It's alternative history Ranma with multiple crossovers and lame, filky songfics! I control the vertical, I control the horizontal, and I have no idea what to do with it. Is it that obvious? Beware, for all may not be as it seems!
DISCLAIMER: Ranma 1/2 characters and stuff, and Inu Yasha characters and stuff, copyright 1999 Rumiko Takehashi. Mamono Hunter Yohko characters and stuff copyright AD Vision, NCS, Toho Company, LTD, Mad House, and I don't know whom else. Dilbert characters and stuff, copyright 1999 Scott Adams, and will only appear in the disclaimer.
A Sort Of Homecoming
Well I'm... back in Nerima again,
And I bet you're wondering where I've been,
Got myself cursed out in Jusenkyo,
Got fiancées waiting here back home,
Clowns to the left of me, jokers to the right,
Here I am... stuck in Nerima with you
(to tune of: Stuck In The Middle With You, Stealer's Wheel)
The two women were clearly related. The younger one had red hair, tied back in a braided pigtail, and wore a red silk top of Chinese design with loose black silk pants tied off at the ankles. She sat nervously, glancing about the living room like a child in a toy store, her gaze never resting long on any one object, until it finally returned to the one seated across from her.
The older woman was dressed in a beautiful white kimono, with hair a darker shade of red. She sat ramrod straight, and she looked on the young girl with a mixture of joy, sorrow, confusion, and not a little wonder.
"Ranma?" she asked. "Is it really you?"
The younger girl nodded her head sadly. "It's really me, mother. Sorry 'bout this."
The older woman put a hand to her mouth. "Oh, this is so... strange... to see you like this."
"It's been strange for me, too," the girl said.
"When I got your letter, I didn't believe it. Ancient curses? Transformations? Who can believe such things? To think that my son is now a girl, and my husband, a panda..." she paused, choking back a sob.
The girl looked like a wild animal about to bolt. Her eyes shimmered, on the brink of tears. "Mother, I... I've wanted to come home for so long, but I...."
The woman, Nodoka Saotome, suddenly leaned forward and gathered her daughter in, cradling the girl's head in her arms. Ranma buried her head and sobbed repeatedly.
"It's okay, Ranma," she said, stroking the girl's hair. "It's okay. I know it's been hard... it must have been so very hard for you. I've missed you too, Ranma, I've missed you so very much. It's going to be all right. I'm here, and I still love you no matter what. Everything will work out, you'll see."
The sobbing ebbed, and Nodoka patted the girl on the back. Immediately Ranma stiffened and let out a loud yelp.
"Ow! My back!"
"What's the matter?" Nodoka asked.
"Sunburn," Ranma said, pulling away. "It was so sunny out, and we were camped by a lake... I sort of fell asleep in the sun...."
"Let me see," Nodoka said.
"Mom, it's just a sunburn...."
"Ranma," her mother said, "if you're going to live in this house, then you will not question me. Now, strip!"
"Oh, my, Ranma, that's a very serious burn you have. No wonder it hurts! You should never take these things lightly; you might develop an infection if you're not careful. I have some ointments that should help, once I locate them...."
Ranma stood and pulled her shirt back on. Nodoka watched with a critical eye.
"Well, Ranma, I must say that, aside from the burn, you're otherwise a very healthy girl."
Ranma blushed red.
"Mother... what if I'm stuck like this? I haven't found a cure yet. What will I do?"
"Well," Nodoka said, "we won't know until we reach that point, Ranma. I won't lie to you; you might be a woman for the rest of your life. I don't know. A friend, who knows of such things, assured me that Jusenkyo exists, and that the curses are real, but he knew no more than that. We'll do what we can to find a cure...."
"But I don't want to be a girl!"
Nodoka smiled and traced Ranma's jaw line from ear to chin.
"Ranma, dear, you are a girl, whether you want to be or not. And you look so much like I did at your age... I would not have believed it was you, if not for that and your memory of this house." She smiled warmly. "Oh, Ranma, you are so very beautiful...."
"I'm not supposed to be beautiful, mother!"
"No, but your beauty cannot be denied at present, child. Oh, I've waited so many years to see you again, but this... thank goodness I refused to sign that stupid agreement your father came up with...."
Ranma raised an eyebrow. "Agreement?"
"Never mind, so... child. It was a long time ago."
Nodoka got up, and went to the kitchen, leaving Ranma to wonder what she'd meant. She stared at the mantle, where the family sword lay swathed in cloth. That had been the clincher, of course -- the reason her mother finally believed her strange tale. Ranma remembered little from when she'd last lived here, ten years ago, but she knew all about the sword, and the other family heirlooms.
Nodoka entered the room again, carrying a tray with a teakettle and two cups on it. She filled the two cups, her movements graceful and serene, and handed one to Ranma...
...who fumbled, and dropped it into her lap.
Ranma jumped up, yelling, "Ow! Shit! That's hot!"
"Ranma!" her mother said, "watch your language!"
"Ow... sorry mother, it just startled me, I guess."
"Well, a little hot water isn't going to kill you. You are a martial artist, are you not? But I can see that your father has not raised you to speak with a civil tongue. That will have to change."
Nodoka got a towel, and Ranma dried herself off.
"These last three weeks have been a nightmare!" Ranma complained. "If only pop hadn't heard of that stupid place... we waltzed right in, like two idiots. Pop had absolutely no idea what we were getting into! The guide tried to warn us...."
"Did you ask him of a cure?"
Ranma shrugged. "I would've, but pop ran off so fast... he's been pretty useless since." They both glanced into the back yard, where a forlorn panda sat waiting. Mrs. Saotome had flatly refused to allow her husband into the house as he now was.
"Well, we'll look for a cure, of course, Ranma. I'll start asking around and see what I can dig up. Perhaps there's a way to reverse it."
Ranma shuddered. "I... I hope there is. But if there isn't?"
Mrs. Saotome grasped her daughter by the shoulders and looked her square in the eye. "Listen to me, Ranma. If you're stuck, it will not be the end of the world. I will love you, whether you're my daughter or my son. There are far worse fates than being a girl, Ranma. I was one once, you know!" She paused to smile at the girl. "I know you have the strength, Ranma, to see you through whatever lies ahead, and it will get easier as time goes by.
"Now," she said, standing up, "as for the rest, we'll hope for the best, but assume the worst. It may take time to find a cure -- perhaps a great deal of time -- and we can't go around telling people you're my son when you obviously aren't. So for now, Ranma, you are my daughter. That being the case, we'll have to get you some appropriate clothing. I also want to get you into a good school -- the kami alone know how poorly your education has been under your father. I have a particular school in mind. It's private, but I have some money saved up, and I want your education to be as good as possible...."
"No buts, Ranma. You may be a martial artist, but you will also have an education. Do you understand?"
Ranma nodded her head.
"Good. Now, your first lesson, Ranma, is hygiene. Do you realize how absolutely filthy you are?" Ranma smiled weakly. "Being on the road with pops, I've only had lakes and streams to bathe in."
"Well, I'm afraid the water heater's malfunctioning, so any bath you take will be lukewarm at best. But at least you can get yourself clean," Mrs. Saotome said.
"That's fine," Ranma said. "Right now, with my burn, cool water is all I can stand."
"Now, go on, young lady, while I look for something clean for you to wear. Perhaps the neighbor girl...."
Ranma stepped out of the bath and dried herself off. Mother was right... the water wasn't exactly cold, but it certainly wasn't hot. She really ought to get that heater fixed, but in the meantime, it felt good against Ranma's burning skin.
Ranma stared at herself in the bathroom mirror.
In the three weeks since the transformation, she'd rarely had the chance to really examine herself, nor the desire to do so. Looking into her reflected face caused her to flinch. This was not her face, not her body, not anything her mental image of herself. This girl that moved when she moved, and smiled or frowned when she did, was a stranger. And yet....
Her mother was right. She did look a lot her mother. And... she was beautiful.
At least I'm clean again, she thought. Taking the jar her mother had provided, she carefully rubbed the white cream over her back. It stung a little at first, but that faded, leaving her sore skin feeling much better.
Ranma wrinkled her nose as the smell of the stuff -- sort of flowery. A girl's smell, or so Ranma imagined -- not like perfume, but a girl's smell nonetheless.
She stared with some dismay at the clothing that her mother had brought her.
*Well,* Ranma thought, *I guess I can't really avoid it.*
Ranma padded barefoot down the stairs and into the living room. Her mom was outside, talking to the panda... Ranma smiled ruefully at that. If it was hard being treated as a daughter, imagine being treated as nothing more than a pet animal....
Served him right, the idiot.
Ranma ran a hand down her stomach, across the buttoned front of the sundress she wore. It was bright yellow and sleeveless, with a low-cut front, a hem that reached her knees, and a sash about the waist, tied in a bow at the back. The fabric was worn -- mother had borrowed it from next door -- but it fit well enough. Yet it felt strange, as if she weren't fully dressed.
The rough cotton, where it touched her back, was far more noticeable than her soft, smooth silk shirt.
Ranma sighed. Her other clothing was in the wash, but she suspected that, even when dry, she wouldn't be allowed to wear it. She didn't want to cross her mother, but....
If she stayed here and remained a girl, there would be more dresses, more strange underwear, and who knew what else. Ranma knew very little about what it meant to be a girl, but her mother clearly intended for her to find out.
She opened the front door and walked out onto the lawn. The new green grass felt cool on her feet, and the sun warmed her arms and forehead. Ranma smiled, taking in the sights and sounds of spring. On a whim, she jumped to the roof of the house and lay back on the warm roof tiles.
*It feels like a dream,* Ranma thought. *This is my house -- my home. What did that word mean, anyway? I live here, now. I won't be leaving tomorrow, chasing after some new training ground in some hidden valley. I'll sleep in the same place every night. I'll sleep in a bed, with the moonlight shining through the window curtains....
*It doesn't seem real. I'm wearing a dress. I should be embarrassed, or depressed, but... I just felt light-headed, like my body is empty, like I'm adrift on the sea, at night....*
It wasn't the homecoming she'd envisioned, but she was here, and that was enough. She felt an instant bond with her mother, unlike anything she'd ever felt for her father. She was willing to wait and see where it all led.
It was spring, after all -- a time for fresh starts and new beginnings.
Ranma lay in the sun, her eyes closed, and let her mind drift away. The next thing she knew, someone was yelling up at her... a girl's voice, one she didn't know.
Ranma sat up, blinking. *Geez,* she thought, *did I fall asleep in the sun again? That's brilliant. Well, I was on my back this time...*
She shaded her eyes and, leaning over the edge, looked down.
A girl stood there. She wore a sailor-style school uniform, white with a green collar and skirt and a red sash tied in front. Her hair was waist length and dark, and she was carrying a book bag. She looked up at Ranma with a curious expression.
"Hello," she said. "Are you new here?"
Ranma nodded. "My name's Ranma Saotome. I've only been here since this morning."
"Oh? You must be Mrs. Saotome's daughter, then."
Ranma frowned, trapped between the lie that everyone would assume, and the truth that no one would believe. She didn't like to lie, but it seemed the best strategy at present.
"That's right," she said, smiling.
"My name's Kagome Higurashi," the girl said. "I live in the weird old temple next door. Sorry to bother you, but I just couldn't help noticing... that dress looks familiar...."
Ranma blushed. "Uh, your mom lent me this, I guess. She said you didn't wear it much...."
The girl smiled. "Oh, that explains it. Mom's right; I don't wear it much."
"Thanks, I guess," Ranma said.
"No problem. It looks good on you."
Ranma blushed again. "If you say so."
Ranma leapt from the edge of the roof, as she'd done a hundred of times before. Immediately realizing her mistake, she tried in vain to hold her dress down, but it billowed out and up. Ranma landed unsteadily and smoothed the dress out as quickly as possible, hoping Kagome had seen nothing.
The girl raised an eyebrow. "My panties as well?"
"Ah..." Ranma said. Her face flushed a bright crimson.
Kagome laughed. "Wow! Almost as red as your back! That's a nasty sunburn, by the way...."
Ranma only nodded.
"Well, you should keep it. It's not like I've needed it lately," Kagome said. "The dress, I mean," she added, her own face flushing red. "Although, really, you should keep the underwear, too...."
"So," Ranma said, desperate to change the subject, "you live in a temple? Funny, I never knew my mom lived next door to a temple. Most of my memories are of being on the road with her pop. I, uh... I guess living in a temple is about as strange as being a wandering martial artist...."
"At least," Kagome agreed. "Really, you don't know the half of it.... So, will you be going to the same school as me?"
"I don't think so," Ranma said, with a shake of her head. "Mom's sending me to some private school. Muyami Academy."
"Really? I think Yohko goes there. She lives just down the street, about two blocks."
At that point, the door opened, and Nodoka Saotome stepped out on the front porch.
"Ah, Kagome-chan!" she exclaimed with a smile. "How are you doing this afternoon?"
"Very well, Saotome-san."
"That's good to hear! When your grandfather told me about the gout, I was so worried for you!"
Kagome's face grew red. "Well, grandpa likes to exaggerate...."
"I see you've met my daughter Ranma. We were just about to go shopping. Ranma has just come home from a very long trip, and she really doesn't have a thing to wear."
"So I noticed," Kagome said. Ranma's face grew red yet again. "Mind if I tag along?"
"Not at all, dear. I was just about to ask you if you wanted to."
"Great!" Kagome exclaimed. "Just let me dump my things at home, and I'll be right out!"
As Kagome ran down the street, Nodoka sighed. "Poor girl," she said. "She's been so sick lately... I hope you two become friends, Ranma; you could both use a friend."
A week passed, and Ranma remained a girl. She'd thought that finding a cure was the first order of business, but her mother saw things differently. "If you haven't changed in three weeks," Nodoka said, "then there's a good chance you never will. If a cure does exist, it could be a long time coming, so the first priority is that my daughter learn to dress and act like a young lady."
Ranma hated it, at first -- but this was her mother, whom she hadn't seen in ten years. Her father was occasionally proud of her -- very occasionally -- but her mother loved her, unconditionally. She found, quite quickly, that she was willing to do just about anything to please her mother. She didn't complain about the feminine clothing, the new gender pronouns, or the constant instructions on how to be a young lady. She was almost growing used to it.
The first light of dawn was still stretching its cold, clammy fingers across the sky when Ranma awoke. She slipped out of her bed -- funny how you could grow so used to a soft, warm bed in only a week -- and slipped out of her pajamas. Her old Chinese outfit still felt more comfortable than anything else she'd worn lately, but she only wore it early in the morning, in deference to her mother.
Ranma tiptoed down the hallway, down three steps, and through the kitchen to the back porch. She slipped outside and slid the door shut quietly, then stepped to the center of the yard.
As she began her stretching exercises, the panda on the porch finally rolled over. It stood and waved its arms about in what passed for kata for a fat, furry martial artist. After a few moments it lumbered out onto the lawn and took up a position opposite Ranma.
The panda paused to scribble furiously on a sign, then held it up. Ranma read, "You're turning into a girl, boy! You're becoming weak!"
Ranma smirked. These morning training sessions had been her father's only opportunity to try and counteract the affect Nodoka was having on her. Ranma was glad the panda couldn't talk... the signs were much easier to take than her father's booming voice. Still, the words had stung at the beginning of the week, but now....
She cracked her knuckles. "Is that all you've got to say, oyaji?" she growled.
The panda held up another sign. "Foolish boy! You're acting like a woman!"
"And you're acting like a panda, old man!" Ranma responded. "Give it a rest, pop! You sound like a broken record!"
The panda struck, but Ranma leapt back, avoiding the blow. Her dad was still quick, and very strong, but Ranma was faster as a girl, and had been the better martial artist for nearly a year.
Anyway, the sneaky bastard had been trying to hit her in the back for a week. Her burn, only just now beginning to heal, smarted every time he landed a blow, so Ranma had concentrated all week on avoiding them.
Ranma leapt to the rooftop, and the battle began in earnest. The punches and kicks flew swiftly as they leapt from rooftop to rooftop. When Ranma had finally had enough, she took the next opening and clobbered her father into the street.
"See ya back home, oyaji!" she called out, bouncing away.
After a quick, cool bath, Ranma slipped into a bra and panties and donned a blouse and skirt with hardly a second thought. She was, however, thinking about her father's insults, and how little they stung.
*It's only been a week,* she thought. *Am I turning into a girl so quickly?*
The idea had terrified her after the transformation, but now, she was almost comfortable with it. She considered this, probing deep within for an answer to this riddle... and she kept coming back to the image of her mother, smiling, full of love.
When she looked in the mirror, Ranma saw a girl who would grow up to be like her mother.
And, really, who wanted to be like pop?
Ranma broke the surface of the water and swam to the side of the pool. She climbed out, shook the water from her hair, and then lay down on the towel next to her two friends.
"We've been here more than an hour," Kagome said. "We should probably head back."
"Yeah," Yohko said. Yohko Mano was one of Kagome's friends, a slender girl with extremely long brown hair, which she always kept in two braids, which were looped and held in place with special ornaments of red stone.
Hanging with Kagome and Yohko had seemed weird the first day. Ranma had never had any friends that were girls before, but these girls were fun to be with. Both were active athletes, and very competitive, so they enjoyed many of the same things Ranma did. She was only uncomfortable when the conversation turned to subjects like makeup, hairstyles, clothing, or boys.
"How about we stop at the ABCB kissaten for some ice cream?" Yohko asked.
"You bet!" Ranma and Kagome both exclaimed. Ranma had quickly learned to appreciate fancy ice cream sundaes, something she would have never been caught dead eating as a guy.
The three headed back to the changing room, Ranma managing not to stare or blush as they stripped naked.
"Oh, man," Ranma said, as they stepped into the showers. "You have no idea how long I've been wanting a hot bath or shower. Maybe I can just wash my front with hot water...."
Ranma turned the handle, and water sprayed out. A piercing scream echoed off of the tiled walls.
Kagome watched as Ranma jumped to the far side of the room. "Cold?" she asked.
"It's f-f-freezing!" Ranma said, shivering.
"Ah, all of the hot water's gone," Yohko said. "It happens."
"Darn it!" Ranma growled. "I swear, when my back's finally healed, I'm never taking a cold bath or shower again!"
Kagome and Yohko laughed. "I know what you mean," Kagome said. "When I was back in... when... I mean..." her voice trailed off. "I mean, I was stuck where I couldn't get a hot bath for days and days, and I was so relieved when I finally got back home...."
The girls finished showering and began to towel off.
"So your mom hasn't fixed the heater yet?" Yohko asked. "Why not?"
"Well," Ranma said, "to be honest, I think it's me. She had to buy a lot of new clothes for me, and she's been saving up money to send me to this private school. I don't even know why, public school would be fine if you ask me."
"Oh, that's easy," Kagome said. "It's the same school she went to."
Ranma's eyes widened. "Really? She didn't say. But... how do you know?"
"Are you kidding? My grandfather gives free fortunes to everyone on the street, and my mom's a gossip....
"I'll tell you what, Ranma," Kagome said, "When you're back's healed, in a day or two, you come over to my house, and I'll let you use our furo. No girl should be without a hot bath for that long."
Ranma smiled. "That would be nice, Kagome...."
"And grandfather can read your fortune," Kagome said with a smile.
Five minutes later the three girls were headed up the street to their favorite ice cream & coffee shop, when Kagome nudged Ranma's arm.
"Look at that woman," Kagome said, "across the street. Her face... it's just like a noh mask."
Ranma glanced at the woman, who had two large scars running down her face, one from forehead to cheek, and the other across her lips. Kagome was right -- her face was pale and rigid, as if it were a mask and not actual flesh. There was a strange look in the woman's eyes: hungry, searching, and yet somehow vacant, as if she were an empty mug waiting to be filled.
Ranma shivered, and the three continued up the street, the strange woman forgotten.
Later that evening, Ranma and Kagome followed Yohko up a short path to the front door of the Mano household. Yohko paused, her hand halfway to the doorknob, and glanced over her shoulder.
"Please step to the side," she said. "Just in case."
"In case of what?" Ranma asked, but Kagome was already pulling her to the side of the path.
"Trust her on this one," Kagome said. "Better safe than sorry."
Yohko opened the door.
A short, elderly woman, her hair in a white ponytail, came flying through the doorway, feet first.
"Yohko!" the woman screamed, delivering -- or, attempting to deliver -- a flying kick to the face. The attack failed, because Yohko immediately flipped backwards toward the street. The old woman landed in a defensive crouch, then launched a series of kicks and punches at the young girl, who dodged all of them. However, on her last dodge, she accidentally landed in a thorn bush.
"Ow! Ow! Shit!" Yohko exclaimed, leaping back out. The old woman used the distraction to tag her lightly on the forehead.
"Not good enough, Yohko," the woman said. "Again!"
"Aw, come on, grandma...."
"No mercy!" the grandmother growled. "You won't get any from your enemies, so don't expect it from me!" She launched into another series of attacks, with Yohko gyrating and bouncing across the lawn, once again evading nearly every blow.
Ranma watched the whole spectacle with a bemused expression on her face. "Wow," she said. "I knew Yohko was a martial artist, but this... it's like deja vu all over again!"
Kagome laughed. "I know what you mean! I saw you training, early yesterday -- you're pretty good!"
"Thanks," Ranma said.
"But tell me," Kagome continued, "how did ever you train your pet panda to fight so well?"
"Ah," Ranma said, "I, ah... it was mostly my pop's doing."
"That's another thing," Kagome said. "You were yelling at it, calling it 'oyaji'...."
"Well," Ranma said, a giant sweat drop appearing on her head, "when my pop's not around, I talk to panda-san as if he were my pop."
"I hope you don't talk to your father that way! That would be rude."
"Well, yeah, but you don't know my pop...."
"Much better, Yohko! Much better!" the old woman exclaimed. Ranma glanced back up, realizing that Yohko had finally tagged her grandmother, bringing an end to the impromptu fight. "Now, Yohko, I know who Kagome is, but I don't think I've met your other friend yet. Is this Ranma Saotome, then?"
"Hai!" Ranma said, bowing. "Pleased to meet you, Mano-san! And might I add, you are an exceptional fighter! I am very impressed!"
"My, what wonderful manners! If only my granddaughter were half as charming and graceful! Pay attention, Yohko! You could learn a thing or two about being a lady from your new friend!"
"Ah," Ranma said, as sweat drops appeared on all three girls' heads. Even after only a few days of being together, they all knew Ranma was by far the least "ladylike" of the bunch.
"Well," the grandmother continued, "how nice that you've all dropped by. Are you having a slumber party, Yohko? If so, why not invite your friend Chikako?"
"Slumber party?" Yohko replied. She looked to her two friends.
"Hey, that would be fun!" Kagome said. "How about it, Ranma?"
"Uh, sure... I mean, if it's okay with mother...."
"Your grandmother kind of reminds me of my father," Ranma said. "I mean, she's always training you, right?"
The girls were sprawled out on futons in the family room, half-watching a late-night horror movie. There were four of them, now that Chikako Ogawa, Yohko's self-proclaimed best friend, had arrived. The girl had blonde hair and large glasses, and was clearly smarter than anyone else Ranma knew. She was very self-confident, and at one point proclaimed herself "Yohko's business manager", whatever that meant.
Chikako had brought her own nightgown for the sleepover, but Kagome and Ranma had to make due with spare pajamas of Yohko's, which didn't quite fit. Still, they were having a good time, and Ranma had managed to avoid any pitfalls in the conversation. Ranma had slept in a thousand different places over the years, but this was her first official sleepover, as a guy or a girl, and she was nervous. She didn't want to say something stupid that no normal girl would ever say. She wanted to fit in, as much as possible.
"Yeah," Yohko said, nodding, "that's grandma, all right. She's always pushing me to train harder. She can be a real pain at times."
"That's what pop is like," Ranma said. "Always trying to teach me something new, or find a way to test my skills. He can be pretty sadistic about it."
The movie ended, and a news show came on. The first story was about several murders that had happened the night before, in a park less than a mile away. They'd found blood everywhere, but only one body... but at least one witness said four others had been killed.
"There was this strange woman," the witness, a middle-aged man, said, "with a face like a noh mask... her neck just grew and grew, and then she ate all four of them!"
"Guy must have been drunk," Ranma said.
"Face like a noh mask?" Yohko said. She glanced at Kagome and Ranma.
"What?" Ranma asked.
"Oh, that woman we saw earlier today!" Kagome said.
"Oh, come one, you don't really think that...." Ranma's voice trailed off.
Yohko and Chikako exchanged glances. "You think it might be...?" Chikako asked.
"I don't know," Yohko said, "but I don't like it."
"What?" Ranma asked.
Yohko laughed, although it sounded forced. "Oh, family business. You really don't want to know."
By this point, the news show was doing a profile on a boy who they said had saved the world.
"What, by playing tag with an alien?" Ranma said. "You gotta be kidding me! Boy, they sure know how to pick 'em."
"But it's true," Chikako said. "Don't you remember? It was just last fall!"
"First I've heard of it," Ranma said.
"Yes," Chikako countered, "but didn't you say you were wandering about China with your father at the time?"
"Well, yeah," Ranma admitted. "I guess we didn't pay much attention to the news."
"I can't believe you never heard of it!" Kagome said. "It was on every station, in every country! He stopped an invasion of the earth!"
"All he did is touch her horns," said Yohko. She sounded supremely unimpressed.
"That's right," Kagome said. "Considering how she could fly, it was a pretty amazing feat! And then he proposed to her, right on television! Can you believe it?"
"But," Ranma said, "if she's an oni...."
"She's not a real demon," Yohko said with certainty. "She's just some weird alien."
"Anyway," Kagome said, "it sure was romantic."
"I suppose," Yohko said, in a voice that suggested she didn't actually suppose. "Say, Ranma, do you have a boyfriend?"
"What? Uh... no, no I don't."
"Neither do I. How 'bout you, Kagome?"
Kagome looked doubtful. "I'd have to say no," she said.
"Neither do I," Chikako said.
"I know that," Yohko replied. "So, Kagome, what's your type?"
"What kind of boy do you like?"
Kagome looked thoughtful. "Well, a guy who's not too wild, not too full of himself, not too angry, not too stubborn, and is always understanding...."
*Like me,* Ranma thought smugly.
"How about you, Ranma?" Yohko asked. "You like boys, don't you?"
"S-sure," Ranma replied. "I mean, they're okay." *As long as I ain't dating them or nothin'.*
"What kind of boy do you like, then?"
Ranma felt a blush creeping up her face. She tried to stay out of these conversations. She still found girls like Yohko or Kagome more attractive than any boy. For that matter, she still turned herself on just by looking in a mirror. Boys? She didn't want a boyfriend... not now, and perhaps not ever.
"Um..." Ranma tried to reverse the question, to put it in terms of what kind of a boy she'd like to be herself. She tried to think of her best qualities. *Okay, you don't really like boys, of course, but you want to fit in... think. What kind of person do I want to be? Not like pop, that's for sure.*
"Someone who's strong," she said. "Someone who doesn't break their promises, who isn't a coward, who isn't afraid of women...."
"Afraid of women?" Yohko said.
"You're thinking of your father, aren't you?" Kagome said. "I've heard your mom talking to mine. He's kind of misogynistic, isn't he?"
"I guess," Ranma replied, wondering what misogynistic meant.
"It must be strange, having a father like that... but at least you have a father...."
The girls continued to talk, until finally Yohko's grandmother showed up and turned out the lights. "No more television, no more talking," she said. "Time to get some sleep, or you won't wake up in the morning!"
Ranma tossed and turned for more than an hour. Finally she got up and padded to the nearby open window, and stared out into the night,
She almost jumped when someone -- Yohko, as it turned out -- placed a hand on her shoulder.
"Sorry," Yohko said. "Can't sleep?"
Ranma shook her head.
"Me either. There's something...."
"Something in the air," Ranma agreed. "Something that's got me on edge."
Yohko nodded. "Something's going to happen," she said. "Something bad. Maybe we should wake Kagome...."
"I'm awake, guys," Kagome said, sitting up.
"Look, guys," Yohko said, "I know this might sound strange, but I'm going outside. Whatever's out there, I need to know what it is."
"I'm coming with you," Ranma said.
"Oh, heck," Kagome said. "Okay, I'm coming. Just give me a second."
"Oh, for the love of my ancestors!" Chikako said, rolling over. "Okay, okay, hang on, I'm coming...."
Several minutes later four girls stepped out into the silent, moonlit street.
"Full moon," Kagome noted.
"I have to warn you two," Yohko said. "Strange things happen around me. Really, you don't want to be involved. Maybe you should go back to bed...."
"And leave you out here alone?" Ranma replied. "Not a chance!"
"She's right," Chikako said. "I'm her business manager, so I have to stay...."
A loud crash shattered the night. The girls looked at each other.
"That came from up the street," Kagome said. "A block or two away...."
Ranma and Kagome's houses were only two blocks away, in the same direction.
"Come on!" Ranma yelled, running down the street. The other three followed as quickly as they could, with Chikako falling the furthest behind.
"Wait up, you three!" she called out. "If something's going to happen, I want to get a first-hand account!"
As they neared Kagome's house, they heard more shouts, and doors slamming. Ranma came to a halt before the shrine. Someone bolted from the gateway, running straight towards her, and before she knew it, Kagome's kid brother, Sota, was in her arms.
Yohko and Kagome came to a halt beside Ranma. "Wow, Ranma, you can sure move when you want to," Yohko said. "Now... where is it?"
"Where is what?" Ranma asked.
"That!" Kagome said, pointing to the open gate of the shrine.
Ranma saw it, and still didn't know what it was. It looked like a massive, lumpy blob, but as it rolled into the street, moonlight flashed off of chalk-white skin. Multiple arms and legs protruded from the mass, and the blob itself was formed from several heads and torsos, somehow combined into one huge blob, as if several sumo wrestlers had slammed into each other too hard, and were now welded together.
One of the faces floated above the rest, on a neck that was long and thin like a pale snake. It had a spark of intelligence in its eyes, where the other faces had none. Its face was scarred, and immobile, like a noh mask.
"Give... me... shards...." the creature moaned. Ranma backed up, not at all sure what to do. Her training didn't take into account weird blob creatures.
"Must... have... new... body...." the thing groaned, and then the noh-mask head darted forward. It split down the middle, from forehead to chin, revealing a row of large, sharp teeth on each side of the split. They looked like they were made of wood, but Ranma sensed they could rip flesh apart quite easily.
Grabbing the kid, Ranma leapt up and over the head. She flipped and landed a kick to the back of the head before landing on the pavement on the far side of the creature.
"Sota!" Kagome yelled. "Run to the well! Call for Inu-Yasha!"
The kids struggled out of Ranma's arms and started to run back towards the house. The head swung forward like a darting snake, whipping right by Ranma, heading towards the kid.
"Hey!" Ranma yelled, and delivered a powerful two-handed blow to the long, white neck. It seemed to be just enough. Rather than biting Sota in two, as the creature was attempting to do, it merely caught him in the shoulder, then flung him several feet through the air.
The head whipped about. Ranma leapt over it, delivering a punch to the side of the face. She landed next to Sota, who appeared to be unconscious.
"It wants me!" Kagome said, running up the street. Ranma had no idea why she thought this, but apparently she was right -- the creature, whatever it was, lumbered after the girl, with Yohko and Chikako chasing after it.
Ranma grabbed Sota and ran to her own house. She could see her mother coming out the front door, and her father, the panda, bounding around the side of the house.
"Ranma?" her mother said, "what's going on?"
"I don't know," Ranma said, "some sort of demon or something. Watch the kid, mom. Kagome's in trouble!"
His mother nodded numbly as she took the bleeding Sota in her arms. As Ranma sprinted back to the street, she called out, "Ranma! Be careful!"
Ranma caught up to the rest at a nearby construction site. Bare steel girders rose into the night, perhaps six stories high. A wire fence went around part of the site, but one side was open. Kagome had apparently headed straight there, and was now running up a steel staircase. The thing had paused at the bottom of the stairs... it didn't seem able to navigate them.
"What the hell is it?" Ranma yelled.
"A demon!" Yohko yelled back. "Just as I thought! Stay back, Ranma, I'll handle this!"
Ignoring her, Ranma ran straight at the creature. "Take that!" she yelled, attempting a flying kick. The creature looked up, obviously annoyed. One huge arm rose up and swatted Ranma away. She landed hard on her hands and knees, but bounced right back up.
"I'm serious, Ranma!" Yohko yelled. "Stay back or you'll get hurt!"
"Ranma? Yohko?" Kagome called out. "Get out of here! It's me it wants!"
"Forget it, Kagome!" Ranma yelled. "We ain't leaving you!"
Crouched in a defensive stance, Ranma approached the creature warily. It seemed to be devoting more attention to solving the staircase problem than in worrying about one puny martial artist.
*So much the better,* Ranma thought, preparing another series of attacks. *Although, what I'm supposed to do against a demon....*
In the background, Ranma heard Yohko beginning some sort of weird challenge or chant.
"I hold no enmity against those coerced into evil," Yohko declared, "but to those vile beings who toy with the hearts and souls of men, we, since the time of the ancient gods, have been your destroyers! Now the 108th generation devil hunter, Yohko, is here! Beware!"
Ranma spared a glance her way. What she saw caught her off guard.
Yohko was spinning about in mid air. Her ring was glowing, and then her clothing flew off her body. Moments later a new outfit materialized around her -- a Chinese-style red silk dress, split up the sides, with a yin-yang symbol on the chest.
A massive, glowing sword appeared in her hands.
Ranma glanced back at the creature. It's head shot out, stretching three stories straight up to where Kagome stood. It bit down on the edge of the metal flooring, and then, incredibly, it began to pull its body up after it, heading straight for their friend.
Kagome screamed. Ranma jumped up, hoping to punch the strange blob creature and distract it. From the corner of her eye, she saw Yohko also leaping straight up....