Disclaimer: Not the Takahashi.
Warning: Rated for language, violence and sexual references.
Ranma 1/2 continuity: Set after the end of the manga timeline, with a few anime and fanon concepts. Which makes it sort of alt-uni, I suppose.
Inspired by the many Ranma fanfics where Genma doesn’t manage to pull it off, especially Cloud-Dreamer’s excellent Lonely Match:
“Hello.” : voice.
“Hello.” : voice over phone, radio, TV...
‹Hello.› : thought.
H E R L A S T B O W
“To Ranma and Akane!”
“Ranma and Akane!” Auntie and Uncle Saotome, Kasumi and I raised our glasses in the American style and repeated Daddy’s toast. It was the sixth of the night; my dear father having decided to toast their union in the style of every culture he and Uncle Saotome could remember, with that culture’s traditional drink. (I was not looking forward to Russia; we could ill afford the breakage of a perfectly good set of glasses. Never mind that vodka upsets my stomach.) We had spent more on alcohol for this one celebration than in the entire previous year; imported champagne is not cheap. Fortunately it was the only variety that would need to be finished that night; I had earmarked the other bottles — all spirits rated 25% or above — for use at a second ‘celebration’ for the rivals and ‘losing’ fiancées. A small gesture to help defuse any problems that might arise.
Since you’ve taken advantage of our special celebratory 250 yen infopack offer, I’ll go into some of the details which allowed this miraculous event to finally take place.
First, of course, it required the happy couple to sit still for long enough to perform the ceremony. And to be completely honest, I’m not sure how that was achieved. It certainly wasn’t their parents’ doing, nor mine. Kasumi claims she knows nothing. All I can be sure of is that one day, about a month after Daddy told them they could wait until they were ready, both Ranma and Akane started treating their unwed status as a challenge.
It didn’t stop the bickering or the name-calling, but it did cut down on Ranma’s casual insults, and on Akane’s suspicion, violence, and taking Ranma for granted. Instead, there was a certain pathetic eagerness buried underneath it all, visible to those who knew them best — not the fathers, who were in fact quite worried by the sudden lack of loving thuggery. Another few weeks, and they were back in their marriage outfits. And when, at the appropriate point in their Western ceremony, they kissed — for real, for the first time — it took Auntie Saotome’s full disapproval of ‘improper behaviour in public’ to separate them.
The Amazons, potentially the most difficult of our problems, turned out to be the easiest to solve. They wanted Ranma’s presence, his skills, and his genes. Once it was made clear to them that they could never have the first (except on holidays or in emergencies, a concession Ranma would always have given), they, or rather the ever-pragmatic Cologne, became rather more flexible on the delivery of the other two. Ranma-sensei would always have at least one Amazon pupil. And, after much resistance from the happy couple, I finally convinced them to make the Amazons the proud owners of enough ‘samples’ to produce an entire generation of little pigtailed martial artists — through the miracle of artificial insemination, much to Shampoo’s disappointment. Once the Amazons were with us (realising that Ranma the God-Slayer was now too much for even them to handle), they threw themselves into helping make the union possible.
Ukyô, on the other hand, proved to be impossible to deal with. Offers to return her dowry, to adopt her into the Saotome clan or supply her with ‘samples’ were turned down flat. Eventually it took an entire bottle of sake followed by a hissy fit and a rather one-sided catfight with girl-Ranma* before she broke down in tears and sobbed an apology to her best friend. She decided to go home to Osaka to try for reconciliation with her father; she couldn’t bear to be at the wedding (Ranma was disappointed, but said he understood), but said she’d join us for the official announcement party the day after.
[* - No martial arts involved, just good old face-slapping, eye-scratching, hair-pulling, and insult-throwing. Five sets of five photographs are available at 1500 yen per set, 6000 for the whole collection. Did I mention ‘clothes-tearing’? 95% of all proceeds go towards refurbishing Ucchan’s.]
The rest of the obstacles were easier to deal with, as by then no-one cared how any of them felt. The first was solved by Kasumi forcing our father to tell Akane about her little piggy’s big secret. (Of course I knew about it! I was just following Daddy’s orders!) She made sure that the only person available for Akane to hit was Daddy, and that he made her believe in Ranma’s inability to tell her before she saw that poor sap again. Fortunately for P-chan, Kasumi got to him first, and we held our own little trial with him locked in a pet-carrier. Kasumi, bless her, acted as his advocate, and did her best to put his case; I got to be judge, and sentenced him to six months’ imprisonment in the local boarding kennels (at his own expense), suspended contingent on him never interfering in our lives again. Once restored, Ryôga tried to blame all of this on Ranma, of course, but Kasumi pulled off some kind of ki-powered Disapproving Stare that shrivelled him up on the spot. She also turned it on Daddy for not telling Akane about the pig as soon as he found out; it actually shocked him into not crying for a good ten minutes.
Of the rest... the old pervert removed himself to a three-day lingerie show in Yokohama (the wedding date was carefully selected), and Cologne used an ancient Amazon technique (so terrible that Chiang Kai-shek cowered in fear of it) which ensured that the Kunôs spent the entire day of the event no more than thirty seconds away from a toilet. Other, minor menaces were warded against by the presence of Shampoo and Mousse at the ceremony.
So we finally got them married, handed them their backpacks and camping gear, and sent them (still bickering) off into the wild mountains to (hopefully, finally) settle their bickering in the traditional manner of married couples.
It wasn’t easy, but it was doable. Which is how I came to be sitting at an Amazon-supplied feast, pleasantly tipsy, with the parents diluting their Scotch whisky with tears (a couple of drops from Auntie, a veritable drowning from Daddy), while Kasumi sat with a beatific smile that reeked of ‘I love it when a plan comes together’.
I shook myself out of my reverie. “Yes, Auntie?”
Auntie smiled at me. “I asked if you could pass the won ton, dear.”
“Sorry, I zoned out for a moment.” I passed the dish over to her.
“Perhaps you’ve had enough to drink, dear?” she suggested.
“No, I was just thinking about what we had to go through to get here.”
She smiled again, and glanced at the two fathers. They were sitting in their own little world, arms around each other, waving their glasses in the air and singing. Auntie slid herself closer to Kasumi and me, and whispered conspiratorially, “I, for one, am more interested in what will happen next.”
“Ah,” I said with alcohol-loosened tongue, “the eternal quest for grandchildren.”
“Yes,” she said, suddenly saddened. “It’s such a pity that I’ll only see a handful of the ones I’ll have...”
“Oh, the Amazons?” I gave her a gentle pat on the shoulder. “But most of them’ll be coming over to study here, so you can just spoil all the ones that come, knowing some of them are yours.”
“But they’ll be half-grown,” she lamented. “It’s not the same...”
“You know,” Kasumi said suddenly, “if Ranma were to use one of his own ‘samples’, he could clone himself...” Fortunately I didn’t have anything in my mouth at the time; it would have been splattered all over the far wall.
Auntie frowned. You could see her calculating the Manliness Rating of carrying a child to term.
“...because then you’d have a baby Ranma that you could raise the way you wanted...” Kasumi continued, obliviously.
Auntie’s expression instantly transformed into one of hunger.
“...and of course you could get a boy Ranma or a girl Ranma! Or even one of each—” Kasumi suddenly cut herself off, blushing heavily. “Oh my, I think I may have had enough to drink!” Then she giggled. Giggled! I couldn’t believe it.
Auntie ignored her. Her gaze was locked on something only she could see, a redoubled need burning in her eyes. “Not manly,” she whispered. “But if I carried them...”
“Gods, Kasumi,” I murmured, “I think you’ve created a monster.”
She giggled again, then hugged me. “You’re my favourite sister, Nabiki, and I love you,” she said, and planted a kiss on my lips. How drunk was she?
How drunk was I? When she slipped her tongue in, I actually responded.
Kasumi broke away from me and giggled again, wagging her finger in admonition. “But that’s not proper behaviour. We should find some nice men to do that to us instead.” She stood, staggering slightly, apparently intent on doing so right that minute.
I collected my wits and hauled myself to my feet. For some reason, they seemed to be rather far away. Putting an arm around Kasumi, I said with a slight slur, “Okay, sis. First thing in the morning, we go look for some.” I half-turned and said to the company, “I’m just putting Kasumi to bed. Later...”
Auntie’s etiquette auto-pilot caused her to bow slightly. She certainly wasn’t paying any attention. The fathers ignored me completely.
Kasumi’s a good bit taller than me. And she’s heavier than she looks. Getting her up the stairs was an adventure in itself. I didn’t even try to undress her, just helped her collapse on the bed. Of course, she pulled me down with her and landed on my arm.
Did I mention that Kasumi is heavier than she looks?
After a couple of minutes’ struggling, I was too tired to go on. I pulled the covers over the pair of us, and went to sleep.
Nothing happened, you pervert.
But for an extra 5000 yen I’ll make up a convincing story.
I awoke with one thought in my head: ‹I hate my sister.›
She’d left the curtains open. The sun was blazing right into my eyes. It was either get up or suffer where I lay. At that moment, it was a difficult choice.
I managed to get down the stairs without major mishap, although the thudding of my feet jarred the top off my head with each step. The main body of the house was dark and cool. Daddy was passed out on the floor. I could die in peace there.
Then the sadistic changeling that had replaced Kasumi thundered past with an ear-shattering tray of dirty glasses. “Good morning, Nabiki!!” she bellowed. “Isn’t it a lovely day?!”
I moaned something incoherent as she smiled brightly at me.
“My, weren’t we tiddly last night!!” she went on at head-splitting volume. “I think we all got a bit silly towards the end!!”
I refused the evil one’s offer of breakfast and went to soak in the furo. Or drown myself, if that seemed more attractive.
‹I love my sister.›
She brought me painkillers and something long and cool to drink while I soaked.
Life goes on.
By lunchtime I was feeling half-way better, and managed to eat.
The noise we made woke Daddy up. He looked like I felt earlier, and shot Kasumi a glance laden with intense suffering when she offered to get him a snack. I decided to get out of range before any drama began.
There was a ‘Do Not Disturb’ sign hanging on the guest-room door. ‹Apparently Auntie and Uncle Saotome were too drunk to leave last night,› I thought. ‹Still asleep, judging by the noise. Auntie must be lying funny; she’s snoring so loudly I can’t hear the panda.› An image popped into my mind, of our demure Auntie sprawled across the covers, head back and mouth wide open just like girl-Ranma so often did. I chuckled and went to lie down for a while.
Mid-afternoon arrived, and I felt about eighty percent. With any luck I would be back to my normal self in time for the ‘official celebration’ this evening, at which I would not mix my drinks in the previous night’s suicidal manner.
I was expected round at the Nekohanten about then, to finalise the arrangements for the evening. Auntie Saotome finally put in an appearance just as I was about to leave, looking rather dishevelled (for her; most people would consider her to be perfectly presentable). She yawned politely behind her hand. “Has anyone seen my husband?”
“Wasn’t he asleep upstairs?”
Auntie shook her head. “His futon was used, but he was gone when I woke up.”
“Sorry, Auntie, he must have gone out before I was up and about. Maybe Kasumi knows? I’m going out myself now; if I see him I’ll get him to call you.”
“Thank you, dear.”
I put on a light jacket and headed out. Kasumi was with someone at the gate; a rather frail-looking middle-aged gentleman with a briefcase. He was talking to her in a very respectful tone as I approached.
“...it’s a bit of an imposition, especially since I’ll be taking possession in three days anyway, but would it be possible for me to take a quick look around the property today?”
“I’m sorry?” said Kasumi. “I’m not sure I understand...”
“But surely...” said the man, bemused. He pulled out a document from his case, turning it so we could all see it. “Saotome Genma, acting as the guardian of his son Ranma, finalised the sale of the former Tendô Estate and its land to me this morning, for the sum of three hundred million yen...”
I tried to catch Kasumi as she fell, but all I could think was ‹the bastard, it’s worth nearly twice that—›.
Auntie helped me take Kasumi through to the family room. Once we got her comfortable I rounded on Daddy, who had been berating our visitor about Kasumi’s frail constitution. “Whose idea was it?”
“I’m sorry?” he said, barely holding back his tears. “Oh Kasumi—”
“To give the estate to Ranma as a wedding present,” I snapped. “Who suggested it? I’m assuming it was Genma that wanted it kept as a surprise.”
“Nabiki!” said Auntie Saotome sharply from her seat beside Kasumi. “My husband may have gone a little too far, but that’s no reason to show him disrespect.”
I stared at her. Was she insane? “Sorry, Auntie,” I said slowly, then turned back to my father. “Well Daddy, whose idea was it?”
“Ah... I think it was Saotome’s... He said it would be nice, a gesture acknowledging them as the heirs...” he said, puzzled. As if nothing was wrong besides his daughter fainting. “But I could see right away that it would save us millions in tax, so I thought...”
“No you didn’t, Daddy...” I shook my head sadly. “He played you.”
“What do you mean? And please remember who you’re talking to!”
“Sorry, Daddy. But you didn’t give the dôjô to Ranma, you gave it to his father. Ranma’s barely eighteen, Genma has control over his affairs, and he’s sold us out!”
“Nabiki—!” he began angrily, but he was blindsided by Kasumi, who had apparently been listening the whole time. She grabbed him by the shoulders, screaming, “Our home! You gave our HOME to that— that thieving PANDA!”
He hit her. May the gods forgive him, because I never will. He backhanded Kasumi across the face, sending her flying across the room to fetch up against the table. Then something inside him broke, and he gazed at his shaking hand, then at the sudden stark fright in Kasumi’s eyes, the cold rage in mine, the confusion and disapproval in our hapless visitor’s, and then he ran out of the room and down the passageway to the dôjô.
“Ah... perhaps I had better—” Our visitor had got up to leave.
I turned to lock eyes with the man. “Please accept my apologies for this outrageous display...?”
“Osaka,” he said, bowing. “Osaka Kenichi.”
I bowed in return, then seized his eyes again. “Osaka-san, as you can see our family has been badly swindled by someone we trusted. There are going to be lawsuits and court cases before this is over. I humbly ask you—” my gaze was anything but humble “—to accept unchallenged our right to remain here until the matter is settled one way or the other.”
He glanced over at Kasumi, curled in a sobbing ball beside the table, then down the passageway my father had ran. “I suppose... yes, it’s the least I can do. For as long as I can, you have my word.” He bowed again, and put his documentation on the sofa. “You’ll need this; I have another copy. I’ll let myself out.”
“One more thing, Osaka-san...” He paused, turning back to me with a questioning look. “How did you pay for the property?”
“We transferred the money from my account to his this morning,” he replied.
‹And of course he’s emptied the account by now...› “Thank you, Osaka-san.”
Auntie Saotome was sitting staring at the documents. I went over to Kasumi, patted her shoulder helplessly a couple of times, and sighed. I’m no use at that sort of thing.
“Auntie Saotome?” She didn’t react for a moment, then turned and gazed blankly at me. “You didn’t know.” Statement, not question.
She shook her head ever so slightly, then got up and walked regally out and back up the stairs. I could barely spot the cracks in her glacial poise.
Kasumi sniffed loudly, pulling my attention back to her. I gave her a quick check over; as far as I could see there was nothing more than some bruising. Kasumi’s tougher than she looks.
Perhaps too tough; she had slipped on her polite mask again.
“Why did Father do that, do you think?” she asked in a reasonable facsimile of her normal voice. Curse him for doing that to her!
“I don’t know, Kasumi. I’m going to find out, but there’s a call I need to make first. Hang on; I’ll get an ice-pack for your cheek.”
To the freezer, then the phone...
“Shampoo, it’s Nabiki. Is your great-grandmother there?”
“She here! Great-grandmother, is mer— Nabiki for you!”
“Hello Nabiki. We were expecting you a while ago.”
“Something has come up. I— You were interested in getting Ranma and Akane officially adopted as Amazons, but Akane was against it. I think I can convince her to change her mind.”
“And is there a price attached?”
“Well— Dammit, Ranma isn’t the only one with pride! I hate asking for help like this. But I think... this one is too important. I’m only asking for you to make sure I don’t miss anything or make any mistakes. Because if I do, it might not be possible for us to keep our end of our agreement.”
“I’d be happy to extend the invitation to you and your sister as well, if it would help. That would make it a lot easier for me to help you, politically speaking.”
“As long as we get to live where we like, it’s an attractive proposition right now.”
“Of course, my dear. Shall I come over?”
“Please. Can Shampoo and Mousse handle the rest of the party preparations? It may sound odd, but I want to go ahead with that — I’ve a feeling it’ll be useful to have all the usual suspects close at hand.”
“They’ll be fine. I’m on my way, youngster.”
I went back to Kasumi and gave her a proper hug, letting some of the tension leave my body. “It’s going to be all right, big sister. I’ll make sure of it.” She clung to me for a moment, then resumed her self-sufficient pose.
“Shouldn’t someone check on Father?” she said diffidently.
My face settled into its Ice Queen mask again. “I was just on my way.”
I found him in the dôjô, sitting dry-eyed with his head bowed to the altar. He had a tanto in front of him, but it was still sheathed.
“Not thinking of using that, are you Daddy?” The Ice Queen can make that sound like a joke.
“No,” he replied. “I had considered it, but then I realised that I would be finishing the job I started when your mother died. Now is not the time to run away from my responsibilities.”
“Very good, Daddy, but—”
“So I have decided,” he continued over my interjection, “that I shall restore our family to its rightful place once more, or die trying. Only once that has been achieved will I be able to give my life in partial expiation for what I have done.”
I could see there was no point in arguing with him. “All right then, help me to help you. What happened in there?”
He closed his eyes and sighed, looking a good decade older than his true age. “I don’t know. For some reason, your accusations against Saotome made me so angry. I couldn’t see the truth behind them, could only see the slur upon an honoured guest and friend. And when Kasumi insulted him...” His mouth moved silently for a moment, his fists clenching, then he shook his head violently and sighed. “Then it was all gone, and I could see what I had done in the light of truth.”
“That sounds an awful lot like a flowery version of Akane’s ‘he made me so mad’.”
An ancient voice crackled behind me, “Verbose your father may be, but I think there may be more to this than simple anger.”
Cologne sure can move when she wants to.
I turned and raised an eyebrow at her.
“When you didn’t turn up this afternoon, I decided to make use of the time by doing a final stock-check. We are selling up soon, after all. I discovered that we are suspiciously short of a particular exotic ingredient.”
I nodded. “If nothing else, Genma has the skills to be an outstanding sneak-thief.”
“The powdered shell of the Phoenix Mountain imprinting egg has, if prepared correctly and ingested, a similar effect to being ‘reborn’ through the egg. It doesn’t turn people into slaves, but it does make them want to trust and defend whomever they’re looking at when they eat it. The size and frequency of dosing affects the strength of the bond; it can be broken if it conflicts with another, stronger one. A large amount of the substance went missing some time within the last three months.” She paused, apparently wanting me to fill in the next step.
Not feeling like a performing dog, I instead commented, “You had this, and you refrained from dosing Ranma with it?” She looked slightly disappointed with me.
“If Ranma had been spending a lot of his time with Shampoo, it might have worked.” She stopped again.
Okay, it had been petty of me. “But because he didn’t spend enough time with her, the effect wouldn’t be strong enough...” She nodded. “...to overcome his stronger feelings for Akane?” She nodded again. “But in that case, why did Daddy let Genma threaten our home?”
“Hah. Once properly dosed, the hold can only be broken by extreme circumstances. What did your father do?”
“He hit Kasumi for insulting Genma,” I replied quietly, glaring at him.
“Ah. A very strong dose, then.”
“Oh, Daddy,” I said, suddenly working it out. “All those hours spent drinking with him, gazing at him across the shogi board. No wonder you went so far.”
He shook his head. “It is good to know I was coerced into this, but it does not excuse my actions.”
“All right, Daddy. So Genma suggests this to you, what, about a week before the first wedding...”
“No, that was when we drew up the papers. He originally suggested it back when we vowed to join the houses—”
I was stunned. ‹He’s been planning this my entire life? I know Genma has combat styles based on smash-and-grab and sneak-thief; does he have complementary ones for the short and the long con?›
Cologne’s scratchy voice brought me back to reality. “Tendô Nabiki, I suggest that you tell me everything.”
There really wasn’t that much to tell, but it took a good two hours to weed out the irrelevancies. What we were left with wasn’t very encouraging.
My father, as the legal title-holder, had every right to pass ownership of the estate to Ranma. Genma had been drugging Daddy for some time, but I could remember several instances of their disagreeing (more than the drug would allow, according to Cologne) both around the time of signing, and for a couple of weeks after. So he had made the transfer by his own free will.
Genma, as Ranma’s legal guardian, had every right to sell that ownership on to Osaka-san.
All perfectly legal.
Cologne was sure that we had all been drugged at the party the previous night — to keep us out of the way while he made his escape — and insisted that we all have blood samples taken and tested. I arranged for the local GP to visit and do the honours, but I wasn’t expecting much. Genma had access to far too many interesting compounds that were either untraceable, unknown to modern science, or both.
With no real hope of a legal challenge, our only chances were either that Osaka-san would, out of the kindness of his own heart, give us our property back; or that Genma could be found and convinced to invalidate the sale as part of his confession. Human nature being what it is...
The Ice Queen does not get shit-scared.
I suppose it wasn’t a bad party. Yes, the Kunô siblings sat glaring at all and sundry, and Gosunkugi lurked in a corner like a bad smell, but they behaved themselves on penalty of Cologne. Enough of Ranma and Akane’s friends from school came to dilute their influence. So, beyond the obligatory curses from the Kunôs, mostly drowned out by cheers and lewd comments from the others, the official announcement of their marriage and current honeymooning went well. And with the leftover alcohol from the previous night circulating freely, everything went smoothly. Except for one tiny, insignificant thing...
“Wasn’t Ukyô-sama supposed to come?” Konatsu asked me, about an hour after the announcement.
“Yes...” I trailed off, annoyed. ‹I wanted to talk to her...›
“If I could borrow your phone, I could call her father, make sure she left safely,” he said. “I have his number.”
“Sure, go ahead,” I said absently. I was deep in thought again, not paying full attention. Stupid, stupid, stupid. Letting things get away from me...
“I won’t be long,” he said, and glided off, a vision of ultimate femininity in a classic little black dress. He paused at the dôjô door, gesturing someone else in. Ryôga.
Turning up unannounced didn’t count as breaking his parole (Kasumi insisted it was only fair), and I did want him where I could see him for the moment. He might prove useful. Anyway, this party was as much for him as it was for Shampoo and the Kunô siblings. So when he just stood there looking apprehensive, I smiled and went across to him.
“It’s okay, Ryôga, come on in.” I lead him across to the makeshift bar, and was getting him a drink (aquavit, of all the unlikely choices) when all conversation stopped in a series of sudden gasps. I turned and joined the room in staring at the door.
Akane. Looking like Kasumi did when she realised what Osaka-san meant.
“I— I’m sorry... I forgot everyone would be here...”
I went over to her. “What happened, Akane?” You could have heard a pin drop.
“He left me, Nabiki.” Tears welled in her eyes. “When I woke up this morning, he was gone...” The room behind me drew breath...
...and Konatsu stuck his head in the door, and announced, “Ukyô-sama’s father said she never came to visit.”
Akane collapsed to her knees, wailing. Then Kunô and Ryôga, in stereo: “SAOTOME, YOU ENEMY OF ALL WOMEN! FOR THIS YOU WILL DIE!!”
No, not a bad party at all...
With Cologne and the Amazons providing covering fire, Kasumi and I managed to get Akane to her room without any more stupid comments reaching her ears. Kasumi pulled her down to sit beside her on her bed, cuddling and rocking her like she used to do ten years before, until Akane was able to speak again.
“Wh—why, Kasumi? Why did he go? And with h-h-her?” This wasn’t my proud, eighteen-year-old pervert-smashing sister, railing against Ranma-no-baka; this was a hurt and lost child.
Kasumi lifted her chin and looked her in the eye. “Ranma made a promise yesterday, didn’t he?” Akane nodded. “He promised, on his honour, to love you for the rest of your lives, and to be with no-one else. Didn’t he?” She nodded again, but you could see the ‘but’ coming. Kasumi intercepted it. “And have you ever known him to break his word of honour, or give it when he didn’t mean to keep it?” Akane dropped her head, shaking it. “How was he, after you two left the wedding?”
Akane sniffed. “We argued all the way up into the mountains, but it was all about silly stuff; we were laughing the whole time. Then when we’d pitched the tent and we were sitting together watching the sunset, he let out a huge sigh and said, ‘We’re finally free...’. Then he smiled at me.” Her voice caught slightly as she went on, “I don’t think I’ve ever seen him really happy before. Not deep down. And then... well...” She tailed off, blushing.
Kasumi gave her a hug and smiled at her again. “And does that sound like someone who would pack up and leave the next day?”
Kasumi nodded. “Of course not. Something terrible has happened, and Ranma is as much a victim as the rest of us. And since it appears he can’t fight his way back to you, Nabiki is going to find him and bring him back. Aren’t you, Nabiki?” They both looked up at me; Akane pathetically hopeful, Kasumi using a look and tone of voice that only appeared rarely: the steel under her velvet glove that enabled her run our household single-handedly for over ten years.
I nodded, putting a bit more effort into convincing Akane than usual. “You can bet on it, sis. You and Kasumi stay here and keep each other company.” It was a sign of how down she was that she didn’t even suggest coming with me. “Do you have any clue what might have happened?”
She shook her head. “He wasn’t in the tent when I woke up, but I thought he’d gone to work out or cook breakfast, so I got dressed and went out to join him. Then I saw his backpack was gone...” she started sobbing again, “I shouted and shouted for him, and I looked everywhere around, but there was no sign of him... I just ran home.”
It was Genma. Nothing else made sense. I leaned over and patted her back. “I’ll bring him back to you, sis. I promise.”
Next stop: my room. There were some things I needed to get.
The dôjô was relatively quiet when I got back. People were clustered in their cliques, still drinking away, forming uncontrolled feedback loops of rumour. My three factors looked as if they were running themselves ragged trying to keep things stable. Kunô and Kodachi were being forcibly restrained by Mousse and Shampoo respectively; a large hole in the back wall attested to Ryôga’s absence. My father was talking quietly with Cologne.
The transsexual kunoichi came in through the hole just as I formed the thought. He went straight over to Cologne and spoke quietly to her. She spotted me as she turned to listen, and beckoned me over.
“I sent Konatsu to follow the Hibiki boy when he left,” she said.
“However, he turned a corner and was suddenly gone,” Konatsu continued. “I’m sorry to have failed you, Nabiki-san, Cologne-sama.”
“Not your fault, Konatsu,” I assured him, then sighed. “Oh well. It would have been nice to keep tabs on him, but...” I straightened up and projected my voice over the buzz of conversation. “Everybody!”
They fell silent immediately.
“As you’ve probably worked out, Ranma has gone missing. Akane is understandably upset—” there was a hollow »thunk« from behind me as Mousse silenced Kunô before he could comment “—but as far as we can tell, he didn’t leave her willingly. We are going to try to find him; we can’t really find out any more until we do. Until then... drink up and try to enjoy yourselves.”
It sounded hollow, even to me.
“What do you plan to do now, young lady?” asked Cologne as I sat down with a sigh. My father slid over to listen too.
“Well... we can’t keep the Kunôs against their will,” I said, “but I want to keep an eye on them. Konatsu, could you follow Kodachi? I’m sure she won’t be able to lose you.” I waved my factors over to join us.
“I had hoped to go back to the restaurant, to wait for Ukyô-sama...” he said.
“I’m going to put a bit more effort into looking for her than that,” I replied, turning to my girls. “All right, he’ll either try to disappear in the city, or get as far away as possible. We’ll never find him if he runs, so let’s make him afraid to move. Yumi, get the standard ID shots for Ranma and Genma — both forms for each — and Kuonji Ukyô, and run off... say, eight thousand copies on A4 paper with this text...’ I grabbed a paper napkin and quickly sketched out a flyer:
Tendô Dôjô Grand Reopening!
Our Martial Arts Masters are in Your Area!
If you sight one of our team, call:
7890 123 4567
for a chance at our
G R A N D P R I Z E !
I handed her the napkin and went on, “You know the sort of promotional junk the supermarkets use, try to make it look convincing. Get Miki to let you use his father’s copy shop; tell him it’s worth two-thirds of his debt.” Yumi nodded.
Asuka piped up with, “Shouldn’t we say what the prize is? It’d probably draw more people if it was good...”
I nodded, acknowledging her point. “Unfortunately,” I said, “I was thinking something along the lines of a set of free lessons, which isn’t all that good to most people...”
“Offer them a free Chinese banquet for the whole family, served in their own home courtesy of the Nekohanten,” interjected Cologne from behind me.
“Thank you, Elder,” I said, giving her a grin over my shoulder.
“My pleasure, young one,” she replied with a chuckle.
“Put that across the bottom of the flyer, Yumi; smallish print so they actually have to get close to read it.” She nodded; I turned to the next girl. “Ami, rustle up as many runners as you can, usual rates, and meet Yumi at Miki’s, then the two of you co-ordinate distributing a thousand of the flyers around every major railway station, bus station... the docks... better get some in the airports too. You know the sort of place. Keep another thousand of them aside for the moment. Now... ah, Reiko! Come over for a moment!” I gestured to a pretty girl from Ranma’s year. She approached with some trepidation. “Reiko, I believe your father works in the shipping department of a major newspaper?” She nodded apprehensively. “A newspaper that is distributed to thousands of shops around the Tokyo area.” She nodded again. “How easy would it be for him to put a sheet in with each bundle of papers, to be displayed in each shop window?”
“Ah... I don’t know, Tendô-sempai. I suppose he could, but...” She tailed off, squirming.
I knew what she was getting at. “I know you don’t owe me anything, Reiko. In fact, I’m going to give you a piece of information, completely free.” She looked skeptical at the concept. I leaned forward to whisper in her ear. “Kimura Hitoshi has a serious crush on you.” She gasped as excitedly as I’d hoped; I’d heard she returned the sentiment. “Unfortunately, he is currently unable to date with you, due to a rather large debt he has incurred. If you could go with Ami, take six thousand of the flyers to your father, and have them sent out with tomorrow’s papers... well, Hitoshi’s debt would be removed, and he might be so glad of this that he’d take you on many expensive dates in gratitude for your making it happen.”
She chewed her lip for a moment, then nodded. “Thank you,” I continued. “I’m sure you won’t regret this.” I handed her a card. “Phone this number if there’s any problems — it’s for this mobile,” I continued, taking an older-model handset from the bag I’d brought from my room and pocketing it. “Ami, Yumi, you might need these,” I said, pulling out another two phones and handing them one each, along with a copy of my number. “Use your petty-cash for travelling expenses. Off you go!”
The three of them nodded and left, pausing only to shanghai a few helpers on the way out. I turned to my remaining factor. “Asuka, you get a couple of friends and stake out the usual haunts — Ucchan’s, the school, the bridge...” She nodded, and left with yet another mobile phone. (It was a job lot of retired models I had picked up in return for a favour to a shopkeeper; I’d been saving them — and their initial pay-as-you-go calls — for just such an emergency.)
I turned back to Konatsu. “With them all covering the easy jobs, are you now free to do the difficult one for me?”
“I— I suppose,” he replied, frowning prettily.
“Good. Take a phone, and head out now. I’ll release the Kunôs in ten minutes.”
“Who should I follow if they split up?” he asked.
“Kodachi,” I said. “Tsubasa’s going to follow Kunô-baby, isn’t he?” The icemaker we had rented for the party was sitting beside me; I tapped it for emphasis, and was rewarded with a muffled ‘okay’.
Once they had gone, I called over Ranma and Akane’s personal Gang of Four. Unlike Reiko, they bounded over to me, eager to help.
“Is Akane okay?” asked Sayuri. Yuka indicated her concern with her eyes.
“Well... actually, she wasn’t looking too bad when I left,” I admitted, “all things considered. Kasumi was taking care of her...” The four of them nodded with understanding.
“Right,” I continued, pulling four marked phones from the bag. “These four phones all answer a number which I’ve given as a sort of help-line. People are going to be phoning up expecting to win a prize for spotting Ranma—” the boys suddenly nodded, impressed; I acknowledged with a brief actor’s bow “—his father, or Ukyô, and I need you four to take their names, addresses, telephone numbers, and details of where and when they saw our lost ones. And no pranks, Daisuke. This is serious.”
He looked hurt. “Hey, I know that, Nabiki. I’m not gonna screw this up.” Hurt but sincere; I dropped the glare I’d been holding on him.
“Okay. They’ll be expecting a banquet from the Nekohanten; tell them that we need to validate their sighting and we’ll get back to them. If they ask about the dôjô reopening, tell them we will send out a brochure in a short while.” I sighed. “Maybe I should write all that down. You probably won’t get more than a couple of calls tonight, and them not for a while, so you’ll probably need reminded...”
“It’s all right, Nabiki,” said Sayuri. “I got it all, I’ll make sure they get it right.”
I nodded. “Well then, you might as well go and enjoy yourselves until the calls start coming in.”
Hiroshi and Daisuke nodded and slouched off, simultaneously — and completely subconsciously — sliding their phones into their pockets as if holstering six-shooters. I grinned inwardly at the sight as I turned to the girls, who had hung back. “Actually,” said Yuka, “we’d like to go and see if Akane’s all right, if that’d be okay.”
I hesitated. “Well, Kasumi’s looking after her, so see what she thinks. But remember, as far as I can figure Ranma did not abandon her. Far better she’s worried about her husband being kidnapped than shattered at the thought of being rejected by him.” They nodded, and scampered off, pausing to bow to Auntie Saotome as they passed in the doorway.
Cologne leaned over as Auntie navigated the crowd. “I thought for a while you’d forgotten the threat to your property,” she whispered. “The brochure idea was quite good.”
I snorted. “Oh, please! I fully intend there to be a Tendô Dôjô after this,” I dropped my voice, “just perhaps not at its current location.”
Cologne chuckled, then straightened up and said, “So, young one, do you have any ‘orders’ for us?”
“Ha ha,” I deadpanned. “I was intending to travel overnight to Ranma and Akane’s campsite, to see what I could find out from the area. If you and your charges were to come along, I’m sure you’d be able to help a lot.”
“I’m sure we could,” she replied.
“I will come too,” said my father over her shoulder.
“No, Daddy, you have to stay here. Tomorrow there are going to be lawyers and fraud squad detectives arriving, they will need to talk to the head of the household.”
“In which case I will come,” said Auntie Saotome. “Someone must represent the interests of our families.” She shifted the weight of her katana. “And you may need a persuasive voice, should you chase my husband down.” I was about to point out that I was quite capable of representing the Tendô clan, when she went on, “You, Nabiki, must also stay here. It is not proper for a party’s hostess to leave before the last guest, and your father will need your support tomorrow.”
I sighed. True, we did need someone here to manage Daddy’s meetings with the officials the next day, but I was sure either Auntie or Kasumi could handle it. “Kasumi’s the real hostess; I’m just standing in for her. I promised her I’d find Ranma, and there’s nothing I can do here except look over people’s shoulders.”
Auntie frowned slightly. “But then who would sit with Akane?”
I shook my head. “Akane will feel a lot better if she’s doing something; why don’t we take her with us? You’d be there for her, and Kasumi would be free to play Hebe.”
Cologne backed me up. “Actually that’s not a bad idea. She’s strong enough to face the place, with our support, and we might need her interpretation of anything odd we find.”
Auntie finally gave in, graciously of course.
“Go on!” A strident voice pulled me awake. “SAY it!” Akane, in full rant, drowning out the repeated »clack-clack« of the slow local train we were on.
I prised a bleary eye open. Shampoo, her target of the moment, was quite plainly at a loss. Auntie Saotome was awake and looking concerned; Cologne and Mousse had their eyes closed: asleep, meditating, or just plain staying out of it.
“You’ve been sitting there all night, acting all solicitous, when we all know what you’re thinking! ‘Airen too too smart to stick around with kitchen destroyer.’” Her Shampoo impression sounded far more like Shiratori Azusa. “So just come out and SAY IT!”
A blur, and Shampoo was in Akane’s face, gripping the headrest on either side of her head, glaring down into her eyes from a handbreadth away. “Ranma is too honourable, too faithful to break promise and leave wife, even if he not love stupid jealous angry girl. I know this! Is one reason why I chase him so hard. I only show support for fellow woman whose airen is stolen. If you is too stupid to see that...” She tailed off and flopped back to her seat, muttering something in Chinese. Something rather naughty, judging by the way Mousse’s eyes popped open in shock.
Akane looked at me, then Auntie Saotome. Finding only disapproval and pity, she slumped into herself for a moment, then tentatively raised her head again. “Shampoo?” The Amazon glared at her. “Shampoo, I’m sorry; I shouldn’t be picking fights with you. It’s just... in that case, he might be really hurt. Unc— his father would have hit him as hard as possible, to make sure he came quietly. I didn’t hear a fight. And I— I think I’d rather he was unfaithful and safe, than maybe d-de—” She burst into tears. “I’m sorry Shampoo. I—”
“Amazon womans no supposed to cry over stupid males, but I spend whole night with wet pillow when he say he love you. I no want to lose him, but no way to change his heart, other than to make him hate me by killing you. So I let him go rather than see him hurt.” She slid over to sit beside Akane, holding her gently by the shoulders. “I understand, but you no understand he prefer death than have you think he not love you and break vow. That hurt him far more.”
“I— I suppose...” She sobbed for a moment more, then tried to pull herself together. “I’m sorry. You’re right, too. He even said that himself, a couple of weeks ago...” She tailed off, brightening slightly as she remembered the moment.
“That better,” said Shampoo, grinning slightly. “Now we go rescue your airen together like Amazon sisters.”
Akane gave a wan smile of her own. “What strange laws does that involve?”
“No laws, but is custom for Amazon to tell sisters about first night with airen.” Her grin deepened. “Was he shy colt... or raging stallion?”
Akane blushed more deeply than I’ve ever seen. I slid over to face her, commenting, “This is also an ancient tradition for Japanese sisters, you know.”
“And mothers-in-law,” added Auntie Saotome, coming over to sit beside me.
“And nosy old Matriarchs,” said Cologne, animating herself and pogoing over. “Mousse, leave us.”
“With pleasure,” muttered Mousse, already half-way through the doors to the next carriage. In the privacy of the otherwise-empty compartment, we huddled around my poor little sister.
“Well, Akane?” I prodded.
“Was he... manly?” asked Auntie, predictably.
“Does he know any interesting special techniques?” asked Cologne.
“Does you?” was Shampoo’s contribution.
Akane’s embarrassment meter pegged, but instead of exploding something inside her went »click« with the realisation that she was no longer a teenage schoolgirl, she was a wife, and apparently wives (as also represented by Auntie Saotome, and technically Cologne as well) were allowed to gossip about their sex lives. If Auntie did it, it was even polite!
“A shy colt? He was certainly skittish at first; he kept expecting me to mallet him for touching me. And he was certainly gentlemanly; once he got the hang of it he was very gentle and considerate.” She gestured her audience closer; we complied. “I had to put a stop to that, of course,” she confided with a smirk. “Honestly, he was so scared of breaking me... anyway, I made a few comments about how it was all he could manage, and...” She blushed again, but not from embarrassment this time. “I suppose he was a bit like a wild stallion, in that he took me savagely from behind while biting the nape of my neck, but it was really more like being ravaged by a giant tomcat...” She sat back with an enormous smile. Auntie and Cologne shared nods of satisfaction.
“Is why I no like Mousse,” sighed Shampoo. “He always treat me like spun glass doll. I want man who no is afraid to root living daylights out of me...”
“I must admit, for all his faults, Genma at least knew how to use his... most noble attribute,” said Auntie delicately, with the most salacious look I’ve ever seen.
I must admit that I was glad that we reached our station at that point. The thought of that fat panda in a sexual context turns my stomach.
It was well past midnight when we alighted from the train and headed up into the mountains. A brisk (for Auntie) torch-lit march through the trees brought us near to the camp-site in the grey pre-dawn light. Cologne, who had been muttering happily to herself about soil conditions and the lack of dew, admonished us to stay there on the path for the moment, and told Shampoo to start scouting in cat-form. One quick splash, and the adorable little kitty was sniffing her way towards the campsite, followed very slowly by Cologne as she examined every centimetre of ground. Without a torch.
“Can she actually see anything?” I asked Mousse quietly after a few minutes. After all, although it was light enough to move about by now, fine details were still obscured.
“Oh yes,” he replied. “She and some of the other Elders have exceptional eyesight. In fact,” he moved in to whisper, “most of the males in the village have poor eyesight, I’m just an extreme example. There’s a rumour that the Elders use an ancient ritual to steal the good vision from the men for their own uses.”
“Of course, it’s just a myth,” added Cologne, without looking up from examining the ground a good hundred metres ahead. “It is merely a genetic predisposition to poor eyesight on the one hand, and the result of superior ki mastery on the other. Just like our hearing, eh Mousse?”
I have got to learn that trick.
Auntie and I kept Akane distracted from Ranma’s possible fate by talking about grandchildren; Mousse pretended not to listen. About half an hour later, with the edge of dawn creeping down the mountainside towards us, Cologne called for us to come up to the camp.
There really wasn’t much to see. A single tent, with a backpack and supplies still stored under its extended flysheet; the ashes of a fire in a circle of rocks. And a lot of trampled grass. There was no sign of Shampoo, but Cologne immediately sent Mousse off into the trees again to find her. I glanced at Akane, concerned; she had paused at the edge of the clearing, and was looking ready to burst into tears again.
Cologne took charge. “Come on, girl, I need you to clear one or two things up. I’ve seen as much as I can here, so it’s safe to walk around.” Auntie immediately headed over to poke her nose into the tent, Akane and I went over to Cologne.
“The tent was used rather vigorously by two people before they finally slept; there’s nothing else to be gleaned from it, although I’m sure your mother-in-law will find much to interest her. However, over here we have a rock with some skin, a little dried blood, and a red hair...?”
Akane blushed and mumbled something like ‘naked girl wrestling’. “He bumped his head, it was nothing really.”
“And some more red hair on this conveniently-shaped tree over here?”
Akane blushed deeper. “I won the wrestling, so I got to decide what happened next.”
“Which involved tying the poor thing up and giving him a right seeing-to,” cackled Cologne. “Is he a screamer, in girl form?”
“Little gasps and moans, mostly,” said Akane, looking a little dreamy for a moment. “He sounds, err... very nice...”
Just when I thought she’d actually admit to being turned on by his girl form, Cologne went on, “Over here, on the other hand...” She gestured to the narrow gap in the surrounding undergrowth that Mousse had left by, almost opposite the path into the clearing. “The last movement before we arrived went like this. Ranma came out of the tent in the early morning, did a few stretches by the fire, then walked over here.” She led us over to the gap. “Someone had been waiting for him beside this bush; they went a few paces away from the clearing together. Beyond that, the trail vanishes; someone well-versed in stealth has covered it. But I found this...” She gestured to a projecting branch at about the height of my shoulder.
I peered at the sharp end. A couple of pieces of dark blue fibre were caught there, along with a long strand of black hair. One of the fibres had a lighter tint to its end.
“I am reminded of that floral-print wrap that young Kuonji wears...” said Cologne. “And the footprints are the right size to be hers...”
Akane’s battle aura torched up. “That... little... scheming... SLUT!” She was about to go into full rant mode when Shampoo leapt out from the bushes, hastily adjusting her clothes.
“NO! Violent girl not say one more word until see what I show!” Eyes blazing, she grabbed Akane’s hand and pulled her out of the clearing. Cologne and I followed as Shampoo dragged Akane a good three hundred metres uphill through dense undergrowth, to a tiny clearing under a small overhanging rock outcrop. Mousse was there, and at his feet...
—white flowers on blue obscured by blackness, a creeping stain that enveloped pale skin and shining steel alike, to soak the ground and draw the insects to the gaping hole torn in her delicate throat—
Shampoo supported Akane as she span, doubling over to vomit into the bushes. I forced down my own rising gorge, and moved up to stand with Cologne. “Such a waste,” she muttered, shaking her head. I nodded absently; something was wrong with the scene.
“Bear claws did that,” Cologne pointed to the wound. “And there are bear tracks here, leading along the line of the rock outcrop.”
“Something’s not right,” I said. “Not enough blood... no, not enough spray.”
Cologne nodded approvingly. “She was dead before her throat was torn out. A broken neck, I think.”
“And the type of bear?” I asked.
“Asiatic black, as you would expect for the area,” she replied. “Or possibly a panda who’s a good actor. Wait here for a moment.” She went off along the line of bear tracks. Behind me Akane was rambling incoherently about how she was sorry and didn’t mean it. I turned to see Shampoo still holding her gently, but gazing at Ukyô’s body intently. Then she flicked her eyes up to mine, and her face assumed a mask I hadn’t seen since she first came to Nerima.
“She never my friend. We too alike, maybe. But we share salt and fight together at need. She was... honourable rival. So for this murder,” she spat the word, looking back at the body, “I vow revenge!”
“Well, let’s hope we can catch him,” said Cologne as she came back to us. “The bear tracks fade away after a couple of hundred metres, and there’s no sign of anything else leaving the area. Damn, but he’s good. What are you doing, Ms Tendô?” This to me, as I pulled my phone out and began dialling.
“Calling the police,” I replied. “It’s probably a waste of time, but we’ve found a dead body, and that leaves a lot of loose ends to tie up.” She gave me an it’s-your-call look. “We can strike the camp and finish any of our own investigations while we’re waiting for them to show up.”
She nodded. “You do that. Once everything’s done, come back up here with the others. You stay here and help me, boy.” She turned and began to examine the body intently. I helped Shampoo get Akane to her feet, then finished dialling as we walked back to the clearing.
I briefed the police on the situation at the campsite, and informed them of the connection to the fraud case already reported at home. I then phoned home; I got Daddy, and at his insistence filled him in — with strict instructions to tell only Kasumi. He took the news that his oldest friend was probably a murderer as stoically as any ancient samurai could have wanted.
Meanwhile Shampoo explained the situation to Auntie. She rose to the occasion as handily as any samurai’s wife could have desired: not a word about her husband’s crime, but she took charge of Akane, who was by now completely drawn in on herself.
Shampoo and I struck the camp in almost complete silence.
We had just finished up when Mousse came into the clearing and announced, “The monkey-mummy wants you all to come back up to the— the site.” Auntie cocked her head to indicate Akane, then shook it gently in denial. Mousse shook his in return. “She says it would be to Tendô Akane’s benefit to be present.” He shrugged. “She usually knows what she’s talking about.” Still sceptical, Auntie guided Akane to her feet.
The little clearing under the overhang was, if anything, darker and colder than before. Cologne had hung a pair of disturbing-looking amulets from the nearest two trees, and was just placing a third on the body’s chest. “We don’t have much time,” she said, beckoning us up. “The sun’s getting a bit high for this. Stand between those trees,” she pointed at the amulet-bearers, “but don’t come any closer than that.”
We stood with our backs to the bushes as Cologne began chanting in a staccato monotone. Not any language I was familiar with; it sounded vaguely Germanic. “What’s she doing?” I whispered to Shampoo.
“I not know. Great-grandmother knows many ancient secrets, from many places.” She shivered. I was going to call her on her trepidation when I felt the falling temperature and shivered myself. It was getting darker, too.
Cologne’s chanting began to speed up, rising in pitch to match. The light dimmed, the temperature dropped, until the area under the overhang was as cold and dark as a winter’s evening. Just as I thought she couldn’t possibly speak any faster, she shouted in commanding Japanese: “Victim of treachery, come forth!”
Utter silence fell.
Slowly, a trio of pale blue corpse-lights began to form in the air above the body.
A cold wind whipped through the area, whispering ‘lies, lies, lies’.
Ukyô’s pallid, shadowy form began to appear above her corpse.
“Lies, lies, lies,” whispered the ghost. “He said he would be with me forever...”
“That’s quite enough of the theatrics,” snapped Cologne. “Speak properly!”
Wind, corpse-lights, and most of the biting cold disappeared in an instant; the scene brightened considerably, and Ukyô’s spirit took on a far more solid, colourful appearance.
“Sorry about that, old lady, it’s kinda in the job description. Hey guys!” She waved at us cheerily.
Akane stammered, “Y-you-you’re-you’re...”
“Dead?” completed Ukyô. “Yeah, sucks don’t it.” She glanced down at her body. “Dammit! He didn’t have to make that much of a mess of me! Crap. So much for leaving a beautiful corpse—”
“We don’t have a lot of time,” interrupted Cologne, “so if you would get to the point please?”
“Okay, okay,” said Ukyô. “Y’all remember how I was feeling just before the wedding, right?”
We nodded in unison.
“So I was on my way to the station to go back see my dad, when ol’ Genma comes up to me and says he’s sorry he couldn’t tell me before, but it was all just a trick to get the Tendô claim out of the way so Ranchan could marry me. And, well... I didn’t totally believe him, but I couldn’t take the chance he was telling the truth, so I came up here to wait for him in Hatonosu — over the hill there. We met up the night before last, and hiked up here for around dawn. He sent me on ahead, so I could get Ranchan.”
She looked apologetically at Akane. “He was working out when I got there, so I watched for a couple of minutes, then called him over when he stopped. He was so confused to see me... Right then I knew Genma was lying. But he came over to talk to me. He was just asking me why I was there, when Genma appeared behind him, right from outta nowhere, an’ slammed a huge rock into his head. Ranchan went down; Genma checked him, an’ said he was fine. Then he looked up at me, an’ the next thing I know he’s vanished an’ I’m falling down dead.”
“So,” she continued, bringing some of her ghostly effects back into play, “I hereby nominate the lot of you as my official instruments of vengeance. Go find that lying rat bastard of a panda an’ make sure he gets what’s coming to him!” She dropped the effects again.
Shampoo and Mousse nodded gravely, apparently completely at home with the whole experience. Cologne, Auntie and Akane remained smug, impassive and stunned, respectively.
“And I’m sorry, Saotome-san, for all the trouble I’ve caused your son, and for what’s gonna happen to your husband.”
“You were one of my son’s best friends, and the person most hurt by my husband’s actions. You have nothing to apologise for, and I assure you that the ‘rat bastard’ will get no mercy from me.” I almost cheered out loud.
“U-Ukyô, y-you’re d-dead,” stammered Akane, finally managing to finish the sentence.
“Sure am, sugar! Hey, it’s not so bad! I got to see my mom again...” She tailed off, her expression softening into sympathy. “Hey, guys, I don’t want you getting all depressed over me. Deal with the panda, throw a party for me, then get on with your lives.” She stepped forward to within arm’s reach of Akane. “You take care of Ranchan, y’hear? If I find out you’ve been neglecting him ‘cause you were upset about me, I’ll come back an’ haunt you!” She pulled a comical scary face, letting her tongue unroll to a metre in length. Akane giggled despite herself.
“That’th betteh.” She reeled her tongue in again. “You tell that baka Ranchan that he’s not to blame for anything that’s happened to me. The haunting applies to him too, if he neglects you.” She reached out to caress Akane’s cheek.
Auntie pulled Akane back, but she struggled free. “It’s okay. It’s Ukyô.” She raised her own hand to Ukyô’s face, copying her caress. “You’re so cold...”
“Only when I’m here, sugar. Back where I belong, it’s just right.” She held Akane’s gaze for a few seconds longer, then turned to me.
“Nabiki, I don’t have anything to put in a will, really, so I never made one, but I want you to make sure Konatsu’s looked after. The lease’ll run out on the shop in a month, an’ he’s got nowhere else to live... Make sure my dad knows that I wanted any spare cash or whatever to go towards helping him, okay?” She grinned. “And you can skim off five percent for yourself.”
“Ten percent,” I said automatically.
“Seven, an’ I don’t haunt you into an early grave.” She chuckled, making a joke of it.
“Deal,” I said, laughing it off. Still, why take the risk?
“And Nabiki—” she added, looking at me more seriously. “Look after this lot. They’ll rush off and do something stupid, maybe get themselves arrested.” ‘This lot’ took predictable umbrage at this; Ukyô ignored them. “The Old Lady’s smart too,” she nodded to Cologne, who took the understatement with good grace, and went on, “but it’s your home ground, so it’s your show. Try to use your powers for good, sugar... although something tells me you’ve already started down that road.”
She chuckled at the sardonic eyebrow I raised in response, then stepped back and gestured to include all six of us. “Just get out there, get this done, and get on with enjoying your lives. I’ll be seeing y’all sooner or later— hopefully much later!”
She began to fade, and the wind picked up again, whipping through the tiny clearing. When it died down again, the unnatural darkness that had covered the area lifted to allow the morning sun to bathe the rock, and the birds began to sing in the trees again. Cologne and Mousse collected the amulets, and I saw a flash of silver as she palmed one of Ukyô’s throwing spatulas.
“Grab one for me too, Elder,” I called.
“This one is for you, child,” she replied. “You are her chief nominee... I’ll keep it hidden in case your police decide to search you.”
We returned to the campsite knowing that the dead flesh we left behind wasn’t really Ukyô in any meaningful way.
The rest of the day was a complete wash-out. Cologne didn’t want to make the Jusenkyou curses official (a sentiment I agreed with, if for different reasons), which basically meant we couldn’t even hint that there might be more to Ukyô’s death than was immediately obvious: the last thing we wanted was questions that were difficult to answer without resorting to magic as an explanation, like ‘is there any connection between the panda seen at your residence and the panda-wounds on the body’. So they didn’t see it as anything other than an animal attack — after all, they saw the bear’s tracks. One of the park rangers had turned up too, and he knew they were genuine, as were the claw-marks. They didn’t even see the need for a post-mortem, although one would be performed as the law required.
Even so, it took hours — at the campsite, at the local station, and finally at the main prefectural station in Saitama — for them to be satisfied they had the complete story from everyone. They finally came to the unofficial conclusion that Ranma had actually run off with Ukyô, and just kept running when she was struck down by a rogue bear. (After all, what could an eighteen-year-old boy do about a bear?) Auntie later told me that it had taken all her force of will to keep Akane from attacking the police over this double slur on Ranma’s honour.
(Fortunately the police agreed to keep the Saotome family’s ‘shame’ a secret; I’m not sure if my brother-in-law would have much of a martial arts business if he were branded a coward on public record.)
So it was already mid-evening when, barely refreshed by a short sleep on the train, we got back home.
Auntie and the Amazons came with us; we still had a lot to talk about away from official ears. Kasumi greeted us with the news that the Gang of Four were camped out in the dôjô with their phones, and that Tsubasa and Konatsu had just arrived as per my earlier request. “And I haven’t told them about Ukyô yet,” she said worriedly.
“I will,” said Akane and Shampoo, simultaneously, then glared at each other.
“No, I will,” said Auntie. “It is more appropriate for such news to come from an elder.” Cologne nodded with a slight smirk; Auntie continued, “However, you can both help supply the details.”
Daddy was sitting in his customary position, gazing into space across the shogi board. The first few moves of a game had been played out on the board; Cologne perked up when she saw it and began paying a lot of attention to her surroundings — on the lookout for invisible pandas, no doubt. (I didn’t bother telling her that working on shogi puzzles was one of Daddy’s pastimes; after all, Genma might have been hiding out there.) She and I let the others go on ahead; we roused Daddy from his contemplation and quizzed him on his dealings with officialdom. Short story: “sorry, nothing we can do”.
By the time Cologne and I got out to the dôjô, the explanations were all finished. Akane was bracketed by Yuka and Sayuri, deep in conversation; Auntie and Shampoo were sitting with them but not really joining in. Tsubasa was laid out on the floor with a chúi embedded in his skull, and Mousse... well, something about Konatsu the weak male crying over his dead warrior love must have sparked something deep within his Amazon soul, because he was cradling the weeping transvestite against his chest and rocking him gently.
I collected Ukyô’s mini-spatula from Cologne. I had been considering what to do with it in the spare moments at the police station, and had come to the conclusion that Ukyô would want responsibility for the most physical manifestation of her need for revenge to go to someone who could actually use it. And no-one here had a better ability (and reason) to use it than Konatsu.
“Did you tell him the whole story, Mousse?” The Chinese boy nodded, shifting his arm protectively around Konatsu’s shoulder as I knelt down in front of him. The kunoichi gazed at me with shimmering eyes, somehow the perfect vision of tear-stained, bereft femininity. I held the spatula out to him, but pulled it back as he reached out.
“Ukyô asked me to look after you, and I don’t think she’d want you becoming a murderer,” I said in response to his uncomprehending look. “I have a plan that will get Ukyô her revenge legally, without any need for bloodshed. But I need someone to watch us from the shadows, in case it all goes wrong. And then...” He nodded in understanding, and I allowed his hand to close around the shining steel. He turned his head back to nestle against Mousse’s chest.
I left them together and went over to Hiroshi and Daisuke. They had sequestered a large section of the dôjô wall, and covered it with maps showing the Tokyo metropolitan area and a fair section of the hinterland as well. There were a couple of blue pins on the route from Ucchan’s to the nearest station, and one where she’d changed trains. There was also a single white pin at Minami-senju station, and a pair about a half a kilometre south of there. ‹You cast your bread upon the water, and sometimes it comes back with jam on...›
“You’ve been busy,” I commented. Each of the pins had a length of black thread attached, linking them to yellow sticky notes at the edge of the map. Looking closer, I saw that the note had details of time, location, what the subject was doing, and so on. They also had three stacks of file cards labelled ‘Enquiries’, ‘Misses’, and ‘Hits’. There were perhaps three hundred cards in total, most of them ‘misses’, each with a name, address, and so on.
“Yeah, well...” said Daisuke, looking confused. “It was mostly Yuka’s idea.”
“Hmmm...” I said, nodding as I checked the times Ukyô had been seen. Pretty close to what she said.
“Why’d he do it?” said Daisuke suddenly. “I mean... Saotome-san.”
“She had been as much use as she would ever be, and was about to become a serious liability,” I said distractedly, glancing at a few ‘misses’ — they’d even been smart enough to write down their reasons for deciding they weren’t our targets.
“Yeah, but... he didn’t have to kill her,” said Hiroshi.
“No,” I said quietly. “He didn’t.”
“Who’d’ve thought he was... like that,” said Daisuke.
“Who indeed...” I murmured absently; I was reading the ‘hits’. “So Ukyô’s got blue pins, and Genma’s white...”
“We were going to use yellow if the panda was spotted,” said Hiroshi. “And black or red for Ranma, depending on hair colour...”
I nodded and stuck a trio of blue, black and white pins in the rough area of the campsite, just for completeness’ sake.
“You don’t think...” said Daisuke, leaning in close and dropping his voice to a murmur, “I mean, we’ve only spotted Saotome-san; there’s no sign of Ranma...”
“We know you wouldn’t want Akane to think this, but...” continued Hiroshi, tailing off with a worried look.
“You forget, Genma has always thought of Ranma as a commodity. He wouldn’t just throw him away,” I said quietly, holding up one of the ‘hit’ cards. “One martial artist with oversized backpack,” I tapped the relevant line. “My guess is that it contained a certain redhead; you know how he can fold up into a tiny space, especially when female.” I paused for a moment, calculating travel times in my head and comparing the result to the details of the white pins. “This is definitely him,” I said. “He’s going to ground in San’ya.” Daisuke hissed in automatic revulsion. “Or at least that’s what he wants us to believe.”
“San’ya?” asked Cologne from behind me. “I’m not sure I’m familiar with the area...” Hiroshi muttered something about ‘animals’.
“It’s a hangover from one of the most shameful acts in our history,” I said coldly, glaring at the boys, “and a reminder that there’s no such thing as a ‘good’ state-imposed religion.”
“Oh, the Demons’ Gate?” said Cologne, to Hiroshi’s discomfort. “I remember that...” True, she was old enough to have seen the worst of the Edo period.
“Yes, well the bigotry lives on to this day,” I said pointedly. Neither boy looked particularly ashamed. “San’ya is full of people with nowhere else to go; it’s exactly the sort of place Genma could disappear into, and very few traditional Japanese would follow. Fortunately there are plenty of people with more enlightened attitudes,” I stressed the Buddhist term as I pulled out my mobile and dialled.
“You can’t send your girls in there!” blurted Hiroshi. “The Yakuza’ll eat them alive!”
I gave him a ‘don’t be stupid’ look and turned my attention to the phone. “Ah, Yumi? How did it go?”
“Fine! We were all finished up by eleven last night. Any results yet?”
“We’ve got him pinned down to San’ya. Could you take that last batch of flyers and saturate the area?”
“If I get Ami and some of the more level-headed guys from last night... sure, no problem.”
“All right. Let me know how it goes.”
“Sure thing, boss. Ja!”
“Ja.” I disconnected and turned to Cologne, pitching my voice to direct it more at the boys, “My best people know how to carry themselves in that sort of area, and they’re not doing anything that would interest the Yakuza.”
“Just being there will interest the Yakuza!” said Hiroshi, barely covering Daisuke’s muttered “well, you would know...”. I chose to ignore both of them.
“I have a feeling that mentioning the Nekohanten on the flyer will act as a deterrent to anyone considering interfering,” said Cologne with a self-satisfied tone. “At least if they think to check with their superiors before acting...” I raised an eyebrow in her direction. “Oh come child, do you think this is the first time an Amazon has had occasion to visit the Home Islands? We’ve had an... understanding with the more prominent tekiya families around the country for nearly four hundred years.”
I was about to say ‘But they don’t go back that far’, but she nailed me with an ‘As far as you know’ look before I could open my mouth. “Well,” I substituted, “I suppose you two could probably go home now...”
“Actually,” said Hiroshi, “we’ve already cleared it with our parents to stay the night again...”
“Kasumi’s going to put futons down for us in here, and for the girls in Akane’s room,” finished Daisuke. “We wanted to be on the spot if you needed us.”
“Thanks, guys,” I said, with surprised gratitude. They mumbled something about ‘he’d do the same for us’, and turned to go over to join the girls.
I glanced around the room again. Neither of our cross-dressers was in a position to report, which was rather annoying. “Before you go, did Konatsu or Tsubasa tell you anything?”
“Didn’t speak to us at all,” said Hiroshi. “Ask Kasumi; she sat with them for a while.” They wandered off.
Kasumi’s always had this weird ability to show up when needed around the house, so I wasn’t surprised when she came in at that moment, carrying a huge tray of snacks and drinks. I let her go around everyone, stopping to check on Tsubasa, Konatsu and Akane in turn, before she finally got round to Cologne and me. She sank gracefully to the floor, her skirt pooling around her, and politely offered Cologne some tea.
Once the pleasantries were out of the way, Kasumi told us that Kunô and Kodachi had apparently spent the day (and much of the previous night) searching for their lost loves, the one in the streets, the other by rooftop. Other than that, their time was spent in normal (for them) activities. ‹Of course, waterlogged bread usually just sinks.›
Unsurprisingly, those of us who’d gone hiking that day turned in soon after we got home. The Amazons took Konatsu back to the Nekohanten to keep an eye on him; Tsubasa was left unconscious in the dôjô, and the Gang of Four settled in beside him for a night of phone-sitting. Auntie elected to stay the night; Kasumi barely had to suggest the possibility to get her to accept.
Morning rolled around. The ‘Enquiries’ pile had grown by half a dozen, and another white pin had appeared in the San’ya area. Miracle of miracles, the sighting included the street address he was seen furtively creeping around.
And there was a lovely surprise waiting for me, heralded by the ever-efficient Yumi.
“You have to see this, boss!” she called across the garden, waving a handful of flyers. I hate morning people.
Oh joy. Kunô and Kodachi, not content merely to scour the neighbourhood for the Pigtailed Goddess, Foul Sorcerer, Red-haired Harridan, and Ranma-sama, had splashed out on a dawn raid covering Nerima with a thin layer of air-dropped flyers, beseeching the help of the ‘unwashed masses’ (direct quote, from both) in finding their loves and/or subjects of revenge. Several million of them, Yumi estimated. Each, of course; apparently you could map the progress of the pair of hired aircraft across the ward by whether the Ranma-sama or Pigtailed Goddess flyers were on the top.
“Well, good luck to them,” I grumbled. “If they find either one closer to here than the Imperial Palace I’ll be amazed...”
“We got San’ya and the surrounding area covered by half eleven,” continued Yumi.
“That’s pretty fast going,” I commended. “Any problems?”
“Not really — there was one guy who tried pushing us a little too hard for a ‘date’, but when we went into the rougher areas he gave up.”
“Good. All right, I don’t think we’ll need you for the rest of the day. Keep your phone on, just in case.”
“Sure thing, boss,” she said, and scurried off.
One emergency back-up cup of coffee later, and Cologne was pogoing in the front door. Whatever strange magic she had woven to get Mousse to concentrate on the job for the last couple of days had obviously worn off; an enraged duck was getting the smack-down from an irritated Shampoo in the background.
“Another dose so soon could have... unfortunate side-effects,” she said when I raised an eyebrow at the disturbance. She shrugged. “I wanted him to stay and look after Konatsu,” she continued. “Unfortunately, Konatsu decided he was feeling much better and went back to open the Ucchan’s, and refused the offer of help...” I sighed.
“We found this on the centre table of the Cafe this morning,” she continued, holding out a carefully-folded piece of seriously expensive stationery. I unfolded it and read aloud for the benefit of the gathering family:
“’Honoured Elder, it has come to my attention that a certain powerful gentleman in Hong Kong has arranged to take delivery of a beautiful red-headed girl. He has been given ample proof that she will make a crack bodyguard, once suitably indoctrinated.’” I looked up into Cologne’s eyes. “Of course you realise it’s quite possible that Genma has one or more imprinting eggs at his disposal.”
“He wouldn’t!” raged Akane. “That BASTARD!”
“Akane, please!” said Auntie Nodoka sharply. “It’s rude to interrupt; let Nabiki finish.”
“Sorry, Auntie...” she tailed off sheepishly.
I cleared my throat. “There’s only one more line: ‘This affair is yours under our accord.’ And a hanko, some sort of draconic device...?” I looked over at Cologne.
“It’s a signet indeed, an indication that the sender is one of our more friendly contacts in your underworld. Our accord is that... well, to put it simply, if something important to us is trivial to them, they stay completely out of it. It works both ways, of course.”
I nodded. “So they’ll neither help nor hinder us. Fair enough...” I handed the paper back to Cologne; she destroyed it in a flare of ki.
“Now, Akane,” said Auntie, “I believe you wanted to discuss what my bastard husband was capable of?”
Face-faulting isn’t nearly as fun to do as it is to watch.
“Prithee, thou usurious termagant, do these peasant gossip-mongers speak sooth? Dost thou indeed pit thy nonpariel perspicacity ‘gainst the grievous artifice of that caitiff dastard Saotome?”
‹Good grief, he’s in verbal overdrive today!› I ran his declamation through my head a couple of times. Surprisingly enough, it actually contained compliments.
“You really know what to say to a girl when you want her help, Kunô-baby,” I drawled, “but could you speak a little plainer? Which ‘grievous artifice’ did you have in mind?”
“Why, none other than the defiling and dishonouring of the pure and tidy Akane, and the reprehensible abduction of the flame-haired huntress!”
Kunô had arrived just after Cologne had started briefing everyone on the finer points of Phoenix Mountain imprinting eggs. He had prostrated himself to Akane, and apologised for failing to protect her in her time of need, then turned his attention on me. I was less than pleased to see him, to put it mildly; his fixations were totally predictable, but their effects were not, and I did not need that sort of random factor at that point.
Hence, a distraction was in order; of the two-birds-one-stone variety.
“Verily, Kunô-dono, I do. One clue have I discovered: the warrior Ryôga is the key to your retribution. Seek him out — you might try the Unryû homestead, in the hinterlands — and he will lead you to vengeance!”
“I know the fellow! No expense shall be spared in bringing him before me!” He turned to Akane, and bowed down on both knees again. “I have failed you once. It shall not happen again.” He sprang to his feet. “I go!”
He went, leaving the gate swinging in his haste. Shampoo closed it on her way in, Mousse’s unconscious duck form draped over one arm. Cologne turned back to continue her explanations; I had already read up on the eggs’ effects, so tuned her out and looked questioningly at Shampoo.
“Stupid male not want to follow orders,” she growled, laying him carefully on the engawa. “Is supposed to be rearguard, not try to stand with front-line fighters just because of infatuation.”
“Can we trust him to behave himself in tight situation?” I asked her.
She shook her head firmly. “No. Will ignore orders to help ‘his’ Shampoo, will get in way if ‘his’ Shampoo need to do something dangerous, will hit wrong targets because he always think ‘his’ Shampoo like him if he no wear glasses.”
I nodded; she was probably right. “I had hoped the vengeance quest would help focus him. We could use his abilities...”
Shampoo shrugged. “Shampoo admit — not to his face! — that Mousse’s skills good, but his mind blind in different way from eyes: focus very strong, but never on right thing.”
I sighed. “So what will you do with him?”
“I not know. Not want to lock up or use dangerous technique on stupid duck, but not want him hurting mission or getting self hurt either. I not love him as he wants, but he child-time friend and not want see him hurt. Ukyô already show obsession sometimes give hopes that kill.” She turned away to look at Mousse, her eyes suspiciously shiny. Akane moved over and put an arm around her; Shampoo leaned into her, her shoulders shaking as she sobbed silently.
To my surprise, Cologne gave her a tender, understanding look as she came over to me. “She’s been bottling that up ever since we found the body. Adding her worry for Mousse...” She fixed me with a meaningful stare. “It is not a weakness, young lady. Far better she let it out now, while she safely can, than have it distracting her at the wrong time.”
I gave her a mostly neutral shrug-and-nod in response. Even with Daddy as an obvious counterexample, I knew she was right; but the scarcity of opportunities where I ‘safely can’ has led people to believe that I can’t. Not a bad thing, on the whole.
“So,” she went on, “what will your next move be?”
I seamlessly shifted mental tracks. “We can’t do anything from here. We need to get over to his last known location, get a feel of the place... maybe an opportunity will present itself.” Cologne nodded in agreement. “I don’t want to go in mob-handed, though. Myself, yourself?” — she nodded again — “and Shampoo... although, if she’s willing, I’d like her to get her cat-form’s fur dyed. She’s too distinctive normally.”
“I’m coming too,” interjected Akane from beside Shampoo, her tone allowing for no opposition.
I’d already planned for this. “Yes, but I want you to stay a bit back, with Konatsu. We’ll need you to cover our backs.”
Fortunately, that made sense to her. “Okay. But how do we follow you, or know if you’re in trouble? You may not be able to phone us.”
“I was hoping Mousse could guide you from the air, but if we can’t rely on him...” I pondered for a moment. “Hang on. I may have something.”
I got up, and went back into the house. Auntie and Daddy looked like they were going to insist on coming too, but I had other uses for them. “The police will have contacted Ukyô’s father by now; he’s probably on his way to Saitama already. Daddy, could you try to track him down? The police will have given him the official story, but I think he deserves to know the truth, and it would be best to come from you.”
He nodded, and got up to go to the phone. One down. I turned to Auntie, and motioned Kasumi to come closer so I could speak discreetly with them. “We can’t trust Osaka-san to let us stay here indefinitely, and I really can’t see a way for us to get back the title to our property. Auntie, could you help Kasumi pack as much as possible? We may need to move quickly — I hope we’ll be able to store some things in the Ucchan’s and the Nekohanten temporarily, but I really don’t know what to do next. If you have any ideas...?”
“I’m sure we’ll be able to work something out over the next day or two,” replied Auntie. “At the very least, please consider yourselves guests at my home until you have made other arrangements.”
“Thanks, Auntie,” I said, straightening up again. Two down. I glanced over to Kasumi. “Will you be all right?” She smiled back to me and nodded, but her eyes looked troubled, and briefly darted in Auntie’s direction.
“I will make a start with Ranma’s and my husband’s things,” said Auntie, suddenly rising and gliding out of the room. Kasumi put her stern face on again.
I leaned toward her again, and said quietly, “Okay Sis, what’s up?”
“I really don’t like the way things are going, Nabiki. Are you sure we can’t avoid losing our home?”
“Even if we had the money, we couldn’t buy Osaka-san off. Grounds this size, in this location... if he puts an apartment block up, he’ll have ten times his money back within a few years. And there really isn’t anything we can do to force him to give the title back.”
Kasumi scanned my face, looking for any sign that I was holding something back. “All right,” she said finally. “Then we will face this challenge and make the best of it. Even so, I am not happy about losing the home we grew up in...”
“Neither am I, Sis. Still, no matter how comfortable it is, don’t you think it’s becoming a little like a prison?”
“I have never said such a thing.” It was as close to an agreement as I’d ever get out of her.
I sighed, and gave her a supportive smile. “It’ll work out, don’t worry.” I turned and went up to my bedroom.
By the time I was back down, Mousse had regained both consciousness and humanity. “I have a plan to find Ranma,” I said, putting on my most businesslike manner, “and an important part of it can only be done by you. Will you help us?” Mousse was used to women ordering him around, and usually reacted badly; I was hoping that asking him would work better.
“I suppose...” he said, grudgingly. “I take it you need me because of my curse?”
“Not just that,” I assured him. “You’re the only one of us who can fly, yes, but you’re also the only one that can carry a significant amount at the same time.” I showed him one of the items I’d collected from my room, a black plastic box about the size of a cigarette packet. “It’s a tracking device; it sends out a radio pulse that can be followed using this,” and I showed him a slightly larger box with a few indicators and a speaker grille on it. “It also acts as a bug; it can pick up and transmit even quiet sounds.” One of the Electronics Club members made the thing as a present for me; it was very sweet of her, but unfortunately it was too large for the sort of use she had envisioned. “Could you try hiding it?” I handed the transmitter to him. He made a pass across his chest with his hand, and the device vanished.
“All right,” I said, turning to Akane and handing her the receiver. “You’re going to be using this once we get going, so you might as well try it out now. These two dials give direction and distance; the distance can be thrown off if the batteries are low or there’s solid objects in the way, but that won’t be a problem for us. How does it look?”
Akane peered at the indicators, turning from side to side, then slowly backed away from Mousse. “Looks fine to me...” she called when she reached the boundary wall.
“Could you try the sound pickup while you’re over there? Press the green button...” Once she had done so, I recited the sound engineer’s mantra: “Testing, testing, one... two...”
“I can’t hear a thing,” called Akane. “Maybe it’s broken?”
“Maybe... Mousse, could you bring it back out again?” When he had produced the tracker, I repeated the mantra.
“I hear you now!” said Akane.
“Okay, so sound can’t get into... wherever it is you put things, Mousse. Do you know anything else that might be important?”
“Not really,” said Mousse. “No-one’s ever tried that sort of thing before. You can store living animals fine, and things like food, and I can manage things up to a meter or so across... and about half a ton in total. But you knew most of that already, right?”
I nodded. “All right, that changes things a bit. I was hoping we’d be able to communicate with you, Akane, even if only one-way.” I thought for a moment, then went on, “OK, here’s the plan...”
About an hour later, we were heading south from Minami-senju station, into the middle of San’ya. All joking aside, we had to be careful here. While many of the inhabitants were normal, hard-working people who merely had the misfortune of coming from a blood-tainted family, there were also those who had been reduced to savagery by lack of employment, lack of hope — and those who controlled them. Like my factors the previous night, I was careful to avoid making myself a tempting target for robbery — but while they had simply swept through the district putting up flyers, we were here to ask questions. Two film directors were murdered here not that long ago, for shining too strong a light on the area.
The things we do for family...
Shampoo, her fur dyed an inconspicuous dark brown, was scouting around from the rooftops ahead of us — for some, she would be a tempting potential meal at ground level. By the time Cologne and I had reached the street where Genma was last seen, she had checked out our target building for any sign of the fugitive, and returned to give the pre-arranged meows that indicated there were none.
“He probably ran the instant he saw one of your flyers,” Cologne commented as we approached the place, a seedy two-storey flophouse, sandwiched between a small bicycle repair shop and a cobbler’s.
“True...” I murmured. “I’m hoping that keeping him on the run will cause him to make mistakes. He’s a lot more predictable when he’s acting by instinct.”
“And more dangerous,” warned Cologne.
“Yes, well...” I replied, “I’m not so sure about that. What happened to Ukyô wasn’t due to lack of forethought...” I pushed open the flophouse door, and went in, nose wrinkling against the sudden odour.
“Heh, well if it smells so bad in here, maybe you should go somewhere else,” said a surly voice from the darkened corner. Blinking the sunlight out of my eyes, I looked over the stained counter at the singularly unimpressive specimen sitting behind it. Sweat-stained undershirt, a few tattoos indicating a very low rank, and an unshaven, pock-marked face, twisted into a very familiar expression of chagrin...
“I will, as soon as you confirm something for me,” I replied in as neutral a tone as I could manage, and pulled out a photograph of Genma’s human form. “I take it you have a grievance against this man?”
The flophouse owner swore briefly. “Yeah, and so what?”
Cologne shifted beside me, allowing the logo on her robe to be highlighted in the sunbeam streaming through the door. “We have a bigger one.”
The man covered his recognition pretty well. “Yeah, well, the bastard paid for two nights in advance, but he skipped out late last night and snatched the cash box on the way. Not much in it beyond the day’s takings, but it’s the principle, ya know?”
“He’s not exactly known for having any principles,” I said wryly. “I don’t suppose you have any idea where he might have gone?”
He shrugged. “Said something about needing transport, wanted to know who around here could drive him with no questions asked. I gave him a couple of names... here.” He scribbled briefly on a scrap of paper, then handed it to me. “’Fraid I don’t know any more.”
“That’ll do fine, thanks,” I said, turning to go.
“Um...” said the man, pulling one of my flyers from under the counter, “says here I get a free meal if I spotted this guy?”
“That’s right,” said Cologne. “It’ll be a day or two before we can arrange it, but if you phone this number,” she tossed one of the Nekohanten’s cards onto the counter, “we can arrange a time.”
“Says ‘served’. Does that mean by a cute waitress?”
I rolled my eyes as Cologne sighed and said, “Yes, very cute. But she doesn’t take kindly to being fondled—”
“No way!” said the man, holding his hands up. “I’m not like that — I just wanna show my mum a nice time is all!”
“We’ll make sure it’s the perfect evening for you,” chuckled Cologne.
“Thanks for your help,” I said again as we turned to leave.
“Where to now?” asked Cologne once we were outside again.
I checked the list, and looked around the area, trying to visualise it as a night scene. “Not the first one,” I said. “Genma wouldn’t take the first in a list like that, just in case... The second one is no good either; he’d have to go down this street here, and it’d be brightly lit, whereas the third is down that alley — it’d be pretty dark in there at night.”
She looked at me with something like approval. “All right, let’s give that one a try first then,” she said, giving a subtle hand-sign. “Through the alley, then across the street into the next alley, second garage on the left,” she murmured, as if to herself. Above us, Shampoo stretched lazily, then leapt over the alley and across the rooftops; in the sky an inconspicuous white shape stopped circling and banked to follow.
Shampoo was waiting perched on the garage’s sliding door when we got there. My heart sank when she hissed at our approach, indicating that the place was Genma-free but smelt of death. Cologne knocked on the door with her staff, then slid it aside after a moment when there was no answer.
What with Ukyô and this, I will never hear a fly’s buzzing the same way again.
One body was in two pieces, the upper half sitting upright against the back wall, with the legs and lower abdomen lying in front of it. The other, back marked with a massive gash that exposed the severed spine, lay on a flight of stairs through an open doorway at the back.
“Kijin Raishû Dan,” murmured Cologne. “I hope this isn’t the end of our trail, Tendô-san...”
“Can’t you bring their spirits back to bear witness?” I asked, already casting my eyes around for another option.
“I’m afraid not, child. The amulets will need weeks to recharge.”
“Pity...” I said, then brightened up as I spotted what I was looking for. “Not that we’ll need them, with any luck.”
“Up there,” I said, pointing to a small microphone wedged inconspicuously behind a rafter. “These gentlemen didn’t strike me as... unprofessional, nor the sort to trust a stranger who appeared in the middle of the night. I can’t see a wire leading from it, so the recorder must be upstairs. Err...” It was tight, but there was just enough blood-free space to get past the body. It took me a few minutes and a couple of close calls, but I managed to get past without disturbing the scene. Cologne, of course, pogoed up safely without any hesitation.
There was a small office above the garage, with a desk positioned right above where the microphone was hidden. The cable ran up the leg and into a drawer; I opened it by the very corner of the handle, with my hanky covering my hand. “No point in taking any chances,” I said to Cologne when she raised an eyebrow at me. There was a cheap cassette recorder inside; its sixty-minute tape wound to its end. Taking care to avoid the main part of the switch, I set it to rewind.
After a few minutes of looking around the office and finding nothing pertinent, the recorder clicked off. “Okay, let’s see what we’ve got...” I said, setting it to play. There was silence, then the background seashore noise you always get with cheap equipment, and then...
[knocking] “All right, all right, I’m coming!” [door opens] “Who the hell are you? You know what time it is?”
[Genma’s voice] “Heh. I heard that you were businessmen who knew when not to ask questions. How disappointing...”
[First voice] “Oh yeah? And what sort of ‘business’ did you have in mind?”
[Genma] “Just a short trip. I need to get to Moriya-cho, Kanagawa ward.”
[First voice] “Where?”
[Second voice] “That’s in Yokohama, innit?”
[First voice] “At this time of night? Get bent!”
[Third voice] “Now now, wait a moment. I’m sure we can come to a suitable arrangement...”
[Genma] “Of course. How about this: you drive me, you stay alive.”
[First voice] “Huh?”
[Second voice] “You bastard, you can’t—”
[Genma] “Sai Dai Kyû Kijin Raishû Dan!” [wet noise]
[Third voice] “Kenichi! Fuck—”
[Genma] “So, which of you two is driving me?”
[Third voice] “Fuck that!” [running]
[Genma] “Kijin Raishû Dan!” [wet noise] “Looks like you’re it.”
[First voice, terrified] “Please don’t kill me! I— I’ll do it!”
[Genma] “Good.” [mutters] “No-one else here, good.” [aloud] “Right, let’s get going then.”
There were various noises as the van started up and pulled outside, then the garage door was closed again. The tape ran on, only the background noise remaining.
Back on a train again, this time headed south out of Tokyo proper. I had called Akane and her group in for a conference, so all six of us were together and human, but most of the half-hour journey was spent in silence. It was only as we pulled in to Shinkoyasu station that I shook off the mood and got down to business again.
“Right. Genma was very specific about where he wanted to be. There’s a chance that he was laying a false trail, but unless the folks back home get another lead, it’s all we’ve got to go on. So... we’ll form up teams the same as before, and try to find out where he’s holed up.” Nods all round. “Let’s go then!”
We faced a good quarter-hour’s hike to get from the station to the centre of the area Genma was heading for, most of it along a wide, busy road lined with small houses and apartment blocks. Quite a few pedestrians out and about, very little cover, and not much in the way of trails to follow, so I allowed Shampoo to ride on my shoulder. We were nearing the point where we’d turn off into the smaller streets, when Cologne suddenly grabbed my arm and pulled me behind a nearby wall. I was about to ask the obvious questions, when the sound I had been dreading all day reached my ears...
I flattened myself back against the wall. “Damn. This is the last thing we need... He’d probably help thwart Genma out of pure malice, but the chances of him not taking advantage of the situation are slim indeed...”
Cologne nodded. “And if Genma has an imprinting egg as you suspect, the risk is just too great.”
“So what do we do?” I asked. “We can’t just hide and hope he goes away — nothing works as planned around that old man!”
“Someone will have to draw him away,” she replied.
“That would have to be you,” I said. “None of us could hope to keep out of his reach for long... but how will you keep his attention once you have it?”
She grimaced, not a pretty sight. “There’s only one way... I hate to do this, but—” She fixed me, then Shampoo, with a serious glare. “I’m going to let you keep the memory of what’s about to happen, but it’ll go badly for either of you if you mention what you see to anyone.” Her face softened. “I doubt I’ll be able to help further... Shampoo, please follow Tendô-san’s instructions in this matter. Good luck to both of you.” She pulled herself upright, stepped out of cover, and—
[In accordance with Cologne’s wishes, I won’t say what she did next. I can however report the conversation that followed:
“Eh? Who’s that? [beat] Cologne-chan? Is that you? HOTCHA!! Come to Happi!”
“Now now Happi, you know the rules. You have to catch me first! [girlish giggle]”
“I’m a-comin’! [fading with distance] Woo-hoo!!”]
The coast was clear. I raised an eyebrow at Shampoo. “If I was ever in any doubt over whether or not your great-grandmother liked Ranma, it’s cleared now. We’d better get moving, or we’ll risk losing him again.”
Shampoo mewed her agreement.
Now that we were in Genma’s target area, we had to find where he was holed up. A general lack of vacant lots (and his own innate desire for comfort) meant he wouldn’t be camping outside, but there were no convenient flophouses in the area either. He wouldn’t have paid for two days at the previous place if he was meeting his contact today, so he still needed somewhere to spend the night. But where? Warehouses, a car dealership... I looked around the area, trying to see it through Genma’s eyes. One warehouse, of middling size and an abandoned look, caught my eye. I asked Shampoo to take a sniff around.
When she returned, she ‘told’ me that Genma’s scent was there, along with a faint smell of death, but that she’d need help getting in to find out more. I followed her to the side wall of the building, taking care to stay out of the view of its grimy windows, to one which had a broken pane near the bottom. I lifted her and carefully slid her inside.
Several minutes passed before I heard from her again, this time the staccato mewing that indicated she wanted to change back. I unscrewed the cap from the small flask I’d been carrying in my shoulder bag, and carefully poured a stream of hot water through the broken pane.
“Scent of panda is clear in here,” she whispered through the window shortly thereafter. “Not sure,” she went on, “but think can also smell too-faint scent of Ranma. Is a van parked inside here, and some blood, but no sign of body. Still need to search properly, but will let you in to help now. Come to door!”
I went around to the front of the warehouse. While I waited at the small personnel door beside the main doors, I looked up, scanning the sky for Mousse. On spotting my raised (and no doubt blurred) face, he ceased his circling and came down to perch on the warehouse roof, just as Shampoo eased the door open.
“Panda-man tried to rig alarm on door, but easy to get around from behind. Come in quick!” I slid silently through the door; Shampoo (still unashamedly naked) closed it behind me. “Change back now please!”
I obliged with a bottle of cold water, then bent down to whisper, “That’s the last of the cold. I’ve got enough hot to change you back once; after that we’ll need to wait for Mousse.” She nodded, then sped off to the back of the warehouse. I paused to look around in the dim light.
Most of the floor-space was dirty but clear, littered here and there with scraps of wood, tarpaulin, and wire binding. Near the middle was a nondescript grey van, its doors lying open. The back end of the warehouse was cluttered with broken packing crates. An office had been built in one corner, while the other held an old cargo container.
I went over to the van first, while Shampoo headed towards the office. There really wasn’t much to see there, although I expect a fully-equipped criminalist team would be able to tell me a few things. By myself, all I could determine was that the driver hadn’t bled out here, although he may have been injured or killed. There was also a fairly large, partially dried water stain covering the driver’s seat and part of the floor; it smelled faintly of urine. Other than that, nothing of consequence.
I started towards the container just as Shampoo exited the office, shaking her head. I had already discounted that space; it was too obvious as well as being something of a trap. I had nearly reached the large metal box when she peeked round the corner and stiffened suddenly.
I stopped, and went through a quick calming exercise to suppress my aura (I’m no martial artist, but I have spent the last two years successfully sneaking up on them), then eased myself forward with the gliding step best suited for silence in this terrain. Once at the corner...
There was a narrow gap between the container and the warehouse wall. Genma, in human form, was lying wedged on his side some distance in, asleep but breathing quietly in that position. Beyond him, barely visible in the gloom, a shock of tousled red hair protruded from Genma’s tatty old backpack.
Shampoo and I retreated around the container. I pulled the thermos from my bag, whispering “I can’t drag him out of there by myself”. She nodded as I poured the last of the hot water over her and she blurred into her human form, pulling a dress and slippers from nowhere and sliding into them in one quick motion.
“Now what?” she whispered. “No can lift Ranma over sleeping panda-man, lift over metal box make too much noise...”
I nodded. “Genma wouldn’t sleep there without another way to get out quietly. Let’s see...” I led her to the other end of the container. Sure enough, there was a gap between it and the wall, just barely large enough for human Genma to fit through, and guarded by some paint tins stacked precariously on an old crate. We quickly dismantled the crude alarm, then eased ourselves into the narrow space.
Once around the corner, we searched the area thoroughly for further warning devices. Finding none, Shampoo lifted the backpack, still with Ranma inside, and I guided her back out to the main warehouse floor, then signalled her to carry Ranma over behind the van. Once there, she eased the pack to the ground and we took stock of the situation.
Ranma was... not unconscious. I won’t claim he was awake, but his eyes were partly open, pupils dilated and wandering sluggishly back and forth between Shampoo’s face and mine. Dried blood had matted the red hair on the back of his head, but this seemed far beyond mere concussion. He was gagged, but only the faintest of incoherent moans made their way past the obstruction.
“What has he done to you, Ranma...” I sighed.
“Maybe something to do with this?” asked Shampoo, reaching into a side-pocket of the backpack and pulling out a small plastic bag containing a small amount of white powder, followed by a cheap syringe.
“Oh gods no...” I whispered. “Come on, let’s get him out of here.”
Pulling Ranma out of the backpack was easy enough, but getting off the ropes that had held him in such a neat bundle was another story. After ten minutes of pulling, which Ranma sat through with barely a sound, we finally managed to get them untied and off. I helped Shampoo lift his slender female form into a fireman’s carry, then...
»CRASH« A section of the far wall exploded. Two figures stumbled through the resulting dust-cloud.
“Where are we now?” cried one, as if by habit.
The taller figure emerged from the dust and spotted us. “Zounds! ’Tis none other than the pigtailed goddess! And the Tendô virago and the gaijin tavern-wench, come to assist our noble endeavour!”
The other spotted Shampoo’s burden. “RANMA! You enemy of all women! You will pay for what you did to Ak—”
Ryôga’s diatribe was cut short as over three tons of steel container flew across the warehouse and crushed him to the floor. We barely had time to register this before a huge black-and-white monster appeared briefly behind Kunô, jabbing out with a paw and felling him instantly. The panda blurred out of sight; Shampoo barely had time to drop Ranma before Genma was on her, a vicious swipe robbing her of consciousness too. Then he vanished again, and blackness claimed me...
Surprisingly, I awoke without any major pain. My ankles were bound tightly, my wrists tied behind my back, and some foul-tasting material filled my mouth, but otherwise I was untouched. Quite some time had passed; the warehouse was in darkness, lit only by the flickering of a small fire. I took stock of what I could see without moving.
Genma had moved the container back near the wall again, forming a small secluded area. Ranma was propped against the metal side, tied once more but free of the backpack, obviously still high on whatever Genma had given him. Shampoo was propped next to him, gagged and trussed up even more thoroughly than Ranma had been, but completely awake and glaring furiously. Kunô was still unconscious, similarly bound and lying on the floor by Ranma’s other side. I was lying opposite them, against the warehouse wall, unable to see the fire or any other part of the space. But it was obvious that we were not alone.
“These were not part of the original deal.” A cultured voice, speaking Japanese perfectly but with an obvious Chinese accent. “What exactly are you proposing?”
“They tried to interfere in the sale,” rumbled Genma. “I’m hoping to take advantage of that, by offering your master an unexpected bargain.”
“Go ahead,” said the foreigner.
“The boy’s family is rich. They would undoubtedly pay a large ransom for his safe return; I would pass him on for... let’s say ten million yen, a fraction of what I would expect them to pay. However, if that would involve too much uncertainty for your master, I can dispose of him tracelessly.
“The girl is an exceptional martial artist. Not as accomplished as the redhead, but still a valuable asset. She is also... more than easy on the eye?” The other man grunted. “I happen to have a spare imprinting egg; I would be prepared to sell it and the girl on to your master for an additional three hundred million — a bargain, I’m sure you’ll agree.”
“I have some leeway to negotiate, but this is beyond my remit. I’ll have to contact my master, and have the funds released if he is agreeable.”
“Of course. Can I interest you in another rib before you go?”
“No, thank you,” replied the Chinese man. “They are rather tough for my taste. However, if I could examine the imprinting eggs?”
“Of course,” said Genma. There were some rustling noises, then: “I take it you have had some experience of them before?”
“Not personally, but another member of our organisation has. He confirmed their powers, and described a method of determining their authenticity... yes, these are true Phoenix Eggs. You only have the two?” Genma grunted acknowledgement. “What of the third girl? We could find her a... position... that doesn’t require loyalty as such.”
“Hah. She’s been a thorn in my side for some time now; I’m keeping her for myself — for a while.”
“As you wish. I’ll take my leave for now, and present your new offer to my master. Expect me back in an hour.” There was another grunt from Genma, followed by sounds of the Chinese man leaving.
“Heard enough to satisfy your curiosity, Tendô Nabiki?” sneered Genma. “You’ve been awake for long enough.”
I twisted myself round to face the fire and glared at him, forcing my reactions at the scene away from my face as despair, hope, and revulsion warred within me.
Genma’s backpack was propped behind him. Beside it, trussed up and stirring feebly was Mousse, still in duck form... but there was no sign of Akane or Konatsu. Genma himself was crouched beyond the packing-crate fire, looking demonic in the flickering light, pausing in his taunting to tear another mouthful of meat from the rib he held, a rib taken from the suckling pig roasting on the merry flames...
‹Oh gods, Ryôga...›
But I wasn’t given much time to consider his fate. Genma stood up, tossing the bone aside, and came over to me. He kicked out — just enough to hurt; he could easily have smashed my ribcage open, but he only hit hard enough to spin me onto my front.
“You think you’re so smart, Nabiki,” he hissed. “Always in control, never touched by what happens around you, never having to worry about the consequences of your actions...” He kicked me again, behind the knees this time, causing my legs to fold up underneath me. “You parade around in your whore’s clothes, so sure that nothing bad will ever happen to you...” He knelt behind me and grabbed my hair, pulling me up on my knees. One hand came down to maul my breasts, the other to my crotch, forcing me back against him so that I could feel his hardness against my butt. “Well it’s time,” he whispered harshly into my ear. “Time for you to find out just how weak women really are.” He ripped the front of my t-shirt open and snapped my bra off with one savage jerk, then pushed me forward again, keeping me from falling onto my face with a hand wound in my hair. “Time to find out what the gods made you for!” I forced back the pain, stifling any reaction as he tore shorts and panties from me, determined to keep silent and rob him of as much satisfaction as I could. I caught Shampoo’s eyes as he fumbled with his gi; rather than turn away she locked her gaze onto me, sending me all the strength she could through that fragile link. “Pity you won’t live long enough to really learn your lesson,” hissed Genma as he poised to force himself in.
But the pain I had braced myself against never came. Instead, his grip on my hair loosened, and I fell forward again, twisting to take the impact on my shoulder. He slumped to the ground, trapping my legs with his weight, coming to rest face-down beside me, with a glint of silver protruding from the base of his neck.
The gag was pulled from my mouth. “Nice timing, Konatsu,” I drawled, pulling myself together. “Cutting it a bit fine though, weren’t you?”
He ignored me, and bent over Genma, retrieving the spatula as he spoke clearly into his ear, “Kuonji Ukyô-sama. Remember her, on your journey to hell.”
Akane landed just at the edge of my vision. “We got in as quickly as we could,” she said, sounding indignant. “There are three guys watching this place; it took ages for Konatsu to find a way to sneak us in! It took Ryôga leaving to give us enough of a distraction—”
My limbs were free as Konatsu pushed Genma’s body off me and sliced the ropes. I sat up, nodding thanks to him, then turned to Akane. She was cutting Ranma’s bonds, loving concern contorting her face.
No time for that. “Ryôga left?” I asked, surprising myself with how relieved I felt.
“Sure,” said Akane, moving on to free Shampoo. “Wandered off in a bit of a daze; it looked like he’d been thumped pretty hard.”
Shampoo spat her gag out. “Then who panda-man eat?”
Several things clicked into place. “The driver, of course,” I said, as though it was obvious. “Need to be quick...” I moved over to Genma’s backpack and began rummaging through it.
“Eat? What? And shouldn’t you... cover yourself first?” asked Akane.
“No time,” I replied. “Konatsu? Judging from where you hit Genma, he won’t be completely brain-dead for another couple of minutes, right?”
“Correct,” he replied, and even I was surprised by the coldness in his voice. “That strike is used to ensure that the enemy is incapacitated immediately, but remains aware for long enough to hear why he has been killed... and to reflect on it for a time.”
“Good,” I commented, pushing aside several rolls of high-denomination bills to reveal a stack of familiarly-marked packets. I pulled one out and held it up. “Is this what I think it is, Shampoo?”
“No know what you think, but is Instant Heituenniichuan powder — small black piglet.”
“Excellent,” I said, ripping the packet open and dumping it into the jerrycan Genma had set up for his camp water supply. “Stand back everyone!” I carefully poured the contents over Genma. After about half the can had gone, he vanished inside his clothes.
“Good,” I said. “I don’t think the curse would work on a dead person—”
“Is correct,” said Shampoo, freeing Mousse and pouring the contents of Genma’s tea-kettle over him. “No work on dead thing. Also, cursed one keeps shape it dies in, so no worry he turn back later.”
“Even better,” I said, somewhat relieved to learn this. “Well, let’s see what shape Genma wears to face his ancestors...”
I carefully peeled back the wet material to reveal... well, the curses mix, sometimes at least. Genma’s final form was basically a pig, somewhat larger than P-chan, covered in black and white fur, and possessing ears and tail more reminiscent of a panda. “Good enough,” I said.
“Nabiki! What are you doing?” said Akane from her position beside Ranma. “And please put some clothes on! Shampoo, do you have a spare dress?”
“Have not, sorry,” Shampoo replied. “Mousse have?”
The sometimes-duck nodded, and pulled a spare robe out of nowhere. I took the time to catch my breath and take stock of our situation as I wrapped it around me.
Akane and Konatsu were fighting fit; Shampoo and Mousse would be after a couple of minutes. Kunô was still unconscious (fortunately); Ranma was still too stoned to be of any use (unfortunately). Genma was beginning to smell nasty as his involuntary muscles relaxed. And I...
I was mobile and clear-headed. That’s all you need to know.
“Nabiki!” repeated Akane, getting frustrated. “What is this all about?!”
“Sorry, sis. Okay. I take it we’re all agreed that Genma had to go down, yes?” Nods all round, though Akane was somewhat reticent. “And I take it you all realise that someone who can turn invisible and smash through solid walls isn’t going to be held by the police?” Nods again. “Right. So we’ve done the only thing we could, and now we have to dispose of him in such a way that will never allow the blame to fall on us.”
Konatsu and the Amazons were in complete agreement with me, but Akane still looked unsure. “But...” she started.
“Also,” I said firmly, overriding her objections. “Those gentlemen out there aren’t going to be happy that we’ve spoiled their deal. The only way we’ll get out of here and not be bothered again is if they believe Genma ran off... and Genma would run off with the money. So we have three objectives here: get Ranma and Kunô out to safety, make it look like Genma stole their money and ran, and make Genma disappear forever.”
“How can we possibly convince them that Genma double-crossed them?” objected Akane.
I held up another packet from Genma’s backpack. “Shonmaoniichuan, I believe. Feeling up to a little cosplay, Konatsu?”
Getting Ranma to safety came first, of course (and Kunô might as well go along for the ride). So, the problem: how to get two comatose people (and one sister) safely out of a building that even an expert kunoichi had difficulty sneaking into?
“No!” said Akane, somewhat furiously as I advanced on her with the jerrycan.
“Come on, sis, it’s the only way! Mousse can’t carry all of you full-sized. I’d rather not find out what happens when an instant curse hits a locked curse*, so Ranma’s out... that just leaves you and Kunô-baby.”
[* - Yes, Ranma was locked again. Akane had tried changing him back to male form, on the theory that the greater body mass would help him throw the drugs off faster, but he stayed a girl. It was inevitable, I suppose; it wouldn’t do to sell a female bodyguard that turned male at inconvenient times. With all the preparation Genma had done, I wasn’t surprised that he’d got his hands on something like Chiisuiton water as well.]
“Listen, Akane! I promised Kasumi I’d get Ranma back safely — back to you! You have to go back with him, to make sure he gets the care he needs. All I’m doing here is tying up some loose ends; Shampoo and Konatsu will be enough help.” I softened my glare. “Please, Akane? Get yourself to safety. Ranma will need you with him when he comes around.”
That got her. “Okay,” she said quietly, looking slightly ashamed of herself.
One more splashing, and Akane-buta joined onna-Ranma and Kunô-buta in Mousse’s nullspace pocket.
“Right, Mousse,” I said. “A couple of final things, if you don’t mind?”
“Sure, the Joketsuzoku Pack Mule Company is at your service...” he grumbled, grinning slightly nonetheless.
“It’d be idiocy not to take the opportunity to bank this now,” I said, handing him a carrier-bag full of rolled-up money, all that was left of the once-proud Tendô Estate. “Give that to Cologne for safe-keeping, please. And you’d better give her this as well,” I added, passing over the syringe and drug-bag, “just in case it’s something more insidious than heroin. And finally...” I hefted Genma’s furry corpse. “Dump this trash where it’ll never be found.”
Mousse nodded grimly, and stashed everything away. “Good luck,” said Shampoo, giving him a shy smile as she poured plain cold water over him. “Fly straight to Nekohanten!” He flapped into the air, circling until he found the broken window he’d come in by, then he was gone.
“All right,” I said, turning to the other two. “We’ve got our revenge, and I suppose we could just leave now. But there’s a large amount of money walking straight towards us right now, and I’m not about to let it walk away again. Konatsu,” I turned to the gender-confused kunoichi, “I promised Ukyô I’d look after you. If you can help me pull this off, I’ll be able to buy Ucchan’s outright for you, and set you up with some decent staff to make sure it’s a going concern. Deal?”
Konatsu nodded. “Ukyô-sama was always too good to me. I will help you do this, to honour her memory.”
“Thanks,” I said, and turned to Shampoo. “I need you to work some of your Xi Fa Xiang Gao magic on our friend. I don’t want to buy you off though...”
“It okay,” she replied. “Honoured Elder gave you command of this one. It your call... but if you feel need to pay back, I happy to do in exchange for future favour when you is Joketsuzoku Elder...?” She tailed off, grinning mischievously.
I couldn’t help but grin back. “I still can’t say that I’ll go down that route, but... if you’re prepared to take that chance, it’s a deal.” She nodded, beaming.
To someone who knew Genma well, Konatsu’s panda form didn’t look at all like him: he was too short, too slender, and his markings were subtly different. However, to most people’s eyes one panda is pretty much the same as another, especially when they share the main distinguishing feature — a tatty, greying gi top. Konatsu spent some minutes testing out his new body’s balance, reach, and strength, while Shampoo and I set the scene for our guest. We took our places only seconds before the Hong Kong agent returned, briefcase in hand.
He had obviously been briefed on Genma’s alternate form, because he didn’t bat an eyelid when confronted with the panda. What did throw him completely was the scene he saw when he rounded the container.
Barely illuminated by the flickering light of the fire, four crude dummies grinned up at him — simple bundles of tarpaulin and scrap wood, shaped vaguely like Genma’s prisoners. He cursed in Chinese, and began to turn, pulling a pistol from his jacket. Konatsu smashed it out of his hand before he could bring it to bear, then followed up with a solid strike to the back of his head, knocking him unconscious.
Shampoo leapt from our vantage point on the roof of the office, pulling out her trusty bottle of Formula 411 and pouncing on her victim. This was the trickiest part of my plan: Shampoo had to use her shiatsu technique subtly, to blur his memories of our captive forms without erasing them, injecting a feeling of unreality into the scene in the hope that he would soon ‘realise’ that we had never been more than illusions.
As she worked, Konatsu quickly examined the briefcase, then opened it and displayed the contents to me (there was easily a thousand million yen) before transferring it to Genma’s pack, checking the bills for bugs as he went. As soon as Shampoo was finished, she jumped back up to join me, then Konatsu shouldered the backpack and left the warehouse, doing a credible impression of Genma’s ‘happy panda’ skip.
Minutes after he left, four more Chinese men came in — low-ranking muscle, here to help our friend carry his purchases away. They reacted with predictable consternation when they found him unconscious, with no merchandise in sight. Once roused he ordered them out in pursuit of the panda, while he searched the warehouse. Finding nothing — having barely glanced in our direction — he vented his frustration on the blameless dummies, then exited.
Shampoo and I both breathed sighs of relief.
“That went about as well as I could have hoped,” I murmured.
Shampoo looked at me with a mixture of appraisal and awe. “Before, this one think you just... how Americans say, two-bit con artist? But this whole thing... you use tools you have to best effect, get result you want without loss, even when plan close to falling apart. I very glad we on same side now.”
I blushed slightly. “Well, I suppose it was a good plan...”
Shampoo chuckled. “Hope you do come to Joketsuzoku, match wits with Elders on council. Would be worth seeing faces of old biddies when ‘weak outsider girl’ tie them in knots.”
“We’ll see,” I said. “For now, you’d better go make sure all the observers have left.”
Shampoo doused herself with cold water once more, and left to scout the area. I spent the time meditating, trying to keep recent events from overwhelming my focus.
Soon enough, Shampoo-neko’s chirrup announced that it was safe to leave, and we went out into the grey pre-dawn to rejoin Konatsu at our arranged rendezvous point.
“What happened to him?” I asked.
Cologne chuckled. “My distraction was a success, as you saw. I led the old pervert a fine chase across the entire width of Tokyo, right back here. Unfortunately,” she stressed with a twinkle in her eye, “he managed to catch me just as the technique I was using wore off. The shock of coming into contact with my... mature chi has crippled his system rather severely — temporarily, I hope, wouldn’t do to have you out of commission for too long,” she chuckled again as she said that last to the old letch.
“I hate you,” he muttered back to her.
“Oh?” I said, raising an eyebrow to Cologne.
“Well, I suppose the realisation of what he’d done has caused him some psychological trauma as well... let’s just say I’ll be sending out the wedding invitations next week!” She dissolved into a bout of very undignified cackles.
“I don’t wanna, I don’t wanna!” moaned Happôsai weakly. “Nabiki-chan, help me? You wouldn’t want to see your grandpappy Happi tied to that old mummy?”
I snorted. “Nobody forced you to catch her. You made your wedding bed, you lie in it.”
“Oh very funny,” he muttered, turning away from me.
“Impending nuptials aside,” I went on, “I take it everything is going well here?”
“Well enough,” sighed Cologne, finally sobering herself. “Akane is upstairs tending to Ranma. Mousse delivered the Kunô boy to his mansion, so I assume he is being taken care of as well.”
“I also took the liberty of giving their pet crocodile a snack,” added Mousse. “It seemed a fitting method of disposal; I only hope it doesn’t get indigestion.”
I nodded my thanks to him. “How is Ranma?”
“Well enough, considering,” said Cologne. “I dosed him up with an old remedy which should burn the drug out of his system; he’s been asleep since then, and will be for a while yet. As for his curse... well, we’ll need to wait and see, I’m afraid.”
She paused, then went on, “Ranma’s mother has had most of the contents of your home transported over here. She brought Kuonji-san’s father over this morning: he took some convincing, but he has accepted that Genma alone was responsible for his daughter’s death, and that she has now been avenged.” She turned to Konatsu. “I also convinced him to uphold her final wishes; everything at the Ucchan’s is now officially yours.”
“Thank you, Elder,” whispered Konatsu.
“Oh, think nothing of it,” she replied, then cocked an eyebrow at me. “And I know you’ve been wondering, so rest assured: your money is safely stored as well.”
“Thanks,” I said casually, not acknowledging the relief that I felt. “You’d better add this to it,” I added, laying Genma’s backpack on the table.
“More?” said Cologne. “You have been busy...”
“Yes, well—” I was interrupted by the cafe door opening. Auntie Nodoka came in, looking rather flustered. Two workmen followed her, carrying our kotatsu between them.
“This is the last load,” she began. “I’m sorry Nabiki, there was nothing we could do. Osaka-san did not give us any more time than he was required to by the sale agreement; he has a demolition crew on site already.”
I cursed inwardly as she went on, “Kasumi-chan has so far managed to prevent your father from making any unseemly protests, but she has asked for your assistance. Fortunately she and I were able to get everything of value packed and moved out of the house and dôjô. Only a rather large pile of underwear remains.” There was an uncharacteristically vindictive glint in her eye as she said this last, pitching her voice to carry.
The effect on Happôsai was galvanic. He practically fell off his chair in his haste, and began hobbling out the cafe.
“Mousse, get Saotome-san some tea, then assist the workmen with storing the Tendô’s furniture,” said Cologne. “I suppose I should go with you, Tendô Nabiki...”
By the time we got to the dôjô, the drama was pretty much over. Daddy was on his knees in the road beside the compound main gates, bawling his eyes out as a bright yellow backhoe loader pushed the hall’s main supports over. Kasumi stood by him, one hand on his shoulder, watching stone-faced as the family legacy crumpled to the ground. I went to stand beside her, cursing my inability to give her any real comfort.
Happôsai had pulled ahead of us as we approached. Even with his best speed reduced to a pained stumbling, his stealth wasn’t impaired so much that any of the workers spotted him getting into the house. His feeble cries for his ‘silky darlings’ were easily drowned out by the diesel roar of the backhoe as it began to demolish the house proper.
“And so another life is ended,” sighed Cologne, a curious catch in her voice. “Hopefully the last in this saga...”
“I’ll believe it when I see the corpse for myself,” I muttered, then looked at her curiously. “You’re actually upset over him?” I refrained from making any ‘airen’ references; it seemed inappropriate.
“Nonsense child,” she said sternly, fooling no-one. “As you say, he may well survive this; if so I will allow him his escape. Otherwise... just maudlin sentimentality for what could have been; someone as irredeemably evil as he should not be mourned.”
“Evil, yes...” I said. “And yet there was a line he would never cross.”
“And so I mourn for that part of him, and for the person he once was,” she replied.
There wasn’t much I could say to that, so I turned to watch the demolition in silence.
Once the house had fallen, and the backhoe began transferring the remains to a waiting truck, Kasumi brought her steel to the fore again. She bullied Daddy to his feet, and we all returned to the Nekohanten for a final conference. I insisted that Konatsu and Auntie should be involved, being interested parties; so we all sat around the Nekohanten’s largest table, with Mousse and Cologne in the background preparing a meal for us, and Shampoo (in an outstanding show of trust from Akane) upstairs tending to the still-comatose Ranma.
Of course, my dear father put his foot in it right from the start.
“While losing our ancestral home is a severe blow, thankfully Nabiki was able to recover its cost from Genma, with your help,” he nodded at Konatsu over the stacks of cash I had pointedly piled in the middle of the table. “And my family extends its thanks to you, Cologne-san and Nodoka-san for storing our belongings and giving us hospitality while we arrange for our new home. Fortunately there appears to be a sizeable sum here, which should expedite buying a new compound and constructing a house and dôjô considerably—”
“Excuse me, Daddy,” I interrupted. “Are you seriously suggesting that we reconstruct our previous lives in a new place, without making any changes?”
“Well, of course not,” he replied magnanimously. “Akane and Ranma will need a larger room now they’re married, and we’ll need to put a room aside for a nursery. However, without the Master around,” he paused for a celebratory sob (which I still considered to be premature), “we could even manage slightly larger rooms for Kasumi and yourself—”
I felt the tiniest change in Kasumi’s mood — was it fear? Then it vanished under a bland mask of resignation... she wasn’t going to protest this.
“NO!” I said, smacking my hand onto the tabletop. Akane jumped, and Auntie and Kasumi looked at me with disapproval — but when my older sister refrained from admonishing me out loud, I knew she wanted me to go on. “We have been handed the opportunity of our lives here. This is our inheritance, not just Akane’s! Of course there must be a new Tendô Dôjô, and a home for Ranma and Akane, but... Akane, wouldn’t you rather have a place of your own, without all the rest of us?”
“Well... yes,” she admitted. “I mean, I love you Daddy, and I love my sisters, but I really want to make a new life with Ranma and... well, I’m just worried that if we were all living together, we’d just be forced back into our old roles again. Sorry...”
‹Oh no, my dear sister,› I thought as I flashed a secret smile to her. ‹Don’t apologise. That was pretty much the best thing you could have said...›
“But Akane...” wailed my father. “My baby is growing up and leaving the nest...”
I over-rode him again. “And I have plans of my own. I graduated this year; did any of you even notice?” Nods from Kasumi and Akane, confused shakes from Daddy and Nodoka; pretty much what I expected. “I’ve been looking at universities and colleges, and quite frankly I’d rather get the next part of my education overseas. The opportunities are far better.” I noted with some annoyance that mentioning my leaving did not spark a second wail from Daddy.
“So,” I said. “Some of this money is already promised to Konatsu, in Ukyô’s name.” I quickly explained our honour debt to Daddy in such a way that he couldn’t refuse it. “Some of it is needed to resurrect the dôjô and give your heirs a home,” I continued, nodding to Akane, who puffed up with pride at the designation. “Some of it can fund my education and give me a start in business...”
‹Now for the hard part,› I thought.
“What about you, Kasumi?” I said, turning to her. ‹Come on Daddy, don’t let me down...›
“Well...” she began to reply, obviously unsure of what she should say, but with a faint glimmer of hope lighting her eyes.
“But...” started Daddy, right on cue, “if Kasumi moves out, who will take care of the house...”
Kasumi’s face fell, and her air of resignation returned with redoubled strength. As I had hoped, Auntie picked up on this, and interrupted Daddy with a firm voice, “Sôun-san. I believe that there is an undischarged honour debt between our families. That which was my husband robbed you of your home; the only reparation I can offer is to take you into mine.”
“But...” said Daddy, tears coming to his eyes again, “I couldn’t possibly—”
“If that would not be sufficient to repay our debt,” continued Auntie, “I would have only one recourse...” She lowered her head, projecting the air of one resigning herself to death.
“I-in that c-case,” stammered my father, “I accept your offer of hospitality, Nodoka-san.”
“So, Kasumi?” I prompted.
“Well...” she began again, then turned to Konatsu. “You are intending to reopen Ucchan’s?” He nodded, but his fear of failing to live up to his Ukyô-sama’s name shone through his determination. “It sounds like a lot of work for one person... I really love cooking; perhaps if I took a business management course at night school, we could run the restaurant together?”
The look of relief on Konatsu’s face was comical. “Thank you, Kasumi-sama!” he lilted, bowing deeply to her. “I am so much happier being a waitress; I was afraid I would make such a mess of things...”
“Good, that’s settled then,” said Kasumi and, with a glance, handed direct control of the meeting back to me.
“So Kasumi gets a share of the inheritance to set herself up as well,” I said. “And I’m sure that there will be enough left for Daddy to have some spending money, so that he isn’t too much of a burden on Auntie.” She nodded and smiled at me in thanks. “Does that sound equitable to everyone?”
Everyone save Daddy nodded enthusiastically. Finally, he sighed and gave a reluctant nod himself. “Since it is what you all want, I must acquiesce.” He turned to Auntie, and bowed. “Thank you for taking me in, Nodoka-san. I promise I will not be a burden.”
“Right,” I said, gathering the money back into the holdall I had brought for it. “Tomorrow we take this lot to the bank; I know a teller who will help us get it processed without too many awkward questions. Then we can start hunting for a dôjô for the newlyweds, and a flat for Kasumi—”
“I would be glad to share the Ucchan’s accommodation with you, Kasumi-sama,” said Konatsu. “Certainly you must stay there until you find an alternative.”
“Thank you, Konatsu-chan,” said Kasumi, smiling warmly. “Might Nabiki share the room with me, just until she’s ready to go off to college? It would only be a few weeks...” Konatsu gave his assent gladly.
“Of course Akane, you and Ranma must stay with me and your father until you have your new place,” said Auntie.
“Thank you Auntie,” replied Akane.
“So,” said Mousse, bringing a stack of tableware over to us, “is that everything settled?”
“Looks like it,” I said. “Thanks again for all your help.”
“Oh, no problem.” He winked at me. “Maybe it’ll get me a bit more respect around here...”
“Only if you can keep it up,” cackled Cologne as she pogoed over. “Is everyone ready for some food?”
“Did someone mention food?” croaked a familiar voice from the back. “I’m starving!” Akane’s head whipped round.
“Ranma!” she squealed, leaping over to where Shampoo was helping him down the stairs. She gathered up her currently-female husband and made a brave attempt to suck his tonsils out.
“Hey, go easy Tomboy,” he said as she set him down again. He rested his head on her chest and glanced around at the rest of us.
“So, what did I miss?”
And so, finally, it was over. So that night I crawled into Kasumi’s bed, and she held me, and I cried myself to sleep in her arms.
That was two weeks ago. Things have gone well since then. Ranma and Akane have already found their new home: a modest flat (light on housework requirements) over a modern dôjô, about two kilometres from the old place. (His curse is unlocked again, but that’s a whole other story...) Daddy is settling in well with Auntie, who is already preparing for the next Saotome generation. Ukyô has gone to her ancestors, but in honour of her wishes we’re not mourning; her life will be celebrated at Ucchan’s grand reopening this coming Monday.
Which, alas, I will miss, dear customer. My flight to the US leaves today. I leave you with this, my last press release, which I have taken the trouble to write out in full prose in celebration of our lives over the last two years — and to give you a little glimpse behind the Ice Queen’s mask.
I also leave you with one final thought: Ami and Yumi are taking over my business here; they have all the files, so don’t think you can get away with anything!
Nabiki skipped down the stairs, flight-bag in hand, and gave Kasumi the disk containing her last report. “Ami will be around later to collect this. Remind her to make sure the censored version gets out in time to give you some decent publicity. I trust her to keep the full version secret; she’ll only pass it out to the people you nominate.”
Kasumi nodded, then pulled Nabiki into a hug. “We’re finally free, little sister,” she whispered. “Thank you.”
“You’re welcome, big sister. Come and visit once I’m settled in.”
“We’ll see; I’d need to get cover for the restaurant. But I am expecting you back for Christmas.”
“It’s a date,” Nabiki chuckled. A car horn sounded outside.
“That’s your taxi.” Kasumi loosened her hug enough to give her sister a lingering kiss. “Later, Nabiki-chan.”
“Later, Kasumi-chan.” Nabiki hefted her single case (with the two imprinting eggs she considered her ‘insurance’ carefully packed inside) and went out to the cab.
Cologne was waiting inside.
“No Shampoo?” Nabiki asked as they drove off to the airport.
“I sent her on ahead with Mousse and the luggage,” replied the Elder. “I have something to ask you, and I thought you less likely to evade if we were alone.”
Nabiki checked that the privacy screen and intercom were securely closed and off. “Go ahead...”
“How did you know where to find Genma? That routine with the ‘this street would be too well-lit’ comments might have fooled the others, but I could tell you were using something else to decide.”
Nabiki chuckled. “I figured out his little scheme about a week after the failed wedding. It looked like the ideal opportunity to ensure a future for Kasumi and myself, so rather than call him on it, I let him carry it out. But I used a hypnotic drug of my own to program some little ‘biases’ into his behaviour: green is good with an odd number, white is to be avoided when it’s to the north, and so on... not to try and control his path, just to make it a little more predictable. It worked out nicely as well; I could follow practically every step he took, once I knew his rough location.”
She chuckled slightly, then sighed. “Pity about the Kuonji girl, though...”
“Yes... well, I didn’t believe he was really capable of murder. Still, it made setting Kasumi up in business all the easier...”
“All for the family, eh?”
Nabiki raised an eyebrow. “For the fountain and the little princess? No. He was going to give her everything. I let her have her ‘fair’ share because it was easiest, and so that she and Ranma would be able to keep up our end of the bargain with you. It’s always been about Kasumi and me, right from the day Daddy first told us about Ranma.”
“I’m surprised that Kasumi was willing to go along with your plan, given how... traditional she is.”
“She didn’t know—” Nabiki hesitated, then went on, “I didn’t tell her. I’m sure she wouldn’t have let me go through with it if she had officially been ‘made aware’, but one or two comments she made...”
“Is she the type to take refuge in plausible deniability?”
Nabiki laughed. “Oh good grief yes! It’s been the keystone of our lives for the past ten years: Kasumi kept the honourable public face of the family intact by being careful to remain unaware of what was needed to maintain us. But... if she did know that I allowed Genma to go ahead unchallenged, and didn’t try to stop me... she must truly have wanted me to succeed, in her heart of hearts. And I know she’s happy with how things have turned out.”
Cologne nodded. “As are you, and perhaps even Ranma and Akane, now that they can start their life out from under Sôun’s shadow...” She chuckled. “Well done, young one. You got everything you wanted.”
Nabiki chuckled back. “Well, so did you... Ranma and Akane are unofficially the heads of the newly-allied Japanese Amazon Nation, your heir has learned some valuable lessons in the capabilities of outsiders, Mousse has finally grown something resembling proper self-respect that will kickstart the next round of social changes back home...”
“And what of yourself? Still not sure about joining the tribe? You’ve got the makings of a fine Matriarch...”
“Maybe some day. Right now, I want to try my hand in the business world, without being tied down to your laws. But I’ll always let you know where I’ll be; feel free to call any time you need something fixed up.”
“For a small fee?”
“For a reasonable fee.”
They both laughed as the cab pulled onto the expressway and off into the future.
A familiar pig-tailed boy grins cockily out from the screen. “Ya know, it’s great bein’ Japanese.” He steps back and slightly to the side, revealing a large flip-chart. “No, seriously. I mean, look. We got the best of everythin’.”
He flips over the first page, revealing a montage of pictures of Japan’s natural wonders: mountains, forests, stretches of boiling-hot sand. “We got the best scenery,” he says proudly, then flips the page over. “We got the best culture,” he continues, gesturing to pictures of a typical torii gate, kabuki in progress, a karaoke bar, a tea ceremony, a scene from the show ‘Endurance’, and a beer dispensing machine in a suburban street.
Another flip, revealing Kasumi smiling over a steaming dish, the outside of Ucchan’s, a takoyaki yatai, and a corporate-branded paper-wrapped hamburger. “We got the best food,” he says, then mutters, “most of the time...”
An angry female voice from off-screen shouts, “I heard that!”
“Yeah, an’ we even got the cutest girls!” he shouts back, flipping again to reveal Kasumi in her bikini, Kodachi’s first panty shot, Nabiki in her Tougenkyou dress, the real Miss Satsuki, and a familiar buxom redhead in red satin bra and panties.
A mallet flies into shot and strikes him in the face, with an accompanying cry of “PERVERT!” He collapses to the ground.
Groaning, he pulls himself upright. “But one of the best things we Japanese have, is fully socialised medical care.” He cricks his neck back and forth, eliciting loud popping sounds. “I mean, imagine if Pop had to shell out hard cash every time the tomboy punted me through the roof—” Showing a remarkable recovery, he leaps into the air, twisting over the shinai-wielding tomboy as she runs across the screen. “—or every time I had to get my stomach pumped after eatin’ her toxic slop!” For some reason the return stroke catches him completely by surprise, and he falls once more.
Standing unconcernedly on his twitching torso, the girl flips the last page, revealing shots of Dr. Tôfû, the outside of his surgery, and several generic hospital scenes. “Still, he’s right,” she says, sighing. “If we’d lived in one of those barbaric countries where you have to pay for medical treatment, we’d be a lot poorer than we are now... maybe even homeless.” She steps back, winding up her shinai. “So I’m glad I live in Japan too. Because, of course, it means that I don’t have to worry about how much this will cost!”
The screen fades, saving us from scenes of incredible violence.
— dedicated to all those fanfic authors who base plot or background on the fallacy that the Japanese of the early ’90s treated medical care as a business.
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