Pin-Mei's fans simply extended a bit.
"Seventh form," he whispered.
Pin-Mei nodded. She took a few steps back so she was behind him, then took both fans in her right hand and began charging, her left hand outstretched. When she was close enough, Ren grabbed her free hand and spun in a circle, letting go of her and sending her sprinting toward Hao and Suo.
Hao smirked. "Does Ren really think she can hold her own against me? He knows what happened last time."
Pin-Mei took her fan back into her left hand, then spread them. Ren appeared over her, stepping lightly on her back and jumping into the air.
"Spirit of Thunder!"
Lightning shot down from the darkened sky. Pin-Mei pulled back and threw the fans like discuses. The electricity engulfed them. They flew toward Hao and Suo, as if propelled by the energy they had just absorbed.
An overly confident Hao raised his Kwan Dao to parry the attack. Once it hit him, however, he realized what a mistake that had been. The fans kept spinning, trying to slice through the staff of his weapon. They pushed him back where he stood, making trails in the mud.
What the gods is this? Paired with a weakling like her…How could they create an attack like this?!
His train of thought was derailed by a swift uppercut that sent him backward to the ground. Just as he was getting to his feet, the fans were drilling into his chest, this time held by Pin-Mei. With one more blow, it was back in the mud for him.
She eyed him, ready to react to the slightest movement. When she saw that he was regaining his balance, she sprinted at him, fans open like wings. As she approached him, she spun, the fans digging into him with a downward swipe. That wasn't the end – Ren had silently approached Hao from behind, and gave a powerful upward slash.
Ren performed some quick hand movements and twirled Houraiken. A giant bolt of lightning threw Hao into the air. He flew off across the clearing. The Taos watched him land with a sickening thud, then exchanged a smile.
"Good job," he said softly.
Pin-Mei flailed, then played with her fingers, swaying gently. "W-Well it's really due to all the training you've given me over the years…"
"Alright, alright, just stop before you make me look totally useless," HoroHoro said coming up behind them. Rong and Li were beside him. They both gave a small bow.
"A fantastic display, My Lady," Rong said. Li nodded.
"And I'm sure it'll continue," Ren said. Pin-Mei blushed again.
"I know you don't need it…but good luck," she whispered.
He just smirked and patted her shoulder. "I just wish I could see you show her the woman you've become." A quick peck. "I'll see you in a few minutes."
He gave HoroHoro a nod, and the two men got into position. Pin-Mei smiled at them before looking to her own opponent. Suo was eyeing her from behind her fan, just as she had for all of Pin-Mei's younger years. That look of disgust, such zealous spite…there was no doubt that she was the real thing.
"Rong, Li, leave this to me. I've been waiting for this my entire life, and I don't want anyone to take this away from me."
The Wei soldiers bowed. "Yes, My Lady."
Suo smirked and lowered her fan. "You plan on fighting alone? Ha! I can barely sense your furyoku. You honestly believe you have a prayer? You weren't even capable of scratching me last we met. It took the guidance of your lover to kill me."
Pin-Mei bowed her head. "It's true – when I was a little girl, I was weak. I was afraid. I couldn't do anything except hide behind Rong and Ren. But…I'm not a child anymore."
With a small smile, she released the furyoku she had been suppressing. Her grandmother braced herself as the wave of power washed over her. It was a force that pounded against her chest, thumping, making it hard to breathe. The woman's eyes widened, though she tried to hide it behind her fan.
"Don't look so astonished, Suo," Pin-Mei said. She raised her head, eyes flashing, a smirk on her lips.
"I'm the wife of Tao Ren – did you honestly believe I would allow myself to remain the weak, cowering wretch you beat all those years?"
She opened and closed her fans a couple times.
"Now-" SHRAAP. "Shall we begin?"
At the sudden spike in furyoku, HoroHoro whipped his head around. "Geez, was that Pin-Mei?"
Ren didn't even blink. "Who else would it have been?" He couldn't stop a small smile from forming. "Since nearly the day we returned home more than twenty years ago, she's been training with me. She's not the type to stand by and watch." The smile vanished as he saw Hao getting to his feet. "And neither am I." He twirled his oversoul.
"Let's finish this."
It was one-sided from the start. Though the tactics the two warriors employed weren't much different from before, the added power of their elemental spirits made the entire fight child's play. Pin-Mei found her own duel to be just as easy. It shouldn't have come as a surprise, considering her teacher.
Suo knew that she was outmatched when it came to strength, but she still had one weapon at her disposal. Once they had clashed and separated again, she sneered.
"My, my, you've certainly grown. Though…I suppose it makes sense."
Pin-Mei didn't move a muscle. "Of course it does. Being with Ren all these years has made me stronger. You held me back. It's your fault I grew up so weak."
Suo gave a look of faux surprise. "My fault? I'm not the pathetic, petulant child who clung to the very thing that sapped and capper her furyoku."
Pin-Mei grit her teeth. "My desire to see Ren did not make me weak! In fact, it was what drove me to become stronger! It was because of him that I trained so hard to be in the Shaman Fight!"
"And we both know how far you got with that, yes?" Suo tsked. "And that wasn't what I was referring to. It's something more…tangible."
Pin-Mei side-eyed her. "Tangible?"
"You know – physical." Suo fanned herself. "Something you cherished and so deeply believed would make you stronger, when it did exactly the opposite."
Pin-Mei froze, then, little by little, her eyes widened. Her stance wavered, her DaDao lowering slightly. Throughout her training, she had insisted on using a certain weapon. In her mind, if she absolutely had to learn the DaDao, she would only use one specific blade.
"Minbouken…" she whispered. "You…You cursed it…All those years…All those years, you forced me to train, but I barely rose above the level of a toddler…"
She could almost see Suo's smirk behind her fan. "Yes, yes, the curse worked beautifully. You couldn't hurt a flea. I was able to keep you right where I wanted you – close to me, far, far away from Ren. I couldn't have you going off and reuniting with him half a world away, after all. Your failure to qualify for the Shaman Fight proved it to be some of my finest work."
Pin-Mei's body shook. Her fists clenched. Everything felt tight and hot.
"Don't listen to her," Hua said. "You know what she's doing. You know better than anyone not to fall for this!"
But Pin-Mei looked up, her pupils dilated, almost in a trance. "I could have met Ren sooner," she whispered. "I could have helped him during the Shaman Fight…I could have spent more time with him."
Hua made the flat side of the DaDao smack against her daughter's head. "Get a hold of yourself, Pin-Mei! Snap out of it!"
But Pin-Mei's eyes flared. Her grandmother's sadistic smile of satisfaction was draining her sanity. "I lost three years with Ren because of her!"
"And if I'd had my way, you would have grown up together, becoming close friends before learning of your engagement! That didn't happen, but it doesn't matter, because you're together now!"
This only seemed to urge her forward. "All these years, making me think I was an unlovable waste of flesh…when there was someone who couldn't disagree more…How dare you…How dare you…HOW DARE YOU!"
With deep, manic breaths, she charged.
The next Ren knew, a high-pitched scream echoed through the area. He whirled around.
It didn't make any sense. Why would she have any sort of trouble dealing with Suo? She shouldn't have even been breaking a sweat.
Yet, moments later, her body sailed over to him, crashing into HoroHoro and sending them both to the ground.
Before he could run to them, a blast of fire was shot at him. It wasn't especially strong, but was enough for him to have to block and divert it. Another, even weaker one, hit his side. He lost his footing and fell to his knees.
Hao looked about to see Pin-Mei and HoroHoro writhing on the ground, and Li attempting to administer some lotion onto her sister's wounds. He focused on Ren.
Suo let out a low cackle as she snapped her fan shut and removed a tag from her sleeve. "I had hoped to save this for my darling granddaughter, but I suppose I can get just as much satisfaction this way, as well." She bit her thumb, drawing blood.
Pin-Mei winced as she lifted her head off of the Ainu's stomach. She looked behind her. With shaky, doubled vision, she saw her grandmother writing on the tag. Her eyes widened as she followed the strokes.
Her vision returned to normal just as Suo finished. She looked to her left and saw Ren kneeling from Hao's sneak attack, nursing his ribs. She looked back to Suo as she raised her hand. After a few more gazes back and forth it, dawned on her.
N-No! She tried to push herself up, but her body seized and she fell over. What? What's going on?!
"It will give you a boost your furyoku temporarily, but it could be very damaging once it wears off."
No…not now… All of her joints ached. Her muscles were stiff. Each attempt at movement made her want to scream.
But she saw her grandfather's face. How he had looked in his last moments. What wouldn't she do in order to spare Ren such a gruesome fate? Ignoring her screaming body the best she could, she brought herself to her feet.
From across the clearing, Rong saw her starting her agonizing sprint to her beloved. "Pin-Mei?"
Ren had looked up just as the tag left Suo's hand. He'd been trying to move his own body, but it refused to obey. Helplessly, he watched the curse sail toward him.
His heart stopped as Pin-Mei stood between them.
"What are you doing?!" he cried.
She looked over her shoulder at him, eyes red, tired, and sweat covering her brow. A sad smile was on her lips as tears peeked out of the corners of her eyes.
"What I've always wanted to do – protect you."
He stared at her, mouth agape, then shook it off. "Are you crazy?! You know what that is, don't you?! Besides, I don't need your-" He tried to stand, but there was a sharp pain in his side.
Pin-Mei smiled softly at him. I knew you'd want to take my place. Thank you. "I love you too."
She opened both of her fans, then threw one. It spun, slicing through the tag. Instead of fluttering to the ground as she had hoped, the halves continued flying toward her. She caught her fan as it returned to her.
She flailed, fumbling with the fans to guard her chest.
Rong stood in front of her – just after the tag pieces had passed.
Li also tried to shield her, but was just as late – by less than a second.
The tag burned through her fans. The top half slammed against her sternum. Pin-Mei let out a horrific scream as she felt it burn into her. The Wei guards turned to tend to her, but she jerked her head as she gasped for breath.
They obeyed as Pin-Mei closed her fans. Focusing on Suo, she threw them. With that, her body began to fail.
Ren stood and caught her as she stumbled. "Pin-Mei!" His eyes fell on her chest. The skin which had been made visible by Hao's attack at the beginning of the fight has turned black. It was thankfully small, but there was no telling how this would affect her. He couldn't even think of any way to scold her, not a single derogatory phrase. All he could do was cradle her.
He looked down to see that she was struggling to extend her left arm, her hand looking as though she were still holding her fan.
"What is it? What are you trying to do?"
She didn't answer. With her hand resembling a duck bill, she made a diagonal swipe.
Ren looked at Suo, who was already clutching her torso from the impalement. Pin-Mei's fans vibrated.
Suo looked from her granddaughter to the fans, and back again. She glanced at her one last time.
Their eyes met.
"G-Grandmother, why do you have to hurt me with your fan? Why do you hit me?"
"Because you've been a very, very bad girl, and…"
"Bad girls must be punished,"
A sound akin to a buzzsaw rang through the air. Moments later, Qiao Suo was no more. Even when the droplets of blood hit his face, Ren could hardly believe what he'd seen.
"I did it…"
He looked down at his wife. She looked up at him, tears in her eyes.
"You did it last time, but this time I did it…I was finally able to do it for myself…"
No, you did do it, he thought, but stopped. Pin-Mei had hyoi gattai'd with him the last time Suo was disposed of. Even though he'd left her just as the deed had been done, to Pin-Mei, it was as good as if Ren had killed the witch himself. Him, not the person who wanted her dead the most.
When she took his hand, he grasped it tightly and smiled. "That's right. You did it." A pause as he found the words. "I'm proud of you."
She took a deep breath, new tears in her eyes, then leaned against his chest. Ren pushed her hair back and cupped her cheek.
"It's almost over," he said quietly. "You've done your part, now let me do mine. I'll finish this."
"Yes…Please…Finish this, Father…Finish this…"
Almost in unison, Ren and Pin-Mei looked over to see their son in a rigid stance a few yards away. His arms were spread, his Kwan Dao discarded and laying on the ground beside him.
"Please," he said in a hoarse voice. "Kill me. Just end this…I can't take it anymore!"
Pin-Mei tried to stand, but her sore body refused to cooperate. "R-Ren! It's you, isn't it? We'll save you! We'll-"
Her son bowed his head. "You can't. This has gone too far. There's no way to reverse it."
His father's eyes narrowed. "It's too early to say that. We haven't exhausted all our options. We can find a way to undo the ritual."
"Yes, we have. Or at least, I have," his son whispered. "For years I've been trying to free myself of the darkness I was foolish enough to embrace when I was a stupid child. I can't. It's impossible." He looked up at them, tears streaming down his face.
"This has gone on for much longer than tonight. FOR TEN YEARS I'VE BEEN A PRISONER IN MY OWN BODY WHILE MY STRONGER, DARKER HALF LIVED OUT MY LIFE FOR ME!" His eyes became crazed. "EVERY LOOK YOU'VE GIVEN ME ALL THESE YEARS, EVERY SMILE AND WORD OF LOVE AND PRAISE HAS BEEN FOR THIS OTHER ME, NOT YOUR REAL SON. I'VE HAD TO WATCH YOU ALL LIVE AND ENJOY LIFE WHILE I STAND ON THE OUTSIDE, NEVER JOINING IN. I CAN'T TAKE IT ANYMORE. I'D RATHER DIE THAN LIVE ONE MORE DAY LIKE THIS!"
Pin-Mei covered her mouth, eyes quivering. "Ren…"
The elder Ren stared at him in disbelief. Just when he thought he had accepted the fact that he'd have to kill his own son… It was easier when he had Hao's eyes and voice, but to know Ren II was still in there somewhere? How could he just do away with him like that, even if he wanted to die?
"DO IT!" Ren II screamed again. "I'm holding Hao's spirit at bay, but I can't last much longer." He took a few deep breaths. "When you kill me, Hao will probably escape my body. Just use a tag to send him back to where he came from. Just please…Do it…Put me out of my misery." The tears started again as his voice trembled. "Please, I'm begging you."
Again, the Tao head was finding it hard to fulfill his heir's wish. He made a jerky movement, as if he were about to act, but stopped. Pin-Mei clutched his wrist.
"Please don't, Ren," she pleaded. "We have to find another way! There must be one! We don't need to kill him!"
Before he could speak, he was knocked off balance, and Houraiken was snatched from his hands. Regaining his footing, he looked up at who had ambushed him.
She ignored him, continuing to sprint toward her brother. They made eye contact.
Don't worry, Niisama. I'll save you.
Her tears blurred her vision, but not enough to obscure her target. Ren's eyes softened, as if he were at peace with what was coming. Then she realized he was looking past her. Just as she glanced over her shoulder, her father rammed her from the side. She hit the ground. For a moment, she was disoriented, then realized what had happened. She felt around for Houraiken, then stared after her father.
"NO! This is supposed to be MY duty!" she screamed. "I'M the twin! I should be the one to save him!"
But it didn't matter. Ren was running full speed ahead toward the doomed boy. Shrill pleas also came from Pin-Mei, but he didn't falter.
The young Ren let out a sigh, closing his eyes.
Houraiken's blade plowed into his midsection. The female Taos' wails filled the clearing, echoing in the damp air, but neither Ren could hear them. It was as though they were frozen in time, the only ones in the world at that exact moment. They each stared into the darkness that surrounded them.
Ren rested his head in the crook of his father's neck. "Thank you. Thank you for stopping Lien," he said. "At least one of us should live with clean hands."
His father nodded. "That's why I did it."
"Still, thank you." He started to say something else, but was cut off by his own hacking coughs. Blood ran from his mouth onto the ground, his father, and himself. He reached around and held onto Ren's back. He let out a weak laugh. "I can already feel Hao's spirit dissipating."
Ren took a deep breath, steadying his voice as much as possible. "That's…That's good."
This meant they could stop, right? His son didn't need to die now, right?
"Drive it in deeper."
That's right…This wasn't just about Hao but about saving his son from whatever torture he had been experiencing. Ren grit his teeth and obeyed, pushing the blade in to the hilt. The younger Ren gasped, his grip tightening, and his body shaking.
"I'm…I'm sorry for all of this," he eventually pushed out. "If I had been stronger, I never would have been possessed, and no one would have died, no one would have been hurt except me and Lien."
"You were a child. There's no way for you to have known what you were being set up for. It's not your fault – it's Hao's."
His son's head drooped, resting on Ren's shoulder.
"Tell Mu Qin I'm sorry."
He felt him nod against him. The boy's grip weakened. "F-Father…MeiMei…I didn't-"
Ren placed his hand on his son's head. "I know. I know you didn't do anything. You're innocent." He breathed. "I'm sorry…for everything."
The boy's body tensed. "Thank you…Thank you so much…" He coughed. "I'm…I'm ready." He paused, wheezing. "Papa, I…"
"I love you, Ren."
The embrace tightened for just a moment before the heir lost the last of his strength. For the first time in ten years, he knew those words of love were directed at him.
"I love you too, Papa."
Ren grit his teeth. He ripped Houraiken out of him, their eyes meeting one last time as he took a step back.
Another scream rang from Pin-Mei. It almost drowned out the sound of her son's body dropping into the mud.