Strangers in the Night
by Jared Ornstead
A Disclaimer I stole (Oh, the irony! ;-)
Ranma 1/2 property of Takahashi Rumiko, Sailormoon property of Takeuchi Naoko.
Tendrils of fog moved and tumbled over each other in the early morning hours in the streets of a certain city in Japan. The weather in Nerima was known for its wet and odd behavior, but when a circle of mist formed above the pavement and began spinning in an upright ring this counted as unusual even for there. Then suddenly a rainbow disk of emptiness parted the center of the cloud and ejected the slender yet muscular form of a young man, who caught his uncontrolled fall on one hand and vaulted off that palm to his feet. His grace and obvious combat readiness smacked of and surpassed some of the more lethal predators to be found in nature.
Seeing there was no one around he relaxed somewhat and his pose shifted, the aura of martial prowess seeming to fade away until it was hidden as if by a veil. Hidden, but not unguessable. Leaving for those not able to perceive it merely a well-built boy of around sixteen.
On his wrist there was a twinkle from a bracelet. he looked down in time to see the last light from its stones flicker and die.
Ranma looked down at the piece of jewelry, at its dead lights, the luster gone from its jewels. Then swiftly he examined the area around him. "Well, looks like I'm stuck here. The next step, obviously, is to find out what 'here' is."
He had dropped to one knee after exiting the now departed mists. With his bearings back he pulled himself to his feet. "First priority is information." He quoted, and felt an inward pang. With a grimace he set his steps toward his goal. "And so to work."
The very most basic surveys were completed in minutes, as by now they were a down to a science of behavior so ingrained they were almost instinctual. It didn't take him long to get disgusted with how hard it was to find things. Chewing absently on the leaf of a particularly appetizing shrub and flipping the pages of a directory, Ranma's face brightened. He tapped the entry in triumph, then quickly turned pages to see if he could find a map.
The youth smiled to himself, raising his head to look around for street signs. "Well." He caught what he needed and started off running, speaking softly under his breath. "There is a Tendo dojo. Now for Nabiki."
Hopping across rooftops Ranma had time to think. His mind inevitably drew him back to that first fateful time, when he and his father had stolen the magic mirror from Happosai. Seeing Akane married to Ryoga hadn't been so bad in retrospect, certainly not after what had followed.
That trip to Jusenkyo, where they had prevented their previous selves from getting dropped in the cursed springs. That could have gone better. Certainly bringing Happosai along, and then leaving him behind, had been a bad idea. It had certainly become clear just how bad when a *second* pair of Genma and son had appeared at the Tendo dojo.
They'd mugged the little freak after that. But Ranma could have been *alot* wiser than to stand in a pile of magic objects ranting and upset. Standing there with both hands full and in an unthinking agony he'd gone and yelled out a wish.
A really careless wish.
Dawn's rosy fingers were parting the horizon as Ranma jumped down before the gates of the dojo. Repeating to himself the mantra "Take nothing for granted this time!" He checked the wooden sign outside. Yup, it said this was the Tendo's place, dojo included. That was good.
Ranma slipped inside the gate and knocked on the front door. It was early, but Kasumi should still have gotten up by now, and he'd figured out what season it was by looking in the store fronts at the items they had on display. By that he'd figured that dawns were coming a little late this time of year and this wasn't long before the Tendo household got moving in earnest. So it should be ok.
Kasumi answered the door with her customary smile. "Hello, can I help you?"
Ranma exhaled a big sigh of relief. No knife wielding, half-crazed Kasumi. It was just a normal one. Reading her body language it was obvious that she didn't know him. Yet.
He gathered his courage. "Ah, excuse me, miss Tendo. But I was looking for Nabiki. Do you know if I can see her?" That seemed neutral enough.
Kasumi answered. "Oh my. She's just getting ready for school now. Would you care to wait in the parlor?"
"Yes, thank you. I would be very happy to."
He'd maybe overdone it a bit on the thanks, but he *was* feeling grateful. When Kasumi let him inside he began to look around. This place was almost exactly the same as the original Tendo home. The relief he felt was almost tangible. Being stuck here wouldn't be so bad if he could actually make it work this time.
This time. He shuddered a bit, remembering all the times when he hadn't.
Kasumi went back to the kitchen and familiar scents wafted over him from the open door. He breathed in a deep, double breath and smiled to himself, sitting on the veranda. It didn't seem to matter if weird alien things were rampaging on the lawn or if it were her sisters she was cooking in the pot (only that once, but that once was bad enough) Kasumi's cooking always managed to smell delicious.
Ranma pulled his mind back to priorities. If he messed this one up he'd have nowhere else to go. He had to make it work, and that meant finding out as much as possible without revealing anything about himself.
It wasn't long before Nabiki came down the stairs dressed in her school attire. She paused at the sight of him. "Oh. Hello, are you waiting for someone?"
Ranma had found out through hard experience that getting surprised was a bad idea. He'd known she was coming down the stairs before her first foot hit the steps.
"Why yes, Nabiki. I was actually waiting to see you."
So far not so bad, he just wished he'd been able to read more from her reaction. Ranma continued. "Yeah, I was hoping I could ask you a few questions. If you don't mind."
The familiar mercenary gleam came to her eyes. Ranma almost wept with joy at the sight of it. She noticed his reaction and did a double-take. He quickly smothered it. Cautiously, she sat by him on the veranda.
"Ok, first of all, I don't do business with people I don't know. What's your name?"
Ranma grinned in reply, judging her reactions. "You charge for introductions, Nabiki. Why should I give you one for free?"
Her features sharpened as she made what seemed to her like an easy kill. "I thought you were the one asking for favors here."
He didn't bat an eyelash, responding smoothly. "No. I came to conduct a business transaction, and terms are set and agreed upon." He cocked his head at her. "Your own rules, Nabiki-chan. Everything must be bought and purchased. Not the *best* way to live a life, but so long as we do business on your turf it must be by your rules, no?"
She blinked, then settled into a more wary pose and counted out a small stack of yen coins. Ranma left them where they were on the floor between them.
"Tell me what you know about the Saotome family."
Nabiki's eyes hardened. She pointed to the coins. "I've paid for an answer to my question, and I don't like to be kept waiting."
Ranma sighed, he needed to learn about any possible blood feuds or anything going on between their families before revealing his name, and he couldn't afford to have her clam up now. With a bit of a pause he hauled out a handful of coin and counted out a small stack equal to hers, then placed it beside the first, which he made no move to take.
Her eyes glittered at him in calculation, then she relented. He groaned inwardly. Her eyes were glittering in that dangerous way that indicated she was either intrigued or annoyed. Her rates always went up when she was annoyed, and he couldn't afford to get everything he needed at inflated prices.
Nabiki pulled up a knee and wrapped her arms around it. "What I know is that they have a house up on the hill near the Kuno estate, addresses are extra." She said as an aside. "But other than having had a tragedy in their family recently I don't know much about them. I usually occupy myself with families who have kids in our school."
That told him alot more than she thought it did. "My name is Ranma." He pushed both stacks of coins toward her. "Any details on the tragedy?"
She looked at the yen, but didn't take it. "I'd charge you for it, but I really don't know anything about it. Why are you so interested?"
Ranma fought for a moment over whether he should tell her. Finally he stood up and grinned lopsidedly down at her. "I have to go find out if that information is for sale. Sorry Nabiki, but I can't set a price before I know how much it's worth."
She blink-blinked up at him, her own features relaxing. "Say, Ranma. You're pretty good at this." She shuffled her feet. She'd started to ask him for a date, she was getting pretty desperate. It was unusual for her to find a guy who wasn't afraid of her. That he looked great and seemed to have a brain only made it better, but she choked. "Are you interested in a little business proposition?"
He shook his head, smiling full force now. "Sorry, Nabiki. Maybe later, I have some stuff I have to take care of first."
He turned away from her and leaped over the wall.
Nabiki's jaw dropped and she stood staring at the spot that he'd disappeared from. She considered herself a very worldly person. But she'd had no idea that what he'd just done was even possible.
With a bit of grinding of gears, the well-oiled machinery of her mind began to pursue the thought of how she might find out more about him.
Ranma leapt from the yard, around a few buildings, then ran across the rooftops. Nabiki had been a dry well, that was bad. By now he had hoped to have names, addresses, feuds, even the hair color of the siblings he'd never known he'd had (that was always a tricky one).
That she didn't know anything could mean alot of things, and it didn't rule out much.
For instance it could still mean there was that stupid promise between their families about uniting the school of Anything Goes. She just might not know anything about it. In fact if he remembered right the Tendo daughters hadn't learned about that particular promise until he had, the day it was to happen.
His pop wasn't the only one to pull surprises.
Ranma paused, halfway up the hill. His mom's ancestral estate wasn't all that far from the Kuno place, and it was nicer. But he stopped himself before running all the way there.
Doubts wracked him. Without local information he could go charging into anything. I mean, sure he could verify that it was his house and all, but that wasn't even the first part of trying to fit in as himself. How could he fool his own parents into accepting him if he didn't even know the first thing about his life there?
"Okay," Ranma reassured himself, sitting down on the roof where he was. "If I was going to Furinkan I could wait and pounce on Sasuke when he showed up to help Kuno out of something. He's the only one besides Nabiki who usually knows much. But Nabiki doesn't know me, so I obviously don't go to their school. And not knowing *where* I supposedly went before I can't pass myself off as a transfer student."
Ranma leaned back, angst and frustration building. This had all started so simply. Trying to undo the curse. But he and his pop had really screwed that one up. They'd screwed it up so badly that Ranma had gone on alone. Though that really hadn't been on purpose.
But by then it was too late. He didn't have the mirror anymore. He'd been traveling by wishes from this bracelet they'd taken from Happosai. And he hadn't even know what it did until he was already using it.
Ranma could remember standing in the yard. He and his old man had just pounded the old freak flat and were pulling all sorts of weird junk out of his clothes, trying to find something to set things right again.
Behind him, the Tendo family had been huddled in fear, right alongside the second pair of Genma and son.
The whole thing had been *way* too much for Ranma. And after stripping Happosai dry they'd found nothing conveniently labeled "Fix Everything." Which was a shame because they'd had no idea what else to look for. There were mounds of girls undergarments covering the ground all around them, a few trinkets, and a freakishly huge pile of scrolls.
Genma had bonked his son for the exclusive right to peruse the scrolls, which left Ranma holding a pile of trinkets, trying to figure out what to use them for.
In typical thoughtless frustration he'd reared back and yelled out the wish that none of this had ever happened to him.
And you couldn't ever unmake a wish. He'd tried.
That first reality had shocked him the most. First it was finding out that his wish hadn't just moved him, it had changed the past. He had woken up in a world where he'd been born female.
It had taken him nine weeks to calm down.
There were parts that weren't half bad to start with. He'd been living with his mother, had already graduated from a nursing program, and had a job at a hospital. Then he'd had to deliver Akane's baby (by Kuno) and soured on that reality *really* fast.
The second thing was that, as much as he could tell, he kept his own thoughts and mind, with additional skills and memories creeping in on him gradually. He'd stayed in that reality just long enough to begin to start liking boys. He hadn't been able to take it any longer than that.
From there he'd forgotten how many realities it was before he ended up being born a member of the Amazon tribe. They'd been rocky ones to be sure, and he hadn't made them any better by trying to wish himself back into the reality he'd come from.
He'd caused himself a pretty mess or two trying.
Ranma owed a debt of gratitude toward Cologne. She'd recognized the change he was going through, investigated and discovered the bracelet he'd used, and rather than try to force it from him had adopted him and taught him something of how to use it.
She'd gained alot of his trust by treating him kindly just then. It was her wisdom and interference that had brought a halt to a long downward trend. She'd taught him to use more of his wits than he ever had before.
He owed her for that.
She wasn't the only one, either. He owed alot of people for alot of things, most of which they would never remember.
Ranma shook himself out of his reverie. He had to plan.
Nabiki got to school just before her usual factors arrived. This was unusual but a good practice for her, you could never know if your underlings were going into business for themselves unless you stopped by unexpectedly sometimes.
So far they hadn't. Her trio of lieutenants showed up without customers in tow and Nabiki gathered them in swiftly.
"Look, you guys. I ran across someone interesting, and I want you to find out all you can about a boy named Ranma Saotome."
She was guessing that was his name, but her hunches usually proved correct. And if that didn't work she could always institute a broader search.
The Kuno mansion was a vast, sprawling pile of buildings amidst a sumptuous garden, carefully walled to keep out the riffraff. Such a large estate would be luxurious anywhere, but in Japan where every square yard was worth more than blood it went beyond mere wealth. It spoke of a power tied only to the ancient families.
In one of the larger buildings Sasuke materialized on one knee before his noble master, who was at that time composing an ink brush painting. "Oh, great master, I bear news. The treacherous Saotome whom you most despise has reappeared!"
Kuno's ink brush snapped. He abandoned his work. "Tell me the way of it, Sasuke. I want everything."
The ninja obeyed. "He has been seen on a rooftop not far from here. He is without his sword, and appears vulnerable."
Kuno's eyes glowed. "Bring me my katana. I know not how this treacherous fiend continues to live, but he will not be long in that condition." Then he paused, as a thought flickered across his features.
"Sasuke, this man was on a roof you say? Well how, under Heaven, did he get there?!"
The ninja cringed. "I don't know master. We'll have a ladder made ready for you."
Ranma had come to a decision. He couldn't afford to wait until memories started trickling in. It was attractive to try, but he always seemed to warp in right at a critical time, and who could tell what could happen if he waited?
He *could* play it by ear. That usually meant throwing himself right in and trying to avoid catastrophe. He'd prefer to be more prepared, but it wouldn't do to be caught sitting on a rooftop either.
Being caught, and knowing nothing, was always worse (in his experience) than rushing in not knowing anything. If the first happened then they were suspicious. If the second happened he could always claim to be ill.
On the heels of that thought followed a bright inspiration. He moved swiftly to act upon it.
Nodoka had a beautiful kitchen. She had staff to help, of course, and for parties and occasions she relied on them entirely while she attended to other things. But cooking for her family had always brought a sense of peace to her.
And she needed that peace just now.
She was just ladling out a serving for herself when a shriek tore through the fog that had edged up into her mind. Painful reminiscing gave way to cold-edged anger as she swept up her katana and rushed out on the lawn to deal with it.
"If that bastard Kuno thinks that he can..."
The words died on her lips and the sword fell nervelessly from her hand. In the outer garden she saw her son... her *SON* was standing, leaning against a tree. He was bleeding from a head wound, but her experience with such things told her that it was minor. One of the maids stood by a basket of wash she had been taking out to the cleaning house. The contents had strewn all over the lawn when she had dropped it in her surprise.
Nodoka's lips were numb. Her sword lay unnoticed on the grass behind her. She took a step toward the phantom of what could only be her son.
"Oh, Ranma. I thought you were DEAD!"
Ranma could hardly believe what was happening. The first thing that had almost turned him back was the armed guards placed around the compound. He wasn't used to seeing more than a few servants, even at his mom's estate. In the realities where they lived more humbly there were never any at all.
So where had all the guards come from?
Still, they hadn't turned him back. It had been easy enough to slip by without being spotted. The second thing that had nearly thrown his plan was, after he had placed himself and made a slight cut on his forehead (for the head wound story he was planning on using), the first reaction he got was a shriek.
It was more extreme than he had planned. The maid (whom he couldn't identify) had dropped everything and let go a scream that would have suited her if a demon had been biting her on the leg. (And having lived on the spirit plane for at least one reality he knew exactly how to judge that sort of thing).
Dozens of servants responded to the shriek. A redheaded girl in a maid's outfit tore out of the house in a combat stance that had him appraising her skill as well-nigh close to his own and looking intent to kill. Then she caught sight of his face and stopped dead, her face blanking completely in surprise.
He appraised her fighting style and was impressed, but never got a chance to inquire as things were just happening too swiftly.
"Rammie!" A ten year old bundle of energy rocketed out of the house at supersonic velocities and gave him a mega super glomp that would have blown all the breath from his body save for the fact that she was only high enough to do it around his legs.
Ranma's mind did a quick mapping of facial features between hers, his, and various relations. Yep, family resemblance alright. Looked exactly like his mother at ten with a bucketful of extra cuteness.
Oh, and blue hair with orange highlights, tied in twin pokey buns on either side of her face.
He found it amazing that he was still meeting new family members after all this time.
Then his mom rushed out on the field. Seeing the look on her face and the way she was holding that katana he'd almost abandoned his plan and bolted then and there. He might have had his legs not been held. Then she saw him. He'd never seen that sort of look before, not even the time she had asked him to commit seppuku.
His blood froze as his mother said, "Oh, Ranma. I thought you were DEAD!"
More swiftly than he could think more guards had materialized, waving guns and pointing them in every possible direction. Somehow he and his mother were in the center of this, being rushed back inside by the household staff and servants, the little blue and orange-haired girl clinging to him like an extra limb.
In moments he found himself in a couch with towels wrapped around him as an elderly lady nurse tended to the cut on his forehead. There were servants and butlers staring at him as if he'd done something more amazing than sprout wings and fly. With the little girl still sobbing out the name Rammie and holding onto him like she'd seen something horrifying and he was the one, solid link to a peaceful universe.
Little sister, age ten, name Norika. Or so he'd collected.
Finally, he built the courage to ask. "Mom, what's going on?!"
Nodoka sat weeping on a chair by his side. She hadn't taken her eyes off him in minutes. "Oh, Ranma. Don't you worry about it. We'll have you comfortable in no time. Please." She waved the nurse aside and moved up close to her son. "You'll be fine. Just tell us where you've been these last two months."
Ranma swallowed. The stress question. The BIG question. He had no idea where he'd been because he had just appeared this morning. He sweated, but he answered it honestly. "I'm not really sure, mom. I'm a little fuzzy on alot of things."
The ten year old swarmed more fully into his embrace.
Nodoka frowned. This wasn't like her son at all, so much of his pride was gone, and he was certainly more tolerant of his sister's overt affection. Yet her eyes could not deny the reality before her, her fingers found the same young man she'd thought lost. Letting her heart get away with her head for once she threw her arms around her lost boy and hugged him tight, crushing both children in her loving grip.
A three way hug she'd thought never to feel again.
"Oh, my son, my son. My only son. I felt sure I'd never see you again!"
Ranma was a little taken aback. But decided to ride with it a while longer. His arms found their way around his mother. "Sure, mom. I'll be alright. You can tell pops that I'll be fine too."
Nodoka froze and pulled away just far enough to look down at her son, Norika's curious head popping up between them. "But Ranma, your father isn't here anymore."
His brow furrowed. This wasn't going well at all. "You mean he's off on another training mission?" He queried. Seeing out of the corner of his eye his little sister bite her lip he could already tell that he'd guessed wrong.
His mother wiped a tear from her eye. Shaking her head, she knew that something had to have happened to her boy to cause him to act like this. "No, Ranma. Your father is dead."
Nabiki got her information in the break just before second class. Neatly typed sheets printed from a computer were handed to her on the sly by one of her factors. Slipping them in among her class notes (she stayed ahead against just this sort of need) she began to read during class.
The first page was birth weight and vital statistics. Pretty close to what she would have said from having seen him that morning. Satisfied that she had probably got a match she turned the page.
Her eyes grew big as dinner plates and the kids around her grew fairly certain that she wasn't reading anything at all related to class.
It was all Nabiki could do not to drop her pose further. This guy was loaded! I mean, she was used to rich creeps, for example Kuno, dropping money around as if the word itself had no meaning. She had not expected the haggler who had dickered price with her so easily that morning to be rich.
Something was usually up when someone showed an out-of-place skill like that. And Nabiki made most of her money when something was up. She turned another page.
Her reaction nearly got an eraser thrown at her head. By this time even the teacher knew something was up, and asked Nabiki to answer a question related to today's topic. Nabiki recovered herself and answered it credibly, but no sooner were the teacher's eyes off her than she was back to her papers.
There was a note on her desk, demanding an explanation. It was from one of her factors, so she couldn't ignore it. Hastily she scribbled "This guy's got a blood feud going on with the Kuno family!" before returning it. The student who received it nearly shot up out of her seat.
Nabiki couldn't blame him. She'd nearly had the same reaction herself. But there before her were the details. They'd been going at it for ten years now. Two ancient samurai families with notions of honor. One had gotten slighted, she noted wryly that it was Kuno's dad who'd done the slighting, and the other had responded the only way they could.
It looked like all the proper people had been paid off, so there was no official attention as the two families ripped each other up.
Nabiki turned the final page. After what she had seen it was a tribute to her that she didn't cry out louder than she did.
The final page was a death certificate for one Ranma Saotome. Died of sword wounds (though it didn't say that, it was included as an aside) two months ago.
Akane was worried about her sister. She could tell something was up. Heck, the *school* could tell something was up. Nabiki's lieutenants were making a fortune just answering questions about their boss. The approved answers only, of course.
For her sister to drop her guard this much always meant something big was up. And the last time something big was up had been a near foreclosure on the dojo.
Feeling the need for answers, Akane sought her sister out at lunch and sat next to her. "Okay, Nabiki, spill it. The last time you were this upset I had to pose for panty pictures to get us out of it." Akane blushed slightly at the memory. Kuno wasn't bad looking, but he was a freak of nature and everyone knew it. Those pictures had been blown up to poster size and now decorated his room.
Nabiki raised her eyes from the papers she'd been studying. Normally she ate in the lunch room where her services were easily available to those who wanted them. Now she'd handed off the information brokering to her small staff and was sitting in a secure place in the yard. It was one of the safest places for talking she knew of, and she had a boy or two from the sumo team hired to keep it private. She guessed they had assumed it was okay to let her sister pass. And now that she thought about it, it was. She needed someone to talk to.
"Relax Akane. This has nothing to do with us. The finances for the dojo are stable. So you can relax." Nabiki had just repeated herself and she knew it. Why was she getting so rattled? She drew herself up.
"Okay, Akane, here's the deal. I ran into a guy this morning, asking for information on the Saotome family."
Akane didn't get it. "So what's the big deal? People ask you for information all the time."
Nabiki nodded. "That's right. But how many people ask me for information regarding their own family?"
Akane thought about it. "Well, there was that time dad..."
"I mean, besides us?" Nabiki interrupted.
Akane shrugged. "I guess it is kinda weird."
Nabiki despaired about showing her sister how amazing this was, so she switched over to the main meat of the subject. "And that's not the oddest part. I've been doing some research. And do you know who this guy is? He's from a big samurai family, one of the oldest in Japan, and do you know what's more? I have a paper here assuring everyone that the guy I just talked to this morning is dead."
Akane's eyes were huge. "Wow! So what's up? I mean, he obviously isn't dead or he couldn't have been talking to you."
"Obviously he wasn't dead." Nabiki supplied, not mentioning how very *not* dead he'd made her feel. "So I've been looking into that. The doctor who performed the autopsy was Kuno's personal physician. So he must have been paid off *real* big to fake something like this, especially since Ranma obviously didn't intend to stay dead for very long."
"So what's up?"
Nabiki shook her head. "I wish I knew. Why fake your own death only to come back a few months later? There's got to be a reason for it. Nobody does something that expensive for nothing."
Akane had relaxed long ago and was in the middle of eating her lunch. "Could be he didn't have much choice." She thought out loud, munching on dough as she did so.
Nabiki heard her words. Sword wounds, the blood feud. A theory clicked within her mind. "Okay, sis. Try this on for size. These families have been fighting for most of our lives, longer than I care to think about, even if it isn't something ancient. Say that Ranma gets caught by Kuno, the two fight, and Kuno wins. He's too spoiled to check the body properly, so he gets one of his servants to do it. Well, if *I* were badly wounded and I had the cash on hand I'd bribe a servant or two to get me out of there. Some good surgery and two months would be about enough time to heal, wouldn't it?"
Akane shook her head, having experience with martial arts injuries. "Sword wounds bad enough to look deadly don't heal that fast. But in two months he could move a bit."
Nabiki thought back to watching Ranma jump over their wall. She would classify that as more than 'a bit.'
Ranma sipped hot tea as the household fussed around him. Warm blankets, food, medical attention, everything had come flowing his direction and he wasn't allowed to say boo about it.
Norika appeared to have become permanently attached, alternating between glomping his chest and arms as his position made convenient.
The family doctor had been brought in and pronounced the head wound minor. Then he'd proceeded to thoroughly examine Ranma, after the boy had been moved to his room, of course.
His kid sister had absolutely refused to be pried off his side even through the examination, continuing to cling to him throughout. The doctor had appeared used to it, working around the little girl as if she wasn't there. Though if Ranma was any judge, the man's eyes revealed just how glad he was the girl had attached to places that did not require bandaging.
Now the little girl with the adoring eyes had fallen asleep at his side, burrowed into his covers and apparently sleeping well, and in such a way as to incline Ranma to think that she hadn't for months.
The light of joy on her sleeping face made him think she'd missed him.
So Ranma lay near her with a bandage over the cut he'd given himself, and thought about what his mother had told him. Pops was dead, gone. Somehow he couldn't bring himself to tears about it. Somehow all this wishing had made reality itself too strange. He didn't feel much, as if he were just waiting to make another wish and watch reality change all over again.
Mourning someone when you could reasonably expect to see them again in a few hours seemed pointless.
Except he wouldn't be leaving. The bracelet was all used up. Still, the whole thing didn't seem real enough to mourn over. It had been awhile since he'd seen his father as more than a sparring partner, and an annoying one at that.
He decided not to worry about it. He'd better concentrate on how to integrate himself to this place. His success on that still left something to be desired, and he didn't have anywhere else to go.
Suddenly he grew tired of bed rest. He'd had enough of that and he wasn't learning anything. Well, aside from the fact that his kid sister had a mousy little snore. Slipping back into his clothes he noticed by his bed clock that school was going to let out soon at Furinkan.
If he knew Nabiki at all, she'd have learned alot in one day. He decided to pay her a visit. A quick glance and an estimate assured him that he'd have more than enough time to zip by Furinkan before the exhausted little girl could awaken. It had already become one of his priorities not to cause her hurt in any way. He'd be back so she wouldn't have to wake alone.
Amy looked up from her computer. "Bad news, guys. I'm reading another energy signature. From a suburb of Tokyo we've never been before. One called Nerima."
Lita sat up. "Could it be the Negaverse?"
Amy typed, then chewed her lower lip. "It's like nothing I've ever seen from them, but it could be."
Rae stopped trying to steal her Sailor-V comic back from Serena, who raspberried her and continued reading. "This wouldn't be the first time they've pulled something new on us."
"Maybe you girls should check it out." Luna suggested.
"Awwwww! But this was just starting to get *good!*" Serena whined.
Nodoka came in with a cup of Swiss chocolate for her son, only to find Norika sleeping curled up next to an empty cavity in the sheets and the window curtains billowing.
She swiftly set down the tray and glanced above her son's bed, turning white as a sheet herself. "Oh, Ranma! How could you have left your *sword?*"
Ranma leapt into a tree on the grounds of Furinkan just as the final bell sounded the end of school. He didn't know what school it was he went to in this reality, but since his mother hadn't seemed too concerned about trundling him off to class he'd decided not to worry about it.
Students began pouring out of the building with eagerness that never seemed to change, no matter how much else was different around them. True to form, Nabiki was late out of the crowd, taking up a place where she would be available for private business.
He leapt down before her.
Nabiki was just getting prepared for her afternoon setup when Ranma suddenly appeared right in front of her. The shock was so great that she dropped her books, turning white and stiff when she saw him.
Ranma stopped what he was about to ask her and instead looked concerned. Akane saw her sister in such a state and ran up to her, accusing Ranma. "What have you *done* to her!"
Ranma backpedaled, waving his hands. "Hey! I haven't done anything!"
He would surely have continued but Nabiki chose that moment to explode. "What are you *doing* here! Don't you realize that this is the school Kuno goes to?!?"
Ranma took it in stride. "Yeah. So what?"
"Indeed." Spoke up a familiar voice. The crowd parted to reveal Kuno, in full kendo attire, standing with a steel katana held at the ready against Ranma. "How is it that the cretinous Saotome finds the audacity to invade the very premises on which stand my holy feet? Have you no regard for life? Very well! Since you have so little care of it, I will relieve you of that burden which life bestows!"
Ranma looked over his shoulder, unconcerned. "Kuno, you sound dumb when you're spouting other peoples' poetry. Don't try to make stuff up. You don't do it well. And you just end up looking *more* stupid. Which it's hard to believe that's possible."
Kuno gaped, and the entire student body dissolved in awe of the newcomer. It was an awe they gave from a distance, but they gave it more fully than they'd ever given it to anyone before.
Nabiki recovered herself and hissed into Ranma's ear. "Hey, get away now, while you can. I'll delay Kuno while you run for it." She had no idea why she was doing this, she had no idea why she was doing it for free either. She didn't even have an idea *how* she'd do it. But in her intent she found herself totally sincere. Hmm, maybe if she tore off all Akane's clothes?
Ranma brushed the suggestion off. "Thanks Nabiki, but I'll take care of this. Beating up Kuno is *just* the thing for my mood right now."
"How DARE you try and mock me!" Kuno spat venomously, recovering from his stunned state. "Pull forth your sword, evil one, and feel the might of the great Blue Thunder!" He raised his sword and lightning pealed in the background.
Ranma cocked an eyebrow. Very impressive, but after who knows how many lives he'd learned how the kendoist did it. In fact he'd learned alot in that time. Ranma cracked his knuckles. Yes, pounding Kuno into the pavement was exactly what he needed just then to work off some stress.
Ranma drew his chi in just a bit, and struck a pose. Instead of lightning or thunder, drums began to sound. Big drums beating out a powerful cadence, with horns joining in soon after. It was the "Anvil of Crom," intro music to Conan the Barbarian, and one of Ranma's favorite pieces of music.
"Well Kuno, since Musashi defeated three masters of the sword with wood against their steel, I figure that I can handle *you* easily enough bare handed."
Ranma stood in a very wide circle, all alone, after that comment. Not that everyone wasn't impressed, they were, they just preferred to admire that kind of bravery from a distance.
Kuno sputtered, enraged. With a great shout he leveled his weapon. "Very well, villain! Feel the wrath of the Great Tatewaki Kuno!" With that he stabbed forth into the space formerly occupied by Ranma's head. Ranma, of course, was no longer there, so Kuno turned the thrust into a slash, pivoting to track the fleeing knave. But Ranma had already ducked the blow and planted a fist into Kuno's kidneys.
Kuno went down, but rather than press his advantage Ranma just stood there, waiting for the kendoist to recover.
Akane had pulled her sister to the side. Questions raged within her, but none of the answers were coming. She held onto her sister's arm, preventing Nabiki from leaping into the fight as Kuno regained himself and attempted to spear the other boy.
"What are you DOING?" She hissed to her, trembling herself at the viciousness of Kuno's attacks.
"You don't understand." Nabiki panted, not caring that she herself didn't either. "That's RANMA out there!"
Akane nearly let go of her sister in shock. Ranma? As in the guy Kuno was trying to kill? What in the world was he doing here!? Didn't he even care that Kuno wouldn't hesitate to strike lethal blows before witnesses?
Tatewaki could not understand it. Here, the wretched Saotome he had defeated not two months before, was defeating his moves almost casually! Yet the foe was not even wielding a blade! Tatewaki spun in a great circle and launched another dozen blows at the agile fiend, but not so much as one even grazed the monster's clothes.
Tatewaki could hardly stand it. Could it be that he had allowed himself to relax so much in so short a time that his techniques were now useless?
Ranma dodged a vicious rapidfire staccato strike. Kuno launched yet another mighty technique at him, but the fiend evaded it effortlessly. The students stood like rocks as the two battled, unable to move for fear of dispelling the illusion before them. Some guy was not only fighting Kuno, but he was winning?
Not only was he winning but he seemed to be enjoying himself. One of Kuno's blows split the pavement on which he'd been standing, yet the newcomer evaded it with nary a concern, making it appear easy.
Tatewaki couldn't stand another moment of this injustice! Here, this knave had the audacity to confront him! A big drop of sweat coursed his brow. And the knave was winning.
Kuno experienced a brief moment of doubt. His opponent had never been this good before! They had faced each other across their blades too many times to count, and always he, Kuno, had been the victor. How could the tables have turned so swiftly?
Then the answer came to him. Black Magic. Sad that even so fallen a samurai as a Saotome would stoop to it, but it was obvious that the wretched fiend had.
A small smile of victory spread across Kuno's face. He had his own answer to magic.
The combatants sprang apart, Ranma covering a distance that only a gazelle should rightly have been able to cross, throwing in an acrobatic mid-air flip just for the sake of doing it.
"Fiend!" Tatewaki spat. "So, you have descended below the level of the basest criminal? Even the most wretched would surely hesitate to duplicate your crime. You DARE to employ sorcery against my person!? Such a nefarious deed truly deserves a just punishment! Feel now the wrath of the sword of my ancestors! Blue Thunder Attack!!!"
Kuno whipped his sword down, lightning appearing from the end to crash against a tree where Ranma had been only a moment before. The tree toppled and fell, burning in every limb and branch.
"Hey, not bad." Ranma called from atop the school wall. "It's not a patch on what *I've* learned, but not bad." He jumped down, savoring the moment. "Anyway, Kuno. Who'd need sorcery to defeat a wimp like you?"
"Fiend!" Kuno struck out with lightning again, but hit only air.
Ranma came to land behind him, annoyed. "Hey, Kuno! Watch what you're doing with that thing. You could hurt somebody by accident."
"Accident!" Kuno screamed. "How can it be an accident when that is exactly my *intention!*" He lashed out with energy again, this time scarring the building.
"Hey man, I'd have thought you would have cared about your classmates and all. Your attack is more dangerous to them than it is to me."
Kuno struck a fourth time and Ranma dodged, but he was beginning to get vastly annoyed. Kuno could really hurt someone like this. He gritted his teeth. Looked like it was about time to take this guy out. Nothing permanent, but he'd like to make sure to do it in one blow.
When he landed he had exactly the right move, too.
Ranma assumed a battle stance. "Okay, Kuno. I've let you have your fun, but you're endangering innocent people and I won't put up with it."
Kuno struck out again and Ranma casually sidestepped, allowing the bolt to take out a chunk of wall.
Akane was having difficulty believing what she was seeing. Here Kuno was wrecking the place and Ranma not only wasn't harmed, he wasn't sweating! In fact his only concern seemed to be the danger Kuno was putting *their audience* in!
Come to think of it. With Kuno thrashing lightning around they were in a bit of trouble. So far he'd caused only property damage, but pretty soon he'd accidentally kill some people.
In spite of that Akane couldn't bear to draw herself away. Watching this young man fight was incredible! It was like seeing one of the Sailor Scout battles on TV, only this was right in front of them!
And pretty amazingly real.
Akane felt a quick flush as the level of the boy's expertise became clear.
Nabiki sagged limply against her sister, drooling. Her eyes never left the lithe body leaping and cavorting before Kuno's flashing strikes. Nor was she alone in this, as more than half the girls at Furinkan High followed her example.
Ranma drew himself to his full height. Somehow he couldn't help but brag, and found himself quoting his teacher, repeating her words from memory. "Behold, a secret technique developed over three thousand years of Chinese Amazon history! An attack so devastating that even the last emperor of the So dynasty lived in terror of it. Chestnuts Roasting Over an Open Fire!!"
Ranma leapt ahead, throwing 498 blows in the space of a second, easily landing enough on the kendoist to send his body flying through the air to impact on the side of the building.
Only the kendoist didn't move.
Kuno stood there, his katana glowing with red hot heat. He hadn't parried the blows, they'd come too fast to even see. But he was unhurt all the same.
Tatewaki snorted, tossing hair out of his eyes. "So at last the pitiful Saotome makes an assault. Pity it will do you no good, wretched one, as with its power evoked this blade defeats all your actions against me."
Ranma noted the heat of the blade, that hadn't come from the lightning, he'd seen it take that no problem. He smirked, figuring a way to beat this.
He threw himself into the proper stance. "Well Kuno, I must say I am impressed. Too bad it's the sword I'm impressed with. *You* only make me feel sick." Drawing upon his increased knowledge he brought his battle aura to near full force, glowing blue on the darkening field.
Despite the danger, students closed the circles around them just a little, too enthralled by the spectacle to be wary.
"I regret using it on such as you, but the sword makes a worthy opponent even if you don't. Feel now the ultimate technique of the Saotome School of Anything Goes Martial Arts!" Ranma brought his hands down like wings, then struck powerfully forward.
A huge, ghostly dragon shape roared up from Ranma's outstretched fist. The pavement curdled and split in its path as it shot across the yard, streaking forth to explode against Tatewaki Kuno. The kendoist struggled an instant, then lost as his sword failed and the energy tossed him backward above the school building, the cooling remnants of his molten blade flying off into space.
Venus looked down on the aftermath of the battle. She and the other scouts were perched high on a nearby roof. She looked back at Mercury. "So, was that it?" She asked, feeling a bit miffed at seeing someone else handle something the Scouts had been called together for.
Mercury activated her visor, taking readings. "No, it wasn't. The source of energy I'm reading was not the man or the sword, it was his enemy."
"He sure has alot of power. But is he evil?" Jupiter pressed, then blinked. "Hey, that guy looks *just* like my old boyfriend!"
The Scouts groaned.
"As if there was a guy on this earth who *didn't* remind you of your old boyfriend." Sailor Moon grumbled to herself. Then she began to fill up on eye candy.
"He has to be from somewhere. That sword was powerful, and beating it couldn't have been easy." Venus asserted. "Could he be another child of the Moon Kingdom?"
Mercury resumed typing. "I don't think so. It's been a long time but... Oh! Gang, I'm getting a strong reading about three miles from here. It looks like another monster has popped out of the Negaverse!"
Sailor Moon stopped staring at the hunk they'd been tracking. "What! Oh!" She sweetened. "Look guys, lets just leave this guy alone for awhile. We've got real negacreeps waiting!"
Mars considered. "Well, okay. But I still say we should come back and check more on this guy later."
Instant jealousy-fest. "Yeah, well don't forget *I'm* the one who saw him first!" Sailor Moon asserted.
"Oh. You mean the same one who claims exclusive rights to Tuxedo Mask and Andrew?" Mars quipped.
"Ya got *that* right." Sailor Moon gloated, and they all sped away.
Ranma stood, relaxing, at one end of a blackened trench. That *had* felt good. He knew it was a little weird, but he was glad that Kuno had had that magic sword. The extra danger had been just the thing to get him feeling better.
The students around him were still immobile, unable to believe what they'd seen. He shrugged. Yeah, it hadn't been bad.
He was about to seek out Nabiki again and collect the information he'd come for when wind began gusting across the schoolyard, the beating of propellers heralding the arrival of a helicopter. He looked up to see a sleek combat variant, a three seater, swoop in above the trees, its weapon pods traversing the area.
Ranma was considering whether to blow it apart or to duck for cover when he saw his mother in the rearmost seat. She was waving to him wildly. Then she signaled for the pilot to land. Between her and the pilot was an empty seat.