Ranma 1/2 Fan Fiction / Urusei Yatsura Fan Fiction / Sister Princess Fan Fiction ❯ Lonely Souls ❯ The Seventh Part, A Side - Empty Chairs ( Chapter 15 )

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

"Hina really doesn't understand, Bou-san . . . "
Standing on the roof of the old shrine, Hinako cradled the Staff of Gihan. Tears still trickled from grief-filled eyes; her cheeks were damp from hours of crying. Sniffing back a bout of fresh sobs, the youngest sister gazed heavenward. "Hina knew Bou-san could help Akane-san after what Akari-san's big piggy did." Another deep sniff before she gazed on the Staff. "Why didn't Akane-san want Bou-san to help her?"
It was her choice in the end, Hinako.
"Didn't she care about how her sisters or Shinshi-san'd feel?"
Don't forget: At the time she slipped into the Very, Very Bright Place, Akane believed her family was about to abandon her.
Hinako sniffed back more tears. Oh, yes, she knew what the pain arising from THAT was like, having experienced it since her mother and stepfather left her at Welcome House. "They didn't really mean to do that, did they . . .?"
She gazed into the morning sky. That's not relevant to the issue at hand. What mattered was what Akane's feelings were at the moment she chose to go to the Very, Very Bright Place. Not Kasumi's, Nabiki's or Shinshi's.
Hinako considered that, and then she nodded. "Yeah, that's true . . . "
Besides, remember what Akane told you at the end?
Silence fell before a smile crossed her face. "Hai, Hina remembers."
And Akane DID want to be with her mother, Hinako, the Staff reminded her. You can certainly understand that, can't you?
Hinako nodded again, her smile widening. "Hai. Akane-san's with her mama now in the Very, Very Bright Place. But . . . " The smile faded. "What happens with all of Akane-san's friends, Bou-san? What about Kasumi-san, Nabiki-san and Shinshi-san? What about Ryouga-san?" She paused to pull the Staff closer to herself. "What about Onee-tama . . .?"
They will have to resolve their feelings for Akane on their own, Hinako. The Staff extended a field of energy around her controller, chasing away the last of the morning chill from her body. There is nothing you can do to help them in that regard except tell them how sorry you feel about Akane's passing into the Very, Very Bright Place. A pause. And you also did defend Ryouga's actions as 'P-chan,' didn't you?
Hinako blinked before her smile returned. "Hai, Hina did!"
Silence fells as a wind flowed past the youngest of the sisters. Hinako pulled the Staff from her, staring directly on the ancient device's focusing crystal. Sensing what she wanted to see, the Staff forged a three-dimensional mini-hologram of Tendou Akane. "Hina wishes you would've stayed here instead of going to the Very, Very Bright Place, Akane-san. But . . . " She sniffed. "Hina knows what it's like to not be with her mama. Hina misses her mama very much. Maybe one day, Hina'll be with her mama again . . . "
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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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A phone rang. "Hai, this is Horikawa."
"You need not use that false name with me, Naho."
A giggle. "Negako-chan, am I ever going to make you call me 'Mother?'"
An exasperated sigh echoed over the line. "Naho, cease your attempts at trying to make me more 'human.' I already receive enough such 'advice' from Sakuya and the other sisters. At least Ataru and Chikage do not do that to me." A pause, and then she announced, "Tendou Akane is dead."
A gasp. "What happened?!"
The explanation took ten minutes. At the end of it, the woman who had been born as Hana Naho, daughter of Hana Seinen and his wife Jiko -- Naho currently lived under the identity "Horikawa Nahoko" -- closed her eyes. "That poor girl," she whispered, shaking her head.
"Something good may come out of it," Negako advised. "However, as you are well aware, something worse WILL come out of it."
"Grandfather, you mean?"
"Indeed. Akiko is currently preparing him for his 'mission.'" Both Negako and Naho/Nahoko knew which person the former was ultimately speaking of. "I suspect it will happen late this evening. Tomorrow evening at the latest."
"I best come see you then. Should I bring Nanase-chan and Mutsumi-chan?"
"If you believe that is the prudent course." A pause. "Shanpú has been informed of what has happened to Ranma. I assume Mùsi will realize what Ranma will most likely do. Since this is what the Tora-Seishin and the Nujiézú desire, using Mùsi this way should ease his ardour when it comes to Shanpú."
"Alright then!" Naho replied with a titter. "I'm sure Nanase-chan and Mutsumi-chan'll take well to Mousse-kun. Besides, it's been a long time since I last saw Aunt Cologne. We'll be around the house by later this evening."
"What is it, Negako-chan?"
A sigh. "PLEASE, do NOT bring Ayano with you."
A pause as Naho stared at her cell phone in shocked surprise. She then smiled as she returned the device to her ear. "At least you now understand the concept of 'please,' Negako-chan." She then laughed on sensing the arched eyebrow at the other end. "Oh, very well! I'll keep Ayano-chan here."
"Thank you."
"I'll bring Shiina-chan instead."
In her bedroom in Nerima, Negako tried not to groan. Honestly, would Naho ever LEARN?! The ninjutsu grandmaster then paused as she considered what Naho was proposing. Unlike Inaba Ayano, Misaki Shiina did not CONSTANTLY lose control of her libido whenever she was in Negako's presence. And there WAS the other girl in Naho's adopted family of Avalonian refugees currently living in Odawara. "Very well, then. Bring Rinko as well."
"You're a greedy girl, Negako-chan! Shiina-chan AND Rinko-chan?!"
"Yes, dear?!"
Negako's voice turned to ice. "Do not push it."
Naho sighed.
* * *
"Captain, we've established orbit over Earth."
"Status report?"
"No sign of other starships within sensor range. Retrieval systems are at the ready," the technician reported. "We've locked in on the transporter beacons Agent Rose set in place. We can seize the targets at any time."
The captain of the Rose Emperor nodded. "Does Rose need assistance when it comes to inviting Mr. Groom's sisters to join us?"
The technician shook her head, a light smile crossing her face. "No, ma'am. Agent Rose reports she can use her own scout's sensors to locate them via the traces of their DNA Agent Rose obtained when she visited their hostel. Their coordinates will be automatically relayed to us."
"Excellent!" The captain grinned. "The Queen will be very pleased. Alright, then." She gazed on the other women controlling the bridge of the patrol monitor. "Look sharp, people! The quicker we do this, the better!"
"Yes, ma'am!" the crew chanted.
* * *
Oogi frowned as he gazed on the Rose Emperor. The bodiless president of Phentax Two stood in one of the cloaked bioroid factory's primary control centres. As soon as the Ellsian patrol monitor had come into orbit over Earth -- moving to a geosynchronous position directly over the Holy Citadel! -- Oogi had ordered the factory to skirt north, putting its centre over Urawa.
"Mister President?"
Oogi glanced over his shoulder to see Otako currently standing at the site-to-site transporter unit that connected the control centre with the rest of the vast factory. "What news about those missing bioroids, Otako?"
"No further information about them has been obtained, sir," Otako, a replica of one of the Church's more passionate leaders who had died when Phentax Twelve was destroyed, replied. She then perked. "There is an update concerning Operation: Hashish, sir. The bioroids you require for that are a day from emerging from gestation."
He nodded. "Excellent. When they are ready, have them programmed right away. No delay on that, Otako," he ordered with a raised finger.
Otako nodded. "It will be done, sir. Do you desire to communicate with any of the observers in the Holy City?"
Silence fell over the bridge as he considered that, and then he shook his head. "No, not yet. Certain more critical matters have to be resolved first before we re-establish control over those people. Don't worry about it."
"As you wish, sir."
"What of the Great Evil? Have you located him?"
"No, sir. Even with the data you brought with you when you came here from Lumukyou, all attempts at locating Moroboshi Ataru anywhere within the Tokyo region have proven unsuccessful. We are still looking, though."
Oogi trembled before he gasped suddenly as a feeling akin to a billion thumbtacks pressing into his skin overwhelmed him. To Otako's point of view, the ghostly president seemed to fizzle, the colour of his "body" fading. A hand darted to the communicator affixed to the collar of her jumpsuit as she barked out, "Gestation Unit Six! Have . . .!"
Otako stopped as Oogi seemed to curl in on himself for a moment. The former was frozen in place, ignoring the concerned query from the woman in charge of the gestation unit, as she watched the president's body blaze with new energy. Another minute passed, and then he straightened himself, looking somewhat healthier for a living spirit without a physical body to inhabit. "I . . .!" he automatically panted, though it was pretty much impossible for his astral form to take in oxygen. "I'm alright . . .!"
Otako blinked, and then she nodded. "Stand down, Unit Six," she ordered, tapping her collar, and then she walked up to gaze intently at Oogi. "Sir, you can't keep depending on the energy of those who died on Phentax Twelve . . . "
"I know!" he grunted. After taking a couple steps away, he straightened as he pointed to the Ellsian monitor hovering off the starboard quarter. "Have sensors probe that ship. Find out who's aboard and why they're here!"
"Yes, sir," Otako replied with a nod before she headed out.
Oogi's vision remained locked on the Rose Emperor. "No doubt, you've come to claim your 'Honey' now that the Goddess no longer stands in your way, Elle, dearie." He smiled; as President of Phentax Two, it was his business to know the habits of all his counterparts throughout the Galactic Federation, including the infamous Rose Queen. "But I've business with him that will not wait, even for you! And if you get in my way . . .!"
Howling laughter soon echoed through the factory.
* * *
"There it is, Luf! Old-style cloaking device shieldin' it from the Ellsians, but it's stickin' out like a sore thumb to us!"
Lufy grimly nodded as she gazed over Priss' shoulder on the enhanced visual image displaying the area of thermospheric space over the city of Tokyo. Hovering over Tomobiki was a Rose Emperor-class patrol monitor, the capital ship model of the Royal Ellsian Navy. Compatible to an Urusian Kashin-class battlewagon, the Rose Emperor and her two dozen sisters were warp-capable mobile gun fortresses and fighter launch platforms primarily used as space control craft, vessels that could keep a solar system secure from small fleet attacks by enemy forces. They were equally as effective when used as parts of fighting squadrons of four-to-six patrol monitors in larger fleet combat actions. Against the Avalon bioroid factory, which had slipped to the north to ensure it remained undetected by Ellsian sensory, the patrol monitor stood a decent chance of crippling the larger ship only if it had surprise on its side; the Avalonian craft had been built with only short-range point defence weapons. But the bioroid factory's excellent sensory suite and on-board cloaking device had effectively forewarned and shielded whoever was in control of the damned thing well ahead of time. If they just sat there and made like a hole in space, the Avalonians would remain undetected.
Lufy had no intention of revealing the factory's existence, either.
Her relationship with Catty Ray -- to mention ANYTHING of Catty Ray's future as a sentient being -- depended on stealth now.
"What's our status, Pri?"
"Cloaking device active," Pathfinder Troop Six's first officer replied. "Keeping to passive scans just in case the Ellsians might have something we don't know about, hard as it is for me to believe the Rovers could slip up on us like that. Our hidin' behind Earth's moon's acting as extra shielding. But if you wanna get a body for Catty Ray . . . "
"We have to close within effective transporter range," the Konggh'cha's shipmistress and watchmistress of Troop Six's base ship, the Kiboo'cha, finished for her best friend. "And while we've got a good cloak and we know loads of stealth approach techniques . . . "
"One slip-up on our part'll get us into loads of hot water with both the Ellsians and the Avalonians," Priss added.
Lufy grimly nodded. "And since we haven't decided to open full outside contact with the galaxy, the wonderful geniuses in Tere'na City will be all over us like a pride of starving sandpanthers over a wounded stormwalker if that ever happened," she topped that with a knowing smirk.
"Hey, guys!"
The Pirpirsiw'r turned as Ayumu walked onto the bridge. Their eyes shot out of their sockets on seeing the Yizibajohei-born defence officer dressed in a frilly silver lace bra, matching panties, G-string, suspenders and sheer nylon thigh-highs! In Tomobiki or Nerima, seeing the beautiful (if still quite young-looking) Ayumu dressed like THAT would have most boys fainting in shock, if not drooling in lust. To Ayumu's fellow Sagussans, all she got were a pair of giggles. Fortunately for Lufy and Priss, Ayumu's genki disposition saved them both from a world of potential pain; the Yizibajohei-born defence officer, while she was -- put kindly! -- a narcoleptic, air-headed spacecase, she was also physically and metaphysically the most powerful of the Daishi'cha.
"What do you think?" Ayumu asked as she twirled around to show herself off. "Do you think Ataru-sama will like seeing me dressed like this?"
"Ayumu, why in Lyna's name are you dressed in THOSE torture devices, anyway?!" Priss demanded. The current generation of Sagussans, due to their touch-telepathic and empathic abilities, often viewed Terran-style underwear as grossly restrictive when it came to sharing some intimate mind tapping with one's lover. "The only way Ataru-sama will ever see you without your outer clothes is when you're both alone in a bedroom."
"Well, I heard from Chiyo and Sakaki that Terrans think that wearing this stuff really makes you look sexy," Ayumu replied, her smile growing a little wider. "Don't worry. I got some nice stuff for you guys too!"
Lufy and Priss jolted. "When?!" both demanded.
Ayumu looked nonplussed. "Oh, didn't you know? When Noa went to Earth last time, she brought back some fashion magazines with all those manga, videos and DVDs where we got our names from." She pointed to herself. "I borrowed one, and then I used a clothing replicator to make some stuff. Tomo and Yomi really, really, really like some of the stuff I made for them!"
The Pirpirsiw'r exchanged wary looks. "They do?" Lufy asked.
"Nobody would dare laugh at them, Luf," Priss then mused, a wry smile crossing her face as she held up a warning finger. "If Yomi didn't cripple them on the spot, Tomo would practice her 'arrest procedures' on them."
Lufy took that in before she nodded, a chuckle escaping her. Koyomi -- "Yomi" to her friends -- was a sister Pirpirsiw'r. However, after her rebirth a couple of centuries after Priss and Lufy became Daishi'cha, she elected to become a construction engineer in lieu of joining the Navy. Tomo, who came to Sagussa from Yiziba at the same time as Ayumu, was the Master Chief Warrant Officer of the Sagussan Internal Security Force, the senior patrolwoman on Sagussa. Seeing her main task as providing a proper example to the junior ranks, Tomo took as many opportunities to practice established police procedures. Unfortunately, given her Yizibajohei-born metahuman powers -- in her own way, she was as powerful as Ayumu! -- Tomo's "practice sessions" often resulted in levels of destruction that nearly equalled the force unleashed by a tactical nuclear warhead. That didn't say ANYTHING about the people who wound up in Sick Bay if they had the ill luck to get caught in the crossfire.
"Thanks for the presents, Ayumu," she then said.
"No problem." Ayumu then blinked as her eyes locked on the image before Priss. "Oh, an Ellsian ship. What's it doing here?"
"We're trying to figure that out right now," Priss replied as she found herself gazing at the other woman's enticingly clad bust. Shaking her head as she looked away from that, she turned to her control board, a finger absently wiping away the trickle of blood leaking from one of her nostrils.
While Ayumu didn't take notice of what her lingerie was doing to Pathfinder Troop Six's first officer, Lufy did. Pri, we GOTTA get you a bond-mate, the fighter pilot mused to herself.
* * *
Chikage stepped into the kitchen. "Ohayou, Shirayuki-chan."
The chef gazed up from what appeared to be pancake batter. "Ah, Chikage-chan, ohayou gozaimasu desu no." Then, taking a deep breath, she turned back to prepare breakfast. "Hime's not really in a mood to cook today . . . "
"Understandable." Chikage then took the mixing bowl out of Shirayuki's hands, placing that on the counter before she turned to stare at the chef. "We all survived very well before you came to live with us, Shirayuki-chan. I think we can make our own breakfast this morning. Besides, I personally think few of us are going to be hungry today after last night's events."
Shirayuki then sighed. "Why did she do that, Chikage-chan?"
"Desu no."
"Many reasons. The love she felt for her late mother certainly weighed into it." A pause as Chikage pursed her lips, and then she leaned against the refrigerator. "We should also keep in mind what Ane-kun told us about her. Akane was never made to apologize for any of the times she grossly overstepped her bounds concerning interacting with other people, especially Ane-kun. To have everyone from her family to Ane-kun to near-strangers tell her that she was in the wrong after assuming for so long she was in the right . . . "
"It's all her father's fault, you mean?"
"That's where it started, pretty much." Chikage then blinked as someone else entered the kitchen. "Ohayou, Ani-kun."
Shirayuki brightened a bit on seeing Ataru. "Oh, Nii-sama!"
"Ohayou," he hailed as he walked up to embrace the chef from behind.
Feeling his strong arms wrap around her, Shirayuki allowed herself to sink deeply into his warm embrace. A hand reached up to gently thread her hair as his nose batted across her forehead, his beard tickling the end of her nose. Finally, he gave her a tender kiss on the bridge of her nose. "Don't worry about breakfast today, Hime-chan," he whispered to her as he gave her a tender squeeze. "Not that many people're hungry right now."
"Hime knows." Shirayuki's cheeks reddened on Ataru's calling her "princess." "Hime's not really in the mood to cook today."
He sighed. "That's understandable."
"How are you feeling?" Chikage asked.
Ataru considered the sorceress' question. "Hard to say." He shrugged. "I guess I've seen too much in the way of premature death over the last while to really be stunned. Though I AM somewhat upset at that woman for putting Hinako-chan through what happened last night." He held up a finger before taking a deep breath. "I'm not as angry as Ranma is, though."
"Is Nee-sama okay?" Shirayuki asked.
He nodded. "She'll get over it. It's a good thing that we got Jay and Kay to escort the Tendous back to their house. After seeing what Akane did to Hinako-chan, Ranma was ready to tear into Kasumi and Nabiki for what they did and didn't do concerning their sister . . . "
"They can still come to the House?" the chef probed.
"Hai, they can. In fact, getting away from the loons in this place'll be the best thing for them all." Ataru held up a finger. "What we have to do now is keep Ranma isolated from those who'd automatically be inclined to put the blame for all this on her shoulders. Given how mixed up her feelings are concerning Akane, that's the LAST thing she needs!"
Shirayuki nodded. "Soo desu no."
"We should have Negako-anekun keep an eye on Ane-kun." Chikage closed her eyes. "Are we still going to the hot springs?"
"Yeah, we'll head out first thing tonight." Ataru then rolled his eyes. "Barring any other unforeseen interruptions. Anyhow, Chikage-chan, would you come with me? I need to talk to you, Haruka and Sakuya alone."
"Hai." The sorceress fell in behind her brother as they headed out.
Shirayuki watched them go, and then she turned back to what she was doing. "Hime should make breakfast for Nee-sama at least."
* * *
"'Morning, Haruka."
"Oh!" Haruka perked as Jay stepped through the front gate, closing the door behind him. "Good morning, Jay-san," she hailed before she turned back to her naginata practice. "Did the Tendous make it home last night?"
"Yeah." The SCAA agent nodded as he watched the martial artist go to work with the bladed polearm. "No problems. I think this whole mess'll be wrapped up long before lunchtime." He took a glance around. "Where's Hibiki?"
Haruka stopped herself. "I believe Hibiki-san . . . " -- the honorific was coated with a tidal wave of disgust, Jay noted -- " . . . left the property sometime after Unryuu-san and her pet departed. As to when he might be forced to grace our property with his presence again . . . " She moved to begin another kata. "Personally, I hope it will be never!"
Jay gazed on her before glancing up to see a hunched form sitting on the roof. "Your little sis up there won't agree with you."
Haruka paused, glancing up to see Hinako gazing at the morning sky; the youngest sister had shifted herself away from staring directly into the sun as it crept higher in the sky. Remembering the harsh words Hinako had said to everyone else about the Ryouga/P-chan situation, the martial artist closed her eyes. "It should not have happened either which way, Jay-san," she said as she continued her kata, her face a mask of steely resolve.
"Right." Jay then perked as the front door opened to reveal Ataru, Chikage and Sakuya. "'Morning, guys," he called out.
Ataru waved back. "Hi, Jay. What's the scoop?"
"All taken care of." The former New York City detective lieutenant walked around Haruka to step onto the porch. "Nothing'll happen to that big porker Unryuu-san owns since he DID act to defend his mistress AND your sister from an unprovoked attack witnessed by four other people. Though I suspect that after this, that kid'll make sure none of her pigs don't go hog wild -- pardon the pun! -- on anyone like that again."
"What about Hibiki himself?" Sakuya growled.
A shrug. "Nothing really can be done about that. First, according to Tendou Kasumi, the guy normally passed out whenever Akane stripped down to the bra-and-panties stage." He chuckled, shaking his head. "Man, I've heard of being shy, but THIS is ridiculous!" He then shrugged. "And, unfortunately, during the times he was playing 'P-chan,' it was happening with the tacit approval of the head of the Tendou household, namely . . . "
"Akane's father," Ataru finished.
"Right," Jay drawled. "Ranma can't be charged with anything since she was deceived into believing a person's honour and word mattered more than an invasion of privacy, even when it concerned her then-fiancée. Souun could be charged with allowing this to continue, but right now, he's locked up in a sanatorium for what he did that wound up with Shinshi's creation. Kasumi can't be charged since her father forbade her from mentioning anything about this to Akane. Nabiki never knew. And the only other adult involved in this whole mess, Saotome Genma, is dead. So, save for Akane dying . . . "
Chikage crossed her arms. "The issue is a closed book."
"Save for the mourning. Not to mention the fallout from that, according to Nabiki. When news of this gets to their school . . . "
"When will the announcement be made?" Ataru asked.
"Lunch. Just before I left, Kasumi promised she was going to make a call to Akane's old homeroom teacher about it this morning." The SCAA agent stretched himself before he glanced past Ataru into the old shrine's living room. "How's Ranma taking it? And Marie?"
"Marie-chan's still asleep." Sakuya sighed. "Onee-sama's having a hard time of it, but if we keep the riffraff away from her, things should be fine."
"Speaking of which, we were just going out for a walk to talk about what we're going to do now," Ataru added before he glanced at Haruka. "Haruka-chan, do you think you can set that aside for the time being?"
Haruka gazed on her brother, the sharp end of her naginata hovering over the ground. "Is there a problem, Anigimi-sama?"
"We need to talk."
"Is there something else, Jay-san?" Sakuya asked as Haruka moved to secure her weapon, and then store it inside the living room.
Jay shrugged. "We need to get some more information out of that little firecracker Miree gave Hinako. We're not going to try to take it away. But given what that thing's capable of doing, it's better to be safe than sorry."
Ataru nodded. "Good point."
* * *
"Where am I . . .?"
She found herself staring at a clear sky. Blinking, she looked left, and then right. She was quick to recognize where she currently was. "Hikarigaoka . . .?" She then sat up to look down at herself. Seeing nothing wrong with her body, she grunted as she got back to her feet, her hands automatically brushing her buttocks clean. "How on Earth did I get here?"
She took the chance to take another look around, and then her eyes fell on a pond ten metres away. She was quick to recognize that particular feature of the park; it was here, not more than a week before, where she had that awful fight with Ranma which resulted in a broken arm, severe ki burns and, for the first time ever from Ranma's side of the argument, a total renunciation of the engagement between them. A shudder warped through her as those events replayed in her mind with crystal clarity. Gods, to believe that in the space of five weeks -- only FIVE WEEKS! -- things had soured so badly between her and Ranma. And to think that a simple thing like P-chan nearly choking on her . . .
P-chan . . .?
P-chan . . .
"Ryouga-kun . . .!"
Her eyes widened as recent events came to her memory. Night in the park. She facing her family. Ryouga and Unryuu Akari were there. Kasumi demanding that she apologize to Ranma and Moroboshi Ataru for words she blasted at them when she had gone to beg Ranma to come back and live with the Tendous. Then came Nabiki with her own words, warning that THIS time, she wouldn't be allowed to get away with that. It even got to the point where Kasumi threatened to no longer recognize her as part of the FAMILY anymore!
And then . . .
Marie . . .
She walked towards the pond. Her eyes quickly picked out two policemen standing guard over something near a street lamp. A chill of haunting familiarity then warped through her as she found herself walking toward the scene. What on Earth happened? Did someone die?
Funny. One of the police officers was looking her way, yet there wasn't any sign that he had taken notice of her. She stopped, staring into his eyes, and then she blinked as he looked away to gaze on his partner. "Sure hope they'll get this over with," he commented.
"Hai, you said it!" the other officer mused, and then he thumbed towards the south end of the park. "Don't worry. The guy who runs the hamburger yatai over by the gate'll be open soon. I'll get you some coffee when he does."
"Thanks, man!" He then gazed down at the scene. "Man, to believe some huge sumo pig could do something like THIS!"
The other officer grunted. "Yeah . . . "
Sumo pig?
Were they taking about Akari's yokozuna rikibuta, Katsunishiki?
Pig . . .
She jolted as new images ripped through her. Susumu Marie, one of Moroboshi Ataru's half-sisters from Promised Island. Frail girl physically, but possessing a sharp mind and a considerable level of intelligence. And an even sharper tongue as she remembered the torrent of accusations Marie sent her way last night. She wasn't the only one to suffer from that girl's words. Kasumi and Nabiki both got a thick broadside of their own, but it was unto her that Marie had focused her rage, right up to the point where . . .
Where she . . .
Then . . .
Ryouga-kun . . .
He stopped her from using Mallet-sama on Marie.
Then she . . .
No . . .
She hit him into the pond . . .
And P-chan emerged.
And Marie called him "Hibiki-san!"
P-chan . . .
Ryouga . . .
A shudder warped through her as she remembered the volcano of rage that exploded from her heart as the sheer SCALE of that bastard's betrayal finally sank in. All the times she allowed him to SLEEP with her whenever he wandered into the Tendou compound. To watch her UNDRESS. The times she confided in P-chan, especially when it came to Ranma . . .
Ranma . . .
Ryouga hated Ranma.
Fervently blamed Ranma for everything that had gone wrong in his life.
Had vowed the very day he first confronted Ranma at Fuurinkan High that Ryouga would do everything to destroy Ranma's happiness.
And Akane . . .
He had USED her! Pretended to be her friend while listening in on her. And then he justified his attacks on Ranma as "honouring" that friendship! Even worse, Kasumi had KNOWN about this. And her father had known about it, too! Even more, Souun had ALLOWED it out of some warped hope that Ryouga's behaviour would force Ranma to openly admit her "feelings" for her.
They had all used her . . .
Used her . . .
"You know, some people say that girl was psychotic."
She jolted, staring at the two police officers; the one farthest from her had said those words. "Psychotic?!" she screamed, quaking indignantly as she felt something warp around her. "Who says I'm psychotic . . .?!"
"Yeah, both those other girls said the same thing," the other cop acknowledged that with a nod. "Jeez, can't blame them if that girl . . . " -- he pointed to a spot on the ground -- " . . . decided to attack someone who WASN'T a martial artist from BEHIND of all things!"
She stopped, another chill warping through her, and then a cloud of guilt descended on her, as if she found herself beneath Damocles' sword, the blade ready to pierce her through the skull. No . . .! She . . .! Marie . . .
Not a martial artist. Yes, she had been protected by a very big golden retriever. What was his name again? Michael? But still . . .
"Marie-san . . . "
Tears welled in her eyes as she sank to her knees, her hands flying to her face as a sob escaped her. She remained in that position for what seems a painful, hateful eternity, and then, through the slits between each finger, she saw one of the police officers walk right at her. Gasping, she moved to dodge, her eyes turning to stare on her feet . . .
Just as his legs passed THROUGH hers as if she wasn't even there.
Silence fell as she watched him walk for several more paces, and then he turned to walk back. By then, she had regained her footing, her eyes locked on her hands. As the officer seemed ready to pass, she stuck her arm out . . .
And then she cried out as he walked through her appendage.
Again, as if she was not there.
"No . . .!"
Her eyes shifted left, and then she walked closer to whatever the officers were guarding. Glancing at the low stone fence ringing the park pool, she quickly noted several shattered bricks scattered on the pathway. And the pathway itself was marked with white chalk, forming the outline of a human body. And there was blood. A lot of blood.
HER body . . .
HER blood . . .
"I'm . . . " she gasped, sinking to her knees. "D-dead?"
* * *
"Akane-san . . . "
Hibiki Ryouga trudged down the street. Not bothering to look up beyond what was needed to ensure he didn't bump into anyone, the weary wanderer tried not to let the darkness clawing at his soul overtake him. But, then again, would it really matter? Really matter after . . .?
** ** **
A flash of light blinded everyone. The light itself immediately melted into a girl welding the ultimate in "magical" weaponry. "Hai! What's wrong, Yotsuba-chan?" Hinako asked as she stared on the would-be detective. Then, seeing her point off to the youngest sister's right, she turned to look. "EEEEWWWW!" She instantly recoiled on seeing Tendou Akane's shattered body, and then she turned back to her sister. "What happened?!"
"Never mind, Hinako-chan!" Shinshi snapped. "Help her!"
Hinako jolted, and then she blinked as the Staff whispered something into her mind. "Oh, Hina understands! Hai, hai!" She raised the glowing weapon before she pointed the crystal at Akane's head. "Hina'll fix it . . . "
The Staff's crystal flared as a bolt of energy lashed out to wrap around Akane's body. As the Tendous, Ryouga, Akari, Marie and Yotsuba watched, Hinako became icily still as the Staff's energy moved to embrace her. Time seemed to stand still for the fretting onlookers. Then, after what seemed like forever, the energy dispersed. Eyes locked on the youngest of Moroboshi Ataru's sisters. At first, there seemed confusion. Then, it instantly melted to heartbreaking sadness as a whispered "Bye-bye . . . " escaped her. Before anyone could say anything in response, Hinako's voice faded into a pained scream as she dropped to her knees, her arms keeping the Staff close to her.
"Hinako-chan!" Marie screamed as she and Yotsuba instantly raced for their sister's side as the energy encompassing Akane dispersed, not a single change having been done to the woman's body. "Hinako-chan, what's wrong?! Hinako-chan!" the bespectacled teen yelled as she shook her sister's shoulders to try to get her to say something, ANYTHING that could explain this.
For the next couple of minutes, all anyone could get out of the poor girl was a non-stop wail. Watching this, the others took time to gaze once more on Akane's broken body. They were quick to note that the blood had finally stopped flowing, it forming a blackening puddle under her back. Seeing this, Ryouga, still cradled in Akari's arms, began to shudder.
No . . .
No, this . . .
Akane-san . . .
It just . . .
Akane . . .
"Hinako-chan . . .?"
The wanderer oinked as he turned, immediately realizing that Hinako was trying to say something. Marie held her sister close as Yotsuba squeezed Hinako's shoulders in reassurance. Finally, taking a deep sniff, the youngest of the sisters gazed on Kasumi. "G-gomen n-ne, Kasumi-s-san . . . " she spoke in a pained whisper. "B-but A-Akane-san . . . "
"Couldn't you move her . . .?!" Nabiki blurted.
That was enough to send Hinako into another crying fit. Hearing that, Ryouga's heart shattered as Kasumi, who had been gazing at Hinako, staggered up. Turning away, the eldest of the Tendou sisters spared the transformed wanderer a brief look, and then whatever control she had over her own pain shattered. As she staggered away, Shinshi and Nabiki quickly moved to support her with their hugs. Ryouga didn't notice as Akari drew him closer to herself; his eyes had again locked themselves on the weeping Hinako.
Akane . . .
No . . .
"Hinako-chan, please . . . " Marie gently probed, gently stroking her sister's hair as tears welled up in her own eyes. "Tell us . . . "
A hand landed on the bespectacled girl's shoulder. "Kinda easy to figure out, Marie-chan," Yotsuba hoarsely whispered. "Hinako-chan tried to help Akane-san . . . " Her eyes then turned down to the weeping Hinako. "But Akane-san decided to get on the Last Checky instead."
** ** **
"Akane . . . "
Ryouga stopped at a corner, sparing a glance heavenward before an arc of fresh pain surged through him. "Gomen nasai, Akane-san . . . " he whispered, his eyes absently noting that it was safe to walk across the street. "Gomen nasai, Akari-chan . . . " He squeezed a fist.
He stopped, looking wildly around. He then screamed out as a hand landed on his shoulder. A car horn blared close by. Before he could try to ascertain what was happening, two strong hands snared him and he was literally dragged off the street. Crashing into the sidewalk on the other side of the road, the wanderer grunted as dizziness overtook him for a moment. He then looked up to see who was kneeling next to him. "Kanami-san . . .?"
Kurosu Kanami grunted as she helped Ryouga back to his feet, her hands then moving to dust him off before she fixed him with a concerned stare. "Ryouga-kun, what's wrong?!" She squeezed his hands in both of hers. "You were about to get run over by a truck!" She pointed.
Ryouga looked, gulping on seeing a large food delivery truck stopped at the corner, the driver giving him an annoyed look. Before any altercation could begin, Kanami moved to guide the wanderer down the street. "I'm back in Tomobiki . . .?" he asked as he looked around.
"Hai, Ryouga-kun. Not too far from the apartment where I live," the tall Avalonian confirmed with a nod, she moving to wrap an arm protectively around his. "You look like someone just died, Ryouga-kun. What happened to you?"
"I . . . " The wanderer stopped, and then his head dipped. "Hai."
"Ryouga-kun . . .?"
"Someone did die."
Silence fell over the pair as they headed down the street. Kanami then nodded. "It'll be alright, Ryouga-kun," she leaned up to whisper in his ear. "I'm here for you now. We all are. It'll be alright."
A shudder quaked him, and then he felt a strange warmth surge through him. "I . . . " He blinked before he gazed briefly at Kanami. Seeing the concerned smile on her face, Ryouga paused before he looked away. "I hope so."
* * *
"Ohayou, Minako-chan!"
"Ohayou, Shinobu-chan! How're you today?"
"Pretty okay," Shinobu confirmed as she took her seat. "How about you?"
"Well, we got some good news," Minako reported as she sat beside her as other students streamed into the classroom. "Kyooko-chan and Tomomi-chan met Ataru-kun last night and told him about the bioroid factory. He'll help us."
"Really?!" Shinobu gazed on her new friend, clapping her hands delightedly. "Oh, that's wonderful! Is he planning something now?"
"Not really. He doesn't even know what's really going on with the factory or whoever's aboard right now. All he does know is that Oogi fellow's up there. But what sort of shape's Oogi in? What sort of control does he have over the factory or the bioroids aboard? They gotta figure all that out first." She shrugged. "So he told us to act normally for the next while. You know, try not to draw any sort of attention on ourselves."
"That makes sense." Shinobu then blinked as Tomomi and Kyooko stepped into the room. "Oh, Tomomi-chan! Kyooko-chan! Ohayou!"
"Ohayou, Shinobu-chan!" Tomomi replied as the other Avalonians relaxed. "I take it Minako-chan told you the good news."
Shinobu nodded. "Hai, she did! How soon do you guys think Ataru-kun might do something about Oogi and the factory ship?"
"Not for a few days," Kyooko reported as they relaxed in the seats around hers. "Actually, it'll be his sister Negako-san who'll deal with the whole mess, probably helped by Chikage-san and Hinako-chan. Not to mention those refugees from Phentax Two who came to Earth via the factory."
Shinobu perked. "What refugees?!"
Tomomi and Kyooko explained about Miree and her daughters. Shinobu took that in, and then her jaw dropped in disbelief. "They had a Church of HOLLYWOOD on that planet?!" She tried not to fall over laughing. "What sort of 'gods' did they worship, anyway?! Cary Grant?!"
"Miree-sama seems to have a thing for Humphrey Bogart." Kyooko covered her mouth to hide her own smile. Tomomi snickered. "Still, hearing about what the Lumites did to the Hollywoodites after they became the 'one true faith' . . . " She shook her head. "Such a sad thing."
Minako nodded. "Hai, that's true."
"Agreed." Shinobu blinked as something Kyooko said came back. "Wait! You said Negako-san and Chikage-san were going to deal with this. I've heard of them. Do you guys really think they can do something about all this?"
Tomomi readily nodded, her eyes sparkling with admiration on speaking the sorceress' name. "Negako-san and Chikage-san? Bet on it!"
Kyooko rolled her eyes. "Oh, Buddha help us!"
Shinobu stared quizzically at the blue-haired Avalonian. "What?"
"Chikage-san." Kyooko thumbed Tomomi. "After we were done with Ataru-kun, Chikage-san came to our apartment and helped clear out a whole slew of monitoring devices Oogi's people had scattered about the place . . . "
Shinobu bolted to her feet. "'MONITORING DEVICES?!'"
Minako nodded. "Yep! According to Chikage-san, the Church has bugged the whole town. Here, see for yourself." She then reached into her pocket to draw out one of the spheroid devices found in her bedroom, it impaled on one of Chikage's crucifix-shaped throwing darts.
Shinobu took that to give it a closer look. By then, Fujinami Ryuunosuke and Seikou Mie had arrived. "Ohayou, minna . . .!" the tomboy hailed with a wave of her hand, and then she blinked. "Hey, Shinobu, what the heck's that?!"
Mie took the device from Shinobu's hand. "Some sort of audio/visual sensor, I think," she said, giving it a close look.
"Audio-only," Minako augmented. "This was in my bedroom."
Shinobu spun on her, her eyes widening in panic. "Did Chikage-san find out if they learned anything . . .?"
Her voice trailed off. "Doubtful." Minako shook her head. "Besides, given that three billion of the very people they serve are now air pollution, the chances are pretty good that whoever's here in town aren't feeling really good right now." She held up her finger in warning. "Oh, just in case you want to know, Chikage-san's pretty sure that the whole town's been littered with these things EXCEPT here!" She pointed down.
"The school?" Shinobu nodded. "Oh, I get it. This place is their 'holy citadel.' To actually 'sully' it with devices like this . . . "
Her eyes fell on the device in Mie's hand. Ryuunosuke blinked as she tried to put together what everyone else was talking about. "Are you sayin' this was put in your bedroom by those Church of Lum jerks, Minako?"
Minako nodded. "Yep."
"I think the first priority should be to gather all these things up and destroy them," Mie noted, handing the device back to Minako.
"Chikage-san says it's not the smartest thing to do it wholesale now, especially with Oogi hovering over all our heads," Kyooko warned. "After all, what'd be his reaction if his eyes and ears on the 'holy company' were suddenly cut off just like that?" She snapped her fingers. "Last night, she went out and cleaned up sections of the town outside our apartment. She didn't tell us where she was going to do that, but she said that when things seem safe, she'll get Hinako-chan to clean the rest of them up right away."
"Hinako . . . " Ryuunosuke blinked confusedly. "Who's she?"
"The little girl that was with Ataru-kun yesterday when his daughters came," Minako provided. "She's the baby of the crowd."
"But she's only . . .! What? Seven?!"
"Turned eight in August," Tomomi provided.
"So how can someone that young help out?!" Ryuunosuke demanded.
"Ryuunosuke-chan, the people who created the factory also created some things normal folks wouldn't want to have ANYTHING to do with," Minako explained. "One of them is a device called the Staff of Gihan. Think of it as a cosmic version of Sailor Moon's wand and you'll get the idea of how powerful it is." A pause. "Recently, the Staff was given to Hinako-chan to use."
Shinobu gaped. "And that's in the hands of a girl THAT young?!"
"That does sound a little dangerous," Mie warned.
Kyooko shook her head. "Hinako-chan was chosen because of the purity of her soul, because she's still a child who hasn't dealt with all the delightful things puberty eventually forces on people. Miree-san hopes that by allowing the Staff to remain in Hinako-chan's hands, whatever 'dark' programming might still be within the Staff will eventually be deleted."
Tomomi nodded. "And from what I could sense of what's going on between Hinako-chan and the Staff, that assumption's on the money."
"Do you think they'll go find that second device for Aria-chan?"
"Who's Aria?!" Ryuunosuke demanded.
"Turned ten in November, comes from France," Tomomi provided. "A spoiled princess, but believe me, Ataru-kun doesn't mind a bit."
Shinobu's eyebrow arched. "Really?"
"Ohayou, minna-san."
Eyes turned to gaze on Mendou Shuutarou, he standing at the doorway.
* * *
"Mendou Shuutarou is there now?!"
"Yes, Captain!"
The Rose Emperor's captain nodded. "Excellent! Here's an extra present for the Queen! I'll inform her of this at once!"
"Yes, ma'am!"
* * *
"Wash your back?"
Lufy perked as she pulled her work jumpsuit off, and then she turned to gaze on Catty Ray. The android was standing beside one of the showerheads in the Konggh'cha's lone bathroom, located aft of the pilotage and the shipmistress' quarters. An inviting smile was etched on her face. Smirking in anticipation, Lufy allowed her clothes to drop away from her. Setting those aside, she walked over to gaze down into Catty Ray's golden eyes, standing under a showerhead. "Last day as an android," she mused.
Catty Ray grinned as she flicked on the water, adjusting the temperature to the level she knew Lufy liked. The Pirpirsiw'r turned around automatically as her lover got to work with a cloth and a bar of soap on her back muscles.
"I'm nervous," the android then admitted.
"You've got a right. When you passed the threshold . . . "
She gasped as Catty Ray walked up to press her bust into Lufy's back, the former's arms wrapping around the latter's waist. "You let me be that way," Catty Ray said as she closed her eyes, resting the side of her head between Lufy's shoulder blades. "I can never thank you enough, Lufy-vayae." Calling her that sent a delighted shudder through the taller woman's body. "Never."
Lufy blinked, and then she reached up to give Catty Ray's wrists a warm squeeze. "I should be thanking you. Once you made it . . . "
"Walk away from the person who allowed me to become fully self-thinking?" Catty Ray tittered as she turned to bat her nose over the ridge of Lufy's upper spine. That feather soft contact nearly sent the Pirpirsiw'r to her knees as jolts of ecstasy threatened to swamp her mind's pleasure centre. "Yes, I did have the choice to do whatever I wanted when the people at Techno-Entertainment Services decided to decommission me as a companion android, but to walk away from my very own emancipator . . . " She then pulled away from Lufy as the cloth came around to start cleansing off the pilot's back of sweat and skin oil. "No, I couldn't do that. Not at all."
Lufy remained still as Catty Ray got to work, her memory replaying the time when it really had started between them . . .
** ** **
"I am sorry, Eiuoiiaoii. I must return to the maintenance lab . . . "
The android blinked in shock as the pilot's hand grasped her wrist. Though, as a partially organic construct, she was stronger than the organic that had been her only lover and companion for quite some time, core behaviour programming forbade her from causing any harm to a Daishi'cha. Turning to stare into the red-brown orbs the Yehisrite-born pilot possessed, the android blinked for a moment before she pleaded, "Eiuoiiaoii, please release me. I must return to the maintenance lab for a full systems diagnostic . . . "
"You'll die if you do that," the pilot flatly announced.
That caused the android to jolt. "What do you mean?"
"I'm talking about your template," the pilot explained as she guided her lover to the bed. Since the Daishi'cha, in the wake of the Daimon'cha's visit three years ago, had decided it was time to press on with full-time preliminary preparations to launch Stage Two of the Grand Design, Daishi'cha #29363 had obtained newly constructed quarters in a townhouse-like barracks on the east side of the remnants of Sagussa's world capital, Tere'na City. Despite the oppressive heat of Sagussa's primary, Sen'a, beating down on the wrecked world -- it would be five years before solar energy collectors would be commissioned to bleed off the remnants of Sen'a shattered red dwarf companion star, Eisen'a, and thus allow Sen'a to return to a normal K-type primary -- it was far much better than spending time in cryogenic suspension in the Chamber of Eternity, a vast underground support complex located in a mountain range north-east of Tere'na City. "She's elected to take you permanently out of service. After all, she's bonded with the Elder Mother now." A scowl crossed the pilot's face as her mind called up images of the rusty-haired, blue-eyed, Seishin-Urusian-born woman who would one day bear the name "Noa." "What's the need of having an android 'advertisement' if she's already bonded to someone she loved?"
The android's eyes widened. "Ashoi'cha did not tell me about it . . . "
"She told me when we took the ship out for a trial run with the Gladiators slung to the hull last month," the pilot cut her off.
The shorter woman paused as her mixed organic and positronic mental relays churned through what her companion had just said about what Daishi'cha #40435 -- companion androids always referred to their organic templates as "Ashoi'cha" -- decided concerning her continued existence. She then stared at the pilot. "Did you tell her about our time together?" she asked.
"I made mention of it," the pilot responded, a smirk crossing her face.
"She paid it no mind."
"But still . . . "
"Techno-Entertainment can't touch you if I have you signed out."
The android paused again as she considered that. "How long?"
"As long as I want. There's no time-restriction imposed on keeping a companion android outside of storage. And if any of the techs bother me about it, I'll tell them that I'm not done with you. They're still adjusting to what Ataru-sama's visit did to them emotionally. By the time any of them might finally clue into what I actually might want with you, well . . . "
Her voice trailed off. Silence fell as the android considered what her companion just said, and then her eyes went wide. "You'd allow me to . . .!"
More silence.
"Because I want you, Oioai."
The android blinked, her cheeks flaming on the pilot's addressing her with the first part of her template's sequential number. The Daishi'cha were still debating over what names they wanted to used for themselves; that debate would last for a long time, right until the day the Elder Mother struck on the idea of using the Daimon'cha's interest in animation, manga and other forms of fiction to act as inspiration for everyone on Sagussa. "Why, Eiuo?" she asked, responding in kind as she held the pilot's hands in her own.
The pilot considered that for a moment, and then she made herself sit on the bed. Patting the place beside her to make the android sit down, she then answered, "At first, it was because you were Oioai-oi'iiui's replica that brought me to you. Even after she and the Elder Mother bonded, my interest in her never abated. But then . . . " A wistful look crossed her face. "Then you stopped getting the memory upgrades from Oioai-oi'iiui. And then you . . .! Well, you started to become your own person. I've always liked that."
The android blinked as her processors absorbed and dissected that data, and then she canted her head in a show of overt curiosity. "Has my emulation programming begun to deviate from what is demanded of me?" she then asked, a twinge of fear in her voice. The pilot understood that reaction; for a companion android to grossly deviate away from what her template's emotional norms were was seen by everyone on Sagussa as ultimately defeating the whole purpose of the companion android system.
"You've started to show signs, Oioai," she admitted. "Remember when you asked me if it was possible for you to be programmed as a Gladiator pilot?"
The other woman's eyes widened, and then she smiled. "True."
She stood up, walking away from the bed to gaze out the window at the barracks courtyard. Sen'a was moving to set over the distant cliffs that once loomed over the shoreline of the Western Ocean. On the courtyard, three junior servicewomen were marching out to lower the flag for the day. Blinking as she stared down at herself -- companion androids often wore either the dusty tan "no assignment" jumpsuit or what would be seen in many nations on Earth as "civilian" clothing -- she then blinked as tears welled up in her eyes. Quickly initiating a system diagnostic to ensure that particular function was responding property, the android took a deep breath. "Help me, Eiuo . . . "
The pilot tensed. "Oioai . . . "
"Help me, please. Help me be human. For you . . . "
Without hesitation, the pilot moved to embrace her.
** ** **
Lufy jolted on hearing Catty Ray's question. She nodded. "Yeah . . . "
"Luf?" Priss' voice rang out from a nearby speaker.
The Konggh'cha's shipmistress looked up. "What is it, Pri?"
"The guys'll be here in an hour or so."
Lufy blinked. The remainder of Pathfinder Troop Six, Priss' current unit. And her own. And soon to be Catty Ray's.
* * *
"Send Hinako-chan and Miree-san out NOW?!"
Ataru sighed as he gazed across the pond at the very spot where Tendou Akane had breathed her last, his sisters surrounding her. "Yes," he replied with a nod before he looked at Sakuya. "I don't want another incident like this to happen again, Sakuya-chan. Especially not to Hinako-chan."
"Perhaps we should consider giving this second device to someone other than Aria-chan, Anigimi-sama," Haruka proposed.
"Miree-san was pretty adamant on the idea of giving that second device to Aria-chan, Haruka-chan," Sakuya warned.
"Sakuya-chan, surely you must realize that Aria-chan may not be the right sort of person to deal with a device like Bou-san!" Haruka returned her look. "Even more so, I don't believe that Guenevere-san would approve of this idea!"
The others nodded. Even if Aria's mother and stepfather no longer seemed to want to concern themselves with the young Parisian's upbringing, that Guenevere Rochelles still lived on Promised Island, ready to serve Aria virtually at a moment's notice, spoke volumes. "Regardless of what Guenevere-san thinks is right for Aria-chan, I think that after what just happened to Akane . . . " -- Ataru pointed across the pond -- " . . . none of us would want to see Aria-chan TOO sheltered from the outside world. Ne?"
"Agreed," Chikage said. "Besides, look how well Hinako-chan held up to last night's events. Did any of us imagine that Hinako-chan was capable of doing something like THAT? I believe that with the proper encouragement -- which we all can give her, especially Hinako-chan, not to mention Jonna, Orin and Miree-san - Aria-chan might turn out the same way."
Sakuya sighed. "Well, we DID take a chance with Hinako-chan. We might as well do the same with Aria-chan."
"We should ensure all precautions are taken first," Haruka warned.
Ataru grimaced. "Right."
* * *
"Ataru-san . . .?!"
She gazed across the pond at the people currently standing on the path leading to the park's main gate. After it sank into her that she was no longer among the living, she had walked away from the scene of her demise, seeking a bench so she could put her thoughts together.
Was THIS what death was like?
Wasn't she supposed to go to Heaven or to Nirvana?
Or was she . . .?
A sob escaped her as fear surged up her spine.
Was she not seen as worthy . . .?
Did this mean . . .?
WHAT did it mean?!
Well, well, well. THIS is interesting.
She jolted, looking wildly around. The voice that had just spoke to her seemed to come from every direction on the compass. Who . . .?
Behind you.
She turned. Her eyes quickly detected Ataru and two of his sisters walking away from the pond in the direction of the front gate. However, the third one -- Chikage? -- was staring directly AT her! "Who . . .?!"
Even from this distance, she could quickly see the other woman's lips quirk into a smile. Fate is truly a strange thing at times, Chikage's bemused voice echoed deep in her mind. Wouldn't you agree, Akane?
Akane blinked.
* * *
"Hey, Onee-chan, you okay?"
"Should I be?!" Kasumi snapped. Her voice then choked on a sob. Seeing Nabiki rear back from her outburst, she relaxed. "Gomen . . . "
"It's okay!" Nabiki sat beside her sister, a hand reaching out to squeeze Kasumi's shoulder. The older Tendou was quick to notice that despite the mask of self-control Nabiki projected, the younger woman's cheeks were still damp. "Can't blame you for acting like that."
"Akane-chan . . .!" Kasumi squeezed her eyes shut, and then she gazed at the ceiling. "Oh, why, Nabiki-chan? Why . . .?"
"Loads of reasons," Nabiki whispered as she tucked her legs into her arms. "But the big one, I think, is that none of us here ever took any time to make Akane-chan face up to her responsibilities." Sniffing back a fresh bout of tears, she stared at the sitting room table. "You remember how it was like, don't you? Akane-chan thought Ranma-chan did something wrong, then smacked her around for it? Even when it turned out that Ranma-chan WAS innocent about it, Akane-chan never apologized for it. And we . . . "
Kasumi jerkily nodded. "We just sat there and let it happen again and again and again! Even worse, when Ranma-chan tried to show some sort of anger over what Akane-chan did, what did we do . . .?"
Nabiki closed her eyes. "We let Souun and Genma gang up on Ranma-chan . . . " she exhaled, "And let Akane-chan get away with it."
Silence fell as the sisters considered what to say next. Footsteps then heralded the arrival of their brother's girlfriend, draped in a khaki cardigan and a pair of faded jeans. Gazing on Yotsuba, Kasumi and Nabiki were quick to sense the afterglow on the younger girl's skin that could only result from one act. "Hey!" The would-be detective wanly smiled. "You guys okay?"
Kasumi lowered her eyes. "Thank you for not keeping the whole house awake last night, Yotsuba-chan."
Yotsuba paled, snapping up her hands as a denial surged up her throat. "Hey, that's enough!" Nabiki called out before she rolled to her feet and walked over to place a reassuring hand on the younger girl's shoulder. "People aren't themselves when they lose someone close to them, Yo-chan. Believe me, Onee-chan and I know that VERY well."
"Ah . . . " Yotsuba paused before she nodded. "Hai, that's true. It . . . " She shrugged as they sat beside the table. "All Yotsuba wanted to do was sleep with Shi-chama, let him cry over what happened. Then . . . "
Kasumi gazed concernedly at her. "I hope you used protection."
"Didn't have much time to think about it," Yotsuba admitted with a smile, shrugging. "Then again, Negako-anechama knows lots of ways to stop conception if it's needed. Yotsuba'll take care of it today. But . . . " She sniffed before staring at her future sisters-in-law. "Yotsuba's place is here now with you guys. Shi-chama's taking this really bad."
"Is he asleep?" Kasumi asked.
"Hai. He finally dozed off about an hour ago." Yotsuba then perked on hearing footfalls echo from the front porch.
"Oh, Ojii-san's home!" Kasumi stood, calling out, "Ohayou, Ojii-san!"
The women watched Happoosai step inside. They were quick to note the tired look on the aged grandmaster's face. The empty bag he normally used to stuff newly acquired underwear spoke volumes about his mood, too. Pausing to gaze intently at the Tendou sisters and Yotsuba, Happoosai then closed his eyes. "I . . . " he began, and then, making his way to the table, he bowed his head. "I'm truly, deeply sorry about what happened to Akane-chan, ladies. You've my sincerest condolences. Not to mention Cologne-chan's."
"She sensed it, Ojii-chan?" Nabiki asked.
"Hai. She told Shampoo-chan and Mousse to keep quiet about it. When are you going to make the announcement to the kids at school?"
"Lunch," Nabiki reported. "Hinako-sensei'll keep the Horde and Kunou in line. The staff'll keep this from the kids, not to mention Kunou-koochou."
"That's good. Heaven only knows what that pineapple-crazed moron might do." Happoosai looked around. "Where's Shinshi-kun?"
"Asleep," Yotsuba reported.
Happoosai glanced at the would-be detective, a smirk crossing her face. "It's good that you were there for him, Yotsuba-chan."
She acked, flustering. "Oh, this is definitely NOT checky . . . "
"No, no! Relax." The grandmaster drew out his pipe. "Shinshi-kun needed the emotional support. You were there for him, child. Don't worry about what other people think. If they don't want to take the time to understand things, that's their damned problem, not yours."
Kasumi nodded. "Agreed. Yotsuba-chan, can you call your sisters and ask how Ranma-chan is? Heaven knows, once this gets out, there're going to be many people who'll automatically turn around and blame this on her."
Nabiki closed her eyes. "Not to mention Ataru-kun."
Yotsuba nodded. "Yotsuba'll call them in a bit."
Everyone turned as Shampoo walked in, a delivery box in hand. "Oh, Shampoo, ohayou!" Kasumi hailed. "You didn't have to . . .!"
The warrior-maiden wagged her finger. "Don't talk about that!" A sad smile then crossed her face. "You, Nabiki and your new brother need time to mourn Akane. There's no need to worry about small things."
"I . . . " Kasumi stopped before she bowed. "Arigatou, Shampoo-chan."
"Yotsuba'll wake Shi-chama up."
Yotsuba headed to the master bedroom. Shampoo moved to unload her box. As she did so, footfalls heralded the arrival of another would-be rival of Akane's. "Hey, anyone home?" Ukyou called out before peeking inside.
"Oh, Ukyou-chan!" Kasumi flustered on seeing the okonomiyaki chef bring in her own delivery box. "Please, you don't . . . "
An objecting finger stopped her voice. "Not a word outta you today, Kasumi-chan." Ukyou, her eyes glinting with her own tears -- regardless of her own rivalry with Akane concerning who would marry Ranma, the chef always thought of the youngest Tendou daughter as a friend -- set her box down before walking over to embrace the eldest of the Tendous. "Shampoo called and told me what happened to Akane-chan." She kissed Kasumi's cheek before she moved to unload. "Right now, you don't need to worry about small things."
"Thanks," Nabiki said as she took a bowl of ramen from Shampoo. "Just keep quiet about it if you plan to go to school later, Ukyou. I want to make an announcement at lunch. I DON'T want the rumour mill to go to work before everyone gets the information they need, okay?"
"What are you planning to tell them, Nabiki?"
Shampoo and Ukyou looked as Shinshi stepped into the room, Yotsuba's arm wrapped around one of his. "Holy . . .!" The okonomiyaki cook then whistled in admiration before she glanced at Nabiki. "This is YOU after Jusenkyou?!"
Shinshi and Nabiki both blushed. "Hai, dearie, that he is . . .! Oh, thank you, Shampoo-chan!" Happoosai took a plate of fresh nikuman from Shampoo as Shinshi and Yotsuba took their places at the table.
"Aiyah!" Shampoo breathed before she moved to finish serving everyone else, and then she sat down. "Shinshi's lucky that clan-sister Yotsuba's already moving to claim him! This one might want Shinshi for herself!"
Eyes locked on the warrior-maiden. "I take it Elder Cologne told you about what happened to Ranma-chan," Kasumi noted.
"Hai." Shampoo paused before she sighed as she put some sweet-and-sour pork into her bowl. "Hearing that hurt this one bad, but Hibaa-chan said it was for the best. Besides, Ai- . . .!" She caught herself, her cheeks reddening. "Er, Ranma can now become this one's blood-sister. When Ranma marries Ataru, the Nujiézú and the Tiger-Spirit shadow warriors -- that's Ataru's extended family -- will finally be able to form a blood alliance. It's what Hibaa-chan and the Council have wanted for a long time."
"Yotsuba thinks if she can, Shampoo should go see Ane-chama today," Yotsuba said as she took up a plate of fried noodles. "Ane-chama'll probably need to have all her friends, not to mention future family, with her today."
Ukyou winked. "Don't worry. Negako-san called and told us to whip up a delivery for the people at the shrine. Shirayuki ain't in any mood to cook."
"This one doesn't blame clan-sister Shirayuki for that," Shampoo noted.
Kasumi nodded. "Indeed. Ukyou-chan, when you go see her, tell Ranma-chan that I'll come to visit her sometime this afternoon."
"Sure thing," the okonomiyaki chef replied.
* * *
"I'm NOT Akane?!"
Chikage and Akane stood together in the woods of Hikarigaoka Park, far from prying eyes. To ensure an extra level of security, the sorceress kept to psi-speech. Exactly. She gazed dispassionately on Akane. Last night, after your template's body was crushed by Akari's pet, her spirit took immediate flight into the next life to be with her mother.
"But . . .!" Akane then blinked. "How can you be sure . . .?"
Easily enough. There is a witness to what happened, even in the last seconds of your template's time in this life. Hinako.
Silence fell as Akane called up images of Ataru's youngest sister. The girl with the magical -- was it "magic?" -- wand. The one who helped Nabiki and Shinshi live separate lives after Souun's reckless actions cursed Akane's sister to have a "brother" live in her own body. "Hinako-chan . . . " she whispered. "Th-that's right! Y-Yotsuba-chan called out to her when . . . "
When Katsunishiki crushed your template, defending his mistress, Marie and Ryouga when your template lost control of herself and moved to hurt all three of them with her mallet, Chikage finished.
Akane shuddered as the hidden accusation in the sorceress' words made itself apparent. "I . . .!" She then looked down at the ground. "Oh, gods, I can't believe . . .!" She shook her head. "I actually tried to . . . "
Chikage shook her head. No, not you exactly.
Akane sighed. "Chikage-san, you don't have to . . .!"
Look for yourself.
A crystal ball appeared in the sorceress' hand. Akane stared at it as a dark image formed. A point of light appeared in the middle of the ball, that point morphing into the image of a young woman on her back. Akane shuddered on recognizing her. "Me . . .?!" she gasped.
Your template, Chikage emphasized. Now listen carefully.
Akane braced herself as a second point of light appeared some distance from the first's feet. It too morphed into the image of a woman, this one much younger than either Akane or Chikage. "Hinako-chan . . . " Akane whispered.
HINAKO: Akane-san! Are you okay?!
A groan escaped Akane as a hand shifted up to feel her forehead.
AKANE: What happened . . .?
HINAKO: It's okay, Akane-san! Akari-san's big piggy just jumped all over you when you tried to hit Marie-chan with that mallet of yours!
Akane was quick to sense the annoyed tone in Hinako's voice.
HINAKO: Mou! Why'd you try to do something really, really, really stupid like that, anyway?! Didn't you know about Ryouga-san's curse?!
AKANE: Curse . . .
Silence fell for a brief moment as Hinako seemed to ready the Staff of Gihan to capture Akane's spirit in a preservation bubble.
AKANE: Why . . .?
A pained sob seemed to escape Akane.
HINAKO: Akane-san, are you okay . . .?
Suddenly, another beacon of light appeared ABOVE Akane.
VOICE: Akane-chan . . .?
Akane paled. "Okaa-san . . .!"
HINAKO: Huh?! Who're you?!
AKANE: Okaa-san . . .
VOICE: Akane-chan . . .
The second beacon of light began to grow. Akane turned to it, acting as if Hinako wasn't standing there behind her. Seeing her template's image in the crystal ball, Akane shuddered, tears spilling as her soul seemed to grasp that treasured voice, that memory, in a hold of steel.
HINAKO: Hey! Akane-san, what are you doing?!
AKANE: Okaa-san . . .
Hinako's face shifted from frustration to confusion, and then to a sad understanding. "Did she lose her mother, too . . .?" Akane asked.
HINAKO: Akane-san's mama . . .
AKANE: Okaa-san?! Is that you?! Okaa-san!
KIMIKO: Hai. It's me, Akane-chan.
In a move that surprised the viewer, Akane lunged towards the light. Hinako jolted as she then remembered what she was supposed to be doing, and then she reached out with her hand to stop Akane and pull her back.
HINAKO: Akane-san, wait! Don't go! Why are you going?!
Akane spun on the youngest of the sisters. Her face literally shone with a joy that no one had ever seen on her before.
AKANE: Why not?! She my MOTHER!
Hinako stopped, her eyes sparkling with tears.
HINAKO: But what about your sisters?! What about your brother?! What about your friends, Akane-san?! You can't leave them!
AKANE: Yes. I can.
HINAKO: Akane-san . . .
As the young girl with the power of Eternity Itself behind her started to cry, Akane reached out for the beacon that would reunite her with the one whose life and death had influenced so much, her body merging with the glow of her mother's spirit. As Akane melted into the light, her voice rang out . . .
AKANE: Don't be sad, Hinako-chan. I want to do this.
HINAKO: Akane-san, don't go . . .!
AKANE: I have nothing to go back to, Hinako-chan.
HINAKO: What about your family?!
AKANE: No family . . .
HINAKO: What about your friends?!
AKANE: No friends . . .
HINAKO: Akane-san . . .!
AKANE: Except you, Hinako-chan . . .
HINAKO: Akane-san . . .
Another voice, this one sounding almost like Hinako though with a divine theatrical boom, seemed to thunder all around her.
VOICE: The choice is hers, Hinako.
Akane stared at Chikage. "The Staff . . .?"
Chikage nodded.
HINAKO: Bou-san . . .
AKANE: Sayonara, Hinako-chan . . .
Akane faded fully into the beacon of light.
AKANE: Tell Marie-san . . .
HINAKO: Akane-san . . .?
AKANE: She was right . . .
The beacon disappeared, leaving Hinako alone in the darkness.
HINAKO: Akane-san . . .!
The youngest of Ataru's sisters bowed her head.
HINAKO: Bye-bye . . .
"No . . .!"
The image in the crystal ball vanished as Chikage watched Akane sink to her knees, her hands flying to her face as sobs escaped her. The sorceress remained silent as the disembodied spirit wept, Chikage slipping her crystal ball back under her cape. Finally, Akane's hands dropped from her face as her moans faded into deep breaths. She then slowly got back to her feet. Taking another breath to steady herself, she stared at the sorceress. "Chikage-san, I . . .! Oh, gods . . . " Her voice failed as she hugged herself.
"I can understand why she did that," Chikage said as she crossed her arms, uncaring that she was using physical speech. "Ever since Tendou Kimiko died, no one ever attempted to discipline Akane whenever she did something wrong. Souun was too wracked with grief to act as a proper parent. Kasumi couldn't make herself assume her mother's place in the household when it came to dealing with Akane's anger. Nabiki was too busy trying to keep the house over their heads. Then when Ane-kun and Genma came, things got worse . . . "
"Ryouga-kun . . . " Akane quaked, a fist squeezing over her heart. "WHY?! Why on Earth would he do something like THAT . . .?!"
"Because he was alone."
"His direction curse?" Akane blinked as realization dawned, and then she stared wide-eyed at Chikage. "His family?"
"Save his father," Chikage cut in. "They all have that curse; it's been the bane of the Hibiki family for some generations. Could you imagine what it must have been like for Ryouga? To never know where his mother, his brother or his sister might be at any given moment in their lives? Perhaps be far away from his father at a moment when something terrible might have befallen him? Any one of them might've died and the chances were good that the others might NEVER learn the truth for the rest of their lives!" An eyebrow arched as Chikage crossed her arms. "Imagine growing up in a situation like that, Akane. Then add to it the dearth of real friends."
"All alone . . . "
"Hai. Then comes someone who offers him warmth, kindness, friendship, even the first hint of love." Chikage pointed on Akane. "Your template. And since he was a piglet at the time, he concluded that the only way to hold onto what she so willingly gave him . . . "
"Was to keep up the illusion. Is that why he made Ranma make that promise? Because he just wanted to be with . . .?"
The sorceress nodded. "Partially. You'll know of Ane-kun's view of honour at the time when it came to those with a disability like what Ryouga possesses. Add to that the fact that Ane-kun did unintentionally curse Ryouga the day he accidentally stumbled onto Zhòuquán-xiang . . . "
Akane nodded. "No wonder he got so mad," she said. "And it's no wonder Ranma always called him 'P-chan' all the time. He made a promise on his honour, then Ryouga-kun turned around to use that against him . . . "
The sorceress nodded. "Hai. To further compound the matter was Ane-kun's own feelings for Ryouga. On the one hand, she saw someone taking very gross advantage of the personal privacy of someone Ane-kun deeply cared for." She pointed again to Akane to emphasise her point. "On the other hand, she saw someone she looked on as one of the few friends she possessed, a friendship she wanted to see restored in the wake of what Zhòuquán-xiang forced on them both. There were times Ryouga did want to reveal himself to Akane. And . . . "
"Ranma was afraid that if that happened, I'd blame it on her . . . "
"Yes. So she stopped him whenever she could and if that particular fear overcame her desire to see the truth come out."
Akane took that in before she turned away from Chikage. Gazing upon the mid-morning sky, she then asked, "What am I?"
"A soul replica." The sorceress walked up to stand beside her. "Created by the Staff of Gihan automatically nanoseconds before your template's spirit slipped into the next life. Beyond Hinako's knowledge, I should also add."
Akane closed her eyes. "A psychic clone, you mean?"
"What happens to me now?"
"That depends on you." Chikage gazed intently on her. "You could, if you desire, allow yourself to discorporate. In fact, that WILL happen to you by late tonight, twenty-four hours after the Staff created you. Unlike a real ghost, you would not eventually enter the next life since your template has already preceded you." A pause. "However, if you wish, you could assume corporeal existence -- with Hinako's help, of course, plus the assistance of the bioroid factory -- and then proceed to live your life."
"As Tendou Akane?"
Chikage nodded. "If that is what you wish. I can tell Toofuu-kun to not prepare a death certificate for your template. With the help of the Special Committee on Alien Activities, her school records could be whisked away from Fuurinkan and you could, as was planned for your template, attend school at Stargazer West College on the Island. While your existence could then not be hidden from Kasumi, Nabiki and Shinshi, not to mention my own siblings and Ane-kun, to all in Nerima, you would still be dead."
"Someone's going to announce that?"
"Nabiki will at lunchtime."
"I see."
* * *
"Aneue-sama . . .?"
Ranma looked up from the worktable in hers and Ataru's room to see Marie standing at the doorway. "Marie-chan . . . " the redhead whispered before she walked over as the younger woman stepped inside. Both slid into a comforting embrace. "How're you feeling?" she asked.
"A little numb," the bespectacled teen whispered as she laid her head on Ranma's shoulder. "Are you alright, Aneue-sama?"
Silence fell as the martial artist considered her future sister-in-law's question, and then she took a deep breath. "Hard to say." She then reached up to stroke Marie's hair. "Part of me feels so mad right now . . . "
"At Akane-san?"
"Yeah." Ranma gently guided the younger woman to sit by the worktable before she relaxed on her futon. "I mean . . . " Here, she halted as a moment's confusion overtook her, and then she relaxed herself. "Damn . . . "
"You're also angry at yourself, aren't you?" Marie wondered.
"Yeah . . . "
Marie smiled. "Understandable. For a year, Akane-san was the primary influence on your life and how it might have evolved hadn't you met Kamekichi-san and embarked on the path that led you to come together with Aniue-sama. Whenever she was in trouble, regardless of her feelings, you were there for Akane-san. Anyone would certainly welcome having such a dedicated protector be part of their lives. Believe me, if it was I who you worked so hard to protect, I would be terribly loath to let you go. However . . . "
"It's my life in the end," Ranma muttered.
Marie nodded. "Hai, it always was, regardless of what others might have felt about it. In fact, given how strongly those others felt about your life and the way your life's journey should have unfolded, I guess . . . " She then paused as if to find the least wounding way to say this. "That what happened to Akane-san shouldn't have come as such a surprise."
"What do you mean?"
"Well . . . " Marie adjusted her glasses as she took a deep breath. "I was thinking of when Aniue-sama left Tomobiki and how that reflected on those people who saw him as nothing more than a tool so they could continue to associate with Lum-san. His classmates at school and . . . "
"His so-called 'parents.'"
"Hai. Reigi-san helped keep us apprised of events in Tomobiki right up to when the news came of Lum-san's 'death,'" Marie reported. "Naturally, to ensure things went as smoothly as possible when Aniue-sama's memories were restored, Negako-aneuesama temporarily crippled Mendou and Megane's group, ensuring they wouldn't be able to leave their own bedrooms until a day or two after Lum-san was finally deported to Uru with Ten and Ran."
"I bet they automatically blamed the whole mess on Ataru."
"They did. Not so surprising, ne?" Marie smirked before she carried on, "Anyhow, the instant he was apprised of how and why the United Nations had come down so harshly on Lum-san, Mendou immediately lobbied the Diet to have the doors reopened so Lum-san could return to Earth." A pause. "It came as quite a shock to the poor fellow when the Diet turned his request down."
Ranma chuckled. "I bet that didn't go over too well."
Marie shook her head. "It did not. Naturally, Mendou threatened to have the dietmen who were directly involved in the move to expel Lum-san from Earth eventually forced out of their positions. Well, those esteemed gentlemen didn't like the idea of such a spoiled brat like him trying to influence their very lives so, through Reigi-san, they appealed to Mendou's father to discipline his child." A pause. "The discipline came in the form of the final decision to force Mendou to marry Mizunokooji Asuka."
"But he loves that girl!" Ranma quickly pointed out.
"True, which made it all the more easier for them to force this on Mendou." Marie held up a finger, winking. "Even more so, it preyed on Mendou's most vulnerable point: His personal sense of honour. If he publicly tried to stand up to his parents, he would be dishonoured. And even if there are those women at Tomobiki High School . . . "
"Not to mention Himiko and Mikiko," Ranma cut in with a wink, nodding to her right to indicate where Kawamura Himiko and Serizawa Mikiko had been sleeping since their return to Earth from the Avalon bioroid factory.
"Not to mention Himiko-san and Mikiko-san," Marie parroted. "Well, even if he has many friends, he would lose all access to the Kuromegane, his clan's forces and everything else." She winked. "Not to mention his allowance."
"Oh, poor boy," Ranma mockingly crooned.
Both laughed. "As for Megane and his friends, they were far easier to deal with," Marie continued. "With Mendou dealing with all his family problems, Megane couldn't rely on him for any intelligence support, such as using the Kuromegane to track down Aniue-sama so they could try to gain control of the situation again. Yes, there were small teams dispatched by Mendou to try to locate Aniue-sama, but they never came anywhere close to the Island."
"You mean he never thought of checking out Muchi and Kinshou?"
Marie shook her head. "No, Mendou didn't."
"What an idiot!"
"Did Megane's crew ever think of that?!"
"Oh, no. They never really got an opportunity," the younger woman stated. "You see, they had to worry about their parents. None of them EVER approved of their interest in Lum-san. Even more, Megane's mother is the spokesperson for the area PTA. When Lum-san was sent home, Ms. Aisuru, on behalf of the PTA, released a statement denouncing Lum-san in some pretty harsh terms. I can tell you now that what she said took even Aniue-sama by surprise; he always believed that everyone in Tomobiki liked Lum-san."
"Ooooh!" Ranma winced, and then she winked at Marie. "I bet things got really cool between Megane and his mom after that happened."
A curious look crossed the marital artist's face. "But what about Muchi and Kinshou, Marie-chan? I mean, they knew everything . . . "
"True, they did." The younger teenager nodded. "And yes, right away, Kinshou made it a point to confront Reigi-san about that. But, when one is backed by a decision from the Court of Special Appeals, one doesn't really have to worry about potential challenges, especially from someone like Kinshou. After all, when Negako-aneuesama approached the Court to have Muchi's and Kinshou's parental rights taken away, she made it a point to demonstrate how greedy Kinshou really was concerning getting control of Grandmother's fortune. You know about the time when Kinshou tried to swindle Mrs. Mendou and Lum-san's mother of their money that one time, don't you?"
Ranma nodded. "Yeah, Ataru told me. He also told me about the time on the 'Kashin' when Lum's parents promised those two good jobs on Uru if Ataru married Lum. Did Negako tell the court about that?" she then asked.
"Hai, she did . . . " Marie blinked. "How did Aneue-sama know of that? That particular meeting happened outside our solar system . . .!"
Ranma smirked. "Don't question Negako's ways, Marie-chan. I don't!"
Both laughed. "Well, it doesn't matter," Marie noted. "In many ways, you're lucky, Aneue-sama. You at least got to reconcile with many of those who once saw you as a mere commodity. That is something I don't believe will ever happen with Aniue-sama, not for a long time to come."
"Do you think he should try to mend fences with them?"
The younger woman sat back in her chair, sighing. "I really can't say, Aneue-sama. I mean, yes, Aniue-sama did do some awful things to those people when he was living there. In my eyes, he does owe people like Miyake Shinobu, Fujinami Ryuunosuke and Sakurambou Sakura an apology for all the times he tried to force himself on them. But . . . " She paused before shrugging. "Would they accept an apology from him, Aneue-sama? We know Aniue-sama would never do those things again. But would they believe that?"
"Is he afraid they'll want to do something worse?" Ranma wondered. "Like try to drive a wedge between him and you girls?"
Marie blinked before her blue-grey eyes, normally very deep and warm, turned ice-cold. "If those twits believe they can try something like that to us, they can think again." Her voice was tinged with a threatening growl. "When he came to Promised Island, Aniue-sama came looking for a quiet, peaceful place so he could put his life back in order. We acknowledged his desire by welcoming him to the House and revealing our family ties. And given how much he's suffered since he came to the Island, especially when it comes to all those delightful after-effects of his 'relationship' with Lum-san, those fools will not find a sympathetic ear with any of us."
Ranma nodded. "That's good. Then again, with Megane and his crew gone, Mendou on the way to the altar with that Asuka girl and Lum herself changed into Seiko -- not to mention what happened last week at the school -- there's little left in Tomobiki who could really hurt Ataru."
"Save those Niphentaxians who spy for that so-called 'church.'"
"Hai, true." The redhead then stood, walking to the doorway to gaze out a window at the grounds around the old shrine. "Sure ain't true at Fuurinkan, though," she whispered before she sensed Marie's hand squeeze her shoulder.
"How do you think the people there will react, Aneue-sama?"
A grimace crossed Ranma's face. "Hard to predict. I never paid much attention to all the rumours people were passing around about me, much less Akane." She shook her head. "I can bet that Akane's friends, people like Yuka and Sayuri . . .! They'll take it really hard, that's for sure." A pause. "The only real worry in the long term is Kunou."
Marie drew her hand back. "What might he do?"
The older woman shook her head. "Damn hard to predict, Marie-chan." She sneered. "With the way that idiot loves to twist things around so he feels he's on top of things . . . " A shrug rolled her shoulder before she breathed out. "It all depends on Nabiki in the end."
"Could she try to make people see reason?"
"Maybe. When it comes to information control in that place, she's the one who holds the tiller." Ranma then closed her eyes. "I wonder if she'll let information about Ryouga's curse get out into the public."
Marie gave her future sister-in-law a perplexed look. "Aneue-sama, how could you POSSIBLY forgive what that man did to you . . .?!"
Ranma fired an annoyed stare, that causing the younger woman to wilt. Seeing that reaction, the redhead cursed herself before turning to gaze once more out the window. "Marie-chan, please, I CHOOSE to let it go, alright? Yes, what he did with Akane when he was 'P-chan' was wrong. No doubt about that. But . . . " She paused, closing her eyes. "I have as much a responsibility concerning that as Ryouga did . . . "
"Aneue-sama, it was an accident!" Marie crossed her arms. "And if you personally ask me, the real culprit behind what happened to that man is your father. If that monster hadn't dragged you off to China, Hibiki-san wouldn't have got the urge to follow. If he didn't follow you to China, he wouldn't have been cursed, for Heaven's sake!"
Silence fell. Marie took a deep breath, resting her hands on the windowsill. Ranma gazed briefly at the younger woman, and then she turned once more to gaze outside. "Hinako-chan was right, you know."
Marie blinked before a nod tilted her head. "Hai, she was, wasn't she?" She pulled off her glasses, using the fabric of her sweater to clean the lenses. "Look how quick we're all willing to lay blame for this on one person. Rather foolish in the long term, isn't it?"
Ranma nodded. "Yeah, it is."
* * *
"'Bout damned time you guys got here! 'Specially you, Nene!"
The rose-haired, turquoise-eyed, Ellsian-born coxswain -- the unit master chief petty officer -- of Pathfinder Troop Six smirked as she gave Lufy a hug, and then she did the same to Catty Ray. "You always needed me to help out, especially keeping this one in perfect trim after you decided to let her take her sister's place in your heart," Nene stated, and then she walked over to the sensory station on the Konggh'cha's pilotage, drawing out her portable laptop computer. "So what's the story?" she asked.
"Got some more non-locals in the area," Priss announced as she tapped controls to create a holographic image of thermospheric space over Tokyo for the members of Pathfinder Troop Six. "The RENS Rose Emperor to be exact."
"The Rose Emperor?!" a voice spoke up from aft. "Why are they here?"
"Couldn't tell, Sylia." Priss glanced over her shoulder at the Troop's commander, who had moved to take the centre seat in the pilotage. Even though the Konggh'cha was a civilian ship, tradition granted a serving naval unit commander the right to take command over civilian craft in times of trouble. Which this situation certainly seemed to be, given the history between the Daimon'cha of Sagussa and the current Ellsian head-of-state. "All we could tell at this time is that Queen Elle herself's aboard."
Sylia, a very elegant, raven-haired, brown-eyed Seishin-Urusian, blinked as she took in that information, and then she scowled. "She might be here to make a play on Ataru-sama then," she announced. "Now that Lum is dead . . . "
The others automatically tensed on hearing that. While the Daishi'cha as a whole had long ago agreed that it was an intelligent idea to keep their links to Moroboshi Ataru shielded as much as possible from scrutiny inside the Galactic Barrier, they also knew about Queen Elle's more-than-casual interest in their Daimon'cha; Noa had learned everything she could about that incident sometime after it happened. From that, the Daishi'cha learned about Elle's quite interesting habit of freezing her past "lovers," all one hundred thousand of them, in a giant cryogenic storage unit currently located in the Royal Palace in the Kingdom's capital city, Baran. AND, thanks to the Rovers, the Daishi'cha had just learned of an interesting little project being run by Elle's nanny, Babara de Esterchild, which concerned the creation of laboratory-born children, each born from the genes of the Rose Queen and her "cute boys."
"We're going to rescue Ataru-sama if Elle tries to kidnap him, won't we?"
Sylia stared at Sylvie. One of the newer members of the Troop, the lavender-haired, golden-eyed, Yehisrite-born petty officer was the sniper and reconnaissance expert in First Section. A Pirpirsiw'r like Lufy and Priss, Sylvie, in her first life, had been Priss' singing and fighting partner (their cheek tattoos were the same). A terrible accident concerning nanites and the regeneration matrix used to rebirth the Daishi'cha had condemned Sylvie, not to mention many others (including all the other new members of the Troop, ten in total) to a premature burial on her birth world centuries ago. Fortunately for them, the nanite-infested matrix had preserved their bodies and souls long enough for them to be retrieved and revived. That had happened thanks to a very young Moroboshi Ataru when he visited Sagussa over a decade before.
Sylvie, not to mention all the other new members of the Troop, owed their very existences to that simple fact.
"We ARE going to rescue Ataru-sama, aren't we?" Anri, Sylvie's bond-mate and the communications expert in Section One, asked.
"Are we?" Megan, Section Two's sniper, prodded.
Sensing the looks on her subordinates' faces, Sylia then sighed. "Nene, what's the status of the Daimon'cha's children? Were they released from service in the Dominion's Special Forces and transported to Earth?"
Nene tapped out a query on her laptop, which then transmitted a message to the Kiboo'cha's main computer. The response came instantly. "Hai, Sylia, they were let go and brought to Earth . . .! Yesterday morning, in fact!"
Sylia nodded. "I see, then."
"Commander . . . "
Sylia sighed. "Sylvie, I want to see Ataru-sama, too! We all do, even us 'old girls' . . . " She waved a hand to indicate the Troop's other plank owners: Reinoevan (the former first officer and sniper, now the Troop's doctor), Priss (the first coxswain), Nene (the former communications chief), Linna (the former demolitions chief, now chief of Section One) and Asukanoevan (the former transportation chief, now chief of Section Two). "I know you consider it a matter of honour to remain as loyal as possible to him. But if we give in to our passions and blitz in like a pride of hungry sandpanthers chasing down a herd of stormwalkers on the dunes near the Forge, we might do a lot more damage to Ataru-sama and everyone around him than we'd want. You all know how Zed and his friends'll look on that. And I think it wouldn't take us too much to understand how Ataru-sama himself would view something like that!"
Sylvie blinked, and then a contrite look crossed her face. "True."
"Remember what I've always taught you about that, Sylvie," Linna then chided from her position behind Nene's seat.
"H-hai . . . "
"Still, if Ataru-sama is kidnapped, Commander . . . "
Eyes turned to Naomi. Sylia gazed on the raven-haired, green-eyed, Vosian-born physician's assistant, who served in the Troop as Reinoevan's field nurse. Seeing the expectant look on her face, and then noting the pleading looks on all the other newcomers' faces, the Troop commander then sighed. "Alright! All right, then! If Ataru-sama is kidnapped, we'll go and rescue him! But first, let's look to our ship driver's lover."
The remainder of the Troop gazed amusedly at Catty Ray. "Tapping into the Kiboo'cha's sensors to take a scan of the bioroid factory now, Sylia," Nene reported as she tapped away on her laptop. "I'll find us a gestation room that isn't occupied, then make sure we won't be spotted when we go in."
"Work fast, Nene!"
"Aye, ma'am."
"Ah! There you guys are!"
Eyes turned as Ayumu walked in. To Priss and Lufy's relief, the Yizibajohei-born defence officer -- Ayumu was, in fact, the Master Chief Petty Officer of the Republic of Sagussa Navy, the service's senior non-commissioned officer -- had draped herself in a blouse and skirt. "What are you doing here, Master Chief?" Sylia asked, inwardly groaning that THIS idiot was here.
Ayumu impishly shrugged. "Oh, Lufy needed some help when she came to find the bioroid factory, so I volunteered to come with them."
Sylia barely fought down the urge to wince. Dear Lyna preserve us!
Murphy, Chaos' ultimate teacher, had decided to tag along on this trip.
Bringing with him a hovercycle's load of explosive for the ride, to boot!
Ayumu perked. "Oh! Tomo and Yomi'll be here to help out later today."
Sylia's eyebrow twitched as the implications of THAT sank in.
Adding an annihilation device to that load, Thoughtmaster-prime Murphy?
* * *
"Chikage-chan! Hina's here!"
"Ah, Hinako-chan, there you are!" Chikage waved the youngest of the sisters into her bedroom. "I've a little surprise for you."
"Eh?! A surprise for Hina?" Hinako walked into the darkened space, and then her eyes fixed on the figure seated in the guest chair across the sorceress' worktable from Chikage herself. "A-a-a-Akane-san . . .?!"
Akane gazed on her. "Ohayou, Hinako-chan."
Silence fell as Hinako stared at the bodiless memory copy of the youngest of the Tendou daughters, and then she gazed on Chikage. "Chikage-chan, Hina d-doesn't understand . . .!" she stammered, shakily pointing at Akane.
Actually, Hina, I can explain it.
Hinako fell silent as the Staff whispered an explanation into her mind. At the end, the young girl then waved her hands in exasperation. "BOU-SAN NO BAKA!" she screamed out. "TELL HINA ABOUT THIS NEXT TIME!"
If the Staff could sweat-drop, it would. Sorry . . .
Chikage and Akane jerked at Hinako's ranting, and then they exchanged a look. A smile cracked the latter's face. In a moment, both women were giggling. Hinako gazed quizzically on them, and then she started to laugh herself. Finally, everyone relaxed as Akane waved Hinako to stand beside her. "Well, now that's been cleared up, we have a decision to make," Chikage said before she remembered something, raising a warning finger to emphasise her point. "Pardon me. Rather, Akane has a decision to make."
Hinako gazed on the disembodied spirit beside her. "Akane-san . . .?"
"I . . . " Akane closed her eyes as she considered what to say. She then gazed questioningly on Hinako. "Hinako-chan, would you . . .?" Here, she paused before she looked ashamedly away. "Want me to be real? To . . .?"
Hinako blinked, and then her eyes began to tear. "Akane-san . . . "
Sensing the younger girl's sorrow, Akane winced. "Gomen . . . "
She has as much right to self-determination as her template, Hinako, the Staff then warned.
"Agreed," Chikage cut in before Hinako could retort. Rising, the sorceress walked around the table to place a hand on Akane's shoulder. "In fact, one might say that you presently have more greater freedom to choose your destiny than your template ever did."
"Because of everyone's interference in her life." Akane gazed up at her host. Seeing Chikage nod, she breathed out, "True."
"Hina wants Akane-san to be like Akane-san."
Akane gazed on Hinako. "Well, not EXACTLY like her!" She flustered, scratching the back of her head. "I don't think anyone might appreciate the idea of me whipping out ki-mallets to hit people who can't defend themselves, like what the other me nearly did to Marie-san last night."
"Yeah, that was really, really, REALLY dumb!" Hinako ruefully chuckled. "Hina doesn't want to think of what Onii-tama or Negako-oneetama would've done to Akane-san if Marie-chan really, really, really got badly hurt!"
Chikage shook her head as she drew her hand away from Akane. "I can hear the Inquisition Excommunication March right now."
Akane shuddered; while she had no idea what Chikage meant by that, the tone in the sorceress' voice spoke volumes. Taking a deep breath, she gazed at her host. "So what might happen if I do go back as Akane?"
Chikage sat down. "The 'pros' are several. Your identity is already effectively established, with a life history to support it. As I told you already, your template's school records can be switched to the College with ease. In that respect, you ARE Tendou Akane, no different than the original. From there, you can proceed ahead to chart your life's path with little or no hindrance whatsoever." A pause. "The 'cons' will be considerable, however. First point is your template's family and their reaction . . . "
Akane sighed. "They've already been hurt because of this."
Chikage nodded. "Hai, they have. Since they witnessed the parting scene between your template and Hinako-chan here last night when the police came to Ani-kun's home to investigate what happened -- that was facilitated by the Staff, of course -- Kasumi, Nabiki and Shinshi will need very little persuasion to make them understand what exactly you are. And there lies the potential trap. Would they accept you into their family, as Akane, no different from the original? Or would they keep you at arm's length?"
"They seemed pretty hell-bent about it last night," Akane noted before she gazed on the table. "Then again, the other me's behaviour when it came to Ranma and your brother certainly wasn't stellar by far."
"Agreed, it wasn't," Chikage said. "But given the inordinate amount of leniency by which your template's always been treated by family and friends alike, is it really so surprising to you, Akane?"
Akane gazed on the sorceress before she nodded. "Yeah, that's true, isn't it?" She gazed heavenward. "Before she died, Mom was the disciplinarian in the family. She was pretty firm when she had to be, too . . . "
"Did she spank you?" Hinako wondered.
Akane shook her head. "Iie. Mom didn't need to do that in the long run. She was very persuasive when it came to scolding us. I always hated that. But . . . " She closed her eyes. "Mom was kind about it, too. When it was all over, she tried to explain what I did wrong and why it was wrong." A shudder ran through her. "Oh, gods, I miss that so much . . . "
"She was the real backbone of your family," Chikage noted.
Akane nodded. "That she was. Then when she was gone . . . " She gazed on the table. "It's a wonder we survived that at all. Dad just became a crying wreck. Kasumi threw away her whole life to keep the house in shape. Nabiki became the real breadwinner of the family . . . "
"And your template was allowed to do whatever she wanted, without any guidance, either positive or negative, from those who should have helped her through that time," Chikage finished for her. "That is where this began, Akane. Last night, it finally came to a head."
"And that other me ran away from it." Akane sighed, gazing on Hinako. "Even with someone there ready to make a miracle happen."
Hinako sniffed. "Akane-san said she had no friends or family left."
"That she did." Chikage drew out a handkerchief for her sister to use. "And because they know that, I believe the others of your family will work extra hard to welcome you 'back' into the fold, Akane."
Akane nodded. "I hope so. What other problems might come up?"
"My family is the other major problem. Now, as with your family, it will be easy to persuade mine of what you are and how you came to be. However, given your template's behaviour towards Marie and Hinako, many might treat you with indifference if not hostility for a considerable period to come. You'll have to work to earn their respect. For some of them, that will be difficult."
"I can guess that. What about Ranma?"
"Ane-kun? The same thing. But I believe you will slip back into Ane-kun's good side if you acknowledge what exists between her and Ani-kun and vow to leave them be. That, put simply, is what Ane-kun wanted in the end, Akane."
Akane gazed on Chikage. "That's a tall order, Chikage-san. I mean . . . " She stopped, and then she sighed. "Okay, Ranma's a girl. If that's what she wants, I could go along with it. I . . . " Another pause. "I guess that after she found out what that stupid panda did to her before their training trip, actually electing to go against what Genma wanted WAS the perfect revenge to take. And . . . " Another, longer pause. "And if . . . " She shuddered before sniffing back tears. "If she's come to love your brother, then . . . " Her hands squeeze. "I can only wish her -- and him -- the best. But . . . " A hand shifted to hover over her heart. "Why won't she come back to us?"
"What do you mean by 'us?'" Chikage gently probed.
"My family!" Akane blurted out, that causing Hinako to falter. Sensing that, she relaxed. "Chikage-san, she lived with us for over a year. We gave her the first home she had in well over a DECADE! And now she says she doesn't want anything to do with us?! WHY?!"
"But did your family REALLY offer her a home?"
Akane shuddered. "I . . .!"
Chikage sighed. "Hinako-chan, why don't you get Bou-san to create Akane's new body? Have it placed in your room when it's ready."
"I . . . " Hinako blinked, and then she nodded. "Okay!"
She vanished. Akane watched her go, and then she turned to gaze on her host. "Akane, I have something of a confession to make to you." Chikage placed her hands on the table between them. "And in doing so, I hope I can make you better understand Ane-kun's feelings about a lot of things, including her interaction with your family. And mine."
Akane blinked.
* * *
"One-Six to Six-Six. Insertion all green. Proceeding with operation."
"One-Six, Six-Six, confirm."
Linna tapped her communicator to cut the link, and then she nodded to the members of her section. The four other members of Section One -- Sylvie, Anri, Reika and Naoko -- spread out to the corners of the empty gestation room deep near the aft end of the Avalon bioroid factory. Anri -- a green-haired, blue-eyed Yehisrite-born girl, looking to be about sixteen, whose first life had ended at the same time as Priss', Sylvie's and Reika's -- pulled out her laptop to hook into the gestation room's control unit. Tapping controls, she linked into the systems monitoring this part of the faculty, and then she got to work. Everyone remained quiet as the young woman tapped away. Finally, she nodded before glancing at Linna. "We're sealed off from monitoring and I've disabled intra-ship beaming to this location. No one can beam themselves into this chamber or into the one through that door." She pointed to the door leading to a neighbouring gestation room; Sylvie was covering it with her rifle.
"Okay," the raven-haired, blue-eyed, Fukunokami-born chief petty officer said as everyone relaxed, and then she tapped her communicator. "One-Six to Six-Six. Situation nominal. Send Six-Five, Six-Nine and Six-Nine-Two over."
"Out," Sylia replied.
A transporter beam flared, revealing Priss, Lufy and Catty Ray. Like the others who had just beamed aboard the bioroid factory, the Troop first officer and her companions were dressed in non-reflective black combat skinsuits, combat webbing strapped around their shoulders and waists. Drawing her sidearm, Priss waved her companions over to the control unit, and then she reached into a pouch to hand a datachip to Anri. "Work fast, Anri," Priss ordered as the younger woman took the chip and inserted it into her laptop.
"Hai!" Anri replied as she tapped controls. The gestation fluids inside one of the vertical chambers before her began to boil. "Alright, it's ready." She gazed on Catty Ray. "Catty, the genetic sample, please?"
The android blinked, and then she reached down to pull her left sleeve back. Tapping a point below her wrist, she waited for a circuit hatch to open. Reaching in, she pulled out a small vial filled with red blood flecked with the golden drops that marked the presence of the regenerative enzymes inside a Sagussan's body. Staring at the sample, Catty Ray closed her eyes as the finality of the moment sank in. The others gazed sympathetically at her. Catty Ray was the first companion android to have been allowed to evolve into full sentience, the first ever to be given full citizenship rights in the Fifth Republic of Sagussa. Once that had happened, the path that had ultimately led Lufy's lover to this point had been easy to cross. That she was experiencing cold feet at the threshold of her new life was understandable. Finally, Catty Ray opened her eyes, nodding in determination. "Okay . . . "
She walked to the chamber currently bubbling with enzymes ready to transform the bioroid within into a genetic twin of the android's own template. Taking the vial, she loaded it into the appropriate slot, and then she nodded at Anri. As the latter tapped controls to begin the process, Catty Ray reached up to close the circuit hatch. Lufy and Priss walked up to place hands on the android's shoulders. "You okay, love?" the former whispered before she leaned down to tenderly kiss Catty Ray's cheek. "No regrets?"
Catty Ray gazed up on Lufy. "None . . . "
A soft chime echoed from Linna's communicator. "One-Six, Six-Six."
Linna tapped her communicator for two-way. "Six-Six, One-Six, go."
Sylia's voice had a tremor in it. "Be warned, Linna. There's someone in the chamber next to yours. She scans as Terran. We're also picking up a VERY high pure Te'a energy source reading from there. Watch yourselves, girls."
The members of the Troop exchanged looks. "We'll check it out, Sylia," Priss announced as she tapped her own communicator.
"Be careful, Priss . . .! Oh, damn!"
"What?!" Priss snapped.
A moan escaped the Troop commander. "Ayumu . . .!"
* * *
"Greetings, Earthling."
Hinako gasped in shock as that imposing voice echoed around her. She then turned around to see a girl appearing to be about Rinrin's age standing behind her, dressed in a plain blouse and knee-length skirt. Staring intently into the newcomer's eyes, the youngest of Ataru's sisters was quick to sense something -- well, NOT exactly human! -- about her. The visitor's right arm was raised in a friendly wave, a genuine smile etched on her face.
"A-ri-ri?!" Hinako uttered as she took in the visitor's measure, and then an annoyed scowl crossed her face. "You scared Hina!" she declared. Bou-san, why didn't you tell Hina this girl was coming?! she mentally demanded.
I didn't sense her until she appeared! the Staff confessed.
"Bou-san wouldn't be able to detect me anyway," the visitor then said.
Hinako jolted. "Huh?! Why?!"
"Because of my metahuman power." The visitor waved to herself. "I have the ability to alter probability fields on mental command. Since that always affects the Te'a, anything tied to the Te'a will be automatically affected."
Hinako blink-blinked; she had hardly understood any of that. Oh, well. Bou-san could tell her about it later. "Oh . . . "
While I do detect Sagussan genetic modifications to her DNA, it appears that our guest is Yizibajohei.
Another blink. "'Yi-zi-ba-whoa-hey?!'"
Native of the planet Yiziba, Hinako. All inhabitants on that planet possess one form of metahuman power or another.
The visitor blinked. "'Hinako?' Is that your name?"
Hinako smiled. "Hai!" She then blinked. "A-ri-ri?! Hina heard from Miree-san that no one was living on Sagussa now!"
The visitor waved her hand in a "that's okay" gesture. "Bou-san probably got taken off Sagussa before the Clone Rights War. That was fourteen thousand years ago. A lot's changed on Sagussa since then." Her smile widened as she leaned closer to Hinako. "So whatcha doing here, Hinako-chan?"
"Oh . . . " Hinako breathed out, and then she perked. "Oh! Hina's gotta get a new body readied for Akane-san!"
With that, she aimed the Staff of Gihan at one of the non-templated bioroids in the room. One intensive blast of energy later, the bioroid began to slowly transform into a perfect replica of Tendou Akane. The visitor gazed on the morphing humanoid before them, an admiring whistle escaping her. "She's pretty! Whatcha making her for, Hinako-chan? You want someone to play with?"
"Um, not r-really!" Hinako replied with an embarrassed chuckle. "The real Akane-san went to the Very, Very Bright Place last night when Akari-san's big piggy stomped on her. Akane-san wanted to be with her mama in the Very, Very Bright Place. Bou-san went and made a double of Akane-san!" She scowled at the Staff. "And Bou-san went and did it without telling Hina about it!"
I said I was sorry! the Staff whined.
"Why did a piggy stomp your friend?" the visitor asked. "That was rude!"
Hinako chuckled. "It's a really, really, REALLY long story!" She then perked. "Um, what's your name?" she then asked.
She started. "Oh! I'm sorry!" She then laughed, reaching up to scratch her head. "I'm Ayumu." She waved to herself. "Daishi'cha Seven-oh-one-oh-eight. I'm the Master Chief Petty Officer of the Republic of Sagussa Navy."
Hinako blinked, and then she giggled as Ayumu leaned down, one of her little fingers extended. Hinako linked her own little finger with Ayumu's, and then they "shook" on it. "So what're you doing here, Ayumu-chan?"
"Well, my friends scanned you coming up here. That's why I came to see you," Ayumu explained as she waved to the door leading to the neighbouring room. "We came here to get an Avalonian body for an android who's very close to a friend of mine 'cause she's now fully sentient and deserves to be human!"
Hinako took that in, and then she cheered. "Waaai! That's neat!"
* * *
"Incredible as this sounds, that airhead is doing good!" Priss muttered.
The others were gazing on Hinako and Ayumu through a visual link accessed by Anri. "Priss, isn't that one of the Haijo-ju prototypes from before the Clone Rights War?" Reika, a brown-haired-and-eyed Yehisrite who served as Section One's demolitions expert, asked. "How did a girl from Earth get hold of one of those?! I don't think Horan scattered them in this part of space!"
"Neither did I!" Linna hissed.
"Can you bioscan that girl, Anri?" Lufy asked.
Everyone stared at the Konggh'cha's shipmistress. "Why?" Priss asked.
A confused look was etched on Lufy's face. "Something about her . . . "
"Just a moment, Lufy," Anri said as she tapped controls. Everyone waited for the scan to be completed. Once it was done, Anri then tapped buttons to call up the scan results. "Now what?"
"Compare it to what we've got on Terrans we've made contact with."
Another moment passed as the laptop did its comparison, and then a window opened on the display screen. Staring at the results, Anri's jaw then dropped to the deck in shocked disbelief. "Oh, Lyna have mercy . . .!" she breathed out as she pointed at her screen. "It can't be . . .!"
"What?!" Sylvie demanded before she took her own look, and then her eyes nearly bulged out of her head. "That's . . .!"
"She's . . .!" Lufy gasped. "She's Ataru's SISTER?!"
The others exchanged shocked looks.
* * *
"Oh, Ryouga-san, that's horrible!"
A cup of tea was placed before him. "Thanks." He nodded at Kanami, and then took a sip. "Akane-san . . . "
"We deeply grieve for you, Ryouga-san," Kitahara Yukimi said as she squeezed their guest's shoulders. The only ones with Ryouga in the apartment block's kitchen at that time were the five Avalonians who called this place home, plus Yukimi's lover Narumi Miruko. The Izumo sisters had taken Ten and the four bioroid replicas who'd brought the young boy to Earth downtown to have them fully registered with the United Nations. "I pray that wherever in the Te'a she is at this time, Akane-san is at peace."
"She's with her mother at least." Ryouga blinked as a surge of empathic warmth flooded him from Yukimi's fingers. "But still . . . "
Kashima Namie lightly smiled. "It's alright, Ryouga-san."
"No, it's NOT alright . . .!"
"Hey!" Yukimi squeezed his shoulders, and then she sighed. "Yes, Ryouga-san, what you did while you were playing 'P-chan' WAS wrong! No doubt about it. But who was there to tell you what was wrong and what was right?!"
"I . . . "
Kodama Hiro gave his hand a squeeze. "Yukimi-chan's right. And so was Hinako-sama when she stepped up to your defence last night after Akane-san died. We . . . " -- she pointed to herself, and then she indicated her fellow Avalonians -- " . . . know what is normally accepted as 'right' and 'wrong' because we were PROGRAMMED to acknowledge that! Most other people, people like Miruko-chan . . . " -- she waved to the crippled girl -- " . . . well, in a sense, they're programmed, too! If it's not by their parents or guardians, it's by their siblings, peers or teachers." She gazed on Ryouga. "Where were YOUR teachers, Ryouga-san? Where were your siblings, your parents, your peers? In effect, when you get down to it, you had none."
"I knew enough . . . "
Yukimi shook her head. "No, Ryouga-kun. You never were given any sort of proper guidance when it came to controlling your anger. Thanks to that direction curse of yours, you couldn't stay still long enough to have those life lessons others take for granted implanted into you. And without that, all that was needed was a person or object for you to fix your anger onto and boom! You became a runaway bullet train!"
Ryouga slowly exhaled. "Ranma . . . "
Yukimi nodded. "Hai. When you first met Akane-san as 'P-chan,' you soon realized you were caught in a very terrible bind. Here was the first person in so long to treat you with real kindness. Is it any wonder you latched onto that right away?! That's how DESPERATE you were to have someone show you that sort of kindness, Ryouga-san. And then . . . "
"And then, you found out that this wonderful woman you just met was also the fiancée of the man you hated with every fibre of your being," Kanami added. "So, because you had become so desperate to not just hang onto Akane-san but to destroy Ranma-san at the same time . . . "
"Can't forget the doofuses who knew the whole story!" Miruko noted.
Momose Tamako nodded. "Agreed."
Ryouga took a moment to consider that. "Yeah! That's true, isn't it? If Akane-san's father and that panda were so hell-bent on getting Akane-san married to Ranma -- and Kasumi-san was pretty much for it, too! -- why would they let me continue to pretend to be P-chan . . .?"
The others considered that. Miruko blinked. "They were using you?"
Everyone stared at her. "Eh?!"
"Using me?!" Ryouga's jaw dropped before he sat back in his chair. "Damn it all . . . " His hands slowly clenched into quaking fists.
"Why did you conclude that, Miruko-chan?" Kanami asked.
"Well, don't you remember what Ryouga-kun said about all the fights Akane-san and Ranma-san had because of their engagement?"
The others nodded. Tamako perked. "And there were the times Ranma-san called Ryouga-kun 'P-chan' or 'pig boy,' especially if it was in front of Akane-san. Ryouga-kun, were there times Ranma-san stopped you from admitting the truth to Akane-san?" she then asked the wanderer.
"Yeah!" Ryouga nodded, and then he sighed. "I guess Ranma did that 'cause she was afraid Akane-san'd blame it on her . . . " His voice trailed off as he gazed to the ceiling. "Then again, I have to remember that Ranma wasn't operating at her peak during that time."
"Why's that?" Namie asked.
"It's something her dad did before they went off on their big training trip . . . " Ryouga then elaborated further to his hosts.
At the end, everyone was stunned. "What an asshole!" Miruko spat. "Geez! And he had the guts to call himself Ranma's father?!"
Kanami sneered. "If that happened on the Creators' Homeworld, he would've been put to death! What about Ranma-san's mother?"
"She stayed at home the whole time," Ryouga replied with a shrug. "Ranma told me when I saw her on the Island that if Nodoka was going to be obstinate about it, Ranma wouldn't have anything more to do with her."
"In other words, child abandonment," Tamako concluded.
"Someone want to call the Executioners?" Hiro wondered.
"The Inquisition does a better job," Namie said. "Besides, from what I know, Yehisrites don't believe in sparing the cane when they raise children."
Kanami nodded. "Good point."
Laughter filled the kitchen. Even Ryouga found himself grinning at the Avalonians' camaraderie, though he didn't understand some of their references. Yukimi then pulled her hands away from him as she moved to stand beside her lover. "What are you going to do with Akari-san?" she asked Ryouga.
Ryouga blinked before he exhaled, "I dunno." He looked at his teacup.
"Do you think she'll give you another chance?" Tamako asked.
He considered that, and then he shrugged. "I can't say, Tamako-chan. I mean . . .!" He paused before breathing out, "Well, she had a right to get upset over the whole P-chan thing, plus my feelings for Akane-san . . . "
Kanami: "Did she listen to what Hinako-sama said in your defence?"
He considered that for a moment, and then he shook his head. "Iie."
The Avalonians exchanged a look. Hiro then took a deep breath. "Maybe this was the best thing, Ryouga-san."
He jolted, staring in shock at the fudge-haired Avalonian. "Hiro . . . "
"Hiro's right!" Miruko held up a finger as she leaned over the table. "What type of relationship begins when you have to beat your prospective fiancée's fighting pig just to get engaged to her?"
Kanami nodded. "She should've realized once she understood about your curse that you wouldn't be anywhere close to a 'normal' man."
"Then again, girls her age don't feel very confident about themselves and whatever relationships they try to make," Tamako noted.
"True. Besides, this was started because her grandfather insisted she locate a fiancé right away before he passed into the Te'a," Namie added. "Why couldn't Unryuu-san trust in Akari-san to carry on with the farm?"
"With his curse still such a problem, Ryouga-san would be pretty hard-pressed to help out at the farm, too," Yukimi mused.
Ryouga jolted. "Hey! What are you saying, Yukimi-san?!"
"Isn't it obvious?" The apartment manager gazed on him. "Given how fast she was ready to dump you last night PLUS given the circumstances about how you came together, can you REALLY convince yourself that Unryuu Akari loved you?"
Silence fell as he considered that, and then he deflated. "I . . . " He paused, a lump forming in his throat. "I can't say . . . "
"You haven't been given much of a chance to consider it." Kanami leaned her chin on her crossed hands, her elbows on the table. "There's nothing wrong with that, Ryouga-kun. Besides, do your parents know about Akari?"
Ryouga was quick to note the dropping of the honorific when it came to her. "Iie. Last time I was by my house, I was still hopeful of pressing something with Akane-san. Sometime ago. I . . . " He breathed out, "I haven't been back since. It's been so hard . . . "
"It's okay." Yukimi then hummed thoughtfully. "Maybe . . . "
Miruko looked up. "What're you thinking, love?"
"Perhaps what Ryouga-san needs now is a chance to get together with his family," Yukimi stated. "We do have equipment from Phentax Two that might help him better deal with his direction curse. We've no need of it. Once we find a way to help him get around without taking jaunts hither, thither and yon, we can concentrate on helping his family get back together."
"I . . .!" Ryouga jolted. "Um, Yukimi-san, you really don't . . .!"
"Hush!" Yukimi wagged a finger at him. "I won't hear a word out of you about this, Ryouga-san. It's the right thing to do! Especially given how little help you've received to date about this mess you're in!"
"I . . .!" He stared at her, and then gazed on the others in the room. Quickly sensing their desire to help, he then turned back to his now-cold teacup. "I . . .! Um, a-arigatou . . .! I . . . " He blinked, feeling his eyes mist, and then he jolted on seeing a handkerchief hovering before him. Noting that it was Tamako who was handing him the cloth, he gave her a smile, and then moved to wipe his eyes. "A-arigatou . . . "
The others exchanged knowing looks.
* * *
"The Daimon'cha's sister . . .?"
The silence that had followed Lufy's declaration had been deafening. The women of Pathfinder Troop Six who had boarded the bioroid factory stood there and watched Ayumu and Hinako chat away with each other as the latter awaited the completion of Tendou Akane's new body. Finally, Naoko, a chestnut-haired, blue-eyed Terran-born woman with freckles dotting her face -- she was Section One's transportation expert -- said, "Wait!" She pointed to the readout on Anri's laptop. "According to the bioscan, Hinako-sama's Ataru-sama's *half*-sister. Muchi-sama is their father, yet Hinako-sama and Ataru-sama clearly have different mothers! People on Earth typically believe it's wrong to birth children outside a properly-constituted surei'cha-type relationship."
"'Marriage' as most folks there call it," Sylvie derisively added.
"That is true," Linna mused. "But if what I remember about Noa's brief on Ataru-sama's whole family just after he visited Sagussa for the first time is correct, it turns out that their ancestors were charged a long time ago by the rulers of Nihon to keep their doors opened to abandoned and orphaned children, especially those birthed out of any form of wedlock."
"If I recall that correctly, the laws in Nihon actually allowed people across the spectrum to accept out-of-wedlock children," Lufy added, and then her forehead furrowed. "I wonder if Hinako-sama has already met him."
Priss blinked, and then she grinned. "Let's ask her."
Everyone's jaw dropped. "Huh?!"
The Troop first officer walked over to the door connecting the gestation chamber they were using for Catty Ray and the one Hinako was using for Akane. Opening the door, she slipped her pistol into its holster, and then she stepped through. "Hey, Ayumu!" she called out.
Ayumu turned, smiling as she waved at the Pirpirsiw'r. "Oh, Priss, hi! Did you get the body ready for Catty Ray?"
"Doing it right now," Priss confirmed before she gazed on Hinako.
Hinako was already taking in the older woman's measure, a shocked look of recognition crossing her face. "Asagiri Priss-san . . .?"
"From Bubblegum Crisis. The OVA series. I'm not that particular person. I just took her name for myself due to our considerable physical similarity." She pointed to her face, and then she pointed to Ayumu. "Just as Ayumu here took her name from Kasuga Ayumu from Azumanga Daioh. I think your brother knows that series, doesn't he?"
Hinako blinked several times as her mind took in that information. She glanced at Ayumu, her mind quickly calling up images she had seen from Ataru's freshly made VCD and DVD collection of anime (gathered together courtesy of Rinrin) concerning a certain lady from Osaka who wound up in a high school in Tokyo alongside a pre-adolescent child genius named Mihama Chiyo.
She then turned back to Priss as the most important fact (to Hinako at least!) in the Pirpirsiw'r's words came back to her. "You know Onii-tama?"
Priss indicated herself, and then waved to Ayumu before she indicated the small crowd at the doorway connecting the two gestation rooms. "Hai, Hinako-sama, we all do," she announced as she stared at Ataru's youngest sister.
Hinako blinked again. "Why is Priss-san calling Hina 'Hinako-sama?!'"
"Why ARE you calling her that, Priss?" Ayumu demanded.
Priss stared at her. "She's the Daimon'cha's sister! That's why?!"
Ayumu jolted in shock. "No way!"
I assume that you ladies met Hinako's brother sometime in the past?
Everyone gazed at the Staff of Gihan; all of the Sagussans had heard its question in their minds. "We did, when he wasn't much younger than Hinako-sama here," Lufy replied as she stepped into the room to stand beside Priss.
"Don't call Hina that . . .!" Hinako protested before her eyes took in the other woman's features. "Lufy-san?!" she called out on recognizing the incredible similarities between the Konggh'cha's shipmistress and an ace fighter pilot of a long-dead race of all-female warriors known as the Solnoids. Hinako then canted her head as she focused on Lufy's lover. "Catty-san, too?!"
"That's my name," Lufy confirmed with a chuckle as she knelt before Hinako so they could gaze into the other's eyes. "So . . . " She paused for a second before she reached over to gently cradle Hinako's cheek in her palm. "You're Ataru-sama's sister . . . " she breathed out.
Hinako giggled. "Onii-tama'll blush if you call him that, Lufy-san."
"Well, we have to, I'm afraid," Lufy admitted. "Ataru-sam- . . . " She paused before she gave Hinako a smile. "Ataru has been a very big influence on all of us on Sagussa, Hinako-chan." She waved to her countrywomen, all of whom were staring at the blonde Pirpirsiw'r in surprise at her sudden assumption of casual informality concerning the Daimon'cha and his sister.
"Really?!" Hinako then blinked as she remembered something. "Wait! Negako-oneetama told Hina that when Onii-tama was six, he vanished from his house for two whole months! Is that when he met all of you, Lufy-san?"
"That's when we met him!" Lufy waved to herself. "I actually met him a year earlier up in Sendai!"
"Yeah, we kinda knew that one, Luf!" Priss noted with a snort.
Hinako blinked. "Waaaai!" She then scratched the side of her head. "But would Onii-tama remember Lufy-san . . .?"
"Doubtful," Linna replied as the others streamed in to join the crowd around Hinako. "That was a decade ago."
You will recall that Ataru did suffer considerable mental damage from the time Negako's essence was forced into his subconscious mind, Hinako, the Staff reminded her, its voice also ringing inside the minds of the Sagussans. No doubt, what memories Ataru may have possessed of his encounter with Lufy and her friends would have been wiped from his memory when that happened.
The Sagussans jolted. "SAY WHAT?!" Lufy screamed as she glared at the Staff's focusing crystal. "What's this about someone being FORCED into Ataru's mind?!" She then blinked as something Hinako just said came back. "And who in Lyna's name is this Negako, anyway . . .?!"
"Something tells me our esteemed Elder Mother has forgotten to tell us some things about Ataru-sama," Priss noted, one of her eyebrows twitching. She jolted as a ding! rang out from the gestation chamber that had been tasked to create Akane's new body. "Oh!" She pointed. "Looks like that one's done!"
Hinako turned, and then she gushed. "Hai! Bou-san!"
A flare of energy burst from the Staff to encompass the nude bioroid. In the blink of an eye, she was phased out of the chamber and placed on a diagnostic bed located behind the room's control panel. The Staff automatically morphed some of the gestation fluid's molecules around to create clothes for the bioroid: Plain bra, panties, a blouse and slacks, plus socks and shoes. Hinako breathed out on seeing that. "Now Akane-san can have her own body!" she declared as she walked over to touch the bioroid's face.
The Sagussans gathered around the youngest of Ataru's sisters. "Looks a lot like our Akane, eh?" Priss mused, she speaking about a First Fleet officer who had actually been born on Shigaten Benten's home planet of Fukunokami.
Lufy considered that for a moment, and then she stared at Hinako. "Hey, Hinako-chan, is Akane here from Nerima in Tokyo?"
"Hai!" Hinako replied with a nod.
"Then you probably know Saotome Ranma, don't you?"
Hinako brightened even more. "Hai! Onee-tama's Onii-tama's girlfriend!"
"SAY WHAT?!" Lufy screamed out.
The other Sagussans all stared knowingly at the blonde pilot. "You mean to say that it was to Ranma's spirit-brother that you bonded Ataru-sama to all those years ago, Luf?!" Priss demanded as she crossed her arms, a delighted smirk crossing her face as THAT little revelation sank in.
Lufy acked as she noticed everyone gazing at her. "Ah, well . . .! Um, gee, Pri . . .!" she stammered in embarrassment.
"You're the one who bonded Onii-tama and Onee-tama . . .?"
Lufy paled as her eyes tilted down to gaze on Hinako. Seeing the wide-eyed look on the younger girl's face, Lufy's heart crashed somewhere deep in her bowels as the full consequences of her actions many years ago came back to her like a tidal wave hitting the beaches of Hawai'i. Dropping to her knees, she moved to prostrate herself before Hinako. "Hinako-sama, please! I'm so sorry about that! I didn't realize what I was doing . . .!"
The women around Lufy tensed as they braced themselves for whatever reaction Ataru's sister might demonstrate after hearing that little revelation. Seeing Lufy get swamped by Hinako's embrace, however, was the LAST thing they expected her to do! "Waaaai! Lufy-san brought Onii-tama and Onee-tama together!" Hinako gushed as she nearly strangled Lufy with her hug.
The Konggh'cha's shipmistress gargled as Hinako's embrace cut off the air to her lungs. Then, as she sensed the tidal wave of delight the younger girl's emotions were forcing on her defences, Lufy found herself giggling.
* * *
"You FORCED Ranma to face that all at once?!"
"There was no choice in the matter, Akane."
Akane and Chikage gazed on each other, the former on her feet, her shock and outrage at the latter's confession shaking her from head to toe. It had been a half-hour since Chikage had begun her explanation. "In the name of the gods, WHY?!" Akane finally hissed out.
"Because two lives hanged in the balance of what could have happened if things didn't go well," Chikage sternly replied, the chill in her voice causing Akane to falter. "You know about the bond binding Ane-kun to Ani-kun. By the time my family met Ane-kun, elements of Ani-kun's personality were coming out. Your template saw one such element come forth on Sunday evening, I believe."
Akane blinked before she paled. "The Cyborg . . .?"
"Exactly. A creature born when Negako-anekun was forced into Ani-kun's mind years ago. Then given life, shape and purpose on Phentax Two when Ani-kun was exposed to the Staff of Gihan and he was forced to watch three billion people die. A creature, I should add, who knew there was someone out there he was bonded in the most intimate way to. A person who, in her own way, had suffered as greatly as he did. One he intrinsically wanted to help, for he knew very well that if she died, so would he."
Akane took that in, and then she sighed. "Chikage-san, you and Negako-san could have tried to explain this to all of us, you know."
Chikage's eyebrow arched. "Would any of you've accepted such an explanation? A story that would've rocked all your worldviews right to the very core? Especially in the wake of the events on Mount Phoenix, the wedding attempt and Ane-kun's later training trip with Tampopo-san?"
Akane blinked as she considers that, and then she shook her head. "No," she breathed out. "I would have had LOADS of problems with accepting something like that, especially since it concerned Moroboshi Ataru, too. Genma and Nodoka would have probably disowned Ranma on the spot if Nodoka didn't decide to force the whole seppuku contract on Ranma. And once that happened, Dad wouldn't have wanted to have anything to do with Ranma ever again. It . . . " She closed her eyes. "Gods, it could have been a disaster."
"Agreed." Chikage then relaxed. "I didn't understand all the implications of this myself until much later, but from what I did know at the time, I realized that the sooner Ane-kun was given the chance to establish a new sense of family, the better. That's why, after we learned Tampopo-san had taken Ane-kun under her wing, I persuaded my sisters to start addressing her as 'elder sister.' To do that, I had to tell them what Jusenkyou had done to Ane-kun, plus what was temporarily halting that from happening."
"The Neko-ken."
A nod. "Precisely. Once that started, the next thing was to persuade Ane-kun to leave Nerima for a while. Get as far clear of Genma and Nodoka's potential influence -- and all of yours, admittedly -- so that the necessary changes could be done. Of course, discovering what Genma did to Ane-kun before their training trip helped matters considerably."
"I bet they did." Akane slowly nodded, a sigh escaping her. "I still lo- . . . " Her voice trailed for a moment, and then she closed her eyes. "I care for her, Chikage-san. After all she's done, how can I NOT care for her?"
Chikage shook her head. "I don't blame you for feeling that way, Akane. But right now, what you have to do -- and this applies to Kasumi and Nabiki as well -- is understand that while caring for Ane-kun is one thing, trying to acknowledge her as a part of your family is quite another. You all have to take a detailed look at your behaviour concerning Ane-kun, right from the day she first walked into your home, and try to understand what you did that went *against* fostering that sense of family with her. I don't mean to say that Ane-kun is innocent in this matter, Akane. She knows she did many things wrong and readily acknowledges that fact."
"True . . . "
A flash of light heralded Hinako's return. "It's all ready!"
Akane acked, and then she gave the youngest of the sisters an annoyed look. "Hinako-chan, will you please ANNOUNCE yourself first?!"
Hinako jerked. Then, on seeing the mirth in Akane's eyes, she giggled, her hand rising to cover her mouth. After glaring at her for a few seconds, Akane's face broke out in a grin. Chikage shook her head.
* * *
"The Daimon'cha . . .? Has a sister?! OTHER than Nokoko-sama?!"
"Not just one, Sylia."
The commander of Troop Six felt a muscle on her forehead twitch as the implications of THIS particular concussion missile hitting her sank in. "Let me see if I get this straight!" she declared, holding out a finger towards Priss. Lufy was with the newly organic Catty Ray in her cabin, the latter undergoing a full examination by Reinoevan and Naomi. The other members of the Troop were aboard the Kiboo'cha -- the warpsloop was locked alongside the Konggh'cha -- putting their weapons and equipment away. Ayumu had gone to her guest cabin to get some sleep; using her metahuman powers so dramatically always wiped her out. "The person who, somehow, gained possession of a Haijo-ju prototype turns out to be Ataru-sama's very own HALF-SISTER of all things! A girl born between Ataru-sama's father and someone who WASN'T Ataru-sama's mother! An act that is clearly frowned upon in many places on Earth . . . "
"And as I just said, Hinako-chan isn't Ataru-sama's only sister," Priss cut in. "According to the Staff, there are eleven others."
Sylia blanched. "Eleven others . . .?"
"Yes. Plus one adopted sister, who actually turns out to be Earth's first publicly-known non-corporeal artificial intelligence."
The Troop commander's jaw dropped in shock. "Really . . . "
Priss nodded. "Sylia, I seriously think we need to talk to Noa about what she HASN'T found out about Ataru-sama."
Sylia considered that before she sank into her chair. "I think so, too."
* * *
"H-hai!" Mendou replied, he facing his former classmates in the middle of morning study hall, the class before lunch. After spending time claiming his belongings from Tomobiki High -- which, given Mendou's propensity for calling the Kuromegane or his clan's armed forces whenever any trouble befell this place, was a lot -- the scion of one of Japan's richest families had come back to say good-bye, plus explain why he had been withdrawn from school. Taking a deep breath as he noted the shocked faces gazing his way, he elaborated, "My parents and Asuka-san's parents decided the time was right for us to fulfill our obligation to our families. The ceremony will be Saturday after lunch."
Silence fell. The boys in Shinobu's class were already elated by the idea of Mendou Shuutarou no longer attending school at Tomobiki High School. Regardless of the pain most of them currently felt because of Lum's "death," the rich snob had been a thorn in ALL their lives. For the open-minded of the lot, already having taken note that there were other beautiful women in the class, having Mendou forever out of their hair was a virtual guarantee of many fun dates in the future. As for most of the girls in the class, however . . .!
"Mendou-san, you can't possibly marry that androphobe!" Marubeya Momoe sobbed as she grasped his hands, clutching them close to her heart. "Please! There's got to be some other way to let this happen!"
"Why not let Ryooko-san marry Tobimaro-san?!" Gekasawa Kumiko added, she grasping one of Mendou's hands before she let it rub against her cheek. "It doesn't have to result in you living a loveless marriage, Mendou-san!"
Mendou flustered as others in the class, those he freely flirted with from the day he first came here, crowded around him. "I . . .!"
"Hey! Hey! HEY! That's enough! Give the guy some space, for crying out loud!" Mie called out as she walked up to pull some of her classmates back. "Geez, he's already got enough problems with this already!"
The force in the new student's voice was enough to make the others back away, though some were quick to give Mie resentful stares for cutting in like she did. Mendou gave her a grateful nod before a curious look crossed his face. "Um, gomen, but I don't believe we've met . . . "
"Seikou Mie, from Yame in Fukuoka-ken, Kyushu." Mie pointed to herself before she gently gripped his hand. "And regardless of the problems you face now, friend, I hope it'll turn out for the best for you."
"I . . . " His cheeks flamed as he bowed, drawing his hand back. "Arigatou, Mie-san. Your kind thoughts are truly appreciated."
"I'll definitely ditto that thought!" Ryuunosuke patted Mendou's shoulder. "'Sides, Asuka-chan's a nice girl! Congratulations!"
"Ryuunosuke-kun!" another of Mendou's fans moaned before covering her eyes with her hands. "How can you say something like that?!"
Mendou sighed as other girls in the class began to cry. This definitely was NOT going to be one of his better days.
* * *
"He's returned?"
"Yes, Captain. By all appearances, he was busy withdrawing all his personal belongings from the school. Agent Rose did confirm that Mendou Shuutarou was no longer considered a member of that particular class."
"I see. So he's visiting his former classmates to say good-bye."
"I believe so."
"Fair enough! Now's the time! Stand by to beam them up!"
"Yes, ma'am!"
* * *
" . . . bad enough that they're not allowing you any sort of freedom of choice when it comes to marrying someone, but to force you to marry NOW?!" Momoe protested. "You're only seventeen! You still have to graduate high school and go through university before you'd be truly ready to inherit your family's fortune! Don't either of them understand?!"
Mendou sighed. "Momoe-san, I agree my parents and Asuka-san's parents do have some unique viewpoints, but they ARE doing what they believe is the best!"
"B-but . . .!"
"Momoe-chan, that's enough!" Shinobu cut in as she squeezed her classmate's shoulder. "There's nothing we can do about it now."
"But . . .!" Momoe stuttered.
Everyone then perked on hearing a ringing noise fill the room. "What the heck's that . . .?!" Koi Shinjin asked as he looked around.
"That's a transporter!" Mie warned before she gasped, "Oh . . .!"
Her complaint was cut off as everyone dissolved in a sparkle of pinkish-white energy. Within two seconds, the room was emptied of all students. A second later, another transporter beamed in a sheet of paper, it landing on the teacher's desk. As the effect faded, the door slid open, revealing Sakura. "What the devil's . . .?!" Her voice was instantly cut off on seeing the empty room before her. Standing stark still for a moment as she took in all around her, the nurse then focused on the paper sitting on the desk. Walking up to it, she balked, her eyes going wide on seeing the pink rose insignia embossed on it as letterhead. She held it close to read the message written there:
To Whomever This May Concern,
If you wish to know where Honey's former classmates have gone to, you need not look further than I. If you wish to see them returned to Earth alive and well, tell Honey he is to surrender himself to me as quickly as possible. I'm aware of his recent activities concerning the Noukiites and their just-finished war with the Onis, so warn him not to pull any tricks.
His friends' lives presently depend on it.
Elle LXIV,
Queen of the Rose Kingdom of Elle
"Elle . . .!" Sakura whispered before she raced out of the room.
* * *
"The prisoners are secured, Captain!"
"Excellent! Inform Agent Rose that Mr. Groom's sisters are to be targeted for transport to us as soon as possible!"
"Yes, ma'am!"
* * *
" . . . SHIT!"
Silence fell as the members of Mie's class found themselves standing in a deep, white-walled circular space the size of the Tomobiki school gym. Glancing around their current surroundings, everyone was quick to note one obvious exit from this place. That was at Shinobu's right, four metres above the deck, a small balcony sighted around it. Tomomi asked, "Where are we?!"
"Certainly not in Kansas, Tomomi-chan," Kyooko muttered.
Minako shook her head. "That helps a lot, Kyooko-chan."
"I think I know where we are."
Eyes fell on Shinobu. "Where?!" Ryuunosuke asked.
Shinobu gazed on Mendou. Seeing the recognition on his face, she nodded. "We're aboard Queen Elle's flagship, Ryuu-chan! We met her just before you came to school for the first time."
Everyone exchanged looks. Momoe then blurted out, "Elle?! You mean that alien queen who wanted to marry Ataru-kun a year back?!"
"The very same."
Everyone's eyes spun around and up to gaze on the balcony. Standing there was a lovely red-haired woman dressed in an ankle-length white cape draped over a rose-red bustier-like bodysuit trimmed with stylized rose stems. A headband wrapped around her hair was embossed with a stylized white rose over the right ear. Flanking her on both sides were two female bodyguards, both carrying combat rifles that were aimed in the general direction of the Tomobiki High students. "Elle!" Shinobu gasped.
"Yes." The Rose Queen's eyebrow then cocked as a flash of recognition crossed her face. "Oh, yes! I remember you! You're Honey's former girlfriend! Shinobu, was it? The one he finally renounced for the Devil's Daughter after that silly Tag Race, correct?!"
Shinobu quaked, her fists clenching and unclenching, as the mocking tone in Elle's voice sank in. "Yes! What's the meaning of this?! As far as I recall, when you and Ataru-kun went back in time after Lum broke up your wedding, you learned he NEVER tagged your shadow when you were kids!"
Elle made a dismissive wave. "Yes, that's true, of course . . .! Ah!" Her eyes locked on another familiar face. "My dear Shuutarou, is that you?!" She focused on Mendou. "It's been quite a while. Your place in my Refrigerator of Love is still open, of course."
Mendou gagged, his face turning sheet-white on hearing the word "refrigerator." In a flash, he found himself surrounded by most of the girls in the class. "If you think you'll freeze Mendou-san like you tried to do last time, you're mistaken!" Momoe vowed.
Watching this, Elle politely covered her mouth in a delighted laugh. "Oh, my! Such devotion! I do admire that, really I do!" She then quickly recovered. "Anyhow, that'll have to wait for another time, I'm afraid."
"So why ARE you here?!" Mie demanded, crossing her arms.
Elle's eyebrow arched. "Why, isn't it obvious? I want Honey!"
Everyone blinked.
* * *
"What's the matter?"
The technician looked up from her station. "I'm sorry, Captain, but for some reason, we can detect only ten of Mr. Groom's half-sisters." She pointed to her readout. "They're presently all here, in the Nerima ward of Tokyo. Agent Rose is still trying to locate the last two."
"Who're missing?" the captain demanded.
The technician called up the applicable files. "These two."
The captain looked. "Hirosaki Chikage and Saeru Hinako," she read the names. "Keep scanning," she ordered as she turned back to her chair. "I'm not sure what the Queen will think if we don't find all of Mr. Groom's sisters by the time she wants them to join us. Be quick about it!"
"Yes, ma'am!"
* * *
"Hey, if you want the guy, take him for . . .!"
Shinjin screamed as Tomomi's fist smashed his jaw, sending him across the room. "Shut up, jerk!" she snapped, her actions making everyone save her sister Avalonians and Mie wince. "Who asked for your dumbass opinions?!"
"What's this?!" Elle wondered from above. "Don't tell me Honey's finally obtained some real fans among his former peers!"
Tomomi jolted, inwardly cursing herself for lashing out like that. If that warped bitch above accidentally learned of her ancestry, who knew WHAT might happen next. "Well, what do you expect me to do?!" she asked, shrugging as she locked eyes with the Rose Queen. "Allow these mindless dolts to lie to you like that, even if it's to save their skins?! Get real!"
Everyone stared wide-eyed at the auburn-haired Avalonian. "Lie to me?" Elle blinked. "Whatever are you talking about?!"
"About Ataru-kun." Tomomi crossed her arms. "I bet that none of your people were in Tomobiki last week when some Islamic whackos decided to blow up the school. Ataru-kun came by to help out with the rescue, but afterward, he pretty well told the whole damned world how much he HATED everyone in Tomobiki! ESPECIALLY everyone at Tomobiki High School!"
People blinked. Momoe then grinned as she guessed what Tomomi was trying to do. "That's right! Man, you should've heard him that day! I've never heard so many swear words in all my life from that guy than what I heard that day! I mean . . . " She shrugged. "He even insulted all the GIRLS at school, too! Can you believe something like that?!"
Others quickly nodded. They then jolted on hearing amused laughter escape the Rose Queen. "Oh, Fates! That is simply hilarious!" She nearly doubled over, but was quickly able to restrain herself. Queens didn't DO such undisciplined things in public! "Well, well . . . " She fixed her "guests" with a knowing look. "Despite your exaggeration, I do sense that you are speaking the truth about Honey's feelings for you."
"Then you realize taking us prisoner won't work!" Shinobu stated.
"On the contrary!" Elle held up a finger. "Be assured, you ARE of assistance to me when it comes to bringing Honey back to where he belongs at my side. I'm sure your parents back on Earth will no doubt move to persuade Honey to come to your rescue. And before you ask, I do happen to know of his recent activities concerning the Noukiites and how they so easily DESTROYED the Onis over the last few weeks! I am prepared to deal with that!"
Shinobu paled. Given the boys' reaction the previous day to the news that no Urusian would ever be allowed on Earth for the next century, learning that Ataru had fought WITH the Noukiites against Lum's people -- regardless of the fact that Ataru had done it for the understandable reason of avenging his grandmother's murder! -- would be a red flag to Shinjin and the others.
"What are you talking about?!" another boy demanded.
"I can explain easily enough," Elle purred.
* * *
"Oh, it's so good to go for a walk these days, eh, Michael?"
Michael barked as he followed Marie down the street in the general direction of Fuurinkan High School. It was closing in on the end of lunch period. Breakfast had finally been served when Shampoo and Kuonji Ukyou came by with large boxes of food for the extended Moroboshi family. Ranma's former fiancées were with her in Hikarigaoka Park, giving Aneue-sama the necessary emotional support as she came to grips with Tendou Akane's death. Ataru had gone to the Tendou home to speak with Kasumi, moving to avert a potential explosion should the Tendou matriarch try to speak to her late sister's former betrothed before Ranma had any chance to come to grips with her own feelings. Yotsuba was currently with Shinshi. Chikage and Hinako had gone somewhere, though no one knew exactly where. The others were back at the shrine . . .
Marie paused on seeing a crowd heading her way. Noting the white blouse and blue skirt uniforms worn by the girls of Fuurinkan High, Marie then exchanged a look with Michael. "Are they letting school out early, Michael?"
The retriever whined before he trotted on ahead. Marie stayed with him as they made their way toward Fuurinkan High. They soon arrived at the front gate to see a small crowd there, their attention fixed at something on the front lawn. "Excuse me, please!" She tapped the shoulder of one boy. "Is there something going on today?" she asked.
Hiroshi blinked on seeing the slender girl with the very pretty smile and the big golden retriever beside her, and then he sighed. Marie was quick to notice the pain in his eyes. "We just found out that a classmate of ours was killed last night. Her sister told the whole school at a special assembly an hour ago. She got pretty detailed when it came to explaining why it happened."
"Tendou Akane?" Marie asked.
Hiroshi perked. "Oh, you know her, don't you?"
A pause. "I've heard of her . . . "
The crack! of lacquered hardwood hitting someone's body caused the viewers to wince. "Shit, it's started!" Daisuke, he standing beside Hiroshi, declared as he pointed toward the front doors. "Man, those guys are brave!"
"Or stupid!" Hiroshi grunted.
Marie strained herself to look. "I don't understand . . . "
Several more powerful blows echoed through the early afternoon air, cutting off that pompous voice. Hearing that, Marie shuddered as she remembered Ranma's harsh words about a certain kendou team captain who had been one of the more annoying problems in her life. "Excuse me, please . . . " Marie called out, moving to wind her way through the crowd. People shifted clear as Marie and Michael stepped past. Then, as soon as they were in the clear, both shifted to a place where they wouldn't obstruct anyone's view. Once there, they turned to look. One glance was enough. "Oh, my!"
On his knees at the usual place where he had confronted Ranma and Akane in the past, a bruised and bleeding Kunou Tatewaki found himself surrounded by many members of the Horde o'Hentai. The looks on the other students' faces all hovered in the "flat-out murderous" range. Leading the confrontation, much to everyone's surprise, were the members of the school kendou club. "Stow it, asshole!" Takuichi Daikun snarled. "You ain't got any right to say ANYTHING now after what you did to hurt Akane-san!"
Kunou shuddered as he slowly staggered to his feet. "I . . .!" he sputtered bloodily. "Will not tolerate this . . .!"
"Takuichi-san, would you mind?!" a sumotori behind Daikun asked.
Daikun stepped aside. "Be our guest, Hitomaro-san!"
"Arigatou!" Hitomaro Ichinou dropped to the "ready" position. "Go!"
Marie gasped as six VERY large fellows in mawashi raced together at one point, it being Kunou! She looked away as a loud CRUNCH! echoed through the air. "Hey, save some of that creep for us, you guys!" a member of the school soccer team snapped, he bouncing a ball off his feet, as the amateur rikishi backed off, allowing Kunou to collapse like a pole-axed tree to the front walkway. "We've all got something ta say to that jerk, too!"
"Relax, gentlemen! Relax!" a familiar female voice called out by the front doors. "You'll all get your turns soon enough!"
Marie saw Nabiki standing there, several other girls standing to both sides of the senior. The bespectacled teen moved to walk around the battle zone as members of the judou club came up to take their turn with Kunou. Marie winced as hoarse cheers echoed through the crowd. She purposefully did NOT look in the direction of the hapless kendou team captain. By the time the judou club turned things over to the Zen archery team, Marie and Michael were on the steps leading to the front doors. "Nabiki-san!"
Nabiki looked, her eyes widening in surprise. "Marie-chan, what the hell are YOU doing here, for heaven's sake?!"
The eyes of those around Nabiki widened. "I was going out for a walk around Nerima when I noticed some of your schoolmates moving to take the rest of the day off." Marie crossed her arms as she nodded towards Kunou. "And what, may I ask, is THIS all about?!" she then demanded.
"The Boss told all of us everything about what led to Akane-chan's death," one of the girls beside Nabiki explained, and then she took a breath before lightly bowing to the visitor from Promised Island. "Marie-san, what happened last night wasn't your fault. You acted properly in defending Ataru-kun and Ranma-chan from what you saw as a grave insult to them. But . . . "
She gazed on the crowd. "There're those who'd like to have a word with you about that," another added. "Not kind words . . . "
Michael growled as he stepped closer to Marie. "I think if they want to chat with Marie-chan, they'll have Michael-kun to worry about," Nabiki noted as she gazed on the one-sided fight deluging Kunou. "By the way, Marie-chan, can you ask Hinako-chan to come here?"
"Um . . . " Marie blinked. "Certainly. But I hope . . . "
A flare of light blinded everyone before Hinako's voice called out, "Hai, Hina's here! What's the problem, Nabiki-san?!"
Silence fell over the crowd as eyes locked on the youngest of Ataru's sisters. Nabiki stepped away from her friends as she turned Hinako around to face the Horde o'Hentai. By that time, Kunou's hakama had been nicely shredded by the arrows from the school's archery team. "Ladies and gentlemen of Fuurinkan High!" Nabiki bellowed through a megaphone. "I have the pleasure to present to you the youngest of Moroboshi Ataru's beloved and wonderful sisters from Oomure-jima, the one and only Saeru Hinako!"
Gasps filled the crowd as people looked her way. Daikun then slipped away from the crowd. Marching to Hinako, he stopped before her, and then prostrated. "Hinako-sama, on behalf of the members of the Fuurinkan High kendou club, I thank you from the bottom of my heart . . .!"
Everyone jolted as Marie marched up to stand protectively beside her sister. "WHAT IN THE NAME OF HEAVEN ARE YOU SICK ANIMALS DOING?!" she shrilled, the rage in her voice causing the Horde to nearly scramble away in terror. "Hinako-chan's suffered ENOUGH because of what happened to Akane-san last night!" She pointed accusingly at them. "She doesn't need to put up to your perverted demonstrations . . .!"
"No!" Daikun cut her off with a raised hand. "Please, miss -- you're Marie-san, aren't you?! -- you don't understand . . .!"
"You really all did care for Akane-san, didn't you?"
Eyes locked on Hinako. "Hinako-chan . . .!" Nabiki gasped.
Daikun stared at her. "Hai, Hinako-sama, we did! Our . . . " -- a distasteful look then crossed his face -- " . . . shameful actions when it came to Akane-san were truly unbecoming of us all! Believe me when I say this, Marie-san, but NONE of us wanted this whole mess to go THIS far!" Taking a deep breath, he prostrated himself before Hinako. Behind him, the other members of the Horde did the same. "Hinako-sama, all of us thank you so much for trying to help Akane-san in her time of need! And we all beg your forgiveness for our part in what made Akane-san flee this life for the next, forcing you to face such an awful tragedy at your young age!"
"PLEASE FORGIVE US, HINAKO-SAMA!" the others of the Horde chanted.
Hinako blinked, and then she tilted her head as the Staff whispered something into her mind. She then took a deep breath, tears glistening in her eyes. "Hina . . . " She sniffed before a first year student handed her a handkerchief. Wiping her eyes, she tried to smile. "Hina can accept that! And . . . " She paused before pointing to Kunou. "Hina hopes you guys never, never, NEVER listen to that baka-baka creep Kunou ever, ever again! Onee-tama told Hina and Hina's sisters everything about what that creep's done!"
"That, wahine, you can count on!"
Heads spun around as gasps filled the crowd. "Kunou-koochou!" Nabiki called out as Principal Kunou stepped up to the crowd.
Instead of the toothy, crazed smile that normally adorned the man's face, there was a very determined look, one similar to what Kunou Pauline had on his face Monday morning when he allowed Ranma to withdraw from Fuurinkan High. "Relax, keiki! The Big Kahuna's got some things ta tell ya!" He then turned to Hinako. Reaching up to his head, he pulled off the small bonsai tree perched there to hand it to her. "Here ya go! You give that to your sister there, the one who likes growin' plants and all that."
"Eh?!" Hinako stared at the small tree, and then she realized whom the Principal was speaking of. "Oh, you mean Kaho-chan! Sure!"
"Koochou-san . . . " one of the girls beside Nabiki whispered.
The Principal then faced the others on the lawn. "Okay, keiki! Listen up!" he called out through his own bullhorn. "The Big Kahuna's got an announcement for you all!" A pause. "After hearin' about what happened to that poor wahine Akane, the Big Kahuna realizes that he's got some serious thinkin' ta do about running this school for you keiki and wahine! 'Cause of that, the Big Kahuna's gonna go back to Hawai'i for a while ta do his thinkin'! While the Big Kahuna's gone, his number one brother Nanba's gonna be the Big Kahuna!" He pointed to the school's assistant principal, Nanba Shigeru, who was standing with several other teachers by the front doors. "Youse all listen to him, ya hear?! 'Cause if the Big Kahuna hears his number one brother didn't get the respect he deserves from you keiki and wahine, the Big Kahuna's gonna be givin' youse all his real SPECIAL haircuts when he comes back from Hawai'i!"
A tidal wave then appeared out of nowhere, a surfboard riding the crest. The Principal nimbly hopped on that, and then he raced off for the Kunou estate. Silence fell over them, and then Hinako stared at Marie. "Ne, Marie-chan! Where'd all the water come from?!" she asked.
Marie helplessly shrugged, shaking her head. "Well, I'll be a . . . " Nabiki chuckled from behind them, scratching her hair.
"Never thought he'd do THAT, eh, Nabiki-chan?" Fujii Chieko noted.
"Got that right!"
"Alright! Alright, then!" The new acting principal of Fuurinkan High clapped his hands as he walked through the crowd to stand beside Nabiki. "Now that particular matter's been resolved, I think we can bring an end to this demonstration." He indicated the still-dazed Kunou with a finger. "And to ensure that none of this sort of unnecessary nonsense happens again, I believe that permanently removing Kunou-kun from his position as captain of the kendou team seems prudent. Wouldn't you agree with me, Takuichi-kun?"
Daikun looked up. Realizing what Mr. Nanba was saying, he readily nodded. "Hai, Nanba-koochou! We would ALL agree with that!"
"Very well, then! And, to be fair to all of you, I will leave it unto all of you to decide who your new team captain will be."
Daikun bowed. "Hai, Koochou-san!"
Eyes spun around to see a VERY angry Kunou Tatewaki on his feet, a blazing battle aura around him as he glared on the men he once viewed as his closest allies. "You are no longer in a position to forbid anything, Kunou-kun!" Mr. Nanba sternly glared at the former team captain, crossing his arms. "Your blatant refusal to face reality has cost this school and those who give it life and purpose dearly! And I, for one, refuse to allow this insanity to continue! You no longer have your father and his influence on us to duck behind, Kunou-kun! So if you wish to continue to act like a mindless fool, I think EXPULSION might make you see the error of your ways!"
Kunou jolted, sneering. "You may try."
* * *
"Rose, this is the captain. What's your status?"
"I'm sorry, Captain. I still haven't found Hirosaki or Saeru."
"Never mind," the Rose Queen's voice cut in. "Ten of Honey's sisters are more than enough. Stand by to retrieve them!"
"Yes, ma'am!"
* * *
"Ya, Tatewaki."
Kunou screamed out, spinning around to see a dark, cloaked figure standing behind him. "Ah, Chikage-chan!" Hinako cheered.
Allowing the hood to fall away, the sorceress glared at the defrocked kendou team leader. "I trust I've come in time," she declared with an amused chuckle. "Nanba-koochou, if I'm not mistaken, this fellow here refuses to relinquish his place among his team-mates and accept responsibility for his part in what led to Tendou Akane's premature demise last night. Am I correct?"
Mr. Nanba shakily nodded, stunned by Chikage's startling appearance. "Um . . .! Y-yes, you are c-correct, um . . .! M-m-miss . . . "
Chikage slipped off her cape. "Will one of you please loan me a jou?"
She gazed on a group of aikidou-ka. "H-hai!" one said as he came up, he holding out his personal weapon for the sorceress to use.
"Arigatou." Chikage took it in hand before she turned to face Kunou. "Now, Tatewaki, I've an announcement for your ears only. It comes from none other than your 'pig-tailed goddess,' Saotome Ranma."
Kunou perked. "The pig-tailed one?! What does she say?!"
The sorceress' smile turned icy. "She states that she intends to marry my elder brother Moroboshi Ataru in the very near future. And that you are in no position to object either which way about it. Understood?"
The "awk" came thanks to Chikage's jou, which snared him by the ankle and sent him falling face-first into the dirt. "You were saying?" the young sorceress amusedly noted as she assumed a ready stance.
* * *
"Transporters locked on all ten of the targets," Rose reported over the communications links. "One's in a house in the north-western part of Nerima. Eight are at what appears to be a shrine in the central part. The last one's at a high school, but she's close to many other people."
"Are the others easy to obtain?"
"Yes, ma'am!"
"Alright, we'll do them first. Commence!"
"Yes, ma'am! Energizing!"
* * *
"Ranma-chan isn't the only one who feels that way, Ataru-kun . . . "
Kasumi's voice then faded as her inner wa, a feeling which has been locked for years with the harmony of the Tendou home, flashed a warning. Ataru, in the midst of sipping his tea, gazed quizzically at his host. "Is there a problem, Kasumi-san . . .?!" His voice was cut off as a faint ringing noise echoed from the main bedroom. "What the hell . . .?!"
He turned to look just as Shinshi stepped in from the doojou. "That sounds like it came from my room," he declared. "Yo-chan?!"
Ataru's eyes narrowed as he reached out with his ki senses to see what, if anything, was going on with his sister.
* * *
To be continued . . .