Ah My Goddess Fan Fiction / Ranma 1/2 Fan Fiction / Sailor Moon Fan Fiction ❯ A Tale of Two Wallets ❯ Taking Stock of Your Options ( Chapter 93 )

[ 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

"Oh my, this getting intense."

Ganglot, a wish-granting Oni, Unlimited Class, was smiling to herself as she mentally probed the lines of destiny that gave her a mental picture of what was taking place many miles away at sea. Having long ago learned how to tap into the World Computer of Yggdrasil for instant access to any and all data files, she found it remarkably easy to penetrate the wards surrounding the prince's ship and spy on the fellow who was presently entertaining Nabiki and Shampoo for a most unusual fare of dinner, and all the while oblivious to the rescue party that was already moving into play and about to crash the party…

"So," the Prince himself was at that moment saying, "You left your homeland on a blood quest to avenge your honor against an outlander girl who had dared to defeat you, the champion of your annual contests."

"Is true," Shampoo nodded, "Shampoo defeated by great warrior, lose face in front of whole tribe. Shampoo train whole life to be best in tribe, no take lying down, give Kiss of Death to outlander."

"And so you followed the ancient traditions of your people and went in search of this outlander female," Kirin continued, "And did you ultimately find her?"

"Of course," Shampoo replied, "Shampoo second best tracker in village, follow all way to Japan where finally catch up with girl, find in home of Nabiki. That how we met for first time, turn out girl is really Nabiki…"

"Cousin," Nabiki hastily interjected, "Ranko is my cousin, and we're very close together, have been since she first came to pay my family a visit…"

"So she was staying with you when she," Kirin pointed with his chopsticks at Shampoo, "Came into your house to execute your cousin. Perhaps Kirin does not fully understand the situation here, but Kirin finds it very confusing that you can be close friends in spite of this."

"Oh, Shampoo no kill outsider girl," Shampoo replied, "She find very good reason to no kill, and this what bring Shampoo closer to Nabiki."

"By closer you mean that you have become her watchful protector?" Kirin asked.

"Among other thing," Shampoo smiled enigmatically.

"But Kirin does not understand," the prince remarked as he held up his bowl, which was automatically filled by one of the twins sitting atop the rotating platform that dominated the center of the dinner table, which was followed by the obligatory pickle, "How can you choose not to obey the traditions of your people? You swore to kill the outsider girl who caused your disgrace…"

"But girl prove very hard to kill," Shampoo said, "And then Shampoo meet big, strong man who defeat her, which mean he become her husband, and it turn out that he and outsider girl…"

"Are brother and sister," Nabiki interjected once again, albeit with a look of haste and almost panic.

"Is so," Shampoo glanced at Nabiki with a winsome smile, "Is almost like they one person, and that make outsider girl family to Shampoo, which mean she no longer outsider."

"I see," Kirin remarked, "You found a loophole in your people's own laws. How admirably clever. But this does not explain why you regard yourself as Nabiki's protector?"

"Is very simple," Shampoo replied, "Nabiki promised to husband, and husband care about Nabiki. By Amazon law this make Nabiki obstacle to marriage, but no can kill Nabiki and no upset husband, so Shampoo decide take Nabiki on as co-wife. We share Airen and everybody happy."

"You…share the same husband?" Kirin clearly found this revelation surprising, "I was aware that Amazons could sometimes agree to share a man, but Nabiki is not a warrior…"

"Is something better than warrior," Shampoo had the enigmatic smile again, "And beside which she like sister to Shampoo, and we have sex together to prove we compatible, so Shampoo take her for wife…"

"Wife?" now Kirin's eyes registered surprise and confusion, while Nabiki spat out the mouthful of rice that she had been in the process of chewing.

"Is surprise to Kirin?" Shampoo asked, "You think warriors never fall in love with one another?"

"Kirin…admits that he finds the concept unusual," the Prince responded after careful thought that lasted for a long, tense moment, "But it is not unheard of in Nekonron…in fact it is the way that concubines train for marriage. Mon Mon herself is a practitioner of many exotic forms of foreplay, the better to please a man, in addition to being the Mistress of the School of Benzaiten."

"Excuse me?" Nabiki asked as she finished washing down the flakes of rice that she had nearly choked on, "Benzaiten?"

"One of the Seven Lucky Gods that are worshipped in our homeland," the Prince explained, "Surely she is known even in your land as a patron of the arts and famed for her music?"

"I've heard of her, of course," Nabiki coughed into her hand-towel and then continued, "I was just…surprised is all…that a goddess worshipped in our land is also worshipped in your part of China."

"But is it so surprising that the goddess would come to be known far and wide for her beauty, style and wisdom?" Kirin reasoned, "Each of the schools of Nekonron is styled after the God that each system is named for. For example, Kirin's own school is that of Fukurokuja, the Patron of Commerce and Longevity. The other schools are Jurojin, Hotei, Ebisu, Daikoku and Bishimonten. You will note in the latter case that the current priest of that school is named for its patron, and of course Garuda has been fashioned to be the very essence of Hotei."

"You train to imitate your gods?" Nabiki asked with arched eyebrows.

"Of course," Kirin replied, then paused before adding, "Which gods do you worship, Tendo Nabiki?"

"Well…" Nabiki drawled, "I'm not what you'd call seriously religious, but of late I've taken a stronger interest in the gods of my people…and recently I've been feeling a bit closer to one named Peorth of the Roses, but I consider that a private affair and I'd rather not have to talk much about it."

"Very well," Kirin replied, "We will respect your wishes in this and not impose our beliefs upon you, but Kirin is most concerned regarding this man that you each claim to be your husband…"

"Iinazuke," Nabiki corrected automatically before she had time to think twice about it.

"A fiancée," Kirin smiled, "Then your marriage is not yet official."

"Is official enough where Shampoo concerned," the Amazon insisted, "Ranma prove himself very much man, best warrior in all Japan, he easily defeat Shampoo and win heart of both her and Nabiki…"

"But now you have met Kirin," the Prince replied, "And he is a superior man to this Saotome Ranma, as you will see when Kirin defeats him in battle."

"Hah!" Shampoo declared, "You no defeat Ranma! He much, much better than silly chopstick wielding boy-king."

"Silence, woman!" the dwarven Epite spoke up, "None may address Lord Kirin…"

"Enough," Kirin spoke decisively with a wave of his rice bowl, "Kirin does not choose to take offense. If anything he is much impressed with your loyalty to your acknowledged husband. Kirin would hope to earn this loyalty for himself when he defeats this Ranma and takes Nabiki for his wife…"

"You never take Nabiki from Shampoo!" Shampoo insisted.

"Kirin would not think of doing this," Kirin replied, "As there is no conflict in having you for a second wife, he will permit you to stay and continue in your self-appointed role as Nabiki's bodyguard and companion. However, in all other respects, Kirin will insist that his claim remain unchallenged, and for that a second husband is not to be permitted."

Nabiki sputtered again on the rice that she was chewing, but this time managing not to swallow any kernels down the wrong pipe.

"Is something wrong, Tendo Nabiki?" Kirin asked in genuine concern, "Is our food displeasing to you in any way?"

"Ah…" Nabiki paused to swallow more tea, then said, "It's…not all that bad, but the rice is a little bland, and don't you put anything else on them besides pickles?"

"But pickles are good, wholesome and nutritious," Kirin argued, "They are the primary staple in the diet of the people of Nekonron."

"You're kidding me," Nabiki stared at him blandly, "Pickles are the primary source of your diet?"

"Oh no," Kirin replied, "Rice is the primary portion of our meals, but we always serve rice with pickles, and we never eat rice without them."

"Pickles?" Nabiki seemed to have trouble comprehending this, "You don't eat anything else?"

"Why?" Kirin seemed genuinely puzzled, "What else is there to eat?"

"I don't suppose you've ever tried a hamburger?" Nabiki arched an eyebrow.

"What is a hamburger?" Kirin wondered.

"Is meat served on roll," Shampoo replied before frowning, "Shampoo think they serve it with pickle."

"You eat the flesh of animals?" Kirin seemed genuinely appalled.

"Ah…why?" Nabiki asked hesitantly, "Is that a problem?"

"It is one of the taboos that is forbidden in Nekonron," Epite spoke up once again, "No matter what savage, barbaric foods you may be used to eating, Woman, from now on you will learn to eat on pickles as befits the bride of Prince Kirin."

"Only…pickles?" Nabiki looked more than a bit disquieted at this notion.

"Kirin is afraid that Epite is correct," Kirin answered, "It is a tradition that he must insist upon. You do like pickles, do you not?"

"Oh…ah…sure," Nabiki smiled weakly, "I like them just fine…only not as the only thing besides rice in my diet…"

"This is most unfortunate," Kirin replied, "I will ask Mon Mon to add this to the list of things for which you must be trained."

"I thought you weren't going to impose your beliefs on me," Nabiki argued.

"It is not belief, it is a practice that bears the weight of long tradition," Kirin replied, "Kirin is sorry if this displeases you, but he must insist that his bride will uphold the traditions as an example to all women of Nekonron."

"Pickles," Nabiki let her chopsticks clatter to the table and stood up, "Sorry, Prince, but I've just lost my appetite. Come along, Shampoo. If you'll excuse us."

"HALT WOMAN!" Epite stepped forward, "You are not to leave the table without the permission of Lord Kirin!"

"Excuse me?" Nabiki looked down her nose at the little man, "What am I now, his slave or something?"

"You are a woman," Epite said as if this needed to be pointed out, "And women do not speak back to their husbands…"

"Blow it out your ears," Nabiki snorted, "Which in your case would probably be fatal."

"Why you-!" Epite took a step forward, only to find Shampoo standing directly in his path.

"Epite," Kirin spoke the name as he stood up from the table, "We will not detain you if it is your wish to be difficult. Kirin understands that you need time to adjust, so he will have Mon Mon show you and your…companion to the room that you have been assigned. She will also see that your needs are attended, beginning with the all-important task of your bride training."

"Bride training," Nabiki said sourly, "When are you gonna get it in your head, Prince, that I have no intention of cooperating with any of this. You don't just tell a girl that she's going to be your dutiful little wife, you have to earn that privilege, and so far I'm not impressed."

"I see," Kirin said, "Then Kirin will need to impress you that he is the man for whom you are destined. I look forward to this challenge as you are a most intriguing woman and quite certainly a most diverting challenge."

Nabiki was about to speak up to this when Bishimontan entered the room and said, "Sire, we are under attack! Strangers have boarded the ship and are attempting to force an entrance!"

"Strangers you say?" Kirin arched an eyebrow, "Deal with them-no, wait! Find out if one among them is named Saotome Ranma. Kirin is most eager to confront this young warrior who has come all this way to challenge his claims to Tendo Nabiki…"

All at once Ganglot's mind was yanked back by the sound of a voice calling out to her. In mild vexation she opened her eyes and groaned, "It never fails…just when I was getting to the good parts…"

She turned her mind to close nearby and found her great granddaughter, Ryomi, calling out to her in the studio above her. Deciding that immediate family should take precedence, she ordered a relay to record the upcoming battle, then rose up out from her stone resting place, flowing through the basalt and up through the floor, emerging in the studio itself, where she startled Ryomi, who had not expected her to make quite so dramatic an entrance.

"What is it, dear?" she asked, immediately falling into the delightful role of a caring Elder, a role that she found very much to her liking, "Were you having trouble sleeping?"

"G-Grandma?" Ryomi stared at her with very round eyes, "How…what…you…?"

"I was resting, dear," Ganglot replied, "Even Oni need their beauty sleep."

"You sleep inside the stone?" Ryomi stared at the block of basalt.

"The stone is from my hidden temple in China," Ganglot replied, "It is my link to the center of my power, and sleeping inside it helps to recharge me after a hard day at the office."

"I guess…" Ryomi said dubiously, eyeing the stone as if trying to fathom why such a plain looking object should be so important.

"Is there something you wanted to ask me, Ryo-chan?" Ganglot inquired, "I do have a lot of important things to do in the morning, but if you are having any problems you know that I would be glad to make times for you…"

"Ah…well…" Ryomi ran a hand against the back of her head and said, "I was just wondering…do you know what my mom's really like? I…I was too little to remember…"

"You were four years old when you got lost," Ganglot sympathized, "I've watched your mother for a great many years, but always at a distance. I've been locked up in my temple for the better part of three centuries, so I can only give you the condensed version born of my covert investigations…"

"That would be nice," Ryomi said, "I don't even have a picture…"

"Try looking in the mirror sometime," Ganglot smiled, "You resemble my granddaughter to a degree that is most uncanny. Oh, granted your hair is much darker and your eyes appear to be a normal shade of brown, while your mother's true appearance is something more akin to this," Ganglot made a hand gesture, and the air was suddenly filled by a life-sized image of a bat-winged naked woman with ruddy skin and green hair. Ganglot made a second gesture and a nearly identical image appeared next to the first one, only this version appeared more human, having brown hair done up in a braid and a more lightly tanned skin color.

"What…?" Ryomi stared at one version of her mother, then the other.

"That is the way that your mother chooses to appear before most people," Ganglot explained, "She polymorphs into this more human aspect so as not to alarm people or give away her true nature. Beneath the surface, though, she is quite the Oni…very strong and quite powerful in her ability to cast illusions. She is also a highly skilled and dedicated fighter, the Mistress of the Hibiki School of the Righteous Fist, which itself is a variation of the Anything Goes school of combat."

"Wow…" Ryomi paused before adding, "She's beautiful…will she know me when I see her?"

"How could she not recognize a beautiful child such as you?" Ganglot smiled indulgently, "Not a day goes by when you are not close in her thoughts. She has wandered the world looking for some trace of you, hoping to find you before her mother fully learns of your existence. Never believe that she does not care for you or has not missed you, for At-chan would gladly die to spare you suffering, and when she sees you once again…well, try not to be too embarrassed if she makes quite the scene, kid. She's got ten years of anxiety wrapped up over not being able to find you."

"Because of the curse?" Ryomi-asked, "That stuff you said about us never being able to find things?"

"The curse," Ganglot nodded sadly, "Something I hope one day that I shall be able to break forever. It has kept me from seeing my son as anything but a wandering statistic. There are spells that keep me from locking in on him directly, but I've recently managed to contrive a happy chain of circumstances that have finally helped me to correct this problem. A subtle shifting in the command directories of Yggdrasil has altered a recently cast summoning spell into a more generalized command directive that will bring the Hibiki clan to gather in Nerima. In a few more days, a week at most, we will start to see the results of this summoning as the spell has already brought you here, and shortly too it will bring your cousin, Akiko, who is currently playing tour guide for your mutual grandfather."

"Huh?" Ryomi asked, "Would you mind explaining that one again, Grandma?"

"Certainly," Ganglot directed the child towards a painting that was presently covered by a cloth draped over the canvas, "I've crafted spells into the weaving of this bit of artwork that helps me to mark the lines of the wandering Hibikis."

As the Oni Princess uncovered the portraiture, Ryomi blinked, for it seemed to her eyes to be a kind of crude map showing the main Japanese Island of Honshu, only with lines of various colors tracing their way across the canvas, some weaving in odd patterns, others moving in a more direct manner.

"Each of these lines represents a different member of Clan Hibiki," Ganglot explained, "Yet all are descended from a single source that is invisible to this tapestry. My son does not register on detection spells, so you will not see his line directly, but as he is currently in the company of this particular graph line," she pointed at a dark ambler line that was weaving and bobbing all about the area of Tokyo, "I know exactly where he is. This is Akiko's line, and so it also marks the path currently being taken by my son, Razor."

"Who's Akiko?" Ryomi asked as she studied the abstract bobbing and weaving of lines all over the map, "And just how many guys are there on here?"

"Twenty six in all," Ganglot replied, "Which is presently all that is left of Clan Hibiki. There were more, but over the years…" she sighed, "Accidents, random encounters, deliberate targeting and outright murder…all of this has taken its toll on a good many lives, both good and bad. I've been powerless to do anything about it until now, but at last with the clan converging around this one place…I have hopes of securing the future for all of my offspring."

"That many guys are gonna be here soon?" Ryomi asked with arched eyebrows, "Won't it get a little crowded?"

"We may have to rent out some temporary housing," Ganglot allowed, "Which is why I'm going to need your help, Ryo-chan. There is only so much that an Oni can do by herself, but with your help, as well as Romeo and Julian…"

"Okay," Ryomi nodded, "I'll do whatever I can, Grandma, just as long as I get to see my Momma."

"And your half-brother," Ganglot grinned, "I can't wait to see their expressions when they learn how much you have grown to be just like them, Ryo-chan. At-chan will be so pleased…" the Oni hugged herself and made a pleasant noise of anticipation.

"Uh…" Ryomi glanced at the painting, then she looked down, "Grandma…can you tell me…anything…about my dad?"

"Ah," Ganglot sighed a bit more sadly, "Perhaps I could, but I think that is something that your mother would insist on doing for herself. It's quite a complicated little affair, and there are already enough complications with Atsuko having to confess to your brother the nature of his father, a man named Saotome Genma."

"How's that again?" Ryomi asked, "My brother and I had different fathers?"

"Yes," Ganglot nodded, "Two years after your mother left the Nerima area and had your brother she encountered another man who briefly affected her in a positive way. He's…no longer around, but his memory lives on in you, and I think it's best if you save the rest of your questions for when Atsuko herself is here to answer them. I owe my granddaughter that much respect to tell the story in her own peculiar manner."

"Somehow I don't think I'm gonna like this," Ryomi eyed the golden Oni before saying, "What's this Saotome Genma like? I'd swear I've heard that name somewhere before, I just can't place it…"

"Genma," Ganglot said softly, "Is the only man that your mother has ever truly loved. She courted and lost him to another woman, but contrived to have Ryoga by him in secret. Genma has a son by the name of Ranma who is two months younger than your brother, and Ranma is presently engaged to marry a daughter of the house of Tendo, the same place where your mother currently resides as a guest, along with your brother and an aunt named Kennou."

"Sounds like I've got a lot of catching up to do," Ryomi smiled lopsidedly, "And here I thought I was gonna have to do some explaining to Mom about some of the places I've been to…"

"I pray that you both have plenty of time to get better acquainted," Ganglot nodded sagely, "It will be wonderful to have the family reunited at last. I've been missing to much of the world during my imprisonment…" she sighed, then smiled and ruffled the young girl's tousled head, "But that can wait for later, young lady. Right now you are up way past your bed time."

"Aw…" Ryomi growled, "I'm too old for curfew…"

"Now, now," Ganglot waved a well-manicured claw before her great granddaughter's nose, "My house, my rules, and I want you to be well rested come the morning. You'll need your strength to help me unpack some things that I've ordered delivered to this studio. After all, we must have everything in readiness for when the time comes to surprise your mother."

"All right, Grandma," Ryomi sighed, "If that's the way you want it…" and with that she started to turn around and head off in a given direction.

"Oh, Ryo-chan?" Ganglot called out.

"Yeah?" the young girl glanced over her shoulder.

"The stairs are that way," Ganglot pointed to where the spiral staircase stood near the opposite corner.

"Oh," Ryomi blushed furiously and reversed directions, "Okay…and Grandma?"

"Yes dear?" the Oni asked.

"Hurry up and find away to break this (expletive deleted) curse, would you?" Ryomi growled as she headed up the stairwell.

"Consider it near the top of my projects list," Ganglot called back to her, then shook her head with a wistful sigh, "Children…"

With that she flowed back into the stone, hoping she had not missed anything too significant in the drama unfolding out over the Sea of Japan…

Ranma did not even give a passing thought to the notion that he was scaling up a mile of rope over a sheer drop into the sea that even he would have found rather painful, should his grip in any way falter. He only hoped that Akane had managed to secure her end of the line as it would not do to have a loose knot slip before he got there. He also hoped that the winged tomboy wouldn't trip herself up or give the game away to any guards who might be watching out for just such an assault, even as he scaled hand-over-hand up the rope, intending to do mischief on the first joker who looked at him funny.

Below him the others scaled with equally grim-faced attention, no one voicing any complaints about rope burns or discomfort as they made their way like a silent troop of ants in the eerie faint gloom of the pale moonlight. Clouds obscured the moon at this particular juncture, making their climb even more precarious as they could not even see the rope gripped in their hands, or their hands either for that matter. They felt their way along by instinct more than vision, guided by touch as one hand gripped the rope above their heads and started pulling, followed by the other hand as their legs held to the rope for support. All in all it was a dangerous climb but not a one of them so much as considered turning back on this journey.

At last Ranma caught sight of Akane, her wings giving away her position as she clung to the railing of the ship, keeping low and out of sight of anyone on the deck. She had done the rope up with so many knots that it almost seemed like an abstract sculpture, and Ranma was reminded of one of Nabiki's lectures about something called the Gordian Knot, suspecting that the original knot would have looked like a bow tie compared to the inelegant pretzel that Akane had created.

Still it had done the trick and that was all that he would have asked, so Ranma gave Akane a silent nod before gripping the rail with his own hands and moving to one side, creating a space by which Ryoga and Ukyo could next follow. The deck was partially illuminated by what appeared to be electric lamps of a primitive nature. On the deck itself were three figures wearing black-and-white outfits, one standing near to the prow of the ship, the other lingering about the main deck casting glances to the side as one held up an astrolabe, clearly taking a star-reading of their position.

"What's the plan?" asked Makoto as she took her place beside Ukyo at the railing, not even glancing at the nervous girl beside her.

"We go in and take those guys out before they can give off an alarm," Ranma whispered back in a grim manner.

"I'll handle this," Ukyo replied, slipping over the railing as silently as a shadow.

One of the men noticed the movement and started to turn around when the blunt handle of one of Ukyo's throwing spatulas clipped him near to one temple, dropping him to the deck, partially stunned. Ukyo raced the remaining distance before the man with the astrolabe was any the wiser and put him out with a blow to the base of his neck, but before she could deal with the third man he gave out a yelp of dismay, only to be silenced as Ranma's foot collided with his chin, sending him off to dreamland.

Unfortunately for them a forth man had appeared at the door to the main deck and caught sight of this activity, and he was the one who raised the alarm that let the rest of the ship know that company had come calling.

"Damn!" Akane winced, "What rotten luck…"

"Can't be helped," Kodachi shrugged, "I suggest we prepare to greet company…the only question is do we face them down below or out here where we have more room to maneuver?"

"Down below's bound to be as restricting for us as for them," Happosai noted, having shifted back to his Old Man form for its superior combat capabilities, "At least out here we'd be better able to gauge their abilities as fighters."

"Whatever," Ryoga cracked his knuckles.

"Bring them on!" Makoto agreed, having already shifted to her "Sailor Jupiter" aspect.

As if on cue men came rushing out onto the deck, men armed with spears and crossbows but nothing more modern. Ukyo heaved a sigh of relief at that and said, "Looks like these guys don't believe in using firearms…"

"Maybe," Hinako said, pointing upward, "But I'm willing to bet that has something to do with it."

"Huh?" Ranma followed her gesture, saw the bag of gas directly over their heads and said, "Oh."

"Oboy," Ukyo winced, then cupped her hands and called out, "Mako-chan! Whatever you do don't shoot off any lightning bolts, okay?"

"What?" Makoto looked shocked at that suggestion, but when she saw the direction in which Ukyo was pointing she cottoned on at once, "Don't tell me these guys don't use helium…?"

"Let's not find out the hard way, shall we?" Akane rather fervently suggested.

There was no more time to reminisce as the guards attacked with crossbows and pole arms, forcing the Nerima-based martial artists to fight back, which they did with a vengeance. Ranma wasted no time laying out a half dozen of these men when they tried to mass against him while Ryoga waded through their ranks like a charging boar, and Ukyo employed her battle spatula to great affect batting clean-up. Happosai was like a flitting phantom moving through the enemy ranks while Makoto was forced to use her fists instead of her lightning bolts and Akane swept through another dozen men with twin blows from her wings, which she was now learning to use like extensions of her own fists, quite devastating when backed with her Chi power.

Hinako disdained coming into close proximity with her foes, but with a single coin attack she laid low four attackers hapless enough to be caught within its radiance. The others gave the now fully adult teacher wide berth as they selected new targets to lay out in their own distinctive manner. Kodachi's ribbon was everywhere flicking men in sensitive places and helping to disorganize the enemy ranks so that no massed offensive could be mounted against them. The fight went well for her and her allies as fully half of their attackers-roughly forty men in all-were soon littering the decks in various uncomfortable positions, causing the remaining guards to fall back and regroup, hoping to take stock of their formidable opponents.

And then a voice called out in booming tones, "HALT!! Prince Kirin has demanded a cessation of hostilities! The Prince wishes to address these attackers, so let all bow down to his wisdom!"

"Hey," Ukyo glanced at the one who had spoken, "Is that the little guy with the fishing rod?"

"The one who kidnapped my sister," Akane balled her fists and poised her wings in an ominous manner, "That's him all right."

"And who's the big guy?" Makoto asked as she took stock of the fierce looking warrior wielding a pole arm.

"Bishimontan," Akane replied, "And the other big guy's name is Garuda."

"Whatever," Ranma raised a fist, "They're toast if they don't produce Nabiki and Shampoo real quick!"

As the rest of the Seven Lucky Gods Martial Artists file out onto the deck, the way was cleared in the center, and out walked Prince Kirin himself, followed in close order by Shampoo, Nabiki and a third woman whose pale hair was the color of moonlight.

"Greetings," the Prince announced, "You come unannounced like thieves in the night, but we were warned to expect you. Tell us which of you is named Saotome Ranma?"

"That's me, Jerk-Face!" Ranma stormed angrily forward, "You gotta problem with that?"

"Wonderful," Kodachi rolled her eyes, "So much for a diplomatic solution…"

"Ranma!" Nabiki called out, not bothering to disguise her delight on seeing him, though her effort at rushing forward was met by a casual wave of Kirin's arm, blocking her advances.

"Airen!" Shampoo said at the same time, only to be reminded by Mon Mon's presence not to give into her impulse, which mirrored that of Nabiki.

"You are Ranma?" Kirin regarded him with condescension, "You do not impress Kirin as one who claims the mantle as the best warrior in all of Japan."

"I ain't here to impress you," Ranma retorted, "I've come to take Nabiki back!"

"And why is one so lowly as you worthy even of her notice?" Kirin pondered, "To have won the loyalty of both her and an Amazon would leave Kirin to believe that you stood seven heads high and had arms the size of boulders, yet here I see a mere boy, a sapling, not hardly a pine tree. Such a one as you could never be meriting Kirin's attention were it not that you have a claim upon his future bride."

"Bride?" Ranma's nostrils flared, "She ain't no bride for you! She belongs to me! Kachu Tenshin Amagurikan HA!!!"

Ranma launched his attack, his fists becoming blurs, but Kirin easily met and countered each strike, repulsing them with ease before knocking Ranma backwards and sending him tumbling almost to the rear of the vessel.

"Really?" Kirin scoffed, "Such a pathetic attack is beneath our notice. Go home to your own people, boy, and Kirin will allow you to live. Continue to annoy him and you do so at your peril."

"Did you see that?" Akane gasped.

"His special attack failed," Ryoga sounded no less impressed.

"Such speed," Ukyo marveled, "He met and countered every one of Ranchan's punches."

"If only I could use my lightning," Makoto growled in frustration.

"Somehow I doubt if even that would give you an advantage," Kodachi murmured in mild disquiet.

"Ngah…!" Ranma grunted as he got back to his feet, staggering slightly before regaining his bearings, "It ain't over yet! No way am I letting you have Nabiki, or Shampoo either!"

"Your persistence reeks of foolish bravado," Kirin replied, "You are wasting Kirin's time if you do not have other skills with which to defend you."

"Ranma…" Nabiki gasped.

"Airen…" Shampoo said in worry.

Ranma took stock of his situation, glaring at the arrogant prince before glancing down at his wrists and seeing the telltale chopstick impressions. The man's speed was simply unbelievable…it was like fighting against someone who had their own protective force-field. Battering down those defenses was likely to be an exercise in futility, he needed a plan and quick or the fight was as good as over before it even started.

I need a different attack, he thought to himself, then briefly considered the Nekoken, reckoning the speed of that form would blow away the other man's chopsticks. He discarded the idea as soon as it had formed in his mind. No way was he going to fall back on anything so unreliable! He was a MAN, not an animal, and it was as a man that he intended to rescue Nabiki.

While he was thinking this, however, Mon Mon was smiling arrogantly and saying, "Too bad, Lord Kirin…it seems he won't be providing you with much sport after all."

"Indeed," Kirin nodded, "A fool who stands before the hurricane is still a fool, though he be a brave man. If this Ranma seeks to try his luck again Kirin will not go so easy."

Mon Mon bowed in assent to this, only to react with a start as something glommed onto her chest, hugging the space between her large bosoms.

"SWEEETO!!!" Happosai cried deliriously, rubbing his face against the bounteous flesh exposed there.

"GAHH!!!" Mon Mon instinctively reacted.

"Happy-sama!" Hinako cried out, raising her coin and preparing for another aura-drain.

"Beware my lord, Treachery!" Bishimontan cried as he raised his pole arm to ward position.

"How dare they sneak-attack us!" Epite cried as he brought his fishing pole into play, even as the other Lucky God martial artists moved similarly into attack mode.

"Heads up!" Ukyo cried, bringing her baker's peel up to ward a thrust aimed at Makoto by Bishimontan.

"Your turn!" Ryoga snarled as he charged forward, only to find his way blocked by the massive body of Garuda.

"Huh?" Ranma blinked his eyes as the lines of battle dissolved into confusion, leaving him and Kirin alone unaffected.

"This goes not well," Kirin murmured, unconsciously agreeing with his own foe's assessment.

Nabiki stood to one side as Shampoo struggled with Mon Mon, trying to keep the lute-wielding courtesan from smashing Happosai into the floorboards. The matter was resolved when Kodachi's ribbon looped out to encircle the pale haired woman and warp her tighter than a mummy. Kodachi was just about to congratulate herself when she was double-teamed by Daihotsuke and Daikotsuke, who blind-sided her from ambush.

Akane surged forward, wings raised like twin swords as she aimed herself for Prince Kirin, but the prince casually side-stepped her thrust and jabbed the winged girl in the neck with his chop-sticks. Akane continued forward as consciousness slipped from her grasp and went crashing into the railing, landing in a heap like a albatross that had misjudged its approach vector.

"AKANE!" both Ukyo and Ryoga cried together, and without conscious thought they each broke off their attacks with their respective antagonists to converge in the Tendo girl's direction.

"Oh no you don't!" Epite declared as his fishing rod flashed out and easily felled both fighters.

"UCCHANNN!!!" Makoto snarled, "That's it, you guys are TOAST!!!"

Hinako saw the senshi of Jupiter begin to crackle as she built up a charge, and without a second's notice shifted the direction of her attack from Bishimontan to Makoto, draining the girl's battle aura before she inadvertently could cause a major disaster. Unfortunately this left her momentarily open to attack and Bishimontan's staff clipped the teacher on her chin so that both she and Makoto hit the deck together, one stunned and the other partially drained of battle aura.

"HINAKO-CHAN!!!" Happosai's cry took everyone by surprise and his own battle aura flared so bright that it sent those nearest to him flying as though repelled by a force-screen. The ancient pervert's eyes took on a deadly cast and for the first time that Ranma had ever seen he genuinely looked angry. Happosai shot forward like the ball from a cannon and struck the large man in the back, staggering Bishimontan and leaving him helpless to defend himself as Happosai grabbed him and slammed his massive body through the floorboards.

"Now this one is worthy of Kirin's notice," Kirin smiled, standing resolute as he raised his ever-present bowl of rice and concentrated, his aura suddenly shimmering with translucent blue-white fire.

"What the…?" Ranma gasped as he flinched away at the intensity of the other man's aura, right before a blast of energy lanced out to catch Happosai and strike him with the speed of a spitting cobra. The old man tumbled through the night air and hit the railing, going right on through without hardly even stopping.

"Happy!" Hinako cried, regaining her bearings just in time to see this happen.

"Toss them into the sea," Kirin said, "Kirin has no further need of those who would attack us without honor."

"As you wish it, Lord," said the freed Mon Mon, who signaled to the others to comply with the Prince's wishes.

"HEY!" Ranma declared, refusing to be dismayed by the fact that he was the only one on his side who was still left standing., "You can't do that! I won't let you!"

"You?" Kirin scoffed, "Do not make Kirin laugh. You have already wasted enough of our time with these childish antics."

"Why you-!" Ranma charged forward without thinking, pouring all that he had into a renewed attack as if he were training once again against Cologne, hoping to modify his attack with a burst of extra Chi to fuel his movements.

Kirin still managed to counter every one of his blows, hardly seeming all that much impressed as he held his own with serene contentment, even speaking as though the effort did not tax him, "You still have yet to learn that you are not Kirin's equal. You may account yourself as fair by the standards of your world, but Kirin is leader of the Seven Lucky God Martial Artists and is quite above such childish antics."

Kirin made a sudden forward slash to finish off his opponent, but Ranma saw it this time and managed to dodge to one side, only to have the attack slice through the material of his jacket, cutting open his hidden pocket in which he kept the prized personal articles that he had fought so hard for. Ranma caught a gleam out of the corner of his eye as he saw the two objects go spinning off into space, and without a moment's hesitation he broke off his attack and went lunging to catch them.

"Ranma?" Nabiki was stunned to see Ranma turned away from his enemy, and then she saw a pair of objects that her fiancée was chasing and briefly wondered as to their significance, but at the moment she was tending to a semi-conscious Shampoo, who had taken a blow from behind when she had sought to come to Ranma's rescue.

"What is this?" Kirin asked, "Has he lost what wits he turns his back to Prince Kirin?"

"Got them!" Ranma declared as he caught both items in his hands, only to take belated notice of the fact that he was beyond the edge of the railing. With a cry of "GAAAHHH!!!" he went plummeting off into space, a casualty of gravity and his own foolish impulses.

"RANMA!!!" Nabiki cried out in horror.

"Too bad," Mon Mon remarked, "He was a brave young boy, and quite handsome, if foolish."

"Over the rail with the rest of them!" Epite cried out, flashing with his fishing pole to snare Ryoga and hurl him with a toss over his shoulder.

"RYOGA!" a recovered Akane cried, getting to her feet in time to take wing after the plummeting Hibiki.

"Lord Kirin has given his command," Epite declared as he snagged Ukyo and likewise sent her over the railing.

"SENPAI!" Makoto was also quick to vault over the railing after the plummeting body of a near-senseless Kuonji.

"Here you go," said Daihotsuke as he took one end of the mummy-wrapped Kodachi while Daikotsuke took the other and said, "Lady's first!" and together they pitched her over the side after the others.

"That just leaves you, woman," said a recovering Bishimontan as he confronted Hinako.

Hinako just smiled without humor and pointed her coin his way, and suddenly the massive man felt his knees turn to water as part of his life force was sucked away and into the woman.

"You have no idea what you have done, have you?" Hinako's words blazed in spite of the calm and direct manner in which she had delivered each pronouncement, "You will all suffer for what you have done to my Happosai!"

"Your attack is more formidable, woman," Kirin called out, sensing that he was the next target of Hinako's fury, "But Kirin cannot permit this to continue. Epite, restrain but do not harm her."

"If that is your wish, sire," and suddenly the fishing line wrapped itself around Hinako.

"I shall be merciful with you," Kirin said, "Take her down below and permit her time to grieve. This battle has left a faint distaste in my mouth, for they were brave fighters, however foolish they were to attack Prince Kirin."

"YOU…!!!" Nabiki stood up and her eyes blazed at Kirin, "BASARD!!!"

"Eh?" Kirin turned around, "You seem upset for some reason. Has not Kirin proven himself to be the superior fighter?"

The man did not even have a sense of movement when Nabiki came to stand in front of him, but this time she controlled her momentum as she slapped the Prince in the face, causing Kirin to react as if he were a whipped puppy.

"You think that little display impressed me?" Nabiki snarled, "All I saw was a bunch of brawling berserkers with your thugs attacking my friends and my sister! How DARE you call yourself a prince after tossing them away to their deaths? You're not a prince to me, you're a butcher!"

"Kirin does not understand," the prince replied, feeling the side of his face with the back of one hand, "They lost the battle. How did you expect Kirin to dispose of defeated foemen?"

"You don't have a single concept of mercy or honor, do you?" Nabiki glared at him coldly, "You think it matters to me which one of you can beat up the other? It might have mattered to Shampoo once, but even she sees beyond that crap these days! You can't win me just by fighting! I'm not a prize you can pick up at the local festival! I'm not some bone you can fight another dog over! I'm a person, a human being, and I sure as hell won't marry you for what you just did to my Ranma!"

"This talk is very strange," Kirin replied as if supremely puzzled, "You desire him even if Kirin has proved the better fighter, but it was not at Kirin's hand that he met his death. He chose to throw himself into the sea to obtain some worthless trinkets."

"Ah…" Nabiki backed down from her anger, puzzlement and grief reflected as she thought back to that awful moment when Ranma had turned away from her just to catch a couple of objects…

A couple of small objects.

Two very small boxes that by themselves did not seem all that important.

But…what if there was something within them that was important to Ranma?

"N-No…" Nabiki sank to her knees, replaying the image once again in her mind as she focused not with her eyes but with her heart on those objects and saw a pair of metal bands appear, both glittering with gold, silver and two precious diamonds. It suddenly all made sense now…it suddenly occurred to her what Ranma had wanted to say that very morning!

"Kirin admits that he has no idea what disturbs you, Tendo Nabiki," the prince remarked with surprising softness, "But Kirin is sorry if he has been the cause of your grief. Perhaps Kirin acted in haste ordering his enemies to their deaths. It was never Kirin's intention that he would cause you to suffer, and for that Kirin…apologizes."

There was a collective gasp at the unfamiliar word coming from the Prince's lips as his retainers looked towards their leader with surprise and confusion.

"Master?" Epite ventured with noticeable hesitation.

"Escort them downstairs," Kirin replied, "Have them shown to the bridal chambers and post a guard on the door. Mon Mon, you will personally attend to their needs…to ALL of their needs. Do what you have to in order to see that a period of grieving is observed. I leave the details to your discretion."

"As you wish it, Lord," Mon Mon bowed, "I will do whatever is necessary."

Kirin paused to study the field of battle, even as his fallen guards were picked up and carried or shown to their below decks, then he frowned as he gazed off at the space where Ranma had vanished, murmuring softly, "Kirin wonders what there was about that youth that would make women so loyal. Perhaps Kirin should have spared him to ask that question, and the others who came with his party."

"Too bad we'll never know, sire," Epite noted, "As you say, it is a pity."

"Indeed," Kirin murmured, turning away and feeling oddly troubled…

"Everybody all right?" Ryoga asked as he dangled upside down holding onto the ribbon that was supporting Kodachi.

"Of course not, you clown!" Kodachi shot back up at him, "No matter what you do, don't let go of that ribbon!"

"Sheesh, lady," Ukyo grunted as she held onto Ryoga by his belt-buckle, her other hand gripping Makoto by one ankle, "You think you're the only one who has a problem?"

"Some people are never happy, Senpai," Makoto agreed as she glanced up at Akane, "You doing okay up there?"

"Why am I the one who has to support everybody?" Akane grated as she fought to maintain her grip on the senshi, (and by extension everyone else) while holding her wings spread wide and her Levitation field over everybody else.

"You're doing fine, Akane," Ryoga called up the dangling chain, "In fact I can see the boat, we're drifting closer to it, just move a little more to the right…"

"That's the left, you Jackass!" Ukyo course corrected.

"Just make sure we don't hit too hard, okay?" Makoto urged, "If you have to, go ahead and drop us in the water…"

"Don't tempt me, okay?" Akane grated, "This isn't as easy as it looks, you know!"

"Not to fear!" Kodachi's voice just barely managed to drift up to the winged Tendo, "We only have another half of a kilometer to go…just drift a little more to the left…"

"Are you sure that's left?" Ryoga asked.

"Trust you to ask that," Ukyo complained.

"I think Ryoga may have a point," Makoto noted, "It's a little hard to see the ship in all this darkness, and we could be chasing a mere reflection off the moonlight."

"Now somebody thinks to tell me!" Akane growled through clenched teeth, "I just hope that stupid Ranma is doing better than us! With his luck he probably caught the rope or something…"

"Can't even see it in this blackness," Ukyo said, adding in fervent overtone, "Just hold on, Ranchan…this won't mean anything if you're not well…"

Little did any of them know but Ranma was having his own share of problems, not having anyone or anything presently holding him up at the moment…

Ranma found himself in freefall roughly a mile above the surface of the ocean, reaching terminal velocity in only a matter of seconds. Though he was not as gifted as Nabiki in mathematics, he knew it would only take somewhat less than a full minute to hit the water at such speeds that he might as well have landed face-first in a bed of concrete, which was slightly more punishment than even he cared to experience at the moment.

Sometimes, he reflected, he could do things even he had to admit were enormously stupid.

Odd the things that crossed one's mind when faced with certain death-or at the very least a painful reentry. He found himself thinking of the old woman, of Lotion the Lore Master and her coaching that he study the words, "As Above, So Below, Sky above, Earth below…" which same he found himself speaking aloud, if only because it made a whole lot more sense than the "AAAAAAAAHHHHH!!!" that he would normally be speaking.

And to his amazement he heard the old woman voice replying, "Nice to see my lessons weren't totally wasted upon you, young War Master."

To Ranma's complete surprise he found himself hovering in mid-air, suspended in space with the ocean remaining where it was and no sense of the wind whipping past him. He stared out at a bank of clouds, and there he found the tiny figure of the old woman standing on the edge of one cotton-like puff of air as if the thing were a floating island. Much to Ranma's amazement he found himself drifting over to join her as the two of them came to rest in the mildly white mass that felt a bit spongy under his ankles.

"Ah…" Ranma glanced around before saying, "What just happened?"

"I called a temporary time out on your falling to your death," she replied, "I trust you won't mind us having a little chat about your recent performance."

"Huh…uh…" Ranma once again had a sense of what Nabiki normally had to cope with, hearing the old woman's gently voiced sarcasm tease and tantalize even as it left him confused and frustrated.

"First off," Lotion smiled, "I'd like to hear your own appraisal of your performance against Lord Kirin."

Ranma winced slightly and said, "I think I got my butt whipped."

"Humiliating, isn't it," Lotion mused, "Taking such abuse from a fellow who always refers to himself in the third person?"

Ranma's expression darkened, "Yeah…"

"Yet obviously not enough to be of any use to my apprentice," Lotion shook her head a bit sadly, "Such a pity…I had such great hopes for you, as did Cologne, you know. We both thought you might be special, that you genuinely had what it takes to become the greatest War Master of your generation."

"Now wait a minute," Ranma began to protest, "I ain't licked yet!"

"Oh no?" Lotion replied, "Seems to me as if you defeated yourself at the end there. Imagine, diving off Kirin's ship to save a pair of rings that you did not even have the nerve to give to Shampoo and Nabiki."

"Hey, wait!" Ranma said, "That's not fair…"

"Oh?" the old woman arched an eyebrow, "And what in life is, pray tell? I suppose you were expecting special treatment…stopping your descent and freezing time was not enough to your satisfaction, you would rather that I take care of matters on your behalf?"

"What?" Ranma said, "No way…!"

"Are you sure?" Lotion mused, "I understand that Prince Kirin can be quite reasonable, and I might even be able to negotiate with him to grant you visiting privileges for his impending wedding to your iinazuke…both of them, that is."

"W-WHAT???" Ranma sputtered, "No way!"

"To the victor goes the spoils," Lotion mused, "After all, if you're not serious about victory, well…I suppose you could always leave it to someone else to come to Nabiki and Shampoo's rescue."

"What are you talking about?" Ranma demanded, "I don't need anybody else! I can save them on my own!"

"Are you so certain of this?" Lotion asked, "After all that seems to be the pattern which you have adopted of late, letting other people fight on your behalf, claiming victory when the dust has settled…"

"NO WAY!!!" Ranma shook his fists in the space between himself and the Lore Master, "I'm Saotome Ranma, I'm heir to the Saotome Ryu, and I don't surrender to anybody, especially not some fancy pants who fights with chopsticks!"

"Then convince me that you mean what you say," Lotion pointed at him with her staff, "Prove you are the man whom you claim you are and not some callow pretender who adopts his father's methods for dealing with his problems."

"Pop?" Ranma asked, "What's he got to do with this?"

"Everything apparently," Lotion replied, "He trained you well to be exactly like him in all ways that truly matter. You run away from things that you cannot solve with your fists, you avoid responsibility when it becomes too much to bear, and make excuses for your own personal failings. What kind of man does that, I wonder…a man who throws his son into a pit of cats or a man who abandons his resolve to save the woman he loves…correction, women!"

"You're just twisting stuff around," Ranma snarled, "You think makin' me mad is gonna get me to back off? No way! I'm going after Nabiki, and nothing and nobody's gonna stop me!"

"Prove it," Lotion challenged.


"You know how, Boy," Lotion tapped him in the chest, "You feel it right here or it doesn't exist in you at all. You have everything you need to defeat a hundred Kirins if you but believe in your own power. If you're not willing to show even that level of commitment to me, well…then I'm just wasting my time with you, aren't I? I suppose I shall have to make condolences to my apprentice at your apparent lack of effort."

"That not gonna happen!!!" Ranma roared, "Nobody's gonna stand in my way, nobody and nothing! I'm Saotome Ranma! I'm not gonna fail anybody!"

"Then believe it," Lotion urged, "Feel those words, let them burn inside you, set your heart ablaze, be a dragon and not a mouse! If you mean what you say, then let the dragon rise up that burns now within you!"

Ranma felt something burst forth from within him as he limbs surged with incredible power, a strength that filled him as he raised his fists before him and cried, "I AM SAOTOME RANMA!!!"

The fire burst forth from his chest, traveled down the length of his arms and formed a ball of force between his hands which same shot forward…or rather directly downward, and to his complete amazement impacted against the water that was shockingly closer to reaching him than he had heretofore be aware.

The blast of chi hit the water and detonated like a bomb blast, creating an immediate column of steam that shot upward and formed a cushioning wave that swept up and caught him in its embrace. Ranma found his downward plunge had been broken by this force of his own creation, and in amazement he found himself drifting on the updraft as it played against his body, slowing his fall to such a rate that he could splash harmlessly into the water without undo discomfort.

Lotion smiled as she gazed down at her own handiwork, then felt the goddess manifesting in the space beside her to say slyly, "Not bad at all…you handled him quite well."

"It was almost too easy," Lotion mused, "And yet he came a little too close for my liking."

"I suppose," Peorth glanced down at the sputtering redhead who broke the surface of the water, "The boy does have his charms…think he'll remember how to do that the next time he faces Lord Stinky?"

"Time will tell, of course," Lotion replied, "The lad is a quick study. Well, time to return to my body before it gets a bit too cold. Can I trust you to play guardian angel a bit longer?"

"You insult me with such a comparison, ma Cheri," Peorth snorted, "I'll see to it the boy-er-girl doesn't drown before she gets picked up. I rather imagine that display of hers lit up the night sky for miles in all directions. Probably make some mortals think that someone has resumed nuclear testing in the neighborhood or some such nonsense."

"No doubt of that," Lotion replied before her Astral Image vanished in a twinkling, drawn back along the silver chord to the body that was sitting in meditation back on the Vinziens II.

"A nice girl, for a mortal," Peorth smiled, glancing down at the somewhat bewildered Ranma as she mused, "You'll do quite nicely for my little girl, Saotome. Lord Stinky face had better watch out for his rice bowl, and I can't wait for the rematch…"

If Ranma heard the chuckling of the goddess drifting high above his head he did not acknowledge this, but she was rather amazed to find herself alive and undamaged, if a bit on the soggy side. She glanced around but could not spot the blimp that held Nabiki and Shampoo, which nonetheless did not deter her as with grim resolve she muttered, "You just wait, you bastard…I'm gonna shove that rice bowl where the sun don't shine!"

And so she continued to mutter as she fought the waves until her eventual rescue…and meanwhile a certain Oni was murmuring to herself in a low voice, "Gosh, this is better than a movie! If only I'd remembered to bring popcorn…"


Comments/Criticisms/Moko Takabishi lessons: Shadowmane@msn.com