Ranma 1/2 Fan Fiction / Urusei Yatsura Fan Fiction / Sister Princess Fan Fiction ❯ Lonely Souls ❯ The Fourth Part, A Side - Freedom From The Past ( Chapter 7 )

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

"Oh, Lum-sama! Forgive Your humble servant for failing You."
The glowing figure in the middle of the chamber prostrated before the exquisitely carved statue. Life-sized, it was a representation of the Great and Immortal Lum, the Martyred Representative of Creation to Her Blessed Children of Phentax Two. "Over three billion of Your faithful were killed by the Great Evil, Oh Lum-sama. Many more, those that did not fully accept the One True Faith in You, are now without any sort of guidance from Your Ministry.
"Lum-sama, please, Your humble servant beseeches You . . .
"Grant me the strength to destroy the evil one who betrayed You, flouted You, laughed at You, defied You!
"Grant me the strength to destroy all the evil one's allies on the world below, those who call themselves followers of the 'true faith,' who actually presumed they had the right to judge Your Holy Apostles!
"Let me be Your terrible swift Sword upon those who would spit upon You as the Great Evil spat upon You, Oh Lum-sama."
He bowed again. Rising, he allowed his astral body to drift out of the meditation chamber, leaving the icon to Lum in darkness.
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Lonely Souls
By Fred Herriot
pyeknu@hotmail.com OR fherriot@yahoo.com
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Based on Urusei Yatsura and Ranma 1/2, created by Takahashi Rumiko; and Sister Princess, created by Tenhiro Naoto and Kimino Sakurako.
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Set in the universe of the fan-fiction series Urusei Yatsura - The Senior Year, created by Mike Smith and Fred Herriot
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NOTE: The writer's notes are in a separate text file.
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"Excuse me?! Is anyone here?!"
"Enter, Hinako."
Ninomiya Hinako stepped into the compound of the Moroboshi home. The metamorphic teacher was currently in adult form courtesy of two stray dogs that had been fighting a block away. Negako sat on the front porch of the old shrine, gazing dispassionately at her visitor. Beside her was Inu Chigaiko, the ex-Tomobiki High sophomore dressed in stylish slacks and blouse. Hinako bowed. "Ohayou gozaimasu. You must be Moroboshi Negako. I'm . . . "
"Ninomiya Hinako, homeroom teacher of Fuurinkan High School, Class 3-F, for the coming year," Negako finished for her. "That class being the one Ataru and Chigaiko will be assigned to once the necessary registration is completed."
Hinako stopped as her eyes widened. "How . . .?"
"It is my business to know these things, especially when it concerns my brother, not to mention a student of a friend of mine."
Blink, blink. "That student being . . .?"
"You," Negako plainly answered, rising. "Follow me."
They stepped inside. Hinako, used to more jovial greetings from her students' parents, was unnerved by the cold, crisp manner Negako demonstrated. Gazing at the teacher, Chigaiko tried not to look too sympathetic. Negako, as Nabiki had surmised the previous day, had no understanding of tact. "Chigaiko, conclude your business with Hinako while I prepare some tea," she ordered.
"Ah, h-hai!" Chigaiko sputtered. As Negako stepped into the kitchen, she gazed on the visiting teacher. "Sorry about that, Sensei."
Hinako returned her look. "Is she NORMALLY like this?"
"Hai, she seems to be. Er, let me get my student file."
She headed off. Hinako sighed as she relaxed by the living room table. Chigaiko returned, a large envelope in hand. She handed it to the teacher. By the time Negako returned with a tea tray, Hinako was nodding as she looked over Chigaiko's report cards. "A good record, Inu-kun. Though I see some of my fellow teachers from Tomobiki never thought to refer to you by name . . . "
"That was a constant in my life, Sensei," Chigaiko admitted. "For some reason, everyone save one, never bothered to try to remember my name. Teachers and students alike. If they didn't have to take a look at the nominal rolls in class to remind them, they either said 'Hey, you!' or, if this was basketball practice, it was 'Yon-san.' I was given the number 'four' on the team."
Hinako shook her head. "Disappointing. Did you ever learn the reason why, Inu-kun?" She gazed at the Tomobiki native. "Did they question something about your demeanour or your family ancestry or some other stupid reason?"
"No. Near as I could tell, it was a combination of my being such a 'normal' girl mixed with my schoolmates' and teachers' attraction to an Oni bitch and a rich snob, both of whom I was forced to call classmates."
The teacher considered that. "Lum and Mendou Shuutarou, you mean?" On seeing Chigaiko nod, Hinako sighed. "You will not receive that treatment in my class. Granted, some of my classes will have their share of eccentric personalities, but I do my best to ensure that ALL of my students have a chance to involve themselves in class work. I will not tolerate any delinquency but I do strive to make the learning experience as enjoyable as possible. And from what I see, you are a good scholar. I'll expect to see that in classes."
Chigaiko bowed her head. "Hai, Sensei, I understand."
Hinako then blinked as something came to her. "By the way, if I may ask, who was it at Tomobiki that remembered your name? Was it . . .?"
"Ataru-kun? Hai, it was. At least in THAT respect, Ataru-kun did prove himself much better than that greasy-haired jerk Mendou!"
"I see. I haven't heard many good things about him. However, given Moroboshi-kun's actions on Monday, I shall wait to develop my own judgement of him. In the meantime, Moroboshi-san, do you have your brother's records?"
Negako handed Ataru's file over. Hinako scanned through them, a frown turning her lips. "It seems to me the teachers there did not like him. Except this Hanawa fellow." She pointed at one report. "Why is that?"
"Hanawa Mitsu chooses to ignore unusual occurrences by draping them within his own mind with a veneer of normalcy," the ninjutsu grandmaster reported. "For example, he never truly accepted Lum was an alien. And yes, he was the exception to the rule when it came to teachers performing their duties for Ataru. Most other teachers in Tomobiki my brother dealt with were of the mind that if someone odd happened, regardless of what caused such TO happen, Ataru was to blame. Hence, his words to his former teachers on Monday."
"I see. Would you say he's matured since he left Tomobiki?"
"He has. You will find him willing to give you the respect you desire. If you treat him with fairness, he would look upon you favourably, much more so than others in your class do. Indeed, Ataru would view your ki-absorption abilities as 'par for the course.' He has encountered far worse, especially in the time he has been with me. That, I believe, will grant you an ally when dealing with the malcontent elements among the Fuurinkan High student body."
Hinako blinked before she realised that Negako had prepared a cup of tea for her. Sipping it, she gave the ninjutsu grandmaster a curious look. "How is it you can speak of such things, Moroboshi-san? Are you a mind-reader?"
"I have several skills which allow me to understand all that surrounds me. Looking at your ki field alone tells me you use the abilities Happy gave you to deal with thirty or so 'chronic delinquents' at school on a regular basis. I should warn you that many of them now dream of the day when your guard is down, then, because they view you as subhuman, they will kill you."
Hinako gaped as her skin paled from that bombshell. "Wh-what . . .?"
"It is true. They know in your younger body, you are more vulnerable that you would be as an adult. They will take advantage of that. If you wish, I could see to it they would have a more difficult time dealing with you."
"How so?"
"By allowing you to remain as an adult full-time."
"R-r-really . . .?" Hinako stammered, a hopeful smile crossing her face.
"Really. I do not seek to curry favour for you to treat my brother any better than his peers by offering you that, Hinako. Ataru would not tolerate such actions. However, you are Happy's student and Happy is my friend, so I will deal with you in that matter. And I am speaking the truth when it comes to potential threats from the 'chronic delinquents' at Fuurinkan High, Hinako."
"I see . . ." Hinako then gulped before taking in a calming breath. "Well, I will consider your offer, Moroboshi-sensei. In the meantime, I best get these files to the school so the staff may see them. Excuse me . . . "
The teacher gazed on Negako. "Yes?"
The grandmaster's eyes were narrow. "The first rule when dealing with me: Do not call me 'Sensei.' I despise that title and all those like it. My name is Negako. I will tolerate '-san' but nothing else from those beyond my family. Further, inform Pauline that Ataru will not tolerate his continued falsification of school policy, especially when it concerns hair length and facial hair. My brother is forced to wear a beard and moustache, plus maintain his hair to the length it presently is. By the letter of the Fuurinkan High student's handbook, Ataru cannot be forced to remove such from his face."
Hinako blink-blinked again. "Um, pardon me for asking but . . . "
"It is a medical matter," Negako explained.
"Oh, no! I wasn't concerned about that! But who's 'Pauline?!'"
Negako appeared nonplussed. "Kunou Pauline." Seeing Hinako's eyebrow arch, she augmented that with, "Your principal."
More silence.
Still more silence.
Then . . .
"'PAULINE?!'" Hinako shrieked, and then she howled with laughter. In a flash, she transformed to her pre-adolescent form, though her laughter doesn't abate. "His name is 'Pauline?!' That's so FUNNY! Wha-ha-ha-ha-ha-ha . . .!"
Negako gazed on her before shaking her head. She then perked as a voice hailed from the front door, "I'm here, Negako-san! Where are . . . huh?"
"Ohayou, Nabiki-san!" Chigaiko hailed as Nabiki stepped inside.
Nabiki stopped on seeing her sister's old homeroom teacher rolling on the floor, howling her butt off. "What's so funny?"
"Would you believe a person's name?" Negako replied.
Nabiki nodded. "I've heard worse."
* * *
"You did WHAT?!"
Shinobu smiled. The Miyakes and their guest were enjoying breakfast. "Ryuu-chan, you wanted a chance to bury your father at sea. What better place than the island? That's where your father's friend is buried, remember?"
Ryuunosuke considered that for a moment as she stared at her plate. "Um, y-yeah, that's true! But why'd you ask Mendou to loan his helicopter to take us out there, Shinobu?! I don't wanna be dependent on him . . .!"
"Oh, relax," Kimiki scolded. "Yes, that fellow does seem to be a tad over-possessive when it comes to the ladies he knows, but he is -- or SHOULD be -- an honourable man. And he is your friend and classmate. It'll be alright."
The tomboy flustered. "Well, if ya think so, Aunt Kimiki."
"Dad, do you think we can ask Father Cristobal to do a service for Ryuu-chan's dad?" Shinobu wondered as she gazed on her father.
Toshoba sighed. "Well, I could call him . . . "
"Don't bother."
Shinobu spun on her friend. "Ryuu-chan!"
Ryuunosuke smirked. "Oyaji wasn't a religious person, Shinobu. If he ever had anythin' like a religion, it was worshipping the sea. I don't think he'd like it if some priest, even if that priest's your friend, said prayers for him. He was a simple guy even if he dreamed of ways to make it rich, Shinobu." She closed her eyes. "I want him to go the same way."
The Miyakes gazed at her, understanding looks on their faces. "Well, we could ask Father Cristobal to offer some prayers to your father and Nagisa-chan on Sunday when we go to church," Kimiki moderated. "Anyhow, Dear, I think it's time you went to work." She stared knowingly at her husband.
Toshoba rolled up his newspaper. "Hai, hai."
Shinobu gazed at Ryuunosuke, and then at her parents. "We better get to the school. I promised to meet Mendou-san there by nine o'clock."
Ryuunosuke nodded. "Yeah, let's go."
* * *
They walked through the front gates of Tomobiki High. Ryuunosuke carried the urn bearing her father's ashes. Shinobu had a wrapped box in her hands. The Mendou Conglomerate's construction crews were hard at work rebuilding the school's northwest wing. Parked by the front door was a familiar command car. "Mendou-san!" Shinobu hailed, waving on recognising the person in the back seat. She then saw the young woman presently accompanying Mendou Shuutarou. "Oh, Asuka-san! Ohayou!" She forced a smile for Mizunokooji Asuka.
"Ohayou, Shinobu-san." Asuka's eyes sparkled with that eerie light as she bowed to her fiancé's old girlfriend. They then widened on seeing the person with her. "Ryuunosuke-oniisama!" she gushed, stepping out of the car. "Here, let me do that," she offered, her hands reaching out for the urn.
"Ah . . . O-oh!" Ryuunosuke nodded as she allowed Asuka to take the urn.
Asuka placed the urn in the shotgun seat. She then turned to embrace one of her "big brothers." "Onii-sama, I'm so sorry about your father and Nagisa-san," she said. "Are you sure you'll be alright with Shinobu-san's family?"
Ryuunosuke nodded as she reached up to give Asuka's hands a squeeze, grateful that Asuka hadn't squeezed too hard when she hugged her (as the younger Mizunokooji often did to her brother, Tobimaro). "Yeah, I'll be okay."
"You seem to be handling being in public a lot better," Shinobu noted.
"Hai, I am," the androphobic Asuka acknowledged with a smile as she pointed to the reading glasses covering her eyes. Seeing those, Shinobu and Ryuunosuke were quick to recall the "physical" the Tomobiki High principal forced on the students of his school just prior to when Ryuunosuke first met Shiowatari Nagisa. That exercise had forced everyone to break through the considerable anti-male defences at Asuka's school, Keppeki Girl's Junior High, to obtain a shuuban armband from either Asuka or one of her schoolmates. Of course, with Moroboshi Ataru and Lum present, the whole "physical" soon turned into a running fight that nearly destroyed the school! "These glasses the Headmistress gave me have helped a lot. And a lot of my friends at Keppeki have helped, too. If any other man touches me, though . . . "
"Ya still freak out, right?" Ryuunosuke finished for her.
Shinobu and Ryuunosuke nodded. They realised another factor contributing to the containment of Asuka's phobia was the fact that Moroboshi Ataru had not pestered her over the previous weeks. Thinking about that, Shinobu wondered what Asuka's reaction might be if she ran across Ataru these days. What would win: Superhuman strength or a thousand years of accumulated martial arts skills? Considering that, a shudder raced through Ataru's old girlfriend.
On second thought . . .!
Ryuunosuke then stared at Mendou. "I appreciate you doin' this for me, Mendou. Thanks." She gracefully bowed to him.
"It was my pleasure, Ryuunosuke-san." Mendou returned her bow before he shuddered, a flash of pain ripping through his head.
Shinobu reached for him. "Mendou-san, are you okay?!"
"I . . . oh, g-gomen," he stuttered, nodding thanks as Asuka moved to support him. "I haven't fully recovered from Monday's events, it seems."
"Shit! You should'a stayed in bed, man!" Ryuunosuke protested.
"It's alright." He shook his head, and then he relaxed as Asuka touched his temple to massage his skin. "I won't stay away from this. At the same time, I . . . " He turned to the school. "I needed to see this, too."
They looked at the wreckage. "To believe something like this happened," Shinobu lamented before turning to gazing at where the statue of Lum had once stood. Her eyes then widened on seeing that people had been by to lay flowers and pictures at the base. "Jesu Cristo . . . "
The others watched her walk over to take a look. Ryuunosuke followed. Asuka and Mendou exchanged a look, and then she helped him out of the car so they could join the others by the memorial. Gazing at the flowers and pictures, Shinobu knelt, clasping her hands in prayer. Gazing at the pictures placed there, Ryuunosuke sighed as Asuka and Mendou stopped beside her. There was no picture of either her father or Nagisa. No picture of Ataru's parents either. A single bouquet of flowers had been laid out before each of the Bodyguards' pictures. More flowers for the two other girls who died on Monday.
"At least they're happy now, I suspect," Mendou mused.
Ryuunosuke stared at him. "What d'you mean?"
"Satoshi-san, Hiroyuki-san, Koosuke-san and Akira-san," the scion of Japan's richest family noted. Ryuunosuke and Shinobu gazed on him; it was the first time either had heard Mendou speak of any of the Stormtroopers by their given names. "They're with Lum-san in Heaven. Their devotion paid off."
"None of them should've died in the first place, Onii-sama," Asuka noted. She then stared quizzically at Ryuunosuke. "Ryuunosuke-oniisama, don't you have pictures of your father or Nagisa-san to put here?"
"Nah. Don't have nothin' recent of Oyaji and nothin' at all of Nagisa," Ryuunosuke admitted. She sighed as she gazed on the morning sky. "Then again, there might be somethin' on the island. We can check it out when we go there."
Shinobu rose, and then she crossed herself. "That's a good idea." She then gazed on the northwest wing. "A pity, isn't it?"
Mendou stared at her. "What is, Shinobu-san?"
"Alhamzi-san. We scream at what he did, yet to him . . . " She closed her eyes. "He felt he was doing the right thing. The PROPER thing . . . "
Ryuunosuke spun on her. "What the FUCK is so 'proper' about turnin' yourself inta some sorta smart bomb and killin' people?!" she spat out.
"Don't be so surprised, Ryuunosuke-san. Not so long ago, we did the very same thing to the Americans," Mendou mused.
She turned on him. "The kamikazes, ya mean?" she asked. Seeing him nod, she then wryly smirked. "Yeah, ya gotta point there . . . "
"Ataru-kun's grandfather was a kamikaze pilot."
Eyes turned on Shinobu. "I didn't know that," Mendou admitted.
"It was on TV Tokyo last night," she reported. "Yumoa-san told reporters about what happened between his grandmother and his mother and how it ended up with Ataru-kun suffering from selective amnesia for five years. He even talked a bit about that Negako woman and how she came into being. I . . . "
"Shinobu-san, do you really want to deal with him again?" Mendou asked. "After all, he clearly doesn't want to deal with you!"
She spun on him, eyes brimming with tears. "I HAVE to!"
Silence fell as they gazed on each other. Ryuunosuke then moved to moderate. "Look, let's drop this! Please?!" she pleaded. "C'mon! Let's get to the chopper so we can get to the island and get it over with! Please?!"
They stared on her. Both then flustered as they remember what actually brought them to school today. "Gomen, Ryuu-chan," Shinobu apologised.
"I am also sorry, Ryuunosuke-san," Mendou added before he glanced to the blue skies overhead. "Indeed, since it seems to be a very clear day, why don't we leave now? We could make it to the island before noon."
The others nodded.
* * *
A moan escaped from under the covers as a hand peeked out. It shifted the blankets back to reveal a weary-eyed Ataru. As he rubbed the bridge of his nose to get the sleep from his eyes, his arm brushed against something soft and feminine hidden under the blankets. He stopped, and then looked over, barely picking out locks of bright crimson hair sticking from under the blankets.
"Ranma . . .?" he whispered before pulling the covers away to reveal the transformed martial artist, still asleep. He was quick to note the dampness of her cheeks. A shudder shook him as the memory of last night's conversation came back. After telling her about events on Phentax Two, both had broken down and wept for the three billion misguided unfortunates ultimately killed by the insane dreams of a man named Oogi ot'ndai-Zkuhsbagh. After they recovered, Ataru decided to go to bed. Ranma stepped out of the room to let him sleep. But for the life of him, he had no idea when she came back, much less why.
"Ranma . . . " He stroked her nose. That made her stir. "'Morning."
"Hunn . . .?" She then smiled. "'Morning. Feel better?"
"Why'd you come back?"
"I felt you didn't want to be alone after what you told me last night," she admitted, sitting up -- Thank the heavens she's wearing pyjamas! Ataru mused -- before she stretched herself. "Hope you didn't mind."
He blinked. "Did I mind? A lovely woman like you coming into MY room and spending the night with ME?! Should I've minded?!"
She acked. Then seeing a knowing grin cross his face, she gave him a glare. The door then opened, revealing Karen. "Onii-chan! Breakfast is ready," she announced before stopping as her eyes widened. Before Ranma could think of saying something, ANYTHING to explain what she was doing in Ataru's room, much less his BED, Karen smiled. "Oh, Onee-chan! There you are!" She blushed. "Breakfast is ready!" she then repeated her statement.
Ranma watched her go before staring at Ataru. "Are they normally like that?!" she wondered as he stood up to stretch.
He shrugged. "You get used to them after a while."
"Aniki?!" Rinrin peeked into the room, seemingly nonplussed on seeing Ranma in Ataru's bed. "Hi, Aneki! Aniki, the Plato-Mecha's ready. Reigi-san delivered their ashes to Jii-san. They'll be waiting for us at the dock."
Ranma waved. "Ah . . . 'm-morning, Rinrin-chan."
She left, to be replaced by Kaho in her cheerleader outfit, pom-poms in hand. "Onii-chama, Onee-chama, are you going outside to get some exercise?"
"Ah, not today, Kaho-chan," Ataru admitted, not noticing Ranma's flustered look. "Ranma and I aren't in the mood and we've got to get to the dock before noon if we're going to get back to the House before nightfall."
"Oh, that's too bad." Kaho smiled before stepping out.
And in came Shirayuki. "Ohayou gozaimasu desu no, Nii-sama, Nee-sama. Should Hime make one or two bentous for everyone today?"
"Make it two, plus extras just in case some of us gets an attack of the munchies," Ataru ordered as he glanced amusedly at Ranma.
The martial artist blushed. "Hai desu no!" Shirayuki acknowledged.
She left. Ranma then sighed. "So what else happens on 'normal' days here?" she asked as she slipped out of bed, moving to head out.
Ataru grinned. "What's 'normal?'"
* * *
"Kasumi, have you seen Nabiki this morning?"
"Oh, Nabiki-chan's busy with Moroboshi-sensei right now, Father," Kasumi reported from the kitchen as Souun relaxed in the living room.
The Tendou patriarch perked, looking over his newspaper. "Is Nabiki working to bring Ranma-kun back to the house?!"
"I don't believe so," Kasumi admitted as she walked into the living room with a breakfast tray, placing it on the table before her father. "As a matter of fact, Ranma-kun is off with Ataru-kun for the remainder of the week. Ranma-kun told Nabiki-chan that he wouldn't be back until Sunday."
"Tadaima!" a voice called out.
"Akane-chan!" Kasumi gasped as Akane stepped inside. The youngest Tendou daughter's right arm was in a sling, a cast immobilizing her arm from under her armpit to her wrist. "Welcome back! How do you feel?"
"Hungry right now," Akane admitted. "They didn't give me much of a breakfast at the hospital before they let me go."
"Alright, then. I'll make something right away."
Kasumi headed back to the kitchen. Akane sat down, looking around. "So where's Uncle, Dad? Did he finally decide to move out?"
Souun stared tearfully at his daughter. "Akane, how can you say such a thing?! Saotome-kun is a guest here . . . "
"Gee, some 'guest!'" Akane cut him off, and then she blinked on seeing Genma step in. "Oh, speak of the devil and you see his horns!"
"Akane!" Souun burbled.
"Tendou-kun, we have a problem," Genma reported.
Souun gazed on him. Noting the scowl crossing his friend's face, he nodded. Both walked out of the house. Akane watched them go, and then she turned to Kasumi as the eldest daughter stepped into the sitting room, a small breakfast tray in hand. "What's with them?" the youngest daughter asked.
Kasumi set the tray down. "Let's find out."
She led Akane upstairs into Nabiki's room. "Onee-chan, what are . . .?" the youngest asked before stopping as the eldest sat at Nabiki's work desk.
Kasumi opened one of the side drawers to reveal a tape recorder. Scanning the buttons, she tapped several before hooking the recorder into a speaker beside Nabiki's computer. Turning the volume low, she relaxed as Souun and Genma's voices echoed from the speaker:
SOUUN: He can't do that!
GENMA: That old fart's going to do it, Tendou-kun! And Nodoka's helping him along! She's already filed divorce papers!
SOUUN: But what about the schools?!
GENMA: Relax! As soon as we get the boy back to the house, I'll straighten him around, and THEN I'll make sure Nodoka won't be able to touch him! Once that happens, Asagaya won't be able to do a damned thing, especially if the boy doesn't go along with Nodoka's idea of having him renounce the Saotome name!
SOUUN: Then the schools can be united?!
GENMA: Exactly! But first thing's first! We have to find that Moroboshi woman and make her remove whatever she did that made the boy hurt Akane! We can't get anywhere with bringing the schools together that if the boy ends up hurting your daughter if she cooks him another meal, Tendou-kun! Do you want that?!
GENMA: All right, then! You have to damn well lean on Nabiki to tell you where Moroboshi lives, then we'll deal with her together!
A pause.
SOUUN: Saotome-kun, there might be another way.
GENMA: What do you mean?
SOUUN: What if we transfer the engagement to Nabiki?
"What?!" Akane hissed, and then she ducked as Kasumi shushed her.
GENMA: The boy HATES her, Tendou-kun!
SOUUN: Hai, true! But maybe, just maybe, that could change. I never told you this, Saotome-kun, but Nabiki always had the better skill in the Art. She was forced out of the doojou because of an accident five years ago . . .
SOUUN: Genma, I saw Nabiki-chan come from the martial arts store with a gi and hakama! That means she's prepared to go back into the doojou! And if she's with Moroboshi and if that woman's as skilled as the Master says . . .!
GENMA: She's helping Nabiki heal?
SOUUN: Yes! We ARE dealing with a being possessing a thousand years of martial arts knowledge! If we let that woman heal Nabiki, then I can get her into the doojou and train her hard enough to make HER more attractive to Ranma-kun! You know your son will forgive anything, especially when it comes to people who practice the Art! Look how long he's tolerated Hibiki!
A low hum rumbled from Genma's lips. Kasumi shook her head before staring at Akane. The youngest Tendou daughter was shuddering, her face downcast as tears flowed. Kasumi reached over to draw Akane into an embrace.
GENMA: All right! If Nabiki gets back into shape, I'll consider moving the engagement to her. But what if Akane doesn't want it to happen?
SOUUN: I think after what happened on Tuesday, your son's made it clear that he won't put up with Akane-chan anymore. Much that I DID want it to happen between them, it's clear that Ranma-kun needs to start afresh. Besides, he's tired of the Kuonji girl and the China girl. And he doesn't want anything to do with the Kunou girl, if he EVER did! And Ranma-kun might be impressed when he sees Nabiki-chan show her passion for the Art, Saotome-kun. If he sees that, I'm SURE he will be willing to forgive what she did to him in the past!
GENMA: That good, eh?
SOUUN: Hai, that good!
Laughter echoed over the speakers.
GENMA: Well, you always were the optimistic one, Tendou-kun!
SOUUN: Hai, I was that, wasn't I?!
More laughter.
SOUUN: Saotome-kun?
GENMA: What is it?
SOUUN: Why did you do what you did to Ranma-kun? Much that I've always known how devoted you were to teaching him, doing THAT . . .
A sigh.
GENMA: I had no choice, Tendou-kun! I . . .
GENMA: When he was a child, his ability to learn things was phenomenal! He could walk before he was two, was speaking full sentences before he passed his third birthday and could read way past his age level before he turned four! But . . . the boy had no DISCIPLINE, Tendou-kun! He was TOO curious for his own good! Whatever crossed his path, he took TOTAL interest in! Try as I might, I couldn't force him to concentrate on the Art! Nodoka was a problem, too! That's why I had to take the boy away from her! But that STILL wasn't enough, so I had to find scrolls that allowed me to focus the boy's learning skills on the Art! And it WORKED! I WANTED him to be the best, Tendou-kun! And with the gods as my witness, I damn hell made sure he BECAME the best!
"I can't believe he's so blind," Kasumi whispered.
SOUUN: But still . . .
Another sigh.
GENMA: Souun, it's like I've said all along! How could the boy have saved Akane from Saffron if he hadn't been forced to train himself as hard as he did in the Art? Yes, I missed out on some things that might've helped him deal better with other people! I admit it! But what do you want?! Do you want a skilled fighter, the BEST fighter, for one of your daughters to marry or do you want to weep over your daughters' graves?! Well?!
SOUUN: I . . . yes, you're right, Genma! But maybe you should hold off on trying that again with Ranma-kun until he cools off. With what Moroboshi just did to him, if you try that on your son, he'll kill you!
GENMA: Feh! Don't worry about that, Souun! That's why we'll have to go out and find that woman to make her UNDO what she did to the boy . . .
Kasumi clicked off the recorder. Setting everything to the way it was, she waved Akane out of Nabiki's room. They went to the elder daughter's room. "I don't believe it," Akane hissed. "He doesn't care a damned bit about what Ranma might want, what he thinks or feels! All he cares about is turning him into the perfect fighting machine to marry one of us! What's wrong with him?"
Kasumi sighed as she considered that point. "I don't know. It could be many things, Akane-chan. Pride, greed, ignorance . . . " She paused to take a breath. "Or maybe a combination of all three. Who knows? I . . . " She then smiled. "I'm glad that Father's trying to stick up for Ranma-kun."
"You call THAT 'sticking up' for Ranma?!" Akane muttered.
The elder daughter nodded. "Hai, you have a point. But . . . " She paused to gaze on her sister. "Akane-chan?" she gently probed.
"I still love him, Onee-chan."
Kasumi sighed. "But does he love you now?"
Akane lowered her head. "I hope he does. I really hope he does," she whispered before staring at her sister. "So what do we do?"
"We wait until Nabiki comes back and tell her what happened," Kasumi said. "I want to know what Uncle was talking about concerning Auntie's relatives. I think we may have to talk to Negako-san about that, too."
Akane nodded.
* * *
"Well, here they are, Ataru-kun."
Ataru blinked, gazing on the urns sitting on the Plato-Mecha's weather deck. Neither was marked. He took a breath, putting his ki-sensing ability under tight reign to ensure he didn't learn which urn contained whose ashes. "Well, let's get these somewhere safe so the girls don't see them," he stated.
Ranma and Yumoa Reigi watched as Ataru placed the urns under a deckhead overhang topped with radar and sonar suites; they were several of the improvements Rinrin had just worked into her submersible. The overhang itself served as the frame for an airtight bubble canopy that created a special observation area whenever the Plato-Mecha was underwater. Complete with carpeted decks and several storage boxes lining both sides of the ship, it was connected to the main passenger compartment by a circular hatchway close to the open-air observation tower above the control cockpit. Drawing out a blanket from one of the storage boxes, Ataru draped that over the urns, and then he set everything in place to ensure the urns would not draw too much attention.
Watching him, Ranma turned to Reigi. "What do you think about this?"
Reigi shook his head. "A waste. Much that I can understand why Kinshou wanted the best for herself and Muchi, to do it THAT way . . . " He crossed his arms. "Back before Negako-san was taken out of Ataru-kun's head, we often used to get together as a family. Ataru, me, all of Oji-chan's wards. We were a happy family before that happened. Now, thanks to what Kinshou did . . . "
"Gotcha." She nodded before stepping onto the Plato-Mecha. "Ataru?"
He turned to her, sighing. "Let's get the girls!"
* * *
"Ryuunosuke-shima" was the name chosen by Ataru, Lum, Shinobu and Mendou for the small isle, twenty kilometres east of Promised Island, where Shiowatari Nagisa and his father Shin set up their teashop. Nagisa had enthusiastically supported that; after all, he told Ryuunosuke, a "wife's" family had to give up her dowry to her "husband." That statement had earned a full-tsunami wail from Fujinami Fujimi, resulting in him flying on Air Ryuunosuke back to Tomobiki.
Ryuunosuke blinked as the memories of the day she met Nagisa flashed through her mind. She looked out the window as the Mendou Air Corps helicopter began its approach to the dot of sand named after her. A hand gently squeezed hers. She looked over to see Shinobu gazing warmly at her. Ryuunosuke blinked before giving her friend's hand a squeeze as the pilot flared his machine for landing. Dust whirled up around the helicopter, and then it settled as the engines were shut down. As soon as it appeared clear, a Kuromegane opened the doors, and then he helped Mendou step off. Everyone else disembarked under their own power. Asuka then moved to support her fiancé. "We will wait here, Young Master," the Ray-ban bespectacled bodyguard vowed as he bowed.
Mendou nodded. "Thank you."
The four teens made their way past the boarded-up shop to the other side of the island. Stepping onto the beach, Shinobu breathed in. She then blinked on seeing a hump of land in the distance to the southwest, it topped with what appeared to be a humanoid statue. "What's that?" she asked, pointing.
Ryuunosuke looked. "Oomure-jima! Nagisa told me about that place."
"Do people live there?" Mendou wondered.
"Yeah, there's a small town on the north side of the island, closest to Odawara. About five thousand people, I think. Some of the fishermen from there came by here when Nagisa and his dad were running their teashop."
Mendou sighed. "I don't recall noticing that when we were last here."
Ryuunosuke shrugged. "Accordin' to Nagisa, the folks there tend ta be clannish. Can't stand it when 'mainlanders' visit. Well . . . " She looked at the urn bearing her father's ashes. "Might as well get this over with."
"Ryuu-chan, do you want some help?" Shinobu wondered.
The tomboy smiled. "Nah, I'll be okay. Thanks."
She slipped off her shoes and socks before stepping towards the surf. Keeping her eye out for any foot-wounding obstacles like sea urchins and the like, she allowed the water of the Sagami Sea to wash over her feet. Taking a deep breath, she headed on, ignoring the fact that the water was now soaking her jeans. By the time the water got to mid-thigh level, she stopped before looking at the urn in her hands. A glance back revealed that she was twenty metres or so from shore. With that, she smirked, staring at the urn anew.
"You lost, Oyaji," she said as she opened the urn. "I'm a girl! And now there's nothin' you can do to change that, you dumb fool!"
She allowed seawater to flood the urn. Closing the lid, she wound up. A thought then came to her, making her place the urn on the seabed. Reaching to her top, she unbuttoned her shirt, reaching in to get at her sarashi. Undoing that, she gently pulled the cloth away from her body. She then used it to tie down the urn's lid. "There!" she declared with a grin as she picked up the urn, and then she wound up. "Off ya go, Oyaji! Enjoy your fuckin' drinking binges with Nagisa's dad for all I care!" With a fling that could have been surpassed only by Shinobu or Asuka, Ryuunosuke sent the urn into deep water. She remained still as the urn splash-landed some dozens of metres away. It sank, carrying with it the remains of a man who, so she believed, couldn't see reality with his own eyes. Ryuunosuke remained still as she gazed on the spot where the urn had landed. She then buttoned her shirt up before wading ashore.
Standing on the beach, Asuka stared quizzically at Shinobu. "Is Onii-sama going to be okay, Shinobu-san?" she wondered.
"I think so, Asuka-san." Shinobu then gazed heavenward. Dear Lord, please, I beg You, don't be angry at her, she silently prayed.
* * *
"Well, it's a smoother ride now than last time!" Yotsuba admitted.
People on the Plato-Mecha laughed as Rinrin guided the submersible from the Island. It was doing a steady fifteen knots as it headed east towards several trenches in the seabed between the Island and the Miura Peninsula separating the Sagami Sea from the Uraga Passage and Tokyo Bay. Relaxing on the observation tower, Aria, Kaho and Hinako watched a school of dolphins swim alongside the Plato-Mecha. Yotsuba stood by the ladder leading to the younger sisters' perch, snapping pictures of the cackling sea mammals with her camera. Chikage was opposite Yotsuba, gazing on her crystal ball as the wind gently shifted her hair. The other sisters relaxed around the overhang as Haruka prepared tea. Ranma was asleep, her head in Toshiko's lap as the latter gently stroked her template's hair. Kumiko was showing some basic T'ai Chi manoeuvres to Marie on the starboard side. Sakuya knelt beside Haruka, allowing Ataru to relax his head in her lap. "Yeah, sure is!" Mamoru gazed on Yotsuba. "Pity that Rinrin-chan couldn't make this thing go fast enough for water-skiing."
Karen giggled. "Is that all you can think about, Mamoru-chan?" she asked. "There's more to life than sports, you know!"
The athlete blinked. "There IS?!"
Laughter echoed over the waves. Ataru opened his eyes. "Let her have her fun, Karen. Rinrin, how far are we from the first trench?!"
"Twenty minutes, Aniki," Rinrin's voice echoed over a speaker overhead, which was clicked on so she could hear what was going on. "Good thing the sea's calm. We're making good time! Might do a speed trial tomorrow."
"Hey, Rinrin-chan, next time you make a boat, make a speedboat, okay?!" Mamoru called out as she lay down on the deck.
"Other projects come first, Mamoru-chan!" Rinrin retorted. "'Sides, you can buy a Jet-Ski if you're so hot to do some water-skiing!"
More laughter. Shirayuki stepped up from the main compartment. "Here's lunch!" the chef announced as she passed up bentou boxes.
Mamoru reached for one. "Oh, great! I'm starved!"
"Make sure I get one!" Rinrin called out.
"Hai desu no!" Shirayuki replied as she passed more up-deck.
"Rinrin-chan, alter your course east-southeast."
Everyone stared at Chikage. Ataru sat up. "Something wrong?"
"Not really, but I believe you would want to avoid close contact with the people currently on Ryuunosuke-shima, Ani-kun," the sorceress reported.
"What island's that?!" Rinrin demanded. "That's not on any charts!"
"It's the small island due south of Fujisawa, Rinrin-chan," Chikage stated. "Three kilometres off-shore. It's dead ahead of us now."
"Wait . . . " Rinrin called back as she looked at the readout on her surface-scan radar. "Okay, I got it now. Hey, Aniki, is that the island Fujinami Ryuunosuke's dad bought for 300 yen?!"
"Yeah, that's the one." Ataru nodded as Haruka handed him a cup of tea. "Oh, thanks, Haruka-chan. Hey, Ranma, lunchtime!"
Instantly, Ranma sat up, looking around. "Lunch?! Where?!"
Everyone laughed. "Who's on that island, Chikage-chan?" Sakuya asked.
"Ryuunosuke-kun, Ani-kun's 'ex,' Mendou and his fiancée, plus a Kuromegane and a helicopter pilot," Chikage reported before she stared at Ataru. "I believe Ryuunosuke-kun has the same intentions towards her father's remains as you do towards your former parents' remains, Ani-kun."
Ataru sighed. "Oh, wonderful. Rinrin, go southeast! I'm not in any mood to deal with those dorkheads today!"
"Hai!" Rinrin called back.
* * *
"Ryuu-chan, you look wonderful!"
Ryuunosuke blushed as she gazed on a mirror inside the island's teashop. She was wearing a knit V-neck sweater over a white blouse, it over an ankle-length skirt. She wore a sports bra underneath her blouse; a half-dozen of those had been the first items of clothing Shinobu's family purchased for her in the wake of Monday's events. Wearing that in lieu of her sarashi, the tomboy's curvy figure was on display for all to see. "I do, don't I?!" She flustered before gazing at Shinobu. "Thanks, Shinobu! I really needed it."
Shinobu walked up to embrace her. "Hai, you did."
Ryuunosuke drew her in. Blinking, she turned her head to give her friend a kiss on the forehead. Shinobu froze, and then her eyes misted as she rested her head on her friend's shoulder. "I love you, Ryuu-chan," she then admitted, closing her eyes. "I'm so glad you're free of that man."
Ryuunosuke nodded. "So am I."
"It's a pity Nagisa-chan couldn't have lived to see this day."
The tomboy nodded. "Yeah, I know. He deserved it as much as me. Well . . . " She closed her eyes as she gave her a hug. "Much that I know it ain't right to speak ill of the dead, but maybe Nagisa was livin' on borrowed time."
A hum escaped the other woman. "Maybe. So what are you going to do with this place? The island's in your name now, you know."
"Burn it."
Shinobu jolted. "What?!" she gasped. "Why?!"
"What do you think? For as long as I could remember, all he talked about was tryin' ta make Hamachaya work. At the same time, he kept harpin' on about how he was so proud that his 'son' was gonna take over the place when he died. Well guess what, Shinobu? I don't friggin' CARE about Hamachaya! As far as I'm concerned, this place and everythin' Oyaji had's gonna go up in smoke."
"Ryuu-chan . . .!"
"No! This place is worthless, Shinobu. You know how much Oyaji 'paid' Nagisa's dad for it. And . . . " She paused. "I can't come back here anymore, Shinobu. I wanna put everythin' here outta my life once and for all!"
Shinobu stared at her friend, and then she nodded. "Alright. But let's do it right, okay?" She held up a finger before waving Ryuunosuke with her.
The tomboy followed her outside, where Mendou and Asuka were waiting. Seeing Ryuunosuke as she truly was meant to be, Asuka's eyes widened. She then lowered her eyes ashamedly, not wanting to insult her "big brother" by staring. Ryuunosuke was quick to notice. She then walked over to place her hands on Asuka's shoulders. "Hey, I tried to tell you the truth about me, Asuka!"
Asuka blinked. "But you wore a sarashi like Onii-sama does . . . "
Ryuunosuke thumbed in the direction of where she had buried her father. "That's 'cause my lunkhead dad wouldn't let me buy a bra."
The young heiress of the Mizunokooji sporting empire took that in before she bowed her head. "Gomen nasai," she apologised before leaning in to embrace the taller girl. "And you'll still be an 'Onii-sama' to me."
Ryuunosuke smiled, returning her embrace. "How about we make that 'Onee-chan' and I'll call it even, okay?"
Asuka nodded. "Hai, Onee-sama!"
The others smiled. "Mendou-san, we need a favour," Shinobu then said.
He turned to her. "Anything within my power, Shinobu-san."
* * *
"Nii-ya! There's a fire!"
"Onii-tama! The whole island's on fire!"
Ataru bolted up, turning to look towards the observation tower. "What?!"
He then automatically looked west towards Promised Island. Sakuya pointed northeast. "No, Onii-sama! Over here!"
Ataru turned to gaze where the eldest of the sisters was pointing. His eyes then widened. "What the hell . . .?" he muttered as he walked to the guard-rail before calling out, "Rinrin, what the hell's going on?!"
"Not sure, but radar's picked up a helicopter near Ryuunosuke-shima," the inventor reported. "Nothing on any radio frequency."
He then noticed Chikage standing nearby, her crystal ball held out before her. "What's going on, Chikage-chan?"
"It appears Ryuunosuke-kun has decided to do just more than bury her father at sea," the sorceress reported. "She deliberately set the teashop on the island alight. I believe all her father's belongings were there."
"What little that abusive bastard had, you mean," Ataru muttered as he crossed his arms, turning to gaze towards the island in the distance. "Well, I could see her doing that, especially after what that moron did to her."
"That's still a fire hazard, Ataru," Ranma noted.
Ataru nodded. "Rinrin!"
"What is it, Aniki?!"
"Call the Coast Guard!" he ordered. "Tell them there's a possible out-of-control fire on that island!"
Yotsuba thumbed the urns, both of them having been brought out on the deck in preparation to dump them in a trench. "What about them, Ani-chama?"
Ataru sighed before shaking his head. "Forget it!" he spat out. "Everyone, head below. Rinrin, get this thing ready to dive!"
The others quickly picked up their belongings before heading below decks. In a minute, all that were left on the weather deck were Ataru and Ranma. "You okay?" the latter asked. "If they want to fight, we can take them."
She nodded towards Ryuunosuke-shima. He shook his head after considering the point. No doubt, Ranma suspected that once the call went into the Japan Coast Guard about the fire, Mendou might try to back-trace it to Rinrin, which could lead him right back to his old rival. "No, I'm not going to provoke something with those clowns anywhere close to them." He pointed down to indicate his sisters. "It's not fair to them, Ranma."
Ranma considered that before nodding. "Yeah, you're right."
* * *
Ten minutes later, the Plato-Mecha was underwater. The urns bearing the remains of Ataru's birth parents were dumped overboard before the submersible slipped below the waves. Since the Mendou helicopter didn't come equipped with anti-submarine warfare gear -- a surprising omission in the clan's paramilitary capabilities given that several of the Conglomerate's widespread properties were on seashores -- there was no way anyone on Ryuunosuke-shima could learn that anyone, much less Moroboshi Ataru, has been in the area.
Not that they had time to consider that.
Just as the Plato-Mecha was turning for Promised Island, a helicopter and three fast speedboats from the Coast Guard's Third Region intercepted the Mendou machine before it could have flown back to Tomobiki.
* * *
"That idiot . . . "
Akane scowled. "Tell me about it."
Nabiki stared at her sister before looking at the ceiling. She had come back to enjoy lunch. She sat at her work desk, having just listened to the recording Kasumi made earlier. Her sisters were relaxing on her bed. "What do you know about Auntie's relatives, Nabiki-chan?" Kasumi asked.
"Pretty rich, but that's going down some since a lot of their wealth's invested in real estate. That market's been VERY depressed as of late, especially here in Tokyo," Nabiki reported. "Auntie herself has some choice bits of property in and around Tokyo. She rents that to store and restaurant owners to generate income for herself. All in her name. No, Genma can't touch that. She also gets a stipend from her father to support her home. Reason why . . .?" She paused. "I'm not too sure, but I think it's to make her mind her own business. From what my friends have told me, the only relative she has any frequent contact with is her twin sister, Hisayo. Something tells me . . . "
"That her family didn't approve her marrying the panda?" Akane asked.
"That. More likely, I think Auntie got pregnant, then was forced into marrying Genma and thrown out of the house," Nabiki concluded. "The marriage date and Ranma's birthday are only six months apart."
"Oh!" The other sisters nodded understandingly, and then Kasumi asked, "Do you think you can talk to Moroboshi-sensei about it?"
"I'll do that tomorrow. By then, my arms should be back in gear and I'll start training in earnest." Nabiki pointed to her shoulder, and then she sighed as she gazed on Akane. "Akane-chan, I won't take him away from you."
Akane jolted. "But what about what Dad said . . .?"
"Akane, I think that if Ranma-kun's going to marry anyone, he'll do it out of love, not because the panda tells him to do it," Nabiki warned. "That means you have a chance to get back in his good graces since he did love you. Love can be rediscovered if it was there. If you don't pull any of the stunts you pulled before with him, you'll be okay in the long run."
The younger sister gave Nabiki a warning look. "Then you'll swear never to butt in on our relationship ever again?" she demanded.
"Don't need to do that anymore, especially with the money he has, plus what he gave us," Nabiki assured. "Besides, this is the crunch year. I have to start worrying about college even if Ranma-kun's pretty much paid for it."
"Toodai?" Kasumi asked.
"Maybe. If I had the choice, I'd pick Harvard or one of the other Ivy League schools in the States. They have the better programs."
"You'll make it, Onee-chan!" Akane then leaned her chin on her raised knee. "I should start worrying about that, too."
"So should Ranma-kun," Kasumi mused.
"Oh, that'll be no problem," Nabiki noted. "Negako-san told me that once she's undone the damage the panda caused him, Ranma-kun will have no problem in the future when it comes to academic schooling. If he really goes hog-wild, he'll breeze right through the college entrance exams. Probably get a scholarship or two along the way. If he doesn't get that, hell, he could pay his way right through to a doctorate degree if he wanted to."
Akane shook her head. "That, I just HAVE to see."
Kasumi smiled. "Yes, it would be quite incredible to see, ne?"
The sisters laughed. Nabiki reached into her shirt pocket to draw out a cell phone. That was handed to Akane. Glancing around the room for a moment, Nabiki then pulled out a pad of Post-It notes and a pencil. She wrote down something, and then held it up for Akane to read:
Seeing that, Akane asked, "Why did you . . .?"
Nabiki ripped the note off, and then she crumpled it. "Umisen-ken."
Kasumi paled. "He wouldn't . . .!"
The others considered that. "Call him tonight, when Dad and the panda are off drinking, so they won't interfere," Nabiki advised.
Akane nodded. "Right."
* * *
"Oh, so THAT'S how you do it! Damn!"
Rinrin laughed. "Yeah! Easy, eh?!"
Ranma tapped the RETURN key to save her latest journal entry onto an ultra-high density diskette loaded into one of Rinrin's spare laptops. After returning to the Island from their boat trip to the area around Ryuunosuke-shima, Rinrin offered Ranma a chance to get her own laptop, an "Aneki Special" as the inventor called it. They haggled over it -- Ranma didn't want to get a computer free of charge even if Rinrin liked making them -- and then they settled on Ranma paying for the parts and Rinrin building it as a gift.
Ranma then made a startling -- to Rinrin! -- revelation: She didn't know the first thing about using a computer! After all, as far as the heir of the Saotome-ryuu understood these things, computers had no practical use in martial arts, either for training or fighting. Rinrin decided that would change. For the last six hours, they had been in Ranma's room learning the tricks of the trade. While doing that, Ranma had taken time to transcribe her personal journal onto diskette. "Sure is!" Ranma turned to Rinrin. "But how can I make sure that Oyaji or Nabiki can't get their hands on what's on the disk?"
"Well, your dad doesn't know anything about computers, right?"
"No problem. If he destroys the diskette, the information's lost. If he destroys the computer, same thing. I'm one of a few people in the country who uses that model of UHD diskette, though that can change. And if he comes after me to get the information, Aniki and Negako-aneki will deal with him then."
"Not to mention me," Ranma assured her.
Rinrin blushed. "Hai."
"What about Nabiki?"
"Well, all you have to do is secure your files under a special encryption lock when they're loaded into your hard drive. It's like the combination lock on a bank safe door. If you want to, erase and reformat the diskettes to make sure there're no spare copies of your diary around. That's easy to do. I write my own encryption programming and even the folks working for Reigi-san at Toranoseishin say they're impenetrable. Nabiki doesn't have access to one of the Cray supercomputers the Americans have, does she?" Rinrin asked.
"No, I don't think so. Then again, it actually wouldn't surprise me if she knew someone who did," Ranma ruefully mused.
"Well, if she tries to steal your computer, break her arms like you did to Akane." Rinrin chuckled, taking the diskette in Ranma's hand and slipping that into a protective container. "There. Now . . . "
A beep! echoed from Ranma's slacks. Reaching in, she drew out a cell phone, flipping it open. "Moshi-moshi? Who's this?"
"Hi, Ranma. It's me."
Ranma's voice went cold. "Akane-san, how did you get my number?"
"Um . . . " The youngest Tendou's voice trailed off as she sensed the sudden switch in Ranma's mood. She then coughed to clear her throat. "Negako-san programmed your number into a cell phone she gave Nabiki."
Hearing that, Ranma sighed. "Oh, wonderful. Now everyone knows . . . "
"That's not true!"
"Excuse me, Akane-san, but are we talking about the same Tendou Nabiki?"
"I know you don't trust her, but she knows when to control herself."
"Akane-san, if you're going to waste my time excusing your sister's pathetic behaviour and giving me an earache and headache along the way, this conversation ends now. What do you want?" Ranma demanded.
"R-r-Ranma . . .?" Akane stuttered.
Longer pause. "Well?" Ranma prodded.
"Ranma, you're being unreasonable!" Akane snapped.
"Too bad. YOU'VE been fuckin' unreasonable since the day YOU walked in on ME in the furo. Then YOU started calling me a pervert when I never did anything against you OR ANYONE ELSE! If you think I'm going to crawl back and let myself be your punching bag, you are VERY mistaken. Now what do you want? You've got five seconds." She held up a hand, turning her thumb in. "Four."
"Ranma, stop this!"
Down went the index finger. "Three."
"Why are you doing this . . .?!"
Middle finger. "Two."
"Ranma, please . . .!"
Ring finger. "One."
Ranma jolted, her eyes widening in surprise at Akane's shout. She then sighed. "No you don't. Don't call me again."
She cut the connection before slipping the cell phone into her pocket. "Aneki, are you okay?" Rinrin gently prodded.
The martial artist blinked. "I'd like to be alone now."
* * *
Hearing gentle sobs from her bedroom, Kasumi raced up to Akane's door, knocking. "Akane?! Akane-chan, are you alright?!" She knocked again, and then she opened the door to look inside. "Akane-chan . . .?"
The youngest Tendou was face-first on her bed, wailing. The cell phone was on the floor. Seeing how unstrung she was, Kasumi moved to comfort. "There, there, Akane-chan!" She drew her into a hug. "It's alright . . . "
"N-no, it's n-not alright, O-Onee-chan . . . " Akane moaned as she buried her face into Kasumi's shoulder. "He h-h-hates me . . . "
"What happened?"
Taking a deep breath, she repeated the conversation she just had with Ranma. Hearing her admit she screamed out "I love you" to Ranma elicited a smile from Kasumi. That instantly faded when she heard Akane repeat Ranma's reply. She then drooped her head on hearing Ranma's parting words to Akane.
"Oh, Akane . . . "
"Wh-what do I do n-now, Onee-chan?" Akane pleaded.
The elder sister shrugged. "I don't know."
* * *
A knock was heard. "Come in!"
The door opened, revealing Ranma in pyjamas. Ataru stared at her. He then noted the neutral look on her face. "You okay?"
"I . . . " Ranma began before sighing. "Can I sleep with you tonight?"
He took that in, and then he stood, walking over to place supportive hands on her shoulders. "What happened, Ranma?" he gently prodded.
"Oh, nothing much." She tried to smile. "Akane just called me. Negako gave Nabiki my number and she passed it on to Akane."
Hearing that, Ataru winced. "Ranma, I'm sorry . . . "
"Nah! Nah! It's okay." Ranma shook her head. "Look, can you ask Negako to make sure they don't have my number anymore?"
"Sure, I'll contact her right away."
* * *
"Oh, damn it, Akane! I'm sorry . . . "
Akane waved Nabiki down. "No, it's not your fault!"
She lifted a teacup. The sisters were sitting around the dining table. Kasumi sighed. "Maybe it'll be best for us to leave Ranma-kun be for a while."
"What about what Auntie's doing?" Akane asked. "He needs to know . . .!"
"He will be told."
The sisters spun to the main doorway. "Negako-san!" Nabiki gasped on recognising the newcomer. "What the hell are YOU doing here?!"
Kasumi smiled. "Oh, Moroboshi-sensei! Please, come in!"
The elder sister then rose, heading into the kitchen to prepare some more tea for the ninjutsu grandmaster. Negako watched her before moving to sit beside Akane. She held out her hand. "Your cellular phone, Nabiki."
Nabiki sighed as she handed it over. "He asked you to do this?" she wondered as Negako flipped it open to tap controls.
"Through Ataru, she did. Did you write the number down?"
"No. No one else knows, not even Akane."
Negako handed the phone back. "You can control yourself if you give yourself a chance. That will serve you well in the future."
Akane gazed on the other woman. "Sensei?"
"Do not call me that, Akane," Negako ordered.
"Eh?! B-but . . .!"
"Relax, Akane-chan. Negako-san told Hinako-sensei the same thing this morning when she came by to pick up Ataru-kun's student records," Nabiki said, and then she giggled on seeing Akane's reaction to Negako's order.
"I . . . " Akane stuttered.
"Why, Negako-san?"
Negako looked up as Kasumi stepped into the sitting room, a new tea tray in hand. As the eldest daughter prepared the tea, the ninjutsu grandmaster sighed. "Easily answered. In the eyes of That Force from which we all emerge at birth and will return to on our death, we are all, in the end, the same. In the face of that, such stratification as expressed by the use of titles like 'sensei' is ultimately worthless. Further, as history has shown time and time again, the social divisions between the 'haves' and 'have-nots' creates a level of friction that has led to things such as crime and war. Why propagate something which, in the long run, does more harm than good?"
The sisters gazed on her, intrigued by her explanation. "You are strong in your beliefs," Kasumi noted as she handed Negako a cup.
"And very direct in your dealings with others," Nabiki added.
"I have explained why. Also, I have had little 'positive' experience in dealing with others. Some might say it jaundiced me when it comes to dealing with others. I disagree. Most cloak themselves needlessly for some of the most curious, foolish, reasons. Pride, insecurity, selfishness, hatred, the desire to be seen as the most important . . . feh! Meaningless in the end."
Akane gazed on her. "You're a Taoist?"
"I could be described as that. The foundations of my family's Art are centred on Laozi's theories. It is a belief that eliminates the illusions those who seek that valueless chalice called 'power' blind themselves with, not to mention those who are the victims of the power-seekers themselves." A pause. "'Honour,' in the eyes of my family, is a concept which demands the truth first and foremost. Throughout the years, my family learned that Bushido could not facilitate the promulgation of such truth. Hence, our Art is the art of the ninja, not the samurai. Light blinds people, especially if the light is shined into a person's eyes. Granted, there have been those samurai and other such 'gentry' throughout the history of Japan who have lived very exemplary lives. But, as you can easily guess, they are VERY few and far between."
Kasumi's eyebrow arched. "You reject our history?"
"No. My family rejects those who glorify the wrong lessons that history teaches. We also do not allow the 'glory' history presents us to blind us from the truth, like so many others seek to blind the new generation in school and elsewhere. I believe the reason Ataru and Ranma have become friends is that Ranma shares many of Ataru's beliefs. They have led emotionally harsh lives. They have been raised to believe certain things, then have come to realise those beliefs are based on lies perpetuated by those they once trusted."
"Yeah, I can see that," Nabiki mused. She then perked on hearing the faint sound of the front gate opening and closing. "Uh-oh . . . "
Kasumi sighed. "Oh, it's Father and Uncle."
Moaned singing wafted through the front doorway as two drunken men staggered inside. They quickly stopped on seeing the extra woman sitting at the table. "Eh . . .?" Souun muttered. "Who's this, Kasumi?"
Kasumi grinned, ignoring the warning look from Nabiki and Akane's rolling eyes. "Why, Father, this is Moroboshi Negako!"
Souun went into Demon Head, that action making his daughters scramble away from the coffee table. "WHERE IS RANMA-KUN?!"
Negako gazed dispassionately on the hideous, twisted creature floating before her. She then yawned. "Pathetic." She held up a finger, and then she dropped the boom. "Go to sleep, Souun. SEISHIN REEZAA KOOSEN!"
A bolt of ki punched through the Demon Head, sending Souun flying out of the house and into the koi pond. Nabiki whistled. "Wow!"
Growling, Genma lunged for Negako. Before he could grab her, she disappeared behind what the Tendou sisters instantly recognised as the Umisen-ken cloak. Genma slammed face-first into the floor. He then bolted back up. "WHERE ARE YOU?!" he spat a torrent of alcohol-laden spittle from his mouth. "How dare you use MY technique against me, you stupid girl?!"
"Once you taught her your 'sealed' techniques, it then became Ranma's technique, Genma. She gave me permission to use it," Negako's voice drifted from every corner of the room. "Sufficient, but it can tolerate improvements."
Genma shuddered at the implied insult before he laughed. "Hah!"
He vanished under his own cloak. Nabiki paled. "Oh, shit . . .!"
A scream echoed from nowhere. Genma appeared near the door. Slamming into him were invisible bolts of ki. The Tendou sisters gaped in disbelief as the portly martial artist was blasted back by the invisible Psychic Shuriken Storm. He was then punched HARD in the gut. The force of the blow sent him flying into a koi pond just evacuated by a dazed Souun. Only then did Negako reappear. Nabiki and Akane breathed out together. "Wow . . . "
Happoosai then appeared, returning from a late evening panty raid. "Tadaima!" the grandmaster yodelled as he bounced off Souun's head, landing beside Negako as he dropped off his bag of delights. "Hello, Negako-chan. What brings you about this part of the neighbourhood tonight?" he hailed.
"Hello, Happy. Ranma asked me to ensure Nabiki could not spread her cellular phone number to every interested party in Nerima."
"Ah . . .!"
Both gazed on Souun. The Tendou patriarch was madly stammering, his finger waving from Negako to Happoosai to Negako and back. "Y-you . . . " he stuttered before turning on Happoosai. "Master, you're FRIENDS with her?!"
Happoosai smirked. "Of course, boy! Don't you remember what I told you on Monday?! We've run across each other many times over the last hundred years." He stared fondly at his fellow grandmaster. "Right, Negako-chan?"
"Quite correct," Negako confirmed. "Oh, Akane, come here."
Akane walked over. Negako turned, gently sliding the sling away from the younger Tendou's cast. She tapped several points on the plaster. Everyone gaped as it crumbled into dust. Akane winced as the gentle shift on her upper arm sent waves of pain from her shattered bone into her brain. Negako placed a hand on Akane's elbow, closing her eyes. A reddish aura then encased the grandmaster from head to toe as ki poured into Akane's body to mend the wrecked bone, tendon and muscle tissue. That effect lasted for a minute before the aura faded. Negako released Akane's arm. The younger Tendou gasped on sensing no real pain from her once-wounded extremity. Reaching tentatively to feel her upper arm bone, she jerked as a burst of discomfort surged through her. But it was clearly obvious that the bone was whole and intact.
"I . . . " she gasped, staring wide-eyed at Negako. "I . . .!"
Negako looked away. "Kasumi, make sure that, for the next three days, Akane consumes twice the amount of food she normally takes. This will help restore her ki levels to a more optimum state. If Kunou Tatewaki intends to re-initiate the 'Fight for Akane's Heart' on Monday morning, she will have to be in the best shape possible to deal with her would-be suitors."
"I . . . " The eldest daughter then nodded. "H-hai, Negako-san, I'll see to it right away. Does Akane-chan need specific foods?"
Negako turned to leave. "No. Standard diet will do her well. Nabiki, be at the house tomorrow morning at the usual time."
Nabiki nodded. "Right."
Negako then caught herself. "Oh, one more thing." She reached into her top to draw out a sealed package. "For you, Happy."
"What's this?" The aged grandmaster then saw through the clear plastic that the package contained a very frilly bra and panties. "For ME?! Hot-cha!" He ripped it open to draw out the newest parts of his collection. "Oh, so soft . . . " He felt the silk on his skin, and then he tensed, his nose twitching. "Wait a minute." He took a sniff before his eyes misted over. "Ranma-chan."
"What . . .?" Souun's jaw hit the patio. "No . . .!"
"Ranma-chan, you sweet darling!" Happoosai launched into his own mega-wail. "You are SO devoted to your poor, suffering master!" He rubbed his face into the bra and panties. "Oh, such a WONDERFUL present!"
"Toshiko and Kumiko promise their own gifts to you as soon as they can arrange for their delivery, Happy," Negako reported.
"Toshiko-chan and Kumiko-chan, too?!" Happoosai jolted before screaming out through a megaphone, "I'M THE LUCKIEST MAN ALIVE!"
Shaking her head, Negako stepped towards the front gate. Along the way, she tapped her foot on the ground. That sent a ki pulse into the cherry tree overhanging the koi pond. A low-hanging branch broke away, dropping on Genma-panda's head. The transformed martial artist grunted before collapsing into an unmoving heap in the water. By the time the onlookers could have pulled their eyes away from that scene, Negako was gone. Akane whistled. "Wow . . .!"
Souun dropped to his knees. "Oh, the schools will NEVER be joined now . . .!" he wailed, dousing his patio with tears.
His daughters ignored his weeping. Happoosai gazed on his old student. Then, feeling Ranma's silky gift against his cheek, he headed upstairs. "I'm going to spend some time with Ranma-chan's darling gift! Good night, ladies!"
He waved before bounding away. "Good night, Ojii-chan," Nabiki called out. As soon as the aged grandmaster had left, she snapped her fingers. "So THAT'S how Ranma-kun got Ojii-chan to play along with his last training trip!"
"Very smart thinking on Ranma-kun's part, ne?" Kasumi wondered.
"Got that right, Onee-chan."
Akane shook her head. "Ranma no baka."
* * *
"Eh?! Onii-chan and Onee-chan are sleeping together?!"
Yotsuba nodded. She was standing with Karen in the foyer near the door leading into the kitchen after dawn. "Checky! Yotsuba checked Ane-chama walk into Ani-chama's room last night and she ASKED if she could sleep with him!"
"She did?!" Karen gasped, and then she started to quake with delight. "Oh, that's so WONDERFUL! Onii-chan and Onee-chan are falling in love!"
"I think Aneki's still falling OUT of love when it comes to her old 'fiancées.' She won't be able to do a damned thing with Aniki until that's finally settled," a voice then hailed from the stairs behind the other girls.
"Rinrin-chan, ohayou!" Karen smiled as she and Yotsuba watched the inventor come down. "Did you sleep at all last night?"
"Got a bit," Rinrin replied. "Finally got some molecular processors for Mecha-Rinrin, plus I'm getting parts together for Aneki's computer. I think I'll skip the trial with the Plato-Mecha. I'm not in the mood to sail around."
Karen beamed. "That's wonderful." The sisters knew some details about Rinrin's most ambitious project to date: To create an android replica of herself, one she called "Mecha-Rinrin Mark II." "How soon do you think you can hope to wake Mecha-Rinrin-chan up?" the pianist then asked.
Rinrin shook her head. "Not for a bit. I'm straying into serious unknown territory here, Karen-chan. Worrying constantly about that's going to get me nowhere with her fast. I'm kinda glad that I can do things like make Aneki's computer. If I concentrate too much on Mecha-Rinrin at any one time, I'll probably never be able to see her fully functional!"
The others nodded. Sakuya then stepped out of the dining room, heading for Ataru's bedroom door. Knocking, she called out, "Onii-sama? Onee-sama? Are you two awake? There's something you have to see, Onii-sama!"
"What's wrong?" Karen wondered as the others moved towards her.
Sakuya pointed to the dining room. "Go see the Rinrin Viewer."
The door opened, revealing Ataru, still in his pyjamas as he rubbed the sleep from his eyes. "Oh, everyone, hi! What's wrong?"
Sakuya guided him into the dining room. "You have to see this."
The others followed, save Yotsuba, who slid up to the door to Ataru's room. Peeking in, she then gasped on seeing Ranma suddenly appear before her, an incensed look on the latter's face. Fortunately, the martial artist was in her pyjamas; she also just woke up. "Yotsuba, is it even remotely possible that a person can do things in this place without you spying on them?" she grumbled before closing the door on the would-be detective's face.
Yotsuba sighed. "Ane-chama no baka!"
* * *
Ataru stood in the dining room, gazing on the Viewer. It was replaying a segment of NHK News. "We hope that in light of his actions on Monday after the school was destroyed, Ataru-kun would be there for the memorial service we plan for our loved ones today," Aisuru Rui was explaining to what appeared to be a conference. "We realise that, thanks to past misunderstandings provoked directly or indirectly because of that Oni . . . " -- Ataru was quick to sense the outrage in Rui's voice on mentioning Lum -- "And her alien friends, Ataru-kun might not feel welcome in Tomobiki. That's wrong. We want him to know that, regardless of what happened in the past, his home is here . . . "
The screen then flicked to an image of Yumoa Reigi relaxing in his office. "So what's the real deal, Reigi-kun?" Ataru wondered.
"Believe it or not, the Tomobiki PTA is serious about wanting you to come to the service," Reigi reported. "As are a lot of other people. Now, could that be some scam to draw you to Tomobiki so Mendou or someone else can come after you? I'd say the chances are slim to nil. There's the threat of it going public, right in front of the media. And after the lack of sympathy shown by the world media after Monday's bombing, that you would be set up for something like THAT wouldn't go down, especially among those who probably said 'good riddance' when Lum and her friends were kicked off the planet."
Everyone turned to Ataru. He considered that before shaking his head. "No. I have no reason to go to that service. I don't want to show any sympathy for Ryuunosuke's old man. I ESPECIALLY don't want to show sympathy for Megane and his goofs. I hardly knew Nagisa, much less Himiko and Mikiko. Look, Reigi, if someone asks, tell them that while I was happy to help out on Monday, the fact that I really didn't know or actually HATED the people who died that day -- plus the fact that I wouldn't these days trust anyone living in Tomobiki more than I can throw them to the Moon -- made me stay away. And if they got a problem with that, that's just too damned bad . . . "
A hand fell on his shoulder. "Onii-sama, there's something you CAN do," Sakuya said before whispering her suggestion into his ear.
Ataru blinked. "You think so?"
She nodded. "It's the right thing to do."
He considered that before sighing. "Oh, alright."
"You want me to change that statement?" Reigi asked.
"Keep it the same. Sakuya, Chikage and I are gonna visit the Kawamuras and the Serizawas after the memorial is done and they're home." He then looked over to the pianist. "Karen-chan, can you contact the flower shop on Second Street to get two memorial bouquets made up right away?"
Karen nodded. "I'll call them now."
She headed out. Ranma came into the room. "Hey, what's going on here anyway?" She then noted who was calling them. "Oh, hi, Reigi-san!"
"Ohayou, Ranma-san. Oh, I just remembered!" The financier held up a finger to emphasise his point. "Your mother's initiated divorce proceedings against your father. I suspect that sometime soon, she'll learn of what Tampopo-san did to make sure you could work during your last training trip."
Ranma considered that before shrugging. "Oh, that's nice."
"Aneki, aren't you worried?" Rinrin asked.
"About Mom and Oyaji? Not really." Ranma shook her head. "I'm just tired of them pretending I don't really exist, Rinrin-chan. If they want to break up and go their separate ways, that's okay by me."
"Um, Ranma-san, there's a bit of a problem," Reigi warned.
Reigi sighed. "There are more players involved. Grandmaster Negako warned me about this yesterday. It seems your mother's relatives are looking with envious eyes at your martial arts skills. They're hoping to take control of them and they're planning to hook you in by offering you the chance to use their family name as a way to dissolve your engagements. Grandmaster Happoosai is aware of this now and we can pass it on to Elder Cologne if you want."
Ranma took that in. "And their feelings for me?"
"Questionable at best."
Rinrin scowled. "Another family of total jerks, you mean."
Sakuya shook her head. "Oh, delightful."
"Slam their faces into the dung heap for all I care, Reigi-san," Ranma stated with a sneer before turning to head out. "I'm gonna visit Toshiko and Kumiko at their cottage this morning if anyone's interested in finding me."
"And if someone seeks to challenge you, Ane-kun?"
Ranma acked, stunned to see Chikage standing by the doorway. Seeing the panicked look on the martial artist's face at the sorceress' appearance, the others laughed. Taking a moment to compose herself, Ranma then considered what Chikage just asked before she shrugged. "Hell, I'll punt the jerks into the sea if I have to. Toshiko and Kumiko can help if they're close by. Don't worry about it." She waved at them as she turned to leave. "Later, all!"
Ataru waved as she headed out. "Have fun, Ranma."
* * *
Sakuya peeked into Hinako's room. "Hinako-chan, are you here?" She then saw the youngest sister snuggled against Kuma-san, asleep. "Hey, sleepy-head! It's time to get up!" Sakuya hailed as she walked in to gently jostle Hinako.
"Huh . . .?" Hinako sat up, looking quizzically around the room before she focused on Sakuya. "Oh, Sakuya-chan! What's wrong . . .?"
Sakuya smiled. "I need a favour from you and Kaho-chan, Hinako-chan. It's something special for Onii-sama and Onee-sama!"
Hinako blinked. "What's that?"
* * *
"The Tenchiaiki Juukazoku?!"
Nodoka's lawyer, Nishiki Maya, nodded. "Hai."
Also present in the office, located in downtown Nerima some blocks from the main train station, was Nodoka's twin sister Asagaya Hisayo. Despite their matching looks, there was a world of difference between them. That was as readily apparent as their clothing. Nodoka had come to this day's meeting in her usual kimono, the Saotome honour sword cradled in her arms. Hisayo was dressed in a conservative business suit, a briefcase by her feet.
"What exactly ARE the Tenchiaiki Juukazoku, Maya-san?" Hisayo asked.
"They're ten families who, to this day, feel themselves solely answerable to the Imperial Household," Maya explained as she sat back in her chair. "Their traditional task was to locate and aid those people who, for whatever reason, were abandoned or exiled from their families or communities. It is a task they take with grave seriousness, Hisayo-san. And it is a task that they have carried out faithfully for the past 1,300 years."
"Thirteen hundred years?!" Hisayo gasped. After exchanging a look with Nodoka, she then asked, "Then why hasn't this ever appeared in a history book?"
"Why?" Maya chuckled. "Could you imagine what could happen if . . .?" She paused as she considered what to say before carrying on, "If people learned that there are those out there in society who had burakumin ancestry? And yet those people had ALL clues to that ancestry wiped out. Then were given a new identity -- a virtual clean slate! -- to carry on their lives? And no matter how much people would suspect the truth, they could never produce the proof because all records of same had been wiped off the face of the Earth?"
Nodoka shook her head. "That's illegal!"
"Oh? Does that make persecuting burakumin legal?" Maya wondered.
"It's been done for years!" Nodoka stated.
"So has this."
Silence fell as Ranma's mother considered that. She then asked, "Why does this happen, Maya-san? Why is this allowed?"
Maya sighed. "Nodoka-san, under Article 14 of the Constitution, it is against the law for anyone to discriminate against a citizen of Japan, to deny him or her the rights and freedoms guaranteed by the Constitution, without due process of law. Article 13 of the Constitution states that citizens of Japan have the right to the pursuit of happiness. In effect, those who discriminate against people because of burakumin ancestry, for example, ARE breaking the basic law of Japan. However, we don't DO anything about it because our society is more comfortable with keeping to old traditions. One of which is to not 'rock the boat' and legislate against those traditions." She shrugged. "The Juukazoku seek to redress problems like that to the benefit of the victims."
"In other words, they keep a balance," Hisayo finished.
"These families only respond to the Imperial Household Agency?" Nodoka demanded. "To the Emperor himself? Not the Diet or the Prime Minister?"
"Exactly. As you are aware, there are those families who, back in the old days, never prostrated before the Shooguns, but swore loyalty to the Emperor. The Juukazoku are part of that group. And because of that, they're given a lot of leeway when it comes to unique situations . . . " Maya held up a finger in a shushing motion. "As long as they handle it with discretion."
Hisayo nodded. "That seems logical."
"And my son is now under the protection of one of these families?" Nodoka pressed. "And has been for the last month?"
Maya nodded. "Yes. An independent agent of the Juukazoku learned of your son's problems and concluded that Ranma needed some outside help to put his life in order. The specific charge brought up was the possibility that your son has suffered from child abuse, child neglect and practical spousal abuse. She arranged to have the people who've interacted with Ranma -- yes, Nodoka-san, including you -- investigated to either prove or disprove those charges. Once that is done and a case is made, it will then go before the Court of Special Appeals. That's a branch of the Imperial Household Agency, with power that equals the Supreme Court only in family matters such as this. If the judge decides the charges are true, you and your husband BOTH will lose custody of Ranma. All agreements made by either of you on Ranma's behalf will have no legal standing. You could not threaten Ranma with disowning him. If he wants to keep the Saotome name, he would have that power. It will be as if he was starting a new clan, free from any influence from either you or your husband."
Hisayo whistled. "That's incredible!"
Maya nodded. "Yes, it is. After that is done, Ranma could, if he so chose, ally himself with one of the Juukazoku families. In fact, I can tell you now that one such family has taken considerable interest in him."
"Which one is that?" Nodoka wondered.
"The Moroboshi family of Sendai and Wakkanai."
Nodoka blinked. "Are they related to Moroboshi Ataru?"
"Ataru-san is the Patriarch-in-Waiting of that family, Nodoka-san," Maya warned. "When he becomes of age, he becomes the Patriarch. His half-sister, Sukeyama Sakuya, is the current Matriarch-in-Waiting. When she becomes of age, she will become leader of the clan. And by her word ALONE, Ranma could be adopted into the Moroboshi Clan. And if he wanted to stay as 'Saotome Ranma,' he could. No one could stop it at that point. Not you and not Genma."
Nodoka took that in before sinking back in her chair. "Gods . . . "
Maya nodded. "Yes."
"What are my sister's options right now?" Hisayo asked.
"Very limited, Hisayo-san. Even under a normal family court, Nodoka-san could easily be accused of wilful child abandonment, if not collusion to child abuse. The seppuku agreement Genma forced Ranma to acknowledge would be seen as the ultimate proof of your negligence towards your own child, Nodoka-san." She gazed at her client. "In that case, you or Genma could strike Ranma from your family register and the normal courts would have to acknowledge that. But with the Moroboshis and the power of the Juukazoku behind him, plus the threat of facing the Court of Special Appeals?" She shook her head. "Impossible."
Nodoka considered that before taking a breath. "That there is a family willing to help my son come through this time in his life . . . " A pause. "It makes me very happy, Maya-san. I want my son to have a good life, a happy life. But . . . " She bowed her eyes. "To be implicated as one who allowed her own son, her own flesh-and-blood, to be hurt . . .?"
"People have different opinions about everything under the sun, Nodoka-san," Maya warned. "I know you would never think of intentionally hurting your child. But clearly, Ranma has a different viewpoint of what place -- if any! -- you have in his life. My advice is this: Seek your divorce from Genma. Then when he's out of the way, try to fully reconcile with Ranma. Most of all, Nodoka-san, forget this whole idea of having him adopt your maiden name. I don't think he'll accept that sort of thing. Clearly, from what you've told me of what he's done in the last four weeks, he wishes to live the remainder of his life as 'Saotome Ranma.' Now he has the ability to do just that, Nodoka-san. Don't try to take it away from him. It's his life. Let him live it."
Nodoka considered that before nodding.
* * *
Oh, man! How the heck did I get on an island?!
A panting black piglet with a tiger-striped bandanna wrapped around his neck took a careful view of the countryside. His perch was the highest point on Promised Island: The top of the statue at the apex of Stargazer Park. Ryouga's backpack and clothes, the latter tied around the straps so he didn't lose them, rested by the statue's base. Where the hell am I?! the wanderer wondered as he took in the view. And how the hell do I get back to Nerima?!
"Hey! Who dropped all this?!"
P-chan looked to see a teenage girl balancing herself on inline skates standing beside his pack. Squealing, the piglet bounded off the statue, making a four-point landing near the pack. The girl gazed at him before her eyes went wide. "Hey, you're Hibiki Ryouga, right?!" She pointed at him, skating over to scoop him up. "What the heck are you doin' here on Promised Island?!"
P-chan's eyes widened. "Bweep?!" How do you know who I am?!
Sensing his meaning, Mamoru chuckled, sliding over to scoop his backpack. Seeing her lift that -- which had his umbrella stowed on it -- without any sort of struggle, Ryouga grunted in approval. Very few could lift his pack with one hand, especially when you included the umbrella. "My big brother told us about you. He's Moroboshi Ataru," Mamoru explained as she skated towards Fifth Street, the inner of the "ring" roads circling part of the island.
Hearing that name, Ryouga jolted before emitting a tired "Bweep!" Moroboshi Ataru?! he grumbled as dark thoughts flashed through his mind, and then he gazed upon Mamoru. Your big brother?! Oh, man! I pity you!
"Fortunately, you're in luck," Mamoru announced as she curved around a corner, taking a path towards the southwest side. "Anee -- Saotome Ranma, I mean -- well, she's on the Island with her sisters. I'll take you to 'em now."
He jolted on hearing Ranma's name. Then his eyes went wide as two unfamiliar concepts Mamoru mentioned rolled through his mind . . .
First: Why was this girl calling Ranma "big sister?"
Second: When did Ranma supposedly GET sisters?!
His thoughts were interrupted when he noticed Mamoru skating towards what appeared to be a cliff. "Hang on tight, Hibiki-san!" the athlete warned as she bounded up at the last minute, angling herself toward the patio of a seashore cottage some metres below, with the sea stretched out beyond.
Mamoru tossed his pack and umbrella in the air before landing on one leg. Dropping P-chan to the deck, she shifted onto the other leg as the pack landed in her outstretched arms. Mamoru then skidded to a halt by the edge of the patio before gently gliding back to stop before the transformed Ryouga, and then she gave him a curtsey. "Here we are!" she announced.
P-chan tried not to sway too much as his mind rolled through what he just experienced. Oh, man! She's got LOADS of potential . . .! he managed to think before gloved hands picked him up. He was turned to gaze into an ultra-cute smiling face framed by platinum blonde hair topped with a frilly headband, her face pierced by sparkling purplish-blue eyes. "Bweee . . .?!"
"Ah!" the girl gushed, moving to playfully rub her nose against P-chan's snout. "Bubu-san! Aria likes Bubu-san very much."
The transformed Ryouga's eyes went wide. 'Bubu-san?!' He tried not to moan. Oh, man! That's even worse than being called 'P-chan!'
"Um, Aria-chan, that's Anee's," Mamoru warned.
Aria gazed on her. "Bubu-san is Nee-ya's pet, Mamoru-chan?"
"Um, y-y-yeah." The athlete flustered, wishing to hell that the young Parisian could handle the whole concept of Jusenkyou curses. That didn't mention, of course, the fact that Ryouga would be in his birthday suit if hot water was applied to him at this time. There was NO WAY that Guenevere would allow her ward to be subjected to THAT! "Let me hang onto him." She lifted P-chan from Aria's grasp. "Anee and Toshiko-san should be back from the convenience store soon, so I'll give him to her then, okay?"
"Alright." Aria nodded, turning to leave. "Bye-bye, Bubu-san." She waved at the transformed Ryouga, and then she opened her umbrella as she headed up the rock stairs to the path leading back to Welcome House.
P-chan gave her a squeal in return before looking at Mamoru. The athlete remained in place until Aria was out of earshot. "Sorry about that, but Aria-chan there freaked out when Anee transformed back into a guy right in front of her. 'Sides, we really gotta get your clothes washed, Hibiki-san. Let's go in." Picking up his pack, she skated into the living room. "Tadaima!"
"Mamoru-chan, ohayou!" a voice that sounded exactly like Ranma's as a girl hailed from the kitchen. A second later, a raven-haired girl who -- save for hair colour and a different, more tomboyish, hairstyle -- looked EXACTLY like Ranma as a girl, stepped into the living room. She was in a white, strapless, thigh-high dress that left utterly NOTHING to the imagination. "What have you . . .?" She then noticed the pack. On seeing the piglet in Mamoru's other hand, she squealed, "Oh, Hibiki-san! What are you doing here?!"
Ryouga's eyes went wide as this doppelgänger of Ranma leaned down to gaze at him, giving him a perfect view of her cleavage. "Not too sure yet!" Mamoru chuckled, not noticing the trickle of blood leaking from Ryouga's snout. "I found him up atop the statue in Stargazer Park, then brought him here. Mind if I clean out his pack and put his clothes through the wash? They need it!"
"Oh, I'll do that, Mamoru-chan." Kumiko held out her hands. "I've wanted the chance to meet Hibiki-san ever since Toshiko told me of the times she stole kisses from him after she got out of the mirror."
Mamoru handed the pack and P-chan over. "Sure thing."
'Mirror?!' P-chan perked as he glanced up at Kumiko. Wait a sec' . . .! Akane told me something about that once . . .!
Mamoru turned to leave. "Nice ta meetcha, Hibiki-san. See ya!"
The athlete headed out. Kumiko sighed before she looked down on the transformed Ryouga. "Well, let's get you to the washroom so you can get back to normal again, then we'll worry about your laundry," she then announced.
Kumiko carried P-chan into the bathroom. Ryouga was surprised to see that, for a cottage, this place had a furo as well as a shower stall. Setting him on the floor, Kumiko put the pack aside before proceeding to fill and warm the furo. "Let me see if I can salvage some clean clothes from your pack." The raven-haired woman winked before carrying the pack out of the room.
P-chan remained in place, his mind whirling in confusion as he tried to put together this insane puzzle he had just got dropped into. All questions about Moroboshi Ataru and his very athletic sister -- Or should he have said "sisters?" After all, Mamoru and Aria DID seem pretty close! -- were set aside as he tried to figure out where that raven-haired near-twin of Ranma came from. And what the heck did a mirror -- Oh, what DID Akane say about that?! he mentally roiled -- had to do with some girl named "Toshiko?!"
"Ah, Ryouga-sama! What are you doing here?!"
Ryouga looked to see a red-haired Kumiko standing at the doorway to the bathroom. She was dressed in a black version of Kumiko's dress, groceries in hand. "Oh, did you just come back, Toshiko?!" Kumiko hailed. "Where's Ranma?"
"She'll be here soon," the redhead replied. "Mamoru-chan wanted to talk to her. You warming up the furo for Ryouga-sama?"
"Okay!" Toshiko purred. "Be back in a moment, Ryouga-sama." She winked as she stepped out, her free hand hiking up her skirt a ways, revealing to the transformed wanderer that she had a thong on under the dress.
Ryouga blinked. His eyes then went suddenly wide as it finally clicked in. Oh, no! No! NO! It was HER! That crazy, lovesick, magic mirror-replica of Ranma's female half who kissed him in a park in Nerima one day. What the HELL was she doing here?! Akane said that Nabiki was going to get rid of her when the chance finally came! What the hell went wrong . . .?
He looked before squealing on seeing Toshiko standing at the doorway, now only in her thong -- and no bra to cover those . . .!
Those . . .!
Those . . .
Oh, no!
NOW he was noticing how beautiful Ranma's female form was?!
P-chan's heart hammered like a thunderstorm in his brain as the smiling seductress walked up to scoop him into her hands. Lifting him to eye-level, she bestowed a tender kiss on his snout. That kiss overwhelmed him, his eyes rolling into his head as the strength in his body failed . . .
* * *
"Huh . . . where am I . . .?"
Ryouga's eyes fluttered as he found himself staring at a strange ceiling, a fan whirling overhead. The wetness encompassing him from chest down seemed a relief. Well, it was hot water and he was human! Looking around, he jolted on recognising the room he was in. Before he could determine a path of escape, a voice called out, "You okay?! The girls didn't freak you out, did they?!"
He turned to see Ranma soaping herself in the shower stall. Seeing her hair was mid-back length -- he remembered that Toshiko and Kumiko had their hair cut to a taper at the middle of the neck -- he relaxed before jolting on realising something else. Something that sent chills down his back.
Ranma was bathing in HOT water.
And she was not a man.
His jaw dropped in shock. "Ranma . . . "
Ranma blinked, staring at him for a moment before turning back to her ablutions. "I'm locked for the time being as a girl," she explained. "You met Aria-chan when Mamoru-chan brought you here, right?" On seeing the wanderer hesitantly nod, she continued, "Aria-chan's got a big enough problem seeing me turn into a guy, so Ataru's elder sister Negako locked me as a girl while I'm with them. That's why Mamoru-chan told Aria-chan you were my pet. You didn't want to end up changing in front of her, did you?"
"I . . . " Ryouga blinked before shaking his head. "No, of course not! I . . .!" Here, he paused, and then he peered intently at Ranma. "Wait a second! How many sisters does Moroboshi have in the first place?!"
Ranma sprayed herself down before shutting off the shower. "Thirteen. Twelve half-sisters, including Mamoru and Aria. Same dad but different moms. Then there's Negako. She's adopted. The best martial artist I've ever met, even better than Jijii or Elder Kelun COMBINED! I'm YEARS behind someone like her!" She stepped out of the stall. Checking herself in the mirror to ensure she had no suds on her, she moved to step into the furo. "Shove over, Ryouga." She sat down to relax. "Aaah, that feels so good!" she then breathed out.
Ryouga blinked, his mind whirling over those facts. He then pointed to the doorway. "What about those mirror-clones of yours?!"
"I didn't like the idea of Nabiki putting them back in that mirror, so Jijii and I busted them out, then we sent them on their way . . . "
"Wait! Wait!" the wanderer cut her off. "Go back a bit! You said that some sister of MOROBOSHI ATARU of all people . . . "
Ranma nodded as a headache started to arc through her brain. "Yeah."
"Whom YOU say happens to be a better martial artist than Cologne AND Happoosai -- not to mention YOU of all people acknowledging she is supposedly BETTER than YOU! -- just waves her hand and you're frozen as a girl . . .!"
Tendons spasmed. "She used leftover energy from the Chiisui-ton . . . "
"AND YOU DON'T EVEN CARE!" Ryouga shrieked, frantically waving his hands. "What the HELL else did sh- . . .?!"
Ranma spun on him, her battle aura instantly flaring as she loomed over her friend/rival. "OH, SO I'M SUPPOSED TO SAY 'NO' AND FRIGHTEN A TEN YEAR-OLD GIRL TO DEATH, AM I?!" Before Ryouga could try to conceive of what to do or say next, Ranma made a dismissive wave with her hand as she sat back in the hot water. "Hell, you'd probably WANT me to do that to prove how much of an 'honourless, selfish, cheating bastard' I am, like you've accused me of being ever since we were in junior high fighting over bread at lunchtime!" She passed him a snide glare that made Ryouga wilt. "I apologise for presuming I have the right to attempt to redeem myself in your eyes, Hibiki-san."
A waterfall of scorn echoed every word she spoke. Silence then fell as Ranma sank herself into the furo water, water than no longer seemed warm to the man sitting beside her. Ryouga remained frozen in place as he tried to figure out what the heck was happening with the transformed martial artist beside him. Quickly realising that in this instance, his usual approach to dealing with Ranma was not going to produce any tangible results, the wanderer sighed.
Ranma perked before she leaned against the rim of the furo. "'S okay."
"Still . . . I mean, you letting someone freeze you as a girl . . .!"
"It's not me? Is that what you're trying to say?"
"Well, y-yeah!" He nodded, pointing to the bathroom door. "Besides, how the heck can you trust MOROBOSHI ATARU of all people?! Much less any relative of his?! Don't you realise what sort of guy he is, for Heaven's sake . . .?!"
Ranma sighed before staring impatiently at Ryouga. "Don't tell me you're still angry at him because he smelt your curse out at first glance, then used it against you before you could've started a fight with me on Sunday morning?!"
"Oh, so he was supposed to just stand there like a dumb tree and let you wreck his friend's restaurant just because YOU were peeved at ME?! And by the way, Ryouga, the person who owns that restaurant happens to be MY friend, too!"
Ryouga jolted at Ranma's retort. He then moved to retaliate before stopping. "What friend are you talking about?!" he demanded.
Ranma sighed. "How do you think I've been earning all that money these last few weeks?!" she wondered. "I've been off modelling from here to Korea to Hong Kong to Singapore and everywhere in-between to get some independence in my life! Tampopo-chan -- she's the one who owns the restaurant you nearly tried to trash on Sunday -- arranged it! She's one of the few friends I've got! And I'll be DAMNED to the lowest pit in Hell if I'm going to allow you or anyone else to take that friend away from me!" She then shrugged, turning away from the wanderer. "Oh, forgive me! I forgot! Saotome Ranma's not supposed to HAVE friends!" A snide grimace crossed her face. "All he's supposed to have are selfish fiancées, self-centred rivals and no sense of peace whatsoever!"
Silence. Ryouga stared wide-eyed at Ranma, stunned that he had just heard THAT come out of his friend's/rival's mouth. The wanderer slowly turned away, his gaze focusing inward for a moment as his mind whirled through what Ranma just said. He then glanced once again on her, his voice surprisingly subdued. "Um . . .! Ah, so . . . this friend of yours helped you get all that money that you gave to Kasumi and Nabiki, right?" Seeing her slowly nod, he then asked, "So what was all that money for, anyway? I mean . . . "
"It was to pay back the hospitality they extended to me since I arrived at the doojou, plus give them a chance to get out of that place and get on with their lives without that pimp they call a father trying to stop them," she neutrally replied. "There's enough money in the account to even give a tidy sum to Akane-san should Nabiki choose to do so. All I asked of Nabiki was to ensure that Souun never gets his hands on any of it, even if it is to just repair their doojou from the wedding." A pause. "Before you ask, I've also paid back Ukyou-san and Shanpú for all the free meals they've given to me since they first came to Nerima. And I think you know about Ukyou-san's yatai."
"Er . . . y-yeah, I do know about th-that!" he sputtered before taking a deep breath. "Ranma, look! Even if he was looking out for his friend's establishment and all that, how the heck can you trust a guy like Moroboshi Ataru, much less a sister of his . . .?!"
"Do you know how old Negako is?"
"Eight hundred years, give or take a few decades."
"'Eight hundred years?!'" Ryouga eeped, his jaw dropping into the furo.
"Yes. And for over 600 of those years, all Negako could claim to be was a slave. Nothing more than a databank of martial arts knowledge that was shuttled from one grandmaster of her family's Art to another like you'd pass on a clan's honour sword from father to son! Hell, if you don't believe me, ask Jijii or Elder Kelun if you want! They can tell you a lot about Negako!"
"So what the heck is she up to, anyway?!"
"I told you, already! Aria-chan was scared to see me change into a guy!"
"Then why are you staying with these people anyway?!"
"Because they want to be my friends and they're willing to let me stay with them! What's so wrong with that?!" Ranma snapped back before she took a deep breath. "Besides, I don't feel welcome at the Tendou doojou and I sure as hell won't stay with Ukyou-san or Shanpú for that matter!"
Ryouga waved his arms. "Of course you're still welcome at the Tendous!"
She stared in stunned disbelief at him. "Don't you remember Tuesday?!"
He jolted, shaking at the chill in her voice. "You could've DIED that day!" Ranma snapped. "If it wasn't for Tampopo-chan and the special anti-toxin powder she gave me to guard against the garbage Akane calls her 'cooking,' you MIGHT have died that day! And look what the hell happened next?!" A pause. "This ain't got nothing to do with me keeping your curse a secret from her! You know that! I saved her pet and what does she try to do to me?! She tried to HIT me! I saved your bacon from potentially being fried permanently and THAT'S the way she 'thanks' me?! All most likely because she couldn't hack the fact that I proved that, once again, she can't cook without someone standing over her with a goddamned hammer to make sure she doesn't screw up!"
Her eyes turned away from Ryouga as she crossed her arms, an exasperated breath escaping her. "You broke her arm!" he reminded her.
She turned once more to stare at him. "Do you think I've forgotten that?" she wondered. "Yeah, I know what I did. Do you want to know WHY it happened?! Do you want to know what Negako has to do to me to help fix MY mind up from shit Oyaji unleashed on me when I was just FIVE?!" She pointed to her head. "You want to know another reason why I have to stay as a girl?! Because for the next two weeks, Negako has to put all her knowledge to use into helping me be able to think straight for a change! To make me stop thinking of EVERY DAMNED THING I face as a fight! To make me STOP being the brainless 'best martial artist in the world' Oyaji wanted me to be! I'd think that after all the shit that's happened between us, you'd WANT that to happen to me . . .!"
The door opened. "Onee-tama . . . OOOPS!" Hinako's cheeks reddened on seeing a strange man beside Ranma. "Um, g-gomen ne . . .!"
Ranma spun on her. On seeing the youngest sister shy away, she chuckled. "Try knocking next time, Hinako-chan. What's up?"
"Ah, y-yeah." Hinako laughed. "Kumiko-chan told Hina that Hibiki-san's clothes are gonna be done in an hour. Could Onee-tama come back to the House after? Hina and Kaho-chan have got a big, big, BIG surprise for Onee-tama!"
"A surprise?! For me?! Sure thing!" Ranma beamed, waving Hinako out of the bathroom. "Now scoot, Hinako-chan!"
"Hai, hai!"
Hinako left, closing the door behind her. Ryouga blinked, blinked again, and then he pointed at the door. "Is she . . .?"
"Ataru's youngest sister? Yeah." Ranma nodded. Sighing, she rose to stretch herself. "Oh, that felt good. Anyhow, I'm gonna help make lunch with the girls. Try not to turn yourself into a prune, okay?"
"Um . . . r-right. Th-thanks." Ryouga nodded as Ranma stepped out.
After she dried herself, she headed out. Ranma stopped at the door. "Oh, by the way." She glanced slyly at him, giving him a seductive wink along the way. "If you DO happen to BE seduced by my sisters, please treat them with kindness. They deserve it for all their sufferings."
Ryouga acked, ducking under the furo water. Ranma laughed as she headed out. A second later, he burst out of the water, his body quivering as a familiar anger again welled up from the depths of his heart. It just as quickly went away as the words Ranma spoke to him came back like a relentless tide. Confusion settled on his mind like an all-encompassing cloak as he gazed absently at the door where his friend/rival just walked through. Ryouga then shook his head as a claw of -- well, FEAR! -- grasped his heart.
"Ranma . . . " exhaled from his mouth as he sank into the furo water.
* * *
"Why isn't he here?!"
Ryuunosuke looked around. While the memorial for Monday's victims, hosted by the only Buddhist temple located in Tomobiki, had just been organized by the PTA yesterday afternoon, attendance this day was huge. An honour guard from the Mendou Panzer Division lined the pathway to the shrine. Behind them were representatives from the town's schools, all of them wearing black armbands in solidarity with their grieving peers from Tomobiki High.
"Guess he didn't want to come." Ryuunosuke shrugged, she standing beside Shinobu and the others of Class 2-4 near the entrance. "After all, he didn't really care for Megane and his pals. Probably didn't really care for Nagisa either, much less Oyaji. And we KNOW what he felt about his mom and dad. And . . . well, I doubt he really knew the other girls who got killed on Monday."
Shinobu blinked before lowering her head. "Oh . . . "
A bell rang. Everyone turned as the memorial procession walked into the grounds. Cherry lead the procession, he followed by the senior cleric of Niiza Temple. Junior monks lead each memorial party into the grounds next. Each party was composed of two Tomobiki High students holding a picture of the deceased. They preceded the deceased's parents, who were carrying their lost relative's ashes. As the procession passed the assembled students, they bowed respectfully. The temple's bell began to toll as they headed inside.
Shinobu shuddered, her tears flowing. Until that very moment, a cloak of unreality had rested on her heart concerning the outcome of Monday's events. As if she kept asking herself, "Is this REAL?!" There was no doubt now with the parents carrying the ashes of their children into the temple.
Aisuru Satoshi.
Urayamu Akira.
Kawamura Himiko.
Shitto Koosuke.
Serizawa Mikiko.
Daremo Hiroyuki.
Six lives -- ten when you counted Ataru's parents, Ryuunosuke's father and fiancé -- snuffed in the roar of Semtex, trigged by someone who looked on what had happened in Tomobiki over the last two years as the Devil's handiwork.
A hand rested on her shoulder. She turned to see Ryuunosuke gazing at her. Shinobu nodded, wiping her eyes as she turned to watch the procession.
* * *
The ceremony was short. The victims' ashes were taken out of the shrine for internment in the town's main cemetery. Along the way came an announcement from the chairwoman of the Tomobiki Parent-Teacher's Association, Hozumi Ayane: A memorial to Monday's victims would be erected at Tomobiki High, on the very spot once selected for Lum's memorial. Watching the crowd, Shinobu was quick to notice the frustrated looks etched into the faces of many of the Tomobiki High boys. No doubt, they felt, even in the light of Monday's tragedy, Lum still deserved her own memorial. Would Mendou try to do something about it?
As the crowds broke up, leaving Niiza-ji for home, Shinobu and Ryuunosuke walked together. "He didn't show up," the latter noted.
The former nodded. "I know."
"Shinobu, ya gotta let him go."
Shinobu stiffened. She then relaxed, reaching over to gently grasp Ryuunosuke's hand. "It's hard," she admitted.
The tomboy looked at her. "How come? You dumped him long before you and I ever met. Why are you still pinin' for the guy?"
"I . . . " The other woman shook her head. "I don't know, Ryuu-chan. I just don't know. I mean . . . I didn't like a lot of the things Ataru-kun did, just like everyone else, but . . . there were times he was . . . well . . . "
Her voice trailed. "He wasn't being a jerk, right?" Ryuunosuke finished.
Shinobu nodded as she crossed her arms. "Hai. Especially before Lum came to Earth. I've cared for Ataru-kun for a very long time, Ryuu-chan. Ever since kindergarten, when my cousin Hitomi and her family moved to Nerima. The day she left, I thought the world had come to an end. Then Ataru-kun came along and told me that Hitomi-chan wouldn't be gone forever. I'd eventually see her again. I . . . " She grinned. "That's the day I fell in love with him, I guess. Or at least, I decided I wanted him to be part of my life."
"By the looks of it, he don't agree to that anymore."
Hearing that, Shinobu bowed her eyes. "Hai. It hurts, Ryuu-chan."
"Maybe he's hurtin', too."
Shinobu blinked. "What do you mean?"
"I was thinkin' about what Yumoa-san said to us. About Moroboshi feelin' he had no friends here, how happy he felt on leavin'. Personally, if he wants ta go, Shinobu, I wouldn't hold him back. And really, you shouldn't think of holdin' him back, either. But maybe . . . " She paused to take a deep breath. "Under all that happiness, he's hurtin'. Maybe he's wishin' things could've been different, but he's afraid that we won't bend for him anymore."
Shinobu considered that for a moment, and then she nodded. She looked across the street before stopping, her eyes widening. "Ryuu-chan, look!"
Ryuunosuke looked. "I'll be damned!" she gasped on seeing someone standing before the middle-aged couple the tomboy recognised as Kawamura Himiko's parents. Then she noticed Ataru was not alone. "Who're those girls?"
Shinobu jolted. A flash of jealousy ripped through her before she calmed herself. While both women, appearing to be about their age, had wrapped their arms around Ataru's, they didn't seem to be projecting an aura of intimacy at him, certainly nothing like what Lum did whenever she was around her Darling. In fact, it seemed as if the two young women were close friends, if not . . .?
Shinobu shook her head. Oh, no! That's impossible! Ataru was an only child, though Shinobu remembered him having a cousin, Nokoko, living in Sendai. And he had Negako, though she felt a profound sense of shock and disbelief as what Marubeya Momoe said about Negako echoed again through Shinobu's mind.
As they watched, the girl with the long ponytails handed Mrs. Kawamura a floral bouquet. Respectful words were exchanged, and then the parties parted. Shinobu and Ryuunosuke watched the Kawamuras head towards their own home. They then noticed Ataru and his companions head off down a side street. "C'mon." The former beckoned the latter with her as they crossed the street to follow.
"Shinobu, this ain't a good idea," Ryuunosuke warned.
Shinobu shushed her. They remained a respectful distance behind Ataru and his companions. Too far to overhear their conversation, though it seemed the pony-tailed girl was the only one speaking to Ataru. The purple-haired girl wearing the cape with the stylized Gothic crosses kept quiet. Why?
A few more turns passed, and then Ataru pointed at one house. Shinobu and Ryuunosuke watched as they walked up. The pony-tailed girl pressed the doorbell. An older woman in formal dress -- Serizawa Mikiko's mother, Shinobu and Ryuunosuke realised -- stepped out to greet them. The caped girl drew out a bouquet like the one Ataru just gave the Kawamuras. Greetings were then exchanged. "He's visitin' them privately," Ryuunosuke mused.
"I guess so." Shinobu sighed, a sense of relief flooding her heart. Yes, Ataru had NOT truly walked away from Tomobiki. No doubt, her ex-boyfriend was concerned about what people like Mendou might do to him, but he had not forgotten his hometown. If he really hated everyone in Tomobiki, he wouldn't have come at all, she then mused, a delighted smile crossing her face.
"You okay?" Ryuunosuke wondered.
Shinobu nodded. "I'm alright."
Finally, Ataru and his companions bowed to Mrs. Serizawa before turning away, they heading up the street. As Mikiko's mother headed into her house, the pony-tailed girl drew out a cell phone and made a call. Once that was made, she went back to hugging Ataru's arm. They headed to one of the main streets, stopping under a leafless cherry tree. Shinobu and Ryuunosuke placed themselves behind a telephone pole several metres away, doing their best to not make any noise. At least here, they could overhear them.
" . . . PTA contacted Reigi-kun about your absence."
"Oh? They didn't vow Heaven's vengeance on me for my ignoring their wishes to go to that memorial?" Ataru sarcastically wondered.
"Not really." The pony-tailed girl smirked. "They were saddened that you didn't feel safe about coming to the service. Apologised Reigi-kun's ears off for that. But they do want you to come see them, Onii-sama."
Shinobu's eyes widened. 'Onii-sama?!'
Ataru snorted. "In a million years. I've got other things to worry about. Did Reigi tell them about how I felt about those people?"
The pony-tailed girl shook her head. "I don't think so."
"Maybe you should've told Reigi-kun to speak of Megane and his fools as 'traitors to the human race,' Ani-kun?" the other girl mused.
Shinobu's eyes widened even more. 'Ani-kun?!'
"That might've made them shut up." He chuckled before tensing on hearing a *toot!* echo through the streets. "Ah! There we are!"
Shinobu and Ryuunosuke watched as a stylized tractor, shaped like an old-fashioned train, stopped before Ataru and his companions. He helped the girls get aboard the passenger compartment being towed by the tractor, and then he moved to board. Taking a step up the ladder, he stopped. "By the way, don't you have something better to do than follow me?! Miyake-san?! Fujinami-san?!"
The Tomobiki High sophomores gasped as he gazed their way. Before either could respond, he leapt into the compartment. The tractor moved off downtown. Shinobu and Ryuunosuke watched it go. The former moved to follow. "C'mon!"
She beckoned her friend with her. "No, Shinobu!"
The tomboy remained still. "Ryuu-chan!"
"Forget it." Ryuunosuke shook her head, her hand keeping Shinobu in place. With the latter's superhuman strength having vanished after Lum went home, there was no fear of Shinobu tearing her friend's arm off. "Didn't you see the look on his face, Shinobu?" She pointed where the road-train had gone. "It's over. He doesn't see you as a friend and he sure doesn't see you as his girlfriend anymore! Leave him alone! You're only gonna hurt yourself . . . "
"I . . . n-NO!" Shinobu screamed as she tried to pull free before she collapsed on the sidewalk. "No! No . . . n-no . . . Ataru-kun . . . "
Ryuunosuke moved to help her back up before walking her home.
* * *
"A wedding dress party?!"
Hinako nodded. "Hai."
Ranma was sitting with most of the sisters in the dining room. Shirayuki was busy preparing late afternoon tea in the kitchen. Much to her annoyance -- though it didn't really surprise her these days -- Ryouga had vanished after his clothes came out of Toshiko and Kumiko's dryer and they had lunch. The mirror-twins were busy tracking the wanderer down. "We liked playing 'wedding' with Onii-tama before he went to Sanctuary to train with Onee-tama."
"It should be enough to make Anigimi-sama relax after what happened on Monday," Haruka added as she fanned herself with her gunsen. "Not to mention what he must've endured when he spent a whole week away from the Island."
"Yotsuba only wishes she could've gone to Sanctuary with Ani-chama and Ane-chama to check up on them," Yotsuba lamented.
"What DID happen to him?" Mamoru asked before she stared hopefully at Ranma. "Hey, Anee! Did Anii tell you anything?"
Ranma sighed.
** ** **
"And . . . "
Ranma shuddered. "And what, Ataru?" she soothed. "Tell me."
Ataru took a deep breath before closing his eyes.
"And three billion people died . . . "
** ** **
"I'm sorry, Mamoru-chan. I can't say anything."
"Why?!" Karen pleaded. "He's our brother, Onee-chan!"
"I know, I know," Ranma assured her before taking a deep breath. "It's just that . . . well, first of all, I don't feel at liberty to say something your brother told me in confidence. There's no honour in that. And . . . "
"What?" Marie prodded.
"It . . . " The martial artist paused. "Well, it's just that it was something that . . . it was so awful! Unlike ANYTHING I could ever hope to describe to you. I don't think it's something that could hurt you. At least, Ataru HOPES it won't come back to hurt you. You girls are so precious to him. He doesn't want what happened to him to hurt any of you. I know you love and care for him, but PLEASE don't ask me about that anymore. He . . . "
The doors opened, revealing Shirayuki with a tea tray. "Tea's ready!"
"Thanks, Shirayuki-chan." Ranma smiled, grateful that the younger woman had come in, thus distracting the other sisters from pestering her.
As tea was served, Karen walked over to kneel beside Ranma. "Onee-chan?" she prodded. As the martial artist looked at her, she smiled. "I understand, Onee-chan. Onii-chan is so lucky to have you as a friend."
Ranma gave her a knowing look. "You girls would like it if I became more than just Ataru's friend, wouldn't you?"
"Hai, we would. Please don't think we're pushing you into Onii-chan's arms, Onee-chan. But we care for you just as much as we care for him. We want you to be happy. You deserve it after all you've been through. And . . . "
She paused, looking down. "You know about what Zhòuquán-xiang's gonna do to me once Negako fixes up what the N-n-n-Neko-ken . . . " Ranma stopped, her body quivering as a cold feeling fell on her heart. "Did to me."
Karen gazed at her, squeezing Ranma's shoulder. "How could that awful man do all those things to you?" she wondered.
"He wanted to create the perfect martial artist." Ranma shrugged. "In a way, I can understand. Martial arts are pretty important to Oyaji and he does have a lot of knowledge he wanted to pass on. It's just . . . " She sat back in her chair, nodding thanks as Shirayuki handed her a cup of tea. "It's the things he did to make me that perfect martial artist . . . " She then sipped her tea before relaxing. "That's what's bugging me. I mean, if he tried to do something to make things right in the long term, that'd be okay. But no! He just turned around and shoved it all onto me, telling me it was my 'duty,' my 'responsibility' to make it right. Idiot . . . " She shook her head.
"Pass the Buck-itis."
Both looked as Yotsuba relaxed beside Ranma. "That's an interesting way of looking at it, Yotsuba-chan," Karen mused with a giggle before nodding thanks as Shirayuki handed her a cup of tea.
Ranma shrugged. "Never heard it called that before."
"Way Yotsuba checks it, everyone Ane-chama's dealt with has got it," the detective mused. "'Oh, no, it's not my fault! It's his fault!' And it always checked right back to Ane-chama." She flipped out her spyglass to give Ranma an inspection for a moment. "Now Ane-chama wants to get away from that, but all of Ane-chama's so-called 'friends' won't let her."
Karen shook her head. "Selfish people."
Ranma nodded. "Yeah, you got a point, Yotsuba-chan."
"Hmm? What is it, Hinako-chan?"
The youngest sister paused as she glanced down at her teacup. "Can Onee-tama be Onii-tama's bride today?" she asked.
Ranma blinked, staring wide-eyed at Hinako as her question rolled around her mind. She then sat back in her chair. "Well . . . "
"You don't have to if you don't want to, Onee-chan," Karen prodded.
Ranma blinked before she sensed the others gaze on her. "I . . . "
"Maybe this isn't such a good idea," Marie said. "But I have to confess, you WOULD look so beautiful in a wedding dress."
"Aria wants to see Nee-ya as a bride."
"Kaho thinks Onee-chama will be Onii-chama's perfect bride!"
"Please, Onee-tama?!" Hinako pleaded.
Ranma shuddered as a scream of denial surged up from deep within her heart. On seeing the look on Hinako's face, she looked down. I'm still a guy, she lamented before blinking as Chikage's words from last night echoed through her mind once more. Am I? Tears brimmed her eyelids as the potential implications of her embracing womanhood in its entirety sank into her heart. I'm still a guy. She shuddered. Am I?
"Onee-tama . . . "
Ranma rose. "Excuse me."
She walked out of the dining room, breaking into a run as soon as she hit the doorway. "Onee-chan!" Karen called out.
Silence fell over the dining room. Rinrin sighed. "We pushed her too hard." She shook her head. "We pushed her WAY too hard."
"But she can't run away from it, Rinrin-chan," Karen warned.
"She can't think of going back to those people," Mamoru protested. "After all the crap they heaped on her? Would she go back?!"
"I don't believe she will go back," Haruka said. "If we're not careful, we might make her feel she has no home here. And if that happens . . . "
The other sisters nodded. Hinako then rose to run out of the room. "Ah! Hinako-chan, where are you going?!" Karen called out.
Hinako stopped by the doorway. "Hina'll bring Onee-tama back!"
She raced out of the rotunda. The others watched her go.
* * *
"So this is the only way on or off the island, huh?"
"Hai, unless you want to wait for low tide and cross on foot. Or perhaps convince Chikage-san to let you travel using one of those magic rainbows of hers. Or you can ask Rinrin-san if she'll give you a lift on her submarine." Jii-san puffed his pipe as he relaxed on his boat's quarterdeck.
Ryouga, wearing clean clothes for the first time in a while, stood on the dock, gazing at the Plato-Mecha. "Right." The wanderer nodded, and then he turned around just in time to see a red-haired woman walk past the dock from the direction of Welcome House. "Huh? Ranma?" He then looked at the old fisherman. "I'll come by a little later, Ojii-san. I hope."
Jii-san nodded as Ryouga raced off. "Take your time, son."
Fortunately for the wanderer, he was able to get to the steps leading to First Street without taking a wild detour to the Amazon rain forest. "Ranma!"
Ranma stopped, staring quizzically at Ryouga before looking away. "Aren't you trying to get back to the mainland?" she muttered.
That pained look was enough to tell him something was VERY wrong with his transformed rival. "Hey, you okay?!" He reached First Street, moving to grasp Ranma by the shoulder. Sensing that, she tensed before relaxing, reaching up to squeeze his hand in thanks. Ryouga blinked. "Ranma . . . "
"Sorry," she whispered before smiling. "What? Did you expect me to pound the daylights out of you like I did Akane on Tuesday?"
He sighed. "What's happened to you?"
"Oh, nothing. Everything. My whole life's being turned inside-out as usual. Par for the course. But . . . " She took a deep breath. "I'm just tired of it all. I'd think that after the wedding, things would finally calm down." She rolled her eyes. "Boy, was I wrong."
"Want to talk about it?"
Her eyebrow arched as she turned to gaze at him. "Surprising, hearing that from someone like you. Not that I don't mind having a chance to talk."
Ryouga drew his hand back. "You want to know what's really surprising?" he declared. "What's really surprising is that there's this person named Ranma. And yet this person is nothing like the Ranma I used to know. What you told me in the furo made it obvious. Much that I always hated the old Ranma . . . " He looked down. "The new Ranma scares the living daylights out of me."
She stared at him before letting out a deep breath. "I can accept that. Not that I would intentionally want to make you scared of me. Despite all that's been there between us in the past, I do want to be your friend, Ryouga."
"Then tell me what's going on," Ryouga pleaded.
"You got an hour or so? It's a long and VERY complicated story . . . "
Ranma looked as Hinako jogged up. Seeing the worry on the girl's face, she shuddered as a surge of guilt roared up her spine. She lowered herself, opening her arms as Hinako raced into her embrace. Ranma boosted her into the air. "Hina's sorry!" Hinako cried, burying her face into Ranma's neck. "Hina didn't want to scare Onee-tama! Hina only wanted Onee-tama to be happy . . .!"
Ranma ruffled her hair. "It's okay, Hinako-chan. Onee-tama wants to be happy. But . . . " She pulled Hinako away from her so they could gaze into the other's eyes. "Onee-tama just doesn't know how to BE happy."
Hinako sniffed. "Has Onee-tama EVER been happy?"
"I don't know. I just don't know anymore." Ranma shrugged. Gazing up at the statue in Stargazer Park for a moment, she then smiled. "Hey, you know what, Hinako-chan? Ryouga and I are hungry. You want to go to the snack bar on Third Street and have some fruit parfait?"
Hinako cheered. "Waaai! Fruit parfait! Fruit parfait! Fruit parfait!"
Ranma laughed. Grabbing Ryouga by one hand and keeping Hinako cradled close to her with the other arm, she headed downtown.
* * *
"Ryouga-san, say 'Aaaah!'"
Ryouga opened his mouth. "Aaah!"
Hinako giggled as she scooped some parfait into the wanderer's mouth, and then she turned back to her snack. Watching this, Ranma smiled. She knew that lying underneath his gruff exterior, Ryouga was a softie. Hell, he's really no different than me! 'Sides, Hinako could melt the heart of anyone. 'Cept maybe Negako, Ranma ruefully mused before sipping her milkshake. "You okay?"
Ryouga sighed. "Hard to believe." The explanation had taken an hour.
"Yeah, tell me about it."
He gazed on her. "Do you believe it?"
"I may have no choice," she admitted after taking a deep breath. "After all, the person who told me that is an entity born from the accumulation of almost a MILLENNIUM of martial arts knowledge. She's backed by a woman who struck me from the start as being quite honest when it comes to magic. And . . . " She shrugged. "In a funny way, I almost WANT this to happen."
"Yeah, it would shake a lot of people up." He nodded before giving her a curious look. "Some would accuse you of running away."
"I don't see it as running away." She hummed. "If you want to get technical, I'm using a revised version of the Saotome-ryuu's Final Manoeuvre."
"Searching for your destiny." Ryouga then nodded in understanding. "I can see that. By the way, about what you said about you modelling; I just remembered that I saw some magazines that had some pretty good photo layouts of you in both your bodies. Is that how you earned all that money?"
"Yep. Gotta admit, it was loads of fun, especially meeting all of Tampopo-chan's friends. They . . . " She paused. "They made it really easy for me. They didn't push me, didn't try to make it a challenge or anything dumb like that. You know what, Ryouga? That was the first time since . . . " She shrugged. "Well, since I can remember that I did something I felt good doing. It wasn't like martial arts training, though. It was a load of work. Believe me, it WAS work! But I felt really good doing it."
"Will you keep on doing it?"
"You bet."
"What'll you do when he finds out?"
Ranma snorted. She knew which "he" Ryouga was talking about. "After what he did, I don't care about Oyaji anymore, Ryouga. If there's one thing I've decided about over the last month that I know was the right decision, it's to leave the panda. If he tries anything to stop me, he's in for a very RUDE surprise." A pause. "Besides, Mom's moving to divorce him. Even if I choose to keep the Saotome name, I won't go back to the fool. But right now . . . "
"You're not sure if you want to go back to her, either?" he asked.
"Yeah. She's my mom, but she wasn't part of my life for ten years! I . . . " She sighed. "You've seen your mom, haven't you?"
"Rarely," he admitted.
Hinako gazed at him. "Why?"
"Almost all my family's got a curse that makes us get lost every time we go anywhere, Hinako-chan," he explained as he stared at her. "I got it from my mom. Dad doesn't have it, so we at least have SOMEONE at home to keep the place intact for when we DO get home. But . . . " He then shrugged.
"Don't you miss your mom?" Hinako wondered.
"Yeah, I do. A lot. In a way, I'm lucky compared to Ranma. I've always known Mom's alive. When she was on her training trip, Ranma had NO idea if her mom was alive. Her dad didn't tell her anything. In fact, he even strongly hinted at the idea that her mom was dead. And when she did come back . . . "
He grimaced. "How'd you learn that? From Akane?" Ranma asked.
He nodded. "Yeah. Speaking of which, what are you going to do with Akane, Ukyou and Shampoo? If they find out about this . . .?!"
She shrugged. "If Negako and Chikage are right and this can't be changed, there's nothing they CAN do, Ryouga. 'Sides, if it happens, all the engagements fly out the window. When that happens, they finally get control of their lives again. After all they've been through because of me, it's what they deserve, man. You can understand that, can't you?"
"For Ukyou and a lesser extent Akane, I can certainly agree. But Shampoo's a whole different story, Ranma."
"Not as bad as you might think. Shan's tribe has a special law she can use in that case to avoid dishonour when she goes home. I'll still be bound to the tribe, but as an adopted sister, not a husband."
"Really. And don't repeat that."
"Right, right. Well, that's good. But what about Kunou?"
Ranma gave him a disgusted look. "What do you think, Ryouga?"
He chuckled. "Sorry! Then again, it WOULD be like your old man to get you engaged to Kunou if you do become a girl!"
A shudder ran through Ranma. "Yeah, it would be, wouldn't it?"
"Does Ryouga-san want Onee-tama to stay as a boy?" Hinako asked.
He considered that. "Well, I admit that I'm used to Ranma as a boy. And I can guess what sort of trouble she could be in for when this all happens to her and everyone realises they can't change it. I'm glad that Elder Cologne and Happoosai know about it and are trying to help ease it along. But . . . "
Ranma wagged a finger. "Doesn't mean I'll go easy on you next time."
He glared at her. "And you think I'll go easy on you?"
Hinako laughed. "Onee-tama has some funny friends!"
The martial artists smiled. Ryouga then asked, "Hey, Hinako-chan, do you and your sisters REALLY want Ranma to marry your brother?"
Much to Ryouga's surprise, Ranma didn't seem to balk on hearing him ask Hinako *that.* Hinako nodded. "Un! After all, Chikage-chan says that Onee-tama and Onii-tama are going to get married. And Negako-oneetama says that Onee-tama and Onii-tama are bound together. Hina doesn't understand what that means, though. And Onee-tama and Onii-tama are friends. And besides, if some creep like Kunou-san or Mendou-san tries to hurt Onee-tama and Onii-tama, they can help each other and make the bad people go away."
Ryouga chuckled. "The impeccable logic of an eight year-old."
Hinako giggled. Ranma blushed. "Yeah, that's true, isn't it?" She then stood up. "Well, what say we get back to the House and have a party? When do you want to go back to the mainland, Ryouga? Tonight?"
"Yeah, but I can stick around late. The guy running the ferry doesn't make the last round trip until eleven o'clock."
"Let's go!" Ranma beckoned as she held up a hand for the cheque.
* * *
Ten minutes later, they walked hand-in-hand towards Welcome House. Ranma was quick to see the crowd standing by the rotunda. Aria was the first to notice. "Nee-ya!" she called. "Everyone! Hinako-chan brought Nee-ya back!"
The others raced over to confront the martial artist. A teary-eyed Karen was in the lead. "Onee-chan, please! I'm so sorry . . .!"
Ranma embraced her. "It's alright, Karen-chan! It's alright!" She then pulled back to stare at everyone else. Seeing the expectant looks on their faces, she took a breath, her eyes sparkling. "Hey, aren't we supposed to be having a wedding dress party or what's the story?!" she then asked.
Hearing that, the sisters cheered. Hinako leapt up and down. "Wedding dress! Wedding dress! Wedding dress!"
"Hold it, guys! We got a problem!"
Everyone turned to stare at Rinrin. "What problem?" Karen asked.
"Who's gonna play the priest?! We had Aneki play the priest when we had our first wedding dress party, but she's in Nerima!"
Ranma looked at Ryouga. "Hey, Ryouga, guess what?"
The wanderer jolted, paling. "WHAT?! You want ME?! NO WAY!"
"Please, Hibiki-san?!" Karen pleaded.
Now, as everyone in Nerima knew, it took a LOT to convince Ryouga to do something he would normally be uncomfortable with. But when said fellow was confronted with TEN cute girls giving him a chorus of pleading stares -- with obligatory "Kusun!" from Aria -- even Ryouga could be laid low. "Oh, alright! All right! I'll do it!" He deflated. "'Sides, it's only make believe!"
"For now."
Surprised looks locked on Ranma. Seeing the light smile on her face, the sisters shuddered. Yotsuba turned to Rinrin. "Call Sakuya-chan and Chikage-chan! We have to check Ani-chama's return until after Ane-chama's ready!"
"RIGHT!" the other sisters cheered.
* * *
"Honestly, Sakuya-chan!" Ataru muttered as he carried two large bags for Sakuya to the House, following her and Chikage to the rotunda. The sun had long since dipped down below the western horizon behind distant Fuji-san. "If you guys were gonna pull a surprise on me, you could've chosen to keep me in town instead of dragging me off shopping in Shinjuku!"
"Onii-sama, relax!" the eldest of the sisters scolded, and then she shuddered. "Besides, I just COULDN'T walk away from that sale!"
His eyebrows twitched. "Women!" he muttered under his breath. "And to believe I once wished to have a harem of them?"
Sakuya and Chikage gazed on him. "We HEARD that!"
The door to the rotunda opened, revealing Toshiko dressed in her kimono. "Ah, Sakuya-chan! Chikage-chan! Ataru-kun! You're back!" Ranma's crimson-haired mirror-twin beamed. "We're almost all ready!"
"Ready for what?" Ataru wondered. He glanced in to see a sea of white and loads of flowers. "Oh!" He sighed before giving them a knowing grin. "Girls, if you were going to do a wedding party, that's hardly a surprise!"
Sakuya smirked as she took the packages from him. "Bets? Now, get to the chapel and wait for us, Onii-sama! C'mon, Chikage-chan!"
The sorceress nodded. "Hai."
"You mean I finally get to see Chikage in a wedding dress?" Ataru asked.
Chikage jerked before flustering, and then she gave Ataru a knowing look. "Well, if you MUST insist, Ani-kun," she sniffled.
"EH?!" a half-dozen voices cried out.
Hinako, all ready for the big "moment," raced out to give Chikage a hug. "Wai! We're gonna see Chikage-chan in her wedding dress!"
Laughter echoed around the rotunda. Ataru shrugged. "Well, what the heck! We need something to make us smile! But first . . . "
He stepped back. Relaxing himself, he extended his right arm parallel to the ground. A ball of ki billowed in the hand. Ataru made a circular motion with it, leaving a trail of sparkles to form something like a cocoon around him. Watching this, everyone was spellbound. "Wow . . .!" Hinako gasped, her eyes sparkling as the air around Ataru warped into a vortex.
In a flash, Ataru emerged in a perfectly tailored white tuxedo, complete with obligatory rose on the lapel and dress gloves covering his hands. The girls gaped at him. Rinrin squealed, "Wow! Aniki, where did you learn THAT?!"
"Sanctuary," Ataru replied. "Took me over twenty tries to get it right! Lucky thing Yotsuba wasn't there with her camera!"
"Yotsuba HEARD that, Ani-chama!"
Laughter echoed as Ataru gave the sisters a wave before heading to the chapel on the other side of Welcome House. Stepping in, Ataru then stopped, his eyes widening on seeing who was at the altar. "Hibiki?!"
Ryouga, in a sombre black cassock sans clerical collar, waved as Ataru approached. "Ah . . . h-hi there, Moroboshi-san!"
Ataru crossed his arms. "How'd you get here? Ranma told me you could get lost pretty easily, but I never suspected you'd come here!"
"I'd love to know the answer to that one." The wanderer chuckled before sighing. "You know, you really got some nice sisters."
Hearing that, Ataru then smirked. No doubt, what anger Ryouga might have felt towards him because of that incident in Tampopo's Sunday morning had been pretty much washed away -- or at least set aside for the moment -- thanks to his meeting Ataru's sisters. "Who was it?" Ataru asked.
"Um, first Mamoru-chan, then Aria-chan -- why is it she can't take seeing Jusenkyou curses, anyway? -- then Hinako-chan . . . " Ryouga then jerked, turning to stare at the main doors of the chapel. "Ah . . .!"
Ataru blinked before smiling as a stream of flower-bedecked white passed through the doors. Counting off the ten of his sisters who had been waiting at the House while he had been in Tomobiki with Sakuya and Chikage, Ataru greeted them with a quick unveiling and a chaste kiss to the cheek before they were re-veiled and they took their places in the pews. As the last took her seat, rapid footsteps heralded Sakuya's arrival. No doubt, she had her wedding dress ready to go in her bedroom before she left the Island. As the eldest of the sisters came up to embrace and kiss her Onii-sama, she whispered in his ear, "I don't know if Chikage's going to come to this party, Onii-sama . . . "
Suddenly, a thunderous fanfare rang from the chapel's organ. The sisters gasped, and then they turned as one to gaze on the main doors. Standing there was a lovely vision in pure crimson and gold, an opaque lavender veil held down over a head of dark purple hair with gold chains. "Waaaa!" Hinako gushed as Chikage stepped up towards Ataru. "Chikage-chan's so pretty!"
"Red's definitely her colour," Ryouga whispered to Ataru as Sakuya made way for the sorceress at the altar.
Chikage reached the altar before looking at Ataru. Unlike the others, she didn't carry a bouquet. Instead, she carried a painstakingly crafted Celtic cross pendant, the crucifix topped with a rose. "Here, Ani-kun." She took it and placed it in Ataru's hands before whispering in his ear, "It was not meant to be between us this time. I will pray for it to be so next time."
Ataru blushed. "Chikage . . . "
"No matter what, I'll not let your heart to be sundered, Ani-kun."
She made her way to the pews. Ataru remained in place, and then he blinked as a new fanfare started. Turning to the door, he gaped on seeing Toshiko and Kumiko step inside. The mirror-twins walked in, preceding someone in white. The new arrivals only had to walk halfway to the altar before Ataru realised who they were presently escorting. "Ranma . . .?"
Ryouga whistled. "Oh, man . . .!"
Toshiko and Kumiko parted, revealing a simply stunning vision in white and pale blue, a coronet of roses holding her veil down. A single red rose served as the clasp for her top. Her bouquet was the same as the sisters'. Ranma had little makeup on beyond lipstick and a touch of eye shadow.
Clearly, less was best with her.
"Ranma . . . " Ataru repeated.
Her cheeks reddened. "They talked me into it," she admitted, a shrug rolling her shoulders. She then blinked as Ataru walked up to slip Chikage's pendant around her neck. "Hey," she gasped. "What're you . . .?"
"Something to make it complete." After saying that, he gave Chikage a quick glance. Seeing the sorceress nod in approval, Ataru turned to Ryouga, a knowing grin crossing his face. "Okay, Reverend! Let's get on with it!"
"Hai!" Ryouga then cleared his throat before starting, "Dearly beloved, we are gathered here this beautiful evening . . . "
As the wanderer did a good rendition of a normal wedding benediction, Chikage gazed on Ranma, a touch of sadness in her eyes. The die is cast. The sorceress closed her eyes. There's no turning back.
* * *
To be continued . . .