Somewhere in the darkness:
“It is time,” the voice rang out.
The Seer remained seated in the stone chair that had been furnished for her. It was unusual for her to remain in one place for so long, not that time had any true meaning to her anymore. Unwanted immortality did that to a person. Whatever task awaited her next could only be decided upon after the event took place. Alternate paths dwindled away as what was going to happen became clearer and clearer. And if the most likely of events were to occur, the pattern of fate would shift in a direction that would make things difficult. When the forces involved were as powerful as these, there were fewer paths that existed, and those handfuls of alternate paths would be so insignificant that they would be nearly impossible to take.
Even as The Seer pondered where the paths would eventually go, something happened. While she observed the entire tapestry that only she could comprehend, the impossible occurred. There was a gray area in one of the paths. For the first time in centuries her heart seized up. She was The Seer. The Right Hand of Fate. There was no path that was obscured to her vision. She was the only one, other than Fate itself, that could see all of the possibilities at once, and yet the gray area existed.
Something was about to happen.
Somewhere in the darkness:
Chapter 28: First Contact
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 firstname.lastname@example.org
What’s gone on before (or what you really need to enjoy this fic) In the beginning the Saotomes traveled to Jusenkyou to spar, neither one realizing Shampoo and Mousse had already begun a duel there. One mid-air collision and bath in Spring of Young Drowned Man later there is a male Shampoo as well as a female Ranma. (So Ranma-chan= female Ranma. Shampoo-kun= male Shampoo. Enjoy) Shampoo elected to travel to Japan with Ranma and ended up accidentally engaged to Kasumi. After that was cleared up Ranma was engaged to Akane. Over the months many friends and foes were made. Last chapter Ranma was cured of thinking he was a girl and Shampoo used her memory erasing Shampoo to eliminate the Juraian sword techniques Kunou had learned that nearly made him invincible. In the process Ranma forgot about the fact he figure out Shampoo’s love for him and Shampoo’s attempted to bludgeon it back into him failed. Also the Amazons have sent out a hunt pack led my Perfume to bring Shampoo back to China: Dead or Alive. Now some people are planning to go out on dates…
<> Indicates Chinese
I am now going with the more ‘classic’ Xian Pu for the Chinese spelling of the name.
Shampoo paced nervously back and forth across the living room. Something was wrong. There was a feeling deep down inside her that was getting stronger by the moment. Since the early afternoon it had made its presence known. It took a full hour for her to even become aware of its presence, but once she was cognizant of it there was no chance of pretending it would go away. She had tried that for hours and had failed miserably. It was only a matter of time before she found herself desiring to move. All attempts at remaining motionless were useless. She tried everything: breathing exercises, meditation, reading. Yet each one of them could not be done for more than five minutes before she found herself moving once more.
Eventually it got worse. She could not remain still even for a moment. She considered that it might be simply an excess of nervous energy and offered to spar with Ranma. That had turned out to be a mistake. Whatever was affecting her ability to remain still was also affecting her concentration. Her fighting was sloppy and she lost quickly. Embarrassingly quickly. After the pitiful match she took a shower and headed back to the living room. An attempt to watch television also failed as she rapidly found herself at the action she was currently engaged in; pacing the floor. It had started slowly at first, but later it picked up with an ever-increasing speed as night fell.
The room’s two other occupants, Ranma and Kasumi, watched her with a concerned eye. Ranma inquired several times about her behavior, but Shampoo simply told him all was perfectly fine. The protests were not reassuring to either of the concerned pair as they watched Shampoo continue to increase her speed. As time passed the pair began to wonder if she was going to run a furrow through the floor.
Kasumi decided it was time for her to try to get to the bottom of things. If there was something bothering her friend she wanted to share the burden of the knowledge. Shampoo’s name was on her lips as she placed her hand on the Amazon’s shoulder. There was no time to speak out any more words as Shampoo viciously slapped the hand away, tensed up like a wild animal at the interruption and she drew back her fist. Kasumi’s expression of surprise turned to one of hurt, which in turn caused the fierce look Shampoo gave to turn to one of anguish itself. The emotional pain became a physical one as Shampoo suddenly grasped her head and gave off a low moan, then spun around and ran out of the house at top speed.
Ranma had been struck speechless at the events. The idea that Shampoo would ever make the motion to lay a hand on Kasumi was almost inconceivable. It was only after Shampoo ran off at top speed that he managed to shake off the reverie and hurriedly pursued the Amazon into the night.
He emerged out of the house and spotted Shampoo running down the street as fast as she could. His attempts to stop her by calling out her name were useless as the girl continued dashing through the streets. Having no other recourse, Ranma took up the chase and tried to close the distance. He ran as fast as he could and still found it difficult to even come close to keeping up with the purple-haired girl, but the pace she was setting was too fast to allow her to run very far. Even with her near inhuman endurance Ranma knew that Shampoo would not be able to leave Nerima.
The chase led him into the curiously deserted streets of downtown Nerima. Ranma barely took notice of the fact that the downtown area was far too quiet, especially for that time of night. His main concern was for Shampoo. She was not giving any indication that she was going to be slowing down anytime soon or that she was getting close to whatever destination she was heading to. All of his cries continued to go unheeded as he heard the distant rumble of thunder emanate from the black skies above.
Shampoo ran briefly out of sight around a corner of one of the buildings next to the main road. Just as Ranma turned the same corner he was nearly run over. A multitude of oddly dressed people with wide low brimmed hats and playing musical instruments nearly trampled him. He found himself spun around, causing the world around him to blur as he was jostled, shoved and pushed by the impromptu band as they played their instruments and made their way around the corner of the building in the direction he had just come from. As the last person bumped into Ranma and turned the corner to join its compatriots Saotome at last had a clear view of the street before him.
Shampoo was nowhere in sight.
Ranma’s eyes scanned both sides of the street and the rooftops in an effort to see where Shampoo had taken off to, but there was nothing. It wasn’t possible. The band hadn’t disoriented him for more than a few seconds, nowhere near enough time for Shampoo to have gotten out of sight, but there was no sign of her. He was about to head up the street when something occurred to him. The band had stopped playing. In fact, the music had stopped all at once when the last one had made his way around the corner. He rushed backward and looked around the corner only to see that there was no band either. Another impossibility since they had been moving slower and there were so many more of them.
Being thoroughly confused, Ranma took a moment and thought about what had just occurred. The situation was beyond bizarre, even by his standards. Martial artists he could deal with. Weird bands coming out of nowhere and disappearing in thin air was a bit much to take. Their arrival and departure was too much to be a coincidence. Their presence had to have been intentional. The music hadn’t started until Ranma turned the corner and it disappeared just as quickly once the last one was out of sight. And the vanishing into thin air trick implied something else was involved, perhaps magic. Then there was the band itself, when he tried visualizing them he realized there was something out of place. He wasn’t able to make out a single face in the lot, but he was certain he should have had a clear view of the faces. Then his blood ran cold as he understood why he had not been able to remember any of them. They had been blank tablets, not even possessing mouths, almost like they had been nothing more than animated dressmakers' dummies.
His senses were now totally attuned to the danger. Shampoo was in terrible jeopardy and he had no idea who the opponent was or how to deal with him.
He was helpless.
When Kasumi’s hand rested upon Shampoo’s shoulder the energy exploded. She had to get out. That was what the feeling was that had been building up all day. It was a message that told her to move; to leave where she was and go out into the night. And anything that dared to get in her way was going to be sorry. The first object that tried to impede her was Kasumi, and for an instant Shampoo was going to lash out at the thing that was trying to prevent her from leaving to the place that she had to go. However the pain in Kasumi’s face cut through the in-built defense mechanism momentarily, causing Shampoo to moan out in pain. She knew in that moment she had to get out lest she harm her friend and anything else that got in her way.
She burst through the door and followed where her instincts cried for her to go. Somewhere in the back of her mind she heard Ranma calling out her name, but not even he could be allowed to interfere with her course. So she continued running on legs that had enough power to take her to the moon if need be, or so it felt like. As she made her way through the deserted streets of Nerima she felt a lessening of the pull, as though the closer she got to the destination the less force the call possessed.
Ranma’s voice disappeared as Shampoo kept running. As she continued moving and the force decreased she became more aware of her environment. The streets were too quiet. No stores were open, no cars drove by, and not even a stray cat made any noise. It was as though everything else in the world had disappeared save Shampoo and the urgent pull from within.
Eventually the pull stopped altogether as Shampoo found herself in front of a dimly lit store. Thunder made its presence known as a storm started to approach. There was the concern that she was going to be changed in the upcoming deluge until her eyes fell upon an umbrella that was conveniently sitting in the alcove of the store. Shampoo quickly picked up the timely ‘gift’ and opened the umbrella just in time to avoid getting drenched in the sudden downpour. The patter of the falling rain was joined by the sound of a car that made a turn onto the street and headed towards Shampoo. Twin high beams shined upon her as the car pulled up next to her.
She read the sign attached to the side of the vehicle: The Blue Turtle Cab Company. A small, round man with rather large buckteeth rolled down the window and looked towards Shampoo.
“Come on in, ma’am,” he said pleasantly.
Shampoo did as she was instructed. There was some unearthly quality to what was going on, and she had a feeling that she was required to do what the funny looking man suggested if she ever wanted to find out who had done these things to her. She made certain not to get splashed with any water as she opened the door and entered the cab, then closed the door as the driver started driving the darkened streets.
The view seemed to take on a dreamlike quality as Shampoo gazed out the window, watching the streets go by. Her attention did not fully drift from the scene before her as she began speaking to the driver.
“Who are you?”
The driver spoke in his somewhat high-pitched voice. “Who I am is of little consequence tonight. Though I am important to some people, myself included. Tonight, I am simply someone that is taking you from one place to another. I am the driver and you are the passenger.”
Oddly, Shampoo felt no anger towards the little man. It was almost as though she knew on some instinctive level rage directed against him would do no good. Then there was the language he was speaking. It was not Chinese yet it seemed as easy to understand as that. It was almost like it didn’t matter what he said, it was going to be understood. That was not to mention the fact that she was now speaking in perfect…now that she thought about it she wasn’t certain that she was speaking in Japanese. At first it was supposed to be Japanese, but now it seemed to be something else. Exactly what, she couldn’t say.
“All of this is almost like a dream, isn’t it?” the little man began. “This situation possesses all the characteristics of one. It’s like the world is some ethereal wraith that is fading from existence, as though it had never been and you are only now awakening to understand what it is you have to do.”
Shampoo mumbled in agreement. The journey had taken on an imperceptible timeless quality. The streetlights that passed by seemed to be the same ones over and over again as the rain splattered against the window. The scenery was moving but to Shampoo it seemed that they were going nowhere. It was the same monotonous thing over and over again. It seemed as though she could have been riding for years and still nothing would change.
“I’ve escorted people to dreams before, though this isn’t one for you. This is reality, though you would be hard pressed to prove it. If it were in my power to affect you tonight I would take you to where your fantasies would come true. You have a lot of them that you would enjoy. If I could, I would allow you to ride on the back of the turtle and have an eternity to do as you wish. But that is not for you tonight. There is somewhere else that you have to go to.”
“Where is that?” she asked dreamily.
“Somewhere between here and there. Where nothing but everything exists, and oblivion is only a step away to infinity. You won’t get to see either of those tonight. You have an appointment with something that wants your full attention. It is the time of an event that is about to occur.”
“You speak in riddles that make no sense. What do you mean?”
“Something wonderfully horrible is about to occur. Either that or something horribly wonderful. In a way you get to choose.”
“I still don’t understand.”
“All that you need to know will be explained to you. He will explain.”
The car suddenly stopped as Shampoo came out of the dreamlike state and snapped back to reality. “Time to get out.”
The cab driver turned around in the driver’s seat and insisted she go. Shampoo took note that it was still raining and made certain her umbrella was open to block out the rain before emerging from the cab and taking note of their destination. It was a dimly lit street where she could make out little under the streetlights before her. The clouds blotted out the moon so thoroughly that only pitch-blackness was what awaited anyone who dared to brave the world past those dimly lit lamps.
The door closed on its own behind her as the driver waved goodbye, the car disappearing in the night. Shampoo watched as the car’s taillights faded in the darkness. They were the last moving things, outside of the rain, that had been left. Now she was alone, or so she thought.
As the headlights vanished she felt a presence behind her. Turning she saw what appeared to be a man of average height in a brown suit with a bowler on his head and a cane in his grasp, currently pointed in the ground. The suit might have been a bit unusual, but the man’s appearance was impossible. His skin was obsidian black, not allowing a hint of light reflecting off the surface, save for what appeared to be two white eyes that could just barely be seen below the hat. Looking at him, Shampoo was somehow aware that this was the one that had sent for her, and there was something about him that implied he could have forced her to come to wherever she was from anywhere in the world.
There was another peculiar thing about his appearance. It took a moment for Shampoo to figure out exactly what it was that seemed to add to his aura of weirdness. The rain was still coming down and the water was falling on him, but he was not getting wet despite lacking an umbrella. The water should have been dripping off the brim of his hat, and off of his sleeves as well, the way the rain was coming down. Yet the water was not collecting in any way. It just seemed to be disappearing as it hit him, almost as though it were being absorbed like the light.
“Greetings, Miss Shampoo.” The man’s mouth opened as he spoke to reveal what appeared to be white teeth. Those were the only way Shampoo could have been certain the man even had a mouth, the black lacking even the most basic features. “You are probably wondering what you are doing here.”
“Who are you?” she asked.
“You may address me as Mr. Domino.” The man had a faint accent Shampoo could not quite place. The deep resonating voice seemed to call out and command one’s attention, as though it were the only voice in the world worth listening to.
“What do you want?”
Domino smiled. “Actually, that is the question I was going to pose to you. You see, you are a very fortunate young lady. You have attracted the attention of one of the great powers in the universe, and it is now going to offer you a chance few beings ever receive.”
“And what would that be?” Shampoo asked.
“It depends, what do you want?”
Shampoo shook her head. “I don’t understand. What do you mean?”
Domino gave a soft sigh. “You humans, so dense. The question is self-explanatory. What do you want?”
Shampoo still wasn’t quite sure what he was getting at. Was he offering her a wish? If that was the case why didn’t he just say so? Or was he trying to find out more about her and it was some kind of trick?
Domino shook his head once more. “Allow me to help you along. How would you like to be cured of your condition?”
Shampoo was beginning to suspect where this was going. “In what way?”
“In a way I can provide. However it now occurs to me that I have an even better bargaining position. I can give you a way to ensure that your fellow Amazons will not kill you, you will not have to worry about changing sexes, and you will be able to satisfy your loved ones.”
Shampoo as taken aback. How could he know so much about her? “How can I do that?”
“With this,” Domino produced a flask from seemingly out of thin air. It was a trick she had seen Mousse do repeatedly, but somehow she did not think it was something as simple as a sleight-of-hand since it involved this one. “Chuanshontsuniichaun. Twins water. If you use it now I can guarantee that you will separate into your male and female forms with no ill side effects. Each will be a perfectly normal version of yourself without a curse.”
“Why would I want to separate myself into female and male halves?” Shampoo asked. “Why not just offer me Nyanniichuan, which would cure me of my curse anyway?”
Domino gave a soft chuckle. “Because with twins water you will be able to satisfy both Ranma and Kasumi.”
Shampoo began sweating. How could he know? She told no one of her affection of Ranma, and her feelings about Kasumi were not a matter of public knowledge either.
“You wonder how I could know so much about you,” Domino answered, as though reading her mind. “I work for someone with power beyond imagination. Knowing what is in your true heart is simplicity itself. We know your heart’s desire, and in that ideal you wish to satisfy both of them. You are confused about your true feelings for Kasumi. She is a woman, and you are not attracted to women, except for her. You feel different when you’re with her. These feelings are new to you. You love the joy you experience in being able to make her smile. She has done a great deal more for you than anyone else ever has and all without asking anything in exchange. Now you want to return the favor. Yet you are afraid of hurting her in the process of coming close and not being able to give her what you believe she wants. Such angst from one so young. You humans really are a confusing lot.
“But as great as your feelings are for Kasumi, the ones for Ranma glow even brighter. He is the fire in which you burn. He has made you feel in ways that no other has ever come close to. His smile sends you into an emotional frenzy from which you can barely contain. He is the flame in your heart that are you afraid will go out if he rejects you. Sadly, despite the fact he is also cursed, you think he may not want someone that is part male. After all, he is quite the prude. So you maintain your silence until you are certain you can win his heart and he will say ‘yes.’
“This is the way to both of their hearts. The solution to so many problems. And it can be yours. All you have to do is a little favor for me.”
Shampoo felt scared. At first it was because of the things he was saying; they hit too close to home. Still there was something else too. An instinct cried out there was something terribly wrong with the figure in front of her. Whatever it was, was not obvious. “What do you want? My soul?”
Domino’s voice shifted slightly, almost as though he was offended by the implication. “I am not affiliated with any kind of demon or devil. I work for a different power altogether. I don’t deal in souls.”
“Then what is it you want?” The feeling was starting to grow.
Domino gave a sad nod of his head. “The rules maintain I cannot tell you that until after you have accepted. I understand how this might make one somewhat cautious in closing a deal, so allow me to assure you of one thing: what is wanted in return is in your best self-interest. Once you find out what it is you will probably count it among the benefits of the deal.” He straightened up slightly as he continued. “So what do you say? It’s the cure to all your problems, and you get it for agreeing to something that you’re going to want to do anyway.”
The feeling of dread continued to build. Now it seemed to be coming from all around. But if what the being before her was telling the truth then it might solve everything. “Tell me what it is you want in return.”
Shampoo’s suspicion grew. “I thought you were powerful. Why can’t you break the rules just this once?”
The voice changed to a darker tone. “I have more power then you can possibly dream of. There are things I can do that would devastate worlds beyond your imagination. But it is not a matter of power; it is the way of things. I cannot inform you of what I want in return other than the reassurance that it is in your best self-interest.” He paused another moment before continuing. “I see you are hesitant to accept my offer. Very well, I shall sweeten the deal. I can make it so you will win the hearts of Ranma Saotome and Kasumi Tendo, and guarantee that you will all have long and wonderful lives together. How can you refuse a deal like that? Just say yes.”
He was acting desperately, even if it didn’t sound like it, and the feeling of wrongness was compounded with a sensation of great coldness. It was as though she were slowly having the life drained out of her body from some unknown source. It didn’t feel like it was coming from the man, it seemed to come from all around. The darkness seemed to be increasing and she was suddenly struck with the feeling that there was nothing beyond the light the street lamps provided. There was a certainty that all of reality now consisted solely of what she could see before her.
“No.” The situation was strange enough, but there was even more going on than what appeared on the surface. There was too much risk and too much was unknown. Even thought it was as he said and the water could possibly be the solution to all of her problems.
He shook his head sadly. “Your kind always seems to take the hard way. Very well. Since you have not accepted the gift I can now tell you what it is I wanted, free of any strings attached.”
“What is it?”
Domino’s voice took on a deeper tone that seemed to project a feeling of incontestable truth. “If you go to Mount Phoenix you will die. You will die before you ever hear the words you so long to hear Ranma say to you. You will die painfully and alone in the darkness.”
Shampoo tensed up. “Is that a threat?”
Domino shook his head. “No. It is your destiny. If you go to Mount Phoenix.” He turned to depart. “It is unlikely we will meet again. Goodbye.”
And with that he walked off in the opposite direction from Shampoo, his cane making tapping noises as he gained distance from her. When his form went beyond the boundaries of the lights everything seemed to fade for an instant. The feeling of coldness was overwhelming, causing Shampoo to fear that she would never be warm. It seemed to suck at her soul, trying to draw everything she was into it so she would never be whole again. Just as it seemed she was about to lose everything she was the feeling passed, as though it was never there to begin with. It was almost as if someone turned on a giant light making everything come into focus. The streetlights illuminated all things now as the rain continued to pour. She was standing on what appeared to be the same sidewalk, next to a river, as sound returned to the world. She was back, and the feeling of being drained was gone, as though it had never existed.
She knew better. It had all been real. The journey, the meeting, the attempted deal. It was all too real, and Domino’s words kept ringing through her mind.
“If you go to Mount Phoenix you will die.”
She wandered off into the night. There were things that needed to be thought over.
In another dimension:
The Seer felt the gray area disappear. The lines of fate had been unaffected by whatever the interference was. Despite the seemingly normal return of things, The Seer felt very uncomfortable.
Ghost Sweeper Minami and her two companions shivered in the night.
“What the hell was that?” she whispered.
Ghost Sweeper Reiko Mikami shook her head. “I don’t know. I have never felt anything like that before. It was…powerful. One of the Dark Gods perhaps?”
Ayaka Kisagi shook her head vehemently. “Are you kidding? None of them are that powerful. It was something much stronger. And the worst part is I think that was just its wake. I’m pretty sure whatever it was we felt was only the smallest fragment of its full self.”
Mikami looked her companions over. She had to admit, working with her Phantom Quest Corp. rival and the arrogant little punk that kept referring to Mikami as an ‘aging mercenary cow’ had been intoxicating.
Minami looked sheepishly at Mikami. “I may have to amend that bit about you being old,” she muttered. Mikami had saved her life back when the purple menace threatened to kill her. The creature sure had an insidious plan for taking over all the worlds in the multiverse. And it was such a subtle scheme too. If Ayaka hadn’t stumbled on one of the demon’s essences that had been hidden in the unassuming figures and had gone wild, the creatures would have overrun the earth and spread out from there.
“What about the mercenary part?” Mikami asked.
Minami raised an eyebrow at that. She had swallowed her pride and gave a partial apology and now her rival wanted more. Fine. If that was the way she wanted it that was going to be the way she got it.
“You do realize we didn’t get paid. Don’t you?”
Mikami’s reaction was almost instantaneous. “You’re right! NOOOOOOOOOO!!!”
Ayaka joined in the tearworks as Minami shook her head and left. The mercenary part was staying. Why couldn’t people like those two work for the benefit of mankind instead of doing it for a buck?
Minami could almost begin jumping in joy. She was at last in Japan after getting sidetracked so many times. And she was going to help out Ukyou and Ai, assuming Fistandantilus’s information was correct.
Her body still ached from the war she had just undergone to stop the demonic creature that had threatened to take over the world through the insidious way of brainwashing everyone into mindless automatons. But in the end the trio of demon-killers fought the demonic intelligence behind it and banished it to another realm. Its magical foothold on the world should start to decline any day now.
As she walked back to Nerima she found the beasts mind-numbing chant begin to echo through her mind. There was no way she could block it out just yet; it was going to take time. Hopefully very soon, since if she started humming it out loud there was little doubt she would end up lynched. The words kept recycling themselves in her mind. It really was a very insidious chant.
“I love you. You love me…”
Akane took another flying leap kick at Tarou. He parried the kick, frustrating Akane to the point where she immediately tried to come in low with another kick of her own. With her level of training she should have known better that to attempt such an attack while Tarou still had his balance. He easily blocked the blow and threw Akane halfway across the gym.
He paused a moment to catch his breath. “That was a clumsy strike. You should know better.”
Akane picked herself up and immediately went for another attack. Tarou’s attempt to get her to hold off barely worked as she drew back her hand for a chop.
“Let’s take a break.” He approached and placed his hand atop her shoulder, trying to ease her mind and get her used to his touch. She gave a narrow look at the hand then gently ran her hand over his. The happiness Tarou felt was momentary as the gentle touch quickly turned into a body toss which left him on his back and staring at the ceiling.
“What’s gotten into you?!” he shouted as he returned to a vertical base. If it had been anyone else that had dared to do that they would have ended up spitting out teeth.
Akane gave him a satisfied smirk. “I need to get better.”
Desperation was in her voice. “Faster. I need to get a lot better a lot faster, and I don’t want to horse around. I don’t have that much time to be here, you know. Chisa can only cover for me for so long before someone realizes I’m not at her house.”
Tarou’s irritation was beginning to get to him. “Why are you doing that anyway? I thought you said you didn’t care what Ranma thought.”
“I don’t!” she snapped back. “It’s not Ranma I’m keeping this secret from.”
Tarou’s eyebrows shot up at that. Akane was keeping secrets from someone other than Ranma. “Is it Nabiki?”
“No. Why would you think that?”
Now was a golden opportunity to plant some seeds of distrust of Nabiki in Akane. There was always the possibility Nabiki would try to inform her of what Tarou was doing behind her back. He had covered his tracks well, and had fake alibis for a lot of his whereabouts during events he could be accused of wrongdoings, but the middle Tendo was unusually savvy and might cook up some scheme to inconvenience him. Best to cover all the bases.
“I like taking care of my own problems.”
Akane became concerned. “What sort of problem? It doesn’t have anything to do with Nabiki, does it?”
“I’m not sure…” He allowed it to trail off just enough to make it sound as though he wanted to tell but just needed a little push to make him spit it out.
“Tarou. I’m here to help you the way you help me. Now spit it out.”
He had her. Just one more thing. “Promise me you won’t tell anyone.”
She reluctantly agreed to it. It was all in place. “I spotted someone following me. When I confronted him about it I found out Nabiki had put him on me.”
Akane’s eyes grew wide. “Why would she do that?”
Tarou put on an expression of pain. “I think I know why. Remember, the first time I popped up I was tricked into attacking Ranma and Shampoo. I bet they told her stuff about me and now she thinks I’m bad news. She was probably just looking out for your welfare.”
“I can take care of myself,” Akane replied indignantly. “She doesn’t have to do that. She just doesn’t understand you.”
Tarou smiled to himself. It was working.
“I’ll have to talk to her. Don’t worry. I’ll get things straightened out,” Akane said
OOPS. That wouldn’t do. “No! I take care of my own problems. Besides, it would just make her resent me all the more. I’ll just have a pleasant conversation with her and ask her not to do anything. I know how much she means to you and I want to try to get on her good side.”
Akane nodded her head. “Well, she can be manipulative sometimes, so try to keep that in mind when you’re dealing with her. And if she gives you any further trouble you can come to me and I’ll straighten her out. Sometimes she just doesn’t know when to quit. Now, let’s get back to practicing.”
Tarou smiled and went back into his guard position, ready to continue. Now that he had gone a long way in covering his butt, things were really starting to go his way. Once he figured out whom Akane was keeping her training from he might even be able to help her again.
“We’ll go over using kicks into the legs. Just remember that if you’re going to take your opponent out, don’t do it half-assed. Go for something that will leave him crying in pain hours on end.”
Ryonami was a little uneasy about meeting Nabiki at the place she requested. It was not the sort of locale she wished to meet anyone, and love hotels that charged by the hour were definitely on the off list when meeting other girls. No matter how much Ryonami liked her newfound idol and mentor, she was not like Ai and did not enjoy the company of women. If Nabiki was going to come onto her Ryonami was going to have to think of a way to let her down gently. Maybe she was a little fawning when it came to her boss, but she honestly did not believe she was giving off any signals which would make Nabiki think she was coming onto her.
Ryonami paid for the room at the appointed time and left off the fake name Nabiki had told her to use. She headed up and eased herself onto the bed, mentally playing a thousand different speeches in her mind as to how to let her boss down easily. As she played each one in her head she found herself losing courage over the whole idea. Maybe she should go ahead and give in. It wasn’t as though a lot of the guys came on to skinny, plain-looking girls like her.
Just as she decided on a final plan the door slowly opened. Ryonami lay back on the bed and spread out, loudly saying. “All right! I’ll give myself to you!”
When there was no response forthcoming. Ryonami looked up to see a man with long black hair, a longer trenchcoat, and sunglasses enter the bedchamber and draw back, surprised. After a moment the figure composed itself and began speaking.
“Good idea.” It drew the door behind it closed and entered the room. “Remember to moan out every now and then so people think we really are getting it on.”
Ryonami at last placed the voice as the figure started to take off its coat. “Boss?”
“Who were you expecting?” Nabiki said as she took off her disguise and gently laid it on the bed.
“Ahh. No one.” She then quickly corrected. “I mean your disguise is so good that it surprised even me. Why are you dressed like a guy, by the way?”
Nabiki smiled at the compliment and began to explain. “We can’t have anyone seeing us together. I have a job that needs to be done, Ryo-chan, and you are the only one I can trust.”
Ryonami blushed at the compliment. Oh, how her sempai could make her feel like a million yen. If Nabiki were going to proposition her, she would give in. “Whatever it is, I’ll do it. But why me? You’ve only known me for a little over a month.”
“You were the only one that managed to get word to me about Tarou and you don’t seem to have any resentment towards me, like some of the people I work with,” she reluctantly admitted. “Now this might be a bit dangerous. As you know, good old Pantyhose has weaseled his way into my network. What you don’t know is he has threatened me, too.”
Ryonami cringed. “That’s scary. What are you going to do?”
“We are going to rip his fucking balls off and feed them to him.” Nabiki watched Ryonami pale. “Not literally, just figuratively. Now what I need is for you to have a nice, big public fight with me so no one thinks the two of us are getting along. Then you’re going to leave my organization and get out of Tarou’s line of sight. That way you can move freely and get me the information I need to take him down. I’ll get into contact with you secretly here, then the two of us will exchange information and I can give you orders. Is that okay with you?”
Ryonami agreed to everything.
“All right. Jump up and down on the bed and make some noise, just in case someone’s listening. Moan a lot,” Nabiki said as Ryonami raised a small ruckus that would leave the casual listener any doubt as to what was going on in the room.
Two nights later:
Ranma walked through the nighttime streets alone. Lately he had felt more alone than he had in a long time. It had nothing to do with the emotional roller coaster he had gone through when he had truly thought he was a girl; well, that was part of it since bits and pieces of errant memories made their presence known. And not all of them were coming back as part of the prodding others were giving to him. The problem was that with each memory he became more and more revolted with his behavior. The Ryouga ones were the worst so far. It was no wonder when Ranma had insisted Ryouga spill his guts about what he did with him while he was deranged, Ryouga went into ‘Ranma prepare to die’ mode. Were their positions reversed he would have probably done the same thing.
The first memory he had recovered was the bra and panties display he had done for the lost one. If that wasn’t bad enough the worst part about it was he remembered the feelings he had when he confronted Ryouga just like they were his own. As a female, he’d WANTED Ryouga to like her as a girl. It was so bad that when the recollection hit, Ranma had to go to the bathroom and concentrate to keep from losing his lunch. He regarded any feelings for Ryouga along those lines as quite nauseating and tried to keep any other memories from surfacing by pushing them out of his mind when they threatened to come to the forefront. Fortunately they were few and far between, though there was still a slow trickle that seeped through every now and then.
As to the other parts of the loneliness, Shampoo and Akane were to blame for those. Akane had begun spending more time with her friends and less time with Ranma. At first he thought his behavior as a girl might have alienated her, especially since she wouldn’t talk about what the two of them did, but when he confronted Akane about it she had said she was just glad he was back and that he had actually been a pretty nice guy, for a girl. The state of confusion that left him was horrible enough that he decided to let things go and not hassle her about where she was spending her evenings.
Shampoo was even more confusing. He was really worried about her since that night she had disappeared with no explanation. She had returned in the middle of the night and insisted to the wide-awake Ranma that nothing was wrong and she had just been feeling a little odd. Her eyes told a different story. There was a haunted look to them that he had only seen on her when they first encountered one another at Jusenkyou, and that scared him. He remembered the deep depression she had been in, one that had mirrored his own, and if she was now in a similar state of mind that could only mean trouble of the worst kind.
Trying to get her to open up was an exercise in futility. She maintained nothing was wrong and thanked Ranma for being so concerned about her welfare. It wasn’t as though he could beat the information out of her, so he decided to let it go for a couple of days and try again later. Maybe Shampoo’s tongue would loosen up once she realized there were friends for her all around.
As he wandered the streets it began to rain. Predictable, since he lacked an umbrella to keep it off. The rain started to come down heavily as the now female Ranma-chan continued her slow pace. Depression was really starting to weigh her down and was showing itself through her physical actions. Most of the people abandoned the sidewalk as they sought cover under awnings and alcoves to get out of the pouring deluge. Ranma-chan passed a rather large man that was obscured under a heavy rain slicker as he too walked slowly, though in the opposite direction of the girl.
Gemma was walking the rain drenched streets at a slow yet steady pace. He was less than half an hour away from arriving at the soon to be abandoned base of operations the Shogun of the Dark had been using. Events were at last coming to a head. It would just be a little more time before the Shogun’s plan would reach fruition and Gemma would at last have that which he so desperately wanted: total control over Japan.
It had been his obsession since his birth to a poor dirt farmer centuries ago. The early part of his existence had been just that, an existence. His life amounted to nothing and never would. He was going to grow up as an equally poor dirt farmer like his parents, assuming disease or some natural disaster did not catch up to him first.
Fate took a hand in his future then. His parents died in poverty at the hands of one of the local daimyos for no other reason than they had been in the path of his horses. Other boys would have sworn revenge against the daimyo for cutting down one’s family when they were in the spring of their youth. Gemma was different. Had there been anyone around to ask him what he would do to the daimyo for his actions, Gemma would have told them he would make the man a general in his army. The man had opened Gemma’s eyes by showing him life’s most important lessons. The weak deserved one of two fates: serve or die. How unfortunate the daimyo had died of syphilis five years later and missed his opportunity for greatness.
At that point Gemma decided nothing less than the total subjugation of his homeland would satisfy him. He attained immortality and organized the Eight Devils of Kimone to serve him in schemes that would eventually lead to his goal. He even made the mistake of betraying the Shogun of the Dark when he saw an opportunity to take control of Japan for himself. In a way it was fortunate that Jubei sealed him in his ‘Golden Hell’ for several hundred years. Now that he understood what the Shogun truly represented, he knew there were fates worse than being entombed alive while retaining consciousness. Much worse fates. But now he had been given a second chance. He served the Shogun once again, and this time it would be with unwavering loyalty.
The hood of his slicker remained wrapped tightly around his head. The rain was little more than a minor annoyance, but he still disliked getting wet. He passed a short red-haired girl as he made his way up the nearly deserted sidewalk.
The hackles rose on the back of Ranma-chan’s neck. She paused, and almost as though some outside force were controlling her, and slowly turned to look behind her.
Gemma paused. Some intuition told him to turn around and look behind him.
Each figures saw the other one slowly turn around and stare at the other.
Ranma-chan stared at the large man and suddenly had what could only be described as an odd feeling. It was something she couldn’t quite put her finger on. It was simply an urge to look in the man’s eyes.
Gemma stared at the diminutive girl before him. Outside of red hair there was nothing remarkable about her appearance, yet he suddenly had what could only be described as an odd feeling. It was something he couldn’t quite put his finger on. It was simply an urge to look in the girl’s eyes.
There was something about his eyes Ranma-chan didn’t like. Something dangerous about them, as well as the man himself. He wasn’t familiar, she was certain she would remember meeting someone that huge. Despite her feelings that he might be dangerous, the man did nothing other than stare back at her. She could hardly remain standing in the middle of the rain, unprotected and staring at a man she had never met before, so she forced herself to turn and leave.
There was something about her eyes Gemma didn’t like. Something that made him feel threatened, though what danger a little girl still in her teens could do to someone like him was beyond his ability to grasp. She wasn’t familiar, he was certain he would remember meeting someone that made him feel that way. Despite his feelings that she might be a threat, the girl did nothing other than stare back at him. He could hardly remain standing in the middle of the rain and stare at a girl that he had never met before, and couldn’t kill in the middle of the city, so he forced himself to turn and leave.
Each of the figures would push the encounter to the back of their minds. There were more important things to do than worry about peculiar meetings with strangers that they were never going to see again.
Gemma arrived at the base a half hour later. Times had changed and the Shogun had changed with them, using a modern warehouse as his base of operations. The modern aspects of it were offset by the elaborate magic devices that were strewn about the place. Helms, rings, magic sigils, and alchemy reagents were all about, disorganized. The majority of them were going to have to be rounded up and prepared for overseas travel to China. It was all coming together at last. Japan would be his in no more than two months. A person with less control than he would undoubtedly laugh maniacally, but then self-control was what Gemma was all about.
He loudly announced his return and awaited the remaining Devils to flock to his call. It was much to his irritation that only his right hand man, Yurimaru and the blind swordsman, Ututsu Mujuru were present.
Yurimaru knew what was going on through Gemma’s mind and answered before he could ask the question. “Tessai wanted to go out to the city again. He was most insistent and I would have had to use force to keep him here. I opted instead to make him promise not to cause trouble,” Yurimaru explained in his soft, feminine voice.
Gemma’s face was like a block of stone, the expression never changing. “And where is Benisato?”
“She went out a little while ago to make sure Tessai stays out of trouble.”
It was several moments before Gemma spoke again. “I am…displeased.” As he finished his statement he moved to go back outside.
“Allow me to accompany you.” Yurimaru offered.
“No. Benisato will be more than enough to assist me if the need arises,” Gemma said in an even voice, still not betraying a sign of emotion. “Pack up everything. I want it ready to move when I return.” And with that he headed once more into the night, taking note that at least the rain had stopped. He also made a silent vow that if Tessai botched things up he would die again, and this time it would be a lot more painful than simply having his skull sliced through by his own blade.
Inside, Yurimaru gazed forlornly at where Gemma had been.
“So, he still hasn’t accepted you back into his bed yet,” Mujuru said amusedly.
Yurimaru glanced irritatedly at the blind swordsman. In an instant a wire shot out from his hand headed for Mujuru’s throat. The wire never arrived at its destination as Mujuru’s sword was out in an even quicker move and severed the metal in mid-air.
“Do not seek to snare me, or else you will not have to worry about what the Shogun will do to you for causing a disruption in his plans,” Mujuru warned. “I only speak the truth. And if you try to slide that other wire along the floor any closer we shall see who is quicker indeed. And somehow I do not believe Lord Gemma would be enthusiastic about one of us killing the other. Aside from that you know what the Shogun said. I for one wish to enjoy existence without never-ending agony.”
Yurimaru sniffed as he allowed the other wire to flow back into his sleeve. He had forgotten just how acute Mujuru’s hearing was. “Let us pack the belongings then. We should not keep Lord Gemma waiting.”
Tessai carelessly sorted through the compact disk shelves, knocking several of the disks down as he searched for that one elusive title he had heard one of the street punks speak of the other day. How could he resist a band with the name of ‘Johnny Death and the Rapists’?
Since their collective resurrection all of the Devils were given a crash course in what had happened over the ensuing centuries. In truth the Shogun force-fed information of those years into each of the Devils minds in a very painful magical process. Tessai hated the pain, but was not foolish enough to risk what the Shogun would do to him if he showed even the faintest sign of rebellion. The cowled man made certain they understood that by inflicting what he called only the tiniest amount of pain on each of them, save Gemma. That ‘tiny amount’ turned each one of them into drooling buckets of inarticulate flesh for the better part of a day. Even if he was bluffing, Tessai wanted no part of that agony again.
So the lot of them strove to understand what the brave new world was like. Of all of them Tessai was the first to adapt to the world. He had seen the changes and liked them. Liked them a lot! Debauchery and bloodshed was rampant throughout the world. Everything that had been hidden behind closed doors in the past was now open. Women showed off their flesh in public and the standards of beauty had been raised considerably. How ironic that in the ‘good old days’ a woman could be considered attractive if she didn’t have warts.
And that wasn’t even considering what kind of weapons that were now prevalent. Guns had replaced bows and arrows. Explosives had become more effective, and the damage weapons made was every bit as bloody as what was used in the past. The only complaint he would make was that they lacked the personal touch. There was no replacing the feeling one got when the shock was felt through the arm of a weapon making contact with flesh. He always got a kick out of that.
Then there were the sub-cultures that had developed while they had been dead. The one Tessai had already fallen in love with. He was now adorned in the raiment of those ones. A leather outfit, custom made for his seven foot six hundred pound frame, was worn out in the open now. It felt so much better than the rags he once wore. Everyone agreed that the clothing was made better. And then there was the series of tattoos he had up and down each arm. Oh, the tattoo artist appeared so startled when Tessai informed him of the number and kinds of body artwork he wanted on his arms. There was nothing like painting the entrails of an eviscerated man in a human canvas. That was among other images of horror that joined the first one that night. The artist was shocked that Tessai could withstand that much pain in one sitting, but he had done his job well enough that Tessai even gave him a big tip. It was a good thing for the artist that Tessai enjoyed the work; the man would not have liked the response if he hadn’t.
But the thing that excited him the most wasn’t the weaponry. It wasn’t the clothing. It was the music. There was nothing from his time period that could compare with the cacophony of noise that had been created during his death. The first time he had heard the symphonic clash of heavy metal music he knew he had found home. For the first time in his life he was moved to tears. Even his first kill could not compare to the emotions he felt when he heard the music.
Some of the Devils expressed reservations about the world they were in. Those ones were fools. The world had not advanced past the Eight Devils of Kimone.
It had caught up to them.
Tessai at last found the CD he was looking for and purchased it. It was with an amused grin that he noticed the store clerk looked greatly relieved at his departure. Time had not made people more stupid, at least in that respect.
As he walked out of the store he realized he was in an exquisite mood. Everything was just perfect, perhaps the first time since his rebirth.
Then the boy ran into him.
It was a particularly powerful jostle for one so small. The boy mumbled something about being sorry and continued on. From what Tessai could make out, the bandanna-clad youth was in a deep state of depression. He wasn’t going to have to worry about it much longer, Tessai would see to that. The little fool had disrupted the large man’s mood. He quickly discarded the promise he had made to Yurimaru about keeping out of trouble. Besides, how much difficulty could it be to kill one short, rude teenager?
Ryouga was feeling exceptionally depressed on this particular evening. That should have been an unusual feeling for the boy who had everything he wanted. A girlfriend. A good friend. A job. A roof over his head. That was all he needed to make him happy. Or that was what he had told himself for so many years. Now that he at last had everything, save revenge on Ranma, he should have been pleased. But he wasn’t, and he thought he knew why. Ukyou. She had been acknowledging him less and less, almost as though she no longer liked him. He had tried on three separate occasions to get her to talk about anything, even the lousy weather, but all she would do was give short answers and go back to petting her rabbit while she watched TV. After the third attempt Ryouga could take it no longer and headed outside, grabbing his umbrella to fend off the pouring rain. He spared one last glance at Ukyou, who he could have sworn was moving her head back from staring at him, and headed out into the night.
He managed to avoid getting wet until the rain stopped, but did get lost. Hardly a surprise there. He was overdue for a bout of aimless wandering in circles. He was so lost in misery at the idea he had done something to offend his friend that he barely registered the impact into the huge man coming out of the music store. A muttered, distracted apology was all he could muster as he continued on his aimless way.
His path took him to a deserted park. It was here that he finally broke down and raged at the skies above. If everything he wanted wasn’t enough to make him happy, what was going to be?
He looked up to the heavens above. “WHY ARE YOU DOING THIS TO ME? WHEN WILL THIS MISERY END?!!!”
Ryouga looked up in confusion until he realized the voice had not come from above, but from behind him. He heard the whistling of an object hurtling towards him and looked back just in time to see a huge spinning weapon heading directly towards him. Reflexes took over as he leaped out of its path with less than half a second to spare. The thing flew on to a small cluster of trees and cut through them effortlessly as it continued its circular course back to its original direction. The weapon was snagged in mid-air by a hand that was attached to a giant of a man. Now that the object had stopped, Ryouga had a chance to stare at the missile weapon in amazement. It was a gigantic blade that appeared to be two giant swords stuck together. Combined they were as long as Ryouga and appeared to weigh close to two hundred pounds. Even Ryouga would have found it as least mildly uncomfortable to lug it around.
“What are you, crazy?!” Ryouga shouted. “You could have killed me.”
“That was the idea,” Tessai grunted. “You’re rather spry. Looks like I’m actually going to have to try hard to carve you up.”
He placed the weapon behind his back and it disappeared as though it were magic. Ryouga picked up on the posture of the huge man and prepared to vent some of his own frustrations at the man who had done the wrong thing, to the wrong guy, at the wrong time.
Benisato wandered the streets looking for the wayward Devil. Tessai was getting more like a loose cannon every day and it was going to cost the lot of them. It wasn’t that she gave a damn about the man personally. He could go back to rotting in Hell as far as she was concerned, but like Gemma she desired a piece of the world to do with as she pleased. Her depredations were nowhere near the level of Tessai’s or Mushizo’s, but she knew she was unquestionably what the modern day doctors referred to as sociopathic. Not that that mattered to her. She was what she was without apology, just like the rest of the Devils. But she lacked the desire to do anything so depraved as ripping off the limbs of her victims and drinking their blood. Tessai really had developed some unusual habits over time.
Just as she was about to start searching yet another section of the town she heard the sounds of battle nearby.
“Tessai,” she mumbled under her breath.
Tessai found himself thrown back into a wall again. It was really getting absurd. His opponent was a mere youth that should have been destroyed in a matter of moments, yet not only was he holding his own, he was actually winning the fight. The boy had a great deal of skill and was incredibly strong, and the combination was giving Tessai fits.
A right hook caught Tessai’s opponent squarely on the jaw. It was a blow that would have decapitated a normal man. The boy just shook his head and nailed Tessai in the chest once more. Tessai decided it was time to pull out all of the stops. Since he was bound to attract attention anyway, he revealed his own supernatural ability, which he had kept hidden as per Lord Gemma’s request. Not that revealing it made a bit of difference to him. There was only a couple of months left for the world anyway, assuming the Shogun’s plan worked at all. Besides, if changing didn’t work he could always resort to using the sword once more.
Ryouga was startled to see his opponent grin at him and stand still. Maybe he had hit the man too hard and addled his brain. That would be a surprise considering how much punishment the man had already absorbed and that he appeared ready for more. And his strength was great too, almost as much as the Dojo Destroyer. Though this big man had a lot more maneuverability.
Sensing the fight was almost over, Ryouga decided to pull his punch so as not to inflict any fatal damage on the man. Even if the guy had used lethal force at the beginning of the battle that did not mean the lost one was eager to kill him.
Ryouga drew back his fist and aimed for the huge man’s solar plexus. Just as it was about to connect the shape of the man changed. Before Ryouga could react the man had grown close to another foot and his skin changed to that of stone. Very hard stone, as Ryouga could now attest to as his hand slammed into it rather painfully.
“Nice fight. Good bye!”
Tessai brought his fist down on top of Ryouga’s head, the blow driving Ryouga three inches into the ground. Tessai’s joy at the blow was cut short as he realized that Ryouga had not only survived it, but picked himself up and punched back, a lot harder this time as Tessai felt the impact of the blow, even through his stone-covered skin. Once more he backed up and this time drew his giant twin-sword blade, intent on splitting the lost one in twain.
The resuming of the duel was halted as a soft feminine voice spoke up.
“Now, now boys. There’s no need to fight.”
Ryouga looked up to see a beautiful woman standing on one of the newly half-demolished walls that surrounded the park. What little clothing she wore left very little to the imagination. And there was something almost hypnotic about her eyes.
“Stay out of this, Benisato,” Tessai warned. “It’s my fight. The little puke is about to die.”
Benisato snickered at Tessai show of bravado. “You promised to behave and look what you’ve done. I can’t wait to see what Gemma’s going to do to you, after I take you back.” With that she undid the clasp on the back of her nearly nonexistent dress. The garment fell to the ground, leaving her covered in nothing save a number of tattoos of long green snakes that adorned her body.
Ryouga wasn’t able to begin his typical nosebleed. The woman’s eyes seemed to bore into his soul. He could just make out Tessai say something when the large man’s own voice dropped to almost nothing. It was then Ryouga noticed that the snake tattoos were now moving of their own volition. The effect was totally hypnotic as Ryouga suddenly lost the will to do anything other than watch the woman allow the serpents to move.
Benisato watched with an amused glance as the two men stared at her, caught up in the pattern of snakes. With both of them completely under her control she hopped down to the ground and recovered her clothing. Tessai was going to come with her, but she now had the problem of what to do with Ryouga. They were supposed to keep a low profile while still in Japan. If she killed him he might be missed, and the last thing they needed was some sort of investigation launched into their direction. If she left him alive then he might report them to the police. But would they believe him when he said that he had fought a man who turned to stone? Of course not. They would just assume the boy had been mugged and was confused about the nature of his attackers. With her course of action decided upon she left Ryouga where he was and headed back to the base with the compliant Tessai in tow. Gemma was going to have a field day with Tessai’s actions today. It would serve the ass right if he was killed for his incompetence.
Tessai woke up to see Gemma in front of him. He did not waste words on excuses. He was not weak and Gemma would not listen anyway.
“I’ll give you a choice. You may accept punishment from me instead the Shogun.
That was no choice at all. “I’m all yours,” Tessai informed him.
The beating was almost enjoyable compared to what the Shogun had done to him when he first awakened. Tessai would be able to walk within hours after his punishment. Gemma must have been in an awful good mood to go so easy on him. Probably glad he dodged the bullet, so to speak. Tessai swore to himself if the he ever found the boy again he was going to break every bone in his body, then rip off his head and drink all of the blood that flowed from the headless stump.
Ryouga recovered after a couple of hours. It was much to his irritation that no one had even attempted to snap him out of the trance. From what he heard from the passers-by everyone seemed to have assumed it was some kind of performance piece. But the worst part about it was that every pigeon in the park must have used him for target practice.
If he ever laid eyes upon the stone guy again he was really going to give him a piece of his mind.
Shampoo-kun decided it would be best to have the upcoming conversation as a male. Kasumi was always responsive, but under these conditions it was probably a necessary tool to get his point across. Now that the two of them were alone in the house they could have the conversation without the risk of being overheard by anyone other than Birdy, and he wasn’t going to be telling anyone.
He entered the kitchen and approached Kasumi. The actual amount of time she spent in there or cleaning up the house was extraordinary. How anyone could spend so much time doing the same thing over and over again was amazing. And yet she seemed so happy all the time. If he didn’t know her so well he would probably have assumed that was all she was interested in. But he knew better, or so he thought. She had other, perfectly normal desires, she just kept them bottled up or pretended they weren’t there. The impulses might not have been as strong in her as others, but they were there. Every now and then she would open up just a little around him, usually when he was male but sometimes when he was a girl, and he began to suspect there were other things going on inside.
The conversation he had with Nabiki several weeks ago about the situation came back to mind. She said Kasumi had actually been less open before his arrival. It was difficult for him to believe that, but it somehow felt as though those words were true. Nabiki had even gone out of her way to provide some subtle encouragement in that direction, almost as a de facto mother for Kasumi in a way, or at least as a sister looking out for another one’s welfare.
“Kasumi,” he intoned softly.
She turned from washing the dishes and smiled. An errant thought occurred to him. She always seemed to smile, but never laugh. He couldn’t think of the last time she had really given a hearty laugh, or even a small one. He wanted to hear her laugh, even if it was only once. He wanted to hear what that voice would sound like as it roared with laughter.
“What is it?” Kasumi asked.
He gave a shake of his head. His thoughts were so focused on Kasumi that he had forgotten where he was. No time should be wasted. He wanted to cut through the chase and get to the point. Something about the meeting with Domino still disturbed him since nightmares of that mysterious rendezvous still plague his sleep.
“What if I could make you happy?” There. It was out.
“I am happy.”
He should have anticipated the response. “No. I mean ‘happy’.” He made certain to emphasize the last word.
“I am ‘happy,’” she placed an equal amount of emphasis on the word while continuing to appear as though she did not understand what point he was trying to get across. It was so difficult to tell when she really understood and feigned obliviousness and when she really was in the dark as to what was going on.
He walked over to her and placed his hands on her hips, drawing her closer to him. “No. I mean ‘happy’.”
“Oh, ‘happy.’” At last she understood as she suddenly became nervous in his embrace. Then another thought struck her. “Is something wrong? Did grandfather Happosai find some of that Water of Permanency and splash you with it?”
He shook his head. Leave it to Kasumi to think something was wrong with him when he tried to have a heart to heart discussion. “No. I just want to know what you would feel if I was able to make you happy.”
Surprisingly, Kasumi eased her way out of his grasp. “I don’t like answering things like ‘what if’ questions. If it isn’t going to happen then it’s pointless to ask.”
He pressed on. Something inside him needed to know. “Please answer.”
Kasumi responded with a question of her own. “Do you want to be a boy?”
“Not really,” he answered. And it was true, but if there were a chance that he could be separated into two opposites sexes as the price of removing the curse he might be able to go through with it.
“Exactly. If you weren’t happy then I couldn’t be either. So enough of this talk. I could use help in cleaning up.”
Shampoo-kun went to cleaning the dishes, not feeling like talking any more. That discussion had solved next to nothing and did nothing to ease his mind at all. It was all probably nonsensical thoughts anyway. There probably wasn’t any twins water in all of Japan.
Perfume walked with a slow pace to the appointed meeting place. At last Be Dea felt that Cologne had enough of a head start that it would not appear too suspicious to send Perfume onto Shampoo’s trail. Perfume was filled with trepidation at the task given to her. At first she thought up many different ways of getting out of it. Yes, she wanted to prove herself to everyone, she was not over that particular obsession and might not ever rid herself of it, but hunting down Shampoo and dragging her to her death felt terribly wrong. While it was true she owed Shampoo nothing, the longtime burning hatred was completely gone, replaced by the desire to have the best friend she had ever made back at her side where Shampoo belonged.
Before she had been assigned the task she expected Shampoo to return to the village, cured and ready to fall back into the role of champion of the Amazons. Several times Perfume considered returning to Jusenkyou and getting some Nyanniichuan herself, but each time she even thought about it the memory of being a sloth returned and her courage quickly faltered. She would never go back to that terrible place. Never. Shampoo was going to have to discover her own cure.
Perfume had finally settled on a plan to avoid going out on the hunt. The surest way was for her to break a leg. Just as she was in the process of getting the materials to do it something occurred to her. If she didn’t go someone else would. Naturally whoever was assigned the task would fail, but they could possibly stumble onto Shampoo’s curse. Then Shampoo would go from simply being recalled to being branded a fugitive from justice. Given the stigma still attached to the Nanniichuan curse there was little doubt the council would demand her immediate return by force, or worse, pass sentence on the fugitive without her being present and order an execution squad instead. So Perfume decided to accept the task with a smile on her face. After all, who said she couldn’t take her time in bringing Shampoo back? Actually, no one even knew where Shampoo was located, so no one would question how long it took to track her down.
With her spirits uplifted she at last arrived at the rendezvous where Be Dea waited for her. The two exchanged greetings as Be Dea began to happily inform Perfume of her final instructions.
“<Are you ready, child?>”
“<Yes, Elder.>” Perfume patted her light backpack and hefted her new titanium-alloy naginata. No one would slice her new weapon in half this time.
“<Excellent! By the way. Those are some interesting ideas in your little ‘revised’ edition of the ‘Art of War’.>” Be Dea was shocked to discover that most of them made a great deal of sense. Perfume really was amazing.
“<Thank you, Elder.>” Perfume kept her real opinion to herself. Of course they made sense. She would not have done them if they didn’t.
Be Dea was practically bubbling with excitement. “<You are to set out immediately. I’ve already instructed the others to wait by the gates for you, that way I can give the final instructions once you are all gathered together.>”
Perfume felt her throat constrict. “<What others, Elder?>”
Be Dea continued bouncing around like a woman one quarter of her age. “<I have selected eighteen of the best of the young warriors to accompany you.>”
“<I work best alone.>” Perfume could only pray that her protest would be enough. There was no other leverage with which to employ. If there were any others around her plans were going to be all for naught.
Be Dea took on a serious demeanor. “<This matter is too important to take any chances. Xian-Pu needs to come back and this will increase your advantage.>” She began to take a more reassuring tone. “<It’s not that I believe you cannot accomplish this task alone, I am certain you can, there are other reasons I want all of the girls to accompany you. One is that they need to get out in the world. You are proof of what can be achieved if the young ones leave the nest and get a taste of what life outside the village is like. We’ve been too closed off of late and have fallen out of touch with the rest of the world. They need to see it for what it is and stand on their own for a little while.>”
Perfume nodded her head in agreement. She had come to those same conclusions when she returned from her absence.
“<And there is one other reason. I wish to test your leadership skills.>”
“<My leadership skills?>” That came out almost as a whisper.
“<Yes,>” Be Dea said. “<If you are successful in this mission, and if you demonstrate good leadership qualities, I will consider you as the top contender for the next leader of the tribe. You will, of course, need more training. A decade more, at least. But I will tell you this now, if you are even half the leader I believe you can be then the future of the tribe is assured. You have impressed me like no other, and that is saying a lot. With my backing you’ll be set on the golden path to leadership. Just don’t forget the little people like me when you’re at the top,” she joked.
Perfume began to sweat as she felt her heartbeat quicken and she walked around in an almost daze-like manner. The same word kept repeating itself in her mind. Leadership. She could be leader. All she had to do was what came naturally to her and she would receive the political backing of one of the most influential elders on the council. Her mind quickly processed the information she had just received. Once it was known that Shampoo had the Nanniichuan curse and that Cologne had known about it, the matriarch would be disgraced and fall from her role, her power base removed. Be Dea was next in line and would be the most influential leader the tribe would have seen in quite some time. And Perfume would be the next in line after that.
Four years of an obsession came to the forefront of her mind once again. She would be respected and openly acknowledged as the best. All would listen to her, she who was once the weakest and a joke. Then she would at last put those laughing demons that had mocked her to rest.
Reality intruded on the open-eyed dream. She was already openly acknowledged as the best amongst her peers. Well, except for Shampoo, who no one knew she had fought and lost to a second time. Shampoo, who was still better than her. Of course that might not have been the case anymore. Perfume had been practicing hard since her return home. One did not spend six years of constant training and just discontinue it at the drop of a hat. With her new chi technique she could possibly beat Shampoo one on one, and prove she was the dominant force of the Joketsuzoku. But there was still the problem of what to do about Shampoo. As Perfume weighed her desire to lead against her new relationship with Shampoo, the desire to keep her friend alive actually felt better than attaining her lifelong dream. But honor now demanded she bring the girl in, the consequences be damned. Perfume was not yet prepared to sacrifice her word like that. She was stuck between the classic rock and a hard place. And everything was getting worse.
Be Dea ushered her over to where a number of young girls waited. A quick count proved there were indeed eighteen of them, most having fallen to Perfume since her return. There would be hard feelings among some of the crowd. Their ages ranged from the oldest at twenty-four, to the youngest at age fifteen. All in all it was quite a motley assortment of warriors before her. By plugging herself in the social structure of the village once again Perfume knew of some of the rivalries that had formed in her absence, and more than a few were represented here. Be Dea knew what she was talking about when she said this would be an effective test of her leadership abilities. Such various temperaments among so many young ones far from home would make controlling the collection difficult.
She should have been relieved at the idea that she had been given such an eclectic group. It would only serve to interfere in the hunt. But part of her was already automatically trying to figure out who needed to be kept from whom and how Perfume would use her skills at forcing them to get along without them realizing it. She was already trying to figure out how to lead them effectively.
“<Listen,>” Be Dea commanded as all of the girls quieted down and listened to the elder. “<Most of you already know what your mission is, but a few things need to be cleared up. First: Your job is to bring back Xian-Pu. This is of paramount importance and the whole reason you are going. It is the order of the council and must be obeyed at all costs. You are authorized to use whatever force is necessary to bring her back if she resists. Whatever force.>”
Perfume saw a few smiles grow at that and made a mental note of them. Shampoo had made more than a few enemies in Perfume’s absence, and some of them would need little provocation to try to take Shampoo down if an opportunity presented itself. And given what shape Shampoo had been in when she last saw her, there was little doubt she would not be compliant and a bloodbath would follow.
“<Second: Perfume is in charge. You will obey her without question. If you have any complaints about how she treats you, you will wait until you return to inform me of them. Unless she does something that threatens the mission itself, obey her.>”
Perfume silently cursed. That meant some of the girls would be waiting for an opportunity to knock Perfume from her perch should she appear to shield Shampoo in any way. It was getting just better and better.
“<Third: You will not fail. There are nineteen of you and only one of her. As good as she is, you are far superior. This is a test for all of you. Failure would be looked down upon…seriously.>”
Mumbles of ‘Jusenkyou’ emanated from the warriors. Things were now worse than ever for Perfume. The girls were now motivated by a common goal and a threat of punishment. There would be no way of taking them off of their desire to accomplish the mission now. The only thing Perfume had going was that no one knew where Shampoo was.
“<Ah! Just who I wanted to see,>” Be Dea said as someone had at last arrived.
Perfume turned to see that Silk had arrived. That made little sense. She was a friend of Cologne’s and would provide little assistance in helping to track down Shampoo.
Many of the warriors warmly greeted Silk as she arrived, while she looked suspiciously at the group before her. “<What did you want, Elder?>”
“<Where did you find the matriarch?>”
Silk looked quizzically at Be Dea. “<Nerima, Japan. Why?>”
Be Dea didn’t answer, but rather turned to Perfume. “<That is where you will begin your hunt. I have little doubt that where Ku-Lon went, Xian-Pu will be close by. Julep! Come here!>”
Perfume looked confusedly at Be Dea. Julep was coming along? As a girl sat up from a crouched position in the back Perfume saw that the wild looking, raven-haired Julep was indeed part of the party. The girl must have been hidden towards the back in order for Perfume to miss her.
Julep was an unusual case. She was one of the rare children that had been born of the bloodline of the Musk Dynasty, while not being an actual member of it. From what Perfume had heard, Julep’s grandmother had been defeated by an exiled member of the Wolf Line of the Musk (Mint’s grandfather, if the rumors were true), and had one child with her: Julep’s mother. The rumors among the older folk who remembered the man seemed to universally agree that he was little more than a berzerker that was bad news wherever he went. When he died in a tragic ‘accident’ in which he was apparently stabbed, drowned, and poisoned, no one wept for his loss.
The mother took after Julep’s grandmother and had very little in the way of the wolf attributes that her father possessed. But when Julep came along the wolf in her showed. It was widely regarded that she was even more feral than her grandfather had been. She possessed slitted eyes, which always seemed to have a wild gleam to them. She was incredibly quick and also very independent minded, getting along with few others. On the outside she preferred to appear as though she had just gotten out of bed all the time. After she hit the age of twelve she had moved out on her own to the hills surrounding the village. Few ever saw her, save the occasional times she would wander into Joketsuzoku for supplies. There was also one other attribute Perfume had almost forgotten. Her sense of smell was so great she could track people with it.
Perfume’s suspicions were confirmed when Be Dea announced that Julep would be able to track down Shampoo with ease. Perfume was about to mention something to the elder when she realized Julep was looking her over, even going so far as to sniff the air in front of Perfume. After apparently coming to a decision, she nodded he head.
“<It’ll be a pleasure working with you,>” Julep said, then turned and rejoined the group of girls.
“<Impressive,>” Be Dea muttered. “<She rarely warms up to people that fast. I practically had to order her to come along.> She shifted her attention to the rest of the unit. “<You can start talking with your group and get better acquainted with them. I expect you to leave within the hour.>”
Perfume bowed as Be Dea departed with Silk in tow.
Silk looked concerned towards Be Dea. “<Why did you need to know the matriarch’s whereabouts?>”
“<We are going to bring back Xian-Pu. She has been gone for far too long and I have a feeling she is somewhere near Ku-Lon.>” Be Dea gazed suspiciously at Silk. “<Don’t worry. I’m sure she’s done nothing wrong. We just think it’s best for her to come back. There are some terrible rumors that need to be put to rest and everyone is eager to see a rematch between her and Perfume. Outside of the Musk, that is one of the most talked about topics around.>”
“<Of course. I can’t wait to see it either.>” Silk smiled happily, all the while trying to decide what to do.
Perfume was in an uproar. Too much was happening too quickly and it appeared, at least initially, that she was going to have to bring Shampoo back after all. Curses were thought about why she had to be stupid enough not to go with the broken leg plan. As the myriad of thoughts overwhelmed her senses one of the warriors approached her. Perfume shifted her attention to the large and heavily muscled girl. It was one whom she had not fought against since her return. A quick visual inspection told her in moments who the girl was.
Cabinet prostrated herself before Perfume. “<I have come to beg for your forgiveness.>”
Perfume looked quickly around to see she had suddenly become the center of attention. She grabbed the prone Amazon before her and practically dragged her away from the rest of the group. Once out of sight she took the time to finally talk to the girl. “<What was that all about?>”
The large girl went to her knees. “<It is a form of apology. I committed a grievous wrong against you many years ago and I have lacked the courage to apologize to you before now.>”
Perfume was not the sort of person that was easily surprised. Her life had the blessing/curse of ‘living in interesting times’. She knew unexpected things occurred frequently, so she went into life expecting the unusual. But this was a bit much. The girl before her bore no resemblance to the bully who liked to ambush those that dared to defeat her.
“<I accept. May I ask when you saw the light?>”
Cabinet seemed greatly relieved by the acceptance and explained. “<Just last year. It was nothing really momentous, as though someone made me pay for the sort of things I was doing. It was gradual. I realized what I was doing was just wrong and decided to change my ways. I have apologized to all of the others save yourself and Shampoo.>”
“<I have been here for a while. Why did you wait for so long?>”
Cabinet hesitated, then chose to go on. “<The two of you defeated me and could have told others what I did, or taken vengeance yourselves on what I tried to do to you. Yet you did nothing, and for that I am grateful.>”
The seed of an idea was forming in Perfume’s mind. “<You still owe an apology to Shampoo then?>”
“<How are your combat skills now?>”
“<I am one of the five best fighters for our age,>” she said without a hint of bravado.
Perfume’s instincts told her the change was from within, and was backed by strength, as opposed to weakness that was inflicted by others. The girl was telling the truth. Perfume would take the chance. “<I admire a person that can admit when they are wrong. Allow me to show you how much faith I have in allowing you to be my second in command. If you’re up to it.>”
Cabinet nearly cried out in joy. “<I accept! Thank you for your confidence. I promise I won’t let you down.>”
Perfume gave her a genuine smile. With the right words here and there she had little doubt that she would soon have someone who just might see things her way. Now all she had to do was convince seventeen others that she was a leader that could take them to hell and back.
And maybe she could get them to do it with a smile on their faces.
The next day:
Ai was putting the finishing touches on her make-up when she heard her sister shout out that one of her girlfriends was visiting. The comment was followed by a strange noise and then a howl.
Ai happily got up to greet her arrival, and if it were Ukyou the greeting would be a hug and a kiss. It was much to Ai’s disappointment that it was only Minami, who was accompanied by a small dog, in the hallway. The ghost sweeper appeared as though she was angry at the little creature.
“That’ll teach you to call me someone’s ‘girlfriend,’” she grumbled at the dog, who scurried away in fright.
“Where’s Mariko?” Ai asked.
“Probably peeing on one of your carpets.”
Ai understood immediately and smiled. Hopefully Minami could make the change permanent. Ai couldn’t wait to ‘housebreak’ her sister.
“Are you the guest my sister was talking about?” Minami nodded, causing Ai to frown. “Darn! I hoped my true love had finally come over.”
Minami gave a wicked grin. “You aren’t going to have to worry about that anymore.”
Ai grabbed Minami by the collar. “What have you done to my Ukyou?”
“Didn’t do a thing. She’s not my type,” she quickly, and nervously, answered.
Ai released the hold and continued to scowl evilly at Minami. The ghost sweeper picked up on this and paused to reconsider her actions. Ai wasn’t likely to take to a ‘cure’ that would threaten her relationship with Ukyou, so she was going to have to go about it the sneaky way.
“I have a gift for you.” Minami brought out the pair of earrings with pearls in them, one of them being the magical one that would hopefully disrupt the magical influence Ai was under.
Ai shook her head. “I cannot accept gifts from you. My interest is only in Ukyou. Besides, you aren’t very attractive.”
Minami’s face began to twitch. She had done too much and taken spent a great deal of time trying to get the cure and Ai was going to take it if it was the last thing on Earth she did. Minami placed her hand on Ai’s shoulder.
“Don’t be so familiar with me,” Ai warned.
“It’s not from me,” Minami lied. “It’s from Ukyou. She was too embarrassed to give it to you herself.”
Ai gave a squeal of delight and snatched the earrings out of Minami’s hand. When her hand came into contact with them she froze.
“How do you feel?” Minami asked.
Ai did not answer right away. Instead she began shaking, then turned red. Minami noticed a very familiar look return to those eyes. It was then Minami saw the smile start to widen on Ai’s face, and began to wonder if maybe Ukyou had made a mistake. Most demons looked more pleasant then the girl before her.
Ai suddenly stopped all the shaking and gave Minami a level gaze.
To be continued.
Special thanks to:
The Dream running scene was inspired by UruseiYatsura Movie 2: Beautiful Dreamer.
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