Ah My Goddess Fan Fiction / Ranma 1/2 Fan Fiction / Sailor Moon Fan Fiction ❯ A Tale of Two Wallets ❯ Ganglot ( Chapter 82 )

[ 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

"<Are they still following us? Can you see them?>" asked Ju-Lan of his lovely companion.

"<No,>" Ro-Mano replied, "<But that doesn't mean that they're not still following our trail, even to this forbidden area. You know our families can be so very relentless.>"

"<It's a good thing that the Enforcer is still away on official business,>" Ju-Lan noted, "<If it was her on our trail we would already have been caught…>"

"<The council wants little to do with the feud between our parents,>" Ro-Mano duly noted, "So even if the Enforcer is back, it is doubtful that the Elders would send her against us.>"

The two young Amazons joined in silent prayer that they would escape to lands beyond the reach of any Elders, and that their kinsfolk would give up on the chase, though the one was equally as unlikely as the other. The boy, Ju-Lan, was already badly winded from trying to keep up with his companion, and Ro-Mano would not leave him behind to effect her own escape, and hence their current dilemma.

In truth it was a great tragedy that their mothers were bitter rivals who were bitterly opposed to any romance between their respective offspring, especially due to the fact that Ju-Lan was not of Warrior status and knew as little about fighting as he did about magic. A farmer by trade who was somewhat bookish in his tastes, Ju-Lan had been a sickly youth who had been nurtured through a difficult adolescence by the kindly ministrations of the village healer, and he had about as much of a chance of honorably defeating Ro-Mano in combat as he did of sprouting wings and flying like the people of Phoenix mountain. Ordinarily if a warrior of the tribe fell in love with a man of his station it could still be allowed that they should marry with the approval of the Council, but Elders Gin-Su and To-Main would not give their own approval, and so the families remained divided, each blaming the other for the seduction of their respective son or daughter.

Had the Matriarch been there to decide the matter their current troubles might well have been avoided. Elder Kho-Lon, though very traditional minded, was known to be just and fair in her decisions, and she could well have been expected to arrive at a compromise that would have appeased the honor of both Houses. Unfortunately the current leader, Be-Dea, was of a different temperament, and so the two young lovers had been forced to flee to avoid provoking a near riot among the Amazons that could well have torn tribal unity asunder.

Of course their decision to escape the valley by plunging headlong into the Forbidden Forest had been a risky one, but they had hoped that the name and reputation alone would discourage their pursuers. Only the desperate and the mad would risk going so near to the Temple of the Sleeping Demoness, so as luck would have it they found themselves there in very short order.

"<Oh riceworms,>" Ju-Lan exclaimed in softly profane dismay, seeing the warning signs that dotted the ruins that had strangely and mysteriously appeared all around them.

"<Er…maybe we should have taken that left turn at the last bend in the trail after all,>" Ro-Mano murmured softly as if afraid to make enough noise that she might awake something better off left sleeping.

"<I'd swear this was the trail we mapped out based on the old records,>" Ju-Lan murmured, "<We should have skirted the Musk Valley and arrived at the territory of the Howler Monkeys…so how did we wind up here?>"

"<I don't know,>" Ro-Mano whispered, her hands hovering near to her weapons, though what good a pair of Jo sticks might do against the fearsome and legendary demoness she was not about to speculate, "<I guess maybe if we trace our steps back the way they came…>"

"<And run into our cousins, Hack, Slash, Slice, Dice and Filet?>" Ju-Lan softly countered.

The warrior thought this over for a few seconds, confident that she could prevail about two or three of her fellow Amazon fighters, but not all five while protecting her boyfriend. A warrior who could not protect her man was hardly worthy of the name Amazon, but as good as she was, it wasn't like she was among the highest ranks of the Champion fighters, nor could she bear the thought of Ju-Lan going back to be punished for his defiance of his own family Elder, so the option of going back was simply not to be considered.

Going ahead, on the other hand…well, that entailed its own degree of special risks. Ro-Mano would have bristled at the suggestion that she was afraid of anything, Man, Beast or Fellow Amazon, but when it came to the supernatural she was understandably cautious.

Ju-Lan, on the other hand, was of a more practical mindset, drawing his courage from the books and ancient scrolls that he all but devoured in his off-hours. The scholarly son of a proud and illustrious House sounded unusually calm as he studied the ruins before saying in an even tone, "<I think we might be able to negotiate our way out of here if we get a bit of altitude so we can study our surroundings. The sun should be in the western sky just now, and I think I can see enough light through the trees to determine that the direction of the sun's rays are…that way. So if we determine that west is in that direction, and we've been traveling in a south-easterly direction for the past few hours, then logically the way to the other side would be to continue moving along the trail that comes nearest to that direction. Given the uneven makeup of these hills, it is likely we will have to move along parallel to the Bayankallah range before we can reach the nearest inhabited village well beyond Amazon territory, and if we make it that far we should be able to find at least some temporary shelter…>"

It was at moments such as these that Ro-Mano knew why she loved her man so dearly. Ju-Lan could make it seem as if he were as knowledgeable as any Lore Master when, in fact, he might be making no more than an educated guess, which was a lot more than she could come up with on the spot. Besides which he always made his suggestions sound so convincing, even when she could only follow roughly half of what he was saying.

"<All right,>" she glanced around, "<I suppose that I can find a tree that will bear my weight, then I'll call down what I see to you and we can figure out a way out of this Gods Damned forest.>"

"<Actually,>" her boyfriend replied as he pointed to one special mound amid the vines and ruins, "<I was going to suggest that we climb to the top of that pyramid, which should afford us an even better look at our surroundings.>"

"<A pyramid?>" Ro-Mano stared in disbelief, wondering exactly how should could have missed seeing such a significant landmark, "<There are pyramids in China?>"

There was only the slightest hesitation in the Farmer's voice before he replied, "<I guess there is at least one of them. It doesn't look a thing like any Buddhist temple I've ever seen or read about.>"

"<Then who could have built it?>" Ro-Mano asked aloud, then shrugged her shoulders and said, "<People dead a long time, I guess. I just hope their ghosts aren't looking around in these woods,>" she case a nervous eye towards the shadows, imagining that she could see malevolent eyes peering at them from every quarter.

"<That's the spirit,>" Ju-Lan smiled at her, and then led the way up the worn moss-covered steps that seemed older than the Great Wall itself, and bore the impressions of countless footsteps left by those who had come before them, "<I'm sure if we're respectful to them the spirits of the dead will give us safe passage.>"

Ro-Mano worried about the accuracy of that statement but nonetheless followed her man with her heart in her mouth, recalling far too many ancient legends and stories of lost or stray Amazons who had come to a bad end from underestimating the spirits.

They made it to the top of the pyramid without incidence, and Ro-Mano was about to breathe easy when her warrior senses detected the unusual atmosphere that hung around the place, even has her hunters instincts called her to attention of the fact that there was an unusual absence of bird and animal noises all around them. She nearly swallowed her own tongue when Ju-Lan spoke again without warning, even if his normally soothing tones sounded more curious than uneasy, and it was obvious enough to her that he did not share her sense of looming and impending danger.

"What's this?" he was asking as he paused near the top of the pyramid, his attention drawn by a faint glimmering of light.

Ro-Mano saw that the stone here was free from the cloying vines and plant growth that spread so abundantly over the rest of the ancient basalt, and with a lurching feeling of dread in the pit of her stomach she made out the details of a circle that had been carved into the stonework, along with many odd symbols upon whose nature she did not think it healthy to speculate. What had attracted her companion's eye was a glassy orb located in the center of this circle, and as Ro-Mano looked on in dismay she saw Ju-Lan bend down to examine it, his hand outstretched as if to feel the warmth of the light that it was suddenly radiating.

"DON'T TOUCH-!!!" she cried out in belated warning, only to flinch back as a blinding flash filled the air all around them, and then Ro-Mano felt Ju-Lan's body collide with hers as he was thrown violently backwards. The both of them landed in a heap and nearly fell over the side of the pyramid, which would have led to a long and nasty roll to the bottom had Ro-Mano not reacted in time to brace them both against such an eventuality. Their perch atop the stones secured, both Amazon teenagers looked up in dismay to see the shimmering light that formed a vortex-like funnel sprouting high above the pyramid's apex.

This light shifted and resolved itself into a form that took shape before their eyes, and then a figure appeared in full naked glory, spinning like a top as it stretched out arms to set the toe of one shapely foot down upon the glowing sphere as a womanly shape was revealed, slowing down into an elegant pirouette.

The figure stretched her arms and smiled serenely, and then in a curiously melodious voice she said, "FREEDOM-FREE AT LAST! OH MY GLORY, HOW GOOD IT IS TO BE FREE AT LAST!"

"<…that?>" Ro-Mano whispered in a voice that was barely a whisper.

"<Ah…>" Ju-Lan murmured from where he lay atop his beloved, "<…Did I err…?>"

"HMMM?" the woman who appeared above them drifting as light as a cloud had pale yellow hair and skin that was nearly bronzed gold while her eyes were a startling platinum color and in all senses of the word she was utterly magnificent. A set of odd facial markings distinguished her classical features, and as they looked on in confused amazement her body was draped within fine silken robes that materialized from seeming no where, giving her the look of some ancient Imperial Princess. Her voice, when she spoke, had the mellowed quality of honeyed thunder, a sensual rumble, like clouds upon the hills, with a hint of spring rain that could easily bring flash flooding.

"WHAT HAVE WE HERE?" the woman asked, and her voice was in no language that either Amazon youth spoke, yet somehow the words had a clarity that might well be understood in any language, even as they resonated like an echo chamber, "ARE YOU THE ONES FOR WHOM I OWE MY CURRENT FREEDOM?"

"<Er…ah…>" Ju-Lan tried to ease himself off of his beloved while simultaneously attempting to shield her with his body, "<I guess so…ah…sorry about that…>"

"SORRY HE SAYS," the figure grinned impishly and studied them both with wry amusement, and then her tone fell to a normal volume, "As if there were anything bad about effecting my release. You both are Amazons, I take it? Hmmm…and such an interesting couple…"

Ro-Mano thought that there was something extremely wrong with the picture of her standing behind a man seeking protection, and ordinarily she would have insisted on shielding Ju-Lan with her own body, but the terror that she had always felt towards all things supernatural held her rooted to her current place even as her hands refused to close upon her weapons. There was something extremely disturbing about the gaze of the golden woman, as if she were reading the both of them like an ancient scroll and fast-forwarding to the good bits.

"Aha," the woman mused, "I see that you two are fleeing from your fellow tribespeople over an illicit romance in which the two of you are presently engaged. Well met indeed! I am called Ganglot, the patron of this, my ancient temple, in which I have been unjustly imprisoned for many of your generations. Your Council of Elders consigned me here over a…slight misunderstanding between us. Perhaps the three of us might be able to do business?"

At the mention of the name, "Ganglot," both teens felt a chill run down their spines, for the name of the demoness was as legendary as it was fearsome, her being one of the antique Bogeymen whose name was commonly invoked to frighten small Amazon children.

But at the mention of the word, "Business," Ju-Lan rallied his courage and asked, "<What…kind of business?>"

"Ah," the Demoness smiled, "I can see that you are a clever one. Well, do not fear…I am not a particularly vindictive sort, so I don't plan to do you any harm, nor do I wish harm upon your people. In fact I need your help almost as much as you could use mine, so consider this more in the way of a proposed partnership…I help you to escape from your pursuers, you help me to get to a place that I need to be in very short order

Ro-Mano thought that this deal sounded a little too good to be true, and coming from such a dubious source she felt that she just had to ask the inevitable question, "<Where…are you planning to take us?>"

"Someplace where the both of you will be free to spend out your lives together, free from the tyranny of your Elders," the golden demoness replied, "It is no place special that you have ever heard about, but I need to be there and quickly. Unfortunately I am bound by ancient rules to this, my sacred temple, unless I find a willing ally among the mortals of this world, ones who will freely and of their own will enable me to travel where I need to go."

"<And where is that?>" asked Ju-Lan.

"Tell me," she asked coyly, "Have either of you ever heard of a place called the Tendo dojo?" and when she saw blank looks of incomprehension in their eyes she smiled the more deeply, "PERFECT!"

Ganglot the Oni was about to be unleashed upon the unsuspecting province of Nerima…

"I don't know why the Chairman insisted on having you meet with me at the airport," Naomi replied to the man seated across from her in the limousine that was currently transporting them to their intended destination, "I'm perfectly capable of finding my own way in this city…"

"Forgive my impertinence, Lady," the well dressed man sitting across from her replied, "But that is not quite what I have heard from the Chairman himself. He has asked that I helped conduct you to the site of our newest construction project, and he has asked me to see that you are provided with all the details concerning new land that we are hoping to acquire shortly, contingent upon your ultimate approval."

Naomi glanced at the folder that she had been presented shortly after her arrival, then at her six year old daughter, Rachael, who currently had her face pressed up against the window and was watching the neighborhood through which they were passing with all the eagerness of youth, which brought a slight smile to her lips, in spite of the seriousness of her mission.

"I will give the proposal my most serious attention," Naomi remarked, "But for now I'm interested in finding day care facilities for my daughter. Do you have any place which you might recommend here in this neighborhood? I'm planning on finding a hotel for a few days and getting to personally know the neighborhood a lot better."

"I know of a place that will be perfect for your needs, Nakamura-san," replied Sonoda Taichi, a local figure of some rank among the local "business" interests of the region (though Naomi strongly suspected that he had ties to the Yakuza), "The Furinkan Financial District has many fine facilities that can be enjoyed by those with the means to afford them. I will be assigning my nephew, Kento, to look after you during your stay here, and he will be both your guide and your protection should you have any troubles in the interim."

"Troubles?" Naomi asked with a raised eyebrow, "But I was given to understand that there is little crime in Japan, at least when compared to what we have back in the states."

"Not the sort of troubles you might be used to in your country," Taichi responded, "Here we are less concerned with such problems as drive-by shootings and armed muggings due to our country's strict gun laws…but Furinkan, and Nerima itself…has a more localized form of threat that has been quite a nuisance of late. Kento will see to it that no harm comes to you or your daughter."

"Harm?" Naomi frowned, "What sort of danger are we talking about? Mob activity?"

"No," Taichi smiled, "We handle our own difficulties clandestinely, and large, spectacular affairs such as what I refer to draw a little too much attention for our liking. I don't expect you to understand, after all there is no comparison in your country to the sort of random affair that we need to be concerned about in the Tokyo region."

"You're not making any sense," Naomi frowned, "What possible trouble could there be that neither you or the police couldn't deal with?"

"I hope that it does not become necessary that I should have to explain this," Taichi said enigmatically, "But Kento knows what needs to be done should you have an encounter with such problems. It is only a very remote likelihood at any event, but I would be remiss as a host if I did not think ahead to ever possible contingency that might even slightly inconvenience both you and your daughter."

Before Naomi could respond to that the Mobster nodded to the well dressed gentleman sitting at one side of the Limousine, a fellow who-while not very tall-was broad shouldered and very competent looking for a young man who appeared to be barely college level, and the individual referred to as "Kento" nodded back and said aloud, "You have nothing to worry about with me on the job, Lady. My uncle wants me to keep an eye out for the two of you, then you won't be having any problems."

"I fight my own battles," Naomi replied, "But if you mean to see to it that Rachael comes to no harm, I will be contented."

"Mommy!" cried the young girl in question, "Can we stop and have lunch? I'm starving!"

Naomi gave a motherly smile at her little girl and said, "If you wish, though it is closer to dinner than lunchtime over here in this part of the world. Have you any special places which you might recommend, Sonoda-san?"

"There are many fine establishments that can offer you a good meal at an affordable price," Taichi began to say when his nephew spoke up again and said, "What about okonomiyaki?"

"Eh?" his uncle turned to Kento and asked, "What was that?"

"Tell the driver to stop the car, Uncle Taichi," Kento pointed out the window with a smile, "That looks an awful lot like a restaurant I know back in Kyoto that served the best okonomiyaki in Japan. I didn't know they had a franchise out here in the boonies, but if it's anything like what I've tasted last semester…"

"Okonomiyaki?" Naomi asked, "Isn't that supposed to be the Japanese equivalent of a pizza?"

"I can see that you haven't had one before or you would never make that analogy," Taichi smiled, "Very well, Kento…we'll try this place out just to see if it is as good as you claim it to be. I haven't tasted a good okonomiyaki I years, not since I was a young man and dated a particular lady…ah well, that is of no great importance…"

Yumi smiled as she aimlessly polished the counters while thinking merry thoughts to herself about her young charge, who was growing up before her eyes and showing every sign of becoming a real lady killer (much to Ukyo's embarrassment, of course, but that was only to be expected). How far her niece had progressed from the years of bitterness and betrayal where she had all but renounced her femininity in form and function over the affair instigated by that wretched Genma. How nice to see that Ukyo had grown beyond that phase and was now behaving almost like any normal girl her age…with the slight exception of her becoming a man when doused with cold water.

Ukyo might not appreciate how her good looks could land her in so much hot water (literally if not figuratively, that is), but the truth was that Yumi could fully understand why the girls were turned on to the good looks of her male form. Even as a girl dressed in boy form her niece was quite the heartbreaker, and as a boy for real he was stunningly beautiful. The two young ladies currently most interested certainly agreed with this as a factual statement, even knowing of Ukyo's real status, which had to say a lot about the liberal state of mind and desperation of young girls in the current generation. There were not enough real boys who were half as nice as Ukyo could be when her rough-hewn niece had a mind to remember her manners.

That Makoto girl was especially interesting to Yumi. On the surface she might appear to be a normal girl with Tomboy-like inclinations, but there was great strength of character hidden beneath an almost palpable need to be loved by others, and the tragic story of her youth spoke volumes of a young woman who had been forced to grow up much faster than a normal person her age should have to be. Losing her parents at a young age would have crippled many a girl her age, and yet she handled herself as though nothing less had been respected, and there was so much more to her the deeper than one looked.

Of course Yumi could also sense the power laying dormant within the young Miss Kino, a power that was unlike anything that she had encountered in more than a generation, and while Makoto did appear to have some training in the art, she had the look of a rough hewn diamond. Yumi doubted if the child had even begun to tap into her true potential, and that thought alone made her interesting to the former ninja. The art taught one to read the depths of another person's soul, and if what Yumi read were accurate, then this Makoto was a very good soul, and one who could be equally good for Ukyo if they made a real go of it in rekindling the romance that they had left unfinished between them.

Yumi smiled as she reflexively glanced towards the stairs, wondering if the two youths were indulging in the sort of entertainment that Yumi herself might partake of if she were twenty years younger with her life experiences. Too many children their age rushed into things without thinking of the consequences, or else thought too much for their own good and ignored the calling of their instincts and thus wasted the opportunities fate so often provided.

Youth, Yumi sniffed to herself, was wasted on the young…but still she hoped that those two would sort things out together. It was so nice to see Ukyo smile with sincerity, and it did not take a practitioner of Ninjutsu to see that her niece liked this Makoto very much, more than even Ukyo seemed to realize if Yumi were any judge of her niece's behavior.

"Enjoy your time, Kiddo," Yumi murmured to herself with self-admitted envy, thinking how much of life Ukyo had yet to live, and that if she went through even half the adventures that Yumi had endured in her misspent youth, then she was in for some interesting times, and she could use a good friend at her side to offer love and support in both the bad times and the good ones.

This prompted her to think of Makoto's chief rival for Ukyo's heart, the indomitable Tendo Akane, whose own divided heart had her chasing after a Hibiki while alternately flirting with Yumi's niece. Akane in many respects seemed like a very fine and sincere young girl, but one who had a lot of growing up to do, and much life experience to be gained before she would be ready to settle down into any sort of mature relationship. As with Makoto there was much raw potential yet to be harvested, rather a lot like his father when Yumi had first known him…

She caught herself in the act of remembering with nostalgia her hopeless pursuit of Soun. The Tendo boy who had been a particularly intense obsession for her youth had grown into a man who seemed to embody the best and worst aspects that Yumi had once noted. He was emotional and not very restrained about expressing his feelings, highly dependent on feminine support to fulfill the most basic functions held by a traditional wife, and on the whole not very good at managing his own affairs. On the other hand there was much courage and strength that belied the seeming weaknesses of his character, and while training under Happosai had given him an exaggerated sense of self preservation, there was more dignity in the way he carried himself these days, perhaps the result of having Silk back in his life, the very image of his late wife in appearance (if not in temperament and nature).

Silk had always been a smooth one, fitting her name with the style in which she could slyly insinuate herself into a man's heart and work her way past his defenses to encourage him to think more like a man than a spoiled youth. It used to rankle Yumi that she could never hold a candle against the other girl when it came to maneuvering people, and they never seemed to see through her obvious act as she would play upon their egos and worm her way into their hearts…

Yumi stopped herself in the act of fuming about her one-time rival. Just because Silk had chosen to stake out a new claim on their former love interest, did that necessarily mean that Yumi herself had to follow the young Lore Master's example?

"Oh no," Yumi murmured to herself once again, "Don't want to go there again…once is enough for this lifetime…"

The sound of the door being slid open drew her attention to the group that was presently entering her niece's restaurant. There was a woman and two men with a little girl bouncing happily ahead of them to pick out a stool of her own, which the woman-her mother quite obviously-obligingly helped her into.

"Welcome to Ucchan's," Yumi said in pleasant greeting as she continued to study her new patrons, intrigued with the way the young man and the woman were moving, which was careful and precise with a hint of martial arts training, "Can I get you anything, perhaps one of the house specials?"

Yumi frowned even as she said this, for there was something about the older man that caught her eye, a nagging sense that she had met him once before, but his face was difficult to place at the moment.

Taichi was also experiencing a similar nagging sense of having seen this woman somewhere before. She was about the right age…his age as a matter of fact…and certainly carried herself with a certain swagger that was altogether familiar. Her face was a bit broad and flat for his liking, but there was something about her eyes…those eyes were so damned familiar…

Kento, unaware of the tension that was currently flowing between his uncle and the chef, just smiled as he recognized her immediately, "Hey, how are you doing? You're the same lady I saw last in Kyoto. Did you relocate out to this area?"

"No," Yumi, of course, placed the younger man as one of her frequent customers, "I'm here helping my…nephew to establish his own restaurant. We just opened for business the other day, but I'll be returning home as soon as things are on an even footing."

"Ah yes," Taichi smiled as he and the others took their places at the counter, "It is good to encourage the young to make their own way in the world. My nephew here is going to a university and hopes to become a geologist. His father would be very proud of what he has accomplished."

Yumi stiffened, that voice! She knew that voice from somewhere…

"What do you serve here that is good to eat?" the woman asked in a no-nonsense business-like manner.

"Coming right up," Yumi replied, trying to give no evidence that she was in any way disturbed by this curious visitation. The grill was already heated up and ready, so in a matter of seconds she was behind the counter whipping up a batch of okonomiyaki. With practiced moves she prepared and served four hot dishes to her most exacting specifications, smiling as she caught the look of astonishment in the young girl's eyes and reflecting on how much she looked like Ukyo at that same age. She was further rewarded by the surprised look in the businesswoman's face as if normal skepticism had just given way to belief in some slight-of-hand magic.

Taichi's surprise, however, was an unexpected bonus, for he stared at the food on his plate, then at the woman herself and thought, It can't be!

"Yumi-chan?" he asked hesitantly.

"Taichi-kun?" Yumi responded, and for the moment the two of them just stared at one another.

"Huh?" Kento blinked, halfway into the process of devouring his okonomiyaki.

"You two know each other?" Naomi asked with a surprised expression.

"Ah…" both business man and chef glanced away with equally embarrassed expressions, leaving an uneasy silence that was broken when the young girl cried out, "It's delicious, Mommy! I want another!"

"<Don't eat so fast, Rachael,>" Naomi replied in English, "<You'll give yourself a case of indigestion.>"

"Oh," Yumi turned away from the older man to give the child an indulgent smile and replied in the same language, "<She is just a growing girl with a healthy appetite. I'll make another one for her…on the house,>" and Yumi busied herself for the next several seconds preparing and serving another okonomiyaki, all the while trying furiously not to look at the man who was staring at her with the disbelieving expression.

"Uncle?" Kento asked of the man beside him.

"It's…nothing," Taichi swallowed, "She just reminds me of a girl I once knew…many years ago, someone I dated and even at one time considered taking for my wife."

"Ah…" Yumi was momentarily so startled that she almost burned the next okonomiyaki, but long practice and professional pride salvaged her work so that she was able to deliver it serviceable upon Naomi's platter, followed by two more that landed before Kento. A fourth okonomiyaki-significantly enough-did not land on Taichi's own platter.

"As I recall the matter," Yumi said in a level and aloof tone of voice, "The man I dated had his eye set on a business woman's daughter. I see he has done very well for himself, just as I have managed to do in establishing my own business."

Taichi winced and more nervously replied, "You're…still mad about that, eh…?"

Naomi picked up her okonomiyaki and examined it, then took another bite and found the flavor was almost as good as the first, which prompted her to pronounce, "<Talk about fast food…I've got to get the recipe for one of these…>"

"<I'm afraid it's a family recipe,>" Yumi replied again in accented English, "Not to be shared with outsiders, especially gaijin.>"

"Gaijin?" Naomi replied in some surprise, wondering if she looked "too American" for the other woman's standards, "You speak very good English…"

"Your Japanese isn't too bad either," Yumi replied, "But I'd work a bit more on your accent."

"I'm told that I have a gift for languages," Naomi replied with her best professional smile, "But I will take up your recommendation and work to improve my speech patterns until even you are satisfied. I'm simply impressed that you can produce such excellent results in hardly the time it takes to compliment you."

"A lifetime of practice is what makes all the difference," Yumi said, "If you can't do something well, don't do it at all. If you're not prepared to give your all towards something, then why satisfy yourself with half-measures?"

"Whoah, that's deep," said Kento, finishing off his third okonomiyaki, "You don't know how much a guy like me appreciates good food and good service when I'm cramming between classes. Your stuff gives me lots of energy to concentrate for my studies, and because of you I get good grades in most of my courses…except Math, which I'm a little slow in."

Yumi smiled at that, sensing that the younger man had an honest soul, in spite of his obvious relationship to his uncle, who was anything but honest…or rather the older man was as honest as anyone could expect to be who had his ties to the underworld. Despite their reputation for ruthless criminal activities, the Yakuza were a good deal more civilized in their affairs than many rival Asian syndicates, especially the Tong, who were honorless even by the standards of the mainland. One did not grow up in Japan without hearing the good that went with the bad, nor establish a business without having even a slight brush with the local Oyabun. Taichi still had all of his fingers, and his nephew likewise, so either they were not very high in Yakuza affairs or they simply had not had the occasion to screw up in a significant manner.

Either way, her former boyfriend would bear serious scrutiny, and for a brief moment her eyes sought out and made contact with those of Taichi.

The little girl--Rachael if Yumi remembered right-finished off her plate and washed it down with the water that Yumi had provided, then made a big smile and called out in a cheerful voice, "Thank you!"

"You're quite welcome," Yumi was pleased that the child had at least attempted to use the correct wording, rather than use English, but she was more than a little amazed to discover that the child had much less of an accent than her mother.

"Can I have another?" the girl promptly piped, effecting a cherubic smile that would have softened the heart of a gargoyle.

"<You've just had two in a row,>" Naomi chided her daughter, "<You'll spoil your dinner.>"

"But they're so good, Mommy!" the child replied, still speaking in plain Japanese in spite of her mother's referral to English.

"<Greedy,>" Naomi ruffled her daughter's hair and turned to Yumi and asked, "What do we owe you?"

"I'll only charge you half since it's your first visit," Yumi smiled with a wink, "But be sure to come visit us often. You'll find my nephew cooks every bit as good as me, which is only proper since I taught him everything he knows about okonomiyaki."

"Thank you," Naomi reached into her purse and pulled out a credit card, "Will this be sufficient?"

Yumi held back her surprise at the sight of a Platinum Card that held the name of a prominent Tokyo bank, rather than one of the foreign ones that she would have expected from a tourist. Affecting a pleasant smile she took the card and rang up the meals, adding a tip that would go to Ukyo to pay for the cost of the materials expended in making the extra okonomiyaki. As she handed the card back she said, "By the way, you've done an excellent job of teaching your daughter to speak Japanese…"

Naomi froze as she started to put the card back in her purse, stared at the chef with unblinking eyes and said, "What do you mean? My daughter doesn't speak Japanese…"

"Are you kidding?" Kento asked, "She speaks it so well I almost thought she was a native."

"I, too, thought her pronunciation was most exceptional," Taichi turned to regard the astonished Naomi, "You are certain that she has not been formally educated?"

"In private schools, yes," Naomi answered, "But as far as I know she's still too young to learn a foreign language," she turned to Rachael and said, "<Do you speak Japanese, Rachael?>"

"What's Japanese, Mommy?" the child asked curiously.

"You understand what I am saying, Rachael-san?" Yumi asked the child directly.

"Of course," the child said brightly, "Why wouldn't I?"

There was a long pause, and then Yumi reached down under the counter and brought up one of the small unsharpened spatulas that she and her niece often used for throwing practice, handing it to the little girl while saying, "Could you do a favor for me, dear? If your mother has no objections, can you bend this in half?"

"What are you saying?" Naomi asked, "She's only a child…"

"Is it all right, Mommy?" the girl asked sheepishly, "I know I'm not supposed to bend your stuff back home."

"Humor me," Yumi asked, seeing the guilty start that appeared in the eyes of her mother, "I just want to test a suspicion."

"Okay," the child took the small object in both hands, and then with a great deal of concentration casually bent the throwing spatula until it had a distinctive "L" shape.

"Whoah!" Kento remarked in surprise, "She's almost as strong as me when I was her size!"

"Who," Yumi said carefully and precisely, "Was the child's father?"

"That's-none of your business!" Naomi got up hastily and grabbed the portfolio that she had carried with her from the car, "<Come along, Rachael, we're leaving…>"

Something fell out from the side of the leather-bound folder, and in a flash Yumi was across the counter in time to catch it before it could hit the floor. With a brief and curious glance she saw what she thought she had spied upon the photograph in question, then she handed it over to the businesswoman, her tone as polite as before but her expression quite guarded.

"You dropped this, I believe," Yumi said as Naomi accepted the photo.

Naomi put the photograph back into her portfolio, covering her surprise at the speed and agility displayed by the chef, which was quite phenomenal even by her standards. In equally reserved tones she said, "Thank you…I don't know how that got away from me. Good day to you, Chef-san."

"The name is Kuonji," Yumi replied, "Yumi Kuonji, but you can call me Yumi."

"Thank you," Naomi said a bit less stiffly, "I will remember that…Kuonji Yumi."

"[See that you do,]" Yumi remarked casually in Cantonese, "[I have a feeling we'll be seeing quite a lot of each other over the next few days, Miss Nakamura.]"

"You know my name?" Naomi turned around, this time not bothering to hide her surprise.

Yumi held up a business card in one hand, and replied in Mandarin, "{I read it here…or would you prefer I call you Naomi?}"

Naomi frowned at that then took her daughter in hand and remarked, "<I can see that you're a tricky one who bears close watching. >"

"(As do you, Nakamura-san,)" Yumi nodded as the businesswoman left the restaurant, followed hastily by a confused looking Kento.

Taichi paused at the door to glance back at Yumi and ask, "What was that all about? And why were you talking to her in all those different languages?"

"Just confirming a theory," Yumi replied, "Do you know anything about her parentage?"

"Nothing I am at liberty to discuss, even with you," the businessman replied somewhat evasively, albeit with an apology in his expression.

"Then perhaps you might explain to me your interest in the Tendo dojo, and why a photograph of it was in that business pouch?" Yumi smiled, seeing her reward in the surprised look at crossed the face of her former boyfriend.

"That…also is not a matter for open discussion," he turned away before adding, "It is…good to see you looking so well, Yumi-chan…Yumi-san," he corrected himself, "Good day to you…until the next time."

"Sayonara to you, Tai-chan," Yumi smiled, but once her guests had entered their limousine and drove off, she turned away with a most troubled expression.

Another Hibiki in Nerima? Or rather two of them, a mother and a daughter? And by evidence neither one seemed to be in any way aware of their heritage…coincidence? Yumi did not think so, especially in light of their seeming interest in the Tendo estate, which made the matter of extremely intimate interest to Yumi.

"Atsuko's going to love this," Yumi mused aloud, not so much out of sympathy for the Oni but out of a sense of camaraderie to a former ally who might yet be valuable should the worst of Yumi's suspicions come to fruition.

Of course she even she could not anticipate the extent of the troubles that were about to surround the Tendo residence, for which she could be understandably forgiven, not realizing as yet that Nerima would soon be the focal point for yet more members of the very loose clan known collectively as Hibiki…

Akane stalked angrily down the streets of the Furinkan financial district thinking about the girl naked Hibiki Kennou, and why the blonde had suddenly become such a major interest for Ryoga. Ordinarily the lost boy would accompany her everywhere, whether Akane wanted the attention or not, but this time Ryoga had insisted on hurrying back home to once again confront his alleged "aunt" with more suspicions of their mutual heritage, leaving Akane to feel somewhat left out of the package. And just when she had begun to see Ryoga in a different light due to the mature way he had handled himself in that fight against Kennou…

She sighed, wondering why life had to be so damned complicated. It was not like she actively went around looking for trouble, but trouble seemed to be finding her at every turn, and she had no idea just why she should be so "lucky." First it was Kuno coming onto her, then his encouraging half the boys at their school to take an active interest, then Ranma showed her up in her favorite sport of martial arts, leaving Akane to feel second best in all things, and following that was the business with Shampoo, which had yet to be resolved by any standard.

Meeting up with Ryoga had been one of the few bright spots in her life of late, for the perpetually lost boy seemed to share with her a basic sense of social alienation, of not quite fitting in with their surroundings, besides which he had always seemed to sincere and forthright, and not at all a drooling pervert. Ignoring the lapse in his character revealed when he deceived her as P-chan, Ryoga had done a great deal to repair Akane's shattered trust in other people, proving to her that not all boys were jerks and that some could actually be quite nice. It had been something of a minor revelation for her to discover that she not only liked Ryoga but felt attracted to him on a fundamental level.

And then Ukyo had come into her world and gone a great deal farther to change Akane's opinion about the male sex. Okay, so she was mistaken about Ukyo being a guy back then, big deal! Even as a faux-guy, Ukyo was among the nicest people Akane had ever met (not counting Kasumi, but then no one else human could possibly match up to the standard of her older sister). Ukyo was warm and caring and a good friend in whom to confide, and Akane found herself falling for more than the cursed girl's good looks before too long, finding an attraction to the chef that was every bit as strong (if not stronger) than the ties she felt with Ryoga.

Having two "men" her age who vied for the title, "Nicest Boy in Town" be interested in her was a genuine source of pleasure for Akane, far more than her supposed popularity among the rest of her classmates. It almost hurt to find herself sharing Kuno's peculiar desire to claim two loves at the same time…but was that really such a strange idea given the relationships of her middle sister and her two fiancées? Akane found herself actually considering the concept of polyandry and wondering if she could make it work on some ridiculous level. Okay, Ukyo and Ryoga did not seem to get along right now, but that was mostly feelings of competition that would be natural to anyone trained as a martial artist. Once she got them past the stage of mutual hostility and distrust, then maybe they could have a real discussion on the subject and come to a mutually beneficial understanding.

Well…stranger things had already happened, right? She asked this silent question in silent petition to the Fates that they not prove her a liar.

Of course there were still complicating factors to consider, such as her turning into a winged woman whenever she got splashed with cold water (which could be at nearly any time, she realized with some annoyance). That was inconvenient for more than the fact that sprouting wings from her back and the sides of her legs forced her to modify her wardrobe so as not to provide an impediment that would result in the tearing of her clothing. Oddly enough the change did not even hurt her, really, but was more like an all-over tingle that caused sudden changes in her anatomy, both internally and externally, to afford the presence of extra limbs with appropriate shifting of bones and muscles. Her wings appeared to function quite well and responded to her thoughts just like her arms and legs, even giving her the power to strike a target from a distance like a goose lashing out at an unwary foeman, giving her the power to break boards even at a distance.

The one thing she had not managed to do so far, however, was to fly. Try as she might she did not seem to have enough strength to get properly airborne, nor did she know how to angle her wings so as to give her enough lift to properly glide. It was very puzzling, and yet Shampoo-of all people-had suggested that much the same thing held true for her own cursed form. As a winged cat she could glide with the best of them, but flapping her wings from a standing start did not provide sufficient lift for her small neko form, so often she had to either leap or get a running start to assist herself on take off.

It was all so very puzzling because Cologne insisted that most curses caused instinctive changes in one's psychological make up so that the ability to fly was second nature to Mousse in his cursed form. She might have to find and confront the Chinese boy for further details, but as far as Akane knew it should not have required all that much practice.

As freakish as she sometimes felt about having wings but being unable to fly, of more immediate annoyance to Akane was the arrival in Nerima of the girl named Makoto. This girl had a history with Ukyo that went back a couple of years and seemed to give her claims over the cursed girl/boy that Akane had yet to fathom. There was such an eagerness in the pony-tailed girl's manner and the way she so obviously was lusting after the okonomiyaki chef that set Akane's teeth on edge with a strong desire to "reprimand" her. Such brazen and flirtatious behavior did not seem at all fair to Akane's way of thinking, especially taking into account that the very tall girl had a body to die for and was as pretty as any fashion model.

That is for a girl who seemed even more of a tomboy than even Akane would have imagined.

That being said, she had the strong urge to go visit Ukyo at his…her restaurant, and Ukyo's Aunt Yumi seemed like a nice enough person. She had enough change in her pocket to afford at least one okonomiyaki (though Ukyo rarely insisted on charging her money). Of late Akane had been thinking hard about the nature of her attraction for the handsome boy…(or bishonen girl, she self corrected)…and it was long since time that she confronted Ukyo about the nature of her own feelings. Of priority for her was to discover if Ukyo really felt the same way about her, or could even come to like her over time, or if Akane was just making a colossal fool of herself over the whole matter. She had to find out the truth before things got any more intense, and especially before that Makoto tried staking out her own claim, in which case Akane intended to teach her not to trespass.

Thus armed with these thoughts she cut through the alleyways intending to save time and take a shortcut that would bring her within sight of Ukyo's restaurant within minutes.

What she was about to discover, however, would turn her day upside-down and lead to even more distressing problems, both of an immediate nature and further down the line, though only the former had relevance to this particular occasion…

"Five yen for your thoughts, Senpai," Makoto mused as the two of them sat side-by-side on the roof of Ukyo's restaurant, surveying the alleyway with their eyes turned towards the distant Tokyo skyline.

"Heh, is that the going rate these days?" Ukyo mused, now fully female after having hastily applied a dash of hot water.

"It's just that you're being awfully quiet all of a sudden," Makoto glanced away, "Was it because I kissed you. I know I shouldn't have, but…I couldn't help it."

Ukyo regarded the profile of her friend for a moment before replying, "I don't blame you for that, Mako-chan…I guess…some things are just meant to happen. Ah…that didn't come out quite the way I meant it…I mean…"

"I embarrassed you," Makoto sighed, glancing down with curling her feet in a contemplative manner with thoughts about jumping off the roof and disappearing to hide her own shame on the subject. It was only a mere three stories, after all, and she could handle a drop like that in a cakewalk.

"No," Ukyo replied, "I embarrassed myself by falling on you that way. I guess it gave you the wrong idea…I mean…not that kissing you was bad or anything, but I wasn't trying to rush things, in fact I…I wanted to talk a little more…so thanks for not leaving yet. I really want to explain myself better but…I seem to be making a real botch of it."

"Not at all," Makoto gave a little half-smile back in Ukyo's direction, "It was going too fast for both of us, I think, so it's a good thing you stopped things when you did or I…might've messed things up even worse. I wanted to…" her voice became a bit roughened, "…let you have your way with me…if it's what you really wanted. I'm not trying to force myself on you or anything, but if you'd wanted to…make out with me…I wouldn't have minded."

"Hah?" Ukyo knew that she was in danger of having her train of thought be permanently derailed and swallowed to try and get her thoughts back on the subject, "Well…ah…that…would have been very…interesting, I suppose…I mean, I've never really tested the limits of my male body, but…" she glanced away with a start, thinking to herself, WHAT ON EARTH AM I SAYING???

Makoto, for her part, was quick to latch onto the opening, "Are you saying that there was a…possibility that you might have accepted?"

"Ah…well…I mean…" Ukyo wilted.

"Senpai," Makoto leaned her head against the top of Ukyo's head and sighed, "You don't know what it means to hear you say that. I was so afraid that you were going to reject me over the brazen way that I've been behaving. You've always been so good to me that I just wanted to show you how much I appreciated you and everything…oh," she moved away again and said, "I'm so embarrassed…"

"Ah…wha-?" Ukyo's mind was spinning at the dizzying twists and turns of this conversation, but seeing the plaintive look in Makoto's eyes she knew that she had to say something, so she cleared her throat and said, "Mako-chan…"

"Yes?" Makoto whispered.

"You really are special to me," Ukyo replied, "You've always been important. I…care about you, and I want you to know that. I…I guess I have been a little reluctant to show how much I care about you, but…I…I'm very glad that you came back into my life, and you're even more beautiful than I remember."

"You really think so?" Makoto turned to her with a look of wonder.

"Well…yeah," Ukyo half-smiled, "I mean…look at you…the boys must be falling down drooling every time you walk by. You're absolutely stunning, and with a figure like that…" Ukyo's eyes drifted without conscious thought down to view the generous amount of cleavage revealed by Makoto's tank-top halter.

"Oh," Makoto glanced down, "You like them? They've started growing out over the last year, and now they're absolutely huge! They've ballooned out so much that I've had to learn another way to carry myself when walking and fighting. If they keep expanding out like this I may even have to have surgery to have them reduced a little."

"Reduced?" Ukyo repeated, automatically thinking what a shame that would be, and such a waste of a generous natural endowment. Those heaving breasts were awe-inspiring and gave Ukyo a faint sense of inadequacy even as she felt the strong desire to reach out and "sample" them with both hands in order to test their firmness…

Ukyo drew back with a start, wondering where in the hell she had come up with such lecherous urges! She had thought changing to a girl would stop the flow of these strange impulses, which until now she had largely attributed to the hormonally charged mess caused by her male body! This was almost as bad as the thoughts that had caused her to want to effect her change before continuing her "discussion" with Makoto, when Ukyo had taken notice of how the tall girl's pert rump rode so high with the cut of her shorts barely concealing anything below that was indecent to view in public…a thought that had nearly incapacitated Ukyo as the distinctly male part of his body had threatened to double him over!

"I know I shouldn't be looking a gift horse in the mouth," Makoto resumed without being aware of the libidinous reaction that she was causing in her companion, "Rei likes to tease me about the fact that my breasts have gotten so big, and Usagi keeps saying I'm top heavy and that it's a wonder I don't fall down as often as she does…of course Usagi could trip over a small crack in the sidewalk, and Minako…she's even worse than Usagi!"

"You really enjoy talking about your friends," Ukyo noted with a faint hint of jealousy in her voice, glad to talk on any subject that took her mind away from her friend's generous assets.

"Oh…sorry," Makoto gave a sheepish smile and glanced away, "My friends are important to me, they're like my family, and I can't really think what life would be like without having them around. Every one of them is special to me in their own way…Usagi because she has a heart that's so warm and true, Rei because she's so fiery and fiercely loyal, and Ami because she's so smart and can come through for you when you least expect it. Then of course there's Minako…I really like her a lot. She's so elegant and has such a great fashion sense…if only she didn't come across like such a spaz sometimes…"

"It's good to see you with friends," Ukyo remarked, "I can remember a time when you barely had any…except for me, that is."

"Well, you meant more to me than just a friend, Senpai," Makoto said with a softer, more relaxed expression, "You were my first love, and it took me a long time to get over you…in fact I never really have, though I have tried looking elsewhere…"

"Ah…" Ukyo's sandalwood brown eyes met Makoto's leaf green eyes for a moment and it was like looking into the emerald depths of something rare and precious. No words flowed between them for several seconds, but the two drew unconsciously closer together before either one of them knew what was about to happen.

Ukyo had never deliberately kissed another girl before…at least not without pretending to affections that she did not actually feel, and only as a cover when dating other girls in middle school. This time was very different, and it meant a whole lot more than simply kissing with affection. There was passion in the other girl's lips that inspired her to reply with passion of her own, and for several long moments the two of them held each other as the kiss went on almost a full minute.

Ukyo broke off the kiss when she finally awoke to what she was doing, and then she gasped as she turned away, her thoughts even more tattered and confused than ever.

"Wow," she said with wonder, unprepared for such a physical reaction on her part.

"Wow isn't the half of it," Makoto covered her own lips with a finger.

Ukyo's eyes once more roved up and down the exposed lengths of Makoto's body and once more experienced a lump in her throat that made her voice rough and uneven, "Uh…you…really do know how to kiss…ah…"

"HEY!!!" a voice called out, "WHAT ARE YOU DO DOING UP THERE???"

Ukyo reacted with a start, glancing down into the alleyway as she spied an altogether familiar figure, "A-Akane-?"

"Uh oh," Makoto whispered, "Busted."

Ukyo ignored the double-entendre that crossed her mind in that instant and called down, "Akane-chan, what are you doing down there?"

"LOOKING FOR YOU!!!" the younger Tendo sister called back in an angry tone of voice, "NOT THAT I SHOULD HAVE BOTHERED SINCE IT'S OBVIOUS YOU HAVE BETTER THINGS TO DO WITH YOUR TIME!"

That said, the youngest Tendo girl pivoted around on one heel and headed back the way that she had entered.

"Akane," Ukyo pushed away from the wall and leaped down, easily handling the five-meter drop as she hurried to catch up with the retreating Tendo sister. When Akane did not turn around Ukyo vaulted in front of her and spread her arms wide to block her further passage, "Wait a minute, Akane! At least hear me out…!"

"Why?" Akane growled, "So you can lie to me, tell me I matter to you, that I'm not wasting my time and being such a bother?"

"You're not bothering me," Ukyo tried to sound soothing as she made a gesture to attempt to pacify the angry girl before her, "Makoto and I were just talking…"

"TALKING???" Akane all but shouted in Ukyo's face, "Looked more like to me that you were KISSING her! And behind my back no less! How could you???"

"How could we what?" Makoto asked, causing Akane to whirl around with a start at the taller girl, who had come so silently up behind her, "You got a reason to be so upset about the two of us spending time alone together, Tendo-san? Because if not then it's none of your business what I do with MY Senpai!"

Akane balled her fists but for once restrained her temper, growling instead of taking a swing at the other girl, "None of MY business? When did it become YOUR business to try and put the moves on him, you hussy? And I don't need any lectures from the likes of you…"

"And what does that supposed to mean?" Makoto demanded.

"It means put up or shut up!" Akane raised her fists and assumed a fighting posture.

"Well now," Makoto smiled as she took a stance of her own, "You're finally talking sense for once. Let's see what you've got, Tendo."

"Uh…guys?" Ukyo said in alarm, trying to head off the impending catfight, "This isn't the place for this...!"

"BUTT OUT OF IT!!!" both girls snarled without taking their eyes off one another.

All at once the garbage can sitting to one side of the alley detached itself from the wall and came up behind Ukyo to embrace her as a high-pitched voice said, "I completely agree, my darling Ukyo! Ignore the two hussies, you don't need them, you have me!"

"GAK!!!" Ukyo reacted with alarm as she fought to break the hold of the arms currently sported by the trashcan, and with a hasty maneuver she shoved the can away from her, causing it to clatter and spill out its singular contents, which to all appearances was a brown haired girl in a light green dress.

"Ow!" this figure complained as "she" brushed the hair out of a face so effeminate and fair that it was even more bishonen than Ukyo herself, "Ukyo-sama…that hurt!"

"Tsubasa?" Ukyo groaned, "Don't tell me you're come to Nerima? It just isn't fair…!"

"TSUBASA???" a pair of arched voices asked from directly behind her.

"Uh oh," Ukyo said as her eyes grew suddenly very wide indeed, and all at once she knew that this very strange life had just gotten infinitely more complicated…and potentially lethal! Given the way her karma was working at the moment, it was beginning to seem like a major miracle if she somehow managed to live to see another morning…


Comments/Criticisms/What about Nabiki and why isn't she in this chapter?: Shadowmane@msn.com