Ah My Goddess Fan Fiction / Ranma 1/2 Fan Fiction / Sailor Moon Fan Fiction ❯ A Tale of Two Wallets ❯ My Wayward Airen ( Chapter 34 )

[ 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

Ranma heard Nabiki open up her window to step out onto the roof behind him. He well knew the sounds that she made by heart, from her breathing to the slight tense gasp that came when her bare foot made contact with the first of the roof tiles. She was not as hardened as he was to ignore minor physical discomforts, so in a way it amused and fascinated him to see her brave the elements just for a chance to join him in a little nocturnal conversation.

In all truth there was nothing about her that did not fascinate and intrigue him on some level. From the slightest movement of her body to the soft noises made by the fabric of her clothing he was deeply aware of her approach, and her presence caused him to tense slightly while also relax in some oddly perverse manner. He would have liked to turn around and watch her as she made to sit down, but his own feelings were deeply confused and troubled at the moment, so the best he could do was to look straight ahead and try to compose his thoughts into some sort of coherent arrangement.

He felt Shampoo stir on his lap and reflexively caressed her fur to reassure the sleeping "pet" that it was all right, just Nabiki taking her place at their side, and in response he felt her purr and curl up more comfortably on top of the gap created by his folded legs. She seemed to be dreaming peacefully and he had no wish to intrude upon her blissful state of rest.

"Hi," he heard Nabiki say to him, almost shyly.

"Hey," he replied in lieu of any more formal greeting, acknowledging her existence with that single worded expression.

"Nice night out," she began as if to merely make conversation, but her eyes were traveling to Shampoo in her neko form as she added, "Looks like you two are getting along pretty well now."

"Yeah," Ranma grunted, "It's…weird but kinda nice. I mean…just a little while ago I would have been having screaming fits letting her get this close to me, but lately…well…as long as I think of her as just Shampoo and not…something else…then it's not so bad, you know what I'm saying?"

"So," Nabiki said, "Does this mean you're getting over your Neko-phobia, or does it just apply to her?"

"I dunno," Ranma said, "It's not like I've gone out of my way to test this thing on other…uh…well, you know…but like I said, Shampoo's…different…easier to get along with, especially if she doesn't meow."

"I guess we should just wait and see if you'll make a full recovery then before we break out in celebration," Nabiki conceded, "Still it's nice to see you make an exception in her case. I'd think she'd need some reassurance after the way her mother was acting."

"Yeah," Ranma agreed with a very soft snort, recalling his prospective mother-in-law's angry denunciation of Cologne for having allowed her daughter to suffer such a horrible fate. It had hardly mattered that Cologne had argued, calmly and reasonably, that the decision to train Shampoo at Jusenkyo had been made by the full Council of tribal Elders and was certainly preferable to other forms of punishment that might have been visited upon a warrior who had abandoned a blood quest and returned home without either head or husband. Comb had simply flown into an angry diatribe that fell just short of actually threatening the High Council.

"You've got to admit," Nabiki said, "Sham-chan's mom really has a way of getting her point across."

"Yeah," Ranma admitted, adding almost off-handedly, "I almost expected that she was going to attack the old ghoul. I'm surprised she didn't when…uh…the old woman said that stuff about her and Pop."

It was Nabiki's turn to look nervously away, and it took a full moment before she spoke again, "About that…um, Ranma-kun…I know it must be…really strange finding out that your Dad knew Shampoo's mom before he ever met your mother…"

"Like it's not for you, finding out you've got an Amazon half-sister?" Ranma agreed, "Yeah, I guess weird doesn't even begin to cover it. As much as I've always known Pop was capable of stuff, I never thought he'd ever go that far. I mean…if he already knew about the Amazons, then why the heck did he drag me all the way to that part of China?"

Nabiki could not answer that one right away, so another silent pause resulted between them, broken only when Ranma added, "I'm sorry. I didn't mean to…"

"I know, Ranma-kun," Nabiki said, choosing to answer the second part of Ranma's statement rather than dwell upon the first, "I guess the simple truth is your father is basically quite stupid. In fact, sometimes it's hard to believe the two of you are even related."

Ranma could not help chuckling over that, "Yeah, me too. I mean…sure Pop's not what you'd call a rocket scientist, and sometimes he can be pretty thoughtless…"

"And selfish," Nabiki added, "And basically self-centered.'

"Yeah, that too," Ranma agreed, "But you'd think he'd know better than to take us both to Jusenkyo if he'd learned about the place from Shampoo's mother."

"According to him all she told him about the place was that it was cursed," Nabiki reasoned, "I guess she never told him what the curse was about, or else he probably didn't believe her."

"Guess that makes sense," Ranma conceded, "I'm not sure I'd have believed it before I went there."

Once again there was a pause before conversation resumed, and in that time the two of them exchanged half a dozen furtive looks, as if each wanted to say something but was afraid of being the first to openly voice his or her thoughts. At last Ranma managed to say, "Nabiki…"

"Yes, Ranma-kun?"

"When that…Oni got inside you," Ranma hesitated, then resumed, "Did it make you see and feel stuff that felt…kinda weird?"

Nabiki almost laughed at the question, but something in the way Ranma had asked it caused her to hesitate before replying with a question of her own, "Define weird."

Ranma started to say something but this time fell mute as the things that he wanted to ask her were not easily voiced by someone with as little experience as he had in expressing certain emotions. The things that he had briefly felt and thought while the Oni was in his mind…did not particularly please him. It was as if the Oni took some perverse delight in dredging up sensations that were altogether pleasant yet intensely disturbing for a young man who had as little experience as he did around women.

After a side-long glance her way he forced himself to look back down at the roof tiles, then felt his eyes being drawn again towards Nabiki as if pulled against his own volition. His gaze took in Nabiki's folded legs and bare feet, then roved up her curvy thighs to take notice of her wasp-thin waist and washboard stomach, which same had been bared by her halter-top (thus exposing her bared midriff). His eyes continued to take inventory, slowly roving up from Nabiki's belly button to the exposed cleft of her V-neck halter. It was impossible for him to look away from that for another full minute, but when he did it was with an audible swallow.

"Ah…" Ranma forced himself to stare straight ahead out into the night, therefore missing the puzzled expression on Nabiki's face as she slowly began to register that Ranma had been "checking her out," something so normally uncharacteristic of him that it actually brought a slight blush to her pale features.

"Ranma-kun…" Nabiki said, feeling an odd thrill at being so noticed by her iinazuke.

"I'm sorry," Ranma replied.

"Huh?" Nabiki blinked her eyes at this.

"I didn't mean to look!" he said, "It was wrong! I didn't mean anything by it…don't be angry!"

"Angry?" Nabiki's confusion lasted for several seconds before she finally realized what was happening, at which point she faintly smiled and said, "What have I got to be angry about? You like the way I look, don't you?"

"Oh, sure," Ranma said, continuing to turn his face away as though taking interest in the moon, which was barely visible through the mild overcast, "You look great. In fact I…I think you're very pretty. I just don't want you to get any ideas…I'm not a pervert or nothing like that…"

"And why would I think that you, of all people, are a pervert?" Nabiki wondered, then she leaned closer and said, "I know what your problem is, Ranma-kun…you're shy."

"I am not!" Ranma instantly defended himself, ignoring the burning sensation that was coloring his face.

"You are too," Nabiki's smile became her old, familiar sly look, "In fact I bet you've never really looked at a girl this way before, am I right? Not even Shampoo when she hopped into the furo…"

"Of course not!" Ranma protested, "I ain't like that!"

"And why not?" Nabiki asked, "You think she's beautiful too, right?"

"Huh?" Ranma sounded as wary as a trapped animal, but before he could say anything more he heard a sound from his lap that caused him to momentarily forget about the question. Both he and Nabiki turned their eyes towards Shampoo, who was at that moment meowling and hissing, baring her claws and struggling against some invisible antagonist in spite of the fact that her eyes were closed and she was quite obviously not conscious.

"What the heck's wrong with her?" Ranma asked, evidencing a slight queasiness in his voice.

"Sounds like she's having a nightmare," Nabiki answered.

"Do cats…um…dream?" Ranma asked with ever increasing nervousness.

"This one obviously can," Nabiki replied again, then added softly, "I wonder what's bothering her, poor kitty…?"

Shampoo's Diary Resumes:

"So, daughter," I heard my mother tell me while the two of us are washing dishes together, "You and Genma's son are getting along quite well these days?"

"Yes, Mother," I heard myself replying, "This one's husband and wife are very good to this one. We will have a good home with strong warriors and have lots of children together…"

"Xian-Pu," I hear my mother's voice take on a deep note of regret and sadness, "I'm sorry to have to inform you of this, but it can never be as you say."

"Huh?" I reply, "Why not?"

"Because I have something that I must tell you about Saotome Genma," my mother says with clear reluctance, "You see…I knew him before I knew the man whom you have believed was your father, and the plain truth is…Saotome Genma is your father. That means that Saotome Ranma is your half-brother."

"No!" I immediately protest, "This cannot be, Mother! This one must marry Saotome Ranma…"

"I'm afraid that we cannot allow that, Xian-Pu," I hear Great Grandmother say, and I look to my other side to find her perched upon her staff drying the dishes as I hand them to her, "You cannot marry into your own family, at least not unless they are a cousin or more distantly removed from our house. To marry a brother, even a half-brother born to a different mother, would bring great disgrace upon our heads and risk that any children you may have will be deformed or cursed by the gods…"

"No!" I cry out in dismay, "This cannot be true! I must marry Ranma! It is the law!"

"The law does not apply here," Great Grandmother says firmly, "He is part Amazon and a member of our clan, therefore he is exempt from any penalty for defeating you. You must leave him at once and travel back with me to China…"

"But…!" I hesitate before I say, "What about Nabiki?"

"Ah yes," Great Grandmother says in a way that I do not like, "The law, for her, is different. She is also part Amazon because Silk is really her mother, so she will have to be trained in Amazon ways before she can become one of us. In the meantime any pledge to marry her would not be valid."

"NO!!!" I scream out, "You cannot do this to this one! You cannot ask for me to become alone again! Not like it was when this one lost her Lo-Xion!"

"Are you disobeying me, child?" Great Grandmother looks at me in disapproval, "Then perhaps you should be disciplined for your insolence in speaking out against an Elder!"

All at once she hops off her staff, grasps firm hold of it and swings it at me. I try to dodge but I am too slow, so I am sent hurtling backwards, arcing my back as I try to roll with the blow and find the safety of new purchase. To my dismay I discover that I am very high up, falling rapidly at an expanse of ground that I know all too well as the Springs of Jusenkyo, and though I try to prevent it I find myself falling into one of the pools, which immediately triggers my transformation.

All at once my body grows small and I sprout fur all over my flesh. There is a curious tingling along my rump that I know to be the sprouting of my tail and suddenly I am pawing at the water, trying to use my claws as I right myself and seek to break back to the surface to breathe the air that I so desperately need.

I succeed, gasping for breath as I feel helplessness overwhelm me, a sensation that I have never liked and that I fight against lest my own fears lead to my undoing.

All at once a hand reaches down to grab me by the scruff of my neck and I feel myself being lifted by Nabiki, who eyes me in such a way that you would almost think that I was a fish that she had caught for her supper.

"What's this?" my wife asks, "Somebody tried to drown this poor animal. What do you think about that, Ranma?"

"I guess," my husband shrugs his shoulders (only I remember belatedly that Great Grandmother says that he is no longer my husband), "Sure is funny looking, though."

"You think so?" Nabiki smiles, then tosses me at Ranma, "Here, catch!"

I find myself being caught up into Ranma's huge arms, and all at once he cries, "GAAAHHH! A C-C-C-C-CAT!!!"

"Here, Ranma-kun," Nabiki calls out as I see her snatch up a pail of water, "I'll help fix that!"

All at once we are both doused and I feel my body transforming once again, resuming a human shape. I start to breathe a sigh of relief when I notice that Ranma has also been changed into his female warrior form, and that she seems even shorter in my arms than usual. I see her looking up at me with her beautiful blue eyes then in an almost fearful voice she asks, "Hey, who are you???"

"Who is this one?" I blink down at her, "I am Xian-Pu, your wife, husband."

"Wife?" she gasps, looking me over, "You don't look like you could be anybody's wife, fella, and I'm not into perverts!"

"Huh?" I ask, looking down at myself, only to discover in dismay that my breasts have flattened and that my chest is much hardened and more muscular. I look further down and discover an impossibility, something that should not be there, but is! I realize that I have been cursed to turn into a man, and that is the point where I wake up screaming, hissing and clawing as I imagine myself being attacked by Great Grandmother and all the other Amazons, who want to kill me because I violated one of our laws about Jusenkyo.

"Xian-Pu?" I hear Nabiki ask in concern, and with a start I look up and find myself back in neko form sitting in Ranma's lap while he and my wife study me with concerned expressions. I feel relief flooding through me at once, discovering that all those horrible visions had not actually happened and that my airen still care about me, and that they are still my airen. I felt such joy in the thought of this that I immediately sprang up out of Ranma's lap and tried to throw my arms around Nabiki, instead planting my neko body in her face as I knock her over.

Aiyaa! I never had dreams like that when I was still a young girl, not even when Lo-Xion died! At least no dreams that I can so vividly remember! Perhaps the most vexing thing about such dreams is that-while they are taking place-you don't actually realize that you are, in fact, dreaming! It is such a terrible thing to see your worst fears being played out and be unable to control the flow of events as things you have come to take for granted are suddenly uprooted. To think that I have come so far in so short a time to finding the happiness that has long eluded me only to have it snatched away by a trick of the fates is cruelty beyond imagining, so I think I can be forgiven for wanting to be comforted in the arms of a loved one, even if in doing so I did somewhat disconcert my wife, Nabiki…

"Gah!" Nabiki cried in dismay as she tasted fur in her mouth, "Get off of my face, you walking fur-ball!"

"I guess she's happy to see you," Ranma said with a nervous chuckle as he got up and came over to help his iinazuke, being careful to pry Shampoo-Neko loose without leaving or receiving any scratches.

"No fooling," Nabiki sputtered as she sat upright again, "You think? Wonder what set her off like that?"

"Who knows?" Ranma asked as he began to rub Shampoo's fur in an attempt to calm her down, "I guess she really did have some kind of a nightmare."

"About us?" Nabiki wondered, then amended herself and said, "Or about me?"

"Guess we'll have to ask her when she's back in human form," Ranma smirked, "I'm glad you two get along so well or she'd really be more of a handful."

"Meow!" Shampoo sought to protest, which caused Ranma to suffer an involuntary reaction.

"Ah…!" Ranma took a deep, ragged breath, gasped, then said, "Ah…don't do that! Remember? Aw heck…we'd better go inside and get you warmed up in a hot bath. I think I've had enough therapy to last me for tonight."

"No argument there," Nabiki said as she stood up beside him, reaching out to pet Shampoo as she smiled, "No hard feelings, Sham-chan, but next time give me a little warning before you do that, okay?"

Shampoo nodded her cat-head rather than verbally reply and risk further alienating Ranma. She could not help but purr once again as she was carried while Ranma went back in through the window, followed by Nabiki, content with being held in his arms as it reassured her of their continuing commitment.

It was only after they had gone back inside that a pair of slitted eyes looked out from the shadows. A withered voice conveying great age cackled softly before saying aloud, "Interesting…there have been a few changes around here. Wonder what else my boys have been up to lately…?"

Genma was not a very bright or brave man, and certainly not one well known for his powers of perception and observation, but at the moment he could recognize the cross look he was being given as one that hinted of the dangerous ground that he was standing upon, and that he would have to choose his words carefully if he was to survive to see the morning.

"So," Comb said after a very long, tense moment, "You took your son to Jusenkyo because you heard me describe it as a training ground for powerful warriors, and it just slipped your notice that I had also warned you of the danger it might pose to outsiders?"

"Well…" Genma said reluctantly, "You never actually said that those springs could turn a man into something else. You just said they were forbidden to the unwary. I just thought it was some place where I could test the boy to see if he measured up enough for me to bring back home to present to his iinazuke."

"Who hadn't even been selected just yet," Comb scowled darkly, but then relented by a fraction, "Still, I suppose you and Soun did well to engage him to that Loremaster Apprentice. Nabiki seems like a very fine girl, if a bit soft for my tastes. She should make an adequate wife for both your son and my daughter, which is more sense than I'd usually credit you as having. And here I would have thought, if it had been left up to the pair of you, that you'd have engaged him to the angry one who's about his age. I'm glad to see you two were not that foolish."

"Ah, well…" Genma smiled nervously, "It was the boy's choice, after all, and Nabiki agreed to it, so we've been satisfied that they'll both inherit the dojo and maintain the Anything Goes tradition."

"Of course," Comb said, noticeably pausing before adding, "But this also applies to their sharing themselves with my daughter, Shampoo."

Genma swallowed on a suddenly dry mouth, "Of course…I wouldn't think of it any other way."

"Good," Comb relaxed visibly, "Then as long as you don't have any objections to a three-way arrangement, then I don't have any reason to complain either. Just see to it that you continue not having objections and we'll all be happy. Won't that be nice?" she added with a hint of dangerous sarcasm.

"Of course," Genma agreed, wondering to himself how he was going to explain this one to Soun in private.

"Then it is settled," Comb smiled, "My daughter will marry your son and Soun's daughter, and we will all live to see the birth of our first grandchildren. Now the question is…when do you plan on having the ceremony?"

"Uh…" Genma looked stupidly at her, "I beg your pardon?"

"I know how you Japanese think," Comb said crossly, "Just because we Amazons don't require a formal marriage ceremony to recognize a union doesn't mean that you can dismiss our practices so lightly. It just so happens that we have adapted with the times and created our own more elaborate rituals so that those idiots in the government back home can be satisfied on the legality of Amazon unions. I intend to see to it that my daughter is properly wed to your son and their wife before Silk and I return to our homes back in China."

"Ah…well…" Genma's brain refused to turn over, leaving his mouth stuck in neutral.

"Then all we need to do is to discuss this with Soun," Comb said with a satisfied expression, "I would, of course, prefer that the wedding take place sometime in the near future, but the particulars are not all that important. We can even have it here in this honored dojo to respect the ancestral spirits that watch over and guide the place. We can even make out a guest list to invite as many witnesses as we need to formalize the union of our three houses."

"Um…yes, I see…" Genma finally got his mental motor running once again, "Well, if Soun has no objections, then I suppose I could talk the boy into going along with everything. At least he doesn't seem to have any objections to getting married now that he's had time to get to know his iinazuke better."

"By better do I take it to mean that they've been intimate together?" Comb smiled.

"Huh?" Genma blinked his eyes and looked owlish.

Comb lost her smile and said, "Don't tell me that they haven't tested each other in bed yet? How can then even know if they are compatible or not? Oh well…children these days have such romantic notions about marriage, not at all like we where when we were their age."

"Um, yeah…right," Genma swallowed.

"Which reminds me," the scowl was back in Comb's reddish-brown eyes, "That other boy…the one who is interested in Soun's youngest daughter. I noticed that his last name was Hibiki…"

"Um…so?" Genma asked with a suddenly neutral expression.

"Don't ask me why," Comb proceeded with a dangerous hint in her voice, "But for some reason he reminds me of someone else whom we once knew who also went by the name of Hibiki. Whatever became of her after I went back home to China? I haven't bothered to ask Soun just yet as he hardly seems the type who would confide in such things, if he even knows about it."

"I'm not sure I know what you mean…" Genma started to say, only to fall silent as he read the deadly look in Comb's expression.

"I have often wondered whatever became of Hibiki Atsuko," Comb remarked, "And I couldn't help noticing that the boy does resemble your son by more than a little."

"Coincidence," Genma hastily said, "They're mortal enemies, have been since childhood!"

"And why is that, do you think?" Comb mused, "In truth I do see a lot of Atsuko in the boy, and she was very determined to court you, as I remember events in the past. She even had the silly notion that you and me…" she paused, taking a moment before continuing again, "Well, that hardly matters now, does it?"

"You said you have a husband," Genma mentioned in a desperate bid to change the subject.

"I do," Comb replied softly, "Ha-Brus, a fine man who takes good care of my house. I care for him a great deal, but that has nothing to do with this. I am thinking about old times as we both remember the occasion."

Genma looked down a moment before replying, "I try not to dwell on the past, Comb-san. We did a lot of things back then that we'd probably do different if we could do them all over."

"I know," there was an uncomfortable hesitation in Comb's voice before she continued, "I'm not judging or condemning you, Genma. The gods and my ancestors know that I would never want to even pretend to be your conscience! I'm willing to abide by your wishes if you don't want to answer my questions concerning this Hibiki Ryoga. I could find out for myself through other means…but I suppose there is nothing to be gained in this. Besides, he seems rather happily content to pursue a relationship with Soun's other child, and she is almost worthy herself to be an Amazon, so beyond this I have no objections. I was simply wondering aloud if we should invite Atsuko to attend the wedding."

"Atsuko?" Genma blinked, "Um…I wouldn't even know where to find her."

"You're probably right," Comb conceded with a sniff, "And I doubt she could even find this place with her bad sense of direction. That just leaves the question of inviting your wife to attend her son's wedding…"

"My wife?" now Genma's face betrayed a look of near panic.

"Yes," Comb studied his expression, "Nodoka. I suppose I should pay her my respects, seeing as we haven't looked upon one another in close to twenty years…"

"Ah…!" Genma visibly sweated, "We can't-I mean, we won't be able to! She died some time ago, very tragic…"

"Oh?" Comb asked in surprise, "She's dead?"

"Yes," Genma swallowed, "It happened while the boy was with me on our training mission. It was so sad, I don't want to discuss it…"

Comb continued to look at him, then after a moment she asked, "What did she die from?"

"Ah…" Genma winced, but before he could respond Comb got up and said, "Never mind, I can see how painful it is for you. We won't discuss it further."

She turned away to leave the dojo, not seeing the relieved expression that crossed Genma's features…just as he did not see her scowl as she crossed the garden and sought out Silk, whom she found working in the kitchen.

"So," Silk greeted her cheerily, "How goes the reconciliation?"

"About what you'd expect," Comb replied as she shifted to Chinese, "<Oh, by the way, did you hear that Nodoka is dead?>"

"<Indeed I did,>" Silk turned with a curious expression, "<Soun-chan told me. That ought to clear the way for you…but I wasn't expecting that you would take the news so lightly.>"

"<I don't take it lightly at all,>" Comb scowled, "<Because I know that she's not dead.>"

"<You do?>" Silk blinked her eyes then eyed her longtime friend rather coyly, "<And here I thought that I was the Lore Master. How can you be so certain?>"

"<Because I know Genma,>" Comb replied, "<He never could lie to me effectively. He was incredibly nervous when his wife's name was mentioned, which means that he's avoiding her for some reason.>"

"<Indeed,>" Silk mused, staring off in the distance, "<Grandmother was correct, I should learn to trust my instincts, but I didn't want to upset Soun-chan by questioning his account of the story. I sense that there is truth in this, but for what reason would he avoid her?>"

"<Because she's Nodoka,>" Comb snorted, "<That ought to be reason enough for anyone. Only in this case I think Genma has a special motive for avoiding her.>"

"<I see,>" Silk regarded her friend sardonically, "<And in this case I take it you have formed a hypothesis to that end?>"

"<Not really,>" Comb replied, "<But think about it…for ten years Genma has taken his son on the open road training him to be a great fighter…one who was capable of defeating my Shampoo with great ease…and now that he is back in Japan he winds up here in the house of the Tendos without stopping back home to inform his wife that the training mission is over. Moreover he invents a clumsy lie about her death to prevent anyone from seeking to contact her. That has got to mean that he's afraid of seeing her or allowing his son to be reunited with his mother.>"

"<Hmmmm,>" Silk mused, "<Your reasoning is impeccable, and knowing Genma as we do he must have made some arrangement that prevents him from rejoining her. I think it might be interesting to seek Nodoka out and ascertain her side of the story.>"

"<Are you sure of that?>" Comb asked, "<If Genma's afraid of her, he might have valid reasons.>"

"<You know that I can be very discrete about such things,>" Silk smiled, "<And I have a better chance of finding her than anyone else, with the exception of grandmother.>"

"<All right,>" Comb said, "<But don't tell her you know where he is. Genma might be an idiot, but he has good survival instincts.>"

"<Obviously,>" Silk replied, "<After all, he managed to avoid marrying you.>"

Comb's next response was very colorful, and it was fortuitous that Kasumi was not present to hear it, though Soun in the next room felt his mustache curl from just the volume. He tried to ignore the angry exchange and return his focus back toward the pair who were sitting across from him at the opposite end of the table. His visage was stern but conveyed his concerns and deep reservations as he said aloud, "So, Akane…you want my permission to allow this boy to stay with us in the dojo, even though he has been informally living under this roof for quite some time now."

"He hasn't got anywhere else to stay, Dad," Akane replied, "His home's many days away from here on foot, and he hasn't been back there for a long time…a couple of years at least."

"Please, sir," Ryoga said, bowing from his sitting position, "I know that it's a lot to ask of you, but I'll do whatever you ask and try not to be a burden. I'll even help out in teaching classes, anything to pay my way so I won't be just another freeloader."

"That's very good of you to offer this, son," Soun continued to look stern, "But I have to know…what are your intentions regarding my little girl?"

"Ah…" Ryoga winced, stealing a furtive glance in Akane's direction.

"We're still working that out, Dad," Akane replied for them both, "But Ryoga and I…we're…um, good friends. Besides this, he's helping me to train…"

"I see," Soun said with great formality, then his tone grew stern again as he resumed, "Before we make any decisions regarding that, there is something you ought to know about this boy. You see…the other day as I was taking a bath that little black pig that you call your pet came in and…"

"WHAT?" Akane sat upright, "You mean you already knew about his curse?"

Soun blinked, "A curse? Oh yes…you mean Jusenkyo. Well…a boy who turns into a pig isn't exactly the sort of young man I would wish to spend time around one of my daughters, but…"

"DID EVERYBODY IN THIS HOUSE BESIDES ME KNOW ABOUT P-CHAN???" Akane screamed in loud vexation, spreading her arms out as if to make an appeal towards the heavens.

"Um, sir?" Ryoga said timidly, "If you've known all this time about me…why didn't you say something about it before?"

"Well, it didn't seem all that important at the time," Soun replied with a shrug, then all but jumped as Akane lurched halfway across the table to yell at him, "NOT IMPORTANT? You thought it wasn't important that I was sleeping with Ryoga in my bed?"

Soun blinked, "Um…well, it wasn't really any of my business, you see, and I thought if you wanted to have your own private fling before the two of you got married…"

Akane sat back on her heels, momentarily stumped by this revelation. An uneasy silence fell over the room for several moments, then Ryoga hesitantly said, "A-Akane-chan?"

"Huh?" she turned to look towards him.

"If I've been imposing myself all this time…perhaps it would be best if I did leave, find somewhere else to stay until you're ready to forgive me…"

Akane's expression turned cross, "No way! I'm not letting you out of my sight until this thing is finished, Ryoga. We still have a lot of training to do, and I won't have you getting lost and leaving me without a morning sparring partner."

"Sparring partner?" Soun asked as Ryoga looked down at the table and flushed as red as a radish.

"Well, who else is going to train with me?" Akane asked, "Ranma's too chicken to fight with girls and Nabiki's not good enough, while that bimbo, Shampoo…" her expression darkened, "Let's just say I want to wait until I'm ready before I let her see me train. At least with Ryoga I can get a pretty good workout."

"I see," Soun said, "Well…if you're this determined, I suppose that I don't have any other objections…provided you continue to act like a gentleman while under my roof, young man."

"I will, sir," Ryoga assured, bowing profusely , "I promise you that no harm will come to Akane while I'm around. I won't do anything to dishonor her or violate your trust while I'm staying in this household."

"At least nothing I don't ask you to do first," Akane said with a mild snort, then got up from the table and said, "Like you said before, Dad, that part's none of your business."

As Akane walked away, the eyes of the two men following her passage, Soun heaved a sigh that was plainly directed at himself and said, "She becomes more like her mother every day…"

"Sir?" Ryoga looked at the man in confusion.

"Never mind, Son," Soun replied, "I'll tell you all about it when-and IF-you get any older…"

"Now dear," said Mrs. Tofu in her kindly manner, "I'll just leave you two alone to get better acquainted. Don't mind me, I'll just check up on you both in the morning."

"But mother," Doctor Ono Tofu said, "You don't have to rent a hotel room for the night. You can stay here in the guest bedroom…"

"Nonsense," his mother replied with an impish grin, "You and your new fiancée will want to spend time together without an old woman like me to get under foot. Just remember to give me the date for the wedding, and I want lots and lots of grandchildren!"

"Grandchildren?" Kachu blanched, uncertain if her grasp of the Japanese language-which had been imparted to her by means of a spell-had fully registered the correct definition of that term.

Of course," Mrs. Tofu replied, "Not that I mean to put any pressure on you both and I'm willing to wait for a bit…say, sometime before next spring. Anyway, see you both around, and don't keep each other up too late. You'll need your strength come morning!"

As the kindly little old lady took her leave of Tofu's office she failed to note the stony silence that followed in her wake as Tofu and Kachu remained motionless where they had been sitting. For three solid minutes not a word or gesture was exchanged between them, then a furtive glance to the side from each end was exchanged, followed by another awkward silence. The moment hung long and poignant until Tofu finally managed to summon up the courage to say, "Well…she means well."

"Your mother?" Kachu asked uncertainly, remaining seated before the Japanese tea table with the same dumbstruck expression that she had worn since earlier in the day, when she awoke to discover her engagement.

Tofu heaved a long, heavy breath and looked down, "I'm sorry…it really shouldn't be your problem. She's been after me for years to get married, and every time she goes through the same routine. I know this must be embarrassing to you, but please try not to judge her too harshly."

Kachu turned a puzzled look his way and said, "But she is an Elder. I would never think to criticize one who has earned her place in society by her labors."

This surprised tofu, who asked, "You don't mind the fact that she's pushing the engagement angle?"

"She is an elder," Kachu shrugged, "They all tend to be like that."

"I guess so," Tofu managed a little smile, then looked down again and said, "Look, you don't have to pretend with me. I know this wasn't any more your idea than it was mine, and in spite of those Amazon laws of yours I don't think you should be forced into marriage against your will. It was wrong and I apologize. I only wish that there was some way that I could make it up for you for the inconvenience."

"Inconvenience?" Kachu considered the word and frowned, "Is that what I am to you, a burden?"

"What?" Tofu blinked, "No, I didn't mean that…"

"Then do you think yourself too good for me?" Kachu's nostrils flared, "You outsider males are all alike! You think we Amazons are a backwater and barbaric people…"

"No, no!" Tofu insisted, "I don't think that of you at all! In fact, your countrywoman, Shampoo, has sometimes filled in for me as a Nursing assistant, and I think very highly of her skills…"

"As well you should," Kachu said, "Her mother is our tribal healer and very skilled, as much so as her predecessor, Lilac."

"Really?" Tofu asked, "Well, I haven't really had the pleasure of getting to know Shampoo's mother all that well, let alone see her practice her craft as a Healer…"

"Then you may take my word on it that she is a credit to her profession," Kachu frowned, "Elder Cologne has assured me that you possess some passing skill as a Healer, and I must admit that you are knowledgeable enough to have taken me down the way you did. I have never before encountered a male with your particular talent, so I must concede-however reluctantly-that you proved yourself my better in combat."

"You're too kind," Tofu said, "I understand that you were skilled enough to give Ranma and the others a good workout, so I guess I was just lucky to catch you by surprise…"

"Luck had little to do with it," Kachu said, "And though I dispute what Elder Cologne has said of my obligations towards you, the fact remains that she is an Elder and I must needs obey her wishes and call you…however reluctantly…my husband."

"H-Husband?" Tofu gasped.

"Airen would be the proper term," Kachu studied his face then looked away, "And by the laws of my people that means that I must become your…wife…only this is not a fate I saw befalling myself when I came to your country. If anything this entire journey has been one unending disaster after another…" she sighed at last and said, "I should have heeded my better judgement and stayed in China."

"Look," Tofu kneeled down before her and composed himself as best he was able, struck once again by the incredible resemblance that this woman bore to Kasumi, which almost side-tracked his train of thought before he shook himself and said, "If this whole marriage thing is so objectionable to you, then you don't have to go through with it. I won't force you and I can speak on your behalf to Elder Cologne…"

"That would avail you nothing," Kachu frowned, "But if you wish yourself well rid of me, then you can forget about me giving you any…marital duties," she frowned in distaste.

Indeed, Tofu reflected with a sigh, there was very little beyond a superficial resemblance to link the two women together, but seeing her was very much like being in the presence of Kasumi's dark reflection, so for her sake he tried to explain himself as best he was able, oddly comforted by the thought that he found it easier to talk to this woman than he ever did with Kasumi, in a strangely perverse and wholly ironic manner.

"But you don't understand," he pleaded, "It has nothing to do with you. I mean, I think you must be a fine young woman, and I think you're very attractive, and you're brave, and certainly a good fighter. In fact I'm sure you'll make somebody an excellent wife…"

"But you are not claiming me for yourself?" Kachu frowned.

"Look, I'm just trying to make it easier for us both," Tofu reasoned, "And the truth is…there is someone else I'm interested in…but…"

"But I'm in the way, is that it?" Kachu countered.

"Why are you doing this?" Tofu asked in frustration, "I'm trying to make this easier on both of us, but you're turning everything I say around to make it sound like an insult! Can't you just accept that I'd rather be your friend instead of your enemy or your…husband?" Tofu swallowed.

"Friend?" it was Kachu's turn to blink her eyes, "An Amazon Devil Hunter…be friends with a man?"

"Well, is there some tribal law against it?" Tofu countered.

"No," Kachu said in a low voice, looking down, then after a moment she relented, "I…too am sorry. I do not mean to be rough with you. This has all been a very trying day, and I know not what to make of your offer. No one has ever…offered to be friends with me before."

"No one?" Tofu asked, "You mean no man has ever been friends with you?"

"No one," Kachu said, "I seem to chase everyone away, whether I want to or not. Other Amazons…fear me and what I represent…and the men lack the courage to challenge me for the right to court my…interest."

"Well," Tofu sat back on his heels and looked non-plussed, "I guess maybe they don't know the real you."

"Eh?" Kachu eyed him in confusion.

"You can't be all that bad a person if you came all this way to deal with what you thought was a demonic menace," Tofu smiled at her non-plussed expression, "I'll bet you're really much nicer than you let on when you're around people you can trust. Give me the chance to show you that we men aren't all that bad and perhaps we could wind up being friends after all. Wouldn't you like that?"

Kachu took a moment to reply, then she said softly, "I…I don't know. I suppose…I could try…"

"Well, why don't you sleep on it and tell me your decision in the morning," Tofu nodded to the bedroom, "You can have my bed for tonight…"

"What?" Kachu looked at him in alarm.

"Huh-uh-no!" Tofu hastily amended, "I didn't mean that the way it sounds. I mean you can sleep in my bed and I'll sleep out here on one of the couches…"

"Your bed?" Kachu's eyes narrowed, "And why would you insist on sleeping out here. Is there something wrong with me?"

Tofu had to blink his eyes twice before he said, "N-No…that isn't it at all…!"

"Then why do you want me to sleep in your bed if you do not mean to share it?" Kachu demanded to know in rising temper, "I will not take charity from you! I will sleep out here and you can have your own damned bedroom."

"But…what…?" Tofu asked in confusion.

"In fact," Kachu rose to her feet, her temper rising with her, "I will not abide to sleep under your roof since you obviously want nothing to do with me! The stars are the only friends I have ever known, so I will sleep under them and be done with your hospitality-Husband!"

Tofu started to get up to protest that she was being unfair, but Kachu kicked the table into his legs, tripping him up as she stormed around him, snatching up her C'hi Chi as she headed for the exit. As the door slammed behind her, Tofu groaned from underneath his own tea table, "This is never going to work…never, never, ever…not in a million years…" He sighed then added, "I think I need an aspirin…"

"Thank you for walking me home, my friend," Kodachi said shyly to her companion, "It was very kind of you, but not really necessary."

"Oh, but I had to see that you made it home all right," Kasumi assured the Black Rose, "You were injured while trying to protect me. That obligated me to see to it that you don't suffer a relapse until I knew that you were home safely."

"So," Kodachi said with a coy look in her violet eyes, "You do this from a sense of obligation, and here I merely thought that you enjoyed my company."

"But I do," Kasumi said sincerely, "In fact it's no trouble at all. I'd glad that you are feeling well enough walk home by yourself, but I couldn't take the chance of you suffering another relapse."

Kodachi gave the older girl the most dazzling smile and said, "Well, now that you have seen me home, it has gotten to be quite late, and I don't think it would be proper for you to wander off to your own home by yourself this late at night. Why don't you come inside with me and you can spend the night here. I'm sure Tachi will be glad to see you safely home in the morning."

"Oh, but I wouldn't want to be a bother," Kasumi assured.

"No bother at all," Kodachi said, taking the other woman's hand in her own and gently pulling it forward, "In fact I've wanted to invite you over to my house for some time so that I may show it off to you. It is such a lonely house without company to spend time with me…"

"You're too kind, Kodachi-chan," Kasumi remained where she was, her eyes full of warmth for her friend, "But my family will be worried about me, and I have to tend to the chores…"

"Nonsense," Kodachi insisted, "Those two Amazons can look after everything for one night. They seemed to be quite a home in your kitchen, and I think that Silk person actually enjoys the domestic labor."

"But it isn't right to make guests do the housework," Kasumi insisted, "And Father will be so worried…"

"Your father is in good hands," Kodachi assured her, "In fact I'd say that Silk appears to enjoy lavishing her attentions upon him. Unless you don't trust her around your father, which I most certainly could understand if that is the cause of your reluctance."

"Well…" Kasumi said with notable hesitation.

"You deserve a night away from your home," Kodachi insisted, "You do everything for your family, isn't it time that someone did something nice for you for a change? Please allow me to play the hostess. I would very much enjoy having you in my home, if only for one evening."

Kasumi was uncertain, but after another moment of holding out she finally relented and allowed herself to be drawn forward. In a hesitant voice she said, "I suppose I could call father to let him know where I'll be for the night…"

"Feel free to use our phone," Kodachi hid the grin that she felt rising up from the dark well of her soul, "I'll have Sasuke fetch it for you, then I want to take you on a little tour of our mansion. It is such a large and spacious place, so many rooms to get lost in, and so many interesting sights that I wish to show you."

"That does sound nice," Kasumi smiled, "I guess it wouldn't hurt to spend one night at your place. I haven't done something like this since I was a very little girl. You're right, my family has needed me for so long that I've almost forgotten what it means to have fun."

"Then allow me to reacquaint you with the concept," Kodachi purred in a sensual undertone, feeling an eagerness take charge of her emotions. A fly walking into the lair of a spider could not have been more obliging, and Kodachi could hardly wait to get started showing her companion another more interesting side to the meaning of "friendship."

Of course there are times when even spiders should be wary, and the developments hardly passed unobserved by a pair of slitted eyes that were accompanied by a low, dry cackle of amusement…


Comments/Criticism/Slitted Eyes: Shadowmane@ridgenet.net