Morning was always a hectic time in Rin's household.
With so many siblings, she had learned to get up early in order to get any time in the bathroom to herself. Only her father got up earlier. She didn't need much time, just a chance to wash her face and tidy up her hair. Her sisters preferred a morning shower, but Rin found it was usually wasted on her with her usual routine of sports.
Being up early afforded Rin a rare thing in her household - solitude. Not the uncomfortable loneliness of being the girl no one noticed at school, but the safe quiet of being in a place with people she trusted and cared for nearby.
Though her mother preferred to cook breakfast, Rin usually took this time to set things up for her, wash any leftover dishes, and set the table. Having at least one meal together a day was very important for her family.
She looked up to see her father walking in, back from his morning jog. He grabbed a towel left on a hook by the door for this purpose and wiped the sweat off his face, scrubbing his hair.
"Did you have a good run, Daddy?" Rin asked brightly. She shifted gears to start making the morning coffee, fishing out cups, the carafe, and the filter.
"Still a bit stiff," her father replied. He had the same sandy-colored hair she did though his eyes were darker, more hazel. He was tall and lean but well-toned, someone who had obviously been athletic most of his life. "I'd been slacking off until I got this new job. Speaking of which, I know I told you to thank her, but… please thank your friend Nabiki for giving me this lead? It feels good to work again."
"Just don't overdo it, Daddy. You don't want to hurt yourself again," she said, smiling to show she wasn't really worried. It had been a long time since she had seen him this happy. "How is the team doing?" She set the carafe and filter on the counter and started to pour the hot water over the coffee grounds like her mother had shown her.
Her father sat at one of the stools in front of the counter, like he was a customer at a cafe. It was a small morning ritual they had fallen into. "They're amazing. I can see why they had trouble finding a teacher… they're a handful no doubt, but… I think a lot of it is just anxiety from being so far from home. I just had to remember what that was like for me when I was on tour. The difference being they didn't have a choice. Ms. Bertinelli was the hardest to get through to, but she's come around."
"That's great, Daddy!" Rin beamed, pouring him a cup of coffee. "I knew you could do it! You're the best teacher!"
"Well… seems I get there in the end," he said with a chuckle, accepting the cup.
That made Rin feel better. I need to thank Ms. Nabiki for this, she thought. She stepped aside as her mother came down and slipped around to the table for breakfast. Knowing her siblings would soon be stampeding down, the best way to stay out from underfoot was to already be seated. She felt a twinge of guilt as her family filtered in, her eldest brother touselling her hair as he took his spot next to her, and the smells of breakfast filtered through the house.
The pleasant morning routine buoyed her through until it was time to set out for school. Her mother saw her off as always, but as she turned to head off, she hesitated.
Mu Tsu isn't here, she thought. She glanced over to the alleyway from whence he typically emerged, but there was no sign of him.
Stupid! It wasn't like it was really part of his routine. She shook her head as she convinced her feet to move. He's busy trying to find Ms. Shampoo. He can't spare time to walk you to school in the morning while she's in real trouble.
She still felt a little pang of hurt, though. Irrational, selfish and utterly unreasonable, no matter how much she tried to convince it to go away. She sighed, resettled her backpack and lowered her head, trudging on.
The others hardly walk to school together anymore either, she thought glumly. Yuka and Sayuri haven't made up, Daisuke and Hiroshi are doing their detective things and Riko is usually with one of them or the other. And Senpai… she sighed. Walking with Mu Tsu had made it a bit easier to not worry about such things.
"Well now… there's a girl whose thoughts are a million miles away," a strangely familiar female voice said.
Rin looked up and stopped in her tracks. She felt a sudden cold surge through her body as she recognized the speaker; Pink-hued curls, ringmaster's topcoat and magician's fishnets.
"Y-Young Mi…" Rin said nervously.
The Ringmaster girl was toying with her top hat, tossing it and twirling it on her finger. "Well, this is a shame. I had hoped that Darling would be with you. I've noticed he's been doting on you quite a bit as of late." She smiled at Rin, a smile that was devoid of any warmth or mirth.
"H-he's out looking for you. Right now!" Rin said, mustering her courage. "H-he's b-been desperate to find you and Ms. Shampoo b-before…"
"He's been spending an awful lot of time with you for someone so desperate!" Young Mi snapped, cutting her off.
Rin's eyes widened, and she took a nervous step back. "I-I… h-he was asking for advice. W-we're friends, a-and…"
Young Mi smirked again and walked over to Rin, gripping her chin as she looked down at her. "Oh shh shh shh shh… You don't need to dissemble with me, my dear. I see how you look at him. And how he looks at you."
Rin felt a sudden surge of heat. Frustration, anger, annoyance… all of which temporarily overrode her fear. She grit her teeth and jerked her head away. "No! Stop twisting it! I like Mu Tsu, but it's never gone beyond that, and he's been working so hard to try and find you to make things right!" She stomped her foot and glared at the taller girl, causing her to step back in surprise. "I'm sick of everyone telling me what's going on with us, and not listening!"
Young Mi blinked, then a smile spread across her face, this one more genuine. "Well… you do have some fire in, you, don't you?" She folded her arms and cocked her head. "All right. I believe you."
"Y-you do?" Rin asked, a little appalled at her outburst herself, having for the moment forgotten the ease with which Young Mi had torn up trees and concrete in her fight with Ranma.
"I do," Young Mi said. "Of course, confronting you in some jealous rage wasn't my goal in the first place, so it's all rather moot."
Rin cocked her head in confusion. She felt something brush her ponytail and turned to see a red balloon floating directly behind her, inches from her face.
Young Mi snapped her fingers and the balloon burst, surrounding Rin with a cloud of greenish mist. The girl coughed, trying to wave the mist away, stumbled and would have fallen if Young Mi hadn't stepped in to catch her.
"While I accept your feelings for Darling are pure, and even that he has been a gentleman around you, the truth of the matter is he does care," Young Mi said, smiling as she looked down at the unconscious face of the smaller girl. "And if Darling and I are to be together at last, there is a role you must play." She scooped the girl up. "Come along, sweetling, your accommodations are ready. You'll have a front row seat for the show!"
Mousse peered through the windows of the darkened building, though even with his poor vision he could tell there was no one inside. The smell of mildew and dust wafted through the broken panes, and it was obvious from the rusted chains and locks on the door the building had remained undisturbed.
He sighed and stepped back, lifting his glasses to rub his eyes. He had been searching all night on Hiroshi and Daisuke's tip, and he was still no closer to finding Young Mi's trail. He glanced up blearily at the rising sun and sighed. Rin will be leaving for school now. He thought glumly. Even if I left now I wouldn't make it back.
He shook his head to clear the thought. He could hardly indulge in such respite while Shampoo remained in danger.
He pulled out his cold water flask, finding to his annoyance it was empty. Hot water has probably gone cold, too, he thought glumly. He'd need to stop someplace to boil a kettle to refill it. Thankfully there weren't any signs of Amazons patrolling this far out. He glanced up at the sun one last time, then folded his hands into his sleeves and walked through the alley to search for a suitable water source.
"Are you sure it's safe for you three to go to school in this situation?" Kasumi asked, wringing her hands as she handed the girls their lunches.
Ukyou fidgeted a little and tugged at her collar. She was wearing an old school uniform she had borrowed from Kasumi. She was reminded uncomfortably of the last time she had gone to school dressed like this. She had already voiced her concerns to Akane, who had offered an old boy's uniform she had left over from the trip to Ryugenzawa. When it turned out to be too small for Ukyou, Akane offered to wear it herself in support. Ukyou declined… for now, though some guilty part of her really wanted to see Akane in it.
"They will be fine. Lo Shan has given her word, and it has been witnessed," Cologne croaked. "To break it so casually now would cause her to lose face."
"You'll forgive me if I'm not entirely thrilled about relying on the sanctity of her word," Nabiki grumbled, accepting her own bento.
"Oh I don't doubt she will break her word when it suits her purposes. She was always one who saw rules and laws as obstacles rather than something with purpose she should respect," Cologne muttered. "But for the moment she finds it convenient to play by them. We should take advantage of the respite while we can."
"And not knowing what's going on at school is a blind spot I don't want to live with," Nabiki added. "I imagine if we show up, meek and resentful, it should also go a long way toward making Himura overconfident and keep her from poking her nose into the Dojo too often."
Kasumi glanced at the clock and then sighed. "Oh dear…"
"What is it, Kasumi?" Akane asked, frowning at the unexpected look of disappointment on Kasumi's face.
"Oh, it's nothing Akane. It's just… today was supposed to be my first day at my new job at the teahouse." Kasumi shook her head and put on a warm smile that didn't quite convince. "Obviously I'll need to call Mr. Jiro and tell him I have to decline…"
"No, wait…" Nabiki said. "You absolutely need to go to work, and to keep that job!"
Everyone turned to stare at the middle Tendo.
"Pardon, sugar?" Ukyou asked incredulously.
"If Kasumi is working at the Tea Shop, then Akane and I have an excuse to visit it more frequently without drawing suspicion. We can use it as a point of contact with outside allies, maybe a safe meeting spot if things go sideways… I just get the feeling it's important to keep a link to the Tea Shop." Nabiki shrugged. "You never know when a wierd quasi-mystical cross-dressing tea shop owner might turn out to be the solution to your problems."
"Maybe because everything started there?" Akane asked.
"I seem to remember a beach being involved…" Nabiki replied with a slight grin.
"Speak for yourself. Things definitely started at the Tea Shop with me and…" Ukyou started, then trailed off, "with me and Shampoo." She closed her eyes and sighed heavily. "Are you sure we shouldn't be out looking for her with Mousse?"
"They'll be expecting us to do that," Nabiki said. "They know where Shampoo is and Lo Shan will want her as a bargaining chip to keep Cologne out of the game. If they see us get close to her they'll just move her. Mousse has a better chance of moving around unnoticed than we do." She closed her eyes. "Trust me… I'm hating myself for saying that…"
"What the heart demands and what makes good strategy rarely coincide, child," Cologne said. "Your instincts are correct." She turned to Kasumi. "I will remain here and keep the house if you don't mind, Kasumi. You needn't worry about that."
Kasumi sighed, visibly uncertain about leaving her responsibilities for the house with another. "If you're certain, elder…" She turned her gaze to Nabiki. "All right. I will talk with Mr. Jiro first though. He will need to know what is going on before we involve him."
"Of course," Nabiki said. She took a deep breath, glanced at the door, then motioned for the others. "Shall we make our journey to the shark tank?"
To say the training was not progressing quickly would be an understatement.
Ranma growled in frustration, pulling at her hair as Ryouga and Tatewaki flailed about with their star cloths, trying to follow her vague directions.
This would be so much easier if I could just SHOW them! she thought, gripping her own star cloth in frustration. She flipped it around herself and tried once more to reach deep down, find that pool of quiet Ki and weave it through the cloth and wrap it around herself.
However, she couldn't seem to draw from that pool of quiet like she used to. Each time she tried, it was like a muscle spasmed, causing ripples and ruining the effect; like a hesitation she couldn't push herself past. She pulled the cloth off herself and huffed in exasperation.
Ryouga noticed her annoyance, stopped what he was doing, and walked over to her.
"Still can't make it work?" Ryouga asked sympathetically.
"I can!" Ranma growled in annoyance. "It would work fine if I could just stop flinching!"
"Well… maybe show me what you're doing, and I might be able to figure out what I'm doing wrong?" he suggested.
"It's not like it's your stance or balance or anything, it's basically all ki for this part," Ranma said. "It's… hard to describe what it does. It doesn't make you invisible or nothing, it just makes… people not notice you? Like… when you walk home from school, but you don't actually remember how you got home, or what you saw along the way?"
"I… can't say I know what that's like…" Ryouga admitted sheepishly. "I mean, I get the idea of walking home from school and not knowing how you got where you are, but…"
Ranma winced. "Okay, okay, bad example!" She furrowed her brow and tried again. "It's like… you know how you see all kinds of people on the street every day, but you never really notice 'em? Like you'll keep from bumping into them, so you see 'em and everything, but you couldn't describe the person you just avoided? They just kinda… don't register? It's like that, but way stronger, so that even someone who's looking for you can't seem to register that you're there."
"So… you make them ignore you?" Ryouga suggested tentatively.
"Kinda?" Ranma replied. "It's kinda like the Soul of Ice, but… aww damn, you don't know that one either!"
Ryouga considered, then apparently had an idea. "Here. Show me, as much as you can." He said, taking her hand.
"I already told you I caaaaaaaaaaaH!" Ranma began to protest, which was muffled as she was pulled off balance in close to him as Ryouga wrapped his star cloth around them both entirely.
"You don't need to mummify us, you dope!" Ranma growled, blushing as she found herself bound and pressed up against Ryouga's chest. His warmth was already seeping through her thin dogi, and the rush of the Link made her all too aware that he was noticing as well. As much as part of her still wanted to explore this new side to their relationship, out in the yard in front of Tatewaki wrapped in a bedsheet was not the place!
"Okay, sorry!" Ryouga replied. She felt his Ki do something, flow through the cloth, weave into it and cause it to loosen. Very much like what Ranma had been trying to do, but it was the wrong sort of Ki, heavy and inflexible.
"Wait, wait, that's almost it!" Ranma exclaimed, momentarily forgetting their compromising position. "What is that? Is that your Iron Cloth technique?"
"Yeah. I was just using it to…" Ryouga said, then blinked. "Wait, that's how the Umisenken works?"
"Kind of. Not quite. It's the wrong sort of Ki," Ranma said excitedly. "Yours is all… hard and… and forceful and threatening. You gotta… go deep and find… 'calm' Ki I guess? Draw it up and out and weave it into the cloth, so people's perception of you just kinda… slides off, like water around a stone in a river."
"That's almost poetic," Ryouga muttered. "Are you sure your Dad came up with this technique?"
"He used it for stealing from people, so yeah, pretty sure," Ranma replied. "Look, you need to…" she frowned, probing his Ki with her own. "Geez, where's your inner calm?"
"Do I seem like the sort to have a lot of 'inner calm' to you?" Ryouga protested. "I… uhh… I think Tatewaki is staring at us."
"You just wrapped me up in a bedsheet with you and we're whispering to each other. I'd be kinda shocked if he wasn't staring!" Ranma shot back. "Look… okay, here, follow my Ki back, okay?" She gulped a bit as she focused on coaxing tendrils of Ryouga's Ki deeper into her own, towards that inner pool of calm she maintained. It left her flustered enough that she was surprised that inner peace hadn't evaporated. "There, feel that pool of calm? You kind of… draw that up out out and weave it through the cloth like you're doing with your heavy Ki…"
Ryouga concentrated. "Like this…?"
Ranma gasped as she felt Ryouga's Ki delve into her pool of calm and draw it out and up, as she had been trying and failing to do. She bunched up her hands in his shirt as she felt it drawn up through the fabric, carried by tendrils of his own Ki.
"Wait… where did you go!?" Tatewaki called, suddenly sounding concerned.
"You're… not supposed to use my Ki, jackass…!" Ranma hissed, but was unable to put any real venom into it. It felt very odd to draw their connection that deep and feel that carefully maintained calm flow through him and back to her. Not bad… but almost painfully intimate and not something she would have chosen to do so openly. "How are you even doing that!?"
"I… should I stop?" Ryouga asked, his own voice low.
"No, no! It… we'll need to work on your own inner calm before you can do it on your own, I think. But… this works to show you what I mean, I guess," Ranma replied, resolving to just endure it. She focused on slowing her breathing, expanding her pool. The usual cold core had his heat bleeding all through it, and she was struggling a bit to keep it calm in her mind's eye. Less a cold, clear spring, more a volcanic pool maybe? That imagery suggested the core of Ryouga's problem. "You're a furnace deep inside… all roiling and chaotic… that's why it wasn't working for you. No calm pool to draw from. Maybe 'cold' isn't the right mindset for you."
"It seems to be working now though," Ryouga said, looking around. "Kuno is looking about like he can't see us."
Ranma turned her head and peeked through a gap in the now-loose cloth. Tatewaki was looking around, frowning, though she noticed he was shaking his head and looking more in their direction.
"If you stay in one place too long, and someone is looking for you, they start to notice their eyes keep skipping over the same spot," Ranma said. "A big part of the Umisenken is that you have to keep moving for it to work best, unlike a lot of other stealth techniques."
Ryouga nodded, still concentrating, his eyes taking on that far away look that Ranma had come to recognize as concentration and analysis; assessing what he was doing and trying to refine his control.
The Umisenken stealth technique wasn't a huge Ki draw, thankfully, and Ranma could sustain it for hours. But she wasn't accustomed to someone else drawing her Ki. She had encountered Ki-draining techniques before, but this was different. It was subtle and gentle, and she noticed Ryouga's Ki was flowing in to replace what he took, and that it was rather tingly and warm. He was asking rather than taking, or she was willingly offering, or perhaps a little of both. It was… actually kind of nice. His roiling furnace heated her cold pool and resulted in something like a hot spring. Or actually nothing at all like a hot spring. It's KI. Getting carried away with the imagery here. She relaxed a little, released his shirt and let her arms slip around his waist.
Tatewaki can't see us yet. The thought came unbidden. I could just lean up on tiptoe and give that kiss another try… There was a certain thrill to the idea of kissing Ryouga right in front of Kuno without the Blue Thunder ever seeing or knowing.
Some twinge in her Ki must have alerted Ryouga, because he chose that moment to glance down at her.
Their eyes locked.
And from the spreading blush on his cheeks, she knew he realized exactly what was on her mind. She felt the spike in nervousness from him… but also something else. Anticipation?
Maybe being kinda telepathic isn't so bad… Ranma thought. It was surprising how easy this all was as she moved her arms around his neck, pulling herself up against him, tilting her head just slightly to the right as her eyes slid closed, and…
The sheet was flung aside as Tatewaki's triumphant face intruded on the moment. "Hah! I have seen through your glamor, Hibiki!" he crowed, before his brain caught up to the scene in front of him with a nearly audible *clunk*, as both Ranma and Ryouga turned their heads to glare at him.
Tatewaki blinked, then noticed their positions and the proximity to each other. "Oh… oh! But… I was given to understand that we were training…?"
The first part of the walk was a bit tense as they met up with Sayuri, Hiroshi, Daisuke, Riko and Yuka. Yuka was hanging back, seeming either reluctant or guilty, it was tough to say which. The rest were mostly quiet despite what looked like a million questions in their eyes whenever Nabiki caught them looking her way.
Nabiki sighed. The silence was probably better for now. It wasn't as though she had any good answers for them.
"So why are we setting out so early, Nabiki?" Akane asked, probably just to fill the silence.
"Yeah… I wouldn't think you'd want to hang around at school more than necessary given Himura and her new Amazon stooges are about," Ukyou added.
So much for silence, Nabiki thought. Not that there were any great secrets she was holding back. "No schemes for now. I just wanted to drop by Doctor Tofu's and give him an update then swing by Ryouga's place to check on his Mom and let her know he's okay."
"She probably figures he got lost again," Ukyou said.
"Yeah, but… he didn't!" Akane brightened. "We cured him, remember? We've got actual good news to give her!"
Nabiki smiled a bit. Good on you, sis. Thanks for reminding me. "Right… so let's make Doc Tofu our first stop to see if he's made any progress on generalizing the cure for Ryouga's Mom."
"But… I mean… wasn't the 'cure' just an exorcism?" Ukyou said. "We evicted a demon from his brain. I'm not sure how you bottle that."
"Umm, excuse me…" Sayuri cut in. "Did you say Ryouga had a demon in his brain?" She paused a beat, then sighed and massaged her temples. "Of course he had a demon in his brain. How could I possibly think it was something boring and normal like a neurological condition? That's just not how Nerima works."
There was a snicker from Yuka in the back.
Well, that sounds like progress… Nabiki thought, a little bemused. "Yes, well… perhaps we'll leave that bit out when talking to his Mom. We'll see what Dr. Tofu and Dr. Hirano have to say."
"All this time I figured you'd need a priest for an exorcism. Who knew it would be a mix of chiropracty and neuroscience?" Daisuke quipped.
"I think I saw an anime with that premise," Hiroshi replied.
"To be fair, we live in the age of giant cyborg mecha with extension cords that fight angels to prevent humanity from being reduced to Tang," Daisuke added.
"Anime is the best, isn't it?" Hiroshi beamed.
"God, you two are such dorks," Yuka muttered, coming up even with the group and ending her self-imposed exile. "Much as I'd love to go through another in-depth discussion with you two on 'gainaxing'... Did I mention we were so bored in that dusty old archive we actually talked about anime? Anyway, anime boobie physics aside… where's Rin?"
"I left a message with her older sister that we were leaving early today," Riko piped up. "I don't know if she got it though. Her sister sounded kind of bored and distracted."
"We'll catch up with her at school then," Sayuri said. "I don't want to be late and have to deal with the truancy officer under Himura's administration."
"You make it sound like she's running the school, Sayuri," Akane scoffed, though there was a note of worry in her voice.
"She basically is," Sayuri replied. "With Principal Kuno missing and the Kuno family pretty much entirely out of the picture now, the VP is doing whatever Himura tells him."
"Probably trying to curry favor with her grandfather," Nabiki muttered.
"You think the teachers are on the take?" Daisuke asked.
Nabiki shook her head. "More likely just trying to keep their jobs. The only reason Furinkan High even stays open is because Principal Kuno pumped so much of his own money into it and I'm guessing the VP is looking for another rich patron before the next martial arts conflict collapses the gym or something."
"We're not that bad…" Akane said, her voice trailing off uncertainly. "are we?"
Nabiki wasn't sure what to expect when they arrived at Dr. Tofu's clinic. The others waited while she, Akane and Ukyou went in to face the music.
She partly expected to be scolded. They had been out of touch for several days longer than agreed. Usually with Dr. Tofu this would be accomplished with his usual smile and affable charm. He never scolded you outright, he'd just ask you to try and do better in a way that made you feel so terribly guilty. She wasn't sure what it would be like to actually get scolded by him in earnest.
When she saw that his typical bright smile and cheerful demeanor were entirely absent, replaced with looks of concern and no small measure of relief on his face, she wished they had gotten scolded instead.
"Akane, Nabiki! What happened?!" Dr. Tofu asked, bolting up out of his desk chair and rushing forward to take Nabiki by the shoulders. "You all ran off before we could arrange any follow ups. You understand that there is still a battery of tests to run, don't you? We don't know if Ryouga's condition or yours are stable… Dr. Hirano has been ringing my phone off the hook!"
"I… uh…" Momentarily, Nabiki was at a loss for words. After all that had happened, it had been so easy to forget that they had other serious commitments that had fallen by the wayside.
"Please tell me Ranma and Ryouga are with you?" He looked up, scanning the group and scowling. "Nabiki… I felt that Ki pulse on Sunday! That can't have been healthy for any of you! Tell me Ryouga didn't use the Shi shi Hokodan…"
"Ryouga didn't…" Nabiki said nervously, struggling to find the right words to avoid escalating things.
Dr. Tofu sighed in relief and his grip slackened a bit. "Thank God. I don't want to think what that would have done to him after such an intensive drain on his aura! Where are he and Ranma now? We need to get all of you to the hospital for follow up scans and tests!"
"Dr. Tofu, a lot of things have happened since Sunday!" Akane blurted.
"That's right," Nabiki got her mental feet back under her, silently thanking her sister for distracting the Doctor and diverting his disconcertingly interrogative stare. "You might wanna sit down, Doc…"
It took almost twenty minutes simply to summarize the events of the past few days - the revelations about the scroll and Ranma's true gender, the invasion of the Amazons and the disappearance of Shampoo.
Dr. Tofu slumped back in one of his waiting room chairs, eyes wide. "All of this happened since Saturday!?" He took off his glasses and rubbed his eyes. "Then that Ki pulse on Sunday…"
"That was Ranma. After she found out," Nabiki finished for him.
Dr Tofu shuddered. "I should have seen it sooner," he said. "I knew Ranma's Ki was unusual, but I always chalked it up to the effects of the curse. I never suspected…" He clasped his hands. "The signs of longtime, extensive abuse were there, but I was content to pass them off as the results of a lifetime of intensive training. I knew Genma was strict but I never attributed such malice… may God forgive me, with things like the psychological trauma of the Neko-ken I absolutely should have. But even then… to imagine both parents could… could wage such a prolonged and dedicated assault on their own child's very identity…" He looked up, stricken. "Where is Ranma now? Or Ryouga for that matter?"
"Ranma and Ryouga are with the Kunos," Ukyou cut in. "I know that sounds bad, but… It seems they're on our side in this whole mess."
"We haven't been able to even go outside until today because of the Amazons," Nabiki added. "Cologne negotiated a ceasefire, but there's no telling if that'll hold if Ranma leaves Kuno Manor openly, so… she's staying put for now."
Dr. Tofu nodded. "I'll go to her then. I need to see to her health and Ryouga's. And… and I need to apologize for my failure. What about Shampoo? You said that she'd been taken?"
Nabiki felt her heart sink at that reminder. "She's… she's still missing. Mousse has been out searching for her, but…"
Dr. Tofu nodded again and closed his eyes. "I'm sorry. I should have come to check on you personally. I tried calling, but…"
"No answering machine, or Kasumi answered." Nabiki replied, smirking slightly.
Dr. Tofu cleared his throat. "Y-yes. In hindsight, I probably should have asked Dr. Hirano to make the call, but he's extremely busy." He adjusted his glasses. "I, however, am not. I would like to help, if I may? I'm not a fighter, but…"
Nabiki considered a moment, then pulled out her phone. "I took some pictures of the scroll, as best I could. I can email them to you… it'd be nice to have a second opinion about all of this. Not that I don't trust Cologne, but…" Nabiki scowled. "Okay, I don't trust Cologne. Not any more than I absolutely have to."
"There's also Ryouga's mother," Akane piped up. "She's bound to be worried. He hasn't been home for days!"
"That's probably not as much of a worry for her, considering his sense of direction. Didn't he leave home for two years chasing after Ranma?" Ukyou asked. "But she's the reason we went to all the trouble to cure Ryouga, right? Is she gonna be okay on her own until we settle this whole Amazon thing?"
"I can look in on her on your behalf," Dr. Tofu said. "She is slated to receive the treatment next, once we figure out some way to generalize it. It only makes sense we begin her care sooner rather than later. I'll go to see her today."
"Well, that's one less thing we need to worry about before school," Ukyou said. She glanced at the wall clock and winced. "Which is good because we're running a bit short of time."
Nabiki glanced at the clock and cursed under her breath. "We should have left sooner. Oh well. We'll drop by this afternoon again to see what you've learned, Doc!"
Kasumi found her feet felt heavy as she walked towards the front of the odd little Tea Shop. All its eccentric adornments provided a mix of motion and sound that made it difficult to really nail down what one was looking at or listening to. It wasn't unpleasant; it just seemed to slip away from any attempt to focus on one part of it.
She was still uncertain about leaving the house, in Cologne's hands or otherwise. She had the oddest feeling that her path was diverging somehow from those of her siblings, even now when things were in crisis and they needed her most.
Things are ALWAYS in crisis, Kasumi reminded herself. I'm not abandoning them if I pursue my own life, especially not something as small as a part-time job! She took a deep breath. They are old enough to handle their own battles and better equipped than I am to fight them. There's nothing more I CAN do right now, so it's okay for me to move forward with my own life.
She hesitated, her hand hovering inches from the door handle. … Right?
The door suddenly opened, startling her to step back. She blinked, looking up into Jiro's heavily made up face.
"Why Kasumi! I was worried you weren't going to come!" Jiro said, breaking out into a smile. "I… do hope you are still interested in the job?"
"I… yes! Yes of course!" Kasumi stammered. She suddenly bowed deeply. "Please… please forgive me my tardiness! My family is going through something of a crisis, and… and I've been out of sorts, and…" She shook her head. "I'm sorry, none of that is an excuse. You wouldn't be concerned about such petty things. Please give me another chance!"
"Now why would you think I wouldn't be concerned? Such things are what I've built my business upon, after all," Jiro chided, taking her shoulder and gently urging her back into an upright position. "And please don't bow so. My chosen attire aside, I definitely do not stand on formality." He folded his hands inside his kimono. "Come, come, in from the outdoors! There's a chill in the air these days. We can talk over a cup of tea."
"I… am sure you have customers…" Kasumi said, then trailed off as she stepped inside and saw the shop was empty. "... Oh."
"Oh, I do have the occasional customer, but I find it best to always focus on the one in front of me at the moment." Jiro said, guiding her over to a stool at the bar. He slipped behind it and began retrieving the various paraphernalia for brewing tea.
"Oh, but… I am supposed to be here as an employee, aren't I?" Kasumi asked with a guilty tone.
Jiro poked his head up over the edge of the counter and winked. "I find that employees are the most important of customers." He produced the teacup Kasumi had selected on her last visit and started to fill it up. "Now, it sounds very much like you're struggling with a decision. I find that talking such things out over a hot cup of tea can help one to find the clarity one needs." He presented her with the teacup on a saucer then pulled out his own, filling it as well. She noticed that Jiro's tea looked darker than her own, and had a different aroma, despite being poured from the same kettle.
She took a deep breath, lifting her cup and inhaling. It was called Lemon Balm Tea, not technically her tea, but one of the many varieties Jiro was teaching her to recognize. True to its name, it was a lovely mint tea with a hint of lemon in the flavor. She took a sip and the warmth spread outwards almost immediately, calming her. "My sisters, as well as someone I see as another sister, are struggling with… well, terrible things. It feels like… they are fighting simply for the right to exist. And all I've been able to do is sit there and listen and pour tea."
"Oh?" Jiro arched one delicately plucked eyebrow. "And what's wrong with that?"
"I… nothing, of course!" Kasumi said quickly. "I… I just wish I could do more."
"Hmmm," Jiro replied noncommittally. "You mean fight alongside them, stand up to their bullies, donate time, or money, or talent to the cause… that sort of thing?"
"Yes, exactly!" Kasumi replied. "I… try to be supportive; to create some sense of stability. But… It doesn't feel like it's enough. I'm not strong, or fierce, or talented or any of the things they need, so..."
Jiro took a sip of his tea. "Kasumi… can I let you in on a secret?"
Kasumi blinked. Despite her relatively short association with the man when compared to that of her siblings, it was painfully obvious to Kasumi that Jiro had many secrets, none of which she would be so tacky as to pry into. But one that was freely offered? That was hard to pass up. She leaned forward conspiratorially.
Jiro leaned forward and grinned. "I'm not talented either," he whispered, then sat back and drank in her shocked expression. "What? I'm not!" He chuckled and put down his teacup. "Kasumi dear, I know exactly how you feel. I've been in your position…" his eyes got a far off look, "Oh my. Quite… quite some time ago. Longer than I'm comfortable thinking about. But… I am no fighter. I am no crusader, nor hero; no brilliant strategist, nor mad scientist, nor any of a thousand thousand other dramatic, important or exciting things. I am… simply me. I am good at exactly two things… listening and pouring tea. The rest, such as this little cafe, I had a considerable amount of help with." He took another sip, draining his cup.
"But… but…" Kasumi frowned. Part of her rejected the notion of the tea shop owner being anything so ordinary, though she had trouble putting a finger on why. "But… my sisters attribute so much to you and your shop!"
"Yes, and do you know why?" Jiro replied. "Because sometimes… many times, in fact… people already have the answers they're searching for. They don't need someone to give them to them, or lead them by the nose, and often trying will only cause them to turn away. Sometimes all they need is someone to listen. To listen, to be interested, and to let them come to their own truth." He refilled his cup from the kettle. This time Kasumi noticed it was more greenish than before. "That's all I do here. I pour tea, and I listen - without judgement, without trying to decide for them… mostly. I am not perfect, after all." He winked. "And I admit I am somewhat grievously violating my own rule in your case. It is difficult to be impartial when you have a vested interest, after all."
"Why would you be so interested in me, though?" Kasumi asked.
"Because Listening and Pouring Tea are both skills that are woefully lacking in the world. Particularly the former, as that's the one that isn't so easily taught." He folded his hands. "Now… If you're still interested in the job, I'd like to test that a little." He gestured toward another table where a gentleman in archaic, turn of the century clothing with a shabby tweed coat was sitting - a table that Kasumi was certain had not been there before. "He's wrestling with a line of research he's pursuing, as well as worries about his poor, deaf mother. He's never quite sure that his inventions are moving in a direction that will help people like her." He pushed a teacup and saucer towards her, and motioned to the kettle. "He's an old regular of mine. Why don't you take him a refill, and see if he wants to talk about what's bothering him this time?"
Nabiki had been half expecting Himura to meet them at the gates to gloat, but the acting student council president was conspicuously absent. They were met with a pair of girls from the volleyball team, however, wearing armbands labelled 'Student Council Truancy', and handing out flyers.
"Well… We were wondering when you and yours would be back, Nabiki Tendo!" one of them said with a smirk. "You've missed an awful lot of school lately. That's not a good look for someone trying to get into a prestigious university."
Nabiki felt Ukyou and Akane bristle behind her. While she appreciated the outrage on her behalf, she didn't need an altercation this early on. She motioned behind her back for the two of them to stand down and hoped the gesture was clear. "I suppose I'll have to work harder to make up for it then," Nabiki said brightly.
"We'll see," The other girl said and shoved a flyer in her direction. When Nabiki tried to refuse it, she scowled.
"Nuh uh. Everyone takes one. Ms. Himura wants to ensure that everyone is at today's Volleyball game. Attendance is mandatory, even for hikikomori like yourself." She held the flyer out until Nabiki took one.
Oh. A shut-in now, am I? Nabiki didn't let her annoyance reach her expression, drawing upon the composure of the Ice Queen. "I'll be there, then," she said, giving the flyer a cursory glance, then walking on.
She got all of three steps before the girl shot a passing remark; "So sorry to hear that things didn't work out between you and Ranma, by the way."
That wasn't going to stand. Nabiki pivoted on her heel. "Pardon?"
"Oh, you know… Ranma's decided he's a girl now and is shacking up with that Hibiki boy," the volleyball girl said with a smirk.
"I heard his parents disowned him and he's taken up with the Kunos," the other girl added. "Got tired of mooching off of Akane and Nabiki's Dad and decided to trade up."
"Probably sleeping with all three of them," the first quipped.
"How dare you!" Akane snarled, taking a threatening step forward, causing the girls to shrink back. Ukyou caught her arm.
"It isn't worth it, sugar," Ukyou said. "They're just trying to bait us."
Part of Nabiki wanted to react like Akane had - to rage and rail and shout down the venom; to defend Ranma from the character assassination and lay out all of Himura's sins. It was a part that had always been there, a part that wanted to be right there beside Akane, throwing kicks and punches and lashing out at the world.
But that wasn't how Nabiki fought and she soothed that outraged, hurt little voice with that knowledge as she let the ice return in full. She no longer needed effort to keep her expression schooled as the anger was smothered with the chill of reason and focus.
Instead she took a moment to analyze what all of it meant. Himura is doling out some pretty big secrets to her minions. Even edited. She's making it clear to everyone where Ranma is right now, undermining her credibility. Undermining the Kuno's too, so she knows they're on our side, safe to say. She's putting us in a position of defending Ranma and looking bad, or saying nothing to save ourselves and letting the bus roll her over, trying to drive a wedge between us. So she expects Ranma to return to school eventually… planning on it, really. She considered. If I had to guess, I'd say she's hoping to erode Ranma's support and isolate her. So how do I best make use of that?
The answer was fairly obvious. Play along.
She did have to work a bit to keep her trademark smirk down. They had advantages Himura wasn't aware of yet, and she was about to leverage one. She walked over to Akane and put her hand on her shoulder, making sure the side of her hand touched the bare skin of her neck. As the Link flared to life, she could feel Akane's emotional turmoil, as well as Ukyou's more tightly controlled anger, and her attempts to calm Akane's tempest.
Trust me and follow my lead. Nabiki thought. She couldn't actually send messages through the Link, but she could project reassuring confidence. She knew she had hit her mark when Akane's snarl of rage relaxed, and she blinked at her sister in confusion.
"Let it go, both of you. We'll all settle accounts with Saotome in due time. For now don't let them bait you into airing our dirty laundry in public," Nabiki said, adopting the cold, steely tone that she'd used when talking about collecting an overdue debt.
"Ooooh, she's back to calling him 'Saotome'," one girl said, tittering.
"Sounds like the Ice Queen is back," the other chimed in.
"I don't think she ever left," the first snorted. "This was all just a business transaction, wasn't it, Nabsy?"
"Everything is a business transaction," Nabiki replied coolly. She could already feel Sayuri's outraged glare burning into her back, but thankfully the rest of them had the sense to not pipe up.
"Gonna set odds on today's Volleyball match?" The first girl asked. Nabiki recognized her now, she had thrown a few yen her way. Mostly safe bets.
"No odds worth setting from what I hear," Nabiki glanced over her shoulder at Sayuri. I'm sorry, Sayuri, I hope you'll forgive me for this!
"True that! Team 'B' isn't anything without their star player," the second girl snorted.
"We'll see about Friday's game, though," Nabiki said, this time allowing a predatory smile. "I've got a good feeling about that one."
"If you mean it's a sure thing, sure," the first girl said with a smirk. "Hana's setting odds on that one, though. Better not let her catch you muscling in on her turf. That one's Himura-approved."
"Perish the thought," Nabiki replied. "Might be I'll put down a few yen myself. See you both there," She waved casually as she walked on toward the school.
She kept her pace brisk, wanting to get out of earshot. She'd gotten clear of any easy eavesdropping, but not out of sight, however, by the time Sayuri caught up with her and grabbed her arm.
The other girl stopped Nabiki dead and pulled her around to face her. "Nabiki, what the Hell!?" Sayuri demanded. Behind her, Riko and Yuka were looking shocked, and Ukyou, Akane, and even Daisuke and Hiroshi had backed off nervously, uncertain how to intercede, or if they should.
Nabiki took a deep breath and hoped she was as good at de-escalation as she thought she was.
Himura smirked as she watched Sayuri's animated gestures as she was having what must have been a fascinating and very vigorous discussion with Nabiki Tendo. Or, perhaps, to be more accurate, at Nabiki Tendo, since Nabiki seemed to be responding very little, arms crossed, posture closed, fully retreating into her old 'Ice Queen' persona even as a friendship crumbled before her.
Finally Sayuri turned and stomped away, followed by a very confused-looking Yuka and Riko, while the rest hovered close to Nabiki.
"Oooh, wish I had been a fly on the wall for that one," Himura said, straightening. "Nabiki Tendo, honestly, that was too easy. You're falling apart and not even making this a challenge."
"[I'm not entirely sure what just happened, or why you're so happy,]" Tan Pohn said gruffy, scowling out the window.
"[Oh I just rattled Nabiki's cage a bit,]" Himura replied. "[I spread some nasty half-truths about Ranma. I thought it would make it a bit uncomfortable to support Ranma and the volleyball team, but I never expected Nabiki to go the other way and ditch them both so fast to preserve her precious image.]"
"[I thought you couldn't hear them?]" Tan Pohn asked, looking confused.
"[Oh, it's written all over their faces. I'm sure Hana's lovely audio pickups will have something juicy for me, even if they weren't in the best place. Sayuri seemed to be letting it all out, after all.]" She sighed and shook her head. "[Why grandfather thought she was ever a match for me I'll never know.]"
"[Are you certain it's safe to be so dismissive of her?]" Tan Pohn asked.
Himura raised an eyebrow. "[Seeing her as a threat despite her physical weakness?]"
"[Someone once told me there are different kinds of Strength, and Strength of Arms and Strength of Leadership are often very different,]" Tan Pohn replied, the ghost of a smile brushing her lips.
Himura practically beamed. "[I knew I made a good choice in you!]" she exclaimed. "[You're quite right, and I'm not silly enough to think she's done yet… but it's encouraging to see her support crumble. I've got a few more pushes planned… little Sayuri will make a wonderful example. After today Grandfather's challenge will be moot. It will just be a matter of blunting any misguided attempts at defiance or retaliation that Ms. Tendo can think up.]"
Lunch was tense, to say the least.
Nobody went to eat over by the lunch tree. Sayuri opted instead for a quiet spot out near the utility shed. Riko and Yuka followed her. It wasn't clear where Nabiki and the others had chosen to eat.
"Are you… okay, Sayuri?" Riko asked nervously. "I mean… I know Nabiki was kinda acting like… well… I know it was bad, but… but you said a lot of stuff there…"
"It's fine," Sayuri said, unwrapping her bento but not making eye contact.
"It's not fine!" Yuka said sharply. "That was totally not like you! And what was that she whispered to you at the start? Is that what got you to blow up?" She growled and stabbed her chopsticks into her rice. "And in case you've forgotten, in the middle of all this drama, Rin hasn't shown up yet today."
"You're right… that's not like her…" Riko said, lowering her own bento. "Do… do you think she's off sick?"
"We're not that lucky," Yuka replied crossly. "Bet you Circus Lady got her, or the Amazons. Which is why we don't need our Captain here blowing up at the only person with any hope of finding her and getting her back!" She huffed and closed her bento up again. "You know what, I'm not hungry. I'm not even sure what I'm doing here today, pretending everything is normal!"
Sayuri sighed. "You're right, Yuka." She looked up. "Look… you and Riko should go find Daisuke and Hiroshi. They're already looking for Shampoo, if Circus Lady has her then that's where Rin will be. Skip class if you need to, I'll cover for you."
"But the game is today!" Riko said. "If we leave the school, Himura's Truancy Squad will nail us trying to sneak back onto the grounds for the game!"
There was a moment of silence before Yuka piped up.
"It doesn't matter, Riko." Yuka said. "There's not gonna be a game."
"What? But…" Riko started.
"We're missing two players, and Himura's already made it clear she won't let us substitute anyone," Yuka said quietly. "Himura knows we won't get them back by today. That's why she set up this big mandatory attendance event. She wants to make sure we're good and humiliated when we forfeit."
"Then… then what is Sayuri going to do?" Riko asked.
"I'm going to go to the game," Sayuri said quietly.
"By yourself!?" Riko was aghast.
"Yeah." Sayuri picked at her lunch. "If nobody shows up, Himura will make it her mission to never let any of us live it down. But as long as I show up… the person who used to be her player, the one who defied her, the team captain… as long as I show up for it, she'll get her satisfaction and probably lose interest in the rest of you."
Yuka scowled. "Yeah, screw that. You come with us, Sayuri." She grabbed Sayuri's arm to pull her up. "We'll deal with Himura's BS when it happens, like always."
Sayuri didn't budge. "That's not the plan, Yuka."
"What 'plan'?! There is no 'plan'! Everything's gone off the rails and nobody has any..." Yuka protested, tugging again. When Sayuri still refused to budge, she stopped then stared at her friend. "There's a plan…?"
Sayuri looked up at her and nodded. "Yeah, and I've got the easy part. You two have got the important bit. You need to go find Rin and Shampoo, or all of this will be for nothing."
Nabiki would have liked nothing better than to have lunch with the others and she knew that Ukyou and Akane felt the same. But that wasn't going to happen after the altercation between her and Sayuri that morning.
"So… this is weird," Ukyou said. They had opted to eat their lunches in the classroom just to avoid the stares. The rest of the class had vacated quickly once it had become clear they were staying.
"We're marked and everyone knows it," Nabiki replied. "Spend too much time interacting with us and Himura and her cronies get interested." She speared a cherry tomato with her chopsticks and popped it into her mouth.
"So… what do we do?" Akane asked. "The game is today. Ukyou or I could probably sub for Ranma."
"No substitutions allowed, according to Himura," Nabiki replied. "You gotta pull from the team you started the competition with. Which isn't exactly fair, as she had the entire roster of the Volleyball team and Ranma had just five players, but it's not the first time Ranma has agreed to wildly unfair challenge terms." Nabiki sighed. "If Ranma were here to give her side I might actually be able to make an argument, but there's no one refereeing this to make that argument to - and if Ranma were here the point would be moot anyway."
"Then put one of us in a red wig," Ukyou countered.
"We'd still be down a player," Nabiki noted. "Noticed no one has seen Rin all day?"
"Rin wouldn't miss a game day!" Akane protested.
"Willingly, no," Nabiki replied, giving her a long look until her younger sister's eyes widened.
"You think…?" Akane asked in a hushed voice.
"Himura doesn't have Ranma locked down yet, no matter how she blusters, so it would make sense to hedge her bets… or to encourage someone else to hedge them for her." Nabiki sighed and closed up her bento. She didn't have any appetite. "I don't have any proof, of course."
"Rin was the one she had some kind of pre-existing grudge against," Ukyou added with a nod. "So what do we do?"
"What I should have done was see this coming, had someone shadow Rin and had them lead us to where Shampoo is!" Nabiki growled. She realized she was in danger of snapping her chopsticks and forced herself to relax. She took a deep breath, then another, centering herself. "That doesn't help, sorry."
"Even you can't anticipate everything, sugar," Ukyou replied, putting a hand on her shoulder.
Nabiki nodded. "For now it means we have to make Shampoo and Rin our priority and leave Himura to do as she pleases. Which also means we're leaving Sayuri and the others to fend for themselves."
"We're not going to the game assembly today?" Akane asked. "Won't that draw Himura's attention?"
"If all of us skipped? Yeah." She tapped the top of her bento box with her chopsticks. "But the petty little part of my brain that thinks like Himura tells me that she doesn't care about you two. Just as long as I'm there. This was all set up to humiliate the people who dared oppose her. That's me and Sayuri. As long as we're there, and she's got a nice big audience for our failure? I don't think she'll even notice."
"So what's our job?" Ukyou asked.
Nabiki pulled out her phone, bringing up the listings she had so far. "Check these addresses out. They're warehouses owned by Tanaka Pharmaceuticals that are on or near the docks. I figure these are probably good candidates for where Young Mi is holed up. I've had Mousse check out a few places already, but these were a bit deeper, owned by holding companies a layer or two removed from Tanaka. So they'd be better places to do shady business, if shady business needs to be done."
"How are we supposed to do that with the Amazons watching from the rooftops?" Akane asked.
"Th-that would be where I come in, I think?" an unsteady voice replied. Akane and Ukyou turned to see Hikaru Gosunkugi's pale, drawn face as he held a lunch tray, sitting down at a desk next to them. "Hello, fellow unpopular people!"
Nabiki nodded to herself. That's part one down.
Mousse decided to take a break when he nearly careened into a flagpole after hours of flying and searching. Ducks had tremendous stamina for long flights, but that was in a straight line and often with the aid of others of the flock. This had been endlessly circling and diving to investigate, landing and taking off again and it was all taking a toll.
He banked and angled towards Furinkan. Gliding was far less taxing and allowed him to recover a little, but he would still need to replenish his hot water flask and check in to see if Nabiki Tendo had turned up any more leads for finding Young Mi.
This was all a very convenient excuse to avoid admitting who he was actually thinking about as he winged towards the school.
He landed next to the utility shed. The water in his flask was just barely warm enough to trigger the change, so he opted to slip inside and refill it as soon as he was human and clothed again. As usual, the shed was not locked and he was reasonably certain no one had seen him as he slipped in to fill up the flask.
He discovered that he had been mistaken as he turned and the sound of the door opening behind him. He dropped a brace of the throwing knives concealed in his sleeve into his waiting hand and raised them to the ready. He only barely stopped himself as Daisuke poked his head around the edge of the jamb.
"Mousse? Don't shoot! Err, throw… whatever!" Daisuke hissed. He slipped into the shed, followed by Hiroshi.
Mousse slipped the knives back into place in the recesses of his robes and folded his hands into the sleeves. "Hiroshi and Daisuke. Is… is Rin with you?" He felt a bit awkward asking the question but it felt important.
"So she's not with you," Daisuke said, nodding as if confirming something. He rubbed his chin. "This is bad."
"Really bad," Hiroshi added.
"What do you mean? What's happened?" Mousse took a step forward, his calm facade slipping. "Where's Rin?!"
"She didn't meet up with us this morning," Daisuke said. "We were running late so we all figured that she had just gone ahead, especially since things are kinda chaotic, but nobody has seen her all day. We're worried that…"
"Young Mi!" Mousse finished, pushing past the youth and throwing open the door. He didn't care about any Amazons who might see as he leapt to the roof of the shed, then off it to a lamp post, then up to the roof of the school. From there he vaulted across the street to the neighboring rooftops, landed heavily and took off running. He was dimly aware that Daisuke had called out for him to stop, but he couldn't afford to now.
He bounced from rooftop to rooftop, his feet barely touching one before he was pushing off to the next as he traced a familiar course between Rin's house and the school from above. He cursed his poor eyesight as he squinted, scanning for any signs of a struggle, anything out of place, anything…
He caught a flicker of color. It was blurry and indistinct, but the shade… a deep, royal purple that he recognized. He hopped down from the rooftops, nearing the blob of color until it clarified. It was a poster attached to a pole. A circus poster.
The color was the one Byungchul favored for his advertisements. It tended to stand out, even among the colorful noise of the circus itself, and against the drab grey of the lamp post it shone like a beacon. The poster was written in Korean and advertised a circus in Seoul. It was very obviously out of place.
He tore it down from the pole and turned it around. There was a message written on the back. It was also written in Korean and in a familiar handwriting.
To my Darling Mousse,
Do you remember? Find all of my clues, and find me.
Mousse crumpled up the poster. Rin! He sank to his knees, trembling in awful realization. This is my fault. I didn't even CONSIDER that Rin might be in danger from Young Mi!
He uncrumpled the poster and stared at it. After a time it occurred to him that it was from the show where he had made his debut performance as a stage magician - the first time Byungchul had trusted him with his own performance. It was a show that he and Young Mi had spent weeks preparing for. One could argue that it was the start of their relationship.
He smoothed it out gingerly. There was a blurriness in his vision that had nothing to do with poor eyesight. If only I had told her then… How much her faith in me meant. If only I had realized myself! If only… I hadn't repaid that faith by betraying her…
He lifted his glasses and swiped his sleeve across his eyes. This isn't the time for this! Even if Shampoo never had any faith in me, Rin does! And if I don't find a way to beat Young Mi at her own game, I could lose them both! I need help… He tucked the poster away then looked around, realizing he still needed to be wary of Amazons in the area. Find the clues… He spotted another poster some distance away, its garish colors contrasting with the more muted tones of the local notices. She's left me a trail. I just need to follow it… right?
"I still don't see why it was necessary for both of you to hit me…" Tatewaki complained, holding an ice pack to his head.
Ranma ignored him as she stared down the straw training dummy. She took a slow, deep breath in an attempt to center herself. She felt awkward and off-balance. She bounced on the balls of her feet a few times to try and dispel the sensation.
"You should give some kinda warning before just… just ripping the sheet aside like that!" Ryouga huffed.
She was trying to return to that mental state she had slipped into when she had faced the Amazon elder; trying to convince herself to settle back into that natural-feeling manner of movement. But she kept tensing up, trying to move in her old patterns, and then she would lock up. She sighed and closed her eyes, angrily trying to push away everything she knew about the Saotome school. Dismissing fifteen years of training, even when it caused her body and mind to conflict so badly, was not an easy task.
"But… we were training, were we not?" Tatewaki replied, confused. "I can understand the two of you occasionally having the desire for some privacy, but I hardly think the middle of learning a new technique is the time…"
"WILL YOU TWO SHUT UP!?" Ranma wirled and roared at the pair of them. Both boys shrank back a bit from the incensed redhead.
"Honestly!" Ranma huffed, turning her attention back to the dummy. She felt like the hair was standing up on the back of her neck, and the oddest urge to growl. Unbidden, a thought occurred to her. This isn't how a cat would stand in a fight.
She followed the thread of that tenuous thought. Not like a cat, though… not a human mimicking a cat… how a cat would be in a human body… She frowned, letting the vague thoughts guide her as she dropped into a three point stance. Low center of gravity… legs coiled to push off, one paw raised to strike… She carefully let her mind go blank, let herself flow with the impulses. She felt her muscles twitch, tensing in unfamiliar and yet strangely familiar ways.
Her vision seemed to narrow. She was still aware… sounds filtered in, filling in the rest of the world around her. She swore she could almost feel ears on top of her head swivelling to catch those sounds. The dummy in front of her was in a focus so sharp it was almost painful, like a TV with the contrast cranked up. Color had bled away.
Her fingers curled. She could feel the tingle in her fingers of Ki gathering there, the sensation of phantom claws flexing. This is it! I've got it! I've…!
"Brother dear! Ran darling! Filthy peasant! Lunch is served!" Kodachi's singsong voice called out across the courtyard.
Ranma stumbled as a muscle twitched and threw off her balance. It felt as if the cat in her had pulled away to turn its head to follow the new noise, losing focus on the dummy, and the connection, the feeling, dissolved. She had to catch herself with both hands to avoid faceplanting.
Ranma sighed and shook her head. That's no good! What use is a super technique if it gets distracted by a loud noise or shiny object? She flipped into a cross-legged sitting position and groused.
"Ran? My sister has called us to lunch," Tatewaki put a hand lightly on her shoulder.
"I heard," Ranma grumbled, not looking at him. "I almost had it, too, but the focus is way too easy to break for it to be of any use!"
"I have faith you will find a solution," Tatewaki said gently. "In… what I remember clearly of our altercations, you have always been endlessly resourceful. Perhaps after a good meal the answer will be clearer?"
She glanced up at him and smiled. "Yeah… I suppose you're right." She bounced to her feet and stretched. "C'mon, 'Filthy Peasant', let's go eat. I'm starving!"
"Wait, I'm 'filthy peasant'?!" Ryouga said, looking up from where he'd been carefully folding and hanging his star cloth. "Why am I 'filthy peasant'?!"
Ranma walked past him, paused, leaned in and sniffed. "Well, for one thing you could use a shower," she said with a grin. "Second… would you prefer 'P-chan'?"
"Don't you dare get Kodachi using that name," Ryouga growled, stuffing his hands in his pockets sullenly.
"Sure thing, 'Charlotte.'"
"God, I hate you!"
Nabiki didn't have the benefit of a free period before the end of the day and the mandatory 'assembly' afterwards meant she had no time to touch base with Hiroshi and Daisuke. Not that it would have been wise to do so anyway with how many eyes she felt on her back today.
That being said, it wasn't as though she accomplished nothing.
She spoke with a few people who were still willing to do business with her. The appropriate yen changed hands, backlogs of favors were cleared, and she had a few wagers placed on her behalf, spread out enough to avoid drawing suspicion from Hana. Some of those favours she was owed she converted for a fraction of their worth to her, but she figured she was going to have little chance to collect afterwards, and it bought her a little goodwill.
She also received more than a few emails on her phone. She didn't dare look into them in-depth at school, but from her cursory glances it seemed Ali Baba had come through on a number of things.
Which now left Nabiki in that scary limbo where she had leveraged herself to the hilt to get the tools she needed, while still not being entirely sure how she was going to pull off the job that would pay them back. Or if it was even possible.
Can't start being risk-averse now, she thought. Alea jacta est.
"Nabsy!" An annoyingly familiar voice called out.
Nabiki winced. You knew this was coming. You knew she was going to gloat after that scene at the gate.
Nabiki turned to see Hana sauntering up. She was flanked by Megumi and another newcomer she didn't recognize. From the odd shade of green in the girl's hair and how she was fidgeting uncomfortably with her uniform, she surmised that she was probably one of the Amazons.
"What's the caper?" Hana asked, grinning as she rattled off her favorite catchphrase. "Oh! That's right, you don't decide that anymore, do you?" She crossed her arms and her smirk widened.
"What can I do for you today, Hana?" Nabiki asked, letting the ice flow into her tone. She was sure she was giving the little troll what she wanted, but for now it seemed best to play along.
"Oh my, so polite! No quips? No snide remarks? Not sending any of your goons to smash my camera?" She chuckled and tapped the expensive digital camera hanging from her neck… her third or fourth by Nabiki's count. "Not that any of that would get you anywhere this time, right Suds?"
The Amazon girl said something short, nasty and somewhat amusing in Mandarin. Then, again in Japanese. "Name is Su Tzu. Camera girl keep mispronouncing, will feed own camera."
Hana blanched, coughed and took a step back. "*Ahem* S-sorry Sud… Soo… umm… Miss!" She turned back to Nabiki. "Anyway, I hear there's some trouble in paradise! I heard your fiance ran away… with a boy no less! That's got to sting, doesn't it, Nabsy?"
Nabiki simply raised an eyebrow. "I'm sure you're devastated on my behalf," she replied crisply.
"Ahhh, now there it is!" Hana said with a chuckle. "Now… never let it be said I'm not magnanimous in victory! It's just business, after all, and you backed the wrong horse in the race. You had a personal stake; it happens to the best of us. I'm here to bury the hatchet… honest! And I thought to myself… 'Self, what better way could there be than to give Nabiki Tendo the chance to get back on her feet?' And so here I am! I heard you were thinking of placing a bet on Friday's game, so I took time out of my busy day to come see to it myself." She reached into her bag and pulled out the black ledger that had once belonged to Nabiki… and technically still did. "I'll even give you favorable odds. Betting on Himura to win Friday?"
"Actually…" Nabiki fished out the few remaining yen she had. "I'll put it on Cobblepot."
Hana sighed, clucked her tongue and shook her head. "Nabsy… Nabsy, Nabsy Nabsy… That place is basically a reform school for army brats. They don't even have a coach! Why would you throw away your money on such a useless gesture of spite?"
Nabiki cocked her head. "Well, if you don't want it…" She started to withdraw the bills.
Hana practically snatched the coins from her hand. "I didn't say that," she smirked. "What, figuring Himura is going to throw Friday's match to give Ranma's team a chance to even things up? A noble gesture so they can have their big, climactic showdown after game five leaves them tied?"
"Something like that," Nabiki replied confidently.
Hana snorted. "Nabiki… you might think you know Himura… but you don't. Not even a little. She is entirely out of your league. And she's gotten bored of this little game, so don't expect any heroic last stands. Your team fails to show for this game and they're done… and I know for a fact that Ranma is at Kuno Manor right now."
"Invading the Kuno's privacy now, Hana? That's ballsy," Nabiki replied, allowing herself a smirk.
"Not much they can do about a camera with a zoom lens set up outside the property, is there?" Hana replied.
"Really? Think that will fly with their lawyers?" Nabiki replied. "Did you not clue in to why I always told you never to snap compromising pics of anyone with rich and powerful parents?"
"I… uhh… I…" Hana blanched again, then shook her head. "It… it's not like it was anything that wasn't in public view! A-anyway… that doesn't matter! Today's game will be a default… unless you'd like to bet on it too?"
Nabiki shook her head, crossing her arms. "Nope. I'm well aware it's a default."
Hana smiled. "Well then… maybe your Ranma can come back to at least make it a 4 out of 5?" She winked. "I wouldn't bet on it though, last I heard. Anyway, we had better get to the gymnasium! Wouldn't want to miss the show, right?" Hana started to walk past, but then stopped and tapped Nabiki on the shoulder with her fist. "Chin up. You're taking this all so well! Maybe in a week or two I can see if Himura will let me get you in on the ground level taking bets again, hmmm? I bet the old Tendo coffers must be awfully tapped after all this. I'm sure she might have some… other special jobs for you too." Hana laughed, then continued down the hall.
Nabiki caught Megumi glancing back at her. She spared the girl a slight nod, otherwise she just watched as Hana sauntered in the direction of the gym.
After waiting a suitable amount of time Nabiki followed in their footsteps. She couldn't do anything else, after all. It was just where she needed to be, even if she really wasn't looking forward to it.
More of Himura's armband-wearing crew were directing people into the bleachers. The gym was packed… it was clear that Himura had not only made the game mandatory attendance for Furinkan students, but had bussed in a number of students from the other school.
There were a few smirks of recognition from Himura's new stormtroopers. Nabiki half expected them to usher her to a court side seat, but instead they directed her to the nosebleed section, high above the court where she would be invisible and unnoticed.
Looks like Himura wants to focus on the one target for humiliation today, Nabiki noted wryly. She felt a pang of sympathy for Sayuri and guilt that she had allowed the other girl to end up in this position.
The entire gymnasium was done up as if there were a festival on, with banners and signs for Furinkan's volleyball team. Nabiki could even see students providing snacks and refreshments to students in the bleachers. The school band was warming up and Nabiki could hear the strains of 'Robo Gundan' coming from that area.
Full pageant mode again. Himura likes to put on a show, especially when it's to make the other side look bad, Nabiki thought. She noticed the lights dimming in the gymnasium and spotlights casting their rings on the floor as Himura strode out to a small podium.
"Hello Furinkan!" Himura said into her mike. "I want to thank you all for coming out today. I know mandatory assemblies are a drag… but this is for a good cause! I want you ALL to see our own intrepid home volleyball team in action at least once… and I'm not above bribing you a little with snacks." There was a bit of laughter from that and a few cheers. "Furinkan has been having an exciting year… both of our volleyball teams have been working hard and so far we are UNDEFEATED! I think that deserves a little celebration, don't you?"
The cheer from the crowd was more genuine this time. After all, it was easy to be enthusiastic about sports when your side was winning, even if you didn't know anything about the game.
"With that in mind, I would like to warmly welcome the current challengers to our undefeated streak, and I can see we have quite a few of their classmates here to offer support. Give it up for last year's Volleyball Championship Winners, Saegusa High!" Himura called out.
A second spotlight illuminated the opposing team locker room door. It opened and the previous year's Volleyball Champions sauntered out and onto the court. They seemed a little bemused by all of the pomp and circumstance.
Not surprising. They don't make this much of a fuss over Playoff games, much less some early-season matchup, Nabiki thought. Himura is being about as subtle with this as Ranma is about flirting to get free ice cream.
"Welcome to our school!" Himura said. "And now, without any further ado, I present our own Furinkan High Girls' Volleyball Home Team!"
The PA system kicked into Robo Gundan at that, and the spotlight swivelled to the home team locker room doors. The crowd was actually cheering… Nabiki figured Himura had some cronies whipping the crowd up, but for the most part it was genuine. Sayuri, Ranma and the others had managed to gain an honest, sincere admiration from the jaded, cynical, self-absorbed student population.
And that was what made this so painful. Nabiki wasn't the one being humiliated, but she was far from devoid of empathy, no matter how much of the 'Ice Queen' persona she was channelling. So seeing those doors open, and Sayuri walk out alone hurt.
Sayuri's head was down. She was in a warmup tracksuit, though it was unzipped enough to show her uniform was underneath; Despite knowing the others weren't coming, she still dressed for the game. She walked out slowly by herself, spotlight tracking her as the crowd's noises dimmed to hushed murmurs.
From her vantage, Nabiki couldn't see Himura's expression, but she could imagine it. That insufferable, self-satisfied smirk. The one that said she knew she had won, and now she was going to punish you for even competing.
"Kamei-san! Why… where is the rest of your team?" Himura asked, still on mic.
Sayuri started talking. Her first few words were lost, but then Himura angled the mic towards her. "...orry but due to…" Sayuri trailed off when she heard her voice amplified, realizing what Himura was doing. Nabiki knew well how the look of smug superiority Himura wore must be grating. Sayuri took a deep breath and started over, this time intentionally into the mic. "I'm sorry but, due to family concerns, one of our team members, Ranma Saotome, cannot make tonight's game. The home team does not have any back benchers to substitute, so we have no choice but ask…" she trailed off, obviously struggling with the words, "to ask our Away Team to compete in our stead."
Nabiki raised an eyebrow. She hadn't expected Sayuri to sidestep the forfeit like that. That puts the ball back in Himura's court…
Himura, of course, was unfazed. "Oh, but Kamei-san, you know our Away Team isn't dressed or prepared for this! They've had no warmup, and as Team Captain I would be remiss allowing them to risk injury to themselves, as much as I'm sure they would be eager to save your honor. I'm a little surprised you'd ask for something so irresponsible of them, but… Then you were never one to give up easily, eh?" She patted Sayuri on the shoulder companionably, a gesture which Sayuri admirably refrained from reacting to. "I think you need to take responsibility for this matter."
Himura practically shoved the mic in Sayuri's face. Nabiki couldn't see her well enough to see her expression, but she could hear the emotion in her voice. "As Home Team Captain… I deeply apologize for my team not being ready for today's match. I accept full responsibility for this failure."
There was murmuring in the crowd. From her vantage Nabiki could pick out the shills starting the rumbling, whispering and muttering in ears before moving on to another part of the bleachers. She recognized several of her former associates, as well as a few new ones she knew Hana had tapped. Being subtle as a grenade I see, Hana, Nabiki thought darkly.
"Well, I know that can't have been easy, Kamei-san. Thank you! Don't you feel better now?" Himura said brightly. "As to our guests from Saegusa High… please forgive my junior. I obviously placed far too much responsibility on her shoulders and overestimated her ability to lead her team. This is as much my fault as it is hers." She bowed to the other team deeply. "I hope that in the future we can have a proper rematch, and I can show you what Furinkan High's Girl's Volleyball Team can REALLY do!"
Himura turned her head away from the mic and said something to Sayuri, which apparently was some variation of 'get out', as Sayuri turned and walked back to the locker rooms. The spotlight followed her as the rumbling of the crowd boiled over into booing, jeers and catcalling.
Himura held up a hand and waited for the cacophony to die down. "Well it seems I called you out here only to disappoint you. I'm very sorry!" she said, bowing once more. "As an apology, let me make it up to you… This Friday will be made a Free Day, so that all the students of Furinkan can make the trip to Cobblepot Preparatory Academy, so that you will be able to watch the game you were promised! I will, from my own funds, pay to bus all of you there, as a personal apology."
There was a cheer from the crowd, rising quickly as they realized they were getting an entire day off for the price of watching a single volleyball game.
"And just to make it worth your while to come out, the cafeteria staff will be providing free food in the foyer for you on the way out!" Himura added, drinking in the cheers. "Now, before you go, a little presentation by Furinkan's Cheer Squad!"
Nabiki tuned out the crowd and the rest of the pageantry. The damage had been done, after all; Ranma's challenge had suffered a loss, and unless Himura's team lost their next game Himura had won her challenge with Ranma.
So Himura wins her Grandfather's challenge, beats me, Ranma is honor-bound to obey her. She hands him off to the Amazons to seal whatever deal THEY have, and she ends up a little bit richer while we crawl out of the wreckage she made of our lives. She studied the rafters of the gym, lost in thought. I thought I was ready for this sort of risk. I was going to be the next Rising Star of the World of Business and all that. I guess I wasn't prepared for how far someone could take a stupid wager. And they called ME the Ice Queen.
The demonstration ended soon enough, with the crowds milling and filtering out, eager to get their promised free meal. Nabiki hung back, waiting until things cleared so she could slip out quietly.
She didn't get far. Himura was by the side exit. Alone this time, but from her smirk she had been waiting for her.
"Well, well, well… Nabiki Tendo. I half expected you wouldn't actually come, since you knew the state of your team ahead of time," Himura said softly, folding her arms and standing between Nabiki and the door.
"It was a mandatory assembly," Nabiki replied dryly.
"Oh, but that's never stopped you before, has it?" Himura asked with a smile.
"I'm not in the mood for this right now, Himura," Nabiki replied tightly. She just wanted to get out, but she knew Himura's cronies weren't far and the last thing she needed was to give them an excuse by trying to physically push past Himura.
"Stopped being fun, has it?" Himura asked brightly. She stepped forward, leaning in closer to Nabiki. "Not so much fun when you're losing the game, is it Nabiki?" She winked, then spun away. "Let me clear something up for you, my friend. Might I call you that? After all we've been through?" She gave Nabiki a quizzical look over her shoulder, then turned and sighed. "No? I had hoped you would be a better loser than this, but… fair enough."
"This isn't a game, Himura. You're destroying lives," Nabiki replied, keeping her tone calm and even, though she wanted to shout.
"I'm doing nothing of the sort! You brought this all on yourselves!" Himura replied. "And do you know why? Because you and your little circle of psychopaths and violent criminals and illegal immigrants are laboring under the misconception that you are somehow the heroes of the story." She stepped forward again and poked Nabiki in the chest. "That you, a spoiled little brat who manipulates and cheats people for fun, deserve a happy ending. That your dangerously violent sister deserves the worship and praise that are heaped upon her. That your sick little love pile has any sort of future. That there aren't any consequences for the things you do." She stepped back and folded her arms again. "You're not the hero of this story, Nabiki. I am. I'm the one who finally made you all pay. Who finally beat you, and Ranma, and all the others."
"By destroying Ranma?" Nabiki asked, gritting her teeth.
"I saved Ranma!" Himura replied. "I found out the truth of her existence! I arranged matters to get her accustomed to being female before I shared that truth! I gave her the means to cut herself free from all of your shackles! And I finally broke her machismo defiance. When I see her next, she will thank me!"
"You really believe that?!" Nabiki guffawed. "That Ranma would feel gratitude towards you?"
"Not now, of course," Himura brushed Nabiki's rebuttal away with a flip of her hand. "Not while it's all so raw, and new and painful. But… in time she will. When she realizes she doesn't need you anymore… that she doesn't really want you anymore. You noticed, didn't you, Nabiki? The only one she chose was the Hibiki boy! All of the rest of you are obligations! Burdens!" She leaned in and hissed the last words. "And I freed her from that! From you!"
"All out of the goodness of your own heart, with no thought to your own benefit," Nabiki spat back, unable to keep a tremor of rage from her voice that belied her dry, sarcastic comment.
"Oh, of course I gained some new friends along the way. But that's other business," Himura brushed that off too. "I just wanted to take a minute out of my busy day to see you, Nabiki Tendo. I wanted to see if you had figured it out yet. That you lost. That you had lost the moment you accepted the challenge." A dark look flickered through Himura's eyes. "I wanted to see if I have finally taken enough away from you for you to understand your place."
Nabiki didn't reply. She didn't have a good rebuttal for it. There were a thousand thousand things she wanted to say, but none of them would help her now.
"You've nothing to say for yourself?" Himura asked. "No witty retorts? No more sarcastic comebacks? Is the great Ice Queen of Furinkan finally done?" She raised an eyebrow. "I'm a little disappointed. This was too easy, Nabiki-chan. But… I imagine you're anxious to get back to your family. Or what's left of it. Shame to hear about your father, but… he was a bit of a waste, wasn't he? I see where your older sister gets it now." She paused a moment, as if waiting for a response, but Nabiki held it in. She retreated into the ice, and gave Himura nothing but a cold, dead stare.
"Well, don't let me stop you!" Himura stepped to the side and waved Nabiki past to the exit with a grand gesture. She held the pose as Nabiki stalked past her.
"Give my regards to Ranma. Assuming you see her again," Himura added as Nabiki passed.
Nabiki still said nothing as she pushed through the door, a little more violently than she intended, and stalked out into the night.
"[Is it wise to taunt her like that?]" Tahn Pon asked as the door slammed shut behind the Middle Tendo.
Himura straightened and stretched. She felt good. Refreshed, like she had just finished a visit to the spa. "[And what exactly will she do?]" Himura asked. "[Attack me? Her sister and Kuonji are no match for you and your sisters, much less the Elder. Convince Ranma to disregard her word to me? If she could have she would have already. Even if the game isn't over yet, Nabiki Tendo is out of pieces and out of moves. Just a few more… her King will be in check, and it'll be official.]"
"[Hmph. The elder always cautioned us to never presume a match is over until it is over,]" Tahn Pon replied.
"[Oh, I'll have Hana keep an eye on her,]" Himura started towards the main gymnasium doors. "[But I'm quite aware of all the resources Nabiki has, while she is shockingly ignorant of mine. So I'm not overly worried.]" She opened the door for her Amazon companion. "[Now, we have an important appointment to get to, so let's put the Nabiki Tendo matter to bed for now, shall we?]"
"[Feh. More deals and talk,]" Tahn Pon muttered. "[All so you outsiders can misuse Amazon medicine to escape how miserable you are for a little while.]" She walked through the doors and Himura followed toward the shiny black stretch limo that was waiting for them. Konatsu was there holding the door open, wearing an elegant kimono and looking a bit incongruous compared with the modern lines of the car.
"Thank you, Konatsu," Himura said politely to her retainer as she slipped in after the Amazon. Konatsu followed, closing the door after them and sitting across from Himura, demurely folding her hands in her lap.
"Home, Ms. Himura?" Konatsu asked.
"No, not tonight," Himura replied. "I have a business appointment at the docks. Tell the driver it's the usual place."
Konatsu seemed a bit surprised, having never been taken along on such an outing before. "Y-yes, of course Ma'am!"
"[You sure it's a good idea to take your slave to this?]" Tahn Pon asked as Konatsu turned to address the driver.
"[We need to test her conditioning sometime if we're going to rely upon it in others,]" Himura replied. "[This is a good field test. Real life conditions, but reasonably low risk. You wouldn't let anything happen to me, would you Pon?]" She batted her eyelashes at the Amazon.
Tahn Pon snorted. "[It would be… inconvenient if you were maimed or killed. But only inconvenient. Do not press your luck too far. And should you become an obstacle...]"
"[Yes, yes, Amazon 101; 'Obstacles are for killing',]" Himura replied. "[I will endeavor to ensure I am never that, dear Pon. You are far too special to me to risk our lovely, blossoming relationship!]"
"[You aren't my type,]" Tahn Pon snorted.
Himura ignored the jab, taking the attempt at dry humor as a good sign. "Konatsu, dear?" She turned her attention to the ninja.
Konatsu turned from where she had been speaking with the driver, quickly smoothing her Kimono and bowing her head. "Y-yes Ms. Himura?"
Himura opened the storage compartment in the center console, finding the cloth-wrapped package that she had requested be placed there. She pulled it out and handed it to Konatsu. "Here. I understand you were forced to pawn the one that belonged to your parents. I unfortunately wasn't able to locate it after all this time. I hope this is a suitable replacement."
Konatsu blinked and accepted the bundle then, at Himura's bidding, tentatively undid the string and unwrapped it. Inside was an elegantly crafted kodachi sheathed in a dark stained wooden scabbard. Konatsu stared at the weapon, drawing it to examine the flawless, razor sharp blade.
"M-Ms. Himura…!" She stammered, quickly sheathing the weapon and trying to hand it back. "I-I cannot accept such a gift!"
"Nonsense," Himura replied. "Your job, as a retainer to my family, requires tools. This is merely one of those tools. I cannot well expect you to properly protect me if you are not suitably equipped." She leaned forward. "This is no antique from a bygone era to be paraded about tucked into your sash as an accessory, mind you. This weapon was newly-forged by one of the few who retain the knowledge specifically for you. It is a tool that is meant to be used." She sat back. "If I call upon you to use it… can you?"
Konatsu nodded enthusiastically. "Y-yes, of course my lady!" She bowed deeply and remained that way. "My life is in service to you and your noble clan!"
"Then I have no qualms about the cost of it, nor of giving it to you," Himura said. She smirked, enjoying the grovelling for a moment more. "Oh do sit up, my dear! You look rather ridiculous bowed over like that."
Nabiki rounded the Gym, passing through the field of the outdoor lights into the gloom of the school courtyard, walking towards the gates. She could hear the thrum inside, the perpetually starving student body squabbling over Himura's free handout.
She passed through the gates and saw the shape of the person who had been waiting for her. Even though she had been expecting it, it was still a bit startling to see Sayuri there. She was leaning against the wall, arms crossed, face in shadows.
"I'm sorry," Nabiki started. It sounded hollow to her ears, but she felt she needed to say it. "For today. For everything so far…"
"Save it," Sayuri cut her off. She pushed off the wall and turned to face her, stepping out of shadows enough for her eyes to catch the dim light, making them almost glow in the darkness that surrounded the rest of her face. "I honestly don't care anymore. I went into this because I was sick and tired of Himura's games, and because I just wanted to play volleyball. Not even seriously… it just sucked that I was shut out of one of the few sports I'm actually good at. I just wanted to show Himura up a little. Now…" She shook her head. "Now look at it all. Himura carves through people's lives, just to sate her own ego, and now she's carving up the lives of my friends!"
"She always has," Nabiki replied softly. "You just didn't see it before now."
"And I didn't want to see it!" Sayuri shot back. "You know what? This? All of this? It makes it really hard to do the day-to-day, you know? To go to school, study for tests, hang out with friends, plan for the future… it's really tough to believe any of that actually matters anymore. When you know that someone who's a little richer and a lot less scrupulous than you can just take it all away, and for no better reason than they're bored." She clenched her fists, then let out a deep sigh and relaxed them. "When I was little… I used to think there might be monsters under my bed. I'd sit up at night, curled up and rocking back and forth and telling myself they weren't real, there was nothing there, that it was my imagination. But I never checked. You know why? Because what do you do if there really are monsters?"
Nabiki was silent. You become a scarier monster! a small, young part of her mind said. The fierce little girl she had been who had proudly told her mother how she'd go 'rawr' and scare the monsters away. Until a monster named 'Cancer' crawled out from under her mother's bed and took her away. And that was the day she learned there were some monsters you just couldn't fight.
"It depends on the monster," Nabiki admitted truthfully. "Some of them… you can't do anything about. Some of them you can fight and fight and fight, and it's just a long, slow, losing battle." She set her jaw, straightening slightly. "But Himura isn't that kind of monster. She wants you to think she's the kind you can't beat. That even trying will cost you everything. That the only way is to hide under your covers and hope she doesn't notice you. But she's not. Not even close. Some monsters you can fight. Some monsters you have to."
"I just want to know one thing; that you've got a plan to make her pay," Sayuri said softly.
Nabiki felt a slight smirk cross her face. The anger and frustration that Himura had stirred up in her bled away as she mentally reviewed the plans she had already set in motion. "I've already started. And thanks to that little gloat of hers, now I know she has no idea what I'm up to."
Sayuri's eyes searched hers for a moment. Nabiki could see skepticism, distrust, but more than a little hope there.
"Come back with me to the dojo tonight," Nabiki said, offering her hand. "I can show you what I've got. You don't have to take it on faith."
Sayuri stared at her hand a moment, then sighed and smiled sadly. "I think I kinda do, Nabiki," she said. "I'm not covered by your treaty with the Amazons, am I?" She glanced upwards meaningfully. Nabiki followed her gaze, but the rooftops seemed clear for the moment. "The more I know, the more they could wring out of me."
"Sayuri…" Nabiki started, but she couldn't find more to say, even though she desperately wanted to. She wanted to say they'd protect her. She wanted to say everything would be fine, and not to worry. But she knew Sayuri wasn't the sort for comforting lies.
"It's okay," Sayuri said. "I'll be fine. Himura has some new toys right now, so she should be happy with kicking me a few times while I'm down. You don't need me for this part anyway, right?"
"Just because you're not needed right now doesn't mean you're not needed," Nabiki replied sternly.
"Yeah, I won't take any more stupid risks, I know," Sayuri replied. "I'm… we probably shouldn't be seen hanging out until then, though."
"Yeah…" Nabiki admitted reluctantly. Sayuri had always been Akane's friend, but she liked the girl, and they had formed a kind of support group through it all. She didn't like seeing it all divided like it was now. "So what will you do in the meantime?"
"I'm gonna go pay Ranma a visit," Sayuri said. "As team captain I've at least got an excuse, and it shouldn't set off any Amazon warning bells like if any of you went over there. Any messages you want me to take to them?"
Nabiki crossed her arms and studied the ground. This was another thing she didn't like. It was starting to feel like they were all prisoners incarcerated in different camps. "Tell him… tell her I love her. And… I've got this."
"Sure," Sayuri replied. "Look... Nabiki… can you promise me something?"
Nabiki looked up. "What?"
Sayuri's expression was hard. "Promise me… promise me… that Himura is going to pay for this. Win or lose. No matter what it takes, she doesn't walk away to do this to anyone else… right?"
Nabiki nodded. "We'll make sure of that, Sayuri. Together. I promise you. Tendo word of honor."
Himura kept watch out of the window, for the moment allowing Konatsu to admire and bask in the craftsmanship of her new gift. She saw they were approaching their destination and turned back to Konatsu. "I want you to bring that to this little meeting, if you please." She said, patting the girl's hand and indicating the kodachi.
Konatsu frowned but nodded, tucking the shortsword and scabbard into the obi of her kimono.
The limo pulled up to a fairly nondescript dock warehouse. The warehouse only had a number identifying it, but it was one of many such warehouses Tanaka Pharmaceuticals owned and used for storage of shipments off the docks. This one Himura had quietly commandeered for her own use.
She opened the door and stepped out, walking towards the door. There was already someone in a dark suit at the entrance, wearing dark glasses and entirely failing to look like anything but a mob thug guarding a doorway. I really must talk to my partners about the concept of subtlety. She thought as the man tipped his shades, looked her and her two escorts over, then waved her inside.
The warehouse was dimly lit, crates and containers stacked up along each wall on tall racks. Himura walked confidently between them until she reached the far side, where a number of men waited for her. She noticed they had opened one of the crates already, and there were a few poppy bulbs on the table.
"I see you've had a chance to look over the merchandise, Hashimoto-san," she said as she walked up to them, smiling.
The man she addressed turned to look at her. He was wearing a white business suit, his jacket currently draped across the back of the chair, leaving him wearing his dark-colored vest and lighter button down shirt and tie. He had dark stubble on his face, and his hair was somewhat shaggy and unkempt, despite his well-kept clothes. "So, Oda's little girl is getting into the business early, eh?" he said, tossing one of the bulbs in his hand. "Not bad product. Nothing spectacular, but… always down to get a few new suppliers." He glanced at Tahn Pon. "This your representative? I heard they had some funky hair colors going on with them. Joketsuzoku, wasn't it?"
"Reo, this is a joke!" one of the other men, a rather large, imposing fellow, stood up and stomped over to Himura. "This is a bunch of schoolgirls! Why're you taking this crap seriously!?" He walked right up in front of Himura and glared down at her, close enough that she could smell his sour breath.
"They've got product, Kenji," Hashimoto replied. "And she's the granddaughter of one of our better suppliers."
"Yeah? Not lately. Old bastard's getting big for his britches. And now what, we're s'posed to babysit his brat?" Kenji snorted. He returned his gaze to Himura. "I say we take his product, keep the other two girls, and toss this one back on his doorstep and tell him to stop wasting our time with games!"
Himura had had quite enough. "Konatsu."
The kunoichi moved faster than Himura's untrained eye could follow. The first blow doubled the large man over. There was a swirl of kimono folds concealing Konatsu's movements, but Himura caught the flash of two-fingered strikes hitting joint pressure points, causing the man to collapse onto his knees. Finally, there was the whisper of a blade being drawn, then cold steel at his throat without any visible intermediary steps.
Himura folded her arms and narrowed her eyes, glaring at Hashimoto. "Is that the kind of thing I am to expect from our business dealings, Hashimoto-san?" she asked coldly, though she had fully expected this. "I am disappointed."
Hashimoto shrugged casually. "I don't pay him for his brains," he smirked. "I'm wondering what I am paying him for after that little display, to be honest. Your bodyguard is quite impressive."
"Konatsu is quite capable," Himura replied, warming a little. "If you feel he's not of value to you anymore… might I have him for a little demonstration? I have a product here which may be of interest to you." She tilted her head, allowing a little of the ice to creep back into her voice. "Call it a goodwill gesture for the insult."
Hashimoto raised an eyebrow. "That's a pretty steep price for a 'goodwill gesture', little girl." He tossed the bulb he had been playing with on the table and pulled out a chair, turning it around to straddle it and leaning his arms on the back. "He's an idiot, but he's good with a gun. He's still got some worth to me."
Himura studied the man's eyes. His words were clear, but his eyes had that glint of a challenge in them. He was testing her.
"Konatsu," she said quietly. "Our friend Kenji here is good with a gun. Take that from him, if you please."
Konatsu, who had her foot on the back of the man's knees and her blade to his throat hesitated, giving Himura a curious glance. "His gun?" She asked.
"His ability," Himura replied coldly.
Konatsu paused. There was a small tremor in her sword arm, as if struggling internally with something. Then an exhale of breath.
The flash of steel was swift, and over in an eyeblink. The screaming and blood were not so brief.
Kenji was hunched over on the ground, arms cradled against him as he rocked, whimpering, blood staining his jacket. His fingers were limp and lifeless, and after a moment he brought his shaking hands before his face, staring at them in horror as they refused to obey him. "Wh-what did you do!?"
"I severed several nerves and tendons in your arms." Konatsu replied, wiping the blood from her blade and sheathing it with a click. "In time and with proper care you may regain some use of your hands, but you will never have the strength or dexterity to weild a weapon again."
Two more of the thugs in the room took a step back, hands going to their jackets where they undoubtedly had firearms concealed, but Hashimoto held up a hand, his eyes never leaving Himura.
"Are you sure that was wise?" he asked after a moment. "You're here to open a partnership, are you not? And yet your first act upon coming here was to have your servant maim one of my trusted men. That's not exactly respectful, now is it?"
"I grew up around you and your kind," Himura replied. "You respect strength and little else. If you had intended this to be a straightforward negotiation without any bloodshed, your man would have never left your side nor said a word. You wanted to know how I would respond to being challenged."
"I did," Hashimoto admitted. "To be honest, I expected you to either back down or kill him. Would have been easier to deal with either way. This leaves… well, some loose ends, doesn't it?" He stood up and walked over to the kneeling man.
"Y-you'd… l-let that little… b-b-bitch kill me, Reo!?" Kenji yelped, incredulous. Tears were streaming down his face from the pain.
"Well yeah," Hashimoto replied, walking around him. "You're a big block of zero sense, Kenji! You've gotten a big head, screwed up a couple of deals for me now with your stupid bluster." He walked in front of him again and squatted, looking him in the eye. "Plus you've been skimming off the top. Oh don't give me that look! Kaito double-checked the books. If you didn't step in it here you were headed to the bottom of the harbour by the end of the night regardless." Hashimoto reached into Kenji's jacket, fishing out a package of cigarettes. He pulled one out, then put it back into the inside jacket pocket. "You don't mind if I bum a smoke, do you?" He asked, lighting it with a wooden match.
"I-I-I've been… nnngh… been loyal!" Kenji protested. He moved to get up, but a warning sound from one of the other thugs stopped him. The big man's eyes went wide at that, as he realized he had been betrayed thoroughly. "You really… really planned this!? After all we've been through!?"
"I planned this because of all we've been through, you piece of crap," Hashimoto replied, blowing smoke in Kenji's face and then standing. "Honestly, I would have done this weeks ago, but after hearing the kid was doing her first deal, I thought it might be a good learning experience for her." He winked at Himura. "All right, you wanted him for a demonstration? Go for it. I've heard some stories, so color me curious."
Himura allowed herself a small smile. She had read the situation correctly after all. Admittedly, there had been a moment of doubt. She glanced over her shoulder at Tahn Pon. "[Tahn, dear? Would you mind using the Xi Fa Xiang Gao on him?]"
Tahn nodded. "[How much do you want him to forget?]"
Himura glanced at Kenji, who was glancing nervously between the two of them. She finally met his eyes, and saw the pleading look there. He wasn't much older than she was, just a street thug who had gotten promoted due to talent or circumstance, and had gotten in over his head. He was a product of ignorance, lack of education and poverty. She allowed herself to feel a moment of sympathy for him.
"[Everything,]" she said without hesitation.
Tahn Pon nodded again. She pulled out a comb and a bottle of Formula 411 shampoo and slowly approached the man. Kenji whimpered and shrank back, scrabbling away from the Amazon as best he could.
Tahn Pon muttered some curse in Mandarin and reached out, grabbing his hair and pulling him forcefully back towards her. Then her hands were suddenly a blur, a momentary burst of suds and bubbles, a flash of a comb, and with all of the speed and dexterity Konatsu had shown crippling the man, Tahn Pon… washed his hair.
Hashimoto blinked. "Wait… what was that?" He walked over to Kenji, squatting again. The larger man's unruly hair had been tamed, styled, and fairly shown with a healthy lustre. "Is this a joke? You crippled a man to show me your girl's hair styling skills?"
Himura walked over next to Kenji and dropped to one knee next to him. She put her hand on his shoulder. "Kenji… Can you tell me what this man's name is?"
Kenji stared at Hashimoto. His eyes were wide, glassy… the blank stare of someone trying very hard to remember something, but couldn't. "Uh… uh…" he mumbled, "N-no…"
"Do you remember where you are?" she asked again, softly.
"No…" he mumbled again. His eyes were wide with horror. He started to look around rapidly, his breathing growing rapid and shallow. "I don't… I can't…"
"Kenji… What is your family name?" Himura asked again, finally. "Tell me that, and I'll make all this go away. You'll be safe and alive. I'll have your hands fixed by professional surgeons. It will all be better. You just need to tell me your family name, Kenji."
"I…" He shuddered, and tears started to run down his cheeks. "I…!"
"These men will kill you if you don't tell me, Kenji," she whispered in his ear. "It's such a small thing, isn't it? Everyone has a family name. It's not a secret. Just tell me, and this is all over." She smiled at Hashimoto.
"I… I…" Kenji slowly doubled up and curled into a fetal position, sobbing and staring blankly into the distance.
"He doesn't have a name to give me, you see," Himura said, looking Hashimoto in the eye. "Oh, he knows he has a name. He knows he should know it. He knows exactly what has been taken from him. But he can't remember it, and no force on Earth can make him remember." She stood up and brushed the dust off her skirt.
Hashimoto stood up and whistled. "That's…" He took a slow breath, looking genuinely disturbed. "That's pretty harsh. Would have been kinder just to kill him."
"Useful though, yes?" Himura said brightly. "You can't 'disappear' everyone, but there's no law against giving someone a shampoo and a scalp massage. Suddenly key witnesses can't recall events, secrets stay secret, anything you want to be forgotten is forgotten." She took the bottle from Tahn Pon and held it up. "A little concoction of my associates' making. Useless without the accompanying pressure-point techniques, of course… but just one of the many services they can provide." She motioned to the table. "Of course, if you're only interested in opium…"
Hashimoto chuckled. "Well, well well! Aren't you the most fascinating kid?" He walked back over to the table, pulled out the chair and sat down, propping up his feet. "All right, you've got my attention Tanaka-san. Have a seat and we can hash out the details." He motioned to the chair across from him.
Himura smiled and bowed. "I appreciate the opportunity, Hashimoto-san." She started to walk over.
"Oh! Uh…" Hashimoto gestured towards Kenji. "About him…? I mean, he's yours to do with what you please, but… He's a loose end."
Himura paused, then smiled brightly. "Yes, of course." She looked over her shoulder. "Konatsu, if you would? Quick and neatly, please."
Konatsu shuddered again, then nodded and drew her kodachi, turning and approaching the sobbing man curled up on the floor. "Yes, Mistress."
Ranma panted as she glared at the slightly dishevelled straw dummy before her. Her limbs were burning with the exertion and she could feel tremors run through her as her muscles protested. She struggled to hold her three point stance, eventually giving up and sinking to her knees.
"You should take a break," Ryouga said from off to the side.
"Hush. You're supposed to be meditating," Ranma replied as she allowed herself a moment to recover. She was making some progress now, but it was difficult - slow and exhausting. She finally stood, feeling some strength return to her legs, and grabbed a towel, wiping off the sweat from her face.
Ryouga was sitting with his legs crossed off to the side, eyes closed. He cracked an eye open and peered at her. "I'm guessing what you're doing is going as well for you as this is for me?"
Ranma casually tossed her towel into his face. "I said hush. You should have learned to meditate ages ago! What sort of martial artist doesn't know how to meditate? Even Pops knows how to meditate!"
Ryouga sputtered and clawed away the towel, glaring at her. "You seriously expect me to believe Genma Saotome has mastered inner peace?"
"Well… okay, maybe most of the time he was just napping, but you don't gotta be some zen master to meditate, you know. Didn't your sensei teach you that?" Ranma asked, starting to do her cooldown stretches to avoid having her muscles lock up.
"I never had a martial arts sensei," Ryouga replied. "Not until I came to Nerima, and I got taught by Cologne, anyway." He got to his feet and hung the towel back up on the rack. "I just kinda… learned from martial arts movies and stuff. Sometimes I'd get my hands on a training manual. There was also some stuff Mom taught me, but that was mostly rhythmic gymnastics and there wasn't any meditation in that."
Ranma paused in her stretches. "Really?" She considered. Part of her chafed at the idea of needing more help. "Well… maybe you'll have some ideas to help me figure this out then? I'll help you figure out meditation in return."
"Thought you were gonna do that anyway?" Ryouga teased. He held up a hand to cut off her protest. "Of course I'll help, Ranma. Not everything has to be an even trade with us, y'know?"
Ranma blushed and crossed her arms self-consciously. "Y-yeah, but… I kinda wanna keep things even between us… Y'know… fair's fair and all that."
Ryouga raised an eyebrow. "Don't wanna owe me, huh?"
"No!" Ranma protested. "Well… a little, but mostly I just don't wanna feel like I'm taking advantage of you." She scratched the back of her head. "I… kinda do that. A lot. To Ukyou, an' Shampoo… an' even Akane. I used to think it was better than just stealing from 'em like Pops did, since they were willing and all, but…" she trailed off awkwardly.
Ryouga looked at her a moment, came to some internal decision, then walked over to her. He put a hand on her shoulder, startling her into looking up at him.
"Look… I'm kinda new at how a relationship is supposed to work… and a while ago, if you'd asked me, I would have been fine with just doing everything, but… it's you, and I know you wouldn't be okay with that, and I used to be one of the ones ragging on you hardest for taking advantage of the girls, and…" He stopped himself, took a breath, and dragged himself back to his point. "I'm just saying as long as you help me, and I help you… It'll probably even out. So we don't gotta waste time keeping score. Okay?"
"Well… what if it doesn't?" Ranma asked. "What if I slip into bad habits again and… and start turning into Pops?"
Ryouga smirked. "Then I kick your ass, make you apologize to Akane, Nabiki, Shampoo and Ukyou, and then we go from there. Just the same way we've always done it since before you were a girl."
Ranma snorted. "As if, bacon breath. And I was always a girl!" She felt a weird amount of pride in that now. She closed her eyes, gathered her thoughts and tried to ignore that Ryouga was kind of close to her again and she was getting a ticklish sense of him through the Link from his hand, even through her clothes. "Okay, here's my idea; You figured out martial arts moves from watching movies, right? Well… maybe what I need is a different perspective. You see… if I just let go and let my body move, it knows what to do. But I ain't in control, I'm just letting my body do what instinct is telling me to do. But when I try to control it, it's like… trying to walk while thinking too much about it. I need to understand what I'm doing, so maybe you could watch me doing Neko-ken stuff and then tell me what you saw."
Ryouga frowned. "You mean… I learn the Neko-ken from watching you, then teach it back to you?"
"Kinda?" Ranma shrugged. "I don't think you can really do most of it that easy. There's a mental side of it." She tapped the side of her temple. "You need a really uncomfortable amount of 'cat' up here for it to make any sense."
Ryouga stared at her.
"Wh-what?" Ranma asked, getting flustered.
"It's just weird hearing you be able to say the word 'cat' without stammering or freaking out," Ryouga replied. "Are you even still afraid of them?"
"Hell yes!" Ranma spat. "They're awful little balls of fluff fulla needles that burn and itch when they scratch you! They're all nice if you feed 'em, but they get mean when they're hungry, and they're almost always hungry!"
"That sounds more like hate rather than fear," Ryouga noted. "It doesn't sound like they terrify you anymore."
"Yeah, well… Mebbe it wasn't the cats I was really scared of," Ranma muttered. "Me'n the cat in my brain kinda made a truce… what with everything else. Look, this isn't time to psych… psycho… shrink my head! D'ya think you can pay attention for five minutes and figure out what the hell it is I'm actually doing when I do what I'm doing?"
He held up his hands in a placating gesture. "Okay, okay! Yeah, I can do that. Just…" he wrestled with the right words for a minute, "Just… tell me what's going on in your head, okay? I kinda know what it's like to have… unwanted passengers."
Ranma had started to settle into a three point stanceonce more, but paused at that. "You mean demon-boy? Was he doing more than just messing with your sense of direction?"
"I dunno," Ryouga sat back down to watch her carefully. "Maybe ask me again when all of this mess has settled out."
"So… you think I've got some sort of cat-demon in my brain now?" Ranma asked. She focused her gaze on the dummy, and started to try and delve into the feel of the Neko-ken, giving it a target and letting it do its thing.
"No, but…" Ryouga shrugged. "Just… Well, it's been with you a long time, right? And it's all coming out now, ready or not. I guess it doesn't really matter where it comes from, it just sucks trying to deal with it on your own."
Ranma sighed. "Not like I don't know that. Hard to open up though when you're used to people using it against you," Ranma muttered under her breath. Louder, she said. "Just watch what I do, okay?"
She pushed away the distractions and focused on the dummy, relaxing her muscles and clearing her mind. She wanted to avoid trying to second-guess, or slipping into a familiar stance only to have it trigger the lock-up that came with it. She could feel the presence of the Cat, though subconsciously she knew it was just another aspect of herself. She abandoned any consideration of how she was going to do what she was about to do and focused instead on what she wanted to do.
The right arm. Remove it.
She felt her legs coil, almost of their own accord. Her whole body flexed and she leapt, uncoiling suddenly in a tremendous burst of speed. Her speed had always been a limited thing before; a fast run or a fast punch, a part of her, legs and hips or arms and shoulders, but never the whole. This was a burst of forward force that used nearly every muscle in her body towards the singular goal of forward. It was dizzying, even for her, and she was the one doing it. Her right hand curled into a claw shape and then, as she passed the dummy, she slashed. She could feel the claws that weren't really there bite into the wood, a fraction of an instant of resistance before they passed through it.
She skidded to a stop and instinctively dropped back into a three point stance before she straightened and turned to look. She had time to see the three cleanly sliced pieces of wood fall away from the dummy's shoulder.
"Did you catch that?" Ranma asked.
Ryouga walked over to the dummy, picking up one of the bits of wood that were all that was left of its arm. The cuts were clean and smooth, as if from an impossibly sharp blade.
"Bits and pieces. You moved a lot faster than I'm used to. And for you that's saying something." He looked up at her and shot her a grin. "I think the Kunos have a few more dummies around here. Think you can do it again?"
"The same way?" Ranma winced. "It… depends… if the Cat is feeling cooperative…"
"Well, offer her a can of tuna or something. Martial arts is all about repetition." Ryouga stood and walked over to grab another dummy to replace the damaged one. "Either way, it's more progress than we've made all day, right?"
The meeting went on for nearly an hour. The negotiations were unremarkable from that point, aside from the two thugs bundling up Kenji's body for later disposal. As Himura and Hashimoto shook, unnoticed by the two of them, a dark-gloved hand pulled a suction cup microphone from the window overlooking the meeting.
The dark clad figure checked the mic, then tucked it and the recorder into their tunic and ducked out of view, followed by another in similarly dark attire.
The two figures, clad head to toe in dark ninja-style garb, complete with masks concealing their faces, ran down the alleyway to a sewer manhole cover that was slightly askew. As one stood watch, the other moved the heavy metal disk with surprising ease, motioning to the first to jump into the hole before the followed and pulled the manhole cover closed in their wake.
Once they were in the dimly lit waterway, one pulled out a flashlight. The other pulled off their mask, revealing the face of Akane Tendo.
"Well… it looks like Nabiki's hacker friend was right on the money," Akane said in a quiet voice. It was something she should have been overjoyed about, but after what they had just seen…
The other figure pulled off her mask, freeing a cascade of chestnut hair and aquamarine eyes that shone brightly in the gloom. Ukyou locked gazes with Akane for a moment, then looked away.
"Ukyou…" Akane said softly, reaching for the other girl.
"We should get back to let Nabiki know what we found," Ukyou said softly. Her tone was flat and dead.
"Ukyou, we'll get Konatsu back…" Akane said, putting her hand on the okonomiyaki chef's shoulder.
Ukyou flinched, tensing up. She took a slow breath and after a moment put her hand over Akane's. "No we won't," she said, her voice soft and sad.
"Ukyou?" Akane prompted, confused as the other girl turned to look at her. She could see a shimmer in Ukyou's eyes.
"The Konatsu I knew couldn't kill," Ukyou said softly. "Even when he tried. Even when his stepfamily brainwashed him into it…" She shook her head. "I don't know who that was who crippled and murdered that man, but… that wasn't Konatsu!"
"Ukyou, listen to yourself!" Akane said sharply. "Think about what you're saying! If that's not Konatsu, then… then Ranma isn't Ranma!" She took Ukyou by the shoulders, holding her gaze as the chef gave her a startled look.
"I've been under mind control magic before. I've had my body stolen, I've been hypnotized and possessed, had my memory erased… Just about anything you want to name!" Akane said fiercely. "And I can tell you, every single time, I was still there, struggling and fighting and screaming to get out. And if Ranma had ever given up on me, I'd have probably done terrible things too! This… this mind controlling Jusenkyo potion Himura is playing with isn't any different! Not for Ranma, and not for Konatsu. Konatsu is in there and she'll need us. She needs you, to not give up on her."
Ukyou stared a moment, then bowed her head. "I… you're right. Damn." She clenched her fist then slammed it into the brick of the tunnel wall, causing it to crack. "I'm so sick of this! Why can't everyone just leave us alone!? Why are we having to fight to just be allowed to be who we are!?" She let her arm drop to her side.
"I don't know. But if anything is worth fighting for, this is it," Akane replied. "'A 'martial artist's duty', right?"
Ukyou sighed. "Maybe." She fished out the digital recorder she had borrowed from Nabiki. "You think what we got on here will be enough? I don't know about you, but if I gotta watch Himura use Konatsu like that again, I'm liable to go through the glass and kill her myself, Amazon bodyguards be damned."
"I'd be right next to you the whole way," Akane said, but then she shook her head. "But… I don't want to kill anyone. I saw… I saw what it did to Ranma to have to do that. And I don't want you to have to do it either. No matter how much that person deserves it. Not even Himura Tanaka, or Genma Saotome." She smiled and gave Ukyou's cheek a quick, affectionate brush with her fingers. "So… let's focus on making all the Himuras and all the Genmas live to regret all this, okay? I want to focus on working through the damage we've already got, I don't want to pile on any more."
Ukyou closed her eyes, briefly leaning into Akane's hand. She shivered slightly and some of the tension seemed to leave her shoulders. She nodded finally and opened her eyes. "Yeah… yeah. Let's finish this fight so Ranchan and Konatsu can come home."
Akane looked around. "Hikaru? Are you here?"
"Yes, of course I am Akane," Gosunkugi's unnervingly calm voice came from the gloom right behind her.
Akane's unnerved scream echoed throughout the sewers.
"Mistress Ranma? Master Ryouga? You have a visitor. Two, in fact," one of the butlers said, interrupting the training.
Ranma sighed and settled back onto her haunches, taking a few deep breaths as she cooled down. She accepted a towel tossed to her by Ryouga. They were making progress, which was reassuring, though it was such an alien way of training; backwards and inside out. Most training was learning a new move or technique and practising until it was second nature. This time, it was all already second nature, and she had to coax her reflexes into doing it until she learned the move. But she was starting to get a framework of it in her mind. Maybe it could even be something that she could teach without needing a pit full of starving feral cats and a lot of childhood trauma.
Heh. Imagine that. A teachable Neko-ken, she mused as she stood. My very own art. Wonder what Pops would say to THAT! She smirked then snorted. Feh, he'd take credit. As usual.
They followed the butler back inside to one of the sitting rooms in the manor. Ranma had honestly lost track of how many rooms and hallways the huge castle had, and was developing a sneaking suspicion the staff was rearranging things on a daily basis to give the illusion that the castle was even more sprawling and labyrinthine than it actually was.
She was a bit surprised to see both Doctor Tofu and Sayuri sitting there waiting for them. Ranma had half expected to get a visit from one or the other given all that happened, but it was unexpected that they'd be there together. Doctor Tofu was studying some piece of artwork on the wall, composed and calm and usual. Sayuri was sitting in a chair and staring at the floor, fidgeting and looking uncomfortable and nervous.
"Uh… yo," Ranma said, raising a hand in greeting.
Doctor Tofu looked up from his contemplation and smiled. "Ranma! It's good to see that you seem…"
He was cut off as a Sayuri-shaped blur shot past him, closed the distance between her chair and Ranma at an impressive velocity and glomped the redhead in a manner that would have made Shampoo proud.
"H-hey Cap…" Ranma mumbled, muffled by Sayuri's shirt. There was a time when this would have embarrassed her, but now? Now she was struggling to keep from crying, and didn't know why.
"You had me worried sick, Ranma!" Sayuri said, releasing the redhead and gripping her shoulders. "Me and the whole team, ever since we found out that explosion was from you. Ever since… well, all this stuff with the scroll and what your crazy parents did. Are you okay? Here, I mean? This is the Kunos after all."
"Yeah… yeah," Ranma chuckled weakly to cover how she wanted to react. "The Kunos aren't all that bad, once you socialize them a bit… and get them on the right meds…" Her face fell. "The game… Did… did you…?"
"We had to forfeit. Himura wouldn't allow us any substitutions," Sayuri said.
"I'm… I'm sorry, Sayuri," Ranma hung her head. "This is all my fault! If I had just… just kept it together for two more lousy weeks…!"
"Don't you dare apologize, Ranma Saotome!" Sayuri said sternly. "Even if you were in top form you wouldn't be able to fight your way past all those Amazons. There are more important things than a stupid volleyball game!"
Sayuri squeezed Ranma's shoulders until Ranma looked up at her and held her gaze for a moment, as if making sure her words had registered. Then she turned to Ryouga. "And you… Are you okay? Knowing you, you were in the center of that explosion."
"He was," Ranma said, unable to help a fond grin forming. "He's the one who got me through it."
"Uhhh… well…" Ryouga blushed and stammered, rubbing the back of his head.
Sayuri folded her arms and raised an eyebrow. "You two are adorable. Yuka is going to hate your guts until she finally clues in about Daisuke." She glanced over her shoulder. "Ummm, sorry Doctor, I kind of jumped in there."
"Quite alright," Tofu said brightly, stepping forward with his hands clasped behind his back and a broad smile. "Anything I have to say to Ranma is hardly urgent enough to take precedence over a reunion of friends."
"So… uhh… how much did Nabiki tell you, Doc?" Ranma asked, a little nervously. She hoped for once Nabiki had opted to be free with the details, because she loathed the idea of trying to explain the whole mess again to someone else."
"Enough," Tofu replied, his smile wavering a touch. "I have a copy of the scroll Nabiki emailed me. I haven't had time to fully translate and study it, but from what I've seen I've no reason to doubt Elder Cologne's claims about its authenticity. And while I'm not familiar with all the ingredients on the list, the ones I am are… troubling." He sighed, the smile slipping fully for a moment. "Ranma, have you given thought to your legal status in light of all of this, with regards to your parents?"
"That has already been set in motion," Kodachi's voice came from the doorway. They all looked up to see the younger Kuno sibling walk into the room. "I had hoped to contact you, Doctor, in order to get the requisite professional verdict necessary to add weight to our effort to disentangle Ran from the Saotome clan entirely. My brother and I plan to invite Ran to join Clan Kuno once the matter of her emancipation has been settled."
Dr. Tofu's eyes narrowed. He shifted his gaze from Kodachi back to Ranma. "And… you are comfortable with this arrangement, Ranma?"
Ranma shrugged. "I'm kinda feeling like a burden on everyone, but 'Dachi seems pretty set on it. Honestly, the Kunos have done better by me than anyone but the Tendos, and they seem to know about this stuff."
Tofu nodded. "That is a… remarkable shift in relations compared to your prior dealings… but compared to what else has changed I suppose it's one of the more believable shifts. That being said… I'd like to examine each of you, if I might? We don't have access to the MRI, but I'd still like to give you both a once over, given all that's happened. Just a cursory for now."
Ranma glanced at Ryouga, exchanging a nod. "I don't see why not," Ranma replied.
Kodachi let them use the small infirmary in the manor for the purposes of the physical. Ryouga went first, which Ranma hated. For whatever reason the whole idea was making her nervous. She could see a whole bunch of unanswered questions in Doc Tofu's eyes whenever he looked her way.
Ranma fidgeted the whole time Dr. Tofu was examining her. She felt a little nervous with her shirt off, just in her bra, but she reminded herself firmly that Tofu had seen her shirtless and bare chested as a girl plenty of times before. Plus he was a doctor, so that made it okay… supposedly.
She noticed Doctor Tofu raise an eyebrow at her discomfort, and it seemed as if he was more superficial in his examination than usual. "Well, you've no broken bones or serious injuries… nothing that isn't well on the way to being mended at any rate," he finally said, handing her her shirt.
"Cool. So… we're done?" Ranma pulled her shirt on and made to hop down from the examination table.
"Not quite," Tofu reached back and grabbed a chair, pulled it around and straddled it backwards then crossed his arms across the back of it. "The matter of your physical health is settled. The matter of your emotional health, however..."
"I'm fine, Doc!" Ranma insisted.
"People who are 'fine' don't generate Shishi Hokodans of that magnitude," Tofu replied sternly.
"No, really, I'm better now, see?" Ranma flashed him a big, slightly forced smile.
Doctor Tofu sighed, took off his glasses and polished them in an unconscious mimickry of Dr. Hirano. "Ranma, no one could be okay after what you've gone through. No one should be. There's no failure in that. I just want to touch base with where you are, not where you think you should be. Does that make any sense?"
Ranma's smile faded and her gaze dropped to the floor. "I'm… not exactly sure what you want me to say, Doc. It's not like there's much you can do, and I ain't got a lot of time for navel gazing, y'know?"
"I know," Tofu replied kindly. "But the more I know, the better the chance I can help. Have you had any lingering emotional or physical effects of the blast?"
"You mean besides not being able to do martial arts anymore, or being in a permanent quasi-Nekoken state?" Ranma asked dryly. At the widening of the Doctor's eyes she realized that Nabiki had perhaps not communicated everything.
"Explain, please," Tofu said intently, leaning forward.
"Well… it's just as I said. Everything Pops taught me is… is kinda blocked. Like… it's there, I still know it all, but my body hesitates when I try and do even basic katas. Even the Amazon stuff I learned, or the Moko Takabisha is all built on that, so I'm kinda stuck." She flexed her hand, her fingers unconsciously curling. "But… when the Amazons attacked… something happened. I went into the Neko-ken, but… I wasn't all 'cat-brain'. I was in control… kinda. But I don't actually know the moves I'm doing when I'm using it, I… just do 'em." She clenched her fist. "It's like my body and my brain got two different sets of instructions."
"I see," Dr. Tofu nodded. "Ranma… this may be a sensitive question, but… do you consider yourself male or female now?"
Ranma felt heat rising to her cheeks. "I'da thought that was kinda obvious when I took my shirt off, Doc…" she mumbled.
"I don't mean physically," Tofu pressed. "You're in a unique situation from almost anyone on the planet. Your physical gender is a matter of… mostly… choice. In the past you were quite vocal about which side of the fence you were on, but things have changed recently."
"That's putting things a bit lightly, doncha think!?" Ranma replied incredulously. "I just found out everything I thought I knew about myself was a lie, that my heads fulla fake memories, that my parents…" She felt herself choking up and quickly closed her eyes, pausing to regain control. "I guess I'm a girl, right? That's… that's what I was born as, right?"
"Yes, but that doesn't necessarily restrict you," Dr. Tofu replied calmly. "Have you changed back to your male form since all of this started?"
Ranma shuddered and shook her head violently. "No! N-no…" She hugged herself. "I… I can't, Doc."
"You can't? Your curse is locked?" Tofu raised an eyebrow.
"Not like that… though I kinda wish it was that simple," Ranma replied. "I… I remember now." She swallowed, biting her lower lip as she wrung her hands in her lap. "It's… more like a memory of a nightmare than a real memory, but… there're flashes… from when Pops gave me that potion. I… I was in some kinda cabin or shed… probably the Jusenkyo Groundskeeper's place or something. I was groggy, couldn't move… don't know how I got there. Pops prolly drugged me. He was there saying…" she frowned, "saying something. I don't remember. Then he… he forced open my mouth and poured something down my throat. Hot… like tea, but bitter and medicinal. I gagged on it, but he pinched my nose closed and forced the rest down. I… remember coughing up a bunch 'cuz it went down the wrong pipe. Pops yelled at me, but… I still couldn't move. And then… and then…" She clenched her fists.
"It was traumatic," Tofu said quietly.
Ranma barked out a bitter laugh. "Traumatic!? It felt like I was being torn apart from the inside out! Slowly! It… it started in my gut a-and…" she trailed off and shook her head, unwilling to delve deeper into it than that. "It was the worst pain I've ever felt, before or since. But… but the worst part was… it wasn't just in my body. It was… it was here." She tapped her temple with her finger. "I… I could feel it tearing and shredding and taking away bits of me… bits of who I was. Then my bones started to break and regrow…"
"Dear Kami…" Tofu whispered.
"I remember falling off the cot, knocking over a glass of water or something. I musta been a guy then because I remember everything snapped back to how it had been… I could move again, but I was still totally out of my mind. I…" she trailed off, "I started using the Neko-ken, I think. Pops ran, but I kicked him into a pool, turned him into a Panda, then kept chasing him. At least… I did until I forgot why I was chasing him. Then he told me… made a sign, actually... saying we had been training, and he had kicked me into a magic spring and that's why I was a girl and he was a panda. And it made sense, I guess? Or… at least it filled this big awful nothing that was there. Like… I would have accepted anything he told me to just have something I knew. We spent… hours talking. Him filling my empty head with the stuff he wanted me to know."
Unconsciously she moved her hand up and ran a finger along her cheekbone where the faint freckles were. "Every time I think about trying to change back… it's like… it's gonna be like that again. And even though I know I've changed hundreds of times since then without any sort of problem, just the possibility…" She swallowed down an urge to gag. "No… I'd rather be locked for good."
"Is that what you want, though?" Tofu pressed. "To be a girl permanently? Or is it just fear of the change itself?" He reached out and touched her hand. "I don't mean to badger, Ranma. But… I feel this is a question you should consider carefully before resorting to something as final as locking the curse."
Ranma nodded as she mulled that over. "Y'know… being afraid wasn't really something I had to deal with before. I mean, there was the whole thing with cats… and relationships and kissing and stuff, I guess, but all that was different." She pulled her knees up and hugged them. "I wasn't afraid of getting into fights, or the curse, or… Pops… Or even Mom, even with all that seppuku nonsense. But now? Knowing… knowing what can happen? Knowing it did happen…? I hate it. I hate this feeling. Being scared, like… all the time. Scared 'cuz I know they're still out there, and just how much they can take away."
Tofu was quiet for a moment, studying the floor himself for a moment. "Ranma… there is very little I can say about what happened to you. When you were a child, the people who were supposed to love and protect you chose instead to use you for their own needs, and the world around you failed to notice or intervene. You were failed and betrayed in… in one of the most profound ways I can imagine. Your fear of it happening again is understandable and natural. " He looked up at her. "But… please understand this; your situation is not the same. You are not alone, and even if there are those who continue to try and abuse you for your own ends, and even if your strength has faltered for the moment, there are people who care about you now… genuinely care about you. I count myself as one of them. And we will fight for you to see that you are never failed like that again."
Ranma knew the words were supposed to be reassuring, but she felt instead the damp chill of guilt settle over her shoulders. "Sorry about this…" she mumbled.
Nabiki was exhausted when she got home. It wasn't a physical exhaustion; she would have welcomed the tiredness and deep muscle ache from one of Cologne's training sessions. This was the exhaustion of being emotionally on edge without end for far too long. All she wanted to do was lie back on the tatami mats, close her eyes, and not think for a few hours.
Instead, she was alternating between sitting at the dining room table and pacing back and forth. Her mind was whirling, but without anything productive sifting out of the chaos. She glanced over at the spot in the backyard where the grass had been disturbed.
Why am I panicking over this? Nabiki thought, chewing on her lower lip. Ukyou and Akane have faced more risk going ice skating than doing this… though that's more because they can't even go ice skating without it turning into some kind of martial arts battle and ARRRGH! She thumped her forehead with the heel of her hand. Stop that!
"Nabiki, sit down and try and relax," Kasumi said, walking in with a tray bearing a kettle and two cups. She set the tray down then sat, pouring a cup and placing it at Nabiki's spot before pouring a cup for herself. "This will help settle your nerves."
Nabiki sat down with a huff. She didn't want to, but there were times you simply didn't disobey Kasumi. She picked up the tea and took a sip. "Nnnf… bitter."
"I know," Kasumi replied. "Medicinal properties and good taste don't always go together, and sometimes one is more important than the other."
"Jiro teach you that?" Nabiki asked, grateful for the momentary distraction of a topic completely disconnected from her current plight.
"One of the ongoing lessons in how to determine what tea is 'right' for a situation," Kasumi replied.
"I thought everyone had a 'brand' of tea, and that was that?" Nabiki said, cocking her head. She took another sip, getting used to the bitter flavor, and found that it provided a kind of focus.
"They do. But each situation also has a brand. As well as each occasion. And it's all very complex and confusing. Jiro-sensei insists that it all becomes very mathematical, but as I understand a person's 'brand' as you put it is just the tea that sits squarely enough in the middle that he can adjust by steeping and strength to suit the situation and occasion." Kasumi glanced down at her teacup and sighed. "I honestly did not expect serving tea to involve quite so much calculus."
Nabiki blinked. "You're kidding."
Kasumi pulled out a textbook titled 'Advanced Tea Calculus; Third Edition' from under the table. "I have homework. Quadratic flavor equations," she sighed. "I'm barely into chapter one."
Nabiki pulled the book over and flipped it open, not quite believing it. What she saw was supposedly mathematics… some part of her brain labelled it as such… but her tired eyes simply would not make any sense of it. If she squinted, it started to look more like tea recipes, but somehow it wasn't that either, and after a few fruitless minutes of scowling at the page she closed the book lest she give herself a migraine. "I… can't make heads or tails of that."
"Oh, it all makes very good sense - once Jiro-sensei explains it." Kasumi said, taking the book back. "If you were interested, you could ask him to show you. I'm sure he would appreciate your financial acumen. Today he was grumbling about the constantly shifting exchange rate of 'quatloos' to 'schrute-bucks', whatever those are."
"No, thank you. I've got enough making me crazy as it is!" Nabiki said, though she found she was smiling. She felt like the muscles in her neck and shoulders were unknotting, and she felt her eyes drooping a bit. "Woof… whatever 'medicinal effects' this tea has, they sure are strong. It's not going to put me to sleep, is it?" She yawned.
"Oh, it shouldn't," Kasumi said.
"Then what does it do?" Nabiki raised an eyebrow.
"It tastes bitter so you comment on it, thus allowing me to start a conversation about tea and get your mind off of whatever problem you are worrying that you can't solve right this instant," Kasumi replied, quickly covering a smirk by taking a sip of her tea.
Nabiki blinked, stared at her, blinked a couple more times, then glanced down at her cup. It was then that she noticed that the liquid on Kasumi's teacup was a different color than hers. "What!? Kasumi…!"
"It worked, didn't it?" Kasumi asked, arching an eyebrow. "Besides, it was part of my homework. Now… would you like something more to your taste?" She winked and took Nabiki's cup, putting it on the tray along with her own and stood smoothly.
Nabiki was still trying to process that uncharacteristic bit of manipulation on her sister's part when she heard a rattle from the yard. She bolted to her feet and sprinted for the door, glancing outside to see if there was anyone watching from above.
"We are not being watched at the moment, Nabiki Tendo." Cologne croaked. Nabiki nearly hopped back as she realized the tiny old woman was sitting cross-legged just outside the door. She hadn't even noticed her. Cologne's eyes were closed, but she felt reasonably sure that wasn't how Cologne had determined they were in the clear anyway.
The old woman cracked an eye open and glanced up at her. "Do not fret. I am keeping watch and, if need be, I have a few tricks to mask your activities. Leave this much to me at least."
Nabiki nodded then ran out to the yard. She picked up a crowbar they had left there for the purpose, stuck it into a hole in the top of the excavated manhole cover and started to lever the heavy metal disc off to the side.
As soon as it was clear, a familiar gaunt face popped up out of the darkness.
"Is it safe to come out?" Gosunkugi asked.
"Cologne says we're clear," Nabiki replied. Then she frowned. "Wait, how are you doing that? There wasn't a ladder when we opened it up last."
"There still isn't. Akane is holding me uuuuuuuup…!" Gosunkugi replied, before yelping as he was suddenly tossed up out of the hole with just enough force that he landed flat on his feet a foot or so back from the opening. He blinked, looking a bit surprised.
Two more forms hopped out of the hole to land deftly to either side of it. Both were clad all in black. Akane stretched, "I am so glad to get out of that cramped, smelly hole!"
"At least it's just a runoff channel and not a sewage pipe, sugar," Ukyou replied.
"So, did you find anything?" Nabiki asked impatiently. She knew she should wait until they were inside, but she needed some news, good or bad. "Did you get any leads on Shampoo?"
Ukyou and Akane exchanged a glance, then looked outwards to the rooftops surrounding the yard. Even though Cologne had vouched for their privacy, Nabiki could tell they didn't want to discuss what they had found while outside.
"In. Tell me there," Nabiki motioned towards the house. She noticed Gosunkugi hesitating and motioned him to follow. "You too, Gos."
Gosunkugi's face broke out in a shy (and tragically creepy) smile as he nodded and followed timidly behind Akane and Ukyou. Nabiki levered the manhole cover back into place and went back in herself.
As soon as she closed the door behind her, Akane slumped back against the wall and groaned, like she had been holding the noise in for a long time. It was a long, low, deep sound of frustration and anger.
"What did you find?" Nabiki asked. The fact Akane wasn't already organizing a rescue effort told her it wasn't Shampoo, but it was obvious they had found something.
"We stumbled on some kind of Yakuza meeting, I think," Akane said. "Himura was there, and a bunch of tough-looking gangster types. They were making some kind of deal with… flower bulbs?"
Nabiki darted close to her. "Please tell me you got at least part of that recorded!" Akane recoiled a bit from Nabiki's intensity. If they managed to record Himura participating in a DRUG DEAL…!
Akane handed her the recorder and a couple of 90 minute mini tapes. "H-here. We had to switch tapes partway through."
Nabiki's eyes widened and she snatched them away as if she were afraid they might dissolve into mist if left in her sister's hands. She cradled them, a soft giggle escaping her lips. Two tapes! There's GOT to be more than enough evidence here… Even if it just opens an investigation…!
"You can't use those," Ukyou said sharply.
Nabiki blinked, snapped out of her triumphant revelry. She turned and glared at Ukyou. "Excuse me?!"
"I know what you're thinking, sugar," Ukyou said. "You think we recorded a drug deal going down, something you can use to get the police to take care of Himura for us. If she's in jail both you and Ranma win your challenges, the Amazons don't have a sponsor in Japan, and we win."
Nabiki frowned. "Yes, pretty much exactly. I'm not seeing a real compelling reason for not using the tapes for exactly that, though."
"It wasn't just a drug deal," Akane said softly. "There… there was a murder, too."
Nabiki gave her sister an incredulous look. "What?"
"One of the thugs. Himura had one of her bodyguards kill him as an example. Some sort of Yakuza test," Ukyou said.
"So?!" Nabiki replied, throwing up her hands in exasperation. "All the better! We take down a murderer as well as Himura. And if it was one of those Amazons…"
"It was Konatsu!" Ukyou barked, cutting her off.
Nabiki felt her blood freeze. She took a sharp breath as the problem those tapes raised suddenly snapped into focus. "Oh… oh no… oh Kami…"
Ukyou thumped the wall with the side of her fist in frustration. "Konatsu… my Konatsu… would never do something like that! She did this to him! Her and that damned potion!"
Nabiki backed up to the wall and leaned against it, sliding down into a sitting position. Her mind whirled. Of course. She's making Konatsu complicit. Her first murder to get blood on her hands. Even if we DO get dirt on Himura, and even if it's enough to stick, she can just drag Konatsu down with her! No court is going to buy a story about some kind of magic Chinese potion being at fault!
"You're sure it was Konatsu?" Nabiki asked finally.
Ukyou closed her eyes, folding her arms and leaning against the wall, a pained look crossing her face. "Yeah… yeah… I'm sure."
Nabiki massaged her temples. No… come on! I CAN'T just get something like this dropped in my lap and not be able to do anything with it! There has to be SOMETHING… She huffed in frustration. NO. Nabiki, don't get distracted. Order of operations. Shampoo still needs you. She's the immediate concern. Focus on that and come back to this when it's safe. She turned to Gosunkugi, "Gosunkugi… if I wanted you to lead someone back there sometime in the future… say a week or more… could you find your way?"
"Oh, easily," Gosunkugi replied brightly. "I take that route to get to the waterfront all the time!"
"You… go to the waterfront through the sewers?" Akane asked incredulously.
"They're drainage canals. And... yes? It helps to avoid the bullies," Gosunkugi replied matter-of-factly.
"Remind me we need to work on your bully problem when things calm down a bit," Nabiki remarked absently. "Okay… for now we need to focus on finding Shampoo. Once we've got her back we'll have to work on a way to see if we can use this against Himura and get Konatsu out of the mess at the same time." She pulled out her phone, scrolling through a list of addresses that Alibaba had provided her. She marked off the address as checked, but put a star next to it and some quick notes. "That leaves the warehouses at Pier 17…"
"For such a successful company, they sure seem to have a lot of abandoned warehouses," Akane muttered.
"Not abandoned. 'Off the books'," Nabiki replied. "It's where Tanaka Pharmaceuticals is keeping their imported product that likewise is off the books. Such as, say, poppy bulbs full of opium. Probably one of their major contributions to the Yakuza. I wouldn't be surprised if a good part of Tanaka Pharmaceutical's success owes to their position in the Yakuza drug trade." She looked at her phone again, staring at the little icon that she used to initiate a conversation with her hacker ally. This is exactly what Ali Baba was looking for. They wouldn't hesitate to use it, regardless if Konatsu got burned. Which means now I've gotta keep secrets from someone who's a professional at finding out secrets. Terrific. I'll need to do one better to keep them on board. But how do I do one better than evidence Nobu Tanaka's daughter is drug running?!
She frowned, an idea forming. A terrible idea. One that put the people she cared about most in danger. One that would require she lie, cheat, steal and manipulate. One that meant people were going to be hurt.
She took a deep breath. "Can you two find your way back there, if you had to? Without Gosunkugi?"
Ukyou frowned. "I think so. But why?"
Nabiki rubbed her eyes. "Because I have in mind something very dangerous, and I don't want to put him in the line of danger or slow the two of you down."
"I d-don't mind," Gosunkugi piped up. He looked very much like someone who was terrified trying to put on a brave face.
Akane gave him a wan smile. "Gos, this isn't…"
"If it's something I can do, then I want to help!" Gosunkugi said abruptly, cutting her off. His fists were clenched and he was shaking. "I-I spend all my time hiding in the dark and hoping no one notices me and never doing anything. Hiding is all I'm good at. If that can help someone now? A-a guy like me doesn't get many chances to matter."
"Alright… You get your chance, then," Nabiki said. Akane shot her a concerned look, but remained silent. "Now,if anything else wants to add stress to my day…"
Nabiki regretted challenging the Neriman Gods of Chaos, because no sooner had she uttered that then they heard the frantic flapping of wings, and a white duck landed heavily on the porch and hoppined in through the open door, quacking in agitation.
"Mousse?!" Akane asked, recognizing the duck as the cursed Chinese Martial Artist.
"I'll get the kettle," Ukyou said, making for the kitchen.
Nabiki frowned, getting up and squatting before the frantic bird, noticing something at his feet that Mousse had apparently brought with him. They were crumpled and a bit torn, some faded with age. Each one was some kind of advertisement.
"Circus flyers?" Nabiki said, frowning. Most of them were in different languages… Mandarin… Vietnamese… Korean… Malaysian… one or two in Japanese. All different dates and places, all long glanced at the duck, who was looking at her meaningfully. Got a puzzle for me to figure out, Mousse?
Ukyou walked back in with a kettle, eliciting renewed flapping and impatient quacking from the duck until Ukyou poured the hot water over its head. For a moment Nabiki expected a naked Mousse to pop into existence, but somehow he managed to appear again fully dressed, the same way Genma Saotome seemed always able to do.
"Young Mi took Rin," was the first thing that he said.
It has been a while, hasn't it?
I've allowed myself to get distracted by the upheaval around me. Mostly minor stuff, until COVID came along, which completely upended my workflow. I'm trying to get it back on track now, and I promise you I haven't given up on this thing.
My Editor tells me we'll have to have a long chat about my grammar, though. ^^;