Epilogue 4: Butterflies
A Ranma ½ story
by D.B. Sommer
Disclaimer: Ranma ½ and its characters and settings belong to Rumiko Takahashi, Shogakukan, Kitty, and Viz Video.
All comments and criticisms appreciated. You can contact me at email@example.com
Herb was not a happy Jusenkyou-cursed-physically-and-magically-altered Musk Emperor Dragon (or girl, depending on what mood he was in). There were a multitude of reasons for his state of mind. He was supposed to be the ruler of China by now, but he wasnít; the Shogun was dead. He was supposed to have a glorious army at his beck and call, but he didnít; there was now little left other than a ragtag assortment of Musk soldiers and a handful of mercenaries. The bulk of the mercenaries had departed when they had discovered Herb was essentially broke. He wanted to hold Ranma and Shampoo in his clawed hands and rip their limbs off one by one as a child might do to an insect, but he couldnít; the Dark Man, Mr. Domino, assured him he would be dead if he tried. Virtually all of the lands he ruled were now lifeless; not a thing seemed to grow in them any more, and it almost surely had something to do with what had happened at Mount Phoenix, yet another crime against Herb by the damnable Saotome and his lover.
However, the final blow had come from the information he had just received. It had been two weeks since the events of Mount Phoenix, two weeks since his life had all but gone to hell. His first action, upon returning to his fortress, was to reduce his massive throne room into rubble in a furious rage. After finishing with that, he began to brood. For days he did nothing but lie amongst the rubble, curling his serpentine body among the rocks and wallowed in depression. It had taken two weeks for him to come far enough out of his depression to realize that something important was missing. It actually took him the better part of a day before he realized what that important something was.
He hadnít smacked Lime or Mint around.
For all of his entire life, no matter where he went, the duo had been there. The longest period of time that neither had been around him was a week, and that was only because Lime had to have his appendix removed. Mint had spent the majority of his time waiting for Lime to recover, leaving Herb with a peace and quiet he had never known in his entire life. Despite that, he had grown bored and had been quite grateful for their return. Now he had been without their company for two entire weeks, which more than doubled his depression. As annoying as the pair frequently was, they were still the closest thing to people that resembled friends that he had. That he might have lost them as well seemed too much to bear.
Herb changed into his Ďcursedí girl form and began interrogating his troops. It took over two hours of talking among various subordinates to find out exactly where they had last been seen. Now that she knew the two had been ambushed by a horde of Amazons, and not yet returned, it could only mean one of two things. They had either been captured or killed.
Now Herb-chan had a choice to make. She was supposed to lie low and gather her resources until the time came that she would have an opportunity to rule at least part of China. That would mean abandoning Lime and Mint, if they yet lived, in the clutches of the merciless Amazons, or she could try to get them back and risk starting a war with the Joketsuzoku. It was really no choice at all.
"<Donít worry, boys! Iíll rescue you!>" Herb-chan proudly declared to no one but herself.
Herb-chan wasted no time as she concentrated, summoning a blue sphere of chi around her, and took off. Going alone would be the quickest way to the village and rescue the duo. Summoning his troops would take far too long. And if her friends were dead, well, Herb-chan would just have to hope that wiping the Amazons off the face of the earth would qualify as Ďlying lowí.
Su Ga worked a crick out of her neck as she and Ti Tung made their way out of the village, heading out to exchange places with the main road guards. She hoped she would be able to stay awake this time. Bu had kept her awake most of the night, not that it was not time well spent, but she was exhausted. He might have been soft and lazy, but he sure could kiss well. Who needed a strong man, if you could find one with good hands? She was about to ask Ti her opinion on the matter when the blue bolt of chi slammed into the ground between them, knocking both her and her partner unconscious.
Herb-chan dissolved the sphere and surrounded herself with a tighter aura around her body. She remained hovering several feet above the ground next to the entrance to the village, taking a moment to admire her handiwork, before slowly floating into the village itself. She allowed the people to stare at her in fear and awe. If Lime and Mint were dead, she would be the last thing any of them saw.
Using her chi to magnify her voice a tenfold, she shouted out, "<You have exactly two minutes to tell me where my men are, or I shall begin leveling this place until no two boards remain nailed together!>"
A panicked cry rose from the populous as many of the people tried to get as far away from her as they could. The only exceptions were some of the women, and surprisingly, a handful of men, who drew weapons instead. Looking the armed warriors over, she deemed none of them a serious threat. She considered killing several of them as an example to the others, when the sight of a familiar youth, dressed in wolf pelts, caught her attention.
"<Herb! Youíre here!>" Mint cried out as he fell tearfully to his knees. "<Thank the Gods! Itís been terrible here! They treat me horribly.>"
Herb-chanís aura flared as her eyes began to glow red, her rage threatening to overwhelm her. "<Did they torture you?>"
"<No!>" Mint sobbed. "<Julep makes me run errands, cut firewood, clean her house, and all sorts of other things. And she only lets me look at her breasts when she bathes and right before she goes to sleep at night. She wonít even let me touch them. None of the girls will, except for Li Na, but her breasts are so small, I thought she was a guy.>"
A set of bolos wrapped themselves around Mintís head, smashing into his skull and almost knocking him unconscious.
"<You jerk!>" a short, red-haired girl dressed in a yellow and red outfit, who was indeed flat-chested, shouted at him. "<I canít believe I thought you were cute!>"
Herb-chan prevented herself from face-faulting. It would have been undignified.
"<They wonít let me have sex with them either,>" Mint continued. "<Lime can have sex with Cabinet, and he says itís really good. Why canít I have some too? Itís not fair!>"
At that moment, Lime rushed from around a corner and saw the scene before him, Cabinet right on his heels. He stopped running and waved happily at Herb-chan. "<Hi, Herb! Itís great to see you again. I was just thinking about you.>"
Herb-chan sighed. She should have known the two dimwits would not have realized the danger they were in, whatever danger that was. "<Iíve come here to rescue you two. Now come along.>"
Mint began to rush towards Herb-chan when he heard Julep growl from behind him. He stopped, and looked longingly between her scowling visage and Herb-chanís hovering form. After a moment, Julepís scowl disappeared and she nodded her head. Mint appeared relieved and hurried towards his leader.
Lime looked happily towards Cabinet. "<All right! Weíre going home. I canít wait to show you my rooms and stuff. Remember how I told you I keep a collection of helmets of everyone I knocked out? Thatís where I got it stored. Itíll be neat. I got all sorts of them from just about everywhere.>"
Cabinet shook her head. "<Weíre already home. I have absolutely no intention of moving into some fortress in the middle of Musk territory.>"
"<Thatís the Musk Empire,>" Herb-chan corrected.
Lime gave a hurt look to his wife. "<But, I thought we were just staying here for a while until I moved back home.>"
"<No. Youíre going to live here with your wife, like a proper husband should,>" Cabinet said. "<We are not leaving my home.>"
Herb-chan interrupted Limeís response. "<Why is she calling you her husband?>"
Lime grinned sheepishly at the floating white-haired girl. "<Thatís because weíre married. Did you know married couples can have sex? Let me tell you, itís great stuff. Better than knocking heads around, or even staring at breasts. Hereís how it works. First, you have to put your dic—>"
"<I already know the mechanics of it!"> Herb-chan shouted, cutting off whatever inane explanation Lime was going to give. "<What Iím asking is, Ďhow the hell did you end up marrying one of themí?>" She said the last word as though she was referring to a demon instead of an Amazon.
"<I beat her in a fight,>" Lime explained. "<And since Iím an outsider, I mean to the Amazons, that means we had to get married, not that Iím unhappy. I like it lots. Cabinetís really pretty and treats me really nice. Did you know her thighs are so strong she can bend steel with them? When she wraps them around me it feels great. And she lets me touch her breasts whenever I want, except when weíre in public. And—>"
Cabinet gave a warning smack to the back of his head, saving Herb-chan the trouble of going over there and doing it herself.
Herb-chan continued floating and stared evilly at the Amazon called Cabinet. Obviously she had beguiled Lime with some kind of Joketsuzoku magic, as well as preying on his weakness for members of the opposite sex. "<Very well. Since you have conquered her, you may bring her back as your plaything. But I donít want her getting underfoot or in my way. I want her locked up so she doesnít cause problems.>"
Cabinet brandished her war hammer in Herb-chanís direction. "<I am not Limeís prisoner and Iím not going anywhere near your fortress. Heís staying right here.>"
"<I have a different solution,>" Herb-chan intoned menacingly as she raised her hand towards the Amazon and allowed a ball of chi to build up in it. "<Iíll make him a widower. That will solve everything.>"
"<I WONíT LET YOU HURT HER!!!>"
In all of her life, Herb-chan had never seen Lime move with such speed, as he placed himself between Herb-chanís pointed hand and Cabinet, his massive frame dwarfing his wifeís form completely, obscuring her figure behind him. It was as though he had suddenly gained the speed of Mintís wolf bloodline, although the way he suddenly roared in anger and hunched back on his feet left no one to doubt it was the blood of tigers that ran through his veins. However, the most surprising thing to Herb-chan was the look of raw hatred that was in Limeís face. She had never seen him so enraged and certainly never expected such anger to be directed towards her.
"<Y… you would choose her… over me?>" Herb-chan said in disbelief, her concentration shattered so badly that she lost her hold on her chi and floated to the ground.
Sensing Herb-chanís obvious pain, and that she had released her hold on her chi and presented no further threat to Cabinet, Lime relaxed. "<Itís not that Iím choosing one of you over the other. I like both of you. Youíre my boss and friend, and sheís my wife. Those are two totally different things. I have love for you, but not like I love my wife, because I wouldnít want to have sex with you, even if I could, and I canít, since Cabinet told me you canít have sex with anyone other than your wife. And I love Cabinet because sheís a girl, and I can have sex with her, and she kisses real good. And there are lots of other reasons, but Iím not used to talking about romantic things like that so I canít put it into words. But they are real and they are there. Iíd love her even if we werenít married.>" Lime looked between the two of them, then gazed sheepishly at the ground. "<I donít know if that made any sense, but thatís the way I feel.>"
Cabinet felt a tear form in her eye. "<That was one of the most moving things I have ever heard, Husband.>"
"<Indeed,>" Herb-chan said softly.
Lime felt like jumping up in glee. "<So that means we can all get along after all!>"
"<Not a chance!>"
"<Iím not going anywhere near this madwoman that proclaims herself Ďemperorí and tried to conquer my people!>"
"<I am a man! And I wonít allow treacherous scum, like these Amazons, within a mile of my fortress, save as my slaves!>"
Lime hung his head low as the two began shouting insults at one another. It wasnít until Herb-chan began to glow blue again that Lime spoke up once more. "<Look. I want to spend my time with both of you. Canít we work something out?>"
Cabinet scowled at her husband for almost a full minute before staring at his sullen visage became too much for her newlywed heart to bear. "<Does it mean that much to you?>"
"<Very well. You may go to the Muskís lands whenever you wish.>"
Lime looked expectantly at Herb-chan, who gave a sigh upon seeing the forlorn expression he was giving her. "<Very well, as long as you promise to not say anything about what we are doing at home.>"
"<My lips are sealed.>" Lime grinned happily.
"<Not a word!>" Herb-chan warned again.
"<You can unseal your lips now.>"
"<And what about you?>" Herb-chan asked Mint.
"<Hey! I want to go back,>" Mint said eagerly.
Herb-chan nodded in approval, but on the inside she felt like hugging the wolf-pelted youth. At least someone clearly wanted to go back with her. She expanded a ball of chi once again, this one encompassing both her and Mint. It took a few moments of concentration to use the ball to lift themselves off the ground and head in the direction of the Musk Fortress.
As they traveled back, Herb-chan thought about what had just happened. The compromise irritated her to the core of her being. Allowing Lime to move freely between the two areas was a terrible risk and she hated being seen acquiescing like that, but Limeís continued companionship was needed as much as Mintís. She should have been willing to sacrifice the pair, like she would any other soldiers, but somehow she simply couldnít bear the thought of allowing their lives to be wasted like that. Apparently even the future emperor of China still needed friends to be at her side.
A butterfly flaps its wings in China, which eventually causes a hurricane halfway across the world.
However, can the butterfly truly be blamed for causing the hurricane? It is not its fault. It simply caused event 1, which led to event 2, then onward to 3, and so on and so forth until, after a number of events, the hurricane has formed on the other side of the world. But all the butterfly was trying to do was flap its wings to get from point A to point B. Not a thing about creating hurricanes enters its thoughts.
Likewise, butterflies flap their wings all the time, yet few hurricanes come about thanks to their actions. And all it takes is a delay of a moment and then that single chance it had to create the hurricane is lost. The butterfly is never even aware of the possibility. It just wants to fly. There is one simple action of choosing when to fly, then you either get a hurricane or a tiny little air current that results in nothing. It all comes down to the choice of the butterfly.
Butterflies can take many forms. Such was the case of one such Ďbutterflyí, which was currently residing in the village of Joketsuzoku, China. Her name was Kar Kwon, and she was unaware of the fact she was a Ďbutterflyí, not that that made a bit of difference. Unbeknownst to her, she now had the power to either prevent or cause the deaths of millions of innocent people. But, like the real butterfly that has the ability to cause the hurricane should it choose to flap its wings at the right moment, she was not thinking in those terms. No. The choice she had in her mind was nothing along the lines of Ďdo I kill or save all of those peopleí. It was much more mundane.
Should she visit her friend, Lyre, or go get something to eat back at home? One choice would lead to death, the other to salvation. All of those lives and their fates would be based on just how hungry one individual was at one precise moment. One path led to the right, the other to the left. To eat or not to eat.
Kar made her choice.
It was midday as Kar made her way through the busy main thoroughfare of the village. Things were still in an uproar from the disturbance that Herb-chan had made with her appearance earlier in the day. Many of the warriors were being left on an alert status, in case the self-proclaimed emperor changed her mind and made a return appearance. Everyone seemed to be out and about, wrapped up in animated discussions about what would be done with the Musk, Lime, and just what had really happened at Mount Phoenix. Rumor had it the council knew, but they were remaining silent and keeping the knowledge of what had occurred to themselves. The handful of young bird people that were being granted protection by the council had been isolated from the general population, and no one could ask them what had happened. But Kar had heard from her friend, Bei Tang, that her son, Flare, had heard that everyone in the mountain was dead long before the thing exploded. Kar was not sure what to believe.
It was all still a great mystery, although Kar had gone ahead and traveled closer to the giant crystalline column that now stood where the giant mountain had once been. Merely being in its presence caused Kar to feel nothing but awe at the seemingly impossible structure. She was still reminiscing about its splendor when the event that so many peopleís lives depended upon occurred.
Scarf was hurrying through the crowd as quickly as she could. She had almost forgotten what the elders had told her to do, only remembering it at the last minute. If she had come across one of them without what she was supposed to have, there would have been hell to pay. When the elders ordered something done, one damn well obeyed them, or else. There was nothing more humiliating than having your ears boxed at the age of twenty by a person one-third your size. So she went in a mad rush through the house, trying to discover where she had left the two bottles filled with the substances she had collected all of those years ago. Upon uncovering them in some dusty, unused cupboard, she rushed out of the house and headed directly to the main hall to drop off her items.
It was because she was in such a hurry that the tip of her foot just caught on the heel of someone elseís. Reflexively, she threw up her hands and hit the ground hard. She rolled onto her back, seeing that one of the bottles was going to land on her. Reflexes took over as she snagged it right before it would have struck her. She breathed a sigh of relief, before realizing there was still one other bottle unaccounted for. She spun her head as quickly as she could, while she was still on the ground, catching sight of the container as it fell back towards the earth…
… and directly towards Kar Kwon.
The bottle shattered as it struck Kar directly on the head, completely dousing her with the contents. She stood there in shock for a moment, trying to understand what had just happened. It took several seconds for her to realize that she had not been injured by the shattering glass, and that the fallen Scarf was looking at her in fear. Kar breathed deeply to calm herself down, before seeing that everyone in the busy street was now staring at the sources of the disturbance; both her and Scarf. Her anger built at what she perceived to be an attempt at embarrassing her, and moved towards Scarf even as the fallen girl began to regain her footing.
"<Watch where you are going, fool! I could have been hurt!>" Kar shouted, then noticed that Scarf was looking at her in genuine fear. Too much fear for a simple tongue-lashing. "<What?>"
"<Y… you were hit with the water.>"
"<Whatís wrong about that?>"
"<It was Jusenkyou water.>" Scarf continued, watching Kar go pale. "<The elders wanted all the remaining quantities of it collected, since Jusenkyou was destroyed. I had two different kinds of it I gathered years ago.>"
Kar went pale. "<Wh… what kind of cursed water was it?"> She didnít feel different, but that might not have meant anything. Neither she nor anyone she really knew had any direct experience with the cursed waters.
Scarf read the bottle in her hand. "<It was the Spring of Drowned Amazon Warrior. Wow! You sure are lucky. The other one was Spring of Drowned Leopard That Changed Its Spots.>"
Kar considered strangling Scarf, but then decided sheíd rather not risk being splashed with the remaining water. She was a slightly curious as to exactly what someone soaked with Spring of Drowned Leopard That Changed its Spots would look like, however. "<Why did you keep such waters anyway?>"
Scarf placed her free hand behind her head and laughed. "<I used to terrorize my little brother by threatening to splash him with the Amazon water. I donít know why I grabbed the other one. Momentary whim?>"
Kar found her self-control slipping. Best to get rid of the stupid girl before she caused more problems. "<Be more careful,>" Kar warned.
"<I will.>" Scarf suddenly realized she was still running late, and excused herself as she rushed to the elders once more.
Kar was just starting to understand what a close call she had with having her life permanently altered, when a voice spoke up from behind her.
"<Are you all right?>"
Kar turned to see that a young woman was standing next to her, looking her over. "<Yes. Thank you for your concern.>" Kar examined the girl closely. She was familiar, but only in a recent sense. It took a moment to match a name to the face. "<Youíre that outsider girl that arrived here with Elder Cologne. Katsumi Tendon, right?>"
Kasumi gave her a warm smile. "<Close. Itís Kasumi Tendo. Iím glad you are all right.>"
Kar found herself taken by the girlís politeness, even if there was an odd accent to her Chinese. Kar had been far outside the village on a number of occasions, and knew better than most that outsiders were not really all that different from the Joketsuzoku, not in the ways that mattered. "<Iím lucky that was Amazon water. I canít imagine what would have happened if it had been something else.>"
"<Yes,>" Kasumi agreed. "<It almost splashed on me. Iím certainly glad it didnít. I canít imagine what it would be like to be an Amazon warrior.>"
Kar nodded her head in agreement. "<Such a life is not an easy one. I donít think youíre the sort that would have adapted well to it. So long, Kasumi Tendo.>"
"<So long.>" Kasumi waved pleasantly and went on her way once more.
Kar Kwon wrung out her hair as she watched Kasumi leave, then continued on her way once more, unaware of the Ďhurricaneí she had just caused. The effects of what had happened would never be known by her, and perhaps it was for the best, for it was unlikely she would have been able to deal with what she had inadvertently done to so many millions of lives.
Had she taken the other path, she would not have been there to shield Kasumi Tendo from being splashed with the water of Spring of Drowned Amazon Warrior. Kasumi Tendo, who, thanks to the piece of the signet ring she kept on the cord around her neck, had had the dimmest of memories of a previous life restored to her, memories that gave her a handful of the techniques from her previous incarnation over a thousand years ago. As it stood now, she would never remember more than a handful of those techniques, and even then usually only at times of great stress or relaxation.
However, had she been soaked with the Amazon water, everything would have changed. The magic of the water would have triggered total recall of the life and personality of Hu Chiang, a resurgence that would have buried Kasumi Tendoís personality under the weight of that of a long-dead Amazon leader, at least as long as she was in her cursed form. Hu would have been startled at first; hardly surprising considering that she would not recognize any of the people that inhabited the village she Ďruled.í After disabling more than thirty warriors, and nearly half of the elders, calmer heads would have prevailed and the situation explained to her. The shock of being Ďreborní so many centuries after her death, and the fact that she was supplanting the personality of an innocent girl that had simply been unlucky enough to somehow be linked to Hu, would have made her voluntarily allow herself to be splashed with hot water and revert Kasumi Tendo to her true form.
After being informed of the situation, Kasumi would have talked at length with the elders, and decided to Ďconverseí with Hu, using copious amounts of hot and cold water and the elders as a go-between. Eventually she would have allowed her body to be temporarily Ďsharedí with Hu. Two hours every day would be spent in cursed form, allowing Hu to have some freedom, although Hu insisted if a quantity of Nyanniichuan was found it be used to cure Kasumi of her condition.
However, no water would have been found, and Hu would have slowly adapted to the changes of the centuries, and been thrust into the role of Ďadvisorí to the council. (A role she despised, yet the elders would have insisted she take, since she was the ĎGreatest And Most Powerful Leader Ever.í Utter nonsense, in her eyes). In the decade to come, a danger would have risen; one that threatened to bury the Joketsuzoku and most of Western China. Seeing there was no other way to avoid or solve the problem without a great deal of blood spilled, Hu Chiang would have had to make a choice, one she had had to make far too many times when she had been truly alive. She could allow others to fight the battles, others that lacked the abilities she had and would fall, or she could take matters into her own hands. To allow possibly hundreds, or thousands to die when she could do something to prevent it, was unacceptable to her. So, for the first time since she had returned to Ďlife,í she did something that would affect Kasumi Tendoís very existence, without consulting her. It was perhaps the most difficult thing she had ever done, but the needs of two were far outweighed by the needs of thousands.
The act itself would have been simple for one with her abilities. She would have snuck into the Musk Fortress, grabbed the ladle known as Chiisuiton, and used it on herself, locking her in the form of an Amazon warrior, and then destroyed Kiifuiton, effectively sealing off Kasumiís personality forever. Hu would not have wanted to do it, but in her current state, all it would have taken was a splash of hot water at the wrong time of a battle and both her life and Kasumi Tendoís would have been over. The risk was too high, and if Kasumi Tendo had to pay the price, then so be it. The stain would have been on Hu Chiangís spirit, and she had had plenty of those to begin with. She would just add it to the tab on her soul, for her actions would have saved the lives of thousands, and perhaps millions, in the long run. She could live with herself if it came to that.
However, such was not the case. Kar Kwon had unintentionally prevented Kasumi from being splashed, and millions would end up dying because of it.
Such was the way of the butterfly.
However, there was more than one butterfly capable of creating hurricanes in the world. Another flapped its wings, and the hurricane simply appeared somewhere else…
Perfume found herself inexplicably on a barren plateau, devoid of any life, surrounded on every side by high, craggy mountains that stretched off into obscurity in the distance. Blackened rock dotted the landscape, giving everything a desolate bleakness that depressed her by merely being in its presence.
[These were the so-called ĎBlasted Lands,í far to the north of the village. No life grew there now. No life would exist there again. All thanks to Ranma Saotome.]
It was the dead of night, and though there was no moon, Perfume could still make out the land around her. Unarmed and dressed in her favorite pink and black outfit with the golden tiger on the front, she stood alone. The wind howled across the plateau, sounding like a wounded beast screaming in agony. The sound of thunder in the distance added a rhythmic pulse to the cries of the wind.
[No. Not thunder. Something worse.]
The sound grew closer, and through the blackness she could see hundreds of tiny red pinpoints of light lined up in a huge row that seemed to stretch across the plateau itself. All of them were in pairs, one set directly above another set, the bottom sets bobbing up and down rapidly while the other sets shifted only a little. The lights grew closer, allowing her to see what had created them, and her heart knew fear.
As the lights approached, she could see there were not Ďlightsí at all. They were pairs of eyes, seemingly glowing in the darkness. Black beasts of darkest night were what produced the lower sets of eyes. They galloped forth across the plateau, producing the sound of thunder that now seemed to echo within Perfumeís skull. Their gallop made them appear as though they were perhaps horses, but one good look at them told that nothing could be farther from the truth. The animals were indeed similar to horses, their legs, long bodies, neck and head bore the general appearance of such creatures, but that was where the similarities ended. Horses were not close to fifteen feet high and almost two tons in weight. Horses could not thunder across the plains at over sixty miles an hour without slowing. They did not have night-black skin that had the appearance
of armor plate. They did not have two rows of sharpened teeth that could crack bones as though they were nothing more than desiccated twigs. They did not look at you with red, pupiless eyes the color of blood that seemed to size you up, as though they were trying to decide if they should smash in your skull with their legs or rip out your throat with their teeth.
And horses did not radiate the feeling of wrongness these creatures did. There was something unspeakably evil about them.
[Abominations all. They should not exist. They should all be destroyed.]
As terrible as the creatures that thundered across the plains were, the ones that rode astride their massive backs were all but identical. They appeared to be humans, at least on the outside. They wore jet-black armor themselves, as though they had been formed from parts of the beasts they rode. Armor that was not skin, but might as well have been, for it encompassed their entire bodies. The helmets they wore upon their heads were visored masks, the eye slits that showed off their red eyes the only concession of permitting the world to see that there was indeed something alive inside the armor. The masks were stylized to appear skull-like and the armor matched with a mockery of bones, set up to look like a basic human form on the outside, as though they had fused on a white skeleton to themselves.
The saddles borne on the backs of the beasts were all identical to one another as well. She could see modern weapons, such as rocket launchers and automatic rifles, fitted around the beasts, but she also saw swords and lances that were much closer to the riders' grip.
[For they enjoyed using those far more than the weapons of the new age. They relished in the feeling of the impact metal made on flesh, and blood spraying over them and their mounts. That was what they truly lived for, grinding others beneath their beasts hooves, not slaying them from a distance. Death was meant to be savored.]
They seemed to move as one in a straight line, an unbreakable wall of abominations. An unstoppable tide that would crush whatever lay in their paths. Gazing upon that ever approaching army,
Perfume wondered which was worse, rider or beast.
[There was no difference between the two; they were of one mind and one soul, now. There was no longer a point where one ended and the other began. To kill one meant killing the other. A union made in Hell.]
She watched, unfazed, as the beasts moved towards her, threatening to crush her form underneath their powerful hooves. Yet, just as they were almost upon her, they parted, thundering past her on each side. They continued onward, seeming to be thousands deep, until at last even the tide passed her.
She could feel things change around her as she turned. On some instinctive level, she had known there was nothing behind her before the Rhyde had gone past, but now she felt something, a presence, and turned around to look upon it.
As she turned, she was suddenly in a well-lit area of a canyon, still within the Blasted Lands, surrounded by a horde, thousands strong, of ordinary-looking people. Many of them were armed, and unlike the horsemen— who were even now running along the edge of the sea of humanity, stopping and forming a barrier around those people— they lacked the ancient weapons those dark warriors favored.
No one seemed to take notice of the single Amazon in their ranks, as though she was not worth noticing. Their faces were ones filled with hope and ecstasy, a look that bordered on fanaticism. A look part of Perfume wanted others to give her, that gaze of total devotion. All of their stares were pointed towards one direction: forward. Perfume followed their gaze to see the sheer, yet uneven, wall of rock that was before them. A raised dais of black stone was in front of the wall, and it was to this that the crowd had their attention riveted.
A dark-skinned woman that appeared to be in her late twenties, attractive, but not beautiful, with long black hair, stood upon the center of the raised dais, high enough for all to see clearly. She wore an outfit that was green and blue, yet seemed to shimmer with a glow that captured oneís attention, crying out that she should be listened to. On her sides were two giant men,
[Not men. Titans]
each nine feet tall with bare arms that were as nearly as thick as a normal manís chest. They were identical, save that one had hair of white while the other had hair of black. Their entire bodies seemed to radiate power, and from their positions so close to the woman, yet at a level lower than her, it was obvious they served as her bodyguards. It was curious, for with one look at the woman, Perfume sensed that she had no need of such protection. She radiated even greater power.
The woman gazed down at the crowd of people, giving them a look of approval. Perfume felt their previous awe change to sheer adulation with that one simple gaze.
The person next to Perfume, an unremarkable man in his middling years, held his rifle high in the air and shouted out one word.
Everyone that was directly around the man, save Perfume, took up the cry as well. That single word.
It expanded outwards in a circle from there, a wave of cries of that single word. People raised their various weapons, while shouting out the name, until the noise began to echo off the walls of the canyon, the roar of ĎKhaní bouncing off them repeatedly until it overlapped into a deafening cacophony. And just as it seemed the entire mass of people shouted as one, the woman raised her right arm in triumph.
It was also then that Perfume saw the huge wall of uneven stone seem to shift as well. She found her gaze drawn skyward, and saw that the Ďstone wallí before her was nothing of the kind. It was a statue, thousands of feet high, and in an exact image of the woman before them all, the one dubbed ĎKhan.í The worst thing about it was not the design of the statue itself, but something far, far more disturbing.
It raised its own right arm high above its head, as though it were nothing more than a colossal marionette that responded to the womanís every whim.
And then Perfume woke up, screaming.
It took her nearly five minutes to bring her breathing under control. Once she felt she could handle it, she went outside to breathe in the brisk night air. Still in the process of calming down, she turned her thoughts inward. It had been a dream, but it was also more than that. She felt it all the way to the core of her being. Now, she thought, all the plans she had made for the future were in jeopardy. New plans had to be laid, as she felt her gaze inexorably drawn to the north.
Far to the north, past the Blasted Lands, in the country that had borne varies names over the centuries, but was now known as Mongolia, a woman sat up from the satin sheets of her bed and screamed. She quickly looked around the room, preparing to defend herself while making certain there were no intruders in her presence. Understanding that she was indeed alone, she forced herself to calm down. Once she was convinced she was completely awake, and in full control of her emotions, she got out of her bed and headed towards the balcony attached to her bedroom. Stained glass doors opened to her touch, allowing the night air to blow against her skin. In the future, she would have to guard her life more carefully; many would desire her death, but such was the path she had chosen of her own free will.
For now, she reveled in the night air, allowing it to calm her further. The dream had disturbed her, for deep inside she knew it was no ordinary dream, but a portent of things to come.
In it, she had seen herself surrounded by an army, thousands strong. Surprisingly, over half of the army, and the fiercest of the warriors, were women. Almost all of them held modern weapons on their person, but most seemed to favor weapons of old. They were of many races, but the majority were Chinese, of that she was certain, which left one likely suspect that seemed to stand in her path towards greatness.
If that were not an ill enough omen, there was a girl, no more than in her early twenties, with pink hair that hid half of her face. There was a scar beneath that hair, inflicted by one the girl had called friend, she knew that without being able to see it. And there was a look in the young womanís eyes that held the promise of quiet ruthlessness. An admirable quality, if it was not in the way of the woman who was now standing on the balcony. The dream had even provided her with a name, one she would listen for, and perhaps do something about. The army that had surrounded the woman had told her what the name was, the army calling it out with a devotion that the woman could only pray would be directed towards herself, someday.
"Mine is the hand that will shape the future, Perfume of the Joketsuzoku. I will show this to you, and if you or any others dare to even attempt to bar the path of my greater glory, you shall be devoured by the land itself. Mine is the way, and you will acknowledge it even as your soul is torn asunder."
And in the distance, as if in answer to her threat, the land trembled ever so slightly.
Kasumi Tendo was alone in the house of Shampooís mother as she hummed to herself, cleaning the dishes that were leftover from dinner. Comb, Shampooís mother, continuously insisted that it was the job of Shampooís father (whom, curiously, Kasumi still had not learned the name of) to do that, but Kasumi felt as though she were not earning her keep if she did not do something. Besides, keeping house had become almost a reflex with her, and if she did not do at least some cleaning she thought she would… well, she wasnít sure what she would do.
Lately, things had gone very well for Kasumi. Last month she and Cologne had finally managed to stabilize the elderís deteriorating condition. They could not reverse how much time and health Cologne had lost, but at least she no longer needed Kasumi to help anchor her life-force. Cologne only had a few years left. Perhaps three more at the most, but at least they had gained some time.
The months Kasumi had spent in Joketsuzoku had really been wonderful. It was the first time in her life that she had spent any real time from home, and though she had missed it terribly at times, it was also quite refreshing to have the change of scene. The Amazon village was a fascinating place, and very busy in the last few months. According to Comb, it was the busiest she had ever seen it, and that was because of the events of the last few months.
Apparently, the nearly unthinkable had happened in that Cologne, Be Dea, and Shou Ya, the three most powerful members of the council, had agreed to make sweeping changes that others thought would have been unheard of as little as two years ago. The changes occurred in every facet of life. The tiny hydroelectric plant that had served as the principal power source for the village had been rebuilt into a far larger one that more than quintupled the power output it had previously made. Alternative sources of power were being used as well, especially with the influx of diesel generators, and fuel for them, which had been bought from some outside source. There was some speculation as to how they were obtained, but the council was remaining silent on that.
Several teachers had been hired to supplement the already existing body of ones present in Joketsuzoku; a surprise considering how insulated the council had been abut outsider ideas being taught in the tribe. The system of schooling the Amazons used was very thorough, but it lacked some of the more modern kinds of courses, like computers, mechanics, and studies on how the political systems outside of Joketsuzoku worked. For some reason the children that lived in the village didnít seem to think that was a very desirable improvement, however.
There were other changes as well, such as the now open encouragement of outsider women to join the tribe. Even the laws on being defeated by an outsider woman had been revised so that the option of having them join the tribe instead of being hunted down and killed was now being very strongly encouraged. Kasumi thought that was nice, since hunting down and killing people seemed terribly wrong to her. The program had some measure of success. She had heard many villagers comment on the numerous new faces that had joined the tribe in recent months.
The biggest change of all, however, was that males were now being given a voice in how things were run. It was a small voice, without much influence or power, but it also marked the first time that they had a say in matters of the village. It was a big hit among the male population, once they adjusted to the fact that they had influence, but it was still met with a lot of criticism among the female population, Comb included. Of all the new changes that had occurred she had loathed that change the most, and had argued with Cologne for hours about her Ďinsane idea of allowing stupid males a chance to screw things up!í Naturally she failed to persuade Cologne to change her mind, but Comb still complained about it to this day.
Comb proved herself to be a very… interesting woman. Shampoo had been quite accurate when describing her as being emotional. The woman would go through a spectrum of feelings in a matter of minutes, including bouts of anger that would have made Akane seem more like Kasumi in temperament. A perfect example was telling the tale of what had happened to Shampoo during her disappearance for what was nearly a year now. Combís reaction to discovering that Shampoo was alive was a sight to behold; she practically went through a wall in joy. Then she was informed of Shampooís cursed status, and nearly blew up in anger. It took nearly three hours for her to calm down enough to convince the others she wouldnít let anything accidentally slip about Shampooís condition. After that, Kasumi and Cologne spent the next two hours trying to convince Comb to not hunt Shampoo down, telling her it would be for the best to leave her daughter alone so she could locate a cure and adjust to her new relationship with Ranma. Comb wasnít happy about it, but agreed.
Things were fine for a while after that. Kasumi got along with Comb very well, both on a personal level and for what she was doing in helping with Cologneís deteriorated condition. Things changed though when Ďthe surpriseí was discovered. It didnít take long after Kasumi moved in to realize what had happened to her. After her condition became obvious, and Kasumi informed the others of what that meant, things became somewhat exciting, for lack of a better term. Once the shock of what had happened settled in, Comb (who, upon being informed of the situation, was rendered catatonic for nearly two days) became much more understanding, in spite of the unusual turn of events. Now she treated Kasumi as she would any other daughter (that wasnít a warrior), and had officially adopted Kasumi into her family, despite Kasumiís insistence that she was quite happy with the one she had. Comb even promised to remain silent about what had happened, as per Kasumiís wishes.
Kasumi interrupted her reverie by going to feed Birdy. The pterodactyl cooed as he was fed pieces of raw meat, Kasumi beaming at her pet. It had been so nice of her sisters to send him to her, even if they pretended they had had nothing to do with it. Lately, she found her thoughts drifting back to home, and perhaps stopping by for a quick visit would be in order. The only time she had seen her family in over a year and a half was during her fatherís wedding. Although she sent letters to them every week to let them know she was all right, she still missed them terribly. But returning now would not be a good idea. It would complicate everyoneís lives unnecessarily. No, she would be staying in China for at least a little while longer.
She had no sooner finished reading, settling herself down in a chair, when there was a knock at the door. Kasumi got up and crossed the room to let the visitor in. She was surprised to see Perfume standing there. Though the pink-haired girl had stopped by from time to time, her visits were very rare. She had always treated Kasumi nice enough, but there was no bond between them of anything other than that of casual acquaintances. The few times Perfume had come by Combís home, she usually exchanged a formal greeting with Kasumi and asked where Cologne was.
It seemed Perfume was always around either Cologne, or one of the other two elders: Be Dea and Shou Ya. Kasumi had made a passing reference to Cologne about how much time the elder had seemed to spend with the young girl. The old woman answered by saying that she hated to admit it, but the girl had had some good ideas and had managed to convince Cologne, as well as Be Dea, that there were some necessary changes that were going to have to be made at the village. Shou Ya needed no convincing since she had always been insistent that they should modernize everything. Perfume was like a breath of fresh air to that one.
The few things Cologne had mentioned to Kasumi seemed to indicate that Perfume was the one responsible for most of the changes, even going so far as to be allowed to address the council herself and managing to convince a number of them without the backing of any of the three most powerful members of the council. Something that had been unheard of, until now.
After an exchange of greetings, Kasumi informed Perfume that Cologne was not present. Surprisingly, Perfume said she had come to speak with Kasumi, and promptly entered the house without waiting to be invited. The eldest Tendo daughter took note of the rude behavior. It was unusual for Perfume to conduct herself in such a manner, but upon entering the house, and seeing the pink-haired Amazon in a good light, any thoughts of mentioning the social gaffe were quickly erased from Kasumiís mind.
Perfume looked terrible, with large dark rings under her eyes and a rumpled look to her face. Her scar, which was normally hidden behind her hair, was partially visible due to the tangle of hair that Perfume now had.
Perfume took note of Kasumiís concern. "<I donít look too good, do I?>"
Kasumi tried coming up with something that would agree with the statement without sounding too rude, but nothing came to mind. The best she could come up with was a, "<I could help you brush your hair, if you like.>"
Perfume gave a sharp little laugh at that. "<No, thanks. What ails me will not be cured by a mere brushing of the hair.>"
Perfume gave a wan smile. "<I had a dream again. The same dream I had several months ago. Iím afraid I canít wait any longer, as much as I wish I could. Iíll have several years to prepare though, at least I have that.>"
"<I donít understand,>" Kasumi said.
Perfume shook her head. "<You donít need to concern yourself with that.>" She sat down in a nearby chair, and insisted Kasumi do the same. Kasumi watched as the girl sagged into the seat, as though exhausted.
"<I need to ask you something, Kasumi Tendo,>" Perfume said. "<A question only you can answer, given your outsider status here. That and your rather unique perspective on the world.>"
"<All right. Iíll try my best.>"
"<Let us say that there was this person, a basically good person, that discovered her people, and thousands of other innocents, were going to be hurt by someone, a bad person. This bad person only wants to hurt the basically good person and others for no other reason than she wants to. Now letís say the basically good person is in a position to choose between allowing those thousands of innocents to suffer, which would include her people, or hurting thousands of other innocents which would not include her people. Now, since that person would have noble intentions for hurting so many innocents, do you think she has a chance of saving her soul?>"
"<I donít think anyone has the right to make that sort of choice.>"
Perfume gave her a flat stare. "<Not making a choice is the same as making one. Itís like holding back important information from someone close to you. Information that might cause pain, but should still be told since they have a right to know of it.>"
Kasumi looked guiltily at the ground at that.
"<Besides,>" Perfume continued. "<That wasnít the question I asked. Do you think she has a chance to save her soul?>"
Kasumiís head rose up as she looked directly at Perfume. The faintest hint of tears was in the older girlís eyes. "<No. I donít think so.>"
Rather than seem saddened by Kasumiís answer, Perfume just nodded her head in agreement. "<Thatís what I figured. I just wanted to hear someone else say it too.>"
The moments seemed like hours to Kasumi, as Perfume sat there, deep in thought. The younger girl began speaking after several of those extended moments. "<It doesnít really matter. I do what I must, because I am the one that is willing to make those decisions. And Iím the only one that can do it and still has a chance of victory. I guess itís a good thing Shampoo wasnít able to come back. It would have complicated matters. Iíll have my hands full enough as it is. If she were here, thereís a good chance she would have been an obstacle in my rise to power, and obstacles are for killing.>" Perfume gave a grim smile at that.
Kasumi looked horrified at the confession. "<Youíd kill her to do all of those terrible things? Why?>"
Perfume had a wild gleam in her eyes as she carefully rose from out of her seat. "<Because I must. I figured it out, you see; the dark man couldnít lie to me. He might have carefully veiled his words to try to manipulate me into doing what he wanted, but I donít think he could lie.>" At last tears began to fall from Perfumeís eyes. "<I will make the blood flow in rivers because I must. I remember what he said. Someday, we will have an empire that will reach out to the stars themselves. Billions will fall under the rule of the Joketsuzoku. We will be the power, but only if I lead my people. That was what the man said. I will never allow anyone to shatter my people. No matter who has to fall, we will survive.>"
With those words spoken, Perfume seemed to regain some measure of composure. "<Even if I am to be damned, that doesnít mean I must drag everyone else down with me. I would keep my hunt pack from harm, although theyíll despise me for it. Iíll have to move carefully when it comes to them. The same goes for my family. And the Mount Phoenix people as well. There are too few of them to make a real difference, and I would not drive them into extinction for our cause. Shampoo is already out of harmís way. Those are the majority of ones that I can spare and save, I think. If I try for many more, I might tip my hand.>"
Perfume nodded her head, as if deciding on something, then turned to the only other occupant in the room. "<It is time for you to take your leave of us, Kasumi Tendo. You should not be a party for what will happen in the years ahead. We still have many years, thankfully. What happens next no longer concerns you.>"
Kasumi found herself feeling sorry for Perfume, in spite of all of the terrible things of which she had spoken. "<Perhaps I can help.>"
Perfume laughed at that, a hollow, empty laugh. "<You are not one of us, Kasumi Tendo. Do not fool yourself into believing otherwise. You mean something to Shampoo, and I would keep you out of this for her sake. It would be best if you did not waste time. You should be gone by the end of the week, I think.>" Perfume moved to leave the house. "<Besides, I think itís time you showed your new addition to the rest of the family.>" Perfume gave her a knowing wink, and then departed, leaving Kasumi alone once again
Kurumi Tendo heard the doorbell ring last, yet managed to rush to the door first. Now that Silk was starting to get on in her pregnancy, Kurumi was usually the one that had to answer the door. She was hungry, like always, and briefly considered making a pass through the kitchen. She even got as far as placing one foot in the doorway, spotting a baked chicken sitting in the middle of the table, before a voice from somewhere in the house boomed. "DONíT YOU DARE TOUCH MY FOOD, YOU WALKING STOMACH!!!"
Kurumi quickly stepped back out of the kitchen and hurried on to the door. Silk sure had been getting moody lately, although everyone assured Kurumi that that was normal behavior for someone in her eighth month of pregnancy. She found herself hoping her sister would be delivered soon. Maybe that would make Silk pleasant again. Somehow, Kurumi had found herself on Silkís bad side, and all because of one little incident. It wasnít her fault that no one had told her that the tofu and squid casserole that had been left out was Silkís. The Amazon was now using some kind of ESP (there was no other explanation for it) to detect Kurumiís presence when she approached the kitchen. Getting enough food to keep both of them going was starting to cut into the family budget a little. Nabiki had left for college, but frequently came back weekends, like this one, which helped the food bill remain high. Kurumi began to wonder if perhaps an after-school job would be in order.
Kurumi at last arrived at the door and opened it for the visitor. The caller was a very attractive young woman, in an elegant Chinese style outfit, that appeared familiar to Kurumi. She knew she had seen the face somewhere before.
"Hello," the newcomer bowed before Kurumi. The short girl found herself admiring the melodious voice the visitor had. The pleasantness seemed to ooze out of the guest, making Kurumi wish she could sound like that.
The visitor spoke again. "You must be my new sister, Kurumi, right?"
Kurumi snapped her fingers. "Iíve got it. Youíre my sister, Kasumi! Father and the others show me pictures of you all the time. Youíre even more beautiful in person."
Kasumi blushed at the unexpected compliment. "Youíre very pretty also."
A smile found itís way to Kurumi face as she scuffed her feet at that. No one ever seemed to notice her since Akane and Natsume were so much more attractive than her. "Itís very nice to meet you." She at last bowed towards her sister.
"Who is it, Kurumi?" Akaneís voice shouted from within the house.
"Itís our sister, Kasumi."
The instant the last word left her lips a sound similar to a pack of stampeding elephants echoed through the house. In moments Akane, Nabiki, and Soun ran from around the corner and into the entryway. Three pairs of eyes bugged out as they laid eyes upon Kasumi for the first time in months.
Just as the trio of Tendos came into sight, something occurred to Kurumi. "Hey! How come none of you mentioned she had a baby?"
The sound of three bodies simultaneously hitting the floor shook the house to the foundations.
Kurumi watched closely as Silk attended to all three of the unconscious Tendos. Natsume kept one eye on them and one on her new sister, still hesitant as to what to make of the situation. That she had at last met her oldest sister was something of a let down. The way some of the others had described Kasumi, she had half expected her to fly down from Heaven on a pair of white-feathered wings. She did seem to be nice, though there was the one little unexpected addition.
"I take it no one was aware that you had a child while you were gone?" Natsume asked.
"Itís not quite like that," Kasumi said, taking her eyes off her family long enough to rock the child in her arms once again.
"Wow! We have a nephew, cool," Kurumi said as she stood on her tiptoes to get a better look at the baby. He was a cute little thing, and she felt the unexpected urge to start babbling unintelligibly and make strange faces at the child.
"So whoís the father?" Silk asked.
"Well," Kasumi began hesitantly. "Thatís sort of hard to explain."
"You donít know who it is?" Natsume asked, shocked. Kasumi was turning out to be just full of surprises.
Silk mirrored Natsumeís unspoken sentiments. "Look. I certainly donít have any problem with you taking on multiple lovers. There were times in my life when I was sorely tempted to do the same thing, but somehow, I donít think your father is going to be able to handle that. Can you think of some way of explaining it without giving him a heart attack?"
"Oh, no!" Kasumi nearly shouted as her cheeks turned bright red. "Itís nothing like that. The situation is a bit more complex."
It was then that Akane, Nabiki, and Soun all began to revive at the same time. Soun looked towards the two daughters that were lying next to him. "Hehehe. I just had the most horrible hallucination. I dreamt that Kasumi had come back home with a baby."
"The hallucination is standing right next to you, Father." Natsume said dryly. "But our nephew sure is cute."
Sounís hair stood on end as he saw that the hallucination was still there, and indeed the little hallucination-child in hallucination-Kasumiís arms was hallucination-cute.
Akane only dealt with the situation a trifle better by staring at Kasumi in shock and going ĎBububububuí repeatedly. Kurumi finally helped out by grabbing Akaneís lower jaw and helped her form the word, Ďbaby.í
Nabiki dealt with the situation best by simply scowling in Kasumiís direction. "While Daddy and Akane are still conscious, why donít you explain things, Sis?"
"Yes, Kasumi, explain yourself!" Soun said, finally regaining some measure of composure even as he trembled.
"Well, Akira is my child—"
That was all it took for the deluge of tears to flow in an unprecedented stream. Silk had already taken the precaution of putting on a raincoat, galoshes, and opening an umbrella, so she would be able to console her husband without fear of drowning. Kurumi began racing around the house, grabbing various flowerpots and allowing her adoptive father to unintentionally water them for her.
"WAAAAAA! Iím a grandfather, my little girl got married, and I wasnít invited to the wedding!"
"Oh, no. Iím not married."
No one had ever seen Sounís tears dry up instantly like that. Kurumi stopped watering plants and began to quickly move away from Soun. The aura he began projecting was far more intense than any demon head he had ever formed. "Someone violated my little girl?" he said so quietly that it was little more than a whisper, a whisper that everyone managed to hear anyway.
"Iíll kill him," Soun began, his aura glowing even brighter.
"Iíll rip out his heart."
"And Iíll help," Akane added in almost as much anger.
"And then Iíll flay the flesh from his bones, but leave him alive so I can pour salt into every open wound on his body."
"And Iíll help."
"And then Iíll grind his bones into powder, but still leave him alive. Itíll be tricky, but there are ways. And then the pain will really begi—"
The rest of his diatribe was cut short by a metal-shod staff that slammed into his head. Rather than fall unconscious from the blow, he turned, as though someone had tapped him lightly on the head.
"Your daughter has something to say to you," Silk pointed out.
At last something cut through the red haze of anger that had surrounded Soun. "Eh?"
Kasumi began. "As I was trying to explain, Father, I was not violated."
"Y… you werenít?" Sounís aura dwindled as he tried to comprehend what was being said.
"No. You see. Akira is my adopted child."
"Adopted?" The edges of comprehension began dawning.
"Yes. So there is no need to hunt down and kill anyone," Kasumi pointed out. "Donít you feel better now?"
"Adopted?" More edges began forming.
"Yes, Daddy," Nabiki finally added. "Adopted meaning, she adopted him. Took him in under her wing after the little guy was born from somebody else, isnít that what you meant, Kasumi?" The tone of voice she used sounded dry, and the look she shot Kasumi was a suspicious one.
If Kasumi noticed, she gave no indication. "Yes, it is."
Akane finally began to speak. "How did that happen?"
Kasumi smiled as she stared into Akiraís beaming little face. "The Amazons located a deserted village somewhere in that big area to the north, where nothing grows. They think he must have been abandoned by his parents when the people realized the land was ruined. I donít know how they could have left someone so beautiful behind." She sounded wistful as she let Akira down on the ground, smiling as he stood up on his own and began to toddle unsteadily around. "As soon as I laid eyes upon him I knew I wanted to take care of him. No one heard from any of the inhabitants from the village, and someone needed to raise him."
"Odd," Silk commented as she began munching on a nearby chocolate bar that had been left on a table. "Iím surprised no one else tried to adopt him, even if he is a boy. I know more than a handful of families that have been lamenting about losing so many of the younger generation to the big cities, and it isnít like the council to agree to give a child to a single parent to raise, especially an outsider. Where did you say this empty village was?"
"I… I donít remember," Kasumi said nervously, then pulled out a letter and handed it to Silk. "By the way, Cologne asked me to give this to you. She said you have to read it alone. She also said youíll know what to do after reading it."
Silk accepted the letter, curious as to what the elder was up to.
"Little guy doesnít look that old," Nabiki mentioned as Akira darted past her legs, rushing around in a big circle, barely keeping his balance. "Iíd say heís right around eleven months old, right?"
Kasumi shook her head. "The Elders estimated him to be about a year and a half."
"Really?" Nabiki said suspiciously as she eyed the child more closely. "He doesnít look that old to me."
"I think he looks that old," Akane said as she picked up her new nephew and made funny faces at him. He smiled in return. "Why are you acting so weird?"
Akane moved closer and held Akira out towards Nabiki, offering him to her. She ignored the gesture. "Itís just that things are a little odd, wouldnít you agree, Kasumi?"
Kasumi shook her head. "I think itís the most natural thing in the world."
Nabiki shrugged at that. "I guess so." The stare she sent towards Kasumi promised that things were not over between them yet.
Soun was still flummoxed by the whole situation. His daughter, who wasnít married, now had a child, that wasnít really hers, but everyone would think it was. "Are you sure this is such a good idea, Kasumi? Youíre going to have a child and havenít been married. Itíll be next to impossible to find a good man to marry, or even a job."
"Father, heís my son, at least as far as Iím concerned." Kasumi said with more than a hint of force in her voice. "Nothing is too difficult to live with if itís for his sake."
"But everyone will think the wrong thing. If you have a child without being marr—" Soun stopped talking as he found Akane offering Akira to him. He gently accepted the child, holding him as he had all of his daughters so many years ago. Akira looked into his eyes, and the effect was instantaneous.
"I have a grandson! Iím the happiest man alive!" He barely managed to reign in his tears, leaving them to simply fall down his face rather than spray all over the place, for Akiraís sake.
Akira attempted to see if Sounís mustache was detachable by trying to pry it off his face. Kasumi started to reproach him, but Soun waved it off. He had been used to it; all of the girls had done the same thing when they were his grandsonís age. And when his newest daughter was born, he would have to get used to it again.
What a happy day it was. As much as he loved his wonderful family, and its new additions, the fact was he currently had five unmarried daughters and a sixth on the way. Now, miraculously, Kasumi had provided him with a male heir to the family name. He had feared he would die before seeing another Tendo with a Y-chromosome. "Can you say, Grandfather?" Soun asked him.
Akira let go of Sounís mustache and smiled. He waved his hands in the air a few times before looking at Soun again, and shouted. "Baka!"
Natsume looked stunned as Akira again repeated the word again quite happily. He continued saying the same word over and over, drowning out Kasumiís protests.
Realizing she wasnít having any luck in quieting him down, Kasumi began to explain. "He heard someone say that on the plane trip here and wonít say anything else. It seems he always repeats the bad words he hears, even if theyíre only said around him once, or in Chinese. Those are about the only kind of words heíll say. I do hope heíll break out of the habit."
Soun just laughed. It was so wonderful having a grandchild at last. Now the family line would be ensured for another generation, even if there would be problems in the future. With his open approval, all of the other family members crowded around, trying to get a better look at the child or hold him themselves. The whole thing surprised Akira into silence. The little one wasnít sure if he should be happy or scared at all of the new smiling faces. Only Nabiki maintained her distance, watching both Kasumi and Akira with a careful eye.
Kurumi found it difficult to get to sleep. Both she and Natsume had originally slept in Kasumiís room, but with her return, they elected to move into the room the Saotomes had previously inhabited. Kasumi tried protesting, but it was to no avail. The two blood sisters agreed that relegating their returned sister, and their nephew, to some cold floor was inexcusable. So they packed all of their things and moved into their new quarters immediately.
After that had been settled, and all of Kasumiís belongings (including Kurumiís new favorite animal, the cool pterodactyl, Birdy) were brought in the house, everyone gathered around Kasumi and her little bundle of joy. All of the girls, save Silk and Nabiki, practically fought over one another for Akiraís attention. Silk chose to remain off to the side, content that she would soon have a child of her own to fuss over. Nabiki just seemed irritated by the whole thing, which surprised Kurumi, but she had more things to think about other than her sisterís odd behavior. Like how to wrest her nephew from the othersí attentions.
After staying up much later than usual, everyone retired to their respective rooms. Soun set up an old crib, stored from when the girls themselves were babies, and placed it into Kasumiís room. With that out of the way, everyone went to sleep.
Or at least Kurumi tried to, really she had, but sleep eluded her. She lay down on her back and stared at the ceiling for close to three hours straight. There was little doubt as to what was keeping her up. It wasnít that she was sleeping in a different room; she and Natsume had slept without the luxury of a roof over their heads most of their lives. Sleeping in their new room was easy. It was the addition to her family. Less than a year ago she had only her sister and the picture of a man who was supposed to be her father. Now, he was their father, if not in actuality, then in spirit, which was even better than Kurumi had dreamed. She adored her new sisters, her new stepmother (no matter how cranky she got) and her soon to be even newer sister. It was all so overwhelming that she would sometimes go off alone to cry at her luck. So much good fortune, in a life that had known very little of it, seemed too good to be true. Occasionally she feared it would all come crashing down around her head someday, or that she would wake up and discover it was nothing but a dream.
Now she had a nephew as well. The family seemed to grow by the month, and that was a very good thing. She was so excited over the new addition that she feared she was never going to be able to sleep again. Rather than worry about things that were out of control, she decided to make good with her unexpected time. This late at night, Silk would be asleep. That meant it would be safe to make a midnight snack without being shouted at, and assuming Silk hadnít set any traps in the kitchen.
Kurumi quietly made her way through the house and towards the kitchen. She was right outside the doorway when she heard two voices coming from inside. Instead of announcing her presence, she remained silent, then slowly got closer, listening intently to what was being said. It was strange that two people would be up so late at night, and she wondered immediately if it had something to do with Kasumiís return.
It took only moments for her to sort out who the two voices belonged to: Nabiki and Kasumi. Kurumi knew it wasnít proper to eavesdrop on what was obviously supposed to be a private conversation, but she couldnít seem to help herself as she remained where she was and listened in.
"…have any idea what youíre in for." Kurumi could make out Nabiki talking. The tone of her voice, though quiet, was very intense and disapproving.
"It doesnít matter. Thereís nothing that could be changed, even if I wanted to, and I donít." Kurumi noted that Kasumiís voice had a mixture of sorrow and firmness.
"She should take responsibility. Itís her child too." That surprised Kurumi. Nabiki knew who the real mother of the child was. Now that her curiosity was really piqued, all thoughts of not eavesdropping disappeared as she listened even more intently.
"There is no responsibility for her to take. Even if I told her, it wouldnít change a thing. Neither of us planned for this to happen."
"So what? That means youíre going to leave her off the hook? Why are you protecting her?"
"From what? She made her choice, and, to be honest itís one I approve of. Theyíre happy together. Even if I was the sort of person to try to interfere with that, I wouldnít." Kurumi heard Kasumiís voice drop a little. "They arenít married yet, and I donít want to do anything that might upset that. If I told them the truth now, thereís no telling what will happen."
"Maybe sheíll take responsibility for what she did."
"And do what, Nabiki? Marry me, even when she loves someone else, out of some misguided sense of trying to protect me from something I donít need to be protected from? She doesnít even want her cursed form. Itís actually dangerous for her to have it. What happens to us if she gets a cure? Where would that leave us? I canít be involved in a relationship like that, even though I know it shouldnít make a difference if I truly love her, but it does. And what if sheís offered a cure and refuses it because of me? How do you think that would make me feel, that she would ruin herself to trying to make me happy?" Kurumi could tell Kasumiís agitation was increasing with each sentence. Somehow that emotion just sounded horribly wrong to be coming from her returned sister.
"I donít know."
"Or maybe Ranma can marry me, and then she can be our collective mistress instead?"
"Well, it would solve a lot of unresolved things around here."
Kurumiís eyes widened at that.
"I will not marry Ranma. Iím not interested in him. I wonít do it even if it would bring me closer to her. And also…" her voice became softer, almost inaudible. "I wonít settle for being second place in someoneís heart. Iíd be miserable. I would want her to love me the most. Maybe itís greedy. Maybe Iím being insensitive, but itís what I really want."
"All right. Iíll accept that. I think Iíd feel the same way too. If youíre sure you wouldnít be happy—"
"Right, but itís going to be unbelievably hard for you. You are going to be a single, unwed mother, and thatís what everyone is going to think no matter what story you give. That means youíre going to be treated like dirt and a miracle if you ever manage to marry someone. Hah. Sometimes I love our wonderful country." Kurumi recognized Nabikiís trademark acerbity at the end of that statement.
"Right now I donít feel up to any relationships. And thereís no place thatís perfect. I love my home."
"Get treated like a pariah for a few years and get back to me on that." Kurumi heard Nabiki hesitate a moment before continuing. "Look. If you need money or anything, you know you can always come to me."
"Actually that shouldnít be a problem. Great-grandm… I mean, Elder Cologne, left me a great deal of jewels and other valuables she picked up in her youth. She was originally going to give them to Shampoo, but she felt under the circumstances it was perhaps best she gave them to Akira and me. I tried to tell her no, but she wouldnít hear of it. She said if it bothered me that much, just to think of it as a gift for Akira."
"Makes sense," Kurumi could hear the approval in her sisterís voice. "And I have to agree with her. So youíve been calling her Ďgreat-grandmotherí?"
"Well, she did insist on it, especially since Akira is her great-great-grandchild. And she treated me so nicely, as did Comb. It seemed sort of appropriate."
"Yeah. I guess so. How many people there knew you were…you know?"
"Oh, I didnít hide anything once I found out why I was getting sick so often. Believe me, it was quite a shock. I guess it was a good thing that I was in China at the time. I hate lying to Father and the others, but I think itís for the best." Kurumi noted Kasumi did indeed sound very ashamed of the lie. Kurumi felt sympathy for her, despite the fact she was also being lied to.
"Well, your storyís going to be shot to hell once Silk talks with some of her old friends and hears what really went on. Sheís already suspicious, and the little busybodyís like a hungry pit bull with a bone when it comes to things that arouse her curiosity."
Kurumi nodded her head in silent agreement to that. As much as she liked Silk, it was an appropriate metaphor.
"Well, the letter I gave her had instructions from gr… from Elder Cologne for her to keep silent. I hate to do that to her, but as I said, if the truth comes out now itís just going to make things more difficult for everyone in the long run."
"And you think sheíll listen to it?"
"Elder Cologne seemed to think so. She said Silk wonít be happy about it, but sheíll respect both her and my wishes. You see, in Joketsuzoku, itís the women who have final say on how children are raised, and if I choose not to include the father, or keep silent about his parentage altogether, I may. They understood why I wanted to do it, although Comb wasnít too happy about it when I told her. She promised not to say anything to anyone, though."
"I guess that makes sense. What about Kodachi? She could always visit her family and let something slip."
"Cologne said she got Mr. Mousse and Kodachi to agree to remain silent on the matter. Itís not as though he and I crossed paths very much. The few times we did he didnít seem too happy."
"Yeah, I can imagine how he felt about your little Ďbundle of joyí if he figured out where it came from." Kurumi heard Nabiki sigh once more. "I canít believe you made a mistake like this."
"My son is not a mistake!" Even Kurumi was taken aback by the intensity of Kasumiís voice.
"Shh!" Nabiki warned. "Keep it down, unless you want everyone to know."
"Take it back! Take back what you said, Nabiki!"
"I do. I do," Nabiki said in her most soothing voice. "Hey, I like the little bugger, okay? I was just a little surprised. I mean, I already pretty much had everything figured out, but it was still kind of a shock for you to just come in the door with him, you know?"
Kurumi could hear the repentance in Kasumiís voice. "I guess. Iím sorry I snapped at you, but I wonít have anyone calling him something like that. I love him, and wouldnít do a single thing in the world to change him."
"Yeah. It feels kind of funny, having a nephew and all. And considering who the Ďfatherí is, well, it takes some getting used to." Kurumi heard Nabiki move around a little. "I promise not to say anything, but I think youíre making a mistake. You should come clean about this and let everything happen now. If you wait, Iíve got this bad feeling itíll make matters worse."
"Iíll tell her after sheís married."
Even Kurumi didnít think that Kasumi sounded convincing, and she always tried to give people benefit of the doubt. She heard Nabiki ask. "Youíre going to tell them after theyíre married?"
"Well, maybe not right away, but at a good time after that."
"And exactly when is it a good time to tell someone that theyíre the father of a child that was born out of wedlock?"
"Iíll just have to wait and see."
Kurumi heard Nabiki sigh. "Well, it really isnít my business how you live your life, but I donít think you have the faintest idea of what youíre in for."
"Maybe. Weíll see. Itís late and youíd better be getting to bed."
Kurumi heard them approaching and darted towards the entryway of the house, counting on them to head immediately upstairs. She was out of sight when she heard the pair emerge from the kitchen and headed upstairs to their respective bedrooms. Once she was convinced they had lain down, she sat down and tried to make sense out of what she had overheard. Reviewing it several times in her mind still lead to the same conclusion: Shampoo was the father of Akira. What was really strange about it wasnít that Shampoo was really a girl— the whole curses situation had been fully explained to Kurumi and she thought it was really neat— but that Kasumi would do that sort of thing. From the descriptions she had received from Akane, Shampoo had pretty much been depicted as the epitome of evil, and Kasumi a near avatar of goodness. That Kasumi might have done that with a woman (cursed perhaps, and attractive in cursed form judging from the pictures Nabiki had shown her, but still a woman) stunned Kurumi. And now her sister was lying about Akiraís origins.
Kurumiís involvement with Kasumi was limited, even if she was her sister, so she began to question whether or not to tell others the truth. It had never been easy for her to remain silent about anything, secret or not, and she disliked lying. Nabiki was prone to describe her as wearing her heart on her sleeve, something Kurumi had no problem with, but now she was going to have to (unofficially) take part in the cover up.
She weighed her options. Clearly she should not speak a word of it to anyone. It was Kasumiís matter, and Kurumi should not have been eavesdropping in the first place. But shouldnít the others know something as important as this? She hated keeping secrets. That was something Natsume disliked about her, and this was perhaps the most important one of all. What was she to do?
For over an hour, she sat and pondered. One way or another, a choice had to be made. She found her legs almost involuntarily moving on their own as she stood her up and headed upstairs. There was one thing she had to see before she could make her decision.
She moved cautiously and silently. That she could move so quietly would probably have been a surprise to the others, since it was speed that she usually employed. What need would someone that fast have for stealth? But now it served her well. She crept upstairs and paused before the room that, until today, had been hers. She placed an ear next to the door for several minutes and listened for the sound of any telltale movement within. Hearing nothing, she opened the door and looked into the room. Kasumi was sleeping peacefully, as she had hoped. Kurumi avoided a loose floorboard and virtually glided to the crib that Kasumi had placed next to the bed. She spared one more glance towards Kasumi before daring to poke her head over the crib and gazed upon her sleeping nephew.
He looked so peaceful, lying there with a line of drool coming from his mouth. It was odd how babies could still look cute even in the most unusual of circumstances. What would happen to poor little Akira if she told everyone the truth behind his heritage, even if remaining silent about her newfound knowledge felt wrong? Kasumi was going to have her hands full raising him alone as it was. Who was she to heap more problems on her sisterís shoulders? Akira was Kurumiís nephew. What difference would it make who his father was, or how strange the situation would be? She would love him just the same, even if Kasumi never told anyone else the truth.
She bent low and kissed Akira lightly on the forehead. He really did look like an angel, lying there so quietly. She intended to leave the room, content in the knowledge that what should come next would be better left in the hands of others.
It was then Akira woke up, took one look at Kurumi, and began crying. She heard Kasumi start to move behind her. There was no time to dart out of the room; she might be seen. There was only one place near enough to get out of sight, so Kurumi dropped to the floor and darted under the bed.
From her position under the bed, Kurumi watched Kasumiís feet touch the floor and pause next to the crib. Soft speaking followed, calming Akira down. Kurumi could almost feel Kasumi rocking him gently back and forth as she hummed a beautiful little tune to him. It seemed to take forever for the little one to quiet down, but when he at last became silent and Kasumi lay back in bed, Kurumi breathed a sigh of relief. She waited another fifteen minutes before daring to poke her head out from beneath the bed. Seeing that Kasumi seemed to be resting peacefully, she dared to crawl fully out from under the bed and silently tiptoed across the room. She had made it to the door when a voice behind said,
"You donít have to sneak around like a thief in the night. Youíre more than welcome to look at him. I donít mind."
Kurumi could only manage to grin sheepishly. "I didnít mean to wake you."
Kasumi just smiled. "You get sensitive to sounds sometimes when you have a child. When youíre not too tired, anyway. Iím glad you like him so much you felt the need to look in on him at this time of night. Having to share him with everyone didnít leave anyone much time to see him for very long. Even Akane stopped by right before bed. Come on over. He shouldnít wake up for a while now." She indicated that Kurumi should draw closer.
Kurumi felt even worse now that she could have ever considered snitching on Kasumi. "I accidentally overheard your conversation with Nabiki. I didnít mean to eavesdrop. Iím sorry."
Kasumi looked surprised at that. "I see. Youíre probably wondering why I feel the need to be so secretive. I—"
Kurumi cut her off. "It doesnít matter. I think you know whatís best for you and Akira. I promise I wonít say a word."
Kasumi seemed visibly relieved at that. "I appreciate that. Iím sorry to put you in this position."
Kurumi waved it off. "Itís my own fault. Tell everyone when you feel comfortable with it. Like I said, I wonít say a word. Umm, can I get a closer look at him? I promise not to wake him up this time."
Kurumi leaned over the crib once more and looked on Akira again. This time she made certain not to touch him when she looked. No sense in having to go through the hassle of getting him to sleep once more.
He appeared even more beautiful now. Come what may, Kurumi had a feeling that everything would turn out okay, no matter who told what to whom.
Author's notes: Just one more to go. ^_^
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