Ranma 1/2 Fan Fiction / Urusei Yatsura Fan Fiction / Sister Princess Fan Fiction ❯ Lonely Souls ❯ The Sixth Part, A Side - Reality Checky! ( Chapter 12 )

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

"Is this true?!"
Nabiki gazed at Souun. It was sometime after dinner. Kasumi had gone to Tampopo's to return what dishes were left behind from the evening's take-out. Akane had gone to Tokoro Yuka's house to spend the night. To save time, she had taken all her belongings with her for classes the next morning. Sitting on the low table between them was the paper containing pertinent information on the Saotome family of Promised Island. Despite her understandable annoyance at her father's violation of her private space, the middle Tendou daughter kept her temper in check. Perhaps with THIS, she could finally talk Souun out of trying to press on with forcing a marriage between any of his daughters and his late friend's son-turned-daughter. "Yes, it is," she evenly replied.
"Do you know WHY Ranma-kun is doing this?!" Souun demanded.
"She has no choice now," Nabiki announced, waving to the paper. "This isn't just cosmetic, Dad. This is as real as it gets."
Silence fell as the Tendou patriarch considered that. He gazed intently at Nabiki. Despite his daughter's questionable reputation, Souun knew that when Nabiki did give out information of this nature, it was always the truth. "But how?" he wondered, crossing his arms. "Save for that one time when Ranma-kun suffered that head injury that made him think like a girl . . . "
"Two things," Nabiki cut in. "Jusenkyou and the Neko-ken."
"Explain!" he bid.
She did. It took twenty minutes. Souun remained impassive as Nabiki detailed everything she just learned from Negako concerning how Jusenkyou had come to affect Ranma. Finally, Nabiki shrugged. "So there it is, Dad. No matter how much you or your friend could've conceived of this happening, sooner or later, something would've come to upset it. It could've been Ranma's desire to finally deal with the Neko-ken. It could've been Ataru-kun coming along to find the person he was bonded to when he was a baby. It . . . "
She turned her hands in a "who knows" gesture. Souun gazed intently at her, and then he sighed. "I see. Does Akane know of this?"
"She was told the same time I was."
"And her reaction?"
"Verbal denial, which Negako-san didn't let her get away with. Deep down, I think she realizes this time, she isn't going to win," Nabiki mused. "That'll hurt her. As much as I personally don't want to see Akane-chan hurt, it's long since time she learned the world won't always bow to her wishes. We've coddled her for too long, Dad." Her eyes narrowed. "When we should've been forcing Akane-chan to see the mistakes she was making, we let it pass -- or, especially after she came into our lives, we dumped it all on Ranma, making everything out to always be her fault so we didn't have to deal directly with Akane-chan!" A pause. "That's part of the reason Ranma doesn't want anything to do with us anymore, Dad. She won't let us hide from the truth."
Souun quaked as her words pierced the barriers he had erected to blind him to his family's shortcomings. He jerkily nodded. "That's true, isn't it? And with what happened this morning between Ranma-kun and Akane . . . "
Nabiki gazed knowingly at him. "It's all over, Dad."
"Surely you must have some feelings for Ranma-kun."
She considered that. "Hai, I do. But for a long time, all I could bring myself to see of him was the chief source of pain, discord and disruption in our lives. I . . . " She paused, a guilty smile crossing her face. "I admit I did take joy in making his life more miserable since, at the time, it seemed to me he just didn't care for all the shit he was allowing to drop onto our heads." Nabiki closed her eyes. "Of course, that was before we all found out what Genma had done to stop Ranma from fully learning from all his mistakes, from trying to think of some other way than fighting to deal with whatever problem needed to be dealt with. Of course, by the time we learned that, Ranma was on the road to discovering the truth about HERself. Not to mention forging pretty strong bonds with a family that was welcoming her with open arms."
"If you had a chance to do it again -- and if Ranma-kun was not so affected by Jusenkyou, of course -- would you have pursued him?"
"Knowing what I know now? Sure I would." She nodded, not sensing the possible real meaning behind Souun's question. "I think I could've done a lot to make his life a lot easier, especially when it came to dealing with the other fiancées. Heaven knows, I sure knew enough to make his life even more miserable. But . . . " She shrugged. "No use in wishing for what might have been. Things didn't turn out that way, Dad."
"True, but one could still dream," he lamented before he stared intently at her. "Do you think Akane would feel the same way? Much less Kasumi?"
Nabiki considered that before she shook her head. "Kasumi-oneechan, no. She always looked on Ranma as a little brother . . . " She stopped for a second, and then she smirked. "Well, now 'little sister,' I guess. As for Akane . . .?" She gazed out the door of the sitting room. "It's like I said, Dad: We coddled her too much. Hell, we practically HANDED her the engagement. She didn't have to work for it at all. That probably helped create a lot of the problems between them. Deep down, Akane assumed Ranma was hers to do with as she damn hell pleased. And you have to admit this, Dad: You and Genma didn't do much to change her opinions about that. Neither did Nodoka."
Souun nodded. "Hai, that is true, admittedly."
"Yep. There, Ukyou and Shampoo both had an advantage and a disadvantage. They had to work to be Ranma's friend before they could hope to press their own claims. That forced them to give him some leeway, something Akane didn't feel she had to do. The results . . .?" She shrugged. "Akane learned that the hard way last Tuesday and this morning. Now that there's no official engagement hanging over them, Ranma doesn't feel she has to defer to Akane anymore. And with her able to see things a lot more clearly . . . "
Souun closed his eyes. "Yes, we did hurt Akane-chan's chances, didn't we?" he whispered, staring out the doorway. "But still . . . "
"I know, Dad." Nabiki rose, taking the notes with her. "But she'll be a better person because of this. Besides, she needs a break from the pressure, just like Ranma. We all do, even you. Anyhow, I'm going to bed. 'Night."
"Good night."
Souun remained in place as Nabiki headed upstairs. He then closed his eyes as a slow nod shook his head. Yes, he knew what to do.
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Lonely Souls
By Fred Herriot
pyeknu@hotmail.com OR fherriot@yahoo.com
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Based on Urusei Yatsura and Ranma 1/2, created by Takahashi Rumiko; and Sister Princess, created by Tenhiro Naoto and Kimino Sakurako.
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Set in the universe of the fan-fiction series Urusei Yatsura - The Senior Year, created by Mike Smith and Fred Herriot
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NOTE: The writer's notes are in a separate text file.
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Miree . . .
The ragged form in the torn, soiled robe drifted slowly downward in a universe of nothingness. Her body showed the ravages both of advanced age and forced starvation, her punishment for not accepting the "one truth faith" that, not a half-decade before, had spread across her home planet and her colonies like a firestorm. A faith whose rapid promulgation ultimately heralded its own collapse in the fiery, anger-fuelled apocalypse many on Phentax Two and other worlds across the local cluster called the "Cataclysm."
Miree . . .
Her deep turquoise eyes fluttered open as she felt herself "land" on something like a waterbed. Grunting as the relentless pull of gravity fully overcame her, she struggled to prop herself onto her elbows. Reaching up with one bony hand, she pulled back the hood to reveal a face pulled taunt against her skull, her fiery red-brown hair shot through with grey. Under normal circumstances, she wore oval-framed glasses; the last living chief priestess of the Church of Hollywood was allergic to most cures for astigmatism.
Such wouldn't be needed at this time, however.
"Hey, kid. Over here."
Miree's eyes went wide as she recognized that rough voice. Turning right, she saw a coffee shop from 1950s America hovering before her, that having just appeared out of nowhere. Seated around the counter were several people, all gazing warmly on the Niphentaxian. Recognizing them, Miree tried not to make a total fool of herself as she staggered to her feet and made her way to the counter. "Oh, dear!" a platinum-blonde woman in a sleeveless dress mused. "She looks like I did after the coroner got to me."
"Yeah, she does look like something the Krauts dragged in, eh?" the one who first spoke to Miree noted, and then he turned to the slicked young man behind the counter. "Here, kid, give her something to drink."
"No problem," the younger fellow replied with a nod, his voice flavoured with the tones of north Mississippi or southwest Tennessee. He then prepared a cup of coffee. Soon enough, it was before Miree. "Here you go, ma'am."
Miree gazed on the cup, and then on the man who just served her, the unreality of the moment sinking in. Watching her, the others tried not to smirk. Finally, a corpulent man in top hat and tails moved to stand behind the priestess. "Before you ask, my dear, no, you are not dead. Not yet." He placed a reassuring hand on her shoulder as the person seated beside Miree, a roguish man in jeans and jean jacket, vacated the spot. "Granted, you did give up all your life force through the Staff of Gihan to save your children's lives. But Those Powers above us . . . " He paused as an amused twinkle glistened in his eyes. "Gave us the chance to help you remain in the mortal world." Another pause. "Your life's task, my dear, is not yet done."
Miree gazed on him, and then she turned to the offered coffee cup. "I see . . . " she whispered, taking the cup in hand. With a nod of thanks to the man behind the counter, she drank. Instantly, new strength flooded her body as a strange glow covered her. That glow soon faded, revealing Miree as she would be in her early twenties, her clothing morphed into a button shirt, slacks and a grey blazer. Gazing on the changes, she put the cup down on the counter, and then looked at her hands. "How . . .?" she whispered.
"A little gift from all of us, kid, to our most passionate fan from your home planet," the first man to speak to Miree declared, casually adjusting the collar of his trench coat. "Unless you feel it IS your time . . . " he added.
Miree jolted as if someone zapped her with a taser. She shook her head. "No! No! No!" She waved her hand, a chuckle fluttering through her lips. "I . . .!" She paused, and then closed a hand over her heart. "Forgive me! This is so overwhelming! To . . . " She looked around. "Actually stand in the presence of Those who gave my life meaning since I was a small girl . . .!"
"Maybe you could appreciate our position," the man behind the counter explained as he moved to give Miree a refill. "Take me. There I was, in my bathroom at Graceland, dying from those pills . . . " He made an exploding motion with his hands. "Then I find myself reborn, merged with the union of the belief of so many on a planet we never even HEARD of . . . "
"Discovering new fans was always a delight for any of us." The blonde seated to Miree's left smiled. "But I have to confess -- and I believe I'm speaking for everyone here -- that the way your people do it . . .! Well . . . " A shrug. "It took us by surprise," she then admitted.
Miree considered that. "Lady, it has been our way for so long," she admitted. "From one Great Awakening to another . . . "
"We know," the man in the trench coat admitted. "That's become a problem, especially with what just happened to your 'successors.'"
The others in the cafe grimly nodded. Miree gazed on them, and then she noticed her coffee cup was full. "I don't understand . . . "
"Quite understandable, my dear." The stout man to her right sighed. "Please humour us for a bit, though, then we hope you can see things as we do. Three billion of your country-people, those who worshipped that young Urusian girl, are dead thanks to the Staff of Gihan. Now, you know how the Staff came to be programmed to do what it did. Add to that the fact that the person who accidentally triggered the Staff's 'doomsday' commands was the 'great evil' in the eyes of the Church of Lum. Given time and luck, what do you think would happen if your people -- especially those who can perceive the truth of relations between your rescuer and the 'image' the Lumites forced on him -- are allowed to interpret what happened without any potential outside influence?"
Miree blinked as his words echoed in her mind. She then looked up. "They could trigger another Great Awakening! This time with . . . "
"With Ataru Moroboshi as the central 'deity,'" the man in the trench coat finished. "And his half-sisters as the 'holy circle.'"
"Which, as you know, isn't what he wants," the blonde woman added.
Miree gazed on her, and then she drank her coffee. "Yes, that's true. He . . . " Her eyes then closed as the fiery images of that day in Lumukyou flashed through her mind. "Oh Spirits . . . that thing he became . . . "
The man in the trench coat nodded. "We know. Thing you don't know about that thing is that it's a modern representation of a divine force from another planet. A very dark divine force, kid . . . " he added with a raised finger.
Miree looked at him. "Which means?"
"It means, my dear, that if those on Phentax Two create a . . . well, a 'Church of Ataru' . . . " A chuckle escaped the man to her right before he sobered. "Well, it could lead to the destruction of EVERYONE on your planet."
Miree paled. "Everyone . . .?"
"Everyone," several around her echoed in emphasis.
The priestess took that in, and then she moved to finish her coffee. To her surprise, her hands didn't shake in response to the Revelation that has been dropped on her. Placing that on the counter, she asked, "What must I do?"
"The answer lies on the ship your daughters -- and soon yourself, my dear -- got their new bodies from," the man to Miree's right explained. "If your people had taken true advantage of what that ship could have given you the day you discovered it, none of the pain and misery that followed the day the Church of Lum replaced your own church and the other churches would have followed."
"Free the babies. Let them live with those who fathered them," the blonde added as she squeezed Miree's hand. "Doing that, your people won't just survive. They'll evolve. Isn't that what you've long hoped might happen?"
"How did . . .?"
Miree stopped herself. Yes, she, along with the more forward thinking of her brother and sister clerics, did try to initiate specific genetic research into breaking the Niphentaxians' long-bred habit of mimicking other races' social and cultural patterns. And ironically, it was that desire, the chief priestess soberly remembered, which the Lumites hung over her head when she was sentenced a year before to starve. No, not just the Lumites, Miree's eyes narrowed as her hands clenched into fists. The Guardians, the very people who turned a doomsday weapon like the Staff of Gihan into the perfect vehicle to express their mad desires, also had a share of the blame. Then again, it did make sense, didn't it? If her people DID evolve from their present state, became fully self-thinking AND self-creating, that which had ruled the natives of Phentax Two for so long would be no more. Yes, in that, the Guardians' prophecy WAS correct. If profound change did come, society on Phentax Two WOULD be destroyed. But from the ashes of that would arise a NEW Phentax Two.
If her people did NOT evolve, though . . .!
Miree gazed on her hosts. She then stood, heading to the "door" of this ghostly cafe. "Thank you," she said on stopping at the threshold, bowing before she gazed on the Spirits that made her faith real. "For everything."
The man in the trench coat winked. "Here's looking at you, kid."
** ** **
"Mother . . .?"
Miree moaned, feeling a solid body attached to her soul. Her eyes then fluttered. Bright light made her squint. Then, as her eyes quickly adjusted to the increased luminescence, she glanced about. "The factory . . .?"
Two girls, about fifteen, appeared in her vision. The one to Miree's left, Jonna, was a girl with purplish eyes and stringy blonde hair in a high ponytail. She reminded the priestess of her late husband Evis; Lumite inquisitors had killed him three years ago. The other, Orin, had her mother's fiery hair and eyes, though she allowed her hair to grow to her waist; Miree cut hers short. Staring at her beloved children, who were dressed in white turtleneck sweaters and jeans, Miree lightly smiled as she reached up to draw them into an embrace. Feeling their mother's touch, the girls boosted Miree into a sitting position, and then allowed her to draw them close.
"Mother . . . " they burbled as tears began to flow. Jonna then gazed into Miree's eyes. "We thought we lost you! What happened . . .?"
"A Revelation happened to me, precious one." Miree leaned up to gently kiss Jonna's forehead. "A Revelation unlike any other."
Orin quaked. "Mother?"
A reassuring kiss calmed her. "Enough, dearest life." Miree patted Orin's back, and then she guided the girls away from her so she could stand. A quick glance around revealed they were in one of the nearly uncountable bioroid gestation rooms aboard the Avalon factory ship. There were five gestation chambers here, two still containing the albino-skinned female-like bodies of non-templated bioroids. "We've a very important Crusade ahead of us." She gazed once more on her children. "One that, if it's successful, will rescue our race from eventual extinction. Where's the . . .?" Miree looked at Jonna, noting she had the Staff of Gihan. "Good! We'll need that most of all."
"Where are we going, Mother?" Orin asked.
Miree blinked as she considered possible options, and then she sighed. "To stay with Ataru Moroboshi and his family for the time being, Orin. We'll need his help, not to mention the Earth Angel's." A scowl turned her lips as she added, "And if the dai-Zkuhsbagh is, even after so many died back on the Homeworld, still bent on 'avenging' himself on the 'great evil,' we'll have to ensure Ataru's sisters remain free from harm."
Jonna and Orin nodded. "Mother, while we were waiting for your body to be gestated, the Staff told me something," the former warned.
The Staff's focusing crystal flared to life. Two bolts of energy lanced out to coalesce on the deck. They watched as the energy morphed into living flesh. The young women appearing there were clad in the dark blue seifuku of Tomobiki High School. Miree's eyes widened in shock, and then she walked around Orin to gaze intently on the newcomers. "Who . . .?"
"Two 'casualties' from last week's bombing of Tomobiki High," Jonna said. "Himiko Kawamura and Mikiko Serizawa. Somehow, the dai-Zkuhsbagh was able to capture their essences, then he created new bodies for them to inhabit."
Miree considered that before a hand reached out to touch the side of Himiko's face. She concentrated as non-corporeal gateways between her mind and that of the Terran-turned-Avalonian's opened, and then she drew her hand back. "They haven't even been properly woken," she said. "Where did you find them?"
"Gestation Unit 29," Jonna reported. "It appears the dai-Zkuhsbagh was trying to convert them into assassins, most likely to target either Ataru-sama or the Earth Angel Negako. Given the dai-Zkuhsbagh's problems . . . " A smirk crossed her face as she exchanged a knowing look with her sister. "I don't think he'll learn of their removal from the factory anytime soon."
"Most likely, he's trying to determine some way to resurrect his 'holy apostles' so he can maintain control over his creation," Miree mused, standing. "Have the Staff sweep their minds clean of anything the dai-Zkuhsbagh put in them, then we'll head to Earth. The Staff should be able to lock in on Ataru."
The sisters nodded as the Staff's focusing crystal flared.
* * *
"Visiting a hot spring?!"
"Why not?" Ataru shrugged as everyone relaxed in the living room of the old shrine. They were enjoying hot chocolate after coming back from a day of shopping and swimming. "Now that the whole matter with schooling's been dealt with, we've got a whole week to ourselves. Let's take advantage of it!"
The sisters considered his words before nodding. "Yay! Hot spring! Hot spring! Hot spring!" Hinako cheered, waving her hands.
The others laughed as Karen reached over to draw Hinako back onto her floor mat. "Why not?!" Rinrin asked with a smile. "It'll give the construction crews on the Island a chance to finish up with your room, Aniki!"
Ataru acked. "What are you doing with my room?!" he demanded.
The teen inventor winked. "Oh, just making it easier for you and Aneki to live together when we get back to the Island."
Ataru and Ranma exchanged wary looks before breathing out together. "Well, if she DOES insist!" the latter mused, and then she gazed heavenward. "Let's just hope this trip'll be a lot more quiet than the last one I was on."
Mamoru perked. "That's the one where you met Kimiko-chan, right?"
"Hai." Ranma then glanced worriedly at Ataru. "Where're we going, anyway? Not some backwater spring house, I hope . . . "
"Relax! I was thinking of the Hotel Kiraboshi in Onogawa." He waved her down. "It's not that far from where Uncle Komeru lives. We could stay there to the weekend, then go back to the Island and get ready for school."
Ranma considered that before she nodded. "I guess it's a plan, then!"
Karen looked around the room. "Speaking of Kimiko-chan, where is she? I haven't seen her since early this morning . . . "
And speak of the devil, the front door opened. "Tadaima!"
"Okaeri ne!" several of the sisters chimed back as Kimiko stepped in.
Ataru quickly noticed the giddy smile on the doll-turned-woman's face, not to mention the spring in her stride and the wildly altering ki patterns around her. "And what have you been up to this very fine day, Tendou-san?"
Instantly, Yotsuba stood before Kimiko, spyglass in hand as she gave her a look-over. "Oh, BIG checky today!" the would-be detective declared, and then she gazed on her sisters. "Yotsuba thinks Kimiko-chan has a boyfriend!"
"EH?!" the others gasped.
"Kimiko-chan, is this true?!" Sakuya instantly appeared at Kimiko's side, a knowing look crossing her face as she leaned over to gaze knowingly into the bioroid's large eyes. "Details, girl! Details!" she urged.
"I . . .!" Kimiko's cheeks flamed, and then she clapped her cheeks in embarrassment. "W-well, y-yes, I am interested in him . . .!"
"Eh?!" Yotsuba gasped. "Kimiko-chan DOES have a boyfriend!"
"Let's hope he's a well-mannered fellow!" Haruka drew her gunsen to fan herself. "One simply CAN'T tell these days about people!"
"What's his name, Kimiko?" Ranma prompted.
Silence fells as the others awaited the doll-turned-woman's answer. Kimiko took a deep breath. "Gosunkugi Hikaru."
Ranma's jaw hit the floor. "GOSUNKUGI?!"
"You know this person, Aneue-sama?" Marie asked.
"Yeah, I do!" Ranma pinched the bridge of her nose to fight back a surge of nausea. "He's a creepy guy in my old class who's had this crush on Akane for a long time! He's into voodoo magic, too! I think Chikage-chan might like this guy. But . . . " She smirked. "Geez, who'd figure something like that?! Gosunkugi of all people actually winning the heart of a replica of Akane!"
"Hikaru-kun is a nice man," Kimiko explained. "I know he doesn't like you, Ranma-sama, though he is grateful that you helped me acquire this form." She indicated herself. "Atop that, he isn't a strong person, not physically. And there's this boor named Kunou that Hikaru-kun knows, who . . . " She stopped on hearing Ranma groan. "Ranma-sama, is there something wrong?!"
Ranma slapped her forehead. "Oh, damn! I totally forgot about Kunou!"
"That's the dork who couldn't accept your curse, right?" Mamoru asked.
"The same." Ranma gazed sympathetically at Kimiko. "You better be REALLY careful when it comes to dealing with the ol' Blue Blunder, Kimiko-chan. Instant he learns you're a different person than Akane, he'll think you'll be a hell of a lot easier to 'win over' and he'll be on your tail as much as he was on mine when I was going to that place!"
Kimiko paled. "But what if he attacks Hikaru-kun, Ranma-sama?! I have to defend him! He isn't able to defend himself . . .!"
"There is a way around him."
Eyes locked on Ataru. "What sort of way, Nii-sama?" Shirayuki asked.
Ataru winked at Kimiko. "Just twist his words around to make the real meaning of his so-called 'challenge' so fuddled, he won't be able to talk his way back to the point where he'll feel confident enough to challenge either Kimiko-chan or Gosunkugi head-on. Make him look like a total fool in public and he'll never be able to live it down. Do this right and you could have him run around in circles for the whole school year. By the time Gosunkugi moves into the third year, Kunou'll be on his way to college . . . "
"If he doesn't flunk his entrance exam, of course," Rinrin warned.
"Hai, true! True!" Ataru nodded. "Besides, he'll still have Akane to chase around with once school starts tomorrow."
Ranma snorted. "That's true."
* * *
"Oh, man . . . where'm I . . .?"
"Mother, she's awake!"
Crystal blue eyes fluttered, and then they widened suddenly on seeing a very unfamiliar ceiling far higher -- in her point of view -- than what should be 'normal.' "Where . . .?" she muttered, a hand reaching for her forehead.
She jolted as a younger girl with pony-tailed blonde hair and dark eyes loomed in her line of sight. "Konban wa, Kawamura-san," she greeted her in accented Japanese, a warm smile crossing her face. "How do you feel?"
"I . . .!" Himiko blinked, and then her eyes focused on one arresting detail her questioner possessed: Her ears. "You're an alien!"
The younger girl looked nonplussed. "Well, to me, YOU'RE the alien, Kawamura-san. How do you feel?" she asked again.
Himiko sat up, her hand rubbing the back of her skull. "Headache . . . " she muttered. "What happened? Where the hell am . . .?" She looked around, her voice trailing as her eyes took in the details. "I?" she squeaked.
"You're aboard the Avalon bioroid factory-ship, Kawamura-san." A more mature woman's voice made Himiko spin around to see a woman in her mid-twenties walk up. Like the one who had first talked to the swimmer, this woman had tapered ears, they barely visible under a head of ragged, short red-brown hair. Much to Himiko's surprise, she had reading glasses over her blue-green eyes.
"What's that?" Himiko asked, noting there was another girl standing close to the person who just identified her location, one who definitely appeared to be either a younger sister or daughter of the speaker.
"A craft created to literally create another race out of nothingness," the older woman explained as she knelt beside the swimmer. "It's a long story, but I assure you, you'll get a chance to better understand your situation soon enough. In the meantime, let's see to your friend . . . "
"Eh?!" Himiko spun around before she gasped, "Mikiko-chan!"
The prone form laying next to Himiko jolted as a hand snapped up to cover her ears -- not that a near-ocean of green-tinged dark hair didn't do enough to cover Serizawa Mikiko's ears. "Ouch!" she gasped, squeezing her dark blue eyes shut. "Do you have to shout so much, Himiko?!" she demanded, her body quaking for a moment, and then her eyes opened as she looked around. "What the . . .?"
The red-haired younger alien knelt beside Mikiko, placing a reassuring hand on her shoulder. "Are you alright, Serizawa-san?"
Mikiko paused, gazing intently at the alien for a moment, and then she slowly nodded. "H-hai." She sat up as the alien let her go, and then she looked at Himiko. "What's going on, Himiko-chan?! Where are we?! Last thing I remember was that quake hitting the school . . .!"
"'S funny! That's the last thing I remember, too," Himiko muttered, reaching up to rub her shaggy, neck-length, sky-blue hair. She then looked at the three alien women with them. "Hey, who are you, anyway?!"
The eldest alien chuckled. "Forgive me. We should've introduced ourselves." She placed a hand over her heart. "My name is Miree ot'ndai-Bohgar. I hail from Phentax Two, in the constellation you know of as Cancer, about fifty light-years from Earth. These are my daughters, Jonna dai-Bohgar . . . " She indicated the blonde girl, and then the younger redhead. "And Orin dai-Bohgar. We're very pleased to meet you."
Jonna grinned. "Promoting yourself a little too early, Mother?"
Miree glared her down. "Daughter!"
Orin laughed. "Never heard of your planet," Himiko admitted as she stood up, and then she helped Mikiko to her feet. "So how the heck did we get aboard this -- factory-ship, you called it? -- anyway?!" she then asked.
Miree sighed. "In effect, Kawamura-san, you and Serizawa-san died to get up here." Ignoring their widening eyes and paling faces as her words sank in, the Hollywoodite chief priestess added, "That was no earthquake you experienced in Tomobiki High School. That was a terrorist bomb detonated by a fanatic from your planet's Islamic sect in hopes of killing all those who supported Lum."
"A terrorist . . .?" Mikiko gasped.
"W-we d-DIED . . .?!" Himiko stammered.
"Physically, yes, you died." Miree reached out to hold their hands in reassurance. "Fortunately, this ship was able to snare your spirits before they slipped from this life into the next life. Then, when the chance came, new bodies were constructed for you to inhabit."
The Tomobiki High sophomores took her words in before Mikiko raised her hand to give it a close inspection. On noting no physical difference between what she had and what she was used to, she turned back to Miree. "These bodies were cloned from us, right?" she asked, her voice hushed.
"The same idea." Miree nodded, indicating herself and her children. "We, like you, experienced something similar not so long ago. Be assured, before I got this body, I hadn't looked this good in a VERY long time."
She pointed to her face. "It d-doesn't bug y-you?" Himiko stammered.
Sensing a tidal wave of paranoia about to swamp the swimmer, Miree gazed on her, reaching down to hold Himiko's hands. "I'm alive, Kawamura-san. Regardless of what else happened, I'm still alive. That counts for much, ne?"
Himiko gazed into the priestess' eyes, and then she shakily nodded, her own eyes tearing. Immediately, Miree's arms wrapped around her, whispered words of reassurance echoing in the swimmer's ears. Himiko began to sob, her arms clinging desperately to Miree as the full weight of what just happened to her -- not to mention the ugly realization of what MIGHT have ultimately happened to her! -- sank in. Standing beside her, Mikiko hugged herself, her eyes misting. Hands fell on her shoulders. She turned to see Jonna and Orin gazing her. Mikiko tried to smile. "I'm okay . . . "
It didn't work. As Mikiko's own sobs quaked her body, Miree flashed a knowing look to Jonna. The latter nodded, using her free hand to hold the Staff of Gihan over their heads. In a flash of light, they were gone.
* * *
"So you want to stay here to stay close to Gosunkugi, right?"
"Hai." Kimiko nodded as she lays out her bedroll. The doll-turned-woman was making use of the second spare bedroom in the Moroboshi home. "I don't think that I'll be able to go into school, not without spending a lot of time catching up on things you take so much for granted. Besides, if things between Hikaru-kun and I work out in the long term . . . "
"Well, if you don't mind becoming like Kasumi, all the world to you." Ranma smirked as she drew out some blankets. "But you should try to keep your options open, Kimiko-chan. Study when you get the chance to. There're loads of catch-up courses you can take if you want," she noted, spreading the blankets over the futon. "And if the chance comes, you can take a high school equivalency exam, then get yourself into university as an adult student and go on from there. Don't let things overwhelm you, Kimiko-chan."
"I'll try not to." Kimiko smiled, and then her face blanked out for a second as her eyes turned towards the front door. "Eh . . .?"
"What?" Ranma perked. She then tensed on sensing a massive surge of ki warp past her from the direction of the front lawn. "What's that . . .?!"
She turned to race out of the room to see what was going on. In the living room, the sisters were preparing for bed. Michael was at the main doorway, whining impatiently as he pawed the door. "Michael, is there something wrong . . .?" Marie wondered, and then she gasped as Ataru stepped around her, heading to the door. "Aniue-sama!" she gasped.
Ataru shushed her with a finger. Nudging Marie's dog aside, he opened the door to look outside. One look was enough to send his jaw to the patio deck. "Jonna?! Orin?!" he cried out in shock. "What the hell are . . .?!"
"Ataru-sama!" A pair of very excited girls' voices heralded two typhoons of alien teenager slamming into him like a phalanx of NFL linebackers moving after the ball was snapped, the impact sending him falling flat onto his back.
The sisters cried out in shock on seeing Jonna and Orin just as Ranma stormed in. "Hey, Ataru, there's . . . HUH?!" She stopped on seeing him being hugged by a pair of girls Karen's age, their pointed ears speaking volumes.
"Onii-chan! Who are these girls?!" Karen demanded.
"Cut it out! I need to breathe!" Ataru groaned as Jonna and Orin seemed to turn on the glomp. "Cut it out, for heaven's sake!"
"Girls, let him up!" another woman's voice echoed from outside.
Eyes turned to the doorway, where an older woman with glasses was presently standing, she framed by two teenagers dressed in dark blue seifuku. Seeing them, Sakuya paled in shocked horror. "Hey! Those're . . .?!" She shakily pointed at Kawamura Himiko and Serizawa Mikiko.
"Two people who should be dead, but are not," Chikage cut in as she walked past Sakuya. Then, on noticing Ataru trying to force Jonna and Orin away from him, she sighed. Reaching down, the sorceress firmly tapped the alien teens' foreheads. The effects were instantaneous; Jonna and Orin dropped into unconscious heaps to either side of Ataru. "Are you alright, Ani-kun?"
Ataru staggered to his feet before peering intently at the eldest of the newcomers at the doorway. "Miree . . .?" He blinked in stunned disbelief. "But how did you . . .?" He stopped himself, and then he sighed. "The Staff?"
"Hai." The Hollywoodite chief priestess nodded as she gently guided Himiko and Mikiko inside the old shrine. "As for your former schoolmates here, you can thank the dai-Zkuhsbagh and the bioroid factory for restoring them."
Silence fell as Ataru considered what Miree just said. His eyes then widened. "The factory's HERE?! In orbit over Earth?!"
"Yes." Miree gravely nodded. "And yes, the dai-Zkuhsbagh survived what happened in Lumukyou. Barely. That still hasn't . . . "
She shrugged. Ataru blinked, and then his head drooped. "Oh, terrific."
* * *
"Your people worshipped Lum as a GOD?!"
Everyone sat in a circle in the living room. Hinako and Aria were presently asleep in Jonna and Orin's laps respectively. Himiko and Mikiko sat to either side of Miree. Ranma remained close to Ataru, Kimiko seated beside Negako. "Not exactly, Sakuya-san," Miree replied. "About ninety percent of my race, on both the Homeworld and all our colonies, accepted the 'Church of Lum' to one extent or another. Of that, seventy percent were hard-core members, those who followed the dai-Zkuhsbagh's line of thinking."
"And that line of thinking says that Anii's supposedly some sort of devil 'cause he didn't kowtow to Lum like everyone else in Tomobiki did, right?" Mamoru asked, she sparing the odd glance toward her big brother.
"Exactly. The first seeds of the Church of Lum were laid a decade ago when Lum rescued Oogi dai-Zkuhsbagh, the son of a trading magnate, from the horrors of Uru's Terrible Swamps. By the time he returned to the Homeworld, the tenets of the Church he envisioned were set. Once that happened, it was just a matter of time before he convinced enough people to launch a Great Awakening. Over the next five years, the Church expanded its influence to where it became the First Church of the Homeworld. And then . . . "
"Then?" Karen prompted.
"Then is when the leaders of the Church of Lum decided to drive matters to the point where their creation would become the 'One True Faith.'" Miree sighed. "Those of other faiths who were willing to convert, did. Those who didn't, such as myself . . . " Her voice trailed off.
Mamoru winced. "Geez!"
Kaho looked nauseous. "That's horrible!"
"That's not the end of it, Kaho-chan," Ataru warned.
Miree grimly nodded. "Indeed, Ataru is correct. Things went from bad to worse in the weeks after the First Tag Race, ladies. As I'm sure you're all aware, as soon as Lum took up residence in Tomobiki, many of the people living there became quite infatuated with her. The leaders of the Church of Lum took that as a sign that the 'perfect faith' had been found. Thus they began a massive evangelizing program designed to win over as many converts as possible. I tried to stop them, but . . . " She closed her eyes. "I was arrested for my 'heresy.' And my daughters and I would have suffered for it hadn't your brother come to save us sometime ago on Phentax Two."
She gazed thankfully on Ataru. Ataru had the courtesy to look sheepish. "Is this what you didn't want to tell us, Anigimi-sama?" Haruka gently asked.
"It's part of it," he admitted.
"You desired to kill Oogi to ensure the Niphentaxians couldn't come to the Urusians' aid in their war against the Noukiites."
Eyes locked on Chikage, and then they turned back to Ataru. "Anii . . . " Mamoru's jaw dropped in disbelief. "Wh-why . . .?"
Ataru blinked. "There was no choice, Mamoru-chan. It . . . " He bit his lip, and then he breathed out as he stared on his sisters. "Look at it this way. You know how bad some people can be when it comes to warping truth around to fit their own worldview. Ranma's 'friend' Kunou is like that. Well . . . " He shrugged. "Oogi is millions of times worse, Mamoru-chan. Even more, he was, at the time, the PRESIDENT of Phentax Two atop being the senior leader of his faith. There was no one, NO ONE around to force him into seeing the truth about what he was doing, especially to his own people. And no one in the Galactic Federation wanted to do anything to stop him. And . . . "
He squeezed his eyes shut. "Onii-chan . . .?" Karen whispered.
"I didn't want him to hurt you girls."
"Does this creep know about us?" Yotsuba wondered.
He shook his head. "Can't say."
Marie shuddered. "He really wouldn't . . .!"
"He WOULD, Marie-san," Miree cut in. "Ataru is right about the dai-Zkuhsbagh's level of fanaticism. It is beyond any hope of redemption. While most in Tomobiki would, I suspect, give you girls leeway even if they knew of your relationship to Ataru, the dai-Zkuhsbagh wouldn't. To him, you would automatically become . . . " She paused as she considered possible names the Lumite leader would use. "The 'Great Evil's Wicked Sisters' or something like that. Condemned from the start with no hope of redemption."
The sisters save Chikage paled. "But this Oogi fellow doesn't know us . . . " Shirayuki's eyes glistened with frightened tears.
"It doesn't matter." Miree shook her head. "That you are Ataru's blood-relations is more than enough in the dai-Zkuhsbagh's eyes."
Silence fell. The chief priestess was quick to sense the growing fear in many of the sisters concerning what lurked literally over their very heads.
"Kaho isn't evil . . . "
Sniffles escaped the cheerleader as she shuffled over to sink in Ataru's embrace. He shushed her, gently kneading Kaho's hair as she wept. "What can we do now?" Karen asked as she looked around the room.
"The answer is quite elementary, Karen."
Eyes turned to Negako. An icy smile cut across the ninjutsu grandmaster's face. "What's that, Onee-sama?" Sakuya demanded.
"Destroy Oogi, Sakuya. Finish what Ataru started on Phentax Two."
Ranma gazed on the grandmaster. "Can we do it now?"
Negako hummed as her eyes turned heavenward, her ki senses reaching into space to touch the cloaked factory. A minute later, she relaxed. "Onee-chan . . .?" Karen asked, she gazing concernedly at the ninjutsu grandmaster.
"No, Ranma, not now," Negako reported. "But very soon. Further, we cannot do a direct force-on-force attack against Oogi."
"What CAN we do?" Yotsuba demanded.
"Go on vacation."
Everyone jolted. "Onee-sama, this isn't the least bit funny!" Sakuya snapped, surprised by the supposed flippancy of Negako's reply.
"I do not derive any enjoyment from this, Sakuya." Negako gazed on her. "However, there are many factors which require to be taken into consideration before a plan to deal with Oogi can be drafted, much less implemented. I will remain in Nerima analysing this matter while you are off to Onogawa. Given the problems that beset your initial coming together with Ataru on the Island, you need a chance to truly grow together as a family. Doing that will serve to forge another wall against Oogi. Other precautions will be taken. I believe Miree and her children will be of benefit towards that end. In the meantime, it is best you all get as much sleep as you can. You clearly need it now."
She rose, heading to her bedroom.
* * *
"There you go. All asleep . . . "
It was shortly after midnight. Souun nodded as he emotionlessly stared on Nabiki, she draped in a towel. Kasumi had come back from Tampopo's an hour ago, heading right to bed. Souun did nothing to stop her save remain in the sitting room, enjoying late night tea and reading a newspaper. Once he felt it was safe enough to initiate his plan, he made his way into his oldest child's room and, with a quick shiatsu strike, ensured Kasumi wouldn't interfere with what he planned for his other daughter . . .
Soon to be his son.
Having ensured Nabiki could not resist, Souun scooped her into his arms to carry her into the bathroom. The furo was filling with water, it well below the temperature Genma or Ranma needed to reverse their curses. With the shiatsu point he just used on Nabiki -- Kasumi would be quite stunned to learn that she wasn't the only person who read the many books which had wound their way to the Tendou home from Ono Toofuu's clinic -- Souun knew his soon-to-be "son" wouldn't wake up when her skin touched cold water. He lowered her into the furo, allowing the water to soak her. Positioning her arms to ensure she wouldn't slump in and drown, Souun scampered out of the room. A minute later, he returned, a familiar cask in hand. Setting that on the floor beside the furo, he wiped his forehead, and then waited until the water got to the level of Nabiki's breasts before he uncorked the cask to empty it into the furo.
The change was instantaneous.
Souun's eyes widened as the sensual curves of Nabiki's body morphed into the sharper, stronger lines of a lean yet well-muscled man in his late teens. Her/his hair darkened to raven black, it becoming shaggier. A gentle moan escaped him, his head drooping back to lean against the edge of the furo. Souun moved to keep him in place, and then he relaxed on seeing that his transformed child was much taller, about Kunou Tatewaki's height. Well, that would be all right, the Tendou patriarch smirked. Not only would his son be able to force Ranma back where she truthfully belonged, he could also step in and finally deal with that insane rich blowhard and his family.
All he had to do at this time was to wait ten minutes.
* * *
Ataru looked over his shoulder, smiling. "Are they asleep?"
"Hai." Jonna nodded as she and Orin stepped into Ataru's bedroom. Ranma was currently in the furo enjoying a late night soak. "Ataru-sama, we . . . " The elder of the Niphentaxian/Avalonian sisters blushed, bowing her head.
"We're sorry that we embarrassed you in front of your sisters and your friends," Orin completed, her cheeks flaming. "But you did . . . "
Ataru then grinned. "Oh, c'mere!" He held out his hands.
The sisters slid into his embrace. "We owe you our very lives, Ataru-sama," Jonna whispered as she kissed his cheek. "Without you, we . . . " She then stiffened as she tried to force the words out. "We might've . . . "
"I know." He nodded, kissing Jonna's forehead, and then Orin's. "It's alright. I understand. I'm glad you're alright now."
They remained as they were. The bedroom door then opened, revealing Ranma draped in a towel, drying her hair. She stopped on seeing the younger women tightly clutching Ataru. Ranma shuddered as a surge of jealousy thundered up her spine, and then a grin crossed her face. "Hey, girls, I hope you realize that's MY boyfriend you're hogging now," she then coyly warned.
Ataru blinked, gazing at her in bewilderment. "Ranma . . .?"
They looked at her, and then approached Ranma. Before she could understand what was happening, they swamped her with embraces. "Ranma-sama, you're so LUCKY!" Jonna yipped. "Winning Ataru-sama's love all by yourself!"
"You're the luckiest girl in the whole universe, Ranma-sama!" Orin added. "Oh, I'd give anything to be in your shoes right now!"
Ranma's cheeks flamed. Ataru laughed. "Somehow, I think you really DON'T want to be in Ranma's shoes." He scratched his head before turning to them. "In the meantime, I've got a favour I have to ask," he declared.
"What sort of favour, Ataru-sama?" Jonna wondered as she and Orin pulled away from Ranma, allowing her to finish drying herself.
"It concerns Hinako-chan and Aria-chan." Ataru sighed. "I was hoping if both of you would stay close to them for the next while."
Orin nodded. "Of course we could, Ataru-sama! But why . . .?"
"Let's just say that despite their being my sisters, I haven't been much of a big brother to them. Hell, to ANY of them to be honest," he said. "And with you girls here and Oogi right now hanging over all our heads, the full story behind what went down in Lumukyou is going to come out soon. I don't think Hinako and Aria're going to be able to deal with that. Understand?"
Jonna and Orin exchanged a look. "We understand, Ataru-sama," the former affirmed, a shrug rolling her shoulders. "Besides, it'll be nice to deal with children without having to hear them calling you 'heretics' or 'infidels.'"
Ranma rubbed her hair with the towel. "What does that mean?"
"When we were incarcerated, we were allowed to baby-sit children of other prisoners, Ranma-sama," Orin explained. "Of course, we didn't bother to attempt to convert them or do anything that would've brought even more trouble onto us. Even with that, though . . . "
She looked down. Jonna sadly nodded. "They even put babies in jail?!" Ranma wondered, she staring at Ataru in shocked disbelief.
"They did," he replied, closing his eyes. "When I was there, I found several kids in cryo-suspension tubes. I was able to see them reunited with their parents; those . . . " His eyes closed. "Who survived what their jailers put them through. Don't ask me why it happened . . . "
Jonna grimaced. "Most likely, their parents had angered their jailors to the point where those bastards decided to punish them by hurting their children. That's the way those monsters were like, Ranma-sama."
"Shit!" Ranma hissed.
"Agreed." Ataru nodded, turning back to Jonna and Orin. "So can I count on you two to remain close to Hinako-chan and Aria-chan?"
Jonna grimaced. "Of course. Excuse us, please."
She and Orin departed. Ranma watched them go. She then blinked as Ataru gazed her way, a grin crossing his face. "So what's this about me being your boyfriend, Ranma-chan?" he asked, sliding over to gaze into her eyes.
Ranma paled, and then she stopped, confusion crossing her face for a moment before a light smile curled her lips. "What do YOU think, Ataru-kun?" she replied, wrapping her arms around his neck as she drew him close.
* * *
"Let me see if I get this straight." Himiko held up a finger. "Ranma-san was born a boy, but because he fell into this magic spring in China, he's now a girl here . . . " She pointed to her heart, and then her head. "And here. And because somebody bonded Ranma-san to your brother when they were kids, there was no way Lum could've won Ataru-kun's heart in the long term?"
Sakuya nodded. "That's the way it is." The two survivors of the attack on Tomobiki High were relaxing with several of Ataru's older sisters and Inu Chigaiko in the living room. "And it's a good thing, too," the eldest of the sisters added before sipping her tea. "Given the way that girl abused and assumed so much about Onii-sama, I don't think any marriage could've worked out between them in the long term. Not without a LOT of help!"
Mikiko giggled. "You're lucky Megane's dead, Sakuya-san. If he heard you say that, he wouldn't have let you hear the end of it."
"Amen to that!" Chigaiko ruefully shook her head before she gazed at her teacup, a scowl twisting her lips. "Pity Mendou survived. If he'd have been pushed out of the way, Ataru-kun would have no more worries."
Himiko and Mikiko gaped as they stared at her. Hearing something like THAT concerning the rich scion of the Mendou fortune, especially from a girl who had been in Mendou's very own CLASS, was utterly unheard of in Tomobiki! "Chigaiko-san, you can't wish that about Mendou-san!" Mikiko gasped.
Chigaiko gave her former schoolmate a baleful look that made Mikiko wilt. "I'm not like some of the people at that place when it comes to that snob," she replied before drinking the rest of her tea. "I knew what the jerk was like from day one." She rose, turning to head to her bedroom. "There's nothing you can do to make me change my mind on that subject. 'Night, everyone."
"Good night, Chigaiko-san," Haruka replied as she headed off.
"Boy, Chigaiko-san really doesn't like that guy, ne?" Yotsuba mused as soon as Chigaiko had stepped into her bedroom.
"You blame her, Yotsuba-chan?" Karen wondered. "After all, Onii-chan was the only one in the whole school who remembered Chigaiko-san's name."
The would-be detective nodded. "Checky!"
"I guess that'd be hard," Himiko agreed before a sly smile crossed her face. "Still, when it comes to Mendou-san, one can dream."
Mikiko grinned. "Hai!"
"About what?" Haruka asked, one of her eyebrows arching. "Yes, he is handsome and all that, but he takes gross advantage of his many assets to string along every girl who has the ill-fortune to cross his path. And his own overblown pride does not allow him to accept things when a girl actually REJECTS him, as Lum-san and Chigaiko-san have done. Knowing that, is it any wonder that Mendou would find himself at odds with Anigimi-sama?"
"Well, it won't matter after this coming weekend," Sakuya mused.
"Why do you say that, Sakuya-chan?" Karen asked.
"Oh, Reigi-kun told me this when we were at the Tower swimming." The eldest of the sisters smiled, winking conspiratorially. "Mendou's parents and the Mizunokoojis have decided that the time's finally come for the fellow to fulfill his obligation to his family. In other words . . . " She sipped her tea. "He and Mizunokooji Asuka are going to tie the knot come Saturday."
"WHAT?!" Himiko and Mikiko shrieked together.
Sakuya nodded, a devilish smirk crossing her face. "Hai. And, to ensure that there can be no interference, Mendou'll be withdrawn from Tomobiki High tomorrow. The actual announcement of the coming nuptials won't be made until late Saturday morning. Even more, it'll be a private ceremony."
Yotsuba rolled her eyes, a sly giggle escaping her. "Oooh, the girls at Tomobiki High are NOT gonna check that!"
"B-b-but . . .!" Mikiko stuttered.
"Mikiko-san, there's nothing you, much less anyone else from Tomobiki, can do to stop it from happening," Haruka warned. "This is a matter of giri. If Mendou refuses, he dishonours himself for life."
"But marrying ASUKA?!" Mikiko demanded. "She's androphobic, Haruka-san! There's no way that sort of marriage'll last, you know!"
"Oh?" Karen said. "From what Onii-chan told us, Asuka-san is actually quite comfortable being in Mendou-san's company."
Sakuya giggled. "It was one of the things Onii-sama couldn't stand. The girls he chased actually being cared for by other guys!"
"Much less those very same girls caring for other men in return." Haruka politely covered her mouth as an amused chuckle shook her. "At least with us, Anigimi-sama will have a moral excuse since we are his kin. Ne, Sakuya-chan?"
Sakuya nodded. "True, true."
Himiko and Mikiko blinked. "You know about the crap Ataru-kun pulled when he was in Tomobiki and you ACCEPT that?" the former asked.
"Well, no, we wouldn't like it if Onii-chan started acting like that again," Karen mused, a shrug rolling her shoulder. "But it doesn't mean we don't love Onii-chan. We do love him. He's our brother."
"We're not gonna fall into the trap most folks in Tomobiki do and check everything from one viewpoint," Yotsuba added as she held up her spyglass. "After all, according to Yotsuba's investigations, Ani-chama wasn't the least bit responsible for well over HALF of all the weird occurrences that hit Tomobiki from the day he became 'engaged' to Lum to the day Lum left."
The Tomobiki High sophomores blinked, their eyes widening in shocked disbelief. "That can't be true," Mikiko blurted out.
"Yotsuba checked it out with Negako-anechama. It's all checky!"
"Besides, when Anigimi-sama finally departed Tomobiki, he was stating he wasn't going to be forced into the position where people would blame him for everything under the sun," Haruka added. "And since he has turned away from allowing such behaviour to dominate his life, he deserves a chance." She drew her gunsen and fanned herself. "I'm sure, ladies, you'll both agree that he wouldn't get such in Tomobiki. Ne?"
Himiko and Mikiko exchanged a look, and then they sighed. "True."
"Well, it doesn't really matter now," Karen mused. "It's all in the past and we're together with Onii-chan. That matters more."
Sakuya nodded. "True, true."
"You seem to have accepted him pretty easily," Mikiko mused.
Karen shrugged, a content smile on her face. "Why not? We may not have our mothers and stepfathers, but we have each other and Onii-chan and Negako-oneechan. We're a family. Yes, we all have our problems, but if we don't allow those problems to overcome us, we'll be fine."
"And there's no way in hell that we'll allow anyone to try to break us apart," Sakuya added. "We like things the way they are now and there's no way that we're going to allow it to change without our consent. And if people in Tomobiki or Nerima or this Oogi creep have got a problem with that because they don't like Onii-sama or Ranma-oneesama, that's just too damn bad."
Himiko nodded, her gaze turning inward for a moment. "I guess you guys are pretty lucky. I mean, to the rest of the world, I'm dead. What happens to me -- to us . . .?!" She indicated Mikiko, sighing. "What happens to us now?"
"That is a concern," Haruka agreed with a nod. "We should make an effort to contact your parents and tell them the news."
"Are they going to accept that, Haruka-chan?" Marie wondered. "After all, they had bodies to bury. They've gone through the funerals and the memorial ceremonies. How could Himiko-san's and Mikiko-san's parents ultimately accept them back as their children after THAT?!"
"If they can't, all we have to do is adopt them into our family and let them keep their current names," Rinrin proposed.
"They should still be told, Rinrin-chan," Shirayuki lamented. "Himiko-san and Mikiko-san deserve to have their families back."
Haruka nodded. "Agreed."
"We'll worry about that in the morning." Sakuya checked her watch. "It's getting pretty late. We need to get some sleep."
"True," Marie agreed with a yawn as people moved to head to bed.
* * *
The man on the bed moaned, eyes fluttering as a hand jostled him. "Wh-where . . .?" he grunted, looking left to see Souun gazing concernedly at him. "D-dad . . .?" He slid into a sitting position, glancing around the bedroom. "What's going on here . . .?" he muttered.
"Indeed, Souun, what IS going on here?"
Both screamed as Souun spun around, his face paling on seeing Negako standing cross-armed by the window. A narrow-eyed Happoosai was perched on the grandmaster's shoulder. "So you subbed that Nanniichuan casket meant for Ranma-chan with some ordinary spring water, eh?" The grandmaster of Musabetsu Kakutou-ryuu sneered. "Souun, I actually thought you were a hell of a lot smarter than Genma when it came to moronic, hair-brained schemes like this, but . . . " He shook his head, his disappointment all too apparent.
Souun sputtered, and then he spun around as the door to Nabiki's bedroom opened, revealing a weary-eyed Kasumi beside a younger dark-haired girl draped in a black cape. "Father, we seem to have some guests . . . " the eldest Tendou daughter began before her voice screeched to a halt, her eyes going wide on seeing a ragged-haired, slender young MAN lying on Nabiki's bed. "Oh, MY!"
He blinked. Then, on sensing that he had no clothes on outside a towel covering his loins, he panicked. "Geez, Onee-chan!" He quickly moved to make himself decent before scrambling to the closet. "Can't a guy get dressed for . . .?" He opened the door, looking in before he stuttered on seeing GIRL'S clothing. "H-heaven's s-s-sake . . .?"
His hand pulled away from the towel, allowing gravity to drag it to his ankles. Seeing the full monty, Kasumi covered her eyes as she spun away, a gulped "Oh, my!" her only response. Negako sighed. "Chikage."
Chikage whispered a spell. Light showered the young man, draping him in a T-shirt and jeans. "Oh, thanks!" he breathed out before spinning on Souun. "Dad, what's going on?! What are GIRL'S clothes doing in MY closet?!"
"Well, you see, son . . . " Souun moved to stammer out an explanation.
He was then sent flying into a wall by a Happou-daikarin! "That's enough from you, idiot!" Happoosai snarled, and then he looked doe-eyed at Chikage. "Chikage-chan, dear, do you have a magic mirror with you now?"
"Hai." The sorceress drew a mirror from under her cape, positioning herself to allow the young man's image to reflect from it.
Negako, Kasumi and Happoosai shifted themselves to stare at the image. What they saw was Nabiki, presently dressed the same as her male counterpart. "Huh?! Onee-chan?! Ojii-chan?! Negako-san?!" Nabiki blinked as her eyes locked on her "brother." "What the hell . . .?"
Kasumi covered her mouth. "Oh, my!"
"WHO THE HELL'S HE?!" Nabiki shrieked as she pointed at him. "WHAT'S HE DOING WITH MY BODY?! HOW'D I GET TURNED INTO A GUY?!"
"Calm yourself, Nabiki." Negako gently squeezed the young man's shoulder in reassurance. "There is an explanation for this."
"Nabiki . . .?"
Eyes locked on the young man as he walked up to gaze at the image in Chikage's mirror. Despite the differences in looks and size between himself and Nabiki, the latter's image accurately reflected his movements. The overwhelming nature of the moment blocked the middle Tendou daughter from screaming out in fright as her hands replicated his movements. "I . . . " He lowered his arm. "I was created from you . . . "
Nabiki blinked. "Negako-san, please tell me what's going on here!"
Happoosai shifted himself onto the young man's shoulder. "You remember that Nanniichuan cask I drank at the wedding, child?"
Nabiki took that in, and then her eyes widened. "Dad pulled a switch?!"
He nodded. "Yep. What I drank was normal spring water. Souun hid the real cask. No doubt, he intended to bribe Ranma-chan into marrying Akane-chan with it, but when he found out the truth about what happened to her . . . "
"He exposed me to it to make me . . .!" Nabiki's voice trailed off, her eyes widening more. "To make me into . . .?! Into . . .!"
"Into me," the young man in control of her body finished before he turned to Negako. "So what the heck went wrong, Negako-san? Ranma-chan's personality was transformed fully by Jusenkyou! Why didn't it . . .?!"
He indicated the image in Chikage's mirror. "It is because you were exposed to the Nánniquán magic AWAY from Zhòuquán-xiang," Negako explained. "This has never happened before, so not even the guide there could have foretold this. Being so far from the springs, there was no 'support' to effect the psychological transformation that befell Ranma. To that end, it created a modified personality -- you . . . " She pointed to him. "But it could not be fully grafted onto the personality already existing in the body you have now."
She indicated Nabiki. "Can they be separated, Negako-san?" Kasumi asked.
"No. To attempt something like that, given the way your brother here was created, would kill them both. In cases like Ranma's, Zhòuquán-xiang provides a magical 'support base' which would allow her essence to live on in her new body should she and her birth-form be separated. Because this was done away from Jusenkyou, no such support base exists for Nabiki and her twin."
"Then there is only one thing . . .!"
Eyes locked on Souun. The Tendou patriarch was picking himself off the floor. "And what, Father . . . " -- Kasumi's voice was flooded with scorn as she spoke that word, crossing her arms -- "Would you propose to do?"
Souun glared at her. "To see the process completed, as it was done to Ranma." He shakily pointed to his magically created son.
"That is impossible," Negako replied. "And I do not think your family will support you moving to destroy Nabiki's soul just so you can have a son to carry on your family line, much less attempt to marry off to Ranma." She then grinned sarcastically as she added, "Who, by the way, has no desire to marry into your family and, if what I sense of her now is true, is about to consummate her relationship with Ataru this very evening."
Souun paled before he screamed out, "WHAT?! I FORBID . . .!"
A fist slammed into his cheek. Souun grunted as he shook his head clear, and then he looked up to see who just struck him. "Son . . .?"
The look on the younger man's face sent a chill down Souun's back. "Who the HELL do you think you are?! Killing your own daughter, who worked her ass off to keep this house over your head, just to make that fuckin' stupid pact with Saotome come true?! No way, Father! It's NOT going to happen! Much that I like Ranma-chan, I'm not going to force her into doing something she doesn't want! 'Sides . . . " He glanced at Kasumi. "You have to admit Ranma and Ataru-kun DO make a nice couple! Ne, Onee-chan?!"
Kasumi smiled. "Yes, that's true, isn't it?"
"NO!" Souun bolted to his feet, a blazing Demon Head surging forth. "SON, YOU WILL MARRY RANMA OR ELSE I'LL DISOWN YOU ALL!"
"You're hardly in a position to demand that, Tendou-san," an icy voice emanating from behind caused Souun to freeze in place. "Considering that as of this very evening, you will be signing over control of EVERYTHING to Kasumi."
Souun looked over his shoulder to see a narrow-eyed Chikage standing there, arms crossed. Happoosai was now perched on her shoulder. The looks on both their faces sent chills down Souun's back, though he tried to reassert himself. "What makes you think you can stop me . . .?"
Chikage grinned. "Check Six."
Souun tensed. "Wha . . .?!"
A second later, an inhuman shriek echoed through Nerima.
* * *
Cologne gazed out the window of her bedroom at the Nekohanten. "Now, why would Negako make use of the soulsword at the Tendou place?"
Sensing nothing else happening, the elder shrugged, heading for bed.
Look into it in the morning.
* * *
"Oooh . . .!"
Dawn was now shining its light through the windows of the old shrine. Yotsuba stretched as she rose from her futon. Glancing around, she did an automatic head-count of who was present. Shirayuki's futon was empty, lying where she spent the night. The would-be detective canted her head, her ears picking up noises from the kitchen. Making breakfast, Yotsuba mused before she noticed a futon folded by the wall. "Where's Chikage-chan . . .?" she whispered as she stood, snatching her spyglass as she headed to the kitchen. "Ohayou, Shirayuki-chan!" She looked into the kitchen, blinking. "Eh?!"
Shirayuki looked over. "Oh, Yotsuba-chan, ohayou gozaimasu desu no. Kasumi-san came by to help out with breakfast today."
Kasumi, busy with chopping onions -- hence, the swimming goggles protecting her eyes -- nodded. "Ohayou gozaimasu, Yotsuba-san."
Yotsuba blinked before she perked on hearing voices echo from Negako's bedroom. "Did something happen at your house?" she asked.
"That . . . " Kasumi paused, and then she sighed. "Could be said."
Shirayuki's hand squeezed the older woman's shoulder in a show of sympathy. Kasumi gave her a thankful smile. "There's a mystery afoot!" Yotsuba giggled as she held up her spyglass. "Yotsuba'll check it out!"
"Hai desu no!" Shirayuki nodded before she turned back to the stove.
Yotsuba walked to the door of Negako's room. Sliding it partially open, she moved to peek in -- and then she screamed on seeing Negako suddenly appear before her, a bemused grin on the grandmaster's face. "Your curiosity towards certain matters might one day be the death of you," the grandmaster stated, sliding the door open. "Come in, Yotsuba."
Yotsuba giggled embarrassingly as she stepped inside. She then stopped, her eyes springing out of her head on seeing the vision of lovely young manhood seated beside Negako's work table, his eyes closed. Chikage stood off to his left, crystal ball in hand as she whispered some arcane incantation. Also in the room was Ani-chama's friend from outer space, Miree. To Yotsuba's surprise, the Niphentaxian high priestess held what seemed to be one of Chikage's magic mirrors, its surface facing the very, very, VERY yummy . . .!
Yotsuba likes! She shuddered as his bishoonen features swam through her mind. Yotsuba likes, likes, LIKES very much!
Miree glanced her way, beckoning Yotsuba to her side. "Handsome, isn't he?" she whispered as the detective slid up beside her.
"Yeah!" Yotsuba prayed she wasn't drooling as her eyes darted over his body. "Yotsuba DEFINITELY wants to take a closer checky!"
"Oooh! Someone's got her head in the potty!"
"EH?!" Yotsuba shrieked, glancing wildly about. Yes, a girl's voice, but it wasn't Chikage's, Ane-chama's or Miree's . . .
Chikage sighed, pointing to the mirror. "Look there."
Yotsuba looked. Her eyes went wide on seeing a GIRL in the mirror, dressed exactly like the fellow who just caught her fancy. Said girl -- Hey, isn't this Tendou Nabiki?! Yotsuba wondered -- was leering knowingly at the detective. "What the . . .?!" She looked back at the fellow in question, and then at Nabiki's image. "How the hell . . .?!" she stuttered, staggering back as she pointed to and fro between the man and the mirror.
"Zhòuquán-xiang," Negako told her before turning to Chikage.
The sorceress relaxed. "There." She lowered her hand.
"How is he?" Nabiki asked.
"Separated from you, Nabiki." Chikage slipped her crystal ball away. "Now we have to work on building separate bodies for you."
"There is a problem if you're thinking of making use of the factory to give him a body," Miree warned as the young man began to stir. "It's only programmed to create female bioroids. There's been no research ever done toward re-programming the ship to create male bioroids."
"Then we will have to coax the Staff of Gihan to assist us in this matter," Negako concluded. "Do you think you can do this, Miree?"
"Not really." The high priestess looked apologetic. "I doubt Jonna and Orin could assist in that regard, either. The influence of the Guardians on the Staff's programming matrix is still quite strong, I'm afraid to say."
Chikage and Negako exchanged a look. "Ani-kun?" the former asked.
"No. Given what the Staff has already done to him, I doubt it will do any of us any good." The latter shook her head, closing her eyes. "Perhaps someone less fettered by entropic thoughts would be needed."
Yotsuba blinked confusedly. "What Staff?!"
Chikage's eyebrows arched. "Someone of a pure heart?"
Negako nodded. "Exactly."
"Hinako-san, perhaps?" Miree proposed.
Chikage and Negako glanced at the priestess for a moment before exchanging a look. "A possibility," the latter mused. "Perhaps, given the problems we are facing, obtaining a second device like the Staff would be prudent. Is there such a device somewhere in close range of us?"
"I'll investigate that now. Excuse me, please." Miree handed the mirror to Yotsuba before she headed out of the room.
Yotsuba stared quizzically at her sisters. "What Staff?"
"An energy conduit with limitless ability named the Staff of Gihan. Miree and her children brought it with them from Phentax Two," Negako reported, turning as Nabiki's twin stood. "Do you feel better, Shinshi?"
"Yeah," he grunted, rubbing his forehead. His eyes then locked on the younger girl holding Chikage's mirror. "Eh?! Hi there!"
Yotsuba's cheeks flamed as his warm gaze sent jolts of hot desire ripping through her. Her hands spasmed, letting go of the magic mirror. "Hey, wait . . .!" Nabiki screamed out fearfully before the mirror crashed into the floor.
Yotsuba didn't react to the noise of the mirror shattering, her eyes still locked on Shinshi's. A confused look creased his face before realization dawned, his cheeks flaming in response. "Ah . . . er, you dropped the mirror . . .!" he stuttered, pointing to the pile of glass at her feet.
She blinked, and then she looked down. "Oh! S-sorry about th-that!" she sputtered, sidestepping around that to place herself beside him. "Um, do you want some tea, Shinshi-kun?" She flustered as her arm wrapped around his.
"Er . . . um, s-sure, Yotsuba-chan," he stuttered.
She walked him out of the bedroom. Negako and Chikage watched them go, and then the former gazed on the latter. "I believe that is a clear-cut case of falling in love at first sight." Her eyebrow arched amusedly.
The sorceress chuckled. "Indeed."
* * *
"I just can't BELIEVE that idiot would do something like that!"
"From the way you've described him to me, what the hell did you expect?"
Ranma stared at Ataru, and then she rolled her eyes. The two were on the front yard of the old shrine, both engaged in the T'ui Shou, one of the popular meditative drills of T'ai Chi Ch'üan. Both had been up for an hour; they had been awakened when Negako and Chikage brought Kasumi and the transformed Nabiki to the old shrine. To say that Ranma especially was in the mood to cause some serious bodily harm on the man she might have once seen as her future father-in-law was understating it. "Yeah, that's true." She leaned forward, allowing some of her ki to pass on to Ataru. "So Negako put the bastard out of his misery with the soulsword flat. What happens with Kasumi, Nabiki and Akane?"
"Well, we can pass it on to the Court of Special Appeals." Ataru rocked back as both engaged in a slow foot kata while tilting their arms. "I'm sure Judge Nozawa won't take the news of Souun's defying his injunction too kindly."
"The bastard'll eventually recover from what Negako did to him, Ataru."
"Hai, true, true. But it's too late now. After his brain was made to go on the fritz, Onee-chan manipulated him into signing power of attorney papers giving everything to Kasumi," he noted. "Everything that was once his belongs to her as soon as those papers get notarized. Lucky for them Reigi-kun knows some people who'd be willing to do that at odd hours without any questions."
"Might have to get Judge Nozawa to do for them what he did for me."
Silence fell as they continued. Soon, Ataru and Ranma shifted away from the T'ui Shou into a slowly paced battle drill. Granted, both could, if they desired, turn up the heat and launch into a no-holds-barred sort of duel, no different than what Ranma once did with Genma every morning at the Tendou home until just after the failed wedding. As they continued, both were quick to sense that they had an audience. Sakuya, Karen, Haruka and Mamoru, along with Kimiko, Himiko and Mikiko, were up, all of them standing at the windows to either side of the front doors watching the highly disciplined display. "Man, could you ever have imagined seeing something like this, Mikiko?" the "late" captain of the Tomobiki High girl's swimming team asked, shaking her head.
"Not really, especially from Ataru-kun!" Mikiko gazed at Himiko before she turned to stare outside. "Ryuunosuke-kun, MAYBE, especially given the way he was beaten by his father all the time. Or so I heard over the grapevine."
Mamoru's eyebrow arched. "Don't you know Fujinami's really a girl?!"
A pair of boggled looks responded. "WHAT?!"
* * *
Sakiko stared at her. "Bless you, Ryuu-chan! Are you alright?!"
Ryuunosuke wiped her nose, gazing nowhere in particular for a moment before she moved to complete her ablutions. "Dunno."
* * *
"Oh, man!" Himiko shook her head. "I can't believe we all missed that!"
Karen giggled. "You should've figured it out as soon as Onii-chan started chasing Fujinami-san in public, Himiko-san."
The swimmer considered that before she reluctantly nodded. "True . . . "
Mamoru pointed outside. "Hey! Hey! Look!"
Everyone stared outside, their eyes wide as saucers on seeing Ataru and Ranma kissing, they clearly having finished their workout. "YES!" Sakuya whooped, pumping her hand as her brother and future sister-in-law pulled apart, both of them turning to head inside hand-in-hand.
Haruka drew her gunsen to fan herself. "Well, it's about time!"
"Who's making . . . that noise . . .?"
Everyone turned as Hinako rose from her futon, a hand moving to rub the sleep from her eyes. "Oh, sorry about that, Hinako-chan!" Sakuya walked over to kneel beside her sister. "We just saw Onii-sama and Onee-sama kiss."
"Huh . . .? Oh!" Hinako blearily nodded, her mind still awaking from its slumber, and then she moved to slip back under the covers.
"Did you guys enjoy the show?" Ranma asked as Ataru closed the door.
The sisters' cheeks flamed on realizing that they had just got caught. "Uh . . . a-ah . . . p-poh!" Haruka stammered in embarrassment.
Ataru chuckled, giving them a wink. "Give us a little time . . . "
Everyone jolted as Hinako shot up, her shout becoming the perfect alarm clock for those sisters who had yet to awaken. "Kusun . . . " Aria, who was lying beside Hinako, moaned as she tried to slip further under the covers. "Aria is sleepy, Hinako-chan . . .!" she complained.
"Aria-chan no baka!" Hinako waved her fists in a show of frustration. "Don't you understand?! Onii-tama and Onee-tama kissed!"
"THEY KISSED?!" the just-awakened sisters shouted.
Ranma and Ataru flustered as Hinako ran up to grab them both in a hug as a barking Michael trotted up to join them. The noise quickly drew in people from the other rooms. "Hey, what's with the bru-ha-ha?!" Shinshi asked as he and Yotsuba stepped out of the kitchen.
"Aniki and Aneki just kissed!" Rinrin reported, her assertion causing the couple in question to blush even more.
"Eh?!" Yotsuba's eyes went wide in horror. "Ani-chama and Ane-chama kissed and Yotsuba didn't check it?!" In a flash, the detective stood behind Hinako, her camera at the ready. "Yotsuba'll have to keep checking Ani-chama and Ane-chama until they kiss again!"
"It appears Ani-kun and Ane-kun cannot avoid the consequences of their psi-bond," Chikage mused from her position by the hallway leading to Ataru and Negako's bedrooms. Sure enough, in her hand was the Lovers card.
The other sisters moved to crowd their brother and his girlfriend. "Hina wants to see Onii-tama and Onee-tama kiss!"
"Kaho wants to see Onii-chama and Onee-chama kiss, too!"
"Yotsuba won't stop checking Ani-chama and Ane-chama until they kiss!"
"Nii-ya's and Nee-ya's kiss will chase away Aria's sleepiness!"
"Hime should make a special treat to make Nii-sama and Nee-sama kiss!"
Ranma and Ataru stared wide-eyed at the sisters, and then they exchanged a look. A shrug rolled his shoulder as he moved to sweep her into his arms. She didn't resist as their lips caressed each other's, the both of them tightly holding each other close as Yotsuba's camera flash fired several times. "ANI-CHAMA AND ANE-CHAMA KISS CHECKY!" the would-be detective crooned as she captured the magic moment from every direction.
The other sisters emitted a delighted whoop as Ataru and Ranma pulled apart, he twirling her back to his feet. "Now that we've got THAT out of the way . . . " He stared at Hinako, a grin crossing his face. "It's time for Hinako to face the Evil Tickle Monster!" his voice slurred into a horrible Boris Karloff imitation as he slouched into a hunchback shape.
Hinako stopped, her eyes wide as Ataru raised his hands threateningly, he lurching toward her as a cackle escaped him. "AAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAH! HINA HATES THE EVIL TICKLE MONSTER!" she screamed, trying to evade those hands.
More laughter as Ataru grabbed his youngest sister in a bear hug, his fingers dancing up and down the sides of her rib cage. Hinako squealed as Ranma whipped out some feathers to attack her feet. Watching the shenanigans from the general direction of the kitchen, Shinshi shook his head. "Man, never thought I'd EVER see Ranma do THAT!" he admitted.
"Neither did I."
He looked to his left to see Kasumi standing there, a sad look on her face. Shinshi blinked, and then he placed a hand on her shoulder, moving to guide her into the kitchen. "Guess we can't deny anything Negako-san says about Ranma-chan now, eh?" he then mused.
"Hai, we can't." Kasumi slowly nodded as she moved to lean against the counter. "I'm just glad Akane-chan wasn't here to see that."
"She knows the truth, Onee-chan . . . "
"You know how hard it is for her to accept things like that, Shinshi-chan," Kasumi warned as she gave him a knowing look.
Shinshi nodded. "Hai, true, but she won't have a choice BUT to accept it. Ranma-chan warned her off on Sunday night."
"Let's hope it doesn't have to be repeated," she whispered as the kitchen door opened to reveal Shirayuki. "Did Hinako-chan survive the latest attack of the Evil Tickle Monster?!" Her eyebrows wriggled delightedly.
"Hime thinks so!" The young chef giggled as she shooed Shinshi out. "Time to finish making breakfast and Chigaiko-san's lunch!"
"Hai, hai, I'm going," the newest of the Tendou siblings asserted.
* * *
"Hello?! Is anyone here?!"
"Ah, Akane-san, there you are!" Marie opened the door, waving Akane and Yuka into the living room. "You're just in time."
"Thanks." Akane nodded, and then she spotted Kasumi. "Onee-chan, what's going on here?! What's with Dad?!" she demanded.
The eldest Tendou pointed to one side of the circle of people currently consuming breakfast. "Look for yourself, Akane-chan."
They looked. Seated beside a caramel-haired teenager wearing a Union Jack tie -- a girl Akane and Yuka recognized as one of Ataru's sisters -- was a man Nabiki's age, dressed in T-shirt and jeans. The girl was busy feeding him morsels of fried eggs. Akane was quick to sense the growing attraction between them; their rosy-shaded cheeks were a dead give away. Yet the boy . . .!
Boy . . .?
Oh, no . . .!
"Nabiki?" Akane eeped, the shock driving her to her knees.
The couple in question paused, looking her way. "Oh, hi, Akane-chan, Yuka-chan!" Shinshi hailed as he gave then a friendly wave.
"Shi-chama," Yotsuba sing-songed.
He jolted before accepting another morsel of egg from the would-be detective. "But HOW . . .?!" Yuka stammered, gazing at Akane.
"No thanks to Tendou-san's so-called 'father,' Tokoro-san."
Both spun around as Ranma stepped into the room, draped in her new chemise after taking a long soak in the furo. Yuka's eyes nearly shot out of her head on seeing the transformed martial artist dressed like a woman. Akane, still stunned by what just happened to Nabiki, didn't take immediate notice of Ranma's clothing. "What do you mean . . .?" she began, and then it hit her. "The Nanniichuan cask?" she then gasped out in disbelief.
"Yep." Ranma sat, nodding thanks as Shirayuki handed her a plate of piping-hot food. "Your dad subbed the cask meant for the wedding with a cask of normal spring water. Guess he realized Oyaji'd be a pig about it when he found out the cask was around. Then, after Negako told Nabiki the truth about what Zhòuquán-xiang did to me, Nabiki told Souun . . . " She shrugged, waving to Shinshi. "And look what he did to her in return!"
Akane blinked as she took that explanation in. Her fists clenched as she turned back to her transformed sister. "That means . . .!" She pointed to Shinshi, looking back at Ranma. "She's . . .! H-he's . . .? Nabiki . . .?!"
Yotsuba and Shinshi gazed on her, and then the former looked at her new boyfriend. "Mind if she takes over for a bit?" she whispered.
He winked. "Go for it."
Taking a cup of hot water, Yotsuba doused Shinshi. Akane and Yuka gaped as the body morphed to what was normal for Nabiki. The clothes, since they were forged from Chikage's magic, automatically shifted to conform to their wearer's dimensions. She jerked before glancing around, and then she nodded as Kasumi handed her a towel to dry herself. "About damned time!" she grumbled before gazing on her other sister. "Hi, Akane! When'd you get here?!"
Akane blinked, and then her eyes rolled into her head. Mamoru caught her before she hit Sakuya, and then she lowered her to the floor. "Yotsuba guesses Akane-san didn't really check that," the would-be detective mused.
* * *
"Hina doesn't understand . . . "
Jonna smiled. "It's quite simple, Hinako-sama." She, Orin and their mother were in the exercise room with the youngest of Ataru's sisters. The Staff of Gihan was in Jonna's hand. "Bou-san here . . . " She indicated the Staff. "Was once used by some very, very, VERY mean people back on my home planet. Because of that, all sorts of mean thoughts have been stamped onto Bou-san's primary memory unit." She pointed to the glowing crystal at the business end of the Staff. "What Mother, Orin and I were thinking is that because YOU, Hinako-sama, have the purest heart of all your sisters, you can help Bou-san get rid of those mean thoughts once and for all."
Tears sparkled in her eyes. "Jonna-oneetama says Hina has a pure heart . . . " the youngest of the sisters gushed.
Handing the Staff to Orin, Jonna embraced Hinako. "Hush, Hinako-sama, hush," she soothed, stroking her hair.
Hinako sniffled, reaching up to rub her eyes. "Onee-tama's so nice to Hina. But . . . " Her eyes fell on the Staff. "Hina's not sure if she can make Bou-san better. Besides, Bou-san belongs to Onee-tama . . . "
"I can't make Bou-san better because I've been through many bad things."
"Can't Onii-tama make Bou-san better?"
"No, he can't because . . . " Miree knelt beside her, and then she paused as she tried to think of the least-wounding way to say this. "Your brother can't because Bou-san was used to hurt your brother badly just before he met us." She pointed to herself. Then, on sensing a surge of shock race through Hinako, she moved to comfort. "You, Hinako-chan, can make sure Bou-san will NEVER hurt your brother again."
Hinako blinked, staring at the Staff. "Bou-san hurt Onii-tama?"
"Bou-san was MADE to hurt Ataru-sama," Jonna emphasized.
Silence fell as the youngest of the sisters considered what had just been said. She then looked up to Jonna. Seeing her give a nod of reassurance, Hinako gulped before her hand reached out to the Staff's scarred trunk. As her fingers wrapped around its ancient metal, a strange warmth surged up her arm. Hinako gasped, her eyes closing as a torrent of ghostly energy flowed from the Staff's focusing crystal to gently wrap around her body. The three Niphentaxian/Avalonians backed away as Hinako's hand effortlessly shifted the Staff from horizontal to vertical, its tip resting on the floor. Hinako's other hand reached over to grasp the Staff, her eyes remaining closed.
"It's started," Miree whispered.
"Will this help?" Orin asked.
The Hollywoodite high priestess sighed. "We must have faith."
* * *
"Eh?! What's that?!"
Sakurambou Sakura's head canted east. The Shinto priestess had been making tea when that surge of energy flowed through her from the general direction of Nerima. Moving to her kitchen window, she glanced outside. Her eyes narrowed as she tried to focus on what exactly that energy might be and what its presence might mean. It was certainly beyond her personal experience.
* * *
"Ominous . . . "
Cherry was also gazing eastward. Raising his beads, the Buddhist monk intoned a prayer, and then he glanced into his cooking pot. Seeing the hidden signs in the soup broth, he blinked before turning back towards Nerima.
"Or is it?"
* * *
"Sakiko, you okay . . .?"
Izumo Sakiko jolted, she glancing at Fujinami Ryuunosuke. The couple had spent the night aboard the former's scoutship. It was presently camouflaged under a holographic cloak on Ryuunosuke-shima, not far from where Hamachaya once stood. "Oh, it's . . . " The Seishin-Urusian-turned-Nendo-kata/Terran shook her head, glancing north towards Tokyo. "Something. But it doesn't feel threatening, I think . . . " She crossed her arms.
Ryuunosuke took that in. Rising, she walked over to stand behind Sakiko. Wrapping her arms around her girlfriend, the tomboy kissed her earlobe. "If it's not threatening, then why do you look so damned worried?" she wondered.
Sakiko gazed on her, and then they both laughed.
* * *
"Is there a danger, Seiko-sama?"
Izumo Seiko gazed confusedly at Kitahara Yukimi. A quick glance around the kitchen revealed that the other Avalonians living there were on their feet, they also glancing quizzically towards Nerima. "I . . . " Seiko turned to look. "I'm not sure, Yukimi-chan."
* * *
"Such power . . . "
Cologne sat on the roof of the Nekohanten, gazing toward the old shrine serving as the Moroboshi home. No, it wasn't Ataru, Ranma or Negako that was tapping into WHATEVER it was that was pumping torrents of raw ki into the surrounding environment. So who WAS tapping into this thing?
And for what purpose?
* * *
"Hinako-chan . . . "
Ono Toofuu was on the front porch of his office, his face paling as the implications of this event sank in. Ye gods, to put a device with THAT MUCH power into the hands of a girl of only eight?! Who on Earth was . . .?
A claw tapped his shoulder. The chiropractor gasped, turning around to see the panda reborn thanks to Genma gazing concernedly at him. A sign went up. [ARE YOU ALRIGHT, SENSEI?!] The sign twirled. [YOU LOOK LIKE YOU JUST SAW SOMEONE DIE!] Another twirl. [WHAT'S WRONG?]
"I . . . " Toofuu stuttered, moving to leave. "Stay here! I have to look in on something over at the Moroboshis' place . . . AWK!"
A furred arm grabbed him around the waist as the panda bounded for the nearest telephone pole. [I'LL GET YOU THERE FASTER!]
Toofuu screamed, though he didn't try to pull himself free. Now I know how Akane felt at times when Ranma carried her anywhere!
* * *
A-ri-ri? Where's Hina . . .?
Darkness enveloped the youngest of Ataru's sisters. Before teary-eyed panic could seize Hinako, stars began to appear. In the proverbial blink of an eye, she found herself drifting through a galaxy. "Waaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaai . . . " She looked all around her, her mind nearly overloading from the sheer, primal beauty surrounding her. Then, after what seemed an eternity, her eyes turned to her body. Her naked body. "AAAAAAH! WHO TOOK HINA'S CLOTHES AWAY?!"
Sparkles surrounded her. Hinako soon found herself draped in a form-fitting, black jumpsuit with a golden bird-like insignia on her chest. The suit came complete with golden buccaneer boots and wristbands holding her sleeves in place. On her lower sleeves was a miniature of the bird-symbol on her chest, that dividing five wreaths-of-laurel. "Funny suit . . . " She then glanced at her hands before she remembered something else. "Eh?! Bou-san! Bou-san!" She looked around. "A-ri-ri?! Where'd Bou-san go?!"
A spark of light appeared before her. Hinako reached out to cup the light in her hands. The light exploded, blinding Hinako for a moment. She cried out in shock on feeling something HEAVY land in her arms. Then, as the light faded, she looked to see HERSELF in her own arms. "Another Hina . . .?"
The double's eyes opened, she gazing on her template. With a gentle push, the double placed herself before Hinako. Noting that she herself was also naked, the double closed her eyes. Sparkles created another form-fitting jumpsuit, though this one was totally black and was covered by a shawl similar to what priests wear. The bird-like insignia was stitched into the shawl and the double's arms were trimmed in white lace. As soon as the sparkles vanished, the double's eyes opened again, she smiling. Greetings.
Hinako blinked. The double's mouth hadn't opened, yet Hinako clearly heard that salutation in her mind. "Bou-san . . .?"
The double nodded. Affirmative. What you see before you is a projection of the sentience of the device you know as 'Bou-san.' This unit assumed this form so this unit may interact with the new controller, designate 'Saeru Hinako.' How may this unit serve you?
Hinako blinked, and then her eyes widened. "Waaai!" She waved her hands excitedly. "Bou-san's like Mecha-Rinrin-chan!"
The double's eyes glowed. Hinako blinked, and then she relaxed as the double's eyes reverted to normal, she nodding in understanding. Affirmative, though this unit is more advanced than the automation the controller's sibling, designate 'Hatoyama Rinrin,' is constructing.
Hinako giggled before she looked around her. "Bou-san, where are we?"
The double blinked, and then her cheeks slightly flamed in embarrassment. Do not panic. It is an operational error on this unit's part. The controller is presently accessing one of this unit's initial memories.
"Floating in space . . .?"
Affirmative. The double's smile faded. This unit's memory was damaged many thousands of years ago. It is impossible for this unit to repair that damage or restore this unit's memories before that time.
Hinako gazed on her, sniffing. "Bou-san was hurt . . .?"
The double nodded. Affirmative.
"Hina's sorry."
Confusion crossed the double's face. What is the logic of giving an apology for an event the controller could not influence?
Hinako jolted, and then she giggled. "Bou-san talks funny!"
Does the controller wish this unit to converse in a format the controller would be more comfortable with? the double then asked.
As you wish. A pause before the double smiled. So what do you want me to do, Hinako? Do you want to play with me?
"Uh . . .!" Hinako stopped, and then she nodded. "Uhn! Um . . . " She stopped again, sighing. "Jonna-oneetama told Hina that Bou-san was once made to do some very meanie-meanie things back on Onee-tama's planet. Um . . . "
Hinako, you are my controller. The double glided over to firmly squeeze Hinako's shoulders. Yes, Jonna was right. I WAS made to do those bad things. But that was when I had another controller. She moved to embrace Hinako. Who's my controller now?
"Hina is!"
The double nodded. Yep, Hinako is! She then pulled away from Hinako, glancing nowhere in particular. Uh-oh . . .
"Something wrong?"
No, but I think you'd want to back to Jonna and her family, not to mention your family. They're worried about you.
Hinako gasped, "Ah! Hina forgot!" She then giggled. "Bou-san . . .?"
What is it, Hinako?
"Does Bou-san like Hina being Bou-san's controller?"
The double smiled. Hai!
"Waaaaaaaaai!" Hinako gushed.
* * *
"Hinako-sama, are you alright . . .?"
"Hinako-chan . . .?"
Hinako blinked, looking confusedly around the exercise room. Her eyes then focused on the device in her hand. To her surprise, the Staff of Gihan had morphed from its original two-metre-plus height to something Hinako could easily grasp with one hand. Even better in the eye of Ataru's youngest sister, the Staff had transformed itself into a glittering gold rod decked with enamel wings and sparkling diamonds, the whole topped with the main focusing crystal forming its "head." A glance to herself revealed that Hinako was wearing a gold version of the jumpsuit she wore when she first spoke to the Staff; the bird-like insignia and other markings a brilliant sky blue.
"Waaaaaaaaaai . . .!" she gushed. "Hina's a magical girl now!"
A hand reached for the Staff. Hinako blinked as a force-shield deflected the hand away without causing any apparent injury. She then turned to see who just tried to grab the Staff. "Ah, Toofuu-sensei!" she called out.
"The Staff is now bonded to Hinako-san, Doctor," Miree pronounced; she and her daughters were standing behind the chiropractor by the doorway. "There is nothing you can now do to force the Staff away from her."
Toofuu gazed on the alien priestess, and then he knelt before Hinako, firmly grasping her shoulders. "Hinako-chan, are you alright?"
"Hina's fine." Hinako lowered her arms, she keeping the Staff close to her. "Onee-tama just wanted Hina to help Bou-san get rid of all the meanie-meanie thoughts all of Bou-san's old controllers put into her."
Toofuu blinked confusedly, and then he stared intently at Miree. "While I may not fully understand what's going on, Madame, placing a device of THIS nature . . . " -- he pointed to the Staff -- " . . . in the hands of a child Hinako-chan's age is something I would not condone . . . "
"Calm yourself, Toofuu. In this case, allowing Hinako to gain control of the Staff of Gihan is the prudent thing to do."
"Ah, Onee-tama!" Hinako gushed as Negako stepped in. She held up the Staff. "Look at the nice present Jonna-oneetama gave Hina!"
"Yes, it is that, is it not?" Negako's hand stroked the Staff's crystal. Since the grandmaster was not moving to pull the Staff away from her sister's grasp, the Staff's automatic defence fields didn't initialize. "In the meantime, there is a problem I believe Bou-san . . . " -- she said that with a straight face -- " . . . can assist in solving."
Hinako perked. "What sort of problem, Onee-tama?"
Negako waved her to follow. Everyone walked to the living room. Akane had, by then, recovered from her fainting spell. She nibbled at the breakfast Kasumi and Shirayuki made for her. Yuka was doing her best to cheer her up. The panda was with Chikage, he having an interesting sign-conversation with the sorceress. Still in control of herself, Nabiki, seated beside Yotsuba, perked on seeing Negako approach. "Oh, Negako-san, there you are." The middle Tendou daughter scratched the back of her head, an embarrassed chuckle escaping her.
Eyes locked on Hinako. "Hinako-chan, what are you doing wearing THAT?!" Karen cried as she pointed to her sister's new jumpsuit.
"Eh?!" Hinako then looked at herself before giggling. "It's okay, Karen-chan! Bou-san turned Hina into a magical girl."
"'Bou-san' . . .?" Ataru stopped, his eyes focusing on the Staff, and then he glanced at Jonna. "Jonna, are you SURE this is a good idea?!"
"It's okay, Onii-tama!" Hinako cradled the Staff close to her. "Hina'll make sure Bou-san won't hurt Onii-tama anymore."
Ataru blinked, and then he tensed on feeling Ranma's hand squeeze his shoulder. They exchange a look before he reached up to squeeze her hand back. Seeing that tender exchange, Yuka's eyes shot out of her head. Akane also saw this, and then she turned away, squeezing her eyes shut. The other sisters exchanged confused looks. Rinrin then walked over to give the Staff a close visual inspection. "Hey, Ono-sensei, is THIS what you were panicking about when you and Panda-san there came in earlier?"
The chiropractor grimly nodded. "It is."
"Are you suggesting this is not a good idea, Sensei?" Haruka asked.
Toofuu nodded. "Of course I do! I can only guess at this weapon's full potential, Haruka-chan. And if my guess is close to accurate, this thing is capable of wiping out all life on Earth. Do you really think it's wise to place control of this device in Hinako-chan's hands?"
"But Bou-san likes Hina being Bou-san's controller!"
Sniffles turned everyone's attention to Hinako. Seeing the sad look crossing the young girl's face, Toofuu winced, cursing himself for saying something like THAT in hearing distance of the person it most affected.
Before the chiropractor could moderate, Miree placed a hand on Hinako's shoulder. "Your concerns are valid, Doctor. But there are times we must take trust in, as Abraham Lincoln once called them, the 'better angels' of human nature. Yes, the Staff has been used to cause great harm to many on my home planet and elsewhere. But that was when people who were quite narrowly focused in their worldview controlled the Staff. Before it fell into our possession . . . " She indicated herself and her children. "The Staff was made to unleash a holocaust of unimaginable proportions upon my people."
Everyone blinked. Many of the sisters glanced at Ataru. "But now . . . " The alien priestess squeezed Hinako's shoulder again. "Now, the Staff is controlled by a girl, one unfettered by the prejudices and selfish ideals that seem to dominate more 'mature' . . . " -- she made finger-quotes -- " . . . elements of society. Now, the Staff is in the hands of someone who could not, for the utter life of her, conceive of bringing harm to anyone, most of all those she loves with every fibre of her being. Now, for the first time in its existence, the Staff is bound to someone who possesses a pure heart, one unburdened by those petty prejudices and selfish ideals I spoke of earlier."
"People have said that those who believe they are doing the greatest good often commit the greatest evil," Toofuu warned.
"Those who say THAT, Doctor, are often those who feel their own worldview is the only valid one," Miree countered.
Akane shuddered. "Hey! Listen to what Sensei's trying to say . . .!"
Eyes turned to Karen as she walked up to gaze concernedly into Hinako's eyes. "Hinako-chan, are you SURE you want to use this?" She pointed to the Staff. "If it's as powerful as Sensei and Miree-san just said . . . "
Hinako sniffed. "Hina won't let Bou-san hurt Onii-tama . . . "
Silence. People gazed on her, and then to Ataru. "Onii-sama?" Sakuya walked up to him, and then she stared at the Staff. "Is this . . .?" She stopped, looking back at him. "Is this part of . . . what you won't tell us?"
Ataru blinked. "Hai," he whispered, bowing his head.
Chigaiko shuddered. "Ataru-kun . . . "
"Onii-chan." Karen walked up to him. "Tell us. Please . . .?"
He quaked, and then he felt a hand slip into his. He looked left to see Ranma giving him a smile. Taking a deep breath, he gazed on the Staff. "As Miree indicated, the Staff was, when I first saw it, in the hands of a very narrow-minded individual. A woman named Hekiko if I recall correctly. She was . . . " He sat down. "The leader of a group of Niphentaxian high priests calling themselves 'Guardians.' They believed that if there came a time when one single faith would win the approval of all on Phentax Two . . . "
"The Church of Lum, you mean?" Mamoru asked.
Ataru slowly nodded. "Yes. Well, if such a church came into being, then . . . " He took a deep breath before he continued, "If something happened that would effectively destroy the spiritual foundation of such a church . . . "
"Like Lum's death," Ranma cut in.
He nodded. "Well, then . . . " He gazed once more on the Staff. "The prophecy warned that if this circumstance occurred . . . " A pause, and then he finished in a voice full of ashes, " . . . Phentax Two would be doomed."
"So this Staff learned of Lum's death from you . . . " Nabiki pointed to the Staff. "And this . . . " She gulped. "It happened?"
Karen covered her mouth. "Onii-chan . . .!"
"How many died?" Rinrin asked.
More silence.
Still more silence.
Then . . .
"Three billion people."
Eyes locked on Negako, and then they turned to Ataru. "Anii . . . " Mamoru gasped, her eyes instantly tearing.
Sakuya shuddered. "Onii-sama . . .!"
Ataru blinked before he rose, heading to his bedroom. The others watched him go, unsure of what to say. Ranma headed off to look in on him. No one stopped her. Finally, Rinrin shook her head, she whispering, "It's no wonder Aniki didn't want to tell us! Gods . . .!"
She looked away, crossing her arms. "Is that why Nii-sama had to stay in Sanctuary for a whole week, Nee-sama?" Shirayuki asked as she looked at Negako.
The grandmaster nodded. "Yes. Ataru did not only see what happened on Phentax Two with his eyes. He did not only overhear what happened there with his ears, Shirayuki. Above all, he FELT what happened in the pit of his soul. The Staff, at the moment this happened, forged a mental link between Ataru and those condemned by the Guardians' prophecy. Could you imagine being linked to so many people for the briefest of seconds -- then experience all of their lives being snuffed out? Just like that?" She snapped her fingers.
Everyone winced. Hinako then stared at the Staff. Bou-san, is it true? she mentally asked, trying not to break down and cry.
Yes, Hinako. It's true.
Hinako shuddered, and then a calm look crossed her face. You couldn't stop yourself from doing that, could you?
No, I couldn't. A pause. At least now, with you as my controller, an incident like THAT will not happen again.
Ataru's youngest sister blinked, and then she blushed at the implied trust the Staff of Gihan bestowed on her. Then the sheer number of people lost on Phentax Two came back to her like a tidal wave. All those people . . .
Are now at peace, Hinako.
A-ri-ri . . .?!
They are in the Very, Very Bright Place now, the Staff explained. The place we will go to when our time in this life is done. That is the Place where Marie's parents, Haruka's mother, Sakuya's and Rinrin's stepfathers are now, Hinako. There, they are at peace.
Hinako felt a smile cross her face as she gently stroked the Staff's focusing crystal. You mean they're in Heaven, Bou-san?
In your eyes, yes.
"Hinako-chan, are you alright?"
Hinako jolted, and then she noticed everyone gazing at her. "A-ri-ri?!"
"You just blanked out for a moment," Mamoru explained as the others started to relax. "What's wrong, Hinako-chan?"
"Eh?!" Hinako sniffed, and then she wiped her eyes. "It's okay, Mamoru-chan. Bou-san was just telling Hina about those people Bou-san was made to send to Heaven. Bou-san says . . . " She smiled. "They're at peace now."
Everyone considered that. Sakuya sighed. "Hinako-chan." She knelt in front of her sister. "Do you want to keep Bou-san?"
Hinako nodded. "Uhn!" She gazed on the Staff's crystal. "Bou-san likes it that Hina's now Bou-san's controller. Hina . . . " She sniffed. "Hina can make sure that Bou-san'll never hurt Onii-tama again."
Sakuya gazed on her, and then she lightly smiled. "Well, then . . . " She turned to stare at Toofuu, and then she gazed on Miree. "I guess we'll have to trust in the better angels of Hinako-chan's nature."
She gently squeezed Hinako's free hand. "There's still a danger, Sakuya-chan," the chiropractor then warned.
"There's always a danger when one tries new things, Toofuu-kun." Chikage placed a calming hand on his shoulder, and then her eyebrow arched. "But what's the worst thing to do? Try a new path and face the possibility of failure? Or not try at all and never know the possibility of success?"
He gazed on the young sorceress. The other sisters and the Tendous were surprised that the chiropractor wasn't succumbing to another bout of love-madness being so close to Chikage. "Well, if you say so," he reluctantly said.
The others smiled. Save Akane; she was sending a piercing look at Chikage. The young sorceress ignored her, though she did sense that stare. "Now that we have resolved that particular matter for the time being, let us turn to other matters," Negako firmly declared as she guided Hinako to Nabiki. "Hinako, I think Bou-san can explain to you Nabiki's current problem."
"Huh?!" Hinako gazed up at the grandmaster, and then she perked as a whispered non-voice echoed deep in her mind. She stared at the Staff, and then she looked at Nabiki, her eyes wide. "That's stupid!" Hinako cried out, causing everyone else to lean away from her. "Why'd your father do something really, really, really dumb like that?!" she demanded.
"Hinako-chan, can you help them?" Kasumi asked.
Hinako stared at her, and then she perked as the Staff provided her an answer. "Soo ka . . . " The youngest of Ataru's sisters sighed before she stared at Nabiki. "Gomen nasai, Nabiki-san. But Bou-san says she can't split you and Shinshi-san apart. There's not enough life energy for Bou-san to use to make separate bodies for both of you."
"What if replacement bodies were obtained, Hinako?" Chikage asked.
Hinako gazed on the sorceress. "What do you mean, Chikage-chan?"
"She means what happened to us, Hinako-chan," Himiko declared as she and Mikiko walked up to her. "After all, the Avalon bioroid factory's here now over Earth, so why don't you use that instead?" She pointed up.
Hinako gazed on them, and then she perked as the Staff whispered the necessary information to her. "Eh?!" She looked up, the Staff enhancing her vision to the point where Hinako could see the cloaked, twenty-kilometre long factory clearly. "Waaaaaa . . .! What a BIG spaceship!" she gushed, and then she perked as the Staff added details. "Eh?! It can only make girls? Why can't it make boys?!" She stared at the Staff, and then she canted her head as the device replied. "Oh, you can fix it up?! Okay!"
She hoisted the Staff. "Hey, Hinako-chan, what're . . .?!" Mamoru began.
The focusing crystal flared, blinding everyone.
* * *
"Where did three of these units go?"
"We are not sure, Otako." One of the factory unit's "volunteer" technicians shook her head. The small group of Avalonians, all of whom bore the racial features of the "Invaders" -- what the bioroid race always, in private, addressed their "masters" as -- stood in the gestation unit where Miree and her children had obtained their new bodies. "Internal security monitors for this chamber were disabled shortly before we departed Phentax Twelve. We didn't learn of it until routine diagnostics were per- . . . "
Her report was cut off as a blinding flash of light filled the chamber. The Avalonians screamed as they clapped their hands over their eyes, turning away from the direction of the gestation units. The light soon faded, allowing the bioroids to pull their hands away, blinking rapidly to restore their sight. "What was . . .?" The technician turned to the chambers . . .
Her jaw then dropped in shocked disbelief on seeing that ALL FIVE of the gestation units were empty! " . . . that?!" she finished.
* * *
Mamoru's shout echoed through the living room as people covered their eyes from the burst of blinding light the Staff produced. Within seconds, the light faded, allowing people to rub their eyes and blink their vision back to normal. Suddenly, Yotsuba's delighted shout of "Oh, BIG checky here!" made everyone turn to where Nabiki had stood. She was no longer alone.
Kasumi gaped. "Nabiki-chan . . . "
"With . . .?" Akane sputtered.
Yuka covered her mouth. "Shinshi-kun . . .?"
A pair of groans escaped the people standing beside a gushing Yotsuba. Hinako gazed on the Staff's work, and then she smiled. "Hai, hai! All fixed up!!" She turned to the others, and then she perked as the Staff whispered something to her. "Huh?! Oh, okay!" She gazed on Shirayuki. "Shirayuki-chan, Bou-san says that Shinshi-san and Nabiki-san'll need soft food for their first meals in their new bodies," she reported.
The chef stared wide-eyed at the middle Tendou daughter and the young man born of her memories and spirit thanks to Jusenkyou, and then she caught herself. "Oh . . . OH! H-hai desu no! Hime'll make something now!"
She raced off. Kasumi and Akane exchanged a stunned look, and then they walked over to stand before their siblings. "Nabiki-chan . . .?" the former prodded Nabiki, and then Shinshi. "Shinshi-chan? Are you two alright . . .?"
Both jolted, and then they exchanged a look before gazing on their sisters. "Um . . .!" Nabiki began. "I . . . " She felt her forehead.
Yotsuba gazed intently at Shinshi through her spyglass, and then she turned to Kasumi. "Yotsuba thinks that Shi-chama and Nabiki-san need to lie down and get some sleep before doing anything else," she reported.
"That . . . " Shinshi grunted, and then he blinked on feeling Yotsuba slide up to support him. "Sounds like a good idea, Onee-chan . . . "
Kasumi then sighed. "Alright, then. Shirayuki-chan?!"
"Hai desu no?!" the younger chef called out from the kitchen.
"Can you put whatever you're making into a bentou, please?!" Kasumi called out. "We'll take it with us back to our place! Nabiki-chan and Shinshi-chan're going back with us to our home to sleep for a while, alright?!"
"Hai desu no!"
"Yotsuba wants a bentou, too!" Yotsuba called out.
"Hai desu no!"
Noting the would-be detective's behaviour concerning Nabiki's twin, the other sisters exchanged knowing looks and muffled snickers.
* * *
Minutes later, as the Tendou family walked off the grounds to return home, Inu Chigaiko stepped out. She was dressed properly in a Fuurinkan High girl's uniform. In her hands were her book bag and a lunch bentou from Shirayuki. "You sure you're gonna be okay, Chigaiko-san?" Karen wondered as she followed Ataru's former classmate to the front gate. "Onee-chan warned us things at her old school can be pretty rough . . . "
"I'll be fine, Karen-chan." The Tomobiki High junior-turned-Fuurinkan High senior winked at the pianist before she turned to leave. "Even if I now seem to be free of whatever it was that made everyone around me back at Tomobiki High forget my name, I'm no alpha-type personality by far."
Karen nodded. "I hope so. Gambatte, Chigaiko-san!"
"Isn't that what Kaho-chan's supposed to say?!"
Both laughed, and then Karen headed back inside. Chigaiko watched her go before turning to jog down the street to the nearest bus stop for the trip to Fuurinkan High School. Arriving just in time to catch the next ride, Chigaiko took her seat and relaxed before gazing on her hand. There was more colour in her skin than what she had seen not a week before when she was still living with her family in Tomobiki. By the looks of it, whatever Negako was doing to help her finally overcome her anaemia -- the ninjutsu grandmaster had yet to tell her the exact details about Chigaiko's treatment; no doubt, that sort of explanation would have entailed the use of scientific terms whose true meaning would just fly WAY over her head -- was working. Taking another breath, she sat back in her chair, glancing out the window as the scenery passed by. Well, a couple more weeks -- a month at the most, Negako had told her last night after entertaining Nabiki, Akane and Yuka -- and she could look forward to transferring once more, this time to Stargazer West College on Promised Island.
The bus turned down the street passing by Fuurinkan High's front gate. Chigaiko rang for her stop. She stepped off just as Asano Sayuri, Bosabosa Daisuke and Chanpatsu Hiroshi walked up. "Ah, Chigaiko-chan! Ohayou!" Sayuri called out on spotting her, she waving.
Chigaiko turned, shuddering as the thrill of having a fellow student calling her by name raced through her. Waving back, she jogged over to them. "Ohayou, Sayuri-chan, guys!" She turned to walk with them towards the school. "Ready for a new school year?" she then asked.
"Got no choice," Hiroshi lamented, and then he glanced around. "Ara?! Where're Yuka-chan, Akane-chan and Ranma?!"
The others perked, and then they quickly glancing around for their classmates. "Yuka-chan and Akane-chan will be in later," Chigaiko reported as the others gazed on her. "Something happened at the Tendou place last night."
Sayuri tensed. "What happened?"
"Nabiki-san got cursed by water from that Jusenkyou place."
Hiroshi gaped. "No way . . .!"
"How?!" Daisuke demanded.
Sayuri fretted. "What spring?!"
"Yes way." Chigaiko stared at Hiroshi, and then at Daisuke. "No thanks to Nabiki-san's bakayaro father. And it was Nanniichuan water." She then stared at Sayuri before she held up a finger. "But there's now no need to panic! Negako-san arranged to have Nabiki-san's cursed side severed from her normal side. So, as of this morning, she's got one real hottie of a twin brother now calling himself Tendou Shinshi."
The others took in that explanation. Hiroshi then snapped his fingers, turning to Daisuke. "That cask of Jusenkyou water from the wedding, remember?! Old man Tendou must've pulled a switch before Ranma's old man got hold of the damned thing!" he said as the most likely explanation for this came to him.
"Oh, right!" Daisuke nodded, and then he gazed on Chigaiko. "But why the heck would he tried to curse Nabiki, for heaven's sake?!"
"Maybe she tried to bilk the guy for her allowance," Hiroshi proposed.
Chigaiko gazed on them, remembering Negako's warning concerning revealing the truth about Ranma's emotional change of gender to her old classmates. "Who knows!" She turned to look past the school's front gate to see a crowd, all dressed in various sports uniforms, forming. "What's this?!"
The others looked. "Kunou-bakayaro's 'beat Akane-chan to date her' ritual, Take Two," Hiroshi reported as he shook his head in disgust. "Forget about it, Chigaiko-chan. You DON'T want to get involved in this, believe me! C'mon, guys, let's head in and get to class!"
Daisuke, Sayuri and Chigaiko nodded as they crossed the street and slipped through the gate. Walking around the mass of boys in sports gear or martial arts uniforms, the former Tomobiki High student was quick to sense the aura of determination they exhibited concerning Saotome Ranma's former fiancée. Ye gods, and I thought everyone's mooning over that Oni was bad?! she mused to herself as she and her new friends made their way back onto the main walkway. Wonder what's going on back in that loony bin, anyway.
* * *
"So where've YOU been all this time, Ryuu-chan?!"
Miyake Shinobu's foot tapped impatiently on the concrete pathway before the front gate of Tomobiki High School as a yawning Fujinami Ryuunosuke walked up to join her. The latter had no sarashi under her shirt, having replaced that with a sports bra. Despite her STILL wearing the boy's uniform, the shapely humps on her chest were a dead giveaway concerning her true gender. "Where the heck do you think I've been, Shinobu-chan?" She gave Shinobu a knowing wink as they turned to walk through the front gate. "Your mom and dad say anything about it at breakfast this mornin'?" she then asked.
Shinobu shook her head. "Iie. I told them you were spending the night with a friend. They didn't need to hear anything more than that, but if you keep this up with Sakiko-san, Mom and Dad are going to get pretty curious."
"Yeah, true." Ryuunosuke stretched herself, and then she stared at the repaired school. "Man, Mendou's people do good work." She whistled on seeing the northwest wing properly restored. A glance further to the left revealed a larger amount of flowers and other private gifts surrounding the wrecked remnants of Lum's statue. Standing there were several first-year and second-year students, black mourning bands wrapped around their jacket sleeves. "Who d'you suppose they're praying for?" she wondered.
"Himiko-san and Mikiko-san, I think. I don't think the guys had any real friends in school," Shinobu whispered as the pair walked past the statue, and then they moved to step through the front doors. "Well, ready to climb another floor in our scholastic lives?" She stared at her friend as they slipped off their shoes at the assigned lockers before putting on their uwabaki.
"Race ya!"
Both sprinted up the stairs to the third floor, and then they turned to head to their homeroom. As with the previous year, they got Class Four. Stepping through the main doors, they stopped on seeing Hanawa Mitsu standing there, a bright smile -- As if there could be any other type of smile?! Shinobu wondered as she reflected on his always-genki disposition -- on his face. "Ah, Miyake-kun! Fujinami-kun! There you are!" he announced. "Ready to crack the books and climb to new scholastic heights this term?"
Both girls nodded. "Hai, Sensei!"
"Well, take your seats! Not all of us are here just yet."
He waved them to their places. Shinobu and Ryuunosuke took their seats. About half the class had come in by this time, including most of the girls. As Ryuunosuke hung her bag on the hook dangling under her desk, she blinked on sensing several people approach her. "Um, Ryuunosuke-san?" a girl then asked.
The tomboy turned to see several of the girls, led by Gekasawa Kumiko, staring at her. Noting the confused looks on many of their faces, Ryuunosuke fought down the urge to gulp as she asked, "Something wrong?!"
"Well . . . " One girl twirled her thumbs nervously. "You see, we . . . um, ah . . .!" She then fell silent, she bowing her head.
"Everyone knows about you being a girl and what your father did to make you act as a boy," Kumiko cut in on the other girl's behalf. "Momoe-chan is arranging with the other girls in the class to collect some money so you can get yourself a few proper girl's uniforms."
Ryuunosuke's jaw dropped in shock on hearing that. "Ah, c'mon, Kumiko! You don't have to do anythin' . . .!"
"We do!" Kumiko cut her off, and then she sighed. "Ryuunosuke-chan, the fact that your father went to such lengths to keep you from being what you really are . . .!" She shuddered as the times she looked on the tomboy and believed her to be a boy flashed through her mind. "It was wrong, Ryuunosuke-chan. What he did to you was plain, flat-out WRONG! And now that he's finally gone and you have full control over your life, I think it's time for you to show everyone who and what you really are!"
The other girls readily nodded. Ryuunosuke blinked before she sat back in her chair. "I'm not one for charity, Kumiko . . . "
"I guessed that." Kumiko sighed. "But you're one of us!" She gave Ryuunosuke's shoulder a squeeze. "And even if Ataru-kun's finally gone from this place, we Tomobiki girls've got to stick together! Right?!"
She stared at the girls standing with her. "Hai!" they chanted as one.
Ryuunosuke blinked, and then she shuddered as her cheeks started to heat.
* * *
"So this is the final list of everyone for Class Four?"
Onsen Mark stared at the print out the secretary just gave him. "That's it." Sakura nodded; both teachers were in the staff lounge on the first floor. "Few names missing given what's happened over the last few weeks, ne?"
"Agreed." The vice-principal/English teacher grimaced, noting the names crossed out on the list. One particular name that should have appeared on this list had not been typed in. "By the way, did we ever find out which school Moroboshi's gone to?" he then asked the school nurse.
Sakura sighed. "I called to ask the Ministry about it."
"They politely told us to mind our own business and . . . " The nurse/priestess' eyebrow twitched before she added, "They also politely told us that they do not wish to have their staff infected with cases of 'Lum-itis' if we continued to press them about Moroboshi."
Onsen gave her a look. "'Lum-itis?!' What did they mean by that?!"
"Couldn't tell you." She perked. "Oh, by the way, about Mendou . . . "
"I know, I know." The vice-principal nodded. "His father asked us to say nothing about his withdrawal from the school. Believe me, there's another one I won't really miss in the long term." He scanned the list before him, and then he blinked confusedly. "What happened to this girl?"
He pointed to one of the names that had been crossed out. Sakura stared at the name. "'Inu Chigaiko?'" she read, and then she paused as she tried to place a face to the name before shaking her head. "Don't know her. I'll take a look at the files, then call her parents and see what's happening with her."
"Fair enough." Onsen nodded before taking up his papers and heading out.
Sakura watched him go, and then she headed over to a cabinet. Drawing out the previous year's student lists, she flipped the pages before arriving at the list for Ataru's old class. Walking over the phone, she unhooked it, and then she scanned for the number in question. That took her a minute or two as she tried to recall the girl's name. By the time the nurse/priestess deduced which name she was interested in -- Sakura was forced to hunt for the name by eliminating all the other names on the list -- a warbling tone echoed from the phone receiver. Stabbing the studs to get the phone back on-line, Sakura dialled the number. As she placed the phone against her ear, the flipped pages fluttered down against the page listing the people of Ataru's old class.
A moment later, the other end answered. "Moshi-moshi, Inu residence."
"Ah, Mrs. Inu, good morning." Sakura perked. "This is Tomobiki High School calling. We're concerned about your daughter . . . "
"I strongly doubt that."
Sakura stopped, surprised by Inu Kindan's curt statement. "Excuse me?"
The ice in Kindan's voice sent shivers down Sakura's spine. "My daughter was withdrawn from your pathetic joke of a high school last week, right after that rude idiot you happen to call a vice-principal berated my poor girl IN FRONT OF MY HUSBAND AND I because she chose not to attend that farce of a memorial for that Oni monster you all care for so much. A memorial, it later turns out, that few others didn't want to see happen, like that Alhamzi fellow. You all remember who that man was, don't you?" A pause. "So if you think you can try to deceive me into believing that any of your staff has my poor baby's 'best' interest in heart, you're all on drugs."
Sakura gaped, stunned by the tidal wave of disdain and outright hatred that just washed over the phone line. "Mrs. Inu, I . . . "
"What's my daughter's name?"
"Excuse me?"
"You're supposed to be an educator," Kindan flatly stated. "That means you should have developed a faculty for remembering the names of those students you interact with on a daily basis. Therefore, this should be an easy question for you to answer. WHAT'S HER NAME?!"
Sakura blinked, and then she quickly turned to flip open the folder containing the previous year's student lists. "I . . .!"
"I'm hearing you flip papers." Kindan's voice made Sakura stop. "Now you know why my child doesn't attend your school . . . " -- one could coat the office floor with the scorn that word evoked -- " . . . anymore. As to where she is now, that's none of your business. I find it strangely ironic that in THIS situation, Moroboshi Ataru is worlds ahead of you all, staff and students combined. Don't call again." Click. Dial tone.
Sakura blinked as she thought about what Kindan said. "Moroboshi . . . "
* * *
"Nee-sama, is Nii-sama . . .?"
Shirayuki fell silent as she stepped into Ataru and Ranma's room. Her brother was asleep, his head cradled in Ranma's lap. Ranma looked up, shushing the chef before indicating a clear spot on the floor for the tray in Shirayuki's hands. "Thanks," she whispered to the chef.
"Soo desu no," Shirayuki whispered before she quietly withdrew.
Ranma sighed as she turned her attention back to Ataru. By then, his eyes were opening. "Who just came in here?" he whispered.
"Shirayuki-chan brought in some tea," she reported.
Ataru took that in, and then he nodded, sliding himself up into a sitting position. Ranma poured them tea, casting a glance toward the living room. "The Tendous've left. So've the Doc and the panda. Ditto with Yotsuba-chan. She's really got it in for Shinshi," she then warned.
"Well, she's of the age when that sort of thing starts to haunt her whole outlook on life." He nodded thanks as she handed him a cup of tea. "Let's just hope he doesn't do something that'll hurt her in the long run. Yotsuba-chan certainly doesn't deserve that."
She poured herself a cup. "I think they'll have to work on some way of giving Shinshi his own legitimacy."
"Well, the Court of Special Appeals can help there, especially if Onee-chan is asked to give testimony about how Zhòuquán-xiang came to affect Nabiki in this situation," he mused. "Besides, if Judge Nozawa learns about what Souun intended for Nabiki . . . " A shudder raced through him, and then he shook his head. "Chances are we might have to get the SCAA involved also since Shinshi IS, in a way, an alien," he then added.
Ranma considered his words, and then she nodded. Last night, Ataru had given her an explanation concerning the Avalonians. "That's true." She sipped her tea. "Would Nabiki be seen as that now? What about Himiko and Mikiko?"
"Hard to say. I'll call Zed and ask his opinion about this soon enough. We . . . " He then shrugged. "Well, we certainly don't want to advertise that we have an easy way to give someone practical immortality."
She perked. "How long do Avalonians live?"
"Eight hundred to a thousand years."
Ranma winced. "Ai-cha . . .!"
A knock. Both looked as Karen peeked into the room. "Gomen nasai, Onii-chan, but Tokoro-san wants to talk to Onee-chan."
Noting that an anxious-looking Yuka was standing behind Karen, Ranma sighed. "Right." She set the tea aside, and then she stood up. "C'mon." She waved Akane's friend with her to the front porch.
Karen watched them go. She then blinked as Ataru stood, moving over to her side. Seeing the pensive look on his face, she flustered and then she sighed. "Do you blame yourself for what happened on Miree-san's planet?"
He considered her question for a moment before slowly exhaling. "I'm not sure what to think right now, Karen-chan." He reached for her hand. "On the one hand, if the Staff didn't get the information about Lum's death from me, it could've gotten it from somewhere else. What could've happened then . . .?" His voice trailed off before he shrugged. "Hard to predict, I guess."
"But . . .?"
"Well . . . " He shook his head. "I've been haunted by bad luck for so long that . . . " He paused before staring heavenward. "That when I came to live with you guys, the Fates that were fooling around with my life couldn't stand the thought of me experiencing some good luck for a change. So they . . . " He shrugged, shaking his head again. "Damn . . . "
"Onii-chan," Karen whispered as she embraced him.
* * *
"So you're really a girl now?" Yuka asked. "Everything that Negako-san said about you last night is all true, right?"
She and Ranma stood on the front porch. The latter was gazing at the bright sky over the Tokyo area, her arms crossed. "Yep," she replied, turning to gaze on Yuka. "So why are you concerned about what happens to me?"
Yuka winced. "Akane-chan . . . " She paused. "Akane-chan cried about it last night. About what Negako-san said about you and Ataru-kun . . . " Her voice trailed off, she hugging herself. "In all the time I've known her, I've never seen her that hurt," she then reported.
Ranma looked away. "I'm sorry it had to come to this, then. But . . . " She took a breath. "If you think I'm going to do anything to try to reverse all this, Tokoro-san, you're wrong." She shook her head. "Very wrong."
Yuka winced, and then she gazed pleadingly at her. "She loves you!"
An annoyed shudder raced through Ranma on hearing Yuka's assertion. She then closed her eyes. "That's not going to change anything, Yuka. Nothing will now. It was too late long before I ever met Akane."
Yuka took that in before she looked at the patio deck. "So you're running away, are you?" she asked in a hoarse whisper.
Silence fell. Yuka stared at the other woman, surprised that her comment did not provoke Ranma's usual reaction to being referred to as anything less than brave. A tremor raced through Yuka as she tried to determine what to say to make Ranma bend for Akane's sake. She then jolted as the other woman turned to glare at her. "Is that all you can think of saying to me?" Ranma snapped, the emotion draining from her face. "That just because your friend is in love with me, I have to be the one who has to ALWAYS bend for her? To make her happy? To make her feel content? What about MY happiness, Yuka? What about my desires, my dreams? Don't they count? Didn't they EVER count?!"
Yuka quaked as Ranma's piercing gaze seemed to bore right into her soul. She then took a deep breath. "You never gave her a chance!"
Ranma slowly nodded. "I know." She turned away from Yuka, leaning against one of the pillars holding the roof up. "I know." A deep breath, and then she reached up to rub the bridge of her nose. "I know . . . "
"Ranma . . . " Yuka placed a hand on her shoulder. "Why did you just give up? Just . . . " She shook her head. "Just turned around and let this happen to you? Surely, there must've been some way to stay as a man even with this bond you have with Ataru-kun . . . "
"Maybe." Ranma reached over to guide Yuka's hand away from her.
Sensing that the redhead didn't want her to get any closer, Yuka took a step back. "Did you want to hurt her?" she then asked.
"No." Ranma shook her head, taking a deep breath. "Actually, Yuka, I . . . " She grimaced. "I wanted to STOP hurting her, once it finally dawned on me how much I really WAS hurting her in the long run. But how the hell was I supposed to do that?" She shrugged. "Oyaji never wanted me to think for myself. All Souun ever really saw in me was the person who'd guarantee his family's so-called 'legacy.' Mom was useless in the long term. I had no friends to turn to for help. My fiancées all had their own agendas. Those who were helping them, like Kelun or Konatsu, couldn't really do anything . . . " Her voice trailed off. "And I just got so tired of it all, Yuka."
"All the fighting?"
Yuka blinked, and then she tried to smile. "I guess it would get tiring. I suppose none of us really appreciated how much all this was weighing you down. You . . . " She bit her lip. "You always seemed to enjoy it."
Ranma smirked, closing her eyes. "Yeah, I did, didn't I?"
"Please stay."
Silence fell as Ranma seemed to consider Yuka's plea. She then sighed, pulling herself away from the pillar as she shook her head. "No." She turned to gaze on Yuka. "Look. You're Akane's friend. And Akane's pretty fortunate to have you as her friend. I know about the three times she hit you with that mallet of hers in the month before I showed up at Fuurinkan . . . " Her voice trailed off on her seeing Yuka's face pale. "Yuka . . .?!"
"HOW DID YOU FIND OUT?!" Yuka shrilled as she leaned into Ranma's face.
A flash of panic tore through the redhead, and then she calmed herself. "Negako told me when I was training with her in Sanctuary."
Yuka took that in. She then turned away from Akane's ex-fiancé, a hand clenching over her heart. "I . . . " She paused before taking a breath. "Oh, damn . . .! That shouldn't have surprised me, ne?" She relaxed before gazing on Ranma. "What do you know?" she asked.
Ranma took a deep breath. "First time it happened was a few days before Kunou made that idiot speech. He came into class one day dragging in this massive bouquet of roses to 'demonstrate' his love for Akane. But it turns out that two of the guys in class were allergic to the things and nearly died right then and there. When Akane tried to make the idiot see what he was doin', Kunou brushed it off. After all . . . " A sarcastic smile crossed her face. "Those guys might've been potential 'rivals.' After hearing that, Akane lost it, hauled out the mallet and nailed him. You got caught in the back-swing before Kunou went flying." She pointed to Yuka.
"Second time was the morning after the speech. The fight started on the front lawn. Akane tried to brush it off; she was running late. The Horde followed her right into class, where you and everyone else were. Some of the girls got punched aside when the Horde stormed in. Akane went to town with the mallet. You got nailed when one of Kunou's friends got Akane on the wrist with his shinai to disarm her, that sending her mallet into your face.
"The third time was two days later. By then, the teachers clued in to the idea of locking the school to keep the fight outside. The day before, Akane ended the fight with a few swings of the mallet." A smirk crossed Ranma's face. "Kunou didn't take too well to seeing his challenge dealt with THAT way, so he popped a surprise on her that day . . . "
"Akane's father was called to school," Yuka breathed out.
"Yeah." Ranma crossed her arms. "Then, in what had to have been one of the stupidest things he ever did when it came to her, Souun grabs the mallet from Akane and tosses it aside, where . . . " She pointed at Yuka. "You just happened to have been standing, supposedly 'safe.'"
"Hai." The other girl nodded, smiling. "They were accidents, Ranma."
"I know that, Yuka. But what I don't understand is why you have never made her face up to what she did . . . "
"Because she's my friend, Ranma!" A quiver ran through Yuka's body. "And I know she would've never intentionally hurt anyone else!"
Ranma then sighed. "Did she now?"
The other girl balked, and then she winced, remembering what had been discovered over the last week concerning what Akane's temper-tantrums might have ultimately done to the redhead. "You don't trust her," she whispered.
"After all she's done to me since we met? Why should I trust her?" An eyebrow arched, and then Ranma turned away. "Yuka, I don't deny for an instant that Akane has her good points. But ever since SHE walked in on ME in the furo at her house, she's rarely demonstrated any of those good points to ME!" She turned back, thumbing herself. "And what's worse, everyone in this place who knows her -- her sisters, her bastard father, Doc Toofuu, you, Asano, Kunou and the rest of those clods -- have just stood by and brushed it off. 'Oh, Akane's a really nice person. She's just violent at times.' You wanna know who said that about her, Yuka?!" Her voice picked up. "It was KASUMI!"
Yuka gaped. "Kasumi-san?!"
"Yeah! The one person who had more than enough chances to show Akane what she was doing wrong! And you wanna know something, Yuka?! You wanna know how much Kasumi TRIED to show Akane what she was doing wrong?! She only did it ONCE! Just ONCE! And that was to make Akane promise to keep her damned temper under control! Well, you know as well as I how much Akane really cared about that promise, ne?!" She perked, holding up an objecting finger. "Oh, excuse me! I forgot! None of YOU ever cared about what Akane was doing, especially to ME! After all, who the fuck was I, anyway?!" She thumbed herself. "The stupid, sex-changing, selfish, arrogant PERVERT who DARED presume he had the right to try to show up Akane in everything she tried to do!"
"That's not true!" Yuka screamed.
"BULLSHIT!" Ranma roared, making the other girl automatically duck. "IT'S TRUE AND YOU DAMN HELL KNOW IT, TOKORO!"
As Yuka started to shake, her eyes tearing as the redhead's words seared right into her heart, Ranma held up a shaking finger. "I don't trust her, you ask?! You're damn right I don't trust her!" Her voice started to pick up. "To be honest with you, I don't trust ANY of you in this garbage heap! Not you, not Asano, not Hiroshi, not Daisuke, not Kasumi, sure as hell not Nabiki and DEFINITELY not Akane! Why should I?! Yeah, I've made a whole fuckin' mountain's worth of mistakes since Oyaji dragged me to this place! I admit it! But do I see any of YOU admitting your mistakes, especially when it comes to Akane?! NO! Of course not! You don't WANT to admit any of that! Why?! Because you're afraid to realize that THIS TIME, I'm actually RIGHT for once! And no! No! NO! We just can't have something like THAT now, can we?! Isn't that the truth, Tokoro-san?! Well?! Isn't it?! WELL?!" she shrilled, and then she leaned up into Yuka's face to scream, "ANSWER ME!"
Yuka screamed out, collapsing to her knees as sobs stole her voice. Ranma glared down at her, her fists clenching and unclenching as she watched the other girl weep. Finally, as Yuka's head bobbed, blearily staring at the front porch's wooden boards, the redhead sighed, "If you were REALLY Akane's friend, Yuka, you would've realized what she was doing wrong AND told her about it! Isn't that what TRUE friends do for each other?! Make each other realize their mistakes?! Say to each other when something bad happens, 'You're not supposed to do that!' Well?!" she snapped. On hearing no response from her ex-classmate, Ranma breathed out, "I see, then." She turned to head inside, pausing at the door. "Tokoro-san, you've made your choices in life when it comes to Tendou-san. I've no right to object to them. But I will not allow those choices YOU'VE made to hurt ME whatsoever from this day onward!"
Yuka looked up, wide-eyed. "Ranma . . .!"
"I've given all of you my kindness, trust, friendship and solicitude. As much of it as I could given what Oyaji did to me when I was a child," the martial artist continued. "My kindness was constantly paid back with scorn and hatred. If not directly expressed to me, then through your influence with Tendou-san. If that's the ONLY way you wish to express anything towards me, fine. Do not expect any kindness or trust from me from this day forward. You -- all of you at Fuurinkan -- are now strangers to me, Tokoro-san."
She opened the door and marched in, slamming it shut behind her. Yuka remained frozen in place, stunned that Ranma had said all THAT to her, and then she staggered to her feet. Stumbling over the edge of the front porch, she nearly fell onto her backside. She then stopped, staring once more at the closed door to the old shrine. Shuddering as the finality of Ranma's words roiled through her mind, Yuka turned and walked away. As soon as she was past the main gate, she broke out into a run toward Fuurinkan.
* * *
"You okay?"
Ataru gazed knowingly at Ranma as the latter staggered into his bedroom. Seeing the flash of pain in her eyes, he rose, walking over to draw her into a comforting embrace. "I . . . well, I . . . " the redhead began, and then she closed her eyes, leaning against his shoulder.
"You told her -- and by extension, everyone at Fuurinkan -- off."
"I . . . " She bit her lip, and then she sighed. "Yeah."
They remained still, not saying anything more. Ataru then gazed to the ceiling. "Can't wait to leave this place finally?"
Ranma stared at his face. "Damn right about that."
* * *
" . . . just transferred in from Tomobiki High School in the wake of last week's tragic bombing," Ninomiya Hinako stated as she introduced Chigaiko to her classmates in Class 3-F. "Further, it turns out that, save for Moroboshi Ataru, NO ONE at Tomobiki High ever bothered to try to learn Inu-kun's name, much less try to REMEMBER her name once they heard it." The teacher gave her other students a sweet smile. "I trust all of you here can demonstrate that students of Fuurinkan High are much BETTER in that regard?!"
A determined chorus of "Hai"s echoed from the people in front of her. Chigaiko felt her cheeks heat as many girls in class gave her sympathetic stares. Even some of the boys -- those not drained by Hinako when they arrived late for homeroom; they were members of the Horde o'Hentai -- appeared concerned. "Yoroshiku onegaishimashita," Chigaiko hailed as she bowed.
"Please take your seat, Inu-kun." Hinako waved her to an empty desk.
Everyone watched as Chigaiko took her seat. Hinako then glanced around the room, noting an additional empty chair. "Now, we seem to be missing Tendou-kun. Does anyone know where she might be . . .? Yes, Inu-kun?"
Chigaiko lowered her hand. "There was a family emergency at the Tendou home early this morning, Sensei," she then warned.
Hinako's eyebrow arched. "What sort of family emergency?"
"Would you believe that Nabiki-san now has a twin brother?"
"SAY WHAT?!" everyone screamed out . . .
As a flash of energy heralded Hinako's reversion to her child-state. "WAI!" She bounced over to Chigaiko's desk. "Nabiki-chan has a twin brother! I didn't know Nabiki-chan has a brother, Chigaiko-chan! How did that happen?!"
Chigaiko's eyebrow twitched on experiencing the teacher's wild mood-swings for the first time. She then felt a reassuring hand on her shoulder. "Relax, Chigaiko-chan," one of her female classmates whispered from behind her as she winked at the newest student at Fuurinkan. "You get used to this!"
"Right . . . " the ex-Tomobiki High student drawled as, unseen by anyone else, another girl slipped out of the classroom.
* * *
" . . . my son . . .! Marry . . . Ranma-kun . . .! He-he-he . . . "
The paramedics ignored Souun's babbling as they lifted his stretcher to carry him out. Standing by the kitchen doors with Kasumi were Ono Toofuu and several members of the Nerima district board, including the ward manager. "Such a terrible thing to occur." He, a man in his mid-fifties, shook his head. "For so long, we believed your father was such an upstanding member of the community. Then . . . " A shudder stole his voice.
"Yes, it is unfortunate." Kasumi dabbed her eyes. Even if Souun's actions several hours before -- that added to all the other times the Tendou patriarch's choices had come to reflect badly on his children, admittedly -- were wrong . . .! "Much that I did my best to respect Father's wishes and desires, that he . . .!" She stiffened for a moment. "Oh, dear . . . "
"Your sister is well?" one of the ward councillors asked.
"Hai. She's resting now, as is our new brother." Kasumi nodded, a smile slowly crossing her face as she gazed on her guests. "Well, perhaps this'll be for the best. All we have to do is contact the Family Registrar to give Shinshi-chan some legitimacy, then we can proceed from there."
"Whatever help we can provide towards that end is yours for the asking, Tendou-san," the ward manager vowed with a deep bow, the councillors bowing to Kasumi at the same time. He then asked, "But what of young Saotome?"
Kasumi perked. "Ranma-chan? Is there a problem, sir?"
"Yes. We've just heard that he has transferred out of Fuurinkan High, heading to a school in Kanagawa," the ward manager reported. "Isn't there any way to persuade him to remain in Nerima? After all, if he leaves . . . "
His voice trailed off. "I'm afraid that's impossible, sir," Toofuu spoke up. "Saotome-hime, when she elected to break ties with her family as a way of putting an end to all her multiple engagements, petitioned one of the highest courts in the country to aid her in that effort. In that effort, she had the help of a family that has maintained very close ties with the Imperial Household for a long time. I don't think any sort of persuasion by anyone here in Nerima will force her to stay if she chooses to live on Promised Island."
"But what about the underwear-thief?" One of the councillors fretted. "What of those Chinese Amazons? What of that one fellow who turns into that goat-monster? Who'll stop them when they decide to go on their next rampage through town?! If Saotome leaves . . .!"
"I personally think that's part of the reason Ranma-chan has chosen to leave," Kasumi cut in, a disapproving frown crossing her face.
Toofuu nodded. "I agree with that, Kasumi-san."
The Nerima councillors were speechless. "B-but, S-sensei . . .!" one sputtered. "Who'll stop all the fights, for heaven's sake?!"
"There are people willing to help out in matters like this." Toofuu held up a reassuring hand. "I suggest we simply leave Saotome-hime be and wish her and her sisters the best from now on. If there is a problem, I assure you gentlemen that it will be dealt with. Now, I suggest we allow Kasumi-san and her family a chance to recover from what happened last night and this morning."
"I . . .!" The ward manager then nodded. "Yes, Sensei, you are in the right. Please excuse us, Tendou-hime." He bowed to Kasumi.
They turned to leave when a knock echoed at the doorway. Everyone turned to see Miree standing there, an overnight bag in hand. Kasumi brightened on seeing the alien priestess. "Ah, Miree-sama, please, come in!"
The other visitors perked on seeing Miree's ears. "You're an alien!" the ward manager gasped before he quickly composed himself. "Er, pardon me, Madame, but aren't people like you supposed to be residing in Tomobiki?"
Miree looked indifferently at him. "That restriction only applies to citizens of the planet-states of the Galactic Federation. My citizenship was stripped from me when I was accused by the government of my home planet of gross heresy. Since I -- along with my children -- are, in effect, stateless, I'm sure your planet's Special Committee on Alien Activities would allow us to reside wherever we so choose." A beautiful smile then crossed her face, one that caused the other visitors, even Kasumi and Toofuu, to hang off every word she said. "And seeing that Nerima IS such a beautiful part of this ancient land of yours, why should I NOT choose it as a future home?"
"I . . . " the ward manager stuttered. His heart then nearly froze as Miree's eyes locked on his. "Ah . . .!" He composed himself before bowing towards her, his companions doing the same. "I apologize, Ojou-sama, for making such a presumption in the first place. Please, feel most welcome here."
Miree nodded in return. "I accept your welcome with thanks."
With that, the representatives from the ward office left. As soon as they had filed through the gate, Kasumi gazed curiously on the Niphentaxian high priestess. "Miree-sama, what WAS that you just did to us?!"
"Some sort of broadcast empathic wave, I think . . . " Toofuu mused.
"You're quite correct, Doctor." Miree placed the overnight bag on the floor. "It's an inherited ability all Avalonians possess."
"All . . .?" Kasumi's eyes widened. "Then Nabiki and Shinshi . . .?"
"Have it as well, yes." Miree grimly nodded. "That is why I've come here now. Both your brother and your sister will need to learn how to properly master their powers. I don't believe you'd want either of them to psionically bond themselves with an unsuspecting stranger by accident, much less force Shinshi-kun into a premature relationship with young Yotsuba-chan, ne?"
"Psionic bond?" Toofuu blinked, and then his eyes widened. "Like what happened to Ataru-kun and Ranma-chan when they were children?"
"Exactly. The same type of bond, to be precise." Miree raised her hand. "Before you ask, I've no idea how to sever the bond." She lowered her hand. "Besides, from what I sense, Ataru and Ranma seem willing to let things be."
"Understandable." Toofuu nodded. He blinked as footsteps heralded the arrival of a certain would-be detective. "Oh, Yotsuba-chan!"
"Are they alright?" Kasumi asked.
"Hai, Shi-chama and Na-chama are all checky! Akane-san's all checky, too! Yotsuba thinks Akane-san'll need a day off." Yotsuba held up a measuring tape. "Yotsuba's gonna go to a nice boy's shop to get Shi-chama some clothes for him to wear. Yotsuba doesn't think Shi-chama wants to walk around in those magical clothes Chikage-chan whipped up for him."
"Well, if you need some money . . . " Kasumi offered.
Yotsuba shook her head. "It's checky! Yotsuba's got loads of money to spend for Shi-chama. Best thing about being related to someone like Grandmamma. Anyhow, Yotsuba'll be back to check in on Shi-chama soon!"
Miree smiled as the younger girl left. "Have a good time, dear."
"Oh, my!" Kasumi covered her mouth, a knowing grin crossing her face. "She really IS infatuated with Shinshi-chan, isn't she?"
"Her attraction for him's like Hito-Phentax in sun storm season." Miree ruefully smiled. "I think I came just in time. I don't believe anyone would approve of the poor dear becoming pregnant so soon in life."
Kasumi paled as Miree's warning sank in. "Oh, MY!"
A knock was heard. "Hey! Boss, you in here somewhere?!"
Toofuu blinked. "Who . . .?"
Kasumi smiled. "One of Nabiki's friends! Come in, Chieko-chan!"
Into the room walked a second-year student with beautiful amethyst eyes and rusty red-brown hair shaggily styled to her shoulders, a book bag in hand. Fujii Chieko, one of several students who worked as Nabiki's assistants at Fuurinkan High School, was a member of Akane's class. "Ohayou gozaimasu, Kasumi-san . . .! Ara?! Ah, Toofuu-sensei!" She beamed on seeing the chiropractor. "The Boss told me you finally decided to come back . . . " Her voice trailed off as her eyes focused on the third person in the room. "Who . . .?" She then gave the Tendou matriarch a curious look.
"A new friend." Akane stepped into the sitting room. "Did Sensei send you? Did Yuka-chan made it back to school on time?"
"Ah . . .!" Chieko flustered. "W-well, I came here as soon as I heard what the new girl in the Boss' class told Hinako-sensei . . . "
"New girl?!" Kasumi perked. "Oh, Chigaiko-san, you mean!"
Chieko nodded. "Hai! Well, she told everyone that something really weird just happened to you guys! Something about the Boss getting a twin brother or something . . . " She gazed at the ceiling. "Soon as Ryonami passed that on, I came here as quick as I could to get the scoop."
Kasumi gave the younger girl a pained look, and then she glanced at Akane. "Yes, something DID happen today."
"Got that right," Akane moaned.
Chieko perked. "So what's going on?"
"I think it's best you make some tea," Miree proposed, gazing at Kasumi, and then she turned to Chieko. "This whole matter will take some time to explain to Nabiki-san's friend. And before we can actually allow her to see Nabiki-san, I best get to work."
"Yes, that does seem best!" Kasumi then turned to the kitchen.
* * *
"Yo, Luf! We're comin' in on Phentax Twelve now!"
The suntanned blonde with the green streak in her hair and the red star tattoo under the corner of her right eye looked up from the book she had been reading. Grunting, she rolled herself out of her bunk, and then she headed to the pilotage, where her best friend and the two others who had come on this trip were. A glance through the forward view ports revealed the star field morphing from the blurred streaks of warp space to the glittering dots of normal space. "'Bout time," Lufy muttered. "How soon, Pri?"
Priss glanced at the astrogator, she glad that Lufy and Catty Ray had overhauled the avionics of the RSS/C Konggh'cha to modern standards. "A few more minutes," the first officer of Pathfinder Troop Six reported, and then she glanced at the Konggh'cha's owner. "Anxious to get this over with?"
"Damn right I am," Lufy said as she grasped Catty Ray's hand. Feeling her lover's grip, the lavender-haired Tritonian-born Sagussan with the soft gold eyes swooned, shifting to lean against the Yehisrite-born pilot's arm.
Priss glanced at her sister Pirpirsiw'r, a knowing smirk crossing her face. She turned back to her controls. "Anythin' out there, Ayumu?" she asked the person at the sensor officer's station of the old Type 48 cargo carrier. "We know how much most of the natives of this place like Ataru-sama. Even if this old tub's got a cloak now, we don't wanna risk something stupid . . . "
Eyes locked on Ayumu, a raven-haired girl -- she had been born on a planet named Yiziba, located in a star system near Elle and Karasutengu -- with very wide, dark brown eyes. She was dressed, like the others aboard on the Konggh'cha, in casual civilians in lieu of her dark blue-and-red duty uniform. "What did you just say?" Lufy demanded.
"Asteroids," Ayumu repeated as one of her hands adjusted the sensor control. She then sighed. "Someone really has to get the Rovers to update intelligence information on the solar systems around Earth. There was no asteroid field charted in this system . . .!"
"Shields!" Lufy barked.
"Shields up!" Priss reported as her hand tapped a control.
Barely just in time; within seconds of the fields forming around the Konggh'cha, several car-sized rocks soared in their direction. Priss, who had as much small-ship helm time as Lufy despite her primary job as a specialized warfare trooper -- Pathfinder Troop Six had its own base ship, the RSS Kiboo'cha, to help with deployments -- adjusted controls to allow the boxy cargo carrier to dart clear of the oncoming meteor storm. "Damn! Where's the planet?!" Priss demanded as she tapped controls to call up a small holoscreen before her, that displaying an image of the Konggh'cha and everything out to fifty thousand kilometres around the cargo carrier.
"It's not there!" Ayumu asserted.
"Do a diagnostic on the damned thing!" Lufy ordered.
"I did!" Ayumu protested. "It's not there! See!"
Lufy and Catty Ray looked over Ayumu's shoulders. "There're Phentax Eleven and Thirteen, plus the heliopauses surrounding Niko-Phentax and Sanko-Phentax." Catty Ray pointed out details. "Phentax Twelve isn't there."
"Only thing there is an asteroid field . . . " Lufy's voice trailed off as the implications of Ayumu's findings sank in. "Oh, Lyna . . . "
"I'm putting us over this mess," Priss advised as she guided the Konggh'cha into a vertical climb away from the horizontal axis of the Phentax tri-star system. "Ayumu, see if you can pick up any scans of the bioroid factory. Let's try to find that at least."
Ayumu tapped controls. Watching her work, Lufy breathed out in relief, and then she tensed on feeling Catty Ray's android-hard grip squeeze her hand. Staring at her lover of over a decade, since the day the organic Catty had bonded with Noa, Lufy closed her eyes as she leaned over to kiss Catty Ray's forehead. Losing Catty to Sagussa's Elder Mother, two years after Ataru's epic visit to Sagussa, had hurt so much. Hurt her in ways that the woman first born over eight centuries before on the planet Yehisril as Hifpira of Falcros had never experienced in either of her lifetimes. Catty Ray -- built as the companion android replica of Daishi'cha #40435 as part of a system that allowed Sagussa's natives to "date" would-be lovers without risking embarrassment in front of the real person -- had saved Lufy from descending into a dark pit of heartbreak and despair. But given that she was an android, regardless that she had achieved sentience, meant that, unlike many other couples among the Daishi'cha, there was one thing neither Lufy nor Catty Ray could ever enjoy.
Becoming a couple in all aspects as seen in Sagussan society.
"It's not there anymore."
Lufy jolted, and then she loomed over Ayumu. "Whattayamean, 'it's not there anymore?!'" she bellowed.
Ayumu stared at the Konggh'cha's mistress. "The factory. It's not there anymore. No fragments or anything like it. It's gone."
Silence fell over the pilotage as the others took in those details. "If there aren't any fragments left, the damned thing must've escaped the system unscathed," Priss mused. "Nene told me that the people in charge of Project: Avalon built in a planetary self-destruct system into the factory. Someone must have triggered it and blown the planet before they took it outta here."
Lufy stared at her before she looked out the view ports. "But where?"
* * *
"So will you be coming back to school?"
"I'm not too sure about that, Sensei." Seiko sighed as she and Sakiko enjoyed tea with Sakura in the nurse's office at Tomobiki High School. "Much that I'd personally love to come back here and try to fit in again . . . "
She shrugged. "You're afraid you'll slip and someone might recognize you as Lum," the nurse/priestess finished, a knowing grin crossing her face.
Seiko nodded. "Hai. Besides, Darling doesn't come here anymore. It would . . . " A shrug twitched her shoulders before a sad look crossed her face. "Just wouldn't feel the same, I guess. And I don't think he'd really like me following him to whatever school he might be attending now."
"You never seemed to concern yourself with whatever he was thinking before," Sakura noted, and then she held up an objecting finger. "Save for when he decided to go chase girls or verbally object to you being 'married.'"
The woman who was, in part, Redet Lum nodded. "I know. And that was part of the main problem between Darling and I, Sensei."
Sakiko gave her sister a knowing smile. "If only you really noticed it before you got booted off the planet, ne, Seiko-chan?"
Seiko nodded. "Hai, Sakiko-chan, if only I did. Then again, there is that bond between Darling and that other girl he's with now."
Sakura blinked. "What bond?! What girl's he with?!"
"Some sort of psionic bond, a real strong one, between Darling and a girl named Saotome Ranma, from over in Nerima," Sakiko explained.
The nurse's jaw dropped in shocked disbelief. "Saotome . . . Ranma . . .?! Sakiko, you must be mistaken! Ranma-san's a boy, not a girl!"
The two Nendo-kata shook their heads. "Ranma might have been a boy at birth. She isn't that now, Sensei," Seiko warned.
Sakura took that in, and then she tittered, covering her mouth. Sakiko's eyebrow arched. "What's so funny, Sensei?!"
"I . . .!" Sakura set her cup aside, taking a moment to collect herself. "Oh, that is SO ironic!" She shook her head. "To believe that a woman-crazed man like Moroboshi Ataru would actually be bonded, mind to mind, with another MAN! Especially one like Saotome Ranma! It . . . " She stifled back a laugh. "Oh, the gods MUST have a sense of humour if they actually let something like THAT happen to those two! Indeed . . .!"
She snickered. Seiko tried not to scream out, much less drop a rock, at Sakura for the nurse's continuing dismissal of Ataru as a genuinely good person. Even as Lum, Seiko knew that most people in Tomobiki felt little if any good thoughts when it came to her Darling. Indeed, as Seiko once reflected on it, one of the reasons Lum wanted to get married to Ataru as soon as matters could have been arranged was so she could pull him away from this place, take him somewhere where he wouldn't be sneered at, spat upon or treated like so much garbage. Even if Ataru's behaviour wasn't often the least bit excusable, the fact that his friends, schoolmates and even his own FAMILY . . .
Seiko caught herself, and then she nodded thanks on feeling a hand squeeze from Sakiko. At least the family part had been dealt with. Ataru's parents were gone and he lived with thirteen devoted sisters, people who cared very much for him and his future. And then, there was Ranma. Ranma . . .
"What do you know about her, Sensei?"
"About who?" Sakura asked.
"Saotome Ranma?" the nurse mused. "Not really that much. All I know of him comes from what the gossips in Nerima say about hi- . . .!" She stopped, and then she moved to correct herself, "Excuse me, 'her.'"
"And that is?" Seiko asked.
* * *
Sometime later, the Izumo sisters stepped out of Tomobiki High, heading to the apartment building they shared with Kitahara Yukimi, her lover and her sister Avalonians. Giving Lum's old homeroom a brief glance, Seiko took a deep breath before she turned away. Sakiko watched her, a light smile on her face. "You can't wish for things to go back to the way they were." She shook her head. "Too much has changed, Seiko-chan. WAY too much!"
"I know!" Seiko nodded, throwing up her arms as they passed through the gate. "But what in the Mother's name could it be, Sakiko-chan?! I can understand the part about Darling wanting to leave Tomobiki! Why would he risk losing or alienating what family he has left if he let people here get close to them?! But . . . " She shook her head. "Why?! Why's he so mad at ME?! I know I did a lot of stupid things when I was with him! I know that! But he said when I left that he actually WANTED a chance to love me!"
"Yeah." Sakiko squeezed Seiko's hand in sympathy. "Well, we'll probably learn that sooner or later, ne? 'Sides, I know for a fact that you're also pretty upset that there's a girl who's sinking her claws into Darling and there's nothing you can do about it!"
Seiko shuddered, and then she deflated. "Hai, that's true . . . eh?!"
She stopped, her eyes glowing as her head canted in the general direction of what had once been home to her. "What?!" Sakiko gazed on her, and then she extended her powers to lock in on what Seiko had just sensed. "Oh, Blessed Mother . . .! It can't be!" she gasped.
"It IS! C'mon!"
Seiko bounded into the sky, using her telekinesis to propel her straight to the old Moroboshi home. Sakiko cried out as her sister flew off. Grunting, she leapt off after her. "Wait for me, Seiko-chan!" she screamed out.
In a New York minute, the Izumo sisters landed on the front lawn of the two-floor edifice Moroboshi Ataru once called home. Gazing at her Darling's old bedroom, Seiko grimaced, and then she ran to the front door. Feeling it locked, she snarled as a telekinetic cutting bolt shattered the lock, and then she raced inside. Sakiko was hot on her sister's heels as Seiko lunged up to the bedroom door. Flinging the door open, she looked inside, and then she stopped, her eyes nearly shooting out of her head on seeing who was within.
"Blessed Mother!" she exclaimed.
Sakiko squeezed past, looking herself before her jaw hit the floor. "I . . .!" She shook her head, a wry grin crossing her face. "Gee, Seiko-chan! I don't recall either your dad or my mother ever mentioning we had twin sisters!"
"Much less Benten and Oyuki . . . " Seiko returned her look. She then tensed on sensing who else had come with the four doppelgängers passed out on the floor by the open closet doors. "No . . .!" Her eyes locked on a miniature cryo-stasis chamber between the ersatz Lum and the ersatz Benten, it containing the body of a young Oni boy. What was left of it, unfortunately. "Oh, Sweet Mother, no!" Seiko sobbed on recognising him. "TEN-CHAN!"
Seiko raced over to kneel beside the glass tube, fighting back a sudden surge of nausea on seeing the scarred, sickly skin of her beloved cousin's face and body. A glance at the chamber's control unit revealed that Ten was in perfect cryo-stasis, his bodily functions frozen solid until such time as he could be freed. Preferably in a well-equipped shock-trauma centre, Seiko grimaced as she turns to her Oni-self's replica.
"Hey, wake up!" She jostled the other woman. "Hey! Wake up!"
A pained groan escaped the ersatz Lum as her eyes fluttered. "Tcha . . . " she muttered in a perfect rendition of Lum's accented voice. "Please . . . " She tried to focus on Seiko. "Help us . . .!" A hand reached over to grasp her shoulder. "Find Darling . . . please . . .!"
The energy drained from her as she passed out. Seiko blinked, and then she stared wide-eyed at Sakiko. The latter shrugged.
* * *
To be continued . . .