This story is set in the same world as "Change of Phases", starting roughly a year before the beginning of "Change of Phases". This is also based on the premise brought up in Gregg Sharp's "The Bet: Crippled", and it is recommended the former be read to understand the setup. The characters involved, save for "Paladin", are the creations of either Rumiko Takahashi, Naoko Takeuchi, and Marvel Entertainment Co.
Chapter 04 – Closure
Tony Stark rubbed the bridge of his nose. Being Iron Man had its drawbacks as well as its perks - and, for once, he was wondering if one of those drawbacks would come to haunt him.
Case in point: the two teenagers in the files in front of him. He was used to strangeness; it came part and parcel with the job. But these kids were just kids - and they'd lived with stuff that made him wonder.
He picked up the first. Ranma Saotome. Not officially removed from his clan yet; however, such a move was expected within the next six months, as he was considered persona non grata by his parents. Born in Shinjuku Ward, Tokyo almost seventeen years ago. His father was a career criminal masquerading as a martial artist; his mother was the dutiful Japanese wife, but was not a part of Ranma's life for the majority of it. Real piece of work, Tony thought to himself as he flipped through the file.
He then compared it to the second. Nabiki Tendou. He met a few people like her back in high school, virtually school mob bosses. At least until about 6 months ago, according to reports, roughly corresponding to when the Saotome kid ends up paralyzed by a Chinese national. Guilt, maybe? Sounds about right, though it might also be she might actually have a thing for the kid.
Tony paused and looked at the files. Both files talk about involvement with a third party, he thought to himself, flipping to corresponding pages on both reports. A redhaired girl, also named Ranma, is noted in both files. "What's wrong with this picture," Tony murmered.
Nabiki moved to the coffee pot, turning it on as she grabbed a mug, remaining silent as she waited for Ranma to arrive. A moment later, Ranma rolled into the room, pulling himself to the table. "Alright, Nabiki, what do you want to know?"
She glared at him. "Everything. But for now, I'll settle for asking why in the hell you didn't tell me?"
Ranma sighed. "The truth? A lot of things. Never being able to find the time to tell you. You having other things to do. And..." he stared down at his hands, "just being scared of your reaction. We wanted to tell you earlier, but we could never find a way."
Nabiki waited a moment, saying nothing as she poured some of the coffee into her mug before sitting down across from Ranma, glaring over the rim of the mug. "And what about that day, huh? You scared the hell out of me."
Ranma nodded and sighed. "We know. We never meant to scare you. Again, we were just showing off like idiots," he said quietly.
"Yes, you did," Nabiki muttered, taking a sip of her drink, before shaking her head. "And now you've been running around doing Amaterasu knows what, playing the damn hero, and showing off."
"Alright, we guess we were showing off, but it's not like we were fighting anything we couldn't handle. The worst we've had to deal with is that moron who looks like a cow," Paladin replied. "Hell, even had help with him today."
"Help?" Nabiki asked, blinking.
"Yeah, some in a red suit, looked like he had a bug squished on the front," Ranma said as he wheeled to the counter to get some water.
"Red suit with a..." Nabiki paused then moved to Ranma's side, turning him toward her. Unfortunately for Ranma, it caused the glass to splash him. "Sorry about that.. but Ranma, you're telling me you met Spider-Man?"
"That's what he called himself," Ranma shrugged as she poured some more water. "Why?"
Nabiki shook her head in frustration. "He's a damn hero, that's why! But what's he doing here?"
Ranma sighed. "He wanted to talk to us. Evidently there was something like Paladin here, but not a good guy from what we gathered."
Nabiki blinked then noticed Ranma's downcast expression. "There's more to it, isn't there?"
She sighed and nibbled her lip. "He... said he wanted to make sure he wasn't going to have to kill us."
Nabiki stared for a long moment, then shook her head. "Damn, Saotome, you can't catch a break, can you?" Ranma gave her a glare, to which Nabiki flushed. "Sorry, bad choice of words."
The wheelchair-bound pair moved back to the table. "But you're right. We sure seem to have a lot of problems with luck, don't we?"
"Yeah... We do." Nabiki replied, drawing a look from Ranma. "Yes, we. I'm still irked with you, but I'm not heading anywhere any time soon."
A few days later, Nabiki gritted her teeth as she flipped through the mail, opening each one. "Declined... declined... declined... Damn it!" She snorted in disgust, then paused a moment as she saw a letter from an address she didn't recognize. Curious, she opened it. As soon as she saw the letterhead, she stared in more than a bit of surprise. "Stark Enterprises? What the hell?"She continued to read the letter, brow creased as she translated the note, eyes widening. Her expression became both pleased and disturbed. "There has to be a string somewhere. Hell, a whole skein of it."
"A what?" Ranma's voice called as she wheeled into the kitchen. "Any mail for us?"
Nabiki nodded hesitantly and handed Ranma a pair of letters, not looking at the addresses. "A skein... a bundle of string. I got an offer, and can't help but think, as good as it is, there just has to be a lot of strings attached."
Ranma nodded slowly. "We see. Well, then don't take it. Only a fool walks into a known trap without all the details."
Nabiki blinked and chuckled. "You /have/ been learning. Bravo. Oh, any news on your college tests?"
Ranma snorted and gave a mocking bow from her seat, before opening the first letter. "We did well, we think. Better than we would have without your help. Even was able to apply to a few colleges..." Ranma paused, brow creasing as she read the note.
Nabiki noticed the expression and asked, "Something wrong? You get rejected too?"
Ranma shook her head. "No, We just got some odd news... Very odd."
Nabiki blinked a bit then looked at the paper. She read, then looked up. "This really smells fishy now. Too tempting but..."
Ranma sat back. "Mind if we look at yours?"
The two exchanged letters, taking a few minutes to read, then sat back. "Definitely stinks," Both said at the same time, a tense grin on both of their faces.
"No kidding. Me receiving a job offer that includes a full ride scholarship to a college in New York, and you getting a special circumstances scholarship to the same school? Too convenient," Nabiki muttered. "I mean, it makes sense, considering Stark Enterprises' dealings here in Japan. Not to mention a company wanting to make itself look good by having a foreigner and a disabled one at that in their books. Too much sense."
Ranma nodded softly. "Not to mention the location. New York. Isn't that where this Spider-Man comes from?"
Nabiki sighed as she sat back, pouring herself some tea. "Yeah. Which makes it smell even worse."
"Or maybe not..." Ranma said, tapping her chin thoughtfully, before pouring some hot water over her head. "Spider-Man didn't seem to really want to hurt us-at least, without cause. We think they just want to make sure we don't end up like whoever he's so scared of. We're thinking it might just be worth it to take them up on the offer. We get an education out of it, you get a job, and they end up feeling foolish."
The girl laughed softly. "I have corrupted you, haven't I?" Nabiki said with a smirk. "Alright. Well, then we can both go, and maybe get away from all the idiocy around here."
"Alright. There isn't really anything holding us back here anyway," Ranma remarked. "When should we leave, though?"
"Well, I've got an idea about that, but I'll have to talk to the Academia Nut. It won't get in our way in the long run, but to be honest, I'd like to get you graduated before we head across the ocean, but it won't get in our way if need be."
Ranma nodded. "Alright. That gives us about two months to get everything ready to go then."
Nabiki smiled. "Not a problem. We'd better let Dr. Tofu in on it as well," she admitted as she took out a notepad, writing stuff down quickly. "Alright. Tomorrow, I'll go talk to Principal Pineapple."
Ranma sat back in his seat. "Nabiki? Thanks. We don't know what we'd have done if you didn't help."
"Ranma, you're welcome. I'm still a bit miffed with your companion but I do have to thank him as well," Nabiki admitted grudgingly, before walking out.
Nabiki strode from Furinkan's entrance, purposely ignoring the whispers she was hearing. Most of them were about Ranma; she knew enough to know whispers about herself were scattered among them. This was the game they played, a game she had once fueled until she found out the cost.
Ahead of her, ahead of the wake he lad left, Ranma had almost reached the gate. She called out to him, garnering his attention; he stopped his wheelings, and parked himself at the gate. She moved out to join him, when she noticed the sea of people part once more.
Nabiki kept her face neutral. She feared this every day she came here, every time she walked through these gates - but she would not be moved. Not like this; not with this. "Yes, Ms. Tendou?"
The youngest Tendou flinched but pressed on, "Nabiki, please come home. Everyone misses you and we want you home."
Nabiki continued to glare coldly. "Unless Ranma is as welcome and as missed as I am, I do not think my circumstances will change."
Akane flinched once more. Genma and Nodoka refused to acknowledge their child's existence, of course, and Akane knew this would only cause further problems. Nabiki passed by the girl and continued to walk toward Ranma, who waited by the gate. "Sorry for the wait, Ranma," Nabiki murmered.
Ranma nodded. "That's ok. Same thing as usual?"
Nabiki sighed. "Yep." She replied. "I can't wait to get out of this damn town. Oh, got some good news. I've gotten some reassurances. Evidently the Principal doesn't want certain things coming to light so he's very eager to get us out of here. You've got two tests this week, and then you'll be ready to graduate with me."
Ranma nodded in relief. "Thanks, Nabiki. We'll pass it with flying colors, we promise." He paused for a moment, "Is there anything I need for the ceremony?"
"I'll pick up the robes and stuff later," Nabiki replied.
"Don't waste your money, Nabiki," He murmered. "We can improvise."
Nabiki blinked, then chuckled softly. "That's rather handy," she grinned. "Perhaps your friend isn't so bad after all, if he's that useful."
Ranma gave her a raspberry with a silver tongue, which startled Nabiki, before she laughed softly. "Come on, goofs, we've got to talk to Tofu, let him know."
The chair slipped smoothly down the street as Ranma escaped Furinkan High with a sigh of relief. His last finals were almost a nightmare, but he was able to get through them with only the slightest bits of help from Paladin. "That was rough," Ranma muttered softly to himself.
(Perhaps it was, Ranma, but it is over now,) the symbiote replied. (And our time here is almost over as well.)
"That doesn't particularly bother me," he admitted. "To be honest, Japan's never been more than a place to live between training trips. That bothers me a bit, but I guess I'll cope."
(That is something that you have quite a bit of experience with, it seems,) Paladin remarked.
"Ain't that the truth," Ranma muttered as he wheeled up the path toward Tofu-sensei's office and into his waiting room. "Konichi-wa," he called softly as he wheeled over and sat back, relaxing.
A few moments later, the doctor walked an older lady into the waiting room. "Just be more careful, next time," he said cheerfully, before bowing. The lady returned the bow before walking out, then Tofu turned toward Ranma. "Hello. How are you doing today?"
"Not bad, sensei," Ranma replied as he rolled forward. "The exams were a pain, but we managed to get them done, maybe even did well."
Tofu chuckled softly. "Have faith in yourself, Ranma. I'm sure you did just fine. Any other problems?"
Ranma shook his head. "Nothing really, just wanted to see how you were doing. We're going to miss talking to you and stuff," he admitted.
The doctor smiled. "And I'll miss you and Nabiki as well. You are definitely the most fascinating patient I've ever dealt with on many levels," he remarked as he poured himself some tea. "Care for some?" Ranma nodded, and Tofu poured him a mug as well before handing it off. "Were I not bound by privilege, not to mention it'd be unbelievable, and I would never wish to cause you any harm, you would be a very fascinating subject for a case study. The interaction between the two of you would be interesting to research."
Ranma nodded. "We imagine so," he admitted. "Between us, and the curse and everything, we have to admit, even we are curious. Maybe if we come back to Japan, we'll have to give it a shot. We'll definitely keep in touch, though."
Tofu smiled. "I'd appreciate that."
Ranma looked at the clock. "Well, We'd better see if Nabiki's done. Talk to ya later, doc?" After the doctor nodded, Ranma wheeled out of the clinic, heading for the apartment.
As Ranma rolled in through the door, Nabiki was laying across the couch, a bag of ice on her forehead. "Sadists. Psychopaths," She muttered in english.
"Tough tests?" Ranma said mildly in english as he rolled toward her.
"Nightmares," Nabiki agreed. "But at least it's over. How'd you do?"
"Just as bad, probably. But now we don't have to worry about it. A week or so until graduation, so we ought to get packing soon."
Nabiki nodded. "After this headache goes away." Ranma chuckled then pulled her upper body into his lap and began to massage her neck and shoulders. "That's not remotely fair, Saotome," she pouted, or tried to anyway. It just felt so damn good, however.
"Your own words, Nabiki. Life isn't fair. Get used to it." Ranma grinned as he looked down at her, as she gave him a red eye. "Ooh. Lovely," he joked as he looked down at her. "We will have to thank Tofu-sensei again, though. Or at least you should. It's his fault we're this good at this."
"Darn him," Nabiki said with mock-irritation, before grinning. "May his socks always hide from him in the deepest bowels of his dryer."
"Oh dear," Ranma deadpanned. "A fate worse than death." Both started laughing.
A few days later, Nabiki looked at the silver-clad shape. "That's still so unnerving, you know that?"
Paladin grinned, unseen from behind the silver skin covering his face like a mask. "You'll get used to it, Nabi-chan," Ranma replied in that resonant voice Nabiki immediately associated with the symbiote. "We'll be back in a while. We need a workout."
Nabiki shook her head as she realized what he meant by a workout. "Don't hurt anyone too bad, please?"
Paladin nodded quietly. "We don't hurt anyone we don't have to. Come on, Nabiki, you know it's still us."
Nabiki sighed. "Just be careful, ok? And don't be up all night. We've got a plane to catch tomorrow."
Paladin nodded and fled out the window into the night, dancing over the rooftops. "Almost going to miss this place," he muttered to himself.
(We will not particularly miss it ourselves,) the symbiote remarked. (A fresh start might be exactly what we need.)
Ranma paused at one rooftop, looking around. "Thinking of seeing her later today."
(What purpose would that serve? Besides a little vengeance?) the symbiote asked, though there was a sense of agreement with the idea.
"Guess it's just a way to make sure she realizes how stupid she's been. To make sure that, if she ever makes it home, she doesn't think she's won some great victory. Sure, maybe it's a bit vindictive, but it's probably the best we can do to her at this point," Ranma murmered, brow creased in thought as he swooped down on a man trying to pry a lock from a shop entrance.
"I'm not sure this is a good idea," Nabiki remarked as she walked and Ranma rolled down the corridor of the Maximum Security prison which held the Amazon who nearly slew the martial artist.
"You've said that three times already, Nabiki-chan," Ranma murmered as she rolled around the corner. "We still need to do this. If nothing else, think of it as... what'd Doc Tofu call it? Closure?"
"If you say so, Ranma," Nabiki said a bit exasperated, rubbing her arms as if chilled.
The two approached the cell in which Shampoo had been placed, noticing the girl prowling her cell as if a wild animal confined. She froze and went pale when she noticed the girl in the wheelchair, then threw herself against the bars, hands outstretched like claws toward Ranma, who was just out of reach, a smirk on her lips. "Hello, Shampoo," Ranma remarked, that smirk maddening.
The Amazon began to snarl out imprecations that were only barely comprehended by Ranma, and not at all by Nabiki, her hands still clasping desperately.
"Nice place you've got here," Ranma said, as if speaking to a new home owner instead of a condemned prisoner, ignoring the loud profanities. "I'm sure you'll love it after a while, considering the alternatives. I mean I'm sure your village can't be too happy with you being in prison, failing to kill me, all that stuff."
Shampoo flinched as if slapped. It seemed that the Amazon understood more Japanese than she was able or willing to speak.
"You may have crippled me, but I've destroyed you, Shampoo. Take comfort in that," Ranma said a bit sardonically, her sapphire eyes staring right into the Amazon's.
Shampoo panicked and slammed back against her wall, feeling a sudden, intense sensation of danger directed at her.
Ranma smiled a mocking smile, before looking to Nabiki. "Let's go," she said, rolling onward. Just out of view of the Amazon, Ranma's hands almost became silvery claws, before she was able to calm down.
Nabiki noticed the tension and the slight change. "You ok, Ranma?"
"Yeah. I'll cope. Maybe you were right though... Not sure that was a good idea," Ranma said, her voice filled with barely restrained anger.
The graduation ceremony was early next day, but unlike the majority of others, Nabiki was packing up her last few posessions which weren't already on a ship to the United States. Ranma, having finished packing a while back, decided to take one last rooftop romp. For some reason, his wandering directed him toward the Tendou Dojo. He wasn't entirely sure why he went that way, and he wasn't entirely comfortable with that, but he gave in to the whim, knowing it would be a long time, if ever, that he would go there again. A few blocks away, however, he frowned as he heard sirens, a lot of them, in fact. They were getting closer, and seemed to be coming from the direction of the Dojo.
Approaching quickly, Ranma experienced a rather nasty shock, as he saw a familiar figure leaping to the ground in front of the Dojo gates. Somehow, Shampoo had escaped prison, and had been pursued by the police.
She cared little about the police, or anything else at this point, for that matter. She was dedicated, determined, perhaps even obsessed, with destroying the redhaired, blue-eyed bitch who had ruined her life. Stareing at the walls, she yelled out, "Bring out redhead or die!"
"Looking for someone?" Paladin snarled in a hideous voice as he landed behind her, taking that nightmarish form he had taken several months before.
Shampoo turned, an improvised club in her hand, until she froze, going pale at the sight before her, but she swung her club at Ranma, who caught it in the palm of one barbed hand. "Not a wise move," Paladin sneered as he hurled her into the dojo wall.
The Amazon struggled to her feet, swinging her club desperately, but Ranma either caught the weapon in his hand or avoided it completely.
At this point, he had received quite an audience in the form of several police cars filled with armed cops, some of the neighbors, and the inhabitants of the Dojo. Soun, Nodoka, Akane and Kasumi went pale as they watched the combatants, but Genma turned positively white when he stared at Paladin.
Ranma frowned beneath his hideous mask, and decided to end this fight, and end it for keeps. His hideous form melted back into his more streamlined appearance, dodging one more club strike before creating a blade from his left arm and drove it into Shampoo's stomach, taking the reverse of the same path Shampoo's own sword took when it severed Ranma's spine. Shampoo froze as her legs gave out from beneath her, but she did not, could not fall as she found herself suspended on that extruded blade. Part of Paladin's face began to melt back, only enough to reveal Ranma's sapphire eyes. The same eyes Shampoo stared into not one day before. "Payback's a bitch, ain't it?" Ranma said in a normal voice. Then without warning, Paladin hurled Shampoo against the Dojo walls as his mask returned to normal. "Sorry for the show, everyone," Paladin replied, before leaping off for the roofs.
Ranma seemed a bit uncomfortable as his chair was secured in place on the 747. Nabiki sat back and looked at Ranma. "This the first time you've ever been on a plane?" she asked.
Ranma shook his head. "We once hitched a ride on a cargo plane once. Didn't like that ride either," he muttered, sighing.
Nabiki looked at him. "That's not the only problem, is it?" She asked.
Ranma sighed. "Shampoo escaped last night... went after your family."
Nabiki started. "Ok, tell me what happened?"
"Shampoo won't be a problem anymore," Ranma said quietly.
Nabiki stared. "You didn't kill her... did you?"
Ranma shook his head. "No... just equal payback."
Nabiki blinked, then sighed in relief. "You scared me there."
"We didn't like doing it, but-" Ranma tried to explain, but was cut off.
"She deserved it, Ranma. Don't worry. I understand," Nabiki replied. "So you think you'll do ok in the States?"
Ranma paused, then nodded. "I think so, unless we seriously underestimated things."
"Good point," Nabiki admitted as she sat back in her seat.
Dr. Richards looked at the article in the next week's Tokyo Shimbun and frowned softly. The headline roughly translated to "Escaped Convict Crippled by Vigilante". He worried that the plan that he and Stark concocted was about to backfire, when he continued to read. "Chinese National Xian Pu, recently imprisoned for an extended sentence after the attempted murder of a Nerima-area student, was brutally put down by the mysterious figure known as 'Paladin' after escaping from prison and threatening to conclude the murder she had attempted just five months before. For a dose of irony, the woman was crippled in virtually the same method as her own victim, after Paladin impaled her upon a blade in much the way that Xian had driven a sword through the student's back."
Reed stopped reading at that point. Assuming the article was correct, it did seem that Paladin was not entirely unjustified in his actions, as though the attack definitely smacked of revenge (particularly due to the description of Paladin's attack mirroring the attack that he had suffered months before), it was also in reply to a direct threat from the woman to innocent people. He was disturbed, but after reading the article, he realized he could only wait and see, and hope he was not wrong.