Ranma 1/2 Fan Fiction / Urusei Yatsura Fan Fiction / Sister Princess Fan Fiction ❯ Lonely Souls ❯ The Ninth Part, B Side - New Friends ( Chapter 19 )

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

"Hmmm . . . Mizuho-chan?"
"What is it, Nodoka-chan?"
"Why is it every time we get together, we wind up naked as jaybirds?"
The lovely twenty-something currently straddling over Nodoka's legs burst out laughing before she continued to knead the muscles and tendons around the older woman's shoulders. "Maybe it's because I have such an animalistic sex appeal, you simply can't resist me!" Yamashina Mizuho slyly proposed as her fingertips dug into the flesh between Nodoka's spine and shoulder blades.
Nodoka laughed as she reached back to playfully swat her friend's hands. Both were currently in Nodoka's bedroom. They had shifted there from the furo after a long soak so that Mizuho could give the older woman a massage before they would go to bed. It had surprised Nodoka when Mizuho appeared at her front door late the previous afternoon, sometime after Nodoka had returned home from her meeting with her father downtown. Then again, given how close Saotome Nodoka had come to be with Yamashina Mizuho, the latter's surprise visits to Nerima had lost their real shock value long ago.
Besides, given what happened between Nodoka and her relatives over the last couple of months, she really needed a friend at this time. One she could confess ALL her problems to, hug and be hugged by when she needed it, whose shoulder she could cry on when it just became too much for Nodoka to handle. Hisayo, bless her heart, was quite wonderful, but there were some things Nodoka, to this day, didn't want to burden her twin sister with. Yamashina Mizuho, in a short space of time, had become Nodoka's perfect friend.
"Feel better?" Mizuho asked.
Nodoka moaned. "Much better. Has Nahoko-san been giving you lessons?"
Mizuho chuckled. "No, I learned this from someone else. I hear you've met her over the last couple of weeks: Moroboshi Negako."
Nodoka looked up, her jaw dropping in shock. "You know Negako-san?!"
Sensing the surprise and underlying fear her friend was currently feeling about the grandmaster, Mizuho sighed as she slipped herself off Nodoka's legs, allowing the older woman to shift to her side so they could stare into the other's eyes. "Of course I know her." A smile crossed her face. "Surely you noticed the physical similarities between Nahoko-san and Negako-sama, Nodoka-chan. Nahoko-san was the one who allowed her body to get cloned by Ataru-san's friends so Negako-sama could have her own body."
Nodoka blinked. "Mizuho, why haven't you told me about this before?"
Mizuho sighed. "Nodoka, the last time we spoke to each other was back at the hotel in Onogawa, sometime before you found out the truth about your son's curse and 'Tendou Ranko.' Remember? We haven't talked since then. I never believed that a chance might come that you, much less Ranma-san, would ever get the chance to meet either Ataru-san or Negako-sama for that matter."
Nodoka considered that, and then she slowly nodded, a hand reaching out to rub the younger woman's thigh. One of the many things Nodoka had come to envy about Mizuho was her baby-soft skin. It had such a silky feel! It didn't take Nodoka long to conclude that ANY man would KILL to be able to touch skin like this. Why Mizuho's husband had divorced her, leaving her in Onogawa pregnant -- these days, Mizuho had a cute six year-old daughter, Kahori, who was constantly doted on by the all-female staff at the Hotel Kiraboshi -- all just to pursue some mad religious quest, Nodoka simply just couldn't understand. Still possessing model-perfect looks, the turquoise-eyed, raven-haired Mizuho would not be wanting for dates if she decided to get out there and find a potential stepfather for Kahori. That Mizuho often preferred to spend time with Nodoka, either in Nerima or whenever the older woman visited Onogawa for a couple days to take in the heated mineral waters at the Hotel Kiraboshi, had been one of the MANY mysteries surrounding this woman.
Still, in spite of all that, Nodoka REALLY needed a friend . . .
"I take it something's happened between you and your son."
Nodoka blinked as she interpreted Mizuho's comment, and then she nodded. Taking a moment to marshal her thoughts, she gazed on her guest. "Mizuho, could you tell me some things about Negako-san? Ranma told me yesterday that Jusenkyou had come to affect him a lot worse that was suspected. That he . . . " Here, Nodoka paused as a lance of pain warped through her mind as Ranma's harsh words at the old shrine over twenty-four hours before came back to her. "That my son is now mentally my daughter! But Father believes . . . "
Mizuho's tired sigh made her host go silent. While the manager of the Hotel Kiraboshi had never said any really nasty words to her friend about Asagaya Isao and the way he had treated Nodoka, Nodoka knew that Mizuho did not hold her father in high respect. "Your father thinks that Negako-sama must have done something to make Ranma-san believe that?" she wondered. At Nodoka's nod, Mizuho continued, "Nodoka, Negako-sama wouldn't EVER think of doing something like that. If there is one thing Negako-sama truly holds dear, it's the truth. The whole, unvarnished truth. If Ranma-san has come to discover that those pools in China did that to her, believe me, it wouldn't have happened because of something Negako-sama did. In fact, I'm more than sure that Negako-sama must've done her best to help ease your daughter through that sort of change." Mizuho ignored the wince Nodoka made on the former's mentioning of Ranma, as the latter's "daughter" instead of "son." "Especially if Ranma-san has become friends with Ataru-san. If there's one group of people in the world Negako-sama loves dearly, it's Ataru-san and their sisters!"
Nodoka considered that as she sat up. "Yes, that's true, isn't it? Forgive me, Mizuho-chan. I don't want to get you into any sort of trouble with Negako-san, but Father is becoming pretty adamant on the idea of convincing Ranma-chan to be formally adopted into the clan."
"'Adamant' isn't the word I'd use in that case, Nodoka-chan. 'Fanatical' is more like it. Has he told you why he wants to do this?"
"Well, Genma's gone now . . . "
"But Ranma-san's Genma's son. That HAS to bother your father . . . "
A cell phone rang. Mizuho stopped, and then she breathed out. "Don't you just HATE that?!" she snarled before reaching over to yank the offending device from her skirt pocket. As Nodoka laughed, Mizuho flipped it open. "Moshi-moshi, Yamashina here!" she called into it.
As her friend heard the other end reply, Nodoka sat up, she reaching over to pick up a glass of water. She was about to lift it to her lips when Mizuho's shocked voice called out, "Ayano, if that's a joke, it's not the damned least bit funny!" Looking over at her friend, Nodoka tensed on seeing the pale skin and the look of shock on Mizuho's face. "Did Negako-sama confirm it?" the manager of the Hotel Kiraboshi asked. A pause as the other end -- it was Inaba Ayano, Nodoka knew, who was calling; the lovely sixteen year-old girl was one of the people who worked as full-time staff at the Kiraboshi -- answered, and then Mizuho nodded. "Yes, yes. I'm with her right now. Does Negako-sama think Kasumi-san and Nabiki-san could stand a visit from her?" Hearing the names of the elder Tendou daughters, Nodoka tensed further. Despite what had happened between Ranma and the Tendous, especially over the last couple of months, the former matriarch of the Saotome Clan of Nerima did care a lot for the daughters of the late Tendou Kimiko.
What had happened?
Finally, Mizuho nodded. "Hai, I'll bring her over. See you soon."
"What happened?" Nodoka asked as her friend closed the cell phone.
Mizuho sighed. "Tendou Souun is dead, Nodoka-chan. He was murdered."
Nodoka paled.
**** **** ****
Lonely Souls
By Fred Herriot
pyeknu@hotmail.com OR fherriot@yahoo.com
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Based on Urusei Yatsura and Ranma 1/2, created by Takahashi Rumiko; and Sister Princess, created by Tenhiro Naoto and Kimino Sakurako.
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Set in the universe of the fan-fiction series Urusei Yatsura - The Senior Year, created by Mike Smith and Fred Herriot
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NOTE: The writer's notes are in a separate text file.
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"I had the dream again last night, Mujanba."
Mujanba blinked, and then she gazed on Hinanba. Both hunters were in a pond about a kilometre from the grounds of the Crystal Palace, enjoying a pleasant mid-afternoon swim. Off in the distance, the other young hunters who had come with them to the Planet of Shadows to locate the Sceptre of Lecasur were also frolicking in the water, they enjoying the pleasant summer-like day. Varena was sunning herself on the shore nearby, though she was keeping a casual eye on the others to ensure nothing happened to them. Far overhead, large, non-reflective metal blocks, similar in proportions to the black monolith from 2001: A Space Odyssey -- but far, FAR larger in size -- were slowly circling around. They would soon move to form a solid wall between a good portion of the interior surface of the Dyson sphere and its captive sun, thus simulating night on worlds the Vosians were more familiar with. "What dream was that, Hinanba?" the brown-haired, hazel-eyed native of Colony Nine asked.
"The Voyager," Hinanba confessed, her hazel eyes turning down in shame.
Mujanba sighed. "Hinanba, you don't have to feel shame about dreaming of becoming one of the Maidens, you know. After all you've been through, you've got the right to dream things like that. Besides . . . " She nodded in the direction of the other hunters. "Your friends've had the same type of dream." She scowled. "And they were punished for it just like you were, I suspect."
Hinanba's jaw dropped as she ran a hand through her long caramel hair. "Really . . .?" she gasped.
"Yeah," Mujanba replied with a smile. "There are times I think the Mikado's ideas about the Special Hunter Corps aren't worth the antimatter needed to blow them up. Things would've been a lot easier if he had learned to relax the grip on society every once in a while." She paused as the smile slipped from her face. "If you ask me, I think things would've been a lot better if he had just done what was needed after the Ipraedies War, and then stepped aside and let civilian rule come back to the Confederation."
"He's not going to last long, is he?"
Mujanba breathed out. "Not really."
"Then why are we out here, Mujanba?"
"Well, when civilian rule DOES come back to Vos, someone is going to insist on having the Sceptre around to ensure that whoever sits in the President's chair won't have his or her legitimacy questioned," Mujanba mused as she sat on an underwater rock. Hinanba smiled as she glided through the water to sit beside her. "And if we do this right, we'll make sure that when the war is over, what survivors are there of the Hunter Corps will get justice for their sufferings." A pause. "War is the sum of all evils, Hinanba. The thing we always have to remember is that there'll be an 'after-war' phase. When that comes, it'll be too easy for people to slip through the cracks. And if you're associated with any of the atrocities that happen . . . "
"You're damned to Purgatory without hope of salvation," Hinanba finished.
Hinanba sighed as she curled her legs closer to her. "That's why I want to be one of the Maidens." She gazed curiously on Mujanba. "Why did the Voyager stop finding new Maidens, Mujanba? I mean, all reports on it doing that stopped coming out some years before the rebellion began. Why . . .?"
The witch-hunter shrugged. "Maybe its primary mission is done. Maybe the Chosen One has already been found."
Hinanba considered that. "I still want to be one of the Maidens."
Mujanba stared at the younger hunter, and then she smiled as she reached over to draw a comforting arm around Hinanba's shoulder. Sensing that touch, Hinanba smiled as she leaned against the taller woman's shoulder. "You want to know something, Hinanba?" Mujanba then asked.
"Hmm? What is it, Mujanba?"
"There're times I wish I was a Maiden, too."
"Yeah, really!"
Both women laughed, and then Hinanba held up a finger. "I know! We'll go find the Voyager and become Maidens together, okay?!" she then proposed.
The laughter increased, and then Mujanba froze as her eyes began to glow. Hinanba noticed that, and then she tensed, her eyes sweeping around. "What is it?" she wondered as her tracking powers activated. "Is someone close by?"
"I'm not too sure," Mujanba whispered.
* * *
"It is that, isn't it?!" Makoto stated as the energy comet bearing her, Hinako, Aria, Mie and Ayumu made a port turn after clearing the entrance into the Planet of Shadows, it levelling at thirty kilometres above mean interior ground level. She reached over to wrap an arm around her lover. "Ever imagine coming to a place where the horizon would go UP instead of DOWN, Mie-vayae?!"
"Not really!" Mie mused as she took her own look around. "The Rover reports on this place don't do it any justice!"
"Whoever created this place was NOT civilized!"
Everyone stared at Aria. "What do you mean, Aria-chan?!" Hinako asked.
Aria pointed. Everyone looked to see a familiar set of golden arches looming in the near distance. "There's a . . .?" Mie sputtered.
"McDonalds?!" Makoto finished.
Hinako looked, and then she sighed. "Aria-chan and hamburgers!"
"Aria does NOT like hamburgers," the Parisian, as proud of her native France's varied and deep culinary traditions as any Korean would be of kimch'i, pulgogi or naengmyoun, sharply declared. She then demurely smiled as she added, "Unless Shirayuki-chan makes them!"
"Hai!" Hinako agreed with a knowing smile.
"Yeah, it's a smart thing NOT to piss off the family chef," Makoto noted.
* * *
Back aboard the Windrider, inside the galley, the chef in question sneezed. "Are you alright, Shirayuki-chan?" Noa asked.
Shirayuki sniffed back the jarred mucus in her nose, and then she gave the Elder Mother and her bond-mate a reassuring smile. She had been working with Noa and Catty on preparing some snacks for everyone on the ship, in following the Sagussan weekend community tradition of Pang Manjok. "Hai desu no, Noa-chan," she said as she turned back to the bread rolls she had been making. "Someone must be talking about Hime right now."
"That's a weird belief," Catty mused as she put danishes into an oven.
"It's their belief, Catty-vayae," Noa reminded the doctor.
"Hai, true."
Shirayuki giggled.
* * *
A worried look crossed Ayumu's face, one Hinako was quick to notice. "Ayumu-chan, are you okay?" the latter asked.
"Do you think Shirayuki-chan'll be mad if I don't eat her hamburgers?"
The youngest sister blinked. "Why?"
"Hamburgers give me an acid stomach."
"Well, it's not Shirayuki-sama's fault that you once tried to make hamburgers using ground nightlizard meat!" Makoto noted.
Hinako and Aria stared wide-eyed on the Sagussans. "You eat LIZARDS on Sagussa?!" the former demanded before her face screwed up. "EEEEEEEEEEEEEEW!" She turned away from them. "That's almost as bad as someone eating dog meat!"
"Aria wouldn't even THINK of doing that!"
The Sagussans exchanged knowing looks. "Well, broiled nightlizard meat IS tasty," Mie fondly lamented as she gave Makoto and Ayumu a sly grin. "Then again, it HAS been a few years since I enjoyed it for supper . . . "
Hinako and Aria, in sync, tongues out: "EEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEW!"
"Mie, you're a meanie!" Ayumu scolded before she blinked. "Road sign!"
She pointed. Everyone looked to see another green road sign, this one as big as the Hasei'cha, floating ahead. "What's that say, Bou-san?!" Hinako asked on seeing the Mandarin-like characters marking words in Vosian.
'Crystal Palace: 3000 kilometres,' the Staff helpfully translated.
Everyone blink-blinked. "What sort of place is this, anyway?" Mie asked.
Makoto sighed. "It does make you wonder, doesn't it?"
* * *
"I got something."
"What is it, Kanba?" Mujanba asked as she moved to dry her hair.
Kanba, a grey-eyed blonde who was in the same class as Hinanba from the Mensohn School -- Nassur's alma mater -- shook her head. "Some sort of high-frequency energy reading. Signs of tachytron radiation, too. It's way off ALL the scales on this machine, Captain. And I'm picking up five humanoid life-forms. Two appear to be Terran. One Terran, although this one seems to possess some odd genetic modifications. One Yehisrite, also with odd genetic modifications. In fact, it's the same as her companion. And one . . . "
Kanba stopped, her face paling. "What?" Ryoonba, Kanba's pe'cha, asked.
Kanba stared on her crimson-haired, brown-eyed friend. "Yizibajohei."
The other hunters froze on hearing that word, they instantly starting to shiver. Even Mujanba and Varena were visibly perturbed. Despite the countless technological, social and cultural advantages their people had at their beck and call -- even after over three decades of devastating civil war! -- there was one planet in the whole galaxy people from Vos avoided visiting: Yiziba. That planet, chock-full of metahumans whose behaviour most often seemed a mad parody of what Terrans would consider "chivalrous," had consistently topped the Confederation's "avoid at all costs" first-contact lists since Unification two millennia before. If one of them was here on the Planet of Shadows, the whole mission to retrieve the Sceptre of Lecasur could be in jeopardy. Hopefully, Mujanba mused to herself, the Mikado would understand that; the four-century old Vosian dictator was, unfortunately, very well known for his considerable LACK of understanding when it came to things that had not succeeded.
"Three Terrans, a Yehisrite and a Yizibajohei?" Varena, a brown-haired, green-eyed azhis'f from Colony Nine, whose dusky skin was decorated with many rune-like tattoos, trilled as she closed her eyes. "Anything else?"
"Scanning." Kanba tapped controls on her machine. After a moment, she blinked as a particular reading came up. "All girls . . .?"
"Eh?" Pamanba, Hinanba's best friend, called out. "All girls?"
"Yes," Kanba replied. "The two pure-Terrans are very young. Before puberty, in fact. The altered Terran seems to be in her late teens. Ditto with the Y-yi-yiz-Yizibajohei," she stammered, and then she flashed an apologetic look at her companions. "The Yehisrite's in her early twenties." She shook her head. "Never seen readings like this before . . . "
"Wait!" Ryoonba called out, pointing to their east. "Is that them?!"
Everyone looked. Kanba nodded. "It's them. They seem . . . wait!"
"They're landing at the Palace?!" Mujanba demanded. "But why . . .?"
* * *
"Crystal Palace, dead ahead!" Ayumu pointed.
Everyone breathed out in relief as the enormous crystalline construct -- it instantly reminding Hinako and Aria of the many episodes of Sailor Moon both had watched time and time again, especially the stories concerning Crystal Tokyo -- began to grow larger in their vision. "Staff, can you teleport us inside so we can get our hands on the Genesis Wand right away?" Mie asked. "The sooner we get this done, the better. Especially for you, Mako-vayae."
"Sorry," the flightmistress apologized.
I would strongly recommend against that, Mie, the Staff responded. The composition of the Crystal Palace's walls is of a neutronium-like material that could haze some of my abilities. And given Ayumu's frequent bouts of narcolepsy, I don't believe you want me to risk doing that, and thus place Makoto in mortal danger. The best avenue of approach for us is to contact the lone sentient I now sense within the Crystal Palace and explain the situation to him. He might be willing to assist. If you ask him nicely.
The Sagussans exchanged looks. "There's someone living here?" Mie asked.
"Who could it be?" Ayumu wondered.
"Let's find out!" Hinako beckoned.
Everyone gazed on the youngest sister, and then they nodded. With that, the energy comet descended to the grassy lawn around the Palace. The whole of the property was surrounded by dense forest, with some lakes and small, tree-shrouded hills stretching out as far as the eye could see. Outside of the vast crystalline structure -- from Hinako's viewpoint, the Crystal Palace seemed to be large enough to swallow up all of Promised Island several times over! -- before them, there was no sign of any sort of habitation, save for what appeared to be an oversized, open-air car parking lot two kilometres off to their west. None of the people from the Windrider could see the small Vosian starship sitting there at that time; the surrounding trees did a very good job of masking its presence, even from Makoto's sharp eyesight. Yes, the Staff DID sense the small group of Vosian women standing close to a lake between the parking lot and the Palace, but it wasn't concerned. Its controller and her companions were worried too much about Makoto's health to concern themselves about that. Besides, if things did get out of hand, the Staff certainly had enough power to deal with them if Hinako asked it to.
Five pairs of feet touched down on the lawn about fifty metres from the Palace's front doors. As everyone took a deep breath of the clean air, Aria walked forward to gaze on a more normal-sized road sign standing to the right of the path leading to the main entrance. "Hinako-chan, what does that say?" she wondered as she pointed to the sign. "Aria can't read that."
Just a minute . . . the Staff called out in their minds.
Everyone blinked as the air before their eyes hazed over for a moment. The Staff then projected a hologram that transformed the Vosian characters into Japanese, again complete with furigana over the kanji. "'Welcome to the Crystal Palace,'" Hinako read. "'No campfires, littering, wild parties, feeding the animals or karaoke singing allowed.'"
"'Documentary film crews must phone ahead,'" Aria continued, blinking. "'By order of the Keeper.' Hinako-chan, who's the Keeper?"
Hinako scratched the back of her head. "Hina's not sure . . . "
"He's got to be the person the Staff sensed inside this thing," Mie said.
"First contact time, then," Makoto declared. "Let's go, people."
Hinako cheered. "Yay! We're gonna make a first contact!"
She then stopped, blinking. "Hinako-sama, what's wrong?" Makoto asked.
"Um, Makoto-san, what's a 'first contact?'"
Makoto face-faulted! "Haven't you ever seen Star Trek?" Mie wondered.
The youngest sister then nodded. "Oh, Hina understands now! Haaaaaai!"
And off they went to see the Wizard . . .! Ahem! The Keeper.
* * *
"Strange," Varena mused, her eyes glowing as she focused her tracking powers on the crowd hundreds of metres away. "I can only pick up two brainwave patterns. The two little ones, I think. I can't sense any of the others."
Mujanba did her own sweep with her powers. "Neither can I. The Yehisrite I can understand, but the Terran and the Yizibajohei, too?" It had been long known that Vosian tracking powers couldn't lock in on the brainwave patterns of a Yehisrite. "This is too odd," she muttered to herself.
The older hunters relaxed themselves as they turned to watch Hinanba and Pamanba walk up. The younger hunters had dressed in their duty uniforms, the black cygnet insignia over their left breasts confirming to all who saw them which side in the Vosian civil war they were on. The other hunters in the group were still getting dressed from their swim in the pond.
"Ready?" Varena asked as the younger hunters gave her a salute.
"Willing and waiting," Pamanba replied.
"Okay, then," the major said with a nod as she pointed towards the Palace. "Go in, keep out of sight and observe. Don't make contact with these people. We don't know the situation about them. If they're of a different level of technology and culture as we -- especially if they might be more ADVANCED than we are -- any mistake you make could come back to hurt us badly. You were all drilled in these procedures at school. Remember them."
"Yes, ma'am!" both younger girls chanted.
"Get going!"
With salutes, Hinanba and Pamanba were off. Mujanba and Varena watched them before exchanging a look. "You think they're ready for something like that?" the former asked. "None of these girls are exploration specialists."
"True," the latter replied. "But they have to learn that sort of thing, Mujanba. Could you imagine what things'll be like for girls like them when this war's over and no one in power'll trust them with anything important?"
"Good point."
* * *
"Ah! There's a doorbell!"
The Sagussans blinked as Aria walked up to press the button beside the Palace's ten-metre high main doors. "This place has a doorbell?!" Makoto wondered as a beautiful chime echoed through the dark crystal doors.
"What type of person lives here, anyway?" Mie asked.
Aria stepped back as the bell's echo faded. Silence fell over the scene as everyone waited for someone to answer it. After a moment, Hinako turned to gaze on Aria. "Aria thinks Keeper-san might be ill . . . "
The doors then snapped open with a WHOOSH! of nearly gale-force winds, they kicking up a storm of dust, dirt and shredded grass. The Staff raised a force-shield around Hinako and Aria as Ayumu grabbed Mie and Makoto to hold them fast against her sides. As the wind died, a thunderous voice then bellowed out, "LOOK! I TOLD YOU GIRLS TO COME BACK TOMORROW!"
Everyone looked to see a spry-looking Terran-like man, he appearing to be in his mid-sixties, standing at the doorway. Dressed in a flowing blue robe, he had sharp brown eyes and grey hair with beard and moustache. A gnarled cane, as tall as he, was in one hand. To the Sagussans, he seemed to remind them of their Daimon'cha. Why was that, none of them could truly understand.
The angry look on his face melted into confusion as his eyes focused on Hinako and Aria. "Who are you?!" he demanded as he gazed on them.
"Ah, gomen nasai, Ojii-san!" Hinako spoke up. "Hina and everyone else came here to get Tsue-san to help Makoto-san!"
"Please, Ojii-san?" Aria added, she giving him her patented, starry-eyed, cute as a million kittens romping with toilet paper down the stairs look.
The Keeper blinked in confusion. "'Mister Wand?!' What are you talking about, girl? There's no 'Mister Wand' here. The only thing that's here is the Sceptre of Lecasur." He then sighed. "Honestly, why can't the Vosians ever make up their damned minds about that old thing . . . "
"Um, with all due respect, Amon'cha," Makoto spoke up after she gave the Keeper a sincere bow. "If what I've heard of the Sceptre of Lecasur is true, it and our Genesis Wand of Parah -- 'Tsue-san' as Hinako-sama and Aria-sama prefer to call it -- are one and the same thing."
The Keeper's eyes widened, and then his eyes locked on the windrider-embossed jumpsuits Ayumu and Hinako were wearing. "Oh, you're from Sagussa!" he then declared before his eyes locked on the five wreaths-of-laurel rank insignia on Hinako's lower arms. "Wait a minute . . .!" he muttered before he turned to Makoto. "Is THIS your Daite'cha?!" he wondered, pointing at Hinako.
The Sagussans fell flat on their faces! Not exactly, the Staff spoke into everyone's minds. It is Hinako's and Aria's brother, Moroboshi Ataru of Earth, whom the Daishi'cha of the Fifth Republic have elected as their Daite'cha and initial Daimon'cha. We have come here to retrieve the Genesis Wand so Aria may become its controller. May we proceed?
The Keeper blinked, and then he stared at the device in Hinako's hand. "You already have one of these things and you actually need ANOTHER one?!"
Hinako blinked, and then tears started to well in her eyes. "But if we don't get Tsue-san, Makoto-san will die, Ojii-san!" she burbled.
The elderly man jerked as the youngest of Ataru's sisters started to sniffle. Then a "Kusun!" escaped the other of Ataru's sisters as tears started to flow down her cheeks. As Hinako and Aria turned on the waterworks, a look of blood-chilling FEAR crossed the Keeper's face. Watching him from behind their Daimon'cha's sisters, the Sagussans could only give him sympathetic looks. Finally, when it seemed that Hinako and Aria were about to loose all control over themselves, the Keeper waved his hands. "ALRIGHT! ALRIGHT! ALRIGHT ALREADY! YOU WIN! YOU WIN! YOU WIN! CUT IT OUT WITH THE TEARS! YOU CAN COME IN! YOU CAN COME IN! CUT IT OUT! CUT IT OUT!"
"I feel sorry for the man," Makoto whispered to Mie.
"Don't argue with success," the latter hissed back.
* * *
Minutes later, Hinako and Aria stepped inside the Crystal Palace, they following its lone resident. At the Keeper's insistence, the Sagussans would remain on the lawn while their Daimon'cha's sisters went in to get the Genesis Wand. After the main doors had closed, Mie stretched herself before she turned to gaze on Makoto and Ayumu. "I don't think this is something Ataru-kun would want to have happen to Hinako-chan and Aria-chan," the pilot then noted.
"Don't worry about it, Mie," Ayumu assured her. "They'll get Tsue-san!"
"Yeah, they better!" Makoto ruefully mused.
"And who's fault was that?!" Mie wondered as she stared on her lover.
Makoto winced as she gazed remorsefully at her would-be bond-mate. "You're not going to leave me alone about that, are you?!"
"No, I'm not. As soon as Eluza gets finished busting you to the bilge tops and Patty tans you a new hide for wrecking her Gladiator, it's MY turn!" She thumbed to herself, and then an icy smile crossed her face. "And I have the perfect punishment," she added, holding up a finger.
Makoto twitched, a sweat drop pouring down her hair. "Wh-wh-what . . .?"
"Handfasting," Mie declared.
Makoto jolted. "SAY WHAT?!"
"You heard me, Mako-vayae. Just like they do it in Canada now."
"By an intergalactic justice of the peace."
"OR a Sensualist priest from Zeiwan or a Dowe'on priest from Ipraedos!"
"Including a wedding dress. For YOU! I'M wearing the tux!"
"Yay!" Ayumu cheered. "Mie and Makoto are getting married!"
Mie nodded in triumph. Makoto shuddered before she sank to her knees. "Lyna, take me now!" she moaned under her breath.
* * *
"Oh, Hina understands now! It's a funhouse maze!"
The Keeper sighed. It had taken him and Ataru's sisters a few minutes to get to the start of the maze that would lead Hinako and Aria to the Sceptre of Lecasur. "It's not your normal funhouse, girls!" he sagely warned with a raised finger. "I had to hire a few experts from all around the galaxy to make sure that not just ANYBODY can get at that old thing. Not that I don't mind visitors, but given how powerful the Genesis Wand really is . . . "
Hinako nodded understandingly. "If some baka-baka came along and woke Tsue-san up, it'd be really, really, really bad, right?"
"Right," the Keeper confirmed. "It's a damned thing that no one on Vos, not even Lecasur -- and he was the smartest man from that planet that I've EVER met! -- figured out what the Wand could do if Horan hadn't disabled the damned thing in the first place. Now, you girls be VERY careful! And watch out for traps; they're spread out all over the place."
Hinako and Aria nodded. "Hai!"
As both walked through the gateway into the maze, the Keeper's foot fell on something that made a sharp crack!
A second later, a tanuki statue brained him!
* * *
"There're only three!" Hinanba hissed. "What happened to the other two?"
Given the intensive physical training that had come hand-in-hand with the years of training in the psionic disciplines that made both Pamanba and Hinanba experts in the Dali'lama School of kari'fu, it hadn't taken the two hunters long to sprint the nine hundred metres from where they had been swimming to the edge of the forest surrounding the Crystal Palace grounds. Using macro-binoculars, the Vosians were able to get a good look at the three girls now standing by the Palace's front doors. It didn't take either of them more than a second's use of their tracking powers to note that the women yonder were the three that Varena and Mujanba couldn't sense. "I can't pick up the others," Pamanba mused as she did a sweep of the grounds. "Could they have gone in?"
"I don't know," Hinanba replied as she focused her attention on the women by the doors. "The Keeper was adamant on the idea of us returning tomorrow morning so Major Varena and Captain Mujanba could go in to get the Sceptre."
"Who do you suppose these people are, anyway?"
"Your guess is as good as mine . . . wait!"
Both tensed as the girl in the short-sleeved blue jumpsuit with the red trim and boots turned, she unintentionally presenting the two young Vosians with a clear view of her front. And of the red bird-like insignia that framed the deep "W" cut that showed off a considerable amount of teenage cleavage from the collar right down almost to the navel!
Seeing that phoenix-like sigil, Hinanba visibly paled as she remembered the pictures she had seen of a great starship from a planet unknown to Vosian authorities right to this very day -- and of a golden version of that very insignia that had been painted on the flanks of that great ship's main hull.
A starship she had constantly prayed would one day come and take her away from the living Purgatory that was the Mensohn School.
From the horror of her "graduation" exercise, where she had been made to kill a half-dozen street kids said to be rebel spies.
From the daily abuse from sadistic instructors and upperclassmen that eventually drove Hinanba to become addicted to kookyuu, a mental depressant that helped her forget -- even for a small time -- the blood that had drenched her soul for as long as she could remember.
From the degrading sex she had been forced to engage in when Bujosur, then the personal administrative assistant to the Corps' commander Furusur, had learned of her kookyuu addiction and seized it, transforming Hinanba, Kanba, Ryoonba and three others into his own personal hit squad/harem.
Even when Bujosur had been assigned to another group by Furusur -- when Hinanba and her friends had been taken under the wing of Mujanba and Varena, the Corps' elite hunters, thus increasing their survival chances considerably -- the dreams of that magical place beyond the stars still haunted her.
"The Maidens," Hinanba whispered. "They're the Maidens."
* * *
"Hello, Nodoka, Mizuho."
"Negako-sama!" Mizuho breathed out in relief as she bowed respectfully to the grandmaster of Saikoo Jinseijitsu Ninjutsu-ryuu. She then turned to accept Inaba Ayano's embrace. "Konban wa, Ayano-chan! Where's Nahoko-san?"
"Doojou," Ayano replied as she gave Nodoka a look. "Tread cautiously."
"What about Kasumi-chan and Nabiki-chan?" Nodoka asked as she looked around the grounds of the Tendou home. "What about Akane-chan?"
"Speak to Nahoko first."
Nodoka shuddered as the chill in Negako's voice warped through her. Staring at the ninjutsu grandmaster, Ranma's mother fought down the urge to visibly shake in the former's presence. At the same time, as Mizuho's words on the subject came back to her, Nodoka was struck by the resemblance between Negako and the woman Nodoka knew as Horikawa Nahoko, the owner of the Hotel Kiraboshi. She then blinked on feeling Mizuho's supportive hand fall on her shoulder. As a wave of calm then surged through her body, Nodoka gave her friend a nod before both headed into the Tendou grounds. Negako watched her, and then she blinked as Ayano's hands fell on her shoulders.
"Who's side will she take, Negako-sama?" the raven-haired, blue-eyed Avalonian who possessed the Niphentaxian name "Yua dai-Tythya" asked.
A light smile crossed Negako face as her hand reached up to gently grasp one of Ayano's. "That depends on what Naho tells her, Ayano," the grandmaster replied. While Negako didn't mind the suffix "-san" applied to her name, hearing "-sama" almost grated on her as much as being called "Sensei!" Then again, Ayano lived under considerable pressure by her sister Avalonians to treat Negako as one worthy of the most profound respect. The fact that Ayano was willing to bow to that peer pressure was one of the things Negako found quite annoying about her would-be lover. Still, there was something about Ayano's shows of doting affection that struck Negako in a way she didn't really comprehend. "Will Naho give Nodoka the benefit of the doubt concerning what just happened? Or will she condemn Nodoka to lose Ranma forever?"
Ayano hummed as she leaned her chin on Negako's shoulder.
* * *
"Hello, child. Do come in."
"Elder!" Nodoka hailed, bowing to Cologne. "Why are you here?"
Cologne nodded toward the kneeling Naho, who was relaxing by the doojou's shrine. Glancing around the structure she had last been in just before she had moved back to her own home, Nodoka was quick to note that it still required repairs. She then stared at Naho before she blinked on noting that the other woman's kimono -- Naho had changed into the more formal wear sometime after she had made her appearance at the Tendou home -- had been partially undone, although she was keeping the flaps of the dress wrapped close to her. Quickly sensing that the owner of the Hotel Kiraboshi was in fact a friend of the Nujiézú elder's, Nodoka nodded before she knelt in front of Naho. "It's good to see you again, Nahoko-san," Nodoka greeted her with a bow. "But . . .?"
"What on Earth am I doing here?" Naho finished.
Nodoka jolted before she covered her mouth to hide her smile. Naho's ability to sense out what other people were thinking seemed almost magical at times. Taking a deep breath to calm herself, Ranma's mother nodded. "Hai."
Naho sighed. "Very well. Before I answer that, I should give you a very profound apology, Nodoka-san." She bowed her head before her hands moved to pull apart her kimono to expose what was underneath. "And show you this," she added on displaying the string-like bikini she wore.
Nodoka's breath caught in her throat as her eyes fell on Naho's lower abdomen -- and the criss-crossed lines of ugly scar tissue which extended all the way up from her crotch to past her navel, scars that the latter's bikini briefs barely hid. Taking a moment to absorb that awful sight, Nodoka then turned up to gaze into Naho's pain-filled eyes. "What happened to you?" she asked in a hoarse whisper, her hand rising towards her mouth.
Naho closed her kimono. "Again, I am sorry that I had to show you that, Nodoka-san. Were this situation not as dire as it can potentially become, I would've been less straightforward." A pause. "But this, I must tell you now, Nodoka-san: You have a very stark choice to make this evening. It is this: You either side with your daughter -- and yes, I know what's happened to Ranma-chan because of Jusenkyou, so I WILL call her your daughter instead of your son -- or else you side with your father and forever lose a chance of any sort of reconciliation with Ranma-chan. And you better pray to whatever gods you worship that Ranma-chan doesn't decide to declare a blood-feud against the Asagaya Clan for what happened this evening." Seeing Nodoka pale, Naho grimly added, "Because if she DOES do that, Nodoka-san, I promise you that not only would your relatives AND YOU face her and her sisters, you will ALSO be facing the Moroboshi-Hana Clan, the Nujiézú and our many other allies overseas." A pause. "Do you understand me, Nodoka-san?"
Nodoka blinked several times as the full meat of Naho's words sank into her mind, and then she whispered, "Blood-feud . . .?"
"Yes," Naho replied with a stern nod, and then she sighed. "You know, Nodoka-san, you share many qualities with my late mother Jiko. The most profound of those, I'm afraid to say, is the fact that, like you with Saotome Genma, my mother was effectively forced into a shotgun wedding with her husband, my father Seinen, when her passions got the better of her and I was conceived. However, you were lucky. All Isao . . . " -- Nodoka was quick to sense the torrent of scorn Naho expressed on her saying that name -- " . . . did to you was banish you from your birth-family and, save for some financial support to ensure your silence, he tried to effectively cut you off from all your relatives, even your twin sister. What my maternal grandfather, Hoofuku Reiji, did to my family as a result of my birth was a lot worse." She paused before taking a deep breath. "You just saw what Reiji did to me in punishment for my very existence. You can guess what he did to my parents."
Nodoka's jaw dropped as the weight of THAT statement sank in. "Nahoko-san . . . " she gasped, her voice barely audible in the doojou.
"That's my real name," Naho explained. "'Horikawa Nahoko' in an alias I've been forced to use over the years to keep me hidden from Reiji. My real name is Hana Naho." A pause. "If you've been watching television recently, you can probably guess what my relation to Moroboshi Ataru might be."
Nodoka blinked as stunned recognition dawned on her. "'Hana' is the maiden name of Ataru-kun's grandmother, isn't it?" she asked.
"Hai," Naho replied. "Nagaiwakai was my aunt, my father's older sister."
"I see," Nodoka breathed out. "Naho-san, what's this all about, anyway?"
Naho took a deep breath. "The answer to that ultimately leads back to the woman you know of as 'Moroboshi Negako,' Nodoka-san. I look on Negako-chan as the daughter I never had. Even though, in one sense of the term, she's FAR older than I am." A pause. "This all started shortly after the end of the Greater East Asian War, Nodoka-san. You probably know what things were like in Japan at that time. The country almost totally in ruins, under occupation by the Americans. The members of the Black Dragon Society who led us into that stupid war in the first place being hunted down and punished for their crimes. The very FUTURE of Japan being called into very strong question.
"To the many shinobi clans that were active during that time -- the Hoofuku being one -- it was a once-in-a-lifetime golden opportunity. Here was a chance to regain what the Meiji Restoration had taken away from them. Even more, in fact. There was such an underlying rage in the hearts of so many at the time. So many of the cultural beliefs we had taken for granted for so long had been shaken up so badly, people just didn't know what to believe, who to trust, where they could entrust their futures, their destiny. Add to that was the fact that for the first time in memory, Japan had actually SURRENDERED to a foreign power. A power that had humiliated the Emperor, forced him to reject his divine connection to the gods, and seemed to be working hard to bring down everything that had made our society what it was.
"So they began to disrupt and destroy everything they could get their hands on. Ferment a civil war that Japan had NEVER seen before. Take down everything that could have opposed them. The zaibatsu. The surviving militarists. The supporters of State Shinto. Traditionalists who were determined to maintain the pre-war social order at all costs in the face of the ideals the Constitution the Americans were forcing on us might ferment. Even more, the shinobi leaders knew that once the Americans came to see that their rebellion could create the nation MacArthur-gensui and Truman-daitooryou envisioned of post-war Japan, the chances were there the Americans would've told them, 'Go ahead.' And they would've turned their attention elsewhere.
"You know, thinking about it now, it might've actually done us all a lot of good had that sort of civil war happened," Naho then mused as she gazed at the doojou's ceiling. "After all, we live today in a society chock-full of complete hypocrites. Where we openly profess to believe in peace and harmony with the rest of the world, yet we wouldn't BEGIN to think of fully and properly apologizing to the Koreans, the Chinese and everyone else for the atrocities OUR soldiers unleashed on them during the war. Where we profess to believe in social equality and yet we punish three million of our citizens just because their ancestors were burakumin, to say ANYTHING of how close we've become to destroying all of Ainu society and our constant denial of basic rights to those of Korean ancestry living here in Japan."
Naho sighed, a shrug rolling her shoulders. "Unfortunately, it didn't happen. And it didn't happen for the simple reason that the Shoowa Emperor -- for whatever HIS reasons -- decided that the shinobi rebellion would've made him look like a liar in front of Truman-daitooryou and MacArthur-gensui. After all, in 1945, the Emperor gave his word that Japan would surrender and that the nation would be at peace. If the shinobi launched their civil war, well . . . " A chuckle escaped her. "We wouldn't be at peace then. Wouldn't we?"
"What happened?" Nodoka asked.
"Well, wasn't it fortunate at that time that the matriarch of the ONE clan whose loyalty to the Imperial House had remained solid and steadfast for well over thirteen centuries . . . " Here, Naho paused. "Had just made contact with an alien race known as the Zephyrites?"
"Nagaiwakai-sama . . . " Nodoka whispered. "The Tenchiaiki Juukazoku."
"Exactly," Naho confirmed with a nod. "Here was the perfect opportunity to put the shinobi down once and for all. And do it in such a way that would ensure that there could be NO chance of a future rebellion. Well, it happened." A pause. "But some ultimately escaped."
"Your grandfather," Nodoka quickly concluded.
"Exactly. And because of that, my parents were murdered in bed and I wound up being unable to bear my own children. To say ANYTHING of the fact that I've been forced to hide under an alias all these years." A pause. "Fortunately for me, Reiji is a lunatic. And he wants to survive so he could gloat at all of those who had stood against him. That means that he could never contemplate launching an attack on my aunt in Rishiri-tou. After all, the Zephyrites had a missionary colony there. And Reiji learned very much how vicious the Holy Inquisition of Zephyrus could be when it comes to dealing with 'heretics' threatening the life of someone they anointed as a Righteous Gentile, the highest honour Zephyrites can bestow on outworlders. And since he was a lunatic, Reiji never came close to finding me even though I was practically hiding in plain sight up in Onogawa." A pause. "But then, one day, he decided to go after a different prize."
Nodoka considered that for a moment, and then she blinked. "Negako-san?"
"Negako-chan," Naho confirmed with another nod. "A thousand years of martial arts knowledge, collected together into a living non-corporeal database that could be accessed as easily as someone logging onto the Internet if they had the right equipment. The fact that Negako-chan was, in the end of it all, a sentient being who deserved of her own life . . . " She made a dismissive wave with her hand. "Well, to Reiji, that didn't matter. But with Negako-chan under their control, the Hoofuku would've succeeded in dealing with those who had tried to destroy them in the past. INCLUDING those stupid aliens who stuck their noses into something that wasn't their own business."
Nodoka breathed out, "Your grandfather's a monster!"
"Yes, he is. But he can be a very charming monster when he needs to be, Nodoka-san. And that's where your father got involved. Look at the situation. Your daughter, whom Isao wanted to force under his thumb all because he wanted to take away the last heir of Happoosai, the man who once seduced his wife, your mother Nana, long ago. And she was becoming very close friends with the last living host of the Saikoo Jinseijitsu. Moroboshi Ataru, Moroboshi Nagaiwakai's last living grandchild and potential heir.
"And because of that, Ranma-chan was able, once and for all, to free herself of EVERYTHING that had weighed her down because of her father, you and everything else that had mucked with her life for so long. And, as I'm sure Negako-chan told you, Isao didn't want that at all." Naho wagged her finger. "Oh, no! No! No! No! NO! That just wasn't right! After all, Saotome Ranma was NEVER given the right OR the ability to think for herself! It went against the laws of the Universe! It had to be STOPPED, after all!
"So Reiji offers Isao an interesting solution. Why not ferment mistrust between Ranma-chan and Ataru-chan? And how to do that? It was easy! Just turn Tendou Souun into a runaway killing machine so that he could kill off people Ranma-chan loved dearly. And if it was done right, Ranma-chan would have believed that she shouldn't ever trust the Moroboshis again. What might have happened afterward? Well . . . " Here, Naho shrugged. "Reiji isn't one for long-term thinking, but the conclusion seems quite obvious to me."
Staring at Naho, Nodoka felt a horrid chill warp through her as the implications of THAT began to sink in. Her gaze then lost its focus as her eyes turned down towards the doojou floor. Kneeling beside and behind her friend, Mizuho instantly tensed as her empathic powers quickly locked in on Nodoka's feelings. Sensing a growing pit of despair blossom deep within her friend's heart, Mizuho squeezed her eyes shut before she turned to give Naho a questioning glance. Noting that, Naho shook her head before she gave Mizuho a warning glare in return. Seeing that, Mizuho squeezed her eyes shut once more as she swung her head away, tears starting to glisten in her eyelashes.
Nodoka didn't take notice of that silent communication between Naho and Mizuho, but Cologne did. Peering intently at Mizuho, the elder's eyes then widened. Another one?! she thought as she gave Naho a glance, and then she turned back to stare at the Avalonian calling herself "Yamashina Mizuho." And she appears to love Nodoka. How interesting . . .
Finally, after what seemed an eternity, Nodoka took a deep breath. "Thank you for telling me this, Naho-san. Excuse me, please."
With that, she rose, bowed respectfully to Naho, and then she walked out of the doojou. Mizuho remained in place as Nodoka went, and then she surged to her feet to follow. "Stay here, Kaili," Naho then whispered, she raising her hand. "There's nothing you can do now to help her."
Mizuho, created ten years before as Kaili bedai-Tythya, spun around, her eyes flashing with murderous rage as a growl entered her voice. "Do you begin to realize what you just DID to her, Naho?!" she snarled a syllable at a time.
"I did," Naho replied. "If you're concerned about your would-be lover taking the suicide option because she can't choose between her daughter and her father, don't be. There are others involved. And besides, you should've been able to sense the bioroid factory hovering in orbit as we speak."
She pointed straight up. Mizuho stopped, and then she yelped as a hand landed on her shoulder. Spinning around, she then froze in place on staring into a tanned face pierced with burning crimson eyes, framed with brown hair and decorated with a musical note-and-dagger tattoo by the right eye. Taking that in, she then blanched, and then she paused as the other woman touched her lips with a fingertip. The newcomer then asked, "Do you love her?"
Mizuho blinked several times before answering, "More than my own life."
"Then let's go. We got some work to do." The newcomer then tapped her communicator. "Yomi, this is Priss. Two to beam up."
"Right," another voice called over the comm link.
Cologne blinked as she watched Mizuho and Priss disappear in a sparkle of what just HAD to be a transporter beam; the elder knew her Star Trek, too. "And what's THIS all about?!" she demanded as she turned to gaze on Naho.
Naho stood up, she moving to adjust her kimono. "I think Nabiki-chan can answer that. But let's let her cool off before we ask."
Cologne nodded. "Good point."
* * *
The doorbell pealed. "Hai! Just a moment!"
The door to the upscale apartment, located in Jinguumae, between Harajuku and Aoyama in Tokyo's Setagaya Ward, opened to reveal a smiling Asagaya Hisayo. "Hai?!" she called out before her eyes focused on her visitor. "Um . . . "
"Please forgive me for disturbing you, Hisayo-sama," Catty Ray greeted Nodoka's sister with a bow. She was dressed in a ruffled blouse, mid-thigh skirt and zip-up rider boots. The lack of a bra was quite evident to Hisayo.
Taking in the lovely lavender-haired woman with the odd gold eyes, Hisayo then said, "Um, forgive me for asking, but . . . "
"Am I an alien?" the android-turned-bioroid finished. "Hai, I am."
"You must know Moroboshi Ataru then."
"No, I've not yet had the privilege of meeting Ataru-sama, but my bond-mate Lufy and my sister Catty have met him," Catty Ray replied. "However, it is not because of Ataru-sama that I've come to see you, Hisayo-sama." She then paused as she considered something, and then she said, "Well, ironically, it actually IS because of Ataru-sama that I have to see you, Hisayo-sama! Specifically, it's because of Ataru-sama's growing relationship with your niece, Saotome Ranma -- and what might happen to Ranma-sama if your sister Nodoka succeeds in carrying out a VERY foolish and illogical act of atonement this evening -- which has forced me to come see you this evening."
Hisayo's eyes widened, and then a scowl crossed her face as the meat of her visitor's words sank in. While she had no proof about her sincerity, a voice deep in her mind told her Catty Ray was speaking the whole, unvarnished truth. And she had just called Ranma her "niece." That implied this strange yet very polite alien girl knew something that only Hisayo and Nodoka -- plus most likely Moroboshi Ataru and the other members of his family -- knew.
"Let me get my coat," she advised before walking to the closet where she kept her coats. "How long have we got before Nodoka-chan slits her throat?"
"She has just left the Tendou family grounds, walking back to her home," Catty Ray explained as Hisayo slipped on her jacket and a pair of shoes. "We believe that as soon as she returns to her home, she'll proceed at once to terminate her own life. We still have time."
Hisayo grimaced as she locked her apartment door. "It'll take too damn long to get there by the subway and a taxi," she muttered.
"Allow me, then," Catty Ray offered as she gently grasped Hisayo's hand, her other tapping her belt-mounted communicator. "Energize."
Seconds later, the hallway before Asagaya Hisayo's apartment was empty.
* * *
"Thanks for letting me use the shower, Karen-chan!"
"It's alright," Karen absently mused as she watched the star field whip past. The Hasei'cha was keeping even pace with the Windrider at a distance of two hundred metres; Karen knew the Kiboo'cha was doing the same thing on the other side of the barque. Narrowing her eyes, she focused her attention on an observation gallery on the warpsloop's upper hull. Two people were standing there. Blinking, she reached over to her nightstand as Seiko walked out of the bathroom, totally naked save for the towel she was using to dry her hair. Opening the drawer, Karen smiled on seeing a pair of macro-binoculars, just like the pair Ataru had in his cabin, sitting there. "I guess Onii-chan thought of everything when he had this ship rebuilt for us," Karen stated.
"Here, let me show you how to use them," Seiko announced.
After a quick set of instructions, the pianist put the binoculars to her eyes so she could see who was in the gallery on the Hasei'cha. "Ah, it's Spea-san and Amy-san!" Karen then announced before her cheeks started to colour. "Oh, dear . . . " she breathed out.
"What?" Seiko asked as she returned to drying her hair.
Karen lowered the binoculars. "They weren't wearing any clothes."
"Well, that's to be expected," Seiko noted. "They've been an all-female society for over ten thousand years, Karen-chan. The idea of public nudity must be as totally irrelevant to the Sagussans as it would be to the Vosians."
"Vosi- . . .?" Karen then nodded. "Oh, Nassur-san's people!"
Seiko was quick to sense her host's understandable reaction to the expat Vosian hunter. "Handsome, isn't he?" she asked.
"Hai, he is that!" Karen admitted as she put the binoculars away. "But he's too rugged for my tastes. I'd prefer someone like Onii-chan."
"Which Onii-chan?"
Both laughed. "Hai, that's true, isn't it?" Karen mused as Seiko wrapped a towel around her, and then walked over to sit beside her host. "I mean, Onii-chan -- well, Ataru, I mean -- he's more like what I'd want. Much that I am happy that Kaeru-oniichan's alive and okay, but . . .! Well . . . "
"The idea of him being so logical turns you off, doesn't it?"
A nod. "Hai. I mean, it's not Onii-chan's fault, but still . . . "
"It's alright. Besides, it's not as bad as you might think. Some of the Great School actually made contact with the Nagussans not so long ago. They may act very logical on normal occasions, but when they're alone with someone they love . . .! Oh, my!" she breathed out. "It can get pretty hot and heavy at times! All we have to do now is find some way to convince all of Naromo-san's people about what they really are, de-sterilize them, and then lock Kaeru-san and Naromo-san in a room somewhere." She then raised her finger. "Preferably one with a king-sized waterbed in it. And no condoms in sight."
Karen giggled. "We'd all become aunts soon enough," she then said before a knock was heard at the door. "Hai!" she called out.
"It's Hime!" Shirayuki announced as she walked in, a tray full of warm buns in hand. "Hime brought some Pang Manjok barely rolls."
"Plain?" Seiko asked.
"Iie desu no!" the chef assured her as she put the tray down. "Hime put lots of cinnamon and cane sugar in them to make them really sweet."
"Arigatou, Shirayuki-chan," Karen thanked her sister.
As Karen and Seiko picked up a roll to nibble on them, Shirayuki quickly withdrew to give them time alone, closing the door behind her. Seiko watched her go before she moved to nibble on the roll. The sweet taste exploded in her mouth, she grinning with delight as Karen took her own bite. "These are great!" she muttered. "I wish I could cook as well as this."
"Yeah, it would've saved you a lot of trouble, especially after your lollipop helped turned Onii-chan into twins that one time."
"You girls would've loved that, I bet."
"Hai!" She then sighed. "Seiko-chan, I don't hate you. None of us do."
Seiko stopped, and then she sighed. "After what I did . . . "
"You made mistakes," Karen assured her as she reached over to give the Nendo-kata's shoulder a friendly squeeze. "And the biggest mistake of all was that you didn't try to diagnose the problem with Onii-chan. You just charged forward and punished him . . . "
"I had no right to do that!"
"But who was there to tell you otherwise?" Karen asked.
"These days, I wish SOMEONE had done that!" Seiko stated, and then she turned to gaze regretfully on Karen. "It's a pity that Negako-san didn't decide to come back earlier and set Darling's memories straight . . . oh, say right after Tag Race One instead of Tag Race Two. It would've saved us all a lot of trouble in the long term." She then looked down, she then adding, "And maybe it would've saved Ranma-san a lot of trouble, too."
Karen sighed, nodding. "Hai, that's true, isn't it?" She then took another bite of the roll in her hand. After swallowing it, she then gazed once more on her guest. "You still love Onii-chan, don't you? You'd marry him still if you got the chance, wouldn't you?"
"Hai," Seiko replied with a nod before one of her hands drifted to rub her tummy. "Even though I'd never be able to bear Darling's child in this body. I can only mate with other women, even after I've Crossed Over."
"That's pretty unfair, isn't it?"
"Damn right it is."
"Would you want a surrogate co-parent for your baby?"
Seiko shook her head. "No. We really don't believe in that sort of thing. Even with us, you need two to tango. And once you tangoed, you have to stay together to ensure the child grows up loved and cared for in a COMPLETE family. To do otherwise . . . " She shook her head again. "No, that's not our way at all. I couldn't think of doing that to my child."
Karen nodded as Seiko took another bite. "But you still love Onii-chan."
"I'll love him to the day I slip into the Black Ocean and become one with the Cosmic Chain of Life," Seiko vowed.
"Would you want to become my girlfriend?"
Seiko jolted, and then she spun around to stare at her host. "Karen!"
The pianist laughed. "Gomen nasai, Seiko-chan! I didn't mean to shock you like that!" She then took a deep breath before she gave the Nendo-kata a knowing look. "But that WAS you on Monday, wasn't it? When we were at the Tower pool swimming after shopping at Esmerelda's?"
"Chikage-san said you were pretty sensitive to empathic probes."
"Hai, Chikage-chan told me that a long time ago. I've always remembered that." A pause. "It didn't take me too long to suspect who it might have been that made me feel that when I was at the pool. Onee-chan confirmed it for me that night." Here, Karen took a deep breath before she reached over to gently grasp Seiko's hand. "I'm very flattered by your interest in me, Seiko-chan."
"You deserve it, Karen-chan. You are very beautiful."
"Really?" Karen's cheeks reddened further. "Arigatou."
The Nendo-kata then sighed. "Still, I don't think it would really work out between us. There're my feelings for Darling. And even after finding out what I have about Ranma-san and what Lufy did . . . " She shook her head. "I still love him, Karen-chan. I'd die for him if it had to come to that." She then turned once more to stare at her host, her eyebrow arching knowingly. "And there're your feelings for Darling, too."
Karen blinked, and then she nodded. "Hai, that's true."
They gazed at each other, and then Karen leaned up to give Seiko a chaste kiss on the lips. Seiko blinked as the sincerity of that contact surged through her, and then she reached over to draw Karen into her embrace. They remained together for a moment, and then Karen pulled back, she extending her pinkie to the Nendo-kata. "Friends?"
"Forever," Seiko vowed as she linked her pinkie with Karen's.
They kissed again, and then Karen stood. "Why don't you get some sleep, Sei-chan? We're still over an hour away from this place and I want to ask Lufy-san if we can find some way to contact Mie-san or Ayumu-san to see how Hinako-chan and Aria-chan are doing."
"Thanks," Seiko replied as Karen moved to leave. "Ka-chan?"
"It's your bed, too."
Karen smirked. "Etchi!"
Both laughed as Karen stepped through the doorway. Seiko remained still for some time after the door closed behind the pianist, and then she sighed as she shifted over to gaze out the window at the "Hasei'cha." Sure enough, Spea and Amy were still in the observation gallery, they currently in each other's arms and sharing very wet kisses. Smiling enviously as she empathically took in the bloom of love emanating from the warpsloop's combat officer and coxswain, Seiko then moved to slip under the covers.
"Darling," she whispered as she closed her eyes.
* * *
"That could easily become a problem for us in the future."
Karen stopped, and then she looked over to see Chikage reclining on the bulkhead by the door leading to the pilotage. "Sei-chan, you mean," the pianist mused as she stood beside the sorceress, clasping her hands behind her back. "I don't think I could ever feel that for her, Chikage-chan."
"True," Chikage agreed. "I doubt any of us could feel that way to her, especially after we got a taste of how much hers and everyone else's actions against Ani-kun had come to hurt him in the long term, memory loss or no."
Karen scowled as THAT particular memory of the time immediately after Ataru's arrival on the Island flashed past her mind's eye. "Hai, that's true," she breathed out, and then she shrugged. "Still, we should try to do something for Sei-chan. But what CAN we do, Chikage-chan?"
Chikage considered that, and then she smirked. "There is a possibility."
She gazed on Karen. The latter blinked as she considered what her sister just said, and then her eyes widened as it hit her. "You mean . . .?" she began before her voice faltered as she considered that fact. Seeing Chikage nod, the pianist breathed out, "We can do that, can't we?"
"If Ani-kun'll go along with it," Chikage warned.
Karen nodded.
* * *
"Ah, Negako-san! Konban wa!"
Negako blinked before she gazed over her shoulder to see six girls from Tomobiki, all of them having dressed in casual clothes before they came to Nerima, standing close to the main gate to the Tendou property. "Shinobu," she returned Shinobu's greeting, and then her eyes sharply focused on Momoe before an icy smile crossed her face. "I see Ataru had to use extreme force to deal with one of your kidnappers, Momoe. I assume you have come here to consult with me about the emotional after-effects of that event."
Momoe jolted as the grandmaster's words washed through her, and then she gave Negako a look as her eyebrows twitched. "What on Earth are you anyway, Negako-san?" she demanded. "Sherlock Holmes? How can you tell all THAT?!"
"She's the Earth Angel," Ayano, who stood at Negako's side, replied, and then she gazed on her. "Ne, Tedai?"
Negako sighed. "Ayano . . . "
"You're an Avalonian, aren't you?"
Eyes spun around to gaze on Sawada Minako, who was standing beside Shinobu. "ANOTHER one?!" Sakiko demanded as she turned to gaze on Ayano, an ironic smile crossing her face. "Sweet Blessed Mother, how many of you actually got away from those devil-shark Niphentaxians?!"
"Hopefully soon, we'll ALL get away from them," Ayano asserted. "Right, sister?" She winked knowingly at Minako.
Seeing that, Shinobu began to fluster, her cheeks reddening. She then stopped as she thought about it. Why had she felt THAT way about Ayano winking at Minako? Minako wasn't her girlfriend, for Heaven's sake! Was she . . .? "Right," Minako replied before she gazed at Shinobu. "Shinobu-chan. All Avalonians call each other 'sister' on first meeting."
Shinobu jolted. "Eh?! Oh, I'm sorry!" she apologized.
Embarrassed laughter then escaped her. "Well, I will say this, then," Ayano observed. "You have EXCELLENT taste in potential bond-mates."
Minako jerked before her cheeks reddened. "Um, th-thanks . . . "
Shinobu's own blush deepened as her classmates began to snicker. "You're trapped now, Shinobu!" Ryuunosuke then asserted.
"Ah, we have more guests!"
"Ah, Kasumi-san, konban wa!" Momoe hailed as Kasumi walked up to join them, and then she blinked on seeing the tense look on the elder Tendou daughter's face. Momoe had never met Kasumi before, but she had come to know a lot about the older woman thanks to her long association with Nabiki. To see Kasumi look like THAT in PUBLIC was almost unheard of. "Kasumi-san, what happened?!" she then asked. "Are you alright?!"
Kasumi blinked, and then she gave Momoe a weak smile. "No, I'm afraid I'm not really alright. We had an incident here . . . "
Sakiko tensed. "What sort of incident . . .?" she began before her empathic powers locked in on the people inside. Her eyes then glowed as she did a quick telepathic scan before she winced. "Oh, Mother . . . " she breathed out. "My sympathies, Tendou-san."
"What?!" Kumiko demanded.
"Kasumi's father is dead."
Eyes locked on Negako. Kasumi gave the ninjutsu grandmaster a grateful smile before she turned away, heading back towards the house. "What happened?" Momoe asked before her eyes scanned around the yard. "Where's Nabiki, anyway?! Did something happen to her?! What . . .?"
"She is well," Negako stated in a voice that quickly dampened Momoe's panic about her friend. "Nabiki is currently engaged in some necessary stress-relief, allowing all the frustrations and anger which have built up inside her since her mother's death vent themselves out finally. Given recent events, the target of Nabiki's anger may not surprise you in the long run, but it will most likely offend your sensibilities, Momoe."
Momoe blinked as she took in Negako's words, and then she broke away from the others, racing to the patio. "Momoe-chan, wait!" Kumiko cried out as she moved to follow, and then she yelped as Negako's hand caught her wrist. "Hey!" she cried out. "What're you . . .?"
"Momoe understands Nabiki in ways you do not, Kumiko. Do not interfere."
The others just stared at her. Meanwhile, Momoe had stopped herself just before turning to walk into the Tendou sitting room, a sense of trepidation arcing through her. She had never come to visit her friend at her home before; whenever Nabiki had wanted to see Momoe about business, the two always met either in Tomobiki itself or at the coffee shop on the border between Tomobiki and Nerima. Taking a deep breath, she then moved to step inside when her hearing detected a faint sparking noise. Pausing to consider what could be making that sound, she then squared her shoulders and marched in. She then stopped on seeing what was there, instantly wishing she had stayed put.
"Nabiki . . . "
Nabiki jolted before spinning around to see Momoe standing nearby. In her hand, the energy tip starting to burn a hole in the wooden floor of the sitting room, was Tomo's stun-baton. Seeing the electricity sparking around that device, Momoe was instantly convinced that it was powerful enough to even stun Rei in tiger-bull format. But it was what was lying beside Nabiki that caused a surge of bile to rise up in Momoe's throat.
She had never met Tendou Souun, but she had heard enough descriptions of the man to recognize him. Even if he was currently a corpse, a bullet hole of some sort in the chest, with deep burn marks scorched across his face. Burn marks that had to have come from the weapon in Nabiki's hand. Momoe then focused on Nabiki once more. Seeing the tears in the middle Tendou daughter's eyes, Momoe's revulsion vanished in an instant as she raced over to sweep her friend into a comforting embrace. Nabiki didn't resist her as the stun-baton fell away from her hands to clatter on the floor near Souun's leg. A second later, a hand scooped up the weapon and deactivated it.
Momoe blinked as Tomo straightened herself, the Sagussan calmly stowing her weapon on her utility belt. The latter sighed as she gave the former a knowing look, and then she tapped her left wrist-bracelet. "Tomo to Yomi."
"Yomi here," came the reply.
Tomo gazed on Nabiki. The latter nodded. "Set transporter on maximum particle dispersal. Beam this hunk of stormwalker dung outta here."
"Right. Energizing now."
A transporter beam carried away Souun's body. Momoe watched it vanish, and then she stared at Tomo. The internal security officer took a deep breath. "On our planet, Marubeya-san, child abandonment is a capital crime."
With that, she walked out of the sitting room. Momoe watched her go, and then she gazed into Nabiki's tear-streaked face. "Nabiki, what happened?" she gently prodded as she reached up to massage the other girl's cheeks.
Nabiki blinked several times. "Count yourselves very lucky, Momoe-chan."
Nabiki then blinked before she breathed out. "It's a long story."
"We've got all night," Momoe advised her.
Nabiki considered that. "Yeah, we do, don't we. Let's get out of here."
With that, the two walked out of the room.
* * *
A pair of hands crossed Mizuho's face to cover her eyes. "Guess who?!"
The manager of the Hotel Kiraboshi gasped. She spun around to find herself gazing at what appeared to be a pointed-eared, teenage version of Sakurambou Sakura standing there. Blinking several times as she took in the other's measure, Mizuho then squeaked, "Otako . . .?"
"Been a long time, sister," the replica of the high priestess of the Hegane Sect, Otako odai-Meinyak, noted with a wagging finger.
Mizuho blinked several times as she took that in, and then with a delighted laugh, she rose from her chair to sweep Otako into her arms. Watching this from nearby, Priss could only smirk before she turned back to gaze on the two active gestation chambers in this part of the Avalon bioroid factory. "I take it you know this lovely lady, Kaili."
Mizuho chuckled as she wrapped an arm around Otako. "We were created at the same time, Priss-san," she explained. "The odai-Meinyak, in whose image Otako here was created, wanted an 'older sister' figure to play with while she was growing up." She then tensed on feeling a wave of intense sadness warp through her skin from Otako. Staring at the raven-haired woman, Mizuho then closed her eyes. It was easy to figure out. "When?" she asked.
"When the ot'ndai-Zkuhsbagh seized control of the factory using the spirit-energy of many of those who were killed in Lumukyou," Otako replied. Since he was the founder of the Church of Lum, Oogi was accorded the highest name ranking among Niphentaxians, though both Priss and Mizuho were quick to sense that Otako really wouldn't care if Oogi either lived or finally died. "He was powerful enough to even overcome the influence of a controlling orb from the Milky Way 'Curses 'R' Us' Management Organization my other-self found in some rubbish heap near Uru sometime after I was first activated. With that, he seized control of the factory and blasted us off from Phentax Twelve . . . "
"And when that happened, the whole planet got turned into an asteroid field, killing everyone who was alive on it," Priss finished. Sensing Otako's surprise, the Sagussan smirked as she crossed her arms. "I originally came here with some friends of mine to obtain a bioroid body for a companion android who'd achieved full sentience and wanted to be fully organic. When we checked out the Phentax system, we saw what happened."
"It didn't matter, anyway," Otako observed. "By the time the ot'ndai-Zkuhsbagh came to the factory, my other-self's orb had succeeded in completely subverting the living spirits of every Invader on Phentax Twelve."
"Where'd it exactly come from?" Mizuho asked.
"An friend of Lum's family, the Lady of the Oak Forest Asteroid," Otako answered. "When Lum was born, invitations were sent out to all of the Invaders' friends to attend the christening and baby shower. The invitation to the Lady of the Oak Forest was lost. She took it personally, and then she created a curse to ensure Lum would never know true love. For some reason, when my other-self found it, the curse's power grew out of control." She bowed her head. "What happened after the ot'ndai-Zkuhsbagh came . . . "
"Was a mercy-killing," Mizuho finished. "I grieve for you, sister."
"Thank you," Otako replied, and then her eyes focused on Priss. "We've all noticed what one of your co-workers did for us when you last came here. You're lucky that the ot'ndai-Zkuhsbagh is so obsessed with destroying the 'Great Evil,' he hasn't had time to devote himself into making sure that none of us can seriously rebel against him." Her eyes turned down. "Still, as long as Gloriana remains locked away in the main computer core by the ot'ndai-Zkuhsbagh, we can't hope to free ourselves from his control."
Priss blinked as she took that in, and then she closed her eyes as she considered what options there were for the Avalonians. She knew "Gloriana" -- that was a slurred version of an ancient Kyre'sha phrase, glorgh-anghya ("the Divine One who beholds all of Creation") -- was the name given to the central controlling conscience inserted into the factory by the people who launched Project: Avalon fourteen millennia ago. "Do you have any DNA samples left from the time the Project was started?" she then asked.
"All gone," Otako replied. "They were destroyed as soon as the Invaders were able to figure out how to keep Gloriana from reasserting full positive control over the factory. None of us dares try to do anything like that."
Priss hummed. "What about DNA samples from Lum?"
Otako blinked. "Lum?" She shook her head again. "They're gone, too. The ot'ndai-Zkuhsbagh deleted them from memory."
"No doubt, to ensure his precious 'goddess'' memory remained as pure as possible," Mizuho added, and then she peered at Priss as the Pathfinder's ultimate idea finally came to her. "Priss-san, who could we use as a physical template for Gloriana's new body, then?"
"Ataru's out; he's the 'great evil' in Oogi's eyes and that's that. Izumo Seiko is out since her body's based off three of her friends from Tomobiki. We can't use Miyake Shinobu since she's considered a 'sinful doubter' . . . " Her voice then trailed off. "Hey, wait a minute . . . " she whispered before she snapped her fingers. "She's perfect!"
"Who?!" Otako and Mizuho demanded in sync.
The Pathfinder flashed them an icy smile before she tapped her communicator. "Priss to Yomi. I need Tomo for a job."
"Can I help?!" a high-pitched voice then demanded over the line.
Priss blinked. "Chiyo?!"
* * *
The Mizunokooji estate was well lit in the early evening as two people in kimonos walked through the beautiful gardens close to the main residence. It had thoroughly annoyed Mendou Shuutarou that, almost as soon as he had returned to his home from being rescued from Elle, he had been packaged off and delivered to the front gates of his fiancée's home just to spend some "quality time" (his father's words) with Mizunokooji Asuka.
But, in the end, it WAS family honour that forced him to agree to come here. And besides, Asuka was, despite her quirks, delightful company. Even if they WERE currently being shielded from potential outside problems by half of the Kurotenshi, the Mizunokooji Clan's in-house troop of young, gorgeous female bodyguards whose quite revealing uniforms -- polo shirts, leather ties, hot pants, leather knee-high boots and shooter's glasses -- were just as ubiquitous as the Kuromegane's three-piece suits and dark Ray-Bans.
"Onii-sama, are you alright?"
Mendou jerked on hearing Asuka's question, and then he flustered as he gave her an apologetic look. "Gomen ne, Asuka-chan," he said, he reaching to give her hand a squeeze. "I'm still bothered because of today's events."
"Okaa-sama told me about that Elle woman," Asuka said. "I was afraid she'd put you into her awful refrigerator, just like she tried to do when you first met her!" She then reached over to wrap her arm protectively around one of his. Fortunately for the young heiress of the Mizunokooji sports empire -- not to mention her fiancé -- Asuka had been given a lot of tips from her classmates at Keppeki Girl's Junior High School about how to deal with a man she cared for. "I'm just glad that you're safe again, Onii-sama."
"So am I," Mendou confessed before a blank look crossed his face.
Asuka did not notice as his eyes turned once more to the starry night. That was good, for the young scion of Japan's richest family had a lot on his mind. And the primary thing that was bothering Mendou Shuutarou was a man whom he dared not mention to his fiancée, even if, as it seemed these days, Moroboshi Ataru would not succumb to the disgustingly lecherous behaviour that had so frightened Asuka in the past. Of course, Mendou really couldn't bring himself to believe that his hated rival had truly changed, had evolved away from his idiotic past. But the evidence of the last two weeks, especially the events on the Rose Emperor earlier, were strongly shouting otherwise.
To believe . . .
Moroboshi had KILLED!
What was worse, he had killed a WOMAN!
Worst of all, he had killed demonstrating the same general lack of emotion one might express when one squashed a cockroach!
And if he had done that . . .
What could happen next?
Indeed, what WOULD happen next?
And how could he, Mendou Shuutarou, react to it?
What indeed . . .?
Mendou jolted as Asuka's grip on his arm tightened considerably, he instantly coming to a stop. Looking at Asuka for a second, he then followed her line of vision to a point in the path five metres ahead. Seeing what was presently sitting there gazing at them with dark eyes, Mendou's jaw dropped to the ground in shocked disbelief. "What on Earth . . .?" he demanded as his mind tried to wrap around that image. "A tiger . . .?"
Saying that, the scion of Japan's richest family immediately dismissed that description of the odd-looking, beige-furred feline up ahead. While the beast was indeed about the same size as a Siberian tiger, it had the lanky leanness of a North American cougar. Atop that, there were snake-like muscular appendages sticking out from both sides of the beast's neck, just beyond the curve of its jaw. And that did NOT take into account the huge, furred, bat-like wings sticking out from behind its shoulder blades. Even folded against the creature's side, the wings could at LEAST span ten metres from tip to tip if they were extended. And the long tail that was currently curled against the beast's forepaws ended in a diamond-shaped flat pad of flesh similar to a beaver's tail. Realizing instantly that this creature could simply NOT be from Earth, Mendou tensed himself as he drew his katana from under his kimono. "Asuka-chan, stay behind me . . . " he warned his fiancée.
"Don't worry," a female voice called out. "Tadakichi won't hurt you."
Everyone blink-blinked several times as a slender woman dressed in the light green-and-gold of a Sagussan civilian medical officer moved out from behind the feline. Seeing her, Asuka's jaw dropped as she instantly recalled a certain manga series a classmate of hers had shown her -- and of its lead star. "Chiyo-chan . . .?" she gasped as she pulled away from Mendou.
Mendou blinked. He knew a little bit about Azumanga Daioh -- while he didn't partake in reading that form of common entertainment, he had heard a lot about various popular series at school -- so he understood the reference. But attaching the name "Chiyo" to this strange woman was pushing it. In Azuma-sensei's manga, Mihama Chiyo was a child genius that had been promoted straight into first-year high school from fourth-year elementary school, which made her ten years old at the start of the series. The woman Asuka just called "Chiyo" had to be eighteen, if not twenty! And she certainly had the body to back up such an assertion, given the very nice pair of breasts that seemed almost ready to burst free from her oddly-cut jumpsuit top, to say AHYTHING of a body that rivalled Sakura-sensei's in general shape, plus she standing as tall as Asuka! Further, while the woman WAS wearing her dark caramel hair in the ponytails the manga character had, Mendou knew Mihama Chiyo did NOT have tapered ears!
"Close enough," the newcomer asserted as she pulled her hand away from the alien beast beside her, and then she bowed, clasping her hands together in a splayed-finger prayer-like gesture. "I sincerely apologize for disturbing your time together, but I've come here to speak to you about something of great import." Her eyes fell on Asuka. "Asuka-san, how'd you like to be a . . .?"
Everyone screamed out in shocked surprise as Chiyo and her companion spun around to stare into a matronly woman's face frozen in a perennial smile. As usual, she was draped in a flower-embossed kimono. "Okaa-sama!" Asuka gasped.
Mizunokooji Saeko quickly focused her starry eyes -- a feature she shared with both Asuka and her son, Tobimaro -- on the intruder. "WHO IS THIS?!" she hotly demanded before blinking wildly as Chiyo drew out a scanner from her first aid bag -- no Sagussan doctor or nurse ever left home without one! -- to pass it over her face, the device chirping. "Eh . . .? What are you doing?! Why are you waving that thing in my face?!" she demanded.
Chiyo hummed as she drew her scanner back to examine the readout on her medical tricorder. "Oh, my!" she breathed out. "I never thought I'd ever see a case of facial palsy quite like yours, Saeko-san. Have you ever had a chance to see a neurologist to be treated?"
The iron-willed matriarch of the Mizunokooji family shuddered as outrage billowed from every point on her body, and then she screamed out, "I AM NOT DISEASED! NOW, WHY ARE YOU HARRASSING MY DAUGHTER AND HER FIANCÉ . . .?!"
A pair of clasped hands came down HARD on Saeko's head, driving her into the walkway. Seeing that, Mendou dodged in front of Asuka, partially drawing his katana at the same time. Multiple hands then gripped his arms and legs. A glance over his shoulder revealed that ALL of the Kurotenshi were hiding behind him, they fearfully gazing on the black-and-blue dressed woman who just knocked down their employer with ONE BLOW! "Young Master! Protect us, please!" Makige Kinko, the Kurotenshi's wavy-haired leader, wailed.
"Tomo!" Chiyo screamed out. "You didn't have to hit her THAT hard!"
"Hey, it ain't MY fault this perp was threatening you!" Tomo yelled back.
Staring at her, Mendou blinked, his jaw dropping. "It's you!" he gasped as he pointed at the Sagussan internal security officer. "You're the one who was on the Rose Emperor when Seiko-san and Sakiko-san came to rescue us!"
The scion of the Mendou fortune found himself staring at a monster with blazing eyes and a battle aura that would scare the bejeezus out of Saotome Ranma! "WHO GAVE A MORON LIKE YOUTHE RIGHT TO CREDIT THOSETWERPS WITH SAVING YOUR SORRY ASS FROM ELLE?! IT WAS ATARU-SAMA AND HINAKO-SAMA WHO SAVED YOU, NOT ANYONE ELSE! AND DON'T YOU EVER FORGET THAT! GOT ME?!"
Mendou and Asuka screamed as both leaped behind the massed Kurotenshi to get away from that horrid vision. "TOMO!" Chiyo yelled. "JUST BECAUSE THEY'RE FROM A TOGHMOGHBIKI DOESN'T GIVE YOU THE RIGHT TO GIVE THEM HEART ATTACKS!"
Tomo reverted to normal as she glared at her friend. "It ain't MY fault THIS kimei'aidoei acts like such a fool when it comes to Ataru-sama, Chiyo!"
The doctor paused as she considered the internal security officer's words. After a moment, she nodded in agreement. "Yes, I suppose that's true!" A disapproving glare was then sent Mendou's way. "His behaviour when it came to Ataru-sama DID leave a lot to be desired!"
"WHAT?!" Mendou cried out. In a flash, he lunged over to grasp Chiyo's hands. "Miss, you MUST reject Moroboshi . . .!"
An ear-splitting roar then sent Mendou scrambling away from Chiyo as the animal she called "Tadakichi" leapt to his feet to stand between them, spreading his wings out in a threatening posture. The doctor sighed before she drew out a handkerchief to wipe her hand down. Seeing her do THAT, Mendou froze in paralysed shock as Chiyo turned to Tomo. "Honestly! The man simply can't respect any choice a woman makes, can he?!" she muttered.
"Yeesh! Tell me about it!" Tomo replied before she thumbed the still-dazed Saeko, the derision she felt for Asuka's mother flowing in torrents from her voice. "And to believe this dipwit actually wants to force her own daughter into marrying the stupid twit!"
Chiyo sighed. "Well, what did you expect from a woman who raised her daughter in total isolation from all men for FIFTEEN years?!"
Hearing that, Tomo started, and then she turned to peer intently at Asuka. "Yeah, that would explain why is it she's so darned afraid of guys these days, huh?!" The internal security officer then snapped her fingers as she gazed on the doctor. "Sounds like child abuse to me!"
Chiyo blinked, and then she sighed, a sweat drop pouring down her hair. Even if she WAS a doctor, she had no skill when it came to trying to curb Tomo's mood-swings. Only Koyomi seemed to have any luck doing THAT! Besides, given what she knew of Mizunokooji Asuka's history, it was easy to conclude her mother WAS ultimately responsible for the girl's androphobia, regardless of what or who finally triggered it and then forced it into such an acute state. And Saeko and her husband honestly believed that Asuka was fit to marry Mendou Shuutarou when she obviously had next to no real control over her physical strength?
Terrans were SURE strange people, weren't they?!
Oh, well . . .!
"Hai, it's child abuse!" the doctor then muttered as she waved Tomo off, the tiredness in her voice quite apparent. "Have fun!"
Tomo jolted. "Really?! You mean it, Chiyo?!"
"I said it, didn't I?"
The internal security officer whipped out her stun-baton, flicked it on, and then went to work. Seeing what Tomo was doing to their employer, the Kurotenshi remained frozen in place. Mendou was also frozen stiff, his eyes spiralling from Chiyo's sharp show of rejection. As Saeko's pained screams echoed across the property, Chiyo tiredly turned to Asuka. "Gomen nasai, Asuka-san!" she apologized with a bow to the young heiress. "I only wanted to ask you to be a hero, but my friends insisted that Tomo come along with me!"
Asuka blinked. "A hero . . .?" She pointed at herself, her eyes widening. "You want me to be a hero, Chiyo-chan?"
Asuka blinked again, and then she nodded. "Okay!"
Hearing that, Chiyo beamed.
* * *
"Just what do you think you're doing, Nodoka?"
Nodoka gasped as that question echoed in her ears, and then she spun around to see someone standing in the entranceway of her home. She blinked several times as her mind tried to interpret who it was. As realization dawned, Ranma's mother shakily turned away from Hisayo, her eyes focusing on the tantou before her. A sheet of expensive paper, a calligraphy brush and ink well were off to one side, ready to be used when Nodoka would compose her farewell poem. She was draped in her most formal kimono, the flaps around her collars pulled a bit away to expose her neck; for the wives of samurai, it wasn't the abdomen that was ripped open when one committed suicide. Blinking as it dawned on her why Hisayo had come to see her, she then sniffed back tears. "Don't stop me, Onee-chan. Please . . . "
"Oh, I'm going to stop you, alright!" Hisayo growled as she kicked off her shoes and stepped into the living room to drop herself down in front of Nodoka. Though it was possible for the latter to snare the tantou before the former could grab it and toss it aside, Hisayo did nothing of the sort. Nodoka's sense of manners wouldn't allow her to act that way, even in a situation like this. "I'm damn hell gonna stop you from making the most stupid mistake of your life, Nodoka-chan!" She blinked as tears began to trickle down her cheeks. "You're my sister, damn it! And there's no way that I'm going to allow my sister to kill herself, especially for something idiotic li- . . .!"
"'IDIOTIC?!'" Nodoka shrieked. "Kasumi, Nabiki and Akane are ORPHANS now! And their father was killed by Naho-san's GRANDFATHER . . .!"
"I KNOW THAT!" Hisayo roared back. "I just got told the whole damned story!" She waved to the doorway. Catty Ray was standing outside waiting for Hisayo to call her in; Nodoka's sister had a communicator on her shirt collar.
"Then you know why I have to do this!"
"Tell ME, then!"
Nodoka shuddered as Hisayo's glare bored into her. "Onee-chan, when she finds out what happened to Souun tonight, Ranma-chan could possibly go all the way into declaring a BLOOD-FEUD against Father and our whole family!"
"And what's so damned wrong about that?!"
Hisayo frowned. "Nodoka, what has our having that name done for us?!"
"It's the name we were born by!"
"Is it really?"
Hisayo crossed her arms. "Nodoka, you know how I feel about our so-called 'father' and our brothers! You know how I feel about what they did to you in response to you making a simple mistake when it came to Saotome Genma!"
"Father had a right to do that . . .!"
Nodoka's eyes flashed before her hand lashed out at Hisayo's cheek. Before it could strike, a hand snared Nodoka's arm, yanking it back hard enough to cause Ranma's mother to scream out. She nearly collapsed before her eyes turned up to see who had intercepted her slap. They then widened as the newcomer's many features came to her. "Wh-who . . .?"
"Thanks," Hisayo breathed out. "You must be Priss."
"That I am. Guess I was just in time," Priss replied before she gazed at the entranceway. "Ray, get in here!" she yelled.
The door opened, revealing Catty Ray. "Update from Chiyo, Priss," the android-turned-bioroid reported. "Another twenty minutes or so."
"Any sign of detection from Ataru's playmate?" the Pathfinder asked.
Catty Ray shook her head. "No." She then perked. "Oh, Koyomi called. She has the other prisoner in mid-transport suspension."
"I'm sure Naho would love to hear that," Priss noted, and then she stared down at Nodoka. "You gonna behave yourself?" she wondered.
Nodoka blinked several times, and then she hesitantly nodded. Even though she really did not have anything close to the ki-sensing abilities her daughter could call on when needed, some deep voice in her head was loudly warning her that any, ANY show of defiance toward this strange woman would be a VERY stupid thing to do. Priss then let go of her hand before she dropped unceremoniously to the floor beside her. "Okay, then! It's time to play a little game here. It's called 'Revelations.' You, Nodoka, are going to be told a rather complex and long story that concerns your daughter in a most intimate way. And, if we go along with the mating rituals of your race, that story also deeply concerns the man you would look on as your future son-in-law." Seeing Nodoka's eyes go wide, Priss added, "Moroboshi Ataru."
"Have they gone all the way yet?" Hisayo asked, she trying not to smirk at Nodoka's imitation of a guppy on hearing THAT statement.
"No, not yet," Priss responded. "But you really can't blame Ataru, though. After he got a VERY up close and personal look at three billion people getting turned into instant air pollution back on Phentax Two, his libido took a nose-dive." She then raised an objecting finger. "But that's another story we can talk about later. First, we have to explain to Nodoka about this!"
She pulled out a picture from her vest top, flipping it around to show to Ranma's mother. It was a two-dimensional photograph, which had been printed from a hologram Lufy created from bioscans her equipment had made of herself, Ataru and Ranma that fateful day in Sendai thirteen years before. Priss knew that if she had pulled out a portable holographic projector or something else that would be "flashy" for Nodoka, the latter could easily try to deny the visual evidence as the whole, unvarnished truth. A 2-D image, what Nodoka would see as "normal," worked better in this case.
"That's Ranma . . . " Nodoka whispered as her finger felt the picture. "And this must be Ataru-kun . . .!" She pointed to the other boy, and then the blonde girl with the same skin colour as Priss. "Who's this?!"
"My oldest, dearest friend -- and Catty Ray's lover -- Lufy," Priss replied with a wave of her hand to Lufy's bond-mate. "As you'll probably remember, thirteen years ago, your late husband took your son on a little training trip that ended with him winding up in intensive care at the city hospital in Sendai for a month, recovering from a whole slew of broken bones and deep slash marks over most of his body."
Seeing Nodoka's eyes widen in realization, Priss continued, "That was Lufy and a large feline companion of hers, Starleaf. We hail from a planet named Sagussa, located thirty thousand light-years from Earth just outside the limits of the galaxy. The reason Lufy came to Sendai that day was . . . "
* * *
"Naho-san, I don't even know what to begin to say . . . "
The crowd from the Tendou doojou -- minus Cologne, who had gone over to the Moroboshi home to retrieve Shampoo and Mousse -- had shifted themselves to Okonomiyaki U-chan's to enjoy a late dinner. Hana Naho had just finished explaining about the tortured history of her part of the Moroboshi-Hana Clan and how that had come to so badly affect the surviving members of the Tendou family earlier that evening. "Don't bother, Shinobu-chan," Naho replied before she gave Konatsu a nod as he placed a fresh okonomiyaki in front of her. "Just be thankful my grandfather's obsession with obtaining Negako-chan's knowledge didn't lead him to do something to anyone in Tomobiki. Even if Lum had many advantages, it would've been child's play to chop off her horns and render her powerless enough to turn her into a very impressive hostage to force Kinshou to come open about a few things concerning what happened to Ataru-chan. After all, since that fat ignoramus Lum called a father was willing to do ANYTHING to protect his child, the Men in Black would've responded immediately by calling in the Zephyrites. And given the suspicions in the Holy Republic concerning Urusian involvement in my aunt's murder, they would've most likely turned around and punished Lum in the place of those people who were truly responsible for what happened." Her eyes focused on Izumo Sakiko. "Seq Yethis, Rei's uncle, being the primary suspect on that list, of course."
The crowd from Tomobiki took a moment to absorb that information. "It woulda been one hell of a friggin' fight," Ryuunosuke mused.
"That it would be," Sakiko agreed with a grimace before her eyes fell on Negako. "And if Darling was hurt in any way . . . "
"I would have willingly killed everyone who was involved, regardless of their affiliation," the ninjutsu grandmaster finished.
"Which could've started an intergalactic war," Naho finished.
"Damn!" Momoe exhaled, and then she gazed on Negako. "You know, maybe it was a smart thing you never did come to Tomobiki before the Second Tag Race, Negako-san. Given how possessive Lum was with Ataru-kun all the time . . . "
"Even after living for three years with Naho, Mizuho, Ayano and the others in Onogawa, I still required more time to fully adjust myself to being free and living my own life under my control, Momoe," Negako said. "If I came to Tomobiki to fully deal with all of Ataru's problems before I was truthfully sure of myself, the possibility was there that I might do something which would have ultimately made Ataru's position worse."
"It's ironic, isn't it, Tedai?" Inaba Ayano mused.
"Yes, it is."
"What is, Negako-san?" Kasumi asked.
"The situation concerning the First Tag Race," Negako replied. "As you are all now aware, the Urusians learned about Nagaiwakai's connection with the Zephyrites prior to the First Tag Race, which prompted Pochik Ando's attack on Rishiri-tou while Ataru was attempting to tag Lum's horns. What the Urusians never learned -- as Ataru and I discovered when we were training together and we finally captured Ando and the members of his strike force -- was what Nagaiwakai asked ME to do in case Lum won the race."
"Don't tell us! Let us guess!" Nabiki declared with a raised finger. "You were ordered to kill her."
"Correct," Negako confirmed. She ignored the shocked looks from Lum's former classmates as she continued, "Once that happened, I would have then employed a lava blast, using Fuji-san as the firing point, to destroy the Kashin and ensure that whatever fragments from Invader's flagship would have splash-landed in the Pacific Ocean." Negako then took a deep breath. "If I had done THAT, the Urusians would have suffered a fatal disruption in their overall plans to seize control of Earth. By the time occupation forces could have deployed here from Toshitto, a Zephyrite fleet would have arrived in the system from Jiyuu and be in a position to intercept." She lightly smiled. "In essence, Nagaiwakai's murder would have given the Urusians no advantage."
"Poor Ando-kun," Sakiko crooned as she tilted her head to and fro. "All that work and it was ultimately for naught."
"You knew this jerk, Sakiko-chan?" Ryuunosuke asked.
"Please, Ryuu-chan!" Sakiko groaned. "DON'T ask!"
"Right . . . " the tomboy drawled.
"What happens now, Kasumi-san?" Gekasawa Kumiko asked.
Kasumi sighed, she giving Horikawa Mutsumi -- they were holding hands -- a grateful smile before she turned back to Momoe's friend. "Well, with Father now gone, I see no real reason for us to remain in Nerima, Kumiko-san. I had him stricken from the family register this afternoon, while everyone was busy with Ataru-kun's 'fiancée,' so his death need not concern the authorities."
"That's good," Nabiki snarled.
"Further, come Friday morning, the real estate people will take possession of the property," Kasumi then added. "Hopefully by then, we'll all be able to move in with Ataru-kun and his family on Promised Island . . . "
"'Promised Island?!' Where's that?!" Momoe asked.
"Oomure-jima, off the coast of Odawara in the Sagami Sea," Nabiki provided. "'Promised Island's' the nickname of the place."
"That's right!" Ryuunosuke said, she snapping her fingers. "That's the island near our island, Sakiko-chan!"
"I doubt Darling'll like the idea of any of us visiting him there," Sakiko warned as she considered that point.
"And I KNOW that Ataru-kun and the sisters certainly WON'T like the idea of Mendou finding out where they live now," Nabiki added as she gave Momoe and Kumiko knowing looks. "Right, girls?" she asked, an eyebrow arching.
Momoe sighed, a content smile crossing her face. "Nabiki, the man just killed to save my life. I've made up with him and I've accepted his apology for what he did to me in the past." A pause. "If he wants me as a friend, I'll gladly call him my friend. Hell, I'll even date him if he wants. No matter what, though, he's got nothing to fear from me."
"Nor from me, either," Kumiko added. "But I'll pass on the dates."
Shinobu, Ryuunosuke and Sakiko laughed. "What about the Rosebuds?" Nabiki asked as she crossed her arms.
"Who're the Rosebuds?" Sawada Minako wondered.
"Mendou's town-wide fan club," Ryuunosuke answered.
"At times, they were just as obsessed with Mendou as Megane and his fools were with Lum," Nabiki added with a raised finger and a wink.
The rose-haired Avalonian nodded. "Aaaah! Gotcha!"
"Hey! We weren't THAT bad!" Kumiko cried out defensively.
"Then why on Earth did you all try to lynch Ataru-chan when he simply wanted to retire from being class representative?" Naho asked.
Kumiko flustered. "It was a mistake, Naho-san! We all thought Ataru-kun was dumping Lum once and for all!"
"And that was a problem?" Naho wondered.
Kumiko balked. "Well . . . "
"They were afraid that if Ataru succeeded in ending his relationship with Lum, she would turn around and seek Shuutarou out romantically. That, of course, would have effectively destroyed any hopes Momoe, Kumiko and their friends -- even Shinobu -- might have possessed in winning Shuutarou for themselves," Negako explained to her "mother." "Of course, given how immature and irresponsible Lum's behaviour was at the time, the chances were better than good that she would have most likely permanently maimed Ataru in retaliation for his 'betrayal.' And once that happened, the Kuromoroboshi and the Sunin would have come down to permanently maim -- if not KILL -- Lum in turn."
Everyone from Tomobiki blinked. "Who're they?!" Ryuunosuke asked.
"The Kuromoroboshi were my aunt's kunoichi bodyguards," Naho explained. "The Sunin were my grant-aunt's sumotori bodyguards."
"You know about them, Konatsu?" Ukyou asked from behind the grill.
"Only the Kuromoroboshi, Ukyou-sama," the male shinobi replied. "They're some of the finest shadow warriors in Japan, if not all of Asia. Of course . . . " -- he flashed Negako a smile -- "They're nothing compared to Negako-sama."
Negako's eyebrow twitched. "Konatsu . . . "
"Tedai, that's enough," Ayano gently scolded as she playfully batted Negako's arm. "He has every right to admire you, because you're so admirable!"
An incredulous look responded. "Oh?"
"Negako-chan, take it easy for once," Naho added.
The grandmaster shook her head as muted laughter echoed from the others around her. "Um, can I ask a question?" Gekasawa Kumiko then asked.
"What is it, Kumiko?" Negako wondered.
"What does Ayano-san mean when she calls you 'Tedai?'"
"Easily explained," the raven-haired Avalonian replied. "'Te' comes from 'Terra,' the Latin name for your home planet, Kumiko-san." Ayano then sighed. "And my home planet now, I must confess. And 'dai' is Niphentaxian for 'blessed one.' A more proper translation for that would be 'Earth Angel.' It's what we all sometimes call her." She gazed fondly at Negako as she added, "After all, the Earth speaks and she listens."
"You mean you can actually 'hear' the chi and mana flows of everything on Earth, Negako-san?" Kasumi wondered. "Even sense the Dragon Lines?"
"Yes," Negako confirmed with a nod.
"Negako-san, that must overwhelm you at times," Sakiko noted.
"It initially did," Negako replied. "In the more than three years after I was freed from Ataru's subconscious mind, Sakiko, I was bombarded CONSTANTLY with what seemed an endless storm of thoughts, images, feelings and the like from every point on the planet. As Naho, Ayano and their friends may confirm, in the first thousand days of my freedom, I was fully cognizant for, at most, THIRTY of them." She then took a deep breath. "Because of that, I was unable to see what real harm I had unleashed on Ataru."
"Wiping out his memory, you mean," Ryuunosuke mused.
"That and one other matter, Ryuunosuke." Negako closed her eyes. "And I confess it was that second matter which, in part, caused Ataru to attempt to molest you as often as he did from the time he passed into puberty until I restored his memories and removed him from Tomobiki." Another pause, and then the ninjutsu grandmaster added, "Something that I, had I then been in a much more stable frame of mind, would have eliminated from him as soon as possible after I was freed from his subconscious."
Everyone gazed curiously at Negako. "If you don't mind our asking, Negako-san, how exactly did you do that?" Saotome Kumiko asked.
A smile turned the grandmaster's lips. "Before I explain that, Kumiko, I wish you all to consider what my exact situation was at the time I was first inserted into Ataru's subconscious mind." Her eyebrow then arched. "Well?"
She paused to allow the others to think about it. "According to the biography Yumoa-san presented on you on TV Tokyo after the school was wrecked, you became self-conscious in 1808, right?" Shinobu began. At Negako's nod, Ataru's former girlfriend breathed out, "And until you were freed, you worked constantly to try to seize control of your host's body so you could be free."
"As any slave would react when she fully becomes aware of the nature of her slavery," Yusa Rinko added.
"Ataru-kun WASN'T prepared to be your host, right?" Momoe asked.
"You must've felt like you'd hit the jackpot," Sakiko noted.
"Indeed I did, Sakiko," Negako replied. "Everyone, you must understand that at the time I was inserted into Ataru's subconscious, I had never, NEVER truthfully enjoyed any positive experiences with normal humans." Her eyes then focused on the Tendou sisters. "My three encounters with Happy during Emperor Mutsuhito's reign were very brief ones. And in the third encounter, Happy was punished by elements of the Moroboshi Clan ALL BECAUSE he wanted to help me live my own life." She turned back to gaze on the girls from Tomobiki. "In spite of those -- NO, even BECAUSE of those encounters with Happy -- to me, every human I encountered would always potentially contribute, in one way or another, to my continued enslavement." The people around her began to quake on seeing the look of sheer, pure RAGE crossing the grandmaster's face as she continued, "I was a monster that had to be caged at all costs. A beast that should never see the light of day. The ultimate expression of the darkness in human hearts and souls. Anything I did, anything I said . . . " A deep breath. "It was to be ignored. I was a nightmare best forgotten."
"Jesu Cristo!" Shinobu whispered, sympathetic tears welling in her eyes.
Everyone remained silent for a moment, and then Minako said, "And then you got downloaded into Ataru-kun's head."
"Indeed," Negako said. "A five year-old boy. Not prepared in the LEAST to be my host. No one even SUSPECTED where I was at the time it happened. To me, being placed into Ataru was akin to Shinobu here finding the Garden of Eden. I could finally do what I waited YEARS to do. And given the fractious relations between Kinshou and Muchi on one side, Komeru on another, Nagaiwakai on yet another and with Naho in hiding . . . " She shrugged as a sly smile crossed her face. "What could I NOT do in a situation like that?"
Negako then raised an objecting finger. "However, there were problems. Number one: The psionic bond with Saotome Ranma. Number two: The empathic bonds Ataru shared with Priscilla, Tomo and all of their kind. Number three: Ataru's body, if it was to be of ultimate long-term use to me, had to be gradually upgraded so that I could employ all my knowledge and skills when the day came that I would finally free myself. So I had to go forth and seek a way to built up the necessary heavy ki energy -- 'dark' ki if you will -- so that when the day came, I could destroy Ataru's soul and seize his body for myself with as minimal amount of problems as possible. To do that . . . " A pause. "I decided to use Ataru's empathic bonds with Priscilla's people . . . "
"The Sagussans," Nabiki helpfully cut in.
"Thank you, Nabiki," Negako carried on. "Using those empathic bonds and Ataru's inner desire to reunite with the Sagussans, I slowly, gradually transformed him into a receptacle of heavy ki, which was then transmitted into the large mana node that exists under Tomobiki to this very day." She gazed directly at Sakiko and Shinobu. "You encountered one sentient expression of that mana node sometime ago, prior to the second Tag Race."
"The Pseudo-War?" Momoe asked. "That thing under the Tarouzakura hill where Lum disappeared to just before the fighting started?!"
"Exactly, Momoe. The 'Memory of Tomobiki' as it addressed itself."
Nabiki then snapped her fingers. "Oh, I get it now!" She then gazed on Negako. "You made Ataru act like a letch and an idiot to gather up all that dark ki, and then you used this thing under the Tarouzakura as a huge storage battery. And when you finally had enough heavy ki, that would've eventually helped you wipe out Ataru's mind and seize control of his body for your use."
Negako nodded. "Yes."
"Damn!" Ryuunosuke whistled. "So every time Moroboshi went crazy . . . "
"People struck back," Negako finished. "Physical blows, verbal rejections, the growing estrangement between Ataru and his parents, the inability of Ataru to forge any friendships, to say ANYTHING of forging a relationship with Shinobu. And then, after the First Tag Race, energy attacks like Lum's bio-electricity, Oyuki's ice-manipulation powers, Jariten's flame-breath, the threats from Ran to absorb Ataru's youth and other events. ALL that produced heavy ki that his body transmitted to the node under the Tarouzakura for my later use. And as that carried on, his body was slowly but surely altered to Sagussan levels of physical ability. His superhuman speed, his ability to absorb blows that would have killed a normal person, his stamina." A tired smile crossed her face. "All that came originally from me."
"And all you had to do then was sit back and wait," Kasumi added.
"Exactly," Negako replied with nod. "And that was the state of affairs until five years ago, when a woman named Sunhair Windrider . . . "
"The captain of the Zephyrite battlecruiser we locked alongside with after the business with Elle," Nabiki augmented.
Negako nodded. "When Sunhair, the daughter of a friend of Nagaiwakai's from the Zephyrite colony of Magairu, mind-probed Ataru one day when he was visiting Nagaiwakai at Rishiri-tou . . . " She then closed her eyes as tears began to stream down her cheeks. "Her mind made contact with my spirit within Ataru's subconscious. Once she understood what I was, she informed Ataru. He was, despite my attempts at making him ignore whatever had been told to him about me, aware of what I was, how I came into being. And then . . . "
Here, the grandmaster stopped, her eyes turning to the table before her. The others stared at her, all of them anxious to hear what happened next, yet afraid to come out and ask Negako to continue. Finally, Nabiki breathed out as she reached over to squeeze her hand. "Then what, Negako?"
Negako blinked before she reached up to wipe her eyes. "And then, Ataru did something I never believed ANY human being outside possibly Happy would ever have done for me. He asked Nagaiwakai a very simple question." A pause. "'Why can't she have her own life?'"
* * *
"Oh, by the Lady Pizalna! It just CAN'T be . . . "
The hunters gazed on Varena. After identifying the Maidens by the jumpsuit the Yizibajohei-born one was wearing, Hinanba and Pamanba had psi-flashed their friends. As soon as the other junior hunters had gotten dressed and prepped their kit, everyone raced over to join their friends in the hedge bordering the manicured lawn surrounding the Crystal Palace. As the younger ones took turns looking through their binoculars to take in all the details, Varena and Mujanba walked off to one side to put their heads together and decide what to do next. Still, even the witch hunters from Colony Nine were excited. This after all, to any Vosian, was the ultimate first contact:
To actually MEET the Maidens of the Eternal Voyager!
"Major, you recognize the Pirpirsiw'r?" Kanba asked.
Varena nodded as she lowered her binoculars. A smile crossed her face as she gazed on her friends. "As a matter of fact, Kanba, I do. She's Izripra of Varakos, a court sage. One of the wisest people ever to live."
"I thought no one was to know any of their real names," Ryoonba said.
"The common folk on Yehisril, yes," Varena confirmed. "My great-grandfather on my mother's side, however, was a wandering mystic from the northern hills of Kyotos who was willing to teach his craft to anyone who wanted to learn and had the aptitude to learn. Lady Izripra, when she was on her honour-quest before she was formally welcomed into the Sisterhood of Steel, trained under him." The "Sisterhood of Steel" was the most common name applied to the Most Dangerous Ones as a group. "He grieved when Lady Izripra was killed, but later became overjoyed when he later sensed that the Eternal Voyager had come and taken her off to its home planet."
"Yeah, wherever that is," Hinanba mused.
"So what's the plan, Major?" Ikura, a grey-eyed, platinum-haired azhis'f and another of Bujosur's former personal harem, wondered.
"We stay here for the time being, Ikura," Mujanba answered for the other Colony Nine native. Instantly sensing the disappointed looks appearing on the younger hunters' faces, the captain chuckled. "Girls, I know you all want to meet them. Believe me, I'm as excited about this as you are. But we have to keep this in mind: Lecasur's original contact with the Voyager really didn't produce a lot of hard data on the Maidens. And much of that was later lost when Lecasur disappeared with the Unification. We can't base our opinions on the legends, wild theories and what-have-you when it comes to the Voyager and the Maidens. Now's the time for hard facts. Understood?"
Nods from the others. "Don't forget, the Maidens might have detailed intelligence on events on Vos," Varena added with a warning finger. "After all, it WAS the Voyager that destroyed that Ultimate Weapon those rogue Kamahanites might have used against the Mikado."
The others nodded. Forty years ago, relations between the military dictatorship running the Confederation of Vos and all its immediate galactic neighbours -- including the Royal Kingdoms of Yehisril, Vos' oldest ally and economic trading partner -- began to plummet into the sub-strata when elements of the Mikado's cabinet began to make ominous noises about territorial expansion into sectors of space already claimed by those other powers. It got to the point where radical militarist elements from Kamahana, a planet near Zephyrite space which was the home of a highly-advanced race of reptilian humanoids, seized control of an Ultimate Weapon (a six kilometre-long flying antimatter gun that could easily blast apart a small star) and moved to use it against Vos itself to force the Mikado to abdicate. The Voyager intercepted the Ultimate Weapon near Tokkaebos (an independent world which shared the same solar system as Vos Colony Forty), and destroyed it with its anti-proton shock cannons. Despite the resulting propaganda that loudly declared the Eternal Voyager clearly supported the Mikado's "benevolent dictatorship," cooler heads later concluded the Voyager had intervened simply to prevent some idiot from turning Vos into an asteroid field and slaughtering billions of its citizens.
"That's true," Kanba mused.
"What do you suppose they're doing here, anyway?" Ryoonba asked.
"Yeah, why ARE they here?" Ikura parroted her friend.
"Could they be after the Sceptre?" Pamanba wondered.
A chorus of confused and concerned looks was exchanged by everyone. "It might be a possibility," Varena mused. "The Keeper didn't mention anything about anything else being stored in the Palace outside the Sceptre."
"But why would the Maidens want the Sceptre?" Sanba, a green-haired, purple-eyed girl who was yet another of Bujosur's harem, asked.
"We can ask them," Kanba proposed.
"Can we do that?" Hinanba wondered.
* * *
As whispered chatter picked up between the hunters, the young girl kneeling beside Sanba slowly stood, silently turning to head deeper into the forest surrounding the Crystal Palace, and then she started arcing toward the Palace itself. This was Tsuna, the last of Bujosur's harem. An azhis'f like Varena and Ikura, Tsuna was a petite girl with hazel eyes and black hair. She was only three years past the Wild Time, when Yehisrites and a fair proportion of azhis'f hybrids underwent a frightening month-long series of hormonal surges and depressions prior to the onslaught of puberty (and for azhis'f hybrids, the coming of Stop Time, when the growth and aging process of Vosians was slowed to one-fifth the rate of Terrans). Like all azhis'f females who had accepted Yehisrite cultural influences over Vosian influences, Tsuna cut her hair VERY short; for pureblood Vosian women, hair was NEVER cut until she recognized someone -- or when (as in Mujanba's case) one discovered one was a lesbian. For Tsuna, the coming of Stop Time had nearly destroyed her; she had been addicted to kookyuu for two years when the coming of the Wild Time added to the damage the drug had done to her effectively wrecked twenty percent of her brain tissue. It didn't affect her combat effectiveness; in fact, the teachers at Mensohn soon learned that Tsuna could take on injuries that could normally incapacitate other hunters. But to ensure Tsuna could be used in the field, she needed a handler. Sanba had been specially trained to do just that.
But there came times . . .
* * *
"Hasei'cha to landing team. Can you hear me? Mie? Makoto? Ayumu?"
Mie tapped her communicator. "Hey, Spea! How far out are you guys?!"
"Our ETA your position is about eighty minutes, Mie," Eluza's voice cut in. "Status report, Makoto?" she then asked.
"Hinako-sama and Aria-sama are inside the Palace now, Eluza," Makoto spoke up. "The Keeper -- he's the only person who seems to live at this place -- insisted that they go in alone to get the Genesis Wand. They went in about thirty minutes ago. So far, we haven't seen them come out."
"Can you keep track of them?" Eluza asked.
Makoto shook her head. "Negative. The Palace is built out of carbonized neutronium. Our scanners can't penetrate inside."
"Hinako-chan has the Staff with her, so they should be okay," Mie added.
A sigh echoed over the communication lines. "You better hope so, girls."
"We hear you, Eluza," Mie replied.
"What's your status, Ayumu?" Eluza then asked.
"I'm okay," the Navy master chief petty officer replied. "Oh, and there're nine Vosian hunters in the forest near the Palace."
"WHAT?!" Eluza screamed.
Makoto's eyes snapped around to scan the forest around the Palace. She then locked in on some odd shapes barely hidden in the hedge bush that framed the lawn. Peering intently at those shapes, the flightmistress growled, "Oh, wonderful! Hate to say this, Eluza, but I think that intelligence report about the Mikado going after the Sceptre of Lecasur turned out not to be so bogus!"
"Ah! Hi, there!"
Makoto and Mie snapped around to see a black-haired azhis'f girl with strangely dull hazel eyes standing in front of Ayumu, dressed in the field uniform of enlisted members of the Special Hunter Corps. Given her youth, the girl's chichi-fur kill-belt was knotted in only a couple of places. To Makoto's and Ayumu's surprise, the girl was staring directly at Seikou Mie.
* * *
"Oh, damn!" Varena gasped on seeing what was happening some metres away.
"I'm sorry, Major!" Sanba sobbed as her hands yanked on her hair. She just HATED it whenever Tsuna pulled stunts like this!
"What's she doing?!" Pamanba demanded.
* * *
"Mama . . . "
Mie jolted as that very timid voice warped past her, and then she focused her eyes on the girl staring at her. There seemed a hopeful yet lost look on her face as those sorrowful hazel eyes seemed to glare right into the Terran-turned-Sagussan's soul. Mie shuddered as her heart started to do very hard flip-flops as the unspoken plea literally SCREAMING from the younger girl's face registered deep within her heart. Then again, given Seikou Mie's personal situation, her reaction was understandable.
As one of the oldest of the Daishi'cha, Mie had waited a VERY long time -- over nine thousand years! -- to do her part for the Grand Design of the Fifth Republic of Sagussa. Then tack onto that her unique experience of actually living for over a decade as an adopted member of an honest-to-Eternity FAMILY. A family that had welcomed her with open arms. Helped her deal with her amnesia. Helped her build a new life. Gave her the chance to care for her adopted sister and brother, Seikou Tamiko and Seikou Suzume.
And she also knew the story of Daishi'cha #100000, Tenba.
A former Special Hunter Corps trainee like the girl standing before Mie.
Most likely, she came from Tenba and Nassur's school at Mensohn.
And if the dull look on the girl's face spoke the tale, she might be a kookyuu addict like Tenba herself had been in her first life.
The onslaught of maternal instincts is often very high in a Sagussan.
Especially in situations like this.
Mie blinked back her own tears as she walked up to sweep Tsuna into her arms. Feeling that warm embrace, the azhis'f shuddered as sobs began to burst from her lungs, she quickly wrapping her arms around Mie's waist. "Mama . . .! Mama . . . " she moaned in Vosian as she buried her face in Mie's cleavage.
Automatically, Mie's hands came up to gently rub the younger girl's hair as she made gentle cooing noises to keep Tsuna calm. Hands then fell on her shoulders. Mie jerked, and then she smiled at Makoto.
* * *
"Captain . . . "
"It's alright, Sanba. I see it."
"What do we do?" Hinanba asked.
"By the looks of it, contact's been made," Pamanba mused.
Mujanba and Varena exchanged looks. "Good point," the major then mused.
* * *
"Ya know, Negako, it ain't really your fault."
Negako blinked as Ryuunosuke's comment echoed in her ears, and then she sighed. "Perhaps. Still, because I never took the chance to see what my failure to shut off that particular modification inside Ataru's body would eventually do to him, I presently have no choice but to consider it my ultimate responsibility, Ryuunosuke. If I chose to behave otherwise . . . " She paused at this point before shaking her head. "No."
"So what's the overall plan now, Naho-san?" Nabiki asked.
Negako's "mother" took a deep breath. "If there are those in Tomobiki who would desire some restitution because of those incidents which involved Ataru-chan's libido going out of control, such will be granted." She raised a finger. "Within reason, of course. This is the condition the sisters have insisted on. As far as they're concerned, this pathetic attitude that's developed over the last two years concerning Ataru-chan being responsible for EVERYTHING strange or unusual that happened there . . . "
"That's gotta go once and for all," Ryuunosuke finished.
"Exactly," Naho replied, nodding. "That is part of the reason that the sisters have decided that never again will Ataru-chan live in Tomobiki. The other part . . .?" She then waved to Negako. "Well, Negako-chan just told you about the heavy ki she had stored in that mana node under the Tarouzakura hill. If Ataru-chan returned to live in Tomobiki while that was still there . . . "
"Are you going to get rid of it, Negako-san?" Gekasawa Kumiko asked.
"Eventually." Negako nodded. "It will have to be done with delicacy. I have a plan as to how to accomplish that. It will be executed after Oogi has been finally dealt with and the Avalonians are freed."
"When does Darling plan to move against that sub-creature?" Sakiko asked.
"Most likely Saturday."
"Saturday?!" Shinobu echoed the grandmaster's statement, and then her eyes widened as it hit her. "Mendou-san's wedding?!"
"Quite correct," Negako stated with an icy smile. "Given the sheer gutting-out of the Church of Lum on Phentax Two thanks to the Staff of Gihan -- to say anything of how the survivors there must presently view the 'martyrdom' of Satoshi, Hiroyuki, Akira and Koosuke . . . "
"And Lum's 'death,' too," Ryuunosuke added.
"Plus Ran's and Jariten's 'disappearances,'" Minako noted.
"Indeed," Negako acknowledged with a nod. "The leaders of the Church's observers here on Earth will likely see Shuutarou's marriage to Asuka as yet another 'heinous act' by the 'Great Evil' against the Church, done in hopes destroying the 'holy company.' Thus . . . "
"It's gotta get stopped no matter what," Ryuunosuke finished.
"Are you making plans towards doing that?" Sakiko asked.
"But of course. I assume you wished to be involved."
"Damn right we do!" Shinobu spat, her whole body quaking. "After reading that 'holy book' of theirs . . .!"
She squeezed her eyes shut as angry tears began to spill down her cheeks. Hands then fell on her shoulders. Shinobu started, and then she looked over to see Minako gazing concernedly at her. The former then gave the latter a thankful smile before she reached up to wipe her cheeks clean. "Arigatou, Minako-chan," she said before leaning over to kiss the rose-haired Avalonian's cheek. Shinobu then turned back to Negako. "I have to be involved, Negako-san. After reading that 'Book of Lum,' I HAVE to be involved. They spied on my most intimate words! They then copied them so that everyone on their planet could read them. And worst of all, instead of showing my words unedited, they turned around and TWISTED my words to make it seem as if I believed that Ataru, a man I still love with all my heart and soul, was the most evil creature in all of Creation!" Taking a deep breath, she continued, "I can guess that Ataru took the chance to read that book after he went to Phentax Two to try to deal with Oogi." Hearing the shocked gasps from Ryuunosuke and Sakiko, Shinobu turned to look at the latter. "It was easy for me to figure out what happened, Sakiko-chan. You were the one who told us what happened on that planet, remember? Once I took that in and thought about what Ataru said to us in Mendou-san's study on Saturday, it was easy to draw conclusions."
The Nendo-kata considered that, and then she sighed. "That I did."
"We still should'a told you," Ryuunosuke stated apologetically.
"It's alright," Shinobu assured her.
Negako took a breath. "Very well, then. If you wish to be involved, you may. But exact plans will have to wait until Ataru and the others return from their trip." She gazed on Sakiko, a smile crossing her face. "Shinobu, Momoe and Kumiko have stated their response to what I have just said, Sakiko. Do you wish anything from us in response to what happened between you and Ataru?"
Sakiko shook her head. "Iie. As Ran, I actually tried to kill Darling several times in my own quest to seek vengeance against Lum-chan. As far as I'm personally concerned, things are even between us." She then smirked as she added, "Besides, while I was undergoing the Crossing Over, Darling came and boosted my bio-energy levels to the point where I could fully endure the Crossing Over without slipping into the Black Ocean."
"What?!" Ryuunosuke gaped. "Why didn't ya tell ME about that?!"
The Nendo-kata returned her lover's look. "Ryuu-chan, you were already angry enough at Darling for what his words on Saturday did to Shinobu-chan."
The tomboy blinked, and then she sighed. "Yeah, that's true . . . "
"What about you, Ryuunosuke-chan?" Naho asked as people moved to stare at the tomboy. "Is there something you might want from us now?"
Silence fell as everyone gazed on Sakiko's lover. Ryuunosuke's eyes turned inward for a moment before she breathed out. "Well . . . "
"You wish to know what ultimately happened to your mother, do you not?"
The tomboy jerked as her eyes snapped up to stare on Negako. Naho's hand rose to her mouth to mask her smile. Ayano rolled her eyes in exasperation. Most of the others in the room stared in shock at the ninjutsu grandmaster. Nabiki breathed out before she gave Negako an annoyed glare. "I was right all along! You really NEED to learn a little something called 'tact,' Negako!"
Negako ignored her. Ryuunosuke blinked as she considered what Ataru's adopted sister just said, and then she took a breath before she asked, "Can you do it?" People looked at her. "Can you tell me about what happened to Mom?"
"Yes, I can," Negako replied. "But I believe that Yotsuba might desire the opportunity to inform you of Masako's fate."
Everyone blinked. "Why Yotsuba-chan, Negako-san?" Kasumi asked.
"As you all must be aware, Yotsuba wishes to be a private investigator after she graduates from university," Negako replied. "When she came to Japan after I informed her of her relationship to Ataru, she took it on herself to further what investigations the corporate intelligence wing of Toranoseishin Finances had carried out on everyone on Earth who associated with Ataru."
"Who ordered them?" Shinobu asked.
"Yumoa Reigi," Negako replied as she gave Ataru's former girlfriend a knowing look. "I believe you understand why, Shinobu."
Shinobu blinked as she remembered hers and Ryuunosuke's encounter with Toranoseishin's chief of operations a fortnight after the bombing of Tomobiki High by Ibrahim Alhamzi. "Hai, that's true, I guess," she then mused.
"Could ya tell me what happened, Negako-san?" Ryuunosuke then pleaded. "Please? I don't wanna wait for Yotsuba to do it."
The grandmaster stared at her, and then she sighed. "Would you prefer to be informed in private?" Seeing Ryuunosuke glance briefly at Shinobu, and then at Sakiko, Negako smiled. "With Shinobu and Sakiko in attendance, of course."
"Maybe you better head over to her place to do that," Ukyou then proposed. "You want some take-out just in case, Negako-san?"
"Please," Naho responded on her "daughter's" behalf.
"Ensure you create several 'Noa-chan Specials,' Ukyou," Negako added.
The okonomiyaki chef jolted before she gave the ninjutsu grandmaster a knowing look. "You're scary when you do that, Negako-san!"
"As I said, Ukyou-sama," Konatsu said. "Negako-sama is simply the best."
"That she is!" Saotome Kumiko added with a nod.
Laughter filled the room as people stood. "Kasumi, Nabiki, I assume you do not desire to spend the night in your home," Negako declared as she gazed on them. "Would you require arrangements to spend the night elsewhere?"
"It's okay, Negako-san," Nabiki assured her. "Pri-chan told me that once she got done doing whatever job she had to go off to do, she'd come back and bring Onee-chan and I to her friend's ship so we could spend the night there."
Kasumi blinked several times before she turned to gaze on her sister. "Nabiki-chan, I didn't see you and Priss-san talk about . . . "
"We talked with our minds and fingertips, Onee-chan," Nabiki cut in as she raised her right hand in emphasis. "Not our mouths."
The Tendou matriarch took that in, and then she looked down. "Nabiki?"
"What is it, Onee-chan?"
"Can I become an Avalonian, too?"
Hearing that, Ayano, Mutsumi and Rinko beamed with delight. Nabiki hummed as she reached over to give Kasumi's shoulder a gentle squeeze. "Onee-chan, you can't become an Avalonian." Before Kasumi's face fell, Nabiki then grinned. "Because, with all the gods and goddesses here and on Sagussa as my witnesses, you WILL become an Avalonian! There's no way in HELL that I'm going to watch you grow old and die at a time when I'm physically not even past the equivalent of twenty-five here on Earth! Got me?!"
Kasumi's eyes went wide, and then she nodded. "Hai!"
"Is this something we all can do?!" Ukyou asked.
Nabiki laughed. "Trust me on this one, Ukyou: With our connections to Ranma-chan and Ataru-kun, that's not just merely a possibility!" She winked knowingly at the okonomiyaki chef. "It's as much of a guarantee as owning a whole stack of American Treasury bills!"
Everyone laughed.
* * *
Twenty minutes later, the Tendou sisters and Horikawa Mutsumi stepped out of Okonomiyaki U-chan's. The bespectacled Avalonian had some take-out in hand for herself, her companions, Nabiki's would-be bond-mate and extras for any Sagussan who might desire to sample a Noa-chan Special fresh from the grill of Kuonji Ukyou. Marubeya Momoe and Gekasawa Kumiko had gone back to Tomobiki ten minutes before. Five minutes after that, Fujinami Ryuunosuke -- plus her lover, her best friend and her best friend's would-be bond-mate -- had headed off with Negako, Naho, Ayano and Rinko to the Moroboshi home.
"Mutsumi-chan, your don't have to come along with us if you happen to have business elsewhere," Kasumi gently protested as the three women headed in the general direction of the Tendou home as the lights in U-chan's dimmed.
"I choose to stay with you for the time being, Kasumi-chan," Mutsumi asserted as she gave Kasumi a knowing look. "Even if you would not desire me in an intimate way, you do need someone to help you deal with all your feelings stemming from what just happened to your father."
Kasumi shuddered, and then she whispered, "But you used to be a . . . "
"A prostitute."
The older woman jolted, and then she nodded. "Hai."
"Kasumi-chan, much that I understand you revulsion at what I used to do, there are some positive benefits from my time at the brothel." As Kasumi and Nabiki gazed at her, Mutsumi continued, "Not all my tricks were the atypical slobbering letch that only wanted to stab his stick up between my legs to get his rocks off. I've had to deal with husbands and wives who came to me seeking emotional support to make their marriages better, someone to tell them that the dark times wouldn't last forever. I've had to deal with boys and girls who saw me as a safe way to enjoy their first true sexual experience. Divorcees who had gone through an emotional hell when they had their marriages ended and they just didn't know what to do with themselves at the time . . . "
"In other words, as well as being the perfect sex-toy, you were also the perfect shoulder to cry on," Nabiki cut in.
"Pretty much so."
"Don't you hate them, Mutsumi-chan?" Kasumi asked. "The Niphentaxians?"
"Hate them?" She shook her head. "No, I don't hate them, Kasumi-chan. I pity them. As much as Sagussan genetics rules my life, the Niphentaxians' genetics rules theirs. And no matter how hard some of them have tried to find some way to break them free out of this 'find something and worship it to death' conditioning they all have, others have risen up to smash them down time and time again. I want to live my life as a free person. Thanks to Mizuho (who brought me here), Naho-sama (who helped me establish my life as 'Horikawa Mutsumi') and Negako-sama (who severed the link I once had with the factory, plus undid my sterilization), I AM living my life as a free person. And to ensure that what happened to my people won't happen again, what better thing to wish for then to ensure the Niphentaxians can live their lives as truly free people!" She then stared at Kasumi. "Isn't that the right thing to do?"
Kasumi considered that, and then she nodded. "Hai, it is."
"Hey, there you are!"
They stopped, spinning around as someone in a black-and-blue jumpsuit ran up. "Yo, Tomo!" Nabiki hailed with a wave.
"Konban wa, Tomo-san!" Kasumi called out as she bowed.
Tomo noted the package in Mutsumi's hand. "Oh, great!" she declared with a grin as she took in the succulent scent of heated red pepper powder. "I always wanted to try one of those! Well, ready to head on up?!"
"Damn straight, Master Chief," Nabiki declared.
Tomo tapped her bracelet. "Tomo to Yomi. Four to beam up, with supper!"
"You got it!" her bond-mate responded.
A transporter beam then seized them. "Oh, my!" Kasumi gasped.
* * *
They materialized on the pilotage of the Haengge'cha. Immediately, Koyomi stood from the main control station. "Welcome aboard," the chief engineer artificer declared with a smile as she walked up to the newcomers.
Kasumi blinked as the strange feeling of having her atoms scrambled around while she had been shifted over 150,000 kilometres from Nerima faded, and then she breathed out, "Oh, MY! That was such a strange feeling . . .!"
Koyomi nodded. "First time in a transporter?" she asked. After Kasumi nodded, she laughed. "Don't worry, Kasumi-san. Everyone reacts that way."
"No matter what system you use," Mutsumi added before she handed the package of okonomiyaki over. "From U-chan's, Koyomi-san!"
"Thank you," Koyomi said as she took the package, and then she placed it on a nearby table. "In the meantime . . . "
A communicator chime sounded off. "Chiyo to Yomi," a voice then declared over the speakers. "Please respond."
"Yomi here. Go, Chiyo," the artificer hailed.
"The two Avalonians Priss required are ready to be sent down to Onogawa."
"Right." Koyomi walked over to tap buttons on her control console, and then she nodded. "Okay, got the trace. Energizing in thirty seconds."
Hearing that, Nabiki and Mutsumi quickly got off the transporter pad, they pulling Kasumi with them. Right at the moment Koyomi had marked, two columns of human-shaped light briefly appeared before they vanished once more. Watching that, Kasumi was quick to notice some familiar details on one of them. She then gazed on Koyomi. "Priss-san had a replica of Auntie Nodoka made?"
"Hopefully, that'll convince Ranma-sama's mother not to kill herself," the artificer said with a confirming nod.
The Tendou matriarch took that in, and then she gasped, "Oh, MY!"
"Yomi?" Chiyo's voice called over from the bioroid factory.
"Yeah, Chiyo, what is it?" Koyomi replied.
"We'll need a place to store Gloriana's new body. Otako doesn't want to risk that kide'ne Oogi finding out about that."
"Right! How soon will it be done?"
"A lot longer than expected, Koyomi," a new voice spoke. "Asuka-sama's DNA is unique. It's like dealing with a damned Yizibajohei, I think. The gestation buffers are having a hard time getting everything set up correctly."
"Okay, understood. Is there any danger, Otako?"
"No." Everyone sensed the derision in Otako's voice as she explained, "The ot'ndai-Zkuhsbagh is currently in a meditative trance. He insisted he not be woken until Ataru-sama returned so that he could personally order the final and complete destruction of the 'great evil.'"
"Yeah, RIGHT! Like we'd EVER let that happen!" Tomo snarled.
"Damned straight about that," Koyomi added with a nod.
"Hearing about your interest in him, dear cousins, I don't blame you for feeling that way," Otako said. "Any further business?"
"Yes!" Nabiki then called out. "We need one new body for my sister!"
"Who's that?!" Chiyo asked.
"Priss' would-be marei'cha, Tendou Nabiki," Koyomi declared.
The doctor then hummed. "Oh, I see . . . "
"An honour to meet you, sister," Otako then spoke up. "Hopefully soon, I will have the pleasure to meet you in person."
Nabiki blinked, and then she breathed out. "I look forward to that day, sister. Now, how about Kasumi-oneechan . . . "
"We've got one ready," Otako said. "But we need a DNA scan first."
"We'll get it done and send it over right away," Koyomi promised.
* * *
"You are wondering why I am doing this, are you not?"
Mecha-Rinrin rotated its head to gaze on Kaeru. Both were in Rinrin's private laboratory, located between hers and Yotsuba's room on the third floor of Welcome House's rotunda. The sounds of construction echoed through the walls as the Nagussan engineer's robots continued work on expanding the rotunda. Not to mention put in a covered starship dock that extended from the seashore beside Welcome House out a hundred metres; that was being built for the Windrider, plus Kaeru's own probe ship and whatever other vessel might come to Oomure-jima to visit. In the glass tube before Kaeru, a distinctly female shape floated in an opaque soup saturated with millions of nanites. The tube Rinrin set up for final work on Mecha-Rinrin II was conspicuously empty.
Considering Kaeru's question, the robot slowly tilted its head in a nod. "The answer is quite simple," the engineer declared as his lips twitched into a smile. "My return to this planet was necessitated by certain social needs my parents and friends on Nagussa could not provide. It is fortunate that atop my twin, there are my female relatives to call upon to assist me in this matter."
Before he could explain further, Kaeru was distracted by a beeping noise from his data-computer. "Ah . . . " he breathed out as he stared at the readout, and then he gazed on what was being constructed in the tube before him. "More than sufficient. Rinrin's replica should be complete in 16.35 minutes. Behavioural programming could then be initiated via Rinrin's primary computer." A pause as he considered something, and then he gazed on Mecha-Rinrin. "Would you like to have your systems upgraded?"
The robot remained still, though the rotating antenna atop its head had suddenly halted as the Nagussan's surprising offer registered deep in its main processors. After a minute's consideration, Mecha-Rinrin inclined its head in a nod. "After I commence programming Rinrin's replica, we will determine the best type of modification for you. I believe Rinrin will be most pleased with the results I presently am considering."
Mecha-Rinrin's antenna began to rotate once more.
* * *
"Koosei, is Noa-sama angry at us?"
Ryooki Koosei blinked as that question echoed in his mind for a moment, and then he turned to gaze on the Oni woman lying on the diagnostic bed in the Konggh'cha's medical station. "What makes you think that Noa-san would be angry at you, Jon?" he gently asked.
Redet Jon -- born as Seq Jon, younger sister to Seq Chim (who, on her marriage, became known as "Mrs. Invader") and third cousin to Rei's mother Yedris -- closed her eyes. "Because Noa-sama and the Maidens gave the Noukiites their fast ships to attack us with. They gave them the new planets the Noukiites could use to resettle all their people." Shamed tears trailed down her cheeks. "Noa-sama, Honii-sama and Syl-sama hate us, Koosei! They hate us! We've offended them somehow and they hate us!"
Koosei walked over to place hands on Jon's cheeks as he leaned down to kiss her forehead. "No, Jon! No!" he whispered as he stroked his nose across her forehead. "They're not angry at your people, Jon. They're not. Okay?"
Jon's lips twitched into a content smile as Koosei held his head against hers, her hands shakily rising up to cover his and keep them close to her. While some people might consider such an act quite provocative in the very least -- especially when the one doing it was the potential fiancé to the heiress of the throne of Neptune and the one it was being done to had just lost her husband -- Koosei knew that Jon desperately needed this contact to help keep her spirits up. Being unable to walk in Oni-Urusian society was seen as bad enough. But to be unable to FLY . . .?! That was worse. INFINITELY worse. Ruefully remembering how much Japanese society often looked at those with physical disabilities, Koosei tried not to frown. People in wheelchairs in Tokyo had it easy compared to Onis with jet packs in Onishuto.
"Can you be sure . . .?"
Koosei blinked as he pulled his head back so he could stare clearly into Jon's eyes. "Yeah, I'm sure." He took a deep breath. "Jon, Yethis and his gang deliberately attacked and murdered the Chosen One's grandmother when the First Tag Race was going down." While Jon had learned everything about Sagussa over the last week or so, Koosei kept to the "traditional legendary" titles used by the races inside the Galactic Barrier when it came to the Daishi'cha and their Daimon'cha. "As far as the Maidens are concerned, any attack -- ANY attack! -- on any of the Chosen One's family is an attack on the Chosen One himself. And if someone attacked the Chosen One like that, the Maidens would consider it an attack on themselves. How should have they reacted, then?"
"They why did they allow Lum to be with the Chosen One, Koosei?"
"Because they believed that Lum-chan was the Chosen One's Other, Jon," Koosei replied. "I told you this already. When the Maidens first brought him to Sagussa, they discovered that the Chosen One had a subconscious psi-bond with somebody out there. And when Lum-chan elected to remain on Earth after the Tag Race, the Maidens began to believe that she was the 'Other.' That made her very special in the Maidens' eyes."
"But Lum wasn't his 'Other,' was she . . .?"
Koosei shook his head. "No, Jon. It was someone else from Earth." And ironies of ironies, given how bad Ataru's rep's became after he got 'engaged' to Lum-chan, that he was bonded to another man by Lufy . . .! he mused as he leaned up to give Jon a tender kiss on her forehead. "But from what I've learned from Nassur and Dakejinzou, he still cares for Lum-chan very much."
"Even after all the things she did to him?"
He nodded. "Yeah, even after all of that . . . "
A knock. Koosei looked over to the doorway leading into sickbay, his eyes widening. "What are YOU doing here?!"
The green-eyed, crimson-haired Seishin-born woman in the jumpsuit marking her as a physical education and health officer -- light green top, red pants, gold trim -- gave him a smile as she stepped inside. "I came to see what I could do about helping another innocent victim."
Jon tilted her head down so she could stare at the newcomer, and then her eyes went wide as the Sagussan's features became as clear as crystal to the crippled Oni. To ANY native of Uru, Oni or Seishin, this woman was one of the most important heroes in the tortured history of that world, second only to her very own sister. Noa and Honii. Both born bioroids nine hundred years before, created by a scientist who had used stolen Seifukusu technology to create the perfect pair of Amazon-like warriors -- much like the Pirpirsiw'r had later become on Yehisril -- who later gave up their lives to help liberate Uru from under the heavy boot of the Imperial Houses of the Seifukusu Dominion.
These days, to Jon's people as a whole, the Maidens of Aruka were nothing short of demigods to a people who, thanks very much to what the Seifukusu had done to them over a span of three centuries, had never really developed their own native theology. The place tradition had long stated where Noa and Honii had finally fallen fighting the hordes of the Dominion -- it was on Shingetsu, Ran's home colony world -- was the site of a shrine that was one of the most frequently visited destinations for Urusians. The descendants of the House of Aruka, which Ran herself had been a part of, looked on the Maidens as their most sacred ancestors. And thanks to that fame -- later augmented when Ran's kinswoman Aruka Syl had died at the start of the Union Revolution two centuries before, she having been personally retrieved by Noa and the Eternal Voyager on the day that changed Urusian history -- a cult had formed around the legends of the Maidens of Aruka. A cult that had, over the years, transmitted a prophecy that foretold of the Chosen One, with Noa and Honii at his side, to rescue Uru from its darkest hour. A prophecy that also contained a dire warning:
Harm the Chosen One in ANY way and a disaster worse than even the Seifukusu Conquest would befall Uru.
"Honii-sama . . .!"
The woman, who actually spelled her name in Roman script as "Honey" (in reflection of her resemblance to the "battle" form of Kisaragi Honey, the android hero of Nagai Goh's manga series), bowed her eyes as she walked over to stand beside the diagnostic bed. Koosei straightened himself as he gave Honey a sympathetic look. Staring on Ten's mother, Honey took a breath before she reached over to caress Jon's face. "Don't call me that, please," she whispered as a thumb reached up to wipe away the tears. "Regardless of how much your leaders hurt us when they ordered the death of our Daimon'cha's grandmother . . . " She nearly choked as her own tears began to flow. "With Lyna as my witness, I swear that we never, NEVER wanted all that to happen to you."
Jon blinked before she closed her eyes. "Forgive us, please."
"If you'll forgive us."
The firefighter nodded. With that, Honey leaned down to embrace her.
* * *
"Okay, Koyomi, we just got the DNA scan. Commencing work now."
"Thanks, Otako."
Otako tapped her communicator to sever the link with the Haengge'cha, and then she turned to gaze on the gestation units before her. Beside her, Chiyo was monitoring progress via her personal tricorder. "Okay, time to get this one done," the raven-haired Avalonian declared as she tapped controls under the chamber still holding a non-templated bioroid. "This should be a lot easier than Gloriana's new body," she then added.
"A plain Terran instead of one with non-Terran ancestry," Chiyo mused.
Otako stared at her. "Is that what you think Asuka-sama actually is?"
"It's a possibility," Chiyo confessed. "I need to spend some time in my laboratory splicing Asuka-san's blood samples apart to see what makes them tick. With all the reports we have on her and her mother, I'd swear Saeko-san must've been rocketed from Yiziba when she was a baby, just like that Superman character that appears in American comics."
"Yeah, it could actually be that!" Otako agreed.
Both women laughed. "It's ironic," the replica of the high priestess of the Hegane Sect continued as she turned her eyes onto the bioroid that would soon hold the living soul of the spiritual mother of all Avalonians. "Back when the Church of Hollywood was in its primacy, there were cults that were formed around the various 'superheroes' that appeared in American serial films. Superman, Batman, Captain Marvel and the like . . . " A pause. "From what my other-self learned when the Great Awakening happened and people began to convert to the Church of Lum, many of the descendants of those cults were later willing to convert over and create a single 'Cult of the Fifth Holy Apostle's Beloved' in Asuka-sama's honour. I wonder how Asuka-sama would look on that."
"I doubt she even knows about what Ataru-sama told his former associates about the Church sometime ago," Chiyo noted. "Then again, from what I know of Asuka-san, she's been deliberately kept naive about a lot of things. Any attempts to make her fully understand the true facts of life have gone up like so much antimatter. Actually thinking she can have sex with her own brother, mistaking Fujinami Ryuunosuke as yet another 'onii-sama' . . .! Lyna, she was once even convinced by Mendou Ryooko that her own fiancé was a monster from outer space!" She shook her head. "To believe I went up to her and said, 'Do you want to be a hero?' And she went along with it, just like that!"
The doctor snapped her fingers in emphasis. Otako nodded, and then a smirk crossed her face. "To believe . . . " she breathed out.
"Moroboshi Ataru, the Chosen One of the Eternal Voyager," the Avalonian stated. "Daimon'cha and Daite'cha of the Fifth Republic of Sagussa. If the ot'ndai-Zkuhsbagh ever learned about that prior to when his precious 'goddess' was expelled from Earth once and for all . . . "
"True," the Sagussan mused with a grim nod. "Fortunately, the Elder Mother was able to spot all the Church's observers in Tomobiki in her recent visits to look in on Ataru-sama. She was able to avoid them as easily as she was able to avoid Tendou Nabiki's spies in Nerima."
"Was Nabiki really that bad?"
"And then some, but it was for an understandable cause in the end."
"What'll you do with her when she moves to Sagussa?"
"Put her in Resource Management, most likely," Chiyo replied. "She'd have loads of fun trying to figure out how the local interstellar economy works. All the different monetary scales, the uncertainties when it comes to dealing with different planets with different needs, what planets have what resources, what are actually considered precious metals on other worlds . . . "
"So you're saying that Priss chose quite well."
Chiyo gave her a look, her lips turned up in a grin. "Otako, as you're well aware, when the 'time of month' hits us, it's not always a conscious choice." She then gazed on her tricorder. "Lyna, I swear that sometimes, people on Sagussa are just as bad as people on Vos!"
Otako smirked. "Yeah, our version of recognition!"
* * *
On the Haengge'cha, Nabiki sneezed.
* * *
Otako then gave Chiyo an appraising look. "So, Sensei, do you have one?"
Chiyo returned her look, and then she grinned as she gave Gloriana's body a detailed look-over with her tricorder. "A bond-mate? No, not yet. I have a lover, though. She's Sylia, Priss' commander in Troop Six. We want to press it all the way to a bond-mating, but . . . "
"Since she's a Pathfinder and you're a doctor, you're possibly looking for another girl to make it a three-way," Otako quickly concluded.
"Unfortunately." Chiyo gave the Avalonian a curious look. "Interested?"
"I could be tempted," Otako mused. "My other-self kept me isolated from outside society. I never got the chance to interact with other Avalonians from the day I emerged from gestation until the day the ot'ndai-Zkuhsbagh ordered all our recall to the factory before the Cataclysm."
The doctor flashed her a sympathetic look. "I'm sorry to hear that." She perked, raising a finger to emphasize her point. "Why don't you consider becoming Gloriana's bond-mate? She'll have the same needs as everyone else."
Otako hummed as she considered that point. "If the Elder Mother would desire me for those purposes, I would be an idiot to refuse her." She gave Chiyo a wink. "So we BEST make sure that Gloriana has all the mental controls necessary to deal with her body's many remarkable strengths. Ne?"
"Hai!" Chiyo chimed in Japanese, and then she blinked as a beacon began to flash. "Ah, there were are . . . "
Eyes locked on the chamber gestating Tendou Kasumi's replacement body. As they watched, the bioroid's albino skin began to darken to the pinkish-bronze shade common to natives of Japan. The body itself grew a little taller to match Kasumi's height as the bust and hips adjusted themselves to what was proper for the Tendou matriarch. The facial tissue then moulded itself as the stubble of hair on the bioroid's head morphed from white to chocolate brown, it growing out into a wavy mass to the middle of the bioroid's back.
Seeing what was soon to emerge from gestation, Otako whistled in admiration. "She's a lovely one! I can't wait to meet her sister!"
Chiyo could only gape in shocked awe as her eyes drank in those beautiful features. That face, those lips, those breasts, those legs, that body . . .!
Oh, Lyna preserve her, that BODY!
To hold it, touch it, kiss it, do all sorts of naughty things to it!
Oh, yes! Yes! Yes! Yes! YES!
Sylia would approve instantly of this!
Oh, dear, this was just PERFECT!
I want! I want! I want! I want! I want! I want! I want! I want! I WANT! Chiyo chanted in her mind at warp speed as she tried not to look like a slobbering idiot in front of Otako. As Lyna is my witness, I WANT HER!
* * *
"Bless you, Kasumi-chan! Are you alright?!"
Kasumi blinked as she looked up from her okonomiyaki, and then she sniffed. "Oh, my! Someone must be talking about me!"
Everyone else gazed at her; they were relaxing in the Haengge'cha's recreation lounge. "They better be good thoughts, though," Tomo then declared. "If they're not, I'll track down the rude kimei'ne and beat them into him!"
"Calm yourself, Master Chief," Koyomi gently scolded.
"And what's wrong with your bond-mate defending my sister's honour, Chief?" Nabiki asked as she stared at the artificer.
"Nabiki, you've never seen Tomo in action, have you?"
Nabiki blinked. "Uh, no."
Koyomi then raised a warning finger. "Then don't wish for something you'll DEFINITELY regret later!" She then winked. "Okay?!"
A few more blinks. "Um, if you say so, Yomi."
* * *
"Bless you, Sylia! Are you coming down with a cold?!"
Sylia blinked as she stared at her hand, and then she gazed curiously at Reinoevan. "I'm not even sure WHAT brought that on, Rei!"
"Maybe that silly belief from Ataru's home country's infectious," Linna mused from the Kiboo'cha's helm station.
"Lyna, I HOPE not!" Sylia muttered.
As Linna laughed, Rei pulled out her medical tricorder to make sure.
* * *
"I have to do this, Priss-san."
Priss blinked as she took that in, and then she breathed out, "Why?"
Nodoka shuddered. The first officer of Pathfinder Troop Six had just completed a detailed explanation of the Grand Design and how exactly both Moroboshi Ataru and Saotome Ranma had come to affect its outcome. While Priss had been opening Nodoka's eyes to a whole new world, Hisayo had reached over to grab her sister's tantou and shift it out of Nodoka's reach. "Priss-san, much that I appreciate how much you all care for Ataru-kun and my so- . . . " -- here, Nodoka stuttered -- " . . . my child, I . . . "
"You feel your loyalty to your father matters just as much, right?"
Priss' eyebrows arched. "Even after you found out about Isao's involvement in Monma'cha's murder?"
"I . . .!"
Nodoka choked on her voice before she averted her eyes from Priss' gaze. The Sagussan took a deep breath, and then she reached over to give her host's shoulder a friendly squeeze. Nodoka blinked as a wave of calm washed through her, and then her own hand drifted up to rest on Priss' in thanks. The latter then turned to Hisayo, a smile crossing her face. "You seem to be of a quite different opinion when it comes to your late mother's husband than your sister here, Hisayo," she stated. "Why is that?"
Hisayo smirked on hearing Priss refer to Asagaya Isao as that. As Nodoka turned to gaze on her, the elder twin took a deep breath. "Nodoka-chan, do you really think deep down that Isao loved Mom? Do you REALLY think that?"
"Of course he cared for her, Onee-chan . . .!" Nodoka replied.
"No!" Hisayo snapped. "Isao was MARRIED to Mom! He never loved her!"
"That's not true!"
An incredulous look crossed Hisayo's face. "Oh, really?" A pause. "Nodoka-chan, I've told you this many times before. When Mom was dying, she pleaded with Isao to let you come visit! It was Mom's final wish, for Heaven's sake! Just to see her baby girl one more time! And what did that son-of-a-bitch do?! He refused her! He REFUSED her!" The look on the elder sister's face shifted to one of mock irony. "And WHY is it that Isao refused Mom's last request? Why, it was because he decided that because stupid little Nodoka allowed herself to become 'damaged goods' by getting pregnant! And worst of all, stupid little Nodoka got herself pregnant with one of the students of the man who proved himself to have cared for Mom more than Isao EVER did!"
Hisayo shuddered before she snapped, "THAT 'MONSTER' IS OUR REAL FATHER!"
Nodoka blinked, her jaw dropping in disbelief. "What . . .?"
Hisayo took several breaths to calm herself. "It's true, Nodoka-chan. Asagaya Isao isn't our father. Happoosai is."
More silence.
Priss watched as Nodoka's skin started to sallow, a tidal wave of denial surging through her as she slowly shook her head. "No . . . " Ranma's mother hoarsely gasped as she squeezed her eyes shut, tears streaming through her lashes. "It's a lie . . . " she hissed out.
"It's not a lie, Nodoka-chan," Hisayo said. "I don't have proof positive of this, but it's easy to obtain. Mom told me this on her deathbed. It sure as hell surprises me that Isao hasn't sat back and figured it out . . . "
"Figured out what?!"
Hisayo smirked as she crossed her arms. "That our father made love to Mom exactly NINE MONTHS before we were born!"
Yet more silence.
"Nine months . . .?" Nodoka gasped.
"That can't possibly be true, Hisayo-chan."
Everyone turned to see the diminutive man currently standing at the entranceway. "Thoughtmaster-prime," Priss declared.
"You . . .!" Nodoka hissed on seeing Happoosai.
That demure voice caused everyone to turn and gaze quizzically at Catty Ray. The lavender-haired android-turned-bioroid reached into her purse to draw out a tricorder. "With your permission, I can confirm whether or not Hisayo-sama is right," she then offered, holding up the device in emphasis.
"She can't be right," Happoosai asserted. "Thanks to those damned priests who hurt me after I tried to free Negako-chan . . . "
"You believed you wound up nearly sterile," Hisayo finished.
"Yes!" the aged grandmaster spat out.
"Ray, check it out," Priss ordered. "Let's settle it now."
"Hai!" Catty Ray replied as she drew out a portable scanner.
The tension mounted as she passed the device over Happoosai, and then Hisayo, and then Nodoka. Pressing a button on the scanner, Catty Ray waited for the information to download into the tricorder. Once that was done, she did a comparison scan. It took one minute.
Seeing the result, Catty Ray then breathed out. "I do believe congratulations are in order, Thoughtmaster-prime."
Happoosai jolted. "EH?!"
"You mean . . . " Nodoka squeaked.
"YES!" Hisayo screamed out.
"It's true," Catty Ray declared. "Say 'hello' to your daughters, sir."
Happoosai and Nodoka blinked as they took than in.
They then did what could be expected of them on hearing that.
They fainted!
* * *
To be continued . . .