The entire Hunt Pack, as well as its group of prisoners, spoke in rapid tones of the events that had just happened. The mountain had simply exploded, replaced by an intense beam of blue-white light. Fortunately, the only piece of rock that came close to the group was a fist-sized chunk that bounced harmlessly off of Limeís skull. Not that Cabinet didnít fret over her husband, much to Limeís delight. He even went so far as to consider bludgeoning himself some more if he could gain that kind of attention from his new wife.
Julep stood off to the side, carefully thinking things through. Judging by the way the soldiers had reacted, none of them had expected the explosion to occur. And then there had been the overwhelming changes that had just occurred to the land surrounding the group. Even as events unfolded, and that bright beam of light shot up into the sky, Julepís animal instincts allowed her to feel the transformation in everything around her. For a brief moment she had thought she was going mad, but she quickly regained her composure. She was not an animal; she was an Amazon pathfinder. She would control herself and get to the bottom of this mystery somehow.
She was about to set off in the direction of where the mountain had just been when a girl stumbled into view. The brown-haired teenagerís outfit was ripped badly in a number of places, her legs were covered in blood, and she had an unconscious man draped over her back. Her eyes had a distant quality to them as she tried to focus on the group before her.
"Did I miss anything?"
Kyoko Onamuri then collapsed to the ground.
Chapter 39: Aftermath
A Ranma ½ story
by D.B. Sommer
Disclaimer: Ranma ½ and its characters and settings belong to Rumiko Takahashi, Shogakukan, Kitty, and Viz Video.
All comments and criticisms appreciated. You can contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org
All of the members of the Tendo and Saotome families continued to scan the shoreline for any sign of their missing family members. The mountain had exploded some time ago and the light that had radiated up to the heavens had disappeared without a hint of returning. Twice Genma had to restrain his wife from leaving, while Soun ran back and forth, crying out about how his daughter must have been in great danger. Only Kasumi maintained her composure, staring off at where the column of light had been, and smiled. She wanted to reassure the others that Akane and the others were all right, but couldnít explain how she knew it. Rather than give some vague explanation that might raise more questions, she opted to remain silent.
"Someone comes," First Mate Kawada said as he pointed to the tree line of the starboard bow. He and many of the other members of the crew looked onward, either to see what spectacular fireworks to expect next, or in the case of Akiís personal ĎIdiot Trioí, waiting to see in what shape she would return. Even DíAmour, who had at last stopped bragging about how great he was in saving the ship, spared a glance in the direction. After all, a lot of beautiful women were due back at the ship any time now. He could then brag to them of his heroics, confident he could bed at least one of them.
A blue-and-black garbed figure came at a hurried pace from out of the tree line, dragging behind it a huge makeshift travois with a large number of people on it. Aki made a straight line for the extended gangplank that led to her ship.
"Since when did I become a beast of burden?!" Aki shouted back to the others on the travois.
"You are the only one that could possibly get all of us here in time to help the injured," Cologne answered in a tired voice.
Aki was about to complain again when a ribbon cracked itself like a whip right next to her face.
"Faster, harridan!" Kodachi shouted out, almost in tears. "We must get assistance for my beloved Mousse-sama." It was luck that the group stumbled across Kodachi and Mousse, who was in human form now and still unconscious since his electrocution. There was a black ring of burned flesh from where the wire had been looped around his neck, and already it had begun to blister. Kodachi was at a loss of what to do. The only thing that even came close to calming her was that his breathing was regular.
"Use that ribbon on me again and Iíll wrap you up in it and give you to the captain!" Aki warned. The only thing that kept her from making good on her threat was that she could empathize with Kodachiís worry over her lover, but empathy only went so far.
The crew helped the injured people onto the ship: The still comatose Ai, who Ukyou would not let go of while Perfume tried to keep her alive, the aforementioned Mousse, and finally Ryouga with his broken wrist and arm with compound fractures from where the wall had collapsed on the delicate bat wing. None of the others looked very well either, in varying degrees of exhaustion or shock, or in Akaneís case, unconsciousness.
Nodoka panicked when she saw that Ranma was not present. "Whereís my son?!" she screamed out.
"He should be at the top of the crystal shard that now stands where Mount Phoenix once did," Cologne informed her in a tired voice. The diminutive Amazon felt as though she was going to fall over at any minute. "I believe heís all right."
"What makes you so sure?!" Nodoka asked, still afraid.
"We are all still here," was all the explanation Cologne offered as she went towards her quarters to rest. She needed just a few hours and then she would be fine.
Genma was watching Soun cry out in joy that his daughter was okay, when Nodoka grabbed him by the collar of his gi.
"We have to make sure my son is all right!"
Genma tried relaxing her. "If the old troll says Ranmaís fine, heís fine. The boy can take care of himself."
"How can you be soó" The rest of her statement was cut off as she found her hand suddenly in the grasp of DíAmour.
"Thereís no need to fear, mon cherie," the captain said smoothly. "I would consider it the greatest of honors to allay your worries by retrieving Panma."
"Whatever," DíAmour said dismissively, then launched back into his exposition. "A beauty such as yours should never be marred by concern. To allow such a thing to occur is a crime against nature itself."
Nodoka felt herself blushing at the compliment. No one ever said things like that to her, not since she had been a young woman.
DíAmour smelled blood and continued. "Yes. The nobility in your visage simply augments your beauty to a point that brings a tear to my eye."
Nodoka saw that indeed a single tear was in his right eye. Slowly it traveled down his cheek, leaving Nodoka breathless. "Oh… my," was all she could get out.
"After I have retrieved your son, and made certain he is in perfect health, please come down to my cabin. I am something of an artist, and I wish to attempt to capture your beauty on canvas."
"With what? Crayola crayons? Those are the only art supplies you got in your cabin," Second Helmsman Shelby said as he suddenly appeared next to the captain. "And you donít have any canvas either, unless youíre talking about your canvas sheets. And…"
"Excuse me for one moment," DíAmour said as he gave Nodoka a roguish smile. He then turned to Shelby, unleashing a smile that was far from anything that could be described as roguish. The captain grabbed the still rambling second helmsman by the collar, ran him over to the railing, then hurled him overboard.
In a flash he was next to Nodoka once more, bent on one knee and holding her hand. "Forgive me, sweet lady. That man was quite deranged and had no idea of what he was talking about."
"I see," Nodoka said as she tittered at the young man paying her so many compliments. She even began to blush demurely.
Genma saw the effect the captain was having on his spouse. The only reason he had let it go on for so long was that he had been certain Nodoka would dismiss the man. How wrong he had been. "Unhand my wife, you pompous ass!"
DíAmour appeared genuinely disgusted at the revelation. "Is this man truly your husband?" he asked Nodoka.
She gave a small, almost shameful, nod in response.
"How disappointed you must be. It is wrong to have such a lovely young creature as yourself chained in the bonds of unholy slavery to this abomination. Surely you find yourself miserable over such a terrible fate?"
"Sometimes," she sighed.
"No-chan!" Genma shouted out, betrayed.
"Then please say yes, sweet lady," the captain said. "Come to my cabin this evening, else I should throw myself overboard."
"Why I do believe that girl over there is topless. And what large breasts she has," Genma said as he pointed behind DíAmour.
"Where?! Where?!" the blond man shouted wildly as he spun around trying to spot the girl.
Genmaís kick sent DíAmour overboard, his body just clearing the railing.
"I always told the boy that moveís a good tactic," Genma mumbled to himself.
DíAmour found himself floating next to the ship while the crew remained where they were, watching him. It was a good thing he was only in an inland lake with no connection to the ocean. If that had happened…
"Someone throw me a flotation device!" DíAmour shouted.
"Iíll get one!" Aki shouted back and disappeared from the captainís view.
"Good girl, Aki!" DíAmour shouted back. "I knew I could count on yó"
The crew cheered as the lead-filled safe Aki had thrown over the side hit DíAmour squarely on the head, sending him to the bottom of the lake.
"Thatís funny. The Ďfloatation deviceí doesnít seem to be working right," Aki said wryly as she went to see how Ryouga was faring.
"Why did you do that?" Nodoka asked Genma as she watched the crew grab a bunch of harpoons, all looking over the railing to make sure the captain would be greeted warmly, if by some miracle he got out from under the safe and made it to the surface of the lake.
"I just wanted to give him a helping hand," Genma said innocently. "He did say he would throw himself overboard if you refused him."
"But I hadnít said no yet."
"You would have," Genma said confidently. "I shall paint you tonight."
"You donít know how to paint," Nodoka pointed out.
"I meant finger painting."
"Finger pain…?" Her face turned a cherry red, as she understood what he meant. "We havenít done that since we were newlyweds."
"Then we better make up for lost time."
"Once we know Ranma is all right," Nodoka said as she remembered her original concerns. Somehow, she felt in her heart that what Cologne had said earlier was true and that Ranma was okay, although she did not know why that was.
"We need to go faster!" Ukyou practically screamed in panic as she pushed Aiís pale form down one of the shipís corridors and headed to the shipís sickbay. Perfume was running alongside the gurney, barely keeping pace. Once Ai was placed upon the gurney, Perfume released her hold. There was nothing left in her to help Ai any longer. She herself was going to need a long rest to recover her own bodyís chi levels and overcome the exhaustion that had crept in from the constant fighting and healing. Still, she had seen enough to guess how Ai would do. It was now a matter of pride that the cheerleader stay alive. Perfume had given her all, and it would have been a savage disappointment to have the blonde die after so much had been done to keep her alive.
She looked back to see that Kodachi was still fretting over Mousse, who was also being wheeled along the hall. Ryouga had disappeared though, no doubt going left when he should have gone right. At least all he had was a broken limb; nothing like what Ai was suffering from.
The other two crewmen that were on each side of Aiís gurney led the way to the sick bay, hurrying along as quickly as they could. At last they arrived at the door and barged through.
"Hey, Doc Sangre!" one of them shouted as they entered the room.
A young man with a brown mustache looked to the gurneys being wheeled into the room. He headed immediately to the first patient: Ai.
"Donít do that, Doc!" one of the crewmen warned. "Look at the other one."
"Iím a doctor, damn it!" he exclaimed as he bent down to examine Ai. "Let me see… blood." And with that his eyes rolled into the back of his head as he slumped to the floor.
"I told him so," the crewmen chastised out loud.
"What happened?! Why is he on the floor?!" Ukyouís panic doubled.
The two crewmen looked at one another, then nodded their heads. The one that had remained silent up until then spoke up. "Well, you see. Doc Sangreís a pretty good doctor, except for one slight problem."
The man turned to his companion, and both spoke up. "Blood," they said together.
The second one picked up the explanation. "You see, any time the doc sees blood he passes out. Every time."
"What good is he then?" Ukyou said through gritted teeth.
"Oh, as long as there isnít any blood heís great. Sprain, strains, headaches, colds, venereal diseases. You name it, he can cure it, as long as there isnít any blood involved."
Ukyou grabbed one of the men and began to shake him like a rag doll. "IF HEíS UNCONSCIOUS WHOíS GOING TO SAVE AI!!!"
"B… B… B… Bubbles," the man barely managed to get out.
"Whoís Bubbles?" Ukyou said as she stopped shaking the man.
ĎBubblesí appeared about a minute after one of the men reached her on the onboard phone. As the door opened, Ukyou saw an incredibly attractive blonde woman, somewhere in her early twenties, wearing a top about the size of a bra and a tight leather skirt with matching knee-high boots. She was in great physical shape and bore a rather large bust size, augmented all the more by the top that was about two sizes too tight for her breasts. Somewhere in the back of her mind Ukyou wondered if Ai would look like that when she got older.
"Who are you?" Ukyou asked.
"Iím Bubbles," the girl said in a high-pitched voice, as though that was all the explanation that was needed. Looking into her eyes, Ukyou wondered if there was any activity at all in the womanís head. She sounded and looked like she was an even bigger airhead than Kyoko.
"I meant, why did they call you?" asked Ukyou, strongly emphasizing the last word. "Are you a nurse?"
"No," the girl said as she made her way to where Ai lay and started to examine her. "Iím the shipís exotic dancer."
Ukyou nearly fell over in shock. "Why the hell are you looking over Ai then?! Get away from her!"
Bubbles gave Ukyou a flat stare. "I also have MDs and PHDs in medicine, bio-chemistry, genetics, forensics, and have a license to practice medicine in over seven different countries. The only man I have ever met whose medical skills surpass mine is the infamous Dr. Blackjack. I know what Iím doing."
Ukyou was astounded. "But youó"
"Sound like an airhead?" Bubbles finished for her as the blond put on a surgical gown and examined her instruments. "I have an eidetic memory and an IQ that measures off the charts. Donít fall for stereotypes. I just naturally have a high voice and I take care of my appearance."
"Why are you an exotic dancer if youíre so smart?" Ukyou asked, as Bubbles used a scalpel to cut away Aiís remaining clothing, while at the same time ordering the others to get Dr. Sangre out of sight of the blood so he could be revived and help Mousse.
"No one wants to hire someone whoís smarter and more attractive than they are. Women see me as a threat, and men want to seduce me. When the guys learn that I donít fool around with just anyone, and that Iím ten times smarter than they are, they usually get intimidated and want nothing to do with me. I ended up short of cash and accepted a job here."
"Why were you hired as an exotic dancer instead of a doctor?" Ukyou asked.
Bubbles paused for a moment to look Ukyou in the eye. "Have you met the captain yet? The only way that stinking pervert would hire me was as an exotic dancer. I needed the money, so I accepted. Once I was here, I let the rest of the crew know what my real fields of expertise are, not that Iím not an accomplished dancer as well. Iíve made men pass out in their seats with some of my moves." She turned back to Ai. "Now I have to get back to work. Your friendís going to need a hell of a lot of help, and her chances arenít good anyway. Itís going to take everything I have to even give her a chance to make it through. I can see she has spinal damage and sheís lost a lot of blood. Thatís just going to make the work harder. So if you would step aside, I can begin."
"Please save her," Ukyou said quietly, now believing every word Bubbles had said, no matter how unlikely it seemed.
"No guarantees, but I promise to do my best. I donít think youíre going to want to watch this."
Ukyou backed up, and when she saw Bubbles begin the operation, she hid out in the hall. Seeing Ai like that… no. It was too much for Ukyou. She just laid her head against the hallway wall, and sobbed, unable to do anything for the girl she loved.
"So how do we get up there?" Brunt asked as he looked to Aki, Frog, Luthorinski, and the handful of others that had volunteered to retrieve Ranma and Shampoo. It turned out that Cologne had been correct about the two of them still being close to the pillar of crystalline-like substance. They were on top of it, in fact.
"Got me," Frog said. He had tried using climbing gear to get to the top, but it had proved impossible to scale. The surface of the column was perfectly smooth, almost frictionless, wouldnít break. Even when Aki had tried to hammer in a piton, all that had happened was that the metal spike shattered under the impact of the blow. The surface of the substance hadnít even been scratched.
"Maybe I should just throw you up there," Aki suggested.
"Donít even joke about it." Frog wasnít sure if Aki would try it and didnít want to find out. He gazed upwards to the top once more. "Too bad we canít fly up there."
"A good idea," DíAmour said from next to Frog.
"Thank you, SiAHHH!!!" The speedy Frog leaped twenty feet away in less than a heartbeat. Everyone else backed away as well.
"How… how did you…?" was all that Brunt could get out.
"Fortunately I was only pinned under forty feet of water by a safe filled with lead. I was never in any real danger."
Everyone just stared blankly.
"That guyís worse than a cockroach," Aki mumbled under her breath.
DíAmour took charge of the situation. "Now we must turn our attention to rescuing the beautiful Miss Shampoo."
"And Ranma," Frog added.
"Iím not sure heís worth bothering with. I donít think Iím going to get anywhere with his mother, and the guy is a total egotistical jerk."
"Some of us are motivated by things other than our libido!" Aki growled. "Heís my friend!"
"Fine, fine," DíAmour relented. "Weíll grab Mr. Sap-to-me. Luthorinski!"
The red-haired scientist moved forward. "Yes, Sir?"
"Build me something that will get us up there," DíAmour ordered.
Within ten minutes, the resident mad scientist had whipped up a jet pack from the parts within the seemingly empty pack he carried. "This Alpha Marauder Jet Pack 1000 Luthorinski Series is sure to get you up there in no time."
"Not me," DíAmour explained. "Flavio! Get over here!"
One of the nearby crewmen, a handsome man with long flowing brown hair and who looked as though he belonged painted on the cover of a romance novel, put down his jar of, ĎI Canít Believe Itís Not Butter Since It Tastes Almost Like Butterí and moved to the captain.
DíAmour gave his orders as he helped put the pack on Flavio. "Fly up there and grab Shampoo."
"And Ranma," Aki reminded him.
"Got it," Flavio said and pushed the on button. The jet packed worked like a charm, sending Flavio to the skies above. Just as he was nearing the height where Shampoo and Ranma were, he went to adjust the speed of the pack.
"AHHHHHhhhhhh…" he shouted as he kept going straight up into the air and out of earshot, then eventually out of sight.
"Damn!" Luthorinski said as he clenched his fist. "I knew I forgot something."
"What?" DíAmour asked.
"The off switch."
DíAmour gazed lazily up to where his crewman had disappeared. "Ah, itís no great loss. I never liked him anyway. He was always hitting on women and treating them like they were sex objects. I hate that kind of attitude. Why did everyone just facefault?"
Everyone picked themselves up and regained their composure. Luthorinski made another jet pack, this one with the off switch. The Ďvolunteerí on this occasion was Forlorn. The raven-haired woman was the shipís counselor, who one never went to see because all talking with her did was make the patients depressed, no matter what was bothering them. Those that made the mistake of going to her to have their depression treated usually ended up on the suicide prevention watch that the crew had set up for such situations. The single benefit to her presence was that prolonged exposure to her could depress even the jovial DíAmour, which was always call for celebration.
"Iím doomed," she said in a low, dismal voice.
"You always say that when you do anything," Brunt said as he finished strapping on the pack.
"Itís always true, isnít it?"
Brunt thought about that and realized she was correct. He made certain to stand very far away when she turned her pack on.
Once the smoke cleared, everyone saw the ash-covered form of Forlorn, her despondent look unfazed. "I told you so," she moaned before passing out.
"Youíll never get them down at this rate."
All eyes turned to the newcomer: Ghost Sweeper Minami.
"You should still be resting," DíAmour warned, and for a change he was right. She was still pale and appeared as though she was death warmed over.
"I have to save my friends," she stated boldly as she stood next to the base of the column. Once next to the massive crystal-like substance, she placed one hand on it and stared. It had an incredibly strange aura, one she would investigate at a later time.
Getting to the area where Mount Phoenix had once existed had been no easy task. As weak as she was from her ordeal, she had forced herself to catch up to the crew and help Ranma and Shampoo. From what the others had said, she woke up out of her magical-induced sleep at the same moment that the column of light disappeared. And she had no doubt it was Shampoo and Ranma that had done it, even if she didnít know how. Now she needed to repay them.
She crossed her hands over one another, concentrating so that the magic within her would build up. She released it and initiated the spell. Gently she rose off the ground and began hovering in mid-air, gradually gaining greater height as she continued up the side of the column. Within minutes she was at the top, easily spotting Ranma and Shampooís sleeping forms, each with arms wrapped around one another.
She just shook her head. What the others did with their lives was their own business. Unlike everyone else in Nerima, she acknowledged that romance was never her strong suit and had no desire to meddle in the love lives of others. It was good to see the walking ego had apparently made a final choice though. Poor Akane. Minami had been leaning towards her in the ĎRanma Romance Warí since they were sort of friends. The Ghost Sweeper vowed that she would see what she could do to help Akane later.
She walked over to the couple and magically checked them to make certain that they were both all right. With that confirmed, she rested a couple of minutes to gather her strength once again. The illness had taken more out of her than she had realized. Flying up to the top of column was difficult enough, but getting down with both of the youths was going to be next to impossible. Her best bet was to take them down one at a time. At least the weight would be more manageable, and it would just take a little extra time. After all, it wasnít as though there were any rush.
Then she saw the form flying towards them from the distance and heard the roar of rage from it.
"OH, SHIT!!!" she shouted out. They had just run out of time. Hurriedly she picked up both Ranma and Shampooís forms, barely keeping from collapsing under the duoís combined weight. She didnít believe for one second she was going to get enough lift to keep them from falling, but a small chance was better than no chance at all, and there was no way she was powerful enough to fight off what was coming. A demon she might be able to handle, but certainly not the creature that was approaching. She could almost sense its malevolence as it got nearer to the column of crystal.
Looking at the distant ground below her, she thought the others might be able to protect them if she made it down in time. Summoning every ounce of energy she had, she cast the spell of flight again and stepped off the spire.
At first their decent was controlled, but their speed increased the further they got down the pillar, and at the three quarters point, she ran out of mystical energy, plunging all three into freefall. Minami thought, as they were falling, that at least they werenít going to be roasted alive, or worse, eaten.
Herb-chan stared at the column of crystal in the distance. That really was the final straw. First it was two-mile long dragons appearing out of nowhere and radiating enough chi to fry even Herb-chan without blinking. Next it was huge eyes opening in mid-air. Then it was mountains exploding. But the last bit was a huge beam of chi popping up out of nowhere and then the entire land going screwy. It took her a while to make sure that the huge pillar of chi wasnít coming back any time soon before she worked up the courage to fly over to the column of crystal, since apparently that was all that left of Mount Phoenix.
It was all supposed to be so simple. The Shogun of the Dark would cast a spell of great power and Herb-chan would be the next emperor of China. Now she had a feeling that all of the plans were ruined. The great dragon might have been part of the spell —that made sense with all of the references the Shogun had made about Herb-chan being family— but the rest of it felt… wrong. As though something had backfired. And the Shogun would have sent some word to Herb-chan that everything had gone according to plan. But there had been no word. Nothing. It was time to find out what had gone wrong. And she was going to do it with all the might she had at her disposal.
Her hand went to the canteen of water that was now a permanent addition to her attire. No longer would she travel anywhere without the water. It was now a refuge, rather than a curse, for humans did not like dealing with that which was not them. Slowly she brought her chi to a level that would cause the water to boil so that the future emperor of China could now take the true form she now possessed.
With a flourish she held the canteen high above her head, then let the hot water pour over her, triggering the transformation.
His nose detected the scent of what several members of his nearby troops had done. "<Stop soiling your armor! Havenít you ever seen a dragon before?!>"
And with that, eighty feet of dragon took off into the skies and headed towards the column of crystal that was off in the distance. Herb still marveled at the power his metamorphosis had unleashed. The Shogun had told him that the blood of dragons flowed more fiercely through his veins than ever before, but even Herb could not have guessed the sort of change that had occurred to him. Of course he lacked a human male body now, but lately his cursed girlís form didnít seem so terrible anymore.
When he was a dragon, his senses were extraordinary. Dragons saw and felt things so differently from the way humans did. Yet despite the change, he still wanted to keep a human outlook on things, so he remained in his cursed form most of the time. Besides, eighty-foot dragons tended to scare the hell out of followers. Not that he didnít revel in the power of his dragon form. Oh, how seductive that power was. He couldnít have been happier about his current condition, curse included. He now had the best of both worlds.
He concentrated on the flight before him. Once he arrived at the spire he would ask the Shogun nicely what was going on. And if the Shogun was not there, if there was another who was responsible for Herb losing his dreams, he would bite him in half and gorge himself on the foolís blood.
Herb the dragon flew with wings that could carry him at speeds in excess of two hundred miles an hour if he so chose. The wind blew over his blue-white scales, allowing him to enjoy what few others could in the form of natural flight. However, now was not the time to revel in his change. Now was the time to answer the questions that preyed at his mind. And as he got within five miles of the column, he at last understood what had happened.
Minami felt herself falling to her death. What a stupid way to die. She just couldnít go out in a blaze of glory fighting the hordes of demonkind, or trying to save millions of people from doom, or in a hot tub full of Jello with two handsome male models. Nope. She was going to end up going splat and looking like roadkill in some backwater countryside with a ship full of idiots as the only witnesses to her demise.
She should have remained in her magical coma.
"AHHH!!! A beautiful girl and a somewhat attractive one are falling to their deaths. I have to save them!" DíAmour could not allow such beauty to come to harm. He leaped onto the tallest nearby structure he could: Bruntís head, and propelled himself through the air to try to catch one of the two girl before they hit.
Aki picked up Frog and prepared to throw him like a javelin.
"Are you crazy?!" he shouted at Aki.
"Shut up and snag Ranma and Shampoo."
"But what about me?! Iíll fall to my death!"
"Typical! Always thinking about yourself." Aki threw him in the air and shouted, "Donít worry about it! I got you covered!"
"What about Minami?!" Frog shouted as he timed when he would cross paths in mid-air with his targets. At least Akiís throw was on the mark and he was going to hit them head on.
"I want the captain to catch her!" She watched as Frog latched onto Ranma and Shampoo. She heard him Ďwhuffí as his upward momentum instantly negated by the greater velocity that the pair had built up. Now Frog was falling with the couple, and at only a slightly slower rate. The only thing that had been gained was that their landing could be controlled.
Brunt refrained from asking exactly why Aki would want the captain to catch anyone, though DíAmourís incredible leap had enabled the Captain to snare Minami gracefully as both began their own descent to the ground. "How are we going to save Frog?" Brunt asked.
"Youíre going to break their fall."
"Oh thatís… WHAT!!!" Brunt felt himself grabbed by the back of his shirt and pants and thrown into the air.
Resigning himself to some pain, Brunt caught the trio, slowing them down somewhat, then began to fall as well. He made sure all three were cushioned in his body as they fell. He took one look over his shoulder, timing when he would hit the ground, then braced for the impact.
Yes. It had hurt a lot. He was going to need lots of ice packs and painkillers for a long while after that little collision. Fortunately his sacrifice wasnít wasted as he saw that Frog was looking a little bruised, but aside from that in good health. Ranma and Shampoo didnít look any worse off either. Actually, they appeared to be resting peacefully, each with gentle smiles that somehow seemed identical despite being on faces that held little resemblance to one another.
A second thud shook Brunt out of his reverie. Next to him DíAmour had at last landed on his feet, buried completely in the dirt up to his knees. In his arms Minami remained unharmed. What hurt Brunt more than anything was that gleaming smile the captain gave to Minami as he pulled his legs out of the holes he had made. DíAmour appeared completely uninjured in spite of the fall. Aki must have been right. Only a cockroach was that indestructible.
"Whereís the dragon?!" Minami cried out as she looked towards the sky.
All other eyes scanned the horizon in the direction the ghost sweeper was looking in.
"I donít see any dragon." Bruntís comment was reflected by everyone else that was present too.
"Where in the name of the Fifth Ring of Hell did he go?" Minami said as she continued scanning the skies.
Herb had seen them. It was them. Ranma and Shampoo. The two people he most wanted dead in the world. That those two should be where the Shogun had been mere minutes ago could only mean one thing.
"<I AM GOING TO BURN YOU AND EVERYONE YOU CARE ABOUT INTO A PILE OF CINDERS!!!>" Herb roared as he flew closer to the motionless duo. Whoever the girl next to them was did not matter; she would die as well for the crime of being too close to Ranma and Shampoo. Then he would raze Joketsuzoku to the ground, then go to Japan and burn anything with the name of Saotome. Then he would find some other way to eradicate those that had destroyed his dream of ruling China. Oh, how they would all pay.
He was no more than eight miles away when the other appeared.
"Pull over, sir!"
Herb turned his head and nearly fell out of the sky. It was a fat dumpy man with sunglasses on and wearing what appeared to be a policemanís outfit with a blue turtle on the sleeve. But the most amazing thing was not the absurd noise that the man was making, it was the large flying, pink pig with enormous wing-like ears he was riding.
"Pull over!" the little man warned again. "I need to see your license and registration."
Herb unleashed a gout of one-thousand-degree flame at the flying fool. Once finished Herb saw there was nothing there. He had completely vaporized the annoying pest and his animal.
"Do you have any idea of how fast you were going?" a voice off to his right said.
Herb swiveled his serpentine neck in the direction of the voice. It was the same blasted fool, still on the same blasted pig. Somehow the little man had eluded the flames without Herb seeing the evasion. The fat man wasnít even singed.
"Do you have a license to breathe fire while airborne?"
Herb unleashed another gout of flame at the dumpy man and with the same results: there was nothing present.
"Youíre just making this harder on yourself," a voice said directly from above his head. "Land on the ground. Thereís someone that wishes to talk to you."
"DIE!!!" a third gout of flame was aimed at the flying man. It never reached as the world went black around Herb and he felt a bitter cold touch him through his thick scales and all the way to his bones.
He looked around, but save for the small patch of ground on which he stood, only blackness greeted him. Everything around him was so cold. How he had gotten there was suddenly secondary to getting out of wherever he was. Even in his now natural dragon form he would not last more than a couple of minutes.
"You really made that a lot more difficult than it had to be."
Herb turned to see that a man with jet-black skin, a brown suit and bowler, and with a cane in hand was now talking to him. The plain white orbs that were the manís eyes seemed to bore directly into Herbís soul.
"I usually donít like to be so direct in my offering, but your point of no return was passing rather quickly and I had to get this offer in before it was too late." Mr. Domino smiled at the dragon before him, showing those perfectly white teeth that contrasted so brightly with the jet blackness that seemed to compose the humanoid creature.
"Why are you doing this?" Herb gasped out as he shivered from the cold. Not much time left at all.
"Thatís so much better than most of the other questions that seem to pop out of everyoneís mouth anymore." He pointed his cane towards Herb. "My name is Mr. Domino, and I am here to grant you one thing. What do you want?"
Herb didnít know what game the man was playing at, and in his condition it didnít matter. He blurted out the first thing that came to mind.
"I want to rule China."
Mr. Domino smiled even wider at that. "You shall rule a large section of China, but first there is something you must do for me."
"Whatever!" Herb shouted as he felt his life force slowly bring sucked away. He knew he couldnít even breathe fire anymore to heat himself up.
Mr. Domino gave a nod of his head. "You are an exceptionally wise dragon. Here is what I need for you to do. You will make no overt moves against any power near you. You will consolidate your forces from this fiasco and wait until such a time as I summon you. From there you will be allowed to fulfill your wish and rule over a large section of China." Domino turned to go, but held back for one moment.
"By the way, allow me to give you some advice. Consider it free of charge. You do not wish to kill Ranma and Shampoo now. If you try, you will die, being blown out of the skies by one with more skill than you, and both Ranma and Shampoo will live on. I hope I make myself clear."
"P… perfectly," Herb barely managed to rasp out.
"Excellent." And as Domino disappeared into the darkness, so did the darkness itself. Herb found himself lying on the ground, heat slowly returning to his body. There was no doubt in his mind he was going to do exactly what Mr. Domino had suggested. Even if he was mistaken about being blown out of the sky, and Herb didnít think he was wrong, the king of the Musk was too weak to kill Saotome and Shampoo now. He would wait, bide his time, and hopefully become the ruler of a large part of China. It beat getting killed, and would afford him time to plan a really painful resolution to his two Jusenkyou-cursed enemies. Yes, they would still suffer unimaginable agonies. Far better ones than Herb could have come up with on the spur of the moment.
As to Mr. Domino himself, whereas the Shogun of the Dark exuded power, Domino simply was power. And there was no question in Herbís soul that what Mr. Domino had said was true. Every bit of it. At last he would realize his dream of being a true emperor. Hopefully it would be a long reign. He knew that sometimes even accurate prophecies didnít turn out quite the way they sounded, and there had been no mention of how long Herbís reign would be.
Frog got off of Brunt and glared at Aki. "What the Hell did you think you were doing, you dumb bitó"
Six pairs of hands clamped themselves over Frogís mouth even as he bit down voluntarily on his own tongue. Too late.
"What was that?!" Aki growled.
Six different people spoke up, giving answers of Ďbittyí to Ďbit of a cute girl.í
Aki would have none of that. She shoved the others away and grabbed Frog by the throat, shaking him violently. "What were you going to say?!"
"Nothing." Frog just had to let his fiery temper go out of control and all but signed his own death warrant. His mother had always told him he had a foul mouth and it would get him into trouble. It figured Ďdear old Momí was correct once again.
"Liar! Say it! SAY IT!!!" Aki shook harder, as though that would somehow bring the answer erupting forth from Frogís lips.
Off to the side, Luthorinski confronted Brunt, who was wise enough to stay out of the way of the angry woman and the target of her Ďattentionsí. "Has she ever killed anyone that didnít say the b-word?"
"Donít think so, but it looks like sheís going for her first."
"Iíll talk her out of it," the recovered Forlorn sighed as she walked over to Aki and began to council her on how wrong it was to be angry with Frog when there were so many things in the world to be depressed about. That she began to list them in a monotone that would have brought down Mikado Sanzenzin from his one thousandth kiss was all it took for Aki to release her hold on Frog and cover her ears, fearful she would end up moping around in a depressed state like her cousin so often did.
Minami was still looking at the skies when she suddenly felt aroused. It took her only a moment to discover why that was.
"Hey, you jerk! Youíre fondling me!"
DíAmour shook his head. "Nonsense. I had to grab you to rescue you. Itís not my fault my hands ended up where they are."
"It is your fault when they stay there and squeeze on their own." She forced herself out of his grasp and grinned evilly at him.
"Hey now, it was all in innocent fun." DíAmour insisted. "And if you liked that small dose of affection, why not come down to my cabin when we get back and let me give you the full treatment?"
"I have a better idea for something I can do for Ďinnocent funí." Minamiís hands glowed blue.
"Uh oh!" was all the captain got out before the blue glow encompassed him.
All of the crew smiled in joy and applauded at the sable sitting in a pile of clothes before them. Rather than wait for knives that would be used to make him into a coat, he ran off, as far away from the crew as he could, before someone tried exacting revenge for some imagined wrong he did to them.
Even Aki smiled in happiness, forgetting the reason she had Frog grasped in her hands. The captain getting his just desserts was more than enough reason to release her anger and depression and continue on with taking the still-unconscious Ranma and Shampoo back to the ship.
Ukyou remained in the hallway with her new companion, Ryouga. The lost one had wandered by trying to find someone to set his broken wrist and arm. Ukyou, unable to bring herself to go inside, ushered him into the sick bay for help. After half an hour, he reemerged, his arm and wrist in a cast thanks to Dr. Sangre. Once out in the hall he offered his support. There were no words he knew to help her, so he simply held her to him with his free arm, allowing her to sob into his chest.
Bubbles finally came out of the sick bay and spotted the chef. Ukyou closely examined the woman. Blood covered the chest and arms of her surgical gown; her face a mask of seriousness.
"Iím not one to give false assurances. I want to be perfectly honest with you here. Do you want me to tell you the truth, or would you rather not know?" the dancer asked.
Bubbles nodded sympathetically. "Sheís alive, but in critical condition. Sheís in bad shape and could go at any time. Hell, itís a miracle sheís alive at all with all of the blood sheís lost. The transfusions seem to have gone all right and I reattached her nerve endings and fixed the spinal column damage, but it is possible sheíll never walk again. Even if she recovers, sheíll definitely never regain her full range of physical abilities."
Bubbles paused a moment before continuing. "Thereís also a good chance she might have suffered brain damage from the blood loss. I canít be sure right now since sheís in a deep coma. Iím sorry, but she might never regain consciousness; thatís if she survives."
Ukyou absorbed all the information and stumbled into Ryouga as she nearly collapsed. He supported her as best as he could until she regained her footing.
"I need to see her," Ukyou said, her voice holding steady.
"Of course." Bubbles reentered the sick bay and led Ukyou to where Ai lay. Various machines Ukyou didnít recognize were hooked up to Ai. One of them, perhaps a heart monitor, was letting off a chorus of intermittent beeps. Intravenous tubes led into her arms, filling her with several fluids from hanging bags. Revulsion rose in Ukyouís throat at the scene before her. It was all so wrong. Ai should have been fine, giving Ukyou that soft yet wry smile she would unleash when Ukyou unwittingly did something to flatter the blonde. It was only lately that Ukyou began to pick up on the small nuances and quirks that the girl she… loved possessed.
Ukyou moved her hand to push aside a lock of hair from Aiís face. "Donít worry, Iíll get used to saying I love you. All I need for you to do is wake up. Just wake up." She recomposed herself after barely choking out those last words.
"You can stay as long as you like. Thereís even a bed you can sleep in." Bubbles indicated an empty bed near Aiís.
"Thank you. Do you think it would be possible to have a little privacy? I know Ai would hate to be put on display like this. She really is too vain for her own good." Ukyou began sniffling uncontrollably. The request was as much for her benefit as Aiís. She was about to lose all self-control, and wanted to maintain some measure of dignity. It was going to be a long lonely night. One of perhaps many.
Kodachi was barely listening to the others in the room and their talk of Aiís condition. Dr. Sangre had done a thorough examination of the unconscious Mousse and determined his life was in no real danger, though what long-term damage there was from the electricity he had absorbed was anybodyís guess. The doctor took care of the burns that marked Mousseís throat, telling Kodachi that even after it eventually healed there would still be a scar there for the rest of his life.
Kodachi cared nothing for whatever blemishes Mousse would possess. It had been quite some time ago that whatever vague initial fantasy that had attracted her to the man that had Ďsavedí her life that night above the rooftop of the Tendo Dojo had given way to true love for the man Mousse was. He had even come to care for her, perhaps even loved her, at least a little. Always he leaped to her defense, despite those unique traits in her personality that others foolishly labeled eccentricities, or worse when they believed she was out of earshot. However, long ago she refused to conform to the vague standards that others set. She was a unique individual, not some mindless sheep. Any time others tried to convince her to change, she would scoff at them and their ridiculous desires to transform the lone black rose in the field to that of a red, like the others.
"Except for you, Mousse-sama. If you wished it, I would change my shade for you." It was an odd admission for her to make, but deep inside she knew he would demand nothing. Perhaps that was why she trusted him beyond all others. But whatever the case, he did have her. Of course what he intended to do with the flower he had picked was anyoneís guess.
Then her reminiscing was brought to a close.
"Make way!" A crewman shouted as he helped bring in the prone form of Kunou.
"A doctorís work is never done," Bubbles moaned as she took a quick look at Kunou. She shuddered at first when she spotted the tourniquet. Then she saw the nature of the wound that had urged its use. "The leg has to come off," she said mostly to herself.
As Bubbles was about to don her surgical mask once more she found herself nearly barreled over by Kodachi.
"Brother dear!" she cried out.
"Youíre his sister?"
Kodachi, unable to speak, nodded her head.
"I see. I have to get to work again, and since I really donít think you want to see what happens next, I recommend you leave. Although donít go too far. Your brother might need you once he recovers and sees what happened to him."
Kodachi assented, wondering exactly how her brother would deal with the loss he was about to undergo, and if she really could do anything to help him.
Out in the hallway, another reunion took place as Ryouga spotted someone he had wanted to see since his return from the fight.
He felt like crying. She was all right. Even with the dressing around both of her legs, making her look like a half-completed mummy, she was still beautiful to him. He rushed forward to touch her, afraid that she was some mirage and that love had fled from his embrace once more. As the two rushed towards one another, he could make out the tears running down her cheeks and knew then she was real; never in his wildest dreams had he ever believed a girl could cry in joy over him.
As they were almost to each other, she held out her arms to embrace her man. He took another step and was next to her. Then, without thinking, he brought his arms up to embrace her as well. His left was over her shoulder in an instant. His right, which was in a cast that kept his elbow fixed at a forty-five degree angle, met squarely with the bottom of her jaw rather than over the other shoulder that he was aiming for.
She stared at him for one moment, a look of confusion in her eyes. "Why?" she asked before going limp.
Only Ryougaís good arm prevented her from hitting the floor. "Itís not my fault! It was an accident!" Ryouga shouted out. Panic almost overtook him until he remembered that the sick bay was at the end of the hall, thankfully in his line of sight. He carried her with his one arm to Dr. Sangreís care, hoping she would forgive him when she came around.
Cologne caught up to Silk and the Hunt Pack as they corralled their prisoners on the shore, getting them ready for possible travel once more. The two hours of rest she had gotten seemed to do her little good. Twice she had nearly passed out before meeting her people. Only Silk seemed to notice the terrible shape she was in. That was just as well. Cologne would need the womanís help in the next couple of days.
"<Listen to me closely, warriors.>" She noticed that all of them smiled at one another and stood a little taller at that. Perfume would have to be complimented on the job she had done with that lot. Even Cologne would never have been able to convince them to work so willingly together. The girlís leadership qualities were truly astounding.
"<Here are my commands. Notify everyone back home that all members of our people are to stay away from both this ship and the place where the mountain once stood until I say otherwise. I will determine when it is safe. Take your prisoners and go now. All of you, save for Silk and Perfume, are to go back and stay there. Iíll have your belongings sent to you later.>"
The Hunt Pack bowed as one and herded their prisoners together. All felt a tremendous amount of relief at going home at last, and spoke to one another about what they were going to do once they returned.
Once they were out of sight, Silk finally dared to approach Cologne. "<You look terrible,>" she said as she tried to examine Cologne.
"<Thank you,>" Cologne said dryly as she shooed Silk away. It was only with the greatest of reluctance that Silk agreed. "<I have been through much—>."
"<Too much,>" Silk interjected, gaining a scowl from Cologne that she promptly ignored.
"<As I was saying, I have been through much and there is still a great deal more to do. I need you to sneak over to the Jusenkyou Guide. If what I suspect is true, we just might be able to cure Shampoo now. But we have to do it quickly, lest someone discovers sheís cursed.>"
Silk had wanted to spend some time alone with Soun. Their rekindled romance was proving very… satisfying. But Shampooís life took precedent over any romantic interludes she would have. Besides, that just meant the anticipation would build and their next meeting would be all the more fulfilling. With a bow, she left Cologneís side and ran off, hoping to make it back before nightfall.
Cologne had just made it back on the ship when the group that had gone to retrieve Ranma and Shampoo at last returned. Each was still unconscious and was being carried by stretcher back onto the ship. Even from a distance, she knew that they were indeed all right.
"My son!" Nodoka was at Ranmaís side the instant he was on the ship.
"Heís sleeping," Aki reassured her. "They both are. As near as I can tell theyíre both completely exhausted, but physically okay. And after what happened at the mountain, whatever it was, it ainít really a surprise. They need to rest."
In spite of the recommendation, Nodoka tried to shake her son awake. She wanted, no, needed to hear him speak. Needed to know he would be all right. With her third shake Ranmaís eyes fluttered open, causing her to cry out in relief.
At last Ranma regained enough of his senses to take in his surroundings, and that something was missing.
"Shampoo?" Using all of his remaining strength he barely managed to escape his motherís grasp, much to her confusion. "Whereís Shampoo? Whó"
"Over here." Aki indicated the stretcher that carried Shampooís unmoving form.
Half-dazed, Ranma started to panic at the sight of her still form. "Sheís…?"
"All right," Cologne reassured him. "Sheís exhausted, like you are. What both of you need is rest."
Ranma was barely able to stagger to Shampoo and half-collapsed upon her stretcher. "Not gonna leave her," he said in an almost dreamlike state.
Aki gave a soft look to the couple. "Weíll leave you two together. Donít worry. We wonít keep you apart." By the time she had finished Ranma was unconscious once again. Aki simply picked him up in her arms and followed the men that carried Shampoo to the sick bay, and was followed in turn by Genma, Nodoka and Cologne. The elder only paused a moment to ask if the group had encountered any Amazons. Much to her relief, they had not. The only Amazons that knew of Shampooís exact location were Silk and Perfume, and with any luck, she could keep it that way until Shampoo could be cured.
Bubbles took off her gloves with a flourish as she wondered if she should ask for a pay raise from the captain, assuming he hadnít already been devoured by some wandering predator. She smiled a little at the captainís recent fate and gave the results of her examinations to the concerned parties.
"Thereís nothing wrong with either of them. Theyíre in perfect health, and I do mean perfect. Iíve never seen two people in such a flawless condition. I couldnít find a single blemish on either of their bodies. Itís unnatural."
"Allow me to check something out," Cologne said as she grabbed two empty bottles and filled them with warm and cold water. Everyone that knew of the curses held their breaths as Cologne held the bottle of cold water over Shampooís form. She told herself there was no point in waiting; what would be would be, so she poured a bit of the water over Shampoo.
Breasts disappeared and hair color changed from purple to black as her form grew in size and height.
Cologne felt her heart sink as she witnessed the change. There had been some small part of her that had hoped that with Shampooís Ďdeathí, the curse had left her, as it had with Tarou, but it was not to be. She poured some hot water to change Shampoo back, then repeated the test upon Ranma and ended up with the same results. She waved the crewmen to continue on their way.
Nodoka watched as several of the crewmen wheeled the still sleeping Ranma and Shampoo out. "Where are you taking them?"
"To their rooms. Thereís nothing wrong with them other than simple exhaustion, and," she indicated the filled beds around them, "this place is getting a little crowded."
"See to it they are placed together," Cologne ordered the men.
"Why?" Nodoka asked suspiciously.
Cologne regarded the woman for a moment. Now that Nodoka knew her son was all right she was quickly trying to adjust the situation to reflect her desires. Such strength of will impressed the elder. Cologne found herself admiring Nodoka Saotome, despite the fact they worked at cross-purposes. "You saw how agitated Ranma was at Shampooís absence. How do you think heíll react if he wakes up on his own and Shampoo isnít there?"
Nodoka considered that. Despite what the doctor had said, she was still not completely certain Ranma was really all right. She was his mother after all. Worrying was well within her rights. And he had seemed very concerned over Shampooís absence. That was not the state Nodoka wanted him in while he was so vulnerable.
"Very well. Let them rest with one another." She would check on Ranma constantly until she knew for certain her son was all right. Any discussions about recent events could wait until then.
Aki watched the family members depart. "Thank goodness theyíre all right."
"Yes. It would be a shame to see someone as lovely as Shampoo harmed in any way."
"Thatís very nice of you to saAHHH!!!" Once again Aki managed to be surprised by the arrival of the impossible.
"You need to calm down," DíAmour soothed. "Too much tension could be bad for you. What you need to do is lead a stress-free life like I do."
"How the hell did you get out of being a sable?! Minami said that spell would last for days!"
"Fortunately, you left my sword lying with my pile of clothes." DíAmour indicated his sheathed weapon. "Itís magic itself, and has the ability to cut through magical enchantments. Once I got it out, it was easy to cut through the metamorphosis spell and change me back to normal."
Aki refrained from bashing her head into an operating table. He was indestructible. That was all there was to it. He would not/could not ever die. All she could do was keep trying and pray to the gods above to be delivered from her captainís hands.
"But Akane, this is your father speaking!" Soun protested to the closed door before him. It took all of his self-control to keep from crying out loud. Before his encounter with Silk he would certainly have broken down long before then, but somehow their reborn relationship made him feel much more in control, like he had been in the old days when his master wasnít around. Happosaiís ending was certainly cause for celebration too. Genma and he would get as drunk as humanly possible once they had a moment, but that would have to wait until after Akane was somehow helped.
"Can you get your sister to come out?" Soun asked the nearby Kasumi.
Kasumi gave him a sad look. "She wouldnít come out for me either, Father. Iím worried."
"Iím okay," Akane sobbed through the door. "Donít worry about me like that. I just need some time alone. Thatís all I want right now. Please?"
The two Tendos looked to each other and sighed. For ten minutes Akane had rebuked their attempts to help her, and she was as stubborn as a mule and wouldnít come out if she didnít want to. Since Soun couldnít bring himself to break down the flimsy door to his daughterís cabin, he agreed, after both he and Kasumi reassured Akane they would be there if she needed them.
Once they were gone, Akane went back to sobbing on her bed. She had lost probably the two most important people, outside of her family, in her life. One forever and the other just as well. One that held her heart and another that had held her trust, and there was nothing she could do about it. The only thing she had left was her dignity, and she was damned if she was going to lose that too by crying in front of her family. She couldnít even bear to see Ranma once Kasumi informed her he was all right. Shampoo was too, not that she mattered in the least to Akane. If anything, she hated the Amazon more than ever, and it went beyond stealing Ranma away from her.
Why was it the damned Amazon got to come back from the dead and Tarou couldnít? Even death had not prevented Shampoo from taking Ranma away from her. It just wasnít fair. Shampoo had everything while Akane had nothing. It was all Shampooís fault. If only she hadnít entered Akaneís life everything would have been fine. Instead the Amazon had ruined everything. There would be no forgiveness for her. Never.
Even anger could not be maintained over the depression Akane felt as her losses claimed her once again. A new wave of guilt brought even more wracked sobs from her as she blamed herself for Tarouís death. The only reason he had been there was for her. If he hadnít been there he would still alive. If only…
Her thoughts stopped there as exhaustion finally claimed her and she went to sleep, sobbing in her nightmares the entire time.
Cologne sighed as she considered the information Silk had come back with. Jusenkyou was destroyed and there was no way to reclaim the magic. There could be no doubts as to its destruction either. Silk had witnessed firsthand creatures plunged into the various remaining pools with no change to their bodies. She had even gone so far as to deliberately drown a mouse to see if she could force a change to a pool, but nothing had happened. Jusenkyou was gone, presumably forever, thanks to the huge dragon that had nearly destroyed everything.
There was one last hope though. The Guide had claimed that he had kept small barrels of each kind of water stored in a shack far away. He would return in two day's time with a barrel of Nyanniichuan for Shampoo and Nannichuan for Ranma. Hopefully it would work. It should. The Guide had said that several springs had been destroyed in the past, but water that had been taken from them before their destruction still worked afterwards. The waters should still be able to cure the two children. Hopefully.
Once Silk was finished with her report, Cologne ordered her to remain silent about the whole affair. The Hibiki boy might try to claim the Nanniichuan water for himself, and who knew what might happen if word got out that Shampoo needed Nyanniichuan water. No, the fewer people that knew about it the better.
Within the first minute after Silk had left and made a direct line to Sounís cabin, Cologne felt as though she was going to pass out once again. She hadnít felt that tired since she was a little girl, and her periods of strength were growing farther and farther apart. It didnít seem as though she was ever going to recover her full wits. She paused a moment to look within herself to see if she could determine what her condition was. It was hard to concentrate, but she had to focus and try to find out what was wrong. Summoning her chi was quickly proving itself an impossible task.
Cologne looked up, startled at the intruder. She had entered without knocking? That seemed almost as likely as Happosai giving up stealing underwear, while he was alive anyway.
"What brings you here, Kasumi Tendo?"
Kasumi continued staring sorrowfully at Cologne. "Iím sorry for barging in, but you didnít answer the knock at the door, and I remember you didnít look very well. I just wanted to be sure youíre all right."
"I am," Cologne reassured her.
"No!" Kasumi cried out. "Youíre not. I can see it!"
"What makes you say that?"
"I can see your aura. Itís very faint. Too faint. You wonít last much longer!"
Kasumi could see chi auras? That was a surprise. She had never shown the slightest hint of having any extraordinary abilities, aside from the aptitude to withstand the chaos around her with a smile on her face, which was quite extraordinary when one thought about it. "Perhaps you are right." Cologne relented. She had suspected it as well, but had wanted to refuse to believe it. "I think it was when Ranma took some of my chi from me. Not that I hold it against the boy. That little bit might have made the difference between Shampoo coming back or not." She took a deep breath. "If my time has come, then it has."
"Oh, Elder." Kasumi fell to her knees and hugged Cologne. "Thereís been too many people hurt already. Grandfather Happosai. Mr. Tarou. I donít want you to go too!"
Cologne tried comforting the girl. Considering how long the matriarch and Shampoo had been at odds with one another in the past, something Ranma still held against her, it was nice that someone cared so greatly about her. "If it is my time, it is my time," she said simply.
"Wait," Kasumi sobbed out. "I think thereís something I know that can help."
"Somehow I doubt that," Cologne said.
"No," Kausmi said once again. This time resolve was in her voice. "Watch this."
Kasumi held her hands apart. Cologneís eyes widened as a narrow line of chi began to form between them. She just watched in awe as a second line joined the first. Then a third, then many more lines that began to form in intricate pattern. Again and again, tiny new lines wove back and forth.
"That appears to be similar to the pattern we elders use to extend our lives." Cologne was amazed Kasumi could duplicate it at such a young age. It was one of the techniques that required a precision that was learned over decades of time, if ever. And it was a jealously guarded secret. Very few ever had the skill or talent to create the pattern, and fewer still that were proficient enough to have it extend their lives as long as Cologne had. Happosai was, no, had been good enough. And there were a handful of others that were almost as good as the two of them. But she was the best that she knew of. True, one had to use the technique at least once a week early on. Then, as the years became decades, twice a week. And when the decades became centuries, almost every other day. And there could be no break in the pattern once it was set. It was as though there was something that was constantly Ďoní in the body, though it was not the sort of thing that one needed to pay any attention to. It was automatic after a while, like breathing. And if the weave of chi within the body were broken, the effects of age would quickly take their toll.
That was what had happened to Cologne when Ranma had taken so much if her own chi out of her. The weave had been broken and she couldnít seem to regain enough control, or summon enough to reset it. Using the ambient chi in the air above Mount Phoenix, using chi in a way other than to reset the weave within her, had just done further damage, and now it was too late. She had hoped otherwise, but deep down inside she had known the truth.
She continued watching Kasumi form the weave. Soon there was a delicate tapestry that lay between her hands.
"Nicely done," Cologne complimented. "But I fear that that will not be enough to…" she drifted off as what Kasumi did next startled even her.
The weave between her hands shifted as hundreds more tiny streams floated between them, the pattern becoming impossibly complex and incomprehensible to Cologne. That degree of control was just unattainable. Nothing human could deal with so many flows at one time. Nothing. Not even her.
"How…" was all she could get out.
"Itís an improved version of what you usually use," Kasumiís voice became faint. "It… it wonít be able to extend your life as long as before. Not very long at all. I… I… Iím sorry Iím not guh… goodó"
Cologne cut her off. "Itís all right, child. It doesnít matter. I canít use that." Kasumiís eyes widened, causing Cologne to explain before the girl asked inevitable questions. "I donít know how you can manipulate that level of chi. If I had suspected, even for a moment, I would have taken you under my guidance in an instant, but itís too complex for me to duplicate. I couldnít even get over half of what you did."
Kasumi dried up her tears for a moment as she tried to come up with some solution. She knew that somehow she had to teach Cologne how to duplicate what she had done or the elder would die within the week. There was one option, but Cologne was going to have to agree to it. "Allow me to place it within you."
Cologne hesitated at that. In order for Kasumi to do that, the elder was going to have to voluntarily let down all of her guards and allow the young girl full access to her very life energy. That was incredibly risky. When one could freely access anotherís life energy, they could manipulate them like a puppet. There were a number of officially banned techniques (which, curiously, a large number of elders and others knew anyway) that could control a person that had either no, or only very insignificant, control over their chi. But those that had any real control over it were immune to all of the techniques. However if one freely allowed others access to them, with all the guard lowered, that was different. What Kasumi was proposing would give an opening for that very kind of control over even her.
Almost her entire life had been about control, over herself or others. To permit someone else, for even one moment to be allowed to control her was a bit much. Still, the alternative…
She gave in. After all, if there was any one person that could be trusted, it was Kasumi. And even if something sinister was happening behind those trustworthy features, well, it wasnít as though Cologne was going to last too long anyway.
"I grant you this, Kasumi Tendo. There is still much I have to do."
Kasumi gave a bittersweet smile containing the knowledge that as much as she could do, it wasnít truly going to be enough.
Kunou stared at the unfamiliar ceiling before him. The land of the dead seemed to have mildew on its ceiling tiles. Most unusual. He had imagined it a hall filled with great warriors, like himself, dueling from dusk until dawn, assuming the Heavens had dusk and dawn. Instead there was a rather fishy odor to everything, and it seemed rather run down.
"You are awake, brother."
Kunou turned to see his sister sitting on a chair next to his bed. Not dead then. She certainly wasnít worthy of a warriorís status. That left another question: Why had his opponent not finished him? Utsutsu Mujuru had been a true warrior. He should have granted Tatewaki a fighterís death, even as Kunou would have done the same for him.
"Why am I still alive?"
Kodachi gave him a warded smile. The odds were good he still did not realize what had been done to him. "You were saved by the others. Isnít tható"
"You should have let him finish me!" Kunou snapped. Of course the others would interfere in his destiny. They were all so narrow-minded. His entire life had been built to that one moment, and others had taken even that from him. Like they always did.
There was never an instant when he didnít lament the time he had been born to. Once he understood what being of noble blood truly meant in the modern day he became frustrated. The centuries had diluted both the land and the people in it. All of the old ways became lost to the new, and he was an anachronism in the Ďmodern age.í Any time he tried to reclaim some small piece of the past, others laughed at him and rejected him as though he was some kind of buffoon. Still, he had remained the warrior, ever espousing words of flowing beauty and a conduct that those lesser than him could look up to. But no. The foul Saotome and others mocked him and tried to make him less than he was. However, he resisted their temptations and withstood their assaults upon his person. Always he returned to show them how inadequate their attempts had been, laughing in return at their frivolous ways, content to know that they could not see the truth that he still did.
And at last he had found another like him. One who was as out of time as he was. All his life was meant to lead to that moment. To fight that blind warrior in the old ways, with hearts that longed for the clash of swords one on one and duels were fought over who had the right to cross a bridge first. Times that were forgotten, never to return. Time that had left Mujuru and Kunou behind. One of them was supposed to fall on that field of battle, fall forever, losing the fight yet also winning by dying in the fashion that their blood demanded. The one that lost his life might very well have been the one that had truly been the victor, for now there were no others that could challenge Kunou. None that could grant him the manner of death he so richly deserved. The right to die as a true warrior at the hands of another true warrior.
"My opponent?" Kunou asked.
Kodachi arched an eyebrow at that particular question. Was her bother still unaware of his condition? "I believe he was blown up when the mountain exploded."
A mountain exploded? Truly there must have been a fight of epic proportions. Still what faint hope Kunou had that Mujuru had survived was now dashed. The blind one too had not met the fate he deserved. Neither of them was given the resolution that destiny should have demanded.
"I will not lie here like a wounded dog!" Kunou pulled away the sheets and moved as if to raise himself to his feet, allowing his eyes to fall upon the truth.
"Iím sorry, brother. There was no other way."
Kunou looked down at the stump that ended no more than a half-foot past his pelvis. The first thought through his mind was that he was no longer even a warrior now. He was nothing more than useless garbage. Then, almost as quickly, he remembered the fight. Perhaps Kunou the warrior had died as he was supposed to. Never again could he fight as he had, so perchance this was what was truly meant in his Ďwarriorís deathí. But what course would that leave him now? What should he do? Should he commit seppuku, or should he go on, trying to discover what path he should take next?
In a fashion, Kunou was surprised by his own reaction to his loss of limb. Had it happened at any other point in his life he would most likely have ended his existence, but now, now he was not so certain.
"Leave me," he ordered Kodachi with the same strength he possessed before his loss. The spirit of Tatewaki Kunou had not changed. If it were his fate to continue on with his life, then he would do it with all of the pride he possessed. For missing a leg or no, his spirit was still the same as before. He was still better than everyone else.
Kodachi was uncertain at her brotherís behavior at first. What little denial in his features had disappeared when he had ordered her away. Most surprising was that it seemed he was in little danger from himself. Perhaps it would be best to accede to his demands that one time. After all, he was missing a leg, and driving that point home by beating him up would be unwise.
"I shall be next to my Mousse." She indicated a bed not far away. "If you require my assistance, I will help you."
That was as close to obedience as he had ever seen from his sister. He nodded in response and asked her to pull the white cloth dividers around his bed so as to maintain some level of privacy. He had much to consider, and it would best be done alone.
Kodachiís concerns about her brother were completely forgotten when she saw that Mousse had at last regained consciousness. "Mousse-sama!" she began crying as she jumped onto his prone form. He just looked at her, confused.
"What did I miss?"
"Nothing important, Mousse. Just so long as youíre all right. Thatís all I care about," she continued sobbing into his arms, much to his embarrassment.
"Can I have some aspirin? I have a splitting headache." From the moment he awoke an intense migraine, the worst he had ever suffered in his entire life, had afflicted him. For a while he had thought his head was about to burst.
She quickly gave him several tablets from a nearby bottle, and rested in his arms as he eventually went back to sleep. She was quick to note that, for a change, he had not given a word of protest. Actually, he had seemed quite pleased that she would want to do that with him, even going so far as to embrace her while she rested with him. The feeling of being held by the man she loved was far greater than she had ever believed it would be.
Ranma sat up bolt upright from his bed, bathed in sweat from a nightmare that he could only remember the edges of. As before, upon awakening, there was only one thing on his mind.
"Where…?" He stopped as his hand fell on a warm figure next to him. By the dim moonlight that streamed in from the narrow porthole he could tell who his companion was. Even if the room were pitch black he would have sensed it. Instinctively he would be able to know her, even without seeing her. There was no way to explain it, but it was true all the same.
Shampooís own eyes fluttered open in direct contrast to his panic-stricken awakening. Softly her gaze fell on his quickly relaxing features. "You look tired."
"Same goes for you." For some odd reason a smile found its way to his lips. He had never smiled simply because he had set eyes upon her. At least not before. It just seemed so… mushy. And he was not into all that girl-talk kind of stuff.
He actually managed to chide himself for that attitude. Shampoo had been dead. He shuddered as he remembered cradling her smashed form in his hands, but he had done it. Somehow, by some miracle he had brought her back to life. A little sentimentality wouldnít be uncalled for. Not with what they had been through. Besides, at the moment, there was no way he was going to let her out of his sight. Not now. Not for any longer than he had to.
He hadnít even noticed his hand was stroking her face. It was operating on its own, but still it felt good to have the soft feel of her skin in his hand. It already seemed a million years ago that he had been afraid he would never touch her again. But he was touching her, thanks to all the gods he was touching her.
Her own hand rose in response and gently caressed his, not hindering his movement in the slightest. It was almost an encouraging gesture, urging him to continue his ministrations. The way her eyes almost seemed to glow in the dark, a slight reflection from the moonlight, made his heart surge with unfamiliar feelings. Not bad feelings, quite the opposite; he found himself enjoying them all the more. Life seemed inexplicably better somehow.
Maybe acting romantic once in a while was all right. Just so long as no else caught him acting so foolishly around her, only in private. That was it. It was okay to do it alone, and deny such behavior if anyone was stupid enough to confront him about it.
With pride out of the way, he at last managed to fully enjoy acting on his impulses. Shampoo found herself drawn in to his embrace. His soft warmness seemed to fill her, and she snuggled more closely in his grasp. How she wished the feelings she experienced would never end. If only they could remain where they were, as they were, forever. All would be right with the world.
"What do you remember about what happened on the mountain?"
He thought about that. "I remember it, but towards the end it was almost sort of like a dream. I remember you lying there. And there was…" he trailed off. There were no words that he knew that could possibly express the pain that he had felt. "Afterwards, I knew I needed to bring you back no matter what. No matter what," he softly repeated.
"I know. I felt the same way about returning to you. Nothing would stop me either. Nothing." She was silent a few moments before continuing. "I remember talking with an odd man while I was dead. He was Death."
"Thereís no reason to be afraid. I beat him. He ainít going to get you." Ranmaís voice dropped to the quietest of whispers. "Iíll never let him get you."
She smiled at that quiet, yet bold statement. "I was never afraid. I mean that. It was something else I felt. Emptiness, I think. That made me feel worse than any fear. I donít want to ever feel that empty again. I couldnít take it."
"Yeah," Ranma agreed. "Me neither. Never again."
"Never again?" She moved a little so she was looking directly into his eyes once more.
He pulled her in more tightly against his body. "Never ever, ever again."
"Good." She said simply, and continued enjoying his warmth. Nothing more needed to be said. That single word was enough. She snuggled in more closely to his warm body. He felt so good. "Iím too tired to do anything tonight."
Of course, he had thought Ďdo anythingí meant Ďgrab something to eat since he was hungry.í Shampooís definition was somewhat more risquť.
Each of them still had a long way to go.
"Are you sure you should go alone?"
Ranma sighed, staring at the risen sun. He didnít want to go alone. Some part of him was desperately afraid to allow Shampoo out of his sight, as though all that had happened was nothing but a dream, and that to let her go would end it and force him to wake up, still on top of that mountain with her corp…
No! He fought back the fear. It was stupid and irrational. He had brought her back from the dead, as impossible as it sounded. It was real. All of it was! And he would not allow himself to be ruled by fear. "I have to do it alone. If you were there it would just make things worse." A lot worse. Even now there were still some things he needed to do alone.
"Okay." Now that Shampoo thought about it, there was probably someone she needed to talk to alone as well. Things might be said that Ranma would not understand. It was best to keep it to herself, and not concern him with the past. Better for both of them, to be sure.
Ranma found himself even more reluctant to approach Akaneís door this time around. It had been bad enough the first time when he had semi-good news to tell her about needing time to decide between her and Shampoo. However, he had now made a choice. The right choice.
So why did it still feel like someone had thrust a knife into his heart?
All too soon he found himself in front of her door. For the first time in his life he had wished to have Ryougaís sense of direction. Then he would never have found her room. He could have wandered the ship for days, weeks if he wanted too. He could have…
…been away from Shampoo for all of that time.
And since when had everything revolved around her? He didnít need to be around her all of the time. He wasnít reliant on any one person. He could stand on his own two feet, a man among men. The mantra of his life.
He shook his head. All of the posturing was for nothing. Deep down inside he could still feel the echoes of hollowness that had accompanied Shampooís death, though thankfully the feeling was blunted. Yes, it had made him feel afraid, not that he would admit it to anyone. So fine, he wanted to be around her and was in love with her. Everything that accompanied accepting that admission was simply going to take some getting used to. He would adapt like he always did. With a new resolve he raised his hand to Akaneís door.
And it was still there five minutes later.
He cursed himself for his spinelessness. No matter what he said it was going to hurt her, and sneaking off in the middle of the night without saying a word was not an acceptable solution. It was the sort of thing his old man would have done. He was better than that.
The gentle sound of his knuckles on wood sounded like a cry of doom.
He listened to the sound of movement in the room. It only occurred to him now that Akane might not have been there. But she was there, thankfully. Unfortunately.
"Who is it?" Her voice contained none of the energy it usually did. It was his fault. It was all his fault. He should have known a long time ago where his heart was. He should never have strung her along, however unintentionally, as he had done. Heó
"Who is it?" she repeated once more.
"Itís me." The words echoed painfully to his ears. That was a mistake. He should have waited, fled while she didnít know who was there. Now he was trapped.
There was no answer to his response, and after several moments he asked if he could come in.
"NO!!!" was the tearful reply. And he could hear those tears, the soft sobbing in her voice. Tears of his own welled up in his eyes as he desperately fought them off. It had to be done, he kept telling himself. It had to be done.
"We need to talk."
"There isnít anything to say!" The sounds of sobbing were stronger now. It was almost enough to make Ranma run, and maybe before what had happened on the top of the mountain he might have done it to avoid his own pain, but not now. If he could command near infinite power, then he could force himself to tell Akane the truth. And the words had to pass from his lips.
"Please let me in."
"NO!!! Stay out!"
He couldnít bring himself to break the door down. Having it as a barrier between them would have to suffice. "Iím sorry, Akane. Iím so, so sorry. I never wanted to hurt you. If there was any way I could change that, I would. But there isnít. Iím… Iím sorry."
"I know." That was almost whispered from directly in front of Ranma. He understood that she must have been pressed right against the door to sound so close. She needed a barrier now too, even though part of her wanted to be close to him as well. He realized that, in a way, it was probably symbolic, though exactly how Ranma couldnít say.
"I donít know what to tell you." The softness in his voice now matched hers. They were so quiet, yet each could hear the other clearly. He could make out her rasping breaths as she tried to control her own voice, just as he did. Yet each failed still.
"You donít need to say anything." He could almost hear the tears fall as she said that. Tears that matched his own. Tears that he would no longer stave off. He would cry for her. He could still do that. He owed her that much, at least.
"I forgive you," she said almost inaudibly. "I forgive you for everything. Go."
"Let me see you just oncó"
"No!" she almost screamed. "Just leave me! I understand. I know you love her. I know it and I love you enough to let go, Ranma Saotome. Do you understand that? Iím letting you go. Our engagement is off. Go to her. Have a good life, but please go now. You canít do anything but hurt me anymore. At least for now."
Tears poured almost as freely as they had on the mountain, though they lacked the ferocity that they possessed on that distant peak. His fingertips brushed along the door, feeling where he envisioned her head rested against it. "I understand. I wonít bother you anymore." No other words came to him, though he knew there was still so much more left unsaid. But not now. Maybe never. He would have to live with that.
As he turned to go, he took one last look at the door, and through it to the girl he was leaving behind. "Maybe in a few years?"
"Maybe." He could tell she was still leaning against the door. Perhaps it would be a long time before she moved from it, but whatever course she took, he realized he was no longer a part of it.
Without another word he turned to go. Shutting the door on a part of his life that he would never be able to return to again.
Kasumi still felt exhausted as she lay on her bed. The night before it had taken a great deal of energy, but she was fairly certain she had done the technique correctly and that Cologneís life energy was bolstered, at least for a little while. If Kasumi reinforced the weave almost every day she was certain the elderís life could be extended for at least a few more years. A few, perhaps. Not enough though. There could never be enough.
It really was most peculiar, although she was grateful all the same, that she could do that sort of thing. When Cologne had asked her where she had learned the technique, and how she managed such nearly impossible control, all Kasumi could respond with was, Ďit seemed like it was the right thing to do.í She was sure her father had never taught anything like that to her. She wasnít certain where she could have learned anything like that at all. But still, she knew it and was thankful for it. Too bad it was so exhausting, though.
She was about to get up on her own when there was a knock on the door. She told her visitor to enter, and all tiredness passed as she saw whom it was.
"Shampoo!" she fairly screamed as she almost flew across the room and embraced her friend in a hug. Even though Kasumi had known she was all right it was still a relief to see the Amazon up and about.
Shampooís reaction was somewhat different. When she returned the embrace it was with a long hard cry. Kasumi was left momentarily confused by the reaction. "Why are you crying?"
"I d… didnít want to hurt you!" she continued her wailing.
Kasumi forced Shampoo out of the grip and examined her more closely. "Whatever do you mean?"
"I love Ranma! Iím sorry!" Shampoo at last managed to stop crying, though the sniffling continued.
Now Kasumi was truly confused. "Why on earth would you be sorry you love Ranma?"
"Because that means I canít love you that way too." She almost began crying again.
Kasumi still seemed mystified. "Thatís all right. Iím happy."
Shampoo stopped crying, almost in total shock. How could Kasumi be so passive about everything? "What do you mean, ĎIím happyí?"
Kasumi just seemed to smile back, though perhaps not as easily as she usually did. "Youíre happy with Ranma, I can see it in your face. You have no idea of how glad that makes me feel."
"But what about you?"
"What about me?" Kasumi said curiously.
"I thought you loved me, when you said what you did before I left for Mount Phoenix."
"I do." Kasumi still did not quite grasp what Shampoo meant.
"Then why arenít you sad?"
Kasumi shook her head. "Oh, Shampoo. When I said that thing about becoming a man and us being together, it was only for your protection. I do love you, donít doubt that, but Iíve always wanted what would make you most happy. And I can tell just by looking at you that itís Ranma. Just because you love him, doesnít mean you donít care about me too."
Shampoo looked at her softly. She had expected far more disappointment from her friend. How could she be so forgiving? "But arenít you sad?"
"Of course not," she said happily. "I have a wonderful family. A wonderful friend like you. Everyone is healthy, even if Akaneís brokenhearted. Iíll try to help her as best as I can. I donít know why I wouldnít be happy."
"Maybe," Shampoo began. "Maybe you want someone in your life too."
Kasumi considered that. "Iím sure someday Iíll have someone myself. Iíll know when I find them. Until then, I can enjoy the love I receive from everyone else, just like I always have. Iím quite pleased with everything, especially when compared to almost losing you." She held Shampooís hand in her own, worry now etched in her face. "I was so afraid of what was happening at that mountain. If you hadnít come back I donít know what I would have done. So if it seems Iím a bit light-hearted about this, itís because I know how close I came to really losing everything. Compared to that, this really isnít all that much. Iím really very grateful things have turned out the way they did."
Shampoo seemed to brighten at that. She had never dared hoped for such forgiveness, even from Kasumi. "You arenít unhappy then?"
"Not being at maximum happiness does not make me unhappy, so no," Kasumi explained softly, then gave Shampoo a soft look. "Do you love me?"
"Always and forever," she answered softly.
"I love you too, always and forever. As long as we have that, thatís all that matters." Kasumi embraced Shampoo once more, and this time the hug was much more pleasant for both of them.
It was a little later that Ranma and Shampoo returned to their new quarters, coincidentally arriving at the same time. Shampoo took one look into Ranmaís eyes and knew whom he had gone to see first.
"Do you want to talk about it?"
Ranma shook his head. It was all still too fresh. Only time would make the hurting stop, a long time, and there was nothing he could do about it until then. But the pain had to be fought through; there was still much to be done. However, it would wait for a while.
"We have inflicted pain on those we care for," Shampoo said, her voice sounding distant.
Ranma felt the memory of his Ďvowsí fill him with that statement. Yes. He had. Damn him, but he had done exactly that! But it had to be done. The sole consolation he had was reminding himself of what else he had almost lost. He wrapped an arm around Shampoo as both went back to rest some more, the mark of their ordeal still plaguing them.
"We might be able to cure both of your conditions."
Ranma shrugged at that. Cologne had dropped by after they had gotten a little more sleep. He still didnít really trust the old ghoul, in spite of what she had done for them. Besides, he had gotten his hopes up for cures before, and every time his hopes ended up dashed. And with Jusenkyou destroyed…
"This might be our last chance, huh?"
Cologne nodded. "Yes. There shouldnít be any problems. Only Silk and the Guide know of this. So long as you both remain silent, I canít see anything going wrong."
The two gave a look to her that said, ĎDoom us, why donít youí, then afforded glances at one another. It did sound easy. Too easy. Nothing easy ever worked out. If one made a plan for crossing the street, usually something went wrong. And to have something as important as the last chance at a cure, the last sure thing that would allow Shampoo to go back to her people instead of being hunted down, well, both couldnít help but feel scared at that idea.
"Letís cross our fingers," Shampoo said.
"Yeah." Ranma could feel his guts knot up at the idea of losing another chance at a cure, but at the same time some part of him couldnít help but get his hopes up. To admit his love and to never turn into a girl again, it seemed too good to be true.
Cologne excused herself, saying something in Chinese to Shampoo that made her blush. Ranma waited until the elder had gone before asking about the exchange.
"Itís nothing you need to worry about."
The smile she gave had the exact opposite effect of what she had wanted. Now he was worried. "Whatís that supposed to mean?" That got him a wider smile that put him further on edge.
"Iím still very tired from our ordeal. Time for other things later."
"What other things?" Ranmaís bewilderment was starting to overwhelm him. Shampoo was becoming more confusing instead of less. That wasnít supposed to happen when you loved someone. They were supposed to be easier to understand. That was the way it worked. Ranma wondered if maybe he should ask his father about how he came to understand his mother.
Instead of verbally answering, she sauntered to the shower, leaving the door open behind her. Warning senses began blaring, telling Ranma it was time to visit the other set of people that he needed to explain things to. He chose not to bother Shampoo and silently left the room, just missing the Ďwhy donít you come in and wash my back? Iím not too tired for that,í question that Shampoo gave.
When she heard no response, she exited the shower and saw the empty room. With great restraint she refrained from smashing anything out of frustration. Ranma was still an enigma to her, and he was getting worse instead of better. At the moment he was easily the most confusing male she had ever met. By far the most, and if things didnít start becoming clearer soon, she was going to pull her hair out by its roots in frustration. Perhaps she needed to talk to someone about men.
Shampoo returned to her room, furious at her great grandmother and Silk. All she had done was ask them that since they were older, wiser, and had more dealings with men, how she could understand males like they did. The duo looked at one another, and then they LAUGHED at her! They didnít even have decency to stop laughing, doing it for five minutes straight until Silk nearly collapsed from lack of oxygen. Shampoo left them rather than have her pride trampled on further. If they wanted to keep it secret, fine! Sheíd figure it out on her own.
It was two hours later that Ranma returned to the room, the look on his face precluding any further attempts at deciphering the male mind. "What happened?"
"Donít ask!" he growled.
She knew whom he had gone to speak with now. She could understand him not wanting to talk with her about Akane. It was difficult for Shampoo to admit even the obvious, but she acknowledged she would be biased about any discussion concerning her former rival. But as to the other half of the problem, and from her point of view, the more difficult obstacle now, that she needed to know.
A sympathetic hand fell on his shoulder. She wanted to share this pain, especially since the situation concerned her as well. "Tell me what your parents said."
A few days before he would have refused the request, but now he inexplicably felt the need to share. "They wonít budge. Especially those two idiot fathers. My mother said sheíd follow Popís lead, but him and Mr. Tendo are going on like nothing happened. They said that if I wonít marry Akane then I have to marry Kasumi or," he shuddered as he forced himself to say it. "Nabiki. Man, even saying that name makes my skin crawl."
"Just ignore it then. They canít force you to marry someone."
Ranma shook his head. "I canít have this hanging over my head. I donít want to alienate Mom, or even Pop." He considered that for a moment. "Though maybe I could live with doing that to Pop if I had to. Nah. I gotta figure out a way to get them to give up their stupid promise. They know damn well Iím not interested in either of the girls that way, and they ainít interested in me either. Heck, I think Kasumiíd sooner marry you than me."
Shampoo gave out a laugh that was far too nervous; a laugh Ranma was too distracted to notice.
"The way I figure it, weíll get cured tomorrow and Iíll try talking to them again. Maybe theyíll have changed their minds by then." There wasnít an ounce of hope in his voice.
"Weíll think of something," she assured him.
He gently squeezed her hand, then removed it from his shoulder and held it in his own. He gazed deeply into her eyes, and she found herself drowning in his blue orbs. By the gods he could still make her heart race with just a glance. She wondered if the most dangerous thing about Ranma wasnít his charm.
"Shampoo," he said softly as he drew his face closer to hers.
"Yes," she responded huskily, preparing her lips for the inevitable.
"Yes?" she said seductively, her face drawing closer to his.
"I think Iím hungry. Letís get something to eat."
"Ranma, you are still the master of the Saotome School of Ruining a Mood at Any Given Time."
Ranma released her hand and scowled. "And just what is that supposed to mean?"
"It means itís time to eat." She grabbed his hand and led him to the mess.
It was in the early hours of the morning that the two departed the ship for the Guideís hut, not informing anyone of where they were going. It was there they were supposed to meet the Guide and get the cure that they so desperately sought. The way to Jusenkyou should have been clear of any dangers. Already each of them was practically shaking with anticipation for what was about to occur.
"Do you think itís going to work?" Shampoo was fearful of allowing her hopes to get up. She had been unable to get any rest the night before, which made her already weakened condition even worse. All she could think about was a chance at a cure. Was her great grandmother correct? If there was some sort of destiny to fulfill, had she somehow done it on the mountain, even if she was unaware of exactly what it was? And even if she did, with Jusenkyou destroyed, would a cure now work?
And what about Ranma? If he were cursed for the same reason, would he at last have the cure he so desperately wanted? She wanted him cured. Not for her sake, she loved either of his forms without reservations, but for his. He still wanted a cure in spite of any acceptance of the curse he had undergone. She could see it in his eyes whenever she said the word Ďcureí. Like her, he tried shielding his hope beneath the disappointment in all of the other failed attempts at removing the curse. However, hope still tried to take hold of both of them, force them to wish and raise their expectations for perhaps the last time.
"If this works, Iím burning all of those damn dresses I picked up when I thought I was a girl," he growled.
Shampoo remained silent about how attractive he actually appeared in them. That was not the sort of flattery he would want to hear. "If it works, Iím going to splash myself with cold water until I look like a prune."
"Yeah," Ranma agreed. "Iím going to stand out in the damn rain and just laugh and laugh."
Shampoo looked up to the sky and held out her hand. Ranma stared at her curiously. "Why are you doing that?"
She remained silent, leaving Ranma wondering exactly what was going on with her until he saw the white object fall into her palm, melting almost instantly.
"Itís only early fall and it ainít nowhere near cold enough to snow."
Shampoo nodded her head in agreement. "Itís never snowed this early in the year. And youíre right about theó" she was cut off as an icy wind blew across them.
"Okay, maybe it is cold enough," Ranma began chattering as he noticed that the snow continued to fall.
Shampoo kept looking quizzically at the sky. "You donít suppose this has anything to do with what you did at the mountain?"
"Of course not! I was trying to save you, not get ready for the ski season. This is some kind of natural phenomenon or something. This ainít my fault."
Shampoo accepted the answer as the two set off once more. Within minutes, a light carpet of snow covered the ground, falling too quickly to be melted by the still warm ground. Both figures shivered in the uncomfortable cold, trying to hurry to the Guideís cabin. Hopefully heíd have a fire or something going. It wasnít cold enough to be fatal, but it was unpleasant and made Ranma wish he had at least brought a jacket.
After they had traveled a few more miles, Ranma spoke up. "Does this place feel different to you?"
"Yes." Shampoo nodded her head. "I donít know what, but it does feel different. Almost like thereís something missing."
They continued onward, at last cresting a hill, and saw the raw devastation before them. When Silk had described Jusenkyou as being destroyed, they had each assumed that a handful of pools had been demolished and that the place was basically the same as when they had left it lo those many months ago. Nothing could have been further from the truth. The earth itself had been rent as though something huge had been dug out from an earthen grave. Well over three quarters of the pools had been destroyed outright, a broken bamboo pole sticking out from the upturned earth here and there. The remaining springs appeared unchanged, save for the fact most of the unburied poles had been knocked over and now laid upon one another in a disorderly mess.
Shampoo nodded in agreement. The air of the place was different now. Where once there had been a sort of miasma about the springs, now there was nothing, almost as though the entire place were dead.
As if to show them how right they were, a heron landed in one of the springs and began drinking from it, unaffected by any changes. All that remained was the same bird that had been there before.
"It could be the Spring of Drowned Heron," Shampoo offered, but neither believed it for a moment.
"Our last chance," Ranma said softly to himself as the two headed towards the nearby tiny hut where the Guide and Plum lived. Ranma wondered idly if the Guide was out of work now, and what he would do with himself once it became obvious Jusenkyou was destroyed for good.
The snow at last stopped as they approached the hut. The Guide emerged from the shack as the last snowflake fell to the ground. He waved pleasantly at them and indicated they go inside, where he disappeared before they got there.
Ranma and Shampoo came up to the door and paused. Each stared at one another, mutual looks of concern on each of their faces.
"This is it."
"Yep," Ranma agreed. "A cure. At last."
An uneasy silence was suddenly before them, each too fearful to open the door and take the next step to the final solution to their problems.
"Ranma," Shampoo suddenly burst out. "I donít care if youíre cursed!"
"Same goes for me," he assured her. With that out of the way, both laid a single hand on the door and pushed it inward.
Upon entering they saw that there was indeed a fire going on the far side of the room, but that was not what had captured their attention. There were two small barrels in the middle of the room. On one was labeled ĎNanniichuan.í On the other, ĎNyanniichuan.í
The Guide gave them a wide smile. "Here it is, sir and madam. The water you want to make you whole. Now you no more have to worry about changing with your curses. Is the cure you wanted." He stepped forward and to the side a couple of paces, allowing them a clear path, and pointed to the barrels.
They looked at one another again, mutual smiles blossoming on each of their faces. No one had attacked them. No one had gotten there first and used the cursed waters. There wasnít a pack of Amazons waiting for them. No one had stolen the water and held it for ransom. The barrels were just sitting there, waiting for them. Each barrel was clearly marked and they were the correct ones as well. It appeared everything had gone as it should have. Perhaps for the first time in close to a year things finally appeared to be in their favor.
They nodded to one another, hope at last being given free reign. They moved as one and each went to the barrel they wanted. Synchronized, they each took the tops off of their small barrels and peered inside. Clear water was indeed all that each contained. There was only one more thing left.
"It looks like this is it," Ranma said.
Shampoo nodded. "Letís use them quick, before something bad happens."
"Right," Ranma agreed.
Each one held their respective barrels over their heads, and with one last glance at one another, dumped the water over their heads.
Ranma-chan stared in shock at the black-haired boy before her.
Shampoo-kun stared in shock at the red-haired girl before him.
"It didnít work!" Ranma-chanís voice took on an almost wailing quality. She had been so certain she had at last found a cure, but to be denied release from her curse once more, when she had been so cloó
A blow from a metal object struck Ranma-chan hard in the back of her skull, sending her to the floor instantly. Her head made a loud thump as it bounced off of the floor as she hit. Just barely she heard the cry of pain from Shampoo-kun as his form landed next to hers a moment later. Ranma-chan was just bringing her head around to focus on the attacker when the long metal rod connected with the front of her face, stunning her once again. She was just barely aware of the sound of several other dull thuds as she got on her hands and knees, trying to regain a vertical base. It was while she was in that position that a foot caught her directly in the solar plexus, winding her. There was no respite as she felt herself picked up by a pair of hands and lifted off of the ground. She had just managed to get a hand on her opponents wrist when she found her body tossed hard into a far wall, hurting her even worse than before.
It shouldnít have been that way; she knew it deep down inside, but bringing back Shampoo had taken everything out of her. Even with the two days of rest it had been nowhere near enough to regain her chi levels or her tremendous endurance. She was next to helpless from the onslaught of the attacker, his blows having a far greater effect than they should have. Still, her spirit was intact, and she brought her head up to see her assailant. What she saw stunned her.
It was the Jusenkyou Guide himself.
She stared at him in disbelief once more. He held a long metal pry bar, not a designed weapon but a makeshift one, in his hand and lashed out at the still prone Shampoo-kun. A blow connected with the small of his back as the youth cried out in agony. The Guide tossed the bar aside and effortlessly picked up Shampoo-kun. The man took a moment to spit into the Amazonís face before throwing him into a far wall.
Rage filled Ranma-chan as she at last regained her footing. "Leave her alone!" She found enough strength to stagger forward towards him.
The Guide looked at Ranma-chan and gave a wide smile once more. A far more malevolent one than what he had given at the door. "Oh, honored sir, it seem the magic water no work on you. Too bad."
"Why are you doing this?" she said as she warily circled her opponent. Neither she nor Shampoo had done anything to the Guide. Ever. Could it have been some attempt at revenge for the destruction of Jusenkyou, even though they had had nothing to do with it?
"You mean you not figure it out, honored sir?" The smile broadened.
"Tell me!" Ranma-chan snarled as she prepared to leap at her opponent.
"If you insist."
Ranma-chanís eyes widened. The Guideís voice had changed from the singsong pidgin it usually spoke to a deeper baritone that spoke with flawless Japanese. But the worst part was the new voice itself. It couldnít be!
The muscles on the Guideís face seemed to contort. Suddenly his whole form shifted as he grew nearly a foot in height. The short dumpy man was replaced, enlarged to that of an enormous man with a massively muscled chest and huge arms and legs, while his features took on an all too familiar cast.
To be continued.
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