I've resisted the urge to build a scrap file for a while now. Since '09 in fact.
The simple matter of it all is, I'm a perfectionist. I don't like having unfinished work made public. It feels rude of me, and by the simple act of these things existing, I'm proven – at least in a sense – a failure and liar. These are things I never finished, that I put so much time and thought and work into, but never took past some critical point. They make me a liar, in that they're unfinished and there's this tacit we writers make when publishing a work, that we'll finish it. Why start a story you'll never finish?
Ranma ½ is a fandom I enjoy, for various reasons. Oddly enough, romantic comedy isn't one of them. I'm not sure what I could explain my draw to as, outside of contexts that would make many uncomfortable.
That aside, these are the odd source notions, unfinished bits and bobs, and false starts that sometimes became something else, or just didn't become anything at all.
Anyway. On with it. First up–
Premise: I watched Bakemonogatari and thought to myself… I know someone that would most definitely end up like Black Hanekawa. But, I didn't want it to be a crossover with that, so much as a nuanced crossover of another type. Tsuruko will show up again in another work, but I'll let that happen on its own.
Summary: The peculiar has a gravity all its own. What some blame on chaos, others see clearly as the physics of the unnatural. Some spend their life after encountering the peculiar trying to deny its touch. Others embrace it willingly.
Within the border of the Greater Tokyo Area to the northwest was a special ward, something akin to a suburb or subdivision, named Nerima. These wards were considered for most purposes the same as individual cities, and as such under Japanese law, were given a certain degree of autonomy. The Nerima council has, for instance, the ability to pass laws relevant only to Nerima, and enforceable only within Nerima, within certain limits defined by national law. This autonomy allowed local governments the ability to resolve and settle most situations that were not of a critical nature or beyond a local scope without tying up centralized resources.
This is essentially why the residents of Nerima never considered the situations surrounding the Tendo dojo and its subsequent involvements to be outside of the usual scope. As Tendo Soun was on the ward's council, and an influential member at that, he had proposed a certain lenience toward martial artists within the ward, which had been approved by his peers. In many ways, this benefited the ward – many businesses and economic situations relying on various martial arts legacies moved to the area to better take advantage of that lenience.
Alternately, it was also the source of much consternation for the local population that had no martial inclination, for obvious reasons. The influx of talented practitioners of various physical arts reduced the overall crime and delinquency rates significantly, at the cost of public disorder that was mostly unknown in other parts of the country. The uncommon sight of a street brawl to settle a problem became commonplace, while police and civil discipline presences took on an all-time low. For this reason, it became something of an unstated situation in Nerima that the martial artists most closely tied to the ward council – those responsible – should take on such roles. This worked quite well for some time, and still does to this day.
After the death of his wife, however, Tendo's interaction with both the ward council and his duties as a martial artist in the social structure he had enabled ebbed to near nonexistence, in parallel to what occurred similarly to his dojo. No longer taking an active, strong role in the council, it fell to those who were capable, or those with purpose, to pick up the slack.
And so it came to be that the Kuno family established itself as an influential – if eccentric – part of Nerima's infrastructure. With significant moneys acquired through business situations dating back to the end of the Zaibatsus at the end of World War II, the Kuno family made its mark by funding various improvements to the ward. Those improvements made Nerima more attractive to non-martial families and businesses, while remaining the actions of the ward, rather than the family. They were far from countering the previous actions of the council, rather feeling there was a lack that needed to be addressed. However, those that understood the politics behind it, knew the direction the wind was blowing. Such donations and activities stirred old memories of feudal lords and their fiefdoms, sowing the seeds for the behavior of the generation growing up in that ward. Those impressions were only helped along as the Kuno family had historical ties like many to bloodlines that could claim samurai heritage, and being one of the handful of Nerima's landowners, fit the position rather well.
On a wider scope Nerima flourished, with its factories supplying electronic components, its historical farming of cabbage and daikon, and its peculiar welcoming stance toward martial legacies and the inevitable clashes they engendered between themselves. The day to day lives within Nerima could be considered strange by some outside its borders, but within, the long-held tradition of Japanese culture to embrace the normal, had been tainted by the peculiar. As the saying goes, "When the world has gone mad, only the sane will populate the asylum."
It must be remembered, however, that the peculiar has a gravity all its own. It attracts the strange, the unusual, the aberrant to itself. It was therefore no surprise to some, that Nerima became a hotbed of the chaotic, supernatural, and unusual. That did not mean, however, that a watch was lacking on those elements.
The punch hit true, rendering the struck portion of one of the few old-growth trees in the park into so much mulch and kindling. With a groaning roar the majestic tree seemed to realize its suddenly mortal state, shuddering, falling with a crash. The ever-present sound of cicadas rose to a crescendo and suddenly stilled at the violent noise, as if punctuating it. Wide-spread limbs snapped and seemed to flail at the air, as the upper reaches of the great tree slowly listed to the side, catching on neighboring oaks and pines as if to deny the inevitable.
With a thundering crash, the massive trunk hit the ground, followed by the creaking whines of the many limbs settling to new gravity as they finally stilled.
Standing nearby, a young man in a worn, patched, travel-stained yellow tunic ignored the tableau, as he was too caught up in his own thoughts. "I can't believe I screwed up that badly. Damn!"
Another punch, this one aimed at the ground, sent a shock through the park's standing trees and grasses. Like a ripple in a pond, the pressure sent out waves that set what few birds and animals that had not fled to foot or wing, as the abandoned their homes and places of rest. "Damn you, Ranma. Damn that idiot father of yours, damn the wedding, damn... just..." with a sigh, the young man slumped to the ground.
"Should have just stayed away. I know Nabiki's tips are just her making trouble. Should have known it would end up like this. It always does."
It was just so hard to keep a clear head around Saotome. He knew, after years now being around the other martial artist, that it was just Genma's influence on his son, but the things he said... how much he'd been a part of the worst parts of his life, Akane...
"Damn it!" Another punch rocked the ground, as Ryoga Hibiki thought back on the actions of the previous week. Despite the failing sunlight, he made no move to return to the city proper, being just as comfortable and familiar with the wilderness – even a false one like the park – as a house or hotel. Perhaps more so.
"Now Akane's mad at me, the water is gone... I can't even blame this on Ranma."
"Hnnn, it's good you're learning, nyah," a voice from where the fallen tree had come to rest chimed in, a playful lilt to its clearly feminine voice.
Ryoga rolled to his feet, glaring about into the spreading gloom. "Who's there?" Branches shifted as a shadowed figure darted through them silently. Losing track of the figure, Ryoga kept his attention loose, eyes scanning the shadows for movement.
A rustle to his left was answered by a thrown bandanna, and a mocking laugh from his rear-right. "Nyaa..." the voice drawled, "Ryoga-nyan. Always jumping ahead, it's a wonder your nose isn't flat by now, nishishi..."
That mocking voice reminded Ryoga too much of Ranma's jibes, despite the vastly different tone, and the seemingly childish use of catlike noises. That alone guaranteed it wasn't the pigtailed martial artist – anything resembling cats was treated as taboo. Regardless, the similarity burned, pushing the often-lost martial artist into a near rage. "Come out here! Stop hiding like a coward!"
"Hnnn," the voice hummed again, from above in the trees this time. More bandannas thrown did little more than break Ryoga's concentration as he was pelted by the resulting falling branches and limbs. "Coward, am I? Nyuu... we all hide behind something, Ryoga-nyan."
"Tch," taking a chance, Ryoga threw three of his sharpened weapons, one at the voice, and one each to either of his flanking sides.
"Nishishi... Not bad. Not close, but better," the catty voice taunted, seeming to come from all around. "But you're still hiding, so I'll stay nice and cozy over here."
"Are you calling me a coward?!" The sudden silence of the darkened trees made the hairs on the back of Ryoga's neck stand on end, stalling his rage. The voice, coming from just behind him as a pair of small, lithe, steel-strong arms wrapped around him did little to dismiss that sudden anxiety.
There was no playfulness in the voice. Only a deadly, predatory anticipation. "Yes. The worst sort."
Ryoga had just a moment to try and unscramble his brain, flailing mentally for focus despite the very feminine figure pressed against his back. It wasn't fast enough, however, to let him react to the sudden burst of what felt like lightning coursing over his body. Unlike actual electricity, the lightning didn't cause his muscles to seize as he'd expected, which was why Ryoga had a telling moment of confusion that his ki-reinforced muscles started feeling immediately taxed. That moment was all he had, as that same ki was ripped away by the draining lightning. "Grrrnnnngh!"
"The kind that hides behind his own delusions," the catty voice explained in seeming disinterest, as the figure let Ryoga's twitching, drained form fall to the ground. "Tch."
"Curious. It is rare that those outside the Organization are called on to address these matters, in recent times." With a sigh, the man took off the narrow reading glasses he'd been wearing, looking to where his wife stood, staring out at the evening as it bloomed, spreading fiery tones across the walls of the room. In the harsh red glare, her black hair and fine skin seemed otherworldly, with her white kimono painted in phantom, bloody hues. The image passed quickly, but left the man somber.
He was not one for seeing omens, but for some reason, that moment would haunt him for many years to come.
Yomiko Aoyama favored her husband Ishiro with a raised brow, noting his distraction, before smiling gently as she moved to close the sliding panels that framed the room. That smile was a small gesture, easily missed if one wasn't quite familiar with her, but she knew he would see it. He was a kind looking man, not hard and sharp like her father and uncle had been. Where those men – whom she regarded with the utmost respect – had severe faces that clearly rarely bore a smile, Ishiro had the crow's feet about his eyes and faint creases about his mouth that spoke of a mirthful soul. Yomiko knew that she lacked those things, taking much from her father in that regard, so it was fitting in her mind that her husband had them.
As she moved to turn on the lights in their rooms to ward off the evening gloom, she replied, "Not so, really. For all that the Taima soshiki's four families have been sufficient to deal with the various aberrations that have cropped up historically, things are different now."
Putting down the missive he'd been reading over once the light had dimmed in the room, the middle-aged man regarded his wife attentively as she spoke of Japan's Demon Hunter Association. As a man who had married into the family whose name he now bore, it wasn't unusual that he had less comprehensive knowledge of the world in which the Aoyamas sometimes worked. He was, after all, from a different world for all practical purposes. As had happened for generations, he had been chosen to marry by his clan's and the Shinmei-ryū's elders not for his martial abilities, but for his management skills. It was a common arrangement, he understood, between his own house of long-standing advisors to various important personages, and some of the more esoteric clans. The combination of keen intellect and honed combat skills made for rather capable children, after all, and that was one of the points of such arrangements. Another was the division of ability – his skills ensured the clan's interests and internal welfare was seen to, while Yomiko carried on the traditions of the sword and skill, as Shihan – the primary teacher and instructor – of the Shinmei School.
Politically, his marriage to Yomiko Aoyama had been one of many gestures of alliance cementing the relationship between the Konoe clan – distant relations to the fabled Fujiwara – and the elite masters of the sword. There were other clans that they both intermarried and held alliance with, but within Kyoto, it was primarily the Konoe that the Aoyamas found themselves working alongside.
In the same way that his clan was trusted to manage and oversee the household affairs and various clan business that such marriages required when it came to clan heads like Yomiko, who were also responsible for their martial legacies, he trusted her when it came to the various mysteries of the world. The Aoyamas were an old clan, steeped in arcane lore, mysterious practices, and frightening experiences. Their bloodline was often called on for various activities, from hunting errant spirits to assisting the practitioners of what was called Eastern Magic – a tradition of magecraft that was grounded in Onmyōdō and other mysteries. As a child and young adult he had been educated in such things, once the arrangement was made when he was ten. That allowed him time to mentally prepare for the world he would become embroiled in, eventually.
The reality of it was much harder to accept, years of preparation notwithstanding. Tending to his wife's injured and beaten body after a few of her more brutal assignments, while she maintained that cool, steel-hard aloofness that came to the fore when she held a sword, really drove that reality home to him however. The bloodstained water of the bath, her ripped and stained clothes, and the wounds that would have killed a lesser man or woman; such was testament to that separate seeming existence. What others considered fanciful tales and fictional stories, his wife lived and nearly died by. A world inhabited by magic, monsters, demons, and spirits. A moonlit world of dangerous wonder.
"The four families of the Taima soshiki." Yomiko began, drawing Ishiro's attention once more, "Fujou, Nanaya, Asagami, Ryougi. The Fujou are essentially a dead clan, as only branch families remain, and they lack the skills of the main line. The Nanaya were lost years ago, to a conflict between themselves and an opposing clan, the Tohno." At the mention of those families, Yomiko shook her head sadly, reminiscing over memories from her childhood. "Of the Asagami, all that currently remains is a young woman the same age as our eldest, but where Tsuruko has been trained extensively, the Asagami are little more than a privileged family of land owners and businessmen – not that there's anything wrong with that," she offered, flashing a smile to her husband.
Ishiro rolled his eyes at his wife's antics. "And the fourth family? The Ryougi?"
At the mention of the name, Yomiko's warm expression dimmed. "They," she began, before shaking her head. "There are problems currently with the Ryougi. Their methods are... harsher, than our own. Less humane. Currently, they have no one to represent them, for all practical purposes."
"I sense a story there, but I won't pry."
Yomiko considered her husband's words, then nodded. "That's likely for the best."
Taking up the missive before him again, Ishiro considered what had been asked of the Shinmei-ryū. It was a request that hadn't been passed first to the Taima soshiki, rather coming through direct channels to them. It was the nature of that request that confused him, however. "Still, this is clearly a matter that I would have expected to go to them, not us."
"Again, not necessarily," the Shinmei-ryū swordswoman replied. "There is a reason why we were not considered for the Taima soshiki. Those four families have a particular mindset when it comes to spirits and the peculiar. An often final, lethal mindset."
Ishiro nodded, handing the letter back to his wife. "And the Shinmei-ryū are not always so."
"We are not always so," she agreed. "A negotiator can often achieve the same results without bloodshed or or causing other problems," she stated. With exaggerated suddenness, she perked up, as if coming to some conclusion that needed deliberation. "I will have Tsu-chan see to this one." The sound of her husband's suddenly tense posture causing his clothing to shift caught her attention. "Anata?"
"Do you think it wise to send your heir on such an errand?"
Yomiko blinked once. There was no real shift to her posture or expression, but her steel-gray eyes seemed to sharpen, the weight of her presence descending suddenly and with much pressure in the room despite her stillness. "'A sword's nature is to cut'," she quoted, her gaze no more or less intense than it had been, but presently, regardless, dire. "A swordsman or woman of the Shinmei-ryū will not be kept cloistered, as if ornaments."
"That wasn't what I—"
"It is part of what we are, Anata," the woman continued, softer. "She will go to Tokyo – this Nerima ward – and seek out this Saotome woman to assess the situation. She will do as her duty requires. It is what and who she is. Denying her these moments is the same as saying all her work and dreams are for nothing. That the woman she has become, is nothing."
Ishiro nodded, looking away. This was not a new or resolved argument. In many ways, it would never be resolved. To her daughters, Yomiko was the essence of the sword, of the Shinmei-ryū. She taught by example, by simply existing to the pinnacle of an ideal that could be clearly seen and defined, just at a glance.
It was like she wasn't really human. Like, in those moments, she became nothing more than the crystallized idea that was Shinmei-ryū.
He never thought that he could understand someone like that. Not wholly. He was brought up in a loving home, with human parents. That wasn't to say anything against Yomiko, but there were times like this one, where she became something more. Something less. Perhaps that was why their families arranged the marriages of their children, rather than take the chance on love matches. Their duty drove the marriage, and though they had come to care for one another intensely, was there love? Affection, compassion, caring, concern... yes, all of those. But love?
It wasn't often that he wondered on it, but each time his wife became the sword, became the essence of her school, Ishiro let himself do so. Wondering on if it was possible for a normal person like him, to love someone so fundamentally distorted as Yomiko.
With a rueful laugh, the middle-aged man shook his head. He knew the answer to that. After all, he loved his daughters – and they were no less... afflicted. For all his instincts and reactions, he could no more keep them from their path, than change who he, at heart, was. "I suppose her little shadow will be going as well?"
Yomiko's slow smile dismissed the heaviness in the air, much like opening a window in winter would sudden banish the stuffiness of even an long-sealed room. "Of course. But lets not think on that, now, Anata," she dismissed, idly looking over her shoulder as she moved out of their study with a subtle sway to her stride.
Ishiro chuckled once more, rising to follow. "As you wish, Mi-chan."
"Don't get so close!"
"But my belove—grrkk. Ow."
"Hmph." The sudden spat of Chinese between the bicycling figures cut off as the woman leading the two by a small margin lashed out with her foot, causing the other to swerve dangerously into oncoming vehicle traffic. Other than a sudden course correction, little harm seemed to be done. Neither the woman with the long purple hair in a qipao pantsuit nor the man in ostentatious flowing white robes and white hair with the glasses fumbled their delivery boxes, marked with the logo of the Nekohanten Chinese Restaurant.
The two bicyclists were in a rush, it being midday. All around them foot traffic parted, too familiar with the scene after over two years of the same, to find it strange anymore.
"Why great-grandmother thinks I need your protection is beyond me..."
Mutsu sighed but kept pace with Xianpu as her mood seemed to shift from 'tolerant' to 'evasive', hopping her bike up a few standing obstacles to reach the overhead power lines. Hesitantly he followed, not for any fear of heights – "wouldn't that be ironic," he mused – but from an excess of exposure. "Xianpu," he called huffing after. "The elder said we needed to be careful!"
"If Mutsu is too afraid to ride above the barbarians, he can go back to them!"
...there were days Mutsu wondered perhaps if Saotome had the right idea, blithely ignoring the women around him while acting oblivious. It surely seemed to work in getting some people's attention better than his own methods. Not that he would ever let on that he knew about that, since Xianpu would just take it as a further challenge to gain the foreigner's attention, knowing he was aware, but ignoring her.
No. He couldn't do that either, Mutsu realized. His love burned too brightl—
Just like the strange lightning that followed him to the ground, after being tackled off his bike. A moment's glimpse of silver hair and a quiet, sinister laugh were the last things the myopic Joketsuzoku man noted, before he hit the ground below with a resounding thud that carried him into darkness.
The sound alerted Xianpu that things were not going as she'd expected.
Her great-grandmother had pulled each of them aside that morning, after coming in very late the night before. As it turned out, someone in Nerima had been attacked, and due to the nature of the assault and the victim's rather interesting history and nature, the hospital had consulted with her as a liaison, on recommendation from a few local specialists. It was a flattering situation, to be sure, but the news had been rather disturbing.
"...the Hibiki boy was attacked by something. I can't rightly say what – it left no traces on him."
Xianpu frowned at that. "No bruises, to guess from? Tell-tale cuts and wounds, or signs of his attacker where he was found? Nothing?"
Kulon eyed her heir with a raised brow. "You think I would say such a thing without those things and more being checked?"
The young woman's sudden bout of fidgeting was answer enough. "Ah. It's just... The Pig-boy is strong. What could possibly take him down so easily as to not leave a trace? Even Airen would."
"And that is my worry. This stinks of something outside our sphere of experience.
"Therefore, I want you two to work together until further notice," the Joketsuzoku elder decided, ignoring Xianpu's indignant huff and Mutsu's elated expression. "Watch each other's back, and take no unneeded chances..."
She had expected that whatever had taken Hibiki out to have moved on toward her Airen. After all, there were so few things that happened in Nerima that didn't involve her Airen that they could be counted on one hand. With the regularity it seemed that strangeness visited the Tokyo ward, that handful was a small portion of the whole. That in mind, she had taken to the high ground as soon as possible, to better keep an eye for strange things, and keep a surreptitious watch on where Furinkan was. After all, if anything happened during the day, it would start there most likely.
What she hadn't expected to happen was for whatever it was that had attacked Hibiki to seek them out. The two groups were mostly unrelated, after all, only really being associated to one another via her Airen. Sure, Kulon the elder had trained the cursed Hibiki boy in some minor Joketsuzoku techniques, but those themselves were taken from others outside the village, and valued less than their original maneuvers. She knew that the elder's plan was to draw out Ranma's own strength, by empowering his rival and sometimes-enemy. It was a longstanding Joketsuzoku tradition.
It was why Mutse hadn't been shipped back to China in a pet carrier.
Xianpu dropped her bike at that thought, landing with a bounce a block past where she could only guess the ambush had taken Mutsu. "Only there was no way this could have been an ambush," the Joketsuzoku warrior thought to herself as she set her bike's stand to leave it behind. "Mutsu was just following me, and I took to the power lines without it being on our route."
That implied that it wasn't an ambush, so much as they were being stalked like... prey animals. The snarl that came with that realization spoke of Xianpu's opinion of it well enough.
"Hnn, now that's an expression more suited to a barbarian foreigner," a mocking voice echoed between the buildings, causing the Joketsuzoku woman to glance around furtively. The following laughter did little to lessen Xianpu's irritation.
Foregoing her maces, the lavender-haired girl drew a pair of dao, the heavy curved swords held in a loose form that could flow from defense to rapid offense on a whim. "Who's there?" the Joketsuzoku called, hoping Mutsu's attacker would give themselves away somehow.
She was to be disappointed. "And why should I tell you, nyah?" the mysterious voice asked, seeming to bounce off the walls in random ways before reaching her.
For what felt like the hundredth time, Xianpu cursed the city around her. Few of her tracking skills were worth anything in such a place, and what scarce ones she'd learned while there were telling her nothing about this situation. She just didn't have enough to work with. That didn't leave her without options, however. Moving slowly deeper into the alley and toward where she was sure Mutsu had fallen, Xianpu addressed the unseen speaker, "You take out Mutsu, yes? Then know he weaker of us. Xianpu strong warrior," she explained in her halting Japanese. "Make challenge? Test self against strong Joketsuzoku?"
The laugh that answered was equal parts mocking and genuinely amused. "Hnn, and you think that two years in this place with people that know your little sore-loser laws, that they wouldn't get around?" It seemed like the voice should be coming from above, but Xianpu couldn't find a source. The bright contrast of the sky against the darkened buildings in their shadows made it impossible to see anything that wasn't standing out from the walls or a vastly different color. "Poor, stupid Xianpu-nyan. It's no wonder that no one takes you seriously."
Xianpu found herself once again gritting her teeth in annoyance. How dare this outsider insult Joketsuzoku law... when she caught them, she'd see how they liked being on the receiving end of some of the more esoteric techniques she knew. Personal insults she could ignore, and frankly, cared not a bit for. Like she gave a damn what some crazy Japanese woman thought? The whole culture was backwards, upside down, and based on idiocy, in her opinion. "Easy things to say," she countered, scanning the shadows for motion. "For someone who hide like coward."
"Nrrwwow, see," the voice answered, causing Xianpu to whirl around, swords flashing. It had seemed like the voice was to her back. "That's what keeps bothering me. Both you and that pig talk about cowards and fighting with honor... and neither of you have the slightest idea what honor is."
"Those who insult Joketsuzoku, live too, too short lives," the Chinese girl promised, hands tightening on her weapons.
"Nrrow. And fighting fair? Hnn, let's see. Mind control drugs and jewels, love pills, the Xi Fa Xiang Gao, imprinting eggs... but why split hairs? All's fair, nyah?"
The familiarity with her past was worrisome, Xianpu found. An equally unknown and ignorant opponent was much preferable to one that had knowledge of her while she was in the dark, so to speak. A biased battlefield was fine – biased in her direction. "How you know that? Who you?"
A faint, deliberate impact in the direction Xianpu guessed Mutse to be was followed by another burst of mocking laughter. "Niishishi... Master keeps no secrets from me. Especially not about bothersome pests like little Chinese girls with more pride than... talent."
Xianpu began to rush around the corner ahead, but the sudden burst of crackling light and a strangled, faint scream clearly coming from Mutse gave her pause. It only lasted a moment, but it was enough for her eyes to spot and water, the burst harsh in the low light. Cursing, the Chinese girl rounded the corner warily, only to pause at the sight that met her. She only had a moment to take in the figure sitting on its haunches beside her fallen fellow Joketsuzoku, before it leapt into a nearby shadow, taking advantage of her fouled vision. "What? But—"
A cute pout shifted into a fierce grin, light reflecting easily from the exposed teeth. "You know, if it wasn't for you," the catty voice prompted, from its place high up from a building's third story. "I wouldn't even be here. Not now at least. I can't say I'm very grateful, nyuu." The teasing lilt in the voice was absent, leaving behind nothing more than lethal sharpness for the speaker's next words. "Not at all."
Brandishing her weapons, Xianpu took in the scene fully, cataloging things in the way of a martial artist and warrior for dispassionate analysis. Mutse was laying face-down on the ground, his robes faintly smoking, though there were no singe marks to be seen. There were however parts of it missing, as if they'd been carved away by a haphazard, childish hand with a pair of shears. His glasses were broken nearby, crushed in a way that seemed deliberate to her eyes. Just another point in favor of this being a deliberate attack, with planning. "You mention master," Xianpu mused out loud. "Where he? Why not face like man?"
"Because there isn't any point to it," spoke a figure that strolled out of the darkness behind Xianpu, startling the Chinese girl into backpedaling while weaving a pointless defense with her swords. Despite the speaker's sudden appearance, she made no move to advance, instead choosing to pace around the widened alley, counter to Xianpu's movements. "Master has already defeated you. Once in that little mud-and-straw backwater you call home. How many times as you made the trip from China to Japan? Then, again over his so-called friend Tendo.
"Again over the reversal-jewel – nice plan there, by the way. It would almost have worked, if you could have backed off for a while, and not shot yourself in the foot while wearing it.
"Even when controlled by a Phoenix imprinting egg, while Master was bound and hobbled. Really, and you call yourself a 'Champion'." The figure paused, hands on her hips as she kicked lightly at the unconscious figure of Mutse where he lay on the ground. "Nyahah. He was more of a threat, really. Regardless of the poor little 'Champion's' opinion."
Every reminder drove into Xianpu's mind, confirming something she had started to worry on earlier in her encounter. Where did this attacker learn so much about her? About the Joketsuzoku? Seeing her antagonist did little to help – it only caused more questions to pop into mind, while confirming that she did indeed see what she'd suspected just moments before.
Of immediate note was the figure's hair. Despite there being no breeze due to the closeness of the buildings, it flowed around her shoulders in a whorl of silver and gray with only a slight gather near the end, flowing about as if caught in a mild wind, making the Joketsuzoku wonder how her antagonist had hidden. Silver-white hair was not something she could imagine missing, while looking for her attacker earlier. She was equally curious about the motion, but that had taken a secondary seat to just how many small things were wrong with the picture before her. Stalking in a circle across from her with a relaxed, almost playful air, the silver-haired figure hummed to herself, the catlike ears atop her head flicking at the errant noises nearby proving their authenticity. Wide blue eyes complete with slit pupils added to the overall impression of 'cat', something that had taken root in Xianpu's mind earlier, listening to Mutse's attacker's speech pattern. The sight of fangs when the figure spoke. The impression was cemented as she noted a tail proportionate to the silver-haired woman's height swaying behind her, lashing in a clearly anticipatory way. It was free to do so, considering the figure's state of near undress, wearing only a long, loose shirt that barely managed to grace her thighs, that she could see.
Despite what was clearly presented before her, Xianpu had a hard time coming to grips with the idea that a catgirl was responsible for what had happened. Taking out the Hibiki boy so simply? Essentially ambushing Mutse so that he had no time to counterattack? That was one thing, but her appearance on top of that? Sure, she herself turned into a cat thanks to her curse – but this was just silly. Then again, she'd had a similar issue, thanks to the ghost cat Maomolin using magic to turn her into a cat to make her his bride. Thoughts of the bakeneko caused Xianpu to reassess her circling opponent, in a different light.
Noting the Chinese girl's attention, the catlike figure tilted her head in mock curiosity. "Oh, and you were doing the angry look so well, too."
The color of the eyes, the small braid in the hair, the familiar shirt... "No way," Xianpu muttered, lapsing back into her native Mandarin. "You can't be—"
"Now, now," with surprising speed, the silver-haired figure cut the other girl off, suddenly appearing in her personal space. The shock was enough to cause Xianpu to dive to the side, where she narrowly avoided a clawing swipe that ripped masonry off the nearby wall in its wake. "Master's experiences warned me letting you think about this too long would be bad, but I have to admit, I'm impressed." Crouching, the catgirl followed her prey, ducking under Xianpu's sword and kicks, showing an uncanny familiarity with the Joketsuzoku style. "Under that vapid little mask, you're quite perceptive."
For her part, Xianpu was conflicted. If her guess was right, then she couldn't strike a fatal blow to the catgirl. But, she had no idea how to fight such a being, her experience being only with human foes. This was far, far outside her range of knowledge.
Her frantic planning was cut off prematurely, by her opponent flickering from view suddenly. "Sadly, I don't have all day. Playtime is over, nya."
"Wha? Where she go—Kyaaa!"
Silver strands slipped around the suddenly stiff Chinese girl, as a pair of slender hands with dainty claws slipped around her waist and shoulders. As Xianpu fought the strange sense of combined vertigo and lassitude that had washed over her, she couldn't help but note the paralysis that had followed it. For all she couldn't move, however, she could still feel the small hands holding her tightly to a clearly feminine form, the busty catgirl going so far as to wrap a leg around her thigh from where she clasped her from behind.
"Not so much fun on the receiving end, is it?" the catgirl asked in a playful, dangerous lilt. A quiet laugh followed, as Xianpu twitched amid the tangling threads that loosely bound her, and the limbs that seemed made of silken steel. "But, as Master said – I shouldn't play with you too much."
Pouty lips parted to display a narrow tongue, which was slowly drawn from the Chinese girl's collar to ear. Trailing it, the girl's skin welled with blood, as the first tiny arcs of electricity snapped between the two. "After all, you stand between my Master and happiness." Another lick stained the tongue, the pink now a lurid red. A wickedly abraded if shallow wound became a deeper, more serious cause for concern.
"An obstacle," the catgirl explained, lips peeling back from wicked teeth in a parody of a smile. In the window of the building before her, Xianpu watched that feral expression bloom, fear beyond anything she'd felt before hammering through her veins, sparking in her eyes as the tears welled there. Watched as her first shameful tears mingled with the slow seep of her blood as it pooled near her collar, as those stained lips hovered just above her pulse.
"And we both know that obstacles are for killing."
Against the sudden wind of a pair of passing... vehicles, the taller of the two women dressed in anachronistic Japanese clothing peered down, keeping her woven straw hat in place with a hand. The noise of the not-quite motorcycles was still loud, and as she waited for the din to fade, she smiled a quiet smile while watching their riders. Two women, one blonde and the other with long dark hair if eyes weren't mistaken, laughed as they drove their unusual machines around a corner.
With some measure of quiet regained, Tsuruko Aoyama turned her attention to the young girl at her side. "Yes, Motoko-han?"
The eight year old, in her own copy of her older sister's hakama and short kimono in black and white respectively, reached out to grab a handful of the red material making up Tsuruko's hakama. The colors were somewhat confusing to some, as traditionally, those colors and styles the older Aoyama sister happened to be be currently sporting were the same as those worn by women that tended to shrines would wear. The fact she was walking down a street in Tokyo with a bundle familiar to those who did kendo across her back, while wearing a straw hat clearly made the initial impression incorrect. Despite that, the serene expression on the eighteen year old's face as she sidled a little closer to her younger sister just made the tableau a bit more peculiar.
One didn't see what appeared to be a sword-carrying miko with a young girl calmly walking in metropolitan Tokyo every day, after all.
The noise had bothered Motoko more than she'd admit. Being one of the daughters of Yomiko Aoyama, the Shihan of the Shinmei-ryū, she had spent most her life up to that point learning and training under her mother's gaze. That did not prepare one for diving headfirst into metropolitan Tokyo. Gathering her courage once more, the young girl spoke, "Why are we here, Aneue? It's so far from home."
A hand strayed down to Motoko's shorter, chin-length hair, ruffling it lightly. The younger girl bore the affectionate gesture with a blush and tiny grumble. "The Shinmei-ryū's duties range wherever we are needed, Motoko-han. Not just back home in Kyoto."
"What kinds of things, though? Hahaue just said I should come with you, to learn..."
"Mm," Tsuruko hummed a moment in thought, considering her mother's motivations for not telling her youngest what their task was, so far from familiar sights. Then again, Motoko wouldn't be actually doing anything, other than observing. It was something of a Shinmei-ryū field trip in that way. A common thing in their school, something she too had done with her mother years back as she was acclimatizing to what her family's legacy actually meant. Likely, this was meant to be just such an occasion, a realization which startled the elder Aoyama daughter for a moment.
That implied she was subtly being nudged to take on her sister's training. Did this mean her mother was starting her instruction as a teacher and guide in the family school, already? Or was it just that she felt Motoko could use some actual experience in the field, before her training in the Shinmei-ryū got difficult, so that she could see first-hand what the school stood for and could do?
There were too many options, and by Motoko's impatient fidgeting, she'd taken too long to answer. "For what we're doing here, the easy answer would be to say, someone asked for help," Tsuruko temporized, before taking a chance on her mother's faith. "Motoko-han, what has Kā-san taught you about the world at large, specifically, the Shinmei-ryū's place in it?"
Motoko fidgeted a moment before answering, the rote reply something she had been taught very early one by her mother. "The Shinmei-ryū were originally protectors of tradition. The school began as samurai who stood beside the onmyōji of the Heian period, and though constant association, learned skills in detecting spirits, sealing, and ki."
Tsuruko hummed an affirmative. "That's a good start. It is good to know our origins, but that wasn't quite what I meant."
"The world now is a different place, and since that time so long ago, it has changed. We changed with it," the older sister explained as they walked westward. "Eventually, onmyōji learned to summon shikigami familiars, which many favored over a potentially lethal protector, whose loyalty was to another. However, those that created the school as it was, had learned much. It was too late to go back, so to speak.
"So, they were made a grudging part of that moonlit world."
A slight tug on her hakama brought Tsuruko's attention to her younger sibling. "Moonlit world?"
"A title used sometimes to describe the world of the supernatural," she explained. "As its nature doesn't allow it to become something that would stand the scrutiny of the 'sun'. That is, everyday, normal life."
Tsuruko considered that question for a quiet few minutes, knowing Motoko would be patient with her. Their mother often fell to such silences, and she was suddenly learning why, as she gathered her thoughts for an answer. "Many reasons. For most, the human reason. Most people are not ready or capable of facing such mysteries.
"For instance, how many of those who are watched among the many kendo dojos actually have the potential to become part of the Shinmei-ryū?"
Motoko drew herself up with a little pride. "Very few. Maybe one in a thousand."
With a nod, Tsuruko agreed with this broad estimate. "However, even among that number, the school carefully only approaches those who would be accepting of such an offer. The reason is human nature. Envy and greed are still threats to our school and secrets, as you well know.
"That is the human reason. That leads us to a second reason. Survival."
Motoko jolted slightly at her sister's serious tone, a far cry from her usual, lighter voice. "Survival?"
Her expression grim, Tsuruko nodded. "There are many more people unable to touch that world than those who can. No matter how skilled, one unfortunate moment, one lapse in focus, can bring a swordsman down. For all Kā-san could likely fend off a small army herself, they only need one success, one lucky shot, to win against her. Numbers are a weakness we cannot let get the advantage. The best way to do this, is to give no reason for there to be such a situation.
"And so, we keep to the shadows, out of the light. We cause less harm to our fellow man, by not reminding them what they are incapable of, and to ourselves, by shielding us from possible greed and envy."
It was clear that Motoko did not like that logic. "But what we do isn't wrong, or bad. Why do we need to hide?"
"Jealousy and hate," Tsuruko replied sadly. "Those are the enemies we avoid, but allying ourselves with the various Magic Associations, and following their rules for secrecy. We gain the assistance of a worldwide group of peers, all like-minded in the survival of their skills and legacies through such secrets."
Quietly, the younger girl nodded. "Hahaue told me a bit about that. About a place called The Clocktower in London, and some church."
Tsuruko's lips quirked at her sister's words. "Ah, she did? So you knew all that already?"
"No," Motoko disagreed. "She never explained it that way. Just that we should keep our skills private, or people from those places might come and punish us. Now, I guess I know why better."
Relieved that she wasn't just going over known material pointlessly, Tsuruko continued. "Then, let me tell you about the last reason, since it has more to do with why we're visiting Nerima.
"The last, and possibly more important reason to keep your special skills hidden, is that the peculiar has a tendency to draw in the peculiar. The world itself counters such extremes with a counter-force."
"Some don't believe in it, some call it karma," the elder Aoyama explained. "Others use it to explain things like aberrations. The Kai'i."
Motoko shivered at the mention of that word. "Hahaue talked about those a lot. How, in the beginning, our school ended up being cursed as often as blessed because they used a samurai's logic to solve problems."
Mulling that over, Tsuruko laughed somewhat mirthlessly. "Yes, drawing steel on a kami can be a problem," she mused. "But more, I think it became a matter of perspective. In time, those who began the school came to realize that not all spirits need to be fought. Some can be reasoned with. Some simply want to be left alone. Sometimes that isn't an option, and we fight.
"That is why the swords of the Shinmei-ryū are always shirasaya," she explained, tapping her own blade, Shisui, for emphasis. Rather than a traditional katana, her blade was bound in a white wood sheathe, with a hilt of the same wood. Bound at the base of that hilt, rested a bound bit of red tassel, the ends dangling to be caught in the wind. "It shows that the Shinmei-ryū are not ruled by our blades, in how we keep them in a state that most would consider only suitable for storage."
That was a partial truth, and both Aoyamas knew it. A capable practitioner of Shinmei-ryū could literally take up an errant branch and use it to lethal effect. However, the reference was essentially true. Their bound blades were a symbol of the equanimity the Shinmei-ryū taught, when dealing not only with the people around them, but the supernatural as well.
Motoko shook off her own thoughts, fixating on something her sister had said a moment before. Fear, despite the discipline she was being instructed in, shone clear in those young eyes. "Is that why we're here? Hahaue sent us to deal with a Kai'i?"
"Kā-san sent me to deal with a Kaii," Tsuruko corrected, ruffling Motoko's hair again to set the younger girl at ease. "You're here to learn a bit by watching."
That clearly didn't sit well with the younger girl, but the point was quickly made moot as Tsuruko came to a stop outside a modest home surrounded by a property wall. The style was somewhat modern, and looked as if it had undergone extensive repairs recently as well. Verifying the address and the nameplate identifying the residents as SAOTOME, the elder Shinmei-ryū motioned for her sister's silence. Motoko complied as her sister took on an air very much like that their mother had. "And your lesson begins now."
Despite its exterior, the Saotome home was simple and understated, with traditional settings that reminded Tsuruko of home, setting her at ease. More importantly, it eased Motoko, who had been feeling very much like a tiny little bomb ready to go off in hand since being told they were in Tokyo to address the issue of a Kai'i. As the two of them were greeted and made their introductions, Tsuruko took a moment to make an impression of the people before her.
The woman, Nodoka, who had sent the summons for assistance, seemed rather upbeat despite carrying what felt to her senses much like a pall of remorse and leashed guilt about her like thick fog. Dressed in a patched but clearly much cared-for kimono, the woman exuded a sense of quiet peace and calm, despite the katana clutched in her arms.
Tsuruko noted the weapon without so much as a twitch of her eye.
Genma Saotome as he'd introduced himself, made her want to go find someplace to bathe. He wasn't a lecher, or let his eyes linger in places they shouldn't, but like her other senses, those that she used to scent at Nodoka to feel her quiet sadness told a tale about her husband as well. More than any other impression, however, she felt greed. So much so, in fact, she nearly missed the desperate anxiety at her presence.
As she was being seated at the Saotome's table for tea, Tsuruko considered many things. Her lightly sore feet caused by the long walk from the center of Tokyo to one of its outlying wards. The tense and nervous presence of her beloved younger sister at her side. The familiar nature of Nodoka's weapon. The shifty eyes of the man who married into his name, as he sweated faintly under his bandanna. The quiet, knowing smile her mother used to always wear when teaching or exposing her to some new mystery or lesson.
Suddenly, quite a few things slid into sharp focus. Though she was there for a purpose, had traveled from Kyoto and the heart of Shinmei-ryū's influence north to the center of the Kantō region, she felt no fear or anxiety. For all that Tsuruko knew she'd soon be facing her first Kai'i alone, there was only a sense of anticipation. A feel of released tension deep within, startling her though it didn't pass beyond her schooled features. Her mother's smile suddenly made much more sense, with its quiet air of amused attention. The sensation and expression of one who was finding the world, regardless of how it presented itself, vastly entertaining. Enthralling.
Tsuruko tried on that slight, enigmatic smile, and found it quite comfortable.
At her side, Motoko shivered, for no reason she could quite name. There was only a sense of foreboding, and a feeling of distant doom.
Conversation shortly progressed beyond pleasantries, into the reason that the Shinmei-ryū had been summoned to a place outside their usual domain. "If I understand correctly," Tsuruko said after a few minutes of quietly digesting the tale, "you think your son, Ranma, is involved in these attacks? On top of that, you believe him to be suffering from a spirit's influence, and your reasoning is because he has been missing since shortly before they began and the nature of the attacks. Does that sum things up?"
With his arms crossed and eyes closed, Genma Saotome tried to affect his usual air of sagely wisdom. A glance at the Shinmei-ryū woman and her – in his mind – mocking smile ruined the effect as he scowled. "That's precisely it," he bulled forward, regardless. "No one else in Nerima would have the ability to fight those three as effectively. The boy's been able to beat them for ages now, and it just goes to reason that this is his doing."
"And yet," Tsuruko mused, sipping her tea, "you are his master in the art. Are you saying he has surpassed you, Saotome-san?"
"Of course not!" Pride demanded he respond, blurting out a denial to the girl's claim out of reflex. Genma's bluster faltered as he realized the trap he'd just walked into. "Er..."
Placing her cup down, the swordswoman gazed intently at the bald, overweight man until he began to sweat and fidget where he sat. "I see. Nodoka-san?"
The auburn-haired woman blinked up, having lost herself to her contemplations during the latter exchanges. "Hm? Yes?"
Tsuruko's gaze did not waver, however the smile she wore grew larger, if brittle. The subtlety was lost on all but the man she was staring down. "Would you mind keeping my sister company for just a moment? I fear the nature of the discussion I need to have with your husband would not be one I wish her to hear."
Genma paled dramatically and sputtered a denial but was overruled by Nodoka's sense as a hostess. "Oh! Oh of course, these are somewhat unacceptable topics for a young woman. Come, Motoko-chan, let me show you my garden." Getting a small nod from Tsuruko, the younger Aoyama heaved a sigh and followed the Saotome woman outside, leaving a shifty-eyed Genma and placid Tsuruko behind.
Once the outer door had shut, there was a flurry of blurred motion, ending with Genma halfway to a window, with Shisui drawing a bead of blood from his throat as it rested just below his chin. Tense and immobile, both figures stood still as the air around them settled once more. "Perhaps you would like to tell me the truth now, Saotome-san?"
Swallowing thickly and ignoring the stinging reminder that he was just a few fractions of a second from being a head shorter, Genma laughed nervously, "O-of course. Not that I was lying earlier! Not at all!"
"Your sincerity has truly moved me," the swordswoman remarked, her expression and tone shifting not a bit from the pleasant tone she'd spoken with since arriving, her tiny, enigmatic grin still firmly in place. "I find myself rapt with attention. Please, speak Saotome-san. Let us try this again."
"R-right," sweating through his once-white gi, Genma backed away from the blade at his throat and drew a deep breath, relieving the spiked rush the adrenaline hammering through his system had left at his near-death experience. Seeing that the sword-carrying girl wasn't planning on putting her blade away this time, he kept his eyes firmly ahead, wanting no part in tempting her hand. "So, uh. What did you want to know?"
Tsuruko regarded the cowed man with a languid blink. "Perhaps why you are so sure this is your son's fault? It seems unlikely that one who had spent so long obeying the tenets of his art would simply begin attacking his rivals and annoyances with the intent to do lasting harm."
Genma nodded seriously before replying, "That's true. Very true. Even under great stress, the boy keeps his head on straight. Which is why I think he's possessed."
"Hence, the summons sent to the Shinmei-ryū," Tsuruko temporized, before shaking her head slightly. "Yet, this is precisely the same logic you offered before, and it still smells of untruth. I am not my mother, with her infinite patience and compassion, Saotome-san," the swordswoman warned, bringing her blade back up as her eyes shifted from steel-gray to a lurid gleaming white-on-black. More disturbing by far, however, was the slight smile that remained below those demonic eyes.
"And I abhor liars."
"Waaaah! I'm sorry! I'm sorry!" The sudden display of cowardice and fear did little to ease the woman's ire, but she also made no move to strike the begging man down as he bowed repeatedly, prostrate on the floor of his own home. "The truth is just too horrible to bear! Too horrible to tell!"
Tsuruko released a breath that misted in the air faintly. "Regardless, you will tell it. In return I shall rework the binding on your wife's blade. It is a favor to the Shinmei-ryū that she bears it, and it would not do for the curse it holds to leak further.
"Thus is my offer, Saotome-san. Your truth, for the seal. I feel it quite fair. Do you not?"
Genma gawked at the young woman, his mouth moving silently for a moment. Shaking his head to settle his thoughts, he pointed at her incredulously. "Wait, you know about the sword?"
With a small shrug, Tsuruko nodded. "Of course. Why do you think the Shinmei-ryū bothered to send someone – not just someone, but the heir of the Shihan – to attend this small matter? We owe the Saotome line a debt of gratitude for their sacrifice in keeping that blade sealed."
Shifting his eyes from the girl with the sword to the door leading to his wife, Genma asked, "Then, why not just seal it again? Or better yet, take it away entirely!"
"Oh? And you care so little for your wife's honor? Her duty? Her blood-born right to a responsibility to a task both important and vital?" The small smile became mocking. "Then again, you do seem like one who is more concerned with his own hide, regardless of who else suffers."
"Enough talk," Tsuruko stated. "Tell me about this... Neko-ken that your wife mentioned, that made you all but sweat blood. Convince me that you aren't so stupid as to have performed a ritual meant to hollow out a soul and leave behind a hole, fit for a demon to build a nest within," she hissed, advancing on the still-sitting Saotome, her gleaming eyes seeming to take up the whole of his vision.
"Perhaps if I am satisfied with your answer, I won't cripple you and let the Magic Associations render their usual judgment on those who dare to summon demons into the world. Perhaps you'd enjoy life as a farm animal?"
AN: I liked it, but decided I wanted to work with Tsuruko in a different setting. Plus, again, I planned out bigger than I had the motivation to complete. So, false start it is.