Ah My Goddess Fan Fiction / Ranma 1/2 Fan Fiction / Sailor Moon Fan Fiction ❯ A Tale of Two Wallets ❯ My Dinner with Kirin ( Chapter 92 )

[ 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

"SAY WHAT???" the goddess Peorth reacted calmly and with great dignity as she stared at her Earthly counterpart, "You let my daughters be kidnapped by some Chinese clown act? You'd better have one heck of a good explanation for this or there will be hell to pay, ma Cheri!"

"It's as I was explaining to you before," Silk replied in a far more even tone of voice, "When Prince Kirin showed up it was most unexpected that he should be targeting Nabiki and I was as much taken by surprise as anyone else present. Akane flew to her sister's rescue, but from what I have been able to determine she has not yet met with success in her endeavor…"

"Success??" Peorth cried indignantly, "Nabiki should never have been taken in the first place! What kind of incompetent Lore Master are you that you can let some jerk just yank one of my daughters out in broad daylight with a fishing line? If it was your grandmother standing there…"

"There might well be no change of status," Silk replied coolly, "There are some things that even we, with all our power, cannot prevent from happening. The lines of destiny are subtle and quick to turn against us. Of course I assume that as a goddess you would have stood a better chance of acting in my place?"

Peorth was silent as she chewed that over, a silence that Silk took as assent that the assigning of blame would be counter-productive.

"I have been doing what I can to monitor affairs from a distance," Silk resumed more reasonably, "And grandmother is updating me with periodic reports…flashes of thought transference to reassure me that all is proceeding well and that she has found no cause for alarm just yet…"

"YET??" Peorth pounded on the word, "You mean something could still happen to them in the future?"

"There is always that possibility," Silk grimly acknowledged, "But there's no reason to panic ourselves with maybes and pointless speculations. Grandmother knows her business, and if there were a reason to fret I'm sure she would have informed me. As it is, it's taking all my efforts just to calm Soun down so that he doesn't go rushing off on a mad quest while we need him here to stave off a potential threat to the dojo."

"What?" Peorth blinked, "What about the dojo? Who's threatening my Soun-chan's dojo?"

"YOUR Soun-chan?" Silk asked in arched tones.

"I had him for seven years in a marriage," the Goddess said testily, "Which is longer than the seven months that you knew him."

"As I recall," Silk twitched a single eyebrow, "You were submerged within Kimiko, the woman who actually married him, and Soun-chan had no knowledge of your presence...""

"Say what you like," Peorth sniffed, "I knew him as well as anyone, now tell me what's this about a threat to the dojo?"

"Only speculation so far," Silk replied, "But we believe a developer may have her eyes on the property and may be looking to acquire the lease for a major International Conglomerate. That's why we've kept Soun-chan here so that the entire Tendo family isn't away while someone tries to buy the land out from under our feet…"

"Wait up a second," Peorth waved a hand, "The entire family? Where is Kasumi?"

"With her friend, Kodachi," Silk replied tersely.

Peorth's eyes narrowed as she said, "And where are they both right now?"

"Sailing out of Tokyo harbor in pursuit of her two sisters," Silk replied with some reluctance.

"Are you telling me…" it was Peorth's eyebrow that was now twitching, "That you let Kasumi follow her sisters into danger? Do you have any idea how reckless that is? Have you any conception at the possible consequences?"

"Kasumi is the oldest child," Silk replied, "She feels responsible for the welfare of her sisters. I didn't want to let her go, but she was adamant about staying with Kodachi. I…did not think it was my place to refuse her, even if she is not warrior trained like Akane, or an aspiring Lore Master, like Nabiki…"

"You dolt!" Peorth snapped, "There's more to Kasumi than you or any other mortal knows! She's a reincarnated…" the goddess caught herself, then said, "Well…it's not a very good idea to put her into harm's way…it could trigger…unfortunate consequences. Call it a bad idea and leave it at that."

Now Silk arched her eyebrows and began to say, "Do you mean to tell me that if Kasumi is left in a hazardous situation it might cause a change in her…?" but before she could finish this sentence they heard someone else calling out to them.

"Hey, Silk!" Comb appeared on the back porch, even as Peorth chose the moment to fade through the floorboards, "What's taking you so long? Have you finished making those sandwiches yet? We need you out here to help us raise those walls. You don't expect me and Atsuko to do it all by ourselves, do you?"

"Of course not," Silk replied smoothly, gathering up the tray that she had just finished loading up with snacks as she followed her best friend outside, "After all, we couldn't expect Genma to lend a hand, after all…"

"He's busy keeping Soun distracted with a game of Shogi," Comb nodded towards where the two men were at their accustomed places, while Nodoka sat nearby calmly reading one of Kasumi's books on Herbal Lore, "By the way…who were you talking to in there? I thought I heard voices…"

"I was merely talking to myself," Silk replied, "Nothing you need be concerned about."

Peorth waited until the two Amazons were gone before she rose up through the floor and scowled, "Nothing to worry about, am I? Well…we'll just see about that, Cheri, after I look into this matter about the kidnapping."

And with that the goddess floated up through the ceiling and vanished, intent on researching the data libraries of Heaven for all that could be learned about these "Seven Lucky Gods" and whether or not she should petition their offices with a formal complaint. After all, there were just some things one did not have to tolerate about obnoxious foreigners, be they snooty Amazons or a Rival Relief office. And if immediate redress was not forthcoming, then she was prepared to take matters into her own hands, and woe betide the mortals who dared lay an unwanted finger on any of her babies…

Akane knew that she should have felt tired and cold hanging onto the back railing of the sky ship, but oddly there was no fear in her as she glanced down at the distant surface of the water rolling beneath her in such tranquil reflection. It was as if heights no longer intimidated her, as though her cursed form with its ability to fly had given her a renewed confidence and a basic understanding that she could cope with this environment as if it were second nature. It was like the odd way that she lost her normal inhibitions whenever she sprouted the wings from her back and the feathers from her legs, as though she became a somewhat different person than the Akane who had always been earthbound. She did not even fear landing in the water any more, confident that she would not sink like a stone as she always had from the negative buoyancy from which she had long suffered. She no longer even saw her other form as a curse anymore, instead it felt like a state of blessing, such as the way she felt whenever she spoke to the woman who looked so much like her mother.

Even so she judged that it was taking Shampoo a very long time to get back to her, and clinging to the ship was not getting her any closer to finding, let alone rescuing, her sister. Nabiki was counting on the both of them to come through on her behalf, and it was the thought of this (not to mention the secret sweet pleasure of showing up that obnoxious Ranma) that was making her impatient. She would much rather be busting heads than standing around while these creeps did who knew what with her sister! So it was that she leaned a bit closer to the multi-hued pane of stained glass and resolutely concentrated upon it, wondering what was on the other side and if it might be safe for her to break through and enter.

Imagine her surprise, therefore, when all at once she found that she could see through the glass after all, and could hear the voices on the opposite side as one of them was saying to the other, "…But Master Kirin…this girl could be dangerous. It's not as if any ordinary girl could lay you out with a single blow…"

"Enough, Bishimontan," came the calm reply of the guy who had called himself Kirin, "Your concerns are well noted, but I am curious to learn more about this girl who is to be the bride of Kirin. Such fire as we have witnessed in her eyes seems most rare indeed, and I should like to learn more err we return to our homeland. Kirin is quite recovered from the mere love tap she gave him and would see this girl again, so I order you to bring her to me, Epite."

"As you wish, my Lord," came the little guy with the fishing pole, "Perhaps an hour by herself has cooled her ire and forced her to reconsider her rash behavior. Be assured that if she attempts to strike you again she will be dealt with."

"Do no harm to her," Kirin urged, "She is a guest and will be afforded all the privileges that may be accorded to a foreign born woman…and know that she is fated to be Kirin's bride, so treat her accordingly as you would a princess."

"It will be as you say, Master," the little man with the big ears bowed, then spun about on one heel and exited the chamber.

"Master Kirin," spoke up a woman's voice this time, "How shall we instruct your bride into the proper etiquette that is to be expected of a woman of her station?"

"Kirin leaves that matter entirely in your hands, Mon Mon. As Royal Courtesan you are to use such means as you deem fitting to bring her into line with our traditions. Make allowances for her as she is to be a special case, but should there be a need for chastisement…"

"I understand, my lord," the woman said differentially, "She will learn her place by the time of your wedding."

"Why that…" Akane murmured to herself the words, "arrogant," "preening" and "bastard" while trying not to draw attention her way. She counseled herself that whoever these people were they were obviously dangerous and not to be underestimated. She counted the six oddly dressed people in the room, plus servants and guards, in all about twenty or more to worry about if she were to go in there directly. Instead she took a calming breath and waited, biding her time as-from the sound of matters-Nabiki would be produced in very short order.

Sure enough her sister was led into the room looking slightly disheveled but otherwise no worse for the treatment. If anything she had a somewhat restrained look of resentment as she regarded the Prince and his courtiers, then in matter-of-fact tones said, "You wanted to see me, your Highness?"

There was a sharp intake of breath from all around, and then Epite whirled on the middle Tendo sister and cried, "None have right to address Prince Kirin without leave, woman! How dare you rise above your place…"

"Enough," Kirin instructed, "Come forward, Tendo Nabiki, that Kirin may speak with you in a more civil manner. This distance ill suits a bride and his groom before a wedding…"

"I'm not…!" Nabiki started to shout, then caught herself and with some effort lowered her volume a notch, "I am not getting married with you, Prince. I mean, you seem like a nice guy and all that, but your way of petitioning for my hand in marriage leaves me a little on the cold side, if you take my meaning?"

"If you refer to being confined as punishment for your earlier outburst, consider the matter as forgotten," Kirin informed her, "It was wrong of us to expect you to immediately comply with our customs when we know so little of your own. Forgive our presumption, we will attempt to abide with a more tolerant attitude in the future."

That seemed to mollify Nabiki somewhat so that she stood less guarded as she walked closer to the dais, then paused to bow in a respectful Japanese manner. Courtesy having thus been dispensed, she folded her arms over her chest and inclined her head in a sardonic manner and said, "First off…about this place you guys hail from…"

"Nekonron," Kirin replied, hopping off his throne-like perch atop a heavy brass kettle, standing tall before Nabiki with his bowl of rice and chopsticks as ever at hand, "It is nestled in the mountain straights due north of the place that you call Hong Kong and south of what is now known as Canton. Few know the way and fewer still can arrive there without invitation for it is not on any maps that you will find it. Our land is a gateway between the worlds of Earth and Spirit, and the Seven Lucky Gods Martial Artists are the traditional guardians of same. It is a very long and illustrious line that you are to marry into, Tendo Nabiki, and most women would regard it as quite an honor."

"Ah…let's just say I'm not most women and leave it at that, okay?" Nabiki urged, "I mean, look, you're handsome and you've got a nice ship and people here obviously look up to you, but this isn't the sort of thing I'm looking for in a boyfriend."

"Oh?" Kirin asked, "How intriguing. What manner of man is it that interests you, if you do not mind Kirin's curiosity on this subject?"

"Well…" Nabiki hesitated, "Let's just say he's not rich, but he is handsome…I mean…one day he might be rich, but that's not the reason I'm marrying him. He's brave, a bit reckless and headstrong, but he's got a good heart and I'm really kind of fond of the baka…"

"You obviously do care a great deal," Kirin noted, "What a shame that it cannot be between you. As loathe as Kirin is to come between the affairs of two lovers, the traditions must be upheld and so you will have to learn to forget all about your commoner boyfriend."

"Says you and what army?" Nabiki allowed a dangerous gleam to be hinted at in her tone, look, and mannerism, "You may be a prince but you're not a god, and you certainly aren't my Ranma."

"You say that he will come for you," Kirin replied, "This Saotome Ranma?"

"You can count on it," Nabiki stated flatly.

"Then we will wait to meet him," Kirin replied, unruffled, "And when your knight in shining armor attempts to steal his bride from him, Kirin will be waiting, and then you will see with your own eyes which of us is the more worthy of becoming your husband."

"Why that…!" Akane's temper finally snapped and she balled a fist, momentarily forgetting that there was a pane of glass in front of her as she brought it forward, "You keep away from my-!"

The shattering of said glass startled her no less than it did the occupants of the room, and suddenly Akane found all eyes turned in her direction as she stood framed by the ruined window.

"Oops…" Akane said a bit lamely, "Sorry about that…"

"Intruder!" the little man called Epite cried out, and with a flash of his fishing rod he sent his line of twine in the direction of Akane.

Elsewhere in the ship, Shampoo perked up her ears, hearing the sudden commotion, knowing without thought that Akane and Nabiki had to be at the center of it all. She turned back to the pot of water that she had been heating on the stove for the past several minutes, hoping that it was the right temperature to trigger her change. Just getting a pot filled up and carried over to the ancient cooking platform had taken her the better part of several minutes, having discovered the kitchen empty and no handy cooking ware ready to be used in her cursed form. Were it not for her ability to focus her Chi to bolster her physical strength there would have been no way that a mere cat could have accomplished such a task. As it was, the mere act of getting the pot onto the burner had proven surprisingly complex, whereas for a human it would have been a task of mere moments.

It did surprise her to learn that they used electricity instead of gas to heat the coils, but in a way it would make sense to avoid using an open fire on a gas-suspended vessel, and the thing looked old enough that Thomas Edison himself could well have worked on the slow-to-heat contraption.

She tested the waters with a paw then decided it was warm enough to do the task. Knowing that every second would count she jumped into the pot and transformed to her human shape, then wasted no time whisking out a spare cheosang from virtual space and slipped it on in a dead run, producing her bonbori halfway to the prince's chambers and wasting no time putting them into service by smashing the heavy wooden doors down.

After all, dramatic entrances were an Amazon forte, and Shampoo was hardly one to disappoint her airen…

Nabiki's Journal Resumes:

Hey, I'm not one to complain about the cavalry coming to my rescue, but the thought that it would turn out to be Akane made me consider taking back at least a quarter of the nasty things I've said about her over the years. Too bad my charmingly inept younger sister didn't come with a ready-made plan, so it took less than a heartbeat before she landed herself in a heap of real trouble.

That Epite guy was the first to strike, reeling Akane in like a fish, though his line failed to snag her wings and merely pinned her arms against her body. It was what he said next that I found most surprising, "Look, Sire! It is a spy for the people of Phoenix Mountain!"

"A spy for the winged folk?" Kirin turned to regard the struggling Akane, "How very odd. There has been peace between our peoples for many years…"

"LET ME GO!" Akane shouted, bracing her legs on the floor as she brought her wings into play, more out of reflex than deliberate intention. I saw her lash out with one of those wings as my sister casually batted the little man away, slamming him like the proverbial hockey-puck against the far length of the room, which gave her the slack she needed to get loose from the fishing line. She whirled about just in time to be met by a charge by the big guy with the pig sticker. She dodged the thrust of the large man's shaft and lashed out with one foot, catching the man under the chin and causing him to turn his head to one side…which was all the effect she created!

Akane backed away as she took stock of the man-mountain named Bishimontan, whom I later learned was the Royal court exorcist, and rightly judged that he would be a tougher sale than she had originally estimated. Backing up to give herself more room to fight, however, brought her into the reach of yet another of Kirin's lackeys, a literal mountain of flesh who resembled nothing so much as a weird caricature of the smiling Buddha.

"Akane-look out!" I cried, too late as it turned out as a pair of massive arms looped around both wings and my sister and squeezed them in his huge embrace, crushing the breath out of Akane and effectively taking the fight out of her for the next several seconds.

"Hold her, Garuda," Kirin commanded, "But do not hurt her. Kirin would interrogate this one and learn why one of the Winded Folk would have business with Nekonron."

That was when the second surprise happened as the double doors at the far end of the chamber were knocked off their hinges, and into the room stormed Shampoo, large as life and full of purple-haired fury.

"What's this?" Kirin turned to the new threat.

"An Amazon," Bishimontan replied, "Are we are under siege by an alliance from the Bayankalah provinces?"

"What next?" asked the pale haired lady in scanty attire (whom I later learned was named Mon Mon, but more about her later), "An attack from the Musk Dynasty?"

"This is a most unfortunate turn of events," Kirin noted, "Take her as well as the Winged Woman. There is more to this story that Kirin should much like to learn about."

"Nabiki," Shampoo called out as she approached us with great haste, "You is all right?"

"Keep back, Sham-chan!" I called out to her, not caring that I was giving away the fact of my association with these two timely interruptions.

"You know of this woman?" Kirin asked in surprise.

"Yes they're…" I decided to use the term that would most make sense under the situation and said, "My sisters," I glanced at Shampoo and hoped she would not take that the wrong way.

"Sisters?" Kirin turned to glance at Shampoo, then at Akane, "Now Kirin is very interested in hearing the full story…"

"Nabiki," Shampoo seemed genuinely torn as she glanced from me to Akane, who was struggling to no avail against the man-mountain, "You sit tight…Shampoo rescue you, but first help Akane."

"Mon Mon," Kirin ordered.

"As you will, Sire," and too fast for me to see the pale haired girl suddenly appeared directly in Shampoo's path, startling my iinazuke as even she seemed taken aback by such a maneuver.

"Get out of Shampoo's way!" my purple haired dynamo cried as she thrust forward with her trademark bonbori, only to find the girl dodged out of the way with as much ease as if Shampoo had been attacking Ranma. Even more disconcertingly she started to play on a guitar-like instrument, giving no evidence of concern as she dodged and weaved around Shampoo, keeping her off balance.

"What are you doing, Shampoo?" Akane grunted as she fought in vain to free herself from Garuda, "Hurry up and rescue Nabiki!"

"In moment, Akane," Shampoo took a step back, only to find Mon Mon appearing behind her. Shampoo dodged an attack by the girl and her guitar, but then got a cagey look in her eyes and smiled, waited for the next attack then spun around and threw one of her bonbori, aiming it for the head of the towering Garuda.

The giant Buddha barely seemed to feel the metal mace as it bounced off of his head, but the gesture sufficiently distracted him that Akane was able to break free from his embrace. I stared in amazement as Akane began to glow brightly, her aura intensifying in strength as if fueled by her emotions, and with an incredible display of brute strength she pushed with her wings against the brute and achieved the incredible feat of actually toppling the mountain!

"Incredible," Kirin remarked, "Such teamwork in traditional enemies is most remarkable."

I decided to file this away for later reference, intending to ask Shampoo later on what she knew about winged folk living in a place called Phoenix mountain, and what the heck was this Musk Dynasty that I'd heard referred to in passing.

"Finally!" Akane flexed her wings and then got a cocky look on her face as she balled her fists and said, "Thanks, Shampoo, now…who's next?"

"We are," said one of a pair of identical twins who appeared directly before her.

"Daihotse and Daikotse at your service," said the other.

"Whatever!" Akane cried as she surged forward, only to find the two identical men were leaping at her with near-identical maneuvers, one aimed high, the other low, catching her squarely on the jaw and solar plexus.

"You hit them high," said one of the two men.

"…And you hit them low," agreed the other as Akane staggered backwards, clearly taken aback by the double-attack.

Meanwhile the air was filled with the ringing sounds of Shampoo's remaining bonbori fending off the attacks of the metal-rimmed guitar wielded by her opponent. I could see right away that the scantily clad girl had the edge in speed and technique and was pressing home her advantage, forcing Shampoo to retreat until she had been cornered next to Akane.

"Remember Kirin's orders," Kirin called out to his henchmen, "Restrain these two but do not harm them."

"It shall be as you command, Sire," Bishimontan replied as he moved to block off any attempt at a break through. Meanwhile I could see the other members of Kirin's team were doing likewise, presenting a united front that overwhelmed all hope of a victory for my lover and my sister.

"They're too many of them for us to fight," Akane said as she felt along her jaw, "What are we going to do?"

"Akane," Shampoo murmured softly (and don't ask me how but I could hear her plainly), "When Shampoo give signal you make break for it and go find Ranma."

"What?" Akane shot a look at my girlfriend, with whom she was standing virtually shoulder-to-shoulder, "But…what about you?"

"Shampoo place with Nabiki," my future bride said with grim fatalism, "You no need stay here, and Ranma need to know what we facing."

"No way," Akane shook her head, "I'm not abandoning you!"

"Is no choice," Shampoo held her bonbori at the level, "We fight we both captured, Ranma no find us. You is best one to get away, you come back with allies. Shampoo find way protect Airen."

I could see Akane chewing her lip over that but she finally nodded, "All right, but I don't like it. Just stay alive until I get back, all right?"

"Shampoo no suicide," my bride said bravely, and I got a sense of what she was intending.

"How noble of you to offer yourself in the place of your friend," Mon Mon remarked, "But it is a wasted gesture. Neither one of you is leaving this room without permission of Lord Kirin."

"You wrong," Shampoo called out as she turned to the wall and struck with her bonbori with a cry of, "BAKUSAI TENKETSU!"

And with a massive slam from her mace she punched a hole right in the side of the chamber, exploding it outward with such force that it created a suction draft that caught Akane by surprise and hurled her away before any of Kirin's people could move to stop her.

Shampoo fought the draft and was nearly blown outside with my sister when a fishing line caught her by her waist and yanked her back. Meanwhile the other Lucky God Martial artists all fought against being sucked after Akane, all save for the big Garuda, who thrust his massive body into the gaping hole and quite effortlessly plugged it.

"Incredible," the Prince said as he prevented me from losing my footing with a gallant arm thrust across my chest, "Had Kirin not witnessed it with his own eyes…"

"I have you woman!" a recovered Epite declared as he wrapped Shampoo up in the coils of his nylon.

"You no have Amazon warrior for long," Shampoo declared, surprising the man by twisting her body into his reeling motion, closing the space between them while using her feet for balance, and before the little guy knew what had happened he'd been head-butted into the wall for a return to nap-land.

Shampoo wasted no time freeing herself from the nylon, but as Mon Mon came rushing up to attack her again she calmly lifted her bonbori, then dropped it to the floor, surprising everyone (and me as much as anyone else present).

"Shampoo no want fight," Shampoo declared, "You talk Shampoo, she no attack you."

"You mean you're surrendering to me?" Mon Mon was clearly stunned by the gesture.

"Amazon NEVER surrender!" Shampoo's eyes blazed with fury, but she refrained from attacking the other woman, "But warrior know when fighting no serve purpose. You no want kill Shampoo or her Nabiki, Shampoo will no fight you."

"You are offering us your parole?" Kirin was plainly unprepared for this stunning gesture, just as I was equally astonished to see Shampoo opting to talk instead of her usual head-bashing, "How extraordinary. Very well…if you will refrain from violence, Kirin will allow you your freedom."

"Master!" Bishimontan cried, "I protest! How can we possibly trust this one to abide by her word? Amazons are without honor…"

"Is this from a guy who thinks kidnapping a woman is a kind of foreplay?" I asked sarcastically, then addressed myself to Kirin, "Don't hurt her, she's…she's a friend of mine, a very good one."

"Indeed," Kirin smiled, "Kirin had already deduced this. A most unusual friend indeed who is willing to accept Kirin's hospitality on your behalf. I find the very notion that you two could even know each other extraordinary, and you will tell Kirin all about your story when we sit down for dinner."

As if on cue my stomach started growling, embarrassing me somewhat as I had not had anything to eat since lunch time, and then only a half-devoured Bento.

"All right," I said, "But Shampoo stays with me."

"If that is the way that you prefer it," Kirin nodded, then waved to his black-and-white clad masked servants and pointed first to the wall and then the gaping hole that had been a rear window, "Clean those up, then prepare the room for a feast. Kirin and his bride shall sit down to sup while her friend is given a place at our table. Mon Mon, see to it they have time to wash and bathe so that my bride will look more the part of a future princess."

"As you wish it, my Lord," Mon Mon bowed to him, but she eyed Shampoo with caution, clearly not convinced of my Amazon bride's good intentions.

Shampoo came up to me and embraced me with her eyes, but clearly she understood that this was not the time nor place for a more open display of her affections. I smiled at her, more gratified to see her again than I can possibly put into words, and for once I felt like being the one doing all the glomping. After the events of this weird day just seeing her beautiful face again made me hunger for her arms in a way that put the rumbling in my tummy to shame.

Of course the one thought in the back of my mind during all this was the natural one you would expect…did my sister get away scott free, and where in the name of heaven was my other iinazuke, Ranma…?

"Oh man," Ranma groaned to himself as he tried to ignore the noises that were coming from the back of the ship, "What kind of screwy rescue is this?"

"You've got me on that one," Ryoga commiserated as the two of them sat on the front prow of the ship with their legs dangling over the water, their arms on the low railing that was keeping them both from pitching forward as the ocean became more restless.

"Now don't be that way, you two," Lotion urged, "Revel in the moment, feel the wind in your faces and the rolling of the ocean…"

Ryoga put a hand over his mouth and looked a bit green around the collar, "I'd…urk…rather not, thank you!"

"If you cease to fight the motions of the ship you won't be so badly discomforted," Lotion advised, "In fact think of this as a form of training…preparation for the struggle that is to begin when we catch up with our adversaries."

"Training huh?" Ranma, "I can go with that…but what kind of training?"

"The kind that Cologne would be teaching you if she were here in my place," Lotion replied, "I was once warrior trained, as are the both of you, and I was her apprentice in the warrior arts, and being far from senile I still remember the elements of my training."

"I'll go with that," Ryoga said, "But what can you possibly teach us that will do any good in a couple of hours?"

"The fundamental lesson of what it means to fight with your Chi and not just your fists," Lotion replied, "Life is the power that fuels the art when one ascends to the next level of their training. You both have come about as far as one can go on the physical side of the art, but what you are facing here now are warriors skilled in the refined art of Chi manipulation. It's a different kind of combat than that to which you both are accustomed."

"Chi manipulation?" Ranma asked, "You mean like that Ki attack thingie Kennou used against Ryoga?"

"The very same," Lotion smiled, "You say Ki, I say Chi, so let's call the whole thing off."

"Huh?" both boys blinked in unison.

"Sorry," the Lore Master smiled, "Old joke, I couldn't resist it."

"Well…" Ryoga allowed, "It would be pretty neat to know how Kennou did that energy blast that knocked me for such a loop. I would have won our first fight if she hadn't pulled that out on me at the last minute."

"So how do we do it?" Ranma asked, "I know how to use my Chi to strengthen my attacks, but to actually use it as a weapon…"

"Well, the first thing to keep in mind is that you need to replenish energy as fast as you use it or you will suffer from supreme exhaustion," Lotion informed them, "To do this you will need to master the art of harboring your Chi within your bodies, to tap into whatever available reserves of energy are around you and to keep a strong reserve for ready usage."

"Sounds good," Ryoga said, "Only question is how?"

"By recalling that within each person there coils a snake of energy that rises from the feet up the spine to the head and back again," Lotion replied, "The Chakra centers of energy that reside within your body will grow more and more accustomed to handling the stress of greater and greater energy levels, and the more you charge yourself the larger will be your ability to handle the increasing stresses."

"Kinda like flexing a muscle to buildup your strength, huh?" Ranma said when a new thought crossed his mind, "Is this the kind of thing that you've been teaching Nabiki?"

"As we say in China, Bingo," Lotion smirked, "The only difference between you and her is that you've been building up your Chi throughout the whole of your life and she's only recently been training to try and catch up with you. You can already harness more Chi than my apprentice, and you've seen for yourself what she can do with her advancing knowledge of the arts."

"You mean we could do stuff like stop time and dodge real fast and all that?" Ryoga asked.

"You could if you mastered the same techniques," Lotion explained, "But you differ from her in that you are living weapons who can apply their strength either defensively or offensively. A Lore Master can do far more than employ her Chi as a weapon, and knowledge is her primary power."

"Yeah, right, got that," Ranma nodded, "So how do we go about toughing up our Ki?"

"One simple exercise should be all you need to get things started," Lotion replied, "It is called 'As Above, So Below.' You should be able to master it before we engage the enemy, and it could even prove critical to surviving your first encounter."

"I'm game," Ryoga said, "How does it work?"

"First and foremost," Lotion said gravely, "Become aware of your environment. Feel the ions of energy in the air swirling all around you. Feel the wind in your face, feel the sun when it beats down on you…or in this case the moon…and feel the rolling of the oceans, restless and eternal. On land it will be the ground beneath your feet that you may draw upon, but the principle is the same wherever you go. Just chant the phrase, "Sky above, Earth below," and feel the elements reaching out to you, filling you with their Chi. Think of yourself as surrounded by a globe of light that is build up from this Chi energy, then draw that light into yourself, concentrate it in your body and awaken the Snake that coils within you, the power of the Dragon."

"The Dragon," Ranma murmured, feeling an odd sensation passing through him as he followed the old woman's instructions.

"The Dragon," Ryoga echoed, then paused before adding, "What is the Dragon?"

"A very good question," Lotion smiled, "The world itself is the Dragon…the sky above is the Dragon, and the sea too is the Dragon. It is everywhere, it is in everything, it's breath is the flame of life itself, and its thoughts are as the Lightning. Merge with the power of the Dragon, become as dragons yourselves. Be young dragons emerging from your shells, stretching out to test your wings as you grow and mature beyond infancy to adulthood. The Dragon will guide you…it is the Worm that encircles the Earth devouring its own tail, and it coils within the base of the spine, ready to leap out and strike at a moment's notice."

"But what all does that mean?" Ranma asked.

Lotion gave a soft chuckle, "Figure it out for yourselves. Consider it a mystery to unravel, like a Chinese doll, a test of your maturity as warriors in training."

"Chinese doll?" Ryoga asked, "You mean like those things that have dolls inside their bodies, and smaller dolls inside those, and so on?"

"You catch on quick, Boy," Lotion grinned, "Now…concentrate on your lesson and repeat after me, Sky above, Earth below."

"Sky above, Earth below," both boys chanted in chorus.

"Now say it to yourselves silently," Lotion urged, "And feel the words, feel their meaning, and feel the flow of energy creating the ball of light within you. Be mindful to tap into the positive flow of life energy all around you and seek the harmony with your own Chi. Be dragons, young warriors, fierce and protective of those you love and all you hold sacred."

"Nabiki," Ranma murmured softly.

"Akane," Ryoga echoed, and then they both closed their eyes and started to meditate on the words, "Sky above, Earth below…" while channeling the energy that flowed into their bodies.

Lotion watched the two boys grow calm and their restless spirits grew still, and then the slow process of harmonization began, Ranma's confidence returning while Ryoga slowly merged with his sense of fatalism. The two were well on their way to mastering the second stage techniques that she intended to teach them, but first they had to purify their minds and bodies. The clean essence of elemental light was being kindled within them.

Once she was satisfied that they would maintain the discipline until ready for the battle, she turned her attention back towards the distant air ship, upon which they were slowly gaining ground by the nautical mile. As night had fallen upon them and the yacht moved out into deeper waters she had been subtly shifting the currents of the tides to speed up their rate of travel, bringing them closer in alignment to their quarry, who were also fighting headwinds that were slowing down their progress.

Something was happening over there, some incident or significant occurrence that had been setting off alarms on the edge of her consciousness, and now that Lotion was free to turn her attention that way she felt the tide of battle turning against their side, only to be marked by a feeling of escape as one of the pinpricks of light parted company with the main body. Lotion drew the focus of her attention towards this plummeting object and got a mental image of Akane Tendo fighting to regain her orientation, swings spread wide to catch the currents as she slowed her rate of descent and gradually managed to stabilize her flight and take stock of her surroundings.

Akane had been briefly stunned at the speed with which Shampoo had put her plan into motion, and the speed of execution had taken even her completely by surprise. Almost in no time at all she found herself a kilometer away from the sky ship and watching it drift away at a leisurely gait. She briefly entertained the thought of chasing after it but gave that up as she knew that she could do little on her own to take on the forces that had driven both her and Shampoo into a corner.

Then she remembered the parting words Shampoo had given her: "Find Ranma and bring help," which meant that she had to retreat with her tail-feathers between her legs and hope to find her way back in time to rescue BOTH Shampoo and Nabiki. Too bad it turned out those goons were a tougher lot to fight than they had originally been prepared for, but it made more sense to gather as much strength as they could before mounting an assault against these kidnappers.

Now there was only one problem left to solve…which was home? She was out over the ocean with no sign of the coastline, and the light had long ago failed with the setting of the sun, leaving her with no sure sense of direction, no certain way in which to fly in order to get back home to the dojo. How could she gather her allies if she couldn't even find her way home…and for that matter…how was she supposed to find dry land before her wings got too tired and she wound up plummeting into the sea, which would be a VERY BAD THING! It started to dawn on her that she really was in a very bad situation.

For the first time in her life Akane had a sense of what it must have been like to be Ryoga, always clueless about direction and at a total loss of any point on the compass other than up and down. It was not a comfortable revelation, and if anything she felt herself begin to quail at the thought that she could be lost too in the expanse of the ocean. Lectures from her history classes came a little too readily to mind…like didn't early World War Two pilots often have these sorts of problems flying at night and without adequate instrumentation…?

Only then as she started to feel a bit of concern eat into her confidence did she become aware of a voice in her head, not the voice of her mother but rather that of Lotion the Lore Master.

**Child…can you hear me?**

"Hello?" Akane wondered if she were hearing things or it really was the voice in her head of Nabiki's mentor.

**Still your mind and calm your fears** the old woman's voice spoke strongly, **I will serve to guide you to our position. Just open your senses and feel your way here and I will make certain that you find us.**

Akane could have wept for joy. The voice sounded strong and it felt reasonably near to where she was gliding, so she turned the way that the voice had directed and let the currents carry her forward, making good time as she no longer had to fight against the headwinds. In less than a half an hour she felt the voice urging her to descend, and then her eyes began to gain stronger focus as though the darkness was becoming as plain to her as daylight…and there in the distance was a boat heading in her direction.

Lotion smiled upon seeing the youngest Tendo girl coming into sight and gave her final instructions for an approach vector, hoping the child had sufficiently progressed in her flying skills to manage the difficult art of landing on a moving object. Satisfied that direct word as to the condition of her apprentice was at hand she had one other task that needed tending. Kuonji Ukyo needed to be informed of Akane's presence, and it simply would not do at this early stage to let the Tendo girl suspect what had happened between the chef and the senshi below decks.

At least not until their mission was successfully concluded, after which Kuonji would have to do her own ditch digging. Lotion did not fault the sex-changing girl for her romantic interlude, but this was hardly the time to sow dissention in their ranks, now when they had to present a united front in facing against Kirin. Tearing the team apart was certainly a recipe for disaster, and with the volatile Akane it was always best not to take unnecessary chances…

"Mmm…" Ukyo purred as she stretched out and curled one bare leg around the thigh of her recent bed-mate (or technically speaking as it was more the floor of the lower deck and not an actual bed that they were currently sharing), "I think I could get to like this…"

"Me too," Makoto murmured in a sleepy tone of voice, deliriously contented at the success of this first-time ever sexual encounter as they lay facing one another, totally naked, "So…how was I on a scale of one to ten?"

"I wouldn't know where to begin," Ukyo chuckled softly, "But you definitely impressed the heck out of me. Where did you learn to do that, by the way?"

"Promise not to laugh?" Makoto asked.

"How can I promise something like that?" Ukyo asked, but when she felt Makoto's hand reach down to cup her pelvis she hastily said, "All right, all right, I promise!"

"Good," Makoto chuckled ominously, "If you really want to know, I learned to do that by watching anime and reading manga."

"You're kidding?" Ukyo asked, only to gasp as she felt the finger pressure increase against her loins and she gasped, "Ah…maybe not…?" albeit a bit archly.

"Scouts honor," Makoto murmured, then chuckled at her own jest, "Usagi and Rei aren't the only ones who've read romance manga when growing up, and living by myself as I do…well, it gets a little lonely on a Saturday night, know what I mean? And some of those manga get awfully graphic…"

I didn't know you went in for that type of literature," Ukyo mused, then purred in contentment, "I guess I can vouch for the graphic parts…and pretty accurate too I'll wager…"

"Very," Makoto nuzzled the top of Ukyo's forehead with her lips, "I used to fantasize about doing this…at first with a guy, of course, and I'd fast-forward through the girl-girl parts…but then I started to pause and really look through those sections, and when I did guess who I started thinking about in the roles as the two lovers?"

"Really?" Ukyo mused, "In other words you were planning to seduce me all along?"

"Well…" Makoto drawled, "I admit the idea was in the back of my mind when I decided to approach you…after I got the word that you were living in Nerima…"

"How diabolical," Ukyo mused, nuzzling Makoto's throat, "And now that you've had success with your fiendish plans of having me for yourself, what next to you plan to do?"

"What else?" Makoto mused, "Try you out in your guy form and see if I like you as much in either version."

"I had a feeling you were going to say that," Ukyo's hand roved over the smooth skin of Makoto's hip, "To tell the truth I'm a little curious myself, but I wanted to do this first in my true form…"

"Oh?" Makoto asked, running her free hand up Ukyo's washboard-smooth stomach to circle around her hip and slide it around to caress the Chef's pert fanny, "And what was that, pray tell?"

Ukyo cupped Makoto's chin and replied, "Because if we're going to have any kind of relationship together, I want to know that you'll love me for what I am, not what I turn into…and I also wanted to know if I could actually do it with you as a woman."

"You wanted to be honest with me," Makoto murmured in low-voiced wonder.

"I've never wanted anything else, Mako-chan," Ukyo replied, "From the moment we met I've felt a burning need to share with you all my dark and dirty little secrets, and it gnawed on me all the time that we were dating that I was effectively lying to you by hiding my true gender. Now that we know so much more about each other…I'm hoping this time things will be different."

"Me too," Makoto smiled, "I'm hoping that this will be just the first of a lot of really hot sessions between us, Mako-chan, especially if you take me up on my offer to come work in your restaurant. I'm not saying that there won't be problems, of course, and I still owe duties to my friends and fellow senshi…"

"You know I wouldn't want to come between you and the work you do, Mako-chan," Ukyo rested her head upon Makoto's breast and heard the beating of the other woman's heart for several long seconds, "I also hope this won't put a strain on your friendship. I keep thinking about Minako and the claims she made on you the other day. It's obvious even to me that the two of us getting closer is going to be a problem."

"I can handle Minako," Makoto replied, "In spite of her somewhat flighty nature, she's a very loyal friend and we've never kept things from each other, so I know how many times she can fall in and out of love at the drop of a hat. I…like her a lot, but I wasn't really thinking of her as anything but a friend. I suppose I might have noticed sooner or later that she had those kinds of feelings for me…and maybe if I didn't have you back in my life I'd even be tempted to try her out…"

"What, like a new dress?" Ukyo sniffed, "I think you may be making a mistake about her. I don't really know why, but I think she's a little more desperate for attention than you realize. Maybe too many failed attempts elsewhere have got her to thinking of you as something more than a last-ditch alternative. Or maybe she's just noticed what a gorgeous hunk of womanhood you are. Either way she's got to be feeling more for you than a simple schoolgirl crush, and crushed might well be what she's feeling right now, feeling like you've abandoned and rejected her…"

"You think it could be that bad?" Makoto wondered, "I hope it's not that serious. I do like her, you know…I mean, you've met her, you can see that she's really deep down a very sweet and caring person."

"So I think you're still going to have to deal with her before we can even think about living together," Ukyo noted, "I'd be willing to wait for you to make up your mind, one way or another."

"Do you honestly think I'm going to give up on you this soon?" Makoto asked in mild exasperation, "After all it took me just to get this close to you?"

"I wouldn't expect you to give up on me any more than I'd give up on you, Mako-chan," Ukyo chuckled, "You've really changed my life over the last few days and I'm starting to wonder what I was ever so nervous about in the first place. Of course I've also got to deal with Akane…"

"You mean you didn't tell her yet?" Makoto's tone was no longer quite so playful.

"Ah…" Ukyo cringed, "I really meant to tell her yesterday evening, but…somehow I got a little side-tracked…"

"Uh-huh," Makoto glared down at her, "Tell me another one. Are you planning to keep us both on a leash, Ucchan?"

"No," Ukyo insisted, "It's not like that! Mako-chan, you know I'm not trying to play games with anybody's affections. It's just…when I'm with Akane…things start to get a little fuzzy…"

"Are you telling me you're in love with her?" Makoto's voice was no longer quite so teasing.

"No!" Ukyo insisted, only to have the disturbing image of Akane's kiss crop up unbidden, "Ah…well…I think…"

"You think?" Makoto growled, "I don't think I like the sound of that. In fact I KNOW I don't…"

**Kuonji Ukyo,** a voice rang out in both of their heads.

"Eh?" Ukyo reacted, "Who said that?"

"Sounds like the old woman," Makoto noted, momentarily distracted from her irritated state.

**It may be of interest to the both of you to know that the object of your current discussion is on the way here and will shortly be landing, at which point I think it would be very wise for the both of you to be in a better state to present yourselves.**

"Akane's on her way here?" Ukyo sat upright, eyes wide with panic, "We've gotta get dressed at once!"

"Why?" Makoto asked, "I'm not afraid of her."

"You ought to be, Sugar," Ukyo replied as she started reaching for her discarded belongings, "She's got a temper like a matchstick and she knows a lot more about the martial arts than you do. If she catches us like this she's gonna go ballistic, and we've got to keep our focus on freeing Nab-chan from those Lucky God creeps."

"So you think we've got to play it cool, huh?" Makoto said uneasily, "I guess I can go along with that. But after this is done I expect you to tell her everything and make it plain with her that you belong to me now, and she's got to keep her hands off, or else."

"I didn't know you had a bill of sale, Sugar," Ukyo smirked, "C'mon, get dressed and I'll try and make it up to you afterwards."

"All right," Makoto roused herself to sit up and reach for her suit, "But I'm holding you to that promise…Senpai."

Ukyo winced, but gaining Makoto's cooperation took precedence over all else, so she finished dressing with haste even as Makoto finished tying on her bikini top just seconds before something went crashing onto the deck like someone misjudging their airspeed and landing with a bit more force than intended.

"Ouch!" came the all-too-recognizable voice of Akane as Ukyo went rushing for the steps and emerged into the night air in time to see the youngest Tendo girl sitting up on the deck and rubbing fanny, then complain rather sourly, "Guess I need to work a bit on my landings…"

"Akane-chan?" said Kasumi as her head popped out from under the collapsed mini-tent.

"Kasumi?" Akane reacted, "What are you doing out here, and where is everybody?"

"We came to rescue you," Kasumi said brightly, "Ranma and the others are all here looking for you, Shampoo and Nabiki, isn't that nice?"

"Everybody came?" Akane asked with raised eyebrows.

"Well," Kasumi amended, "Everyone but the adults, with the exceptions of Hinako-sensei and Elder Lotion, and of course Ryoga's aunt stayed behind because his mother insisted...."

"Okay, I get the picture," Akane got to her feet and fluffed out her wings, "I came to warn everybody, only I didn't know that I'd find you in a boat in the middle of the ocean. Good thing I landed on something soft…"

"That would be me," Kodachi groaned as she pried her own head up from under the ruins of the tent, "You definitely do need work on your landings, Akane-san…"

"Oops," Akane winced, "Sorry about that…" and then her eyes took in a more welcome sight and with a cry of delight she rushed forward saying, "Ukyo! You came for me also?"

"Well I…" Ukyo got no farther than that before Akane threw her arms around her and drew her into a kiss twice as intensely passionate as the last time. Ukyo was not braced for the impact and had to put her arms around Akane to stabilize herself, all the while very much aware of Akane's lips pressed to her own, and without thinking about it Ukyo's resistance melted and she returned the kiss, albeit more automatically and with much less enthusiasm. As the kiss went on her resistance collapsed even further, and she became aware of Akane's wings stretching out to enfold them both in their continuing embrace, affording them a modicum of privacy, though all present knew perfectly well what they were about.

"Well, well…" Kodachi leered, "It seems our wayward Tendo sister is rather eager to express how much she has missed her gallant chef."

"Oh my," Kasumi agreed, "They do seem to rather much like each other…"

"Akane-chan?" Ryoga gasped as he watched this whole transaction take place before his eyes with growing horror.

"Oboy," Ranma winced slightly, "Something tells me this is gonna mean trouble…"

Right on cue a ragged voice from a throat suddenly gone horse grated out, "HOW DARE YOU???"

"Oh bugger," Lotion murmured.

"Senpai…I TRUSTED YOU!!!"

Ukyo was not so far gone into the power of Akane's kiss that she did not pick up on the lethal tone of that harsh utterance, which same she only vaguely placed as belonging to Makoto. Extricating her mouth from Akane's eager tongue proved far less pleasant than the act of turning around and seeing her worst fears manifested in the form of her other girlfriend. Makoto stood there in her swimsuit like a towering column of rage whose emerald eyes were blazing with hurt and accusation.

"M-M-Mako-chan?" Ukyo's voice was pitched higher by about two octaves, "It-It's not what it looks like…!!!"

"Oh yeah?" the pony-tailed girl glared hotly, "Tell me another one, like how you were going to break it to her gentle!!!"

"Why don't you bug off and find a whale somewhere to play with!" Akane snapped, immediately resentful about being interrupted in her business.

"WHAT DID YOU SAY TO ME???" Makoto balled a fist and waved it in Akane's direction, "Mind coming over here and saying that?"

"Sure," Akane growled as she stepped around a dismayed Ukyo, "As soon as I find a ladder!"

"Uh oh," Kodachi winced, then blinked her eyes, wondering if it was a trick of the light or did the taller girl appear to be giving off small electrical discharges.

"How dare you…" Makoto shook with rage, "How dare you talk that way to me? And how could you kiss her, Senpai? Have you no shame? Have you no HONOR!"

All at once electricity started pouring out of the other girl, shooting out randomly and in all directions. One stray bolt hit Ryoga in the chest and knocked him backwards, almost over the side and into the water. Ranma ducked low as a second bolt hit the railing to one side, and at once everyone else fell to their knees to avoid the other discharges, all save for Ukyo, who for once was glad not to be wearing her bandoleer of throwing spatulas and trademark baker's peel or she was certain the lightning flashes would have struck her like a magnet.

Akane raised her arms and wings simultaneously as if forming a ward sign, and the lightning bolts that crackled at her struck some invisible barrier and were easily deflected. Makoto showed no signs of lessening the intensity of her flashes and her eyes were blazing like twin neon sighs, but before the whole ship could be further damaged Lotion came up behind her and struck her on the back of her knees, knocking Makoto down to a level where the wizened Lore Master was able to find her sleep center and render her unconscious.

Silence reigned in the ensuing afterglow of Makoto's brief rampage, punctuated only when Ranma raised his head to ask, "What the heck was that all about? How did she do that?"

"That was her senshi power manifesting itself," Kodachi deduced, "Sailor Jupiter is reported to use Lightning attacks against her enemies, which we have observed in prior battles."

"Oh my," Kasumi put a hand to her chin, "But I thought she could only use her powers when she transformed into her alter ego. Is it usual for her to act this way while dressed as a civilian?"

"Apparently the sight of young Kuonji with Akane set her off in such a manner that she was able to transcend her normal limitations," Lotion deduced, "She has somehow instinctively tapped into her true source of power without needing the transformation."

"That's just swell," Akane groused, "Lightning girl here almost electrocuted the lot of us because she has a problem with me getting closer to my Ucchan."

"Ah…" Ukyo winced a little, "This is really all my fault…I should have…been more honest…" she swallowed, wondering just when Akane had decided to start using her nickname.

Akane turned a softer look her way and said, "You don't have to blame yourself that she has the wrong ideas about you, Ukyo. I guess I can't really blame her for being jealous of us…but if you're going to let her down it would probably be a good idea to wait until she's calmer and we're not surrounded by all this water."

"Er…ah…" Ukyo felt trapped good and tight, at a loss of words as her imagination failed her utterly. How in the name of sanity had she ever gotten herself wound up in such an impossible situation?

"Akane," Ryoga looked away, his face so contrite with misery that even Ranma looked on him with pity.

"Speaking of dressed for odd occasions," said a now adult Hinako as she appeared on deck, drawn by the commotion, "Is that your idea of evening formal wear, Miss Tendo?"

At first Akane thought that her teacher was referring to her, but then she saw that Hinako's gaze was directed at Kasumi, whom she only now realized was wearing a very odd get-up that served no practical value and did not seem conservative in the slightest. Kasumi's lovely bared breasts perked up from beneath some form of metal and leather harness and she had on a studded leather collar, velvet gloves that extended up to just above her elbows, and a pair of thigh-high stockings that connected to thong sandals. She also noticed that Kodachi was wearing a choker-collar with a leash-chain attached, one end of which was held lightly by Kasumi.

"Ah…well…oh my," Kasumi blushed slightly, "I suppose this does require an explanation…"

"I'm not sure if my heart could stand hearing it," Ranma admitted tersely, wondering if Shampoo and Kodachi might have had the same kinky teachers. He turned instead and said, "Ryoga…"

"Leave me alone," Ryoga growled without enthusiasm, staring disconsolately at the sea as if contemplating a high dive.

"Ah…Ryoga?" Akane belatedly became aware of the lost boy's depressed state of mind and realizing at once that her rash behavior had hurt his feelings beyond mending.

Makoto groaned as she stirred where she collapsed, "W-What hit me…?"

"Mako-chan?" Ukyo went to the side of her girlfriend, bending over to see Makoto staring up at her with a puzzled expression.

"S-Sempai…?" Makoto seemed on the verge of remembering something significant when all at once Lotion announced, "We are here…there is the Air Ship."

She pointed with her staff, drawing all attention towards an object visible against the night sky, reflected by the beams of moonlight that managed to poke their way past a nearby cloud bank. It was drifting along exactly as Akane remembered it, prompting her to say, "That's where they're holding Nabiki! I was just up there fighting alongside Shampoo…"

"Shampoo?" Ranma all but pounced on the word, "Is she all right? Is Nabiki okay? If they've hurt either one of them…"

"I…I don't really know," Akane glanced down, "Shampoo told me to come get you guys…I didn't want to leave her alone up there, but we were both outnumbered and…"

"You did the right thing, Child," Lotion replied, "Had you stayed then you would only have become another hostage. Now at least you can provide much-needed information to the others. Sasuke-san, are you still awake at the wheel?"

"Eh, what, yes Mistress!" the little Ninja announced as if he had not been drifting in and out of sleep for most of the past hour.

"Hold a course steady by my mark," Lotion said, "We must endeavor to get our warriors aboard yon vessel while you and I remain behind to secure transportation."

"What?" Ranma said, "You're not going?"

"Not beyond this point, I am afraid," Lotion replied, "I am an Elder of the Joketsuzoku, and if I am seen to directly partake in an attack upon the Prince of Nekonron it could have serious ramifications back home. Never fear, just remember your training and you will do well enough without me…but if you should run into trouble, don't hesitate to call upon my services. I can be there in a flash should I truly be needed."

"Then I guess Kodachi needs to get ready," Kasumi said as she undid the chain connected to the Black Rose's collar, "Now remember to be a good girl and don't play too rough, Kodachi-chan."

"I will remember, Kasumi-sama," Kodachi smiled, reaching down and yanking up the remains of her tent, then with a flash that would have done a professional magician proud she waved it once over herself, and suddenly she went from nudity with clips and chains to her Gymnastics leotard, all in the space of a second, "Shall we be going?"

"All right," Ranma smacked fist-to-palm, "It's about time we got to it! That Prince Jackass will never even know what hit him!"

"That's supposed to be my line," Ukyo nodded, "But I'm right behind you, Ranchan."

"Then I'm coming with you," Makoto declared in no uncertain terms, "You owe me an explanation, SENPAI, and for your sake it had better be a good one!"

As Ukyo gulped, Ranma turned to his half brother and said, "What about you, Ryoga? You coming?"

"I came all this way to help, didn't I?" Ryoga responded, his eyes as hard and flat as twin chips of basalt.

"Then how, pray tell, are we to get up there?" Hinako quizzed, "It's at least two kilometers above the level of the ocean."

"Not to worry," Lotion replied, making a motion with the end of her staff at the deck, and suddenly a coil of heavy rope appeared as the old woman said, "This has the tensile strength of a cable and can be gripped quite easily without causing rope burns. Even Kasumi would have little difficulty climbing it, and you, Akane-san, will have the honor of flying with one end tied about your waist. You will hook the end to the railing and secure it so that it can take the combined weight of the others, and once there you will lead the raid into the stronghold of the enemy. Are you so far with me?"

"Hai," Akane nodded, thumping her chest with a fist, "Just leave it to me, and this time those Lucky Gods creeps will never know what hit them!"

"That's the spirit," Lotion nodded, "Now…only one member of our assault team is missing. I do hope you have not totally depleted my uncle with excessive foreplay, Hinako-san."

"Oh, don't worry about it," Hinako relied, "I made sure to leave enough of him left that he'll still be able to chase after the ladies, giving me a good excuse to punish him for it afterwards."

"Cute system," Ranma nodded, "All right, let's do it!"

The assault on Kirin's sky ship was about to begin in earnest…


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