Ranma 1/2 Fan Fiction / Urusei Yatsura Fan Fiction / Sister Princess Fan Fiction ❯ Lonely Souls ❯ The Second Part - Walls ( Chapter 4 )

[ T - Teen: Not suitable for readers under 13 ]

"So. We are ready?"
The men sat around the low table. All were smoking. Given the nature of their mission, combating nervousness was a necessity. They were devout. They were determined. And they were human. Fear -- of failure, of discovery by the infidels around them, of facing the ultimate unknown -- was a strong emotion. To deny it meant being a fool in the eyes of God and dishonouring the memories of those whom had fallen in God's service in the past.
To control it meant embracing martyrdom with an unfettered soul.
One of the men nodded. "We are."
"What of contacts with our friends in Afghanistan?" another asked.
Concerned looks were exchanged. "None in the last six months," a third answered with a shake of his head. "I've used all the established channels. I even risked speaking to several of those whom I believe might have sold themselves to the Great Satan and its allies across the planet. It's as if our brothers among the Base have all vanished from the face of the Earth."
"How is that possible?" the first demanded.
"I cannot say, my friend."
They considered that. One looked up. "It is time. Regardless of what might have happened to our friends -- and I pray to God they are safe and not in the hands of our enemies -- we have a mission to perform. Shall we choose?"
Another drew a deck of cards. Shuffling it, he placed the deck in the middle of the table, face down. "The highest card will lead the attack. The next two highest will be back up to the lead. May God guide our hands."
Everyone nodded. People reached for the deck. The choices were soon made. For those with "winning" cards, fists of Antarctic-cold ice materialised in the pits of their stomachs. The "losers" gazed on their companions with a mix of respect and sadness. They all hailed from different lands in the Middle East, but the bonds of the Faith had made them brothers in a united cause.
"May God guide your hands," one of the "losers" declared. "And may all the martyrs who went before you welcome you to Paradise."
"God willing, we will succeed," the lead attacker vowed, placing his card on the table. "It is a pity that the devil-girl herself has died. It would do us all so much better if we delivered her to God ourselves."
"God HAS judged her, my friend," one of the back-up men reminded them. "Did you not read the story in the news? He acted through another race that was once oppressed by the devil-girl's people. Never fear that! No doubt now, Lum is burning in Hell! Along with all those who supported her from Uru!"
"May God make it so," his fellow back-up attacker added.
"Come, my friends." One of those who would remain behind stabbed out his cigarette. "It's time for morning prayers."
The others nodded.
**** **** ****
Lonely Souls
By Fred Herriot
pyeknu@hotmail.com OR fherriot@yahoo.com
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Based on Urusei Yatsura and Ranma 1/2, created by Takahashi Rumiko; and Sister Princess, created by Tenhiro Naoto and Kimino Sakurako.
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Set in the universe of the fan-fiction series Urusei Yatsura - The Senior Year, created by Mike Smith and Fred Herriot
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NOTE: The writer's notes are in a separate text file.
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"Ohayou, Ranma-kun. I saved some breakfast for you."
"Thanks, Kasumi," Ranma replied as she sat at the dinner table. Outside the eldest Tendou daughter, the heir of the Saotome-ryuu was alone in the sitting room this beautiful morning. "Where'd everyone else go off to today?"
"Father and Uncle got themselves drunk last night while you were away. Your mother had to go retrieve them sometime after midnight. I believe they're asleep in the doojou. Your mother's still in bed, but she told me early this morning that she'd look in on repairs at your house. I believe Ojii-san's on his rounds." Kasumi's face twisted into a noticeable frown. Ranma understood that expression very well; no one really cared for what Happoosai did. "Nabiki is with her friends, as is Akane. How do you feel today, Ranma-kun?"
"Better than average," Ranma admitted. "Gonna meet Ataru and his sisters later on to help him move into his new house."
Kasumi perked. "He's coming to live here now?"
"Just him and Negako. His younger sisters are gonna stay on Promised Island." With that, she dug into the miso soup. Ranma then perked on tasting something that reminded her of a cooking contest she had judged yesterday. "Hey, you using Shirayuki-chan's spices?!" she asked.
"Hai. When you see her, tell Shirayuki-chan that I really liked her mix. I DO want to meet Shirayuki-chan soon, Ranma-kun," Kasumi declared as she wagged her finger at her would-be sibling. She then sighed. "Ranma-kun?"
"What is it?"
"There's a problem with Akane-chan."
Ranma sighed. One didn't have to be a genius to figure out what the problem was. "She's not taking well to what I'm doing?"
"Not well," Kasumi confessed. "She learned about Ataru-kun's sisters last night. She then mentioned that if any of them turned out to be your fiancée, we should . . . " -- she frowned -- "Ask you to move out."
"Did anyone try to tell her that wasn't the way it was?"
Kasumi shrugged. "We tried. She didn't really listen, I think."
Ranma shook her head. "Damn."
"You might have to talk to her about what you've been up to over the last month, Ranma-kun. Try to make her understand where you're coming from. Try to show her that you still care for her very much."
Ranma's eyebrow arched. "But will she listen to me then? I've tried to talk to her. I know I'm not the world's greatest when it comes to speaking my heart without making an ass of myself. But even when I've tried, she's never allowed herself to listen to me, Kasumi. And I'm not going to allow myself to become her personal punching bag again. I'm VERY tired of that."
"Akane-chan's not that bad, Ranma-kun . . . "
"Kasumi!" A sharp bite appeared in Ranma's voice, causing the elder Tendou daughter to jolt. "Don't make excuses for her anymore. I'm very tired of THAT, too." With that, she rose to leave. "Have a good day."
She stepped out. "Ranma-kun," Kasumi whispered, looking down.
* * *
"Oh, damn! I forgot to get Onee-chan to unlock your curse!"
"Relax, Ataru, it's all right!" Ranma assured her host with a chuckle as she stepped into Tampopo's. She then placed herself at the counter. "How come you're working here today? Couldn't you and Negako get a hotel room?"
"No, Onee-chan and I were given the chance to stay in the guest room here." Ataru nodded to the back of the restaurant. "So I paid Tampopo-chan back by helping with the morning shift. Want something to warm up?"
"Hai, coming right up."
A cup of cocoa sprinkled with cinnamon and topped with marshmallows was soon in Ranma's hands. "Oh, that just hits the spot!"
He smiled at her. "Glad you liked it."
"How soon will your sisters be here? And where's Negako?"
"Onee-chan's off somewhere. Don't know where; she never tells me these things unless she feels I have to know about it."
"Doesn't that bother you?"
"Not really. Given what she is, she doesn't fully appreciate what being with family is like. I don't press her on that. Heaven knows, when she was just the Saikoo Jinseijitsu, my family did their best to keep her 'dumb.' She's been improving, especially since we all came together, but it's been slow." A pause. "The girls left the Toranoseishin Tower sometime ago. They'll be here in about a half-hour, I think. Tampopo-chan's gone off to talk to the real estate agent who's been keeping an eye on that shrine we'll use."
"What's the story about that place?" Ranma asked.
"Four years ago, the priest killed himself inside the shrine. Reading his diary, the authorities learned the priest believed that the ghost of a boy who had been murdered on the site a century ago haunted the place. The priest tried to exorcise the ghost, but he wouldn't leave. It drove him crazy."
Ranma sighed. "Sad."
"Excuse me, can someone . . . RANMA?!"
Ranma looked left to see Hibiki Ryouga standing at the entranceway. Ataru glanced at the wanderer, his own ki senses telling him much about the newcomer. "I take it this is one of your playmates, Ranma?"
"Unfortunately," Ranma muttered under her breath.
Growling, Ryouga advanced on his rival. "There you are, Ranma! What are you doing here?! If you've hurt Akane . . . Bweep!"
Ranma jolted on seeing an empty glass, dripping water, in Ataru's outstretched hand. She then looked back to see a struggling P-chan trying to navigate his way out of Ryouga's clothing. Before the piglet could escape, a hand yanked him up by his bandanna so he could gaze eye-to-eye with Ataru. "Hibiki-san, I'm going to make this very clear!" the transplanted Tomobiki resident growled. "If you even THINK of starting a fight with anyone in my friend's shop, I personally will see you frozen as a piglet for the REST of your life!" He pulled the piglet right up to his face. "Got me, buster?!"
Ryouga shuddered as certain little facts formed a logic chain (or whatever passed for logic) inside his brain:
He had just been publicly transformed into P-chan.
The person holding him had just addressed him by name.
Said person was clearly a new friend of Ranma's.
Said person had just threatened to hurt Ryouga.
Add it together.
Before the transformed wanderer could bite his nose, Ataru grabbed Tampopo's pizza-flipping super-spatula, and then dropped it HARD on P-chan. The piglet was send snout-first into the linoleum. Ranma winced. She had never done something like THAT to the guy, though she had been tempted.
"Hibiki, I'm going to say this to you ONCE. If it hasn't sunk into whatever serves as your brain, I'll NOT be responsible for what happens next," Ataru declared on sensing that Ryouga had recovered enough. "One: Ranma did NOT tell me about your meeting with Jusenkyou. That's as obvious as mud in a ballroom when it comes to your ki aura. Two: Ranma DID tell me about your long obsession with one Tendou Akane. How much YOU'VE made Ranma's life hell because of it. Three: I am NOT bound by outdated codes of Bushido as you -- even if you HAVE no honour! -- which means that if you start a vendetta against me, you better have your papers in order first. Because if you attack me, I will use your curse against you and KILL YOU! GOT ME?!" he snapped as the spatula was spun around so that the sharpest edge pointed down.
It then dropped like a guillotine blade straight for the hapless piglet's neck. "BWEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEE . . .!"
The blade halted a centimetre from P-chan's neck. Shivering, he looked into Ataru's face. On seeing the transformed wanderer was gazing at him, Ataru smiled. It was not a friendly smile, P-chan realised. That was the smile of someone contemplating how much pain he'd unleash before killing someone.
NOT a good thing!
"Now. Get out."
The spatula slammed P-chan in the skull, sending him out the open front door to disappear into the sky. Ataru sighed before he took notice of Ryouga's clothes and backpack. "What normally happens with his stuff?" he asked.
"Just put it outside," Ranma recommended. "He'll find it."
Ataru shook his head. Then picking everything up, he took it outside and dumped it by a lamppost before heading back in.
* * *
"P-chan! Sweetie, what happened to you?!"
P-chan moaned as Akane swept him up. He then relaxed as the cushion-like feeling of her bust pressed against his cheek. "Who gave him THAT?!" Sayuri wondered, pointing at the VERY large lump on the side of P-chan's skull.
"Probably Ranma!" Akane snapped. They and Yuka had been out window-shopping when Akane had seen her pet buried in a garbage pile. "I'll deal with him later! C'mon, P-chan. Let's get you something for that nasty boo-boo!"
"Bweep . . .!" P-chan crooned delightedly as Akane carried him in the direction of the doojou. Though happy to be in the arms of the first person to treat him with kindness outside family, Ryouga's thoughts stormed.
This time, they weren't focussed on Ranma, but someone else.
Someone who knew his secret.
Someone who would gladly EXPLOIT that secret.
Therefore, someone who was as totally honourless as Ranma.
There was only one solution to that, Ryouga knew.
That someone would DIE!
* * *
"You won't go?!"
"Nope," the plain girl with the short raven hair replied. She slurped her ramen noodles. She was seated beside her sister at a yatai near the Tarouzakura hill in Tomobiki. "I never cared for Lum, Nee-chan, so why on Earth should I go to her memorial? Especially since Ataru-kun hasn't been seen around town for six weeks! I doubt he'll be there, so why should I?"
"Chigaiko-chan, the school called Tou-chan and Kaa-chan to tell them it was mandatory attendance for the memorial."
"Do I care about what the morons running that place think?" Inu Chigaiko glared intently at Fuchiko. She then coughed. Damned flu! she mentally cursed. Why couldn't it leave her alone? "Besides, I don't see any of them going head-over-heels to find out where Ataru-kun is! So if they're not trying to track down Lum's 'husband,' why should they care about someone like me?"
Fuchiko shook her head. "Well, I dunno . . . "
The yatai matron looked up. "Oh, don't bother your sister about that, Fuchiko-san. Personally, I agree with Chigaiko-san. Good riddance, not only to Lum, but all those other alien monsters that came with her."
Chigaiko chuckled. "Like Rei, Oba-san?"
A stormy look crossed the older woman's face. "Hai, like that THING! If it was a person, I certainly never saw it. Personally, I don't understand why the United Nations didn't crack down on those Onis earlier." With that, she took the Inu sisters' bowls back. "You know, Chigaiko-san, if you're concerned about Ataru-san, you might want to go to Nerima and talk to Kamekichi Tampopo."
"Why her?" Fuchiko wondered.
"I doubt you'd know of this since you go to Butsumetsu High, Fuchiko-san, but ever since Lum came to live here on Earth, whenever Ataru-san wanted to be left alone, he went to Tampopo-san's shop in the Ginza," the matron explained. "Even more so, Lum could NEVER get away with ANYTHING when she was close to Tampopo-san. Even the HINT of her trying to zap Ataru-san resulted in that Oni getting brained by Tampopo-san's spatula."
Chigaiko gaped. "You're kidding! I never knew that!"
"I think it was kept quiet to pass on the illusion Lum was invincible. But in the long term, she wasn't." The matron walked over to her work shelf, drew out a piece of paper, and then she jotted down an address and telephone number. "Here you go." She handed the paper to Chigaiko. "She's in Nerima, over in Kasuga-chou. If anyone knows where Ataru-san is, Tampopo-san would."
"I . . . " Chigaiko smiled. "Arigatou!"
Fuchiko winked. "Looks like you got a field trip ahead of you."
Her sister nodded. "Definitely."
* * *
"Kinda run-down, ain't it?" Mamoru mused.
Ataru, Ranma, Tampopo, Negako and the sisters gazed on the wooded property before them, attended by a real estate agent. The shrine, a half-kilometre from Tampopo's, reminded Ataru somewhat of Sakurambou Sakura's temple in Tomobiki. Since the place was considered desecrated, the torii and the shrine's name plaque were gone. Leafless trees lined both sides and the rear of the property. The building itself appeared in good shape; all it really needed was some paint and varnish, plus some new wall panelling.
"Yeah, Mamoru-chan, it is, but it's fixable," Ataru replied before blinking on feeling someone hug him from the side. "Hinako-chan!"
"Hina doesn't like ghosts!" the youngest sister murmured.
"Are there ghosts here?" Ranma asked.
"There is one."
Eyes locked on Negako. "There IS?!" Ataru blurted.
"Yes. It appears the shrine priest who once worked here was correct on that regard," the grandmaster mused. "Come, Chikage."
She and Chikage stepped onto the grounds, heading for the temple itself. Ataru pulled Hinako away from him, and then he looked at Ranma. "Keep an eye on 'em, okay?" he asked before racing off after his sisters.
Hinako shuddered. "Onii-tama!" She then relaxed on feeling Ranma's hand fall on her shoulder. Instinctively, she embraced the transformed martial artist. "Onee-tama, is Onii-tama gonna be okay?" she asked.
"I think your older sisters there know what they're doin'," she reassured the younger girl. "Just relax, Hinako-chan."
Hinako smiled. Ataru, Negako and Chikage stepped into the shrine, all of them tense as they scoured the building. "Something's here," Ataru whispered, curling his fingers as if he was grasping a sword. "Where, Onee-chan?"
"Do not draw it," Negako advised. She then pointed to the centre of the meditation room. "There. Chikage, mark that place."
Chikage summoned spirit fire, projecting it in a circle around the place Negako indicated. "Good," Negako mused. "Rinrin!" she called outside.
"What is it, Aneki?!" the teen inventor called back.
"Summon the clan graves registration unit from Tomobiki!" the grandmaster ordered. "We have a body buried here!"
"Who killed the boy, Onee-chan?" Ataru asked.
"Most likely a thief or roonin warrior; the boy died in Emperor Mutsuhito's reign," Negako reported. "There . . . "
They watched as the spirit flame intensified to form a bonfire. Within the flame, an image formed. "The spirit is trapped," Chikage reported. "The child cannot free himself from the trap and reunite with his parents."
"That's probably why the priest killed himself. He hoped to give up his spirit to let the boy be free," Ataru grunted. "Onee-chan?"
"Wait, Ataru," Negako cautioned.
By then, the others had shuffled to the door. Their eyes went wide on seeing the spirit-flame now projecting the picture of a young boy in the clothes of a Meiji-era commoner, being held fast to the floor by raven-black arms. The boy seemed to be struggling with all his might to pull away from those hands, but they were too strong for him. "Onii-tama . . .?" Hinako burbled before hiding her face in the fabric of Ranma's shirt.
"Now," Negako ordered as she concentrated.
Everyone gasped as ki coalesced into Ataru and Negako's sword hands, forming blazing oodachi blades. "Holy . . .!" Ranma gasped as her jaw hit the floor while the soulsword wielders lunged at the trapped child-spirit.
The blades ripped through the arms holding the boy. An inhuman scream bellowed as he drifted away from the floor. Chikage drew out her crystal ball and chanted an incantation. "The creature is trying to reform itself!"
Negako aimed her finger at the base of the spirit flame, focusing her ki on target. "SEISHIN HASAI HI-KOOSEN!"
A bolt of pure white light lashed out to punch into the spirit flame. NOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOO . . .!
The flame exploded from the impact of Negako's Spirit-Breaker Fire-Light attack, engulfing the room in blinding light. People screamed out as they covered their eyes for a moment. Then, when the light began to fade to normal, everyone slowly relaxed. "What the . . . GODS!" Rinrin gasped.
"What happened?!" Mamoru demanded.
People watched as sparkles of light showered the old shrine. A soft haze covered everything for a second. Then, when it faded, they were stunned to see that the building had been literally rejuvenated, restored to the way it had been years before. Gasps and cries of awe escaped the sisters and the real-estate agent as their eyes took in all the changes. Aria looked up before her eyes widened on seeing the boy-spirit rise into the air. The boy looked at her, and then he waved, mouthing a farewell and his thanks for being set free.
Aria waved back. "Bye-bye."
The others watched him vanish. Chikage announced, "He will soon be with his parents again. As he has wanted for so long."
"Who was he, Chikage-chan?" Sakuya wondered.
"That will take time to ascertain, but we can take the time, once we exhume the body and have it buried," the sorceress replied.
Mamoru glanced outside. "Hey! The lawn looks good now!"
The others looked. "Guess we won't be doing as much work as we first expected," Rinrin noted with a chuckle. "What now, Aniki?"
"Let's wait for the graves people to get here and do their work, Rinrin-chan," Ataru said. He then turned to Tampopo and the real estate agent. "Well, Yamaji-san, shall we get to the paperwork and get everything settled?"
"I . . . b-but of c-course, M-Moroboshi-san," the agent stuttered.
The others chuckled.
* * *
"The soulsword?"
Cologne gazed into the sky, in the general direction of Fuurinkan High. There was NO mistaking that chilly feeling in her bones. Among all the various martial arts techniques one could use on one's enemies, the soulsword -- the virtual expression of one's living spirit -- was the most deadly. And, as far as the Nujiézú elder knew, there were scant few today who practised it.
She closes her eyes. Could that mean . . . those two I sensed yesterday at the train station. Could they have been of the . . .?
A frown turned her lips. It had been so long since she saw Moroboshi Nagaiwakai alive. The poor child had been dead for two years now and no one among Cologne's tribe, much less the McTavishes of the Killiecrankie Valley of Scotland to say ANYTHING of the Moroboshi Clan's other worldwide allies, knew what happened to her, much less why. And with the only possible successor to the poor woman being the child of her youngest son Muchi . . .!
Could one of those two from yesterday . . .?
The elder hummed. She had heard all the disparaging things about Ataru during the last year or so. She had also heard of his relationship with the alien girl Lum. That seemed normal; for as long as could be remembered, the Moroboshi Clan had always sought to strengthen their blood by bringing in the best from all around. An abandoned child, especially an abandoned girl, never stayed abandoned long if one of the Tora-Seishin shadow warriors was close by. That had been one of the reasons the Nujiézú and the Tora-Seishin had become allies in the days after the Second World War. Another was the fact that the Moroboshi Clan WAS traditionally administered as a matriarchy, its leadership nominally passed on from grandmother to a worthy granddaughter.
And Ataru just happens to be Tampopo's friend.
Cologne's eyes narrowed. Perhaps it was time to pay her a visit.
* * *
"May you enjoy the next life in peace and happiness. Sayonara."
A rose was placed on the casket the grave registration unit just encased the boy's remains in. Haruka bowed. There had not been much left according to the Clan's private coroner. Regardless of which, the child would be interred in the family's private plot near Sendai. Before they had been sealed in the casket, Chikage had taken one of the bones into her possession so she could do a magical divination to ascertain the boy's name and history. When that was done, he would be added to the Moroboshi Clan registry as an adopted orphan.
At least in THAT respect, he would be remembered.
The coroner and his helpers loaded the casket into the hearse. As they departed, Tampopo and Ataru finished negotiations with the real estate agent. "I'll be personally glad to be rid of this place, to be honest," Yamaji Konosuke admitted as he slipped the papers into his briefcase. "Much that the problem HAS been solved, I fear this property won't earn a good price."
"Property value isn't always measured in cash, Yamaji-san," Ataru noted. "'Sides, as soon as we get it properly spruced up -- and as soon as it fully serves its basic purpose for ourselves -- we'll contact you."
"Fair enough."
The real estate agent handed him a business card before he departed. As this was happening, some of the sisters were busy raking up the fallen leaves. When she had been asked, Ranma had gladly pitched in to help. "First time I ever did something like this; Kasumi handles things at the Tendous," she mused before looking at Marie, who was raking leaves into a container held in place by Michael. "Is cleaning up around Welcome House this hard, Marie-chan?"
The bespectacled teen smiled. "No, not really. We don't have as many trees around the House as Aniue-sama will have here. I think he'll try to replace these ones with evergreens since they aren't as messy."
"That would do, won't it?" Ranma mused as she swept her leaves into a tin. She then noticed Aria gazing at a small pattern of leaves. "I'll get that!" Ranma headed over to sweep the leaves into the tin. "There we . . . "
The martial artist gargled on seeing a depressed look cross the young Parisian's face. "A-a-Aria-chan, what's wrong?"
Ranma remembered what Aria was doing. "Aria-chan, for heaven's sake, the leaves have to get raked!" She took a breath. "Willya quit crying about it?"
"Kusun!" Now there were tears. BAD thing to happen, the sisters watching their big brother's new friend winced.
Ranma then blinked as something came to her. "Aria-chan, you remember your tree-spirit friend, don'tcha?" she asked.
Aria blinked. "Aria's friend . . .?"
"Yeah. When winter came, he shed his leaves, didn't he?"
The young Parisian considered that, and then she nodded. "Hai."
"Well, why DO trees have leaves, Aria-chan?"
Confusion. "Aria doesn't know."
"Well, your Nee-ya will tell you." Ranma pointed towards the sun behind a cloudbank. "It's because of Mister Sun. Trees like your friend take in Mister Sun's light through their leaves to keep them healthy. But leaves can't do that all the time. They burn out when fall comes. That's why trees shed leaves, Aria-chan. It's so they can grow new ones for spring. Okay?"
Aria blinked. "Leaves burn out?"
"Yeah. And when they burn out, they wind up on the ground. But since trees can't clean up after themselves, we have to do it. Okay?" She leaned close, cupping a hand around her mouth as she pointed to the ground with her other hand. "And trees don't know that grass needs Mister Sun's light, too."
The younger girl's eyes widened. "Ah! Aria understands now!"
"Right," Ranma said as Aria rose, heading off.
Sakuya and Haruka walked up. "Onee-sama, that was incredible!" the former declared. "No one's been able to do that to Aria-chan, not even her governess or Onii-sama! Instant she starts crying, everyone panics!"
"She needed a chance to understand things," Ranma explained. "Though if she's of the type that don't get out, someone better give her governess a kick in the ass to make sure Aria-chan doesn't suffer for it. Believe me, I know what it's like to deal with social situations when I don't know anything about what's goin' on, much less why!" She then sighed. "Still . . . "
"Is there something wrong, Anegimi-sama?" Haruka wondered.
"It's amazing, that's all."
"What is?" Sakuya asked.
"That I was able to talk to her like that. If this was six weeks ago or anytime before that, I probably wouldn't have been able to figure out what the heck ta do with her," Ranma replied with a shrug. She headed back to raking.
They exchanged a look before giggling. "I think Tampopo-san was right about her needing friends," Sakuya whispered.
"Agreed," Haruka said, covering her mouth. "But is Chikage-chan right about what could happen to her? I mean, it's so . . . "
"I know. But Onee-sama backs it up, so it HAS to be true." Sakuya held up a finger. "That's why she needs us. She NEEDS to have friends support her. It's only right. Most of the blockheads she deals with . . . " -- she gazed on Ranma sweeping leaves near the gate -- "Wouldn't understand, much less accept, what's going to happen to her over the next while."
The martial artist nodded. "Agreed."
* * *
The afternoon rolled on.
A work crew arrived to do an inspection of the old shrine before carrying out the necessary renovations to transform it into a residence. The shrine's bedrooms, much to everyone's surprise, were fitted with a Korean ondol heating system. Once set up, insulation was added to the walls to keep the heat in during winter nights. The bathroom was in decent shape, it equipped with a furo. It was discovered that the shrine's kitchen required a total equipment makeover. Since that might take days to arrange, the mobile unit Shirayuki had used in her competition with Tampopo was wheeled onto the property. With judicious use of canvas tent coverings, it was attached to the shrine building. Once that was in place, Shirayuki got to work preparing a large supper.
Ataru and Negako moved into two of the bedrooms. The other rooms would be set aside for guest rooms. The living room -- the old meditation room where the boy's spirit had been found -- would double as a bedroom for the sisters when they visited en masse. Futons and blankets plus other appliances were brought in to make things comfortable. Rinrin got the telephone and television lines checked out, and then she set up a home entertainment system modified with links to the Rinrin Viewer at Welcome House. Mamoru cleaned out the other meditation room to serve as a gym. All it needed were mats and equipment.
By six o'clock, just as the sun was setting to the west, everyone stood before the old shrine, gazing at it to fully take in the amount of work they put into it this day. "We should hang onto it, Onii-sama," Sakuya mused as she wrapped her arm around Ataru's. "It'll be a great place to stay in if we ever wanted to come to the mainland from the Island to do some shopping."
Ataru chuckled. "Well, let's fix it up some more before we do that."
Shirayuki stepped outside. "Everyone, dinner's ready!"
A cheer echoed through the neighbourhood.
* * *
"So where is he?!"
Kasumi sighed. "Where is who, Akane-chan?"
"Ranma, that's who!" the youngest daughter demanded. She and Kasumi, plus Nabiki, Souun and Genma, were relaxing in the sitting room. Akane was nursing P-chan with a cold compress on his lump. "I need to talk to him!"
"What about, Akane?" Nabiki sipped her tea. "P-chan? What makes you think that Ranma-kun had anything to do with that this time?!"
"He picks on P-chan all the time!" Akane retorted. "It's so obvious! How could someone hate a defenceless pig so much, Onee-chan?!" She shook her head before turning to P-chan, a smile crossing her face. "Don't you just hate it when that pervert hurts you, P-chan?!" she cooed into his ear.
Nabiki shook her head before turning back to her tea. Watching this, Kasumi suppressed the urge to scream out in frustration. She had known the big secret behind Akane's pet pig for some time now, but Souun had expressly forbid her to speak out about it. No doubt, the Tendou patriarch still hoped that Ranma would eventually become SO jealous of P-chan that he would openly admit his love to Akane. Given what just happened to Ranma over the last few weeks, Kasumi doubted that Souun would EVER see Ranma do that outside his dreams.
A glance to the fathers -- Nodoka would return soon from inspecting the day's work on the Saotome home -- revealed them exchanging a knowing grin. To Kasumi, it was as if Souun and Genma were saying, "Yes, when Ranma comes back, Akane will bash him down and everything will go back to normal!" Then the eldest Tendou daughter remembered Ranma's warning that morning, how tired he had become of being Akane's punching bag. Did that mean that if Akane decided to start a fight, Ranma would strike back? Thinking that, Kasumi tried not to blanch as she headed into the kitchen to commence cleaning up. Nothing would be surer to destroy what emotional links Ranma had to Akane than THAT!
"Are you alright, dear?"
Kasumi stopped, and then she looked at the window to see Cologne sitting on the windowsill. "Oh, Elder," the younger woman breathed out, keeping her voice turned down VERY low. "You surprised me! What are you doing here?"
"I'm here to pick up Ranma's things. I sense Akane's mood isn't improving," the elder noted with a mirthless smile, she glancing towards the sitting room. "If only Hibiki would stop pretending to be her pet and settle down with that Akari girl. It might make things easier for all."
Kasumi stared at her. "You just called him 'Ranma.'"
"Yes, I did. I realised some time ago that the chances of his marrying Shanpú were nil. I've been working as much as I can to help her return to the village with her honour intact. There are ways around the Kiss of Marriage, but in a case like Ranma and Shanpú's, it needs the Council to agree to it. It will take time, but I think I'll have them seeing my way soon enough."
"That'll be a relief," Kasumi noted. "Though I think Akane-chan might not stand much of a chance with Ranma-kun, either."
"Too bad. If she learned to control her temper and think things through, she'd go very far," the elder mused. "I think it'll be best for both Akane and Ranma that he stays elsewhere for the next while. I don't want to say anything more than that, but I've arranged through a friend to ensure Ranma has a comfortable place to live until things cool off."
Kasumi's eyebrow arched, a smile crossing her face. "Oh, my! Would this friend be the one who helped Ranma-kun earn all that money?"
"The very same. You always were a perceptive one, weren't you?" Cologne then cackled before her eyes narrowed. "Ah, there she is."
"Nihao! Where's Airen?! This one has a VERY good dinner ready for him!"
"HEY! What're you doing here, you hussy?!"
As the fight started, echoed by Souun's wailing that Ranma would marry Akane, Kasumi grinned. "You are EVIL, Elder!"
Cologne nodded upstairs. "Go get his things! I'll take them over to Ranma. I'll arrange for you to meet his friends tomorrow."
"Fair enough."
* * *
"And that does it!"
Rinrin stared at the lot sign nailed to the gate. The kanji making the name MOROBOSHI was scripted into the polished wood as if a master calligrapher had done it. Then again, a master calligrapher HAD done it -- Negako.
Sakuya nodded. "Soon, we'll all have that name."
"Yeah, it would be nice for the lawyers to hurry up and get it over with, ne?" Rinrin said. She then blinked as she saw Tampopo come up, a pushcart in tow bearing a person's backpack and other items. "Oh, Tampopo-san, something wrong?" she asked. "Did Aniki leave that at the shop?"
"Actually, Rinrin-chan, this belongs to Ranma-chan." The chef placed the pushcart down. "Is she still here, Sakuya-chan?"
"I'm right here," Ranma announced as she walked up from the house, and then she noticed her stuff in the cart. "Oh, no! What happened now?"
"I've a message from Tendou Kasumi through Kelun," Tampopo announced. "It turns out that because of a certain someone who tried to start a fight in my restaurant, one of your fiancées seems to be spoiling to have a 'talk' with you about you abusing her 'pet.' And by the looks of it, yours and Kasumi's fathers would welcome any chance for Akane to put you into your 'place.'"
Ranma took that in, and then she sighed. "Onee-sama?" Sakuya probed.
"I see." The transformed martial artist shook her head. "Damn! If it isn't Akane, Ukyou, Shan or Kodachi stirring things up, it's Ryouga, Mousse or Kunou!" she growled. "How am I supposed to get ANYWHERE with settling this mess with all of them trying to trip me up every step of the way?!"
Rinrin snorted. "I'd say dump 'em all and leave it be, Aneki."
Ranma gazed on her. "It's not that simple, Rinrin."
"Something wrong?"
Everyone turned as Ataru walked up. "Oh, I just found out that I might be waltzing into a fight if I go back to the Tendous tonight," Ranma reported as she gazed on him. "Would you mind if I crashed out here for a bit, Ataru?"
"Sure, no problem at all!" He noticed the pushcart, an eyebrow rising. "And I see Tampopo-chan already anticipated that!" He wagged his finger.
The chef chuckled. "Indeed, it would be very wise for you to remain here," Negako declared as she walked up.
"What do you mean, Onee-sama?" Sakuya wondered.
"If Ranma continues to remain at the Tendou home, she will not be doing either herself or Akane any good in the long run," the ninjutsu grandmaster reported as she waved them to follow her inside.
Ataru pulled the pushcart inside as the others followed Negako into the living room. There, the other sisters were relaxing, munching on some tarts Shirayuki had prepared as an after-dinner snack. Mamoru was quick to notice Ranma's backpack. "Anee, whatcha doin' with all your stuff here?"
"Gonna stay here for a while, Mamoru-chan," Ranma announced.
Hearing that, the sisters smiled. "Yay! Onee-tama's gonna stay with Onii-tama!" Hinako called out, waving her hands.
Laughter echoed through the home as Ranma's belongings were taken into one of the guest rooms. Soon enough, Tampopo headed back to her restaurant, and then everyone gathered in the living room. More snacks were prepared for Ranma, and then everyone sat in a circle. "What didja mean nothing good would come out of me staying any longer with the Tendous, Negako?" Ranma asked.
"I took time to observe events at the Tendou home, just before a fight started between Akane and Shanpú, one Kelun arranged to mask the removal of your belongings," Negako reported. "There is nothing there for you to use to improve your own skill in martial arts, save for what Happy might be able to teach. Further, because Souun failed to pass on his teachings to Akane, her skill level is laughable. For one who is said to be the heir to her own school of Musabetsu Kakutou, she will not bring much to contribute to the founding of a 'unified' school as Souun and Genma envisioned. One would think it a farce."
"Disappointing," Haruka mused.
"Makes Yotsuba think all they're doing is forcing Ane-chama to do all the work and enjoy none of the benefits," Yotsuba lamented.
Negako nodded. "Agreed." She stared anew at Ranma. "Akane has no self-discipline. Her control over her emotions is non-existent." She paused. "She is lazy, Ranma. And the overprotective attitude you, not to mention those others who care for her, have demonstrated towards her in the past has not helped matters. I would conclude that the reason Akane still wishes to hang onto you is that she inwardly derives emotional enjoyment to see you protect her, the atypical damsel in distress, from whatever might threaten her."
Yotsuba shook her head. "They ARE using Ane-chama!"
"Well, I've always believed that a martial artist's primary duty is to protect those who can't protect themselves," Ranma explained, a shrug rolling her shoulders. "And yeah, I know Akane isn't as well-skilled as she likes to think she is. That's even more tragic since she's got such great potential."
"Yes, Ranma, she does," Negako agreed. "But if she truly desires to gain a sufficient level of skill to deal with a normal run of potential opponents -- to become, in effect, the true heir to the Tendou-ryuu she desires to be -- she will have to drastically change ALL her habits."
Ranma stared at Negako before nodding. "Yeah, I suppose so. But if I just upped and walked away without trying to help her . . . "
Rinrin's eyebrow arched. "Everyone and his dog -- no offence, Marie-chan! -- will be on your tail for 'abandoning' her, right?"
Marie smiled, petting Michael. "None taken."
Ranma nodded. "Yeah."
"And you are presently uncomfortable about considering walking away from them once and for all," Negako added.
Ranma jolted, and then she nodded. "Yeah. I mean, it's honour . . . "
"Honour has no relevance in this case."
Ranma blinked before staring at Negako. The latter sipped tea Shirayuki made for her. "There is a lament in our family: 'Honour is a sword shattered on a rock, a slip of paper burned in a fire, a gravestone eroded by the wind, a shrine brought down in an earthquake.' In other words, when it comes to the BASIC facts of life, Bushido CANNOT survive. Here you are, trapped in THREE engagements, made to adhere to a grossly outdated viewpoint on your manhood -- exacerbated more because of your curse and your father's misogynist attitudes -- AND find yourself the target of what Americans call 'gunfighter syndrome.'"
Mamoru blinked. "'Gunfighter syndrome?!' What's that?"
Ataru chuckled. "It's like this, Mamoru-chan: Ranma IS, outside Onee-chan, one of the best martial artists in Japan, perhaps the world. She happens to be in a part of the world that has an overflow of martial artists. And because she's the best, these other dorks felt insecure, thus, they decided to challenge her in hopes of beating her and gaining a greater sense of security."
"And by letting this continue totally unchecked due to her overdeveloped sense of pride, Ranma ultimately does nothing to put an end to it," Negako added before glancing at the martial artist in question. "So what must it take, Ranma? For someone to be permanently crippled? Or killed?"
Ranma jolted. "I don't think it'll go that far . . . "
"It already has. Look what you did to Saffron."
Silence. Ranma felt a chill warp through her, and then she clutched a hand over her heart. "Yeah, that's true . . . "
"In that case, because of Saffron's self-regenerative ability, you didn't have to face the distress killing someone can force on one as -- innocent, shall I say? -- in certain ways as you are," Negako continued. "But if matters are reverting to 'normal,' the chances are strong that another fight on the scale of Mount Phoenix will occur. Would you care to wager on the odds of your opponent THEN having the same regenerative ability Saffron is blessed with?"
"You might not get a second chance next time, Ranma," Ataru mused.
Ranma bit her lip. "No, I guess not."
* * *
The crowd around the table jolted as Akane's cry echoed through the house the next morning. "Akane-chan, is there a problem?!" Nodoka called up.
"Where's who?!" Nabiki wondered.
Akane stormed into the sitting room, cradling P-chan as her fist quaked. "Ranma! He didn't even come home last night, Auntie!" she declared as she sat beside Nabiki, and then she picked up her glass of juice to drink it.
"Oh, dear me! I forgot to tell you that he called sometime after Shampoo came by to visit last night," Kasumi reported.
Eyes locked on the eldest Tendou daughter. "And?" Souun asked.
"He said he'd been invited to stay with a new friend he's made until such time as repairs on the Saotome home are done." Kasumi serenely smiled, though inside, she was snickering on seeing stunned looks cross Souun and Genma's faces. "And since Ranma-kun had decided that he was going to move out of the house soon, he decided now would be the best time to leave." She focused on Akane, who was likewise shocked. Inwardly wishing she didn't have to do this, the elder daughter added, "And I should add that yesterday morning, Ranma-kun told me he has finally reached his limit when it came to you making assumptions about him, Akane-chan. I told him about your accusations about him hurting P-chan. He then decided he wasn't going to tolerate your accusations anymore."
"So where did he go?" Nabiki wondered.
"That, Nabiki-chan," -- Kasumi rose -- "Is a secret."
The middle daughter's face slammed into the table as Kasumi headed into the kitchen. Silence fell as that revelation sank in, and then Nodoka sighed. "Well, if my son feels he doesn't wish to put up with this animal, you should be rid of it immediately, Akane-chan." She indicated P-chan with a finger.
Akane said nothing as Ranma's mother headed upstairs. Nabiki collected herself before marching into the kitchen. Souun and Genma were silent. Both then jolted on hearing a sob escape Akane. "Akane-chan, it's alright!" her father said as he moved to comfort her. "We'll get Ranma-kun back here right away! You'll see! Everything will be all right! You just wait . . .!"
Akane shoved him away before racing upstairs. "NO!"
The fathers remained in place. "Saotome-kun, why is that boy of yours not doing what he's SUPPOSED to be doing?!" Souun demanded. "How can we make him marry my daughter and unite the schools if he keeps vanishing like that?!"
Genma shook his head. "He can't do this! He can't possibly begin to do this! He's never been able to do it! I made damn sure about that!" he said the last sentence in a whisper before speaking up, "We have to be patient, Tendou-kun! It's obvious! Someone's trying to manipulate the boy against us! The sooner we find out who it is, the sooner we can deal with it?! Agreed?!"
Souun nodded. "Agreed!"
* * *
"'He can't possibly begin to do this. I made damn sure about that,'" Nabiki echoed Genma's words in a whisper as she crossed her arms, standing with Kasumi beside the kitchen door. "What did Uncle mean by that?!"
"Do you think he did something to Ranma-kun?" Kasumi whispered back.
"By the sounds of it. And by the looks of it, he probably did it to make sure Ranma-kun stayed under his thumb. So where IS he, Onee-chan? I can understand you not wanting to say anything in front of the lunkheads . . . "
Kasumi sighed. "I don't know where Ranma-kun is exactly, Nabiki-chan. I suspect I'll find out sometime later today since Elder Cologne is going to introduce me to the person who helped him earn all that money."
"Oh, that's fair enough! Can I tag along?"
"No. Much that I know you're concerned about how things with Ranma-kun might affect the house, you KNOW he doesn't trust you, Nabiki-chan. I think it's best to keep it at that. If he suspected you were trying to investigate what he's up to, that could give him the excuse to renounce the engagement once and for all. You know that'll hurt Akane-chan badly despite what she says."
"You're right. And yeah, I do care for Akane even if she can be an idiot at times." She took a deep breath. "And I can see where Ranma-kun might be coming from. But I do want to know what's going on, Onee-chan. Okay?"
* * *
"It's not fair, P-chan . . . it's not fair . . .!"
Akane gazed nowhere in particular, P-chan in her lap. The transformed Ryouga tried to lick her tears away, do anything to bring comfort to her. As she felt his tongue lap up the dampness on her cheek, Akane cradled him. "It's not your fault," she whispered. "I just don't understand why Ranma doesn't get along with you! I don't understand why he's been acting this way since the wedding! I've already apologised for the Nanniichuan! I understand why he's so concerned about Ukyou and Shampoo! But why does he want to leave?"
P-chan squealed, his heart shuddering as his mind roiled through what he had seen since Akane had found him yesterday. What the HELL was Ranma doing? Yes, finding Ukyou's yatai was the right thing to do. But what was with the payments to the household, much less the special cheques to Kasumi and Nabiki? What was THAT about? Hell, how did Ranma earn all that money in the first place? And why was he giving Akane such a cold shoulder? It wasn't Akane's fault that Ranma was such a jerk! Why was SHE being made to suffer for it?
"D-does he h-hate me, P-chan?"
The transformed Ryouga squealed, shaking his head. Giving that sort of answer seemed best. When he confronted Ranma, he'd beat a confession out of him. Seeing that, Akane sighed. "You think he still likes me, P-chan?" She sniffed, wiping her eyes with her free hand. As the piglet nodded, she sighed. "I'm glad you agree with me! But . . . what do I do, P-chan? What?"
For once, the piglet had no real answer for her.
* * *
"Arigatou!" Chigaiko -- currently draped in her Tomobiki High seifuku since she hadn't told her parents about her plans -- stepped into Tampopo's. A glance around revealed a slender man with an unruly mop of brown hair at the counter, he eating a large beefbowl without abandon. Seeing this, Chigaiko grinned. Even if he had grown a beard and moustache, not to mention let his hair go -- Wait! How did he grow all THAT in just six weeks?! she wondered -- Ataru's love of food always was apparent whenever he was in a restaurant.
Ataru jolted, looking left before his eyes widened with shocked recognition. "Chigaiko-chan?! What are you doing here?!" he blurted.
She moved to sit with him. She then gasped as a large spatula blocked her way. "What are you doing away from school?" Tampopo asked.
Chigaiko shuddered, sweating as she remembered what she had heard about this woman yesterday. "Er . . .?!" she began as she gave Tampopo a wary stare.
Ataru moved to intercede. "Oh, geez! Relax, Tampopo-chan!" He shoved the spatula away from his ex-classmate's face. "Chigaiko-chan was probably the only girl I DIDN'T have any trouble with back at school. She's okay." He then glanced at her, an eyebrow arching. "Though I now find myself in agreement with Tampopo-chan here in wondering why you aren't at school, either."
Tampopo withdrew her spatula, and then she headed behind the counter. "When the dorks decided to force mandatory attendance for Lum's memorial, I 'voted with my feet' and stayed away." She shook her head. "The teachers are deluding themselves into believing everyone liked her. Besides, I don't see any of them putting out the hounds to drag you down to attend, Ataru-kun."
"Maybe because I withdrew from school when I left Tomobiki six weeks ago, so they had no real right in the long term to force anything on me anymore," Ataru replied with a smirk, waving her to sit in the chair beside him.
He sat down to continue eating. "What'll you have, dear?" Tampopo asked.
Chigaiko smiled. "Oh, squid beefbowl, please!"
"Hai, right away."
Chigaiko then turned to Ataru. "So where've you been, anyway? I mean, no one's really been asking about you because of Lum being kicked back home and all that, but I've been worried about you, Ataru-kun."
Seeing her cute pout, Ataru smirked. "Long story."
* * *
"Welcome to Tomobiki High School. We're pleased to have you here."
A reception line of students spanning all three grades, mourning bands around their arms, bowed as dignitaries streamed up the front path. Off to one side, a grove of cherry blossom trees had just been planted, forming a hollow circle around a statue. Though covered in a tarp, it was easy for onlookers to tell who the statue had been sculpted in honour of. Standing near that were several students from the lost Oni's homeroom class. "Geez! Who the hell's gonna show up next?" Fujinami Ryuunosuke wondered, watching the head of the town council and some ward managers pass by. "The Prime Minister?!"
"Knowing Mendou, that just might actually be a possibility," Aisuru Satoshi mused, adjusting his glasses over his bloodshot eyes.
Miyake Shinobu gazed at the leader of "Lum's Stormtroopers." The last few nights had been filled with echoes of wailing drifting through the streets of Tomobiki. While not wanting to think ill of the dead, Shinobu wished Lum hadn't made such an emotional impact on her schoolmates. School scuttlebutt had it that several students, including Megane's fellow Stormtrooper Urayamu Akira (also known as "Chibi"), had attempted to kill themselves. Fortunately, parents had been on their guard since the news of the Oni's demise got out.
Ryuunosuke gazed at her best friend, pointing up. "Yo, Shinobu! Ya think Lum's pals from out there might be by?"
Shinobu sighed. "Hard to tell. I mean, do people like Benten and Oyuki really care for us? Way I've always seen them, all they cared about coming here was Lum and maybe Ataru-kun, not anyone else."
The "son" and heir of the Fujinami Hamachaya Teashop considered that. "Yeah, I guess you're kinda right about that."
Megane turned as two of the Mendou Clan's Kuromegane special agents approached. "What news about Ataru?" he demanded.
The Kuromegane bowed. "Forgive us, Megane-sama, but our attempts to locate Moroboshi-sama have failed," one replied. "Further, Mendou-sama's father ordained that we are not to continue the search for Moroboshi-sama."
Shinobu gasped. "What?! Why?!"
"That was not explained to us, Miyake-sama," the other replied as both bowed. "Please accept our sincere apologies. Excuse us."
They left. Shinobu and her classmates exchanged stunned looks. Megane then quaked. Before he could launch into another screaming tirade about Ataru's disloyalty to Lum, a hand snared his throat. "Will ya fuckin' KNOCK IT OFF with your flippin' mouth, Megane?!" Ryuunosuke snarled as she started to shake Megane. "Maybe the reason Moroboshi ain't coming is because he's sick and tired of you an' Mendou rantin' on all the time about Lum! Got me?!"
A weak croak escaped him as Ryuunosuke shoved him away. The others flashed appreciative looks at her before Shinobu's gasp turned their attention towards the front gate. "Moroboshi-san! Mrs. Moroboshi! Hi!"
Ataru's ex-girlfriend waved before breaking from the others to approach his parents. As she closed in, Shinobu's heart chilled as she took in the aged, pained looks on Moroboshi Muchi and Moroboshi Kinshou's faces. Well, it was understandable; both did care very much for Lum. But the level of pain, grief and even anger being projected from their eyes clearly had to come from more than Lum's loss. "Moroboshi-san, Mrs. Moroboshi, are you two alright?" she asked, bowing respectfully to them before gently grasping Kinshou's hand.
Kinshou blinked, staring quizzically at the girl who might have been her daughter-in-law before she looked away. "Hello, Shinobu-chan," she weakly replied. "Oh, yes. We're quite fine. Excuse us, please."
They headed inside. Shinobu watched them go, and then she felt an ominous chill run through her. What in God's name had happened?
* * *
Unnoticed by Shinobu, a young man, dressed in a jumpsuit emblazoned with the Sanitation Service badge, walked through the gate. Garbage cans were piled on the trolley he pushed onto the grounds. His eyes, hooded by bushy eyebrows, nervously darted everywhere as he mentally separated the innocent from the guilty. The day had come. Paradise was beckoning Ibrahim Alhamzi with its call. He knows God would bless his sacrifice as long as the devil-woman's worshippers were delivered to their deserved place in the lowest pits of Hell!
Ibrahim also knew God would not look favourably on his taking the lives of the innocent as he strove to punish the guilty. This mission HAD to be done with precision. Yes, the devil-woman and those who followed her in Tomobiki had enchanted many. But only a few here were truly guilty of crimes against humanity. This was not just jihad, the fight to protect and preserve the Faith from the wrath of unbelievers. This was a war for humankind's liberation from the lies and false promises ALIENS of all things forced on them.
He moved toward a pile of garbage bags by the front doors. He had just seen one target. "Megane," the leader of the group of monsters in human flesh who had slavishly followed the devil-woman's ways from the very beginning. His many crimes against humanity, starting from the day he helped the devil-woman steal the liquid gold from under the sands of Arabia, were too many to count. No matter what, Ibrahim vowed, this one would DIE. All he had to do was locate Megane's three co-conspirators, and then he would send them all to God.
"Hey! Hold up a moment, friend!"
Ibrahim jolted as someone in a boy's uniform ran up to help load garbage. But this was no boy, the Qatar native knew. Fujinami Ryuunosuke, an innocent victim of the madness that had shrouded Tomobiki since the devil-woman and her friends first came. Many times, he had prayed for God to give Ryuunosuke strength to overcome her father. Many times, he had seen that infidel -- no, PAGAN! -- beast abuse the poor child for not being a "manly man!"
Utter madness!
Ibrahim bowed as Ryuunosuke pitched in. "Thank you, Fujinami-san!"
Ryuunosuke waved at him. "Eh! No problem, Alhamzi-san!"
She moved to head off once the last bag was stowed in the bins. "A terrible thing to happen, eh, Fujinami-san?" Ibrahim asked.
"Eh?!" The tomboy blinked. "Oh, 'bout Lum, ya mean?" She sighed. "Yeah, I guess so, I suppose. Anyhow, I gotta go."
She headed off. Ibrahim watched her. He then nodded, moving to head inside. Merciful God, watch over that one, please, he prayed.
* * *
Negako stood in the clock tower belfry, she watching as the native of Qatar headed inside to locate targets. The ninjutsu grandmaster had no intention of getting in Ibrahim's way. After all, she could sense two friends of the fellow presently approaching the school from different directions. If Ibrahim failed to carry out his planned act, they would gladly swoop in and do it for him. And the grandmaster knew there were others worldwide ready to follow in Ibrahim's footsteps, even if many weren't of the same faith as he.
So be it, then.
If people were going to be killed because of Lum, her friends and what had happened in Tomobiki over the last two years, best to let it happen under controlled circumstances. Of the fact that people would die because of those matters, the ninjutsu grandmaster was quite certain. All Negako desired at this time was use Ibrahim to hers -- and her family's -- own ends.
A glance near the statue of Lum revealed Megane heading to the main doors. Negako knew where Chibi, Shitto "Paama" Koosuke and Daremo "Kakugari" Hiroyuki -- Ibrahim's other primary targets -- were in the school's northwest wing. Also there was Fujinami Ryuunosuke's father Fujimi, someone Negako sensed Ibrahim would kill if given a chance. Strangely enough, Ibrahim did not see Mendou Shuutarou as a target. Neither did Negako; the fellow could be an annoyance, but he was easily dealt with. Now, all that was needed before this act would be allowed to proceed forth were two more.
Negako slipped out of the tower. Stepping gingerly along the roof of the central connecting wing, she stopped above the washrooms. Flipping through a window into the third floor girls' washroom, she slid into a stall. Closing the door, she concentrated, her clothes morphing from her normal black gi into a Tomobiki High seifuku. Stepping out after flushing the toilet, she smoothed her skirt before entering the hallway. Her eyes narrowed as she located those she wanted. Descending to the main floor, she spotted her targets chatting with Sakurambou Sakura. Making a hand gesture, Negako sent an invisible ki pulse into the earth, locking on a fault line under the southwest wing.
The ground shook, causing everyone to jolt. It was a brief tremor, lasting a second. Silence fell as people glance around, and then, feeling as if this was an isolated incident, they resumed doing what they were doing.
All save one.
Sakura's eyes narrowed as she scanned around, though she did not stare at Negako. Excusing herself from Ataru's parents, the nurse/priestess headed off. Muchi and Kinshou turned to join the crowd filing through the wing to the back doors and on to the gymnasium. Negako remained in place as Muchi and Kinshou fell into the queue. On noting no one looking her way, she then slipped in behind the two. Her fingers lashed out to tap a shiatsu point on their necks, one put there by Negako herself some years ago for this potential eventuality. Ataru's parents seemed to falter for a second as Negako leaned up.
"Head to the northwest wing science lab," she whispered.
Stepping aside, Negako watched as the two turned, and then they casually walked into the northwest wing. Her eyes narrowed as Negako sensed Megane meeting up with the other Bodyguards by the door to the science lab. Ibrahim was two metres away, he seeing that Fujinami Fujimi was within killing range.
* * *
Oh, yes! God WAS truly with him today.
Here were the four monsters that had betrayed their friends, their nation, their very PLANET, to serve the devil-woman Lum.
Even better, there was the pagan who had tortured his child, forced her to behave in a way God certainly did NOT intend by making her a woman.
And . . .
Ibrahim's eyes widened on seeing two people casually walk up behind Megane and his friends. Why, were they not . . .?
Moroboshi Muchi and his wife, Kinshou.
The traitor parents of the devil-woman's most tragic victim.
Ibrahim tried desperately not to grin as he thumbed the detonator attached to his bomb-vest. Yes! NOW was the time.
* * *
"So who was that guy you knew, Ryuunosuke-kun?"
Ryuunosuke felt her cheeks redden as Marubeya Momoe's questioning stare lanced into her. "Wh-what guy, M-Momoe-san?!" she sputtered.
"The garbage man," Momoe augmented.
"Oh . . .?" The tomboy was nonplussed for a moment. "Him! Shit, don't worry, Momoe-san! He's some guy from Qat- . . . "
A thunderous CRACK! shattered their ears. Windows nearby exploded. Milliseconds later, the whole northwest side of the school bulged at its foundations. Jets of flame ripped through the woodwork. The blast shockwave came next, sending debris flying through the air. The trees took the brunt of the shrapnel, though the pressure wave was able to knock everyone standing by Lum's statue onto their faces. Ryuunosuke's martial arts experience kicked in automatically as she flung herself over Shinobu, protecting her friend as she covered her head from sharp glass fragments that could easily end their lives.
The explosion's roar faded, it replaced with the ominous cracking sound of wood beams breaking. Ryuunosuke looked behind her, her eyes widening on seeing a sea of flame where the first floor had been. The upper floors then buckled as stanchions shattered. The tomboy averted her eyes as the second floor collapsed onto the first, dust and dirt billowing to cover a lot of the front lawn. As the second floor settled onto its new "foundation," the stanchions and walls holding the third floor up failed. Like the sides of an accordion squeezed together, the outside walls exploded as the third floor dropped onto the second, burying whoever was there under tons of wood, plaster and concrete. Not two seconds later, the beams holding the roof sections over the fallen third floor collapsed, repeating what just happened. As more dust and dirt billowed into the air, Ryuunosuke rolled off Shinobu, allowing the latter to get up and see what just happened. Coughing, Ataru's former girlfriend stared at the destroyed northwest wing, gasping as tongues of hot flame leapt out from the wreckage to begin rendering the rest into ashes.
"Jesu Cristo! What was THAT?!"
"Bomb!" Ryuunosuke screamed out. "C'mon!"
With that, she grabbed Shinobu, pulling her towards the main gate.
* * *
"What was THAT?!"
Nabiki looked up as a faint, shotgun-like crack! echoed through her open bedroom window. Rising, she looked outside. Her bedroom gave her a good view of much of the surrounding territory. Immediately, her eyes locked on a plume of smoke in the far distance, to the west-northwest. Her mind quickly drew up a map of the local area as she tried to ascertain where that was.
It came quickly enough. "Tomobiki High . . .?"
* * *
"So what're you going to do now, Ataru-kun?!"
"Wel- . . . "
Ataru's voice was cut off as a wave of disturbed ki energy warped through him. His eyes narrowed as he slipped from behind the counter to step outside. Being on ground level, he could not see much, so he leapt to the top of a nearby telephone pole. Balancing himself on top of the pillar, he took another sweep around with his eyes. They stopped on seeing the smoke rising from the west-northwest. "The school?" he whispered before spitting out, "Oh, hell!"
Ataru glanced left to see Ranma bounding towards him. Seeing the telephone pole was taken, Ranma stopped herself on the nearest roof, within normal speaking distance. He waved towards Tomobiki. "I take it you noticed."
"Something bad, I think." Ranma looked herself. Squaring her shoulders, she spun and bounded off towards the disaster scene.
Ataru watched her go, and then he shuddered before sighing. "Well, can't run now," he muttered under his breath.
"Ataru-kun! Where are you going?!"
He glanced down at Chigaiko. "Someone just blew up the school!" he yelled down to her, he waving in the direction of Tomobiki. "If you want to come help, hurry up! If you don't, stay here! We'll be back soon, okay?!"
Without waiting for a reply, Ataru bounded off, using the string of telephone poles to act as a walkway. Chigaiko blinked as the message sank in, and then she spat out, "Oh, hell! What are those idiots up to now?!"
* * *
"Hey, Kanami-chan! You in here?!"
Two bikers in their late teens, dressed like most boosoozoku in gakuran, peeked into the two-car garage of the Kurosu residence, a split-level bungalow located in a suburb of Yamanashi, a small city north of Fuji-san. Glancing around, they noted that their friend's Kawasaki mount was there, but there was no sign of the just-graduated senior from Yamanashi Central High School.
One of the men looked around. "Hey, Kanami-chan! Where are you?!"
"G-g-guys . . . "
Both glanced to the door leading into the house. "Kanami!" the other biker screamed on seeing a tall woman with shaggy-cropped black hair and dark eyes slumped on the floor. The pained look on her face spoke volumes to the boosoozoku as she reached for them, the strength in her body failing.
As they screamed her name, unconsciousness seized her.
* * *
Unknown to the boosoozoku in Yamanashi, similar incidents simultaneously played out in three other locations near Tokyo.
In Utsunomiya, north of Japan's capital, a motherly second-year high school student named Kashima Namie passed out in the kitchen.
In Shimizu, south of Fuji-san, the one affected was a tomboyish first year named Momose Tamako, she then in a local video arcade.
And in Chooshi, due east of Tokyo, Kodama Hiro, an elegant woman Tamako's age, passed out while waiting for a bus to do some shopping.
As to why Kanami, Namie, Tamako and Hiro fainted, that would not become clear to their friends and relatives for some time to come.
None of them could conceive of any connection between the four girls' sudden fainting spells and events in Tomobiki.
* * *
"You okay, Momoe?!"
"Y-yeah! Just a couple scratches!" Momoe grunted, feeling her bleeding arm; two bits of flying glass had left cuts in the skin. "What happened?!" She looked at the wall of fire and smoke which was one part of her school.
"A bomb, I think . . . " Ryuunosuke then blinked as a herd of Kuromegane escorted out a young man in a white school uniform. "Mendou!"
She and Shinobu ran over to help Mendou Shuutarou stay up. His uniform was badly cut up and there was a gash over his eyes, blood draining from wounds on arms and legs. Remarkably, he still held onto his personal katana. "Please stay back, Fujinami-sama, Miyake-sama!" one of the bodyguards warned, waving the girls away. "We must see the Young Master off to medical aid!"
"Hey, he's not the only one who needs it!" Ryuunosuke growled. How could these lunkheads be so insensitive after THIS?!
"Sh-she's . . . " Mendou's eyes fluttered as he yanked an arm free to draw a cell phone. "Call . . . " He spat blood. "Rescue . . . "
"Hai!" Another bodyguard snatched the phone, and then he dialled the number for the Mendou Clan Emergency Disaster Rescue Brigade.
Ryuunosuke smiled, exchanging a look with Shinobu. Arrogant he may be most of the time, Mendou Shuutarou certainly had his heart in the right place at times like this. Once the summons was made, Mendou was then laid down on the ground. Momoe moved to help out as other people started to stream from the school. "C'mon!" Shinobu grabbed Ryuunosuke by the arm as they moved to help.
She nodded. "Uhn!"
She then jolted on hearing someone fly through the air towards her. Spinning, she gaped as someone in a tang and workout pants landed a metre away. Then, with another spring, she charged at the fire. "Holy . . .!"
"Who . . .?" Shinobu's mind nearly blanked out before she screamed as someone else landed near her, charging into the disaster zone.
This was a man.
And not just ANY man, Shinobu instantly realised.
* * *
"Oh, shit! What do we do?!"
Ataru stopped beside Ranma, both standing not three metres from the collapsed northwest wing. "Stop the fires, first!" he declared with a grunt as he raised his hands, both of them glowing with ki. "Stand back!" Ranma fell back as Ataru created a ki ball between the palms of his hands.
The air came alive as the ki ball of the Air-Whirlpool Heat-Fire Strike melted into a mini-cyclone. Rising away from him, it grew in size and strength as Ataru tilted it onto its edge, shifting it over the flames. As oxygen was sucked away from the wreckage, the flames sputtered, the released heat being drawn into the vortex like light pulled into a black hole. "ALL RIGHT!" Ranma whooped as the last of the flames were drawn off, leaving only swirling dust.
Ataru swung himself to the left. "Stand clear!"
The whirlpool moved with him, getting clear of the school into the front yard. Ataru then cupped his hands together, another ki ball forming. This one had a different purpose. "SEISHIN SHURIKEN ARASHI!"
Bolts of energy, similar to photon torpedoes fired from the Starship Enterprise, punched through the whirlpool. It instantly collapsed from the onslaught of the Psychic Shuriken Storm, the accumulated dust dropping into a heap on the grass. "Yes!" Ataru hissed as he ceased the attack. "C'mon!"
Ranma nodded. "Un!"
* * *
Ryuunosuke gaped. "Holy shit!"
"He . . .!" Gekasawa Kumiko, Momoe's best friend, sputtered as the unreality of it all hit. "Is that Ataru-kun?! OUR Ataru-kun?!"
Momoe shook her head in denial. "That CAN'T be . . .!"
Shinobu absently felt her heart. "Ataru-kun? H-how?!"
The sounds of sirens filled the air.
* * *
Ranma grunted. "Lotta stuff here!"
"We have to break it up!" Ataru cracked his knuckles to loosen them. He then stared at his friend. "You said the Nujiézú taught you a lot of their manoeuvres, right?! You know their chestnut fist attack?!"
"First thing they taught me!"
"Okay! I'll break the large pieces and pass them to you! We're going fast, so watch out!" Ataru moved in on the wreckage.
"Right!" Ranma replied.
Finding the first big piece, Ataru jabbed out with his fingers. "TAIFUN KAZE-TE KITEI! SHINZOU BAKUHATSU SHOKU ARASHI!"
Using the modified Typhoon Wind-Fist/Heart Blast Touch Storm, his hands became living jackhammers as the roof section was shattered, the pieces flung towards Ranma. Using the Chestnut Fist, Ranma tossed the wreckage into a pile beside Lum's statue. In a minute, the uppermost sections of collapsed building were gone, allowing Ataru to dig clear a half-dozen people from the third floor who had nearly been crushed by the roof. "Give us a hand!" he screamed to the crowd massing by the front gate. "We've got people still alive!"
Shinobu broke from the crowd. Ryuunosuke was quick to follow, accompanied by Momoe, Kumiko and two of the Kuromegane who had just helped Mendou get clear of the wrecked school. By then, sirens heralded the first arrivals of Tomobiki's bravest, not to mention teams from the Mendou estate.
Also to arrive was a camera crew from NHK.
* * *
"Mister President, something has happened at the Holy Citadel."
* * *
"Oh, MY!"
"What is it, Onee-chan?" A gasp. "Holy shit!"
Hearing Nabiki's outburst, people began to stream into the sitting room. "What's going on?!" Souun demanded.
"What's this?!" Nodoka asked.
"Terrorist bombing at Tomobiki High," Nabiki reported. "That's at least what NHK's saying right now. But look who's there!"
Eyes locked on the image on the television screen. A red-haired girl with a pigtail and Mandarin tang appeared, tossing aside wall and floor fragments so others could get survivors out of the sea of devastation. Seeing his transformed son in the midst of helping innocents flee such a disaster, Genma beamed. "That's my boy!" he crooned, crossing his arms as he barked out a laugh. "Nothing stops him from doing a martial artist's sworn duty!"
Souun laughed. "They'll probably give him a medal for it!"
"Hai, you're right!" Nodoka added. "My son is SO manly!"
"Hey! Who's that?!" Nabiki gasped.
Everyone turned back to the screen. The rescue workers had backed away as a slender man dressed in a black button shirt and track pants hefted a slice of wall. Clearly, he was tired, but determined to see this through. Ranma poised herself before the slice. Using a storm of knife strikes, she shattered the section, tossing them clear. "Wish they'd give a close up!" Nabiki noted.
As if in answer to the middle Tendou daughter's wish, the camera zoomed in. Nabiki blinked. Her eyes widened as she picked out the face under the beard and moustache. "No! That CAN'T be!" she whispered. "Moroboshi Ataru?"
Akane stared wide-eyed at her sister. "What?!"
Kasumi covered her mouth in shocked surprise. "Oh, my! Ranma-kun didn't say Ataru-kun was a martial artist too!"
Everyone looked at her. "WHAT?!"
Events on the television quickly turned their attention back to the screen. Ataru was hefting another shattered wall section from the wreckage. He pointed at it, shouting something. A beam of light from his fingertip cleaved the section in half before he tossed them aside to Ranma. He then grabbed more wreckage. After seeing that, whistles of awe and disbelief escaped Souun and Genma. "Now THAT'S ki control!" the former declared.
"But how on Earth's that possible?" the latter wondered.
"What's the matter, boys?! Never thought you'd ever see a practitioner of the Art that inspired our Art in action?!"
Everyone gaped wide-eyed at Happoosai, he sitting on Genma's shoulder. "SAY WHAT?!" they cried out.
"Shush!" the grandmaster of Musabetsu Kakutou-ryuu snapped. "Pay close attention and you might all learn a little something!"
The others fell silent, and then they turned back to the television.
* * *
"Everyone! Come see this!"
Footsteps paced Shirayuki's cry as people ran into Welcome House's dining hall. "Shirayuki-chan, what is it?!" Sakuya wondered. Then, on noting where the young chef was looking, she gazed at the Rinrin Viewer. "What . . .?"
Marie gasped. "Oh, dear! What is this place?!"
"It's Nii-sama's old school, Marie-chan!" Shirayuki reported as many crowded around the Viewer. "NHK just reported that some bomb went off at the school when they were having that memorial to Lum-san!"
"Was Onii-chan there?!" Karen gasped, she then inwardly cursing the fact that all the sisters had come back to Promised Island first thing that morning. If they were still at the new house in Nerima, they'd know for sure.
"Ah! There's Onii-tama!"
Everyone jolted on hearing Hinako's delighted cry, and then they looked at the Viewer. "Onii-sama! Thank the gods!" Sakuya whispered before gaping as she watched Ataru pick up a hunk of ceiling. "Gods! What's Onii-sama doing?!"
"Helping with the rescue, I think!" Rinrin's eyebrow then arched as she spotted something else. "Wait a sec' here! Who's that with him?"
Aria beamed. "Ah! Nee-ya!"
Everyone then relaxed. "Oh, thank the gods!" Karen whispered. "With Onii-chan and Onee-chan there, they'll all get out!"
"Not all of them."
Eyes locked on Chikage, she seated at the dining room table, a tarot suite before her. "What do you mean by that?" Sakuya wondered.
The sorceress held up a card.
* * *
"There's the culprit. What's left of him. Looks like he got his clothes made at DuPont in the States or the Skoda works in the Czech Republic."
Ataru pointed to a spot on the blackened first floor. Two hours had passed since the bomb went off. Fortunately, the basement of Tomobiki High had been built under the central wing only. Standing beside him, the chief of the Tomobiki fire brigade shook his head. After seeing what Ataru had done today, he knew all the opinions about him had to be tossed into the circular fire. "How can you sense that, Moroboshi-san?!" he demanded. "We need police . . . "
"They'll just confirm what I've been trained to see," Ataru calmly cut the other man off with a raised finger. "You can tell the senior inspector the final count will be eleven dead and forty-two requiring hospitalisation, six of which might not make it if the doctors and nurses are the least bit off the ball. Now, if you'll excuse me, I need to rest up for a while. Hey, Ranma!"
Ranma was helping load the last of the wounded in an ambulance for a trip to Tomobiki General. As soon as the first-grader was on his way, she turned as Ataru jogged up. "We did good," she declared, breathing out in relief.
"As expected." Ataru stared at the wreckage before he moved to guide Ranma off the property. "C'mon, let's get the hell outta here."
"Yeah, I'm hungry. Any good places to eat around here?"
"Nope. Only good one that was here moved to Nerima."
Ranma snorted. "Gotcha."
Both turned to see the Tomobiki High principal come up, along with two teachers Ataru was familiar with, vice-principal/English teacher Onsen Mark and boy's sports coach Hanawa Mitsu. "Hai, Koochou-san, is there a problem?"
"Problem?" Hanawa walked up to pat Ataru's shoulder. "Certainly not, Moroboshi-kun! Such school spirit you demonstrated today! Now, I know you might've had a disagreement or two with your parents . . . "
A finger landed on his lips. Ataru's eyes narrowed as he gazed into his old homeroom teacher's eyes. Gods, hadn't this clueless jerk got it by NOW?! "First of all, Sensei, I HAVE NO PARENTS! Secondly, they're two of the dead in there!" He nodded towards the school. "You can pretty well assume I'm MORE THAN HAPPY to be rid of both of those jerks now! Whoever arranged this little act -- much that I personally despise terrorism -- did me a favour! So kindly do me another favour and get this through your head once and for all: I will NOT be coming back to this ramen stand EVER again! The sooner I put you clowns OUT of my head once and for ALL, the BETTER!" He turned away. "Sayonara!"
Ataru sprang to a telephone pole, and then he took off. A woman's shout distracted Ranma's attention to a television camera crew, the reporter trying to get a statement from him. Ranma moved to follow before she found herself facing a camera. "Hello! I'm Tensei Michiko of NHK News." She smiled. "You came to help with the rescue effort with Moroboshi Ataru, didn't you . . .?!"
"Saotome Ranma," Ranma introduced herself. "And no, I'm not interested in giving any interviews right now! I'm really tired! Excuse me . . .!"
"Wait!" the reporter cried out as she instantly dodged before Ranma. "Please, Saotome-san! You don't understand! This is breaking news! This is the first time Islamic terrorists have attacked non-American targets in Japan! Please, we only want yours and Moroboshi-san's opinions of this!"
Ranma paused, blinking as what Michiko said sank in before she sighed. "Look, lady. I really can't say why folks from the Middle East would blow this place up," she then said. "Though now that I think about it, given the garbage from two months ago with those oversized mushrooms and all that, these guys, whoever they were, might've had a pretty big beef with the folks livin' here!"
Michiko blinked. "You mean you support this sort of thing?!"
"WHAT?!" Ranma shuddered. "Hell, no! Look, lady, I'm really tired! I just spent two hours helping clean this mess up, so all I wanna do is get some food inta me, then sleep this nightmare off! If you'll excuse me . . .!"
"Wait! Just one more thing, please!" Michiko cut her off. "What exactly is your relationship with Moroboshi Ataru?! People here are saying that Moroboshi-san renounced Lum six weeks ago! Are you his girlfriend?!"
Ranma gagged. "SAY WHAT?!" She leaned right into the reporter's face, the glow of her battle aura making the camera crew take a step back. "Look, I dunno who put THAT stupid idea inta your head, but get THIS straight: I am NOT Ataru's girlfriend, okay?! Shit, with the way Lum and some other chick named Miyake treated him, he don't wanna deal with girls now! Personally, I don't blame him! I'm just his friend, probably one of THREE people outside his family he can call his friend now! Is that fair enough to you?!"
Michiko stammered before she sensed a hand touch her. She turned to see a man standing there. "Excuse me, Tensei-san. My name is Yumoa Reigi. I'm the executor of the will of Ataru's late grandmother, Moroboshi Nagaiwakai-sama. I understand you're interested in what's happened to him concerning his 'relationship' . . . " -- his voice dripped with scorn -- "With the late Oni Lum and those two roonin who WERE his parents. I'm sure given the incredible deeds she just performed, Saotome-san really needs a chance to rest."
"I . . . " Michiko then nodded. "Certainly. Um, just one more question, Saotome-san?" She turned to Ranma. "Why is it you became friends with Moroboshi Ataru of all people? I mean, you must've heard about . . . "
"Him chasin' girls?" Ranma snorted, looking away before glancing over her shoulder. "He told me about the crap he's lived through thanks to Lum and the nimrods here, not to mention the abuse he got from his parents . . . "
"Ex-parents," Reigi cut in.
"Whatever!" Ranma snapped. "All his life, he's been treated like garbage by almost everyone who said they either liked him or loved him. Well, let me tell you somethin'." She glared at Michiko, her voice lowering into a growl. "I know what it's like to be used, abused and BETRAYED by people who said they loved and cared for me! Family and so-called 'friends' alike! So don't tell me any of this crap about Ataru bein' the cause of ALL the garbage that's hit this place since Lum came! Far as I'm concerned, it ain't true! That's why I call him my friend, because he NEEDS real friends . . .!" Her voice trailed off. "Just like I need real friends," she finished in a whisper. Her eyes then fell on the statue of Lum, it standing in the midst of the devastation. "Matter of fact," Ranma muttered as she called up her ki and locked on target.
Everyone screamed as the bolt slammed into the statue, pulverizing it! Ranma relaxed before staring anew at Michiko, a smile curling her lips. "There! I just did my friend a favour! He says he don't want any memorials to Lum 'cause he don't want people treatin' her like a god. Maybe that's not such a bad idea! I hope that when this is all said and done with, they'll put a memorial here to all the folks who got killed today. They deserve it more."
With that, she sprang for a telephone pole and raced off for Nerima.
* * *
"A-Ataru-kun . . .?"
Miyake Shinobu stood several metres away from Reigi and Michiko, she pale-faced as her mind rolled over what had just been said. To see someone whom she knew shied from violence perform martial arts feats like that gatling-gun punch, making tornadoes in mid-air or fire off energy beams . . .! That was shocking enough to Shinobu. But to hear his words after it was done . . .
"First of all, Sensei, I HAVE NO PARENTS . . .!"
"I'm MORE THAN HAPPY to be rid of both of those jerks . . .!"
"Whoever arranged this little act -- in a way, did me a favour . . .!"
And then:
"I will NOT be coming back to this ramen stand EVER again! The sooner I put you clowns OUT of my head once and for ALL, the BETTER!"
And then what the girl just said to the reporter:
" . . . some other chick named Miyake treated him, he don't wanna deal with girls now! Personally, I don't blame him . . .!"
"Probably one of THREE people he can call his friend now!"
And then there was that man who said he was the executor of the estate of Ataru's grandmother, someone Shinobu didn't even know of:
" . . . those two roonin who WERE his parents."
Saw his parents as roonin . . .
Said he had no friends here . . .
Would never come back . . .
Never wanted to even SEE them again . . .?
"Ataru-kun." Shinobu shuddered. "W-w-why . . .?"
She looked right to see Sakura gazing at her. "S-s-Sakura-sensei," Shinobu stuttered before calming herself. "Something wrong?"
The nurse/priestess nodded. "Hai. It's about Ryuunosuke."
Shinobu felt a chill warp through her. "Wh-what?"
* * *
"You feel okay, Momoe-chan?"
"Y-yeah! It just stings," Momoe assured Kumiko before nodding to the paramedic. Both were relaxing by the fence near the front gate. "You okay?"
"My ears are still ringing," the other girl confessed. "I can't believe some terrorist would blow up the school."
"Is that what they're saying?"
"That reporter from NHK thinks it was some Islamic group. Why . . .?"
Kumiko shook her head, helplessly shrugging. "I'm sure they'll figure out what's up soon," Momoe asserted with a tired sigh. "The more important thing now is to figure out what's happened to Ataru-kun!"
A chill warped through Kumiko as her mind instantly replayed the images of the last two hours. Of Moroboshi Ataru demonstrating skills that could potentially help him defeat anyone Kumiko knew, even -- Gods! The horror of it all! -- Rei-san and Mendou-san . . .? Someone who, if the words he just said to the Principal, Onsen-sensei and Hanawa-sensei were true, now clearly didn't want ANYTHING to do with Tomobiki in spite of what he did today.
Someone who just might have reason to HATE them?
Especially given their response to his 'girl hunts' in the past.
Her eyes widened at that last thought. "I'm scared, Momoe-chan."
"You're not the only one," Momoe admitted.
"What do we do?"
"Find where Ataru-kun is now. Then find out how the HELL he turned from a moronic pervert to Bruce Lee's adopted first cousin." Momoe rose, dusting herself. "And for that, I have to put in a call to a friend in Nerima."
Kumiko frowned. She didn't like Tendou Nabiki. "Why call her?"
Momoe winked. "Simplest reason of all, Kumiko-chan. Nabiki-san knows that 'girl' who was with Ataru-kun. That was Saotome Ranma."
The other girl's eyes went wide. "Oh."
* * *
"R-r-Ran-ch-chan! Y-you c-can't m-mean th-that, c-can you?!"
Kenzan Konatsu instantly moved to comfort Kuonji Ukyou. "There, there, Ukyou-sama!" the male kunoichi soothed, touching several shiatsu points to help keep his employer calm and steady. "Didn't you see? Ranma-sama's just very tired right now! That reporter had no right to press Ranma-sama right now, especially after what he just did! Please, don't think such awful things!"
Ukyou considered that for a moment before she shakily nodded. "Y-yeah!" She rose, moving to stand behind her counter. "Y-yeah! Ran-chan's just tired, that's all! Ju-just . . . " Sobs then stole her voice as she collapsed back to the floor. "R-r-Ran-ch-chan . . .!" she moaned.
Konatsu moved to help her back up. "Ukyou-sama!"
The chef didn't refuse his embrace. "Pl-please, Ran-chan, don't hate me . . . " she moaned. "Please don't hate me, Ran-chan . . .!"
"Ukyou-sama . . . "
* * *
Kunou Tatewaki shuddered indignantly as his servant appeared by him. "Hai, Master. Is there a problem?" Sasuke asked with a bow.
Kunou pointed with his bokken at the television, it replaying images from Tomobiki High. "Find out where Moroboshi Ataru lives! I have seen the beast in the company of the fair Osage-no-Onna at this horrid event at Tomobiki High School. Though my fair pig-tailed goddess had doth proclaim the beast Moroboshi as a friend just now, I, the Blue Thunder, do know better!"
"What, sir?!" Oh, dear! Whatever's got into him now?
"It appears the beast doth have designs on my flame-haired damsel!" Kunou declared. "That she moves to defend the acts of one of such LOW character as he speaks volumes! Mayhap, Moroboshi and the sorcerer Saotome are in alliance to break the will of the pig-tailed one! And if she of the flaming tresses is broken, what is to stop those two monsters from bending the beauteous Tendou Akane to their evil will?! I WILL NOT HAVE IT! Go, Sasuke! Go find the monster, then tell me where he is so I can smite him with my blade!"
"Y-yessir!" Sasuke trembled. When Kunou got into THIS state, there was simply NO reasoning with him. Why me?! Why ME of all people?!
* * *
Nabiki whistled. "That's an unbelievable story, Ojii-chan."
"Yes, I know." Happoosai puffed his pipe. "Most likely, Ataru-kun there was the Saikoo Jinseijitsu's last host before it got free. I'd say that happened five years ago or so, but I can't be sure . . . "
"Oh, my!" Kasumi mused. "That must be Ataru-kun's sister Negako, Ojii-san. Ranma-kun did say she was a superb martial artist."
"'Negako,' did you say?" The old grandmaster perked before he nodded in approval. "'Wish child.' I like that! I like it a lot!" he declared with a cackle, an admiring look crossing his face. "Yes, you're right, Kasumi-chan. Negako-chan IS a superb martial artist. What would you expect from someone born from a THOUSAND years of preserved memories and motor skills? So . . . "
Genma snorted. "So what? My boy could beat this girl with ease . . .!"
He screamed as he flew into the cherry tree. He then splash-landed in the koi pond. "WEREN'T YOU LISTENING TO ME, IDIOT?!" Happoosai roared as Genma-panda staggered out. "I could barely beat Negako-chan! And that would ONLY be if she was having a BAD day! Cologne-chan could barely beat Negako-chan under the same circumstances! What makes you think your son could beat her, especially given how much you've SCREWED UP his training?!"
"Then maybe Ranma-kun could learn from Negako-san, Ojii-san."
Happoosai perked on hearing that before he stared at Kasumi, and then he hummed as he considered that. Souun and Genma stared wide-eyed at her, they wondering what just made Kasumi say something like THAT! "Why, that's a WONDERFUL idea, Kasumi-chan!" The grandmaster nodded. "Very well, then! When I see her, I'll tell Negako-chan that she can take over Ranma's training!"
A sigh slapped him in the head. Everyone turned to read. [RANMA WILL TRAIN WITH NO ONE BUT ME!] Genma-panda glared at Happoosai.
Happoosai's eyes narrowed. "I didn't recall giving you a choice in this matter, Genma," he warned, puffing on his pipe.
Seeing THAT, Genma dove outside. People watched him grab a beach ball as he waved a new sign. [I'M JUST A SIMPLE PANDA!]
"Fine! If you're just a simple panda, you have NO say in the way MY heir's training will go!" Happoosai declared. He then flipped his pipe to send Souun flying into Genma. "I don't want to hear none of YOUR idiot plans, Souun," he frostily added. "Neither of you have the brains for it!"
"Well, if my son did say to that reporter that Ataru-kun has no friends, this will be for the best." Nodoka sagely nodded. She then smiled. "Besides, given how MANLY Ataru-kun looked today, Ranma might benefit from his example!"
The sisters stared warily at her as Ranma's mother headed upstairs. Happoosai shook his head. "That woman's got 'manliness' on the brain!" he muttered before stretching himself. "Anyhow, I'm off to my rounds!"
He departed. As soon as the aged grandmaster was out of sight, the fathers raced in confront Nabiki. "Nabiki, you MUST find where Moroboshi lives!" Souun loudly ordained. "We MUST get Ranma-kun away from there and bring him here so he can marry Akane and unite the schools . . . "
Both panicked on sensing a HUGE battle aura behind them. [UH-OH!] Genma-panda waved a sign as the sisters scrambled to safety.
Happoosai's students then prostrated themselves before the grandmaster of Musabetsu Kakutou-ryuu, both of them wailing a storm of profuse apologies. As that went on, Nabiki waved Kasumi and Akane upstairs to her bedroom. Closing and locking the door to ensure the fathers didn't bother them, Nabiki sat at her desk. "Well, isn't THIS a damned day of revelations?"
"Hopefully, Father and Uncle won't make things worse, especially if Ranma-kun wishes to remain friends with Ataru-kun," Kasumi mused.
"I still can't believe that was him!" Akane said with a shake of her head. "I mean, isn't Moroboshi Ataru supposed to be the guy who once vowed he'd have sex with ten thousand girls before he graduated high school?"
"Yeah, that took ME by surprise. I don't think Ojii-chan was lying about the Moroboshis and their ninja ancestors, much less this Negako woman, either," Nabiki said as she scratched her chin. "Then again, if we want to confirm it, we could ask either Konatsu or Sasuke. They'd probably know a few things." She then took a deep breath. "Right now, we've got a bigger problem."
"What's that?" Akane asked.
"How the folks in Tomobiki are going to take in what they just saw . . . " -- Nabiki gazed on them -- "And how that will reflect here."
"What could be the problem?" Kasumi asked.
"Biggest potential problem is Mendou Shuutarou," Nabiki reported. "He's been rivals with Ataru-kun since Mendou started attending that school. I often associate with a couple people at Tomobiki High, so I know much of what's gone on there. Beforehand, Lum was there to keep some sort of lid on things. None of the boys felt confident enough to take Ataru-kun out of the picture because they were afraid Lum would lash back at them. Mendou's the same way. Now, Lum's dead. Even more so, Ataru-kun just demonstrated what he really thinks of the people in Tomobiki. They can basically go to Hell in his eyes . . . "
"So they might want to test him about that," Kasumi mused.
"Yes. Especially Mendou. He's like Kunou. The fact that a 'commoner' like Ataru-kun stood up to him CONSTANTLY when they were classmates hurt the boy's pride BIG time! What's worse, unlike Kunou-chan, Mendou HAS a lot of firepower to back him up whenever he wants to show how tough he is. And he's not afraid to use some underhanded tricks to get his way. Tack THAT up against Ataru-kun and Negako-san. Then add Ranma to the equation."
"Oh, gods! It'll be a slaughter!" Akane hissed. "Ranma always sticks up for his friends. Ataru's probably offering him a place to stay now, so it becomes an honour-debt. And if this Negako's as powerful as Ojii-san said . . . " A chill warped through her. "I don't think even an army like Mendou's could last against ONE martial artist of Ranma's level, let alone THREE!"
"And more," Nabiki noted. "Ryouga-kun won't tolerate the idea of anyone trying to kill Ranma-kun. You can bet the Amazons won't like it. Cologne and Ojii-chan BOTH could deal with the Mendous' armed forces by themselves! Then we toss in Ukyou and Konatsu. Kunou might want to join forces with Mendou out of general principles, but there's a chance Kodachi could put a monkey wrench into that, if not Mendou's own sister Ryooko getting involved . . . "
Kasumi shook her head. "It'll be total chaos."
"Yeah. And we've got loads of potential innocent bystanders all waiting to be snatched up and made instant hostages in case Mendou feels he's got no choice but to resort to those means to make Ataru submit. Including us."
"Hey! I could beat this creep!" Akane asserted.
Nabiki glared at her. "Can you outrun bullets, Akane?"
The youngest daughter jolted as her outrage melted instantly into shock. "So what can we do to prevent this from happening, Nabiki-chan?" Kasumi asked.
"That, I'll start to work on today," the middle daughter declared. "I'll bet that Marubeya Momoe -- she's one of Mendou's more ardent fans and a bookie for me -- will give me a call asking about what Ranma-kun was doing helping Ataru-kun out, wondering if Ataru-kun's living in Nerima and where he might be. I won't tell her anything, of course, since I actually don't know where he's living. And I won't say anything to her about that in the future until we get a handle on Mendou. There ARE ways to keep him in check, I think."
"Couldn't you ask Momoe-san to be quiet about it?" Kasumi asked.
Nabiki shook her head. "No. She's got a crush on him. That seems to be a common affliction at ALL the schools in that town. And he knows it, too. All Mendou has to do is turn on the charm and she's silly-putty in his hands. I'm not sure if he knows of her connection to me, but I'm not taking chances."
Akane sneered. "What a bastard! And I thought Kunou was bad?"
Kasumi nodded understandingly. "Oh, my! And I doubt Ataru-kun would like the idea of Mendou-san trying to hurt his sisters."
Akane blinked. "'Sisters?!' What sisters?!"
Kasumi beamed. "Why, they're the girls Ranma-kun met on Saturday, Akane-chan. Including the one who sent those bentou boxes to us."
"You can probably relax now about any of them being yet another fiancée Uncle forced on Ranma-kun, Akane-chan," Nabiki added.
Akane sighed after considering that for a moment.
* * *
"Feeling better now, Ranma?"
Ranma breathed out before wiping her face of vomit. She had just spent time worshipping at the altar of the porcelain goddess courtesy of the mangled bodies she and Ataru had dragged out of the wreckage of Tomobiki High. Her host seemed more tolerant; he stood by the bathroom door as Ranma upchucked her breakfast. "Somewhat." She grunted. "Damn! How did YOU tolerate all that?!"
"Let's just say I've seen it before and leave it at that for now." He waved her into the furo room. "Here. Let me help you wash down. Then you better get some sleep. We both need it after what happened."
Ranma nodded. "Yeah, you're right about that."
Entering the washing area, she peeled off her clothes before dumping them in a hamper. He did the same. After wrapping a towel around himself, he waved her to a stool. Giving his body a detailed look-over, Ranma was quick to notice several healed scars and what seemed to be a bullet wound covering his arms and chest. "Shit! What sorta training did Negako put you through?!"
"This . . . " -- he indicated the bullet wound, it between the deltoids and pectorals on the right shoulder -- "Didn't come from training." He waved her to a chair. "Here, let me wash your back. Your hair needs it, too."
"Thanks." She sat, picking up a cloth to soap herself down. "Don't lose the Dragon's Whisker I got in my hair, okay?"
"Right. I take it you had dragon hair soup once."
"By accident." Ranma smirked as she started to wash herself down. "Don't need it now, but I hang onto it just in case."
Ataru got to work on her back. "I figured as much. I had something similar when I was off training with Onee-chan. That's why I've got the beard and moustache now; it also affected my facial hair."
"Any way to cure it? Or curb it, at least?"
"Nope," he asserted. "Fortunately, I took a look at the Fuurinkan High student's notebook when I decided I might want to go to school there. The rules don't say anything about facial hair or hair length, so I'm okay."
She stared at him. "What?! That's impossible!"
"Why do you say that?"
"Simple!" she asserted. "The principal there's a nutcase who likes bowl cuts for girls and buzz cuts for guys! He tries to enforce them on us every chance he gets! I can't believe that's not in the handbook!"
"Well, believe it, Ranma. I've seen the handbook and I know for a fact that the Education Ministry states that what's in the handbook is the final say about school rules. Your principal's been lying to you."
She considered that before sighing. "Yeah, that doesn't surprise me. Given what a moron he is, that doesn't surprise me at all . . . hey!" She gasped as he sprayed her hair, and then she glared at him. "Warn me, willya?!"
"Sorry!" he replied with a chuckle as he moved to undo the Dragon's Whisker. Finding no place to put it without it accidentally being flushed down the drain, he undid the black jumper's cord he used to tie his hair, and then tied the Whisker around that. Setting the cord aside, he got to work. "Oh, man! You've got real great hair! That dragon's hair soup did you some good!"
"Think so . . .?" Ranma wondered before she moaned as Ataru's fingers massaged her scalp. "Oh, yeah! That feels REAL good, Ataru . . . "
"I take it Madame has not been pampered like this before?"
"Not like the way you do it. When I was off modelling, some of the people gave me a good shampooing. I could never trust Shanpú to do that, especially with the special shampoos her tribe has. But you do it . . . " She grunted as waves of pleasure began to radiate through her body. "Differently."
"Well, I'm just following the shiatsu lines here . . . wait!"
"What is it?"
Ataru blinked, gently pressing a couple of points on Ranma's forehead. "Wait a sec' . . . " he muttered. "Something's wrong."
Ranma tensed. "What?"
He jostled a couple more points, blinking confusedly as the odd feeling arced into his mind. "I can't tell." He shook his head. "When she comes back, I'm gonna get Onee-chan to take a look at you, Ranma. Sounds okay?"
"Sure thing." She relaxed before she smirked. "Hey, Ataru?"
"What is it?"
She gazed over her shoulder, winking. "Aren't you the least bit bothered that you're sharing a bath with a gorgeous girl like me?"
He wiggled his eyebrows. "Would you care to test how bothered I am?"
Her cheeks reddened. He chuckled. "Ranma, I know how you see yourself. I was just razing you. But you have to admit, you ARE very beautiful as a girl. And . . . " He held up a finger. "One prime specimen as a man, too."
Ranma gazed on him. "Are you saying I should try to learn how to be both? I WAS born a boy, Ataru! I can't deny that!"
"I'm not saying to deny it, Ranma. Look. Call it Fate, Karma, what-have-you, but I think things like this . . . " -- he indicated her body -- "Don't happen to people without a damned good reason. Hell, given the way I used to act, I'll bet you that if I ever went to Zhòuquán-xiang, I might've wound up falling into Niángniquán. It's called a 'curse' for a reason, Ranma. It's meant to teach you something in the long run. The only way you can ever REALLY hope to be rid of this curse is to learn the lesson it teaches you."
Ranma considered that before she sighed. "I can understand that. Oyaji always said girls were weak. I believed that even after I took a dunk into the damned pool. And . . . " -- she shook her head -- "Look where it got me."
He nodded. "Right. Personally, I don't think there's a cure for you. Hearing about that Nánniquán cask that started the trouble with you and Akane recently sounded fishy. I can't accept the idea that Zhòuquán-xiang will let you go THAT easily. Uh-uh! That's not the way things like that work."
"What could've happened to me, then?"
"I dunno. Onee-chan and Chikage might help, but . . . " He placed a hand on her shoulder. "Ranma, the chances are there you might NEVER be rid of this." He waved to her. "So instead of moping about it and trying to ignore it, make it a part of your life. You'll be a better person because of it."
She stared at him. "Can you be sure?"
"Yeah, I'm sure. Hey, look at me." He waved to himself. "Even after finding out what Onee-chan's presence in my mind could've potentially done to me, I didn't REALLY envision myself as a serious martial artist of all things until she started to train me. And even now, I like to think of myself as someone who doesn't want to settle messes that way."
She indicated the bullet wound on his shoulder. "No, something tells me you might like more direct ways of dealing with problems."
They gazed at each other. Ataru sighed. "I didn't enjoy that."
She smiled. "I didn't expect you would. C'mon, finish me up so I can wash you down. Then let's take a good long soak. We need it."
"Hai, hai, Ojou-sama," Ataru intoned in a mock Hindu Indian accent as he bowed his head towards her. "Sahib is working as fast as he can!"
She growled. "Why, you . . .!"
Both laughed.
* * *
"So your brother wasn't badly hurt?"
"No, he wasn't, but he'll remain in bed under supervision for a couple days." Mendou Ryooko nodded her thanks as the secretary handed her a cup of tea. She then gazed on her host. "However, I suspect that along the way, taped replays of the news coverage of the bombing will be given to him."
Yumoa Reigi sipped his own tea before he sighed. They were meeting in his office at the summit of the Toranoseishin Finances Tower. "Which means that once he sees Ataru-kun in action . . .?" he began.
"Onii-san will be put off. He's already frustrated enough because Moroboshi-sama was able to elude him so easily six weeks ago. Add Lum's death, the bombing, Moroboshi-sama's newly-acquired martial arts skills to the matter and his supposed friendship with Saotome-sama . . .!" The younger Mendou shook her head. "He will not like that one bit. Worse, he'll most likely be scared out of his mind. Though he won't, of course, show any fear in public."
"Natural," Toranoseishin's chief of operations concluded. "I assume you do not desire to see something like that happen."
"Personally, no," Ryooko admitted, she then inwardly surprised that she would actually say something like that to a total stranger. "Which means that something quickly has to be done to convince Onii-san away from seeking 'retribution' . . . " -- the scorn dripped in torrents from that word -- "On Moroboshi-sama. Do you have an idea, Yumoa-san? Perhaps contact your guardian and have him speak to my father? Given also that there is soon to get underway a near-complete succession in the leadership of the Moroboshi Clan . . . "
"You know of Ataru-kun's half-sisters now, I take it?"
She nodded. "I learned of them initially about a week after Moroboshi-sama and his adopted sister went to Oomure-jima. I didn't fully understand their relationship until Saturday, however. I assume that the eldest-born of that group -- Sakuya, was her name? -- will become the next Clan Matriarch?"
"When she turns of age in three years." Reigi nodded. "Do you suspect your brother might, if and when he finds out how strong our clan is, try to go after Sakuya-chan or any of the others as a way of striking at Ataru-kun?"
A shrug twitched her shoulders. "He might. Again, it is hard to say. Perhaps he might finally realise that his battle with Moroboshi-sama no longer has any meaning. Lum IS dead, after all. And much that I rather did enjoy the amount of fun her presence here provoked, I shall not mourn her forever."
"True. Personally, I'm very happy that Oni is gone. Hopefully, we will not see any of them again in our lifetimes . . . "
A knock. "I'm sorry to bother you, Reigi-san, but the coroner's office just called," a secretary announced after Reigi waved her in. "They need someone to identify the bodies of Ataru-sama's ex-parents before issuing death certificates. Given Ataru-sama's statements at the school -- and given his efforts to help save people there -- the authorities don't wish to bother him."
Reigi sighed. "Alright, I'll go down. Maybe I might get a laugh on seeing that backstabbing 'city-slicker' one last time." He wryly smirked, and then he gazed at Ryooko. "Would you please excuse me, Mendou-sama?"
Ryooko tittered. "Of course, Yumoa-san. I take it you and your co-workers DO bear a grudge against those two?"
"After what they did to Ataru-kun, what do you think?"
"I see."
* * *
"Onii-chan, are you alright?! How bad was it?!"
Ataru gazed at the sisters -- save Hinako, Aria and Kaho -- from the Rinrin Viewer; he sat in his bedroom in Nerima. "It was bad, Karen-chan," he announced with a grimace. On seeing them tense, he essayed a smile to make them relax. "Hopefully, if Ranma and I were in time, those who were hurt by the bomber would've got to the hospital as quickly as possible to be healed."
"How many died, Aniue-sama?" Marie asked.
"Eleven, counting the bomber. I . . . " He paused as he considered if he should say this. "Your birth-father and his wife were two of the dead."
Silence fell as they considered that. Chikage sighed. "Justice does come to the guilty in one way or another, Ani-kun."
Haruka nodded. "Agreed. It would have been better for them to suffer what you intended of them, Anigimi-sama, but now . . . "
Sakuya sighed. "I won't shed a tear for them. How's Onee-sama?"
"She's being looked over by Onee-chan now." Ataru sighed. "There was something wrong with some of her shiatsu lines when we bathed together after coming back home, so I asked Onee-chan to give it a closer look . . . "
The sisters gasped. "EH?! YOU BATHED TOGETHER?!"
Ataru gagged on his next words. He then waved his hands to ward off their leering looks. "Hey! Hey! HEY! It's not like THAT . . .!"
"Ani-chama has a girlfriend!" Yotsuba chimed.
Marie swooned. "Oh, Aniue-sama! That's SO romantic!"
Chikage held up the Lovers card. "I clearly predict that Ani-kun and Ane-kun will have a long and healthy relationship."
Shirayuki shuddered with anticipation. "Hime should start baking Nii-sama and Nee-sama's wedding cake right away!"
Sakuya wagged her finger at Ataru. "Onii-sama, you sly fox, you!"
"GIRLS!" he whined before his head drooped. "You're horrible . . .!"
Laughter filled the dining room. "Onii-chan, we're just joking!" Karen covered her mouth in a giggle. "Onii-chan, if Onee-chan was forced away from the Tendou house, why don't you both take some time and come here to the Island to relax for a while? Give her a chance to not worry about those people in Nerima? Onee-chan doesn't have to go to school until next Monday, does she?"
Ataru stared at her, and then he nodded. "All right. I'll bounce it off Onee-chan and see if that'll be a good idea. If it's okay, we'll come to the island on the late ferry tomorrow night, all right? No offence, Chikage-chan, but I don't think Ranma's ready for the travelling rainbow."
Chikage shook her head. "That's no problem."
"We can let Aneki use the room beside mine," Rinrin proposed.
"Fair enough! I'll call you girls tomorrow with news."
"Hai!" the sisters chimed.
* * *
"You should've told me you were hurt, Momoe-san."
"It's not as bad as it looks." Momoe shrugged as she sat beside Nabiki. The coffee shop where they were meeting was located beside a parking lot where buses from Tokyo and Hooya ended their runs. Located on the border between Nerima and Tomobiki, this shop served as a transfer point for people wanting to travel from local suburbs to Tokyo. "You saw what happened today, didn't you?"
Nabiki smiled. "That I did. Quite an eye-opener."
Momoe made an order with the shop's matron before she turned her attention back to her friend. "How did Ranma-san meet Ataru-kun?"
"Don't know where, but I think they met on Saturday. That's when Ataru-kun got back from wherever he went to after Lum went home."
"Can you find out where he lives?"
"I could."
Momoe blinked, quickly sensing Nabiki's reticence. "I'd think you of all people would understand why I need to have that information."
"But do you comprehend what you having that information might end up doing to the people of Nerima, Momoe-san?" Nabiki countered.
"I'd think you'd want Ataru-kun away from Ranma-san."
"You don't know the whole story about Ataru-kun. Then again, it may not be so surprising given how easily he's been able to catch Mendou's katana every time the guy tried to swipe his head off with it. Now relax and listen."
She explained. It took twenty minutes. By then, their coffee had gone cold. Neither cared. At the end, Momoe was as white as a sheet. "That can't be true!" She shook her head. "I mean . . . ATARU of all people?! Heir to one of the most lethal martial arts schools that exists?! That's . . .!"
Nabiki smirked. "Crazy, isn't it?"
She nodded. "You got it. Look, I know you want to try your best to impress Mendou. Remember when you told me on Saturday that you'd sit on information concerning the break between Ataru-kun and his parents and how it affected Lum? This is the same thing, but now you know the potential consequences if you DO tell Mendou where Ataru-kun is. Because I guarantee you this, Momoe-chan: If he tries to pull his shit in Nerima, not only will Mendou have Ataru-kun to worry about, but Negako-san, Ranma-kun, most likely Ryouga-kun, the Amazons, Ukyou and maybe Kodachi. And THIS time, there's no Lum around to try to moderate things. I doubt Miyake Shinobu might be able to moderate things, either. And I think Ataru-kun's made it pretty clear what he truly feels about you guys in Tomobiki this afternoon at the school."
Momoe then sighed. "That's true. But, still . . . "
Nabiki tried a new tact. "Think of it this way: You don't want to see Ataru-kun mutilate, much less KILL, Mendou, do you?"
Momoe jolted. "Of course not!"
"Then keeping quiet about this protects him! Understand now?"
Momoe blinked as she considered that before nodding. "You got a point."
"Alright, then. Look, the best way to avoid any disasters is to diffuse a potential fight in the first place. I know that may not sound profitable, but lives can't be replaced. You know that. What happened today will hit a lot of people the wrong way. Chances are there, Mendou might decide to leave it be and get on with his life. If that's the way it goes, fine. You got no worries. But if he decides to press it on just because he can't let it go . . . " Nabiki held up her finger. "Just remember what might happen."
Momoe considered that. "Right."
* * *
"How is she, Shinobu?"
Shinobu sighed; she was sitting at the kitchen table as her mother Kimiki washed dishes. "Resting right now. She didn't take well to the news."
Kimiki nodded, intoning a prayer for Ryuunosuke's father and Shiowatari Nagisa. Thanks to what Ataru and his lady friend did earlier that day, the police were able to quickly identify who died today. Atop the suicide bomber himself, a native of Qatar who might have -- according to the rumours being circulated over the news -- possessed ties to radical Islamic fundamentalists, ten people were killed. Megane and his friends, Moroboshi Muchi and his wife, two unidentified second-year students who had the ill luck to be in the hallway directly above where the blast occurred, Fujinami Fujimi and Nagisa.
There would be no body for Nagisa, Ryuunosuke learned. Sakura and Cherry told her why. Since Nagisa had died once and had been resurrected thanks to the Great Sea Urchin, if he died before he could have helped birth children, there would be no further chance of resurrection. Worse, the body created by the Great Urchin's magic would disintegrate, leaving no mortal remains behind.
Even though their so-called "relationship" had been quite rocky since the day she had met Nagisa on a tiny island in the Sagami Sea, it had just been too much for Fujinami Ryuunosuke to take. Shinobu had to carry her dazed friend to the Miyake home, arranging with Sakura to have what belongings that survived the explosion brought over as soon as possible. Shinobu's father Toshoba later contacted the family lawyer to begin making arrangements so that he and Kimiki could become Ryuunosuke's legal guardians. It was the least the Miyakes can do for her at this time, Shinobu sighed before lightly smiling.
Perhaps when he fully recovered, Mendou might be willing to help.
"It's to be expected," Kimiki mused. "Losing her mother when she was a baby, forced to live as a boy, then forced into being engaged with Nagisa-san . . . " Her voice trailed off before she shook her head. "Your father told me he's going to have Ryuunosuke re-registered as a girl. Turns out that her father had the poor girl legally registered as a boy all this time."
"Idiot!" Shinobu tried not to moan too much. Typical, wasn't it? She then shrugged. "Well, at least now, she can learn what being a girl's all about without her father or some other stupid fool getting in the damned way."
"True. We'll have to be cautious about that," Kimiki warned, she gazing at Shinobu. "She might need professional counselling, too."
"Unn." Shinobu rose, heading to her bedroom. Looking inside, she blinked before stepping in. "Ryuu-chan, what are you doing up?"
Ryuunosuke sighed, gazing at the book in her lap. "Can't sleep." Shinobu was quick to notice which book it was. The tomboy placed the book down. "Why have you never told me?" she wondered. "That you're . . .?"
"A Catholic?" Shinobu chuckled as she sat beside her friend. "Well, I . . . " She sighed. "I didn't want to tell people, Ryuunosuke."
Shinobu wryly smiled. "Well, you know how much most people don't like those who don't fit into the mould. Though in our school, that didn't matter too much in the long term. I guess I was afraid, deep down."
"Of what?"
"Of having something happen to me. Someone attacking me through my faith in God to weaken me for whatever reason. You . . . " A pause. "You noticed what happened to me shortly after Lum was kicked off the planet."
Ryuunosuke thought about that for a moment. "Right."
"Well, my pastor -- he's from Mexico -- once told me my strength must come from my faith. A gift from God to protect me from the craziness that was going on around us. He . . . " Another pause. "I guess God decided that since Lum wasn't coming back to Earth, I didn't need that strength anymore."
Silence fell as the tomboy considered that. "A lot of things aren't going to be the same from now on, ya know."
"Hai. Jesu Cristo, to believe . . . " Tears brimmed her eyes. "Megane and his friends, Ataru-kun's parents and . . . " Her voice halted, she not wanting to inflict more pain on the woman beside her. "Dead! It's so unreal!"
"Pretty damned real to me," Ryuunosuke hoarsely whispered.
Shinobu blinked. Her tears then flowed as she drew Ryuunosuke into a comforting hug. The soft feel of her best friend's comforting touch shattered the self-imposed dam holding back her grief. Ryuunosuke shuddered as her tears spilled down her cheeks, the tomboy holding onto Shinobu for dear life.
* * *
"Thank you for answering my summons, Elder Kelun."
"When it comes to Son-in-Law, I am always concerned." Cologne followed Ataru to the old shrine's meditation room. The Nujiézú elder had come alone; Ataru requested that through Tampopo to ensure Shampoo or Mousse didn't come to antagonize Ranma. Given what Negako just discovered about her, Ataru suspected Ranma was going to hit the roof when she learned of Genma's duplicity.
Privately, Cologne was pleased to see that the future patriarch of the Moroboshi Clan had acquired such a fluent command of Mandarin, even going so far as to speak it with the accent commonly heard back in the village. "Though I'm not too sure that he might be happy to see me, especially given the events of this morning . . . eh?!" She stopped at the doorway, her eyes widening as she took note of who else was there. "What are you doing here, Happy?"
Happoosai sighed, puffing on his pipe. "What the hell does it look like, Cologne?! Much that you consider the child a potential heir, I also see him as my heir, too. Besides, Negako-chan asked that I come here."
Cologne gazed at the others in the room. Ranma was laying front-down on a futon, nude save for towels to make things modest. She was asleep. Kneeling beside her was a woman looking like she was a relation of Ataru, yet . . .
Oh, Goddess, no!
Not THAT thing!
"If you will reserve whatever indignation you might feel at my having achieved what I sought for so long, Kelun, we can get on to the matter at hand concerning your 'son-in-law,'" the monster then spoke.
Cologne blinked. She then sighed, moving to stand beside Happoosai as Negako continued her analysis of Ranma. "What's wrong?!"
Happoosai sighs, puffing his pipe. "Turns out that idiot Genma was actually a lot smarter in certain areas than even I suspected."
"Look here." Negako pointed to one cluster of shiatsu points marked in grease pen for Ataru's benefit. "Do you see the disturbance?"
Cologne tapped the points, calming herself as she allowed the echoes from those points to warp through her. Her eyes widened. She did it again. Same result. She gazed at Negako. "How did THIS happen?! When?!"
"The 'how' and 'when' are easy," Negako replied. "As Happy surmised, Genma must have gone forth to locate knowledge of this nature so that he could, for as long as possible, keep his child in a mentally deficient state. As for the 'when,' it happened before he and Ranma left Nodoka on their training trip. What now should be asked by both of you is . . . "
"Why," Ataru finished.
Cologne and Happoosai exchanged a look. "I take it this isn't what you'd might want of the child," the former wondered.
"Of course not." The latter automatically shook his head. "Any chance of properly fixing this up, Negako-chan?"
"It is easily done, but it will require time." Negako nodded, she staring knowingly at Happoosai. "And NO interference from those who would desire Ranma NOT to possess full command of her mental facilities."
He shook his head. "Not so easily done. Even with him putting his foot down on some of the things here, the kids in this place are so headstrong when it comes to how they look at Ranma." He made a dismissive wave. "Fools!"
Cologne nodded. "Agreed."
Negako nodded. "Then we have to make Ranma a less-desirable target."
The others watched as her hands blurred, fingers tapping points along Ranma's head, shoulders and back. Seeing which ones were targeted, in the combination Negako used, Cologne's eyes widened even more.
Goddess, to do THAT . . .!
"This might be too much," she warned.
"On the contrary. Given Ranma's current emotional state, it is a proper response," Negako countered. "Her unwillingness to strike at those who affirm they love her because of Genma's skewered morality and his misogynist attitudes only served to invite further attacks against her. As I repair this damage, I can also address the damage acquired when Ranma endured the Neko-ken training."
Happoosai nodded approvingly. "That would be a good thing."
"But . . .!" Negako held up a finger in warning. "It will extract a cost from all those who covet Ranma as a future mate."
"What do you mean?" Cologne wondered.
A chilly, emotionless smile crossed Negako's face. "Why do you think, Kelun, that I address Ranma as 'she,' not 'he?'"
* * *
Ataru drew back from Ranma, the outrage the latter now felt leeching from every pore on her skin. Negako was in the kitchen preparing tea. Taking a breath, Ranma forced herself to calm down. Sensing things were safe -- he didn't want to see her wreck the first house Ataru could truly call his own -- he cleared his throat. "Yeah, you can sure as hell say that again!"
"Who knows about this?!" Ranma demanded.
"Outside Onee-chan and I, Happoosai and Cologne," Ataru replied. "They vowed to keep silent about it, especially when it might come to those who'd be happy to tell Genma he no longer has any decent levers to keep you suppressed. If you want to know, both were peeved at what she found."
Ranma's eyebrows arched in disbelief. Even if Cologne and Happoosai respected Tampopo -- thus, were willing to acknowledge the chef's suggestions about Ranma, that having led to the success of her recent "training" trip -- she didn't trust their ultimate motives concerning her whatsoever. "You sure?"
"Hai. Look, despite the crap they've heaped over you, it's obvious that they both care for you. They want you to have as good a life as you can since that guarantees that what they might want to teach you will survive. They both see you as their heirs. Instead of grousing about it, take advantage of it!"
She considered that, and then sighed before noticing Negako step into the room. "Oh, thanks!" She accepted the offered teacup. She then sipped the hot liquid before nearly gagging on the taste. "Gyaah! What IS this stuff?!"
"Herbs from Zephyrus that will begin the process of repairing the damaged neurons in your nervous system," Negako replied. "Here."
She tapped a point under Ranma's chin. The martial artist blinked. She took another sip. No taste, like drinking a cup of hot water. "Thanks." She sighed, drinking the rest of the tea before sitting back. "Damn him . . . "
"You will remain with us until such time as I can finish with the repairs to your body," Negako ordained as she set the tray aside. "To ensure that no one might, either purposefully or accidentally, undo the repairs I make, I've manipulated certain of your shiatsu lines to create a special defensive mechanism that may remain in effect as long as you so desire it."
"What will it do?" Ranma asked.
"It will automatically, upon sensing that an attack through whatever means is coming, block any inhibitions you might have towards striking back at certain parties." Negako paused before she added, "Such as your 'fiancées.'"
Ranma blanched as images of what that might mean flashed through her mind. Before she could object, Negako's fingertip touched her lips. "You have already taken on some lasting damage in your brain from all the blows to your head thanks to Akane's ki-mallet, plus whatever other objects she has used against you when she has her temper-tantrums. I can repair the damage, but I will not succeed in helping you reach your full potential if you allow those fools to get away with what they have. If they cannot handle the fact that you will not bend to their will, perhaps they might finally decide to help you regain your honour by cancelling the engagements on their own accord."
"She's got a point," Ataru mused.
Ranma looked down. "They'll hate me. I don't wanna get married now, but I don't want to lose their friendship . . . "
"Perhaps," Negako agreed before staring intently at her. "But what is more important? Their selfishness or your good health?"
"Well . . . "
"You did tell us on Saturday that they only see you as an object to be coveted, not a person. Didn't you?" Ataru added.
"Yeah, I did, but . . .!"
Ataru squeezed Ranma's shoulder. "Look, Ranma, let me tell you something. If that crap this morning didn't happen and if the morons back in Tomobiki decided to come after me to drag me back so they can go on abusing me, I'd be doing the same. That's what idiots like them need sometimes."
Ranma closed her eyes, she shuddering as she considered what reaction THAT could provoke. Ryouga, Mousse and Kunou would go ballistic. Her parents and the Tendous wouldn't like it either. She gazed at Negako. "How long?"
"Two weeks. If you wish me to aid you in overcoming your ailurophobia, add four weeks. And if you wish to learn less violent techniques to more easily suppress your rivals -- such as shiatsu strikes and the like, much less the basic manoeuvres in our Art -- I need two weeks beyond that to prepare you. Genma effectively stripped you of any chance of employing your considerable learning skills in any other field beyond basic martial arts. That you mastered several ki strikes in your state alone speaks well of your overall ability. But you have the ability to do more, Ranma. MUCH more. Is it wise that you go forth and experience what you can, learn what might interest you instead of being a constant, unwilling slave to the wishes of others?"
"You know, on a planet named Yehisril, to be a 'willing slave' is considered lower there than what we'd view burakumin," Ataru added.
Ranma stared at him, and then her own hands. "I suppose so."
The Moroboshi siblings exchanged a look. Ataru sighed. "Look, why don't you sleep on it? We'll worry about it tomorrow."
* * *
To be continued . . .