The Shogun of the Dark examined the diagram for the seventh time. The design took up nearly half of the cave and was so intricate that it would not have seemed possible for anything human to create something so elaborate. Even the greatest artists in the world would have been hard pressed to replicate the design.
It was a good thing the Shogun had had five thousand years to practice it.
He had used his magic to magnify his vision so he could examine every line, making certain it was perfect. There were absolutely no second chances. The supply of blood of all the various creatures, which made up the pattern, was too low to remake the design, and if there was even one flaw and the spell was miscast he would have to redo the entire design. No. There was only one chance to get the first stage of the spell correct. That was why it had taken him weeks to create the pattern, and why he had taken another week to check over every inch of it seven times. It was perfect.
Despite the lack of mistakes the Shogun still felt nervous. When was the last time that had happened? One hundred years ago? One thousand? Ever? His feelings were irrelevant. Too long had he awaited for this moment to allow anything to interfere with the plan. It was time to begin the incantation, lest something happen and interfere with the spell, costing him everything.
He magically floated to his place in the center of the symbol and allowed the slow build-up of energy. Once initiated, he could not leave the design until the time of the sacrifice. Any disruption in the flow of magical power from him and the spell would fail. That was the other reason he needed the Eight Devils of Kimone, as well as Herb and his army. The Shogun would be vulnerable now as his magic-laden body was drained of its precious energy and he was forced to remain immobile. All it would take was one person in the wrong place at the wrong time, and five thousand years of planning would be ruined.
But Herbís army was in place, keeping out all who sought to intrude upon the mountain, and the Devils could take care of anything else. Had he any ego left, the Shogun would have despised his limitations. For the last one hundred years he had had to conserve his considerable magical energy, not that anyone that stood against him would have realized it. He was still powerful by most magi's standards. Given full power he could have unleashed enough force to blast a hole to the center of the earth. If he had had access to his full powers, Saffron would have fallen in an instant.
But the Shogun could not use them; the power to fuel the spell was too great. Virtually all of his magic was needed, and by the end he would have just barely enough to sustain him. Of course, by the end he would have no more need of magic. Everything would be taken care of without the need of his present abilities.
The Shogun had understood all of that from the beginning, which was why he had carefully plotted out everything so he would have just enough power at the end to complete the spell. Even the effort necessary for the resurrection of the Devils, and their subsequent enhancements, was carefully calculated and preparations for them had begun as many as three hundred years ago. And there were no other major displays of magic necessary. All had been accounted for save the boost to Herb, and that took very little power in any case. Yes. Everything was going according to plan.
The energy build-up reached its peak. He allowed one last thought of how the world currently was to freeze in his mind. Though no one else knew it, it was all going to change.
He unleashed the power, sending an invisible beam of energy from his body and through the very rock of the mountain, leaving it unaffected, and to the skies above. High overhead clouds darkened as weather patterns around Mount Phoenix changed. The wind intensified and lightning left white streaks across the gray sky. Slowly the effect spread outward from its source, causing villagers miles away to begin preparations for the coming tempest.
Other differences in the area began to subtly occur, though only a handful of the most sensitive were aware of the changes. The weather was simply the first thing to be noticeably effected. It had begun at long last, and no one, save the Shogun of the Dark, truly understood what had happened.
Nothing was the same anymore.
Chapter 34: Those Who Would Dare Dream of Tomorrow
A Ranma ½ story
by D.B. Sommer
Disclaimer: Ranma ½ and its characters and settings belong to Rumiko Takahashi, Shogakukan, Kitty, and Viz Video.
All comments and criticisms appreciated. You can contact me at email@example.com
Whatís gone on before (or what you really need to enjoy this fic, the condensed version) In the beginning the Saotomes traveled to Jusenkyou not realizing Shampoo and Mousse already a duel going on. One accidental mid-air collision and bath in Spring of Young Drowned Man later, there is a male Shampoo as well as a female Ranma. (So Ranma-chan= female Ranma. Shampoo-kun= male Shampoo. Enjoy) Shampoo elected to travel to Japan with Ranma. After many months many friends and enemies were made. In the last chapter Ranma was going to be married to Akane, but Shampoo at last confessed her feelings to Ranma. As he was processing that revelation Tarou attacked and Ranma fought him while Akane fought Shampoo. Both Ranma and Shampoo were victorious, but Perfume had her Hunt Pack from Joketsuzoku had at last arrived in Japan and have cornered an injured Shampoo. Their orders are to bring Shampoo back at any cost…
<> This means Chinese.
Shampoo gazed hopelessly at the hunt pack before her. All of the members were easily recognizable. It seemed Perfume had gathered together a group of some of the most talented of her generation, and virtually all of them had some sort of dislike against Shampoo. There would be no indecisiveness on the part of the Amazons; they would be eager to obey Perfumeís orders if it meant a chance to get their hands on her. Of all of those set against her perhaps the most distressing thing, to Shampoo, was the presence of her great grandmother. Had she not several weeks ago claimed she would assist Shampoo in obtaining a cure? Now she was alongside a group of warriors whose sole purpose was to take Shampoo back to China.
"<I said it is time to come home, Xian-Pu,>" Perfume repeated.
Shampoo observed Perfume more closely. Was that a look of pain on her face? It was difficult to be certain. What she could tell was that the other girls were following Perfumeís lead, just like good Amazons would. That would mean Perfume was the leader of the party. It appeared Shampooís old friend had finally gotten her chance to lead after all. How… disappointing that she would revert back to type after what Shampoo thought was a sincere, heartfelt discussion the last time they had spoken. The talk had meant a great deal to Shampoo, and she had treasured the much needed healing that had happened between them.
"I have no desire to return home," Shampoo said in Japanese, allowing Ranma to understand. "I am staying in Japan for now."
Cologne spoke up. "It is by order of the council, Shampoo. They believe you have been gone too long and need to return home. There can be no choice in the matter. You should obey."
Shampoo listened to the words carefully. There had been no mention of the curse. If the council were aware of the problem, her great grandmother would surely have said something. And then there was the wording. ĎShould,í not must. Was her great grandmother encouraging her to flee?
"Shampoo ainít going anywhere," Ranma stated boldly as he placed himself between the hunt pack and Shampoo.
A murmur went through the pack. Obviously Shampoo now had a protector, and the members of the hunt pack evaluated him. Soap stepped forward. "Is you Shampoo airen?"
It took Ranma a moment to remember what the word meant. "No way! Weíre kind of just friends, at least for now. Geez, what kinda question is that to ask?"
"Since you no airen then this no concern you, Japanese boy. Leave!" Soap commanded.
Perfume was displeased by the disruption from the break in ranks. A scowl was leveled at Soap, causing her to look mollified as she moved back to her proper position in the ranks.
With her authority once again asserted, Perfume took charge of the situation. "You must come back with us. If you donít come along willingly, we have orders to take you by force."
Despite the air of command Perfumeís voice carried, Shampoo was now certain of the reluctance in her eye. Her former friend was not present by choice. Curiously, Shampoo felt relief at that. No matter what happened, the words of caring the two had previously exchanged in their last meeting had not been false. At least there was that.
Shampoo moved in front of Ranma, now placing herself between him and the pack before he attempted to do something predictably foolish. "There are reasons why I must remain in Japan. I refuse." She felt uneasy at the number of smiles that appeared among the group of Amazons. It was going to be a fight. Softly she looked at the boy beside her. "Ranma, I donít suppose if I asked you to leave to go get help you would."
Ranma gave a tired sigh. "No more than you would if I asked you. I am asking you to do that, by the way."
Shampoo couldnít help but smile, despite the seriousness of the situation. They both knew what the other one would do. If by some miracle they were to get out of the situation alive it would be a good foundation for a relationship. "No. I think Iíll stay."
Perfume gave a signal for the hunt pack to form a circle around the duo. They lacked the numbers to make the ring totally inescapable should the pair try to flee, but there were enough to slow them down and give the rest of the hunt pack a chance to fall in on them. Only Cabinet was the exception, drifting off to the side, making certain she was near one of the unknown elements the others seemed to have forgotten.
Ranma and Shampoo went back to back as the group circled them.
"Ranma," Shampoo said quietly as she eyed the circle warily. "You have to promise me one thing."
"Depends on what it is," he answered.
She found it difficult to voice what she wanted. It was too likely to happen, knowing Ranma. "Promise me you wonít try fighting to the death. Please."
"I promise," he said.
Shampoo was surprised at how readily he agreed. "You gave in pretty quick."
"Yep. I did," he concurred. "Thatís cause Iím not dying and neither are you. See, these girls donít know who theyíre dealing with. If they did theyíd run back home to China. Theyíre dealing with Ranma Saotome, and I always come out on top."
Under different circumstances Shampoo would have cuffed him in the head for that kind of egotistical statement, but in spite of the situation she felt her confidence raise a little. Only Ranma could make so bold a declaration about a person that had suffered the beating he had, then have a fight against impossible odds, and still believe he could achieve victory. Not that they really stood a chance.
"Besides," he added. "I still have an important decision to make. We canít be dying until that little problem gets taken care of."
Shampoo looked over her shoulder and smiled softly at him. "Youíre right. Weíll have to make it out of this."
Perfume decided she had given them enough time to say their good-byes. Now there was one last gift she could give her one-time best friend. "Remember to take her alive!" Perfume ordered. "Leave the male to me! Heís mine!"
Perfume rushed forward and brought her naginata toward Ranma, driving him away from Shampoo. As Perfume came close she said as loudly as she dared, "<I wonít let your male be damaged badly. I promise you that.>" She lunged again at Ranma, forcing him further away.
"<Thank you,>" Shampoo smiled. At least Ranma would definitely survive. If nothing else, Perfume would keep her word. Further thoughts were cut off as the injured Shampoo was confronted by Foam and Soap. That was a surprise. They had despised one another for years. When had they reunited?
"<Our target is injured,>" Foam commented to her companion as she brought her fists up before her.
"<Too bad,>" Soap agreed. "<I was so looking forward to seeing how long a warrior of her caliber would last against us.>"
Shampoo remembered how well they had fought against her great grandmother several years ago. Together they were even better than RanRan and LinLin. Even if she were not suffering from her fight with Akane, she probably would have been hard pressed to defeat the combination. Those thoughts were immediately put to the test as the pair began their attacks. It took everything Shampoo had to simply evade the first series of blows directed at her.
Off to the side, Ranma saw the trouble Shampoo was in as he found himself being forced further away by Perfumeís thrusts. Had he been in peak condition he probably could have taken the girl. At the very least he would have been able to remain close to Shampoo and assist her, but as it stood it took everything he had to avoid being impaled by his opponent.
"I thought you were Shampooís friend!" Ranma accused. "How can you do this to her?!"
The words cut Perfume deeper than any blade. "I am her friend," she answered quietly, hoping the others would not hear. "I told no one of her condition. You have no idea what I risked in trying to give her enough time to get away from here. I was certain she would have fled by now."
"Well, she didnít," Ranma retorted as he avoided another swing. "Now what are you going to do?"
"I have to take her back home."
"Thatís the same as a death sentence and you know it!" Ranma snapped. "Why donít you just kill her here and save yourself the hassle, or do you want to put her on display so everyone can see just how skilled ĎPerfume the Greatí is?"
"I do not!" she shot back.
"Oh, then youíre afraid of getting your hands dirty?" He finally found a spot to counterattack in.
Perfume blocked the slow strike and hit Ranma in the head with the butt of her naginata, keeping her temper in check. Goading an opponent into getting sloppy was a tactic she often employed, and Ranma was displaying more than a passing talent in it. Too bad she couldnít get any pointers from him. "You know after my first encounter with Shampoo, here in Japan, that thatís not the case. Itís a matter law. Itís a matter of honor. Youíre Japanese, surely you understand that."
"If itís about someone close to me getting killed because of some stupid accident that ainít even her fault, and it doesnít affect anyone else, then I donít understand it. She canít shame her people over here. Just let her go."
Perfume shook her head in a momentary opening. "If there were a way, donít you think Elder Cologne would have invoked it by now? Shampoo must come back with us no matter what."
"Over my dead body!" Ranma threatened as he tried to attack once more. She deftly avoided the blows. Ranma began moving slower as the fight continued.
"It wonít come to that. That is a promise I can and will uphold." She struck out with a foot that caught Ranma in the head. There was no chance to recover as Perfume continued to press her assault.
Shampoo at last made a mistake in her dodging and went high when she should have gone low. Foam connected with a steel-toed boot in the stomach while Soap struck Shampoo in the head with a metal-encased fist. A cry of "NOOOOO!!!" prevented the duo from capitalizing on their advantage as a series of chains snared them.
Mousse could no longer remain out of the fight. No matter how painful it was to finally accept that Shampoo did not love him, he could not allow her to be harmed.
Mousse did not have time to react as a war hammer slammed into his back, right between his shoulder blades. The impact drove him into the ground and forced him to release his grip on the chains. Pain overwhelmed his senses, leaving him unable to stand up for several moments.
"<I knew you couldnít be trusted!>" Cabinet spat out as she raised her weapon high above her head, aiming for Mousseís skull. "<I knew youíd never let us take Shampoo by force. Now prepared to be punished for your treachery!>"
As she was about to bring her weapon down, a ribbon snaked out from behind her and wrapped itself around the middle of the haft. The tug that followed forced Cabinet off-balance, leaving her unable to finish the attack, but wasnít strong enough to rip the weapon from her grasp. Cabinet recovered enough to scowl at Kodachi. "That big mistake, Rose Girl."
Kodachi laughed. "<Since you cannot speak my tongue, you backwater primitive, I shall demean myself by using your own language. Allow me to assure you that I would never allow a harridan such as yourself to lay one finger on my Mousse.>"
Cabinet untangled the ribbon from her weapon. "<Fine. Iíll lay my hammer on you!>" Cabinet charged forward and attacked. Kodachi dodged the blow while keeping one eye on her beloved Mousse. She was delighted when he started to rise. The injury wasnít as bad as she had feared.
Her delight was short lived as Tablet finally took a step to resolve the fight and hurled a spear at Kodachi. The gymnast was forced to dodge it, but the evasion cost her as she was struck in the stomach by Cabinetís meaty fist. The Amazon connected once again in Kodachiís mid-section, winding the lithe girl and forcing her to the ground. A kick found its mark in Kodachiís stomach, leaving her immobile as she gasped for breath, flat on her back and clutching her abdomen in pain. Cabinet raised her war hammer high overhead so the Black Rose could suffer Mousseís intended fate.
Moments before, in the center of the Amazon circle, Shampoo backed off from the chain-entangled pair that had been attacking her moments before. As much as she hated to admit it, Mousse had saved the day. It turned out to be a momentary reprieve as one of the Amazons threw a single chain around Shampooís left arm. A second Amazon that was opposite from the first wrapped another chain around Shampooís right leg.
"<Perfume ordered us to take her alive,>" the first one said.
"<But there was no mention about all the body parts being there.>" The other one pointed out. "<Why donít we make a wish?>"
Both girls jerked back on their chains. With one of her legs being pulled, and while in her weakened state, Shampoo couldnít brace herself as she felt her limbs being pulled from their sockets.
Mousse recovered enough to see the double dilemma. He had to choose which one to help first and pray that he had enough time to help the other. But whom to choose? There was no choice. He knew which one it had to be.
"Iím sorry, Kodi-chan." He turned to Shampoo and brought out a chain, nearly passing out. He was still in bad shape from the hard blow to his back. High overhead he spun the chain and aimed at one of the Amazons holding the chains around Shampoo. Just as he was about to release he found himself pivoting and threw his weapon to the right, wrapping it around Cabinetís war hammer.
Cabinet felt a tug on her weapon once more, preventing her from unleashing her blow. "What?! Again?!" she growled irritably.
Mousse was even more shocked than Cabinet. He was certain he intended to save Shampoo. Why had his body betrayed him and sought out Kodachiís attacker instead? His confusion lasted only a moment longer as an arm clotheslined him around the neck, driving him to the ground and forced him to release his weapon once more. He was finding himself on the ground all too often of late.
Julep gave a feral grin as she admired her handiwork. "<Youíre pretty slow. I thought youíd be at least a little challenge.>"
He got up and tried to strike her with the Blow of the White Swan, but she easily wove out of the way. Counterattacking, she brought a fist into his face, then backed off several feet.
"<Thatís more like it.>" Julep smiled ever wider as she drew out her Ďcatís clawsí.
Mousse brought out a set of his own, assessing her speed as at least rivaling that of Mint, if not faster. He was going to be in for a fight.
Kodachi took advantage of Cabinetís distraction and used her attack of a thousands clubs, pelting the Amazon fully with the barrage. Cabinet gave ground under the assault, but remained upright.
"<Youíre a good fighter,>" Cabinet remarked as the barrage finally halted and she caught her breath. "<Too bad we canít be friends.>" As the last word left her mouth Cabinet swung her hammer at Kodachi, who had recovered enough to evade the blow.
"<One more tug ought to do it,>" the girl holding Shampooís leg bantered to her comrade. She tensed her muscles for one more powerful pull, tugged back… then went flying backwards several feet, for the chain had been broken. Her opposite number did the same thing, ending up on her backside as well.
The pair got to their feet in time to see Ukyou with several mini-spatulas in hand, adding to the two she had just thrown to sever the chains binding Shampoo. She was flanked by Ryouga and a baton-wielding Ai.
"I told you I heard the sounds of a fight," Ukyou said.
"I never doubted you for a moment," Ai assured her.
Ryouga looked over his opponents. "Looks like we arrived just in time. They look like Amazons."
The girl that had been holding the chain to Shampooís leg got up and drew a sword. "<Now you find out what it means to humiliate Lin Fhall, outsider.>"
Ukyou switched to her battle spatula and parried the sword thrust. Ai found herself similarly engaged by the other Amazon that had pulling on Shampooís arm.
Ryouga watched his comrades being attacked but hesitated to strike out against the Amazons. Fighting girls wasnít right. He finally worked up enough nerve to try to attacking the Amazon engaged with Ukyou, but before he could act, he was confronted by the now untangled Soap, who struck out with a steel-shod right fist. Ryouga caught the fist, and then the second, but could do nothing as Foam leaped over her partnerís head and lashed out with her steel-toed boots, nailing Ryouga with kicks right below the neck and between the eyes. Ryouga was forced to let go of Soapís hands as he was driven backwards.
Instincts took over as he blocked a kick to his mid-section, then two more directed at his head. He was in the process of blocking a third one and getting ready to retaliate when Soap struck him in the back of the head with her metal fist. He swung a backfist of his own at Soapís head, which she easily ducked. Foam took advantage of the distraction by connecting with a kick to Ryougaís thigh.
He once again turned his attention towards the kicker. Now Foam left herself wide open as she drew back for a power kick. Ryouga could see it was a foolhardy move; he was easily going to be able to strike first. His punch went towards Foamís chest, but before it could connect the blow was blocked as Soap moved her arms in front of the fist, catching it along the metal forearm of her vambraces. Foam used the block to full advantage, striking out with the power kick to Ryougaís upper body, sending him flying more than ten feet away. The two Amazons moved in for the finish.
"<You were right,>" Soap said to her partner. "<He is a good test of our abilities.>"
Foam nodded in agreement and continued to attack.
Ukyou had rendered her opponent nearly senseless when she saw Ryougaís predicament. She was about to run over to the fighters when a long length of cloth wrapped itself around her arms, binding them together and forcing her to drop her spatula. Ukyou turned to look at her attacker.
"<Donít worry, everyone!>" Sash shouted out heroically. "<Iíve come to save the day!>" She sent a longer piece around Ukyouís legs, binding them and dropping her to the ground. "<Thatíll keep you out of trouble,>" Sash proudly announced.
Ai noticed Ukyou had fallen and panicked as she thought of what the blonde might do to the prone girl. Her attempt to save Ukyou failed as another Amazon joined in attacking her. Ai could not withstand the double onslaught while trying to make her way to Ukyou, and suffered a multitude of blows over her entire body.
As Ai nailed one of her attackers in the head with her baton the other Amazon drew back a sword and prepared to run her through. As she drove her weapon forward, a pom-pom attached itself to her face. Trying to pull it off with one hand didnít work, so the Amazon discarded her sword and tried to remove the offending object. It still could not be removed. Further attempts at eliminating it were halted as the blinded girl was kicked in the stomach and the back of the head.
"You canít kill my captain," the newly arrived Kyoko said. "We have another competition in three weeks."
"Thanks," Ai hurled her remaining opponent several feet away and was about to say something else when Kyoko spotted Ryouga.
"Oh, no! Iím coming, Ryouga-kun!" She ran off to help him, but had made it no more than halfway when Sash began spinning her weighted sashes at the cheerleader, forcing Kyoko to avoid them and preventing her from closing the distance to Ryouga. Ai had no time to help out either as she found herself set upon by the paired fighting team of Rei Za and Shi Fan. She was struck a number of times in rapid succession once more, unable to defend herself.
Shampooís break from attention did not last long as another Amazon swung her staff towards the purple-haired one. As Shampoo remembered it, the girl was very skilled save for one thing.
She allowed her Amazon sister to move in close, taking a glancing blow from the staff. "I know you!" Shampoo declared. "Youíre So Fu. The one with the glass…"
Shampoo connected with a blow to So Fuís mouth, dropping her instantly.
It really was remarkable that the girl hadnít tried to cover her weakness better, not that Shampoo wasnít delighted by the hole in her defense. There was no time to enjoy her victory as two more Amazons came after her, forcing her to do nothing more than dodge once again.
Akane finally arrived to witness the carnage. At first she had remained behind, weeping, convinced Ranma had rejected her when he left for Shampoo. Then the sounds of fighting broke out in the direction Ranma and Shampoo had taken. Her feet moved of their own accord as her concern for Ranmaís safety outweighed her pain for the moment and she rushed to the noise. Now she could see a number of women dressed in Chinese style clothing and bearing weapons, surrounding Shampoo and assaulting her friends.
"Amazons," Akane said out loud. They could solve everything. All they had to do was take Shampoo back to China and out of Akaneís hair. Of course that would also mean Shampooís death.
A soft sigh parted from Akaneís lips. It did not matter what Shampoo did to her or how much she hated the Amazon. No one deserved to be killed. Akane went forward and prepared to risk her life to save someone she didnít even like.
The first one she encountered was Boudoir. Before Akane knew it the Amazon charged forward with her battle-ax and attacked.
Ai suffered a punch to her kidneys as she evaded a swordstroke from Shi Fan. Tears formed in her eyes, not from the tremendous beating she was receiving at the hands of the synchronized pair, but because she was failing Ukyou. Her chef was still tied up and left to the mercy of any passing Amazon. Ai swore she would not succumb to her injuries until she could save Ukyou. Nothing could stop her.
Rei Za and Shi Fan backed off for a moment, then nodded towards one another. It was time to finish Ai off, and they were going to do it with style. Rei Za leaped atop Shi Fanís shoulders.
"<Two Bodies Double Team Attack!>" They began spinning around.
Perfume heard the battle cry and spared a glance in their direction. "<YOU IDIOTS!!! We donít have time for you to screw everything up!>"
Shi Fan was about to shout back they were executing the move perfectly when Rei Za went flying off of her shoulders. "<Oops!>" It appeared they were going to need a little more work on that particular maneuver.
Rei Zaís flight ended abruptly when she struck Tablet squarely on the head, knocking her out. Rei Za herself was too stunned to apologize to the unconscious girl.
Shi Fan grimaced from where she stood and prayed her partner was all right. She returned her attention to Ai, who had gained a second wind and was ready to fight once more. Shi Fan swung one of her twin scimitars. Ai deflected the first two thrusts with her baton, but had one of the attacks lightly score across her chest, causing a small rivulet of blood to trickle down. The fourth strike never came as a bolt of electricity struck the sword, shocking Rei Za into unconsciousness.
Ai looked in the direction the bolt had originated. Minami gave Ai a wide smile and flashed her standard V for victory sign. "Looks like Ukyouís bed wonít go cold tonight after all." Ai lacked the energy to correct her savior.
Minami examined the scene before her with disgust. "More martial arts crap," she complained. "All right ladies. Time to kiss your collective butts good-bye, cause this ghost sweeper is going to cut loose!" She cast a spell at an Amazon, causing the ground to explode around her, knocking the warrior out. "Too easy," Minami said as she drew out the hilt to her magical blade.
Aiís warning came too late as the recovered Rei Za hurled her mace at the back of Minamiís head. The blow connected, knocking the ghost sweeper out. Aiís own breather was short-lived as her original opponent recovered enough to attack her once more. To make matters worse Rei Za joined in, driving Ai on the defensive once more.
"<The boyís phenomenal!>" Foam proclaimed.
Soap agreed. "<I canít believe how much punishment he can absorb!>"
"<Make sure you donít damage him permanently. Weíll take him back home with us!>" Foam allowed herself a lascivious chuckle while kicking Ryouga in the ribs.
Soap laughed too as she blocked the retaliatory fist Ryouga aimed at Foam. "<But who gets him first?>"
Old instincts flared as Foam wanted to say she should be allowed first crack at him, of course, but she dismissed the feeling, allowing one of friendship to overwhelm it. "<Weíll share. Thatíll really test his endurance.>"
As Foam finished her statement Ryouga remained motionless for just a moment. Both girls saw the opening and took advantage of it, lashing out at Ryouga with a double blow of steel. Ryouga didnít move as he braced himself and allowed both blows to connect, absorbing the punishment and shutting out the pain. For a moment both Amazons mirrored Ryougaís action by remaining stationary as well, though theirs was from the shock that Ryouga could take such blows rather than from any plan. It was his turn as he grabbed both girls by their collars and roughly brought their heads together, then tossed them twenty feet away. Both girls struggled to get up.
"<Thatís one tough man,>" Soap barely managed to get out.
Foam tried shaking her head free of its cobwebs. "<I canít decide if heís too frisky or if I want him more than ever. Maybe Iíd better wait until my ears stop ringing before I decide.>"
Perfume hit Ranma with a lightning fast series of punches and kicks to the chest, knocking him down for the tenth time. He got back to his feet and charged Perfume once more. She evaded the attack and struck him in the stomach.
"Stay down, you idiot! You canít win!" Much to her disgust he slowly rose to his feet again. It was becoming increasingly difficult to keep her promise if the fool was going to continue to get up when he should have been lying out cold on the ground. As beaten as he was, he couldnít possibly defeat her. The most he had been able to do was connect with couple of punches early in the fight, and they were weak things that she barely took the time to notice.
"Guess… again." He tried a leap kick, a painfully slow one in which she caught him at the ankle and threw him in the ground. He twisted out of her grasp and got to his feet once more, only to have Perfume strike him with an elbow and knee, driving him to the ground again.
Perfume was left wondering if running him through with her naginata would even be enough to stop him, then she saw Foam and Soap go flying and Ryouga move to help Ukyou. That concerned her. Anyone that could handle those two was a serious threat, and Perfume couldnít help noticing more of her pack was on the ground than their opponents.
"<Take this boy!>" she commanded the nearby Shelf. "<But donít kill him. Just pretend heís coming on to you.>"
"<Your wish is my command,>" Shelf said wistfully, winking as she rushed past Perfume and confronted Ranma. Perfume inwardly groaned. So Shelf liked women as well, who would have thought it? Not that Perfume cared in the slightest, except for the fact she seemed to be the target of Shelfís affections. She cut off Ryouga before he could get to Ukyou.
"Out of the way!" Ryouga threatened. The brawl with Foam and Soap, and the pounding he had taken, went a long way to convincing him it was perfectly fine to fight girls who hit him first.
"I donít think so."
Both drew back their fists and punched at one another. Perfume didnít bother crying out as she employed the Fist of the Thunderbolt, confident that whatever her opponent threw at her she could take from her Bakusai Tenketsu training. Both fists met flesh at the same time.
Both opponents found themselves flying backward from the force of the blows. Perfume was the first to regain her footing, albeit in more pain than she thought she would suffer from one mere punch. Worse, Ryouga was still semi-conscious and making his way to his feet. If he could take a beating at Soap and Foamís hands and still remain cognizant from a Fist of the Thunderstrike, she didnít want to find out what it would be like fighting him when he wasnít worn down.
Akane was winning her duel with Boudoir, despite the injuries she had suffered in her fight with Shampoo, when a second Amazon struck her in the back of the head, rendering her insentient for a few moments.
Boudoir stared crossly at the girl that had assisted her. "<I could have handled her.>"
The girl just crossed her arms and looked unconvinced. Boudoir waved her off. "<Time to finish her.>" She raised the battle-ax high above her head.
Shampoo barely managed to evade another club and bonbori swung at her. She was almost finished. There was no way she could take more than two more solid hits before pain would overcome her and she would not be able to avoid any more attacks. As she leaped high in the air, she managed to glance around to see what was happening, then wished she hadnít.
Kodachi was holding her own against Cabinet. Sash was chasing Kyoko around. Mousse was losing badly to Julep. Ai was almost unconscious from the double team she was receiving. Perfume seemed to have Ryouga under control, and Soap and Foam were coming back, Minami had already fallen. Akane was about to be cut in half. And Ranma… for the first time since the start of the fight she got a good look at him. He had lied. He promised he would not fight to the death, but from the horrible bruises and numerous cuts all over his body it was obvious he should have been driven into unconsciousness somewhere around fifty blows ago, yet he continued to rise and tried to fight. He was going to get himself killed at any moment.
"<STOP!!!>" Shampoo shouted at the top of her lungs. The roar made all the combatants hesitate a moment, gaining their attention. "<Iíll go back.> Iíll return." She switched between the two languages, allowing everyone to understand.
"No," Ranma managed to get out through swollen lips. "You canít. You know…" he stopped before he let too much out, "…you have to stay here. You know why."
Shampoo shook her head. Even if they somehow managed to win most of her friends werenít going to make it, Ranma among them. It would be a pointless waste. "Itís over."
"<All of you, stand down!>" Perfume ordered.
"<Aww!>" Boudior complained. "<I was just about to finish…>" she trailed off as a small bird buzzed around her head.
"<Sparrow,>" Boudoir whispered, staring at it but an instant before calling out for a blanket or some other piece of large cloth and some hot water. Mousse provided both, understanding what was going on.
Ranma made his way over to Shampoo, trying to stand protectively next to her, despite his pain. The gesture did not go unnoticed and Akane felt her heart breaking further.
"Whatís going on?" Ranma asked.
Shampoo looked at him for a moment before she realized why he didnít understand. "Thatís our best messenger. If sheís come all the way to Japan to deliver a message, it must be important."
"So itís like, what, a carrier pigeon?"
Shampoo shook her head. It was an easy enough mistake. "Not quite. Youíll see."
The bird landed and Boudoir placed the blanket over it. Hot water followed, and up from the blanket arose a pretty young girl of about ten. She wrapped the blanket around herself then began moving her hands in an intricate patter of gestures to Boudoir.
"I get it. Thatís a neat idea. Makes sense that she could travel faster as a bird," Ranma said approvingly.
"Yes. She accidentally fell into the Spring of Drowned Sparrow when she was no more than four. Sheís Boudoirís sister. Her nameís Sparrow." Shampoo said. "Well, itís not her real name, but everyoneís called her that for years. I donít think even her own family remembers what it used to be."
"Whyís she doing that stuff with the hands? Is it some kind of way of making sure itís a legitimate message?"
"No. Sheís mute."
Ranma raised an eyebrow at that. "Your best messenger is a mute?"
Shampoo nodded. "Ironic, isnít it? I donít know her personally, but no one has ever said anything bad about her. And she does her job well."
Sparrow finished communicating with her sister and both turned to look towards Cologne, who had walked up to the duo. Boudoir brought out one of her outfits for Sparrow to wear, then translated the message. "<She says the council has ordered all of us to return. The Musk is on the move and all of the villagers are to return home to help in the defense. Weíre to go back immediately.>"
"<Good thing we found Xian-Pu before we got that order,>" Shelf said as she grinned evilly at Shampoo.
Perfume cursed to herself at the same time Shelf was making her comment. If only they had received the message just a few hours earlier, then everything would have been all right. But the world was not composed of what ifs, just what was. "<Weíll head back now.>"
Cologne cleared her voice. "<In light of these new orders, I will take charge. I trust there are no arguments?>" she directed the question towards Perfume, who assented immediately.
It was at that time Silk arrived and silently assessed the situation. She was too late.
"<Nice to see you, Silk. It has been a very LONG time,>" Perfume intoned with more than a hint of anger in her voice. She was going to give the woman a piece of her mind when they were alone. How could Silk have arrived too late to help Shampoo? She should have beaten the hunt pack by at least a week, if not longer.
Silk held her head in disgrace. She had failed, and it was all the fault of that ship from hell. Even with her recriminations, she noted she still smelled like fish from her travel on it.
Several of the beaten Amazons started to come around. As their senses returned each one began to think with one primary thought. ĎWhich outsider beat me?í
Cologne sorted things out in short order so that things didnít return to a brawl; a round of kisses of death could not be afforded. She simply called it a large-scale fight, and since there were no proper one-on-one battles due to the large nature of the conflict, anyone defeated would not be forced to administer kisses of death or marriage, much to Kyokoís relief. She didnít like the way the girl she had pom-pomed was scowling at her.
Rei Za tried to look inconspicuous as Minami began interrogating the Amazons about who had given her a Ďcheap shotí from behind. Rei Za might not have been the smartest girl around, but she knew enough not to mess with full-fledged magi. Especially oneís that muttered about how certain Amazons were going to end up eating flies for the rest of their lives. Varying degrees of suspicion and anger went through the other members of both sides. Neither one was eager to make friends, but the peace appeared as though it was going to hold.
Ranma began talking quietly in Shampooís ear. "Look, now that theyíre distracted we can make a break for it. Donít worry about your leg. Iím pretty sure I got enough strength that I can carry you out of here without them catching us."
Shampoo examined him more closely. As fast as his powers of recovery were, he was still in horrible shape. It appeared to be taking a great deal of energy for him to simply remain upright. And now he was proposing to run off, while carrying her, faster then Julep could run. The poor, deluded, heroic fool. "I canít."
"Yes, you can," he growled. "I know why you stopped the fight, and youíre probably right. Some of our friends might have been hurt. But now itís over and we can get you out of here."
"I canít go."
"Damn it!" he snarled. "Donít you get it? If you go back to China theyíre going to kill you! I canít let that happen!"
"And I canít run anymore," she said as she felt her heart race at Ranmaís concern. If only the situation were different and she could enjoy his consideration for her. "They know I was here, and even if I run today, once the current mess is over with at home, theyíd just come back with more of my people than before. And if I left theyíll try to find me, maybe threatening those I befriended in the hopes theyíll know where I went. Amazon justice can be a terrible thing, and running away after Iíve been captured would just ensure theyíll try all the harder to track me down. I donít want to have to look over my shoulder for the rest of my life. It wonít matter if I get a cure. Resisting an order directly from the council can be almost as bad, and fleeing now means I would be defying them twice. Thereís no way theyíll let me do that and get away with it.
"And if I try running and they track me down, Iíd have to fight them. Theyíre my sisters, Ranma. I donít want to hurt, let alone kill, any of them, not when they think theyíre doing the right thing. I canít stand the thought of people being hurt, not over this, anyway. Itís just," her voice caught. "Itís just easier this way. Going with them is the only way no one else will be hurt."
"Except you," Ranma said flatly.
"Can you think of some other way out?" Shampoo asked, trying to convince him this was the only option left.
"Thereís always a way," he protested.
"No. There isnít Ďalways a wayí, and there isnít one now."
"I ainít letting you go marching off to your death because you think youíre being noble."
"You canít stop me." She tried making her voice firm and spoke in a commanding tone. "And if you try, Iíll have my sisters stop you."
Ranma drew back at the threat, then crossed his arms while staring at her. "You said thatís what you wanted to avoid."
She should have known threatening him would just make him more determined to prevent her from leaving. The boy was pigheaded and twice as stubborn as any mule. She tried searching for words to convince him to let her go, but she could come up with nothing. Perhaps her great grandmother could do something to disable him without hurting him.
"Are you sure there ainít any other way?" Ranma asked, his voice much softer now.
Shampoo tried figuring out why his demeanor had changed, but could come up with nothing. He was ever the enigma to her. "If there was, donít you think I would take it? I donít want to have to go back, but itís the only way."
Ranma sighed. "Then Iím going too."
Shampoo stared at him in wide-eyed shock for a moment. As much as she wanted him at her side it was definitely not for the best. "You canít."
"Either I go with you now, or I donít let you go at all. Make up your mind, or Iím going to haul you over my shoulder and run off with you, Amazons be damned."
As much as she wanted to curse at him, she couldnít help but be moved by the gesture. "As long as you promise not to risk your life, Iíll let you go along."
"Ranma, donít do this," she protested.
"No. You once told me I canít always get my way. Well, you canít either. Iím going with you."
"I donít want you to be hurt because of me." She didnít want to cry, not with all of her sisters watching. It would be too humiliating.
"I seem to remember saying the exact same thing to you. Do you remember your answer?"
She would never forget the night of their heart-to-heart on the open seas, and he was right; there was no way she would ever convince him to remain behind. That would be going against Ranmaís intrinsic nature. She would have to seek another solution on the way to China. It was the only way she was going to convince him not to do something rash right now and probably get killed. "You can go. I wonít try to stop you."
"About time," he said.
She turned away from him then and cast her eyes towards the ground, feeling more than a little weak in the knees. As much as she wanted him safe, she was still moved to tears from his concern.
At last several others from the disrupted wedding made their way to the battleground. Including Genma, Nodoka, and the rest of the Tendos.
"Whatís going on?" Nodoka was the first to ask. Whatever was going on before her obviously had nothing to do with her son being married to Akane, not that either of them appeared to be in any shape to have a wedding now.
Akane spoke first. "Shampooís going back to China. Ranmaís going along and so am I." She had caught just enough of the conversation to understand what Ranma was doing, and would be damned if she was going to stand idly by while Ranma threw his life away, even if he had chosen Shampoo over her.
"But what about the wedding," Nodoka protested.
Ranma looked to his mother. "Itís on hold for now. This is going to be resolved first, one way or another."
"Iím going with you, Ranchan," Ukyou spoke up, helping to override any other protests that might be raised.
"So am I," was said simultaneously by Ai and Ryouga, who then scowled at one another.
All of the others volunteered after that including a recovered Kunou, the parents, and Kasumi. The only one that balked was Nabiki.
"Look, as much as Iíd like to, there isnít really any reason why I should go. Iíll keep track of things back here." She was damned if she was going to stick her neck out for either Ranma or Shampoo. Things were bad enough with everyone else in her family going, but she was not going to follow in all the others foolish footsteps.
"Kasumi should stay too," Soun said.
"Iím going," Kasumi insisted. She was not simply going to let Shampoo march off to her death. There was something she could think of that would help. There had to be.
Genma turned to Nodoka. "It might be best for you to stay here as well."
Nodoka turned in anger towards Genma. "I have not seen my son for more than ten years! I am not going to allow him to go off to some foreign land and possibly not see him again for who knows how long! I am going as well!"
Genma knew better than to argue with his wife when she was in that kind of a mood, so he nodded his head in agreement.
The group of Amazons appeared more than a little concerned at the suddenly burgeoning group before them. If a second fight was to occur the outcome might be in doubt. Some of them were about to protest when Cologne spoke up and said it was all right. None among the hunt pack had the nerve to question their elderís thinking and remained silent.
Silk, Perfume, and Cologne talked to one another off to the side. "Things donít look very good for Shampoo. Maybe one of those others will have some idea on how to keep Shampooís life from being forfeit. I am presently at a loss," Cologne said.
"Weíre going to need a miracle," Perfume added, though if she knew the nature of the disturbance back home, she might somehow figure out a way to use it to protect Shampoo.
"If we have all of these people with us weíre going to need a large ship to accommodate them, not that I would mind waiting for a while," Cologne said as she held her hand to her chin in thought. "But Sparrowís message was urgent. I have a responsibility to my people that takes precedent over my family. As much as it pains me we have to get back home at once."
Silk gave a wide smile. "I think I know of a ship that has plenty of room on it. With any luck itís still in port and we can take it home." Unlike the others she felt more responsibility for Shampooís predicament then whatever troubles were brewing at home. It was her failure that she had not been there to warn Shampoo of what was coming, and now Shampoo was going to pay the consequences for that. Buying her some time was the least Silk could do, even if it placed her people in jeopardy.
"Then we go now," Cologne said. "We are heading immediately for a ship. Whoever is coming along, follow!"
Shampoo and Ranma found themselves surrounded by the members of the hunt pack, who werenít taking any chances on an escape. Silk and Cologne made their way up side-by-side with the couple in the middle. Then, with the four in the center, the ring of warriors began to move towards the port. They were followed by a huge group consisting of: Soun, Genma, Nodoka, Kasumi, Kodachi, Kunou, Mousse, Akane, Ai, Ukyou, Ryouga, Kyoko, and Minami. Each was going along to protect someone or someoneís they cared for, even though the objects of said protection varied widely.
Nabiki watched the group go, a small part of her wanting to travel alongside them, but it would be a mistake. She was not a fighter and would just be in the way. True, she was probably the smartest of the lot, but the feeling she had received from the group of Amazons, especially Perfume, made her feel the matter would only be resolved through force of arms. It was as though the time for talk had already passed, and all that was left to do was decide how to consummate the choices that had been made. If Shampoo was even halfway accurate in her interpretation of the laws of the Joketsuzoku, there was no way out for her. Execution was the only fate that awaited the Amazon, and there was nothing Nabiki could do. There was nothing anyone could do about it, and as much as Shampoo had grown on her, as a cash cow, it was ultimately no oneís business but Shampooís, and possibly Ranmaís, what happened next.
Getting in that mess was a mistake. No one else should have been involved, certainly not Nabikiís family. No good would come of it and there was nothing a small group like the one traveling with Shampoo could do to prevent whatever was going to happen to her. Even one as inexperienced in fighting as Nabiki could tell the only way they could win Shampooís freedom by force was to make a break for it now, when there were only twenty or so Amazons to deal with. In China they would be in a hostile land and outnumbered. There would be no chances there.
The only thing she found reassuring was Kasumi and Nodokaís presence with the others. The martial artists might erupt in some kind of testosterone frenzy to throw their lives away, save for the fact there were two non-fighters that would need to be protected. Nodoka should be able to reign in Ranma should he try to do something foolish, hopefully, and Soun would keep an eye on Kasumi. And at the very least Shampoo would never allow anything to happen to Nabikiís older sister. At least that was what Nabiki hoped. And in any event nothing she could do would make a difference.
Perhaps it was time to go to a shrine and pray for her familyís safe delivery. Faith in the intangible was not something Nabiki exactly felt comfortable doing, but it couldnít hurt. She was about to go find one when she saw a wonderful image before her eyes that brightened her mood considerably. It was one badly beaten Pantyhose Tarou that slowly made his way to her. She had had the pleasure of watching the end of his much-deserved beating at Ranmaís hands. How unfortunate her camcorder jammed up on her when she tried to tape it. If it hadnít, she would have distributed over hundred copies of it for free, just to show the world Tarouís humiliation.
"Whereís Akane going?" he gasped out.
If only she had had another camera to capture the moment. "China. Shampooís being taken home and the others are going along to try to figure a way out for her." She had to tell him. It wasnít like he wouldnít follow and find out anyway. And maybe Nabiki would get lucky and Pantyhose would not return at all.
Tarou groaned at that. Why couldnít Akane let Fem-boy go and die with the Amazon? Things would be so much better that way. A happy ending for all that mattered. He left Nabiki behind as he rushed to catch up to Akane. Nabiki had been correct. There was no way he would allow Akane to be harmed. Not by a longshot. Besides, Ranma still needed to get beaten up over what had happened before. It was a fluke. Tarou could take Fem-boy; he just knew it.
Once he was out of sight, there was one, admittedly disgusting, thought about him that made Nabiki glad he was going. He wouldnít let Akane come to harm. He may have been slime in every other regard, but he would give his life to protect her sister, and as much as Nabiki despised him, she was suddenly very grateful he was going along.
"Will wonders never cease?" she said out loud. There was one other thought that went through Nabikiís mind as she went in search of a shrine. Those serve who also wait. Well, she was going to find that out firsthand.
Cologne looked to Silk again. Her friend was continuing to behave strangely. "<Youíre certain this ship can accommodate all of us?>"
Silk smiled in return. "<Oh, yes. Itís ideally suited for our needs.>"
Aki and Frog looked out at the docks from one of the sides of The Worthless Piece of Shit, enjoying the sight of dry land.
"The others have finished loading supplies," the Spaniard said sadly. "Any idea where weíre heading next?"
That was a loaded question if ever there was one. Fortunately Aki didnít pick up on it. "I still canít believe he did it."
Frog nodded his head. "I know what you mean."
"We finally got our hands on some money," Aki continued her rant, her anger building by the moment. "We could have bought a radar system, or a radio that works over a distance of more than fifty miles, or we could have cleaned up the ship. But what does he use it for?! A GODDAMN FREDERICKíS OF HOLLYWOOD LINGERIE FRANCHISE!!!"
Frog already knew the situation but it would be better to let her vent her frustrations. "I can hardly believe it myself."
"What good is a damn lingerie store on a boat?!" Aki continued to smolder in anger.
"Hey! Those things can come in pretty handy. You never know when a passenger will want some sexy, silky undergarments to turn me… er, some guy on that might catch their interest, and now we can provide them with that service."
Both crewmen turned angrily towards the speaker. Captain D'Amour had come staggering out of the ship, a near empty bottle of Jack Daniels in his hand. He bore a bleary-eyed look while his blue long-sleeved shirt and light black trousers appear rumpled, as though he had just gotten out of bed.
"Well, well, well, look whatís come back from the dead," Frog said acidly as he shot a spiteful stare at the captain.
Aki was just as pleased. "Howís the hangover, Captain?!" she said loudly in the hopes that she would increase whatever headache he had.
"I only had two bottles. Nowhere near enough to get drunk. Iím just happily buzzed," he replied while holding his head.
"Too bad," Frog watched the captain sway back and forth. Perhaps they would get lucky and D'Amour would fall overboard and drown.
There was no such luck as D'Amour went to the railing and remained on deck. He looked towards the city, letting the fresh air clear his head, when he sensed something. He perked up and began looking around, eyes searching the docks intently.
Aki noticed the change immediately as the captainís nose twitched. "What is it?"
D'Amour gazed towards the shore. "By the pricking of my thumb, something busty this way comes."
"Just what the hell is that supposed to mean?!" Aki shouted.
D'Amour took no time for explanations as he stared off into the distance until he spotted what set off his senses. "Women! A whole group of beautiful women and theyíre heading to my ship! I have to prepare for them!"
He smiled as widely as he could and concentrated. At the rate the group was approaching there was hardly any time left. He continued smiling and summoned all of his strength. It had to work. It had to or he wasnít a D'Amour. It took almost all of his strength, but at last it happened.
His teeth gleamed.
Both Aki and Frog stared at him as though he had gone mad. Then they saw the change. Rather than the disheveled, bleary-eyed drunk that was there moments before, there now stood a fully cognizant, scandalously handsome-looking rogue before them. He ran his hand through his hair once, all of it falling into place as though it had been coiffured by a professional. Even his clothing shifted in appearance, as though it had been pressed but moments ago. The captain merrily skipped towards the gangplank, whistling ĎThe Girlís Got a Crush on Me.í
If Aki hadnít known the man was a completely amoral, irresponsible, lecherous, narcissistic, dumb as a brick drunkard she would have been impressed. As it was she settled for forming a sweatdrop behind her head and saying, "That man scares the hell out of me sometimes."
Frog could do nothing more than nod his head.
Ranma took one look at the ship before them and smiled for the first time all day. "We just got ourselves an extension."
Everyone not previously acquainted with The Worthless Piece of Shit stared at the ship in disgust. More than one Amazon balked at the idea of boarding something that appeared to be seaworthy only in the sense that it was currently in the sea and didnít appear to be sinking at the moment. After receiving a fourth reassurance from Silk that the craft would not sink as soon as it went out to sea, Cologne ordered the others to board the vessel. Perfume was the first up the gangplank, only to see that the captain and several of the crew were already present and waiting for them.
D'Amour took note that most of the people appeared to have recently come from a fight. It didnít matter; he could see which ones were pretty behind the bruises.
"What a beautiful and lovely woman to come aboard my ship. Allow me to introduce myself. My name is Captain D'Amour, and I am at your service." He took Perfumeís hand, bent low and went to kiss it.
The instant Perfume first laid eyes upon him she knew what kind of man he was. She allowed her hand to make it to his lips, then calmly pulled it out at the last instant, leaving D'Amour to kiss at nothing but air.
"Rejected!" one of the crew said from his position behind D'Amour.
"Shut up!" he snarled and went to kiss the hand of the next lovely maiden. "Miss Shampoo!" he said in pleasant surprise. "Welcome back aboard my vessel." He took her hand and went to kiss it as well. An instant before it would have made contact she smacked him across his face.
"Donít touch me!" She huffed and walked away from him. How could she ever have regarded him as anything other than a lecherous Casanova? He was less than dirt when compared to Ranma.
D'Amour rubbed his face. Why was she angry with him? Usually the only time he received slaps like that was -after- he slept with a woman. Maybe she was still frigid. That and one of the men she was with were the only reasonable explanations he had for when she refused his advances the last time she was on the ship.
The next one up was Ranma, who scowled at D'Amour even more fiercely than the last time they had met.
"Hello, Mr. Sap-to-me," D'Amour said with deliberate ease. "It looks like someone beat the hell out of the undefeatable martial artist. Too bad." The captain remembered Ranma all too well. He was one of the reasons the ĎConquest of Shampooí had failed, and the whelp never showed the captain proper respect. Well, none of the crew did that either, but Ranma was more than a little cocky about it, which irritated D'Amour to no end. "Itís nice to have you back."
"Drop dead." Ranma followed right behind Shampoo.
D'Amour would deal with the young pup later. There was another girl coming on board. A cute-looking tomboy that appeared to have been in a fight too, not that she didnít still look attractive to the captainís eyes. "Welcome aboard." He took her hand, only to have an elbow buried on top of his head when he bent down to kiss the appendage.
"Pervert!" Akane growled and took back her elbow and hand from the captain, who now had a splitting headache. He shook it off as he watched Akane follow the waiting Ranma, who was scowling at D'Amour even more intently than before, then turned to see a hand being offered to him. He gazed into the face of the one offering it to him. It was the decidedly unattractive Cabinet. D'Amour shook the hand, much to Cabinetís disappointment, and the Amazon boarded the ship.
D'Amour turned to the next one; a very cute looking girl with brown hair and glasses.
The girl just stared at him as she placed her hands on her hips. "Do you have any idea how many germs live in the mouth?" Tablet asked.
D'Amour was caught more than a little off guard by the question. "No."
"Millions. Now if you think for one second I would let your mouth come near any part of me, think again."
For the first time in recent memory D'Amour was struck speechless as the girl went past. Was he losing his touch? Never had so many women resisted his handsome features. The next passenger was dressed in a tuxedo and had a large spatula strapped to their back.
"Welcome aboard, sir."
"Iím a girl!" Ukyou shouted back irritably.
Cross-dresser. How wonderful. Though now that he got a good look at her she wasnít at all bad looking. For a cross-dresser.
Ukyou moved on only to be followed by Ai. D'Amour kept from drooling. He could do that over her later. "Welcome aboard."
Ai never let his hand near hers. "After what you did to my Ukyou, you can forget about it!"
Ai quickly followed her chef, leaving the captain to stare after her. The girl had said Ďmy Ukyouí. The two were lesbians? That was wrong! It was such a waste of potentially attractive partners. Silently he vowed to do what he could to get them set on the proper course of male-to-female relationships… with him, naturally. If he couldnít make them switch back, no one could.
The next one appeared to be a potential winner; a cute, peppy little thing that appeared to be full of energy. He always enjoyed energetic ones. "Welcome aboard." He went to grab her hand, but found a second person blocking the way.
"Donít let him touch you," Ryouga warned Kyoko while staring evilly at D'Amour. "Aki said heís got diseases."
"Yuck!" Kyoko said and stuck her tongue out. "Thatís gross!" She walked off with Ryouga.
"Thatís a lie!" D'Amour shouted, more than a little flustered at the accusation. Besides, penicillin had taken care of that particular problem a while ago.
Captain D'Amour was beginning to panic. Never had he had so many women to charm and failed so miserably at it.
"You can kiss my hand."
He turned to look at the woman who had offered. Before him was a gnarled old troll sitting atop a staff. A lesser man would have turned green at the suggestion, but D'Amour would never allow his perfect complexion to be tainted in such a manner. Instead he recoiled on the inside. "Sorry. I wish I could do so, but my ship beckons me and there are many things I still need to do. Someone else will greet the rest of you." Let one of his crew suffer the rejections of the women. D'Amour needed a break.
As Minami walked aboard the ship she felt something shoot through her. At first she wasnít sure of it from the shore, but the closer she got to the ship the more the feeling grew. Now that she was in physical contact with the ship she was convinced of one thing: the craft was full of powerful magic. The problem was she could not be certain where it stopped and the ship began. It unquestionably permeated the craft, and was perhaps inexorably intertwined with every fiber of the vessel. In any case she certainly would have to investigate it more thoroughly. It wasnít every day one came across a ship that was magical.
Ranma followed Shampoo to the room assigned to her. The two had been silent since they left the captain behind on the deck.
"Youíre sure youíll be all right?" Ranma asked. "I donít want none of those Amazons bothering you or finding out about the curse."
Shampoo gave a soft smile. "Great grandmother said I was under her authority now and wasnít to be bothered by them. Perfume reinforced that as well."
"I canít believe after what you did for her that that…" Ranma took a moment to come up with the right word to describe Perfume, but failed, settling on, "…witch hunted you down like some kind of criminal!"
"I think thereís more to it than that." Shampoo was a little surprised at her defense of her old friend, all things considered. "Iíll ask her later." Shampoo looked into the room and back to Ranma. "You can come in if you like."
Ranma jumped back as though she had tried to throw a punch at him. "Ah! No. I have to go." He relaxed a bit. "I also got to tell Akane about whatís going on. I saw the way she was looking at me and sheís already jumping to conclusions, though I guess under the circumstances I canít blame her. We were supposed to be married by now. She might not be happy about what Iím going to say, but I gotta let her know where I stand. Then I have to explain things to Mom and Pop." Depression grew as he realized exactly what that was going to entail. It was going to break his motherís heart. He was not going to be getting any rest in the near future, and his body still ached from the combined beatings of Tarou, Perfume, and Shelf. He was on the verge of collapsing on the spot.
Shampoo looked downcast at his refusal. Somewhere deep down inside she had hoped the fight might have coalesced his feelings towards her. Of course there was a slew of other impending problems to deal with now. It wouldnít do for Ranma to choose her only to end up receiving a death sentence. Some heavy thinking was going to have to be done to keep her out of trouble this time, and nothing was coming to mind.
The two made their good-byes. Ranma walked off while Shampoo lay down on her bed and shut her eyes for a few moments to try to clear her head. She was asleep within moments.
Ranma slowly made his way to the room Akane had been assigned. For a change, he was trying to think of what to say beforehand instead the usual spouting out with whatever came to mind. Too bad nothing was coming to mind. At least nothing that was not going to upset her, and he didnít want to hurt her, not any more than he already had. Akane deserved better than that, a lot better, but there was just no way around it. No matter what he was going to do now, it would end up hurting someone he cared for deeply.
"Why me?" he lamented.
Ranma stopped for a moment to bolster his resolve. Fighting demons and monsters he could do without flinching. Give him a girl to talk to in a heart-to-heart conversation and he found his courage wanting. Maybe he was just weird. As hard as he tried, there was still nothing coming to mind that would help him explain things to Akane without her getting mad. There was no other choice then. He continued on to her room, and knocked.
It was a few moments before a Ďcome iní answered. Ranma entered to see Akane sitting on her bed, looking exhausted in her still torn wedding dress. It had been beautiful at the start of the day. Now it was in tatters, maybe just like his relationship with his fiancťe.
She looked at him for only a moment before turning her back to him. Even in the brief instant he saw her face it was more than enough. Her eyes had been red-rimmed and still somewhat moist. She had been crying, and he was almost certainly the cause of it.
The feeling in his heart threatened to overwhelm him. How could he have allowed himself to do this to her? She was Akane, and in spite of all the problems they had had over the months since first meeting, she still meant the world to him. Hurting her was the last thing he wanted to do; yet he had done it anyway. No one had forced him to follow Shampoo, but he had. He could have gone through with everything and would be married right now, talking with everyone at the reception while panicking about what the future would hold, but at least Akane would have been happy. Instead she was sitting in a ruined wedding dress, suffering from injuries by his other love interest, as well as a horde of Amazons, while on a ship supposedly bound for China, though in truth there was no telling where they would end up.
He wanted to say something glib like, Ďbet you didnít think our wedding day was going to turn out like this?í but couldnít; the situation was far too serious. Instead all that came out was, "Akane." He could think of no other words to follow. None that would be adequate to describe what he felt, and how sorry he was that he had hurt her.
"You donít have to say anything, Ranma."
He could hear the tears behind those words.
"You want to be with Shampoo instead of me. Fine! Getting married was a stupid idea anyway. It was all my fatherís stupid fault. Iím just glad you figured it out before instead of after. I hope you and Shampoo have a wonderful life together!" The last part was said through tears, but she was trying to give him up. In spite of the words she knew she hadnít, and wouldnít for some time to come. If only she could make the pain go away.
"I havenít decided on anything," he said softly.
That caused her to turn and look at him for only the second time since he entered the room. "What do you mean?" Now hope had drifted into her voice. She knew she should not allow expectations like that, but could not help it when she heard those words.
"I donít know who I lo… like." Even now he couldnít say that. Not to her or Shampoo. "Iím really confused. Shampoo confessed she loves me and I donít know how I feel about that. I donít really know how I feel about you either. I donít know anything. I need time to think about this."
"Youíre not trying to run off with Shampoo?" Could it be that she had been wrong about everything? Now hope was starting to run rampant. Suddenly there was a possibility of getting Ranma after all.
"Nope." At least not at the moment, but somehow he knew that, despite the honesty of the statement, it would be the wrong thing to say. "I havenít been two-timing you or anything like that. I would never intentionally hurt you. Honest. Do you believe me?" He found himself needing her reassurance. He still wanted her trust. If he didnít have it they were going to have problems with any decisions he was going to have to make in the upcoming future.
A moment passed before Akane responded softly. "Yes. I believe you."
That made him feel better. Not a lot, but some. "Iím sorry for running out on you with the wedding and everything, but now that I got a chance to think about it, I think waiting is for the best no matter how I choose. I kind of felt like I had to do it. And even though I donít think marrying you is a bad thing, because I donít, Iím pretty sure it would have been a mistake to rush things like we were back there. If we, ah…" there was no other way to delicately put it without getting her hopes up. He certainly did not want a repeat of saying something that sounded like a commitment when he did not know who to commit to, like he had with Shampoo when he caught up to her, but he was trying to be straightforward and honest. "If we get married, I want it to be because we both want to, not cause our parents forced us into it."
Akane could see the awkwardness in what he was trying to say. Surprisingly, she felt relief at the confession. "I feel the same way. You really didnít want to get married, did you?"
What she said started to panic him, then he saw the understanding in her eyes. It wasnít an accusation. It was an honest question from concern. "I donít think so. Not yet. Maybe in a little while, or maybe a long while, but it definitely felt like it was too soon."
Akane raised herself to her feet and stood next to him. "Iím sorry. I think I probably should have realized that and I should have said something to make them wait."
Ranma shook his head. There was nothing she had to feel sorry about. He was the one that had messed everything up for her. "Itís not your fault."
"It is if I thought you might not want to go through with it and I didnít say anything. I felt that way too, at first, but when I realized that I loved you and wanted to go…" It had almost slipped past without her realizing it. She had actually said the words out loud. In truth, she had never even thought saying it to him, and would have denied even saying such a thing before that moment. But now she had spoken, and looking more closely at Ranma, realized he had heard it too.
"D… do you mean that?" he barely managed to stutter out.
Akane suddenly found her eyes drifting to the ground. Admitting something like that was not easy. Being open in that way was not her style, but denying she said it would be futile. Besides, if she wasnít open now she might lose him to Shampoo. The time for self-denial had to be over. For both her and Ranmaís sakes. "I guess I do," she said softly, then more firmly. "Yes. I do." Things would have been a whole lot easier if he had said it first, though.
Even if Ranma had suspected it, to actually hear her say those words was like a great weight had been lifted off his heart. There were now no doubts about her feelings towards him. Unfortunately the same could not be said about him, to a degree. He cared about her deeply, and it might very well have been love, but he just wasnít sure, and there was no way he would lead her on. "I donít know what to say."
Akaneís thoughts were along the lines of Ďyou could always say you love me backí, but that was hoping for a bit much, and she knew it. "I donít really know anything else to say either. I think it kind of says it all."
The awkwardness of the situation caught up to him. "I got to think about what we just talked about, yíknow?" He went to the door. "Iíll see you later. You rest up, okay. You look really beat."
She was more than a little disappointed that he was leaving, but understood why. Funny how she was suddenly getting better at that. She never seemed to be able to understand him, but now that she had admitted her feelings he seemed to make more sense. "So do you. And Ranma."
"When you want to explain things to your parents, Iíll back you up on waiting for the wedding. Like I said, I donít want you to feel forced into anything. If we do get married, itíll be because you want to do it too." She felt herself blush at that.
He became more nervous as well. "I think Iíll take you up on that." He certainly did not feel like trying to explain what had happened to his parents, especially since he was so exhausted. And trying to sort out Akaneís revelation had taken more out of him than he thought possible.
He said good-bye once more and headed to his cabin. Confronting his parents could wait until later because he was going to collapse. He made his way to his room, and as he predicted, fell asleep upon hitting the covers.
No one saw the diminutive form sneak aboard the ship, laughing to itself, muttering how it really had hit the motherlode this time.
"Time to cast off!"
One of the crewmen hoisted up the chain attached to the anchor. As it finished being brought up he stared at it in confusion. Why were there two anchors attached to the chain? He simply shrugged his shoulders and walked off. The ship had plenty of strange things about it. The idea that anchors were cloning themselves wasnít really that hard to accept.
As the crewman walked off a head popped out of one of the anchors. It spat out water as it got out of its disguise.
"Iíll protect you, Ukyou." Tusbasa swore.
Elsewhere on the ship, reunions began to occur.
Ukyou, Ai, and Kyoko looked on as the two embraced.
Aki spoke first. "I didnít think Iíd get to see you so soon! Itís wonderful to see you."
"I feel the same way."
Out of nowhere Kawada, Brunt, and Frog appeared out of nowhere and spied the embracing duo.
"The lovers are reunited!" Kawada loudly proclaimed.
"But the atmosphere is wrong for this reunion," Frog added.
The large Brunt held a finger up. "I know just the thing to do."
"Leave everything to us!" The trio shouted.
All three moved with precision and grabbed a table, two chairs, threw Aki and Ryouga into them, put some spaghetti on a plate between them, dressed up in waiters outfits, and proceeded to happily play tunes from ĎLady and the Trampí.
"WOULD YOU THREE IDIOTS KNOCK IT OFF!!!" Aki roared, allowing Frog to place one end of the spaghetti in her mouth as she closed it. Her face began to twitch in response.
The events also had an effect on others.
"Whatís this about Ďloversí being Ďreunitedí?! You never told me anything about an affair!" Ukyou asked, more than a hint of anger in her voice. She missed the hurt expression Ai gave at the obvious jealousy.
Next to Ukyou, Kyoko was practically in tears. "You have another lover, Ryouga-kun? How could you do this to me?"
"NO!!!" Ryouga shouted, sensing his impending doom. "Itís not like that at all!"
Rather than immediately denying it, Aki looked suspiciously at the pair. "Ryouga, who are these two?"
Ryouga sweatdropped as he desperately tried to figure a way out of the situation. Having women angry with him was something he cared for about as much as a knee to the groin. "This is Kyoko," he pointed at the cheerleader.
"Oh," Aki lightened up considerably. "Thatís the one whose name you first called out when we were in bed, right?" Those words had the predictable effect.
"WWWWWWWAAAAAAAHHHHH!!! You are cheating on me!" Kyoko cried.
"N…,n…,no!" Ryouga barely managed to stammer out.
Ukyou was in just as much shock. "You were sleeping with her?!"
"And you are…?" Aki asked.
"Iím Ukyou Kuonji."
Aki stared at her for a moment. "Hey, wait a minute! Does he call you Uk-chan?"
Ukyou stared at her in return. "Yes. Did he tell you that in bed, too?"
The question wasnít intended to be serious, but Aki answered with a disgusted Ďyesí, then grabbed Ryouga and tore him away from trying to comfort the bawling cheerleader. "Ryouga, I thought you told me Ukyou was a girl. I am so disappointed in you. Not just for lying to me, but because you never mentioned you liked guys." She stared at him suspiciously. "You didnít try hitting on the captain, did you? I hope you got better taste than that."
"I donít like guys!" Ryouga blustered.
"I am not a guy!" Ukyou shouted out in agreement.
"Youíve got no breasts, are wearing a suit, and I heard someone say that blonde behind you is your girlfriend," Aki pointed out.
"I wear a chest wrap, sheís just a friend, and Iím wearing a suit because I was almost best woman at a wedding!"
"Isnít that Ďbest maní?" Aki asked.
Aki stared idly at the giant spatula planted on her head. "What?" she asked.
"What, what?" Ukyou asked, momentarily confused by Akiís lack of reaction.
"What do you want?"
"Why are you asking me what do I want?"
"Well, you tapped me on the head," Aki indicated the spatula. "I assumed you wanted something."
"Tapped?" Ukyou asked, confused. She had hit Aki pretty hard for all the male comments that had been directed at her.
Kawada cleared his throat to gain Ukyouís attention. "Striking Aki in the head to cause damage is an exercise in futility. Her skull is, for all intents and purposes, nearly unbreakable."
"We once sunk a ship using her like a torpedo. Ripped a huge hole through its hull and didnít leave a mark on her noggin." Frog motioned with his hands and added sound effects as he described the damage she inflicted.
"Too bad no one bothered to mention that I was going to be playing torpedo before I got shot out," Aki growled as she cracked her knuckles. "I still havenít paid you back for that one."
Kawada spoke up once more. "Allow my associate, Mr. Brunt, to demonstrate the veracity of the statement."
Aki looked at Kawada in confusion. "Demonstrate?" She looked behind her just in time to see Brunt slam an I-beam on the top of her head, bending it in half, but leaving her unaffected.
"See? Harder than rock," Kawada finished.
Ryouga watched the demonstration in horror. "You canít attack my cousin like that!"
Everyone stared first at Ryouga, then at Aki. Kyoko broke the silence first.
"Youíve been sleeping with your cousin? WWWWWAAAAAHHHHHH!!!"
Everyone else stared in shock at the duo. Frog spoke first. "I had no idea."
"Itís not like that!" Aki protested. "We didnít know we were cousins, and nothing happened anyway! We found out before it got that far!"
"Oh," Brunt said, then began to snicker. "You mean you came on to your cousin, and you didnít even know it."
The other two crewmen joined in the mirth, laughing their heads off, much to Akiís irritation. "This is why I didnít want you to say anything," she said to Ryouga. "Now Iíll never live this down."
The words started processing in Kyokoís brain as she looked to Ryouga. "So you didnít sleep with your cousin?"
"No." He was relieved. At last Kyoko understood.
"Iím sorry for doubting you, Ryouga-kun. I should have known you would never sleep with someone like that."
Aki perked up at that. "Exactly what do you mean by, Ďsomeone like thatí?"
"Well," Kyoko wondered if she should remain silent, but then realized what a mean trick Aki had played by making Kyoko think Ryouga had been sleeping with her. "You arenít very pretty. Ryouga-kun has much better taste than to sleep with someone as unattractive as you."
Akiís face began to twitch as she turned to Ryouga. "Youíd be better off sleeping with the guy than that cow," she said, pointing at Kyoko.
Ai hauled Ukyou away before she could hit Aki again for the guy comment while Kyoko gave a mean stare towards Aki. "I donít like your cousin, Ryouga. Sheís a real bitch."
All three of the crewmen looked on in fear at Aki. "Maybe she didnít hear that," Kawada said.
Aki said nothing. She just stared at Kyoko.
The trio of crewmen took on a serious demeanor. Kawada took charge of the situation. "Damn! I knew this was going to happen someday. And Aki never replaced Felicity." He gently placed his hand on Akiís shoulder. "Calm down."
She paid him no attention as she continued to stare.
Frog interjected himself between Aki and Kyoko, who began to look frightened at Aki. "Relax, Aki," he tried talking to her. "She doesnít know any better. Iím sure she didnít mean it." It took him a moment to realize she wasnít responding to what was being said. It was too late.
Ryouga watched on in confusion. Aki had obviously gotten angry with Kyoko for some of the things she said, but he couldnít think of anything the cheerleader had mentioned that was bad enough to set Aki off. On more than one occasion Aki had gotten into shouting matches with some of the crew and never lost her temper. "Whatís going on, Aki?"
There was no response, causing Ryouga to become more concerned about his cousin. It was almost similar to one of his depressions, except instead of dejection she was projecting rage. He was about to approach her when it happened. A black form suddenly sprang from her an instant. It appeared to be a huge see-through image of a woman with short armor plates around parts of her chest, arms, and legs. A helm covered her features, allowing only a red glow from where her eyes would be. What he saw of the areas not covered with the armor were muscles that defied belief. The image hung above Aki for a moment, then seemed to settle back inside of her.
"What was that?" Ryouga said, barely speaking loud enough to be heard.
"What was what?" Kawada asked.
Ryouga rubbed his eyes. "I saw this image of a weird-looking woman above Aki for a moment. Then it disappeared back into her."
Kawada looked at him in disbelief. "I thought only the captain and I could see that."
"See what? What was that?!"
Kawada shook his head. "Iíll explain later. Ryouga, Aki is out of control and will kill your girlfriend if she gets her hands on her. Try to restrain her while Frog keeps the girl out of harms way until your cousin calms down. I donít want to think of whatís going to happen if Aki gets her hands on the little loudmouth."
Aki took a step forward towards Kyoko, not uttering a sound. With her first step Brunt leaped on Aki, smothering her with his huge form and tried to brace himself by digging his feet into the deck.
"Calm down, Aki!" Brunt knew what was going to happen, but prayed he could get through to her anyway.
His prayers went unanswered as Aki began to walk at a quick pace, as though she did not have three hundred plus pounds of a powerful human trying to restrain her. "I need help, Ryouga!"
Frog picked up Kyoko and ran off while Ryouga looked on in confusion. He wasnít going to attack his cousin, no matter what the other crewmen said. The three men were reliable, but he trusted Aki above all others. He decided to talk to her, hoping it would calm her down.
There was no response as she picked up speed and went in the direction Kyoko had been taken.
Ryouga started following. "Umm, Aki. Whatís wrong?"
"Get a clue and help me stop her before she does something she regrets!" Brunt yelled as he was carried along.
"Akiís a nice person. She wouldnít hurt Kyoko for saying something a little insulting like that." In truth Ryouga was beginning to get a little worried. Aki was behaving more than a little weird, and then there was that thing he saw above her right before she started chasing Kyoko. Kawada hadnít acted surprised, but maybe it was controlling Aki somehow.
He gave one last try at talking to her. When she didnít respond he then stood in front of her and braced himself. As powerful as she was, he was still the stronger of the duo, though not by much. He held out his arms to stop her…
…and promptly got knocked down and walked over as Aki increased her speed to catch up to Kyoko. Ryouga picked himself up and began to panic. What had just happened was impossible. Even Lime wasnít powerful enough to simply walk over a well-braced Ryouga like his cousin had just done. Nothing short of a speeding train should have been able to do that. Quickly he ran after the ever-quickening Aki.
"Akiís never going to forgive herself if she kills that girl," Kawada said sadly as he followed in Akiís wake.
"Whatís going on?!" Ryouga shouted, grabbing Kawada by the collar. "Tell me!"
"Akiís in a berzerker fury. The only thing that could calm her down was her cat," he explained. "It was always only a cat."
Ryouga remembered Akiís cat. "Felicity."
"She died two weeks ago and Aki didnít get a replacement."
"Without her cat, she wonít calm down. The only way she will come out of that fury now is if she removes the source of her anger. Thatís the girl. Aki didnít tell you about her problem, did she?"
"No," Ryouga admitted.
"Hardly a surprise. She wonít talk about it with anyone. Not thatís sheís proud of it." Kawada shuddered. "Youíve never seen what she can do when sheís that way, Ryouga. We got boarded by some pirates a year ago. We were losing when the captain of them called her the B-word in the middle of the fight. His crew, the fools, tried to protect him." Kawada gave a mirthless laugh. "Iíve seen lots of horrible things in my lifetime, but that was the worst. When Aki calmed down and saw what she had done and locked herself in her cabin for a month."
Kawada shook his head. "They were cutthroats that deserved what happened to them, but Aki still felt guilty. Since then there were three separate instances of people calling her that. Each time we got her cat in time. But now…" he trailed off. "She wonít forgive herself if she kills the girl."
"Canít we stop her!" Ryouga asked.
Kawada just shook his head.
The duo caught up to her just in time to see Frog with Kyoko at the stern, having run out of ship with which to flee. That wasnít good. He knew for a fact that Kyoko couldnít swim and that Aki could cut through the water like a fish.
Brunt tried to stop her in a last ditch effort, digging his heels into the deck once more. All that produced was a torn up deck as Aki now slowly made her way towards Kyoko, who was too scared to even scream.
"Sorry, girl," Frog apologized, then ran off.
Ryouga couldnít bring himself to hit Aki, so threw himself in front of Kyoko. He began speaking softly to Aki as she approached. "I canít let you hurt her, Aki. Youíll have to go through me first."
If Aki heard him she did not respond. Instead she drew up in front of him.
"Get out of the way, Ryouga!" Brunt shouted as he continued to futilely strain against her.
"No." Ryouga shook his head. "I canít hurt her or let her hurt Kyoko. Iíll stay right here. I donít think sheíll hurt me."
Aki drew back her fist.
"You just lost your bet! Move or sheíll kill you and then kill the girl anyway!"
Ryouga stood his ground.
"Ryouga-kun, move," Kyoko said softly from behind him. "I donít want you to get hurt."
Ryouga continued staring straight at Aki. Then he saw it. A twitch in the face. Aki was hesitating. "You donít want to hurt me," he said softly. "Weíre friends. Family."
The fist wavered.
"Just let it go," Ryouga said softly.
"Get… out… of… the… way," Aki managed, obviously in great pain.
It was as he hoped. "No," Ryouga said firmly.
"Ryouga, move," Kyoko said once more.
"It… said… the… word. It… has… to… die."
"No," he repeated in the same tone of voice.
Akiís fist wavered some more. Ryouga knew he was getting through. She was going to stop in a second.
Then the fist descended straight for Ryougaís face.
Kyoko screamed out in protest and tried moving Ryouga out of the way, but he was too strong for her to overpower. Instead she watched, horrified, as the fist came straight for her belovedís head…
…and stopped so close it appeared there was no space between the flesh of the fist and Ryougaís face. Aki left it there for one second, then went limp. Only Ryouga and Kawada saw the black image form for a second, then disappear. Brunt held Aki up, more out of reflex than anything else.
"I wouldnít have believed it if I hadnít seen it with my own eyes," Kawada said in disbelief. Frog and Brunt mirrored their first mate.
"Give her to me," Ryouga said as he took Aki from Brunt. "Iíll take her to the infirmary. Donít worry about her, though. Donít ask me why, but I think sheíll be all right." And with that he went into the interior of the ship, carrying Aki gently in his arms.
"Do you guys think sheíll be all right?" Frog asked his comrades.
"Yeah. Somehow, I think so," Kawada said. They didnít need a cat to stop her. Maybe she was getting better.
"Oh, no!" Kyoko cried out.
All three of the crewmen stared at Kyoko. "What is it?"
"We let Ryouga-kun wander off by himself. We might not see him again for a week."
Frog waved her off. "Donít worry, heís with… Oh, yeah. I see your point. Maybe weíd better make sure they get to the infirmary all right."
Everyone headed off to catch up to the wandering Hibiki.
It was two hours later when Ryouga sighed for the one-hundredth time. How could he possibly get lost on a ship? TWPOS was big, but it was still an enclosed vessel. He should not have been lost that long.
"Put me down."
Ryouga looked at Aki. She had at last come around. "You all right?"
"Yes. And Iím not a little baby. Put me down."
"All right." He released her before she punched him in the face. He watched her carefully as she stood up, looking none the worse for wear.
When she didnít say anything for a few moments he spoke up. "Are you going to tell me what that was all about?"
She shrugged. "She called me the name and I tried to kill her. That was a stupid risk you took. Youíre lucky I didnít pop your head off like a zit."
Watching Aki and her reactions was a lot easier than trying to do that with Kyoko or Ukyou. She was hiding her fear. "I figured if you wouldnít hurt a cat, you wouldnít hurt me."
"Ryouga, youíre not a cat and Iíve killed people before while like that."
Ryouga scratched his head. "Oh. I guess youíre right. Heh."
"Baka," she said softly. "Thanks."
"Youíre welcome. Do you know where we are?"
Aki looked around. "Somewhere on the ship. Have you seen anyone around?"
Ryouga shook his head. That was another odd thing. In two hours of wandering he should have come across somebody, but almost from the instant he went inside everything had been silent. If he hadnít felt the gentle motion of the vessel under his feet he would have sworn he had wandered off the ship without realizing it. "None of this looks familiar to me. I got lost on this thing often enough that I thought at least some of it would look familiar, but nothing does."
Aki looked around. "It might not have been here before."
Ryouga looked at her, confused. "Whatís that supposed to mean?"
Aki gave him a sober look. "Iíve wandered around this ship more often than anyone else. I used to think I knew every inch of it. But as I wandered around it I realized something. Itís bigger on the inside than it is on the outside. A lot bigger. And the insides arenít always the same."
Ryouga shook his head. "How can that be?"
Aki shrugged. "Got me. Not even D'Amour understands anything about it. No one does. We just crew on her."
"How big is it?"
Aki shrugged once more. "I donít know. Iím the only one that really understands, I think. No one else even realizes just how big it is." She thought for a moment. "Look. Itís so big that thereís even a hermit on the ship that fancies himself a mad scientist. No one else knows about him. His nameís Alexander Luthorinski and he claims that the previous captain hired him to try and figure out how some kind of funky set of second engines on the ship work. If you ask me, I think heís a stowaway. You think heíd choose a better ship, though."
"What? You mean no else noticed it?"
Aki nodded. "Itís not really surprising. Most people only go where they want to. No one tries to just walk around, or if they do, they only do it for a little while and then go back to where they wanted. I have heard several people talk about how they ran into parts of the ship they didnít even know were there, but no one ever looks into the matter. Itís like no one wants to face it. Itís too weird to be believed.
"Now for us, itís different. We canít help but go walk around to places where we donít intend to go. So we get to see everything. Only every time I do get lost, it seems like I end up somewhere new on here. Some things are familiar, but other times they arenít. Itís like it changes each time I go around."
"Weird." Ryouga agreed. "So now that youíre done trying to change the subject, are you going to tell me what was up with that image I saw around you and why you go crazy when someone calls you that word?"
Aki flushed with embarrassment. Her usually dense cousin had seen through her. "Donít worry about it."
"I said donít worry about it."
"Aki," he repeated. "You havenít told anyone anything about it. Donít you think itís time?"
"You nearly killed me today. I think Iím entitled to an explanation."
"Please donít do this to me," Aki pleaded.
Ordinarily Ryouga would have given in, but something told him it needed to be done. "What was that black figure, Aki?"
She stared at him in disbelief. "You can see my stand?"
It was her turn to look curiously at him. "You donít know what Iím talking about, do you?"
He shook his head.
"If you had one youíd know it by now. I guess it must be one of those perception things, like Kawada and the captain." She sighed. There was no way Ryouga was going to let go now. If there was any one person she could trust with the truth, it was Ryouga. "Swear to me you wonít tell anyone this, and I mean anyone."
Ryouga held up his hand and swore.
"What you saw was a psychic projection called a stand. Iím one of those rare individuals that was born with one. Weíre called stand users. Itís something thatís a part of you, and when you hit puberty it manifests itself. I used to think only other stand users could see them, but Iím rapidly learning otherwise. D'Amour and Kawada can both see my stand, and neither of them are stand users. Now you can too. I donít know why. Maybe itís a martial arts thing. Different stands do different things. I know because," she paused for a moment. "Because I ran into some a while back.
"It was when I was about ten or so. I got lost and wandered throughout the world. Before I usually didnít wander too far out of Japan, but once I got older I seemed to go farther and farther away. While I was wandering I met him.
"Evil has a name, Ryouga. And his name is Dio.
"He was like nothing youíve ever seen before. He makes you want to follow him. Heís just one of those kinds of people. Itís like he projects himself as a god, and at first you believe him. But once you get inside you realize heís evil. He was a monster, and I found out the hard way, too late. He discovered me through my stand. He had some method of finding stand users, and bending them to his will.
"When he first found me I fell for that aura and he informed me of what I was. I had no idea I was a stand user at the time. He said I was important to him, and that I could belong to something greater. Somehow he brought out my stand. I call it the Iron Tower. Itís appropriate since my sign in the tarot is The Tower. The first time I felt it, it was like a part of me that I didnít even know existed. It was incredible. Iíd always been strong, but once I could summon my stand I became even stronger. Thatís its only real ability: strength, but it has an abundance of it. Somehow I draw it from the earth itself. When Iím at sea itís a lot weaker, but still incredibly powerful.
"Once I understood what being a stand user meant, he told me I could be useful to him. That was when it all fell apart for me. I was too young, so he had to change me. My stand is linked to the earth, but there were natural limits to how much I could draw. He wanted those limits removed. He had already recruited a small army of stand users to assist him. One of them could affect another stand userís abilities. It was a slow arduous process, but Dio saw to it I had plenty of time to be altered. The altering was a painful and slow process, but eventually those limits were hammered down and I could achieve the level of power Dio wanted. By that time I refused to obey him. He said ordinarily he would kill someone like me for defying him, but I was young enough to still be made to serve him. So he had the stand user start to make me more compliant. Believe me, changing the mind is a lot more difficult to do without permanently damaging it, and a lot more painful too." Akiís voice became quiet. "He walked through my mind and ripped out what was in the way, putting parts of him in their place."
"It was slowly done over the days so they didnít make me into a vegetable. And after the end of my sessions, I was thrown into a cell. While I would lie there, slowly trying to put the broken fragments of my mind together, a cat would visit me. It was a dweller in that hellhole I was left in. Probably allowed to stay there because it would kill the rats. Anyway, that cat would always curl up beside me and rest. I donít doubt it was only because I was a warm blanket for him, but it didnít matter. It was the only thing of comfort in that pit, and I latched onto it like a life preserver. Thank kami for that cat. Somehow it ended up affecting the mental programming they gave me. It was an inadvertent control, which could ease me out of my state.
"Dio tested me and I obeyed without question. If I had enough time to gather my strength, I could lift tons. Eventually the guy messing with my mind decided to get cute and made one of the commands a kill command if anyone called me a bitch. Pretty funny, huh? He thought so, at least. He made certain that command was deeply rooted in. He really liked it, the sick bastard. But then something wonderful happened. Dio got killed at the hands of a rival. In the ensuing chaos I escaped, taking that cat with me. Over time, all of the alterations faded except for the b-word command, and I could shake out of that if I had my cat with me. I got worried when it died on me, but I got another and it worked the same. Since then I hooked up with this ship and put everything behind me. All the crew knows is not to call me that, and even if they do Kawada or someone knows to grab my cat and bring me out of it. I had to tell them that much. I didnít want to hurt anyone.
"All that worked was a cat, until now, though. You brought me out of it. I guess maybe the command is finally starting to fade, or maybe blood runs deep enough. Iím not sure if it would work a second time, though, so I wouldnít be too eager to try that again if I was you.
"And as for my stand, I wonít willingly use it anymore. Thereís too many nightmares connected to it. Iíd sooner die than use it, and there have been a lot of instances where that could have happened. Never again.
"So now you know the truth. Youíre the only one, Ryouga."
Ryouga nodded his head. He had been in the presence of gods before. The idea of stand users related to him was easy to accept. "Thanks for telling me. If thereís any way I can help all you have to do is ask."
"Thanks." Aki laughed, finally wiping away the worst of what happened that day. Purging herself of those awful memories helped her, somehow. Who knew? Maybe in the upcoming days, sheíd finally be able to break out of the brainwashing that was so deeply ingrained in her psyche. Until then she figured she would have to concentrate on getting another cat. Things had been cut too close that time.
"Letís find our way out of here," Ryouga finally said. The two set off in an attempt to find a way out of the hold of the ship.
Perfume and her hunt pack began to settle in their quarters on the section of the ship, the ones next to the lingerie shop. On the bright side the captain let them all board for next to nothing. On the downside he kept hitting on Perfume every time she talked to him, and kept insisting he would help her pick out something Ďsexyí from the store. He claimed he would even give her a personal discount if she would accompany him to dinner, the pig. Perfume absolutely despised those would-be suave cretins that thought every woman should jump into the sack with them. Too bad her feelings werenít shared by the majority of her pack, many of whom seemed smitten by the captainís charms. At least the gullible Sash wasnít paying him any heed. She was too heartbroken over leaving her husband behind. Sash was counting on returning after the current mess at home was over.
The leader of the hunt pack was trying to come up with some way to protect Shampoo, and failing miserably, while placing some things in her closet. She was only halfway done when one of her fellow warriors decided to pay a visit.
"<Perfume. Iím here to help,>" Shelfís voice musically chimed in from the doorway. Not waiting for an answer, the girl simply bounced in and stopped next to Perfume.
The low groan that emanated from Perfume would have made a less determined person give up on their scheme. However, when it came to romance, Shelf was persistent to the point of being able to watch paint dry before she would give up on a target.
The pink-haired Amazon examined her Ďsisterí more closely. Her top was undone almost to the point that she was falling out. The girl didnít have a shred of decency. "<Would you just go away?>" Perfume groaned.
"<Oh, donít be that way. Let me help.>" Without waiting for an answer she grabbed a pack and proceeded to place it in the closet. She then pretended to trip, knocking Perfume and herself to the ground and making certain to ram her cleavage into the prone girlís face.
"<Geff off obe me!>" Perfume muffled voice sounded through the breasts jammed into her.
"<Why play coy with me?>" Shelf said in as seductive a tone as possible. "<Iíve seen those sidelong glances you give me when you think people arenít looking.>"
Perfume turned her face away from the cleavage so she wasnít suffocating. "<What the hell are you talking about?!>"
"<You know what I mean. We both want it.>"
It was at that moment Cabinet and several other Amazons decided to visit. "<Perfume. I wanted to ask…>" she trailed off at the scene before her. "<Never mind. Weíll give you two the privacy you need.>"
Perfume went limp for a moment as she heard Cabinet leave the room. She then took as deep a breath as she could while being semi-smothered and spoke once again. "<You are going to pay for this.>"
"<Does that mean itís time for foreplay?>" Shelf asked.
"<Depends on your definition of foreplay.>" Her hands gently made their way up Shelfís breasts.
"<Thatís more like it,>" Shelf cooed.
D'Amour heard the cry and began banging his head on one of the consoles on the bridge. It had already started. People were having sex and he wasnít one of them. "Why me?" he sobbed as continued banging his head.
"Why do we have to share a room?" Mousse complained as he looked the cabin over. It didnít make any sense. Everyone else got their own room. And why did theirs have a heart shaped bed with pink covers on it?
"I havenít the faintest idea, Mousse-sama." The ten thousand yen for a honeymoon suite Kodachi slipped the crewman might have had something to do with it, but why should she bother Mousse with trivial details? There were other things on her mind. "Mousse, we need to have a little talk."
"About what?" He was examining the room as he talked. Surprisingly there was a working refrigerator in the room with all sorts of Ďperformance enhancersí and endurance drinks. What kind of person kept things like that in their cabin?
"About your foolish gestures during the fight." She pulled out a pair of thick insulated gloves and put them on.
He knew this was going to happen. "Iíve told you before, I will never let anyone harm Shampoo," he said confidently, then softly added. "Even if she loves someone else," That was only now settling in. As hard as he tried to deny it in the past, he just couldnít this time. Not with the look he had seen in her eyes. It was there that the pure love he had craved like a drug was, and it had not been directed towards him. Oh, what cruel fates made his purple-haired goddess fall in love with such an unworthy fool like Saotome.
"We are going back to your people. You know what will happen when her curse is revealed, and it will end up being shown."
"Is that a threat?"
"No," Kodachi said as a matter of fact. "Not a day goes by in which she doesnít change. Thereís no reason to believe China will be different. Knowing her luck, sheíll change on the ship and all of her fellow people will discover the truth." She continued fishing in her leotard for something.
"Then Iíll protect her from them! Iíll protect her from everyone! In fact, Iíll go protect her right now! She might be in danger!" Mousse turned to go.
"Ah here it is!" She pulled out a large ball covered with some kind of gray substance. "Catch!" She tossed the ball to him
"What is it?" he asked as he caught the sphere out of reflex. A tingling sensation shot up his arm where his flesh made contact with the ball. In less then three seconds he was completely paralyzed.
"A new contact paralytic I wanted to test out. Itís nice to see it does work, but in my unthinking haste I seem to have benumbed you." Kodachi said calmly as she placed the ball back in her leotard, then removed the gloves.
She picked him up and placed him on the bed, then made herself comfortable as she sat next to him. "Why donít we have a discussion of exactly why you are behaving irrationally and why I will not allow you to recklessly throw your life away? Iím confident youíll see things my way, even if you must remain like this for the rest of the voyage."
Mousse could do nothing more than listen as she launched into her tirade.
In another cabin on the ship, Cologne sat in silence. Sparrow had finished giving her the orders that were for the matriarchís ears only. The Musk had the audacity to claim Mount Phoenix as their own and specifically warned the Amazons away from it. Why was it so important to Herb? What secrets were there that he felt the need to place an army outside it to keep others out?
There were many things to ponder for the upcoming days, and for perhaps the first time in her life she was out of ideas. Shampoo was almost surely going to be brought before the council and explanations were going to have to be given as to what she had been doing. And given the Jusenkyou curses, there was no way she could avoid giving away the secret. The elder had her doubts about Shampoo being able to remain on the ship and not somehow tipping off the members of the hunt pack as to the Nanniichuan problem.
Flight was a temporary solution at best, and one that would ensure she could never go back home, regardless of a cure. And the problem would be compounded by the shame brought upon the family should Shampoo flee once more. As the leader of her clan it was Cologneís responsibility to look after the welfare of all of its members, which went beyond Shampoo and any difficulties she had.
It was the worst situation she had ever been in. Cologne had been lying to the council in her omission of the curse, and if they ever found out she would be expelled immediately and her entire clan reduced to a lowly status. Leaders that employed duplicity to the tribe were never forgiven. There had been several that had been caught doing such things in the past, and the price was always steep. However, it had been worth the risk. It had all been for Shampooís benefit, but now the end was in sight.
Cologne had no doubt Shampoo would remain silent about the matriarchís knowledge of the curse. Commitment to family still ran strongly through her veins, but there was still the disgrace of being brought before her people with the curse and forced to kill herself. Cologne could think of no way to get to Jusenkyou now; the orders had been explicit in going directly home. Any deviation from them would be cause for great suspicion. And even then there was still very little guarantee that a cure could still be obtained. As near as Cologne could tell, nothing about Shampoo had changed to make her believe that a cure was any more possible than when Mousse had brought the Nyanniichuan back from China and Shampoo used it on Perfume. Fate worked in strange ways.
Then there was the other side problem of home, which she had barely thought about. What were the Musk up to? The fools were risking bringing down the government on all of their heads. The people of the area kept to themselves and were left alone, just so long as they didnít cause trouble. There was a great deal of power concentrated in that one spot in China, and the government was reluctant to stir up so much trouble for so little an area. To the rulers in Beijing, the potential losses far outweighed the gains. But if Herb continued to make waves, those losses might end up being acceptable for maintaining the peace of the area, and that would doom everyone. Herb had to be stopped before he caused irreparable damage.
Cologne shifted her thoughts to the more current problems at hand. Silk had been only too happy to get this ship. She was up to something, something that just might help Shampoo. The elder could only pray that whatever it was would be successful. And as to the ship itself, the ghost sweeper had been right. Cologne was far from being as sensitive in magic as someone like Minami, but even she could feel the magic coming from the ship. The whole vessel was full of the stuff. It was just a miracle Happosai hadnít jumped on board beforehand. He was instinctively drawn to magic like a moth to a flame. And with so many women on board, as well as a lingerie shop, well, Cologne thanked all of her luck they set off when they did.
That was when the screams started from outside. Cologne looked up at the door only to have it burst inward.
"I should have known," she sighed.
"<ELDER!!!>" So Fu screamed. "<Itís attached to my breasts and I canít get it off!>"
Happosai turned from his perch from between So Fuís breasts and looked at Cologne. "Hi there! Isnít this great! Itís a boatload full of beautiful women with a bunch of lingerie. No one can escape now. Itís just us and the open seas. I should have come up with something like this years ago. HAHAHAHAHA!!!"
Cologne just sighed about how some things never changed and swung at Happosai. He barely managed to tear himself out of the cleavage in time. "Iíll come back for you later, you cute little thing," he told So fu. "Iím just going to visit some of your Amazon sisters and let them share the wealth! Woohoo!" And with that he bounded off, groping the next woman he came upon.
"<What was that thing?!>" So Fu gasped out.
"<A terrible demon of perversion from the deepest pits of hell. If you kill it, your name will go down in the annals of our history as one of the greatest warriors of our time.>"
"<I would do that anyway for what it did to me. All I need to do is round up some of my sisters and weíll commence a search. It wonít leave the ship alive!>"
"<Good luck,>" Cologne managed to say with a straight face. Happosai was going to be kept busy for a while.
Aki and Ryouga finally made their way back to the upper portions of the ship when a Happosai-glomped Amazon ran past the duo, screaming at the top of her lungs.
"What was that?" Aki asked in shock.
Ryouga explained exactly what Happosai was.
"So there are two perverts on the ship now. I wonder if the captainíll get defensive about having another one encroaching on his territory?" Further thoughts were cut off as a little red bundle of perversion glomped itself to Akiís chest.
"Say honey, you should start wearing a bra. Wouldnít want the guys to think youíre brazen, would you? You feel like a b-cup." He placed one hand in his gi. "Here you go!" He pulled a lacy black bra out and offered it to Aki.
"LET GO OF MY—" Ryouga managed to get out before he was cut off.
Aki held a hand up before Ryouga. "Iíll take care of this." She looked down at the creature in its perch, then put on a cutesy expression that would have put Azusa to shame, yet somehow managed to scare Ryouga at the same time. That sort of look did not belong on his cousinís features.
"Youíre such a cute little thing." She pinched one of Happosaiís cheeks, then wrapped her arms around and began hugging him.
"Ahhh!" Happosai made himself more snug in his perch. "Itís not often a girl respects her elder like you do. Itís so refre—" he stopped as he suddenly felt his spine become compressed with incredible pressure.
"This is the way I deal with perverts that go grabbing where they donít belong." Akiís cute expression disappeared as her more normal features returned. "I wonder how long itíll be before we hear your vertebrae snap."
"This is a little tight, dear. Would you mind loosening up a little?" Happosai tried squirming out of her grasp, but to no avail.
"I like you just where you are," she gave him a wicked grin as she increased the pressure.
"Sorry, I have… to go… visit some other… ladies," he gasped out. "No… offense." He managed to reach into his gi and drew out a happodaikarin.
A singe-covered Aki stood watching Happosai, who had somehow avoided the effects of the blast, bounce away. "The little buggerís dead!"
"Iím with you!" Ryouga raised his fist to the skies. "No one molests members of my family and gets away with it! HAPPOSAI! PREPARE TO DIE!!!"
Both members of the Hibiki clan set off on their mission of destruction.
Happosai looked back, overjoyed at the pursuit. "I just wish Ranma were among them," he sighed. The absence of his favorite semi-pupil (and pair of breasts) couldnít bring down his mood as he continued to bounce merrily along.
Genma moved another piece. "Thereís nothing like the smell of the open sea, is there, Tendo?"
"Absolutely," Soun agreed as he contemplated the board. The duo were playing shogi on their traveling board, which Genma was wise enough to bring to the wedding, along with their white and brown gis that both had switched into. Currently they were playing on the foredeck while enjoying the beautiful weather and listening to the seagulls cry out as the waves broke across the ship.
Soun paused in his thoughts to look over Genmaís shoulder. "Is that a blue-billed seagull?"
Genma turned around to look at the bird. "No. Iím pretty sure thatís a red-footed one."
Soun switched the pieces to a more favorable position while Genmaís back was to him. "My mistake."
"Hereís some tea, Father." Kasumi poured some for both him and Genma.
"Thank you, Kasumi." Both men said as she went back to her place next to them.
"How can you two be so calm?" Nodoka asked in frustration. "Ranma and Akaneís wedding was just ruined."
"Weíre used to things not working out," Soun said as Genma contemplated his next move. "You canít let it get you down."
"Itíll be all right in the end, dear," Genma assured her, then pointed over Sounís shoulder. "I think thatís a blue-billed sea gull."
Soun turned to look, allowing Genma to move the pieces. "I do believe youíre right, Saotome. You donít see those very often." He turned back to the board.
"I appreciate Ranmaís desire to help his friends, it speaks a lot about his character, but we should still be doing something to make certain Ranma keeps his responsibilities in order. Those two will get married!"
"Of course, dear," Genma said finally moving a piece. "Tendo and I are coming up with something now."
"All the two of you are doing is lazing around and cheating at shogi."
Soun and Genma stared with amused grins at Nodoka, who couldnít help making a comparison to the two of them appearing as though they were cats that had just swallowed the canary.
"Now thatís where youíre wrong, Mrs. Saotome," Soun said.
"Weíre going to be family," Nodoka corrected. "Please call me Nodoka."
"Right, Nodoka. You see, it is at this shogi board that Saotome and I come up with our best plans."
Genma nodded. "It was over shogi that we decided to unite our families."
"I thought you were out drinking that night," Nodoka reminded him.
"Yes. We were out drinking and playing shogi. We also came up with our plan to seal up the master over one such game as well."
"Too true," Soun agreed. "And we came up with that plan to deal with that demoness, Atsuko." Soun paused. "All right, maybe that wasnít one of our better plans, but most of them are good."
"Almost all of the ones weíve come up with to bring Ranma and Akane closer together have come from our collaborations over this board," Genma stated proudly. "And Soun and I have already come up with some basic ideas on how to get the two of them married."
"Weíre on a ship," Nodoka reminded him.
"And since weíre on the open seas, the captain can marry couples," Soun said happily. "All we need to do is get the two of them together with the captain around and instant marriage."
Nodoka nodded her head approvingly. "Not bad. I apologize for underestimating the two of you."
Both Genma and Soun smiled at the compliment.
"We just needed a change of scenery to get our creative juices flowing again. A vacation away from Nerima is perfect, eh, Tendo?"
"Too true, Saotome. Too true."
It was at that moment Happosai bounced around them with a bag full of ladies underwear crying out "What a haul! What a haul!" He was then followed by Ryouga, Aki, over half the hunt pack, and Minami, who was still vowing his death for groping her those months ago.
Genma watched the chase move away from their part of the ship. "On the other hand, no matter how far you go, you can never quite seem to get away."
"Too true, Saotome. Too true."
"Thereís a pervert on the foredeck!" a crewman shouted from the bridge.
"Impossible," second helmsman Shelby stated. "The captainís right next to me."
D'Amour struck him on the top of the head, knocking him onto the floor. "Where is the man who would dare defile women on this ship?"
The recovered Shelby held a mirror in front of the captainís face. D'Amour admired himself in it for a second, moving a single lock of hair back into its proper place, before grabbing it and smashing it over Shelbyís head, knocking him down once more.
"He just ran back inside of the ship, sir," the crewman who had spotted Happosai earlier stated.
"How dare he molest women on my ship!" D'Amour cried out in overly melodramatic rage.
"Exactly, sir," Shelby barely managed to get out as he staggered to his feet. "Thatís your job."
D'Amour backhanded him away in disgust, leaving him in a heap on the floor. "Fool! If you were not my motherís brotherís cousinís nephewís step-sonís roommateís former plumber, I would make you walk the plank for such disrespect. As it is I shall let you off with this warning." He picked the beaten Shelby up and threw him against the bulkhead, leaving him in a heap once more, then drew his sword and went off to hunt Happosais.
One of the other crewmen examined Shelbyís crumpled form. "You really ought to learn to keep you mouth shut. Youíre not Kawada, you know."
"Itís not my fault Iím cursed to speak whateverís on my mind," Shelby groaned from the floor.
Ukyou and Ai watched the others run around the ship in pursuit of Happosai. He only managed the briefest of gropes on both girls before fleeing, so they chose to let the offense pass and let the others continue chasing him.
"Ukyou, why are we going to China?"
Ukyou had a feeling this was coming. Now the question was how much of the truth Ai should be told. "Shampoo is in trouble."
"Youíre talking about Shampoo Saotome, arenít you?" Ai asked.
Ukyou shifted her feet. "Well," she let out reluctantly, "sort of."
"Funny, I would think that if it involved the Chinese, our redheaded Shampoo would be the one concerned, unless thereís something going on I donít know about."
Ukyou began to fidget more. "There is."
Ai softened a bit, sensing Ukyouís discomfort. "Can you tell me or are you sworn to secrecy?"
"Itís not the sort of thing Iím supposed to talk about."
"Then donít. I trust you implicitly."
The way Ai said that made Ukyouís decision easier. "No. You have a right to know. You canít tell anyone about this, because Shampoo may end up being put to death. Hereís whatís really going on…"
Ai listened with only the slightest hint of disbelief. "I had no idea. Sex-changing water. How bizarre."
"Iím just glad I was never there." Ukyou sighed with relief. "I probably would have ended up falling in the Spring of Drowned Dog or something."
"No. I picture you more as a wolf," Ai said with a smile. "But youíd be the best looking wolf around." She began petting Ukyouís head, barely restraining her laughter.
"Spring of Drowned Peacock for you," Ukyou stated. "The way you primp yourself all the time."
Ai gave a look of mock indignity at the suggestion. "I was thinking of something more along the lines of Spring of Drowned Mongoose. Something quick and smart."
"Maybe," Ukyou admitted.
They were silent for a few moments before Ai spoke up. "Are you going to risk your life for her?"
Ukyouís shoulders slumped. "Sheís a friend. A good one, I guess. Itís hard to believe with how much I hated her at first. But I donít know. I came to help keep Ranchan out of trouble. I donít know how much Iím willing to risk for Shampoo."
"I just want to know what to expect," Ai said. "I like knowing what the stakes are."
"You donít have to do this. It doesnít concern you."
Ukyou received a sharp blow to the ribs. "If it concerns you, it concerns me. Got it?" Ai said with more than a hint of anger in her voice.
Ukyou knew better than to start an argument she wasnít going to win. "All right. When I figure it out, Iíll let you know."
"Thatís better," Ai said, placated.
They looked towards the ocean as the sun set on the horizon. Ai studied Ukyouís features as the dying embers of crimson highlighted her chestnut-colored hair. Even as Ai admired the way the light cast perfect shadows in just the right places upon Ukyouís features, she found herself wishing she had a camera to capture the moment.
"What is it?" Ukyou asked as she realized how intently Ai was staring.
Ai was suddenly struck by a feeling of sadness as the sun set too far and that one moment of perfection was lost, most likely for all time. "I just wish I had enough artistic talent to capture how you appeared just now. You have no idea of how beautiful you really are."
Ukyou smiled for a moment. "Thanks. Youíre the only person thatís ever said anything like that to me."
"You are a sandalwood-eyed beauty who deserves to have armies falling before you so that they may worship the ground you walk on."
"Watch it," Ukyou warned. "Youíre beginning to sound like Kunou."
"Maybe you bring out the Kunou in me."
Ukyou stared at her for a moment, then burst out deep laughter.
"What is it?" Ai asked in bewilderment.
"I… I… HAHAHA!!!" Ukyou tried to compose herself as the tears began falling from her eyes. "I just pictured a six-inch version of HAHAHA Kunou sitting on your shoulder, shouting out to you about how to describe the beauty of the Ďspatula wielding goddess.í HAHAHAHA!!!" Ukyou fell over laughing.
Ai stood there for a moment, pictured what Ukyou said, then doubled over laughing as well.
Silk stood apart from all the others, watching the sun set; a smile on her face. Part of what had happened was her fault in being late, and it just might end up costing Shampoo everything. But at least one of her plans had worked. The sun was setting in the west, which was off to left side of the ship and towards the back.
TWPOS was staying true to form. Which meant Shampoo now had time. The only question was how much.
To be continued.
Author's notes: Yes. The reference to Ukyou falling in Spring of Drowned Wolf was inspired from Wade Tritschlerís ĎA Scary Thought.í
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