Ranma 1/2 Fan Fiction / Urusei Yatsura Fan Fiction / Sister Princess Fan Fiction ❯ Lonely Souls ❯ The Third Part, B Side - Family Born ( Chapter 6 )

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

"Ranma? Ranma, wake up!"
Ranma moaned, opening her eyes. Disorientation seized her for a second as she saw her own face gazing at her. Her memory then clicked in on spotting the bandanna wrapped around her mirror-twin's hair. "Oh, Toshiko, hi . . . " she hailed with a grunt as she slowly slid into a sitting position. "Damn! What time is it?" she wondered, moving to gaze on the digital clock nearby.
Toshiko grinned as she grabbed her sister. "Time to get some exercise!"
Vaulting to the window, she sent Ranma flying. "HEY!" Ranma screamed, quickly noting she had just been tossed out of the THIRD floor of the rotunda. Orientating herself to make a perfect two-point landing near the laundry bars by the sea wall, she braced herself as twin dynamos of finely honed martial arts energy leapt out the same window she emerged from to land nearby.
As the windows in neighbouring bedrooms flew open, people looking outside to see what was going on, Ranma braced herself. "Ready when you are," she declared with a grin as she sensed Toshiko and Kumiko preparing to attack.
The mirror-twins lashed out. Ranma, glad to FINALLY get a pair of good sparring partners -- for obvious reasons, Genma no longer made the grade -- screamed as she retaliated. Watching the scene of punches, kicks, leaps and dodges, the people woken by the Saotomes could only stare in disbelief. "When Anee said Ranma-anee was good, she wasn't kidding!" Mamoru mused.
"Don't look at it, Aria-sama," the twenty-something maid/governess who watched over Aria, Jeanne-Marie Louise Guenevere Rochelles -- Aria shortened that mouth-filling name all the time to "Jii-ya," much to Guenevere's constant annoyance! -- declared as she covered the young Parisian's eyes when she tried to look outside to see what Ranma-neeya and her sisters were doing.
"Whaaa! Nee-sama and her sisters are going to have BIG appetites when they're done!" Shirayuki mused, she standing at the third floor landing. "Hime best make her Special Vitamin Milkshakes for Nee-sama and her sisters!"
As the chef bounded to the kitchen to get started on breakfast, Rinrin peeked out her window. The inventor had been busy all night working on some modifications for her first robot, Prototype Robot Number One ("Mecha-Rinrin" as it was known). "Man, if they do that EVERY morning, I might as well throw my alarm clock away," she muttered before turning back to her work.
The ground floor windows below Ranma's room, marking Ataru's and Karen's rooms, then opened. "Onii-chan, can't they be a little LESS loud?" the latter asked as she looked over towards Ataru's room though she couldn't see him.
"Talk to them later, Karen-chan . . . H-HEY!"
Ranma appeared before her friend, and then she made him pole-vault right at Toshiko and Kumiko. "C'mon! You need exercise, too!"
"ONII-CHAN!" Karen screamed as Ataru pivoted in mid-air to land by the safety wall overlooking the island's shoreline.
"Oh, ya wanna be a bunch of wise guys, huh?!" He balled up a ki sphere. "Try this on for size! SEISHIN SHURIKEN ARASHI!"
The shockwave blasts from the Psychic Shuriken Storm shook Welcome House all the way to the chapel on the opposite side of the commons from the rotunda. As Ataru and the Saotomes went at each other, Kaho burst from the front doors; dressed in her school cheerleader's outfit, pom-poms in hand. "ONII-CHAMA, ONEE-CHAMA, GAMBATTE!" she cried out as she launched into her routine.
Seeing this from the second floor landing, Chikage smiled. Have fun, Ani-kun, Ane-kun, she mused. It won't last long.
* * *
Hearing the noise from the downtown part of the island, residents looked up to see smoke billow up from Welcome House. A tall fellow then gazed on his portly friend. "What the heck are those girls up to now?"
"Search me! Their brother wasn't THAT loud before!"
They then nodded as they reached the only logical conclusion:
"Has to be."
"Wish those girls would be more careful."
"Hai. Well, there goes the neighbourhood."
**** **** ****
Lonely Souls
By Fred Herriot
pyeknu@hotmail.com OR fherriot@yahoo.com
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Ashokan Farewell, music by Jay Ungar, lyrics by Grian McGregor. The arrangement of the words depicted here is my interpretation, following the version of the song as recorded on Track Three of the The Civil War CD, produced by Ken Burns and John Colby, distributed by Electra Nonesuch.
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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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Genma ducked Souun's Demon Head, waving his hands. "Relax, Tendou-kun!" the Saotome patriarch soothed. "We can get this fixed up as soon as we find that stupid son of mine and bring him back here!"
"Oh, I'm truly sure that Ranma-kun will actually let you screw around again with his mind like you did when he was only FIVE!" Nabiki barbed while giving Genma a knowing look from her place at the breakfast table.
Genma glared at her. "Nabiki, surely you can realise the advantage of what I did! If the boy wasn't forced to concentrate on the Art, how could he have been able to kill Saffron and save your sister?!"
Kasumi walked in from the kitchen, breakfast tray in hand. "Perhaps," the eldest daughter mused. "But maybe if Ranma-kun WAS able to develop other interests, he wouldn't have been forced into some of the fights he's had to deal with since he came here!" Glaring at Genma, she tossed him a bag of dry ramen. "There! And don't you DARE go into my kitchen to cook that!"
Souun jolted. "Kasumi! How can you be so mean to our guest?!"
"He's YOUR guest, Father! Not ours!" Kasumi snarled, her angry tone making Souun duck. "Besides, he's lived on the road for ten years! Surely he didn't spend ALL that time STEALING food! And he STAYS out of my kitchen! I wouldn't want such an unsanitary beast in there!"
"Or maybe he forced Ranma-kun to do all the cooking," Nabiki mused as she started to eat. Seeing Genma glance hopefully at her plate, an icy look flashed in her eyes. "If you even THINK of it, fatso, you're going back to the zoo and you're going to STAY there this time!" she warned.
Genma ducked her look. He then screamed out as a pipe sent him flying into the koi pond. "If you aren't going to eat, Genma, get out of the way!" Happoosai snapped before he sweetly smiled at Kasumi. "What's for breakfast?"
Kasumi beamed. "Coming right up, Ojii-san."
Watching his daughters being so kind to his old teacher, Souun wailed, bemoaning yet again the threatened state of the future union of the Saotome-ryuu and Tendou-ryuu. Kasumi, Nabiki and Happoosai ignored him. Seeing this from the pond, Genma-panda moaned. The boy will PAY for this!
* * *
In the southeast end of Tomobiki, the road train from the Toranoseishin Tower stood before a simple family home. Black blurs flashed to and from the passenger cabin and a bedroom on the second floor. Standing by the front door with her sister and parents, Inu Chigaiko could only smile. "Boy, when Ataru-kun said his uncle's ninjas were fast, he wasn't kidding," she declared before a cough shook her, a hand flying up to her mouth to catch the spittle.
"You still have that cold, dear?" her mother Kindan wondered.
"Y-yeah!" Chigaiko sniffled, rubbing her nose. "Can you get me an appointment with the doctor, Mom? I think I need it."
"I'll make the call today, but I think you won't be able to get in to see him until next week at the earliest," Kindan warned.
"Oh, okay!" Chigaiko then blinked as a ninja appeared before her, bowing his head respectfully. "Is it all done?" she asked.
"Yes, Young Mistress Chigaiko," the ninja reported. "If you are ready to depart, we will take you to the Young Master's residence."
Chigaiko nodded, and then she exchanged hugs and kisses with her family before boarding the road train. The ninjas vanished as the driver guided the train towards Nerima. "We should arrive at the Young Master's residence in a half-hour or so, ma'am," the driver reported. "Traffic doesn't seem to be bad today. Oh, I may have a pick-up," he then advised.
"Who?" Chigaiko asked.
"A potential student of Grandmaster Negako's."
The ex-Tomobiki High sophomore nodded. "Ah!"
* * *
"Oh, my! Is that really Ranma-kun?!"
Nabiki whistled, turning the page of the latest issue of a popular teen fashion magazine. "Sure looks like it," she mused. "Man, whoever did the shots here really knows his business. Make-up's not so bad, either!"
Kasumi and Nabiki sat on the porch. Souun and Genma were currently walking about town in some vain attempt to locate either Ranma or Moroboshi Negako. Minutes before, one of Nabiki's friends came by, carrying several fashion and other pop magazines she asserted had dozens of pictures of Ranma -- in both forms! -- inside. One glance inside quickly proved how right she was. "So he used a Korean alias for each of his bodies, huh? Very smart thinking, Ranma-kun . . . oh, THIS is nice!" She pointed to one picture.
"Oh, my! Ranma-chan looks SO cute in that wedding dress!" Kasumi covered her mouth. "Ne, Nabiki-chan, how much would this pay?"
"Can't say. Probably a lot given that he's HAD to use some of that money to set up our private funds, plus the other money."
"Do you think Uncle might try to steal Ranma-kun's money?"
"Not with the bank Ranma-kun got those cheques made in. Koshin Bank has rules when it comes to underage clients, which Ranma-kun happens to be. If there's ANY suspicion of child abuse or any other sort of impropriety between the client and the parents, the bank has the authority to block attempts by the parents to get control of those funds. If Uncle wanted to push it, then . . . " She smirked. "Well, I doubt he'd survive an investigation like THAT! Nope!" She shook her head again before turning back to the magazine. "He can dream all he wants, but this time, he won't get a damned thing. Too bad!"
"Hai, too bad." Kasumi pointed at one picture. "Oh, isn't THAT cute?!"
"Yeah!" Nabiki then blinked as the front gate opened. Seeing who was coming in, she moaned. "Oh, wonderful! Just what I needed . . . "
"Tendou Nabiki, I would speak to you on a matter of great import!" Kunou Tatewaki declared as he marched up. He then gracefully bowed to the older sister. "A fair morning to you, Tendou Kasumi." To Nabiki: "May I enquire as to where your beauteous sister or the pig-tailed girl might be?"
"Oh, neither of them are here, Kunou-san," Kasumi said. "Akane's in the hospital right now and Ranma-chan moved out of the house."
The scion of the Kunou family gasped. "WHAT?! What happened to them?!" he demanded before scanning around the property. "And where is that foul demon Saotome?! Has he unleashed some new vile sorcery on my beloveds?!"
"No, he moved out too, Kunou-chan." Nabiki set the fashion magazine aside before crossing her arms. "Oh, by the way, I've got some good news for you! There's no engagement now between Ranma-kun and Akane."
More silence.
Still more silence.
Then . . .
"No engagement?" Kunou gasped, stunned by Nabiki's words.
Nabiki nodded. "Yep. Akane's a free woman now."
Blinking as that sank into his mind, Kunou then screamed out, "Oh, AT LAST! At last, justice has prevailed! I, Kunou Tatewaki, the Blue Thunder of Fuurinkan High, have finally succeeded! The beautiful Tendou Akane has FINALLY escaped the clutches of that demon Saotome! Justice has FINALLY prevailed!" He crouched into a meditative pose as a hum rumbled from him, and then he held up a finger. "No!" he flatly said. "No! It must be done right, of course!"
"Done right in what way, Kunou-san?" Kasumi asked.
"Forgive me, but that must be resolved first between myself and your noble, fiery sister, Tendou Kasumi," the kendou-ka proclaimed before he turned on Nabiki. "Now, Tendou Nabiki, what news of the pig-tailed one? I last saw her on the television when she went Monday to aid in the rescue of those poor unfortunates at Tomobiki High School. Much to my shock and horror, she doth proclaim to the media that she is a friend to that most vile, perverted beast, Moroboshi Ataru! Pray tell me this is not so, Nabiki, I beg you!"
Nabiki held out her hand. "It doesn't come cheap, Kunou-chan."
Ten thousand yen filled her hands. "Yes, Ranma-chan IS Ataru-kun's friend." She slipped the money into her pocket before she added, "Matter of fact, they're off on a trip together for the rest of the week with Ataru-kun's sisters. You won't see her until she comes back to school on Monday."
"Oh, that is . . .!" Kunou's voice trailed off as a horror-struck look crossed his face. "WHAT?!" he wailed as lightning flashed in the background. "You mean to say the pig-tailed girl is ALONE with that lecher?!"
Nabiki nodded. "Yep."
"Where?!" he demanded. "Tell me so I might smite the beast and rescue the pig-tailed one from Moroboshi's vile, diseased clutches!"
Nabiki shook her head. "I can't! And no, you can't pay me any sort of money to get that information out of me. Sorry."
"Simple," Nabiki replied. "Ataru-kun's a ninja. Not just ANY ninja, but one who's learned from the deadliest ninjutsu school of all! How the heck do you think he's been able to defeat Mendou Shuutarou all the time when he was living in Tomobiki?! Hell, how the heck do you expect me to keep track of someone like HIM, Kunou-chan?! I may be good, but I'm not THAT good!"
The kendou-ka considered that before gravely nodding. "You are correct, Tendou Nabiki. Very well. I will have Sasuke seek out the vile beast and the pig-tailed one so I might smite Moroboshi and ensure he REMAINS defeated!" He turned around to leave, waving at them. "Fair thee well, my friends!"
He departed. Kasumi and Nabiki watched him go. The latter sighed. "To quote the great cartoon . . . " A pause. "'What a maroon!'"
The former shook her head. "Indeed."
* * *
"Sasuke-san, you have our deepest sympathies."
"Thank you, Tenchi-san," Sasuke replied, nodding thanks to the other ninja, one of Yumoa Reigi's personal field scouts. Both were perched in a tree overlooking the Tendou family courtyard. "So where is Ataru-sama anyway?"
"He is, as Nabiki-san just reported, with Ranma-sama and the Young Mistresses. Surely, Sasuke-san, you can't expect us to stand idly by and allow that fool you serve to threaten the Young Mistresses, do you?!"
The Kunou family retainer thought about it for a second before he shook his head. "No, of course not," he replied. "If the Master saw Sakuya-sama or Haruka-sama, he would . . .!" A shudder raced through him before he nodded. "No. My master is not an evil man, but his obsessions blind him to so much. I will not see a war start between the Kunous and the Moroboshis over that!"
"A good point . . . ah!"
A toot! filled the air. Sasuke and Tenchi watched as a certain road train stopped by the front gate of the Tendou property. Nabiki soon ran out, a gym bag in hand. Quickly getting aboard, she relaxed beside Inu Chigaiko as the road train continued its journey to the Moroboshi home. "Where is Nabiki-sama going?" Sasuke wondered, staring at the other ninja.
"To see our grandmaster about having her arms restored to proper motion so she can continue her studies in Musabetsu Kakutou-ryuu."
Sasuke perked before he smiled. "Really?! Good for her!"
* * *
A spatula slammed down on the table beside Ranma's plate. That act made the martial artist leap up to the pentacle-shaped ceiling frame six metres off the floor! Everyone looked up to see Ranma hugging the wood beams, shivering at the chef's outburst. Shirayuki put her fists to hips. "HONESTLY, Nee-sama! Hime can make all the uzura-dango Nee-sama wants! Why is Nee-sama eating like someone was about to take all of Nee-sama's food away?!"
"Because people DO try to take Ranma's food away, Shirayuki-san," Toshiko said in her template's defence. "Specifically Genma!"
"Why would Onee-sama's father do something like that?" Sakuya asked.
"Partially, it's training." Kumiko held up her chopsticks to emphasise her point. "Working with chopsticks helps improve your fingers' dexterity, especially if you want to use shiatsu attacks. Partially, it's a philosophy Genma rammed into Ranma every day during their training trip: 'Treat each meal like it was your last.'" A tired sigh. "And partially, it's because Genma's a greedy, lazy fool who wants to pig out all the time!"
Shirayuki looked aghast before screaming, "HIME NEVER HEARD SUCH A STUPID THING IN ALL OF HIME'S LIFE!" Everyone ducked her rant as Shirayuki looked up to Ranma, insistently pointing to the spot the martial artist had just vacated. "Nee-sama, come down here this INSTANT!"
Ranma quaked before dropping to the floor, waving her hands in a "Don't hit me!" gesture. Shirayuki sighed, pointing to the former's chair. "Sit, Nee-sama! Hime isn't going to take Nee-sama's food away!"
Ranma hopped into the chair. "Okay! Okay! Okay!"
"Now, Hime will tell Nee-sama Hime's philosophy about food!" Shirayuki drew out a handkerchief to lie on Ranma's lap. "Food is meant to be ENJOYED to the last morsel!" She then drew out a plate of uzura-dango. "After all, Hime and cooks like Hime LIKE to make food and they want those who eat their food to enjoy eating their food!" She sat down beside Ranma. Taking the latter's chopsticks, she used them to pick up one of the dumplings. "Nee-sama can't enjoy Hime's food if Nee-sama is shovelling it into Nee-sama's mouth like she was some silly stoker shovelling coal into a boiler! Okay?!" She held the dumpling before Ranma's mouth. "Now, Nee-sama, say 'Aaah!'"
Ranma backed away. "Aw, c'mon, Shirayuki! That's sissy stuff!"
Hearing that, the cook stopped, sniffing. "Nee-sama doesn't like Hime's cooking . . . " she tearfully moaned, looking down at her plate.
Seeing THAT, Ranma slumped in defeat. "Aaah . . . "
Giggling, the other sisters watched as Shirayuki fed the martial artist. Hinako covered her mouth. "Onee-tama's so funny!"
Sakuya stared at Ataru. "Poor Onee-sama. I wonder what sort of other bad habits that fool father taught her," she whispered.
"Quite a bit from what I've seen of her already," he whispered back. "Do you think you can give Ranma the Talk, Sakuya-chan?"
She blinked as she stared wide-eyed at him. "You mean they were pressing an engagement between Onee-sama and that Akane girl and no one ever thought of giving Onee-sama the Talk?" She then shook her head as she turned back to her breakfast. "Gods, what were those stupid people thinking, anyway?"
"You can say that again," Ataru muttered, rolling his eyes.
* * *
"Oh, man! Did she HAVE to do THAT?! That was embarrassing!"
Ataru chuckled as he escorted Ranma on a tour around town. "Sorry, but they've done that to me many times since I first came here. I was riding the escalators with Haruka-chan one day . . .!" -- he pointed up to the covered public escalator connecting the higher and lower parts of the Island -- "And I sprained my ankle and she had to help me back to the House. Instant they saw that, they were all over me to make sure I got 'properly' fed and all that. Heck, Haruka-chan even wanted to come into the furo and wash my back!"
He shrugged. Ranma gazed at him. "Ataru, are you SURE they're your sisters?!" she demanded as her eyebrow arched before she looked ahead. "I mean, I don't think sisters are supposed to do THAT with their brother!"
He laughed. "There were times I was unsure of it, too! But then again, we could simply attribute it to the newness of it all."
"You mean the fact that you just found out you were related and you weren't really sure as to what to do about that, right?"
"Exactly. It's like you with Toshiko-chan and Kumiko-chan, right?"
Ranma nodded. "I guess so. Then again, I really haven't had a chance to spend any time with them. I had to get them out of the house after Nabiki put them into that magical compact, then send them on their way. Ukyou helped out, but I didn't want them to stay in Nerima any longer than it was safe for them. Or me. I busted them out of that compact after I got into a fight with Nabiki over some stupid lottery ticket she had that got burned up during a fight I had with Jijii. Thank the gods that Jijii at least was able to supply them some travelling money so they didn't have to rough it like Oyaji and I did."
"Given how well-skilled they are, Happoosai was probably making sure the Art would be guaranteed to continue through them. Besides, would YOU want them to hang around in the same place as that fool father of yours?"
Ranma shuddered. "You got a point."
* * *
"Oh, man . . .!"
Ryuunosuke tried not to scream as she stared at Tomobiki High. After waiting for a day for the embers to cool, the wreckers would come to tear down what was left of the northwest wing. That would allow the Mendou Emergency Construction and Repair Team -- the people who normally repaired the school when something odd happened -- to get to work on reconstruction. Shinobu stood beside her friend, ready to support the orphaned girl if she needed it.
Taking a breath, Ryuunosuke shook her head. "Y'know, 'cept for the people dyin' . . . " she began before sucking back a sob. "It don't look different from after the Pseudo-War and the Second Tag Race. Don't it?"
Shinobu nodded. "Hai, that's true, isn't it?"
"Shinobu?! Ryuunosuke-kun?!"
Both turned to see several of their classmates walk up, led by Marubeya Momoe and Gekasawa Kumiko. "Yo, guys!" Ryuunosuke hailed.
Shinobu bowed. "Ohayou, everyone. What are you all doing here?"
"Looking for you," Kumiko replied. "Listen, we're trying to get all the people in class together, and then we'd go out and find Ataru-kun. You know, thank him for coming over to help out with the clean-up and all that."
Shinobu gagged on the lump that just formed in her throat. Seeing that, Ryuunosuke sighed, squeezing Shinobu's shoulder before she turned back to the others. "Look, Moroboshi don't want anything to do with us, Kumiko . . . "
"Even if he doesn't, Ryuunosuke-kun, he did help us," Kumiko objected. "I mean, it surprised me when the local papers only mentioned Saotome-san when they reported on the bombing. I mean, I don't like Ataru-kun, but . . . "
"AND he don't like us, Kumiko!" Ryuunosuke snapped. "Look, Shinobu and I went by his old house last night. There was this guy there. He's the man runnin' Moroboshi's grandma's will. He freakin' tore a strip off us both. Practically gloated over the fact that Moroboshi was leavin' us once and for all! Even told us that Moroboshi burned all his yearbooks and photo albums just to help him forget we ever existed! I say THAT'S a pretty strong message, Kumiko. Look . . . " She stopped as a hand grabbed hers. "Shinobu?"
Shinobu sighed. "I'm not giving up on him, Ryuu-chan."
"Shinobu!" Ryuunosuke snapped.
"Shinobu-chan!" Momoe gasped.
Ataru's ex-girlfriend stared at her friends. "Look, if there's anyone who might know where he is, it's Kamekichi Tampopo."
"You mean the ramen shop cook that always beat up that slab of beef Rei all the time?!" Koi Shinjin, one of the boys, wondered.
"Hey! Rei-san's no slab of beef!" Kumiko snapped.
"Yeah, right, sure!" another boy said, rolling his eyes.
Shinobu moaned as the argument started. God, it seemed that Lum and her friends would be affecting people's opinions for a LONG time! "Alright! Enough, already!" she snapped. "What's past is past! We have to go on! Let's find Kamekichi-san, then go ask her about Ataru-kun! Okay?!"
The others nodded.
* * *
"Remain still, Nabiki."
Nabiki sighed, lying face-first on the sitting room floor as Negako manipulated the former's shiatsu pattern to entice the nerve clusters around her shoulders to fully and properly regenerate. Inu Chigaiko sat to one side, watching the ninjutsu grandmaster do her work. "Oooh! That feels great, Negako-san!" Nabiki purred delightedly as Negako's fingertips slightly vibrated as she sent ki energy into the body to break apart the scarred neural tissue within, thus allowing the neurons to reform whole and healthy.
A happy whistling heralded the arrival of one of Nerima's three martial arts grandmasters. "Good morning, ladies!" Happoosai hailed as he bounced in, landing on Negako's head. "Hiya, Negako-chan! How's Nabiki here?!"
Negako calmly picked him off her head, setting him to one side. "She will recover sooner if you do not distract me, Happy."
"Ojii-chan, you even THINK of stealing my bra or panties right now, I won't bail you out of jail the next time you get really drunk," Nabiki said with a glare as she raised a finger in dire warning.
"Oh, relax, relax! The girls from Saint Hebereke were more than happy to let me protect all their silky darlings!" Happoosai crooned before pulling out his pipe and lighting it as he watched Negako work. "Looks good."
"Yes, her potential is considerable. The chances are good that once she has regained confidence, she could begin ki training."
Everyone gaped. "You're kidding!" Chigaiko exclaimed.
"I do not joke, Chigaiko," Negako explained. "Everyone on the planet has some ki-manipulation abilities. Most do not go beyond the basics required to maintain one's health to the standard they feel is 'right.' Remember, the ability to utilise ki is interconnected with one's faith in herself, her surroundings and Existence as a whole. Since events in Nerima and Tomobiki defy what is seen as 'normal' to most, those not native to either place will not be able to conceive of what we would see as 'normal.'"
"I never thought about that," Nabiki admitted.
"Of course not. Save when Souun used his Demon Head attack to emotionally subdue someone, you did not encounter a situation where your concepts of 'reality' were broadened significantly until Ranma and Genma came to Nerima."
A cell phone rang. Negako pulled back, allowing Nabiki to sit up as she drew out the phone. "Moshi-moshi, Tendou here."
"Nabiki-san, it's me!" a woman called back.
"Momoe-san, what's up?!"
Chigaiko's jaw dropped in shock. Momoe?! Marubeya Momoe?! One of Mendou's floozies knew Tendou Nabiki?! "Nothing much. We're recovering," Momoe reported. "Listen, a bunch of yatai owners here told us that Kamekichi Tampopo moved to your part of Tokyo some weeks back. Can you give an address?"
"I probably could. Why are you so interested?"
"Well, we're actually looking for Moroboshi Ataru," Momoe admitted. "You know, thank him for his help in what happened on Monday. I know what you told me Monday night; Mendou-san doesn't know about this. If anyone knows where Ataru-kun went, it'd be Tampopo-san. Can you give?"
"I . . . " Nabiki paused, noticing Negako holding out her hand. "Look, Momoe, Ataru-kun's sister is sitting right beside me. I'll let you talk to her about it. Just a second," she called out before handing the phone over.
* * *
"'SISTER?!'" everyone exclaimed.
Momoe stared at her phone before holding it to her ear. "Moshi-moshi?"
"This is Moroboshi Negako," a frighteningly cold woman's voice announced. "Ataru is not here right now. What is the matter, Momoe?"
"I . . . " Momoe shook her head before calling back over the line, "I didn't know Ataru-kun had a sister! Unless you're the . . .?"
"I am she," Negako affirmed. "Ataru did not remember me until seven weeks ago when I restored his memories after Kinshou tricked me into having his memories edited of key information five years ago. This was done to help Kinshou embezzle Ataru's inheritance from his grandmother, Nagaiwakai. If you watch NHK Nerima or TV Tokyo, you will learn the whole story this evening."
"I . . . I see." Momoe sighed. "Well, listen, Negako-san. We'd like to know where your brother is right now . . . "
"He is not here."
"Er . . . o-okay, where is he?"
"That is none of your business, Momoe."
Momoe jolted. "Hey!"
"Listen and take heed," Negako warned. "Reigi made it clear to Shinobu and Ryuunosuke last night. If you are incapable of acknowledging that, neither Ataru nor I will be responsible for what might result from it."
Momoe was stunned by the curt indifference Negako was demonstrating to her over the phone. "I . . . " she began before sighing. "Look! All we want to do is thank him for helping out on Monday when that bomb went off!"
"I will convey your gratitude to Ataru when he returns. But do not expect any reciprocating show of emotion. As far as he is concerned, no one living in Tomobiki deserves it." Negako paused before she sank the stake in. "ESPECIALLY one whose obsession with a narcissist like Mendou Shuutarou blinds her to all else around her. You are warned. Do not press this matter further."
Beep! The connection was cut. "Hey!" Momoe screamed, staring at the silent cell phone in disbelief. "Who the hell . . .?!"
* * *
"Um, Negako-san?"
"Yes, Nabiki?"
"You believe in something called 'tact?'"
Negako gazed at her. "No."
"Maybe you should learn," Nabiki warned, holding up a finger.
The ninjutsu grandmaster shrugged before turning to Nabiki's shiatsu points. "Sometimes, the most direct message is the best one," she explained. "Besides, I spoke the truth about Ataru's feelings for those people."
"A little white lie could've helped there, too, Negako-san."
"Atop all the lies, jealousy, misinformation and twisted worldviews practised, felt and spoken by those people? ESPECIALLY where it concerned Ataru? When does it stop? When people die? People have ALREADY died as a result of events in Tomobiki and how they came to be. Granted, death comes to all of us." An eyebrow arched. "But do you wish to rush it?"
Nabiki sighed. "Not really." She then raised her finger to emphasise her point. "But you STILL need to learn some tact, Negako-san."
She laid her head down on her crossed arms. Negako shook her head.
* * *
"I can't believe that!"
"Believe it," Momoe replied. She had just explained to the others about what Nabiki had told her concerning Ataru and Negako.
Kumiko nodded. "Well, it does make some sense. After all, how was Ataru-kun able to catch Mendou-san's katana all the time?"
"Not to mention the times he was able to out-race everyone, even Lum-chan, when he wanted to," Shinjin added. "And what about those big lugs that showed up after the Pseudo-War and the Second Tag Race to pound Mendou, Megane and his pals into the dirt when they tried to go after Ataru?!"
Momoe shuddered. "Don't remind me of them!"
"So what do we do now?" Ryuunosuke asked.
"Look, if Ataru don't want anything to do with us anymore, let's forget all this," Shinjin then declared. "I mean, he's makin' it obvious! He don't want to have nothin' to do with us anymore! Okay, that's cool! C'mon, guys!"
The boys walked off, leaving Shinobu, Ryuunosuke, Momoe and Kumiko standing alone. "So what do we do?" Kumiko asked.
"Maybe the guys have a good idea," Ryuunosuke noted.
Eyes locked on Shinobu. "I'm not letting it end like THIS!" she hissed, her fists clenching. "I will NOT let it end like THIS!"
"We could ask Mendou-san to help," Kumiko proposed.
"NO!" Shinobu shrilled as she glared at her classmate. "Don't you remember after he came?! When he started going gaga over Lum like the other boys did?! You, Momoe and the other girls all cornered Ataru-kun one day to make him stay with Lum! And when he refused, what did you do?! Well?!"
Kumiko blinked as she remembered that incident. "I guess none of us believed Ataru-kun held grudges against US!" Momoe mused as she gazed heavenward. "I mean, against Mendou-san, Rei-san, Megane and his crew, it's understandable! But against US?! I thought he liked us!"
"Maybe he's learned how to hate us. And I mean REALLY hate us."
Eyes locked on Ryuunosuke. "Just think about it," she warned. "Before the Second Tag Race, when we were on Ran's ship, he said 'I hate women' after he and Lum had that fight when Carla tried to persuade Rupa to send his pigs down to get rid of the mushrooms. What if Moroboshi meant it? After all, two weeks after the mushrooms were gone, he just ups and vanishes. Right at the same time, Lum gets the boot off the planet. Ditto with Ran and Jariten. Then, after Lum died, he comes back, packin' those martial arts skills, same as that redhead who showed up on Monday to help out at the school. With Lum gone, all her friends probably decided it's not worth comin' back to Earth. After all, do they really care about us, stayin' in contact with us now that Lum's gone? You said it yourself on Monday, Shinobu. And without Lum to stop him, what's to stop Moroboshi from thinking about settlin' some old scores?"
The others paled. "Ataru would NEVER do that . . .!" Kumiko sputtered.
"Willing to bet your life on it? We beat up Moroboshi constantly before he vanished. Sure, he did some dumbass things and he deserved it. But do you think that a part of him might've RESENTED everyone blamin' him for everything that was goin' on? What that guy said to Shinobu and me last night's been echoin' in my head ever since." She made a swirling motion with her finger around her ear. "So Moroboshi comes back, then shows he can rip apart walls like they were confetti, not to mention hop from telephone pole to telephone pole like he was doin' the 400-metre hurdles. I know what martial artists are like. I had to learn martial arts to survive with a lunkhead like Oyaji. Okay, we now got a good idea about where they came from. And since he's as skilled as that red-haired girl . . . what was her name, Momoe?!" she asked her classmate.
"Saotome Ranma. And by the way, Ranma's not a 'she' but a 'he!'"
Ryuunosuke jolted. "EH?!"
"She sure looked like a girl to me!" Shinobu asserted.
"Shinobu, many people mistake Ryuunosuke-kun as a boy even with her saying 'I'm a girl!' all the time. I fall into that trap, too. And I've known the truth about her almost as long as you have," Momoe reminded her, and then she moved to explain: "Ranma-san has a magical curse that turns him into a girl when he's hit with cold water. Hot water turns him back. According to Nabiki-san, it's been the bane of his life for quite a while."
Ryuunosuke whistled. "No shit!"
"Right," Momoe confirmed before sighing. "Then you add what Ranma-san said on Monday. But . . . " Here, she paused before turning to Ryuunosuke. "I can't see where you're coming from about Ataru-kun. I really can't."
Ryuunosuke turned to gaze towards Tomobiki High. "Yeah. It really makes me wonder: Do we really KNOW this guy, especially now?"
The others hummed.
* * *
"RANMA did this?!"
Once she was declared to be in stable condition, Akane had been moved into a recovery room. She would be discharged tomorrow, though the cast keeping her shattered elbow in place would not come off for a couple weeks. Several of her classmates had come to visit her, having heard of her hospitalisation by Fuurinkan High School's very proficient student grapevine.
"Why are you so CALM about it, Akane-chan?" Tokoro Yuka wondered. "I mean, this is 'No-hit-girls' Saotome Ranma we're talking about! Yeah, he's got a right to be pissed off at his dad and yours for all the garbage that's been heaped on his head over the last while, but THIS . . .?!"
Asano Sayuri shook her head. "This just proves everything I've said about that jerk! So what else did he do?"
Akane winced. "He ended the engagement. And said he didn't want anything to do with my family anymore."
Chanpatsu Hiroshi shook his head. "Oh man! I can't believe that! I mean, you guys fought all the time, but I'd NEVER believe he'd go and hit you right back! Especially hit you with a ki blast . . .!"
Akane sighed. "There was a reason for that, Hiroshi."
"Akane-chan, don't make excuses for the creep!" Sayuri cut in.
"Sayuri, wait! What are you talking about, Akane-chan?!" Yuka protested.
"Brain damage."
"Huh?" Bosabosa Daisuke blinked. "Ranma?"
Akane nodded. "You know about Moroboshi Ataru? What happened on Monday, right?" Seeing them nod, she continued, "Well, Ataru-san has a sister. An adopted sister who's VERY knowledgeable in martial arts. As much as Happoosai and Cologne, in fact. She examined Ranma that night and found out that Ranma's father did something to him when he was five to make sure Ranma could never really concentrate on anything outside the martial arts. And Negako-san -- that's her name, Moroboshi Negako -- found out that all the times I hit him, all the times other people hit him, PLUS the Neko-ken . . . well, it was hurting Ranma to the point where if it wasn't healed, he'd end up a mental vegetable! So Negako-san has to fix it all up. But she can't do that if Ranma gets into another fight . . . " She paused. "So Negako-san erased Ranma's inhibitions when it comes to fighting. If someone goes after him with that in place . . . "
"He goes straight for the kill?" Daisuke finished.
"And he won't care who he hits or why?" Hiroshi added.
"Yeah. And I found that out the hard way yesterday."
Sayuri shook her head. "I really have trouble accepting this."
Yuka stared in annoyance at her friend. "Would you've believed Ranma-kun's curse before you ever saw him transform, Sayuri-chan?" she wondered. "Much less that whole Neko-ken business, not to mention everything else?"
Sayuri declined to answer. "So what made Ranma-kun freak out on you like that anyway, Akane?" Hiroshi wondered. "You were doin' pretty okay before, even with all that trouble your dad and his dad started."
Akane sighed. "My cooking. I tried to make beef stroganoff for him yesterday morning. You know, show some sympathy for what happened on Monday, what Ranma did with Ataru-san in Tomobiki. Well . . . "
Her classmates nodded. "Akane-chan, you KNOW Ranma-kun doesn't trust your cooking unless your sister or his mother helps out," Yuka said.
"Yeah, I know that now . . . "
"That's still no excuse," Sayuri muttered.
"Maybe. But given all the crap that's hit him since the wedding, he's got a right to feel pissed off," Hiroshi said with a wave of his hand. "Give him time ta cool off and relax, Akane-chan. He'll be okay. I bet by the time school comes around, he'll be willing to give you another chance."
Daisuke gazed on his friend. "He better. Once Kunou-sempai gets wind of this, guess what might start up again? Eh, 'Roshi?"
Everyone considered that. Akane's eyes then widened. "No . . . "
Sayuri covered her face. "Oh, gods! Not THAT again!"
Yuka shook her head. "That's just what we DON'T need!"
"Dai, don't say such unlucky things," Hiroshi hissed.
"What unlucky things?"
Everyone turned as Nabiki stepped in, a gym bag hanging off her shoulder. "Hi, Onee-chan," Akane hailed. "How are things at home?"
Nabiki slipped off the bag before leaning on the bed. "We're giving the panda a cold shoulder. Dad doesn't like it, but we're not giving him a chance to do anything. Auntie moved back to her house; the bedrooms, bathroom and kitchen are usable now. I think Ranma-kun might pitch in some money to hurry the repairs. Oh, we finally found out where Ranma-kun got all his money from!"
"Where?" Yuka asked.
"Modelling. Both bodies, nothing risqué or anything like that, goes under a Korean name." Nabiki then stared knowingly at Hiroshi and Daisuke. "This means that any pictures I took of Ranma-kun's girl body best stop being circulated if you don't want the lawyers to come after you. I trust you guys will pass the word around as quickly as you can?"
Hiroshi and Daisuke gulped. "'Lawyers' . . .?"
Nabiki nodded. "Yep. I have to admit, I never thought of trying to get a modelling-type contract out of Ranma-kun. It would've put us all on the road to easy street for sure. Ah, well!" she lamented with a shrug.
"What's going to happen when Kunou demands more pictures of his 'pig-tailed goddess,' Onee-chan?" Akane sarcastically wondered.
"I'll tell him to visit a magazine shop," the middle Tendou daughter replied. "I've no need of his money anymore, so I'll start scaling back trying to fleece the idiot. Besides, soon as Ranma-kun's mind gets in better shape, I think Kunou-chan's gonna be done away with as soon as possible."
"So it's all true?" Yuka gasped. "About what Ranma-kun's father did and how that led up to what happened to Akane-chan yesterday?!"
"The truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth." Nabiki nodded before she stared intently at Sayuri, making the younger girl duck. "And if you have a problem with that, Sayuri-chan, that's just too damned bad."
Sayuri sent a resentful look Nabiki's way. "Onee-chan . . .!" Akane grumbled before sighing. "So where's Ranma now?"
"Off with Ataru-kun and his half-sisters until Sunday, then they'll be back. Ataru-kun might be coming to Fuurinkan next week."
Everyone's jaw dropped. "He's coming here?!" Hiroshi asked before crossing his arms. "Hey, that'll be pretty cool! Right, Dai?!"
"I wonder if he's still got those black books of his," Daisuke mused. "After all, they're said to be the . . .!"
Instantly, Sayuri and Yuka swatted him with pillows. "That's enough out of you, you perverted jerk!" the latter snarled.
"H-hai . . . " Daisuke whimpered.
Akane sighed. "I wish I could talk to Ranma."
Nabiki hummed. "Well, let me talk to Negako-san and see if I can get the telephone number of where Ranma-kun's staying right now. But I want to make sure that the panda doesn't get hold of it. The LAST thing Ranma-kun needs to deal with right now is that lazy-ass fool!"
Akane gazed understandingly at Nabiki. "Why don't you just sell him to the zoo once and for all and get it over with, Onee-chan?"
"Admittedly, it is tempting." The middle Tendou daughter rose. "Anyhow, I've got to get down to Kakazu-san's shop and get a new gi."
Everyone's jaw dropped. "What?!" Akane gasped.
Nabiki flustered. "Oh, forgot to tell you. Negako-san's right now fixing my shoulders so I can head back into the doojou. She's probably forgotten things about shiatsu that Toofuu-sensei couldn't learn in his whole lifetime!" She then perked. "Oh, speaking of which, he's back in town!"
Akane gaped. "Toofuu-sensei?! Does Onee-chan know?"
Nabiki sighed. "It's not gonna happen between them, Akane-chan."
"Oh . . . " The younger sister sighed. "That's too bad. Where did he go to, anyway? Why did he go? What did he do, anyway?"
"Don't know the whole story yet, but I think Ataru-kun's sisters might hold some answers," Nabiki said. "Anyhow, I've got to go."
Hiroshi blinked. "Hey, wait a sec'! What's this about other sisters?"
"Are they cute?" Daisuke prodded.
Pillows once again laid him low. Nabiki shook her head.
* * *
Located in the belt of onsen springs between Mount Ontake and Aomori, the Ryokan Ningyou-yakata was shrouded in mountain fog as the cloaked woman stepped into the hallway. Glancing out the windows to confirm there was no one in the spring taking a morning soak, Chikage grinned as she slipped the hood away. Picking up her pace, she walked to a corner in the hallway before stopping.
"There you are . . . "
Standing on the table was a beautiful porcelain doll in a soft silk kimono. She still was in the "shielding her head from falling heavens" pose a certain young martial artist left her in some months ago. And, given the many stories circulating about this particular work of art, a sign had been posted beside her: CURSED DOLL! DO NOT TOUCH! VERY DANGEROUS!
Of course, to someone like Chikage, danger was relative.
Reaching into her cape, the sorceress drew out a replica of the doll that made the inn so famous. Lifting the real item from the table, she put the replica in its place. Slipping the doll into a warp-space pocket, Chikage then turned the sign around. Drawing out a pen, she wrote something. With that done, she teleported away. Minutes later, one of the ryokan's cleaners came up. Sparing a glance at the doll, she stopped before looking again. Wait! The doll was back in its normal sitting position. What on Earth . . .?
She leaned up to read the note:
To Whomever This May Concern,
The Noroi no Ningyou has been removed from the inn for the safety of the staff and customers here. Please do not concern yourself about her fate. This replica has been left in her place to ensure the Ryokan Ningyou-yakata may continue to use its legend to attract tourists and stay in business.
Though why someone would want to make money out of a side-story of the rape and murder of a young girl by her brother, frankly, eludes me.
Regardless, continued good thoughts about the doll would be wise.
Truthfully yours,
A Concerned Citizen
The cleaner blinked before letting out a blood-curling scream.
* * *
Chikage stepped out of her bedroom at Welcome House, the Noroi no Ningyou cradled in her arms. Walking around to Aria's room, she stopped and knocked. The door opened to reveal Guenevere a second later. "Oh, Chikage-sama," the governess declared before she waved the sorceress inside.
Chikage nodded as she was waved in. "Thank you, Guenevere. Aria-chan?"
"What is it, Chikage-chan?" Aria asked before her eyes locked on what lay in the sorceress' arms. "Ah!" The young Parisian's eyes sparkled as she slipped off the bed, she walking over, her hands out. "Aria likes dolls very much!" she declared as she took the doll to give her a hug.
Guenevere watched before she jolted on seeing the doll's hands and feet twitch more than what one might have expected Aria's embrace might produce. "Chikage-sama, is that doll . . .?" she asked, turning on the sorceress.
Chikage nodded. "Alive? In her own way, yes."
Aria pulled the doll away. As the women watched, a natural blush crossed the doll's face as her hands touched her cheeks. "Waaaai . . . " Aria's eyes sparkled as she drew the doll into her embrace. "Aria made Ningyou-san blush."
The doll shuddered for a moment, and then, after allowing what strength she had in her body to fade, turned to gaze on Chikage. Why . . .? a moaning, female voice echoed in everyone's ears. Why did you bring me here?
"To give you a chance to experience more positive things in life," the sorceress responded. "I know how you came to be called the 'Noroi no Ningyou.' In fact, my knowledge of your origins is far greater than the proprietors of that ryokan who named their establishment in your honour. At the same time . . . " Here, she paused. "You need to understand that a person you look on as an 'infidel' is himself -- actually HERself -- a victim of the carelessness of others. Much in the same manner as your old owner."
'Infidel?' the doll wondered before she shuddered. HIM?!
Chikage nodded. "Hai."
"Aria-sama!" Guenevere was instantly at the young Parisian's side as tears brimmed in Aria's eyes. "Aria-sama, what's wrong?!"
"Kusun!" Aria sniffed back tears. "Ningyou-san hates Nee-ya! Kusun!"
The governess instantly moved to comfort. Still in Aria's arms, the Noroi no Ningyou quaked, unable to resist the torrents of pure sorrow currently pouring from the Parisian's heart. Immediately, she moved to draw her stubby arms around the young girl's neck, shifting her head to rub Aria's skin with her hair. No! No! No, Aria-sama! Don't cry, she pleaded. Please don't cry, Aria-sama! Please don't cry! Please don't cry . . .!
"Kusun! Ningyou-san hates Nee-ya! Kusun! Kusun!"
"But Ane-kun doesn't hate Ningyou-san."
Aria stopped, staring quizzically at Chikage. In her arms, the doll turned to gaze on the sorceress. But he hurt me! He insulted me! He nearly killed me! And why are you calling Saotome a girl?! Saotome is a boy!
"Kusun! Nee-ya is a girl! Ningyou-san hates Nee-ya! Kusun!"
The doll quaked as another tidal wave of sorrow overwhelmed her mystical defences. Seeing that, Chikage reached into her cape and drew a crystal ball. "Perhaps after seeing this, you might change your mind," she then declared.
The doll looked as images flowed . . .
** ** **
Running along the main walkway at the inn was an overweight, bespectacled man in a gi, laughing as he drank from a glass bottle. An outraged cry echoed from behind that fellow, "GET BACK HERE, OYAJI! THAT'S MINE!"
"BWA-HA-HA-HA! There's nothing like milk after a hot bath!"
The fight shifted indoors. Ranma tried to take Genma out with a kick to the back of the head. Genma used a towel to snare Ranma's leg and sent him into the table where the Noroi no Ningyou was sitting.
"Damn you!" Ranma snarled.
"BWA-HA-HA! What are you? A novice?!" Genma barbed as he fled.
Picking himself up, Ranma then noticed what else his fight had affected. "Oh, shit!" he moaned as he stared at the broken doll.
** ** **
"Nee-ya . . . " Aria whispered.
Guenevere shook her head in disapproval. "Such language!"
Chikage slipped the crystal ball under her cape before gazing on the doll in Aria's arms. "Now do you understand?" she asked.
The doll remained still for a moment before lowering her head ashamedly. It appears that I have done Ranma-sama an injustice, she quietly whispered before shuddering as Aria's arms drew her close. Aria-sama . . .
"It's alright, Ningyou-san," the young Parisian said. "Chikage-chan, Shirayuki-chan was right. Nee-ya's father IS a stupid idiot!"
"Aria-sama!" Guenevere gasped, utterly scandalized by Aria's words.
The sorceress grinned. "It's alright," she assured her sister. "I suspect that Negako-anekun is presently aware of what has happened. She might see this as an opportunity to teach a few people some harsh lessons. At least, that is something I would contemplate doing. In the meantime, Aria-chan, please keep Ningyou-san here. I do not desire for Ane-kun to learn of her presence here at this time. Ane-kun's memories of her will not be pleasant ones even if she is now estranged from Tendou Akane and her family."
Aria nodded. "Hai! Aria will take care of Ningyou-san."
With that, Chikage stepped out.
* * *
"Interesting idea," Negako mused before turning back to her tea.
* * *
"So you want us to get rid of these rocks, Jii-san?"
The sailor whom Ataru had met the first day he came to the Island nodded. "Hai." "Jii-san" -- his real name was unknown to almost everyone on Promised Island -- was the resident sage. A wry yet muscular fellow in his early sixties, Jii-san was the one everyone turned to for advice or help. Ataru liked him; outside his considerable quantities of knowledge in everyday things, he had known Moroboshi Nagaiwakai in his youth. Many significant gaps in Ataru's knowledge concerning his late grandmother had been filled by Jii-san.
Ataru, Jii-san and Ranma stood in the lee of First Street East. It was low tide, with an expanse of sand spread out around them for about fifty metres from the main retaining wall. "The town council wants to put another dock here for ferries to Oo-shima and the Izu Islands, but these rocks have to go first," Jii-san reported as he indicated the rocks with his pipe.
Ataru stared at the several large boulders sticking out from the sand. "Okay, that's easy enough. Have it done by lunchtime?"
Jii-san nodded before heading back to dry land. "Fair enough."
Ataru sighed, and then he noticed Ranma staring at him. "What? Never thought to use martial arts in maritime construction?"
"Well, Ryouga's Bakusai Tenketsu was created by a miner, so I shouldn't be THAT surprised." She crossed her arms before gazing on the rock. "Pity I didn't teach myself that when Ryouga was learning it. I could use it here."
"'Blasting Point?' That's a Nujiézú form these days, isn't it?" he mused before turning to trace a hand over the rock's surface. "I got something that'll work better. Ready for your first Saikoo Jinseijitsu lesson?"
She nodded. "Show me."
"Okay. Permit me to introduce you to, as we call it, the 'killer that leaves a message!' SHINZOU BAKUHATSU SHOKU!"
His middle fingertip hit the rock. A quick flash masked the point of impact for a millisecond before the boulder crumbled, exploding seaward in a shower of dust and pebble-sized fragments. Ranma whistled. "Whoa!"
"Wow! Onii-chan, that was so NEAT!"
Ataru spun around, grinning on seeing Karen standing on the roadway beyond the retaining wall, waving at him. "Hi, Karen-chan!"
"What're you doing down here?!" Ranma asked.
Karen flustered. "Well . . . I just wanted to make sure that both of you would be there for the piano recital at the school."
"We'll be there, Karen-chan," Ataru assured her. "What? Did you really think I was going to miss my sister's piano recital?"
Karen's blush deepened. "Well . . . "
Ranma chuckled. "Relax, Karen-chan. He's gonna be there even if I gotta drag him up to the school to make sure, okay?!"
She beamed. "Hai! Arigatou, Onee-chan!"
She ran off. Ataru and Ranma watched her go, and then the latter turned to the former. "She really needs your support, doesn't she?"
"Don't be surprised." He waved her to the next boulder. "She hasn't always been able to get the support she needed from her family." Stopping before that rock, he ran his hand over the surface. "There were . . . " A pause. "Issues." He glanced at her before he smiled. "But I don't have a right to talk about them in public. It isn't my place, after all."
"That's fair enough," she mused with an understanding nod.
"Thanks." He then braced himself. "Okay, here we go!"
He lashed out. The finger hit the rock. It disintegrated. Watching that, Ranma hummed. "It's like the Bakusai Tenketsu."
He gave her a grateful look as he wiped his fingers clean of the dust from the destroyed rock. Speaking about the sisters' family problems always weighed heavily on him, especially when it came to Karen. "Yeah, it is, but there's a big difference between the Bakusai Tenketsu and the Shinzou Bakuhatsu Shoku." He waved her over to the next rock. "The Nujiézú manoeuvre is limited only to rock or rock-like substances. Ours can work against almost all known materials, including living tissue. Here, let me show you . . . "
He placed a hand on the rock. The hand glowed. A forest of glowing lines then appeared over the rock, branching out in almost every direction. Ranma whistled. "Whoa! I never thought ki would exist in rock."
"Well, calling it 'ki' might actually be a misnomer," Ataru mused. "Ranma, the big secret in Saikoo Jinseijitsu-ryuu is that EVERYTHING in the world, even air molecules, has energy in them. We call it 'ki' for convenience's sake. I think the Zephyrites have a better term. They call it the Te'a: 'That Which Is Above mortal understanding.'"
She was quick to sense the reverent tone in that title. "You mean this is the energy of . . .?" She stopped before whispering, "God?"
"No, not what we'd call 'Kami-sama,' of course. It's a TOO convenient to refer to this as a by-product of that." He waved her up. "Give it a try."
Ranma placed herself by the rock. Remembering what Ataru just did to scan out the energy within the granite, she infused a little ki energy into the rock. The lines on the rock returned. "Okay, where do I aim?" she asked.
He pointed. "Look for the largest cluster of intersecting lines."
She saw that, nodding. "Alright, here I go!"
She pulled back her finger, concentrating her ki, and then . . .
The rock exploded. Ataru blinked before whistling. "Man, when Onee-chan told me what sort of learning prodigy you are, Ranma, she was NOT kidding!"
Ranma laughed. "Thanks!" she gushed with a smile, an impish look crossing her face before she went misty-eyed on Ataru.
He blinked as she seemed to freeze for a moment, the smile and the sparkle in her eyes not fading. "Ranma, what's wrong?" he asked.
She blinked as confusion crossed her face for a moment. Looking nowhere in particular, she then stared at him. "I . . .!" She blinked before shaking her head. "Um . . .!" Her voice stopped, and then she looked away. "Er, if I told you something that I thought was embarrassing or anything, Ataru, you'd keep it to yourself, wouldn't you? I mean, I . . .!" She shrugged.
"Ranma, we might've only met on Saturday, but you ARE my friend," Ataru affirmed. "I'd think it'd be raw for me to say stuff like that to anyone. However, if I felt you were in any danger, physical or psychological, I would see it as my responsibility AS your friend to speak to those who could help. On that list are Onee-chan, Chikage and maybe Sakuya and Haruka. If you don't like that even in those situations, it's no problem. But I hope you'd understand that I WOULD, in those cases, always have your best interest in mind, Ranma."
She took that in before her smile returned. "Thank you," she said as a decision, one with long-term impact, flashed in her eyes.
"You okay?" he asked.
"I . . . " She bit her lip before walking up.
Ataru remained in place as Ranma leaned up against him. She drew her arms around his waist. He blinked for a second as she leaned her head on his chest, a content sigh escaping her. Ataru then reached up to gently cradle her shoulder with one hand, his other reaching up to gently ruffle her hair. Ranma stiffened before she remembered that a hug was normally a two-person affair.
"First time hugging another man in this body?" he wondered.
She nodded. "Yeah. It feels . . . " A pause. "Really nice."
"Believe me, it feels that way here, too," he mused before he turned to gaze down at her. "Ranma, do you think you can do me . . .?" He stopped before gazing at her. "Actually do yourself a big favour?"
She looked up at him. "What?"
"Would you spend a little time with Sakuya-chan?"
Confusion crossed her face. "Why?"
"Because there are certain . . .!" He paused. "Well, there are certain things you need to know about the body you possess now. Like I told you sometime ago -- and I'm pretty sure Tampopo-chan might've told you this too when you were out with her -- you might have to live with this body for the rest of your life. Hell, there might come a time that you'll get stuck as a girl again, like what Elder Kelun and that Herb guy did to you."
"I learned things from Kasumi when Herb froze me with the Chiisui-ton."
He nodded. "Yeah, but something tells me you got a very abridged version of what you have to know, Ranma. Hell, what you DESERVE to know, especially after what Genma's done to you over the years. Do you really think you can live your life based on all the lies he gave you?"
"Of course not . . .!" she blurted before catching herself. A sly grin then crossed her face. "You are a slick one, Moroboshi Ataru."
He winked, moving to pull away. "Always have been, Ranma . . . "
He froze, allowing Ranma to sink in again against him. "Sorry," she whispered, that content smile again crossing her face. "I just want to experience this for a little while more, Ataru. Do you mind?"
"No. Friends hug each other. Guys do it all the time, especially if they're enjoying doing something together as a team. Or as a partnership."
She perked. "They DO?! Then why didn't Oyaji tell ME that?"
He shook his head. "I really can't answer that. And something tells me he won't be able to answer that even if you pound him into the dirt trying to get a truthful answer from him. Ignore what he told you, okay? You're not gonna be able to live YOUR life looking back at him."
She considered that before nodding. "Yeah, I guess I've been doing that even after I started finding out about all the crap he pulled on U-chan and everyone else . . . " She paused, blinking. "I'll be damned."
"What is it?"
"That's the first time I called her 'U-chan' in six weeks."
"Maybe deep in your heart, you're forgiving her."
"But how do I approach her now, Ataru? I want my friend back. I don't want her as a fiancée. I'm tired of that!"
"I don't blame you, Ranma. But I don't think I can answer that. You know, before the Second Tag Race, when I heard you had all the fiancées and all that, I thought, 'Lucky guy! Wish I was like that!'"
She laughed. "Trust me, Ataru! You don't want MY luck!"
He smirked. "Right. Want to get back to rock-breaking?"
"Yeah, okay." She sighed. "Ataru?"
"If I asked you to hug me again, will you do it?"
"Sure thing." He nodded. "Ranma?"
"Call Ukyou tonight. Tell her what you feel. Don't try to turn it into an argument, okay? I think she can use it."
"But what if she goes into the 'You're my fiancée' routine again?"
"THEN you're entitled to be angry."
* * *
With Ranma's help, the rocks were done away with. Ataru then used the Air-Whirlpool Heat-Fire Strike to send the debris into deeper water. Both clambered back to shore. After stopping for some nikuman at a roadside yatai, they made their way back to Welcome House. By then, Sakuya, Toshiko and Kumiko had returned from shopping at the market. Ranma was stunned to discover that her mirror-twins had gone out to buy some button shirts and designer slacks for her. Given that Toshiko and Ranma had the same measurements, the former was able to get some sports bras and plain cotton panties for her template, thus allowing Ranma to forego her normal boxer shorts and muscle shirts.
At first, the mirror-twins were worried that Ranma might resist wearing girl's undergarments even if she seemed more at ease with herself than she had been just two months before when Toshiko and Komakichi/Kumiko first emerged from Mirror Mansion. Ranma surprised them. While she normally wore boxers because they gave her privates room when her curse was triggered, she was locked as a girl for the time being. So there would be no worries. Further, when she was modelling, Ranma had been prodded by Tampopo to try wearing bras and panties. Over time, Ranma had become, if not totally comfortable with such clothing, understanding of how useful they were with a girl's body.
After a lunch where Shirayuki did NOT have to yell at Ranma for eating too fast, everyone was off to Stargazer West College for the piano recital hosted by the senior classes. To Ranma's shock and Karen's embarrassment, Toshiko and Kumiko decided to wear cherry blossom-decorated kimonos for the occasion. To the sisters' annoyance, Ranma's mirth and Ataru's embarrassment, the mirror-twins didn't waste ten seconds before they were hanging off his arms, doing their best to win his attention in an obviously more than friendly way. Fortunately, Ataru did his best to keep Toshiko and Kumiko entertained without giving them too much of a false impression, positive or negative.
The recital was meant to demonstrate students' skills with classical music. They could, if they so desired, explore more modern music as long as it was centred on the piano. Karen's best friend in class, Takasu Koji, started the recital with a wonderful version of Sergei Rachmaninoff's Rhapsody on a Theme by Paganini. Next was Koji's girlfriend, Niibori Yukari, who played the Tempo di Menuetto from Ludwig van Beethoven's Eighth Symphony. Several others came after, they performing tunes whose titles Ranma didn't catch.
And then came Karen.
"This song I'm going to play today was written a few years ago," she announced after being called up to the stage. "This song's composer is a favourite of my brother's. I taught myself to perform the composer's music after Onii-chan first came to the Island." Her eyes fell on Ataru. "To that end, I dedicate this not just to Onii-chan, but to his wonderful new friend, who's also here with us today. Onii-chan, Onee-chan, ladies and gentlemen . . .!" She bowed. "I give you The End of August, by Yanni Chrysomallis."
Karen sat down at the piano and began to play. Near the piano, Yukari positioned herself with a violin to accompany her friend. Watching her, Ranma felt her eyes tear as the beautiful melody surged through her heart. She quickly noted Ataru's sister was not really paying attention to the sheet music set up before her, the clear mark of someone who had put in a lot of practice at the keyboard. Ranma glanced at Ataru, he seated beside her (Toshiko and Kumiko sat to his other side and behind him respectively). He blinked, glancing at her. Reaching over, he gently grasped her hand to squeeze it. Ranma smiled as she turned back to Karen, not pulling her hand away from Ataru's.
The song ended. Everyone applauded. Karen stood to give the crowd a bow. To her surprise and delight, Ranma and Ataru were on their feet, giving her a standing ovation. Blushing, she gave them both a deep bow before taking up her music and returning to where her classmates were seated.
* * *
The recital soon ended. Everyone headed into the cafeteria to enjoy some snacks before going home. "So which one did you like the best, Onee-sama?" Sakuya asked Ranma as the gang from the House sat around a couple of tables.
A shrug rolled her shoulders. "I'm not sure what to say about that, Sakuya-chan. I mean, I've never listened to classical music . . .! -- Heck, classical? ANY music! -- so I couldn't really judge them by the songs. But I could tell that Koji and Yukari both have a natural talent for the piano."
"How?" Rinrin wondered.
"It's the way they moved their hands." Ranma held up her fingers. "There wasn't any sort of hesitation when they moved from key to key. Being as well trained as I am in the Art, I can tell the difference between those who're born to do something and those who've had to work hard to get to that level. Karen-chan's that way. How long has she played?"
"Since she was eight, I believe," Haruka mused.
"Well, I can see a very small amount of hesitation when she goes from key to key." Ranma held up her thumb and index finger, a minuscule space between them. "Most likely, that'll fade, but it's there. It's not to say that she did bad. I liked that song a lot. And I could tell that she poured her heart out in it. And . . . " She then paused, blinking before she wiped her eyes.
Hinako gently tugged Ranma's sleeve. "Onee-tama, why are you crying?"
The martial artist blinked before she gave the youngest sister a smile. "I'm okay, Hinako-chan. I'm just very envious of Karen-chan right now."
"Why?" Yotsuba asked.
She gazed on the detective. "Because when she expresses her love through music, she doesn't hurt anyone. When I used to express my feelings for those I cared for, it always was in some big fight against jokers like those clowns from Nekonron or Saffron or Herb or what-have-you. When I did that, I ended up hurting someone. That's kind of an ugly way to show your love, isn't it?"
"Perhaps, Ane-kun, it is time for you to consider a career change," Chikage then mused. "As you are right now, do you see yourself running a doojou to perpetuate your school of martial arts?" An eyebrow arched. "Do you see yourself dedicating ALL your life to the Art as you once did?"
Ranma considered that before shaking her head. "No."
The sorceress reached into her jersey to draw out a tarot card. "Then now would be the time to learn what else you can do."
Everyone looked. "The Fool?" Ranma asked. "What does that mean?"
"In the Tarot, this is the first card of the deck," Chikage explained. "One of the ways it can be interpreted is that the person it represents is about to start on a new path in his or her life. Every time I've done a reading on you, Ane-kun, this card has ALWAYS shown up. As has this one."
She reached into her tunic to draw out a second card. Yotsuba looked via her spyglass. "The Three of Wands," she reported.
"What does that one say, Chikage?" Ranma asked.
"It's time for you to step back and take a long look at everything and everyone affecting your life. It's time for you to ask yourself what's really important in your life. You're determined to take your life onto a new direction. To go out and explore what you've missed before, either because of non-interest or fear. You're willing to trust those you will meet in the future with the same openness you've shown before . . . " She held up the Fool. "But this time, you've come to accept that you will face disappointments and potential failures." She held up the Three of Wands. "Your life's adventure isn't over yet, Ane-kun. It's about to become far more interesting."
She put the cards away. "I don't know if I should be content or scared." Ranma then gazed warily at Ataru. "What do you think?"
He chuckled. "I'd rather not answer that one."
"Those are the same two cards Chikage-chan showed Ani-chama two weeks ago," Yotsuba helpfully chimed in, holding up a finger.
Everyone laughed.
* * *
"You wish to speak to Ranma?"
"Of course, Negako-san." Nodoka sat across from Negako in the living room of the old shrine. Chigaiko had gone to Tampopo's. "He is my son. I've been separated from him for ten years. I do want to try to make up that time."
The grandmaster's eyes narrowed as she crossed her arms. "Much that I understand why, as Ranma's mother, you would desire to re-forge an emotional bond with her, there is something that concerns me." A pause. "What are your own family's intentions towards her? Specifically your father's intentions?"
Nodoka jolted, her eyes widening in shock before they drooped to the floor. "H-how . . .?" she sputtered. "How did you know . . .?"
"Your ki signature is an open book to me," Negako chided as if she was speaking to an ignorant child. "Your maiden name is Asagaya. Your family hails from Oomiya in Saitama Prefecture. In fact, some members of your family erroneously look upon Miyamoto Musashi as a distant relative."
Silence fell as Ranma's mother considered her host's words. "Yes, I am of that family. Or rather, I was until I married Genma . . . "
"Someone your father and almost all your siblings viewed as nothing short of burakumin, did they not?" Negako pressed.
Nodoka bowed her head. "Yes." Tears brimmed in her eyes. "He wasn't like that when he was younger, Negako-san. He was . . . " She paused. "A more decent man. A kind and caring man. Someone who was willing to help those in need. That's the way I saw Genma. My sister Hisayo understood my feelings. Father . . . " She paused again as her lips twisted into a frown. "Did not."
"And when they discovered you had conceived Ranma beyond the bounds of a marriage, they forced you to marry Genma, and then they expelled you from their family because of your . . . " Here, Negako paused as she sought out the right words before she wryly smiled. "Moment of overwhelming lust, shall we say?" Seeing Nodoka reluctantly nod, she continued, "But Hisayo strongly disagreed with Isao's stance against your marriage to Genma. So, atop the 'allowance' Isao paid you to remain clear of your relatives, Hisayo secretly supported you when Genma was taking Ranma on their training trip. And still desires to support you now in spite of the fact that Isao now knows of her actions."
Nodoka slowly nodded. "H-hai. Father told Onee-chan that if I was to be openly welcomed back, I'd have to divorce Genma. And believe me; I am ready to do that after what you told me yesterday about what he did to Ranma. If Ranma himself is to be welcomed into my family, I'd have to make my son agree to renounce the Saotome name. I can certainly support that. If Ranma does that, then all the agreements Genma forced on him would no longer be valid. I'm sure that Ukyou-chan's father could agree with that at least!"
"Do you realise WHY Isao wants that now, Nodoka?"
Ranma's mother blinked. "I don't understand . . . "
Negako smirked. It was a thoroughly menacing sight. "Do you believe Isao would accept Ranma as part of his family after he rejected Genma when you wed? No. He views Ranma in much the same way as many others have come to view her over the last two years. Not as a person, but as a prize. A living icon of martial arts supremacy. All under your father's control and influence." The smile faded. "I believe Ranma has forcefully expressed her stance about those who see her as a thing instead of a person, Nodoka."
Nodoka sputtered. "But . . . "
Negako shook her head. "No, Nodoka. If it is financial security you seek for Ranma, it will not come from Isao or your siblings. Yes, the Asagaya family is well off. But divide that wealth between Ranma and your nephews and nieces, all of those your older brothers' children. I do not believe there will be that much left over. And would either Ryuuzuke or Ichihara truly desire to see part of their inheritance taken away to support Ranma?" A pause before Negako icily smiled, she shaking her head again. "I do not think so."
"But still . . . "
"No, Nodoka. You agreed with me yesterday that Ranma should strive to become a 'gentle person,' one who is as much master of her own destiny as Fate will allow. If you try to force Ranma to submit to your plan, all that work will be for naught. Further, I believe Ranma will not submit to Isao's whim, especially when she learns of what Isao did to you. I wonder what Ranma might do if she learns how your brothers abused you while you were growing up. What might she do to them if she learns how Ryuuzuke and Ichihara view you now? How much they will strive to suppress you once you are again within their reach?"
"But Ranma needs a place to belong, Negako-san! Surely you can understand that, can't you?!" Nodoka pleaded.
"Yes, I can understand that. But will Ranma?"
Nodoka sighed. "He will when I explain it to him."
"Then ensure you explain ALL to her, Nodoka," Negako ordained. "For if you do not, I WILL tell her everything. After all . . . " A pause. "As her teacher, I have a duty and a responsibility to ensure her welfare, do I not?"
Nodoka gazed on the grandmaster, nodding. "H-hai."
* * *
The meeting was soon concluded. Nodoka took her leave to return back to her rebuilt home. Negako watched her go from the front porch, her eyes narrow. "It may have been better if you never re-entered her life, Nodoka," she grimly whispered before speaking up, "You overheard, Happy?"
"Everything." Happoosai slipped out from the shadows, he gazing in the direction Nodoka had gone. "I can't believe that even after all this time, Isao's angry at me because I stole Nana-chan's underwear and made love to her once!" He crossed his arms. "And he believes he can try to take MY Art under his control?! Hah! He can damn hell think again!"
Negako sighed. "You should learn to control your urges more, Happy," she gently scolded, turning to head inside the old shrine.
Happoosai nodded before bounding off on his rounds. Negako then stopped, glancing over her shoulder. Closing her eyes, she sighed. "If only you knew what your seduction of Nana led to, Happy. If only you knew."
* * *
"Holy . . .!" Ranma gasped. "Rinrin-chan, you built THIS?!"
"Hai!" Rinrin grinned, standing beside her scratch-built submersible, the Plato-Mecha Number Four. With the sun setting, work spotlights had been flipped on. Rinrin had been working on the port turbojet when Ranma came from the House. "I'm getting her ready for a trial after putting in modifications and extra gear. Might take her out tomorrow if the weather's good."
Ranma blinked before she gave the Plato-Mecha a detailed look-over. "She's impressive," she stated, noting the bubble cockpit with its side-by-side chairs. "Ataru told me you loved to make things, but until I saw the Aniki Special and Mecha-Rinrin, I thought they'd be simple stuff. Not THIS!"
Ranma waved to the submersible. "Well, one of the Island's industries IS equipment recycling," the teen inventor noted. "Even the Self-Defence Forces send a lot of their surplus stuff our way; that's how I was able to build the Plato-Mecha." Rinrin waved to her creation. "At least now, thanks to a special fund Aniki set up for me, we've got a navigation system, GPS, radar, sonar and everything else we can use to cruise around the Sagami Sea."
"Really?" Ranma then blinked. "Oh, yeah, I forgot." She snapped her fingers. "Shirayuki-chan's got supper ready."
Rinrin nodded. "Okay!"
She policed the work area, ensuring no fire hazard was left behind. Once done, she fell in beside Ranma as they headed to Welcome House. "Say, Aneki, if we go tomorrow, why don't you come with us?" Rinrin gazed on the martial artist. "It'd be good for you to get some fresh air. We can even show you the cottage where we got conceived!" she added with a wink, holding up a finger.
Ranma gazed quizzically at Rinrin. "Huh? What do you mean?"
"Aneki, don't you know anything about how children are born?!"
"Um . . . well, it's . . .!" Ranma flustered before sighing. "No."
Rinrin stared at the martial artist before crossing her arms. "You mean to tell me that even with all the crap your dad and all those goofs dropped on you to make you marry Akane, you were NEVER told about the birds and the bees?!" On seeing Ranma nod, she exhaled, "Didn't your mom ever tell you?!"
A weak shrug responded. "No, not really . . .!"
Rinrin shook her head. By this time, both were on the main path back to Welcome House. "Oh, geez! I've heard of dysfunctional families, but THIS takes the cake!" She looked at Ranma. "Aneki, you BETTER go have a LONG talk with Sakuya-chan about this! Trust me, you'll NEED it!"
Ranma gazed on her. "That's what your brother said to me earlier today when we were breaking rocks on the east side."
"Really?" She made an approving nod. "Good thing Aniki said that to you. Trust me, Aneki! If you're going to have a happy life from now on, especially with your curse, you BETTER know this stuff!"
"I . . .!" A pause. "Y-yeah! Hey, can you tell me something? If you guys know about my curse and all that, why the heck are you all calling me 'big sister' all the time?! You know I'm a boy, don't you?!"
Rinrin jolted before she looked away, twirling her fingers. She KNEW the truth about what was happening to the person beside her -- or rather, she knew what Chikage and Negako predicted WOULD happen to Ranma if the latter made certain decisions in the immediate future. Taking a breath, she stared at the House. "Y-yeah, I know that. And I saw you transform back at Tampopo-san's place, but . . . " She paused, sighing. "I dunno. I mean, it's not that I want to insult you, but I really look on you -- and I think I'm speaking for everyone else, too -- as a girl, not a guy. Besides, what's wrong with being a girl, anyway? I know you were born a guy and all that, but with your ability to change now, you got a chance to see things in a whole different way. You really ought to take advantage of it. I know you're not the type to go crazy about it like some guys might if they had that sort of curse, but . . . "
"But Akane always said that doing that sorta thing's perverted . . .!"
Rinrin's eyebrow arched. "Oh?! And who the heck makes that girl the world expert on what's perverted and what's not, Aneki?! Who the heck makes that girl the expert on what YOU feel and why?! Well?"
Ranma blinked as she looked nowhere in particular while they passed under the gateway to Welcome House. "Yeah, you got a point, but still . . . "
"But nothing! Look, have you seen yourself nude as a girl?!"
"All the time!"
"So what's Akane's problem? She's not the one who has to live with that curse! YOU do! She's got no right to force you to conform to what she thinks is proper, ESPECIALLY now that you've told her to take a hike finally! And if she thinks she can force you into doing something she wants, you've got a right to break every bone in her body if that's what it takes to make her get lost!"
"I . . . " Ranma paused, shaking her head. "I don't want to do something like THAT to her, Rinrin-chan! It's not right . . .!"
"Okay! Okay! It's not right then! But it's not right for her to keep treating you like crap, either!" Rinrin protested.
"Yeah, you're right. I . . . " She blinked on hearing a fiddle from Ataru's room. "Hey, what the . . .?" She slowed down. "Is that Ataru?"
"Yeah, it is. I know the song, too," Rinrin declared before singing:
The sun is sinking low in the sky above Ashokan;
The pines and the willows know soon we will part.
There's a whisper in the wind of promises unspoken
And a love that will always remain in my heart.
My thoughts will return to the sound of your laughter,
The magic of moving as one.
And a time we'll remember long ever after
The moonlight and music and dancing are done.
Will we climb the hills once more?
Will we walk the woods together?
Will I feel you holding me close once again?
Will every song we've sung stay with us forever?
Will you dance in my dreams or my arms until then?
Under the moon the mountains lie sleeping,
Over the lake, the stars shine.
They wonder if you and I will be keeping
The magic and music, or leave them behind.
Will we climb the hills once more?
Will we walk the woods together?
Will I feel you holding me close once again?
Will every song we've sung stay with us forever?
Will you dance in my dreams or my arms until then?
Under the moon the mountains lie sleeping,
Over the lake the stars shine.
They wonder if you and I will be keeping
The magic and music, or leave them behind.
The sun is sinking low in the sky above Ashokan;
The pines and the willows know soon we will part.
There's a whisper in the wind of promises unspoken
And a love that will always remain in my heart.
My thoughts will return to the sound of your laughter,
The magic of moving as one.
And a time we'll remember -- long ever after
The moonlight and music and dancing are done.
By then, both had arrived at the rotunda's main doors. "I didn't know he played the fiddle," Ranma mused. "Where'd he learn?"
"When he and Negako-aneki were training in a special place called 'Sanctuary,'" Rinrin explained as they headed into the dining room. "Aneki taught Aniki how to play the violin and the saxophone, too."
"I just wish he didn't play that damned song," Sakuya muttered from her place at the table as Rinrin and Ranma sat down.
Ranma stared at her. "Why? That was an okay song!"
"'Okay?!'" Sakuya snapped. "It makes Onii-sama CRY! Some 'okay!'"
"Ani-kun needs the chance to let the pain in his heart go, Sakuya-chan."
Eyes turned to Chikage as the sorceress took her place at the table. The sisters gave her knowing looks. "There's something you're not telling us about what Anii did when he was with Anee, Chikage-chan. Is there?" Mamoru asked.
Before Chikage could answer, the doors opened, revealing Ataru. "Hi, everyone," he hailed as he took his place at the head of the table.
The others were quick to notice his downcast mood. "Onii-chan, are you alright?" Karen gently probed as Shirayuki wheeled in dinner.
"Not really," he admitted. "I just got a call from Reigi-kun. The Yamaguchis won't claim either Kinshou's or Muchi's ashes."
Silence fell over the room. The sisters looked down on their plates. "So what will we do now, Anigimi-sama?" Haruka asked.
He sighed. "Rinrin, is the Plato-Mecha ready to go?"
"Um . . . " Rinrin paused before reporting, "I just need to do some final adjustments on the portside impeller. It should take me a couple hours to finish that. Then I can get Jii-san to put her in the water."
"Alright, then. Do that and tomorrow morning, we'll take her out and bury the ashes in the trenches east of the Island, okay?"
Rinrin nodded. "Okay."
"Don't they deserve to be buried like other people?" Ranma asked. "Ataru, even if you did reject them, they deserve . . . "
He gave her a weary look, making Ranma stop. Seeing the guilt cross her face, he moved to moderate. "It's not your fault, Ranma."
"But still . . . "
"It has to be done this way, Ane-kun."
Eyes locked on Chikage. "Why?" Ranma wondered.
"Because our clan's doors have always been open to those who need our protection -- a hearth fire, a family to embrace them and make them feel welcome, even a close friend to provide a shoulder to lay one's head on -- we grossly frown on any act that seeks to isolate one of us from the rest of the Clan. That is what Kinshou did to Ani-kun five years ago. That is what she could've tried to do to us had she learned of us. Is that right? Is it honourable to isolate someone like that, especially because of greed?"
Ranma sighed. "No, not really, I guess."
"Kaho would've wanted to know Kaho's father," Kaho said. "But what was Kaho's father like? Why did he let Onii-chama be hurt like that? Onii-chama did the right thing letting Negako-oneechama out of Onii-chama's head. Why couldn't he understand? Why didn't he stand up to his wife? Why did he go along with his wife and sell Onii-chama off to Lum? Why, Onee-chama?"
The transformed martial artist nodded.
* * *
"Damn that Oyaji!"
Sakuya stared at Ranma. "I'm sorry, Onee-sama," the former apologised as she placed a hand on Ranma's shoulder. Both were in Ranma's guestroom on the third floor, they having spent the last two hours there. Toshiko and Kumiko had gone off with Ataru to see the sights around the Island. "I mean, we all guessed your dad was a lunkhead, but I'd believe that if he wanted you to marry this Akane girl, he should've given you some warning . . . "
Ranma rose, shaking her head before she stared out the window at Welcome House's courtyard. "Yeah, I know," she replied before her eyes turned to gaze down at her own stomach. "I can't believe it. I mean, I never really sat back and thought about it. I . . . " Her hand fell on her navel. "I can create a life here if I wanted to. I . . . " A shaky breath escaped her. "Oh, man!"
"Yeah, it's really something, isn't it?" Sakuya noted as she stood up to stand beside Ranma. "And your dad always said 'women are weak?' What a dork! He doesn't know anything at all, does he?"
A snort. "More like he doesn't CARE!" Ranma spat out.
"Are you okay, Onee-sama?"
Ranma shook her head. "I dunno. You know, ever since I got to Nerima and got deluged by the fiancée business, I've always wondered what it was about. I mean, Ukyou and Shanpú say they love me. But right now, I don't understand what love is. I don't think I ever really did understand it even with what I said during the fight against Saffron and I thought that Akane was dying! And they expected me to get married, raise kids?! How do you do that?!"
Sakuya patted Ranma's shoulder. "Onee-sama, you're seventeen! You don't have to worry about kids. Most people these days wait until they're thirty to get married. Some don't even bother with marriage when you get down to it."
"Yeah, but it was honour . . . " Ranma's voice trailed off for a moment. "Well, it WAS honour. Now . . . I just don't know."
"Well, let's go to the basics, then." Sakuya guided her back to the bed before she sat in a rocking chair nearby. "What is love?"
"I don't know. Or at least, I can't describe it in words right now."
"Okay." Sakuya held up four fingers. "For you to say you love someone and to build a relationship with that someone, you need four things. They are Truth," -- she dropped one finger -- "Trust," -- down went the second -- "Respect," -- the third -- "And Hope." She made a fist with her hand.
"Now, Truth." Up went a finger. "You didn't start off right because you met Akane as a girl and you didn't consider revealing the truth until she walked in on you in the furo at her house. Then, everything your dad kept from you piled on. Since you weren't shown the truth about how to interact with people, you had no clear way to navigate yourself out of that particular mess, right?"
Ranma nodded. "Right."
"Next comes Trust." Sakuya held up a second finger. "Akane assumed right from when she first found out about your curse that you were nothing more than a pervert. She didn't change that basic viewpoint no matter how much you tried to explain things to her. Put simply, she never trusted you. Trust, like Truth, is a two-way street to make a relationship work. So, it comes to the point where you no longer trust Akane to believe you. Even after you had to KILL someone to save her life, she still doesn't trust you.
"Then Respect." Up went a third finger. "Since Akane doesn't trust you, she feels she has no cause to respect you. She can't accept you're the better martial artist because you always let her into your guard and she got away with braining you with that mallet. In fact, she doesn't even respect your Art since no one's forced her to see that you have to WORK to gain a skill, right?"
"Okay, then. You know if you want to learn something, you have to work and work at it to get it right. Akane doesn't know that. She can't bring herself to accept that." A pause. "You want to know something, Onee-sama? Akane can't respect you because she doesn't really respect herself!"
Ranma blinked. "Yeah, that's true, isn't it?"
"Yeah." Sakuya put up the fourth finger. "Now, Hope. Tell me something, Onee-sama? Can you see yourself sometime in the future, married to Akane, raising your children, living with Akane until the day you finally die? Can you really imagine that deep in your heart?"
A long pause, and then Ranma shook her head. "Not anymore."
Sakuya shrugged. "Then there's no love between you. And unless those things change, there could never be any love between you."
Ranma gazed at her, nodding.
* * *
On the southwest side of the island, there was a seashore house built on poles hooding a cove, the house resting on a cliff. The cove was bisected with a dock for small boats. Standing on the porch overlooking the beach spread out to one side of the house, Ataru sipped a snifter of spring water. Footsteps heralded the arrival of the mirror-twins from inspecting the interior. "Well?"
Toshiko and Kumiko exchanged a look. "We like it," the former declared. "Still, don't you think it's queer to let us make use of the same house your sisters were conceived in? What do your sisters think of this place?"
"Nice place to visit, especially come summer vacation, but the House has more conveniences, not to mention individual rooms." He set the snifter aside before relaxing against the rail, turning to gaze out to sea. "Here, there's not that much room. It's a vacation cottage. Great for one or two people or maybe a small family, but not fourteen people or more."
"What about you?" Kumiko wondered.
"Even with the work I've done since I came here, I'm still getting used to all this wealth Grandma left behind. I guess one of the few good things being with Muchi and Kinshou taught me is how to not put so much value on money. I wasn't born to the rich life like Mendou. Neither were the girls. I think after it all gets ironed out, we'll be letting go of a lot of things."
"Like this place." Toshiko looked around, and then she nodded. "Well, if you're willing to let us live here, we'll move in right away. I just hope that you and Ranma will consent to come live on the Island full-time real soon. I'm sure your sisters would gladly want you back . . . "
Kumiko crossed her arms. "And I'm pretty sure Ranma would like to get away from those morons in Nerima once and for all," she added.
"Soon as Onee-chan finishes fixing Ranma up, I'll pop an invitation to her to come here full-time," Ataru said. "I suppose by then, some solution to Ranma's fiancée problem will be worked out. With that done, she's got nothing hanging over her head, so she can concentrate on the college exams."
The mirror-twins stared quizzically at their host. Kumiko then walked up to relax beside Ataru, Toshiko shifting to his other side. "Ataru-kun, can I ask you something?" the former wondered as she gazed on him. "How much do you know about Jusenkyou and how it's affected Ranma?"
Ataru picked up the flute. "I know in Ranma's case, the full effects haven't sunk in. Mostly that's because of the mental damage she took when that fool Genma forced her to learn the Neko-ken. Why are you asking, Kumiko-chan?"
"And your sisters? Do they know this?" Toshiko added.
He looked at her before nodding. "Yes." He then sipped some water. "I take it that whatever explanation you gave Ranma about you being frozen as a girl wasn't the whole truth. Was it?" He glanced at Kumiko.
The raven-haired mirror-twin nodded. "Hai, it wasn't the whole truth. I would've told her the truth if the Jusenkyou guide hadn't let slip what really happened to Ranma when she and Genma went there."
He nodded. "When you fell into the Niángniquán, Kumiko-chan, how long was it before you initially transformed back?"
"Truthfully, I didn't wait. When I jumped out of the pool, my sense of balance was thrown off because of the change. I tripped and smacked my head on a rock beyond the pools." Kumiko flustered. "I was out of it for about ten minutes. Toshiko didn't want to move me from where I fell, so the guide went off to get some hot water. By the time he came back to me, it was too late. With general human-based curses, the basic mental changes only need five minutes to take full effect." She deeply inhaled. "Then again, I WAS born of a magical mirror whose underlying spirit was female." A shrug. "So maybe Jusenkyou DID 'set me right' when I fell into that pond."
"When we talked to the guide about it, he always wondered why it didn't take affect on Ranma like it did to you, Kumiko," Toshiko added, and then she frowned. "So how could the Neko-ken interfere with that? The guide said that Ranma didn't change back for almost twenty minutes . . . "
"The Neko-ken's not just a physical art form. It's also a spiritual thing," Ataru said. "Remember, the dorks who created it wanted to infuse a Neko-ken student with not just the physical attack skills of a cat, but its fighting spirit. That's all up here . . . " He pointed to his head, and then his heart. "And here, too. And since Ranma was a boy when she first learned the Neko-ken, the cat-spirit that was formed inside her was a male spirit. Suddenly, you force something like Zhòuquán-xiang on top of that and . . . "
He shuddered. "So the Neko-ken spirit and the Nyanniichuan spirit have been trying to fight for control of Ranma?" Kumiko wondered.
He nodded. "Subconsciously, yes. At least, that's the way Onee-chan sees it. Think about it. Why is it Ranma's such a water magnet all the time, both hot and cold? Yeah, that's typical of most victims of that place, but according to what Onee-chan divined from Ranma's ki, it's ESPECIALLY true with her. And Onee-chan found out that in most times whenever the Neko-ken madness overcame Ranma, it was when she was male. How did she usually snap out of it?" An eyebrow arched. "People dunked her in water and transformed her into a girl."
The mirror-twins sighed before gazing on Ataru. "Was that why Tampopo-san asked Negako-san to come look at Ranma?" Kumiko asked.
"Hai. Tampopo-chan doesn't have Onee-chan's knowledge base when it comes to martial arts, but she could tell that something was REALLY off with Ranma. I'm just amazed at myself that I was able to pick up what else happened."
Toshiko scowled. "Stupid panda."
Ataru made a dismissive wave with his hand. "Forget him. He's harmless. Right now, the big thing is figuring out how to break this to Ranma."
Kumiko shook her head. "The sooner the better, I think."
"Maybe. I've hesitated in saying anything because Ranma's got enough on her plate," Ataru admitted. "But still . . . "
The mirror-twins nodded.
* * *
Ranma sighed as she walked along the southeast seashore of Promised Island. A full moon had just appeared, its reflected sunlight creating eerie shadows in the small town beyond the curve of Stargazer Hill. Her right hand was held up, the fingers going up and down as she ran through what Sakuya told her earlier, applying it to everyone else she knew back in Nerima.
"Ukyou?" Ranma extended the fingers. "Well, I tell her the truth all the time of how I feel. She tells me the truth of how she feels. But the messages never really got across. She's my friend. Is she? I trust her . . . " She dropped the middle finger. "Well, I trusted her until the wedding when she decided to throw bombs at Mom. I respect her, but she really doesn't respect my opinions, so that's out." Down went the ring finger. "And I can't imagine marrying her. I still see her as my buddy from when we were kids. I guess that means I don't respect her, either." Down went the little finger. "And since she don't respect me and I really don't respect her, she can't understand what I'm telling her. Truth is out." She dropped the index finger.
"Shanpú?" Out went the four fingers. "She often lies to me." Down went the index finger. "I can't trust her because her village laws don't allow that sorta thing. She really doesn't trust me. If she did, then she wouldn't be going hog-wild to hook me." Down went the middle finger. "I can't respect her because she doesn't respect me because I'm a man. If how she and her great-grandmother treat Mùsi is any indication, men don't have any real rights among the Nujiézú." Down went the ring finger. "I sure as hell can't see myself living with her in that village and I KNOW she can't imagine living anywhere else outside the village. So hope is out." She lowered her little finger.
"Kodachi?" Out went the fingers. They then collapsed. "Forget it."
"Kasumi?" Out went the fingers. "She knows the truth . . . " Ranma then shook her head as her fist closed up. "Nah! I can't think of marrying someone I sorta look on like a big sister! It ain't right. Besides, she can't really want to stay on as a housewife! It ain't fair to her. And I don't want to really deal with that idiot father of hers anymore.
"Nabiki?" Out went the fingers. Ranma then shuddered. "She doesn't tell me the truth. She doesn't trust me. She sure as hell doesn't respect me. And I think I'd rather commit seppuku than marry her . . . "
"There is one more, Ane-kun."
Ranma spun around to see Chikage standing behind her, the latter dressed in a flowing, black lace-up gown trimmed in red-and-silver laurel. "Chikage-chan!" Ranma gasped before she calmed herself. "Shit! Don't DO that to me!"
The sorceress chuckled apologetically. "I'm sorry, Ane-kun. But in sensing your mood, I felt you'd desire a little company."
"I . . . " She sighed. "Um, thanks! I . . . " She looked at her hand. No doubt, Chikage knew what was bothering her. "I guess I got no one, eh?"
"There is someone else you might consider, Ane-kun."
"Who?! One of you?" Ranma quipped.
Chikage smirked, shaking her head. "No, someone else."
"Negako?!" Ranma asked, shuddering. "Uh-uh! No than- . . .!"
"I was thinking of Ani-kun."
"What?!" Ranma eeped as her eyes went wide.
"Here." Chikage reached up to extend Ranma's fingers. "Humour me. Take what Sakuya-chan told you and apply it to Ani-kun."
"WHAT?!" Ranma cried out, automatically shaking her head. "Uh-uh! No way! He's a man! I'm a man, even if I'm stuck as . . .!"
Ranma's voice failed as she stared in confusion at Chikage. As far as she knew, from the way Ataru and the other sisters described her, the sorceress NEVER used the word "please" when it came to ANY request she made!
"I . . . " Ranma looked at her hand. "He tells me the truth. But . . . " A pause, and then she shook her head. "I kinda figured out that he's keeping something really BIG from me. And from all you guys, too, I guess. Is it something you know about, Chikage-chan?" Seeing her nod, Ranma breathed out, "Well, I guess that means it's gotta be bad. Really bad. I . . . " Her ring finger wavered. "Then that means he respects me. And he cares for my feelings, too, right? He . . . " A pause. "He's afraid that if I learn it, I wouldn't want to be with him anymore, right?! I . . . " Another pause. "Jeez! What would be so bad that he'd feel he'd have to do that . . .?"
"As far as I can presently discern, it was worse than your battle with Saffron," Chikage explained. "INFINITELY worse."
Ranma stared at her before she nodded. "Oh." She gazed on her hand. "And . . . " A pause. "He trusts me to understand that, doesn't he?" She blinked on seeing the middle finger waver. "He knows it's bad and that it'd totally blow my mind away, right? He WANTS to tell me . . .!" Her voice caught in her throat, and then she sighed. "But how can I make him trust me to accept what he's got to say? I just can't walk up and . . . " Another pause, her index finger wavering. "I can, can't I? Or maybe he can't tell it because he doesn't know what to say! Yeah, I can understand that . . .!" Her voice trailed off, her eyes locked on her little finger.
The one finger that had not moved at all.
"I . . . " Ranma blinked. "I want his friendship. I like being with him. I can trust him in case we get into a fight. If what happened on Monday meant anything, we'd be perfect partners. He pretty much told me today that he wants to be my partner, too. I trust him. And to trust him, I have to respect him. And I told him the truth about me and he's pretty much done the same about himself. Yeah! Yeah! I can do that. Then . . . " She paused. "Friendship and love are the same, right, Chikage-chan?"
"'Love' is a strange thing to comprehend even at the best of times, Ane-kun. There are different types of love depending on the situation. But in the end, it is the same. People just find it hard for whatever reason to accept that. After all, you can say that you love a friend. Just as much, as deeply, as one can love a sibling, a parent . . . " A pause. "Or a life-mate."
"But . . . " Ranma pointed to herself. "I'm a guy."
"What does your birth-gender and Ani-kun's gender have to do with love?" Chikage's eyebrow arched. "Ane-kun, there are gay couples out there who enjoy loving relationships, relationships that endure homophobic assaults from every quarter. There're lesbian couples that do the same thing. There are multi-partner groups who are in the same situation. The people involved in those relationships don't find what they do 'unusual.' They see it as a blessed thing. In light of that, do the opinions of society matter? Of course not.
"You and Ani-kun are in the same situation. And, deep in your hearts, you do not WANT to live in such a situation anymore. That is why Fate brought you together. Fate can be fickle, but sometimes, She can be kind. Especially to those who have suffered Her Wrath for as long as you and Ani-kun have."
Chikage turned away to gaze at the moon above. "You know, when he came to this island and we started to bond as a family, Ani-kun started to have nightmares. Nightmares about all the times he felt that he was totally alone in this world. About all the times Kinshou said 'I wish you were never born!' About when Miyake Shinobu left him, abandoning him so she could pursue a rich narcissist like Mendou Shuutarou. About the time he came to believe Lum could not accept a potential 'husband' who refused to bow to her every whim and desire. About the time when he allowed Negako-anekun to live her own life -- and the betrayal that followed, which ultimately killed our grandmother from a broken heart. About even the time when Nokoko-anekun disappeared after she learned that she was not Ani-kun's cousin, but his sister.
"Every time we heard him cry, it tore into our hearts. Even me." Her eyes closed, eyelashes glistening. "Even Negako-anekun. Every time we looked into his room, there she was, holding his hand. No doubt feeling guilty over what her being tricked by Kinshou five years ago had cost him, the man who gave the Saikoo Jinseijitsu her dream. And it hurt, Ane-kun. It hurt so much."
She gazed on the moon. "So I came here. Looked up. It was a full moon. I prayed. We all prayed in our chosen way. For someone to come to show Ani-kun he wasn't alone in his sufferings. And that someone could be with him. And love him. Through their shared pain, they would enjoy a shared healing." She looked at Ranma. "And thus, Fate brought you into Ani-kun's life."
Ranma blinked as Chikage stared at her. "I don't know . . . "
"It's alright to be unsure." She drew Ranma's hand up, holding it between her own hands. "But know this: You have endured considerable brain damage since you were exposed to that pit." Sensing Ranma shiver, Chikage touched a shiatsu point to calm her. "And as Negako-anekun strives to heal you, you WILL change, evolve into someone different than you were. You will evolve into a whole new being. And as you evolve . . . " Her eyes locked on Ranma's. "You will then learn Zhòuquán-xiang's most horrible secret."
Ranma stared at her before she squeezed her eyes closed. "No . . . "
"Ane-kun, how long after you first fell into the Niángniquán?" Chikage asked. "How long was it before you changed back?"
"I . . . " Ranma sucked in her breath, biting her lip. Tears began to stream down her cheeks. She didn't react. "About . . . " she began, her voice suddenly very dry. "About twenty minutes, I think. I . . . " A gulp. "I just got so angry at Oyaji for taking me into that place, totally destroying everything he made me believe and accept as the right thing . . . " A shudder shook her again as her voice started to break. "And I . . . " She blinked. "No, it was the guide. He changed Oyaji back right away, but then I lost it and went out to beat his ass. The guide couldn't do anything to me. So I didn't change back until after I got done chasing Oyaji all over the place . . . "
A sob stole her voice as Chikage moved to comfort, she shushing Ranma as she held her close. As the strength in Ranma's body faded, Chikage scooped her up, carrying her to a bench. Sitting her, Chikage allowed Ranma to remain close, the latter sobbing. Time became meaningless as Ranma wept, the words spoken at Jusenkyou by the guide repeating again in her mind . . .
** ** **
"Oh, Honoured Customer, is too late for you!"
"What?!" Ranma demanded.
The portly guide shook his head, drawing out his pipe as he stared out at the scattered ponds with their bamboo training poles. He had just poured hot water on Ranma. Genma was hiding, not wanting to deal with his child at this time. "I no tell this to you before other Honoured Customer. I think he no understand. I also think he might hurt you for thing that is not your fault."
"Zhòuquán-xiang give worse than body to those who no change back right away after falling into spring." The guide waved to the ponds. "Spirits of those who drown in springs in springs. When someone fall in, spirits of those who drown in springs also copy into that person. Like you, Honoured Customer."
Ranma deflated. "Wh-what?!" he stammered. "Y-you mean . . .?"
"I see it not happen. But it will happen, Honoured Customer. For that, I sorry. I no can tell you unless it happen. It part of my curse, see?"
"N-no . . .!"
The guide's eyes fell on the young man from Japan. Who, the guide knew, would one day become a young woman, in body AND spirit. "No cure for that, Honoured Customer. You have to change right away back to normal or else spirit's copy mix with your spirit. When that happen, you become a girl here." He pointed to his heart. "No cure for th- . . . "
Ranma turned as Genma marched towards them, both backpacks in hand. "C'mon, we're leaving! There's more training to do!"
Ranma blinked, nodding. "Right!"
** ** **
"No cure . . . "
Chikage watched as Ranma sat up, the latter wiping her eyes as she took several breaths to compose herself. "Yes," the young sorceress confirmed with a nod. "And one day soon, you will no longer DESIRE a cure. Perhaps even come to look on your birth-form with the same disgust you once looked on your cursed-form. You will think of yourself in your heart and soul as a woman. How that will affect you? Well, that is for Fate to decide. You can run from it as long as you can, Ane-kun. But there is no escape."
"Why didn't it latch on then?" Ranma wondered.
"The damage to your mind from the Neko-ken training, that supported by the abuse from all those you've fought in Nerima. Now, Ane-kun, you have a choice. And it is a difficult choice, indeed. Do you wish to live as a man? And be forever afraid of cats? Not have conscious use of the full mental capacity you were blessed with at birth? And perhaps one day confront someone who could easily manipulate you just like your father did? Or would you wish to live as a woman? Heal the wounds you've suffered from for all those years? Turn Zhòuquán-xiang's curse into a gift? A gift of freedom and control over your life? Then embrace the gift Nature gave you and ensure you remain free?"
Silence fell as Ranma considered that. A shudder raced through her as a very dim memory suddenly came forth from her subconscious mind. "I used to like c-cats . . . " she stuttered that one word which had haunted her nightmares for so long. "There was this one alley c-c-cat that lived near my house. I useta take food out to him all the time, before the trip. I . . . "
"You desired to adopt him as your pet," Chikage finished. "By the time you were taken from your mother by Genma, the cat had come to trust you very much. Then you were gone. And sadly, survival eventually demanded that he turn his attention to more vital matters as soon as he came to realise, in his own way, that you would never come back to him."
Ranma jolted, her eyes widening. "You know . . .?"
"Negako-anekun told me." A pause. "There is more to that story. Four years after you were taken away from your mother, yours and Genma's training voyage returned you to the Tokyo area. That is when Genma decided it was time for you to learn the Neko-ken. So he went far and wide, seeking out alley cats to serve as the training 'mechanism.'"
She stopped. Ranma blinked as her skin paled. "That c-c-c-cat . . .?"
"Yes, he was in the pit," Chikage confirmed with a nod. "But before he and you faced the Neko-ken, he -- along with the others -- had been starved to the point where any 'domestic' behaviour that might've been ingrained into them was eliminated. All he saw when you were lowered into that pit every time was the food wrapped around you. All he wanted was the food. He couldn't recognise you -- even if he remembered you -- because his hunger blinded him to EVERYTHING but the food. And that is what he went after. As did they all."
Silence fell anew as Ranma shuddered, fresh tears flowing down her cheeks as she hugged herself, the fear the Neko-ken had unleashed in her for so long fighting the grief she felt at a lost friend who had suffered because of her. She blinked as Chikage's hand squeezed her shoulder. She stared at the sorceress. "What happened to . . .?" Ranma asked before her voice faltered.
"Several days after you and Genma left, someone found the pit," Chikage reported. "The Humane Society was called in to investigate. Since the pit was so deep, the sides so sheer -- and the cats themselves so weak from hunger -- they couldn't crawl out to seek out fresh prey. So, being carnivores, they turned on each other. By the time they were discovered, only four were still alive. Your friend included. But because they were so weak from being starved for so long, it was then decided to humanely put them to sleep."
"No . . . "
Fresh sobs took away Ranma's voice as Chikage moved to comfort. "Hush!" she soothed. "You cannot change the past, Ane-kun. You can change the future. Seize the day, Ane-kun. Let this and all the days ahead be yours once and for all. Be free . . . " And help Ani-kun be free, too, she mentally added.
Time became meaningless again as Ranma wept. The reasons became irrelevant to the martial artist as the many mental dams holding back years of abuse, emotional neglect, even contempt, from Genma and so many others, finally shattered. Chikage remained still, her hand gently stroking Ranma's hair as the sorceress became a rock for the martial artist to cling to. Finally, Ranma's moans morphed into sniffles as a hand reached up to wipe her eyes. Straightening herself, she drew Chikage into an embrace. "Thanks."
"You needed it, Ane-kun." Chikage reached up to dry Ranma's cheeks with her thumbs before she then smirked. "What a stupid fool your father is. He doesn't begin to realise how much he's ultimately failed. Not just you, but his friend and Souun's children, not to mention his wife."
A blink. "You mean about what the guide said?"
A nod. "Hai. And that transformation of your spirit HAS been happening, bit by bit, since you left Zhòuquán-xiang. Unfortunately, atop yours and everyone's resistance to the idea of you being a girl, you personally do not have a proper example to template yourself from when it comes to BEING female."
"I . . . " Ranma blinked before she gazed out to sea. "I . . . geez, Chikage-chan, I really don't know . . .!" She bit her lip before looking anew at the sorceress, a shrug rolling her shoulder. "I mean, I still got a lot of trouble believing what the guide said. Yeah, it's been easy for me to dress up as a girl and act kawaii and all that, but geez! I do that all the time."
"True. You should remind yourself, however, that dressing as a girl and -- as you say it -- 'acting kawaii' are very small parts of what being a woman is about." Chikage chuckled, crossing her arms. "Since it would be best for you to remain in one body while Negako-anekun and Ani-kun are busy healing you, you should realise you'll be facing one LARGE element of being a woman three weeks from now when you endure the peak of your first-ever menstrual cycle."
"My first period, you mean?" On seeing Chikage nod, Ranma sighed. "Kasumi told me about that when Herb froze me with the Chiisui-ton. But I didn't go through it because I was able to unlock myself shortly after."
"Good for her. Sadly, given that you have not had any chance to evolve naturally through menarche into adolescence as other women have, I suspect you'll be experiencing a particularly painful 'first blood.'" The sorceress rose to stand again beside Ranma. "I can only guess at how others, even those women who are 'close' to you, might react, given their attitudes towards you."
"Oh, boy, you sure got THAT right!" Ranma winced before she rattled off on her fingers. "Akane will have another damned excuse to call me a pervert. Shanpú might decide that since I'm not a man, she'd have to go back on her first mission and try ta kill me. I think Ukyou MIGHT accept it since she's legally registered as a boy and all that . . . "
"What is written on paper can NEVER stand up to the facts of biology," Chikage warned. "Besides, look at what good can come out of it. If you become a woman, your engagements are effectively rendered null-and-void. Isn't that what you want, Ane-kun?" Seeing Ranma nod, she continued, "And if they understand you had no choice, I believe things will change to everyone's benefit. Didn't Akane say to you when you met 'Let's be friends?' Yes, she betrayed her own words not two hours later when she learned of your curse. In fact, you might say her being forced to deal with you potentially reinforced her attitudes towards boys as a whole. And you have to take into account your over-protectiveness towards her as well, Ane-kun. It did not do Akane any good."
"That's true. But what about Ukyou and Shanpú? What do I do with them?"
"Given Genma's attitudes -- and in the worse-case scenario, Nodoka's -- if he learns you are a woman in spirit as well as body, he might decide enough is enough and renounce you then and there. If he does that, Ane-kun, Ukyou effectively succeeds in the mission her father charged her with: The break-up of the Saotome family and the end of the Saotome-ryuu. When Ukyou's father learns of that, atop learning what has happened to you AND what you've planned for Genma in case he did decide to renounce you, I strongly believe there to be no good reason for him not to release his child from what she was forced into. In the end, you both would come out of that winners."
A smirk crossed Ranma's face. "Yeah, that's true, isn't it?" She then sighed. "What about Shanpú?"
"As for her, there is no threat from the Kiss of Death," Chikage said, a light smile crossing her face. "Shanpú's failure towards that end was punished by her receiving her curse from the Maoniquán. All you face now is the Kiss of Marriage. And when you emotionally become a woman, her claim on you will become questionable. I don't believe she is bisexual, so . . . "
"Attracted sexually to both men and women," the sorceress explained before her eyebrow arched. "And there is another thing you have to deal with."
Ranma paled. "What?!"
"Your awakening sexuality, Ane-kun."
The martial artist gargled. "M-my . . . "
"As Genma repressed your ability to learn, he affected the areas of your mind which controls your sexual responses," Chikage explained. "Now that that's being repaired, I think you will begin to look on people, both men and women, in a much more intimate manner than before."
Ranma gulped. "Even more so, Akane and Shanpú BOTH haven't helped you in those matters," the sorceress added. "Akane, of course, looks on any intimate experience, even the times when she only suspects something is going on, as perverted. That has only reinforced your own embarrassment when it comes to such issues. And with Shanpú flinging herself on you every time she can, your embarrassment only increases. And since that most often happens when Akane is nearby so she could provoke her . . . " A shrug rolled her shoulders. "It's no wonder you've avoided this topic, Ane-kun," she wryly mused.
"Um . . . " Ranma waved her hands. "Could we get back to what I can do with Shanpú if I become a girl full-time, Chikage-chan?! PLEASE?!"
Chikage gazed at her before she sighed. "I'm sorry. Anyhow, when you become a woman full-time, Shanpú could simply announce to the Nujiézú Council that she cannot pursue you romantically anymore. What she could then do if her great-grandmother pressures her into it -- since it is obvious that the Nujiézú would desire access to your skills and abilities in case matters with the Musk or other peoples pick up -- is employ the Blood-Sibling Law and declare you as part of her family. When that happens, you, as Shanpú's former fiancé, could then declare who might 'succeed' you as Shanpú's new fiancé. You could make Mùsi very happy at that point, should you be so inclined."
Ranma hummed. "Yeah, that is true, isn't it? But then again, Shan hates Mùsi's guts." She then slapped her head, a groan escaping her. "Cripes, it'll be the same as before!" she moaned. "If I do it, Shan will hate my guts! If I don't do it, Mùsi will be all over me like before!"
"There is a third option."
"Simply declare that you respect Shanpú's freedom of choice and, given your own experiences concerning multiple engagements -- of which, Kelun is aware of -- you cannot morally force her into a marriage she does not desire," Chikage explained. "You realise that women have much greater say, gain greater respect, in the affairs of the Nujiézú than men. By doing this, you will reinforce your image as a woman. Thus, you simply say Shanpú has full freedom of choice when it comes to a mate. This will not only win Shanpú's respect, it will also win the respect of the Nujiézú AND make Mùsi realise he has to change his attitudes considerably if he is to ever win Shanpú's hand. Surely, you've noticed how much he pines after her, how much that sort of pining only disgusts her in the end. If Mùsi does not, then he makes himself a total pariah amongst his clans-people. I do not believe Mùsi will go that far."
"I dunno when it comes to Mùsi," Ranma noted. Silence fell over them as they gazed nowhere, and then Ranma stared at her hands. "Chikage-chan?"
"Yes, Ane-kun?"
"You really sure that I'm gonna be a girl?"
Chikage gazed at the martial artist before nodding. "I am."
Ranma bit her lip. "And you'd like it if Ataru and I fell in love, right?" she asked, staring anew at the sorceress.
"As would all of us," Chikage admitted. "Ane-kun, I truly believe you and Ani-kun are fated to be together. I have already foreseen it in various Tarot readings. Are you afraid you might be attracted to any other man? Say your friends Hiroshi or Daisuke? Much less Kunou Tatewaki or Hibiki Ryouga?"
Ranma blanched. "Ugh!" she gagged. "Cut it out, okay?! Geez, I don't wanna even THINK of doing that stuff with THOSE two jerks!"
Chikage giggled, covering her mouth before she hummed. "Well, then . . . " she trilled as she gazed on the moon briefly before looking back at Ranma. "There is a way to find out if you can find yourself, even now . . . " A pause, and then she finished, "Attracted to Ani-kun."
An eyebrow arched. "There is?"
"Hai. For fairness' sake, I could even include your 'fiancées' into this scenario." Chikage shrugged. "Would you care to try it?"
Ranma considered that. "I really don't know . . . "
"Ane-kun." A hand fell on her shoulder. Ranma gazed into Chikage's eyes, the former quickly sensing the latter's concern and her determination not to back down from this. "I know that many people have tricked you before. Using your pride and your unwillingness to refuse a challenge to force you into all sorts of utterly ridiculous situations. Situations that, if you consider it, did you no real good in the end. I will not demean nor insult you by following that path. You do not deserve it. But I strongly believe if you are to EVER enjoy an intimate relationship with anyone, you have to shake off this attitude Genma and Akane forced on you about these matters. And very soon, you will have no choice but to confront those feelings, Ane-kun. And I happen to know that you are not the type to take an oath of celibacy and become a nun." She winked. "Just like Ani-kun certainly can NEVER become a monk."
Ranma smirked. "Yeah, that's true." Chikage pulled her hand away as the martial artist considered what the sorceress was offering, and then Ranma asked, "Can this be done without hurtin' anyone?"
"Yes. Further, it can be done in such a way your 'maidenhead' will not be violated. I know you don't understand the value of that now, but I believe your mother will be concerned if your 'virtue' is called into question."
Ranma sighed. "Yeah, she would." She DID understand somewhat what the terms 'maidenhead' and 'virtue' mean when it came to girls. An eyebrow then arched. "No Kunou or Ryouga, right? Just the girls and Ataru, right?"
"Well . . . " The martial artist sighed. Yes, in spite of the words Chikage just said, this WAS a challenge. A challenge that took what Kamekichi Tampopo once gave her some weeks ago to the nth degree. To take the necessary steps and learn what he -- what SHE -- really was?
"Okay, let's do it," she then said with a determined nod.
* * *
"Nee-sama, you came . . .!" A pause. "Are you alright, Nee-sama?!"
Mamoru and several others looked towards the doors. Stopping, they saw Ranma at the doorway. There seemed a confused, bewildered look on her face. As if Ranma had just been parachuted into the Twilight Zone and there was no Rod Serling available to tell her what she just endured. "Nee-sama . . .!" Shirayuki, she holding up a tray of snacks, whispered, her body quivering.
Ranma then noticed the food in the chef's hand. "Oh . . . " She reached over to take the tray. "Thanks. I'm a little hungry."
Mamoru walked up. "Anee, you okay?!"
"I . . . " The martial artist then tried to smile. "I'm not sure, Mamoru-chan. Um, has Ataru come back with Toshiko and Kumiko?"
"Toshiko-san and Kumiko-san are staying the night at the cottage on the other side of the island, Aneue-sama," Marie reported as she petted Michael and enjoyed some of her cherry tea. "Aniue-sama is in his room, I believe."
"Oh, great." Ranma nodded, turning to head off. "'Night, everyone."
The others watched her go. Silence fell as the sisters tried to interpret what happened. "What's with her?" Mamoru asked.
The other sisters shook their heads.
* * *
A knock. "Come in!" Ataru called from inside.
Ranma walked in. "Got some food Shirayuki-chan just made. Want some?"
Ataru sat by the window, he gazing at the full moon beyond. He then glanced at Ranma, quickly noting her dampened cheeks before he turned back to gaze on the stars. "Chikage told you, didn't she?" he gently declared.
Ranma smiled. "Yeah. How long have you known?"
"Right after we met. Onee-chan told me. I'm sorry I didn't tell you, but . . . " A pause. "With all the crap coming down on your head, I felt dropping THAT bombshell onto your lap would've hurt you bad."
"Thanks." She straightened herself. Then, as a quirky smile crosses her face, she moved her hands up to her shirt buttons.
"Please don't do that."
Ranma glanced at Ataru. "I thought you said to me that I was beautiful," she reminded him, an eyebrow arching knowingly.
"True, but I understated it," he admitted. "You know, when Lum came into my life, I said to myself, 'There can be no one more beautiful than her.' I mean, the unreality of it kept hitting me again and again. Someone like THAT actually wanting ME of all the people in the galaxy? Even when Sakura came afterward, no one could've held up a torch to Lum in my eyes. Believe it or not, it's the one thing I could agree on with all the guys in Tomobiki." He looked down. "Then I had to let her go. And then I met Sakuya-chan when I came here the first time. I said it again. 'There can be no one more beautiful than her.' And then I added, 'Thank the gods she's my sister.' And then . . . "
He stared at Ranma. She stared back. "And then?" she lightly prodded for an answer with a knowing smile.
It came: "Then you came into my life."
They stared at each other. Ranma walked over to stand beside him, her hand reaching out to squeeze his shoulder. Ataru's hand gently fell atop hers, he giving her a warm squeeze in return. "I wish I knew what to say now," she whispered, a tired sigh escaping her. "Even with what Sakuya-chan told me, I still don't understand what love and everything about it is."
"That makes two of us," Ataru admitted with a wry chuckle. He stared out the window at the stars. "I've been around for quite some years, counting all the time I spent in Sanctuary, and I still don't know what love is, Ranma."
"Then . . . " A pause before she smiled. "Let's find out together."
They looked into each other's eyes. Ataru nodded. "I'd like that."
He reached over. Ranma didn't resist as she was guided into his lap. They stared into the other's eyes. She then reached up to gently touch his cheek under his eye. "But before we do, can you tell me something?"
"Well . . . " he began, and then he paused before nodding. "When you killed Saffron on Mount Phoenix, Ranma . . . how did you feel?" Another pause. "Outside of being relieved that Akane was still alive, of course."
She leaned her forehead against his. "Like a part of me just died. Like . . . " She bit her lip before sighing. "I always believed that what I did, the Art I practised, was pure and good. It was something noble. You know, even with all the idiots coming at me bellowing 'Die, Saotome!' all the time, I . . . " She shuddered, and then took a deep breath to calm herself. "I never believed it would go all the way to THAT! That I'd have to take that one final step I sure as hell didn't WANT to take. But I had to."
"And from then on, it was sullied?" he wondered.
"'S'funny." He leaned back, laying his head against the window. "After the Second Tag Race, things between Lum and I settled down. I just couldn't bring myself to look on another girl like I used to. You might say I grew up a bit. Then I started to feel as if what was going on between Lum and I was as pure as you looked on your Art. For two weeks, it seemed like a dream. But . . . " He looked down. "Negako-oneechan came back. And I realised how soiled my life -- and by extension, my relationship with Lum -- was."
"But she loved you, Ataru!"
"Did she? Maybe she did. But . . . " Ataru paused. "I had to separate from her, Ranma. When Onee-chan showed me how much my life, my SOUL, was in such a mess, I had to break it off. And it hurt. I didn't want to cause her, who in the very LEAST was the only real friend I felt I had, any more pain. But I had to do it, Ranma. If she stayed with me -- I mean, there were loads of ways of avoiding what the United Nations decided -- I believed she'd endure a hell of a lot MORE pain. I had no choice. Because of what happened to me. What was going on with Lum's people and the Noukiites. And . . . " He looked to the stars. "What I later learned what was going on out there."
Ranma looked. "Where?"
"See, up above Cancer?" Ataru tilted his hand to allow Ranma a better aiming point. "That light that looks like a mini-galaxy?"
"Yeah, I see it."
"Well, it's not. It's a ternary star system. The Phentax group. Three stars and 23 planets. It's incredible to look at, you know." He sighed. "The centre star is a big old red giant, as big as Betelgeuse. And the two smaller stars are stacked over the poles of the big guy. And they got planets orbiting them, all three of them. It's so incredible to see."
She looked at him. "So what happened there?"
Ataru sighed. "On the second planet, there's this race. Humanoid like ours. But they're a. . . " He bit his lip. "Well, they're a very imitative lot. They mimic outside cultures when they contact them, but really can't come up with their own culture, if you know what I mean. Like that one classic Trek episode. You ever see that?" At Ranma's nod, he continued, "Well, about ten years ago, they decided to mimic their culture after the Onis. After Lum specifically. Turns out that when she was a young girl, Lum saved the life of some kid who was the son of a magistrate on Phentax Two. And he . . . " He shuddered. "He somehow persuaded everyone that Lum was a living goddess."
Ranma's jaw dropped. "You must be joking."
Ataru shook his head. "No joke."
"Oh, brother . . . "
"Hai. Well, when Lum moved to Earth, the Niphentaxians kept an eye on things. And when Megane and his crew started their fan club and everyone got on the bandwagon, the Niphentaxians just went CRAZY! They rebuilt ALL their cities into replicas of TOMOBIKI, for cryin' out loud! They started callin' Megane, Mendou and that crowd the 'Holy Apostles' and all that! Called everyone else 'The Goddess' Holy Company' or something stupid like that! And . . .!"
"Let me guess. You were their Satan."
Ataru nodded. "Yeah. 'The Great Evil!' That's me."
"Yeah. Well, I was never told about any of this until Onee-chan took me into Sanctuary. By then, I'd found out about the crap the Onis heaped on the Noukiites, so I didn't care for what Lum's people were goin' through at that time. Hell, they deserved it. But it didn't take me too long to realise that if Lum got killed, the Niphentaxians would go totally ballistic! So . . . "
"You had to stop them?"
"Yeah. It seemed so easy. Just get rid of Oogi. He was the guy that Lum rescued who started the whole mess. He was the president of Phentax Two at the time. It was a sweet set-up! All the leaders of the factions in the Church of Lum were praying for a chance to unseat him and take over. Perfect set-up for a civil war! And if they were too busy fightin' each other, there's no way they could come help the Onis! So, Onee-chan and I decided we'd do a little body snatch. And since I was the 'Great Evil' as they called me . . . "
Ranma wryly smirked. "You decided to be bait."
"Yeah." He closed his eyes. "I got there, got caught. And then I found out that underneath the Church of Lum and all the 'churches' that have existed on Phentax Two over the years -- there was this group that called themselves 'Guardians.' They believed if a faith came that took the attention of all of Phentax Two, THEN if something happened to shatter that faith, Phentax Two would be destroyed. And SOMEHOW, they got their hands on a weapon whose power you can't BEGIN to imagine, Ranma. The power of the Universal Tao, the Te'a Itself, in all Its levels . . .! This weapon could tap into the Te'a Itself! How the HELL do you fight something that has the power of the UNIVERSE backing it up?! And . . . " He shuddered. "The head Guardian . . . she touched me on my forehead with the weapon's power crystal, a ruby-something . . .
"Then, I don't know HOW, It touched a part of my mind that got sheared off when Onee-chan's soul was put into me when I was six . . .
"And . . . "
Ataru hissed, tears flowing as that period in his life rolled through his mind. Ranma gripped his shoulders as he looked on that star, around which orbited a planet that was the place where his innocence was forever shattered.
His voice took on a far-away quality. "A little boy . . .
"A little boy that was me, but somehow . . .
"Somehow remembered all the bad things that happened in my life . . .
"That boy cried out, 'NO MORE!'
"And the Te'a . . .
"It responded . . .
"And I blacked out, but I saw it all. I remember it all . . .
"The boy became One with the Te'a . . .
"And in his scream, MY SCREAM, of pain, the Te'a's weapon remembered the Guardian's fear, the prophecy they lived their lives by . . .
"And the Te'a and the weapon and I lashed out . . .
"And made it all come true."
With a shudder, his voice failed as sobs took over. He allowed Ranma to wrap him tightly in her arms. Her eyes squeezed shut as her imagination, overwhelmed by the SCALE of what he had just told her, fell silent. Together, they held each other, sobbing for the loss of people who had been victimised by those who held power over their beliefs, their thoughts, their very LIVES . . .
"And . . . "
And once . . .
Just once . . .
But that once was enough . . .
By the pain and terror of one who himself was a victim.
Ranma shuddered. "And what, Ataru?" she soothed. "Tell me."
Ataru took a deep breath before closing his eyes.
"And three billion people died . . . "
* * *
To be continued . . .