A Bishoujo Senshi Sailor Moon / Ranma ½ crossover story
by Jeffrey Vasquez
Disclaimer: All characters and settings are used here without permission. "Ranma ½" was created by Takahashi Rumiko, and is licensed to Shogakukan Inc., Kitty, Fuji TV, and Viz Communications Inc. "Bishoujo Senshi Sailor Moon" was created by Takeuchi Naoko, and is licensed to Koudansha, TV Asahi, Toei Douga, and DIC Entertainment, L.P.
All original characters belong to me. Please drop me a line if you want to use them. (firstname.lastname@example.org)
Foreword: Your patience is greatly appreciated. I don't know if any of you are actually interested in what's going on in the background, but for what it's worth here's a brief rundown of why this chapter has taken so long.
As is the case with many fic authors, life has a rude tendency of invading the creation of fantasy. The status of my writing has been a bit on the erratic side, but not forsaken by any means. There have been so many things happening lately, that it's been hard to keep up. One of the greatest events has been the formation of Brier Row Studios – an online publishing house for new talent. I've decided to go pro and hopefully inspire some of my friends in the Fanfic community to do the same. My first project, "Psalm of the Sentinel" can be found here: (http://www.baegtobar.com) I'll be posting more information on the other projects that I'll be working on for Brier Row as things unfold. For those of you that are interested in joining the Baeg Tobar Project, feel free to email me.
As for Progeny, Realms, and Splitting Heirs each of the current chapters have suffered through a number of re-writes and numerous not-so-cosmetic changes. The end result will hopefully be something pivotal and entertaining for you the readers. I am attempting to organize things so that I can get you all something on a more regular basis. The current delay is just too much, even for me. At any rate, I thank you again for sticking with me!
Before we get into the meat of things, I need to send out some special thanks to a bunch of nice people:
First: to Benjamin Lawton for reminding me that the Bayankalas are a mountain range in the Qinghai province, not a province unto themselves.
Second: to those of you that caught the shameful repeated scene with Herb and the other Chinese refugees – I don't know how it slipped by. I'm keeping track of everything that needs to be fixed, and will be addressing them after the story is complete. I can't afford to lose the momentum that's building.
Third: to those that have written with concerns about the similarities between Arun's Destiny – I haven't had the privilege of reading Arun's work and considering the amount of mail that I get concerning the parallels, I don't think that I will be reading it until after Progeny is complete. I'm afraid that I'll be influenced by what I see there and would rather write my own story. For those of you who are reading Arun's work, keep reading and give him lots of good feedback!
Fourth and most importantly: to all of you wonderful people that give me constructive criticism! Your thought provoking responses have gone a long way into helping me revise and refine my writing. I've seen an amazing amount of growth happen from the first draft of Progeny until now. Your loyalty and your patience are cherished.
So, without further ado…
Ami stood on a long stretch of extremely familiar cobblestones. The tall, swaying stalks of summer wheat stretched around her like a golden sea. She remembered meeting him for the first time on this highway.
The Golden Road was a mismatch of carefully laid cobblestones that stretched from Emushep-Cairo to the Cities of Hyuai and Lish on the western coast of the continent. Rich farmland stretched as far as the eye could see, interrupted only sparsely by small clumps of trees and the occasional rising hillock. It spanned the continent from east to west, bridging three nations and three times as many city-states. It was the lifeblood of commerce in the north, and every time she had traveled it, the sky was a deep cerulean blue; that perfect color that one only finds at the cusp of summer. The clouds were just as thick and puffy as she had always encountered when walking the road, and they hung low against the horizon looking like patches of cotton drifting on the soothing breeze.
She remembered thinking it odd to have to battle beneath such an ideal summer sky.
The stink of blood and burning flesh stung her nose, making her eyes water. Lemurian soldiers lay alongside their Kharturan enemies in various states of death, up and down the road. Border skirmishes weren't unheard of, especially considering the fertile land in question. Onyx wanted all of the land she could take, but the Plains of Gim were foremost on her list of conquests.
Strategically, it was an obvious choice. The Golden Plains were the most fertile lands in the world, with the ability to feed millions. It was what made Khartur such a wealthy and respected nation. Every home in the Twelve Kingdoms ate Kharturan grain.
If Onyx could control the Plains, then she could openly shape the world economy as she saw fit. Feeding an army of unimaginable size and sending them along the Golden Road and into Emushep-Cairo was one of her father's most frequent nightmares. How many times had she come upon him pacing the halls of her home, knowing that he hadn't slept a wink? She'd lost count long ago. This common fear was what had solidified the alliance between Khartur and House of Mercury.
Today Onyx was testing that alliance to its fullest.
It was pure, dumb luck that Ami had been here at all. A last minute invitation from the Governess of Gim had her and a small contingent of Kharturan elite on the Golden Road. Were it not for them, The Holy City would have fallen so much sooner.
Auntie Rhafa's tea had once again saved the kingdom from imminent destruction — for a short time, at least.
Explosions surrounded her suddenly, causing the earth to roll and tremble beneath her feet. Each successive blast drew closer to her position, making it apparent that Onyx considered Ami a threat. If there weren't so many people trying to kill her at the moment, she might have felt flattered. Unfortunately, the rapid fire of automatic weapons drowned out any superfluous thoughts that surfaced in Ami's mind. All her focus was dedicated to dodging death's hand.
She sent forth one attack after another, decimating the Lemurian war machines with torrents of water and ice. Frozen spears, drawn from heaven, pinned the mechanized cavalry to the road, while deluge after deluge crushed columns of infantry beneath tons of water. The devastation of her magical assaults inspired the locals to come out of their holes and pick up the weapons of the dead and fallen, even though they were obviously outnumbered three to one. She didn't have to consult her tactical computer to know that these long odds would overwhelm them sooner than later.
More of Mercury's power flooded her as a large, bipedal monstrosity lumbered out of the black smoke of a burning field. It towered over her by some thirty feet, and was armored from head to toe with Adonite, a Thrayan mineral that dampened magic fields. Its speed and maneuverability made it a deadly foe, especially for a Senshi.
Faced with something so formidable, Ami did the sensible thing.
In every simulation that she had gone through in her training, this beast had killed her five times out of ten. The terrain, flat and open as it was, favored it over her as well, which made this situation even more hazardous. She fired her Shabon Spray in a wide blanket before the Senshi Killer, dropping the temperature well below zero as she ran. A thick icy blanket covered the road immediately, but to her dismay the lumbering beast did not fall. It slipped and slid for a moment, but only until large claw-like toes sprang from hidden compartments to grip the ground, keeping the vehicle upright.
Just her luck. Onyx was learning from her past mistakes.
She cursed and cast about for a secondary plan. Charred fields lay on either side of her. Every once in a while the burning carcass of a disemboweled transport would offer her desperately needed cover, but other than that she could find no weapon to use against the metal beast, unless, of course, she wanted to throw burnt wheat stalks at it. Ducking behind another burned-out wreck, she took a moment to survey her surroundings, pondering the terrain and her other assets. Sadly, those assets were all too few, but the terrain….
A triumphant grin exploded on her face as she sprinted into the burning fields and down into a small gully, dousing fires as she went. She pumped more and more water onto the charred earth as she went. She danced back and forth, weaving in and out over the same ground, allowing her enemy to churn up the wet earth until it created a deep, swampy pit.
The war machine's weapons fire became more and more sporadic as the pilots did their best to keep the walking arsenal upright. They attempted to walk free from the mire, but slid down the muddy incline and back into the muck.
Ami's grin became even larger, as she pumped more water into the soggy mess. In no time at all, the top-heavy Senshi Killer collapsed onto its side and mired itself deeper in the impromptu bog. Satisfied with her victory, she turned her back on the machine to investigate the sudden sound of cheering that had reached her ears.
She climbed the rise with difficulty, liberally caking her fatigued body in mud. When she crested the lip of the gully, she was greeted by a heartwarming sight. People milled about the battlefield, rounding up prisoners and firing at the retreating horde of Lemurian invaders.
They had done it! They had routed the enemy!
In her glee, she failed to note the flashing alarm on her visor display. She felt herself flying and then the world was awash with sound and heat. She hit the viscous mud heavily and skidded across its surface for a short time until coming to rest. Disoriented and groggy, she dimly noted a heavy weight on top of her, pinning her to the ground. A second flash of heat and an explosive roar made her ears ring. The musky smell of burnt earth and sweat filled her nostrils.
She struggled against the weight, but found that she had no leverage to move it. The mud made things even more difficult, as she couldn't find a surface solid enough to push against. Every time she made the attempt, the mud would trap her boot or simply absorb her hands. She started to panic. She couldn't see and she was pinned beneath something! How was she going to escape? Logic was thrown to the wind and Ami began to thrash and wiggle, hoping to at least free her face enough to catch a breath of fresh air.
"Hey! Hey, calm down!" The voice was above her, and she felt something squeeze her lightly. "Everything's going to be okay!"
The weight shifted and her eyes found the deep blue sky again. She sighed in relief, too tired to move and too sore to care about moving.
"Oi! Aramas!" The voice seemed very far away. "What did you catch this time?"
"A Senshi! Can you believe it?"
That voice seemed much closer.
Ami turned her head ever so slightly and caught sight of a very muddy but grinning male face. He turned slightly, showing her a pair of stormy blue gray eyes and an irreverent grin. His long dark hair was braided and caked with mud. It made her wonder what she must look like. A shadowy figure appeared next to the young man, blocking out the sun. Long white hair billowed in a cool breeze. The shadow whistled and clapped the young man on the shoulder.
"You have all the luck! Do you have any idea how long I've dreamed of mud-wrestling a Senshi?"
Something seemed inherently wrong with that statement. But, for the life of her, Ami couldn't think of why that might be. Was it the voice? The voice did sound familiar somehow….
Her line of thought was cut off as an annoying beeping invaded her reverie. The beeping became louder and more insistent the longer she tried to ignore it. Ami sighed and rolled over…
…And opened her eyes.
She groaned and slammed her hand down on the alarm angrily. But, the dream was already gone, leaving only a comforting, yet mystified sense of warmth and longing in its wake. Fractured images danced to the fore of her thoughts from time to time, but she could not recapture that last, important moment.
She grumpily stuffed her head back under her pillow, stealing another fifteen minutes of sleep before her dreaded enemy woke her again. There was something about today that made her not want to leave the safety of her blankets.
Masihachi Medical Center
Yuriko Mizuno had never in her life seen a body heal this quickly. Three confirmed broken ribs, a bruise the size of a medium pizza below his right pectoral, and three hairline fractures — one on the interior right clavicle, the second was three quarters down the left humerus, and the last was on the lower tibia just above the ankle — all of which had healed nicely.
"Incredible." Ranma's "I-told-you-so" smirk made her shake her head and roll her eyes. "So, is this another side-effect from the curse?"
The boy's unnatural ability to heal had to be something connected to the mystical nature of the curse. Sadly her assumption was derailed when Ranma shook his head.
"Chakra technique Pops and I picked up in Tibet." Yuriko raised a skeptical eyebrow, but said nothing, urging Ranma to continue. Maybe there was something to all this holistic mumbo-jumbo after all. "It's complicated, but it deals a lot with pushin' your chi through the water chakra. The extra energy speeds up the natural process quite a bit, but you have to rest while you do it. I don't like using the technique cause I have ta be flat on my back, an' I hate not being able ta' do nothin' for days on end. But, considering how much longer I'd be down… well, a couple of days of doing nothin' is a fair trade. I ain't mastered the technique yet, but I'm close."
Yuriko snorted and shook her head. The idea of magic and fantasy martial arts techniques still set her nerves on edge, but she couldn't denounce the evidence of her own eyes. It was hard to see one's stable yet terribly mundane world upset by something so unquantifiable, but Yuriko thought she was dealing with the situation rather well, all things considered. Changing one's worldview overnight wasn't easy, but she found herself filled with a giddy, girlish sense of wonder. The world had suddenly regained some of its mystery, and that excited and unsettled Yuriko quite a bit. She kept wondering what was going to pop up next… some talking animal calling on her to be a magical princess? She chuckled at the idea and continued to examine her patient's condition.
"You don't believe me?" Ranma asked with a sidelong glance.
"How can I not? You win. Dinner's on me." Yuriko waved her hand at Ranma in exasperation. "It's all just so… unbelievably amazing!"
It was Ranma's turn to snort. The look on his face was an easily read "welcome-to-my-life" expression.
"This is nothin'. You should'a seen the monk that demonstrated the technique." Ranma rolled his neck and rubbed his right arm as if chilled. "He had one of the acolytes chop his arm off with an axe, then the bald geezer gets up, calm as can be, blood drippin' everywhere, and picks up his arm. Then he sits down in front of me, and holds up the arm and then presses it to the stump. Ten minutes later you'd never know that he'd been hurt at all. No scar or nothin'."
Yuriko could only sit and stare at the boy.
"You're yanking my chain," she said at last, a playful smirk danced across her face. It soon turned to a frown as the boy again shook his head. Without explanation, he stood up from the examination table and walked over to a cabinet. After rummaging around for a moment he was able to find a small pair of surgical scissors that he presented to the disbelieving doctor. She furrowed her brow as he placed the scissors in her hand.
"What do you want me to do with these?"
"Stab me, scratch me, cut me… whatever floats your boat."
Yuriko blinked and then frowned angrily. "Not funny, Ranma-kun."
She started to put the scissors back, only to be stopped by the young martial artist's iron grip on her wrist. She started to pull away from him, but he inevitably drew the scissors to the back of his arm and gouged a small furrow in the flesh. Yuriko glared at him reproachfully. "What in the…?"
Ranma held up a finger and immediately pointed to the small wound. Yuriko didn't look down immediately. Instead, she fixed Ranma with the iciest look she could muster, promising him a retribution that he wouldn't soon forget. The young man, for all his bravado, seemed to shrink back a bit beneath the intense glare. After a moment, he swallowed hard and closed his eyes, blocking her out, presumably looking for his center… or whatever it was that martial artists did when the closed their eyes and regulated their breathing. It took a long time for it to finally happen, but eventually a deep peace settled over him and the air seemed to become charged with energy. Seeing this, Yuriko sighed in defeat and looked at her patient's forearm… and watched in amazement as the small cut began to close!
Her wrist, where his other hand still held it, tingled with a sudden heat. The sensation made her want to pry his hand off and scratch the itch that was starting to develop. As suddenly as it began, the skin closed over, the scab shrank, and the tiny scar disappeared. Next to his curse, this was the single most incredible thing Yuriko Mizuno had ever witnessed in her life. It didn't excuse what he had done, but it was cool nonetheless.
"Incredibly rad Chakra healing aside, you're in deep…." Yuriko felt her pager buzz and growled. It was plain that Ranma could feel a lecture coming on, because he was eyeing the door nervously. She glared at the tiny number for a moment, slowly pursing her lips as she realized who it was, and what is was all about.
"You're lucky, Mr. Saotome. We're going to have to postpone your lecture for another time."
"What'd I do ta deserve a sermon?" Ranma protested.
Yuriko sighed and pinched the bridge of her nose. "Do you know anything about the Hippocratic Oath?" Ranma looked thoughtful for a moment, tapping his chin in what Yuriko thought was an adorable manner. Giddy visions of a grandson with Ami's eyes and Ranma's pouting bottom lip easily came to mind. It made the page she just received all the more exciting. The young martial artist looked up at Yuriko again with an odd, uncertain look.
"You mean to tell me that people promise ta say one thing and do another? That's stupid."
Yuriko buried her face in her hands. "No, Ranma. You're thinking of a hypocrite. Hippocratic is something else completely."
"They sure sound the same." Ranma scratched his head and frowned.
Yuriko was saved the ordeal of explaining herself further by another vibration from her page. "Let's just call it a morning, okay?" She jotted down some quick notes on Ranma's chart and moved towards the counter. She must have looked a little rushed, because Ranma became a little tenser.
"No. Just another appointment that I had forgotten. Now then, about your next visit…."
"Next visit?" Ranma's posture became even tenser. He began looking around at the jars of tongue depressors and the cotton swabs nervously.
"Yes." Yuriko smiled slightly, trying to radiate an aura of calm. "There are some other things we need to talk about."
"What kinda things?" The young man started to back away nervously. The window, even though they were nine stories up, was looking mighty tempting to him. "You ain't gonna run no experiments on me or nothin', are you?"
Yuriko felt shocked and a little guilty at the mention of the idea. Sure she'd thought about it, but that's all she'd done.
"Ranma, I want you to know, right here and now, that I would never violate your trust in that manner. If you want to learn more about your curse, or any other aspect of your health for that matter, I'm always available." She smiled as he relaxed a bit. "But I would never do anything that would abuse your confidence in that manner. It's against everything that I believe in."
Ranma sighed and rubbed the back of his neck as he sat on the edge of the exam table.
"So what kinda stuff do you wanna talk about?"
Yuriko moved over to the table and hopped up next to her patient and looked him in the eye.
"First and foremost, I would like to work up a medical history. You and your father—" She grimaced inside at the thought of Genma. "—went without regular checkups for a very long time, so most of our talk will be a lot of questions about shots and past illnesses. We'll talk a little about your curse and if you're okay with it, maybe an exam or two in order to make sure your other body is healthy."
"Are we talkin' about one of them exams?" The young man blushed terribly, which caused Yuriko to smirk.
"You've heard of those, have you?"
Ranma nodded. "Doc Tofu was always tryin' to convince me that they were necessary, but there ain't no way I'm lettin' no perv doctor touch me there when I'm a girl!"
It was all that Yuriko could do not to laugh. "I… *ahem* …I'll tell you what. We'll talk about all of that next time. I'll tell you some of the things we're looking for and you can tell how you'd like to proceed. How's that sound?"
"Sounds okay, I guess." Ranma didn't exactly look like it was okay, but he had calmed considerably as they had talked. "Is there anything else?"
"Aside from our date this afternoon, I can't think of anything else right off the top of my head. You have a clean bill of health for Thursday's fieldtrip."
Ranma shifted uneasily, and it had absolutely nothing to do with "first-day-of-school" jitters. "Do we hafta call it a date?"
"What would you like to call it? A rendezvous? A tryst? A secret liaison?" She waggled her eyebrows and grinned impishly.
Ranma shivered and ran his hand through his hair, showing his discomfort. He knew that she was joking, but… damn! She was old enough to be his mom! "Stuff like this is gonna scar me for life," he mumbled under his breath. Apparently the comment was loud enough to be heard, because Yuriko winked at him and grinned. She began to jot something else down on Ranma's chart, regaining some of her professional demeanor again, much to her patient's relief.
"Speaking of scars, there is something that really has me curious. What are these tiny scars from? I mean, you were able to heal yourself fairly easily, and these don't look much deeper than the cut you made earlier…." She trailed off, gently examining a set of three parallel scratches on his right shoulder blade with her fingers. The more she looked the more marks she found. It was disconcerting to find literally hundreds of the tiny wounds.
"I got 'em before I learned the technique," Ranma said with a shiver. "I've been workin' on getting' rid of them, but existing scars are harder to heal for some reason. The monk that taught me the technique said somethin' about healing the spiritual damage first, before I could heal the physical damage." Ranma shrugged. "I ain't too good on the spiritual side of things yet, but now that Pops ain't houndin' me all the time about trainin' I'm hopin' to get some time to master these meditations that I learned on the road."
"Your father's not exactly the spiritual type, is he?" Yuriko winked, eliciting a barked laugh from Ranma.
"You got that right."
"Tell me though, were you attacked by an animal? These look too uniform to be a typical training injury."
"It depends on what your definition of a typical training session is," Ranma said darkly.
"What do you mean?"
Ranma sighed and scratched his head. Something in the pit of Yuriko's stomach told her that this was going to be a story she didn't want to hear.
Etsuko Himemiya had been practicing medicine with Yuriko Mizuno since they'd left med school. Their time at the orphanage had brought her very close to both Yuriko and Nodoka, and so it was a joy that she was able to catch up with her old friend as she waited for her son's examination to be finished. The women had been chatting it up nonstop, Nodoka bragging about her Ranma and Etsuko sharing pictures of four little devils of her own. It was a joyful reunion that was soon to be tragically interrupted by a primal scream of rage that touched every mother within three floors of Yuriko Mizuno's voice.
"A PIT OF STARVING CATS?!"
Nodoka's hand immediately went to her mouth in concern.
"Oh. Oh, dear." She looked torn between investigating the disturbance, and finding a place to hide. Etsuko opened her mouth to ask what was wrong when a second explosion shook the office.
There was a short pause.
"GIVE OR TAKE?!"
Etsuko looked at Nodoka's wide eyes and pale face. The symptoms for shock were plainly setting in. She tried to help her friend, but even before she could escape the confines of her chair, Nodoka Saotome had passed out.
A moment later, Etsuko's own eyes widened as Yuriko burst out of exam room one, dragging a handsome and very shirtless young man behind her. He was doing everything in his power to slow the furious woman, and seemed terribly surprised that his efforts were futile. Yuriko stomped her way over to the unconscious woman in Etsuko's lap, seized her by the front of her kimono and began to shake her forcefully.
"NODOKA! WAKE UP! DO YOU HAVE ANY IDEA WHAT THAT @#%^$&^&* GENMA DID TO YOUR BABY?! I'M GOING TO #$%^&^ KILL HIM!"
The young man grunted and tried to pry Yuriko's hands from his mother's clothing while Etsuko was doing her best to lessen the impact of Nodoka's head against the floor. Both were yelling at Yuriko to calm down, although the young man seemed to add fuel to the fire with his "Knock it off, you looney chick" comment. Yuriko seemed almost oblivious to their presence as she continued to try and wake Nodoka Saotome.
"479 TIMES! 479 TIMES! INTO A PIT OF STARVING CATS! HOW COULD YOU MARRY SUCH A MONSTER?"
Etsuko stopped trying to get Yuriko's attention in favor of staring at Ranma's scars. Things naturally degenerated from there, and the poor young man ended up having to deal with two women rather than one. He was successful in freeing his mother before she received whiplash or any serious damage, and as he ran down the flights of stairs — due to the elevator taking too damn long — he heard a very familiar battle cry emanating from somewhere above him.
"GENMA SAOTOME! PREPARE TO DIIIIIE!"
The fact that the name wasn't quite right and that the roar echoed with distinctively feminine voices didn't give Ranma any comfort.
Both Genma and Ryouga, though separated by many continents and large bodies of water, shivered and sneezed repeatedly. Their responses however, were very different.
"Stupid Ranma," Ryouga growled as he toured an ancient city hidden deep within the Amazon Basin.
Genma simply looked around the room, passed wind and then went back to his nap.
An undisclosed military base
<I'M TELLING YOU, THERE'S SOMETHING DOWN HE—> the Chinese soldier's warning was drowned out by his dying scream, and then the inevitable static as the radio channel died.
Commander Wi Chen had received a dozen such reports in less than fifteen minutes. Each had been more terrible than the last, leaving him trembling in terror. He wanted to vomit each time he looked at the monitors. Twelve squads had been dispatched to investigate the initial alarm; only three remained.
There had been reports of demons, of living shadows coming out of the darkness and ripping crack troops apart with such brutality that the bodies would have to be identified by dental records. That was, if the teeth could be found.
Assuming he lived through this, Commander Chen wondered how he was going to explain the deaths of his men to his superiors. It wasn't as if they would believe that demons and ghosts perpetrated this wholesale slaughter. And yet, that was exactly what was happening. He had been watching these monstrosities roaming the corridors through what little remained of the surveillance system for less than thirty minutes. When they became aware of the cameras, they were promptly destroyed. But he had seen enough to be convinced that they were real. He had no idea where they came from, nor did he truly care at this moment. His greater concern was why they were here.
Their attack pattern was obvious, and Wi Chen knew that there was nothing that he could do to stop the advance. But what would demons want with nuclear weapons? It made no sense. That would be the last question that Commander Chen would ever ask aloud, as the horse-headed shadow took shape behind him.
He had enough time to pray that his wife and children had escaped the base before Savitiri fell upon the man and devoured his soul along with his flesh.
Herb shrugged into his pack easily, adjusting it so that the magical treasures he carried would distribute themselves properly. The boat that they had hired — bought would have been a more appropriate term — was already returning to gather the next group to be ferried over from the mainland.
Ten days gathering and organizing the refugees had been a mind-numbing task. Getting them across the Yellow Sea and into Japan was a nightmare. While both nations had allies and agents living here, it was evident that the Amazons held more influence. Luckily for the Musk, the truce remained intact. Had Khu Lon decided to cut Herb loose, there was nowhere that his people could go to find aid. Their little province wasn't recognized as a sovereign state, which meant politically that they were considered Chinese nationals. Herb could only imagine the reception that he and his people would receive if delivered to the Chinese embassy. The fact that they were illegal immigrants only heightened his anxiety.
Herb sighed noisily and glanced at his "shadows".
Lime and Mint stood on either side of their king, but no one was as close to him as Pepper, who had taken up a silent vigil at the young ruler's side. The seriousness in Pepper's eyes worried Herb. The boy was maturing too quickly. He had a feverish look that was bordering on paranoia. He would jump at loud noises and brandish his small knives at the slightest hint of danger. It was almost enough to crush Herb's spirit.
The only thing that kept him going any more was the thought of revenge, and the needs of his people.
<So, where do we head from here?> he asked Xian Pu in Chinese as the Amazon shrugged into the harness that would carry her Great-Grandmother's weakened and still broken body.
<I don't know.> She looked around her, and finally settled on two of her sisters that had chosen to accompany them from Hong Kong. <We have properties throughout Asia that were bought long ago for emergencies such as this….> She looked to the ragged form of Khu Lon and shrugged. <Great-Grandmother knows them all, as do some of the other Elders. We will choose one here in Tokyo to serve as our base of operations, and then progress from there.>
<What about the restaurant in Nerima?> Herb asked. He noticed the way that Xian Pu winced and subsequently dismissed the notion.
<We sold the property.> Her voice was terse, and far too controlled. Saotome must have hurt her pride deeply for her to be this cold about the issue. <I have heard Great-Grandmother speak of a house in Azabu Juuban. It is close enough to the harbor, and the house there is larger than anything that we could afford in Nerima.>
Herb was about to say something more when Xian Pu walked over to Khu Lon, and after a brief conversation, gathered the ancient woman into her arms. Khu Lon gingerly scrambled into the harness and allowed her great granddaughter to take up her staff. With a weak gesture she motioned for the others to follow.
Herb sighed and adjusted his pack again, finally setting out after the Amazons with his small retinue.
There was something to be said for rampaging women. Had Happosai been in attendance he would have run for the hills, laughing maniacally in order to hide his abject terror. Unfortunately, he wasn't, so all Nabiki had to vent her frustrations on were four very capable men and women; three of whom had incredibly large noses, and one that had started having explicit dreams about her for almost two weeks straight now.
This wouldn't have been such a terrible thing had the jerk not projected them to over half of the neighborhood. She might have even forgiven him that, if he hadn't woken her with his little fantasy before dawn! Now, here she was, awake well before she should have been, trying to shake the feel… er… image that he had left her with. BUT IT WASN'T WORKING!
The fact that the object of her ire had been pestering her since she had come down from her room was not only aggravating, it was embarrassing as hell. It was humiliating enough that Yoshitsune was dreaming about her in such an… uninhibited manner, but the thing that really irked Nabiki was that the jerk didn't have the decency to remember the dreams at all! Everyone else in her shrinking world seemed to know about them, but Don Juan remained clueless!
She didn't know whether to feel insulted or grateful.
"I'm only going to say this once, Yoshi-chan. Leave me alone."
One thing was for certain, though. The idiot kept hounding her about finding Ranma, and it was really starting to grate on her already frayed nerves. She could have easily settled it telepathically — she was really starting to get the hang of that gift — but there was something about verbally dressing down a man in public that she missed.
As Nabiki stormed through the yard towards the dojo, Yoshitsune skipped ahead and blocked her path, forcing her to pull up short. Her eyes narrowed dangerously, and her long, tapered ears began to twitch in a rather agitated manner.
"How long are we going to sit around here?" he demanded. "It's been two weeks now and all you've done is sulk!"
Her response was anything but polite. The rather violent images involving a spoon, hot coals, and the ultimate symbol of Yoshitsune's manhood that she tossed into the man's head made his face pale. Confident that she had his attention, Nabiki narrowed her eyes dangerously. "You've got a lot of nerve making demands like that, Yoshi-chan." It was amazing what a little ice in your voice could do to a man's complexion. Nabiki was impressed that he didn't back down.
"With all that's at stake, I think that I've got the right."
"You've got the right? YOU'VE GOT THE RIGHT?!" She was in his face in an instant, jabbing her finger roughly at the center of his chest. "Listen here, you pathetic…." Nabiki was so mad that the insult flew from her mind. "You kidnap me, drag me before a giant old tree and steal my life from me, all because you think you've got the right?"
Nabiki could hear the grass whimpering beneath her feet, and the trees were starting to moan. She could feel the koi begin to panic and hunt for places to hide themselves. It was truly disconcerting being able to hear the voices of nature… cool, but disconcerting. Before she could really put all of the clues together, Yoshitsune was throwing her attitude right back at her, poking her just as roughly and forcing her to back up a step.
"Listen here, you self-righteous little minx! We gave you your life back! You should be grateful."
Nabiki saw red. "GRATEFUL?! GRATEFUL! YOU TURNED ME INTO A #@$%^&$%! ELF!" she growled, sounding more like a wolf than a teenage girl. "And just where do you think I could go with these?"
Her long, tapered ears flapped like wings.
"I'm not into cosplay and I sure as hell can't stick them under a hat." Her growl grew more dangerous as she stepped closer to him. Sharp canines flashed angrily as she continued to berate the man. "So tell me, oh Wise One. How do you expect me to search a city with over twelve million people in it, supposing that Ranma is still here and not some place like, say, China, without attracting the wrong kind of attention?"
Yoshitsune took a step back from her as she jabbed her finger into his chest. His eyes looked skyward with concern for the way the wind had started to pick up.
"How am I supposed to know? You're the almighty Huntress, the physical embodiment of the Earth! You're the one that's supposed to be the expert on finding Aramas," he countered, jabbing his finger into her breastbone.
"Ranma." Nabiki viciously slapped his finger away.
The man continued as if she had said nothing. Neither noticed the crowd that had formed at the table, nor the furious betting that was going on between Hato-chan and the others.
"And if you think for one minute that I'm going to spend another day listening to you whine…" He jabbed his finger roughly at her breastbone. "…while the Rhakshasa kill more innocents…"
Washi winced and placed two thousand yen on Yoshitsune. The kid was stupid and stubborn. He would win out in the end by the simple fact that he didn't know when to quit. Tsubame, ever loyal to the Huntress, grinned with feral glee and matched his bet. Genma started to bet on Yoshitsune (he was a man, after all), but the glare from Soun made him change his mind.
"…then you've got another…"
Kasumi smiled as she set out a plate of cookies, and laid down a five-thousand-yen bet that Yoshi-kun was going to have his finger broken. No one took that bet.
Nabiki's aura flared a brilliant green. Thunder rumbled in the distance and the ground seemed to tremble a bit more than was usual.
Hato-chan shook her head and bet ten thousand yen that both would end up wet and kissing by the end of the altercation. She was a hopeless romantic, and considering Nabiki-san's dreams lately…. Washi and Tsubame snorted and slapped down their money, as did Soun. There was no way that his daughter would betray Ranma like that.
Yoshitsune started to poke Nabiki again, but her hand blurred and caught the offending finger. To the man's credit, his own hand blurred and caught Nabiki's wrist, preventing her from breaking the offending digit; but the man didn't count on the second strike aimed at his groin. The knee came up, the man went down; but he refused to let go of Nabiki's wrist.
Nabiki and Yoshitsune growled at each other and exchanged a flurry of blows that were cunningly blocked on both sides without breaking the locks that they had on each other. Soun and Genma had trouble wrapping their minds around the fact that the young woman, who up until recently had difficulty remembering a basic kata, was unleashing a veritable storm of blows at the man in front of her. After a full minute of trading blows, Soun Tendo was grinning like mad. Like father, like daughter.
Genma, on the other hand, was more impressed with Yoshitsune. Not that he would ever tell his dear friend that… Nope. That was just asking to be thrown out. Still, Yoshitsune was to be admired. It was a testament to the young man's endurance that he was able to fight through the haze of pain that he was assuredly experiencing. Genma remembered well the Master's training, and wondered if this remarkable young man had ever been exposed to the mysteries of the Sacred Jeweled Knee.
And thus the battle before the koi pond continued.
The pair grappled until at last Nabiki got a solid kick in, causing her opponent to stagger towards the calm waters of the pond. He was about to fall in when, in an amazing display of balance he halted himself. His back was arched dangerously over the water, and his arms windmilled in order to keep himself dry.
Nabiki grinned evilly, intent on putting the man in his place.
She stalked over to him and started to push him in, when Yoshi's hand shot out and grabbed her wrist. Nabiki's eyes bulged as her opponent teetered and drew her off balance. She struggled to free herself, but the man's grip was like iron.
He grinned triumphantly as the two hit the water with a huge splash. The brawling that ensued was vicious, but in the end, Hato-chan collected her winnings. Soun wept at his daughter's promiscuity as she shared a deep, passionate kiss with Yoshitsune.
"Where do you keep the green tea?" Setsuna grumbled irritably as she rifled through the cupboards in the kitchen.
Rei tried to ignore her new housemate in favor of the large physics book in front of her. Somehow, the mathematics of refraction seemed more appealing than dealing with the green-haired woman. Unfortunately, Setsuna was fixing her with that look — the one that made her back itch as if it were on fire. It was easy to imagine the smug, expectant look on her face too.
"I don't." Rei growled.
When had she lost control over her life? Had she ever had control in the first place?
"Pity." Setsuna's voice was filled with disdain as she continued to raid the cabinets. After a few rather noisy minutes, Rei heard her set a large ceramic jar on the counter. Another, more hollow canister soon followed, making Rei's teeth grind. There was little doubt that Setsuna had uncovered Rei's personal stash of Pocky.
The room began to noticeably heat.
"Don't you have your own home to go to?" Rei growled. She could almost feel the woman's eyebrow arch.
"Do you have some tact hidden away in these cupboards?" Setsuna asked pleasantly.
Rei spun in her chair sharply and glared at the older woman.
"Look, Miss Know-all-See-all, I've had it about up to here…" Her hand shot above her head. "…with you and your attitude."
"Believe me, the feeling is mutual," Setsuna murmured dryly.
Rei ground her teeth. "Then why are you still here? You've got the answers that you wanted, right?"
"Wrong." Setsuna frowned and shook her head. "We know that Ur has returned. We know that he has attacked the Horus, but we do not know what his next step will be."
"He's going to come after us." Rei made no attempt to hide her sarcasm. "You know, send the monster to collect some precious form of spiritual energy, attack to probe our strength, and then send his lame-o henchmen/general things to try and kill us."
Setsuna listened to the tirade with a bemused smirk.
"We, of course, power up and lay the smack down on the bastards — who are too cute for their own good, damn waste of good flesh that they are — and then face off against the impossibly powerful bad guy who, in all likelihood will kill us, leaving Usagi to fend for herself and beat the bad guy. Did I leave anything out?"
"Resurrection." Setsuna began to fill the teapot with water from the sink.
"Ah, yes." Rei's voice was bitterly cynical. "Meatball-head will bring us back from the dead, because she loves us and can't seem to function without us. Idiot."
Setsuna paused in placing the teapot on the stove to look at Rei critically.
"What?" The raven-haired girl demanded. Setsuna said nothing and calmly placed the water on to boil.
"Unfortunately, there are a few flaws in your theory."
"First, the Rhakshasa do not collect energy. They eat the souls of their prey, like you would eat a sushi platter or a beef bowl. There is no great entity looking to be fed, unless of course you count the Rhakshasa themselves. There are no Heart Crystals or Star Seeds to replace with these monsters."
Rei swallowed hard and stared at Setsuna, praying that she was joking. From the serious set of her face, it was evident that she wasn't.
"Second, they could care less about our strengths. Relatively speaking, they have numbers on their side sufficient to overwhelm the Earth like a plague of locusts. Fortunately for us, Queen Serenity and King Endymion the First sealed the majority of them away."
"Then how are they here?" Rei demanded. Setsuna sighed and rubbed her neck.
"That is what we need to find out, Rei. If Ur is leading them, then he is the one that set them free. I cannot see how this is possible, but he was a consummate Arcanist in his day. The best in all of Atlantis, in fact." Setsuna frowned and turned to collect a pair of teacups. "Regardless, he is no fool. He will not send one henchman, or even two. He will organize strategic strikes and rely on strength of numbers to defeat any who stand in his way."
Rei opened her mouth to protest, but Setsuna beat her to the punch. "They will try to kill us, though, if that is any consolation to you. Possibly even worse…" She paused for effect. "…enslave us."
Rei glared at the dark-skinned woman.
"So you're saying that we don't have a chance. Is that it?"
Setsuna stared at Rei for a long moment, weighing the other girl pound for pound. The teakettle began to scream, causing Rei to jump nervously. Setsuna smiled grimly and set about collecting the pot.
"As far as I know, we are at the peak of our powers. This is it, there's nothing more. None of the elder Senshi had the opportunity to pass on the greater part of their knowledge to their apprentices before the final battles, so you and the others will not have any memories to draw on. I also witnessed a number of the Senshi's talismans destroyed as well. So, many of the more powerful attacks once open to the Inner Senshi are now lost to us."
"Talismans?" Rei asked bewildered.
"Items of power." Setsuna poured Rei a cup and pushed it towards her.
"I know what they are." Rei accepted the tea darkly. "They are the keys that allow us to safely tap the deeper well of our planet's magic. Like Hotaru's Silence Glaive or your staff."
"Very good." Setsuna tried not to be patronizing, really. It didn't work though. "Did you know however, that without them to act as a buffer for us, we could burn ourselves to a cinder?"
Rei ignored the poor choice of metaphor in favor of trying to remember if she had ever had a talisman. Memories from her past life were hard enough to access when she was calm, but now it seemed nigh impossible.
"Weren't there records kept?"
Setsuna arched her eyebrow quizzically.
"I know that there were records kept! What I mean is, wouldn't the elder Senshi have left a training manual or something in case they fell in battle? Wouldn't they have prepared for the possibility that the talismans could have been destroyed?"
"Unfortunately, the elder Senshi were not the most trusting of women. They had seen too much and suffered a great deal to help Serenity forge her fragile peace throughout the system. Each woman guarded her secrets viciously; for fear that their techniques might one day fall into the hands of an enemy." Setsuna set her cup down and rubbed her neck. "The Silver Millennium was not a time of stable peace; not by any means. There were always conflicts, even among the elder Senshi. It's inevitable where politics are involved."
"What about the talismans then?" Rei pressed. "Surely there's a record on how to build new ones."
"Oh, there are records to be sure. But you neither have the time, the luxury, nor the capacity to travel to Mars. Mining the amount of ore required to make your own Obsidian Bow took over seven years. Tack on another fifty to learn and lay the proper spells without annihilating yourselves and the majority of the world we're trying to protect… well, you get my point."
Rei looked crestfallen.
"Therefore you can see that there will be very little 'smack down', and probably a great deal of creative survival involved, if we're lucky. The Rhakshasa, being otherworldly beings, are not attractive to anyone's sensibilities. Ur, however, was extremely handsome in his day. Whether his looks weathered a ten thousand year imprisonment as a statue, I do not know… nor do I care. However, if all of us make it to Ur, I will be very surprised if you will be concerned with his rugged good looks. In fact, I will be amazed if any of us survive to face Ur at all. Regardless of who lives and dies, he will kill most of those that challenge him at that point, and Usagi, as charitable as she is, will end up facing off against him alone. She may or may not win to resurrect us; darkness will probably consume the Earth, and we will have failed in our assigned duties completely. Have I left anything out?"
Rei silently shook her head.
"We must not despair, though. You have given us the key to winning, even if we don't know what it means yet." Setsuna smiled weakly and sipped her tea.
"Ami riding a horse. How's that supposed to help us?" Rei demanded.
"You tell me. Symbols are supposed to be your forte, priestess, not mine. I can only guess." Setsuna set her cup aside and steepled her hands. "The horse, as symbolism, has held so many meanings over the millennia. Perseus freed Pegasus from the Gorgon's body, thus giving him a way to save Andromeda from the Kraken. Kalki is said to be the tenth and last incarnation of Vishnu, and he will come riding upon the back of a white horse to bring about the final destruction of the wicked and restore creation to a state of righteousness."
Rei rubbed her chin thoughtfully. "So the horse is a means of conveyance then, and Ami is going to be our salvation?"
Setsuna shrugged and allowed her hands to fall to the table. "Who can say? Ami is often the key to victory, is she not? Without her tactical expertise and timely insights, how many battles would you have survived?" Rei grumbled awkwardly and shifted in her seat. "Ami may be the key, however think on this. The horse could also represent our hope and Ami is the key to claiming it." The woman looked thoughtful for a moment, but eventually shook her head and resumed drinking her tea.
"What?" Rei asked.
"Nothing." Setsuna attempted to dodge the question, but Rei pressed forward
"A forgotten dream…or perhaps wishful thinking, nothing more." Rei frowned and started to press the issue, but Setsuna cut her off. "Are the others still coming?"
Rei nodded and reluctantly let the matter drop. If Setsuna didn't want talk about it, then there was little that Rei could do to convince her otherwise. "Everyone except Ami. She's spending time with her mother today."
Setsuna nodded and looked vacantly up at the ceiling. The expression on the woman's face was terribly sad, but controlled. Rei wanted to ask her about it, but there was something about the set of the woman's jaw that warned her that this was a very touchy subject, one that promised to be painful if broached. The young shrine maiden sighed and settled her chin in the palm of her hand dejectedly. There were days that she really hated this job.
Fukugawa Edo Museum
Ami sighed and fidgeted next to her mother in front of the museum building. Yuriko grinned as she casually leaned against the three-toned, rose-colored marble wall next to the museum's entrance.
Ami shook her head a bit too abruptly to be convincing. The flat look in her mother's eye and the wry grin that accompanied it, told her as much. "A little," she conceded.
"Everyone gets the jitters on their first date. Don't worry about it."
"This isn't my first date!" Ami hissed. Again the all-knowing, flat-eyed stare that all mothers seem to have came to bear, leaving Ami squirming even more. "It's not. And besides, you can't call this a date."
"Oh? What would you call it then?" Yuriko's smile was indulgent at best.
Ami crossed her arms over her stomach and turned away from her mother, looking for a more solid foundation to battle her from. "Chaperoning." It was Ami's turn to smile.
Yuriko Mizuno laughed, drawing stares from more than a few people entering the museum. "I have to say, the sentiment is noble, Ami-chan, but you don't have to protect my virtue."
"Who says I'm protecting yours?" Ami growled.
Yuriko laughed again and shook her head. Ami sighed and looked around for a rock to hide under as more attention was drawn her way. Her mother wrapped her arm around Ami's shoulders and started to say something, probably very crude, but was cut off as her cell phone began to ring.
"Hello! This is Yuriko." Ami sighed in relief — saved by the bell. "Hi, Maeda-kun. What can I do for you today? Mrs. Hohki? Yes, she's one of mine."
Ami began to panic. Maeda-Sensei was one of the ER doctors. Her mother wasn't officially on call today, but that didn't mean she couldn't be called in to deal with one of her regular patients. The butterflies that had been assaulting her for over an hour were now little more than a cold lump in the pit of her stomach.
"Chest pains…? No, she has no history of… Well, what tests have you run? And?" Ami watched as her mother's face became more and more upset. The voice on the other end of the line was sounding agitated and rather upset as well. "If they're all negative, then why are you calling me? Oh, come on, Maeda! This is my afternoon off! I'm on a date with my daughter. Fine, put her on the phone."
Ami's panic became full-blown agitation as her mother's face relaxed and became a mask of professionalism.
"Good afternoon, Mrs. Hohki. Yes, this is Dr. Mizuno. I hear that you're not feeling very well." Ami sighed as her mother flashed her a sad smile. She nodded occasionally and rubbed her forehead. After a few moments, she covered the receiver with her hand. "Sorry, Honey."
Ami smiled weakly and shrugged. Yuriko turned her attention back to the conversation and fished out a small notepad and pen from her purse. She began jotting down notes and after a moment of silence she tucked the pen behind her ear. Her hand subconsciously combed through her hair, and Ami knew that the battle was lost.
"Yes, Mrs. Hohki. I'll be there in about twenty minutes. You're welcome."
Ami sighed as her mother turned off the phone and began fishing out her wallet.
"Duty calls, Ami-chan." Yuriko pulled a small amount of money and her credit card, and passed them to her daughter.
"Maybe we should just re-schedule this for another day." Ami knew the attempt was doomed even before the words left her mouth, but the old adage died hard with her: "nothing ventured, nothing gained."
Her mother quirked a grin and shook her head. "He'll be here any minute, and there's no sense in prolonging his reward any longer. He won the bet, after all, and I'm a woman of my word." She smiled and lightly patted Ami on the shoulder. "Besides, I almost think he would prefer to be alone with you over me any day of the week."
Ami's face reddened immensely. "You really think so?" Her voice was strained and quiet.
Yuriko nodded and wrapped an arm around her daughter, squeezing her close. "Between you and me, I think I'm too much woman for him." She winked playfully and poked Ami on the nose. Ami rolled her eyes and snorted.
"I'm sure that you are right." Ami said dryly.
"Too hot to handle?" her mother asked.
"Undoubtedly." Ami's smile was warm and playful, earning her a hug.
"Bless you, child. You know just what to say."
Yuriko pulled away and started back towards the train station, only to pull up short and spin back to face her daughter. There was a mischievous gleam in the woman's eyes that set Ami's nerves on edge. Before she knew it, Yuriko was back and pressing something into her hands.
"Tell Ranma 'sorry' for me — for this morning, and not being able to be here in person." Ami waved, wondering what her mother had done to Ranma this morning to warrant an apology. The line of thought was derailed as Yuriko leaned in close and cupped her daughter's ear. "If you can't be good, then at least be careful," she whispered loudly with a wink. Ami started to question her about the innuendo, but her mother was off before she had even formed a coherent word.
Ami's eyes drifted down to the object in her palm and bulged incredulously. Her face, already pink with embarrassment, turned crimson as she thrust her hand forcefully into her purse. The feeling of a hundred pairs of eyes made her skin crawl. She was certain that everyone within two hundred yards had seen the small foil-wrapped, square package, which made the moment all the more horrifying to her.
What if Ranma saw? What would he think? Oh, she was going to kill her mother! This was so…
"Eeeee!" She jumped and recoiled at the sound of Ranma's voice behind her. She spun rapidly and flattened herself against the wall, obscuring her purse in the process. Ami was surprised to note Makoto's presence beside the handsome young man, and found herself feeling a bit more relaxed at the sight of the taller girl.
"You okay, Ami-chan?" Concern tinged Ranma's voice, causing Ami's fading blush to quickly return.
"Yes, thank you."
"Where's your mom?" Makoto asked gruffly.
There was a palpable edge to the young woman's voice and in her stance that screamed of barely suppressed anger. It reminded Ami of how Makoto had been when they had first met. Ranma, on the other hand, looked like he knew he was about to be ambushed. His eyes darted left and right, taking in the crowd as he backed his way to the wall next to Ami. It made the young woman want to giggle. Her mother had been right; she was too much for Ranma to handle.
"She had an emergency at the hospital."
"She ain't mad at me or nothin', is she?" Ranma asked nervously. He hadn't exactly expected the good doctor's reaction this morning, and he wasn't sure how to deal with rampaging mothers yet. One thing was certain, he'd rather go ten rounds with Ryouga, Taro, and the Old Letch all together rather than experience the wrath he'd seen this morning.
"No. She didn't seem upset at all." Ranma sagged with relief, and she was forced to cough in order to cover her sudden need to laugh.
"What did you do?" Makoto growled.
"I didn't do nothing!"
Ami felt suddenly nervous. "She didn't do or say anything offensive, did she?
It was then that she noticed the gifts in Ranma's hands. A wonderful bouquet of flowers was held limply in his right hand, and a small powder-blue box with a creamy lace ribbon tied around it to keep it closed.
"So the date's off, then?" Makoto asked.
"It ain't a date." Ranma growled, crossing his arms over his chest defiantly. "It's payback."
Makoto rolled her eyes and turned back to Ami, who fidgeted beneath the other girl's expectant gaze.
"Mother asked that I take her place." She swallowed visibly, hoping Ranma wouldn't notice her nervousness. "She said that Ranma had earned it. She also apologizes for whatever happened this morning."
Makoto turned her bitter attention to Ranma and narrowed her eyes to suspicious slits. "Do you want me to stay with you, Ami-chan?" The implied distrust was lost on Ranma, who was staring at the gifts in his hands uncertainly.
"No. No, I think we'll be fine," Ami said quietly. "Thank you, though." She looked at Makoto apologetically. They hadn't really spoken since the dinner at Ranma's house, and she could still feel a wall of anger between them.
Makoto nodded brusquely and then stepped in front of Ranma. The tall girl stared him in the eye balefully. "Hurt her and I will kill you. Very, very slowly."
Ami was shocked by Makoto's declaration, and wanted to say something, but checked herself when Ranma simply smiled. Makoto turned to Ami and bobbed her head. "He tries anything funny, you call me."
It was more than a request, which made Ami a little upset, but at the same time hopeful that they could get beyond their current differences. That didn't excuse the fact that Makoto's attitude towards Ranma was really getting out of hand, though, and from the way Ranma was grinning, he wasn't exactly helping matters either. Case in point: Ranma's hand darted out and tweaked the other girl's nose playfully. "Have fun with Mom this afternoon, Sis."
Makoto growled and punched at him blindly. Ami was surprised to see, or rather not see, Ranma's hand intercept the blow. The sound of flesh smacking loudly against flesh made her wince, but Ranma showed no sign of discomfort. He just stood there, his hand wrapped around Makoto's fist, smiling smugly. The small blue package he had been holding was resting neatly atop Makoto's head.
A gruff sound escaped the angry girl's throat as she tugged and tugged until she was finally able to tear her fist free. She stumbled back a step and caught her balance again. The small box had somehow disappeared from the top of her head, and made its way back into Ranma's hand. Makoto's eyes narrowed dangerously, but she made no move to press the issue any further, for which Ami was grateful. The tall girl nodded to Ami and promptly spun on her heel and started back for the station. Ranma chuckled and waved, causing Makoto to toss him an obscene gesture.
"You really shouldn't antagonize her," Ami chided.
"Why not?" he asked. "Isn't this how brothers and sisters are supposed to act?"
Ami wasn't prepared for his naive response, and thus had no ready response to his question. Having no siblings of her own only confounded the problem more. "No. No, I don't think so," she said. "I mean, if I had a brother or sister I would want them to be my friends, not my enemies."
"There's a difference?"
Ami blinked and realized that Ranma wasn't joking. "I… I think there is."
The young man seemed to pause for a moment, weighing the merits of the idea. "You really think she'd be my friend?" His expression was less than hopeful.
"Well, you did get off to a rocky start," Ami admitted. "But Makoto's a wonderful person. I'm certain that she will come around if you give her the chance. I doubt that teasing her will be helpful to your cause, though."
Ranma looked a bit disappointed. "It's so fun, though."
Ami laughed and shook her head.
Ranma felt his skin tingle with pleasure as Ami laughed. There was something in her smile that made his stomach knot as well. In fact, her mere presence was making him antsy. It was a scary feeling, one that he didn't understand. He'd felt it a couple times with Akane, especially in those special moments when she would smile just for him. It was a feeling of being too hot and chilled at the same time.
When she shook her head, he couldn't help but watch the way her hair danced lightly around her head. It was like strands of black silk waving in a light breeze. A serious sense of déjà vu settled over him, a terrifying sense of intense familiarity. It made him want to reach out his hand and run his fingers through her hair, just as he had done….
Ranma blinked and noted with some embarrassment that his hand had started to leave his side. He growled silently and nervously presented Ami with the gift that he had bought for her mother. The act was enough to cut off any unpleasant memories that were bubbling to the surface.
"I… uh, well… it was supposed to be for your mom, but… well, since she ain't here and all… you might as well take it." He cursed himself for his clumsy words and rolled his neck in his agitation.
Ami smiled and blushed a bit, but accepted the small blue box demurely. "Thank you, Ranma-kun. I'm sure that she will enjoy it."
Ranma shook his head offhandedly. "She can't have it."
Ami blinked and looked at him in surprise and with a great deal of confusion. "She can't?"
"Nope. See, this here was meant to be a diversion. Somethin' to keep your mom occupied while I got away."
Ami frowned. "You were going to leave my mother in the lurch?" she asked. Her voice was laced with disapproval.
Ranma threw up his hands in a panic. "Only if she started grabbin' me and stuff!"
He slapped his hands over his mouth and grimaced. The Saotome mouth had done it again. Stupid! Stupid! Stupid! He sighed and dropped his chin to his chest in defeat. This wasn't going the way it was supposed to. He wasn't exactly certain how it should play out, but he was sure that this wasn't it. He felt a whisper of a touch against his shoulder and looked up to see Ami smiling somewhat uncomfortably.
"She's a bit much to handle, isn't she?" Ami asked. There was a tinge of pink to her cheeks that made Ranma's stomach lurch. He shrugged and sighed.
"Well, she's no Amazon, but she's got the potential."
"Amazon?" Ami blinked and took a step back to regard Ranma quizzically. He laughed and scratched his forehead, wondering how in the world he was going to explain Shampoo. He supposed that the beginning was always a good place to start. "You ever heard of the Bayankala Mountains?"
Ami tapped her lip thoughtfully. "Western China, Qinghai Province… right?"
"Whoa…" Ranma blinked. "I mean, er… Yeah. Well, it all started just before me and Pops were supposed to come back home…." Ranma turned subtly and started walking towards the entrance of the museum with Ami following attentively at his side. Neither noticed the multiple sets of eyes watching them from a number of different vantage points.
He watched her. He had watched her since first feeling her cold spirit over a week ago, stalking her from the shadows, and she never knew that he was there.
Oh, how the mighty fall!
Isis would have sensed him the instant he had come within a mile of her. The Ice Witch would have been scanning for hostiles, pinpointing him within an instant of his arrival this close to her proximity. But this little girl was so secure in her little world, in spite of all the battles that she had already fought. Marut felt terribly cheated.
His long-awaited revenge would be hollow if this little slip of a girl wasn't up to Isis' level. And from what he could see, this was exactly the case. Her companion walked like a warrior, but from what he had seen of this world so far, that meant next to nothing.
"Sulking and brooding over the past will gain you nothing, Marut."
The demon growled at the sound of the female voice, but did not turn from his vigil. The hackles on his neck rose in agitation. "What do you want with me, Agni?"
"It is not what I want, dear cousin…." The fiery, fox-headed woman ran a playful finger along her packmate's spine. Marut shivered, and his growl became more menacing, causing Agni to laugh.
"If you want nothing cousin, then what pray tell, are you offering?"
"Besides myself?" she whispered coyly.
Marut snorted in derision, earning him a hateful glance from Agni. A thousand ways to kill this upstart entered her mind, but one seemed more appropriate above all the rest. Her feral smile and piercing gaze were lost on the demon before her; his attention was focused on the young woman talking to the human male as they stood in line to gain access to the building.
"You are truly obsessed, Marut." The beast ignored her barb in favor of watching Ami laugh at something. The beauty of the act, the freedom with which she allowed herself to live sickened him. There was no paranoia coiling about her, keeping her vigilant. This softness that had befallen Mercury made Marut want to vomit — and he would have, had the young man next to her not sparked a bit of curiosity in him. There was something about him that tingled the senses, some unknown factor that intrigued the Rhakshasa.
"Do not speak to me of obsession Agni. I know of my weaknesses and embrace them. What lame excuse do you cling to?"
Agni growled deep in her throat and stalked a few feet away from her would-be lover.
"Can you believe this to be the same woman who gave me such a badge of honor?" Marut fingered his scar reverently, remembering the ice-cold fire that had marred his handsome beauty forever.
"Perhaps she is not your precious Isis, fool. Did that ever enter your small brain?"
Marut, if he heard the barb, ignored it. "She wakes well before dawn, and pours herself into her studies, and yet that is the only thing that remains the same. Where is the warrior that fought Pasha Maharim to a standstill on the Plains of Uthien?"
"Gone. Scrapped and refined in the Cosmic Furnace, I suppose," Agni drawled, obviously bored.
"It cannot be!" Marut's fists smashed into the brick, reducing the small retaining wall to powder. "I can feel the putrid taint of Isis strong within this weak shell!"
Agni shrugged, uninterested. "She is a descendent, nothing more. The Ice Witch and their ilk have never been a part of the Great Wheel. Let it go."
"I will not! She is Isis reborn! I will bet my soul on it!"
"A bold yet empty wager, dear Marut. The Senshi of our time are long dead. What has replaced them is, by and large, nothing more than a great disappointment." Agni yawned.
Marut growled at her threateningly. "I will have my vengeance! The Senshi of Mercury will die at my hands!"
"As you will, Marut. But for now, Ur has recalled us," It was with great satisfaction that she watched Marut's head shoot up. Panic was already setting in; she could feel his control fraying at the thought of not being able to face Isis again.
She smirked and tossed him the little tidbit that would be the catalyst to his doom. There was a colloquial saying that had been handed down from mother to daughter in her clan: "wary be under the eyes of a woman scorned." It was truly too bad that Marut had never heeded colloquialisms. If he lived, perhaps she would forgive him. Maybe he would learn not to ignore his betters.
"We have scouted and established our foothold. Our tasks here are done and we will be assigned a new task, effective immediately." The look on his face was priceless; fear, anger, rage, and a mad lust passed through his eyes.
"This cannot be! We will be returning, correct?"
Hope? This was too easy.
Agni shook her head as her trap was sprung. Obsessions were so effortlessly controlled. "According to Indra, we will be sent to serve our Dark Lord directly."
Marut scoffed openly, but Agni could see his frayed nerves continue to snap one by one. The true beauty of the whole event was the fact that she had spoken nothing but the truth.
"I serve no human," he growled.
Time to give him the reigns.
"Put away your vengeance, cousin. Yama has died provoking the Hunt Lord's wrath."
Marut snorted again, returning his gaze to where Ami had been standing moments before. He could feel that she had entered the building, but he could no longer see her; something that troubled him greatly.
"The Hunt Lord will give us a feast the likes of which has never been seen! What is one little girl's soul worth next to the price of thousands?" She ran a fine-fingered hand up Marut's powerful back. He was long past feeling. This second offense destroyed any desire within to forgive.
"Who then will watch the Senshi?" His voice trembled in anticipation.
"KUBERA!" Marut howled.
"The same." Agni feigned interest. It was well known among the Rhakshasa that Marut's thirst for vengeance was deep when it came to the Senshi. It was also known that Kubera hated Marut with equal fervor for dishonoring her before her family. She needed no excuse to rob Marut of his greatest desire. Agni knew it, and so did Marut.
Still, she couldn't let the fool run away without giving him a warning. It was whispered that the Dread Lord could read your very thoughts. If he thought that she had pushed Marut into this, she would suffer a worse fate than the one Marut faced.
"Think of all that you could gain in light of Yama's passing, Marut. Weigh the possibilities. Give Isis to Kubera and embrace greater power." Her voice was tantalizing, but Marut gave no impression that he had heard her. She turned away with a sigh and moved into the shadows of an air conditioning unit, drawing up the hood of her cloak as she went. Her smile was wickedly smug. There was a moment's hesitation, and then movement. She spun around, but found no sign of her packmate.
"Poor, poor Marut." She crossed her arms before her chest and melted into the shadows laughing. If Isis did not finish him, then Indra would, and there would be one less obstacle between her and her beloved leader.
Yuriko watched the pair enter into the museum from her vantage point behind a large vertical banner, draped along the eastern wall of the museum. She had a wonderful unobstructed view through the crowd to snap a few discrete photos as the couple laughed. A warm giddy feeling filled her heart at the sight. Her baby had finally found someone to relax with. It was time to move into phase two of her plans. She just hoped that Nodoka didn't get cold feet. Another part of her prayed that that bastard Genma showed up to try and derail the budding romance. If he did, she was going to show him what the meaning of pain and torment truly were — her healer's oaths be damned!
Yoshitsune was at odds with himself.
He had crossed a boundary that he had placed on himself over eight hundred and twenty-five years ago. Guilt and confusion filled his heart at the thought of taking liberties with the Tendo girl — especially in light of her engagement to the Drumheller. The way that her father had reacted was more than disconcerting as well.
There were no screamed threats, no angry declarations, and no one had kicked him out or demanded seppuku. No, Tendo-dono had just sat and looked at Yoshitsune — calmly, thoughtfully…silently. It was enough to make his skin crawl with expectation. He knew that the sword was going to fall, and Tendo-dono knew that he knew. Yoshitsune wondered if it might not be better to just end it all now and save everyone the grief later on. Had it not been for the clinging darkness that had settled over the city, Yoshitsune might have done just that and been done with this mess.
The sight of Nabiki gliding through the hall caused his breath to catch in his throat. There was such a natural sensuality about the way that she moved. It was intoxicating to watch, and had she been anyone else he would have sat back and enjoyed the show immensely.
He needed to get out of this house! He needed to find the Drumheller and put an end to this. With a sense of desperation he sprang to his feet and ran after the young Huntress.
"Tendo-san!" He knew that she heard him. With those ears, who couldn't? "Tendo-san!"
She turned the corner and he heard a distinct musical noise. He rounded the corner just under full speed, and slammed bodily into the young wom… er, elf. They tumbled together to the floor in yet another compromising situation and with their bodies entwined as they were, Yoshitsune began to panic. With good reason, to be sure — Kasumi-san was standing in the kitchen doorway glaring down at them.
"You might want to get off, before something bad happens." Nabiki's voice was cold and dangerous, very much a growl. Yoshitsune scrambled to comply, doing his level best to keep his hands and body under strict control.
Nabiki, for her part, wasn't sure whether to laugh at Yoshitsune's blush or tear him a new one. This morning's floorshow was still wrecking havoc in the Tendo household, not to mention her heart, and Nabiki laid all the blame at Yoshitsune's feet. True, it wasn't really his fault, but he was a convenient scapegoat — and if the kiss they had shared had been exquisite, she still hadn't forgiven him for the koi pond. She watched him scuttle for a moment, bouncing from foot to foot with uncertainty before extending his hand to her. She glared at him coldly and leisurely rolled over backwards and to her feet.
He gulped loudly and turned his head away trying to hide his raising blush. Nabiki smirked. This guy was almost as fun to tease as Ranma had been. Speaking of which…. Nabiki picked up the phone's receiver from the floor and winced at the sound of the dial tone. There was just no getting used to her new physicality. Sounds, sights, tastes, the feel of her clothes against her skin… every sense was augmented a hundred-fold. The smells were the worst, and had it not been for Hato-chan's little tips… Well, Nabiki didn't relish the idea of barfing every morning at the smell of Kasumi's breakfasts.
The poor girl was starting to notice too. There was no hiding the sad look in her eyes every time Nabiki excused herself early, leaving half her meal untouched. Nabiki hated it, but what could she do? The preservatives, pesticides, and other chemicals tasted like something Akane cooked! Not to mention the way it made her feel afterwards! Ugh!
No more Teriyaki Burgers from McDonald's. No more Cosmic Wangoo. No more of Kasumi's oatmeal raisin cookies either… There was no justice in the world. It made her want to cry.
She sighed and held the phone out at arm's length while she dialed. The conversation was likely to leave her with one hell of a headache, knowing how Auntie liked to ramble. But if she got the information that she wanted, a little pain was worth it.
"What are you doing?" Yoshitsune asked. Nabiki ignored him as the line began to ring. "We've no time for you to socialize! Can't you feel what's coming? We have to find Aramas!"
Nabiki glared at him from the end of the first ring all the way to the fifth, and held up her finger to ensure that the fool said nothing more. The way that her mouth formed a thin line caused him to swallow nervously and look for the nearest exit. There was little doubt in her mind that she could nail him a good one before he got himself completely through the door.
"Hello." Nabiki's head spun to the phone at the sound of Nodoka's voice.
"Nabiki-chan?" Her voice sounded concerned. Not a good sign. "Is something wrong? You sound so far away." The middle Tendo grimaced and glared at Yoshitsune once more for good measure before answering.
"Bad connection, Auntie. Look, I'm calling to see if you've heard from Ranma. He left on a training trip and hasn't called us yet." Nabiki paused and bit her lip indecisively. She wasn't sure whether she could involve the Saotome matriarch in this mess without worrying her to no end.
Well, it's a little too late for that now, isn't it, Stupid? She should have thought this through better before calling. Still, one more pair of eyes was better than none, and if Ranma were planning leaving for an extended period of time, then it was likely that he would pay his mother a visit before leaving the city.
"Oh my! Didn't Kasumi tell you?" Nabiki's heart sank a little at the thought that Ranma had already been to see his mom. When it registered that Kasumi had information on Ranma that she hadn't shared… the hard plastic of the phone began to crack under the pressure of her grip.
"No. No, she didn't, Auntie." It was hard to talk with her jaw clenched, but somehow Nabiki ground the words out in a cordial manner.
"Ranma's staying with me for a little while."
"Seriously?" Hotcha! Jackpot! "I'm so glad to hear that! We were so worried!"
It wasn't hard for her to sound enthusiastic. She had come to miss Ranma's presence in the house as much as Kasumi and her father. She also missed being needed, but she considering the tumult that her heart was in at the moment, and decided that that was one can of worms best left untouched. Now, all she had to do was test the waters for a visit.
"That's sweet of you, dear. You're a very dedicated fiancée."
Nabiki squirmed a bit. The oh-so-sweet memory of this morning's kiss fluttered through her mind. Mother's Leaves! She hadn't felt this guilty since scorching Inesuzume's tail feathers….
Nabiki cut that line of thinking off viciously.
Stay in the present. Stay in the present. She smiled and returned to focus to the conversation.
"Is he up for a visit?" She felt more than heard the hesitation in Nodoka's voice. Best to try and soothe the woman's fears. "Just Kasumi and I…" Yoshitsune immediately jumped into her line of sight, gesticulating madly and mouthing something that Nabiki ignored. "…no one else. Promise."
**WHAT ARE YOU DOING?!?** Nabiki winced as Yoshitsune's panicked mental voice boomed.
She wasn't sure how she did it, the reaction to his mental invasion was instinctual, but something deep inside her sang to the wood beneath her feet, causing it to bud in spite of having been dead for over fifty years. The vines that rapidly scrambled up Yoshitsune's legs and torso gave the man no time to run, let alone escape.
He "eeped!" and struggled to untangle himself from the thorny vines creeping up his legs. Nabiki smirked and turned her attention back to the phone when Nodoka began speaking again.
"I'm sure that will be fine dear. When would you like to come by?"
"Would this afternoon be too soon?" she asked hopefully. She had no idea how she was going to hide the ears, but she was certain that Hato and Kasumi could help her think of something. Maybe a turban or something. She frowned at the pain that was likely to be involved, but seeing Ranma outweighed the discomfort involved. Maybe once she had given him what these bozos wanted, they would change her back.
"Well…" Nabiki heard the reluctance in Nodoka's voice and furrowed her brow. "…Ranma-kun is on an outing with a friend from school and won't be back until around seven-thirty."
"A friend from school, huh?" Nabiki grinned happily. "How'd you get him to agree to go back to school, Auntie?"
"He hasn't actually started yet, but to be honest, it was his idea."
Nabiki whistled appreciatively. The middle Tendo could feel the woman's proud smile through the phone.
"I'll be sure to keep this our little secret."
"I'm sure that Ranma-kun will appreciate that."
"So, do you think he'll be up for a visit?" Nabiki glanced back at Yoshitsune and noted with some pleasure that the vines had completely covered him from toes to mouth. The large thorns on the lower parts of the creeping plant ensured that he wasn't going to wiggle too much.
"I'm not certain that he will be up to it tonight. His first day of school is in two days — it's a field trip, but he still has another battery of placement exams on Friday that he wanted to study for…." Nabiki could already hear the "but" dangling on the tip of Nodoka's tongue. "Just take it slowly please. He's still hurting terribly."
"I understand, Auntie. No pressure. No talk of engagements or coming back to the dojo. How does Saturday afternoon after classes and clubs?"
**SATURDAY? HOW CAN YOU JUSTIFY WAITING UNTIL SATURDAY?!** Nabiki glared at her captive and the vines tightened ever so slowly, causing the man to stiffen.
"I think that would be fine dear." The relief was plain in Nodoka's voice.
"Great. Can we bring anything?"
There was a pause.
"I wouldn't want you to go to any trouble."
"Nonsense! Kasumi was planning on doing some baking this weekend anyway. Any requests?"
Nabiki listened with half an ear to Nodoka hem and haw over Ranma's favorites. She positioned herself so that she could get a better picture of Yoshitsune.
**Paybacks are hell. You know that, don't you?** His mental voice was like thick velvet in her mind, sending chills down her spine.
**Darling, I perfected the concept.** she purred back. **Now shut up before I ask the thorns to grow longer.** To emphasize her point, one of the thorns nearest his crotch began to elongate.
His eyes bulged, making her want to laugh.
Nabiki just grinned nastily and returned her attention back to her phone conversation.
"We can salvage this, Tendo." Genma did his best to sound more confident than he felt. The booze was helping, but it could only take a man so far.
"But you saw what happened this morning!" Soun whined, literally crying in his beer. "They were about to… to… WHAAAH! My daughter's a slut!"
Genma sloppily tried to stop his friend from crying, but all he managed to do was over turn both of their mugs. The change took effect causing Genma's barstool to creak ominously beneath the augmented weight of a panda, rather than a man. Frustrated and not nearly as drunk as he should be for a conversation of this magnitude, Genma-panda smacked his drinking buddy upside the head with a large wooden sign. Soun paused in his weeping to blink fuzzily at what his friend was scribbling on the sign.
The handwriting was crude, terribly sloppy, and barely legible. But what could one expect from a drunk panda writing with a magic marker? [Your daughter's not a slut.]
"She's not?" Soun's head felt terribly light and his mouth was dry. How could your mouth be dry when you were drinking? It never made sense to him.
[She's hurting. She misses Ranma and is trying to find someone to stand in for him.]
Soun frowned ponderously and nodded. That made sense. "But she still kissed the boy!" He countered belligerently. Genma quickly flipped his sign and started scribbling. Soun wished he could be as clever as his friend. The smell of the marker combined with the smell of wet panda fur was really starting to affect Soun. Genma might be clever, but he suuuuure stank! Peeyew!
[All the more reason to find Ranma and nip this in the bud right away.] The sign flipped. [The sooner we get Ranma back, the faster we can kick these freeloaders out.]
Soun narrowed his eyes at the obese panda and knuckled his mustache. There was something terribly ironic about what Genma had just said… er, written. But Soun was too far into his drinks to know exactly what it was. He was distracted as yet another problem reared its ugly head.
"You have a point, my…my friend. But… *belch!*… but the boy's already made his feelings clear on the subject of the engagement." He laughed triumphantly and slapped the panda on the shoulder. "Solve that one, you fat furball!"
Genma-panda thought for a moment before the squeaky marker was moving again. He held up the sign, proudly displaying his wisdom for all to see. [The boy doesn't know what he was saying.]
[He's still grieving.]
[You above all people should understand what he's going through.]
Soun stuck his bottom lip out sadly and wobbled on his stool a bit, sniffling. He heaved a shuddering sigh, and with a Herculean show of restraint shed one single tear. "Right you are, my wise old friend." He sipped his beer dejectedly. "I know all too well what the lad's going through."
The panda patted his friend roughly on the back and produced a huge sign. He scribbled for a time, while his friend was content to ignore him. Genma-panda spun Soun around and pushed the sign against his nose. [There you have it! We both know that the best way to work through sore muscles is to stretch a bit and then get back to it!]
"I don't think…?" Soun started to point out the folly in his friend's logic, but Genma had already flipped the sign over.
[Is the heart a muscle?]
Soun scratched his head thoughtfully. "Well, yes."
[Does it hurt when you think about the dead?]
"Deeply." The panda spun the sign triumphantly.
[There you have it! Get away from the memories for a stretch, and then get right back to it! Ranma's gotten away, now let's go get him back!]
"You're abs'lutly right!" Soun stood sloppily from his chair, full of… lots and lots of alcohol. He wobbled once before the panda reached over and steadied him. Soun hugged him like a great teddy bear. "You're a wise bear, Genma. Jus' like Winnie the Pooh."
"Never mind." Soun grabbed another bottle of beer from the counter and patted the panda on the arm. "So, where should we start lookin' for *urp!* for Ranma?"
[I have no idea. Let's ask Kasumi.]
"Your intelligence is blinding, old friend…" Soun blinked back the tears. "…oh, wait. That's the sun."
An undisclosed military base,
"The hunt went well, Savitri?" The ghostly image of Ahbrim Ur floated before Savitri, as the equine Rhakshasa knelt before its master.
"Yes, Dread Lord. We have taken this establishment and secured a number of humans that will serve your purposes." The cowering group of men and women behind Savitri shivered at the hunger and longing in the demon's voice.
Ur's image nodded at the sight of the scientists and technicians. "You have done well. Bring our guests to me, and then return to finish your feast. There are to be no witnesses. Am I clear?"
Savitri's mane bristled in anticipation. "It shall be as you command." Someone behind the beast moaned in despair, drawing a chuckle from the Rhakshasa. It truly had been too long since he had feasted on humanity's fear and hopes.
A long time indeed.
Fukugawa Edo Museum
"…Astral projection?" Ami shook her head trying very hard not to laugh. "You went on a date with an astral projection of an old man?"
"It was a favor for the old coot. We thought he was dying." Ranma shrugged and tried not to look too uncomfortable. "Besides, I wouldn't call it a date or nothin'. I didn't kiss the old geezer or anything like that."
Ami saw the opening and in a moment of uncharacteristic bravery seized the opportunity.
"Is that what you do on a date?" Her impish grin proved that she was Yuriko's daughter. Ranma coughed into his fist trying to hide his blush. Ami's libido wrestled control over her mouth just long enough to add its two yen to the conversation. "Too bad this isn't a date, then."
Ranma blinked uncertainly. It was obvious that he was trying to digest the idea that she had presented, and from the blush that was rapidly coloring his face he had made all the right assumptions. Ami turned away from the young man and focused her attention to the intricate model of the fishing village that had become present-day Tokyo. A warm glow built in her abdomen and slowly grew, causing her body to feel flush. She felt as if she were glowing and desperately hoped that Ranma wouldn't notice.
She stole a glance at the young man through the reflection in the glass tabletop covering the model and noted with some trepidation Ranma's discomfort. He seemed to be struggling with something, his expressions passing through a gamut of expressions from confusion to fear to finally settle on something resembling an uncomfortable acceptance. She started to apologize and change the subject, but Ranma moved just a little closer to her to look at the model, stealing the opportunity.
The invitation was plain, if not completely unexpected. Ranma had been on the receiving end of so many propositions in the past that it wasn't hard to connect the dots. What he had issues with was the sudden torrent of images of kissing the girl at his side. There was one very tangible memory of a secluded grove somewhere… a park maybe… that surfaced with such power that it left him feeling restless and more than a little breathless. That had been a wonderful evening, and Ranma could feel the ghostly sensation of Ami's body in his arms.
Ranma swallowed heavily and tried to find his center. He hadn't ever been to a park with Ami. They'd never kissed. It hadn't happened.
Yes, it did.
No, it didn't. He growled mentally.
He'd never held her like that or… or run his hands through her silky black hair. And yet, as he glanced down at Ami, the more sensations welled within him. Recollections of the woman's body, and how warm it had felt pressed against his, caused Ranma to take an involuntary step nearer to the young woman. There was suddenly a void that needed to be filled… something older than the more recent emptiness caused by Akane's death. His heart was pounding so hard that he was sure everyone near by could hear it.
He chanced a glance around and noted with some relief that the only people remotely near to them was an elderly couple. They were seated on a small bench near the entrance of the dimly lit exhibition room. Both wore warm and wistful smiles on their faces, and the elderly woman motioned him forward encouragingly. Ranma shivered nervously as the elderly man, wrapped his arm around his companion's shoulders and gave the young man a "thumbs up" and wiggled his eyebrows suggestively. Ranma scratched the back of his neck nervously and turned away from the pair. He wasn't certain what scared him most in that moment — the fact that he wanted nothing more than to follow the man's suggested lead, or the idea that Ami might want the same thing.
He wasn't sure where these feelings were coming from, and he could readily admit that they were starting to alarm him. And yet, in spite of this uneasiness, Ranma knew that his life was a little brighter with Ami around. She felt incredibly familiar and for the first time in… well, for the first time ever… he felt comfortable. There was no anxiety associated with her presence. Well, none that he was normally familiar with anyway. There weren't people looking over his shoulder expecting him to marry the girl, or fulfill some sort of unwanted obligation.
Ami did make him feel weird, but it was something natural, something equally pleasant and well-known. Whatever the feeling was, it was hard to describe but appreciated all the same. He felt a little guilty in acknowledging that, but in his mind's eye he knew that Akane was smiling at him.
Marut glided from shadow to shadow, trailing the young man and woman as they explored their primitive past along with a very large crowd of other sightseers. Had he been hunting anyone other than Mercury, the crowd would have tempted his hunger.
He had fed the night before, but the meal had been scrawny and diseased, leaving him feeling empty and malnourished. It was a certainty that he would need to feed well before confronting his prey; tonight most likely, for his time was short if Agni's words could be trusted. He smiled grimly, causing the elderly couple nearby to shiver and clutch each other's hands at the sudden dread they felt. After a few moments the pair hurriedly left the room, seeking solace and warmth.
Flee before me, cattle, he thought hungrily. Death comes for you soon.
If he could have chanced a bout of laughter, he would have. However he could already tell that his presence was being noted by the young warrior at Mercury's side. The demon grinned with feral abandon, and if the shadows that cloaked him had parted in that instant, both Mercury and her guardian would witness the lusting madness that had gripped Marut's mind.
Soon he would strike; upon the morrow for certain. The Rhakshasa gathered the darkness to him, pulling the heat from the room as he silently departed to feed and prepare himself for battle.
Ami felt Ranma's body suddenly tense. Their proximity to each other had become intoxicatingly close, drowning out everything else in the room. The look on his face made her feel terribly on edge. It was as if he were a tightly wound spring ready to explode into action. She reached out, crossing the veil between them, and touched his arm. The sensation sent an electrical tingle coursing up and down her spine, causing her to shiver lightly. "Is everything all right?"
Ranma looked down at her hand briefly before returning his stony gaze to the shadowy corner at the far end of the room. Ami followed his lead and felt a brief surge of fear and discomfort. She blinked and shook her head, but when she looked back at the dark alcove the sensation had fled.
Ranma sighed and popped his neck.
"I thought I felt something." He patted Ami's hand thoughtlessly, obviously pondering the corner for a long time before noticing that he was all but holding her hand. He blushed and smiled weakly. "Sorry."
Ami smiled coyly and shook her head. "No need to be." She bit her lip nervously as Ranma slowly gripped Ami's hand in his. It felt hard and calloused, but held her smaller hand with such delicate care and attention that the young scholar was once again awash with wonder. She had seen him casually break steel with these hands, but now… it was as if she had become some extremely fragile porcelain that he was afraid to break. He smiled at her softly and looked back to the exhibit for a moment before moving around the table towards the room's secondary exit, drawing Ami with him.
She noted that he had placed the table between them and the shadowy recess. Something had obviously spooked him, for the stony determination that she had seen on his face in the alley had returned. It was an expression that made Ami's stomach tie itself in knots. No one had ever treated her this way and Ami was starting to like the idea. She allowed Ranma to lead her from the room and into the brightly lit main exhibition hall. As they meandered through the life-sized replica of the fishing village, Ami noted with more than a little glee that Ranma had refused to release her hand.
It was turning out to be an absolutely perfect day, one that she hoped would never end.
"Where's Ami?" Michiru asked, glancing at the clock worriedly.
The Senshi had all rushed together at Setsuna's request to discuss the newest threat to life as they knew it. Unfortunately they had hurried only to wait for Makoto and Ami to arrive. Of the two team members, only Ami hadn't called or answered her phone, and when Haruka suggested they should use the Senshi all-call, Setsuna had shaken her head and asked for patience. Makoto had arrived only a short ten minutes later, carrying a large box of pastries and wearing an aggravated frown that sparked a lot of interest; no one was brave enough to ask the question that was on everyone's mind, though.
"She's not going to make it," Makoto growled. "She's on a date with a punk-ass jerk!"
The gathered Senshi blinked, trying to digest the idea that Ami, of all people, was on a date with someone. Usagi clapped her hands and whistled, drawing everyone's attention.
"It's about time!" She grinned enthusiastically, ignoring the gathering thunderhead that seemed to be forming around Makoto.
"I can't believe that you're on his side!" Everyone was surprised that Makoto had all but yelled at Usagi. That was Rei's job, and it was obvious that the young Miko was feeling somewhat cheated.
"You're just jealous." Usagi stuck her tongue out at the taller girl.
"I AM NOT!" Makoto objected vehemently.
"Methinks she doth prostitute too much." Minako quipped, causing Haruka to snort her tea. The mannish blonde hacked and coughed, trying to clear her lungs of the hot liquid as her lover and adopted daughter clapped her back roughly.
"What?" Minako blinked at the stares the rest of the group was giving her. The glare that Makoto leveled her way made her shiver slightly, but nothing more was said.
"So who is this mysterious man of Ami's?" Rei opened the box of pastries and began doling them out to everyone.
"I already told you." Makoto grumbled. "A lousy no-good jerk."
"Oh, stop being such a grouch!" Usagi frowned a moment before shoving a whole cream-filled croissant into her mouth. "Orwf husf maf feefuf heef feef fho!" Little bits of crumbs and partially crewed bits of pastry sprayed forth from Usagi's mouth.
The gathered friends simply blinked.
"You are so disgusting!" Rei deadpanned, wiping croissant from her face with a napkin.
Usagi just grinned and swallowed. "Thanks!"
Michiru shook her head and rubbed the bridge of her nose. "Could you please repeat that for the rest of us, Usagi?" Setsuna, to the shock of many, was barely concealing an irreverent grin.
"Thanks?" she said, plainly confused.
"No, stupid," Rei growled. "Before that."
"Oh." Usagi blushed, then began browsing through the box for another treat. "Makoto's just mad because Ranma beat her."
"Beat her?" Haruka shared a worried glance with Michiru. Makoto just snorted.
"You should have seen it!" Usagi stood up and began waving her arms around excitedly. "We were eating dinner, then Makoto starts bad-mouthing Ranma and he like crushes a tea cup in his bare hand and cuts himself really bad but doesn't say anything because he's so cool and tough, then Ami-chan and her mom go into the kitchen to help him and Auntie Nodoka tells Makoto not to judge him and stuff, but Makoto ignores her." Usagi took a deep breath and before anyone can say anything else, jumps back into her tale. "There was a really loud crash from the kitchen and then I think someone slipped and fell. Ranma's mom went to check it out, and it turns out to be Ami's mom that fell. Then Makoto blamed it on Ranma." The blonde scrunched up her face, trying to mimic a grumpy Makoto, who just huffed and crossed her arms. "'It was probably the bastard's fault.'"
Makoto growled viciously and bit into a cookie. "I still bet it was. Stupid freak." Everyone ignored her in favor of an extremely animated Usagi.
"Then Ranma comes out and apologizes for the wait, saying that Ami-chan spilled some water on herself and went to change. Then Ami-chan came down dressed in this awesome white silk shirt with a dragon embroidered on the front…" She paused again to wiggle her eyebrows judiciously and wink at Minako, who was hanging on her every word. "…obviously one of Ranma's…."
"Did she look good in it?" The other blonde looked torn between the idea that yet another cute boy was lost to her, and the joy that her bookish friend was finally leaving the proverbial nest.
"Did she ever!" Usagi fanned herself.
"Sounds like Ami-chan's growing up to be my kind of girl. She's moving fast to get what she wants," Haruka quipped, earning her an elbow from Michiru.
"That's nothing! You should have seen how things shaped up later! Ami's mom freaked out and starts yelling that she thought Ranma was a cross-dresser, but he's not."
Mamoru frowned in disgust.
"Then Makoto went and started bad mouthing Ranma again…"
Usagi ignored Makoto's outburst, building up even more steam. "…and Ami got really pissed off and tried to slap Makoto…" More than one set of eyes looked shocked at that revelation. They looked at Makoto with uncertainty, causing the young woman to shift uncomfortably. "But it was so cool! Ranma's like just sitting there taking everything Makoto's dishing out, but the second that Ami's hand came up, he like stopped her right before she connected. I didn't even see him move! That's when Ranma got this really smarmy grin on his face, like everything that Makoto was saying didn't even faze him. Then he reached out and pinched Makoto's nose and pissed her off even more!"
"He didn't!" Minako squealed. Her laughter caused Makoto's face to burn with indignation.
"Wait for it! That's not the best part!"
"There's more?" Setsuna's eyebrow rose. This was sounding vaguely familiar somehow.
"You bet your booties there is!" Usagi grinned manically. "Makoto comes out swinging, and when she tried to deck him, a bowl of soup splashed Ranma! Ami like dives to stop the water or whatever from hitting Ranma, cause I guess she already knew about the curse, cause she was really freaked out about the bowl and not the curse."
Everyone in the room froze and blinked in obvious confusion.
"What curse?" Rei scratched her head. "When did he get a curse? I thought you said he was a cross-dresser."
"No! No! No! Clean your ears out, Rei! He's got this wicked cool curse that turns him into a girl when he gets splashed with water. Just like Seiya-kun and the other Starlights, only that they don't need the water."
Mamoru's disgusted frown had nothing to do with sexual preferences this time… Well, maybe it did, albeit remotely. Stupid damn boy bands. They were a pox on society!
"Well, Ami's awesome silk shirt was totally ruined, so Ranma like, stands up and she's like totally not wearing any support and it's really obvious that they're real." She winked at Haruka who whistled wolfishly, earning yet another wicked jab from Michiru. "Well, Ranma's just standing there and she's like looking down at Ami really sad and all, and says 'It's a curse.' And then tells Ami she's going to fill the furo so that Ami can get cleaned up."
Usagi paused to snag a quick drink, leaving Makoto an opportunity to take a jab.
"Don't forget all the commentary about sharing those… how did you put it? Embarrassing trips to the store…."
"You didn't!" Michiru looked totally scandalized. Usagi blushed guiltily and fidgeted.
"She did." Makoto smiled triumphantly now that everyone's attention was on Usagi. "I thought the whole instant girl-talk thing was classic myself."
"Usagi, how could you?" If anyone could sound like a scolding mother, Michiru could. The weight of her stare was exactingly heavy.
"I didn't think about it like a curse. I was caught up in the moment and it was so cool that he could change, you know?" Usagi protested. After a long and very uncomfortable instant her damning stare turned hard and swiveled back to Makoto. "But at least I didn't want to drive him out of his mother's house after being gone for all of ten years!"
Every eye widened and returned to Makoto. Hotaru blinked and clutched at Michiru's arm.
"He doesn't deserve her!"
"How can you possibly be the judge of that, Makoto?" Michiru frowned.
"Like you're one to talk about judging, little Ms. Perfect!"
"Watch it, girl," Haruka growled.
"Oh, shove it where the sun don't shine, Haruka!" Makoto spat. "You don't know what that woman went through. None of you understands what that worthless piece of trash did to his mother."
"And you do?" Michiru's voice was icy and filled with distaste.
"Yes! I do!" Makoto started crying. "Auntie worked at the orphanage that I stayed at after my parents died. She took care of me, sometimes even took me home with some of the other girls on weekends. She… she would talk about the 'great and manly' Ranma Saotome… like he was a god or something. But he never wrote her. He never called, and she would cry herself to sleep at night."
Minako wrapped her arm around Makoto's shoulder, only to have the young woman shrug out of her grasp.
"She was going to adopt me. I know she was. She had the paperwork and everything." Her voice became very quiet. "But she didn't."
"Maybe she will now!" Usagi said cheerfully. Makoto looked up at her princess and noted the unshed tears in her eyes. After a long moment Makoto nodded quietly and sighed heavily. "That means Ranma would be your brother, though."
Makoto looked up at Usagi, uncertain whether she wanted to hug her for the earlier comment, or throttle her for rubbing salt in the wound.
"Look on the bright side. At least you might get the chance to beat the crap out of him again."
"You beat him up?" Minako whined. The prospect of a perfectly cute boy being pummeled just because Makoto didn't like him was… Well, it was bad!
"More like he let her beat him up." Usagi snagged the last pastry out of Rei's hand. The raven-haired beauty glowered at her ominously, but Usagi gobbled the treat unmindful of Rei's ire. "If he'd been serious, Makoto would have been eating her shorts!"
"That'd be something worth seeing." Haruka's barbed remark nearly set off another row, but Setsuna stole the conversation's momentum before Makoto had the chance to retaliate.
"Please explain, Usagi. Do you mean to say that this Ranma person could beat Makoto?"
"Something funny, Tenou?" Makoto nearly leapt to her feet.
"Sure is, Kino," Haruka baited.
"Maybe you should challenge him then, Haruka. See how well you do." The young blonde-haired woman snorted derisively and leaned back on her elbows.
"I don't think he's in my league."
"More like the other way around." Usagi licked butter and sugar from her fingers greedily.
"What's that supposed to mean, Koneko-chan?" Haruka asked sweetly. There was definitely a strained quality to her words, though.
Usagi shrugged, not even registering the hidden emotion behind the woman's comment.
"I've seen him fight. He was letting Makoto pound him during their… whatever you want to call it." She gestured aimlessly with a napkin before plopping down onto her pillow next to Mamoru.
Makoto mumbled darkly.
"If he had been serious about fighting Makoto, she wouldn't have been able to touch him." Usagi looked to Makoto, who nodded her head reluctantly.
Everyone could feel how much it had taken to admit that. When Usagi continued, the small group felt a little more respect for Ami's new boyfriend.
"Mako-chan was beating the snot out of him, though, and he just stood there and took it. Makoto was even close to powering up, too! Her sigil was glowing and everything!"
"Say what!?" Rei and Minako chorused.
"You can't be serious, Usagi," Setsuna protested. "Surely you're mistaken."
The young woman shook her head, causing her ponytails to liberally flog Mamoru and Rei. She continued with a wince and a glower as Rei caught one of her tails and yanked on it hard.
"Ranma's a tough character. He pounded those jerks that tried to rape us good."
"Rape?" Hotaru gasped and a number of voices rose in response to the revelation.
Usagi winced and shrugged. "Long story." She quickly reviewed the event, and with Mamoru's help was able to tell it without too much fanfare.
"There's more to this Ranma than meets the eye," Mamoru said cryptically, earning him a poke just below the ribs from Usagi.
"Oh, don't be such a poo, Mamo-chan. Ranma's no enemy."
"How can you be so sure?" Haruka asked guardedly. Usagi rolled her eyes and shook her head in exasperation.
"Because, Silly! The royal seal appeared on his forehead when he saved Ami and I from Itamu and those other jerks."
The room literally exploded with questions, causing Usagi to shrink behind Mamoru.
"QUIET!" Setsuna's voice bowled through the room, bringing with it the desired silence. Once order was restored, the stately woman leaned forward and stared at her princess seriously. "Why didn't you tell us this before?"
Usagi cowered even further behind Mamoru, going so far as to hide her face completely.
"I… I… didn't think of it."
"Please, describe him to me." Setsuna, out of everyone, was a person that you just couldn't say "no" to.
"Um… dark hair, tied into a really cute pigtail. He's about five-nine, with a yummy body to die for…" Mamoru's head swiveled back to glare at Usagi. "What? It's true! He's got a washboard stomach and… well, you get the picture." Minako looked disappointed that Usagi didn't continue. Mamoru looked as if he was ready to explode.
Setsuna pinched the bridge of her nose thoughtfully, obviously trying to remember someone of Ranma's description within the Royal Court. After a moment she turned her attention back to Usagi and gripped her arms tightly.
"What color were his eyes?"
"Ow, Setsuna, that hurts!"
"His eyes, Usagi! What color are his eyes?" Everyone was worried that the tanned woman was going to start shaking Usagi.
Setsuna's head fell low and her shoulders began to shake uncontrollably. Rei looked very concerned for the woman. Setsuna finally lifted her head and let loose a joyous laugh. It was such an uncharacteristic expression of happiness that everyone in the room flinched.
With tears in her eyes the woman released Usagi and grabbed Rei in a fierce hug.
"Don't you see!? 'Ranma'. Ami's wild horse!" She laughed giddily.
"But… who is he?" Rei demanded. She was obviously confused.
Setsuna turned to Artemis and Luna with a manic grin.
"Who was Isis madly in love with?" Her inquiry caused both cats to flinch and twitch nervously. Artemis' tail swished back and forth as a clear sign of his agitation. "Artemis, you flea-infested mongrel! Who did you raise from infancy?!"
Artemis and Luna shared equally stunned expressions. After a moment Luna's eyes filled with tears and she nestled her head against the white cat's chest.
"You… you don't mean…? You can't mean…!"
"Do you really think she wouldn't send him forward with the rest?" Setsuna asked excitedly.
"Will someone please tell me what's going on?" Usagi whined.
"But… I thought that… since he hadn't come before…." Artemis couldn't finish the sentence. His throat constricted painfully and to Minako's utter surprise, he began weeping.
"Who is this guy!?" The sometimes Senshi of Venus demanded.
Setsuna smiled brightly, eyes filled with uncontrollable emotion.
"Hope and Salvation, Minako. Hope and Salvation!"
Usagi knew that there was more to this whole thing, but for the moment she was content to let everyone vent. It was past time for Setsuna to shed some tears. The fact that Luna and Artemis seemed content and happy was also a plus. Somehow, though, Usagi knew that there was something else — something directly related to her — that was going to come back and bite her in the butt.
Right now that didn't matter. Considering all the dark talk about the new enemy and Makoto's dislike of Ranma, this was a welcome change of pace. A very nice change of pace. She'd have to make sure that Ranma got a treat once she found out just who and what he was in the bigger scheme of things. Considering the way Setsuna was dancing around, clutching the cats, that might be a long time in the future, though.
It was funny. Usagi would never have pegged Setsuna as someone who knew the Macarena.
Somewhere in the Amazon Basin
"Serenity's blessing on you." The woman's voice was full of grace and cheer. It set Phau Set's nerves on edge. She took the offered bundle all the same and bowed gratefully.
"Go in peace, Favored of the Seer."
Phau Set's eyebrow twitched angrily, but she maintained her cool. It was the same thing at every house, booth, and shop in this infernal city! Favored of the Seer! What the hell was that supposed to mean?
She endured it. For two incredibly long and frustrating weeks she had endured it. No one had deemed it necessary to explain what the phrase meant, and she had refrained from asking out of respect for their hospitality. They had clothed her, fed her, and even vacated their homes so that she and her fellows could have a roof over their heads. The fact that these people could speak her tongue fluently only made everything more disconcerting.
None of it made any sense. She hated feeling like this.
She had decided early on that she must be going insane. A fever-induced hallucination, perhaps? Mousse, in a tender moment that still made her heart beat rapidly, had checked her forehead, only to report that she was fine. The next option was some kind of hysteria induced by mental fatigue. Considering all that she had been through, that seemed very likely. Disturbing, but reasonable.
It was something that she was going to have to deal with, though. Alone too, it seemed. Mousse was lost in his own little world, trying his best to fend off the sudden fame that had descended upon him. He jumped at shadows now, and any time someone called him "Themus", the poor man looked ready to scream.
Her sister wasn't any help either. Xi Fu had practically gone native. The girl had been the first to embrace the customs of these people and had gone out of her way to get everyone else to follow her example. Why, the very first night she had dressed in the scandalous clothing that these people wore and forced the same on Phau Set! Sure, it was comfortable in the heat, but it left the young Amazon feeling almost naked. More than once she had caught the stares of men following her when she passed them. It was flattering in one sense, but unnerving as well. She only wanted one man to look at her that way, and he was as blind as a bat.
"Why so grumpy?"
Phau Set ground her teeth at her sister's voice. "Nothing."
"Right. Uh-huh. Not with a sour face like that. You look like Elder Pi Yuan Ti." Xi Fu draped her good arm around Phau Set's shoulders and drew her close. Her skin was already showing signs of a tan, while Phau Set had to endure the tortures of sunburn. The short wrap-around skirts and halters did little to protect one from the sun.
"I'm fine." She shrugged out of Xi Fu's embrace and continued to walk, forcing the other girl to jog to catch up.
"You're not fine. You haven't been fine since we got here." The concern in Xi Fu's voice was grating.
"I'm fine, I tell you."
"You eating next to nothing, you refuse to have fun, and you don't sleep at night."
"HOW CAN YOU?" She hadn't meant to yell. Really. It was the stress.
She was tired of jumping at shadows and sleeping with the lights on. She was tired of closing her eyes and seeing the demons slaughtering her mother and father like sheep. She was tired of being in strange places. She was tired of crying when there was no one else around to comfort her! The tears rolled down her cheeks, cooling her face in the warm breeze. The shame of breaking down in public was too much. She had to get away!
Xi Fu watched her sister run down the stone cobbled street and sighed. The beauty of this wonderful city seemed oppressive for the very first time since they had been welcomed here.
"Don't worry. She'll be okay."
Xi Fu turned to see the young Japanese boy, Kawasemi, reclining beneath a large tree. Xi Fu narrowed her eyes at the young man, not bothering to hide her suspicion. "Who are you?"
The boy ignored the question in favor of plucking a flower from the shady grass and inhaling its scent. "Time is the real healer."
"Who are you?" Xi Fu tried to be a little more blunt with her tone this time. Maybe he hadn't heard her the first time.
"Time and love. Those two will heal any wound, no matter how deep."
"Who are you?!" No sense in hiding her suspicions any longer. The boy had been conspicuously absent over the last two weeks, and in that time Xi Fu had discovered that no one in the city seemed to know who — or what — he was. She had asked the old man, Odan, but he simply smiled and moved on to another topic.
"Given enough time, you can forget just about anything."
"I won't ask you again." The Amazon settled in a loose ready stance and faced the young man. She was tired of games. As much as she loved this place, she was tired of people dodging her questions.
"You know something, Xi Fu Bai?" The boy's tone was wistful, as if he were looking back through the mists of time. "In the last ten thousand years, the people of the Earth still haven't developed any social skills."
Xi Fu's stance wavered a bit when the boy finally looked at her. It wasn't the fact that he had used her full name that chilled her to the bone. It was his eyes. His eyes weren't the bright, innocent eyes of a child. They were dark wells of forgotten sorrows.
"No one says 'please' anymore. It's always nag, nag, nag." He sighed heavily and leaned back against his tree with his hands locked behind his head. "No one takes the time to be polite. Show a little common courtesy to their neighbor. That Jesus guy had the right of it. You know… Golden Rule and all that jazz. Confucius and Buddha were pretty bright, too. World would have been a much brighter place if people had slowed down a bit and taken their advice to heart."
Xi Fu watched him close his impossibly old eyes and sighed herself. The child… no, the being before her felt terribly old to her now. It was as if time had stopped and mixed itself up.
"Look, kid. Even if I told you, it wouldn't mean anything. But if it makes you feel any better, the name's Kawasemi." He grinned ruefully. "I'm one of the 'Forgotten Ones.'"
Xi Fu held her breath, and then released it suddenly. She couldn't feel any malice from the figure before her. Quite the opposite, in fact. It was like she was sitting with her great-grandfather or something. She relaxed her stance and bowed deeply to the boy.
"Please, forgive my actions." She was surprised when Kawasemi patted the grass beside him.
"Let it go." His smile was open and genuine, relaxing Xi Fu even more. "You've been through a lot, kid, and I'm too old to hold grudges anymore. Come here and sit down."
Xi Fu nodded and looked about self-consciously before settling a couple of feet away from the reclining boy.
"Don't worry. I won't bite." His grin was terribly irreverent. Just like her great-grandfather's had been.
"If you do, I'll bite back." She matched his grin, causing the boy to laugh.
"Cain's gotten a lot better about choosing his women!"
"Cain? Who's that?" Xi Fu asked.
"Ozmandius Cain. The son of Aries and first cousin to her royal highness, Narya, the Princess of Mars. Commander-in-chief of the Ul'Huld." Kawasemi winked at Xi Fu. "Better known in this life as Ryouga Hibiki."
Xi Fu blinked and then narrowed her eyes dangerously. "You're mocking me, aren't you." It was a statement, not a question. And by the tone, it was easy to tell that Xi Fu wasn't happy with the prank.
"Look, kid. I don't joke around anymore." Kawasemi closed his eyes and draped one leg over the other. "It takes too much energy to try and think up something original nowadays."
"You're serious!" Xi Fu looked pole-axed. "But how can this be?"
"Magic, kid. Plain and simple." Kawasemi plucked a blade of grass from the ground and began to chew on one end. A warm breeze caused the leaves of the tree to rustle.
"Magic." The boy smiled at the dazed look on his companion's face and grinned. He craned his head to look up into the branches of the tree. "She didn't faint. You owe me an apple, old friend."
To his chagrin, an apple fell from the tree's branches, smashing onto his very large nose.
Somewhere in the city of Aumemmnon
"Ask me again!"
Mousse cringed at Ryouga's enthusiastic voice and wondered, not for the first time, whether or not he could actually break the other boy's jaw. It would probably cost him the use of his hand for the rest of his life, but at this point Mousse thought that the price of peace just might be worth it.
"Come on! Ask!"
It was like listening to a kid tell a cute story. The first few times he had done this had been cool, funny even. But after twelve days of the same thing, Mousse was ready to commit murder. The blind Amazon sighed and shrugged. There was no escaping the inevitable. Ryouga was as tenacious as he was dense, which meant that no matter what Mousse did, this infernal line of questioning would continue. He silently wondered which gods he had offended to deserve such an insidious fate.
"Come on, Mousse! Ask me already!"
"Fine," the Amazon growled darkly. "Where are we?"
"Heehee!" Ryouga clapped with childish glee. "Brazil, the Amazon Basin. Latitude: Sixty-seven degrees west. Longitude: Two degrees south. Avenue of the Moon, Aumemmnon. There's Tu'Xui'Kubo's house over there, and two doors down is Buoto's shop, and over there…."
Mousse tuned out the rest of his companion's drivel. Ten days! Ten days! He needed a break. He needed something new to occupy his mind, something that had nothing to do with Ryouga's irritating celebration of the miraculous recovery of his sense of direction. If he didn't find something soon, someone was going to die. Horribly.
"OH! Look there!"
Mousse glanced up at the fuzzy white blotch that seemed plastered against the large blurry expanse of blue and sighed. A dark halo seemed to be creeping in on the edges of his eyes, causing Mousse to wonder what time of day it was. Hadn't they just had lunch an hour ago?
His glasses were getting worse day in and day out. He had just bought this pair before going to China, too. Stupid Japanese doctors. You'd think for all the money that he paid them that they would at least give him something that lasted more than six months!
"What am I looking at, Mr. Mapquest?" The disgruntled Amazon put as much acid into his words as he could.
"The Library of Beth Usel!" Ryouga's voice was filled with awe. Mousse frowned. Where had he heard that name before? It sounded familiar.
"Another monument building. Yippee. Woohoo." Mousse yawned and squinted up at the building. His efforts only seemed to make things worse rather than better. It was hard to be excited about anything after being dragged around the town all day, especially if you couldn't see any of it. A rough slap to Mousse's shoulder sent him staggering.
"Stupid! This place's been around for thousands of years! Show some respect." Mousse glared at Ryouga as best he could, hoping that the mountainous blur to his left was the formerly Lost Boy and not some innocent bystander.
"And just how do you know that, Pig Boy?" Mousse smirked as his companion opened his mouth to respond but shut it just as quickly. It was easy to "see" that Ryouga had no idea what he was talking about. "Well?"
"Shut up, Mousse." Ryouga's voice took on a very dangerous tone.
"No. Really. This is too good to pass up, Mr. Tour Guide," the Amazon teased. "What's so special about this Library of Beth Usel?"
"You should remember, Seer." Mousse and Ryouga turned at the sound of the ancient voice to see Odan Vundensdey, the Patriarch of Aumemnon, seated in the shade of the lower steps leading up to the Library. "It was you who laid the cornerstone."
"What did you say?" Ryouga narrowed his eyes at the man.
"Old man, you must be living in the past." Mousse scoffed, folding his arms in his voluminous sleeves.
"I can hardly seem to escape it." It was hard not to note the underlying bitterness in the old man's voice. "I've watched the world grow old, Mu Tsu Tseng. For over ten thousand years I have watched the rise and fall of nations. All due to a prophecy that you whispered in my ear the night of Mome's Solstice."
Mousse turned to Ryouga nervously and edged slightly away from the man seated before him.
"You cannot run from Destiny, Mu Tsu Tseng." The old man grinned toothlessly from his shadowy seat, and in a moment of complete clarity, Mousse could see the man perfectly. His face was weighted down with wrinkles and a golden eye patch bearing intricate carvings across the surface covered one eye loosely. "Take it from one who knows." Odan began to cackle wildly and shook his head at some hidden joke. His face reminded Ryouga of a dried prune.
"You don't expect me to believe any of this, do you, old man?" Mousse adjusted his glasses uncomfortably.
There was an undeniable weight of power Odan's words. It caused Ryouga to squirm, but Mousse simply stood and stared at the man.
"Your terms, Wordbinder. Your curse." Odan coughed raggedly and struggled to his feet with a little help from Ryouga. He nodded his thanks to the young man and stretched his back as much as he could. The creak and pop of his old bones echoed off the steps. "I've carried the Five and bound the Five. I've one to fix and three to break, so let's get to it. I'm getting tired of this bag of flesh that I've become."
"What do you mean?" Mousse asked hesitantly. Odan had already clamored up a group of stairs and was hobbling his way up another set.
"I mean that I'm tired, Farseer," Odan called over his shoulder. "You try living for ten thousand years and see how spry you feel!"
"That's not what I mean, damn it!" Mousse ran up the steps, following the growing blur of the old man. He could hear Ryouga pacing him to his left. "Why did you call me 'Wordbinder'? What's all this business of being a seer? What the hell aren't you telling us?" Odan stopped two steps down from the top of the stairs and cackled. It was one of the most unnerving sounds that either of the men had every heard.
"Oh! The irony!" Odan wiped his eyes with the back of his splotchy sun-baked hand and sighed. "You, asking me to explain things! That's rich!" He started coughing again. "Hee! That made it all worth it! Hee, hee!" Ryouga scratched his head as the man fell further into his fit of laughter.
"You're insane, old man." Mousse frowned and turned away, intent on leaving both Ryouga and the ancient loon to their own devices. "I'm leaving."
Odan snorted mockingly.
"And where do you think you can run, Mu Tsu Tseng?" Mousse paused and glanced back over his shoulder.
"Are you threatening me? I won't be held prisoner here." A deadly note entered Mousse's voice as he turned to face Odan.
"Don't be stupid."
"Then I'm leaving."
"Fine." All mirth drained from Odan's voice. "But before you go, tell me…."
Mousse paused after his third step. "Tell you what?"
"How are your eyes doing?"
Mousse spun and sent a hail of shuriken whistling towards the decrepit man. Had Ryouga not been there, there was little doubt that Odan would have become a rather ugly pincushion. The former Lost Boy scooped the elder man into his arms and vaulted over the hail of sharp projectiles, landing closer to the great crystal doors of the Library. There was a great band of gold sealing them from intruders. Had Ryouga not been so occupied, he would have marveled at the intricate runes that had been etched into the metal's surface.
"WHAT THE HELL ARE YOU DOING, MOUSSE?" Ryouga settled the old man to the ground behind him, and moved into a tight ready stance.
Mousse ignored Ryouga and moved intently towards Odan. The closer the blind martial artist came to the Library, the darker his vision became. Unnatural shadows skittered across his vision until at last he could see nothing. The Amazon drew a wicked looking naginata from the depths of his robes and brandished it before him.
"I CAN'T SEE!" Mousse cried out. It was hard to rein in his panic. "WHAT HAVE YOU DONE TO MY EYES, OLD MAN?"
"Nothing, foolish boy. You've done it to yourself."
"You crossed the Threshold of Memory."
Mousse immediately started to back away, hoping to cross whatever magical barrier had stolen what little sight he had left. "Stop him, Ryouga, before he hurts himself."
There was a moment of hesitation, and then Mousse heard the rustle of cloth. He immediately brought his pole arm to bear. It was a clumsy strike that Ryouga blocked easily. Mousse felt the naginata lift and dip in one smooth and rapid motion, and then it was trapped.
"TRAITOR!" he bellowed, shifting his weight even as he screamed to deliver a devastating kick to Ryouga's head. It was blocked, and Mousse found himself lifted via the naginata and spun in a tight half circle. He hit something incredibly hard, a column he supposed, and felt the wind driven from his lungs.
"Cool it, Mousse."
The Amazon refused to listen to his companion, drawing a wicked looking scimitar. He swung at the sound of Ryouga's voice and immediately regretted it, as the other martial artist's fist smashed his fist into Mousse's face. There was a loud resounding "CRACK!" that left Mousse dazed and weak in the knees.
"I said cool it, Mousse."
Mousse couldn't see it, but from the sounds of it Ryouga crossed his arms over his chest. The Amazon could easily imagine the disapproval in his companion's eyes.
"Why are you defending him?" Mousse hissed. He could feel blood trickling from his throbbing nose and his eyes were watering.
"He's a helpless old man. It's the right thing to do."
"Moron! If he's so helpless, then why can't I see anything?!" Ryouga shifted his weight, and from the way that his breathing quickened, Mousse knew that he had turned to stare at the old man. "He's some kind of magician!"
Odan chuckled scornfully, causing Ryouga to shift his weight again.
"I'm the best magician in the world, thanks to you, Mu Tsu Tseng."
"Why do you keep saying that? Before two weeks ago, I never even knew you existed! How can I be responsible for anything concerning you?"
"Finally, you're starting to ask the right questions." Odan's voice seemed very pleased, if not somewhat sympathetic to Mousse's confusion. "My question to you is, are you willing to pay the price for the answer?"
"What price?" Ryouga spat. The distrust in his voice was almost… visible.
"I believe every man should go into something with his eyes open, no pun intended, Mu Tsu. If you know the price, and you choose to pay… well, you get what you pay for, don't you?" The old man grinned. "That way, the bastard can't complain when the consequences of his actions bite him in the rear." Odan looked pointedly at Ryouga and laughed.
"How much?" Mousse growled. He pushed himself to his feet and tried to remember his position in relation to everything — a chore, considering the fact that everything had been little more than a blur to begin with.
"What makes you think I know? Walk through the Doors of Fate, boy." The creak of the old man's joints made it clear that he was pointing behind him at the large doors. "Make the choice to pay whatever price it takes to get your answers."
"It sounds too easy," Ryouga grumbled.
"Good! You're learning."
Mousse frowned and directed his attention to where he had last heard Odan's voice. "How do we know that the answers we want lie behind those doors?"
"You don't." There was no mistaking the smile in the old man's voice. "However, I do."
"And we're supposed to trust you?" Mousse countered.
"Do you have any choice?"
"Can I get my sight back in there?"
"After a fashion."
What the hell was that supposed to mean? And why did he have to sound so damn smug?
"Fine. Let's go." Ryouga growled as he grabbed Mousse by the wrist and started dragging the blind martial artist in through the doors of the Great Library. Mousse put up no resistance and allowed himself to approach the doors. The sense of foreboding was overwhelming. There was a smell in the air that Mousse could only catalogue as… magic. Dangerous magic, too.
Odan began to chant. His raspy voice seemed to dissolve on the wind, replaced by a strong, young voice that reminded Mousse of long cold nights staring up into the blackness of the void. There was a resounding groan, and then the ringing boom of a large metal object impacting stone.
"Last chance to run away!" Mousse could hear the maddening grin in the ancient man's voice. Rather than suffer the shame of turning tail, Mousse squared his shoulders and marched forward. Ryouga moved with him.
Looking back on that decision, both young men knew that there was only one person to blame for the consequences of their actions: Ranma Saotome.
"Thank you for the wonderful day."
Ami smiled as she laid the Moriawase skewer on her plate. While she wasn't one for seafood, the grilled shrimp and scallops tasted superb. Ranma had ordered the Ika Yaki, and had offered Ami a bite. She'd never tried grilled squid before, but she was certain that she'd try it again if Ranma offered her another bite.
"No problem." The young man across from her looked a tad bit uncomfortable as he ate, and when Ami had confronted him about his nervousness, he'd confessed that he wasn't used to eating in restaurants.
She'd learned so much about the young man in the short time they'd had together. His stories were amazing and had anyone else told them, Ami would have written them off as embellishments. But with Ranma… There was something about him that just screamed honesty. Ami was certain that everything he said was true, regardless of how incredible or supernatural it sounded.
Their conversations had flown naturally, with very few dead moments. It was an incredibly foreign sensation for her to be so relaxed with a boy that she barely knew. The only young man that had ever put her this much at ease had been Umino. Yet, where Umino was little more than an intellectual acquaintance, Ranma was someone infinitely more appealing to Ami. An indelible quality surrounded him that made her feel safe and special.
"Have you enjoyed yourself?" she asked.
He didn't answer right away and, something in the pit of her stomach lurched as he sipped his tea with a faraway look. Perhaps it was a hope for a positive answer, or fear that he would brush her aside. Whichever the case, Ami's stomach was tied in knots as the young man finished his tea and took his time setting the cup down.
"Yeah. It was fun." He smiled sincerely and she sighed notably. "At first, I thought that the museum was going to be boring, you know?"
Ami winced. Why did everyone think that museums were boring? She found them incredibly exciting. It was the whole reason she loved museums. They could sweep you into another time or place, stealing you away from the weight of living in the modern world. She looked up from her thoughts as Ranma continued.
"But the way that you talked about everything…" He paused searching for the right words. "Well, it painted this really cool picture for me. And with all the old buildings that they had and stuff, it was like we had traveled to the past, you know?"
Ami couldn't contain the happy smile that bloomed.
"I always used to think that history and stuff like that didn't mean nothin' to people today. I mean everyone's always sayin' 'learn from the past and plan for the future', but I never really got what they were sayin' till today. Lookin' at how Edo turned itself from a little fishing village, into one of the largest cities in the world…" He paused again, tugging on his pigtail nervously. Ami thought the gesture was adorable.
"It was really neat, you know. It made me feel a part of something… you know, bigger." Ami, caught up in watching the way his hands had begun unconsciously folding the check into an origami dragon, didn't notice his blush or the way that his face fell. "Aw, hell. Ya probably think I'm stupid."
Ami blinked at the self-depredation. "Not at all! How can you say that about yourself?"
"C'mon, Ami-chan. You don't have to be so nice about it." Ranma set the paper dragon down between them and absently began to stir the small remnants of his meal about his plate. "I ain't smart like you."
"That's not true, Ranma-kun." Ami fidgeted in her seat uncomfortably. The conversation was taking a decidedly undesirable turn into territory that she'd always avoided at all costs. It wasn't that she didn't enjoy the praise she received for her hard work, but in moments like these, she wished that she was just like everyone else. She hated having her peers compare themselves to her. Ranma shook his head jadedly.
"Sure it is. I mean, I saw your mother's office this morning. All those awards and trophies and stuff… Heck, you even had your picture taken with the Prime Minister. There ain't no way that someone like me'd ever get his picture taken with somebody famous like that."
"It wasn't all that great," Ami confessed. "It was a lot of forced smiling and posing. I hated it. Besides, I find you incredibly intelligent, Ranma. In fact, I think your selling yourself short."
Ranma looked skeptical for a moment, then abashed. "You don't got ta make me feel better, or nothing."
"I'm not," she said bluntly. "How many other people could have developed a counter for this 'Shi Shi Hokodan' that you told me about?"
"From all the stories that you've shared with me today, it is apparent that you are a resourceful and creative person, Ranma."
"But I ain't book smart, like you," he protested stubbornly.
"Maybe not yet, but that doesn't mean that you couldn't be." She smiled warmly. "Anyone can memorize a series of facts, Ranma, but that doesn't make them smart."
Her smile broadened. "Of course not. A truly intelligent person learns how to apply what they've learned. For example…" She tapped her bottom lip with her chopsticks as she pondered an analogy. "How do you know when it is best to throw a punch instead of blocking?"
Ranma stared at her as if she were asking a silly question.
"I know it must sound like a very basic question to you, maybe even silly, but it's an honest one. Humor me." She set her chopsticks aside and folded her hands on the table, leaning forward slightly to encourage an answer from the young man. For his part he simply shrugged, uncertain how to proceed.
"I guess it depends on the situation."
"But you do know the ideal strategy behind the use of both, right?" He nodded. "How did you learn the differences?"
This caused him to lean forward himself. He scratched the side of his head thoughtfully and smirked.
"Pops beat it into me. He'd pound me until I started blocking, and we'd spar for hours until I found an opening to exploit." Ami frowned at the teaching method employed, but she also saw that Ranma was catching on. "I guess experience was my teacher."
"Exactly so. Knowledge — any kind of knowledge — if it isn't applied correctly, remains a jumble of useless facts." She instinctively reached across the table and touched Ranma's hand. "You are an innovative person and given time and dedicated focus, I'm sure that you will become 'Book Smart' if that is what you want to be. In fact, I believe that you can be anything you want to be if you put your mind to it."
Ranma looked down at Ami's hand and his face colored. Ami quickly followed suit and started to pull her hand away. She was totally surprised when Ranma's hand covered hers. She looked into his stormy blue eyes and found herself swallowed by an ocean of gratitude and appreciation.
"No one's ever told me that before. Thanks." He smiled and released her hand.
"That's what friends are for," she mumbled self-consciously.
"I ain't had any friends like you then," he admitted.
Ami beamed with pleasure. Ranma refreshed Ami's tea before pouring some for himself.
"Here's ta friends." Ranma raised his cup. Ami quickly followed suit.
"May we always be there for each other," she added.
Ranma nodded and their cups chimed together in the low light of the candle set between them. She watched Ranma down the entire cup in one swallow, and followed suit immediately. The young genius was surprised to see Ranma's hand stretched across the table, pinkie finger extended towards her. Without hesitation she looped her pinkie around his, sealing the pledge.
"Friends forever," Ranma whispered.
Ami felt a heat welling in her heart and she was awash in a sense of Déjà vu. Words came rushing forth, as if a dam had broken.
"For love, for honor, for you. Yesterday, today, and forever."
Ranma blinked uncertainly, but after a moment he smiled and nodded, accepting the oath for what it was. Once spoken, the pact was sealed, and Ami felt that she had somehow filled a very large void in her soul.
Kawasemi glanced back at the city as a large column of red fire shot heavenward. He grinned back at Xi Fu and pointed to the rising pillar. "Your boyfriend just woke up."
"He's not my boyfriend." Xi Fu blushed and turned away. Yet, her eyes continued to glance back at the fiery column.
Kawasemi shrugged and continued forward. "You could do worse."
Xi Fu ignored him. They walked in silence for a time, before the Amazon spoke again. "Where are you taking me?" When the odd little boy did not answer, she kept repeating her question until he stopped and glared at her.
"The powers that be are pulling out all the stops to revive the past. I don't disagree with the move, but I'm not one to place all my eggs in one basket, either. Let the children of the present deal with present troubles."
"What does that mean?" Xi Fu asked guardedly.
"That, Pumpkin, means that you and your sister need to pay very close attention to what I'm going to teach you."
"Not 'us'. You." He shook his head and continued walking up the trail. "I teach you. You teach her. The pair of you teach others. You're gonna be my heir, girl, and you're gonna make me proud by using what I teach you to beat the crap out of the Rhakshasa."
"Why not? You're smart, strong, and have a killer set of legs." Xi Fu blushed and bit back the urge to smack Kawasemi on the back of his head. "You also don't have any exploitable ties to the distant past. Not yet, at least."
Xi Fu wasn't entirely sure what to make of that statement, so she let it drop. They walked in silence for a long time, some forty-five minutes it seemed, before they arrived at a large stone doorway set into the side of a cliff. Unlike the portal that had led into Aumemmnon's valley, this door was clear of vines.
The carvings on its surface were intricate and, from what Xi Fu could tell, told the history of a race of bird-headed men. The pictures showed the creatures teaching various crafts and skills to mankind, everything from weaving and agriculture to art and warfare, all the while learning from humanity even as they taught.
"Mankind's been good to the tribes." Kawasemi's voice shed its youth, becoming ancient and dry. Xi Fu turned and was amazed to see a raven-headed man leaning heavily against the door. His gnarled clawed hands reverently traced the carvings, and his beak seemed to crook in a smile as he turned to the young Amazon.
"We've learned a lot from them. We learned how to love, how to nurture, and most of all how to live. Your lives are so short, and yet you do so much." He chuckled dryly, a sound that reminded Xi Fu of dried leaves crackling underfoot. "Your kind taught my people to live with passion at a time when we were ready to lie down and die. It's hard to forget a debt like that."
"Is that why you will teach me?"
Kawasemi snorted and shook his head.
"Hell, no! I'm teaching you because you've got talent, girl. Talent, and a desire to learn. Don't forget that." He motioned to the door and pushed her forward. "Now open the door and let's get started. We've a lot to do and no time to do it."
Xi Fu looked at the great door, but saw no handle to open it with. She tried pushing it inward, but found it impossible to move. More than a bit of apprehension filled her as she turned her attention back to her new teacher. His large, dark eyes tracked her every movement, and something he said earlier that day came back to her.
"In the last ten thousand years, the people of the Earth still haven't developed any social skills."
Bowing deeply at the waist, she stepped back from the doorway. Without raising her eyes from the ground, she smiled and motioned Kawasemi forward.
"Oh wise Elder, will you please show me the way to open this door?"
Kawasemi cawed brashly in what Xi Fu thought must be laughter. He rapped her lightly on the top of her head with his bony knuckles before approaching the door. She grinned up at him irreverently, drawing more laughter from the aged creature.
"Careful girl, your ego is showing." There was no doubt that he was smiling now, which filled Xi Fu with a hunger to do her best. For Kawasemi, it was a perfect moment. His pupil passed her first and most important test. Knowing when to accept her limitations. Everything else was going to be icing on the cake.
He tapped five images in succession, each representing what Xi Fu thought was a primal element: water, earth, fire, air, and something that might have been… spirit? She wasn't certain if she was right or not, but it really didn't matter. Not yet at least. All that mattered was the way that the doors began to grind against each other. The ground shook ominously as the portal opened and a blast of cool, musty air exploded across Xi Fu's face.
Her blood sang in her veins as the doors finished opening with a large boom. There was another solid tremor as something locked them in place. The darkness just ahead held no terror for her, only promise. She did not hesitate to enter when her new teacher motioned her forward. She did not look back either.
The future lay before her and she embraced it only as an Amazon could.
Kawasemi smiled as Xi Fu voiced her excitement with a battle cry that had been handed down throughout the three thousand years of Chinese Amazon history. They had forgotten who taught it to them and what it truly meant. But Kawasemi hadn't. He still remembered the day that he had taught it to little Kho Min.
"'Life is beautiful' indeed."
The Library of Beth Usel
"I didn't ask for the job. But I got it anyway." Odan's toothless grin unnerved Ryouga. They had been walking in darkness for some time now, and it was starting to get to the Lost Boy. "Keeper of Seals. Steward of Memory. That should have been Setsuna's job."
The name caused Mousse to tense slightly.
"I wasn't anointed by the Three. I wasn't even born on Pluto! The damn pale-skinned bastards still sent you after me though, didn't they?" Ryouga knew that Odan was talking to Mousse, but if his companion heard one word of the ancient man's litany he gave no sign.
"How much longer are we going to wander in the dark?" Ryouga asked tersely. He was getting tired of the old man's constant rambling.
"You tell me, Cain. You and the Farseer control this trip. I just opened the door."
"What? I don't get it?" Ryouga scratched the side of his head. Odan laughed bitterly.
"Oh, the times they are a changing! The day that Ozmandius Cain didn't have an answer… who would have thought that I'd live to see the day?!" Odan cackled.
Ryouga growled and then sighed. What was the use? They were lost in the middle of a cavernous building in complete darkness. It was a cruel joke that the gods were playing on him. To give him clarity, only to steal it away from him again. What a pointless life.
"H-here now!" Odan stammered. "No need for that!" Ryouga felt the old man pat him lightly on the shoulder.
"All you need to do is remember what you came here for, eh. No need bringing all that negative energy to play. Come on, both of you. Pull up your bootstraps. You wanted answers, didn't you?" Ryouga nodded and was surprised to note that he could see the blurry outline of Odan's splotchy bald head.
"Well, they're not just going to be handed to you. You need to work for them." Odan slugged him in the arm. Ryouga barely felt it. "You told me that the day Narya was inducted into the Senshi."
A hazy gray fog began to replace the blackness, causing it to fall away completely. A wondrous throne room spread before them. A sense of déjà vu overwhelmed Ryouga as he looked up at the vaulted ceilings and the beautiful frescos.
"That's the ticket, m'boy! Well done," Odan crowed.
"I know this place."
"You should. You lived here all of your previous life."
"This was Faijid Heddron. The Palace of King Hammad." Ryouga turned and immediately saw a tall, dark-haired man. He wore a pure white headwrap, bound with a golden chain. To his right, a stunning woman with long black hair began to appear. Her face was covered in a thin gauzy white veil, and she wore the most stunning white dress that Ryouga had ever seen.
"Queen Thessaly." Memories. Hundreds of memories cascaded in the back of his mind at the sight of the woman. Ryouga took two steps forward, reaching up to touch her face. She smiled down warmly at him, but did not stop his hands.
"Aunt Thessaly…. She took care of me when mother died." He turned to face King Hammad. "Father had taken her to wife a year after he and mother had married. They had a son." Ryouga scrunched his face, dragging the memories forth from the darkness.
"Rhamud! Feid Rhamud!"
Odan was smiling happily as Ryouga began to see his family.
"Rhamud died when I was six. I was named head of the Ul'Huld the very next week." The throne room fell away, replaced by a balcony that overlooked the light blue-green sky of Mars. Ryouga walked forward to the edge and looked down over the orderly columns of the vast army of Mars. Their numbers stretched as far as the eye could see, and their power had easily matched the might of any two armies within the system.
"And who came after you?" Odan asked quietly.
"Narya." The name brought back so many warm memories. Ryouga watched as they played out before him. He had been there the day that Aunt Thessaly had given birth to his half-sister. What pride he had felt at the sight of her! He was named her primary guardian and personally trained her honor guard to become the most feared force in the galaxy.
He had never been more proud of her than the day that Princess Serenity chose her — out of all the other nobility of Mars — to be one of her Senshi. More and more memories played out around him as he remembered the glorious days that had gone by. Knowledge, long forgotten, infused his mind. For the first time in his life, Ryouga Hibiki felt whole. He knew who he was. He knew what he was. And most of all, he knew where he was.
By the holy eyes of Kai'Thul, he knew where he was.
To be continued.
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