Ah My Goddess Fan Fiction / Ranma 1/2 Fan Fiction / Sailor Moon Fan Fiction ❯ A Tale of Two Wallets ❯ Lion's Roar and Bull's Below ( Chapter 91 )

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

A Tale of Two Wallets

(An Altered Destiny)

Written by Jim Robert Bader

Proofread by Shiva Barnwell

Nabiki's Journal Resumes:

Okay, so far my day was not looking up in other than the physical sense, that being largely because I had been hauled into a sky ship like some refugee from a kid's manga. You can imagine I wasn't in too good a mood after having been wrapped up in fishing line and hauled out of my own yard like some prized catch of the day, and by a little shrimp with big ears no less! Sure landing in the arms of a handsome prince is some girls' idea of a fantasy dream come true, but not when that selfsame prince is a chopstick wielding maniac who thinks kidnapping a bride is a great way to save on the costs of actual courtship.

I was still recovering from having been yanked when Ranma staged a daring (and fruitless) attempted rescue, only I saw him get rebuffed by the big guy with the pole arm, but being the stubborn cuss that he is Ranma tried to get around that obstacle, only to get halted in mid-kick by nothing less than a pair of chopsticks! My so-called prince then chucked my real iinazuke over the side like tossing back a catch he didn't wanted, and seeing as we were a lot higher off the ground than seemed reasonable to my thinking I had an understandable concern that my boyfriend was about to have a very rude landing.

I called out to him, of course, but my cries were ignored as I was whisked away into the ship that served as a giant gondola suspended in the air by a huge blimp by numerous cables. I had no chance of seeing if Ranma survived or not, or if he landed on something other than his fool head, which meant he might actually hurt something! (Or somebody, but at the time he was kind of topping the chart on my concern priority, followed a close second by myself as I was herded off to a waiting room below decks.)

I can't really sum up my thoughts about this point, being as I was a little too hysterical with worry to take much more than peripheral interest in my immediate surroundings. Ranma had said that he had something important that he wanted to tell me, and now it was looking like I wouldn't get the chance to find out what he wanted. Instead I became aware of a certain tightness in my chest that wasn't exactly like fear but definitely was anything but pleasant. I kept replaying in my mind the way he was insisting that he was going to tell me something that I knew instinctively was important to our engagement, and of course I went and jumped to the wrong conclusions, but then I wanted to tell him how important he was to me, so you can see that I was a little distracted for the first few minutes of my captivity. In fact it wasn't until I was summoned by Prince Kirin that I had time to calm down and start to think rationally again about my current situation.

First off I started to notice that this ship seemed an awful lot bigger on the inside than it had appeared from the outside. The corridors were as long as those of a palace, and the chamber I was escorted to had the spacious quality of a throne room. That might have been a trick of the décor fooling the eye to make it seem as if things were larger than they actually were, but I don't think it was quite that simple. Then again if the ship really was that huge it would have weighed a couple thousand metric tons, which was a lot more weight than could be kept airborne by what had seemed like a non-rigid airbag of the type that I had observed during my actual kidnapping.

Like I said, the room I was shown to had the look of a palace, complete with a throne on a raised dais, and there was the guy who headed the show sitting on top of a large ceramic pot and accompanied by his circus troop of oddly-dressed retainers. I took notice of the architectural layout of the place and saw that it had been constructed for aesthetic rather than practical considerations with these seven characters being seated to make an ostentatious presentation to anyone standing where I was, the obvious guest that they were seeking to impress here. There were other figures moving about in the room, of course, minor court retainers wearing hooded masks that were probably meant to help them fade into the background, and I quietly estimated that the ship probably had a crew compliment of a couple hundred. There were guards situated at the back of the chamber, but I suspected that they were largely there for show as the prince and his courtiers seemed manifestly confident in their own abilities, a confidence that I had reason to suspect was not overrated.

One of those seven creeps was the short guy who had wrapped me up in his fishing line, and I heard his name given as Epite, the most trusted of Kirin's henchmen, currently serving in the slot of a Chamberlain as he introduced me as the future bride of his employer.

You can imagine that I didn't take too well to this bit of news, and I wasted no time making my opinions known on this subject.

"BRIDE?" I repeated in a calm and reasonable tone of voice, "You've got to be kidding me! I'm not marrying him!" and I pointed directly at the prince just in case anyone was hazy on that topic.

"You object to being the bride of Kirin?" the guy asked, referring himself in the third person, which I found mildly grating.

"Damned straight!" I folded my arms over my chest and said, "You just kidnapped me from my home and assaulted my boyfriend! Where the heck do you come off assuming I want anything to do with you, let alone becoming your wife?"

"But you had the sacred scroll," the man replied in an irritatingly calm tone of voice, "By the laws of Nekonron that makes you the fated Bride of Kirin."

The little shrimp held up the half-scroll that had fallen into my unsuspecting hands with a smug expression that made me want to hit him on general principles. As I'm not normally a violent person, I think you can see just how ticked off I was at being roped into this arrangement.

"What about it?" I asked, "It's not mine. I caught it on the rebound. It really belongs to some girl riding an elephant who came crashing into our yard and started yelling at Gramps, then threw it at him."

"How strange," the Prince replied, "You are saying that the scroll came into your hands by mere chance?" He smiled, "I would call it fate in motion. The scroll selected you at the exact appointed hour when Kirin was fated to come looking for his bride. The hour of our meeting was fated to be this way, and so there can be no doubting that you are his bride, and Kirin is most fortunate to have a bride who is as lovely and obviously intelligent as you strike Kirin as being."

I'll admit the guy was a smooth talker, and I felt slightly less ruffled as I stood more relaxed with one hand on my hip, studying these people with my usual intent at finding out what's going on in their heads. I could see this guy wasn't a total idiot like Kuno (correction, like Kuno USED to be), he actually sounded quite sincere, and while he was highly Provincial in his thinking, it was plain that he was anything but slow-witted.

"You think just because of quirk in the way the thing landed in my lap that I'm supposed to automatically go along with whatever kind of plans you've got? Sorry, Buster, but I don't work that way. Tendo Nabiki is not for sale, and you don't get on my good side by shanghaiing me off into your little cloud kingdom."

"Your name is Tendo Nabiki?" the Prince said with the look of somebody who preferred only to hear what fitted his own interests, "A curious name, but one that will become most fond to Kirin's heart."

I made a slightly rude noise of exasperation and said, "Aren't you listening to me? I said NO WAY am I marrying you! You can't just kidnap me and expect me to marry you…"

"But that is the way it has always been for my people," the prince got up and hopped off his pot, still clutching a bowl of rice in one hand while using the chopsticks that he held in the other hand to serve as a pointer, "Kirin's mother was carried off by Kirin's father, and Kirin's grandfather carried off his bride before this, and so on well into the mists of time. It is a long and venerable tradition that has produced many powerful heirs for the Seven Lucky Gods school of Martial Arts."

"You're putting me on," I said in disgust, "You mean you're descended from a line of guys who think stealing a girl from her home is the way to take a bride?"

"Why?" he asked as if genuinely puzzled by my question, "How is this done in your land? Does your emperor let others choose his bride for him? That would be most uncivil…"

"Ah…" I could see right away that we had a conceptual problem here, so I tried again to make him understand me, "Look, I hate to break this to you, but I've already got a fiancée, and he's more than I can handle some days, so there's no way I'm getting engaged to another guy, you got that?"

"And who is this miscreant who would dare presume that he is worthy of the bride of Kirin?" the Prince asked as if he were the one who had been offended against.

"You just met him…" I paused as the memory of Ranma being batted away came back into mind, but I forced myself to pretend that I wasn't worried about that, "He's going to come after me and get me back, just you wait and see! You won't stand a chance if you go up against Ranma!"

"Hmm," Kirin gave me a haughty look and said, "He did not seem all that formidable, and Kirin has easily dispatched far more impressive sorts than that. Do not entertain false thoughts that such a one will stand in combat against Kirin, Master of the Seven Lucky Gods School of Martial Arts. If he tries to take you from Kirin then he will fall, as would anyone else who sides with him."

I looked into the man's eyes and felt something akin to what I had felt against Mousse the previous day, and without thinking I moved forward to slap him, but he easily caught my hand and gave me a look of tolerant indulgence. That set me off right there, and without another thought I did exactly what I had against Mousse and froze time for a few seconds, allowing me to strike his face this time without him being able to stop me.

Of course the problem when I hit people that way is that my blows tend to carry a lot more kinetic force than they normally would have, so my simple slap picked him up and knocked him back into his pot-throne. Time resumed one second later as everyone reacted to my blow as though I had just shot him dead with a pistol.

"Master Kirin!" cried the diminutive Epite as the rest of Kirin's lackeys were on their feet and reacting with alarm with the guards at the rear of the room leveling their spears in my direction.

And then I saw that everyone was looking not at the prince but at the rice bowl in his hand, and as I turned to notice this I saw that the slice of pickle resting upon it had fallen off, which I came to realize a few seconds later was a grave social gaffe of the first order.

Before I had time to so much as nervously chuckle like Ryoga I found myself whisked away and thrown into the pokey. I was locked inside a massive empty pickle jar with the lock slapped in place and a pair of burly guards posted on the outside. I found myself trapped in total darkness alone with nothing more than a slight circulation of air to inform me that the thing had ventilation.

I've never been in prison before, I've rarely even been sent to my room, and I've never had my personal freedom be this severely restricted, so I don't mind telling you I did not react well to this solitary confinement. I knew I'd brought this on myself by reacting without thinking, but how else was I supposed to react to finding myself playing the romantic heroine in some bizarre Chinese fable come to life? The sensory deprivation alone got to me within only a few minutes and I began fervently wishing against hope that Ranma was somehow on his way to rescue me…though I have to confess at that point I was at a loss to know just how he was going to find me.

I also had a fleeting thought of Shampoo and my sisters, and I wondered if I was ever going to see them again? I was even hoping that maybe Lotion would magically appear and effect my rescue, but all I could do at that time was sit tight and try to keep my sanity, wondering all the while what everybody was doing at that precise moment and if anyone even knew or cared about my crazy situation…

Shampoo's Diary Resumes:

Fighting the air currents to gain altitude was proving more difficult for me than I would have imagined. My cursed form was designed to operate best in the air, but I had a long way to go before I could fully master the art of gliding on air currents. Had I not been practicing regularly in the weeks since my curse was modified, I know that I would have been at a loss to gain the altitude I needed, let alone catch up with the balloon that was holding my Nabiki.

But I was determined, and there was no way that I would lose out on my love to a silly blimp, which was little more than a bag of hot air holding up a ship against the normal pull of gravity. I was using every trick that I had learned to rise closer to my goal, even beating my wings when necessary as the wind might occasionally shift against me

Even granted that I have heard the legends concerning the Seven Lucky Gods school and know by reputation that they would are formidable fighters, I was still determined to prevail against them. It was a fortunate thing that the object of my pursuit was very ponderous and slow moving, because if it had been a plane I most likely would have left her eating its dust. At most I could achieve an airspeed of roughly forty nautical miles, not counting back drafts and periodic uplifts, while it was cruising at a leisurely rate of maybe thirty or so knots, giving me a very slight edge as I gradually closed the distance between us. The winds were favoring me more than the blimp as it was traveling against them, while a strong headwind was picking me up and carrying me the remaining few hundred yards that I needed in order to reach my target. I was almost upon it at the last, feeling the strain of my exertions, only to fall short at the last second as the winds died out on me at a far-too-critical moment.

I cried out in protest, seeing my chances of rescuing Nabiki escaping through my claws as I tried desperately to will myself to reverse her directions and come closer to the vessel. Had I failed at that moment I doubt that I would have had the strength for a second attempt, but just as I was starting to lose hope, strong hands caught me from behind and a familiar voice said, "I've got you, Shampoo…hold on! I'll get us both up there, no problem!"

Akane? I was so surprised at this that I might have made things more difficult for her, but I instinctively folded my wings and allowed the winged Tendo girl to get a better grip under me in her arms as more powerful wings than my own beat the air and helped improve our angle of ascent. Akane surprised me with the grace and speed that she generated with her cursed form, having improved very much since the last time I had seen her attempting levitation.

All at once the railing of the ship came into view, but there were guards on the deck, so Akane dropped us down a few feet and grabbed the railing with one hand, placing me on a ledge beneath the rail with the other. I wasted no time digging my claws into the wood and finding a safe purchase to hold onto. Akane clung to the rail beside me and the two of us waited nervously to see if we had been spotted. When no one came closer to investigate the angel heaved a sigh of relief then said, "We've gotta get inside somehow without setting off any alarms. Got any ideas on that?"

I meowed that I had a plan and began climbing along the edge of the rail until I found a glass-covered portal just wide enough for Akane and myself to fit through. I nudged it with my nose then looked at Akane in a meaningful manner. My sometime apprentice nodded her understanding and tried to pry the window open with her fingers, finding it latched from within, which momentarily impeded her best efforts.

"Darn," Akane frowned, "If I break it open that's bound to be heard by somebody. It's latched on the other side…hey! Shampoo, you think you can get in there and open it for me?"

"Meow!" I said, signifying that I agreed with her suggestion, and then with Akane's assistance I managed to climb up over the railing. I slipped along the deck, as stealthy as a shadow, moving as fluidly as I could to avoid the notice of the deck hands, who seemed more intent with scanning over the sides of the ship as if detecting landmarks or expecting trouble from a greater distance.

The hatchway leading to the decks below was closed, of course, but I found a place of concealment near enough at hand and waited in hiding until somebody opened the it, then quickly slipped past their legs before they were any the wiser.

Inside the vessel itself I smelled the perfume of heavy incense and many spices, which of course caused my nose to twitch with irritation. It would impede her ability to pick up Nabiki's scent, of course, which was annoying but simply a factor to be dealt with. Of secondary concern was the realization that the ship had a form of size distortion that would make it difficult for me to estimate direction and distance, but as Akane was waiting for her at the bow of the ship I knew that I would have to find that window port and quickly. There was no telling how long Akane could hold on in the relatively thin air and cooler environment afforded by the altitude at which we traveled, where even I-mountain born and bred-had difficulty breathing.

I proceeded down the corridor as stealthily as I could manage while still moving in great haste, crouched low near to the wall when-as I approached a corner-I heard voices coming my way. I immediately made myself small and folded my wings over my body while emptying my mind of all thoughts and waited for them to pass, and a moment later I spied a pair of oddly dressed men in black and white garments whose heads were obscured beneath simple hoods with two eye holes cut out, giving them an oddly ghost-like appearance, as though intentionally garbed to minimize their visual aspect.

They were speaking a sub-dialect of Mandarin that I was just barely able to make out, and one of them was saying, "<…Did you see what the prince's new bride did? How shocking! >"

"<Imagine a woman with the effrontery to dare assault the prince>," the other man replied, "<It will be a scandal when word of this reaches the homeland.>"

"<It amazes me that the prince should be so lenient with her, merely locking her in confinement. >"

"<She'll come around to understanding what is best for her>," the other agreed, "<They always do. >"

Always do? No sooner had the men passed me then I continued on with even greater haste. My wife had dared to display her temper with prince Kirin, and while I have never heard that Nekonron is as oppressive as the Musk Dynasty, I knew well enough that the men throughout most of China do not take well to a woman who asserts her independence.

I found my way to the rear chamber, only to discover to my dismay that it was guarded by two male warriors who stood alert as if recently called to alarm over some matter. It did not take much of a deduction on my part to understand that this was where Prince Kirin and his most trusted retainers gathered to hold audience, in which case sneaking in there was unlikely to be effective. I briefly paused to consider my options, such as discerning if this vessel had a ventilation system through which I might crawl (one of the advantages of my small cursed form that I had discovered was the ease with which I could gain entrance to even the most secured facilities. That might allow me to escape notice for a little while, but if discovered I would be at a severe disadvantage. My cursed form is not very good for fighting in, (unless you count the ways in which I can scratch an opponent's face) and if I were to face my enemies in battle I would prefer to do it as an Amazon.

Regaining my human form therefore took priority over reaching Akane, and I just hoped the winged girl would be able to hold on a bit longer as a new plan began forming in my mind. I even smiled to myself as I decided to stop fighting my feline instincts and allow my nose to lead me to the kitchen. The trail of vinegar alone would make it impossible for even Ryoga not to find it, and once there I was certain that I would find some boiling water. I would then seek out my apprentice and together we would liberate my wife, her sister and be gone before these pickle-eating fools were any the wiser.

At least that was how my plan was supposed to go in theory, but as Great Grandmother has often told me, the gods dearly love to play with the best laid schemes of mortals, and no strategy was ever to survive intact when the first encounter with the enemy runs headlong into the dreaded god named Murphy…

A yacht sailed forth from Tokyo harbor while the rays of the late afternoon were still full in the heavens. The good ship Viziens II (Oddly named, but that was a quirk of Kodachi's father) sped out on an uncertain course heading, looping around one bend before steaming off in a generally westerly direction.

Sasuke was not entirely comfortable at the helm, but his Mistress had insisted he man the wheel while she lay out on the main deck getting a good suntan, along with Kasumi, who was serving everyone some tea and refreshments. The grim-faced Ranma insisted on standing near to the prow of the ship, engaged in low-voiced conversations with the Elder Lotion (besides Hinako, about the only other person on board who made the diminutive ninja feel oddly taller). On the port side of the vessel stood Ryoga, silent and as inscrutable as the Sphinx as he contemplated the ocean, giving not the least sign that he was in any way seasick (though the green Sasuke spotted about his gills was a pretty strong indication). The starboard side, as if by agreement, belonged to Kuonji Ukyo, presently in her female aspect, and hovering near to her side was the giantess, Makoto. That left only Happosai, the Demon Master, currently in his cursed male form hovering near to the child Hinako as if tethered to her side by an invisible leash. For some reason Sasuke felt oddly troubled by this as if moved to pity the ancient pervert, a most rare experience for him as Sasuke was usually accustomed to pitying himself around the Kuno siblings.

From what little he had been able to discern from his Mistress's terse explanations was that the Middle Tendo child, Nabiki, had been kidnapped by some skyborne pirates. They were therefore chasing after these miscreants in order to get her back and were being guided to a rendezvous point by the withered old lady, who had an uncanny knack for such things, which reminded Sasuke a little too much of his own grandmother. (He had not heard from the ancient witch in many years but the mere mention of her name still sent shivers down his spine…thank the kami she had found a child-apprentice to occupy her affairs of late so that she had ceased paying visits to look up on how Sasuke was doing. He passingly wondered if his ever-young grandmother were somehow related to the Elder Cologne as well as being around the youth-restored Matriarch came nearer to being with his granny than Sasuke found prudent.)

(Wherever you are, little Kotetsu), he thought to himself in silent earnestness, (I hope you are well, or in at least as much of an intact condition as your Mistress-with her perverse whims-finds to her liking…)

"Sasuke-san," the voice of the old woman snapped him back to the present, "Five degrees more to starboard and increase our speed to seventeen knots."

"Hai!" Sasuke found himself responding to the command by turning automatically to the new course adjustment as if ordered to do so by the Mistress (which in a sense he had been seeing as Kodachi had instructed him to follow the Lore Master's instructions as if they were her own). Of course he was left to wonder how they were going to catch up with a flying ship using a mere boat for transportation, even granted that the Kuno family yacht could move at a pretty brisk pace when needful, but far be it from the likes of him to question the wisdom of his betters.

And so the Good Ship Viziens II, with nine passengers and a crew of one, sailed off towards the mainland for something more than a three hour tour, which was the only thing separating it so far from a certain other vessel of international distinction…

"You seem troubled, young master," Lotion was saying to Ranma as Sasuke complied with her latest set of directions, "Do you doubt that we will find your lady loves in time to make an appropriate rescue?"

"Huh?" Ranma responded as if surprised by the question, "Ah, it's not that…I'll pound that Kirin guy and get Nabiki back. That ain't what's got me wor-ah-thinking…"

"Then what has troubled you?" Lotion asked, "Is it proposing to your lady loves that still has you tongue tied?"

"Ahh…" Ranma felt his face turn red for more than just the buffeting of the sea winds, "Kinda…but more like something Nabiki said just before this whole mess started out. It was like she got really mad at me about something, and I've never seen her give me such a cold evil-eyed stare before, like I'd just stepped on her favorite stuffed animal…"

"Perhaps it was the way in which you began to ask her for her hand in marriage," Lotion noted sagely, "You might have given her the wrong impression."

"Huh?" Ranma blinked, "How so?"

"Keep in mind that my apprentice, while enormously well gifted for her age, is still a young girl, and deeply in love with you, though she does not desire to admit it."

"Ahhh…" Ranma's face was now almost as red as his shirt.

"At the same time she is also a young girl who lost her mother at a very tender age," Lotion continued, "And it was this loss that has colored every aspect of her life ever since. She effectively learned to shut down her emotions in order to function when there was a need for family unity, to turn away from her own grief and bury herself in the task of trying to keep her family financially solvent. She became obsessed with material pursuits and started applying her intellect to finding ways in which to support herself in the absence of her emotionally distraught father. When you entered her life it was at a critical juncture when she was just starting to notice that there were other people in the world with needs besides herself, a too-brief window of opportunity in which she allowed her loneliness to overcome her desire to remain aloof and unaffected. When she chose to be your fiancée she set in motion a chain of circumstances that have since opened her up, both emotionally and intellectually, to seeing the world in entirely new patterns. You are therefore the linchpin of her entire life now, and without you she would be lost and alone, forced back into that empty shell of an existence from which you removed her."

"Ah…" Ranma said more softly, "I…I never…I guess I never looked at it that way…"

"So imagine how she might react if she perceived that you were about to turn away from her and give her the brush off," Lotion concluded, then waited for the inevitable outburst.

"WHAT???" Ranma all but exploded, "How could she think a stupid thing like that??? Doesn't she know how much I…I…ah…er…uh…"

"Yes?" Lotion responded with a bland expression.

Ranma looked down and balled his fists, "That stupid baka! Doesn't she know I'd do anything to protect her? Like I hadn't made it obvious enough the way I feel? Does she gotta make me come right out and say it?"

"That could be a good start," Lotion noted, "For the both of you. After all, you are as committed to her as she is to you, but sometimes a girl likes to hear a man actually say that he needs her. Fear is the driving force that kept my apprentice from admitting that she even has feelings for the longest time, a fear of commitment, with its attendant possibilities for disappointment and rejection."

"No way," Ranma whispered softly, "No way would I ever reject her!"

"Then tell her how you feel, boy," Lotion softly urged, "Make her believe it and understand you. In her heart she knows that you are the one from whom she was destined, and you know that of her as well. You can put the lingering doubts her rational mind has conjured to rest only by giving her your most sincere demonstration of affection and devotion, by overcoming all obstacles and proving yourself in your own eyes so that you will stop doubting this as well."

"Huh?" Ranma said, "I'm not doubting myself!"

"Oh no?" Lotion inclined her head, "Then why do you have trouble saying the words that you know are in your heart? Other men say such things quite freely and rarely mean it, but you hold back and keep from committing yourself in-total to your union. Merely having sex with her is not enough, you must make love to her in such a way that she will never again doubt you."

"But…" Ranma hesitated, "How do I do that?"

"Study Shampoo if you seek for an example," Lotion replied, "She is remarkably uncomplicated in her devotion to the both of you. She gave her heart to you utterly and freely, without restraint or prior commitments. In fact so great was her love for you that when she saw the way you felt towards Nabiki she chose to rather take on the aspect of a second wife rather than abandon either one of you. She is now the third part of both your lives, and the better part of you both in my rather unbiased opinion."

"Shampoo…" Ranma's expression softened as he thought of his Amazon bride, but then his face hardened again and he growled, "She'd better be all right…they'd both better be! If that Kirin creep harms either one of them, then I'll…I'll…" he raised a fist and shook it at the heavens, "I'll make him sorry he was ever born!"

"Then nurture those feelings, young Master," Lotion replied, "That is exactly the sort of display of sincere conviction that will prove to Nabiki that you are serious about the marriage. It also wouldn't hurt to give Shampoo the same level of commitment as those two girls are going to be the source of much future happiness and frustration yet to come. Be true to what is in your heart and the rest will surely follow."

Ranma turned a hard stare at the old woman and said, "Tell me about this Kirin guy. Is he really good?"

"Judge for yourself," Lotion tapped Ranma on the ankle, "He wields those chopsticks of his the way your mother handles her katana…like an extension of his own being. His speed is quite phenomenal, and he is heir to a very ancient school of consummate martial artists. He and his ancestors are the trusted guardians for one of the Pillar Gates that link this world with the realm of the spirit world, a volcanically active place that you will not find on any conventional map, a place so remote that even the Communist government does not know of its existence. In effect it is not entirely of this world, governed by rules very different than what prevails out here in the world of mortals."

"Sounds like it'd be pretty hard to find without you along," Ranma noted.

"Perhaps," Lotion replied, "Prince Kirin knows how to find the gap, and if we follow him we will enter his domain where he and his kind wield absolute power. You may have to fight him on his own terrain and beat him by using his power against him, for which you need a strategy, but one that I cannot recommend as it resides in the province of the War Masters. A pity Cologne is not here to council you in such matters…"

"All right," Ranma growled, "I'll bite. What do you think I should do when I face him?"

"You will know when it is time," Lotion replied, "But keep in mind that the strongest attacks are not always the ones you see with the eye but often what you feel with the heart. It is with the heart that you will ultimately triumph."

Ranma heaved a sigh and said, "And I suppose it'd be a waste of time to ask what the heck all of that means?"

"You catch on quick, young War Master," Lotion smiled, "Small wonder you're so popular with the ladies."

As Ranma began to color once again over that, Ryoga turned away from his vigilant stance as he so far had not been able to pick up so much as a speck in the clouds that could be his Akane. Instead he turned to study his chief rival for the winged girl's affections, seeing Ukyo sit in full lotus posture while making complex motions with her hands while softly chanting to herself.

Finally his limited patience could stand it no more and he said, "What the heck are you doing over there, Kuonji?"

"It's called the Nine Levels of Power," Makoto answered for him, "And don't disturb her. Senpai's in a meditative trance and she's trying to learn how to summon up her powers the way her aunt taught her just the other day."

"I can see Kuonji's school differs in other ways from Sasuke's besides just cooking," Kodachi mused as she shifted her sunglasses, "Chanting exercises are supposed to be good for strengthening the mind and spirit so that a ninja can become as sharp and focused as any weapon in their arsenal. I do wish, though, that she would take a break for a while and come join us in relaxing…I'm getting exhausted just watching her go at it."

"There's nothing wrong with studying, Kuno-san," Hinako remarked as she looked up from grading papers, "Just because we're on an important mission of mercy is no reason to slacken up in your studies."

"No offense to you, Sensei," Kodachi leered, "But I should think you had other matters that would keep you occupied," and with that the Black Rose used her eyes to indicate the handsome young Happosai currently sitting near the bow to the yacht.

Hinako blushed prettily but said, "I only do it with him when I'm in my adult form, and I need to save up my energy for the next time we face those miscreants. I got a pretty big charge the last time and I could have used it while we were back at the house…but…" she sighed, "Timing really sucks sometimes…"

"Tell me about it," Happosai responded without glancing back in the young-seeming teacher's direction.

"Now don't worry about it, everyone," Kasumi smiled brightly as she sat up on her own deck chair, reaching down to her portable bag and pulling out a number of booklets, "There's no reason for anyone to fall behind in their studies. I brought along your study booklets and homework assignments, and Hinako-san here can give you personal tutorage so you'll stay current with the rest of your classmates."

There was a loud groaning from all around as even Ukyo reacted to that comment, and Ranma glanced back in dismay from his end of the boat. Ryoga had a weak, lopsided grin as he said, "She's…something else, isn't she?"

"One of a kind, I think," Makoto quietly nodded.

"How wonderful of you to think ahead, Tendo-san," Happosai clapped her hands together with a big smile, "You must have been a very good student when you were in school yourself. Why didn't you ever go on to college?"

"Not enough time," Kasumi smiled wistfully, "But I do try to keep up on my reading, and Tofu-sensei even once offered to sponsor me through medical school…"

"You would make a wonderful nurse, Kasumi-sama," Kodachi mused, "Or an even better doctor. You have such wonderfully sensitive hands and a gentle bedside manner…"

"Ah…" Ukyo winced, "Do we really need to hear this?"

"Why?" Makoto asked, "I think it's very romantic."

"You would," Ryoga said as he turned back towards the railing.

"And what's that supposed to mean?" Makoto glared in his direction.

"Just that you fall all over yourself making passes at Kuonji," Ryoga said before he had time to think twice about his outburst.

"Uh oh," Kodachi murmured, sensing trouble in the offing.

"And what would you now about falling all over yourself?" Makoto glared as she turned around to regard the Lost Boy's backside, "If you were more of a man, then your girlfriend wouldn't be hanging around bothering my Senpai!"

"Oh my," Kasumi said, oddly echoing her own companion.

"What did you just say to me?" Ryoga turned around.

"Isn't it obvious?" Makoto shot back, "You let her flirt around because you're too much of a coward to face Akane and tell you about the way you feel, so she gets the weird idea that my Senpai is for her, and you just let her!"

"Uh…guys?" Ukyo pleaded.

"I don't have to take that from you!" Ryoga snapped as he took an aggressive posture, "And it's none of your business what Akane and me…!"

"Oh my," Kodachi said brightly as she scanned the heavens above as though the sun were overhead instead of nearing the horizon, "It's such a nice warm day, and I feel so hot wearing this stuffy thing on my body. I think I'll take it off just to cool down, and why don't you do the same thing, Kasumi-chan?"

"Oh?" Kasumi blinked, then smiled, "Oh yes…that would be a very good idea, wouldn't it?"

And with that both girls reached down and pulled off the tops of their bathing suits, then leaned back and sunned themselves with their gorgeous, ripe nipples exposed to the heavens.

"AH!" Ryoga hastily averted his eyes and gripped the railing until his knuckles turned white.

"Miss Kuno," Hinako said indignantly, "This behavior is most unseemly…"

"Now, now," Kodachi chided, waving a finger without looking the least bit contrite, "My ship, my rules…after all, I am the captain. We're also far enough from the shores not to pose a traffic hazard, and it's such a nice day to sunbathe. You wouldn't want us to develop tan-lines, now would you?"

Hinako tried to think of a good argument against that, only to notice that Happosai was staring at the two semi-naked girls with eyes as round as dinner plates. With a slight growl in her voice she gripped her man by the collar and said, "Come along, Master Happy, we're going downstairs to discuss this!"

"But Hinako-chan-!" the young-seeming pervert began to protest when he saw the coin that appeared as though by magic in her other hands, and he submissively gave up the fight with hardly more than a mere whimper.

Kodachi turned an amused smirk towards Makoto and said, "Why don't you do the same? It would be a great shame to hide such generous endowments from the eyes of your beloved. I'm certain Kuonji here wouldn't mind seeing you topless."

"Oh?" Makoto got over her surprise at the behavior of the other two girls and smiled, glancing at Ukyo before undoing the top of her own halter, "That's a great idea…I really hate feeling this constricted. It's hard to breathe with one of these things on, don't you agree, Senpai?"

"Hah?" it was Ukyo's turn to have her eyes go as wide as saucers, and then she hastily covered her nose and forced her eyes to look forward over the railing, certain that to do otherwise would be to risk having a Ryoga-style nosebleed!

"Ah…nice!" Makoto stretched and flexed her arms as she thrust her chest outward, displaying her large breasts for all the world to see like a pair of orbiting moons that had affixed themselves to her body, and without even having to look at them Ukyo could see in her own mind the image burned into her retinas, of a pair of rosy pink areolas sparing out from pale peach orbs the sides of grapefruits. This thought alone shattered any hope she had of regaining the focus of her concentration.

"I don't even wanna know," Ranma murmured to himself as he averted his own eyes, having paused only long enough to make a mental size comparison between Makoto's breasts and those of a certain Amazon who came bouncing up in his imagination to glomp him with conceptual affection.

"That Kodachi is quite a strategist," Lotion murmured, almost to herself, "What a novel way of diffusing such a tense situation. The surprising thing is that Kasumi picked up on her thoughts without the Kuno girl needing to voice them. That's such an excellent display of teamwork in action."

"Sure beats the hell out of letting those two fight and wreck the boat," Ranma agreed without turning away from his silent search of the heavens.

"Stay focused, keep your eyes on the compass," Sasuke murmured to himself over and over, hoping that he would not accidentally run them aground as his mind kept drifting back to that brief glance of his Mistress and her Mistress.

Makoto was only mildly disappointed at not being able to draw more of Ukyo's attention, thinking that the rosy hue to the chef's cheeks was a nice indication that her beloved Senpai was definitely interested. Now if only she could help Ucchan overcome her reluctance to express such feelings openly? It had taken a real sense of desperation for Makoto to overcome her own shyness and come this far, but once exposed to the sun she found she liked it very much. That gave her a wicked idea, and she smiled the more deeply before voicing her thought aloud.

"You know, Senpai," she said as calmly as she could manage, "You could join us in getting naked. It'll probably be a few hours more before we catch up with those kidnappers."

"Naked?" Ukyo's voice was muffled by her hands, but now she definitely KNEW she was going to have a nosebleed! The thought of exposing herself to Makoto…of the two of them…being like that…!

"Hey!" Ryoga cried out, "I think I see something…it's shaped like a balloon!"

"You baka," Ranma growled, "That's just a regular blimp. You don't see a ship dangling from the bottom, do you?"

"It's too soon for us to intercept them," Lotion smoothly intervened to head off an argument between the brothers, "Be patient, you will know the time, and I will make certain that we catch up to them, young warriors. Be assured that I will now allow Prince Kirin to get away with stealing my apprentice."

As if on cue a beeping noise came from Makoto's side, further distracting the tall girl from her attempts to coach Ukyo into a more open commitment. With an apologetic smile at her senpai she flipped open her portable compact communicator and said, "Just a minute, guys, I'll talk to you when I'm able." She turned to Kodachi and said, "Mind if I use the cabin down below?"

"Be my guest," Kodachi replied with a leisurely, contented expression, "Far be it from any of us to want to interfere in important senshi business."

"Terrific," Makoto rolled her eyes, "My cover's been blown big time."

"Not at all," Kodachi replied, "Just remember to transform into your Jupiter aspect when the time is ripe and don't bother to worry about the rest of us seeing you," she glanced meaningfully in Ukyo's direction.

Makoto could not help but softly chuckle at that while Ukyo reacted as it struck between the shoulderblades by that last remark. As the tall girl headed for the below decks she mused to herself that it was about as hard to keep a secret with this crowd as it would be among her fellow senshi.

And speaking of which, she flipped her compact open as soon as she was reasonably alone and said, "Mako here…what is it, Usagi? Any trouble while I'm away?"

"Nope," her cheerful blonde friend said, "It's as quiet as Rei's temple around tourist season, no reports of Youma activity, although Luna and Artemis are complaining about you spending time this far away from Tokyo. You must really have it bad for your senpai if you're willing to do this thing solo."

"It's what I have to do," Makoto replied, "A friend of my senpai's been kidnapped…your cousin's girlfriend no less, and I'm going to help Ukyo get her back."

Usagi's expression grew serious for a moment and she said a bit more gently, "How's Ranma holding up? This has gotta be awfully hard on him…"

"She was taken right out from under his nose and in broad daylight," Makoto replied, "And he couldn't even stop it. How do you think that would make you feel if somebody did that to Rei?"

"A good point," Usagi nodded, but then she cheered up again and said, "And how about you? Have you gotten to first base yet or are you still in the flirting around stages?"

"Ah…" Makoto blushed as the indelicate way Usagi put that, "We're making progress, but it's still touch-and-go. I'll let you know if Senpai and I really do work things out…"

"Let me talk to her!" Minako's voice was heard to say as she all but shoved Usagi out of the way, then her face dominated the view screen, "Mako-chan, you get back here safe and sound just as soon as you get finished, you got that? We still have some things to discuss ourselves, or don't you remember?"

"Ah…" It was Makoto's turn to look as awkward as Ukyo when she tried flirting in the boy-girl's presence, "Mina-chan…I know we were going to talk some more after school, but…this kinda came up out of the blue, you know? There's no need to be jealous…"

"JEALOUS???" Minako's voice screeched over the com-lines and almost caused Makoto to drop the compact, "I AM NOT JEALOUS OF THAT…THAT…THAT HENTAI!!! If you want to flirt with that boy-girl cross dresser then go right ahead and see if I care! You just remember when you get back here that we're going to have serious words about it…"

"Ah, Mina-chan," Makoto smiled lamely, "Please calm down…"

"I AM BEING CALM!!!" Minako's blue eyes blazed, only to blink as they scrolled down as if trying to look below the level of the screen, "Are you naked over there? What the hell are you doing…?":

"Ah, gotta go, seeya later!" Makoto hastily broke the link then heaved a sigh. Who would have ever imagined that her best friend could be so possessive?

"Troubles on the homefront?"

Makoto gasped as she whirled around to find Ukyo standing there on the stairway landing. There was a brief pause while the chef's eyes once again took in the tall girl's most prominent features, and then she hastily looked away and said, "Sorry…I didn't mean to…I…ah…"

"Senpai?" Makoto took several deep breaths to calm herself, "You scared me…"

"Sorry about that," Ukyo turned away so that he back was to Makoto, "Uh…look…I know your friend cares a lot about you, and I sure can't blame her…um…but…maybe it's for the best…"

"Maybe what's for the best?" Makoto regarded her friend with an odd expression, "Are you afraid I'm going to have to choose between you and her? I hope it never comes to that because you both mean a lot to me, Senpai. Please don't turn away from me because Mina-chan is a little jealous."

"Jealous like Akane?" Ukyo sighed, "I keep half expecting she's going to come swooping down on me from the air and catch us doing something that I'll regret. Sometimes I don't know which way to turn around the both of you…you're both so nice, but I feel like I'm being torn in two directions…"

"Am I really being that pushy?" Makoto asked, "I'm sorry…I guess I've been unfair to you, Senpai, coming on so strong and all that…"

"Oh, I haven't minded…much," Ukyo amended lamely, "If anything it's very flattering to have someone like you going to all this trouble…when you know what kind of a mess my life's been lately. I really appreciate you for being so supportive…"

"Senpai," Makoto chuckled as she scuffed one bare foot on the floor and posed coyly, enjoying the sense that her nudity gave her a strategic advantage, but wanting to reassure Ukyo at the same time that she understood the other girl's feelings, "You're worth it to me. You were my first love, and I've never forgotten about you. You haven't been leading me on or anything, and I've just been trying to make it obvious to you how much I appreciate what you've been through…"

Ukyo gave a soft half-chuckle at that, "Well, you've succeeded, now I can't stop thinking about you either…" she caught herself a moment and hastily added, "As a friend…well…as more than just a friend…in fact…in fact I…I…I think I…I…you…"

"Senpai," Makoto whispered the word this time and daring much she took a step forward and placed her hand on Ukyo's shoulder, "I love you too."

"You…you do?" Ukyo turned around and stared up into Makoto's eyes, really looking into her eyes, and there were tears in her own as the chef struggled with her emotions.

"Senpai," Makoto breathed the word as their faces leaned closer together.

"Mako-chan…" there was only a slight hesitation this time, and then Ukyo allowed herself to be drawn into the other girl's arms, giving in to temptation as their mouths came together and Makoto's large breasts pressed up against the material of Ukyo's own clothing. They held each other like that for a long time but then Ukyo broke the kiss and leaned over to murmur in Makoto's ear, "Call me Ucchan."

"Ucchan…" Makoto whispered, and then all restraints were abandoned, all doubts were banished and the two best friends finally gave in to the smoldering fire that was swiftly ignited between them. In mere moments that fire was built up into a blazing inferno, electricity sparking the air as though the young couple were giving off faint electrostatic discharges.

"Oh my," Kodachi lifted her sunglasses as she heard the snap-crackle and pop hiss from down below, "Now that's electricity for you…I just hope they don't short out my yacht's electrical systems."

"Mistress?" Sasuke called out from the top deck, "The compass needle is spinning like a top! I can't make out which way we are headed…"

"Not to worry," Lotion replied, "I can tell the direction, and I'll do what I can to bleed off some of those discharges so that they do no serious damage."

"Other than to the floorboards you mean?" Ranma lifted an eyebrow as he heard a distinctive bumping noise from below that his own personal experiences translated as someone getting on with some serious action.

"Ah…Hinako-chan?" Happosai whimpered to the now fully-adult Hinako, who was presently bending over him planting a number of kisses on his face in the cabin they were currently sharing, "Do you hear something outside?"

"Don't try and distract me, Master," Hinako replied in a deep, sultry voice between passionate kisses, "You've been asking for this all day now…" and with that she sank her face between his thighs, and a moment later the young-seeming old pervert crossed his eyes and forgot all about the groaning and muffled gasps taking place in the next compartment.

"Hmm," Kasumi purred, glancing over at Kodachi, "Do you think, maybe, that they have the right idea?"

"I don't see why not," Kodachi replied, "We won't be needed until we catch up with the airship, and it would be a waste of a day not to seize hold of the moment. Besides, your sister would not want us to deny ourselves and fret only for her sake."

"I suppose that's true," Kasumi said with only a slight hesitation, "But where can we go? It's probably a little crowded downstairs…"

"Not to worry," Kodachi grinned as she draped a hand down under her chair and came away holding a tarp, which same she tossed over the two of them as it somehow transformed itself into a portable pup tent, "I always come prepared for such occasions."

Ryoga blinked his eyes then shook his head, "Don't those two ever get tired of doing that?"

"What are you asking me for?" Ranma called back, "I've got enough of my own problems."

Sasuke's hands were gripping the wheel hard enough that he almost tore it from its moorings when he jerked his head at that statement. He calmed himself by absently chanting a mantra, the result of one of his Mistress's punitive sessions where he had been forced to watch more dreck, yet which somehow could actually sooth his nerves under such nerve-wracking condition. In a soft sotto-voice he began chanting, "I love you, you love me, we're as happy as can be…"

It would not be until six more hours had passed that they finally managed to catch up with the ship of Kirin…


Comments/Criticisms/Kirin's recipes for Pickled Cucumbers: Shadowmane@msn.com