Um yes, well, I’m Doctor Tofu Ono, and it seems I have the task of describing the last chapter to you. It was truly very exciting!
It seems Chris was very angry at Ukyou, so he had killed Kodachi Kunou and taken her body so he could get stronger, and hopefully not rot away as quickly. Ukyou and Ranma returned from Juuban, Ukyou still not entirely well after having drawn on this painful dark power inside her. They found that ‘Kodachi’ had taken Akane and Nabiki and hurt K… K…
HE HURT KASUMI!
BETTY-CHAN, MY SWORD! He must die!
Oh dear, I appear to have lost track of time.
Then Chris was talking with both Akane and Nabiki and they had a very interesting conversation! And when Ukyou showed up with Ranma, Chris was very upset! They fought! Chris managed to poison Ukyou, and Ranma was forced to…
…oh dear, I’ve just been told I’m a terribly boring recapper. I can’t help it if my character hasn’t had quite so much attention drawn to it as Alan Harnum did. Perhaps it’s simply that Mr. Harnum is a better writer…
…now I am being told to go back to being boring, or Chris says he shall twist off my head like a dandelion and mount it on a wall. Then throw darts at it. He seems a bit insecure, in my professional opinion.
Ahem. Yes. To make a long story short, Chris bluffed Ranma into defeating himself and then attacked the helpless Ukyou. After his brutal assault, he interrogated her. She told him a half-truth, leaving him with the impression that Aaron was dead and she had just inherited his memories. Chris, on the other hand, told Ukyou everything. They also appear to not like each other very much.
Chris, having won but feeling bitter about it, released all his hostages and Akane took them to my clinic for some much-needed medical attention. Which is where I come into this story, I suppose.
C&A Productions Presents
A Work of Blatant Self-Insertion
Chapter 5: Session
“So you’re awake.”
Ukyou sighed as her newly modified memory drifted back into the recesses of her consciousness. She had been rather fond of that memory before, or so she suspected. It was rather hard to tell.
Anyway, she and Aaron were awake now. The first thing she noticed was her complete inability to move. The next was the spoken phrase, which had just now registered. She opened her eyes and saw the plain white ceiling with its harsh neon lights overhead. In the corner of her vision she saw hanging partitions. Oh right, Akane had taken her to Doctor Tofu’s clinic.
“Doctor Tofu, I presume?”
“Why yes. Though I don’t believe we’ve had a chance to be properly introduced,” the man said as he leaned in. Doctor Tofu was really a quite attractive man, Ukyou noted with idle dispassion. He had well–trimmed brown hair, kindly black eyes behind neat little glasses and the kind of mouth which was made for smiling. Aaron was curious as to why he wore a martial arts gi in the office, but couldn’t work up the energy to ask.
“Ukyou Kuonji,” Ukyou said in a bored tone. “And you are Tofu Ono. Pleased to meet you.” Tofu seemed to find her deadpan manner slightly amusing, and chuckled to himself.
“Are you feeling okay?”
“No, actually, I feel terrible,” Ukyou pointed out with a sigh. She wasn’t exaggerating, either. Her muscles ached like she had just run across all of Asia, and her head felt like someone had set off a fireworks display in it a few moments ago. There didn’t seem to be a part of her body that didn’t feel like someone had worked it over with a baseball bat. “But you can unparalyse me, if that’s what you mean. My seizure is over now that I’m fully awake.”
“You sound like you’re used to this kind of thing,” Tofu noted idly as he moved his expert fingers to unfreeze her. Ukyou grit her teeth and hissed as the sudden return of vitality to her limbs only increased the pain. “I’m sorry,” the doctor murmured softly when he saw her expression.
“Problem not.” Ukyou sighed and rolled her head back on the stiff pillow Tofu had provided her. “It wasn’t your fault.”
“I can do something for the pain.”
“Don’t bother,” Ukyou groaned. “It isn’t that bad. Plus it will remind me not to be such an idiot in the future.”
Tofu tsked and leaned in, placing his fingers on a few of the pressure points on her head. Slowly, much of the pain drained away. Now she only felt like she had been run over by a garbage truck. “I’ll never understand how you martial artists can be so bull-headed about certain things.”
“Like wearing workout clothes while tending patients?” Aaron chuckled. Tofu had the decency to look abashed, but still smiled in a winning fashion. Aaron frowned, however, looking back up at the ceiling. “I guess I should get the cliches out of the way. Like finding out how long I was unconscious, and what happened to everyone else.”
“Well…” Tofu shrugged and rubbed his chin thoughtfully. “You were asleep for a good…” He checked his watch and whistled. “A little over thirty-eight hours.”
“Thirty-eight?” Aaron blinked, followed swiftly by a groan from Ukyou.
“Yes, you were in much worse shape then you are in now when you came in. I didn’t even try to wake you up.”
“Very bad,” Tofu said with uncharacteristic seriousness in his tone. “Aside from the extensive internal and external injuries, coupled with the blood loss and broken bones… the most serious damage of all was to your chi.”
Aaron snapped his eyes to the doctor’s face and stared at him intently. The man seemed to barely notice as he leaned back on the stool he was using.
“I don’t know what technique you were using, but whatever it was is extremely dangerous.”
“Indeed…” Aaron sighed. “The truth is, doctor, that it wasn’t a technique. It’s a… condition I suffer from.”
“Ah,” Tofu commented softly as he nodded. “That makes sense. The damage done to your chi is too extensive for you to have done it voluntarily.”
“Can you… tell me anything about it?”
“Hmm… not really, I’m not sure of the cause, It’s certainly not anything I’m familiar with.”
“Too much to hope for,” Ukyou grumbled softly. She spoke again before Tofu could respond. “So, where are all my friends? I expected one of them to be here when I woke up.”
“Don’t be disappointed,” Tofu said easily. “It’s still school hours for them. Akane and Ranma have both been in to see you with all their free time. They’re doing well. Ms. Hirozuki and Ms. Kanagata have not been back since I gave them an antidote to that nasty poison.”
“Ah.” Aaron nodded. He and Ukyou fell silent as the doctor moved back out of their sight and did doctor-things. In the silence of the clinic, the mental debate started. Calling it mental speech would have been a misnomer. It was far more… pure, more immediate than any speech could have been. The moment a concept entered Aaron’s mind, it entered Ukyou’s mind with the same potency. In exchange, her thoughts were experienced by Aaron simultaneously. Maintaining a sense of separation was difficult, but not impossible. Aaron had no trouble identifying which thoughts were “his” and which came from Ukyou’s part of their shared psyche. It could still be confusing and annoying, however.
The first thing to enter their dual mind were recriminations, on both sides. Ukyou had deliberately pushed Chris away. Aaron had drawn them both into too many conflicts. But the attacks lasted only a few seconds. It was impossible to blame someone for something with any real vehemence when you became instantly aware of every nuance of thought they experienced. So, there could be no blame to dole out here. Whatever damage they had done to themselves and their friends, both past and present, they shared responsibility equally. It was the only fair way to see it.
That was the logic behind it. It didn’t stop Ukyou’s feelings. Aaron knew how to suppress his feelings, but that was one skill Ukyou never wanted to master. It left her with this dark pit of hate in her gut, a roiling toxic mix of guilt and anger and pain that she couldn’t let out. It had been almost a month since she had woken up with Aaron stuck inside her skull, and that miasma of hatred had been growing every day since then. The fact that Aaron was as much of a victim as she didn’t matter. The fact that she was being a bitch to his friend didn’t matter. Her heart couldn’t be swayed by logic; simple sense couldn’t stop her from hating him for the mockery he had made out of her life.
Her constant hatred was inescapable for Aaron. It wore him down, eroded his meagre confidence. Ukyou’s outburst against Chris the other day, when she voiced her hatred for the first time, had been the first time in his life that Aaron had ever considered suicide. Maybe it would be better if he could find some way to disappear.
Ukyou sighed aloud. Now his feeling bad was making her feel bad. Which only made her angry. Which only made her hate him more. Which only fuelled his growing depression. It was a vicious cycle, one which both of them realized existed, yet neither of them could do anything to avoid.
“You look sad,” Tofu understated as he walked back into view. “You should cheer up. From what I gathered, it isn’t all that bad.”
“You didn’t hear enough,” Ukyou sighed again. “I…” Ukyou trailed off. “It doesn’t matter, doctor. This is just something I have to live with, I guess.”
“Well, if you need somebody to talk to…” Tofu smiled down at her and let the comment hang in the air. Ukyou forced herself to smile back. She didn’t feel like smiling, but Aaron was a good actor and it was simple to draw on his skills in that area. “We’re probably going to be together for a while. The level of your injuries… it would take someone weeks or months to recover fully from them. I don’t even recommend you get out of bed for another week.”
“I see…” Ukyou nodded. “Isn’t this the part where you recommend I go to a normal hospital?”
“I would, except I don’t believe that any normal hospital could properly treat you,” Tofu responded. “At first, I would have thought that best, but now…” he trailed off. “You’ve had as close to a complete transfusion as you can get. The rest of the damage is too widespread and too minor to be corrected with even the most advanced surgical techniques. Not to mention the damage to your chi. Your average surgeon or resident wouldn’t understand the concepts behind chi damage, much less the treatments needed to reverse it.”
“So… that’s why you work as a chiropractor?” Aaron mused aloud. “I always thought you were a bit too skilled to be a small–time practitioner.”
“You sound like we’ve met before.”
“We haven’t,” Ukyou said evenly. It was easy to forget how much they knew, thanks to Aaron’s reading that damnable comic book. “I just make it a habit to learn everything I can about my friends and enemies.”
“A strange habit in one so young,” Tofu mused as he leaned back. He started for the door. “I think I can help you recover from your injuries, Miss Kuonji. I understand you fled medical care the last time this happened. I hope you won’t do the same this time.”
“I won’t.” Ukyou turned her head to the side and saw him standing at the door. “I insist on paying for your help. I’m not a freeloader, and I have money.”
“Hmm? Oh, it doesn’t matter much to me. Your case is so interesting; I’ve never seen a kind of damage quite like yours. I would love the chance to study it.”
“Now you make me feel like some lab accident,” Ukyou groused with as much good nature as she could manage.
“Hah! No, nothing like that!” Tofu laughed and rubbed the back of his head.
“Indeed…” Ukyou turned her head back to the ceiling. “Do me a favour, and tell Ranma and Akane that I’m awake if you can get in touch with them. I have… things I need to discuss with them.”
“I will,” Tofu said seriously. The sound of the door closing left Ukyou alone with her and Aaron’s thoughts.
Nabiki splashed the cold water on her face and reached over to procure a towel to dry herself off. She couldn’t stand this anymore. It was keeping her up at night. Remembering that day. Locked in a room, tied up, gagged, listening to the distant sounds of combat as it ripped up the Kunou estate…
She shook her head to free up those thoughts. No use dwelling on the past. Best to think forward to the future. With a yawn she leaned away from the sink and stretched herself out. She might have been able to let it go, if she had been able to make any progress at all with finding out things about Ukyou Kuonji. No such luck. But maybe today that would change.
Nabiki left the bathroom with a smile on her lips. She did not forget to take her schoolbag with her when she left. She wasn’t letting that thing out of her sight. The school itself was relatively quiet today, which was a blessing, because Nabiki didn’t want anything distracting her today. She made her way through the halls to class without any further incident.
Kunou was back in classes full time today. Without Ukyou around to give him his daily beating, he had even managed to show up for class on time. Nabiki had already cornered him the other day and bribed him with a few of the “less discrete” pictures she had of Akane until he blew the whole story to her. Once she managed to filter out the usual self-aggrandising idiocy from Kunou’s responses she had managed to figure out quite a bit.
Apparently Kodachi had drugged him and locked him in his room for the totality of the “incident”, which meant Kunou had seen about as much of what had happened as she did. The fact that he treated being poisoned, trussed up and locked away by his sister with such blasé familiarity was something Nabiki found vaguely disturbing. Apparently Kodachi had released him once everyone was gone, and then told him that she was going on an extended vacation of some kind. He had spent much of yesterday withdrawing his sister from the exclusive girl’s private school she attended.
Kodachi herself had also been a busy bee yesterday. Apparently, the morning after the battle, she had ‘discovered’ the body of a dead police officer in a pond on the property. Nabiki might have dismissed it, except for the fact that her sister was attacked already by a police officer. This was rather too large a coincidence for Nabiki to dismiss, even if she didn’t quite know what the connection was. Too bad the police, after swarming over the household for much of the day, seemed to accept whatever story she spun for them and moved along their merry way.
Nabiki briefly considered pressing charges against the girl. But the problem was, she was slightly intimidated. Kodachi had beaten Ranma and Ukyou, and Nabiki had seen both of them fight before. She doubted very much the police could protect her from Kodachi if she started flinging dirt about. But the idea was very tempting. Nabiki just knew she could poke a few dozen holes in whatever story Kodachi had come up with for them. Getting revenge on her kidnapper came in second to saving her own skin, however.
It was far easier to focus her efforts on the person that was going to be more available and of more immediate concern anyway. Which reminded her about her package.
Once she was safely in her seat, Nabiki took out the plain manila folder and began to flip through its contents. It was lucky she had established a reputation for scholastic excellence, and so could look through the information without being hassled by the teacher. Inside were all the public records available for one Ukyou Kuonji, and quite a few non-public records as well. It had cost her a pretty penny to get access to all these, but in Nabiki’s opinion it would be worth it.
Throughout the day, the information proved to be naggingly incomplete. It contained all the usual backstory, which Nabiki was able to piece together quite well. It seemed Ukyou was a relatively normal student. Went to mostly all-boy’s schools, worked on the side in a number of restaurants. No living relatives (his father had died just months ago, his mother died shortly after he was born) or much in the way of obvious friends. There was some sort of problem with his records from about ten years ago. All of Ukyou’s identity papers, from birth certificate on up, were re-issued suddenly throughout that year. Which was interesting, but annoyingly unrevelatory. There was also the fact that Ukyou had suddenly withdrawn from school and all but disappeared off the map almost one month ago. That left two major events for Nabiki to find out about.
From what she remembered, ten years ago would be just about right for when Ranma Saotome first encountered him. That meant Ranma was still probably her best source of information on the mystery boy. Which was annoying, since he was proving amazingly stubborn about spilling the beans on Ukyou to her. He was obviously hiding something – he had the worst poker face – but he simply refused to talk about it. Hitting up Mr. Saotome for information was no better. He would just sweat until he somehow distracted her and then – splash – instant panda. It was frustrating.
A month ago would be just about right for Ukyou coming to Nerima, so that wasn’t so much of a mystery. Considering his father had died only a few months earlier, he must have delayed only so long before departing on his quest. But the father’s death did point out one interesting fact. It appeared that Ukyou Kuonji had inherited quite a bit from his life insurance and estate. Mysterious was one thing, but independently wealthy was a whole other kettle of fish.
Nabiki smiled and shuffled the papers back into the plain manila folder. The information she had gained had barely been worth the price she had paid. But it did at least confirm some of the Kuonji boy’s story. Now the rest would be up to Nabiki. Well, it had been a few years since she had been forced to really dig for something. She was going to enjoy the challenge.
“I don’t know, maybe we should have let Nabiki come along?”
“Forget about it, Akane,” Ranma replied with a shrug. “Ucchan already asked us to keep what happened at the house between us three. Plus, she ain’t exactly dressed up for preserving her secret right now, ya know?”
Akane sighed as she followed Ranma up the path to Doctor Tofu’s clinic. He was right, even if Akane didn’t feel very good about excluding her sister from the conversation. Nabiki had been kidnapped too; she probably deserved at least as many answers as Ranma or Akane did. But on the other hand, Nabiki finding out about Ukyou’s condition would mean her father might end up switching the engagement between Ranma and her to Ranma and Akane. That just didn’t bear thinking about. The two only barely got along now because of their friendship with Ukyou. No telling what being forced into that kind of relationship might do.
“Ah, you came quickly,” Doctor Tofu said as he stepped out the door. Akane smiled and bowed, making sure to run a hand through her long hair so that the doctor would see it. Just because she was here to see Ukyou didn’t mean she couldn’t score a few points with Doctor Tofu in the meantime.
“We came as soon as we got your message!” Akane said enthusiastically.
“Yeah, why didn’t you call us at school or something? I could have used the excuse to get out of classes,” Ranma groused as he laced his arms behind his neck.
Tofu laughed and shook his head as he adjusted his glasses. “Now Ranma, school is serious business. You should concentrate on your studies a bit more.” Ranma gave him a puzzled frown but otherwise didn’t react. Tofu turned to Akane next, his soft brown hair blowing in the wind. “You two are both really good friends to Ukyou. I think she could really use some friends at the moment as well.” Akane nodded a few times while Ranma rolled his eyes. “Come along, she’s in here.”
They followed the doctor into the back of his clinic. He only had three patient rooms, so it didn’t take them long to reach the one where Ukyou was resting. Once they were inside, the doctor quickly excused himself. Two chairs had been placed in the room for them, one of which Akane availed herself of. Ranma, being Ranma, decided to perch himself in the windowsill again.
Ukyou herself was sitting semi-upright, propped up on a small mountain of pillows. Her hands were laced behind her head and she was staring at the ceiling with cold-eyed indifference. She looked a lot better now then she had when Akane had first dragged her into the clinic. The colour had returned to her cheeks, and the bruises had stopped growing. The one on her chin ended just below her lip and just before it reached her neck. But for some reason, she looked less healthy when she was awake. There had been something about the image of Ukyou when she was asleep that this awake Ukyou didn’t possess. Akane didn’t want to call it “peace”… but it was the only word she could think of.
“Ucchan…” Ukyou looked over at Ranma as he spoke. “Are you… feeling better?”
“I’ll live,” Ukyou shrugged. Ranma seemed to take that at face value, but Akane wasn’t going to let her get off that easily.
“Are you sure you’re alright?” she asked, trying not to sound too insistent.
Ukyou switched her attention to Akane and smiled, though it seemed forced. Akane had seen Ukyou smile before. When she did, her face lit up and the cold demeanour she often walked around with seemed to burn away. This time it did not. “I’m really fine, Akane. It’s just a little beating. A week, maybe two, and I’ll be better than ever.”
Akane considered disputing that, but decided better of it. Ranma nodded along as Ukyou spoke.
“Heh. You know, I’ve always wanted to say this.” Ukyou spoke up suddenly into the silence that descended after her statement. “I guess you’re all wondering why I called you here today.”
“Uh, no, not really. I figured you were going to tell us about this whole mess with that undead guy, er girl, er whatever.”
“Ranma, you’re messing with my cliche!” Ukyou teased.
“Sorry!” Ranma said as he raised his hands in front of himself. “I didn’t mean to!”
Ukyou stared at Ranma’s look of mute horror for a few moments with a totally blank expression. A second later she broke out into a fit of uncontrollable giggles. Akane found herself smiling along with her. Somehow that outburst of giggles made Akane feel better. Ranma, for his part, spent a few moments staring at them in confusion until he finally realised he must have said something stupid. This caused him to glare at them both and cross his arms over his chest, puffing out his cheeks in annoyance. The expression he put on only caused Ukyou to laugh louder. Akane began to giggle herself, and after a moment Ranma joined them.
The spent the next few minutes just laughing together. Everytime it began to die down, one of them would make some silly face and the guffaws would burst out all over again. It wasn’t judgmental or harsh, it was just easy and companionable. Somehow the laughter infected them all, brought them closer together in a way they hadn’t been until now. Akane clutched at her stomach. The laughter was beginning to hurt, but not in a bad way. Laughing like this felt so right, so good.
It felt like friendship.
As the chuckles died down for the final time, Akane spent a few seconds thinking about that while she wiped tears from her eyes. This was the first time Akane could remember feeling this way. Sure, she had Yuka and Sayuri for hanging around with. But those were just people she talked to at school. They didn’t… they didn’t understand her the same way. Everyone else at school either treated her like some weird tomboy, or some porcelain statue (albeit one they wanted to beat into a date). Ranma and Ukyou were people she had much more in common with. They had shared danger together, and now they had shared laughter. Akane found herself wishing the moment wouldn’t go away.
But, of course, it did.
“I needed that,” Ukyou said as she clutched at her own stomach. “I don’t think even I knew how much I needed that.”
“Uh… you’re welcome?” Ranma rubbed the back of his neck and grinned, trying to take credit for his slip-up earlier. His expression threatened to start Akane giggling again, but she stifled the urge as the cold, serious look reappeared on Ukyou’s face.
“But anyway, you interrupted me before I could start…”
“What the…” Ranma leapt from the windowsill and ran towards the door.
Nabiki knocked on the door to Doctor Tofu’s clinic. She suppressed the urge to laugh into her hand as she rolled back and forth on the balls of her feet, waiting for the man to respond. It took him a few moments, probably because he was used to people just walking into his reception area. When he did appear at the door, he blinked owlishly on seeing her, but smiled anyway.
Perfect. He didn’t suspect a thing.
“Oh, Nabiki! What brings you here today?”
Nabiki smiled back and held out a plate full of (store bought) cookies and a (library) book of anatomy. “Oh Doctor Tofu!” she grinned, pouring on the false enthusiasm. “I just came over to give these to you. Kasumi wanted to bring them over herself, but was too busy. So I helped her out.”
“K-Kasumi sent these…” Tofu said as he stared at the items in front of him. Nabiki could practically see the veins in his forehead throb. Just a little more of a push…
“Oh yes,” Nabiki smiled even wider. “She said she made them especially for you. She wanted you to enjoy them as much as you would her company. She really does miss you, when she can’t come over.”
“She… m-m-misses me…” Tofu chuckled and adjusted his glasses. The poor man was practically steaming, and his glasses had already begun to fog up. “Oh… k-Kasumi!”
Nabiki thrust the goods into the doctor’s hands and side-stepped him as he danced out into the yard. That’d take care of him for a good long while. Nabiki had seen him in his state of Kasumi-induced bliss quite a few times. He wouldn’t notice if those cookies were store-bought, not when she had seen him eat pieces of ceramic plate without noticing it before.
Nabiki proceeded easily into the clinic proper. Thankfully, at this time of day it was deserted. Almost all of Tofu’s patients were old men and women, and none of them liked being out this time of day when all the teenagers were about. Nabiki slipped into the back without incident and crept along the hallway. There was only one door closed back there, so it didn’t take a genius to figure out which one Ukyou and the others were talking behind. Well, laughing behind, from the sounds of it.
Nabiki chuckled herself. They wouldn’t even notice her. Nabiki calmly walked into another room and pulled a stethoscope off the wall before returning with the instrument. Unable to contain her glee, Nabiki slipped it into her ears and placed the metal cup against the thin wooden door. Perfect, she could hear everything they were saying in there. The laughter was dying down and Ukyou was thanking Ranma for something. It also appeared that Nabiki hadn’t missed the meat of the conversation. This was going to be…
There was a bony hand on her shoulder.
Nabiki leapt away from the hand, spinning in mid-air with the kind of grace only gymnasts and the terrorised possessed. Behind her was Doctor Tofu with his anatomy skeleton. His glasses were still fogged up and he was grinning like a loon.
“I’m sorry!” he said with a smile. “Betty just wanted to thank you for bringing us the cookies! She’s so happy to hear from Kasumi, you see.” Nabiki wasn’t sure what she found more frightening, the bones on her shoulder a second ago, or the way a grown man was making his teaching skeleton wave its hand at her.
Suddenly the door next to her flew open and Ranma stepped into view. He took one look at Nabiki and Tofu and then crossed his arms with an amused grin on his face.
“Can I… help you two?”
“Uh, no…” Nabiki said with a sigh. Ranma’s sudden appearance seemed to have snapped Doctor Tofu out of his stupor. That meant Nabiki didn’t have to be afraid of the man rearranging her body-parts in a playful accident while he was out of it. It also meant that Nabiki’s chances of listening in were just about shot.
“Oh, Nabiki, what are you doing back here?” Tofu said as he bent his head to the side. Disturbingly, the skeleton tilted its head in the exact same way at the exact same time.
“Yeah… what are you doing back here?” Ranma said with a bit of suspicion in his voice. Nabiki realized as he stared at her that she still had the stethoscope plugged into her ears. That would explain why everyone’s voice had been muffled. She pulled it off with a chagrined smile.
“I was just… helping the doctor put away some equipment!”
“Oh, really…” Ranma gave her a flat stare. Nabiki tried to edge past him, hoping to get a look into the room, but Ranma shifted to block her view. A moment later he was joined by Akane, effectively blocking out all line of sight into the room.
“Nabiki? Why did you come here?”
“I was…” Nabiki almost blurted out the excuse she had given Tofu earlier, but paused when she saw the man standing only a few paces from her. There was no telling what would set him off. “I just dropped some stuff off and… andnowI’mleavingbyebye!” Nabiki ran off as she finished her sentence, skipping around the motionless doctor and his pet skeleton agilely as she sprinted for the door. Her cheeks burned with embarrassment, but she wasn’t about to be stopped by this little setback. Oh no… this wouldn’t stop Nabiki Tendo!
Ranma closed the door firmly once Nabiki was out of sight and Tofu apologised for the interruption. Akane wasn’t that mad, just vaguely disappointed in her sister. She went back to her seat, while Ranma leaned against the wall near the door. Close enough, Akane noted, that he would hear if anyone came down the hallway again. Ukyou had a slight smirk on her face, but shook it off quickly as she adjusted her position to better face them both.
“Well, as amusing as that was…” Ukyou trailed off a bit. “Where was I before we were interrupted?”
“You were about to start explaining all the stuff that happened two days ago to us,” Ranma pointed out simply.
“Ah yes…” Ukyou ran her fingers through her bangs and sighed. “That’s quite a tall order. I don’t even know where to begin.”
“Were you hiding so much from us?” Akane said, unable to keep the disappointment out of her tone.
Ukyou flinched. “I wasn’t lying to you, exactly. Everything I told you was phrased so that what I was saying wasn’t exactly a lie, you see…” Ukyou trailed off with another flinch. Ranma was giving her a flat look, and Akane guessed her own expression was remarkably similar. “I just didn’t want to…” Ukyou trailed off as their expressions didn’t change. “Fine. You’re right. I lied to you. I’m sorry.” Ukyou bowed her head, allowing her bangs to fall over her eyes.
Akane let out a sigh. “It’s okay, Ukyou. You had good reasons for not telling us the whole truth, right?”
“Don’t worry about it, Ucchan,” Ranma added in. “We forgive you. Well, I’m guessing Akane does. I never really held it against you, myself.”
“I know…” Ukyou raised her head up and smiled a little thinly at them. “You’re not the kind to hold a real grudge, Ranma.” Then she smiled a little viciously. “Not that you don’t hide things from your friends on occasion, either.” Ranma scratched the back of his neck in confusion while Ukyou gave him a slightly self-satisfied smile. “Like, about certain sauce recipes…” Ranma stared at her for another second then his eyes widened and he gulped.
“Huh? Sauce recipe?”
“Never mind. Think nothing of it, Ranma,” Ukyou waved aside Ranma’s obvious confusion. “I forgive you.”
“Oh, well, that’s good… I guess…” Ranma said with a shrug. Akane blinked a few times, feeling a little left out. It was still hard to accept that Ranma had actually known Ukyou longer than Akane had, especially since Akane had met her “first” here in Tokyo.
Ukyou seemed to relax a bit, releasing a long slow breath between thin lips. Her eyes closed and she ran a hand absently through her bangs. “Where to begin…” Ukyou mused aloud. “The beginning would be a good place. But it’s not the right place. The beginning was over ten years ago, back when Ranma and I first met. The only important thing you have to know about those times is that Ranma’s father stole my father’s food cart, and abandoned me in the dust when he was supposed to take me with them.”
“Wait… now I remember!” Ranma burst out, pounding his fist into his palm. “That day… I remember you running after us.”
“Indeed,” Ukyou nodded her head, still not opening her eyes.
“But I thought you were just there to say goodbye.”
“I know, you were six. I blamed you at first but… in time I came to realise that you weren’t at fault.”
“So I was partly right,” Akane mused aloud. “Mr. Saotome did abandon you. I thought he was… you know, really your…”
“That I was Ranma’s illegitimate sister or something similar?”
“Something like that…”
“I guess I only have myself to blame,” Ukyou sighed. “I was so used to lying that I just let you draw your own conclusions.” Ukyou grinned sardonically. “That’s the easiest kind of lie, you know? The one where you just give the mark only enough information, phrased just so, and they draw their own false conclusions.”
Akane had no real response to that. Neither did Ranma, apparently. When Ukyou spoke next, her voice had taken on a new cadence. It was slow and rhythmic, drawing her attention in an odd way. There was something about the way it sounded that was familiar to Akane, but she couldn’t place her finger on it.
“I woke up almost eight hours ago now. I spent a lot of that time lying here and getting very familiar with what that ceiling looks like. I also spent a lot of that time thinking. I was thinking about what I was going to tell you when you came and you had questions. Questions about me, about Chris, about Aaron and about how all three of us are connected. And I came up with a lot of things I could say to you. I spent a great deal of time refining the message over and over in my mind, editing it and revising it. I perfected it the same way a politician perfects a speech or a storyteller perfects a tale, introducing the right levels of drama and exoticism, playing to the emotional appeals of my audience. I came up with a brilliant way to give you what you wanted to hear.
“Now, sitting here, looking at the two of you, I can’t say any of it. Because everything I was going to say to you was a lie. Oh, I could call it a subtle half-truth, or just a little white lie, or a harmless omission… but I seem to have lost the ability to deceive myself even as I become a better liar. I look at your faces and I feel like a bitch when I prepare myself to lie to you so openly. I can’t do it. You two mean too much to me. So instead I’m going to tell you the truth, or a good part of it.
“There are parts of the truth I’m not going to tell you. Some of that is because I don’t know the whole truth. Some of that is because there are things I just don’t feel like telling anyone. There are secrets in my heart that I want to keep, and if it’s wrong for me to hide them from you then I’m wrong, but that doesn’t change how I feel.”
Here Ukyou paused as she took a deep breath. Ranma’s mouth opened and closed as he tried to find a way to respond to all that. Akane herself was far from speechless, she could think of a million questions and reassurances to give Ukyou. But even as she opened her mouth to say something, Ukyou’s hand shot up and formed a wall between them.
“Please, don’t say anything. Getting this out is hard enough. If you interrupt me now, my courage might fail and you’d end up just as misled as before. I need to get this out now, or I’ll never get it out.”
Ukyou flexed her neck.
“I am Ukyou Kuonji, the same girl you that you befriended all those years ago, Ranma. But to a certain extent I’m another person as well. A boy who died, and whom I managed to… inherit the memory of. He… is like a silent partner. He hasn’t taken me over, like some parasite or anything. I’m still ME. But we are who we remember we are as well, and I remember all his life.” Ukyou ran her hand through her bangs again.
“I can’t really tell you how this happened. I don’t know myself. It happened about a month ago, and ever since I’ve been struggling to deal with it. Having these extra memories in my head has also done things to me physically. As you’ve seen, I can damage myself by tapping into my chi too deeply and when I fall unconscious I wake up again having spasms and fits. Plus, I can’t feel… comfortable as a woman like I used to. Aaron was a guy, and for some reason his presence changed my body so that I can’t be much like a girl anymore. It makes me sick to my stomach just thinking about it…”
Ukyou opened her eyes and looked over at them. “And that’s me. A girl who by some quirk of fate ended up with this bad thing stuck over her head. So, before I go any further, I’m sure you’re both dying to ask me questions. So shoot.”
Akane stood up and quickly crossed the room to Ukyou. Ukyou only stared as she leaned over and wrapped her up in her arms. It was kind of awkward, but Akane managed. Ukyou stammered for a few seconds, obviously not expecting this. Akane smiled and stepped back, brushing a scattering of tears from the edge of her eyes as she did so.
“Ukyou… I don’t really understand what’s going on, but I’m not about to let whatever it is get between us, okay?”
Ranma, however, walked right past the bed, a frown of anger on his face. Ukyou gulped at his expression. Akane couldn’t blame her, he certainly looked mad.
Nabiki smirked as she idly spun the stethoscope around her index finger. It was a bit of luck that she hadn’t dropped it in her flight from the doctor’s office. She would return it later, of course. Nabiki was no petty thief, at least not for things with no real value. Secrets, on the other hand, had a good deal of value.
Her problem before had been trusting to luck. Tofu’s chaotic actions had worked against her. That was why this time she would eliminate any chance of Doctor Tofu interfering. So saying, she had waited outside his clinic until another patient had arrived, a young pregnant woman. With the doctor occupied with a patient, he was sure not to interfere with her reconnaissance. Thankfully it had only been a few minutes before a patient arrived, so hopefully Nabiki hadn’t missed anything critical.
The back lot behind Doctor Tofu’s clinic was deserted, basically just a muddy field dotted with the detritus of human society. It would probably cease to exist in a few months as the realtors of Tokyo eagerly gobbled up the precious open space. But for now, it was just another empty place in the world. That suited Nabiki just fine. She walked along the wall, using her free hand to run her palm along the painted facade. She mentally counted out the windows until she arrived just below the one in which her sister was talking with the mystery boy.
The problem was, she was below it. She craned her neck back and stared up at the narrow window in annoyance. It was quite a bit above her, which made her chances of overhearing much of what was going inside remote. But that wouldn’t stop Nabiki Tendo!
Looking around, she quickly spotted a few abandoned boxes that looked sturdy enough. They proved a little heavier than they looked, but you didn’t get a body as hot as Nabiki’s without exercising a little bit. Still, she was sweating by the time she had piled two of them up. A quick hop and she found herself within easy reach of the window. She could even crouch, giving her a nice lap on which to lay her notebook. Suppressing the desire to snigger she fitted the stethoscope over her ears and reached up to place it against the windowpane, looking down with her eyes so she could write anything she heard down in the little notebook perched on her knees.
Hmm. That was funny. She waved the little metal cap around a bit, trying to touch it to the window, but it seemed like the window wasn’t there. Was it recessed into the building? No, Nabiki could have sworn the pane of glass was flush against the side of the white-washed walls. Oh, there, it seemed to have hit something…
Nabiki tipped over and collapsed as her hands snapped to her head to cover her ringing ears. Then she screamed again as she fell on the empty crates, which splintered under the sudden impact with her bottom. Then she screamed again as she plummeted through to the next crate, which also smashed apart when her rear end collided with it. She didn’t have the breath to scream when she landed on the ground, which thankfully didn’t give way. For a few dizzying seconds she wasn’t sure whether to cover her ringing ears or rub her sore behind.
It took her a few moments to recover her equilibrium and for the ringing in her ears to die down to any degree. Moaning, she reached up and pulled the stethoscope off her head. It didn’t really help with the pain, but it made her feel better about it. She looked up above her, and only remembered what had caused her to crash when she saw Ranma’s smirking face staring down at her. That arrogant little bastard had yelled into the amplifier!
He was saying something, but Nabiki couldn’t hear him over the ringing in her ears. For a moment she thought it would be too undignified to cup her hands to her ears and yell “What?”, then she remembered she was sitting on the muddy ground, surrounded by a pile of splinters. Her face burning red with embarrassment (and anger, don’t forget the anger!) she made it clear to the boy that she couldn’t hear him.
“I said, imagine meeting you here Nabiki, again,” Ranma shouted a little louder. Nabiki could hear him now. It helped that the ringing was really dying down.
“Yeah, imagine that…” Nabiki chuckled dryly.
“Can I ask what you were doing outside the window?” Ranma said as he crossed his arms on the sill and rested his chin on them. His stupid Cheshire Cat grin wouldn’t go away, however. Nabiki resisted the urge to glare at him, trying to put on her most pleasant front.
“I was… just trying to return Doctor Tofu’s stethoscope?”
“Right…” Ranma drawled. “Here, I’ll do it for you.” He reached down for the instrument, which Nabiki reluctantly handed over. “Anything else?”
“No… I think I’ll be on my way,” Nabiki stood up with as much dignity as she could muster. Which wasn’t much. The skirt of her uniform was plastered to her buttocks with mud, and she was more than a little wobbly on her feet.
“Are you sure you can get home okay? Maybe you should see the doc about that fall?”
“I’m perfectly fine!” Nabiki snapped as she strode away. Ranma stayed in the windowsill, watching her with idle interest until she turned the corner. Nabiki spit out a stream of unladylike curses as she leaned against the wall and rubbed at her sore rear. Damn.
Well, Nabiki wasn’t about to let this stop her. Neither Tofu, nor Ranma, nor anyone else would keep her from finding out the secrets of Ukyou Kuonji! She smirked and nodded her head downward, covering her eyes with one hand as she tried to think of what to do next.
It was then that she remembered she had just been using that hand to rub at her skirt. Her skirt which had been covered in mud.
“Sorry ’bout that, Ucchan,” Ranma said as he slid the window closed and turned back to the room. “Man, Akane. You seem like a nice enough person, you know, when you’re not molesting me, but your sister is a real prize.”
“Hey!” Akane shouted, doubly indignant.
“I thought we talked about this already,” Ukyou said with a sigh.
Ranma grinned at her and leaned against the windowsill. One-upping Nabiki was enjoyable. The two of them had spent every moment together since they had been “engaged” shooting verbal snipes back and forth. Ranma felt kind of sore with how easily she outmanoeuvred him. Getting a bit of payback made him feel better about it.
“Well, Akane already said she doesn’t have many questions, Ranma. What about you?” Ukyou asked calmly. Ranma dragged his attention back to the matter at hand and frowned a bit as he thought the question over.
“I guess this stuff does answer some questions. I mean, it seems a lot like my curse, only in the exact opposite.”
“That’s… actually a rather insightful way of putting it, Ranma.” Ukyou smiled a bit at him. Ranma shrugged. She sounded relieved to hear he wasn’t mad at her or anything. Ranma would have told her she didn’t have to worry, but that really went without saying. Ranma knew what it was like to live with a problem that people just didn’t understand most of the time. The fact that Ukyou had a certain bit of guyishness to her was something he found really easy to accept. Heck, it was much harder to think of Ukyou as a girl than to think of her as a guy. Though there was that bit about her ‘true feelings’ when she was yelling at that guy which Ranma wasn’t sure about…
“Okay, well that explains you,” Ranma said. “But what about this other girl? That Chris person?” Ranma didn’t bother keeping the anger out of his tone. But Ukyou should be able to tell it wasn’t directed at her. Nobody humiliated Ranma like Chris had.
“Hmmm…” Ukyou ran her hands through her bangs and let her palms rest against the back of her neck. “First off, she’s not a girl. Chris is a man, like Aaron was. The two of them were friends, and they died in the same accident. I guess that something went wrong. Somehow Chris ended up being slingshot to our world as well, but he’s stuck as a corpse person.”
“Our world?” Akane asked as she leaned forward in her chair.
“Huh? Oh, well… that’s probably the wrong term to use.” Ukyou paused here and chewed on her lower lip a bit. “Aaron and Chris are from the future, from our point of view.”
“The future?” Ranma snorted. “That doesn’t make sense. They’re like, time-traveling ghosts?”
“Don’t be so quick to dismiss it, Ranma,” Ukyou berated him lightly. “If you can believe in men who turn into women, why not people from the future?”
“Huh… I guess.”
“That’s part of the problem with him,” Ukyou mused. “Chris knows the future, and thus has access to a lot of information that most people don’t. It’s how he was able to predict all our moves and beat us so easily-“
“I wasn’t beaten!” Ranma snapped a bit. Seeing Akane and Ukyou staring at him, Ranma grunted and laced his own hands behind his neck. “Well, I wasn’t. I was going to win that fight until she, he, whatever… until Chris convinced me you were dying.”
“I only let myself be paralysed because I thought the poison she had hit you with was deadly,” Ranma explained easily enough. “I… I wasn’t about to let you die.”
“Indeed…” Ukyou said in her oddly emotionless tone. She shook her head. “But we shouldn’t have to worry about Chris. I think he’ll leave us alone from now on.”
“But why take that risk?” Ranma griped. “I think we should settle the score now.” Ranma’s fingers clenched along the back of his neck and he grit his teeth. That creature… had played him for a fool. Then beaten Ukyou to within an inch of her life while all Ranma could do was watch. He would… do something about it!
“Calm down, Ranma,” Ukyou said soothingly. Ranma took a few deep breaths as he forced himself to ease up. “There’s no need to pick a fight with Chris now, or any other time.” She laid back on the bed, staring at the ceiling once more. “He’s too dangerous to trust, but I think he won’t be coming back.”
“What makes you think that?” Akane asked.
“I know him,” Ukyou stated simply. “He hates my guts now, which is good. I wanted him to.”
“Why?” Akane continued.
“Akane… Chris is a dangerous man. He’s… not human the way we are, not anymore. He doesn’t see people like you or me as ‘real’ the same way he is. To him, we’re just people he’s read about in journals from the future. And he’s already proven he’s capable of murder… many times over. He says he wasn’t going to kill you that night when I first met him, but can I really trust that? And what happens when his Kodachi form begins to decay on him? He’ll go after another body then, and I know what he wants. A ‘normal’ person won’t satisfy him. He’ll want somebody at least as strong and fast as Kodachi is, which means we’re not safe with him around. At least if he’s gone away, he isn’t our problem.”
“You really want to abandon him like that?” Akane said with a hint of sadness in her voice.
“Abandon… no, I don’t see it like that,” Ukyou frowned and turned her full attention to Akane. “I’m protecting you, us… as much as I don’t want to, I have inherited some of Aaron’s feelings about Chris. Part of his friendship is with me. But I can’t trust him. If I find a way to help him while I’m looking for a way to help myself, I’ll do so. But he’s too dangerous to have around.”
“I agree,” Ranma nodded sharply. “I’ve seen people with that kind of disregard for human life before on my journey.” Ranma paused, trying to figure out how to phrase it. “Chris is our enemy, whether he likes it or not.”
“I wish there was another way,” Akane sighed and rested her chin on her palms. “It just seems so sad, the life he has to lead.”
“I wish I could help him too,” Ukyou sighed, leaning her head back against the pillows. “But there’s nothing we can do to help him now. In time, that may change. Until then, we’re best if he’s as far from us as possible.”
“I guess…” Akane sighed and nodded.
An uncomfortable silence fell as they all thought about what had been said. Ranma, personally, wasn’t willing to give up the game yet. He knew that Chris would be back. It was only a matter of time. This time Ranma would be prepared. He would protect his friends, he would be ready to fight whatever tricks that undead bastard had up her… his… whatever’s sleeve. Nobody hurt his friends like that. Nobody.
“So, what now? Where do we go from here?” Akane asked, pulling Ranma out of his own thoughts.
“That’s a good question, isn’t it?” Ukyou mused as she looked down into her lap, a wry smile twisting across her features.
Chris stared out the window of the plane, watching Japan vanish into the clouds below. It was odd how he’d always loved the view from an airplane, even though he also had an acute fear of heights. Though that particular phobia had faded with his current circumstances.
“Would you like something to drink, Miss Kunou?”
Turning, he waved the flight attendant away, and returned his attention to the recently-bought diary on his (or was it her?) lap. He almost smiled as he looked at the first page, showing all the series’ he now knew to exist.
Sailor Moon, discovered by accident from a US talk show. Reading the article in the paper, that was definitely the series Ukyou had been messing with. For what reason? Hard to say. Didn’t know how early it was in the series, but he’d do well to keep away from them regardless. The Sailor Senshi needed to save the world a bunch of times, and in any case, he didn’t want to chance being hit by one of Sailor Moon’s purifying attacks in his current state.
Ranma 1/2, discovered from a library search and – obviously – confirmed in person. Definitely early in the series, and Ukyou, with Aaron’s memories, had also been messing with that to her own advantage. But that was fine. Still a rich source of possible allies and useful artifacts, and many things would happen on schedule no matter how much Ukyou screwed around with the events at the Tendo Dojo.
The video games Street Fighter and King of Fighters, drawn from the memory of Greg, the body he had occupied to get into Japan, who had been a martial arts fan and amateur enthusiast. WHICH iteration of each series, he didn’t know enough yet to know for sure. Would be worth looking into in the future.
Phantom Quest Corp, aka Yuu-Gen-Kai-Sha, which had been confirmed through a simple search of Japanese business ads. They might be useful, since they had experience with ghosts, spirits and the undead. Of course, since that was because their business generally involved exorcising and destroying said beings, being cautious was definitely in order.
And finally, Blue Seed, checked out while waiting for Kodachi’s family influence and liberal applications of money to speed along the permissions for the trip he was now taking. Also easily confirmed: a simple schoolgirl, seduced by the handsome eyes and charming smile of the man she knew only as Officer Sugishita, wanting OH-so-badly to be able to get in touch with him again. He didn’t yet know where the TAC building was, but the heard-it-before groan and stock referral to a form she’d have to fill out to “complain about Officer Sugishita” pretty much confirmed it was there somewhere. Where in THAT series? No idea. He hadn’t heard about giant frogs in Tokyo just yet, though, and neither had Kodachi’s memories, so “early” was a safe bet. They’d be good people to go to for help if he stumbled across an Ancient Evil or something, which he supposed was possible. After all, he still didn’t know why he had been brought here.
He was pretty sure there were other series’ out there somewhere, but he’d need more time to look into them. The lack of the Internet was really frustrating in that regard, for sure. And, of course, no guarantee everything that was here was something he knew about. He was pretty sure El Hazard wasn’t here, though… there was two Shinanome High Schools he’d managed to find, but neither had had ancient ruins discovered there, and both had reacted with confusion when he asked to speak to Katsuhiko Jinnai. Pity. If he could’ve reached El Hazard somehow, the presence of powerful android bodies certainly presented possibilities. But maybe he’d run into some here. Androids were hardly rare in anime…
He leafed through the diary, glancing through his collected memories and notes on the series’ he knew to be there. He’d probably want to have a separate journal for each series, eventually, for ease of reference. Everything about every series he WASN’T sure was here would have to go down as soon as possible, too. That would be a lot of work, but his memories would fade with time, and he had no way of referencing anything without asking Ukyou, which wasn’t a tempting thought after the other day’s events…
His eyes stopped on a particular entry. “Pink and Link: First Appearance – Volume 29. Identical twins from a herbalist’s village, presumably near the Nyuuchezu. Interacted with Shampoo when all three were children. Pink (always smiling, wears red, cruel and malicious) nearly killed Shampoo while testing out a new herb strain, the Mandragora (separate entry in “techniques” section). Link (always frowning, wears blue, generally nice) came across Shampoo and saved her life. Shampoo couldn’t tell the difference between the two and beat Link up afterwards. Calling herself the victim in the situation, Shampoo made a point of finding and beating the crap out of the twins every time she went to that village thereafter. Pink and Link want brutal revenge on Shampoo, preferably one that leaves her dead. In Volume 29, hearing about Shampoo’s ‘husband’ Ranma from an interview Shampoo did for a Nyuuchezu paper, they came to Japan…”
The entry went on, but he knew what it said already, of course. Still, it made him think. He was already planning on going to the Nyuuchezu village in the hopes that Cologne might help him with his condition, and he wanted to find Jyusenkyou as well. So why not look for Pink and Link? As the most expert herbalists in the manga, they might be able to help him with preserving a body. Kodachi’s body WAS still fresh and solid on this third day, which confirmed his hopes that superhuman bodies like hers would be more durable. But how much more durable, he didn’t know. It wouldn’t hurt to take precautions. And, of course, Pink and Link could be easily bribed into doing anything with some smooth talking and a promise to help them exact some (non-fatal) revenge on Shampoo. Cologne probably wouldn’t appreciate it, but Shampoo wouldn’t be in the village, and in fact was probably going to head to Japan after Ranma fairly soon, so she wouldn’t have to know. It sounded like a plan to him.
Smiling, Chris leaned back. The flight wouldn’t be very long; then he’d just have to find transportation to the Bayankala Range in the Qinghai Province. But he had lots of yuan for that. The altercation with Ukyou might have been a fiasco, but now things definitely seemed to be looking up.
Tofu Ono adjusted his glasses as he shuffled the papers in front of him. The charts on the papers were complex; the various annotations and notes appended to them written in obscure technical terms, and the entire thing was covered with a variety of formulae and equations. Very few laymen would understand the significance of any of it. But then again, very few trained medical professionals would be able to read the various charts with any success, either.
Oh, the statistics that medicine considered important were written in the files. It contained the proper notes on blood pressure, heart rate, T-cell counts – all the scientific indicators of health and vitality were there. But next to them were notes on her aura, her balance of the five Chi aspects, maps of her dragon tracks… the kind of things that most professionals in his business would dismiss as folk medicine and witchdoctory. It brought an amused smile to his lips. He had been forced to create his own terminology for almost the entire subject, working backward from ancient texts and applying modern variables and numbers to them. He had createed his own theories that fit all the facts together, mostly from scratch. Frankly, he was only half–sure that any of it made sense at all.
The point of the elaborate and arcane notes, however, was not really to have accurate information. It wasn’t like he knew more than a handful of scientists and physicians who believed, really believed, in the existence of the concepts Ono was trying to quantify. For the most part, the entire thing served as a jog to his own memory. Looking at these papers allowed him to remember his patients and triggered his mind to think about what he had seen and felt and heard as he examined and treated them.
Now he was working on the case that had almost literally fallen into his lap and was proving to be the most… interesting he had ever dealt with. This girl, Ukyou… there was something odd about her chi that was more than just mere damage. He could struggle to figure out what was strange about it, but it came down to this: Ukyou’s body looked, and acted, like it contained twice as much energy as it did. Yet no test Ono could perform would reveal the presence of this excess energy. At first he had thought she might have a store of magical energy in her body, but the test for magical infusion or contamination had turned up negative. He wasn’t nearly as adept with magic as he was with the elements of chi, but he knew enough to believe that his tests should have picked up something. There had to be something else there, but he couldn’t sense a whiff of it.
Ono sighed and let the various papers fall to the desk. He craned his neck and rubbed the back of it with one hand, expertly massaging the tension away. His free hand removed the glasses from his eyes and he closed both of them to block out the harsh light of the fluorescent overheads. He was getting tired, and his brain was running in circles. He had already covered this ground many times before, hoping for some spark of understanding to leap from the back of his mind. But such a thing wasn’t happening. Perhaps it was time to get some sleep and take a better look at this in the morning. He did have a pretty full schedule…
A knock at his door drew the doctor’s attention. He opened his eyes, realising he had been on the verge of drifting off propped up in the chair. He chuckled under his breath. You would think a chiropractor would know better. He slipped easily to his feet and made his way over to the door, making it a few seconds after a second knock.
He was hardly surprised to see that the person standing outside was Ukyou. They were the only people in the clinic at this time of night, after all. The girl in question was standing with her legs crossed and her right hand buried in her long hair to rub at the back of her neck. Her left hand was lowering from the act of knocking. Ukyou was wearing one of the shirts Ono had loaned her, and the doctor noted wryly that she had apparently borrowed some bandages to bind her breasts down again. He considered telling her that doing so wasn’t a very healthy thing, but whatever lifestyle choices she chose to indulge in weren’t his business. She appeared almost unnaturally masculine when she put her mind to it. Not in a brutish or butch manner, she was far too pretty for that. Instead she looked like one of those increasingly more common pretty boys that Ono had seen in a lot of shows on TV these days.
“Ukyou, you shouldn’t be walking about like this,” Ono said, trying to suppress the instinct to frown and injecting a note of geniality in his voice.
“I’m fine for walking around a bit,” Ukyou pointed out. “Don’t worry, I don’t plan on trying anything more strenuous.”
“Well, I guess you want to talk. So in the interests of getting you off your feet, why don’t you come in and have a seat?”
Ukyou nodded and walked in as Ono eased to the side. The girl certainly moved like a martial artist, her strides brisk and confident. Her face was a mask of detachment, with unexpressive eyes. She slouched more than sat in her seat, running a hand through her bangs in a gesture Ono had grown very familiar with. Her hand remained in her hair as she looked towards the office window.
As Ono walked over to his own seat, he took a few moments to examine her with a doctor’s eye. The swelling of her bruises had died down a good deal, and much of the colour had returned to her cheeks. She looked to be well on her way to recovery. On the other hand, she had dark lines under her eyes.
“So, you’re still awake?” Ono asked as he sat down. Ukyou nodded silently. “You haven’t slept for three days, ever since you woke up after your… altercation.”
“I can see the question on your lips,” Ukyou verbally jumped ahead of him. “I’m an insomniac. I might get some sleep tonight…” Her voice sounded tired, but not physically drained. Ono nodded to himself as he leapt to his own conclusion. Ukyou didn’t want to fall asleep, he guessed. Was it bad dreams? Or more likely, it was connected to her seizures. “I didn’t come here to talk about that.”
“I see,” Ono leaned forward, resting his chin on the back of his interlaced hands. “Well then, let’s get right to that. You strike me as the type who likes to get to the heart of a problem.”
Ukyou gave him a sharp look, but it softened almost immediately.
“Indeed, I suppose I am.” Ukyou stretched a bit, repressing a yawn. “It’s very simple, Doctor. I’m bored out of my skull. I need something to do.”
“Well… that wasn’t quite what I was expecting,” Ono admitted. He wasn’t sure what he HAD been expecting, but this wasn’t it. “You have two friends who come by for several hours each day to entertain you, after all.”
“That’s four hours out of twenty-four,” Ukyou pointed out. “I need something to do.”
Ono smiled and leaned back. “You already have a proposal?”
“You need an assistant,” Ukyou pointed out simply. “I know Genma Saotome applied for a job, but does he really meet your criteria?”
“Hmm, well, having a giant panda around would certainly liven this place up,” Ono mused with a chuckle. “But you’re right. From what I’ve heard about him, he’s not exactly the most trustworthy fellow. That doesn’t mean I’m going to jump at your proposal. First you have to convince me you’ll be a help to me.”
“Heh. Indeed,” Ukyou sat up straighter. No, not just straighter, more commanding as well. Her lips were smiling confidently and her normally flat expression had taken on a new self-assurance. “Well, first off, I’ve been trained in first aid; in fact, I’ve been trained in techniques that are in some ways more advanced than standard procedures. I also know a good deal about anatomy and medicine. But I’m not going to be a doctor, so that isn’t why you’ll hire me.” Ono nodded. “I’m good with numbers and finances. I can free up a lot of time from your schedule by helping you balance your budgets, payroll and billing. I’m familiar with customer service, both in person and on the phone. I’ve even been called charismatic by a few people,” she grinned at that last point, adding an ironic flourish to her voice. “Plus, I have a big advantage over Genma: I’ll work for free.”
“Free?” Ono mused, egging her on.
“That’s what I said,” Ukyou laced her fingers together in front of her and nodded.
“You make a good case for yourself… but I have a feeling this free thing isn’t all you make it out to be.”
“Obviously,” she shrugged. “You’re providing me with free room, board and health care at the moment, despite me insisting that I can pay. I figure this will make up for that.”
“Hmm, you have a point.” Ono nodded along. “I still think I’m getting my money’s worth just for the chance to examine your condition so extensively.”
“I don’t like playing the freeloader,” Ukyou pointed out. But this was an old argument, and Ono turned it aside with a wave of his hand.
“You have some other reason for wanting to help me out,” Ono pointed out, not really asking a question.
“Yes… I wish I could promise you that I won’t get into any more fights as dangerous as the one that sent me here. But I’m afraid that won’t be possible. I have dangerous enemies, and I’m not sure if I can hide out from them forever.”
“I see…” Ono nodded, sensing the suddenly serious tone of the conversation. “What kind of enemies?”
“The kind you want no part of,” Ukyou said flatly. “Let’s just leave it at that.”
“Very well. Then how can I help?”
Ukyou paused. Then she stood up and slapped her arms to her side, stiffening her entire posture. Moving with fluid grace she bowed herself down before the doctor, her long hair flipping briefly in her wake. While still bent low she spoke, injecting a note of humility in her voice. “Teach me, Tofu-sensei.”
“T-teach you?” Ono blinked and adjusted his glasses. She was still bowing before him. He had never thought of himself as a martial arts sensei… the sudden formality had caught him off guard. “But what can I teach you?”
“A great deal,” Ukyou said, still bowed before him. “I already know how to fight… what I want to learn is stuff about the secrets of chi control. I’ve heard that martial artists can improve the speed of their own healing, sense their opponent’s fighting spirit, and do even more esoteric feats. You’ve already proven you have control over similar techniques. I want to learn the fundamentals of these arts.”
“The fundamentals…” Ono mused. He smiled to himself as he rubbed his chin. Here was an opportunity he had been dreaming of for years, a student who seemed eager to accept all his accumulated wisdom from his studies of the ancient ways under the rigours of modern methods. No other doctor, no other student had ever been willing to entertain his ‘crazy’ notions. And she was right – she would have a great deal of time over the next few weeks to absorb his teachings. It was almost too good to be true.
“Of course, I’ll teach you everything I know,” Ono laughed and tapped her on the shoulder to indicate she should rise. Ukyou returned to her feet and smiled up at him. “I only have one condition.”
“Get some sleep.”
“But…” Ono could sense the actual dread in her voice as she trailed off and her eyes darted to both sides instinctively.
“That’s a double order, from your doctor and your sensei.”
Ukyou sighed and nodded to herself. “If you say so…” she said wearily. “But you better be prepared when I wake up and start having convulsions again.”
“I’ll keep that in mind,” Ono chuckled as he stood up himself. He felt suddenly energized. It would be good to pass on his teachings to someone as bright as Ukyou obviously was. Plus, she might actually clear up some of his workload. “If you need help getting to sleep, I can assist…”
“No… I won’t need it” Ukyou sighed as she walked out of the office. “Good night, sensei.”
“Good night, Ukyou.”
Jadeite smashed his fist into the mirror before him, shattering the glass into a million silver splinters in his rage. This was intolerable. His latest youma had been destroyed by those annoying Sailor Senshi once again, and this time that other boy hadn’t even shown his face. The entire thing had been for his benefit, and the boy hadn’t even appeared. Worse yet, the girls had added another member to their team.
If only his magical scans could track any of them. But the Senshi were protected by powerful glamours that concealed their true identities. And while the boy had no such protections, it seemed that magic had a very difficult time tracing his passage. Only two days ago Jadeite had thought he had finally tracked the fool down… only to find a motel room covered in several days of dust.
After venting his rage there, he had returned to his home and thrown together a makeshift plan to gather some energy. Already Queen Beryl was growing impatient with him, and the failure of this plan was sure to lead to punishment. He shuddered as he thought of what awaited him when he went to report the failure to his queen. Compared to that, the minor scratches on his hand were nothing.
He needed to find the boy, and quickly. Just his energy alone would be worth more than Jadeite could gather in weeks of subtle scheming in the human city. If he could gain access to two, or three, or four of them… the energy could release Metallia months ahead of schedule. Jadeite smiled as he contemplated the rewards he would earn for such a successful operation.
Maybe… maybe he was going about this wrong. Relying on magical resources too much. Maybe he should let humans do the dirty work for him. At the very least, he could continue his own plans while he played them for pawns. He had already learned how effective the human media was in this world…
“JADEITE! BEFORE ME!”
The magical summons hung in the air around Jadeite for a few seconds as he cursed his bad luck. But now was not the time for recrimination. He would have to accept his punishment, and hope that he retained enough of his faculties to pull off his new plan when she was finished venting her rage. Composing his face into an obsequious mask, he teleported himself to Queen Beryl’s throne chamber, already mentally preparing himself for the pain to come.
“I can’t believe that idiot…” Akane grumbled as she stepped into the clinic again. “Hello, Doctor Tofu, I just came to quickly see Ukyou, hope you don’t mind!” Akane called as she walked past the reception desk without looking up. She was far too angry to give the handsome young doctor the smile he deserved, so it was best not to tempt fate.
“Just a minute, Akane,” Ukyou called from behind her. “I’m busy at the moment.”
Akane stopped in mid-stride, unsure if she had heard correctly. A quick glance over her shoulder confirmed that, yes, Ukyou was out of bed and behind her. The girl was sitting behind the reception desk, helping an elderly woman fill out some sort of form. Ukyou was wearing a well-cut casual suit which emphasized her shoulders and made her look more mannish than usual. From the way the old lady was smiling as Ukyou chatted amiably with her, apparently Ukyou struck quite the dashing figure. Akane guessed she could see it…
Ukyou bade goodbye to the old woman and gestured for Akane to take a seat nearby. Realising she was staring, Akane stepped over and sat down. Apparently not done yet, Ukyou pulled several huge files of papers from the desk behind which she sat. Akane watched in silent awe as she efficiently laid out the papers in front of her and began to examine them each in turn, her expressionless eyes scanning each with critical ease.
“No wonder the guy disappears… he’s been haemorrhaging money for months with all these special projects…” Ukyou mused aloud as she began to re-order the papers into three large piles.
“Uh, what are you doing?” Akane said finally.
“I’m helping Doctor Tofu out,” Ukyou pointed out evenly, letting her eyes drift up to Akane for a second before going back to her work. “Just think of it as payback for all the free medical care.”
“I thought you were supposed to still be in bed?”
“I’m fine to walk around, Akane, I just need to go easy for a few weeks,” Ukyou pointed out. She bit lightly on her tongue and began to make notes on several of the pieces of paper with a red pen. “I guess it’s true that doctors know nothing about money. If I had half this man’s operating capital, I could own a chain of restaurants…”
“Okay…” Akane blinked.
“Don’t feel like you’re disturbing me, Akane,” Ukyou commented in a placid tone as she began to make notes and punch the buttons on a nearby calculator. “I can easily concentrate on two things at once.” Ukyou let herself display a wry smirk. “It’s a gift of mine.”
“Right…” Akane stared as Ukyou’s fingers literally flew across the papers beneath her. Every now and then the girl would tsk in a disappointed way and mark something with a huge red X or circle it in a giant red oval. Akane wasn’t sure she wanted to disturb the girl, even with her statement a few seconds ago.
“Did Nabiki follow you here again?” Ukyou commented idly as she continued working. Apparently, if Akane wasn’t going to start the conversation, Ukyou would.
“No, I don’t think so,” Akane sighed a bit ruefully. “I think she’s still recovering from that sprained ankle from when she fell off the roof.”
“Heh.” Ukyou smirked a bit viciously. “I wish I could say I felt sorry for her, but she was asking for it. Your sister is quite the little snoop.”
“I know,” Akane grunted and crossed her arms. Nabiki was already pestering her day in and day out to reveal Ukyou’s confidences. Not pleased with just berating Ranma and her, Nabiki had taken to trying to sneak into the clinic all the time so she could find out more about Ukyou. Sooner or later, Akane would have to have a talk with her about it. Thankfully, Daddy just thought Nabiki was sneaking out to be with Ranma. “I’ll try convincing her to leave you alone…” Akane trailed off at a shake of Ukyou’s head.
“Don’t bother,” Ukyou said a bit evenly. “I think having her after me all the time keeps me on my toes.”
“I suppose it would,” Akane sighed. She just hoped Ukyou knew what she was in for. Akane knew her sister could be quite sneaky when she put her mind to it. So far, Ukyou had proven to be just that one step sneakier. Frankly, the idea that Ukyou would enjoy the competition cheered Akane up a little. Ever since Ukyou had woken up, she had been… withdrawn. Well, even more withdrawn than usual. Akane could get her to grin, and Ranma could make her laugh. But Ukyou never did anything herself when the two of them were around. She seemed to spend most of her time just staring at the ceiling.
“By the way, where’s Ranma? It’s not like him to show up later than you,” Ukyou asked as she continued to scratch notes all over the financial records.
Oh great, that reminded Akane why she was mad in the first place.
“That idiot decided he’d rather go get himself beat up than come see his best friend on her sickbed!” Akane snapped.
“Akane…” Ukyou said chidingly, not bothering to look up. Akane flushed. Whenever Ukyou used that impossibly mature tone, Akane felt ten years younger than her. Considering how often she and Ranma got into shouting matches, Akane had grown very familiar with that tone of voice. “I’m not exactly dying. Ranma has his own life, I’m not surprised that…” Here Ukyou paused and looked up at Akane for only the second time since she had walked in the door. “Wait, Ranma’s having a fight… with who?” Ukyou’s tone of voice was carefully neutral.
“Some guy named… Ryo… Ryouken? Ryougi?” Akane waved her bad memory away. “Some guy who showed up at school this afternoon and punched a hole in the pavement. Ranma didn’t even really wait for him to introduce himself before the two ran off to have a fight.”
“Indeed,” Ukyou mused aloud. “Oh, one thing I keep forgetting to mention, Akane.” Akane perked up as Ukyou leaned back in her chair, running one hand through her bangs and letting the palm rest on the back of her ponytail. “I have a pet pig that I haven’t been able to see for a few days for obvious reasons.”
“It’s not that bad, Akane. The pig can take care of himself. He’s a pretty good forager, and has a tendency to wander about aimlessly when I’m not there to look after him.” Ukyou grinned a bit, but her smile wasn’t pleasant. “I just wanted to warn you to keep an eye out for him. He’s about this big…” Ukyou held her hands apart, leaving about enough space for a housecat between them. “He’s jet black and very cute looking. He has a yellow and black bandana tied about his neck, and can be hostile with people he doesn’t know.”
“I’ll keep an eye out for him,” Akane nodded.
“Good,” Ukyou nodded. “If you do see him, could you grab him and bring him here?” Seeing Akane nod enthusiastically, Ukyou smiled. “Oh, and one last thing. The pig is a real pervert. Like to watch girls undress and all that. So don’t cradle him or do anything mushy with him, since he’s a rather sick piggy. That’s why I called him H-chan.”
Akane stared at Ukyou for a second. H-chan… short for hentai-chan? Little pervert? That was certainly a strange name for a pig. But if the little critter was as bad as Ukyou was saying, maybe he deserved it. Akane resolved to handle the pig at arm’s length, if she ever saw it. It seemed unlikely, however. “I understand, Ukyou.”
“Good, good…” Ukyou said with a relieved sigh. Akane gave her a curious stare as the girl went back to working on Doctor Tofu’s books. Her face was still as expressionless as ever, even as she went over the papers with uncanny ease. Akane shook her head and stood up. Ukyou seemed to be doing something, anyway… maybe now was a good chance for Akane to have a talk with the good doctor? Akane smiled a bit at that thought, allowing herself to indulge in a few mildly naughty fantasies.
Ranma groaned and wrung the water out of his pigtail as he leapt over the rooftops. Leave it to that loser Ryouga to disappear in the middle of a fight. At least when they had fallen into that canal, Ryouga had vanished before he’d had a chance to see Ranma change into this girl body. In a way, that had been convenient. Not that Ranma couldn’t have won the match regardless of his current shape, but it might have been a closer fight. Still, it seemed pretty weird even for someone with a directional sense as bad as Ryouga’s to disappear during a fight, but whatever.
It was only a few more hops before the clinic came into view. With a sigh, Ranma descended to the street outside. Maybe he could get the Doc to look at a few of these bruises while he was there. Not that Ryouga’s punches had really hurt, Ranma thought, then winced when his slightly swollen ankle hit the payment. It was just better to be safe than sorry, after all.
Ranma was just walking up the path to the clinic when Akane stepped out, bidding goodbye to someone inside. She was probably gushing over the Doc again. Ranma grinned and shook his head. His pigtail bounced wetly against his neck. At least she seemed to be interested in guys, even if the guy in question was more into her oldest sister than Akane.
“Hey, Akane,” Ranma nodded as he stepped onto the stairs.
“Ranma…” Akane looked down at him, and from the way her eyes dipped down to his chest she had noted his current gender. Ranma repressed the urge to growl in annoyance. “Wait, come with me for a second.” Akane grabbed his arm and began to pull him down the stairs. He had to pinwheel his other arm and dance a bit to keep from being pulled off his feet entirely.
“This will only take a second, and it’s important. Besides, Ukyou is busy right now,” Akane pointed out as she pulled Ranma around the wall.
“Okay, fine,” Ranma grumbled as he pulled his arm free. He leaned against the wall and rubbed at the arm. Underneath the sleeve was one of his developing bruises, but he wasn’t about to share that information with Akane. “What’s so important, anyway?”
“I think something’s wrong with Ukyou,” Akane began in a somber tone. Ranma cocked his head to the side, idly batting his wet locks from his forehead. “Haven’t you seen it yourself the past few days?”
“Well, she seems to be getting better, recovering from her injuries…”
“That isn’t what I mean,” Akane said with a bit of frustration in her tone, her feet scuffing the dirt a bit as she walked over to lean next to him. “Haven’t you seen it yourself, the way Ukyou is almost totally in her… how do you say it… her withdrawn mode?”
“Withdrawn mode?” Ranma frowned and tried to figure out what Akane meant. She was probably thinking about the way Ukyou looked when her eyes took on that cold cast and her face didn’t express much. The way sometimes his best friend would look at him like he was barely even there. Come to think of it, he hadn’t seen much sign of the other side of Ukyou lately. The happy, excited Ukyou. The one with the infectious smile and boundless determination. “I guess I see what you mean…”
“Yes! Ukyou is depressed,” Akane nodded as she crossed her arms. “I think the fight… her defeat at Chris’ hands hurt her deeper than just the surface.”
“That’s kinda silly, Akane,” Ranma said with a shrug. “I’ve beaten up Ukyou plenty of times when we were kids. Never quite as bad, but still I always won. It only ever made her more determined to fight me harder next time.”
“No offense, Ranma, but you have the emotional sensitivity of a rock,” Akane grumbled from beside him. “You can’t even see how Ukyou feels about…”
“About?” Ranma asked as Akane trailed off.
“Never mind,” Akane sighed and waved the question aside. “Not my place to say.”
“Fine,” Ranma grunted and crossed his own arms… or tried to. It took several tries with that stupid top-heaviness getting in his way. “I still don’t think she’s depressed. Maybe a little down, but then again so was I until today.” Ranma grinned. Ryouga showing up had solved that. It was about time he’d finally gotten to take on an opponent who didn’t do anything but use brute force. Ranma was almost curious what Ryouga’s problem was. He was at least sure he had met the guy before and…
Oh wait, was this all about that stupid bread thing?
“We need to find some way to snap Ukyou out of this,” Akane muttered, bringing Ranma back to the here and now.
“Well, maybe she just needs a challenge?” Ranma suggested. “Something that she can overcome, to give her some confidence back.”
“Maybe…” Akane nodded. “Anyway, I have to get home… WE have homework for tomorrow, you know.”
“Yeah, yeah…” Ranma waved her aside and skipped around her. “No sweat about that.” Ranma didn’t watch Akane leave. He was busy walking up to the clinic and thinking about what she had said. It was probably best to keep Akane’s idea between the two of them for now. At least until Ranma could think of something to cheer Ukyou up with.
Rei Hino sighed as she sat down on the edge of her porch. Usagi was sitting nearby, laughing convulsively while she read a small graphic novel… wait, that was HER graphic novel!
“Give me that!” Rei shouted as she reached out to snatch the small book from the blonde’s grasp. Usagi, displaying a level of agility she lacked in virtually all other pursuits, kept the book from Rei’s grasping hand.
“I’m not finished yet!” Usagi complained in her best nasal whine. Rei felt the blood beginning to throb in her forehead, but took a deep sigh and forced herself to remain calm.
“Fine, you can read it, just ask permission from here on in, okay?” Rei grumbled as she went back to staring out across the courtyard of her family’s ancestral temple. She didn’t even acknowledge Usagi’s agreement to Rei’s terms. Honestly, what was Usagi even doing here? Rei wasn’t sure why such a girl had been chosen to be one of the Sailor Senshi, the only thing between Earth and the forces of this evil demonic agency. Ami was a person that Rei could certainly see in the role… she was smart and sensible, and brave in her own way. Usagi was the exact opposite: air-headed, gullible and a coward.
Then again, maybe fate worked in mysterious ways. Rei herself didn’t believe that she could be a magical soldier of love and justice, not until she had been forced to transform for the first time in that Dreamland amusement park. She still had trouble believing in all this, but it was hard to deny when she had herself flung flame from her fingers to save Usagi’s life.
“Hi, everyone,” Ami called as she walked up into view up the stair. Usagi waved vibrantly and Rei kept herself to nodding. The girl had agreed to meet the two here after her cram school, mainly at Rei’s request. Rei felt it was important to discuss what was going on.
“Did you have any trouble getting past the vultures?” Rei asked when Ami sat down next to her. Ami gave her a curious look at first, but it didn’t take long for understanding to dawn.
“Oh, you mean all the reporters,” Ami said with a shy smile. “They are rather making a mess at the bottom of your steps.”
Rei harrumphed and placed her chin on one palm, shifting her legs under her expansive hakama-style pants so she was more comfortable sitting on the wooden porch. “I don’t know what they expect to find here. That guy hasn’t been back since he saved everyone on that bus.”
“I hear they’re offering a one million yen reward for his location!” Usagi crowed happily from nearby. Rei noticed she had dropped the (formerly mint condition!) book onto the floor. She wanted to comment on it, but it was really rather a minor thing. Besides, they had better things to worry about – like what Usagi had just brought up.
“I think it’s kind of suspicious myself,” Rei mused. “This guy shows up just in time to stop Jadeite, then throws Usagi into the portal and runs away. Now he never shows up again and nobody has any idea who he is at all.”
“That isn’t quite fair,” Ami pointed out. “That other Sailor, Pluto, she attacked him and scared him off.” Ami leaned forward and sighed. “I wouldn’t blame him if he didn’t trust us enough to show up again.”
“Oh ,who cares if Pluto scared him off or not,” Usagi waved her hand through the air a few times. “Did you guys see his butt? It’s fantastic! He’s the cutest guy ever!”
“What about Tuxedo Kamen?” Rei snapped, remembering how Usagi had gushed over the masked man back in Dreamland.
“Eh, he’s also very cute…” Usagi trailed off. “On the one hand you have the poetic, dark and mysterious gentleman… on the other the quiet, achingly handsome rebel… oh it’s too hard to choose between them!”
“The guy threw you through a portal into an evil dimension!” Rei hissed.
“If he hadn’t, all those people would still be trapped,” Ami pointed out in a shy tone. Rei cast an aggravated look at her, but it died off quickly. She had a point, after all. Pluto herself had admitted in her talk with Usagi that she had only paused to keep the portal open to save Sailor Moon. But then again, Pluto seemed to think that this mystery boy was far more dangerous than whatever enemy they were currently fighting.
“See, Ami’s right,” Usagi nodded. “Besides, he doesn’t even hide behind a mask. Granted, using a mask on a face like that would be a crime, but he doesn’t, which is the point.” Rei stared at her, giving a mental ‘huh?’ as she tried to figure out the meaning of that statement. “The point, Rei, is that someone that cute obviously can’t be a bad guy. He may be rough around the edges, but all he needs is the right woman to smooth him out and…”
“I suppose you’re the right woman?” Rei sneered.
“Maybe I am!”
Rei snapped her head up suddenly. Usagi gasped and fell over.
“Wah! Rei looks scary!” Usagi whined loudly.
“Be quiet,” Rei hissed as she rose to her feet. Where was this feeling coming from? It was a great anger, flowing through the courtyard from… over there. Rei snaked a hand into her shirt, peering along the edge of the yard. She concentrated, unfocusing her eyes and allowing them to see beyond the physical. It was just like the meditation before the sacred flame. You had to perceive the energy that bound all things together… there! “I’ve got you!” Rei shouted as she sprinted across the yard. Her hand whipped out, trailing the paper strip of her ofuda ward. “Rin, pyou, tou, sha, kai, jin, retsu, sai, zen. Akuryou taisan!” Rei screamed as she thrust her ward forward between two fingers. Instinct and mystical energy guided her strike, placing it with unerring accuracy right on the… signpost?
Rei was not sure what surprised her more. The fact that she had just attacked a signpost, or the fact that the signpost suddenly sprouted a young woman’s head and fell backward as the girl’s eyes wobbled about.
“Ah! Some kind of signpost youma!” Usagi shrieked from behind her. Well, at least Rei wasn’t going crazy.
“Wait, I don’t think it is…” Ami cried as she began to tap the buttons on that tiny pocketbook computer of hers.
“Ow! That really hurt!” the girl’s head on the ground complained. Rei could only stare in wonder as a perfectly normal–looking arm emerged from the side of the sign (it read “No sign posting please”, Rei noted absently) and reached up to her head. “You crazy chick! What did you do that for?” There was a ripping sound as the girl pulled the paper ward from her forehead. “Yowch! I think I lost some skin!”
“Ah! The signpost monster girl resisted Rei’s ward!” Usagi cried as she began to shake her head in alarm, pig-tails whipping back and forth with audible cracks.
“I don’t think it’s a monster,” Ami pointed out again. She was making futile calming gestures at the panicking blonde.
“She’s right, no monster would have been able to pull off that ward,” Rei said as she crossed her arms. “Not without a lot more effort, anyway. That does still leave the question of who it is, and why she was spying on us.” Rei began to tap her foot impatiently.
“Spying on you?” the girl grumbled as she rose to her feet. This involved peeling off the remains of her elaborate disguise, a process that she made seem impossibly mundane, considering that she should have been unable to hide in the signpost at all. It gave Rei a slight headache to watch. She was wearing a rather frilly and flashy sundress, which looked almost normal on her. “I wouldn’t talk if I were you. I’m not the one planning to snatch somebody else’s sweetheart away like some street corner hussy!”
“What are you talking about?” Rei sighed as she placed a hand over her brow. She could feel the blood thumping in her temples again. She was also busy trying to remember if she said anything that let the cat out of the bag, so to speak, regarding their secret identities.
“Don’t deny it!” the girl shouted. She pointed at Usagi and started to stalk across the courtyard toward her. Usagi eeped and toppled backwards onto the porch when she tried to back away. “This one here was talking about seducing my darling Ukyou!”
“Ukyou?” Ami piped in. She had slipped her pocket computer away to wherever it was that she stored it.
“Hah, you don’t even know the name of your ‘mysterious boy hero’, do you?” the teenage girl snorted and crossed her arms under her bodice. She was probably about as tall as Rei, which meant she literally loomed over the cowering Usagi. However, upon hearing the mention of her latest crush (Rei had counted three boys she was desperate for so far) Usagi ceased the cowering act and sat up.
“Wait, you’re saying you know who he is?”
“Yes, I know who ‘he’ is,” the girl snorted, with an unusual emphasis on the word ‘he’. “I’ve only been dating Ukyou for almost a year now.”
“Dating!” Usagi shrieked and slapped her hands to her cheeks. “You’re lying, I don’t believe a guy like that could date a jerk like you!” Tears began to well up in the corners of Usagi’s eyes. Rei sighed and walked towards the catfight in the making. If there was going to be a blow up here, she might as well have a good view of the fun.
“You better believe it.” The girl smirked down at Usagi. “I am Tsubasa Kurenai, the one true love of the mysterious Ukyou Kuonji!” she introduced herself with a graceful pirouette that ended with her standing in a singer’s pose, complete with karaoke microphone.
“Oh, is that why you’re here?” Ami said with a cheerful smile. “I guess you want to collect the million yen reward, since you know this Ukyou person so well.”
“Ah…” Tsubasa stumbled back, her face going from rapturous to downtrodden in an eyeblink. “Well, not really. I was actually hoping that… that there would be someone here who knows where Ukyou is…” she admitted slowly and with obvious reluctance. However, Ami’s cheerful and unrelenting smile seemed to wear down Tsubasa’s nerve.
“Ah ha!” Usagi leapt to her feet and poked her finger at Tsubasa accusingly. “How can you claim to be Ukyou’s girlfriend when you don’t even know where he is?!”
“I have a lot more solid a claim than you!” Tsubasa shot back. “In fact, I know for a fact that Ukyou wouldn’t give you a second glance, you… ugly girl!”
“UGLY!” Usagi shrieked, but in rage this time. Rei backed off. She had never seen Usagi angry before. It was mildly scary, the way her body seemed to glow with rage. “Did you call me ugly?”
“I just call them like I see them,” Tsubasa smirked and crossed her arms under her bodice again. “But even if you were the prettiest girl on earth, you couldn’t begin to get Ukyou’s attention like I can.”
“So you don’t think I’m enough of a woman for him?” Usagi growled and mimed rolling up her sleeves. “I’m ten times the woman you are!”
“Bah!” Tsubasa stepped back and sneered. She waved her hand at Usagi like she was trying to dispel a bad smell. “I have something you will never have, girl. Without it, you’re not even in the competition.”
“Oh really,” Usagi said in a dangerously calm voice. “I think that sounds like a challenge to me.”
“Hmph, fine.” Tsubasa stared into Usagi’s eyes, and the other girl stared back. Rei backed up another step at the intensity of their gazes. She could see their auras clashing and sparking against each other thanks to her training, and wanted no part of this new contest. “We’ll see which of us tracks down Ukyou and goes out on a date with her first.”
Tsubasa smirked again and spun on one heel, her shoulder–length hair bobbing prettily in her wake. She waved absently at them with one hand as she started down the stairs. Usagi clenched her fists as she watched her new romantic rival sashay down the steps.
“No one calls me ugly…” Usagi grumbled. Then she raised her hand and pointed at the sky. “I swear, in the name of the moon… forget Motoki, forget Tuxedo Kamen… Ukyou Kuonji will be my boyfriend!”
“So, does that mean Tuxedo Kamen is free now?” Rei teased. Well, sorta. He WAS kinda dreamy, with his top hat and cane…
“Well… ” Usagi deflated. Then she sniffed and began to tear up. “It was such a beautiful dream, Tuxedo Kamen… but if I’m going to beat that jerk Tsubasa…” she looked at the sky and clutched her hands before her. “You have to forgive me, Tuxedo Kamen! You have to understand that I do this for the greater good!”
“How exactly is dating some guy you don’t even know because of some stupid contest with a girl you don’t even know for the greater good!” Rei burst out.
Usagi only looked at her in the same manner one might look at a child who had just asked a really stupid question. “You obviously don’t understand how these things work, Rei.” Usagi waved her fingers at her, as if she were deflecting Rei’s common sense. “It would just take too long to explain.”
Nabiki winced as she slid quickly around the corner. Her ankle protested the mistreatment as she moved too quickly for its taste. She had sprained it almost a week ago now, trying once again to sneak into the clinic to get the goods on Ukyou Kuonji. This made trailing her sister and her reluctant fiancé without them noticing all that much harder. Nabiki had already learned the hard way that Ranma seemed to have a knack for knowing when people were following him, what with all the pictures Gosunkugi took where the man/woman was obviously posing for the camera. But still, being five blocks back from them seemed to work, even if it made her job all that much harder.
Nabiki leaned down and rubbed her poor ankle. She sighed and peeked around the corner, mindful that unless she kept her eyes on them the duo could likely disappear without her getting a chance to notice. Thankfully Ranma was wearing that ridiculous red silk shirt of his, so he stood out like a sore thumb.
Also thankfully, the two seemed to have finally come to a stop. They were standing a few blocks away, staring across the busy street at an unassuming–looking motel. They had led Nabiki into a rather unsavoury part of town, the kind of place where a girl didn’t want to be walking alone at night. The motel was a stereotypical example of the kind of dive that sprung up in these kinds of places. While it was well–painted and clean enough outside, it had a certain worn–down look that indicated that maintenance was done half-heartedly, if at all. Oh, and there was that giant blackened hole in it.
Nabiki raised an eyebrow and rubbed her chin thoughtfully. Ranma and Akane were taking more than a casual interest in the motel, which meant it was probably the place where Ukyou had sent them. Nabiki grinned to herself. Ranma might be a martial arts genius and have the senses of a hunting cat, but he really did speak too much for his own good and lied like a two year old. Nabiki hadn’t yet managed to weasel the true story of his history with Ukyou out of him, but on occasion he let slip little details, like the fact he and Akane were spending today fetching some of Ukyou’s possessions from this motel. Probably because the boy was working at Doctor Tofu’s now, which meant he would be getting better housing for free.
Now the two were talking, making animated gestures to each other. Damn, what Nabiki wouldn’t give to know what they were talking about. But there was too much space and too many noisy people between her and them, which made that impossible. So Nabiki instead decided to examine the building itself. The large hole in the building would have been, if Nabiki guessed correctly, just about large enough to account for one room in the complex. It was also obviously burnt out, but not in any way she had seen fire operate before. A blaze powerful enough to do that much damage to the structure should have burned down most of the building, shouldn’t it? Somehow, this did not strike Nabiki as a coincidence.
Nabiki kept a sidelong eye on Ranma and Akane, and thus saw them moving in plenty of time to react. She carefully slipped back into the alley, hiding herself behind a rather unpleasant-smelling dumpster. The two passed her by without a glance and Nabiki smiled, even if she would need a bath when she got home.
Sauntering as much as her injured ankle would let her, Nabiki exited the alley and made her way down the street. Ranma and Akane might have given up easily on the matter of retrieving things from Ukyou’s motel room, but Nabiki wasn’t about to let a little fire stop her. Her mind worked overtime as she came up with a simple but efficient plan to get herself into the motel…
The inside of the motel was a great deal more scuzzy than the outside. The wallpaper peeled off the walls in a few places, and a bit of green mold could be seen growing in one corner of the ceiling. The foyer was a plain box, with one entrance into the rest of the building. The register was in an open window along one of the walls. A tall, sweaty man with a bad combover was sitting behind it.
“Excuse me, please…” Nabiki said as she tiptoed to the desk, her voice containing just enough tremble to sound scared yet eager at the same time. She made sure to look down, and blush, while subtly breathing in so her breasts stood out. That got the man’s attention, all right. “Can you help me, please, sir?”
“Heh. Sure thing, little girl,” the man replied roughly. His breath smelled minty; probably mouthwash, to cover up the occasional sip of alcohol. “What can I do for you?” He leaned forward across the desk. To his credit, he didn’t leer, but he definitely wanted to.
“Well sir, I was supposed to meet my boyfriend here, because… because-” Nabiki cut herself off and shoved her fist over her face and shook it back and forth, making sure she breathed deeply while she did so. She spent a few seconds ‘regaining her composure’ then pulled her hands away. “I… was supposed to meet him here, and he hasn’t shown up yet.”
“Ah… that’s too bad…” the man said, grinning widely to himself. Nabiki repressed the urge to smirk. He was fed just enough information to leap to the wrong conclusion. “For a guy to stand you up like that is a real crime.”
“Oh, he didn’t stand me up!” Nabiki gasped, making sure to put a bit of reproach in her voice. “I, actually… I was so… excited that I showed up…” Nabiki looked down and twiddled her toes with her hands laced behind her back, her blush was in full force. “I showed up a bit early, actually…”
“Oh, I see…” the man gave her a long look. “Well, what can I help you with?”
“Well, when I agreed to meet him here I didn’t know what kind of neighbourhood this was… just that it was far away from our parents and… ahem… well, I’m kind of scared to wait for him outside.”
“Ahhh…” the man said in sudden understanding. “And you want to wait inside, where someone can protect you, is that it?” Nabiki nodded. “Well, I don’t have anywhere you can sit in the foyer…” he mused.
Nabiki squealed and crossed her arms over her chest. “I can’t wait for him right here! Standing in the middle of the entrance, dressed like this, by myself? What will people think?” The man raised an eyebrow but didn’t reply. “Maybe… maybe I can just wait in the room…”
“I see…” the man mused, rubbing his chin. “I suppose your boyfriend has all the money?” Nabiki flushed and nodded. He sighed. “Why am I not surprised? Okay kid, I’ll give you a break. This is a special event.” The man reached under his desk and came back up with a room key. “Here, go make yourself at home.” At this point he did leer, just a little. “I’ll be sure to tell your boyfriend you’re waiting for him.”
“Oh thank you, thank you!” Nabiki squealed in delight this time, and leaned over to take the key. She even allowed her hand to linger on his for a few seconds as a minor payment. Then she gave him a wink and skipped over to the room leading into the motel. Once she was inside she dropped the coquettish school girl act and dropped the keys in the nearest trash bin. It wasn’t like she was ever going to need them.
Nabiki strolled along the hall in no particular hurry. It wasn’t hard to spot the room that had been flash-fried; the door was missing, and ribbons of yellow police tape had been liberally placed across the threshold. Nabiki leaned down and ran her fingers along the carpet. It was even stranger up close. The fire that had burnt out this room had stopped exactly at the edge of the door. It sent a shiver up her spine for some reason…
Getting in through the police tape was easy; doing so without displacing any of it too badly was more difficult, but not impossible. Once she was inside, Nabiki felt vaguely disappointed. The room was a burnt-out shell, nothing but black ash from wall to wall… or what would have been the walls. The ceiling and floor were mostly intact, but the interior walls were full of scorch-edged holes. The remnants of a bed sat dimly in one corner, and the opening to the small bath proved that to be a blackened ruin as well. Nabiki kicked around for a few minutes, overturning anything large or unusual–looking with her good leg.
It was in the remains of what looked like a backpack that Nabiki found her prize. The pack was barely more than a lump of ashes, filled with even more charred and unrecognisable objects. Nabiki guessed some of it was clothing; other things she couldn’t guess at. She did discover a set of short-handled metal spatulas like the kind Ukyou liked to use as throwing stars, but she discarded them. At least their discovery confirmed the former occupant of this room.
The real prize only even partly survived because Ukyou seemed to have gone to great lengths to make sure it would survive almost anything. It was packed in the remains of what Nabiki recognised as a brand of waterproof carrying cases, then packed in pink insulation, then sealed behind a (melted) plastic baggy. Nabiki held up the charred binder in her hands. This had been important to Ukyou, all right.
Unable to contain herself, Nabiki carefully flipped it open. She cursed and resisted to urge to throw the thing away in disgust. It was badly burned, at least half the pages missing or so burnt as to be unrecognisable. Still, Nabiki held out hope. Flipping through the pages, she discovered that some of them still contained legible text, and it was filled with quite a number of hand-drawn pictures of various subjects, some of which had even survived almost unscathed. But it was written in English, all of it, in a slightly messy but small and efficient hand.
Nabiki sighed. Her English teachers at school had always varied from incompetent to downright ignorant, so she wasn’t that eager to test out her skills with the language on the fragments of pages left within it. With a sigh of disgust, she flipped the binder closed and stood up. Translating this thing would be long and difficult, especially if she didn’t want anybody else to discover what might potentially be inside. But it was the first solid clue Nabiki had… and she wasn’t about to let a thing like a freak fire or a language barrier stop her! Grinning, she stepped out of the room, located the nearest emergency exit and was gone in a flash.
Ukyou took a long sip from her cup. The pile of invoices and bills had finally shrunk down to a few stray sheets covering only the last few years. It had taken almost five days to get all the doctor’s finances in order. Ukyou smirked as she ran a trained eye over the much larger pile of paperwork that she had managed to finish up. It made her feel better about herself, to help this good man with his mundane troubles. It also meant she had a chance to put all that time she had spent learning how to run a successful business to good use. After all, it wasn’t like she was going to be able to open up her restaurant until she solved this whole brain-hitchhiker problem.
It also made her feel better that she had been the major contributor to this little project. Aaron was used to being more intelligent and more insightful than those around him. It was a guilty pleasure to be the one contributing the intellectual skills instead of the boy. It was also good that she could do most of this on her own; it kept him mercifully… quiescent for the majority of the week.
“Ukyou, this is… this is amazing!” Tofu said as he looked at the papers Ukyou had handed him a few minutes ago. “I never dreamed that my practice was doing so… so…”
“Disastrously bad?” Ukyou offered as she slipped her eyes over one of the last few pieces of financial data remaining to be dealt with. “Don’t be too harsh with yourself. You were busy learning all you could, aiding the sick and injured… you know, being a decent human being. I’ve known far too many doctors concerned only with their bottom line.”
“I guess…” Tofu sighed and adjusted his glasses. “I can’t thank you enough, though. If I had known you were this good at keeping the books, I would have agreed to pay you more.”
“It’s nothing.” Ukyou waved her hand dismissively. “It keeps my mind busy. I like being occupied.”
“I really do need to thank you, however.”
“This is my job, Tofu,” Ukyou murmured. The man was taking this much too seriously.
Ukyou looked up with a frown as Akane burst into the room. Ranma was peering over her shoulder, but Akane’s position kept him from walking into the office. Akane’s long hair was shiny with sweat, and her eyes were darting about fearfully. Ukyou’s muscles tensed but she retained an outwardly calm expression. Ranma, after all, did not look very worried.
“Can we help you?” Doctor Tofu asked as he stood up. He was smiling, but Ukyou had used her recently–acquired skills of perception on him too much to be fooled. She could see the subtle signs of his worry. The way his eyes kept drifting along Akane’s chakra pressure points as he examined her chi, for instance.
“Ukyou, we need to talk with you…” Akane looked at Doctor Tofu for a few seconds. “It may be private…”
“I see,” Tofu nodded. “Well, I can let you young people use my office. If you’ll get out of my way?”
Aaron came to a sudden decision, and spoke up before anyone else could respond. “No, you should stay, Doctor.” Ukyou thought of protesting the unilateral action, but decided Aaron was right. If they were going to trust Tofu enough to let him be their instructor, then they had to trust him with other, more dangerous secrets. Besides, it wasn’t like Tofu didn’t already know most of what was going on. And anything he learned… it might just help him help her.
Tofu gave her a long look and then shrugged. He stepped back to his chair and slid down into it. Apparently he was willing to wait patiently for Akane to speak her mind, an attitude which Ukyou emulated, if didn’t exactly feel. She gestured for the two of them to enter. Ranma gave Ukyou a questioning look, but shrugged when she raised no objection. He did, however, reflexively check the hallway to make sure there were no potential eavesdroppers before closing the doors.
Once Akane was seated, she spoke up. “Ukyou, I have bad news.”
“I’m not surprised,” Ukyou deadpanned.
“You know that motel you sent us to? The one you were staying at?” Ukyou nodded slowly. “Someone attacked it, burned it down.” Ukyou opened her mouth, but no words came out.
“And not the entire thing either,” Ranma added with a grumble. “It was pretty much just your room. No attempt at even makin’ it seem like a normal fire.” Ranma shoved his hands into his pockets and frowned down at the floor. “I think it was a message. I think someone wanted us to know it wasn’t natural.”
“Could this be Chris again?” Akane asked a bit fearfully. Aaron noted Tofu raise an eyebrow, but the man remained quiet.
“Not his style,” Ukyou grunted dismissively. She stood up and walked over to the window. “This sounds more like the work of the Dark Kingdom. I suppose Pluto could be responsible, but it really isn’t her style either…”
“Who? Where?” Ranma coughed. “You have more people after you?”
“A few…” Ukyou crossed her arms on the sill and laid her chin across them. Outside the wind had picked up, causing passers-by to shield their faces from the last lingering traces of the winter chill. In only a few short months it would be summer. How much longer… but Ukyou was drifting. Aaron forced them to stay on topic. “The Dark Kingdom is a group of dangerous people who have access to advanced abilities that resemble magic. They can summon a variety of demonic servants, much like the one which attacked us back in Juuban.”
“That one that knocked me unconscious?”
“That’s the one,” Ukyou confirmed. “They want to gather human life energy, or chi, to fuel the resurrection of their demon empress Metallia. I think they might be interested in me, and Ranma actually, by dint of how much more chi we have than normal humans.”
“So these people are after trained martial artists?” Tofu asked softly.
“Not directly,” Ukyou sighed. The street outside was full of everyday people going about everyday problems. Aaron had never dreamed of being anyone more important than one of them, had never wanted to be anything but normal. Ukyou was beginning to wonder why she had once dreamed of being special, if this was what it felt like. “They aren’t targeting martial artists especially, to my knowledge anyway. I think I just pissed off one of their generals, and he wants revenge. They’re petty like that.”
“You sound familiar with them…” Tofu pointed out slowly.
“I have sources of information.” Ukyou shrugged. “Not really important at the moment.” She spent a few more seconds watching the world walk by outside while the others talked in the background. Aaron kept a small bit of their combined attention on the conversation, but mainly let Ukyou focus her thoughts outward. He idly noted a young woman gasp in annoyance as the wind caught her hat and sent it skittering down the street.
“Are you listening, Ukyou?”
“Indeed,” Ukyou sighed. The others had been discussing what they could do about the situation. “And before you ask again, there is nothing we can do about this, Ranma.” Ukyou tapped her fingers idly along the sill. “The Dark Kingdom isn’t an enemy we can defeat. First off, we would have trouble even finding them. They come from… a long way away from Japan and use their magic to get here. Plus, they are probably out of our league. We might be able to defeat their demon minions, but we can’t hope to stop Metallia. And thirdly, there is already a group of demon hunters on their case.” Ukyou stopped drumming her fingers. “Best we can do is lay low and wait for the problem to blow over. Jadeite will have to go back to finding other victims if he can’t find me, and the Sailor Senshi will track him down once he does.”
“You’re serious?” Ranma asked, his tone becoming exasperated. “You just want to sit here and do nothing?”
“That’s about the size of it,” Ukyou agreed calmly.
Ukyou gasped as Ranma grabbed her shoulders and spun her to face him. He was right in her face, his blue eyes smouldering under his furrowed brow. For a few moments time seemed to crawl as Ranma stared into her eyes. Ukyou was transfixed, breathless. Then he sighed and released her. He stepped back, shaking his head slightly.
“I guess I didn’t want to believe it…” Ranma muttered. “But it really is gone.”
“Gone?” Ukyou whispered as she regained the ability to breathe.
“The fire in your eyes,” Ranma said with a shrug. “Back when we were kids, you always had that fire. I’d beat you every day when we sparred for our breakfast, and every morning you came back with that fire in your eyes.” He looked away from her. “But now… your eyes are so cold. I guess the fire just went out.”
Ukyou stared back at him, unable to speak. As the silence descended on the room, Ukyou found the words sinking in. She had lost it, she realised. That fire that used to burn inside her and push her forward. She had always been motivated to exceed… but what now? Ever since she had woken up here, she had been delaying.
She had access to a world–class martial arts master, one who could improve her skills. One who had agreed to train her, and she had spent the last five days doing paperwork.
“Ukyou, Ranma doesn’t mean it,” Akane voiced suddenly. Ukyou realised that something must have shown on her face. Shown through the placid mask that she had become so used to. Aaron’s placid mask. Ukyou suddenly felt like screaming. An irrational impulse to rip the skin from her face and scream and scream gripped her. Oh god, she had been slipping further and further from herself, even as she tried to provoke Aaron into being more and more a silent partner in their forced union.
“No, he does…” Ukyou sighed and slumped down. “I… I think I came dangerously close to just giving up here.” She ran a hand through her bangs. “It’s so tempting: to lose yourself in the mundane and just forget.” Ukyou spoke from bitter experience. She remembered the brutal details of Aaron’s life, and his steady descent from promising young intellectual to just another wage slave. All because of his inability to fight the inertia of his own apathy. It wasn’t something that was going to happen to Ukyou, damnit! “I think Ranma is right. I’ve been sitting around on my duff for too long.”
“Ukyou, that’s hardly your fault, you’ve been recuperating…” Tofu began, but she cut him off.
“No. I thank you for helping me out, but you’re wrong,” Ukyou grunted. “I was like a little boy thrown from a bike and who got scared because he skinned his knee. I thought… I was so confident when I went in to fight Kodachi that I would handle it with ease. I knew,” she spat the last word like a curse. “I knew that I could handle things. When I failed so badly…” She stood up, smirking angrily at herself. “Okay Ranma, you made your point. What do you want to do about this?”
“Hah!” Ranma walked over and clapped her on the back. “That’s my old buddy Ucchan talking. First thing we have to do is train ourselves. If these guys are stronger than us, we’ll just have to change that!”
“I’m helping too!” Akane shouted suddenly as she sprung to her feet. “You two always end up saving me or leaving me behind… I want to help here!”
“You’re right, Akane,” Ukyou nodded. “You should help us.”
“Ukyou, she’ll just slow u-ow!” Ranma cut off sharply as Ukyou and Akane smacked him in the back of the head at the same time.
“Children…” Tofu sighed. “You’re all set on fighting this battle, are you?”
“Indeed,” Ukyou nodded.
“I don’t suppose I can try pointing out that Ukyou’s former plan is really a good one. You’re still teenagers. While tough teenagers, true, you aren’t supposed to be responsible for these kinds of things.”
“Ah, s’not a big deal, Doc,” Ranma said with a shrug as he rubbed the sore spot on his scalp. “We can probably handle whatever these Dork Kingdom guys throw at us.”
“Akane, I beg you to be the voice of reason here.”
“I’m sorry, Doctor Tofu, but I’ve seen the kind of people that Ukyou has to deal with. I don’t think we can talk them down.”
“That only leaves me with one choice… I guess I’ll have to help you all out.” He stood up and smiled. “If I don’t, I’m likely to lose the young woman who is the only thing keeping my practice afloat at the moment.”
Chris gazed over the expanse of the Chinese countryside with a certain appreciation. He had always liked travelling; not only through his native country, but also throughout the United States, the Caribbean, Britain and Africa. Asia, however, had eluded him until he had stolen a body and come to Japan. He had not really had the time or ability to appreciate Japan properly, however; aside from his obvious distraction in the few days he had been there, the bodies he’d occupied LIVED in Japan. They knew it, and thus the surprise and wonder he felt exploring the new was dulled by the fact that he could easily, almost unconsciously, call up foreknowledge of it. Hard to get too fascinated by the lights and bustle of Shinjuku when he was following Kodachi’s memories to her favourite store to make a purchase of certain herbal ingredients.
But Kodachi had never been to China, and thus the experience was totally fresh to him as well. Certain aspects of the usual tourist experience – the food, the entertainment, seeing and interacting with the people and their lives – weren’t available to him, but what he had was still pretty gratifying. The thing about the breathtaking landscape spread out before him that most caught his eyes were the mountain peaks. The Bayankala range, he supposed. They were not at all like mountains he was used to. Oddly, almost abnormally thin, they were like enormous dead trees scratching at the sky with their branchless grey trunks. He wondered if they were that way in the real world, or just the stylised backgrounds of the manga he’d remembered.
Below him, in that mountain range, were wonders that he knew weren’t in the real world. Jyusenkyou. The Nyuuchezu village. Phoenix Mountain. The homeland of the Musk Dynasty. He felt curiosity about them, almost like an archaeologist. So many questions Takahashi’s manga had never answered. What happened to female children of the Musk? What were Saffron’s origins? How was the Nyuuchezu village run, and how did they not know the Musk still existed? What were all the springs in Jyusenkyou, and how – or from whom – did the cursed springs originate?
Ah, so many questions. And with luck, he’d have a lifetime to satisfy that curiosity and explore this new world.
But for the moment, there was this cliff. He frowned, glancing down at the directions he’d been given. Forty kilometers still, by his reckoning, and he’d have to continue the way he’d been going, before he reached the village. Given that he didn’t need to stop to rest, he could probably easily reach them by early nightfall. Which was good; camping out waiting for Cologne to wake up the next morning would be incredibly boring, and he didn’t want to risk getting lost exploring away from his directed path.
Folding the paper with the directions, he placed it away in the pocket of his jeans – he hadn’t exactly felt like travelling in Kodachi’s leotard, though he had one in case of necessary combat – he looked down the steep slope, maybe a hundred metres total. There was a path winding precariously down it; his eyes searched for how to reach it, but then suddenly a crooked grin spread across his borrowed face.
Path? Who needed paths?
Taking off his travelling backpack, he spun it once by the strap and hurled it high into the air, far over the cliff. Without pausing he then ran forward, hurling himself over the precipice, diving like a swimmer.
The slope was sleep, but not vertical; it hurtled towards him. Two fingers stabbed down, touched the side, flipped him over and outward. A moment later, a heel did the same. He flipped down the slope like a human tumbleweed, his face and thoughts calm as the world whirled around him. He was close, now; leg bunched up, found a protruding rock, shot down, pushing him off and up. He descended in a graceful arc, flipped in the air one more time, and landed en pointe on the toes of one foot. One hand reached up, almost as an afterthought, and caught the bag as it fell past him.
He laughed, and this wasn’t Kodachi’s laugh, but something very much like his own, ringing out over the empty countryside. It was pointless showing off, and to nobody but himself, he knew that… but it was good. It felt so GOOD. He never regretted for a second losing his real body, even when finding out that both it and he had apparently died. That crippled, weakened body. Here was a place where he no longer had to worry about it. This was the land of promise. The land where anything, literally anything was possible to the person who was willing to reach out and grasp it. This was where the gods walked, casually performing things that in the “real” world were impossible. And now he was one of them. Oh, it felt good.
Almost as good as being alive.
Still grinning, he checked the directions again, carefully oriented himself, and strode briskly off. Maybe his journey would end here. Maybe Cologne could help him, or tell him what he needed to know. He’d find out that night.
“And you must be H-chan,” Akane sighed as she held the squirming black piglet in her hands. The damn thing had frightened her half to death, leaping out of the shadows at her like that. And she had really been hoping to get some sleep now that the noise from Ranma and Ryouga’s brawl outside her window had died down. Maybe that barbell she had tossed at them had gotten the point across.
Outside the rain fell and the lightning flashed, followed only shortly thereafter by the distant peal of thunder. The flash of light gave her the first clear view of the piglet in her hands. She had been half-joking when she mentioned the name of Ukyou’s missing pet piglet. But now she saw there was no doubt about it. It wore exactly the right yellow and black bandana around its neck.
The little pig was still trying to squirm out of her hands. Akane wasn’t about to let it go, however. For one thing, Ukyou had banged into Akane’s head how much the thing wandered. For another, she had pointed out what a little pervert it was. And since the beast had leapt at her bosom from the shadows, she had little reason to doubt Ukyou’s word.
“Calm down, H-chan,” Akane muttered to the pig as she shook it a little. Strangely enough, that seemed to get the pig to pause. It looked at her, its little head cocked to the side. It had the largest eyes she had ever seen on a pig, and they had an almost human intelligence behind them. Maybe it recognized its name, which was why it stopped moving so violently. “I guess I can see why some people consider you cute,” Akane muttered as she shook her head. “If you weren’t such a pervert…”
Akane trailed off as she looked around her room. There was no place she really trusted keeping the pig for the night. She wasn’t about to let him sleep in her bed, and letting it wander around would be even worse. Akane was just glad the pet hadn’t been deep-fried along with all of Ukyou’s other belongings. The thought of letting H-chan wander off was unthinkable. Maybe seeing her companion would help cheer Ukyou out of her funk.
“Personally, I think you should just be neutered,” Akane muttered, mainly to herself, as she walked out of the room. “That would solve both your wandering and your perversion problems.” Akane blinked as the pig seemed to faint at her statement. She looked down in worry, then gasped as the little animal began to fight her grip with renewed vigour. Akane frowned as she was forced to exert all her strength and skill just to keep a hold of the animal. “You’re a tough little bugger…” Akane grunted as she tried to wrestle the beast while simultaneously keeping it from touching any of her sensitive regions. It seemed a doomed prospect. “Stupid pig, if you keep this up I have half a mind to neuter you with a kitchen knife!” Akane shouted in frustration.
Ah, now the animal was being still. Almost unnaturally, completely still, with a large bead of sweat along its brow. Did pigs actually sweat? She guessed so, but couldn’t remember.
“Now that you’re quiet, H-chan, let’s see if I can find someplace safe to keep you till morning…”
Akane wandered downstairs. She paused as she passed the living room, wondering exactly what Ranma was doing sitting in her soaking wet nightclothes staring intently at the neighbour’s dog. But Ranma was prone to bouts of random insanity, Akane supposed. She really didn’t know what Ukyou saw in her, er, him, er, whatever.
Finally Akane found an old leash, ironically enough from her old dog-walking days for the neighbours, and went about securing it to H-chan. “Now you be good, H-chan, and don’t try to get away tonight. I’ll be very cross with you if you do.” Akane said to the pig. It looked at her as if it really understood, and so Akane didn’t really feel foolish talking to a pig. She even made a little snip-snip motion with her fingers, which caused the pig to blanch and nod its head vigourously. Wow. It was easier having pets than everyone said it was. Maybe that was why Ukyou kept this thing around?
Nabiki strode into the office. She resisted the urge to check and make sure her hair was in place. She kept her eyes centreed forward, her back slightly arched and her arms steadily, but loosely, at her sides. The key was appearing more confident than you actually were. She didn’t quite smirk, but she allowed the corners of her lips to lift slightly.
“Ah, you would be Ms. Tendo,” the man behind the desk said with a smile. His voice was soft, almost languid. He was tall, and rakishly thin. His hair was short, blonde and curly, and he wore a set of pink-tinted sunglasses that made it hard to see his eyes. “Please, have a seat.”
Nabiki smiled and graciously accepted his offer. She made sure to lean forward a bit more than was absolutely necessary when she sat down. It was hard to tell if he noticed, however. Whoever this guy was, he was a smooth operator. She glanced idly at the nameplate on his desk. J. Dight. Sounded foreign.
“I believe I have information that you advertised you were willing to pay handsomely for?” Nabiki pointed out. She felt a thrill of vindication with herself. It was finally time for her to pay that bastard Ukyou back for dragging her life through the mud the past few weeks. Of course, she would keep the remains of the journal she had found yesterday to herself, but having a little extra cash to help make up for her losses would be nice. “I will be betraying my good friend Ukyou to you, so I hope I can be appropriately compensated.”
“Yes, Ms. Tendo,” Mr. Dight said as he leaned across the table, tenting his fingers in front of his face. “And I’ll make sure you get everything that’s coming to you. But first, tell me… where is Ukyou Kuonji?”
To Be Continued…
Blade: Well, first off, we would like to send out a hearty “thank you” to our new prereader, Elin! For, unlike all our other prereaders (except my girlfriend), she actually, you know, READS the chapters! And comments on them! And catches some of Epsi’s innumerable spelling errors that I miss!
Epsilon: Yes, and I might as well say “thank you” for probably the first time, since I don’t actually talk to her.
Blade: Which might have a lot to do with why she’s still prereading.
Epsilon: It might at that.
Blade: Anyways, for her invaluable service, Elin gets to read ahead! That’s right: while you guys are just now reading here, SHE’S about to read Chapter 8! Aren’t you jealous?
Epsilon: If YOU TOO become a prereader, YOU TOO could get to read ahead! Until you reach the point where we’re still writing, and get back to that one-month delay.
Blade: In other news, this series is going to have a lot of different characters from a lot of different series’, as hinted at in this chapter. Most won’t be very important, but a few, of course, will end up being storyline-centric. We don’t expect you to know every series involved; indeed, we don’t expect you even to know Ranma or Sailor Moon. Theoretically, anyone and any series we introduce will be in such a fashion that even someone who’s never heard of it should be able to follow along.
Epsilon: But for people with the IQs of-
Blade: (smashes Epsilon with bokken) Let’s not insult the readers, SHALL WE?
Epsilon: Oh, fine. (rub head) So if there’s anything you’re confused on, let us know and we’ll try to edit things for clarity, or add more exposition on the character/series as we go along.
Blade: Unless we’re making you confused on purpose! You know, the whole “mysterious stranger” thing! Far more likely than our flawless writing not being flawless, certainly!
Epsilon: That’s right. Our flawless writing! Which contained NO spelling errors… at least until Elin read it!
Blade: She probably sneaks them in on purpose! Can’t trust those tricky Swedes!
Epsilon: Even if she does speak (or at least write) better English than most of the native speakers we know!
Blade: And she knows what an “infinitive” is. I mean, really, what’s up with that? How suspicious.
Epsilon: I believe that she just made that term up. You know, like other meaningless terms, such as “unobtainium”, “blinkenspiel”, or “compassionate conservative”.
Blade: I’d just like to remind everybody at this point that we’re near-geniuses. Or, at least, I am.
Epsilon: I also think the term “self-deprecation” is made up. I mean, come ON. What’s with that?
Blade: But here’s one word that has meaning: “preview”! So enjoy this weak segue and, yes, this “preview” of our next exciting chapter, on its way in thirty days!
Cologne took another long draw on her pipe, savoured the flavour for a few moments, then exhaled an acrid cloud of smoke. “Interesting.” She paused, looking him up and down. “You are no spirit, or ghost, or elemental, or demon.” She tapped the ashes out into a small dish near her chair. “You are, as far as I can tell, a nothing. Ambulatory flesh with no more animating essence than a rock or a stream. Either you are an automaton, like those ‘robots’ I have heard about, or you are impelled by a force I can neither detect nor have heard the least amount on.” With that, she began elaborately and carefully stuffing her pipe again.
He slumped. “Well. That doesn’t exactly sound very hopeful, I must admit.”
“Wisdom rarely does.”
“Touche. Well, is there anything you can suggest? Any avenue I might take, source of information I might seek out, expert I might consult?”
“I never said I couldn’t help you,” Cologne noted as she finished lighting her pipe. She took another puff before continuing. “You came seeking my wisdom, and I gave it to you. Which is to say, I know nothing about what you are or how to solve your problem.” Cologne smiled, more to herself than to him. “But the far better question for you to ask yourself now would be: why should I do anything at all to help you?”
Hybrid Theory Chapter 6: Breaking The Habit