Ah My Goddess Fan Fiction / Ranma 1/2 Fan Fiction / Sailor Moon Fan Fiction ❯ A Tale of Two Wallets ❯ The Demon Returns ( Chapter 37 )

[ 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

Silk wondered at the faint sounds of a disturbance that she heard and felt back in the Tendo garden but decided that whatever it was did not require much of her attention. Comb was more than able to deal with anything unusual that might happen during her absence, and Silk needed to devote her concentration to the task already at hand, the location and current whereabouts of a woman whom she had not seen in nearly a generation.

Indeed, her memories of Nodoka Tsukino were colored by time and experience, but she could still picture in her mind a young girl with reddish-brown hair dressed in a traditional-style kimono, soft spoken and very demure, yet possessing hidden steel beneath her silken exterior. Nodoka could seem the worldly innocent to some, but Silk had seen the young Tsukino in a wide range of emotional extremes, and when pushed with her back to the edge she could transform before your eyes into a raging tiger. Although very traditional minded with a nominally sweet disposition she could at times be as stubborn and willful as Comb herself (though the latter would gag rather than admit it!), and on the subject of Genma she could be as fiercely possessive as any Amazon. A quite formidable presence, this Nodoka, and one not so easily forgotten.

Such a contrast to her older brother, whom Silk could remember well as very amicable and pleasing to be with. Silk briefly wondered if he ever married his girlfriend, Imaho, and settled down in the big city like they'd always planned to? So many old acquaintances to look up, she smiled, and pleasant memories to relive now that she was back in Japan. It almost made the idea of extending her stay indefinitely all the more appealing…

Ah well, she mused, no sense dwelling too long in the past. She had pressing business in the present, so she began to concentrate on those memories dealing specifically with Nodoka and allowed all other thoughts to gently slide away from her consciousness. Already in her mind she was crafting the Location spell, and with her spirit charged with light she sent her thoughts out into the ether, feeling her call reach out to touch the farthest corners of Japan…and after a pause of no more than several heartbeats she found that call had been answered.

A pinprick of light only distantly perceived responded to her probing thoughts, and with the fluid ease of long practice Silk centered her mind upon that point and strengthened the link until she confirmed that it was the correct correspondence. Satisfied that she had found her quarry at last, Silk opened the portals of her mind and willed the unfolding of localized space, then stepped through the answering void and was transported elsewhere in the space of mere instants. A moment later she stepped out from another fold in the fabric of space and time and found herself in an altogether different location.

It was an open market square somewhere in Japan, though she perceived that she was still on the outskirts of Tokyo itself, perhaps in another district. She was surrounded by people, of course-this being the early part of the morning business rush-but they did not notice her appearance in their midst as she had easily glided past their perceptual awareness. Few people were sensitive enough to perceive a Lore Master when they were on a Questing, and fewer still would accept the casual display of her abilities to Windwalk the corridors of space and time, just as her grandmother could before her.

Silk continued to extend her own awareness beyond the shallow mass of mundane thoughts that surrounded her like a herd of sleepwalking zombies and centered her vision on the one bright spot that stood out above the crowd. It was like seeing her memories replayed in life, and a curious overlap momentarily obscured her vision as past and present collided, then separated again, resolving into the woman who was approaching her with a downcast expression. At first Silk wondered if she had misaligned her aim and wound up in the past rather than the present, but as the woman drew nearer she saw the slight tell-tale signs of age and maturity, of great dignity and bearing that could only come in the fullness of life's experiences.

Silk waited until the woman was only a few paces away then willed herself back into the flow of time, emerging fully with material consciousness as if awakening from a dream, and then she softly murmured the word, "Nodoka."

The other woman halted in mid-step, raising her eyes to meet the gaze of the Lore Master, then in a soft voice of surprise she gasped, "Kimiko-chan?" But almost instantly the hope in her eyes died, to be replaced by recognition that was neither hostile nor entirely friendly, "You?"

"It's me, Nodoka-san," Silk allowed herself to smile warmly at the other girl, reassuring her with a gesture of her non-threatening status, "I'm back visiting old acquaintances, old haunts, and I chanced to find you. What a surprise this is after so many years of separation."

Nodoka relaxed into a smile as she replied, "It is good to see you again, Silk-san. I must say you are looking well."

"As are you," Silk inclined her head and added coyly, "I'm envious of your beauty! You have weathered the passage of the years with your good looks remarkably well preserved. You simply must tell me your secrets."

"You flatter me," Nodoka said, coloring slightly, "I really don't do anything special to myself, other than work to keep myself active and in shape. If anything it is you who look unchanged from the girl I once knew when we both were still teenagers."

"Keeping yourself active, eh?" Silk winked as her smile became more suggestive, "That's very commendable. I'll bet that stud of a husband you were going to marry has helped you out there. What was his name again? Gumbo? Golem?"

"Genma," Nodoka replied with a faint smile, but that smile turned into a wistful sigh that radiated deep longing and unhappiness. Silk began to feel genuine sympathy for the other girl as she heard Nodoka reply, "I haven't seen him for some time. In fact…I was hoping that I might find him, but the trail here in Jubai is as cold as many of the others…"

"Jubai?" Silk privately filed away the name of her present location and instead approached the other girl with unfeigned solicitation in her speech and manners, "Why don't you tell me all about it, dear? You look to me like you could use a friend, and I've always been one willing to lend an ear to anyone who would like to share their story."

"I wouldn't want to be a bother," Nodoka replied, "I was just on my way to my home, and I'm sure you have more interesting concerns elsewhere…"

"None that are more pressing than helping out an old friend," Silk smiled, allowing herself to at least imply that in the past they had shared a kind of friendship, "At the least let me walk you back to your home. Do you live close nearby?"

"No," Nodoka said, "My home is in the X district. I was only visiting with my brother in hopes of finding leads to where my son and husband have gone off to."

"Oh, you have a son now?" Silk replied, "No daughter? Well, then at the least I can walk you to the subway station. It's such a long ways and a woman can't be too careful these days, now can she?"

"Oh, I'm not afraid of any trouble," Nodoka smiled sadly, "I can take care of myself…I have been for quite a while now."

"Indeed," Silk replied, unable to help noticing the cloth-wrapped bundle that was slung across Nodoka's back, which she knew without needing the Sight to confirm contained a special Katana, the family sword that had once belonged to her mother. Nodoka had been raised in the Samurai tradition and was quite good at Kenjitsu twenty years ago. If anything she appeared to have only increased in style, if Silk's instincts were to be trusted (and being a Lore Master, they naturally could be).

Nodoka raised no protests as Silk slipped her hand into the crook of the other woman's arm and clasped palms with the other girl, lending a friendly smile that did seem to reassure Nodoka that she could, at the very least, relieve some of her burden. Silk accompanied Nodoka for the nearest subway depot, intending to worm the details out of her companion by every subtle trick of persuasion that she knew. She'd had long practice worming secrets out of Comb in such a manner, and she reckoned that could be no worse than using her charms on the Japanese girl to make her divulge her most cherished secrets.

One way or another she intended to find out why Genma had spent so many years away from his wife while denying her the simple pleasure of the company of their son while offering such support as she could for the grieving Nodoka, who by rights should have been informed at once that both son and father were staying in the house of the Tendos. Silk felt a tinge of regret that she did not tell her right away, but some instinct cautioned her to pretend disinterest rather than drop everything on this woman's lap. Best to take things slow and follow her intuition, just like her grandmother had trained her. Nothing rushed into quickly could have a good outcome, or so Lo-Xion would have warned her.

Of course this did not prevent her from entertaining private fantasies about a certain stuffed panda whom she might cheerfully turn into a bearskin rug after this was all over…

Nabiki's Journal Continues:

"Master?" I repeated with dull incomprehension, taking in the little run dressed up like a pre-shrunk Ninja that somebody had left too long out in the elements and trying to sort out the nagging sensation that I had seen this dirty old man somewhere beforehand.

"That's right, Toots," he winked at me in a way that made me feel genuinely disgusted, "I'm your father's master, and his father before him. Happosai's the name, Anything Goes style is my game!"

"You mean when your game isn't stealing women's underwear and fondling them without their permission," Cologne remarked with a sharpness to her tone that made me glance at her in growing confusion.

"Hiyaa!" Shampoo chose that moment to exclaim, "Great Grandmother, is he truly legendary Demon master who once cause trouble to our people?"

"The very same, child," Cologne said crossly, "The legendary lecher and reputedly Most Evil Old Martial Arts master in the history of the universe. He's the thief who stole precious heirlooms from our tribe when I was but a mere girl, for which reason I originally dispatched Silk and Comb to retrieve those items twenty years ago..."

"I know, Grandmother," Comb said stiffly, "And we failed in that quest, though there were extenuating circumstances…"

Cologne waved a dismissive hand, "You don't need to justify yourself with me, child, in all truth I should never have entrusted you with such a dangerous assignment in the first place. It was the Council who wanted those items recovered, and they demanded that someone from our house be charged with the recovery, but they refused to allow me to go--even though I argued that I alone had the best chance of defeating Happy-because of my position…"

"Wait a minute here," Master Happosai narrowed his eyes as he studied the old lady, "When you were a young girl you say? I haven't been to the Amazon lands in quite some time…which means that you must be…" he brightened and threw his arms wide, "Cologne, baby! Long-time no see!"

"Would that it could have been longer," Cologne said in a particularly unpleasant manner, and then I felt the hackles along the nape of my neck go stiff, as did the hairs along my arms as I felt a chill run up and down my spine, then saw a wind kick up the old woman's silver hair so that it almost looked like it was standing on end from a static discharge. She raised her staff and I swear that I must have been seeing something because there was an honest-to-Kami-sama glow surrounding her that took the shape of what I thought was a dragon, and one moment later she brought that staff down and struck the place where the old man had been standing,

The wave of force was incredible! I saw Ranma and Shampoo jump in front of me to take the brunt of it on themselves as I raised my arms to shield my face against the flying bits of stone and mud that went whizzing past my head without touching. I refocused my eyes in time to see that their hands were moving like a blur to pluck each bit of shrapnel out of the air before it could get near me, which was a pretty good display of coordinated thinking on both of their parts. To put it mildly, I really appreciated the gesture!

When the dustcloud settled a moment later there was a gaping hole in the ground where there had been a boulder. Cologne's staff hovered above the smoldering crater, still being clutched by her in two tiny, withered hands, while upon that staff stood the perverted old master.

"Cologne-chan," Happosai said slowly, "I get the feeling that you're not happy to see me for some reason."

"Hey you!" Daddy immediately protested, "What is the big idea of demolishing my garden? Can't you take your private quarrels somewhere else rather than destroy other people's personal property?"

I saw Genma's father had reverted to panda form again, which meant that he must have been splashed by water displaced from the koi pond. As it was he was holding up that sign he seems to carry everywhere, and on the side of it read the words, "Can't we all just get along?"

The old man hopped off of Cologne's staff and came to stand on another rock that afforded him a closer scrutiny of Daddy. He looked my father over critically and said, "What was that about, Soun my boy?"

"Ah," Daddy suddenly was down on the grown bowing profusely, while I saw Uncle Genma rolling on his back and playing with a tire like he was just an innocent panda. In tones that absolutely shook with dread Daddy cried, "Master! How we prayed…I mean--we're glad to see you once again, it has been many years…"

"Daddy?" Akane asked, echoing my confusion on the matter.

"Hmm," the old man said narrowly, "The mustache does do something to your appearance, my boy. Kind of makes you look more…"

"Stupid?" Comb suggested, and I shot a wary glare in her direction.

"I was going to say it added some distinction to your looks," the old man broke out in a wide smile, "But I'm afraid I have to agree with the cutie, it looks more like a woolly caterpillar crawled out on your upper lip. Now then…Genma, your old fox!"

The panda stopped playing as Happosai hopped over to examine him more closely, and I saw something that looked like fear in his eyes…but since Uncle Genma tends to be afraid of his own shadow I just took this to be a perfectly normal reaction on his part.

"You recognize him even though he's not human?" Akane asked, thought I might have quibbled a bit with her exact phrasing.

"Of course, I'd know him anywhere," Happosai said cheerfully, "Those drooping eyes, that sad-sack expression, the utter air of cluelessness about him…"

"Makes sense," noted Ukyo, confirming my own appraisal.

"Wow," Ranma-chan said, "You really do know Pop!"

That got the old man's attention and he turned back towards Ranma with a peculiar look, then before either of us could see him move he flew through the air and planted himself on Ranma-chan's chest with a delighted, "Yippee! Genma, my boy, you've gone and hit the motherload!"

Something sure enough hit the old man in the next second, Cologne's staff beating out Shampoo's fist and Ukyo's baker's peel by only a fraction of a second, which still gave Ranma-chan plenty of time to stomp him good enough to sink the old geezer's face two inches into the ground. I caught the disgusted look in Ranma's face and wished I could have got my own licks in. Imagine…somebody doing that to her long before I could!

"What the hell is wrong with you!" Ranma-chan yelled at the perverted Gnome, "I'm a guy, you got that? And what's wrong with the pair of you? You gonna grovel in the dirt while this old guy attacks both of your daughters?"

That latter part was yelled in the direction of our fathers, but rather than react to the barb, Daddy and Uncle Genma were eyeing Ranma-chan as if they had never set eyes on her until that moment.

"You…you struck the Master!" Daddy all but whimpered in terror.

Uncle Genma was holding up his sign once more, which now read, "You fool! You don't know what you've done!"

"Huh?" Ranma-chan asked, when all of a sudden the old man pushed himself off the ground, resisting Ranma's efforts at holding him in place.

"I like a girl with spunk," the old geezer growled, "But you just pushed the wrong buttons."

Ranma-chan suddenly went tumbling backwards, but she recovered in mid-tumble and landed in a fighting crouch several meters away, while the old gnome took a stance of his own and cried, "You're pretty nimble for a girl. Tell me your name, cutie, before we get to it."

"Saotome Ranma," my iinazuke declared with a defiant tone to her voice, "Of the Anything Goes school!"

"R-Ranma?" the old man blinked, "Your name is Ranma?"

"That's what he said," Cologne replied with a guarded expression of her own.

"But that's odd," the old man considered, "Genma used to have a son by that name. I always knew he lacked imagination, but you think he could have given another name besides that to his daughter."

"That is his son," Comb replied, "Meet my future son-in-law and Shampoo's husband, Saotome Ranma."

"Aiyaa!" Shampoo cried, vaulting to Ranma-chan's side and taking her by the arm to rest her head on the smaller girl's shoulder, "Ranma is big strong man! Shampoo go fix so dirty, evil old Demon laundry stealer see for self that only Ranma is fit to call self Anything Goes Master!"

With that she vaulted from his side and headed into the house, emerging what seemed to me to be only seconds later with an already heated teapot.

"You tell Shampoo if is too warm, Ailen," Shampoo said as she tipped the pot over Ranma-chan's head and started pouring. One second later, instant Ranma-kun!

"Well, well," the old man remarked, "So he really is a boy. Genma, you old fool, did you go and take this handsome lad to Jusenkyo?"

"What if he did?" Ranma growled, pocking the knuckles on both of his hands, "I'm still gonna flatten you for what you just did to me!"

"You're welcome to try, my boy," the old geezer smiled, assuming a fighting crouch, "Let's see what you got!"

Ranma charged the old man with a frontal assault that looked pretty devastating, or would have been if he hadn't hit the far wall of the garden instead of the old freak! I barely even saw the creep move and Ranma was sent flying across the yard as if sent that way by a slingshot. Where he hit the wall was physically cracked, which caused me to cry out his name in horrified outrage.

"Too slow by a half-step," the old man declared, then suddenly his hand shot up and he caught the edge of Ukyo's spatula as it came descending down towards him.

"Excuse me," the old guy looked up at her, effortlessly holding the baker's peel in place in spite of Kuonji's best efforts, "But you're interrupting a private chat between master and student."

"I don't care!" Ukyo growled, "You can't do that to my friend, Ranchan!"

Happosai narrowed his gaze and said, "Do I know you? You look kind of familiar…"

"Huh?" Ukyo asked, momentarily stunned out of her efforts at pounding him.

"Well, it's all the same, I guess," the old guy said philosophically, and the next thing you know he's sent Ukyo flying backwards with as much apparent effort as I'd have unrolling a futon!

"Ukyo!" Akane cried, and I heard a squeal that drew my attention to the pig at her feet. It figured Ryoga had also fallen victim to his curse or he would have been right there beside Akane making his opinions known during all of this.

"Now then," Happosai turned back towards where Ranma had fallen, only to blink his eyes as he said, "Now where did he go?"

A cry drew all out attention skyward where we saw Ranma in the act of descending towards the old man with a flying kick that was classical Saotome style. I think the old man looked impressed right up until he casually stepped to one side and let Ranma strike the ground where he had been standing, then with equal calm he tapped some spot behind Ranma's neck and stood back as Ranma tumbled backwards, landing almost at my feet as a matter of course.

"Not too shabby, boy," the old man said with a gleam in his eyes and a look of speculation, "You do have some potential, and the way you recovered just now proves that you've got what it takes to one day be a Master of the Anything Goes school."

"Yes, that's it, of course!" Daddy declared as he lifted his face from where he had been groveling the whole time, "Ranma is the heir to the Anything Goes school, and he's engaged to my daughter, Nabiki, to inherit both the Tendo and Saotome branches, along with my family dojo!"

"Nabiki?" the old guy glanced at all of us until I hesitantly raised my hand and said, "Over here, Gramps."

"Well, well," the old man smirked, glancing down at Ranma again, "You do have taste, boy, only I thought you were supposed to be engaged to Comb's child over there."

"Shampoo engaged to both Airen," Shampoo announced proudly, kneeling down to examine poor Ranma and finding a spot she could touch that caused him to unlock his muscles, "Nabiki is promised to Ranma, and Ranma is Shampoo husband…"

"A three-way, huh?" the old man mused, "Didn't think they still went in for those, not that I've got anything against it, of course…"

"You…" Ranma started to growl, only to find Cologne's staff was in his path preventing him from lurching forward from where he crouched.

"No more for you today, Son-in-law," the old woman remarked, giving the old man an icy glare, "At least not until you've had enough training to wipe that smirk off his face. Are you proud of yourself, Happy, beating up your own great grandson?"

"Say what?" both Ranma and I said together in chorus, and the old man heaved a sigh of regret and sadly nodded.

"Yes, it's true, much to my sorrow and neglect," Happosai turned a frown at both of our fathers, and together they groveled in the dirt as if seeking permission to get back upright, "Your father carries my genes, much though the apple seems to have fallen a ways off of the ol' apple cart. Glad to see you've got more fire and spunk in you than these two disappointments put together."

"Um, excuse me?" Akane said with some hesitation, "But what's all this about? And where have you been all these years if you really are Ranma's great grandfather?"

"Why," the old freak replied, "I've been trapped in a cave for the last ten years since your fathers got me drunk one night and tried to blow me up with some explosives."

"Say what?" I gasped, and I think Ranma must have been sharing my thoughts because we said that at the exact same instant with perfect synchronization.

"That's right," the old man leered as he glanced back in the direction of our fathers, "Bet you two were hoping I'd forgotten about all of that. Well, surprise, I'm back! And I'm here to make up for lost time, so you'd better get used to the idea 'cause I'm moving in and bringing my beauties with me."

"Beauties?" I repeated, wondering if this old guy had enough of the stud in him to still attract some ladies. I figured if he did they were probably living in a retirement home!

"You'll see," he cackled, turning back towards Ranma, "Good to meet you again, boy. It's been a long while since I saw any of you tadpoles. We'll have to do this again sometime, but for now I've got some catching up to do with the ladies!"

And with that he vaulted away, just as Kuonji was coming to from where she had landed on the other side of the garden.

"Oh!" she groaned, "What hit me?"

"A freak of nature," Ranma turned to her and asked, "You okay there, Ucchan?"

"Fine," Ukyo groaned, "Never better." She gave a start as she found Akane was at her side with a hand outstretched, offering to help her regain her footing.

"That was pretty brave of you," she said, "Attacking that old man like that after you'd seen what he did to Ranma."

"Um…thanks," Ukyo replied, accepting the offer while apparently wondering why Akane was treating her so nicely.

"It's good that you say that, 'boy,'" Cologne gave special emphasis to the word, "Because I didn't come here just to warn you about Happy. I was here to see that you live up to your side of the bargain that we made a couple of weeks ago."

"Bargain?" the expression on Ukyo's face showed that she was fully alert now and giving the old woman her undivided attention, "What bargain?"

"Don't tell me you've forgotten," Cologne smiled up at her, "After all, you were the one who emerged triumphant at the Snowman downhill competition. If you will recall, the prize was a date with my great-granddaughter, now I'm going to see that you carry through on your part of the matter."

"SAY WHAT???" we all cried at once, including Comb, Shampoo, myself and even Ranma while Ukyo looked stunned and Akane was suddenly quite angry.

"Hey!" she cried, "You can't force him to go ahead with that! Besides, Shampoo's already engaged to my sister and Ranma!"

I was wondering about the way Akane had said that when Ranma himself spoke up and said, "Yeah, but a deal's a deal, after all, and I can't exactly pretend it never happened. Ucchan won the Phoenix pill for me after all, so I guess I owe him a favor."

Now Shampoo was looking in disbelief at Ranma, and so was I, wondering what the heck was going on in his mind that he could say such a thing about Shampoo. I know he thinks Ukyo's a boy, so why would he be in favor of her dating our mutual girlfriend?

The offer seemed to take even Cologne by surprise, and I suddenly had a gleam of her motivation in all of this. She must have been trying to smoke out Ranma by making him jealous over Shampoo, and Ranma had just turned things around to make it sound like he was trading Shampoo's favors for favors!

"You've got to be kidding!" Akane growled, "You want Shampoo to date him?"

"This ain't about what I want," Ranma replied, "It's about what's right for Ucchan. I ain't forcing Shampoo to do nothing that she don't want, but she did agree to go out with the winner, and that wasn't me, thanks to you, old woman. Hey, if I'd won I'd be glad to go out with her and show you a good time, Sham-chan, but since it didn't work out that way…" he let the point drop, nodding towards Kuonji.

"Hey," Ukyo said nervously, "I don't want to get involved here, or get in the way between you guys…"

"Oh, you won't," Ranma came up to stand beside her and clapped him on the shoulder, "This ain't got nothing to do with what's between Shampoo, Nabiki and me, not unless you two hit it off for some reason…" he let his tone become a growl as he added, "Just make sure you do show Shampoo a good time. She's a great girl and she deserves to be treated like a lady, old buddy."

Kuonji swallowed, and for a half-second I wondered if Ranma had somehow penetrated her disguise, which no doubt was running through Ukyo's mind at that same instant.

Shampoo recovered from her own shock and surprise to look at Ranma curiously, then she asked, "Airen…is this what you want of Shampoo?"

"It's entirely up to you, Sham-chan," Ranma told her, "I won't blame you if you want to back out, but as that wouldn't be fair to ol' Ucchan…"

I saw a tell-tale crafty look come into Shampoo's lovely features, and then she smiled and walked right up to Ukyo and said, "Then you take Shampoo on date, and it better be nice one, or I tell Airen."

"But…what?" Ukyo blinked her eyes with a particularly trapped expression.

"Unless you have reason you no want to date Shampoo?" our Amazon bride-to-be asked coyly, giving Ukyo a particularly sultry expression that was guaranteed to expose anyone who didn't find girls attractive.

I caught on about that point and smiled myself, saying, "Well then, you two have a good time, and don't stay out too late, you hear?"

"Hey!" Akane protested, "Oneechan, don't you force him into it too!"

I heard Ryoga make an inquiring noise and looked down to see a very piggish expression of confusion and outrage.

"A date?" Ukyo gasped, "Um…well…"

"You may pick her up at eight sharp," Cologne said as she began to hop away, "She will be at the Nekohanten making her self ready. Don't be late, and be sure to have her back home by eleven."

"Meanwhile," Ranma said with a glare at our two fathers, "Nabiki and me have a few things we'd like to have settled with the old guys."

Both Daddy and Uncle Genma did not seem too happy at the looks that Ranma, Akane and me were giving them, in fact I'd say they looked like they wanted to go hide somewhere in a corner.

Before we pursued the matter, however, I heard Cologne pause beside Comb and asked in a puzzled voice, "Granddaughter? Why are you shedding those tears?"

"I'm sorry, Grandmother," Comb said as she dabbed at her eyes with a silk kerchief, "It's just my little baby is growing up so fast…"

"They tend to do that at her age," Comb replied, then continued on her way out beyond the holes put in the walls of our garden…

"Are you certain that I cannot convince you to stay a while longer?"

"Thank you, but I must be going home," Kasumi replied, "My family will be worried about me, and father will be most anxious if he doesn't hear from me in person."

"I am certain he will do fine," Kodachi observed, "He's probably basking in the attention that Amazon has been lavishing on him since they both got back together."

"Do you think so?" for a moment Kasumi's seamless brow was furrowed with the faintest look of concern, "I suppose you may be right…they were awfully close at one time…"

"They have a daughter only slightly older than you to testify to that," Kodachi said as gently as she could, mindful not to say too much to upset her companion.

"Oh my," Kasumi remarked, "I guess you're right, that mean's I'm not the oldest anymore. Kachu really is my Oneesan."

"And she seems to have found herself a husband, no less," Kodachi studied the other girl's expression carefully as she added, "And a doctor at that, this Tofu Ono, whom I believe is a friend of yours?"

"Yes," Kasumi replied with a faint sigh, "A friend. He's always been there for me and my family whenever we've needed him, so in a way I am happy for him, but…"

"But?" Kodachi hung on the word with more anxiety than she would have imagined.

"Well…" Kasumi sighed at last, "It is silly, but I have at times wondered why he hasn't married before. He's such a kind and considerate man, and very handsome. I'm sure any woman would count themselves fortunate to have him for a husband…still…there have been times…"

She let the sentence hand there unfinished, but after a slight pause she smiled again and said, "Oh, I'm probably just being silly. I'm sure he'll make Kachu-san a very happy woman. It's just that…well, it reminds me so much that I've never really found anyone who could make me feel as happy. I've always wondered if Tofu-sensei might find a girl like me attractive, but I've never been able to sound him out on that. He always behaves so oddly whenever I am around him…"

"Some men do have their problems," Kodachi continued to study Kasumi, memorizing each trace and detail of her sad expression.

"Perhaps so," Kasumi said, "But I had begun to think that maybe the reason Tofu behaves the way he does around me is that he's always trying to cheer me up. I'd like a man who could be so thoughtful about my needs. I guess now that he has my sister he won't have time to even look in my direction, which is a shame because I've never found anyone else who was half as interesting to be around. Did you know that he's the one who encouraged me to learn Chinese so I could read the books he always lends me?"

"Indeed," Kodachi's tone was just a bit icy, "A man of many talents."

Kasumi brightened once again as she turned fully towards Kodachi and said, "Oh, but you've made me feel so much better by letting me spend the night in your mansion. I haven't done anything like this in ages, and it was so nice to have a girlfriend once again. I hope I won't be too forward if I ask to do this with you again. I never realized that it could be so much fun to spend a night away from my family. I haven't even thought about taking a vacation to be by myself like this in ages."

Kodachi felt something warm fill her chest and she almost glowed as she replied, "By all means come whenever you like. It was such a pleasure having you here…you really must extend your visit with me sometime. They put far too many obligations on you in your house, you are the one who deserves to feel pampered."

"Oh, but it's never been any real burden for me," Kasumi reassured her, "If anything it's always felt good to be needed and have someone I can care for. I may do a lot of things to maintain the Wa of our house but it's a joy that I have always been good at it because it makes me feel so much closer to my dear, departed mother."

Kodachi felt a brief shudder as she thought about what it would have been like to feel closer to her own mother. Aloud what she said was, "I would dearly love to have you serve me sometime with even half as much devotion. I thank you for putting me to bed when I was…indisposed…"

"I was only too happy to help you out," Kasumi replied, "It was nothing less than what I would have done for any of my sisters, and you were so kind in letting me stay here."

Kodachi felt an overwhelming urge to reach out to this other girl, to embrace her, to fall to her knees, to worship and adore her like a saint. Instead she exchanged parting pleasantries and watched Kasumi go down the walkway to where the driver was holding open the door to the limousine that would take Kasumi home (but only temporarily out of Kodachi's life, she solemnly vowed to herself with a wistful sigh of longing). Feeling rather like the fisherman who had allowed "the Big One" to get away, she closed the front door and leaned against it, feeling momentarily weak in the knees as she filled her mind with thoughts of the beauteous Kasumi.

But there was no gentleness in her tone when she pushed away a moment later and cried out, "SASUKE!"

Almost instantly the little ninja peeled himself out from the shadows and at once threw himself to the floor and bowed profusely to Kodachi saying, "Forgive me, Mistress! It wasn't my fault! He made me do it!"

"He?" Kodachi pronounced the word as if not liking the taste or the sound of it.

"The ancient Evil old master who has returned to haunt our nightmares!" Sasuke proclaimed in a quivering voice, "I remember him when I was still a small boy, and if anything he's just as terrifying as he was in the days when my father still served your father! He is evil, Mistress, unstoppable in his lusts…"

"What are you babbling about?" Kodachi asked in confusion, then a sudden flash of insight hit her, "You mean another devil, like that Oni?"

"No, Mistress," Sasuke replied, "Worse than any Oni! He is Happosai, the Grand Master of the Anything Goes school, back from the dead to torment the living!"

"Anything Goes, you say?" Kodachi frowned, "Could this have anything to do with my beloved?"

"With young Master Saotome?" Sasuke considered, "It might…if you consider that his father was a student of Happosai…"

"Saotome?" Kodachi was momentarily confused, "Oh…you mean Ranma's father. Oh well…I was really more concerned about the Tendos…"

"Oh, didn't I tell you that?" Sasuke risked looking up at his employer, "Soun Tendo is also a former star pupil of Master Happosai. Their families belong to the same school and…"

"You mean he is the Master to the father of Kasumi?" Kodachi said with mile surprise, "And he was here last night you say?"

"Indeed, Mistress," Sasuke was pleased at the calmer tone of the Black Rose this morning and hastily explained, "He must have followed her here, and he surprised me when I went to fulfill your commands regarding the drinks. He…made me switch the potions…" Sasuke glanced down timidly, expecting to be chastised.

"So the Master of Kasumi's father is the one I have to thank for my sudden nap last evening," she mused in thoughtful tones, "Well, in a way I suppose he was just looking out for her interests. After all, there are a lot of dangerously unstable people in the world who would delight in taking advantage of such a delicate flower of innocent ripe maidenhood."

"Indeed Mistress," Sasuke agreed, hoping that he did not let even a trace of irony slip into his tone as he said this.

"Still it does not excuse you for allowing an intruder onto the premises," Kodachi said with a note of caution, "I should be very displeased if anything like this should happen again in the near future."

"I understand, Mistress," Sasuke almost had his face in the carpet as he groveled at her feet, "You are the soul of kindness, generosity and mercy…"

"Actually she just walked out the door," Kodachi said with offhanded casualness, "I expect you to report to the Punishment Room, where I will discipline you for your lax behavior."

Sasuke froze like a lawn ornament, and for a moment the only sound was a very audible swallow, then a very mild, "Yes, Mistress."

"Oh," Kodachi said as she was about to turn away, "You may also feed Mister Green Turtle. I'll be far too preoccupied to attend to that myself this morning."

Sasuke's face became a mask that you could have used in a Kabuki play, and his voice was barely audible as he said, "Yes mistress…"

"Oh, and if you find any time between this and your regular duties, please look up for me the word Jusenkyo," Kodachi added, "My beloved mentioned something about that last night, though she wouldn't share with me any details. I think it may be of some importance."

"As you wish it, Mistress," Sasuke replied, wondering if it was a good time to update his last will and testament. The day was already looking to be a long one!

"Now, if that's done," Kodachi said as she headed for the stairs, "I would like to be alone in my room for a while. I'll call you when I need you."

She didn't even bother to wait for his reply, so Sasuke decided to hold his peace until she was well out of earshot, then he sighed to himself and said, "And I thought they were such a handful when they were only children…"

Silk sipped her tea and found herself enjoying the conversation with Nodoka far more than she would have believed if judged merely by the old days. Nodoka had grown up to be a fine and regal lady who kept an excellent house and was the perfect hostess in every sense of the term. If anything she was a startling contrast to Comb, who could have been at home in a pigsty if not for the valiant cleaning efforts of her husband.

"So you've been seeking the whereabouts of your husband for some time now?" Silk asked.

"Hai," Nodoka agreed as she offered another riceball to her companion, "I haven't seen either him or my son in over ten long years, and lately I've been growing more and more troubled about that. Genma promised he would return about this time and bring our son to show me what kind of a man he had grown up to be. It's very important that I know if Genma has kept up on his promise that Ranma would be a man among men, the pride of any mother."

"Indeed," Silk mused, thinking to herself that Ranma definitely fulfilled the "manly" part, at least when he was able to stay away from cold water. She could see how much it was tearing at Nodoka not to know the whereabouts of her loved ones and she regretted once again her deception in not immediately confessing her knowledge regarding their present whereabouts.

(Damn you, Saotome Genma,) she thought to herself in a rather acid contemplation, (You have no right to come between a mother and her child! You are not Cologne, an Elder who has earned the respect of her peers, to deny your wife the simple satisfaction of knowing that your son is still alive! How dare you!)

Aloud what she said was, "I'm certain that your son is alive and thinks only the best of you, in fact I'm sure that he would be delighted to know that you are well and that you think of him so kindly."

"But if only I could certain," Nodoka allowed her mask of calm to slip away, betraying the anxieties she had shared with no one until this moment, "I am certain that Genma will bring Ranma home when he is ready, but if I could only have some assurance that they are even still alive…"

Silk felt her own motherly instincts rising to the fore. She had not succeeded in raising Kachu to be the sort of daughter that she would have wanted, but there had been many moments when being a mother had brought her the greatest happiness in her life, and there was no way that she could tolerate seeing someone else in this position. Even when Kachu was away training with others there had been the comforting knowledge that her daughter was alive, hale and hearty and terrorizing her instructors. The very least that she could do for this particular mother was to offer her some hope that he son was still among the living.

"Nodoka-chan," she said softly, "I don't know what you remember about us Amazons and our ways, or if you've heard about the rumors concerning us, but...it may be of interest to you that we are not entirely a race of woman warriors. In fact some of us specialize in other fields of endeavor, and when I last left Japan it was in pursuit of this alternate way of living."

"Are you saying that you're no longer a warrior?" Nodoka asked curiously.

"That's right," Silk smiled, "I am what they call a Lore Master, much as my grandmother, whom I believe you will remember?"

"Vaguely," Nodoka said, "The one you claimed was almost two hundred years old?"

"The same," Silk confirmed, "And as a Lore Master I have certain…abilities that help me to find things out when I need to. I may be able to locate your husband and son for you…"

"Can you?" Nodoka asked with sudden excitement, "Oh, Silk-chan…if you can do this for me, then I will be eternally grateful!"

"I can't make you any guarantees," Silk replied in what was commonly a disclaimer in her profession, and thus came to her by long habit, "But I think I can promise you results, if you would care to accompany me on a little journey."

"How soon can we leave?" Nodoka asked, almost girlishly excited.

"I think it would be best if we wait until morning," Silk replied, trying not to seem too confident of her own abilities, but when Nodoka shook her head she replied, "Now? But we only just got back to your place…"

"I couldn't possibly spend a whole day waiting to know the truth!" Nodoka urged her, "The day is still so young, and I have been waiting for such a very long time…"

Silk heaved a sigh and relented, "Today it is, then…and if fortune smiles upon us it is entirely possible that you will be reunited with your loved ones before nightfall."

Nodoka had the most yearning, eager expression that Silk could ever remember seeing, and it reminded her of her own long-suppressed desire to be reunited with her "Soun-chan." There was a nagging sense of doubt in her, though…a warning instinct that she knew-as a Lore Master-meant something was badly out of kilter with the picture that she was seeing, but for the life of her she could not determine what could possibly be wrong with helping a mother to find her son and wayward husband. Genma was obviously a deadbeat father who had abandoned his wife and callously refused to make contact with her in spite of an evident promise he had made on that subject. Try as she might she could see no evil in helping to rectify such an injustice.

Of course the fact that she knew where Genma and Ranma were staying meant that she could give results with perfect certitude. No need to inform Nodoka of this, however, better to let her believe that Silk was merely acting the part of a clever psychic. She could easily whisk them both away in mere seconds had she a mind to, but doing things the slow and gradual way would give her a chance to socialize some more and determine just why Nodoka had been willing to trust Genma. Nodoka was many things, but Silk could not believe that she was ever so foolish.

Again that warning instinct touched her mind, cautioning her of potential danger, but she thought nothing of the fact that Nodoka insisted on bringing her katana. It was a perfectly logical move for an Amazon, so Silk decided that whatever was bothering her could be dealt with in all good time, assuming that it was really that important…


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