Greetings, my name is Nodoka Saotome. I want everyone to know I am here under protest; I really want nothing to do with the awful man who is inhabiting that equally awful girl who is ruining my son’s life.
Look at the trouble Ukyou keeps getting my darling son into! She gets him involved in some foolhardy scheme to win my affections, and explodes at everyone, including her closest friend Akane, when it doesn’t go her way!
Then there are the nasty people Ukyou hangs around with. Like that boy Chris. He keeps trying to fool me by being sympathetic when he talks to Akane or fights monsters, but I can see past him! I just know he’s going to mean trouble for my precious child down the line.
Plus there is that girl my son is supposed to be engaged to, Nabiki. Which is all Ukyou’s fault, I would like to point out. Nabiki seems to be getting into quite a snit with everyone else. Plus now she has access to most of Ukyou’s notes about the future. And there is that youma-girl Tethys, who is still alive and I just KNOW is going to be nothing good for dear Ranma. And speaking of nasty girls, apparently this one named Shampoo is on her way to Nerima along with her great-grandmother.
I can’t seem to blame that on Ukyou… but that’s only because I’m not trying hard enough!
So, you’ll have to agree with me: Ranma would be much better off if Ukyou just vanished. Well, let’s hope that will happen this chapter, shall we?
C&A Productions Presents
A Work of Blatant Self-Insertion
Chapter 9: Hit The Floor
“Ah, Akane Tendo, my one true love. Come, now that your oafish companion is no longer here, there is nothing preventing you from…”
“Could you leave this until later?” Akane asked, allowing only a hint of her exasperation to surface. Even with all he had done to her, she made it a point to at least be civil to Kunou. “I really just want to get home…”
“Then allow me to escort you, my lady fair!” Kunou shouted as he swung himself in front of her. His arms opened wide, as if he expected her to leap into them.
“No, Kunou, I’d rather be alone…” Akane kept her voice level. She was really not in the mood for Kunou’s own special brand of idiocy today. After what had happened yesterday… no, don’t think about that. Let Ukyou apologise if she really wanted to. Akane wasn’t going to dwell on how much of a jerk the girl was turning into.
“Foolishness! Am I not Tatewaki Kunou, the scion of the great Kunou legacy, the unrivalled prodigy of the great art of Kendo, the undefeated master of the martial arts? Surely that is so! So there can also be no doubt that, in comparison to any other situation, my presence can only improve a person’s life. Who, then, would turn down the chance to be near my magnificent visage? None! None I say! Therefore, you must be mistaken and in fact, truly desire to be with me this day.”
Akane opened her mouth to reply to that. She closed it when she couldn’t really think of anything to say. There were times when Kunou said something, and the best option was to just smile and nod and back away slowly.
“Thus I shall accompany you back to your abode. And perhaps there I shall inform your father that I intend to woo you. Thus can our true courtship begin…”
“Kunou!” Akane raised her voice just enough to catch the upperclassman’s attention. “I just want to be left alone today. I had a very hard night last night and I need to think about it, alone.”
“A hard night…” he mused. Then he leaned forward, his eyes squinting as he deeply examined her face. Akane backed away, not really sure if she wanted to be close enough to feel Kunou’s breath on her cheek. “I see… you have been crying, and deeply. Truly the tracks and shadows on your face tell the dark tale of yesterday.”
“What?” Akane reached up and touched her cheek. It was times like this that Akane wondered if Kunou was actually very observant, and just refused to exploit that talent for some reason.
“It must be… that you had a fight with that vile cad, Ukyou!” Kunou declared as he snapped his body into a heroic pose. Akane grimaced. That was a little too close to the truth for her taste. “Fear not, fierce tiger Akane Tendo. I shall always be here with open arms for you!” Akane guessed what was coming, but still wasn’t fast enough to avoid it. Before she could protest, Kunou was enveloping her in a fierce embrace, his arms forcing her face against his shoulder. She could feel more than see the tears rolling down his cheek. “Cry on my shoulder! Unburden your wounded heart to me, my love, and I shall bathe you in the hot passionate healing energy that is my pure emotion!”
Kunou folded up nicely when Akane buried her fist into his gut. His grip loosened up just enough for her to smash her forearm into his chest, sending him tumbling away. Akane growled something she would never admit to saying and flipped one of her long forelocks back over her shoulder. Kunou remained sprawled on his back only briefly, unfurling from the ground to his naturally impressive height in a matter of seconds. He smirked at her in that way she hated the most and brushed a hand through his short black hair.
“I see being subjected to that fool Kuonji’s presence has not dimmed your spark overmuch, my dear.”
“Just get lost, Kunou. You’re not half the man Ukyou is.” She smirked herself. Even if Kunou didn’t get the joke, Akane found it personally amusing. Especially since, from what she had seen, it was mostly true.
“You two there!”
Akane jerked her head as a new voice broke into her confrontation. It was deep, but strangely hollow. Kunou followed her gaze as well, and saw the new figure standing in the school gate. For a brief moment he was silhouetted by the sun, and all Akane could make out was that he was tall and clad in a bulky coat.
“Did you say the name Ukyou? Ukyou Kuonji?”
“Yes…” Akane answered slowly. Her suspicions rose. It seemed unfair, but every time something had happened because of Ukyou it had led to trouble. And… Akane was worried about her. If this person was here to hurt Ukyou, Akane would stand between him and her friend. No matter what problems they might be having just at the moment.
As the man stepped forward, the first thing Akane noticed was the mask. It was rather hard not to, after all. He was wearing some ridiculous children’s mask, an octopus face with giant eyes and a snout, complete with a silly headband tied into a neat little bow. His upper body was clad in a checked coat that seemed a size too large for him, and dipped down almost to his knees. On his back was a bizarre apparatus whose purpose Akane could not immediately guess. It resembled some cross-breed of a screwdriver and a club, with a huge weighted end and a long slender spear coming from the other end. One of his arms was held crooked to his side, and on that arm rested a tiny octopus no larger than a pet cat.
“Tell me… tell me where Ukyou is, right now!” he demanded in that strange echoing voice.
“Heh, you are too late,” Kunou said as he strode forward. Akane blinked, having forgotten for a moment that he was still there. “I have run that miscreant out of town.”
Despite his eyes being hidden behind that huge childish saucer of his mask, Akane could feel the newcomer measuring up Kunou quickly. Then he leaned back, and she could hear the smirk in his voice. “I don’t think so.”
“You would call me a liar?”
“I’d say you aren’t a very honest person. I can tell by your stance that you aren’t a match for Ukyou.”
“Tatewaki Kunou shall not stand for such an insult! Defend yourself!”
Akane frowned. Kunou was moving slightly slower today. She could easily follow him as he drew his bokken and sprinted across the field towards the newcomer. She remembered watching many of Kunou’s fights with Ukyou, and how she could barely follow most of his strikes. It had annoyed her at the time, proving how far behind she was compared to all the serious fighters in the district.
Apparently the masked man was at least as quick as Akane. He hopped back and casually freed his strange weapon from its harness. Kunou swung his sword down with all his strength, and Akane could see the wind ripple and snap in its wake. That attack could shatter concrete from ten meters away. And yet, the boy deflected it with a deceptively elegant swipe of his cumbersome weapon. Akane’s frown deepened. He was no ordinary fighter.
“Just as I thought,” the boy chuckled darkly. “You’re nothing but form.”
“I have mastered the subtle perfection of Japanese swordplay,” Kunou retorted as he forced the boy into locking up with him. Kunou growled and shoved with all his might, but against the boy’s implacable strength it was in vain. “It is the greatest technique in all the world, and nothing can stand against it.”
Akane blinked. She hadn’t seen the masked boy move, but somehow Kunou had ended up flying over his shoulder to collide with the wall. The boy twirled his weapon in one hand… and it was only then that Akane realised he hadn’t yet moved his other one. His pet octopus hadn’t even been disturbed by the fight.
“Unfortunately for you, I’ve studied the technique of Kendo and I know all its flaws. You don’t stand a chance against me using such a rigid style!”
Kunou pulled himself free of the wall, leaving behind a man-shaped dent in the concrete. “Ha! I hardly felt that.” With a graceful flourish he spun to face his opponent again. Then with a fierce kiai the taller boy charged in for his classic Kendo overhand strike. The masked boy shifted his stance, gripping his weapon by the very tip and met his charge with a single thrust.
The sword came down in a powerful chop… only to find itself hovering in the air a good four centimeters from the tip of the mystery boy’s ‘snout’. Kunou, meanwhile, was dealing with the massive bulk of the warclub that had crashed into his chest. His mouth worked silently for a few seconds. Finally his eyes rolled back into his skull, and he collapsed.
“Heh, too easy.” The mystery boy shouldered his weapon again. “With the reach of his weapon, he was no match for me.”
“W-who are you?” Akane called, impressed despite herself. She had seen both Ukyou and Ranma defeat Kunou, and beyond that had fought real monsters, but the sheer casualness of that fight had been surprising.
“My name is Hayato Myoujin,” the boy introduced himself. “I have come for Ukyou, and won’t leave until I defeat her and pay her back for this face!” He gestured angrily towards his mask. Akane blinked. Then she heard a sharp crack and saw a small line bisect it. “What… my mask? The air pressure from his strike…” Desperately Hayato reached up with his free hand and clutched the mask, holding it together.
“Your face… what did Ukyou do to your face?” Akane wanted to believe that Ukyou would not have done anything bad to this man… but she remembered hearing about her brutal battle with Jadeite, and found her mind filling with doubts.
“Damnit, this mask is useless now…” Hayato growled and looked at her. “You’re Ukyou’s friend, aren’t you?”
“I…” Akane knew she was, but didn’t feel like saying as much now. She was still mad at the girl, after all.
“Tell her to meet me here tomorrow, or I’ll destroy everything she holds dear!”
Before Akane could say anything, the boy vanished. Akane blinked. She had seen nothing more than a blur of lines – like the afterimage of a photograph – then Hayato was gone. Her gaze then came to rest on Kunou, who was laying spread-eagled upon the pavement. Finally her eyes settled on the crowd. At least half of the student body had stuck around after school just long enough to watch the show. Akane sighed. She was right: it seemed that everyone who showed up looking for Ukyou was nothing but trouble.
“Don’t turn your back on me, Saotome!”
“Look, Ryouga, I really don’t need this right now,” Ranma informed his old rival, not turning around. “I have to find somebody, so if you could just…”
“NO! We’ve already delayed your defeat long enough!” Ryouga cried. “Vengeance demands blood!”
“And what’s that supposed to mean?” Ranma grimaced. “I got it just as bad as you at Jyusenkyou, if not worse.”
“You dare compare your tragedy to mine? I’ll show you tragedy, Ranma!” Ryouga roared. Ranma heard the boy’s pace shift and was already starting his dodge by the time the first of Ryouga’s footfalls fell like hoofbeats behind him. The air at his back ripped and tore, violent gusts teasing at Ranma’s shirt as he nimbly avoided the strike. The sky and ground somersaulted in his vision before he landed behind his opponent. Ryouga wore the same travel-worn shirt and pants as always, and his left hand held tightly to the deceptively heavy bamboo umbrella he used as a weapon.
Ranma danced back on his heels, raising his arms loosely before him. Ryouga was already turning to face him, but had made a mistake and came in facing right instead of left. Ranma grinned. He stepped forward. His fist lashed out. Ryouga’s head snapped back, and the heavier boy followed it a second later.
He didn’t give him a chance to recover. His fists blurred out and caught Ryouga on the chin once, twice, three more times. Finally, Ryouga collapsed. The heavy umbrella rolled from limp fingers. His body was shuddering, but the fight had leaked out of him. Still, he was trying to rise to his feet as best he could. Ranma shook his head and decided to take pity on the poor guy. He was obviously out of his element.
“C’mon Ryouga,” Ranma crouched down and offered his hand. “Let’s call it even. I’ll even swear to help you out with your curse, kay?”
“Don’t touch me!” Ryouga snarled and slapped his hand away. He did a sloppy push-up followed by a tighter forward flip to land on his feet. “This fight isn’t over!”
Ranma leaned back, feeling only another harmless puff of air as the fist sailed over his head by inches. Man, when had Ryouga gotten so slow? When they’d fought only… three weeks ago? Well, when they’d last fought, Ranma had been pushing himself to the limit to stay a step ahead of him. In comparison, Ryouga was fighting underwater today.
“Man, you got real slow real fast, pal,” Ranma pointed out as he crabcrawled back away from a devastating–looking axe kick from the lost boy. Ryouga snarled wordlessly, his tiny fangs poking over his lip. “No offence or nothing, but are you sick today? Maybe we should hold this off?”
“First you ruin my life, and then you mock me!” Ryouga charged forward. Ranma turned his crabcrawl into a backflip, staying a half-meter away from all of Ryouga’s wild strikes. Oops, that wall was coming up fast. That might have been a problem for a lesser man, but for Ranma Saotome, it was an opportunity! “I don’t care you fast you’ve gotten, I still only need one clean hit!”
“That ain’t happenin’!” Ranma informed him. At the last second, Ranma sprung back and planted both feet against the wall. Rebounding like a superball, he shot over Ryouga’s head. The lost boy was a black and yellow blur under him as he tried vainly to halt his forward momentum. “An opening!” Ranma declared. Moving with fluid grace, his somersaulted in mid-air and pistoned both feet into Ryouga’s broad back. For some reason, Ranma swore he saw a flash of light just as his feet struck.
The wall exploded as Ryouga cannonballed through it. Bricks and mortar started pelting the ground, but Ranma avoided the debris with almost unconscious ease. He was guessing that his little joyride wouldn’t be enough to take Ryouga out, but when the dust cleared, there was no sight of his rival. Not even his stupid bandana.
Ranma sighed and poked his head into the massive hole. No water, so Ryouga’s curse hadn’t been activated. He had been surprised to learn about his old friend… er, enemy’s condition. Mostly because he hadn’t thought even Ryouga would be stupid enough to follow him all the way to China. Heck, even Shampoo appeared to have given up now that he was safely out of her homeland, and she had some crazy blood feud thing going on.
The only other conclusion was that Ryouga must have gotten lost. Never really had a hard time believing that. He’d heard people that claimed that Ranma, and the people he hung around with, were ‘weird’. But he really had no idea what they meant. To him, Ryouga’s direction sense, Ukyou’s cross-dressing and mood swings, and even Akane’s perversions and temper… they were all just normal. Like his mother. Ranma shuddered. Best not to think about that for now.
He looked up. He knew the girl approaching him, but couldn’t place a name. She’d been with Akane and that Sailor chick when he’d woken up at the airport. She was still wearing her ridiculous blue life-preserver vest and had a huge camera dangling from her neck.
“Uh… hey… uh…” Ranma rubbed the back of his neck.
“Ran, Ran Hibiki,” the girl introduced herself with a short giggle. She was kind of cute when she laughed, Ranma noted. “Thanks for the shot, by the way.”
“The shot…” Ranma blinked. “Oh, you mean you were taking photos of my fight?”
“‘Never miss the good shots!'” she replied while thrusting her finger into the air.
“Uh, right…” Ranma decided to let that one slip by. After all, she was just acting like pretty much everyone else he had ever met.
“Mind if I ask you a few questions about the fight? Gotta flesh out the article with something resembling the truth,” she said, with a grin to show she was kidding. Ranma shrugged and told her fine, but it would be best if they could talk while they walked. He was busy today.
“So, who was that you were fighting, anyway?”
“Name’s Ryouga…” Ranma trailed off and looked at her. “Hey, you don’t happen to be related to a Ryouga Hibiki, do you?”
“Huh? No.” Ran paused and tapped her pen idly against the pad she had produced from one of her numerous pockets. “I have a cousin Ryuchiro, but he’s like sooo over the hill, almost thirty. Definitely not a young stud like the guy you were fighting. So, his name’s Ryouga Hibiki?”
“Hah! Must be a curse on the Hibiki name. The other biggest loser in martial arts also has that last name,” Ran commented idly as she wrote things down furiously. Ranma tried to see what she was writing, but couldn’t make out a word of it. “Good thing I decided to dedicate myself to journalism first.”
“Nah,” Ranma shrugged. “Ryouga’s a decent fighter. One of the best I’ve ever seen, really. He just ain’t no match for Ranma Saotome… but then, no one is.”
“Wow, humble and arrogant in the same breath.” Ran giggled again. Ranma shrugged, not sure what she meant, so he assumed it was a compliment. “So why were you fighting?”
Ranma opened his mouth, remembered his promise not to spill Ryouga’s secret, and closed it again. “Personal reasons,” he replied easily when Ran repeated the question.
“That sounds like a challenge!” Ran grinned and Ranma could see a twinkle in her eye. “But if you don’t have anything else to say, I should get on to my real business.”
“Have you seen Ukyou around? I really need to talk to him.”
Ranma deflated a little. He would never tell his best buddy Ucchan that her getting all the headlines in the local papers was a bit annoying. Because it wasn’t, really. Ranma didn’t need recognition for the fact that he was a better fighter than her. Just that it would be nice to have been mentioned in more than passing in any of the articles.
“Actually, I’m looking for he…him myself,” Ranma informed her as they approached the Furinkan campus. “After what happened yesterday, I really need to talk and…” Ranma trailed off, realising that Ran was writing all this down in a flurry. He wasn’t sure if he wanted his personal life splashed all over the papers. Even if it was just school rags.
“So that was you three yesterday? Fighting the giant water monster in Shinjuku?”
“We did what to the who in the where now?” Ranma blinked.
Ran snapped her hand out and produced a newspaper. Ranma blinked again. Where the heck had she been keeping that? She handed it to him wordlessly. Ranma skimmed over the article which was plastered all over the front page. Some sort of monster made of water, fought by a bunch of martial artists, a guy in a trenchcoat, and a paramilitary group?
“Uh… this wasn’t me or Ucchan,” Ranma pointed out. “We were busy with… personal business yesterday.”
“What about Akane or the Sailor Senshi?”
“I’m pretty sure it wasn’t Akane,” Ranma mused, scratching the side of his neck. “The girls in the skirts could have been some of the Senshi, I suppose. I don’t really know them personally.”
“Ah… damn,” Ran muttered. “Still, my nose for news is twitching. And your friend is news, whether he likes it or not. Mind if I stick around with you until we find him?”
“Uh, I don’t see why not.” Ranma wasn’t really sure he had much choice in the matter. If he wanted to ditch Akane, he could just go roof-hopping. But from what he’d seen, Ran could keep up with him if he tried that.
First Appearance: Volume 30+
Features: Mask, Pet Octopus, Takoyaki utensil (giant)
Nabiki frowned. She had seen that term “MADM” written out in English on quite a few of the entries, but she still had no idea what it meant. The rest of the entry was laid out much the same. There was even a well-done sketch of the boy that had only been partially burned away, which made it impossible to mistake him for anyone else.
Nabiki had watched the confrontation in front of the school with a great deal of interest. Normally she would have been long gone by the time Akane and Kunou had begun their little dance, but lack of petty cash had forced her to take her own turn in cleaning up the classroom. When everyone had paused to gawk at the fight, Nabiki had as well. Of course, none of the other students had a file folder full of information to consult so they knew exactly what was going on.
According to the files, the boy was a former enemy of Ukyou’s, a master of a martial arts style based on the preparation and use of takoyaki balls. It sort of made sense, Nabiki supposed, since takoyaki was made from much the same ingredients as okonomiyaki, which was Ukyou’s culinary specialty. The problem was that the data seemed to indicate that his goals were pretty standard. He wanted to defeat Ukyou to resolve an old debt concerning his face mask, and that was it. Which meant that he was useless to Nabiki.
She needed someone who was both strong, and easily manipulated. Someone who hopefully had a reason to dislike Ukyou or his friends from the start. She needed, in other words, a patsy. Which the book seemed to be full of, but only one had actually appeared so far.
She flipped pages in the book until she came to the entry for one Ryouga Hibiki. A cruel smile curled across her lips as Nabiki ran her finger down the partially obliterated data. This boy would be perfect for her. Now… how to find him?
Nabiki had never been a big believer in Fate. If pressed, she might have said that life sometimes threw people the oddest curves of coincidence on occasion. But Fate was a concept which made her skin crawl. Her future would be determined by the actions and choices of Nabiki Tendo, and no one else! Yet, in the next six seconds, she would have reason to question this conviction.
Because, even as she was closing the file folder and turning the last corner on her way home, Nabiki literally ran into Ryouga Hibiki. At first she didn’t know who it was. She was far too busy cursing herself for not paying more attention to where she was walking. Not that she was doing so out loud. Externally, she put on her most disappointed frown and began to quietly gather up the scattered sheets of paper that had fallen out of her folder.
“Can I help you with that, Miss?”
Nabiki nodded. “Sure, if you wouldn’t mind.” She didn’t really recognise the voice, but it sounded familiar somehow. She was thus defaulting to her most polite and deferent tone. The boy crouched down beside her and began to gather up the papers in his large, calloused hand. Nabiki could just see the yellow edges of his sleeves.
“I’m very sorry about that,” the person told her, in a voice that was deep but trembling. Like that of a boy who had been thrust into manhood far too soon. “I have this… problem with directions, and I guess I didn’t see you because I was paying too much attention to my map.”
“It’s fine…” Nabiki grumbled. Some of the papers had landed in a gutter that was still half-full of rainwater from yesterday. She hissed in disgust and began to fish them out and dry them as best she could. This was just great… “Hey, could you get some of these papers out for me? I really don’t want them to be ruined, and they’re already kind of delicate.”
“Uh…” a nervous tremor entered the boy’s voice. “I’m… busy with these ones here!” He spoke in a rush, and Nabiki turned to give him a dark glare. She was not in the mood for some boy who was just using this as an excuse to crouch behind her and peek up her skir…
“Ryouga Hibiki!” Nabiki gasped before she could stop herself.
The boy stared at her in confusion. He had a wide, honest face with thick, wild black hair that was only partially tamed by the orange and black checked headband he wore. “I’m sorry, do I know you?” Ryouga asked between a pair of startled blinks. One could just make out his fangs.
Nabiki spent a few seconds catching her mental balance and studying him. He wasn’t at all bad-looking. His features were just wild enough to be called rugged, but not so messy that he looked like he had never been taught about hygiene. Despite wearing a pair of loose black pants and a long-sleeved orange tunic, Ryouga’s muscular figure was quite obvious. Nabiki smiled. Well, if he wasn’t that bad looking, this would be much easier. She took a quick glance around: the two of them were alone in the street. Perfect.
“R-Ryouga…” she put a deliberate catch in her voice. As the boy sat, expression totally clueless, Nabiki carefully arranged her own face into an expression of wide-eyed devotion. She dropped her papers almost carelessly and clasped her hands beneath her chin. Bat the eyes. Smile. Blush. Force out a crocodile tear by biting lightly into her tongue. Perfect.
“Uh… Miss…” Ryouga stammered.
“You… you don’t remember me?” Nabiki turned her face away and looked into the pavement. “I guess. I guess I understand.”
“What?” Ryouga gasped. “No! I… I remember you! You’re… you’re…”
“Nabiki Tendo.” She eased out her name like she was fanning a small flame. “You… you rescued me from a fate worse than death!”
Before Ryouga could react, Nabiki ‘fell’ forward and leaned against him. Ryouga had gone stiff as a board. Thankfully he couldn’t see her vicious grin. Maybe someday Nabiki would thank Ukyou for telling her, in a roundabout way, of how hopeless Ryouga was with girls. But then again, maybe not.
“I’ve been dreaming about you ever since,” Nabiki stage-whispered. “Your flashing smile, your thick hair, your…” Nabiki blinked. Oh damn, what colour were his eyes? Forget it, cover yourself quickly. “Your strong arms… encircling me…”
“Ah! Ah!” Ryouga seemed incapable of actual words at this point.
“I’ve been trying to think of the best way… the best way to reward you for your selfless actions…” Nabiki pulled back and artfully bit her lower lip. She could see Ryouga still crouched nearby, looking like nothing so much as a pole-axed cow. “But I don’t have anything to offer you…” Nabiki had already started her skillful manoeuvre before pulling back, so that her hands were now resting on her shoulders without making it seem like she had placed them there deliberately. “Except… except…”
“Except…” Ryouga choked out. A thin red trickle was running from his nose.
“Except… for my body…” Nabiki cried and pulled down her blouse in a single, seemingly spontaneous and apparently unpracticed motion. There was a thick liquid gurgle, followed by a thud. Nabiki had closed her eyes (it was expected) and when she opened them, she saw that Ryouga had collapsed face-first into the pavement. A pool of blood was growing around his head. Nabiki smiled and carefully pulled her blouse back up over her exposed bra. Thankfully, she had been wearing one of the frillier and skimpier ones today. “What a dope,” Nabiki muttered to herself.
Now all that she needed to do was move him to the next location for part B of her plan and… and…
“What the…?” Nabiki tugged on the boy’s arm again, but he refused to budge. She licked her lips and set herself with both feet this time. A few seconds of heaving later and all Nabiki had accomplished was gaining a sheet of sweat on her face and losing her breath. Growling, Nabiki shifted her stance again. What was this guy made out of? She doubted Akane could move him!
She was getting desperate now. She needed to move him to the next location… or her entire plan would fall to pieces. Taking a deep breath, she curled her fingers into the fabric of his tunic. It was coarse, but the texture was oddly comfortable. She spread her feet as wide as her hips would allow. She pulled in a deep breath and tried to recapture those lessons in the martial arts that Daddy had taught her so long ago. She would not let this lump ruin her plan just by being heavy!
With an almost primal roar Nabiki pulled… and for a second she felt the body shift. Then she realized that it wasn’t Ryouga moving, it was his sleeve. She wasn’t sure if she heard the rip or her own curse first, but either way she fell ass-first into the gutter before she could recover. A small cloud of grey water erupted around her. Nabiki sighed… that was just her luck.
“This is all your fault…” she began to berate the unconscious Ryouga, only to realise he was no longer there. Instead, buried partially under his huge backpack and the empty folds of his clothing was a small black piglet. It was dripping wet. Nabiki opened her mouth, and sat there for a second. Her finger came up, then down. Finally she closed her mouth.
“I see… just like Ranma and his father, huh?” Nabiki laughed. Well… that was actually a bonus. It would make things work much more smoothly. She reached down and jerked her new pawn free. Yes, much more smoothly.
“Would you come here for a moment, Momiji?”
Momiji smiled and nodded as she walked across the room. Mrs. Matsudaira was smiling in a pleasant manner, which she seemed to do a lot when she wasn’t frowning in concentration at the computer screen or one of her numerous research projects. Mrs. Matsudaira was an older woman, clearly past her prime but retaining most of her youthful beauty. She might have looked better, but she had a distracted quality to her, and her clothes and hair seemed to always be maintained at the minimum level of cleanliness to not be considered actually disheveled. That, and she always had subtle bags under her eyes from the many sleepless nights she spent up studying the latest data on the Aragami.
Momiji really didn’t know what the woman found so fascinating about science or her research, but didn’t begrudge her that fascination. She had sometimes wished that she had the kind of ambition that Mrs. Matsudaira had, towards something. It would have made her feel more useful when surrounded by such a group of competent professionals.
“I have some presents for you,” Mrs. Matsudaira explained as she reached under her desk and began to pile a variety of bizarre (to Momiji’s layman eyes) devices on the surface.
“Oh… wow… I don’t know what to say?” Momiji said as she watched the woman place more and more objects on the table. Was she supposed to know what most of these things were? Did she miss some pamphlet along the way explaining what she was supposed to do with them? She was curious about what most of it did, but after yesterday’s disaster with Ms. Sagakuchi’s personal arsenal, Momiji was just slightly afraid to touch anything until she knew exactly what it was.
“These will help us track down and deal with the Aragami,” Mrs. Matsudaira explained. “It’s all highly experimental, but quite sophisticated.”
“Oh!” Momiji exclaimed with relief. So she wasn’t expected to know what Mrs. Matsudaira was talking about here. Momiji smiled keenly and nodded vigorously as her colleague explained what most of the stuff on the counter did. She used a lot of jargon and technical talk that Momiji hadn’t the slightest hope of understanding, so she just tried to appear cheerful and attentive. She even carefully packed each piece of equipment into her backpack, where she would probably never touch it again. Except maybe to show it off to Kusanagi. That would show that big jerk that she was an important part of the TAC!
“There you two are…”
Momiji turned and called out a happy good morning to her host and boss. Mr. Kunikida was still mostly a mystery to her. He looked like a decent enough man. Definitely approaching the distinguished end of the age spectrum, with a growing widow’s peak and a long face. Momiji could never look him in the face for too long without staring at the giant wart on the side of his nose, so she tried to look away a lot without seeming to. He treated her well enough, but there was always a hint of sadness behind his smiles and encouragement. Was he seeing her sister when he saw her? The sister Momiji herself had never known? Was Kusanagi?
“I somehow knew you would be here, Matsudaira, and I think I’m going to have to get used to you showing up early, Momiji,” Mr. Kunikida laughed.
“Just doing my duty!” Momiji called and tried to snap into something resembling a disciplined military stance. Not that she was that sure that the military was disciplined, after spending yesterday with Ms. Sagakuchi…
“But seriously, Momiji, you have to wait for the rest of us to leave before coming here. As much as I appreciate your efforts, I don’t want you walking the streets alone, even if it is just to work and back,” Mr. Kunikida declared in his most somber tone. That was the other thing that put Momiji ill at ease with her mentor… his sudden shifts in mood. “Anyway, I was wondering if you two would come up to the office for a few minutes; I have something I want to discuss with the entire staff.”
“Uh, yes, of course…” Momiji declared cheerfully. She heard Mrs. Matsudaira agree from just behind her as well. Before Momiji knew it, she was back upstairs in what passed for the TAC’s office. When Momiji had first arrived, the place had been a mess of papers and garbage and other assorted knickknacks. Her first duty, and the one she still relished because it made her feel… useful, was to clean the place up. Everyone but Ms. Sagakuchi had thanked her for that. A short glance at the buff redhead confirmed that they probably still weren’t on the best of terms. Momiji just flashed her a smile. She had really hoped to use yesterday to clear up any bad air between them, but then the Aragami attack had come along and… oh well. Maybe tomorrow?
“Is everybody here? Good.” Mr. Kunikida sat behind his desk at the head of the office and leaned forward. “Everyone please have a seat. I have something I want to ask you all about.” Momiji noticed that he had set up a small television and video player behind his desk. She briefly wondered why as she sat behind her own desk.
“I hope that this doesn’t take long. I have important research to get back to,” Mrs. Matsudaira pointed out.
“It won’t take long,” Mr. Kunikida replied. “First, let me bring everyone up to speed. Yesterday, Momiji and Koume encountered an Aragami.” Everyone nodded. “At the same time, they met up with our mysterious ‘friend’ Kusanagi, and a trio of new faces.”
“Ah, I see where this is going,” Ms. Takeuchi said, nodding to herself.
“Yes. During the confrontation with the Aragami, this trio displayed superhuman physical prowess and an ability to sense the movements and… moods of the Aragami. They also attempted to capture the mitama for themselves, but were prevented from doing so by the intervention of Kusanagi. Am I correct?”
It took Momiji a second to realise he was addressing her. Repressing the urge to gulp or grin nervously, she nodded.
“Yeah,” Ms. Sagakuchi drawled while stretching in her chair. “So what’s your point, boss-man? We told this to you yesterday.”
“I was just making sure that everyone knew what had happened,” Mr. Kunikida informed her. “Now, I want you all to take a careful look at the following tape. Tell me if anyone you see on it is at all familiar.”
Without looking, Mr. Kunikida pointed a remote over his shoulder and clicked a button. He stared forward at them intensely as the word “Erase” began to flash quickly in the corner of the otherwise black screen.
“Uh… Mr. Kunikida…” Momiji trailed off, not quite sure what to say.
“Boss,” Mr. Yaegashi cleared his throat quickly. “I think you hit the wrong button.”
“I… did?” Mr. Kunikida turned to look at the screen. His eyes bugged out. He shouted something very naughty that made Momiji blush. He began to beat on the tape machine and yell for help. Mr. Yaegashi ran to his aid, while Ms. Sagakuchi nearly fell out of her chair laughing. The other two members of the TAC seemed to be more blasé about the affair, though Ms. Takeuchi looked mildly concerned.
A few minutes later, Mr. Yaegashi had cleared up the problem. He even did something to fix the damaged portions of the tape. This time Mr. Kunikida allowed him to run the machine.
Momiji wasn’t sure what she was seeing at first. It was a long grey field with a large group of people walking across it. Teenagers, about her age from the looks of it. Three guys and four girls. Three of the girls were dressed in similar… uniforms. Though Momiji wasn’t sure she would call them that. True, she wore a short skirt with her TAC uniform… but at least she wasn’t wearing it over a body-hugging leotard. Then the area seemed to fill with a fine mist, and the view panned left to show a large number of humanoid… things climbing out of the bay and…
“Hey, that’s Narita Airport!” Ms. Takeuchi pointed out.
“Indeed, this was taken about ten days ago,” Mr. Kunikida replied.
“That would make it…” Ms. Takeuchi trailed off, and Mr. Kunikida nodded. Momiji briefly wondered what they were talking about… then it hit her. The terrorist attack! The heroic face-off between that boy – what was his name? – and the Evil Kingdom! It had been all over the news for almost a week.
“Everyone please pay attention,” Mr. Kunikida pointed out. They all did. Momiji found herself enthralled by the events that unfolded on the screen. She had seen the pictures in the paper and read the stories, but there was something different about seeing the (almost) real thing. She found herself cheering when the boy and his allies foiled another one of the evil mastermind’s plans, and wincing in sympathy as the monstrous man vented his anger on the young hero. She couldn’t watch when the man had him held in the air, torturing him. And even though there was no sound, she swore she heard the final snap. But good triumphed in the end. And even when the hero had the villain at his mercy, he chose to let him live. Even if one of the women in the mock-school uniforms decided to take matters into her own hands. The tape continued past a confrontation between the schoolgirls and the heroic boy that Momiji had never read about in the papers, and then stopped.
“What… where did you get that?” Ms. Takeuchi asked once Mr. Yaegashi had popped out the tape.
“Connections,” Mr. Kunikida explained. “The important question here is, did any of you recognise any of the people on that tape from the fight yesterday?” The question was addressed to the group, but he was looking directly at Momiji when he said it. This time she did gulp, a little. She had never seen Mr. Kunikida so… intense.
Surprisingly, it was Mr. Yaegashi who answered. “The girls in the school uniforms are called the Sailor Senshi.” Everyone turned to look at him. His face burst out in a fierce blush and he began to twitch and stammer as they continued staring. “They… uh, they’re kind of superheroes… uh… that is… not really superheroes… they don’t fight crime… just monsters, really… and… they… well…”
“And how do you know so much about them?” Ms. Sagakuchi asked in a suspicious tone.
“I’m… kinda a fan,” Mr. Yaegashi pointed out. He was sweating slightly now. Mr. Yaegashi was a short, unassuming man; the kind your eyes would have passed over without pause in a crowd. He wore a neat suit, a neat pair of glasses that seemed one size too small for his face, and had a neat, unassuming hairstyle. “Well, not really of them, but I’m a big fan of Sailor V! And it’s almost the same thing…”
“Sailor V?” Mr. Kunikida asked with a frown.
“I know that one,” Momiji declared. “Sailor V is a character from a popular comic and animation series! She even has video games, and they’re supposed to be working on her movie.” Momiji had never really been into the ‘magical girl’ genre, but it was hard for a girl her age to not be familiar with the Sailor V phenomenon. Especially how it had appeared out of virtually nowhere only a few months ago. Well, at least to Momiji it had.
“Actually, her exploits are based on those of an actual girl from England,” Mr. Yaegashi pointed out. He gestured to a small statuette of a girl in a comically sexy sailor suit uniform and huge opera glasses on his desk. “She fights crime and monsters there, just like the Sailor Senshi do here. Some people think that the Senshi based their own uniforms off of hers, due to the obvious similarities…”
“Yes, I see… but you didn’t see either them or this Sailor V at the fight yesterday?” Mr. Kunikida interrupted him just as Mr. Yaegashi began to trail off.
“Nah,” Ms. Sagakuchi pointed out. “Two of the girls wore weird outfits, and the third was in a leotard, but nothing like those Sailor Scouts…”
“Senshi,” Mr. Yaegashi corrected her.
“Whatever.” Ms. Sagakuchi rolled her eyes. Momiji wouldn’t have accused anyone else of dressing in a weird manner if she habitually walked around in a pink jumpsuit, but wasn’t about to say as much. “My point is, I didn’t see them, or any of the people on the tape there.”
“I see…” Mr. Kunikida leaned back and cupped his hands together in front of his mouth. “So… it appears we have more of these… meta-humans out there. Three more, plus this Sailor V girl, if Yaegashi’s claims can be believed.”
“If I may ask, sir… what is the point of this?” Ms. Takeuchi was always all business. Her dress-suit was all business. Her personality was all business. Her actions were all business. Even her hairstyle was almost all business, except for a long bang which seemed to have gotten out of her control and covered half her face.
“I was hoping one of you could tell me,” Mr. Kunikida explained with a soft chuckle.
“Well, from a scientific standpoint it really is quite intriguing,” Mrs. Matsudaira pointed out, tapping her chin thoughtfully. “The people on that tape seem capable of performing feats of strength, speed and energy manipulation that quite exceed even the most well-trained Olympic athletes or combat experts.” She turned to Ms. Sagakuchi. “No offense intended.”
“What? By Jojo the jumping man and his girlfriends in the skirts of fetish fantasies?” Ms. Sagakuchi laughed. “I don’t think that any of them are a match for an AK-47 or even a good Glock, much less a TOW missile.”
“Uh… yes…” Mrs. Matsudaira coughed. “I would love to know more about how they accomplished those feats. Or whether they are even human at all. After all, the only beings we have encountered who can exceed conventional abilities so far are the Aragami. However, I wouldn’t even want to speculate on how they accomplish what they do, or whether they are connected to the Aragami, without more evidence.” She paused thoughtfully for a moment. “Though, actually, I’m not surprised. If the Aragami exist, can it really be that much of a stretch to posit the existence of other seemingly mystical forces in this world?”
Momiji found herself nodding along with Mrs. Matsudaira’s words. Even if she had no idea what ‘posit’ meant. Then again, for her, all of this was new. It was only two weeks since she had first even heard the word “Aragami”, much less found herself helping a (semi-) secret Japanese agency fight them. She wouldn’t have been that surprised at this point if Buddha himself had appeared before her.
“Nonetheless, the evidence exists. These people are real, and powerful, and potentially dangerous…” Mr. Kunikida was back to frowning now.
“Once again, sir. What is the point of this exercise?” Ms. Takeuchi broke in.
“It’s not our job to worry about random supernatural beings,” Ms. Takeuchi explained. “Our mission mandate is the find a way to defeat the Aragami and protect the Kushinada.” She smiled at Momiji when she said that last part, and Momiji smiled back. Okay, maybe Ms. Takeuchi wasn’t ALL business. “The fact that these people exist is irrelevant. Until and unless they begin to interfere with our mission, that is.”
“I see…” Mr. Kunikida nodded. “So you’re suggesting we just sit on this for now?”
“Precisely,” the woman nodded. “The ones that Momiji and Koume encountered yesterday seemed to be on our side, at least. But we can’t really do anything until we know more, anyway.”
“You have a good point…” Mr. Kunikida trailed off. Momiji could sense something else on the tip of his tongue, but he cut himself off. “Nevertheless, I would like you to do me a favour, Ryoko.”
“Yes, sir?” Ms. Takeuchi responded.
“Contact your friend Sugishita at the police department,” Mr. Kunikida said as he stood up. “I want to find out everything I can about the person all those articles talked about at the airport…” He paused and consulted a small notebook. “Ukyou Kuonji.” Ms. Takeuchi nodded. “Good. Even if this isn’t part of our mandate… I’m still concerned because we have had people step into the fights with the Aragami. If it happens again… I trust you can handle this little side project without it interfering in your duties here. You’ve never disappointed me in the past.”
“I understand, sir,” Ms. Takeuchi said with a deep smile. Momiji stared at her for a moment. Was she blushing? Could she be…? Nah.
“Good,” Mr. Kunikida said, then started smiling again. “Now let’s all get back to work. We have a country to save, after all.”
Link regretted the fact that they’d never gotten the chance to look at Momiji’s mitama. Chris had described them: a blue, seed-like object in the shape of half of a yin-yang symbol. But that wasn’t the same as actually seeing it, feeling it… Link felt vexed once again over what had happened the day before. Not just that that orange-skinned man had so callously killed the aragami – his own kind! – but the reactions afterwards. Even her sister didn’t understand the importance of what was lost, and that undead monster certainly couldn’t. If a child was killed, did you say “That’s all right – there’s plenty more”!?
She stared down at the chrysanthemum. It was beautiful, well-cared-for, and yet seemed so… inadequate. She could feel its life, its simple wants and desires, but all she could think of were those others. Those plants that were mobile like animals, and whose thoughts… if not on the level of humans, were close enough. They could SPEAK, not just convey primal desires. She and her sister had been developing and experimenting with plants all their lives. They were considered geniuses, their creations nothing short of astounding. But this… this was beyond anything she’d ever dreamed. Ever even conceived of.
How could she have possibly never heard of these before?
The sound of a throat clearing interrupted her thoughts. Turning, she saw Tatewaki Kunou standing in the entrance to the room. They hadn’t had much contact with the dead girl’s brother since arriving; Chris had introduced them as ‘my dear friends from China’ and laughed in a disturbing fashion. She later explained that that would keep Kunou from bothering them. It seemed to have worked – since then, the extent of their interaction had been a curt nod in passing in the hallway. So what did he want now?
For a few moments, there was silence as Kunou merely stared probingly at her. She had almost decided to ask him what the hell he was doing when he finally spoke. “Are you the one named Pink?”
Link frowned. Pink was, as usual, out in the gardens, but it wouldn’t be very safe for Kunou to go there. “No, I’m Link. My sister is busy. What did you want her for, over?”
Kunou seemed to consider his words before speaking slowly. “My sister is… unwell. She requested that I bring the one called Pink to her.”
Link felt her frown deepen. If Chris was unwell, why would she ask for Pink? Healing illness wasn’t her sister’s specialty – and what illness could affect a dead thing, anyway? She made a decision. “Where is she, over?”
“In her room.” Link knew the way, but allowed Kunou to lead her. He kept glancing at her as they walked, but said nothing. Did he think she and her sister had something to do with ‘Kodachi’s’ illness? Link could almost have laughed. The illness Kunou’s sister had was incurable.
They reached the door to the dead girl’s bedroom, and Kunou stepped aside to let Link enter. Inside, the room was dimly lit. She could make out a form on the bed, presumably Chris, hidden behind gauzy curtains. Link’s nose wrinkled. There was an unpleasant odour permeating the room. It reminded her of meat that had been left out too long and spoiled-
“Please close the door.” Chris’s voice sounded wet, almost choked, like she had a bad cold. Link complied with the request, feeling somewhat numb. Of course, the undead had told them about this, but smelling… she felt nauseous. What did Chris look like? And how fast had this happened? Link hadn’t noticed any particular odour the day before.
“Thanks,” the moist voice responded as Link turned to face the shadowy figure again. “As you can see, a bit of a problem has…” she paused, and Link saw her silhouette shift. “You’re Link. Did Kunou get confused? I asked him to get your sister. Sorry if he bothered you.”
Link shook her head, trying not to think about the eyes watching her. “No, my sister is occupied in the garden. When he said you seemed unwell, I thought I’d come see what was wrong with you, over.”
Chris paused for a moment before responding. “Well, thank you. I appreciate the thought.”
“It was habit, over,” Link replied coldly. She was not this abomination’s friend. “I had forgotten about your… problem.”
A moist chuckle, and a shadowed hand reached to the curtain. “So had I, almost.”
The curtain peeled back, and Link steeled her expression, staring impassively. It wasn’t as hard as she feared it would be. The creature that stared out at her was not quite the putrid, rotting corpse she had anticipated. But she definitely was not well, either. The skin of Kodachi’s body was no longer uniformly pale, but instead was covered by multiple dark, wine-coloured blotches. The hand touching the curtain was not the smooth, supple one Link remembered; the skin had shrunken back around the fingers and split in several places. Indeed, all of Kodachi’s skin seemed to hang almost loosely, as if the muscles underneath had shrunken overnight. And her eyes… that almost did make Link shudder. They were milky white, the pupils and irises all but invisible behind the necrotic coating. They were now truly the eyes of a corpse.
“As I was saying, and as you can see, there is a problem. Not unanticipated, but unwelcome nonetheless.”
“Yes, I see that. So what did you want my sister for, over?”
The dead girl spread her hands. “I figured Pink would be more comfortable. But I wanted to tell her, and let her know I had to go out. And…” she hesitated.
“Going out, over?” She knew why. She could hardly have forgotten. But she needed to hear. Hear it from the monster’s own mouth.
The milky eyes stared unblinkingly at her for a few moments, then closed. “Going out. I’m going to need… I need a new body.” She opened her eyes again. “I’m sorry.”
Link repressed another shudder. ‘Need a new body’… it sounded so casual, like needing new clothes. Had this walking corpse looked at them hungrily, considering how well their bodies would fit?
No. No, that wasn’t possible. Chris wanted them to help her, that was why she had found them. Except… they hadn’t even TRIED to do anything to preserve the body yet, and even with this happening, Chris didn’t seem upset. Unhappy, yes, but she had not even mentioned preserving the body since they’d met in China, and she didn’t seem even slightly resentful now.
But if getting them to try to preserve her body wasn’t that high a priority for Chris, then why did she seek them out in the first place?
At that point the door banged open, and Link spun to see Pink stride in, smirking. “So there you are,” she began, and then looked at Link. “And you too. This is a surprise, over.” She raised an eyebrow inquiringly.
“I had asked Kunou to get you, but Link came instead,” Chris explained. “She said you were occupied.”
Pink shrugged. “I was out in the garden, but I finished.” She grinned, adding, “Now I just need someone to test it out on, over.”
“That’ll have to wait,” Link said. “There’s something that needs to be dealt with first, over.”
“Wait, over?” Pink grinned. “No need. Someone left a perfectly good brother out in the hallway, over.”
Chris chuckled. “Nothing lethal involved, I hope.”
“Hard to tell until it’s been tested, over.”
“Stop it,” Link snapped. It was so hard to get Pink to take anything seriously sometimes. Except Shampoo, of course. “I told you, there’s something we have to deal with first, over.”
“Yeah, yeah, I noticed. It stinks in here, over.” Pink wrinkled her nose. “You should thank me. Before I took care of him, that Kunou guy was trying to listen at the door.” She put her hands on her hips and stared at Chris expectantly. “Well, over?”
The dead girl blinked. “Well… what?”
“The urgent problem is obvious – you told us about it before. We’ll have to go get you a new body. So are we leaving or what, over?”
Chris chuckled wetly, seeming to find her reaction amusing. “Well, there’s a few things to be taken care of. You two should get your things together. I’ll go out and see about the body situation, and when I get back, we’ll have to head out.”
“Wait a moment,” Pink said. “Why are we leaving? The only person that lives here is Kunou, right? It’d be easy to take care of him, so why not stay, over?”
The dead girl sighed. “Yes, we could do that, but that would hardly be very nice to him, would it?”
“Neither was killing his sister, over,” Link interjected coldly. Not that she really cared about what happened to Kunou, but it was disgusting watching this monster quibble about what was ‘nice’.
Chris looked at her expressionlessly, and she met the undead gaze without flinching. “You are, of course, correct. Thus, it is all the more important that we don’t do anything else to him.”
“So what are WE going to do?” Pink complained. “You brought us here, so it’s your responsibility to get us a place to stay, over.”
“Don’t worry about it,” Chris said. “I was dealing with that most of the morning, after I realised what happened. There won’t be any problems.”
“All right,” Pink said. “Link and I will get some things together, and then we’ll go, over.”
“We?” Chris replied, arching an eyebrow. “I was thinking I’d go alone on this one.”
“Won’t do, over,” Pink said. “You’ll be gone goodness-knows-how-long, and you won’t be coming back as Kodachi. Kunou already saw you, right? So he’ll be suspicious, and you didn’t want us to do anything to him. If his sister vanishes after speaking to us and then some strange person shows up, there’ll probably be trouble, over.”
Link stayed silent during this. She’d agreed (reluctantly) to this before they had even arrived in Japan. Pink wanted to see ‘how she did it’. Link didn’t want any part of this, but… it would happen anyway. At least she wouldn’t have to watch.
Chris looked hesitant. “You have a point, but still…”
“What are you worried about?” Pink interrupted. “We know what’s wrong and what you’re going to do. Why get so squeamish about it now, over?”
“It’s more consideration than squeamishness,” the dead girl drawled. “But fine. If you want to come that badly, I can certainly use that.” She turned towards Link. “Maybe we can find someplace for you to stay…”
“No,” Link said immediately. “I’ll stay with you, over.”
“Are you sure?” Chris asked, obviously surprised. “I didn’t think you’d want to…”
“Don’t worry about me,” Link snapped. It wasn’t any of this creature’s business. “I can take care of myself. So let’s just hurry up and go, over.”
“The sky was a dagger of clouds, stabbing into the horizon. It was going to rain. The citizens of the city stared up at the dark storm with rueful apprehension. Everyone could feel the tension in the air. That tingle on the tiny hairs of your arm that sweeps in just before the big one. But there was something beyond the storm, something everyone could sense but no one could name.
“Life-stealing monsters in Minato ward. ‘Terrorist’ explosions destroying schools and offices around Mount Narisawa. Sentient tsunamis tearing up the Tokyo Dome. Ghosts haunting the national museum. UFO’s spotted in the vicinity of the bridge that was destroyed last week. But look even further out and see the chaos expand. Occult slayings throughout London. The White House and Library of Congress destroyed by ‘freak lightning storms’? A valley in Romania where they say the sun hasn’t shone for over a month!
“We can all feel it, tickling at the back of our skulls. That strange sensation that the Americans call ‘someone walking on your grave’. And maybe that’s exactly what’s happening. Some primitive reptile brain reaction to the supernatural in our world? Could that be the reason for the anxiety I see in the face of my father when he opens his copy of the paper in the morning? Is that the only reason for the blank stares I see staring at the evening news as the talking heads tell us how the amount of violent death in Tokyo over the last three months has now equalled that recorded over the last three decades?
“Or maybe it’s because we realise that we are just seeing the first gusts. That the few squalls that have hit our shores are nothing more than warning signs. We as a race have always been fascinated by stories about the end of the world… why should we act so surprised when it seems the harbingers of the apocalypse keep popping up in prime time?
“But I personally don’t believe this is the end. I think there are people out there, standing against the storm. You’ve heard the rumors, probably know someone who knows someone who was there the day the Sailor Senshi destroyed a monster, or the night the stranger in the white gi destroyed a Shadowloo cell. But perhaps the best known of the stormwardens is Ukyou Kuonji. The hero of Narita. The saviour of Cherry Hill. A man of mystery. A man of few friends and many enemies.
“And now, Ukyou has vanished.
“Fear not. This mystery shall not go unsolved! This reporter will dig into the soft loam of this enigma and unearth the truth! Has Ukyou fallen foul to the forces of darkness? Or perhaps he has abandoned his protection of our city?”
“Or maybe it’s something more prosaic? A good old-fashioned romantic tryst with one of the many female admirers…”
“Hey! Ukyou ain’t like that!”
“…female admirers all across Tokyo. Or it could be that Ukyou never intended to save us, that maybe he is just as much a victim as…”
“You shouldn’t be talkin’ about Ukyou like that.”
“Shush, you! I’m trying to do the dramatic narration!”
Ran snapped off her recorder and glared at Ranma for all she was worth. Her hands were on her hips and her face in the innate feminine expression of disdain. She had known that expression to cow even the most macho jerks into silence. But apparently Ranma was a step above your usual macho jerk.
“I didn’t agree to let you tag along so you could write some stupid trash story about my friend!” He started waving his arms around in frustration. Ranma wasn’t tall, or TOO handsome. His hair was mussy and his clothes travel-worn. But on the other hand, his body was taut with muscle and his motions as smooth and hypnotic as a cat’s. If Ran had to think of a single word to describe him… it would be… ‘sidekick’. He just didn’t seem like the kind of guy who could carry his own stories. But as the friend of a main character? Yeah, Ran could see him like that.
“You’re just afraid of me unearthing the truth!”
“No I ain’t!” Ranma shot back. “Listen, Ukyou just had a bad day yesterday and she probably needed a day or two to cool off. I just wanted to find her and offer my support.”
“A likely story,” Ran murmured as she adjusted her equipment. She wasn’t really paying attention to Ranma. He was making a bit too much sense. But Ran NEEDED this story. For nearly a week she had seen her name in the big papers. She had talked with eager editors, been interviewed live on national TV and written enough follow-ups that her poor old typewriter had finally conked out.
Then… the stations and syndicates had figured out the truth: it had been a fluke. She had just happened to be in the right place at the right time. Ran had sat by the phone for three days straight, like a pathetic ex-girlfriend. No one had called. None of the promises of contracts had panned out. She had blown all her advances on a fancy new computer and professional photography equipment. For everything she had earned, she had practically nothing to show for it.
Ran needed a story. Any story. But something preferably big. She was not a one hit wonder. She would prove those idiots wrong about that. They would rue the day they doubted the talent of Ran Hibiki. She would show them, she would show them all!
Wait. Where had Ranma gone?
Ran spun around on her heel. Then blinked as she heard a creak overhead. Pivoting her neck back, she saw Ranma clinging to a lamppost right above her. His eyes were quivering like jell-o molds and his pigtail was standing straight out from his neck.
“Hey, what are you doing up there?” Ran asked slowly.
“N-nothing! I certainly wasn’t afraid of your laughter, if that’s what you’re implying!”
“I didn’t imply that at all…” Ran blinked. Laughter. Well, she had been chuckling a bit.
“Good. Because I wasn’t,” Ranma said as he landed beside her.
“If you say so,” Ran muttered and shrugged.
“I damn well do say so!” Ranma growled as he waved his fist at her.
“Woah, yeah, yeah!” Ran backed off and waved him calm. “I believe you… you must have really been… uh… been…”
“Getting a bird’s eye view of the area!” Ranma insisted vehemently.
“That’s it exactly!” Ran agreed.
“Because that would help me look for Ukyou!” Ranma added, just as forcefully.
“Makes perfect sense,” Ran nodded.
“Good… just keep that in mind,” Ranma muttered and started down the street again. Ran discreetly made a note about his violent bouts of paranoia. Was that related to Ukyou’s disappearance? Possible. Must investigate further.
While she was writing and catching up with him, Ranma had entered a large complex. Well, large for Japan. It appeared to be a form of traditional dojo. There was even a sign asking all challengers to please use the back entrance. Cute.
“Oh, Ranma, you’re home!”
The voice belonged a tall brunette with a willowy figure and a conservative dress. She was pretty, in that way someone’s mother was pretty. Her face contained the kind of smile which you couldn’t doubt she used often and without restraint. She approached Ranma, who paused uncomfortably in the middle of the main path. For some reason, he wasn’t able to look her directly in the face.
“Yeah, Kasumi. I actually came to see Akane. She back from school yet?”
“She actually just got back a few minutes ago. She’s in the dojo, I believe.”
“Thanks!” Ranma started to run past her.
“And who’s your friend?” Only to find himself tripping over his own feet as Kasumi’s question caught him off guard.
“Huh? Wha? Oh, you’re still here?” Ranma blinked as he looked back at Ran.
Ran gave him her best feminine scorn look again, but it was like water off a duck’s back with Ranma. “Of course I’m still here! I still haven’t gotten my story.”
“I thought you weren’t going to write any more lies about Ukyou!”
“I don’t lie in print!”
“Would you like some tea?” Kasumi asked in the middle of the shouting match.
“Oh no, thank you very much for asking,” Ran smiled and bowed to her. “You won’t threaten me away from this story!” Ran shouted at Ranma strongly enough that his face became covered in a fine layer of spit.
“Gah! I didn’t threaten you, crazy chick!”
“You’re interfering with my right to a free press! I’ll have you charged! I have friends in big places!” After all, Ran had only told him she didn’t lie in print. In person was a whole other kettle of fish.
“Ah! You’re impossible! Fine, you can tag along.” Ranma threw up his hands in defeat.
“Victory!” Ran shouted, jumping lightly.
“You don’t have to rub it in,” Ranma grumbled.
“But where’s the fun in that?”
Ranma apparently had no reply to that, so he just turned and walked past Kasumi and towards the dojo. Ran, grinning like the Cheshire Cat, followed him. She vaguely heard Kasumi saying something about not being introduced behind her…
In the dojo proper was Akane. She looked at first glance to be a traditional Japanese schoolgirl. Even when she was wearing her bright yellow workout gi, she looked very… normal. Her face was a kind of neutral beautiful, the kind of face that looked just at home whether it was smiling or screaming. That was until you scratched under the surface and found out she was a martial arts expert with an iron will and a personality that was best described as explosive.
“Ran!” Akane called out happily. “Wow, what are you doing here? I haven’t seen you in ages!”
She found herself resisting the urge to struggle against the sisterly hug that was bestowed upon her. But Akane let her go quickly enough and backed off. Ran actually liked Akane, mainly because Akane seemed to like her a great deal. Ran guessed you earned that kind of adoration when you saved a person’s sister from a Fate Worse Than Death. Not that Ran liked to think about that. She was an objective observer. She reported; she didn’t participate. As far as the world knew, Akane had saved her sister all on her lonesome. And Ran was quite comfortable letting them believe that.
Plus, she had promised herself never to save Akane’s sister again. Lest she tempt fate to have Akane send her another batch of ‘thank you’ brownies.
“Just following my nose for news, Akane,” Ran replied easily. Ranma gave a terrific snort at that, but Akane ignored him. Akane, from what little she had seen of her, was very good at ignoring Ranma.
“She’s helping me find Ukyou,” Ranma spoke up when it became clear Akane wasn’t going to acknowledge him. The long-haired girl’s face darkened. Ohhh… now what was that about?
“I see…” Akane knelt back down behind a pile of concrete blocks. “Ukyou’s very popular recently, it seems.” With a loud kiai Akane smashed all five cinderblocks to a fine mist. Ran, who had seen people summon lightning from their fingers and drive volleyballs through brick walls, was only slightly impressed.
“Yeah, and… uh… seeing as how you’re Ukyou’s… girlfriend, I thought you might know where… he is?”
Ran glanced sharply at Ranma. The boy had to be the worst liar she had ever heard. Even as she watched him, his face broke out into a cold sweat, and his grin grew until it swallowed up most of his face. He stopped blinking entirely.
“Uh… right…” Akane sighed. “I’m not really sure if that’s true anymore.”
“Ukyou… he made it clear he didn’t think much of me last night,” Akane muttered as she finished setting up another five blocks. They followed their brethren into that great dust cloud in the sky. Literally. Ran had to pinch her nose to keep from sneezing.
“Wait, what do you mean? Ukyou yelled at you, too?”
“Did she tell you off?” Akane asked with a blink.
“No… more my mother…” Ranma’s body pulsed as a shiver ran up and down the length of his body. “And a buncha girls she wanted me to date or somethin’…”
Ran drifted back and started taking notes.
“Well, I don’t know where Ukyou is. Last I saw, she was still at Dr. Tofu’s.”
“Nah, I tried there first. The doc said she wasn’t in her room this morning. He also wants to talk with her really bad, but he wouldn’t tell me about what.”
Akane sighed and rubbed the bridge of her nose. “Of course.” She sat back. “I guess I can’t stay mad at Ukyou about last night. How many times has she calmed the two of us down? Maybe I should find her with you and we can talk about-“
“Oh, Ranma!” The voice was Kasumi again. “A kind lady is here, and she says she’s your mother. Isn’t that nice?”
Ran blinked. Then she rubbed her eyes. Then she blinked again. Yes, Ranma had really disappeared. Ran hadn’t thought anyone could move faster than her eyes could follow. She shrugged and looked around, quickly locating the young martial artist clinging to the ceiling directly above his former position. She sighed. The boy had a lot to learn about a successful vanishing act if that was the best he could think of doing.
“Ranma, what are you doing up there?”
“SHH! I don’t want her to find me!” Ranma hissed insistently.
Akane was now looking up at him as well. “Don’t want who to find you?”
“My mother!” Ranma hissed back down at her.
“Wow, some juicy family problems you have?” Ran grinned as she whipped her pad and pencil into her hands.
“Sorry, Akane. Force of habit.” Ran put away her pad. She did not, however, turn off her tape recorder.
“Why wouldn’t you want to see your mother?” Akane asked with a tilt of her head. Her tone adopted a wistful sadness as she continued. “I would give anything to see my mother again…”
“Yeah, well your mother ain’t no psychopath!”
“And yours is?” Akane shot back, raising one eyebrow in a challenging manner.
“The woman wanted me to… ya know… well, she was telling me to… it was three girls… at once…”
“Most guys would see that as the perfect mom,” Ran pointed out with a laugh. Then the expression on Ranma’s face told her he hadn’t been joking. “Wait, you’re not kidding?”
“No! I don’t think it’s a joke when your mother starts herding you and the girls upstairs!” Ranma growled out. “She was practically undressing us the whole time…”
“Wow…” Ran blinked. She had never quite heard of mothers that bad before. A few dads, maybe a grandfather or two… but no mothers. “So you and your mother were undressing with three girls upstairs…”
“No! I didn’t want to have nothin’ to do with any of ’em!” Ranma shouted as he tugged at his hair in frustration. His expression went from frustrated to panicked quickly when he realised that he had just lost his handholds on the ceiling. His arms pinwheeled crazily for a few seconds before he was able to recover his old position. “I just wanted to go find Ukyou. But Mom has this thing against Ukyou. I think it was the whole killing girls with the ninjas thing…”
“Wait… Ukyou kills girls?” Ran coughed out.
“NO! That’s just the thing! She doesn’t, but that’s why Mom’s so mad at Ucchan…”
“So your mother was trying to get Ukyou to kill girls, and you to have sex with three of them?”
Akane, who had been growing steadily more red as the conversation continued, decided to break in at this point. “For crying out loud, Ranma! Are your whole family perverts!?”
“Hey! Are we forgetting who molested who when I first showed up?”
“I thought you were a guy!”
“I was a guy!”
“That isn’t what I meant!”
“Is it, Akane? Is it really?” Ranma asked sagely.
Akane threw a cinderblock at him. Somehow Ranma managed to dodge while still clinging to the ceiling.
“Isn’t that expensive?” Ran said, pointing to the new skylight.
Akane threw up her hands in frustration and stalked away to the other end of the dojo.
“But anyway, that isn’t the worst part. It all went downhill when Mom found out about my curse when I went to chase after Ukyou, and that was when she got all those weird ideas about those three-“
“Curse?” Ran perked up.
“Uh… nevermind!” Ranma gulped and rubbed the back of his head.
“Never mind what?” Ran narrowed her eyes and stared directly into Ranma’s. Somehow, despite her being three feet below and in the wrong orientation, he managed to shrink back from her glare. She smirked. She hadn’t lost her interrogator’s edge.
“Just never mind!” Ranma snapped back. “The point is that she can’t know I’m here!”
“Who can’t know you’re here?” a new voice announced to Ran’s right. Ran looked over her shoulder to see a tallish, matronly woman wearing properly coifed hair and an expensive but threadbare kimono. Ran’s keen photographer’s eye immediately processed her soft features and noted the resemblance to Ranma’s.
“M-mom!” Ranma gasped. “What are you doing here?”
“Well, I was having a nice tea with this darling young woman Kasumi, waiting for you to come out and greet me. I came to check when you took so long, and was ready to be quite cross. But I see you had a good reason to be so busy.” The woman nodded happily. “I commend your technique, son. But if you want to look down a woman’s shirt, you have to make sure she doesn’t notice you.”
Ran stared at the traditionally dressed woman for a second. Then turned her stare to Ranma. He was suddenly blushing. Then Ran looked down. Yes, from that angle he would have just enough clearance to…
“YEEK!” Ran leapt away, clutching her collar tight with one hand.
“MOM!” Ranma cried. “Will you stop it with the girl stuff?”
“But Ranma,” his mother cried back earnestly. “I just want what’s best for you. And with your condition, you need all the manly reinforcement you can get!”
“Condition?” Ran, who had calmed down, asked casually.
“Oh, my son turns into a girl when you splash him with cold water,” the perky woman explained. “But he can fix it with some hot water, so don’t let that scare you off… Miss…?”
“Oh! How rude of me!” Ran stepped forward and clasped her hands in front of her before bowing slightly. “Ran Hibiki, Ace Reporter! At your service.”
“Nodoka Saotome,” Ranma’s mother introduced herself with a slightly more curt bow.
“I’m Akane!” the long-haired girl introduced herself with a cheerful smile and a bow.
“Pleased to meet you both,” Nodoka said with genuine good cheer. “I’m glad to see my son is still able to attract such beautiful young women, despite his condition.”
“I wouldn’t say beautiful…” Akane stammered, blushing. Ran smirked at her embarrassment.
“I’m not dating them either, Mom!” Ranma shouted again.
“Dear, why don’t you come down from the ceiling? I’m getting terrible neck strain talking to you like this.”
“Oh, sorry.” Ranma monkeyed himself down to the floor. “Better?”
“Now… where was I?”
“You aren’t dating us,” Ran helped.
“That’s it exactly!” Ranma shouted into the air.
Ran tilted her head to the side, watching as a robust man in a dirty white gi stepped into the dojo. He was wearing a kerchief over his baldness and a pair of wire-rim spectacles which he was adjusting with one hand. His mouth opened to say something…
“Are you saying, Ranma… that you aren’t interested in girls?” Nodoka spoke softly and began to stroke a wrapped bundle on her back. Ran did a double-take. How had she not noticed that before? Replaying her memories, Ran realised that the woman moved so easily with the bundle that it almost seemed a part of her. The room had gone quiet in the wake of Nodoka’s question, except for the near-inaudible sound of a pair of glasses falling to the floor.
Ran turned to see that the heavy-set intruder had vanished from the doorway, leaving behind only his glasses on the threshold.
“Huh? No! That ain’t what I’m sayin’ at all!” Ranma beat his chest with one fist. “I’m as red-blooded as any guy! Why, I even find Akane attractive, and she’s barely a girl!”
Ranma rocked forward as Akane beaned him on the scalp with one fist.
“Gee, thanks,” Akane said acidly, veins bulging on her forehead.
“Well, that’s good…” Nodoka said in her usual perky tone. Ran shifted, wondering why the room suddenly felt like a lot less oppressive then it had a few seconds before. “It means that your nasty curse hasn’t messed with your mind. But we have to be thorough in stamping out any womanly impulses! That’s why you have to start fooling around as soon as possible!”
“I ain’t foolin’ around with nobody!”
“Nonsense, you have two perfectly attractive young women here to fool around with!”
“Hey! Leave me out of your Saotome perversions!” Akane shouted.
Ran wondered if it was a good idea to do a quick fade. She backed up to the wall, trying to get out of Nodoka’s line of sight. She was beginning to see what Ranma’s point about her was. As she pressed against the wall, she could just barely hear a pair of voices coming from the house.
“…what are you doing, Saotome?”
“Just packing up, Tendo.”
“I see. Why?”
“Going on a quick training trip. Nothing to worry about, certainly no reason to tell anyone which direction I went in at all!” This was followed by nervous laughter.
“I see. That explains why you are packing. But not why you are packing up MY things.”
“I am? Oh, sorry, Tendo. Force of habit.”
“Speaking of your curse… where is your father? I really came to speak with him…” Nodoka asked casually. Ran shivered. That oppressive feeling was back in the air now.
“I dunno. Off somewhere, I guess,” Ranma shrugged. He seemed to have calmed down, now that the subject had moved off his sex life.
“I guess I’ll have to look for him.” Nodoka frowned. “You three have fun now. And remember to be safe.”
“Be safe with what?” Ranma asked as Nodoka walked out. Then his face turned red when it hit him. It took a few seconds for it to return to normal once she had left. “Man, I’m glad Pop has to deal with her and not me. I can’t take anymore of that girl talk…” Ranma’s voice changed pitch in mid-sentence and he trailed off as he realised he was now a she.
Ran stared, fascinated, as she replaced the cap on her water bottle.
“Wow, she wasn’t kidding. You really do turn into a girl!” Ran reloaded her camera with a practiced flick of her wrist and began to buzz around her, snapping pictures. “This is amazing! How do you do it? Does it hurt? Where do you put all the extra mass? Is the change just physical?”
“ARGH!” Ranma shouted and threw her much more slender arms into the air.
Nabiki was quite satisfied with how her preparations had turned out. One of Akane’s uniforms had been torn up artfully and tossed at the foot of the bed. It would have been her own, but Nabiki was nothing if not pragmatic. Her own clothing was stored safely in a small duffel bag in the closet – except for her underwear, of course. The bed looked suitably… abused. And the seedy motel room she had found was both dirty and battered enough that it would be impossible to tell if there had been a tornado inside it, much less a struggle.
Satisfied with the room, Nabiki examined herself in the full-length mirror. Stripped to her underwear, with her bra barely hanging on by one strap, she cut quite the fetching figure. She fingered the torn strap, making sure it looked authentic. It wouldn’t do for Ryouga to think it had ripped merely due to neglect, rather than violence. She also schooled the smirk from her face, forcing herself to feign shock and dismay. It looked pretty good, if she was a good judge of facial expressions (and she was). The creative use of make-up to give her a black eye and a bit of a bloody lip only helped to add to the illusion she was projecting.
That left only one ingredient yet to be added. The pig was sleeping peacefully next to the bed. Nabiki had worried the cursed boy might stir while she prepared, but he had been strangely quiescent. In fact, things had been going very well for her today. First, everyone had become too distracted by that Hayato boy to notice her sneaking off. She had found Ryouga and then this hotel; everything had fallen into place without a hitch. If Nabiki believed in luck, she would have been thanking her stars.
She gently slipped the boy-pig under the sheets and used a small glass of water to turn him back into a man. Once again, she found herself almost entranced by the transformation. It happened so fast that her eyes couldn’t catch more than a flicker of motion; a brief afterimage of pig that lingered for a fraction of a second where the boy now was. The blankets were only now settling down, having been billowed into the air by the sudden introduction of Ryouga’s mass.
Ryouga hadn’t woken up, which was good. Nabiki took a moment to study his features. He looked so peaceful when he was asleep, not much like the confusion or anger that had dominated his face all the other times she had seen him. He looked so… gullible. Nabiki chuckled. Just like a child. A naive, trusting child.
Nabiki slipped under the sheets with him, making sure she wasn’t touching him. She cringed herself into a fetal position, erased her pleased expression with one of fear and began to shiver. It took a few minutes for Ryouga to notice the vibrations in the bed. When he did, he came awake slowly and groggily. His hands fumbled out awkwardly, pawing at the blankets and pillows and finally trailing his fingers along her naked back.
That’s when he froze.
“Wha-what?” Ryouga’s voice was strained and still groggy. “Where? Who?”
“NO! Please! Please don’t hurt me again! I’ll do whatever you want! Just don’t hurt me!”
“So there you are…”
Ukyou glanced over her shoulder as Doctor Tofu walked up behind her. She didn’t deign to respond with anything more than a nod. Her headache was making it hard to think, and the fucking voice in her skull just wouldn’t shut up, which made it worse. She rubbed her temples, trying to will Aaron silent, but he wasn’t cooperating today. His thoughts kept running a mile a minute. They had been ever since last night.
“You haven’t been sleeping,” Tofu noted chidingly.
“Inde…” Ukyou cut herself off. “No, I haven’t.”
“You need to rest. It’s beginning to affect your judgment…”
“NO!” Ukyou shouted. Tofu went silent. Aaron was pointing out how the man just wanted to help her. Well, what did he know that could possibly help her? Aaron had no answer to that. He wanted to sleep even less than she.
“Fine,” Tofu said as he eased down next to her. They sat in silence for a few minutes, looking out over the length of Tokyo. Ukyou wondered briefly how the man had known to look for her here. She had come to this park specifically because it was nowhere near her usual stomping grounds. It was a quiet place, far from Nerima and Juuban, far from the hell that was her life. It should have been a place where she could relax her guard, let herself be… normal for a few minutes.
But even as she had arrived, she had seen her. Sailor Pluto, in the near distance. The woman had been in her civilian form, and from the way she noted Ukyou and left, must have thought Ukyou didn’t recognise her. But she did. She always did. Not a day had gone by when Ukyou hadn’t seen some sign that the so-called “Guardian of Time” was nearby. Just waiting for a chance to kill her.
Fuck that. Who cared about why anymore? She could just join the list of enemies. Sailor Pluto and her stupid vendetta. The Dark Kingdom and their insane plans. Nabiki and her irritating snooping. Tsubasa and his annoying obsession. And Chris…
Ukyou released her grip on the armrest. The metal had twisted and deformed in her hand. Aaron was always silent on the subject of Chris. He knew how dangerous his former friend was… but refused to condemn him. Why couldn’t he just go along with her on that one judgment?
Because there was something deeper to her hate than just Chris’s condition and his deeds. Aaron knew that. Aaron had an all–access pass to the deepest secrets of her soul. He knew what she wouldn’t admit to herself. And because he knew, Ukyou knew.
“We need to talk,” Tofu said finally.
“I’m sorry about last night… I just need time to think about what I did… find some way to make it right with you and Akane…”
“That isn’t what we need to talk about,” Tofu noted simply.
“Oh so?” Ukyou felt relief and apprehension stirring in her gut. Relief, because Tofu had distracted her and Aaron from a confrontation that Ukyou did not want. Apprehension, because his tone did not carry the hint of good news.
“I’ve been looking into what you did the other day, and I think there is something… special about you.”
“What I did?” Ukyou sighed. There were so many things she did. She was having trouble keeping track of them now. It was getting hard… hard to tell the lies from the truth.
“With the water, when we tested your chi,” Tofu explained.
“Oh… that,” Ukyou responded flatly. Aaron’s interest perked up, however. Ever since Tofu had told him about his ‘theory’, the young man had become… curious. It had amazed him that Tofu had come up with a way of explaining the working of chi that was not seen in any anime, manga or video game that he had ever seen. Oh sure, there were plenty of justifications that came close… but none were quite the same.
Plus, the fact that his five elements theory matched the one Aaron had come up with in his world was also interesting. And not that it matched it slightly, or that it used similar terms. It was the fact that it was perfectly the same. Aaron had brainstormed that system over a few weeks, cobbling together bits and pieces from a variety of role-playing games, anime and myths into what he saw as a coherent whole. He had grown quickly enamoured of it, and had planned on using it as a basis for the powers in one of his online games… until his accident.
It struck him as awfully convenient that Doctor Tofu, a previously fictional character to him, had stumbled upon exactly the same explanation, without any of the references.
“What you did was simply impossible,” Tofu pointed out. “You tapped into two types of chi at once, on the primal level.”
“Isn’t it possible to do that, though?”
“No… not on the unconscious level. We all have a balance of chi within us. One of the chi aspects is always dominant. Even if they all were in perfect balance, your chi should have read as Void, which it didn’t. It read as some combination of Void and Wind…”
“What are you saying?” Ukyou had a pretty good idea why she could accomplish the ‘impossible’ in this case, but wanted to hear the doctor’s insights. Maybe, thought a part of herself that might have been her, or Aaron, or maybe both... maybe they should tell him the truth.
“I think I know what might be wrong with you,” Tofu said. “Why you have seizures and injure yourself when you tap into your deepest wellspring of energy.” Ukyou held her breath. “Your spirit… is touching into a new level.”
“A new level?” Ukyou blinked. This was beginning to sound like a bad Dragonball Z episode.
“Somehow, your spirit is channelling something that isn’t chi… something that I can’t sense or even understand. Something that your body is rejecting. You’ve tapped into a force I’ve never even heard mention of before, and if you continue to tap into it… it will tear you apart.”
Ukyou and Aaron thought back and forth furiously for a fraction of a second. To Tofu, they would have just looked thoughtful and distant. “Can I cut it off?”
“I don’t know…” Tofu said. “I don’t even know what caused it, or what it is.”
“Can I push it out?” Ukyou hissed, determination filling her voice. “Excise it? Like a tumor? Is there some way you can slice it out of my soul?”
“What? I’m not sure what you mean…”
“Nothing… I… nevermind…”
“Ukyou… I just wanted to tell you for now, that you can’t use that energy like you would chi. It’s dangerous.”
Yet he didn’t say we couldn’t use it, just that we couldn’t use it like chi, Aaron thought before she could stop him.
“Ono… I think I need to tell you something now,” Ukyou sighed. “It may help you-” Ukyou cut herself off in mid-sentence. Aaron had sensed something. He had been pushed to the back of her mind so much, that his attunement with her senses had perhaps become deeper than her own. Ukyou snaked a hand into her trenchcoat and waited for him to spot it again. Tofu went silent, sensing the sudden tension in the air as easily as she did.
“There!” Ukyou shouted, releasing a spatula towards the flitting shadow in the nearby bushes. There was a meaty thunk as the metal collided with something fleshy, followed by a bizarre squeal of pain. Ukyou shot to her feet. Her long strides carried her to the bushes before the squeal had even died down. She flicked her hand out, grabbed something small and rubbery within the shadows, and dragged it into the light.
“An octopus?” Ukyou blinked.
The creature in her hand was about the size of a human head. It looked like nothing so much as one of those monsters from the Zelda games… then it clicked.
“HAYATO!” Ukyou shouted and held the animal up in the air. “I know you aren’t far away! Come out and face me in the open!”
“What’s going on?” Tofu had risen to his feet. His face had become pinched and his eyes flickered around the park. Was he afraid?
“Some jerk is trying to be cute…” Ukyou growled. Damn that bastard for showing up now. Ukyou had hoped to have… a good twenty or thirty volumes worth of time before she even needed to think about him. “Hayato, if you don’t come out, I swear I’m going to make sushi out of your pet.” Ukyou was not in the mood to deal with him. She had enough problems on her own. Plus… Tofu had sounded like he might be onto a breakthrough.
“You can put Patoratsyu down now,” an unfamiliar voice told her coldly.
Ukyou spun on her heels. Somehow Hayato had managed to appear in the centre of the park without her noticing. Her eyes narrowed. Once she could see him, the image clicked in Aaron’s memory. Parka-like shirt, bulky pants, giant takoyaki-balling awl/screwdriver thing and, of course, that stupid kiddie octopus mask all became instantly familiar.
“You still haven’t taken that stupid thing off, I see.” Ukyou sighed and tossed the octopus across the air towards him. Hayato snapped out one hand and easily caught his pet. The thing shivered in his grasp as Hayato soothed it with calm strokes of his hands before placing it on his shoulder. Once placed, the thing started glaring at Ukyou. How on earth did octopi glare?
“I see you remember our battle,” the boy hissed in a peculiar, vaguely muffled voice. “Which is good, because I have been forced to think about it every day since then!”
“Actually you haven’t, you’re just an idiot who takes childhood promises too seriously and…” Ukyou trailed off.
“You just don’t understand what I’ve been through,” Hayato told her. He shifted his stance, spinning the giant awl from his back and pointing its tip at her. “This is about more than a promise now!”
“Whatever,” Ukyou sighed. She eased herself into a fighting stance. “Let’s get this over with, then…” Ukyou knew that this wasn’t really a problem. She’d throw the match to him, let him get his revenge and that would be the end of that.
“Heh. Not today, Kuonji.” Hayato spun his weapon back into its harness. “I don’t want anyone to think I swindled you out of victory because you weren’t ready for me. I’m sure the ‘hero of Narita’ isn’t afraid of making this match… a little more public?”
Ukyou frowned. What did she care about losing? She had never asked to be glorified in the press, or by anyone else. So why did the thought of throwing the match to him in public make her stomach quiver uncomfortably?
“Fine, name the time and place and I’ll be there,” Ukyou grunted.
Ryouga finally stopped running when he felt the asphalt turn to grass under his feet. He opened his eyes, looking around, hoping for the first time in his life that he was lost. There were trees and the sky was dark with clouds. It was threatening rain. His umbrella… it was gone. Lost somewhere between meeting her and… and…
“NO! It didn’t happen!”
Ryouga fell to his knees. He needed to think. His hands gripped at his temples, fingernails digging uncomfortably into his scalp. Maybe the pain would clear his mind, let him focus.
But every time he tried to think back, his mind kept flashing to that face. That battered face, staring at him with horror and shame. Could he have really…
No. Ryouga didn’t… couldn’t think of himself like that. He wasn’t a monster. He was a victim, but he was a good person despite that. Sure, Ranma had ruined his life, and that guy Ukyou had been dicking around with him and he was angry about that and he knew that he tended to underestimate his own strength… but he couldn’t have!
Ryouga looked up. He had heard the first few drops of rain falling to the ground. The sun had fallen, and now the skies would weep. Maybe it would feel better, to be an animal for a little bit. Just like when he had been fighting Ranma and…
The fight. The fight this morning. Ryouga had finally returned to Nerima and found Ranma. He had been so excited. He could feel his heart race at the very thought of the battle. It always felt so good to be filled with the righteous anger. The anger that cleansed away fear and doubt and sadness. And it was so easy to give into it because it was so right. You didn’t have to think. You just had to be RIGHT.
Then the fight had turned against him. Ranma had been so fast! He was mocking Ryouga, taunting him as he slipped through Ryouga’s guard and away from his best strikes. Ryouga had felt a deep thrill run through his body at that time. The thrill of battle against a superior opponent, he guessed. But then there had been that voice in the back of his mind, the voice that sounded mysteriously like Ranma’s friend.
(“If you lose this fight, that’s it.”)
But Ryouga knew that even if he lost, Ranma wasn’t that far beyond him. Maybe he could train, come back stronger and faster and better overall…
(“If you do that, everyone will know your secret.”)
And that had been it. The turning point. Because if Ryouga lost his fight with Ranma, there would be no second chance. There would be only humiliation and then… what? Beyond that… what?
So Ryouga had fallen through a wall, and spotted a small trickle of water. A single, thoughtless, action later and Ryouga had vanished. How could he be expected to fight as a pig? Obviously the fight was over, but there had been no victor. He could challenge again, later, when he was better. He had thought to himself at the time that it had been an accident, a lucky break.
But he knew it hadn’t been. He had deliberately reached out, he had deliberately vanished. He had run away.
He had run away, because losing was unacceptable.
If he was capable of that… what else was he capable of?
The downpour came and Ryouga barely noticed the change. He crawled out of the puddle of his clothes. He wasn’t even sure where he had gotten them. All he could remember was the girl, Nabiki… her name was Nabiki. All he could remember was the look on Nabiki’s face and the fact that he had woken up… excited. Then everything was a blur. Somehow he had run away, gotten dressed, arrived here.
But he couldn’t run away from his own conscience. The longer he sat there, on top of the soaked pile of clothing, feeling the heavy drops pound into his skin, the more convinced he became that he really had done that. He couldn’t remember it. He couldn’t even think about it. He must have lost control, like he had sometimes lost his temper. Except this time someone had been hurt.
Well… Ryouga wasn’t going to live as an animal. Even if he looked like one. He was a human being. He would find her. He would apologise. He would accept whatever punishment she and society deemed necessary. There was no forgiving what he had done… but Ryouga wasn’t going to let himself run from it either.
Setting his eyes in what he hoped was the direction of Nerima, Ryouga began to walk.
Pink sat in the bushes, watching with interest as Chris twitched. She had observed the dead girl fairly closely in the week they’d been together. This was partially for self-preservation purposes: the existence of one undead body-swapper implied there might well be more, and Pink wanted to have a more reliable method of detecting such irksomely poison-resistant creatures than the paleness of their skin.
One of the more noticeable things Pink had observed was the dead girl’s lack of unnecessary movements. No blinking (except when surprised) she had expected, as well as the lack of breathing at any time Chris wasn’t actually speaking. But those could be easily faked by a savvy undead. The other strange behaviour – or lack of it, more accurately – seemed more promising. Chris didn’t MOVE like a living being. A normal person would cough, fidget, tap their foot, shiver, or twitch their fingers… any of a thousand little unconscious movements. Chris, however, did none of those. When she stood, she was truly, unnaturally still, with only a slight movement of the air through her long black hair distinguishing her from a statue.
But not now. The dead girl couldn’t seem to stop moving: shrugging her shoulders repeatedly, shifting her sitting position, and clenching and unclenching her hands. It looked as if she had an itch deep inside and couldn’t scratch it.
Hmm. So the dead couldn’t be poisoned, but COULD be made uncomfortable. Pink considered what sort of plant could take advantage of that. Perhaps something to create an irritating powder? No, she remembered Chris saying something about how physical sensations were dulled for her. So she’d need to go to the source somehow, accelerate the rotting process. That would take some experimentation. She wondered if there were many rats or domestic animals on the loose in Tokyo.
Putting that thought aside for the moment, she looked at Chris again. The three of them were hidden in a copse of trees on a small hillock overlooking the street. Chris, for all her fidgeting, appeared to be intently focused on watching the road, a somewhat disturbing sight with her milky white corpse-eyes.
“I’m curious, over,” Pink said in a low voice.
She couldn’t see the eyes move, of course, but the undead’s head turned in her direction. “This person we’ve come for,” Pink continued. “Who is it, over?”
“That’s a pretty ghoulish question,” Chris gurgled. Her voice was getting worse. She sounded like someone choking to death on noxious fumes. Pink giggled a little at the thought. Too late.
“No more ghoulish than what we’re here to do, over,” she responded, still smiling.
“Touché,” replied Chris. Pink blinked. What language was that? French? Before she could ask, the dead girl continued. “Well, I’d have had to tell you sooner or later. The person we’re waiting for is a man named Sentarou Daimonji.”
“A man?” Link said, turning suddenly to face them. “Why a man? What were you when you were alive, over?”
“I was also male,” Chris said. “Not that it matters much now.”
“I suppose not,” Pink said. “So, this guy… does he have a nice house too, over?”
“As it turns out, yes,” Chris replied. “But it doesn’t matter, since we won’t be staying there.”
“Why not, over?”
The dead girl – boy – waved his hand. “It’s dangerous there. Not so much for me, but I wouldn’t want to put you two in any danger. Don’t worry, I’ll make sure we’re set up properly.”
Pink noticed Link had once again turned away, looking intently at one of the trees. Her stance was stiff and cold; Pink could tell her sister was even less happy knowing their ally was actually male. But it wouldn’t be a problem. She turned back to the undead. “So how’d you pick this Daimonji guy, over?”
Chris shrugged. “I knew how to find him, and he fit my criteria.”
“So he’s an evil person, over?”
“Yes, he is,” Chris said. He paused a moment, as if thinking. “He’s ruthless and amoral, with no care for anyone in the world but himself. He’d kill his own fiancée without hesitation, just because he saw a girl he liked more.”
“Sounds like scum,” Pink agreed. “I’ve been thinking about that. If it’s only evil people that you’re willing to kill… why don’t you just let us kill Shampoo, and then take her body, over?”
“I have my reasons.”
“And what are they?” Pink smiled. “Shampoo is just as evil as these people, right, over?”
Chris smiled slightly. “Possibly, but beside the point. No Shampoo-killing on my watch. That was the deal, after all. Besides,” he noted, leaning back, “killing her, while no doubt satisfying, is a poor repayment for years of suffering, isn’t it? Think about it. After you do it, what then? It’s over, and you’ve taken years of torment and exchanged it for a few minutes. When it comes down to it, wouldn’t it be more satisfying – more RIGHT – if she had to go on, a proud warrior having to live with the shame of knowing she’d been beaten?”
“Yes, yes, you’ve given us that line before. Sounds marvellous, until Shampoo comes back and beats us up, over,” Link groused.
The corner of Chris’ mouth quirked. “Yes, well, we’ll see about that. At least you’re safe with me around.” Link made an inarticulate growl, but Chris smoothly continued, “Plus there’s those mitamas you’re interested in. I can help you with those, remember.”
Link glowered, but fell silent. Pink decided she’d have to have a talk with her sister. At first her irrational hate for their ally had been amusing, but now it was starting to become annoying. It was as if Link wanted to drive Chris away. Wanted to, when he was providing them such a service for essentially nothing! Link needed to remember what was important; then she’d come around.
Pink stared at Chris speculatively, watching the dead man in the female body shudder and twitch. Why WAS he so set against killing Shampoo? He didn’t seem to object to classifying her with the other ‘evil’ people he selected as victims, so what was saving her?
Her musing was interrupted by a commotion from down the street; people shouting in surprise and alarm, and some sort of repetitive clicking sound Pink couldn’t quite place. Chris’s head snapped to the side, the dead eyes narrowing. “At last,” he breathed.
Chris stepped to the edge of the trees. His movements, despite the condition of his stolen body, were once more fluid and graceful; the twitching had vanished. As Pink moved up behind him, the reason for the noises and the shouts become apparent: there was a rider on a horse barrelling full-speed down the street, forcing pedestrians to leap out of the way.
As the rider drew near, Chris held up a small cloth pouch. Just as the rider passed below them, Chris hurled the pouch. Pink saw the man on the horse suddenly look up towards them, but he was too late to react as the projectile struck the ground in front of them. Instantly both man and beast were enveloped in a thick cloud of noxious green smoke. As it cleared, she saw both bodies sprawled on the pavement, unmoving.
Chris wasted no time in slashing out with Kodachi’s ribbon. The long strip of cloth wrapped around one of the fallen man’s arms, and a single yank sent him flying towards them. As the unconscious man hit the ground, Chris quickly dragged him into the copse of trees, which gave Pink a chance to get her first good look at him.
Sentarou Daimonji (or so she assumed) was a young Japanese man, fairly tall, fairly handsome, not outstanding in either respect. He wore old-fashioned Japanese clothing and sandals, and his plain black hair was in a bowl cut. His eyes were closed, and he appeared to be sleeping deeply.
“Why put him to sleep?” she asked the undead. “Just poisoning him in the first place would have made more sense, over.”
Chris shook his head. “That only makes more sense if I’m willing to risk poisoning any bystanders, not to mention the horse. This was safer.”
Pink shrugged. “Whatever. So now what, over?”
Chris reached into a pocket of his jacket and retrieved a small, opaque bottle. “You should know,” he said shortly.
Pink watched with keen interest as Chris opened Sentarou’s mouth, unscrewed the top of the bottle, and carefully poured the liquid inside. Holding the unconscious boy’s nose and mouth shut, the undead then massaged his throat until he swallowed. Then he sat back, expression unreadable, and waited.
It only took a few moments before Sentarou began convulsing. Chris watched this for a second, then suddenly swore (in English, how odd) and whipped his leather jacket off, shoving one sleeve into Sentarou’s mouth. “Won’t do me much good if the tongue’s bitten off,” the undead said, mostly to himself.
All told, it took about two minutes. Pink was impressed – a normal human would have been dead in under fifteen seconds. Chris hadn’t exaggerated about the resiliency of these ‘martial arts death machines’. The dead man-in-woman’s-body crouched grimly over his victim, holding down the spasming limbs and keeping the jacket shoved firmly in his mouth. The unconscious man’s flailing, Pink noted, knocked several large gouts of earth from the ground. Chris had picked well. Despite his unassuming appearance, this Sentarou was obviously formidable.
Then, all of a sudden, it was over. Chris seemed to know instantly when death occurred, stepping back and releasing Sentarou even as the boy was still twitching. He removed the jacket from the mouth; Pink noted idly that it had teeth marks embedded deeply in it and was flecked with foam.
Pink felt… strange. Of course, she’d tested out many deadly plants and poisons before, but Link was just as assiduous in using her medicines and cures to save those victims. Aside from the odd small animal, this was the first time one of her lethal creations had been permitted to run its natural course.
This was the first time Pink had watched a human being die.
Standing there, looking down at the corpse, she felt somehow distant, detached, as if her feet were a hundred miles away, and she was staring down from the clouds. She couldn’t see Link, but could feel her presence, her closeness, strangely strongly. She had to know what happened. A tingling ran through Pink’s limbs, electric, as if she was awaking from sleep. All of it, the confused mix of feelings rushing, the sensations, made Pink feel almost light-headed. She wondered what Chris felt like when he killed someone. Was it like this?
And just as that thought crossed her mind, Chris collapsed in a heap, like a puppet whose strings had been cut. Except that was no longer Chris, but Kodachi, for at that moment Sentarou’s eyes snapped open and he sat up. The corpse wrapped his arms around himself, closing his eyes again, whispering a quick, fast mantra to himself. “Ohgodohgodohgodohgod…” The language was English, again.
“Are you all right, over?” she asked. Chris seemed to be… something. Upset? Relieved? The dead man opened his new eyes once more and looked at her, but as usual, there was nothing to be read in his gaze.
“Better than fine, really,” he said. The new voice was somewhat high-pitched for a man, but not unpleasant, especially compared to the sickly wetness of moments before. “It feels so… solid. So real. I didn’t realise how far, I mean, I didn’t realise how empty it was…” he shuddered, then quickly stood up and moved his arms and legs experimentally. “But I’m fine now. This worked great, thank you.”
Pink heard the sharp intake of breath from her sister, saw her spine stiffen. She could almost feel the wave of anger flow hot, as if Link was glaring at her back instead of facing resolutely away. Pink ignored it. There was no reason for her sister to be upset. She’d just indebted their ally to them a little further, that was all.
Smiling secretly to herself, Pink turned back to Chris. “So what do we do now, over?”
“Well, first, I’m going to have to deal with Kodachi,” he said, glancing down at the crumpled corpse.
“Why bother?” asked Pink. “Just leave her here for the police to find, over.”
Chris shook his head. “They’d investigate. And Kodachi’s been actually dead for so long, and yet still walking around… I don’t know what they would do, but it’s probably best avoided. Besides…” he paused, and then spoke in a softer tone, “It’s kinder to her brother this way. More practically, it’ll hopefully ensure that he doesn’t come looking for us.”
“You mean he’d come looking for US,” Link noted acidly, still not looking at them. “He wouldn’t have any reason to be looking for ‘Sentarou’, over.”
Chris sighed. “True, but on the very off-chance that ever happens, go ahead and tell him the truth, and then he can come for me.”
Pink laughed. “I doubt it’ll be a problem. That idiot couldn’t track anyone down. Besides, he only knows our names, over.”
“You’d be surprised how persistent people here can be,” Chris noted, then shrugged. “But I agree, it probably won’t be a problem.” Kneeling down, he scooped up his former body, placing the jacket over her staring eyes. “Thanks for your help, by the way.”
“No problem, over,” Pink said, and almost rolled her eyes as her sister spun to face her. Of course, Link knew it already, but this confirmation seemed to have enraged her even further. “What is it, Link, over?”
“You… you HELPED this…”
“Correction,” Pink broke in. “Chris was looking for a suitable agent that would not harm the body, but could deal with someone this strong, over.” She held up a hand to forestall Link’s response. “Sister. He would have died anyway. All this did was make it quicker and safer. And the better shape the new body is in, the longer until he needs another one. Everyone wins, over.”
Her sister didn’t have a reply to that, turning away again. Pink smiled at her back. All this protest was silly. There was no question of being more or less deeply involved with this. Once they had agreed to take the undead’s help, and help him in turn, they’d become involved. The reward was worth it.
Link would realise that. Sooner or later.
“It would be hard to find a more excited crowd then the one that has gathered here today. The entire student body of Furinkan High School must have come to this deserted construction site to witness what will surely be an epic struggle between two lifelong, bitter rivals.
“Awaiting the challenger is none other than Ukyou Kuonji, the hero of Narita. He stands in the centre of the site, away from all the crowds. His friends and proteges, Ranma and Akane, also wait along with the others…”
“Protege?” Ranma snapped at Ran. “What do you mean, protege?”
“It means you’re his student and stuff like that,” Ran explained carefully as she waved her tape recorder at him. “Now shush, I’m trying to write a story.”
Akane giggled at Ran’s teasing. Doctor Tofu just sighed and adjusted his glasses. Akane was standing next to him, just enjoying his presence. Even if he barely noticed hers.
“But I’m not really Ukyou’s student!” Ranma protested. “I’m actually the better fighter!”
“Whatever you say, stud,” Ran giggled.
“No, really, watch!” Ranma picked up a I-beam and threw it into the air. “I’ll break this thing in half with one punch!”
“NO! Don’t kill me!” The I-beam pleaded.
“Huh?” Ranma blinked and stopped dead. That was when the beam landed on his foot. Ranma’s eyes bugged out as it toppled off him. Seconds later he was hopping around, clutching his foot and howling.
“Impressive,” Ran deadpanned. But Akane could see the twinkle in her eye.
“You jerk, you scared me half to death!” the I-beam complained. Akane gave it a level glare, but could see Ran glancing at it curiously. Seconds later Ran’s curiosity was answered as Tsubasa unzipped himself from his newest costume. Ran took the scene of a cute young ‘girl’ climbing out of a giant metal bar rather well, Akane thought.
“Uh… who are you?” Ran asked, thrusting her recorder into Tsubasa’s face. “And how did you do that?”
“Ohhh… you’re with the press!” Tsubasa cried happily, his face looking much too cute to ever be mistaken for a guy’s.
“I…” Tsubasa cleared his throat and posed dramatically with one foot on the pile of I-beams. “I am the one and only true love of Ukyou Kuonji.” He drew a microphone out of somewhere and began to talk into it. “The lovely and talented master of disguise, and the only person worthy of Ukyou’s heart: I am Tsubasa Kurenai!” Tsubasa paused, then pulled the recorder from Ran’s suddenly nerveless fingers. “Take that, Usagi! I got here first! Nanny nanny poo poo!”
“Give me that!” Ran shouted, snapping the recorder from Tsubasa’s hand. “I recognise you now, from the fight at Narita…”
“That’s right!” Tsubasa tried to wrestle the recorder from Ran’s hand again, which was turning out to be more difficult than it looked. “You see I, unlike certain blonde-haired bimbos, am willing to fight beside my one true love!”
“Get off!” Ran shouted, trying to dislodge Tsubasa with one foot while viciously clinging to her recorder with both hands. Veins were bulging in her forehead and her teeth were grinding together. “What are you, a lunatic?”
“I won’t let go until you agree to print my interview verbatim!”
“This isn’t an interview, this is assault and theft!”
Akane turned her attention from the impending catfight back to Ranma, who had returned. He shook his head. “Man, this place just keeps getting nuttier.”
“No kidding.” Akane sighed. “You should see this guy Hayato; he’s even loonier than Tsubasa.”
“Hey, I resent that remark!”
“Stop shouting into it! You’ll ruin the mic!”
“Children, if you don’t stop you’ll hurt each other,” Doctor Tofu pleaded.
“Whatever. I bet I could beat this jerk Hayato with one hand tied behind my back.” Ranma grumbled and crossed his arms. Ukyou looked up sharply at the mention of Hayato’s name. Akane nodded to her, and Ukyou barely acknowledged her presence. Akane still hadn’t found a chance to talk to her. Doctor Tofu had told her about the fight this morning, and that Ukyou was back at the clinic… but Akane hadn’t had the time to get away from school until now. Ranma would have, but he had spent the day hiding in the school from his mother.
“Oh yeah,” a guy that Akane vaguely recognised from her class called from nearby. “Prove it, Saotome!”
“Nah,” Ranma waved his hand dismissively. “This is Ukyou’s fight. I wouldn’t even think of stepping in.”
“So you think Ukyou’s going to win?” Ran asked in her ‘reporter voice’.
“Of course,” Ranma chuckled, leaning back against a pile of I-beams. “I’ve had my doubts about Ukyou’s fighting spirit since we met each other again. But back at Narita, s… he was the only one still fighting. There is a strength in Ukyou I don’t even think he realises he has. I don’t just think Ukyou will win, I know it. I believe in Ukyou.”
Akane could only stare at Ranma. Ran was also speechless, unable to do anything but move her tape recorder away from him. He was staring across the site, straight into the eyes of Ukyou. Akane could see the young woman’s face had gone slack. She had heard every word he said. And it had hit her like a physical blow. Why?
“Are you ready?”
Everyone looked up to see a large figure standing on the second story of the skeletal construction. The angle of the sunlight was just perfect to cast his face into shadow, except for the gleam off the tiny eyeholes in his mask. In one hand he carried his strange awl-like weapon, and on the other hand he supported his pet octopus.
Ukyou stood beneath him for a long time. She was dressed for battle, her legs clad in loose denim slacks, her body wrapped in the rippling folds of her trenchcoat. Her long hair billowed gently behind her in the stiff breeze, and her bangs fell forward, covering her eyes. She wasn’t even looking up at him. Instead her gaze seemed fixed on some invisible point between her feet.
“I don’t have all day,” Hayato growled. “The only reason I brought all these people here was so that your defeat could be as humiliating as you made mine!”
“I’m ready to fight,” Ukyou said in a soft voice that carried surprisingly well. When she looked up, her expression was hard and cold. She reached behind her and pulled out a long wooden staff, taller than her. Akane had never seen Ukyou with such a weapon before, and briefly wondered where Ukyou had acquired it. “I have friends who believe in me. I’m ready to fight you with everything I have.” The air whined as Ukyou spun her staff in a tight circle before gripping it behind her back. Her free hand came up and she gestured in the universal signal for “come on” at her opponent.
“About time,” Hayato grumbled. He lowered his arm and let his pet crawl away to safety before leaping down in front of Ukyou. His stance was strange, not quite like anything Akane had ever seen before. There was a flash as Ran documented the moment. “You don’t stand a chance, Ukyou. I know exactly how to defeat you!”
“Just shut up and attack me,” Ukyou growled.
So he did.
Akane gasped as Hayato sprinted across the dirt towards Ukyou. The girl barely brought up her staff in time to deflect his first three strikes and couldn’t reverse her parry fast enough to avoid the third. A meaty smack echoed across the construction yard as Ukyou was propelled into the air. The crowd sat in silence for a second, then erupted in a chorus of cheers.
The only ones not cheering the battle were herself, Ranma, Ran… and one other. Across the yard Akane could just see Nabiki standing on the edge of the crowd. But then she vanished from Akane’s thoughts as the din of battle drew her attention back to Ukyou.
Somehow Ukyou had recovered and was now dancing along the girders, Hayato in hot pursuit. Akane could see that he was taking two meters for every meter she travelled – there was no way Ukyou could get away. Akane turned to ask Ran what she thought, only to find the girl gone. A quick scan showed that she had leapt up to the second story herself, her body spinning acrobatically, camera flashing nearly continuously as she did.
“Happiyaku Randa!” Hayato screamed as his hand flashed. A swarm of tiny balls streaked through the air at Ukyou, threatening to catch her in mid-leap. Ukyou only smirked and kicked out, catching a beam and bouncing clear. Akane blinked as the balls drilled dents into the thick steel girders. Ukyou didn’t even give them a second glance before landing on the third story of the building to be.
Hayato hesitated for a moment, then leapt to join her. He shifted his grip on his weapon, clutching it by the needle-thin point. He landed and began to swing it like a mace. Ukyou backflipped, avoiding each strike by a hair’s breadth. Metallic clangs echoed across the yard as his misses knocked welts into the I-beams.
“We better get moving,” Ranma sighed as he leapt up. “We’ll miss everything unless we keep up!”
“Hey! Wait for me!” Akane frowned. He knew damn well she couldn’t leap that well.
“Hurry up, Akane,” Ran called down as she sprinted after the departing fighters. Akane could hear the crowd moan and whine in disappointment. Well, she wasn’t going to hang around to bear the brunt of their complaining. Sighing, Akane adjusted the weights on her arms and jumped… only to land easily on the second story. “Stop looking so shocked,” Ran called back as she continued to pursue the battle.
“Uh… right,” Akane mumbled. It was only a second before she caught up with everyone else. Ukyou and Hayato were now fencing back and forth on the third level.
“You can’t run away!” Hayato shouted as he drilled his needle at Ukyou. Ukyou only smirked and faded to the right. The dodge took her feet off the beam, but she just let herself drop. A quick flip of her staff and it caught firmly between two beams. Ukyou spun, looping around her weapon like a gymnast and launched herself airborne again. Hayato had already leapt down to pursue her. Akane almost regretted not being able to see his expression when her feet rocketed into his gut.
“What’s the matter, Hayato?” Ukyou called as she landed easily on the fourth story of the building. This level was only half-completed, and huge gaps existed between several of the upright beams. Hayato had still managed to land on one of them. He crouched there, clutching his gut and glaring at her through his mask. “Afraid I might leave the site, and take away your advantage?”
“W-what?” the boy shouted.
“You don’t think I didn’t know your plan?” Ukyou sneered. “You knew I was at a disadvantage here, that’s why you set the fight in this site.”
“I see…” Hayato chuckled. “You saw through my plan. But you still can’t win. I’ve spent eight years studying your style! You can’t possibly defeat me!”
Hayato exploded from his perch. His needle drove towards Ukyou’s chest, and she casually snapped her bo to intercept. Hayato crowed in triumph and twisted his weapon, spinning it so fast Akane only saw a blur. Ukyou’s staff spun with it, and for a moment Akane thought the spin had wrenched it out of her hands. But Ukyou didn’t look like she had been caught off-guard. In fact, she was already dropping to her knees and driving a perfect sweep into Hayato’s unguarded shins.
“NO!” Hayato shouted as his balance left him. He released his needle, and grabbed desperately for the beam. His hands grabbed it just seconds before Ukyou finished her second rotation, swinging her other leg up into his face.
The retort of her foot driving into his mask echoed in the silence of the yard for a second. Then Hayato started shouting in pain as he flew across the site. Still he managed to right himself and land on his feet instead of dropping four stories to the ground. Ukyou was already leaping down, retrieving her bo staff before it clattered to the floor.
“Go Ukyou!” Akane shouted. She had landed next to Ranma, but could see him looking on with a frown on his face. “Hey, what’s the matter, Ranma?”
“Huh? Oh… nothing…” Ranma mumbled in distraction.
“How…?” Hayato adjusted his mask as he began to walk towards Ukyou. “I know all your moves…”
“You knew the moves I used ten years ago, idiot,” Ukyou chuckled. “Did you really think I wouldn’t improve in the meantime?”
“I guess I underestimated you,” Hayato called back. Akane could hear the smirk in his voice. “Then this time, no fancy tricks!”
Akane could only barely follow as Hayato sprinted across the beams towards Ukyou. She met him, blocking a flurry of punches and kicks with her nimble staff. Akane cheered. Ukyou was holding her own, even beating him back!
Then Ukyou rocketed back, her body going limp until it collided perfectly with a horizontal beam behind her. Hayato was left standing, his fist extended from his punch. He drew back his hand even as Ukyou slid down to sit straddling another I-beam. Hayato was massaging his knuckles.
“We should step in, Ukyou’s in trouble,” Doctor Tofu said, startling Akane with his proximity.
“What? But she’s doing so well…” Akane responded.
“No, watch the fight. Ukyou’s just… weaker than Hayato,” Tofu answered softly. Akane turned to Ranma, but she could see him staring intently at the battle. His fingers quivered, wanting desperately to form into the fists that he was refusing to let them. “Hayato is faster and tougher; stronger, too, from the looks of it.”
“You’re wrong,” Akane hissed back. “Ranma just said that he knows Ukyou can win.”
“Ranma doesn’t know what I know,” Doctor Tofu informed her. “She could win. But her heart isn’t in this battle. She’s not willing to risk what it would take to achieve victory. And that’s a good thing.”
“I hope you’re wrong, Doc,” Ranma muttered. Nearby, Ran only took pictures. But her expression was worried too.
Ukyou leapfrogged over Hayato’s kick. Her staff sung through the air. Its arc should have connected with Hayato’s temple. Somehow, he blocked with one forearm, leaving the other arm free to grab her ankle. The world flashed and spun as he threw her towards the ground. Aaron regained his balance before her, and turned a potential face-first crash into a merely painful feet-first collision. They’d managed to hold onto their staff, however.
Acting on instinct, Ukyou rolled forward. The ground gave off an almost musical crash behind her. Aaron could feel Hayato, like a breath of hot air, turning to strike them. Ukyou flattened them against the ground and felt something heavy pass through her hair. Their foe had retrieved his needle-like weapon, it seemed.
Ukyou handsprung backward, hoping to catch Hayato off-guard. She almost did. Her foot connected with his chest, but it didn’t drive him from his feet. Bouncing off his rock–hard muscle, Ukyou spun in the air to land a few meters away, facing him.
Hayato wasn’t taunting now. His needle came in fast and often. Its vicious metal point scraped the fabric of her coat as she backpedalled furiously. Her counterstrike drove Hayato back. He backflipped away as a cloud of dust billowed in the wake of Ukyou’s slash.
Unwilling to surrender more of the momentum, Ukyou charged. Aaron had trained with the staff, and Ukyou knew the fundamentals from her own polearm techniques. That was the reason they had paused to purchase this weapon before the fight. It had been a strange impulse, considering that until Ranma had made his speech they had been planning on throwing this fight. But now she was just as glad she had given into that impulse.
Hayato was now on the defensive. The synergy of her and Aaron’s skill was something Ukyou could draw on. It allowed her to spin the weapon about her and strike from odd and deceptive angles. Again and again she seemed committed to an attack, only to halt the motion with one of her own limbs and suddenly reverse it back at him. The staff bent and warped like a piece of rubber in her grip and Hayato’s cumbersome needle could barely keep up.
But it WAS keeping up.
Ukyou knew she wasn’t getting anywhere three seconds into her assault. When her arms began to tire and the breath in her lungs began to burn, she knew she had to change tactics. But she couldn’t think of anything else to do. Hayato knew all her okonomiyaki-based tricks, and had trained for years specifically to defeat them. Aaron was no help, his vaunted tactical expertise having failed them.
He was too fast to catch! Maybe… maybe with Aaron’s chi supplementing her own Ukyou could meet or exceed his speed. But it wasn’t worth it. It was just Hayato. Even if she lost, it was just humiliation that awaited her. So what if she disappointed Ranma? Killing herself to defeat one man was not a good bargain.
When Ukyou made her first clean miss, Hayato punished her with a vicious thrust to the gut. Even as pain exploded through her brain Ukyou was grateful she had forced him to switch to his blunt end. Her face and side screamed and burned as she was sent skidding across the dirt.
Ukyou clawed into the ground, dragging herself to a stop. She was already rolling to her feet as she did, and thus avoided a swarm of takoyaki balls. Unthinkingly she snapped her hands into her pocket and flung some of her spatulas in return. She didn’t even see how Hayato dodged them, she just assumed he did. Even as she threw, she turned her roll into a backflip.
The world spun as she arced up into the second story. The metal she landed on quivered. She couldn’t see anything except the stretch of the girders in all directions. Then Aaron felt her danger sense twitch in the back of her neck and she ducked.
A second later she was tumbling forward to the ground. As she did she saw Hayato with his needle jammed into the girder she had been standing on. The veins in his neck bulged as he tried to withdraw it. He was vulnerable!
Acting on impulse, Ukyou swung her staff in a tight circle and flicked it towards him. The bo spun in the air like a buzzsaw. Hayato gasped a millisecond before it collided with his face. Ukyou smirked in victory. Thankfully Aaron had the presence of mind to finish their tumble and land feet first on the hard-packed dirt.
Hayato was plummeting in front of them, stunned by the face shot. Ukyou could see their weapons tumbling just behind him. She dashed forward, ignoring her weapons, hoping to catch him still vulnerable. She saw his face jerk in her direction too late, and his kick caught her dead in the chest.
Ukyou stopped cold. The air had been driven from her lungs and her breasts had exploded in agony. Hayato wasn’t finished. He caught her chin with a simple but effective haymaker. Ukyou collapsed, flashing stars blurring everything out of her vision. Somehow she found the presence of mind to roll away. All she needed was a few moments to catch her breath. Just a few moments!
Amazingly, she found them. Ukyou blinked the stars from her eyes, and gulped air until her lungs felt steady. She rose to her crouch; then, using a beam for support, fully to her feet. She even managed to pull herself into a competent stance once the world stopped rocking underneath her.
“I’m very impressed, Ukyou,” Hayato called from behind her. She turned around to face him. He had retrieved his weapon and stood with it balanced on his shoulder, samurai style. Ukyou narrowed her eyes, able to see her own staff lying in the dirt at his feet. “You want this?” Hayato nodded his head towards it. Ukyou paused, unsure how to react. “Have it.”
Hayato kicked the weapon into the air and Ukyou caught it just before it collided with her. She spun it a few times and then settled herself down with one tip pointed straight at him.
“Thank you,” Ukyou said sincerely.
“It won’t matter,” Hayato replied with a chuckle. “You fight with it like an amateur!” Ukyou felt anger rising in her chest. “In fact, this style you are using now… you’re even more sloppy with it than you are with your old one!”
“If the only reason you stopped was to make fun of me, we might as well begin fighting again,” Ukyou growled.
“I’m not making fun of you,” Hayato switched to an aggressive stance. “I’m just honestly curious about why you would abandon your art. I thought your family’s art meant something to you. I thought this fight was about a noble dedication to your fighting and your cooking. But you have abandoned that.”
“Abandoned…” Ukyou gasped. “I haven’t abandoned my cooking! It’s still my dream to open an okonomiyaki restaurant!”
“Is it?” Hayato cocked his head to the side. “Maybe it is, but you certainly don’t have the respect for it you once did! I bet your cooking is terrible.”
Ukyou felt her knuckles straining as she gripped her staff tightly. How dare he! What did he know about her life? He couldn’t judge her and her dedication to cooking! She loved cooking. She just… hadn’t had enough time to focus on it. It just… didn’t seem as important anymore.
“Listen, Hayato,” Ukyou strained out. She was getting angry, and she knew that probably wasn’t healthy. She pulled the rage back. Forced it down, deep into her soul and buried it. She didn’t want to lose her temper over this jerk. “Listen, Hayato,” she repeated much more calmly. “This fight is meaningless. I came here intending to throw it. It’s only about a stupid childish promise. I have no grudge with you, and you have no reason to fight me. If it makes you feel better, than consider this my submission. You win the fight. Now you can take off that stupid mask.”
Ukyou breathed a sigh of relief. She could see that her words had caught Hayato off-guard. He was standing there like a man who had just had just discovered his most trusted ideals were a pack of lies. Ukyou didn’t really care about what he thought. This fight was over. She wasn’t going to get beaten up anymore over it, and she couldn’t win. So why bother?
Ukyou turned away. She could see her friends gathered nearby now. Akane and Ran and Tsubasa and Tofu and, especially, Ranma. Ukyou wasn’t sure if that was disappointment or relief she saw on Ranma’s face. She wasn’t sure if it mattered. Either one struck her to the core. But she knew that it was pointless to continue. She wasn’t the hero. There was no need to win this battle. There was no point…
“FINE! Abandon your honour, you asshole!”
Ukyou glanced idly over her shoulder. Hayato had steadied his stance. Now his shoulders quivered and his head shook with rage. Ukyou could even see it, his aura, rippling lightly around his body, a deep and angry red.
“You’re right, I was stupid to come here. I was stupid because I expected to meet an honourable opponent! I thought you would be the same fighter who defeated me all those years ago. I thought you would be proud and dedicated and strong in your belief. I didn’t come here to challenge you just because I wanted to get rid of this mask!” Hayato jerked a thumb towards his face. “What do you think I am? A fool? Sure, every day I lived with this thing on my face was a year in hell. But I endured it! I endured because I believed that it reminded me that you were out there, ahead of me. I knew that when you defeated me that day, it was because you had achieved a higher level of commitment to your art than I had.
“How could I ever take this mask off, until I had achieved that same level of commitment? That same level of attunement to the essence of cooking and fighting that you had? I wore this mask because I respected you too much to ever take it off. Everyday I woke up with it on, I knew I had yet to exceed you. I respected you, I admired you… I think, a little bit, I wanted to be you. But I see that was a lie.”
Hayato’s voice had grown melancholy as he spoke. Ukyou could only stare at him. There was nothing like this from Aaron’s manga memories. There was no depth to Hayato beyond his joke and his fighting style. Was there?
“Seeing you like this… I know how pathetic you really are. You’re a fraud, Ukyou!” Ukyou staggered as if struck. Hayato’s voice contained so much menace. “The warrior I once knew is dead, if that Ukyou ever even existed.” Ukyou stared at him. Her mouth opened…
(Kodachi froze. “The Chris… you knew…” she repeated slowly. “Who’s the Chris you knew? Who the fuck ARE you?”)
“I AM UKYOU KUONJI!” Ukyou roared. She could feel her temper unravelling, slowly, like a fruit peel. And she didn’t care.
“You may be,” Hayato spat. “But you aren’t the person I grew up with. You’re a fraud, and an embarrassment to the memory of your ancestors.”
“SHUT UP!” Ukyou screamed, her voice cracking hoarse. Aaron moaned in the back of her mind. She could feel his anxiety, feel him getting wrapped up in her anger. He knew what was coming, but like Ukyou could do nothing to stop it. It was like watching a train wreck, unable to stop it, too horrified to turn away. She could feel darkness creeping in at the edge of her awareness…
“Don’t like to hear the truth?” Hayato said with a sneer in his voice. “Now you know how I feel. I believed in you, Ukyou, even as I hated you. Imagine how I feel, knowing that I spent my life dedicated to the defeat of a person who no longer exists.”
In the stories, when the hero finally snaps, finally loses all control, it is usually accompanied by words like ‘explosion’, or ‘inferno’ or even ‘break’. The hero usually feels that mental snap, like a twig cracking in their mind. Then it’s all screams and roars and bloody battle to the death.
But Ukyou was no hero.
She recognised this feeling. This odd disconnect that came over her. She couldn’t remember from where, but it must have been one of Aaron’s memories. It was like all her rage, her pain had been snuffed out at once, leaving only an icy emptiness. The world, her problems, everything… it was like they had suddenly become crystal clear. Everything seemed so simple, so small and pointless. Even Aaron’s presence, his incessant pressure in her brain, had been eased. He was still there, but it seemed like they were clashing less. Then she realised why… they were thinking less contrarily now. Not two minds in one, constantly battering thoughts and emotions and impulses off each other. Instead, it was like they were running along the same tracks now. Beyond the darkness, she felt suddenly free from anger and fear and pressure.
She liked it.
When Ukyou began to laugh, Hayato stopped cold. She dropped her eyes to the ground and closed them, still chuckling. What did she care what Hayato thought now? What did she care what anyone thought? Even Tofu. She could feel that place inside her now. The strange energy that she had called Aaron’s chi throbbed there. It seemed to be… resonating with her thoughts. With Aaron’s thoughts as well.
Hayato dodged Ukyou’s attack, but only barely. Her staff cut the air, shaving a few hairs from his head. Ukyou could see the air ripple, then break before the force of her attack. She stared, fascinated. The wind was ripping apart in front of her. It wasn’t some cheap special effect. It was the very air, parting for her strike!
Hayato thought she was vulnerable and stabbed his needle at her side. Aaron smoothly rolled their staff into position to block. Hayato was moving slower now; it was easy to deflect his attack. Even as he did so, Ukyou shifted her weight. Hayato stumbled, suddenly thrown off-balance as the staff was caught and released. Then Ukyou stepped behind him and elbowed him in the spine.
The boy’s feet floated off the ground, a bubble of dust blasting out in front of him as his body went limp. Aaron knew Hayato was going to fly forward any second, but before he did Aaron drove a vicious palm into his kidney. The palmstrike was like a cannon shot, and Hayato flashed across the construction yard. He crashed face-first into a horizontal beam, just like Aaron had planned.
She turned to see Tofu running towards them. His face was so concerned. Ukyou turned away from him and began to walk towards Hayato again. Aaron had seen him stirring. It looked like she would get to beat him up some more. She smiled at the thought.
“Ukyou, you have to stop using that power!” Tofu grabbed her shoulder. “It’ll kill you!”
“Remove your hand,” Ukyou informed Tofu coldly. “I have a fight to finish.” Hayato had already risen to his feet. Somehow he had managed to retain his hold on his weapon, and he was using it to brace himself.
“Ukyou, you have to stop… you’re already bleeding…”
Ukyou rubbed her lips with the back of her hand. The blood she saw smeared on her fist confirmed his statement. She couldn’t keep this up much longer. But everything was working now…
“Ukyou, if you keep using that non-chi you’ll kill yourself!”
“Thank you, Doctor,” Aaron said slowly, then removed Tofu’s hand. That was it. It wasn’t chi. They couldn’t use it like chi. In fact, they shouldn’t be able to use it like chi. Ukyou started them forward. She could see the anger and fear radiating from Hayato in waves.
Aaron concentrated, focusing chi through their body. In a moment they could feel it seeping out of their skin. Their aura must have become visible just then. Their muscles and nerves sang as they became supercharged. Then Aaron focused that strange energy… and he felt no more chi seeping from Ukyou’s skin. It wasn’t chi. But it was altering the chi… forcing it through channels that Ukyou had never conceived of before. It wasn’t working like chi, it was altering the way chi worked… that’s what was hurting them.
“So I see you were a fraud all along,” Hayato hissed once they were within earshot. He had managed to regain his balance, and stood ready to face them. “Come on then, let’s finish this!”
“Yes… let’s,” Ukyou murmured. Aaron already had an idea. A dangerous idea. But neither of them could care less if it turned back against them. They laughed. “Come at me, Hayato. I’ll finish this fight with one blow!”
“So will I!” Hayato screamed and dashed towards them. He was no longer moving in slow motion, now that they had stopped forcing their chi to work ten times as hard. His speed was startling, and Ukyou could see the glint of his needle as he drove it at her. Aaron reached out; he could still see the angry chi radiating from Hayato. He could touch it, moments before Hayato himself approached.
It was a bit more Wind Scar than Hiryuu Shoten Ha, but Aaron let the energy collide with Ukyou’s. Hayato’s hot spirit rolled and sparked against the cold detached energy that flooded Ukyou’s body and her aura. It formed a crack, a void where the hot and the cold cancelled each other out. Aaron drove his own chi into that crack like a wedge, felt it widen as Hayato’s aura split apart around him. It was working! The power of Hayato’s aura swirled around them, a plume of dust tracing its path as it spiralled away from Ukyou’s outstretched hand.
“It’s over!” Hayato shouted as he reached them. His needle thrust forward, coming within an inch of Ukyou’s stomach before she completed the technique. It took only one uppercut, a single strike with all her chi focused right through that crack!
“SPIRITUS FRACTA TURBONIS!”
Ukyou timed her attack just right. Her strike not only caught the crack, but flashed past and impacted dead centre on Hayato’s mask. For a fraction of a second, time seemed to stand still as the boy hung in the air on the edge of her fist. Then the maelstrom came. To call it a whirlwind would have been an insult. The air literally sheared apart, forming a funnel of complete emptiness around which the winds of the earth shrieked and circled. Hayato floated for a second in that void, the flakes of his mask falling from his squashed and ugly face. His mouth gasped for precious air that wasn’t coming… then the laws of nature reasserted themselves and all the air rushed in to fill the vacuum Ukyou had created. For Hayato, it must have been like being hit by a Mack truck from every direction at once.
Ukyou threw her hand in front of her face, her feet digging briefly into the ground as it threatened to drag her in. Then the maelstrom ended, and there was a deceptively quiet thump as Hayato collapsed to the ground. She pulled down her arm and looked at him. He was finished. His eyes were still open, but he had curled up into the fetal position and was moaning in agony.
“You… won…” Tofu called out breathlessly.
“Woah… Ukyou… how the… how did you do that?” Ranma cried as he ran over. Ukyou just stared at him, feeling odd as she watched him approach. He seemed so excited, so proud, so curious all at once. But for some reason Ukyou didn’t feel as… concerned about his feelings as she had before. She realised the mental numbness was only now beginning to wear off. She felt… woozy and strange.
“That was quite the finishing move,” Ran said as she moved in behind Ranma.
“It’s… not over…”
Ukyou looked down. Hayato had grabbed weakly at her ankle. His face was squashed and covered in dark circles and smudges from the years it had spent hidden by his mask. Thin red lines oozed across his cheeks from where Ukyou’s attack had driven shards of the plastic into his skin. He had crawled over to her on his belly, like a worm. She felt a flare of hot annoyance and a bit of fear.
“I won’t let a fraud like you… beat me…” Hayato gasped. “I’ll be back… stronger…”
“No,” Ukyou informed him. She kicked her ankle free and raised it up. It was really the only convenient solution to the problem. “You won’t.” With a brief burst of Aaron’s chi, she drove her heel straight into his spine, right at the shoulders. The crack was almost silent, and yet echoed deafeningly across the yard. Hayato’s mouth opened but no sound came out. His eyes seemed to fade, then he collapsed in front of her. Ukyou pulled her foot away.
“UKYOU!” Tofu shouted. He moved faster than Ukyou had ever seen him move, virtually materialising by Hayato’s side. “He’s… not dead…” Tofu sighed in relief as he checked the boy’s vitals.
Ukyou didn’t mention how she had altered the trajectory of her kick at the last second. It would have been so easy to kill him. But breaking his spine would be just as effective in getting rid of him. Still… Ukyou didn’t feel right. The numbing cold had mostly vanished from her brain. The action she had taken a few seconds ago had seemed so logical, so right… now… now…
“My god, Ukyou, you broke his spine!” Tofu looked up and glared at her, and she couldn’t meet his accusing eyes. “He was defeated! You didn’t have to…” Tofu trailed off.
“I… didn’t mean to…” Ukyou lied. Aaron shuddered inside her mind. They had meant to. They had meant to do more than that, but hadn’t. Thank whatever gods existed, they hadn’t.
“Ukyou…” Akane’s voice was full of fear. Ukyou couldn’t look at her either. She stumbled away. She felt nauseous. Her staff was lying nearby, and for some reason she tumbled to her knees beside it. She had dropped it before her final attack. “Ukyou, what happened there, it was like you became a maniac…”
Before Aaron’s final attack! It had been his idea! He was to blame!
(And who decided to break Hayato’s spine?)
“SHUT UP!” Ukyou shouted to the air.
She turned, realising that the others must have thought she was talking to them. She could see everyone standing away from her. Even Ranma. Sweet, forgiving Ranma. He was looking at her in a way he never had before. She couldn’t stand that look in his eyes. Unable to endure their stares, Ukyou scooped up her staff and fled.
To Be Continued…
Blade: Well, there goes our readership.
Epsilon: What readership?
Blade: The readership we had that thought the fanfic was too dark back in chapter, I dunno, three.
Epsilon: Maybe if we start with Ukyou having hawt lesbian SEXXORZ each chapter, they’ll come back!
Blade: What an odd suggestion, coming from you.
Epsilon: Well, since I don’t have any interest in sex, I don’t write the sex scenes, which means you have to,
which means less work, which means… BONUS!
Epsilon: In other news, I remember promising you (the readers, that is, not Blade) way back in Chapter 1 that I’d explain any of the special move names that needed to be translated. Sure, it wasn’t in Japanese, but hey, if you’re going to have a pretentious move name, why not have it in the most pretentious language of them all: LATIN!
Epsilon: Spiritus Fracta Turbonis means “Spirit-Breaking Tornado”, or close enough. So now you know!
Blade: …I hate you.
Epsilon: Apparently I have to do all the talking this time, so I’ll also point out that we’ve now added summaries at the top of each Hybrid Theory chapter, some of which are amusing! Assuming you find our brand of humour amusing.
Blade: …I still hate you, you spine-snapping jerkoff.
Epsilon: Also, we’ve gotten someone to reformat the fics so they are legible on fanfiction.net and its ilk. Not that we LIKE that formatting, and we still encourage people to come to triple-w dot bladeandepsilon dot com (spelled that way because fanfiction-net strips out URLs, even non-clickable ones) and see the PROPER book formatting, as well as all our neat extras… but at least if you’re reading from ff.net and other such places, you can actually READ it now. Which has to be considered an improvement.
Blade: Thanks to David Barbour for his hard work and tireless attempts to tell me that it doesn’t matter how its formatted! Okay, only for the former. Thanks also to anybody who actually had the tenacity to read it on these sites up until now, because god knows I wouldn’t have. Also, I still hate you. By “you”, I mean Epsilon.
Epsilon: I’ll live somehow.
Blade: Next time we meet in the fic, I’m TOTALLY going to kick your ass. Again.
Epsilon: Sure. Perhaps that will happen… NEXT CHAPTER!?
HER ‘OLD FRIEND’ OCCHAN HAD A FUCKING SPATULA FOR A HEAD! Where did he put his goddamn brain!?
Hybrid Theory Chapter 10: One Step Closer
Blade: Wait. That’s it?
Epsilon: I thought it was poignant and moving. Also, everything else is a big spoiler.
Blade: …I hate you.