A Bishoujo Senshi Sailor Moon / Ranma ½ crossover story
by Jeffrey Vasquez
Disclaimer: Based on the series Bishoujo Senshi Sailor Moon. All characters copyrighted by Naoko Takeuchi, Toei Animation, and Kodansha. The characters of Ranma ½ are the express property of the most benevolent queen of comedy, her Highness, the revered Rumiko Takahashi and Shogakukan. I am in no way claiming or even pretending to own these characters. The rest belong to me.
What has gone before: Nabiki, in hope of lifting her spirits, goes to visit a friend. On her way home from Tanoshii's Ice Cream Shop, she is abducted by a group of rather strange people. Ami is embarrassed by her mother, and must endure her friends gossiping about the nice boy that saved her. Ranma arrives at his mother's home and discovers that she didn't know about Akane's death, despite assurances from Genma. Nodoka invites her best friend, one Dr. Yuriko Mizuno, over to ask for her advice while Ranma works off some of his anger in the dojo. The Musk are attacked and driven from their ancestral home. Rei's grandfather reveals that he knows more about what's going on than everyone thinks. Yuriko Mizuno comes up with a "great plan" to help her baby girl get a life.
Monday: Early Morning
"Mint. Lime. Take point. Caraway, take Basil and Paprika with you and bring up the rear." Herb's clear voice called out through the misting rain to his subjects, inspiring them into action. Mint and Lime, Herb's most trusted companions, immediately began a silent dash into the trees that surrounded their makeshift staging area. The monarch-in-exile gathered the magical treasures of his people and followed them. Behind him straggled the two-thousand-some-odd refugees of the fallen Musk Dynasty.
Warriors — men that had been boys the day before — made up the majority of the force; well over four-fifths, to be exact. They ranged in age from eight to nineteen, with a few older veterans. The rest constituted a melting pot of goodsmakers and farmers, along with their women. Most of the children and elders had been slaughtered in the flight. To Herb, the worst sound in the world was a mother crying for her dead children.
His small empire had consisted of well over nine thousand souls. All were dead now, save for this sorry force.
The realization of just how easily and how quickly they had been overrun sickened Herb. He felt the great loss of his people, and the dishonor of that loss weighed heavily on the boy-king's shoulders.
Their flight had been a nightmare, as the enemy descended on Herb's palace in force. His entire guard — save for Lime and Mint — had sacrificed themselves for the sake of the few refugees that had made it to Herb in time. The people had made it to their new monarch, but unfortunately the safety that they expected to find was not to be had. The enemy walked through the walls as if they weren't there, and chaos ensued. There was death at every angle, and at the head of it all was one man.
The mighty Herb, faced with the imminent destruction of his people, had called upon his heritage and destroyed a hefty amount of the castle's foundation to create an escape route large enough for what remained of his subjects. He had quickly led their flight out of his beloved homeland and into the stark wilderness. They had walked all night, and lost more of their number to the beasts that harrowed their escape.
Herb knew of only one place that they might be safe, but that refuge came with a great cost. Yet, as the young ruler looked out over his people, it wasn't hard to swallow his pride. And if he could do it, so could his subjects.
He didn't want to think about the internal strife that his decision was going to create. Herb simply hoped that his subjects would look beyond the past and see that they had only one chance to survive the week. He didn't relish the thought of working with the Amazons, but Mount Phoenix was too far away, and the Heshupet to the north had long since closed their borders to the rest of the world with their potent magic; thus Shangri-La was no option for them. They needed allies, and that meant dealing with their old enemy.
It was with a sober heart that he pushed through the wet undergrowth. In his mourning, he felt the rain was thoroughly appropriate weather for the occasion.
A young boy fell, exhausted, to the muddy path behind him, causing Herb to turn with his burden and investigate. Little Pepper had fallen asleep as he had walked, and now lay insensate on the muddy trail. Herb didn't hesitate; he simply knelt and lifted the boy into his arms.
Pepper had turned eight the day before yesterday and had been presented before his king for admittance into the warrior's school. Herb had looked fondly at the fiery determination in the boy's eyes and had given his royal blessing.
When the evacuation began Pepper had attached himself to his liege's side and would not budge. Lime had tried to return him to the other children, but got stuck with the boy's little knife for his troubles. Herb had asked him what he was doing, and received a proud, "Protecting my King!" as the boy's response. Herb had smiled grimly and acquiesced to Pepper's unsolicited offer.
Now that he held the dark-haired boy, he silently wondered what madness had overcome him. The white highlights in Pepper's hair had come from his mother, whose exotic black and white feathers had captivated the boy's father. After bathing the beautiful bird in the Spring of Drowned Girl, Pepper's father had married his bride, and three years later, Pepper had come. Herb had made it a point to learn the story of as many refugees as possible. The more faces that he knew, the harder he could fight. They were his family, and a man would fight death itself to protect his family.
So why did he insist on bringing a child to the very heart of danger? Herb's father had taught him that any battle could be won by crushing the opposition's leadership. "A snake without its head," he had said, "will flail about mindlessly. It is dead, but refuses to act like it."
His father's palace had been among the first to fall.
The displaced monarch shook his wet head. By bringing Pepper to the forefront, he had given himself another reminder. A reminder that he wasn't dead, and neither were his people. Pepper was a living reminder of what he was fighting for.
Yes, the boy would be in danger of attack, but Herb would make sure that all those who dared threaten the boy would die before Pepper came to harm. The resolve in his face matched the burning fire in his heart. He would overcome this enemy like he did those who had reared up before him in the past. Swiftly, efficiently, and without mercy.
The dark mists closed around Herb and swallowed him and his people in a chilling sense of foreboding. It was as if history was trying to claim an empire that was dead, but refused to acknowledge its fate.
Nabiki groaned and propped herself up on her elbows. Her mouth felt cottony and her muscles ached; it felt that she had slept on the floor for a week. Someone had been nice enough to supply her with a pillow roll and a blanket, but not much else in the way of company or comfort.
Darkness surrounded her, rendering her large brown eyes useless. She had no idea where she was, but did her best not to panic in spite of how unnerved she felt. What would panic bring her? A knot in her stomach and a headache, both of which she didn't need at the moment. What she did need was information. Knowledge was power, and any power that she could have over her captors was a good thing.
Her mind immediately began to catalogue everything: sensations, smells, textures, and sounds. The last thing that she remembered was falling into Yoshitsune's arms, but everything after was a blank.
On a positive note, she didn't feel sore in any of the suspect places, which meant that tall-dark-and-handsome hadn't taken liberties. She hadn't expected him to; one of the others perhaps, but not him. He had felt safe.
It was an odd thing to say about someone that had kidnapped her, but it was the truth.
The darkness that surrounded her couldn't keep the damp air at bay, and when Nabiki ran her hand through her short brown hair, it came back wet. She was amazed at how comfortable the environment felt. She was neither cold nor terribly hot, the temperature was just right. A drip echoed loudly throughout the obscurity surrounding her, giving a very subterranean feel to the space. Still, the room, if she could call it that, was relaxing. She couldn't help but feel a little spooked by the whole ordeal, but for the most part, she felt warm and secure, which was a pleasant change from the tense, cold night air that she had been walking in when this adventure began.
Spring had been late in coming this year, and the mild, humid warmth was just what the doctor ordered for frayed nerves, but it didn't fully appease Nabiki. She was still in an unknown place, and for all that she knew, she was still in danger.
What a time for some deranged martial artists to come calling! Ranma was gone and there was no way that he could rescue her. It figured.
She should have seen this whole thing coming.
Well, there was no use in crying over spilt milk. She needed to try and gather as much information about her environment as possible before bumbling about. Maybe it would give her a better understanding of her captors as well. She closed her eyes in order to organize the information that her perceptions were feeding her.
First she needed to know if she was truly alone.
"Hey! Is anyone here?" Her voice echoed loudly around her, and was soon followed by the sound of leaves rustling above her head. An abrupt feeling of wrongness filled her… as if she had disrupted something sacred. She imagined that yelling and screaming while visiting a temple or a cathedral would have produced the same effect. This quiet, dark place was special, and she had disturbed the peace here.
Nabiki silenced herself and waited for the inevitable reprimand, but it never came. She quieted her mind and tried to reclaim the peace of her surroundings. The place didn't smell like the dampness of a cave; rather, it had a tangy pine scent. She could easily imagine herself surrounded by tall fir trees in spite of the dampness. She stretched out her fingers to gain a tactile picture of the floor.
She had expected to be greeted by a cool stone surface; instead, the texture beyond the softness of her blankets reminded her more of wood than anything else. It was warm and hard beneath her fingers, and felt very smooth, but it lacked the unforgiving, lifeless nature of stone. She couldn't really explain the difference, but she knew that it existed.
She strained her hearing to try and filter the surrounding sounds. There was nothing for a long period of time, save for the hushed reverence of the dripping water. She relaxed herself fully, focusing on her breathing and then moving outward, past the dripping water and into… something more. She heard air flowing, wind-like, somewhere to her left. It was very faint, but there. She focused on the wind, moving with its passage. Over and through an invisible landscape she flowed, dancing on wings that she knew she did not possess. Time seemed to fall away beneath her as she merged with the wind, becoming the zephyr, rather than a companion to it.
That's when she heard the voice.
It was feminine and breathtakingly beautiful, humming in time with the breeze. No, that wasn't right; it wasn't in time with the breeze. It was the breeze. The single voice echoed, becoming two. The two grew to become a quartet, and then again to become an octet. Each voice became distinctly unique, yet combined added a resounding whale-like quality to the whole chorus. The wind was gone and she found herself beneath the sea, swimming amidst the sounds of the voices.
Happiness pervaded her, followed by wariness and suspicion in turn. More emotions rose and fell in the blackness, and she rode them as if they were the swelling and ebbing tide of the sea. She added her own voice to theirs, joining the chorus that enveloped her.
How could she deny it? The invitation was too compelling.
Her alto mixed with someone's bass, intertwining and frolicking in an elegant display. A rich baritone joined and the bass muted itself, melding into the background while the baritone caressed her softly. Her voice moved in perfect symmetry with the baritone, filling the gaps where it would start to falter. It was the most beautiful experience that she had ever had the privilege of taking part in.
She thought she heard voices in the music; they were concerned and filled with fear. But somewhere far away another baritone quietly sang. Separate, yet unified. This voice was a beacon for the rest, giving them hope and strength in amidst the darkness. Yet it was terribly sad for some reason. The sadness threatened to drown out this buried optimism. Her voice rose to that hope, nurturing it, protecting it, magnifying it. Other voices merged, until thousands sang out the crescendo in a majestic chorus. The bass thrummed in her heart, the baritones held her up and she bound them together.
The chorus softened and the bass quieted until the only voices left were the distant baritone and hers. The distant voice quieted, allowing the sounds of the sea to swallow it and comfort her. The love that she felt was as deep as the ocean and growing deeper. It succored her and drew her in.
She didn't ever want to leave.
**Return to us, Nabiki.** The voice was light. Not in terms of weight, but in terms of energy. It was bright, but not blinding. It was warm and inviting too, but not as comforting as the love she felt. **Please Nabiki. We need you. Return to us.**
Perhaps it was the desperation in the voice that made her turn away from the love; perhaps it was her own fear. Whichever it was, Nabiki's heart ached because of it. She moved with the voice, away from the unconditional love, back toward the other voices.
Nabiki was overwhelmed by the emotions in the voices. Wonder, disbelief, snide criticism, exasperation, pride, concern, and a spark of love flowed around her. Her brain felt like fried oatmeal, which made just about everything fuzzy, but the voices in her were crystal clear.
**I can't believe that a human could—**
**You never were very imaginative in the first place!**
**I knew she could do it all along.**
**Yeah, right! And I'm Kotei Shiroi!**
**Baka! She was only reborn human in this life! She's still the Huntress, no matter what her body looks like!**
**I say you're both full of it!**
**Who asked you? Stupid jerk! You're always butting in where you're not wanted!**
**And you're a whiny little brat, Tsubame! There's no way that she's the Huntress! Look at how skinny she is!**
**Tsuru, you're a prig! Mother says she's the Huntress! What more do you want?**
**Enough, children. She is among us.**
The voices, in general, felt old, very old. But the last voice could only be termed as ancient. The wisdom of the ages seemed to hide behind that female voice, making Nabiki feel very small. She couldn't really follow what they were saying, but knew that they were talking about her.
There was a moment of shocked discomfort from all around her as the entities scrambled for their dignity. Nabiki couldn't suppress the girlish giggle that escaped her throat. The feelings of humiliation grew, and an underlying sense of agitation accompanied them.
**Welcome, Nabiki Tendo,** the ancient voice said formally.
**Thank you,** she responded mentally. It seemed like the appropriate response to make.
**Very good. I see that you have gained some control over your thoughts.** The voice appeared to grin with amusement in the confines of her mind. **The others were having a great deal of fun at your expense, I'm afraid.**
**Yeah! You made poor Yoshitsune blush!** Nabiki recognized the voice as the chubby midget from the kidnapping.
**Not surprising, really. Especially after the love tap that she gave him last night!** That one was the girl… the one that they called Hato. There were sounds of laughter in her mind, situated somewhere to her left; while on her right, she only catalogued embarrassment and frustration.
**You might want to be more careful next time, Tendo-san, especially considering some of the dreams you were having.** The fat one's voice seemed to grin suggestively in her mind's eye. **Broken goods don't perform very well.** There were more snickers, and then something flared with rage nearby.
**Shut up, you!** The sexy baritone voice filled her thoughts again as it roared implications and threats of bodily harm at the fat one. Her mind began to wander again, remembering what it had felt like to have Yoshitsune's arms around her.
**Woo-whee! There she goes again! Yoshitsune, I think she likes you!**
Nabiki blushed and tried to focus her thoughts on something very mundane. Unfortunately, a picture of the young man from the night before popped into her mind, complete with him serving her strawberries. The fact that he was dressed in tight black pants, a little bow tie — and little else — made her bite her bottom lip.
Where the hell did that come from?
**Looks like she's got you all dressed and ready to go, little man!** More laughter followed the cackling mental voice.
**Aaaarrrgh! I said SHUT UP! You loony old bird!** Nabiki winced and clutched her head at the volume of Yoshitsune's mental cry.
Whap! The sound of flesh hitting flesh echoed in her ears, alerting her to the beings' presence near her. She wasn't alone! Her eyes immediately opened again and she found her body surrounded by a curtain of light.
The light had no outside source, nor was it blinding, as one might expect. It just was. It had enough power to illuminate her immediate surroundings, though. She at once found that her blind guesses were correct.
The floor was wood; a large tree trunk to be precise. It was the size of a mature redwood in diameter, and polished smooth until it resembled a rich wooden marble floor. There was a small pool of water not far behind her that she assumed was the source of the dripping water earlier. Next to the pool was a tray of food that made her mouth water; but she reminded herself that it might not be as wholesome as it seemed.
Best to wait a little longer, and learn a little more before taking any unnecessary risks. Nabiki continued to scan her surroundings, hoping to find a weakness that she could exploit.
She was surrounded on all sides by tall conifers that towered over the twenty-foot curtain of light like some sort of jury. It made her a little nervous to be beneath their combined gaze. Beyond their canopy she could see a bright expanse of blue sky, taunting her with the promise of freedom.
"Who are you? What do you want with me?" she inquired. The sound of her voice echoed loudly back at her. Again, she felt as if she had violated some profound tranquility, but this time she cared little for the primal sacredness. All she wanted were answers.
**Now look what you made me do, stupid! She's talking again!** Yoshitsune said angrily from somewhere off to her right.
**Yoshitsune, Washi!** the ancient voice scolded from up above Nabiki. **Behave yourselves!**
**Yes, Mother.** Both voices cowed at the disapproval in Mother's voice.
**Now then, Nabiki-chan,** Mother began affectionately. **If you could please refrain from speaking here, it really would be for the best. The other trees like to be able to hear the Worldsong without any interruptions.** Mother's mental voice dropped to a whisper. **They can get awful cranky, you know.**
The trees above Nabiki seemed to bristle and squirm indignantly.
"Um," she began, but quickly switched to thinking again. **Is this better?**
**Much. Thank you.** Nabiki couldn't help but smile at the pleasure in Mother's tone. **Now then, how do you feel?** It was a rhetorical question; Mother knew exactly how Nabiki was feeling. But Nabiki didn't need to know that.
**A little disoriented,** she said honestly.
**Only a little?** The mirth and incredulity in Mother's voice made Nabiki smile again. She felt like a young girl, being fussed over by her grandmother.
**Well, okay, more than a little,** she admitted. It was obvious that the ancient voice was staring right through her soul in that moment. Nabiki could feel her weighing and gauging everything that the young woman had ever done. It made Soun Tendo's daughter feel very self-conscious.
**It is to be expected,** the ancient voice said.
Nabiki wasn't sure what Mother meant by that statement, but she was sure that she didn't like being so exposed. All of her mistakes, all of her sins, were open for perusal by the ancient voice. She felt violated, waiting to hear the ancient voice call down the wrath of Heaven and judge her.
Judgment never came.
**Relax child,** Mother urged. Nabiki was almost certain that she was looking for something specific.
**Why am I here? What do you want with me?** she repeated her earlier questions again, this time more forcefully, while trying to push Mother out of her mind. It didn't work, so Nabiki tried again… and again… and again. At first, Mother seemed to think of it as a game, which aggravated Nabiki. The game became a competition that steadily escalated into something more serious. Nabiki tapped into the well of her soul and lashed out at Mother with everything she had.
**GET OUT!** A collective gasp rang through Nabiki's mind, and the trees above her rustled disapprovingly.
A sharp pain lanced through Nabiki's brain, causing her to fall to her knees. She bit her lip to keep from crying out, when Yoshitsune's mental voice cut through the haze.
Nabiki could tell that she wasn't the only one that had experienced the pain. Above her the trees groaned and rustled mournfully in a solemn wind.
**I am fine, Yoshitsune.** The voice was soft, and breathless, but not weak. **Nabiki is just stretching her muscles a bit.**
"Like hell I am!" Nabiki shouted. The grove's peace was shattered, and Nabiki knew that she had overstepped her bounds.
**SHE HAS FORGOTTEN TOO MUCH, MOTHER!**
**REMIND HER OF HER PACT!**
Nabiki looked up, into the canopy of the trees and saw the great pines bending over her. On the face of their trunks, the bark ran like water, creating stern, disapproving faces. Their branches rustled threateningly, but the images projected in her mind were more embarrassing than frightening. Who would have thought that a tree would want to spank a human as a punishment?
**Be at peace. All of you.** Mother's voice cut through the grove, silencing everyone and drawing attention back to her. The trees looked away from Nabiki, craning their trunks as they looked upward. Nabiki spun around and followed their gaze.
She had seen pictures of redwoods before and was humbled by their majesty. She had visited a shrine in the country that had been built at the base of a giant Chamfer tree and felt peace. But in all of her studies, and in all of her experience, she had never seen a tree quite like the one that loomed above her. It was easily two hundred stories tall, with a trunk that could have been made from at least twelve of the redwood stumps that she found herself standing on.
"Mother…" Nabiki's whispered voice was barely heard on the wind.
**I must apologize to you, Nabiki.** Mother's voice was soothing and apologetic. **Believe it or not, but there was a time when you shared unity with me willingly.**
"What do you mean?" Nabiki was still upset, but Mother's towering presence dulled the edge of her bite.
**Please, Nabiki. We must respect the others.**
The Tendo girl coughed and shuffled nervously as the other trees stared down at her. She repressed a shudder and took a deep breath.
**Infinitely.** Mother's voice seemed to smile crookedly at the young woman, making Nabiki fidget; but she didn't back down.
**Kid's got guts, Yoshi-kun. You sure you're not interested?**
Nabiki ignored the sounds of violence that slowly drifted away from the grove; instead, she focused her attention on the great tree above her.
**I want answers.**
Mother's crooked smile became real, as a face appeared on the trunk of the colossal tree.
**Are you willing to pay for them?**
A long line of curses landed on the tip of Nabiki's tongue, threatening to spill forth at any moment. She hated playing games with people; she was used to being on the other end of the stick.
**Look, you're the one that dragged me here — against my will, I might add. As far as I see it, you owe me an explanation.**
The curtain of light surrounding Nabiki flared to life. Sights and sounds exploded on all side, and a multitude of images seemingly began to rewind.
**Behold the flow of time, from the perspective of my children. A very long time ago, there existed a majestic kingdom, and the capital of this kingdom resided on Terra's Moon.**
Nabiki's eyes bulged in wonder as Mother unfolded the founding of the Moon Kingdom. The walls of light danced with imagery, as she watched the progress of history. Her heart swelled at the beauty and mystery that thrived during the Moon Kingdom's peaceful reign, and she wept bitter tears as she watched its fall. The telling of the story took quite some time, and by the time Mother finished, Nabiki was thoroughly drained.
**You wanted to know why I brought you here, Nabiki?** Mother's voice was quiet again, and Nabiki was filled with a sense of love that she had never before felt. **Is it such an odd thing for a mother to want to see her daughter again?**
There was no escaping the truth of Mother's words. Something clicked inside of Nabiki and a door swung open, and a flood of memories spilled forth. Her eyes grew wide as her heart and mind relived a forgotten life.
The Joketsuzoku Village:
It was a rare day indeed that Cologne was anxious. Three hundred years of experience had taught her the secrets of patience. But the sight across the field unnerved her to the core. The mighty Herb, Prince of the Musk Dynasty, stood before her with the ragtag remnants of his nation at his back — looking more like a refugee than a king.
She was amazed at how few Herb's band contained.
Her runners had come early that morning, bearing the news that the Musk had come to war against the Amazons. Cologne thought this highly unlikely, and said as much openly. When an emissary from the Musk approached under a white flag, alarms went off in the old woman's mind, but not for the same reasons her sisters were entertaining. It was true that there was enough bad blood remaining between her people and the Musk that the offer was met with open skepticism, but Cologne had studied the man carefully.
The fear and pain in his eyes had left her little doubt that something horrific had befallen the boy. He seemed unnaturally skittish, and did not hide his fear of shadows. In fact, he stood openly before the Council of Matriarchs and demanded that they deal with him under the light of the morning sun. Cologne heard someone mutter something about bedtime stories told about the Amazons. The jest had been met with open laughter, but the boy stood his ground.
He didn't fear the Amazons; respected them perhaps, but the steel in his stance told the wizened Cologne that he did not fear them. This brought the question of what the boy did fear to the fore. When questioned, the boy simply answered that his king would parley if, and only if, he was guaranteed safe passage to meet with the Council of Matriarchs. Cologne didn't have to browbeat any of her sisters on the council. Their curiosity was just as piqued as hers, and so the meeting was set. Bringing them to this place and time.
She had dealt with Herb before and knew him to be a strong leader. Cologne could not deny the offered truce between the two nations lightly, and neither could her sisters. Many of the families had started to murmur about the Beastmen soiling their land, but it would take more than a few slanderous insults to provoke a conflict under these circumstances.
And so it was with a great deal of trepidation that the two groups met. The small field was large enough to discourage archers, but small enough to contain no more than a thousand warriors on each side. Considering what her scouts had reported, that was about all that was left of the Musk.
If the young man before her was bedraggled, his people were pathetic. She had known war in her long lifetime, but these refugees were haunted… and it wasn't by the actions of men. Cologne felt the pit of her stomach tighten as she watched Herb move ahead of his group, alone and unafraid. The terror that his people were demonstrating was hidden behind a stoic mask. His robes and armor were eternally stained with the mud of travel, and a fair amount of blood. The humility in his stance, combined with his war-torn appearance, distinguished him and augmented his natural beauty. He had been handsome before, but now the prince was dashing. The sleeping child in his arms only served to heighten the look on the boy-king.
Herb stood before the Council of Matriarchs humbled, yet retaining his dignity. It was a good thing. She would want no less for such a powerful warrior.
"I bring you greetings, noble Matriarchs of Joketsuzoku," Herb called out across the field.
"May the Goddess smile upon you this day… King Herb."
Herb shook his head and handed the boy off to the giant in tiger skins, before continuing. "I am King Herb no longer, Matriarch. My father has fallen, and I have assumed what is left of his throne. The title of Emperor is now mine… for all that it is worth. I come here to you this day to bring the Amazon nation a dire warning."
"Oh?" Cologne asked in polite surprise despite the growling murmur that rippled through the Amazons behind her. Couldn't they see that this man was of no threat to them? "What could be so dire that it would bring the new Emperor of the Musk and a host of his finest to the Joketsuzoku?"
Herb grimaced at the barbed comment, but understood this political game that they played. Cologne couldn't support him outright; she had to make at least a few attempts to appease the warmongers amongst her people. A few barbed insults were better than being slaughtered by the women before him, or the beasts that followed him. He could stand to take a few insults if it gave him what he wanted.
Herb crooked his finger to one of his subordinates, a man in a leather and silk shirt that was decorated with eagle feathers. His noble face was stoic, showing little emotion as he dragged the large bundle wrapped in tent canvas before her. He sketched a bow and returned to his post behind his lord.
Herb motioned disgustedly at the bundle.
"That, venerable Matriarch." He spat the words in his anger and frustration. The stench coming from the canvas was overpowering. It smelled like week-old carrion that had fermented in a hot, summer sun. "That is what brings me — a vagabond, bereft of my home and kin — to your doorstep. My nation is lost to me due in totality to… that!"
With great care, Cologne flipped her staff forward to unravel the bundle. Her escorts watched warily for any treachery. The canvas unraveled, rapidly depositing its putrid cargo between the Amazons and the Musk.
The Matriarch had thought herself above a great many things; shock and a weak stomach were among the long list. Unfortunately for her, the sight at her feet defeated that notion, forcing her breakfast to expel itself violently.
She wasn't alone.
The body before her would never be mistaken for human. Black, oozing flesh covered the tiger's head in a grotesque mottled patchwork. It wasn't the sight of the thing that upset her so, but rather the stench of evil that hung about its putrid form.
The long, deadly claws extended from the tips of massive, human-like paws. And there was a cold sanity in the lifeless eyes that bore a cunning intelligence. But that was where the resemblance to any living creature ended. The rest was too horrifying to comprehend, and her mind did its best to shut the sight out.
Its smell alone could probably kill, Cologne thought distastefully as she wiped the spittle from the corners of her mouth.
Herb didn't react to the beast at all. His calm, clear gaze focused on Cologne, boring into her. She returned it intently. When Herb spoke again, Cologne could hear the emotion that threatened to surface.
"It alone killed over one hundred and fifty of my men and women last night as we marched. Twenty-five children met their doom in the jaws of this… thing."
He shook with barely-restrained anger, and all gathered watched as his battle aura flared brilliantly. Cologne was impressed at the corona that the boy was producing. He had been practicing. "It took fifty of the finest warriors to bring the demon down!" Herb released the energy that he had built into the corpse, setting it aflame, but not destroying it completely.
The concussive blast knocked two of the stunned Matriarchs off their feet, causing a wave of commotion to surge through the Amazons that were behind her, many of which included women from the Elder's council who knew better. The Musk, already spooked and tired, began drawing their weapons too.
This was no good. Herb had done them a favor — a self-serving favor, but one that might have very well saved the Amazons. She was not about to let this shaky alliance fall apart around their ears just because two of her sisters were too clumsy to stand upright. She tapped her staff once on the ground, creating a great reverberating sound to echo across the field. The action got the desired results, silencing the gathered throng so that Cologne could speak.
"I am Khu Lon, Matriarch of the Elder's Council. I speak on behalf of my nation. I set aside the old haunts in light of the new. We offer you the hospitality of our homes, young Emperor, and would share our salt with you and yours. Be welcome as friends." There was a collective gasp from the Amazon camp, followed by murmuring. Yet, Cologne's authority washed over all present, and she hoped that what she did next would minimize the amount of bloodshed that was inevitable.
"It is my decree that there shall be no battle fought during the time our guests reside in our nation. Any challenges issued, save they be formal challenges of marriage, may not be answered until the Musk leave our borders." She paused dramatically and turned to her sisters who nodded their consent. What choice did they have? "Any disobedience to this edict will be severely punished. No excuses will be heard or tolerated."
Herb nodded and repeated her edict for the benefit of his people. A peace of necessity had been hammered out here, and he would be damned if he let heated tempers jeopardize it.
Runners from both nations sped off to spread the word to those that could not attend the summit. Herb smiled at Cologne faintly. It wasn't much, but in light of what they were facing, it was a definite beginning.
Cologne could already hear the whispers starting to circulate about having to house the filthy Musk, and she wondered how long she could keep the tribal politics at bay. In light of what they faced, she prayed that it would be for a very long time.
The Matriarchs motioned for Herb and his councilors to approach. The story that he told them sent shivers down their spines and left more than a few wide-eyed and afraid.
It had been a long time since the Amazons had known fear.
Tuesday, late afternoon
It was the bane of freedom, and the wicked stepmother of invention. For Ranma, it was a state of mind to be avoided at all costs. That was when her ghost came to haunt him most — even more so than at night, before he fell asleep.
The memory of holding her would cause his arms to ache, and he could almost smell the fruity scent of her shampoo in the air. It was then that he would throw himself into his training, pushing himself to newer heights in order to keep Akane's shade appeased. Yet, Ranma learned early on that there was only so much training that a man could do in a day. The mind would grow weary, and the limbs weak; even the spirit would falter.
Which was where Ranma found himself now — mentally wiped and totally unable to practice. It wasn't that he was physically exhausted; it had been a long time since he'd been able to wear himself out in the course of a day. No, the true problem came from mental and spiritual burnout. How many times could he throw the same punch before the exercise became meaningless?
He had pushed himself all through the day yesterday, and he felt reluctant to push himself further. Nodoka had watched him with concern but had been forced to leave for work. Today she had made it a point to invite him to go with her, but Ranma couldn't bring himself to go with his mother to the orphanage. To be surrounded by so many kids… he could already see Akane in his mind's eye, playing with a little girl that had her smile and his blue-gray eyes.
He had politely declined his mother's offer, which meant that he was again left to his devices. Nodoka had subtly hinted at him about going back to school at breakfast, but for some reason Ranma felt reluctant to make a commitment either way. He wanted to take things slowly, so that he could ease into things, rather than be thrown headlong into anything. Nodoka had to agree that Ranma had a valid point, especially after spending ten years on the road with Genma.
So he had spent some time after his morning workout soaking in the furo, and then explored the rest of the house. He had been surprised at the state of his room when Nodoka showed him to it the night of his arrival. He hadn't taken the time to study it then, but he did so now.
It was tastefully decorated, with a single dresser, a bookshelf, a writing desk, and a western-style bed like the one Nabiki had in her room. A number of traditional Ukyoe prints of samurai decorated the walls. Ranma thought that were pretty cool; he had been expecting something more… risqué where his mother was concerned. She had a tendency to be a little weird at times.
Still, how could he judge her? He really didn't know her at all.
He continued to catalogue everything from the indigo comforter on his bed to the tasteful wooden-slat blinds that covered his window. He even had a bonsai sitting atop the writing desk. Ranma had always wanted one, regardless of how "wussy" Genma made them out to be. It took discipline to shape a tree, and Ranma respected discipline.
He hadn't asked outright, but Nodoka had confessed to redecorating his room every year on his birthday. She would replace one old thing every year, trying to capture Ranma's spirit in the way that she changed the décor. It had given her a sense that the house wasn't so empty.
Ranma had openly cringed when she had told him, but she hadn't noticed. Instead, she had busied herself in turning down Ranma's bed and setting his backpack next to the dresser. She had been so nervous and excited about having her son home that she had fluffed his pillow some twenty times before Ranma finally convinced her that everything was indeed perfect. He was glad that she seemed happy. After so long without anyone, she deserved all that he could give.
The rest of his mother's house was very much the same as his bedroom. Tastefully if not traditionally decorated, but leaning towards a more masculine motif; no doubt to impress and please Genma when he returned.
During his exploration, Ranma's mind boggled at just how much his mother had sacrificed for her family. Her whole life seemed to revolve around the two ghosts that she barely knew, and she did so without complaint or murmuring. He had never met anyone so devoted to her family… besides, well, maybe Kasumi. But where Kasumi's devotion was measured in her propensity to give, Nodoka's dedication was measured in her lonely endurance.
Could Kasumi have survived as Nodoka had? Assuredly. Ranma was sure of that. But, what of Nabiki? Ranma was ashamed to admit that he wasn't sure. Before Akane's passing, he would have said no, but now… Nabiki just wasn't the same person that she had been six months ago. Akane, on the other hand, would have poisoned herself in the first week. Ranma chuckled, but the sound died on his lips.
He always came back to her, even when he was trying his best to let her ghost rest in peace. That was when Ranma decided that it was time to leave the house. Every room was starting to remind him of her, and he was starting to hurt.
He found himself exploring the neighborhood from the safety of the rooftops, mapping out the major landmarks and trying to catch the pulse of the Ward. The roof he had chosen to stop on overlooked a street of shops and restaurants, with Tokyo Tower not two blocks east.
Maybe his mother had been right about this whole school thing. She had brought it up at breakfast as an option for Ranma to think about. He told her that he wasn't sure how long he would be staying, and immediately regretted it. Her carefully controlled response had been neutral, but her eyes held enough sadness to fill the Sea of Japan. He didn't want to be tied down to anyone place, but he couldn't just leave his mother. It would break her heart.
If he stayed, let alone registered for school, it gave his old man and Mr. Tendo the chance to find him again. They would continue pushing Nabiki down his throat, and making both his and her lives miserable. On the other hand, he knew that he needed to stay with his mom, which meant that he needed something to divert his attention until he could finally bury Akane.
Ranma stared down at the people milling below and silently wished that he could have had their lives: no curses, no crazed challengers, no arranged marriages… no dead fiancées. Just the same mundane, day-to-day grind that made their lives… normal. With a heavy sigh, Ranma launched himself to the next rooftop and continued on his way.
"So, let me get this straight. Your Mom's best friend's son just returned from some sort of Martial Arts training thingy that he's been on for almost eleven years now, and she wants you to go with her tonight to meet him?"
Ami looked at Usagi with amused bewilderment. How the girl could get all of that out in just one breath boggled the mind.
"Yes. Apparently he'll be staying in town for a while, and she would like me to show him some of the sights and introduce him to people." Ami didn't look at all happy about the arrangement, but how could she deny her mother? The woman asked for so little, and provided so much, that Ami was starting to feel guilty for not doing more for her.
"Is he cute?"
Ami snorted and tossed an incredulous look Usagi's way. "Honestly! Is that all that you can think about?"
Usagi simply smiled and shook her head. "Nope! I think about Mamo-chan, and food, and that really cute skirt that was in the display window two stores back." Usagi looked totally prepared to continue, so Ami cut her short.
"Is that so?" Ami deadpanned.
Usagi nodded again, while Ami shook her head.
"Now, don't change the subject. Is he cute?"
Ami sighed affectedly. "I don't know. Besides, you, of all people, know that I don't have time for that. Exams are right around the corner, and…"
Usagi mimicked Ami's sigh and stopped just outside an alleyway. "And you could ace them blindfolded! Aaaaamiiii! You need to get out more!" Ami's blonde friend tossed her hands in the air. "Live! Get out of these books and find something else to care about!"
"I do!" Ami said defensively, clutching her book bag close to her chest.
"Senshi business aside…" Usagi's eyes narrowed. "…what else do you have in your life?"
Ami chewed her lip self-consciously and looked at her feet. "Well, I have my mother…"
"And?" Usagi's foot was tapping.
"And you and the others!" The girl was desperately scrambling for any foothold she could find. This whole conversation was beginning to sound like the one she'd had with her mother last night at dinner. By the way that Usagi shook her head, Ami knew that she had failed to find what she needed. She just wasn't very good at social debate, no matter how hard she practiced in her mirror.
"Come on, Ami-chan! We don't count, and you know it!"
"Uwara-kun?" she asked hopefully.
"When was the last time that you saw him?"
Ami shrugged and smiled sheepishly. "Eleven months, seventeen days, four hours, and twenty-seven minutes ago?" She paused to re-calculate her numbers, and nodded. Usagi landed face first on the sidewalk before her friend.
By the time that she had picked herself up off the pavement, Ami was looking studiously at a dress in a shop window. It was one of the most beautiful wedding dresses that Usagi had ever seen, and it took all of her willpower not to get caught up into a wonderful daydream about her Mamo-chan.
"Nice try," she deadpanned. Ami's shoulders slumped in defeat. Usagi memorized the shop's name and location before dragging Ami away; she would have to stop by there on the way home.
"So answer the question already! Is he cute?"
"I don't know. I saw a cute picture of him once in Auntie's house, but he must have been six or seven at the time. He was holding this really fat cat and smiling." Ami left out the sugary cuteness of the picture. Ranma's front two teeth had been missing, and he had been wearing a dirty, torn shirt and shorts. The leaves in his hair had made Ranma look adorable, and with the story about getting his cat out of the tree, Ami believed that Ranma was a rather impetuous young man.
But people changed over time. What could you know about a person after ten or eleven years? She didn't remember Ranma very clearly, but from the stories that her mother told, they had been inseparable. Ami decided not to tell Usagi that little tidbit. She was likely to go on about fated romances and star-crossed love affairs.
It wasn't that she didn't sometimes dream about that type of thing. She did. But the whole idea was just so impractical. The last thing that she needed right now was a boy interfering with her studies. She had other dreams that were more realistic than meeting "Prince Charming" or having a knight in shining armor come charging to her rescue. That only happened to Usagi.
Butsukaru, Itamu, and Kinyobi were known as the "Same no Juuban" — the Sharks of Juuban. It was a name that they had earned at a very young age, and for very good reasons.
Butsukaru had put his fourth grade teacher in the hospital by tripping her "accidentally" while she descended a flight of stairs. Multiple fractures and a serious concision had resulted from the fall, all because she wouldn't let him play with a certain toy.
Itamu had a fetish for sharp, pointy objects and was always sharpening his pencils. It was an obsession; every ten minutes without fail he would stand before the pencil sharpener, grinding away wood and graphite until the point could draw blood with a just a prick.
An impatient young girl named Mae had cut in front of him one day. She had paid for her intrusion by having her hand pinned to the wall with her own sharpened pencil.
And then there was Kinyobi: a simpleton, with the sadistic love of beating the crap out of people. There was no other reason; he simply enjoyed the sound that bones made when they broke and the color of blood on skin. When he was seven he beat his older brother into the ICU. There had been no warning, no rhyme or reason; and when confronted about the incident, the simply shrugged his shoulders said that he didn't know why he did it.
Many of the other parents wondered why the violent delinquents weren't expelled outright. The answer was simple: money could buy anything and anyone.
And the families of the trio were wealthy enough to do just that. Unfortunately, by the time that the three young men were ready for high school, there were only two schools in all of Tokyo that either didn't know about their reputations or didn't care: Furinkan and Juuban. The parents knew the reputation of Furinkan, which made the choice obvious.
The motley band lounged on the steps of the local library on the main thoroughfare that students used to get to and from school. It was an odd place for their type to be, but Butsu had a fetish for classical literature.
"I'm bored, Butsu!" Kinyobi whined girlishly. Itamu snickered stupidly at the largish young man seated on the steps beneath him.
"Anything that doesn't involve bloodying someone bores you, Kinyobi." Butsu replied caustically as he looked up from his book. The Nanso Satomi Hakkenden wasn't exactly Butsu's normal fare, but it had some interesting parts — none of them particularly heroic, either.
Butsu was rooting for the villains.
"C'mon, Butsu!" Kinyobi's voice squeaked shrilly, causing Itamu to fall over in hysterics. Puberty had come late to the burly thug, cursing him with a man's body and all but a woman's voice. He hated it; how could anyone inspire terror with a girly voice like his?
Butsu growled in disgust. Slamming the book closed, he rounded on Kinyobi angrily. "What do you want me to do, 'Kin-chan'?" he said cruelly, twisting the feminine honorific in his mouth. Kinyobi growled fiercely, but made no move against the smaller boy. The oddity of this twisted David and Goliath scenario made Itamu laugh all the harder.
Kinyobi wanted nothing more than to grind Butsu into so much paste. Unfortunately, the dim-witted giant knew that he would have to kill his opponent. If Butsu lived, Kinyobi would spend the rest of his life looking over his shoulder. The smaller boy may have been a weakling in body, but he more than made up for it in intelligence and a viciousness that scared the hell out of Kinyobi.
Butsu stiffened noticeably for a moment, and then smiled in a manner that would have given the Devil himself pause. Kinyobi followed his gaze, watching as a pair of cute girls walked towards them, not a block away. A sudden smile graced his big face. He "nudged" Itamu roughly; the blow would leave a wonderfully purple bruise.
A blade was instantly in Itamu's hand, prepared to deal a blow in retribution. Butsu held up his hand and pointed, forcing the knife-wielding boy to follow the gesture. Both girls had paused in front of a shop, and Itamu was graced with a clear vision of a girl that he worshiped above all others.
He looked at Butsu hopefully. Kinyobi and Butsu could share the Tsukino girl, but Ami was special. No one would touch her but him. No one.
Butsu studied the feverish look in Itamu's eyes and was forced to nod his assent. He had known the instant he had spotted her that this would be the outcome. Butsu looked longingly at Mizuno-san and sighed. Intelligent women were such a turn-on.
It was too bad really; she was pretty and would have been fun to break. The Tsukino girl — at least that was what he thought her name was — would have to do. Such was the hazard when working with a rabid psychopath; a man had to give in to his passions, lest the fire that drove them consume him. Itamu was too valuable to Butsu's security to let something like that happen.
Ah well, such was the gamble of fools and madmen. At least this would get Kinyobi to shut up. The three boys broke away from their perch and silently began to stalk their prey. Their rapid pace ate up the ground, forcing men and women to step around them or be run down.
Ami didn't see them coming until they were right on top of her.
Ranma watched the thugs make their move and scowled. They didn't look like much, but he had seen one with a knife. He didn't hesitate to start making his way down to the street from his perch atop the library's roof.
Ami jumped in horror as she and Usagi were pushed into the narrow alley beside the dress shop. She tried to scream, but a hand was already clasped over her mouth while another pinned her arms to her sides. She didn't panic, at least not for herself. She was more worried about Usagi's safety than anything else.
She caught a glance of blonde hair struggling amidst two other bodies, but that was all. There was plenty of sound as both girls tried to scream and work their way free, but not enough of it escaped the alleyway to make a difference.
Ami managed to turn and was met with a face that she had seen once or twice at school. Everything that she had heard about him flashed through her mind in an instant: the story about Umi-chan and the locker room, the rumor about Ms. Totetsu, and other things more frightening still. Umi-chan had transferred to another school, and Ms. Totetsu had up and quit one day. The scene that she had made when leaving was still cause for talk around the school, and it all revolved around the whispered rumor of a boy who liked sharp objects and pretty women.
Panic flooded Ami's heart as she saw the knife slide into his other hand. She looked into his face, frantically shaking her head.
This couldn't be happening! It couldn't!
She couldn't escape the mad lust in his eyes. It was so overwhelmingly hungry, and she knew that it wouldn't be satisfied until Itamu had been sated. Ami started to cry.
Usagi growled, kicked, bit, and punched like a pro. Butsu's lip was split and bleeding, and a lucky kick had brought Kinyobi to his knees for a moment. Usagi sneered uncharacteristically; at least the jerk had a reason to squeak now. Butsu punched her in the stomach, driving the air from Usagi's lungs and causing every limb to go suddenly lax.
"I love it when they fight back," he panted, wiping the blood from his mouth. "It makes the whole thing so much more… delectable."
Kinyobi groaned and tried to steady himself. He was going to break every bone in her body after he took her… every last one!
Mamoru studied the latest batch of data from his team's genetics project. The crunch of finals hung over everyone, and it was Mamoru's job as the team's director to make sure that everyone passed. There was only one variable missing, and he couldn't quite put his finger on it. Maybe he could get Ami's help with it.
He sighed and slipped his palm pilot back into his jacket pocket. He had at least three more stops before his stop. Three more stops of sleep….
Usagi's terror washed over him like a wave of icy water.
This wasn't like the times that she had battled youma, or anything else for that matter. It was a fear filled with shame. He didn't think about what he was doing. All that mattered at the moment was Usagi.
Looks of surprise were on the faces of everyone in his car of the train when the young man began to glow with a bright golden light. When he vanished without a trace, more than a few people wondered if they had imagined it. The rest chalked it up to lack of sleep and passing through Juuban.
Ami was having a hard time breathing, and her fear robbed her of her strength. She thrashed as best she could, trying to make as much noise as possible, to no effect. She could feel her lungs starting to burn with the need for air.
What was she going to tell her mother? What would she tell the others? Usagi was on the ground now, and from the look of things, was pinned. What was she going to do?
The air around her started to freeze and the moisture that clung to the walls was rapidly turning to ice. The sign of Mercury began to glow beneath her bangs, when a powerful hand shot out and closed around Itamu's throat.
It was the other boy's turn to look surprised as he struggled for air.
Ami looked up into a cold, hard, yet very handsome face as Itamu's hand fell away from her throat. She had seen that face not two days before, and — as hard as it was to admit — in her dreams as well. She gasped and panted, trying to regain her breath as the boy's eyes looked her over critically. He steadied her with a strong, calloused hand, and she couldn't help but lean into him for support and comfort.
"…please… help Usagi."
The young man complied with her request by throwing Itamu, one-handed, the length of the narrow alley into his oblivious partners.
Butsu had almost pinned Usagi's legs when a heavy weight bowled him over, causing him to crash into Kinyobi. There was a moment of pain, then everything settled, and Butsu was at the bottom of a pile of heavy bodies. Then the pain returned.
"Get the hell off of me!"
Scrambling. More pain.
The leader of the Sharks finally freed himself and viciously punched Kinyobi in the kidneys. The taller boy grunted, but otherwise showed no signs of noticing. He and Itamu were too busy looking at the young man in a Chinese outfit.
"Well? Don't just stand there! Kill him!"
Butsu realized his mistake too late as the young man walking towards them started glowing.
Ranma felt like he was going crazy. Looking upon the young woman before him, he was sure that she was the same girl from the train station. If she wasn't, then he knew that he was going crazy.
He put a hand on her shoulder to keep her from falling over, when she leaned into him. Tingles danced up and down his spine at the action. It was almost like having Akane back… Almost like heaven. That was until the girl asked him something… something about Usagi.
Ranma looked up, saw the second girl, and did the only thing that he could think of. He threw the sick bastard that he was holding at the whole group.
It was nice to see that his aim was improving.
He was slightly disappointed at having to break away from the young woman, but he forcefully berated himself. She wasn't Akane. Period. When he finally got a good look at the blonde girl from the train station, something in him clicked. There was definitely something familiar about her, and he felt this undeniable urge to protect her. She was important… special. He saw her tears, and the way that she tried to straighten her skirt, and something in him snapped.
These guys had been trying to… tried to…!
"Well? Don't just stand there! Kill him!"
It was easy to guess what would happen next. The only question in his mind was how long he wanted to keep the bastards in the hospital. Ranma felt the floodgates open, and his chi spilled forth in an angry blue haze. Had he been able to see himself, he might have wondered why there was a white glowing crescent on his forehead.
Ami was astonished when the young man from the train station started glowing. Imagine her surprise when she and Usagi saw the blazing crescent on his forehead! The two huddled together, finding comfort in each other's presence as they watched the inevitable battle unfold.
Itamu had seen the fiend holding his Ami. HIS AMI! That was all the motivation that he needed. He sprang forward with a caterwaul and a series of vicious slashes. His rage blinded him and fueled his speed, but not one blow got through his opponent's defenses.
He received a bone-crushing kick to his ribs that sent him into the wall for his trouble. Kinyobi threw a punch at the man's head, only to have the runt catch it in mid-swing.
He wouldn't let him have his Ami! He wouldn't! If Itamu couldn't have her, then no one could!
The knife moved in slow motion for Ranma as he watched it approached Ami's throat. To her credit, she didn't flinch or scream. All that she wanted to do was freeze a vital part of this Itamu's anatomy before she died. In response to her desire the air temperature seemed to drop a few degrees.
She fixed Ranma with a worried look, hoping that he could do something.
She wasn't prepared for the fearful look that entered the other boy's eyes as he tracked the knife's trajectory.
He wasn't going to make it in time! That was the only thought that Ranma had while watching the knife. Another death for his carelessness!
A red blur, followed by a loud clang, sent the knife careening away from its intended target. Everyone's gazes were drawn up to the man standing on the roof of the building, and both girls seemed to sag in relief.
If they knew the new guy, he was safe.
Ranma nodded to the man gratefully then turned his attention back to the task at hand. He had almost failed again. No, he had failed. If it hadn't been for the other guy, Akane's look-alike would be dead.
The deadly look that entered Ranma's eyes was the last thing anyone was expecting. Anger, rage, and worry were all very acceptable reactions to the situation, but the murderous look that Itamu was receiving was completely out of the ordinary.
Itamu gulped loudly and began trembling as Ranma's body began to glow again.
"You are so screwed." His voice was little more than a whisper, but everyone heard it.
When the boy's eyes began to glow, Butsu began to wonder if maybe he had made a mistake. When Itamu went after the pigtailed boy again, this time with a larger knife, Butsu winced. When the pigtailed boy relieved Itamu of his weapon and proceeded to snap the blade off with his bare hands, Butsu was sure that he had screwed up big time.
He had never known fear like this before, and idly wondered if perhaps this was what his victims felt when he stalked them. It wasn't a very pleasant feeling. He was certain that Kinyobi was feeling the same thing, if the large wet stain on the front of his pants was any indication.
Itamu… Well, Itamu was getting the crap beat out of him. Butsu had never seen anyone get worked over like the knife-wielding miscreant. Nothing was broken yet, but the boy's face was one giant bruise.
A third knife appeared and was lost just as easily. The pigtailed boy made sure that Itamu saw him break the blade this time. Then he proceeded to toss what was left of the knife into the trash; Itamu's face drained of color and the boy began to back away. Butsu was glad to see that his compatriot was starting to see their predicament for what it was.
The guy was a monster, and they were blocked in by the dead end that had beforehand worked in their favor. Kinyobi started to scream — very much like a little girl, Butsu noted — and was immediately silenced by the pigtailed boy's hand over his mouth. Butsu blinked twice before he began dry washing his hands on his shirt. How had the guy moved so fast?
The pigtailed boy smirked cruelly and wagged a finger in front of Kinyobi's face. Butsu watched the giant's eyes roll up into his head, and his body simply went slack. Itamu, after reviewing everything, looked from the boy, to his broken knives, then back at the boy… then studied the knives for a long time.
Butsu moved up to Itamu's side and watched the pigtailed boy continue his approach. They felt themselves being backed into the alley, further from the safety of the street. The look in their stalker's eyes promised pain… lots of pain.
He was going to kill them. Butsu just knew it! They were going to die here in this alley and no one would know! He couldn't stay here! He had to get out! But where would he go? Where would he hide?
The pigtailed boy cracked his knuckles, and then made a lunge. Both Butsu and Itamu screamed and turned to run, only to come face to face with a very immobile brick wall. As the darkness claimed them, both were glad that they wouldn't be awake to see the end.
Nabiki ran through the branches of the trees, laughing at their indignation and reveling in the feel of the wind playing with her hair. Somewhere behind her someone was following, and cursing a blue streak at his inability to keep up.
"Aramas! Catch her!"
Nabiki smiled. The Bastian and the half-breed were outclassed; why couldn't they see that? All she had to do was get to Mother's trunk, and the whelp would be cast out of the Fey.
She launched herself at the next branch, celebrating her strength and agility. The fools had no business here, polluting her Mother's forest. She didn't care if the boy was a prince, he didn't belong among the tribes. He had never had been welcome among them, and by Terobus she would see that the arrogant bastard was thrown out on his ears!
She remembered being saddled with the screaming whelp when he was a baby, and she meant to pay him back for all of the grief that he had given her!
Nabiki's long, pointed ears twitched, and she turned in time to see a branch swinging at her from the side. How in the name of the Great Moon had he gotten that close, let alone set up a pitfall? The trap was easily dodged, but three more were tripped in the process.
Nabiki cursed and spun her short spear in a wide arc to deflect the incoming branches and other projectiles. She screamed in frustration as they continued to rain down on her, seemingly at every turn. Someone laughed behind her, and Nabiki found herself cursing Artemis.
The traitorous were-cat had been spending too much time with the Kenku. She vowed to pluck Washi's head-feathers bald the next time that she saw him! Something blurred in front of her, forcing her to pull up short on a thick branch.
Nabiki gasped as a familiar young man landed before her. His wild blue-gray eyes smiled back at her mischievously, as he leaned casually against the tree in which he stood. Everything about him reeked of arrogance, so much so that all she wanted to do was pound his smug grin into a fine red paste.
She growled and brought her spear to bear. Aramas flipped his long, braided pigtail over his bare shoulder, and wagged a finger at her. There were a hundred different ways to circumvent her opponent, but Nabiki knew that going through him would be the most satisfying. Not to mention the most expedient… she had a timetable to consider, after all.
Aramas sighed noisily, as if put off that she was going to waste his time! The very thought boiled her blood. She was going to wipe that smug grin off his face! She WAS!
Nabiki launched herself at the man before her. She had expected him to move, but to her surprise, he merely dodged slightly and brought her into a tight bearhug. She had gotten free of worse, but she found herself unable to move!
**What have you done to me?!** she demanded.
In response, Aramas simply kissed Nabiki's nose and grinned. Oh! That infuriating grin! Again and again, with that damnable grin! She tried to move, but found her muscles rigid, locked in their last move.
Hato-chan. It had to have been Hato-chan. Her family specialized in pressure points.
Nabiki wanted to scream! The injustice of it all!
**I believe your terms were 'stripped naked and carried to my Mother's roots'. Am I correct?**
**You wouldn't dare!** Nabiki would have bit him had her mouth worked.
**Don't blame me, Huntress. You set the terms. I'm merely honoring your rules.**
**I hate you, Aramas.**
**So you said yesterday… and the day before… and the day before that. Be a good girl now, and take your medicine.** Nabiki blushed as the handsome young man began to undress her. She would find a way to get back at all of them! She would!
Nabiki shook herself free of the memory, only to find herself in the middle of a nightmare. All about her, there was death. Screams of the dying echoed at her back and the smell of smoke penetrated her senses. It took her another full moment before she realized that the destruction was playing out before her on the giant screen of light.
A great shadowy beast leapt from the trees at a familiar figure, only to be consumed by what Nabiki thought to be a chi blast. The bestial hawk's head was sheared off of the monster's body, and fell blackened to the hard-packed earth. Nabiki drew her attention back to the man and was surprised to see two very familiar women flanking him. Cologne and Shampoo looked fierce next to the man, and the amount of bodies that lay at their feet was testament to their fighting skill.
**Tsuru-kun.** Mother's urgent voice slid through the chaotic battle scenes. Nabiki looked up at the great tree and found herself yearning to step forward.
**Take Suzume-chan and Taka-kun with you to investigate, but do not interfere unless absolutely necessary. The Rhakshasa must not know that we are aware of them yet. Observe and report back to me swiftly. The Musk are fallen, but they are not lost to us.** Tsuru seemed to nod in Nabiki's mind and then his presence along with two others was suddenly very far away.
**Wh… what was that?** Nabiki asked.
**Something very old and very dark, Nabiki-chan,** Mother replied enigmatically.
**I don't think that I understand.** She had hoped for more clarity, but knew that getting a straight answer from the ancient tree was going to be more than difficult.
**Nor are you meant to at this time, child. You will bear the burden of knowledge soon enough. Be content with the questions that cost you very little, Small One.** There was no reproach in the voice, only mature advice. Apparently, there were more important questions to be asked anyway.
**What do you want me to do?** she inquired hopefully, yet fearfully.
**That, Nabiki-chan, is a good question. One that will cost you very little in the long run.** There seemed to be a mischievous smirk in the venerable voice, and Nabiki could readily see her own smile looking back at her in her mind's eye.
It was eerie.
**You are my Huntress, and I need you to find a very special man for me.**
Nabiki's stomach clenched in anticipation, and she knew that she wasn't going to like what came next. Still, it didn't sound so bad. At least she wouldn't have to face those creatures… right?
**Okay. Who is it?**
The curtain of light rippled and Nabiki gasped. The man from her memories surrounded her, wearing a black uniform with silvery, crescent shaped ornaments on his collar. She had to be dreaming! It couldn't be him!
**I need you to find me a king. I need you to find Aramas Drumheller, the man you call Ranma Saotome.**
Nabiki swallowed and nodded her consent. What else could she do?
**You will need a few things to help you along the way.** The wooden floor at her feet rippled and a familiar spear rose to the surface, along with a pair of ornate silver bracers. Nabiki's mind immediately began calculating their value, but stopped herself immediately. They were probably worth infinitely more than she suspected — especially where her life was concerned.
The curtain of light parted, revealing Yoshitsune and Hato-chan. Washi lounged nearby, sporting a rather large black eye and an equally large grin. Hato had a carefully-wrapped package in her arms, while Yoshitsune was strapping on a pair of katana. Washi simply sat and picked his nose.
**Be swift, daughter. The world is in dire need of Drumheller's light.**
Nabiki felt that she hadn't been told the whole story, but nodded anyway. She had too much on her plate as it was, and asking for more was just asking for trouble. With a sense of foreboding, she knelt and retrieved the spear and bracers.
Hato-chan smiled as she gestured with one hand, then Nabiki's world folded in on itself.
Usagi was disappointed that all three of the bad guys had passed out before getting their due, and from the disgusted look on the pigtailed boy, he was feeling the same. He piled them in a heap of garbage bags and took anything resembling a weapon from their bodies.
The large pile that he made caused Usagi to shiver. Any one of those could have hurt her, had they been used. Mamoru felt her and wrapped his jacket around her shoulders. Neither could take their eyes off of the boy as he casually threw the weapons in a large trashcan near a side door. He had done impossible things, and Usagi hadn't forgotten the emblem that she had seen blazing on his forehead. It was just too much to take in all at once, so she leaned into Mamoru for support.
"Are you okay?" he asked in a quiet voice.
Usagi nodded absently, watching as the other boy walked near.
Ami, on the other hand, merited more concern. Her throat was bruised, and she didn't look at all too stable. She was in shock from the whole ordeal.
"Ami-chan? Are you going to be all right?" Usagi watched worriedly as her friend simply stared off into space.
"She's in shock," Mamoru whispered. He started to wrap an arm around Ami, when Usagi reached up and stopped him. His brows knit together slightly. This wasn't a time for jealousy! He looked down at his future bride and was amazed to see her staring at the pigtailed boy. He stood arm's length in front of Ami, staring at her face sorrowfully.
The remorse and pain that Mamoru found there hurt to look at; and he could tell that this young man was carrying a mountain of guilt that was slowly eating him alive. But what did that have to do with Ami? Did he have a history with her? Mamoru looked to Usagi questioningly, hoping that she could shed some light on the mystery.
She motioned for Mamoru to wait until this played itself out. The tension in the air was so thick that Usagi couldn't help but feel that something important was about to happen.
Ami saw a vaguely man-shaped blur materialize before her through her tears, and blindly lashed out. She felt her fists impact, and so she added her feet into the equation. Each kick held power, and every strike seemed to find something. She wasn't sure if it was a vulnerable spot or if she was hitting something else. It really didn't matter. She had been hurt, and now it was time to hurt back.
Someone was saying something, speaking to her with a soothing voice. He coaxed her to let it all out, to let the fear and anger play itself out. Ami complied. When she was empty she looked up at the source of the voice and wiped away her tears.
There, before her was the young man that had come to their rescue. The young man from the train station… her knight in Chinese togs? The thought was so… off… that Ami found herself giggling. The giggles became laughter, and then immediately moved into tears again. She threw herself into his strong, protective arms and wept.
He let her vent, stroking her hair and murmuring soft, unintelligible words. It was awkward for her after a moment, to be in a complete stranger's arms like this; awkward, yet so very right. She felt so safe; so safe and warm. How could it be wrong?
She swallowed nervously and looked up at her hero's handsome face. Then she swallowed again. She didn't even know his name! She knew nothing about him, and here she was throwing herself all over him. For all that she knew, he could be like… them. Ami reluctantly looked over at the pile of unconscious boys and shivered.
"You okay?" he asked uncomfortably.
Ami only nodded once before swallowing a third time. He couldn't be like them. His voice was soft, and his eyes were nice. Itamu's eyes weren't nice. Those brown eyes had been filled with lust and the promise of pain. This boy's eyes were the color of winter clouds; the kind that brought the first snows. He wouldn't hurt her. Right?
"Good." He relaxed visibly and pushed her out to arm's length again. Ami watched him examine her from head to toe.
What was he looking at? Ami felt her arms wrap themselves around her body in a self-conscious hug. Maybe he was like Itamu. Maybe he had been doing this just to set her at ease. She looked back at Usagi and Mamoru, begging for them to get her out of this situation. Mamoru, bless him, looked ready to pounce on the boy; but Usagi was smiling gently at Ami. It was that reassuring smile that seemed to make everything feel okay.
Maybe Usagi saw something in this boy that Ami didn't. Maybe she was just being paranoid. She sighed and looked back at the boy, letting her logic centers work through the problem. He looked safe, he had done everything right, and there was nothing about him that truly made her uncomfortable. Ami relaxed and simply stared at the brick wall for a time, trying to process everything.
The pigtailed boy's hand came up to gently touch her throat, and Ami reacted instinctively by grabbing his wrist. She looked up at him fearfully, and they locked gazes for a time.
There was such a casual strength in his arm. She remembered him throwing Itamu so thoughtlessly, that she knew he could easily do anything he wanted… anything at all. The thought was terrifying.
He could do anything, but he wasn't. He just waited and watched her.
Ami searched his eyes for anything that might have been out of place, but saw only deep concern in their stormy gray depths. He was only going to look at her bruise. She smiled weakly then nodded.
His touch was delicate, yet commanding. Fingers that had so nonchalantly rent a steel blade now skittered across her throat like a whispering wind. They were calloused from the abuse that he had put them through, yet soft enough that her skin began to heat and prickle beneath his touch. It made her thankful for the shadowy alley. She knew she must be as red as a tomato.
She watched every subtle motion of his face as he examined her, and finally focused on his mouth. His lips looked soft, and the way his intense eyes seemed to envelop her made her knees weak. She tottered unsteadily for a moment, falling forward again. Her right arm came up immediately, seeking to support her, and Ami found her hand directly over the boy's heart. The silk was supple against his sculpted chest, but that wasn't what captivated her.
It was his heart. It was beating so strong, so fast!
Ami looked up at the young man, and saw that his face was flushed, and that his breathing was shallow. And his eyes! They were filled with such a need for someone to love, and someone to love him in return. They were so lonely, that Ami immediately found herself yearning to fill the void that she saw there.
Her logic centers exploded, crying out in alarm at the loss of control. The libido became a mad cheering section.
She numbly felt his strong arms wrap around her protectively, and her head rested squarely over his heart. The strong, quick, beat resounded in her ears enchanting her. Time fell away, and a warm, comfortable rightness descended on her.
Somewhere in the distance a bell chimed, causing Ranma to jerk. It was enough to snap Ami out of her trance. She blushed and looked up at her knight, knowing that the dream had just come to an end.
Ranma didn't understand anything that was happening. He just went with the flow, following his instincts until they told him differently. The bell reminded him that they were supposed to have guests tonight. His mom was going to upset if he was late.
Scratch that. He was already late.
"Crap!" he muttered under his breath. He looked at Ami, then at Mamoru. "I'm late. Do you think…?" He hated to leave the girl, but he had obligations. This guy seemed to be her friend, and judging by his entrance, was capable of protecting her.
Mamoru nodded and Usagi, her eyes full of unshed tears, sniffled. Ranma looked at her quizzically and shook his head. He didn't understand girls at all. Nodding his thanks to Mamoru he turned his attention back to Ami.
"You gonna be okay?" She was blushing and looking at her feet, but she nodded. He wanted to be sure; after all that she had been through, she might still be out of it.
He tilted his head so that he could see her eyes. You could always tell if someone was lying or not if you looked in his or her eyes. Nabiki had taught him that. He smiled at the fact that her face seemed to get redder under his scrutiny. But she smiled all the same; a smile that was worth a thousand words.
It wasn't Akane's soft smile, the one that had made his guts turn into butterflies. It was a smile that warmed him from the inside out. Ranma wasn't sure what happened in that moment, but he found that the pain of Akane's death had lost a little bit of its sting.
Ami felt some of that invisible weight that she had noted earlier start to lift from the boy's shoulders; and she found herself extremely happy for him. He stood straight, and drew her face with him. She just couldn't take her eyes off of those beautiful eyes!
"Look. I'm sorry that I can't walk you home or nothin'." He started to fidget nervously and scratch the back of his head. "I got this thing with my mom… and I'm already late and all."
Ami felt embarrassed. She had made him late.
"Please. Go ahead and go we'll be fine. Mamoru-san can walk us home." She tried to set him at ease, but saw his reluctance to leave.
*No.* Ami bit her lip to keep herself from speaking, and simply nodded. From somewhere behind her Ami heard Usagi slap her forehead.
The boy looked skeptical, but nodded. He smiled, a gesture that Ami found terribly roguish, then gave them a half wave. He turned to go, and Ami lost herself in the graceful way that his body seemed to glide down the alley.
"Wait!" Usagi's voice tore through Ami's fuzzy bliss. "What's your name?"
The boy turned and smiled again.
Ami watched in amazement as her rescuer jumped straight up, two full stories, to land comfortably on the roof.
Then he vanished from her sight completely.
It took her a full minute to realize that she hadn't thanked him. It took another two for her to make the connection with his name. She blinked twice before turning to Usagi and Mamoru. Both were staring after Ranma, amazed at his casual defiance of gravity.
Usagi's gaze slowly came to rest on Ami, and twin smiles split their faces. Both screamed giddily at the same time and came together in a hug.
Mamoru was left to scratch his head as the two young women began a rapid-fire conversation. Their shock seemed forgotten, as were the trio in the garbage not two meters away. It was nothing short of an amazing switch, one that Mamoru couldn't really comprehend, let alone digest. He could make out the words "cute" and "sooo romantic" every now and then, but for the most part, the conversation was lost on him. It was best not to look too deep into the mystery that was woman. He had learned that lesson long ago. Instead, he gathered the girls, allowed them a few good kicks to their attackers, and then casually escorted them home. He walked at Usagi's side for most of the trip, allowing their excited drone lull him back to his previous troubles. Thoughts of strange boys with crescent moons on their foreheads were forgotten as he picked up his earlier problem.
If he could just isolate a certain variable in the test strain, then everything should fall into place.
The Joketsuzoku Village:
Xian Pu's stony face warded off more than a few of her sisters as she stormed through the village square. None of them could blame her for the onerous task of escorting the very personification of Bestiality. Had that been the only insult, they wouldn't have so much as blinked; after all, everyone was being saddled with a perversion. No, the thing that they pitied most of all was the fact that Xian Pu had to host this beastman and the young pup that the Lord of the Musk insisted on keeping near him.
The purple-haired Amazon had come to hate those stares very much over the last four months. She had come to hate everything about this way of life, and it's stagnant perfection. Xian Pu had fallen from her pinnacle, and her honor had been tarnished, all because of a wild, weak man.
Xian Pu had snorted at the thought of anyone calling Ranma weak. Had any of these petulant Xena-wannabes ever seen true battle, they would weep for their mothers! They trained their skills, and on occasion had been forced into a skirmish with the Musk that they so hated; but the majority of her sisters, old and young, had never had to make a true sacrifice.
They had never fallen in love with a man who loved as purely as Ranma Saotome.
That had been the sticking point with her in the first month back amongst her sisters. She had been punished for not bringing Ranma into the tribe, despite her great-grandmother's report on the proceedings. There had been outright skepticism about Ranma's role in defeating Saffron, which was understandable. How could a mere human defeat an immortal demigod?
Had Xian Pu not seen it with her own eyes, she would never have believed it, no matter how good Ranma had been. Had she not seen a mountain sundered by the same man, she would have even questioned her own eyes. The problem was that she had seen. She had seen everything: his battle, his victory, his loss, and in the end, his consuming grief. How could she have been expected to compete with that?
The memory of a dead woman is hard enough to battle; the memory of someone's true love is an impossible campaign to wage. Great-grandmother herself conceded that fact. It was the only reason that Xian Pu had returned to the village. If she couldn't win, then there was no reason to fight.
Yet upon her return, she had been met with derision, and worse still, pity. Nothing grated more than the sad, sympathetic looks on her sisters' faces. And when they made assumptions about what had happened, or barbed remarks about her stature as a woman, she could not fight back. That was her punishment for failure. She could not speak a word about what had happened, nor could she respond in her defense for a full year.
It was, so she was told, "a lesson in endurance".
In one year she was to be given a chance to redeem herself, either by claiming Ranma for her husband, or by enduring public dishonor through ritual defacement or public humiliation. Either way, her personal status would be in question, with or without Ranma. She didn't know whether to hate him, or to love him still.
"I am sorry for becoming your burden." Herb's quiet voice somehow snaked its way into her ears.
"Don't be," she replied gruffly. "You're not to blame for their closed-mindedness and stupidity."
Herb remained silent for a time, mulling over this unexpected response. Pepper walked at his master's side, taking three steps to Herb's every one.
"You are not like the others." His statement was both a compliment and a barb in Xian Pu's side.
"I guess not," she said stiffly. Three months of bitterness became clear in an instant. She was happy not to be like these narrow-minded bigots, but at the same time, she wasn't sure what she was anymore. If her sisters were Amazons, and she was not like them, then she was no longer an Amazon. So what did that make her?
That was a problem for another time, so she decided to change the subject. "You are not what I remember, Herb of the Musk."
It was Herb's turn to become introspective. He didn't remember meeting Xian Pu before today; the one named Mu Tsu and Elder Khu Lon, yes, but Xian Pu… he couldn't remember. He opened his mouth to say so, but then remembered a rather indignant young woman being carried away by Mint. He smiled at the memory and shook his head.
"We all change," he admitted.
Xian Pu stopped and began to scrutinize the man, uncertain of his meaning. His pointy ears, cat eyes, and light purple hair coloring were at odds with the strong, masculine body and the massive amount of chi that he projected. He was so very like Ranma in many ways: an excellent fighter, cursed from the same pool at Jusenkyo, and both carrying the guilt of their mortality. Xian Pu could easily see the weight of failure that rested behind his eyes; yet unlike Ranma, the man moved on. Not for himself, but for those that depended on him.
"You have changed as well." His voice shook her from her thoughts. She raised an eyebrow before turning on her heel and starting off again.
"Oh? How so?"
Herb pondered his response as they neared Xian Pu's home. How could he word this so as to not offend her? Pepper, not really paying attention to the direction of the conversation, paused to pick a small yellow flower from someone's garden. Herb plucked the flower from Pepper's hands and motioned for him not to pick any more. They were in enough trouble as it was. The flower gave him an idea though.
"When last I saw you, you were a flower newly opened to the sun. But now, you are a woman fully bloomed."
Xian Pu stiffened at the sweet words and spun angrily on the man, only to be greeted by a small flower in full bloom. The sweet smell tickled her nose and eased her anger some.
"Peace, Xian Pu." Herb's voice was calm and even. "I have found it best to speak plainly and truthfully. You asked and I responded; nothing more was intended."
Xian Pu wasn't sure how to take that either. Luckily, someone made sure that she didn't have to think about it long. A woman and two men materialized behind Herb, causing Pepper to immediately draw his small knife.
One of the men seemed amused by this, while the stony-faced one slid carefully into a ready position. Herb and Xian Pu followed suit. The woman, Xian Pu noted with a smile, sighed in exasperation and smacked the serious man in the back of the head; earning her a scathing look from the stony-faced man.
"Be at ease, little cousin," she soothed. "We bring news of danger to your Lord. May we approach?" She never took her eyes from Pepper, but the message was clearly directed to Herb. When Pepper looked up at his King, Herb nodded and motioned the trio forward. Pepper moved slightly in front of Herb, knife still drawn, and Xian Pu flanked him coiled and ready to move in an instant.
"Who are you to come upon the Amazon nation unannounced?" Herb admired Xian Pu's bravado, but prayed that anyone capable of teleportation was also capable of overlooking her aggressiveness.
"Friends to the Amazons and the Musk, Princess." The woman bowed deeply to Xian Pu, then turned and repeated her bow to Herb.
"I am no Princess," Xian Pu growled.
The stony-faced one smirked, and his other companion had the audacity to chuckle! Something unspoken seemed to pass between the trio, but the woman kept her smile constrained to her eyes.
"Who can say what the distant past holds?" the woman said mysteriously. "We all change. Some of us more than others, no?" She smirked as she looked from Herb to Xian Pu, then back again.
Herb shivered at the words, but for the life of him, couldn't understand why. What did this woman know? Why was she here? The stony-faced man stepped forward then, and as if reading Herb's mind answered the king's unspoken thought.
"The demons that sundered your homeland come, Emperor Herb. The Rhakshasa will not end the hunt until you, and the last of your people, are consumed."
The woman hit her companion hard in the shoulder, causing him to rub his sore arm for a long time afterwards. Herb hardly noticed. All that he saw was the enemy falling upon them and wiping them both out.
He scooped Pepper into his arms and started running back to the Hall of Matriarchs. Xian Pu took off after him, pausing only once to look back over her shoulder to see if the trio was following them. Somehow, she wasn't surprised to see that no one remained on the path.
Nodoka was appalled and elated at what she heard over the telephone. Ami-chan and her friend being attacked in broad daylight was horrible, but Ranma saving her…. How could Nodoka not be proud of that?
"Are you sure it was him?" Yuriko gave a perfect description of her son, down to the colored trim on his shirt. There was no doubt that it was Ranma.
"Will you still be coming over tonight?" Nodoka was somewhat disappointed that Yuriko declined, but understood the hesitation. Ami-chan had gone through a horrible ordeal, and it would be best if she stayed home for the night.
"Tomorrow will be fine, Yuriko. I'll tell Ranma. Give Ami-chan a hug from me." She nodded and smiled. "I'll see you both tomorrow afternoon." Nodoka hung up the phone and leaned back against the wall. How was she supposed to convince him to go to school now? Without Yuriko there to weight the discussion, Nodoka feared that Ranma would brush her off again.
Ranma's voice resounded throughout the house, and Nodoka couldn't help but hug herself. How long had she dreamed of hearing that very word? Tears of happiness rolled down her cheeks, and she made no move to stop them. She tracked Ranma's progress, as he searched for her, but Nodoka couldn't bring herself to call out to him.
She lost track of him for a moment, and she strained to catch the slightest creek that might give him away.
"Mom?" Ranma's concerned voice made her jump and yelp in surprise. She couldn't help but laugh happily at his concern, and the silliness of being caught unaware. "You okay, Mom?"
Nodoka threw her arms around her son and hugged him in a bone-crushing embrace. "You are such a good son!"
Ranma grunted, and smiled at her enthusiastic reception. He wasn't sure that he agreed with her. He had a lot to atone for; first and foremost was his absence from her life, then there were the lies, and the heartache that they had caused. Ranma's mind went through all of his sins against the woman that had given him life, and felt about an inch tall. His heart felt like it would break beneath the weight of all that guilt.
He had to make amends somehow. He had to make it all up to her.
"Sorry I'm late. I ran into some jerks picking on a pair of girls." He had the air driven from his lungs as Nodoka squeezed him again even harder this time. He grunted again, but this time at the sudden need for air. Nodoka relented, but only grudgingly; the smile never left her face.
Which made Ranma's chest hurt. How could he have ever doubted this woman's love? Stupid old man! Nodoka must have felt the turn of his thoughts, because she released him and stepped away, smoothing his silk shirt as she went.
"Our guests won't be coming tonight, but dinner's almost ready. Go ahead wash up while I set the table." She turned to go, but Ranma caught up her hand before she could get far.
"Um, I've been thinkin' a lot… You know, about what you said this mornin'…" He looked at his feet for a moment and scratched the back of his head before continuing. "…About going to school and all."
Nodoka's heart leapt.
"Well, you've been alone for so long and I got no where else ta be and all, not to mention that it wouldn't be right for me to stay here and not go to school. I mean, who wants a drop-out ronin for a son?"
Tears started to well in Nodoka's eyes again, causing Ranma to panic. What had he said? He had screwed up somehow. He cast back over his words and settled on the only thing that he could think of that might hurt his mother's feelings.
…who wants a drop-out ronin for a son….
He watched Nodoka lower her head, apparently to hide her shame.
Was that how she saw him, a drop-out and a quitter? No way!
"I'm gonna make you proud of me, Mom." Desperate passion welled in his voice. He wouldn't lose this fight; he wouldn't!
"You'll see! I'll go to school and make you proud!" He kissed her forehead awkwardly and took off up the stairs, unable to look her in the eyes. After all the lies and pain that he had caused her, he just couldn't stand the thought of seeing that disappointment staring back at him. He didn't know how he was going to pull it off, but he was going to keep his promise.
Nodoka followed his path and shook her head in confusion. Her throat clenched as she heard his door open and close, followed closely by a chair being pulled out.
"But Ranma… You've already made me proud." She watched the stairs for a long time before going into the kitchen. She fixed herself a small dinner and a traditionally proportioned Saotome dinner before putting the rest away for later. Somehow, she didn't think that Ranma would down anytime soon.
Nodoka sighed and settled into the familiar routine of eating alone at the kitchen table. She would take his dinner up in a bit. Best to let him do what he thought was necessary. Besides, it wasn't like they wouldn't have more time in the future.
To be continued.
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