Ranma 1/2 Fan Fiction / Urusei Yatsura Fan Fiction / Sister Princess Fan Fiction ❯ Lonely Souls ❯ The Fourth Part, C Side - Freedom From Destiny ( Chapter 9 )

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

Fourteen years ago . . .
Over two billion kilometres from the Earth, a girl in a tiger-stripped jumper crept through the control room of Triton's Central Warp Chamber. Slowly, she shuffled along the edges of the walls, hoping her friends wouldn't find her. Just as she was about to leave, she saw a shadow along the other side of the glass, where the workstations were located.
She needed a place to hide!
But where?
She dived under the nearest table just as the person came into the room.
* * *
Muttering, the junior warp technician reached over to his boss' terminal and flipped off the power-switch. Stupid senior technicians, he grumbled to himself as he left the room to get back to his lunch. Can't be bothered to double-check his terminal! Has to send someone ELSE to check it! Who cares if a lowly junior tech has to miss their lunch?
As he turned behind him for one last spot check, he noticed a single light still blinking. As mounting embarrassment surged from deep inside his gut, he confirmed it was coming from the relay transporter grid on HIS terminal. Looking quickly around the room to see if anyone might have caught his error, he flipped that switch off too. Good thing I checked after all, he thought as he shut the door behind him. Who knows what could happen if someone bumped the wrong button while the Chamber was on?
* * *
A few seconds later, Oyuki and her cousin Toji pounced on Lum from two different directions, gleefully shouting "IT!"
None of the children noticed the co-ordinates inserted into the grid.
No one noticed the transport button being depressed.
Since the primary power feed had been shut down, the computer controlling the Central Warp Chamber could do nothing.
All three shortly after ran out of the room barking with laughter just as the senior technician returned from his lunch. Looking inside, he was quick to notice the mess. To his relief, the power had already been turned off.
Who knew what could have happened otherwise?
**** **** ****
Lonely Souls
By Fred Herriot
pyeknu@hotmail.com OR fherriot@yahoo.com
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The teaser was written by David Chamberlain.
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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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The tunnel seemed to last forever.
Ranma grunted, adjusting her backpack as she followed Negako towards the beacon of light that lay an eternity ahead of them. Glancing to both sides, then up, and then down, she noted the stars surrounding them. There was no discernible pattern to them, at least not one Ranma could recognize. She felt as though she was walking down some glass-lined corridor reaching throughout the Universe. The air was breathable yet not stale, salty, misty or any other condition she might recognize as "normal." Normal for Earth, that is.
This was clearly NOT Earth.
Ranma stopped. Negako glanced at her. "I . . . " An automatic denial surged up her throat, and then she fought it down with a sigh. Lies sang out to the person before her. "Somewhat. I'm trying not to feel too overwhelmed."
The grandmaster of Saikoo Jinseijitsu-ryuu nodded. "Understandable. Ataru was the same when he first travelled to Sanctuary."
She waved Ranma with her. Ranma picked up her pace. "How long?"
"It depends," Negako replied. "Remember, there is a profound difference between the temporal dynamics of Earth's dimension and the temporal dynamics in Sanctuary itself. Sometimes, the journey is very short, a matter of minutes. Sometimes, it can last for hours. Hungry?"
"I'm alright. Can we walk side-by-side?"
"If you wish."
Ranma moved to her right, automatically reaching for the grandmaster's hand. The latter blinked, trying not to grin too much. The former was quick to notice. "You know, you really are beautiful when you smile, Negako." She winked at her companion. "Why are you so afraid of showing emotion to other people? Ataru told me you do have them."
"True, I do," Negako admitted. "But in most situations, I simply see no need to express emotion, especially to the extent 'normal' people take for granted. Until I was freed of Ataru, I never . . . " She paused. "No, I RARELY had chances to experience the 'good' side of humanity. Ironically, they all happened when I was with Happy."
"Jijii?!" Ranma gaped at her. "So that's why you call him 'Happy' instead of 'Happoosai,' eh? Did he try to free you before?"
"Three times. The third time, he paid dearly for his attempt at 'stealing' me from the Moroboshi Clan." Negako sighed. "His addiction to absorbing the ki from female undergarments was a result of that incident."
"Damn . . . " Ranma looked down as she considered that. "I mean, he annoys the hell out of me at times, but I'd never really wish him dead or anything like that. Just like all the others . . . "
"Though he may not say it in the open, he deeply cares for you, Ranma. You have the potential to become the living expression of what he wanted to create when he created Musabetsu Kakutou-ryuu. In you, he sees what he's created preserved for future generations."
"But what if I don't want to run a doojou, Negako?"
"That is alright. One needs no physical structure to pass the Art to a worthy student. Your training trip with Genma, for all his faults in teaching you, did prove that." Negako looked on her, humming.
"What is it?"
"Have you ever contemplated becoming a doctor?"
Ranma's eyes widened. She stared thoughtfully at the light. "Not really. You saying that should be something I should consider?"
"It is a possibility. Toofuu spoke of your potential when I invited him to come to the Island to train with Chikage's grandfather Ryuuji and myself. Even in the brief time he knew you, he lamented that your skill level was so narrowly focused. He did not understand why until we discovered what Genma did to you, though." A pause. "He sends his apologies for not noticing that before. He also apologizes for the one incident with Akane when he made your legs lose their strength so she could carry you home."
Ranma took that in with a smile. "Thanks. And I'll thank him when we get back to the Island." A pause. "Negako?"
"Where did I go wrong with Akane?"
"That, I suggest you discuss with Sakuya, Chikage or Karen. I am capable of many things, but emotional psychoanalysis is not one of my stronger suits." She then stopped. Ranma halted, giving her companion a curious look. Negako faced her new student. Then, to the other woman's surprise, she leaned over to give her a tender kiss. "Thank you, Ranma."
Ranma blinked, and then she stuttered, "F-f-for wh-what . . . ?"
"For rating my smile as 'beautiful.' I know you rated Akane's smile the same way when you feelings for her were the strongest."
"I . . . " Ranma stopped. "You're welcome . . .!" She then turned as the light ahead of them suddenly seemed to grow. "Eh?!" She automatically shifted herself before Negako. "What the hell's going on . . .?!" she demanded, tensing as Negako squeezed her shoulder.
"It is alright," Negako reported. "Our trip will be short this time around. Brace yourself to jump at my command."
Ranma nodded as the light seemed to encompass her whole field of vision. On hearing Negako call out "NOW!", she sprang . . .
To land on a rock the size of the Tendou sitting room. Quickly rolling to her feet, she stopped on seeing the rock's edge . . .
And a black void beyond.
Ranma backed away before feeling Negako's hands on her shoulders. Her eyes picked up a faint aura of light lying above that darkness. She turned to Negako. "Is there an end to that?" She pointed beyond the rock.
Negako shook her head. "No. Not until the end of Time Itself."
Ranma took that in. Gulping, she turned back, this time looking up and away from the darkness. And upon a floating, flat-topped asteroid about five kilometres wide, it supporting a glittering city so futuristic in design, Ranma doubted the creators of Star Trek, Star Wars or Babylon 5 could equal it! "Whoa . . . " she gasped, and then her eyes turned up to gaze into a -- well, "sky" seemed the most comfortable term for the panorama of boiling platinum, silvery, golden, crimson and deep azure energy that laid overhead. A sky that seemed to stretch forever and ever, yet clearly melted into the pitch darkness lying beneath Ranma and Negako's feet. "Oh, man . . .!"
"Welcome to Sanctuary, Ranma," Negako announced.
* * *
"Hmm . . .?" Ataru's eyes fluttered as he sat up, blinking on seeing Karen peeking into his bedroom. "Oh, Karen-chan . . . " he called out before glancing at the clock on the nightstand. "What's wrong? Can't you sleep?"
"Not really." Karen stepped into the room, walking over to sit on his bed. "I was wondering if you were feeling sleepy or not."
"I . . . " He shuddered as a bout of dizziness overwhelmed him for a moment. "Oh, man!" he gasped. "What the heck happened . . .?"
"Onii-chan, are you okay?!" Karen slid over to feel his head. Ataru remained still for a moment, and then he relaxed as she pulled her hand back. "Well, you're not running a fever or anything. Was it something you ate?"
"Better make sure Shirayuki-chan doesn't hear that," he warned with a chuckle before reaching over to draw her close to him.
"Onii-chan!" she squealed before sighing as he drew her into his embrace. "Oh, Onii-chan! You miss Onee-chan already, don't you?"
He considered that for a moment before nodding. "Funny. I do miss her. And it's worse, knowing that when she and Onee-chan comes back, five weeks would've passed for them. And for us, it'd be . . . " A pause. "Five hours."
"I'd love to see Sanctuary," she admitted. "We all would love to see it, even just once. Why won't you let us go there, Onii-chan?"
He playfully ruffled her hair. "Because it's not a safe place for nice girls like you," he reminded her. "It's an asteroid floating in a null-time tunnel reaching all the way to this moment from the end of Time. If you fell off the asteroid, you'd fall and fall and fall until you'd vanish into Eternity. And THAT, I'd never wish on ANYONE."
"Not even those jerks in Tomobiki?"
He lightly smiled. "No, not even them, Karen-chan."
"You hate them, don't you?"
Ataru blinked before he leaned over to kiss her cheek. "Not really. I just don't have any desire to be with them anymore, Karen-chan. And I'm worried about you guys. You and the others are WAY more important to me, Karen-chan. You're my family now. A family that cares for me a hell of a lot more than Muchi or Kinshou ever did. What happens if people like Mendou find out that I've got twelve sisters, all who love me very much? Would they accept it? Or would they decide that since, in their eyes, I never deserved anything good to happen to me, they'd do everything in their power to break us apart? All so they could enjoy seeing me suffer? I don't want that. Do you?"
"Of course not!" Karen reached up to hold the arm lying on her tummy close to her. "We'll never leave you, Onii-chan! Never!"
Silence fell as they relaxed, and then the door opened. "Onii-chama?"
"Kaho-chan?!" both called out on seeing the young cheerleader peek in.
Kaho blinked on seeing Karen beside Ataru. "Ah, Karen-chan, gomen ne!"
She then yelped as a foot tripped over the doorstop. Both winced as Kaho fell on her face. Karen leapt off the bed so she could help her sister back to her feet. "Kaho-chan, are you okay?" Karen tried not to laugh; Kaho's tripping over something often seemed a daily occurrence.
Kaho giggled in embarrassment as she walked over to sit on the bed. "Kaho thought Onii-chama didn't want to be alone tonight with Onee-chama now in Sanctuary, so Kaho came to be with Onii-chama." She slid in to embrace Ataru.
"Kaho . . . " he whispered before kissing her forehead. "Thanks."
"Aaah!" she squealed. "Onii-chama's beard tickles!"
Laughter filled the room. Karen slipped back onto the bed. Seeing that things were becoming crowded, Ataru sat up, reclining against the wall. Karen sat between him and the nightstand while Kaho reclined on the other side, draping herself on his lap. "Oh, Onii-chan, what's going to happen if the others come in here to be with you?" Karen asked.
"It best not become a fight," Ataru warned.
"Hmm? What is it, Kaho-chan?"
"Why won't Onii-chama or Onee-chama let Kaho go to Sanctuary?"
"Why?" He sighed as he considered if there was a nice way of putting it. Finding nothing that he could use, he began, "Well, when you go through the tunnel, you land on a rock the size of this room. But beyond the rock is this big void of NOTHING that extends all the way to the end of Time. If you fall of, you'll fall and fall and just keep on falling . . .!"
Kaho quivered, and then she cried out, burying her face into Ataru's chest. "Kaho doesn't want to fall!" she wailed.
He rubbed Kaho's forehead. "I'm sorry! I'm sorry!" he apologised as he kissed her, allowing her to lay her head on his shoulder. "Anyhow . . . "
* * *
"Ranma, I DID warn you about taking a wrong step."
Ranma grunted as she clawed her way back to the surface of one of the small rocks leading in a chain of ten such boulders between what she saw as the "beam in" point and Sanctuary. As soon as she was on flat ground, she took a deep breath, and then she stood up. Her eyes fell on the next rock in the chain. It was the size of a king-sized bed, presently hovering forty metres away. "Damn, how could I've misjudged that . . .?"
Negako's eyebrow arched. "Ranma, if the dynamics of time are different here, how different can the dynamics of space be?"
The younger woman paused, staring at the grandmaster before a nod bobbed her head. "So I can't judge distances here, right?"
Negako nodded. "Exactly. When you are in Sanctuary itself, then you can relax since an artificial environment is constantly kept there for the benefit of those who visit. The same is true for the asteroids that allow people to enter Sanctuary. If they are capable, of course."
Ranma shuddered before calming herself. "So how can I . . .?"
She then screamed out in shock as Negako grabbed her by the straps of her backpack. Her eyes widened to the size of saucers as she was pulled across that endless chasm to the next asteroid. Negako, at least, allowed Ranma to land on her feet. Gasping as she collapsed to her knees, the younger woman panted before looking up as Negako took the measure of the next leap. "Damn it all, Negako! WARN me about that, will ya?!" she spat out.
"Things happen here without warning, Ranma." Negako tried not to smirk at her new student's protest. "Alright, three more jumps and we are . . . "
Ranma screamed again as Negako grabbed her by the backpack. In a single leap, they were flying. As they turned to make a landing, the rock shattered! "OH, SHIT!" Ranma yelped as they slipped towards the unending tunnel below.
A ki-chain with a hooked end leapt from Negako's palm, soaring past the remaining rocks in the floating archipelago to dig into the hard rock of the Sanctuary asteroid. Ranma cried out as she found herself yanked across the chasm. She was then flipped up to land on the flat ground . A second later, Negako flipped up to join her, and then she dispersed the Psychic Kusarigama. She waved Ranma with her. "We are here," she announced.
Ranma panted. "Shit, Jusenkyou was NICE compared to this place!"
* * *
The city atop the Sanctuary asteroid was walled. Two gates provided ground-level entrance to the city, one opening to the chain of rocks from the "beam in" point, the other opening directly to the time-chasm itself. The city's interior was built on a spoke-wheel design, eight streets leading from the wall to intersect at the centre. A lighthouse-like tower surrounded by a traffic circle marked the centre-point of the asteroid. As they walked from the gate, Ranma noticed the buildings lining the streets were low structures, none higher than five floors in human terms. Still, despite the rural feel, the structure designs were as futuristic as Ranma assumed when she first gazed on this place. "Hey, Negako, who built this place anyway?" she asked.
"Their identities are unknown," Negako reported. "From what I have ascertained in previous visits to this place, those who frequent Sanctuary refer to its builders as the 'Questors.'"
"'Questors,' huh? What were they looking for?"
"That is unknown to everyone. However, what is known is that the Questors hailed from the very end of Time Itself."
"They were reaching back in time?"
"Yes. They reached to a point three billion years ago as we measure time. Then, for reasons unknown, they committed mass suicide. Sanctuary itself is all that remains of their culture. In this time period, of course."
Ranma whistled. "Weird."
They reached the traffic circle. Negako lead Ranma to the second street to their left. Heading back towards the wall, Ranma noted some of the lots lining this street were undeveloped. Trees -- many so alien-looking to Ranma, she couldn't HOPE to find words to describe them -- took up those empty lots.
"None of these are dangerous, are they?" she asked, pointing at one.
"It depends on how you define 'danger,'" Negako reported. "The fruit they produce is incompatible to our digestive systems, but Ataru reported that when he sat on one of the limbs, it felt as if he was in bed. I advise you to NOT try to injure them, though," she warned with a raised finger.
"Gotcha . . . hey! There's a doojou!"
Negako silently chuckled as Ranma ran past her to a cleared lot bearing a simple wood and paper-walled doojou, like the Tendou's training hall in general design. Stopping at the gate, she noted there was no sign to indicate what Art was practised here. She headed in. Glancing around, she quickly saw that a classical rock garden had been raked out around the doojou. "Nice place . . . " She whistled, and then she saw a residence located behind the doojou. "Hey, Negako, did you build this place or did someone else from Earth come here?"
Negako stepped into the garden, waving Ranma with her to the residence. "Someone else did come here. Around 1942 as we tell time."
"Who? Do you know her?"
"I know OF her," Negako said. "Deannette Antonia Raeburn."
"Major Raeburn . . .?" Ranma gasped as her mind conjured images of a twenty-something, brown-haired, blue-eyed tomboy from British Columbia. History books credited her with being the top "specialized warfare" -- that was the Canadian euphemism for military operations by people possessing metahuman or paranormal powers and abilities -- soldier operating during the Second World War. Major Dean Raeburn, atop becoming the last heir of the immortal Japanese ninjutsu grandmaster Hosan Hirosuke, had also won the right to make use of an alien "power jewel" which granted her Captain Marvel-like powers. She also gained the use of a deadly, chisel-pointed sword called a "cat's claw" blade, said to be so tough, it could shatter the hardest diamond in one stroke. With these weapons, Major Raeburn helped establish the "War Hawks," a team of Canadian military metahumans who fought Axis paranormals around the world. Major Raeburn and the War Hawks disappeared shortly after VJ-Day, their final fate a total mystery to the general public. In spite of Genma's assertions that women were weak when it came to martial arts, one only had to look at Major Raeburn's example -- Ranma learned of the Canadian when she attended junior high -- to see how wrong he was. "Oh, man!" Ranma breathed out.
"The same," Negako confirmed as they stepped into the residence. Looking around the house, Ranma was instantly reminded of her family home. "Sanctuary is most frequently used by the various Seeker Power Jewel Warriors as a relaxation zone to help them recover from their various battles."
Ranma blinked. The Seekers, according to an interview Major Raeburn granted in 1944 to Allied war correspondents, were a race of immortals, far above what Japanese might call "kami," who died out en masse long before the first signs of life appeared on Earth. The Power Jewels were the only physical legacy remaining of that race. "So how did you get the 'keys' to this place?"
"Someone gave the 'key' to me two years ago. I would rather not reveal that person's identity at this time, though."
"Oh? Sounds fair enough. So where do I sleep?"
Negako indicated one room. "Right here."
Ranma looked inside, smirking on seeing a thick futon and other basic home necessities awaiting her. "Nice place." She slipped off her pack, setting it aside. "What about food?" she then asked. "Where can we get that?"
"There's a dry storage room in the basement here that has a fair selection. If you wish to try it, there's also a replicator unit."
"Like from Star Trek?!"
"The same. The unit is Zephyrite. Anything flagged in red indicates foods you should avoid. Terran selections span Japanese, Korean, Mandarin, Italian and American cuisines. There should be no problems in that regard."
"One other thing." Negako reached into her own small pack to draw out a laptop computer. "Rinrin believed you might need this."
Ranma smiled, taking the machine from the grandmaster. "Thanks. I guess I would need it. There're no power problems here?"
"No. I will leave you to make yourself at home. Get some sleep as soon as you can. When you wake up, we will begin training."
"Right. Um, do we try to keep time in this place?"
"In a place where normal rules of time have little effect?" Negako's eyebrow arched. "What do you suggest, Ranma?"
"Ah . . .!" the younger woman exclaimed. "R-right! I should've realized that!" She shrugged embarrassedly. "So how do we do this?"
"Your body's internal timekeeping mechanisms will suffice for now. Do not worry if you feel your internal 'clock' going out of sync. Ataru found it to be of no real concern while he was staying here. Try to get some sleep."
Negako stepped out. Ranma sighed, moving to draw the shades over the window. To her surprise, the shades blocked out all exterior light. Overhead, a two-tube ceiling light provided what internal light there was, though there was also a lamp on a nightstand by the futon. There was also a worktable. Ranma set the laptop there, plugging it into a nearby outlet. Flicking the machine on, she smiled as the programs clicked on. She dug out her UHD diskette. Loading that, she drew up her personal journal files:
Journal Entry, Day 0 of Sanctuary visit,
Dear Diary,
I never thought I would wind up on another PLANET of all things, even after meeting Moroboshi Ataru and his family. Yet now, I'm writing this from a city in another DIMENSION, let alone another planet! Wild, huh?
Comparing this place to all the other places I've been to, Sanctuary is in a class all by itself. There's no clear day or night here. All light comes from a sky of burning energy above the rock where the city stands. Have to ask Negako about that. How far up is that 'sky' anyway? It's hard to tell distances in this place. And I HAVE to watch my step here. If what just happened to Negako and me as we were making our way into this place is normal, all it would take is one bad move and I'm a goner!
Sanctuary floats over a tunnel that, according to Negako, extends to the end of Time. How far ahead is that? Millions of years? Perhaps billions of years? Or is there no end of Time? That's scary. It's no wonder Ataru doesn't want his sisters, especially Kaho, to come here.
"Ataru . . .?" Ranma stopped, glancing at the futon. Taking a moment to collect her thoughts, she turned back to the laptop.
I feel weird. Tonight's the first night I'm gonna be sleeping alone since Ataru dropped the story about the Niphentaxians and what happened in Lumukyou on me. That was what? Three, four days ago? And I . . .
She paused before continuing:
. . . I miss him already. Strange, isn't it? I just left him in the House not an hour ago. And yeah, Negako's here, but she's not Ataru. What does that mean to me? Does it mean that I really care for him? Do I . . .
Another pause.
. . . I love him?
I wish I could answer that.
I know that I LIKE him! But is that enough for me now?
Oh, well, I guess we'll have to wait and see.
Glancing over the words she just typed, Ranma sighed, and then saved the journal entry before closing down her laptop.
* * *
Ataru, Karen and Kaho looked up to see Hinako peek into the room. "Hey, what're you doing here?" he wondered. "Can't you sleep?"
Hinako shook her head. "Hina's worried about Onee-tama." She walked into the room, rubbing her eyes, and then she crawled onto the bed. "And Hina knows Onii-tama's also worried about Onee-tama. Hina just wishes . . . "
Ataru shifted Kaho away from him to draw his youngest sister onto his lap. "You wanted to go to Sanctuary too, huh?"
She giggled, leaning into his chest. "Onii-tama really, really, really likes Onee-tama, doesn't he?" she said as she gazed knowingly into his eyes.
"Well, if Hinako-chan likes her, then I have to like her too, I guess," he mused, rubbing his chin on her forehead.
Hinako squealed. Everyone then blinked as the door opened, revealing Sakuya carrying a rolled-up futon under one arm and Hinako's favourite stuffed teddy bear, a huge toy as big as Marie's dog, in the other hand. "I guess I'm not the only one who thought of keeping Onii-sama company," the eldest of the sisters declared as she spread the futon and Mister Bear on the floor.
"Waai! Sakuya-chan brought Kuma-san!" Hinako reached out for her prized bedtime companion. "Hina wants Kuma-san! Kuma-san!"
"Ah! You have to choose, Hinako-chan!" Sakuya wagged her finger at the youngest of the sisters. "What's it going to be?! Kuma-san or Onii-sama?!"
Giggling, Hinako leaned into Ataru. "Hina'll always choose Onii-tama!"
She rubbed her head in the crook of his neck. "Aaah! Onii-chama's OUR brother, too, Hinako-chan!" Kaho wailed.
Ataru rolled his eyes to the ceiling as the sisters started arguing. Maybe I SHOULD have gone to Sanctuary, he ruefully mused.
* * *
"Wake up, Ranma!"
Ranma grunted, looking up to see Negako gazing down on her. "Oh, man . . . " She yawned, sitting up. "How long was I asleep?"
"That is a hard question to answer," the grandmaster warned. "In one respect, you got eight hours' rest. Come. Breakfast is waiting."
Ranma watched her go. Scrambling out of bed, she followed her host to the small sitting room located between the sleeping quarters and the doojou. "'In one respect?' What the heck does THAT mean, Negako?" she asked.
"Observe." Negako reached into her top to draw a hand-held timepiece.
Ranma noted it was a gear-driven automatic device, no doubt made in Europe. "Needs to be wound up." She took it from Negako, and then she twisted the knob to wind the spring. The clock began to tick, and then it fell silent. "Huh?!" She then wound it up again. Again, only a few ticks echoed from it before it fell silent. "What the hell . . .?!"
Negako took the timepiece back. "A null-time vacuum."
Ranma stared at her. "'Null-time vacuum?!'"
The grandmaster waved her into the sitting room. Once Ranma was seated, she headed to the kitchen to bring out two bowls of soulloungt'ang. "Exactly. Anything affected strongly by linear time is halted or slowed to a snail's pace when it is brought into Sanctuary. Your aging process, for example. As long as you remain here, you will not age. If you so desired, you could be virtually immortal. But since Sanctuary has little 'creature comforts' . . . "
"People'd go insane here," Ranma mused, sniffing the delicious aroma of the soulloungt'ang as Negako retrieved kitchen utensils and a bottle of spring water. "Then how can you cook food in this place?" she asked.
"Cooking food, healing from injuries and other matters are not totally influenced by lineal time, Ranma." Negako set out the chopsticks, and then she poured Ranma a glass of water. "Take boiling soulloungt'ang. The basic broth takes from one to two days to prepare under normal circumstances. But if you used a microwave oven or 'hot' ki to aid in the actual cooking . . . "
"It goes faster," Ranma concluded.
Ranma shook her head. "It's hard to accept."
"Even for me," Negako mused. "Clearly, the Questors possessed -- or WILL possess if you choose to view that situation in that manner -- such an advanced understanding of temporal science, creating Sanctuary was child's play. I believe I COULD come to understand it . . . "
"But you'd be probably driven out of your mind doing that, right?"
"Perhaps," Negako admitted.
Ranma laughed. "Guess what? You're human, Negako!"
Negako blinked. "Should I feel complimented or insulted?"
The younger woman's laughter picked up.
* * *
Breakfast was soon done. Negako directed Ranma into a furo. There, she received her healing shiatsu, something she had received from Ataru before breakfast when she was staying on Promised Island. As Negako worked on her, Ranma asked if the process could be increased given the differences between Sanctuary and Earth. "I will attempt to do that, but there is a danger."
"What sort of danger?" Ranma asked.
"Over-treatment." The ninjutsu grandmaster gently vibrated a finger over a point on Ranma's scalp. "You know of overmedication, do you not?" Seeing Ranma nod, she continued, "Well, there is also such a thing as receiving TOO much shiatsu treatment. Your body needs all the opportunities it can receive to adjust to any significant changes in your shiatsu or ki patterns, Ranma, just as it must adjust to 'normal' matters like a change of diet or a change in your exercise pattern. If that time is not allocated . . . "
"It'd be just as bad as not being treated at all."
"Gotcha." Ranma relaxed. "Hey, Negako, can I ask you something?"
"What is it?"
"Was Ataru ever bothered whenever you and he were here in Sanctuary?" A slow flush crossed Ranma's cheeks. "You know, like in . . .?"
"Sexual arousal?"
Ranma's cheeks instantly went cherry-red. "Um, y-y-yeah . . . "
"Sometimes." She pressed another point. "As Sakuya and Chikage attempted to impress onto you when they spoke to you, there is no shame in feeling that. In fact, I am aware of certain cultures that consider sexual relations between siblings to be not only natural but *proper.*"
Ranma gaped at her. "Really?!"
Negako nodded. "Indeed. Sexual arousal, in its basic form, is a function of human biology. It is the obvious physical sign that you are ready to procreate. However, the physical desire to procreate does not always match to a compatible emotional need. So our society considers it 'proper' to control the physical need, focus it only to those one emotionally considers to be 'safe.' You felt that way on occasion for Akane, did you not?"
"Um, y-yeah . . . I g-guess so," Ranma stuttered. "At least, I think I d-d-did. I just didn't really u-u-understand it." She shrugged before glancing quizzically on Negako. "Does that make me perverted, Negako?"
"No, not by the definition of the term I understand," Negako admitted. "Why are you so curious about this, Ranma? You clearly do not wish to pursue an intimate relationship with Akane at this time, if ever again."
"Yeah, I don't, but . . .!" Ranma stopped, and then she sighed. "I guess I just want to try to understand where things went wrong between us, Negako. I mean, you're right. I don't imagine marrying Akane anymore, not after what's happened. But I still want to be her friend. And I don't want to make the same mistakes Oyaji made with me when I finally have kids. IF I have kids, of course!" She held up her finger before she spat out, "Damn! Sakuya-chan was right. I AM too young to worry about this!"
"Well, it is good that you realize it now instead of when you are trapped in a marriage with no emotional underpinnings." Negako then nodded. "Alright, we are done for this session. Time for the doojou."
"Hai . . . "
* * *
"You can't access them at ALL?!"
Genma shook his head. Despite it being well past midnight, the lights in the sitting room shone. Kasumi and Nabiki were both in bed, though Souun could sense Akane was awake. "I've tried everything, Tendou-kun! Much that I am VERY wary to call upon the Sen-ken forms, the fact that the boy memorized them, then passed them on to those infernal mirror-twins of his . . .!"
Souun sighed sympathetically. Yes, the Sen-ken techniques, especially the Yamasen-ken forms, WERE dangerous. One need not look past the example of Kumon Ryuu's father to see that. But Ranma was more responsible than THAT! After all, had Ranma used them for personal gain? Of course not! Since Ranma DID know them, they would have been copied into the mirror-clones . . .
A shudder shook the Tendou patriarch as he remembered Toshiko's words to him about that incident. Why did Ranma disregard what Souun had decided about those two, STEALING that compact from Nabiki to let them go free? Why?! Did that mean . . .? That Ranma had long come to the point where he no longer really cared about what Souun wanted? It was very clear that Ranma had reached that point concerning Genma! Which meant . . .
The schools HAD to be united! No matter what happened, the schools HAD to be united. If what was happening with Nodoka and her relatives bore fruit, then everything his friend had done over the last decade and more will be lost. And though Souun didn't appreciate the idiot stunts Genma pulled concerning Ranma's training, he knew Genma had trained a very fine martial artist. That outcome had to be protected and nourished under their guidance. It could NOT be lost to a family of greedy bastards like the Asagayas, much less a wandering family of cooks like the Kuonjis, a family of deviants like the Kunous and ESPECIALLY a clan of female chauvinists like those Chinese Amazons!
Both turned as Akane stepped in. A smile was on her face as she twirled, modelling the now-restored Densetsu no Doogi. Souun's eyes widened before he nodded. "I see you wish to continue to press your claim for Ranma-kun."
"I've no choice!" The smile faded from her face as she glared at him. "I don't know what the hell you were thinking earlier by saying that fake was going to marry Ranma! If she wants him, she has to come through me first!"
The fathers gazed on her, and then exchanged a look before Genma slid his glasses on his nose. "Perhaps we were too hasty about moving the engagement from you, Akane-chan." He waved the youngest Tendou sister to a floor mat. "Please understand that this is something your father and I've dreamed of for a very long time. To come so close to making it happen, then have it snatched away . . . " He shuddered. "It galls me. I . . . " He stopped. Then, to Souun and Akane's surprise, he prostrated himself before her. "Tendou Akane, I only can but give you my sincerest apologies for the trouble my mistakes in raising my son, your fiancé, have brought you. Please, know I will be honoured to call you my daughter-in-law when we finally make my son see some reason."
"I . . .!" Akane's cheeks reddened. "Uncle . . .!"
Souun's jaw dropped. "Genma . . . "
Silence fell as Akane considered the older man's words before she nodded. "Thank you, Uncle. That really meant a lot to me."
"You deserve it." Genma sat up to hold up a finger. "Now, before we press on, I must ask you this: Do you love my son?"
Akane nodded. "Yes!"
Hearing that, Souun moaned, "Oh, Akane . . .!"
"Very well." Genma squeezed his friend's shoulder. "Unfortunately, given what happened on Tuesday, the boy seems to think he has no obligation to you. That HAS to be corrected. And it's best corrected by you, Akane."
He pointed to her. Akane sighed. "You mean I have to challenge him?"
"It may be the only thing we can do to make Ranma-kun come back, Akane-chan." Souun nodded understandingly. "That he's gone out of his way to pay back the debts he accumulated with the Kuonji girl and that China girl is fine enough. That Kuonji's dowry has been returned to her is also a good thing. As far as I'm now concerned -- and I hope, Saotome-kun, that I speak for you as well . . . " He glanced at Genma, who nodded in return. "We have no need to concern ourselves with their troubles anymore."
"They may disagree with that, Dad," Akane warned.
"Indeed, given their actions in the past, I suspect they will." Souun indicated the Doogi. "Well, isn't it fortunate that you have this now?"
Akane nodded. "You have a point." She then gazed intently at her father. "What about that double of mine?!" she demanded.
Souun sighed, bowing his head. "Akane-chan, I'm sorry that I said those things after Kimiko-chan had her fight with Saotome-kun here." He indicated Genma. "I admit that I've become desperate as of late to see this whole agreement through to its rightful conclusion. That Nabiki-chan is capable of pursuing the Art again fills me with joy. And your own desire to progress in the Art has never abated. Please . . . " He bowed low. "Can you forgive your foolish father for what he did to hurt you?"
Akane smiled at him. "It's okay, Dad." She reached over to rub his shoulder. "We just wanted you to be yourself again!"
He straightened himself. "So," Genma spoke up. "The time has come for us to plan on what we must do to bring the boy back."
"Negako-san said he'll be in Nerima by tomorrow," Akane reported.
"Good." Souun nodded before he gazed intently at her. "Do you intend to press your challenge against Kimiko-chan, Akane?"
The youngest of the Tendous considered that for a moment before she sighed. "I have to make sure of it, Dad," she admitted. "I don't want to deal with another rival and I know Ranma doesn't want to deal with another fiancée."
"Understandable, but remember . . . " He held up a finger to emphasize his point. "Ranma-kun DID name Kimiko-chan after your mother. Certainly if he did that, it means he does care for what happens with our family, Akane-chan."
Akane sighed. "Yeah, that's true." She then nodded. "Alright, if you want, I'll ask her if she has any feelings for Ranma. If she does, I have to challenge her then, Dad! But if she doesn't, I'll leave her be."
Souun nodded. "Fair enough."
"Then you have to challenge the boy himself," Genma warned.
"Do you think I have to go THAT far with him, Uncle?" Akane asked.
Genma sagely nodded. "Yes, I do. Remember, Akane-chan, the boy is extremely stubborn. That has its good and bad sides. The good side is that he will never give up when faced with a challenge. Much that I would not want to remind you of this, but how did he manage to save you from Saffron?" Seeing Akane tense before she relaxed with a nod, he added, "I'm sorry, child. I didn't mean to hurt you. But the boy has to face his obligations. And if he runs around willy-nilly thinking he can avoid it . . . " He shrugged.
"Indeed, you have a point." Souun gazed on Akane. "Child, I know you might hesitate before facing something like this, but you MUST challenge Ranma-kun to force him into acknowledging the agreement. And you must also focus the challenge to ensure he no longer defers to his other would-be suitors . . . " A pause, and then he shook his head. "Not to mention his mother."
"What if he refuses?" Akane asked. "His mother means a lot to him."
"He won't," Genma warned. "I won't allow it. If he does, I'll disown him on the spot and declare that he can no longer practice Musabetsu Kakutou-ryuu. He certainly doesn't wish to face THAT."
Souun nodded. "Indeed. And Ranma-kun's NEVER refused a challenge. You must use that against him if you're to bring him back."
Akane sighed. "I don't like this." She squeezed her fingers into fists as a determined nod twitched her head. "But he's my fiancé. I've no choice now." She then nodded. "Alright, I'll do it. On one condition." She pointed to Genma. "You vow right here and now that when I bring him home, you'll NEVER do what you did to Ranma when he was a boy. I want him as my fiancé, but I don't want to marry a scholastic roonin."
Genma tensed. "But . . .!"
"Please." She held up a hand. "I know you wanted to make sure he would become a fine martial artist. Uncle, you succeeded beyond your wildest dreams. But in other situations, he's hopeless. I don't want that anymore. I'm sure he doesn't want it. If you try to put that on him again, HE might be the one who makes himself roonin and walk away from ALL of us! Do you want that?"
Genma shook his head. "No."
Akane nodded. "Alright. If Negako-san can fix up what you did, not to mention rid him of his ailurophobia, let's let it happen."
Souun nodded. "Agreed." He then nodded upstairs. "You best get some sleep, child. You'll have quite the busy day tomorrow."
"Hai! Good night, Dad, Uncle."
Akane headed upstairs. They watched her go. "We're close, Genma." Souun chuckled, raising his teacup. "We're so close!"
"That, my old friend, we are!" Genma returned his toast.
* * *
Ranma sighed, sitting on the doojou roof as she gazed on the swirling clouds of gas and fire overhead. It was the late "morning" of the sixth "day" she had stayed in Sanctuary. Not two hours before -- at least, Ranma believed it to have been two hours -- Negako pronounced her healed from the neural damage Genma's actions years ago provoked, not to mention the recent damage taken on thanks to Akane and all the other people in Nerima. Come "tomorrow," the healing from the damage the Neko-ken training caused would start in earnest. The final step before she would learn if Chikage and the Jusenkyou guide were right about how the Niángniquán curse would ultimately affect her.
Now she had a decision to make.
Ranma gazed on Negako. Damn, even without using the Umisen-ken cloak, she could pretty well sneak up on anyone! Taking a deep breath on sensing what the grandmaster wanted to know, she sat up. "Before I say 'yes' or 'no,' can you answer me something, Negako?" she then asked.
Negako's eyebrows arched. "Why Ataru?"
Ranma nodded. The grandmaster stared towards the tower in the heart of Sanctuary. "You were four years old. Genma took you on a small training trip to get you used to various changes in weather conditions while camping on the road. That trip took you to Sendai. Ataru's uncle Komeru owns property in the area. From what I have been able to deduce, Genma tried to sneak onto the property to steal food. He left you alone in the camp you made outside the property line. And you, being so young and alone . . . "
"I got scared?"
"Very," Negako replied. "Fortunately, you were found by Ataru, who was then visiting his 'cousin,' Nokoko. You know the real story about her."
"Yeah! She's really his older sister, but Kinshou sent her up to be raised by Komeru after Ataru's twin brother Kaeru died."
The grandmaster nodded. "Ataru and Nokoko found you, and then they invited you to the house. By then, Genma had been spotted by security. He managed to evade them, but when he got back to the camp, he found you gone. Tracing down where you went, he found you playing with Ataru and Nokoko. Naturally, that displeased him, so he tried to take you away."
"What happened?"
"Nokoko and Ataru were both very pleased to see you as a new friend, so it naturally displeased them when Genma tried to take you away. They tried to follow Genma through the snow to 'rescue' you from him. Nokoko fell behind, but Ataru stayed on as best he could."
Ranma's eyes went wide. "Really?!"
"Yes. At that moment, things become unclear. Security later found you and Ataru at the camp. Genma . . . " A smirk turned her lips before she continued, "Was thoroughly beaten down. It looked as if both a person and some wild animal had their way with him. As to who it was that dealt with Genma, no one was able to properly ascertain."
"Do you have an idea?"
"I do. Clearly, whoever it was, he or she is not native to Earth. The animal's footprints and the injury marks on Genma indicate a . . . " She glanced at Ranma. "Type of animal you would not presently like to hear of."
Ranma gulped. Negako sighed. "There is something else. As of now, there is a psionic bond connecting you to Ataru. A bond that, I believe, could only have been forged by a high-order telepath or broadcast empath."
Ranma gaped. "What . . .?!"
"It is true. You cannot access it at this time due to the damage your mind incurred from the Neko-ken training." Negako ignored Ranma's shiver. "And because you are 'silent' in that regard, Ataru cannot consciously access it, either. Even if both of you could access it, I do not believe it will allow you to communicate 'in the clear' to each other. But it will allow you to understand the other's feelings." A pause. "And before you ask, I do not believe that bond can be severed. Not without killing you both."
The ninjutsu grandmaster fell silent as Ranma took that in. The younger woman then stared toward the tower in the centre of Sanctuary. "Who would do something like THAT to us? WHY would they do it? I don't get it!"
"I cannot answer that question. The only one who can . . . "
"Is whoever bonded us," Ranma finished. "Does Ataru know?"
"I have not told him that you are the one he is bonded to. Not yet. But he does know he has a bond with someone. His 'Other' as he likes to refer to you as. When the repairs on your mind are complete -- IF you want me to complete them to that extent -- the truth can at last be revealed."
"Can't you try to dredge up my memories and put this puzzle together that way?" Ranma stared curiously at her. Seeing Negako shake her head, the younger woman sighed. "Damn. All because of the N-n-n-Neko-ken, r-right?"
Ranma took a deep breath. "Damned if I do, damned if I don't."
"You need not look at it that way, Ranma."
"What do you mean?"
"Would it not be better to learn the truth? Instead of always living in fear and uncertainty? There are those in this existence who would take gross advantage of that. Do you wish to leave yourself vulnerable to that, Ranma?"
Ranma shook her head. "No."
"Then you have only one choice before you."
They looked on each other before Ranma nodded. "Yeah."
* * *
Journal Entry, Day 7 of Sanctuary visit (I think!),
Dear Diary,
Well, it's started.
This morning, Negako kept me in the furo for an hour or so as she did the first shiatsu treatment to help me be rid of my ailurophobia. Man, it's easier to think of that Latin term instead of using the 'N' word. And believe me, the idea of finally being rid of that fear and the madness that comes with it when it gets triggered just fills me with joy. Still, the . . .
Ranma paused. She then sighed as she continued to type:
. . . the idea of facing what the Jusenkyou guide and Chikage told me MIGHT happen when I'm mentally back 'in shape' sends chills down my back.
Part of me, even with what I feel now for Ataru, still wants to BE a man in my heart and soul. Would it really matter when this is all over? What would happen to me if I came out of this at the end and still felt I was a guy? What would happen between Ataru and me? I mean, when we slept together, he didn't do anything I'd consider perverted.
A giggle ran through her.
Oh, jeez, if any of those morons from Tomobiki heard that Moroboshi Ataru did NOT do something perverted in close company with a pretty girl like me, they'd probably think the world was coming to an end.
What a bunch of jerks!
Just like Akane would think about me, I guess.
Stupid, ignorant tomboy.
Rinrin was right about that, I guess. Who the HELL gave Akane the right to judge what I could feel? If I feel anything about that idiot now, it's a desire to get back to Nerima, then use a soulsword and make that tomboy's precious 'Dou-chan' go bye-bye. The look on her face when that happens . . .
She stopped typing. Gazing at the screen for a moment, Ranma then took a deep breath before putting fingers back to keys.
. . . happens would be priceless!
That requires that I actually LEARN how to make a soulsword. I've seen Ataru and Negako do it, but for some reason, I can't picture in my mind how they can manipulate their own body's ki into doing THAT! Heh! Isn't that something? Me, Saotome Ranma, who can pick up martial arts techniques on the first try -- and I can't get the knack of THIS one!
Maybe it's because the soulsword's a KILLING technique?
I guess so.
And I suppose I can see why learning the soulsword's the last major thing one does in learning the basics in Saikoo Jinseijitsu-ryuu.
Oh, well, I can wait. Lots of other things to do first.
Ranma stopped again to read through what she had written. A few spelling corrections later, she moved to finish the entry:
Thinking on Ataru and what's going on between us, I guess Chikage was right about one thing, though. Love, in all its many ways of being expressed, really doesn't recognize a person's gender. And I . . .
She paused.
. . . I miss him.
And I miss the sisters, too.
I wish they were here.
Hell, I wish I was back on Promised Island right now.
I miss them all.
What does that mean for me?
I suppose I'll figure it out soon.
I hope.
Reading that over, she nodded before saving the entry.
* * *
"No day OR night, Aniki?"
"And no way to keep track of time? Man, that's rough, Anii!"
Ataru shook his head. "No, it wasn't too rough." The futon Sakuya brought into the room was laid out. Mamoru had brought a second futon -- "Just in case!" the athlete explained -- while Rinrin brought her alarm clock -- a miniature Mecha-Rinrin with a "02" on the chest; she called it the "Prototype Robot Number Two" -- to set up on Ataru's nightstand. A CD player played nature music. Hinako, asleep, was on the futon, her head resting in Mister Bear's lap. Kaho was asleep beside her. Sakuya was with Karen on Ataru's bed. "You know, they say time flies when you're having fun. I guess Onee-chan's gonna be keeping Ranma so busy, she won't have time to notice the time."
Rinrin shook her head. "I just can't imagine what sort of temporal dynamics must run that place, if at ALL!" she asserted.
Mamoru groaned. "Rinrin, ain't there ANYTHING you've never looked at?!"
She gazed in exasperation at the teen scientist. Rinrin shrugged. "I haven't studied the Tarot," she quipped.
"Who said the magic word?"
Everyone gasped as Chikage stepped out of the shadows, she draped in the black nun's habit she normally used as pyjamas. "Chikage-chan, for the love of Heaven, do you MIND?!" Rinrin snapped as the young sorceress sat beside her.
"Huh . . .? Is Onee-tama back . . .?"
People stared at Hinako. The youngest sister was blearily looking around the room. "Go back to sleep, Hinako-chan." Ataru waved her down as he gave the sorceress a look. "Chikage just came to visit and Rinrin got upset."
"Huh . . .?" Hinako tried to focus on Chikage. Moaning, she leaned once more against Kuma-san. "Silly Chikage-chan. 'Night . . . "
The others giggled while Chikage tried not to look annoyed.
* * *
"So what do you think?"
It was the ninth "day" in Sanctuary. As part of her training, Negako decided to teach Ranma how to express herself in a classic way: Ukiyo-e painting. Making the woodblock carving for the prints was easy for someone who required an exacting sense of distance to help in combat. Once a "test" print was made to ensure her work was the way she wanted it, Ranma quickly produced her first coloured painting. Inspecting it, Negako quickly noted Ranma was a reds and blacks lover. "A decent interpretation of the energy matrices overhead," the grandmaster stated. "I would dare say that with practice, you will equal if not surpass some of the classical masters of this art."
Ranma chuckled. "I bet you met some of them."
"Personally, no. Several of my hosts did meet some of the known experts. People like Hishikawa, Hiroshige, Utamaro and Hokusai." A hum escaped her. "I do not remember if any of my hosts ever met Sharaku, though."
Ranma chuckled. "Anyhow, I'm going out to do some sketches of the city." She picked up a sketchpad and pencils. "Be back later."
Negako nodded. "Take your time."
Stepping out, Ranma looked around, and then she headed up the street towards the city wall. Arriving there, she hopped up to the flat surface, and then she sat down to gaze on the city. The silence froze her for a moment. Unlike other urban zones, Sanctuary was not haunted by "normal" city sounds like cars, trains, birds or children. Shuddering, she laid the sketchbook on her lap to do a detailed drawing of the city. Time became meaningless to her as she glanced at a particular building, and then moved to capture it on paper. Soon enough, the sketch was done. Taking a few minutes to inspect her work, Ranma smiled with satisfaction. "Maybe I should follow Hokusai-sensei's example and make thirty-six views of Sanctuary . . . eh?" Her eyes widened on noticing an odd colour in a vacant lot nearby. "What the . . .?"
Hopping off the wall to the roof of a nearby building, Ranma bounded over to the next street before dropping back to ground level. Walking towards the city centre, she stopped before an empty lot on her left. Looking at it, she noted the absence of plant life save a trimmed layer of blue grass. She then stepped off the street. She only had to take a couple of steps before realizing what was there. "Graves . . . " she gasped.
There were eleven mounds. Given the very nature of Sanctuary, Ranma could readily assume that they had been here since the day this place was created by the Questors billions of years ago in "real" time. However, the simple wooden poles acting as markers had some of their bark taken away. The underlying wood had been smoothed into a flat plate. Etched on there were several lines in kana and kanji. Leaning up to one of those posts, Ranma read:
Here likes a soldier of the Union of Uru
Who died not knowing the truth of why she fought.
Though we were made enemies by Fate and Circumstance,
I, the unwilling vessel of her Judgement,
Do wish her peace and happiness
In the embrace of Eternity.
The two kanji at the end of that invocation sent chills down Ranma's back. "'Moroboshi' . . .?" she whispered. "That means . . .!"
She straightened herself, turning around to leave. She halted on seeing Negako standing on the roadway. Ranma blinked before walking onto the street, and then she looked back on the graves. "They're the group that . . .?"
"Some were," Negako confirmed.
"Ataru said there were twelve of them," Ranma said. "There're only eleven graves here. What happened to the last one?"
Negako nodded towards the city wall and the timeless void beyond. "He boasted too much about what he did. Foolish thing to do. After Ataru ripped his horns off, then slit his throat, he pitched the fool over the wall. In front of their very own eyes." She pointed to the graves. "Whatever illusions those fools might have had towards Lum's 'Darling' vanished in an instant."
Ranma paled. "Man, I can see why Ataru doesn't want to talk about things like this to the girls." She shook her head before turning toward the doojou.
"This could easily have been you, Ranma."
The martial artist stopped, gazing on Negako. "What do you mean?"
A knowing grin crossed Negako's face. "I will allow you to contemplate on that. But know this. I told Lum's cousin Jariten this before he left Earth: 'Wars do not make one great. Wars normally make one dead.'"
She leapt away for the doojou. Ranma watched her. She then looked nowhere in particular as Negako's words echoed in her mind.
* * *
Journal Entry, Day 10 of Sanctuary visit,
Dear Diary,
'Wars do not make one great. Wars normally make one dead.'
What did she mean?
Ever since I could remember, I was always taught something by Oyaji that, even now, I agree with: 'Martial artists live to protect those who can't protect themselves.' That's something I've always strived to succeed in. It's a good theory. It's decent. Hell, it's RIGHT!
Or is it?
Ranma shifted her hands from her keyboard. Taking several deep breaths to calm herself as her mind roiled over what Negako said to her the previous "day," she returned to typing. As a new string of characters appeared on the screen, her eyes started to glisten with tears.
No. I haven't succeeded in doing that at ALL! Yes, I've been there when people needed help, but most other times, I've fought for the sheer joy of fighting. And what has that ultimately done for me?
All it's got me is more enemies and rivals than I want to deal with, a pack of 'fiancées' who are just impossible to handle, no real respect from those of my peers I don't fight on a day-in and day-out basis and . . .
A pause.
. . . and no real friends.
Another pause.
Yesterday, I saw the graves of eleven of twelve Oni warriors Ataru and Negako killed here in Sanctuary. Some of them were involved with what really happened to Ataru's grandmother. One of them, according to Negako, boasted about what he did so much that Ataru lost it, then pitched him over the wall.
Well, I suppose that bastard had it coming.
But the rest got a beautiful farewell note from Ataru. Yes, he killed them, but he showed them RESPECT for what they went through.
Now, I understand another reason Ataru doesn't want anything to do with the idiots in Tomobiki. Those people see him in a certain way. But because Sanctuary let Ataru do a heck of a lot more things in the six weeks he had been gone from that place than most others could suspect, he . . .
Another pause.
. . . he simply outgrew them.
Fate and time forced him to grow up.
And that's something people in Tomobiki probably just wouldn't know HOW to deal with, I think. And with twelve sisters on Promised Island to worry about, Ataru doesn't want to take the CHANCE of mending fences with people like Miyake Shinobu and the rest of them. Can he trust those people after what he's been through? Can he trust any of them with the knowledge that he had sided AGAINST Lum and her people? Can he trust them to understand he had all the right reasons in the world to stand against the Onis?
For the sisters' sakes, he can't.
And regardless of what he really feels for the people in Tomobiki -- and what he really feels for Lum -- that decision hurts him.
Ranma stopped, staring at the words she had written. Wiping her eyes, she made some spelling corrections before carrying on:
Now I face the same decision.
Which path do I choose now?
I can't be what Oyaji tried to make of me. I DON'T want to be what Oyaji tried to make of me. I can't be what Mom wants me to be. And I don't want to be what Akane wants me to be. That doesn't mention what Ukyou, Shanpú or Kodachi might want, too. It's MY life. And I want to live it.
Should I do what Ataru did?
Will I have a choice in that?
Another pause.
No. There is no choice now. It IS my life.
And if they got a problem with that, that's just too bad.
And if I hurt them?
Then they get hurt.
She looked at the diary entry before saving it.
* * *
"The Sun? What does that mean for Anegimi-sama?"
"This is the card that marks enlightenment." Chikage held up the card for Haruka's view. The sorceress and the martial artist had moved into the dining room to enjoy some tea. The Rinrin Viewer was on, Rinrin verbally directing the Viewer's Internet link to click on some favoured web pages. Aria slept on the couch, leaning into Michael's side. She came down to be with the others in Ataru's room, and then promptly fell asleep on the futon. Haruka had carried her into the dining room. "At this time, it appears that Ane-kun has made some profound discoveries about either herself or someone she cares for." A shrug then rolled Chikage's shoulder. "Ani-kun perhaps?"
Haruka sighed. "We may be pushing her too hard, Chikage-chan."
The sorceress shook her head. "Perhaps, if this was anyone but Saotome Ranma. I believe the one thing all those who interact with Ane-kun agree on is this: She lives to face challenge. No doubt, Negako-anekun is doing her best to force Ane-kun into new types of challenge."
Haruka nodded. "I believe the one thing Anegimi-sama has to learn is to separate the good challenges from the bad ones."
Chikage sipped her tea. "Experience has taught her that, not to mention the many betrayals Ane-kun has faced in her lifetime."
She set the cup down on the table. The slight vibration was enough to let the top card on the Tarot deck slip off. Chikage gazed on that before flipping the card around. The Emperor, upside-down. Chikage's eyes narrowed, a thoughtful hum escaping her. "Is there something wrong?" Haruka wondered, and then she gazed on the card herself. "What does that mean?"
"It's hard to say," Chikage whispered.
* * *
Journal Entry, Day 12 of Sanctuary visit,
Dear Diary,
So far, I've completed ten ukiyo-e blocks of Sanctuary. When I told Negako that I wanted to emulate Hokusai-sensei's thirty-six views of Fuji-san with thirty-six views of Sanctuary, that got me a big smile.
I guess she does have feelings after all.
Training in Saikoo Jinseijitsu-ryuu is going ahead. I've got the main 'seishin' attacks -- the Psychic Laser Beam, the Psychic Shuriken Storm and the Psychic Kusarigama -- down pat. All it takes to do them is to visualize what you want in your mind, implant that desire onto your ki energy, and then focus it on the target. I think learning how to do the Kusarigama is a necessary precursor, if not THE necessary precursor, to learning the soulsword, but I haven't asked Negako about that just yet.
I think I got the basic philosophy of the Art down. It depends on using your TOTAL willpower to make something happen. Now, in a fight, that's often next to impossible, especially if you wind up facing multiple opponents, which is normal for me. And thanks to Oyaji, I couldn't think too much beyond the fight before me at the time.
Well, now I can evolve from that.
I'm going to spend the next while on some meditation, try to stretch my ability to sense things beyond the obvious direct threat. Heh! If I can do that, then I won't need Negako's shiatsu shield to avoid the tomboy's tantrums. Won't she be surprised? Not that she doesn't deserve it, of course.
* * *
The "afternoon" of the thirteenth "day" found Ranma sitting on the apex of the tower in the centre of town. She was in lotus position, her breathing shallow and highly regulated as she focused her mind's eye on herself. Every step of the way, she pulled her attention away from parts of the outside world onto herself. Every step, parts of her she never really paid attention to in the past came into focus. Her vital organs, muscles and skeleton, physical senses, heartbeat, breathing, thinking, her very soul.
Her soul . . .
Wait a second.
Ranma clenched her fists, and then she relaxed herself as her battle aura began to flare. At first a brilliant crimson shade, it then faded in colour, morphing to pure gold, and then a brilliant white. Taking time to regulate her breathing, Ranma shifted into a one-knee stance. She let her arms reach out. Slowly, they came together as if she was grasping the scabbard and handle of a sword. A sword . . . yes. Think of a sword . . . a sword . . .
Her ki flared. On feeling something fill her hands, she screamed:
Her eyes snapped open as she mimed the unsheathing of a katana. Then they focused on what was in her right hand. They widened in stunned shock on seeing her ki form something that looked like a sword. Unfortunately, it was leaking energy to the surrounding air like water flooding the Titanic after she brushed past the iceberg! In several heartbeats, the proto-soulsword faded into nothingness. Turning her hand to gaze on her palm, Ranma sighed.
"I did SOMETHING wrong . . . "
She returned to a sitting position, and then she tensed on feeling someone standing behind her. "That was a remarkable first attempt."
Ranma looked up to see Negako standing behind her, a bemused smile on the grandmaster's face. "What did I do wrong?"
"You focused on only one thing, Ranma."
"Isn't that the way it's supposed to work?"
"No. Now try it again."
Ranma blinked, and then she closed her eyes as she assumed an unsheathing position. Her battle aura flared, soon melting into pure white as she focused on her hands. "Good. Excellent form." Negako nodded. "Now draw."
The soulsword blazed to life as Ranma got to her feet. Then it started to flare as ki leaked from it in torrents. Negako shifted around to place herself beside the blade. One hand reached for the tip. She pushed in. Ranma watched as the soulsword MELTED as Negako's hand advanced. In two seconds, what little was left vanished. Silence fell as Ranma stared at Negako. "Willpower without context is pure, blinding ego, Ranma," the ninjutsu grandmaster declared. "THAT can get you killed if you are not careful. You need not have to see beyond Akane's example to understand that."
With that, she leapt off the tower. Making a perfect landing, Negako turned to calmly walk back to the doojou. Ranma remained atop the tower, a lost look on her face. "'Willpower without context' . . . "
"Why do you think it's called 'the Way of the Supreme LIFE?'"
Ranma spun around to see whom she at first thought was Negako. The martial artist then stopped herself as the newcomer's older looks and more plain clothes came into focus. Her nose then picked up a salty tang in the air around the newcomer. "Who are you?" she demanded.
"Nokoko, what are you doing here?" echoed from below.
Ranma looked down to see Negako standing by the base. She then looked back at the newcomer. "Nokoko?" she whispered. "You're . . .!"
"Ataru-chan's older sister." Nokoko nodded approvingly, she giving Ranma a very intense look. "My, I have to admit, Ataru-chan's taste in girls is superb. Even if you were born a boy. Eh, Ranma-chan?" Her eyebrow cocked.
Silence fell over the tower.
* * *
"So you don't know who it was that bonded Ataru and I, right?"
Ranma, Negako and Nokoko sat in the living room by the doojou, teacups in hand. "No. I fell behind Ataru-chan when he was chasing you and your fool father back to your campsite outside Uncle's property. By the time I got there, I had half of Uncle's security people protecting me. In the long term, I know as much as anyone else." The eldest-born of Muchi's and Kinshou's children sighed, she giving Ranma an apologetic shrug.
"So what happened to you after Oyaji took me home?" Ranma asked.
"I stayed with Uncle Komeru until I turned six. As a birthday 'present' to me, he finally told me about my relationship with Ataru-chan and his so-called 'parents.' Well . . . " She looked down. "I didn't like hearing that. The next thing I knew, a voice echoed in my head, asking if I'd want to meet some new friends and try to have a real family to call my own for a change. So I left and wound up going to another dimension."
"Another dimension?! You mean here?"
"No. The dimension I'm talking about is a place most people in our galaxy calls 'the Outland.'" Nokoko smirked. "It's a quantum hyper-warp pocket, between normal warp space and transwarp space. Only access point in the Milky Way galaxy is near planet Elle." Her smirk turned sarcastic as her eyebrow arched. "Did Ataru-chan tell you about their queen?"
"The bitch with the hundred thousand guys in deep freeze?"
"That's her. I've stayed in the Outland ever since, save for the odd trip to Elle or back to Earth. Brief visits, of course."
Ranma blinked. "Why?"
Nokoko sighed. "For Ataru-chan's sake and especially for our sisters' sake, I can't come home, Ranma-chan. Not for some years to come." Sensing Ranma about to launch into a protest, Nokoko held up a hand. "Please! There's a reason I made that choice, Ranma-chan. Will you hear me out first?!"
Ranma relaxed herself. "Why?"
"You know how succession works in our family, don't you?"
"Then you know what might happen if I do suddenly appear alive?"
"You'd be the next Matriarch. Matter of fact, I'd say you're over twenty now, so you'd be able to take over right away."
"What happens to Sakuya-chan and the others, then?"
"Well, they can still be cared for, can't they?" Ranma wondered. Seeing Nokoko shake her head in response, she demanded, "Why not?!"
"All were born out of wedlock, remember? In fact, according to Negako, those girls have been either abandoned or orphaned by their birth mothers and stepfathers. Do you really think people who associate with our family would choose a girl like Sakuya-chan over me, the *legitimate* blood-descendant of Moroboshi Nagaiwakai?" Nokoko wondered, and then she shook her head. "No. Even if my family has welcomed orphans left, right and centre into the overall family, the CORE of the family has to remain as 'pure' as possible."
"Even if our clan, not to mention the others forming the Tenchiaiki Juukazoku, were founded to shield 'illegitimate' births from public outcry in the first place." Negako lightly smiled before sipping her tea.
"What does that mean?" Ranma asked.
"Have you ever heard of the Empress Shootoku?"
Ranma shook her head. "I don't know the name."
"She was one of the last of the Nara monarchs," Negako explained. "In fact, Shootoku was one of the rare rulers of Japan who spent two separate periods on the throne. The first time she ruled, she went by the name 'Koken.' It was the second time that influenced the early history of our clan, Ranma. Thanks very much to Shootoku's passionate interest in a fellow named Dokyou."
Ranma held up a finger. "Oh, wait a sec'! He was a Buddhist priest who . . . " A pause. "I remember now! Damn, I should've paid more attention in history classes! Dokyou was the guy an empress -- Shootoku, right? -- fell in love with. It came to the point where she wanted to make him the emperor, but folks hated the idea, so they kicked her off the throne. Right after that, they shifted the capital to Kyoto, right?"
"Exactly. But what has never been mentioned in a history book is that prior to her reported death, Shootoku managed to . . . " She sipped her tea before she gave Ranma a look. "Consummate her relationship with Dokyou."
"They had a baby?"
"Yes," Negako replied. "A girl they named Mihei. In fact, according to the old tales that were preserved in the psychic database that eventually evolved into me, Mihei was said to be so beautiful, those who wanted to see her dead because her existence threatened the Imperial succession vowed they'd rather kill themselves than raise a knife against her."
"So what happened?"
"It was decided by Shootoku's successor, Koonin, that she, Dokyou and Mihei would be permanently banished from the court. To the public at large, Shootoku and Dokyou would be dead. No mention would EVER be made of Mihei. But in private, they would be allowed to live in peace as long as they never revealed their affiliation to the Imperial throne to anyone else. To better facilitate that, Shootoku and Dokyou were adopted into a low-rank noble family, the distant ancestors to the modern-day Moroboshi Clan. And they lived to the promise they made to Konin for the rest of their days."
"What happened to Mihei?"
"She married the young heir of the family and eventually bore him ten very healthy children. For the time period, it was seen as the greatest of miracles that none of them succumbed to the many illnesses rampant then. That brought Mihei to the attention of Master Hosan, who at that time served as Emperor Kanmu's personal inspector for the noble houses."
Ranma blinked. Almost EVERYONE involved in the more esoteric of Oriental martial arts these days knew the story of Master Hosan Hirosuke. Believed to have been born five thousand years ago, Master Hosan gained his immortality -- as to what sort of immortal he was, that remained a mystery -- very young in life. Gaining an appreciation for the martial arts, Master Hosan, over the centuries, came to develop his own personalized school of ninjutsu, the Tensei-ryuu. A servant of the Japanese throne since the days of Prince Shootoku in the seventh century, Master Hosan was the one man EVERYONE trusted when it came to the paranormal. That is, until the rise of the militarists in the early 1930s. Horrified that his homeland was being forced towards an apocalyptic war with the Americans, Master Hosan demonstrated his disapproval in a way that would deny the militarists the chance of using Tensei-trained warriors against their foes: By allowing himself to be killed and bestowing his millennia of martial arts knowledge to his last student, Major Dean Raeburn of Canada.
"Did Kanmu know about Mihei being Shootoku's daughter?" Ranma asked.
"Master Hosan discovered that soon enough. He persuaded Kanmu to allow things to stand. In fact, Kanmu and Mihei came to maintain a lively -- albeit top secret, of course -- correspondence for the remainder of their lives. It was during that time that Mihei came up with an interesting idea. Since many children were being born out of wedlock among the noble houses, why could there not be a place where they ALL could go to live their lives in peace? A place where they could also learn to be active and productive assets for Japan as a whole? Kanmu was intrigued by the concept -- I believe Master Hosan persuaded him -- so the agreement that created the Tenchiaiki Juukazoku was made. All of Mihei's children, sons and daughters, were the founders of the Ten Families."
"So that started the whole idea of your family adopting people who were orphaned or abandoned because they weren't 'pure,' right?"
Negako nodded. "Exactly. Over the years, the Juukazoku have been forced to conform to some set standards imposed on them by outside society. But the primary mission remains. In fact, in this day and age, with there being so much of a struggle between 'traditional' and 'modern' values, our clan's primary mission becomes more paramount. How better to symbolize it than by allowing those who were not of 'pure' birth to take control of the family's future? If Nokoko returns . . . " She indicated her adopted sister.
"What happens to the sisters?" Nokoko finished.
Ranma considered that. "Don't you miss Ataru?"
Nokoko's eyes hardened. "Yes, I DO miss him! I miss him very much. Before Negako got pulled out of his head, my fondest dream was to go back to Tomobiki and pull Ataru-chan away from Muchi and Kinshou. I couldn't do it at the time though; I was stuck in the Outland dealing with other matters. By the time I DID get to Earth, what did I find? Ataru-chan brainwashed, Kinshou just waiting for the chance to get her hands on the family fortune, Muchi following along with whatever Kinshou decided, Uncle off who-knew-where, and . . . " She shrugged. "There was Nagaiwakai on Rishiri-tou, acting as if it was totally BELOW her station to go down and straighten this whole mess out herself."
She sipped her tea. "Didn't you offer to handle this mess?" Ranma asked.
Nokoko stared at her. "And what would that have done?"
"But Ataru was . . .!"
"Suffering?" Nokoko's eyebrows arched, and then she shook her head. "Not exactly. Yes, he was being lied to and manipulated to a certain extent, but not suffering, not like you did under Genma. And Negako was planning to go back to him sooner or later, regardless of what she 'promised' Kinshou. We wanted to wait or the right time to move in. Well . . . " She shrugged before taking a deep breath. "Lum's arrival complicated matters."
"Not to mention Nagaiwakai's death," Negako added before sipping her tea. "Plus the many questions hovering over the sisters."
Ranma sighed. "You guys wanted to do it in such a way that didn't wind up hurting the ones you really wanted to help, right?"
Nokoko nodded. "Exactly. Ranma-chan, if I went back when she was still alive, Nagaiwakai would've made me the Matriarch-in-Waiting, and then abandoned Sakuya-chan and the others without a second's hesitation or remorse. Yeah, she could've used the sisters to break up Muchi and Kinshou's marriage, but what would that have done? It would've put those girls through an eternity of pain and misery for no real benefit whatsoever. And you know how Ataru-chan eventually came to think of what Muchi and Kinshou did to him."
"Nagaiwakai's death cleared matters since Nokoko never bothered to reveal she was still alive to anyone, not even Komeru or any of Komeru's wards like Yumoa Reigi," Negako added. "For the sisters' sakes -- and in some ways, for Ataru's as well -- Nokoko must remain 'dead' until well after Sakuya turns twenty and is made the new Matriarch. After that, it will be of no concern."
Ranma considered that for a moment. "And because you've obviously got access to some powerful stuff -- if you didn't, how the hell could you've come to a place like Sanctuary, eh? -- you felt it was more proper to stay away even if Lum was busy making hash out of Ataru's life, right?"
Nokoko nodded again. "Yes. I'm not fully human, Ranma. I was transformed the instant I entered the Outland. These days, in part, I'm of a race that calls themselves 'the Great School of the Nendo-kata.' Socially, my Great School is very advanced and we do our best to bring peace -- what we call 'Unity' -- to other species without forcing any of our core beliefs on them. We don't want to provoke something that would bring misery to others. It's wrong. It flies against our core beliefs." She sipped her tea. "Ranma-chan, if we tried to set matters aright concerning the Urusians and their interest in Earth, what might've happened? I'm sure Ataru-chan's told you about all the fun he had dealing with Uru's Imperial sects while he was busy learning the Art. Do you really think they'd tolerate something like that?"
"After they helped kill Ataru's grandmother?" Ranma grimaced. "No."
"It hurts me to do this, Ranma-chan." Nokoko then reached over to squeeze Ranma's hand. "But for my brother's and sisters' sake, I have to do this. It doesn't mean that I won't stay away forever. I will come back to be with you guys. It just can't happen at this time."
"Does he know you're still alive?"
"He knows," Negako replied. "And it hurts him. The sisters do not know, though Chikage may come to suspect it sooner or later."
Ranma took a deep breath. "You don't want me to tell them anything at all, right?" She stared concernedly at Nokoko.
Nokoko shook her head. "No, not now. Let them feel they're in control of their lives, Ranma-chan. It's what they deserve in the long term." A snide smile then crossed her face as she added, "And if they have that, then everything the rest of those fools tried to force on them will be nothing but hot air. After all, they say that living well IS the best revenge, ne?"
Ranma laughed. "True!"
* * *
Journal Entry, Day 14 of Sanctuary visit,
Dear Diary,
'Willpower without context is pure, blinding ego.'
I think I understand that now.
Telling me that, Negako hinted to me that to properly forge a real soulsword, I have to tap into my willpower within 'context.'
I didn't understand it at first, but Nokoko-oneechan's visit, the reasons she gave me for staying away from Ataru and the sisters, pretending to be 'dead' to the rest of her family, woke me up to something I've never really sat back and thought about. That I realize it now, after so much wasted time digging myself into a pit I probably could never had got myself out of hadn't the Moroboshis entered my life, hurts me worse.
It's my ego.
The same ego that constantly prodded me on regardless of the crap that came down on my head. The ego that made me always say, 'Saotome Ranma doesn't lose.' The ego that made me learn some of the most ridiculous martial art forms for some of the most idiotic reasons conceivable.
To think it took me THIS long to wake up to that.
Ranma sighed, wiping her eyes as she continued to type:
I hate myself now. Or rather, I hate what that ego of mine blinded me to. I'm not the only one who has it. Everyone has ego; it's what drives people to do what they feel is good for them. From ego comes confidence, the belief that makes my Mooko Takabisha attack possible. But when one allows one's ego to take control of his life, well . . .
A pause.
. . . well, we get situations like Akane, who says that she's a martial artist when she hasn't really put her heart into studying the Art.
We get situations like the Nujiézú, who believe their way of life is perfect and would gladly kill anyone who disagrees with them.
We get situations like Kunou Tatewaki and Kunou Kodachi, who feel that because they're noble-born, they're entitled to anything.
We get people like Oyaji -- and Mom, too -- who say they're right when it'd be clear to a blind man that they're wrong.
And we . . .
Another pause.
. . . we get me.
'Never Loses A Fight' Saotome Ranma.
'Best Martial Artist in the World' Saotome Ranma.
'Won't Refuse A Challenge' Saotome Ranma.
Kami-sama, I hate myself!
Fresh tears flowed down her cheeks as she finished the entry:
I'm gonna stop now. I think I need to cry a bit.
She saved the entry.
* * *
"Feeling better?"
Ranma stared nowhere in particular as Negako placed a bowl of ttouk-manduguk before her, it now being the start of the next "day." Picking up her chopsticks, Ranma fished out a couple of the flat rice cakes to nibble on them. "Not really. Part of me wants to quit," she then admitted.
Negako gazed on her. "Then quit."
"Is everything so black-and-white to you?"
"No. Existence Itself is not black-and-white." Negako smiled. "If you decide to 'quit,' you must realize that your decision will have a profound effect on those who believe they have a place in your life. If you press on the path you are on now, that decision will also have a profound effect on those who believe they have a place in your life. The question you must ask yourself at this time is this: Which path will produce the most positive effect, to both yourself and those associated with you? And are you willing to make the necessary sacrifices to your heart and soul to achieve that goal? Or, if neither path can produce what you want . . .?"
"Find a third path."
"Shit!" Ranma shook her head, leaning on a palm as she looked nowhere in particular as she considered that. "Well, for one thing, I know I can't live in Nerima anymore. And I don't want certain people in my life from now on."
"Who exactly?"
"The Kunous, Oyaji and his 'friend' are on the 'out' list. The Nujiézú and Jijii aren't bad, now that I understand where they're coming from, but I still want to keep them at a distance. I might be able to remain friends with Ryouga. Ditto with Akane and Ukyou once we get this engagement business out of the way. Kasumi, too. Maybe Nabiki, but that's a BIG 'maybe.' And I'll certainly count Doc Toofuu as a friend. And Mom . . . " She took a breath. "Well, that all depends on her relatives, I guess. If they're out to manipulate me into earning money just for them, screw 'em! I'll walk out on Mom so fast, it'll make all their heads spin. Though I'll hate it . . . "
"Do you wish to remain a martial artist?" Negako asked.
Ranma sat back, gazing at the ceiling as she contemplated that question.
Oh, Kami-sama! That WAS the question, wasn't it?
"I do . . . " she whispered, "But I don't want to be the type of martial artist Oyaji wanted to make of me. Fight everyone at the drop of a hat, never turn back a challenge, never accept defeat . . . " Her voice trailed off.
"Even I can be defeated, Ranma."
Ranma gazed in stunned surprise on her host. "You're not afraid to admit that." She leaned on the table. "I could never admit it."
"You were not allowed to admit it." The ninjutsu grandmaster crossed her hands under her chin. "And by not being allowed to admit it by those who guided you down that path, you left yourself vulnerable to attacks that, since they were not done within the bounds of martial arts, hurt you greatly." A pause. "Ranma, what did I tell you before you met Nokoko?"
"'Willpower without context is pure, blinding ego.'"
"What is the context then?"
Ranma looked down at her bowl of stew before she replied, "People."
"Not just people. Your environment as a WHOLE. People do not compose the sum total of Existence. They are only a minute part. It is only human arrogance that makes many presume that people are all that matter."
"Like bears and sharks and dogs."
"And cats."
Ranma started on hearing that dreaded word. She then blinked as that flash of raw terror suddenly faded from her mind. Seeing her reaction, Negako smiled. The younger woman stared at her. "I guess it's working," Ranma noted with a chuckle, she gazing at her hands.
"Finish your breakfast, and then proceed to meditate," Negako ordered.
"Okay." Ranma picked up her chopsticks, grinning at her host. "Don't tell Shirayuki-chan that I did this . . . "
She fired down the ttouk-manduguk with the same rigorous élan she always demonstrated at the Tendous' dinner table, especially when Genma was around. Negako shook her head as she took the empty bowl back. As Ranma turned to leave, the ninjutsu grandmaster called out, "One more thing, Ranma."
Ranma stared at her. "What?"
Negako held up a finger. "When you understand your environment as much as you do yourself, THEN you can forge a proper soulsword."
The younger woman blinked before nodding.
* * *
The door to the kitchen opened. "Are you okay, Shirayuki-chan?" Karen peeked in to see the chef hard at work baking muffins.
Shirayuki rubbed her nose. "Hime thinks someone's talking about Hime," she said before looking into the oven. "Maybe it's Nee-sama."
"Probably," Karen mused as she headed back to Ataru's room.
* * *
The sixteenth "day" began with Ranma reclining on the doojou roof, she gazing on the energy overhead. "'Willpower without context is pure, blinding ego,'" Ranma muttered. "Find the context, Saotome. Find the context . . . "
Her eyes narrowed as she used her ki-vision to pick out what was in the space between Sanctuary and the "cap" over the time-chasm. Thank the gods Ataru showed me how to pick out -- what did he call it? The Te'a lines? She relaxed. Her eyes then widened as tiny, spider web-like lines of energy appeared in her vision. "Alright . . . "
Shifting her hands up as if she was reaching out, Ranma infused her fingers with ki. Instantly, new matrix lines formed from her fingertips to attempt to mesh with the surrounding area. Ranma grunted on seeing patterns shatter when they were touched by her own ki. "Whoops! That's not right!" she muttered before something came to her. "The Umisen-ken, maybe . . .?"
Focusing ki on herself, she moved to match her aura with the surrounding air. To an onlooker, Ranma appeared to slowly fade from physical view. This wasn't the Goshin Buufu, however. The Body Defence Air Cloak was a total-energy ki-cloak, perfected in secret by Ranma, Toshiko and Kumiko after the mirror-twins had been freed from the compact. No, doing THAT would probably be as much a disruption to the surrounding matrices as a straightforward attack.
Back to basics, then.
Just a simple Umisen-ken cloak . . .
Yes . . .
Ranma tried not to smile as the surrounding air's matrices began to mould with her aura. Okay, first step. Let's see if we can change it, she mused as she tenderly projected ki through her fingers into the atmosphere . . .
And then she sighed as the matrices around her arms shattered.
"Damn, too much force!"
She relaxed herself, preparing to try again.
Well, if at first, you don't succeed . . .
* * *
Negako looked up. The ninjutsu grandmaster stood in the kitchen. Nodding approvingly, she turned back to preparing lunch.
* * *
Journal Entry, Day 18 of Sanctuary visit,
Dear Diary,
Damn, I haven't concentrated THIS much on perfecting a single martial arts form since I learned the Hiryuu Shooten-ha!
But I'm getting somewhere. Right now, I've evolved a variation of the Goshin Buufu that would work perfectly in Sanctuary. I can't test it somewhere else, not until I get home, but if it works on Earth, then I'll give it the name 'Goshin Eifu.' I doubt I could perform anything like the Goshin Kaze-fu here, though. I don't want to risk doing something like THAT in Sanctuary.
Oh, that's right! I forgot to tell you that Kumiko and Toshiko have started creating their own variation of the Sen-ken forms. They titled their personal approach the 'Fuusen-ken.' I like the name since air can be both passive and active. They wanted to take the best of both the Yamasen-ken and the Umisen-ken, and then mix it all together to create something unique.
From what I've been told by Negako when I discussed this with her last night, they've already made progress, mixing the cloaking techniques of the Umisen-ken with the more brutal attacks of the Yamasen-ken. Oyaji and Akane's father got a taste of it before I came here to train with Negako.
Too bad for them.
While I have the twins' permission to use the Fuusen-ken forms, I want to make something for me. The Goshin Eifu is just the first step. Right now, I'm thinking of calling my forms 'Eisen-ken.'
That could change. It depends on what happens next.
Ranma paused for a moment. Taking a deep breath to collect her thoughts, she put her fingers back on the keyboard.
What happens next?
I've gone the equivalent of twenty-five days or so as a girl with no change back to being a boy -- unless someone's gone and switched me back to being a boy when I was asleep and I didn't know about it.
Better ask Negako about that first.
But if I haven't, that means in the next three days or so -- if my cycle's like any other girl's -- I should be facing my first period.
My first period.
To believe that I have to face THIS of all things?
Right now, I say this: If any girl can live through it, so can I. And if I DO become a girl in spirit and elect to have my curse frozen in place, I'll have no choice BUT to face it every month until I reach middle age.
Another pause.
It's funny. I'm being pretty calm about this. What will happen to me over the next while? How will it affect me?
I wish I could predict it.
Oh, well. Grin and bear it.
Better talk to Negako, though.
* * *
"Your first period?"
Ranma nodded. "Yeah. I mean, the longest time I've ever been frozen as a girl was twenty days. That's when Herb froze me with the Chiisui-ton. What Elder Kelun did to me lasted nine days. So what can I expect?"
The ninjutsu grandmaster considered that. "I noticed you wisely packed some tampons with you when you came here," she then noted.
"When I had to deal with Herb, Kasumi told me stuff. On average, you start getting wet the tenth day after the cycle begins. That lasts eleven days. The eighth day of that period's the real bad one. After that, you go dry until you start to menstruate." A wry smile crossed her face. "I got wet down there right when Kasumi predicted it'd happen. When I was stuck, I had to hide tampons in my backpack and wear panties under my boxers to hold the damned things in place. If Oyaji ever saw them . . . "
Negako shook her head. "Fool."
"How do you handle it, Negako?"
Silence followed as Negako considered what to say. "Experiencing menstruation is a price I have to pay for having a woman's body, Ranma," she replied with a shrug. "It is as much a function of human biology as sexual arousal. When it comes, I deal with it. Like many women, I prefer tampons when I confront both menstrual and cervical mucus discharge. Unlike most, I use shiatsu in lieu of medication to deal with cramps and other side effects of the process. I will teach that to you over the next few days."
"Have you ever thought of becoming a mother?"
"To bear a child?" Negako glanced at her before shaking her head. "No. I still require time to fully comprehend the human condition before I could consider bringing new life into this world. To bring life into this world is a grave responsibility, Ranma. Who would I choose as my potential mate? Would I be a good mother to my child? What would my feelings for my child be? Would it be healthy for my child if I raised her?" A pause. "And, being what I am, would bearing a child make me vulnerable?"
Ranma squeezed her host's shoulder. "Emotionally, you mean."
"Yes. Emotional attacks are just as vicious, if not more so, than mere physical attacks. You know that as well as I, Ranma."
"Hai, true."
* * *
"Is there something wrong, Chikage-chan?"
"I recommend you prepare some red beans and rice for Ane-kun when she returns from Sanctuary," the sorceress instructed.
The chef, standing beside the stove in the rotunda's kitchen, considered Chikage's words before her eyes widened as it hit her. "Oh, Hime forgot that Nee-sama'll be staying in Sanctuary for a month!" She nodded. "Hai, Hime'll make some today! Um, Chikage-chan, do you think Negako-neesama'll make some?"
"Do YOU believe Ane-kun would do something like that?"
Shirayuki then sighed. "Hime doesn't think so."
* * *
Journal Entry, Day 19 of Sanctuary visit,
Dear Diary,
It's happening.
I started getting bad cramps after breakfast. Negako kept me in the furo longer today, teaching me how to use shiatsu to moderate the symptoms. It won't make it go away, but it will allow me to function with some normalcy. It's not full-blown PMS -- that normally hits between five to eleven days before menstruation starts -- but it's close.
Felt something like a headache just before lunch. And when I changed my clothes after a spell in the doojou, it felt as if someone stuck a handful of knives into my breasts. More shiatsu in the furo to deal with that, then I decided to go topless when I went out to do some sketches. Heck, no one's here save us, so who the hell would notice?
Negako tells me this is pretty much normal.
Some 'normal!'
* * *
Journal Entry, Day 20 of Sanctuary visit,
Dear Diary,
Oh, man! This is so damned ANNOYING!
Girls put up to this crap every MONTH?!
Oyaji always said girls were weak!
Oyaji no baka!
What the hell does HE know?!
* * *
Journal Entry, Day 21 of Sanctuary visit,
Dear Diary,
The blood. Oh, damn, the BLOOD!
Kami-sama, why did you force girls THROUGH this shit?!
* * *
Journal Entry, Day 22 of Sanctuary visit,
Dear Diary,
The blood's not so bad now, but gods, it's DISGUSTING!
Anyone ever tells me that girls are weak, I'll strangle them.
Heh! I'll bet Shan and Elder Kelun would love to see THAT!
Akane, too.
* * *
Journal Entry, Day 23 of Sanctuary visit,
Dear Diary,
Only two more days of this garbage.
And then I wait twenty-three more days for it to hit the NEXT time!
And this'll last until my mid-FORTIES?!
Kami-sama, I've decided.
For forcing women throughout time to put up to this crap, not to mention forcing ME through this crap, you're FIRED!
I want a Megami-sama instead!
At least She would understand this and DO something about it!
I hate this.
* * *
Journal Entry, Day 24 of Sanctuary visit,
Dear Diary,
When she was doing shiatsu in the furo with me this morning, Negako told me that I'm a very healthy girl. When I decide to have children of my own, I wouldn't have many problems conceiving and bearing them.
I almost wanted to hit her for that!
One more day.
One more day.
One more day.
* * *
Journal Entry, Day 25 of Sanctuary visit,
Dear Diary,
Breakfast was red beans and rice.
I actually cried.
I never thought Negako had it in her.
Even better, she prepared the dish Louisiana Cajun style, which she picked up when she travelled to the States a year ago.
Damn, it was GOOD! Spicy as heck, but good!
The blood wasn't that bad today. It's easier to concentrate now. Looks like I'm one of the fifty-to-seventy percent of women who have to deal with some sort of PMS, THEN deal with menstruation atop that.
Negako assures me that, the next time this happens, it won't be so distracting. I hope, I hope, I HOPE that she's right!
* * *
"So why are we doing this again?"
The twenty-sixth "day" found Ranma and Negako in the living room, knitting needles in hand as they created a pair of thick wool blankets. "Part of your time with me will not be spent in Sanctuary," the grandmaster stated. "I will take you to Noukiios and her older colony worlds so you may see for yourself why Ataru ultimately decided to side with them against the Urusians. We are preparing these blankets . . . " She waved to dozens of blankets already done, they folded and sitting in one corner of the living room. "As an offering to the homeless when we make our journey."
Ranma stopped. "How long are we going to be there?"
"Two days."
The younger woman's eyes widened. "Won't that affect our going back to Earth? Or can we do some sort of time-travel from here?"
"Limited. At most, one could shift him or herself to a maximum of a week either forward or backward in 'real' time as it is measured in our dimension. That also depends on the exact conditions between there and here," Negako reported. "And no, it will not affect our return to Earth. Besides, there are some people I would like you to meet. You will understand when we arrive."
Ranma nodded. "Oh, okay. How many of these do you want to make?"
"Two hundred full-sized ones for adults. Three hundred half-sized ones for the children. We will depart when they are done."
"Don't rush this, right?"
* * *
Journal Entry, Day 27 of Sanctuary visit,
Dear Diary,
Another world.
I'm going to another planet.
No, FOUR planets.
The first world I'm going to is Noukiios, home to a culture approximately five thousand years old. The culture itself is akin to a mix of Hindu India with Three Kingdoms, Koryou and Chosoun Korea tossed in.
The other planets -- Okusei, Tunchusei and Kurrusei -- are Noukiios' oldest colony planets. They got settled three hundred years ago by Noukiite refugees not wanting anything to do with the Urusians occupying Noukiios. Many of the settlers eventually became the Ip'ihu, an 'outcaste' society who made life REALLY rough for the Urusians for a century.
When the Onis got their asses booted off Noukiios, they demanded Okusei and the other planets 'back,' ignoring the fact that no Urusian had ever WENT to those planets in the damn first place! The Noukiites told them where to stick it and the two peoples have been in a cold war state since.
I can't imagine what it'll be like. To actually walk on another planet. One with a different sun, different length of day -- it's a few hours longer on Noukiios -- and people who, from how Negako described them, look like fair-skinned Klingons from Star Trek - The Next Generation.
Damn, I'm excited!
I'm going to places I could've never imagined going to not more than a year ago! Good thing Negako's got a camera with her; when news of this gets out, no one outside Ataru and his sisters will believe a damned word I say!
Oh, well, it's their loss.
* * *
"So why do you want me to watch the ki patterns, Negako?" Ranma demanded. "Aren't we supposed to be going to Noukiios?"
Negako quietly chuckled. "Patience, Ranma. There is method to my madness. Tell me, in the meditations you have engaged in over the last 'week' to create the Eisen-ken, have you noticed the many null-time bubbles?"
She pointed up. Ranma looked, her eyes narrowing. "Hey, yeah, I do see them! The little white-ki air bubbles, you mean?"
"The same." Negako then stood up, she reaching behind her to draw out Mister Bunny. "Now, observe."
She crouched to send the stuffed toy flying into the sky over Sanctuary. Ranma panicked. "Hey, Negako! What the hell are you doing?! You toss and lose him, Hinako-chan'll throw a fit for a month!"
"Patience, Ranma."
Negako then sent Mister Bunny flying. The stuffed rabbit soared up to about fifty metres. It then stopped. Ranma quickly noticed that Mister Bunny was trapped in a null-time bubble. "Okay, it's trapped there! Now what?!"
A glowing chain-and-hook formed around Negako's arm, the hook itself resting in the grandmaster's hand. Glancing up, she let the chain draw out and sent it flying. Ranma blinked on seeing the hook snare another time bubble close to the one holding Mister Bunny. "Watch me, and then do as I do, Ranma. And do it GENTLY!" Negako said as she tugged the time bubble gently over to touch the one holding Mister Bunny in place.
Ranma gaped as the two bubbles suddenly merged as one. "Oh, man!" she breathed out in shocked disbelief. Then drawing her own Psychic Kusarigama, she got to work. "How many of them do you want to draw in, Negako?"
"Five hundred-and-two."
"Why so many?!"
"You will see."
Within thirty minutes -- as Ranma perceived it -- the requisite number of time bubbles had been made to merge with the one holding Mister Bunny. Once that was done, Negako ordered Ranma to create a modified Psychic Kusarigama Storm. "Now, observe. Then be ready to retrieve," the grandmaster said as she held up a finger, aiming at the time bubble. "SEISHIN HASAI HI-KOOSEN!"
The Spirit-Breaker Fire-Light bolt sheared through the time bubble like a laser through a hot-air balloon. Ranma blinked at the moment of impact. She then gaped on seeing a SHOWER of Mister Bunnies descending towards Sanctuary. "How the HELL . . .?!" she sputtered. Then, immediately realizing why Negako told her to prepare multiple Psychic Kusarigamas, she got to work. In less than a moment, all 501 Mister Bunnies were piled up on the ground beside the doojou. Negako waved Ranma with her to ground level. She then took one of the stuffed toys and transported it into the doojou. "One for Hinako when we return to Promised Island," she announced on coming out. "The remainder will come with us to Noukiios as gifts to some people Ataru knows."
Ranma glanced skyward. "How . . .?"
Negako gently pushed her head so they could gaze into each other's eyes. "Time, Ranma, is perception first and foremost."
The younger woman blinked as Negako moved to bundle all the stuffed toys in the blankets they knitted. "Right."
* * *
"Hinako-chan, why are you awake?"
Hinako rubbed her eyes. "Hina just had a really, really, really strange dream," she muttered as she sat at the dining room table.
"What sort of dream?" Rinrin asked.
"Hina dreamt that Onee-tama somehow helped Usagi-san have babies."
The others in the room considered that for a moment. Rinrin shook her head. "You're right, Hinako-chan. That IS a strange dream!"
Everyone else nodded as Hinako rested her head on her arms.
* * *
"How does it smell?"
Ranma's nose crinkled before she glanced up. "Stale."
An orange-gold sun, about the same size as Sol, blazed overhead. The sky itself was a brilliant pale blue, though there was a tinge of green in the clouds to her right and behind her. The land itself was quite rugged, somewhat like the mountains around Jusenkyou and the Nujiézú village. The trees were similar in shape to what Ranma was used to hiking in the back woods of China and Japan, but the leaf colours spanned the spectrum. There were many bare spots in the surrounding landscape, revealing worn, arid soil.
"What happened here, Negako?" she asked.
"Famine. It is not as acute here as it is on the colony worlds." Negako waved Ranma down a trail towards a valley about a kilometre away. "And with the new colonies the Noukiites are establishing far from any reach by elements of the Urusian military or their colonial militia, the famine should vanish within five years or so as more food-producing areas are put into production."
"Don't the Onis know what they're doing to these people?!"
"No. The normal Urusian would actually be horrified on learning such information. However, until this war started, the government did as much as it could to censor such information in the Urusian press and public media. Do you have your translator with you, Ranma?"
"Hai." Ranma tapped the pen-like device slung around her neck. She then grunted on feeling the weight of the massive bundle currently perched on her back. "By the way, how far before we get to where we're going?"
"Not too far," Negako assured her; she was carrying a similar bundle. "I would not recommend running. The Lost Stars might interpret it as an attack."
"Right . . .!" Ranma paused. "'Lost Stars?!'"
"Patience, Ranma. You will see."
"Hai . . . "
They proceeded into the valley. Ranma took the chance to gaze at the scenery. Despite the strange colours and shapes, not to mention the splotches of bare soil, this place could be mistaken for one of the rural parts of Japan. Gravity seemed to match Earth's. The air was breathable despite the lack of moisture. No doubt, they were some distance from any large bodies of water. And the mountains would block the flow of air. No, this part of Noukiios would match some places in North or South America, Ranma decided.
Twenty minutes later, they stepped into a wide clearing. Set up there was a small village, walled in like Sanctuary. The walls were wood, not concrete. A heliport or something like it sat off to Ranma's right. The trail she and Negako had used to get to this place lead right to the main gate. Standing guard by the gate were two burly, bearded men in camouflage fatigues, advanced-looking assault rifles in hand at port-arms. Both tensed on seeing the newcomers. Then, on recognizing Negako, they lowered their weapons.
"Greetings," Negako hailed as they stopped before the gate, she lowering her bundle to the ground. Ranma did the same. A quick glance towards the centre of the walled village later, the ninjutsu grandmaster asked, "Are the girls up to visitors today, Ch'ekaech?"
"They are, Most Venerable." The guard to Ranma's left nodded before gazing quizzically on her. "And this is . . .?"
"Ataru's 'Other,' Saotome Ranma. A student of mine," Negako stated.
He smiled. "Heaven's blessings on you. Welcome to Noukiios, Venerable Ranma. Please allow me . . . " Ch'ekaech nodded as he and his friend slung their rifles before carrying the bundle off Ranma's back. "Where do you wish this placed, Most Venerable?" he then asked Negako.
"The blankets are for whatever homeless group requires them. The stuffed animals are for the girls themselves," Negako ordained.
The guards nodded. "We understand, Most Venerable."
Ranma stared at Negako. "'Most Venerable?'"
She rolled her eyes. "Try as I might, I cannot make any of them address me as anything but with that particular title. Their society is, as I warned you, more structured than India's was before the British took over the country. In their eyes, Ataru and I are considered the equivalent of the Yekhu . . . "
Ranma nodded. "Their top caste."
"The same. 'Venerable' is their form of address to those Yekhu who do not serve as anointed priests in their native religion."
Ranma tried not to grin. "And 'Most Venerable?'"
Before Negako could answer, voices squealed "Auntie Negako!" as two typhoons around Hinako's age slammed into her, they sending her to her knees.
Ranma gaped on seeing Negako then rise, she holding twin girls, both possessing electric blue hair and blue-green eyes, close to her. As befitting those of Noukiios' highest caste, circular gold dots adorned their cheeks. Their head-ridges were in a crow's feet pattern based above the bridge of their noses. Both were now dressed in the same type of military fatigues the guards from the main gate wore, though they did not have any noticeable weapon on their person. One girl wore her hair loose to past her shoulders while the other tied her hair in a shaggy ponytail to her waist. "Hello, girls," Negako greeted, her voice softening considerably. Interpreting the change of tone, Ranma smirked. Yeah, she could understand why Negako was so hesitant on the idea of having her own children. "How are you? At least you are eating well."
"How can we eat so well when so many are starving?" the girl sans ponytail asked, her eyes falling on Ranma. "Auntie, who's this?"
"Ah." Negako lowered them to the ground. "She is the one your father has been bonded to since he was a child, girls. Her name is Saotome Ranma. 'Ye-Neap'ye Yesu-P'ucht'u' in your format. Ranma . . . " She waved to the twins. "May I present Ataru's adopted daughters, Moroboshi Reiko . . . " She indicated the girl without the ponytail. "And Moroboshi Kaneko . . . " She indicated the girl with the ponytail. "Two of the Lost Stars of Noukiios."
Ranma took that in, unsure of WHAT to say. Hearing who she was, Reiko and Kaneko smiled. Finally, Ranma stared at Negako. "If they're his kids, what are they doing HERE, Negako?!" she demanded, pointing to the ground.
"Would you abandon your friends if they were fighting a war for their race's survival and freedom, Venerable P'ucht'u?"
Ranma looked through the open gate, surprised to see a mass of girls standing in a group, gazing at her. Some were younger than Hinako by at least two years. Not one Ranma could see appeared to be older than Shirayuki. The one who just spoke to her was a silver-haired, golden-eyed girl about Aria's age. She bore the silver dots of a K'et'hu -- the caste of wandering missionaries, second only to the Yekhu in social standing on this world -- on her cheeks and a ray of five head ridges on her forehead. All of the girls were dressed like Reiko and Kaneko, none bearing arms.
She gazed on Negako. "I'm not going to like hearing this, am I?"
Negako shook her head.
* * *
Within an hour, Ranma and Negako were secured in the guesthouse, a raised structure located near the main gate. The blankets were quickly separated from the Mister Bunny clones and prepared for transport. As soon as Negako told the Lost Stars that the stuffed toys were theirs thanks to Hinako, a mad frenzy of girls nearly saw the grandmaster and Ranma's work in Sanctuary undone. Once all the toys were matched with a Lost Star, a smiling platinum-haired girl Kaho's age who reminded Ranma of Kasumi prepared a plain yet well-cooked lunch. "Chyek, did you remember to not serve foods that are not compatible to Terrans?" Negako wondered as Ranma drew chopsticks.
"Yes, Most Venerable." Ei-T'e Yesu-Chyek then gazed apologetically at Ranma. "There isn't much to spare for visitors, Venerable. I'm sorry."
"Oh, heck, please! Don't worry about it." Ranma smiled, drawing up a strip of brownish-grey meat from the bowl to nibble on it. "Hmm. Odd taste," she mused before taking down the rest. "What is this, anyway?"
"Nat'echinai stew," she explained.
Ranma heard "opossum" instead of the nicer-flowing Noukiite word thanks to her language translator. "Opossum stew?! Well . . . " She brought up another slice of meat to nibbles on it. "I've had a lot worse. It's good."
Chyek blushed before looking over as Reiko and Kaneko walked in, both carrying Mister Bunny clones. "Mama, could you tell Auntie Hinako when you get back to Earth that we really appreciate her presents!" Kaneko said.
A funnel of half-chewed stew burst from Ranma's mouth. "WHAT DID YOU JUST CALL ME?!" Ranma shrilled, making warding signs with her hands.
Their eyes instantly began to tear. "B-but you're b-bonded to Papa!" Kaneko sniffled, pointing to Negako. "Auntie Negako said you were bonded to Papa! That means you and Papa are going to marry! Wh-why don't you w-want us to call you 'Mama' . . .?!" She then started to cry. Reiko joined her.
Ranma's bluster instantly crashed. When it came to the waterworks, Reiko and Kaneko were Aria times two, magnified to the hundredth degree. "Oh, man . . .!" She deflated. Staring at the weeping Noukiite pre-teens, she sighed, and then placed her plate down. "Oh, c'mere . . . " She reached over, drawing them into her arms. Sensing her warm embrace, the twins sniffled, and then they moved to cuddle, allowing their stuffed toys to fall to the floor.
Chyek gazed quizzically at Negako. "Most Venerable, why is the Venerable One so hesitant on the idea of marrying the Euk Hisehek and adopting P'yeknu and Atnu as her daughters?" she asked.
Ranma blinked. The translator did not work on "Euk Hisehek" -- it allowed its wearer to hear the Noukiite words straight out -- though it did translate the Noukiite names as "Reiko" and "Kaneko." "Ranma is unique as would-be spouses come," Negako then replied. "Give her time."
Chyek sighed. "If you believe so."
* * *
"Anigimi-sama, are you alright?"
Ataru sat down at the dining room table. He seemed to be distant for a moment, and then he flashed Haruka a reassuring smile. "I was just thinking about something, Haruka-chan. It's alright," he assured her.
"Aniue-sama, would you want some tea?" Marie asked.
"Sure! Some of your cherry tea?"
Marie stepped out of the room to head into the kitchen. Ataru sighed, sitting back in his chair. Looking over to where Hinako was sleeping on the couch beside Aria, he took a deep breath. So beautiful.
So much like Reiko and Kaneko . . .
Reiko. Kaneko.
Damn it! How was he supposed to explain THEM?
"Oh, by the way, did you girls know you're AUNTS now because I adopted a pair of Noukiite girls as my very own DAUGHTERS?"
After they got over the shock THAT would unleash, he would then have to explain why their seven-year-old nieces were off fighting the war against Uru. And that wasn't in a support role, but actually in the front line of battle!
How . . .?
He looked up to see Chikage gazing at him. "What is it, Chikage-chan?"
Placing a reassuring hand on his shoulder, she leaned down to whisper, "I would like to meet them sometime soon, Ani-kun. So would the others once you tell them of our nieces. You have nothing to fear, Ani-kun."
She walked away. Ataru watched her before turning to look at his hands.
* * *
Ranma turned to see the silver-haired K'et'hu girl she had first seen when the Lost Stars as a whole confronted her and Negako at the front gate standing at the door. Shushing her, the former pointed to the sleeping girls on a futon, both clutching their Mister Bunnies. The girl nodded, waving Ranma to follow her. In a minute, they arrived at another hut, this one looking more lived-in. "This is where you live, Sister?" she then asked.
The girl stopped, her cheeks flaming. "V-v-venerable! You don't need to address me as that! I haven't taken any vows!" she stammered.
Ranma laughed, sitting down beside a futon. The girl relaxed beside her. "Sorry, but being called 'venerable' all the time'd drive me up the wall!" She waved to herself. "I haven't done anything to earn that sort of title."
She considered that. "I'm sorry. But in my culture, respect for those born of a higher element of the Ten Orders must be shown. Though many of us do envy the social equality the Ip'ihu project, we fear doing something which could threaten our advancement to the next life when we face the Ch'uoeuk." Ranma knew "Ch'uoeuk" was the posthumous title of the founder of Noukiios' first worldwide dynasty, Muchach. A thoughtful look then crossed the young girl's face as she offered her hand. "Forgive me. My name is K'e-Nuk Yeho-Niap'yeng. It's an honour to meet you, Ven- . . . " She stopped on seeing an annoyed look cross the older woman's face, and then she smiled. "Ranma."
"Niap'yeng," Ranma repeated her given name, hoping she got the burst of air on the "p" right, plus enunciating the "ng" as it might be said in Korean, with a slight "g" sound. She grasped Niap'yeng's hand to draw it close, which made Niap'yeng shift onto her lap. "It's a pleasure to meet you, too. So how the heck does a cute girl like you wind up fighting for your planet?"
Niap'yeng stared at her before forlornly sighing. "How much has the Most Venerable One told you of us, Ven- . . .? Er, Ranma?"
"Not much, but I can see through your auras you've been through quite a lot." Ranma cradled her as she gave Niap'yeng a knowing look. "And I can tell you've all been to Sanctuary. Is that where you met Ataru and Negako?"
"Yes. We were the victims -- or if you wish, the beneficiaries -- of an evil plot to create a group of metahuman-powered Naihu warriors to be indentured across the Galactic Federation." Hearing that, Ranma nodded. The Naihu were Noukiios' slave caste, though in pre-Occupation society, they served along the lines of the English concept of "gentleman's gentleman" or "lady's lady-in-waiting." "Most of the Lost Stars were abandoned at birth, left to die because their families couldn't support them due to famine or poverty. Some, such as I, were kidnapped from our families to fill the quotas our 'dealers,' who styled themselves 'the Masters of Noukiios,' needed to fill."
Ranma blanched. "What happened?"
"Well, when the war with the dog people . . . " -- Ranma knew that was a common way of addressing the Urusians here -- " . . . started, the government drafted us. The Masters tried to keep us under their control, but they were put to death by the Inquisition, aided by the Most Venerable One and your soul-mate." Niap'yeng ignored the blush crossing Ranma's face. "When your soul-mate announced his intention to persecute the Imperials responsible for his grandmother's death, the Dominion offered their assistance. In repayment of that, the Most Venerable One offered to train us in Sanctuary so we can help the Dominion's cause against the Urusians and bring the war to an end."
Ranma considered that. "Yeah, I can see that. What about Reiko-chan and Kaneko-chan? How'd Ataru end up adopting them?"
Niap'yeng sighed, she gazing at her hands. "P'yeknu and Atnu are very unique. They're both bioroids, Ranma. Purpose-built from the DNA of some of Noukiios' greatest heroes, emperors and philosophers, all mixed together."
"'Bioroids?!' Like Negako?"
"Yes. Their creators wanted to give Noukiios living symbols of what makes us who we are, symbols that could help us finally overcome the pain and misery the Urusians left behind. They simply tricked the Masters into paying for P'yeknu's and Atnu's creation. It . . . " Niap'yeng stopped to take a deep breath. "It's been hard for them, though. The DNA that went into P'yeknu and Atnu had to be taken from the graves of their 'parents,' but grave robbing of any sort is a capital crime on Noukiios. So . . . "
"So they needed to be adopted by someone who wouldn't look down on them because of how they came into this world, right?"
Ranma sighed. "So when did it happen?"
"After your soul-mate had his encounter with those dung heap-dog Niphentaxians." Niap'yeng made a face. "When he returned to Sanctuary, he was on the brink of a total nervous breakdown. We . . . " She closed her eyes as echoes of pained screams reverberated through her mind. "We helped as best as we could. P'ye and Atnu most of all. Eventually, he came out of it. And as he did, he started to call P'ye and Atnu 'musume-chan.' When the Most Venerable One told them what that term meant, P'ye and Atnu knew they had found someone who could adopt them as his children. When our training with the Most Venerable One was complete, her brother formally adopted them."
"But they had to come back here to help end this war, right?"
"Yes. Your soul-mate didn't want them to come back here, but to return with him to Earth to be with him and his sisters. Many of us felt it wouldn't be right, either, especially now that P'ye and Atnu now had a family to call their own. But . . . " Niap'yeng shrugged. "They just couldn't envision leaving Noukiios once and for all while we were still fighting the Urusians. So they came back with us to help us finish the war."
"They WILL go back to Ataru, won't they?"
"When it's all over, yes."
Ranma breathed out. "That's good. I mean, they're both sweet girls and all. I . . . " She paused. "Ataru never told me about them."
Niap'yeng sighed. "I would not blame him for that."
Both perked on hearing someone, turning to look as a crimson-haired girl Niap'yeng's age walked up. "Nia, we've got a problem."
"What is it, Han?" Niap'yeng asked.
"Our friends on Okusei received a message from across the line," Han -- her full name was Eyu-Teo Yeho-Hanak'at' -- reported, eyes sparkling with excitement. "Seq Yethis is still alive! As are his sister and his niece. They fled to Machibusu after Onishuto was destroyed. A group's preparing to try to get them. They want us to help out."
Niap'yeng's eyes widened. "Still alive?! I thought all the major leaders of the Imperial Round were accounted for by P'ye's father!"
Hanak'at' shrugged. "Who could identify bodies after Onishuto was atomized, Nia? The sighting's been confirmed."
Niap'yeng considered that. Ranma stared at her, and then at Hanak'at'. "Did he have a hand in what happened to Ataru's grandma?"
Hanak'at' gazed at her. "He had a hand in a LOT of things concerning your kind, Venerable. He was the one who slipped in a clause in the First Tag Race agreement that would've forced another tag race onto the people of Earth if P'ye's father was killed or permanently crippled, even AFTER the original race was done. He and his kind have dreamt of conquering your planet, just like they dreamt of re-conquering us! In his eyes, Venerable, your people are the 'uo-t'ich.' And before this war started, he was the chief-of-staff to the Urusian President himself! What do you think we should do?!"
"Han's right, Ranma." Niap'yeng sighed. "If Yethis is allowed to live, then he could reconstitute a government that would present a threat to your people and mine. He has to be eliminated. Quickly."
Ranma considered that before a sigh escaped her.
* * *
Night came. Ranma relaxed on the roof of the guest hut inside the village, gazing on the stars. The star pattern was different from what she was used to on Earth, but some of the constellations were recognizable. Another big difference between this world and Earth was the absence of a moon, though there were a pair of -- she assumed this -- large planets visible in the sky off to her left. Taking a deep breath to calm herself, she shuddered as her conversation with Niap'yeng's and Hanak'at' replayed in her mind.
Damn, was THIS ugly or WHAT?!
Young children -- both of who should be with their families, playing with each other and their friends -- forced to fight a war. And there they were, calmly discussing ways of KILLING somebody with the same tone of voice others would use to discuss going to a movie or buying some cosmetics at the local beauty salon. Yeah, this Seq Yethis sounded like someone who clearly had no sense of honour. And he clearly was someone who was not just a threat to Niap'yeng's people but to Ranma's. But still . . .!
She looked left to see Niap'yeng standing beside her. "I needed some time to think to myself, Nia-chan," she whispered.
She blushed on hearing Ranma give her the "-chan" appellation with her "pet" name. She then walked over to sit beside her. "It has to be done, Ranma." She stared at the stars. "For the sake of millions -- on my planet, on yours -- and yes, on Uru, too -- he has to die."
"Why can't you just capture him and put him on trial? Make him admit what he did wrong in a court? That could hurt."
Niap'yeng shook her head. "If we did that, Ranma, he could do all sorts of things that would hurt us both in the short and long term. He's THAT committed. He's THAT convinced he's right. No attempt at persuasion will help, not now." She took a breath. "If we make him disappear, make his final fate a mystery, the Imperial cause will be dealt a crippling blow. That is what we want, Ranma. We don't want to kill every Urusian alive. To do THAT is a hideous crime before the Ch'uoeuk and we would be damned to the lowest level of the Ten Orders for it. Just like the fellow who took that annihilation bomb into Onishuto. P'ye's father told you about that, didn't he?" Seeing Ranma nod, she continued, "Yes, he was able to destroy the whole Urusian government machinery, but millions of innocent people died, too. That he did that . . . " She shuddered. "That he would do that would make me pray for the salvation of his soul and the souls of those who helped him, for the Ch'uoeuk will not show him any mercy when he faces judgement at the Pool of Reincarnation."
Ranma nodded. "Is Negako going with you guys?"
"Yes, she is. Do you want to come?"
"I guess I should. And for that . . . " She sat up. "I best get in some practice before going to bed tonight, Nia-chan."
"Practice in what . . .?"
Her eyes widened in shock as Ranma vanished before her.
* * *
Ranma triumphantly smiled as she felt her body slip into the embrace of the Goshin Eifu. She then stopped on seeing Niap'yeng frozen in place, her eyes wide as her jaw seemed to drop toward the roof. "What the . . .?" she blurted out before taking a detailed look around.
What the . . .?
Holy . . .!
Oh, gods, this was JUST not POSSIBLE!
"Now do you understand, Ranma?"
Ranma gasped, spinning around to see Negako sitting on the roof nearby, a bemused smile on her face. "NEGAKO?! Jeez, you're just as . . .!" She stopped to look at her hand. "Negako, what did I just do?!" she then demanded.
An eyebrow arched. "Remember what I told you in Sanctuary, Ranma?"
Ranma considered that before a surprised grin crossed her face. "'Time is perception first and foremost.' Then that means . . . "
"By mixing your ki with the energy of Sanctuary, you've given yourself the ability to, for brief periods, step outside of linear time," Negako explained. "And I emphasize BRIEF periods. If you do this TOO often . . . "
She held up a warning finger. "I could be stuck here forever, right?"
"Ranma, why did you do that?!"
Ranma screamed, spinning around to see a mildly annoyed Niap'yeng glaring at her. "What the HELL?!" She nearly backed into Negako before turning to face the ninjutsu grandmaster. "H-how the heck . . .?!" she sputtered.
Negako wryly chuckled. "Niap'yeng has the ability to temporarily shift herself out of linear time herself. She has the added advantage of being able to shift herself forwards and backwards through time."
Ranma blinked, blinked again, and then she sighed. "Oh!"
Niap'yeng giggled.
* * *
The next morning saw a group of Lost Stars, including Reiko, Kaneko, Niap'yeng, Hanak'at' and Chyek, plus Ranma and Negako, board a clunky-looking starship for Okusei. The ship blasted off from the village, soaring into orbit without any noticeable side effects on her passengers. Glancing out a view port in one of the ship's recreation lounges, Ranma sighed as Noukiios, a water-bound planet with two Asia-sized continents, they shaped somewhat like the two Koreas as if they were separated by a narrow sea where the DMZ would be, plus many island archipelagos, receded from view. As soon as the ship entered warp, she relaxed. "Man, I'll be glad when this is over with . . . "
She perked, turning to see Reiko and Kaneko standing there. "What is it, girls?" she asked, beckoning the twins to approach her.
Both sat down to either side of her. "Mama, we made these for Papa's sisters." Reiko held up a computer chip.
"What's this?"
"It's a replicator code-chip," Kaneko explained. "Auntie Negako can help you work it when you get back to Sanctuary. It'll create sets of formal noukik'eng for our other aunts. We . . . " She looked down. "We can guess that Papa hasn't told his sisters about us. But no matter what, we want to care for them as much as Papa cares for them."
Ranma considered that. She then smiled, slipping the chip into her jersey pocket. "Don't worry." She reached over to draw the twins into her embrace. "I'll make sure they get it. When this is all over . . . "
"We'll be together as one family," Reiko finished.
Silence fell as Ranma reflected on what Reiko said. She then nodded, leaning down to kiss their foreheads. "Yeah. One family."
* * *
Within two hours, the ship arrived in orbit over Okusei. Staring at the planet, Venus' size, Ranma was stunned to see the differences between here and Noukiios. Most of Okusei's landmass, broken up into a dozen Greenland-sized continents in a planet-wide ocean, was a brownish-grey, not the lush green of Noukiios. If that was the consistency of the planet's surface . . .!
Negako stepped up behind her. "Terrible, is it not?"
Ranma breathed out. "Bad?"
"Very. Look." Negako pointed to their right.
Ranma watched as the ship drifted alongside what appeared to be an orbital docking station, like the one from the first Star Trek movie near the dock where the Enterprise had been refitted before her encounter with V'ger. A glass-lined lounge was located beside the docking collar. Staring into it, Ranma blanched on seeing a sea of living skeletons in bare rags. Men and women of all ages, children . . .! Oh, gods, the CHILDREN . . .?!
The martial artist spun around and raced to the nearest washroom, a hand covering her mouth as nausea overwhelmed her. Negako watched her, and then she sighed, staring at the station. "Not as pretty as you would think, eh, Ranma?"
* * *
The ship took on a battalion's worth of Ip'ihu irregulars and two companies of Dominion Marines, the Noukiites' elite shock troopers below the Lost Stars. Once aboard, the leader of the strike force, a wizened brigade commander Genma's age, called everyone together for a meeting in the ship's largest lounge. Ranma and Negako were invited along, the grandmaster doing the introductions. On hearing Ranma's "relationship" to Ataru, Eyu-Uch Chuho-Nakseuch grinned. "So you are the one the Euk Hisehek bonded with?" He gave Ranma a firm squeeze of the hand. "We've heard of his so-called 'girl-hunts' even on Noukiios. It's nice to see that his taste in ladies is so high."
Ranma flustered, embarrassed that she was seen as THAT in the soldier's eyes, yet she felt . . .! Complimented? "Um, y-yeah!"
"Oh, it's quite alright, child." Nakseuch chuckled before staring concernedly at Negako. "Most Venerable, did young Niap'yeng speak the truth to me earlier on about the Venerable One's ability to step clear of linear time?"
Negako nodded. "Yes, she does speak the truth. Unlike Niap'yeng's power, however, Ranma's is not based on alterations of her DNA, but her ability to manipulate her very own life-force to do what she desires."
"Indeed?" Nakseuch grimaced. "Good. We've heard reports that some scientists from the Urusian Defence Chronology Institute -- those who survived the Euk Hisehek's attack some weeks ago, I should add -- might be trying to develop defences against our manipulating time to our benefit. They're unsubstantiated, but one can't run the risk."
Ranma perked up on hearing that establishment's name. "You mean the stupid jerks that helped Pochik Ando kill Ataru's grandmother?"
The Noukiite nodded. "The same. One of the goals of our current conflict with the dog people is to see to it that all commercial use of time-travel devices -- 'spacializers' as they call them -- is put to a stop. What happened to the Most Venerable Lady Nagaiwakai is just an example of what their kind could do to every race in the galaxy and beyond if they're not checked."
Ranma shuddered as Nakseuch's words sank in. "Damn!" She crossed her arms. "If they succeeded in screwing around with history . . . "
"Many would be affected across a dozen worlds," Negako finished.
"So how can I help if these guys did what the general just said?" Ranma demanded. "I can't slip from one time-frame to another like Nia-chan can. I CAN step out of linear time, but everything around me freezes up . . . " Her voice trailed as her eyes widened. "Oh."
Nakseuch grinned. "Exactly."
* * *
Another two-hour trip finally brought the ship to Machibusu. Gazing on the planet, Ranma whistled. "Man, THAT'S different."
"Indeed it is." Niap'yeng walked up beside her as they stared on the pink-orange hued world. Electric blue seas, some as big as the Mediterranean, dotted Machibusu's surface, but there were no oceans like the ones found on Earth, Noukiios or Okusei. Taking a closer look, Ranma quickly picked out the fair-sized cities hugging the shores of those seas. "This is one of their larger food-producing worlds, Ranma. With what is made here, the Urusians have more than enough to sustain their people, plus export the surplus elsewhere," the young Noukiite explained before she gazed on the martial artist. "Why then do they seek to deprive us of the ability to sustain our own people?"
Ranma shuddered as she tried to consider how to answer. The arrival of Nakseuch and Negako cut that short. "The intelligence forces here have located Yethis and his relatives," the grandmaster reported. "They have hidden themselves in a farming village near the planetary capital."
Ranma stared at her. "That was pretty quick!"
"Someone in the general's party is sympathetic to our cause." Nakseuch chuckled. "Not all Urusians are 'dog people' as we term them, Venerable. Many of them are descent of commoners who were made to resettle on our planet during the Occupation. We have always treated them with the respect they deserve even if their own government views them as traitors to the Urusian 'cause.'"
Ranma considered that before nodding. "So what do we do?"
* * *
Twenty minutes later -- after Ranma's first ride via matter-quantum transporter; it made her feel like someone had infused her body with a sea of ants for about five seconds -- found her and Negako, both presently masked by the Goshin Buufu, sneaking into a village about the same size as the Lost Stars' home base. The differences between Niap'yeng's current home and the village here were stark. Everything appeared to be pre-fabricated, either reinforced plastic or some form of stainless steel. All the houses sat on stilts, the main floors ten metres or so off the ground. That made sense. Most Oni-Urusians could fly and those who couldn't could be given anti-gravity belts with thruster jets to compensate. "Where're the folks who live here?" she asked Negako as they placed themselves under the overhang of a family home.
"In the capital city being processed by the occupation forces," Negako reported. "Another goal the Noukiites seek in this war is the destruction of the colonial militia forces who've raided Okusei, Tunchusei and Kurrusei since the Union Revolution two centuries ago. It has resulted in the near-extermination of whole towns on this world."
Ranma paled. "But . . .!"
"Ranma, remember what I told you about wars?"
Silence fell as she considered that. "Right . . . " she drawled. "Wait!" Her eyes focused on a building, built of the same design as the other structures, located near a line of pink-leaved trees. "Someone's there."
Negako looked. "Good. Shall we pay them a visit?"
"Let's go."
They slipped into the open, casually making their way to the hut. Given their presently being hidden under a total-ki shield, there was no fear of anyone spotting them. Even better, the grass was cut low, thus no tall stalks could get in their way or rustle when they walked amongst them. "Negako, this is too easy," Ranma warned as they came within ten metres of the hut.
"Perhaps. Then again, the Onis are too addicted to technology to worry about this," Negako said with a smirk before her eyes widened.
"What's wrong?"
The ninjutsu grandmaster stopped, her eyes narrowing as she focused her senses on the hut. "Interesting . . . " she mused.
"What?" Ranma prodded.
"Ranma, do you remember what Yedris and Sugoi look like?"
"Um, yeah! What about them?!"
"Use the Goshin Eifu to get in there, and then carry them out. When you do get to them, strike them here . . . " Negako pointed to an area on the back of her head, an inch above where the skull joined the spine. "Before handling their bodies. I will explain why later. Go now!" she ordered.
Ranma nodded, concentrating as she shifted from the Body Defence Air Cloth to the Body Defence Cloth of Eternity. Everything around her froze in place as she raced to the hut. Getting there, she noticed an open hatchway leading into the lower floor. Leaping inside was child's play. Once there, she looked around before relaxing as she switched to the Goshin Buufu. With that, she perked on hearing voices. Finding stairs, she headed up.
" . . . very unsafe for you and your family here, General."
The speaker was a burly Oni soldier, he presently standing by a window. There were a half-dozen others like him in the room, along with three other people. Seq Yethis reminded Ranma of a green-haired Oni version of Abraham Lincoln, though he also wore glasses. Seq Yedris appeared to be Nodoka's age and every bit as beautiful, though she wore her green hair loose to her waist. Seq Sugoi, a girl Rinrin's age, was a slender teen about to blossom into womanhood. Unlike her mother and uncle, Sugoi had one horn on her head, just above the point where Ranma had to strike her . . .
Well, I'll be damned! They're just like Kimiko-chan! she mused before turning back to the conversation as Yethis moved to reply.
"There's no need to concern yourself, Captain." He smiled, turning to look out the window at the fields around the house. "The Noukiites have been VERY lucky of late, but they're not the warriors they like to think they are. One strong strike against them would send them reeling back past our colonies, then we'll show them who are the REAL warriors in this galaxy."
Ranma scowled. Jeez, this asshole's like Kunou! she snorted before her eyes widened as an idea popped into her head. With that, she allowed the Goshin Buufu to shift back to the normal Umisen-ken cloak. "Let's test that theory of yours, General!" she then called out.
Everyone screamed out on hearing that alien voice as Ranma shifted back into the Goshin Eifu. The screams faded into total silence as she yanked the weapons out of the troopers' hands to shatter them. They wound up in a pile on the floor. Over to Yedris and Sugoi. Shiatsu strikes to the backs of their heads, and then Ranma called out, "Negako!"
"Bring them downstairs!" Negako ordered from the lower floor.
Ranma grunted as she carried Yedris to the stairwell. "Sorry about that, ma'am!" she apologized as her hands brushed past the older woman's bust. Once Negako had her, she went back to Sugoi. Once she was passed down, Ranma shifted to the Air Cloth. Everything went back to normal.
"Hey!" the captain screamed out, finding himself without a rifle, and then he looked around in desperation. "What the hell . . .?!"
"Who was that?!" Yethis demanded before he noticed two people missing from the room. "Yedris?! Sugoi?! What the . . .?!"
"That was me!"
Ranma dropped the Goshin Buufu. The Onis spun on her, stunned to see a TERRAN here. "Who are you?!" Yethis demanded.
"Name's Saotome Ranma, Yethis." She smirked, her battle aura flaring. "Just in case you were wondering about your other Imperial pals in Onishuto and elsewhere, I got a news flash." She tensed. "Moroboshi Ataru killed them!"
Yethis' eyes went wide. "Moroboshi . . .?!"
"Yeah!" Ranma nodded as ki coalesced in her hands. "KACHUU TENSHIN AMAGURIKEN KITEI! SEISHIN SHURIKEN TAIFUN!"
A storm of ki bolts slammed into the troopers protecting Yethis, sending them flying through the window to crash-land on the ground beyond. Suddenly finding himself alone, the general moved to flee. A Psychic Kusarigama snared his legs to yank him back to make him kiss Ranma's fist. He dropped to the floor, blood showering from a broken nose and shattered teeth. Ranma's foot then slammed into the back of his head to keep him down. She then allowed ki to flow into her hands. "Jeez, Yethis! Did you REALLY think Ataru was gonna let you get away with murdering his grandmother?!" She leaned down to contemptuously flick the horns from his head. "I don't think so!"
Yethis shuddered as he sensed Ranma fade from view. He then screamed out as a storm of fists smashed into his body from all over.
* * *
"Impressive," Negako mused, sensing what Ranma was doing from nearby the hut. Around the grandmaster, the troopers Ranma dealt with were tied up, stripped of their horns and made to sleep thanks to some deft shiatsu strikes. Yedris and Sugoi were asleep nearby, they having been given their own shiatsu treatment to allow them to better function among other people without their un-moulded Avalonian powers overcoming them.
A second later, a broken body sailed out one of the shattered windows to smash into the ground some distance away from Negako. She gazed at Yethis' battered face before turning back as Ranma leapt down to join her.
"I trust your first test of the Eien Mooko Taifun-ke went well?"
Ranma sighed. "Needs some work."
"Fair enough." Negako then drew out a communicator.
* * *
"She sold her own brother out?!"
Nakseuch nodded. "Yes!" The general was meeting with Ranma in one of the Noukiite ship's lounges, the ship still in orbit over Machibusu. It was an hour after the raid on Yethis' hideout. "Lady Yedris is the leader of the Urusian Democratic Alliance. We want them to survive this war so they can lead their people to a better future. They will need strong leadership, especially after what happened some weeks ago in Onishuto."
Ranma took that in before sighing. "That's a brave lady. I take it Sugoi-chan backs her mom up all the way."
"I do."
Both turned as Sugoi stepped into the room, followed by Yedris and Negako. Seeing the two Onis in plain noukik'eng in lieu of the tiger-striped cheongsam-like dresses Ranma first saw them in on the planet below, the martial artist grinned as she accepted the Seqs' embrace. "So you are the one who was truly meant for Lum-chan's Darling." Yedris gave the Terran a careful look-over, nodding approvingly. "Well, at least, if what Negako told us is true, he'll have someone who truly understands him."
Ranma nodded. "I do. So what's going to happen to you two?"
"We'll stay with the Lost Stars," Yedris explained. "They're interrogating my brother as we speak. He supposedly has knowledge of a Noukiite missionary colony that was established on Uru over a thousand years ago, before the Seifukusu conquered us. If the remains of that colony are found, everything the Imperial Round has espoused concerning our relations with the Noukiites will be made hollow. And, if the good general here . . . " She gazed on Nakseuch, who bowed in return. "Speaks the truth about his people's war aims, once Heaven's Gate Bridge -- that's the colony's name -- is found, the Dominion will then move to bring hostilities to an end."
Nakseuch smiled. "That is something we all want, Lady."
Ranma smirked, popping her knuckles to emphasize her point. "Hey, if you need help with that creep, let me have some time with him."
Yedris chuckled. "It's alright. The Lost Stars have many strong telepaths among them. You won't be needed."
"And if Uncle proves stubborn about it, that's just too bad," Sugoi added. "Don't they say on your planet, 'You reap what you sow?'"
Ranma chuckled. "Yeah, that's true. Um, General, if you don't mind, I'd like to talk to Yedris and Sugoi-chan here alone . . . "
"Of course." Nakseuch nodded before heading off.
Once she sensed that they were alone, Ranma turned to Yedris. "Um, if you were wondering about Lum and Ran, ma'am, I can tell you . . . "
"It's alright." Yedris squeezed Ranma's hand. "Negako told us about them. It's good they're safe on Earth. Even if Lum-chan wouldn't EVER think of doing what my brother and his friends might have wanted, there are many on Noukiios who wouldn't hesitate in 'finishing the job' as your people'd say. I just hope the chance will come that Lum-chan and your fiancé will reconcile."
Ranma nearly gagged on her bile, and then she sputtered, "Hey, wait a sec' . . .!" She backed away from Yedris only to feel Negako's hand on her shoulder, the ninjutsu grandmaster moving to guide her out of the lounge.
"Come, Ranma. It is time to return to Sanctuary," Negako ordained.
"Um, y-y-yeah, r-right!" Ranma nodded, waving. "'Bye!"
"Mama, wait!"
Ranma stopped as Reiko and Kaneko ran in. The twins carried long, narrow cases, cases that could only contain swords. Stopping before their father's friend, they held out the cases. "Here you go, Mama!" they chimed in sync.
"What're these?" Ranma wondered.
"Seucheuchet'," Reiko explained, that being interpreted as "eunuch's sword" thanks to Ranma's language translator. "It's okay! Papa has two of his own; he found them when he helped the Inquisition deal with Yethis' friends."
"It's only right that you have a pair of your own," Kaneko added. "These were ones welded by our . . . " She paused before shrugging. "Well, two of the people -- the two women of the group -- whose DNA went into us."
Ranma considered that before she sighed, shaking her head. "They should go back to the graves where they were found, Kaneko-chan . . . "
"It's alright." Reiko shook her head. "One of them -- this is her blade . . . " She patted her case. "Was the T'yekhek Empress. She was murdered by Urusian agents before the Occupation began. Her grave was destroyed mid-way through the Occupation. She . . . " She looked at the case. "Wound up with Auntie Yedris' family on Uru after the Liberation."
Ranma gazed on Yedris. Seeing the older woman nod, the martial artist then turned on Kaneko. "What about that one?"
"This was a posthumous present for the Most Venerable Ye-Hit' Yeho-Huit'ch'uk, the mother of one of our planet's greatest philosophers," Kaneko explained. "It was buried with her until it was stolen during the Occupation." She glanced at Yedris and Sugoi. "It wound up with the Seqs, too," she added.
"And there's no one left of the Most Venerable's family, Mama," Reiko added, holding up the case to Ranma. "Please?"
Kaneko echoed her sister's actions. Seeing the pleading looks in their eyes, Ranma nodded. "Alright, then. I vow on my honour as a student of Saikoo Jinseijitsu Ninjutsu-ryuu, home Art of your adopted family, that I will keep these blades in my company until such time as the government of the Dominion of Noukiios requests their return. OR until such time that you two are old enough to weld them yourselves," she then declared.
Hearing that, the twins beamed.
* * *
Journal Entry, Day 30 of Sanctuary visit (counting time elsewhere),
Dear Diary,
They called me 'Mother.'
That scared me, but at the same time, it warmed my heart.
Once we returned to Sanctuary, Negako explained to me that if it wasn't for Reiko-chan and Kaneko-chan, Ataru's recovery from what happened in Lumukyou might not have happened. It's no wonder he was willing to adopt them once he learned of the problems they faced being what they are.
If that had been me, I would've done the same thing.
The blades they gave me, according to Negako, have nice names to them. According to the traditions concerning these swords, they have to be given 'soft' names to offset their purpose. Huit'ch'uk's blade is Et'a Yekaechsuch-at', 'Mother's Eternal Dream.' T'yekhek's blade is Aeyek-hup'uk, 'Righteous Love.' Man, some of these syllables are tongue twisters, but I won't give them Japanese names. After hearing what happened to Reiko-chan and Kaneko-chan's people, it doesn't seem right.
Reminds me too much of what Japan once did to Korea.
Ranma paused to collect her thoughts before she carried on:
It's nice to be back in Sanctuary, even if I can't work on the new form I used against Yethis. When I return to Earth, I'll have to practice it quick. There's no telling what might happen when I go to Nerima and have to worry about the tomboy or the lunkheads, especially with what Negako has in mind now.
Oh, I forgot to tell you that. Negako's come up with an idea about my breaking away forever from the panda. What I'd have to do is apply to the Family Registrar to start up an independent branch of the Saotome family based on Promised Island. Along the way, I have to talk to the Court of Special Appeals to ensure Oyaji couldn't dodge around that and make me roonin before I could finally stick it to him. Even if he HAS dragged our family honour through the dirt, I'm not taking another name.
To do THAT would give the bastard some satisfaction in the end.
He gets NONE because of me.
To do that, though, I'd have to turn over all the information Tampopo-chan helped collect on the bastard when I was off modelling to the Court of Special Appeals. I doubt that showing some of that, including information on the five OTHER fiancées Oyaji got me engaged to -- Honestly! What the hell was I supposed to do with TRIPLETS as my fiancées?! -- to Akane's dad won't make him turn away from his so-called 'dream' of uniting the schools. That also means I have to attack him where it'll hurt the most: Going after his doojou sign. I've got a couple ideas about that, but I'll bounce it off Negako first before making any firm plans. And no, it won't involve a Doojou Destroyer!
Whoo, won't HE be in for a surprise!
Ranma stopped, and then she saved the entry.
* * *
Six "days" later, Negako silently stepped into Ranma's room to crouch beside the sleeping girl. Fortunately, Ranma was reclining on her side. Reaching over, the ninjutsu grandmaster tapped several points on the younger woman's head and back. With that, she rose, moving to the door.
"Time to wake up, Ranma. Go have a bath first."
A moan escaped Ranma, and then she rolled onto her back. "Right . . . "
Negako headed into the kitchen as Ranma gathered her toiletries before she jogged into the bathroom. Turning back to her cooking, the grandmaster relaxed as she extended her ki-senses to keep an "eye" on her student.
Any moment now . . .
That was a BOY'S yell, by the way.
Negako walked to the bathroom door to peek in. Kneeling beside the furo was a MALE Ranma, staring down at himself with a mixture of stunned shock and horror. Perhaps the same expression he showed when he was initially immersed in the Niángniquán? she wondered to herself as she crossed her arms.
"Are you alright, Ranma?" she calmly asked.
He shuddered as he gazed at her, and then he sputtered, "W-why . . .?"
"You had to feel it for yourself," Negako reported. "Change back, and then meet me in the doojou. It is time for your final lesson here."
She headed out.
* * *
Minutes later, a female Ranma stepped into the doojou. Negako knelt by the head, where the kamidana would be located. Ranma placed herself before her, and then she bowed. Negako nodded. Straightening herself, Ranma sniffed before wiping her eyes. Silence then fell as she collected herself. She then stared at her host. "Could you please lock me up as a girl again, Negako?"
"Are you a man or a woman?" Negako asked in return.
More silence.
Still more silence.
Then . . .
"I'm a woman. Chikage and the guide were right."
Negako beckoned Ranma with a hand. Ranma shifted over, and then she remained still as the grandmaster fused new ki into her. Once that was done and the Chiisui-ton lock was again in place, Ranma shifted back to where she first sat. "How did you feel when you changed?" Negako asked.
"Ugly!" Ranma immediately responded. "I went over a month without a change. My sense of balance was totally out of whack. And I . . . " She quaked. "I saw myself in the mirror there, as a guy. And it just HIT me, Negako! That just wasn't ME! It wasn't ME anymore, Negako!" Taking another deep breath, she pointed to herself. "THIS is me, Negako! A woman who wants nothing to do with that . . . that . . . " She sputtered. "That macho, sexist FREAK Oyaji wanted to create to please Mom! Oh, gods . . .!"
She covered her face with her hands, wiping away the tears. "Now that you have allowed that to escape you, it is time," Negako said.
She reached behind her to draw a box. Laying that before Ranma, she opened it. Ranma looked in. A black belt with a kanji symbol.
Ranma stared at Negako. "Happy, Kelun and I made an agreement before you and I came here," the grandmaster explained. "If you show to me that you have proven the right to have this, Happy will release you as a student of Musabetsu Kakutou-ryuu and acknowledge you as a student of Saikoo Jinseijitsu-ryuu under my tutelage. Furthermore, he will strip Souun and Genma of their teaching licenses. The Tendou-ryuu and the Saotome-ryuu will cease to be. Happy will then take Nabiki and Akane under his direct tutelage." A pause. "Furthermore, if you earn this, Kelun will send a message to her sister councillors about your emotional change of gender, then have you adopted into the Nujiézú as a warrior of full standing. You and Shanpú will become blood-sisters under their Blood Sibling Law. Chikage explained to you about that after you first came to Promised Island. Once that is done, if you desire, you will be free to pursue your own future. It will NOT force you into a marriage with Ataru, though."
"And if I desire to marry Ataru?"
"Do you desire that now?"
"I . . . " Ranma stopped before sighing. "I don't know."
"Then you have to find out."
"I guess I do." Ranma looked down. "Negako, I haven't learned all the forms yet. I don't even deserve a plain black belt . . . "
Negako held up her hand to silence her student's protest. "Ranma, your time here wasn't meant to be spent learning ALL the basic forms. Some of them, including the Earth-Heart Fire Geyser and the Paranormal-Power Inverse Fire Bomb, require special training. And you might not be compatible to learning those forms since, even with your curse locked in place, your natural affinity is water." She pointed to her own belt with the "chi" kanji. "What you had to prove, to yourself most of all . . . " She pointed to Ranma. "Was the fact that before a teacher can truly teach others . . . "
"I have to learn how to teach myself."
"And to fully THINK for yourself. To take what you hear from others, make your own theory, and then proceed to prove it and use it to your benefit. You did it when you created the Mooko Takabisha. You did it when you modified the Hiryuu Shooten-ha to suit your style of combat. You did it when you created the Goshin Buufu, then later the Goshin Eifu and the Eien Mooko Taifun-ke. You CAN do it, both within martial arts and beyond, that you see and do for yourself. What you will learn over time is how to differentiate between the good forms and the bad forms. That comes with experience."
Silence falls as Ranma considered that before she sighed. "What now?"
"Part of the trial will be done here. The rest comes in Nerima when you deal with your would-be suitors and the other hangers-on."
Ranma's eyebrow arched. "So this includes the thing with the Court of Special Appeals and the Family Registrar, right?!"
"Exactly. Not everything in life is battle, Ranma."
Ranma grinned. Life. "I can see that. Nokoko-oneechan was right."
"She was. Up!"
Both rose, and then properly greeted each other; practitioners in Saikoo Jinseijitsu used the left fist-in-right palm salute employed by certain kung fu and t'ai chi schools. Ranma stepped back to give Negako space, and then she assumed a standing sword-draw stance. Negako nodded, concentrating her ki into her hand. Seeing that, Ranma nodded, relaxing herself.
"Better," Negako said. "Now, draw."
* * *
"Ranma . . .?!"
Everyone in the dining room perked on hearing Ataru. They then turned to gaze on him. "Onii-chan, are you alright?!" Karen asked.
A lost look was on his face as he rose, heading out. "Anigimi-sama, what's wrong?!" Haruka demanded as the sisters crowded the door.
"Leave him be."
"Chikage-chan!" Karen snapped. She then fell silent as everyone watched Ataru place himself before the doors leading out of the rotunda. He lowered himself into seiza, and then he relaxed, his eyes fixed on the doorknobs.
"What's wrong with Onii-tama?" Hinako wondered.
"What we have wished for has taken the largest step towards coming true, Hinako-chan," Chikage replied. "Now, we wait."
The others nodded.
* * *
To be continued . . .