Ranma 1/2 Fan Fiction / Urusei Yatsura Fan Fiction / Sister Princess Fan Fiction ❯ Lonely Souls ❯ The Fourth Part, B Side - Freedom From Dreams ( Chapter 8 )

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

"Lum-chan . . .?"
Konban wa, Ran-chan. Sleep well?
"Strange." The rose-haired teen stretched before gazing at the controls of her scoutship. Twitching her extremities to ensure she had full mental control of her body, she yawned, and then she leaned over to adjust the flight controls. "I did. Weird that I can 'sleep' with you taking over my body. Hmmm . . . " She stared at the astrogator. "Not so far from Earth now."
About another hour or so, a familiar woman's voice echoed deep inside Ran's mind. No sign of any ships, especially Noukiite ones.
"Thank the Fates," Ran moaned as she rubbed her eyes, she trying not to let her own grief overwhelm her as she assumed manual control for the final leg of her -- of THEIR -- escape to Earth . . .
** ** **
It had been an annoyance at first.
Two weeks after the Second Tag Race ended, she was visited one evening by two of the "Men in Black." In the hands of one was an order declaring that Ran's residency visa had been rescinded and that she had no choice but to return home to Uru. Naturally, Ran tried to protest, but that had died when she saw the fellows accompanying the SCAA agents. Zephyrite Inquisitors.
The next hour blurred past as Ran rolled up shop, turned over the lease on her property to the SCAA, and then, without being given a chance to say good-bye to her friends and classmates, blasted off for home. At first, she thought it had been one of Lum's dirty tricks that got her sent off Earth. But when Ran saw the tiger-striped scout beside hers -- along with the Zephyrite destroyer who paced them as far as Toshitto, the Oni colony world closest to Earth -- Ran then realised that from then on, NOTHING would be the same.
Settling on Toshitto, Ran watched as Rei, who normally served as a deep-space sovereignty pilot covering Uru's frontier with Zephyrus, was ordered with his group to Machibusu, scene of the heaviest fighting against the Noukiites. She wanted to go with him. Military authorities wouldn't let her. According to Rei's squadron commander, the Noukiites were using ships of a design that outmatched anything the Onis possessed. It was but only a matter of time before Machibusu was overrun and the road to Uru would be wide open. That frightened Ran. The Noukiites were showing uncommon savagery against their foes. The chance of victory, despite what the propaganda being churned out by the government said to the contrary, was becoming more unlikely by the day.
Then . . .
One night, she was struck down by a blinding headache. Fainting on her bedroom floor, she remained unconscious for a day. When she finally awoke, the newscast was on, reporting about an anti-matter bomb that just wiped out the heart of Onishuto, the Urusian Union's capital city. Where Lum, her family, Rei's family, Ten-chan and so many others lived. Her videophone then rang. It was Rei's commander with more bad news. The pilot had been killed in an ambush by Noukiite irregulars. Overwhelmed by grief and nausea, Ran staggered into the bathroom to look at herself via her vanity mirror.
Lum's image stared back . . .
** ** **
Ran's attention returned to the present. She stared out the main view port of her cockpit to see a familiar blue sphere looming before her ship, it accompanied by a large moon in the near distance. "Home," she whispered as she programmed the ship's controls to begin atmospheric approach.
For the rest of our lives, no doubt, Lum noted.
"Hai, Lum-chan, for the rest of our lives."
* * *
Do you sense that, love?
Yes . . . A weak grunt escaped from the being in the hollowed pit of one of the two small rocks presently pacing Ran's scoutship off its starboard quarter. It appears the Mother has brought us . . . here for a reason.
You are in pain, beloved.
I can last, my dearest . . . If the wounded Nendo-kata could do more to reassure her mate, she would. At least until we give the air-breathers in that craft yonder a chance to be truly free of their current predicament.
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Lonely Souls
By Fred Herriot
pyeknu@hotmail.com OR fherriot@yahoo.com
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Plot elements/certain scenes here composed/written by Steve Cornett
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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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"Here you go, Hibiki-san."
"What's this?" Ryouga opened the zip-up package to see a booklet of pictures inside. "Oh, Yotsuba-san, you didn't have to . . .!"
"It's checky," the detective assured him. The party at the chapel had gone on much later than Ryouga initially hoped, forcing the wanderer to camp outside the rotunda overnight. He had been offered a chance to stay at the cottage with Toshiko and Kumiko, but didn't want to risk spending a night close to Ranma's love-starved mirror-twins. "After all, if it weren't for Hibiki-san, Ani-chama's and Ane-chama's wedding dress party wouldn't have gone well! Hibiki-san deserves to remember it as much as everyone else!"
"I . . .!" Ryouga then nodded before he zipped up the package, slipping that into his pack. "Thanks, Yotsuba-san. I really appreciate that."
"Ryouga-kun, are you ready to go?!"
Both turned as Mamoru skated through the front gate after her daily inline skating run through town. Ryouga nodded. "Yeah, Mamoru-san, I'm set."
"Okay!" The athlete skidded to a halt beside him. Slipping an arm around one of the wanderer's, she beckoned him towards the ferry dock. "C'mon, I'll take you down there so you can catch the first trip to the mainland!"
"Try not to get him lost, Mamoru-chan!" Yotsuba advised.
"Right, right!"
Partings were made, and then Mamoru and Ryouga raced off, the wanderer keeping pace with the athlete. Yotsuba watched them, snapping a picture with her camera before heading in. "He's a pretty okay guy even if he does have that big chip on his shoulder," she mused in her native English as she turned to head upstairs. She then stopped. A sly grin crossing her face, the would-be detective tiptoed to the door to Ataru's room. Gingerly opening it -- Ataru never locked his door when he resided in Welcome House -- she peeked inside.
Peacefully asleep, Ataru had a content smile on his face. One arm was wrapped around Ranma, she leaning against his side. One of her arms was draped on his chest. Both were, to Yotsuba's relief, dressed in pyjamas. Even if Yotsuba, like the other sisters, would love it if the day when their brother would marry the martial artist came sooner than later, even she believed they should take their time in developing their relationship. A glance to her right revealed Ranma's homemade wedding dress sitting on Ataru's work desk.
A groan escaped Ranma, causing Yotsuba to tense. The detective slipped into the hallway, gently closing the door behind her.
"Ne, Ataru?"
"What is it, Ranma?"
"Does she always look in on you like that?"
He gave her a warm squeeze. "She's not the only one." He opened his eyes. "Not that I mind it in the long term. She does care."
She returned his look. "Big change from Nabiki."
They gazed at each other. "Well . . . " he mused.
"I guess we have to have a good morning kiss," she proposed.
Surprise crossed his face for a moment, and then he chuckled. During the wedding dress party, they had shared a chaste kiss when Ryouga, acting as the preacher, had declared them "husband" and "wife." "Good idea."
They slid together, lips caressing. A camera flash went off, causing them to spin to the door. "CHECKY!" A grinning Yotsuba leapt up and down, holding her camera while her free hand flashed the "'V' for Victory" sign.
Yotsuba cried out as a storm of pillows flew right at her face. She scrambled clear as the door slammed closed behind her. Sensing she was safe, she whooped as she raced off to her room. "Ani-chama and Ane-chama just kissed!" she sang. "Ani-chama and Ane-chama just kissed!"
Back in the room, the "couple" in question moaned as Yotsuba's assertion rang through the hallways. "Then again . . .!" Ataru added, rubbing his scalp.
"Yeah, then again . . . " Smiling, she tilted her face so they could gaze once more into the other's eyes. "So where were we?" she coyly asked.
"Right here."
He leaned down so they could kiss.
* * *
"Ye gods! I can't believe it's THAT bad!"
Ono Toofuu shook his head. He was kneeling across the dining room table from Negako. Before the chiropractor was a diagram of Ranma's head, points marked out to indicate exactly what damage the martial artist had accumulated since she was five. "It is that bad." The ninjutsu grandmaster nodded. "Genma's basic purpose was, I admit, sound. At the time this treatment was applied, Ranma was slipping toward developing a chronic form of autism. What Genma did not realise when he applied this treatment is that the human brain needs to recycle its neurons periodically to ensure one's soul remains as intact as possible. That could not happen once Genma conditioned Ranma's mind to focus on martial arts. THEN add the damage from the Neko-ken . . .?"
"It's a wonder he didn't become a mental vegetable," Toofuu finished for her. "The only thing that ultimately kept him going in the long term . . . "
"Was her overall intelligence and cognitive potential."
The young doctor nodded. "So what do you want to do with Ranma-kun?"
"To permit the treatment to take effect in the shortest period possible -- given the problems her curse forces -- Ranma must remain in one body for the treatment period," Negako instructed. "Since the curse's nature does not allow us to freeze Ranma as a boy, she must be a girl. Therefore, I need you to write a note to the school authorities stating Ranma will be locked as a girl for the period of this treatment and explaining the medical necessity behind doing so. If that requires Ranma to attend girl-only classes, so be it." A sarcastic smile crossed her face. Seeing that, Toofuu tried not to grin; Negako was not the type of person to express overt emotion to just anyone. "I am sure Pauline would take personal delight in 'torturing' Ranma this way."
"The principal, right?" Toofuu mused.
"The same."
"Negako-san, please tell me: How did he get THAT name?"
"If she was alive, all you would have to do is ask his mother."
Toofuu chuckled before a concerned look crossed his face. "There's something more to all this, isn't there, Negako-san?"
"There is, but I will remain silent about that for a time . . . "
Her voice trailed as her head turned west-northwest. In the direction of Tomobiki, Toofuu realised. After a moment, he grasped her hand. "Negako?"
The grandmaster's eyes widened. "Lum . . .?"
* * *
"Lum-sama . . .?"
A tomboyish brunette with blue-grey eyes bolted out of bed. Gazing around her, Momose Tamako seemed lost for a moment. Her body then deflated. She remained still as her mind rolled through what she just felt from the direction of the Holy City. Taking a determined breath, she then slipped out of bed. Proceeding to the bathroom to perform morning ablutions, Tamako glanced at the closed door, canting her ears to determine if her "parents" were awake. Detecting nothing but silence, she turned back to the business at hand.
So, the day had finally come. The mission she and four others had been specially built to perform was still valid. The Goddess HAD survived what the news media reported had befallen her. But with four of the Holy Apostles having been murdered on Monday, extraordinary measures had to be taken to ensure Lum's safety. Momose Tamako, along with four others, would ensure that.
Finishing, she returned to her bedroom to dress. Well, all good things had to come to an end. She had enjoyed a good life in Shimizu. It bothered her at first that she was pretending to be the Momoses' daughter -- what happened to their child, Tamako did not know and felt it prudent not to inquire (even if she was as free as an infiltration agent can be; there had been no controlling officer dispatched by the Church to monitor her) -- but like others in her trade, she got into the swing of things and carried on from there.
Now, it had to end. Time to press on with her mission.
Preparing an overnight bag, she slipped out of the house. Her "parents," from what Tamako could tell, were asleep. From the house, it was a simple trip to the Shizuoka train station on the Tookaidou Shinkan-sen line, which would take her to Tokyo. She had rented a long-term storage locker at Shizuoka-eki, it containing all the things she would need in the Holy City. After that was emptied, she proceeded to the counter to get a train ticket to Tokyo.
Unknown to the Terran-Avalonian spy, the emptying of her locker triggered a transmitter that fired a command to a receiver in the roof of the Momose home. That activated explosives set throughout the building. Soon, white-hot flames engulfed the whole house. Tamako's "parents" had no chance to escape.
* * *
"Welcome back, Akane-chan." Kasumi looked up as Akane stepped into the living room. "How was your run this morning, little sister?"
Akane sat by the table. "I'm a bit out of shape." A glance around revealed they were alone. "Where're Dad, Nabiki and the panda?"
"Father and Uncle got drunk, AGAIN!" Kasumi sighed, her exasperation at Souun and Genma's antics evident. "When I found them this morning in the doojou, all I could get out of them was Uncle saying 'She saw me! She saw me!' and Father's 'The schools will never be joined now!' routine. I put Father in his room and Uncle in the guest room. I WAS tempted to dump him in the pond."
"Idiots!" Akane shook her head. "What about Nabiki?"
Footsteps. "Right here."
Both turned as Nabiki stepped into the sitting room, she dressed in a black martial arts jersey and hakama trousers, a white belt tying her top down. "Oh, my!" Kasumi gasped, shuddering delightedly. "Nabiki, you look beautiful!"
Nabiki smirked as she sat down. "Thanks, Onee-chan."
Akane blinked. "Why a white belt? You made it up to rokkyuu . . . "
"True, but the Moroboshis' family Art is ninjutsu," Nabiki reminded them. "In Saikoo Jinseijitsu-ryuu, there're only three levels." She pointed to her belt. "White represents a 'genin.' You don't know the forms. A black belt represents a 'chuunin.' You know the forms. A black belt with kanji represents a 'joonin.' You know the forms AND you can teach them. And if your belt has 'chi' on it, then you're considered the grandmaster of the Art."
Kasumi nodded. "That being Negako-san."
"That's pretty simple," Akane noted.
"I only hope Father doesn't get angry at the idea of you taking on a new teacher," Kasumi warned. "You ARE still seen as part of the Tendou-ryuu."
Nabiki snorted, making a dismissive wave. "Too bad. If Dad won't get off his duff and teach me, much less Akane, I'll go somewhere else. Hell, I'd be tempted to ask Ranma-kun to teach me, to be honest with you."
Akane sighed. "Doubt he'll be in the mood to consider that."
"Give him time, Akane-chan," Kasumi advised. "Still . . . "
"What?" the other sisters asked.
"Why don't you ask Negako-san to teach you, Akane-chan?"
Akane considered that, humming. "There's an idea."
"It's a good idea." Nabiki then blinked before snapping her fingers as something came to her. "Heck, why don't you come down to Negako-san's place today, Akane? You have no plans to go out with Tokoro or Asano, do you?"
Akane shook her head. "Um, no! Not really."
"Great! Get your gi!"
* * *
Twenty minutes later, the Tendous stepped through the gate of the old shrine Negako resided in. They stopped on seeing the grandmaster of Saikoo Jinseijitsu Ninjutsu-ryuu guiding Inu Chigaiko in a basic meditation kata. "Do not jerk your movements," Negako instructed, not bothering to glance at the Tendous though she could sense their presence. "Good morning, Nabiki, Akane."
"Ohayou, Sen- . . .!" Akane caught herself. "Um, Negako-san."
Negako lightly smirked. "She can learn."
Akane flustered. "Ohayou, Nabiki-san." Chigaiko then swept her hand in a gentle block. "Like this, Negako-san?" she asked.
"Yes. Akane, you desire to seek instruction with me, do you not?"
Akane bowed respectfully. "Please?"
"Very well. Be warned: You have MANY habits that require being broken. If you seek my instruction, those habits WILL be broken. Understood?"
Akane nodded. "Hai, I understand."
The youngest Tendou sensed Negako's eyes rake over her. She immediately turned away from that gaze to stare at the ground. Nabiki remained in her place, not moving to comfort Akane. In a way, Akane was grateful. Even if she found it quite difficult to contemplate taking over the doojou when she finally came of age, she was interested in the Art. Oh, if only Ranma could have found some way to break past that damned chauvinism of his . . .!
"That is the first lesson you must learn," Negako mused.
Akane stared wide-eyed at her. "Eh?!"
"Your habit of blaming Ranma for your faults." Negako crossed her arms as she gazed at Akane. "Akane, you are aware of how Ranma became the way she is. Why do you continue to take faith in such erroneous beliefs as that?"
"I . . . " The youngest Tendou sighed, gazing anew at the ground. "I'm sorry, Negako-san. It's a stupid habit of mine."
"I am not the one you need to apologise to. Further, I do not believe Ranma would receive an apology from you anytime soon, especially given Tuesday's events. Chigaiko, stop." She glanced at the Tomobiki native. "You need to catch your breath and have breakfast before continuing. Do so now."
"I . . . h-hai! Excuse me, please!" Chigaiko stopped. Bowing respectfully to the grandmaster, she then headed into the old shrine.
Negako then drew out a pair of clippers from her pocket. Walking up to Akane, she took a lock of hair from behind one ear. Akane blinked at her. "What's that for?!" she asked as she stared curiously at Negako.
"Emergency purposes," Negako explained. "Nabiki, take Akane and have her put on the shirt and hakama I laid out in my bedroom. Her old gi will not be necessary here. I will be with you to commence the lesson in ten minutes."
"Right. C'mon, Akane."
Nabiki waved her sister inside. "'Emergency purposes?'" Akane asked.
Nabiki shrugged as they passed through the doors. "Search me. But Negako-san does strike me as the type who knows what she's doing."
Akane nodded. Negako watched them step inside, and then she looked up, her eyes narrowed. "I know you can hear me. Respond now."
A small beacon of light appeared before her face. Oh, Most Blessed Angel of the Earth . . . a weak, female voice responded. What commands do you, beloved adopted sister of the Saviour, have for my unworthy self?
Negako held up the hair. "Prepare a body based on Tendou Akane's DNA," she then instructed. "Transport it to Chikage's bedroom on Promised Island. When the body is made, ensure all psionic abilities are sealed from conscious control. I will unseal them when I deem it necessary."
The hair disappeared in a sparkle of light. It will be done.
The light vanished. Negako smiled. With that done, any ideas she might have about becoming the priestess of a 'faith' around Ataru and the others are dashed. She headed inside the shrine, pausing at the doorway to glance once more heavenward. Hopefully, her daughters will be of a better temperament.
* * *
Chikage looked up from her tarot cards to see a nude body, lying on a stretcher, materialise beyond her desk. She walked around her table to give the new arrival a careful inspection. "Yes, this will do," she declared.
Sparkles of light shrouded the body from neck to toe before solidifying into a light brown, sunflower-embossed kimono. Once that was done, Chikage nodded. "Now for the final ingredient," she added, holding out her hands.
A flash of light later, a certain doll rested in her arms. Where . . .?! The Noroi no Ningyou looked around in surprise -- as much as a doll could look surprised, of course -- and then she turned up. Chikage-sama?!
"Aria is out of her room, so we'll do this now," the sorceress announced as she lowered the doll onto the body. "I believe this will happen swiftly."
Wha- . . .?!
A bright aura shrouded both the doll and the unmoving body. The body's eyes then opened, glowing briefly before reverting to their normal deep brown shade. As the aura faded, the doll slumped as its resident consciousness departed it for the last time. Chikage lifted the doll from the young woman's body, and then she teleported the former back to Aria's bedroom. A startled gasp escaped the woman as she sat up, looking confusedly around for a moment. "What happened . . .?" she demanded before looking down on her hands. "This body . . .?" She blinked, the enormity of what just happened hitting her, and then she gazed on Chikage. "Chikage-sama, what have you done?!" she demanded.
"Given you a body you may use," the sorceress explained as the newcomer stood. "Since Akane was the last person you 'possessed,' it seemed proper that a body for you be cloned from her. Negako-anekun just facilitated that, though I'm unaware exactly HOW she did that. Is it sufficient?"
The girl shifted around, moving each joint to ensure each part functioned as it should. A content smile then crossed her face. "Yes, it is sufficient for me," she answered before she looked down at herself. "I sense this is not a fully human body, though. Where did Negako-sama acquire it?"
"That, you will have to ask her." Chikage then tilted her head to the doorway. "Would you like to see Ane-kun?"
The other girl nodded. "Yes."
They stepped out, heading to the stairway. Proceeding to the first floor, they walked into the dining room. "Oh, Chikage-chan, there you . . . " Sakuya then stuttered to a halt on seeing the newcomer. "Who's this?"
"An old acquaintance of Ane-kun's from a vacation she took with her father and the Tendous some months back. Where is she?"
"Right here," Ranma announced as she stepped in. "Who are you talking . . .?" She stopped as the girl turned to look on her. "Akane?! How the hell did you . . .?" Her voice trailed off as her eyes took in the other girl's kimono. "Oh, no . . .!" she then moaned as her hands automatically shifted up.
Seeing the martial artist tense, the newcomer cried, "WAIT!"
Ranma froze, fear and anger burning in her sapphire eyes. Seeing she was still, the newcomer prostrated herself. "Ranma-sama, I did you a terrible injustice when we met months before. Please, I humbly beg your forgiveness."
Silence fell over the dining room as the others watched this curious tableau. Ranma looked first at the girl wearing Akane's face, and then she turned to Chikage. "Um, can you tell me what's going on here, Chikage?"
"That, Ane-kun, is a long story," the sorceress said.
* * *
"It is true, Young Master." A Kuromegane knelt before Mendou. "Ran-sama's ship has returned to her lot near the Moroboshi home."
Mendou Shuutarou sat back in his chair. "Why would she be allowed to come back to Earth? From what we learned, the United Nations was determined to ensure ALL aliens from Uru were to remain off-planet as long as the war . . . "
A telephone rang. Seconds later, another Kuromegane raced into the room. "Young Master! Ran-sama is calling!" he announced.
Mendou picked up his extension. "Moshi-moshi. Ran-san?!"
"Ohayou, Shuutarou. How are you today?"
Mendou blinked, his face paling as that familiar voice came back to him. "L-l-Lum-san?!" he stammered as he dropped to his knees in shocked disbelief.
* * *
"So your old owner was . . .?"
"Violated and murdered by her brother." The doll-turned-girl nodded, her eyes downcast. "Somehow -- I don't understand how -- I gained the ability to project my spirit into my beloved owner's body so that I could . . .!"
"Avenge her death?" Sakuya finished.
"And that's how you came to be known as the 'Noroi no Ningyou.'" Marie then shook her head. "That's just awful!"
"Why would her brother do something like that?" Mamoru asked.
Ranma shuddered. "I don't know, but I'll tell you this: If he was still alive and if I had the chance, I would've killed him!"
The others grimly nodded. "It's a good thing that Hinako-chan, Aria-chan and Kaho-chan aren't here to listen to this," Karen mused.
"Agreed. So every time someone did something improper before you, you felt compelled to redress such transgressions?" Haruka asked.
The newcomer nodded. "I did. Ranma-sama was the last 'infidel' I dealt with. Though at the time . . . " She glanced apologetically at Ranma. "I didn't realise that it was your father who provoked that incident."
"What did the jerk do that time?" Rinrin demanded.
"He stole a bottle of milk from me after coming out of the onsen," Ranma replied. "It was the last one they had there, too."
A chorus of groans flowed from the sisters. "That does not surprise Hime at all!" Shirayuki shook her head. "Not one bit!"
"Anee, you're smart to dump the jerk!" Mamoru stated.
"Agreed," Sakuya mused.
The front door opened and closed. "Tadaima!"
"BIG BROTHER!" the sisters cheered as Ataru stepped in. He carried a smiling Hinako piggyback, Aria and Kaho holding onto his arms.
"Got your spices, Shirayuki-chan," Ataru announced as he lowered Hinako down, and then he drew some bottles from his jacket. He noticed the newcomer beside Ranma. "Tendou-san, what . . .?" His eyes widened suddenly as his ki senses picked up something odd about her. "Wait! You're not . . .!"
"Um . . . no, she's not," Ranma explained. "You remember me telling you about that spirit-doll I bumped into some months back?"
Ataru nodded, gazing at this replica of Akane before he turned to Chikage. "I take it Onee-chan has something to do with this, too?"
The sorceress smiled. "Somewhat."
"Right . . . " he drawled.
"Waaai! Ningyou-san is a girl now!"
Everyone watched as Aria walked into the newcomer's embrace. She smiled as she drew the Parisian close. "I am grateful, Aria-sama," she whispered. "You gave me the ability to love and trust again. I am forever in your debt."
The others smiled, save one. "Aria-chan's awful!" Hinako crossed her arms. "Aria-chan got herself a new doll and she didn't tell Hina about it!"
Laughter filled the room. "I think the first thing we have to do is give our new friend a name to call her own," Chikage announced.
"I know!" Ranma spoke up. "Tendou Kimiko."
The doll-turned-girl gazed on Ranma. "'Kimiko?'"
"Sure. That's the name of Akane, Nabiki and Kasumi's mother. Besides, it's better than 'Hey, you!' or 'Ningyou-san.'" Ranma shrugged before leaning down to gaze into Aria's eyes. "After all, she's not a doll now, is she?"
Aria shook her head. "No, Kimiko-neeya isn't."
A blush crossed the newly named woman's cheeks on hearing Aria call her "big sister." "Then Kimiko I shall be. Aria-sama?"
"My old body is in your room. Promise me you'll take care of it?"
Aria nodded. "Hai, Aria promises!"
The Rinrin Viewer beeped. "Viewer on," Rinrin ordered as people looked at it. She then blinked on seeing the man appearing on the screen. "Oh, Reigi-san, ohayou!" she then called out. "Is there something wrong?!"
"Hi, everyone! Ataru-kun, we've got a problem," Yumoa Reigi warned.
Ataru tensed. "Being?"
Reigi explained. As the information sank in, the sisters moaned. They all knew of Lum's "friend," especially concerning the times Ran tried to seek out vengeance on Lum by targeting Ataru. They also knew of the problems Rei brought into their big brother's life. When Reigi was done, Ataru closed his eyes. "Damn! I thought they were going to make sure she didn't come back!"
"I don't understand it myself," Reigi admitted. "I'm trying to get someone to contact the SCAA and find out what's happening. Do you want me to call Brother Sunfire and get the Inquisition over here just in case?!"
Ataru sighed. He couldn't bludgeon even an idiot like Ran with the threat of the Holy Inquisition forever. Maybe a personal confrontation would make her see she had no place on Earth. "No, but have Brother Sunfire call the Inquisition anyway. If Ran's decided to come here, something must've happened to Rei. Let's find out what that's about before making decisions, okay?"
"Alright. I'm putting the clan's forces on alert just in case. I'll also call Negako and give her a head's up as well."
"Don't bother, man. She'll already know. Trust me!"
Reigi chuckled. "Yeah, you got a point."
Everyone laughed. Chikage moved to leave the dining room. "I take it you need help getting to Tomobiki, Ani-kun?" she asked.
Ataru nodded. "Definitely."
"Want some help?" Ranma asked.
"No. You don't know her like I do." He indicated Kimiko. "Besides, I think Kimiko-chan would like a chance to get re-acquainted with you."
Ranma glanced at Kimiko, who smiled back. "True."
* * *
Ataru and Chikage took the latter's travelling rainbow to Tomobiki. The sisters, Ranma and Kimiko watched them from the lawn in front of the rotunda. "Hina wishes Onii-tama would take everyone with him," Hinako lamented.
Hands squeezed her shoulders. "Hinako-sama, Ataru-sama is protecting you from those he feels present a grave threat to your general health and welfare," Kimiko told the youngest of the sisters. "Don't be angry at him."
Hinako blinked before turning around to hug Kimiko. "Still, the sooner he's finally finished with those jerks, the better." Sakuya then crossed her arms. "Especially the ones like Ran and Rei. Who gave people like them the right to think we're no different than a pack of monkeys?"
"They were that bad?" Ranma asked.
"Don't you know, Anee?" Mamoru wondered.
She shook his head. "Not really. Until I met Tampopo-chan, I only knew the general basics about all that went on in Tomobiki. Not that it wasn't really important in the grand scheme of things, but to me . . . "
"If it wasn't martial arts, it ultimately didn't matter?" Karen asked.
"Ranma, where did Ataru-kun and Chikage-chan go just now?"
Everyone turned. "Ah, Kumiko-san! Toshiko-san! Ohayou!" Karen greeted.
"Ohayou, everyone . . .!" Toshiko replied as the mirror-twins came up. Both then stopped on seeing the elegantly dressed Kimiko standing beside Ranma. "Ranma, what is SHE doing here?!" she snarled, her eyes flashing dangerously.
Kimiko winced at that hateful look, and then she moved to slip behind Ranma. "Relax," the latter declared. "Kimiko isn't Akane. She's the spirit of that antique doll I ran across sometime before I went to Mirror Mansion."
"Her body got cloned from Akane's by Negako-aneki," Rinrin added.
"I . . .!" Toshiko then chuckled. "Oh, I'm sorry! Um . . . " She then stopped. "Wait a second! If she's here, what does she want?"
A hand tugged Toshiko's arm. The crimson-haired mirror-twin looked into Aria's sorrowful face. "Toshiko-neeya, don't be mad at Kimiko-neeya. Kimiko-neeya likes Nee-ya very much. Toshiko-neeya should like Kimiko-neeya, too."
Toshiko shuddered -- even in her short time on Promised Island, she had learned the most important rule: DON'T make Aria upset and ESPECIALLY don't make Aria CRY! -- and then she relaxed. "It's alright, Aria-chan. I didn't mean to make you cry. I'm just concerned for Ranma's safety."
"That is something we all share." Kimiko lightly smiled before humming. "Speaking of which, there is something I'd like to do. With your permission of course, Ranma-sama?" She gazed in amusement on Ranma.
Ranma smirked. "Does that include beating the tar out of Oyaji?"
Kimiko's smile turned to pure ice. "What do you think?"
"Well, it's certainly rude to deny a lady a request, especially one such as that." Kumiko then walked over to tenderly grasp Kimiko's hand. "Kimiko-himesama, may my sister and I have the honour of escorting you to your duel against the honourless lout Ranma must call a father?"
Kimiko's cheeks reddened. Before she could reply, however, the ominous growl of an empty stomach made its own statement. "Ah! Hime thinks Kimiko-chan needs to have some breakfast first!" Shirayuki then declared.
Everyone else laughed.
* * *
The command car came to a halt before the gateway of Ran's property. The driver opened the door, saluting as Mendou Shuutarou disembarked. Beyond the gate, Ran's scoutship sat in its usual place, steam billowing from the retro-thrusters. The main gangway was deployed, ready to welcome visitors.
"Remain here," Mendou ordered.
The driver saluted again. "Hai!"
Mendou approached the ship, his heart turning over as his mind replayed the phone-call he received at the mansion. Lum was ALIVE. Yet she was without a body, her soul having somehow taken up residence in Ran's mind. How did that happen? Was there a way to restore Lum, allow her to live her own life? If so, what then? Would the United Nations allow Lum and Ran to remain this time?
What was going on?!
He spun to see a well-built, tomboyish woman, she possessing short cut, dark brown hair and milk-chocolate eyes, gazing at him. She was dressed in a black martial arts gi, a black belt wrapped around her waist. On the end of the belt was stitched the kanji CHI. Gazing into her eyes, Mendou was quickly reminded of Moroboshi Ataru. The similarity was striking. Who was this . . .?
"Negako-san? Is that you?"
Mendou turned as someone appeared at the top of the gangway. At first, he thought he saw the long, flowing green hair and twin horn-buds that had haunted his fantasies for nearly two years. Yet, though she spoke with Lum's voice, the body was Ran's. "Lum-san . . .?" he hesitantly ventured.
Negako walked past Mendou, she stopping at the bottom of the stairwell. "Welcome back, Lum, Ran. It seems you both are in quite a spot of trouble."
Ran descended, she gazing into the other woman's eyes. Then, to Mendou's surprise, Ran leaned into Negako, wrapping her arms around the latter. Negako seemed to think about it before returning the hug. "Where's Darling, Negako-san?" Ran wondered, her voice strongly tinged with Lum's accent.
"Ataru is not here, but he will come in the next several minutes. He has been told of Ran's return. I dare say he will be as shocked as Shuutarou is about your present state of joint-ness," Negako said. "Much has changed, Lum."
Ran pulled back, a hurt look crossing her face. "How bad . . .?"
Everyone turned to see a crowd at the gate. Shinobu, Ryuunosuke, Sakura, Cherry, Kotatsuneko. "Hi!" Ran's voice returned to normal as she waved. "I'm back!" She stopped before her voice shifted. "Er . . . rather, WE'RE back."
Ryuunosuke's jaw dropped. "Wha- . . .?!"
Sakura approached, drawing her spirit-sensor as she waved it before Ran. The vanes rustled, causing the priestess to pause. "I see." She nodded. "The gods truly must have a strange sense of humour. Welcome back to Earth, Lum."
"Um, Sakura-sensei, that's Ran . . .!" Shinobu protested.
"With Lum's spirit within her as well, Shinobu," Sakura amended before she sighed, turning to Mendou. "Given Monday's events, we should move this discussion to a more secure location. Your estate is the best place."
"But of course, Sakura-sensei." Mendou bowed, grinning, and then he turned to Ran, offering his arm. "Lum-san . . . er, Ran-san!"
Ran wrapped an arm around Negako's. "No offence, but we feel a lot safer around Negako-san here than anyone else," Ran/Lum said.
The ninjutsu grandmaster nodded. "If you insi- . . . "
Everyone turned as Cherry and Sakura, they both alerted to Negako's nature by their spiritual training, lunged at her, beads and spirit-sensor out to battle this -- in the clerics' eyes -- ultimate enemy of humankind. Before they could get close, someone dived at them from out of the sun. The attacker's feet caught the monk and the priestess in their necks, sending them to kiss the walkway! Everyone jolted, turning away for a split-second. Then on looking back, they gaped on seeing that it was Ataru who just intercepted them! "Darling!" Ran gasped, her voice a melodic blend of hers and Lum's.
Ataru stepped off Cherry and Sakura before gazing at the clerics who had been the bane of his life since the day he and Lum were "engaged." "Regardless if she is a thousand years old, she is STILL my sister! Got me, dorks?!" He winked before a pink-haired typhoon slammed into him. "He- . . . wwhoulf!"
"DARLING!" Ran, speaking clearly with Lum's voice, sobbed as she showered Ataru with a rainstorm of kisses. "Oh, Darling! I knew you'd come!"
Ataru grunted. Then, after tapping places on the alien's body to loosen the barnacle-tight glomp holding him down, he shoved Ran away. "Lum, would you MIND, please?! I'd like to breathe, you know!" he panted, feeling his chest.
Everyone save Ataru, Negako and Mendou hit the deck. The latter was frozen, stunned beyond belief after seeing his katana literally EXPLODE in his face after Ataru tapped it with the Heart Blast Touch. "DARLING!" Ran/Lum gasped. She then breathed out on seeing Mendou was okay. "Darling, be careful when you do that!" she then scolded. "You could've taken his head off!"
"I was tempted to do that," he said to the alien teen before gazing into Mendou's face. "Next time, Sword-for-brains, I aim for your head! Got me?!"
"H-h-h-hai . . . " the scion of the Mendou clan stammered.
He fainted. Ataru glanced at him before turning to look at Shinobu and Ryuunosuke. "If it hasn't sunk into your heads by now, let this be a warning: The game has CHANGED. I'm in NO MOOD to put up to all the garbage! Okay?!"
They fearfully nodded, wondering what sort of trick Ataru might decide to pull out of his hat next. "Darling!" Ran/Lum huffed. "Honestly! They're not like those dorks you had to live with all your life! Stop picking on them!"
Ataru sighed before turning to look at her. The possessed alien teen blinked. Then, on seeing the pain flashing deep in his brown eyes, she paled. "Wha- . . .!" She covered her mouth, her eyes widening. "What happened?!"
"It's a very long story," Ataru flatly announced.
* * *
The sisters were gathered around the telephone by the kitchen to hear the update from Negako. Kimiko was finishing breakfast in the dining room. Ranma was in her room making arrangements to purchase clothes and other items for the latest person to come to Promised Island. "Are you sure, Aneki?!" Rinrin demanded. She then blinked as the answer came. "Oh, man!" she gasped. "How'd that happen?!" A longer pause. "Okay, I got you. Thanks for telling us." Another pause. "Hai, I'll pass it on to Ranma-aneki. Right, 'bye!"
She hung up. "So who else came back?!" Kaho demanded.
"Lum did."
"But . . .!" Karen blinked confusedly. "Lum's dead! Isn't she . . .?!"
Rinrin shook her head. "Somehow, Lum's spirit got sucked into Ran's head. And since the Noukiites would LOVE to get their hands on Lum, they had no choice but to come to Earth. Anyhow, I'm going to tell Aneki, okay?"
The others nodded as the Island's resident super-genius headed up to Ranma's room. Knocking on the door, she called out, "Aneki?"
"C'mon in, Rinrin," Ranma called back.
Rinrin stepped in. Toshiko was now pocketing a bankbook. "We'll make sure the panda doesn't take advantage of Kimiko-chan," she assured her sibling.
"Great," Ranma replied with a nod. "Be careful, okay?"
"We'll be fine," Kumiko vowed.
The mirror-twins then headed out. Rinrin walked up to place a warm hand on Ranma's shoulder. "Lum's come back too, Aneki," she announced.
Ranma blinked as she took that in before she sighed. "Well, isn't that crazy?" she mused. "Shit, you'd think that I'd be used to weird things happening around my friends, especially with the crap I've been through. But that . . .?" She whistled before staring at Rinrin. "How?"
Rinrin explained, finishing with, "I hope Lum won't end up making things worse, like making Aniki stay in Tomobiki. That's where all Federation aliens stay when they live on Earth. It's been that way since the first Tag Race."
Silence fell as they stared out the windows. Ranma took a deep breath. "Do you think he'll go back to her, Rinrin?" she asked.
Rinrin stared down at the martial artist. "Aneki?"
"Do you think Ataru would go back to Lum?"
She considered that, and then she shook her head. "Nah! I don't think so. I mean, were this before Aniki went to Sanctuary the last time, Lum would have a chance. But too much has changed now. WAY too much. I've noticed it. We all have. Something really hurt Aniki when he went there." She then asked, "What did Aniki tell you about that? Did he say anything?"
Ranma shuddered. "Three billion . . . "
She started. Ranma then noticed Rinrin gazing quizzically at her. Catching herself, the martial artist took a deep breath before gently squeezing her visitor's hand. "I can't say anything about it now, Rinrin-chan. Gomen."
Rinrin blinked before nodding understandingly.
* * *
Everyone winced as Sakura railed at Ataru, she gesturing as she waved her spirit-sensor in Negako's direction. The ninjutsu grandmaster, standing near Ran, had a bemused expression on her face. Nearby, Cherry was performing every exorcism spell he knew to remove the Saikoo Jinseijitsu from Negako's body. He didn't realise, of course, that if he actually succeeded, he would kill her since she was the only spirit inhabiting that body. Ran watched the nurse/priestess scream at Ataru. Within the possessed alien, Lum seethed. She was tempted to find the biggest book she could, and then drop it on Sakura's head to make her stop shouting at Darling. Seated across from Ataru in one of the sitting rooms on the Mendou estate, Mendou, Shinobu and Ryuunosuke listened in, they trying to understand what Sakura was so nervous about.
And Ataru . . .?
He almost looked ready to go to sleep.
After Sakura lost her voice for a second, Ataru stifled a yawn, he reclining back in his chair. "Are you finished now?" he then asked.
Sakura balked. Shuddering, she swung back her spirit-sensor to knock some sense into him. Wrong move. His hand caught her wrist, and then he sent it into HER head. "Ataru-kun!" Shinobu gasped as Sakura dropped to the floor.
He sighed, a finger going into his ear. "I'm sorry, but she gave me a nice earache from all that verbal diarrhoea," he explained before glancing at Ran. "Right now, the priority is getting Lum a body of her own . . . "
"I am attempting to do that, lad!" Cherry announced, drawing out some incense to scatter over Negako. "As soon as this dark ka- . . .!"
A vase smashed into the monk's jaw, sending him sprawling on the floor. Negako caught it before it crashed into the floor, and then she tossed it back to Ataru. "Moroboshi!" Mendou snapped. "That's a priceless Ming . . .!"
"It is a fake."
Mendou stopped, spinning on Negako. "What did you say?"
"It was created twenty years ago," she reported. "I have seen REAL Míng Dynasty vases, Shuutarou. I know what I speak of. THAT is not real."
"Well, it was good enough to shut THAT fake up." Ataru pointed at a dazed Cherry before he placed the vase back where he found it.
"Amen to that!" Ran muttered, the Seishin teen once again in control of her body. "All his muttering and moaning was giving ME an earache!"
Shinobu and Ryuunosuke exchanged a look. The former then marched up to Ataru. "What's going on here?!" she then demanded. "If Sakura-sensei and Cherry have problems with her, why aren't you listening to them, Ataru-kun?!"
She indicated Negako. "Why is it you care, Miyake-san?" Ataru asked as his eyebrow arched, and then he gazed at Ryuunosuke. "Much less you, Fujinami-san? Why do you care about what happens to me, much less anyone around me?"
"I . . . " Shinobu blinked, her eyes widening. That was the second time EVER that Ataru had addressed her, much less Ryuunosuke, so formally; the first time was yesterday afternoon after the memorial service for Monday's bombing victims. Before that, it had always been "Shinobu-chan" and "Ryuu-chan" even when both girls were pounding him into the ground for some idiot act or another. "I . . . " she started again before her voice caught in her throat. "I've always cared for you, Ataru-kun!" she then declared.
Ataru gazed at her. Shinobu shuddered. He had NEVER looked at her like THAT in the years she had known him. It was the look of someone who had gained much wisdom, but had been forced to pay a hideous price for that wisdom. He blinked before gazing at Ryuunosuke. That act caused the tomboy to tense. Ataru then stared at Ran. Only then did his look soften. He stepped away from Shinobu, and then took a breath. "You'll forgive me, Miyake-san . . . " He gazed once more at her. "For not accepting that explanation at all."
Shinobu blinked, blinked again, and then she staggered as if Ataru just slapped her. "Wh-why . . .?" she rasped, eyes tearing.
"Why?" He looked away before taking a deep breath. "Not long ago -- for me, that is -- I managed to visit a planet that Lum-san and Ran-san both know of." He gazed on Ran. "A planet that reminded me a LOT of Tomobiki here. Oh, yeah!" He then started to pace around the coffee table in the middle of the room. "Especially, Lum, when it comes to how they look on you."
The alien blinked, and then she paled. "You went to Phentax Two?"
"Yeah, I did! Boy, was THAT a load of laughs! Oh, what do they call you, Ran? The 'Sinful Doubter,' I believe? The same title they give Shinobu!" He waved to Shinobu before turning to Ryuunosuke. "You, Ryuunosuke, are just a 'Holy Friend,' I'm afraid, just like these two fakes yonder." He pointed to Cherry and Sakura, and then he turned to Mendou. "But YOU, my dear sir! You are just going to LOVE what they call you. Oh, what was it again?! Ah, yeah! The 'Fifth Holy Apostle to the Goddess Lum!' You see, Satoshi is -- pardon me, WAS -- the 'First' Apostle. Then Hiroyuki, Koosuke and Akira. I don't know which way. I guess it was ordered by whoever met the 'Goddess' first.
"You really want to know something, Shuutarou?" He then looked directly into his rival's eyes. "It turns out that the President of the Niphentaxian Union, a guy named Oogi, admired you SO much, he actually went and got COSMETIC SURGERY to turn himself into a NEAR-DOUBLE of you!" Seeing Mendou's eyes widen, Ataru smirked as he leaned closer. "You might say, ol' boy, I was actually pretty impressed by his devotion. And . . . " The humour vanished from his eyes as he added, "I took great pleasure in killing him."
"What . . .?" Shinobu gasped.
Ataru shrugged. "Why not? After all, we know how proud our friend is here." He waved to Mendou. "He wouldn't TOLERATE such an INSULT on his very IMAGE! He confirmed it when Rei came to have a mid-morning snack in class one day. 'Man is Face!' Remember that?!" He stared at Mendou. "Well, since I was sure that you wouldn't really want this guy to run around with your looks, I decided to do it the old-fashioned samurai way and took his head off with one clean blow from my grandfather's sword. Quite painless, I assure you. 'S funny." He sighed as a contemplative look crossed his face. "Folks on Phentax Two would write then that Oogi was a martyr in Lum's service. He died for his faith. Just like Satoshi, Koosuke, Hiroyuki and Akira could be said to have died for their 'faith' on Monday morning. Jeez! That is something, isn't it?"
"Ataru-kun . . . " Shinobu whispered.
"What can I say?" He moved towards her. "I AM the 'Great Evil,' after all. Everything I've done, as they see it, was against the Goddess' wishes. Since I wasn't just going to lie down and let Lum take control of my life, I was doing evil. She IS the Goddess, after all. And all of you loved and cared for her, so that means you were ALWAYS right and I was ALWAYS wrong!" He pointed to Shinobu, and then himself. "Even a 'sinful doubter' like you and Ran were more inclined to support Lum than me. It said it in the Book itself."
Ran blanched. "You read it . . .?" Lum's voice nearly broke.
"From front to back." Ataru reached into his top to draw out a velvet-lined book about the size of the average hotel-room Bible. On it was THE BOOK OF LUM. "Whoo! I gotta admit that I've never been insulted to my face like I'm insulted here!" He opened it to the index. "Here we are. The Books of the Holy Apostles. The Book of Jariten. The Books of the Holy Friends. Benten, Oyuki, Nassur . . . " He shook his head. "I haven't met him yet, but from what I've heard, I might not want to meet him. Let's see . . . ah! The book of Cherry. The Book of Sakura. The Book of Ryuunosuke. No book of Rei. The Books of the Sinful Doubters, Ran and Shinobu. They're in the back . . . "
"So where's your book?!" Ryuunosuke wondered, inwardly asking herself when Rod Serling was going to show up and tell them all that they had just taken a trip into the Twilight Zone. "I know you keep a diary of your own."
"Well . . . " Ataru sighed. "You gotta remember. I'm the Great Evil. Who in their right mind would allow the words of a DEVIL to get into their holy text?! I mean, do you see Satan's writings in the Bible?" He gazed at Shinobu. "Also, after I discovered Lum's habit of using her spacializers to jump ahead in time to read my diary, I decided the smart thing to do was to keep the diary at Tampopo's and leave a FAKE in the open to distract Lum so I can have at least SOME privacy with my thoughts. Tampopo's was the one place in Tomobiki where Lum knew she wasn't welcome. I guess getting brained by her spatula finally made her realise I was entitled to some time to myself.
"Of course, it says here . . . " He pointed to the Book of Lum before flipping it open to a section near the start. "The fact that she did THAT to the Goddess made the Niphentaxians call her 'the Great Evil's Most Powerful and Loyal.' Wonder what they meant by calling Tampopo-chan THAT?! Anyhow . . . 'So villainous in her contempt of the Blessed Goddess, so passionate in defending the Vile One within the bounds of her dark establishment, that . . . ' -- this is Satoshi writing, by the way -- 'I can but pray that the One Above even the Most Holy of Holies . . . ' -- that's another way of addressing Lum, I believe -- 'Will strike the Beast down with Divine Retribution.'"
He put the Book on a table. "Darling . . . " Ran/Lum pleaded, hoping to turn him away from WHATEVER madness he was charging into. "Please! You've got to believe me! You can't accept what those monsters say as the truth!"
"Well, then, what the hell was I SUPPOSED to accept, Lum?!" he snapped.
"Lum, why have you never told us about these people?" Shinobu asked.
Ran/Lum shuddered before looking down. "I hate them . . . "
"Yeah." Ataru gazed at Shinobu. "You see, Shinobu, five years ago, some dictator somewhere -- Vos, was it? -- decided he was going to assassinate Lum and her family as an example to one of his enemies. Matter of fact, I think it might've been Nassur he was trying to send a 'message' to. Oogi got wind of it. Being the faithful man he is, he turned around and DID something! Wanna know what he did?! He sent an interplanetary ballistic missile to this place's capital city. It was laden with a stew of stuff. Um, let's see . . . " He hummed. "Oh, yeah! There was anthrax, influenza, hepatitis, Hifuto syndrome -- that's the outer-space version of Ebola, I think -- plus lead oxide dust. Vosians, you see, are VERY vulnerable to lead. And, well, the missile hit the city . . . " Ataru leaned close to Shinobu. "And five million people died."
"Five million . . .?" Shinobu hoarsely exclaimed.
"Yeah." Ataru waved his hand before his face. "You know, I wonder what the smell must've been like in Lecashuto. All those dead and decaying bodies. The old, the young, all the people in between, what animals might've died . . .! Whoo, that must've been ripe!" He then glanced at Ran, all emotion draining from his eyes. "But not, I believe, as ripe as what I smelled on Okusei. And Tunchusei. And Kurrusei. And Noukiios itself."
Ran turned sheet-white. "You went to . . .?"
"Hai. My trip to Phentax Two was informative. But I'm sure you'll agree with me that going to the Dominion and seeing how much your people FUCKED them over -- well, that was MORE informative." He shook his head as he glared Ran down. "You people. You just couldn't swallow your pride. You took advantage of a culture FIVE times older than yours in a moment of weakness, and THEN you subjugated them for a CENTURY on their own planet! THEN, when they threw you off, you just couldn't stand the FACT that they rejected the GREAT Oni Empire for . . . " He gasped in exaggeration, clapping his cheeks. "Horrors! Their OWN way of governing?! Not for ONCE accepting what the 'smarter' Onis taught them in their century of so-called 'benevolent rule?!' How TERRIBLE!" He then pointed an accusing finger at her. "So you tried to starve them out! And you slapped on who knows what sort of trade sanctions to force them to give up those colony planets -- which were Noukiios' BY RIGHT OF TREATY, by the way! -- and even persuaded your friends in the Galactic Federation that the Noukiites were the bad guys, no different than the Ipraedies or the Seifukusu themselves!
"And you WONDER why is it they finally decided to lash back at you when they finally got the chance?!" he snarled. "You WONDER why they decided to detonate an anti-matter bomb in the middle of Onishuto to wipe out your leaders?! You WONDER why ALL the citizens' militias on Machibusu and elsewhere are being slaughtered wholesale, even the CHILDREN?!"
Everyone stared dumbstruck at Ataru. Ran -- or was it Lum? -- tried to say SOMETHING to counter what he just revealed. Ataru blinked before taking on that detached look as he backed away from her. "Well, what do you really care? You showed you were no better than the rest of your people at the Second Tag Race, you and the floozy airhead whose body you're borrowing. And you now wonder why is it someone in the Middle East decided to issue a fatwa that demanded you DIE for what happened in that garbage with the space-taxi all those months ago?! The fatwa that saw four guys who loved you DIE?! The fatwa that killed Ryuunosuke's dad and Nagisa, not to mention two others . . . "
"And your parents."
Ataru turned on Shinobu. She jolted, sensing a cyclone of rage appear in his eyes. She found herself rooted in place, realising she just said something VERY stupid. He stared at her before his face softened. "Yeah. Them, too." He turned to Ryuunosuke, his eyebrow arching. "You want to know why I came on Monday to help out with the mess Ibrahim-san made? You really want to know?"
"W-well . . . " the tomboy stammered, shrugging. "Um, yeah! Sure!"
He gave her an "Aw, shucks!" gesture. "I guess I disappointed you. After all, if I didn't show up, you would've AUTOMATICALLY turned around and blamed that on ME. Just like you've blamed EVERYTHING ELSE on me, too! It says it right in the Book, there." He pointed to the Book of Lum. "I figured that if I did show up, use the skills Onee-chan taught me . . . " He waved at Negako. "Then you wouldn't blame me. Oh!" He then shook his head. "How stupid I was! You don't want to blame yourselves. It's not Tomobiki's way. It's always gotta be MY fault! Well, then . . . " He shrugged. "Knowing you guys, you'll probably get around to putting the blame on me sooner or later."
He walked towards the door, Negako moving to follow. The others watched him go, rooted in place. Ataru stopped, turning to stare at them. "If, on the VERY rare chance you decide I don't deserve blame for what happened, don't come looking for me to apologise. I won't accept it. You'll be turned away every time by whatever force is needed. For you see, I am now of the opinion that the sooner you all DIE, the sooner EVERYONE in this hellhole DIES, the better off the human race will be." His eyes fell on Ran, narrowing.
"Especially you, Lum."
"Darling . . . "
"Let's go, Onee-chan."
They walked out, the doors closing behind them. Mendou raced to pursue. Flinging open the doors, he stopped on seeing nothing but the outer atrium of the Mendou mansion, no sign that Ataru or Negako had been there. "Gone . . . "
Twin screams of heart-shattering pain then diverted his attention back as Ran and Shinobu collapsed to their knees, wailing as the finality of what just happened sank in. Ryuunosuke and Mendou moved to comfort. Sakura stared at the place Ataru had just been before turning to look on Cherry. "What could have happened to make him be like THAT, Uncle?!" she wondered.
"I cannot begin to guess, my niece." He shook his head, and then lowered his eyes. "But even if he would reject it, we must pray for him."
* * *
"Mistress . . . "
"Ye gods!" Mendou Ryooko gasped as Ataru's harsh words echoed again and again through her mind. She had heard everything that had been in the sitting room thanks to a Kuroko who had a portable microphone/receiver attached to a transmitter that had beamed those words straight into her study. "Moroboshi-sama, what's happened to you?" she wondered as she sank into her chair.
"Your orders, Mistress?" a Kuroko gently inquired.
She considered that, and then she breathed out, "As soon as possible, I wish to see that book Moroboshi-sama mentioned." Disbelief flashed across her face as the true meat of Ataru's words roiled deep in her mind. "Imagine that!" she exclaimed. "A RELIGION based on things Onii-san, Lum-san's friends and others wrote about her?! And they believed so much in it that they were willing to slaughter five million people just to protect their 'goddess?!'"
"Truly disturbing, Mistress," another Kuroko noted.
"We shall retrieve the Book of Lum immediately," the first vowed.
"Thank you," Ryooko acknowledged that with a nod.
* * *
"So where the hell did you go, Negako-san?"
Negako glanced at Nabiki, Akane and Chigaiko. She had been teleported back to the old shrine in Nerima a minute before. "There was a matter in Tomobiki that required my attention," she stated, and then her eyes fixed on the Tomobiki native. "If you desire to know, Chigaiko, Ran has returned."
Chigaiko's eyes narrowed. "What the hell is THAT bitch doing here?! I thought the United Nations made sure they'd never come back!"
"Who IS Ran, anyway?" Akane asked.
"Aruka Ran. A former classmate of Lum's," Nabiki automatically provided; this was information Marubeya Momoe had given her long ago. "Acts like Miss Sweet-and-Nice most of the time, but she's got a mean streak a kilometre wide and she loves using bazookas and doll-bombs. Don't know why, but she came to Earth originally to seek revenge on Lum. I also know that one of the ways she loved to antagonize Lum was to flirt with Ataru-kun."
"I doubt she will be as much a 'pain' as she was before, Nabiki," Negako reported. Seeing Nabiki gaze curiously at her, she added, "Rei is dead."
Akane stared at Nabiki. "Who's Rei?"
"Seq Rei, Lum's old boyfriend. He later came to be very close to Ran," the middle Tendou daughter explained. "He was even more gorgeous than Kunou-chan, but dumber than a brick. He was a metamorph, too; turned into a tiger-striped bull as big as a pick-up truck. Even more, he had an appetite that put Ranma-kun's AND his father's TOGETHER to shame."
Akane weakly nodded. "Oh!" Someone whose appetite was bigger than Ranma's AND Genma's put together?! She boggled. Impossible!
Chigaiko shook her head, crossing her arms. "All the food vendors in Tomobiki will jump for joy on hearing that one."
Akane stared at her. "You really don't like them, do you?"
"Nope. And . . . " Chigaiko took a deep breath before she shrugged. "I really don't know, Akane-san. I wish they'd be gone forever from our lives, but I wouldn't wish them dead. What's going to happen to Ran, Negako-san?"
"Since she clearly has no home on Uru, Ran could be accorded war refugee status on Earth," Negako explained. "She will be denied the chance to access elements of Urusian technology. The Special Committee on Alien Activities can assist, as can the Holy Inquisition of Zephyrus. Since Ran could easily pass as a normal Terran girl if she had to, the disguise is further enhanced."
Chigaiko tensed. "Would she think of going after Ataru-kun?"
"No. With Lum dead, Ran's need for revenge is nullified. Further, Ran's grief at Rei's death is too overwhelming to allow her to seek Ataru. Even if he learned of the level of abuse Ran's mother unleashed on her when she was a child, I do not believe he would desire to have anything more to do with her."
"Not that what Ani-kun told those fools in Tomobiki wouldn't deter her enough. Eh, Ane-kun?" a voice echoed from the shadows.
Chigaiko and the Tendou sisters screamed out, they spinning around as the shadows melted into a purple-haired girl dressed in dark clothes, a white cape draped over her shoulders. "Was it difficult, Chikage?" Negako asked.
"Not really." The newcomer held up several spheroid devices, each pierced by a pointed cross-like weapon shaped like the crosses on her cape. "From what I could tell, the grounds were littered with these things. I only retrieved those in the room where you and Ani-kun met the others, plus those in the surrounding rooms. Who placed them there in the first place, Ane-kun?"
"A group of people who do not like Ataru," Negako replied.
* * *
"Yes, sir," the technician reported. "I tried to tap into our listening devices at the Fifth Holy Apostle's mansion in hopes of hearing what the Great Evil and his companion had to say to the Holy Company, but . . . " He waved helplessly at the readout on the screen. "The devices in the Fifth Apostle's private atrium went off-line as soon as they arrived!"
Blinking, the senior officer then sighed. "How's that possible?"
The technician shook his head. "I can't say, sir."
* * *
A knock. "Nii-sama, are you there? Nii-sama?"
The door opened, revealing Shirayuki. She looked in to see Ataru on his bed; he had returned to the Island fifteen minutes before. He was gazing out the window, a lost look on his face. Tears glistened in his eyes. The chef walked in to place a hand on his shoulder. "What's wrong?! Are you okay?!"
Ataru started before staring quizzically at his sister. A hand absently slipped up to give hers a thankful squeeze. "Y-yeah, I'm okay," he assured her before turning to gaze out the window again. "Is lunch ready, Shirayuki-chan?"
"I . . . " Shirayuki blinked, a chill racing through her. "In about an hour or so, Nii-sama. Do you want some tea?" she then asked.
He looked at her with a wan smile. "Yeah, that'd be nice. Thanks."
She withdrew, closing the door behind her. Turning around, Shirayuki nearly leapt out of her dress on seeing Yotsuba standing there, an intent look on the detective's face. "What's with Ani-chama?" Yotsuba demanded.
Taking several breaths to calm down, Shirayuki then glared at Yotsuba. "Yotsuba-chan, stop doing that to Hime!" she snapped.
"What's going on?"
Both turned to see Ranma standing by the doors to the dining room. "Oh, Nee-sama! There you are!" Shirayuki called out as she walked up to her. "Will you PLEASE have a talk with Nii-sama? Something's really bothering him!"
Seeing the panic in her eyes, Ranma placed her hands on the chef's shoulders. "Okay, I'll look in on him, Shirayuki-chan."
"Oh! Arigatou desu no, Nee-sama!"
"And YOU!" Ranma spun on Yotsuba, pointing a warning finger her way. "Don't you DARE eavesdrop on us! Got me?!"
The detective rapidly nodded. "H-h-hai!"
Ranma walked past them to Ataru's room. Shirayuki and Yotsuba watched her, and then the former grabbed the latter's arm. "C'mon!" she called out as she pulled Yotsuba towards the kitchen. "You can help Hime in the kitchen!"
"Hey!" Yotsuba yelped as she was dragged off.
* * *
Ranma walked into Ataru's bedroom. She stopped on seeing him sitting on his bed. She gazed on him a moment before striding over. As he turned to look at her, her hand lashed out to slam into his cheek, the blow nearly sending him into the wall. "YOU IDIOT!" she snapped as he collapsed, and then she grabbed him by the collar to yank him up. "What's the hell's wrong with you?!"
He stared at her, and then his head drooped, tears streaming down his cheeks. The hot flash of anger that just exploded from Ranma's heart quickly faded. She lowered him to the bed. "Ataru, please! I'm sorry, but will you freakin' WAKE UP and see what you're doing to your own FAMILY?!" She shook his shoulders before kneeling in front of him. "Ataru, what . . .?"
Her voice halted on seeing the helpless look cross his face. "I have no choice, Ranma . . . " escaped from his lips. "I'm trapped . . . "
"Trapped?!" she demanded. "How?"
He wiped his eyes. "I . . . " He looked at his hands. "I didn't know what to do . . .! I just didn't know what to do . . .! Onee-chan got there before me. Sakura and Cherry freaked out when they sensed what Onee-chan was. I dropped them both, and then Lum nearly broke my back when she hugged me. I pried her off. Mendou went crazy, so I blew up his damned sword and I . . . "
His voice faded as a whimper escaped him. Ranma stared at him. Shifting herself onto the bed, she drew him close. As muffled sobs escaped from him, she reached up to gently stroke his hair. "You hate them, don't you?"
A minute passed before he pulled away to gaze into her eyes. "I really don't know what to feel about them now, Ranma," he admitted, turning away from her. Slowly rising, he walked to the window to stare outside. "On the one hand, I . . . I know I did a lot of stupid things when I was living in Tomobiki. I can accept that, Ranma. I really can. But . . . " He quaked before turning back to her. "I got there and they started laying into me about Onee-chan and . . . and I . . . " He lowered his head, looking away.
"Did they all do that to you?"
"No, no . . . " He shook his head. "It was just Sakura and Cherry. And deep down, I understand why. They . . . " He bit his lip. "They know most of the story behind the Saikoo Jinseijitsu, but they never knew what happened five years ago. Instant they learned, Sakura went on a bend, wondering if I'd totally lost my mind letting Onee-chan free out of my head to live her own life. And there's Cherry trying to 'exorcise' Onee-chan's spirit out of her body. Shinobu was wondering why I wasn't listening to Sakura and . . . "
He threw up his hands. Ranma slowly nodded. "You cut loose on them?"
"Oh, yeah. That I did." Ataru wryly chuckled as he leaned his head on the window. "I told them about the Niphentaxians. I told them about what I saw on Noukiios and elsewhere. Tore into Lum, tore into Ran, tore into every last one of them. And then . . . " He sniffed before a pained chuckle escaped him. "I told them that I wanted them all to die, to stay out of my life. And just when Chikage teleported Onee-chan and I out of there, I heard Lum and Shinobu scream out . . . " He squeezed his eyes shut. "Damn me . . . "
Silence fell as Ataru walked back to the bed. Sitting, he reached into his nightstand to draw out some tissue. "Why?" Ranma asked.
He shrugged. "I don't know. I . . . " He paused before sighing, gazing at the door to his bedroom. "It was because of them, I guess."
"The sisters?"
"Yeah." He sucked in his breath before staring once more at her. "I don't want to lose them, Ranma. I never, EVER, in a million years want to lose them. But . . . " He looked away. "I'm afraid, Ranma. I really am . . . "
She reached over to squeeze his shoulders. "That the folks in Tomobiki are gonna do something to make the girls turn away from you?"
He slowly nodded. "Yeah. And what's worse, it's . . . " He took in another deep breath. "It's Lum, Ranma. If Lum wasn't involved in this, I wouldn't be so scared. At least, I hope to hell I wouldn't be so scared. But . . . " He shuddered. "Even as she is now, without her own body, stuck in the back of Ran's mind . . . what does she want, Ranma? Does she still want to be with me? If that happens to us, what about the girls? We . . . "
He buried his face in his hands, a moan drifting through his fingers. She gazed on him before moving to draw him once more into her arms. They remained in place for a few minutes, and then Ranma reached up to draw his hands away from his face. "Ataru? Do you still love Lum?"
Ataru sighed, shaking his head. "Not anymore."
"So you're afraid she'll press you like she did before, right? Do anything she can to make you come back to her, right?"
He slowly nodded. "Yeah."
Ranma considered that. "I can see why you're scared."
He nodded again. "Yeah. The last few weeks . . . especially the week before I met you . . . " A pause. "Well, it was more than just a week to me. I went to a place called 'Sanctuary.' It's a space-time nexus, where the normal rules of time don't apply. I . . . " He took a breath, wiping his eyes with the palm of his hand. "I lost track of the time I stayed there. It was . . . " Another pause. "A while, I confess." A wry chuckle. "And while I was there, I learned things. About me, about Lum and her people, about Grandma. And I . . . " He squeezed his eyes shut. "I don't know what to do now, Ranma. What do I say to them?" He nodded to the doorway. "What do I keep quiet about? This . . . oh, gods! It's so damned complicated! It's . . . "
His voice failed, and then he leaned his forehead into his hands. She gazed on him before breathing out, "You gotta tell someone. And if this affects the girls, you HAVE to tell them everything," she whispered, reaching over to squeeze his shoulder. "Look, if you're uncomfortable telling them some things, tell ME about it. Maybe I can help you deal with them. Please?"
Silence fell as he considered that, and then he looked up at her. His mouth twitched slightly into a smile. "I did tell you the worst of it," he admitted. "But . . . it's a matter of degrees, isn't it?" he then asked.
"I'm not going anywhere," she vowed.
* * *
Akane jolted on hearing Negako's voice. Pausing for a moment to bring herself down from the adrenaline high sparring gave her, she lowered her arms, a deep breath escaping her as Nabiki took a step back. Watching the sisters relax, the ninjutsu grandmaster stepped up to stand between them. "You need to work harder on controlling your temper." Negako gazed clinically at Akane. "Allowing your emotions to influence your actions, especially in a battle situation, can guarantee you a very quick defeat. Remember that."
"H-h-hai," Akane stuttered, her head bobbing in acknowledgement.
Negako turned to the middle Tendou daughter. "Refrain from employing what demonstration katas you designed in a free spar. It makes you predictable in the long term. That is a habit that hurt you in the past. Understood?"
Realising she was referring to the incident five years before that initially forced her out of martial arts, Nabiki nodded. "Hai, I understand."
The front gate then opened, causing them to turn and look. "Is this the place?" a familiar voice heralded the arrival of Hiroshi. He then noticed who was standing on the lawn. "Hey! This must be the place!" He pushed the door open further, allowing Daisuke, Sayuri and Yuka to follow him inside.
Akane beamed on seeing her friends. "Hi, everyone!"
The new arrivals boggled on seeing Akane whole and intact from what Ranma did to her. "Akane-chan, what happened?!" Sayuri cried, jogging over to give Akane's once-broken arm an inspection. "How'd you get the cast off so fast?!"
"Thanks to Negako-san." Akane waved to the ninjutsu grandmaster.
She proceeded to do introductions. Daisuke and Hiroshi both perked on remembering to whom Negako was related to. "You're Ataru-kun's sister?!" The former shifted to give their host a close inspection. "So we hear he might be coming to Fuurinkan next week! Does he still have those black bo- . . . urk!"
He dropped to the ground thanks to a punch from Sayuri. "Ataru no longer possesses his collection of notes concerning his acquaintances from Tomobiki," Negako replied. "He burned them shortly after he departed Tomobiki."
Nabiki blinked, stunned to hear THIS titbit about Ataru. "Why?!"
Negako lightly shrugged. "He had his reasons, Nabiki. One of them is that the girls of Tomobiki no longer gave him any emotional satisfaction, even the ones said to have been 'very close' to him such as Miyake Shinobu." Sensing Chigaiko step out of the old shrine with a pitcher of ice tea and some glasses, the grandmaster moved to make the Tomobiki native's presence known. "As a matter of fact, the only person from Tomobiki whom Ataru likes without reservation is Chigaiko here. Like he, Chigaiko wisely chose to move out of Tomobiki when the opportunity presented itself." She glanced at Ataru's old classmate, who blushed in return, before performing introductions.
Everyone then headed into the living room. "How come you're using an old shrine as your house, Moroboshi-sensei?" Sayuri asked, glancing around the bare walls. "There are other properties for sale around Nerima, after all."
"Do not call me 'Sensei,' Sayuri," Negako instructed. That comment caused the newcomers' eyes to widen. The grandmaster continued, "The shrine offers as much land as the Tendou property, plus possesses enough interior space to house our siblings when they come to visit Tokyo for shopping trips."
Hiroshi perked. "Ataru-kun has other sisters?"
"Twelve of them." Negako gave him a knowing stare. "And no, they are not interested in dating anyone, Hiroshi."
That comment sent Hiroshi and Daisuke's heads slamming into the coffee table. Akane, Sayuri and Yuka fell over laughing while Nabiki and Chigaiko exchanged a knowing look and grin. As conversation then picked up between the soon-to-be Fuurinkan sophomores, Negako headed into the kitchen. Nabiki followed her, stopping at the doorway to see Negako preparing tea with what appeared to be hand-made bags. Stepping closer, she took a sniff of the strange brew before recoiling. "Eeew! What is that stuff, anyway?!"
"A special Zephyrite herbal solution mixed with Essiac tea. It is for Chigaiko," Negako explained.
Nabiki's eyes widened. "Why?"
"Near-terminal acute non-lymphocytic leukaemia."
"Ye gods . . . " Nabiki's hand covered her mouth, and then she leaned closer to the grandmaster. "Does she know?" she hissed.
"No," Negako explained. "Chigaiko knows she possesses anaemia, but she does not realise it has progressed to that stage. I would desire her to not know the truth. I am progressing with a remedy that will restore her to a nominal level of health within several weeks. However, such cannot succeed if she is informed of the severity of her condition. Understood?"
The middle Tendou daughter considered that before nodding. "Gotcha."
"Sufficient." Negako finished her preparations. Placing the teacup on a tray, she then gazed curiously on Nabiki. "Nabiki, why was Akane never informed of the three times she accidentally struck Yuka with her ki-mallet during the month before Ranma and Genma came to your home?"
The whole room, to Nabiki, went dark as Negako's tonally flat question punched right into the depths of her heart and soul. The middle Tendou daughter stared in dumbfounded shock at her host, she stunned on realising Negako's ability to discern a person's past through her body's ki signature had told her THAT. In a flash, Nabiki scrambled to the kitchen door to close it, and then she zipped back to stare into Negako's eyes. "How the hell did you know THAT?!" she hissed, barely containing her urge to scream.
Negako sighed. "Nabiki, you know the answer to that question."
Nabiki jerked. Negako remained in place, an amused smirk crossing her face as she watched the other's antics. Finally, Nabiki straightened herself. "Alright, I know about that!" she said. "But those times were accidents! They happened when Kunou-chan was being more of a jerk than usual when it came to trying to 'win' Akane-chan over. I know that. Tokoro knows that. She never once felt it necessary to come after Akane-chan because of that!"
"Most likely because she was a relatively new student at Fuurinkan at the time of these 'accidents' and desired to be part of what she perceived as the 'in' crowd. Further, with Ranma's arrival on the scene, Akane's anger was redirected onto a new target. It appears I will have to do some more work to ensure Akane breaks free of that particular habit of hers once and for all."
With that, she picked up Chigaiko's tea, and then she headed back into the living room. Nabiki watched her go, a wary look on her face.
* * *
"Huh?" A hunky, dull-looking teenager with tapered ears looked up from the manga he was reading. "What is it, Makasai?"
"Have you seen my copy of the Book?" a plain girl, also possessing tapered ears, asked. She was standing at the doorway of her fellow observer's bedroom. That was located in a nondescript apartment block located in the west end of Tomobiki not three blocks from the main entrance of the Mendou estate. "I left it on my nightstand last night and it's not there now," she then added.
Juhzi shook his head. "I didn't see anyone go into your room, Makasai," he admitted, rising to head over to his nightstand, where a copy of the Book of Lum lay. "You sure you left it there?" he asked as he handed the Book to her.
"I'll look for it later," she vowed, nodding as she took it from him.
* * *
"Ohayou, Ryooko-san."
Mendou Ryooko gasped as that soft voice tickled her ear. She spun around in her chair to see a woman draped in a hooded white cape with stylized crosses standing at the entrance to her private study. The half-dozen Kuroko nearly leapt out of their costumes and masks on seeing the newcomer, who hadn't been there a second before. Ryooko blinked, instantly impressed by the visitor's sense of the dramatic. Her eyes then widened as recognition dawned on her.
"Hirosaki Chikage, I presume," she declared, rising to give the visitor a nod. A hand-gesture from the younger Mendou made the Kuroko relax. "One day soon to become Moroboshi Chikage," she then added.
"The same," Chikage acknowledged with a smile as she reached into her cape to draw out a book. "I believe you're looking for a copy of this."
Ryooko's eyes widened automatically on seeing the title, written in stylish kana and kanji, on the cover. "How . . .?" she gasped.
Chikage held up a hand. "Just a moment."
The sorceress then drew out a handful of her favoured cross-shaped pendants. A flick of the wrist later, they flew off to insert themselves in various nooks and crannies all over the study. Seconds later, they returned to Chikage's hand, each now impaled on a spheroid-shaped device, the sight of the latter making Ryooko's eyes go VERY wide. "What . . .?"
"To ensure our words remain private," Chikage asserted as she slipped her pendants into her cape. She handed Makasai's copy of the Book of Lum to her host. "Almost everyone in Tomobiki has been spied on via devices like this by Ani-kun's recent 'acquaintances' since after Lum came to live here full-time."
Ryooko blinked, her mind nearly coming to a complete stop on hearing that assertion. Chikage tried not to smirk too much on seeing her reaction; no doubt, learning her own private sanctum had been so easily invaded -- and by people whose very existence had been totally unknown to her until this day! -- had just hit the poor girl hard. "You best take some time to read that," Chikage advised as she turned to leave, her finger indicating the Book. "I suspect you have ways to look in on your own brother's diary if you so desired to do so. Take note of the differences between what your brother's written and what's written there. Once you understand that, you'll understand a lot of what's happened to Ani-kun since he came to the Island to live with us."
"Er . . .!" Ryooko then cleared her throat. "Thank you, Chikage-san."
"You're welcome." Chikage stopped before she glanced over her shoulder at the younger Mendou, her eyes narrowed dangerously. "A word of advice, Ryooko-san: Don't think of drawing Ani-kun into your silly little games from this day on. Speaking for my sisters, we WILL hold a grudge if you do."
In a blink, she was gone. Ryooko stared at the empty space Chikage just occupied before her eyes turned to gaze on the Book of Lum.
* * *
The door to Ataru's room opened. Ranma closed the door behind her before walking into the dining room. She stopped on seeing the sisters save Chikage there, worry etched on all their faces. A glance at the clock mounted on one wall indicated that it had been an hour since she had gone in to see Ataru.
"Onee-sama . . .?" Sakuya rose. "Is he alright?"
Ranma sighed. "He's getting there."
Hinako sniffed. "Why won't Onii-tama tell us what's wrong?"
Ranma gazed on the youngest of the sisters, and then she walked over to sit beside her. Gently grasping Hinako's hands, the martial artist drew them close to her. "Hinako-chan, it's not that Ataru doesn't want to tell you what's happened." She took a deep breath. "It's just that he's afraid you all would take it the wrong way and come to hate him . . .!"
"NO!" Hinako screamed, shaking her head as she swamped Ranma with an embrace. "HINA'LL NEVER HATE ONII-TAMA! Onii-tama . . .!"
Sobs stole her voice. Karen walked over to draw Hinako away from Ranma, taking her to a nearby couch so she could cry. "Anegimi-sama, you HAVE to tell us SOMETHING!" Haruka begged. "Anything! Tell us something, please!"
Looking at their pleading faces, Ranma took a deep breath. "Alright . . . " She nodded. "I'll give you the basics, but that's as far as I'll go right now. Hopefully, what hurt Ataru won't come back to hurt you. That's the biggest thing he's worried about. And with Lum back . . . " She paused before looking down. "He's afraid that Lum or one of those people in Tomobiki will do something that'll hurt you. And if that happens . . . " Her voice faded, and then she shook her head. "I don't know how he'll react."
Silence fell as the sisters considered that. Sakuya walked over to kneel beside Ranma. "Onee-sama, what can you tell us?"
Sighing, Ranma began.
* * *
"I can't begin to believe it was THAT bad!"
"Believe it." Negako placed a cup of Marie's favoured cherry tea before Chikage, and then she sat across from her. Chigaiko was at Tampopo's enjoying lunch. The Tendou sisters and their friends had gone home for the day.
The sorceress grimaced. "I suspected a lot of what he went through," she admitted. "But to be proven right so much . . . " Her voice trailed off, and then she drank her tea. "Lum's return is not the thing Ani-kun needs now."
"Yes, she is the primary chink in Ataru's emotional armour," the ninjutsu grandmaster mused, glancing heavenward. "Still . . . "
"You believe something will make this situation better?"
"Yes. It must be done delicately, but we can endure this." Negako sighed. "Ataru understands that very much. He wants to tell all of you. But how could Hinako, Aria or Kaho, much less the others, truly understand it?"
"You have a point." Chikage rose to leave, keeping her teacup in hand. "And yes, our relationship to Ani-kun might prove a source of trouble to all of us. That I certainly foresee, especially given what these Niphentaxians are supposedly like. But . . . " She paused before a smile crossed her face. "Ani-kun needs to understand that we will never turn away from him."
"I do not believe I can help there."
"Ranma-anekun could."
Both gazed on the other. Negako's eyebrow arched. "Sanctuary?"
Chikage grimly nodded. "The sooner Ane-kun can truly look on herself in the mirror and understand who and what she is, the better for her AND Ani-kun. In the meantime, I believe Sakuya-chan and I can do something to derail Lum until such time as whatever you just sensed can help."
She teleported away. Negako lightly smiled.
* * *
"Onii-chan . . .!"
A chorus of stunned looks fell on Ranma. Hinako sat in her lap. "He FOUGHT with the Noukiites against the Onis?!" Rinrin demanded.
"But Aniue-sama said the Noukiites practised slavery!" Marie stated. "Why in the name of Heaven would he support THEM?!"
Ranma took in a deep breath. "Ataru found out that in the greater scheme of things, they're the lesser of two evils, Marie-chan."
Mamoru crossed her arms. "I'd sure like that proven."
Haruka shook her head. "Did Anigimi-sama learn of things that would cast Lum-san's people in such a light, Anegimi-sama?"
"Yes, he did. A lot of things." Ranma nodded before noisily exhaling. "And in finding out those things, whatever feelings he had for Lum ultimately took a BIG hit. And it just piled on and on and on until . . . "
She shrugged. "Onii-tama said Lum-san wasn't bad!" Hinako protested.
"Yeah. And he believes, even now, that she never got directly involved in any of that stuff, Hinako-chan. But . . . " Ranma paused before staring at the others. "Look at it from Lum's direction. She nearly gets killed when one of her people's oldest enemies blows up her planet's capital. She loses her family and a lot of friends. Along the way, Ran loses her boyfriend to that same enemy. So they came here to seek refuge and escape. Neither Lum nor Ran had any idea about what Ataru's been through. Suddenly, they get back together and . . . " She shrugged. "What do you think might happen if Lum finds out that her 'Darling' had sided with the Noukiites, a race the Urusians have been brainwashed to believe were barbarians, against her own people? Well?"
The sisters considered that. Kaho sniffed. "Onii-chama . . . "
"So what do we do?" Yotsuba wondered.
A stony grimace crossed Sakuya's face. "I know what we can do," she announced, turning to leave before seeing Chikage by the door enjoying tea. "Chikage . . .!" she hissed, and then she looked at Haruka. "You, too!"
Haruka nodded. "Hai!"
* * *
"You feeling okay now, Lum-chan?"
N-n-no . . . a trembling voice echoed inside Ran's mind as the Seishin teen relaxed in her living room, a cup of tea in hand. H-how could D-darling say those a-awful things . . .? H-how could D-d-darling believe all that g-g-garbage Oogi put out in that st-st-stupid book . . .?!
Ran sighed. "Maybe you should've told him about those idiots . . . "
"Agreed. Honest communication would have helped, Aruka-san."
Gasping, Ran spun out of her chair, shocked on seeing a hooded figure standing behind her, the newcomer's dark eyes glaring her down. Fear quickly vanished as righteous anger took over, the alien teen grabbing her bazooka out of a handy warp-space pocket. Before it could be put to use, a flash of light saw the weapon sliced in half. Ran then cried out as the sharp edge of a naginata pressed against her neck. Glancing right, she gargled on seeing a raven-haired girl in a pink-and-black hakama standing there, she holding the bladed halberd pressing against Ran's throat in one hand, a glittering war fan in the other. "I suggest you don't move," the armed girl warned with a smile.
A third girl, possessing stringy ponytails, then stepped into view. "I believe we have their attention," she mused before she stared at the girl with the cape. "Chikage-chan, there some way you can block this bitch's powers?"
Chikage chuckled. "I doubt she would survive if she tried to use them on any of us, Sakuya-chan. Especially with Haruka-chan's naginata at her throat." She then stepped up to gaze knowingly into Ran's eyes. "And especially given our relationship with Ani-kun," she added with an icy smile.
Ran blinked, confusion slowly overcoming her. "Wh-who . . .?"
"We want to talk to the one inside you, Aruka-san," Sakuya warned. "Feel free to listen in since what we have to say affects you, too."
Silence fell. Ran's facial demeanour then changed. "How do you know . . .?" she asked in Lum's voice. "Who are you people . . .?"
"I'm sure this starship comes equipped with internal sensors, so when we finally leave, you can do a DNA scan and then do a parental comparison with your precious 'Darling,' Redet-san." Sakuya smiled. "Our half-brother."
Ran's jaw opened. She blinked, blinked again, and then stammered out in Lum's voice, "Y-y-you're Darling's s-s-sisters . . .?"
"We are," Chikage stated. "And we have come to give you a warning. To you, to Aruka-san, to anyone else who might come from beyond Earth in your wake AND to those here in Tomobiki who might wish to support you." She glared intently into Ran's eyes, causing the possessed Seishin teen to sink away from those burning orbs. "It is this: Leave -- Ani-kun -- ALONE!"
"B-b-but . . .!" Ran/Lum stammered.
"Are you hard of hearing?" Sakuya wondered.
"I . . .!"
Haruka smiled. "Perhaps we should ask the Holy Inquisition to turn this thing over to the Noukiites and let them have their way with her."
Ran paled. "N-n-no . . .!"
"Scares you, doesn't it?" Sakuya smirked on seeing Ran look away. "Good. After hearing of the crap both of you heaped on Onii-sama, it's about time you got a taste of it in return. Maybe it might teach you something."
"B-but . . .!"
"Shut up!" Sakuya barked, the snap in her voice causing Ran to duck. "Let me make this VERY clear to the BOTH of you. If you so much as even THINK of trying to hurt Onii-sama -- either by yourself, your pals from outer space or running to the clods in this place and getting their help in this -- you'll be gift-wrapped and sent to the Holy Inquisition so fast, your head will spin!"
"But Darling's . . .!"
"Your husband?" Haruka wondered. "Your fiancé, perhaps? There, you are VERY wrong, Redet-san. Anigimi-sama was NEVER your fiancé!"
"THAT'S NOT TRUE!" Ran/Lum screamed.
"It is," Chikage countered. "The leadership of our family passes from GRANDMOTHER to GRANDDAUGHTER. In other words, from Nagaiwakai to Sakuya-chan." She pointed to her sister. "Sakuya-chan is head-of-clan. She has the right to decide to whom Ani-kun will marry. Not you. Further, you do not have Muchi or Kinshou to hide behind. You do not have Megane and his fools to hide behind. Mendou Shuutarou is no longer relevant and I don't believe Miyake Shinobu or Fujinami Ryuunosuke will be willing to help you, either. AND you do not have your father . . . " She leaned up. "Much less Oogi and the Niphentaxians . . . " She grinned on seeing Ran's eyes go VERY wide on hearing that. "To hide behind, either! You are alone. And this time, Ani-kun is no longer interested in you! His destiny . . . " She backed away. "Belongs now to another."
Ran jolted before another shudder rocked her as the pressure of Haruka's naginata increased. "Since it's inhumane to force you to leave while your planet is in the midst of war, you can stay," Sakuya stated. "But if you screw up even ONCE, you're out of here. For GOOD! Believe me, Onii-sama will not shed a TEAR for you!" She turned away from her. "Let's go, girls!"
Chikage waved her cape. Ran automatically squeezed her eyes shut as the cape blanked out her vision. She then opened them to find herself alone in her living room. The panic she felt from facing the sisters quickly drained as she sank to her knees, taking in ragged breaths to try to calm herself. "L-Lum . . .?" she whispered, sensing herself back in control over her body.
Silence answered. Ran staggered to her feet, and then she made her way into the ship's pilotage. Sitting at the command chair, she tapped controls to draw up the ship's internal sensor logs. The image of her and the sisters in the living room appeared on the screen before her. She tapped commands to do a DNA scan of the three women. The readouts came up. Drawing up a memory file of Ataru's DNA, she did a comparison. Ten seconds later, her eyes widened. "Oh, Fates . . . " She covered her mouth. "It's all true . . .?"
A beep! echoed from her communications board. Ran tapped controls. She then blinked before calling out, "Lum-chan, it's Benten."
"Lum . . .?"
A pained moan echoed in her mind. He hates me, Ran . . .!
Ran closed her eyes. "Benten's calling, Lum."
The moan faded. What do I do now?
Ran bit her lip. "I don't know, Lum-chan."
* * *
Nabiki and Akane leaned back from Souun as everyone sat in the sitting room of the Tendou home. "Well, what did you expect us to do, Dad?" the former demanded as she crossed her arms. "Just keep on waiting until doomsday?"
Souun shuddered as her explanation sank in before he wailed, "Oh, Nabiki-chan! How could you do this to your suffering father?! To seek instruction from another master?! Oh, the shame of it all! The SHAME of it . . .!"
He was slammed into the table thanks to Happoosai. "Quiet, boy!" the grandmaster snapped as he turned back to his tea. "Considering how right she is about how LAZY you've become as of late, you've got no place to complain!"
Kasumi came in, placing a plate of fruit on the table. "I trust you girls enjoyed yourselves with Negako-san," the elder daughter said.
Nabiki took up a watermelon slice to nibble on it. "It was great."
Akane picked up a slice of cantaloupe. "It was instructive," she then admitted. "I can't believe how many holes I've got in my basic defence stance. That girl's a whirlwind!" She then glared witheringly at Souun. "And I thought for all this time my defence WAS perfect!"
Souun shuddered before sitting up and crossing his arms, assuming the demeanour of the sage teacher. "Your defence IS perfect, Akane. Besides, you were facing an entity that's a thousand years old. Surely in all that time, that woman would learn all sorts of deception . . . "
He gargled as Happoosai's battle aura flared. "Are you saying that my friend is a LIAR, Souun?" the aged grandmaster growled.
The Tendou patriarch prostrated himself before Happoosai, wailing a storm of profuse apologies. Seeing this, Nabiki and Akane giggled. "Actually, I think Negako-san could really pull a fast one on anybody," the former said before sipping her tea. "She just doesn't see the need for it."
The front gate then opened. Kasumi rose. "Oh, we have guests!"
"Hello!" a familiar voice called out. "Is anyone home?!"
Akane stood up. "Oh, it's Ranma!"
Before his daughter could answer it, Souun was there, going into the Demon Head. "RANMA, HOW DARE YOU . . .?!" he bellowed.
To an empty courtyard. "Eh?!" Souun relaxed, glancing around in shocked surprise. "Where did Ranma go . . .?!"
He screamed, stumbling off the patio on sensing someone BEHIND him. Spinning around, he quickly sensed someone he assumed was Ranma standing there. "RANMA, HOW DARE YOU . . .?!" he roared, going back into Demon Head.
And then he screamed in disbelief as a wall of condensed air sent him into the pond just as "Ranma" faded from view. "Holy!" Nabiki gasped, having seen it all. "Toshiko-chan's converted the Umisen-ken cloak into an attack!"
"Oh, my!" Kasumi gasped.
"Who's Toshiko?!" Akane demanded.
Happoosai shrugged. "Oh, that's one of Ranma's mirror-twins."
"WHAT?!" bellowed from outside.
Everyone turned as a soaked Souun stormed inside, glaring around. "They've come back?!" he demanded before spinning on Nabiki. "Nabiki! I thought you were to get rid of those meddlesome troublemakers . . .!"
"I wouldn't say that if I were you, Souun," Happoosai warned.
Souun's body jerked several times as invisible ki blows punched through his body, sending him face-first into the floor! As he fell, the air over and behind him then warped, revealing Saotome Toshiko. Akane was quick to notice the hairstyle. She paled on seeing the incensed look on the newcomer's face. "I HEARD that, Tendou-san," Toshiko snarled, her voice dripping with malice.
"Indeed, Father, that was VERY rude!" Kasumi scolded, and then she smiled at Toshiko. "Toshiko-chan, would you like some tea?"
"Please." Toshiko stepped over Souun to sit down before she gave Happoosai a sweet look. "I have a present for you, Jijii!"
The aged grandmaster perked. "Eh?! Present?! Where?!"
"Where do you think?" Toshiko asked with a wink as she pointed to her cleavage. To the others' surprise, she was wearing a leather bustier that did WONDERS for her looks, that over biker's trousers. "But you have to fetch!"
Happoosai was quick to accept the invitation. "HOT-CHA!"
Squeals echoed through the room as Toshiko tried to fend off the dodging grandmaster. Akane tried to swallow her disgust at the display. Kasumi ignored the antics. And Nabiki was quick to see what was REALLY happening. Finally, after thirty seconds, Happoosai leapt clear, a lacy black bra in hand. "A well-earned prize!" he crooned before rubbing his face into a bra cup.
Toshiko sighed, staring at her hands. "Needs some work."
Nabiki snapped her fingers. "Oh, I get it now!" She laughed. "You're trying to perfect some sort of anti-chikan form, right?!"
Toshiko winked. "Hai!" She then waved to Happoosai. "And who better to practice it on than the greatest bra-fetishist in all of Japan?!"
She smiled at him. "Yes! Yes! She's improving!" he declared as he hugged his treasure, and then he looked around. "Eh?! Where's Kumiko-chan?! Oh!" A sly look crossed his face. "She's hiding, is she?! I'll find her!"
He bounded off. By then, Souun had recovered from Toshiko's White Snake Fist attack. "How did you escape the compact?!" he demanded.
Toshiko shrugged. "Ranma didn't like the idea of seeing us placed back in the mirror, so he stole the compact, then let us free!"
"WHAT?!" Souun screamed, his battle aura flaring. "How DARE Ranma-kun steal from Nabiki-chan! Why, I ought to . . .!"
Souun wailed fearfully as a swirling storm of vacuum blades slammed into him, sending him flying out of the house and into the wall by the front gate. Toshiko remained seated, a relaxed look on her face. The Tendou sisters were speechless. "By the way, Tendou-san, our fate was none of your business, much less your daughter's," the crimson-haired mirror-twin added with a smirk.
"B-b-b- . . .!" Akane sputtered.
Toshiko glared at her. "What's your problem, Miss Mallets?"
Hearing that, Akane's face flushed with rage. "HEY! Who the heck are you to call me that?!" she demanded, rising.
And down she went courtesy of Toshiko's own mallet, marked with ULTIMATE IDIOT BASHER in katakana on the flanks. "After what you did to Ranma, what did you expect me to do, Miss Mallets?" Toshiko wondered as she stowed the mallet.
"Itte . . .!" Akane grunted. So THAT'S what it feels like . . .!
Unconsciousness mercifully overtook her. "Toshiko-chan, though I sympathise with your concern for Ranma-kun, that was not nice!" Kasumi scolded.
"Kasumi-san, when your sister decides to be a real martial artist instead of a bully, I'll lay off her," Toshiko retorted.
Kasumi nodded. "That's agreeable."
"Kasumi-chan, how could you possibly side with this thing against your very own flesh-and-blood?!" a voice demanded out of nowhere.
The Tendou sisters looked around the room. "Oh, my! The great hypocrite just arrived!" Toshiko muttered before vanishing.
Genma then appeared near Kasumi. "Hah!" he barked triumphantly. "What's the matter, demon?! Scared of a REAL martial artist?!"
"How soon we forget," a voice mused, "There are TWO of us!"
Genma's eyes widened. "Wha . . .?" He tensed too late . . .
Bolts of energy lashed out to slam into Genma's back, sending him flying out of the house into the tree by the koi pond. As he dropped, the air by the far wall fizzled, revealing a black-haired version of Toshiko in a white bustier and biker's pants. Kasumi looked at her. "Oh, my!" she gasped, remembering Ranma also had a MALE twin. "Did you fell into the Nyanniichuan?"
"Hai, I did!" Kumiko chuckled before yodelling, "Jijii!"
Happoosai bounded out of nowhere to leap at her bust. "HOT-CHA!"
Another fast whirl of hand blocks. Kumiko lasted fifty seconds before Happoosai snared her bra. "Hah!" The grandmaster leapt down to the table, holding up his silky prize. "By George, I think they got it!" he declared.
Toshiko de-cloaked as Kumiko moved to sit beside her. By then, Akane had begun to recover. "Oooh . . .!" she moaned, and then she blinked on seeing TWO copies of Ranma. Screaming, she bolted to her feet, arms poised to fight.
"Akane!" Kasumi snapped, causing her to falter. "What are you doing?!"
"I . . . I . . .!" Akane sputtered.
"I do believe Miss Mallets isn't used to the idea of receiving her own medicine." Kumiko then blinked as she sensed something. "Ah . . .!"
"What . . .?" Kasumi then tensed. "Oh, another guest . . . "
"Stay here, Kasumi-san." Toshiko waved her down before she took a sip of her tea. "That one has business with the panda. It's not nice to interrupt a lady when she wishes to soundly thrash an honourless dullard like him, ne?"
She winked. "Is this because of a skipped food bill?" Nabiki wondered. "Or another fiancée Ranma-kun might've overlooked?"
Kumiko winked. "No. This concerns a trip you all took to a certain ryokan in the mountains before we came out of the mirror."
Nabiki paled. "The Ryokan Ningyou-yakata?"
Kasumi covered her mouth. "Oh, my!"
Akane shuddered, clutching a hand over her heart. "Her . . .?"
A scream filled the air. The Tendou sisters and Happoosai were quick to recognise the shout as Genma's. "My, Kimiko-san seems very upset, doesn't she?" Kumiko mused before nodding thanks as Kasumi handed her a cup of tea.
The Tendou sisters gaped. "'Kimiko?!'"
"Hai. Ranma felt it was only proper to name her after your mother, especially since Kimiko now has a body cloned from Miss Mallets."
Akane raced out of the sitting room. Nabiki and Kasumi quickly followed. The twins and Happoosai remained in place, exchanging knowing looks. "Negako-chan is SO evil at times," he said as he filled Toshiko's teacup.
* * *
Genma wondered if he shouldn't take a long vacation.
That is, of course, if he could spare brain cells from the waved of pain this double of Akane was delivering him to actually THINK!
A fist slammed into his chest with the force of a runaway wrecking ball, sending him rocketing across the lawn to hit one of the cherry trees by the doojou. As the breath exploded from his lungs, he blearily watched as that demon raced at him. Trying to recover, he managed to get his chin up to knee level. That was enough for Kimiko to give him a leaping two-knee blow to the jaw. Using her momentum to front-flip onto his back, she pivoted her weight to her feet, flipping Genma upside-down. Before he could get clear of her, she vaulted him back across the yard to slam into the cherry tree by the koi pond. A pained moan escaped Genma as he slid to the ground.
"That . . . " Kimiko wiped her hands as she walked over to stand across the pond from Genma. "Was for stealing Ranma-sama's milk."
Watching this from the patio, the Tendou sisters blinked. "'Milk?!'" Nabiki demanded. "What the hell's this all about?!"
"Easily explained," Toshiko announced as she and Kumiko stepped onto the patio, teacups in hand. "The panda stole milk from Ranma when you were at that ryokan, thus provoking the fight that wound up with Ranma crashing into the table where Kimiko-san was resting. THAT'S what made her possess Miss Mallets." She took a sip of her tea before giving Akane a look. "Not that Miss Mallets would actually ACCEPT the truth in the first place given how much she loves to blame Ranma for EVERYTHING that happens to her!"
Akane winced as if Toshiko just slapped her. "Oh, my!" Kasumi declared with a shake of her head, and then she gave Genma a reproachful look, putting hands to hips. "Uncle, HONESTLY! When will you learn to behave yourself?!"
"Should I call the zoo, Onee-chan?" Nabiki wondered.
"Don't TEMPT me!"
Kasumi marched back inside. By then, a pained moan escaped Genma. Hearing that, Kimiko sighed. "I best finish up with him."
She walked around the koi pond. Akane watched as her twin grabbed him by one arm to drag him up. She then gasped on seeing an evil smile suddenly appear on Genma's face. "KIMIKO, LOOK OUT!" she cried out.
Genma's fist flew at Kimiko. To the latter, his movements were snail-like. She ducked the shot as her free hand smashed into his ribs. He screamed as the cracks! of bones snapping sent chills down the onlookers' spines. Kimiko twirled away from the cherry tree, dragging Genma through the air like a doll. Akane hit the dirt as her twin wound up before she sent Ranma's father into and THROUGH the property wall, some distance from where Souun, having just recovered as Kimiko had begun her attack on his best friend, currently knelt.
"Oooh!" Nabiki winced. "THAT, Uncle, you had coming to you!"
Once Ranma's father was stilled, Kimiko reached into her top to draw a sheet of paper. Scanning the diagram, she nodded. Tossing the paper aside, she walked to Genma. Akane then walked over and picked the paper up, opening it to read. "A shiatsu attack?" She blinked as Kimiko grabbed Genma to pull him out of the wall. "Meant to destroy the part of Uncle's mind . . . "
Kimiko cocked two fingers. "Containing the sealed knowledge of . . . "
They slammed into his head. "The Umisen-ken and the Yamasen-ken . . . "
Genma quaked as the ki bolt ripped through his mind to do as Akane read. Kimiko then let him go. "Thus guaranteeing that Saotome Ranma, Saotome Kumiko and Saotome Toshiko are the only people who can practice them," Akane finished.
Genma collapsed into the dirt. Kimiko wiped her hands clean before walking to the patio. Stopping before Nabiki, she bowed. "I apologise for bringing such disharmony upon your household, Nabiki-sama," she said. "However, I do sense you and your sisters wouldn't mind if that honourless lout was truly and thoroughly thrashed for his many crimes and misdemeanours."
Nabiki bowed in return. "Oh, that's alright, Kimiko-san."
Everyone turned as Souun walked up. "Hai," Nabiki replied. "Ranma-kun named her after Mom. He felt it was the right thing to do."
Souun turned on Kimiko. "Ranma-kun named you . . .?"
She nodded. "Hai, Tendou-dono, he did."
"Oh, please, dear, call me 'father!'"
"As you wish, Otou-sama."
Kumiko and Toshiko tensed on seeing the look on Souun's face. *Uh-oh!*
Souun shuddered as he turned from Kimiko and Nabiki, a smile crossing his face. Such SPEED! Such POWER! Such GRACE! And it was clearly obvious that Kimiko liked Ranma! Even if she didn't have any training, her potential outstripped Akane's and Nabiki's COMBINED! Yes! Yes! It was PERFECT!
"Otou-sama . . .?" Kimiko prodded.
"Yes!" Souun nodded, placing a hand on her shoulder. "It is decided! Ranma-kun will marry Kimiko-chan and unite the schools!"
More silence.
Still more silence.
Then . . .
Souun screamed as Akane's mallet sent him flying into the Shakujii River! Kumiko and Toshiko watched him disappear before exchanging a nod. "That, he DEFINITELY had coming to him!" the former muttered under her breath.
The latter shook her head. "He's as stupid as the panda."
Akane lowered Mallet-sama before she spun on Kimiko, her eyes burning with wounded rage and heartbreaking sadness. Sensing what she was thinking, Kimiko moved to moderate. "Akane-sama, you don't understand!" She approached her in hopes of calming her down. "I have no . . .!"
"NO!" Akane screamed, racing into the house.
" . . . interest in Ranma-sama." Kimiko then sighed. "Oh, dear."
* * *
"So THAT'S what happened to you! Thank Bensaiten for that!"
Ran sighed as she stared at Benten's image on her pilotage's view screen. Lum was speaking for them both. "Hai! Sorry I didn't get back to you, but we believed that the sooner we got away, the better. How's Nassur-chan?!"
"Sends his apologies for not tellin' you about those bio-transmitters we got." Benten pointed to the side of her head. "Oyuki and I've got 'em, too. Turns out he did somethin' more, but he wants to surprise us about that." She then held up a finger to emphasise her point. "It's a good surprise, too!"
Ran/Lum giggled. "From Nassur-chan, it's ALWAYS a good surprise!"
Yeah, suuuuuuuuure! Ran droned from inside her brain.
Ran! Lum scolded. Nassur and Ran had been enemies for some time. That had started when Ran's youth-sucking powers went out of control one day and the expat Vosian bounty hunter found himself being the closest possible target. Knowing that, it honestly surprised Lum that Nassur had done unto Ran what he did to Lum, Benten and Oyuki, all of whom cared very deeply for the Vosian.
"So, you met up with Moroboshi yet?" Benten asked.
Hearing that, Ran's eyes became hooded as tears spilled down her cheeks. She shuddered as the two souls within her switched places. The Seishin teen sighed. "Darling wasn't very nice to Lum-chan today, Benten," she said, automatically wiping her cheeks. "He found out about Oogi's planet of morons. A little TOO much, unfortunately. And he's been to Noukiios and the colonies."
The Fukunokami blinked. Benten's home planet, which had never enjoyed cordial relations with the old Urusian Empire, was neutral in the long-running Oni-Noukiite dispute, not to mention the present conflict. Benten knew few Noukiites would view her with kindness if they knew she was friends with an Oni. "Fuck!" she hissed. "That explains this titbit Nassur sent me. He got it off the Home Base computer." Home Base, an asteroid near Uru, was Nassur's home. "Where that thing got it from, I got NO idea, but you GOTTA see it!"
Benten tapped controls to draw up a sub-screen on Ran's screen. The Seishin teen tapped controls to blow up the image. She then hummed. "This is Lumukyou?!" she wondered, remarking on the capital city of Phentax Two.
"Yep. Watch."
Ran's eyes widened as an exploding wave of light burst from the Great Lum Church, an exact replica of Tomobiki High School. It expanded to cover the whole screen, obliterating everything. Seconds later, the light faded, revealing a sea of apocalyptic devastation. "Gods!" Ran covered her mouth, her eyes tearing. Like Lum and those who closely associated with her, she had no love for Oogi or the Church of Lum. But to see an entire city of five million sentient beings vaporised in an instant was too much even for her.
"Watch the blow up," Benten advised.
A target icon fell over the Great Lum Church. The screen magnified to show the image of a man. The image cleared. With the lens' distance -- What sort of probe could get pictures like THIS?! Ran wondered -- facial details were obscure, but over half the body . . .! "A cyborg?!" she then demanded.
Who is that?! Lum demanded.
"Okay, I'm blowin' up the face," Benten advised. "Tell Lum to brace herself, Ran. She AIN'T gonna like seein' this!"
Target icon appeared again, this time locked on the machine-man's head. The image blew up, hazing immediately. The image then cleared. The entity seemed to turn and face the camera's eye. Seeing that image, Ran gagged, she covering her mouth as nausea overwhelmed her. The hair. The general facial shape. The still-organic right eye, matched to a glowing orb, ruby-red.
"Gods . . .!" Ran gasped, she trying not to choke on her bile.
DARLING?! Lum exclaimed.
"Watch what comes next," Benten warned.
The camera fell back as something burst from a pile of wreckage behind the transformed Ataru. He spun to gaze on a vaguely humanoid shape in the robes of a monk. In the figure's hand was a tall staff topped with a glowing ruby. Ataru braced himself as the figure pointed at him. She -- a woman? -- levelled the staff. The ruby flared, a blast of energy hitting Ataru. No effect. He lunged, one hand grabbing the staff. The gem then flared, this time creating another nuclear blast wave. The camera fell back to near-orbital space. An explosion of light burst from Lumukyou, followed by a concussion wave that spread over all of Phentax Two. "What is that . . .?!" Ran demanded.
The wave vanished. The camera lens then zoomed up again on Lumukyou. Standing alone in the wreckage of the Great Lum Church, the cyborg Ataru was looking about. A close-up of his face revealed that his human eye was wide with shock and horror. He dropped the strange staff like it was a poisonous snake or worse before falling to his knees and screaming to the heavens.
Darling . . . Lum sobbed.
"What happened, Benten?!" Ran demanded.
"Way Nassur thinks it happened, that staff-thing must've been some high-tech power conduit." Benten sighed as the sub-screen vanishes, revealing the Fukunokami scratching the side of her face, a tired look on her face. "As ta what sorta power that thing drew from, he has NO idea whatsoever. Some sort of doomsday device Oogi's morons created one day?! I dunno!"
Ran shuddered. "What about that woman who confronted Darling?" she then wondered, Lum once again in control of the body.
"According to what Nassur has, she must've been a Guardian. It's a pre-Lumite sect that's been around since the Niphentaxians first got inta space. According to what the Home Base computer says, the Guardians are like the Holy Inquisition's Special Enforcement Teams. They handle the REALLY nasty problems. Atop that, they also kinda believed that if something bad happened to the one faith that attracted the worship of almost EVERYONE on Phentax Two, then BOOM! They all get wiped out." A pause. "I guess it came true."
Ran/Lum blinked. "When Darling left Tomobiki and we were all sent back to Uru . . . " she mused before paling. "Do you think Oogi or one of his people might've captured Darling?! Tried to kill him or something like that?!"
Benten shrugged. "Hard ta say, Lum. Anyhow, about that big blast wave that covered the planet: Wanna know what it did? It terminally cooked three BILLION people. Nothin' left to bury! Nothin' at ALL! Near as Nassur can figure out now, the ones who died were the hard-core Oogi supporters, the ones who hated Moroboshi's guts and all that."
Ran sank back in her chair. "Tcha . . .!"
A nod from the Fukunokami. "Yeah. Look, Nassur doesn't believe that Moroboshi woulda intentionally killed three billion people even IF any one of 'em would've killed him if they got the chance! I agree! He just ain't that type of guy! But . . . " She shrugged. "If the Church leaders who survived that mess, the ones with the Niphentaxian Fleet and the colonies, ever saw that . . .! Hell, you can sure guess what they'll all end up concluding!"
Ran then looked down. "Oh, Darling . . .!"
"Right. Don't worry about it, though. Nassur's keeping totally mum about it, at least until he can come to Earth and have a chat with Moroboshi about this." Benten then smirked. "'Sides, with Oogi and all the top idiots all ashes now, the non-Lumites might decide to finally do away with that nonsense and finish off the rest of those clowns!"
Ran/Lum nodded. "I hope so, Benten. Still, I don't think Darling would be in ANY mood to meet any more of my friends, even Nassur-chan, after what he just went through. And there's Negako-san to worry about, too. Nassur-chan might be good, but he's nowhere in Negako-san's league. And if she thinks Nassur-chan might be threatening Darling . . . "
Benten snorted. "Find that damn hard to believe."
Lum and Ran both knew that the Fukunokami held a long crush on the expat Vosian, her feelings for him worlds deeper than what any Tomobiki High girl might hold for Mendou Shuutarou. "Well, anyhow, I gotta get back to Home Base." Benten was calling from her parents' home in Bensaikyou, Fukunokami's capital city. "I'll call you guys soon as I get a chance, okay?! See ya!"
The link was cut. Ran then sank in her chair. Silence fell as the possessed Seishin teen stared nowhere in particular. Lum-chan . . .? the Seishin teen's voice echoed in her mind. What can we do now? Darling doesn't want to have ANYTHING to do with us . . .!
"I don't know, Ran-chan . . . "
Perhaps we may be of some assistance?
Ran spun around to gaze toward the hatchway of her ship. Floating up the stairwell were two balls of water, both of them the size of Rei in tiger-bull form. As if seeing perfectly symmetrical balls of seawater float up to her door wasn't unnerving enough, each ball contained something that looked like a giant Terran squid, each with a pair of glowing eyes on stalk-like appendages. "Who . . .?! What the . . .?!" Ran/Lum gargled. The young Urusians had met all sorts of beings in their lifetimes, but nothing like THIS!
Forgive us for disturbing you, but we could not help but sense your current state of joint-ness, the one on Ran's left mused, her glowing eyes pulsing. Such a state is clearly life-threatening to you, which will do your friends nor your surviving family any good in the long run.
"Who are you?!" Lum, finally gaining the composure to take charge of Ran's -- and hers -- body, asked. "WHAT are you?!"
That, Redet Lum, is very easy to explain.
* * *
"Cripes! I just can't BELIEVE that guy!"
Walking toward Ran's lot, Shinobu, Ryuunosuke and Mendou seemed to sway between indignation and fear. Shinobu had the Book of Lum in hand, she having just scanned the part ascribed to her. "Maybe," she stated. "Then again, if Ataru-kun believes this thing actually contained ACCURATE copies of our diary entries -- and given the tone of this book -- his opinions do make sense."
Mendou gazed questioningly at her. "What do you mean, Shinobu-san?"
"Well, except for the 'flowering' of the language, the parts of this book taken from my diary are pretty much dead on. Except for one thing." Shinobu held up a finger. "Everything, at least in my 'book,' has been deliberately rewritten to follow a sort of basic 'party line.'"
Ryuunosuke's eyebrow arched. "Bein'?"
"That Lum's the Goddess, she's ALWAYS in the right concerning EVERYTHING she does, we support her . . . " Shinobu paused before closing the Book. "And that everything that 'defies' Lum's wishes is Ataru-kun's fault since . . . "
"He's the Great Evil," the tomboy finished.
"Hai . . . EH?!"
"Wha- . . .?!" Mendou looked over before his jaw dropped. "Gods!"
They, then by the gate of Ran's property, had arrived in time to see two LARGE balls of seawater -- they assume it was seawater from its green-blue tint as it was reflected by sunlight -- float up to the Seishin teen's hatchway. As soon as they disappeared, the Terrans scrambled over. Given all that had befallen them in the last week, Mendou and his friends did not want to take any chances of losing their friends TWICE! Seeing the coast was clear, Mendou drew his katana before ascending the gangway, Shinobu and Ryuunosuke right behind him. In seconds, they arrived in the pilotage. And they then paused, they surprised to see Ran staring at the balls of seawater -- and the beings within.
"Are they . . .?!" Mendou lowered his katana, though he remained tense. "Er, friends of yours, Lum-san?"
"Um . . . " Ran/Lum began before shrugging.
Mendou's eyes fell on the shapes WITHIN the watery globes before they widened. Whatever these things were, they resembled his personal octopi companions. And unless he was VERY mistaken, the one on Ran's right was injured. Gritting his teeth, he sighed. No matter what these newcomers' intentions were, there was ONE person who could help. Drawing his cell phone, he dialled a number before he sensed Ryuunosuke's annoyed glare. "Hey, wait until we at least know whether they're okay or not before calling . . .!"
Mendou turned away as the other end responded. Ryuunosuke then started on hearing him utter "Yamada-sensei." The tomboy kept her peace as Mendou explained the situation, and then she heard a high-pitched voice respond with, "I'll be right there!" Mendou nodded. "Arigatou, Sensei."
"Hey, who did you . . .?!" Ryuunosuke demanded.
"I contacted the one person who can help a sick octopi or other mollusc. One of Lum-san's visitors is injured." He indicated the wounded entity. Noting Ryuunosuke looking, he added, "If anyone can help, he might be able to."
"Injured?" Ran/Lum gasped. She then turned her attention to the entity in question. There were several deep gashes in her flesh, though to both Urusians' surprise, no blood was flowing from the wound. "I . . .!" the possessed teen stammered. "I . . . I didn't know . . .!"
A high-pitched squeal of excitement rang out from near Mendou. Shinobu and Ryuunosuke turned to see one of the curious fish-headed people who often turned up in town run up to gaze, helmet to glowing eye, with the visitors.
"Amazing!" Yamada Sakanasuke gasped, rubbing his webbed hands together. "I've heard all the legends of the Nendo-kata since I was just a guppy, but I never thought I'd actually encounter a live one, let alone TWO!"
The others blinked.
* * *
"Splendid." Negako gazed in the direction of Ran's scoutship from the vantage point of the Toranoseishin Finances Tower. "With them involved, some sort of rationality might curb them from their more annoying excesses."
* * *
"I didn't mean to make her think THAT!"
Kasumi patted Kimiko's hand. "It's okay." The older Tendou daughters, the mirror-twins, Happoosai and Kimiko were relaxing around the sitting room table enjoying tea and snacks. "Father's become really worried over the whole matter with the schools since before Akane-chan had her big fight with Ranma-kun," Kasumi explained. "And after what you just did to Uncle . . . "
Nabiki grimaced. "Let's just hope the other fiancées don't get wind of this. The one thing Kimiko here doesn't need is for Shampoo to lay a Kiss of Death on her, not to mention Kodachi sneak-attacking her . . . "
Kumiko sipped her tea. "The only solution to that is for Kimiko-san to get training. Perhaps we best let Negako-san deal with this."
Hearing that name, Nabiki blinked, her eyes widening. "The hair lock . . . " she whispered before grinning. "Why, that sly dog . . . "
"What?" Kasumi asked.
Her sister shook her head. "Never mind."
Happoosai chuckled before taking a puff on his pipe. "You best head out before Souun and Genma recover, girls. Genma's gonna be on enough of a bend because of what Kimiko-chan did to him. And Souun . . . " He shook his head.
"That seems the best, Happoosai-sama." Kimiko rose, and then she bowed to her new siblings. "Thank you for your hospitality. Please excuse me."
She headed out. "Go with her," Toshiko said to Kumiko.
"Right. Have a good night, everyone." The raven-haired mirror-twin stood, bowed to the Tendou sisters, and then she raced out.
Seeing that, Toshiko then turned to finish her tea. "With your kind permission, ladies, I'm just going to look in on Miss Mallets and make sure she isn't going to start something stupid," she declared before standing.
"Please be discrete, Toshiko-chan," Kasumi asked.
"No problem." She then vanished behind the Umisen-ken cloak.
The sisters and Happoosai stared at the space where she had been. The aged grandmaster then breathed out. "It's a damn good thing they burned those scrolls after Ranma dug them out," he said before sipping his tea.
"The Sen-ken scrolls are gone?" Nabiki then smiled. "Too bad."
Kasumi nodded. "Indeed."
* * *
Cloaked by the Umisen-ken's null-chi shield -- the twins had given this remarkable manoeuvre the name "Goshin Buufu" -- Toshiko walked outside, and then she leapt into the cherry tree by the koi pond to peek into Akane's bedroom. Her eyes narrowed as she watched Akane on her phone, speaking rapidly into the receiver. Okay, to whom was she calling . . .?
"You still have it?!" Akane asked excitedly, and then she nodded. "Oh, it's fully mended itself, has it? That's wonderful!" She grinned. "Look, can you tell Dou-chan that Akane needs it to come to the doojou as quickly as possible?" Another pause before she slammed her hand on the table. "Look! Just do it, okay?!" she barked out. Another pause before she nodded. "Thank you. Good night!" She slammed the receiver into its cradle before sinking into her chair. "No . . .!" she snarled, her fists quaking. "He's MINE, you bitch! You're not taking MY fiancé away from me . . .!"
Toshiko smirked. That's what you think, Akane, she mentally declared before slipping away from the tree. Bounding over the fence to land in the street, she turned to head towards Kasuga-chou. A burst of air then escaped her on seeing Negako standing there, a bemused smile on the grandmaster's face. "Negako . . .?" she gasped, dropping the screen. "What are you doing here?"
She waved Toshiko to accompany her. "I see Akane is not taking well to this latest development," she mused.
"Yeah!" Toshiko nodded as she followed Negako up to the tops of the telephone poles as they raced back for the Moroboshi home. "She just put in a call to get the Densetsu no Doogi back. I'll lay bets that, come tomorrow, she'll try to challenge Kimiko-san for Ranma."
"Foolish. Ranma will not tolerate such a thing." Negako smirked before glancing at Toshiko. "I think the time has come to advance Ranma's healing to the point where she will have no doubts about herself anymore."
"How can you do that?!" Toshiko demanded.
"It is much easier than you think," the grandmaster replied.
* * *
"Sensei, do you think this might work?!" Shinobu asked.
Yamada nodded. "Of course it'll work." Once explanations about the two new arrivals were made, the doctor had the Nendo-kata couple shifted to Ran's swimming pool, located on the keel deck of her ship, so they could relax their telekinetic powers and prepare for what had to happen to save the lives of both Ran and Lum. "Oh, don't worry about it. The Great School has been doing this for over a hundred thousand years. It's quite automatic."
"B-but . . .!" Ryuunosuke, sitting beside Shinobu and Mendou near the pool's edge, stammered. "I mean, sacrificin' themselves just to give Lum a new body to use, then do the same for Ran . . .?! Jeez! There's gotta . . .!"
"Be another way?!" Yamada sighed. "According to them, Lum-san and Ran-san could die from a complete neural burn-out anytime in the next week or so, Ryuunosuke-san. And with this war situation, do you honestly believe we could rush back to Uru, find samples of Lum-san's DNA, then locate SOMEONE in this galaxy who has the right sort of cloning technology to help us in time?" He held up a finger. "And, of course, that doesn't BEGIN to mention what might happen if the Noukiites or the Zephyrites get wind of this."
"What happens to the souls of the Nendo-kata when they do this 'Crossing Over' of theirs, Sensei?" Shinobu asked.
"Oh, they won't fade into the 'Black Ocean.'" Yamada chuckled. "Their souls will fully, completely merge with Ran-san's and Lum-san's, thus bestowing the morals, teachings and herstory of the Great School onto both of your friends. Nothing detrimental, of course. Shinobu-san, ask yourself this: If your friend was in danger of dying . . . " He indicated Ryuunosuke with a webbed hand. "Wouldn't you sacrifice yourself to save her?"
"I . . . " Shinobu then nodded. "Of course I would."
"So why would you think that other sentient beings in the Universe might do otherwise?" Yamada said before gazing on the two Nendo-kata. "Anyhow, I must look in on our wounded visitor. Will you please excuse me?"
"Of course, Sensei," Mendou replied as they rose and headed out.
Yamada turned his attention to the wounded alien. "You're clearly doing better now than when you were first wounded, ma'am. But, I'm sure you realise you still don't have the required mental strength for the Crossing Over. You could die before you complete it, and then you'd doom yourself and Lum-san."
Do you have a suggestion as to how to resolve this to everyone's benefit, Healer? the uninjured Nendo-kata inquired.
"What about giving Ran-san's persona to your companion and merge her life-force with Ran-san's body?" Yamada mused after a moment's contemplation, the tight line of his mouth indicating the severity of the situation as he stared at the life-aura graphs on his scanner. "That could work."
Indeed it would, Healer, but there is a concern. In scanning many of the sentient beings around us now, considerable xenophobia against members of the Great School of Uru presently exists among the natives of Tomobiki. Lum will have to assume a form that won't draw specific attention to herself if she wishes to continue to reside on Earth. Wouldn't you agree, Healer?
"I agree. They'll need to match themselves to the populace. While Ran-san can pass as a surface-dweller, she's unfortunately become too notorious to live safely in Tomobiki. Never mind what the Noukiites might do if they learn Lum-san survived their attack on Onishuto. The SCAA and the Zephyrites would hold the deciding card on their lives." A sigh escaped him as he remembered one other thing. "And that sadly means that both their lives now depend on the good graces of their friends. Not to mention Shuutarou-san's rival!"
Do you believe this 'Darling' they place such importance on would allow them to be harmed if Shuutarou presses matters too much?
"Wouldn't he? Ataru-san didn't seem inclined to help them the first time they were sent off Earth. Besides, I've noticed humans often use the people they profess to care about as pawns in their conflicts. Watch any of their visual broadcasts or read any of their literature. You'd see then. If the case is heated enough, their children and loved ones are the first sacrificed."
Many humanoids we've encountered are the same way, the Nendo-kata mused. They carry a veneer of Unity and courtesy, while gladly courting the forces of disUnity at any and every opportunity.
"Agreed. Why do you think millions of humans fight and kill each other over 'sacred lands' with such fervour that they ultimately forget why they are sacred?! They profess reverence to religions whose prophets and gods teach peace, love, and respect for their fellows. Then they gladly repress, brutalize and murder each other in the name of the same god!"
They are undisciplined. They cannot turn from their own passions and momentary desires long enough to see the harm they cause.
"You want to know what I think the real problem is?" the alien doctor said before he moved to answer his own question. "They're too simple. For all their intelligence and culture, the cold hard fact is that they're still wild animals. Too close to the cave and the forest they evolved out of to really accept the truths they themselves discovered. They know the words of angels, but the wild, savage instincts of the beast lie still within them."
Saddening, isn't it . . . oh!
"Um . . . Sensei?!"
Yamada turned to see Ran standing at the entrance to her pool area. "Oh, Ran-san, there you are!" he called out. "I believe we've discovered a possible route by which both you and Lum-san may finally get your lives back in order."
"Er . . . " Ran blinked. Then, sensing Lum's urgent desire to be free and have a body of her own push her, she nodded. "Alright."
* * *
"You want to take me to this Sanctuary place?"
Ranma stared at Negako as both relaxed in the dining room. It was just before midnight. "Yes." The latter, who came to the Island via Chikage's travelling rainbow -- then spent an hour recovering from the icy fear her hydrophobia unleashed when she crossed the Sagami Sea -- as soon as she saw the mirror-twins and Kimiko secured at the old shrine, nodded. Ranma herself had just watched Gone With The Wind with Ataru and the sisters. "In essence, it will be like your normal training trips, but compressed in time due to the temporal differences between here and Sanctuary. A five-week period of time in Sanctuary would now equate to you returning to the House before dawn tomorrow morning." Her eyebrow then arched. "Are you interested?"
Ranma blinked. "Five weeks? In other words, if what Chikage's hinted to me is true, I'd come back as a girl both in mind and body."
"Why are you offering me this now?"
"Lum's return is part of the reason," Negako explained. "The other part is your own would-be suitors, especially Akane. Tonight . . . "
She gave a re-cap of events at the Tendou doojou. Ranma listened in before she shuddered, her fists clenching. "You mean to tell me that after Kimiko-chan pasted Oyaji and old man Tendou said he wanted Kimiko-chan to marry me to unite the schools, Akane assumed Kimiko-chan wanted to become my fiancée. And now she wants to fight Kimiko-chan for me?!" she demanded.
"Well, to HELL with that!" Ranma snapped, slamming her fist into the table. "I renounced the engagement on Tuesday! Akane doesn't have any right to fight ANYONE on my 'behalf!' Especially not Kimiko-chan!" She rose, walking away from the table. "And especially if Akane's gonna get her hands on that doogi and use it against Kimiko-chan!" she added with a snarl.
"May I propose something?"
Ranma glanced at Negako. "What?"
"That if you come with me to Sanctuary, we strive to cross-train each other in our Arts," Negako proposed. "You teach me what you have learned through your experiences and I would reciprocate. After all, a soulsword thrust into the Densetsu no Doogi's belt buckle would destroy it far beyond anyone's hope to repair. If it was you who did that, Ranma, you would shatter Akane's illusions about herself far more thoroughly than anything you might have done to her to date, even counting Tuesday's events."
Ranma then sighed. "Why not bring Ataru, too?"
"I don't want you to think I'm trying to pressure you, Ranma."
Both turned to see Ataru standing at the doorway. "Ataru?" Ranma then chuckled. "Hell, some could say you're already pressuring me to go along with that through her." She indicated Negako with a thumb.
"Hai, true, true." He then sighed. "Ranma?"
"What's wrong?"
He shrugged. "Look, I know what the girls think about you now. And . . . " He walked over to her. "If you come back and . . .!" He stopped, gazing at her. "Well, if you're inclined to . . .! Oh, hell, this is . . . "
A finger landed on his lips. "Hey, you had the same problem with Lum, remember? Just like I did with Akane." She smirked. "Ataru?"
"Would you want to come?"
"No. I've spent too much time in Sanctuary as is. You'll understand when you come back after Onee-chan's done with you. But . . . " He paused. "Like it or not, Ranma, you ARE a martial artist. Hell, you've been living and breathing the Art since you were old enough to walk. Yeah, you were denied the chance to choose your life's path because of Genma, but even if you shift into a new career path, the Art will influence your life. It suits you, Ranma. It does. But . . . " He pointed to himself. "It's not for me."
"Bullshit, Ataru! You ARE good . . .!"
"Yeah, but look what I've just been through!" he countered. "I just helped fight a war, Ranma. I've watched a whole race nearly get wiped out before my eyes. I've met people who were brainwashed into believing my race are no better than monkeys in the trees, people who'd do ANYTHING to keep us laid low! I . . . " He then sighed. "I'm tired. Yeah, many would think me a warrior and a martial artist, but . . .!" He shook his head. "This 'warrior' right now just wants to lay up the Lawgiver, the qu'f-piaqu'r, his eunuch swords and the camouflaged cloak, then be a normal person for a change."
A sympathetic hand squeezed his shoulder. Ataru gazed on Negako. "We want to help you gain control of your life." The latter turned to Ranma. "Yes, you are both martial artists. But you deserve to be 'normal' people. Let this be a way you can take to achieve that."
Ranma then sighed. "What happens afterward?"
Ataru smiled. "Your choice. Always your choice."
They stared into each other's eyes, and then Ranma nodded. "Okay."
* * *
Minutes later, Ranma came down the stairs, backpack in hand. She stopped on seeing a small crowd by the front doors. "Everyone . . . " she gasped, and then she blinked as Kaho came up to her, pom-poms in hand. "Kaho-chan . . . "
"Onee-chama," the cheerleader said. "Kaho wants to cheer Onee-chama when she goes with Negako-oneechama to Sanctuary. But . . . "
Negako walked up to stand beside Ranma. "You have been told several times that Sanctuary is a dangerous place to visit, Kaho."
"Uhn!" Kaho nodded. "Onee-chama, please don't be angry at us because we want Onee-chama to fall in love with Onii-chama. W-we . . . "
"We just want both of you to be happy," Marie finished.
Ranma then stared at Sakuya. "You're part of our family, Onee-sama," the eldest of the sisters declared as she came up to squeeze Ranma's shoulder. "This is your home now, Onee-sama. Just like it's become Onii-sama's home."
The martial artist then gazed at the others. Seeing the acceptance, love and concern in their eyes, she looked down. "Thanks, guys. I mean it." She then turned to Negako. "I'm ready. What do we have to do?"
The grandmaster waved her to the doorway. "Follow me."
The sisters backed away. Hinako then broke free of the crowd, a stuffed rabbit in hand. "Onee-tama," she called out.
She handed it to Ranma. "I'll bring it back." She scooped Mister Bunny into her free arm before giving Hinako a kiss. "I promise."
Kaho shook her pom-poms. "Gambatte, Onee-chama!"
"Stand back, Hinako," Negako beckoned the youngest of the sisters away from the doors. She then drew out a rectangular device and placed it on the wall beside the doorway. "Brace yourself, Ranma," she then ordered.
Ranma nodded. "Hai!"
Negako tapped a control. A strange hum echoed through the rotunda. The doors then opened. Instead of revealing the yard, the doors opened on a black, star-studded tunnel leading to a faint point of light an infinity away. "Come, Ranma," the grandmaster beckoned before she stepped into the tunnel.
Ranma headed in. Just past the gateway, she waved to the sisters. They waved back as the doors closed behind the martial artist. The hum faded. Silence fell before Karen sighed. "I don't think we'll be getting much sleep tonight," she stated, walking up to place a hand on Hinako's shoulder.
Mamoru chuckled. "Oh, don't panic about it, Karen-chan! Anee's gonna be back here in six hours and she'll be in perfect shape!"
"Hime thinks she better make some calorie milkshakes if we all want to stay up late tonight," Shirayuki thoughtfully mused.
Everyone turned to see Ataru by the doorway to the dining room. "Is there something wrong, Nii-sama?" Shirayuki wondered.
"Make mine coffee. And black."
He headed into his bedroom. "Um . . .!" Shirayuki stuttered, and then she nodded. "H-hai desu no, Nii-sama . . .!"
The others giggled as Ataru stepped into his bedroom. Before he could head to his bed, a hand rested on his shoulder. He turned to gaze into Chikage's eyes. "Don't panic, Ani-kun. This is EXACTLY what Ane-kun needs."
He nodded. "I wish it didn't have to happen this way, Chikage-chan."
He squeezed her hand in return.
* * *
An hour after midnight found Chikage was busy indulging herself in one of her favourite pastimes: Moon-gazing. Clouds drifted in the dark sky over the Island, but the moon was bright, a waning quarter. She closed her eyes. Later that morning, once Ranma came back from Sanctuary, the sisters would head to Nerima to help her and Ataru move fully into the old shrine. Once that was done, they would back off and let things develop . . .
Chikage's eyes widened as she gazed towards Welcome House. Rising, the sorceress levitated, soaring off for Ataru's room. Reaching the window, she looked inside, and then she paused, her eyes widening. "Ani-kun!"
Despite the request he made for coffee, Ataru was in bed, asleep.
Yet why were his eyes open?
And why was his left eye GLOWING?!
Chikage blinked. "Ani-kun . . .!"
* * *
"Oh, dear! This isn't going well . . . "
Yamada gazed fretfully at the readouts on his scanner. So far, the Crossing Over for Lum was proceeding without difficulty. The Nendo-kata bonding with the Oni had taken a "psi-scan sample" of the DNA of Miyake Shinobu, Fujinami Ryuunosuke and Mendou Shuutarou, mixing them together to create strands which would exhibit the best physical qualities of all three of her Terran friends. The doctor estimated that Lum would emerge from the Crossing Over by early Sunday evening, about eighteen hours away.
Ran was another problem. Yes, the soul and life force of the wounded Nendo-kata had been successfully transferred into the Seishin girl's body. However, the strain of such an insertion on Ran's body and soul was too much given the sheer differences in matters such as lifespan, paranormal powers, not to mention the unique parthenogenetic reproductive abilities members of the Great School of the Nendo-kata had possessed for millennia. If something didn't happen to stabilise Ran's life force, she could be lost.
Yamada turned to where a sweating Ran reclined on the couch. The doctor placed a hand on her head. "Be strong, Ran-san. Please, be str- . . . "
His voice failed as a flash of light turned his gaze behind him. The luminescence faded, revealing a figure draped in gold-trimmed, black, form-fitting clothing. And gunmetal grey cybernetic parts covering half the chest and upper abdomen, the whole right arm and left leg, part of the left arm and right leg -- not to mention most of the face. Staring at this Terminator-esque apparition, Yamada's jaw flapped open and closed in stunned disbelief for a moment before he finally squeaked, "A-ata-Ataru-san . . .?!"
The Cyborg walked around Yamada to kneel beside Ran, he gazing on her sweat-soaked face. A metal hand gently touched her forehead. A hollow sigh escaped the skull-like jaws that stood for his mouth. He then gazed at Yamada. The alien doctor shuddered, immediately realising that the situation between Tomobiki's most infamous resident and his former schoolmates was MUCH more complex than he first assumed. For even if he had only one organic eye in this form, the look in that eye told Yamada much. The being kneeling before the doctor had seen a near-infinity of tragedy, endless levels of pain and grief.
For what, Yamada couldn't imagine.
He then decided he didn't WANT to know.
It would help him sleep easier at nights.
Taking a breath, the Cyborg held up his arm. Something ejected from a hatchway above the wrist joint. A pole. Drawing that out, the Cyborg waited for it to morph into the shape of a caduceus, and then he held it over Ran's heart. The device glowed as a shower of energy pours down to sprinkle the Seishin teen from head to toe. Ran gasped, her body quivering. Yamada turned to his scanner. His eyes widened as all of Ran's vitals took a marked climb up. The shower soon stopped, and then the Cyborg sheathed the staff. "The remainder of this process should happen without problems, Sensei," he announced, his voice a hollow, metallic twang. "By the time Lum's come through what she's experiencing, Ran should make a recovery."
Yamada blinked before asking, "Why?"
A pause as the entity seemed to consider if he would answer or not. He then sighed, looking nowhere in particular. "I can't be what Lum wants me to be, Sensei. Even now, I can sense her hoping, dreaming that things will go back to the way they were before the last Tag Race." He shook his head. "They can't. My destiny was written -- by whom, I've NO idea -- long before I ever met Lum before the First Tag Race. And there's no way I'm going to tolerate her trying to go back in time to change things just for her benefit. Fate's got other ideas for me . . . " His right eye closed, a single tear trailing down his cheek. "And She won't tolerate any interference."
"But, then why did you . . .?"
"I know." The Cyborg nodded. "I had to do that. Much that I hated doing it, I HAD to do it. Right now, I'm too dangerous for the people in Tomobiki to be close to. And right now, I seem to have found someone who's in as much need of help getting herself out of the pit her life's become as I needed some time ago. But . . . " He stared at Ran. "At least Lum will have someone to be with her." He reached out to touch Ran's forehead again. "Pity I didn't learn of what your mom did to you when you were a little girl. Seems we've got something in common now. Take care of her, Ran-chan."
Another flash, then Yamada found himself alone with Ran. "Oh, dear . . . " the doctor breathed out, ruefully shaking his head.
* * *
"Ani-kun . . .?!"
The glow disappeared from Ataru's eye as his eyelids closed, a breath escaping him. Gazing at him from beyond the window, Chikage blinked, and then she lightly smiled before gliding away to give her Ani-kun some privacy.
* * *
To be continued . . .