Ah My Goddess Fan Fiction / Ranma 1/2 Fan Fiction / Sailor Moon Fan Fiction ❯ A Tale of Two Wallets ❯ Bridal Training ( Chapter 94 )

[ 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

Naomi sat at her apartment table studying the figures on her portable laptop computer, sipping her coffee (which she preferred to tea) while considering her portfolio as the Dow Jones was just opening in New York, about eleven Time Zones distant.

As she watched the familiar numbers rise and fall with each new update, she thought about the folder that lay on the table, information she had obtained after some polite inquiries to the right agencies, information that greatly concerned her in the light of her own personal experiences earlier in the day during her visit to a certain family-run dojo.

To say the least she was quite surprised to learn more of the history of the place (both the official and unofficial versions) which stretched back over a century, giving her some idea of how long the property had been in the hands of a family whose recent exploits were-to put it charitably-somewhat notorious in the world of martial artists. Reputed to be one of the most formidable Kempo schools in all Japan, its current heirs were said to be capable of quite unbelievable levels of physical performance, and going four generations back the family had been dominated by a mysterious patriarch who was said to be three hundred years old. Truly an unbelievable story, and yet how much more unbelievable than the things that she had witnessed with her own eyes? To her gaijin way of thinking the whole thing had been impossible, like some kind of a comic book story come to life!

Or perhaps maybe one of Kento's bedtime stories, the kind he was currently telling Rachael to help her sleep tightly.

Out of curiosity she got up from her chair and crept to the door of her daughter's bedroom, listening through the partial crack as the burly man was saying, "…And so the evil armor of the Youma King Tulpa was taken by the Ancient one to a holy temple where he prayed for days to unravel the secrets of its dark, forbidding power. The Ancient found the means to divide the one armor into nine distinctly different versions that embodied different aspects of the one power, and these nine armors were grafted with the symbols for Virtue, Wisdom, Justice, Trust, Life, Loyalty, Piety, Obedience, Serenity, all based on human emotions, then hidden away for a thousand years until the day when a warrior would discover each of the armors and awaken their power in order that they might fight the Evil Dynasty when Lord Tulpa returned from his thousand year exile…"

Naomi marveled at the man's imagination and the vivid way in which he told his story, making it sound as though he had actually lived through these events as an eye witness. How odd to discover such bedtime manners in a man nominally hired to be a bodyguard for both her and her daughter. Kento was friendly, outgoing and a reliable man to have in a crisis, not at all what one would have expected given his family connections to the notorious Yakuza.

She moved away from the door, thinking of her mission to explore real estate options in the Nerima area, the Tendo dojo among many such proprietary acquisitions that could greatly benefit her company's plans for expansion. On the surface the place seemed ripe for the plucking, the family having incurred numerous debts over the years due to the primary breadwinner having essentially closed up shop on their only legitimate source of income. The dojo had recently been reopened and the family had taken great steps to stabilize their financial position, but still they were in a vulnerable position that-had this been taking place back in the States-would have made them ripe targets for a buyout. Japanese inheritance laws being somewhat more complicated, the dojo could only remain in the family if one of Soun Tendo's daughters were to marry into the family of Saotome. If anything were to happen to the senior Tendo before this wedding could take place…well, it would be most unfortunate for all the concerned parties.

Of course Naomi would never even think of resorting to such vile and unethical tactics in order to obtain ownership of this property, but she was a little too aware that others in her position did not share her personal scruples. Certain rival executives vying for her position, for example, would love to demonstrate their ruthlessness by outperforming "The Shark" and securing future land use. The Tendo properties were in an ideal location for certain aspects of the greater plan, and if Naomi gave her approval to buy out the surrounding neighborhood…well, it would only be a matter of time, and would that truly be the same as getting her own hands dirty to leave the details to a native-born rival?

This did not sit well with Naomi, for she was coming to suspect that her assignment here was not so much serendipity as a more perverse whim on the part of the chairman. Perhaps he was testing her loyalty, or perhaps he wanted to see how far she would go on behalf of the Project. Either way it left her in a most uncomfortable position of having to weigh the fate of a single family against the greater glory of the Chairman's vision, and this was not the sort of thing that left a good taste in her mouth. Not for the first time she regretted giving up smoking around the time that she had found herself pregnant with Rachael.

And still her mind kept going back to the utter unreality of the day herself when an ELEPHANT of all things came crashing through the dojo wall, reducing the venerable structure to a pile of matchsticks (and nearly trampling her in the process!). Elephants did NOT go running amok in suburbs, nor did flaying wooden ships suspended from gondolas drop down out of the clouds to kidnap the Tendo heir, forcing her fiancée to perform an impossible leap in an aborted attempt at a rescue! All of this was flat out crazy, a conceptual absurdity that compelled Naomi to believe that what she had witnessed was some form of mass hallucination, possibly induced by psychoactive means. The presence of a girl from the illustrious Kuno family leant some credence to this hypothesis, and Kuno Pharmaceutical Industries was entering into an arrangement with her own firm for the initial genetics research…

And the nominal head of Kuno Industries was Tatewaki Kuno, the older brother of the girl named Kodachi.

Something was not quite right here, and Naomi was at a complete loss to account for it. She was out of her element and out of her depth, a position she most certainly did not find palatable, let alone comprehensible, as there was nothing in her experience to compare to these events. Her conventional upbringing had not prepared her for coming to terms with people who changed into animals with wings, or people with wings for that matter. Flying and fighting in the air was a little beyond what her college education would consider to be within the realm of possibility, and she was very much the outsider here, not just because she was an American but because there were people here who seemed to know things about her that could not have been learned in any conventional manner…

"She's asleep now," Kento's voice startled her out of her reveries, "She's a really good kid, handles herself like a trooper."

"Ah," Naomi recovered her composure, "Ah…good…I thought she might have been traumatized by all that excitement earlier…"

"No chance of that," Kento seemed amused about something, "Kids are amazingly adaptable and you have no idea what they're capable of when it comes to managing a crisis."

"I don't want my daughter exposed to any type of danger," Naomi snapped, "You're here to see that it doesn't happen…"

"Whoah, Ma'am," Kento made a deflecting motion with his hands, "Ease up, lady…in case you forgot there was no way that anyone could have anticipated something like that happening. Flying ships like that haven't been seen in the Tokyo area since…well…that nothing for you to be concerned about. Ancient history as far as I'm concerned…"

"Huh?" Naomi asked, "What are you talking about?"

"Ah…nothing," Kento gave a boyish grin and rubbed the back of his head, "Anyway, it's kind of hard to explain the way things work out here. You in America don't really believe in monsters, ghosts and the undead, but here in Japan we know these things have a reality that goes outside of conventional science."

"Would you…mind explaining that part?" Naomi asked, "Are you telling me that there really are such things as ghosts and the supernatural?"

"You bet," Kento nodded in a completely matter-of-fact manner.

"I find it hard to believe that a college aged student such as yourself puts credence in such things as goblins and demons," Naomi said skeptically, and trying valiantly to sound as if she meant it.

"We call them Youma and Onis out here," Kento explained, "And Tengo…those are kind of like winged elves, which is what I think that one girl turned into…"

"But…supernatural creatures such as those can't really exist," Naomi insisted, then paused before adding, "Can they?"

"I wouldn't presume to tell you what's real and what isn't, Lady Nakajima," Kento said affably, "But I've seen stuff that would make your hair curl, and very little-if any of it-ever finds its way into the papers."

"But how can that be possible?" Naomi asked, "Are you saying that there's a conspiracy to keep the existence of these things from the public?"

"Well, yes and no," Kento shrugged, "More like a collective determination by those in positions of authority and power to keep the public fat, dumb and lazy rather than risk a general panic that would upset a lot of lives and make it harder for ordinary people to sleep at night. Japan's an ancient society over which the trappings of modern life has been overlaid, but every now and then the demons of our history rise up to challenge the mortal world, and when that happens the guardians of order have to stand firm and oppose these evil forces wherever and whenever they rear their ugly heads…"

"Excuse me?" Naomi looked at the young man as if he had just stepped right out of an episode of "Power Rangers."

"Oh…ah…sorry," Kento smiled sheepishly, "Guess that must sound pretty weird to you. I didn't mean to come across like some refugee from an anime…"

"There's something about you that's very unusual," Naomi deduced, glancing back at her daughter's bedroom before adding, "Those stories you've been telling Rachael…they're not just stories?"

"Sometimes it's hard to know where legends end and realities begin," Kento informed her, "Not all prophesies lie, and not all legends are based on make-believe…and they don't all have happy endings either. Let's just say I know where I'm coming from here and leave it at that, okay?"

"Deal," Naomi agreed, "I probably wouldn't even want to know all the facts anyway. Keep your secrets for now, but please help me out in understanding something about this place, the Tendo dojo…"

"Well, not much to tell," Kento shrugged, "You've seen for yourself that it's a pretty tough school with some fairly competent fighters, and I'll bet there's a lot more about them than you've ever find in any of your reports or briefing folders. The parents seem pretty attached to the old ways of their system of Kendo, and it seems as if they get mixed up in some weird stuff of their own. Beyond that I really can't tell you."

"I must know more," Naomi spoke have to herself, "There was a feeling I have…almost a memory…something happened there…I…I don't quite remember…"

"Yeah, now that you mention it," Kento frowned, "My memories seem pretty fuzzy about something…I wonder what it means…"

"Possibly nothing," Naomi's frown deepened, "But I have to know for certain. There's something…oddly familiar about the place…but I don't see how that can be since this is the first time in my life that's I've been in this country…"

"You're thinking of paying the place another visit?" Kento raised an eyebrow at this.

"Possibly," Naomi made a fist and stared at it, "I was humiliated by that Silk woman…and I would like another chance at her. If this system they practice is as powerful as they make it out to be…I could stand to learn a few new things…"

"Whatever," Kento shrugged, "I'll be there to back you up…"

"No," Naomi said, "I want you to accompany Rachael to the day care center that I enrolled her in. I'll go by myself…I'm sure the driver will be able to manage."

"By yourself?" Kento said in alarm, "No way! My uncle told me to…"

"I don't need a baby sitter," Naomi insisted, "What I need are answers…and a little satisfaction. I'll be all right…I've been taking care of myself for nearly my entire life, but Rachael isn't as strong yet as I am, and if there are forces in your country that can pray on the weak and helpless, then I would rather have someone like you looking after her. Can I continue to trust you on this, Kento-san?"

Kento sensed that arguing with the lady would yield him nothing, so he nodded and said, "She'll be safe with me, you can count on that, but…lady? Don't take any unnecessary chances. You haven't really seen what this town can be like when things really start to get hairy."

"If what I saw today is your idea of average," Naomi smiled, "Then I look forward to the challenge."

"Oh, do you really?" smirked a voice unheard by either party as far away a figure smiled a sly, humorless smile, "Then we're about to test that theory, Lady Nakajima, spawn of a whore who once slept with my husband."

The distant crackle of thunder in the distance sent an ominous chill down Naomi's spine, though she passed this off as a slight chill in the ventilation…

"Man, this sucks!" Ranma-chan sputtered as she paddled through the waves, rolling with the ocean currents, "When's the old lady gonna lead them here to find me? I got no idea which way to swim, and this is a little too much like Pop's stupid trip to China…"

The oceans did not respond to these comments, so Ranma saved her breath and concentrated on remaining afloat, still trying to sort out in her mind the incredible power that had saved her life mere moments ago. She could still feel the swell of her emotions that had fueled the energy ball that had shot down from her hands to the ocean with the force of a major explosion. The very violence of her attack had taken her aback as she had heretofore never even expected that such a powerful use for her Ki even existed!

"What was that?" Ranma murmured to herself, only to react with a start as she sensed a shadow looming over her head, and with a yelp she turned to discover the prow of a ship bearing down on her, about to run her over.

With a yelp that turned into a gasp Ranma dove under the water, just barely in time as the ship passed over her head, propelled by twin props that sliced the water, just missing her by as close as a meter. Ranma felt anger swell up in her chest as she swam to the surface, intending to curse out whoever was controlling that boat when it suddenly dawned on her that it must be the yacht belonging to Kodachi.

Her anger was instantly replaced by relief and Ranma broke the surface as close to the starboard side, propelling herself up to where she could grip the wooden beams just barely within her reach and pull herself up and over the side, beaming broadly as she prepared to thank the gang for coming to her rescue…

…And came face-to-face with a pair of ruby eyes that stared at her as if she were some lower life form on the food chain.

"Ah…nice elephant?" Ranma-chan asked with a nervous smile.

"Who you?" cried the girl sitting atop the back of the elephant, "Jasmine-attack!"

It was, Ranma allowed as she dove out of the way of the trunk that sought to hurl her back into the water, truly turning out to be one of those days, and while the bulk of her attention was devoted to staying alive she spared a passing thought in hope that the rest of her crew was having a better time of it than Ranma...

"This is just swell," Ukyo grunted to himself as he wrung out his wet shirt over the side of the railing, glad that he didn't have to fear for having his chest exposed to view in his cursed form, "I'd ask what else could go wrong but we'll probably find out, sooner or later…"

"Don't be mad, Ucchan," Akane urged, admiring the way the moonlight played off his manly form, which looked twice as sexy now as he had that day on the beach, "We'll get those Lucky God creeps the next time we catch up with them. The law of averages have got to favor us sometime…"

"Yeah?" Makoto groused, "How do you figure that? Face it, Tendo, we got our heads handed to us, and I was next to useless," she struck her bared thigh in frustration.

"I wouldn't say that, Mako-chan," Ukyo responded, "It's not your fault you had to hold back on account of not wanting to blow us all up. If anybody was useless up there it was me."

"For once we're in agreement, Kuonji," Ryoga said without turning around from his silent vigil at the prow of the vessel, "All you did was distract Akane, and she was more effective in that fight than the both of us put together."

"Ryoga," Akane chided, "You two weren't useless, we just got surprised by that Kirin guy. We need a plan to take him and his freakshow carnival circus down the next time we go at them"

"I quite agree," Kodachi noted from where she sat atop the roof of the main cabin, "We do need a plan to marshal our forces, but first we must find out where Saotome has gotten himself off to…or make that herself since Elder Lotion insists she made a safe splashdown out here in the water."

"That is correct," Lotion agreed, "The Young War Master is out here somewhere and will be joining us rather shortly. Meantime we must keep pace with Kirin's airship and not allow it to reach land before we do."

"Why?" Ryoga asked, "What happens if we reach land?"

"We're on a boat, Jackass," Ukyo snapped, "If they get over land we won't be able to follow."

"I knew that," Ryoga frowned, "And I didn't need you to tell me."

"Why don't you both save it for when we're up against the enemy?" Makoto groused, "I swear you two snipe worse than Rei and Usagi."

"Surely not that bad," Ukyo winced slightly, eyeing his sweetheart with the guilty look of one who would have preferred to grovel than endure the continued hostility of the pony-tailed girl's cold shoulder, "But I'm afraid the next time I'm going to be at a severe disadvantage. I lost my spatula during the fight, and by now…it's probably on the bottom of the ocean…"

"So what?" Ryoga snorted, "You depend on that thing far too much, Kuonji. It's an actual disadvantage to rely on your weapons to do most of your fighting…"

"Excuse me?" Ukyo turned his attention to the petulant lost boy, "This coming from a guy who uses an umbrella, his belt and a bunch of bandanas?"

"I may use a weapon sometimes," Ryoga said, "But I'm just as good without them, but you? I doubt you're anywhere near that effective without your toys…"

"Oh yeah?" Ukyo balled a fist and growled, "Well, why don't you come over here and let me show you how effective I can be?"

"Thanks, but I don't fight women," Ryoga said in a haughty tone of voice, "Oh…that's right, you're not really a woman right now, are you?"

"Ryoga," Akane snapped, "What's gotten into you? Are you trying to pick a fight with Ukyo? This isn't the time for this, you know…"

"Of course not," Ryoga said sourly, "It never is with you anymore…Akane-chan…"

"Huh?" Akane blinked, "What are you talking about?"

"Isn't it obvious?" Makoto shot back, "The guy's in love with you, but you're treating him like dirt, so why don't you quit chasing after my Senpai and start being nice to him for a change and stop making this clod into your personal doormat."

"I don't use Ryoga that way!" Akane insisted, then paused before saying, "Ryoga? I…you…"

"Leave me alone," Ryoga said without turning around.

"Ryoga?" Akane blinked at him in confusion.

"Isn't it obvious that you prefer Kuonji over me?" Ryoga asked, still not turning around to face her, "You don't have to tell me a thing…it's obvious that I'm never going to mean anything to you as long as he's in the picture…"

"Now wait a minute…!" Ukyo protested.

"…Of course he's only stringing you along," Ryoga continued, "The one he's really interested in is Makoto."

"That's right," Makoto said, "Ucchan belongs to me, so why don't you just take a hike, Bird-lady?"

"What?" Akane flared, "I don't have to take that from you!"

"They hell you don't!" Makoto reared up to her nearly six foot height, "Things were going just fine between Ucchan and me before you had to butt in with your beak and wrap your greasy feathers around him!"

"Uh…guys?" Ukyo-kun pleaded, knowing as he did so that his efforts were for naught.

"And you!" Makoto rounded on the stunned Ukyo, jabbing a finger against his manly chest, "How could you just let her kiss you like that? And after you promised me that you were going to have a talk with Akane to straighten her out about this infatuation…"

"W-What are you saying?" Akane stammered, "It's not just an infatuation…"

"Oh no?" Makoto glared in her direction, "Then why don't you ask Senpai which one of us he'd really prefer to be with? Go ahead, Ucchan, tell her! Don't pussy-foot around, just come right out this time and explain it!"

"But…I…" Ukyo stammered.

"Ukyo?" Akane looked at him with eyes rounded with fear, confusion and anticipation.

"I…" Ukyo fought for the words, paralyzed by the hurt he saw reflected in Akane's expression.

"Go ahead, Kuonji," Ryoga glanced back at his rival, "Be a man, take a stand and tell Akane which way your feelings really run, I dare you!"

"I want you to put an end to this right now, Senpai," Makoto glared, "It's either me or her, you can't have us both, now which of us is it going to be, or should I just call up Minako and tell her she can pick me up on the trip back to Tokyo harbor?"

"That's not…!" Ukyo started to protest.

"Ukyo," Akane breathed the word, tears in her eyes as she cried, "Tell me you haven't been lying to me all this time! You don't actually prefer this-this Amazon to me, do you?"

"Amazon?" Makoto flared, "That's it! You're about to be Deep Fried, you-!"

"STOP IT!" Ukyo suddenly shouted, balling her fists as she thrust herself into the space between both of her girlfriends, "STOP IT!! STOP FIGHTING ABOUT ME!!! STOP INSULTING AND SNIPING AT EACH OTHER!!! YOU THINK THIS IS SOME KIND OF A GAME??? YOU THINK THIS IS FUNNY??? DON'T YOU TWO KNOW THAT YOU'RE BOTH DRIVING ME CRAZY???"

"Methinks she doth hit a nerve," Kodachi murmured as she stood back from the fray with Kasumi.

Ukyo glared at both Makoto and then Akane before resuming, "Do either of you know how hard all of this is for me? Do you think I LIKE being tugged and pulled in two different directions? Do you think I'm just playing games of tag, and 'who's it' with stakes this high? Do you think I'm some kind of a heartless beast that I'd just walk up to one of you and lie about the other?"

"Yes," Ryoga answered into the ensuing silence.

"YOU KEEP OUT OF THIS!!!" Ukyo snapped, even causing Ryoga to start at the intensity of the chef's angry protests.

"Ukyo," Akane hugged herself and looked miserable, "It's true, isn't it? You really do prefer her and not me?"

Ukyo found her voice faltering again as she was met by those luminous eyes on the younger Tendo girl, eyes that held him within the scope of their power, "Akane-chan…"

"But why?" Akane asked, tears streaming down her eyes, "It's not fair…IT'S JUST NOT FAIR!!!"

With that Akane's wings beat the air and she took off into the skies with such force that the yacht was momentarily sent bobbing in the water, and then she sailed off towards the clouds with surprising speed, gaining altitude in only a few seconds.

"A-Akane-chan?" Ukyo said faintly, "I-I didn't mean to…"

"Kou-AN-JIIII!!!" Ryoga growled as he stood up from the rail in the deck, shivering with rage, "YOU MADE HER CRY, YOU SWINE!!!"

"I didn't do it deliberately," Ukyo protested, "And since when did I become the villain anyway?"

Ryoga's fists were squeezed tight as he started to tremble with unrestrained emotions, "You dare to trifle with Akane's feelings and then pretend as if it was nothing???"

Both Makoto and Ukyo gasped as the boy before them stood up to confront her in the think moonlight, his dark eyes taking on a most unearthly cast as the darkness seemed to collect all around him, and suddenly he balled his hands together and that darkness swelled, forming a globe of force that crackled with bluish electrical fire.

For a single second Ukyo was paralyzed by the sight of this, but then a figure blurred as it moved across the deck to tackle the boy and knock him down, almost over the railing and into the water. The next second the globe of dark energy shot from Ryoga's hands as if shot out of the muzzle of a cannon and sliced through the night air, skimming the surface of the water. Two hundred yards out to sea it plunged into the drink and detonated, exploding with a force that briefly lit up the night air and kicked up a geyser that shot another hundred meters into the air, causing the sea to roil and buck their puny ship for several instants.

"M-Mistress?" called Sasuke rather hesitantly from the bridge in the ensuing silence.

"Oh my," Kasumi murmured in disquiet, "What was that?"

"At a guess," Kodachi noted at her side, "I would say Ryoga has just mustered his Ki attack."

"I-I…I did this?" Ryoga stared uncomprehendingly at the space between his hands, then at the distant water, and then he collapsed, falling to his knees like the proverbial stringless puppet.

Lotion stood up off of Ukyo and sighed, "I'm getting a little too old for this…and congratulations, you have just mastered a technique known as the Shi Shi Houkonan. It concentrates the essence of your rage and depression into a singular force of destructive negative energies against which few things could survive without adequate shielding."

"You mean he just used the dark force?" Makoto murmured, her own expression darkening, "And he tried to kill my SENPAI???"

"Not quite the same dark force that you are used to dealing with," Lotion corrected, turning to Ukyo, who was just then sitting up, "And how are you feeling, Master Kuonji?"

"Like I was just kicked by a mule," Ukyo winced but turned a grateful nod in the Lore Master's direction, "Thanks for the save, by the way…I owe you."

"Don't mention it," Lotion gave him a wry look, "As if I would need an excuse to tackle a body such as yours. If I was but a hundred years younger or had Cologne's eternal beauty…" she sighed as she extended a hand, into which her ever-present staff flew from across the deck where she had dropped it.

"Ah…" Ukyo winced, only to hear a flapping of wings from overhead.

"Are you guys all right?" cried an anxious Akane, "I saw an explosion…!"

"That was loverboy over there," Makoto nodded at the semi-conscious Ryoga, "He got so depressed that he turned his depression into a weapon. I thought only Dark Kingdom generals could harness Nega energies that way, but he doesn't look so scary at the moment."

"That is because young Master Hibiki has yet to learn how to replace what he uses at a rate that will not leave him so exhausted," Lotion sighed as she stood beside the fallen lost boy, "Recall your lessons, boy, and learn to draw upon the abundant elemental energies that surround you. We will have to work on teaching you to create more positive outlets of Chi energy so that you don't have to be so depressed in order to use them. You Hibikis have always been rather sensitive, misunderstood creatures." The old woman shook her head in mild exasperation.

"Ryoga?" Akane asked as she landed on the deck and folded her wings, this time managing to do so without incident. She knelt down as best she was able to examine him as Ryoga lay still listening to the pounding of the waves against the yacht.

"Akane," Ukyo spoke up, "This has to stop. I like you, honestly…and I think you're a very special person, but I can't be happy if you're making him so miserable all the time. Ryoga hates my guts because he thinks I'm trying to take you away from him, and in a way I have…just not deliberately like he thinks."

"But…you don't really love me?" Akane asked without turning around or getting up from where she was kneeling.

"I…I don't really know what I feel towards you," Ukyo admitted, "Every time I get near you all my certainty just flies out the window, but this isn't fair to either of us, and it's especially unfair to Makoto. I love her, Akane, and I'm not afraid to say it anymore."

"Senpai?" Makoto gasped in wonder at this admission.

Ukyo turned and smiled at the tall girl and said, "I love you, Mako-chan…I think I've felt that way all along, I just didn't know it. I'm not saying I don't love Akane too…but with you there's just no doubt about my feelings, and whatever else I do or say, I can't get you out of my thoughts. You mean the world to me…and…and I'm sorry if I've given you any reason to doubt me."

"Senpai," Makoto's expression softened.

"You really mean that?" Akane asked, glancing up now from where she hovered over Ryoga, "You love her…more than you love me?"

"Ah…sorry," Ukyo's chin fell as he looked down at the deck with a contrite expression, "I should have said something sooner, but…every time I tried to summon up the courage…I'd just see how happy you were, and that smile you'd give me…it made me lose all resolve about saying anything. I never wanted to hurt you, I do like you…in fact I think I like you enough that Mako-chan had a reason to feel jealous, because if things had gotten any farther along with us…" Ukyo turned away, glad that no one could see how red his face was in the moonlight.

"Are you saying…that there's still a chance?" Akane's tone was hopeful.

"Ah…probably," Ukyo admitted, "But it's not fair to either Mako-chan or Ryoga, and he needs you more than anybody else here, including me. Don't you understand, Akane? The guy's got nothing without you. I know that's not a solid reason to base a relationship and all that, but…how could I, you…how could we ever be happy if we caused him to feel so miserable? Or Mako-chan for that matter…and she's the one I think I could build my life around."

"Senpai," Makoto's eyes shown with softening emotions.

"Mako-chan," Ukyo returned her look, "Please forgive me…I didn't mean to make you doubt me like that. I don't know why it has to be this way, with winners and losers, with me having to choose between a great pair of girls like you…and if you think it doesn't feel a little weird for me to say that, then you've got another think coming. Kuso…ever since I got this curse I've been fighting these urges…and I just can't explain what it's been like for me. I see either one of you and my brain just goes into shut down! Heck, it was even like that when Ambergris was coming onto me, and you know I didn't want anything to do with that lady!"

"In other words you've turned into a typical guy," Makoto eyed the chef's bared chest wryly, "What else about you is guy-like? Think it's possible for me to conduct a little test here?"

"Mako-chan!" Ukyo reacted in mild panic as he interpreted the leer that crossed the tall girl's lips in such a way that he felt a nagging and uncomfortable bulge pressing out in his crotch area.

"I see," Akane whispered softly, "Then you've already decided on her and not me."

"Ah…" Ukyo faltered, "I…wouldn't put it exactly like that…"

"I know I haven't been fair to Ryoga," Akane closed her eyes tightly, "But why…why choose her instead of me? Don't you know…don't you care at all about my feelings?"

"What do you want him to say?" Makoto asked, not unkindly, "Ucchan already decided on me a few hours ago, and I'm very sorry to break the news to you, girl, but you were never really in the running to begin with."

All at once Akane rose up to her full height as her wings spread out behind her back like a predatory bird about to strike, and a reddish-gold light surrounded her, casting a glow that surrounded her like a massive battle aura as her wings seemed to turn metallic and her eyes started blazing with golden flames born from her the fires of her passion.

"I see," Akane declared, and her voice manifested a weird echoing effect that rang from all over, "The why don't the two of you JUST GO TO THE BLAZES-"


Those softly spoken words caused the youngest Tendo girl to pause in the act of raising her hands as though she were about to smash the taller girl before her. Kasumi calmly walked out onto the deck and confronted her winged younger sibling before saying, "You really must learn to control your temper. You could hurt someone with a careless gesture, like the one you are making. Ukyo said that he cares for you and doesn't want to see you angry. You should try listening to her for once and not letting your passions rule your judgement."

"She's right, you know," Kodachi noted as she joined Kasumi at ground zero, "This isn't the way to win Kuonji's heart, and you know in your heart that you do not wish to see him hurt, or even Makoto here, though you may blame her for your current condition. Perhaps Ukyo would have accepted you first in his heart had she not been in the picture…after all, he even went and got himself cursed in China on your behalf, and though he protests that it was an accident, I have long had my suspicions."

"Hah?" Ukyo's eyes widened, "What? Now wait a minute…!"

"Honestly," Kodachi favored the cursed boy with a leering smile, "Saying you just fell in because you saw your own reflection in the waters. I could come up with a better excuse than that one, Kuonji. Try denying that it was in your thoughts to begin with that having a male body might be the answer to so many of your life's problems…that you wound up creating new problems is simply incidental."

"But I didn't…!" Ukyo made warding motions with his hands.

"Silly boy," Kodachi moved closer to him then leaned forward and whispered, "Play along with it, you baka. Just trust me and this will all work out for the better."

"Huh?" Ukyo blinked as the Black Rose slid an arm around his waist in a slinky and suggestive manner.

"Admit it," Kodachi purred as she turned back to the others, "Though your purpose for coming to Nerima was to avenge yourself for the wrongs done you by the father-son duo of Saotome, you met a girl who caught your eye and started behaving nice to you, which you found most flattering to your ego. You rekindled your lost desires for Ranma when you discovered that he was not the true source of your troubles, and in time you found yourself torn with the sense that you had already lost him to Nabiki and the Amazon while at the same time feeling a need to take him from them by means of your prior claims upon his manly person. Having myself fallen under the spell of his charms I can well sympathize with your plight, but like me you concluded that there was no profit to be found in playing the role of the other woman. Thus your resolve to abandon your claims to womanhood no doubt prompted your desire to go to China. Reversing the effects of the curses was merely the excuse you needed."

"I…uh…er…um…" Ukyo stammered, uncomfortable over how close to the truth the Black Rose's words were scoring.

"I think it's all very romantic and speaks well of you that you wished to do the right thing for all concerned parties," Kodachi continued with her lips disturbingly close to Ukyo's ear, "But let's be honest, shall we? You knew in your heart that Akane had already fallen for you, and you dreaded revealing the truth about yourself to her for fear of her rejection. She was the closest thing to a girlfriend that you had known since Kino-san here had vanished from your life, and the loneliness within your heart was yearning to share the closeness that Akane wanted. Having a male body just meant that you'd have an easier time scoring…but how were you to know that Kino-san herself would be returning to your life a short time after?"

"Ah…er…" Ukyo's eyes took in the way Makoto and Akane were looking at him, and he became a little too aware of the Black Rose's nearness.

"They both have a desire for you," Kodachi leered, "It no longer matters to either of them whether you are a girl disguised as a man or a man who is actually a woman. It is you they have come to know that draws them like moths to the flame, that unmistakable air of charisma that you radiate, which drives Hibiki-san there mad with jealousy. It is no simple fascination, no mere crush or infatuation now, but a deeper feeling that binds you all together…"

Kodachi moved away from Ukyo and her manner became more casual, though no less airy, "It could be quite fascinating to stand back and watch how this all plays out as you make a better show than any daytime drama that I could ever name…but the truth is that your battles are having a most unsettling effect upon my Kasumi, and that makes it of importance to me that you resolve your conflicts now before anyone truly is hurt. Besides which-and dare I to say this-your inner battles are destroying the unity that we will need if we are to rescue the fair Nabiki from the villainous clutches of those who seek to force her into an involuntary marriage."

Ukyo staggered a bit, recovering from the weird effect Kodachi had created by her very nearness, only to become all the more aware of the twin sets of eyes still leveled towards her. Coughing to clear his throat, Ukyo said, "Ah…good point that…fighting's not the way to settle things, you guys, and if we wind up wrecking the boat then we're gonna have to swim the rest of the way to China."

"Well said," Lotion nodded, "And I was about to inform you that we are now within sight of Kirin's ship once again."

Akane sighed, "I guess you're right…I'm being selfish. I should be thinking about Nabiki and not…" she glanced towards Makoto.

"All right," the taller girl said, "We call a truce for now, but when this is over…"

"Then you can settle the matter of who gets Ukyo?" Kasumi asked brightly, turning to Kodachi and smiling, "Isn't it romantic how they still feel the same way about him? Of course this doesn't look well for poor Ryoga…"

"Indeed," Kodachi turned to the silent Lost Boy and said, "Are you going to just give up without a struggle? You know in your heart that Akane still cares for you and has long since forgiven you over your deceptions as P-chan.. You need to make plain to her the true nature of your feelings if you are ever to win back her heart."

"Hey," Akane glared at the Black Rose, "Who's side are you on?"

"Kasumi's of course," Kodachi easily responded, then cast another look in Ukyo's direction, "Kuonji, if you want my advice on how to settle things, take a page from your Ranchan's book and just marry both of them. You can agree to share Akane with Ryoga. That would seem the best way of resolving this without further bloodshed."

"What-huh?" Ukyo was taken aback by this suggestion.

"Marry both of us?" Makoto sounded incredulous.

"You've gotta be kidding!" Akane sputtered at the concept.

"Share…Akane…?" Ryoga was no less stunned at the very idea of sharing.

"Oh my," Kasumi was pointing off in the distance, "Is that Ranma clinging to that rope…and is that an elephant with him?"

"AN ELEPHANT?" everyone else exclaimed, turning to follow Kasumi's gesture as a most peculiar sight came within the scope of their vision…

"Now remember," Ranma called back down the line where she was scaling up the rope, "We get up there you let me do the talking. If there's any trouble I'll deal with it, you just back me up and stay out of trouble."

The elephant, Jasmine, made a trumpeted noise while using its trunk to hoist itself up after the lithe redhead. Clinging to the elephant's saddle, the girl named Lychee called up, "No hurt Lychee's Prince! We come talk to Prince, make him listen to Lychee!"

"Yeah, whatever," Ranma growled, glad that he had finally managed to calm down the Chinese girl after agreeing to listen to her life's story, just as he was equally grateful that no one on Kirin's ship had apparently found the rope, which they had found obligingly dragging across the surface of the ocean, thus affording them a way to climb back up to the sky vessel.

"You is first person who ever really listen to Lychee's story," the strawberry blond said, misty-eyed and tearful, "You help Lychee find her Prince, she very grateful."

"I just hope that Kirin creep is gonna listen and believe this," Ranma groused before calling out, "How you doing up there, Gramps?"

"I'm doing just fine, my boy," the young Happosai called down as he continued scaling the rope without slackening his pace, "I could do this when I was knee high to you, and this young body of mine has enough stamina to cope with a few rope burns."

"Mighty sneaky the way you talked yourself onto her ship," Ranma was careful to arch her tones so that they traveled up and not down to either elephant or its mistress, "But you're gonna have to settle up accounts with her sooner or later."

"I know, son," Happosai noted grimly, "But it's not like I wished any ill on the child or her ancestors."

"No," Ranma scoffed, "You just left one half of an enchanted scroll in her family's possession for three hundred years after you ran out without paying the bill you owed to their restaurant, and as a consequence of this she's lost just about everything…her house, her family, all because of that stupid scroll that started this whole mess."

"Well, if you want to get technical about it," Happosai replied in the wounded tones of one who wanted to avoid pleading guilty but could not deny the accuracy of the charges, "How was I to know the thing would get your iinazuke kidnapped? I just hope Hinako-chan hasn't done anything too rash. I'd never forgive myself if anything were to happen to her…"

"You mean you really do care about her?" Ranma asked, "It ain't just the sex she's been giving ya that's making you act this horny?"

"Shame on you, Ranma my boy," Happosai responded with a tone less jovial than usual, "I may not enjoy the enthusiasm with which Hinako-chan's been expressing herself lately, but you know I'd never want to see any harm come to the poor girl. She did what she did on account of me, and I'd never be able to live with myself if anything happened to her on account of her being bespelled by that Love Pearl."

"Well, I'll be," Ranma leered, "Don't tell me the most evil pervert in all Japan actually has a heart after all? You sly dog, you…"

"I don't know what you're talking about," Happosai sniffed, "And you don't have to be so nasty about it, you ingrate."

"Yeah, whatever," Ranma snorted.

"Just remember to save your new attack for when you're up against Kirin," Happosai cautioned in a testy voice, "Don't give it away that you know it until the last second or he'll be on guard against you."

"Right," Ranma nodded, "That Moko Taka-whatever it was you called it…"

"Mako Takabishi," Happosai replied, "And it's a perfect technique for a smug, snot-nosed little punk like you. It works on the confidence and strength of your Chi, but if you let go of it too soon it can leave you pretty exhausted, so one shot is all you'll likely get in a real fight."

"Don't worry," Ranma said, "I've got it covered," and then under his breath he murmured aloud, "Hang on, Nabiki…I'm comin' ta get you, and Shampoo too, you'd better believe it…"

And with that the odd quartet continued to make their way up the rope that had obligingly been left in place by Kirin's inattentive servants, all the while hoping fervently that this next confrontation would go better than the last one, while similarly unaware above of the changing situation that was shortly to greet them…


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