Mousse flew as fast as he could, heedless of any of any obstacles in his path or in what direction he was going. Even as he clipped a wing against a light post and pain lanced through his now hollow bones, he didn't stop. He could never stop. Because he knew that if he did, they would have him again and this time he would never escape. They had waited ten years, they had followed him countless times across the world, had watched and planned and savored the thought of this moment just as much as he himself had for the Amazons. As he hunted the Amazons, so too had his monsters hunted him. He would never be safe again, he knew it in his wildly beating heart, but it didn't stop him from flying, unwittingly, toward a certain place. He had no safehouses set up, even after the incident at the hotel. If he had been thinking he would have kept going until he was well beyond city limits and into the forests that covered the majority of the island. There, he could recover with little worry about his enemies; he was just as familiar with the hinterlands of the world as he was with its cities. But he wasn't thinking and instead flew to a place and, more importantly, a person he instinctively felt he could trust.
"Young miss, what have you done?"
The voice was so soft that Shampoo almost didn't turn to acknowledge it. She was still shocked at the events that had transpired not half a minute, her mind reeling with questions for and past and possibilities for the future, none of them pleasant. When she turned she saw Mousse's manservant standing at the entrance to the room. He looked stricken. "What have you done?" he repeated.
Shampoo opened her mouth to speak but no words would come. She was only a little surprised to feel tears running down her face.
The old man sighed and then stood up straighter, as though he were about to face something particularly unpleasant. He reached into his coat and pulled out a phone. "You should leave," he said.
Shampoo nodded wordlessly and rushed past him, still gripping the rope and cage she had brought. "Leave the city," she heard him say as she passed and heard nothing but concern and sadness in his voice. "Don't come back."
Before Shampoo was out of earshot, she heard "Yes, sir. It is as you predicted. Yes, I will make the arrangements."
Nabiki watched Ranma practice in the yard from her room window. He moved furiously, striking at the wooden training pole before him so quickly she could barely make out his movements. He had only awoken a couple hours before, much to the visible relief of his parents and her family, with the exception of herself of course. Even so, she couldn't help but a feel a tickle in the back of her throat at seeing how happy her younger sister was, arm in arm with Ranma, supposedly to help him navigate the stairs when he first decided to come down. Besides Nabiki, Happosai also seemed unfazed when he saw Ranma. He simply sighed, looking and sounding even older than his actual age, and retired to the porch with his pipe. However, Ranma hadn't spent more than twenty minutes quietly reassuring his tearful mother and father that he was fine, no he wasn't hurt, there was no need for a trip to the hospital, that he wasn't hungry. He had gently extricated himself from Akane, who looked more than a little reluctant to leave his side, and had since then been pounding on the training device nonstop.
Nabiki yawned and stretched. Ranma was still attacking as furiously as he was an hour ago and wasn't showing any sign of stopping or even slowing down. Just watching him was making her tired. She stepped away from the window and the sounds of Ranma's shouts as his fists and feet connected with the wood and went downstairs to help herself to the hot tea Kasumi made every night at this time. She took a tall glass, more than she usually drank. The sky was just turning to twilight and she knew it was going to be a long night. She wasn't much for detective work, but she wasn't simply going to stand idle while events passed her by. The least she could do was get a general idea of the environment using the information she gathered, and if she was lucky she may even uncover a few answers. Not that she would know what to do with them even if she got them. She was no fighter; she was a thinker, though at times she wished she had become at least somewhat proficient in a martial art so she wouldn't feel so helpless.
She avoided her family and the Saotomes. She didn't feel like talking, though she probably didn't have to worry about that. Relief at having Ranma back was replaced by apprehension. They could see he was preparing for a rematch, but were uncertain about how they should take it. Mousse was different from any opponent Ranma had faced so far; she wouldn't be surprised if her father and Genma tried to join him if the two ever fought again. By the time she returned to her place at the window, Ranma was gone and the pole was broken midway up the shaft. There was no sign of the other half from she was. She sighed and took a sip of her still hot tea, burning her lips and tongue slightly. Ranma looked to be itching for another bout with Mousse, and while she could be no true judge when it came to matters of combat between two boys with superhuman powers, it seemed that Ranma had recovered more quickly and completely than Mousse. In another fight Ranma may well win and be disinclined to show any sort of mercy toward his enemy. Hopefully Mousse would have enough sense not to seek Ranma out and Akane enough sense not to divulge where Mousse was staying.
For her own part Nabiki was maintaining silence about the whole affair. It was bad enough that Akane knew what she had done; if anyone else found out, to say that she would be in trouble would be an enormous understatement. In his state there was no telling how Ranma would react, to speak nothing of her father. It would be better to seem uninvolved and work in the background.
Nabiki sighed and sat at her desk, scanned her notes for a moment, then swept them aside in frustration. She was a firm believer in the power of self-interest. If she had something someone wanted, then she could control or at least influence them. It worked well enough with Kuno; she had pictures of his 'pig-tailed goddess,' he had money. Each party walked away happy. In this case, what each party wanted the life of the other, something she couldn't and wouldn't give. Mousse wants to kill Cologne and Shampoo, at least; Cologne wants to kill Mousse; Ranma wants to at the very least fight Mousse again, and would likely kill him if given the chance; there was no telling where Dr. Tofu factored in to any of this, but it was apparent he also wanted Mousse dead; even her father and Genma would likely kill him if the opportunity arises. She could do nothing.
She let out her breath in a huff and stood up again to retrieve her glass from the window ledge. It was dark enough outside that she barely had enough time to draw back when a white object came hurtling through the open window, striking the glass and spilling its contents all over it, and dropping to the floor with an audible thud. She yelped and stumbled back, pulling the lamp cord from the socket in her fall, and plunged the room into darkness. She would have fallen to the floor if not for her desk and she leaned against it, heart pounding. She thought she could hear the flutter of wings as the thing passed her, but now she could hear nothing.
She moved to replace the plug back into the socket when she heard movement, followed by a slow, hoarse expiration of breath. A thrill of fear went through her as she froze. She was almost afraid to look but forced herself anyway. The room was too dark to see anything. There was another breath, this time it seemed to hitch, and more movement, drawing closer to her. Fear turned to terror, and she frantically jabbed the plug at the socket, missing several times before finally getting it in. If she had made a list of things she had expected to see when the lights went on, Mousse kneeling on the floor of her bedroom naked, shivering, arms wrapped around himself, and tears rolling down his face would not have been on it.
"Please," he said so softly she had to strain to hear. "Turn on the light… it's so dark… please…"
Ranma let out a long breath as he settled into the bath for the second time that day, washing away the sweat from his impromptu training session. He gasped at the sharp pain when the wound on his side came into contact with the water. It would be a while before he recovered completely; the last fight took too much out of him and there was no telling when he would be at his fighting best. Not that his best was good enough.
He stared at the opposite wall. He had hoped to be exhausted to the point that thought would be impossible, that at least for a while he wouldn't have to dwell on Mousse. It wasn't just that Mousse crushed him. It wasn't that Mousse would have killed him if it weren't for the intervention of his friends. It was the fact that he wasn't sure if he should fight Mousse again.
Ranma submerged himself under the water. Akane told him everything, after they had gotten appropriately dressed and an awkward moment of embarrassed sidelong glances. How Mousse was a complete gentleman, about how he wanted Shampoo instead of her, about how Ranma was simply unlucky, about how Mousse wouldn't bother them if he didn't go seeking a fight. And therein lay the problem. Honor demanded that he go and face Mousse again, and if not the honor of his school then at least his pride wouldn't allow him to simply concede defeat. He knew he should be chomping at the bit, raging at his own inadequacy, and still outside pounding away at what was left of the training pole. But Akane was safe, and everything paled in comparison to that. And he learned something about Mousse during their fight. He was more than just a dangerous warrior, he was a killer. If Mousse wanted him dead then Ranma was fairly certain he would be. Mousse would come at him from an angle he couldn't defend himself against; a hidden bomb, poison in his food, a gunshot in a crowded street. There were no rules in his world and no limitations. Everyone close to him would be in danger. Akane would be in danger. He would have to kill Mousse, and while he was certain he would take a life to protect his loved ones, when it came to Mousse he wasn't at all certain whether he actually could. Vendetta seemed to be Mousse's calling, and if he got in his way again he had no doubt Mousse would come seeking not only him but everyone around him, including and especially the young woman he played host to the night before. Could he take the chance of fighting Mousse again and gamble with the lives of those dearest to him?
Ranma emerged from the water and finished his bath at a brisk pace. In spite of his uncertainties something would still have to be done about Mousse, of course. He couldn't simply abandon the Amazons to Mousse, even if they could take care of themselves. If just for the techniques that saved his life time and again, he felt he owed them. But there would be time to think later; Mousse looked in worse shape than he was from their fight and chances are he was still recovering. It would be a while before they saw the likes of him again. And who knows, maybe he was weakened to the point that the old hag could take him out by herself. He couldn't decide which notion was more unsatisfying to him, avoiding Mousse out of fear or merely weakening him to the point that he could be more easily dispatched by the crone.
The thought must have left a sour expression on his face as he stepped out into the hall because Nabiki, clutching something to her person and barely managing to avoid running into him, gave him a single wide-eyed glance before hurrying to her room. Before he had the chance to apologize, she had already slammed the door shut behind her. He blinked. That was the only time he could ever recall Nabiki looking harried. From what he had seen, she seemed to be coping with the change in circumstances better than anyone else in her family. Better than anyone in Nerima, possibly. He shook his head and continued to his room, already dismissing the incident from his mind. Probably just came out behind on one of her bets or something. Nothing to get worked up over.
Nabiki shut the door and immediately pressed her ear against it, listening for anything that might sound like footsteps coming her way. There would be all sorts of awkward moments if Ranma were to walk in just then, followed by equally awkward questions, assuming she survived being at the center of another fight between him and Mousse. She stole a glance at the boy sitting on the edge of her bed, wrapped in a blanket. Then again, in the state he was in, it might not have been much of a fight. He had stopped shaking and the tears had stopped flowing, but now he stared bleakly at the floor, oblivious to the urgency she displayed. Whatever happened to him, it was bad enough to leave him more hollow and ghostlike than after his fight with Ranma. Whatever fearsome will that forced him to keep fighting, even when grievously injured and poisoned, was crushed.
Satisfied no one was coming, Nabiki approached Mousse slowly, first by standing directly in front of him, and then touching him on the shoulder when he didn't acknowledge her presence. He started and looked up, eyes wide and just beginning to focus on her. "Are you okay?" she asked.
He shrugged the hand on his shoulder off. "No," he said, and turned his gaze back to the floor. "I don't think I am."
Nabiki waited a few moments. "What happened?" she asked when he didn't continue. "Mousse?"
"I was careless," he said. "Stupid."
She waited, and when he didn't say more she said, "How were you careless, Mousse?"
He shook his head, as though trying to clear it. "The amazon was waiting for me. Shampoo. She was in my room. I should have killed her, but she was babbling about something and…"
He shuddered. "She cursed me," he said. "And she tried to put me in the box. Like the Elders did. Just like them."
He fell silent and his gaze fell to the floor. She knelt in front of him and placed her hands on either side of his face. He started at the contact and looked up at her with wide eyes. "Tell me what the Elders did to you, Mousse," she said. She gently ran a thumb along the fresh scar under his eye and he winced.
"No," he said immediately. He clasped his hands around her wrists but didn't attempt to move. "It was a mistake to come here, I've put us both in danger." His eyes flickered to the door, as though they would come bursting through at any moment. "I can't-"
Nabiki pulled his face around until he was once more looking at her and only her. "Please," she said, in a voice that was as close to pleading as she had ever used.
She didn't dare blink as he stared at her. They remained that way for many long moments, until finally his hands dropped. "Alright," he said. "I'll tell you."
"Thank you," she said, dropping her own hands and letting out a breath she didn't know she was holding.
"Where to begin?" he muttered, half to himself.
"The beginning," she replied.
"The beginning," he repeated with an empty laugh. "That would be a good place to start, wouldn't it?" He took a deep breath. "I guess it begins with my parents…"
They hated him and now he knew why. He saw it in the marketplace, when his mother tried to buy flour for their evening meal. When she protested that the price was too high, the vendor called her a liar, a foreigner, and a few words he didn't know. He recognized the look on the vendor's face, though. He had seen the same expression on every single bully the village had to offer. The adults were no better than their children. So when Mousse faced the vendor's son in the Boy's Tournament, he saw no reason to defeat him as quickly as he did the others.
Mousse swung the length of knotted rope in a lazy circle, waiting for his opponent to pick up the wooden sword, even though Li had long since passed the point of trying to attack. Every attempt to do so since the beginning of the match resulted in painful disarmament followed by a sharp strike to another part of the body, though never in a place where a point could be scored. Thus, five minutes into the match there was still a tie and the Elder officiating could not call a winner.
Li was crying openly now, though he was trying to hold in his sobs. Both his hurts and his public humiliation were too much for him, but the rules forbade him from giving up. He had to pick up the sword and fight.
Li bent down and slowly reached for the sword with his bruised and bloody hand, clearly anticipating another painful jolt. However, instead of repeating the process Mousse lashed out with the rope and struck Li three times in succession on the upper arm, thigh, and chest. Li fell to the ground howling.
"And the winner is Mu Tzu," said Lo Hsin.
Mousse bowed toward the still bawling Li and then turned to bow toward Lo Hsin. The Elder glared at him before barely inclining her head in response. He bowed deeply to cover his smile. He glanced at Li to see him still on the ground, curled into a ball with his father hovering over him looking close to tears himself. Mousse felt a savage satisfaction at the sight and walked off the fighting ground with his head held high.
The rest of the tournament passed quickly with Mousse as the winner. He didn't have to do to the rest of his opponents what he did to Li. Most were too frightened to put up much of a challenge; the few brave ones were defeated outright and left crying in the dust. When Lo Hsin announced his victory the crowd had already started to disperse, obviously dissatisfied with the outcome. More than a few muttered amongst themselves and glared at him over their shoulders. But their approval meant nothing to him. It was the prize, an entire quarter section of cured wild boar stuffed into a jute sack, which drew him. Turned into soup or stew, it would feed him and his mother for a month. And she needed it more than any of the other villagers. She was so weak these days.
Mousse loaded the prize into the handcart he had brought. He had gotten a few strange looks as well as sniggers as he pushed the cart next to the table on which the boar had been placed. Now no one offered to help him with it and he didn't ask. He hummed happily to himself as he turned around to depart the nearly empty village square for his own house.
"Mousse," said Lo Hsin from behind him.
He stopped pushing the cart, turned around and bowed. "Yes, Honored Elder?" A terrible thought occurred to him. She was going to take his prize.
"Congratulations on your victory," she said.
"Thank you, Honored Elder," replied Mousse. He was still wary, as the Elders rarely made small talk with anyone, much less a near-pariah such as himself.
"It is not usual for children your age to use the rope in a tourney," Lo Hsin continued. "A difficult weapon to master for sure."
"My father taught me how to use it," said Mousse.
"I know, child. You wield it with as much skill as he did when he was twice your age. It was a shame to lose such a skilled warrior. Do you think he would be proud of you?"
Mousse had to force himself to relax his jaw. "Yes. Honored Elder."
"May I see your weapon?"
She said it politely enough, but he knew it wasn't a request. Instead of answering, he produced the rope he used for the tournament and handed it up to her. She took it by the knotted end and let the rest coil to the ground.
"You coated it with resin," she said, running a thumb over the hardened mass. Almost all of it was covered with a thick layer of tree sap, worn smooth through constant use. It was also much heavier than any of the weapons used by the other children. He must have spent months out in the forest finding the proper trees for this purpose.
"It needed more weight in the end," replied Mousse. "It wouldn't work if I didn't do that. Honored Elder."
"I see," she said, dropping the knot where it fell to the ground with an audible thud. She gave him a pointed look. "I shall have to confer with my sisters about changing the rules of the Boys' Tourney."
"Why?" Mousse asked. "Nobody cheated."
Lo Hsin considered him a moment. "You're cleverer than your father as well, when he was your age. You must get it from your mother. Despite all her other faults, at least she is not an idiot."
She watched as he balled his hands into fists and his jawed tightened. "So that was it then? Why you punished Li, because his father insulted your mother?"
Mousse, realizing he gave too much away, unclenched his hands. "I didn't know it was him. I don't see very well."
"Of course, I haven't forgotten. Though I imagine your other senses are sharper for it. Surely you heard what you were doing to Li and his father?"
Mousse looked her in the eye, unblinking. "If I was doing anything wrong, then you would have stopped the match."
She didn't reply and instead leaned down so that her face was floating mere inches above his own. Her eyes bored into his, as though searching for something. The effect was unnerving; he held his ground more out of reflexive defiance than out of bravery. He didn't realize he was holding his breath until she suddenly backed away.
"Take your prize home," she said. "I'm sure you are looking forward to tonight's meal."
Mousse watched her stalk away and kept his eyes on her until she disappeared behind one of the many houses clustered around the square. Only then did he stow the rope away in his sleeve and grasp the cart's handles with shaking hands.
When he arrived at his house at the edge of the village he saw that his mother was not alone. Two extra pairs of shoes, one large and one small, were placed beside the door. His steps faltered for a moment, before turning him around the house to the backyard. He opened the gate and pushed the cart though, scattering the few chickens they owned, and closed it behind him before taking the meat to the curing shed his father built not long before his death. He dumped the sack out of the cart and then took a deep breath. There was only one reason other people would be at his house. Someone came to make sure he would to answer for his actions barely half an hour ago. And while he was certain there would be little in the way of physical punishment, he might get one of those disappointed looks from his mother when she hears her son had hurt some other boy. Those were more painful than anything any bully had ever done to him.
However, instead of Li and his father berating his mother over his behavior, there was pinch-faced Hou Huidai and her equally pinch-faced daughter Huifen having tea with her in the kitchen. While not a disreputable family, the Hou were known throughout the village for their mean-spiritedness and their ability to hold a grudge. Mousse had been on the receiving end of taunts and beatings from a group of Hou boys in the past. These stopped when Delun, the largest and strongest of the group, was found one morning naked, crying, and hanging from a tree by his ankle in front of his family home. He never explained how it happened, but from then on Mousse was left alone by the Hou. So Mousse was unsure of what to make of Huidai, quite possibly the future matriarch of the Hou, sharing tea with his mother.
"Your son was magnificent at the tournament, Gu-mi," she said with the only smile on her face Mousse had ever seen. "It's such a shame your condition keeps you in your home. And with only Mu Tzu here… Ah, and here is the champion now."
Gu-mi turned from where she was nodding and smiling at Huidai's praises, clearly nervous and perplexed at the sudden visit, to see her son standing at the doorway. But even as she beamed at him, now genuinely happy, to Mousse it seemed she had grown even paler and thinner than when he had seen her this morning. He wanted their guests gone now more than anything.
"Mu Tzu-" she began.
"Huifen, go play outside with Mu Tzu," said Huidai. Huifen looked at Mousse then back at her mother, distaste clear on her face. But after only a moment's hesitation she took her doll from the kitchen table and flounced toward him. She grabbed his wrist and half-dragged, half-lead him around his house to the backyard.
"What are you doing?" demanded Mousse, more surprised than angry. She was two years older than him and bigger, which made it difficult for him to keep up her pace or pull away.
"Shut up," she said. "You have to listen to me, now."
"What-" He didn't finish as she suddenly stopped and whirled around. She thrust a fist at his face and he flinched, expecting a hit, but she stopped a few inches from his nose. Hanging from the fist was a red ribbon.
"This is for you," she said.
Mousse stepped back. "I don't want it."
Huifen let out a frustrated huff and rolled her eyes. "You have to take it. We can't be married unless you wear it."
Mousse blinked. He had never before thought about marriage to someone from the village. It was the most unattractive notion anyone had ever given him. "No."
Huifen rolled her eyes again. "Don't be stupid. Mother says we're going to get married and there's nothing you or an outsider like your mother can do about it."
"I'm not going to marry you."
"I don't want to marry you either," she shot back. "But we don't have a choice. Wear the ribbon."
Mousse stared at the ribbon Huifen thrust back at him and then at the doll she clutched to herself in the other hand. He looked at her angry, disgusted face and smiled. "That's a pretty doll you have."
Five minutes later Huidai and her daughter left the Sun home. Huidai bid a brief, stiff farewell to Gu-mi and dragged her wailing daughter with her back toward the village. Mousse stood beside his mother and watched as they disappeared around the bend, twirling a small wooden arm between the fingers of one hand hidden in a sleeve.
"Did you like Huifen, Mu Tzu?" asked his mother when they were out of sight.
"No," came the immediate reply. "Do I have to marry her, mother?"
She knelt so she could look her son in the eyes. "You don't have to marry anyone you don't want, Mu Tzu," she said. "It is your choice, no one else's."
He nodded, relieved. "I'll go get food for dinner. You should be resting, mother."
She smiled. "You'll have to tell me about your tournament over dinner. Did you have fun?"
Mousse smiled back. "A lot."