Ah My Goddess Fan Fiction / Ranma 1/2 Fan Fiction / Sailor Moon Fan Fiction ❯ A Tale of Two Wallets ❯ The Lore Master ( Chapter 19 )

[ Y - Young Adult: Not suitable for readers under 16 ]

A Tale of Two Wallets

(An Altered Destiny)

Written by Jim Robert Bader

Proofread by Shiva Barnwell

Nabiki paused in mid-stride and cocked her ear as if listening to a slight noise upon the breeze, but no sound had in fact reached her ears, which puzzled her greatly. She scanned the way behind and in front of her before reflexively looking up in the hopes that her iinazuke was about to make an appearance.

"Ranma?" she asked, more than a bit hopeful.

No reply, and no sound either, which only increased her nervousness as she was certain that someone was nearby watching her from concealment. She quickened her pace and started off on the course she had originally been heading, intending to meet up with Ranma at Doctor Tofu's clinic now that her classes were over. She fervently wished that she had insisted on Ranma waiting up for her to get done with her special projects, she would have felt a lot better in his company as lately she was becoming familiar with an undesirable sensation: being out of control of her situation.

She forced herself to calm down by taking some deep breaths to steady her nerves, then tried to relax and act as casually as she could, measuring the distance to the clinic, the number of steps that she would have to take and the number of eyewitnesses she might have to rely upon in case of an emergency. She wasn't totally without resources of her own, of course, having at least passable skills as a martial artist, so there was no reason to be nervous, nothing to be scared about, not like she was in any real danger and…

Abruptly she came to a halt finding a man standing in her path, a very tall man in flowing white robes that ended about knee level where a pair of black pants could be seen from beneath this. Nabiki raised the level of her gaze and saw a fairly handsome Chinese boy with long black hair, sporting very thick bottleneck glasses on his nose and looking at her in a way that made it obvious that she was the focus of his attention.

"You said the name Ranma," he said in perfect Japanese that was only mildly accented, "Do you know where I can find him?"

Nabiki checked the impulse to take a half step back from him and tried to get her heartbeat back under control as she gasped, "Ah…I might. Depends on whose asking."

"My name is Mou-Tsu," he replied, "And your name is Tendo Nabiki?"

"How do you know?" she gasped before she could think better about it.

The strange boy laughed, "I know many things, such as your use to me in obtaining what I am really after."

The boy unfolded his sleeves then made a quick gesture. Out of sheer instinct Nabiki turned her body sideways and so avoided a pair of looping chains that sought to ensnare her. She dropped to her knees and rolled to the side as the boy tracked her movements and prepared another attack. Nabiki rose back to her feet thinking quickly on how she could escape her attacker, who quite plainly was a martial artist and so by definition beyond her ability to cope with.

However she discovered, to her surprise, that the boy was not attacking. Instead he staggered as if struck a blow from an invisible opponent, followed by two others, and then he keeled over onto his face very slowly, quite evidently unconscious.

Nabiki stared at her downed assailant, wondering what had overcome him so abruptly when she heard a faint clicking noise. Very slowly she turned to glance back down the lane the way she had come but saw nothing, even as the clicking noise persisted.

And then…she just appeared from nowhere, an old woman with a walking staff resembling Cologne, only not the same Elder of Joketsuzoku. She was slightly taller, possibly just under four feet, but very thin and frail looking, and she wore a flowing robe identical to what Cologne wore, save for coloring and identifying markings. Her hair was also more grey than flowing silver and she walked with a pronounced limp, favoring her cane far more than Cologne ever did. Her eyes, when Nabiki met them, were clear and sharp, almost silver in coloration.

She came to a halt only a short distance from Nabiki then bowed with gravity, which Nabiki felt obligated to return in the same gesture. Once this was out of the way the old woman nodded gravely and said, "You favor your mother much more than your father. I can see in your face the very image of Tsukino Kimiko…or should I make that Tendo?"

"You…you knew my mother?" Nabiki gasped, taking in the old woman as several clues fit together forming a puzzle piece that she instantly placed, "You're that Elder I've been told to expect…Lotion…"

"I have that honor," the old woman said simply, "To both of your questions. I knew your mother but briefly during my last visit to Japan, and the striking resemblance between her and my granddaughter, Silk."

"Silk?" Nabiki frowned, "I don't suppose you'd mind telling me who she is?"

"All things in their proper place," the old woman replied, "I am Lo-Xion, an Elder of Joketsuzoku, and I am here at the request of the matriarch of my tribe who believes that you have some hidden potential worthy of exploration. As for my granddaughter…well that we will explore at another time. No doubt your father would prefer to be the one who explained these matters to you, and it would be rude not to offer him the chance, much though I believe that you are entitled to have your answers."

"Okay," Nabiki replied slowly, "So…you're here to test me, right? See if I'm some kind of Lore Master or something, whatever the heck that is."

"You have already been tested," Lotion replied, "That is why we are having this conversation and why…that," she sniffed in the direction of the downed Chinese boy, "Is presently taking a nap on the concrete. Pathetic what some people will stoop to in order to gain an advantage over their rivals. I would have thought such a thing beneath him, but evidently his desires have truly overruled his reasoning faculties."

"Who is he?" Nabiki asked, "He called himself…Mousse, or something like that…"

"Mou-Tsu is the great grandson of a very dear friend of mine," the Elder explained, "I've watched the boy for many years, only the last two he has spent abroad traveling from one country to the next in search of the Lore he believes will gain him his beloved Shampoo."

"Shampoo?" Nabiki gasped, "What has he got to do with her?"

"Far less than he desires," the old woman replied, then nodded forward, "Come, let us continue this way. I believe that your dearly intended is waiting for you at the office of the good Doctor. I will try and explain everything to your satisfaction, then perhaps you will answer a question or two that I have regarding you. Fair exchange, after all…isn't that how you like to put it?"

Nabiki swallowed, "Uh, yeah…I guess so," she turned and started forward, moderating her stride to make it easier on the old woman beside her, who lacked Cologne's tendency to pogo-stick her way from one place to the other…

Nabiki Journal Continues:

Well, I finally met the Lore Master, and she's nothing like what I expected. Oh sure she's old and looks like she's dried out in the sun slightly less than Cologne herself, and she's not as spry for some reason either. What she is, in words, is…impressive. I can't really put the feeling into words that I got when I was in her presence. There's just something about her that commands your respect, and not just because she somehow saved me from that Mousse character either.

Winding up in the presence of Elder Lotion like that made me wonder if the whole thing had been staged or something. After all the boy was obviously from the same tribe as Shampoo, and she had explained that there were male Amazons who held a station that-while hardly equal to female warriors-was commanding of respect, but the boy was about the same age as Ranma, and Lotion claimed that he had an interest in Shampoo, so I guess the whole thing really was a matter of happenstance. Shampoo later confirmed that Mousse was a problem for her, that they had known each other growing up and Mousse had formed an obsessive attachment that made him believe that he and he alone had a right to be "her one true beloved."

Well, I'm getting ahead of myself here, so let's just cut to Doctor Tofu's office. He was examining Ranma when the Elder and I entered, trying to determine the nature of his problem, I suppose. Of course Tofu-sensei had heard all about the Full Body Cat Tongue in his researches but beyond basic, general knowledge it was a technique that he himself had never directly mastered. He said that he did know of a pressure point called the Trueborn Tokyo Grandfather spot, so named because it could temporarily block the Cat Tongue, but that it could only be used once and would lose effectiveness thereafter.

To my surprise the old woman chuckled in obvious amusement, then explained herself by saying that it was very rare for her to meet a young man with as much clear knowledge of true medicine as Tofu was displaying. She introduced herself then asked a few questions that seemed rather pointless at the time, having to do with medical diagnosis. Tofu answered her forthrightly and she nodded in apparent satisfaction. He then asked about her limp and she said something dismissive about it, then turned her focus towards Ranma, who was looking at her as if expecting her to sprout bat wings and a tail.

The old woman read his expression at a glance and said, "You hardly need to give me the evil eye, child. It should be plain enough to look on me that I am nothing like Cologne, though I can hardly blame you for judging all Elders by her example."

"So, you're that Lore Master that Shampoo's been telling us about, huh?" Ranma asked, relaxing only by a fraction as it was plain that the old woman was not about to attack him.

"I am THE Lore Master of the Joketsuzoku," the Elder said with great dignity and bearing, then more casually she added, "I've taught more young apprentices than you have years to your credit, your fiancée being only the latest in a very long line."

Of course Ranma got very protective at that point, saying, "Nabiki don't need to have nothing to do with you if she don't want you, you got that? Don't try forcing her to do any stupid tricks…"

"Why would I want to do that?" Lotion asked reasonably, as if she found the question absurd, "You think I want an apprentice who is unwilling? With the knowledge that I have to share, that would be a very dangerous thing, not to mention utterly reckless. As I have said, I am not our current Matriarch, her ways are not my own, which should be obvious once you get to know me better. It is up to Tendo Nabiki to decide whether or not she will accept me for her teacher."

"What?" I said incredulously, "You're giving me a choice?"

"Choice is a rare enough thing in our existence," the woman replied with an enigmatic expression, "Often the choice is made for us by circumstances. You already know everything that you will ever need to know in order to be a Lore Master, you simply don't know that you know it. It is my role to show you what you need to understand in order to make use of your innate potential."

"Huh?" I replied, trying to sort out from that explanation just what the heck she was saying.

Of course that was the point when Shampoo showed up wanting to see how Ranma was doing, but the minute she laid eyes upon Lotion it was as if she had momentarily forgotten about me and Ranma being in the same room with her. She looked down at Lotion and said a very faint, "Elder?"

"Hello, Xian-Pu," Lotion pronounced the name as if bestowing respect on someone who deserved it, "It has been a while…you grow more into the image of your mother every day. Perhaps one day you may even surpass your great grandmother in beauty…"

"What?" Ranma reacted, "The dried up old toadstool?"

"Do not judge by appearances, boy," Lotion chided, though I could not tell if she were approving or disapproving of Ranma's obvious disrespect of a fellow Elder, "In her day Kho-Lon was considered the most beautiful woman in Joketsuzoku, and legend says that she had a very gentle disposition. Life may have embittered her and driven her to cynicism and hardship but her path has made her one of the greatest warriors of Amazon history. You can learn a lot from that one if you have the time and patience."

"Elder," Shampoo began, then seemed to hesitate before mustering the courage to say, "You know how defeat Full Body Cat Tongue pressure point?"

I saw Lotion give Shampoo a very sharp appraisal while both Ranma and me looked at our purple haired companion in surprise, hearing her openly take a position directly contrary to her great grandmother. Lotion finally answered the question after a suitable pause and said, "I do, child, but I have an arrangement with your great grandmother that I will not interfere with her instruction of the boy. You'll simply have to find another way of helping your husband with his problem, though for my part your intentions do you credit."

"Then there is a way to beat the Cat Tongue?" Ranma asked hopefully, then balled a fist and said, "I'm gonna find it no matter what it takes! No way am I gonna let that old ghoul bully me into doing what she says! I'll make her give me that Phoenix pill, or find the pressure point that can let me change back to a guy whenever I want!"

"Good luck to you, and I mean that sincerely," Lotion replied as she turned away, giving me a coy look that as much as said that Ranma had impressed her for his stubborn dedication to principles, if not necessarily for his wits in ushering this challenge.

We left the clinic together and Lotion set a pace beside me that kept me from walking up front alongside Ranma. Shampoo happily took his arm and leaned against him as they walked side by side while I felt a stab of the same jealousy I'd felt the night before, as if I was afraid that she might try and take Ranma away from me again like before. I don't mind saying that Shampoo still scares me sometimes, and makes me feel like inferior goods that have been thrust unwillingly upon Ranma.

"So," I began, as much to divert my attention from the spectacle in front of me as to satisfy my curiosity, "What exactly is a Lore Master? How does it differ from a War Master, for example…?"

"Like night is to day," Lotion replied, "I used to be a warrior in training before the Lore Master before me took me under her wing and showed me a vision of the life that I was destined to live. I have followed her teachings ever since and have never regretted it. Being a Lore Master is the closest any of us ever come to becoming masters of our destiny, yet to wield the power is to become as much its servant as its wielder."

"Power?" Ranma asked, separating himself enough from Shampoo to glance in our direction.

"As in its most basic definition, boy," Lotion replied, "The ability to achieve an objective. Energy is nothing beyond the potential that exists in all of nature. Moving it around is a matter of changing its status from inactive to full active, from passive to aggressive."

"You mean like a battle aura?" Ranma asked, "One minute you're calm, the next you go into action?"

Lotion smiled as she glanced up at me, "I like him. Your fiancé has a very good grasp of the basics. I wonder if Cologne knows what sort of a tiger she has taken on for her apprentice?"

Ranma seemed to swell up with pride at this compliment, and I decided for once not to deflate him as I saw the mischievous gleam in the old woman's eyes that as much as said that her comment had been calculated for just that reason.

"Lore Masters," Lotion began again, "Are preservers of the Lore of the Amazons. We safeguard a vast treasury of knowledge that has been gleamed throughout the ages. What we know has been sought by our enemies, feared and respected by our neighbors and a good deal of the reason why the government officials have never seen fit to impose their will upon our province."

"You mean stuff like the Bakusai Tenketsu and the Kachu Tenshin Amaguriken?" I asked and watched Shampoo glance nervously off into the distance as I said this.

Lotion just smiled and said, "Mere tricks that any halfway competent warrior could perform. Our ways are vast and mysterious, defying the understanding of any mere outsider, but it is my belief that you could come to one day understand if you choose to accept my teaching."

"Let's assume for the moment that I do," I said speculatively, "What's in it for me? I gain the power to crush my enemies, see them driven before me, and hear the lamentations of their security exchange brokers?"

"Something like that," the old woman smiled, then quoted something back at me, "You are familiar with the saying: 'That which does not kill us makes us stronger?'"

"Uh…yeah," I said noncommittally, "What about it?"

"Sheer poppycock," the Elder said dismissively, "You don't need the experience to make you strong, what you need to learn to harness the strength that is already inside you. The ability to endure hardship comes from knowing who and what you are, in believing that you can triumph over any adversity with the means at your disposal. A Lore Master is one who understands that this strength is always there to call upon in times of need. A War Master merely believes that strength needs to be tempered like the edge of a good sword, often by hard experience that forces us to dig down deep and draw upon our hidden potential. The difference is like Water to Fire, the passive to active, accepting what you already know or needing to have that knowledge confirmed by an experience that brings it out of us, as in a crisis."

"So that which does not kill us…?" Nabiki began, recalling the quote from Nietzsche.

"Makes us hungry," the old woman replied, "So why don't we drop by the Nekohanten for a bite to eat, and later you can introduce me to the rest of your family. I'm sure your fathers will each be thrilled to know that I am back in Nerima."

"Huh?" Ranma reacted, "Back in Nerima? You've been here before?"

"Several times," Lotion said, "It is quite an interesting story, for another time I am afraid. I'm sure when the time is right you will understand."

"Understand what?" Ranma asked, as thoroughly bewildered as I was at that point by the Elder's notions of a clear explanation.

Now that I think about it I can remember pretty clearly what she said as if I had a tape recorder playing back in my head. I've always had a pretty good memory, but the old woman's words are clear as a bell, as though my mind was somehow compelled to remember. I think it was the way she spoke with clarity, saying things that didn't make a lot of sense to me at the time, but which have that annoying tendency to lodge in the brain and repeat themselves over and over until I can make them fit into some kind of a pattern.

Well, at any rate, we wound up at Shampoo's restaurant where we were served a "complimentary free meal" of steaming hot Ramen prepared to our preferences. Confidentially I suspect the real reason that it was free was because Cologne did not think it proper to charge Shampoo's "Airen" for the privilege of dining with her great granddaughter. I wasn't one to argue the point, and the meal was good, almost up to Kasumi's standard of perfection.

As I ate, however, I reflected on the things that Lotion had been telling me over the past hour, things that needed further reflection, such as the revelation that my father had a past history with the Amazons that he had not seen fit to share with me or my sisters. I intended to pursue the question of Silk with him at my earliest convenience.

Another thought of a more immediate nature, however, concerned Cologne herself. I saw at once the look that she and Lotion exchanged when we arrived at the Nekohanten, and afterwards how they acted around one another. It was polite but strained, a feeling of uneasiness and a sense that each one barely tolerated the others presence but were making the effort at getting along in spite of their personal feelings, which definitely were somewhere between hostility and outright loathing. I thought on what the old woman had said about her Matriarch and decided that the past history she had referred to was anything but pleasant. Considering that Cologne regards Ranma as her defacto pupil, and Lotion has just claimed me for her student, I can't see that anything but trouble will result if they choose to use the both of us as pawns for their own personal antagonism.

Still and all the two did seem to share a mutual concern once it was revealed that the fellow with the glasses was in the neighborhood. Shampoo had explained that Mousse was a childhood friend who had taken a possessive interest in her very early and refused her later rejection, and while she had not seen him in two years she still remembered fighting with him constantly just to get him to leave her alone. Cologne seemed especially grave and let slip the fact that Mousse was from a family that she personally considered to be in bitter rivalry with her own, though she would not go into the details. I caught from Lotion a glance that as much as said that she was privy to the details of that story, but neither Elder would answer a direct question on the subject, so I decided at last to quietly drop the matter…at least for the present.

Fat chance of it remaining dropped, however, seeing as how Mousse turned up about that time and declared in loud terms how glad he was to see Shampoo once again. The cad actually tried to glom onto her, but Shampoo sent him into a wall for his efforts. This did not seem to discourage the boy for very long, however, as he recovered in next to no time then stated his intent to have her for his wife, once he had dealt with the little matter of a rivalry that had been the talk of their village when he went looking for her a few weeks back.

I'd seen Ranma tense up when Mousse had first appeared at the restaurant, having already gleaned from my terse explanation that he had tried to hassle me before, but now I saw him get up and say, "What's the matter with you, Jerk? Can't you take a hint? The lady said she didn't want anything to do with you…and what the heck was the idea with you bothering Nabiki?"

"Ah," the tall boy adjusted his glasses, "And you must be Saotome Ranma. In the village they had called you the outsider girl who had bested Xian-Pu, but when she returned in disgrace many weeks later it was revealed of your deception! You only pretended to be female in order to challenge my beloved by use of a disguise!"

"Hey!" Ranma protested, "I never tried to fool nobody! It wasn't my fault what happened…"

"So you say," Mousse said before assuming a particularly menacing pose worthy of a villain in some melodrama, "But now you seek to claim my future wife while courting another woman! Such disgraceful behavior! How immortal and uncommon! To dishonor Xian-Pu like that…"

I decided to get involved here before the shouting match turned into an inevitable brawl and said, "If you think I'm being put upon, then why did you try to attack me earlier?"

"Nothing personal," the boy replied, "I simply thought that you could prove useful in forcing Ranma's hand and making him renounce his hold over my beloved…"

"What?" Ranma cried, and I could almost swear that he started to glow blue at that moment, but it was Shampoo who confronted Mousse first, slapping him in the face before the boy had time to erect his defenses.

"Stupid Mou-Tsu!" she angrily declared, "Who ask you to interfere in Xian-Pu's business? You no threaten Nabiki or Ranma! You stay away or this time you really get hurt!"

Mousse was feeling the side of his cheek as he looked at Shampoo with the sort of expression a puppy gives its owner when hit with a rolled up newspaper. Into this silence Ranma broke in, "You tried to kidnap Nabiki to use her against me? I'll kill you if you lay one hand on her, you got that?"

Mousse found it much easier dealing with Ranma instead of the angry Amazon in front of him, "So, that's how it is with you? One woman is not enough for you, Saotome? Perhaps there is man enough in you, then to risk a small wager?"

"Wager?" Ranma asked in surprise.

Mousse thrust a finger at him and declared, "A man-to-man fight to prove which one of us is the better man! The winner will have…"

"Not Shampoo," Cologne hastily interjected, "You know the law as well as any Amazon, Mou-Tsu. To become her husband you would have to defeat Xian-Pu directly, and you have consistently failed to do this from the time of your first battle."

"I was only three when that happened!" Mousse protested.

"Three or three hundred, the law is the law," Cologne said gravely, "Your performance just now does not inspire any confidence that your skills have sufficiently improved to make you Xian-Pu's husband, and besides, you have yet to see my true son-in-law in action."

"My skills have improved far more than you imagine, Old Woman," Mousse declared with fists clenched, and then he thrust a finger in my direction, "Very well, then we will duel for that woman instead! If I win she becomes mine, and you will have to negotiate for her hand if you wish me to restore her to you!"

"What?" I blurted when Ranma cried, "Nothing doing! You ain't touching her, you got that? Or Shampoo for that matter! Besides, Nabiki is my iinazuke…!"

"Besides which," Lotion spoke up as I found her suddenly at my side, "I have a personal interest in this one, and it simply wouldn't do to have you raising a hand against her."

"Who said anything about threatening the girl?" Mousse shot back, "I wasn't going to hurt her the first time when you interfered, you dried up old monkey!"

I must have blinked my eyes or something because I could swear the old woman never left my side, but with a gesture using her stick Mousse suddenly doubled over, then fell forward onto his knees before his head snapped back as though someone had sucker-punched him. As he was doubled over more than ten feet away I had to think that the old woman had either thrown something or had a lot more reach with that thing than seemed probable because she leaned on her staff once again and eyed Mousse with a very cross expression.

"That wasn't very intelligent, or respectful," she said simply, "And as you well know I am your Oath Mother from the time that I helped deliver you into this wretched life you now lead. You know full well what I am capable of doing to you should you cross me in this matter, and I am telling you that this girl is no concern of yours. If you have a quarrel over Xian-Pu and the male then I expect you to confine your activities to them and put aside any foolish notions about using her for your catspawn. Now, may I trust that you understand and agree to behave and abide by my decision in this matter, on the spirit of your mother?"

Mousse nodded his head weakly then said, "Y-yes, Granny…"

"Good," Lotion said simply, "A wise decision on your part. Perhaps there is hope for you yet."

I caught the look Ranma had turned towards Lotion and he was clearly as impressed as I was at her little display of prowess. As fast as he had become since learning the Amaguriken he seemed as much in the dark as I was on how she had managed to strike Mousse without seeming to come anywhere near him. I remembered my rescue earlier and realized that it had to be some kind of long-range attack, like maybe she had used magic or something. One thing we definitely both agreed on, though: this Lotion character was someone you wouldn't want to cross in a dark alley!

Mousse seemed to recover himself again, though not with as much speed as before, and he glared again at Ranma before saying, "This matter is far from concluded between us, Saotome. We will speak again when we are not in the presence of these Elders."

"You want me, you just name the time and place," Ranma said, "But leave the girls out of it. If this is a man-to-man thing, then it just concerns the two of us, you got it?"

"As you say," Mousse gave a haughty snort, then turned to leave, only to run into a side-post. I suddenly remembered that his glasses had been knocked off his head when the old woman attacked him and went in search of the things, finding them on the floor in a matter of seconds.

"Ow!" Mousse rubbed his nose, "Who put that thing in my way? Oh…thank you!" he said as I handed his glasses to him. He put them on, saw the pole he had all but been hugging and looked a little sheepish, then flashed an angry glare at Ranma and cried, "You will pay for that humiliation as well, Saotome! Mark my words, I will win Shampoo away from you, enemy of all women!"

Having made his suitably melodramatic exit, we all turned and exchanged looks, then Ranma said, "That guy must be related to Kuno…"

I was unable to help chuckling at that point, but Shampoo did not smile as she approached Ranma and said, "Ranma, you be very careful around Mousse. He dangerous fighter, practice Dark Magic."

"Dark Magic?" Ranma repeated, blinking.

"A practitioner of Hidden Weapons combat," Cologne replied, "He studied with a Master of our village. The art bestows upon the expert the ability to draw weapons from seemingly nowhere, and to use them with skill against an opponent. You would be very well advised not to take that boy too lightly, Son-In-Law. He may be half-blind and a fool, but he is a very determined young man, and even a total incompetent can be dangerous when crossed."

"Him think Shampoo no have say in who she marry," Shampoo sniffed, but then her mood turned to ecstasy as she turned adoring eyes towards Ranma, "You stand up for Shampoo! You tell Mouse no bother her, and he almost listen!"

"Ah…" Ranma was plainly embarrassed and tried to organize his thoughts around that point, "I just didn't like the way he was coming onto you. I don't want anybody forcing you to do nothing against your will, Shampoo. Its not like I was doing this to impress you…I just don't like his tone. I mean…guys like that give me the creeps!"

"Oh, Airen!" Shampoo cried, glomming onto him as if unable to restrain herself any further. I saw Ranma get very round-eyed and he looked in my direction as if fearing immediate reprisals. Instead I looked back with sympathy before turning away.

I couldn't totally let the matter slip, though, so I said, "If you two are going to carry on like that, then I guess you don't need me around to make things crowded. I'll see you back at the dojo, Saotome."

"Nabiki-wait!" Ranma protested, "Let me go, Shampoo! Nabiki!"

To our mutual surprise Shampoo did let him go this time, in total contrast to the way she used to act when she would hug him in a virtual death-grip. Her eyes still shone with happiness, though, as she said, "You take care, Airen, and watch after Nabiki. Mousse say he no bother her, but I no trust him. He very sneaky."

"Ah…" Ranma turned from her to look at me, and I could see the worry in his expression slowly darken into anger, "He better not try it…or else!"

I waited for him to come up alongside me, then we said our good-byes and took our leave of the Nekohanten. It was with very little surprise that we found the old woman tagging along beside us, making us both feel somewhat awkward as I knew Ranma wanted to speak with me alone. Instead he cast furtive glances my way then said, "So…how'd you do it? Take him out like that, I mean…"

"Shadow Boxing," the old woman replied.

"Come again?" Ranma and I both blinked and looked at her sidelong.

"A wise philosopher once said that reality is merely a shadow of things that occur on a more fundamental level of existence," the old woman said in that enigmatic way of hers, "We see the symptoms, not the cause of reality itself, so what we perceive as real is merely a reflection of the true reality that underlies everything. Work with the archetypes of that fundamental reality and you can effect a change regardless of the illusion of distance."

"Huh?" Ranma said, which pretty much summarized my own thoughts at that point.

Rather than give us a more detailed explanation the old woman got a wistful look in her eyes and smiled, then said, "I could be bound inside of a nutshell and count myself a king of Infinite Space were it not that I have bad dreams. There is nothing either good nor bad but that thinking makes it so, therefore I declare it is a prison," she smiled at our bewildered expressions and laid off the bad Shakespeare quotes to more helpfully add, "It's thought that is the answer here. The reality that you perceive is but an illusion of the senses. What you see is not 'real' in the sense that it is the true and final picture of what is there."

"And you know what's real and what isn't?" I asked.

"What do you think a Lore Master is?" she smiled at me sidelong, then uttered another quotation, "What a piece of work is a man…in form and faculty how express and admirable. In aspect how like an angel, in apprehension how like a god. The pinnacle of the world, the paragon of animals, but what to me is this quintessence of dust? Man delights me not, nor woman…though by your smiling I would see you think otherwise."

"What?" Ranma blinked at the rudely translated quotation given in Japanese that was originally written and spoken in English.

"Not bad," I said, I think more astutely, "You got some of the wording wrong, and the sentence structure isn't quite a match for the original…"

"Perhaps so," she smiled wistfully, "It has been many years since I read the classics. A man I once cared very much about…originally taught that to me. You might almost say he was my first husband, but unlike with you and Shampoo the law was never truly invoked in our case. Cologne nullified any claim he might have had on me…she never really approved of the union, even when we had a child together."

"Wait," Ranma frowned, "She nullified a marriage? I thought you guys didn't have divorce or something like that!"

"We don't," Lotion replied, "But as I say, these were special…circumstances."

"But if he was a man you were in love with…" I started to say when I got a very strange look from the woman beside me, which stopped me in mid-sentence.

"He was not a man," she said as she looked away with what I thought was a sorrowful expression, "At least not by the normal definition. He was actually more like several men put together, but not born of a woman…"

"Say what?" Ranma asked, now as thoroughly confused by the old woman's words as I was.

"Never mind," she said, "Suffice that it is partially the cause for why Cologne and I do not get along too well, or see eye-to-eye on many matters. I've never really forgiven her for coming between us…yet I suppose in her own way she was only doing what she thought was best for all parties."

"You said he fathered a kid?" Ranma asked with a disquieted expression.

"Yes," she sighed, "And it surprised us as much as anyone that he was even capable of such a thing. I guess you could chalk it up to his…excellent construction. He wasn't much to look at back then, in fact you could almost call him hideous, though he has since taken steps to correct that problem. His child, however, was beautiful beyond imagination…"

"Wait, wait," I stopped in my tracks and made a time-out sigh with my hands, "How long ago was this?"

The old woman cocked her head and seemed to think a moment, then replied, "1817, I believe, give or take a few seasons…"

"1817?" Ranma repeated with rounded eyes.

"Granted that's going by the Western calendar, not the Chinese," Lotion replied, seeming to sigh, "One hundred and eighty-plus years…where does the time fly…?"

"And at the time you were…?" I noted.

"Seventeen," Lotion replied with that same enigmatic smile, "Give or take a season."

"You're saying that you're almost two hundred years old?" Ranma asked a bit numbly.

"I like to think that I'm still young for my age," the woman said with as much dignity as she could, which was considerable, but she seemed almost to be smiling, "I don't eat fried foods, I watch my intake of saturated fats, and I never count calories. It's all a matter of looking as young as you feel, and as I've just finished explaining to you, it is never good to judge by appearances."

"Your ex-husband…" I began.

"We weren't married," the old woman said, albeit a bit sadly.

"Okay," I began again, "The guy you were in love with…is he still around?"

"Oh yes," Lotion replied, "Very much so. In fact he's rather hard to put down that way, being something of an Immortal."

"Okay," I decided my credulity circuits were just about taxed to their limits right then, "So he fathered a child on you, and I take it he or she had a child, and now there's a woman named Silk who's his direct descendant?"

"Not exactly," Lotion said, starting forward again, "Silk's mother came much later, and with my second husband. She was born during the war between our countries, and Silk was born during the Mao era, and by now she has a child of her own, even though she chosen to marry the man that she loved. Of course Silk's mother did marry a man who was descended from my previous grandchild, so in a way she is related to my first love, however tenuous the bloodline."

I was just making sense of that when we came up to the gates of my house, then we entered while Lotion seemed to act as if she had been here before. I was just putting that together when we were met at the door by Kasumi.

"Nabiki, Ranma-kun," she said, "We have a guest who says…oh my! Who is this?"

The old woman was looking up at Kasumi with an expression that was unreadable, then to our great amazement she bowed down to my older sister and said, "Honor be to you and your house. You surpass in loveliness and grace she who was lady of this house before you. I am honored to lay eyes upon you at last, Mistress of House Tendo."

Kasumi seemed as surprised by this as we were, but she bowed in reply to the old woman and said, "What a lovely thing to say, but of course it's not true. My mother was very beautiful, and I'm hardly anyone's mistress."

"That may be as you say," Lotion said non-committally, "Is your father in residence, child? You may tell him that Lo-Xion the Elder wishes the grace of his company and humbly asks him for admittance."

"I'll tell father that you want to see him," Kasumi agreed, stepping back as she said, "By all means come inside and I'll show you where he and Uncle Saotome are playing Shogi."

"Some things never change," the old woman murmured with a weary sigh that sounded wistful with nostalgia as she hobbled after my sister, "I'll bet they still try and cheat each other the same way too…"

Ranma hung back to look at me with a very shocked expression, then he whispered, "What's going on here? She's knows Mister Tendo?"

"Apparently, Ranma-kun," then I urged him to follow as we both hurried to catch up with the old woman.

We entered the living room and indeed found our fathers cheating at Shogi, like always, but the minute Kasumi spoke up to introduce Lotion they both reacted as if someone had just threatened them with a handgun. Ranma's father jumped back in alarm while Daddy grabbed the Shogi board as if to use it as a ward-sign. Their expressions would have been comical if I hadn't had this sinking sensation that I was about to learn more about their past than I wanted.

"You?" Daddy cried, "But…how did you get in here?"

"I let her in the door, Father," Kasumi seemed puzzled by his reaction, "Is something wrong?"

"Tendo Soun," Lotion hobbled a few steps closer and gave my father a hard lookover, "I must say you look fine, all other things being considered equal. And how is your lovely wife?"

"Kimiko?" my father cringed, and I tensed up fully expecting the usual floodgates to open, but instead he looked down and said, "She…"

"I know," the old woman's voice was surprisingly gentle, "I wouldn't have mentioned it but for the fact that my granddaughter still thinks of you with kindness."

"She…?" Daddy had the strangest look in his eyes, and now I'd swear he was crying, but not his usual uncontrollable torrents.

"I feel for your loss," Lotion suddenly sounded as if the gravity of her own words weighted her down, "She was an excellent woman, if perhaps a mirror reflection of my own granddaughter. I am sorry to have troubled you on that, it will not be repeated. Let the past be buried for now, we will make amends in good time, and I am not here to disturb the ghosts of this household."

I saw Genma peer up from the concealment of the patio before he said, "You mean let bygones be bygones?"

"I wasn't talking to you, lout," Lotion snapped in his direction, "And as far as I'm concerned, if Cologne can tolerate your continued existence, then so will I. Just don't push the matter."

"Right," Ranma's father said meekly, averting his eyes as he added, "Forget I'm here."

"With pleasure," Lotion replied, then gave Daddy her full attention, "The issue that has brought me here is your middle daughter, Nabiki. I have determined that she has her mother's potential, and some of yours besides. This potential is sorely in need of my guidance, so I have chosen to instruct her, assuming I have your complete cooperation?"

Daddy can be a real puzzle at times, sometimes behaving like a total wimp, and sometimes showing considerable backbone. This time he seemed to be caught in the middle of a dilemma but rallied to say, "You're not going to take it out on my poor Nabiki?"

"No harm will come to her from me," Lotion replied, "It is to keep her from harming herself that I am here. Now, once again I will ask…do I have your approval?"

"I…" the backbone Daddy had been displaying seemed to bend at that point as he looked down, "I guess it will be all right. I know you mean well enough…"

"Good," Lotion replied, "Then it is settled. I must say, Soun, you did choose well in betrothing her to Genma's son over there. A very interesting match, War Master to Lore Master. I should very much hope that I live to meet their offspring…what in the world?"

I turned my attention to follow her sudden shift of gaze, as did Ranma, which was plainly evidenced when he growled, "What is he doing here?"

"Training your future sister-in-law, it would seem," Lotion replied as we all stared at Mousse, standing in the middle of our yard and addressing himself towards Akane, who was in her yellow gi and putting on a display of one of her katas.

"Very good," we heard the tall boy say as we listened, "You have an excellent control over your power, but you need to use less of it in your movements. Forceful swings only matter when they connect with an opponent, you should let your form govern your actions and only release your power when it comes times for an attack…"

"Like this?" Akane asked as she went into another series of motions, demolishing a series of imaginary opponents.

"He said he was a friend of yours," Kasumi informed us without needing to be prompted, "He saw Akane working out and offered to give her a few pointers. Isn't he nice?"

Both Ranma and I looked at her, then Ranma hopped outside and went right up to Mousse with a challenging, "What the hell kind of stunt are you trying to pull here?"

"Saotome," Mousse turned to regard him, only his glasses were on his head so he was actually facing a tree instead, "I thought if I waited here long enough that I might find you…"

Ranma didn't give him time enough to finish, he just walked right up to the taller boy and hit him, knocking him down.

"What did you do that for?" Akane suddenly protested.

"Keep out of this," Ranma said, "This guy is dangerous, and he threatened Nabiki!"

"He did?" Akane blinked her eyes, then looked down, "Is this true?"

"I never threatened her," Mousse felt along the edge of his lip as he started to get back up again, "But you are right that I am dangerous, Saotome. You are so blindly obsessed with having two women that you think me incapable of fighting back against your insolence?"

"Talk is cheap," Ranma sniffed, "You want to fight, let's go at it, only Shampoo warned me about you being some kind of hidden weapons user."

"Indeed I am," Mousse replied, rising on one leg, "But you will find that I am far from reliant on my weapons! Behold, the Chinese Amazon technique known as the White Crane Style, feared by martial artists since the dawn of time!"

"What?" Ranma scoffed, "You gonna peck me to death?"

All at once the other boy launched his assault, and while Ranma was braced to defend himself the attack seemed to come almost out of no where. Mousse's hands became a blur, and while Ranma staggered back at having absorbed these attacks Mousse brought his knee up and connected soundly with his jaw, knocking Ranma back against the wall that had been several meters behind him.

I was frankly quite stunned at seeing Ranma overwhelmed with such ease, and he was clearly even more surprised than I was, but being as tough as he is he shrugged off the attack, even though the wall was cracked where he connected. Ranma assumed a defensive crouch and said, "Let's see you try that again, buddy. I'm ready for you this time!"

"Are you?" Mousse smiled as he lowered his glasses to adjust the focus of his vision, then once again assuming that crane-stance he had used before, "As the crane conceals its talons from under the water, so do I keep a number of surprises hidden for use against certain opponents. Behold-the attack of Egg Fu!"

So saying he produced a chicken with one hand and suddenly produced a set of eggs that he lobbed at Ranma. My iinazuke dodged the attack, but when the eggs hit the ground they exploded, producing a cloud of smoke that left Ranma coughing.

"As you can see," Mousse said as he made the chicken vanish, "My Dark Arts can be very effective."

"So what?" Ranma coughed again, "It's just a bunch of dumb Magic Tricks! You're nothing more than a Circus Carny trickster! No way can you take me with a bunch of stupid eggs."

"Just tricks?" Mousse sounded outraged, "I'll show you what 'tricks' I have, Saotome! Take this!"

The reached into his sleeve and thrust something forward at Ranma, who moved to brace himself between the wall and the tree while catching the object with his feet, only to gape in dismay at finding the object was a duck-shaped kid's potty trainer.

"Oh," Ranma scoffed, "I am soooo impressed."

Mousse looked puzzled as he looked at the potty trainer, then he sniffed, "Hmm…That wasn't what I was after. I wonder how that happened? Oh well…" he tossed the duck aside and whipped out a Chinese sword, which same he tried to thrust at Ranma, only to imbed it in the tree trunk as Ranma vaulted over his head then proceeded to kick Mousse in the back several times, causing the taller boy to stagger.

"That…was uncalled for!" Mousse declared as he recovered and assumed a fighting crouch.

"You're a fine one to talk," Ranma hooked a thumb at the sword still vibrating in the tree, "You call using that fair? No way!"

"Boys!" I spoke up at last, stepping between the two fighters, "Why don't you both back off for now and save this for another time, like, say…tomorrow afternoon, the main park? That way you can go all out without destroying the dojo."

I also was thinking of my own finances and the kind of bets that I could line up for tomorrow, so my motives weren't entirely pure at that point, but I did want Ranma to have time to get ready against this Mousse guy. There was a lot of bluster on both sides, but they agreed readily enough, calling it a "man-to-man" deal, and I almost gagged at the testosterone that was on the breeze when they said that.

After Mousse departed vowing to crush Ranma utterly we both started to breathe a sigh of relief, only it didn't last long. Akane came right up to Ranma as mad as a wet hornet.

"Did you have to interrupt us when you did, baka?" she yelled at my iinazuke, "He was helping to teach me a new way to do my katas, something you've never even tried to do!"

"Yeah?" Ranma snorted, "Then I'll have to wish the guy my condolences next time we meet. He's in for a lot of backbreaking labor."

"Why you!" Akane snarled, and before I could think to warn her against it she slammed a fist into Ranma's gut, hard enough to double him over and knock him right into the koi pond!

"Akane!" I snapped, "What the hell were you thinking?"

She blinked at me and said, "What's the matter with you? I didn't hurt him too much with that!"

Before I could reply I heard Ranma sputter, then cry out in dismay as she yelled, "I'm a girl again you stupid tomboy!!!"

"So?" she asked, "Just get some hot water and change…oh…that's right, I forgot."

The latter part she said a bit sheepishly, but the damage was done, and now we have a serious problem. Ranma has to fight tomorrow and he's a girl, and with the Cat Tongue in place he can't stand the heat enough to resume his male status. Now we have to find a way to get him ready for tomorrows fight, and that's going to be some doing as we'll have to get Cologne to consent to letting him off this one time. That's one negotiation I'm not looking forward to, I assure you.

I asked Lotion to help but she declined and excused herself, saying that she had seen enough at the present. I caught Daddy watching her go with a particularly troubled expression, reminding me of the mystery there that needs solving.

I'm tired, I need sleep, and telling all of this into my computer is starting to wear me down. I've got a problem to solve and a mystery worth exploring and I can do all that better after I've had rest and gotten through yet another school day.

At least that Mousse didn't get away with making me the stakes in tomorrow's fight. I don't think I'd like the idea very much of being an object of contention between two charged male egos, and not just because it's a little unnerving. I wonder if Mousse will accept Ranma in female form, or if he'll declare the match a forfeit. I'll have to have Ryonami calculate the odds for betting since she's even better at it than me, surprising as that is from my standpoint. I'll sleep on it and maybe feel better in the morning.

I just wish I could get this looming feeling of total disaster out of my head. Somehow I just know my Ranma-chan is headed towards serious trouble…


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