Akiko Yoshida breathed a sigh of relief as she finally arrived at the bridge. It had only taken her two days to find it since the TWPOS had set sail from China. At least that was where she had been told they had been since she hadn’t been able to find the gangplank to get off the ship when it landed. Now it was time to get down to business. There would be no more aimless wandering for the ship during her absence. It was her job to see to it they made it to their destination in all due haste, and only she could navigate the ship to where it needed to go.
As she approached the navigational console, she paused mid-step as her eyes fell upon a stranger who was leaning over her map covered desk. Territorial instincts flared as she advanced upon him.
“What are you doing at MY station?”
All heads turned to the speaker, then all but the man she had addressed suddenly found things more interesting at their own stations. Such things as coffee stains, neat switches, and the random blinking of lights on consoles that no one knew how to operate, or even what purpose they served.
The man smirked as Aki came next to him. He stood at least a foot taller than her and was pleasantly amused that he towered over the girl by so much. “The captain warned me about you. You must be the little girl that gets lost going to the bathroom. Well, I’ve been hired to accurately navigate this ship. Apparently the captain feels actually heading directly to his destination instead of drifting around aimlessly for a week before getting there is in his, and the ship’s, best interest. Now why don’t you go try to find yourself. It should only take about a week.”
Every other head remained pointed downward as the bridge crew listened to the conversation continue.
“What’s this?” Aki asked.
The man raised his eyebrow at the question. She was pointing at her forehead. “Your bandanna?”
Aki shook her head. “Nope. Get closer.”
He leaned in and stared directly at the spot she was pointing. “Your forehead?”
Aki shook her head again. “Get closer.”
He did, getting so close that he could see each of the pores on her skin. “I don’t know. A pimple?”
Aki drew her head back then brought it forward, crashing her skull into his. The man slumped to the ground, unconscious. “It was you getting knocked out with the ‘Aki Crusher’. Some navigator.” She went to the console and examined the man’s calculations. As she suspected they were way off. The path he plotted to Japan was a terrible one. It would have served the captain right if she had left the would-be navigator at his position. She recalculated the course and gave the new course to the helmsman. “This is where you want to go.”
The helmsman examined the course three times to make sure he understood. “This takes us west. Isn’t Japan to the east?”
The helmsman panicked as Aki’s face twitched. “Excuse me, are you implying that you are the navigator?”
“N… n… no! I’m just a helmsman, ma’am.”
“First: don’t call me ma’am, I work for a living. Second: since you are the helmsman, it’s your job to steer the ship using directions the navigator, that’s me by the way, provides for you. Well your navigator has given you directions, shouldn’t you follow them?”
The man watched her cross her arms and began tapping her foot, impatiently waiting for the right answer. He agreed with her and began following the zigzag course that had been given to him. Who cared how long it took to go somewhere? All that mattered was getting there alive.
Aki paused before leaving the bridge. “If the guy wakes up tell him he will do nothing but stand next to my station and learn that there is only one navigator on this ship. And if he even breathes hard on my charts I’ll come back and really do something he’ll regret. Is that understood?”
Everyone nodded their heads.
Aki nodded in approval. “I’m going to meet the captain.” As she left the bridge she picked up a nearby boat hook and began whistling to the tune of Chopin’s ‘Funeral March.’
Silk looked at the descending sun again. It was to the front of the ship, just as she thought. They were heading in the opposite direction of Japan. What were the idiots that ran the ship doing? Time was of the essence since she had to get to Nerima before it was too late. Just as she was about to make her way to the bridge the object of her ire ran from around a corner and nearly bowled her over.
“You’re just the man I wanted to see, captain.”
“I can’t talk to you now! There’s some captainy things I need to do!” Captain D'Amour appeared scared as he attempted to run around Silk, but found his way blocked each and every time, the Amazon not about to allow him to leave.
Silk was about to speak up when Aki barreled around the corner, mad as hell. Her first wild swing with the boat hook nearly took off both Silk and D'Amour’s heads. Silk quickly got out of the way of the lunatic girl as Aki confronted the captain, weapon at the ready. Years of Amazon training taught her to never get in the way of a crazed woman trying to kill a man. It never paid off.
The captain held up his hands in a desperate, warding manner. “Aki, I have no idea how that horrible person got on the ship and tried to take over your job,” he pleaded. “Why don’t we do the same thing to this one that we did to the last impostor. We’ll throw a party. He’ll walk the plank. You can wear the eye-patch and dead parrot on your shoulder. It’ll be a great time and I guarantee you’ll feel better.” He narrowly ducked the swing directed at his head.
“LIAR!!!” Aki shouted. “You hired him to take my place! You think I’m a lousy navigator!”
“I didn’t actually say that.” The finger he held up to make the point nearly got taken off with the next swing from the boat hook.
“Well I’ve got news for you!” Aki raged. “You’re a shitty captain! Your idea of doing ‘captainy things’ is getting drunk and letting everyone else do your dirty work and run the ship! All you know how to do is give screwed up orders and hit on every girl that gets on this piece of crap hulk!”
The captain was offended. “I never hit on the ugly chicks.”
He dodged another swing, this one aimed at his crotch.
“You lead us into trouble no matter where we go!” Aki shouted as she swung. “You have offended almost every other seagoing vessel, sailor, and sea animal between here and the Arctic Ocean!” Another swing. “Do you have any idea how many ships would open fire on us if they didn’t consider this… thing not worth the effort of sinking?!”
“You’re exaggerating.” D'Amour defended. “I do not offend people. I am kind and courteous to every ship that we meet.”
Aki shook her head in disbelief. “You hooked up all the speakers and radios on the ship and called Madame Lao the ‘Slut of the Seven Seas’ at every port we’ve stopped at! Everyone in the Indian Ocean has heard it!”
“She is!” D'Amour shouted as though he had been offended by the mere mention of his rival’s name. “That floating bordello of hers is an offense to nature! It should be sent to the bottom of the ocean!”
“You’re just jealous because she refused your advances and wouldn’t let you sleep with any of the women on board!”
“I would never lower myself to that level of desperation!” D'Amour declared, the muttered something about the ‘dyke bitch’.
“Her ship’s magical and heavily armed! She could sink us at will!”
“Don’t be so sure of that. This ship can take anything that’s thrown at it. Just take this guardrail for example.” He moved over and placed his hand on it. “It’s one of the sturdiest pieces on board this whole vessel. It can stand up to anything!” As he placed his hand on the metal it gave way, allowing D'Amour to stand there with a large piece of guardrail in his hand. “I should have seen that one coming,” he muttered as he examined the metal.
“Let’s find out if you can see this one coming!” She swung again.
This time the captain dodged and leaped up onto the top of a jutting pipe that served no useful function, getting out of Aki’s easy reach. “I just realized something. This isn’t about me hiring someone to take your place.”
Aki stared at him in disbelief once more. “Of course it is!”
“Nope.” He smugly shook his head. “It’s about me not hitting on you. Well I’m sorry, Aki. It’s not that you aren’t attractive, I just don’t want to end up in traction like the last guy you romanced.”
Silk looked on in horror as Aki stood there, face twitching and remaining silent. She casually discarded her boat hook and went for a nearby anchor. Easily picking it up, she advanced towards D'Amour.
“I WOULD NEVER SLEEP WITH A WALKING PIECE OF SHIT LIKE YOU!!! NOW DIE!!!”
D'Amour barely evaded her new weapon and fled to the interior of the ship. Things could have been worse. At least she hadn’t begun glowing black. There would have been cause for a panic if that had happened. Even the TWPOS might not be able to stand up to that level of power.
Silk observed the raging Aki pursue D'Amour to the bowels of the ship. Maybe it would be best to wait a couple of days, or maybe a couple of weeks before complaining about the direction the boat was taking. Silk was many things, but suicidal was not one of them.
Chapter 31: The Storm Builds
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
For more information on the Eight Devils of Kimone Icefall has a nice page at http://nightfall.simplenet.com/NinjaScroll
There are a handful of original characters here, if you want to use any of them just ask.
What’s gone on before (or what you really need to know to enjoy this fic). The short version. In the beginning, the Saotome’s traveled to Jusenkyou to spar, not realizing Shampoo and Mousse had already begun a duel at the far side of the pools. 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!)
Last chapter Perfume finally exerted control over her hunt pack and the Eight Devils of Kimone, along with Herb, razed Mount Phoenix, killing the majority of the population as well as Saffron. Back at home, lives are going on as normally as can be expected when one lives in Nerima…
“Wow Akane! You’re getting bigger!”
Akane turned to Chisa. “What’s that supposed to mean?” The two were getting ready for swimming class and in the process of dressing when Chisa made her declaration.
“I mean it looks like you’ve been working out. Look at how big your arm is compared to mine.” Chisa held it up as an example. There was no comparison. “You really need to ease up on that, by the way.”
“What are you talking about?” Akane asked, somewhat flustered. “I practice martial arts a lot. I can’t help it if I put on some mass.” She had been working out with her weights a little more often. Tarou had insisted that she should concentrate on a power game since she liked to use brute force. Refining her techniques to make the best use of her power was the way the training should go.
“That’s not what I meant,” Chisa said, annoyed. “I’m talking about how you always get defensive about your looks. There’s no reason for it. I mean, yeah, there are a lot of other good-looking girls around here, like Ai and Shampoo, but you are far from ugly. Especially since you started curling your hair a little, at least on the ends. It really makes you look cute, and I wish I were in half as good a shape as you.” She poked at her stomach for emphasis.
“Oh, stop,” Akane said, suddenly embarrassed. “You’re in good shape.”
“I’m in ‘normal’ shape. Not fat, but not as fit as you either. Lots of girls are jealous of you.”
“They are?” That was hard to believe.
“Uh huh. They know you can hold your own against anybody. Guys are attracted to women that can stand on their own two feet. I hear lots of guys talking about how cute you are all the time. If we weren’t such good friends I’d be jealous too.”
“No they don’t,” Akane was really furiously blushing now.
“Sure. I mean, they know you’re available since you don’t want to be engaged to Ranma and don’t mind that little tramp going out with him. He doesn’t pay the slightest attention to you.” Chisa’s voice dropped a bit. “I happen to know there’s a guy that would love to go out with you, tonight.”
Akane moved back in shock. “Not Kunou.”
“EWWWW! Of course not!” Chisa had the dignity to look horrified at the suggestion. “It’s my brother, Makato. He’s a great guy and really nice. He’s a year older but I really don’t think that’s a problem. He talks about you a lot of the time, not that he’s obsessive or anything, but he asks how you are and things like that. A lot of girls think he’s cute too. So what do you say? Give the guy a chance.”
She wondered how to delicately get out of that one. On one hand she didn’t want to hurt her friend’s feelings. On the other she had no desire to go out with anyone other than…
She corrected the thought to she did not have enough time to see anyone other than Ranma, and it wasn’t dating, they just spent time together. Of course explaining it would take too long and raise too many questions. So best to fudge things, sort of. “I am seeing someone, actually. Ranma. I mean Shampoo’s brother, Ranma, not Ranma Saotome. But it’s a secret so don’t tell anyone! You’re the only one that knows.”
Chisa smiled and slapped her on the back. “I had no idea. He’s really cute. Got yourself quite a catch there. How long have the two of you been going out?”
“Just a little while and it isn’t serious. We’re just starting things out and taking it real slow, so don’t get presumptuous about what we’re doing.”
“That would explain the blush,” Chisa smirked.
No way. She wasn’t blushing. It had to be the heat or something. “We’re not that involved. Now don’t tell anyone.”
“I wouldn’t dream of it. So how does he kiss? With tongue or without?”
It was going to be a long day.
As Akane made her way to catch up to Ranma-chan, she silently thought about her ‘revelation’. How deep did her feelings for her fiancé go? Was she simply using him as an excuse to avoid dating, or did she really think something might happen between them? Was the potential there for anything real or would they just tolerate one another long enough to get out of the engagement? The last time he had tried to break it off, when he thought he was a girl, hurt her badly. Way too badly for someone who claimed they didn’t care. So maybe it was time to find out for real if it was going to lead to something.
Akane was more than a little happy that Shampoo-kun wasn’t present. “Where’s Shampoo?”
“Kunou dropped by, Shampoo whacked him before I could, and Miss Hinako gave them both detention. She’s going to be a bit late.”
Perfect! No chance of interference from the purple-haired bimbo. “There’s a chorus show after school I wanted…” All of her sudden her voice tightened up.”…to know if you wanted to…” it happened again and her heart was racing. “…ah… that is…. ah… I wanted to know if you… ah.”
At that point Ranma-chan gave her a light tap to her forehead. “Spit it out.”
Anger cut through the problems that had suddenly occurred. “I wanted to know if you want to go with me to it.”
“Sure,” she shrugged.
“As a guy,” Akane added.
Ranma-chan looked curiously at her. “Sounds like your asking me out on a date.”
“I AM NOT ASKING YOU OUT ON A DATE!!!”
That caught the attention of everyone within two miles. All eyes turned towards Akane and Ranma-chan. Almost instantly words of ‘Akane’s dating Shampoo,’ and ‘she’s just like Ai and Ukyou,’ broke out among the spectators.
Akane looked on, horrified. As per her reflex she turned to Ranma-chan with an accusatory glare. Quietly she whispered, “This is all your fault. Go along with what I’m about to say,” then started calling out quite loudly. “You’ve misunderstood! I was asking your BROTHER out, not you!”
“Then you are asking me… errr, him in a date,” Ranma-chan said.
“I have to,” Akane whispered back. “People will think I like girls if we don’t go out now.”
Ranma-chan sighed. Akane was correct. Gossips around Furinkan really got everything wrong. Some people had her and Shampoo-kun as having spent the night in a love hotel and getting arrested. Others said she was pregnant with his child, as though something like that would happen.
“I’m sure he’d love to, Akane!” Ranma-chan announced to the world.
As soon as they sprung up the words of ‘Akane’s a lesbian’ switched to ‘when do you think her and Ranma are going to get hitched?’
One of the windows in the second floor burst open. “What unbelievable words do I hear from the lips of the masses below? Did I hear the words that the beauteous Akane Tendo is once again in the grasp of the Fiend Saotome?!” Without waiting for an answer Kunou went back into the room and curses of ‘die, forsaken scum!’ were heard, followed by the din of battle. That, in turn, was followed by, ‘you delinquents!’ and the sound of Miss Hinako unleashing her draining attack.
Akane couldn’t help but smile. Shampoo-kun was going to be occupied for a very long time. There would be no interference from him today.
The two went home to get changed. As usual those plans were somewhat delayed. This time it was by the visitor the Tendo Dojo had just received; a visitor searching for one Ranma Saotome.
Kasumi politely greeted the returning students and indicated to Ranma-chan that everyone was expecting her in the dojo. After getting out of Kasumi that it wasn’t yet another in the seeming unending string of fiancées, Ranma-chan collected some hot water and changed sexes before meeting the visitor. Upon entering the dojo he and Akane saw a large Caucasian gentleman in his twenties with bib overalls, straw hat, and long brown beard.
“Ranma,” Genma began. “Meet our guest.”
He introduced himself with a thick German accent. “I am Boris Borising Borisoff. Am master of Amish Martial Arts. Have come to fight Ranma Saotome.”
Ranma looked the man over for almost a full minute before responding. “No.”
Genma was on him in a flash, the large man attaining a speed usually reserved for meals. “What are you saying, son? You can’t back down from a challenge!”
“NO!!!” Ranma shouted out. “I have had it! In my time here I have fought martial arts skaters, martial arts gymnasts, martial arts mimes, and martial arts basketweavers. Well that all ends today! No more! I absolutely draw the line at Amish martial artists!”
“Don’t underestimate Amish martial arts, boy!” Genma warned.
“What the hell can an Amish martial artist do to me, pop?”
In response Ranma saw nothing but a blur suddenly run around him and everything went black. Before he could even react he had his arms pinned to his sides and was hemmed in while he was upright. It was almost as though someone had put him in a tight coffin.
“He’ll build a barn around your butt faster than you can blink,” Genma told his son through the tiny man-sized barn that was just large enough to contain Ranma.
“Am disappointed,” Boris complained. “Was expecting much stronger opponent.”
Akane placed her hands on her hips and announced in a loud voice. “If you’re looking for a challenge, I’ll provide you with one. I’m a martial artist too!”
The man looked Akane over and nodded, impressed. “You would make a good wife,” he stated.
“I would?” Somewhere in the back of her mind she knew something was horribly wrong.
“Yes,” Boris said. “Your hips look very good for childbirthing. Make many good babies with those hips.”
Akane flared blue in rage.
Ranma at last summoned enough chi energy to blast open the tiny barn he had been imprisoned in.
“I’m ready to take you on Boris Badinoff or whatever your name is!”
“It’s over, boy,” Genma informed him.
Ranma looked around. Sure enough Boris was laying face down in the ground, literally in the ground since his face was buried in it by about five inches. Ranma recognized the battle damage as belonging to only one person.
“How’d Akane do it?”
“It was a most impressive display.” Soun explained. “She attacked him quickly and he couldn’t do more than defend himself. He never even had a chance, the poor man. She’s at long last learning to harness her anger. I congratulate you in your training of her, son.”
As much as Ranma was resentful for Akane stealing his thunder and getting his revenge on the foreigner, he was impressed by her handiwork. She really had gotten a lot better, and the amount of time it took for her to defeat her opponent had to have been next to nothing. Silently he wondered how she had improved in such a short amount of time. He didn’t think he was training her that fast or that she was learning all that quickly.
As Ranma left he made the mistake of informing Genma and Soun that the two of them were going out. The two fathers pulled ‘going out together’ party banners and began talking about a possible exchange of rings.
Ranma and Akane left as quickly as they could in avoiding the two men. Once underway they made good time, managing to avoid both martial artists and water. For a change of pace they arrived at the choir session unmolested, in normal health, and without a single cross word said between the two of them. Both silently thanked the kami for the peace.
Since they arrived on time the two got good seats, and Akane talked with several of her classmates. Ranma was a bit annoyed by having to treat people he knew and saw every day as relative strangers, but ‘just Ranma’ could not demonstrate intimate knowledge of the people he knew so well yet had supposedly never met.
The choir show began without any problems. Even The Director, who was leading the recital, was well behaved and not electrocuting anyone, though he did conduct the show with a cattle prod instead of the normal conductor’s wand. As the show progressed Akane finally started to relax. Could she possible have a date with Ranma and not have it broken up by someone or something? It seemed too good to be true, yet nothing was happening. Such peaceful bliss in an otherwise chaotic world was too rare not to be enjoyed. Even Ranma was on his best behavior, and she had thought he did not even like choirs. She turned to Ranma to get his reaction to the whole thing, then learned why he was being so pleasant. He was asleep.
A tight pinch on his arm awakened him. “I’m not sleeping, Miss Hinako!”
A whole auditorium shushed him quite. He shook his head and reoriented himself to the world, managing to stay awake until the end.
The damage had already been done as far as Akane was concerned. She remained silent until the recital was finished, then headed out as quickly as she could and walked in the direction of the dojo.
“Where’re we going next?” Ranma asked.
“Home,” she replied tersely. “Obviously you are having a miserable time if you’re just going to fall asleep on your date.”
He let out an exasperated sigh. “No, Akane. It ain’t like that at all. It wasn’t you, it was the singing. That choir stuff ain’t my sort of thing. You should know that by now.”
“Then why did you go?”
She was doing it to him again. “Because you wanted to go and I didn’t want to spoil your mood.”
Akane stared at him curiously. “You’re saying you went out of your way for me?”
“I guess so.”
This was a new event. Ranma openly admitted he did something he didn’t like for her benefit. How exceptionally considerate. It took her several moments to decide how to go about with the new bit of information.
“It’s your date too,” she said. “We should do something you want to do.”
Ranma waved it off. “Nah! You asked me out. You decide.”
“I’m deciding that you should choose.”
Ranma gave up and tried thinking of where to go and what to do. “An amusement park opened up near here a while back. Want to hit it?”
Even Ranma was taken off guard by the smile Akane gave him. He felt heat rush to his cheeks and gulped. She really did look cute when she smiled. His confidence suddenly took a drop as he began to have a hard time thinking things through. Why did she have to be so confusing?
The two walked off towards the amusement park. No one stalked them. No one picked a fight with them. There was nothing to prevent them from having a good time.
And nothing did.
Shampoo returned home just in time to see the two fathers whooping up a storm. There were only two things that could make them that joyful, and only one of them would make her happy.
“Did the little perverted master die?” she asked.
“No,” Genma got out as he continued to laugh. “Akane and Ranma went on a date. Without us encouraging them even. Another drink, Tendo?”
“Of course, Saotome,” Soun accepted the offered bottle of saki. He raised it for a toast. “To our two families, united at last!”
“Hear! Hear!” Genma clinked another bottle of his own. “Why don’t you join us in celebration, Shampoo?” He turned to see she had already disappeared. His concern as to where the girl had gotten off to lasted only for a moment before he went back to celebrating.
Shampoo had run out of the house, hell following at her side. The lout! The insensitive jerk! The traitorous, manipulative bastard had dumped her yet again for the bitch, Akane. Oh, he was willing to act like he had a good time with Shampoo on their date, but instead of asking her out again, like he had implied he was going to, he went out with HER instead. The brutal, ugly, unattractive, kitchen destroyer that he claimed he didn’t even want to be engaged to. What was he doing anyway? Time-sharing the two of them? Go out with one and then another? Did he think he was Kunou? If so he was going to find out some very unpleasant facts of life, like no one played with Shampoo’s heart and got away with it.
Her anger rapidly began to dissipate. Curse Ranma! She should have been able to maintain her fury for an entire day the way he had gotten her upset, and justifiably so. Shampoo did consider trying to run the two of them down and ruining the date, but even if she could figure out where they were there was a problem. Akane had not tried to ruin her date with Ranma. She did something to make him jealous, but that had not appeared to work, at least Ranma seemed to have a good time with Shampoo that night, but maybe it really had gotten to him. At any rate she would let the two of them have a good time. She could have a good time on her own, and she wasn’t going to be low enough to ask Kasumi out just so she could irritate Ranma. Kasumi didn’t deserve to be used that way and Ranma probably would just encourage Shampoo.
So she strolled around the streets in a generally bad mood. She was so distracted that she failed to sense the presence of someone stalking her. At least she was unaware until she felt the tap on the back of her neck and her muscles locked up. All muscle control was lost, though consciousness was maintained. Her body, which had already been in forward motion, went crashing into the ground. A pressure point hit. She cursed herself for being so careless and letting her attention wander like it had. Even a three year old could have evaded the attack better. She cursed Ranma as well for the frustration he caused her, distracting her so much that she’d easily fallen into the ambush.
When the attack had come, Shampoo had been walking on a side street that was little more than an alleyway. Once down there she had seen no one and been seen by no one. No sounds emanated forth from the darkened buildings of that narrow avenue. Rescue was a fantasy she was not likely to receive.
Her head was facing slightly to the left in the position she had fallen. All she could see was the bright red and dull gray texture of the building she had fallen next to. Nothing could help her there. She was steeling herself for the worst when an altogether too familiar figure made itself known. Shampoo would have uttered ‘Great Grandmother’ in shock, but her vocal cords had been affected as well.
Cologne began speaking. “If you promise not to call out for help or scream I’ll allow you to talk. Move your eyes up and down if you agree.”
She did. Cologne tapped a different spot on the back of Shampoo’s neck with her cane. The purple-haired Amazon found she could once more move her jaw.
“I though you could no attack me.”
Cologne sighed. “I’m not attacking you. I simply needed you stationary long enough to hear me out. The question now is, will you listen?”
“It not like I have a choice!” Shampoo snarled back.
Cologne suppressed the urge to swat her great granddaughter for taking that tone of voice with her. The extenuating circumstances had forced Shampoo to grow up all too fast and her anger was at least partially justified. “You are wrong. I can speak all I want but you have the choice of simply hearing me and disregarding everything I say, or you can listen and learn why I am here. Now I ask you again, great granddaughter, will you listen to what I have to say?”
Shampoo wondered what kind of a word game her great grandmother was playing at now. She usually only used it at times when she wanted someone to lower their guard, and this situation felt exactly like one of those occasions. Under the circumstances she had little choice and finally agreed.
“Excellent.” Cologne’s body language reflected her relief. “I am not here to drag you back home. I am going to assist you in whatever way I can in freeing you from this awful curse.”
So it was a trap, just like Shampoo expected. “Why do I no believe you?”
Cologne shook her head. Shampoo was going to make things difficult, and she used to be so trusting too. “I mean it, even if you don’t believe me. It took me a while, but I have become convinced that you are not meant to be cured or taken back home. That is the only explanation I can come up with. In the last few months I was physically bested in combat by a neophyte child. I’ve come up with plans that I could only see were flawed after I executed them and they failed, and the few that were good you managed to evade through luck, skill, or a combination of both. I was very desperate for a while there, but after your final encounter with Perfume I suspected there was nothing I could do to bring you back. You have no idea how frustrating that is to me. I haven’t been thwarted that many times in the entire last hundred years.”
Shampoo could hear the disappointment in her great grandmother’s voice, but she still hadn’t gotten to the point of the conversation.
Cologne continued. “Now I just wanted to let you to know if you need help I will do what I can to assist you.”
Shampoo felt her heart soar. She wanted to believe her. She wanted everything to go back to the way things were with her relationship with her great grandmother. There had been so much love there and she desperately wanted any connection with her family. It was a piece of her that had been missing for such a long time. But she just couldn’t. There was too much risk involved if Cologne was lying. “I can no do that, great grandmother. I am sorry.”
For the first time that she could remember, Shampoo saw the woman that had all but raised her in the last six years of her life, the matriarch of the Joketsuzoku and the best fighter of her generation, actually look old and tired. Despite that Cologne managed a smile
“Were our positions reversed I would feel the same way. My offer still holds though, and I promise that you no longer have a need to fear me. I will be at the Black Rose’s Floral Shoppe should you have need of me.” She touched the back of Shampoo’s neck allowing muscle control to return once more.
As Cologne prepared to hop off on her staff Shampoo spoke as she returned to her feet. “Thank you for the offer, great grandmother.”
Cologne visibly brightened at that. “I almost forgot to ask, how are you and the boy getting along?” The matriarch was amused at the blush that rose to Shampoo’s cheeks.
“I not know what you mean, great grandmother.”
“Of course not,” Cologne was amused even more. Only the most oblivious would miss the blush, the looking down at the ground, the scuffing of the feet. “Has he challenged you for your hand yet?”
Shampoo stopped scuffing her feet. “No. He can’t. His stupid father promised him to one of the Tendo girls. He can’t do anything until he gets out of it.”
Cologne nodded in understanding. “He is an outsider, you know. All you need to do is get him to fight you once. I’m sure you can find a way to let him win.”
Shampoo furiously shook her head. “I not going to throw a fight for a stupid boy!”
“I see. Does he at least know how you feel about him?”
Shampoo was about to answer one way when she remembered where Ranma was and with whom. “Yes! He’s an arrogant jerk that play with girls hearts and I no care about him!” And with that declaration she stormed off, much to Cologne’s surprise.
“The boy better watch himself,” Cologne muttered. “Hell really hath no fury like an Amazon scorned.” Her long dead husband could have attested to that. It certainly had been a tumultuous courtship that spanned two years and three continents, not that the outcome had ever been in doubt. She just hoped Shampoo was up to the task of winning someone like Ranma. Parts of the boy reminded her of her husband, and that wasn’t necessarily a good thing.
Mousse was looking over all the denizens in the floral shop once again, trimming as he went along. He really had missed all if them. The return of both him and Kodachi to the greenhouse was for the best. It felt more like a home than the Kunou estate ever did. Even Kodachi agreed. There was no more having to deal with the presence of the Kodachi’s twisted father or her equally thick skulled brother. It was time for some peacefulness now. He went through the house trimming the gardenias, the rose bushes, the old ghoul who was sitting on her staff…
Mousse found himself staring up at the glass ceiling. There was a Cologne that needed trimming? That wasn’t right. The familiar figure came next to him and hovered over his prone form.
“Aren’t you going to welcome me back? I am living here once again, you know.”
Kasumi smiled as she looked in on the two fathers. They had managed to drink themselves into unconsciousness in celebration of the ‘impending marriage’ of Akane and Ranma. It was nice to see them so happy. Now that she had cleaned up around them she was at a loss of what to do next. She didn’t want to make too much noise and rouse the passed out duo, so that left very few things that she could do. She didn’t want to go shopping without Shampoo. The mood to watch television was all wrong. She could always let Birdy out and watch him hunt, but she really didn’t feel like doing that either. For the first time in recent memory she had nothing to do. Then it hit her like the proverbial ton of bricks.
She stopped to consider it for a few minutes. It was silly. She hadn’t done it in years and would be terribly out of practice. An injury could even result and then who would cook and clean? Well, Shampoo could, but Kasumi didn’t want to inconvenience her friend that way. Yet something deep within her almost demanded it. So she went to the laundry room and grabbed one of Akane’s freshly washed gis. Akane’s was the only one in the house that would come close to fitting her, even if it was a little short. She changed into the gi, noticing as she put it on that the chest was a little tight and it was a little loose at the hips. Once the belt fastened it in place she proceeded to the dojo.
Kasumi had cleaned it up earlier in the day and knew it was in immaculate shape. She hesitated at the doorway, a feeling that this was not the place for her and she should leave, but she resisted the urge at the last second and entered. As soon as she set foot in the dojo memories assailed her. This was very peculiar since she had entered the dojo thousands of times, but she could not remember being affected in this way. It took her a moment to understand what the difference was. She had not entered the dojo with the intention of practicing; it was always simply to clean. Now, for the first time in a decade, she was preparing to take to the wooden floor and practice her martial arts.
The memories continued to wash over her as she recalled the past. It was true that she had basically been Mommy’s little girl, but she enjoyed spending time with her father and he always paid such close attention to her when she practiced. It was true that she was never as excited about them as she was about cooking, but it was fun in its own way. And it was easy too, much easier than cooking. Her father was always amazed when she would learn a kata so quickly. Sometimes after doing it only once or twice. Her father always encouraged her and said she was going to become a great martial artist someday. Little Kasumi wouldn’t have minded that, just so long as she could do other things like her mother did. Then her mother died and everything fell apart. Martial arts were forgotten as the family did everything it could to stay together.
Now she found herself in the middle of the dojo, ready to use what she had learned so long ago once again. She began by stretching out. Pulled muscles were often a martial artist’s own worst enemy. Those could lay one low where a dozen opponents would fail, at least that was what her father had told her. Once she had completed the warm up to her satisfaction, she stood ready to begin with the first kata her father had taught her. It was the most basic pattern, and thus the ideal one to start with. She effortlessly executed it and flowed into the second. It really was like falling off a bicycle: one never forgot how to do it.
She went directly from the second to the third, then repeated again from the beginning. It was all so easy for her. She went through all the ones her father taught her from so many years ago three times before she started to feel tired, much to her disappointment. It felt so good to move through those old patterns. The last two sets were executed to perfection, she was certain. Pride filled her as she knew her mastery of the art had not disappeared with the passing of the years. Despite her fatigue she wanted very much to continue. Then she remembered what could be done to relieve the exhaustion. It was such a basic thing that her grandmother had taught her that she could scarcely believe she had forgotten it. It took but a moment of concentration to allow her chi to fill her and release the weariness from the muscles that threatened to cut things short. New energy filled her as she picked up where she left off. Once she completed the set a fourth time she went to one of the ones her mother had taught her. Up through the stages she speeded through from the first basic one to the advanced fiftieth, and last set she learned from her mother before she was killed.
Now it was time to utilize the ones Kasumi had developed on her own. Even the basic techniques were three times as complex as what she had ever been taught by her mother. She had so wanted to master the art, and developing effective techniques always brought her such joy, even if there were very few that could master them. Sweat plastered her gi to her body as she called upon her chi to once more assist her in performing the middle level ones. Stone foot techniques were mixed with rapid mongoose hand thrusts in what would be a devastating combination of attacks to even the highly trained.
Once that was completed it was time to employ the amagurikan. Ranma and Shampoo would have probably been jealous of her, just like the elders were. Ranma could generate approximately one hundred and thirty strikes per second when in female form. Kasumi could more than double that without calling upon her chi to increase the speed. And she could overcome one of the drawbacks to the amagurikan by hitting multiple points on the body while keeping up the speed. When one simply struck the same the same spot repeatedly it was much easier to defend against it.
Several sets of the amagurikan were completed before she came up with another set of techniques to use. Several levels of the elemental schools were at her command. Of course she could have focused her studies on but one of the schools and become a grandmistress of it, but she desired diversity in her techniques. She was already a grandmistress of the chi. That, combined with her other talents, made up for any lack of dominance in any one of the elemental schools.
Her body flowed like liquid in elegant grace as she employed some of the water school techniques. After going through several patterns of that she switched to the opposite school, employing some of the far more aggressive techniques of the fire school. Her ability to effortlessly shift from one school to the other had proven the undoing of more than one opponent. The use of earth techniques was kept to a minimum. Many of them produced far too much noise and would disturb the neighbors. The techniques of air were the last, the defensive nature of the school suited her temperament, though there were certainly attacks in it was well. To demonstrate, she used the wind fist in a series of blows ending with a quick pivot behind her and knocking an exact eight-inch diameter hole in one of the walls. Her precision was still nearly perfect.
Deciding that was enough, Kasumi retired from the dojo and went to wash up. It was wonderful to know that all she had learned from her mother… no, that wasn’t quite right. She learned all of her martial arts from her father. It was odd that she would think her mother had taught her anything involving fighting. She was a peaceful woman that knew nothing of the art of combat. In any case it was good that she had not forgotten any of the techniques, and her mood was so much better now. She idly grasped the broken piece of the signet ring, a golden chain looped through it, that she now kept around her neck.
Hunger made its presence known by the gnawing sensation in her stomach. After she cleaned up she would have to grab something to eat. There was a whole watermelon in the refrigerator that might do nicely. As hungry as she was she could probably devour the whole thing.
Nabiki entered the house in a near blind rage. Tarou had now begun taking a cut of the action that was larger than hers. ‘After all, we wouldn’t want to leave any doubts as to who was in charge, now would we?’ or so the scum had told her. Well, she would get at least some of it back. Bull balls were a delicacy in some countries and she could get a nice price for his.
Taking a deep breath Nabiki calmed herself down. Ryonami was moving on to some other interviews. Kaori’s had been most informative, but they were going to need more than that to knock Tarou off his high horse. Kami bless Ryonami. If it wasn’t for her Nabiki wasn’t sure what she would do.
Nabiki entered the kitchen to grab a light snack; she was too upset at the moment to eat anything more than that. The first thing she noticed as she was about to enter it was the sound of someone clearly stuffing their face. Odds were it was Genma. Ranma was usually a lot quieter when pigging out. Upon entering she was shocked to see the loud noises had been coming from Kasumi, who was sitting at the kitchen table laying into a watermelon, that had been cut in half, like there was no tomorrow. Nabiki’s jaw practically dropped in shock. Kasumi was eating faster than either of the Saotomes ever did.
“Kasumi!” she finally got out. “What are you doing?!”
Kasumi broke of her assault on the produce long enough to answer. “I was suddenly very hungry and had a craving for some watermelon.”
“Some watermelon?!” Nabiki almost shouted. “You’ve eaten the whole thing!” She indicated the half Kasumi had just finished and the other half which sat to the right of her, the green rounded end pointing towards Nabiki.
“Oh no!” Kasumi declared as she saw Nabiki’s eyes lock on the half that was next to Kasumi. “I didn’t touch that one. That’s Birdy’s.”
Hearing his name, Birdy crawled into view from the inside of his half of the watermelon and scowled at Nabiki.
“I’m certain if you want some, Birdy wouldn’t mind sharing.”
Nabiki recoiled in disgust. “I would never touch food that foul little thing came into contact with.” As the last word of condemnation left her mouth she suddenly found herself under assault by a machine gun-like stream of watermelon seeds that were being shot out from Birdy’s mouth.
“BIRDY! Stop that at once!” Kasumi chastised the miniature pterodactyl, who immediately broke off the assault and appeared shamefaced.
Off to the side, Nabiki smirked at Birdy. At last Kasumi had taken her side over the pet’s.
“That’s better,” Kasumi’s voice softened. “You were getting seeds all over the floor.”
Ryonami continued walking around, searching for the next interviewee. The last one she had, with Kaori, had gone well, though for some odd reason the girl insisted she had never heard the name of Ryu Kumon, despite the fact she had been married to him for several months. Silently she gave up that line of thought. Kaori’s selective amnesia was irrelevant to the task at hand: locating Ryu Kumon.
As Ryonami made her way through a park her mind replayed the events of the last few days. Everything was falling apart and it was all Tarou’s fault. Originally, when Nabiki had been the one in charge, her ‘organization’ had been simple. There were basically three types of people that worked with and for Nabiki. Those that enjoyed it and were basically Nabiki’s friends. You could always tell those ones because they would hang around together and basically had a good time. Those that were in it for the money and didn’t care about anything else. Very few of them hung around together. Then there were the individuals Nabiki ‘recruited’ for their talents. Recruitment usually involved getting some kind of leverage against them so they would at least work part-time for her and employ those ‘talents’ for her benefit. Those ones disliked Nabiki intensely and rarely hung around any of the others.
With the advent of Tarou things had changed, and not for the better. He initially intimidated his way into the upper ranks and took control. It probably would not have lasted if it hadn’t been for the fact he began courting the favors of the greedy ones and those that were being blackmailed. The former didn’t give a damn about who ran things just so long as they got paid. The latter sucked up to Tarou so they could get a piece of Nabiki. Now everything was falling apart. Nabiki’s real friends were slowly quitting one by one and leaving nothing but the creeps and scumbags behind.
Ryonami was almost out of the park when a hand fell on her shoulder. She turned to see the hand belonged to one Michi Yoshinari, one of the worst scumbags around.
His greeting failed to warm her heart. “What do you want?”
“Hey! That’s no way to talk to someone who’s trying to help you out.”
Ryonami noticed the ‘more smarmy than usual’ look he was giving her. He only did that when he thought he knew something others didn’t. By the kami, how she hated that look . “And just how do you plan to help me out?” She noticed the look got even worse. If she were a more physical person she would have simply smacked him.
“I couldn’t help but notice you’ve been visiting a lot of people. People that don’t owe us money, inform us of stuff, or that have any connection to our outfit. Now I asked myself ‘why would a cute girl like Ryonami be visiting all these people?’”
Ryonami felt bile rise to her throat from the suggestion she would be desperate enough to want attention from a guy like him. “What did you come up with?”
He held up his finger indicating she should wait a moment before he would tell her. After his ‘dramatic pause’ he explained. “It took me a while but I figured out what it was. Y’see, I remember you were real tight with that bitch, Nabiki, when you first came here.”
Ryonami felt fear and anger at the same time. Anger that he dared call her sempai a bitch. Fear that he had somehow discovered the truth.
“Now, I know you had a falling out with her, but I’m willing to bet she told you something only you would know. Like maybe a second list of people that owe her money.”
Ryonami could barely conceal her relief.
Michi continued. “Now, we both know Tarou would never approve of you freelancing on his turf, so the way I see it, you’re in a whole world of trouble if this gets out.”
Ryonami felt the fear return. Tarou would indeed flatten her if he thought she was working some people on the side. But if she told him the truth he would hurt her even worse. “What do you want?” she finally asked.
“A cut of the action. Say about fifty percent for my silence.”
Ryonami had no choice but to agree, though Michi was going to be disappointed when he learned there was no money involved. She’d probably have to throw him a little bit to keep him occupied.
Once their business was concluded Ryonami headed back to her original plan. As she left the park her luck took a turn for the better: she caught sight of Ryu. He was attracting a bit of attention with the company he was keeping, specifically that of a huge razorback.
Cautiously she approached the youth and what she figured was his pet. Her ears perked up as she got closer and heard him talking to the pig. What was even weirder was that he was apologizing to it for taking it on a date at a waterslide amusement park. She hoped the guy wasn’t a total headcase, though curiously it almost seemed the pig understood what he was saying by responding with grunts and squeals.
“Excuse me.” She caught Ryu’s attention. “Allow me to introduce myself. My name is Ryonami Nagata.” She smiled as warmly as she could at Ryu. He was a rather handsome fellow. As it was she missed the scowl the razorback leveled at that smile. Ryonami did become aware of its displeasure when it moved itself between her and Ryu.
“Hey! What’s the big idea?!” Ryonami shouted as close to half a ton of razorback pushed her to the side.
“Akari!” Ryu snapped. “Just because our date got ruined is no reason to take your anger out on this girl!” His voice softened somewhat. “I’ll make it up to you. We’ll go out on a date later.”
Ryonami was amazed at what was unmistakably squeals of delight from the razorback. A light pain filled her head as she realized that the handsome Ryu was a pervert into bestiality. It would be best if she got the information quickly, before he thought she looked like a woodchuck or something. “I wanted to know if you have any information on someone named Pantyhose Tarou.”
A scowl developed on Ryu’s features as he began telling everything he knew about Pantyhose to Ryonami, who made certain to record the conversation. It was even more damning evidence to add to the total she now had. If only the validity of the story could be maintained by keeping Ryu’s fetish under wraps. Should his tastes become public knowledge, his credibility would be shot to hell.
Akane found it difficult to make her way down the street with all the prizes Ranma had won for her. There were more stuffed animals than she could carry. In fact, she had Ranma carry a lot of them as well. Too bad she had to give up the pink cat though. Ranma practically went into his neko-ken at the mere sight of it, and it had been so cute too. She even had a name picked out for it: C-Chan.
But if that was the only thing that had gone wrong then the rest of the night had been perfect. It went beyond simply not being accosted by a new enemy or one of Ranma’s old ones. It went beyond no imbeciles, like Kunou, trying to hit on her. There had been no cutting or sarcastic remarks out of Ranma. No jibes or hurtful things. He was every inch the pleasant date, and there was no blow to the head to trigger his courteousness this time (at least none that she knew of.)
They had ridden practically all of the rides, Akane hiding behind Ranma when they went in the haunted house. She would have sworn he was going to say something caustic the first time she cowered behind him, but he said nothing more than, “you’re with me. So you ain’t got anything to worry about.” There was more than a little arrogance in the proclamation, but rather than feel angry about his protective behavior she found herself… well not swooning exactly, but something sort of similar.
Later the duo went to grab a shake at one of the dining places on the park grounds. Akane gave in to the suggestion of the counterperson that they get the ‘two for one’ Shake. At first Ranma was delighted at the idea of getting two shakes for one, then learned that it was ‘two straws for one’ in a pink heart shaped glass. Naturally ‘Mr. Romance’ missed out on the fact it was the sort of thing that only couples were supposed to get, but somehow Akane could not quite bring herself to explain it to him, and instead convinced the two of them to share the drink. To her amazement, when Ranma left his hand on the table she had to suppress the urge to grab it and hold it in hers. Several times, actually.
After Ranma won a couple dozen of the fluffy animals for her, the two of them at last departed and headed home. They were no more than halfway there when Ranma’s greatest enemy, water, made an appearance as a storm cloud came out of nowhere and began a torrential downpour. The duo had just enough time to make it under a tiny open-air park shelter before the rain actually hit. They placed their stuffed animals on the ground towards the back of the shelter and watched the rain fall down.
The wind drove the rain hard causing the two to move closer in an effort to avoid the increasingly close droplets. Even as they moved further away from the edge Ranma put his arm around her shoulder. She looked at his face as he scowled at the rain, it was obvious that the motion was one of protection rather than one of affection. Despite that Akane moved her body closer to his, almost snuggling against his chest. Her movement did manage to snare his attention, and she caught out of the corner of her eye his blush as she made herself more comfortable in his embrace.
It was then the rain passed as quickly as it came, much to her disappointment, and the two continued on their way back home. The rest of the journey went without incident. In many ways that made the trip a little discouraging, she didn’t want it to end. But end it did as the two arrived outside the gates of the dojo. Ranma stopped just outside the door and told Akane to wait for a moment.
“Why?” she asked.
“I’m just trying to think of where they’ll be.”
“You know,” Ranma suddenly managed to bring out a banner identical to the one the fathers had used earlier. The one loudly proclaiming the duo’s date.
“Oh. Good question.” Akane smiled at that. “I bet they’ll be waiting inside the house. Nabiki will be the bushes next to the house with a camera waiting to get everything on tape.”
“Let’s play a little game with them.”
Akane couldn’t help but notice the mischievous gleam Ranma got in his eye. “What kind of a game?”
“Let’s give them something to talk about.”
Akane listened to the plan. It was wicked, yet somehow appropriate, considering what the fathers had done to them in the past.
Their guesses had been on the mark as the two fathers hid beneath an open window near the front door when Akane and Ranma approached. Nabiki watched everything from the bushes, camera set on record. All were anxious as the couple advanced to the house.
The two stopped on the porch, then held one another by the waist as they looked dreamily in each one’s eyes.
“Ranma, thank you for the most wonderful night of my life.”
“I feel the same way,” he answered.
Akane slipped out of his embrace and turned away, pain filling her voice as she spoke. “There’s something you should know about me before we allow our relationship to go on any longer.”
Ranma’s acting lessons came to the forefront without the benefit of electricity. “I don’t care what it is, Akane. Nothing you could do would ever hurt me.”
“When you hear what I have to say, you may change your mind.”
Ranma moved to hold Akane from behind. “Tell me.”
“I,” she gave a dramatic pause. “I’m not a virgin.”
Ranma remained where he was while continuing to look sympathetic. “Who?”
“It was,” she made her voice catch as she pretended to remove a tear from her eye. “It was Ryouga.”
Ranma paused for a moment. “It doesn’t matter to me. I care about you for who you are, not what you’ve done. I’m glad you told me who you slept with.” He moved his body closer to her.
She pulled out of the embrace. “Oh, he wasn’t the only one I slept with.”
Ranma drew back himself. “Who else was there?”
“There was also Kunou.”
Ranma looked even more lovingly to her. “I meant what I said. It doesn’t matter to me. Thank you for you hones—”
“I’m not finished yet,” she interrupted. “There was also Tarou.”
“I see. Wel—“
“I like a girl with a little experience.”
“Make that a lot of experience.”
“Everyone needs a little variation in their diet.”
“While Ai helped out.”
“The more the merrier.”
Akane stared at him tearfully. “How can you be so forgiving?”
“It’s easy.” Ranma said with a smile. “I’ve slept with all those people, too.”
Nabiki had enough time to let the camera slip from her suddenly limp hands while the front door exploded and a demon-headed Soun and chi enhanced forty foot version of Genma confronted the duo.
“WHAT IS THE MEANING OF THIS?!!!” Soun-demon raged.
“ANSWER ME NOW, BOY!!!” Genma shouted in agreement.
Ranma and Akane remained unusually calm in the face of such power, going so far as to look disdainfully at the fathers. Ranma spoke first. “So, you were eavesdropping on a private conversation. You’re just as bad as that peeping old goat that taught you.”
“Really, Dad. It serves you right. If you two would stop butting in we’d get along better, but instead we always step on you two underfoot and it messes everything up.”
Both men shrunk down to their normal sizes as the truth began to settle in. Soun spoke first for the duo. “You mean everything you said was a lie?”
Ranma and Akane nodded in agreement.
“I knew it all the time, boy. You’re too much of a man among men to do such things.” Thank you, Genma silently said to kami above.
Very loud cursing came from Nabiki’s direction as she complained out loud about her gullibility. Soun and Genma went inside, followed by Ranma and then Akane a step behind him. She and Ranma said good night as the two went to bed. Akane lay on her back, staring at the ceiling. She had started the day wondering what her fiancé meant to her and if there was any chance of something real going on between them. After today she finally had her answer. The only thing left now was how he felt on the matter. Not an easy question, but one which was going to be answered soon if Akane had anything to say about it.
Ukyou listened to the sound of water running as she wondered how things had come to this point. The day had started innocently enough. She and Ai had arrived at school, together, without Kyoko and Ryouga tagging along. During the entire jaunt over to the school Ai had behaved like a perfectly normal human being, a rare thing in Nerima, to be sure. There was no glomping, no attempts at seduction, nothing but a friendly conversation with one another. Something Ukyou had not done with another girl, ever. Upon arriving at the school Ai’s pleasant demeanor was brought short as Megumi, Kaede, and Ayeka, dressed in their cheerleader combat gear, lined up expectantly, as though waiting for Ai. Kaede took the forward spot and spoke first with her carefully rehearsed speech.
“Ai. We have come to a decision. It’s time for new leadership for the cheerleader squad. You have done nothing for the last few months except mope and let us go soft. Now it is time for someone else to assume power. It is time for me to take over as head cheerleader and guide us to victory over all of our foes!”
Ukyou saw a familiar look return to Ai’s eyes.
“Give me your baton,” Ai ordered Kaede, hand out and at the ready.
Kaede looked confusedly at her, then shrugged and handed Ai the baton.
“Is there anyone else that wishes to usurp my role as leader?” Ai offered as she twisted her foot on Kaede’s unconscious form.
Megumi and Ayeka simply shook their heads. At last their leader was back.
“I’m glad you see things my way, but Kaede was correct. I have been lax in my duties as the head cheerleader around here. You guys have had it too easy for a while. I’ll make up for that starting right now! RUN AROUND THE SCHOOL FORTY TIMES AND PRAY THAT IT’S FAST ENOUGH FOR ME, OR YOU’LL DO IT AGAIN!!! THAT MEANS YOU TOO, KYOKO!!!”
Kyoko had just arrived at the school grounds, arm locked with Ryouga, and dropped her jaw in shock. Instincts took over as she moved to obey, grabbing the prone form of Kaede as she ran.
“It’s good to be the queen,” Ai said as she admired the running girls. She allowed herself the luxury of command for only a few moments before turning to Ukyou. “I’m going to correct something that should have been done a long time ago.”
“What’s that?” Ukyou asked. Ai was unpredictable it was enough to make her head swim.
Ai just gave her a blithe little smile and turned to the rest of the Furinkan population. Using one of her martial arts cheerleader abilities, she increased the volume of her voice until it sounded as clamorous as a loudspeaker.
“ATTENTION ALL STUDENTS! THERE IS A RUMOR GOING AROUND SCHOOL THAT UKYOU AND I ARE A COUPLE! WE ARE NOT NOW NOR EVER WERE! IF I CATCH ANYONE SPREADING SUCH VICIOUS RUMORS I WILL DO SOMETHING UNPLEASANT TO THEM.”
A din rose as the students began talking amongst themselves. Most of them in disbelief at the proclamation.
Ai sadly shook her head and decided to make an example out of one of them, throwing Kaede’s baton at the back of a student’s head and knocking him out. “NOW DOES EVERYONE GET IT?!!!”
A chorus of agreement met her declaration this time.
“Thanks, Ai.” Ukyou was genuinely pleased at her dispelling the rumors like that. Things would hopefully get a little easier now with the rumors somewhat tempered.
Ai gave a dynamic little smile at that. “I have a little favor to ask. How would you like to have a sleep over?”
Ukyou’s mood shifted as she began sweating bullets. “Ai, just because I’m not rejecting you out of hand doesn’t mean I’m interested in that sort of thing.”
“That’s not why I’m doing it,” she said in a reassuring tone. “I haven’t felt comfortable enough to have someone sleep over in a long time, but you’re different. Look, I’ll promise not to hit on you or try to seduce you at all. We can just spend time together as friends.”
Ukyou still had her doubts. “It still seems weird.”
“Girls have sleep-overs all the time.” As Ai finished saying those words the realization dawned on her. “You’ve never been to a sleep-over before, have you?”
Ukyou looked down in the ground in embarrassment. “I never really had an opportunity to. It’s not like I could sleep over at anyone’s house without my little secret coming out.”
Ai was practically bubbling with joy. “You’ll love it! It’ll be great. If you’re too uncomfortable doing it at my place, we can use yours.”
Having the home field advantage reassured Ukyou a little. She supposed that if Ai got out of hand she could always throw her out. Besides, it just might prove fun after all. She agreed and was once again warmed by the genuine smile Ai gave her. This time she smiled just as warmly back, and watched in amusement as Ai appeared a little stunned at the reaction.
Ai came over after business hours, bearing a bag full of sleepover equipment in hand. The two of them talked pleasantly about school and various other matters as they settled in. Ukyou felt more and more at ease until it started to get late and they decided to hit the sack, though she once again made Ai promise not to hit on her since they were going to be sharing the same bed. Ai had agreed to take the floor, but Ukyou didn’t feel comfortable making her sleep on the futon on the floor. Ukyou showered first and let Ai go second, Ukyou silently thanking that Ai had not suggested that the two of them share it together.
Ryouga made his way back into Uk-Chan’s in a really annoyed mood. It all started when Ai had first come over, much to the lost one’s irritation, and proceeded to make herself at home, much to his further irritation. He really had intended to stay the entire time, but Kyoko showed up right after work and dragged him to her place. She claimed they had to decide what introduction music to play for their upcoming match against Flex and the Brute. For someone that claimed she didn’t even like wrestling she certainly was taking the rematch seriously. All of his protests were for naught as she slowly dragged him all the way to her home and played music over her mother’s karaoke machine until they settled on a tune to herald their entrance to the ring. He settled on ‘Wherever I May Roam,’ by Metallica, which seemed oddly appropriate, for some reason. After that Ryouga quickly excused himself, over Kyoko’s protests, and changed to a bat to find his way home.
After knocking over the steaming kettle Ukyou left laying around for him he felt rather grubby and elected to grab a quick shower before bed. He unerringly made his way up the stairs and made a beeline for the shower. Just as he was about to open the door it did so on its own. Surprised at the move he looked up to see Ai, obviously just having finished a shower of her own, wearing a towel wrapped around her hair and nothing else. It was with a great deal of pride that Ryouga lost consciousness. He realized that he lasted an entire one point five seconds longer than the last time saw Ai naked before passing out.
Ai simply looked down contemptuously at his prone form and walked over him, making certain her foot landed on his midsection, while avoiding the copious amount of blood from his nose, and muttered about what a stupid buffoon he was. She continued drying her hair as she entered Ukyou’s bedroom.
“Your boarder passed out on the floor. Want me to dispose of the body?”
Ukyou gave Ai an irritated stare. “If you had put some clothes on that wouldn’t have happened!”
Ai looked offended. “I always sleep in the nude.”
Ukyou couldn’t decide if she was telling the truth or trying to hit on her despite the promise. “Not if you’re sleeping here, you’re not! Get something on. I think there’s some extra things of Ryouga’s that will fit you.” Ukyou started to get up when Ai rushed over to stop her.
“Don’t go through all that inconvenience for me. I’ll just grab this.”
Ai snatched a long shirt that from a nearby basket of newly cleaned clothes and threw it on, the shirt barely managing to reach the bottom of her rear end. Ukyou felt a pang of jealousy once more as the girl before her filled out the nightshirt in ways that she could only dream of doing.
Ai turned on the television and plopped herself down next to Ukyou on the bed. Now was a time of tension for the okonomiyaki chef. She knew Ai was interested in her and she was willingly allowing the cheerleader to sit next to her. Sleep next to her, actually. Ukyou believed Ai when she claimed she wasn’t going to hit on her, but it was still an uncomfortable situation.
As Ukyou sat there she looked over to Ai and saw something that wasn’t there before. It was her face. Somehow it had changed from the usual, and admittedly sensuous, appearance it had borne. Instead there was a sort of feeling of relaxation that her features now had.
Ai became aware of the scrutiny she was now receiving. “What is it?”
Ukyou shook her head. “You may think I’m crazy, but you look a little different.”
Ai primped her hair a little at that. “Good different or bad different.”
“Good different. You look a lot happier. I guess that’s the best word for it.”
“Of course I’m happier. I’m with you.”
Ukyou was taken aback from the girlish smile Ai gave at that point. This was no seductress before her, just an ordinary girl that was having a good time. Things were a little disconcerting. Ai’s current appearance was just so different from the facade she presented. And as time passed it became more and more obvious that was just what it was, a facade. What was before her now was the ‘real’ Ai, and as near as Ukyou could tell, it was someone that hadn’t put in an appearance in a long time.
It was hard to believe she didn’t notice the difficulties Ai had before. There was such a difference between how she presented herself to everyone else and how she acted around Ukyou. The barrier Ai had erected to shield herself from the world was let down for one person only: Ukyou, and that feeling was more than a little overwhelming. Much of Ukyou’s nervousness passed as she now understood what Ai had meant when she spoke of having power over someone else. But in Ukyou, any desire for control was easily overridden by a desire to protect the girl who had willingly opened herself to her.
“I promise I won’t ever hurt you.” Ukyou said sincerely.
Ai maintained her smile. “I know. If it’s any consolation, I won’t hurt you either. Now relax! We’re supposed to be having fun.”
“Right.” This time Ukyou relaxed a bit more and watched a little television while still looking at Ai from out of the corner of her eye. The whole situation was just so weird for her. There was nothing to compare it to and the strangeness of the new situation left her feeling more than a little uneasy.
The uneasiness disappeared as Ai went for something in her bag. Ukyou observed Ai bring out some tissues and began placing them between her toes. Once she was finished she pulled out a bottle of bright red nail polish and prepared to do her toenails. Right before she started with the first one she once again noticed the attention she was receiving.
“What is it?” Ai asked.
Ukyou snapped out of her reverie. “Nothing.”
“You don’t give a look like that and say its nothing. Haven’t you ever painted your toenails before?”
Ukyou hesitated a moment before answering sheepishly. “No. Not really.”
The reaction was almost instantaneous as Ai gave a happy squeal and took the tissue from between her toes. She repositioned herself at the foot of the bed and patted her hand right next to Ukyou’s covered legs. “Give me your feet,” Ai practically commanded.
“C’mon. It’s long past time for you to do something like this.”
Ukyou refused again. “Forget it! I don’t want to.”
Ai placed her hands on her hips and gave Ukyou a cross expression. “You always go around having doubts about your femininity and say you feel like a guy. Well this is going to go a long way to curing that, my dear. This is practically the one thing that will make you feel like a woman.”
Ukyou laughed nervously at that. It was a total fabrication. It had to be. “No way. How can something as silly as painting your toenails make you feel more like a woman?”
“Give me your feet and find out for yourself.”
The stare Ai was giving her made her feel even more uncomfortable than the idea of doing her toenails. Ukyou decided to give in to the girl. After all, if Ai were wrong, the worst thing that would happen was Ukyou would feel a little silly and remove it.
Slowly she brought her feet out and tentatively surrendered them to Ai, hoping the whole thing wasn’t a plot because the blonde had a foot fetish or something. Once she extended them fully Ai placed them in her lap and began putting tissue between the toes. “So you don’t get paint on everything before it dries,” Ai explained.
Ai began with Ukyou’s little toe as she began talking to the chef, making certain her eyes never left Ukyou’s feet. “You see. Painting one’s toenails is a sign of being a woman. There is no way any normal guys are going to go for that sort of thing, and the few men that do generally want to feel more like a woman, if you know what I mean.” she paused upon completing the first toe, winked at Ukyou, then went to the next one.
“With men you’re lucky if they even clean their toes, but us women, well now that’s a different story. Looks are everything, and we know it. I realize it’s a societal idea or some such, but things like painting your toenails have been around for so long, they’re now identified as a sort of behavior that belongs exclusively to US women.” The emphasis on the word was intentional. Sometimes Ai was afraid her dear chef thought of her as being more like a man because of her tastes. “Now, when you do this sort of thing you are shouting out to the world you are a woman and damn proud of it.”
“I find that hard to believe,” Ukyou responded. “It sounds to me like you’re stretching things a bit.”
Ai finished the next toe and continued. “I might be overstating it, but it’s basically true. When you do this sort of thing, it somehow makes you feel like a woman. I can’t explain it. It’s just a feeling. You have beautiful feet, by the way.”
“Thanks.” Ukyou felt a little uneasy about the compliment. She was still on pins and needles when Ai complimented her, uncertain of the motivation behind the words. She shifted her foot a little bit from the nervousness.
“Damn!” Ai grumbled. “Don’t move like that! It made me mess up.” She got out another tissue and wiped some of the polish from Ukyou’s toe.
“Sorry,” Even Ukyou was surprised at the discomfort she felt at Ai’s reprimand. In spite of her disbelief at the ‘femininity’ involved with the whole matter, she found herself wanting Ai to continue with the polishing.
Ai finished cleaning off Ukyou’s toe and completed the nail before going on. “I don’t like mine, myself. It’s the one part of me I think I would change.” Ai concentrated on making certain she didn’t get any more of the polish on Ukyou.
“I think your feet look fine,” Ukyou said.
Ai paused for a moment to smile at the compliment. “Starting to check me out, eh?”
“I am not!”
Ai sighed as Ukyou shifted again. It was a good thing she had waited before continuing. “I’m just kidding. Lighten up.” Once she was certain Ukyou was mollified she continued upon ‘the quest.’ Ukyou was going to get her toenails painted if it took all night. The fourth one was done and she moved to the last one on the foot. Almost halfway done.
“Like I was saying. My feet are just a little big and make my ankles look way too skinny, but there really isn’t a way to make ankles appear big, is there?”
“I guess not.” Ukyou watched as Ai completed the last toe and prepared to move on to the next. She began to wiggle her toes, causing Ai to grab her foot and force it motionless.
“You’re going to mess it up. Let it dry first.” Ai warned.
Ukyou settled down again and just looked at her foot. The whole thing was a pointless exercise. She had no idea why she would get worked up about it. Though it was sort of neat.
Ai began the next foot. “Are you really that uncertain of your femininity?”
Ukyou felt a bit reserved about the direction the conversation had suddenly taken. It was a hard choice of whether or not to open up to Ai the way the cheerleader had opened up to her, but had Ukyou not wanted someone to talk to? Just because Ryouga did not meet the requirements, as she had hoped he would, was no reason to shut Ai out.
Ukyou took a deep breath and began talking. “It’s just that I spent so much time acting like a guy sometimes I guess I don’t feel like a girl. I know I am, but I look in the mirror and have to wonder. I don’t dress like a girl. Don’t act much like one. I just act…”
“Like yourself?” Ai offered as she finished yet another toe.
Ukyou considered that. “Well, I guess. There’s all of that and a little problem I have with…” she trailed off. Maybe she wouldn’t reveal everything after all.
“…guys.” Ai finished for her.
Ukyou was shocked. There was no way Ai could have figured it out. “How’d you know?”
“Because there isn’t a woman alive that doesn’t have them. You aren’t the only one.”
“You seem to be pretty easy going around them,” Ukyou said. “You know how to play them and wrap them around your finger so they’ll do anything you want.”
Ai stopped painting and looked up at her in shock, then began laughing.
“What’s so damned funny!” Ukyou had a feeling the amusement was at her expense.
“Oh, my dear, sweet Ukyou. Are you trying to use me as a stick to measure by?” Ai could barely contain her laughter. “That’s terrible. I hardly have a perfect record. There were some guys that rejected my advances, like Ranma, and some women too.”
“But most of them were at your beck and call.”
Ai considered that. “Maybe, but then again what did I ever do once I got them? My interests were hedonistic, and the way I went about going after my prey hardly left any doubts about my goals. The way I went about getting dates was not the sort of thing you do to build a lasting relationship, unless you want to look for cheap thrills. Is that what you want?” She went back to painting toenails as she waited for Ukyou’s response.
Ukyou thought about it. “No. I want something that will last.”
“So do I, now.” She noticed Ukyou blush at that and went on before she made the chef uncomfortable again. “I can help you act more ‘girlish,’ if you want.” Ai completed the toenail and went to the next. Almost done.
“But I don’t think that’s the sort of thing for me.” Ukyou protested. “I can’t picture myself wearing dresses and acting like that little tart, Kyoko.”
“You can do all of that, but it won’t make you feel like a girl.” Ai informed her.
“It won’t?” Ukyou asked curiously.
“Nope.” Ai looked up. “It would just be like you said: an act. Being a woman doesn’t involve dressing like those little adorable darlings you see acting all cute and cheery. It comes from here.” Ai leaned forward and gently pressed a finger above Ukyou’s left breast, not in a move of seduction, just a simple gesture to her heart. She then sat back and returned to painting. “Clichéd, I know, but true nonetheless. That’s what determines how you feel.”
The longer the conversation continued the more fascinated Ukyou became of Ai. This was a side she didn’t even suspect existed. “So what do I do?”
Ukyou would have facefaulted were it not for the fact she didn’t want to interrupt Ai once more. “If I don’t do anything then how will I feel more feminine?”
Ai gave a sigh and paused once more. She was never going to get done at this rate. “You are already feminine. Every bit of you is one hundred percent woman. Anyone that says otherwise is, as you would put it, a ‘jackass’.”
“That’s nice of you to say but—“
“No buts!” Ai went back to work as she continued talking. She was going to take a risk here. If Ukyou didn’t answer correctly her heart was going to break. “Do you think I’m feminine?”
“Of course,” Ukyou said. “I only wish I was half as good-looking as you.”
“Thank you.” Ai was glad her head was turned downward as she blushed. Imagine, her acting embarrassed. If only Ukyou meant what she said. “But what I meant was do I act like a girl?”
“Aside from coming on to girls and being violent, yes.”
Ai scowled as she finished another nail. A mild anger started to build in her at the suggestion. As long as Ukyou didn’t try to order her around she was going to be able to maintain it, but if Ukyou didn’t there was a genuine fear that she was going to become submissive again and lose the anger. If there was a time she was going to prove to herself that willingly letting her guard down wasn’t a mistake, now was it.
She allowed the faintest bit of irritation in her voice. “Just because I like girls does not make me unfeminine. I am a woman no matter how I behave. That’s what I’m trying to tell you but you aren’t listening. I don’t have to wear a dress and make-up to be a woman. I can wear baggy sweats and tomorrow morning you’re going to see just how skanky I can look when I wake up in the morning. But through it all I am a woman.”
Ukyou was slightly taken aback by the anger in Ai’s voice. Apparently she had hit a nerve. “I didn’t mean it quite the way it sounded.”
“Yes, you did.” And it hurt, but Ai wasn’t going to admit to that. Ukyou was apologetic, not angry with her, and that made her feel good. “I am not afraid of what I am. I may like having sex with women, but that doesn’t make me any less of a woman. Surely you don’t think you need a man to fulfill that part of you. That’s a myth, one I would be more than happy to dispel if I hadn’t already promised not to try that with you. Tonight anyway.” She returned to the painting, finishing and moving on to the last one.
Ukyou felt a little shaken by the conversation. She had to admit, most of her ideas of how women should behave had been through the eyes of men. First her father, then through the other boys at her school. In all her years of being raised by men or acting like one, she never really had a female role model, or even any real female friends. At last she was getting the female perspective of things. Not that she should be taking everything Ai said as fact since the cheerleader could be wrong, but a lot of what she said felt right somehow. “You seem to have a pretty firm grasp on what makes a woman what she is.”
“Of course,” Ai said. “You think I haven’t been accused of that sort of thing? With my preferences? I had to think about it and it took me a long while, but I think I can state a pretty good case. And at any rate I don’t believe what they say. I know in my heart that I am a woman and damn proud of it. And I know that you are one too. After all, who would understand better than someone that knows from personal experience the grass is not greener on the other side?”
Ukyou found herself laughing at the comparison. Ai joined in, but continued painting.
Ukyou finally stopped. “You’ve given me a lot to think about. Thank you, Ai.”
Ai felt her heartbeat pick up speed at the compliment. This was now more than simply allowing Ukyou control over her. It must have been love. Only that could make one feel so panicked at feeling so good. “Thank you for listening.”
“What’s that supposed to mean?”
Ai continued looking down at her work and avoided eye contact. She wasn’t certain if she could control herself. “I’m not exactly considered genius material. Not too many people pay attention to what a ‘sex kitten’ like myself would have to say. Not that I talk like this to anyone.”
“Hey! Listening is one of my specialties. I hear people talk all day while I cook.” Ukyou found herself enjoying Ai’s presence more and more. “I’ll always listen to what you have to say.”
Ai hoped when she sighed it wasn’t audible. The reactions she was having to the little things Ukyou was doing to her were unbelievable. She gained some control of her emotions before answering. “Well, I’ll always be willing to paint your toenails whenever you want to have them done. And speaking of which, I am done. Take a look.” Ai released Ukyou’s feet and allowed her to examine them.
Ukyou stared at them in fascination. Just staring at those toes and their unusual color did make her feel something inside. Somehow something as simple, and basically pointless, as that made her feel more confident in herself. Maybe she could take what Ai said to heart.
Ai caught the smile Ukyou had as she looked at her toes. Maybe what she said was sinking in. The very idea that her Ukyou was less than a consummate woman really was ludicrous. Nothing less than perfection could make Ai fall so hard so fast.
She returned to lying next to Ukyou while the two of them watched television until the nails dried. Once that was done, Ai got up and shut off the television and crawled next to Ukyou. Just as she was about to relax she took a chance and leaned over to kiss her sweet chef lightly on the cheek.
“Good night,” she said lightning quick as she rolled over away from Ukyou. She waited several moments for the chef to get angry and throw her out, but the feared response never came. Rather, Ukyou returned the good night and rolled in the opposite direction of Ai. It didn’t matter at all to Ai that they did nothing else that night. Surely that was a sign of love, that just sleeping next to someone was enough to put your soul at ease and your heart to soar.
As the evening wore on Ai discovered there were just two drawbacks to sleeping in the same bed with Ukyou. The first was that she was a kicker. Her feet may have been attractive, but they were ice cold when they struck Ai’s shins. The second was she mumbled a lot in her sleep, awakening Ai twice, not that she minded. It gave her a chance to look at her beloved’s face as she slept. And on the bright side at one point Ukyou’s hand groped Ai’s chest. Now that was good feeling, even if it didn’t remain there for very long. Even though Ai didn’t get very much sleep, it was still the most restful night of her life.
Ukyou woke up the next morning to a bright and shiny Ai announcing it was time to get up. She barely had time to rub her eyes and sit up when Ai plopped down a tray full of breakfast for her. Immediately Ukyou felt guilty.
“You didn’t have to do all of this.”
“I know,” Ai smiled happily as she plopped herself down next to Ukyou. “I wanted to. I’m an early morning person.”
“I’m not,” Ukyou grumbled, but the scent of the food was going a long way to waking her up.
“Oh, I’m sorry, but I just had to get some croissants from that French whore next door. She may be a total bitch, but she knows how to make great pastries.” Ai said, smiling expectantly as Ukyou began to devour the food. It felt wonderful serving her woman. “She still thinks we’re sleeping together. I didn’t have the time to correct her.”
“Mmm.” Ukyou mumbled as she ate some of the croissants. “Don’t worry about it. She’s so deluded she still thinks I tried to come on to her. You’re really a good cook.” She took a bite into some of the eggs that Ai had prepared.
“Nowhere near as good as you,” Ai stated, still grinning widely. “I’m afraid Hibiki passed out again.”
Ukyou stopped eating. “What happened this time?”
“I was bent over the stove when he came in.”
Ai indicated the short nightshirt she still wore. “I wasn’t wearing underwear. You know, he’s probably seen me naked more often than you have.” She batted her eyelashes at that. “I can fix that if you like.”
Ukyou was about to say something when Ai stopped her. “It was just a joke. I meant what I said about not hitting on you. I’m going to clean up and grab a shower. If you want you can wash my back. I promise to keep my hands to myself.”
Ukyou politely passed on that. Ai was certainly pleasant, and the night was fun, but there was just no way she was going to risk taking a shower with her. Things needed to be taken one step at a time, and that was more like a leap into the lion’s den. No matter how their relationship turned out, it needed to go slowly, and she knew for a fact she wasn’t ready to go anywhere near that far with anyone, man or woman.
Ukyou was about to finish her food when she looked down at her toenails and smiled. The color really was pretty, but next time she might use purple. That was a good color, and maybe she would let Ai help then too. “I guess I really am feminine. Heh.”
The next day:
The Shogun of the Dark strode through the now empty halls of Mount Phoenix. The Devils had emptied out the caverns of all the bodies, but the scent of death still clung to the air. It wasn’t as though he minded such things; he had been responsible for the deaths of thousands over the centuries. What were a few hundred more? Most of the deaths were through others, like the Devils, but he would sully his own hands every now and then. The odds were that this was only the beginning. In the birth of a new age there would always be those that that did not survive the change. It would just be a matter of how many would fall. Thousands? Millions? A billion perhaps? There were so many more people now than ever before. That was both a good and bad thing.
Gemma caught up to the Shogun as the cowled man made his way further up into the mountain, heading ever so slowly to the top.
“The bodies?” the Shogun asked.
“Stored inside the main cavern at the bottom. It won’t be long before the scent of decay fills this entire mountain. I could have Zakura cremate them. She seems to enjoy using napalm.”
The Shogun shook his head. “Leave them where they are and as they are. They still may serve a purpose. Will the smell bother you?”
Gemma snorted derisively at that. “I was entombed alive on the bottom of the ocean for several centuries. The odor of feces is pleasant to me now.”
The Shogun switched topics. “The children?”
“Sealed in a cave with a hole just large enough to allow enough air in. Benisato has also commanded two hundred of her snakes to stand guard. Those children will go nowhere.”
The Shogun continued to show interest in their welfare. “You are taking care of them, aren’t you? They’re being fed regularly and not being allowed to wallow in their excrement, are they?”
Gemma was amazed at the concern the Shogun showed, not that he allowed the surprise to show. The Shogun never demonstrated the least bit of caring towards anything save his plans. “Of course, my lord. May I ask a question?”
“Why did you spare some of the children?”
The Shogun paused in his walk. “I require a sacrifice. I’d rather have a young healthy child then a more able-bodied older person that would do something foolishly heroic, like try to kill themselves or attack me.”
Gemma should have known. The Shogun had a heart of ice, just like him.
“What of Herb and his army?” the Shogun asked.
“He reassured me they will be in position by this time tomorrow.”
It was near the top of the mountain, in the last large cavern, that the Shogun stopped before a huge stone wall and waited expectantly. “Can you see it?” he asked of his companion.
Gemma’s eyes scanned the cavern, trying to see what the Shogun was talking about. The only thing that stood out was a huge twenty-foot diameter hole near where the duo had stopped. Gemma went to the edge and gazed downward. The bottom was lost in the darkness below as a faint wind drifted up, producing a hollow noise that indicated just how deep the pit went.
“There is something alluring about the abyss,” Gemma mumbled as he stared into the inky black depths.
“There is an attunement between it and us,” the Shogun informed him. “It matches the dark pits of our souls. Not just ours, but all of humanity. Men like us can admit to ourselves the reason for our attraction, but most would deny it.” The Shogun turned from the hole. “Come, Gemma. Let us provide humanity with what they truly want. Let us give them an abyss that all may gaze into.”
The Shogun moved to the stone wall which they had originally stopped at. With a mere wave of his hand the rock shifted and flowed away, like liquid, and left behind two huge ornate golden doors, each reaching thirty feet high and towards the ceiling.
“It’s been undiscovered for over four millennia. Even if someone had stumbled upon it, they still would never have had the chance to reveal it to anyone else. Gemma,” he turned to the large man, “Open the doors.”
Gemma moved to obey. The moment his hand settled upon the door he felt a surge of magical energy flow into him, shooting him with enough pain to kill a dozen ordinary men and sent him hurtling into the far wall over fifty feet away. His bones broke on impact as he was embedded in the wall.
It took close to eight seconds for the damage to heal.
While Gemma peeled himself out of the wall the Shogun remained staring at the doors in fascination. “The wards are still intact. Excellent.”
Gemma kept his commentary to himself. Being used as a guinea pig was beneath him, but the Shogun got irritated very easily.
Several intricate gestures were made by the Shogun before the door. Within moments Gemma saw a flash of light and the doors soundlessly opened. A motion of the hand indicated Gemma should follow. Both men made their way down a small yet long stone corridor and to a large cave nearly a hundred feet wide and at least twenty feet tall. For all the elaborate decoration of the doors, the room was the exact opposite. There was nothing in it but rough stone hewn from the rock.
The reaction the Shogun displayed was the exact opposite of what Gemma expected. The sound of awe in his voice was the first time the leader of the Devils ever heard such emotion from his master.
“It is just as I remember it. All is here. Soon the final stages will be complete.” He turned to Gemma. “This is the one place in the world where the spell can be cast. It was here that I first cast it. And it is here that it shall be cast again. I will require the blood we have stored up here. The patterns I will have to make must be perfect and I can afford no interruptions. But first it is time to use some of my true power.”
Gemma watched as the Shogun’s hands glowed blue and he gestured to the air. A nimbus of blue energy formed around the Shogun’s head and moved outward, growing with each passing second. It moved past, and through, Gemma’s head with no noticeable side effects. Likewise as it moved outward it went through the walls as though they didn’t exist. After a minute the Shogun spoke once more.
“There. Now I will be aware of the presence of any sentient creature within a twenty-mile radius. I will alert you to their presence, but it will fall to you to deal with them. All of my concentration and power must be focused in this room and what I have to do in the upcoming weeks.” His voice deepened as he conveyed the importance of what was about to happen. “I will be extremely vulnerable at this time. You must keep all away from this chamber and from disturbing my work. Otherwise the spell will fail, and I do not believe I can afford to wait another five thousand years for this opportunity to come again. Get me my blood, Gemma. There is work for me to do.”
Gemma bowed before leaving. So it was all coming true. The end of the months long quest was on the horizon.
The Musk Fortress, China:
“<What do you think is wrong with Herb?>”
Mint looked towards Lime while he played with the rounded piece of metal at the end of his arm. He hated blasted thing, but at least it covered the stump where his hand used to be. Why on earth did the big man think Mint knew any more than him? Herb wasn’t sharing much with anyone nowadays. He even left the fortress without telling anyone why a few nights ago and returned looking the worse for wear. Actually, Herb had left and returned as a girl. It had been weeks since anyone had seen the prince of the Musk in anything other than his cursed form.
The hour was getting late and the army that had been left outside was growing impatient. Herb had hired another five hundred mercenaries to bolster the already large army he had built up over the last three years. But mercenaries didn’t come cheap, and the royal accountants informed Herb that he could hire them for no more than two weeks before the coffers would run dry. Surprisingly Herb did not seem to care, claiming that money would become irrelevant within one week of work.
Now Herb had ordered the troops to wait for him to come out and address them. That was four hours ago and many of them were growing faint under the searing heat if they had to remain in their bulky dragonstyle armor under the sun much longer. Both Lime and Mint decided enough time had passed to see if there was something wrong with Herb. The duo headed to the last place they had seen him. The throne room.
They arrived before the closed twin bronze doors and noticed two of Herb’s bodyguards present and positioned on each side of the door. As the two went to open the doors the guards blocked the entry with crossed halberds.
“<What do you two think you’re doing?>” Lime bellowed.
“<Our orders are specific,>” one of the guards spoke up. “<No one is allowed to enter.>”
Lime smiled at that. “<I’m sure what Herb meant to say was, ‘no one is allowed to enter except Lime’.>”
“<And Mint,>” Mint quickly added.
The other one spoke up. “<No one is allowed to enter. No one includes you.>”
“<But we’re family,>” Lime protested.
“<He said no one.>”
“<He trusts us.>”
“<I took care of his pet lizard for years.>” Lime pointed out.
Both guards looked at Lime in confusion. “<What the hell is that supposed to mean?>”
Lime shook his head sadly at the guards, they really were quite stupid. It was a testament to the quality of help nowadays. “<Haven’t you heard of the saying, ‘if a man takes care of your pets, then that man can be trusted with your life’?>”
Both guards shook their heads no.
Lime cracked his knuckles. “<I see now. You two are impostor guards. You just lied to me.>”
Both guard’s jaws nearly hit the floor. “<What are you talking about?!>” the first one shouted.
“<We didn’t lie to you. Neither one of us has heard that phrase before,>” the other one joined in.
“<And so you lie again. You see, I said that phrase right before I asked you that question, yet both of you claimed you had never heard it before. That means you just lied to me. And if you lied to us about something like that, you’re probably lying to us about other things.>”
“<That was a good one, Lime.>” Mint applauded his partners deductive reasoning.
Lime smiled at the compliment and continued. “<I bet you don’t want us in the throne room for insidious reasons. I’m going in and you can’t stop me!>”
Lime was about to force his way to the doors when Mint stopped him. “<Wait! It’s rude to enter without knocking first.>”
“<Good point,>” Lime agreed. “<But there’s no knocker on the door.>”
“<I’m sure we can improvise something,>” Mint reassured him.
There was no answer, so Lime opened the doors, discarding the two guards whose skulls he used to knock on the door. Lime began to wonder if Herb was really hiring quality thugs. Those two so-called guards crumpled under just the slightest bit of force.
Both of the members of the Musk entered the darkened room to see there was no Herb present. Just as they were about to call out his name, two red eyes appeared in the darkness and a voice spoke from off to the right.
“<Hello, you two! What brings you to my lair?>”
Lime and Mint drew back as the owner of the two red eyes moved into the light. “<What are you?>” Mint gasped.
“<Don’t you recognize your old leader? Shame on you.>”
Mint stared more closely. “<Herb? Is that you?>”
“<Yes. I’ve undergone a few changes lately. It’s one of the reasons why you haven’t seen me in my ‘real’ form in some time. But the last of them occurred today. Now what you see before you is the true nature of the next emperor of China. HAHAHAHAHAHA!!!>”
Lime and Mint covered their ears as they were nearly deafened by the loud blast of sound that came from Herb’s laughs. If he did it much harder, Herb was going to bring the roof down.
Herb stopped in his bellows and turned towards his friends. “<Get me some cold water. There’s something I want to test.>”
Mint was gone and back in a flash, bearing a water kettle in his good hand. Herb took the kettle, concentrated for a moment, then threw the water on himself. There was no change.
“<Excellent! It is as I suspected!>” Herb bellowed. “<I can prevent the change if I concentrate. Now, get me some more cold water.>”
Mint repeated everything. This time when Herb used the water his new form changed to that of the girl the duo recognized.
“<I’d just as soon not let the world know of the changes I’ve undergone. Now we can…>” Herb-chan trailed off as Mint and Lime began poking at her breasts.
“<They feel the same,>” Mint said.
“<Yep. It’s nice to know some things don’t change. Isn’t that righ— >”
Lime didn’t get a chance to finish as he ended up driven into a wall with his partner. Herb-chan donned a set of her traditional dragonscale armor and cape, finishing as the duo dug themselves out of the wall.
“<Time to greet the troops.>” Herb-chan smiled as she led her cohorts to the main balcony that overlooked the main courtyard. She felt a rush as she saw the group of two thousand plus men at her command. And they only represented the beginning.
Herb-chan stood atop the balcony so that all could witness her imperial majesty. “<It is a time of greatness for all of you! This is the dawn of a new age, and you are going to help usher it in!>”
“<Who are you?!>” A voice from the crowd shouted.
“<I am your leader, Emperor Herb!>”
Another voice spoke up. “<I thought we were serving a guy!>”
A third shouted out as well. “<I don’t take orders from no woman!>”
Herb-chan pointed a finger and casually loosed a bright blue beam of energy at the speaker, not even bothering to call out the name of the attack. All of the flesh of the man was burned off in less than two seconds, leaving only a bleach white skeleton. “<Now you take orders from no one,> she called out to the bones. “<Does anyone else wish to register a complaint?>”
There were no takers. Having her mood broken, Herb-chan simply elected to order the troops to set forth to the positions the Shogun of the Dark ordered her to take. She could practically feel the billion or so of her countrymen calling out her name in ecstasy. Soon now.
Two days later:
Li Fhall waited yet another minute for her husband to speak to her. He was already coming close to making her late.
“<Be careful,>” he warned yet again for the fourth time.
“<This is a simple little reconnaissance mission I’m leading. There’s nothing to worry about. We aren’t even supposed to have contact with those Musk bastards. We’re just going to quietly look over Mount Phoenix and if there is anything even remotely peculiar we’re going to get out of here. Personally, I think the child is simply addled.>”
“<I still think I should go,>” her husband said for the fourth time.
Li laughed at that. “<In that clunky armor you wear? We might as well bring loudspeakers and hand out pamphlets about where we are. Besides,>” she poked at his stomach. “<You’ve put on more than a few pounds since your prime.>”
He glanced self-consciously at his stomach.
Li tried to lighten things a little. “<I’m traveling with ten of my best sisters, or at least the most quiet. We’ll be in and out before you know it.>”
“<I suppose. It’s just that I have a bad feeling that I’m never going to see you again.>”
Li shook her head at that. “<You are such a worrier. Here.> She grabbed his hand and embraced it in her own. “<I swear to you I will return within the next five days.>” She heard several other members of her party call out for her. Everyone was anxious to leave.
“<You promise?>” he said, maintaining the grip.
“<I swear; Death itself won’t stop me.>”
It was three nights later when Gemma received the Shogun’s mental command. There were eleven intruders within the twenty-mile perimeter. Yurimaru was given command of Tessai and Shujima. Silent death and brute force, along with a modicum of intelligence. The fools deserved to die once more if they should fail.
It was four hours later when the trio returned, Tessai bearing a dead body over his shoulder. Gemma had been concerned something had happened to them since they had taken far too long. Something had occurred. Shujima had a huge gash along his real arm and Yurimaru was bleeding from a cut on his cheek.
“These ones actually put up a fight,” Tessai commented.
“That red-haired one cut me good!” Shujima complained as he indicated the body of the woman draped over Tessai.
Yurimaru waved off Shujima. “They were highly skilled indeed, but no match for us. We got all eleven of them. I believe they are part of the Amazon tribe that Herb seems to have so much respect for,” Yurimaru said dryly. “How did he put it? Ah, yes, ‘I will raze their pitiful village to the ground for the atrocities committed against my people’.”
Gemma nodded in agreement, much to Yurimaru’s delight.
“Send the body back with the usual message and let Herb know he screwed up. Tell him to expect trouble from them in the future and to watch the Amazons much more closely. I don’t want any more breaches of security like this.” Gemma thought a moment longer. “We’ll use the Musk’s army for leverage. Here’s what you’ll have her say…”
Shujima listened intently, memorizing it word for word. It was precise, yet to the point, and almost certain to keep the Amazons distracted until they were irrelevant. He left with the body, intent on delivering the message by the next day.
River stood anxiously on guard at one of the borders of the village. Kar Wong had said she was only going to take a minute to relieve herself, which had been ten minutes ago. River would have been worried save for the fact she had spotted Kar’s boyfriend, Yun, pass by only moments before and give an odd hand signal to her. Those two were something else. River would never have stood for such a lax in duty save for the fact this was one of the few times the two could meet. Their families were bitter rivals and there was a special hatred between the duo’s mothers. If either one had caught wind of the rendezvous their children were having it would probably ignite a blood feud just like the one in that video of that Japanese play she had seen when she was last in Chuige Gauage, the one with the really cute male lead in it. It took her a moment to remember the name of that play, ‘Romano and Juliard.’
She was remembering the handsome features of the lead when the red-haired woman came into sight, walking slowly yet steadily towards the village. Recognition dawned on River immediately as pulled out her broadsword.
“<KAR!!! Get your ass over here now. Something’s wrong! Li Fhall’s returning alone and she’s walking funny!>”
River saw Kar emerge from some bushes and move at top speed while yelling to Yun to get some help. Kar arrived at River’s side within seconds, spiked bucklers at the ready.
Kar watched as Li approached the two of them. “<You’re right. Her movements are way too stiff and jerky. It’s almost like she was a marionette.>”
Both warriors stood at the ready as Li approached, stopping within ten feet of them. It wasn’t until a moment later that the elder Talcum arrived, that Li began to speak.
“<The Musk now control Mount Phoenix,>” she announced in a quiet voice. “<If you dare to trespass in our territory again, our legions will crush you beneath their heels. This is the only warning you will receive.>”
With her declaration finished the dead body of Li Fhall, controlled by Shujima from the shadows, fell over, at last allowed to rest in peace. Li had kept her word. Not even death had stopped her from returning to her husband and her home.
The Scars of Blood, China:
Drakosh the Enchanter stumbled into the crypt, his hand desperately trying to keep his entrails in his body. The pink-haired bitch had cut him deeply with her naginata, practically disemboweled him. And now he was dying, at the hands of an Amazon no less. Oh, the indignity of it all. He was one of the greatest mages the Cult of the Serpent Men ever had, but all it took was one lucky warrior to end his life. Or so it would if she had not erred. He was now at the doorstep of the goal he had been after. His remaining men could hold the girl just long enough for him to recover the artifact. Once he donned it, the power would flow into him and he would destroy those pitiful girls for daring to interfere with his plans. All he needed to do was find it.
As he stumbled around in search of the object he thought back to the events of the past few days. It really was foolish. He had assumed the presence of the Amazons meant they were there to stop him, but ironically they had been unaware of the cult. The group would have gone by, never knowing how close Drakosh and his men were, if he had not attacked them in the hopes of wiping them out. But he had failed, not one of the Amazons had been killed and he had lost all of his men.
His thoughts were interrupted as he spotted it at last, sitting in the middle of the floor on a stone pedestal. He staggered to the middle of the room, trailing blood the entire way as his vision began to go dark. He would not die like some melodramatic movie villain just inches from his goal. He would make it. His force of will was all that kept him conscious as he summoned every erg of strength he had to make it to the stone pedestal that sat like some finger, beckoning him ever onward. At last he stumbled next to it, resting his forehead against the cold gray stone. His free hand fumbled for the key to unlock the mechanism and deactivate the magical traps. Then it would be his.
He inserted the key and heard nothing. His vision began to go dark again as the stone did not move one inch. He examined the locking mechanism more closely.
No! It could not be! He moved his hand to the piece of stone that covered the object he so desperately wanted. It moved easily despite the millennium old hinges it rested on and allowed him to see inside.
Perfume heard the scream of denial from within the interior of the crypt as she dispatched the last swordsman. Most of the men serving the Cult were mediocre at best, though one or two had proven to be difficult to kill. But for having such a reputation among the history of the Amazons she had expected better. Of course perhaps not having any actual serpent men present helped things a lot.
Turning quickly to the sound, she rushed as fast as she could to the inside of the chamber. Allowing that foolish mage to escape was not an option. He had almost killed her, and he was going to pay. She followed the trail of dark red blood, now understanding that her blow had cut very deep, to the main chamber in the center of the crypt. There she saw the fallen body of Drakosh, the pool of blood beneath him growing, next to the stone pedestal. As Perfume entered the room she saw five of her Amazon sisters had caught up and were looking for more opponents to kill.
“<I got the last of them,>” she informed the others, “<Where’s Julep?>”
“<She said the whole place smelled wrong and left. Tablet thought the place was full of old germs and stayed outside with the others as well.>” Shi Fan said.
Perfume said she understood and went deeper into the room. Why had Drakoth been so determined to reach this chamber? He was dying and had to know it. There was no logical reason to fight so hard just to die in a crypt. There had to be something more. Perhaps the secret lay in the stone pedestal in the middle of the room.
Perfume examined Drakoth’s body, making certain it was dead, then examined the pedestal. Blood covered it in certain spots, no doubt where the mage had touched it. A closer examination revealed a key in a locking mechanism and a little door in the pedestal that had been covering something. As she examined the door and looked inside she spotted nothing. An examination of Drakoth had produced nothing either, which meant whatever he had been looking for was not there. Perfume gave a closer inspection of the door and produced several runes on the stone surface.
Runes were beyond her knowledge. “<Can anyone read old runes.>”
Rei Za stepped forward. “<Elder Shou Ya made me study them when I was younger. I think I still remember how to read them.>” She squatted next to the series of marks and spent close to half an hour thinking out loud as to what they runes could mean. Right at the twenty-minute mark, everyone saw Rei Za go pale.
She got up with a wild look on her eye. “<We have to leave,>” she hissed. “<NOW!!!>”
Perfume grabbed her by the shoulders, trying to calm her down. The others in the room had begun to finger their weapons, the girl's fright triggering their own.
Once Perfume thought she had Rei Za calmed down enough to answer she began grilling her. “<What do they say?>”
Rei Za gulped loudly as she tried to bring her fear under control long enough to answer. “<The runes identify this place as a tomb holding a great evil. A tomb that was made by the Amazons.>”
Everyone looked at each other in disbelief. They were hundreds of miles farther than the influence of the Amazons had ever reached, even in their greatest days.
“<What does it contain?>” Cabinet asked.
“<It contains the most horrible thing ever made. Now I know what those wide furrows in the earth are outside. Those ones that stretch for nearly a mile and don’t have anything growing in them.>”
“<What are they?> Soap asked.
“<They are the last remnant of the greatest battle the mightiest of our warriors ever engaged in. The battle in which she fought the most unholiest of foes ever to walk the face of the earth.>”
Realization began to dawn on Perfume as she spoke in growing horror. “<You mean those grooves outside are the— >”
“< —Scars of Blood,>” Rei Za finished. “<Yes. It is where Hu Chiang fought her greatest battle. The marks on the earth a testament to the power that was released here. Even after over a thousand years the land still bears the scars of that fight.>”
“<Then that means this is his tomb?>” Foam asked fearfully.
“<Of course not!>” Rei Za said. “<His body was destroyed, but not his source of power. It was entombed here.>”
Perfume felt her blood chill as she looked at the empty pedestal. It had been hidden there, there was no doubt about it. But now it was gone. And Drakoth had not taken it. There was only one way out of the room and Perfume would have noticed anyone passing her by when she got there. “<We leave this evil place. Now!>”
All the Amazons rushed out in fear, not one ashamed of their actions. One didn’t fight with legends. Perfume collected the others that remained outside and ordered them to run as fast as they could until the tomb was left behind. Once she was away from the place and could think clearly, she planned things out.
Perfume sent one of the girls back to the village while the rest of the hunt pack continued on its mission. There was no telling how long ago the item had been missing, though the dust on the floor of that room indicated whoever took it had to have been gone for several years. Wherever the item was, it was probably not an immediate danger. Just something for all to watch out for. It was common knowledge that Hu Chiang had fought her singular most dangerous opponent at this place. Legend had it the Blood Weeper was an abomination that desired to kill every human being it came into contact with, and that his power increased with every life it took. He made such a menace of himself, Hu Chiang actually hunted him down and the two fought in several battles, the last of which formed the Scars of Blood. In the end, Hu Chiang had destroyed the Blood Weeper’s body, but not the mask he wore. Legend had it that was the source of his unholy power and that it was buried near the final battleground. Now the mask of the Blood Weeper was gone, and the gods only knew what that meant.
That was not what was important now. There was still a mission to complete, and the Cult of the Serpent Men had delayed Perfume and her pack long enough for Silk to do what had to be done. There would be practically no risk in going to Japan now. Shampoo had to have been long gone, and perhaps that was going to buy Shampoo enough time to get a cure before the hunt pack ran her to ground. Perfume gave the order to move out, the tomb was left behind, but not forgotten.
Shampoo-kun practically felt his back breaking under the weight of the groceries he was now carrying. It wouldn’t have been so bad if the fat man next to him were doing his part of the job.
“You know, you could help out, Pop!”
“I am, boy.” He bit into the apple he was carrying. How dare the Amazon imply he wasn’t helping out? Each item Genma ate made Shampoo-kun’s burden lighter.
“Don’t call me boy!” Shampoo-kun said as the groceries threatened to fall over again. The only reason he didn’t simply toss everything to the ground was that it was all being done for Kasumi’s benefit. She was busy preparing a delicate dish and needed to watch everything as it cooked. When Genma found out some additional ingredients were needed, he had volunteered the Amazon for the job. Shampoo-kun had managed to drag the fat man along with him. At least Genma wasn’t on his butt getting fatter. He was on his feet doing it.
Shampoo-kun passed a woman as he spoke once again to his companion. “This kind of heavy, Pop.”
Genma shrugged the complaint off as he chomped into the apple again. “Just think of it as training, boy.”
The sound of something hitting the ground behind Shampoo-kun caught his attention. He turned to see an attractive older woman, about in her mid-thirties, staring wide-eyed at both he and Genma. The item that she had dropped appeared to be a long, thin object wrapped in some kind of cloth. Shampoo-kun turned his head slightly and was surprised to see Genma with a similar look of shock on his face.
At last the strange woman spoke up. “It is you, isn’t it Genma?”
The most Genma could get out was, “N… n…. n… n…”
The woman continued on, oblivious to his reaction. “And he called you Pop. That means he’s…”
Shampoo-kun looked on, horribly confused.
Shampoo-kun found himself in a near backbreaking embrace by the now crying woman, the bags falling to the ground. He looked confusedly over at Genma, who finally managed to complete his own word.
To be continued.
Author's notes: Madame Lao and Ryonami are from ‘A Very Scary Thought’ and were created by James Robert Bader.
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