Ranma 1/2 Fan Fiction / Urusei Yatsura Fan Fiction / Sister Princess Fan Fiction ❯ Lonely Souls ❯ The Third Part, A Side - Family No More ( Chapter 5 )

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

"Onee-chan! Hurry up! It's time!"
Ranma sighed, looking over her shoulder. "Coming!"
She turned to gaze at the angelic image in the mirror. Perfect. So perfect! Opaque veil that covered her down to the back but could be easily drawn away from her face. Holding that down was a coronet of wild roses and daisies hand-made by her maids of honour the night before. White wedding gown that discretely flashed bare shoulders, bound in front by a red rose poised over her heart. No train behind her for someone to trip over. Bicep-length white silk gloves and low-heeled shoes. Result: One VERY beautiful bride!
Taking up her bouquet, she stepped out. Karen and Negako awaited her. The former, as one of the maids of honour, was in a veil-less, pink version of Ranma's wedding dress. The latter was in a lady's tuxedo.
"Shall we begin?" Negako asked.
"Hai," Ranma replied with a grin as she slipped her arm around Negako's.
Karen in the lead, they stepped into the churchyard where Ranma was to be wed. A small crowd awaited them by the altar. Karen's sisters formed the rest of the bridal party as they escorted Ranma to join her groom.
As she went, the sisters sang . . .
In a country churchyard, there's a Preacher, with his people
Gathered all around, to join a man and woman.
Spring is here and turtledoves are singing from the steeple.
Bees are in the flowers growing in the graveyard.
And over the hill, where the river meets the mill,
A lovely girl is coming down
To give her hand upon her wedding day.
As Ranma kept her eyes locked on the altar, her peripheral vision picked up a crowd kept away from the wedding. To port were her beloved's "friends" and "family" from Tomobiki. To starboard, her "friends" and "family" from Nerima. To ensure none caused trouble, they were bound in chains strong enough to resist the force of a strike from Ryouga's Perfect Shishi Hookoodan.
"Oh, the shame of it all . . . "
Ranma's eyebrow twitched. She thought all the fools had been gagged so she didn't have to hear any of their words today.
"You failed me, Ranma! You are no man anymore!"
Ranma glared at Nodoka. "Well, I guess you'll have to commit seppuku then, Mother," she hissed, the scorn in her voice making Nodoka turn away. "What sort of mother were you anyway, to ABANDON me for ten whole years?"
She looked away as someone came up to gag her mother before she focused on her awaiting groom, a glowing smile crossing her face . . .
Dressed in simple white and wearing flowers in her hair,
Music as she walks slowly to the altar,
And picking up his Bible, then the Preacher turns towards her.
"Will you take this man to be your wedded husband?
To honour and love in the eyes of God above?
Now let the people sing with me
These words to live forever in your heart."
Negako guided Ranma into place. Her eyes stinging with happy tears, the bride gazed on her groom as the priest, a woman with green-streaked blonde hair and a star tattoo by her right eye, began the ceremony. The sisters sang . . .
"Let your love shine on!
For we are the stars in the sky!
Let your love shine strong!
Until the day you fly!
Fly away."
"I do," she then declared.
"I do," her groom echoed her.
The veil was drawn back. They passionately kissed as their surroundings changed. Save for Negako and the sisters, all that came to the wedding faded, melting into a sea of headstones in a run-down graveyard in some wilderness village. Pulling away from her husband's embrace, Ranma looked around.
Many years have fallen on that golden country morning.
The graveyard's overgrown. The church lies in ruins.
Ivy on the walls and ravens wheeling 'round above me
As I made my way towards the last remaining headstone.
I fell to my knees, read the lines beneath the leaves
And suddenly, it seemed to me,
I heard the words, like singing in the trees!
Husband and wife walked between the markers. Ranma's eyes picked out the ones with names she recognised. How befitting. How sad. She really tried to help them. Tried to make them understand she couldn't be happy with them, binding her life to theirs. Why couldn't they accept that?
Why couldn't they just let it go and make their own lives?
"Let your love shine on!
For we are the stars in the sky!
Let your love shine strong!
Until the day you fly!"
She gazed on her husband. "For Eternity, my love?"
He returns her look. "For Eternity, beloved."
They kissed again as the sisters sang the chorus once more . . .
"Let your love shine on!
For we are the stars in the sky!
Let your love shine strong!
Until the day you fly!
Fly away."
Without a backward glance, Moroboshi Ataru and Moroboshi Ranma turned away from the graveyard -- and all the failed lives interred within -- for the final time. As the sisters followed them into the future, Ranma sighed, gazing fondly on the one person who truly cared for her. Yes. For Eternity, indeed.
** ** **
Ranma's eyes fluttered open as she found herself in a dark bedroom. Disorientation seized her for a moment as she absorbed her surroundings, and then she relaxed as the previous day's events flowed back into her mind like an incoming tide through the Bay of Fundy. Shuddering as the dulled images of burned and broken bodies half-buried in the wing of a wrecked high school passed her mind's gaze, she stood, heading to a window to gaze outside. It was near dawn, the full moon brightly shining in the greying sky overhead.
The dawn of a day far different than any she'd known before.
"Strange dream," she muttered under her breath before she headed back into her bedroom to get some more sleep. After yesterday's events, she needed that more than anything else. They all needed it, in fact.
Pausing before slipping into her futon, Ranma's hand drifted up to gently rub her lip. It tingled at her touch as the surging warmth of that dream-kiss flowed through her once more. Odd. Why would she feel something like THAT after being kissed by a man? Hell, why was she dreaming of marrying a man? And why was it a dream and not a nightmare? If she had been "engaged" to Hibiki Ryouga or -- Ugh! -- Kunou Tatewaki . . .! THAT would have been a nightmare ranking with the ones she had about the pit of c-c-c-c-cats!
Was it because her "groom" was Ataru?
She shook her head as she slipped under the covers. "Too weird."
* * *
Chikage stared at her crystal ball.
"No, Ane-kun. Soon, it will NOT be weird at all."
**** **** ****
Lonely Souls
By Fred Herriot
pyeknu@hotmail.com OR fherriot@yahoo.com
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In A Country Churchyard, written by Chris de Burgh.
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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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"Oh, dear."
"'S up, Kasumi?"
Kasumi stared at Nabiki before her eyes turned back to the disaster zone that had, not last night, been a perfectly spotless kitchen. The middle Tendou daughter joined her sister at the doorway to take a look herself. She stopped brushing her teeth. "Akane made breakfast?" she warily asked.
"No, I think she made something to take to Ranma-kun," the elder daughter replied with a tired sigh, remembering that a large saucepan was missing from the pile of cooking cutlery she kept under the sink.
Nabiki grimaced. She just noticed bottles of linseed oil and drain cleaner by the sink. "Oh, shit!" she then spat out before she helplessly gazed at Kasumi. "What the hell's wrong with her, Onee-chan?! She should know by now that Ranma-kun ain't gonna touch anything she makes on her own!"
Kasumi shook her head. "This is not good."
* * *
Cologne sighed. "Moroboshi Negako discovered that fool Genma manipulated certain of Son-in-Law's shiatsu points to inhibit his ability to learn on his own free will. For YEARS, Son-in-Law was deprived of his free will to do what he might desire. An effective form of enslavement, I confess." A pause. "Negako needs two weeks to affect repairs to Son-in-Law's mind. If Son-in-Law acquires Negako's aid in eliminating his ailurophobia, you can add a month. Until that has passed, you will NOT harass or do anything that Son-in-Law might constitute as an attack on his person, Shan. Is that understood?"
Shampoo shuddered. Both conversed in Mandarin as they sat in a window booth in the Nekohanten. It was sometime before they would open for the morning crowd. "Great-grandmother, we have the means to help fix Airen's mind ourselves," she then asserted. "Even more so, we can take the chance to fully win Airen away from Akane and Ukyou, not to mention that honourless panda! Why are we letting the Moroboshis deal with this?! We could lose Airen . . .!"
An eyebrow arched. "Do we?! Shan, you know as well as I why our tribe enters into alliances with clans like the Moroboshis and the McTavishes. In certain areas, THEY possess the greater knowledge. Believe me, Negako knows what she is doing, Shan. Let her do her work."
Shampoo considered that before she sighed. "Great-grandmother, please. I mean no disrespect, but I've never even HEARD of this Moroboshi Negako! Who is she?! How does she have all this knowledge in the first place?!"
The elder nodded in acknowledgement. "Alright, you deserve to know that much. Negako is none other than the living spirit of our allies' Art brought into physical form five years ago at the behest of Ataru. Her last host."
"WAS HE OUT OF HIS MIND?!" Shampoo shrilled, eyes wide.
Her fear was something Cologne understood. Nujiézú annals rebounded with tales of the Saikoo Jinseijitsu, a non-corporeal database of combat and martial arts knowledge built over many centuries by the Moroboshi Clan. Those annals spoke of how the Saikoo Jinseijitsu, two centuries ago, acquired free thought, and then began a quest to seize control of its hosts so it could live its own life. The first time the Saikoo Jinseijitsu freed itself, in the 29th year of the reign of the Japanese emperor Kookaku, half of Hokkaido had been levelled.
"No. He was only twelve." Cologne shook her head. "And in his innocent way, he understood something we, with all our knowledge, experience and wisdom, couldn't accept: The one inside him only wanted to do things those such as you and I take for granted. With the help of Nagaiwakai's friends on Zephyrus, that happened." A sneer crossed her lips. "And because of that act of good will, Ataru's honourless parents decided to destroy not just his life, but Nagaiwakai's, by manipulating an equally naive Negako into erasing those parts of Ataru's memories which centred on the other elements of his family."
Shampoo took that in, paling. "You must be joking!"
Cologne mournfully sighed. "Believe me, child, I wish I was not."
Shampoo was barely able to fight down the urge to sweep her great-grandmother into a comforting embrace, allow Cologne the chance to weep for the loss of one of her oldest and dearest friends. But that wasn't done in the Nujiézú. It was seen as a sign of weakness, something members of the warrior tribe didn't consider proper. Especially when it concerned the honoured dead.
"So what is Negako like?" Shampoo wondered.
Cologne inwardly smiled as she sensed that Shampoo was still determined to chart her own way, analyse the new situation to determine what, if any, sort of advantage she could take to press her ends. "Cold, analytical, possessing a skill level all the elders in the Council COMBINED cannot match. And she is also protective of Ataru for more than understandable reasons. I caution you STRONGLY to not cross Negako on this matter with Son-in-Law. Now is the time to wait, not advance. Besides, the chances are there that Happy might decide, as is his right as the grandmaster of Musabetsu Kakutou-ryuu, to ask Negako to become Son-in-Law's new teacher. You know what that means, do you?"
Shampoo's eyes swirled. "Aiyah!" To have children trained in BOTH the millennia-old traditions of the Nujiézú AND the Path of the Supreme Life, daughter-school to the legendary Star of Heaven Path charted by the immortal Master Hosan Hirosuke over nearly five thousand years?! That would be as inspiring as if one of the Nujiézú married one of the McTavishes, their child winning the right to wield that clan's mystic honour blade, the Sword of Scotia. Much less perhaps locating one of the lost Talismans of Angus . . .!
Taking a breath, Shampoo sighed. "Alright, I'll back away," she then affirmed. "Airen needs time to heal, not more pain! CERTAINLY not from that honourless panda or Akane! I can direct myself that way for now."
"Wise choice. Anyhow, we best prepare for the morning run."
"Hai!" Shampoo switched to Japanese. Moving to step into the main restaurant, she paused, staring back at Cologne. "Hibaa-chan?"
"What is it, child?"
She took a deep breath, and then she sighed, reverting to Mandarin. "Do you think that even if Airen is healed, he might still want me? You heard what he said yesterday when he helped Ataru save those people at Tomobiki High."
"I did." Cologne nodded. "It's too hard to speculate now given how much is up in the air concerning Son-in-law. Don't panic. You'll disappoint yourself. And even if Son-in-Law might reject you, there are other ways to bring him into the tribe even if we don't have him come to the village. You know how much Son-in-Law's willing to help when it comes to people in need."
"You're right," Shampoo acknowledged that with a nod before heading out.
Cologne watched her go. "You may have to keep that in mind when Ranma finally accepts what she's become, Shan," she whispered.
* * *
"Here you go. That must've been hard work yesterday, ne?"
Ranma grinned, accepting the plate from Yamada Fred, Nerima's hamburger expert. "Hai, Fred-san, it was." A retired Ground Self-Defence Force signals sergeant, Fred owned his own yatai, keeping it in Hikarigaoka Park to solicit customers. To better understand his newly-chosen trade, Fred had spent time in the United States to learn how to create the fast-food delight places like McDonalds, Burger King and Wendy's made famous (that was also the place where he had gained his current nom de cuisine; Fred's real name was Yamada Fujimaro). Fred was also a martial artist, practising a variation of what the Kuonji family long ago perfected using spatulas and other kitchen tools.
Fred got to work on Ataru's order. "So you decided to leave Tomobiki and come live here, eh?" He put a patty on the grill. "Think it'll be a change? I've heard of how crazy things in Tomobiki got when Lum was living there."
Ataru shrugged. "To be honest with you, Yamada-san, I don't know. Personally, I just want to put those people behind me. I sure as hell don't want any of them dead, for Heaven's sake, just out of my life!"
Fred snorted. "You proved that yesterday, even if the papers in Tomobiki are giving Ranma-san sole credit for rescuing everyone."
"How'd you learn that, Fred?" Ranma asked.
"Tampopo-san told me." Fred's apartment was located a half-block from Kamekichi Tampopo's restaurant and the two, after getting to know each other, had come to exchange cooking tips. "Papers outside Tomobiki got everything dead on. Why'd they do that, anyway?" he then asked as he stared at Ataru.
Ataru snorted. "Typical Tomobiki mentality when it comes to me. If I do something wrong, it's in every newspaper from Naha right up to Wakkanai. If I do something right, it's not reported or someone else gets credit. I guess I'm just used to it. Besides, most of those who tried to play volleyball with my life are dead thanks to whoever blew up the school yesterday."
"Pretty raw thing to say, isn't it?" Fred mused as he placed Ataru's order on a plate before sliding that before his customer.
"That it is," Ataru acknowledged with a smile. "Itadakimasu!"
The two demolished their orders in rapid succession.
* * *
After paying Fred, Ataru and Ranma headed for a walk around the park. "So the girls want me to come visit them on the Island, eh?" she mused before slurping the milkshake she got with her burger. "Is that gonna be a problem?"
"The family finances the House. It'll be okay. 'Sides, we'll only be there until Sunday." He stared at her. "School starts next Monday, remember?"
She sighed. "I forgot. I just hope I can continue modelling. It feels good to have my own money, instead o' borrowin' it from Nabiki all the time."
He shook his head. "Not to mention being on the lookout for her and a camera wanting to snap photos of you au natural, ne?"
"How'd you know?"
"Rinrin-chan found a site on the Internet that splashes some pics Nabiki took of you to anyone who logs in. I told her to whip up a virus to destroy it, plus any hard copies whoever set it up might have in reserve. If you want her to, she'll trace down the name of whoever it was that set up that site."
"Good. I'll pound the creep when I get the chance." Ranma then blinked on sensing someone coming into close range. "Oh, no . . . "
"What . . .?"
"Ohayou, Ran-chan! There you are!"
Ataru turned as a brown-haired girl in an okonomiyaki-ka's gi walks up, a covered plate of hot food in hand. "Ukyou, I assume?"
"Yeah." Ranma then called out, "Ohayou, Ukyou-san. Is there a problem?"
The chef shuddered before she calmed down and shook her head. "No, there's no problem, Ran-chan! I just brought you some breakfast! I bet after what happened yesterday, you really worked up an appetite . . .!"
"No, thanks. I just ate," Ranma reported.
"So I made you your . . .!" Ukyou stopped. "What did you just say?"
Ranma gazed levelly at her. "I said, 'No, thanks. I just ate.'"
Silence fell as Ukyou's mind tried to absorb what had just been said to her. Her jaw then dropped in disbelief. Ranma? Her Ran-chan? REFUSING to eat her cooking? What the HELL was THIS?! "R-r-Ran-chan . . .?"
Ranma slurped down the rest of her milkshake. Tossing the cup away in a nearby garbage can, she reached into her pocket to draw out a wallet. Ukyou's eyes went wide on seeing it was bursting with 10,000-yen bills. Ranma paused as she did a quick mental calculation. She then sighed, reaching into her wallet to draw out all the large bills she then had in her possession. "Hey, Ataru, can you spare me about twenty man-en now?" she asked. "I'll pay you back when I hit the ATM later on today before we head off."
Ataru drew out his own cash-filled wallet, pulling out 200,000 yen. "Thanks," Ranma replied as she took that. She then counted off fifty 10,000-yen bills before handing them to Ukyou. "There you go, Ukyou-san."
"I . . .!" Ukyou stammered. "What the hell's this?" she spat out.
"That's to pay for the okonomiyaki I ate while I visited your shop. I'm sorry for not having considered paying for your services before. That will not happen again." Ranma slipped the bills into Ukyou's pants pocket before the latter could refuse. "If it's not enough, I'll get you the rest of it as soon as I can. In the meantime, I want to spend the day with my friend." She then bowed to the chef. "Have a good day, Ukyou-san."
She headed off. Ukyou remained in place, unsure of what to say. She then jolted as Ranma called out, "One other thing, Ukyou-san."
Ukyou stared at her. "Friend or fiancée. Not both." Ranma held up a finger before she vanished under the cloak of the Umisen-ken.
The chef shuddered before she dropped to her knees, sobbing. Ataru gazed at her. His eyes narrowed as he turned around, ki senses quickly picking up the disturbed patterns marking an Umisen-ken-cloaked martial artist. Noting where Ranma was going, he then knelt beside Ukyou. "Hey, you okay?"
Ukyou stared helplessly at him. "What do you think?" she muttered. She then reached into her pocket to draw out the cash. "Here! Give it back to him . . .!" She stopped as Ataru shook his head. "Wha- . . .?!"
"I'm Ranma's friend, Kuonji-san. Believe me, I don't want to get dragged into your petty little fight over who ends up getting to go to the altar with her. Besides, she's right. From what I've heard, you're a very successful businesswoman. Much that I do understand your reasons for being so forgiving when it comes to Ranma, it IS an unwise thing to be giving away freebies."
"I have no choice!" she hissed. "If I don't marry Ran-chan . . . "
"You'll be thrown out of your family. Yes, I happen to know about that, too. Believe it or not, there's a way around it."
She stopped, blinking. "What do you mean?"
"Let's just say there are families who have, for a very long time, strove to care for near-orphans like you. Give them a home, a family who would truly love them, a base to work from to keep their lives in order. My family's one of them. If you really want to keep your family name, plus continue on in your chosen field of work, we can help." He reached into his wallet, drawing a business card. "If you feel you want to do that, go speak to this person. My uncle Komeru's his legal guardian. He can tell you more." He handed her the card before standing and turning to leave. "Ukyou-san, you're a bright person. You feel you're doing the right thing, trying to honour your father's wishes. But in my eyes, what happened to you is called 'child abuse.' And on certain planets I know of, child abuse is a capital crime. Have a good day."
He walked off. Ukyou watched him go before staring nowhere in particular. "'Child abuse is a capital crime,'" she whispered.
* * *
Nearby, Ranma sighed as she sat near a fountain. Shaking her head as she remembered what Ukyou just tried to do, she took a deep breath. "Damn you, Oyaji . . . " she hissed. "And damn me for listening to you . . . "
"Ranma! There you are!"
Ranma perked, turning to look left as Akane walked up. Cradled in her right hand was a large saucepan covered with a tablecloth. Tucked in her left arm was P-chan, a snickering look etched on the piglet's face. Seeing that, Ranma tensed, a chill warping through her body. "Ohayou, Akane-san," she then hailed. "What brings you about this part of Nerima this morning?"
Akane stopped, placing the pot on the seat. She cradled P-chan close to her as she sat beside the breakfast she made. "I came looking for you, silly!" she answered, though she was trying not to shiver at Ranma's addressing her so formally. "I made some beef stroganoff for you today! After what you did yesterday in Tomobiki, you deserve something special!"
Ranma stared at the pot. Her nose was quick to pick up the odour of linseed oil, an agent that, for some inexplicable reason, almost ALWAYS wound up in Akane's cooking. Plus there was the faint scent of a bleaching agent. Odd. Kasumi didn't keep bleach in the kitchen . . . unless Akane had got her hands on drain cleaner instead? "Aren't you going to try it?" Akane asked.
In her arms, the transformed Ryouga grinned. Oh, here we go . . .
Ranma gazed at her. "Akane-san, have you tried it yet?"
Tee-hee-haw! Can't run from this now, Ranma . . .
"I made it for you, you dummy!"
Oh, yes! Open mouth and insert foot time . . .
"Did you get Kasumi's help? Or Mom's for that matter?"
Keep digging your grave, you bastard . . .
"Hey, I can cook! I don't need their help!"
Yes! Yes, let it come . . .
"No, Akane-san. You cannot cook."
P-chan jolted. Ranma's last words had been delivered in a neutral tone, one that froze everything around them in place. A glance up to Akane sent a chill down his back; she was staring at Ranma as if the slime was about to unleash Souun's Demon Head attack. "B-but you s-said . . . " she sputtered.
"I told you once that you were improving," Ranma barked as she bolted up, that movement causing Akane to duck. "I said NOTHING about you being able to cook. Don't put words into my mouth! I'm tired of that, atop many other things you've done to me. Besides, I've already had breakfast over at Yamada Fred's yatai. And since you don't seem to trust your own cooking, why the hell do you think I should trust it? Hell, would P-chan want to eat it?!"
She contemptuously indicated the piglet in Akane's arms. Akane shuddered as a familiar, almost welcome, rage billowed inside her. "Fine! I'll show you how good I've become!" She grabbed a pair of chopsticks from her skirt. Flipping the tablecloth off the pot, she grabbed some of the contents between the chopsticks. Cradling P-chan in her hand, Akane waved the morsel before him. "Here you go, P-chan!" she then cooed. "Open up!"
P-chan opened his mouth, not realising the danger. As he swallowed the food, his body locked up. His fur morphed into a psychedelic array before a pained "Bweee . . . " escaped him, his strength failing. As his consciousness faded, his last thought was, I'll get you for this, Ranma . . .!
"P-chan!" Akane gasped.
She then cried out as Ranma snared the piglet. She watched as her transformed fiancé drew out a packet of some powdery substance, and then she dumped that into P-chan's mouth. Scooping up water from the pool, Ranma poured that down the piglet's throat. Instantly, the transformed Ryouga's fur colour reverted to normal black, a weak "Bwee . . . " escaping him as Ranma handed him back to Akane. She gazed at P-chan as he tried to move again before staring at Ranma. "Ranma . . . " she whispered, unsure of what to say.
Ranma held up the empty packet before she moved to toss it into a nearby garbage bin. "I got this from a friend of mine. It's a universal antitoxin that can protect people from bad cooking, like what you create. Let P-chan rest for the remainder of the day. He should be back to normal by tomorrow."
Hearing that, P-chan blinked as a pained moan escaped him. Damn you, Ranma! WHY do you keep doing these things . . .? he mentally railed. How can I keep on hating you after you keep doing THIS to me, you bastard . . .?
"Ranma . . . "
Akane shuddered. Staring at P-chan before she sets him on the bench, she stood up. Slowly approaching her transformed fiancé, Akane seemed to bow her head, burying her eyes under the bangs of her hair. Ranma gazed neutrally at her, arms crossed. Akane stopped before her, glaring into the false girl's eyes. Ranma did nothing. Seeing that, Akane screamed out, "YOU JERK!"
Her fist lashed out at Ranma's cheek. Before it could come close, Ranma's hand caught it, and then she twisted it violently to one side. Akane's scream of rage turned into a shocked cry of pain as Ranma's free hand lanced at her right elbow. A solid CRACK! was heard as the fist slammed into the lower part of the upper arm bone, shattering it. Akane howled in pain, her eyes widening in disbelief and stunned horror as Ranma tilted herself to her side, cupping her free hand to form a ball of ki. A GREEN ball of ki.
"R-r-Ranma . . . " she sputtered.
"Good-bye, Tendou-san. We're no longer engaged. And you're a stranger to me," Ranma announced. "SHISHI HOOKOODAN!"
* * *
In another part of the park, a silent Kuonji Ukyou sat on a bench, her mind rolling over what Ataru just said to her. She then perked on hearing the quasi-sonic boom that normally accompanied a high-intensity ki attack. Her eyes picked up something flying away from the park. Watching it, the chef was quick to notice that the hapless victim -- it sounded like the poor sucker just got nailed by Ryouga's Shishi Hookoodan -- was female. Then she got another quick look before the victim began to descend somewhere in the distance.
Wait a minute.
That wasn't Ran-chan at all!
That looked like . . .!
What the HELL just happened?!
Standing, she raced to the part of the park where she assumed the blast originated. No matter what, she had to find out.
* * *
"Damn her . . . damn her . . .!"
P-chan stared at Ranma. Even though his body was still recovering from Akane's cooking, he had seen what his rival did to his fiancée. Or was that now EX-fiancée? Ranma shuddered as she lowered her head, tears streaming down her cheeks. Seeing that, the transformed Ryouga's eyes went wide. No! It wasn't possible! NOT possible! Ranma NEVER cried, especially in public . . .!
"So why aren't you attacking me now, Ryouga?"
The piglet stared at Ranma. She looked at him with pained eyes. "Well?" she wondered. "What's wrong, friend?" A sneer twisted her lips as the scorn poured like Niagara Falls from her lips. "Too shocked to believe I could master something only YOU could do? Shocked to see me hit Akane after all the times she hit me? Shocked that I told her the engagement was off?"
"Ran-chan! What happened?!"
Ranma tensed as Ukyou ran up. The chef slowed down as she analysed the scene. Uh-huh. Pot of SOMETHING there on the bench. No doubt, Akane had the same idea Ukyou had after what went down yesterday in Tomobiki . . . wait a minute! Ran-chan could do the Shishi Hookoodan these days. She doubted Ryouga could do that when he was in his cursed form. Then . . . that meant . . .!
Oh, no!
Her jaw dropped in shock. "Ran-chan?"
Ranma relaxed before she gazed at the chef. "Ukyou-san, feel free to tell anyone who might be interested that I no longer recognise my 'engagement' with Tendou Akane. Nor will I pursue an engagement with Tendou Kasumi or Tendou Nabiki. I no longer desire to associate with that family."
Ukyou took that in before she grimaced. "What happened?"
"Simple," a voice echoed from behind her as footsteps heralded Ataru's arrival on the scene as he moved to stand beside Ranma. "It appears Tendou-san didn't appreciate having her culinary shortcomings shoved into her face, even after her 'pet' nearly died because of those very shortcomings."
Ukyou stared at him before turning to Ranma. "So even after you save that jackass' life . . . " She indicated the transformed Ryouga, who perked on realising the okonomiyaki chef obviously knew about his secret. "Akane tried to hit you?" she asked. "What the hell did you do to her?"
"Broke her arm and ki-blasted her home," Ranma replied before she stared at Ataru. "Can you get Negako to work a little faster on fixing me up, Ataru?"
Ataru shrugged. "I'll try."
Ukyou tensed. "Fix you up for what? What happened?"
Ataru gazed quizzically at Ranma. The latter blinked before shaking her head. "No," she announced. "If you want to get the story, Ukyou-san, talk to Elder Kelun or Jijii about it. I'm not in the mood to talk about it now."
She headed off. Ukyou turned to pursue. "Hey, wait a minute . . .!"
Demon Head. "LEAVE ME ALONE!"
Ukyou screamed before she ran off in a cloud of dust. Watching her go, Ranma muttered something under his breath before she turned and stormed off. Ataru watched her, and then he gazed on the pot of "beef stroganoff" Akane had made. Taking a deep breath, he concentrated his ki into his hand. "Kontou!" he whispered as the soulsword blade formed, and then he thrust it into the pot.
As soon as the blade made contact, a wailing shriek escaped from the pot as SOMETHING tried to break free. Once the cut was made, the object sank lifelessly into the pot. He straightened himself, allowing the burning killer energy blade to rest on his shoulder. "'It's aliiiiiiive!' NOT!" he drawled before laughing, waving nonchalantly at P-chan. "Have a nice day, Hibiki-san!"
Ataru headed off, dispersing the blade. P-chan watched him before his eyes swirled, a pained "Bweeee . . .!" escaping him. It's the end of the world! echoed deep in the transformed Ryouga's mind before he fainted.
* * *
"OH, MY!"
"What is it, Kasumi . . . eh?! MY LITTLE GIRL!"
Hearing that, Nabiki, Genma and Nodoka charged downstairs, they looking onto the front lawn to see Kasumi tending to a bruised and burnt Akane. She had just smashed through the cherry blossom tree to crash into the rocks beside the koi pond. Souun knelt beside his unconscious child, jets of tears dousing everything as he bewailed how badly his precious little baby had been hurt.
"What on Earth happened to her?!" Nodoka demanded as she moved to help Kasumi carry Akane into the doojou, they laying her down on the floor.
"I . . . " Kasumi then fell silent as she scanned the wounds, immediately noticing the bruising around Akane's right elbow. A gentle touch with her finger caused Akane to moan as she automatically rolled onto her side. A glance to the youngest Tendou's eyes revealed a semi-lucid look. Too dazed to answer questions. Sighing, Kasumi raced into the kitchen. "Don't move that, Akane!" she warned. "It's broken!" She soon returned with a splint in hand. The others watched as the arm was properly bandaged and tied against Akane's side to restrict motion. "Nabiki, summon the ambulance, please! We need to get her to a hospital to have X-rays done on the arm just in case!"
"Right!" Nabiki said before she raced off to make a call.
Akane was eased onto her back. That movement was accompanied by another moan. By then, Genma was examining the wounds. "A skilled martial artist did this," he reported. "No doubt, it was a surprise attack of some sort."
Nodoka gasped. "What sort of monster could do this to her?! WHY would she be attacked this way?! Akane-chan's such a nice girl!"
"My little baby . . . " Souun burbled from the front lawn.
* * *
An ambulance's siren echoed through the neighbourhood. Kasumi rushed out to guide the paramedics in, they carrying a stretcher. Akane was quickly taken away, Souun and Kasumi accompanying her. The Saotomes stood at the front porch. As soon as their hosts had left, Nodoka sighed. "Come, Genma. We best get to the hospital to ensure Akane-chan is well. Nabiki-chan!"
"What?!" Nabiki called down from her room.
"Are you coming with us?!"
"Tell Dad and Nee-chan I'll be there in a while!" Nabiki assured them. "I gotta check out the health insurance and all that!"
"Alright! We're heading out now!"
They departed. Nabiki relaxed by her phone, she dialling a number to contact the family's medical insurance agent. Once arrangements were made, she hung up before sitting back in her chair. "Who the hell attacked her, anyway . . .?" she whispered before perking as the phone rings. "Moshi-moshi, Tendou residence, Nabiki here," she replied after picking it up. She then perked on recognising the caller. "Ukyou? What's wrong?!" she demanded before her eyes widened on hearing the chef's answer. "What . . .?"
"It's true," Ukyou replied. "Put simply, Akane just blew her last chance with Ran-chan. And he said he wasn't gonna marry you OR Kasumi. I don't know why it led all the way to THAT happening, but Ran-chan said Happoosai or Cologne would know the answer. He . . . " She paused. "He didn't want to talk to me about it. Heck, he used a Demon Head to chase me away."
Nabiki sighed. "Akane, you idiot . . .!"
"Got that right," Ukyou affirmed, and then she sighed. "Look, I didn't like the idea of Ran-chan doing that, but I won't say Akane didn't deserve something like it for all the crap she's pulled on him in the past."
"Right. Thanks for calling."
She hung up. Rising, she marched into the room where Happoosai resided. The grandmaster of Musabetsu Kakutou-ryuu was ironing his latest acquisitions. Nabiki sat, crossing her arms. "I need to talk to you. It's about Ranma-kun."
"I've been expecting that," he replied, smiling as he set the iron aside before staring at her. He then declared with a raised finger, "Before you judge him for what he just did to Akane-chan, you better listen to this."
"I'm listening."
* * *
"Want to talk about it?"
Ranma looked up as Ataru placed a cup of tea before her. Both were relaxing in the living room of the Moroboshi home. There was a lost look etched on the former's face. As if she was wondering how did she get to this place in her life, was there a way to go back to the way things were before this -- and most of all, did she really WANT to return to the way things were!
"Thanks," she said as she took up the cup, sipping the tea before an absent look focused her eyes on the liquid inside. "I can't believe I just did that to her, Ataru," she then confessed.
"What part?"
"All of it. I . . . up to this point, I never really thought of standing up to Akane like that. But . . .!" Her lips twisted into a sneer. "Damn it all! I've saved her life gods knows HOW many times! I KILLED for her once! I gave up a cure to save her from being cursed on Toma's island! And THIS is the way she treats me, even NOW?! What the HELL did I do to deserve THIS?!"
Ataru remained silent as Ranma stormed to her feet. "And you wanna know what's gonna happen?!" she demanded as she began to pace. "The instant they get wind of what happened . . . oh, hell, NO! That's not right at all! No! No! No! No! NO! Ranma doesn't HAVE the right to object to anything they say or do to him! If it isn't Mom sayin' I'm not manly 'cause I hit a girl, it's gonna be Kasumi tryin' ta lay a friggin' guilt trip on me for hurtin' her sister!" She slipped into a faux-Kasumi accent. "'Oh, Akane's really sweet! She's just a violent maniac at times!'" Back to her normal voice. "Then there's Nabiki, who's fuckin' prostituted every person she met just to earn a quick buck or two 'cause her father's so fuckin' LAZY, he can't start teaching classes! And PLEASE, don't get me started on those slimebags Akane and I have to call fathers! And that's JUST my so-called 'immediate family!'"
She shook her head, tears flowing down her cheeks. "I'm tired of this shit, Ataru!" she hissed. "I'm tired of it! I never really realised it until now, but I'm just TIRED of it all! I . . . " She sniffed before sitting. "I want it to end! But I want to do it right, so there'd be no hard feelings! But I can't DO that 'cause everyone's bein' a pack of fuckin' assholes, sayin' their problems matter first and the rest can all go straight to hell! Well, fine then! If that's what they think, they can ALL go to hell!"
She looked away, shaking her head. Ataru sipped his tea before sighing. "Now you know why I left Tomobiki," he then declared.
Ranma looked quizzically at him. "What do you mean?"
He returned that with a weary look. "For a long time, I pretty much accepted all the crap that was happening around me. Even now, all this time after I stopped doing it, I still don't understand WHY I did what I did when I was living in that place. I just basically ignored everything everyone was saying about me, from Muchi and Kinshou to Lum to everyone else in the whole damned town. I liked the idea of girl hunting. Hell, believe it or not, I liked the idea of girl hunting with Lum howling up my backside trying to make me stop! I . . . " He looked nowhere in particular. "What was I back then, Ranma? Right now . . . I can't answer that. I really can't answer that."
He sipped his tea before carrying on, "Then one night, Onee-chan comes back and I find out that for five years, I lived a virtual lie. And that lie came about all because Kinshou really cared for nothing more than getting her hands on Grandma's money. She never cared for ME. She never REALLY cared for ME! What's worse, she bullied Muchi into going along with it! What did it lead to? It led to Grandma dying ALONE, that's what! Because of that, everything I did, good or bad, was stained! My whole life was a LIE, Ranma!
"So I decided I was going to take a serious look at what happened from the day Onee-chan got taken out of my head to the day she came back. And I was going to decide what I wanted to keep and what I wanted to let go. And you know what, Ranma? When I got done with that, I realised that I didn't want to have ANYTHING to do with the people in Tomobiki anymore. I really didn't. Hell, I know none of them really wanted to have anything to do with me. After all I did to them and all that happened that I ended up being blamed for in the long run, I don't blame them for feeling that way. I . . . " He paused. "In the end, Lum was the only thing that I had in Tomobiki that I DID like. But I couldn't have her. Soon after I realised that, she died. So I have nothing binding me to Tomobiki. That suits me fine. Problem is . . . "
Ranma nodded understandingly. "Are they gonna leave you be?"
"Yeah. Excluding Onee-chan, I've got twelve sisters I gotta worry about, Ranma. Chikage can protect herself. Haruka's skilled in her own right. The rest of them, however, are vulnerable, VERY vulnerable. Now, some of the potential problems got vaporised yesterday, but some of them are still here. And I don't know what the reaction will be if those dorks DO find out about my sisters. I really don't. I don't trust ANY of those clowns. I don't want to drag my sisters into this. I really don't. They're all I've got left in the way of immediate family and I'll not have that taken from me. Onee-chan, for all her knowledge, does have some weaknesses that could be exploited. So I need help. A guarantee that I won't be doing this totally on my own."
They gazed on each other before Ranma nodded. "I'd be happy to help you. Believe me, if half the garbage you've been through is anything like what I've lived through, I wouldn't want to put kids like Hinako and Aria through that!"
Ataru nodded. "Alright. Then I promise you this: If, in any way, you feel you have to cut ties with the people here, my family and I can help. If you're made roonin, I can see to it you're adopted into our family. Any threats your mother and father makes would be meaningless. And if Nodoka tries to press things because of that seppuku contract you told me about, I'll make DAMN sure hers and Genma's lives become a living HELL! Ditto with the Tendous! Ukyou can be dealt with afterward. Kodachi has no claim. And if you ARE adopted into my family, Shanpú can no longer seek your hand in marriage since my clan, as allies to the Nujiézú, is exempt from the Kiss of Marriage laws."
"Really?!" Ranma gaped before she smirked. "I rather like that!"
"I suspected you would. And if she sits back and thinks it through, Elder Kelun would like it, too." Here, Ataru winked at her. "Frankly put, Ranma, you're not the type to marry into a clan like that one."
They laughed. "Good point," she replied with a held-up finger. "Well, shall we wait until the storm comes down on us?"
They hooked fingers. "Let's."
* * *
"Please tell me this is some insane joke!"
"No joke."
Nabiki sighed. "How long has what Genma did been affecting Ranma-kun?"
"Since he was five," Happoosai replied. "On the one hand, I'm impressed Genma managed to do THAT to Ranma-chan without me noticing it. Hell, without Cologne-chan noticing it, either?! Whoo! On the other hand . . . "
"Your hopes for your 'heir' would go up in smoke if he was turned into a mental vegetable thanks to my sister and everyone else."
Happoosai nodded. "Exactly."
"So what do you plan now?"
"Ranma-chan needs a chance to heal from what he's been subjected to. What Genma did before he took Ranma-chan away from Nodoka, plus the Neko-ken, then tack on the things Akane's done; THOSE are the worst problems. Ataru-kun and Negako-chan will help. Once that's done, we'll decide what to do next."
"Of course! Don't you want to get back into the Art, Nabiki-chan?"
Silence. Nabiki stared wide-eyed at Happoosai before shaking her head. "How the HELL did you know about that, Ojii-chan?!"
"I see it in your ki signature," he replied with a chuckle before sighing. "I take it Akane had something to do with what happened to your arms five years ago, right? That's what made you stop practising the Art?"
Nabiki nodded. "Yes."
"Well, maybe Negako-chan might help you recover from that."
Her eyes widened even more. "But Toofuu-sensei said . . . "
"Nabiki, I told you what Negako-chan is," he warned with a raised hand to stop her protest. "She has access to medicines and medical knowledge Cologne-chan and I can't touch. You go talk to her about this and she'll help you. What she might demand of you won't be so bad in the long term."
"Which would be?"
Happoosai reached into his personal hyperspace pocket, drawing out a picture to show it to Nabiki. "Look for yourself."
She looked. Ataru and a girl that was probably Negako, surrounded by twelve girls, they appearing as if they belonged at the Moroboshi siblings' side. She stared at Happoosai. "These are Ataru-kun's sisters, right?"
"Right. Remember what happened yesterday. Imagine what some of those lunkheads in Tomobiki might be thinking right now after what Ataru-kun said to them. Do you REALLY want to see these girls, especially these three . . . " -- he pointed to Hinako, Aria and Kaho -- "Hurt by the likes of Mendou?"
Nabiki shook her head. "No, of course not! But right now, Ojii-chan, I don't think Ranma-kun's gonna think very highly of any of us in this house. Not after what just happened between him and Akane."
"I know. Humour an old man for a second, Nabiki-chan." He sighed. "I'm not gonna be long for this world. I know I've done some nasty things in my time. But I tried to make a few lives better in my own way. I want to leave something good for people to learn from when I go. Genma and your father wasted their chances to do something good with what I gave them. It's a damned miracle that Ranma's come out the way he has! A MIRACLE, Nabiki! But . . . "
"He's just one person."
"Right. Now, Akane's got potential, but she's got to learn how to bring that temper of hers under control. And that's not to mention take some responsibility for all her faults. However, you have the greater potential. And all it needs for you to get back into gear is to get your arms fixed. Negako-chan can help you. And the price for that help isn't really so bad. In fact, if you help do that, you'll probably go far in regaining some trust and respect with Ranma-chan. And in both of you, Kurumi and Natsume (AND Akane when she finally grows up a bit), I want to place the future of the Art." He puffed his pipe. "Does that sound alright with you, Nabiki-chan?"
She sighed. "I'd have to think about it. I have to admit, I AM tempted. I've missed working out like I did before the accident. And . . . " A pause. "Maybe if I get back in gear, Dad might decide to get off his butt and make our doojou viable! I know that after my accident -- adding that to Mom's death -- whatever heart he had in teaching was wiped out! Maybe I can bring it back."
"That's good," Happoosai acknowledged that with a nod, drawing out a folded scrap of paper to hand to her. "Here. That's where Ataru-kun and Negako-chan live. If you hurry, you can arrange some things with Ranma-chan before she heads off with Ataru-kun to visit his sisters." He then winked. "Then you'll have to deal with the rest of the people in this house."
"That's not going to be a treat, Ojii-chan."
He cackled. "Life never is, Nabiki-chan."
* * *
"Please tell me this is some insane joke!"
"It's no joke, Ukyou. It's the truth."
Ukyou stared at Shampoo. Both were relaxing in the Nekohanten. The former then shuddered. "Right now, I'm very tempted to make some panda steak okonomiyaki! Fuck! You'd think that after all the shit that jackass has put everyone through, I'd believe ANYTHIN' he was said to have done to Ran-chan! But something like THAT . . .?!" Her voice trailed off as she shook her head. "Damn it all," she whispered before gazing quizzically at her rival. "Why aren't you or your great-grandmother helping fix Ran-chan up?"
"It's being done by a person of an allied clan to the Nujiézú," her host reported. "She's the adopted sister of Moroboshi Ataru. She's also the grandmaster of the Tiger-Spirit Clan's Art: The Path of the Supreme Life."
"Saikoo Jinseijitsu-ryuu? Never heard of it. Then again, I never heard of Musabetsu Kakutou-ryuu until I met Ran-chan." A pause. "Then again, it's still shocking to me to see Moroboshi Ataru of all people as a martial artist!"
"Hai, this one thought the same way until Hibaa-chan explained what Ataru's honourless mother did to him," Shampoo replied. On seeing the chef's confused look, the warrior-maiden then told her what Cologne told her earlier.
Hearing that, Ukyou winced. "Shit!" she spat out. "No wonder he said yesterday that he was glad his parents were dead!"
"This one agrees . . .! Oh, Hibaa-chan!"
Cologne pogo-sticked over to their table. "If you girls are interested in visiting Son-in-Law today . . . " She held up a folded sheet of paper with a wry smile. "Though I DO hope you'll both exercise some caution given what his mood might be right now after his encounter with Tendou Akane this morning at the park . . . " With that, she handed the paper to Shampoo. "That is where Moroboshi Ataru and Moroboshi Negako presently live."
Shampoo opened the note, scanning it before showing it to Ukyou. The chef took the information displayed there in. "Kasuga-chou, huh? That's not too far away. Let's get some things made up and take them over for lunch."
Shampoo rose. "Hai!"
"Before you go, Ukyou . . . " Cologne reached into her jersey, and then she tossed a small bottle at the chef. "Put that into your batter mix."
Ukyou caught it. "What's this stuff?" She glanced into the bottle, noting that it was filled with a reddish-orange powder.
"It's an herbal mix that's meant to help heal severe brain trauma or other sorts of lasting neural damage," Cologne explained as she gave the chef a knowing look. "I'm sure Negako's already giving Son-in-Law something to help him heal. The more he takes in, the faster the healing process will be."
"Sounds pretty logical. Why give this to me, then? And how can I trust this IS what you say it is? For all I know, this could be some sort of poison that might make me look bad in front of Ran-chan."
Cologne smirked. "My dear, it's simple. He knows you're not the type of use poisons or any other sort of drug. Besides, if Son-in-Law ISN'T healed, he won't be of use to ANY of us. Wouldn't you agree?"
Ukyou nodded. "Good point."
* * *
"We're moving to Tokyo?! Why, Mom?!"
Yoshino Mai gazed serenely on her daughter. "Tomomi-chan, you saw what happened on the television yesterday, didn't you?"
Tomomi, a blue-eyed girl with long brown hair tied in a high ponytail and a body that just made men's mouths water, considered her mother's question. Both were relaxing in the Yoshino home in Kita-Hiroshima, a suburb of Sapporo. "Hai, I did. But what makes you think Moroboshi Ataru or Saotome Ranma can help us? It's been years since you or any of the others had any contact with the factory, much less those Niphentaxians who sent you here . . . "
"The factory's here, Tomomi-chan."
Silence fell like a guillotine as Tomomi stared wide-eyed at Mai. Tears instantly sprang in her eyes as the potential implications of THAT statement sank in. "No . . . n-no . . . they're gonna take you away . . . n-n-no . . .!"
She flew into Mai's arms. The older woman cradled her child -- something few Avalonians could have ever contemplated having since the Great Awakening and their enslavement by the Invaders -- close. "Hush, dear! Hush!" she cooed to quiet Tomomi's sobbing. "Hush! It's all right, dear! You know I've no link to the factory! That happened the day you were born, Tomomi-chan! Hush!"
Tomomi shuddered before she pulled away, staring hopefully in her mother's eyes. "A-are y-y-you sure, M-mom . . .?"
"Hai, I'm quite sure." Mai allowed Tomomi to compose herself. "Now, we've arranged with the Fujikis for us to live at one of their apartment complexes. They own one in the outskirts of Tomobiki, so it'd be alright for you to attend classes at Tomobiki High." She patted Tomomi's hand. "And you won't be alone, Tomomi-chan. Minako-chan and Kyooko-chan will be there."
Tomomi's eyes instinctively fell on a picture of her and two other girls -- her closest and dearest friends -- taken in a Tokyo park; it was sitting on a side table beside the couch. Ikusawa Kyooko, a native of Mito, northeast of Tokyo, was an aspiring fashion model. Sawada Minako, a native of Maizuru, north of Kyoto, was a sports fanatic who specialized in kendou and other martial arts; she had won several prefecture championships to date.
And like Tomomi, Kyooko and Minako were half-Avalonians. Daughters of specially grown bioroids, by-products of a giant factory constructed fourteen millennia ago by an extinct race known as the Sagussans, and then discovered eight decades ago by another race, the Niphentaxians. For the "Invaders" (as the Niphentaxians came to be called by the Avalonians), discovering the factory created a mass market for cheap slave labour, especially of the sexual kind. But unlike slave societies elsewhere, the Niphentaxians vigilantly kept the existence of their beautiful bioroids a top secret from the galaxy at large.
To the day Mai and her sisters were sent to Earth, that state of affairs had not changed. For good reason. Like their mothers (dispatched to Earth over twenty years before by a pro-Avalonian sect seeking to finally emancipate the bioroids), Tomomi and her friends were blessed with great physical and psionic abilities. That helped them when dealing with the problems plaguing teenage girls their age. In a positive way, of course; Tomomi, Kyooko and Minako were quite popular at their high schools, both among their peers and their teachers. They didn't take advantage of that, of course; atop it being not ethical, it would ultimately attract all sorts of unwelcome attention. Something that, given events in Tomobiki, bode ill for them AND their mothers.
Tomomi's eyebrow arched. "So when we get there, you want us to . . .?"
A nod. "Ataru-kun would be preferable. If you can coerce both Ataru-kun and Ranma-chan to our cause, that would be all the better. None of us know why the factory is here, but it's in synchronous orbit over Tomobiki High. Sayuri-chan's, Masumi-chan's and Seina-chan's mothers confirmed that last night. As to the 'why' . . .?" Her voice trailed off as Mai gave her daughter a shrug.
Tomomi nodded understandingly. "Right."
* * *
"Toofuu-sensei, is that you?! Where've you been all this time?!"
A bespectacled chiropractor turned from hanging up his office shingle, grinning. "Busy learning new things, Nabiki-chan." Ono Toofuu then turned to draw Nabiki into a warm embrace. "For the medical profession, much like martial arts, learning never stops. How is everyone right now?"
Nabiki pulled away, sighing. "Good and not-so-good, depending on who you're talking about, Sensei. A lot of things have changed."
Toofuu sighed. "I'd suspect the primary changes would concern what's happening between Ranma-kun and Akane-chan. How are they?"
"Hard to say," her voice dropped. "Six weeks ago, they were within a hair's breadth of getting married. I had to stop that because . . .!" She stopped. "You know how it is, Sensei! They're way too young to get married!"
"In that, I agree, but you know how much your father's pinned his hopes on uniting the schools of your Art," he reminded her.
"Yes, I know. And if they were given the chance, I'm sure they'd have been happy to get married sometime in the future. But guess what happened? Not two weeks after the first attempt, Father and Uncle tried to railroad them into another wedding ceremony, completely ignoring the fact that Ranma-kun's got two other official suitors plus a third would-be suitor in Kunou Kodachi! Well, after that fight, Ranma-kun just went ballistic! And today . . . " Here, she stopped again, shaking her head. "Akane pushed him over the edge."
He tensed. "And?"
"According to Kuonji Ukyou, Ranma-kun no longer wishes to have anything to do with our family," Nabiki reported. "And according to Onee-chan, Ranma-kun's finally reached his limit when it comes to tolerating Akane hitting him. This morning, Akane learned that the hard way. She's in hospital."
"Ranma would NEVER hit a girl!" Toofuu stated.
"Oh? I take it you didn't see what happened yesterday on the TV."
"I did see that. And I can understand why Ranma-kun might've lost his temper, especially after hearing how many people were killed in that blast," he noted before blinking as something came to him. "Wait a minute." He closed his eyes for a second before staring at Nabiki. "How long ago did Ranma-kun meet Moroboshi Ataru? Has Ranma-kun met Ataru's adopted sister Negako yet?"
Nabiki's jaw dropped. "You know Negako?!"
"Yes, I do. By the tone of your voice, I think you know exactly WHAT she is, too. Has Master Happoosai told you anything?"
"Told us yesterday after the fireworks at Tomobiki High stopped," she admitted. "Matter of fact, Ojii-chan told me today Negako-san discovered that Ranma-kun's been taking on heavy damage in his brain from all of Akane's mallet strikes and everything else that's hit his head over the last while. To make sure he can heal, she manipulated his shiatsu lines to break his inhibitions when it comes to hitting people, especially those he cares for. And . . . "
"How badly was Akane-chan hurt?"
"Shattered right upper arm bone and ki-burns on her side when Ranma-kun sent her from Hikarigaoka to the house with a Shishi Hookoodan," she stated before chuckling. "Damn, the others are going to freak when they find out."
"Unless they're told the right way."
"Right," Nabiki affirmed with a nod. "I'll do that with Onee-chan and Ranma-kun's mom before dropping the boom on Dad and Uncle. I think when Auntie learns about that, not to mention another thing Uncle pulled on Ranma-kun, any protests from him or Dad will be a lot of hot air."
"I thought Ranma-kun's mother was . . .! Oh, hello, Elder! Shanpú! Mùsi!" Toofuu glanced past Nabiki as footfalls heralded the arrival of three Nujiézú warriors. "What brings you about these parts?"
"You of course, young man! It's good to see you again," Cologne replied with a grin as Shampoo and Mousse bowed respectfully to the chiropractor. The warrior-maiden had a take-out box in hand for when she saw Ranma. "I trust your trip went well," the elder then noted. "You seem to have learned a lot."
"Indeed I did, Elder," Toofuu admitted.
"What of your problem with Tendou Kasumi, Doctor?" Mousse asked.
"Hopefully, the 'love madness' that clicked in when someone spoke of Kasumi or whenever I saw her won't affect me while in her presence." He stared knowingly at Nabiki as he added, "I can't be a doctor to anyone if I lose total control of myself like that around your sister, Nabiki-chan." He then sighed. "However, it does not mean I'm fully rid of it, though."
"What do you mean?" Nabiki asked before looking past Toofuu as a toot! echoed through the streets. "What the hell's THAT?!"
Hearing that noise, Toofuu jerked, sweat pouring down his face as his glasses started to fog. "Oh, no . . .!" he whispered, his fingernails then under dire threat from chattering teeth. "Why am I hearing THAT sound HERE?!"
Everyone looked quizzically at the chiropractor as the road train from the Toranoseishin Tower slowed down. "Eh?!"
"Ah! Ono-sensei! What're you doing here?!"
Toofuu jolted before turning, a chuckle escaping him as he waved at the sisters. "Mamoru-chan! Everyone! Hello!" He scratched the back of his head as his eyes scanned the passenger compartment for a particular face. Odd! The others are there. And I know their brother and sister are both in Nerima; I've sensed Negako-san since I came back here! But where on Earth's . . .?
"Ya, Toofuu-kun."
He spun to see an amused Chikage gazing at him. "Chi-chi-chi-CHIKAGE!" he screamed, nearly leaping out of his clothes at the sorceress' appearance -- not that the others who had been speaking to the chiropractor weren't ALSO taken aback by Chikage popping out of NOWHERE! -- and then he feebly waved. "Ah, h-h-hello, Chi-Chikage-san! You're l-l-looking well, t-today."
"Chikage-chan, SHAME on you!" Sakuya declared with a chuckle as the road train stopped, the sisters then disembarking to join their sibling and the chiropractor. "Honestly! Flirting around with a man twice your age!" She wagged her finger at the sorceress, smirking. "What would Onii-sama say?!"
"Sakuya-chan." Chikage's voice was thicker than molasses in its faux sweetness. That phrase made Toofuu shudder as his glasses fogged over. "It's not my fault that Toofuu-kun happens to be a fan of occult studies and spent some of his training journey with both Ane-kun and my grandfather learning all that he could learn from them." She looked at him. "Ne, Toofuu-kun?"
"Ah . . .!" The chiropractor sputtered before gazing confusedly at the sorceress. "Why, Marie-chan. Your complexion is almost gone!" he declared, ignoring the fact that Marie was now standing BEHIND him. "You should get out in the sun more often! It's only healthy! Oh, hello, Michael!" he spoke to Shampoo. "My, you've grown. There's no need for you to sit up on your hind legs like that, young man! I have no snacks to give you . . .!"
A huge eye loomed before him, causing Toofuu to scream as he collapsed on his backside. Seeing him freak out at Yotsuba appearing before him with her spyglass, the other sisters laughed. "Toofuu-sensei's so funny!" Hinako said.
Yotsuba hummed before sighing as she lowered her spyglass. "It appears that no matter how much Ane-chama tried to help him get over this, Yotsuba can only conclude that Ono-sensei is still under his love-curse."
"Ah . . . ha . . .!" Toofuu breathed out before relaxing. "Oh, THANK you, Yotsuba-chan! I thought I'd never recover from that!"
Chikage shook her head before heading off. "Poor man."
The chiropractor warily watched her walk back to the road train. He then blinked as Nabiki gave him a knowing look. "Nabiki, it's not what it seems, for heaven's sake!" he immediately protested, waving his arms in reassurance.
"Suuuuuuuuure, Sensei," Nabiki slurred. "I'm sure Onee-chan will be impressed when I tell her this one."
She turned to head off. "Yotsuba will have to tell Kasumi-san that Ono-sensei fell in love with Chikage-chan's previous incarnation," Yotsuba reported as she remembered what Ranma told her about the middle Tendou daughter.
Everyone gazed at the would-be detective. "EH?!"
The London-raised sister nodded. "It's checky! Yotsuba heard Ono-sensei crying about his beautiful Princess (who looks like an older Chikage-chan) one day and how he had a nightmare about him not being able to save her from some mean death-spirit in a castle. Yotsuba found out Chikage-chan's grandfather sent Ono-sensei on an exercise into some spirit dimension where he could learn to fight all sorts of ghosts." She pointed to a pendant hung around Chikage's neck. "It was so easy to check, especially since Chikage-chan's little golden cross is the same as the cross Ono-sensei's beautiful Princess had!"
Hinako cheered. "Waaai! Toofuu-sensei can fight ghosts!"
"YOTSUBA!" Toofuu screamed out, totally mortified.
Marie swooned, clapping her hands. "Oh, it's SO romantic! To actually love someone even after they've died! Such devotion!"
"Marie-chan . . .!" Toofuu moaned.
Everyone living in Nerima sweated. "Those girls are cruel," Nabiki whispered. "I wonder if they treat Ataru-kun the same way!"
Shampoo nodded. "This one's not sure she wants to find out."
"Hey, Doc! What're you doing back here?!" a voice then hailed.
"Hello, Ukyou-san." Toofuu waved as the chef came up. Grateful someone had arrived to divert his attention from his Princ- . . .! -- er, Chikage! -- he noted the take-out box. "Oh! Did you make that for Ranma-kun?"
"Yeah, I did! I'm sure Ran-chan will definitely be glad to see you back! So when did you get back, anyway?! Where'd you go?!"
"Toofuu-sensei came to Promised Island last year to meet Hina and Hina's sisters," Hinako answered before Toofuu could respond. "That's when Toofuu-sensei trained with Onee-tama and fell in love with Chikage-chan!"
"Hinako-chan!" Karen gently scolded before the chiropractor could descend into another bout of hysterics concerning the sorceress.
Hinako gazed innocently at her. "But it's true!"
Toofuu moaned. Sakuya smiled. "Well, if you're all looking to see Onee-sama, we're heading there right now. She's staying with Onii-sama and Negako-oneesama over at their new place. Hopefully, we'll try to coax Onee-sama to take the travelling rainbow back to Promised Island tonight."
Nabiki blinked. "'Travelling rainbow?'"
"Yes, it's a pretty fascinating way to travel . . . urk!" Toofuu gargled on seeing Chikage glance his way. "Ah, ha-ha-ha-ha . . .!"
"Unfortunately, the normal ferry to the island's out of commission because of engine troubles," Sakuya provided before waving the sisters back to the road train. "Whoever wants to come visit Onee-sama, hop aboard!"
"Aiyah! This one wants to come!"
"Wait for me! I gotta see Ran-chan, too!"
"Shanpú, why must you go to . . . Quack!"
Haruka quickly covered Aria's eyes. "Don't look, Aria-chan!"
The young Parisian blinked. "Did something happen, Haruka-chan?"
Cologne stowed the empty canteen of cold water she kept on her person for emergencies like this before she grabbed the duck by the throat. "Forget it, Mister Part-time. You're not going to make a bad situation worse with your presence. Besides, you need to clean the kitchen before the lunch rush comes in. Let's go." She pogo-sticked away, Mousse honking as she dragged him off.
Nabiki looked at Toofuu. "I'll fill you in on some details later, Sensei. I have to speak to Ranma-kun myself! Hey, girls! Hold up!"
She ran off to hop onto the road train. As it headed off towards Kasuga-chou, Toofuu ducked behind a bush to avoid Chikage's glancing his way. Seeing that exchange, Haruka shook her head. "Chikage-chan, really!" she scolded as she glared at her sister. "Must you do that to the poor man?"
The sorceress shrugged. "He makes me laugh, Haruka-chan."
Some of the sisters snickered. Seated together by the left-side door, Nabiki, Ukyou and Shampoo exchanged a confused look. "Are ALL these girls REALLY Ataru's sisters, Nabiki?" the okonomiyaki chef whispered.
"Half-sisters. Same father, different mothers," Nabiki replied.
"Eh?! How did that happen?" Shampoo wondered.
"Search me . . . "
"Ah! Onee-tama! Everyone, it's Onee-tama! Onee-tama!"
Everyone jolted before they crowded the right side of the road train, following Hinako's stare with their eyes to fell on a figure standing by a telephone pole ten metres ahead. Sure enough, she was dressed in the usual red Mandarin tang and jogging pants Ranma often preferred. A large backpack with all the necessary camping supplies sat on the ground beside her. And yes, she had the same body build and blue eyes that Ranma had. However, her bright crimson hair was styled in a graceful taper with long bangs and a bandanna holding it away from her face. She was clearly missing a trademark pigtail.
"That's not Onee-chan, Hinako-chan," Karen noted.
"Sure looks like Ran-chan . . . " Ukyou mused, blinking. "Unless . . . " She gasped before calling out, "Hey! To-chan! Is that you?!"
The girl looked up. At that moment, a raven-haired girl, looking almost exactly the same as the redhead, stepped out of a side alley, a backpack no different from the first girl's slung over her shoulders. "Huh?! Onee-tama has two sisters?" Hinako blinked confusedly before jolting on hearing Ukyou's shocked gasp. "What's wrong?" she asked, staring up at the okonomiyaki chef.
Both looked their way, their eyes widening on seeing Ukyou. "Hey, stop this thing!" Ukyou called out to the driver. As the train braked, she looked down as the two twins of Ranma's female self came up. "Hey, To-chan! What the heck are you doing in Nerima?! And what the heck happened to you, Ko-chan?!"
"Looking for Ranma, U-chan!" the redhead replied before sending a mildly annoyed look at her raven-haired twin. "As for dumdum here, she decided to have an accident at Jusenkyou when we tried to get some Nanniichuan water for Ranma!" She then looked back at Ukyou. "Are you going to see him?!"
"You betcha! I think he'll be damned pleased to see you two!" Ukyou then gazed at Sakuya. "You mind them coming with us?!"
The eldest of Ataru's half-sisters winked knowingly at the chef. "I take it they're the magic mirror-twins Onee-sama told us about."
"WHAT?!" Nabiki snapped, staring in shock at the two girls by the road train before she turned back to Ukyou. "Wait a minute! How the hell did they get free of that damned compact?! I put them there . . .!"
Ukyou opened the door for the mirror-twins before helping them aboard. "Well, I'm afraid Ran-chan and Happoosai didn't agree."
"Thanks." The redhead grunted as she set her pack on the floor before she gave Nabiki a knowing look. "And yes, you are right, U-chan. Ranma and Jijii DIDN'T like what you did to Kumiko-chan and I. Neither did we."
Nabiki shuddered, remembering that as a woman, this love-starved, would-be slut would not be bound by the "no hit girls" rule Ranma followed. Ukyou jolted, staring at the brunette. "'Kumiko?!' I thought you were gonna . . .?"
"Call myself 'Komakichi' like you proposed, U-chan?" she finished before she shrugged. "Well, unfortunately, unlike Ranma, I can't change back into a man with hot water. I'm stuck this way for the rest of my life."
The chef gaped. "Oh, man! That sucks!"
"How awful!" Karen gasped.
The redhead shrugged as she faced the sisters. "Not really. In her case, the curse mixed perfectly with the spirit that saw us created back at Mirror Mansion. After all, the person whose spirit enchanted that mirror WAS a woman." She noticed the others staring at her. "Oh, dear! I'm sorry. We didn't introduce ourselves! I'm Saotome Toshiko and this is my . . .!"
"Brother-turned-sister, Saotome Kumiko. Pleased to meet you all." The brunette bowed respectfully. "So, U-chan, when exactly did Ranma meet a yummy hunk-meister like Ata- . . . hey!" she gasped as Hinako hugged her legs.
"Waaaaaa! Onee-tama has sisters!" Hinako gushed.
Everyone laughed, save Nabiki. She was busy staring at Toshiko and Kumiko, her eyebrows twitching. Ranma-kun, I'm gonna KILL you for this! she vowed before jolting as the image of a wounded Akane lying on the front lawn on the Tendou home flashed through her mind. Er, on second thought . . .!
* * *
The road train soon come to a stop before the Moroboshi home. Ranma had been waiting by the main gates. Quickly noting who had joined the sisters, her eyes widened. "Toshiko! Komakichi! Hey, what're . . .?! Oh, MAN! What happened to you?!" she demanded on seeing the transformation that had fallen on the woman born from Mirror Mansion as a man later named Saotome Komakichi.
"Permanent curse courtesy of Jusenkyou!" Kumiko said with an embarrassed chuckle. "Not that it bugs me in the long term! And it's 'Kumiko' now, Ranma. I . . . " She bowed her head apologetically. "I'm sorry, but we couldn't get any Nanniichuan water for you. After what happened to me, I . . . "
Kumiko shrugged. Ranma gazed on her before opening her arms, allowing her mirror-twins to embrace her. The sisters discretely passed by to give the Saotome siblings privacy. "It's okay!" Ranma assured them. "I don't mind this as much as I did before. But are you sure about this?!"
Ranma stared at Kumiko. "I'm sure! Relax!" she assured her with a laugh as she and Toshiko pulled away from her, the former swatting Ranma's shoulder. She then indicated Ukyou, who, with Shampoo and Nabiki, had stayed back so they could chat with Ranma. "So what's this U-chan just told us about the panda mucking with your mind before he dragged you off on your training trip?!"
"And what happened between you and that mallet-happy lunatic, anyway?" Toshiko asked as she indicated Nabiki. "Miss Yen-on-the-Brain here just told me you got into a fight with Miss Mallets and that you broke the engagement."
Nabiki sent Toshiko an annoyed look. Ranma sighed. "Long story. I'll tell you later. Why don't you head on in? I'll talk to these three alone."
Kumiko waved as they headed into the compound. "Okay."
Ranma watched them go before noticing Nabiki staring at her. "Why?" the middle Tendou daughter wondered. "Damn it, Saotome, you know how much trouble those two caused, especially Toshiko! I wasn't going to . . . "
"Just because they were made by a magic mirror enchanted by the soul of a girl who never knew real love before she died doesn't mean they have no feelings," Ranma replied before staring on her would-be suitors. "So what brings you here to see me?" she then demanded. "Who told you where I was?"
"Um, Hibaa-chan did." Shampoo then tensed on sensing a storm of anger, resentment and mistrust boil deep in Ranma's eyes. "Airen, please! Don't hate this one for only wanting what's best for you!" She bowed her eyes in shame. "This one was told what that honourless panda did to you! This one . . . " She paused. "This one's glad that clan-sister Negako can help you heal."
Ukyou bit her lip. "Y-yeah. Look, Ran-chan, I know this mess is makin' you feel trapped, but . . . " Her voice trailed off. "Please, don't hate me, Ran-chan. I only just want you to feel happy! What's wrong with that?!"
Ranma stared at them. Reaching into her jersey, she pulled out a thick envelope to hand to Shampoo. "Give that to your great-grandmother. That's to pay for the food you've given to me since you came here. Don't worry; I've repaid the Tendous for all the new doors you blasted into their house."
Shampoo jolted, shaking her head. "No, it's not . . . "
"No, Shanpú," Ranma snapped. "That's the way it's gonna be. I told you I was going to make this a level playing field. I've repaid the Tendous for their hospitality. I've also repaid Ukyou-san, so now it's your turn. Take the money. And I'll be gone until Sunday, so don't come by here looking for me hoping I'd go on a date with you, alright?" She turned away. "Good day."
She headed to the house. Ukyou and Shampoo watched her go, clearly unsure as to what to do in the wake of this morning's events in Hikarigaoka, and then they exchanged a look. "I'll give those to him," Nabiki offered. After the fiancées handed her the wrapped lunches, she nodded down the road. "You guys better go before he does to you what he did to Akane earlier."
"Yeah, I guess so . . . " Ukyou hoarsely whispered before she stared at the middle Tendou daughter. "Watch yourself, Nabiki," she warned as she turned to head home. "Ran-chan's got no real reason to like you, remember?"
"You better remember what Ukyou just said," Shampoo added.
They departed. Nabiki watched them, shaking her head before she headed into the compound. Ranma stood by the door, arms crossed. The sounds of laughter and chatter echoed from the living room. "So what do you want to see me about, Tendou-san?" she then asked as Nabiki stopped before her.
Nabiki set the lunch boxes aside before she took a breath. "Ranma, look. I happen to know what happened between you and Akane today. I also happen to know WHY it happened. I . . . " She stopped, lowering her head. "I'm sorry."
"Why are you apologizing for something your sister did? I'm through with all the excuses about her, Nabiki. I'm through with bending myself backwards to accommodate her. Hell, I WAS willing to give her a chance, the same chance I'm giving Ukyou and Shanpú. Who the FUCK does she think she is, believing I'll keep on taking that CRAP from her just to make her happy?! Huh?!"
Nabiki balked before an incensed shudder ran through her. "She's my sister!" she then spat out as she glared at the redhead. "Yeah, what she did to you was wrong, but her happiness mattered more to me! Hell, to all of us! What the hell were we supposed to do anyway, huh?!"
"Maybe instead of playing your stupid games, you could've come up to me and explained a few things about what was going on! Did you ever think of that or did you feel that was below you? Hell, I'd think you would've realised from the start I'd be willing to help out if you needed it! But no!" She shook her head, her voice picking up in volume as she made a dismissive wave of her hand. "You just went off and acted like I was a totally brainless moron, completely fuck up whatever chances I could've got to make some real friends and maybe try to settle my problems ahead of time! Even better, I just MIGHT have spared your family some of the fallout that came with the crap Oyaji pulled on me! And you STILL expect me to honour that worthless agreement Oyaji made with that pimp you call a father?! Get real, Nabiki! It ain't gonna happen!"
Before Nabiki could protest, Ranma jabbed a finger into her breastbone. "And I've got an idea what you might do now that I put Akane into the hospital. You'll march over to where your family and my parents are, let loose the fact that I was the one who put Akane into intensive care and let them freak out just to see me squirm. Well, it ain't gonna happen this time! I don't CARE what your father thinks! I don't CARE what Kasumi thinks, either! And I've got plans in place for Oyaji! I can deal with Mom, too! They don't frighten me! They don't hold my respect! They don't have a right to dictate how I live my life anymore!" She leaned close to Nabiki as her battle aura started to burn. "In fact, I want you to remember to tell Mom this: 'Honour is a sword shattered on a rock!'" She pulled back from Nabiki. Taking the lunch boxes Ukyou and Shampoo made, she tossed them into a garbage can. "Now get off the property or I might decide to have the cops go after you for child pornography! As a professional model in both my forms, I have a right to do that! Ja!"
She headed inside. Nabiki watched her go, eyes wide with shock and disbelief. "'P-professional m-model' . . .?" she sputtered before jolting on feeling a powerful presence behind her. "Wh-who . . .?"
She turned around. "Walk with me, Nabiki," Moroboshi Negako ordered.
Without question, the middle Tendou daughter fell in beside the ninjutsu grandmaster as they headed away from the house. Still stunned by Ranma's words, Nabiki was unsure as to what she should say when Negako gazed on her. "Perhaps simply asking her assistance in helping maintain your family's finances would have served everyone better, Nabiki," she mused.
Nabiki returned her gaze. "I a-a-assume you m-must be Negako."
"I am." A pause followed, as if she desired to let Nabiki hang there in anticipation for a week, and then she carried on, "Threats against someone do not always have to be physical. Psychological threats, emotional threats, even simple invasions of one's private space, can also injure someone. And unlike Akane, whom Ranma has tried to forgive for her assumptions concerning her, you have been a constant, consistent threat since the day she learned of your hobby of selling compromising pictures of her female form to Kunou Tatewaki.
"If you had approached Ranma from the start, explaining the situation concerning your family finances, she would have been pleased to assist," Negako added. "Within reason, of course. If she did, she might have discovered your own interest in Musabetsu Kakutou-ryuu. Perhaps even learned of what Akane did to you which forced you to cease practising the martial arts."
Nabiki blinked, her face paling as Negako's eyes seemed to bore through her defences, leaving her soul open for the grandmaster to scrutinize to her heart's -- did this creature HAVE a heart?! -- content. "H-how . . .?"
"Your ki patterns are an open book to me, Nabiki," Negako reported. "It is as easy for me to perceive your entire life's story by analysing that alone, though I possess other means of comprehending what happened to you throughout your life. As Happy told you, I can easily repair the damage to your nervous system, thus giving your arms full range of motion. If you desire it, of course. In fact, the process by which I am helping Ranma heal can also be used by you. And since the wounds to your nervous system are far less than Ranma's, I can easily deal with your problem in three days." She gazed tranquilly at her companion. "Again, if this is what you would desire, Nabiki."
Nabiki considered that before turning away, taking several steps as her mind rolled through what Negako just said. She then gazed intently at the latter. "So what's your price if I agree to let you do that?"
Negako's lips curled into a smile. "You are cautious. An admirable trait. That is good." Closing her eyes, she then moved to stand beside the middle Tendou daughter. "Nabiki, you love your family very much, do you not?"
Nabiki nodded, blinking. "Yes." Where was she going with this?
"Then you realise that if Akane is allowed to continue being seen as Souun's 'heir' to your branch of Musabetsu Kakutou-ryuu, your family's legacy could be lost IF Akane does not learn how to curb her temper, plus dedicate herself into studying the Art more than she does now. Correct?"
"Very well, then. Given your considerable skill in business, plus your knowledge in your family's branch of Musabetsu Kakutou-ryuu -- which can be augmented once your body is healed -- what do you think your chances of allowing the Tendou doojou to expand would be in the long term?"
Nabiki slowly nodded. "I'd say pretty good."
"Would you want to do that?"
"I . . . " Here, she paused before answering, "It depends." Taking a deep breath, Nabiki turned away. "If you'd come three years ago offering what you have, Negako-san, I would have jumped at the chance to carry on with the Art. You're right. Akane was the one who hurt me. Everyone from Toofuu-sensei on down said it was a training accident. But seeing how Akane acted afterward, I think she didn't mind my turning away from the Art . . . "
"Deep down, she loathed you for your skill and self-control," Negako cut in. "Indeed, if you had trained as long and as intensely as Ranma, you would be her equal in every way, perhaps even her superior. Akane did not appreciate how good you were, so -- deep inside her -- she felt it all right to cast aside considerations of safety during training. Your injuries resulted from that."
"I suspected that," Nabiki mused before she stared anew at Negako. "Look, Negako-san, I'd be the first to agree that Akane's always been a spoiled princess at heart, but I care for her. I can forgive her. Hell, she was only twelve then. She didn't understand what she did to me!"
Negako returned her gaze. "Then it is time for her TO understand many things. If she is to be what she states she is, she has to confront all her limitations. If she does not, she dooms herself. Do you want that?"
"Hell, no!" Nabiki barked.
"I did not believe so."
They continued to walk for a minute before Nabiki sighed. "Alright, then." She gazed on Negako. "I'd welcome your help in getting me back in gear. What do you want me to do in return, Negako-san?"
"You may feel free to reveal who injured Akane to your family and Ranma's parents," Negako announced. "But as Ranma, in effect, asked you to do, tell them EVERYTHING. I'm sure you know many ways to do that."
Nabiki considered that, and then she nodded. "I do."
Negako's light smile suddenly returned. "Splendid. In addition, feel free to tell them that since Genma's demonstrated incompetence as a martial arts instructor and a father has led to the majority of Ranma's problems, I will be speaking to Happy, as is my right as the grandmaster of Saikoo Jinseijitsu-ryuu, about taking over as Ranma's instructor. And should Happy agree -- which he will -- Genma will have to defeat ME to win that back. He will not win. And should he try to perform any underhanded manoeuvres . . . "
Nabiki smirked. "You'll kill him, right?"
A cold smile crossed Negako's face. "No, I will do much worse. I will see to it every illicit act Genma has performed since Ranma's birth will be brought to the attention of the police. Given the thievery ALONE he performed, he will be on the run for the rest of his life. Since I, as a responsible teacher, will endeavour to ensure Ranma remains free of such an unhealthy influence, Genma will not be able to . . . " Here, she paused as Negako sought the right wording. "Slouch off the consequences of his avarice on his child."
"Cruel." Damn, she LIKED this girl/woman/whatever! "I'll do that, Negako-san. I'll be back sometime later today or tomorrow."
She bowed before racing to the nearest bus stop. Negako watched her go, a light smile crossing her face before she headed home.
* * *
"This can't be . . . "
Mendou Shuutarou shuddered as he watched the replay of yesterday's events -- as reported by NHK -- on the wide-screen television in his private study. On the screen, a person whom he found it IMPOSSIBLE to believe was Moroboshi Ataru was busy shattering large sections of the roof of Tomobiki High School, working swiftly to dig out those who had been trapped in the wrecked northwest wing. The fact that this man was working in concert with Saotome Ranma, one of Nerima's infamous legion of teenage master martial artists, didn't concern Mendou one bit. Given Saotome's legendary adherence to a strict code of honour which demanded his presence at times of great tragedy, that he -- yes, Mendou did know of Saotome's magical gender-bending curse -- had come all the way to Tomobiki to help with the recovery efforts was simply par for the course.
But Moroboshi . . .?
Quivering, the bandaged scion of the Mendou fortune clicked the PLAY button on his remote. The scene switched to Moroboshi's vocal confrontation with the Tomobiki High principal and two of the teachers. Hearing him assert his pleasure that both his parents -- parents he no longer considered his -- were dead, Mendou grimaced. He didn't know whether to feel pity or disgust at his rival's assertions. Mendou's own parents were an odd lot, a state of affairs he personally lamented on from time to time. And he HAD often heard Moroboshi's mother assert right to her son's face, "I wish I never had you!"
But to publicly welcome their deaths?
Eh . . .?
He didn't wish to come back?
He wouldn't come back?!
Mendou shuddered, and then he blinked as he watched Moroboshi leave the scene. Before Saotome could follow, an NHK reporter cornered him. Ah, poor fool, to be mistaken for a girl. Didn't that reporter realise the truth . . .?
Mendou blinked before laughing on seeing Saotome fluster at being asked if "she" was Moroboshi's new girlfriend. Poor fool . . .
Moroboshi thought THAT about Lum-san? AND Shinobu-san?!
How DARE he . . .?
What . . .?
What was Yumoa Reigi doing there?
Moroboshi was getting an inheritance from his grandmother . . .?
Moroboshi's parents were now considered roonin?
What was going on here . . .?
Huh? What . . .?!
So Saotome now saw himself as Moroboshi's friend, eh . . .?
How DARE Saotome side with Moroboshi . . .?
Mendou stared wide-eyed as Saotome used his special ki attack to destroy that beautiful statue of Lum. How . . . damn him, how DARE he do that?! How dare he SAY that?! Lum-san was the one who mattered, not . . .!
A knock. "Young Master?"
Mendou shut off the television, calling out, "Come!"
The door to his study opened, revealing a Kuromegane. "Forgive me, sir, but your father and mother wish to speak to you immediately."
Mendou nodded. "Of course."
* * *
"But, Otou-san . . .!"
Mendou Hajime puffed his pipe. "No, Shuutarou. Our minds are made up."
Shuutarou was now seated across from his parents in their private lounge. As typical for the old-fashioned, technophobic matriarch of the Mendou Clan, Haruka, her personal assistant/human parrot presently accompanied her. "Reigi-san is, as the guardian of Ataru-san's inheritance, well within his rights to demand you leave the lad alone from now on. The Mendou Conglomerate has maintained good relations with Toranoseishin Finances and the Inshin Group for thirty years. I do not wish to see those relations soured because of your unwanted -- and now unnecessary! -- obsession with Lum-san."
"Otou-san . . .!"
Hajime sent a piercing gaze at his son. "That is enough!"
Hearing the sharpness in his father's voice, Shuutarou paled. It was VERY rare to hear Mendou Hajime speak with strong emotion. "Shuutarou, whatever your feelings for Ataru-san are is not the issue," the elder Mendou declared. "What happened between Ataru-san and Lum-san is ALSO not the issue, especially now that Lum-san is dead and Ataru-san is moving to get on with his life. You, Shuutarou, have a profound obligation, to both your family and the Conglomerate. And your mother and I, along with Asuka-san's parents, believe it is time for you to see that obligation through to the proper conclusion."
Shuutarou gulped, bowing his head. "I . . .!"
For so long, giri had been an important part, if not THE most important part, of Mendou Shuutarou's whole life. To deny that would be, in effect, denying a large part of his very being. Yes, some could say he had often acted in a questionable way when it came to his classmates at Tomobiki High, especially when it came to the matter of Moroboshi Ataru and Lum. But in comparison to his overall life, matters in school had been trivial.
Until now.
Shuutarou bowed his head again. "Hai, Otou-san. I understand."
"Splendid." Hajime exchanged a look with Haruka, who smiled. "We shall make an announcement about your engagement to Asuka-san sometime AFTER the furore over yesterday's events has died down. Given the interest your female classmates have expressed to you, we don't need to shock them TOO much, do we?"
* * *
Unseen by them, a Kuroko nodded before slipping away to speak to Ryooko. The Young Mistress should be pleased to hear this.
* * *
Nodoka and Kasumi sat with Nabiki in the main cafeteria at Nerima General Hospital. Akane was presently in stable condition, though she was still unconscious. Souun had insisted on staying at her side. Because of his crying fits, Genma had to remain with him. To Nabiki, that was fair enough. She needed the idiots to stay away while she was dropping some bombs.
"My son . . .?!" Nodoka gaped. "HE hit Akane?!"
"He was MADE to hit Akane, Auntie Saotome," Nabiki repeated.
"By WHO?!"
Nabiki sighed. She HOPED Nodoka might be calm enough to take this. Oh, well, press on ahead . . .! "Moroboshi Negako."
"Why?!" Kasumi cut in, placing a hand on Nodoka's to help calm her.
"Brain damage."
"My son?!" Nodoka gasped, nearly choking on her words.
Nabiki sighed. "Yeah. Now, here's the story . . . "
It took five minutes to reiterate. Sadly, the words Nabiki spoke weren't enough. "I . . . " Nodoka breathed out. "Much that I appreciate Moroboshi-sensei's concern for my son's welfare, I can't accept a situation where Ranma is made to deliberately attack his fiancée, Nabiki-chan. It is wrong! I demand to see this woman immediately to have this stopped . . . "
Nabiki shook her head. "I'm afraid that's now impossible."
"Because with the way this has been rigged, EVERYONE who has threatened Ranma anytime in the past -- even verbally -- is now seen as a threat and will be dealt with accordingly," Nabiki explained before she pointed to the wrapped katana in Nodoka's arms. "If you march into Negako-san's house carrying THAT around, I can guarantee that not only will Ranma-kun see YOU as a threat, Auntie Saotome, he'd gladly renounce you once and for all."
Hearing that, Nodoka keeled over. "N-no . . . h-he wouldn't . . . "
Nabiki glared at her. "Yes, he would. You want to know what he just told me? He said that he doesn't CARE a whit about what I might think, what Onee-chan might think . . . hell, you know how he feels about Dad now! And he says he's prepared to deal with you AND your husband! And if you don't think that's true, here's a message he told me to tell you." A pause. "'Honour is a sword shattered on a rock.' Guess what? The katana doesn't scare him now."
"Oh, my!" Kasumi gasped.
Silence fell as Nodoka stared wide-eyed at Nabiki. She began to quake, pained sobs stealing her voice as the honour blade was dropped to the floor. Kasumi moved to comfort her, but was swatted away by Nodoka. The eldest Tendou cringed before she got an apologetic look from Ranma's mother. Nabiki sighed as she gave Nodoka a neutral look. "I've lost my son," Nodoka moaned.
"No, Auntie, you haven't."
Nodoka gazed wearily at Kasumi. "Why . . .?"
Kasumi sighed. "Because I believe I understand where Ranma-kun's coming from. Auntie, please don't think your son has failed you. And don't think you've failed your son. In truth, it is my family who has failed your son."
Nabiki blinked. "Onee-chan . . .?"
Kasumi gazed at her. "Don't you understand, Nabiki-chan? Why he's so angry? It's not just because of Akane-chan's abuse. It's not just because of what you've done. Or what Father's tried to force him into doing. And it's not because of my attempts at ignoring the problem, either. It's ALL of that put together, Nabiki-chan. And I think there's something else, too . . . "
"Being?" Nodoka gently prodded, wiping her cheek.
Kasumi gazed on her. "It's the fact that we've not lived up to what Father promised your husband, Auntie. Don't you remember? Ranma-kun gave us that money, but he expressly FORBADE Father from touching it and he stated that none of that was to go into repairing the doojou. Why? Because I believe Ranma-kun doesn't want to shoulder the responsibilities of a united Musabetsu Kakutou-ryuu ALONE! And by all rights, he shouldn't! After all the things he's done for us, he shouldn't have to try to support a doojou that has no real future in it!" She gazed on Nabiki. "I've never been interested in the Art. And after Mother died, I had no chance to really practice it even if I wanted to. You were forced away from it because of that training accident five years ago. And Ranma-kun can easily accuse Akane-chan of not being a serious student in the Art. And what's worse, he'd be RIGHT to do that! I . . .!"
Nodoka considered that before staring at Nabiki. "Is this true?"
"About me and the Art?" Nabiki nodded. "Yeah. I made it up to rokkyuu before I had a bad accident with Akane-chan in the doojou. It damaged the brachial plexus in both my shoulders. Toofuu-sensei told me afterward that if I didn't stop practising the Art, I might end up losing use of my arms. It . . . " She closed her eyes. "That hurt me, Auntie. It hurt Dad, too."
"Are you implying that Akane-chan intentionally hurt you?"
Nabiki jolted before shaking her head. "NO! Of course not! But . . . " She paused to take a deep breath. "I've always had the better skill in the Art, Auntie. Akane's always been jealous of that! And while she did . . . well, might've got out of hand when it happened . . . " Her voice trailed off before she sighed. "I will admit that after I was forced out of the doojou, she tried to take my place. But Dad had his hopes pinned on me, so he might've . . . well, I don't know." She threw up her hands as she shook her head.
Nodoka sighed. "I see. And what of this statement concerning Akane-chan's abuse of my son leading to his current state? Is that true? I know Akane-chan and my son have fought, but to believe it went THAT far . . . "
Kasumi nodded. "Yes, Auntie. It's true."
"I see." The older woman took a deep breath before reaching down to pick the honour blade off the floor. "So, in effect, you are saying that my son may have some justification in ending the engagement between our families."
The younger women exchanged a look before nodding. "Very well." Nodoka rose. "I desire to speak to both my son and Moroboshi-sensei about this first, but I also want a full recounting of what Akane-chan has done to my son since the day they first met. I'll obtain that as soon as possible." She gazed on Nabiki. "Nabiki-chan, could you tell me where Moroboshi-sensei now lives?"
"Are you sure you want to confront Ranma-kun now?" Nabiki wondered. "Remember what I told you about what he said . . . "
Nodoka nodded. "I know, dear. All that tells me is that my fool husband has succeeded in destroying what rapport I could have tried to develop with my son. I've no intention of just standing by and allowing that to remain."
Nabiki rose. "Okay. Look, let me walk you over. It's not so far away; Negako-san and her brother live in Kasuga-chou now."
"Alright, fair enough," Nodoka agreed before she gazed on Kasumi. "We'll be back as soon as possible, Kasumi-chan. Please don't say anything to your father or my husband about this. Is that alright?"
"Of course, Auntie."
* * *
Haruka stepped back, clearing the field for Ranma and Toshiko to grapple. As the sisters, Ataru, Negako and Kumiko watched from the front porch of the shrine, the two fiery redheads slammed together in a pair of flying roundhouse kicks. The front gate opened as Nabiki slipped in, followed by Nodoka. Both stopped as their eyes focused on Ranma and her mirror-twin while the two were busy lashing out at each other with variations of the Chestnut Fist. The only thing missing from this was the koi pond, Nabiki whistled. Not to mention a certain lazy-ass panda, she wryly added as she crossed her arms.
Ranma and Toshiko remained locked on each other, but Ataru was quick to notice who just arrived. Rising, he headed over with Sakuya. "Mrs. Saotome, it's a pleasure to meet you." He bowed his head. "I take it you're here to speak to your child. Or . . . " His eyes then turned towards Toshiko and Kumiko. "Should I phrase that 'children?'" he then added.
"Yes, Ataru-kun. Nabiki-chan just told me about my son's 'mirror-twins,'" Nodoka responded with a nod, and then she blinked as the fighting stopped. Ranma gazed her way. "Ohayou, Ranma. How are you today?"
Ranma curtly nodded. "Mother."
The chill in her voice quickly got everyone's attention. "Why's Onee-tama mad at her mama, Karen-chan?" Hinako whispered to Karen.
Karen shrugged. "I don't know, Hinako-chan."
"I think you need a chance to speak to your mother, Ranma." Ataru gazed on his friend before turning to his sisters. "Girls?"
Quickly, they headed inside. Negako remained in place. As Ataru moved to head in, he paused, eyes narrowing. "Mrs. Saotome?"
Nodoka quickly noted the ice in his voice. "Y-yes, Ataru-kun?"
"Do not presume to draw that sword on this property, especially when it concerns my friend," he warned before heading in with Sakuya.
Negako remained in place. Toshiko and Kumiko remained silent, as did Nabiki. Nodoka sighed before gazing on Ranma. The latter did not return her look. "I take it you've been told about what happened this morning," she said.
Nodoka paled as Ranma's gaze then raked over her. "I . . . y-yes, I have." She sighed. "It is not your fault, Ranma. I've already been told by Nabiki-chan about what Moroboshi-sensei was forced to do with you and why."
Ranma blinked before gazing curiously at Nabiki. "Well, well, well. She doesn't try to provoke a new fight. Shocking," she quipped.
Nabiki ducked that look. Nodoka sighed. "I also support your decision to end whatever engagement might exist between yourself and the Tendou family," she added. "Believe it or not, Kasumi-chan and Nabiki-chan also support that."
"Really? Well, their opinions no longer matter." Ranma shook her head. "Personally, I should add that any attempts at apologies by them . . . " She paused. "I shall not accept." She glared at Nabiki. "Leave. Don't stick around to listen in on what we say. Negako will sense you right away."
Nabiki wordlessly nodded as she heads out. Nodoka watched her go before she turned back to gaze on her child. "Don't you believe that was too harsh?"
"Oh?" Ranma's eyebrow arched. "And is taking nearly-nude pictures of me when I least suspect it 'harsh?' Is putting up with a selfish brat with delusions of grandeur 'harsh?' Is putting up with two lazy-ass fools who only want to live off the products of my work, especially when they want me to marry someone who's an insult to her own school, 'harsh?' Mother, I don't deny for a second I've got my shortcomings. But I am SICK and TIRED of all of you whining and crying about me being the only one to do the right thing while the rest of you dance away in your petty little fantasy worlds, thinking it'll be alright in the end!" Before Nodoka could protest, Ranma pointed to the bundled sword. "By all rights, I should take that away from you and destroy it!" She ignored Nodoka's shocked look as she continued, "Why? Because thanks to that thing you call a husband, Mother, our family honour has been dragged into the friggin' dungheap because he was too selfish to look out for anyone but himself! And if you think that I'm wrong, I got a BIG news flash for you!" She pointed to her head. "How'd you like to know all the interesting crap Oyaji did to me BEFORE he tricked me into puttin' my palm-print on that stupid seppuku pledge?!"
Nodoka's skin began to pale. "What . . .?"
"It is true."
Eyes turned as Negako walked up. "You want to do this, Negako?" Ranma asked the grandmaster of Saikoo Jinseijitsu-ryuu.
"If you wish." Negako gazed on her before turning to Nodoka. "Permit me to explain about Genma's attempt to dull your child's thinking processes so that Ranma was forced to concentrate ONLY on the martial arts . . . "
* * *
Two minutes later, a shrieking "HE DID WHAT?!" echoed through the streets of Nerima, causing many to instinctively duck.
Not fifty metres from the Moroboshi home, Nabiki jolted before she glanced at where she came. "That fool's in for it now."
* * *
Genma moaned as he rubs his nose before staring at Souun, the latter now dozing beside Akane's bed. Someone's thinking about me.
* * *
Nodoka was sheet-white. "My son . . .?!" she gasped, staring at Ranma.
Negako nodded. "Quite correct. It was blind luck, if you will, that Ranma was able to develop to the point where she could manipulate her own ki to create the Mooko Takabisha, much less master the Shishi Hookoodan, the Demon Head and several forms the Nujiézú practice. But she was, since well before the day she first came to Nerima, forced to look on EVERYTHING as a fight. She could not conceive of trying to rationalize her way out of situations. It is clearly Genma's overall intention to force Ranma to remain locked in such a state so she would never break free of her father's control. An effective enslavement, as Kelun put it this morning." An eyebrow arched. "Tell me, Nodoka: Is THAT state of affairs conducive to creating your 'man above men?'"
"I . . . " Nodoka winced, sensing the scowl crossing her transformed child's face on hearing that phrase. She bowed her head. "No."
"I did not believe so. Ranma's problem first came to the attention of a friend of the family, Kamekichi Tampopo. She is the one who aided Ranma in securing a job as a model during her last 'training trip' before she met Ataru and myself. During that trip, Tampopo took notice of some anomalies in Ranma's ki signature. That is when I was called in to consult on this. Ataru also noticed something amiss with your child. After I examined her, I put the safeguards into place that affected Akane this morning, and then began the necessary repairs. That will take two weeks. But as you might suspect, Genma, not to mention several others, will not welcome this. Thus, for the remainder of this week, Ranma will spend time with Ataru and his sisters elsewhere. Ataru will be able to continue the treatment." A chilly look then flashed in her eyes. "Any attempt to interrupt that will not be tolerated, Nodoka."
Nodoka gazed on her before nodding. "I can agree with that."
"You have no choice in that matter," the grandmaster warned before she perked as something came to her. "Would you also wish to know about the Neko-ken? I sense no one has told you about that act of lunacy on Genma's part."
"'Cat Fist?!'" Nodoka tensed, noticing Ranma slightly quivering on hearing that phrase. "What is that?" she demanded.
Negako explained. Soon, another shriek echoed through Nerima.
* * *
* * *
Negako nodded. "Yes."
Nodoka shuddered before staring at her child. "Ranma, I . . . "
Ranma returned her look, sighing. "It's not your fault."
Hearing that, Nodoka brightened before she turned to Negako. "Can you repair what happened to him? Help my son overcome his fear?"
"That will take an additional four weeks beyond what has to happen now," Negako reported. "Happy and I have discussed the possibility of my taking over Ranma's training from Genma. Simply put, the direction of Ranma's training leads away from the basic tenets of your family's Art. Musabetsu Kakutou-ryuu demands its practitioners become as self-sufficient as possible. Genma clearly does not desire Ranma to be that way. You may understand why." She then crossed her arms. "So what would you desire, Nodoka? A child that cannot truly think on her own, cannot conceive of ANY life beyond the martial arts, thus forever live in a sea of uncontrolled chaos? Or a child who can think on her own, learn and understand what the consequences of her actions are, appreciate there are other things in life than martial arts?"
Nodoka shuddered, unsure as to what to say. "I believe," Negako carried on, "That what Ranma SHOULD strive to become is not a 'man above men,' but a 'gentle person.' As my family would define such, a gentle person is one who is, in the end, as much master of her destiny AND respectful of other people's destinies as Fate will allow. You and I, Nodoka, will agree there are certain matters that are beyond anyone's control. Would THAT be to your satisfaction?"
Silence fell as Nodoka considered that. "Yes, I think that would be desirable." Her eyes fell on Ranma. "If that is what you want. Ranma?"
Ranma sighed. "I really don't know what I want out of life now, Mom." She gazed on Nodoka, the anger and hostility gone from her eyes, replaced by a weary sadness. "I used to think that the martial arts were everything in my life. Now, I'm not sure. And knowing how much Oyaji lied to me, used me like that . . . " Her teeth gnashed before she looked nowhere in particular. "I have to find out who and what I am now, Mom. And I can't do that with Oyaji hanging over me, with the fiancées snapping up my tail and everything else. I just can't. It's not fair to Ukyou or to Shan or to Akane, Nabiki and Kasumi, either. And it's really not fair to me. Or to you. As for Oyaji . . . "
"I can understand that." Nodoka nodded. "Certainly, you could do with a lot less violence haunting your life." She turned to Negako. "After seeing what I have seen, not to mention what Kasumi-chan, Nabiki-chan and you have told me, Sensei, my son deserves a chance to learn how to live his own life. For that to begin, there is something I must do." She bowed to the grandmaster. "Thank you for what you've told me. It was informative . . . "
Everyone turned to see Hinako standing nearby, a worried look on the younger girl's face. "What is it, Hinako-chan?" Ranma asked.
"Onee-tama, why are you so mad at your mama?" Hinako pleaded.
Hearing that, Ranma sighed. "No, Hinako-chan, I'm not mad at my mom. I'm actually mad at my dad and a few other people right now, but not my mom. It's okay," she assured her as she gently ruffled Hinako's hair.
Nodoka gazed on her. "Hinako-chan, do you think I can count on you and your sisters to stay close to my son? Er . . . " She gazed at Toshiko and Kumiko, an apologetic look crossing her face. "My children, that is?"
"Hai!" Hinako gushed.
Ranma grinned. Nodoka then turned to the mirror-twins. "I've been told of how you came into this world. I hope . . . " She bowed her eyes. "That I will get a chance to know you as I've long wanted to know Ranma."
Toshiko sighed. "That depends on you, Saotome-san."
"And what you do with your husband," Kumiko added.
* * *
"Oh . . . wh-where am I . . .?"
Akane's eyes fluttered. She then gasped as Souun's tears nearly drown her. "D-dad!" she cried out, and then she yelped as a jolt of hot pain shot up her right arm to nearly overwhelm her. "Hurts . . . " she groaned.
Before Souun could collapse into yet ANOTHER crying fit, a nurse came in. "Please, Tendou-san! Calm down!" she urged him before staring hopefully at Genma. "Sir, could you please escort him outside?"
"I . . . "
Genma jolted, spinning around to see Nodoka glaring at him from the doorway, her honour blade unwrapped. Nabiki and Kasumi stood behind his wife, guarded looks on their faces. Seeing the outrage in Nodoka's eyes, he winced, quickly glancing around quickly to find a cup of cold water so he could transform into a panda and duck whatever angry tirade his wife was about to unleash. Before he could escape, Nodoka glanced at the nurse. "Please leave us alone for a while, miss. We'll see to it Akane-chan isn't harmed."
The nurse nodded. "I . . . h-hai."
Kasumi closed the door after the nurse quickly departed. Nabiki immediately poised herself by the sink, taking the cup there in hand. Seeing that, Genma turned to his wife. "Nodoka! What are . . . URK!" he yelped as the tip of her katana touched the flesh under his jaw.
"Nodoka, put that away!" Souun pleaded.
"QUIET, Father!" Kasumi snapped.
He dropped to his knees as tears exploded from his eyes in jets. "WHAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAA! My daughter yelled at me! WHAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAA!"
"SOUUN! STOP ACTING LIKE A BABY! ACT YOUR AGE!" Nodoka shrilled, causing Souun to scramble away, he staring wide-eyed at her.
"What's the meaning of this?!" Genma thundered before gulping as the katana's tip pressed against his throat. "N-n-n-Nodoka . . .!"
"'What's the meaning of this?' you may ask?" Nodoka growled. "Very well. I will explain it to you in one phrase: Neko-ken."
He paled. "B-b-but . . . "
"Silence!" Nodoka snapped. "I've ALSO been told about what you did to our son BEFORE you took him away from me! RETARDING him to the point where he was not able to take interest in ANYTHING beyond the martial arts?!"
Genma's eyes went totally wide. Who had figured THAT out?! "But, that was to e-ensure he would r-remain devoted to the A-Art . . .!"
"At the expense of his happiness?! At the expense of trying to enjoy a normal life, have friends and a relationship of equals?!" Nodoka snarled before she sighed. "Very well, then! If you are so narrow-minded that you cannot think of anything but yourself, I will speak to the Master about having Moroboshi Negako-sensei take over our -- MY -- son's training! You have lost ALL rights to consider yourself Ranma's sensei, Genma! And if you so much as THINK of doing something to sabotage my child's life further, remember that I can still hold the oath of seppuku over YOU if I feel it necessary! And this time, you will NOT be able to weasel your way out of THAT, Genma!"
Genma gagged. "N-n-n-Nodoka . . . y-y-you don't u-u-understand . . .!"
"What about joining the schools?!" Souun pleaded.
She glared at the Tendou patriarch. "What schools are we talking about, Souun?" Nodoka demanded, the ice in her voice making him duck her glare. "As far as I can see, as far as my son can see, there IS no Tendou-ryuu!"
Hearing that, he started to weep. "How can you SAY that?!"
"How can I?!" Nodoka growled. "What were you thinking?! That my son would have to do all the work maintaining YOUR doojou while Akane here would do NOTHING to support her end of the agreement?! While you and this imbecile I married here lived off Ranma's efforts?! How DARE you presume such a thing of my son?! How DARE you force all that on him?! YOU HAD NO RIGHT TO DO THAT!"
"But I . . . " a weak voice rasped from the bed.
"SHUT UP!" Nodoka snapped at Akane.
"How DARE you yell at Akane-chan . . .?" Souun wailed.
"SHUT UP!" Nodoka screamed him down.
Souun collapsed into a heap of tears. "Nodoka . . . " Genma pleaded.
She spun on him, pushing the katana tip more against his throat. "Yes, Ranma wants a challenge! In that, you WERE right! But you were WRONG to assume you could limit his opportunities to the Art! And you will no longer be given the chance to limit his opportunities in the future! Understood?!"
"H-h-hai!" he sputtered.
"Good." She nodded before glaring on Souun, keeping her katana in place to ensure Genma didn't do anything. "Now, as for you, Tendou-san. I find your hospitality to be stifling, so I will take my leave. Furthermore, if you desire so much for one of your daughters to marry my son, you will ensure she is trained to AT LEAST my son's standards! And that does NOT include the use of ki-mallets to give my son brain damage! DO I MAKE MYSELF CLEAR?!"
Souun burbled. "I . . . I . . . I . . .!"
"Nodoka . . .!" Genma pleaded.
"SHUT UP!" Nodoka barked her husband down before turning to leave. "As of this moment, your agreement with the Tendous has no validity. If my son wants to marry someone, let him marry for love, not your twisted concepts of honour! If you have problems with that, too bad, Genma! You've wasted all your chances with him!" She turned her back on him. "And with me!"
She marched out, slamming the door behind her. Genma blinked before dropping to his knees in stunned disbelief. Souun shuddered, and then he wailed, "NOW THE SCHOOLS WILL NEVER BE JOINED! WHAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAA . . .!"
Both fathers ducked Kasumi's shout. "Leave now!" The eldest daughter waved to the door. "If I had half a mind, I'd see YOU . . . " She glared at Genma. "Thrown back into the zoo where you belong! At least THERE, you won't cause mischief! As for YOU, Father, Auntie is right! It's time for you to start acting your age! And if it wasn't in part for you, Akane-chan might have BECOME the type of martial artist that Ranma-kun COULD respect! Now, get out of here!" She pointed. They scrambled out as fast as they could go. Kasumi slammed the door shut, and then took a breath as the anger drained from her.
"Way to go, Onee-chan!" Nabiki applauded her as she clapped her hands. "I haven't seen you do something like THAT in years!"
"Got that right, Nabiki . . . " a weak voice echoed from the bed.
Both gazed on Akane. Though still drugged by heavy painkillers, there was a quirky smile on the youngest Tendou's face. "Hey, how are you doing?" Nabiki wondered as she and Kasumi walked up to stand beside her.
"Not good," Akane moaned. "I really screwed up this morning, didn't I?"
"Pretty much so," Nabiki replied. "You better get used to the fact that things aren't going to happen between you two, Akane-chan."
Hearing that, Akane shuddered. "No . . . it can't end like this . . . "
"It doesn't mean Ranma hates you, Akane-chan." Kasumi placed a comforting hand on Akane's forehead as she continued, "Right now, he needs time to himself. Time to learn who and what he wants to be. Most of all, he needs time to undo all the damage Uncle's done to his life. If you ever hope to be at least his friend, Akane-chan, you must respect that."
"But I DO respect it, Onee-chan . . . "
Nabiki shook her head. "Not if it came to the point where you wanted to slug him for only trying to save P-chan from your cooking, Akane."
Hearing that, Akane quaked as tears welled in her eyes. "He hates me."
"No, he doesn't," Kasumi assured her. "Akane-chan, there's something that's just been discovered about Ranma-kun. And it's because of that something that you wound up here. Listen closely . . . "
* * *
"So you want to stay here? Go to school here?"
"Hai." Inu Chigaiko nodded as she sat with Ataru in the living room. Save for Shirayuki, the sisters were out shopping. The young chef was hard at work in the mobile kitchen preparing for an early supper so that everyone can make it back to Welcome House well before midnight. Ranma was with Toshiko and Kumiko at Tampopo's; she wanted to introduce the mirror-twins to her new friend. Toshiko and Kumiko would travel with the others to Promised Island. Negako was off somewhere. Ataru had no idea where. Due to the ninjutsu grandmaster's acute hydrophobia, she would remain in Nerima. "Let's just say after what happened yesterday, I don't feel really safe in Tomobiki anymore."
"Did the staff find out you were absent yesterday?" he asked.
She scowled. "Onsen." Like Ataru, Chigaiko held no respect for Onsen Mark, much less any of the other teachers at Tomobiki High. "Incredible, isn't it? They ignore me in class. They don't bother to try to remember my NAME, for Buddha's sake! Yet, when it comes to 'special' events like that, they tear half the town apart to track me down! Would you believe he came to our house this morning to scream at me in front of my parents and Onee-chan about not being there for Lum's memorial? After ten people got killed by that nut, all because of that Oni and what she did?! Dad threw him out, then stormed down to the school and got me de-registered! But the problem is . . . "
She shrugged. "Going to any of the other schools in town isn't a wise choice?" he finished for her, an amused smirk crossing his face.
"Not really."
"How's the mood there after yesterday?"
Chigaiko sighed. "Shock, mostly. You'd think after what that Oni and her friends did, we'd be used to that sort of thing. But . . . " She paused before nodding as something came to her. "And there's a lot of anger, too."
His eyebrow arched. "At me?"
She shook her head. "No! That's the crazy part!" A sigh escaped her. "I guess they're sort of angry at the outside world, especially the news media like CNN and all that. I mean, what happened got prime-time news coverage on NHK, but it didn't show up elsewhere! It's like the rest of the world was saying, 'So the school in Tomobiki got blown up again? What else is new?!'"
He sipped his tea. "So they just learned the whole world doesn't revolve around Tomobiki, have they? It's about damned time!"
"Yeah, I guess so."
"What about relatives of the dead? Any news on them?"
"The Stormtroopers' parents are beside themselves. This is their worst nightmare come true!" A pause. "Mom told me that at the PTA meeting today, Megane's mom wanted to force the mayor to cancel all thoughts of putting a memorial up for Lum at the school, much less anywhere in Tomobiki. It was passed, but the chances are there that Mendou might try to ram it through."
He shook his head. "Idiot. Oh, speaking of Sword-for-brains, how is he, anyway? I noticed he got hurt yesterday."
"Nothing from him."
Ataru hummed. "That could be dangerous. And his fan club?"
"The Rosebuds?" A shake of the head. "Quiet. Rumour has it they'll get together tonight at the Dobu Salada to discuss what happened. But from what I overheard, people are right now too scared of you to think of trying to pull the same stunt they did when you tried to quit being the homeroom rep last year. Nothing from Miyake or Fujinami. And since no one's ever taken notice of me, I doubt that stupid monk would follow me here to harass you."
Ataru smirked. "Well, I wouldn't be too bugged if Cherry did follow me here. Chikage-chan could scare him and his niece off without breaking a sweat. Not to mention what Onee-chan might do to them, too."
"Let's hope so," she said before staring at him. "What's it like?"
"Having twelve girls like that pop up out of nowhere and say they're your sisters? What was it like when you went to this Promised Island place?"
"It was . . . " He sipped his tea before setting the cup aside. "Nearly overwhelming. Almost like when Lum first came into my life."
Chigaiko's eyebrows arched. "How can you possibly compare getting twelve sweet girls like that as your sisters to what happened between you and Lum?!" She crossed her arms. "Don't tell me you actually loved her!"
He stared at her. "I wanted to love her."
She froze in place. "Ataru-kun . . .?"
"Chigaiko-chan, look. I know you've got no cause to like Lum. I don't blame you. But . . . " He paused to bite his lip. "Yeah, there were times I hated some of the stunts she pulled on me. But I wasn't any better, you know! And . . . " He sighed. "There were times I kept pinching myself, wondering what the hell I did to deserve someone like HER wanting ME of all the guys in the whole galaxy almost to be her husband! I mean . . . " A shrug rolled his shoulders. "I didn't know about you and how you felt for me. And yeah, you were smart to not press things because Lum would've had a big fit over it. Shinobu walked away from me, not that I could really blame her for that. No one else really cared for me. You know what Muchi and Kinshou did. I . . . "
"Without her being there . . .?" she whispered.
"I don't know what I might've done," he admitted. "After she left and I went to the Island and met the girls . . . " A content smile crossed his face. "It was my meeting Lum multiplied twelve times over. And what was better, they were blood relations to me, so I didn't have to worry about marriage, kids and all that moronic stuff. I was free to date around, but then . . . " He paused, shrugging. "Why did I need to date around? I had a family that I was living with, Chigaiko-chan. A real, honest-to-goodness family."
She blinked. "Don't you want a girlfriend, Ataru-kun?"
He considered that before sighing. "I don't know if I'm really ready for that sort of responsibility, even now, Chigaiko-chan."
"It's not a responsibility . . . "
"It is," he affirmed. "Chigaiko-chan, look. I'm flattered beyond belief that you find me interesting and all, but . . . "
"I've got a right, buster!" she declared before leaning her chin over her fingers. "You're the only person who remembered my name in that school, remember? How can I NOT like you? Not even Mendou could do that with me!"
"Love's gotta be more than that." He shook his head before sighing. "Look, there're other things that I have to worry about. It's not all over yet when it comes to folks out there." He nodded towards the ceiling to indicate the alien races beyond Earth. "Atop that, there's the reaction of people in Tomobiki to yesterday's events, especially from Mendou . . . "
"He'll learn how to leave you be." She squeezed his hand. "Ataru-kun, I'm on your side. I've got no use for those idiots in Tomobiki, just like you. Please. I want a break from them. Can't you help me with that?"
"I . . .!" He readily nodded. "Of course I can!"
"Okay." She let his hand go. "And yes, if we did start to date and work from there, I would . . . it would be the happiest time of my life! If you're not comfortable with it, I'll understand. I can wait. But . . . " She gave him a pleading look. "You can't stop me from dreaming. I love you, Moroboshi Ataru. And there's nothing on this planet that will change that."
"Got to come back to reality sooner or later, Chigaiko-chan."
* * *
"Are we all here?"
People glanced around the Dobu Salada, a ramen/snack shop located on the main road connecting Tomobiki with Nerima and Tokyo. Dressed in a panorama of school uniforms, the small group seated in three booths and along some of the stools lining the counter were almost all girls. There were several men, they seated off to one side. One of them was none other than the man everyone knew simply as Soban, the hideously deformed gang leader who possessed -- still possessed, in fact -- a deep lust for one Miyake Shinobu. Flanking him were his top lieutenants, Hitori and Futari, the infamous Franken Twins.
"Hai, Ogin-san. We're here," one of the girls, a Butsumetsu Girl's High School senior, affirmed with a nod.
"Good," Ogin Haniko, leader of the Rosebuds, declared. "Let's get on with this. What news have we got about Mendou-san's condition?"
"He's recovering," Marubeya Momoe reported. "He'll have a scar over his left eye, but that's it. Nothing lasting."
The other Rosebuds breathed out in relief. "Well, that's good enough. Does anyone have news about the lunatic who blew up the school yesterday?" another girl, this one from the Taian Institute, asked. "Any friends?"
"No one in the National Police Agency's saying anything," a Shakkou girl reported. "As to where he comes from, he's reported to have come from Qatar. What group he works for? No one's saying anything, either in the press or over the 'Net." A pause. "And we don't know if he's still got friends."
"Oh, wonderful!" a student from the co-ed Butsumetsu High School grumbled. "We could be facing another attack, then!"
Ogin shook her head. "Maybe, but I doubt it."
People perked. "What do you mean?" the Taian girl wondered.
"Remember who got killed yesterday. Megane and his three morons. Wasn't THAT interesting? Beyond them, no one who was really important or influential in Tomobiki High when Lum was here. Mendou-san was hurt, but clearly he wasn't a target of this nut. The others? Fujinami-kun's father, Ataru-kun's 'ex'-parents, that strange girl Fujinami-kun was engaged to and two others."
"Have they identified those two yet?" the Shakkou girl wondered.
"Two girls from Class 2-2, Kawamura Himiko and Serizawa Mikiko. Himiko-chan was captain of the girl's swim team. Mikiko-chan was . . . " Momoe stopped before sighing. "No one really special when you get down to it."
"May they rest in peace," Soban gently intoned.
The others looked at the gang leader for a moment. "Yes, no matter how we might think of them, they didn't deserve that. Even Megane and his loons," Ogin affirmed. "So, opinions, anyone? What do you people think of a possible follow-up attack in Tomobiki by Islamic fundamentalists?"
Taian: "I'd say low to fair."
Shakkou: "Concur."
Butsumetsu Girl's: "Very low to nil."
Butsumetsu: "Fair."
Ogin looked at Momoe. "I'm not the type to judge that sort of thing without some hard evidence," the latter declared.
The Rosebuds' leader sighed. "Alright. I say low, but let's keep our eyes open. If nothing happens by the end of next month, we'll relax."
"By the way, the Hajj is coming soon," Hitori then spoke up, making Futari stare annoyingly at him; he always thought HE was the smart one of the Twins! "Lots of Muslims are gonna be off to Arabia to do their thing."
Ogin nodded. "Good point. Besides, given that this idiot WAS from the Middle East, I think the National Police will be keeping a sharp eye out for everyone from that part of the world." A pause as she took a deep breath. "Now, the other important thing for this evening . . . "
"What do we do about Ataru-kun?" the Taian girl wondered.
"Exactly. Momoe-kun, what can you tell us about Saotome Ranma?"
Momoe sighed before doing a recap of Ranma's life, relayed to her first-hand by Tendou Nabiki. She concluded with the battle on Mount Phoenix; the recent wedding troubles weren't truly relevant. When the other Rosebuds and their allies heard about the battle with Saffron, they all paled. "You mean to tell us that this Saotome guy . . .?" the chief representative from Butsumetsu sputtered before blurting out, "Killed an IMMORTAL to save his fiancée?!"
Shakkou: "Whoa!"
Soban sniffed admiringly. "Such devotion for the one he loves."
Some sent the delinquent annoyed stares. Momoe nodded. "You bet. Now, Nabiki-san's a good judge when it comes to martial arts skills; she herself is trained in the sister school of the Saotome-ryuu. According to her, the chances are VERY good Ataru-kun is either close to OR ON PAR with Ranma-kun. And this Negako person, this being formed from this Saikoo Jinseijitsu database that used to be in Ataru-kun's head . . . " She shuddered. "She's better."
"Which means?" Ogin prodded.
"Which means that if Mendou-san or any of us push our luck with Ataru-kun . . . " Momoe paused to look out the window at the surrounding cityscape. "Then we're potentially playing with fire . . . huh?!"
"What?" Ogin wondered as they looked outside.
Everyone then gasped on seeing an arcing beam of bright light burst from one of the three towers marking Tomobiki's downtown. From several kilometres away, it was hard for the Rosebuds to see what might be causing the light to form, but they could tell it seemed to be heading south towards the distant Sagami Sea and the Izu Islands. "What the heck is that?!" Futari asked.
Momoe shook her head. "Search me."
* * *
"What the hairy heck IS that, anyway?!"
Shinobu shook her head as she and Ryuunosuke watched the beam of light disappear into the southern sky. "I don't know. I don't think Mendou-san's family owns that particular building, so it couldn't be them."
Ryuunosuke shook her head. "Man, just when you thought you'd seen it all." She rubbed the side of her head. "You think we'd ever get back to something close to 'normal' one of these days, Shinobu?"
"I don't know. I hope so, but . . . " Her best friend's voice trailed off as she gently tugged on Ryuunosuke's shirt sleeve. "Coming?"
Ryuunosuke nodded as she fell in beside Shinobu as they headed in the general direction of the old Moroboshi home. "Ah . . . r-right."
As they walked, Shinobu slipped her arm around Ryuunosuke's. To passers-by, they appeared to be a normal couple. A young, effeminate-looking man escorting a pretty, wholesome young girl "his" age out on the town. Even with Shinobu's father striving to see Fujinami Ryuunosuke properly registered and acknowledged as a girl by school authorities, the tomboy's lack of any female clothing would be telling for some time to come. It would change, Miyake Toshoba had vowed last night after Ryuunosuke started to recover from her mourning her father's and Nagisa's deaths. But it would take time. Even if they were well off, the Miyakes were middle-class. Taking on the needs of an orphan, especially one with Ryuunosuke's unique problems, would be difficult.
"Hai, Ryuu-chan, what is it?"
Shinobu gazed up at the taller woman. "You don't need to thank me, Ryuu-chan. We would've done it for anyone."
"Even Moroboshi?"
Shinobu jolted before a clouded look crossed her face. Ryuunosuke looked nonplussed, and then she reached over with her free hand to cup the former's chin. "Hey, what's wrong? You okay, Shinobu?"
"I . . . " Shinobu blinked before she shook her head, gently brushing her companion's hand away. "N-no. No. It's okay, Ryuu-chan."
"Bullshit, Shinobu!" A stern look crossed the tomboy's face. Sensing Shinobu tense, Ryuunosuke moved to moderate, "Look, I'm sorry. But ya gotta admit, Moroboshi made it damned clear yesterday what he thinks about us."
"Then if he thinks THAT of us, why did he come help out?"
Ryuunosuke blinked, and then she jolted as Shinobu stopped, the latter's hand holding the tomboy fast to her side. "Hey, what th- . . .?!" Ryuunosuke gasped before turning on Shinobu. "What the hell's . . . huh?!" Noticing where Shinobu was looking, Ryuunosuke quickly realised that they were standing by the gate leading to the two-floor townhouse Moroboshi Ataru had called home until six weeks ago. Taking a deep breath, she glanced down at her companion. "Shinobu, Moroboshi don't live here anymore! Remember?" she protested.
"Then who's inside?"
"Eh?!" Ryuunosuke blinked on seeing lights on and people inside through the curtained living room windows. "Hey! Who IS here?!"
Shinobu pulled away from her friend. "Let's find out."
"Hey, wait!" Ryuunosuke gasped as she followed Shinobu to the front door.
Shinobu rang the bell. The door soon opened to reveal a gaijin-like man with glasses. His eyes widened with surprise on seeing who stood there before they narrowed distastefully. "Hai, Miyake-san, can I help you?"
"Er . . . oh, forgive me! I'm sorry." Shinobu flustered before her eyes widened in recognition. "You're that man who talked to the reporters . . .!"
"Yumoa Reigi." He handed a meishi to Shinobu. With the way he was presently acting, Ataru's former girlfriend was quick to note, the man before her didn't think highly of her. Why? What had she done to him? "Again, what brings you about here? From what I heard, after you got together with that Inaba creature, you wouldn't have wanted anything to do with Ataru-kun again."
"WHAT?!" Shinobu stared at Reigi before she shook her head. "That's not true!" she blurted. "Ataru-kun's my friend! Who on Earth told you that lie?!"
"Ataru-kun told me himself," Reigi calmly replied. Given the glint in his eyes, Ryuunosuke realised he was taking considerable joy in giving Shinobu THIS news. "To quote: 'The less I see of ANY of those back-stabbing, selfish bastards in Tomobiki anytime in the future, the BETTER!'" A pause. "By the way, after he left here, Ataru-kun took some time to BURN his yearbooks, photo albums and everything else that could remind him of what he'd been through living in this hellhole with Muchi and Kinshou. I'm sure he has NO pictures or anything else remaining that would remind him of you or your friends, which is a good thing. It'll give him a totally fresh start where he lives now."
Shinobu blinked. Her body quaked as tears welled up in her eyes. "I . . . " she began, feeling herself choke before she clasped her hands before her. "I . . . " she tried again. "Could you tell me where he lives now, Yumoa-san?"
A pregnant pause as Reigi seemed to consider that. "I could." He looked away. "But I won't. Ataru-kun was quite adamant about that. Regardless of what happened at the school yesterday morning, he wants no contact with any of you . . . " He turned away from her. "Ever -- again."
Shinobu's hands started to spasm as tears flowed down her cheeks. She bowed low. "Please excuse me for bothering you, Yumoa-san."
Turning, she moved to run away, but was halted by, "Shinobu-san?"
She turned back. "Hai?"
"Do you understand what the concept of child abuse is?"
Shinobu blinked. "I don't understand, Yumoa-san . . . "
Reigi sighed. "Alright." He gazed on her. "How many times did you hear Kinshou say 'I wish I never had him' concerning Ataru-kun?"
Shinobu blinked. "I . . . "
Reigi waited for an answer for a moment before sighing. "I see. Ataru-kun was right. You never really CARED about what happened to him, did you? Well, fine. Now you know why he no longer wants anything to do with you." He pointed to Ryuunosuke. "I suspect Fujinami-san there can tell you about what PHYSICAL child abuse is like. But few in this society of ours realise that EMOTIONAL child abuse can hurt much worse. But then again, would you really care about what Ataru-kun's been through? I don't think so. Now, I will ask you to leave and not bother me again about him. Stay away from him from now on; you and those slime you go to school with have hurt him enough."
The door slammed shut in Shinobu's face. Staring at the house, a shudder raced through her before she staggered. Ryuunosuke caught her, and then she guided her from the Moroboshi home as she began to weep. As her strength failed, Ryuunosuke scooped her into her arms and carried her away, whispering a reassuring "It'll be okay, Shinobu. It'll be okay!" as she took Shinobu home.
Minutes later, they arrived at the Miyake home. Ryuunosuke pressed the doorbell. She breathed out as it opened, revealing Toshoba, a heavyset man in his forties with a stern disposition, standing there. "Ryuu-chan, what . . .?!" His voice failed as Ryuunosuke stepped inside, carrying his weeping child to the sofa. "Ryuu-chan, what the hell happened to my daughter?!" he demanded.
Kimiki ran in from the kitchen. On seeing Shinobu, she raced to comfort her child as Ryuunosuke guided Toshoba aside to brief him.
* * *
To be continued . . .