Ranma 1/2 Fan Fiction / Urusei Yatsura Fan Fiction / Sister Princess Fan Fiction ❯ Lonely Souls ❯ The Ninth Part, A Side - New Fantasies ( Chapter 18 )

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

"Ooooh, my head . . . "
"Hey, Ataru!"
"Darling, are you alright?!"
"Papa . . .?"
Ataru's eyes fluttered as he found himself gazing at the deckhead of his cabin aboard the Windrider. Confusion warped through him as he wondered what brought him here, and then his skin paled as what happened aboard his ship over the last hour came back with crystal clarity.
He then blinked as Ranma's and Seiko's heads loomed in his field of vision, they soon joined by Reiko's and Kaneko's. "Guys . . . " he whispered as his hand reached up to feel his forehead. "Um, Ranma . . .?"
"Would you pinch me again?"
Ranma smirked as she shook her head. "It won't work."
He considered that, and then he nodded. "Right . . . "
"How do you feel?" Seiko wondered.
"How do I feel?" Ataru echoed her before he took a deep breath. "Well, I'm not sure how I actually should feel, Sei-chan. That seven weeks after the United Nations forced us apart . . . " His eyes fell on Ranma as a hand reached over to touch her cheek. "And just a little under two weeks after I met someone I'm starting to fall in love with, I find out my harem fantasies have one hell of a basis in reality, something that happened to me when I was just a kid?" His eyes focused again on his ex-fiancée. "How on Earth should I feel after experiencing that, Sei-chan?"
Seiko sadly smiled. "Darling . . . "
"You should be happy, Papa."
Eyes locked on Reiko. "Why should I be happy, musume-chan?" Ataru asked.
"Because you're the Euk Hisehek," Kaneko answered for her sister. "It's your destiny to be the Euk Hisehek, Papa."
Ranma blinked as she remembered when Chyek, one of Reiko's and Kaneko's fellow Lost Stars of Noukiios, called Ataru by that title back in their base camp while the former heir of the Saotome-ryuu had been training with Negako in Sanctuary. Ataru's eyebrow arched as he found himself sitting up, he leaning over to gaze at his children. "And how is it you two know about this?"
The twins tensed before they bowed their eyes ashamedly. "Gomen, Papa," Reiko whispered. "But we were told not to tell you."
"Why?" Seiko asked.
"We don't know," Kaneko answered. "But it's obvious, isn't it? If the Urusians found out about Papa's connection with the Maidens, how'd you think they'd react? Especially creeps like Yethis?" She glanced at Ranma. "Eh?"
Seiko and Ranma exchanged a look. "He definitely wouldn't have liked that," the former mused. "If the Maidens are as powerful as they seem, Yethis and his sub-creatures would have gone to war to make sure Darling couldn't access that power. He could have used it to close Earth off from everyone, even from Oyuki-chan's people. Yethis wouldn't have liked that at all."
"Why?" Ranma asked. "What was his big beef against Earth, Seiko?"
Eyes turned to the door, where a chestnut-haired Seishin-born woman in black-and-gold stood. "Who . . .?" Ataru began before his eyes narrowed as he peered intently at the newcomer. "Er, forgive me, but have we . . .?"
"Met before?" Noa finished before she sighed. "Yes, Ataru, we did meet in a park in Tomobiki several months prior to when Negako was inserted into your mind. If we get the chance, we'll help you in whatever way we can to regain those memories you've lost because of that." To Seiko. "If it's anything, Seiko, I'm sorry that our interaction with Ataru came to reflect so badly on you. And your people as a whole." She wryly grinned. "But I won't apologize for what happened to your leaders." She then gazed on Ranma. "And I must say it's a pleasure to meet you at last, Ranma. We've always known Ataru has an Other, but until we learned of you, we had no idea who that was."
Ranma blinked. "But aren't you the one who . . .?"
"Not her. Me."
Eyes snapped to the door of Ataru's bathroom. There, a blonde Yehisrite-born defence officer with the tattoo marking her as one of the Pirpirsiw'r, the Most Dangerous Ones of the Royal Kingdoms, stood. "How . . .?" Seiko gasped.
"Telepathy and empathy, Seiko, can be beat if you understand the rules of the game," Lufy warned as she pushed herself away from the bulkhead to calmly walk over and sit on the bed beside Ranma. Watching the watchmistress move, Ranma shuddered as she automatically reached out with her ki senses to take in the newcomer's measure. The reading she got from Lufy sent a surge of pure fear -- yes, fear! -- up from her stomach to squeeze her heart and freeze her soul. This woman was as different emotionally from Moroboshi Negako as night was from day. But the training level, the knowledge, the experience . . .?!
It was all the same.
"Hello, Ranma."
Ranma blinked as the greeting washed over her, and then her eyes widened as the images of a dream she had over a week before, immediately after what had to go down as the bloodiest day in her life, came back to her. "You . . .!"
An ironic eyebrow arched. "You remember me?"
The martial artist paused as she considered what was just asked, and then she shook her head. "No. It was a dream I had. The night after the school got destroyed." She glanced at Ataru before looking anew at Lufy. "Why?"
Lufy closed her eyes, a sigh escaping her. The moment of truth had finally come. "Before I explain that, let me say this." She then bowed her head, tears seeping through her eyelashes to stream down her cheeks. "I really wish I had the guts to admit what I did to you and Ataru all those years ago when we brought him to Sagussa a year after we met. Maybe then, we might have gone out to bring you to our planet, too." She gazed anew at Ranma. "At least, perhaps, it might have saved you from a lot of the trouble that hunk of stormwalker dung you called a father heaped over you. Not to mention all the other things you've bumped into over the years. Eh?"
Ranma stared at this woman, whose actions years ago had influenced her in ways that made everything else she had dealt with until the day she met Kamekichi Tampopo -- the day that began the march that led the ex-heir of the Saotome-ryuu of Musabetsu Kakutou to this starship and to the side of the man currently sitting beside her -- seem insignificant in comparison. Even the Neko-ken training, even Jusenkyou with the soul-altering touch those pools reserved for the most foolish of those who disturbed its peace, even . . .!
Totally insignificant.
"Please tell us why," Ranma urged, squeezing Lufy's shoulder.
The watchmistress blinked, and then she took a breath before she began.
**** **** ****
Lonely Souls
By Fred Herriot
pyeknu@hotmail.com OR fherriot@yahoo.com
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Crystal Palace in-jokes by Mike Smith, they first appearing in the story Be Forever Nassur, part of the fan-fiction series Urusei Yatsura - The Senior Year, created by Mike Smith and Fred Herriot.
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Coinleach Glas an Fhómhair (The Green Stubble-Field of Autumn) is a traditional song re-mastered by the members of Clannad (Máire Ni Bhraonáin, Ciarán Ó Bhraonáin, Pól Ó Bhraonáin, Noel Ó Dúgáin and Pádraig Ó Dúgáin). The version of Coinleach Glas an Fhómhair I took is from the compilation In a Lifetime: The Best of Clannad (2003), released by BMG Music.
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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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"Children, Chikage-chan?"
The sorceress nodded. She was meeting with Sakuya, Haruka and Karen in her cabin. Glasses of Noukiite cider -- Shirayuki had found many casks of the stuff in a storage room next to the galley -- were in their hands, an ice-filled pitcher of the clear liquid sitting on the nightstand. "Emotionally, they're not that far evolved beyond what they gained from Ani-kun when they met him en masse. I admit that they are striving to break free of what their contact with Ani-kun did to them. But it is hard."
"Is that good or bad?" Karen asked.
"I'm not sure," Chikage answered before she sipped her drink. "We seem to have met the most mature of them. Noa-chan, the members of Eluza-chan's crew and some of Sylia-chan's team. And yet, we have people like Ayumu-chan. She seems to me more typical of these Sagussans." Gazing at the deckhead, she added, "As Noa-chan told us, before they met Ani-kun, they were all finely tuned logic machines. Living computers, as in control of themselves emotionally as the Vulcans on Star Trek. Then Ani-kun was brought to Sagussa and the inner emotional balance they possessed was critically upset. And they are still very much recovering from that encounter."
"As Karen-chan just asked, Chikage-chan, is it good or bad for Anigimi-sama?" Haruka wondered.
"Are you jealous of their love for Ani-kun?" Chikage countered.
The marital artist balked, and then she shook her head. "N-no, not really! I mean, if their intentions toward Anigimi-sama and Anegimi-sama are true and honourable, I cannot object, Chikage-chan. But still . . . "
"I have to admit that the idea of competing with all those girls does scare me," Sakuya then said, she gazing at the deckhead. "But if they feel so indebted to Onii-sama, how could we object to what they might want of him? And they did bond Onii-sama and Onee-sama together . . . "
"Does Lufy-san feel guilty about that, Chikage-chan?" Karen asked.
"She does," Chikage answered. "Profoundly. Even if it was done in complete innocence, I strongly suspect that it would be seen as a crime on Sagussa these days to force a psi-bond on two four year-old children. Granted, Lufy-chan's actions did help Ani-kun and Ane-kun, especially when we factor in the insertion of Negako-anekun into Ani-kun's mind, not to mention Ranma-anekun's experience with the Neko-ken."
"We should do our best to help Lufy-san understand that," Haruka noted.
"I think Onii-chan and Onee-chan will understand," Karen added.
"Can we talk to one of them? Get their viewpoint on this?" Sakuya asked.
As if in answer to the elder sister's question, a knock is heard at the door. Chikage walked over to open in. "Ya, Nene-chan!"
The others turned as Pathfinder Troop Six's coxswain stepped inside. "Konban wa, minna-sama," she hailed with a pleasant nod.
"Nene-san, there's no need for that level of formality," Karen noted.
The rose-haired, Ellsian-born Pathfinder chuckled as she sat herself on the bed, Chikage relaxing beside her. "Gomen ne, Karen-chan." She then nodded thanks as Haruka poured her a cup of cider. "Arigatou, Haruka-chan."
"Why are you here?" Sakuya asked as the cup was handed over.
Nene glanced at her. "Sakuya-chan, please, I REALLY must know: who taught Rinrin-chan all the things she knows about computers, mechanical engineering and everything else? That girl has got major hackitude! If she had been born on another planet, she would be a Visionary!"
"'Visionary?'" Haruka asked.
Nene blushed. "That's what I was in my first life. I was Chianne du Maratok. My hack-sign was 'Velvet Rose.' Being called a 'Visionary' means that not only do you have the knowledge and skills to not just master your own planet's technology, but you can also integrate yourself into other planets' technology just like that." She snapped her fingers before she added, "Rinrin-chan's got the same type of gift, minna-chan. And there's no way that I'm going to let those skills go undeveloped. So, who was her teacher?"
"Her late step-grandfather, Professor Hatoyama Junji," Chikage answered. "He was the man who helped make Promised Island what it is today. I suspect -- this is based on information I acquired from my own grandfather Ryuuji, of course -- that he may have been exposed to whatever samples of Zephyrite technology were brought from Jiyuu after Grandmother's investiture as a Righteous Gentile in their Protestant Reformist Church. I can't confirm that, though. Neither can Rinrin-chan, I believe. Only Brother Sunfire could."
"You really believe she's that good, Nene-san?" Haruka wondered.
Nene held up her cider. "She's THAT good." A wink. "Think about it. Do you think even your most advanced programming specialists, robotics experts and what-have-you could launch a project like creating Mecha-Rinrin on a whim?"
The sisters exchanged looks as they considered the Sagussan's question. "Well, maybe in the general public, something like Mecha-Rinrin-chan would take years to become reality," Karen mused. "But you have to admit, Nene-san, our family tends to buck a lot of those trends on the fly!"
"Yes," Nene acknowledged. "That's one of the things Noa's learned about your family since we first had Ataru come visit us. I will grant you all that your grandmother kept all of your existences a deep secret, even from Noa. And she dug around a lot to get the skinny on everything about your family. I should know; I helped her on that end."
"Grandmother's actions concerning us were easy to execute, especially since the person our existences had to be masked from the most was Ani-kun's mother," Chikage stated before she gazed on the Pathfinder. "And you must admit, Noa-chan's actions eleven years ago did contribute to the growing rift between the various elements of our family."
Nene closed her eyes. "I'll concede that. And I have to admit, when we realized what we had done, we felt as guilty as Lufy does now concerning what she did to Ataru and Ranma-san. Believe me, I wish we had taken Mie up on her idea of sending a permanent team to Tomobiki to keep a close eye on Ataru. It might have helped him a lot, especially after Thoughtmistress-prime Negako's essence was downloaded into his subconscious . . . what?!" she then demanded on seeing the sisters burst out laughing. "What?!"
"Nene-san, you better NOT address Anegimi-sama as that!" Haruka warned.
"Onee-sama'd hate being called that more than she hates being called 'sensei!'" Sakuya added as she gripped the sides of her stomach.
"One of those types?" Nene wondered before she took a drink. "Gotcha."
A knock was heard at the door. "Enter, Rinrin-chan!" Chikage called out.
The door opened to reveal the teen genius in question. "Hey, guys! Oh, Ne-chan! There you are!" Rinrin hailed as she walked inside.
"Hey, Rin-chan! How're things in the sail room?" Nene asked.
"They're cool!"
Sakuya and Haruka exchanged surprised looks. 'Ne-chan?' 'Rin-chan?'
Karen moved to pour the newcomer a glass of cider as Rinrin hopped onto the bed beside Nene. "Nene-chan was complimenting you on the level of technical skill you gained apprenticing with your grandfather," Chikage said.
Rinrin laughed as she took her drink, a blush crossing her face. "You've got the touch, Rin-chan," Nene added with a wink as she moved to clink glasses. "You stick with me, I'll make damn sure that you'll know how to use it!"
"Aw, Ne-chan!" Rinrin whined.
"Don't you have laws against that sort of thing, Nene-san?" Haruka asked.
"Oh, you mean the Non-Interference Directive?" Nene asked in turn. On seeing Haruka nod, the Pathfinder sighed. "Well, yes, we do, but look at the situation. Your people have already had controlled contact with the Zephyrites over the last forty years. How did the guys in the Special Committee on Alien Activities over in the Big Apple get their gear? And you've had much more open exposure to the Urusians and some of the other peoples of the Galactic Federation for the last year-and-a-half. Yes, we won't let our tech be spread willy-nilly all over Earth, especially when you've got some leaders who, in our eyes, deserve to get shot for the crap they unleashed on their own peoples. But believe me, Haruka-chan, Rin-chan has the discipline and the fortitude she needs to understand what I can teach her. AND she will certainly be made to understand what the good and bad effects of what I would teach her could do."
"Ne-chan . . . " Rinrin muttered as her blush deepened.
Silence fell as everyone took the chance to enjoy their cider. "You aren't perfect when it comes to sharing what you have, Nene-chan," Chikage then noted as she gave the Pathfinder a knowing look. "Aren't you?"
Rinrin reached over to hold Nene's hand. The other sisters blinked. "You're right about that, Chikage-chan," Nene then said.
"What do you mean?" Karen asked.
Nene lightly smiled. "Karen-chan, who do you think built this ship?"
"The Noukiites . . .!" Karen stopped as her eyes widened. "You did?"
"I helped build her," Nene confessed, a shrug twitching her shoulder. "This ship was a prototype built at our fleet yards at Sen'sha Seven. It was constructed a year ago when we decided to give the Noukiites back the designs for the GEV-capable vessels their own scientists came up with just before their planet was conquered by the Urusian Imperials three centuries ago."
"'Gee-Ee-Vee?'" Haruka asked.
"'Galactic Escape Velocity,'" Rinrin explained. "Over Warp 4.4 if you use the new 'Star Trek' speed scale. One thousand, six hundred and forty-nine times the speed of light. That's the speed you need to break free of the Galactic Barrier, the force field that encloses the galaxy."
"In other words, if the Urusian Imperials had ever gotten their hands on that level of tech, even Sagussa would have been threatened. Being 20,000 light years beyond the Barrier wouldn't have saved us," Nene added.
Sakuya stared at Nene. "You guys threw your support behind the Noukiites against Lum's people?" Seeing Nene nod, the elder sister demanded, "Why?!"
"After what happened to your grandmother, how else should we have acted?"
"You did that because of Obaa-chan's death?" Karen asked.
Nene blinked confusedly. "Karen-chan, we did that because Lum's people murdered your grandmother to ensure the Zephyrites couldn't intervene in case Ataru lost the First Tag Race. Didn't you know?" The sisters save Chikage shook their heads. The sorceress had a neutral look on her face. Seeing that, Nene squeezed her eyes shut as she realized what her words had just done. "Damn! Open mouth, insert foot time again! Way to go, Maratok!" she muttered as she slumped against the bulkhead beside Chikage's bed.
"It's not your fault," Rinrin soothed as she gave Nene's hand a squeeze.
"Obaa-sama . . . " Haruka gasped, her eyes tearing. "She was murdered?"
"THAT'S why Onii-chan fought with the Noukiites!" Karen exclaimed.
"Lum had no idea that happened," Chikage warned.
"What else did you guys do?" Sakuya asked the Pathfinder.
"Just one other thing," Nene replied. "We used our terraforming technology to give the Noukiites twelve new colony planets they could shift their excess population to, plus relieve the stress on the food supply and agricultural networks on Noukiios and the older colonies. This all happened in the year after Tag One, by the way." She took a breath. "Believe me, minna-chan, we had a pretty good idea of what the Noukiites might have done once they had the chance to do it. Many of us hoped they would have just firmed up the border between them and the Urusians and put a stop to the colonial militia raids on the old colonies. It was that hope that made us overlook the Non-Interference Directive and let us give them what we did. After all, making new colonies for them was a simple act of humanity in the long term. And since the scientists who developed the GEV-tech before the Imperial Conquest destroyed it to prevent it from falling into Urusian hands, Noukiios DID, in the long run, help protect Sagussa. Not to mention every other race in the local cluster. So giving them back what was really theirs in the long run didn't bother us too much." A pause. "But when Yethis tried to push it . . . "
"Enough was enough in their eyes," Haruka finished for the Sagussan.
"And you did this in response to Obaa-sama's murder?" Sakuya wondered.
"Yeah." Tears brimmed in Nene's eyes as she shrugged. "Yeah, we hoped that the Noukiites would have kept things peaceful with the Urusians. But I have to add that deep down, many of us -- myself included -- felt that bastards like Seq Yethis and the rest of that pack needed to have their heads handed to them. They murdered your grandmother all because they were afraid of you people. That's what really prompted the First Tag Race. Not some bullshit excuse about the Seifukusu or the Ipraedies wanting to conquer Earth and cut the Federation in half. No. The REAL reason the Urusians wanted to conquer your people was that they were afraid that when the time came that the people of Earth got out into the galaxy, they would create an interstellar republic that would put to shame EVERYTHING the Urusians themselves have created over the years. If an 'Interstellar United Nations of Earth' ever came into being, they might have formed strong bridges of friendship with the Seifukusu, the Ipraedies and . . .! Oh, Lyna! Even the Noukiites!" Nene then gasped as she waved around the room with the hand holding her glass of cider. "And no! No! No! NO! The Urusians couldn't allow THAT now, could they?!"
Rinrin blinked as she considered that before saying, "So when they learned of Obaba's connections to Zephyrus . . . "
"They cut them as quickly as they could," Nene finished. She took a breath. "And that could be blamed on us for what we did with Ataru. Even then, we could sense the emotional distance between him and his mother . . . "
"Don't blame yourselves for how what you did to Ani-kun affected Kinshou, Nene-chan," Chikage said. "If you wish to assign blame for what happened to Obaa-san, look first to Kinshou and her unwillingness to accept some of the unique aspects of our family when she married our father. Then add to that what happened to Kaeru-anikun after he died and his body disappeared . . . "
"Your other brother's not dead, you know."
"EH?!" the sisters, even Chikage, exclaimed as they stared at Nene.
* * *
"Master Kaeru, are you functioning properly?"
Kaeru blinked confusedly as he stared at his hand, it now dotted with expended mucus from his nose. "Curious."
* * *
"Kaeru-oniisama's ALIVE?!" Sakuya screamed.
"Yep," Nene replied before she finished her cider. "Did any of you ever wonder why Kaeru-san vanished from the hospital in Arikawa shortly after his accident?" As the sisters exchanged looks, the Pathfinder continued, "It was because two women from the planet Nagussa had come to Earth at the time he fell off that cliff. They saw the accident. And they were moved so much by his suffering that when they got the chance, they took him out of the hospital and transported him back to their planet to heal him."
"And Aniki's been there ever since?!" Rinrin asked.
Nene nodded. "Exactly. Now I don't know all the details of what's happened to him since the day he got there, but I do know that he's currently a member of their defence force, working as an engineer on one of their star cruisers. And . . . " She held up a warning finger.
"And?!" Sakuya prompted.
"He's on Earth right now. At your hostel to be exact."
"WHAT?!" the sisters cried out.
Nene smirked as she tapped her left wrist-bracelet. "Nene to Linna."
"Go, Nene," the coxswain's lover replied from the Kiboo'cha.
"Put a link through to my laptop, lover. Then open a link from my laptop to the Haengge'cha. I need to talk to Yomi."
"I'll get it!" Rinrin announced as she ran out of the room.
The teen inventor returned a moment later with the coxswain's laptop. Nene opened it and tapped some controls to open a communications link to the nearby Kiboo'cha. A second later, a holographic screen appeared before Nene's face, it projecting an image of a certain bespectacled, Yehisrite-born engineer. "Koyomi here," the construction chief engineer artificer called out as she recognized her caller. "What is it, Nene?"
"How's that virus I whipped up for you working, Yomi?"
"Like a charm." A knowing smile then crossed Koyomi's face. "The Rover's sending us some interesting pictures from Welcome House. I assume certain new friends of ours would want to see their brother in the flesh?"
The image changed to show a view of Welcome House's rotunda. Currently, the place was a construction zone as four semi-humanoid hover-capable robots worked to expand every room. "Holy . . .!" Rinrin gasped. "What are those?!"
"Nagussan construction-maintenance robots," Nene replied. "I'll bet that Kaeru-san himself built these beauties. Now . . . " She then tapped controls to call up a thermograph view. A human-shaped heat source appeared, it standing in a room on the third floor. "And there he is," Nene announced.
"Hey! What's he doing in my lab?!" Rinrin cried out.
"Looking over Mecha-Rinrin, I think . . . ah!"
Nene tapped controls to switch back to visual light mode. The person in Rinrin's private laboratory had just moved to the window to gaze outside. Seeing those wondrously familiar features, the sisters gasped.
"Onii-chan!" Karen whispered for them all.
* * *
"Let me get this straight," Kaneko moved to recap. "Your people took interest in the Terrans when you learned these Nagussans had come and taken Uncle Kaeru with them back to their planet after he supposedly 'died' . . . "
"Then a year later, when I was on Triton playing hide-and-seek with Oyuki-chan and everyone, the Central Warp Chamber misfired, making you believe Oyuki-chan, Toji-chan or I had been taken to Earth by accident," Seiko added.
"And after you calculated that Lum might have come to Uncle's estate in Sendai, you beamed down to look for her," Ataru said.
"And that's when you stumbled onto Oyaji beating me up all because I tried to be friends with Ataru and Nokoko-oneechan," Ranma added.
"And when you thought Papa and Mama were the reincarnations of two of your planet's ancient gods, you bonded them," Reiko finished.
Lufy nodded. "That's it in a nutshell."
Silence fell as the others in Ataru's cabin considered what had just been said. Ranma then stared at the watchmistress. "Lufy, I hate to ask you this, but where the hell was your logic when you bonded Ataru and me together?!"
Muted laughter filled the room. "It rather left me at the time, I'm afraid," Lufy replied with a light smile before she frowned. "While I certainly will not shirk my responsibility when it came to what I did to both of you, I will say this: When I sensed your father's feelings towards you, Ranma, I realized that he wasn't acting anywhere NEAR what a proper parent -- as I then understood the concept -- should act toward his offspring. You, put frankly, were seen by Genma as his meal ticket to a cozy retirement. Every wrong he unleashed on others, he would pass the blame onto you, make you answer for his crimes. Everything that he could use to make you the perfect fighting machine, the icon of his school of martial arts, he would use, regardless of the cost to your body and soul." A pause as she reached up to wipe her cheeks. "And the worst part about it was that he believed deep in his heart that he was doing the right thing for you. That your best course -- No! Excuse me! Your ONLY course! -- in life was to be transformed into that living icon of martial arts Genma wanted you to be." She sniffed back more tears. "Back then, even with my total lack of understanding when it came to human emotions, to all the non-logical, non-rational elements that influence human lives, I could easily conclude this: That is NO WAY for a parent to raise a child."
"And when you heard our names?" Ataru gently prodded.
Lufy snorted. "I heard your names right after Genma -- who, I have to admit, had, by then, been so battered by both Starleaf and I, he had lost all sense of control over himself -- tried to use his vacuum blade attack on you, Ataru. When I saw that, and then heard the names 'Ranma' and 'Ataru' -- which, in Sagussan phonetic structure, are quite close to 'Ram' and 'Atar' -- well, that was the excuse I needed." She shrugged.
"So after you pounded him, you bonded Darling and Ranma-san," Seiko said.
"Hai." She gazed at Ranma. "In that regard, I believed Ranma would, from that day on, have a friend . . . " Here, she paused before she smiled. "A soul-mate . . . " She shrugged. "That Genma could never take from him."
"And that . . . " Noa spoke up, "Is the purest essence of Marei'cha. The person whom you would trust with your immortality. The one you care for -- you love -- beyond all others, for she or he is the one who is with you always."
Ataru and Ranma took that in, and then they gazed on each other. The latter stood, walking over to stare out the cabin windows at the passing star field. "That's probably why Oyaji always kept pressing that women were weak."
"Mama . . .?" Reiko whispered.
"What do you mean?" Seiko asked.
Ranma closed her eyes. "He wanted to ensure I'd never take Lufy's side if she came back. By making me think that all women were weak, Oyaji probably hoped I would hold Lufy in such contempt that we would always remain enemies."
"Ranma, what are you talking about?" Noa asked.
Ranma stared at them. "One thing I can't ever deny about Oyaji: For all his goof-ups, training disasters and mistakes, he was one of the best martial arts teachers around. After all, he created the Sen-ken forms. He managed to alter my mind and did it in such a way that Jijii and Hibaa-chan couldn't detect it. And yet, look what happened?" She waved to Lufy. "He was beaten by a WOMAN. Even if he didn't remember what happened the day he ran into Lufy, he had to have realized that a WOMAN had beaten the tar out of him. A WOMAN who was clearly more skilled than HAPPOOSAI. And perhaps, just perhaps, he also might have sensed what Lufy did to Ataru and me." She pointed to Ataru, and then herself. "I think that's what probably prompted him to play around with my head to make me focus only on martial arts. He was afraid Lufy's influence would have made me turn on him. He didn't want that, so . . . "
She shrugged. "Ranma, I'm sorry," Lufy whispered, she bowing her head.
Ranma shook her head. "Don't apologize. It's not your fault that Oyaji never allowed himself to see the world as it really is."
"So what do you intend to do now?" Noa asked.
The martial artist sighed. "Well, as I'm sure Ataru will more than agree, whatever happens between us is between us, right?"
"Of course," Sagussa's Elder Mother agreed with a nod.
"Alright. I . . . " She paused before looking directly at Lufy. "I want something from you, Lufy. It's not gonna be anything bad or anything like that. But I need to think it through first before I ask you about it. Okay?"
Lufy nodded. "That's fair enough . . . "
The door to the cabin flew open to reveal Karen. "Onii-chan!"
Ataru tensed. "What is it, Karen-chan?!"
She stopped beside his bed. "You're not going to believe this, Onii-chan! It's about Kaeru-oniichan! He's . . .!"
"Ali- . . .!" Karen stopped. "Eh?! How did . . .?!" She then paused before she looked at Noa. "Oh, did Noa-san tell you?!"
"Just now," Noa replied before a giggle escaped her.
"Who did you find this out from, Karen-chan?" Ataru asked.
"Nene-san told us!" Karen gushed. "But you won't believe this, Onii-chan! Kaeru-oniichan's on Earth right now!"
Ataru's jaw dropped. "He IS?!"
Karen eagerly nodded. "Hai! He's at Welcome House! He's using his special robots to rebuild the rotunda right now! Nene-san's calling her friend Koyomi-san to contact Onii-chan so we can talk to him! Sakuya-chan's getting everyone on the pilotage right now! Come on!"
With that, she grabbed Ataru's arm and moved to drag him out of the room. "Hey! Hey! HEY! Leggo my hand!" Ataru yelped.
* * *
"Master Kaeru?"
Kaeru blinked. "What is the matter, Unit Two?"
"A signal from a Sagussan civilian starship, the Haengge'cha. Its shipmistress wishes to speak to you."
Kaeru blinked again, the surprise he felt on hearing that report quite evident. "A Sagussan civilian starship?"
"Affirmative. The shipmistress states that she wishes to speak to you on a matter of considerable importance."
"Very well. Convey the message to this unit." The Terran-born Nagussan engineer indicated the Rinrin-Viewer.
The Viewer flicked on, it transmitting the image of the main bridge of a Sagussan starship. Seated in the commander's chair was a brown-haired woman with visual viewing aides -- "glasses" as Marie addressed them -- over her eyes, she dressed in the work uniform of Sagussa's engineer corps. "This is Engineer-second Kaeru ryi'Kouhae-Raikue of the Nagussan Defence Force Ship Ganshiki, currently at the Welcome House hostel on Oomure-jima, Dai-Nihon," he announced. "Whom do I have the honour of addressing?"
"Engineer-second, I'm Daishi'cha #40033, Chief Construction Engineer Artificer Koyomi of the Engineering Ministry of the Fifth Republic of Sagussa, Construction Engineering Department Headquarters Team," she said. "I'm about to relay a message to you from the Independent Solar-Sail Craft Windrider."
Kaeru blinked. "Is there a reason the sentient beings on this craft wish to communicate with me, Chief Artificer Koyomi?"
A smile crept across Koyomi's face. "See for yourself . . . "
The screen then blanked out. "Sagussans are an illogical species," Kaeru then whispered before the screen flicked on again.
"Ya-hoo, Anii!"
"Hi, Onii-sama!"
"Ah, it's Onii-tama!"
"Aniue-sama, konban wa!"
"Hi, Nii-sama!"
"Ya, Ani-kun."
"Ani-chama, checky!"
"Hey, Otooto! Where've you been these last fourteen years?!"
"Yo, Kaeru! Lookin' good for a guy who's said to be dead!"
"Uncle Kaeru!"
Kaeru blinked on seeing an image of the bridge of an unknown type of ship projected from the Rinrin-Viewer. "Karen," he spoke out on recognizing most of the people there. "Kaho. Mamoru. Sakuya. Hinako. Marie. Shirayuki. Rinrin. Chikage. Haruka. Yotsuba. Aria. Ataru. Ranma. Reiko. Kaneko." He smiled. "It pleases me to see all of you are functioning properly."
The people on the Windrider stared at him, some of the sisters blinking in shock. Sakuya turned to a Sagussan dressed in the uniform of a minister in the Republic's government. "Noa-chan, are they ALL like that on Nagussa?!"
"I'm afraid so," Noa responded.
"Not so different from what we were like before we met Ataru, eh, Noa?" a blonde Sagussan Navy watchmistress seated beside Reiko then said.
Everyone took that in, and then a raven-haired woman -- one Kaeru did not recognize -- seated to Ataru's left turned to him. "Darling, no matter what people say, you did the right thing going to Sagussa when you did."
"I'm beginning to think you're right, Sei-chan," Ataru muttered.
Kaeru continued to blink.
* * *
"So Kaeru-san was taken to Nagussa when everyone thought he died, right?"
"Exactly," Nene replied before she took a sip of her juice.
The other people aboard the Windrider -- save for the sleeping Ayumu (she was in Hinako's cabin) and the still-comatose Makoto, plus Seikou Mie and Pony (they were in the ship's cockpit) -- had shifted themselves to the galley to allow Ataru and his siblings -- plus those still emotionally close to the Moroboshis -- the chance to converse with Kaeru in private. "That must be wild," Akane mused before she took a sip of her own glass of cider. She then stared at Shinshi. "Could you imagine what it might be like for all of us if Okaa-san came back from the dead and popped up at the front door of the house?"
"The other you experienced something like that last night."
Akane tensed, and then she relaxed. "That's true, isn't it?"
"It's alright, Akane-chan," Miree reached over to gently squeeze the newborn Terran/Avalonian's hand in sympathy.
"So what do you think brought Kaeru-kun back to Earth?" Kawamura Himiko asked. "If he's got a life on Nagussa and if he didn't know about Haruka-san and the other sisters until now, what would have brought him back to Earth?"
"He's probably contemplating seeking out a child-mate."
Eyes locked on Nene. Pathfinder Troop Six's coxswain was seated with the other Sagussans at a nearby table. "A wife?" Jonna asked.
"Most likely," Nene replied. "For some weird reason, everyone on Nagussa -- except Kaeru-san -- believes that they're actually very advanced androids, not really different from what Rin-chan envisions Mecha-Rinrin will be like."
"So what are they, then?" Orin wondered.
"In truth, they're no different from you Avalonians," Patty spoke up. The chief engineer of the Hasei'cha -- she had been part of the team that had built the prototype GEV-capable solar-sail barque at the Fleet Dockyards on Sen'sha Seven -- had been busy running diagnostic checks in all of the Windrider's systems since she came aboard with everyone else. "They're bioroids. Each of them was grown from genetic samples taken from hominoid races on their side of the galaxy over the last ten thousand years."
"Sorta like what the Eternal Voyager did when it went out to find all of you guys, right?" Fujikaze Nobuko, who was seated with the other replicas of Lum and her closest friends at a table next to Akane's, then asked.
"Pretty much so," Catty answered.
"If these Nagussans are actually organic, what brought Kaeru-sama to Earth then?" Jonna asked.
"Does he have a lover on Nagussa?" Orin wondered.
"I'm not sure, but from what Noa told me, he might be in a relationship with a fellow engineer on the Ganshiki, a woman named Naromo," Catty said.
"So what's the problem?" Arashi Mika then asked. "All he has to do is hop in the sack with Naromo and . . . "
"They're all sterile."
"What?!" Miree gasped.
"Why?!" Akane demanded.
"We're not sure," Catty replied with a shake of her head. "We've tried to tell them that in the few times we have been in close contact with them, but the message has never gotten through. As to why . . .?" She then shrugged.
"Well, maybe Hinako-chan or Aria-chan might be able to change that with the Staff or the Genesis Wand," Shinshi then mused.
Nene nodded. "There's an idea."
Footsteps then heralded the arrival of several of the sisters. "Onii-chama's girlfriend is so pretty!" Kaho declared.
Mamoru nodded. "Anii's got great taste when it comes to girls!"
"Onii-chan probably got it from living with his adopted mother and her girlfriend!" Karen added.
"I agree!" Sakuya said, an envious shudder racing through her. "Any girl on Earth would KILL to have looks like that!"
"Hina can go to the big-big ship and get Bou-san to give Naromo-oneetama a new body so she can be Onii-tama's bride!" Hinako said as she walked over to sit with Jonna. "And Hina can do that for all the people on Nagussa, too!"
"Hinako-chan, you might need help from Aria-chan and Tsue-san if you have to do that for EVERYONE on Nagussa," Sakuya then warned.
"And how is our Daimon'cha's equally-handsome twin brother these days, Sakuya-san?" Catty asked.
The eldest of the sisters stopped as she considered that question, and then she moaned, reaching up to scratch the sides of her head. "Ooooh, this is terrible!" she wailed. "It's terrible! I can't choose! I just can't choose!"
"Choose WHAT, Sakuya-san?!" Serizawa Mikiko gasped.
"Which is cuter?! Moustache and beard?! Or moustache and goatee?!"
Hearing that, everyone save the other sisters fell flat on their faces! "Aaaah!" Kaho then wailed. "Kaho can't choose either!"
"Hina doesn't even WANT to choose between Onii-tama and Onii-tama!"
"I can't decide about that, either!" Karen confessed.
"Me neither!" Mamoru added.
Everyone else stared up at the sisters. "No offence, you guys, but you sure have some WEIRD priorities!" Shinshi moaned.
Footfalls on the ladder were then heard. "Ah, Hinako-chan! Konban wa!"
"Ah, Ayumu-chan!" Hinako gushed.
The master chief petty officer of the Sagussan Navy had an arm wrapped around her back. "Got a surprise for you, Hinako-chan!"
"Eh?! A surprise for Hina? Nani?! Nani?!"
The hand came around, holding a glowing Staff of Gihan. "Bou-san!" Hinako screamed as she leapt out of her chair, running over to take hold of the Sagussan weapon from her new friend. "Waaaaai! Bou-san's all better now!"
As soon as Hinako's hand touched the Staff, a shower of energy then emerged from the crystal to spread over the youngest sister. Her clothes were then transformed into a black-and-gold Sagussan jumpsuit like the one Noa wore. In this case, there were five wreaths-of-laurel wrapped around the arms. "A-ri-ri?!" Hinako blinked. "Hina's clothes are different."
"That's the uniform your brother will wear when he comes to Sagussa," Ayumu said. "Since you're his sister, you have the right to wear the same uniform!" She gave Hinako an appraising look. "Looks good on you!"
"Really?!" Hinako gushed.
"Man, this thing sure re-charged fast!" Mamoru said as she reached over to feel the Staff's focusing crystal.
My close proximity to Ayumu allowed me to restore my reserves quicker than I calculated, Mamoru, the Staff said, its voice echoing in everyone's minds. I assume the plan to retrieve the Genesis Wand is still active.
"Very active," Chikage announced as she descended from the upper deck, Aria behind her. "Aria-chan, are you ready?"
The young Parisian blinked as she heard her sister's question, and then her eyes fell on the Staff. "Everyone wants Aria . . . " she then said as her eyes locked once more on Chikage, "To become a magical girl like Hinako-chan?"
"Hai!" Sakuya confirmed. "Ready to go get Tsue-san, Aria-chan?!"
Aria considered that, and then she nodded. "Hai!"
"They should go escorted," Catty advised.
"I'm going with them!" Ayumu then announced.
"What?!" Nene shrieked. "Ayumu, you've got no experience in field ops!"
"No, but you have to admit, Ayumu IS the most powerful of us all, Nene."
Eyes turned as Seikou Mie walked up from the direction of the cockpit. To everyone's surprise, the once-amnesiac pilot was dressed in a midnight-black, form-fitting combat jumpsuit, complete with webbing holding a communicator, a holster with pistol, a combat knife and other field supplies. "Mie-san, you want to come with Hina, Aria-chan and Ayumu-chan?!" Hinako asked.
"Not just me, Hinako-chan," Mie announced before her eyes fixed on Ayumu.
The Yizibajohei-born Navy master chief blinked as Mie's blue eyes locked on her own dark brown orbs. She then nodded. "Okay!"
She waved her hand in the direction of the cockpit. A flash of light heralded the arrival of someone who should NOT be standing on her own feet. "MAKOTO?!" the other Sagussans shrieked on seeing Mie's would-be bond-mate.
"Aaaah!" Kaho screamed out. "Makoto-san's all better!"
"Not exactly, Kaho-chan."
Everyone blinked. "Mie-san . . . " Hinako whispered.
Mie waved to Ayumu. "Ayumu's using her probability-altering powers to restore Mako-vayae back to the way she was just before she took her Gladiator into the warp stream the 'Windrider' produced when we left the Slot for the Planet of Shadows. But Ayumu's changes on reality only last as long as she stays awake. The instant she falls asleep, Mako-vayae . . . "
"I bleed to death," Makoto finished.
Shocked horror crossed many people's faces. "Makoto-san, go back to bed!" Hinako pleaded. "We'll get Tsue-san and . . . "
"Hinako-sama," Makoto's calm voice cut her off. "After what I did, how in Lyna's name can I do that?"
Kaho's eyes watered. "Makoto-san . . . "
The flightmistress pointed at Aria. "Kaho-sama, thanks to MY stupidity, Aria-sama here is about to have her life turned upside-down and inside-out in a way she never could imagine." Makoto took a breath. "I know you guys were planning to get the Genesis Wand for her anyway. But if I hadn't done what I did, you could have done it in a way that wouldn't hurt her in the long run."
"Makoto . . . " Catty whispered.
Makoto's gaze locked on the doctor. "Don't pull medical rank on me!"
Senior doctor and flightmistress stared at each other. The former then nodded. "You reckless fool," she whispered.
"Makoto-san . . . "
A hand grasped hers. Makoto looked down to see Aria staring up at her. "Aria-sama, are you ready to go?" she then asked.
The Parisian nodded. Mie linked her arm around Makoto's as the former's free hand grasped Ayumu's. Holding the Staff high, Hinako grasped Ayumu's free hand. "Hai! We're off to get Tsue-san!" the youngest sister declared.
In a flash of blinding light, the five people vanished.
* * *
"There they go!" Spea announced.
Watching from the bridge of the Hasei'cha, Eluza grimaced as a comet of energy burst from the Windrider, it plunging at over normal transwarp speeds toward their distant goal. "Good luck, everyone," the shipmistress whispered.
A communications beacon sounded off. "Eluza, this is Pony!" the warpsloop's second medical officer called over. "Makoto's gone!"
"WHAT?!" everyone on the bridge shrieked.
* * *
"Why . . .?" Ataru hissed.
"It's a point of honour to her, Ataru. Please don't order her back."
Eyes locked on Lufy. The watchmistress' eyes were hooded, though Reiko and Kaneko were quick to note the tears there.
* * *
"Are you alright, Nabiki-san?"
The Goddess of Luck had just de-warped near the far side of the Moon. Shogai Dakejinzou had been warned about the cloaked Avalon bioroid factory and Oogi's continued existence by Negako after the hunter and her companions had left the Zephyrites, Nabiki's siblings and the Moroboshi family in the Slot. Dakejinzou herself had just finished relaying what she knew about the Sagussans and their links to Ataru to Nassur and Nabiki. The alien hunter had also told her guests about her own connection to Sagussa: One of Dakejinzou's first friends, a Yehisrite named Gilnira, lived these days as Daishi'cha #99999, a maintenance engineer in Ly'sha Province. Even more so, Gilnira was bond-mated to a former hunter school classmate of Nassur's, Tenba, who was the last "official" Daishi'cha (#100000) to be obtained by the Gatherer (the official designation for the ship people in the galaxy called the "Eternal Voyager"). Benten had joined the others sometime after Dakejinzou had begun her story.
The middle Tendou daughter was shaking her head, an ironic grin crossing her face. "I'll be damned," she uttered in an awed whisper. "To believe that all this time, Ataru-kun's harem dreams had some basis in reality. Jeez!" She then sat in her chair, throwing her head back to laugh. "Could you imagine what everyone in Tomobiki would say if they heard something like that?!"
"They'd damn hell do everything they could to persuade those idiots to stay away from Moroboshi," Benten muttered as she recalled an encounter with Lupica, the "crown princess of the Universe" from the planet Tofunokoibuto, who, some months ago, had tried to solicit Ataru's help to obtain an "ultimate love potion" so she could win the heart of a local tofu delivery boy, Rio.
"They'd fail," Dakejinzou warned.
Benten jolted. "Whattaya mean, Dakejinzou?!"
A knowing smirk crossed the alien woman's face. "I've heard from Brother Sunfire about the tactics Lum's friends used to denounce Ataru-san in front of potential troublemakers. Calling him the worst idiot in the universe and comparing him to things like rotten nattou and all that. Do you want to know what the Sagussans would say in return?"
The Fukunokami teen didn't see the sandbag falling for her head. "What?"
Dakejinzou smirked. "'Why should we listen to the lies of the denizens of a place of fools and madmen?'"
Benten's jaw was knocked askew. "They'd say that?!" Nassur wondered.
Dakejinzou nodded. "Hai." She then looked at Benten. "You see, in their language, the sounds that form the word 'Tomobiki' in Japanese is equal to the word that denoted the ultimate source of evil in old Sagussan myth. Toghmoghbiki, the keep of the Master of Entropy, from where all evil first arose. Even if they might not fully believe in that story due to the way they were reborn as Sagussans, none of the Daishi'cha are comfortable at the idea of Ataru-san still living in a place that bears a name like that."
"Sort of like how people in Japan, Korea or China'd feel living in the fourth floor of an apartment building, right?" Nabiki asked.
"Same idea," the alien hunter replied.
Nassur shook his head. "So if the Noukiites and the Urusians didn't go to war and Lum-chan remained on Earth . . . "
"And if Alhamzi and his buddies didn't attack the school," Nabiki cut in.
"The Sagussans would've come and blown everything people in Tomobiki believed in to pieces, just like that." Dakejinzou snapped her fingers. "And if Lum tried to resist, she would've been smashed aside just like that."
Another snap of the fingers. Benten winced every time her adopted countrywoman did that. "So when are they coming?" Nabiki asked.
Dakejinzou sighed. "They're already . . . "
Everyone tensed as Nassur's eyes glowed. "What is it?" Benten wondered.
The Vosian's face swept around to focus on a point off the Goddess' starboard beam. "There!" he said as he pointed at a porthole.
"Dakejinzou," the frigate's on-board computer then spoke up.
"What is it, Ship?"
"Sensors indicate the presence of the independent starship Wanderer. It has just arrived in the system."
Dakejinzou, Nassur and Benten gaped on hearing that ship's name. "What's Koosei doing here?!" Benten demanded.
"Koosei is signalling us, Dakejinzou," the computer reported.
"Pipe it through," Dakejinzou ordered.
The view screen, it affixed under the picture of Gilnira Dakejinzou kept on her bridge, flicked on, revealing the image of a handsome Japanese man who instantly reminded Nabiki of Ono Toofuu, right down to the oval reading glasses he wore over his eyes. The only differences were his clothes, which distantly resembled the style Ataru preferred when he had boarded the Rose Emperor to rescue his sisters and former classmates hours before. "Hey, minna! What're you guys doing over here?!" Ryooki Koosei demanded.
"I'd ask you the same thing, friend," Dakejinzou called back. "For a man who once swore he'd never return to Earth . . . "
"Koosei, who's with you right now?" Nassur asked.
"Ten's mother." He then frowned. "Or rather, what's left of her."
The non-Terrans aboard the Goddess paled. Nabiki kept quiet; she had learned about Ten's mother, a firefighter, through Marubeya Momoe. "Koosei, wasn't she in Onishuto when the Noukiites blew the place up?" Benten asked.
"No, she was lucky," Koosei replied. "She was visiting a friend in one of the outlying villages near the Terrible Swamps when that damned bomb was set off. Her husband wasn't so lucky; according to what she told me, he had been working with a civil-defence group in the centre of the city when it happened. She got involved in the initial rescue attempts, but wound up getting herself a nice dose of radiation poisoning along the way. The rescue authorities put her into cryo-suspension to keep her alive. The Noukiites took over caring for her when their troops landed on Uru. They managed to purge her of the poisoning. I just negotiated for her release, but . . . "
He then shrugged. "Bad?" Nassur asked.
Koosei closed her eyes. "Crippled from mid-back down. She can't fly."
Everyone winced. "So why are you bringing her to Earth, then?" Benten asked. "Koosei, your people're already in a bad mood . . . "
"You know that Ten-chan's still alive, don't you?"
Heads snapped around to allow the aliens to gaze on Nabiki. Koosei sighed. "Dakejinzou, did you tell everyone everything?"
Dakejinzou blinked before she nodded. Outside herself, Ryooki Koosei was the only other non-Sagussan to have walked the decks of the Gatherer since Moroboshi Ataru visited Sagussa eleven years before. "Just now."
"Koosei, Seiko-chan told me about what happened to Ten-chan," Nassur spoke up. "Do you want to try to do the same for his mom?"
"It may be her only chance to walk again, even if she ends up losing the ability to fly. Then again, from what the MiBs told me about the mood in Japan concerning Urusians in general, living as a Terran -- or at least as an Avalonian disguised as a Terran -- is the only option she'll really have if she chooses to remain on Earth instead of relocating elsewhere," Koosei advised. He then raised a finger as a knowing smile crossed his face. "Then again, this'll give Jon-san the chance to be a real mother to her son."
The people aboard the Goddess nodded. A buzzer then sounded off on Dakejinzou's avionics board. "Dakejinzou, a Sagussan civilian starship is de-cloaking off the port beam," the computer then declared. "Identification beacon marks her as the Konggh'cha."
Dakejinzou blinked. "Lufy's ship?! What's she doing here?!"
"'Lufy?!'" Benten and Nabiki uttered in sync as they remembered what Dakejinzou had said of that person when she told them about Sagussa.
"The Konggh'cha is signalling," the computer then said. "It is Troop Commander Priscilla of Pathfinder Troop Six."
"Dammit, Dakejinzou! Can't you make that stupid computer of yours call me 'Priss?!'" a growling voice then demanded over the speakers.
Dakejinzou flicked controls to allow the image of the Pirpirsiw'r in question to be seen by everyone else. "Hi, Priss!"
"Priss, what're you doing here?!" Koosei demanded from the Wanderer.
Priss rolled her eyes. "Keeping watch on Lufy's ship while she and everyone else are off to the wild unknown, making sure that Ataru-sama and his sisters don't run into Lannarkites and moron psi-hunters from Vos." Her amused stare locked on Nassur for a moment before she added, "I overheard you guys talking about the little one's mother. If you want, Yomi or I can snatch a new body for her from the factory."
"It would be appreciated, Priss," Koosei replied before he raised a warning finger. "IF I get her to agree to this, by the way!"
"Fair enough! I'll see you guys soon."
The view screen blanked out. "Well, that was nice of her," Nassur mused.
"Can we trust them?" Benten sarcastically wondered.
"If you behave yourself and try not to be so disrespectful of Ataru-san, you'll be amazed at what they'll be happy to do for you, Benten," Dakejinzou replied as she turned around, and then she blinked. "Nabiki-san, you okay?"
Nabiki, who seemed to have a lost look on her face, started on hearing the hunter's question. "Eh?! Did you say something, Shogai-san?"
"Are you okay?" Dakejinzou asked.
The middle Tendou daughter started. "Oh, me?! I'm okay! I'm okay!"
She laughed, turning to walk off the bridge. "Weird girl," Benten mused.
Nassur and Dakejinzou exchanged a knowing look.
* * *
Several minutes later found the Goddess of Luck and the Wanderer were locked alongside the Konggh'cha. After meeting up with Dakejinzou and her passengers, Priss escorted them to the sick bay Lufy had installed in the cargo carrier when she took possession of the ship. Since she was technically "on duty," Priss was dressed in her normal work uniform. She was also under arms.
"You didn't want to go with the Troop?" Dakejinzou asked as they turned a corner to head towards the pilotage.
"I can wait," Priss answered. "'Sides, the ones in the Troop who really wanted to see Ataru-sama were Sylvie and the other new girls. They never got the chance to spend time with him when he visited; we only rescued them during the year after he came to visit us."
Benten tried not to laugh. "'Ataru-sama' . . . URK!"
That came from Priss' elbow smashing into her jaw. "Keep your attitude to yourself, little girl," the Troop's first officer snarled.
"Benten, that really wasn't nice," Nassur added.
Despite the throbbing in her chin from where the Sagussan had belted her, not to mention the dizziness in her mind from the impact shock, Benten growled as she rolled back on her feet. The burning fire in her eyes quickly told everyone else that she was in the mood to rumble, even IF the woman she wanted to beat up WAS one of Yehisril's legendary Most Dangerous Ones! Before she could do anything, a finger tapped the back of the head. Benten gurgled as unconsciousness seized her, dropping face-first to the deck. Standing by her feet was Nabiki, her patented Why, Officer, I have NO idea how THAT got there! look plastered on her face. "H-h-How . . .?!" Nassur sputtered.
Nabiki winked. "My secret, Nassur-san."
"Nice job," Priss acknowledged that, and then she leaned down to pick up Benten. "Here, let me dump this idiot back aboard your ship, Dakejinzou. Then we'll take a good look at Ten's mom and see what we can do with her."
"Be my guest," Dakejinzou replied as the Pathfinder threw Benten over her shoulder to carry her off. "What WAS that girl thinking?"
"Dake-chan, you should know by now that thinking is really not one of Benten's strong suits," Nassur advised her.
"True." Dakejinzou then stared at Nabiki. She was quick to note the lost-girl look on the middle Tendou daughter's face. Smirking at Nassur, the alien hunter then stepped up to place a hand on Nabiki's shoulder. Nabiki yelped on feeling that hand, and then she spun around to stare wide-eyed at Dakejinzou. "Liked what you saw, didn't you?" the hunter asked with a leer.
Nabiki awked on hearing that, an automatic denial surging up through her throat. Before she could utter a sound, another hand landed on her other shoulder. Nabiki went white on feeling that contact, and then she turned to find herself staring into a pair of burning chestnut eyes. "I . . . " she then squeaked, surprising herself by being able to say THAT, and then she gulped. "Uh . . . " A finger landed on her lips to silence her. Nabiki blinked as she felt a wave of calm surge through her from Priss' fingertip, and then she slowly breathed out as the Pathfinder drew back her finger.
"Better?" Priss wondered.
"Pretty much so," Nabiki hoarsely admitted.
A wink. "I'm interested if you happen to be willing. But let's look in on Ten's mom first, okay?"
Nabiki's skin paled again as the Sagussan's words sank into her mind. "Ah . . .!" she sputtered. "Uh . . . o-okay . . .!"
Priss pulled away from her, and then she waved everyone on to sickbay. As they stepped inside, everyone noted that Koosei was already there. Also there was Catty Ray, who had volunteered to remain with the Troop's first officer to keep watch over the Konggh'cha while the rest of their mates had gone to the Planet of Shadows. The once-android replica of Catty was in the uniform of a Sagussan navy petty officer. Since she was not Pathfinder-trained -- much less formally trained in any other specialty such as medicine, science or engineering -- Catty Ray didn't wear the special colour-coded trousers like the dark green ones Priss currently had on. She was currently passing a tricorder over the prone form on one of the sick bay's diagnostic beds.
"How is she, Ray?" Priss asked as everyone else gathered around the bed to stare at the unconscious Oni woman lying there.
"Pretty bad," Catty Ray reported, thankful that she still retained a lot of her template's medical knowledge so she could help out in situations like this whenever Reinoevan or Naomi weren't around. "The Noukiites seem to have used a lot of their more traditional medical techniques to help Jon-sama heal from the radiation burns. They have helped a bit, but there were some unintentional side effects the healers didn't anticipate."
"Can she walk?" Koosei quietly asked.
Nassur and Dakejinzou stared at the expat Terran. Nabiki took her own "look" with her empathy. What she got from Koosei didn't surprise her. The man was clearly divided in his heart between Ten's mother and another woman . . . eh? Oyuki? Seeing the image of the Neptunian crown princess flash through her mind's eye, Nabiki then sighed as she quickly picked up a surge of paranoia flowing through Koosei's mind which was clearly attached to whatever memories he had of Oyuki. Damn, exactly like the way Toofuu had felt whenever he had been around Kasumi in the days before the doctor's walkabout! If Koosei's feelings for Ten's mother started to blossom and Oyuki found out . . .?
"I don't even think the regeneration matrix can ultimately help," Catty Ray said as she drew back her tricorder, and then she gazed at the expat Terran. "As you will no doubt be aware, there have been times that the matrix has failed to fully restore every element of a person's body to the prime of health. This can potentially be one of them."
"Like what happened to Deunan, right?" Koosei asked.
"'Deunan?'" Nassur asked.
"Squadron commander in their Warsuit Brigade, their ground-warfare mobile suit formation," Koosei replied. "Her left eye's useless; she wears a patch so the images between her eyes don't disorientate her when she's piloting."
"Hasn't degraded her performance," Priss added. "Luf and I trained her to fight one-eyed, both in and out of those pathetic tin cans Leona's morons love so much." A hint of pride shone in her eyes as she added, "She's good."
"You must be one hell of a teacher, Pri-chan," Nabiki said.
Priss blinked on hearing Nabiki call her that. "'Pri-chan,' huh?!"
Nabiki awked. Dakejinzou and Koosei started to laugh. Nassur politely covered his mouth to hide his own smirk. Before Nabiki could try to say anything, Priss then winked at her. "Suit yourself," she huskily whispered as she leaned up to the other girl. "Nabiki-vayae."
She walked out of the sickbay. A wary look crossed Nabiki's face. "What did she just call me?" She gazed at Koosei and Dakejinzou.
"'My dearest Nabiki,'" Catty Ray translated.
Nabiki took that in, and then she gulped. "I'm in it deep, am I?"
"Pretty much so," Koosei advised.
The middle Tendou daughter moaned, "Oh, wonderful."
* * *
"When will we reach this Planet of Shadows, Lufy-san?" Karen asked.
"Three hours at present speed," Lufy reported after she made a check.
"How soon will Hinako-chan and the others get there, Lufy-chan?" Sakuya, she currently in the central chair, asked.
"Probably an hour," the watchmistress replied as she nodded to Reiko. Standing up to allow Ataru's daughter to take her place so the younger girl could pilot the Windrider for the next while, Lufy then stretched herself. "For a Haijo-ju prototype, the Staff's got loads of capabilities. But you better remember that its level of power is nowhere close to infinite. Neither will the Genesis Wand. I sure hope you guys know what you're doing, asking Aria to become its new controller and all that."
"Bou-san likes Hinako-chan a lot," Karen noted. "And Bou-san was really sorry to have been forced to hurt Onii-chan when he went to that Phentax Two place to take care of that creep Oogi and his stupid followers. Maybe Tsue-san will take to Aria-chan just as easily."
"The Wand hasn't had a real controller since Head Scientist Horan scattered the prototype Haijo-ju across the galaxy just before the Clone Rights War," Lufy warned, and then she shrugged. "Still, maybe if the Staff copies some of its programming into the Wand, things should be alright for Aria. If not, we'll get Ayumu to go deal with it. If not Ifurita or one of her girls."
"You got girls named after the El Hazard girls?!" Mamoru asked.
"Sure," Lufy said, and then she smirked. "It's kinda ironic, too. Ifurita is the chief of the Te'a Studies Group. Shayla, Afura and Miz are her co-workers. They're the ones who make use of Horan's Haijo-ju prototypes to help them -- and us -- understand the Te'a better, how we interact with what you'd all see as the divine influence on Existence as a whole."
"Is EVERYTHING gotta be science-based on your planet?!" Mamoru demanded.
Lufy shrugged. "Mamoru, it's only been just over a decade since Ataru's visit helped us break out of our damned logic shells and let us finally try to understand what you people call 'faith.' Give us a chance, huh?"
Laughter filled the room. The back door opened, revealing Nene. "Lufy!"
Nene thumbed behind her. Lufy glanced past the Troop coxswain, her own meta-senses reaching out to pick up who had just beamed over from the Kiboo'cha. She then turned back to Nene. "Did Sylia approve of this?!"
"What?" Sakuya demanded.
"What do you think?" Nene wondered.
The watchmistress moaned. "Oh, damn."
* * *
"You girls all ready?" Sylvie asked.
The other new girls in Pathfinder Troop Six -- Anri, Reika and Naoko from Section One; Megan, Louise, Namiko and Lisa from Section Two; plus Naomi and Irene (the chief engineer of the Kiboo'cha) -- stood in line of review in the corridor connecting the pilotage with all of the sisters' private cabins and Ataru's own quarters at the aft end of the ship. Sylvie, as the senior ranking member of the group, stood in front of them. "Ready and willing," Megan, positioned at the right of the line, answered before she lowered her voice on adding, "Even if we ALL're scared outta our fuckin' minds right now."
"Do you think Ataru-sama will like us?" Namiko, a silver-haired, crimson-eyed, Tritonian-born woman who presently served as Section Two's transportation expert, asked, her voice etched with worry. "I mean, none of us ever had the chance to meet him! Do you really think he'll . . .?"
"Settle down, Nam!" Megan -- like Sylvie served in Section One, the flame-haired, green-eyed Pirpirsiw'r was Section Two's second-in-command below Asukanoevan -- ordered. "I'm nervous about this, too. It's like Sylia said: If we're gonna make a good impression with the Daimon'cha, we can't fly off the handle like I'm sure we're all tempted to do. Buck up and look smart, okay?!"
Namiko braced herself. "H-hai!"
Silence fell as Sylvie scanned the nine others who had come with her from the Kiboo'cha. All of them were in clean duty uniforms, even Irene. The Kiboo'cha's brown-haired, chestnut-eyed, Vosian-born chief engineer often preferred to wear work jumpsuits; her days were often spent deep in the bowels of the Troop's base ship as she constantly strove to keep it in fighting trim. Save for Naomi, everyone was also under arms; pistol belts were wrapped around their waists. In respect to Ataru's sisters, the pistols were unloaded, the energy magazines slipped into strap holders on the outside of the holsters, visible for all to see. Naomi, as the Troop's field nurse, had a first aid bag slung over her shoulder. "Okay," she then whispered on seeing that everyone looked ready. Bracing herself, she ordered, "Troop, right face!" After everyone did a sharp right turn, Sylvie then ordered, "Advance in line, march!"
The girls smartly walked aft. Sylvie halted them just before Megan was about to walk straight into the door leading to Ataru's cabin. As Section One's petty officer/sniper walked up to knock on the door, people from the pilotage came out to watch them. "Lufy-san, why are they here?" Karen whispered to Lufy. "They look so nervous! Didn't they get a chance to meet Onii-chan when he came to your planet twelve years ago?"
"No, they didn't," Lufy replied. "I'll explain about it later."
"I'll love to hear THAT story," Sakuya asserted.
Meanwhile, Sylvie was waiting at the door to Ataru's cabin, having just knocked on it. The door opened to reveal Ranma, a confused look on the martial artist's face. "Um . . . can I help you girls?" she asked.
She opened the door wider to get a better look at her visitors. THAT action was enough to allow the newcomers from the Kiboo'cha to see Ataru seated at his bed. Watching the raven-haired, golden-eyed sniper of Section One, Ranma couldn't fail to notice Sylvie's cheeks reddening as her eyes focused on Ataru. The latter caught herself before she announced with a VERY respectful bow, "Ataru-sama, Ranma-sama, please forgive us for disturbing you!"
"PLEASE FORGIVE US FOR DISTURBING YOU!" the others chanted as they bowed.
Ranma blinked several times, and then she stared quizzically at Ataru. He returned her look with a shrug. Ranma then turned back to Sylvie. "Um, why don't you girls c'mon in and make yourselves at home?" she said.
She waved them through the doorway. Hearing that, the girls straightened themselves automatically as they marched into the cabin. After the door closed behind Irene, the people standing by the door to the pilotage exchanged looks. "Do you think we should stop this?" Nene wondered.
"We don't have a right to stop this," Lufy asserted as she turned to head back into the pilotage. "You know that as much as I do, Nene."
The Troop coxswain took that in before she nodded.
* * *
"What the heck . . .?"
After hearing a bunch of people call out "Please forgive us for disturbing you," Akane had peeked out through the doorway of Marie's cabin. She had turned to glance aft just in time to see a small line of young women, all dressed in Sagussan military uniforms, march into Ataru's cabin, they having been waved inside by Ranma. After the redhead closed the door behind the pointy-eared girl with the red-coloured pants, Akane blinked several times, and then she started to tremble as a familiar flash of hot jealousy surged up from somewhere deep inside her. Stepping out of the cabin, she braced herself, squaring her shoulders as she prepared to march over and . . .
"Akane-chan, what are you doing?"
Akane jolted to a stop on hearing that soft yet iron-hard voice. Gulping as a chill warped through her, she turned to see Marie standing by the stairwell leading to the galley. Hotaru was standing behind her patient, the nurse holding a tea tray with three cups and a kettle of Marie's favoured cherry tea. Marie's arms were crossed, a displeased look on her face as she seemed to loom over the youngest Tendou daughter. Akane gulped as Marie's stare bored into her, and then she giggled in embarrassment. "Oh, M-m-Marie-ch-chan, h-hi! I w-w-was just going t-to find th-the washroom . . . "
Marie sighed as she gave the bioroid a knowing look. "Don't lie to me, Akane. When you saw Sylvie-san and her friends march into Aniue-sama's room, you automatically fell into that damned 'Aneue-sama is being a pervert' attitude your other-self always let herself fall into!"
Her words ripped through Akane like a hail of bullets fired from a Gatling gun. The newborn Avalonian seemed to sag as her nervous look crashed into ruins, heart-wrenching anguish crossing her face as the strength in her legs vanished. Akane dropped to her knees as heart-wracking sobs burst from her lungs. Instantly, Marie's hands were at her shoulders as Akane was swept up into a comforting hug, the former allowing the latter to bury her face into the crook of Marie's neck and weep. They remained still for a moment as Hotaru walked past them to place the tea tray on the nightstand in Marie's cabin, and then the nurse walked back out to help Marie walk Akane into the cabin.
* * *
"Um, what's this all about, girls?"
The newcomers of Troop Six were standing in a school circle around Ataru's bed. All their heads were bowed low, none of them wanting to look him in the eye. Arms grasped together nervously in front of them, as if they wanted to make a wish. Their nervousness at being in Ataru's presence for the first time in their lives was quite plain for the Daimon'cha to see.
For Ataru, this could be seen as truly a first.
Save for dealing with his sisters and Ranma, most of Ataru's past experiences with women were not positive. If he didn't have to deal with an over-domineering, lightning-charged, would-be "wife" who treated him more like a pet than a person; he had to deal with a zealous Shinto priestess/school nurse who, at times, seemed hell-bent to make his often-miserable days even MORE miserable. If he didn't have to deal with a psycho-airhead who wanted to suck the youth out of his body to get her revenge on his "wife;" it was a pack of hormone-crazed classmates who were hell-bent and determined to protect the object of their wet dreams from the grasp of said "wife." If he didn't have to deal with a lunatic space-biker babe who couldn't hit the broad side of a barn with her gun and seemed hell-bent on the idea of forcing her idea of celebrating Setsubun on everyone around her; he had to deal with three galactic middle school would-be Yakuza who wanted to play some sick game of one-upmanship on his "wife" and her former classmates. If it wasn't a certain ice princess from Neptune, it was his former girlfriend or a poster-child for all tomboys who hadn't a single clue as to what being a real woman was about. If it wasn't that androphobic would-be supergirl heiress of the Mizunokooji sports empire, it was the Kabuki-crazed psychopathic heiress of the Mendou fortune.
And that didn't, in the LEAST, count his late so-called "mother!"
But this . . .
This . . .
THIS was truly different.
Ten girls.
All very beautiful.
All young and in the prime of their health.
And all of them seemingly willing to drop their clothes, hop into the sack and spread their legs for him virtually on command.
Yes, THIS was truly different.
What to do, what to do . . .
"Um, Ataru-sama . . .?"
He perked, his eyes locking on the Vosian to his far right, the one in the uniform of a naval engineer, petty officer's tabs on her shoulders. Noting the style of her hair, Ataru quickly assumed this one had taken the name "Irene," after Yamazaki Linna's friend from the second Bubblegum Crisis OVA. Noting that, his eyes flicked over to the brown-haired Yehisrite girl fourth over from Sylvie. Now, she HAD to have taken the name "Reika" given her very strong resemblance to Chang Irene's sister from the seventh Crisis OVA, the pop singer known to the general public in that universe as "Vision." She even had the same streak of green in her hair just over her forehead!
Wasn't THIS ironic?
"What is it, Irene-san?"
Irene jolted, the surprise on her face clearly shouting out, "HE SPOKE TO ME?!" She then quickly composed herself as she bowed her head in a proper show of respect. "May I sit with you, sir?" she then asked in a timid whisper.
Ataru looked at her, and then he glanced at Irene's mates. It surprised him right away that none of them seemed to look the least bit jealous at the engineer's bold request. In fact, much to Ataru's surprise, it seemed to him that the others were actually ENVIOUS of the fact that Irene had been brave enough to MAKE that request. A quick glance at Ranma -- the martial artist had positioned herself by the windows of the cabin to Ataru's left -- revealed that she was just as surprised at Irene's request as her fellow Sagussans. Noting him glancing her way, Ranma looked a question at him. Do you mind? Ataru silently asked. She blinked, and then, after blushing at his show of deference to her, shook her head. With that, he turned back to Irene, patting the bed beside him. Seeing that, Irene brightened as she slipped her feet out of her boots, and then she slid onto the bed to relax beside him. He gazed at her, quickly sensing her relief and delight at being accommodated by him. A glance to the others revealed yet again that there wasn't the barest hint of jealousy on any of their faces. Well, best to make sure THAT particular poison flower didn't get the chance to bloom; his experience with Lum, Shinobu and Elle -- to say anything of Ranma's experiences with her own fiancées! -- had taught him that. "All of you, sit down," he said, waving to the edge of the bed. "I don't like people standing on ceremony because of me."
Their faces instantly lit up on hearing that. Without hesitation, they slipped off their boots and sat on the bed around him. To Ataru's surprise, the newcomers seemed willing to make a space on the bed to his immediate left. As to whom that space might have been set aside for, the answer came as Sylvie looked over at Ranma. "Ranma-sama, don't you want to sit with us?" she asked.
Ranma perked. "Why?! You girls . . .!"
"Ranma-sama, you ARE the Other," Anri insisted.
Ranma blinked in shock at Anri's words, and then her gaze turned inward for a second before she found herself walking over to slip herself onto the bed, moving in close to Ataru. Automatically, his arm came up to wrap around her. Ranma perked on sensing the warmth of his contact, and then she sighed as she leaned against him. Ataru gazed at their visitors. Seeing the smiles cross their faces on seeing their show of closeness, Ataru stared at Ranma.
"If I was still a guy . . . " the latter mused.
"Then we'd have TWO Daimon'cha instead of one," Louise finished for her.
Ataru and Ranma blink-blinked. "'Daimon'cha?'" both asked in sync.
"'Great first father,'" Louise translated. Quickly noting the shock crossing the Terrans' faces, Section Two's demolitions expert then added, "It's what we ultimate would want you to be for us, Ataru-sama. The father of our children. Didn't Lufy or the Elder Mother tell you about this?"
"Does it LOOK like it?!" Ranma demanded.
"Wait a minute!" Ataru cut in. "You girls mean to tell us that, atop of my acting as an emotional template to help all of you become more human, you wanted me to also act as the FATHER to all of your future children?!"
"You don't have to worry about doing ALL of us," Megan moderated.
"How many of you guys are there on Sagussa?!" Ranma asked.
"One hundred-and-four thousand, nine hundred-and-fifteen," Naomi replied. "Including one girl that's still AWOL."
Eyes locked on the nurse. "A hundred-and-four thousand . . .?" Ataru hoarsely whispered. "Geez! I don't think even I've got enough stamina . . . "
The Sagussans laughed. "Oh, we know THAT, Ataru-sama!" Reika declared.
"Although we wouldn't mind if you tried it with us," Anri coyly added.
"Anri!" Sylvie snapped at her bond-mate.
Anri ducked the sniper's annoyed look. Ataru and Ranma exchanged a look, and then the former sat back on the bed. "Um, well . . . ah, gee, girls . . . I'm flattered that you'd want me to help out, but still . . . "
"Oh, don't worry if you think we'll just turn to you to get the genetic samples so we can have children, Ataru-sama," Namiko assured him. "We've got our eyes on a whole host of other nice men to act as Daimon'cha for us."
"There is Ranma-sama's male body to think about, too," Lisa added.
"NO!" Ranma automatically asserted. "Do NOT go there, Lisa!"
"We'll just have to find a way to separate them, then," Naoko proposed.
"Hey!" Ranma snapped. "Didn't you listen to me?!"
"Ranma-sama, are you a man or a woman?" Megan asked.
"I'm a woman, dammit!"
"They why should you live a life where you might risk permanent insanity if your curse gets unlocked again?" Megan then asked.
Ranma blink-blinked. "Say what?"
"You're planning to adopt Lufy as your older sister, aren't you? Like Ataru-sama adopted Thoughtmistress-prime Negako as his sister?"
The redhead's jaw hit the bed. "How did you . . .?"
"It's your life-aura, Ranma-sama. Your 'ki' as you call it. Syl and I . . . " -- Megan waved to her sister Pirpirsiw'r -- "Can tell right off the bat what you've got in mind. But before you take the plunge, there're some things you gotta know." She held up a finger in warning.
Another chorus of blinks from the former heir of the Saotome-ryuu. "Since when is my adopting Lufy as my sister life-threatening?"
"Since Lufy would insist that you'd become of our blood, Ranma-sama," Sylvie spoke up. "There's no way that Lufy would allow a sister, even an adopted one, to live without having the ability to fully defend herself up to Lufy's standards. And her standards, as I'm sure you are aware, ARE a lot higher than even what you're at right now, Ranma-sama."
Ranma flustered. Damn, was she THAT easy to read? "Um, y-yeah, I did notice . . . " she then sputtered out.
"There's never been a male Pirpirsiw'r in Yehisrite history, Ranma."
Ranma gazed in confusion at Ataru. "'Piiru-piiru-shiiwaru?'" she tried to stutter out the harsh Yehisrite syllables.
"Literally translated, 'Most Dangerous Soldiers,'" Ataru explained. "The Yehisrite version of the Nujiézú; they existed up to about four centuries ago. They all have tattoos on the right cheeks like Lufy, Sylvie, Megan and Makoto have. And I assume there are many more among your girls . . . "
"Seven thousand, two hundred-and-thirteen," Sylvie provided.
Ranma took that in. "Same school of martial arts?"
"It's more than just martial arts, Ranma-sama . . . "
A sharp breath exploded from the redhead's lips. "Sylvie, willya QUIT being so damned formal with me . . .!"
"I have to, Ranma-sama. We all do."
"Why?! Just because I'm bonded to Ataru? Lufy was the one . . . "
"We know that," Sylvie cut her off. "But it's a lot different for us than it would be for the rest of the Daishi'cha, Ranma-sama." She waved to her mates. "When Ataru-sama came to Sagussa eleven years ago at the Elder Mother's invitation, there were EXACTLY 100,000 Daishi'cha residing there. None, NONE of us . . . " -- again, she indicated her mates with a wave of her hand -- "Were among them. We would have been had there not been a terrible accident with medical nanites within mine, Anri's and Reika's bodies having reacted badly to the regeneration matrix that was used to restore us to life. And those nanites broke out and infected almost five thousand other Daishi'cha before it was finally contained. But for those who were infected . . . "
"Including all of us," Megan cut in.
"We were later sealed off in tanks filled with nanite-infested samples of the matrix and buried on our old home worlds," Sylvie finished before her eyes turned to Ataru. "And if it wasn't for you, Ataru-sama, we all would still be dead to the world we were literally reborn to help create."
** ** **
Eleven years before . . .
The Chamber of Eternity, since it was buried deep into an isolated southern branch slope of Sagussa's highest peak, the Esanta'cha, seemed always to be a dark place even for its vast size, excellent internal lighting and airy nature. Walking on a catwalk on the uppermost level away from the large bedroom the engineers had just built for their prospective Daimon'cha in anticipation of the day in the future when he would return to their world to live the rest of his life, Moroboshi Ataru seemed sad.
"I really don't wanna go home, Ai-chan."
Walking beside him, the woman who one day would take the name "Noa" tried to smile. It was still difficult to move her facial muscles in such a way, even if she had finally come to comprehend the emotional purposes such an action represented. "You should return home as soon as possible, Ataru-sama," she said. "While we here on Sagussa do accept that a child, even one as young as you, has a right to decide his or her own destiny according to the knowledge he or she possesses, on Earth, it is much different."
"But Mom'll start yelling again!" Ataru whined, his eyes brimming with tears. "Saying to Dad that she wished she never had me! She never says anything nice about me! And she's really mean whenever I go to Uncle's place in Sendai and visit Nokoko-chan! Why, Ai-chan?!"
Noa took a breath. "Indeed, her behaviour vis-à-vis you leaves much to be desired. Perhaps Ii'iieo's suggestion about deploying a team to Tomobiki . . . " -- her mouth curled into a frown on her saying that -- "Is a wise one."
Ataru brightened. "Would you come to live on Earth, Ai-chan?"
Noa blinked, and then she smiled. "If the authorities in New York City will allow it . . .! Eh?! Ioiouieoao! What's the matter?!"
The woman who one day would take the name "Nene" had just run up to them. "Ashi'cha, there's something wrong with Eiei'ioao-o!"
"What is it?"
Nene shrugged helplessly. "She just started crying and yelling twelve minutes ago when she was looking through files in her terminal. The others in the Troop are trying to calm her, but she's . . . " Another helpless shrug.
Instantly, Ataru raced off. "Ataru-sama, wait!" Nene screamed out.
He ignored the Pathfinder's words. Even if the Chamber was five kilometres long from end to end, reaching down almost a kilometre into the hard limestone rock of Tere'na Province, Ataru knew where the offices used by Pathfinder Troop Six were located. In the two months he had been living on Sagussa, he had become very close to the six specialized warfare troopers, just as he had become close to the crew of the Hasei'cha, the Elder Mother, her sister and a whole slew of others. If Eiei'ioao-o -- the woman who would one day take on the name "Priscilla" -- was crying for some reason, Ataru wanted to know why and help her. After all, she was his friend.
You always helped your friends, didn't you?
Reaching the door to the Troop's offices, he looked inside. "Ei-chan!"
Priss' head snapped around as her crimson gaze locked on Ataru, the painful sadness on her face melting into shock. "Ataru-sama!"
"What's wrong?!" Ataru asked before he looked left to see the other members of the Troop standing there. "What's wrong with Ei-chan?"
"Ataru-sama, you don't have to be . . .!" Eoao'oe-eoii (Sylia) insisted.
"Commander, we agreed that we would not lie to Ataru-sama regardless of the reason," Aioai-eieoei (Reinoevan) cut in to remind her.
Sylia gazed on the executive officer/sniper, and then she nodded. Priss was still gazing at Ataru, though both Ui'iioe-uoai (Linna) and Uouiaioi'ii (Asukanoevan) had shifted themselves over to place supportive hands on the coxswain's shoulders. Priss then sniffed back her tears as she stood, walking over to kneel in front of Ataru. His hands reached out to hug her as she scooped him into her arms. They remained in place as Priss allowed her empathic guards to relax, the warmth of Ataru's love and friendship flooding her from head to toe. As she felt new strength flow into her heart from that contact, the Troop coxswain then shifted her head around so she could stare directly into Ataru's eyes. They remained in place for a moment, and then they shared a kiss. "I love you, Ei-chan," Ataru whispered.
"And I will love you for all Eternity, Ataru-sama," Priss vowed.
"Why are you crying?"
Priss took a deep breath. "I was mourning someone."
Ataru blinked. "Someone died?!"
"Eiei'ioao-o, does Ataru-sama REALLY need to know . . .?!" Noa demanded.
Priss froze the Ashi'cha with a warning gaze. "'No lies,' remember?"
Noa's voice caught in her throat. "It is not one of us currently on Sagussa, Ataru-sama," Sylia explained. "The person Eiei'ioao-o is referring to would have become one of us hadn't a terrible accident concerning both the warm rock bath and some very tiny machines . . . " -- the Daishi'cha had to be very circumspective when it came to explaining concepts like the regeneration matrix born from the magma of Sagurei, Sagussa's lone blood-red moon, to the five-year old Ataru -- " . . . ended not only her life, but the lives of many others."
Ataru gazed on the Troop commander. "When?!"
"Way before my time, Ataru-sama," Linna provided.
He blinked several times as he tried to wrap his mind around what Sylia said, and then he gazed at Priss. "What happened to your friend, Ei-chan?" he asked as he wiped her cheeks clean. "Is she still here? Can't you visit her?"
Priss shook her head. "No. At the time, we felt we just had no choice but to bury her on Yehisril, where she had been found by Henry . . . " -- that was Ataru's nickname for the Gatherer's central computer; it came from the ancient Ly'sha word hengh'ryi (the one who gathers life) -- " . . . along with the others that had been found with Eiei'ioaoai; that was her number."
Ataru stared at her. "You left her there . . . "
"There was no other choice!"
"Because we didn't want those awful machines to hurt us!" Priss insisted, fresh tears flowing down her cheeks. "Ataru-sama, I wanted to bury Eiei'ioaoai in the Forge." The Forge of Tere'na was a fifty-kilometre wide silver dome, it forged of a kilometre-thick layer of carbonized neutronium, located at the southern tip of Tere'na. It was in the geographic centre of the dome's enclosed space, at the end of the Clone Rights War that had wrecked Sagussa millennia before, that Lyna's remains were interred. Ever since the first of the Daishi'cha -- Ataru knew her as "Ai-oneechan;" she would eventually take the name "Yoakenikkou" -- had been brought to Sagussa, the first citizens of the Fifth Republic had visited Lyna's grave to pay homage to the singer whose tragic fate had led to the Clone Rights War. Ataru's visit to the Forge two weeks ago, in the company of Eiuoiiaoii (Lufy) and Oioai-oi'iiui (Catty), had been weird. "But I couldn't. I couldn't risk bringing her here and . . . "
"You gotta bring her back, Ei-chan!"
"You gotta bring her back!"
"There may be a way to do just that."
Eyes locked on Reinoevan. "What do you mean?" Asukanoevan asked.
The Troop's first officer faintly smiled. "You weren't here at the time we had to deal with that particular tragedy, Uouiaioi'ii, so you wouldn't know about this. But shortly after we were forced to transport those unfortunates back to their planets of origin, the Medical Directorate began to work on ways of ensuring nanites were purged from the bodies of potential Daishi'cha when they were exposed to the regeneration matrix." Rei then gazed on Ataru. "We have a way now in which we can go rid our friends' bodies of those awful machines using the warm rock bath, Ataru-sama," she explained. "It is possible to go retrieve them and restore them back to health."
"Why didn't you do it before, Aioai-chan?" Ataru asked.
An embarrassed blush crossed Rei's face. "To be frank, we never saw the logic of such a choice before you made us look at it."
The young boy then scowled. "'Logic!' I hate that word."
"We're starting not to like it ourselves," Asuka noted with a wink.
Warm laughter then filled the room.
** ** **
" . . . and thus, starting a month after your return to Earth, Ataru-sama, we were all retrieved and rejuvenated, the nanites purged from our bodies," Sylvie finished, having shifted herself over so she could hold Ataru's hands in her own. "A total of 4,915 Daishi'cha were nearly killed by those things Anri, Reika and I accidentally brought to Sagussa when we were taken with Priss by the Gatherer all those years ago. All of them, Ataru-sama -- ALL OF THEM! -- are alive today. Thanks to you."
Ataru blinked several times, he again -- for what seemed the umpteenth time this very day alone! -- inwardly wishing that his memories hadn't been so devastated by the insertion of the Saikoo Jinseijitsu into his mind so that he could remember his visit to these girls' distant home planet. Still, even if some parts of his mind found it quite hard to accept that story, the look on Sylvie's face confirmed it had really happened. Licking his lips to put some moisture back into them, he sighed. "Sylvie, I don't even know what to say."
"I know." Sylvie smiled. "I know. We all do. Please, don't be afraid of us. We know what you've been going through these last few years. Believe me, after everything went to Chaos after Lum came, we kicked ourselves around in circles trying to figure out a way to get you out of that situation."
"We couldn't do it openly," Megan added. "If we did, we could have ignited a war with half the galaxy over Earth. You made it plain and clear how you felt about shit like that when the Urusians and the Ellsians almost came to blows over who'd end up going to the altar with you. Damn it all, Ataru-sama, you KNOW what could've possibly happened to you if it got out that YOU were the Chosen One. You KNOW what Lum could've done to you, much less that idiot father of hers and the rest of those kimei'aidoei fools on Uru."
"And then there's you, Ranma-sama." Reika's eyes fixed on Ranma. "Yes, it was only just now that we learned that you were the Other. But if we went after Ataru-sama at an earlier time, I know we would've come to look for you. Lufy would've certainly revealed what she had done to you in that circumstance! How would you've felt if that happened to you? Your would-be paramours, much less that pathetic farce you called a family? How would that have set with them, much less Ataru-sama's so-called 'friends' in Tomobiki?!"
"Yes, it was Lufy who bonded you two," Anri spoke up. "But that doesn't matter. You are the Daimon'cha, Ataru-sama. And you are Ataru-sama's Other, Ranma-sama. No matter how it happened, it happened. And because Ataru-sama is and has always been a part of us . . . "
"So are you, Ranma-sama," Louise finished.
Silence fell as Ataru and Ranma exchanged a look. This went WAY beyond what Lufy and Noa told them about how much Ataru had come to affect the entire destiny of a planet recovering from a brutal five-century war that had cost over ten billion lives. This was the most profound of honour-debts that Sylvie and her companions, not to mention the 4,905 other Daishi'cha who had been given a remarkable THIRD chance at life thanks to Ataru's words to Priss that day in the Chamber, felt for their Daimon'cha.
And since Ranma was seen as Ataru's marei'cha, she was included in that honour-debt even if she personally had nothing to do with . . .
Or did she?
After all, hadn't Noa come back a year after Lufy had bonded Ataru and Ranma to bring Ataru to Sagussa so he could meet all the Daishi'cha?
Hadn't Ranma's encounter with Ataru in Sendai really it?
Toward giving Sylvie and her friends new life?
New hopes . . .?
Ranma then stood up. "Ranma . . . " Ataru called out.
She gave him a smile of assurance before she walked to the entertainment centre located in one corner of the cabin. Leafing through the CDs, Ranma then grinned on picking out one greatest hits compilation from an Irish new age band Ataru had been introduced to by Yotsuba some weeks before. Taking the case out, she loaded one of the CDs into the player, and then set the music to the sixth track. "Something tells me you people'll like this stuff," she announced before pressing the PLAY button. As the synthesizer and piano introduction to Clannad's Coinleach Glas an Fhómhair began to play, Ranma walked over, holding her hand out. "Reika-chan, would you like to dance?"
Reika blinked, and then she nodded. "Hai!"
As she joined the martial artist, Ataru turned to Sylvie. "Madame?"
Sylvie shook her head. "Irene first."
Ataru blinked, and then he mentally kicked himself as he glanced to his right at the Kiboo'cha's engineer. "Irene-chan?"
"Hai!" Irene gushed.
They headed onto the floor, followed by Sylvie and Anri, Megan and Louise, and Lisa and Naoko. The others remained on the bed as they clapped to the music, Namiko's and Naomi's voices humming out the lovely Gaelic tune . . .
Ar chonnlaigh ghlais an Fhoghmhair
A stóirin gur dhearc mé uaim
Ba deas do chos i mbróig
'Sba ró-dheas do leagan siubhail
Do ghruaidh ar dhath na rósai
'Sdo chúirnini bhi fighte dlúith
Monuar gan sinn 'ár bpósadh
Nó'r bórd luinge 'triall 'un siubhail
As they danced, Ataru's and Ranma's eyes fell on each other . . .
Are you doing it?
I have no choice now.
Yeah, you don't.
Will you be there for me?
I got no choice on that.
You don't have to.
I want to.
You sure?
Yeah, I'm sure.
I love you.
I love you, too . . .
Watching their silent communication, the Daishi'cha could only smile.
* * *
"You, Sylia dear, are a sneaky woman."
"Do you question your own love for Ataru?"
Eluza blinked, and then she smirked before sipping her glass of Sagussan brandy. The Hasei'cha's commanding officer had beamed to the Kiboo'cha to confer with the commander of Troop Six minutes before. "Of course not."
"Don't complain about it, then."
"Am I complaining?"
Silence fell, and then both began to laugh.
* * *
A knock was heard at the door. "Hai, just a moment!" echoed from inside the old shrine, and then the door opened. "Hai?"
"Hello, there," the woman standing on the front porch hailed as she gave Chigaiko a smile. "You must be Inu Chigaiko."
Chigaiko blinked as her eyes took in the speaker's looks. Save for flecks of grey in her brown hair, plus laugh lines and crow's feet around the eyes and mouth, this woman could easily be Negako's twin sister. Her clothing was modern in style yet plain, a tubular-shaped duffle bag slung over one shoulder. "Um, h-hai!" Chigaiko then stammered before she tensed on sensing someone walk up behind her. She turned around to see Negako standing there, a knowing look on the ninjutsu grandmaster's face. "Negako-san, um . . . "
Negako guided Ataru's former classmate away from the door, and then she stared at the visitor. "Naho, what did I say about Ayano?" she wondered as her eyes flicked to the raven-haired, tomboyish teenager standing on the grass.
"She stowed away in the truck before we came down from Onogawa," Hana Naho replied with a chuckle. Behind her, Inaba Ayano had the courtesy to look sheepish, though the flush on her cheeks clearly represented something else other than embarrassment. "And since this is an important meeting between us and the Nujiézú, I felt it wouldn't be right to turn around and take her back."
Negako gave Naho a knowing look, and then she shook her head. "Come in."
Chigaiko watched as the newcomers stepped inside, each taking off their shoes before they walked into the living room. The four other newcomers were teenagers in general appearance, they dressed in neat, stylish clothing. Each of them focused their eyes on Chigaiko as they walked in, their smiles brightening considerably as they gave her a polite bow in greeting. One of them, a taller-than-average blue-eyed girl with her long raven hair tied in a high ponytail, moved to stand beside her. "Konban wa, Chigaiko-san," she greeted the expat Tomobiki native with another polite bow. "I'm Misaki Shiina. I'm very honoured to meet another of Negako-sama's students."
Chigaiko blinked, and then she gazed on Negako as the others sat around the living room table. She was quick to note that Ayano had positioned herself in a place immediately beside where Negako normally sat. "You're one of Negako-san's students?" she then asked as she turned back to Shiina. "I didn't know Negako-san had any other students in the Art."
"She does, Chigaiko-chan," Naho, who had sat directly opposite from where Negako would sit, spoke up. "Do you think she spent all of the last five years after she was taken out of Ataru-chan's mind wandering around the world?"
Chigaiko blinked. "You know Ataru-kun?!"
"Of course I do," Naho replied as Chigaiko and Shiina walked over to sit around the table. "My name is Hana Naho. I'm the daughter of Ataru-chan's paternal great-uncle." She gazed fondly on Negako. "And, as I'm sure you'll no doubt have noticed by now, I'm also the person who provided the DNA patterns for the Zephyrites to use so they could create Negako-chan's body."
Chigaiko boggled on hearing someone use the "-chan" suffix for NEGAKO of all people! Seeing this, the newcomers laughed as Kimiko walked into the room, Ten in her arms. "She wants Negako-sama to call her 'mother,'" Shiina added.
The laughter died as the younger newcomers gazed as one at the adopted member of the Tendou family and the boy in her arms. The mutual staring contest continued for a moment, and then Naho's eyebrow arched. "I take it the factory's here," she mused as she gazed on Negako.
"It is," Negako replied. "Directly in orbit over Tomobiki High School."
Chigaiko stared at the ninjutsu grandmaster for a second, and then her eyes focused on Shiina. "Soo na! You mean . . .!"
"They're all Avalonians. The younger ones, that is," Kimiko announced.
Naho gazed on Kimiko her own well-trained senses locked in on the latter, and then her eyes widened in recognition. "You're the Noroi no Ningyou, aren't you?! How . . .?" She paused as it came to her. "Chikage-chan was involved!"
"H-hai!" Kimiko stammered as she moved over to sit by the table, allowing Ten to remain in her lap. "And this is . . . "
"Redet Jariten," Naho finished, a knowing twinkle shining in her eyes as she stared at him. "Who prefers to be called 'Ten,' especially by women. Who can, at times, be as much of a shameless flirt when it comes to women -- especially young, beautiful ones! -- as Ataru-chan once was." Seeing Ten's cheeks redden in embarrassment as that comment hit home, Naho laughed before she sobered and carried on, "And, by the looks of it, was so badly hurt during the recent conflict between his people and the Noukiites that Hinako-chan had to use the Staff of Gihan to obtain a new body for him shortly after his return to Earth . . .! Sometime late on Tuesday morning, I believe?"
Ten blinked. "Ah . . .! H-hai, N-n-Naho-obachan!"
"Naho's ki perceptive abilities, even with her retaining a non-enhanced body, are almost on par with mine, Ten," Negako said. "Understandable; I was the one who taught her those skills." An amused twinkle then crossed her eyes. "Then again, were it not for Naho and the girls at the Hotel Kiraboshi, my emergence as an independent sentient being would not have proceeded as easily."
"Not that the first three years after you got yanked out of Ataru-chan's mind weren't rough enough," Naho added.
Chigaiko, Kimiko and Ten looked at Naho, and then at Negako, and then back to Naho again. "So why are you here, Naho-sama?" the just-adopted member of the Tendou family wondered. "And how is it you met these girls? Are they related to the group that came to Earth years ago seeking out your aunt to obtain assistance from the Zephyrites in freeing the Avalonians from slavery?"
"No, but these girls and their friends up in Onogawa are as much refugees from that insane planet as Ikusawa Kyooko's mother and her companions," Naho answered. "In effect, until six years ago -- which was the time that the 'great awakening' that ushered in the Church of Lum among the Niphentaxians happened -- Ayano-chan, Shiina-chan, Mutsumi-chan and Nanase-chan, plus their friends, were all prostitutes in a brothel on Phentax Three. They were soon 'liberated' by another Avalonian, the former companion of a doctor who, quite surprisingly, currently works in Tomobiki as the senior physician to all the Church's observers in and about their 'holy city.' When they came here, they had the fortune to run into me, and then I arranged to have them take up residence in Onogawa, where they currently run an onsen hotel, the Kiraboshi."
"Oh, that's right!" Chigaiko said as she held up a finger. "Ataru-kun and the others wanted to go up there to spend the weekend before they'd go back to Promised Island and start the new school term." A rueful look then crossed her face as she added, "Well, that WAS the plan until a few stupid things happened that forced them to stay here for the time being."
"Negako-sama, when will Ataru-sama and the others return?" Shiina asked.
"Sometime tomorrow," Negako replied as she perked on sensing three people arrive at the front gate of the old shrine. "In the meantime, our guests are arriving. Mutsumi, Nanase, are you ready to meet your prospective husband?"
"Hai!" Horikawa Mitsumi and her younger "sister," Nanase, chanted.
A knock echoed from the doorway. "I'll get it," Chigaiko announced as she walked over to open the door, and then she smiled on seeing the crowd from the Nekohanten. "Cologne-sama! Shampoo-san! Mousse-san! Come in, come in!"
"Thank you, dear," Cologne replied as she pogoed her way inside, and then she stopped on seeing Naho. The elder's eyes then went VERY wide on seeing Nagaiwakai's niece. She then relaxed as Naho got up, the latter running over to sweep Cologne in an embrace. "Child, it's been so long!" Cologne stated as Naho escorted her to the table. "Where've you been all these years?!"
"For the most part, hiding in plain sight," Naho replied.
* * *
A cell phone rang. "Yes?"
"Father, it's me."
"Is it done?"
"Hai. He's on his way. I expect it to happen within the hour."
"What do the observers say?"
"The target's all alone. I'll make sure everything proceeds as planned."
"Very well, then. Well done, child."
"Thank you, Father."
* * *
Looking up from her counter, Kamekichi Tampopo seemed to freeze for a moment. "Something in the air . . . "
* * *
"Hey, Nabiki! You okay?"
Nabiki jolted, and then she turned to find herself gazing into Priss' burning eyes. Tensing as she felt that rush of hormones surge through her as the Sagussan's heart-melting looks registered deep within her brain, the middle Tendou daughter then forced herself to relax. "Um, I was actually hoping to get someone to get me back to Nerima," she then stated, inwardly hoping that Priss couldn't detect the tremor in her voice. "Like it or not, I've got some things to do before everyone else gets back . . . "
The first officer of Pathfinder Troop Six nodded. "That replica of your kid sister. Gotcha. Give me a moment to get changed and then let me take a look at Ten's mom. We'll both beam over into Nerima right after that, okay?"
Nabiki blinked before her eyes turned to gaze out the view port. The Moon floated beside the Konggh'cha; the cargo carrier had cloaked itself sometime after the Goddess of Luck and the Wanderer had locked alongside. "Wait . . .! BEAM into Nerima . . .?!" she sputtered.
"Relax, Nabiki-vayae!" Priss assured her with a wink. "We'll just bounce the signal off the Haengge'cha. Yomi's ship is about halfway between Luna and Earth. It's a piece of cake. You stay right here and I'll be right back."
With another wink, the Pirpirsiw'r raced off to her guest quarters to get changed. Nabiki watched her go, and then she shook her head. "No! No! No! NO!" she hissed, she grabbing her hair. "This just CAN'T be happening to me! I'm not into all this stupid, lovey-dovey stuff . . .!"
"Neither is Priss for that matter."
Nabiki gargled in shock, and then she spun around to see Ryooki Koosei standing behind her, an amused look on his face. "Damn!" Nabiki snapped at him before she relaxed herself, and then she glared intently at him. "Are you related to Ono Toofuu-sensei, Ryooki-san?!"
Koosei chuckled. "No, Tendou-san, I don't know that person. Let's just say that in the decade after the Ipraedies kidnapped me from Earth, I've been through some nasty events. Keeping yourself trained to take advantage of surprise moments isn't just something you'd use for a quick laugh." He winked. "At times, it happens to be a survival requirement."
Nabiki paused, and then she breathed out, nodding in understanding, "I see. Ataru-kun told me about the Ipraedies when Elle kidnapped his sisters and his old classmates in Tomobiki. I assume their kidnapping of you was a precursor to their planned invasion of Earth."
"It was," he answered, nodding. "But don't let that totally cloud your opinion of them, Tendou-san. They're not all bad. A little xenophobic at times, but that's to be expected of almost every race in the galaxy. I've got Ipraedies friends. I even had an Ipraedies girlfriend, believe it or not. In many ways, they're like people back on Earth. More advanced technologically in comparison to us, of course, but they're still people."
She took that in, and then she tilted her head to gaze in the direction of the Konggh'cha's sickbay. "How is she?"
Koosei sighed, a hand reaching up to take off his glasses so that his other hand could massage the bridge of his nose. "Jon's going to wait until Ataru-san and his family get back before she makes a decision as to what to do with herself. There're two options. One, she gets exposed to the regeneration matrix the Sagussans use to bring Daishi'cha into their ranks. That comes with risks, though. The matrix is quite powerful -- to call it 'magical' wouldn't actually be too damned far off the mark, if you ask me -- but on rare occasions, it doesn't cure EVERYTHING." A pause. "And then, there's the second choice: She gets an Avalonian body, just like Ten-chan did thanks to Ataru-san's sister Hinako. That might be the better choice for her."
"You care for her, don't you?"
He blinked before he replaced his glasses. "Hai, I do. Please don't misunderstand me. It's been a rough few weeks for me. When I realized how bad this whole war situation was between the Urusians and the Noukiites, my first concern was ensuring the safety of what friends I had on Uru. Jon and Ten-chan were atop that list. I know Ten-chan has something of a bad rep in the eyes of the legal authorities on Earth. Yes, he's a young boy, but he certainly should've known to act a lot better than I heard he did."
"Yes, turning swallows into giant penguins was pushing it," she noted.
He chuckled. "I heard about that incident. Well, hopefully now, he'll have something of a better life."
"What about his mother?"
A deep breath. "Jon's a very good person, Tendou-san. Yes, she's horrendously fanatical when it comes to firefighting. If you knew her story, you'd understand why." Stating that told Nabiki a lot more than Koosei would have intended, but the middle Tendou daughter kept her peace as he continued, "But that led Ten-chan to come to Earth. You know what his powers were like back then." Koosei glanced in the direction of the sickbay. "When I was babysitting Ten-chan, I tried to do my best to make Jon see what she was doing to her own son. I didn't succeed, unfortunately. But hopefully now, they might have a chance to live together as a real family."
A knowing look crossed Nabiki's face. "With you as the father?"
Koosei remained still for a moment. "I guess I deserved that." A chuckle escaped him. "You probably know of my 'relationship' with Oyuki-chan, Tendou-san. Before this whole mess started, you couldn't even MENTION Oyuki-chan's name to me without my brain taking a drop shot into a black hole. But, like it or not, wartime does make for strange circumstances."
"And since she's a crown princess, heiress to her planet's throne, the chances of you, a commoner, actually marrying her . . . "
"Aren't that good."
"Geez, Nabiki! If you ask me, Oyuki's nuts to let him out of her grasp."
Koosei and Nabiki turned as Priss came up to join them. The Pathfinder had draped herself in a white button blouse, motorcycle riding pants and a black leather vest. Nabiki was quick to note the holstered pistol on the inside of Priss' vest, just below the curve of her breasts. "Looks good on you, Pri-chan," Nabiki then stated before her breath caught in her throat. Damn! I've GOT to stop calling her THAT! she mentally railed.
Priss chuckled on seeing the middle Tendou daughter's reaction, and then she reached over to gently grasp Nabiki's hand. "Thank you so kindly, Nabiki-vayae. So what say we give you your first experience in a transporter?"
Nabiki blinked. "Is this gonna hurt?"
Priss stopped. "What?! You related to Leonard McCoy or something?!"
Nabiki shook her head. "Not really!"
"Let's go, then!"
Priss led her off. Koosei watched them, a smirk crossing his face. If they're not bonded in a month, something's wrong with them!
* * *
The man surged through the back streets of Nerima, taking a wide circle route that kept him a safe distance from the most dangerous place in the district, an abandoned Shinto shrine near Kasuga-chou. The swaying shakiness of each of his strides would indicate to onlookers that he was thoroughly drunk. On seeing his face and recognizing him, those ubiquitous onlookers would no doubt conclude that he had been out in one of the local watering holes, drowning his sorrow over the shattered dream he had once shared with his best friend. Many of them would probably wonder this as they watched him pass through the streets: Had the poor man already been told about the awful death of his youngest daughter in Hikarigaoka Park the previous night?
But the thoughts of onlookers didn't concern the man at this time.
Only the task mattered.
The task needed to be done.
The task HAD to be done.
The task MUST be done.
Nothing else mattered.
Nothing at all.
* * *
"Lyna's Soul, this so-called 'father' of hers should have been killed!"
Hotaru pulled her fingers away from Akane's face. The youngest Tendou daughter was reclining on Marie's bed, her eyes closed; Hotaru had placed the bioroid into a meditative trance when she began her examination. Marie was sitting on the bed beside Akane, she keeping one of the latter's hands in her lap. The nurse took a deep breath as she walked over to sit on the bed to Marie's left. "You can't mean that! Can you, Sensei?" Marie wondered as she gazed on Mie's sister, an amused look crossing her face.
"I DO mean it!" the nurse spat. Seeing the surprise cross Marie's face, Hotaru took a breath before she explained further, "Marie-sama, even in the days of the Fourth Republic, the proper raising of children was always seen as vital. To do what that . . .! That MAN . . . " she barked, " . . . did to Akane-san . . .?!" She shook her head. "It's so wrong!"
"I don't think Akane-san's father will be much of a bother anymore, especially after what he did to Nabiki-san and Shinshi-san," Marie noted, and then she gave Hotaru an annoyed look as she pleaded, "And PLEASE, Hotaru-sensei, will you STOP calling me 'Marie-sama?!'"
Hotaru smirked. "Then, PLEASE stop calling me 'Sensei,' Marie-chan!"
Both girls giggled, and then Marie turned to gaze on Akane. "Oh, Hotaru-chan, what do I do?" she wondered, reaching over to gently stroke the bioroid's cheek as she gazed into that peaceful face. "I don't want to see her live like the other Akane-san, for Heaven's sake. But . . . "
"It scares you, doesn't it?"
"Does it have to go THAT far?" Marie gazed on the nurse.
Hotaru paused as she considered what should happen next, and then she sighed. "Marie-chan, I know it may sound a little rushed to plunge all the way into a bond-mating between you and Akane. It doesn't really have to happen right away, of course. But if you ask me, given how she came into being, there may be no other choice in the long term if you, much less her family and yours, don't want to see Akane slip 'back' into the modes of behaviour her template demonstrated at times, especially with Ranma-sama."
Here, the nurse paused again as she considered what else to say, and then she placed a hand on Marie's shoulder. "Marie-chan, from what I understand of what she was like, the other Akane needed very strong emotional support to overcome the many pains of her life, especially when it came to what happened to her mother. When you look at how her life went, she never really got it, not even from her family. Now, our Akane here has those same needs," Hotaru continued as she indicated Akane. "She isn't just a memory-copy of Tendou Akane. She's actually a SOUL copy of the original Akane. When you get down to the nitty-gritty of it, there's no real emotional difference between the two. But the big PHYSICAL difference in this case is that Akane is now in a body that will react much more strongly to her emotional state than what she is personally used to. And that means that she will need, really NEED, very close empathic, even telepathic, contact with someone who can give her the support the original Akane never got. And since she won't be able to realistically get it from Ranma-sama now that it's known that she's bonded to your brother, she has to get it from elsewhere. That's where you come in."
Marie blinked as she considered it, and then she sighed. "What do I do?"
"Well, you don't have to do the tamgh va ragh right away in this case," Hotaru noted. Marie smirked as she quickly guessed what the phrase the nurse just used might imply. "If you jumped all the way to that, it would scare her just as much as Kunou's abuse scared the original Akane. Start with the simple things, Marie-chan. Holding hands, touching her skin on the safe places. Kiss her every chance you get. Not deep-throat kisses, but simple pecks. She'll warm up to that right away. She'll sense that you care for her. That you want the best for her. And that's how a true relationship starts. As for what happens afterward . . . " Here, she shrugged as she gave Marie a smile. "That's a subject that I really can't predict anything about."
Marie sighed. "If you say so."
* * *
Sitting on a bench in Hikarigaoka Park after doing his evening rounds, Happoosai quietly drew out his pipe and lit it, and then he blew out smoke into the evening sky. Glancing south towards Negako's home, the aged grandmaster of Musabetsu Kakutou-ryuu could only grin. So, Naho-chan had been hiding all these years from her relatives, had she? And despite that, she STILL had the opportunity to head to Rishiri-tou and offer up one of her blood cells for Nagaiwakai's friends on Zephyrus to grow Negako's body from?
And even better -- if what he was sensing of the wonderful, mouth-watering torrents of ki emanating from that place was even REMOTELY true -- sweet Naho-chan had become the virtual mother of a pack of those too-good-to-be-true Avalonians like Kimiko-chan and Nabiki-chan were now. Happoosai had yet to take any sample of an Avalonian's ki; with what just happened to Nabiki and her brother Shinshi, plus what just happened to poor Akane, it wasn't proper. But the chance would come, the aged grandmaster knew.
It just HAD to come!
As soon as he could . . .
Oh, my . . .!
Oh, dear!
Happoosai then jolted on hearing a strange ringing noise emanating from a cull-de-sac off to his right. Canting his head over, he blinked on registering a very familiar ki signature. "Nabiki-chan!" he called as he bounded from the bench, and then he stopped on sensing a SECOND ki signature with the elements marking an Avalonian. That had just appeared beside Nabiki. "Who . . .?"
"Yo, Ojii-chan!" Nabiki called back as she walked into the open. Following her was a brown-haired, chestnut-eyed girl who -- save for what just HAD to be an all-body tan and that note-and-dagger tattoo at the corner of the right eye -- resembled one of the pretty heroines in that stupid "cyberpunk" video series whose main theme song Ranma just LOVED to sing in the shower.
Then Happoosai took another look as the woman's ki became clearer . . .
Silence fell as the newcomer gazed on the aged grandmaster. He was trying desperately not to tremble in the presence of this . . .
This . . .
Warrior, HELL!
That word just couldn't BEGIN to describe this person!
Where on Earth did Nabiki find someone like THIS, for Heaven's sake?!
"Ojii-chan, you okay?!"
Happoosai nearly leapt out of his clothes as his eyes snapped around so he could look at Nabiki. "Eh . . .?! Ah! Oh, Nabiki-chan, it's you!" he blurted out before embarrassed laughter stole his voice, he rubbing the back of his head. "You came back! Did everyone else come back . . .?!"
"This is Happoosai, right?"
Happoosai froze as his eyes swung over to gaze anew at the other girl.
Oh, shit . . .
"Yeah, that's him, alright!" Nabiki replied. She had sensed the wave of total, mindless, underwear-soiling FEAR the grandmaster was presently expressing towards Priss. While Nabiki had guessed that the Sagussan was a well-trained warrior, her own personal ki senses hadn't been fine-tuned enough for her to deeply read other people with the precision Ranma, Happoosai, Cologne or Negako often demonstrated. "What . . .?"
What Priss did next surprised them both. Standing to attention, she clasped her left fist into her right hand in a salute used often by many kung fu schools, as well as practitioners of Saikoo Jinseijitsu Ninjutsu-ryuu. With that, Priss bowed her head in a show of respect. "I humbly wish you peace, logic and harmony, Thoughtmaster-prime," she stated honestly before she straightened herself. "Please excuse us."
With that, she headed off. Nabiki remained frozen in place, her jaw hanging down somewhere around her knees as her mind tried to wrap itself around what just happened. A glance at Happoosai revealed him to be quaking, "I'm alive! I'm alive! I'm alive . . .!" fluttering from his lips at machine gun speed as he seemed to try his best not to piss himself. Shaking her head to snap her mind back into gear, the middle Tendou daughter then raced off after the Sagussan. "Hey, Pri-chan! Wait up!" she called out.
Happoosai remained in place. "I'm alive! I'm alive! I'm alive . . .!"
* * *
"Negako-chan, are you alright?"
"Negako-sama, what's wrong?"
Negako blinked before her eyes fell on Naho. "Nabiki has returned."
The others perked as they took in the grandmaster's words. "Did Ataru-kun and the others come back, too?" Chigaiko asked.
"No. As I informed you earlier, Chigaiko, they had to proceed to the other end of the galaxy to retrieve the Genesis Wand of Parah for Aria," she explained. "Even at the Windrider's top speed -- even if they make use of this spatial wormhole the Staff of Gihan informed us about when the trip was initially planned -- they will not return to Earth until tomorrow morning."
Naho nodded before she gazed on Mousse, she moving to turn the meeting back to where it was meant to be. "Well, Mùsi. What do you think?"
The others -- save for Negako, who seemed mildly bored by the whole process -- turned to gaze on the weapons-master with a mixture of sympathy and barely-suppressed mirth as he found himself the SOLE object of attention from Naho's "daughters," Horikawa Mutsumi and her younger "sister," Horikawa Nanase. While most young men would consider themselves VERY blessed if they found themselves in the romantic sights of TWO very beautiful women like Mutsumi and Nanase, Mousse was certainly not normal by far.
Given his all-consuming obsession with winning Shampoo, Mousse had pretty much blinded himself from gazing at other women with anything other than a fleeting look. He couldn't do that in Mutsumi and Nanase's presence, unfortunately, especially with the spectre of being drawn into a blood-alliance marriage with one of the Tora-Seishin having been brought up. And what was worse, he couldn't possibly think of trying to duck away from it by using the excuse of going off to fight Saotome Ranma to win Shampoo's heart. With Ranma legally a girl -- and soon to be recognized as such by the Council of Elders back in the village -- whatever marriage existed between Ranma and Shampoo had vanished. Worst of all, thanks to Ranma's overdeveloped sense of right and wrong, not to mention her own experiences dealing with fiancées thanks to her late father, there was just NO way in Hell that Ranma could be persuaded to use the Blood-Sibling Law to make Shampoo marry Mousse. And Mousse didn't even have the luxury to go off and fight Ranma to make the idiot change her mind; she was off somewhere in deep space with Moroboshi Ataru and his family to locate some ancient alien weapon for one of Ataru's sisters to use!
This was just NOT FAIR!
Not fair at all.
Not fair . . .
Watching her unmoving would-be husband, Shampoo could only sigh before she flicked concerned gazes at the Honourable Elder Naho's lovely adopted daughters. Mutsumi, the elder of the pair, seemed to be your atypical Japanese bookworm, complete with reading glasses over her pretty hazel eyes. Her brownish-grey hair was pulled back over the top of the head into a stubby ponytail at her crown; the rest of the mass was allowed to cascade down the sides of her head to her collarbones. She was in a knee-length dress, that partially masking a body that would seem semi-trained by Nujiézú standards; Mutsumi was still probably just a genin in Saikoo Jinseijitsu-ryuu.
The younger of the pair, Nanase, reminded Shampoo a little too much of the lead character of Sailor Moon: A ditzy airhead who was concerned with silly, trivial things rather than the more womanly pursuits a native of the village would consider worthy of her attention. Only a couple centimetres shorter than Mutsumi, Nanase wore her deep chestnut hair in two buns at the sides of her hair. Her caramel-shaded eyes were currently fixed on Mousse's face, they sparkling in a way that Japanese girls -- Wasn't this girl supposed to be an ALIEN?! Honestly! Were alien girls like this, too?! -- demonstrated when they encountered something VERY handsome of the male persuasion, even if that male was nowhere close to what Shampoo's transformed Airen had once been.
Oh, Ranma . . .
That was just NOT FAIR!
Not fair at all.
Not fair . . .
Gazing on Shampoo out of the corner of her eye, Mutsumi concentrated as she reached out empathically to gauge what the Chinese warrior-maiden was currently feeling. Sensing her derision at Nanase's "bubblehead" act concerning Mousse, the elder Horikawa tried not to grin. Some people could just be SO damned blind at times. Couldn't Shampoo tell that Nanase's act was a simple ACT meant to make Mousse relax and enjoy himself during this omiai? For what had once seemed a mindless eternity, that HAD been Nanase's -- her Niphentaxian name was Nana dai-Tythya; the family name had been adopted from the woman who rescued Nanase and the others from that slime pit on Phentax Three, Kaili bedai-Tythya (known on Earth as Yamashina Mizuho) -- function as a prostitute. Yes, Mousse was nervous and confused at this time. Who wouldn't be when you literally had the prospect of a lifelong child-mating partnership dumped into your lap just like that? But, still . . .
Mutsumi blinked as she registered Nanase's voice in her mind. A quick glance at her "sister" revealed her to still be gazing fondly at Mousse; the latter's left hand had fallen over the former's right atop Mousse's right shoulder. What is it, Imooto? she telepathically sent back.
Nanase doesn't think he can take both of us at once.
Agreed, Mutsumi responded. I think I'd rather get a bond-mate first before scouting out a potential husband. Would you want him all for yourself?
Nanase doesn't think she'll EVER feel THAT particular urge, Onee-chan.
Okay, then. He's all yours. But don't force yourself all over him.
With that, Mutsumi pulled her hand away from Mousse, and then she shifted herself away from his side. "Mama?" she then called out.
"Yes, dear?" Naho asked.
"I've discussed this over with Nanase-chan." A glance to Nanase later, she carried on, "I'm not really in the mood to seek out a potential husband at this time. Besides, I don't believe Mùsi could possibly take BOTH of us. He strikes me as the typical 'one-woman man.'" As Nanase giggled -- in Sagussan society, which the Avalonians often tried their best to emulate, a man who locked his sexual intentions on only ONE woman was seen as truly weird -- Mutsumi added, "I'll let Nanase-chan take this one, Mama."
"How did you talk to her?" Shampoo asked. "This one didn't see . . . "
The warrior-maiden blinked. "Aiyah! You're a mind-reader?!"
"I am," Mutsumi answered. "We all are, in fact." She waved around the room to indicate the other Avalonians present at this time.
"Are you sure about that, child?" Cologne asked, a contemplative glimmer flickering in her eye. "That Naho-chan's giving us the opportunity to have one of our boys mate with someone with YOUR genetic potential . . . "
"The more brought in, the merrier. Correct?"
A dry chuckle. "Indeed."
The older Horikawa daughter sighed. "Well, if I was to meet another male of your esteemed tribe, Elder Mother, I might actually consider it. If Mùsi is an example of what good country breeding can do to males on this planet, I'll definitely keep my welcome carpet out just in case someone from your place in the mountains comes my way." She then held up a finger. "But, as you are no doubt well aware, Mùsi here has locked his heart and soul on winning over your exceptionally beautiful great-granddaughter . . . " -- the others in the room smirked on seeing Shampoo's cheeks flame at her compliment -- " . . . to the detriment of all other potential would-be wives out there if you ask me. To deluge the poor man with two would-be wives -- this, I should note, is typical in our society -- I think would kill him in the long term. While this whole arrangement is a back-up plan in case things between Ataru-sama and Ranma-sama fall through (hard as it is for me to imagine such a thing happening given that they ARE bond-mates), killing off my sister's would-be husband would be quite bad form. Therefore, I, in the interest of Mùsi's good health, will defer to Nanase-chan and seek my fortune elsewhere."
Cologne's eyebrow arched as she gazed intently at Mutsumi, and then she stared intently at the other Avalonians. "Is this normal for your kind, dears?" the elder asked. "Girls actually seeking each other out in a relationship before looking for a potential man to have children?"
"Hai, Elder Mother, it is," Yusa Rinko spoke up from beside Shampoo. Save for cutting her ponytail off short at the crown of her head, Rinko was essentially a chestnut-haired, hazel-eyed version of Misaki Shiina. "Back on Sagussa, our ancestral home planet, it was seen as quite normal for women to bond with each other psionically -- that was called 'bond-mating' -- to form a family unit. When that was done, only THEN would the couple seek out a man to be the father of their potential children." She then held up a finger. "Of course, I should note that in classical Sagussan society, it was seen as equally normal for men to bond with each other in the same format of bond-mating as women did. And since it was seen as very odd to remain locked with only just one set of child-mate couples -- after all, sticking to one such couple over an eight-hundred year lifespan would get stale after the first half-century or so . . .!" She then shrugged.
"That's why what you know as 'marriage' never happened," Shiina finished.
Cologne took that in, and then she breathed out, "Goddess, that has to be the most intelligent concept for propagating one's whole race that I've EVER heard! Why on Earth were you hiding these people from us, Naho-chan?!"
"Auntie, you have to admit, while their many gifts would be a great boon to your tribe as a whole, how do you think the Musk and the Phoenix would ultimately react if all of the Nujiézú suddenly started to display such abilities?" Naho asked as she gave the elder a knowing look, her eyebrow arching. "To say ANYTHING of what might happen if those spineless morons in Beijing ever got wind of this?" she then added.
Cologne took that in, and then she nodded. "Yes, that is true."
"Does that mean Nanase can have him now?" Nanase cutely asked.
"He's all yours," Shampoo declared with a dismissive wave of her hand.
"Hai!" Nanase then stopped. "Still . . . "
"What is it, dear?" Naho asked.
The younger Horikawa sighed. "Nanase should do it properly, then . . . "
She spun around and slapped her fingertips onto Mousse's forehead. The weapons-master gargled as a burst of psionic energy slammed into his brain, and then he dropped to the floor in a dizzy faint. Seeing that, Nanase gushed as she turned around to wave the "V for Victory" sign to the others in the room. "Hai! Nanase defeated him! Guess Nanase has to marry him now!"
"Looks that way to me, Imooto," Mutsumi confirmed with a nod.
Laughter then arced through the room as Nanase swept the very dazed Mousse up in her arms, and then she stared landing wet kisses all over his face. "Wo ai ni!" she cutely cooed after every kiss she gave him.
* * *
"Pri-chan, how on Earth do you know about Ukyou . . .?"
Priss laughed as she opened the door to Okonomiyaki U-chan's, waving Nabiki inside. "Nabiki-vayae, Noa's been keeping an eye on events around Tomobiki for the last ten years, for Lyna's sake. And you gotta admit, what's been happening in this part of town's been hard to hide. Even if Noa didn't know about Ranma's connection to Ataru, she checked Nerima out regularly."
"Really . . .?" Nabiki then perked on hearing footsteps heralding someone coming from the kitchen. "Oh! Hey, Konatsu!" she called out.
"Hello, Nabiki-sama . . .!" Konatsu then stopped on seeing the woman accompanying the middle Tendou daughter. "Ara? Who's . . .?"
The cross-dressing kunoichi froze in place as his eyes danced over the Yehisrite-turned-Sagussan specialized warfare officer's body. Priss casually stared back at Konatsu, instantly recognizing what he was doing. Nabiki blinked as she quickly sensed what was happening, and then she frowned. "Konatsu-kun, what the heck are you doing staring at MY girl like that?!" she declared in her iciest voice, she pointing at him.
Konatsu blanched as that question washed over him, and then he bowed repentantly. "I'm sorry, Nabiki-sama! I didn't mean to . . .!"
Priss' cackling laugh cut off the kunoichi's apology. "Lyna's Blessed Soul, Nabiki-vayae, lay off the poor guy, huh?!"
Nabiki jolted as she realized what she had just said, and then she screamed out as she started to pound her forehead into the counter before her. "This can't be happening to me!" she wailed as she gripped the sides of her head. "This just CAN'T be happening to ME! It CAN'T!"
"Should I start calling myself 'Tendou Priscilla' now?" Priss wondered.
"Hey, I know!" Priss then held up a finger. "We can go over to Toronto and do all the legal stuff there if you want."
"I hear that cottage country in Ontario's really nice this time of year!"
"I'd LOVE to skinny-dip in those lakes! You skinny-dip, Nabiki-vayae?"
Watching Nabiki nearly gag on her tongue as Priss continued her tirade, Konatsu didn't know whether he should still seek to run away from the monster the middle Tendou daughter had currently hooked herself up with -- or fall over laughing on seeing Tendou Nabiki act like she was doing at that time. More laughter and loud clapping then turned everyone's attention to the door leading up to Ukyou's apartment, where Kuonji Ukyou and Saotome Kumiko were standing, delighted smirks on their faces. Seeing that, Nabiki shuddered as her mixed feelings for Ranma's raven-haired mirror-twin surged up from the depths of her heart. Before she could bolt up and shout Kumiko down, a hand landed on her shoulder and forced her back onto her stool. Spinning around, Nabiki then stopped on seeing a knowing look on Priss' face. "Priss . . . "
The Pathfinder winked. "Nabiki, will you calm down and lighten up?"
Nabiki took that in, and then she felt her cheeks heat as more laughter burst forth from Ukyou and Kumiko. "Lady, just for the sheer delight of seeing you do THAT to Nabiki, the first okonomiyaki's on the house!" the proprietor of U-chan's said as she positioned herself behind her grill. "What'll you have?!"
"Two Noa-chan Specials," Priss announced.
Nabiki's head snapped over as Ukyou blinked in shocked surprise. "What?!" the chef gasped. "You're one of Noa-chan's friends?!"
"WHAT?!" Nabiki shrieked as she bolted to her feet. "YOU KNOW HER?!"
The okonomiyaki chef smiled. Given Nabiki's mania when it came to her learning ANYTHING and EVERYTHING that might, in any way possible, come to affect her family, to learn that the middle Tendou daughter had FAILED to learn anything about the woman Ukyou knew as "Aruka Noa" brought great cheer to the chef's heart. "Even though she only comes around here once every six months or so, she's one of my favourite customers," she declared. Ukyou then laughed delightedly as Priss whipped out a gold coin the size of a Japanese 500 yen piece, the latter flicking it into the former's hand. Staring at it, she nodded before showing it to the middle Tendou daughter. Displayed there was the phoenix-like national insignia of the Fifth Republic of Sagussa, the characters that denoted the name of that world in the Sagussan language -- SAGUSSA UISEN'A -- in an arc underneath the bird's tail. On the obverse side of the coin was a side profile image of a clean-shaven Terran man. Nabiki was quick to realize who that image represented. Did Ukyou know THIS?! "This tells me that whoever has a coin like this hails from Noa-chan's planet," Ukyou added. "But I gotta admit, you sure don't look Urusian."
"I'm not. I'm originally from a planet named Yehisril."
The three pureblood Terrans blinked confusedly. "Never heard of it," Kumiko said as she stepped up to Ukyou's side.
Priss shrugged. "Doubt you'll have. Believe me, minna, if any Yehisrite ever visited Tomobiki, you WILL have heard of it!"
"I get it," Ukyou mused. "Okay, two Noa-chan Specials, coming right up!"
Kumiko and Konatsu got out of Ukyou's way as the chef got to work. Nabiki was quick to notice what normally went into a Noa-chan Special. "I take it you guys really love spicy food," she mused as Ukyou doused red pepper powder in the batter before she began to mix it up.
"As much as the Noukiites do," Priss replied. "And the Koreans, the Indians and the Mexicans here on Earth, too."
"Have you ever had kimch'i before, Nabiki?" Ukyou wondered.
"The local versions of it. Not anything imported directly from Korea."
Ukyou nodded in understanding. "Don't worry. This won't be any worse. Konatsu, get some water just in case."
"Hai, Ukyou-sama!"
He ran off into the storeroom to get the bottled water from the fridge. Priss gazed on Kumiko. "You must be one of Ranma's sisters."
"I've that honour," she replied. "Have Ranma and the others come back?"
"They won't be back until probably late tomorrow morning," Priss replied. "Don't worry about your sister. My friends are keeping an eye on them."
Ukyou blinked. "You mean it was Ran-chan Noa-chan was interested in?!"
"No, Moroboshi Ataru."
The chef blinked again. "Why him?"
Nabiki held up a hand to stop Priss from speaking. "Allow me, Pri-chan."
"Nabiki, I'm not paying for it," Ukyou warned.
"You won't have to," Nabiki replied. "This is going to get out sooner or later anyway. And since you are close to Ranma-chan, Ukyou-chan, you deserve to know this more than the normal man-on-the-street, especially in Tomobiki."
Ukyou's jaw dropped. Nabiki NOT charging for information . . .? "Oh, man!" she breathed out. "Now I DEFINITELY have to hear this!"
Nabiki smirked. "You ever wonder from where Ataru-kun's harem dreams came? Well, minna, get ready to hear this one."
* * *
"Hello? Is there someone here?"
Kasumi blinked as she looked around. She had just walked down from her bedroom after sensing something -- or someone -- enter the grounds. "Ojii-san? Nabiki-chan? Shinshi-chan? Akane-chan? Kimiko-chan? Are any of you here?"
No answer.
Feeling a cold shiver run through her, she turned to walk onto the porch.
* * *
Watching his target step outside the house from the shadows near the corner of the property, the man quivered excitedly as the voice deep within his mind began to loudly chant, repeating the same thing again and again:
The task!
The task!
The task!
A guttural roar escaped him as he lunged, his hands lashing for her neck.
* * *
Everyone jolted as Nabiki suddenly gasped, her whole body locking up as a blank look crossed her face. "Nabiki . . .!" Priss called out as she reached over to squeeze the middle Tendou daughter's shoulder. "What's wrong?!"
Nabiki barely shook as Priss' fingers made contact with her clothes, and then she whispered, "Onee-chan . . . "
Before anyone could say anything else, Nabiki bolted out of her chair. In the blink of the eye, she was out the front door of U-chan's, running at inhuman speeds for the Tendou home. "NABIKI!" Priss screamed out as she leapt off her stool to race after her companion.
Ukyou, Kumiko and Konatsu blinked confusedly for a moment, and then the chef gasped, "Something's wrong with Kasumi!"
"Oh, shit!" Kumiko screamed as she bounded over the counter to follow. "Call everyone you can, U-chan!" she bellowed as she passed through the doors.
"Right!" Ukyou called back as Konatsu moved to shut down the stoves.
* * *
"Kasumi is under attack!"
Eyes locked on Negako. "What?!" Kimiko gasped. "Are you sure?!"
"Who?!" Cologne demanded.
Negako's eyes locked with Naho. "Akiko."
Naho started on hearing that name, and then she scowled. "Let's go!"
Everyone bolted to their feet as they moved for the doors to the shrine.
* * *
"F-f-father, wh-what's wr-wrong with . . .?"
Kasumi screamed out as a hand snapped for her neck. She ducked away from those fingers as she collapsed to the floor. Nearly forgotten lessons given to her years ago in the doojou quickly came back to Kasumi as she rolled herself as far from the attacker as possible, and then she got back to her feet. She didn't move fast enough to escape his lunging down to grab one of her legs. Losing her balance, the elder Tendou daughter soon found herself kissing the floor as the attacker surged up to grab her by her hair.
A voice then bellowed from outside, "LET HER GO, YOU MONSTER!"
The attacker snarled as he swung around to stare at the slender figure charging at him from the front gate of the property. Before Nabiki could close in enough to get a clear look at whoever was attacking Kasumi, someone dropped on her from above, knocking the middle Tendou daughter into the ground by the koi pond. Growling, he then turned back to deal with the task at hand.
Meanwhile, Nabiki was being spun around as an opened hand, the fingers ringed with ninjutsu tiger claws, whipped right at her face. Before the tips could rip Nabiki's eyes, a hand snared the arm and yanked it back, the force of Priss' pull propelling Nabiki's opponent through the air over the koi pond to smash head-first into the nearby cherry tree. Gasping, the middle Tendou daughter quickly rolled back to her feet to take a good look at the person who had stopped her from trying to save Kasumi. "Who . . .?!"
"Never mind!" Priss said as she yanked out the pistol from inside her vest, bracing herself as the other attacker rolled back to her feet. "Get in there and stop that thing! It's brain-dead, but it can kill Kasumi! MOVE!"
Nabiki spun left and lunged for the patio. Priss' eyes remained locked on the woman by the tree as her future bond-mate hurried off to rescue her sister. Sure enough, the other woman was moving swiftly to grab something from inside the sleeve of her . . . kimono? What in Lyna's name is this kimei'ne doing dressed like THAT?! Priss demanded as she made a somersault, her line of advance set in a diagonal direction to the right of Nabiki's path to the patio. Her left arm then snapped up just as the kimono-clad woman moved to fire several sharp throwing stars into the middle Tendou daughter's back.
As the shuriken were fired towards Nabiki, she spun around just as Priss' right hand flung the Pathfinder's pistol directly at her. Seeing the oncoming object spinning at her, Nabiki's hand lashed out to snare it just as the first of the shuriken bit through Priss' left sleeve and into her lower arm muscle. The Pathfinder grunted as the sharp sting of the impact registered somewhere deep inside her mind, and then she looked back to see the other whizzing stars angling at her. Priss' right hand snapped up to snare two of the shuriken out of the air. She ducked her head clear as the final two of the group whipped past her. Fortunately for her, Nabiki had spotted the incoming shuriken when she had turned around to catch Priss' pistol. Dropping to the patio deck to allow those projectiles to slam harmlessly into the outer wall of the Tendou home, Nabiki then spun left to regain her footing and leap inside the house.
By then, the kimono-clad attacker was moving to get around this woman interfering in her mission and stop Nabiki from saving Kasumi's life. To most normal people -- even to the average run of martial artists that frequented Nerima -- her movements were quite swift. To a Pathfinder-trained, Pirpirsiw'r-born Sagussan, she was as slow as a snail. Priss wound up in an overhand cricket pitch to fire the shuriken she just caught out of mid-air back to sender. The attacker didn't see her own projectiles race at her before the first cut a deep gash in the bridge of her nose and the second clipped off the top of her left earlobe before it buried itself into her skull. She screamed out as the sharp pains ripped through her mind, her feet stumbling as the blood from her torn nose blinded her right eye. Before she could wipe her face clear, a fist slammed into her gut with the power of a sledgehammer, smashing all the air out of her lungs in one explosive WHOOSH! Her body instantly curled around Priss' fist before she collapsed to the ground.
Inside the Tendou home, Nabiki rounded the corner to enter the sitting room. Her eyes then locked on the figure looming over a wildly screaming Kasumi on the far side of the room, his fist rising to strike down on her like a falling Sword of Damocles. Her heart hammering wildly in her ears, Nabiki whipped up the pistol to lock onto the attacker's back. While she had no real training with this type of weapon, enough exposure to American action films over the years gave Nabiki a general idea of how to use the damned thing. Line up both the forward and aft sights with the place you wanted to hit, and then shoot. That took her a second before her index finger squeezed the trigger.
The Sagussan personal defence pistol is a weapon resembling a Glock 17 pistol. It fires case-less ammunition, just like the Heckler & Koch G-11 assault rifle. The rounds it fires are solid gelatine bullets composed of frozen plasma; a total of thirty can be loaded into a PDP magazine. When the trigger is squeezed, a micro-battery poised right over the firing bed ignites the round by charging the plasma with the energy level desired by the person handling the weapon. The PDP can be used in one of sixteen potential power settings, ranging from tracer/very low stun to kill/disintegrate. Priss had the pistol set at the twelfth power level when it was passed to Nabiki.
The bolt of burning energy slammed into the attacker's back to the left of the spine, punching through one of the chambers of his heart and a section of his left lung before shattering a rib and exiting through his lower pectoral muscle. Kasumi screamed out as a small fountain of blood exploded from the exit wound as the force of the impact sent the attacker to stumble over her and collapse to the floor nearby. Kasumi quickly rolled clear as Nabiki raced up to insert herself between her sister and the attacker, the PDP aimed at his body. A savage kick into his abdomen was enough to flip the man over onto his back, thus exposing his face for the middle Tendou daughter to see.
"Dad . . .?"
Nabiki's jaw dropped in horrified shock and disbelief as Tendou Souun's hideously twisted features appeared before her. Blood burbled from the wound in his chest from his shattered heart, which was still beating despite the fatal injury just done to it. Taking a staggered step back, Nabiki gagged as bile welled up from deep inside her throat, a hand coming up to cover her mouth as the truth of what she had just done began to sink into her. Before she could be overwhelmed by a tsunami of horror and guilt, two hands clasped her shoulders as a wave of empathic calm surged through her from Priss.
"Easy, love!" the Pathfinder hissed into her ear as a hand reached down to lift the pistol out of Nabiki's hand. "Easy! It's all right, Nabiki-vayae! It's okay!" Priss soothed as she embraced her would-be bond-mate.
Nabiki blinked as Priss' empathic show of support chased away the last of the former's guilt, allowing curiosity to overcome her as she reached out with her own senses to probe the bleeding shell of a man before her. Footfalls then made her look left as a girl with reading glasses -- an Avalonian, Nabiki quickly sensed -- ran up to sweep Kasumi into her own comforting embrace, and then the middle Tendou daughter turned back to stare into Souun's face. The simple, total silence that responded from her empathic probe made Nabiki blink several more times, though she didn't feel a fresh bout of horror thanks to Priss' embrace, the psionic support the Pathfinder was giving her without any hesitation or question. Another glance at Kasumi revealed that the newcomer Avalonian's embrace had worked wonders on her as much as Priss' had done to Nabiki. With that, she reached up to squeeze Priss' arms. The stickiness that came from that contact then made Nabiki look down to see her hands covered in gold-flecked blood. "You're hurt, Pri-chan."
"It's healing," Priss assured her.
"Oh, my!" Kasumi gasped as she focused on her arm. "Let me get . . . "
"Shoima'cha, don't bother," Priss said. "It's okay. I heal fast."
Nabiki blinked, and then she stared at Priss. "What does that mean?"
"'Bond-mate's sister,'" the woman holding Kasumi translated.
Nabiki's cheeks started to heat as the implication of THAT sinks into her heart. Priss looked the newcomer over. "Who're you?"
"My Niphentaxian name is Mutzi dai-Tythya. On Earth, I go by Horikawa Mutsumi. I assume you're from Sagussa," the other woman introduced herself.
"She is," Nabiki answered for her. "Pri-chan. I need to scream."
Priss shook her head. "Not yet, Nabiki-vayae. We need to think this mess out first. You and Shoima'cha can mourn later."
"Then allow me to illuminate all of you further, Priscilla."
Eyes turned around as someone in a black gi stepped inside, a woman in a kimono slung over her shoulder. "Negako-san!" Kasumi gasped.
Negako gazed briefly at the Tendou siblings, and then she casually flipped her cargo off her shoulder, allowing the woman in the kimono to crash unceremoniously onto the floor. Following the ninjutsu grandmaster were most of the crowd from the Moroboshi home. "What the devil . . .?!" Cologne began before her eyes fixed on Souun's unmoving body, and then they widened in stunned shock. "Oh, Goddess . . . " she breathed out.
"Negako-sama, what happened to him?!" Yusa Rinko demanded after she took her own empathic "look" at Nabiki's father.
"A process the Hoofuku conceived of many years ago in hopes of their pressing a more successful campaign against our family, Rinko," Negako explained. "As you can sense, when it is employed against victims of a soulsword attack, it is fatally effective."
"Transforming a coma victim into a brain-dead, runaway killing machine," Cologne noted with a sneer. "Sickening."
Staring at the crowd around the fallen Hoofuku Akiko, Kasumi was quick to notice the VERY strong familial resemblance between Negako and an older woman currently standing between the ninjutsu grandmaster and the Nujiézú elder. And there was also a marked amount of physical similarity between that woman and the older woman in the kimono at Negako's feet. "Um, excuse me," Kasumi called out as she pulled herself away from Mutsumi, though she still held onto the Avalonian's hand. "Negako-san, who are . . .?"
Negako indicated Naho. "This is the daughter of Ataru's late grand-uncle Seinen, Kasumi. Her name is Hana Naho, although she currently lives under the alias 'Horikawa Nahoko.' She is the one who gave a blood sample to the Zephyrites to use to create this body for myself." The grandmaster pointed at her heart. "And this is Naho's maternal aunt, Hoofuku Akiko, elder sister to Naho's late mother, Jiko." Her finger swung over to indicate Akiko.
"So why did this woman turn Dad into a zombie to make him attack Onee-chan?!" Nabiki asked as she shifted herself in Priss' embrace.
Naho sighed. "For that, Nabiki-chan, I must apologize profusely to yourself and your family for what my relatives just did." She gazed ashamedly at the Tendou sisters as she continued, "My grandfather Reiji did not approve of Mother's marriage to Father whatsoever. This was at a time when the Hoofuku and the Tora-Seishin were at odds with each other in the wake of the end of the Greater East Asia War. My father's family (at the order of the Shoowa Emperor) viciously put down my mother's family -- with the assistance of the Zephyrites, by the way -- to bring an end to decades of feuding between the various shinobi clans. Reiji didn't approve of that, of course, so he . . . "
"Had your parents killed off to punish them for their 'betrayal' of his family," Nabiki finished. "Thus forcing you into hiding."
"Hai," Naho replied. "Now, I don't know why exactly this happened, but I have no choice but to believe that your father was made to kill your sister at the instigation of Asagaya Isao. I think both of you know who that person is."
"Yeah, he's Auntie Nodoka's father," Nabiki spoke up. "He's been . . . " Her voice then trailed off as it hit her. "Oh, shit . . .!"
"You mean to say that this happened because Ranma-chan refused to become part of that man's family?!" Kasumi demanded.
"That is most likely," Negako stated before her eyes focused on Priss.
The Pathfinder blinked. "What?"
"You have a friend who is a law enforcement officer on your planet."
Priss gaped. "Lyna's Blessed Soul, how did you . . .?!" She then stopped herself before a barking laugh escaped her. "Damn, Negako-san, you ARE good!" With that, she reached up to tap the communicator affixed to her vest collar. "Priss to Tomo!" she called out.
"Yo, Priss!" the internal security officer called back. "What's up?!"
Priss smirked. "Tomo, how'd you like to get the chance to practice your interrogation procedures on someone right now?!"
Everyone was quick to note the excitement in Tomo's voice. "Who?!"
"A kimei'ne who just effectively murdered Tendou Nabiki's father."
A hum trilled over the link with the Haengge'cha. "Murder, huh?" Tomo mused. "I'll bring my stun-baton."
"Tricorder, too, Master Chief," Priss advised. "We need a scan of this perp so we can hunt down her father with the Rover in orbit over Welcome House right now. He's probably somewhere in the vicinity of Tokyo if not in Tokyo itself. When we find him, we beam him up and freeze him in mid-transport. I don't think he'll be much of a bother to you, Tomo, but I'm sure you don't want to mess up Yomi's ship along the way."
"Damn right about that!" Tomo replied. "If I even put a scratch on this tub, Yomi'd make me sleep on the couch for a month!"
"I would, too!" Koyomi's voice then broke into the conversation. "What in Lyna's name happened anyway, Pri?"
"Tell you in a bit, Yomi. Get Tomo down here right away!"
The link was cut. "Hey, what's going on here?!" Ukyou's voice then hailed from outside. "Kasumi! Nabiki! Where are you guys?!"
"In here, minna!" Kasumi called back.
Ukyou and Kumiko stepped inside, both then halting on seeing the prone form at the end of the room. "What the . . .?! Holy shit!" the chef gasped on recognizing Souun, and then she turned to Kasumi. "Kasumi, what . . . "
"It will be explained later, Ukyou . . . " Negako then perked as a ringing sound echoed through the house. "Ah!"
"Oh, MY!" Kasumi gasped as she looked up. "Is that a . . .?"
"Transporter," Nabiki finished.
Footfalls heralded Tomo's appearance, the Sagussan police officer dressed in her duty uniform. A telescoping stun baton was strapped onto her pistol belt at the small of her back, the holster at her right side filled with a PDP like Priss' own sidearm. A tricorder was in Tomo's hand. "Hey, everyone!" she hailed, and then her eyes took in the details. "Okay, there's the victim . . . " she muttered as she looked over Souun's body, and then she glanced down at the unconscious Akiko. "And that must be the perp."
Priss held out her hand. "Tomo."
The tricorder was tossed over. Priss snared it, and then she made a pass over Akiko's body as Tomo walked over to kneel beside Souun. The master chief warrant officer reached down to touch his face, and then she grimaced. "Damn! Total mind-wiping!" she hissed. "They sure don't get deader than this." She then stood, her eyes focusing on Kasumi. She blinked as Tomo's dark gaze seemed to bore right into her very soul. Kasumi then relaxed as Tomo lightly nodded before the latter turned away to walk over to Akiko.
"Are you alright, Kasumi-sama?" Mutsumi gently asked.
"I . . . " Kasumi then stopped before she stared at the Avalonian. "I just found it very odd, Mutsumi-chan," she said.
"About what?"
Kasumi waved at Tomo. "That I'd actually meet someone who looks so much like Takino Tomo-chan from Azumanga Daioh!"
Mutsumi smiled. "Soo na. I wonder if they have an Osa- . . . "
Priss and Tomo suddenly appeared before her, both shushing her. "DON'T CALL HER THAT!" both screamed out.
Mutsumi stared fearfully at them as the others exchanged confused looks.
* * *
"A-ri-ri?! Ayumu-chan, why are you crying?!"
Aria, Mie and Makoto turned to gaze into Ayumu's tear streaked face. The group which had departed the Windrider an hour before to retrieve the Genesis Wand of Parah had just passed through the Kuiper belt of a strangely dark solar system located five galactic spiral arms counter-clockwise from the branch of the Milky Way containing Earth. The master chief petty officer of the Sagussan Navy then sniffed as she looked down at Hinako. "Hinako-chan, I think . . . " she burbled, and then she hiccupped. "I think that . . . "
"What?!" Mie demanded.
Ayumu then cried out, "SOMEONE'S CALLING ME 'OSAKA' AGAIN!"
Makoto breathed out in relief on seeing that Ayumu wasn't flying totally off the handle on her saying that. Aria gazed confusedly at Ayumu. Mie jolted before she moaned, a hand flying up to slap her forehead. "YOU'RE CRYING OVER THAT?!" she then shrieked at the master chief petty officer.
"Mie!" Makoto hushed her.
"Why don't you like being called 'Osaka,' Ayumu-chan?!" Hinako asked.
"Because that kimei'ne I took my name from didn't do or say ANYTHING when everyone started calling HER 'Osaka,' Hinako-chan!"
A thoughtful look crossed Hinako's face as she considered that point. "Well, yeah! That's true, isn't it?"
"Huh? What is it, Aria-chan?"
"Is that where Tsue-san is?"
Aria pointed ahead of them. Everyone looked as a four hundred million kilometre-wide spheroid, it composed of black metal which was barely lit by the faint luminescence from nearby stars, loomed before them. "Hina's not sure!"
"This is the place," Mie announced. "Welcome to the Planet of Shadows."
Everyone quickly took in the details. "It sure is big!" Hinako noted.
"Looks like that Dyson sphere the Enterprise-D encountered the day they found Scott-taisa," Mie added as she scratched her chin in contemplation.
"Ever wondered who built this place?!" Makoto asked.
"What made you ask that, Makoto?" Ayumu wondered.
The flightmistress sighed. "Ayumu, even with our technology, there's no way in Eternity that we could possibly try to equal THIS!"
She waved to the massive construct before them. "Yeah, that's true, isn't it," Ayumu mused before she rolled her eyes. "Then again, who in Lyna's name would want to enclose a STAR?! Stars need to breathe, too, you know!"
"True," Mie agreed with a nod.
"What do you think, Aria-chan?" Hinako asked.
The young Parisian hummed. "Aria doesn't see a door, Hinako-chan."
"Wait! There's a door!" Makoto announced, pointing to their right.
Everyone looked. "Ah, Hina sees it!" Hinako cried out. "Bou-san!"
Heading toward it now, the Staff dutifully announced.
The energy comet performed a sharp right turn as it climbed up over the plane of the Planet of Shadow's equator toward a kilometre-wide circular hatchway located about thirty-eight degrees north of the equator. Everyone currently on this trip had been able to spot the entrance right away thanks to the Staff's enhancing their visual sight so they could find a door and get inside as soon as possible. While Ayumu remained fully awake at this time -- thus, she was able to keep Makoto alive and well -- even Mie knew of the Navy master chief's frequent bouts of narcolepsy. The sooner they got this trip done and the Genesis Wand of Parah was in Aria's hands, the better.
"Hinako-chan, can the Staff open the hatchway so we can get inside?" Mie then asked. "I don't want Ayumu to extend herself . . . "
I've detected a proximity sensor net over the entrance, Mie. The net will automatically open the door when we come in range.
"Um, Bou-san . . . "
What is it, Hinako?
The youngest sister pointed. "What's that sign say?!"
Everyone blinked, and then they looked. Sure enough, hanging from a metal arm on the right side of the entranceway was a green sign well over five hundred metres in height, it stylized like your atypical highway road sign. Scripted on it were what appeared to be some alien version of Mandarin character blocks. "That's Vosian!" Makoto declared. "Staff, translate that!"
Just a moment.
The air shimmered before everyone's eyes as the script on the sign seemed to transform instantly into kanji (complete with furigana for Hinako's and Aria's benefit) and kana. The people blinked before Ayumu read out the main phrase, "'Welcome to the Planet of Shadows.'"
"'Those wishing to invade, please use back entrance,'" Mie then finished, a tendon over her eyebrow twitching.
* * *
To be continued . . .