Ranma 1/2 Fan Fiction / Urusei Yatsura Fan Fiction / Sister Princess Fan Fiction ❯ Lonely Souls ❯ The Fifth Part - The Morning After ( Chapter 11 )

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

"How could you, Ranma . . .?"
Ranma's eyes went wide on seeing Akane float before her in a sea of burning energy. This Akane, draped in the Densetsu no Doogi, possessed a burning slash mark cleaving her face and body right to her groin. The Doogi's buckle was shattered. "Akane . . .!" she gasped.
"I thought . . . " the apparition moaned. "You loved me . . . "
Ranma cried out in shock as Akane literally fell apart before her eyes. She then shrieked on feeling hands grasp her shoulders. She kicked herself away from whoever was behind her, spinning around to see a headless girl's body wearing an okonomiyaki-ka's uniform. "U-chan!"
"Ran-chan . . . " Ukyou's head floated by. "Why . . .?"
Ranma squeezed her eyes shut. "U-chan . . . "
"Humph! Pathetic!"
Her eyes flew open as she spun right, nausea surging up her throat on seeing the darkened figure standing a couple metres away. Despite her being in total shadow, the body shape and hairstyle spoke volumes. "Wh-who . . .?"
"Just pathetic." The newcomer came out of shadow, revealing Ranma's face pierced by cat-slit eyes. "Isn't it?" She glanced at the decapitated Ukyou. "Even in death, all they can do is whine and complain that you didn't kowtow to them like you did when they were still alive!" She sneered. "Honestly, what did we ever do in our life to deserve this shit, eh?"
Ranma peered at her doppelgänger. As Ukyou's body bumped against her, she took it, and then reached for her head in some vain hope of reattaching them. "Oh, please! Don't bother!" the other Ranma snarled. "She doesn't deserve help from us. None of them do. None of them EVER did!"
She waved around them. Ranma looked before a fresh bout of nausea surged through her. There floated Shampoo, the top of her head ripped away. Over here was Mousse, a big hole where his forehead should be. Near him was Nabiki, a jagged wound in her chest. A decapitated Kunou Tatewaki. Kodachi with a sword wound under her breast, her throat ripped out. Souun chopped in half. And a sea of shattered body parts and globs of human blood, a hand holding a fifty-yen coin floating nearby. Ninomiya Hinako, Ranma concluded.
What was left of her . . .
"Why . . .?"
"Why?" Neko-Ranma snorted. "Why not? They would've done that to us one way or another if we didn't kowtow to them! You know that as much as I do! Those spineless bastards got what they deserved!"
Ranma spun on her doppelgänger. "WE HAVE NO RIGHT TO DO THIS!" she shrilled, pointing to the drifting corpses. "NONE! Yeah, they were idiots, but they sure as hell didn't deserve something like THIS . . .!"
"Oh, spare me, please!" Neko-Ranma spat out. "Have any of these fools ever done what we've done?! No! Have they fought immortals, dragon half-breeds, monsters and a fucking OCEAN of martial artists?! No! Have they endured insult after insult because of what Jusenkyou did to us?! NO!" She pointed to the corpses. "All they've ever done, all EVERYONE WE'VE MET has ever done to us, is spit on us, use us, laugh at us, insult us and HATE us! Well, FINE!" She made a dismissive wave, and then she thumbed herself. "If that's the way they want to keep treating us, then let's show them what we can REALLY to do to them, to ALL of them, in return!"
Ranma shuddered. "I won't let you . . . " she hissed.
"Oh?!" Her double smirked. "What're you doing to do? Destroy me? You can't! I'm PART of you! If you destroy me, you doom yourself! And not just yourself . . . " She pointed behind Ranma. "But him, too!"
Ranma turned to see a ghostly image float behind her. "Ataru . . . "
"Right," Neko-Ranma drawled. "We're bound to him, remember? If we die, he dies. What's more important to us now, Ranma? Our Other? Or them?" She contemptuously indicated the corpses floating nearby.
Ranma fell silent. "Don't worry about what happened last night, Ranma." Neko-Ranma then snorted. "Thanks to you learning how to manipulate those null-time bubbles in Sanctuary, you saved their sorry asses." A ho-hum look crossed her face. "Then again, does it matter? We're going to be leaving these fools behind. And if they have a problem with that, well . . . " She shrugged, turning away from Ranma. "It's nice to know that we can kill them all if we really feel it necessary. Ne?"
As Neko-Ranma faded from view, Ranma screamed out, "NO . . .!"
** ** **
Ranma gasped as she felt strong arms embrace her. She turned, sinking into Ataru's hug. "There, there . . . " he whispered before kissing her, his hand ruffling her hair. "It's okay. It's okay. It's just a nightmare . . . "
"N-n-n-nightmare . . .?" she sputtered before a pained moan escaped her.
Ataru remained still as she wept, his eyes narrow as fingers kneaded and stroked her vibrant crimson locks. The door to his bedroom opened, revealing a worried Sakuya. "Onii-sama, is . . .?" She stopped on seeing Ranma crying.
"Nightmare," he wordlessly mouthed.
Sakuya nodded. As the door closed, Ataru allowed Ranma to sink into her futon, his hands keeping her close. Her moans continued for what seems an eternity before a train of sniffles heralded a restoration of self-control. "Th-thanks . . . " she then muttered under her breath.
He stared at her. "You okay?"
"Should I be . . .?" She bit her lip, and then reached up to stroke his cheek above his beard. "That guyver-thing you turned into . . .?"
"Same general idea as what you can become now," he confirmed. "And initially created under surprisingly similar circumstances. For me, it was Onee-chan being forced into my mind when I was six. For you, it was . . . "
"The Neko-ken training when I was ten." She rubbed her forehead. "Could that've happened because of the bond between us? I . . . "
He shrugged, reaching up to rub the side of her cheek. "Maybe."
"I killed them, Ataru . . . "
He shook his head. "No, you didn't."
"But that thing said . . . "
"You used the null-time bubbles, remember?"
"But still . . . "
"No!" He placed a firm finger on her lips before leaning down to kiss her forehead. "They're still alive, Ranma. No one died."
She squeezed her eyes shut. "You know that's a lie!"
"I'm not a theologian, Ranma," he reminded her as he shifted himself onto his back, allowing her to lean on his arm. "Don't worry about things that can't be changed. All you'll do is working yourself into a nervous breakdown."
"I can't forget that, Ataru."
"I know."
Silence fell as they lay together. "Was it the same for you?" Ranma then asked. "When the Cyborg first came out?"
He scowled. "Fortunately, no. You might say that I had the very distinct pleasure . . . " -- she could sense the sarcasm in his voice on saying that word -- "Of watching three billion people die when that happened."
They stared at each other. Ranma drew her arms around Ataru.
No more words needed to be said.
**** **** ****
Lonely Souls
By Fred Herriot
pyeknu@hotmail.com OR fherriot@yahoo.com
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Based on Urusei Yatsura and Ranma 1/2, created by Takahashi Rumiko; and Sister Princess, created by Tenhiro Naoto and Kimino Sakurako.
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Set in the universe of the fan-fiction series Urusei Yatsura - The Senior Year, created by Mike Smith and Fred Herriot
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NOTE: The writer's notes are in a separate text file.
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To quote the old Cat Stevens song, morning had broken over Tokyo and her many surrounding municipalities. For some, however, this day would be radically different than any in recent memory. Events on the front lawn of a high school in Nerima would have earth-shattering repercussions for most of its participants for years to come, perhaps even the rest of their lives.
Case in point: The Tendou doojou.
Kasumi shuddered as the rays of the morning sun penetrated her bedroom window and curtains. Grunting, she shifted into a sitting position to rub the sleep from her eyes. Pausing as her senses reached out to detect the current state of the house's wa, the eldest daughter blinked on sensing that both her siblings were awake. Odd. Akane was often an early riser, but she rarely if EVER got up at THIS time of the morning. Nabiki, even with her moving to recapture her martial arts skills over the last week, still preferred to get as much beauty sleep as she could. A glance in the direction of her father's bedroom a floor below revealed Souun to still be asleep, no doubt emotionally exhausted from last night's shocking and traumatizing events. A glance towards the guest rooms revealed Happoosai currently in his own room, also asleep -- not to mention a yawning emptiness from the space that, until last night, served as quarters for Saotome Genma. Genma . . .
Kasumi shuddered as the climax of events at Fuurinkan High replayed in her mind's eyes. A furious Ranma unleashing something she called the "Modified Soulsword/Fire Scythe of Death" on Genma. A cascade of ki slammed into the Saotome patriarch, it possessing the energy necessary to sever his normal body from the cursed form Jusenkyou forced on him months ago. The riot police stormed onto the grounds soon after, prepared to lay the long arm of the law on the Saotome patriarch. Genma tried to flee, but Ranma used a "psychic kusarigama" to propel her father into Justice's embrace. Genma then tried to use a ki blast to scatter the police before making his escape -- and he was shot down by a local officer defending his brother policemen. On his falling, an unexpected side-effect of the Fire Scythe disintegrated Genma's body in a burst of fire, leaving nothing behind of the Saotome patriarch save memories.
Shifting the covers away, Kasumi swung her feet into slippers. Standing, she reached for her housecoat. Once dressed, she made her way to Nabiki's bedroom. A gentle knock was responded by, "C'mon in, Onee-chan!"
Kasumi peeked inside to see Nabiki in her nightclothes, she seated at her work desk, her legs tucked in underneath her. On her desk were several sheets of heavy art paper, plus several plain and coloured pencils. Seeing that, Kasumi fought down an urge to smile. Before their mother's passing, Nabiki frequently demonstrated her skill with coloured pencils, a skill that seemed to have vanished over the years as the middle daughter threw her agile mind into ensuring a roof remained over their heads. "Have you been up for long?" Kasumi asked as she stepped inside, moving to take a look at Nabiki's work.
The middle daughter quickly sensed what gained her sibling's interest. "Been dozing on and off since we came back from the school." She picked up one sheet, holding it up for Kasumi. "Take a look at Ranma-kun's LATEST trick."
Kasumi took the sheet -- and nearly dropped it on seeing what had been drawn there. "A winged . . . catgirl?!" She stared at Nabiki. "I didn't know you were into THIS sort of fantasy . . . " she said, moving to be flippant.
The look Nabiki gave her in response told the eldest Tendou daughter this was NO joking matter. "Droll, Onee-chan. Real droll."
Kasumi blinked before staring at the picture. Turning it to gaze on those fierce features from a new angle, she frowned. "This is unlike any feline I've ever seen," she noted before staring at Nabiki. "An alien feline?"
"Possibly, especially given what Ataru-kun turns into." Nabiki reached under one of her pictures of Neko-Ranma to draw another sheet of paper, holding it up to allow Kasumi a view of the Cyborg. "What do you think of THIS?!"
Kasumi blanched, a hand flying right to her mouth. "Oh, dear . . . "
"Yeah." Nabiki placed that picture down, sitting back in her chair. "A lot's changed with Ranma-kun, Onee-chan," she then warned.
"So it seems," Kasumi agreed before she placed the picture of Neko-Ranma onto the desk. "What happened last night?" she then asked.
Nabiki sighed. "Like I told you after we came back home. We all get together at the school. Genma shows up trying to slice Ranma-kun down with his mom's katana. Hinako-sensei tries to stop it and nearly gets skewered. Ranma-kun takes the hit and BANG!" She made an exploding motion with her hands. "We all wind up in this big, white NOTHING! By the time I managed to get to some place where I can see what's going on in the real world, Genma's bound against a tree, Ranma-kun's a catgirl, Ataru-kun's doing his Terminator impression and . . . " A deep breath. "Shortly after that, you and Toofuu-sensei are on the scene. You know what happened next."
Kasumi slowly nodded. "How did this all come about?"
"Only person that'd know the whole story is most likely Negako."
Nabiki nodded. "Yep. Onee-chan, last night, Ranma-kun was able to use a SOULSWORD! That's the deadliest basic manoeuvre in Saikoo Jinseijitsu-ryuu. One touch of the blade edge, you're dead. One touch of the flat, your brain becomes instant fried nattou . . . "
"Ranma-kun is capable of learning martial arts forms VERY quickly . . . "
"Onee-chan, I KNOW!" Nabiki cut her off. "But how is it he LEARNED all this?! Negako's been HERE in Nerima while Ranma-kun's been off with Ataru-kun and his family! And I don't think Ataru-kun could've taught him that!"
Silence fell over the room as the elder Tendou daughter considered that. She then crossed her arms. "What do you plan to do now?"
"Get some answers from Negako about what's been going on with Ataru-kun since Lum got kicked off the planet," Nabiki replied. "Onee-chan, there's something about this part of Ranma-kun you have to know." She pointed to the pictures. "This part of Ranma-kun is clearly female in personality. What's worse, 'she' is VERY attracted to Ataru-kun. If there's any hope, ANY hope at all remaining for Akane-chan to patch up things with Ranma-kun, we have to find out what's going on between him and Ataru-kun."
Kasumi nodded.
* * *
Unseen by her siblings, Akane was standing in the hallway between hers and Nabiki's rooms. The door to the middle Tendou daughter's bedroom was ajar enough to have allowed her to overhear a LOT of what Nabiki and Kasumi had said over the last couple of minutes. Unfortunately, given her long habit of assuming many wrong things about Ranma . . .
That monster that possessed Ranma . . . it's attracted to MOROBOSHI?! she exclaimed as she quietly shuffled back into her bedroom, closing the door behind her. Walking over to her own work desk, she sat, leaning on her elbows as she tried to make sense of what she just heard. Or is it just that guyver-thing Moroboshi turns into . . .?! Her forehead furrowed before her eyes went wide. Wait a minute! How is it Moroboshi turns into that thing in the first place?! Was it something Negako-san did . . .?!
A hollow sleeve tapped her. Akane gasped, spinning around to see the Densetsu no Doogi floating by her chair, it tilted in a display of concern. A sign went up. [YOU OKAY, AKANE?!] It twirled around. [WHAT'S WRONG?]
Akane gazed on the magic fighting uniform. She then grimaced as the altercation between herself and Ranma in the wake of Genma's death replayed. "Do not EVER again presume you have the right to fight ANYONE because of me, Tendou-san," the redhead said after giving Akane a dose of the Psychic Laser Beam, one of the basic ki attacks of Saikoo Jinseijitsu-ryuu. Ranma then followed that with a warning that if such happened again, she would see to it that Akane's career in the martial arts would come to an end.
Akane shuddered as a swell of anger thundered up from her heart. Then her body lost strength as a cloud of regret put a damper on that. Hugging herself, she fought back tears as the sheer scale of what had been lost over the last few weeks came back to her. The blunder she made with the Nanniichuan casket at the wedding and how the after-effects of THAT spiralled out of control over the following weeks, exploding finally in the fight between the fiancées over Souun, Genma and Nodoka's last attempt to force a marriage between Ranma and Akane. An explosion that had sent Ranma away for four weeks. And when he returned, he announced that he would be leaving the Tendous. When that happened, Akane would be forced onto a level playing field with Ukyou and Shampoo when it came to vying for Ranma. Even more, Ranma warned that if his would-be lovers screwed up, their claims on him would be rejected regardless of what honour demanded or the cost such might unleash on the fiancées.
Then, in the immediate wake that awful terrorist attack on Tomobiki High School last week, the Tendous and the Saotomes learned that Ranma had befriended MOROBOSHI ATARU of all people! The so-called "Cancer of Tomobiki" -- a man whose levels of lechery rivalled Happoosai's despite his late "wife" Lum's attempts at taming him -- who had mysteriously vanished from his hometown the very day of the failed wedding at the Tendou doojou, had just come back from a long training trip. A trip that ultimately helped Ataru become a world-class martial artist in his own right, a lingering "gift" of his being the last host of a sentient non-corporeal life form created by the Moroboshi Clan with the help of Master Hosan Hirosuke eight hundred years ago. A sentient non-corporeal life form that currently lived as Moroboshi Negako, Grandmaster of the Moroboshi-Hana Saikoo Jinseijitsu Ninjutsu-ryuu, the only real friend of Happoosai, Ataru's adopted elder sister . . . and Ranma's new sensei, thanks to Negako soon discovering Genma's greatest blunder concerning his son and heir.
A blunder Akane learned of the HARD way the day after things literally exploded in Tomobiki, when an automatic outburst of anger thanks to Ranma's showing up her dearth of cooking skills resulted in a shattered arm. AND effectively destroyed what respect Ranma might have held for her, not to mention ending what relationship they had. Negako's discovery also, atop driving a permanent wedge between Ranma and his father, destroyed Genma's marriage, which brought up the spectre of Ranma renouncing the Saotome name to wipe the slate clean when it came to matters of honour. THAT spectre had ultimately driven Akane into getting the Densetsu no Doogi back in hopes of giving her one last chance at bringing Ranma back into her home.
But Ranma had, to everyone's shock and disbelief, stayed a step ahead of the game this time. Last night, as he moved to destroy the Saotome doojou sign to bring a final end to Genma's and Souun's dreams, Ranma revealed that he had somehow been given the legal right to form an AUTONOMOUS branch of the Saotome Clan, free of any obligations being Genma's and/or Nodoka's child might force on him. Saotome Ranma, the would-be husband of Tendou Akane, Kuonji Ukyou, Nu Shanpú, Kunou Kodachi and who knew how many other people -- was legally no more. Thus, with Genma's death shortly afterward, the Saotome School of Musabetsu Kakutou-ryuu was wiped out forever.
Ranma, Negako told everyone after the transformed martial artist had left the school grounds with Ataru, was presently a student of Saikoo Jinseijitsu-ryuu thanks to a private agreement between herself and Happoosai reached days before. On hearing that, Souun launched an immediate protest, one instantly shot down by Happoosai. Declaring the Saotome-ryuu dead with Genma, he then seized the Tendou doojou sign and shattered it. "When you decide to wake up to reality, Souun, THEN I'll consider giving you a new license," the aged grandmaster of Musabetsu Kakutou-ryuu snarled before leaving the school grounds with Negako and Cologne. "Until then, the Tendou-ryuu is no more."
Poor Souun had to be dragged home, comatose over the fact that EVERYTHING he and Genma had tried to create had been destroyed so easily and so SWIFTLY. Genma dead, Souun's doojou wiped out, Ranma living with the Moroboshis . . .
The Moroboshis.
Akane shuddered as she remembered what Kasumi and Nabiki had just said concerning Ranma's and Ataru's other-selves. She then glanced at the Doogi. "Gomen, Dou-chan." She placed a hand on its shoulder. "Right now, I'm going to have to do some things on my own."
[CAN I HELP?!] the sentient battle uniform signed.
Akane shook her head. "No. Ranma doesn't like you, remember?" Seeing the Doogi tilt its blazer in a mimicked nod, she then sighed. "Atop that, who knows WHAT sort of feelings that cat-monster might actually have concerning all of us. Right now . . . " Her jaw tightened. "I have to find some way to convince Ranma to come home. If there is something connecting him to Moroboshi that allows that cat-monster to take control of him, separating Ranma from Moroboshi might get rid of that thing . . . "
"Hai, true." She grimaced, fighting down a burst of anger at admitting the fact that Saotome Ranma -- much less Moroboshi Ataru! -- was worlds better than Tendou Akane in the martial arts. "But one way or another, Dou-chan, I'm bringing Ranma back home!" she then vowed.
A pause as the Doogi considered Akane's words. It then signed, [IF YOU NEED ME, I'LL BE RIGHT HERE FOR YOU, AKANE.]
She beamed. "Thanks, Dou-chan."
* * *
In a secluded part of Tomobiki, someone rose. Stretching, Fujinami Ryuunosuke rubbed the sleep from her eyes. Glancing around the room she just spent the previous night in, a shiver quaked her as a sense of unfamiliarity seized her for a moment. Memory then clicked in as she saw Mister Big Screen, and then her eyes turned right and down to gaze on the peacefully dozing woman beside her. "Ran . . . " she whispered.
Leaning down, she kissed the alien teen's cheek before sliding herself back under the covers. She took a moment to glance briefly on the nightstand. The chronometer sitting there had been adjusted to read local time. Seeing how early it was, Ryuunosuke closed her eyes. A couple more hours' sleep would do her some good, especially since she had no school to worry about. Given last week's shattering events, officials decided to keep Tomobiki High closed for another day before allowing the new school term to start.
"Good morning, Ryuu-chan."
Ryuunosuke's eyes opened, a smile crossing her face on seeing Ran gazing warmly at her. "'Morning." She leaned over to kiss the alien teen's lips before leaning back. "Didya sleep okay last night, Ran-chan?" she then asked.
"Hai." Ran's eyes then glowed. "Hmmm. Lum-chan and Shinobu-chan are still asleep in the guest room. Guess they needed it."
"What happened last night, anyway?"
Ran shook her head. "I'm not too sure. Lum-chan tried to reach out telepathically to Darling, but someone got in the way."
Ryuunosuke considered that, and then she shook her head. "It ain't gonna happen between them, Ran-chan. Is there some way to help Lum let him go?"
"I don't know," Ran admitted. "Right now, we can't worry about that."
"Why?" the tomboy asked before catching herself. "Right, I forgot!" She snapped her fingers. "The Men in Black're gonna be here later today to help you and Lum settle in." She nodded. "You want me to stick around, Ran-chan?"
"No. Jay and Kay get a little nervous when outsiders try to learn how the SCAA does business." Ran then chuckled, an inviting smile crossing her face. "Still, it shouldn't take us that long. Are you busy today?"
Ryuunosuke considered the invitation to a date lying unspoken in her bed mate's words. While she would not have really wanted to date a girl while her father was still alive -- except if (as what happened in Ryuunosuke's only previous date with Ran) the chance was there she could try to learn new things about being a girl -- Ryuunosuke couldn't deny that Ran really cared for her. Besides, if things happened, they happened. Much that it surprised her, she felt calm about this. "Not really." She shrugged. "Got somethin' in mind?"
"Oh, shopping, a long dinner, a movie . . . " Ran reached over to draw Ryuunosuke closer to her. "After that'll be up to us, I guess."
They kissed. "We're kinda moving fast, aren't we?" Ryuunosuke mused.
Ran frowned. "Who cares about how fast we go?"
The tomboy considered that before shrugging. "True."
* * *
"There! All done!"
"Rinrin-chan, what are you doing up so early?"
Rinrin chuckled on seeing Shirayuki heading to the kitchen. "Oh, 'morning, Shirayuki-chan. Just doing some graphics work."
"What graphics?" The chef walked over to gaze on the screen of Rinrin's laptop. Recognizing what was being displayed, Shirayuki stared quizzically at the teen inventor. "Rinrin-chan, are you redesigning Nii-sama's room?"
Rinrin eagerly nodded. "Expanding it so Aniki and Aneki can live together. We can take the space from the divider between Aniki's and Karen-chan's room to the main doors. Let the room grow out five metres, which'd take up everything under the canopy, plus a bit. The storeroom doesn't need a window, so we can close it off. Toss in a kitchenette and make the other new space the main bedroom. They can use the old room as a living room. We can shift the closet so they can use the old closet space for a study area, too," she explained, indicating the changes she made.
"Sugoi desu no!" The chef whistled. "That'll be so nice!"
"You best add an upstairs atrium, Rinrin-chan."
Both turned as Chikage stepped up. "What do you mean?" Rinrin asked.
"Add a bedroom on the second floor level outside the girl's furo." The sorceress pointed to the area she was concerned with. "Slip in a ladder to the kitchenette. Design it so it doesn't obliterate more of Aria-chan's window view than necessary. If you want, stagger it to hang over the main doors. We don't need the extra window on the stairwell leading to the second floor, ne?"
Rinrin considered that before nodding. "Yeah, I can do that. But why would Aniki and Aneki need an extra bedroom, Chikage-chan? I doubt they're going to worry about having kids until long after they get married."
A knowing chuckle escaped Chikage. "You'll be surprised, Rinrin-chan."
She headed to the furo room for a morning soak. "There are days Hime thinks she'll NEVER understand Chikage-chan!" Shirayuki moaned.
Rinrin sighed. "You said it."
* * *
The lovely twenty-something in slacks and polo shirt stifled a yawn as she stepped aboard the Shinkan-sen. It was the first run of the day between Morioka and Tokyo. Glancing around, Feiya -- to those who knew her beyond the bounds of the Hotel Kiraboshi, she was Arima Fumiko -- tried not to smile too much as she took her seat by a window. Travelling at odd times of the day to avoid the crowds was an acquired art form in Japan. It is one Feiya/Fumiko had to master quickly. One need not look past her tapered ears, presently hidden under thick bangs of raven-black hair, to truly understand why.
The doors whooshed shut. The train glided away from Fukushima station on its trip south into the Kantou plain. Barring unforeseen problems, it would arrive in Tokyo in less than two hours. Once in the capital, it would be a quick transfer to the Marunouchi subway line to Nakano-Sakaue, another transfer to the Toei Ooedo line which would take her to Nerima, and then yet another transfer onto the Seibu Ikebukuro line for Tomobiki. Tomobiki . . .
Fumiko's brown eyes closed as her mind shifted back in time a year . . .
** ** **
Ishi took a deep breath before facing the younger woman. "It is." The doctor, senior physician to the Church's observers in the Holy City, nodded. "The blood tests do not lie, especially in cases such as yourself, Feiya. You are . . . " He paused before hoarsely whispering the last word, "Avalonian."
Feiya stared at him, her body quaking slightly as the word echoed again and again and again in her mind. Avalonian? HER?! But . . .!
"How . . .?"
Was that her voice?
Ishi sighed. "It is a recent development, admittedly. Those of the Faithful on the Homeworld who lose a child due to some unforeseen accident often view the bioroid factory on Phentax Twelve as the perfect way to get their child 'back.' It's not illegal, though the . . . " -- his lips twisted into a scowl bleeding contempt -- " . . . potential outcome of such 'adoptions' have yet to really sink in with the ruling councils."
"What does that mean for me?"
The fear in her voice was noticeable. Feiya knew the rules, just as much as Ishi. NO Avalonian was to leave Niphentaxian sovereign territory, especially under her own free will. The leaders of the Church of Lum considered themselves very blessed to have the bioroid factory under their control. If news of its existence managed to become commonplace across the Galactic Federation, who knew WHAT could happen next. To ensure such did NOT happen, any Avalonian caught in places like Earth was to disappear. Literally.
"You are one of the Faithful, Feiya. A blind man could understand that without being told. To . . . " He looked out the window of his office, located close to the Aisuru home. "Do something like THAT to one of the Faithful is wrong. But still . . . " He shrugged.
"Sensei . . . " Feiya's eyes softened.
Ishi closed his eyes before he nodded. "There is a way."
** ** **
Fumiko twitched slightly on sensing a hand glide up one of her thighs. Chikan, her mind automatically declared as her hand grabbed the twerp's wrist. Then, with a sharp snap-twist of her fingers, she sent him face-first into the seat ahead of him. The twerp in question, a middle-aged salaryman, grunted painfully as he felt the bones in his wrist shift into unnatural positions. Fumiko let go, and then grabbed she his hair to yank him back so she could glare intently into his eyes. "Get lost," she hissed.
She contemptuously shoved him into the aisle with a well-placed foot. He collapsed onto his butt. Then, staring warily at the strange, raven-haired woman in the window seat for a moment, he staggered off. Fumiko paid him no further attention as she watched the countryside pass by.
"Another one," she whispered, her voice drowned out by the train. "Another one like me. How the hell did that happen? How . . .?"
* * *
"Oh, Panda-san, you didn't need to do this!"
Sitting around a low coffee table, Ninomiya Hinako, Ono Toofuu, Cologne and Moroboshi Negako gazed on the beast as he sat between the teacher and the doctor. Toofuu and the Nujiézú elder chuckled. When she had awoke twenty minutes before, the metamorphic teacher discovered that her new guest had spent some time cleaning up her apartment. "He's more human than most humans!" Cologne declared, gazing in amusement at Toofuu.
"A pity we can't apply a Nanniichuan curse to him." Toofuu sighed before gazing on the entity that, in one sense of the term, had died well over two millennia ago to ultimately create the Jusenkyou pool known as Shonmaoniichuan. "If you want, I'll be happy to keep you in my employ as my grounds-keeper."
"We should think of a name for you," Hinako proposed, she currently an adult thanks to a special ki-boost from Negako. "I don't think you want to be called 'Panda-san' or any silly or 'cute' name like they apply to your brothers and sisters in zoos. What do you think?"
The panda crossed his arms in contemplation. Watching him, the others were quick to notice how much Genma had actually come to influence this being in the year and more since the Saotome patriarch fell into that particular spring. Finally, a sign went up. [I WOULDN'T MIND THAT.] It twirled around. [I LEAVE THAT DECISION TO YOU SINCE I DIDN'T HAVE A NAME IN MY PAST LIFE.] Another twirl. [BUT PLEASE, I BEG OF YOU ALL, DON'T CALL ME 'GENMA.'] Yet another twirl. [I WISH NOT TO BE ASSOCIATED WITH THAT MAN ANYMORE!]
"We'll spend time thinking about that," Toofuu assured the panda before turning to Hinako. "So school's cancelled today because of the window damage."
"Not to mention cleaning the debris from that tree Saotome-kun destroyed when he used the Fire Scythe." Hinako gazed on Negako. "It surprised me that your uncle's company was quick to offer to pay for repairs, Negako-san."
"It is of no concern," Negako admitted. "What happened last night was instigated by our family due to our desire to help Ranma. It would be only proper to see the matter resolved to the benefit of as many as possible."
"Good." Toofuu nodded, a knowing look crossing his face. "So what of Ranma-kun, Negako-san? What DID happen last night? When I stepped onto the school grounds before Genma was shot, I couldn't ignore what I sensed."
"What did you sense?" Hinako wondered.
Silence fell. A clawed finger tapped the table. Eyes locked on the panda as he raised a sign. [SENSEI, YOU DON'T WANT TO KNOW!]
"You know what happened?!" Hinako asked.
"He does."
As the others looked on her, Negako's face turned icily neutral. "What I am about to speak of, I would desire none of you repeat outside this room," she instructed. "What happened last night concerning Ranma's 'neko-self,' Ataru's Cyborg persona and Genma must be answered with emotional support, from you AND from those around her. She does NOT deserve condemnation for murder."
Toofuu and Hinako paled. Cologne grimly nodded.
* * *
"School's cancelled?"
"Yeah." Nabiki replaced the telephone receiver into its cradle; her homeroom teacher had just called. "The damage to all the windows, plus that wrecked tree, has to get cleaned up before they'd allow classes to continue."
She sat by the table. Kasumi nodded. "I think Kunou-san and his friends will be disappointed they won't be able to play with Akane-chan today."
"Much that I care." Akane sneered, and then something came to her. "Hey! Why don't I go to school and wait for the Horde? When they don't show up, I declare Kunou's challenge null-and-void, then avoid them in the future!"
Kasumi blinked, and then she grinned. "It's a wonder why you never thought of doing something like that before, Akane-chan."
Akane stared at her plate. "Yeah, it is, isn't it?" she noted, and then a nod twitched her head. "What the hell! I WILL do it! I'll get the girls in the class to come down so I can have witnesses to what I say, and then go from there. That should knock the wind out of Kunou's sails!"
"I'll call to make sure the Blue Blunder doesn't show up and spoil it," Nabiki then volunteered before heading to her bedroom.
Souun stepped in. Gazing on him, Kasumi and Akane winced on seeing the look on his face. "Do you want some tea, Father?" Kasumi asked as he sat.
He stared nowhere in particular for a moment. Then, realizing his child just asked him something, he nodded. "Yes, please."
Kasumi headed to the kitchen. Akane turned back to her breakfast. "Are you going to see Ranma-kun today, Akane?" Souun asked.
"I . . . " Akane paused before sighing. "Yes. Why?"
"You will tell him to come here as soon as he can."
Akane stared quizzically at him. "Why?"
"He has things to answer for." Souun grimaced. "What happened . . . "
"No, Father!"
He spun around, seeing Kasumi stare angrily at him. "Kasumi . . . "
"That is ENOUGH!" she snapped. Storming up to him, she glared into his eyes, her actions making him shrink on himself. "Why, Father?! Why are you pressing this madness, even after, ESPECIALLY after, all that's happened since the wedding?! Do you actually BLAME Ranma-kun for doing what was RIGHT, what was PROPER, when it came to that lazy fool you called a 'friend?!'"
Souun quaked. "He deliberately . . .!"
"What?! He deliberately led Genma to his death?! Is that what you were going to say?! No, he didn't! Ranma-kun simply reported what Genma did wrong to the proper authorities! And THEN the police stepped in to deal with the matter! And from what I saw last night, it wasn't Ranma-kun's fault that Genma actually used a KI blast on RIOT POLICE! What did you expect them to do?!"
"They had no right to involve themselves in private business . . .!"
"'Private' business?!" Kasumi shrilled, making Souun duck. "It stopped being private when Genma started selling his son off to every family that crossed his path! Did you know Ranma-kun found out about FIVE more fiancées Genma never bothered to tell him about?! Did you know the size of the food bill that lazy oaf would've eventually slouched off on Ranma-kun?! Well?!"
"Enough!" Souun snapped. "Ranma-kun will come here and . . .!"
"No, he will not!"
His eyes widened. "What did you say?"
"I said 'he will not,' Father," Kasumi snarled as she pointed at him. "You have no right to demand ANYTHING of Ranma-kun now . . .!"
She cried out as Souun's hand lashed at her face. Before it could strike, a pipe caught it, and then he was sent flying. Crashing into the koi pond, he surged up, and then he stopped on seeing Happoosai glaring at him from the porch. "I think you'd know better, Souun!" the grandmaster snarled.
"You stay out of this . . .!"
"SHUT UP!" Happoosai roared, making Souun wail as his master's battle aura seemed to consume the Tendou home. As soon as the Tendou patriarch had collapsed to his knees in the koi pond, a burble escaping his lips, Happoosai relaxed. "Like I told you last night, you blind fool!" he said, turning to head inside. "Wake up to something called 'Reality!' It's all you have left!"
The Tendou patriarch remained still, weeping. "No . . .!"
* * *
"Ye gods . . .!"
"I can't believe that!"
Cologne nodded. "Believe it."
Toofuu and Hinako exchanged a look before the former turned to Negako. "Is there some way for Ranma-kun to be rid of that thing?"
The grandmaster shook her head. "Not without ultimately killing her -- and Ataru -- along the way. Yes, it is through Ranma's 'neko' self and Ataru's Cyborg persona that their personal psionic link is maintained. It has been that way since Ranma underwent the Neko-ken training. But those personas are deeply ingrained in the other elements of their minds. How it is that Neko-Ranma and the Cyborg are able to access their hosts' memories? How is it they know exactly who is what in their hosts' lives?"
The chiropractor and the teacher exchanged a stunned look. "And this part of Saotome-kun . . . " The latter turned back to Negako, the fear in her voice quite apparent. "Hates us all? Hates us to the point where it would kill us if it got the chance? Every one of us who might have hurt him in one way or another, regardless of reason, since he underwent that awful training?"
Negako nodded, a thin smile crossing her face. "Yes. Do you think she would forget the time you repeatedly absorbed her ki while you were a guest of the Tendous just so you could remain an adult to impress Souun, Hinako? Do you think, Kelun, she would forget you forcing her through the cat's tongue? Even a 'trivial' incident like what you did to Ranma to give her a 'favourable' impression of Akane would loom large in Neko-Ranma's eyes, Toofuu."
Silence fell as the others considered her words. Toofuu then took a deep breath before he shook his head. "We helped create a time-bomb. Thus we have the responsibility to help defuse it before it destroys Ranma-kun and all those she cares for. What's your plan, Negako-san?"
"Remove Ranma from Nerima, plus restrict if not outright block any attempt by Ranma's would-be paramours or rivals to force her to remain in a place where she should not be," Negako explained. "That has been, in effect, done. All marriage claims save Shanpú's were resolved when Ranma declared herself an orphan and was allowed to start her own branch of the Saotome Clan. Shanpú's claim will be resolved when Kelun's fellow councillors allow the Blood-Sibling Law to be invoked. At the same time -- we may arrange this today -- Ranma will be transferred from Fuurinkan High to Stargazer West College, then allowed to complete her high school education in peace."
"Though I am familiar with many aspects of Promised Island, I don't know too much about the school," Cologne mused. "Is it good?"
"Very good," Hinako replied. "It's one of the top 'ladder' schools in the country. Negako-san's family supports it with grants and scholarships. Saotome-kun . . . " She paused, and then she asked, "Is Ranma really a girl?"
Toofuu nodded. "Yes. I didn't get the chance to examine her in detail last night, but from what I could sense, Ranma-kun . . . " A chuckle escaped him. "I guess I can't call hi- . . .! -- Excuse me, her! -- that anymore, can I?" A pause, and then he nodded. "I'd like to see her. Could you ask Sakuya-chan to bring her down sometime today?"
"Why not ask me to bring Ane-kun to see you, Toofuu-kun?"
Toofuu screamed, spinning around to see a smiling Chikage gazing amusedly at him. "CHIKAGE!" he wailed, waving her away.
As he launched into yet another bout of love-sickness, the others laughed. "I'd love to hear THIS story!" Cologne declared.
* * *
"Oh, darn! No school today?!"
"I'm afraid not." Sakurambou Sakura was currently standing by the front gate of Tomobiki High. "We were warned by the Ministry that several students were transferring to our school, so I was made to stand guard here in case some of you didn't get the message ahead of time."
"Bummer." The rose-haired tomboy with the amber-brown eyes smirked before holding out her hand. "I'm Sawada Minako, from Maizuru."
"Metro Kyoto . . .?" Her eyes then widened before a pleased smile crossed her face. "I've heard of you! You're the reigning Kyoto Metro women's high school kendou champion! Welcome to Tomobiki, Sawada-san!"
"Hai, that's me! But PLEASE, don't blurt it out to everyone in sight, Sensei." Minako gave her hand a squeeze. "People back home, especially the girls, just became a pack of raving otaku when I won that!" She then perked on sensing someone approach her. "Ah . . . "
Sakura tensed. "What is it?"
"It's nothing. Just a couple of close friends," Minako explained. Sensing Sakura peering curiously at her, she added, "I'm telepathic and empathic. So are they. I figure that for Tomobiki, that's normal."
"Somewhat." Sakura then chuckled, surprising Minako with her candour. "How did you gain those powers? Is it a family thing . . .?"
"Pretty much so. My mother's not from Earth . . . "
"Minako, do you HAVE to spill it ALL to her on the first day?!"
"Tomomi!" Minako yelped as Yoshino Tomomi gave her a bear hug from behind. She quickly returned her embrace. "How are you?!"
"I missed you." Tomomi pecked Minako's cheek, and then she turned as a blue-haired girl with purple eyes approached. "So did she!"
"Stop flirting with her, Yoshino!" Ikusawa Kyooko snarled. Then, as Tomomi stepped away, she swamped Minako with her embrace. "Hi!"
"Hi, yourself!" Minako kissed her, and then she proceeded to introduce Sakura to her friends. Along the way, some more information as to the young Avalonians' origins was relayed to the school nurse/priestess.
"So all your mothers fled your home planet because the Niphentaxians wanted to keep your race in chains?" Sakura waved them to follow her onto school property. "What did they expect to do on Earth? This was years before we came into open contact with extraterrestrials."
"Our mothers' friends learned there was a Zephyrite missionary colony based somewhere in Japan," Kyooko explained as they stepped inside, heading directly to the nurse's office. "If they made contact with them . . . "
"The Zephyrites . . .?!" Sakura blinked confusedly before nodding. "Oh, you mean Moroboshi Ataru's grandmother Nagaiwakai! She lived up in Rishiri-tou before she died while the First Tag Race was being held. I see now." They stepped into the nurse's office, Sakura waving the newcomers to the chairs there. "What sidetracked your mothers?" she asked as she moved to prepare tea.
"Their meeting our fathers, then getting married and having us." Tomomi chuckled. "You can imagine it, can't you? Switching from being slaves in a society that went out of its way to ensure they stayed that way -- to being adopted parts of a 'free' society? It was pretty disorientating for them!"
Sakura considered that, and then she nodded. "Yes, I can see that." She smiled. "Do your fathers know of your mothers' origins?"
"Hai, they do. It was only fair." Minako giggled. "Especially given how long-lived Avalonians potentially can be."
"How long? Several hundred years?"
"Try eight hundred."
Sakura whistled. "Women on Earth would KILL to know that."
"That's why we do our best to keep our origins secret," Tomomi said. "Though I don't think it'd matter here too much."
"True, it wouldn't."
Tea was soon served. "So what brings you to Tomobiki?" Sakura asked.
"Simple," Minako replied. "The factory unit that created our mothers is in orbit as we speak. Directly over Tomobiki to be exact."
The nurse blinked, her eyes widening. "Why would it be here?"
"We don't know. Neither do our mothers since they lost their links to the factory," Kyooko replied. "And given how much the Niphentaxians would like to keep knowledge of the Avalonians secret, that it's HERE speaks volumes."
"There's another thing, too," Tomomi warned.
"Being?" Sakura asked.
"Phentax Twelve, the planet where the factory was placed. If the factory's here, the planet's most likely gone. Mom knew it was inhabited at the time she was activated." A pause. "If there were people there . . . "
"Don't think such awful things, Tomomi," Kyooko warned.
Sakura gazed on the three half-alien teens in her office before she set her cup aside. "You might be able to get some help, then."
Minako perked. "Oh? How so, Sensei?"
"Despite what the news reports may have said about the whole matter last week, Lum is alive and well. She came back to Earth on Saturday morning, along with her friend Ran." Sakura lightly smiled. "It was around that time that several people who knew Lum, myself included, learned of the Niphentaxians. You see, their latest 'church' is based on worshipping Lum herself."
The visitors blinked. "That's . . . " Minako paused. "Strange."
"Agreed, it is." Sakura shuddered. "From what I could sense when Lum spoke of that, she wants nothing to do with the Niphentaxians whatsoever. I don't blame her, especially after hearing about some of the things their leader -- Oogi, was his name? -- did on Lum's 'behalf.' And . . . " She paused on sensing something step into range, and then she looked out the window.
Kyooko tensed. "Is something wrong, Sensei?"
"Shinobu's here." Sakura stood. "Just a moment."
She stepped out. The new students exchanged looks before turning to their tea. Sakura returned, Shinobu behind her. "Hello!" The latter bowed to them, and then she gazed on Sakura. "They actually said they were Avalonians?"
Minako rose. "Half-Avalonians; our mothers are pure-born."
Introductions were made. Sakura prepared tea for Shinobu. Staring at Ataru's former girlfriend, Minako tried desperately not to blush as Shinobu's wholesome beauty began to do weird things to her mind's pleasure centre. Tomomi and Kyooko watched her, and then they exchanged a knowing look. Don't be TOO obvious, Minako-chan! the former psi-linked to Minako by touching the latter's hand. You want to scare her off?!
Eh? Minako perked, and then she made a dismissive wave. Oh, no! No! I'm not interested in Shinobu-chan THAT way . . .!
Bullshit, Minako! Kyooko gave her friend a knowing look. We could sense your hormones kicking in all the way over here!
Minako flustered. She then started as Shinobu asked, the concern in her voice apparent, "Are you okay, Minako-san?!"
"Eh?!" Minako bolted up. After a few seconds' hysterics, she scratched the back of her head, laughing. "It's nothing! Nothing!"
Shinobu gave her a curious look. Tomomi and Kyooko tried not to fall on their butts howling. Watching this from nearby, Sakura shook her head. And I actually wanted things to be boring for a change? she mused.
* * *
"Onee-sama, are you okay?"
Ranma perked on hearing Sakuya. She then shook her head. "Not really." She turned to her French toast as everyone enjoyed breakfast in the living room. "That nightmare I had last night's still buggin' me."
"Was it a bad nightmare, Aneue-sama?" Marie asked.
"Pretty bad," Ranma replied. "It was me meeting a version of myself who hated everyone -- and I mean EVERYONE -- who did me wrong, no matter how big or little it was. And she had gone out and killed all those people. And . . . "
She shuddered. Mamoru grimaced. "That's pretty raw."
"Tell me about it."
Ataru gazed on Ranma, inwardly smiling at the latter's use of a dream metaphor to divert the sisters' curiosity away from what happened at Fuurinkan High last night. None save Chikage knew of what happened to Saotome Genma. Not that the others might really care, Ataru mused. While she was staying on the Island, Ranma had gone out of her way to draw as bad a picture of her father as she could to the sisters. But, especially for the young ones, harping too much on the theme of death wasn't the wisest thing.
The living room door opened, revealing Negako. "Tadaima."
Shirayuki smiled. "Oh, Nee-sama, there you are! Do you want some breakfast? Hime made her special French toast today."
"So I can scent." Negako took her place in the circle. "Please."
"Hai desu no."
Shirayuki headed into the kitchen. "Where were you?" Ataru asked.
"Meeting with Ono Toofuu, Kelun and Ninomiya Hinako," Negako replied as Karen poured her a cup of tea. "There is no school today at Fuurinkan due to a considerable amount of damage done to the windows and the front lawn."
Ranma perked before she nodded. "Well, that's good."
"Waaai!" Hinako then gushed. "That means Onii-tama and Onee-tama can spend the whole day with Hina and her sisters!"
Mamoru nodded. "Hey, that's right! Why don't we go swimming?!"
"Where, Mamoru?" Sakuya demanded. "It's February, remember?!"
"Baka! The indoor pool at the Tower in Tomobiki! It's the same size as the indoor pool at school! We can swim there!"
Ataru hummed as he considered the question. "Good point." A sly smile then crossed his face as he gazed on the eldest of his half-sisters. "And we can visit Esmerelda's to get Ranma a new swimsuit! Right, Sakuya-chan?"
"Oh, definitely!" Sakuya gushed.
Hearing that, Ranma's head slumped. "I'm dead."
"Why don't we make today 'Make Onee-chan A REAL Girl' Day?!" Karen proposed. "After all, she's GOT to be tired of wearing the same blah, unisex things day-in and day-out, even if she's used to living on the road."
Ranma glanced at her, and then she stared at her clothes. She was in her normal white tang and pants. "Well, yeah, you got a point, Karen-chan," she mused, scratching the back of her head. "But what'd be good for me?"
"For that, we best get to Esmerelda's early!" Sakuya proposed.
"I'll call the boys to get the road-train here," Rinrin called out.
She headed to her bag to dig out her phone. Ranma watched the others launch into chatter about the day's events, and then she stared concernedly at Ataru. "Hey, Ataru, I thought you wanted to keep them AWAY from Tomobiki!"
"I thought it'd be okay when we were just concerned with a swimsuit for you to wear," he lamented. "But for a whole WARDROBE . . .?!"
Ranma laughed. She then paused, a finger scratching her chin. "Hey, wait . . . " Her voice trailed off.
He blinked. "What is it?"
"You planning to go to Stargazer West next week when classes start?"
"Of course. Why . . .?" Ataru turned away as the possible gist of Ranma's train of thought sank in. "Do you want that?"
She shrugged. "What's the use going to Fuurinkan for four or five days when we could be starting a whole new school year next Monday on the Island?" A smile turned her lips. "Kinda redundant when you think about it, ne?"
"True. Besides, high school isn't mandatory in Japan. Thought I do hope you'd consider going all the way to graduation."
She nodded, and then she stared at her plate. "Of course I will. But I only realized pretty recently that I've got a lot to catch up on. I've missed so much being on the road with Oyaji and all that . . . "
He waved her down. "Oh, don't worry about it, Ranma."
"Worry about what, Onii-chan?"
They turned to see the sisters staring at them. "Oh, it's nothing, Karen-chan," Ranma assured her. She then turned to Negako as Shirayuki came out of the kitchen. "Um, I hate to ask, but can you ask the school to . . .?"
The ninjutsu grandmaster nodded. "I've already discussed the possibility with Hinako this morning. The staff will be in school today. It will be easily arranged regardless if Pauline tries to interfere or not."
A hang tugged Negako's sleeve. "Onee-tama, Hina's right here!" The youngest of the sisters pointed to herself with her free hand.
"I am speaking of Ranma's former homeroom teacher, Hinako, not you."
Giggles wafted through the room. Everyone perked on hearing a knock at the front door. "I'll get it!" Haruka headed over to open the door. "Hai?"
The man flashing the police identification booklet smiled. "Sorry to bother you, but are Saotome Ranma and Moroboshi Ataru here?"
"Hai. Please." Haruka waved the policeman in, and then she looked at the dining room table. "Anigimi-sama? Anegimi-sama?"
Ranma rose, bowing. "You're here because of last night?"
"Hai." He nodded. "Okajima Keijou of the Nerima Precinct. I have to get both your statements about what happened at the school."
"Right, right." Ranma nodded before sensing Ataru standing behind her.
"Would you mind if we took this outside the house, Okajima-keibuho?" Ataru then whispered to the policeman, cupping a hand around his lips. "I don't want my sisters, especially the younger ones, to overhear some of this."
"Of course, Moroboshi-san." He smiled before heading out.
Ranma and Ataru moved to follow, the latter whispering into the former's ear, "Tell him the facts you know. That's all they need."
She nodded. "Right."
* * *
Near the Aisuru home in Tomobiki was a townhouse tucked behind two cherry blossom trees. The trees were large enough to distract the normal passer-by from wondering what might be happening beyond the living room windows. The small group of people living here preferred it that way for many reasons, chief of which was fear of discovery. Arima Fumiko paused at the front gate, gazing at what had once been her home away from her real home. Coming back here was harder than she first believed. She grimaced as she pushed open the gate. Seeing the familiar sights, smelling the familiar smells, hearing the familiar voices -- all of which had once been more sacred than anything in the universe to her -- nearly tore a scream of pained anguish from Fumiko's lips.
Innocence lost . . .
Stopping at the door, she knocked once. It opened to reveal Ishi. "Sensei." Fumiko smiled, her eyes misting as she took in his weathered features. She then caught herself. "Is there . . .?" she then began to ask.
He shook his head, waving her inside with a smile. "All of them are out doing their morning observations," he reported. "They won't be back until well after lunchtime. Did Kaili make all the necessary arrangements?"
"Hai, all set." She glanced around the living room, a place that would make most of the boys at Tomobiki High drool with mad envy on seeing the many Lum artefacts there. "Is she the same situation as me, Sensei?" she asked.
"Hai." He walked to the stairs leading to the second floor, and then he called out, "Nari! Come down here now; Feiya's here!"
Footsteps heralded the descent of a young teen. She was thirteen or so in Terran terms, dressed in a shirt with ascot, pullover sweater and skirt. Her red-brown hair was cut at mid-neck, combed in draping bangs to cover her ears. Her chestnut eyes glittered with pain and anticipation. Gazing on her, Fumiko stared at Ishi. "How could someone this young get posted here, Sensei?"
"Her parents are . . . !" the doctor began, and then he caught himself. "Pardon me, WERE priests on Phentax Two. They were killed . . . "
He faltered. "They died in the Cataclysm, Onee-chan."
Fumiko stared at Nari. The younger Niphentaxian/Avalonian gazed on the floor, her eyes brimming with tears. Regardless of her origins, the love she held for her parents shone like a nova. "I see." Fumiko walked over to squeeze Nari's shoulders. "I grieve for you." To Ishi. "What else has been going on, Sensei? You told me about this 'cataclysm' but you didn't give details . . . "
"Nari can explain everything to you." He placed a hand on her shoulder as he nodded towards the door. "It's best you both leave the Holy City as soon as possible. Right now, none of the commanders have ANY idea as to what to do. What CAN we do with so many of our leaders back home dead?" A pause, then he added, "There's another thing, too. The bioroid factory has gone missing."
Fumiko's eyes widened. "MISSING?! How . . .?!"
Nari looked up, a hand clenching over her heart. "No one knows, Onee-chan. Phentax Twelve itself has been destroyed. But . . .!"
She shrugged. Fumiko took that in, and then she sighed. "Damn . . . "
"It's obvious that there were . . . " Ishi paused as he looked for the least wounding way to say this, and then he finished, "Casualties."
Fumiko stared at her friend, nodding understandingly. "You have all your belongings with you, Nari-chan?"
Nari nodded. "Hai, Onee-chan, they're upstairs."
"Let's go. We'll overnight in Tokyo, then head to my place tomorrow," Fumiko announced. As Nari headed upstairs to get her suitcases, the older Avalonian turned to Ishi. "You sure you're going to be alright?" she asked as she placed a hand on his shoulder. "If things're falling apart . . . "
Ishi nodded understandingly. "I'll stay with the others. You two'll have a better chance of living your own lives away from us."
They stared at each other. Fumiko nodded. Nari soon returned with two wheeled suitcases and a backpack. Fumiko took one in hand as they stepped out. Ishi remained at the doorway, a neutral expression on his face as he watched the Avalonians head to the nearest bus stop. "May the Goddess guide you both."
* * *
"Damn! I didn't think it was THAT bad . . . "
Ataru, Ranma, Negako and the sisters gazed on Fuurinkan High as the road-train made its way to Tomobiki. The interview with Detective Okajima, finished moments before the road train arrived at the old shrine, went off without a hitch. No doubt, Ranma concluded, local law enforcement wanted to settle the whole matter concerning her late father and his many crimes as quickly as possible before pressing on with other business.
Repair crews from Inshin Engineering, one of the companies that formed part of Moroboshi Komeru's Inshin Group conglomerate, were hard at work replacing windows and clearing away what was left of the tree Ranma destroyed when she used the Fire Scythe on Genma. Also there, standing in the spot Kunou Tatewaki often occupied to carry out his challenges of the "foul sorcerer," was Akane. Dressed casually, she was surrounded by most of the other girls from hers and Ranma's old first-year class. The girls were busy chatting with each other. "What do you suppose your friends are doing, Onee-sama?" Sakuya asked.
"Search me, Sakuya-chan." Ranma shook her head, and then she called out to the driver, "Hey, stop this thing for a moment!"
"Hai, Young Mistress!"
The train chugged to a stop. Hearing the toot! of its horn, the crowd gazed their way. "Ranma?!" Akane perked on seeing the redhead disembark, followed by Moroboshi Negako and Moroboshi Ataru, plus a crowd of young women. "Ranma, what are you doing?!" she asked as Ranma came up to her.
"Negako was coming here to speak to the staff about something concerning Ataru and me, Akane-san." Ranma indicated the ninjutsu grandmaster with a wave of her hand. "What are you doing here, anyway? There's no school on."
Akane tried not to frown on hearing Ranma address her so formally. "Something I should've done ages ago. What's the time?"
Tokoro Yuka gazed on her watch. "Eight-fifty."
Akane nodded, her jaw set with determination. "Long enough. Everyone, you are all aware of the proclamation Kunou Tatewaki made sometime ago, a proclamation he reaffirmed yesterday, concerning people wanting to date me?"
Her classmates nodded. "Hai!"
"Since I came here to school today and having found that none of the 'Horde o'Hentai' had come to challenge me as Kunou dictated, I hereby, with all of you acting as my witnesses, declare his proclamation NULL AND VOID!" Akane's voice picked up to emphasize her point. "From this day until I graduate, I swear, on the memory of my late mother, that I will not submit myself to anything he forces on me EVER AGAIN!" she then vowed.
A boisterous cheer exploded from her classmates. The sisters exchanged looks, wondering why something as silly and insignificant as THIS was bothering their big brother's new girlfriend. Negako remained impassive. Ranma stared curiously at Akane, nodding understandingly. "Pity I never considered doing something like that!" she then leaned over to whisper to Ataru. "That would've really knocked the wind out of ol' Blue Blunder's sails!"
"You were never allowed to think about it, remember?" Ataru noted.
"Ne, Ranma-kun, why are you wearing your hair loose?" Yuka then asked. "Don't you still have that problem with your hair growing long?"
"No, not anymore, Tokoro-san. I just decided on a little change of style when I'm a girl," Ranma assured her, ignoring Yuka's dropped jaw and wide eyes in response to the formal way Ranma just addressed her. "Besides, I'm frozen this way for the next while. Negako here's helping me deal with a couple of problems Genma heaped on me during the training trip." She glanced at the others. "To make it work better, I have to remain in one body for the treatment. Unfortunately, with my curse, I can only be frozen as a girl."
"The Neko-ken being the primary one," Ataru added.
Ranma shuddered, inwardly hoping that her acting skills were proficient enough to fool her former classmates concerning her mental state. The others noticed her reaction. They started on hearing a mad cackle echo from behind them. "ALOHA KAKAHIAKA, KEIKI!" the principal of Fuurinkan High School hailed as a shower of pineapples dropped down on them, fireworks exploding behind him.
Rinrin smirked. "Nice entrance."
A pineapple dropped into Aria's hands. Ranma panicked on sensing a build-up of ki in that piece of fruit. She batted it clear, sending it flying back at the Principal. The other girls quickly kicked and punched away the fruit that landed close to them. Just in time: As the pineapple Aria caught landed in the Principal's lap, it blew, showering his face and shirt with burnt cordite. The other fruit bombs exploded shortly after, they fortunately not hurting anyone. "That -- didn't hurt . . .!" the Principal moaned.
He passed out. Aria frowned. "Nee-ya."
Ranma gazed worriedly at the young Parisian. "You okay, Aria-chan?!"
"Aria is fine." Aria smiled, and then she scowled. "But Aria is glad that Nee-ya will come to Stargazer West College next Monday. At least there, Nee-ya wouldn't get hurt anymore by her stupid principal."
"Not to mention the other baka-bakas in this place who always try to hurt Onee-tama for some baka-baka reason," Hinako added.
Haruka drew out her gunsen to fan herself. "It's a good thing we purchased the right uniform for Anegimi-sama, isn't it?"
Yotsuba nodded. "Sure got that right . . . "
Ranma was blown over; every one of her old classmates had bellowed that. "Yes, Onee-sama is leaving this dump," Sakuya answered on Ranma's behalf as Mamoru helped her Anii's new friend up. "Now you won't have the chance to blame Onee-sama for all the troubles this place has experienced, just like the dorks in Tomobiki loved to blame Onii-sama for everything that happened there."
Everyone stared at Sakuya, and then they turned to Ranma. She brushed her slacks off, and then she turned to Ataru. "Yeah, it WOULD be nice to enjoy a day without worrying about the things that bothered me here. Eh, Ataru?"
He nodded. "I can certainly agree to that . . . "
Ranma then peered intently at the Principal. "And what exactly do you want, Kunou-koochou?" Her eyebrow arched contemptuously.
Out came the barber shears. "No keiki, especially no disrespectful keiki like youse, gonna leave the Big Kahuna's school without getting a partin' haircut!" the Hawai'i-crazed school administrator declared.
Ranma sighed. She then blinked on feeling Ataru squeeze her shoulder. "Well, since my hair is a little on the long side, I think I need a trim." He winked at her as he reached behind his neck to undo the jumper's cord tying his ponytail down. "Hold this please." He handed the cord to Ranma.
Ranma then blinked on seeing the Dragon's Whisker tied to the cord. A curious, heart-warming feeling surged through her. She then smirked as Ataru walks up to Kunou's father. Seeing him, the Principal shuddered on seeing the hair hanging off this keiki. "Well, at least we got ONE keiki willin' ta obey the Big Kahuna's rules!" He whipped out a stool. "Sit right there!"
Ataru took his place. "Hai! Hai!"
"Moroboshi-san, what are you DOING?!" Sayuri gasped, imagining what the former Tomobiki native might look like after the Principal got done.
The others tensed as the Principal raised his shears . . .
"Nii-ya . . .!" Aria shuddered on seeing the damage the Principal just wrought on her brother's hair. Her eyes then went wide. So did everyone else's on seeing a strange glow cover Ataru's head. The glow faded, revealing all his hair restored to the way it was before the shears even touched it.
"Waaaaa!" Hinako gushed. "Onii-tama has magical hair!"
"Huh?!" The Principal jolted, looking quizzically at Hinako. He then turned back before his jaw hit the ground on seeing Ataru once again with moustache, beard and mid-back length hair. "THAT AIN'T POSSIBLE!"
Ataru stared at him. "Care to try again?"
Growling, the Principal snapped up his shears.
Guess what happened?
Guess what just happened again?
And again . . .
And again . . .
And yet again.
And again.
And again.
And again.
And still again for at least thirty-six -- yes, that's THIRTY-SIX! -- more tries before Ataru finally asked, "Give up, Koochou-san?"
Staring at the massive pile of cut hair encompassing Ataru's feet and chair, the Principal looked back to see his hair restored, not a lock of deep brown out of place. He then fainted. Ataru shrugged. "I guess so."
The others gaped at him, and then Yuka whooped, "Three cheers for Moroboshi Ataru, the first student ever to FULLY beat the Principal!"
The other Fuurinkan girls save Akane clapped and waved their hands in celebration. "BANZAI! BANZAI! BANZAI!"
Ataru chuckled, and then he nodded thanks as Ranma came up, the jumper's cord in hand. To his surprise, the Dragon's Whisker was still tied in place. He looked at her. She playfully winked back, mouthing, "Keep it."
He chuckled as he re-tied his hair into a ponytail. "How the heck did THAT happen?" Sayuri demanded, gazing on the shorn hair.
"Oh, quite simple, really." Ataru finished lacing his ponytail into place, and then he stood up. "When I visited a planet named Noukiios some time ago, a priest gave me some hair tonic that allowed me to grow my beard and moustache." He impishly shrugged. "Turns out I drank a little TOO much of the stuff. That's why I can't be bothered to shave or get my hair cut anymore. You see, on Noukiios, boys start growing beards when they enter puberty. It's seen as VERY un-classy to not grow a beard in that society."
Ranma snapped her fingers. "Oh, that's right! I remember seeing that."
Akane's eyes went wide as she spun on Ranma. "You went to another PLANET?!" she shrilled. "How did you wind up doing THAT?!"
Ranma turned away from her. "That's none of your business."
Akane remained rooted in place as she called back, "Of COURSE it's my business, baka! You could've been killed if you went there!"
Ranma glanced over her shoulder, her eyebrow arching in curiosity. "You mean you really care for me, Akane-san?"
The youngest Tendou daughter caught herself as an automatic denial surged up her throat. She then looked down. "Yes!" she hissed before she stared mistily at Ranma. "Yes, I care for you, Ranma! I love you, damn it!"
Ranma shook her head. "You hesitated before you said that. Further, you looked like you were about to say your usual 'Why should I care for a sex-changing pervert like you?' spiel! I'm sorry, Akane-san, but if you can't be honest with yourself, I can't accept what you just told me." She turned away. "Furthermore, even if you WERE honest with yourself, I wouldn't reciprocate."
Akane shuddered before screaming out, "WHY?!"
Ranma took a step, and then looked back. "Because I don't love you. And I never will love you because I love someone else."
"That ceased to be your business last Tuesday, Tendou-san. Sayonara."
Ranma moved to board the road train. Akane shuddered before screaming out "RANMA NO BAKA!" as she drew Mallet-sama . . .
Ranma's fingertip slammed into Mallet-sama. A flash latter, the ki-mallet shattered, its fragments vanishing in a drum roll of pops! Everyone watched as Akane was flung back by the backlash of Mallet-sama being wrecked by the Heart Blast Touch, her head slamming into the Principal's stool. Akane dropped into an unconscious heap on the ground. The onlookers then turned to Ranma. Glaring at her ex-fiancée, Ranma tried not to scream out. "Stupid tomboy!" she muttered as she turned around to storm back to the road train.
"Hey!" Sayuri moved to pursue. "Who the hell gave you . . .?!"
Her voice caught in her throat as Ranma spun on her, a ki ball in hand. "You have a problem, Asano-san?" the redhead coolly asked.
Sayuri shuddered as Ranma swung the ki ball around to hover inches from her face. She then staggered away. Several of Ataru's sisters glanced down to see tiny trickles of yellow-green seep down Sayuri's legs. "I didn't think so." Ranma straightened herself, an icy chill warping through her as she dispersed the ki ball. "Hey, Negako! Get our student records and get them over to the College ASAP! The less I have to do with these lifeless jerks . . . " She contemptuously thumbed the other Fuurinkan girls. "The better!"
She stormed back to the road train. "As you wish." Negako then looked at the still-dozing Principal. "Pauline, wake up."
No response. Negako gently shifted his body around with her foot. Chikage came up to give the Principal a detailed look-over. "I believe he is still in shock over his inability to deal with Ani-kun's hair, Ane-kun."
"So it seems." Negako then lightly smiled. "Kaho?"
The young cheerleader came up. "Hai, Onee-chama?"
The ninjutsu grandmaster pointed to the tiny tree on the Principal's head. "Would you like to add another tree to your collection?"
Kaho then gushed, clapping her hands together in anticipation. "Hai, Kaho DEFINITELY wants a new tree!" she replied.
That did it. "SAY WHAT?!" The Principal bolted up, scrambling over Ataru like Scooby-doo would over Shaggy on seeing the monster du jour. "WHO SAYS ANYTHIN' ABOUT SOME WAHINE TAKIN' THE BIG KAHUNA'S TREE AWAY?!"
Ataru shoved him away, thus allowing Negako to grab the Principal by the scalp. "Ask your secretary to fetch Ataru's and Ranma's records, Pauline." The grandmaster twisted his head so she could gaze into his eyes. "Now."
"B-but . . . "
"Excuse me, Moroboshi-sensei, but are you looking for these?"
Negako turned to see a secretary standing nearby, two thick folders in hand. "Excellent." She casually tossed the Principal aside to ensure he could not interfere, and then she took them. "Did Hinako speak to you of this?"
"Hai, Ninomiya-sensei called just now." The secretary bowed. Gazing amusedly at Ataru for a moment, she headed back to the building.
Negako examined the records, and then she nodded. "Good. Jinseiko!"
One black blur later, the leader of the Kuromoroboshi knelt beside Negako. "You summoned me, Grandmaster?" She bowed her head.
The records were handed over. "Take those to the College. Explain to the secretary that Ataru and Ranma are to be registered in Senior Class 3-A and Senior Class 2-C respectively as I discussed with the headmaster. Go now."
"Hai, it will be done!" Jinseiko bowed, and then she vanished.
The Fuurinkan girls blinked. Yuka walked up to Ataru. "Must be nice to have your own personal ninja troupe at your beck and call!"
"It's convenient." He then turned to his sisters. "Well, girls, shall we beat tracks to the Tower so we can go swimming?"
"Hai!" They nodded, turning to head to the road-train.
Negako glared at the Principal. "What is your problem, Pauline?"
He balked on hearing her address him by his hated given name, and then he pointed his shears at Ranma. "While the Big Kahuna don't mind that girl-crazy keiki Moroboshi not comin' to the Big Kahuna's school, the Big Kahuna didn't say ANYTHIN' about Saotome there walking outta here scot-free!"
Negako shrugged. "Why, I would believe that you would be quite pleased to see Ranma depart from Fuurinkan, Pauline."
"Eh?! What you talkin' about?!"
"Your desire to properly discipline your students, of course," Negako replied. "After all, Pauline, you have spent the last year or so focusing your attention on dealing with Ranma specifically. There are over five hundred other students currently attending Fuurinkan High School, are there not? And I know for a fact that a considerable number of them are getting away with far worse than anything you might have attributed to Ranma. Have not Hinako and several others of your teachers warned you of the growing drug problem here? What of the five girls who became pregnant in the last six months alone? And the local branch of the Yakuza is certainly taking interest in Tendou Nabiki's operations here, obviously desiring to subvert such to their own control. Is THIS truly what you would desire your school to be known for, Pauline?"
The Principal blinked, and then he hummed, crossing his arms as he considered that. The Fuurinkan girls exchanged looks, and then they gazed as one on Negako, all of them wondering where the hell she acquired all THAT information. Ataru remained silent; the sisters had by then boarded the road train. Akane was starting to recover, she being helped by Sayuri and Yuka.
Finally, the Principal nodded. "You're right!" He pointed to Negako, and then he gazed heavenward, the sun reflecting off his glasses. "The Big Kahuna's been makin' himself too busy with Saotome ta think about the REAL discipline problems! Fine! Saotome's the problem of whatever school you're gonna send him to! The Big Kahuna's got bigger fish to fry!"
"A reasonable solution." Negako nodded. "Ataru?"
Ataru nodded. "Hai, Onee-chan."
The Moroboshi siblings headed to the road train. The others watched them. Akane then burst through the crowd to place herself before Ataru, her arms spread wide. "WAIT!" she snapped, her actions causing Ataru and Negako to stop, and then she ran up to the road train. "Ranma! Why are you leaving?! This is your home, for heaven's sake!" She waved to the school, and then to the houses around them. "You don't have to go anywhere else! Please . . .!"
No response came her way for a moment. Ranma turned to stare on her former fiancée. Akane jolted, feeling an icy chill warp through her on seeing the emotionless look on Ranma's face. Finally, Ranma stepped off the road train. The sisters watched her, many stunned that their brother's girlfriend was even acknowledging Akane. "Anee, you don't have to listen to what this bitch says!" Mamoru snapped as she waved at the youngest Tendou.
"Hey!" Akane spun on the athlete. "You mind your own . . .!"
A fist exploded in her gut, sending her to her knees. Akane cried out in shock as air was forced from her. As her arms automatically wrapped around her abdomen, she looked up in stunned disbelief. Ranma stared dispassionately at her. Gasps from the crowd echoed the surprise of many on seeing Ranma actually HIT her ex-fiancée. "Ranma . . . " Akane gargled, and then she coughed several times as nausea overwhelmed her, she trying desperately not to throw up.
"'Home,' you say . . .?"
Akane blinked, looking back up to see Ranma staring at her, the latter's eyes misting over. "You actually believe I look on this garbage dump . . . " She waved around her to indicate Nerima. "As my HOME?!" she hissed.
"B-but, Ranma . . . " Akane whispered, reaching for her.
Ranma's foot smashed that aside, nearly knocking Akane over. Several girls gasped, they moving to help Akane to her feet. Before they could get within three metres of the youngest Tendou, a ki blast knocked them off their feet! Akane screamed, and then she stared wide-eyed on Ranma. "Uh-uh!" The redhead wagged her finger in a "no-no" gesture. "Not this time, Tendou-san. You're going to listen for once in your life and you're not going to get a chance to hide behind your pathetic friends to avoid the truth!"
Akane quaked. "R-r-Ranma . . . wh-why . . .?!"
"'Why?'" Ranma snorted. "You got a brain! Figure it out! Or did that cowardly pimp you call a father brainwash YOU too much into thinking the whole world'd bow to Tendou Akane, self-proclaimed 'greatest martial artist in all of Nerima?!'" A disgusted sneer twisted her lips. "Forget it! I've shielded you ungrateful bastards for WAY too long! I'm tired of doing something for nothin', not even a 'thank you,' for dealing with all the crap that lunatic . . . " She pointed to the Principal. "His son, his daughter, that ki-vamp Ninomiya and all the rest of those bastards've been willing to heap over you!"
Yuka covered her mouth. "Ranma-kun . . . "
Ranma turned to the other girls. "I want you all to think about this. With me gone, there's NO ONE who'll stop Happoosai from copping feels from any of you, stealing your personal property or doing anything else to any of you! With me gone, there is NO ONE who'll stop Pantyhose Tarou from tearing this place apart as he tries to make Jijii change his name! With me gone, the chances of all of you getting bowl cuts and buzz cuts from the Principal skyrocket! After all, all he has to do is expel Kuonji-san and Tendou-san here and those who can stop him dwindle to no one!" A wry grin crossed her face. "I'm sure he's got loads of ways of dealing with ol' Bokken-for-brains. And with me gone, the next time some hotshot comes by to seek a challenge'll have a much easier time of it!" She then glanced at Akane. "Not to mention what might happen when a Doojou Destroyer decides to pay you a visit, ne?!"
Akane blinked. "Ranma . . . "
"Hey, Ataru! Negako! Let's go!"
She hopped onto the road train, followed by Ataru and Negako. As soon as they were in place, the driver guided the machine away from Fuurinkan High. "Ranma, WAIT!" Akane screamed as she staggered to her feet, moving to pursue.
She then howled as yet ANOTHER ki blast rocketed at her to explode at her feet, knocking her down. Akane cried out as the air was once again forced from her lungs. She then staggered onto her elbows as Yuka and Sayuri moved to help her back up. "Akane-chan, are you alright?!" the latter gasped as they helped her stumble to her feet, they all glancing where the road train had driven off.
Akane's mouth opened. Then the strength in her body vanished as pained sobs stole her voice. Sayuri moved to comfort her as several others gathered around them. Before anyone could say anything more, a cackle echoed from inside the school walls. "Well! Well! Well! Ain't THIS nice?!" The Principal grinned, his barber shears at the ready. "Now that keiki's outta the way, it's time for the Big Kahuna to make all the other keiki at the Big Kahuna's school obey ALL the rules!" he then proclaimed.
Panicked screamed echoed from the girls as the Hawai'i-crazed administrator closed on them, his intent plain. A bell then made the Principal look up -- just as the tire of Shampoo's delivery bicycle slammed into his face! "Nihao!" the warrior-maiden cheerily called out as she drove the Principal into the dirt. She then looked at the girls. "You're lucky that this one saw Palm-Tree Man try to cut your hair . . . " Her voice then trailed off on seeing the teary-eyed Akane kneeling on the ground nearby. "Aiyah! What happened to you, Akane?!" Shampoo dismounted her machine, walking over to kneel beside her former rival. "Did you get into a fight with someone?!"
"What do you think?!" Sayuri snarled as she glared to where the road train vanished. "Damn that bastard Saotome! How could he DO that to her?!"
A hand grabbed her by the throat. Sayuri found herself looking right at a scowling Shampoo. "Why are you calling Airen names?!" the warrior-maiden demanded in a low, dangerous voice, the look in her eyes promising a lot of pain if Sayuri didn't quickly retract what she had just said.
* * *
"Hey, you okay?"
Ranma didn't look at Ataru, though she didn't resist his squeezing her hand. "What do you think?" she hissed, leaning into his side as her free hand brushed away the tears flowing down her cheeks.
Staring at them, the sisters remained respectfully silent.
* * *
"Okay, shrimp! You know what we want, don'tcha?"
Gosunkugi Hikaru sweated. It was the usual position for the would-be voodoo sorcerer: Backed into a cul-de-sac, no escape possible, three VERY big young men ready to pound him into paste in case he didn't cough up what money he had. What was worse, there was no sign of anyone who could help him get away. And if the masks they wore spoke the truth about their real identities, these guys were ones Hikaru himself had encountered sometime ago. They would remember his previous attempt at using voodoo against them.
"Excuse me, but why are you picking on that man?"
Hikaru's eyes widened as the toughs spun around, gazing on the woman in the slacks and flower-print shirt standing three metres away. Though her face was darkened by shadow, her hair and shape spoke volumes. "Akane-san . . .!" he gasped as delirious dizziness suddenly overcame him.
What happens next was a hazy, confusing blur to the frail lad. The toughs charged. In a storm of fists to the jaw and foot strikes there, the three were reduced to piles of whimpering flesh in seconds. Confirming they no longer presented a threat, the woman approached Hikaru. His eyes focused on the concern etched on her face, that being enough to snap the rest of his brain clear of its passion-induced fog. "Are you alright?" she asked.
Hikaru blinked. Yes, this person looked exactly like Akane, but the difference in her speech pattern, not to mention different movements in the body, automatically told him something different. "You're not Akane-san!"
The woman chuckled as she helped him to his feet. She seems to freeze for a moment, and then she relaxed. "No, I'm not. My name is Tendou Kimiko. My body . . . " She pointed to her heart. "Was cloned from Akane-sama's."
"Cloned . . .?" Hikaru stood, staring intently at Kimiko. "How?!"
"I can't answer that. The person who provided this body for me hasn't told me how she gained it." Kimiko smiled, an expression that, for all its honesty, was as different from Akane's as night was from day. "I hope I didn't confuse you, Hikaru-sama. I didn't mean to do that."
He began to sway. Sh-she called me 'Hikaru-SAMA?!'
"Hikaru-sama! Are you alright?!" She grabbed him, and then she yelped as a blast of warmth, akin to the heat of a gas burner, danced over her hands. Pulling her hands away, she stared at her palms in shocked confusion. He stared wide-eyed at her, his mouth opening and closing as if he wanted to say something yet couldn't make his larynx voice his thoughts. Oh! Kimiko blinked. He's attracted to me! Her cheeks flamed. Very attracted . . .
He remained rooted in place as Kimiko leaned into him, drawing her arms around his waist. His heartbeat thundered in his ears as his nose picked up the lovely scent of her shampoo. His cheeks then reddened on feeling a rather natural response to being in such close proximity to a woman. She stiffened for a second, and then she relaxed, turning her face to gaze on him. He stared at her, a million questions thundering through his mind. Then -- for what reason, he had NO idea -- he firmly grasped her shoulders.
Kimiko remained in place as Hikaru's lips caressed hers. She warmed to the contact. Images bombarded her mind. Mostly focusing on Akane, accompanied by overwhelming passion, desire -- and frustration. Brief images of Ranma then appeared, accompanied by feelings of irritation, envy and jealousy. There were fleeting images of others, but Akane's images were the strongest.
They then reluctantly pulled apart. Kimiko tried not to smile as she asked, "You've always desired her, haven't you?"
"Yes." Hikaru nodded, stunned that the surge of strength flooding his muscles hadn't abated. "Why did you get cloned from her?"
"It's . . . a long story. It was Ranma-sama who made this possible, Hikaru-sam- . . .!" -- Wait! Wait! Too formal! she mentally railed -- "Er, Hikaru-kun!" She pulled away, covering her mouth in polite laughter.
Hikaru tried not to scream for joy. She called me 'Hikaru-KUN?!' He shuddered with delight, and then he blinked as he remembered something else Kimiko just said. "Wait! You said SAOTOME made this possible for you?!"
"Hai! I . . . " She blushed again. "Would you like to go to a coffee shop so we can talk more, Hikaru-kun?" She waves out of the cull-de-sac. "I mean, I'd hardly call this a proper place to start a relationship."
He stared nonplussed at her before he nodded. "Um, s-s-s-sure th-thing, Kimiko-sa- . . .!" He flustered. "Um, Kimiko-chan."
She beamed, slipping her arm around his. He did his best not to become a babbling wreck. Walking past the downed bullies, they headed out and turned down the street. Unfortunately for them, they had not taken ten steps before an imperious voice bellowed from behind, "HOLD!"
Hikaru jolted. "Damn! HE would have to show up!"
And there he was: Kunou Tatewaki. "What foulness is THIS?!" The kendou team captain pointed at him with his bokken. "You, Gosunkugi! How DARE you force Tendou Akane to cling to YOUR unworthy arm?! Do you not know the Blue Thunder's proclamation?! NONE may date the fair Akane without defeating her in battle! Release her from your foul clutches this INSTANT or . . .!"
"Or what?"
That question cut Kunou short. He then focused on "Akane." In a flash, he was directly in front of her, a hand reaching for hers . . .
With a toss, she sent him flying to the Shakujii River! Hikaru watched the Blue Thunder vanish into the morning sky, and then he sighed. "That, Kunou-sempai, you had coming to you," he muttered under his breath.
Kimiko relaxed before smiling at him. "Shall we go, Hikaru-kun?"
He nodded. "Um, h-h-hai!"
They headed off.
* * *
Nodoka's eyes fluttered. Sitting up in her hospital bed, she looked confusedly around the room. Yes, there was Hisayo in the bed next to her. Nishiki Maya had arranged for the sisters to convalesce here; sometime later that day or first thing the next, they would be discharged from Nerima General. As she finished her scan of the room, she quickly noticed the lone man standing by the door. "Father!" she breathed out on recognising him.
Asagaya Isao was in his late sixties. Very slim, his head was bald save for a band of grey hair around his ears, not to mention a moustache and a goatee; he always carried himself with an imperious air. If a daimyou of the Tokugawa era could be transported to the start of the twenty-first century, then clothed in modern fashion, he would most likely turn out to be someone like Isao. If there was anyone in Nodoka's life who served as her ultimate role model when it came to personal etiquette, it was her father.
"Genma is no more," he calmly stated.
Nodoka blinked, and then she nodded, moving to sit up. A glance at Hisayo revealed her to be still asleep. Isao waved his daughter down. "Yes, Father. The police informed me of that last night. How did you get in here?"
"I have ways," he replied. "What of the Saotome honour sword?"
"It was destroyed," Nodoka said. Did Isao know what happened at Fuurinkan High? If so, why was he asking her? If not, why wasn't he concerning himself more over this, given his desire to bring Ranma into the Asagaya family? "Genma foolishly tried to use it against Ranma last night. According to the police, it was destroyed during the fight."
"Good." He nodded as a thoughtful look crossed his face. "With all of Genma's actions, the blade had lost all true significance. A family without the barest semblance of honour has no right to possess such a sword. Agreed?"
"Agreed." She sighed. "Father, there is a problem with Ranma . . . "
Isao's eyes narrowed. "I am aware of that, Nodoka. In fact, there are several problems my would-be grandson has thrown up before us. The primary one being this: Why has Ranma declared himself an orphan?"
Nodoka stared wide-eyed at Isao, her heart thumping in her chest as his question whirled through her mind. "Orphan . . .?" she gasped.
"An orphan, Nodoka." Isao gazed absently at her. That look sent a chill through her body. It didn't take her much to realize how displeased her father had become over this sudden development. "That he continues to hold the same name as that fool Genma is one thing. That he has gone so far as to create his own branch of the Saotome family, with no acknowledged relations to either Genma or yourself, is another. Why has this happened, Nodoka? Did you not make it clear enough to your son what was being offered to him?"
"I . . . " She paused before nodding. "Yes, Father, I did. But . . . " A lump formed in her throat. Oh dear, how was she going to explain this? "There were those who cast a lot of suspicion on what you were trying to do."
"Then I suggest you make it VERY clear to him when you see him next," Isao sternly instructed before he turned to leave.
Nodoka watched him go, and then she sank back in her bed. "Ranma . . . "
"I don't think Ranma's going to listen to you, No-chan."
She glanced over. Hisayo was slowly sitting up. "Onee-chan . . . " Nodoka whispered before she closed her eyes. "Did you hear it all?"
Hisayo nodded. "Yep." While Nodoka still held onto some faint hope of restoring a proper relationship with Isao, Hisayo was firmly convinced that the sooner the old fool was finally ashes in his family tomb, the better for all concerned. "He doesn't really care a damned bit for either you or Ranma, No-chan. The sooner you come to realize that, the better for you both."
Nodoka gazed on the ceiling, nodding.
* * *
Many light-years from Earth, beyond Uru and Benten's home planet of Fukunokami, it shrouded in a rose-shaped planet-wide defence field, lay the planet Elle. Home to one of the most technologically advanced civilizations in this part of the galaxy, the Ellsian Kingdom was one of the founding states of the Galactic Federation. An alliance of interplanetary kingdoms, republics and confederations, the Federation, atop the aforementioned Uru, Fukunokami and Elle, also included Oyuki's home planet of Triton, Kurama's home planet of Karasutengu, Rupa's home planet of Yaminokuni, Lupica's home planet of Tofunokoibito, the two unions of the Phentax tri-star system . . .
And the Dominion of Noukiios.
Though that last might not be part of the Federation before long.
And if that was so . . .?
"My Queen?"
The present ruler of the Kingdom, the sixty-fourth in a line unbroken for almost a millennium from the days of the Great Rose Emperor Adam, looked up and over her shoulder to see one of her aides standing nearby. "Yes?"
The aide bowed. "Agent Rose is here with her report, Your Majesty."
"Send her in. This is a private meeting."
"By your command, my Queen."
The aide withdrew. A moment later, a tall, well-built, brown-haired woman marched in. Like most women of this world, Rose de Hausenbach -- her nom de guerre was "Seven Bake Rose" -- wore a single-piece, form-fitting swimsuit done in a shiny black material akin to what Terrans called leather. A waist-length cape, also black, was draped over her shoulders. Reaching a point three metres from Queen Elle, the mercenary stopped, and then she bowed. "Your Majesty, I have the report on the Noukiios-Uru conflict."
"Was Honey involved?" Elle wondered.
"Yes, ma'am. Quite heavily, in fact. Here."
Rose drew out a datapadd to hand it over. Elle took it, and then she tapped controls to call up the subject files. Scanning the information there, her eyes narrowed. "His grandmother was a Righteous Gentile?" she gasped.
"Protestant Reformist Church of Zephyrus," Rose elaborated. "Lady Nagaiwakai was involved in that famine that struck Jiyuu, Magairu and a few other colony worlds about forty years ago. When the whole matter with the Urusians started up, she devised a plan by which, in case her grandson lost the first Tag Race, the Urusians would've been dealt with."
"And the Onis decided to eliminate her just in case," Elle mused, lowering the datapadd. "This is very disturbing."
Rose nodded. The Holy Republic of Zephyrus was power unto itself in this part of the galaxy. That sense of invincibility had been deftly used by the Zephyrites to ensure the states bordering her did not step too far out of line. That was understandable, Elle knew. A planet-state's ruler -- be she queen, president, prime minister or holy mother -- had to look out for her people first. Yet because of that overbearing threat of all-out force the Holy Republic could swing to bear on anyone, those neighbouring states had come to assume that behind-the-scenes machinations were beyond the Zephyrites' capabilities because of the simple fact that they weren't needed.
That assumption was now dust.
"There're more details about Mr. Groom's family on the padd, Your Majesty," Rose respectfully offered. "You might want to read that."
Elle gazed on the mercenary. She then tapped controls to call up more files. On the screen, a computer copy of a Noukiite family registry flashed. Gazing on the information there, her jaw dropped. "Sisters . . .?!"
She stared on Rose. "Fourteen," Rose said. "When he was helping the Noukiites and the Inquisition hunt his grandmother's murderers down, Mr. Groom was given honorary citizenship in the Dominion. He was then able to expand that to include the other members of his family."
Elle gazed on the datapadd. "His parents are not listed here."
"Mr. Groom renounced them, Your Majesty. According to what I was able to discover, Mr. Groom's mother was the primary factor in the separation between himself and Lady Nagaiwakai. There were other circumstances. I couldn't get any more details." She bowed her head apologetically.
"I see . . . " The queen nodded, taking a deep breath. "Do you believe you can make your way to Earth without being detected, Rose?"
The mercenary nodded. "Easy enough."
* * *
Some distance from where Kamekichi Tampopo once held court, there was a large ladies boutique called Esmerelda's. The proprietor of this place, a forty-something East End Londoner named Esmerelda Stevens, had migrated to Tomobiki after the First Tag Race. Soon, almost EVERY girl of high school age in Tomobiki came to view Esmerelda's as THE "in" shop. Whatever trends in fashion that burst across the pop scene always got first airing here. You could get ANYTHING, from day wear to kimonos, from sports gear to lingerie and swim wear, even school uniforms, coming to Esmerelda's.
Ataru's sisters, currently racing through the various departments as they scrambled to give Ranma a true woman's wardrobe worthy of the name, were presently besieging the boutique. Despite his fears about how a potential conflict between himself and other Tomobiki natives might ultimately reflect on his immediate family, the sisters had insisted on coming here to get Ranma new clothes. "If they bother us because you're our brother, we'll show those dorkheads a thing or two about respect, Onii-sama," Sakuya assured him.
Esmerelda, a slender woman with greying hair, looking like an atypical private school headmistress, coordinated everything by the change rooms. Ataru sat nearby; he was the fashion judge. Ranma was trying on a chemise. Sakuya was with her in the change room. "Okay, Onii-sama! Here she comes!"
Ranma stepped out. Esmerelda nodded. "Oh, that's nice."
That was Ataru, by the way.
"What exactly is that, Stevens-san?" Karen asked.
"Part of the Canterbury Collection, my dear." The Englishwoman gazed amusedly on Karen. "It just came out this year."
Ranma turned to a full-length mirror. She had on what was normally called a "poet chemise," a knee-length, loose white dress with lace and ribbon trimming, buttons going down the front. The cotton of the dress was thin enough so that you could still make out her figure underneath if the light was right. "Do you like that, Onee-chan? It looks good on you," Karen asked.
Ranma turned slightly. "Yeah, it does, doesn't it?"
Mamoru patted Ataru's shoulder. "Well, Anii sure likes it!"
Ranma stared curiously at him. "Wow!" Ataru sank into his chair.
"How many was that?" Sakuya asked.
"I counted six," Karen reported.
Ranma stared at the eldest sister. "That good?"
"Definitely." Sakuya winked, and then she called, "Who's got swimwear?!"
"Found it!" Rinrin called out as she came up with a black opaque one-piece on a rack hangar. "I think this'll be great for Aneki!"
Ranma stared at it. She then headed into the change room, Sakuya following her. Mamoru pinched Ataru awake. "Eh?!" He looked around, and then he sighed. "Oh, man! I'll be more than glad when this is over with!"
"You're not the only one, Ataru," Ranma called out.
Laughter filled the boutique. Ranma soon emerged, wearing a crochet one-piece composed of nude power mesh done in spandex, which was underlined with opaque nylon to obscure details. The only skin it revealed was a keyhole opening in the back; the suit went all the way to her neck. "Well?" She turned to the mirror to give herself an once-over, and then she turned to Ataru. "Is this okay . . .?" she asked.
"Wow . . .!" he drawled before passing out.
Ranma then frowned. "Oh, bummer . . . "
"No! No! No!" Mamoru shook her head, wagging her finger. "If that suit did THAT to Anii, it's perfect for you, Anee!"
Ranma took that in, and then she blushed. "I don't want to end up killing the guy 'cause I'm wearing something like THIS, Mamoru!"
Esmerelda winked, holding up an objecting finger. "I believe it will not only ensure their brother remains loyal to you, my dear, but it'll make him quite ready to defend you from the groping hands of unwanted chikan artists."
Ranma blinked. "Well, if you say so, ma'am . . . "
More laughter filled the shop.
* * *
It was lunchtime at the Tendou doojou. Souun was now a hair's breadth away from unleashing a Demon Head, though the true target of his anger was nowhere in Nerima. "Hai, he did," Akane grunted, a hand rubbing her abdomen. Sayuri and Yuka sat to either side of her. "Ranma told me he's in love with someone else. I demanded to know who she was and he brushed me off, the jerk! So I tried to smack him into place and he . . .!"
Akane's voice trailed off. "Ranma-kun hit her mallet with something he called the 'heart blast touch,'" Yuka finished as Sayuri squeezed Akane's shoulder in sympathy. "It destroyed the mallet and knocked Akane-chan out."
Nabiki perked. "The Heart Blast Touch?!" She then winced. "Ouch! You're lucky it was only the mallet he hit, Akane!"
"What does THAT mean?!" Akane snapped.
"Negako-san told me the Shinzou Bakuhatsu Shoku is one of the two main killing manoeuvres in Saikoo Jinseijitsu-ryuu," Nabiki explained. "Unlike the rock-breaking technique Ryouga-kun knows, the Heart Blast Touch is VERY effective against humans. One strike . . .!" -- she pointed to a spot under her breast -- "Here and your heart'll literally explode." The middle Tendou daughter ignored the horrified looks on the younger girls' faces. "Strikes against the major nerve clusters in the shoulders and hips would forever deny you use of your arms or legs. Aim at the back of the spine and you could cripple someone. Aim for the head and . . . " She shuddered. "Nasty!"
Sayuri nearly choked on her bile. "Saotome knows THAT?!"
"Yep. Matter of fact, Negako-san told me earlier today that Ranma-kun mastered that particular move in less than an hour. And, believe it or not . . . " She held up a finger, smiling. "It was ATARU who taught him that."
Sayuri gaped. "Moroboshi?!"
"Could you imagine what the people of Tomobiki might think if they knew something like THAT?!" Yuka wondered aloud.
"They probably already know." Nabiki turned back to her tea to take a sip before she continued, "After all, how could Ataru-kun've dug those people out of the wreckage of his old school last Monday as quickly as he did?"
Yuka considered that, and then she nodded. "True."
"What else happened, Yuka-chan?" Kasumi asked.
"Well, after Akane-chan was knocked out, Ataru-kun's sister Negako forced the principal to turn over his and Ranma-kun's school records so they could be sent to some college. They didn't say which college it was . . . wait!"
She perked, humming. Sayuri snapped her fingers. "Oh, that's right! One of those girls mentioned something about a 'Stargazer West College' . . .!"
Nabiki perked. "What younger girls?!"
"There were about ten or twelve of them," Sayuri explained. "It was kinda funny. They all called Moroboshi-san 'big brother' . . . "
Kasumi's and Nabiki's eyes widened. "Oh, those must've been Ataru-kun's younger sisters." The former then smiled, humming thoughtfully. "Then the college they mentioned must be the one the sisters attend."
"I can check that out," the latter confirmed.
"Yes, Nabiki, do so!"
Eyes locked on Souun. Akane blinked. "Dad . . .?"
"Ranma won't be allowed to escape his obligations!" he ordained, ignoring the annoyed looks appearing on Kasumi and Nabiki's faces. "He'll be brought back to Nerima immediately . . . " He crossed his arms. "So he can marry Akane and unite the schools as Saotome-kun and I planned!"
Tired moaned escape his elder daughters, earning them a stern look from Souun. Sayuri and Yuka kept their peace. Akane shuddered, unsure of what to say or think in spite of the fact that, thirty-six hours before, she had gladly declared to both her father and Genma that she loved Ranma. Suddenly, Kasumi perked. "Ah, we have a guest!" She rose, heading to the front gate.
"Dad, don't you think . . .?!" Nabiki began.
"NO!" Souun slammed his fist into the table. "Ranma will marry Akane-chan and that is FINAL! Your continued, selfish, pointless interference in this matter will no longer be tolerated! You have already interfered enough in their lives and my plans for them, Nabiki! You WILL ensure that Ranma comes back to this house as soon as possible or else you will . . .!"
A fist smashed into his nose, sending Souun flying into a wall. As he collapsed into a heap on the floor, Nabiki straightened herself, her fists clenching and unclenching as her battle aura flared. "Onee-chan . . .!" Akane gasped as she, Sayuri and Yuka stared wide-eyed at Nabiki.
"How soon we forget who actually PAYS the bills around this place!" the middle daughter growled. "You try to throw me out, Dad, and I promise you that your life will become a living HELL! Don't you DARE preach to me what was proper and what wasn't when it came to Akane and Ranma!" She pointed at him. "After all that time you spent SITTING there on the porch, doing NOTHING to help keep our home, you've got some gall to speak to me like THAT after all the things I've done to keep this place over our heads!"
"Indeed, Father, Nabiki-chan is correct," Kasumi announced as she stepped back inside. "You have no right to judge any of us for what we did or didn't do in these last few years when you've done NOTHING to help keep our home intact!" She drew out a thick envelope from behind her. "Furthermore, we can no longer bother Ranma-kun where he has chosen to live. Read."
She tossed the package onto the table. Nabiki immediately scooped it up and opened it, drawing out a covering letter. Scanning it, she whistled. "Well, guess that settles that," she announced.
"What does that say, Onee-chan?" Akane wondered.
"This is from the Court of Special Appeals." Nabiki held up the letter to show to everyone else in the room. "This confirms a court injunction issued against our family concerning Ranma-kun and the idiot's agreement Dad made with that panda Ranma-kun once had to call a father . . . "
Souun was on his feet. "Yep," Nabiki said. "As of six o'clock last evening, by special edict of the senior judge of the Court of Special Appeals, acting on behalf of the Imperial Palace Agency, an injunction was issued against all parties who desire to forge a marriage bond with Saotome Ranma, once-child of Saotome Genma and Saotome Nodoka of Nerima-ku, Tokyo-to; now head of the Saotome family of Oomure-chou, Odawara-shi in Kanagawa-ken." She paused as she scanned the letter's contents. "Simple enough."
"What does it say, Nabiki-chan?" Kasumi asked.
"It says here that if any one of us continues to harass Ranma-kun concerning what Dad here tried to set up with the panda, then we'll be investigated for all confirmed or suspected illegal activities which might have affected Ranma-kun. Then, if warranted, charges would be laid against us." Nabiki slipped the paper back into the envelope, and then she moved to head upstairs. "I guess that takes care of that."
"WAIT!" Souun wailed. "There must be . . .!"
"Forget it, Dad." She glanced at him. "It's over. If you want to keep chasing after Ranma-kun, you're on your own. Don't expect any help from me."
She turned to head upstairs. "Tendou Nabiki, you will help bring Ranma home or you will no longer be allowed to live in this house!" Souun threatened.
"DAD!" Akane cried out.
Nabiki blinked, visibly not disturbed by his words. "Fine. I'm sure Negako-san'll let me live at her place while I finish school and move on to university." She then glared at her father. "And while I go forth and destroy everything you have left in this world, Father. Your legacy, your doojou, your place as head of this household, EVERYTHING you once called your own will be taken away from you. If you're so intent on living inside that little fantasy world of yours, I'll be DAMNED if you drag all of us down with you!"
She stormed upstairs. "Nabiki!" Souun cried, collapsing to his knees.
Shuddering, he stared into Kasumi's face. "Father, if you force Nabiki-chan to leave, then I too will leave." She crossed her arms. "Nabiki-chan is correct. Your continued refusal to see what is truly going on with those you state you care for has brought such disharmony to this household that I find I can no longer live here anymore. I'm sure Toofuu-sensei will be more than happy to let me live with him as I proceed to university myself." She headed to the kitchen. "Ranma-kun was right all along. I've sacrificed far too much of my life because of your laziness. And I refuse to keep placing my life and my dreams on hold because you refuse to stop being lazy!"
The door slammed shut behind her. "Kasumi!" Souun tearfully screamed, and then he jolted as Akane stood, moving to head upstairs. Sayuri and Yuka headed up ahead of her, both of them moving to allow her to speak to her father alone. "Akane . . .?" He turned to her. When she refused to look at him, he bowed his head. "Do you still love him?"
Silence fell. Then a weak "Yes" escaped her. "Then bring him home! You have to!" Souun pleaded. "If you let him go, everything we've tried to make is wasted! You'll let Ranma-kun fall into the grasp of Nodoka's relatives! If that happens, you'll never have a chance to let your heart's dream come true! You can understand that, can't you, Akane-chan?! Bring him home!"
Akane shuddered, tears spilling down her cheeks as she tried to find the right words. Finally, she gazed heavenward. "He said to me this morning . . . " She sniffed. "That he no longer considers this place his home."
She headed upstairs at a run. "Akane-chan . . . " Souun burbled before collapsing on himself, pained sobs escaping him.
* * *
"How could you say that to your own father, Nabiki?!"
Nabiki stared at Sayuri. "Look, I know you don't like Ranma-kun . . . "
"You're damn right I don't!" Sayuri snarled. "Ever since that bastard first showed up, Akane-chan's been treated like dirt by almost everyone who knows her! She gets no respect for what she can do, even when she WANTS to learn how to stand on her own two feet! Oh, NO! That's not right since, because she's engaged, she has to depend TOTALLY on a jerk like Saotome! And Akane-chan got no support when she tries something new! Why? Because no one wanted to be bothered to make her look better than her 'iinazuke,' even when he was forced to act like a girl! You want to know how much it HURT her when Saotome proved he was a better girl than she?! How much it HURT her every time she tried to cook something and NO ONE, even her SISTERS . . . " She glared at Nabiki. "Would help her out, much less encourage her to do better?!"
Nabiki gazed evenly at Akane's friend, crossing her arms. "So when did YOU ever try any of Akane's cooking, Sayuri?" she coyly asked.
Sayuri jolted before she flustered. "W-w-well . . . "
Nabiki nodded knowingly. "Uh-huh!"
"What about my cooking?!"
Akane stepped into the room. Nothing was said as the youngest daughter sat on Nabiki's bed. Nabiki remained silent, gazing absently at her computer. Sayuri and Yuka exchanged a look, and then they gazed on their friend, unsure as to what they could say in a situation like this, much less if they should say anything at all. Finally, Akane asked, "Did you mean it?"
"Mean what?" Nabiki wondered.
"What you threatened to do to Dad?"
"If I have to."
"Because it's time for Dad to start acting his age, Akane." She glanced on her sister. "It's time for him to start realizing how much pain he's been unleashing ever since that panda showed up. On you, on me, on Onee-chan, on Ranma and everyone else." Shaking her head, she rose, heading to the window to gaze on the townscape beyond. "Now I can understand where Ranma-kun's coming from when he said he didn't want anything to do with us. We USED him, Akane-chan. You, me, Dad and everyone else. And ESPECIALLY the panda, may that selfish bastard rot in Hell for all he's done!" She closed her eyes, tears brimming in her lashes. "We've been HIDING behind Ranma-kun, Akane. Whenever something weird hit town, we shoved him into dealing with it without giving him any sort of REAL encouragement. Hell, whenever he got into trouble, what did everyone do? Shouted insults at him, told him to deal with matter . . .!"
"All he really wanted was thanks."
Eyes locked on Yuka. "Yuka-chan," Sayuri whispered.
"That's what he said at school, Sayuri-chan." Yuka sighed. "Don't you remember? How he said that he was tired of doing something for nothing, not even a 'thank you,' for dealing with the garbage that hits town every once in a while. And remember what else he said? About what'll happen now that he's gone off with Moroboshi-san and his sisters? Who the hell stops Happoosai from stealing all our clothes? Who stops people like that Tarou guy? Who stops the Principal? Hell, who's going to stop Kunou from pressing the whole fight for Akane-chan if he decides that what Akane-chan said today doesn't count?! Who the hell stops the next hotshot coming into town looking for a good fight? Hell, who'll save the doojou next time a Doojou Destroyer comes along . . .?"
"IF Ojii-san doesn't give Dad a new training license," Nabiki muttered.
"True." Yuka shakily nodded before turning to Sayuri. "Akane couldn't stand up to the last one; Ranma-kun had to deal with him! And Nabiki's only NOW getting back into shape . . . " She shrugged before leaning on the bed.
Sayuri snorted. "It's all Saotome's fault, anyway!"
Nabiki smirked. "You know, Sayuri-chan, hanging onto that attitude isn't going to help." Her grin turned savage as she glanced on Akane's friend. "Matter of fact, it's that attitude that helped drive Ranma-kun away."
Sayuri shook her head. "Oh, no, you don't!" She pointed at Nabiki. "You're not going to peg this on me! Uh-uh! And I won't let you get away with heaping it all over your sister, either!" She pointed to Akane. "Akane-chan was right all along about that bastard! And there's nothing you can say or do that'll make me change my mind!" She stormed out of the room.
Nabiki watched her leave, and then she turned to look out the window. Sayuri walked onto the courtyard, heading out the front gate for home. Sensing the silence from the other people, the middle Tendou daughter gazed on Yuka. "You're awfully quiet, Yuka-chan. Aren't you going to say something?"
Yuka shrugged. "What can I say? Ranma-kun's gone and there's obviously no hope of bringing him back. I . . . " She gazed on Akane before placing a supportive hand on her friend's shoulder. "Maybe instead of trying to force the whole engagement thing on him, you should just try to be Ranma-kun's friend. That's all he seems to want now, Akane-chan."
"Then who is she?"
Akane stared at Nabiki. "Who is it? Is it Ukyou? Is it Shampoo? Kodachi, maybe? Or is it one of Moroboshi's sisters? Who IS IT, Onee-chan?!"
"What are you talking about?" Nabiki demanded, staring at her sister.
"You damn well KNOW what I'm talking about!" Akane snapped, bolting to her feet. "Ranma said he wouldn't reciprocate my feelings for him because he loves someone else! Who is she, Onee-chan?! Damn it all, you HAVE to know!"
Nabiki blinked, and then she gazed out the window, shaking her head. "Much that you might not want to believe this, but I don't know everything about Ranma-kun. And I think after all we've been through these last few weeks, what I do know about Ranma-kun may not apply . . . "
"Damn it, I don't CARE about that!" Akane railed. "WHO IS SHE?!"
Silence fell as Nabiki continued to look out the window. She then asked, "Why do you want to know this? You going to try to fight whomever it is to get Ranma-kun back? You remember what he said to you last night about that . . .!"
"Onee-chan, he's fought enough for me!" Akane cut her off before she sank onto the bed. "But . . .!" Tears brimmed her eyelashes as she clenched her fists. "I just can't let it end like THIS! Please, who is she?! Tell me!"
Nabiki gazed on her sister, and then she sighed. "It's not a girl."
Akane jolted before her eyes widened. "Negako-san . . .?"
"Akane . . . "
"Of course!" Akane leapt to her feet. "It makes PERFECT sense! Negako-san's got all that experience and knowledge in the Art! Ranma would automatically be attracted to her! And she's nothing at all like Cologne or Happoosai, so why wouldn't he . . .?!"
Akane yelped, staring at Nabiki. "It's not Negako." The middle Tendou daughter shook her head, a knowing grin crossing her face.
Akane blinked. "Not Negako . . .?" Her forehead furrowed as she sank back onto the bed. She then froze, her eyes widening as she remembered what Nabiki and Kasumi spoke of earlier. "No . . . " she whispered. "No . . .! You can't be serious . . .! Not . . .?"
"Who?!" Yuka demanded. "You mean . . .? Moroboshi-san?!"
Nabiki left them hanging for a moment, and then she walked over to the folder on her desk. Opening it, she leafed through the pages contained within. She then drew out a sheet to hand it to her sister. "Read."
Akane scanned it, her eyes widening. "This is a listing from the National Family Registrar!" She looked up at Nabiki.
"'Saotome family of Oomure district, city of Odawara, Kanagawa . . . '" Yuka read, scanning the names. "Saotome Ranma. Saotome Toshiko. Saotome Kumiko . . . " Her voice trailed as she noticed one particular kanji used three times in the same column. "All . . .!"
Akane looked, blinking as a roar of disbelief and denial surged up from her heart. But the printed characters on the sheet before her did not change. "All listed as girls . . . " she whispered. "Ranma . . .! No, this . . .!"
Nabiki nodded. "It's true. It's also legal and binding. The only practical way of someone to declare that he or she is of the other gender outside of moving to a country where it'd be easier legally to make that switch is . . . " She took a breath. "To literally start from scratch. Just as Ranma, Toshiko and Kumiko did yesterday. If I have to, I can hack into the Registrar's records and confirm it. But . . .!" She shrugged. "It's hard to tell whether or not Ranma did this just as a way of ensuring he didn't have to worry about the engagements anymore or if . . . "
"It's something deeper," Yuka finished.
"What if this was something Moroboshi did?!" Akane demanded.
Nabiki shrugged. "Hard to say. Personally, I'd say Ataru-kun had nothing to do with it. Yes, he always had an eye for pretty girls. As a girl, Ranma is quite the looker. No doubt about that. But we have to keep in mind that Ranma's always been pretty paranoid when it comes to gender questions. How many times've we heard him yell, 'I'm a boy?!' He was so paranoid about that, I really doubt that even someone like Ataru-kun -- IF Ataru-kun was still of that state of mind -- could make Ranma change so easily."
She snapped her fingers. Akane considered that before reluctantly nodding. "There's only one person we could ask about this, isn't there?"
Nabiki nodded. "Right."
* * *
"Hey, you okay?"
"Huh?" Ranma perked as she floated in the deep end of the pool, and then she glanced up at him. "Did you say something, Ataru?"
Located on the sixth floor of the Toranoseishin Finances Tower, the indoor pool was enclosed with glass windows offering a panoramic view of Tomobiki and the surrounding municipalities. Change rooms were poised by the elevator shafts, they lining one side of the pool space. Many of the sisters were frolicking in the shallow end. Negako had returned to Nerima shortly before everyone raided Esmerelda's. Mamoru swam laps by one side of the pool. Aria and Hinako reclined on float tubes, a parasol perched over the former. Ataru sat on one of the diving boards close to where Ranma was relaxing.
"I asked if you were okay," he repeated.
She smiled assuredly at him before gazing on the ceiling. "I'm still a little bugged over what happened last night."
"Do you remember much of it?"
"Bits and pieces, plus that nightmare I had," she admitted, closing her eyes. "To believe I'm capable of something like that . . .!"
"Frightening, huh?"
"Yeah." Ranma then shrugged. "Then again, why should I be shocked? After all, I went way past the envelope when I fought Saffron. Do you think that part of me had something to do with that?"
Ataru shook his head. "Don't ask me, Ranma. That sort of deep theory, I leave to the real experts like Onee-chan."
She looked on him. "It scares you, doesn't it?"
He considered her question, and then he nodded. "Hai, it does."
Ataru took a deep breath. "When I first started on this road, I wanted to keep as many options open to me as I could." He gazed out the window at his old hometown. "Try to keep or reform as many friendships as I could in Tomobiki, stay with my family, be . . . " He shrugged. "Well, be normal, I guess! But . . . " He closed his eyes, his head swaying to and fro. "As time went on, it seemed as if everything I tried to hang onto was closed off to me. I . . . " A pause. "If I lost all links to my sisters, I wouldn't know WHAT to do, Ranma. They're all I've really got left. Lum's gone, Shinobu left my life long ago, I never really deserved to be with anyone else . . . "
"Lum's not gone, Ataru. She's here in town."
"No! No! You don't understand." He shook his head. "Ranma, that person on Ran's ship is, IN PART, Lum. There's a whole new side of her being. That's how the Crossing Over works. Didn't Nokoko-oneechan tell you about that?" Seeing Ranma nod, he sighed. "And even Ran is gone, Ranma. She's in the same position as the being born from Lum."
"You can try to stay friends with her."
"Should I do that?" he wondered. "Ranma, the future's wide open for her. For them both. I have no right to impose myself on them anymore. Do you feel you've got the right to impose yourself on Akane or Ukyou?"
"No!" She shook her head, and then she smiled. "Still . . . "
Grinning, Ranma somersaulted in the water, snaring Ataru by the leg. "I've got you!" she growled as she yanked him in.
Ataru screamed before being submerged. Ranma dove in after him. They met at the bottom, drawing their arms around each other as she pressed her lips against his. Floating back to the surface, they kept their pose even though the sisters could see them. Even the flashes of Yotsuba's camera didn't break their lip-to-lip conversation. "Ani-chama's and Ane-chama's kiss checky!"
They pulled apart, a sly look appearing on his face. Ranma grinned. They then leapt out of the pool to dog pile the young detective. "ULTIMATE TICKLE-TORTURE CHECKY!" they screamed together as Yotsuba's laughter-filled pleas for mercy filled the pool area.
The other sisters watched, many trying desperately not to fall over laughing on seeing the English-born girl so quickly brought down. "Well, I'd say it's about damn time they did that to her!" Sakuya spoke for them all.
* * *
"Darling, how can you think something like THAT . . .?"
The dark-haired, brown-eyed girl sat in the guest room of Ran's scoutship, gazing in the general direction of the Toranoseishin Tower. With a little telepathy, she could sense everything Ataru had said to Saotome Ranma. Oddly enough, she could not probe directly into his mind even if she desired to. For some unknown reason, Ataru's mind was closed off to her. How was that possible? Nendo-kata could virtually sense next to anything living. So what was blocking her from probing into Ataru's mind, much less Ranma's?
Was it those things they could become . . .?
She quaked, her hand turning the identification card in her hand. Her eyes quickly locked on the name printed there.
Izumo Seiko.
To the surprise of even his partner Kay, Jay was a history buff. Since he had been assigned to help watch over the aliens resident in Japan, the young SCAA agent had taken time to brush up on local history. It was he who chose the names the beings formed in part from Lum and Ran would use. "Izumo" was taken from a famous Kabuki actress who performed in the days when Japan's legendary theatre allowed women to take roles. The given names the Urusians-turned-Nendo-kata/Terrans would use hailed from an earlier period of Japanese history. "Seiko" was derived from a famous Heian-jidai poet, Sei Shoonagon, author of Makura no Sooshi. "Sakiko," the name given to the person once known as Aruka Ran, got her name from a rival of Sei's, Murasaki Shikubu, author of The Tale of Genji. Hearing the origins of their new names, Seiko and Sakiko could only exchange a knowing look. How ironic, indeed . . .
Seiko perked, and then she gazed on Sakiko, who was leaning against the doorframe. A hairstylist brought in by Kay and Jay had done miracles with the rose hair Ran/Sakiko called her own. Now it was hued to a more natural reddish-brown shade, styled in a bushy, close-cropped mass that nearly obscured her eyes and curled in at her collars. It looked downright sexy on her, Seiko mused to herself as she held out a hand. Sakiko grinned as she walked to the bed, allowing herself to sink into Seiko's embrace. "You okay?"
"Not really," Seiko admitted before she kissed Sakiko's forehead. "So when do we have to finally move the ship out of town?"
"I'll do it tonight," Sakiko replied. "I'll talk to Ryuu-chan about leaving it on her island. It should escape attention there."
"With some help."
"Hai, with help." The SCAA would no doubt want to ensure things were squared away before moving to allow the Izumo sisters a chance to live their own lives without oversight from New York. "Are you angry?" she then asked.
"No, Sakiko-chan, not at you." Seiko gazed into the other woman's eyes before she gazed to the deckhead. "We know the sacrifices demanded of us when the Crossing Over is invoked. And Ryuunosuke needs you. She's been as much a Wanderer as we've been, even long before her father was killed."
"True." Sakiko nodded before she peered towards the Toranoseishin Tower. A shudder raced through her as her empathic senses picked up the strong aura of LOVE emanating from the sixth floor. "Blessed Mother, they love him so much."
Seiko nodded. "And her, too. I envy Darling . . . "
"Maybe you shouldn't call him that anymore."
"He'll always be 'Darling' to me. It's too soon. I . . . " She paused, allowing her face to be buried in her sister's hair. "Even with the Crossing Over, I haven't had as much time to mourn what's been lost than he . . . "
"I know. I think he knows it, too," Sakiko mused. She then perked, her eyes glowing as she glanced toward the gangway. "Company."
"Who?" Seiko scanned herself before she smiled. "Ryuunosuke."
"Excuse me." Sakiko stood, moving to head out.
"Don't seduce her on the first date, Sakiko-chan!"
"But she's so much of a TEMPTATION, Seiko-chan!"
Laughter filled the ship as Sakiko headed down to receive their friend. Seiko watched her go, and then she turned back to the Toranoseishin Tower as she allowed her powers to reach out once more to her Darling and his family.
* * *
Karen perked as a funny warmth surged through her. She then found herself gazing out the window. What was that? Standing, she poised herself next to the safety glass, trying to pick out details. She knew where some of the more important locations in Tomobiki were. Before they met Ataru, the sisters were walked through a detailed model of the town by Negako. Yes, there was Tomobiki High. The large expanse of green and asphalt black/grey interspersed with European-style buildings and military-like structures was the Mendou estate. Off to the far north was a sea of trees around a traditional mansion: The Mizunokooji estate. There was the shrine where Sakura lived. The house Onii-chan lived in. The Miyake home. The empty building Tampopo-san once used. Other schools: Sanrinbou, Shakkou, Taian, Butsumetsu, Butsumetsu Girls . . .
Karen focused on a small dot of pink a few blocks away from Onii-chan's old home. Oh, yes. Ran's scoutship. Remembering that woman, Karen scowled before she chased away the dark thoughts thundering through her mind. Even if Ran and her late boyfriend held many ill thoughts towards her Onii-chan, that wouldn't remain as it was these days. Rei was dead after all. And while Karen didn't know the full story behind Ran's and Lum's surprising return to Earth, from what she sensed from Onii-chan and Negako-oneechan's words, neither of them were in any real position to hurt Onii-chan again . . .
* * *
"Is that what you all think of me . . .?" Seiko whispered, eyes sparkling with hurt tears. "Just as someone who hurt your brother . . .?"
Shuddering, she pulled her legs close to her as she leaned her head on her closed knees. No! Oh, Sweet Mother, NO! It just wasn't FAIR! Even if she wouldn't do what she had once done to Ataru before she was sent home weeks ago, to learn that all of Ataru's sisters HATED her was like a hot knife to her heart. Then . . .! Then again . . .
Seiko sniffed. Should she be so surprised? If Sakuya, Chikage and Haruka's actions provided any clue, Darling's sisters had forged ironclad viewpoints when it came to Lum. And those verdicts had come down AGAINST her. That was an attitude Lum hadn't encountered before. Yes, there was Shinobu and her attempts at hanging onto Ataru in the weeks right after the First Tag Race. Seiko now doubted that Ataru's late 'parents,' especially Kinshou, ever DID really care for Lum in the long term, seeing the Oni instead as the perfect ticket to help steal what was rightfully Darling's.
But this . . .
This . . .
"I'm sorry."
* * *
Karen blinked as a twinge of pain touched her. She sat on a lawn chair, looking nowhere. Why was she suddenly feeling sad for someone like Lum, for Heaven's sake? After all the things she instigated, she didn't deserve . . .
Karen closed her eyes. That wasn't true. If Lum deserved anything, it WAS mercy. She was here on Earth, most likely never to see her home planet ever again. Did Karen have a right to judge Lum? Especially after all . . .?
"Karen-chan, are you okay?"
Karen spun around to see Hinako standing there, a concerned look on her face. "You scared me!" she breathed out. "Is there something wrong?"
"Shirayuki-chan was gonna make hot dogs." Hinako pointed to the other side of the pool, where the chef was working. "Don't you want some?"
"I . . . "
Karen blushed as a growl echoed from her stomach. Hearing that, Hinako giggled before she took her hand and pulled her to where the others were.
* * *
"You were being a little too aggressive, Seiko."
Seiko screamed, spinning around to see someone standing by the door. "Chikage!" she gasped, feeling her heart. "How . . .?"
The sorceress, draped in a solid black version of Ranma's new swimsuit, turned to step out of the room. "Karen is especially sensitive to empathic probing. If you are so determined to become life-mates with one of my family, I suggest you learn something called 'patience.' That was part of the reason you did not ultimately succeed in your pursuit of Ani-kun."
Seiko blinked confusedly as Chikage left.
* * *
"There's nothing you can do for them?"
Negako shook her head. She and Chigaiko sat with Nabiki, Akane and Yuka around the living room table in the old shrine, they having just enjoyed tea. "The core personalities of both Ataru and Ranma would be destroyed if their link was severed. When that happens, all that would be left would be the Cyborg and Neko-Ranma. And I believe you understand what could happen if that part of Ranma's personality was let loose. Do you not?"
The visitors were pale. The ninjutsu grandmaster had just explained to them about the "hidden" part of last evening's events at Fuurinkan. "H-he . . .?" Akane gulped. "No . . .! Th-this can't be true . . .! It can't . . .!"
A fist smashed into the table, causing Nabiki, Akane, Yuka and Chigaiko to leap back in shock. The look on Negako's face as she glared the youngest Tendou down sent icy chills down the others' backs. "Are you so determined to warp Reality Itself to your selfish desires that you would allow people to DIE before you finally allowed yourself to see the truth?!" she demanded, the rage in her voice making Akane wish she could sink into the floor, get as far away from this scary monster as she could. "People have suffered enough because of your selfishness! Ranma most of all! What I have told you is the TRUTH, Akane! Accept it!" She sat back, her eyes still locked on Akane. "I will not modify the truth to better benefit your sensibilities. Too many have done that to you to date, much to your detriment. If you truly wish to be the martial artist you see yourself as, you have to move away from that pathetic attitude you have maintained concerning your total skill level and 'ranking' among your peers. If you cannot make yourself move past that, then you are wasting my time and patience. And that is something I will not tolerate from anyone."
Akane shuddered, and then her shoulders slumped as pained sobs stole her voice. Yuka moved to comfort. Chigaiko gazed sympathetically at the sobbing girl, though she did spare glances from time to time at Negako. The ninjutsu grandmaster's impassiveness was understandable, the Tomobiki native mused. Unlike more sedate situations, Akane's inability to accept her shortcomings had actually come close to permanently crippling someone she deeply cared for. And it wasn't just Ranma who would have been affected had that insanity continued. Chigaiko grimaced. A man Chigaiko herself dearly loved was presently involved. Much that she would desire there be an easier way to do this, Chigaiko knew the time had come for lines to be drawn in the sand.
Lines that could not and WOULD not be crossed.
Also watching Negako was Nabiki. While she did ache on seeing her sister hurt, the middle Tendou daughter knew the time had come for Akane to wake up and see the world as it was. And you helped maintain her illusions too. Not to mention milked certain problems Akane-chan had for everything they were worth, even if it WAS to keep the house over our heads, a voice inside her chided. If you're part of the problem, you have to be part of the solution.
Finally, Akane's sobs faded into sniffles as she wiped her eyes clean. She then stared pleadingly at Negako. "Is there any way to change this?" she asked. "I'm sure you don't want your own brother to live like this."
Negako shook her head. "To my current level of knowledge when it comes to psionic bonds like this, there is no way to safely sever what exists between Ataru and Ranma, Akane. Yes, the ideal situation would be for no bond to exist at all. But this situation, as all would agree, is nowhere close to 'ideal.'"
"What are their attitudes towards this, Sensei?" Yuka then asked. "I assume Moroboshi-san and Ranma-kun both know what's going on."
"Do not call me 'Sensei,' Yuka," Negako stated, causing Yuka to duck the annoyed stare fired her way. The grandmaster then relaxed. "Ranma is willing to allow matters between herself and Ataru to remain until such time as more information can be obtained concerning the person who bonded her to Ataru. But since said person is not native to Earth -- thus leading us to question whether or not she, he or it is still alive and can be called on to assist -- the potential answers such a person might provide may never come at all."
"It's weird, though," Yuka mused. "I mean, who'd bond two boys together, at THAT young of an age? And why would they do it?!"
"I think that's about as 'alien' as you can get." Nabiki shook her head. "What about Ranma-ku- . . .!" She stopped herself before sighing. "What about Ranma-chan's attitudes towards everyone here in Nerima?"
Akane fired Nabiki a hurt look on hearing the latter address Ranma with a more "feminine" term. "For the most part . . . " Negako's voice turned her attention back to the ninjutsu grandmaster. "'Good riddance to bad rubbish.'"
The Tendou sisters winced. Chigaiko gave Negako an annoyed glance. Yuka gazed sympathetically at Akane. Negako took a breath before she continued, "There are certain people whom Ranma might entertain reforming friendships with. She has already begun doing so with Ryouga. Ukyou is another candidate. Kelun and Happy, she views as her teachers. She does acknowledge Toofuu and Kasumi as her friends, her ONLY friends here in Nerima . . . "
"What about Hiroshi and Daisuke?!" Akane demanded.
Negako shook her head. "They are ultimately not relevant. Hiroshi and Daisuke have consistently made one grave mistake when it comes to how they look upon Ranma. They assumed subconsciously from the beginning that Ranma experienced the same social upbringing they themselves experienced. That, as you are aware, is nowhere NEAR the truth." A pause. "Do you realize that Ranma's first sexual experience came from a magically-induced dream Chikage crafted for her last Wednesday evening on Promised Island?"
"That can't be true!" Akane blurted out. "What about all the times he sneaked into my room or the change room at school . . .?!"
"AKANE!" Negako snapped, making the youngest Tendou duck.
Silence fell as they considered what Negako had said. Yuka then sighed. "Surely, Ranma's not gay . . .?" she stuttered, and then she moaned, slapping her head. "Oh, gods! And with what you just said Jusenkyou did to him . . . "
"That added to a deliberate veil Genma forced over Ranma to ensure she could concentrate SOLELY on the martial arts, that augmented with Akane's attitudes when it comes to inter-gender relations, plus Shanpú's more blatant approach to the question AND the mixed signals those such as Daisuke and Hiroshi have given Ranma . . . " Negako's voice trailed off, a smile crossing her face. "Akane, do you truly believe Genma could have been responsible enough to give Ranma the 'Talk' during their journey? Especially given how adamant Genma was about uniting his school with your father's via a marriage between Ranma and either yourself, Nabiki or Kasumi?"
Akane moved to reply. She paused, looking at the table as she considered what Negako just asked. Finally, she shook her head. "No."
"Do you believe Nodoka would have done that?"
That question earned a snorted laugh from Nabiki. "Mrs. 'You Have To Be A Man-Above-Men Or Else Commit Seppuku?!' Not likely!"
Yuka stared quizzically at Nabiki. Akane nodded in agreement. "Has ANYONE given Ranma-san the 'Talk,' Negako-san?" Chigaiko asked.
"Sakuya did. On Wednesday evening before Chikage got to her."
"I never realized . . . " Akane whispered.
"Both by accident and deliberate action, you were not allowed to realize that," Negako stated. "By 'deliberate action,' I mean those who fed into your own assumptions and delusions concerning your life and those who interact with you. Take what Tatewaki has tried to do with you. He tried to force you into doing something you did not desire. Then, when he galvanized most of the boys at your school to participate in the 'Fight for Akane's Heart,' he made you believe boys were, without exception, 'perverted.' No one tried to correct your assumption. When Ranma came, your assumption -- added to her embarrassment, confusion and shame over her condition, not to mention her inability to perceive of any way of resolving this outside the circle of a martial arts battle -- started a process that could have easily led to an eternity of hatred and mistrust. That process being constantly fed by two men who had no idea what they were doing, not to mention one sister who blatantly ignored what was happening to her family, not to mention another . . . " She glanced at Nabiki. "Who was so determined to keep her family safe and secure, she was willing to do anything, regardless of legality, to see that happen."
Nabiki bowed her eyes ashamedly. Akane's fists squeezed together, fresh tears streaking down her cheeks. Yuka and Chigaiko shook their heads in mute sympathy. "I never thought it was THAT bad," Akane's friend whispered.
Negako gazed on her. "You were not permitted to perceive the truth. And even if you could have determined that, you would not have been permitted to change things, especially when it came to Ranma's independence. Souun and Genma would not have tolerated ANY such interference to their overall plans. Look how badly they reacted when Ranma began to associate with my family?"
Nabiki grimaced. "You have a point. The instant Dad learned about that court injunction against our family, he was ready to keep on charging ahead . . . " She made a dismissive wave with her hand. "Stupid fool!"
Negako nodded. "Nabiki, you may tell Kasumi that if Souun continues on his current path, arrangements can be made to see him stripped of his position as head of your household, thus transferring legal leadership of your family to Kasumi. If you feel it necessary to carry out such, you may contact me at any time." A pause. "And I must warn you both now." She glanced at Akane, and then at Nabiki. "I believe Souun is ready to carry out yet another of his schemes to force Ranma to conform to his will. You both best be on your guard."
The Tendou sisters nodded.
* * *
"No . . . this can't be true . . .!"
Souun quaked as he scanned the papers spread across Nabiki's desk. The one in his hand, the copy of the records printed out from the Family Registrar's master database, was under serious threat of being shredded. "A girl . . .?" Souun hissed, his eyes narrow as he focused on the "onna" kanji beside Saotome Ranma's name. "That fool boy actually tricked them into thinking he was a girl . . .?! How DARE he . . .?! HOW DARE HE?!"
Catching himself, Souun placed the sheet on the desk. He leaned back on Nabiki's chair as his mind rolled through what he just read. In a way, he could admire Ranma's strategy. Regardless of how attitudes were becoming more liberal in certain sectors of society -- though he personally felt it offensive that some in Japan were advocating greater liberties for homosexuals, not to mention Japan's sizable Korean community and even . . .! Ugh! Burakumin?! -- it was still illegal for two girls to marry. If Ranma wanted to avoid his "engagements," having himself legally declared a girl WAS the right way to go.
And doing such would be choice revenge on both Genma and Nodoka. For so long, both had relentlessly pressured Ranma down a narrow-minded path in hopes of making him the "perfect" man. TOO narrow-minded, Souun often felt, though he hadn't said anything to Ranma's parents about it. Indeed, the poor boy did lack much in the way of knowledge that would have made an eventual marriage to one of Souun's daughters work much better. But the threat of seppuku if Ranma failed to be a "man above men" had kept his tongue still. It wasn't necessary anymore. Genma was dead -- May the gods look after him now, Souun tearfully lamented -- and Nodoka had been, in all effect, shoved out of the way. After all, in the wake of over a decade of hoping to see her child become a "man above men," learning that Ranma was presently supposedly shifting himself to become a girl wouldn't sit well with Nodoka. No, indeed it wouldn't . . .
That didn't change Souun's priorities. Ranma WOULD marry one of his children. There was no changing that. Regardless of whatever interference the Moroboshis could throw up, Ranma WOULD marry one of Souun's children. The future of the schools WOULD be ensured regardless of what Ranma, much less Kasumi, Nabiki or Akane, said or believed. And there was just NO WAY that Souun was going to let all the lies and half-truths in the papers spread before him stop that from happening. Oh, no! Not after all this time . . .
A smile crossed his face as he stepped out of Nabiki's room. Descending to the main floor, he peeked into the kitchen. Good. Kasumi was gone. No doubt, she was speaking to Ono Toofuu about pressing on with her post-secondary education. While Souun didn't want to make any decisions for or against what Kasumi might desire, he certainly didn't approve of her standing against him when it came to the future of the family, much less the union of the schools. He would have to put her in her place very soon. The same very much applied to Nabiki, Souun grimaced as he stepped out of the house. The very fact that she had just THREATENED to come after HIM, to strip HIM of all that was rightfully his, just to make him conform to what Ranma might ultimately desire . . .?! A growl escaped him as he turned, heading for the doors leading to the cellar under the main house. No! That would not do. That would certainly NOT do. HE was the head of this household, not Nabiki and certainly not Kasumi.
At least Akane understood that . . .!
Opening the cellar -- Souun always kept the keys to this part of the house in his personal possession; not even Kasumi was allowed into this place -- he crawled inside, making his way to a dark corner. "There you are." He chuckled as he drew back an old blanket to reveal a certain cask that had arrived at the doojou some weeks back. "All safe and sound."
Souun guided the cask out of the cellar. Once the doors were secured again, he hefted it into his bedroom. Much that he did respect his friend, Souun knew Genma a little TOO well. The instant the existence of the cask of Nanniichuan was made public, Souun knew that Genma -- not to mention the Hibiki boy and that China boy -- would have made a grab for it. Well, lucky for him that he got hold of another cask filled with ordinary spring water to ensure that the true prize would remain under his control.
Placing the cask in his linen closet, Souun walked over to the small memorial to his late wife. Opening a shelf under the butsudan, he drew out a folded sheet of paper. Opening that, he scanned the note written there, nodding. Well, even if the Jusenkyou guide didn't speak Japanese very well, he could write legibly. And the instructions on that piece of paper were simple enough for Souun to understand. "It can only work for one," Souun whispered as he folded and slipped the sheer into the shelf. "Which one, though?"
* * *
The remainder of the day progressed quietly for Ataru, Ranma and the sisters. Much to Ranma's surprise, none of the sisters had made any open comment about the healed bullet wound on Ataru's right shoulder. She did note the looks of concern from Hinako and Kaho. And Ranma definitely heard a "Kusun!" from Aria when the young Parisian stared intently at Ataru one time. It went no farther than that. No doubt, the sisters believed that since Ataru didn't seem bothered by it, they shouldn't panic about it either.
Chikage had rejoined them all around mid-afternoon bearing an invitation from Ono Toofuu for Ranma to come by the clinic before the end of business hours. As to what the sorceress had been doing, no one had an idea. To Ranma's surprise, no one pressed her for details.
After a quick visit to the Tomobiki Pizza Emporium, the most popular eatery in town with Tampopo's having moved away, for some take-out -- yes, even Shirayuki liked the idea of taking a break from the kitchen -- the gang made their way into Nerima. Sitting beside Ataru as they watch the scenery, Ranma could only smile. Another day was coming to an end, one where she didn't have to deal with insane challenges, jealous fiancées -- save for that incident earlier with Akane at Fuurinkan High -- clueless rivals or anything else. Considering that, she shuddered as a tinge of disquiet touched her. She then sensed Ataru gazing at her. They looked at each other, and then she kissed his cheek. "I'm okay," she whispered, leaning against him as they held hands.
He smirked. "You were an adrenaline junkie when we met, Ranma. Something tells me you're starting to go through withdrawal."
Ranma considered that before she sighed. "It's necessary."
"Afraid you're going to make things worse?"
"Pretty much so," she admitted. "I mean, if I get challenged, I'll take the challenge. Got to keep myself in shape and all that . . . "
"Maybe you should consider only accepting the decent challenges, Anegimi-sama," Haruka, sitting across from them, noted.
"How would you define something like that, Haruka-chan?"
"Martial arts are a never-ending evolution." She sighed. "My stepfather told me that it was right for martial artists, especially those starting their own disciplines, to test themselves against compatible opponents. I've done that from time to time. I'm sure Negako-anegimisama did it too when she was wandering around the planet after being freed of Anigimi-sama's mind."
Rinrin started to laugh. "Like that one guy who came by wanting to try his so-called 'baka-ken' on you?" she then asked.
Haruka blanched. "Rinrin-chan, PLEASE! Don't remind me of him!"
"'Idiot fist?!'" Ataru and Ranma chorused.
"Hai." Haruka shook her head as she tried not to look nauseous. "Please, Anigimi-sama, Anegimi-sama, I beg you, don't ASK me what that insanity was all about! The sooner I forget that fool, the better!"
"He stands a fair chance of succeeding in his quest."
More laughter. Sakuya smirked. "The one I really liked was the fellow who wanted to base his form on using snack food as weapons!"
Ranma's eyebrow twitched. "Snack food?!"
"I don't remember you telling me about that one," Ataru noted.
Haruka's cheeks flamed as she drew her gunsen to fan herself despite it being quite cool this day. "Well, that particular challenge was difficult." She flustered. "I confess he was a talented opponent . . . "
"Oh?" Yotsuba smirked. "Yotsuba remembers Haruka-chan thought that guy was -- and Yotsuba is quoting here -- 'Very handsome!'"
Haruka's cheeks heated up more. "Yeah, he was a real hottie!" Sakuya quivered excitedly before she gazed apologetically on Ataru. "Not that any man would ever hold up a candle to someone like you, Onii-sama."
"Oh, of course!" Haruka quickly recovered, clearing her throat. "One simply cannot compare any man to our own Anigimi-sama."
The other sisters nodded. ATARU blushed. "Don't you just hate it when they butter you up like that?" Ranma whispered to him.
He chuckled. "Well . . . "
Laughter filled the road train as it entered Nerima. Within minutes, it came to a halt in front of Ono Toofuu's clinic. The chiropractor stepped out on hearing the road train's horn sound off. He then smiled on seeing the first person emerge. "Ranma, there you are!" He laughed as Ranma walked over to embrace him. "How are you?!" he then asked.
"Pretty okay, Doc!" Ranma pulled away, giving Toofuu a detailed look-over. "Sorry I didn't stick around too much last night."
"It's alright! Everyone, c'mon in." Toofuu waved them in, and then he noticed the pizza carried by Shirayuki. "Oh, Shirayuki . . . "
The chef smiled. "Hime wasn't in the mood to cook tonight, but Hime made sure that Toofuu-sensei wouldn't go without supper."
"I gladly accept such a gift from you with thanks." Toofuu bowed as he took the pizza from Shirayuki. He then blinked on feeling something tap his shoulder. "Eh?" He turned to see Betty standing behind him, dancing and gyrating. "Betty!" he then yelped in shock.
"Waaaaai! Chikage-chan's making Betty-chan dance!" Hinako cheered.
Hearing her name, Toofuu gulped as his glasses fogged over. Realizing the imminent danger to the pizza they had bought for him, Ranma snared the box from the chiropractor's twitching fingers before heading inside. "Betty, what are you doing dancing like that?!" Toofuu demanded. "This isn't a karaoke bar! I . . .! Betty!" he gasped as the skeleton took him by the hands and whirled him into the clinic to the pace of a very fast waltz.
Ataru gazed on Chikage. "Chikage, MUST you?!"
"As I've always said about Toofuu-kun, Ani-kun, he makes me laugh." The sorceress tittered delightedly as she headed inside.
Already there, Ranma shook her head as she watched Toofuu and Betty swing around the room. "Note to self: NEVER get Chikage angry at me," she muttered. She then blinked as a clawed finger tapped her shoulder. "Hey! How're you doing?!" She turned to see the panda that had freed the previous night thanks to her and the Fire Scythe of Death, he holding a broom.
"Other than the whopper of a nightmare I had this morning about what happened, not much," Ranma admitted as several of the sisters moved toward her. "So where're you staying right now? Here or with Hinako-sensei?"
"That's cool. Are they going to find some way to make you human?"
A chuckle. "Right, I forgot! Sorry about that!"
"Onii-sama, isn't this your father?!"
Ranma jolted, spinning around to see the sisters gazing quizzically at her and the panda. Realizing that, save for Chikage, none knew of Genma's ultimate fate, she sighed. "It's something of a REAL long story, Sakuya-chan."
* * *
"Oh, welcome back, Kasumi." Souun looked up from his newspaper as Kasumi slipped off her shoes. "How are things with Ono-sensei?"
Kasumi curtly nodded. "He's alright, Father. It's very late right now. Would you prefer to have some takeout sent in?"
Souun considered that, and then he nodded. "Yes, that sounds very nice. But PLEASE don't call the Nekohanten!"
"I wasn't in the mood for Chinese," Kasumi lamented. "There is a new restaurant in Kasuga-chou that we could get take out from."
"Kasuga-chou? That's some distance away."
"True, but the proprietor is willing to make deliveries anywhere in Nerima if she has to," Kasumi noted. "I'll call her now."
"You know her?" Souun asked as Kasumi headed to the phone.
"Hai. Her name's Kamekichi Tampopo. She just moved to Nerima after running an establishment in Tomobiki for a couple of years. Ranma-kun and Ataru-kun both know her. Her cooking's said to be excellent."
"I see," Souun's voice trilled into a knowing hum.
Kasumi stopped, sighing. "Father, you can't hope to keep pressing this whole matter with Ranma-kun forward."
"It will happen, Kasumi," he evenly declared.
"It can't possibly happen. It's too late," she warned with a shake of her head. She then sighed, moving to moderate. "Father, honouring your friend's memory is one thing. I know how much you care for Uncle and what he tried to do. And I know how important this is for you . . . "
"Then you understand why I have to do this." He lowered his newspaper. "Kasumi, it's not just because of what Saotome-kun and I agreed to do. It's the future of MANY people's dreams. The Master's, mine, Saotome-kun's, Nabiki's, Akane's . . .! And yes, Ranma-kun's. I know how much Ranma-kun's suffered because of what his father failed to teach him. I know that! But . . . " He looked at the table. "I . . . I know that I haven't been the best father, especially after your mother passed away. But I still want all of you to be happy, to have a good life to look forward to. Is that so wrong?"
"No, Father, it's not wrong at all." Kasumi shook her head again as she sat beside him. "Father, if you really want to have Ranma-kun come back, to actually see this place AS his home, you HAVE to give him some space now! That's all he really needs. He . . . " She paused. "Ranma-kun hasn't had any real chance to make sense out of his life ever since he came here with his father. He's been deluged by all the challenges, all the fiancées, all the stupid, weird things that've happened here . . . " She gazed knowingly at him. "And he hasn't received any real emotional support from ANY of us, Father. Not one bit. We've never even ONCE thanked him for the times he stood up for us, especially when we had to deal with the Chardins or that Doojou Destroyer, not to mention the times Akane was kidnapped by whomever came along! And ESPECIALLY when Akane was nearly killed by Saffron! Is it any wonder that he's so mad at all of us? That he's now willing to beat us back with everything he has to make us leave him be? He's TIRED, Father! Very tired!"
Souun gazed at her. "But he's survived to date . . . "
"Life is more than just survival, Father! Life needs to GROW, too! And Ranma-kun's never had a chance TO grow, not until he met Tampopo-san, then Ataru-kun, Negako-san and their sisters! Why do you think Ranma-kun's willing to stay with them? It's because they're ALLOWING him to be what he chooses to be! They're not pigeonholing him into a role like we did! WE FAILED HIM, Father!" She gazed into his eyes. "You, Nabiki, Akane and yes, myself too! If we're to bring Ranma-kun back here, we HAVE to acknowledge what we did wrong, then move to reconcile with him using the TRUTH! No more lies! No more assumptions! No more wild fantasies! Ranma-kun doesn't want that! He doesn't deserve it! And if we continue as we did before, we dishonour ourselves!"
Silence fell as Souun considered that. He then slowly nodded before gazing on the ceiling. "It is hard to accept, Kasumi-chan . . . "
"I know, Father." She squeezed his shoulder. "I think what we have to do is fulfill what Ranma-kun charged us to do last night."
He stared wide-eyed at her. "To create a martial artist of equal calibre to him? That could take YEARS, Kasumi-chan!" he protested.
"Unless we accept Ojii-san's and Negako-san's help. Look how fast Ataru-kun was able to learn his Art?! Granted, he had the advantage of having Negako-san actually be PART of him for six years, but he learned quickly when he gained the chance. Surely we could get Ojii-san to ask Negako-san to do the same for Akane-chan or Nabiki-chan. Or perhaps both of them at once . . . "
Souun's eyes narrowed. "Yes. But after this morning . . . "
"I know." Kasumi nodded. "That's why I really, REALLY hope you would just leave Ranma-kun be for the next while. It doesn't have to be forever, Father. He's too young to get married! And that's not to mention all the things he has to catch up on because he was gone from society for so long! Please, just leave him alone. I'm sure that in time, Ranma-kun'll want to come back. Is it really so much that I ask?"
He stared at her. "I . . . " He stopped as he considered what to say. "I'm afraid that if I do that, Kasumi-chan, we'll lose Ranma-kun forever!"
"If you DON'T do that, you'll drive him away," Kasumi insisted. "And he's now got many allies who would be willing to help him in an instant. And this time, I don't think our teaming with Ukyou, the Amazons and everyone here will help. Ranma-kun's gone out of his way to ensure everyone has gained some restitution. It's not like it was before the wedding, Father." A pause as she considered what to say next. "If we try to force Ranma-kun back here without understanding his point of view . . . " She stopped, looking at the table. "All his friends now could turn around and destroy us all, Father. And what's worse, Ranma-kun wouldn't lift a finger to stop that. I don't want that! Yes, I want to live my life, do things I've wanted to do but had to put on hold because of Mother's death. I don't want to see my family ripped apart because we refused to bend when it comes to Ranma-kun. Is that what you want?!"
"Of course not! But still . . . " He stopped, shuddering for a moment, and then he relaxed. "Alright. I'll back away. Perhaps if I can do something to make Akane-chan or Nabiki-chan more attractive to him . . . " He glanced her way. "Unless you want to . . .?"
Kasumi shook her head. "No, Father. Much that I do love Ranma-kun, I would prefer to have him as a brother-in-law, not a husband."
Souun considered that, and then he nodded understandingly. "Alright."
Kasumi moved to make a call to Kamekichi Tampopo's establishment. Hopefully after hearing that, Father'll leave enough alone for the time Ranma-chan needs to solidify things with Ataru-kun. She grimaced, remembering what Toofuu told her in his office earlier that day. Not to mention give all of us the chance to make Father see how wrong he's been . . .
As his daughter made contact with the proprietor of Nerima's newest eatery, Souun's eyes narrowed. Yes, he knew what to do.
* * *
To be continued . . .