Ranma 1/2 Fan Fiction / Urusei Yatsura Fan Fiction / Sister Princess Fan Fiction ❯ Lonely Souls ❯ The Sixth Part, B Side - Reality's Headaches ( Chapter 13 )

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

"No . . . this can't be . . . it just CAN'T be . . .!"
Zani shuddered as his eyes scoured the information scrolling on his computer's view screen. The rotund, bespectacled man, looking to be in his twenties though he was actually older, had the ability to tap directly into the computers of every Niphentaxian in and around the Holy City. The observation notes, drafts for amendments to the Book of Lum, copies taken from the diaries of the Holy Apostles and the Holy Company, administrative and logistical information, even medical data -- it was all Zani's for the asking.
As a Guardian, his purpose in Niphentaxian society was vital. Since recorded history began on Phentax Two, the people of his world had been caught in a vicious, endless cycle of Great Awakenings. When some unique social fad witnessed by his countrymen would be made to serve as inspiration to create whole new societies which would stand the test of time until yet ANOTHER unique social fad would steal away the attention of the masses. On one hand, this process kept society dynamic, allowing it to evolve to be the best it could be given the limitations Zani's people were cursed with. On the other hand, being addicted to basing one's whole society on others' risked leaving Zani's people vulnerable to exploitation from all forms of tyrants, both within and without.
And then, there was the Prophecy.
Zani sat back in his chair, his mind rolling through the information observers assigned to monitor the Fifth Holy Apostle had just collected. That the Church of Lum was teetering on the brink of ultimate disaster was a foregone conclusion. Even with the deaths of three billion of the Faithful, the Church theoretically possessed strong support. But that was at this time centred on the colonies, not the Homeworld itself. Yes, there were many of the Faithful on the Homeworld, but from what Zani had learned; those who survived the Cataclysm were of moderate sects. People who looked on Moroboshi Ataru not as the "Great Evil" but as the "Goddess' Beloved Darling."
And if THAT wasn't bad enough, there were the heretics from the older churches. Ostracized from "proper" Niphentaxian society when the Church of Lum became the One True Faith -- and, no doubt, longing for retribution on their tormentors. Add that to the Goddess' death, the disappearance of the Goddess' Holy Cousin, and the murder of four of the Holy Apostles a week before . . .
Now this . . .
"It will not be," Zani whispered. "It will not be."
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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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"Onee-sama, you've got a pair of visitors!"
Ranma looked up from cleaning one of her Noukiite eunuch's blades, Et'a Yekaechsuch-at', to see Sakuya standing at the doorway to the bedroom. Ataru was fieldstripping and cleaning his preferred distance weapon, a musket from Yehisril called a qu'f-piaqu'r. "Who?!" Ranma asked.
Sakuya gave her a warning look, and then she nodded towards the front door. "Your okonomiyaki-lover, plus her father."
Ranma nodded, and then she exchanged a knowing look with Ataru. "Right."
He nodded, moving to reassemble his musket's breechblock. "Get the girls somewhere out of sight," he told Sakuya.
"Hai." The eldest of the sisters nodded before she walked away.
Ranma stood, running a cloth over Yekaechsuch to clear away the last of the cleaning oil. Straightening her chemise, she headed out, the sharp alien sword in hand. Stepping into the living room, she noticed a pensive-looking Ukyou standing by the front door. Beside her was a barrel-chested, bearded man about the same size as Genma, he dressed like his "son" in an okonomiyaki-ya's gi and trousers, a big battle spatula slung over his back. The look on his face told Ranma plenty. "Ohayou, Kuonji-san." She nodded at Ukyou, and then she gazed dispassionately at her companion. "I assume this must be your father. Forgive me, sir, for not recognizing you at once."
A tremble warped through Kuonji Haruka's body as he sensed the lack of respect coming from Ranma, and then he glared at Ukyou. The younger Kuonji tried not to wilt as she reached into her top to draw out a pile of papers. "What's this about, Ran-chan?" she asked as she showed them.
"I assume you got those from the Court of Special Appeals," Ranma said, staring first at Ukyou, and then at her father.
"We did," Mr. Kuonji snarled. "I'm not sure what sort of pathetic game you're trying to play with my child, boy, but if you think you're going to get away with this, you're wrong!" He aimed a finger at Ranma. "You WILL marry my child! You will marry her and forget all this nonsense about you declaring yourself a girl or trying to separate yourself from your honourless parents!"
She returned his look. "To believe that a decent person like Ukyou was born from a gutless, blind coward like you." Her voice turned frigid, the steel in her eyes promising great pain if the older chef tried something. Ignoring Mr. Kuonji's trembling lip, she continued, "It sure as hell should've sunk into whatever served as your brain the day your family met mine. You really TRUSTED a thieving fool like Genma to honour an engagement between your daughter and me?!" She shook her head. "Well, if you're THAT much of a coward, I pity Ukyou then! It might explain why the hell you forced her into acting as a boy for ten friggin' years, instead of doing the honourable thing and acknowledging that YOU were at fault for trusting Genma at all!"
"HOW DARE YOU . . .?!" he roared.
He lunged at Ranma. Before he could sense Ranma move, Ukyou's father screamed out as Yekaechsuch's sharp tip ripped through his cheek, snapping his head towards Ukyou. His spatula was caught by the sharp end of a naginata, the honed blade slicing through the handle with ease. As the spatula's parts dropped to the floor, the naginata's blunt end caught him in the back of the knees, tripping him onto his backside. Before he could recover, the naginata's edge jabbed his throat as his eyes locked on Ranma, she holding Yekaechsuch's tip at Ukyou's throat. The young chef was staring at her ex-fiancé, a mix of surprise and resignation flashing deep in her eyes. She hadn't tried to reach for her battle spatula or the throwing spats slung across her chest.
"Anegimi-sama, is this uncultured barbarian threatening you?!"
Ranma glanced left to see Haruka standing over Ukyou's father, the determined look on her face speaking volumes to all. "He presumes to dictate terms to me, Haruka-chan, but he's certainly no threat at all. What do you think should be done with him?" she then asked.
"Well, perhaps he should be shown the folly of his ways?"
Ranma gazed on Ukyou's father. "Perhaps."
"Pardon us, but are we interrupting something?"
Haruka smiled on seeing Cologne and Tampopo standing on the front porch. "Oh, Elder Kelun, Kamekichi-san, ohayou gozaimasu!"
Both glanced at the Kuonjis. Cologne gazed on Ukyou. "Your father?"
Ukyou nodded. Her father gazed on the newcomers, and then his eyes focused on the elder. "You're the great-grandmother of that Chinese tramp who . . .!" His voice melted into a shocked gasp as Haruka's naginata jabbed anew into his throat, this time drawing a trickle of blood.
"Well, you were certainly right about one thing, Haruka-chan." Ranma ruefully shook her head, gently lowering Yekaechsuch from Ukyou's throat. The younger chef was quick to realize, though, that the blade could be snapped back up in the flash of an eye should she try something foolish. "An uncultured barbarian, indeed! Doesn't for an instant recognize how much has been done for him and his family!" she then spat out.
Cologne sneered. "Pity."
Tampopo shook her head. "Some people are so bull-headed."
"Got that right." Ranma turned to Ukyou. "You've been given every chance to walk away from this. Your dowry has been returned. The bill I accumulated for past services has been repaid. The man who ultimately caused you pain is dead. His crime against your family is now known. And with my legally becoming a girl as ordained by the GOVERNMENT, a relationship between us would have no legal standing." She took a step toward the chef. "Far as I can see, you've got no reasons to complain anymore, Kuonji-san . . . " Her eyes turned to Kuonji Haruka, a sneer twisting Ranma's lips. "Save for the fact this slime you call a father doesn't seem to give a damn about the crap you've lived through since the day years ago when we were forced apart." She turned back to Ukyou. "So what's it going to be, Ukyou? Friend or fiancée?"
Slipping Yekaechsuch into her left hand, she extended her right. Ukyou shuddered, her eyes glancing at her father. She then reached out. Grasping Ranma's hand, Ukyou pulled the latter toward her. As soon as they were within easy reach of the other, Ukyou took Ranma's hand and allowed it to slip into her tunic. Ranma's eyes widened as her fingers brushed past a hard point somewhere close to Ukyou's heart. They remained frozen for a moment, and then Ukyou allowed Ranma to draw her hand away. The redhead took a step back, staring at her hand, and then she glazed at Ukyou.
"That's because of you, Ran-chan," Ukyou admitted, tears streaming down her cheeks. "I can't shut what I feel off. None of us can! Not Akane, not Shampoo, not Kodachi . . . " She sniffed. "Not me. I love you, Ran-chan. I really do. Please, why is it so wrong for me to feel that way? All right, you're a girl! I'm legally a guy! I've lived this way for a decade! I can live that way for the rest of my life! We can still get married, Ran-chan! I'll love you no matter which way you are! You know that, don't you?!"
Ranma stared at Ukyou, and then she closed her eyes before lowering the hand that had just felt the latter's breast. She then looked at Ukyou's father before turning back to the younger chef. "What I don't know is this." A light smile crossed her face. "Was that really you talking to me . . .?" Her smile dropped as she glared balefully at Mr. Kuonji. "Or is it you ultimately parroting whatever he says?!" She thumbed him contemptuously.
Ukyou blinked, glancing at her father. Then, on feeling Ranma gazing on her, she winced. She didn't return her look. "Gomen . . . "
"She appears trapped, does she not, Ane-kun?"
Ranma turned to see Chikage and Sakuya standing by the hallway leading to the kitchen. Glancing at Mr. Kuonji, Ranma frowned. "Hai, Chikage-chan. That she does. Hibaa-chan, paralyse this dork!" Before the older chef could react, a strike at a shiatsu point by Cologne's cane cut off controls between his brain and his body. Ranma nodded, a mirthless smile crossing her face. "I don't want Haruka-chan's blade sullied by his coward's blood!"
Haruka drew back, she moving to stand beside her sisters. Ranma then walked over to stand beside Ukyou. Sakuya called out, "Onii-sama! Could you come in here, please?!" Winking at Ranma, she then added, "And bring your friend with you! Your BIG friend!"
"Hai, just a sec'!" Ataru called back.
Footsteps soon heralded Ataru's entrance into the sitting room. Lying at rest on his shoulder was his qu'f-piaqu'r. In his free hand were several shotgun-like shells, ammunition for the alien-built weapon. Seeing that, Mr. Kuonji paled. Ukyou's eyes went wide, and then she jolted on feeling Ranma's hand grasp hers. Ataru placed himself between his sisters and the frozen okonomiyaki chef, and then he turned to Sakuya. "So what's all this about?"
"A pretty complex problem, Onii-sama." Sakuya walked up to stand beside him, gazing balefully at Ukyou's father. "You see, poor Ukyou-san there just got the notice from the Court of Special Appeals about what's happened to Onee-sama, but her father here . . . " She waved contemptuously to Mr. Kuonji. "Doesn't seem to want to accept what's happened."
"Has he now?" Ataru then turned to Ranma. "So he came here to try to force you into marrying his daughter, right?"
Ranma let go of Ukyou's hand, walking over to join Ataru. "Hai, Anata, though right now, I think U-chan here's still legally a boy."
Ranma turned to Ukyou as she slipped an arm around Ataru. She didn't react as he loaded his musket. "Yes, 'Anata.' Ataru is my boyfriend, soon to be my fiancé. A fiancé I chose." The smile slipped from her face as a growl entered her voice. "Not Saotome Genma. Not Saotome Nodoka. Not Tendou Souun. And certainly not Kuonji Haruka. From this day on, I AND I ALONE will choose my future, Ukyou! No one else but me!"
Ukyou gasped, spinning on her father. Cologne moved to jab the fool's throat silent. A stern wave of Tampopo's hand held the Nujiézú elder back. Ranma quickly shifted herself to block any advance towards Ataru from Ukyou. Sakuya and Haruka tensed. Chikage was as stony as ever. Ataru remained calm, though his thumb slowly pulled the qu'f-piaqu'r's hammer to the "ready" position; the musket was loaded for bear.
"D-dad . . .?!" Ukyou sputtered, glancing at Ataru before turning back to her father, and then she turned to Ranma. "Ran-chan . . . "
"Kill him!" Haruka snapped. "And if this girl . . . " -- he sneered at Ranma -- " . . . refuses to acknowledge what honour demands of her, kill her, too! She's hurt you enough, Ukyou! Make her marry you or kill her!"
Silence fell. Ukyou was frozen in place, glancing at her father, and then at Ranma, then at Ataru, to her father, and then to nowhere in particular. "I . . .!" Ukyou's voice froze before she looked at Ranma. "Ran-chan . . . "
"Walk out of the trap, U-chan." Ranma raised Yekaechsuch to rest on her shoulder. "I did it. Ataru did it, too. So can you."
Mr. Kuonji glared at his child. "Ukyou, if you do not do what I say, then you are no longer my child!" he snarled.
"Oh, my! That sounds like child abandonment, doesn't it?"
Eyes locked on Haruka. "Yes, Haruka-chan, it does." Sakuya sagely nodded. "Don't you agree, Chikage-chan? Elder? Tampopo-san?"
Chikage and Tampopo nodded. "That it does." Cologne glanced at Ataru. "Tell me, Ataru: What is the Zephyrite punishment for child abandonment?"
Ataru sighed, raising the qu'f-piaqu'r to his shoulder as he lowered the muzzle at the heart of Ukyou's father. "Death."
Ukyou moved to stand in the path of the musket. Ranma jabbed a point on her back to lock her legs in place, and then she yanked Ukyou back from falling on her face. Seeing that, her father paled as the realization dawned on him that THIS time, he wasn't going to get his way -- and that he might pay for his determination to avenge Genma's crime with HIS life! "I suggest you strongly reconsider your position, Kuonji-san," Tampopo warned. "If you take a good look into Ataru-chan's eyes, you'll notice they're marksmen's eyes. The eyes of a man who has killed many times in the last while. Do you really believe you'll be able to avoid being disintegrated if he decides to kill you?"
He gagged. "Ataru-kun, please, DON'T!" Ukyou pleaded, and then she glanced at Ranma. "Ran-chan, make him stop! Please!"
"Not until he answers one question." Ataru held up a finger. "Why?"
"Wh-why . . .?" the older chef sputtered.
"Why force your daughter through TEN YEARS of being what she's not, all to make up for YOUR mistake?!" Ataru snarled before he gazed at Tampopo. "Tampopo-chan, correct me if I'm wrong, but when a dowry is offered up in a marriage pact, it's to the bridegroom's FATHER that the dowry is handed to before the wedding takes place. Only when they actually go through the marriage ceremony does the dowry fall under the groom's control."
Tampopo nodded. "Yes, that's right."
Ataru's eyebrow arched. "So if Genma disposed of the dowry without any intent of giving same to his child, much less not bothering to TELL his child about the engagement, doesn't that mean the engagement has no legal standing?"
"Yes, people could agree to that."
"I do not!" Ukyou's father snarled. "Ranma recovered the dowry!"
"And returned it, after it was repaired and refurbished AT RANMA-CHAN'S EXPENSE, to its rightful owner." Tampopo indicated Ukyou.
"Besides, the person that dowry was meant for no longer exists," Ranma added. "I am NO LONGER Saotome Genma or Saotome Nodoka's son. And if you refuse to acknowledge that, well . . . " She shrugged. "You're in contempt of court, buster. The highest family court in the land. And nothing will save you from that court's reach if you keep this up, Kuonji-san."
Mr. Kuonji moved to retort. He then fearfully gagged on seeing Ataru take a step towards him, the muzzle of the qu'f-piaqu'r looming large in his field of vision. Ranma turned to Ukyou. "Let it go, U-chan!" She pressed the shiatsu point to unlock her legs, and then she walked around to gaze into Ukyou's eyes. "Why?! Why are you letting this gutless bastard get away with putting you through this shit, U-chan?! Why?!"
Ukyou stared pleadingly at Ranma. "Ran-chan, please . . . "
"WHY, U-chan?!"
"He . . .!" Her eyes fell on her father, and then she shook her head. "He'll take it all away from me . . .! I couldn't . . .! I can't . . .!"
"Fine." Ataru grimaced, bracing his body as his finger curled around the trigger. "He won't live long enough to do anything to you."
Cologne and Tampopo cleared the field of fire. "NO!" Ukyou screamed, and then she gasped as Ataru swung the musket to lock on her.
"What's it gonna be?!" Ranma appeared behind Mr. Kuonji, swinging Yekaechsuch to allow the blade to rest on his throat. "Are you going to renounce this whole farce AND accept your daughter back AS your daughter . . .? Or do I have my lover kill her?!" she then hissed.
His eyes went wide as the blade pressed into his throat. "Ran-chan, no . . .!" Ukyou shifted to force Ranma away, and then she screamed as a metre-long lightsabre-like bayonet erupted from a projector under the muzzle. Shuddering as the blade's heat scalded her, she turned to Ataru. Haruka had moved to her brother's side, holding up her naginata to block her escape. "Please . . .!"
Haruka looked apologetic. "We're very sorry, Ukyou-san. But none of us will stand idly by and allow Anegimi-sama's life to be continually disrupted like it's been since she first came to Nerima. Besides . . . " She spared her brother a glance. "We've known from the start that Anegimi-sama's destiny is to marry Anigimi-sama. No one will be allowed to interfere in that, not from here in Nerima, nor from Tomobiki, nor from elsewhere."
Ukyou shuddered, gazing at Ataru. He remained still for a moment, and then he asked, "Remember what I told you in the park?"
She nodded. "You said your family could help me." She sniffed. "Because in your eyes, what happened to me was child abuse."
He nodded. "Yes."
Ukyou looked away. Ataru shut off his weapon's electro-bayonet, he drawing back. Haruka lowered her naginata. The chef stared curiously at them, and then she turned to her father. A glance at Ranma, and then she took a deep breath. "Father, Saotome Genma and Saotome Ranma are dead." She slipped off her battle spatula, letting it rest on the floor. "You have what you wanted."
"No, I do not!" the older chef snapped. "Ranma's right here!" His eyes fell on the redhead holding the sword at his throat.
"No." Ukyou shook her head. "On Sunday night, when he was cornered by the authorities, Genma stated he neither had son or daughter."
"That does NOT matter!" Mr. Kuonji thundered. "You will do as you're told or you will no longer be my child! Do you understand me?! You will never be allowed to practice the Art again! Never! NEVER!"
"Fine, then. If Ukyou-chan agrees, she'll be MY apprentice."
Ukyou stared wide-eyed at the person who spoke up for her. Mr. Kuonji's eyes spun around to stare at Tampopo. "You have no right!"
"Correction, boy!" The other chef sneered at him. "I've every right in the world to take anyone on as my apprentice! And since you did such a nice job training her, I won't have to do much work to expand her knowledge and let her evolve into what she CAN be." Her face melted into an emotionless mask. "And do be assured of this, Kuonji: You will get no victory from this day! Do you HONESTLY believe that we're not going to let you go before we make DAMN sure you can't do a THING to hurt Ukyou?!"
"The courts could charge you with child abandonment and child abuse," Ranma added. "Everything you decide concerning U-chan would be ignored. Her family name? She can keep it. Her career? Same thing. And as for you?" She snorted. "Your life'd be dragged into the gutter. If you tried to attack U-chan or Tampopo-chan, YOU'D be the one who'd suffer! After they pound you into the dirt, the courts'd throw you into jail and your whole life'd be screwed!" Shaking her head, she stood, moving away from him, though she kept Yekaechsuch aimed in his direction as she moved to stand beside Ataru. "So what's it going to be? Are you going to wise up finally and accept what's happened? Or are you going to be as much a blind fool as Genma and Souun were?"
Mr. Kuonji glared hotly at her, and then he turned to Ukyou. "Do what I told you, Ukyou," he ordered.
Ukyou remained in place, squeezing her eyes shut. "DO IT!" he bellowed.
Tampopo perked. "What is it, Ukyou-chan?"
"If you and the Elder don't mind, drag that jackass' carcass out of this house." Ukyou stared at the man at her new teacher's feet. He was staring in stunned shock at her. "I don't think Ataru-kun's sisters would appreciate me spreading blood all over their floor."
Tampopo nodded. "Alright, then."
Before Mr. Kuonji could respond, a finger tapped his throat. "You have no right to speak to anyone in this house anymore," Cologne icily intoned.
He moaned, though his eyes still flashed defiance. "One more thing!" Haruka clapped her hands three times. "Jinseiko-san!"
A flash revealed the leader of the Kuromoroboshi kneeling beside the raven-haired woman's feet. "You summoned me, Young Mistress?"
"Please have your girls remove this uncouth barbarian from our land when Ukyou-san finishes pummelling him for his stupidity." Haruka indicated Ukyou's father with a finger. "Preferably in a place far from Tokyo. Also ensure that he remains paralysed for the remainder of the day. I'm sure by this evening, our honoured friends in the Court of Special Appeals will have removed his parental rights concerning his child."
Jinseiko bowed. "Of course, Young Mistress."
Mr. Kuonji moaned.
* * *
"Is that Nihon?"
"Yes, Venerable One. Those four large islands forming that crescent-shaped archipelago on the eastern side of the largest continent." The captain of the Noukiite ship pointed as he guided his barque-like craft into orbit over the Pacific. Once, no more than a month ago as Terrans told time, no Noukiite ship would have been allowed to remain for any time in this particular system. If the stupid dog people from Uru didn't send one of their battlewagons to chase the intruders out of "their" territory, the fools from Triton might get upset and try to deluge the poor traveller with a mountain of snow.
As to what the Zephyrites might have done, well . . .!
That sort of nonsense wouldn't happen again, the captain grinned. With Uru's leadership all radioactive dust over what remained of Onishuto, the Oni fleet either turned to scrap or caught in the throes of mass mutiny and the colony planets cut off from each other, the dog people's dominance over this particular sector of space had been eliminated once and for all time. Without their traditional protectors, the Tritonians would have to think hard and fast before trying to stand up on their own. Yes, those ice lovers had considerable advantages. But in the end, they were only one moon orbiting a planet rendered lifeless thanks to the hordes of the Seifukusu. The Dominion of Noukiios, born of a culture five millennia old, one that weathered Urusian occupation and centuries of economic blockade relatively unscathed, was no pushover.
Dismissing that, the captain gazed on his passengers. "We'll be at the drop point in a few minutes, Venerable Ones. Your father's ship will be placed in orbit within the magnetic well over the planet's north pole."
One of them gazed appreciatively at the older man. "Thank you."
* * *
"I'd think Nassur would be better than this, Seiko-chan."
A muscle over Seiko's eye twitched, and then she sighed as she tapped the point to calm herself. Despite the chasm of mistrust and hatred that had existed between Nassur and Aruka Ran for the past several years, Sakiko had just made a valid point. There was just NO way that Nassur would risk the lives of four sentient beings -- even if they were meticulously constructed clone-bioroids -- as living targets to ensure Lum, Ran, Benten and Oyuki would not be drawn into the multitude of vendettas focused on the expat Vosian.
Unless . . .
She gazed on the replica of Lum. "They're Avalonians, right?"
"All four of them." Sakiko gazed on the replica of her past self. The bioroids were dressed in the usual swimsuits their templates preferred. Oyuki's replica even wore a kimono over her silver one-piece. A thoughtful hum escaped Sakiko. "Seiko-chan, could it be possible that Nassur couldn't sense their brainwaves?" She gazed at Seiko. "If our hosts are any example, Avalonians possess abnormally strong mental shields. Maybe strong enough to mask themselves from a Vosian's powers, just like Yehisrites can do."
Seiko considered that suggestion, and then she nodded. "Possible. And if Nassur-chan trained these four to as high a standard as he could, they could've easily avoided any serious injury if they were out in the field."
"True. I guess we'll have to ask him the first chance we get." Sakiko grunted as her eyes fell on the cryo-stasis chamber the Avalonians had brought with them to Earth. "What about Ten-chan?" she asked in a hushed voice.
Seiko shuddered as she gazed on the body inside the stasis unit. "Not much left of him." She shifted herself over to run a hand along the glass. "All I can sense from him now was that he met these four close to Toshitto a week or so ago. Then some Ip'ihu ship ambushed them. They were able to use the Central Warp Chamber to shift to their home base on Io. After that . . . " She shrugged. "I guess their first priority was keeping Ten-chan alive. Then they tried to come here to find Darling and get his help. But . . . "
She gazed on the closet. Sakiko walked over to the doorway. Scanning the doorframes, she then scowled. "I guess when they cleared this place out, Darling's family and friends were more thorough that we would have expected of them. I don't see any of the target relay markers Oyuki-chan would use to allow the Warp Chamber to focus in on this beam-in point."
"Not that I'd expect that Darling'd ever allow Oyuki-chan to do something like that again." Seiko then grinned, remembering the time B-Boy, the abominable snowman-like alien who served as Oyuki's personal bodyguard, had come through the Chamber to Earth in pursuit of Ataru after he tried to seduce the Tritonian crown princess the day they met. "Something tells me that if something like that ever happened again, especially if it was anywhere close to Darling's sisters, B-Boy'd be sent back to Triton in pieces."
"I wouldn't blame him at all." Sakiko smirked, having sensed what Seiko just reminisced about. "Sometimes, Seiko-chan, I think Oyuki-chan needs a little humiliation just to remind her that she's not perfect."
She gave her a wink. "She's not THAT bad, Saki-chan!" Seiko scolded, and then she jolted on hearing a thrum! through the windows. "What the . . .?"
Both walked to the window, looking up to see a starship shaped like a schooner, its prow topped by a snarling dragon's head, coming to a stop over Tomobiki High. "That's a Noukiite scoutship!" Sakiko gasped as her eyes widened before they glowed. "Beaming in someone . . . "
"Two young girls . . . " Seiko's own eyes glowed as she focused her telepathic powers on the two newcomers standing by the front gate of Tomobiki High. "Who . . .?" she wondered before a shocked gasp escaped her. "Mother!"
Sakiko spun on her. "What?!"
Seiko's eyes reverted to normal as she faced her sister. "They're . . . " She stopped before sputtering, "Darling's daughters?!"
Sakiko gaped at her.
* * *
Hinako winced as she heard Ukyou's battle spatula slam HARD into the side of Kuonji Haruka's skull. Sitting on the roof of the old shrine, the Staff of Gihan in her lap, the youngest of Ataru's sisters gazed absently on the surrounding cityscape. Seeing how angry the okonomiyaki chef had become when her baka-baka father refused to budge from his desire to see his child marry Ranma-oneetama, Hinako couldn't blame her for wanting to beat him up. While Hinako had no problems when it came to her parents -- except for them living on the mainland and forcing her to live at Welcome House -- she knew classmates at Stargazer West whose parents were on the road to breaking up.
Stupid adults! Hina's glad she's still a kid! the young girl ruefully mused as she focused in the direction of Tomobiki.
Her eyes then went wide on seeing something dive from outer space to halt over a point close to the centre of town. "A spaceship?" Hinako stood, holding the Staff close to her as she tried to make out details. It wasn't a big ship, not like the giant ship Miree and her family had come from last night. Even more, it was shaped like a sailing boat from Earth.
What sort of ship was that, anyway?
"What the . . .?"
"Ah!" Hinako turned. "Onii-tama!"
Ataru stood beside her. "A Noukiite ship?" he whispered, placing a reassuring hand on Hinako's shoulder. "What's it doing here . . .?"
Hinako pointed. "They're the people Onii-tama helped, right?"
"Hai, Hinako-chan, the same . . . " He nodded, sighing. "Wait here. I'm going to get some stuff. We'll go see what's going on right away."
He raced to his bedroom. Hinako watched him go, shuddering delightedly as she held the Staff against her chest. Waaaaaaai! Onii-tama wants Hina to help Onii-tama with the aliens! she gushed, her eyes sparkling as she focused anew on the visiting Noukiite ship now hovering over Tomobiki.
Boy, she was really, really, REALLY happy that she got Bou-san!
* * *
"Tell me something." Jay stared at the ship from the offices of the Special Committee located atop one of the three towers in the centre of Tomobiki, right next to the Toranoseishin Finances Tower. "Are there days you wished you never got out of bed?" He waved at the ship in question.
Kay closed his briefcase, and then he slipped his sidearm into its holster. "All the time, kid. Let's go see what they want."
"What about those other aliens Ataru warned us about?"
"Feh, if they're being discrete, they can wait. It's things like THIS . . . " He nodded to the ship. "That can start wars. Let's go."
Jay followed him out of the room.
* * *
"Ne, Shinobu-chan. Is this NORMAL around these parts?"
A sigh escaped Shinobu's lips as she stared on the two diminutive people standing by the front gate. Jolting on feeling Sawada Minako's hand squeeze her shoulder, Ataru's ex-girlfriend glanced at her new friend. "Yeah, this is pretty normal, Minako-chan," she then replied.
"So who the heck are those kids, anyway?" Yoshino Tomomi asked.
"What makes you think they're kids, Tomomi-san?" Marubeya Momoe asked, standing behind the transplanted Hokkaido native. "They could be very short people like Cherry or that crazy underwear-thief from Nerima."
"They seem like kids to me," Tomomi admitted, not wanting to clue her classmate in on her various psionic powers. Sakura had warned Tomomi and her friends yesterday that being a little TOO open about their ancestry could lead to a whole host of problems. "Girls, I think."
"Hey, they're taking their hoods off!" a boy standing by another window called out. "Geez! They're Klingons!"
"Kling- . . .?!" Shinobu blinked, and then she looked. Sure enough, both of them had very prominent bony forehead ridges, though those seemed to disappear under sky-blue hair. "Somewhat like them, ne, Minako-chan?"
Minako smirked. "Yeah! And they're both so kawaii, too!"
Another boy pointed closer to the school. "There goes Onsen-sensei!"
Everyone watched as the vice-principal stormed out of the building. "C'mon!" Shinobu waved Minako and Ryuunosuke with her.
Minako nodded. "Right!"
She and the tomboy followed Shinobu out of the room. They were in turn followed by Tomomi, Momoe, Ikusawa Kyooko and Gekasawa Kumiko. In a minute, most of the rest of the class had streamed out, their curiosity about the newcomers getting the better of them. A minute after, Hanawa Mitsu stepped in. "Good morning, class!" He stopped. "Ara?! Where did everyone go?!"
* * *
"So this is Tomobiki, eh?!" Kaneko looked around. "Quiet place."
"Wasn't so quiet when Papa was living here," Reiko warned as she took her own look around. "What would the name translate to in Nouki-e?"
"'A-ich,' I think." Kaneko then turned as a stocky man welding a light bamboo sword stormed towards the twins. "Uh-oh!"
"Alright, you two!" Onsen thundered as he stopped before them, his shinai ready for action. "What makes you aliens think you can just beam down and disrupt school with your ship flying overheard?! Where's . . .?"
He stopped, looking up in shocked surprise. The Noukiite craft was soaring away from Tomobiki, gaining altitude as it commenced its trip home. Onsen blinked, blinked again, and then he turned to the newcomers, pointing at the disappearing starship. "Where are they going?"
"Back to our home planet," Reiko replied as they shrugged nonchalantly. "They gave us a lift here so we can live with Papa and Mama."
Onsen jolted. "'Papa?!' 'Mama?!' Who are they?!"
"Moroboshi Ataru and Saotome Ranma!" Kaneko replied.
He sighed. "Moroboshi and Saotome, eh . . .?" It hit him. "WHAT?!" he yelled loud enough to cause a quake. "WHAT ARE YOU TALKING ABOUT?!"
"By the looks of it, Onsen-sensei, Ataru-kun adopted them."
Onsen spun around to see Ataru's old classmates (plus extras) standing behind him. Minako had been the one who had spoken up. "What?!" He spun again to stare on Reiko and Kaneko. "Hey, wait a minute! Since when can Moroboshi adopt either of you?!" he then demanded.
Kaneko smiled. "Because Papa helped us defeat the dog people!"
Shinobu perked. "Ataru-kun was in a fight?! When was this?!"
"Probably a couple of weeks ago, after Onishuto got nuked!"
Reiko and Kaneko turned around, smiling. "Ah!" the former then hailed with a wave of her hand. "You must be from your world government!"
She pointed as Jay and Kay approached. "The very same, young lady! And welcome to Earth," the elder of the SCAA agents replied, he and Jay nodding. "So what brings a pair of nice girls like you two here to our little planet?"
"Because Papa and Mama live here, sir," Kaneko replied.
"And Ataru is your father?" Jay asked, drawing out a very complex scanner. "I hope you got some documentation to prove that."
They reached into their tunics and drew out data chips. Jay loaded them into his machine. Kay glanced over his partner's shoulder as the readout came up. Their eyes widened before they exchanged a look. "Nice guy!" Jay stated as he drew the chips out to return them to Reiko and Kaneko. "So when was he going to tell US about this?!" he asked his partner.
"Probably when he expected them to come here, which certainly wasn't today," Kay admitted, turning to the twins. "In the meantime, girls, welcome to Earth. We'll be happy to help you both settle in once you get back together with your father. I assume that since you're here, the war between your people and the Urusians has come to an end."
"They found Heaven's Gate Bridge twelve of your hours ago. It was located in the mountains north of Onishuto," Kaneko reported. "The cease-fire was declared four hours later. Once that happened, Onee-chan and I were free to come here to be with Papa and Mama."
"Well, let's hope this doesn't lead to a mass of Urusian refugees coming this way," the older SCAA agent mused.
Reiko shook her head. "Won't happen. No Urusian'll be allowed to come anywhere close to Earth for the next century. There're part of the terms we're going to force on them if they want peace . . . "
The twins and the SCAA agents ducked as a massive aura of heat washed over them from the direction of the school. Spinning around, Reiko and Kaneko tensed on seeing a sea of outraged looks emanating from every teenage boy standing on the walkway. "No Urusian permitted to come to Earth for a CENTURY?!" Koi Shinjin -- who, in the wake of Megane's death, had become the effective de-facto leader of Lum's widespread fan club -- pointed accusingly at the Noukiites. "WE WILL NOT STAND FOR THIS!" he screamed out.
"REVENGE FOR LUM-CHAN!" the other boys bellowed.
Onsen howled as the boys trampled him down, they reaching out for the young alien girls who had just crowed over the Urusians' defeat. Before they could get within grasping range, Reiko and Kaneko bounded into the air, their eyes glowing as they used their telekinetic powers to keep their bodies well out of the boys' reach. Kay and Jay scattered, their Lawgivers clearing their holsters, as the boys wound up in a dog pile of idiocy where Reiko and Kaneko had just stood. As their bellowed outcry became a chorus of grunts, curses and pained yelps, the ominous click-clack! of an alien particle musket's breech being locked into place turned everyone's attention to the gate.
"And what are you clowns doing attacking my daughters?!"
The girls paled on seeing Ataru, he dressed in a brown gi-like jumpsuit, a woodland camouflage cape draped over his shoulder. In his hand was his qu'f-piaqu'r, the barrel pointed up. Seeing him, Reiko and Kaneko gushed, "PAPA!"
The twins flew into his embrace, Kaneko ensuring she didn't accidentally knock her father's musket out of his hand. Ataru blinked, and then, clicking the safety on his weapon, he allowed the alien rifle to rest on the ground so he could return his daughters' hugs. Standing behind him, a confused Hinako stared at this Kodak moment, unsure of WHAT to say at this time.
"Onii-tama . . . " she whispered.
The twins looked, and then they squealed, "Auntie Hinako!"
Before she could react, twin typhoons of alien love knocked her over. "HEY!" Hinako screamed as she tried to get free from their embrace. "HELP! ONII-TAMA! HINA NEEDS TO BREATHE! WHO ARE THESE GIRLS, ONII-TAMA?!"
An explosion echoed from inside school grounds. "'ONII-TAMA?!'"
Ataru noticed that ALL of his former and would-be classmates, even the three half-Avalonians and the other Avalonian-like girl he could sense in the school, were staring at him. Taking a deep breath, he gazed on Kay and Jay. "Tell me something. Have either of you ever had days like this?" He indicated the members of the family with him, and then the people staring at him.
"Many times," Kay admitted, he indicating Reiko and Kaneko. "But taking these girls in was a pretty nice thing to do, Ataru."
"They saved my sanity after I watched three billion people get turned into air pollution, Kay-san. What do you think I should've done?"
Both SCAA men tensed, exchanged a look, and then they turned back to Ataru. "You mean what went down on Phentax Two a few weeks ago? You were there?" Jay asked. Seeing Ataru nod, the younger agent breathed out, "Right."
"Onii-tama . . .?"
Ataru spun around as Hinako walked up. Reiko and Kaneko stood to either side of their aunt, the former holding the Staff of Gihan. "Onii-tama, are these girls . . .?!" Hinako waved to the twins. "REALLY your daughters?!"
"Hai, Hinako-chan, they are," Ataru admitted as he scratched the back of his head. "My adopted daughters! Sorry about that! I was waiting for a good time to tell you! I didn't expect them to come here today, though . . . "
Hinako blinked. "Onii-tama has daughters . . .?" She looked nowhere in particular. "Onii-tama has daughters . . .!" she whispered again, and then she screamed out, waving her hands, "HINA'S TOO YOUNG TO BE AN AUNT!"
Ataru, Reiko and Kaneko fell flat on their faces. Jay tried not to topple over laughing. Kay, at least, was able to keep his composure. The students staring at them were unsure as to what to say, though Ataru was quick to sense that some of the boys were about to call out questions that would, in the LEAST, be grossly offensive to his sister and daughters. "C'mon, Hinako-chan." He got back to his feet, and then he helped his daughters up. "Let's find a nice ice cream parlour so we can have some fruit parfait!"
Hinako gushed, "Wai! Fruit parfait! Fruit parfait! Fruit parfait!"
She jogged off after her brother and his daughters. Kay and Jay moved to follow. Both then stopped, their bodies tensing on hearing the shuffle of many feet moving towards them, and then they turned to see the members of Shinobu's class ready to race off in pursuit. "Glasses!" Kay barked.
Both SCAA agents slipped on their Ray-bans, hands snapping to their tunics to draw out devices similar to hand-held mini-flashlights doctors would use to examine one's ears and throat. Before the hapless Tomobiki students could take another three steps, twin bursts of high-intensity light froze them in place. Seeing their neuralizers had done their job, Kay and Jay slipped off their glasses. "Okay, back to class and don't EVER bother Ataru about his sisters or his daughters again! Alright?!" Jay stated.
No response. Kay waved his partner with him. "Let's go."
They headed off. The students remained frozen. Onsen was still flat on his back. In the back of the crowd, Minako -- she had not been affected by the neuralizers -- turned to Tomomi and Kyooko. "So why doesn't Ataru-kun want to talk about his family to everyone here?" the rose-haired Avalonian asked.
"Probably because he's tired of being blamed for everything under the sun by these jerks!" Kyooko snorted disgustedly. "I sensed a couple of these boys were ready to call those girls Ataru-kun's love children!"
"Jeez! I guess the intelligence level in this place IS shorter than my shoe size," Tomomi said. "In AMERICAN measurements! Let's go back to class!"
"Hai!" the others chimed as they followed their friend back, leaving their classmates frozen in place by the front gate.
"What happened to them?" a voice called from their homeroom.
Minako, Tomomi and Kyooko looked up. Gazing at them from the window was a brown-haired, blue-eyed girl distantly resembling Tomoe Hotaru from Sailor Moon. "They just got zapped for being idiots, Mie-san," Minako replied.
Seikou Mie snorted. "Doesn't surprise me."
* * *
"Slight headache, Nabiki-chan?"
Nabiki nodded as Miree drew her fingers away from her face. Both were relaxing in Nabiki's bedroom, sitting on the bed so the Niphentaxian high priestess could teach the younger girl the finer points of mind-shielding. "Well, it was either this or keep sharing my body with my brother." Nabiki pinched her nose. "Was it this hard for you when you got your new body?"
"No. The information needed for me to make use of my powers was automatically downloaded into it." Miree chuckled. "The next time we ask Hinako-chan to use Bou-san in creating new Avalonians, we ensure they can adjust immediately to their new abilities."
"Sounds like a plan," Nabiki agreed before she tensed on sensing a wave of -- well, something -- come her way from the general direction of the kitchen. "What the heck . . .?" She peered in that direction. "Who . . .?"
Miree smiled. "Oh, that feels like Chieko-san."
"Chieko?!" Nabiki perked, and then she breathed out, "Geez, what's that girl doing here?! She knows if I'm absent from school . . . "
"I think it's because she's worried about you." The priestess gave the younger woman a knowing look, and then she blinked. "Oh . . .!"
Nabiki blinked as she sensed someone come into the front yard. "Who is that, anyway . . .?" she wondered.
Miree looked outside. "It's Rinrin-chan! And Yotsuba-chan's back, too! Looks like she did quite a bit of shopping!"
Nabiki stood beside her. "Boy, she did," she confirmed. "I guess she really does have it in for Shinshi, ne?"
Both women laughed.
* * *
"So you want me to get the construction boys to build an extension to your room so you and Shinshi-kun can live together, right?!"
Yotsuba nodded as Rinrin opened up her laptop computer. "Checky!"
"Okay, let's see what we can do."
The inventor tapped controls to call up her data files on the rotunda at Welcome House. As Rinrin played with her machine, Yotsuba picked up the clothing to drag them to the master bedroom. Fujii Chieko remained in the kitchen with Kasumi, preparing lunch. Akane had gone back to her bedroom to sleep; with the revelations about Ranma tacked onto the sea of problems her father instigated with Nabiki and Shinshi, she definitely needed a chance to relax and organize her thoughts. Shinshi was asleep. He was using Souun's old room as his own. Miree had dealt with him before dealing with Nabiki.
As a diagram of the rotunda's third floor appeared on the computer's screen, the kitchen door opened. "Rinrin-san!" Kasumi hailed with a smile as she walked in with a tea tray. "Did your sister come back?"
"She's carrying the things into your brother's room," Rinrin reported as she traced a finger over the computer screen. "Okay . . . "
Her hands flew over the keyboard. "What are you doing?" Kasumi asked.
"Yotsuba-chan asked me to put in an extension to her room so she and Shinshi-kun can live together," Rinrin reported matter-of-factly. "Since we're putting in an extension on the first floor for Aniki and Aneki, we can get the construction crews to do this as well."
Kasumi's eyebrow arched in surprise. "Rinrin-san, do Yotsuba-san's parents know about this?" She gazed concernedly on the teen inventor. "At least her mother should be told. I mean, to start a relationship . . . "
"Our parents don't really care about us anymore, Kasumi-san."
Silence fell as Rinrin's fingers continued to dance over the keyboard. "Take me for example." She pointed to herself, and then she nodded as Kasumi poured her a cup. "My mom and step-dad left me at Welcome House two years ago so they could work at a big science lab in Osaka. Never told me why." She sniffed. "Dad gets killed last year in an accident. Mom . . . " She stopped, shrugging. "She hasn't come back. Hasn't wrote to me, called me or done anything of the sort. Last time I saw her was at Dad's funeral. I only found out whom my real dad was when Aneki came to the Island and told me about Aniki. By then, all of us had pretty much settled into the House, became friends and . . . " A smile crossed her face. "Then we learned we were family! It . . . "
"Rinrin-chan . . . " Kasumi gazed sympathetically at her, and then she reached over to draw the teen inventor into a comforting embrace. "You didn't deserve that . . . " she whispered. "You didn't deserve any of that . . . "
"Oh, is Rinrin-chan giving you that old sob story?!"
Both looked as Yotsuba stepped into the sitting room. "How's Shinshi-chan, Yotsuba-chan?" Kasumi asked as she let Rinrin go, the latter going back to work on her computer. "Miree-sama said he needed his sleep."
"Yotsuba knows that." The would-be detective sat, stretching herself. "Shi-chama's sleeping like the dead right now."
"Yotsuba-chan!" Kasumi gasped. "Don't say such unlucky things!"
The younger girl laughed. "Oh, relax!"
"If you haven't clued in by now, she's English," Rinrin explained as she pointed at her sister. "Yotsuba-chan always tends to throw some strange words out, even in Japanese. You can't escape it!"
Yotsuba growled indignantly as Rinrin laughed. Kasumi tried not to lose all deportment herself as the teen inventor went back to her machine. A minute later, Rinrin sat back. "Okay, here's what we'll do . . . "
Yotsuba gazed on the screen. "What are you doing?"
"Well, I don't need a window for my lab room, so we'll let your room come out the same distance as Aniki's room, then wrap clockwise to cover the wall of my lab space." Rinrin pointed to the details. "Hey, we could even board up the door to my lab, and then you can shift your front door to the hallway, at right-angles to the door to Shirayuki-chan's room. You could use the hall space between the old entrance to your room and the entrance to my room as a new closet, turn your old room into a sitting room . . . "
Nodding, she got to work drafting up the new plans. "Aaaah! Don't take Yotsuba's ladder away, Rinrin-chan!" Yotsuba pleaded.
"Oh, relax!" Rinrin laughed. "No doubt, Aniki'd love the idea of putting in a safety fence on the roof, not to mention your ceiling." Playing with the touch pad, she nodded as the new floor plans came up. "Okay! We'll put the ladder here, at the corner of the space beside my lab. We'll turn the window into an emergency door between my lab and your space, then keep the old door to my lab as another emergency door. Sounds okay?"
"My, are you sure you can do all this, Rinrin-chan?" Kasumi asked.
"Sure! The family owns the House!" Rinrin then stopped before looking anew at Kasumi. "Why don't you come live with us?"
"Rinrin-chan . . . " Kasumi gasped, she taken aback by Rinrin's offer.
"I mean . . . " Rinrin grasped the older woman's hand. "I know this is your land, but with your dad in the asylum and you, Nabiki, Shinshi-kun and Akane about to go to university, do you want to hang onto this place? You can come stay with us on the Island, your sisters go to school at the College."
"I . . .!" Kasumi then gently folded her other hand over Rinrin's. "Rinrin-chan, please, you don't have to do this . . . "
"Yes, we do." Rinrin smiled. "Kasumi-san, do you want to know why it was so easy for all of us to come together like we did?"
"Well, I suspect your birth-father's . . . " Kasumi then caught herself.
"Other than that!" Yotsuba laughed, walking over to sit on the other side of Kasumi from Rinrin. Reaching over to grasp the older woman's hand, the detective gazed into her eyes. "Ane-chama, you lost your mom a long time ago. And your dad's gone now. Even though you're at the point where you want to go out into the big world, you really don't have much of a family to fall back onto. That's not right, especially after what your dad did. Why shouldn't we help you? It's what our family's done all these years."
Kasumi blinked, her eyes misting. "You just called me . . . "
"Hai." Yotsuba nodded before she shrugged. "Yotsuba can't explain it. When Yotsuba checked Shi-chama for the first time, it . . . " She glanced at her lap. "All Yotsuba could think about is that Shi-chama was the first man other than Ani-chama that Yotsuba could learn to love. And if it does happen, then Ane-chama'll be Yotsuba's sister-in-law. Ono-sensei told Yotsuba lots of nice things about you, Ane-chama." She gazed tranquilly on Kasumi. The latter blushed on hearing that; even though nothing had ever truthfully worked out between herself and Ono Toofuu, that the chiropractor still held the Tendou matriarch in high respect was heart-warming. Yotsuba then sighed. "And, well . . . " She frowned. "Yotsuba knows there's a chance that things between Yotsuba and Shi-chama won't check out. Yotsuba thinks it's really not checky, but . . . " She shrugged. "If Shi-chama doesn't want Yotsuba as a lover, Yotsuba hopes Shi-chama'll have Yotsuba as a friend."
"You're only fourteen, Yotsuba-chan," Kasumi warned, reaching over to squeeze the younger girl's shoulder. "Look at all the trouble Ranma-chan and Akane-chan had in their 'engagement.' They were SIXTEEN, for heaven's sake. You don't deserve to go through that . . . "
"Yotsuba knows." She winked. "Yotsuba also knows that there won't be dumb parents or stupid idiots with bokken trying to butt into the way. After all, if Shi-chama, Na-chama and Ane-chama come to Promised Island, that doesn't mean Kunou'll come live on the Island!"
"The jerk might think he's king-shit here in Nerima, but he's nobody where we come from." Rinrin smirked. "Okay, here we go!"
The others looked. "Oh, my!" Kasumi gasped.
* * *
"Feeling a little better, U-chan?"
Ukyou perked before she stared at Ranma. After the chef got finished with her father, the Kuromoroboshi came along to dump him outside Uenohara, near the border between Metro Tokyo and Yamanashi prefecture. As planned, Ukyou's father wouldn't be free of the paralysis Cologne forced on him until late that evening. Long before that, a clerk from the Court of Special Appeals would visit U-chan's to record Ukyou's complaint concerning his father's refusal to recognize the legal changes concerning Ranma. "It's nice to hear you call me 'U-chan' again." The chef smiled as she laid back on the a futon Ranma provided for her, her eyes locked on the ceiling fan of the room Ranma shared with Ataru. "Hearing you call me 'Ukyou-san' got to me, you know."
"I had no choice," Ranma admitted as she sat beside her.
"Guess so." Ukyou closed her eyes. "Ran-chan?"
"What is it?"
"Did you ever love me?"
Ranma sighed. "Depends on what type of love you mean."
Ukyou gazed on her. "As a fiancée."
The answer was automatic: "No. I mean, even now, it's so hard for me to think of you as anything other than my best friend, U-chan. I . . . " She closed her eyes, shaking her head. "I'm sorry. I know it's not the least bit fair to you given all you've been through these last ten years, but I won't lie to you either. I love you, but as a friend, not a fiancée. I'll always be there to help you if you're really in a jam . . . "
"You didn't act that way after the wedding," Ukyou warned, closing her eyes. "I'd become a stranger to you. That hurt, Ran-chan!"
Ranma nodded. "True, I did. And I'm sorry I did hurt you, but from the moment you and Shan started lobbing okonomiyaki and nikuman bombs in the middle of a doojou filled with people who couldn't protect themselves from folks like us, I knew a line had to be drawn. I . . . " She leaned her chin on her knees. "I only wish I had the ability to draw that sooner. Maybe it would've saved us a lot of trouble in the long term."
"Because of what Genma did to you, right? That whole business with messing your mind up before you went on the training trip?"
Ukyou turned onto her side, gazing at Ranma. "Yeah, I guess that didn't really help matters a lot. For all of us."
"Yeah, that's true."
"So where's Ataru-kun?"
Ranma shrugged. "Went off with Hinako-chan to Tomobiki a few minutes ago. Some alien ship showed up while you were pounding the snot outta your old man. They went to check it out. Ataru told me they were Noukiites."
Confusion crossed Ukyou's face. "Who're they?"
"The people who are, at present, pounding the hell out of Lum's people, the Urusians. It's a five-century version of what happened between us and the Koreans some decades back." Ranma perked. "I've been to Noukiios myself."
Ukyou jolted. "WHAT?! WHEN?!"
Ranma laughed. "Saturday night, Negako took me to this place called 'Sanctuary' to help me overcome my fear of cats. It's . . . " She stopped, her hands shaking as she tried to muster the right words to describe that place, and then she shrugged. "Well, it's a place outside of normal time and space. I spent the equivalent of thirty-eight days there. Went through my first period, plus came up with some new moves, while I was training there. Along the way, Negako took me to Noukiios so I could see . . . "
Her voice trailed off on seeing the stunned look of disbelief cross the chef's face. "That can't be true . . . " Ukyou sputtered.
"Well, if you don't believe me, ask Negako. She'll confirm it."
Silence fell as Ukyou considers her ex-fiancée's words. Both then perked as the bedroom door slid open, revealing Shirayuki. "Nee-sama, your mom's here," the young chef reported. "She needs to see you."
Ranma sighed. "Right."
She stood, brushing off the back of her chemise before heading to the door. "You're gonna be okay, Ran-chan?" Ukyou asked on sensing a cloud of uncertainty descend on Ranma. "I know you broke off ties with her . . . "
The redhead stopped. "Yeah."
She gave Ukyou a faint smile before she followed Shirayuki out of the bedroom. Ukyou watched her go before she sighed, reclining on the bed.
* * *
Ranma nodded on entering the living room. "Ohayou."
"Ohayou, Ranma." Nodoka's eyes widened in surprise on seeing the chemise draped over her transformed child's body. Quickly composing herself, she then turned to Shirayuki. "I'd like to speak with him alone."
"Hai desu no!" The chef nodded before heading into the kitchen.
Ranma watched her go before she beckoned her mother to the front porch. "I'm glad to see Genma didn't hurt you that much when he took your sword away."
She closed the door behind Nodoka after they had stepped outside. "Yes, the wounds were light," Nodoka admitted, bracing herself for what she had to ask at this time. "How are you? I didn't hear many details about the fight at the school. He didn't hurt you, did he?"
"He tried," Ranma admitted. "He tried to skewer me with that sword when I announced that the Court of Special Appeals had granted my request to sever all bonds between myself and him. Hinako-sensei nearly got killed along the way and . . . " She shuddered. No, Nodoka certainly didn't need to hear about Ranma's delightful 'neko-self.' "Things got right out of hand. It's a miracle no one got killed before the police came. Genma . . . " She snorted. "He used a ki blast on riot police, for crying out loud!" she spat out.
"I know that part. That was right after you used some sort of attack to sever his cursed side from his real side, right?"
Ranma nodded. "Hai. Right after, one of the cops gunned him down. His body disintegrated when he died. Jijii explained that had happened once before when he tried to split a Niángniquán-cursed guy into two parts."
"I see . . . " Nodoka's voice trailed off. "Well, it no longer matters. Whatever feelings I might have had for him vanished sometime ago," she admitted. "All that bound me to him was honour and the hope that, in spite of all his mistakes, he did raise you well. But after hearing about what he did to you BEFORE you left home on your trip . . . "
"I know." Ranma perked. "So what brings you by?"
Nodoka gazed on her child, sighing. "Can't a mother come visit her son, especially given the long separation between us?"
The younger woman sighed. "I'm sorry. I didn't mean to sound rude, but I'm not used to idle pleasantries, even from family."
A surprised look crossed her mother's face. "You've changed." Nodoka then gazed intently at Ranma. "Considering the scant chances you've had to spend time in a classroom before you came here, it's surprising."
Ranma smirked. "Thank Tampopo-chan for that. That's one of the things she did for me while I was on my trip with her."
"I think I will." Nodoka laughed, and then she took a sombre breath. "Ranma, I don't wish to burden you with this right at this time, but there is another reason I came to see you today."
"I take it this has something to do with your father."
Silence. Nodoka stared wide-eyed at her child. "Ranma . . . "
"Before you say anything, let me explain." Ranma held up a warning hand. "I've been told about the time when Jijii, just before you were born, seduced your mom. And because of that, your dad wouldn't like anything more than to stick it good and hard into Jijii's back. And in doing so, he feels that seeing me become part of his family in name and deed -- with the change of any name bestowed on my school of the Art going along with it -- would help him toward that end." Her eyebrow arched. "Am I right?"
Nodoka took that in, and then she nodded. "Yes, dear, you are right."
"Then you can understand why I will refuse all attempts by him or anyone of his family to bring me into the Asagaya Clan."
The older woman jolted. "But Ranma, surely you . . . "
"I DO see that!" Ranma cut her off. "Look, if your dad wants to tear a strip off Jijii's hide, I can't blame him for that! Heaven knows how many people Jijii's pissed off over the years!" Her face turned into a steely mask as she stared at Nodoka. "But I will say this: I have been used time and time again by people, Genma above all, to pursue all sorts of stupid plots that have not ONCE benefited me! I've been caught at the short end of the stick many times because of things like that! To be frank, I'm very tired of it! If your dad wants to go after Jijii for what he did to your mom, tell him to go right to town! But don't involve me and don't involve my sisters!"
Nodoka gazed at her before she closed her eyes. "Is that why you chose to sever legal connections to myself as well as your father?"
Ranma evenly nodded. "Yes."
Nodoka considered that. A sad smile then crossed her face. "I see, then. Very well, Saotome-san. I will not bother you anymore about this matter." She gave her a stiff bow. "Have a good day."
She turned to march off. Ranma watched her. As Nodoka got halfway to the gate, she then called out, "Your son is dead, Asagaya-san!"
Nodoka stopped, spinning around to stare at Ranma. "I'm a girl not just in body now," the younger woman warned. "Thanks to a hidden trick Zhòuquán-xiang saves for those people who don't change back right away after they're cursed, I became a girl here and here." She pointed to her head, and then her heart. "Fortunately, thanks to the Neko-ken, my brain was damaged to the point where that particular metamorphosis didn't take effect right away. That damage has now been repaired, so Zhòuquán-xiang's FULL curse has taken effect over me. You can thank Genma for allowing you the chance to know your son for a little while." Her smile slipped. "And I'm no longer a student of Musabetsu Kakutou-ryuu. Make sure you tell your father that when you see him next, Asagaya-san."
She turned to head inside. "R-r-Ranma . . .!" Nodoka stuttered.
Ranma stopped. "Get off the property, Nodoka. Or I'll call the police."
Nodoka froze as Ranma's threat washed over her. She then jerkily nodded before she staggered through the front gate. Ranma remained in place, and then she stared over her shoulder at the empty gate leading into the shrine. "You stupid fool, Mom," she hissed. "There's no way in hell that old fart'll be nice to you, no matter WHAT you think!" She shook her head as she stepped inside, slamming the door behind her.
"Anegimi-sama, that was your MOTHER!"
Ranma jolted, she turning to stare at Haruka. "I can't hope to help people solve their problems if they refuse to see what problems face them, Haruka-chan." She moved to pass the other martial artist so she could return to her bedroom. "It's no different than what happened to U-chan."
Haruka gently gripped Ranma's shoulder. The redhead stopped, and then she sighed before turning to gaze on her future sister-in-law. "What happens if she refuses to have anything to do with you again, Anegimi-sama?"
"You mean like some of the girls' moms and step-dads have acted towards them that got them all sent to Welcome House?" Ranma asked. Seeing Haruka nod, she took a deep breath. "Haruka-chan, I want to learn how to love Mom. I do. But . . . " She shuddered. "At the same time, I can't forgive her for literally ABANDONING me to Genma when I was a child! And she believed, for more than a DECADE, that a piece of damned PAPER with my handprint on it mattered more than my own LIFE! And NOW she wants me to become part of her old family?! Where her older brothers BEAT her constantly when she was growing up?! Where, when she decided to marry Genma, they turned around and DISOWNED her without giving her a chance to defend herself?! And NOW her father is trying to get revenge from Jijii because he once seduced her MOTHER?!"
She reached up to squeeze Haruka's hand, and then she guided it away. "No." Ranma shook her head. "I can't do it, Haruka-chan. I finally, after so long, have got FULL control over my life! I will not let anyone take it away from me. If Mom has a problem with that, too bad! And if her father's so hell bent on revenge against Jijii, that's just too bad, too! Besides . . . " A snide grin crossed her face. "If Mom's mother was so won over by JIJII, it makes me wonder what sort of real man her father was!"
Haruka balked, and then she flustered. "Well . . .!"
"That's pretty raw, Ran-chan!"
Ranma glanced at Ukyou; the chef was standing by the hallway leading to Ataru's bedroom. "Well, what would YOU think, U-chan?!"
Laughing, Ranma headed off to her bedroom. Ukyou and Haruka watched her go before exchanging a concerned look. "I never expected that from Anegimi-sama," the latter admitted. "She did try to be positive when she spoke of her mother on the Island last week . . . "
"Did Ran-chan really go to this Sanctuary place, sugar?" Ukyou asked.
"Hai, she did. Why do you ask?"
The chef considered that before she shrugged. "I guess spending over thirty days in a place like that would change anyone's attitudes. Especially given all the changes Ran-chan's had to go through to get where she is now."
Haruka considered that before she nodded. "I see."
* * *
"So Kunou refused to acknowledge what I said yesterday?"
"Hai, I'm afraid so." Fujii Chieko nodded as she placed a tray full of snacks on Akane's work desk. "At first, he and all the other boys were plenty pissed off that you didn't even bother showing up for the fight. Then when people started talking about the oath you made yesterday, the news got to Kunou-sempai pretty quick. Before I left school to come look in on you and the Boss, I heard from one of Sempai's classmates that after he was told of your oath, he started blaming it on Ranma-kun's 'sorcery.'" She made finger-quotes. "He vowed to not stop until he exorcised the 'black magic' from your heart with his trusty blade . . . " She giggled. "Yadadda, yadadda, yadadda . . .!"
Akane groaned, rising from her bed. "That idiot . . . "
"You're not going to win against someone like that, Akane-chan." Chieko sat on the bed, Akane taking her place at the desk. "And with Ranma-kun gone, who's going to distract Sempai from coming after you?"
Akane rested her arms on her desk. Chieko was quick to see a quiver shaking her classmate's limbs. "You have a point," the youngest Tendou admitted as she moved to dig into her food. "Ranma always was a distraction when it came to Kunou, ne?" she then mused.
"Hai." Chieko stared at the ceiling. "I'm going to miss him."
Akane blinked. "You won't be the only one."
The other girl gazed at her, deciding it wouldn't be prudent to push matters on that particular subject further. Heaven only knew Akane had always been mercurial when it came to her engagement to Ranma. Best to turn her attention back to immediate matters. "So what now? I don't think any of the guys were really swayed by what you said yesterday. If you try to dodge around them, they'll just keep coming after you."
"And if I fight them, I'm feeding into their delusions. Dealing with Kunou ever since he made that ridiculous speech taught me that."
"Pity you couldn't just pull up stakes and leave town."
Akane blinked, staring nowhere in particular. "Leave town . . . "
Chieko looked quizzically at her. "Eh?!"
"Leave town," the youngest Tendou repeated as she stared at her classmate. "You know, before Ranma came, Dad tried to get me transferred to another school to get me away from Kunou. It was blocked because school rules state the ONLY way a person could get to transfer out of Fuurinkan is if they apply to go to a private school, like Saint Hebereke . . . " A smile crept across her face as she held up a finger. "Or if the whole family moves out of the district itself, say to another district, town or prefecture!"
"Couldn't you try to transfer to Kolholz?!" Chieko then asked. "They're not that far away from here. It wouldn't be too much of a hassle and I know it's not a private school like Saint Hebereke or Seishun!"
Akane considered that before she shook her head. "No. Something tells me Kunou's father arranged to make sure no one could try to transfer there. Besides . . . " A scowl crossed her face. "Sanzenin Mikado goes there!"
Chieko winced. "Right . . . "
A knock. Both saw Kasumi standing in the hallway. "Gomen nasai, but would you come to the sitting room, Akane-chan?" the eldest Tendou daughter asked with a smile. "There's something we need to discuss right away."
"About what, Onee-chan?" Akane asked.
"Something Rinrin-chan just offered us," Kasumi replied.
* * *
"Reiko-chan, say 'Aaaah!'"
"Aaaaaah!" Reiko moaned before swallowing the spoon full of fruit parfait Hinako offered her. Gazing at his sister as she fed his daughters, Ataru tried not to grin too much. He then noticed Jay and Kay gazing at him.
"Never thought something like this would happen to a guy like me, eh?" he asked with a smirk as he sat back in his chair.
Jay shrugged. "Yeah, I guess you could say that."
"I take it you were engaged in other activities with the Noukiites," Kay mused. "Your daughters did imply that you did help them fight the Urusians."
Ataru thumbed the flap of his tunic. "Obvious, ne?"
The SCAA agents gazed at his clothing. The fabric, interwoven in several layers, clearly wasn't Terran in origin even if it was hued in a nice earthy brown shade. And the glyphs lining the outer flap edge of his tunic, despite the similarity to han'geul, didn't originate from an Earth alphabet. A glance to Reiko and Kaneko revealed the twins had the same tailor as their father.
"Why?" Jay asked.
Ataru took a deep breath. "When Onee-chan took me to Sanctuary so I could be properly trained in my family's Art, I learned a lot about the circumstances surrounding my grandmother's death." A pause, and then he added, "The Urusian government was directly implicated."
Kay and Jay exchanged a look. "That would be something for the Inquisition to investigate," the former noted.
"Who do you think I was with when I went to Uru?" Ataru replied.
The older men nodded understandingly. "Ah!"
Ataru turned to Hinako, the latter holding up an empty fruit parfait bowl. "We need some more!" the youngest of the sisters warned.
Ataru glanced at his daughters. "Are you two still hungry?!"
"We're okay, Papa," Reiko grunted as the twins rubbed their tummies.
"Oh!" A knowing look crossed Ataru's face as he gazed on Hinako. "Don't tell me that Hinako-chan has to go on a diet!"
Hinako jolted. "Onii-tama!"
Everyone laughed. Ataru then started on hearing, "Anii!"
Hinako waved. "Ah! Mamoru-chan! Kaho-chan!"
People screamed out on seeing Chikage standing behind Ataru. Kaho cried out as her foot caught on a paving stone. She tumbled in front of Mamoru. The athlete didn't dodge clear in time, resulting in her falling flat onto her face. Ataru winced on seeing his sisters stumble about, and then he gave the sorceress a knowing look. "My dear Hirosaki-san, could you POSSIBLY think of trying NOT to scare the living daylights out of us whenever you pop up like that?! Gods, you're worse than Cherry!"
Chikage appeared nonplussed. She then cried out as twin typhoons snared her lower legs, they nearly sending her to join Kaho and Mamoru face-first on the tarmac. "Auntie Chikage!" Reiko and Kaneko gushed together.
Seeing this, Hinako giggled. "Silly Chikage-chan!"
Laughter filled the table as Mamoru picked herself up. "Anii, there's a problem!" she then reported.
"What sort of problem?" Ataru asked.
Mamoru breathed out. "Reigi-san just called us. Somebody just teleported into your old house some minutes ago. From where, NO ONE has any idea! And two others broke in around the same time. He's wondering if he should get the Kuromoroboshi over there to check things out!"
Ataru's eyebrow arched. He then glanced in the direction of his old family home. His eyes narrowed as he picked up several strangely familiar ki signatures, and then he turned to Chikage. "Who's there?!" he wondered.
"Lum and Ran -- their post-Crossing Over incarnations," Chikage reported, drawing her crystal ball. She swung it in the direction of the old Moroboshi home so she could do a scan. "Plus Jariten and four Avalonians, physical/mental replicas of Lum, Ran, Benten and Oyuki."
Ataru blinked. "Say what . . .?!"
Jay gaped. "Ten's come back?!"
Kay rose, waving for the cheque. "Let's get over there."
* * *
"So Ranma finally decided to leave this place, eh?!" Hiroshi mused.
Daisuke sighed. "Yeah, by the sounds of it."
They were relaxing in the library, along with a good portion of their class, not to mention people from several other classes, including Inu Chigaiko's senior class. It was morning study hall, the class before lunch. Given the nearly eerie quiet of the first day of the new school term -- what with the absence of the morning brawl between Ranma and Kunou, not to mention the Horde o'Hentai being unable to go all out on Akane now that the engagement between herself and Ranma had been thrown out the window -- the members of Ranma's old class seemed to be bracing themselves for a massive explosion.
Yuka and Chigaiko walked up to sit beside them. "Hey, Yuka-chan, any news about Akane?" Daisuke wondered as the two girls took their seats.
"I haven't seen her since I left the Moroboshi place." Yuka tried not to display any emotion stemming from her confrontation with Ranma earlier in the day at the old shrine. "I think Chieko-chan went over to look on them." She rested her chin on her hands. "She should be back . . . "
"Hey! Check out Gosunkugi!" Daisuke hissed.
Yuka, Chigaiko and Hiroshi looked as the frail would-be sorcerer walked into the library. Given the jaunty spring in his stride, the slaphappy smile etched on his face and the sheer glow of LIFE emanating from him, Hikaru's classmates had more than enough reason to be surprised. "What the hell's wrong with him?" Hiroshi asked before he turned to look at his best friend. "Hey, Dai! Have you EVER seen ol' Spooky act anything like THAT?!"
Daisuke shook his head. "Not me, dude!"
Hikaru sat down at a table, drawing out a book. Ignoring the chorus of confused, wary and curious looks emanating from his classmates, he turned to the page he wished to examine, and then he got to work. Minutes passed. People around him were quick to notice their classmate seemed distracted. As to what was distracting him, no one had an idea. Daisuke gazed on his friends. "Yuka, you sure Akane hasn't been to school at all today?" he wondered.
"I'm sure." Yuka then perked as the sound of many chatting voices echoed from the hallway. "What the hell's that?"
Hiroshi, Daisuke and Chigaiko followed her out. Stopping in the hallway, they gaped on seeing a crowd surrounding a cheerfully smiling Tendou Akane. "Is that . . .?" Hiroshi asked before he took a look at the new arrival's flower-print shirt and stylish slacks. "Oh, man!" he groaned. "Don't tell me Akane got herself caught in front of that magic mirror Ranma ran into!"
"Kimiko-chan," Chigaiko whispered.
Kimiko ignored the people around her as she focused her psi-senses on the one she had come to see. Passing Chigaiko and her companions by without a word of greeting, she peeked into the library. "Hikaru-kun?!" she called out. On spotting the would-be sorcerer in question, she grinned as she made a beeline for his table. "I have lunch!" she then announced.
Hikaru looked up from his book, and then the whole world around him went totally pink. "Kimiko-chan!" Stars sparkled in his eyes as he zipped up to grasp her free hand, as a chorus of violins began to play a romantic aria in the background. "Oh, Kimiko-chan! I was just thinking about you!"
Akane's twin blushed. "Hai, I know." She placed the bentou on the table, and then she gently touched her own reddening cheek as Hikaru's desiring gaze focused on her. "Oh, Hikaru-kun, did any mean boy try to hurt you today?" she asked. "I was SO worried about you, especially with that awful Kunou person and what he's been trying to do with my poor sister . . . "
Hiroshi tried not to gag. "Who wrote THIS corny dialogue?!"
"Who IS that, anyway?!" Daisuke wondered. "You'd figure any double of Akane'd act somewhat LIKE her, for Heaven's sake!"
Yuka glared at him. "And what EXACTLY is Akane-chan SUPPOSED to act like, Daisuke-kun?!" she frostily wondered.
Daisuke gulped as he ducked Yuka's incensed stare. Suddenly, an explosion knocked down the back doors leading into the library. Sure enough, Kunou Tatewaki stormed in, his eyes locked on the horrid sight of HIS beauteous tiger being manhandled by that uncouth Gosunkugi. "HOLD!" he bellowed, swinging his bokken out to strike the impudent junior student down. "I GAVE NO BLESSINGS TO THIS HIDEOUS UNION, GOSUNKUGI! UNHAND THE BEAUTIFUL TENDOU AKANE THIS INSTANT OR FACE THE BLUE THUNDER'S WRATH!"
"Hikaru-kun, did someone say something?" Kimiko wondered, oblivious to the oncoming kendou-ka moving to strike her boyfriend down.
Hikaru shook his head. "I didn't hear anything, Kimiko-chan. C'mon, let's go outside and have lunch! I'm starving!"
Kimiko snared the bentou, and then she nearly wrenched Hikaru's arm out of its socket as she lead him out of the library. Kunou, totally unused to being simply IGNORED like that, froze in place as his mind rolled over what he just witnessed. He quickly recovered, turning to pursue. "AH! So the devious Gosunkugi joined forces with the villainous Saotome and the monstrous Moroboshi to keep my tigress under their dark spells, has he?! I SHALL NOT HAVE IT!" He quickly moved to pursue. "HAVE AT THEE, BEAST!"
Kunou screamed as his fighting aura was sucked out of him, and then he dropped to the floor as Ninomiya Hinako walked up. "Now, Kunou-kun, I don't think the students here appreciate having their study hall interrupted by your mindless diatribes." The teacher planted a firm foot on the kendou-ka's head. "Besides, Gosunkugi-kun and that double of Tendou-kun DO seem a nice couple, don't they?" She tittered, glancing in the direction of the other boys in the room, many of whom she knew were part of that squad of delinquents who were ready to ambush and most likely RAPE Akane when she came to school. "Well?!" Her eyes flashed as she held up her fifty-yen piece. "DON'T they?!"
The boys shuddered before slumping in defeat. "Sensei, you're cruel!" one fellow, a long-time member of the Horde o'Hentai, groaned.
"Tough!" Hinako moved to leave. "Life itself's cruel! If I catch anyone trying to harass Gosunkugi-kun about his relationship, they'll wish they never heard of Tendou Akane by the time I'm finished with them!" she vowed.
She headed off. The boys watched her go, and then they began to mutter among themselves. Gazing on them, Yuka was quick to note that many were NOT pleased by this turn of events. Fortunately, their fear of Hinako's powers would prevent them from going too hog-wild over this matter. "Well, I'm glad something's back to normal around these parts!" Hiroshi mused. "Eh, Dai?!"
Daisuke nodded. "Yeah. It is a relief, isn't it?!"
* * *
"Is THIS the place Onii-tama lived in?!"
"What a dump!"
"Kaho's happy that Onii-chama's living in Welcome House now!"
As Ataru, Chikage, Jay and Kay stepped into the old Moroboshi home to see what was going on, Hinako, Kaho, Mamoru, Reiko and Kaneko waited by the front gate. "Ugh!" The younger of the Noukiite twins winced as she waved a hand over her nose. "The stench of those uo-t'ich is everywhere!"
"Um, Kaneko-chan?!"
"Hai, Auntie Mamoru. What is it?!"
"What's a 'uuoh-tichu?!'"
"'Uo-t'ich,' Auntie Mamoru." Kaneko stifled a giggle. "It means 'dog people.' That's what we normally call the Urusians."
"Kaneko-chan's people don't like dogs?!" Hinako wondered.
The sisters exchanged a look. "What happens when they meet Marie-chan and Michael?!" Kaho wondered, covering her mouth.
Reiko smiled. "Oh, it's okay, Auntie Kaho!"
"Why do you say that?!" Mamoru asked.
"Well, Earth dogs are related to Earth wolves and foxes, right?"
"Um . . . y-yeah, I think so!" the athlete stuttered.
"On Noukiios, wolves and dogs are as separate as dogs and cats are here," Reiko explained. "We call wolves ip'i. They're really cool when you see them, but you don't ever want to get one angry at you!"
The sisters stared at the twins, nodding. "Oh!"
Chikage peeked out the front door. "Hinako-chan."
"What is it, Chikage-chan?"
"Come in here, please. We need you," the sorceress beckoned.
Hinako took the Staff from Reiko before she followed her sister inside. Ascending to Ataru's old room, they stepped in. Hinako stopped on seeing Ataru kneeling beside some small glass tube, those two nice men from the Men in Black standing beside him. Jay was scanning what was in the tube with a tricorder. Seated on the empty bunk bed Ataru once used were two casually dressed women, one brown-haired, the other a redhead. The brown-haired girl looked as if she was about to break down and cry. Her friend had a reassuring hand on the other's shoulder. Laid out on the floor by the bed were four people Hinako recognized from the pictures her Onii-tama showed her some time ago. All of them were passed out, a blanket spread out over them. Before Hinako could think of their names, a whispered warning from Bou-san echoed in her mind.
They're Avalonians?! she wondered, and then she blinked as Chikage beckoned her to stand beside the tube.
"How bad is it?" Ataru wondered.
Jay looked at his tricorder. "He's in a bad way." He slipped the device into his jacket. "What happened to him?"
"The Ip'ihu attacked him," Seiko muttered.
Ataru and the SCAA agents gazed on her. The former sighed. "Must have been some fringe group, like the people who turned Onishuto into a radioactive parking lot. Mainstream Ip'ihu would never condone attacks on innocent children unless they're directly related to members of the Urusian colonial militia." Before Seiko could voice a response, Ataru turned. "Hinako-chan?!"
Hinako walked up. She then shuddered, her eyes tearing, on seeing the scarred body frozen within. "Onii-tama, is that . . .?"
"Yeah. You think you can ask Bou-san to do something to help him?"
She shakily nodded as she held the Staff up. The focusing crystal glowed for a moment as streams of energy showered Ten's body. Some seconds later, the shower ceased. Hinako drew the Staff back. "Bou-san says she can't help Ten-chan, Onii-tama." She sniffed. "Bou-san says all those boo-boos hurt him too much. If he's taken out of the tube, he'll go to the Very, Very Bright Place."
"Wonderful." Kay sighed, glancing at Seiko. "Your call."
Seiko gazed on her cousin, and then she took a deep breath. "Hinako-chan, is there ANYTHING your friend can do for Ten-chan?"
Hinako blinked, and then she canted her head as the Staff whispered something. "You think so?!" She stared at the glowing crystal, and then she listened to the answer before nodding. "Uhn! Hina knows what to do now!"
"That being?" Chikage asked.
In answer, Hinako hefted the Staff into the air. The focusing crystal glowed bright white as an opaque beam of energy lanced through the ceiling and straight into orbit over Japan's most infamous town. The room was bathed in blinding light for a moment, causing everyone to squeeze their eyes shut or cover their eyes with their hands. As soon as the light began to fade, Ataru shook his head clear before he glanced at the floor where Ten's cryo-storage unit should be. It was there no longer.
"Wh-where'm I . . .?"
Hinako gushed, cradling the Staff close to her. "Haaaaaaai!" She turned to Ataru. "Ten-chan's all cured now, Onii-tama!"
"Huh . . .?" The raven-haired boy, appearing to be about five or so, glanced around the empty room before his brown eyes focused on the two men in the black business suits. "Ah! Kay-san! Jay-san! Am I on Earth?!"
"That you are, kiddo! Welcome back!" Kay reached over to give Ten a friendly squeeze on the shoulder. "Feel okay?!"
Ten stared at his hands. Fortunately, the Staff had draped his new body in an orange shirt and jumper. "Feel a little weird . . . " He scratched the back of his head, and then he froze as his fingers detected something that should be there but was NOT. "My horn?" A surge of panic seized him, and then he looked around. "MY HORN! WHERE'S MY HORN?! WHO TOOK MY HORN AWAY?!"
His eyes stopped as they locked on the dark-clad, purple-haired woman standing close to the door. Ten froze as Chikage's looks sank into his mind. Hearts then glittered deep in his eyes. "Pretty lady . . . " he crooned, walking over to take a closer look.
Ataru sighed. "Well, at least THAT part of him's back to normal."
He glanced at Kay and Jay. Seiko's eyebrow twitched. "Darling."
Ten spun around to see the man in the Noukiite clothing. "Ataru?!" he gasped, walking up to stare at him. "How'd you grow a beard so fast?! And what are you doing dressed like that?! If Lum-chan sees you like that . . .!"
"Lum HAS seen me like that." Ataru cut him off, and then he indicated Seiko. "And, much that I hate to bring you down to Earth, Jariten, it really no longer matters what she happens to think about me. In the meantime, my sisters and I'll leave you to get reacquainted, not to mention registered with Kay's people." He glanced at Kay. "We'll be downstairs."
Kay nodded. "Right."
Ten watched as Ataru, Chikage and Hinako stepped out of the room. He then perked as Seiko knelt beside him. "What's with him . . .?" His voice trailed off as his eyes fixed on hers. "Lum-chan . . .?" He then turned as Sakiko came up to stand beside her sister. "Ran-chan . . .?"
Sakiko knelt beside Seiko. "Hai, it's us, Ten-chan."
Ten glanced at Sakiko, and then Seiko, and then back to Sakiko again before he screamed out, "WHAT'S GOING ON HERE, ANYWAY?!"
"It's a long story, Ten-chan." Seiko then leaned over to draw him into her arms. "But it's so good to see you alive and safe!"
Sobs soon took her voice away. Ten stared at her before his own eyes watered as Seiko's relief overwhelmed him. In a minute, both were holding each other tight, weeping as the anxiety accumulated over the last two months washed away. Sakiko places her hands on their shoulders, and then she soon found herself drawn into a group hug with her sister and her cousin.
Kay and Jay exchanged a look, smiling.
* * *
"Oh, Hinako-chan?"
"What is it, Onii-tama?"
"Where exactly did the Staff get the new body for Ten?"
Hinako stared quizzically at the Staff. "Hina's not sure, but Bou-san told Hina the body was there and it had no soul in it." She stopped as the Staff whispered something to her. "Oh, Hina understands now!" She then stopped herself. "But how can that be?"
"What is it, Hinako-chan?" Kaho wondered. She, Mamoru, Reiko and Kaneko had stepped into the house after their relatives had left Ataru's old bedroom. They were relaxing in the old living room.
Hinako stared at the cheerleader. "Bou-san told Hina that the big-big ship there could only make Avalonians as young as Hina is. But Ten-chan's even younger than Hina, yet there was a body on the big-big ship there for Hina to use to let Ten-chan be with Lum-san and Ran-san again. A BOY'S body, too! Hina really doesn't understand how . . . "
Ataru took that in, and then he perked on feeling Chikage's hand squeeze his shoulder. Glancing at the young sorceress, he noted the look on her face before he nodded. "Well, we can ask Miree about it later," he stated.
"Why save him, Papa?"
Eyes locked on Reiko and Kaneko. The looks on the Noukiites' faces spoke volumes about how they currently felt. "Reiko-chan, what do you think the Ch'uoeuk would say if he found out that there're people out there willing to kill children, even younger than you, just because they're Urusian?"
"What about the Noukiite children who've faced the Ch'uoeuk when they shouldn't have, Papa? All because the Urusians couldn't let what we did to them go, back during the Union Revolution and since then," Kaneko countered. "Who answers for what happened to all of them, Papa?"
"What DID happen to them?!" Mamoru asked.
"You know about the famine in parts of Africa?" Chikage wondered.
"Yeah, what about it?"
"Imagine that on a planetary scale, multiplied four times."
Eyes locked on Ataru. Kaho shuddered. "And the Urusians did THAT?!"
"Yes," Ataru, Reiko and Kaneko answered as one.
Hinako sniffed. "Why?!"
Ataru took a deep breath. "Because there were people on Uru who just didn't like the Noukiites no matter what, Hinako-chan. Just like there're people here in Japan who don't like the Chinese or the Koreans, even those Koreans who were born and raised here in Japan."
"But that's stupid!" Hinako protested. "They're nice people!"
"Yes, they are. But there're people in this country who don't care about that, Hinako-chan. Just like there're people who don't care about descendants of burakumin just BECAUSE their ancestors WERE burakumin! And . . . " He took a breath. "A lot of people happen to work for the government. Just like there were a lot of people who hated the Noukiites who ran the government on Uru."
Chikage glanced knowingly on her nieces. "And those are the ones Reiko-chan and Kaneko-chan, plus all their friends, had to fight."
"Is that what we gotta do one day, Onii-tama?" Hinako asked.
He noted her look. He reached over to squeeze her shoulder. "Hopefully, no. But with the way things in this country are going, Hinako-chan . . . "
He shrugged. Mamoru shook her head. "Bummer."
* * *
"So this is actually a REPLICA of Akane-chan?!"
Hikaru chuckled. "Hai. That she is."
He and Kimiko sat under a tree on the front lawn of Fuurinkan High, their lunch bentou sitting between them. A gaggle of the voodoo sorcerer's classmates, including Yuka, Hiroshi, Daisuke and Sayuri, sat around them. Sensing their curiosity about how could he win the heart of a person who, physically, was Akane's twin, Hikaru gave them a thorough briefing on how Kimiko first met Ranma some months back, and then how -- with the help of Ataru's sisters -- Kimiko had been given a life she can call her own.
At the end of that, his classmates were speechless. Daisuke sighed. "Gos, my friend, you are a lucky bastard, you know that?!"
He slapped the other man's shoulder. Hikaru winced. "I guess I am."
"Are you thinking of coming to school, Kimiko-chan?" Sayuri asked.
Kimiko sighed. "I'm not sure. Ranma-sama . . . " -- she ignored the looks everyone gives her on hearing THAT honorific attached to Ranma's name -- "Did warn me not to be like Kasumi-oneesama, so I might want to try to expand my education. But it'll be hard given the way I came into this world. I don't think the education authorities anticipated someone like ME whatsoever!"
Hiroshi nodded. "Yeah, that'd be a pain . . . "
The members of Hikaru's class moaned. "Oh, shit, here he comes!" Daisuke muttered as people watched Kunou storm up, bokken in hand and a determined look etched on his face. "The stupid idiot just does NOT know the word 'quit!'"
Hikaru sighed, and then he perked on feeling Kimiko giving him a reassuring squeeze. Sensing her support, the sophomore stood, straightening himself. His classmates quickly cleared a path for the kendou-ka, though several remained close to ensure Kunou didn't go hog-wild on Hikaru. "You wanted to see me, Kunou-san?" Hikaru asked, he crossing his arms.
Kunou glared the sorcerer down, his lips twisting into a sneer. "You will address me as 'Sempai,' you cur! How DARE you lay your unworthy hands on the beauteous Tendou Akane?! How DARE you presume that you can avoid the Blue Thunder's edict when it comes to being in her presence . . .!"
"I hate to bust your bubble, but you're wrong on two counts!" Hikaru chuckled, his show of spine catching everyone short. "Akane-san declared your oath null-and-voice yesterday. Every girl in the class were witnesses."
"Lies!" Kunou proclaimed. "The lovely Akane was under a spell . . . "
"Wrong!" Hikaru indicated Kimiko. "And second, this is not Akane."
Kunou blinked. "What?!"
"It's true." Hikaru nodded as he reached down to grasp Kimiko's hand. "This is Akane-san's adopted twin sister, Tendou Kimiko. She's actually a minor kami who was trapped by an evil wizard in a doll the pig-tailed girl found at a ryokan some months ago."
Everyone stared at Hikaru, all of them acting as if he had just grown a second head. Yuka, Sayuri, Daisuke and Hiroshi were quick to notice the light smile on Kimiko's face, and then they nodded understandingly. No doubt, Hikaru and Kimiko had planned ahead for this very moment. Kunou stared incredulously at Hikaru, and then he turned to Kimiko. "The pig-tailed girl freed you?!"
"Yes, she did," Hikaru answered on her behalf. "The pig-tailed girl and Akane-san took great pity on Kimiko-chan, so when the chance came, they tricked Saotome into creating a clone body of Akane-san's so Kimiko-chan here could have a body for herself to use . . . "
Kunou blinked, and then he howled, "VICTORY!" Fireworks exploded behind him as thunder rumbled through the air. "To believe that my beautiful fighting tigress and my fiery pig-tailed goddess actually tricked that dark sorcerer into doing what THEY bid him to do!" His bokken stabbed into the sky as a flash of lighting arced overhead, causing everyone to tense. "Now I, Kunou Tatewaki, the Blue Thunder of Fuurinkan High, shall be victorious and claim the hands and hearts of my three lovely maidens of battle . . . "
"Um, Kunou-san, there's a problem!"
The kendou-ka stopped to glare at Hikaru. "What do you mean?!"
"Well, when Kimiko-chan was given her new body, Saotome learned he had been tricked by Akane-san and the pig-tailed one," the voodoo sorcerer stated. "Well, you KNOW how much Saotome hates you! He . . . " Hikaru then indicated Kimiko with a wave of his hand. "He made it so that no matter how much you try to win Kimiko-chan over, you CAN'T! The only way you could even hope to win Kimiko-chan over is to go find Saotome and defeat him!"
"The same applies to Akane-sama and the pig-tailed one," Kimiko added. "No matter how much you try to attack them -- or ME! -- it'll fail. The only way you can free them is to kill that horrible, horrible Saotome Ranma!"
Silence fell as Kimiko's words swirled through Kunou's mind. "Oh, by the way, Kunou-sempai, you better know that Ranma-kun transferred out of Fuurinkan High School yesterday," Yuka helpfully added, holding up a finger.
"WHAT?!" Kunou's battle aura flared, causing everyone to step fearfully away from him. "So! Saotome thinks he can escape the Blue Thunder's wrath?! He actually thinks he can keep the Blue Thunder's chosen ones away from his side?! NEVER! NEVER! I SAY THEE NEVER!"
With that, he stormed off to the school building. The others watched him go, and then Daisuke sighed. "Somehow, I really don't think Ranma's gonna appreciate us heaping that particular problem back on him again!"
"He won't," Yuka muttered.
Kimiko chuckled. "Wait until he learns that Ranma-sama is no longer on her parents' family register." She wrapped an arm around Hikaru's, turning to gaze longingly at him. "Hikaru-kun, shall we finish lunch?"
Hikaru nodded. "Hai, hai!"
Everyone looked on them as they sat. "So if Ranma's been struck off his family register, what happens to him now?" Hiroshi asked.
"That . . . " Kimiko impishly shrugged. "Is a secret."
Hearing that, everyone fell flat on their faces!
* * *
"Can you guys really do this?!"
Rinrin chuckled. "Sure we can!" The members of the Tendou family, plus Miree and Chieko, were currently relaxing around the sitting room table as the scientist explained all the changes she planned to make to the third floor of Welcome House's rotunda. Yotsuba sat to Rinrin's right, she resting against Shinshi. "It's our land, after all! Anyhow . . . "
She pointed to the first room counter-clockwise from the stairwell. "The spare room here'll be Miree-san's." Rinrin gazed at Miree. "If Negako-aneki wants to visit the Island from now on, she could stay with Aniki and Ranma-aneki in their bedroom on the first floor."
"Why won't she come live on the Island full-time?" Miree asked.
"Ane-chama suffers from hydrophobia," Yotsuba explained before she turned to the Tendous, a knowing chuckle escaping her. "'Sides, if Shi-chama and his family move out, what happens to Ane-chama's friend?" she then wondered.
"You're going to make Ojii-san live with Negako-san?" Nabiki blinked. "With Kimiko-chan and most likely Chigaiko-san living there alongside Negako-san? You think that's a good idea?!"
"Oh, I'm sure Aneki'll keep him in line." Rinrin laughed, making a dismissive wave with her hand. Her finger moved to the next room displayed on the computer screen. "My room'll stay the same, but I'll move the main door to be perpendicular to Miree-san's front door. I can use the extra space for storage if I want. No problems there. Now, for the big changes . . . "
Her finger shifted to Yotsuba's room. "We'll expand both Yotsuba-chan's and Shirayuki-chan's rooms out five metres. Yotsuba-chan's room'll wrap clockwise to cover the wall space of my lab, plus we'll throw a second floor onto it over half of the new portion. Yotsuba-chan, you and Shinshi-kun'll stay on the third floor, opposite my lab. The ladder to the roof'll be there, but there'll be a safety fence put in just in case. I KNOW Aniki'll want that 'cause you like going on the roof all the time."
Yotsuba sighed. "Yotsuba thinks Ani-chama worries too much!"
"That IS Ataru-kun's privilege AND responsibility as your older brother, Yotsuba-chan," Kasumi intoned as the others laughed.
"ANYHOW . . . " Rinrin's voice picked up to get everyone's attention back to the matter at hand. "Nabiki-chan'll take the new room on the fourth level. It'll big enough for you to have your own private sitting area, plus you'll have a door to the roof of Yotsuba-chan's part of the room so you can sunbathe. Um . . . " She then stared at the middle Tendou daughter. "Do you need anything special put into your room, Nabiki-chan?"
Nabiki smiled. "Well, if you can put in some computer and telephone links directly into my room, I'd certainly like that."
"I HOPE you're not going to do some of the things you've done in Fuurinkan when you transfer to Stargazer West," Kasumi warned.
Nabiki laughed. "Oh, RELAX, Onee-chan! I don't need to worry too much about that anymore!" She waved her sister down with a sigh. "Like I said, this is crunch year for me and I'll need every advantage I get."
Rinrin stared curiously at the older woman. "You're thinking of going to America when you go to university, right?"
"Most likely." Nabiki then gave Rinrin a knowing look. "Why? What school've you got in mind, Rinrin-chan? MIT or Caltech?!"
"Haven't thought about it yet since it's still a few years away." Rinrin then pointed to the computer screen. "Anyhow, the new space under Nabiki-chan's bedroom, plus Yotsuba-chan's old bedroom space, can be used as a common area or we could install a guest bedroom if you're interested in having one available for your friends. We could save that for the future if you want."
Nabiki hummed. "No, let's put in the guest bedroom now," she suggested. "If we need it, it'll save up construction time and costs."
Rinrin then tapped instructions on her machine. The diagram was changed to show two bedrooms on the third floor level. "What about us, Rinrin-chan?" Akane asked as she pointed to herself, and then to Kasumi.
"We'll expand Shirayuki-chan's room to mirror what we're doing to Yotsuba-chan's room." She pointed out details. "The room next to Shirayuki-chan's room is the boy's washroom, so we'll seal the window off completely. For safety's sake, we'll put in an emergency door that'll exit directly onto the roof of the upstairs part of Aniki's and Aneki's new space so that, if there's a fire, you've got a way to get to safety." Her finger traced over the changes. "We'll have three bedrooms here, with Shirayuki-chan's old space as the common area. Shirayuki-chan can take the fourth floor. You and Kasumi-aneki'll have the two bedrooms on the third floor."
"Will Shirayuki-chan mind having her room shifted around?" Kasumi wondered. "These are a lot of changes to make, Rinrin-chan."
"And is this rotunda going to hold up?" Nabiki added. "Even if it is your property, there are building standards . . . "
"Oh, relax!" Rinrin waved the middle sister down, and then she pointed to the diagram. "The House is modular, even if it sure doesn't look like it. Everything'll be fine in the end. They anticipated expanding the interior of the rotunda when they built it in the first place."
"That's a relief," Akane breathed out. "Ne, Onee-chan, why don't you take this room . . . " She pointed to the new room opposite the boy's washroom. "And I'll take the one right under Shirayuki-chan's room. Ne, Rinrin-chan, do you think you can put a door to connect my room to the room under Nabiki's space? In case Yuka and Sayuri visit?"
"Sure I can!" Rinrin tapped controls on her machine, and then she turned to Yotsuba and Shinshi. "You sure you won't mind this?"
"I've got no friends to speak of right now, Rinrin-chan. Save for those who're already living at or will live at Welcome House." Nabiki's twin brother then gazed on Yotsuba. "How about you, Yo-chan?"
The would-be detective smirked. "Yotsuba won't mind."
"Alright, then!" Rinrin continued to play with the keys.
* * *
"Um, Ranma-san, have you seen Sakuya-san anywhere?"
Ranma looked up from the novel she was reading to see Serizawa Mikiko standing at the door to her room. "She left with Haruka-chan an hour ago to do something, Mikiko." She saved her page, and then she rolled to her feet. "Why? Is there something wrong?"
"Um, n-no, not really, but lunch is ready." Mikiko fretted as she and Ranma walked into the common room. "Ataru-kun, Hinako-san, Kaho-san, Mamoru-san and Chikage-san've been gone for some time. I hope things're alright."
"They better be," Ranma mused as they sat down beside Kawamura Himiko; the former captain of the Tomobiki High girl's swim team was watching the news. "If any of the clods there even LOOK the wrong way at Hinako-chan or the others, Ataru'll go medieval on all their asses."
Himiko gazed on the redhead. "Would he really?"
"Bet on it." Ranma then perked as Shirayuki walked in, a tea tray in hand. "Hey, Shirayuki-chan, what's for lunch?!"
The chef placed the tea tray down. "Nee-sama will definitely like Hime's special lunch," she proclaimed. "Hime made her tofu omelettes with sliced vegetables and ricotta cheese. Perfect for growing girls and boys."
"Well, by the looks of it, Shirayuki-san, we're gonna be having loads of seconds with the amount of people gone," Himiko warned.
"Soo desu no." Shirayuki smiled as she headed back to the kitchen.
Negako stepped in the room, followed by Aria and Karen. "I see lunch is almost ready." The grandmaster took her seat.
"Is this it?" Ranma glanced around the room. "Where's U-chan?!"
"Gomen nasai, Onee-chan." Karen looked apologetic. "Ukyou-san went over to speak with Tampopo-san about what happened this morning."
"Ah! Oh, that's a relief!" Ranma breathed out. "Lessee. Ataru's gone to Tomobiki with Hinako, Kaho and Mamoru . . . "
"Chikage is with them," Negako reported.
"Right." Ranma nodded. "Chigaiko's at school. Kimiko's no doubt with Gosunkugi right now. Hope the dopes don't give her a hard time. Yotsuba, Rinrin and Miree are at the Tendous." She then looked at Aria. "Aria-chan, have you see Jonna or Orin today?" she asked.
"We're right here, Ranma-sama," Jonna announced as she and Orin stepped into the room, they taking their seats to both sides of Aria.
Aria reached over to hold one of Orin's hands. "Nee-ya."
Karen smiled. "It's good Aria-chan's made a new friend, ne, Onee-chan?"
"Yeah, it is." Ranma chuckled as Mikiko proceeded to pour tea for everyone. "Has anyone see Marie-chan? She hasn't got lost . . . "
"Marie went on a walk to Hikarigaoka Park with Michael," Negako reported before she perked. "Ah, she just passed through the front gate. Sakuya and Haruka are . . . " She paused, her eyebrow arching. "Shirayuki!"
"Hai desu no, Nee-sama?!" the chef called back from the kitchen.
"Make extra food. We will have guests today!"
"Hai desu no!"
Karen stared quizzically at the grandmaster. "What guests?"
As if in response, the door opened. "Tadaima!" Marie called out as she and Michael stepped inside, followed by Sakuya and Haruka.
"Sakuya-san, you're just . . . " Mikiko looked over, and then her eyes shot out of her head on seeing the woman in Sakuya's company.
"Mikiko, wha- . . .?" Himiko stared at her shocked friend, and then she looked herself before noting the woman in Haruka's company.
Sakuya slipped to the side to allow her guest a clear view of the people seated in the room. "Shirayuki-chan, we have guests!"
Haruka did the same with the woman accompanying her. Silence fell as the older women stared at Himiko and Mikiko, and then they both nearly keeled over. Sakuya and Haruka helped Serizawa Tomomi and Kawamura Mami remain steady as their daughters raced into their embrace. "MOM!" Himiko and Mikiko screamed, breaking down into tears as they sank to their knees, holding their mothers for all their worth. Watching them, the others in the room could only smile.
* * *
"Everything settled with them?"
"Yeah, it's all taken care of." Jay nodded as he sat across from Ataru in the old Moroboshi home living room. The interviews with Ten and the replica-bioroids had taken an hour. "Found out the story -- or as much of it as I could -- concerning those replicas of Lum and the others."
"That being?" Ataru asked.
"They're living targets. Specially built by the Niphentaxians at Nassur's request so that if one of that guy's enemies decided to target Lum or the others to get at him, they'd be the ones who'd eat lead." The young SCAA agent rolled his eyes before he sighed. "Funny thing is, I just CAN'T see a guy like Nassur doing something like THAT!"
"Unless he never truthfully realized what those girls were," Ataru countered, scratching his beard. "If what I understand of Vosians is true, if Nassur couldn't scan any brainwaves from those four -- and if he didn't take the time to scan them with a tricorder OR if they're fitted with jammers that'd haze a tricorder scan -- he'd have no choice but to think that they were very sophisticated androids. After all, they don't look the least bit like Yehisrites, do they?" A knowing smirk crossed his face.
"That makes sense. I'd hate to break it to the guy if or when he ever comes this way again." Jay then perked as Kay came down.
The older SCAA agent sat beside his partner. "So what other business have you got for us today, Ataru?" Kay then asked.
"Quite a bit," he warned. "I've got three refugees from Phentax Two who've been converted to Avalonians. One of my new girlfriend's friends was cursed by water from the Springs of Zhòuquán-xiang in China, so we were forced to steal two Avalonian bodies from that factory up in orbit to help them out. Two of the so-called 'victims' of last week's bombing at the school turned up alive and well, plus they're also Avalonians. And THAT, my friends, doesn't begin to include the fact that the bioroid factory itself is here."
Kay shrugged. "I've never even heard of these Avalonians. How long have the Niphentaxians been keeping them a secret?"
"Some decades, maybe a century." Ataru then took a deep breath. "And the worst news of all is that Oogi himself is here."
Jay and Kay paled. "Oh, fuck!" the former spat out. "Damn, when it rains, it fuckin' pours! We DON'T need that moron here!"
"When was the last time you saw the esteemed president of the Niphentaxian Union, Ataru?" the latter wondered.
"Lumukyou," Ataru reported. "When I last saw him, he had just been disintegrated by the Staff of Gihan just before three billion of his followers also took the Magic Carpet Ride to Eternity. So I've really got no idea what shape he's in, but Miree -- she's one of the refugees from that planet I told you about -- has pretty much confirmed that he's still among the living."
Jay shook his head. "Oh, cute!"
"What church is she from?" Kay asked.
"Hollywood. Ditto with both her daughters," Ataru reported.
"Well, that's a moderate sect, so we've got no worries." Kay rubbed the side of his head. "Zed's NOT going to like this!"
Jay snorted. "Got that right."
They turned as Seiko walked into the room. "Problem?" Ataru asked.
"I . . . " The Oni-turned-Nendo-kata/Terran balked on seeing the cold neutrality crossing her ex-fiancé's face, and then she relaxed. Any sort of confrontation between her and Ataru would serve no purpose, especially given that four of his sisters and both his daughters were outside waiting for him. And given that both his daughters were Noukiites -- this, of course, didn't mention what either Chikage or Hinako would do if their brother was threatened -- Seiko knew that even if she did lose control of her temper, things wouldn't go well for her, Nendo-kata powers or no. Taking a deep breath, she gazed on the SCAA agents. "Um, could we have some time alone, please?" she asked.
"Sure." Kay nodded as both stood. "We'll take care of those two girls who nearly died last week, Ataru. Where are they?"
"Talk to Chikage." Ataru nodded outside. "She'll help you."
"Right." Kay gave Seiko a concerned look before they both stepped out.
As soon as the door closed behind the agents, Ataru took a deep breath before he gazed on Seiko. The latter shuddered as she returned his look, and then she bowed her eyes. "Why are you so mad, Darling?" she whispered.
Silence responded. Sensing he wanted her to explain herself, Seiko walked to the window, gazing outside. She saw Chikage chatting amicably with Kay and Jay. Hinako was teaching Reiko and Kaneko how to play patty-cake while Mamoru and Kaho hovered close to Chikage. Taking a breath, she hoarsely asked, "Are you afraid that I'd actually hurt them?" She gazed once more on Ataru.
"It wouldn't be the first time you and your family would seek to hurt my family and I," he responded. "Nor the first time your race strove to place mine at a disadvantage for some selfish reason. Oh! Forgive me." He held up a finger. "You're not Urusian, Izumo-san, but Nendo-kata. I didn't mean to imply that anyone of the Great School would ever cast such disUnity on another sentient race. Or maybe . . . " He lowered his hand. "You're angry that I decided to throw my lot in with the Noukiites against the Urusians."
Seiko shook her head. "I'm not angry about that, Darling." She sighed as she looked at him. "But I am very curious as to why you did that. Even if m-my . . . " she stuttered before breathing out, "Even if the Urusians HAVE tried to oppress the Noukiites over the past few centuries, those people DID use an anti-matter bomb that murdered my parents, nearly killed me and Mother knows how many more in Onishuto. They DID kill Rei . . . "
His eyebrow arched. "Why do you care about Rei?! When Lum first came to Earth, she was happier than hell to be away from that walking stomach!" He nodded up. "I can see why your sister would be concerned about him given Ran's feelings for the idiot, but why would you care?"
"Because he didn't deserve to DIE!" Seiko snapped.
"And all those people on Noukiios DID?!" He bolted up, his anger radiating like waves of exploding plasma from his body. "Didn't you even ONCE ask yourself what was going on?! You said back at Tampopo's that your father tried to brush off what was going on between your people and the Noukiites, but he didn't fully convince you! Didn't it even occur ONCE to you that maybe you should've tried to figure out what was going on?! Didn't you worry that maybe, just MAYBE, your people were doing something very WRONG?!"
Seiko stared in shock at him. Ataru scowled before he turned away. "Hell, no! Of course not!" He threw up his hands. "The very idea of the daughter of one of the major clan leaders on your planet, who was also blood-descendant of Uru's last emperor and thus -- if the Urusian people wanted it, of course! -- could've become the new Empress, actually trying to concern herself about LESSER people?! Oh, my GOD!" He spun on her, clapping his cheeks in mock-horror. "To even SUGGEST such a thing!"
"Don't you dare!" Seiko snarled. "I'm no Imperialist! I never was!"
Ataru gazed on her. "Not according to Pochik Ando," he ruefully stated.
Seiko blinked, shock overcoming her outrage as Ataru placed himself at one end of the room. "How do you know Ando, Darling?"
"I met him the second weekend after you left in a place where Onee-chan had taken me so I could learn the Art. A place beyond the bounds of normal space and time. He was leading a special strike team back in time to assassinate key leaders on Noukiios in hopes of turning the war back to Uru's favour." He took a deep breath before turning back to her. "I hear that, at the same time I ran across your delightful friend, the . . . "
"He was NEVER my friend!" she spat out.
"Oh?!" His eyebrows arched. "How was I supposed to know that?"
Silence fell. Seiko then looked away, hugging herself. "What did he tell you?" she finally asked, her voice ashes.
"Oh, he told me all sorts of things," he replied. "Confessed that he always had an interest in you. At least . . . " He held up a finger. "Ando didn't like the idea of Rei marrying you. But then, when he found out about our so-called 'engagement' . . . " Ataru ruefully chuckled as he lowered his arms. "Oh, he didn't care at ALL for that. Not because of all the girl-chasing I did before you left Tomobiki." The smile dropped from his face. "But because he felt it quite improper that a man of a 'future slave race' to the restored Urusian Empire would even THINK of having close relations with the Imperium's first Empress in almost two centuries."
Seiko quaked, closing her eyes. "Why do you think I never saw him as my friend?" she hoarsely whispered, eyes brimming with tears as she tried to make some headway toward forging some sort of reconciliation, some type of understanding, with Ataru. "Darling, I was never of that line of thinking! Yes, I did some stupid, moronic things when I was here. I admit it! I'm sorry those things happened! But . . . " She shook her head, turning to gaze pleadingly at him. "You won the Tag Race, Darling! I DID respect that!"
He looked at her. "Clearly, Ando wasn't of the same mind. Neither was that old, slobbering pervert he called a father." He crossed his arms. "Ditto with Azu Des, Tenwan Cal and all the others of the so-called 'Imperial Round' I helped capture for the Noukiites and the Inquisition to have their way with the weekend after I killed Ando. Those that poor fellow from Okusei didn't nail with his fusion bomb in Onishuto, that is."
Seiko stared at him, and then she timidly asked, "You killed Ando?"
"Slit his throat, then I dumped him into a convenient time-tunnel that'll ensure his body remains adrift in limbo unto Eternity." He nodded matter-of-factly. "As for the rest of his crew, after they were interrogated, Onee-chan killed them with the heart-blast touch. After what they saw I did to Ando, they were a lot more respectful of 'lesser' people. So when we ended their lives, we made sure they got nice graves."
Silence fell as Seiko tried to take all that in. She then gazed intently at Ataru. "There's something more to this, isn't there?"
"What do you mean?"
"Darling! You've shrugged off insult after insult from everyone around you! I can't possibly believe that you would react to a simple racial slur from a sub-creature like Ando to kill him!" she snarled.
Ataru took a deep breath, and then the rage in his eyes faded. Seiko blinked confusedly, frozen still as he walked up to her. He placed a hand on her cheek and leaned up to kiss her forehead. She remained in place. "Darling . . .?" she whispered as she looked into his eyes.
He stepped back. "I was worried that the Psi-Unity part of the Crossing Over hadn't worked out like it should."
Seiko looked nowhere in particular as she tried to interpret what he just said, and then she looked back at him. "How do you know?"
"About the Great School?" He shrugged before sitting on the floor. "My older sister, Nokoko -- she's Muchi's and Kinshou's first child -- was sent to my uncle Komeru when she was three or so to be raised by him. For three years, we were deliberately made to believe that we were cousins, not brother and sister. When Onee-chan was finally told the truth on her sixth birthday, she ran away from home -- and wound up in the Outland dimension. There, she encountered a lost school of Nendo-kata. Nine in all as I recall. Because the Outland's certainly no place for a human to live, she had to merge and Cross Over with that school's matriarch. She's been there ever since."
Seiko sat in front of him. "Then why isn't she here? If she's the eldest-born of your generation, she should be the Matriarch, not . . . "
"Internal clan politics." He rolled his eyes. "If Onee-chan came back too soon, Sakuya-chan and the others . . . " -- he nodded outside -- " . . . would've been left out in the cold. Hell, even with Grandma dead, there're those in my family who're uncomfortable about having children born out of WEDLOCK take charge of the Clan as a whole. So . . . " he breathed out. "To ensure nothing bad happens to Sakuya-chan and the others, Onee-chan has to stay away. It's . . . " He closed his eyes. "Hard, but bearable."
Her eyes misted. "Oh, Darling . . . "
"It's okay." He smirked, a shrug twitching his shoulders. "Hell, you know me. Always willing to buck every social trend in this country of hypocrites! Remember when Megane tried to rag me out when we were making that movie just before you ran across Memory under Mendou's cherry tree?!"
Seiko smirked. "As I recall, I was a little out of it then."
"At least you got spared an earache from that jerk's mouth!" Ataru then shook his head. "He was an asshole, wasn't he?!"
She nodded. "I suppose you could call him that."
Both laughed as the memories of the "pseudo-war" came back. Seiko then reached out with her hand to touch Ataru's knee. "Why?"
Silence fell as he considered what to say, and then he took a deep breath. "Ando killed Grandma," he hoarsely whispered.
Seiko's skin paled as he stood, moving to gaze out the window. "The night of the sixth day of the first Tag Race, Ando and a small team used their spacializers to teleport into Grandma's farm on Rishiri-tou. By the time Brother Sunfire and his friends, much less any of the Kuromoroboshi, could figure out what was happening, it was too late. A fast-acting, nearly untraceable poison tailor-made for Grandma had done its work." He took a deep breath. "At first, her death seemed natural to the special investigators the Holy Inquisition sent from Jiyuu to look in on what happened. Then Negako-oneechan came back from her travels and took a look herself. She . . . "
"She found out it was murder. And that someone from Uru . . . "
He nodded. "Yeah."
"Then why didn't . . .?"
"Because they didn't have proof." He looked at her. "Much that the Zephyrites do have a reputation when it comes to chasing after 'heretics,' the Cabal of Archbishops understand what sort of things could result from calling a Holy Crusade, even if it's meant to avenge the premeditated murder of a Righteous Gentile." Turning back to gaze out the window, he sighed. "So they decided to wait for the right moment. Then, when the chance came, the Inquisition would be sent in to deal with matters. Well . . . " A shrug rolled his shoulder. "Thanks to Rei's moronic uncle and his covert support for the colonial militias on Machibusu and elsewhere, that chance came."
Seiko smiled, an understanding nod turning her head. "The Zephyrites never struck me as the types to engage in proxy wars, Darling."
"Why do you think the Cabal went along with it?"
A chuckle escaped her. "That's scary."
"What is it?"
"Why go after all the others?"
Ataru moved to sit beside her. "You know the Kashin was captured by the Noukiites the week before Onishuto was destroyed, right?"
She nodded. "Hai. Dad really took it hard. He loved that ship."
"Well, the Inquisition helped the Noukiites." He drew his hand back. "Once they captured the ship, people got into its secure memory banks to find out everything they could about what might have happened had I lost the first Tag Race." Taking a deep breath, he gazed regretfully at her. "Your dad knew about Ando's operation against Grandma."
Silence. Seiko blinked, she staring wide-eyed at Ataru. "He . . .?"
He nodded. "Hai. I was told sometime after I dealt with Ando."
"Darling . . . "
Ataru took a deep breath, looking nowhere in particular. "At that moment . . . " His voice turned hoarse as tears brimmed in his eyes. "I never felt so . . . so BETRAYED!" he spat out before he gazed on her. "I liked you dad, Lum! I liked your mom, too! I was SO envious of you, you know that?! That you had two such wonderful, caring people as your parents! Look what I had! A selfish bitch for a mother and a lazy fool for a father, both of whom loved to blame me for EVERYTHING that went wrong in their lives!"
His fist squeezed. "And then to find out . . . " He stood, taking a couple steps away from Seiko. "That your father KNEW about what happened to my grandmother?! He voted FOR the operation to occur, Lum!" He waved nowhere in particular. "He and everyone else on your planet's ruling council VOTED to MURDER the only part of my family -- this being before I met Sakuya-chan and the others -- who truthfully, honestly cared for ME! What the HELL was I supposed to think after hearing about THAT?! WHAT?!"
He slumped against the wall, tears trailing down his cheeks. Seiko immediately walked over to draw her arms around him. He returned her embrace, squeezing his eyes shut as the emotions arising from the events of the past two months stormed through him. She remained silent, daring not to speak anything that might rub Ataru the wrong way. Though deep in her own mind, Seiko also wept at the level of trickery her people . . .
Her people . . .
She was Urusian no longer.
Redet Lum was dead.
She was Izumo Seiko.
She was Nendo-kata.
Sworn enemy of those sub-creatures and Purveyors of disUnity . . .
Including Redet Lum's father . . .
Who would bring harm to countless innocents . . .
Including the man in her arms.
The person she still loved more than Life itself.
They pulled apart, gazing into the other's eyes. Seiko reached up to wipe his cheeks clean. "Darling, you had every right to do what you did." She tried to smile. "By Urusian law and custom, you, as the blood-descendant and heir of a Head of House, had every right in the Universe to avenge her murder, by whatever means possible. Zephyrite law demands that the blooded murder of a Righteous Gentile be answered with a Holy Crusade in return. I'm glad that you and the government of the Holy Republic decided to limit the reprisals to those who deserved what was coming to them. And . . . " She shrugged. "By Nendo-kata custom, defending your Great School from the threats of such sub-creatures . . . " She kissed him. "There is nothing wrong with that, Darling."
Ataru gazed at her with a smile, and then he reached over to gently grasp her hand. Shifting that so he could kiss her palm, he gave her a warm look. "Thanks, Seiko-chan," he whispered, drawing her close.
Both perked, turning to see Sakiko standing at the doorway to the living room. The sad look on the other Nendo-kata's face spoke volumes. Ataru pulled away from Seiko to allow Sakiko to slide into his embrace. No words were said as Seiko added her own embrace. They remained still for a moment, and then they pulled apart. Taking a deep breath, Ataru gently squeezed Sakiko's hands. "I'm really sorry about Rei, Sakiko-chan. I may not've liked the guy very much, but he . . . " His voice trailed off.
Sakiko nodded. "I know. That's the sad fact about wars, especially ones rising from all the years of hatred and mistrust that were generated between the Urusians and the Noukiites. At least it's over now . . . " A pause as her eyebrow then arched. "It IS over now, isn't it?"
"Hopefully, yes. With the finding of Heaven's Gate Bridge, the Noukiites have achieved their primary goal: To avert any Urusian Imperialist restoration and forever discredit the foundations towards any anti-Noukiite feelings that wound up prompting things like the colonial militias and all those absurd territorial claims on Okusei, Tunchusei and Kurrusei. The secondary goal . . . " He held up two fingers. "Which is the one I'm very happy about, as are the Zephyrites, is to put a total end to all forms of spacializer use. You guys have to admit that using a time-travel device to 'correct' someone else's behaviour is pretty selfish, ne?" He glanced knowingly at Seiko.
Seiko nodded. "Not to mention using those devices to murder someone."
"Right." Ataru lowered his hand. "You can bet that those goals, atop the renunciation of all Urusian first-contact claims on Earth, will be what the Noukiites insist on before any final peace treaty is made."
"I take it you insisted on that point, Darling?" Seiko asked.
He gazed knowingly at her. "Sei-chan, it WAS the Urusians who insisted that I be the Terran tag race champion, remember?"
"Lucky for Earth that happened." Sakiko giggled, and then sobered as she stared on Ataru. "But it isn't really over, is it?"
He returned her look, nodding. "Hai. There's still one problem."
Seiko perked. "Who?"
Silence descended over the room. Sakiko sighed. "Wonderful."
* * *
The three stepped into Ataru's old bedroom. Ten sat on the bunk bed. Kneeling on the floor beside the transformed Urusian-turned-Avalonian was the replica of Benten. Lum's replica sat to the opposite side. The doubles of Ran and Oyuki were by the window, holding hands as they gazed on the surrounding cityscape. As soon as Ataru and the Izumos stepped in, everyone gazed on them.
To Ataru's disbelief, all FOUR of the Avalonian replicas had spoken that word. Before he could react, four typhoons of lovable alien bioroid teenager slammed into him, nearly knocking him down as they deluged him with a storm of hugs and kisses. "Hey! Hey! HEY! Cut it out, already!" he pleaded. Sensing that the Avalonians certainly did NOT want to let him go anytime soon, he relented as he allowed them to remain close. "Damn . . . "
Seiko and Sakiko exchanged a look and then they laughed. "Well, Darling, you DID wish for a harem, didn't you?" the latter mused.
Ataru winced. "Me and my big mouth . . .!"
"Oh, don't be so shy, Darling," Oyuki's replica, Mienai, playfully cooed as she pulled away from him, giving him a sultry, doe-eyed stare. "After all, unlike our templates, we KNOW what a good person you are."
"After all, Darling, what Hensou here sensed through Lum . . . " Benten's double, Kamen, indicated the replica of Lum. "We ALL knew."
"Really?" Ataru then sighed. "Right."
"Waaaaai! Now Onii-tama has Avalonians to play with!"
Everyone spun around to see Hinako standing at the doorway. Behind her were Mamoru and Kaho. Also there was a very familiar ghost-cat. "Kota-chan!" Ten screamed out as he leapt off the bunk to race into Kotatsuneko's embrace. "Kota-chan, what're you doing here?!"
The cat-spirit shrugged. Hinako blinks as the Staff translated his subtle message to his alien-born friend. She then turned to Ataru. "Onii-tama, Kotatsuneko-san says that he's really, really, really happy that Ten-chan came back." A pause as Kotatsuneko added something more, and then she carried on, "And Kotatsuneko-san says that he hopes that Ten-chan won't be sent away. It got pretty lonely at times over the last couple weeks when he had no one other than your old principal and vice-principal to talk to."
"I think this time, things should turn out for the better." Ataru leaned down to stare at Ten. "Though I DO hope that you'll be a little more careful, Ten. After what happened last week at the school, not that many people here in Tomobiki'd like it if they learned you, much less Seiko-chan here . . . " He indicated Seiko. "Actually survived the whole fight with the Noukiites."
Ten blinked confusedly. "What happened, Ataru?"
Kotatsuneko explained it to the young boy. Hearing that, Ten shuddered before he demanded, "You mean to say that Ryuunosuke's boyfriend and those other girls got killed because of what Megane and his dopes caused with the space-taxi and all of Earth's oil?!" He then waved his hands as he shouted at the top of his lungs, "THAT WAS ALL MEGANE'S FAULT!"
"Jariten, I think trying to put blame on something like that's kinda dumb now," Ataru warned before he took a breath and gazed on the lovely replica-bioroids of his ex-fiancée and her best friends. "Speaking of which . . . "
"We gotta make them look normal, right, Anii?" Mamoru asked.
"Hai, hai!"
Hinako perked, listening to something the Staff told her before she nodded. "Okay! Hina'll make it all better!"
She held it up. "Hinako-chan, what are you . . .?!" Kaho gasped.
The Staff flared to life. Everyone cried out as Hensou was bathed from head to toe in bright white energy. A second later, the energy vanished, revealing a raven-haired Japanese girl with blue-grey eyes, she dressed in a button shirt and knee-length skirt. Her long hair was tied into two thick French braids wrapped from behind her ears to come together at the top of her head. Ataru and Seiko exchanged a look. "Nobade Shinobi lives again," the former mused with a chuckle as he gazed back on the transformed Hensou.
Hensou perked before she stepped into the bathroom to gaze on herself. "Hai, Darling, I guess I do look like her, don't I?" she called out before coming back to give Hinako a thank-you kiss. "Arigatou, Hinako-chan."
Hinako blushed, giggling cutely. "Well, Saeru-san, would you care to help these other ladies?" Ataru asked.
"Hai, hai!"
* * *
Ten minutes later, everyone stepped out of the Moroboshi home. Kamen and Mienai were dressed in polo shirts and slacks while Ran's double, Damasu, wore similar clothing to Hensou. Save for the elimination of the obvious alien traits on the other bioroids -- Kamen's elongated earlobes, Damasu's fanged canines and tapered ears and Mienai's frozen hair and crystalline eyes -- the changes to their looks were quite minimal; Mienai still had platinum hair while Damasu had her hair darkened to a more-natural chestnut shade.
As soon as everyone had stepped out of the house, Ataru got Hinako to fix up the front door with the Staff. He then turned to his transformed former fiancée. "You sure you won't have any problems, Seiko-chan?"
"Oh, relax, Darling. We'll be fine." Seiko leaned up to peck his cheek, and then she waved to Hensou and the others. "Kay and Jay'll come to our apartment tomorrow to get everything straightened around with them."
Ataru smirked. "Well, don't be total strangers, alright."
Mamoru perked. "Anii, aren't we going to the hot springs?"
Ataru snapped his fingers. "Damn, that's right!"
"Darling, how can you think about going to the hot springs with Oogi hovering over out heads?!" Sakiko demanded.
Mamoru shrugged. "It was Negako-anee's suggestion. After all, we don't know spit about what's going on with that jerk. We can't hit him head-on if we don't really know what we're really up against, ne?"
Seiko nodded. "True. It's a pity I never really thought about dealing with that sub-creature before all this happened. Well . . . " She winked at Ataru. "Be assured that THIS time, Darling, you won't be fighting Oogi alone. Anyhow, we best get going back to our place!"
"Hai!" the others chimed.
Ataru and his sisters watched as the Izumos, Ten and the others headed off. As soon as they were sufficiently out of hearing range, Kaho reached over to tug Ataru's shirtsleeve. "Onii-chama?" she asked.
"Hmm? What is it, Kaho-chan?"
"Is Seiko-san going to be alright?"
He considered that, and then he smiled. "Hopefully, yes. For too long, her life was dominated by the wishes of others who never saw her as a person. All she was to people like them was a future empress, goddess, idol star . . . " A snort escaped him as he rolled his eyes. "Maybe she DID realize that deep down. Maybe that's why . . . " He closed his eyes. "Oh, Lum . . . "
"Why she fell in love with you," Mamoru finished.
Ataru nodded. "Yeah!" He stared at his sisters before he waved them with him. "C'mon, let's get home. I'm starving and I want to see everyone else's reaction when they meet Reiko-chan and Kaneko-chan."
Laughter filled the air as they headed off.
* * *
"You must be really disappointed right now, Lufy."
The Yehisrite-born pilot blinked as she absorbed that comment. "Nah, I'm not disappointed, Eluza," she said, gazing at the image on her cabin's private view screen. "Frustrated, yeah. But we haven't been able to find even the smallest fragment of the factory and we've been looking for six hours. If it managed to survive the planet blowing up, it's gotta be out there somewhere."
The woman who was speaking to the shipmistress of the RSS/C Konggh'cha was Ellsian by birth. Eluza possessed purple eyes and rose-pink hair she normally combed to the small of her neck. A shipmistress in the Republic of Sagussa Navy, Eluza was the commander of Lufy's first posting, the special missions warpsloop RSS Hasei'cha. Currently, the Hasei'cha was in Noukiite space, its crew having been assigned to secretly aid the Dominion during its brief but victorious war against the Urusian Union.
"But where could it have gone?" Eluza wondered.
"That's what we're trying to figure out. We've picked up what seems to be a warp trace, but disruptions in local electromagnetic fields because of Phentax Twelve's destruction are making it hard for us to follow the trail."
A sigh. "And given that keeping track of the bioroid factory was never a priority, it'll take a lot of persuasion to make the idiots in Intelligence alter the search patterns for the Rovers to track that thing down."
"Especially if Carmen's spooks found out why I want to find the thing."
The Hasei'cha's shipmistress ruefully laughed. "True, true." Eluza had been very disappointed when, a year after Catty (the warpsloop's senior doctor) bonded with Noa, Lufy had applied to be transferred to Pathfinder Troop Six as the Kiboo'cha's full-time pilot. While she had not really concerned herself about the various romantic liaisons between the members of her crew, that it had come to the point where one of the Hasei'cha's three Gladiator pilots had actually transferred OFF the ship . . .! And that added to the fact that another of the warpsloop's pilots, the unnamed Daishi'cha #337, had disappeared from Sagussa itself shortly after Ataru's visit . . .!
"How's Catty Ray taking it?" Eluza asked.
"Hard, though she's got that damned android logic mask of hers to hide it behind," Lufy replied before jolting on hearing the buzzer to her private cabin sound off. "Who's there?!" she asked, looking over her shoulder.
The door opened, revealing Priss. "Hey, Luf!" Troop Six's first officer hailed as she stepped into her friend's cabin, and then her eyes focused on the woman in the view screen before Lufy. "Yo, Eluza! How're things with you?"
"Quite well, even with one pilot still missing and another one defecting to your team," Eluza quipped with a wink.
Priss laughed. "What's the problem?" Lufy asked.
"We might've found out where the factory disappeared to," Priss replied.
"Where?" Eluza asked.
"Earth," Priss said. "While I had Ayumu scan the debris field for any sign of the damned thing's warp signature, I tapped into the local comm nets to find out more about what the hell went down in Lumukyou sometime back."
Eluza and Lufy nodded understandingly. The destruction of Phentax Two's capital city and the mass slaughter of three billion of the planet's residents two weeks before was something that, while not a top priority for the Sagussan Intelligence Ministry, had caught the interest of certain people. Especially when one factored in the viewpoint held by the leaders of the Niphentaxian Union's "one true faith" concerning Sagussa's first Daimon'cha. "Is there a provisional government forming now?" Eluza asked.
"It's coming together," Priss confirmed with a nod and a grin. "Moderate Lumites -- the ones who call Ataru-sama the 'Goddess' Beloved Darling' and all that -- with Hollywoodites and several minor faiths, plus a sizable group of atheists who're finally coming out the closet now that the people've decided that punishing apostasy as a CAPITAL crime is downright stupid."
"That's a good sign," Eluza mused.
"Agreed. Managed to overhear a secret communiqué between Suisei t'ndai-Reslei and one of her representatives on Phentax Two concerning what might've happened just before all those people got one-way tickets to Eternity."
"Who's Suisei?" Lufy wondered.
"Senior Hollywoodite leader; she's based right now on Phentax Twenty-three," Priss explained. "Turns out that in the week before everything went to Chaos in a hand basket in Lumukyou, President Oogi ordered that ALL Avalonians be sent to the factory on Phentax Twelve, even the ones who were working as slave labour on the ships in the Niphentaxian Navy. A lot of Lumite leaders from across the spectrum raised a big snit over it."
Eluza closed her eyes as she allowed her razor-sharp mind to roll over that; being able to quickly resolve potential problems at the snap of the fingers was an automatic prerequisite for any special warfare commander. Priss and Lufy's commanding officer, Sylia, was the same. "The possibility was there that Oogi was prepared to use the factory to support the Urusians against the Noukiites," the Hasei'cha's shipmistress then stated. "So we might have to keep an eye out for the damned thing here . . . "
"Don't have to," Priss cut in. "Lumite leaders on Phentax Two have re-established contact with their observer force on Earth. There's been a pretty nasty development in Tomobiki." Her lips twisted on her mentioning the name of Moroboshi Ataru's old hometown. In classical Sagussan, "Tomobiki" (properly Romanised as "Toghmoghbiki") translated as "place of fools and madmen;" according to the ancient myths of the long-dead Fourth Republic, Toghmoghbiki was the stronghold of Sagussa's prince of devils, the Master of Entropy. "Just a week ago, some Islamic terrorist decided to blow up Tomobiki High in reprisal over that oil-theft incident involving the Intergalactic Space-Taxi Company, Ataru-sama and his classmates. There were some fatalities."
"Including?" Eluza prompted.
"Aisuru Satoshi, Urayamu Akira, Daremo Hiroyuki and Shitto Koosuke. Also known as Megane, Chibi, Kakugari and Paama."
Eluza's and Lufy's eyes went wide. The latter then blinked as something came to her. "It's over Earth," she breathed out.
"Most likely," Priss confirmed with a nod of her head.
Lufy took that in, and then she grimaced. "That's where we're going!"
* * *
"Bwiiii . . . "
Making her way through the farmer's market, Momose Tamako paused on hearing that squeal. Taking a moment to empathically scan her surroundings, the raven-haired tomboy focused on a small black piglet painfully staggering down a side alley. Her eyes narrowed for a moment as she focused her mental powers on the small animal. They then widened as she detected something that should NOT be emanating from a simple farm animal. "A boy . . .?" she whispered. Quickly paying for her purchases, she headed off in pursuit.
Stepping into the alley, she placed herself two metres behind the piglet, who seemed completely unaware that he was being followed. Yes, clearly a boy . . . Tamako mused to herself. In great pain. What happened to him? Pausing for a moment as she considered what she should do, the raven-haired Avalonian nodded determinedly before she reached down to scoop the piglet up. As soon as her fingers made contact with his sable fur, images began to flow into Tamako's mind. She automatically moved to prevent the full typhoon of pain, depression and shame emanating from the transformed young man -- Ryouga? Yes, that was his name: Hibiki Ryouga! -- from overwhelming her. Still, she could not ignore what the poor fellow had just endured . . .! Was it only two days ago? It was so hard to tell with this one, the Avalonian grimaced as she cradled him in her arms. His time-sense was so terribly out of whack.
The transformed Ryouga shuddered as he felt warm, soft arms and hands cradle him. He then looked up to gaze on a smiling teenage woman's face framed by shaggy black hair and pierced with sullen, smoky blue eyes. Realizing that yet ANOTHER pretty girl had just found him, Ryouga squealed, his hoofs trying to scrape and kick himself free of her grasp.
No! Not another one! After Akane, after Akari . . .
Akari . . .
Akari . . .
Tamako gasped as she felt Ryouga's depression submerge to depths she couldn't begin to imagine, his body glowing a sickly green as a curious energy aura instantly encompassed him. Realizing that he was about to let go with some sort of attack, Tamako dropped her purchases as she hefted Ryouga into the air. Just in time; with a pained squeal, the transformed martial artist let go with a Shishi Hookoodan that roared into the afternoon sky. Seconds later, a burst of energy flared over Tomobiki, safely away from damaging any buildings. Ryouga collapsed in Tamako's hand, a tired moan escaping him. The Avalonian remained still, and then she lowered her hand to prod the transformed piglet. It's as if he wants to die. She cradled him. What happened to him?!
She looked up to see Kurosu Kanami race into the alley, concern burned on her sister Avalonian's face. "Oh, Kanami-chan, gomen!" Tamako apologized with an embarrassing laugh, and then she turned back to the dazed Ryouga.
The taller woman slowed as her eyes focused on the transformed martial artist. She then gave Tamako a curious look. "Who's he?"
"Hibiki Ryouga," Tamako explained. "Some wandering martial artist. I sensed him when I was in the market. But . . . "
Kanami's eyebrow arched. "How'd he get transformed into a piglet?"
"I haven't probed his mind to find out. He's . . . "
The other nodded. With their powers, Avalonians possessed considerable advantages over non-psi species. Fortunately, the long-dead scientists who launched Project: Avalon fourteen millennia ago ensured that the bioroid race would always be governed by a strict code of ethics when it came to using their powers. If such hadn't existed, Kanami and Tamako both knew, the Niphentaxians would've been in enormous trouble the day they discovered the factory. But that was beside the point, both sighed as they gazed on the piglet in Tamako's hands. "He's been alone most of his life," Kanami quickly noted. "Only a couple people have ever showed him real kindness . . . "
"And he accidentally hurt one some days ago," Tamako added. "That's why he's suicidal now. He fears he may have killed her."
"Did he?"
The raven-haired Avalonian shook her head before she gazed on her taller sister. "Hard to tell. Well, he does need help . . . "
Kanami nodded. "No logical reason we shouldn't help him. I'm sure the others wouldn't mind once they're fully apprised of the situation. Is there a way to revert Ryouga-kun back to his natural form, Tamako-chan?"
"Can't say . . . wait!" Tamako tensed as more images flowed into her mind. "Ah! Ryouga-kun is 'cursed.' Some sort of metaphysical affliction, I believe. It was forced on him when he travelled to a valley in China a year ago. It's difficult to ascertain any sort of proper time-sense with Ryouga-kun. I don't understand why. Anyhow, cold water triggers the 'curse.' Heated water restores him to normal." She looked around. "We should locate his personal belongings. He normally has them in his possession."
Kanami hummed before she reached over to gently stroke the fur between Ryouga's ears. The transformed piglet jolted, his eyes blearily opening to gaze on whoever was touching him. As more of his mind reverted to an alert state, images flowed into Kanami's mind. "Alright!" She pulled her hand away, turning to race off. "Be back in a minute," she called out.
Ryouga blinked, and then he grunted with contentment as Tamako's free hand stroked his back. "Do you like that, Ryouga-kun?" the raven-haired Avalonian wondered as she turned him around to gaze on her. "By the looks of it, you haven't had a very pleasant week, ne?"
Not really . . . he moaned before he perked, dulled danger senses coming to the fore. Wait a minute! How'd you know who I am?!
Tamako giggled in embarrassment. "Oh, it's alright, Ryouga-kun. I'm telepathic and empathic. That's how I was able to sense your distress, not to mention learn your name and ascertain the exact parameters of your curse. It's all right. You've nothing to fear from me."
Ryouga blinked, blinked again, and then he shook his head. Is this a dream . . .? he wondered. Meeting a very nice girl who wasn't the least bit bothered by his curse. Well, there was Unryuu Akari, of course . . .
Akari . . .
Oh, no . . .!
Squealing, he slumped in Tamako's hand. A hand quickly rested on his forehead. "No! No, Ryouga-kun! It's alright," she gently soothed. "From what I've been able to sense from your memories, this Akari person is alright."
Ryouga blinked, shakily lifting his head to gaze into her eyes. Alive . . .? he moaned, a faint spark of hope flaring in his heart.
"Hai." Tamako nodded before she perked on sensing Kanami approach. In a minute, the taller Avalonian was back in the alley, a large backpack with umbrella in hand. "Oh, there you are, Kanami-chan! Any problems?!"
"Iie. This was a couple blocks over." Kanami then gazed at Ryouga. "Hopefully, no one stole anything while you were separated from it."
Staring at the taller woman, the transformed piglet blinked, and then he turned back to Tamako. Is she like you?! he wondered.
"Hai, Ryouga-kun, I am," Kanami answered before she perked. "Oh, gomen. We haven't properly introduced ourselves." She politely covered her mouth before waving to herself. "My name's Kurosu Kanami. This is my sister, Momose Tamako." She waved to the other Avalonian currently holding the transformed wanderer. "It's a pleasure to meet you, Ryouga-kun."
They bowed. Glancing at one, and then the other, Ryouga tried not to pass out. TWO pretty girls, clearly very good friends if the "sister" reference Kanami made hinted at anything -- he was quick to note that there was NO family resemblance between them. Could they be adopted sisters? -- treating him with kindness and respect, almost . . .? Reverence?!
What did he do to deserve something like THAT?!
Tamako: "Oh, dear! I think Ryouga-kun's a little overwhelmed."
"He seems to be that way, ne?" Kanami grinned. "Well, let's get back to our apartment so we can give him a chance to be normal, then we'll introduce him to Yukimi-chan, Hiro-chan and Namie-chan. I think they'll like him."
"Of course they will." Tamako reached down to pick up her shopping. "Besides, Yukimi-chan needs the vegetables for dinner."
"Hai, hai!"
They headed for their apartment. Remaining in Tamako's hands, Ryouga was seized by indecision. On the one hand, what happened some days ago at Unryuu Akari's farm still loomed over his soul like Damocles' sword. On the other hand, making the acquaintance of Kanami and Tamako was like . . .! Why, it was like the night Akane found him immediately after his second confrontation with Ranma post-Jusenkyou. Even better, Kanami and Tamako knew immediately what his curse was all about. And best of all, they didn't even CARE!
Were the Fates finally smiling on him for a change?
* * *
"Oh, Onii-sama . . .!"
Ataru stopped on hearing Sakuya's singsong voice. Turning to gaze warily on the eldest of his half-sisters, he was quick to notice the knowing look on her face. "Um, is there a problem, Sakuya-chan?" he asked with a faint chuckle, he taking a fearful step away from her.
She walked up to him, piercing him with a very intensive gaze. "Onii-sama, when were you finally going to tell us about our nieces?" she purred, one hand pointing in the general direction of his and Ranma's bedroom.
Hearing her question, Hinako, Mamoru and Kaho, they standing behind their brother, exchanged knowing smiles. "Well, they're kinda hard TO explain, Sakuya-chan . . . " Ataru shrugged. "I mean, after all, they . . . "
"Onii-sama, I'm too YOUNG to be called 'auntie!'" Sakuya cut in.
"B-but . . . "
"Oh, so you would have preferred to have Ataru return from Sanctuary little more than a mental vegetable, Sakuya?"
Sakuya jolted before she spun around to glare at Negako. "YOU KNEW?!"
"Yes." The grandmaster was unperturbed by Sakuya's outburst. "Besides, the others seem quite willing to accept Reiko and Kaneko."
Sakuya fretted. "Onee-sama . . .!"
"I am certain that Shirayuki would love to try out several of her more spicier recipes with Reiko and Kaneko," Negako added. "Noukiites, I discovered sometime ago, have quite a fondness for spicy food."
"But, Onee-sama . . . "
"Sakuya-chan, are you afraid that people might actually think you're old?" Ataru walked up to embrace his sister from behind. As Sakuya stared at him, he leaned up to whisper in her ear, "There's not a wrinkle on you."
"Onii-sama . . . " Sakuya stopped. "There isn't?"
"Not a one." He shook his head. "Besides, Ranma likes the girls, too. Do you really think it'd be prudent for me to deny her anything, Sakuya-chan?"
"Um . . .!" Sakuya shuddered before she made herself relax. "No, of course not!" She pulled away from him, turning to gaze into his eyes. "But what happens when all this mess with the Urusians settles down, Onii-sama? Are the MiBs going to let you keep them? People HAVE been talking about closing the doors on all of them finally, you know!"
"That applies only to the Federation states, Sakuya-chan," he cautioned. "Noukiios is breaking away from the rest of that lot, so it won't apply to them in the long term. Besides, given that Reiko-chan and Kaneko-chan are bioroids cloned from DNA taken from the graves of several of Noukiios' greatest heroes, I don't think they'll have an easier time of it if they went back home."
"Why not, Anii?!" Mamoru asked.
"Grave-robbing is a capital crime on Noukiios, Mamoru," Negako explained.
The other sisters nodded. "Oh!"
Himiko and Mikiko then came up, accompanied by their mothers. "Ataru-kun, there you are!" Kawamura Mami beamed as she grasped his hand. "Is it true that you adopted those sweet little girls who came in with Chikage-chan?!"
"Hai, hai, Mrs. Kawamura, I did." Ataru rubbed the back of his head before he indicated Sakuya. "Now, all I have to do is convince Sakuya-chan here to accept them and I'll be fully in the clear!" He winked.
"Onii-sama!" Sakuya cried out.
"Oh, Sakuya-chan, stop that!" Mikiko gently scolded, walking over to squeeze the other woman's shoulder. "They're both darlings and I know they love you very much! Why are you being such a stuck-in-the-mud about it?!"
An unintelligible answer escaped her. "Mikiko-chan, that's enough!" Serizawa Tomomi wagged a finger at her daughter. "Give your friend time."
Mikiko ducked her mother's look. "Hai, Mom!"
"Did you or the guys from the SCAA have any problems trying to put your daughters' lives back in order?" Ataru wondered.
"Well, Kay-san said there were two ways we could do this," Mami reported after taking a deep breath. "We decided that instead of treating them as legal orphans and adopting them into our families, we'd just have the death certificates revoked and go on from there. After all, according to Chikage-chan and Negako-sensei, Himiko-chan and Mikiko-chan didn't die at all."
Negako's eyebrow twitched on hearing "sensei" applied to her. "Outside of the powers this body has, I don't feel any different than I did before Alhamzi blew up the school," Himiko added as she exchanged a look with Mikiko.
"I sense a 'but' in here somewhere," Ataru noted.
Mikiko nodded. "Hai, there is. Kay-san and Jay-san recommended that for the time being, we should stay away from Tomobiki."
"Why?!" Kaho asked.
Mikiko nodded. "Because of the way we came back, Kaho-chan."
Ataru nodded. "That makes sense. There're people out there who'd gladly do anything, even kill, to find out how to literally be reborn into something like an Avalonian. The advantages you girls have now . . . "
Mikiko sighed. "We know."
"But we're not sure where we could send them." Tomomi shrugged. "Both our husbands have very good jobs that haven't been affected by the downturn in the economy, so we don't want to risk anything that'd threaten that . . . "
"Understandable." Ataru then blinked. "Hey, wait . . . "
Sakuya stared at him. "Onii-sama?"
He turned to the survivors of the previous week's bombing. "How'd you two like to come to Stargazer West College on the Island?"
The others currently attending that institution stared at him before grins crossed their faces. "That's a great idea, Anii!" Mamoru gushed, nodding excitedly. "Himiko-san'd be a shoe-in for the senior swim team for sure!"
"But where would we stay?!" Mikiko asked.
"At Welcome House, of course!" Sakuya gazed knowingly on her. "We're practically having the rotunda rebuilt right now, so we can slap in some extra rooms for both of you! There're no problems there!"
Himiko's eyebrow arched. "You sure?"
Mamoru nodded. "Of course we're sure!"
"This won't cost anything, will it?" Mami asked.
Ataru shook his head. "Not a single yen, Mrs. Serizawa."
"Oh, Rinrin-chan, you're back!" Sakuya gushed as Rinrin and Yotsuba stepped into the old shrine. "Just the person I'm looking for!"
"Something wrong, Sakuya-chan?" Rinrin asked before she saw the two older women standing beside Himiko and Mikiko. "Oh, you must be Himiko-san's and Mikiko-san's mothers!" the teen inventor then declared with a smile.
Sakuya indicated the other girls. "Rinrin-chan, we need new rooms knocked into the rotunda for Himiko-san and Mikiko-chan."
Rinrin perked. "Eh?! Oh, that'll be easy! Ne, Aniki, you think I should throw in some more space for Jonna-san and Orin-san?"
"That'd be prudent. Hinako-chan, you want Jonna-san to stay with you?"
He stared at his youngest sister. "Hai!" Hinako gushed.
"We might as well do the same for Aria-chan and Orin-san," Sakuya stated before she stared at Rinrin. "Okay, Miss Genius, let's get those floor plans out so we can make everyone feel right at home!"
Rinrin headed to the coffee table. Most of the others followed her, people chatting excitedly away. Yotsuba remained close to Ataru. "So you finally managed to pull yourself away from Nabiki-san's brother, eh?"
She jolted. "Ani-chama . . .!"
He laughed. "Oh, relax!" He reached over to squeeze her shoulder, giving her a warm smile. "I just want to make sure you'll be alright with this guy. Even if he is a masculine version of Tendou Nabiki . . . "
"Whom Ane-chama has problems respecting," Yotsuba cut in, batting Ataru's nose playfully before she breathed out. "Will you RELAX?! Yotsuba's a big girl! Besides, Yotsuba doesn't like the idea of some creep coming along to take advantage of Shi-chama 'cause of what Shi-chama is!"
They stared at each other. Ataru sighed, drawing her into an embrace. "Oh, okay, I won't bother you about it anymore! Alright?!"
She kissed his cheek. "Checky!"
Yotsuba spun to see two very young girls -- both looking like blue-haired, fair-skinned Klingons -- standing a metre away from them. Ranma stood behind Reiko and Kaneko, a knowing smile on her face. "Waaai!" Yotsuba gushed as she whipped out her camera. "Cute alien girl checky!" she announced, hopping to every possible angle to get pictures.
Reiko and Kaneko exchanged a look, and then they turned to Ataru. "Papa, is Auntie Yotsuba ALWAYS like this?!" the former asked.
Yotsuba instantly froze, her jaw drooping somewhere near her knees as she stared wide-eyed at the twins. "'Auntie . . .?!'" she sputtered before she slowly passed out. "That's -- definitely -- NOT -- checky . . .!"
Ataru sighed. "You get used to her after a bit, girls."
Ranma laughed.
* * *
"Bweee . . .?"
"Oh, I do hope Ryouga-sama is alright," Unryuu Akari mused, holding the parasol close to her as Katsunishiki lumbered down the street in the general direction of Nerima. Seeing the giant pig, most passers-by stopped and gawked. Even for a haven of weirdness like Tomobiki, looking at such a massive animal dressed in the formal loincloth of a sumotori was, simply, a unique experience. "I just can't BELIEVE the others would do something like that to him! And when he was a piglet himself?! Can you, Katsunishiki?"
The pig grunted, inwardly grateful that he couldn't talk so he wouldn't be forced to explain his brothers' actions to his mistress. Much that any of the rikibuta belonging to the Unryuu beya would NEVER think of upsetting Akari, what some of the younger ones had sensed about their mistress' mate days ago HAD to be redressed in the harshest way possible.
It was simple logic, after all.
A happy mistress means a happy beya and happy rikibuta.
An upset -- worse, a HEARTBROKEN! -- mistress . . .!
Katsunishiki tried not to sigh as Akari guided him onto the main street leading out of Tomobiki into Nerima. Taking the turn, the giant pig deeply inhaled, and then he stopped. Akari gazed down at her prized champion. "Is there something wrong?!" she asked.
Katsunishiki lowered his head. His snout flared as a familiar scent registered deep in his mind. Turning around -- an impressive feat on a sidewalk framed by a busy street and someone's fence line for an animal as large as a small truck -- the pig began to trace the scent down the street. "Oh, you got Ryouga-sama's scent!" Akari patted her champion's neck. "Must be recent! Find him, Katsunishiki!" she ordered as she pointed down the street.
He oinked in the affirmative as they headed downtown.
* * *
To be continued . . .