Actions

Work Header

First Chapters

Chapter Text

“Forty years I've been at sea. A war at sea. A war with no battles, no monuments ... only casualties.”

— Captain Marko Ramius, Hunt for Red October


Ranma forced herself back to her feet and stood glaring up at her enemy, the selfish bastard that had found the open water kettle, used it to unlock his curse and recover his manhood, and sought to deny its use to anyone else. It had been a long fight, and Ranma felt tiny tremors of exhaustion running through her, but she hadn’t lost yet no matter how badly she was outclassed! Somehow she would find a way, and wipe that arrogant smirk off the face of the still-immaculate prince of the Musk standing a short distance away. Then she would unlock the curse and return home to Akane, and all would be as it had been before. At least he was standing on the ground now, not flitting about in the air like a gigantic hummingbird, so Ranma had a chance to get at him.

Then she heard a shout from behind her and to the side — Ryoga! The redhead whirled to find the Lost Boy running toward them, the open water kettle in his hand — the key to unlocking her gender-changing curse, giving her back her manhood!

“Ranma, here it is!” her sometime rival shouted, and hurled the kettle toward her.

Ranma eagerly dove toward the arcing kettle, and instantly realized her mistake as Herb shouted from what was now behind her: “No, I won’t let you have it!” She could feel the build-up of energy that was about to slam into her, unlike Herb she couldn’t fly, there was nothing she could use to alter her trajectory — and from the corner of her eye she saw the second of the boys that had accompanied her, the bespectacled Amazon weapons master Mousse, with a weighted cord whipping from his billowing sleeve. Behind her there was a crack of metal on flesh and bone, and just as her fingers were reaching for the airborne kettle’s handle Prince Herb’s final energy blast clipped her, sending her spinning, skipping across the ground ... as it engulfed the kettle. She caught a split-second glimpse of the kettle glowing fiery red before it exploded. The shockwave picked up the redhead and hurled her against the side of the mountain, burying her as the rocky strata weakened by her battle with Herb collapsed.

It took hours for Ryoga and Mousse to climb the new cliff face of what used to be a sizable chunk of a mountain and finally unbury the broken body of the still-unconscious girl.

/oOo\

Ranma lay on her back on the roof of the dojo, staring up at the star-speckled sky. The warmth of a cloudless summer day still radiating from the roof contrasted with the cooling night air, and Ranma shivered slightly as the faint breeze picked up for a moment (though it was more psychosomatic than real, certainly nothing like when he’d spent the night paralyzed on the roof after his second encounter with Kodachi). She considered telling Kasumi that she’d be sleeping on the roof again instead of in a futon on the eldest Tendo sister’s bedroom floor (the very first thing Kasumi had insisted on after Ranma was released from Dr. Tofu’s clinic was a change in sleeping arrangements), but she was finding it hard to push through the dark cloud that seemed to fill her mind enough to work up the energy to move.

The past weeks had been purest hell.

First, there had been her father, especially his reaction when his now-daughter came home from the clinic with Dr. Tofu’s warning not to stress her partially healed ribs (said warning being that if she came back with her ribs and arm rebroken, he’d break her legs to make sure she stayed in bed). Genma’s long rant had been histrionic and cutting, and ended only when Akane had physically pulled her former fiancé out of the room to keep the redhead from assaulting her father as Kasumi had calmly blocked Genma’s attempt to follow the pair. Of course, that hadn’t been enough for Genma, he’d had to follow that up by demanding that, since Ranma could no longer marry Akane and sire an heir, she had to marry Soun and bear an heir. For a few minutes Ranma had thought that Soun would actually grow a spine and reject his old friend’s demand, but as usual he had eventually caved — until Kasumi had put her foot down, hard. Ranma couldn’t remember another time he had actually heard Kasumi shout at someone, much less her father. Even then it had taken her threat to turn the cooking duties over to Akane to shut up the fathers, and they’d been surprisingly quiet since.

But Genma had never sparred with his daughter, had even rejected Ranma’s demand for a match after Dr. Tofu had certified that her ribs and arm had healed. And he’d moved out of the dojo and into his wife’s small home.

Mom. Unbidden, the memory of the last time Ranma had seen her mother surfaced, the older woman’s face tear-stained and crumpled, all bewildered grief. Why had she let the others talk her into telling her mother that her son was dead? Of course, the fact that Genma had suggested it — demanded it, rather — hadn’t meant much, had actually led to their last screaming match. Nabiki’s offhand comment that Nodoka would probably prefer to hear that her son was dead rather than cut off “Ranko’s” head while acting as second in a seppuku ceremony had given Ranma pause, though, and Akane and Kasumi’s instant agreement with their sister had been the clincher. Still, she had never imagined someone in as much pain as her mother had been sobbing on her shoulder....

At least some good had come out of this mess, the Amazons had already packed up and left. But even that carried its own spike of pain — hadn’t she meant more to them than just a breeder for Shampoo?

Ranma sighed and sat up. Ya aren’t gettin’ very relaxed, she thought with a grimace, admitting her failure to find some peace in communion with her old friends. Maybe you should check and see if Kasumi’s ready ta call it a night and —

“Ranma? Are you up there?”

Ranma frowned — that was Akane’s voice calling quietly, but coming from Kasumi’s room. Normally the youngest Tendo respected her older sister’s privacy, certainly much better than Nabiki. And Kasumi’s room was dark. “Yeah,” Ranma called back just as quietly. “What’s up?”

“Get down here, now ... please.”

Ranma’s eyes widened — ‘please’ was a word Akane didn’t use often, at least not when her fiancé was involved. Of course, Ranma wasn’t her fiancé anymore (Ranma pushed away the stab of pain that thought caused), and Akane had been unusually gentle since by some miracle Ryoga had found the dojo, carrying Ranma’s pain-wracked body and with a duck-cursed boy riding on his backpack. Still, Ranma couldn’t think of a time that they’d been alone in the same room since then....

“Sure, get outta the way.”

Moments later the redhead had swung through the window and across the bed to an easy landing. She repeated, “What’s up?” Her gaze sharpened as she automatically took in Akane’s mental state (a habit quickly acquired soon after arriving at the dojo). Akane was agitated, anxious — oh, plenty of anger, but she was scared. And on the floor beside the girl was Ranma’s pack, bulging at the seams.

“Ranma ... Nabiki ... the fathers ...” Akane’s voice trailed off as she struggled for words, then she burst into tears and threw herself at the redhead, wrapping her arms around the girl and burying her face in her shoulder. “They sold you!” she wailed into Ranma’s shirt.

Ranma’s arms had instinctively returned the hug, and now they tightened as she froze in shock. She gasped, “They did what?

“They sold you,” Akane repeated, sniffling. “Kasumi overheard Nabiki talking with Father in his room. Some businessman approached them — Father and Genma — at a bar and offered a lot of money to become your guardian. They didn’t even bother to ask why, they just jumped at it.”

Ranma was beginning to shake as it sank in. “I always knew Pop was greedy, but yer dad ... is he really that gutless?”

“Father isn’t ... okay, he usually takes the easy way, but this time ...” Akane sighed, then pushed away from Ranma to stare at the floor. “He’s afraid we’re going to lose the dojo to inheritance taxes when he dies. He was planning on passing it on to us when we married, but now that’s out and he’s getting worried. At least, that’s what Kasumi says he told Nabiki. He thinks that now that they have the money they can hand you over and you can just run away. Nabiki’s demanding payment up front to slip a drug into your food. Kasumi told me what she heard, she thinks you should skip the being drugged and kidnapped part and just go on an extended training trip, for a few months. She gave me as much food as your backpack will hold and asked me to give it to you. Just be careful out there — you’re female now, and there are plenty of perverts that’ll try to take advantage of you.”

“Sounds good, thanks.” Ranma replied, practically lightheaded with the emotion battling it out for supremacy: anger at the fathers, fear of what the stranger wanted with her, happiness that there people that actually cared about her, sorrow that she had to leave them even for awhile. She hesitated, couldn’t think of anything to say, and picked up her backpack and turned toward the window.

“Ranma?”

Ranma stopped and turned back around. “Yeah?”

“I’m sorry,” Akane whispered, still staring at the floor.

“For what?”

“Sorry that my father’s a coward, that my sister’s a money-hungry bitch, that you and I ... that I didn’t ... I’m sorry.”

For what felt like the first time in years, Ranma smiled. “Yeah, me too. See ya around.”

Akane finally looked up and relaxed at the sight of Ranma’s smile. “See you around,” she said, then stepped forward and bent slightly to kiss the redhead on the cheek. “Good luck.”

Ranma stared at her for a long moment, wide-eyed, before rediscovering her voice. “Uh ... thanks. You, too.”  She turned again, leaped over the bed to the windowsill, and out into the night.

/\

Leaning against the Tendo home’s outside wall around the corner from the koi pond, Nabiki saw the dark shape of her sister’s squeeze cross the night sky as she leaped above the narrow stretch of lawn from Kasumi’s bedroom window to the top of the outer wall of the compound, then dropped out of sight to the outside street. The mercenary Tendo smiled. Perfect, Kasumi and Akane performed exactly as expected. So predictable ...

The page-boy-haired brunette straightened and walked around the corner and into the house, sauntering down the hallway toward the stairs as she hummed a happy little tune. Tomorrow Father will find out that Ranma is gone, and I can suggest to Shwei-san that I act as his eyes and ears here in Nerima until Ranma returns … for a weekly stipend, of course. That should be good for a few months until he gives up and goes away. Maybe I should hint to Akane that she can pay me to keep my mouth shut? After a moment, Nabiki regretfully decided against it. If Ranma came back before Schwei-san gave up, Akane would get mad when Nabiki told him anyway. She might even demand that her sister give her back her money, and either way Kasumi would find out. That could make things ... uncomfortable, until Nabiki left for college. Best to be satisfied with what she’d gotten from her father and would get from Schwei-san. It wasn’t like Akane had much money to speak of, anyway, not worth the hassle.

/oOo\

Nabiki stood at her open bedroom window, shivering slightly at the cool touch of a December evening breeze. She didn’t mind the cold — preferred it, actually. It let her pretend that her shivers were because of the temperature instead of fear. How had everything gone so wrong? Schwei-san had been the very image of a lecherous pervert, trying to buy a victim for his lust that he was unable to acquire willingly. He had been happy to put Nabiki on retainer, and the time came to reciprocate when Ranma returned a month after she left. That was when the Mercenary Tendo got the first intimations that something wasn’t right.

First, Ranma hadn’t looked good at all. She was a little thin, and both she and her clothes were dirty — she obviously hadn’t been eating well, or bathing regularly. Considering that Ranma enjoyed both good food (and lots of it) and a good soak in the furo, that said rather unpleasant things about her lifestyle on the road.

Second, Schwei-san’s response when she called to let him know that Ranma was back had been ... well, not disproportionate, seeing how Ranma had been able to evade or beat down the thugs that showed up to “acquire” her, but beyond the resources Nabiki had expected a mid-level corporate expatriate of the Hong Kong Exodus to have. The small army that had shown up on Ranma’s second attempt to return in October had finished off whatever hopes Nabiki had had that she was making a mountain out of a molehill.

Not that her hopes had been very high, after she’d tried to refuse the retainer after the first attempt with the excuse that she needed to leave for college. The file full of records of her minor scams and blackmailings Schwei-san had dropped on her desk when he informed her that she’d be putting off college until he’d acquired Ranma had been terrifying — sure, she was still a minor so the legal consequences wouldn’t be much if he handed his evidence over to the police, but what it would do to her future schooling and job prospects would be devastating. And the fact that he had that file at all meant he’d forked out the money for some seriously good — and expensive — investigators, because she hadn’t had as much as a hint of anyone poking around in her background as deeply as the file had required. And he’d been smart enough to keep paying her after his abrupt alteration of her near-term plans, meaning if the hunt for Ranma came to the attention of the police she’d be implicated. No, whatever this was about, it wasn’t a case of a sexual predator with too much money trying to acquire an untraceable victim for his perversions, the resources being devoted to the hunt were simply too much.

At least the second time Ranma returned Nabiki been able to drop enough hints that Ranma had realized Schwei-san knew she was back quickly enough that her head start had allowed her to escape that small army. But now Nabiki’s sisters weren’t talking to her at all, and Kasumi was making her life miserable by little “mistakes” with her laundry and “forgetting” that she was home at mealtimes. She’d been taking more nights off as well, and turning the cooking duties over to Akane ... as “practice.”

Nabiki wiped at wet eyes. Just the wind, she thought. It’s cold out, and that breeze stings.

Then her cell phone rang, and she sighed as she glanced at the clock — punctual, as usual. She picked up the phone and pressed the “accept” button. “Yes?” she asked, voice bland.

“Any word?” The male voice was the usual, but also as usual he didn’t identify himself.

“No, no hint of her. Anything on your end?” She winced.

“You know better than to ask. You’ll see your usual deposit.”

The call cut off, and Nabiki sighed again as she put down her phone and stepped over to close her window. Where are you, Ranma? And what do I do when you return?

/oOo\

Shivering in the doorway of a building empty for the night, Ranma hawked and spit out a thick greenish gob of something, giggling slightly as the spit punched a hole in the layer of snow covering the road, sidewalk and patch of lawn. The hole wouldn’t last long — the thick snowfall drifting down would see to that.

She looked up, at the curtains of falling snow dimly illuminated by the streetlights. The view was blurry, jittery. She wished she could blame her now-constant shivering for the blurry sight, but she couldn’t — with the lack of food and worsening winter weather as Christmas approached, she was drawing on the last dregs of her ki and her ability to hold off the cold was finally failing. Her eyesight was dimming as she sank toward sleep, and she didn’t expect that she would be waking up again. After the last few months of trying to survive on the streets as a girl, the months of hiding and scrounging, she was finding it very hard to care.

For a moment an ember of anger burned as she remembered the dojo he and Genma had visited on their training trip and revisited after Jusenkyo, whose sensei had known of the curse and took her in after her second escape from Nerima — and whose home was now being rebuilt, because she’d trashed it while escaping the hunters that had found her (and left her backpack behind in the process). The only way they could have known to spy on Nakadan-sensei just in case she showed up was if her father had told them about him — and it wouldn’t have been just him, Genma would have told them about the rest of the people willing to take her in for the winter. And she didn’t know of anyone that her father didn’t, she’d met them during the training trip.

But that angry ember died, too, as she felt herself sinking toward sleep.

“Hey, kid, are you all right?” The Japanese was flawless but accented, a foreigner, male.

“Lemme ‘lone,” she muttered. Couldn’t he tell she was trying to sleep?

Apparently not, as she felt an arm slip under her knees and another around her back as he picked her up and began to walk along the sidewalk. “Come on, let’s get you to a hospital.”

It took a few seconds for that statement to meander its way through her brain, and there was something wrong about it — “No, no hospitals!” she gasped out. “Find me!”

The steps paused, continued again for a few seconds, paused. “Someone is looking for you?” he asked.

“Y-Yes.” She was beginning to shiver again, but not from the cold. If Schwei-san’s thugs caught up with her now there’d be no way she could hold them off, much less escape. When the man holding her started walking again she tried to struggle, tried to pull on the dregs of her ki, but found the world again going more gray than the falling snow warranted.

“Easy, I’m not taking you to a hospital.”

Ranma sagged in relief at the words, and her relaxation was enough to ease her into sleep.

/\

Air Force Lieutenant Wendell “Win” Blake gazed appreciatively at the snow drifting down as he took the long walk back to Misawa Air Base, an early first night for the fighter pilot’s leave. He might be an ace, but it was nice to simply gaze up into the night sky without searching for threats. Not that becoming an ace was all that difficult, at Misawa Base, if the pilot survived, not since the Hong Kong Exodus. The flotillas that practically emptied Hong Kong of its people — everyone there that chose exile to every free nation that bordered the Pacific over falling under the authority of the Communist Chinese — may have solved the question of what to do with a population that could not be long defended and could not be willingly surrendered when Britain’s lease expired, but the Mandarins in Beijing had been beyond furious. They had been counting on Hong Kong to magically invigorate their perpetually struggling economy, and watching all those prosperous businesses transfer their headquarters to Taiwan, South Korea, Japan, Australia and other Pacific states as their workforces followed under the watchful eyes of the US Pacific fleet ... well, the Cold War had very nearly gone hot then and there and had never really cooled down since.

For a moment, Win wondered what his own career would have been like if the pragmatic Deng Xiaoping had succeeded in ousting Hua Guofeng from power. Would China even be a Communist power now, the last major Communist country in the world? Or would it have recovered its earlier promise of a free republic? And would things have been quiet enough that Win and his wife would have been posted elsewhere?

Stop that! Tubal pregnancies can happen anywhere, and by the time we realized something was wrong there wasn’t a hospital in the world that could have saved her. And even if being posted elsewhere would have meant the timing would have been different, there are other ways to die — maybe if I’d been posted to Germany our plane would have gone down crossing the Atlantic.

But he still hadn’t expected to outlive his wife, certainly not by as many years as he probably had ahead of him — Mandy had been a homemaker, and he was a fighter pilot!

You are in a mood tonight, aren’t you? he asked himself, as he realized he’d come to a stop and was staring at empty air. He shrugged, smiling wryly, and started forward again. Mandy would have some harsh words if she saw you. Good thing I made an early night of it. It was good of Stacy and David to ask me to join their bar crawl, I know they worry about me, but there’s no point in ruining their own fun just because I’m not having any.

He glanced around as he walked and paused again — someone was huddled in the doorway of one of the old headquarters buildings and while it was a nice night for a stroll if you were dressed warmly and had grown up in the Colorado mountains, sleeping in the open without a bag was another matter. Whoever it was didn’t look exactly warmly dressed, either. He stepped over, and his jaw clenched when he realized just how young the girl was. He asked, “Hey, kid, are you all right?”

“Lemme ‘lone,” the girl replied, her voice slurred and faint.

Not likely. He crouched, gathered her up into his arms, and rose to his feet to stride toward the base’s gate. “Come on, let’s get you to a hospital.”

Within seconds, he had a frantically squirming armful. “No, no hospitals!” she gasped out. “Find me!”

Win slammed to a stop, staring down at his armful. Find her? He glanced around, then stepped over to the nearest streetlight. Under the grime the girl’s clothes were good quality and showed signs of careful tending, the red hair dirty but healthy, and he could feel real muscle tone under his hands. Whoever she was, she hadn’t been on the streets all that long — and in the brighter light, her face looked familiar....

He asked, “Someone is looking for you?”

“Y-Yes.”

Win could feel her beginning to shiver, and suspected that it wasn’t from cold. He thought of all the forms entailed in signing someone into a hospital, even for someone that couldn’t be identified — especially for someone that couldn’t be identified. Right. He resumed his walk to the base’s gates, and felt his armful resume struggling. “Easy,” he said, “I’m not taking you to a hospital.”

The struggling stopped, and within seconds the girl went limp.

The two guards at the gate saluted as Win approached, eyeing the girl in his arms. “Hey, LT, what’s with the armload?” one of the two asked.

“Found her in a doorway a few blocks back,” Win replied. “She’s not exactly warmly dressed, a night like tonight will kill her.”

“Gotcha. Do you want me to summon a medic, have her taken to the hospital?”

Win shook his head. “No, Airman, she isn’t that bad off, yet.” I hope. “A ride to my apartment would be appreciated, though.”

“You got it.”

/\

Win thanked the flight chief that had driven him the rest of the way home for unlocking and opening the door to his apartment. Taking back his keys, he backed into his apartment, kicked the door closed, used the side of his arm to flip on the lights, and headed for his bedroom.

In the bedroom, he deposited his armful on his bed and quickly stripped off her wet clothes (noting the lack of a bra and presence of boxers instead of panties), bundled up her nude body in his blankets, and headed to the kitchen for Ziploc sandwich bags and the hot water faucet — improvised hot water bottles to be placed at strategic locations about his guest’s body, where the blood vessels were closest to the surface of the skin.

His immediate tasks done, he pulled up a chair beside the bed and sat, gazing at the sleeping redhead. He was certain he had seen her somewhere before, he just couldn’t think of where! It wasn’t like he’d been off base much — at all, really, since his wife’s funeral — and the girl was clearly Japanese. And other than the one patrol that had turned into a dogfight with some Chinese fighters, the only official excitement he’d had had been —

Win froze as he finally recalled where he had seen the girl in his bed, in video footage shown to him by some people from an unnamed intelligence organization, of what he had at first assumed to be a cheesy special effects movie blockbuster he’d somehow missed — shaky amateur telephoto footage of the girl in his bed and a handsome young male Oriental throwing balls of energy at each other, eventually ending in the massive explosion of a tea kettle, of all things. The only way they had been able to convince him that it was real were photos of a collapsed mountainside and the news reports he’d seen of the mysterious vigilantes the media was calling the Sailor Senshi.

Of course, the very fact that they had to convince him of the truth had meant that their visit had been a failure. They’d somehow known that his wife had been Wiccan — and so a practitioner of magic — and wanted to know if he had heard of anything like what they’d shown him, anything at all: legends, party tales, rumors, anything. They’d been that desperate for information.

And they’d left explicit orders that he was to report anything he heard along those lines to his commanding officer, whoever he was. Were they or others like them whom his guest was afraid of?

“Well, damn, what do I do now?” he wondered out loud.

Chapter Text

Akane had been up for at least an hour, and had spent most of that hour sitting on the railing at the Wind Dancer’s bow where the sails billowing from a mystical wind that no one could feel were mostly behind her, gazing at the stars that, in etherspace, were always there. She had done the same on the voyage out to the refugee settlement on Mars, of all places, where she and Ranma had been sent to recover from wounds (mostly Ranma — the baka would constantly throw himself into the worst of the fighting), and on that trip she had found the star-spangled ever-night a soothing comfort. She still did to an extent, on the return voyage to Earth, but couldn’t keep thoughts of the war they were returning to from intruding on her thoughts.

Odd how things worked out — she was supposed to be the self-centered jealous bitch with the bad temper (just ask Ukyo and Shampoo, or Nabiki for that matter) and Ranma the kindhearted soft touch. But once the war came, she was the one that had the nightmares night after night while Ranma just seemed to become harder with each fight, each mission, each battlefield littered with bodies, not all of them soldiers or fighters, sometimes not even most. Not colder, never colder, anyone that watched him (or her) carry a wounded child back to the medics knew he still cared. But while Akane was breaking under the stress, fractures running through her psyche, that same stress was compressing Ranma into an unbreakable diamond made of pure Purpose.

So when Ranma had been sent to one of the Mars refugee camps to recover from their last mission, the Powers that Be had used the moderate wounds inflicted on Akane at the same time as an excuse to order her accompany him for rehabilitation. Or accompany her, rather — since hot water didn’t seek her out the same way cold water did him, Standard Operating Procedure had long since become to do the repair work on Ranma’s female body so they wouldn’t have to worry about a splash of cold water undoing all the medics’ hard work. So the two girls had spent two months sharing a large tent with Nodoka and Kasumi while Ranma had spent her days in physical therapy (a long time for her with her healing factor, that was how close he’d come to dying) and Akane had struggled to strengthen her soul. She just hoped that two months had been enough.

“Akane!”

She twisted where she sat to look back toward the companionway — the ladder masquerading as stairs to the lower deck — to find the redhead taking deep breaths of what passed for fresh air on etherspace trips. All the air their ethership would have until they arrived at the Earth platform was what they’d brought with them from the Mars platform, but even with the way air tended to equalize throughout the ship during the journey things could get a little ... close ... in a belowdecks bunkroom during the ship’s night. But at least they had bunks, rather than the hammocks most of the sailors used, even if Ranma and Akane lacked the privacy needed for their favorite activity — Ranma actually swore it was even better than training!

But Akane doubted that their unfortunate lack of nookie over the past several months explained her spouse’s faintly disgruntled air, and she smiled as Ranma walked toward her. “Still upset that I’m actually waking up before you?” she asked teasingly, twisting around and swinging her feet over the railing to stand up as Ranma reached her.

Ranma snorted, then tilted her head up slightly for a kiss — not one to curl Akane’s toes like so many before, just a gentle ‘good morning’. “I wouldn’t care if it was ‘cause you’re gettin’ up earlier instead a’ me sleepin’ in,” she groused, then smothered a yawn. “I’m gettin’ tired ... I mean, this crap’s gettin’ old.”

“Give it time, Ranma,” Akane urged. “The surgeons had your chest spread open like a blooming flower and one of them massaging your heart by hand to keep you alive — you don’t just bounce back from something like that! Even for you, only two months is really pushing it.” She shivered as she remembered her gut-wrenching fear as she’d watched the surgeons struggle to save one of Japan’s elite warriors, fear that this time Ranma would finally die and leave her alone....

Ranma embraced her, ignoring the wolf whistle from one of the sailors up in the rigging. “I’m not goin’ anywhere, I promise,” she whispered.

Akane clutched at her for a long moment before reluctantly breaking off the embrace. She said as lightly as she could manage, “We should be reaching Earth platform in a few hours. Let’s sit up here and watch.”

Ranma grimaced but nodded, and the two young women took their seats on the bow railing next to each other, feet hanging out over the open void and their arms around each other’s waist, staring out at the seemingly endless star-studded sea of night. Eventually Ranma’s head sank down to rest on Akane’s shoulder, her arm around Akane’s waist relaxed and dropped to hang limp, and the redhead started to softly snore. Akane just smiled, her own hand rising to run her fingers through her spouse’s hair as she watched for the first signs of the blue, green, brown and white ball that was home.

/oOo\

President Anderson looked up from his desk in the Oval Office as his Secret Service bodyguard opened the door to let in his Chief of United Intelligence. “Okay, Carl, what was so important that it couldn’t wait until the morning briefing?” arguably the most powerful man in the world demanded.

Carl Jensen ignored the long-familiar mementos and history on walls, shelves and tables all around him to drop a file on the desk. He said, “We finally found out what the Japs are up to.”

“We have?” The president grabbed the folder and flipped it open. He quickly skimmed the documents within, lingering on the pictures of steep stairs reaching up to disappear into empty air with people carrying backpacks and suitcases climbing up, ropes coming down out of nothing to hoist up heavy pallets. In one picture only the lower half of one ladder climber could be seen. He whistled. “Damn! Portals to another dimension? Population transfer? No wonder they rejected our demands that they sequester their ki adepts! There’s no way we would have allowed this, and they couldn’t have hidden it while our observers were all over the island enforcing the ki adept sequestration. Two years, they could have been moving people out. Two years!”

The intelligence chief hid a grimace. ‘Sequestration’ — a polite term for herding the ki adepts and any family and followers that insisted on joining them into ghettos. But what were we supposed to do? Their fighting skills aren’t an issue, we could deal with those, but the way their connection of their life energy make them invisible to divination and clairvoyance magic — He forced his thoughts out of their well-worn rut when he realized the president was still speaking.

“The boys at the Pentagon want me to authorize the lights out ritual, don’t they?”

“Yes, Mr. President, they do,” Jensen replied. “And they need their answer immediately — our current window closes in a few hours, and the next one won’t open for months.”

President Anderson leaned back in his chair and rubbed his face. “I already know what the rest of the gang think, Carl,” he said, “what do you say?”

Jensen hesitated. The lights out ritual had been a beyond top secret arrow in the United States’ quiver for decades, but never hinted at — even after the end of the Cold War the ability to shut down all the magic items that were the foundation of modern civilization over an entire region was bound to scare a world already a bit antsy about the world’s single superpower, and so far Research and Development hadn’t been able to develop a counter. Still, they said that the math for the ritual was so bizarre that the odds of anyone else being able to develop it was practically nonexistent, even knowing it was possible....

“I don’t think we have a choice, Jerry,” he finally said. “By now the Japanese hate our guts, and while a couple years is the longest they could have been shifting people, the shop thinks it’s unlikely — the best estimate is that they set everything up after the war started. They may not have a viable population moved wherever yet, but give them the year or more it’ll take to finish the conquest and they will. And for all we know, they can open those portals from wherever they’re going to any point on the planet.”

“If they can, why haven’t they?”

If they can, they might be waiting until they have enough people shifted first, in case it doesn’t work out.” Jensen shrugged. “It’s purely speculative, we have no idea what they can or can’t do. Which is why we need to move now.”

The president sat for a long moment, face thoughtful, then finally sat up and placed his palm over his view-mirror’s sensor plate. “General Masters,” he said clearly, then waited until the mirror wavered and the face of a middle-aged woman with three stars on her blouse’s collar appeared. She said, “Mr. President, what can I do for you?”

“You’ve seen the report from Japan on the portals?”

She nodded. “Military Intelligence made the find. Scary stuff, our people in Analysis are tearing their hair out trying to plan for the unknowable.”

“I agree, ‘scary stuff” indeed. Operation Midnight is approved.”

The general stiffened, then sighed in relief. “Thank you, sir, that will simplify things enormously. I’ll get right on it.”

“You’re welcome.” President Anderson quickly ended the call, then leaned back again. “So the war’s over in a month, max, and the genie’s out of the bottle,” he murmured, then looked up. “Well, Carl, I assume this just dumped a lot more on your shoulders.”

“Yes, Jerry, it did, it’s going to be a very late night.” Jenson stood up. “But that’s what I’m here for, so I’d better get to it.” The president nodded, and as his old friend strode from the room he turned his chair to stare out the window at the White House lawn. It was a good half hour before he turned back to his desk and the report he’d been studying before Jensen dropped his starshell.

/oOo\

Nabiki jerked awake just in time to keep from sliding off the pile of coiled rope she was sitting on, halfway down the pier her family’s ship would be arriving at. Shifting to sit up straight, she stretched as she yawned, then twisted to look down the pier toward the main platform for something to focus on, falling back on her favorite (and in her school years, most remunerative) activity — people watching. And there was plenty to see, the Earth etherspace platform bustled with people night and ... well, night, at least up here. Stevedores loading ships with the supplies they needed for the run to Mars or Venus, refugees boarding their own ships headed for the camps on Mars, ships from Venus unloading fish kept fresh by the stasis spells on their holds, and all done by hand and horse or mule, rope and pulley. While spells were dangerous to cast in etherspace, magicked items worked fine, but with the needs of the war using up all the enchanters’ time and with what etherspace did to complicated metal machinery the platform looked like something from an historical drama set in the 1800s only with really bad costuming.

Yup, everyone had a task except one exhausted intelligence analyst getting a break from the constant grind of the war while she waited for the ship with her sister and brother-in-law, and she was fine with that.

“Nabiki!”

Nabiki jerked upright from her doze and whipped around at the shout and smiled at the sight of the ship turning to line up with the pier, her raven-haired sister bouncing in place and waving, a familiar redhead by her side with a hand on her shoulder. Good thing Ranma’s there to keep her from falling overboard, she thought, chuckling. Even if all it would do is embarrass her. She wondered for a moment if Nodoka had realized how little chance she had of ever seeing grandchildren, plural. Akane might be willing to use artificial insemination to have one child, but Nabiki couldn’t see her doing it twice. And the chance of Ranma doing the same were laughable.

She sighed. Nice way to kill the mood, kiddo. That won’t be a problem for years, after we’ve found a new home and settled down and can think about children. And there’s no guarantee that even Ranma or Akane will live to see it — especially Ranma. So enjoy the moment. I know those two will tonight, after a few months of enforced celibacy.

As the ship gilded closer, slowing as sails furled (docking was tricky in etherspace, without anything like an anchor), Nabiki strode down the pier toward where she estimated the ship would stop, her forced smile turning natural at her last thought even if it meant she might as well go bar-hopping that night because she wouldn’t be getting any sleep at home.

She had just reached her picked spot when she felt a shiver run through the wood beneath her feet, and suddenly the pier was shifting, wavering, almost as if she was standing on a raft out on a lake. What the hell? She whirled around, staring back toward the center of the platform. Had a ship smashed into the other side? She didn’t hear any screams or shouts, and the platform was held in place by its portals to downport, immovable!

And then she was hearing screams, from far off on the other side of the platform. She stared, uselessly shading her eyes as she tried to stare through the streetlight glare to see if she could see sails above the roofs of the warehouses and taverns ... nothing ... and staggered as her balance shifted and fell on her butt on the wavering, bouncing wooden surface. No, not wavering, tilting. But that could only happen if the platform lost its connection to all the portals. And that would mean that the entire platform was sliding out of etherspace, back into Earthspace — only without the portals, it would be falling into the Earth’s lower atmosphere.

Her head whipped around desperately even as the tilt increased, looking for an escape. All around her sailors were chopping through the ropes connecting their ships to the piers, hauling as many civilians and stevedores on board as they could but they were too far away, she’d never reach any of them on time.  Her only hope was ...

She scrambled desperately up the steepening incline, she wasn’t going to make it, she somehow leaped, and slammed against the pier floor as it became a wall, the tips of her fingers catching the top edge. Ignoring the splinters digging into her fingers, she managed to get a better grip and hauled herself up on top of what had been the pier’s edge and looked down. She was right, the platform was sliding into Earthspace, and picking up speed, she had to move fast.

She ignored the diminishing shouts and screams as she stood up, balanced on the edge of the dock, crouched, and leaped straight up with all her strength. Since she was leaping horizontally along the platform’s plane of gravity it wouldn’t try to pull her back, so she if overcame her own momentum she’d be good. As she soared outward into empty space, she looked down past her feet. Please, let it be enough!

It was, and she watched as the platform pulled away from her to vanish into the swirling green/brown/blue/white of an Earthspace that wasn’t getting closer, or at least not so fast that she’d drift into it herself before she’d used up her own personal bubble of air in ten minutes, twenty tops — no suddenly finding herself in Earth’s lower atmosphere somewhere over Japan or maybe the open sea, not that it would matter at that height. So now all she could do was keep her breathing shallow and wait, and hope someone from one of the ships was able to get to her in time somehow. She couldn’t even turn around to look for possible rescuers, she’d never learned the aerobatics needed, never dreamed it would be needed, and trying to struggle around now would just use up oxygen.

So she just drifted and stared out at the star-spangled field and breathed slowly, trying to use the half-remembered meditation technique her father had once taught her to empty her mind of what had just happened, the pain in her splinter-filled hands and her likely fate, and waited.

She didn’t realize how well she’d succeeded until something slammed into her from behind, arms went around her waist and across her chest, and suddenly she was gasping for fresh air as Ranma’s personal air bubble mixed with what was left of hers.

“Easy, I got ya,” she heard the redhead say as she felt them being pulled back. Twisting around, she looked over Ranma’s shoulder to see her sister pulling in a long cord tied to Ranma’s waist. Little sis is overdoing it, Nabiki had time to think, before the pair hit the ship’s air bubble, flew across the intervening space even as the ship’s natural gravity plane tried to pull them down, and smashed into the youngest Tendo to pile them all on the deck.

Nabiki rolled out of the pile and sat up, wincing when rubbing a skinned elbow dug splinters deeper into her palm. “Ow,” she muttered, just before Akane slammed into her, sending them both back to the deck. Her sister was clutching at her, sobbing, practically hysterical, and Nabiki awkwardly hugged her where they lay. “I’m all right, I’m fine,” she murmured over and over until Akane finally fought her sobs down to sniffles and let go.

Ranma offered a hand to her wife and sister-in-law and pulled them both to their feet, and now as Nabiki realized just how close she had come to dying and began to shake it was Ranma’s turn to hug her normally cool and collected sister-in-law, joined a moment later by Akane. As Nabiki fought herself back under control, she murmured, “Thanks, little sis, Saotome, I owe you two big time. Consider your debts paid in full.”

The other two giggled as the three broke apart and looked around to find that while they had been otherwise occupied the Wind Dancer had swept around and was heading toward the largest visible collection of ships, other ships following suit.

Nabiki looked back toward where the Japan platform had been. “What happened?” she asked quietly.

Ranma shrugged. “I dunno.”

Even more quietly, Akane asked, “What do we do, now?”

“I dunno that, either.”

/oOo\

One millennia later:

“Thanks, Top, I appreciate the help.”

“You’re welcome, sir, I hope you and your lady enjoy your vacation.” The sergeant saluted, and Lieutenant Jo ‘Nah’ sloppily returned it, then offered his hand. He supposed if any of the brown-nosing sticks-up-their-asses back in Illium saw it they would have castigated him for an ‘action prejudicial to maintaining proper authority’, but it wasn’t like the first sergeant of a company stationed on the fringe of the ever-expanding Republic (this outpost only a few decades old) would ever be in his chain of command — or any other first sergeant of any other company for that matter, seeing how all the members of Senator Brande’s Legion were officially outside of the Republican military chain of command, lacking the authority to issue orders to regular legionnaires but also not required to obey orders from regular officers. Jo knew that his patron had a lot of pull, but he’d still never been able to figure out just how the old man had pulled that one off.

Besides, Jo had grown up on the streets and had what he, at least, considered a healthy disregard for all the nonsensical bowing and scraping that the senatorial families and their scions in the military often demanded. And the sergeant had been genuinely helpful, refreshingly free of the resentment regular legionnaires often exhibited for ‘The Legion’. Even if it was because of the widespread ‘scandal’ of Jo’s lack of proper parentage (he assumed, barely being able to remember his mother and not knowing who is father was) and the equally widespread ‘scandals’ of his lover’s defiance of her mother, the matriarch of the powerful Watson senatorial family, both in joining the Legion in the first place and then taking a no-name from the streets into her bed without even trying to hide her ‘shame’. The common soldiery delighted in both, and mostly respected those that made their entertainment possible.

Making his farewells to the other men of the squad currently guarding the small fort’s main gate, Jo swung up onto the horse the soldiers had loaned him, adjusted the hang of his sword and the ease of reach of his two-barreled caplock pistol, and reined his horse around to join his lover and their servant. The two pushed their horses into a trot out the gate and onto the barely-there trail down the small hill the fort was perched on top of before beginning their climb up the magnificent snow-capped mountain the hill was at the base of. The two were eager to make the most of their vacation and didn’t have as much time as they would have liked, though at least the portals saved them the months it would have taken them to get to Jenkin’s Loan from Earth by ship through wildspace.

/\

Three days later, Jo was gasping for breath in the thin air near the mountain’s summit. Tinya, linked to him by a long rope, was taking her turn to be the one breaking the path through the snow on the ledge they were currently following. Usually Jo would have been enjoying the view that would give him of her muscular ass in the tight leather pants she normally preferred, but her magnificent figure was hidden by the thick cold-weather gear they were both wearing. He supposed they could have worn more typical clothing with permanent warming/cooling charms, but oddly enough, beyond the delights of making love out in the open air of a forest clearing on a cool mountain morning surrounded by the burst of birdsong brought on by the sun’s rise, the street punk and the high society debutante had found a mutual enjoyment in really roughing it that went beyond getting away from the disapproving eyes watching them all the time.

Which was also why their Legion rings were currently in inner pockets rather than on their fingers — without the thrill of real risk, the climb would simply be an exercise in masochism. Well, except for the thrill of being the first humans to climb to the peak of this particular mountain, of course.

Tinya disappeared from sight around a bend on the ledge, and Jo sighed as the rope between them began to slacken more with each step he took. Tinya had stopped, they must have hit another dead end. He glanced up at the rock wall beside him, frowning thoughtfully as he considered the angle — it didn’t seem to have the overhang of the last dead end, so perhaps they’d be able to climb it this time. Then he walked around the bend and slammed to a stop right behind his lover, his jaw dropping in shock. Tinya hadn’t hit a dead end, after all.

In front of them the perpendicular wall they had been hiking beside fell back into a wide, flat space bracketed on two sides by cliffs and a gentle slope to the peak on the third. And on the flat area in a heap against the far cliff face, was the ancient ice- and snow-covered remains of a wrecked wildspaceship.

Chapter Text

Oakland, California, 1898

Asuta whipped his bicycle around a slow-moving, rare steamcar (at least in that part of the city) and coasted to a stop next to a brunette standing on the cracked and broken sidewalk. In spite of the late hour, both were still in their school uniforms. “Have you found him?” the brown-haired rider demanded.

Tomari shook her head, hard enough that the twin ponytails on each side of her head slapped her cheeks. “No, he isn’t anywhere!” She glared at Asuta. What did you say to him?” she demanded.

“I didn’t say anything!” Asuta protested. “He was fine at lunch, then he never showed up for the afternoon classes, I don’t know what happened!”

“He confessed to Yasuna.”

Both teenagers whirled to find Ayuki standing between the two buildings behind them. The raven-haired girl pushed her glasses further up her nose with one finger as she continued, “Yasuna did not respond well. I saw her run away, and in class later it looked like she’d been crying.”

The other two teens slumped at the news—they had been the ones to encourage their friend to confess his feelings. Asuta suddenly pounded a fist on his bike’s handlebars. “That makes no sense!” he insisted. “With all the time they spend together on gardening projects, the way she smiles at him — the way she actually looks at him like no other guy — she likes him. So why would she refuse to be his girlfriend?”

Ayuki just shrugged, and Tomari turned to look down the street toward the wooded hills to the east, lit up by the late afternoon sun. “Well, now we know where Hazumu is — he’ll be up there collecting meadow flowers, like he always does when he’s feeling down.” She glanced at Asuta and noted the sweat stains under the armpits of his white shirt, lifted an arm to sniff the puffy sleeve of her own white blouse, glanced down at her dirt-stained past-the-knees red skirt, and grimaced. “Hazumu will get back when he gets back, let’s head to the dorms and cleaned up before we miss dinner and try to fix things in the morning.”

/oOo\

Ignoring the sweat stains spreading on the white shirt of his school uniform and the dirt ground into the knees of his dark trousers, a slim, redheaded Caucasian boy stared at the wildflowers scattered over the sun-dappled mountain meadow and realized that he’d made a serious mistake. This was the meadow where Hazumu had first run into Yasuna — literally. He’d caught his foot on a root going around a tree and had slammed right into her, knocking her onto her back and falling on her. Not exactly the best way to get acquainted with an until-then distant classmate, but after the mutual blush-inducing embarrassment of being close enough to a member of the opposite sex to share breath she had taken it in stride. He’d been looking for flowers for his garden on the school rooftop and she had been separated while enjoying a hike and picnic with her parents temporarily back from their missionary work in Japan. She’d helped him gather flowers and he’d helped her find her parents and given some of those flowers to her mother, and for awhile all had been right with the world.

Since that day the two had met daily, studying together, tending the rooftop garden — she’d even eaten with him and his parents when they’d visited, between publishing their joint paper on the folkways of Amazon jungle aborigines and leaving for their expedition to study the African pygmies. (Oddly, his mother had seemed to alternate between knowing looks and happy smiles the entire visit.)

It had been his lifelong friend Tomari who had finally pushed him to admit — to himself as much as her — that his feelings for the quiet, refined raven-haired girl were more than just friendship, and once he did she and his best (only, actually) male friend Asuta had pushed him to admit his feelings to Yasuna ... and pushed, and pushed, and pushed, until finally he had screwed up his courage and ...

For a moment, the memory of Yasuna’s face sprang into the redheaded boy’s mind, that first split second when he’d been sure he’d seen pure joy shining from her eyes ... just before they’d filled with tears and she had run away, sobbing.

He pushed the memory away and looked out across the meadow. This was a bad idea, he thought sadly. Still, the view from here was magnificent. He walked to the edge of the cliff along the west side of the meadow and looked out across the city of Oakland — the sea of houses that had spread out even in the few years he had known of the view, much less in the years since his parents had arrived to study the ways of the long-secret Japanese Christians that had immigrated after that nation had become an ally by treaty of the United States. (Much to Great Britain’s displeasure, not that US had cared much about the British Empire’s tender feelings after the mother country had helped the Confederacy win its freedom — as the US had further demonstrated when it had seized western Canada by force in the war that followed that unhappy event and so joined the territory of Alaska it had purchased from Russia to the rest of the nation.)

And beyond the city the freighters in San Francisco Bay with smoke billowing from their stacks and even a battleship, and dirigibles silhouetted by the setting sun, coming in to pick up cargoes for the inland towns they serviced. None of the dirigibles would be jump liners servicing the colony on New America, of course, not this far south of the jump zone around the North Pole. Someday he was going to go out to study the fauna of other worlds —

Hazumu sucked in a breath as the angle of the sun finally registered — this had been a really bad idea. It was already late afternoon, it would be nightfall before he could make it back to the school. And night was when the things came out, and Tomari wasn’t around to keep them away like she had the bullies when they were younger....

He ran for the hiking path back to the city.

/oOo\

Yasuna lowered her flute with a sigh, before setting it aside on her desk and rising to step to her dorm room’s open window — her attempt to practice had been an abysmal failure. She had hoped that the joy she took in what was normally the center of her life would calm the storm in her heart, but now she was learning just how much her music had been a cover for her loneliness. A loneliness that had become so much a part of her world that she hadn’t recognized it for what it was, not until Hazumu’s confession after lunch, and now she thought about her only real friend that she had just thrown away, and her father, and stared out at a sunset that seemed the perfect symbol of her future — dark, dreary, and alone.

Finally, she closed the curtains and turned away to fall backward across her bed. Staring up at her white-painted ceiling, she murmured, “Oh, Hazumu, why couldn’t you have been a girl?”

/oOo\

He had been right, he hadn’t been able to reach safety before nightfall, and now Hazumu was beginning to shiver, and not just because of the sweat staining his shirt. The streets were supposed to be gas-lit, but Oakland’s Japantown was toward the bottom of City Hall’s maintenance priority list, and the dark stretches were numerous, unavoidable. Already he could feel eyes following him. And unlike the things he’d seen and sensed for most of his life, lately those eyes felt hungry.

Then as he neared the school, along the school grounds wall toward the gate, his eyes caught a sparkle on the sidewalk on the edge of a pool of light from a working gaslight — a brooch, a shining red faceted jewel set in gold filigree, beautiful enough to take his breath away. He knelt and picked it up, forefinger tracing the gold twists and whirls. I can’t keep this, he thought, someone is really going to miss this.

On the other hand.... He rose to his feet and slipped the brooch in a pants pocket, eyes scanning the buildings across the street — the mostly empty buildings at this time of night, warehouses and offices in American style rather than Japanese (the immigrants didn’t arrive with enough funds for extensive renovations, mostly just happy to have a home — though that was changing). There was no way he was going to be able to find who the brooch belonged to, there were simply too many people passing through during the day. It had to belong to someone passing through, the brooch was clearly Western so it wasn’t an heirloom of a local family. And he couldn’t simply go from door to door, someone would claim it whether it belonged to them or not and he’d have no way of knowing if they were lying —

He never did know what alerted him to the presence of something behind him, but he whirled around, looked up, and froze in place, his eyes wide in shock — he’d been half-seeing half-sensing things all his life, but nothing like the tentacled, flaky-skinned, pustule-covered, diseased-looking thing glaring at him through its single huge bloodshot eye from where it sat on top of the school grounds wall. It opened its lipless mouth to reveal jagged teeth and hissed, and as it lifted itself up on its tentacles all Hazumu could do was stare as the thought I’m going to die, I’m going to die racing over and over through his mind.

The thing’s mouth stretched open wider and wider until it seemed as if it was going to split in half, a slimy mold-green tongue slithered out to run along its lower teeth, then it sprang toward Hazumu and those teeth seemed to fill his vision — and two massive thunderclaps shattered the night as the thing jerked to the side, slamming into one shoulder to knock his spinning to the cobblestoned street. He levered himself up on one elbow and looked around frantically for the thing that had tried to eat him to find it lying beyond him in the middle of road. Thick steam rose from the unmoving body and an evil-smelling stench filled the night air. Even as he stared it collapsed into itself, turned to dust, and a light breeze swept both dust and stench away.

“Aren’t you out a little late?”

Hazumu twisted wildly around at the sound of the voice to find a young woman — Caucasian, with platinum-blond ponytails over each ear, dressed in a black dress split down the middle with a panel preserving modesty, billowing sleeves and a high collar, a cross on a chain around her neck. She stood a few yards away, calmly removing two empty cartridges from the open cylinder of a massive revolver. The dress was scandalously short, barely covering her knees, and he realized that she wasn’t more than a few years older than he was, her body slimly curved. She would have been attractive if not for the large, off-putting black patch with an embroidered pointed cross over one eye and the coldness that even in the dim glow of the streetlight seemed to lurk in the single eye that gazed calmly down at him.

She finished replacing the spent bullets, snapped the cylinder closed with a snap of her wrist, shoved the revolver into a heavy holster belted to her waist, and asked, “Well?”

“Uhhh ... what?” Hazumu replied half-unconsciously. He sat up and dabbed at several scrapes as he struggled to comprehend what had just happened.

She rolled her eye and repeated in a long-suffering tone, “Aren’t you out a little late?”

“Oh!” Hazumu bolted to his feet. “I’m late!” He whirled and began to run toward the gate only to pause, then turned back around and bowed deeply to the girl. “Thank you for saving my life,” he said softly, then turned back around and raced for the gate. He was in so much trouble....

/\

Lucia watched the boy disappear through the school’s open gates, eyebrow lifted in bemusement. “Well, that was ... unexpected,” she murmured.

“Yes, it was. What a polite young man.”

Lucia glanced back over her shoulder at the earth-haired, thin, goateed and mustached, elegantly dressed man standing behind her. She shrugged. Reaching into the purse attached to her belt, she pulled out an open pack of cigarettes and some matches, tapped one out and lit it up, then turned toward the alley that her guardian had come out of. “He’s one more sheep to be protected.

Nash followed her. After a moment, he said, “I’m still not entirely reconciled to using children as bait. It’s dangerous.”

Reaching the dark shadows of the alley, Lucia turned to lean back against the wall and sighed. “We’ve already discussed this,” she said in the tired tone of one rehashing an old argument. “The children are already in danger, one’s even disappeared — as good as dead. This virus is disturbingly clever, hiding in the shadows and feeding on dregs to stay unnoticed. The brooch will lure it out, and it will take long enough to ooze from its hiding place for me to get there. The children will be in no more danger than they already are.”

Voice softening, she continued, “Go back to the shop, Nash, get some sleep. We aren’t both needed, once the virus is out in the open it’ll be easy enough to handle. But if it resists the brooches pull long enough you may need to spell me.”

Nash hesitated, but finally nodded. “Be careful, Lucia,” he murmured. You’re all I have left hung between the two, unsaid.

“I will,” Lucia promised, forcing a faint smile.

Nash returned the smile, then turned and strode down the alley.

Lucia turned back to stare at the school, only the faint glow of the tip of her cigarette visible in the night’s shadows in which she hid.

Chapter Text

John Carter of Virginia, formerly a captain of cavalry of the Confederate States of America, then briefly a prospector, then for almost a century and a half the Warlord of Barsoom (or Mars in the English he’d spoken at the time of his arrival) grimaced as the light of the rising sun coming through the open window finally finished its journey across the floor and onto the sleeping platform to reach his eyes. He lifted an arm out from underneath the sleeping furs to block the sun, and shivered at the feel of cool air on warm skin.

Beside him Dejah Thoris made a sleepy discontented sound at the loss of contact and shifted to snuggle up against him. He slipped his arm back under the furs and shifted them to cover his face, before embracing his princess. In a few minutes a slave would be entering their chambers to announce that his bath was ready and breakfast soon to follow, to prepare him for another long, boring day as a prince of Helium and jedwar of Helium’s military.

He had been much happier as a Confederate cavalry captain than he was now as the Barsoomian equivalent of a top general, and at times he actually found himself looking back with nostalgia on the desperate days of his early years on Barsoom as he’d fought first to survive, then in defense of his adopted people, then in pursuit of his princess’s kidnappers the length and breadth of the planet. But settling down as a prince of the twin cities of Helium had come with his princess and their children and grandchildren, and great-grandchildren and more, and he would not surrender that for all the excitement in both worlds.

/\

“— no survivors. But the farm’s foreman managed to send out messengers when he found he was being jammed and one of them was smart enough to realize that the raiders would have scouts around the farm to intercept anyone. He left on foot until he found that line and managed to kill one of the scouts and take his thoat. He called in the raid as soon as he was out from under the jamming, and a response force was able to ambush the raiders short of the border and overrun them before they could destroy the food they’d stolen.”

John Carter’s aide, Sorion Haj, didn’t bother to mention that there had been no surviving raiders, and John Carter didn’t bother to ask. By this point neither the Union of Free Cities — the alliance that Tardos Mors, Helium’s ruling jeddak, had managed to tie together through arranged marriages and treaties of mutual support — nor the Confederacy that he had created the Union to oppose were taking prisoners. It wasn’t like either side had the extra food to feed the enemy, both were already rationing. (And John Carter did find it ironic that this time he was on the side of the Union against the Confederacy.)

John Carter turned from the window he had been staring out of as he listened, high up in Upper Helium’s central tower. “So the end result is that we’ve lost all the infrastructure for one of the city’s primary food suppliers, but the Confederates weren’t able to destroy what food had been stockpiled,” he said. He waited for his aide’s agreement, then continued, “How did they manage to get this deep into our territory? On thoatback, no less. I know our farms stretch along the canals from the poles, but we do have air patrols.”

Sorion Haj sighed. “Partly by being very clever, but partly by complacency on our part,” he admitted. “They apparently suborned some of our people primarily assigned to the air patrols, several are missing this morning. That allowed them to land their raiders and mounts right on the edge of our territory. As for how they made it the rest of the way in, that is where we got complacent. The Tharks are making their latest migrations to their gathering of the tribes after collecting their young from their hidden incubators, and while the scouts we’ve sent out haven’t reported back yet we believe the Confederates massacred the tribe whose route passed their target and took their place. Since we don’t have anyone posted at the way stations we’ve set up for them, and since the Tharks migrate across our territory at night and no sane Red Man is going to go outside when Green Men are passing even if they are ostensibly our allies, no one on the private farms along the canals they crossed realized they weren’t the Tharks they were supposed to be.”

“Clever,” John Carter mused, “very clever.” (He never thought of himself as ‘John’ or ‘Carter’ anymore, his name had long since become the two-word single name the Red Men favored.) After a moment’s thought he nodded. “I’ll take a scout flyer immediately to Thark to tell Tars Tarkas in person what happened, by the time I get there you should be able to give me the details over the communicator. And I’ll let him know that the men we’ll be stationing in all the way stations aren’t a sign that we don’t trust his people.”

“But sir, you have the ceremonial greeting of the jeddak of —”

John Carter suppressed a shudder. “I’m afraid this takes precedence,” he asserted firmly. “And as Tars Tarkas’ close personal friend, I’m the best person to break the news to him.”

Sorion Haj looked at him doubtfully, but finally shrugged. “I’m not telling the princess that you won’t be there — I am as courageous as any man throughout all Barsoom, but I am not suicidal!”

“No, I could not send you to certain death, I will tell Dejah Thoris of the unfortunate circumstances requiring my absence before I leave. I survived the gladiatorial games of the Warhoon, surely my wife isn’t more vicious or depraved than the most savage of the Green Men! Just make sure I have the update before I arrive at Thark.”

Sorion Haj grinned. “Once again you demonstrate the quick thinking, courage and fortitude for which you were acclaimed the Warlord of Barsoom, my lord,” he intoned, before crossing his arms to lift his hands to his shoulders in salute and taking his leave.

John Carter waited until he was gone then, the brief moment of humor over, turned back to the window to again gaze out over the city — the city that was going to be just that little bit hungrier, thanks to the raid. “This peace is killing us,” he muttered. Though not as much as the war currently consuming the United States, he thought grimly. Still, thinking of the disaster engulfing the conqueror of the fledgling nation he had briefly given his loyalty to a century and a half ago was cold comfort and he wondered briefly if any of the family he had adopted as his own before the War of Northern Aggression were still alive. From what he’d seen through that magnificent device that allowed Barsoomians to view what was happening on the other planets of the Sol system, the odds weren’t good.

Shaking off his moment of introspection, he steeled himself to tell his wife of his escape to ... ah, his duty to visit his old friend.

/oOo\

Jennifer Burroughs knelt beside her squadmate and lover, the hands wet with Sheila’s blood from her desperate efforts to keep her lover from bleeding out still clamped around the other girl’s knee while Jason put the finishing touches to the tourniquet he’d tied off just above the kneecap. Jenny cautiously released her hold and, when no fresh blood came streaming out, leaned back with a sigh of relief. The bullet that had caught Sheila in the back of the knee and so bypassed her armor wouldn’t be her death — at least, not yet.

A white-faced Sheila forced a giggle that Jenny knew was fake from the emotions coming over their mindlink, however natural she had managed to make it sound in spite of the pain. “Well, looks like my dancing days are over,” Sheila quipped, “and me with new dancing partners on their way.”

“Sheila —” Jenny started to say, only for her lover to cut her off.

“You can’t take me with you, I’d slow you down too much,” she said, and nodded toward the multi-story building just barely visible through their night-vision goggles in the moonlight over the crest of the wooded hill behind them. “So just leave me here to shortstop our hunters, and finish the mission.”

“Princess,” Jenny started again, “Adam is dead.”

Sheila’s shock at the news of the death of the squad’s backup hacker reverberated down the link. “Oh, fuck,” she breathed.

“As much as I’d like to, we aren’t going to have the time,” Jenny replied. She grinned at the echo of unwilling humor her comment had sparked, before sobering. “We’re going to have to switch places, love. I’ll stay here, and you will finish the mission.” Then at the instant rejection she felt, she added, “It isn’t like you’ll live all that much longer, as much as I’d like to throw you on the back of my imaginary thoat and ride away none of us are getting out of this alive. It might as well count for something, and you’re necessary for the mission’s successful completion. I’m not.”

When Sheila reluctantly nodded, Jenny looked around the clearing before pointing at a small gulley leading up toward the crest of the hill. “Let’s pile the bodies there.”

A few minutes’ quick work later the bodies, both Adam’s and the patrol they’d ambushed, had been piled into an impromptu barricade and a lip-biting Sheila moved behind it and shifted around so she could target anyone entering the clearing.

Once Sheila was in position, Jenny leaned back against the side of the ravine, closed her eyes, and ‘reached’ for her lover through the mindlink they’d shared for the past horrible, glorious year to find Sheila already ‘reaching’ for her. Each caught hold of the other, ‘pulled’ ... for a split-second there was only one entity as the two merged together, each aware for an instant of all that went into the other from the purest white to the darkest black and all the shades of gray between ... and then they separated, and Jenny bit back a scream as the pain from her shattered knee hammered into her. This wasn’t the first time the two had switched places, not even the first time in battle. But it was the first time they’d switched when one had been seriously injured, much less crippled, and now she rolled to one side away from her position and braced herself up on her elbows as she vomited up the rations Sheila had eaten on their last break during the long infiltration part of their mission.

When she was done she realized hands were holding Sheila’s shoulders, helping hold her up off the ground. She rolled onto her back (careful to avoid the fresh detritus) to find what she’d expected, her own body with Sheila within looming over her. “After that I won’t insist on a goodbye kiss,” she murmured, smiling. “You’d better be on your way.”

Sheila sent a wordless burst of love through their link as she lifted and kissed the back of one hand, then rose to a crouch and turned to the four men that were all that were left of their squad. “Let’s go.” She said, before silently moving up the gulley, and the four men murmured their farewells and wishes of good luck to Jenny before following.

Jenny took a deep breath bit down on her lip to endure the pain and rolled back to her position behind the barricade of bodies. Pulling up her assault rifle, she aimed it into the clearing and swept it from side to side, making sure she had a clear and easy field of fire for the entire breadth of the clearing. Satisfied, she laid out full magazines where she could easily grab them and settled down to wait.

/\

The enemy’s response time to the brief firefight with the patrol was longer than she’d expected, it was almost ten minutes before the first soldiers filtered out of the trees across the clearing — though the enemy had probably arrived minutes earlier and spent some time scanning the clearing as best they could, through night-vision goggles if they had them (after years of civil war both side were running short of any number of secondary military items, concentrating on armor, weapons and vehicles). The bulk of the data facility’s guards must have been involved in the initial ambush, Jenny thought, feeling the first stirrings of hope since the ambush that had killed over half of her squad. If so, and if they’d expected her squad’s survivors to try to run instead of move toward their target, they would have shifted to block her people’s escape instead of trying to intercept them short of the target — and that meant Sheila and the rest had a chance to complete the mission before they died.

The six newcomers she could see paused at the edge of the clearing for a moment, still in what would have been black shadows without her night-vision gear, then started across. They must be greenies or remfs, Jenny thought distantly. Considering how stalemated things were at the front, it made a certain amount of sense that this far in the rear would be handed off to the inexperienced or incompetent, though another possibility was a veteran unit pulled back for easy duty while it rested up. But apparently not this time. So let’s give the survivors the experience they’re lacking, she thought grimly.

She made sure her mindlink to Sheila was as closed as they could manage, dim emotions only. Flipping her assault rifle to full auto, she shifted her aim to one end of the line and gently pulled the trigger, and swept the line of bullets across the figures. The hunters had frozen in place for a fatal moment at the sudden thunder and stabbing flashes of the shots, and four of them dropped or spun away while the two at the end threw themselves backward into the trees. Jenny instantly rolled onto her side and replaced her rifle’s empty magazine with a fresh one. Okay, their NV gear was an older generation so I’ll have a bit of time while the ones that got away and anyone else watching clear their vision from my fire. She noticed one of the soldiers she’d hit was trying to drag himself back into the trees. She quickly switched her rifle to single shot and carefully put a round through his head, then switch to three-round burst mode. One less to lay down covering fire, she thought, ignoring the all-too-familiar sick feeling in her gut as her eyes swept back and forth across the clearing. Now if she was in charge of the enemy patrol, which way would she try to get on her flank, left, right or both?

Her answer came when she caught a hint of motion out of the corner of one eye. Rolling onto her side, she reached out with her mind to snatch the grenade arcing toward her out of the air and throw it back toward its source. The grenade’s flash and crump was followed by a shriek of pain and bits of leaves and branches pattering down, and she smiled grimly — just as fresh shots from her other side hammered into her back right through her armor. The impact picked her up and slammed her into the side of the gulley. She flopped onto her back, stunned. Both, she thought distantly.

“I got him, let’s go!” someone shouted, and she heard the crash of people running past her through the trees. Her night vision gear had failed, one of the rounds must have hit it, and a dark figure actually ran right over her and up the gulley, trampling her in its haste. Then she was alone again.

She carefully re-opened the mindlink. Sheila, some at least are on their way, she sent, and got a wordless burst of understanding and regret back.

The last of the duties of her short life fulfilled, she shifted terribly weak hands to scrabble at her helmet’s strap until she managed to unbuckle it and pushed away her helmet with its night vision gear so she could stare up at the clear, star-filled night sky. She couldn’t see her favorite — Mars. Not that it was really a star, but when she’d been a child she hadn’t cared. She’d sat out on the porch of her family’s ranch house and stared at that sparkling dot of light while her grandfather had told her stories of the adventures of ‘Uncle John’ and the princess he had rescued not once, not twice, but three times, and the adventures of their children, and their grandchildren. She had loved those stories, even after learning that they weren’t his — that his father had published many of them in the early pulp magazines. Even after he died she had continued to stare at the night sky and dream of being swept off her feet by a dashing swordsman. Of course, as she matured and realized where her orientation really lay those dreams had changed to a dashing swordswoman, before her awakening psionic powers and the demands of training and the war had turned her dreams to nightmares — nightmares that only Sheila’s arms kept at bay. I wonder if granddad will have any new stories when I meet him? she thought. Not long, now. Not with the bubbling wheeze of her breathing, and a surprisingly complete lack of pain. She’d heard of that, how a body on the point of death would shut down its pain receptors. Apparently it was true.

Even as she stared up at the twinkling lights on black velvet, ignoring her steadily growing weakness, Jenny focused on her link with her lover and found things going rather better there than for her. After acknowledging Jenny’s warning Sheila had refocused on her own task — so much that she must have blocked out all awareness of her dying lover — and her emotions were a boiling mix of anger, fear and vengeful glee. Then the mix vanished, subsumed into the intense singleminded determination that she often fell into when focusing on her beloved computers. The squad must have fought their way to the computer station they needed. The mission was almost over.

And then it was over, as Sheila’s determination vanished in a blaze of triumphant relief. We did it! she shouted over the link. And Brian’s got the nuke set, so —

Jenny stiffened as Sheila’s mental voice was cut off in an explosion of shock and pain. Sheila! she ‘screamed’.

A moment later Sheila’s ‘voice’ was back, but weak, ‘static-y’. They rolled over Jason, got ... got in ... but can’t stop nuke. Love you, Star-eyed, see you soo —

A second flash of pain and the link snapped, leaving Jenny alone in the gulley. Sheila! she ‘screamed’ again, hopelessly, to her dead lover. She found herself staring wide-eyed up at the stars, fighting desperately to stand, to sit up, anything ... and for an instance her stomach roiled, something seemed to snap like a steel wire, and she abruptly found herself standing in the gulley staring wide-eyed down at the night-dimmed shape of the body she had occupied a moment before. She hastily ran her hands over her back, her knee ... no wounds. No clothes, for that matter. Dead. I must be dead.

Lifting her eyes from the mangled corpse that no longer mattered, she stared up at the twinkling stars, her mind a maelstrom of emotions and images, memories of Sheila, face damp with love-sweat, giggling at Jenny’s comment that with the dark skin and raven hair of her American Indian heritage she would make a marvelous Martian princess right out of grandfather’s fairy tales, all mixed up with her daydreams of Sheila wearing nothing but jewelry in the approved Martian fashion, holding up her arms for Jenny to sweep her up onto her eight-legged thoat as Jenny wove a wall of steel with her sword to hold back the massive, tusked, four-armed Green Men that had been holding her princess captive. She couldn’t see Mars in the night sky, not at this time of night, this time of year, but she could feel it. Princess, I’m coming for you!

There was a shock of cold like she’d never felt before, and everything went dark.

/\

In the small valley where the federal data repository had been tucked away for a split-second a tiny sun was born, its brief life wiping away all evidence that man had ever built there.

/oOo\

Sorok Gant, padwar of Helium’s military, mentally ordered his thoat to halt as he called for his utee to pause for its half-zode break. As his mount dropped its head and began to browse on the crimson moss that covered the plain around him, he dismounted and automatically rechecked his rifle in its scabbard on his saddle and pistol and sword on his personal harness.

The rest of his utee followed suit, and his partner, Ham Solad, stepped over next to him as he scanned the horizon. “A beautiful day for a leisurely ride, isn’t it?” he said conversationally. “It was kind of command to allow us to personally exercise our mounts, seeing how there isn’t any other reason for us to be out here that I can think of.”

Sorok Gant barked a laugh. “I believe the Warlord once called it ‘closing the stable doors after the thoats had already escaped,” he replied. “But we have to at least appear to be doing something, so here we are ‘augmenting’ the air patrols.”

Ham Solad was just opening his mouth for another quip when Sorok Gant’s communicator crackled to life. “Patrol 019 from Air 027, I have a nonhostile contact.”

Sorok Gant yanked his communicator out of its pocket on his harness. “Patrol 019, details,” he demanded.

Less than two haads west of your current position, what looks like a single female Thern lying out in the open,” the scout pilot reported. “We have taken overwatch position.”

Sorok Gant looked up, shading his eyes, and located the circling scout flyer. “We’re on our way,” he said, and returned the communicator to his harness as he strode to his thoat. “You heard the man,” he called to the rest of the utee, “let’s go.”

/\

Through his binoculars, Sorok Gant stared down at the naked female, a Thern by her white skin and blond wig, lying on the red moss in the middle of a tiny otherwise empty valley, then swept his gaze along the valley’s rim. Not that he expected to find anything, if there was anything else to see the two-man scout floating high above the valley would have already reported it. But it didn’t make any sense. What would a Thern be doing out here in the middle of nowhere? And it wasn’t even a body dump by someone counting on the banths or packs of wild calots that prowled the dead sea bottoms for disposal, he’d been able to see her chest rise and fall through his binoculars.

Only one way to find out, he thought as he turned to his utee and ordered, “Everyone, spread out around the rim of the valley, check for anyone hiding. As soon as you’re done I’ll be riding down to check on our guest.” Then he had to wait patiently (outwardly, at least, patience had been a hard-won lesson in leadership) until his squad had spread out all around the valley. But at last the warrior directly across from him signaled the all-clear, and he ordered his thoat to slowly approach the woman, Ham Solad slightly behind and to one side. Even though he couldn’t see, he knew his partner would be watching everything but the woman, just in case. A bit paranoid, perhaps, but it was Ham Solad’s job to keep him alive while he got on with commanding the utee, after all.

But in this case it was paranoia, and he swung down from his mount to kneel beside the unconscious woman, frowning. He’d already noted through his binoculars that she wasn’t wearing any jewelry, but now that he could see her face he was surprised to find that she wasn’t even wearing the diadem that all Therns wore at the front base of their wigs. But that wasn’t just a matter of taste, the size of that diadem was a major marker of social status, all their wigs had one. But this one didn’t. In fact, now that he looked more closely.... “That’s her actual hair, she isn’t wearing a wig,” he said out loud.

Instantly, Ham Solad reached down and grabbed the back of his harness and yanked. But as fast as his partner had moved, he wasn’t fast enough.

The woman’s eyes flew open and her fist hammered into his chest, and the fact that she’d hit the side of his chest-plate and that he was being pulled away were the only reasons his ribs just broke, instead of having splintered pieces cutting into his lungs. Even as he fought to keep down a shriek of pain as Ham Solad threw him across his thoat and slapped it on one flank to send it galloping away from the woman, she leaped up — and up. Sorok Gant twisted his head to follow her ascent a full thirty sofads up, arms and legs whipsawing the air, before dropping straight down to land sprawling right where she had been.

Then he lost sight of her as he and Ham Solad rode up and over the valley rim, and he only hoped that the innate respect most Red Men had for a woman’s person kept them from firing on her after her apparent attack.

He forced himself to wait until Ham Solad eased him down off his thoat, biting his lip at the pain and taking comfort in the lack of explosions from the radium bullets that were standard daytime ammunition. As soon as he was on the ground, he gasped out, “Ham Solad, circle valley, order ... no engagement, circle and avoid.”

Ham Solad nodded and glanced up at the warrior rapidly swinging down off his thoat beside them. “Kabtor, you heard him. Circle and avoid, no engagement. Go.” Kabtor swung back onto his thoat and galloped away, and Ham Solad started to reach down to check Sorok Gant’s injury only to pause when Sorok Gant lifted a hand to stop him.

“Wait,” he ordered, then painfully pulled his communicator out of his harness. “Air 027, you saw?” he asked.

Yes, it looks like we have a new Jasoomian,” came the instant reply. “We’ve already sent word to alert John Carter as per standing orders.”

“Good, so now we just wait,” Sorok Gant said, then carefully lowered his arm to let his partner check his ribs. At least she didn’t get the breastbone, he thought whimsically, hissing as Ham Solad gently lifted him up to a sitting position before starting to unbuckle his harness to remove his dented breastplate.

/oOo\

Princess Talla, daughter of the much-loved Princess Dejah Thoris of the Twin Cities of Helium and John Carter, Warlord of Barsoom, the most famous man on the entire planet, was playing hookey.

She had been taking lessons since the day she was hatched and that wasn’t exactly a recent event — she had hit her full growth — so she should have been used to them, or at least reconciled. But once every ten or twenty days she would fail to show up and when she did her tutors knew where to find her, on a balcony overlooking the training salon of the bodyguard detachment for the royal family. Not that her teachers looked, not anymore. It was only an occasional thing, after all, and only a few xats ... okay, less than a zode ... let the silly adolescent drool over the sculpted, sweat-sheened bodies on display below her and dream of romance while she was young enough to get away with it. If only they knew it wasn’t the bodies on display below her, but the skill that attracted her — she didn’t want to bed any of the men on display, she wanted to be one. Or on the floor sparring with them, at least.

Unfortunately, as a princess of Helium and daughter of John Carter and Dejah Thoris that wasn’t happening. Even if by some miracle she was could find someone willing to train a woman in the martial arts and warriors willing accept her in the ranks, her lineage made it impossible, however unprepossessing she might be as a princess — she knew she was much more than just a bargaining chit useful only for cementing alliances and rewarding successful jedwars and heroes with her hand in marriage (her mindnumbingly boring tutoring in diplomacy, history, current affairs, and household and city management made that abundantly clear), but she was a bargaining chit. Maybe I can get a bit more training in fencing from big brother the next time he visits.

“Princess, there you are!” She turned at the shout, and straightened at the sight of one of the male palace functionaries rushing toward her. Something was up — the slaves and functionaries that ran the palace were very much aware of the dignity of their position, they never rushed!

She took several steps forward to put herself out of sight of the warriors in the room below and waited. “What has happened?” she asked urgently as soon as the functionary reached her.

“Princess, you’re needed,” the functionary said between deep breaths. “A new Jasoomian has arrived, and your father has left for Thark and your mother is in an important meeting and cannot be interrupted. You are the only one available that speaks Jasoomian.”

“It’s called English,” Talla corrected automatically. As hard as it was to believe, Jasoom had only one sentient species but languages beyond counting. “And my English is rudimentary.” But the objection was pro forma, she was already striding eagerly back the way the functionary had come.

The functionary hid a grin as he caught up with her. “It’s better than anyone else’s right now.”

“I suppose I will have to do until Mother or Father is available. Lead me to him.”

“This one is a ‘her’, not a ‘him’, and she’s not in the city. You will be flying out to meet her.”

For just a moment her control slipped and a broad grin crossed her face before she managed to fight her expression back into the calm expression that was the approved public face for princesses. For the first time in her life, she was going to leave the palace!

/\

But there was no urge to smile as she made her way alone down toward the center of the tiny valley, and toward the naked, blonde, white woman sitting on the crimson moss, her arms around her legs and her knees tucked up against her chest, watching her approach with wounded eyes out of a tear-stained face.

Talla slowly knelt and held out a hand in the gesture her father said was the Jasoomian way of greeting. “Hello, my name is Talla,” she said carefully, hoping her accent wasn’t so bad as to make her speech unintelligible. “Who are you?”

Chapter Text

The tall, lank, balding, gray-haired Wayne family butler was not his usual self as he moved through the manor. The next day would see the weekly arrival of the cleaning crew, but the former member of the British Guard and then MI5 was well-endowed with the fastidiousness needed of all good butlers — and for decades now, Alfred had been a very good butler. And so, his search for the most egregious cases of the mess two masters could leave behind, serious enough that Alfred wasn’t comfortable having it seen even by those that were supposed to clean it up. Though there wasn’t as much mess as usual, and the source of that lack was also behind Alfred’s distraction, because this time he was picking up after only one master, not two.

Normally, the lack of mess alone wouldn’t have been a problem. After all, Master Bruce and Master Dick weren’t always in residence, and Alfred had known for months of Master Dick’s plans to move out when he started attending university. But before, even with his masters’ nighttime activities, he had always been certain that they would be returning home eventually. This time, after Master Dick’s latest fight with Master Bruce, Alfred wasn’t so sure.

While Master Bruce becoming the legal guardian of a young boy devastated by the deaths of his acrobat parents in a circus accident that had turned out not to be an accident had turned out to be the best thing that had happened to him since the murder of his own parents when he was a child, this wasn’t the first time the two had clashed. Both were strong personalities, and Master Dick had grown increasingly restless under his guardian’s authority — especially as the junior partner of the Batman and Robin duo. Master Bruce’s decision to make Barbara Gordon, daughter of the Gotham City police commissioner and longtime friend of Master Dick, a member of the team when they learned that she was the Batgirl that had appeared recently had led to an especially bad blow-up between him and his ward.

Alfred suspected that the viciousness with which Master Dick had laid into his mentor had to do with a great deal more than Master Bruce choosing to allow Master Dick’s best friend and potential future love interest to risk her life — it was, after all, her decision to accept. And that had Alfred worried that the father and son in all but name would be a very long time patching up their differences. It is, after all, rather difficult to patch up differences that neither side is willing to acknowledge actually exist.

A massive gong sounded and Alfred started and looked around, realizing that his introspection had brought him to a stop in the middle of the main parlor Master Bruce and Master Dick made most use of. The gong sounded again, and Alfred frowned. That was the bell for the manor’s front entrance — and he hadn’t been alerted by the electronic security around the estate of anyone entering the grounds, and who would be calling at this time of night? Still, whoever had bypassed the outer circle of the estate’s security was ringing the bell at the front door ... Alfred stepped over to the security panel by the doorway and quickly typed in the code for a low-level alert, one that would send a flag to the Batmobile that something was happening at the manor. Alfred now had half an hour, if by that time he didn’t send an all-clear or Master Bruce didn’t return to the Batmobile and call in to see what the issue was a new alert would be sent, directly to the earpiece in the cowl of the Batman costume. Then after a quick check of the hold-out taser Alfred habitually kept secreted on his person, he headed for the broad stairway leading down to the front doors even as the gong sounded a third time.

Reaching the door, he made certain his haughty butler’s face was firmly in place, readied for a quick-draw of the taser, and swung open the door ... and lifted a single eyebrow at the sight revealed in the pool of light from front lights, a buxom, middle-teened Oriental girl dressed in absolutely filthy red silk shirt and loose black pants tied at the ankles, probably Japanese though her pony-tailed hair was fiery red ... and the large, gaunt-from-starvation panda standing behind her. But it was the girl’s gaze that really caught his attention, looking him over with a knowing eye, and he suspected she somehow saw past the façade of the proper butler to the ex-soldier and -spy that lay underneath, in the same way that he could see her own warrior status.

“You work for Wayne-san?” she asked abruptly. “Me and the panda need to see him.”

Alfred lifted an eyebrow at the inclusion of the panda in her declaration. “Yes, I serve Master Bruce,” he replied. “Whom may I say is calling?”

“Oh, yeah, sorry about that.” The girl rubbed her neck under her ponytail, blushing slightly. “I’m Saotome Ranma, your boss knew my dad back before I was born.”

It was only Alfred’s years as a spy that kept his other eyebrow from raising to join the first — that far back would place the relationship sometime toward the end of Master Bruce’s wandering years, just before he returned to Gotham to begin his career as a vigilante. “I see,” he said, and stepped back and to one side. “I am afraid that Master Bruce is not in at the moment, but he should return momentarily. I am afraid I don’t have anything proper on hand for your pet, but would you care for a bit of dinner as you wait?”

Ranma brightened at the mention of food. “You bet!” she said, eagerly walking into the manor with the panda following her.

/oOo\

Hiding behind a line of barrels on a pier at Gotham City’s commercial docks, Batman frowned as a soft, low tone sounded in his ear — something was going on at Wayne Manor. Still, Alfred’s signal didn’t call for dropping everything and rushing home, so the large, caped, black-and-gray costumed vigilante refocused on the tableau before him — not that he’d have been able to just drop everything anyway, not with an innocent in danger. Still, he would have liked to wait just a little longer, to see if Two-Face and his two thugs would spill anything as they interrogated the young dark-haired street boy they had caught, but Alfred’s signal meant he’d run out of time. Even as he reached for the collapsible batarangs in his utility belt, he wondered if Alfred had really believed that the low-level alerts stopped at Batman’s various vehicles as the Wayne retainer had insisted, claiming to still being quite capable of taking care of himself. Probably not, but so long as the former soldier/spy wasn’t explicitly made aware that the signal was immediately forwarded to Batman, and Batgirl when she was on the clock, honor was satisfied.

Batman took a moment to assess the tactical situation visible in the floodlights over the pier, and paused. Two-Face had finally order his underlings to search their captive, and ... one of the thugs was passing a folded piece of paper he’d found to his boss. The now-insane former district attorney unfolded the paper, something metallic slipped out and dropped, Two-Face bent to pick it up ... now!

Two wrist-flicks and the batarangs were on their way, and Batman leaped over the barrels and charged right behind them. The two thugs stumbled to the side, heads rocking back as the batarangs slammed into their foreheads. Batman’s side kick took a straightening Two-Face in the chest and knocked him back off his feet, and Batman scooped up the piece of paper the villain had dropped, whirled around, cape swirling around him, and raced past the two thugs just recovering their footing. He grabbed the cheering boy off the box he’d been sitting on with one arm and twisted around behind a stack of crates, then dove off the pier, free hand catching the edge to swing him and the boy into the dark on the small platform underneath, next to the ladder running down into the water. Fortunately, it was low tide and there was plenty of room between the water and the pier. Now he could get the boy in his submersible speed boat for safekeeping before heading back up to deal with Two-Face and his underlings, so long as ...

“Cool, Batman! Thanks for the save, I thought I was a goner, there.”

... so long as they didn’t know that he and the boy were down below. Suppressing a sigh at the volume of the boy’s enthusiastic response to his rescue, Batman slipped the paper he’d grabbed off of the surface of the pier into a pouch on his utility belt and pulled out the remote control for his speed boat to summon it. Maybe they hadn’t heard —

“Over here!”

And the night went from bad to worse. Even as the speed boat rose to the surface and the bulletproof glass cover slid back from over the two seats, Batman ran through his options, and this time he couldn’t suppress his sigh because he didn’t have any. He couldn’t toss the boy into the boat and go back up to fight Two-Face and his thugs, if he lost the boy would be trapped. He couldn’t send the boat with the boy back to the Batcave alone, he hadn’t gotten the all-clear from Alfred yet and so didn’t know what he might be sending the boy into. He only had one real choice. Grabbing the boy, he tossed him into the passenger seat, leaped over him into the driver’s seat, glanced at the boy to make sure he was completely inside, and grabbed the emergency close lever and yanked. The cover slammed closed even as a fusillade of bullets hammered into the glass, but Batman ignored the sound as he grabbed the wheel and threw the speed boat into maximum throttle to head out to sea. He would just have to hope that the boy and the piece of paper would give him the information he needed to figure out Two-Face’s latest scheme.

The all-clear from Alfred came before they were halfway back to the cave.

/oOo\

“He did what?

Barbara straightened from where she had been leaning against the kitchen counter, and Ranma tensed even as she winced at the volume of the other redheaded girl’s shout — she’d known when Barbara first walked in that she had some training, she’d moved well for a civilian, but now she was giving off the vibes of a predator. When the newcomer had shown up and was introduced by Alfred as Barbara Gordon, close friend of Wayne’s ward, Ranma had tried to think of something to talk about that would be believed by civilians, and had intended to get a laugh with some of the stories of her pop’s training fiascos. So why did Barbara look like she was ready to kill someone instead? Even the butler looked battle-ready ... oh, his expression hadn’t changed from polite interest, but his body language had shifted — he was ready to attack. And the panda sitting to the side of the kitchen table was looking as studiously nonchalant as it was possible for a bear to be, but if he could he’d be sweating.

“Uh, yeah ... he ... he ...” Ranma scrambled for something to say to defuse the sudden tension, then breathed a sigh of relief as a tall, dark, well-built man strode into the kitchen. That relief vanished in a hurry, though, when Ranma took in the way he moved — this man was dangerous.

He glanced around at the tableau, focused on Ranma, and his eyes widened. He asked, “Are you related to a Nodoka Tatsuno, by any chance?”

“Uh ... well, I don’t know about the family name,” Ranma replied, “but my mom’s name is Nodoka.”

“You look just like her,” the man said, smiling affably. “Is your father Genma-sensei?”

Sensei? Pop!? “Yeah, I’m Saotome ... I mean, I’m Ranma Saotome. Sorry to drop in on you like this, but we ... I got a problem. If you’re Bruce Wayne, Dad recognized you on TV and thinks ... thought with the people you were with, you might be able to help us.”

The man stiffened, gaze sharpening, then slowly relaxed. “I see. Recognized my moves, did he?”

“Uh ...” Ranma glanced at the panda out of the corner of his eye and caught a slight nod. “Yeah. Yeah, he did.”

“Hmmm.” Wayne’s gaze flicked between Ranma and the panda. “You can speak freely in front of Alfred and Barbara. What help do you need?”

“Well, it started when Dad decided to check out a training ground in China, way back in the mountains....”

/\

“... they said they had to punish him, splashed him with some cold water to turn him back into a panda, then threw some more water on him. I tried to stop it, but just got splashed, too. I dunno what that water was, but it locked the curses. The elders apologized for getting me, but ...” Ranma shrugged, rubbing the back of her neck again. “They’re Amazons, they think they did me a favor. And they didn’t have any way to fix it.”

“I see.” Bruce gazed at the redhead, and the obviously nervous girl became even more so, No, she was scared, body tensed, shivering slightly even as she fought to keep her gaze steady — just as he’d seen as Batman from countless criminals trying fast-talk him. Still, the story was hard to believe, and the girl would know it. He focused on the panda. “So this is Genma.”

“”Well ... yeah.”

Suddenly, the panda produced a wood sign out of thin air, covered with kanji. #Do you still blush when# flip #girls flirt with you, like# flip #Nodoka used to?#

Bruce stiffened, feeling his cheeks heat as he remembered the sultry glances and innuendos the flame-haired young woman had tormented him with during the time he had trained with her boyfriend. He could almost feel the soft touch of fingers running down an arm.

Barbara had been staring in shock at the sign, but on sensing her mentor tense up she glanced toward him and an impish smile crossed her face. “Oooh, what did it say?” she asked.

Bruce coughed. “Never mind. The important thing is that this must be Genma.” Hastily returning his attention to Ranma, he forced aside the memories. “I can’t help you myself, but I know some people that might. But it will have to wait, Barbara and I are in the middle of a situation.” He glanced back at Barbara. “Suit up.”

Chapter Text

2931, the Third Age:

Bilbo Baggins whistled contentedly, his thumbs hooked into his yellow waistcoat’s pockets as he strolled along the cobblestone walkway through the middle of Hobbiton. It had been a wonderful summer day: a long country walk in the morning, an afternoon with some of his favorite books, and now a happy few hours at the Green Dragon — convivial company and the second finest beer in all the land of the Shire — to be finished off by a pipe of Old Toby leaf as he watched the stars come out from the seat by the front door of his own home, Bag End. Yes, it had been a magnificent day in a series of magnificent days.

He almost tripped when the scream rent the evening air, yanking him out of his reverie, then broke into a run down a side-path toward the sound along with every other male in sight, tween or adult. He couldn’t imagine what might have filled the voice of whichever woman had shrieked with such terror.

He rounded the turn around one of the standing houses and stumbled to a stop, almost knocked off his feet by one of the men running behind him, at the sight of Mrs. Elanor Bracegirdle. The gasping blonde matron’s hands were covering her mouth and the market goods from a dropped basket lay scattered about her feet ... and her eyes were fixed on a Man lying unconscious at her feet — a female, with pale skin and flame-red hair, dressed in pants and shirt covered with an oddly-mottled black, brown and gray pattern.

Then even as Bilbo stared, a feeling of Peace like he’d never known at his most contented seemed to cover the World, and the Man began to glow, shimmered, and seemed to shrink from view. Then the feeling slowly faded, leaving the gathering crowd staring at a clothes-covered lump.

Finally, Bilbo cautiously approached — though after ... whatever that feeling had been, he didn’t think there was any danger — and knelt by the lump to undo buttons on the shirt until the oddly-shrunken Man’s face was again revealed. Only now, it wasn’t a Man’s. She still had the flame-red hair and pale skin, but now her ears were as pointed as any Hobbit’s. And those ears framed a very young face, was she even in her tweens?

“What’s that?” One of the children that filled the village had wriggled through the growing crush, and now the boy pointed at a growing dark stain farther down the shirt ... a dark red stain.

The last of the Peace blew away with Bilbo’s shock, and he scrabbled at more of the shirt’s buttons, yanking it open. He ignored the clearly visible proof that she was very much a female, if much too thin — and that the breast band she’d been wearing no longer fit — his eyes widening at the sight of blood seeming to gush from several odd, round holes in her abdomen and soaking her clothes beneath her. He shouted, “Someone fetch Mistress Bunce!” as he yanked at his waistcoat. He ignored the buttons flying everywhere as he pulled it off and bundled it up for a bandage.

/\

Hours later:

Rubbing at tired eyes, Bilbo leaned back in his chair beside the bed in one of his many guest rooms, now occupied by the now-a-Hobbit maiden, and set aside the belt the ... was-a-Man had been wearing. He had to admit that it was a very handy belt, a series of pouches along each side filled with odds-and-ends — some recognizable, some not — and the special pouch for the ... was it a club? If so, with its odd shape and light weight, for all its fine craftsmanship it didn’t seem as practical as the belt, so he suspected he was missing something. But it was hers, not his, and he set it aside. She could explain it to him when she woke up, if she chose.

He turned his attention back to his unconscious guest and reached out to hesitantly stroke the hair fanning out on her pillow, hair bleached of its vibrancy by the soft reddish light of an oil lamp, his instinctive Hobbitish wariness for the out-of-the-ordinary at war with his memory of the Peace he had felt. Mistress Bunce had tutted as she dealt with the stranger’s wounds as best she could, wondering in a low mutter what could have cause such wounds as she worked on them. She wasn’t sure if the stranger would ever wake up, and less sure that she’d last the night, but Bilbo disagreed. He didn’t know which of the Powers had brought the stranger to Hobbiton, but he was certain it was a benevolent one — and that she’d been brought for a reason. He couldn’t see how that reason, whatever it might be, could be satisfied by her dying.

A soft knock sounded through the burrow, and he hastily rose and snatched up the oil lamp to hurry to his front entrance. He pulled open the round door to reveal Marmadoc Smallburrow, the mayor of Hobbiton. “Come in, come in,” he softly said. He ushered the mayor into his dining room and poured tea and laid out some biscuits for the exhausted Hobbit.

Marmadoc finished the midnight snack with a sigh of relief and leaned back in his chair. “How is she?”

“About the same,” Bilbo replied. He hesitated for a moment, then asked, “Did you find any more bodies?”

Marmadoc grimaced. “Yes, another two. That makes seven, six males and a female. All dead.” He hesitated for a moment, then reluctantly added, “Bilbo, I’m not sure what to do! This isn’t like the usual squabble between families a mayor deals with. For once, I’m wishing Gandalf was here for more than his fireworks.”

Bilbo smiled for a moment as he remembered a nighttime party of his early childhood, Gandalf in his gray robes and tall, pointed hat using the tip of his staff to light the fuses of his famous fireworks and fill the night sky with brilliant multi-colored bursts, streaks and shapes. Then he sobered as the evening’s events returned. “Yes, he’d know what to do — this kind of thing is what wizards are supposed to deal with, after all. I just never thought it could happen here.” After some thought, he said, “They were all dressed in the same odd clothing as she was, right?” When the mayor nodded, he continued, “That probably means they’re friends of hers, and the one thing Mistress Bunce was sure of was that my guest won’t be getting out of bed any time soon — not alive, anyway. So the best I can think of is to have Folco do a sketch of each body’s face and then bury them. She can use the sketches to give us names for headstones when she wakes up.”

“But what about her?” Marmadoc asked. He leaned forward, hands clasped and elbows resting on the table. “If she lives, what do we do with her? Considering their clothing and the way they arrived I doubt we’re anywhere close to her home, and however much she looks like a Hobbit maid now she’s one of the Big Folk.”

Bilbo hesitated, considering the mayor’s words. He did have a point ... she wasn’t a Hobbit, whatever her present appearance. But ... he remembered, again, his first sight of the maid’s bloodless too-thin face framed by fiery hair and Hobbit-pointed ears. Perhaps she’s meant to be here. Why else would she have changed to one of us? He nodded firmly, decision made.“I have plenty of rooms, she can stay with me.”

Marmadoc stared doubtfully at Bilbo. “Are you sure? You have a good reputation here in Hobbiton, and you’ll be responsible for her actions.”

“I’m sure,” Bilbo replied, face softening in wonder as he thought of the Peace he had felt. “I don’t understand much about what happened today, but the one thing I’m sure of is that she is no threat. At least, not to us.”

“I suppose we’ll just have to hope you’re right,” Marmadoc said with a shrug, before wearily dragging himself to his feet. “And now it’s time I find my own bed, morning will get here all too soon. Your suggestion about the sketches is a good one, I’ll have to look up Folco to get that done first thing so we can bury them before they start to stink.”

Bilbo saw the mayor out, then returned to the guest room to sit beside the maiden, musing over the conversation. The mayor was right, if she stayed at Bag End his reputation would be bound up in hers. Still, considering the Peace he had felt he simply could not believe she was a threat.

He leaned forward to lay a hand on her forehead, checking for the heat that signaled fever. I wonder what color her eyes are.

/oOo\

2932, T.A.:

From her hiding place behind one of the trees surrounding the small clearing, a crouching Sakura Piper observed the camp in the clearing’s center, and especially the four figures wearing brown and green sitting around the small fire eating their evening meal. It was possible they were brigands, of course, but she doubted it; their clothes were too well cared for as were the bows she could see (odd bows — stubby and thick, not the longbows she’d have expected thanks to a Robin Hood movie she saw as a child). The camp was too neat, a camp of people that expected to clean up after themselves and wanted to do so with a minimum of fuss. She didn’t have any actual experience with brigands, but she’d always thought they’d be more slovenly, like the street gangs that had infested parts of her lost home’s cities — or at least, so she had heard of. Besides, here on the south border of the Shire there weren’t any traders to speak of, beyond that occasional wandering tinker.

Maybe — just maybe — she’d found the people she was looking for. And if she hadn’t, she could always run away and disappear in the wilderness.

/\

“Hello, that camp. Can I come in?”

At the high-pitched, oddly-accented voice behind him, Eradon whirled, whipping his knife from its sheath. Normally he wouldn’t have been that startled, but the voice was right behind him and in spite of his decades of experience he’d had no warning at all!

Behind him stood a fiery-haired Hobbit maiden and he instantly relaxed, his abrupt fear and shame vanishing. She was no threat, and even with his decades of experience as a Ranger there was no shame in being snuck up on by a Hobbit. Though she was remarkably steady for one of that shy folk, she hadn’t even flinched at the sight of his blade. And more to the point, what was she doing here?

“Certainly, come on in,” he replied. He slipped his knife back in its sheath then waved a hand at a piece of log by the small fire next to where he had been sitting. “Would you like some stew? I know our meal isn’t up to the standards of a Hobbit’s dinner, but it’s tasty.”

“Sure, thanks.” The maiden cheerfully smiled at him, then circled the group to an open space on the opposite side of the fire and squatted down next to the patrol’s only female member. She accepted a bowl and spoon and dug in, ignoring his continued scrutiny as he resumed his seat.

She was definitely an odd one, and it wasn’t just her presence and lack of fear or the way she was crouched, ready to spring away at a moment’s notice. She certainly wasn’t dressed like any Hobbit maiden he’d ever seen, wearing old, worn, shirt and pants and a shabby waistcoat that, being meant for a male Hobbit, accentuated her assets rather than hid them. Then there was how thin she was, both in body and face, and there was the odd almond-shape appearance of her eyes —

“You’re Sakura, aren’t you?” he blurted out without thinking, then blushed when she looked up with a grin.

“Figured it out, did you?” she responded. “How did you know? Quiet contacts with Shire folk?”

“Hi, I’m Ivorwen, and these are Eradon, Arahad and Ohtar,” Ivorwen said from beside Sakura, flashing Eradon a grin as his blush deepened at the realization he’d completely failed at common courtesy. She continued, “And we have the occasional contact with the Took at secondhand, for news of Shire happenings that might be of interest and to pass along anything odd we come across, any suggestions for how to schedule his Bounders. Your appearance out of empty air certainly fits the first category. So what are you doing here? We don’t get many visitors.”

Sakura shrugged as she continued to eat. “I was curious. It should be obvious to anyone with half a brain — no, that’s not fair, Hobbits aren’t stupid, just self-satisfied ... anyone that knows anything about history. Anyway, it should be clear that someone is protecting the Shire, and I wondered who it might be. Besides, I was going stir-crazy, needed to get out for a little while. This is good stew! A lot better than the MREs I was used to in the field.”

“Yes, Arahad’s the best field cook around,” Eradon boasted, reaching to refill Sakura’s empty bowl. “What’s an MRE?”

“Meals, Ready to Eat,” Sakura answered with a laugh like tinkling chimes. “They’re light, portable, don’t need a fire and will keep you alive, but sometimes you wish they didn’t.”

“Ah, like cram,” Ohtar said, then at Sakura’s questioning look added, “Dwarvish waybread, it’s as bad as these ‘MREs’ of yours sound like. The lembas the Elves make is much better.”

“Sounds like we could have used that.”

Eradon opened his mouth to ask who ‘we’ were, then remembered the Took’s report of the other seven Big Folk that had appeared out of nowhere, all wearing the same oddly-patterned clothing (though the rangers had been instantly jealous when they saw one shirt, recognizing the camouflage pattern for what it was even if they’d never seen its like before) ... all dead. His mouth snapped shut.

Sakura finished off her second bowl of stew, rose to her feet and stretched as she glanced around at the shadows stretching east across the clearing, only the tops of the trees on the east side still bathed in sunlight. “Thanks again for the stew, but now that my curiosity is satisfied I have to get back.” She grimaced. “I have a lunch with the ladies of Hobbiton tomorrow, and I don’t want to be late.”

Eradon winced. “Boring, you said?”

“Yeah, small-town gossip about people I haven’t known all my life,” Sakura agreed with a sigh. “But they’re such goodhearted people, if they’re willing to put up with me, what can I do but try to put up with them?” With a wave, she turned toward the edge of the clearing.

“Sounds like you could use the occasional break,” Ivorwen said sympathetically. “Why don’t you visit occasionally?”

Sakura froze between the first trees, then turned back around. “Do you really mean it?” she asked, eyes hopeful.

“Sure,” Ivorwen responded. She glared down Arahad when he was about to speak, then continued, “We’ll be happy to have you.”

Sakura warily eyed Arahad, looked around to see if anyone else objected, then put on a thoughtful pose. “Let’s see, between housecleaning, trying to learn how to cook on a woodburning stove;” — the rangers exchanged confused glances, all with the same thought: What other kind of stove is there? — “weeding the vegetable and flower gardens when Master Gamgee or Hamfast is there to keep an eye on just what I’m pulling; pushing my way through dusty, old books written in a language I’m still learning and an alphabet I’m not comfortable with yet; the weekly luncheons with the ladies, practicing katas to stay in shape ... I ought to be able to squeeze you into my schedule somewhere, thank you. Around this time next week?” At their affirmatives — even Arahad — her smile seemed to light up the clearing for a moment, and then she was gone.

/\

As soon as she was out of sight of the camp Sakura dodged behind a tree, closed her eyes, took a deep breath, and let her Invisibility Art settle on her. Now protected from notice, she crept back to the edge of the camp.

“— did you invite her back?” Arahad was asking.

Ivorwen shrugged. “She’s a mystery — apparently a benign mystery, but one nonetheless. We’ll be able to learn more about her if she’s actually around — what she says, what she can do, how she acts. Besides, she seems like a sweet girl, and I think she’s lonely. From the clothes she and the others were wearing when they arrived, I suspect we’ll understand her better than the Hobbits she’s living among ever can ... farmers and crafters the lot of them, whatever their ability to rise to the occasion when needs must, and while those lives can sometimes be dangerous, they aren’t violent. I think her life before coming here was anything but peaceful, and she could use some friends that get it.”

Sakura silently snuck away until she was well away from the clearing, then rose to her feet, let her cloak of Invisibility relax, and headed north toward Hobbiton and the next day’s luncheon. In spite of the nighttime walk ahead of her, she found herself softly singing a cheery tune as she strode along.

/oOo\

2936, T.A.:

“— don’t know what we are going to do about Marigold,” Mentha Hornblower said sorrowfully. “This is the third engagement broken off, and there won’t be another. This time it was Hugo that broke it, not her — and the rumor is it’s because he caught her naked with Isembard. We don’t need another Myrtle, having a girl that bounces from man to man or even rents herself out is bad for the community. And that’s not to think of her children — and there will almost certainly be children, a girl that’s no better than she has to be is usually careless with the herbs.”

Camellia Twofoot glanced sideways at Sakura where she sat sipping her tea, dressed in her brilliantly blue best dress, with green ribbons her hair. As nonchalantly as the matron could manage, she asked, “How would your people have dealt with this, Sakura dear? Would this be normal enough to ... have a typical way to fix it?”

Sakura sighed softly, only barely stopping from rolling her eyes. While she was ostensibly accepted by all of the seven matrons present, that tolerance enforced by Mistress Daisy Greenhand, Camellia had been pushing the limits from the time she had joined Hobbiton’s matrons in their regular meetings (ostensibly for training in how Hobbit society worked, but she’d had her doubts from the start). “No,” she patiently said, “I’ve already told you we were less ... united, socially, each family managing its own affairs. So even though proper people would have much the same view of Marigold’s behavior as Hobbits, there would have been nothing we could do about it.”

“ ‘The same views’, really? Even for the warriors?” Camellia asked primly, her faint smirk vanishing behind her tea cup.

Suddenly, Sakura had had enough. She carefully set down her tea cup and saucer. “Let’s pretend you asked what you really want to know — what I was like — and I’ll tell you,” she said coldly, her normally laughing eyes hard. “I made Marigold look like a perfect maiden. From the age of fifteen until my arrival here, I can’t tell you how many men I went to bed with.” Then her eyes dropped, voice softening as she added, “Things look very different ... when you’re fifteen and convinced that you won’t live to see your eighteenth birthday.”

She kept her eyes fixed on the table in the sudden ringing silence that filled the room, until she felt a soft touch on one hand from the chubby blonde matron sitting next to her, and looked up into Rose Sackville’s sympathetic eyes.

Mistress Greenhand cleared her throat. “We are getting away from the issue,” she said firmly. “I’ve checked my mother’s diaries for the last time this happened before Myrtle. We need talk to Isembard’s parents. Since he has ruined any chance that another family will consider Marigold for their sons, he should take on the engagement....”

/\

Sakura stay seated as the luncheon broke up, gazing into her teacup, waiting as quietly as she had been through the remainder of the discussion.

Finally, Mistress Greenhand returned from seeing off the rest of the group and dropped into the seat across from her, picking up one of the few cookies left behind to nibble on. “So what’s significant about turning eighteen?”

“What?” Sakura looked up. “Oh, among my people that’s the age a child becomes an adult.”

“Really.” Mistress Greenhand’s eyebrows rose. “That young? No period as a tween?”

“No,” Sakura said with a smile, shaking her head. “By the time we turn thirty-three most are married with a one or two children, at least.”

“Oh my, tweens raising children. And you weren’t even a tween, with an adult’s life forced on you. I can’t imagine how desperate your people must have been, to do what they did to you.” She shifted her gaze to stare at the wall behind Sakura for a long moment, eyes haunted as she undoubtedly tried to think of anything that could push the Shire to such need, then pushed aside the half-formed nightmare she was contemplating. Refocusing on Sakura, she dryly asked, “I hope you are regularly taking the herbs I gave you, at least?”

Sakura grinned. “Yes, but only for holding off my time of month. Bilbo wouldn’t dream of ‘forcing’ his attentions on a guest, and the few that have ... inquired have simply been too immature to interest me. Besides, I have my reputation to think of. And Bilbo’s, since I’m his guest.” Something I should have thought of before I mouthed off, she thought with a wince. “Maybe ... maybe I should skip the next luncheon?”

Mistress Greenhand suppressed a smile as she remembered the gold ring she’d seen Bilbo playing with once, and glared sternly at her guest. “No! No, you will be here next week, as normal, Sakura Piper!”

“But after what I said —”

Mistress Greenhand sighed. “Yes, Camellia and Asphodel will take it poorly, but Rose, Pervinca and Elanor understand and Mentha is willing to follow my lead. And more important, as odd as you are they like you. They will be able to counter the stories Camellia, at least, is sure to spread. But only if you are still meeting with us.”

“Oh ... so I’ve been meeting with you for five years now to ...” Her voice trailed off, and Mistress Greenhand finished for her.

“To try to convince everyone that you’re one of us ... well, somewhat. Not an Outsider, at least.” The old matron sighed. “It has been ... a bit of a success. At least the mothers trust you with their children, long enough to tell a few stories.”

“Long enough to get their shopping at the market done, at least. I’d imagine that explains a big part of it.” Sakura smiled at the thought of the horde of eager children that would corner her when she visited the market, begging for another story, then rose to her feet. “I’d better be on my way. We ran a little long today, by now Bilbo will be wondering where I am.”

“Yes, he will.” Mistress Greenhand rose stiffly to her feet to show Sakura out, and gazed speculatively after her, following the fiery blaze of afternoon sun on the girl’s hair up the Hill to the luxurious burrow that was Bag End. I wonder how long until you are the mistress of Bag End in name as well as in truth? True, Bilbo was over twice her age and it would be over a decade before they could marry, but none of the other eligible maids in Hobbiton — or any of the other villages around — had caught his eye. Yes, they would be a good match ... if she stayed long enough.

The oldest matron in Hobbiton laughed softly to herself as she closed her door and called out for her great-granddaughter and her friends to come down and help clean up. Walking back to supervise the thundering herd, she muttered, “You are getting to be as nosy an old biddy as Asphodel, they’ll do as they wish and it’s no business of yours. Still, trust the son of Belladonna Took to fall for a girl just like his mother, however respectable he may seem.” There was some hope in that, now that she thought about it. Belladonna had settled down, after all. Eventually.

/oOo\

2941, T.A.:

“I’m looking for someone to share in an adventure.”

Bilbo stared in shock at the tall, long-bearded, ancient Man leaning on his staff, that had interrupted his blissful morning blowing smoke rings (outside of Bag End — even if it hadn’t been a beautiful day, Sakura had made it clear without saying a word that she didn’t approve of smoking inside the burrow). Even the Man’s mode of dress was odd, a gray robe rather than pants and shirt, and he was made even taller than he already was by a gray, pointed hat covering his long white hair. But it wasn’t the strangely familiar Man’s appearance that rendered Bilbo momentarily speechless, but what he’d just said. He’s here for Sakura! Thankfully, she was off on one of her visits to her ranger friends.

“In an adventure?” the earth-haired Hobbit finally managed to say. “No, I don’t imagine that anyone west of Bree would have much interest in adventures. Nasty, disturbing, uncomfortable things. Make you late for dinner. Good morning.” Bilbo rose from his bench just inside the wood fence fronting the stone-paved path that ran past his round, green front door. He walked along to his mailbox and pulled out the morning’s delivery and looked through the envelopes, studiously ignoring his unwanted visitor in the hope that the Man would take the hint and go away.

But the Man didn’t take the hint, instead ruefully shaking his head. In a deep, gravelly voice, he said, “To think I should have lived to be good morninged by Belladonna Took’s son, as if I was selling buttons at the door.”

Wait ... his mother? This Man had known his mother?! Almost against his will, Bilbo looked up again at that craggy, weather-beaten face. “I beg your pardon.”

“You’ve changed, and not entirely for the better, Bilbo Baggins.”

“I’m sorry, do I know you?”

“You know my name, though you don’t remember I belong to it. I’m Gandalf, and Gandalf means me.”

“Not Gandalf the wandering wizard that made such excellent fireworks? Old Took used to have them on Midsummer’s Eve! I had no idea you were still in business.” Now, Bilbo abruptly knew where he had seen this Man before, a Man he hadn’t thought of since the days just after Sakura had appeared out of nowhere. Then he had wished for Gandalf’s presence, to solve the mystery that was his unwanted guest and to take her off his hands. Now ... one hand went to the pocket where he kept his mother’s engagement ring.

“And where else should I be?” Gandalf huffed. “I’m pleased to find you remember something about me, even if it’s only my fireworks.” He thoughtfully gazed at the increasingly nervous Hobbit, then nodded decisively. “Well, that’s decided. It will be very good for you, and most amusing for me. I shall inform the others.”

“What?” Bilbo gaped. Gandalf was talking about him? Not Sakura? “No, no, wait,” he babbled, “we do not want any adventures here, not today.” He winced. We? “I suggest you try over the Hill or across the Water. Good morning.” He bolted for his door, slamming and locking it behind him. Back flat against the wall, he shuffled along to the nearest window and leaned around to glance outside, then slumped in relief to see the gray-clad back of Gandalf vanishing around the bend in the path that circled around the Hill.

/oOo\

Eradon watched in awe from the underbrush as Sakura crept on bare, crimson-furred feet toward the browsing herd of deer. Oh, he wasn’t surprised by her silence — she was a Hobbit, after all — but she was also well away from the edge of the clearing, and however little a profile she might present with the way she was crouched she was also in plain sight. Yet even though several of the deer had looked straight at her, none of them had so much as twitched in alarm.

Then came the part he hated with a passion: she had decided she was close enough and sprang forward toward her target, one of the young bucks. A quick rush, one prodigious leap (for a Hobbit), and she landed on the buck’s back. Even as it started to whirl in place as the rest of the deer in the clearing bolted, she threw herself forward between its still-small rack of horns and her knife flashed across the buck’s throat. Then she was throwing herself back and off, tucking to roll across the meadow grass even as the buck collapsed, kicking and spraying blood from severed arteries.

Eradon ran forward, heart in his mouth, then relaxed with a sigh of relief as Sakura rose to her feet — she’d pulled it off yet again. The two stood side by side in companionable silence as they waited for the buck to stop moving. When it was well and truly dead, he gave her a moment to walk forward alone and place a gentle hand on its head in regret and thanks, then the pair quickly went to work skinning the carcass and carving out and wrapping up cuts of meat in the skin for transport back to camp. He eyed her knife as they worked, a blade made to her own specifications by a blacksmith in Bree and more a shortsword (again for a Hobbit), and a vicious-looking thing with its reinforced back and single edge except for the double-edged curved tip. That blade was made for more than skinning carcasses, and now all the rangers had one like it.

“You know, it still amazes me to watch you practically walk up to the deer like that,” he said conversationally as they finished up. Sakura glanced up from where she was wiping her knife clean of blood before returning it to its sheath. “You say that every time,” she said with a grin for their now-traditional routine. “It’s still a family Art that I’ll be teaching to any future husband if he wishes and my children if and when I have any, and no one else.”

He sighed with theatrical regret, delighting in her tinkling laughter at his traditional response. Then as nonchalantly as he could manage he asked, “Have you considered starting to use your bow for hunting? Your skill for archery has really improved.”

Sakura’s gaze sharpened, then softened as she noticed his forced ease. “Watching me stalking dinner bothers you that much?” she asked softly, then shook her head without waiting for a reply. “No. At least, not yet. I need to keep in practice with my Art. Besides, I’m not that good a shot yet, and I’d rather not waste a goodly part of an afternoon tracking down a wounded buck because I missed my shot. Not when I could spend it on other things like ... oh, I don’t know ... practicing my archery?” She grinned at Eradon’s rueful laughter, then slung her share of the skin-wrapped meat up over a shoulder. “Now let’s head back to camp, so I can get started on that practice and you all can tell me the latest news — in Quenya this time, for practice. You never know when I might need to talk to some Elf,” she finished with a grin.

/oOo\

Bilbo all but slunk out of the front door of Bag End, head twisting as he looked all around for the huge, gray-clad visitor of the morning. He almost hadn’t left the house, he’d been so shaken by the earlier encounter, but in the end had decided he was being foolish — if Gandalf chose to return, Bilbo couldn’t think of how he could keep the wizard out.

Besides, the Hobbit had a hankering for fish, and with Sakura (thankfully) away visiting her ranger friends he could indulge in the day’s catch from the closest river without making her nauseous and have the burrow aired out by the time she got back the next morning.

So he made his nervous way down the Hill to the market, without catching so much as a glimpse of Gandalf — a good thing, too, since as soon as he reached the market he was mobbed by children, demanding to know where Sakura was and disappointed to learn that she wouldn’t be joining them. It was the work of a few minutes to shoo them back to their mothers, and he soon had his fish wrapped up and was headed back home. So far, so good. Now he could only hope that Gandalf had taken his rejection seriously and moved on to look elsewhere.

That night, when he answered the knock on his door just as he was sitting down to enjoy his fish, and found a massive, tattooed, armored and heavily armed Dwarf on his doorstep, his heart sank as he realized that he had hoped in vain.

/oOo\

Sakura yawned as she walked through the dark up to Bag End, the stone-paved path hard under her weary feet. She had mentally kicked herself for her decision to return that evening several times during the long walk, but once started she had been determined to finish it and now finish it she finally had.

She unlatched the door and stepped through, careful not to trip over the circular opening, and gratefully swung the backpack full of fresh meat along with bow and arrow-filled quiver off of shoulders still sore from her archery practice. At least I’m improving, she thought, .then gagged slightly at the smell wafting through the burrow, a mix of fish and pipe smoke. Yes, she definitely should have spent the night with the rangers and given Bilbo a chance to air out the burrow before she returned. Ah, well, too late now, she’d just have to remember in the future.

“Bilbo, I’m back, with enough —”

She broke off as her tired mind finally registered the presence of one old Man and thirteen Dwarves, all staring at her along with an unhappy Hobbit. She stared back at everyone staring at her then, pitching her voice lower, said, “So, Bilbo, will you introduce me to your ... friends?”

/\

“ ... and Thorin Oakenshield.”

Sakura’s eyes widened at that last name in the series of introductions. The identification of the Man as Gandalf hadn’t been too much of a surprise, she’d had her ranger friends’ description to go by (he played a rather prominent role in some of the stories they’d told her), but Oakenshield’s came as a shock.

She bowed in her seat, cudgeling her mind for the proper polite response, then when the once-mentioned in passing phrase failed to come mentally shrugged. “So, what brings thirteen Dwarves and the Gray Wanderer to Bag End?” she asked instead.

Thorin glowered. “Our business is with Mr. Baggins. We have need of a burglar.” He motioned toward a white-haired and -bearded Dwarf — Balin — and the other Dwarf reached into a coat pocket and pulled out a folded-up sheet of paper.

For a long moment Sakura simply sat and stared, trying to make the words ‘Baggins’ and ‘burglar’ fit in the same sentence and failing miserably. For that matter, ‘burglar’ and ‘Oakenshield’ didn’t go together any better. “Just what does the king of Erebor in Exile want with a burglar?” she demanded, reaching out to accept the offered paper.

Thorin’s ire eased as an eyebrow raised. He leaned back in his chair and gazed at her contemplatively. Finally, he said, “The time has come for the Dwarves to reclaim our home.”

For the first time in years a wave of homesickness washed over her, as she remembered a century-old ranch house, wide open star-filled sky with the promise of rain in the clouds rolling in, a trip up into the mountains for sledding and while the men folk picked out a Christmas tree, her parents and older brothers and sisters, laughter and love around the dinner table....

With an effort that almost left her shaking, she thrust her childhood memories from before the War aside to focus on the present, and the Dwarves that inhabited it ... and frowned as she finally looked at them — as individuals and not just Dwarves. Yes, there were a few warriors among them, the one with tattoos across the top of his head — Dwalin? — was one, certainly, and the story behind Oakenshield’s nickname proved his own qualities. And the young ones (at least, she thought they were young) were trained. But the rest ...

“You obviously aren’t planning on a frontal assault,” she finally said with a wry smile, “so just what do you need recovered” — the rangers’ stories had Oakenshield’s greatest fault a prickly, stiff, unyielding sense of honor that epitomized the Country song lyrics ‘If I didn’t earn it I don’t want it’, so there was no way he actually wanted to steal anything — “and what does it have to do with taking on a Dragon?”

/\

Thorin had to admit that he was reluctantly impressed with the addition to the evening’s discussions. He had been very underwhelmed by their host when he had first arrived. If it hadn’t been for Gandalf, he would have stormed out as soon as he got a good look at Mr. Baggins ... well, that and they desperately needed a burglar, but the more he saw of him the more he wondered just what Gandalf was thinking. Mr. Piper, though, was a seam of very different quality ore.

Oh, he was as stunningly beautiful as Mr. Baggins (was that how Men saw those anorexic pointy-eared noses-in-the-air self-important Elves?), though more modestly dressed in his leathers. Too thin for real beauty, but his ruby hair and sparkling lapis lazuli eyes added to his childlike size to make any Dwarf that saw him instantly protective.

Not that he was likely to take any offer of protection well. By the knife on his belt, the bow and quiver slung on the backpack he had set aside, the way he moved, and the way he had obviously just sized up the company, Thorin suspected that this was the first Hobbit he’d seen that could take care of himself.

And he knew what questions to ask, and Thorin doubted he’d be able to get away with the partial answers and misdirections that dealing with Men had taught him. And Mr. Piper was patiently waiting for those answers.

Finally, Thorin reluctantly growled, “We seek the Arkenstone. With it, I can command the service of the army I will need to defeat the Dragon.”

“And this ‘Arkenstone’ is somewhere in Smaug’s horde?” At Thorin’s curt nod the Hobbit smiled cheerfully. “See? That wasn’t so hard, was it?” He ignored the stirring among the Dwarves as some took offense at his cheek, and looked toward to Gandalf.

/\

Gandalf was actually finding it somewhat difficult to focus on the discussion, so fascinating did he find that discussion’s interlocutor. He had never imagined that a Hobbit like Mr. Sakura (and where had that name come from?) Piper could possibly exist, not here in the Shire — outside of perhaps the Took. Worse, it had been too long since he had visited the Shire, or even west of the Misty Mountains. In his absence Belladonna Baggins — his best source of information for happenings in the Shire — had died too young, and that long absence meant he hadn’t had the opportunity to cultivate a new one.

Not that he had truly needed a source before now, beyond a chance to rest his soul among a simpler, happier people that looked on him with a mildly tolerant suspicion rather that awe — to delight in their small affairs and forget about the fate of all of the peoples of Middle Earth for a time.

But as a result he had been blindsided time and again: by the too-early death of his friend; by the changes in her son from an adventurous youngling always running off on the mini-adventures possible for the very young to the staid, satisfied, settled mature Hobbit’s Hobbit; and then by the existence of Bilbo’s very unusual friend, and the obvious trust Bilbo put in him. It had become rapidly obvious that if Sakura wasn’t satisfied with the answer to the equally obvious question, then Bilbo wouldn’t be going.

Then he got blindsided yet again.

Sakura leaned back in his chair and gazed speculatively at the wizard for a few moments before asking, “Why you?”

“I beg your pardon?”

“Why are you involved in this?” He waved at the numerous Dwarves. “Their motivation is obvious, but you?”

“And why wouldn’t I be involved?” he asked. “Is it not a worthy quest?”

“Certainly,” Sakura agreed. “But while I’ve heard all about the wonderful fireworks of Gandalf the Wizard from the Hobbits, the rangers’ tales of Mithrandir — the Gray Wanderer — are rather different. You are a busy man, and however powerful you may be a day for you is as long — or as short — as it is for us. You wouldn’t be a part of a quest this long without a reason. So what is it?”

Intrigued, Gandalf cocked an eyebrow. He’d caught the reference to ‘the’ Hobbits, as if Sakura wasn’t one, however covered his feet had been with fiery fur-like hair when he’d walked through the door. And then there was the mention of the rangers — there were Hobbits that knew of their guardians just beyond their borders, but they were few. Yes, this Hobbit was definitely a mystery, but he was also right ... there was only so much time in a day, and he was likely one mystery that the wizard wouldn’t have time to explore for months, perhaps years.

A regretful Gandalf sighed softly, before answering. “I, too, am concerned about the Dragon,” he admitted. “There is an Evil rising in the world, and it is likely to strike from South and East. If Smaug is allied to that Evil, the results will be catastrophic.”

Sakura’s gaze sharpened, then he nodded. “And with Smaug gone and a King once again Under the Mountain — and almost certainly a refounded Dale — not only is a weakness in your defense eliminated but you’re stronger than ever.”

Then before the Wizard could respond he asked the question Gandalf had been expecting and trying to come up with an answer for. “So why Bilbo?” Gandalf thought he could see humor lurking in the Hobbit's eyes, reflecting in the lamp-light. “I know all about the two abiding flaws of wizards, but I also know all about Need To Know,” — (Gandalf could hear the capitalization) — “and I need to know.”

“And just what are a Wizard’s ‘two abiding flaws’?”

Yes, the impish grin that spread across Sakura’s face definitely was not feigned as he replied, “An unfortunate tendency to deal in half-truths and misdirections, and an equally unfortunate tendency to meddle.” Thorin snorted, remembering his encounter with Gandalf in Bree that had been the catalyst for their adventure, as several of the other Dwarves grinned, and Sakura’s smile broadened. “Well?” he asked again, laughter in his voice.

Gandalf chuckled ruefully for a moment — it had been a long time since someone had so thoroughly set him on his back foot, with a smile all the while — then shrugged. “I am afraid I don’t know,” he admitted.

“What?!” The exclamation burst from several throats, including Bilbo’s, but Thorin quieted them with a sharp glance before turning back to glare at Gandalf. “Explain,” he growled.

“Sometimes, when considering a problem, I receive ... premonitions, hints of what I will need,” Gandalf replied. “I expected the Elders to reject your call to assemble the armies to deal with the Dragon — you have not yet recovered from your losses outside the gates of the mines of Moria, and they will not wish to incur even more.” He paused when Thorin flinched — that battle had given the king in exile his title of ‘Oakenshield’ when he had lost his shield and picked up a wide oak branch to replace it, but it had also cost him his grandfather and younger brother. But when Thorin didn’t say anything the Wizard continued. “I knew that we would need the Arkenstone to give you the authority to overcome the Elders’ refusal, and so would need a burglar. While I was ruminating on who might fill that need, the thought of Bag End came to me with the crystal clarity of a true premonition.”

Before Thorin could respond, Sakura spoke up, his good cheer vanished. “Gandalf, your premonitions — do they give you new knowledge, or simply focus on what you already know that’s important?”

Gandalf looked over at the Hobbit, his interest again piqued at the question. “The latter,” he replied. “You are familiar with such foretellings?”

“No, not personally,” Sakura said, “but I had a friend that did.” He paused, eyes darkening with memory, then started when Bilbo laid a hand on his arm. He forced a smile for his friend, then refocused on Gandalf. “Jason hated them, said it was like finding anonymous letters in his mailbox, with no return address and full of cryptic nonsense — that he might only understand in retrospect, or never make sense of at all. But they did prove useful from time to time.

“But you said that your premonition involved Bag End, not Bilbo?”

“Yessss, I did,” Gandalf said slowly, realizing where Sakura was going. From the way Thorin straightened, so did he. And so did Bilbo, from the way the son of his old friend seemed to shrink down in his seat.

“And you didn’t know about me,” Sakura said. At the choking sound coming from Bilbo, he gripped his friend’s hand for a moment before unfolding the contract. “It seems you have your burglar.”

Chapter Text

The poll results over at FF.net are in, and with 36 votes they were:

 

  1. Phoenix Rising - 11 votes
  2. End of the Island Way - 9 votes
  3. Robin Red-Tressed - 8 votes
  4. New Beginnings - 6
  5. The Rise of the Hunters & Final Mission - 1 vote each



So, going forward, I have decided to go with New Beginnings first because of how rabidly the plot bunnies for that story have been attacking me, already up as my newest story (with new content in the third chapter), The Unexpected Hobbit (not the most original titles, I know, but appropriate). That story will be replacing new additions to First Chapters - considering how long it will be before the next poll, I believe my time is better spent focusing on the stories I'm already writing.

Second will be Phoenix Rising, starting up when I finish The Brothers' War. I suspect I'll even keep the chapter title for the story title. Third will be End of the Island Way, after whichever story finishes next. After that, I'll add some more chapters here and do another poll.

Chapter Text

“Mom, I’m fine! I’m just a little worn out, sheesh.”

A grimacing Katherine Pryde rolled her eyes as she strode through her bedroom door and barely restrained herself from slamming the door shut.

As soon as her door was closed the offended expression vanished. She sighed as she slipped her school backpack off her shoulders and dropped it beside her bed, then flopped down and stared up at her ceiling as minute after minute ticked by. The light coming through her bedroom curtains slowly shifted to red then faded to black, and still she lay there.

Finally, she got up and without bothering to turn on the light changed into her pajamas, turned back the bed sheets, and was just about to climb into bed when she hesitated, then reached down to the backpack still beside her bed. Unzipping the side pocket, she pulled out the pregnancy test she’d gotten from the school nurse and stared down at it. What little light there was from the street lights along her block wasn’t enough to let her see the result, but then, she didn’t need to and after a moment she hurled the test against the wall at the far corner of her room before climbing into bed. Pulling the sheets over her, she curled up on her side facing the wall.

It didn’t take her long to cry herself to sleep.

/\

In her dream she soared free as a bird over her home town, naked as the day she was born, smiling down at the people below pointing up at her — her parents, friends, teachers, people she passed by regularly on the street, though in her dream state no names came to mind — they were hers and she was theirs, and that was all she needed.

But the bliss began to shred as her school came into view. She slowed as she felt ... heavy, slow, as if the air around her was pressing in on all sides. She coasted to a stop high above the doors to the locker rooms and showers.

The door to the girls’ locker room opened and a handsome blonde boy stepped out. A name tried to force its way into her mind, but she pushed it away — this one she refused to acknowledge. He motioned to her to come down. She shook her head but he pointed at the ground, and suddenly she was falling, the ground rushing up toward her. He stepped underneath her with his arms spread wide to catch her —

And the world shattered, overwhelmed by a kaleidoscope of images, strangers and strange people, places she’d never been, mobs waving signs, a bed and herself without a stitch of clothing smiling down at her, running as explosions ripped the earth all around her, grabbing a girl with white streaks in her red hair framing her face and throwing them both off a building, laughing as a short but broad man with his dark hair lifting in waves on both sides threw a beautiful white-haired Black woman into a backyard pool and a young-seeming demon jumped away from the splashing water, bound and struggling as someone huge held her over an open pit full of yowling cats, flying toward a winged and burning man with a doll in front of her parting the fire surrounding them ... more and more memories of a life she didn’t recognize washing her away, and she shrieked as the riptide pulled her under.

/\

Ranma’s eyes shot open, and he instantly knew something had gone wrong. He should have been lying on a cold metal slab in a laboratory right out of Dr. Doom’s wet dreams, Phoenix sitting behind him with her hands on each side of his head. Instead he was in a bed, in a bedroom he was certain he’d never seen — from the posters of various hunks he could dimly see on the wall from the light coming through the frilly window curtains, he hoped a girl’s room. Because with his suddenly pitifully tiny ki reserves and as weak as he felt, he had a strong suspicion that he wasn’t in his own body.

He felt between his legs ... or rather between her legs, and sighed with relief — as bad as guys hitting on his girl form could be, guys hitting on his guy form gave him the willies, and he obviously wasn’t in his own body which meant there would be expectations for whatever body he had somehow ended up in. Though he had no idea how that was even possible, he hadn’t been supposed to end up in a body at all.

She threw back the bed covers and rolled out of bed, then looked around for the light switch ... next to the door, of course. Now able to see clearly, she pulled her hair forward and stared at the brown strands. Okay, I’m not in any variation of my girl form. So whose body am I in?

Looking around the room, she saw a picture frame on the dresser, a photo of a woman and a man, both smiling and neither familiar, and between them —

She snatched up the photo, staring down at the happily beaming girl between what had to be her parents, then dropped it back on the dresser as she looked around wildly. “Mirror, mirror, where’s a mirror ... ?”

Another door proved to be to a bathroom, and she stared at the too young but very familiar face framed by brown hair reflected in the mirror over the sink. “Oh. My. God.”

“What’s happening? Who are you!? Help!!!!”

Ranma slumped over the sink in gasping relief. Whatever had happened, she hadn’t killed one of her best friends.

/oOo\

The morning of the following day:

Ranma stared out the bus window, the countryside lit by the early morning light passing by unnoticed, their faint reflection showing a still face framing haunted eyes.

Finally, a bored and increasingly worried Kitty broke into her thoughts. “Ranma, I thought you said we can trust this Professor Xavier, that he can help us,”

“Oh, yeah, he the world’s most powerful telepath and a great guy, he’ll be happy ta fix this for us.”

“So what’s the problem?”

“The problem is he is a great guy.” Ranma sighed and leaned their forehead against the window. “He’s our own King Canute, ordering the tide ta stop rolling in, and the amazing thing is he actually manages ta make it work for awhile. But he fails in the end, and that failure kills him. And I get ta be the lucky guy that tells him the cause he’s dedicated his life to is a pipe dream.”

“Oh.” Kitty fell silent for a moment, then asked, “How did we meet?”

Ranma smiled at the abrupt change of subject; he had always been able to count on Kitty to try and lift his spirits, and it seemed that wasn’t something she’d grown into later. “That won’t be for a few years, assuming it goes the same way this time. You guys had gotten a little too full a’ yourselves, and so the Professor asked Logan ta bring in someone that wasn’t a mutant to kick your asses. Ole Fireplug went looking for my pop and decided I’d be even better, being around your age and all, and I never went back.”

Kitty giggled, though she wondered how Ranma had beaten her. Granted she didn’t know anything about fighting, but remembering how they had left her home by walking through the wall and on empty air down to the ground, she couldn’t see how that future Ranma had been able to touch her. But before she could ask, Ranma’s actual giggles joined her mental ones.

“It was a bit of pot and kettle, though — when I got my own ass handed to me a few weeks later by the villain of the week you guys didn’t let it go for a month!”

Kitty’s giggles turned into outright laughter. “Needed a taste of your own medicine, did you?”

“Oh, yeah, right now I’m an arrogant jerk. It’s gonna take some hard shots ta knock that outta me.”

“Is that why you said having you pop into my head was better than what you’d hoped for?”

“Yeah, along with getting there faster and not risking bringing the whole Nerima mess with me; by the time I showed up first time it was dying down, right now it’s just getting started. Besides, the original plan was just to give the younger me my memories, including our decision to have him go talk to the prof, and hope he’d decide ta go along. This way, I can actually do the talking.”

“Well, you’re going to be doing the talking pretty soon, we just passed the ‘Welcome to Bayville’ sign.”

“Right, showtime.” Ranma got up out of their seat to grab their backpack from the overhead bin.

/oOo\

Ranma sighed with relief, unclamping her fingers from the armrests of the chair she occupied in front of Professor X’s desk as she ‘felt’ his mental intrusion ease itself out of the mind she was currently sharing with Kitty. As best she could tell the telepath was already as skilled as when she’d known him, but she had never liked allowing anyone inside her head however much she liked them.

But then she opened her eyes and bolted to her feet at the sight of Professor X slumped in his wheelchair, pale and with sweat beading his bald head. She’d known he’d take it bad, but not this bad! She yelled, “Logan, get your butt in here!” The doors slammed open as the burly Canadian bulled through them with adamantium claws extended (she’d known he’d be there, as suspicious as he’d been when he’d let her and Kitty in at the front gate after she’d demanded to see Professor Xavier), but she was already crouched down by the desk clutching the Professor’s hands. “Professor, are you all right? Professor!”

Even as Logan retracted his claws and rushed over, Professor X drew a shuddering breath and pushed himself upright. Forcing a smile, he squeezed Ranma’s hands then pulled his hands away to straighten his jacket and turtleneck shirt. “I’m fine, Logan, I just received some very bad news.”

“You sure? You don’t look all right to me.”

“I’m sure. I’ll be discussing the news with you and Ororo after dinner. For now, let me finish my meeting with Miss Pryde, here.” Then when Logan cast a suspicious eye at the young brunette rising to her feet, added, “Miss Pryde will likely be joining us at that time, and I suspect will be a student here. You will have plenty of time to become acquainted.”

Logan hesitated, then shrugged. “Whatever you say, Chuck,” he said, then headed for the door, shooting Ranma another hard look before closing the doors.

Ranma sat down again. “I ... I’m sorry, Professor —” she started, but broke off when he shook his head.

“It isn’t your fault, child ... Ranma. Your past is as it is, and all I can do is salute the courage of both you and the others that carried on after my failure ... including the brave young woman whose younger mind you are currently sharing.”

“Yeah, about that, what can ya do ta help?” Ranma eagerly asked. “Kitty’s been great, but she needs her life back — we had ta leave her home before her parents woke up, there was no way I was going to be able ta act like her. You need back in to take a look at that?”

“No,” he said, “I examined the nature of your joint occupation before searching your memories, to verify that it would be safe. But perhaps we should take this to your mindscape, so that Miss Pryde can join in the discussion.”

“Good idea.” A moment later Kitty appeared standing next to the other chair in front of the desk. “Wha ... ?” Ranma looked around. “We’re in our mindscape?” The transition had been so smooth! And everything in the office looked the same....

“Yes, Ranma, we’re in your mindscape,” Professor X replied. “I thought this office would be appropriate as neutral ground.”

“This is so cool!” Kitty squealed. She rushed over to the shelves on one wall and grabbed a book, then pouted as she put the book back. “Aw, there’s no words!”

Ranma chuckled, and Kitty turned around and gasped. “Ranma, what’s wrong?”

“What?” Ranma looked down at the costume he’d come up with when he’d joined the X-Men (black pants and red top with the yin-yang symbol on the back made out of elastic materials, hot and cold spray mechanisms for changing forms), then up at Professor X, confused.

Professor X said, “You’re fluctuating between your male and female forms. It seems that over the years you have kept separate self-images for each form, but become equally comfortable with both. Interesting.”

“Meh, whatever. You get used to anything, if you hafta live with it long enough.” He looked over at a gobsmacked Kitty and grinned. “Sit down, I’ll tell ya about it later.” If there is a later. Refocusing on Professor X, she said, “So, what’d you find?”

Professor X steepled his fingers, looking thoughtful. “I’m uncertain how to explain this, so far as I know nothing like it has ever happened before.” He focused on Ranma. “The plan you and Jean came up with worked almost entirely as planned. What you failed to take into account was how the ‘distance’ in time weakened the probe you sent back — weak enough that your younger self was able to reject it.”

Switching his attention to Kitty (still standing by the shelves), he continued, “And that, Miss Pryde, is where you came in. When the probe linked to Ranma’s memories ‘bounced’, it sought out his next most trusted person — and in that future there is no one Ranma trusts and respects more than you. Since in your case there was no overlapping of memories you found yourself overwhelmed.”

Kitty shivered as she remembered that terrifying kaleidoscope of disjointed images, then froze as she remembered one scene in particular — the one involving her, and her lack of clothing. We were ... !? she started to wonder before cutting herself off. She dropped her eyes, her cheeks blazing red.

Whoa, I wonder what set that off? Ranma wondered. There were any number of memories she could think of that would do it, especially considering how ... protected ... this younger Kitty seemed to be. To get the attention off her and give her a chance to recover, he hastily said, “And since Kitty got the whole package instead a’ the memories the younger me doesn’t already have, I got sucked along for the ride, right?”

Professor X hesitated then sighed, his sympathetic expression setting off alarms in both Kitty and Ranma’s minds. “No, Ranma, I am afraid that part of your plan worked perfectly, only your memories came with the probe,” he quietly said. “But when that torrent of memories overwhelmed Miss Pryde, she suffered a psychotic break ... a fortunate one, without it her mind might well have been destroyed.”

Ranma stared at the Professor, struggling to grapple with what she’d just heard. “Are ... are you saying that I’m a figment of Kitty’s imagination?” he demanded.

“Oh, no, you are an entirely separate personality, as real as her original one,” Professor X hastily replied. “It’s just that you did not personally experience any of the memories that your personality is based on — two minds sharing a single soul, as my friend Steven would say.”

Ranma stared at him for a moment, then forced a grin. “Yeah, that’s something the Doc would say, he likes ta spout off mystic mumbo jumbo, makes him look all mysterious.”

“You know Dr. Strange?” Professor X asked, raising an eyebrow.

“Yeah, met him for the first time in this office a few months after moving here. Ya called him in ta see if he could get rid a’ the curse.” Ranma shrugged. “No luck, but there never was — Jusenkyo is some really powerful magic. So what d’we do about it?”

“I could merge your memories, heal the break,” he hesitantly offered.

Ranma shook her head. “No, that’d kill Kitty, it’d end up being all me,” She shot Kitty an apologetic glance. “I’ve got years on her, I’m more ... forceful, she wouldn’t have a chance.” She took a deep breath, then giggled when she realized what she’d done — a mental construct manifested in a mindscape, needing to breathe? Waving off the curious looks, she said, “So let’s go the other way. You can look through my ... through Ranma’s memories, figure out the important stuff, then wipe the memories and let —”

“No!” Kitty stalked away from the shelves to lean over the young woman, a hand planted on each of the chair’s armrests. “I don’t care what you are or how you were created, I am not letting my best friend die!”

“But ... but Kitty, you don’t even know me, we just barely met yesterday morning! And if we don’t merge and I stick around, you’ll never have a private moment for the rest of your life,” Ranma protested. “D’you really want a guy you’ve known less than a day watching everything you do?”

Kitty blushed beet-red again, but stoutly asserted, “Maybe I don’t know you very well, but you apparently know me very well ... at least the girl I could become — and I think I’d like to become that girl again. As for having a boy watch everything I do....” She let go of an armrest and reached up to pull a thick, fiery-red strand of hair forward where Ranma could see it. “You don’t look much like a boy to me. You’ve stopped switching between forms.”

“I have?” Ranma grabbed the strand and watched it for a long moment, then looked down at her breasts — no, they didn’t seem to be going away.

Kitty straightened and stepped around so that she could put one hand on Ranma’s shoulder while facing Professor X. “Professor, could you set things up so that we can hand control back and forth? And have our own mindscape?”

“The first would be simple enough,” the Professor agreed, “but the second the two of you would have to learn yourselves ... with my help, of course.”

Ranma quietly asked, “Kitty, are ya sure?

Kitty looked down at her and nodded with a grin. “Yes, I’m sure. Welcome to my life, as screwed up as it is at the moment.”

A misty-eyed Ranma grinned back, then nodded firmly to Professor X. “Do it.”

The Professor considered the two girls for a long moment (wondering if Ranma realized that her mental avatar had been steadily growing younger since learning what she was), then nodded. “Very well. And let me say how pleased I am to make the acquaintance of two such brave young people. It will be an honor to have you as members of my X-Men.”

The office seemed to go watercolor-soft and fade, then snapped back into focus. Kitty found herself sitting in the seat Ranma had occupied in front of the Professor behind his desk. “Whoa, that was freaky,” she said, shivering, then gasped in shock. “I can speak!” She lifted her hands, stared at them as she twisted them, wiggled her fingers. “I’m in control!”

“A’ course ya are. Like I said, Professor X’s the best.”

“Thank you,” the Professor said. “But let us see if the remainder of my fix has taken. Ranma, try to push yourself forward. Miss Pryde, you should feel the pressure; relax, don’t try to resist.”

Kitty relaxed as instructed, and found herself once again a passenger in her own body.  She ‘pushed forward’ and again found herself in control as Ranma gave way. The two switched several more times, Kitty’s grin growing wider each time she took control. “Yes! We’re set, twin.”

Twin? I guess so, of the Siamese variety. We gonna marry different people like they did, or be polygamists instead?”

Professor X chuckled at a sputtering Kitty’s furious blush, then sobering, said, “Miss Pryde, now that you are once again capable of taking control, it is time to call your parents. By now they must be frantic.”

Kitty paled, but nodded, then paused. “Uh ... Professor, I need to talk to Ranma alone about something first.”

“Call me Ranko — Ranko Pryde, I guess. Ranko’s the name I ... the name Ranma uses when female and pretending to be someone else, and I’m not really a Saotome.”

“Of course,” the Professor replied, then raised his voice. “Logan!”

The door opened as the same burly man stepped into the room. “Yeah, Chuck?”

Please escort Miss Pryde to the library and give her some privacy. Miss Pryde, I will join you and we can call your parents from there ... shall we say in fifteen minutes?”

“That would be fine, Professor,” Kitty replied, rising to her feet and following Logan out of the room.

Professor X waited until the door closed then slumped in his wheelchair, abruptly looking every one of his years. But after a few minutes he sighed, then resolutely straightened and picked up his desk phone’s handset and dialed a number and waited.

After ringing for several minutes, the other end picked up. A gravelly voice said, “Professor, when I gave you this number I never really expected you to use it.

“Nor did I, Director, nor did I,” Professor X replied. “But new information has just come to light that we need to discuss ... face to face, and privately.”

There was a long moment of silence, then Fury said, “I’ll arrange it, call you when I have the details. Bring Logan.

“I will, along with a young girl. It is especially important that you know of her ... and that no one else does.”

Another long moment of silence, then, “Now you’ve really gotten me curious. I’ll be seeing you within the next few days.” The line went dead.

/\

Kitty walked along one of the bookcases in the library, reading the titles. She could tell that this was the mansion’s public library rather than the Professor’s private — those titles she recognized from previous exposure were written for a general audience, meaning she could read them without a problem even without having graduated from High School, yet. She suspected the rest were the same.

“The Professor’s gonna be here soon,” came Ranko’s unwelcome reminder, “whatever you’re gonna tell me it has ta be quick.

Kitty sighed, suddenly nervous again — scared, really. She turned away from the shelves and walked over to a window seat, with a view through the window of bushes between the mansion and a sidewalk, then an expanse of lawn all stretching to the estate’s outer wall.

She stared out at the lawn for a few minutes as she gathered her courage, then silently asked, “Ranko, the other Kitty, the one you knew — and don’t say it wasn’t you, it was — did she ever say anything about a baby? Did anyone else that knew her before you met her?”

“No....” Ranko replied hesitantly. “You ... you aren’t saying you’re pregnant, are you?”

“Yes. And now, so are you.”

Chapter Text

T.A. 2964, sixteen years later:

As the small caravan of Dwarves came out of the patch of woods, Balin shifted on his pony to look around and nodded in approval. As a Dwarf he had no real idea of growing crops, of course, at least not those that grew under the sun, but the fields around the castle up on the hill were as golden as those he had passed by in the Shire and he approved of the industry shown by the men, women, and children just as busy harvesting them as the Hobbits had been. Of course, considering this was a community of mixed races with many of its inhabitants from Bree, many of those children could be Hobbits themselves, Sakura’s letters had commented that Hobbits in her new home didn’t run to fat as much as in the Shire so it would be harder to tell them apart.

The road the caravan was on passed between several of those fields, and here and there Men of both sexes and all ages (and yes, from the slightly pointed ears some of those children were actually Hobbits) stopped to watch the Dwarves pass by before returning to their labors, a few waving a greeting that Balin returned, and then they were through the fields and the elderly Dwarf only had eyes for the castle and the new, unfinished wall his people were building for the West’s newest—and youngest, he thought—king. King Aragorn II Elessar, when being official, Strider when not, and Estel among his closest and oldest friends (both by age and length of acquaintance). From what Tharkun had said, the capital of the refounded Kingdom of Arnor would have been considered quaint by the inhabitants of even a small duchy in the kingdoms of the South, but the news of the new kingdom—and who its king claimed to be—had spread far and wide and already, only sixteen years after its founding, it was larger than Dale had been before the Dragon, with more newcomers coming every year looking for a new start. Far too many to fit into the castle the Dwarves had built the first year of the kingdom’s refounding.

Hence, the new wall. And Balin had to wonder how long it would take before that wall became too constraining.

“You’re looking for Mama, aren’t you?”

Balin started at the sudden question, and looked down at the Hobbit child that had popped up out of nowhere, standing in the ditch beside the road—sex indeterminate from the clothes, the kind of clothing he’d expect on a ranger rather than a child (leather, tight enough to be difficult to be grabbed, loose enough to move in, fringes to allow water to drain), but female from her voice and her hair a fiery red that was still familiar after two decades. Smiling down at the bold child (much too bold for such a tiny and young youngling), he asked, “And why would I be looking for your mother?”

“ ‘Cause all the Dwarves that come here wanna see Mama.”

“Ahhh! Your mother wouldn’t be Sakura Baggins, would she?”

The child gave him the kind of look that all children knew, it seemed, that asked, ‘Just how dumb can adults be?’ The added “Well, duh!” was new to him, but its meaning obvious in context.

“And didn’t she teach you to be careful around strangers?”

“Yeah, but you aren’t strangers, you’re Dwarves!”

Balin’s laughter rumbled out and he shook his head. “I think your mother might believe differently. And did she teach you manners? What is your name?”

‘Oops!’ The child’s thought was clear as her gaze dropped and a hairy bare foot toed at a dirt clod. She mumbled, “I’m Miyoko.”

“And I am Balin, son of Fundin. Why don’t you lead us to your home and we’ll forget the discourtesy.”

Miyoko’s head shot up, eyes widening. “All of you?”

Laughter rumbling again, Balin shook his head. “No, just me and one other.” Looking up, he nodded to the caravan master. “Go on up to the castle, Gimli and I will rejoin you later or send a messenger if plans change.”

The caravan master nodded his acknowledgement, and Balin swung down from his pony as Gimli hopped down from a wagon before it could lurch back into motion and strode over to join them. Balin looked back down at their guide. “Lead on, My Lady,” he requested with an elaborate bow that had her giggling even as she led the pair along the road until it crossed with another at the outskirts of the town.

The new road circled the town, and Miyoko seemed to swell with pride as various children, both Hobbit and Man, called out to her asking what was going on (something both Dwarves were doing their best not to chuckle over). Balin was impressed, he’d read the reports and heard the stories of how well the new realm was doing but seeing that prosperity with his own eyes made it more real.

Then as the road continued its curve another Hobbit smial came into sight (smials, he thought he’d heard Hobbits call them) with a garden next to it and an unusually thin Hobbit matron in dirt-stained Ranger leathers on her hands and knees toward the end of one row, working alongside another tiny Hobbit child. He knew who that was even before Miyoko shouted “Mama! Mama!” and ran ahead.

Sakura’s head popped up and she pushed herself upright on her knees just in time to catch the charging child in a hug. As Miyoko babbled to her she looked over her daughter’s shoulder and her eyes widened at the sight of the two Dwarves walking toward her. In a moment she had gently put Miyoko down to one side and was charging forward herself, and Balin grunted as she leaped and slammed into him. “Balin! It’s so good to see you!”

Chuckling, he returned the embrace. “It’s good to see you too, ‘Little One’.”

Sakura huffed as she let him go so he could put her down, and stepped back. She glanced over at the grinning Dwarf to the side and slightly back, and her eyes widened again before growing slightly misty. “You look just like your father.”

Gimli’s grin vanished at the statement he’d heard to the point he was sick of it, but he bowed anyway. “Gimli son of Gloin, at your service.”

Sakura quirked an eyebrow but formally returned the bow. “Sakura Baggins at yours and your family.” Then her grin returning, she turned to lead them toward her smial, calling out to the child now standing in the garden and staring at the newcomers, “Jessica, no gardening when Hamfast or I’m not with you! Play with Miyoko, we’ll start again when my friends are gone, if Hamfast isn’t back yet.” Then looking over her shoulder: “Come in, you must be famished, I remember how much Dwarves can eat! Then once the meal’s out you can tell me what the King Under the Mountain’s First Advisor is doing here, and I can tell some stories of Gloin during the Quest.”

/\

“ ... so Gloin yells and dives in the river, then yells again—he’d already stripped down and that water was ice-cold!—the deer I’m stalking takes off like a wet cat, I’m turning so red it’s a surprise I don’t faint, and Kili falls over, he’s laughing so hard. So we end up going back to camp without deer for the stew, and Thorin tears a strip off Kili up one side and down the other—it turns out that after the first time I went hunting with Nori that royal busybody had quietly ordered the rest of the Company to not let me do that again. I guess he just couldn’t handle the thought of someone smaller than your average Dwarfling hunting by jumping on the deer’s back and cutting its throat, then jumping off when it falls. But for the rest of his life I could make Gloin blush just by mentioning how big and strong his ... muscles were.”

Balin was laughing so hard he was crying. So was Gimli, even if he was also blushing as hard as Sakura had watching his naked father diving into the river, so she considered her last story a rousing success ... the previous ones had been true and good, but too serious—Gloin’s son needed some stories of the human (dwarvish?) side of his father to go along with the ones about what a great man he’d been.

The laughter settled into the occasional chuckle as the three turned their attention to their mugs full of Bilbo’s excellent beer for a moment (a reacquired taste, but her husband had said that wine just didn’t seem appropriate for a frontier town), and a comfortable silence fell. Balin was smiling broadly enough for it to be seen through his beard, his eyes distant with past memories, and Gimli probably wasn’t aware that he was gently stroking the mithril mail wrapped in soft leather Sakura had pulled out of the trunk where she kept her mementos of the Quest. (The Dwarves would be taking it with them when they left to join their party, to show to the rest—all the Dwarves that visited the refounded capital of Arnor seemed to have heard of that masterpiece of Dwarvish armorsmithing and wanted to admire it.)

The comfortable silence stretched until Sakura shrugged her shoulders as if pushing away old memories and straightened in her seat. “So Balin, just what are you doing here? I would think that Thorin would want to keep you close to him. You can’t be here for a meeting of the Alliance, that would be at Rivendell and if there was anything important enough to call one outside of the usual annual get-together I would have heard about it from Estel. And if you’re traveling between Lonely Mountain and the Blue Mountains, you’ve added a couple weeks to your journey with winter coming on.”

Balin smiled but shook his head. “Actually, your last guess is the right one. The last of the Dwarves moving from the Blue Mountains to Erebor left this year, and between the way Men and Dwarves shed blood together in the Battle—and with the queen of Dale an Elf—Thorin thought he could get by without me for a while. So I was sent to our holdings in the Blue Mountains to clear up any final issues there and with the Grey Havens caused by the migration back to Erebor that might be left unresolved. We’re on our way back now. And winter won’t be a problem, Dwalin’s holding above Rivendell lets us go through the Misty Mountains instead of over them so winter isn’t an issue, and the Elven Road stays snow free in the hardest of winter. So the only part of our journey that might be a problem thanks to winter will be between

“As for why I’m here, just to visit an old friend for most likely the last time, since from your letters I doubt anyone will be able to knock you out of here with a hammer and chisel—not even blasting powder! As well, I wanted to introduce Gimli to someone that knew Gloin the man rather than Gloin the hero. Even those that have known us all our lives have trouble not looking at any of the survivors of the Quest through the image of the mythic heroes we’re fated to be, and we aren’t even dead yet. All Dwarves strive for a great name, but it’s a little ridiculous! You, though ...”

Sakura laughed softly. “Yes, ‘glorious destinies lead to glorious funerals’. I’ll take the mud of the riverbank over an exhibit at any royal court, however beloved I am.”

Gimli looked confused, but Balin chuckled before repeating the story Sakura had once told, during that first hard winter at Lonely Mountain after the devastation of Lake-town and the Battle of Five Armies, of the deep thinker of her own world’s history that had been asked to join a royal court and his response that he’d rather be a living turtle in the mud of a riverbank than a dead turtle all done up in festive bows on display at court. (‘Philophoser’ was the word she’d used, he thought—she said she didn’t know a word in Westron or Quenya for someone that spent all his time thinking deep thoughts; certainly the Dwarves didn’t have one.)

As Gimli chuckled at the thoroughly un-Dwarven story, Balin turned back to Sakura. “Since I’ve been on the road or at the Blue Mountains and Grey Havens for the almost the past year I’ve missed a few of your letters. How are things with you?”

Sakura leaned forward and refilled her mug, then offered the pitcher of beer to the other two and refilled their mugs when they accepted (careful to keep the hanging fringe of her leathers out of the remains of the quick cold meal she’d thrown together on the low table between them). “Let’s see, the last letter you would have seen was the one I sent at the beginning of summer last year?” At Balin’s agreement she stared thoughtfully into her beer. “Well, you already knew that Aragorn appointed Bilbo the chief of the inner ring patrols, but after Bildo died early last winter the Hobbits here chose him as our representative on the Council—”

“Turned it down again, did you?”

Sakura blushed at the interruption. “I’m not suited to that sort of position, you know that—I’m too opinionated. Besides, Estel agrees I need to train the children in the Family Art, so he’s accepted ...”

/\

Jessica grinned to herself as she crept through the smial. Their home sprawled deep into the hill with cross-corridors, bedrooms that circled hill so they could have windows, and storerooms in the center and back, most of them closed up with dust sheets over the furniture. (Mama had told her once that in the early days of Fornost’s resettlement their home had been where some new Hobbits lived until their own homes could be built.) That made it perfect for Hide and Seek, at least the way the Baggins played it—where instead of one person seeking and everyone else hiding, everyone both hid from and hunted each other. Man children couldn’t play Hide and Seek with Hobbits, and other Hobbits couldn’t play it with the Baggins children.

With her older brother Bungo helping with the harvest and older sister Sharon joining Lily’s band for the first time for their inner patrol, it was just her and her twin Miyoko, which cut down on the fun a bit but made it better too. Jessica wasn’t like her brother and two sisters. She didn’t want to get her own set of leathers, and her own bow and long knife and join the Rangers like her father; she wanted to stay home and work in the garden with Master Gamgee and her mother ... nothing gave her more pleasure than watching plants spring up and grow, and know she’d helped. Her siblings would tease her about that (though only when Mama and Papa couldn’t hear—Papa would be disappointed if he caught them, but Mama got angry).

Which made it so satisfying that when she and her twin played Hide and Seek she almost always won.

Though this time Miyoko was being extra careful, so far Jessica hadn’t gotten so much as a hint of where her twin might be and she’d been through most of the smial. There was no way that Miyoko would have snuck into the parlor where Mama was with her old friends, but where ... ?

Then she noticed a faint beam of light that meant Mama and Papa’s bedroom door was open a crack, and the shutters over their window was open. Creeping up to the door and peeking in, she finally saw her twin crouched by one of the trunks against the wall ... an open trunk, pulled under the window where the light was strongest.

Silently, she crept up behind Miyoko and tapped her on the shoulder, and shrieked when her twin shrieked and leaped for the ceiling. Miyoko glared down at her for a moment before beginning to laugh herself and dropped down to rejoin her. “Don’t do that!”

“But this time you made it so easy! What are you looking at?”

“Mama’s trunk of stuff from the Quest!”

Jessica’s humor instantly vanished, overwhelmed by fascination—Mama didn’t talk about the Quest much, her children had heard more from the Dwarves that visited occasionally. She joined Miyoko beside the trunk, peering into it. There as a cloak, a pair of boards tied together with leather cords, and ... “Is that Sting?”

“It must be!” Miyoko eagerly snatched up the blade and drew it from its scabbard, gasping in admiration as she watched the sunlight from the window play along the blade.

Jessica watched for a moment before pulling out the tied boards. She untied the cords and pulled them apart, and gasped herself at the sketch she found on a sheet of parchment flat in the middle. “It’s Mama!”

Miyoko slid Sting back into its scabbard before looking over Jessica’s shoulder at the images sketched: their mother, slimmer, younger, sitting on a stone wall wearing her chain mail and Sting’s hilt peaking up behind one shoulder, a Dwarf they didn’t recognize with his own armor and sword leaning on the wall beside her; another of her sitting on a platform with a Mannish girl on each side, children sitting on the floor below them ... one of the girls was a stranger, but the other ... “That’s Aunt Tilda! Isn’t it? She’s awful young.”

“Yes, it is ... I think.” Jessica gazed at the sketch for a few minutes, soaking in the images, then reluctantly pressed it between the boards again and retired the cords. “We need ta go, if Mama catches us we’ll be in so much trouble.”

She put the sketch back in the trunk and was just turning to take Sting from her twin when she noticed that the boards weren’t lying flat. Lifting them to peer underneath, she picked up the tiny leather pouch she found there.

“What’s that?” Miyoko asked as she put Sting back in the trunk.

“I don’t know.” Jessica untied the knotted cord keeping it closed, and spilled a ring into her palm.

“Mama’s ring? Why is that in the trunk?”

“It isn’t, she had hers on its chain around her neck when we were in the garden, like always. Do you remember a ring in any of Mama’s stories?”

“No ...”

“Me neither.” Jessica slipped it on one finger and held it up to the light shining through the window ... was it shrinking?

/\

“Mommy!”

Sakura jerked at her daughter’s shout and shot to her feet, whirling to stare toward the doorway for a moment before breaking into a run. She couldn’t imagine what could possibly threaten her daughter inside their own home, but Jessica was terrified!

She barreled around the doorway into the hallway and hesitated at the sound of approaching bare feet slapping against the wood floors. Where was her daughter head—? Her breath gusted out of her lungs as an unseen body slammed into her, knocking her off her feet. Her arms instinctively closed around the tiny invisible body pressed against her even as she fell backward.

“Mommy, make it stop!”

“Make what stop!? What happened!?” Sakura demanded from what sounded like her daughter lying on top of her.

“The eye! I put on the ring and—”

“Take it off, now!”

The body on top of her twisted, something tinkled across the floor, and a sobbing Jessica was lying on top of her, clutching at her leathers. Sakura sat up, shifting her daughter to her lap, and stared at the plain gold ring lying on the floor before looking up as Miyoko came barreling into the corridor and skid to a stop. Rising to her feet with Jessica in her arms, Sakura asked, “What happened?”

Jessica was too shaken to make any sense, but Miyoko told of finding Sakura’s keepsake trunk unlocked and how she and Jessica had looked through the contents ... how Jessica had found the ring in its own separate pouch, put it on and vanished, how Miyoko had heard her run screaming from the room. How she had been so stunned that she had just stood there until she’d heard her mother’s raised voice. By that point Miyoko had tears of shame streaming down her face, and Sakura crouched to look her daughter in the eye. “Miyoko, you shouldn’t have been looking through my trunk, but you couldn’t have possibly known that the ring would do that. I didn’t know, or I wouldn’t have left it there. And you had every right to be shocked by what happened. Now I’m going to be taking Jessica and the ring to the castle, so I need you to go to Aunt Bell and tell her that both me and your father are away and she needs to make sure that you and Sharon and Bungo are fed. Can you do that?”

Miyoko nodded shakily, and Sakura freed an arm to pull her into a quick hug. “Mama loves you. Now go, off with you.”

As Miyoko dashed out of the smial, Sakura sighed with relief as she straightened up, shifting Jessica into a bridal carry ... Hamfast’s wife would see to her other children, so she could focus on this disaster. “Balin, use a handkerchief to pick up that ring and stuff it in my pocket, then follow me and Jessica to the castle. Arwen hasn’t left for Rivendell yet so she can look at both then probably take both of us with her.”

“We will.” Balin carefully followed her instructions, then walked with her out of the smial. A completely confused Gimli trailed behind, left floundering at the sudden events, and his jaw dropped when as soon as she was out of the door Sakura leaped across the road and onto the roof of the opposite house! Then from that roof to the next and the next, vanishing from sight on her way to the castle.

Balin chuckled, ruefully shaking his head. “Didn’t believe the stories, did you laddie? Though she has been practicing. Come on, let’s get to the castle before she grabs Lady Arwen and rushes off to Lord Elrond.”