Different Colors 16

Red Maraschino Cherries

Ellen Kuhfeld

"Ssssst! Artemis!"

The small white cat cracked one eye open. Luna. Black cats in the middle of the night were usually bad omens, but he could always hope. Mina muttered in her sleep, reached out a slow hand to stroke him, then pulled it back under the covers. She gave a little snurgle noise, sighed as she settled down, and was still.

Luna was still poking him with her paw. He uncurled, stood, stretched, then followed her out the open window into the night. October was growing cold, and the window wouldn't be open much longer; convenient while it was, though. The Moon was near its third quarter, and well up in the sky, so it was after midnight.

Luna was outside in the shadows, and so was Rhett Butler. Oh great, Artemis thought. The youma's still sniffing around after her. But he knew better than to say anything. Besides, Luna was heading for the hedge down the street. That was one of the places they talked, when they didn't want people to overhear.

There was a nice layer of leaves under the branches where the wind couldn't carry them off, and quite a few leaves still on the bushes that made up the hedge. The three settled down (with a bit of rustling) and got comfortable. "We have to compare notes," Luna said. "Ami, Makoto, and the Amazons want a Senshi meeting tomorrow. We'd better be ready." She shivered. "Now I understand why the Amazons act so fast. Nerima is a dangerous place. They have to be ready for anything."

Artemis focussed his ears on her. Rhett Butler looked smug.

"They were just doing a few tests in the dojo," Luna said. "Seeing how well Ranma and Akane could handle themselves. A dojo destroyer showed up and wanted to fight. So they decided he could be the test. Ranma handled him easily, then Akane went a bit overboard; but they stopped her before she could seriously damage him. He didn't like that." She took a deep breath. "He was angry, and tried to kick me. Rhett Butler fixed that."

Rhett lifted one paw. There was a gleam of claws. He licked the back of the paw, and began to clean his cheeks. Artemis raised an eyebrow.

"In less than a second, Bjorn went bear. The two old grandmasters, and Tendo-san, raised the most enormous battle auras. You could tell Ranma and Akane wanted to tackle the destroyer, but Rhett Butler already had him by the neck. And then Mercury and Jupiter started putting out their auras. I think the average youma would have wet herself. Even Beryl would have been nervous."

Rhett Butler looked quizzically at her. "Oh, don't give me that," Luna said. "You're one of the seven Great Youma. There's nothing average about you."

Artemis looked at Rhett Butler. "Thanks," he said. Then when the other cats said nothing, he continued. "We had a busy day here, too. There was a daimohn attack down by the canal. You should have seen how brisk Shampoo was. She kept it busy until the others could transform. Venus chained it, Mars roasted it, and Moon dusted it. Then things got weird.

"Those two strange seifuku-girls showed up. Shampoo got into an argument with one, and clouted her over the head. The other girl used some kind of water attack. That knocked Venus and Mars down, and transformed Shampoo into her cat form. She followed them home as a cat. So now we know who they are, and where they live. And a bit about what they're up to."

"That's useful," Luna said. "They've saved several of us, but they act like we're getting in their way."

"They're students at Mugen Academy, a couple years older than our Senshi," Artemis said, "and have henshin rods just like our girls do. The blonde is named Haruka, and the aqua-hair is Michiru. When they're transformed, they call each other Uranus and Neptune. And they're trying to find heart crystals that add up to some kind of holy grail. Shampoo says that's death-magic, and she won't allow it. They say it's needed to save us from The Silence, something that's tied up with the daimohn. The daimohn are after the crystals for the grail, but whoever is in charge of them seems to have different plans. Nasty ones."

Luna sighed. "New monsters." Her ears perked up. "New cats." She gave a feline shrug. "New Sailors, independent ones that don't seem to think much of us, and working at cross-purposes. At least the cats are cooperating."

"I got to meet Shampoo's cat form. She's a cute young thing, with white and lavender fur. And she sure could move when she was following the two new Sailors." Artemis smiled in reminiscence.

Luna sniffed, and the fur on her tail bottled up just a bit. She leaned towards Rhett Butler. Artemis' whiskers drooped. But underneath his visible depression, he was thinking, Aha! Jealous!

"I got to see Ranma fight again," Luna said into a silence that had gone just a bit too long. "This time, she was a person as well as a cat. I thought she was fierce when she and the other two Amazons took apart that daimohn. This time, she was just as powerful but a lot more controlled. Akane has power too, but less control. And then there was this enormous American, who turned into a bear; and a Chinese woman who turns into a cat during the full moon. She does have a smell of 'cat' about her."

Both moon cats sat for a while, wondering about people who turn into cats at the full moon. Were they, perhaps, some sort of distant relative?

"We don't have to bother about the bear and the were-cat. They're going back to America in a week or so. It's just as well, because I think Rhett Butler wants a fight with the bear, and the bear seems agreeable to it. Who knows what kind of damage they might cause?"

Rhett Butler sat on his hindquarters like a sardonic maneki-neko good-luck cat, and held up his right paw. Moonlight glinted from one claw. He grinned evilly. He knew what kind of damage he could cause. The two moon cats shuddered.

Bringing her mind back to the problems at hand, Luna continued. "Nerima is full of people who aren't quite what they seem. In the evening, Ranma shifted into his male form and we all went to a pre-wedding dinner at his friend's house. He and Akane are getting married in a week.

"His friend's family is rich. The father is the principal of the Furinkan school, and he has a palm tree growing out of his head. His son seems okay, but the daughter, Kodachi, smells of roses, more strongly than perfume would account for. They might be part plant; remember Ail and Ann? Mercury seemed quite taken by Kodachi. She and Kodachi and Akane's sister Nabiki were talking up a storm about breeding plants. Jupiter was watching the cooks but she was listening to the gardening talk also.

"Earlier in the afternoon, they took us to a café. Ranma said I needed ninja lessons, that I was much too small to fight daimohns directly, but ideal for a spy and infiltrator. They had the most wonderful tuna okonomiyaki there. The cook looked a bit like a man, but smelled like a woman. The waitress was the ninja who'll be giving me ninja lessons. She sure looks like a woman, but smells like a man."

"Oooohh-kay," said Artemis. "Minako, Usagi, and Rei all thought Haruka was a boy. It sounds like we've found the right ninja to infiltrate. Because I wonder if Haruka and Michiru aren't trying to infiltrate us. That might be why they showed up at the arcade."

Luna nodded. "We need to know more about what's happening. Artemis, I think we both should study ninjutsu. Rhett, do you want to come along and make sure we can deal with any trouble? The way I see it, the Amazons can hit them low, the Senshi can hit them high, and we can sneak in under the radar."

With that settled, they all went home, and to sleep.

oOo

That Sunday morning, Ranma woke early to a quiet house. He was male. The dinner at Kuno's had been a nice chance to let the boy side out, but it had caused some very uncomfortable moments. He was still melancholy over Kodachi's sadness at seeing what she couldn't have. At least they'd all given Principal Kuno a lot to think about.

He heard stirrings from Akane's room, but no sound from anyone else. It'd been a fraught evening for Nabiki, a lot of work for Kasumi, and Mr. Tendo undoubtedly needed extra downtime after that stunt Kasumi pulled with the knife. Let them sleep.

He went down to the kitchen, put the kettle on to heat, rinsed the rice, and started the rice-cooker going. By the time Akane was dressed and downstairs, he had tea ready for her. "Have a good run," he said as she drank. "We'll be goin' over to the shrine this afternoon, and that prob'ly means talk. So let's get our exercise early." Then Akane was off, and Ranma prepared everything for coffee. He'd actually make the coffee when he heard Nabiki moving around.

Let's see now. Coffee and tea ready, rice cookin', let's get the newspaper. He did, and set it at Mr. Tendo's place. What to cook? Somethin' simple, that can sit around til people are ready to eat. Onigiri, with a hint of pickled ginger to settle their stomachs. Miso soup. That should do. It wasn't like they'd starved lately.

oOo

Bjorn Njalsson lay down his fork with a happy sigh. He took a long drink of coffee. "They do food well here," he said.

Mao was still eating, daintily. "That's why I recommended this hotel," she said. She took a delicate sip of green tea. "You really should try a Japanese breakfast."

"God wants Norwegians to have coffee in the morning, and everything that goes with it. I'd rather not cross Him. But I certainly had an interesting Japanese dinner last night."

"Complete with drama."

"Well, we're here for Ranma and Akane. Fortunately, we won't have time to meddle in any other romances before we leave for home."

"Speaking of metal," Mao said, "we should be on our way soon for our lunch meeting with that blacksmith. It's quite some way out of the city."

"And he may well be the best person we've found to help train Akane in hammer-work after we've gone. I'm looking forward to meeting him. I've seen my cousin Wayland's smithy. I want to see what smithies are like in Japan. Maybe I can bring home a few suggestions."

"Do you have the knife Wayland made wrapped up properly for a gift?"

"Yes, I checked how it's supposed to be done. Everywhere, gifts make a visitor more welcome. As the old verse says, 'mutual giving makes for friendship / so long as life goes well.'"

"I'll have the concierge call a taxi. It's easier than depending on the subway and the trains."

oOo

"Leave the 'Closed' sign up, Shampoo. We should go to the Tendos' and discuss things with Ranma and Akane. Also, I want to talk with Kasumi about helping at the café. If we're going to be saving the world on an unpredictable schedule, we'll need somebody reliable to take up the slack during sudden emergencies."

"Nabiki not like being left out, great-grandmother."

"Let's see if we can think of something to keep her busy, then."

When they got to the Tendos', Nabiki had already gone over to the Kuno mansion.

oOo

After an early lunch – Kasumi had really appreciated the breakfast Ranma cooked, but wanted to fill in any gaps – Ranma, Akane, Shampoo, and Cologne took the O-Edo line to Azabu-Juuban. Then they headed off on foot. None of them really knew the way (Luna hadn't taken the train when Shampoo was following her) but they managed with landmarks.

They'd sighted the temple hill, and were closing in on it when they heard a shout – really, a scream. The three girls looked at each other, dropped their disguises, then barreled around the corner to find a daimohn stealing the pure heart crystal from a boy who looked about college age. This daimohn was tall, green-and-brown, and rather like a pine tree. When the Amazon sisters charged, it looked torn between escaping, and fighting. That hesitation cost it the escape, so it began firing exploding needles at them. Its mouth was moving, but they couldn't hear anything but a faint whisper among the explosions.

Shampoo didn't think maces would work on a tree-monster, so she grabbed fighting hatchets out of her weaponspace. Ranma popped her claws, and Akane brought forth a mallet. Zigging and dodging needles, they closed in on the daimohn from three sides. It didn't stand a chance. Again, Akane delivered the final blow.

Akane took the heart crystal, and was heading back towards the boy when they heard two voices say "Just a moment, there!" With a cry of "World Shaking!" a globe of light began spinning towards Shampoo. She jumped out of the way, and Ranma fired a moko takabisha back at the blonde girl in the seifuku who'd sent the globe at Shampoo. It knocked her tail-over-teakettle, and left her kneeling on the ground, shaking her head.

Beyond the two hostile fuku-girls, they could see five Senshi headed their way at top speed. The aqua-haired girl was looking around wildly, seeing just what a tight spot she was in. Akane finished returning the crystal, jumped to her feet, and they began closing in. Sailor Aqua pirouetted, cried "Deep Submerge!," and threw a wall of water at them. Then she lifted Sailor Blonde to her feet and they took off running, leaping to the rooftops. Ranma went after them. Sailor Blonde was a bit shaky at first, but steadied out and began running strongly. Ranma let them get away after a kilometer or so. She wasn't at all sure she wanted to catch them. Shampoo had already followed them home yesterday, so she knew where they were going. Besides, the breeze from the run had finished drying her clothes.

Ranma dropped to the ground, shifted her disguise, and headed for the temple. By the time she got there, the others had already arrived. The college guy was lying on the floor, his head in Usagi's lap. She was running her hands through his hair, and crooning "Mamo-chan".

"I hope I'm not interruptin' anything," Ranma said as she entered. "I get the feelin' I've already helped spoil the day for a daimohn and two girls in seifuku."

Akane and Shampoo said "Your turn," as Ranma was buried under four girls and two cats crying out their gratitude.

Cologne snickered. "Seems you three saved Sailor Moon's boyfriend. Usually, he only turns into Tuxedo Kamen when Moon is threatened." She turned to the Senshi. "What kind of idiot warrior-mages did you have on the Moon? Not bothering to give somebody the power to protect himself?"

Luna looked up at Cologne. "The Silver Millennium was a matriarchy, after all. The girls can protect themselves."

Artemis gained a sour expression, which hinted he'd been through similar – discussions – before. "Mamoru is the protector of Earth, and Earth was independent. The Moon Queen ruled the rest of the Solar System, but on Earth, the King was in charge. Their values were different, and so was their magic. Anyway, once we all get more experience fighting, the problems should go away."

Cologne rapped her staff on the floor. "This is no time for old arguments. We've just won a skirmish. Now we find out what we've learned. Shampoo?"

"This monster fight like last two: dumb. Throw things. We cut piece off, it grow back on. Akane hammer seem to stop that. And blonde girl poor loser – Shampoo knock her out last time, this time she attack without warning. We okay if we keep ahead of monsters and girls, in trouble if they get ahead of us."

Ranma snrked. "Poor loser? Who chased me all across China and back to Japan to kill me because she lost a fight?"

Shampoo blushed.

Cologne held up her hand. "None of that. Akane?"

"I'm starting to realize my hammer works really well against them, but I don't know why."

"Ranma?"

"What Shampoo and Akane said. And those other two girls, they're tough. I hit one with a moko takabisha, and it only knocked her down and stunned her a bit. Then she was off and runnin'. I let 'em get away after a kilometer or so. It might be useful ta have 'em think they can outrun me. After all, Shampoo already found out where they live.

"About Akane's hammer, I been thinkin'. My claws are made of ki, and Shampoo's weapons are made of iron. But them mallets Akane uses are solid, sometimes wood and sometimes iron, and full o' ki. Maybe it takes hittin' the daimohn with both at once?"

Cologne said, "That makes a sort of sense. I'll have to try hitting a daimohn with my staff to see what happens. It's filled with ki. Next daimohn, try charging your fists full of ki." Then she looked over to Usagi. "You girls were coming towards the fight within a minute. How did you know to transform, and how did you know where to go?"

Usagi was still concentrating on Mamoru, so Ami answered. "We can feel danger and dark magic if it's nearby, and heard the scream about the same time we felt the daimohn stealing the pure heart crystal. And my computer gave us a precise location."

Cologne stroked her chins in thought. "Ranma and I can feel ki being used in battle. Akane and Shampoo are learning. So you have the same sort of ability, but for magic?"

Ami nodded.

"Could you feel those other two Sailors?"

"No," Ami said slowly. "But my computer can detect them while they're transformed."

"If you can't feel them directly, maybe they aren't using dark magic," Cologne said. "And there's one more thing. There was a woman, a redhead, watching from some way off. I felt malice from her. She left as soon as the daimohn was beaten. Did any of you feel anything? Did the computer pick up anything?"

The senshi and the three Amazon girls looked at each other. They shook their heads and murmured "no" in various ways. "But I'll research it with my computer," Ami added.

"You mentioned witches," Cologne said. "Could this have been one of the witches? Because if it was, whoever's behind the daimohns now knows you're getting help from us. If she was a witch, she could have been masking her presence. Life may be about to get difficult."

That was a conversation-killer. So Cologne decided that, perhaps, some tea and cookies would occupy them while they all thought things over. When she suggested it, Makoto immediately hopped up and bustled off to the kitchen. Ranma followed her. Soon they returned with cups and teapot, and a plate of cookies. Even occupied with her Mamo-chan, Usagi started to make the cookies disappear. Ranma was impressed, and took it as a challenge. She proceeded to make them disappear even more rapidly. The plate was empty before any of the others got a cookie, except Akane, who knew what she was dealing with and grabbed one as it flew past. "Kami-sama, there are two of them," Rei said in an awed voice as she looked between Usagi and Ranma.

Makoto got another plate of cookies, and set it down far from the two appetites. Then she began pouring tea, and Shampoo carried it around to the rest. Usagi took hers and raised up Mamoru's head, and held the cup to his lips. He began to sip, and roused somewhat.

After a while, Cologne spoke. "There are too many pieces to this puzzle. We have to simplify things."

Eyebrows rose. Makoto wondered "How?". She rather approved of simplicity, but didn't see any easy simplifiers here.

"We have two big unknowns: those other sailor girls, and whoever is behind the daimohns. The sailor girls are the easy question. We know their names, and know where they live. Why don't we gather some more information. Then I'll go talk to them. I really don't think they'll harm a poor old granny." Cologne batted her eyelashes. "And if they try, I'll just have to deal with it."

The Amazon girls snickered. The Juuban girls looked at one another with questioning eyes. Cologne chuckled to herself – she loved this part. "You, girl," she said as she pointed at Makoto. "You're a fighter. Let's have a gentle spar. Nothing too destructive, mind you."

Makoto and Cologne moved to a bare area of the room; the others moved to the walls. Makoto didn't feel right attacking such an old woman, so she wasn't really ready when she suddenly was surrounded by a dozen Colognes, courtesy of the Splitting Cat Hairs technique. Then she crumpled to the floor after being poked in the Instant Paralysis shiatsu point. It had only taken a second or two, and it left the other senshi with wide eyes and open mouths. Mamoru began struggling to get up.

"She's okay, sonny boy. Relax, you still need to recover from that daimohn." Cologne used her staff to poke another shiatsu point, and Makoto was able to move.

"Can you teach me that?" Makoto said. She was definitely too enthusiastic to be in pain.

"Which one? For the confusion technique – it's called 'splitting cat hairs' – you need to learn the chestnut fist first. For the instant paralysis, you need to know anatomy and shiatsu. And the paralysis works on humans, but often as not, you fight youkai or monsters. It might not work on them. It might not even work on you, when you're transformed. Learn from Tendo-sensei for a while. He has some good techniques too. He'll let me know when you're ready."

Ranma had a thoughtful look. "I wunner if instant paralysis would work on witches? Or mebbe instant unconsciousness?"

Akane looked at Ranma, and considered her peculiar luck. "Try instant unconsciousness first. Who knows what a witch could do just by thinking at you?" Ranma and Cologne both nodded in agreement.

"If not work, punch too, too hard, real quick," Shampoo added. "Stop witch thinking."

"Once we have a witch, what do we do with her? Dogs can chase cars, but it doesn't end well if they catch one." Rei was a bit of a pessimist, and as a miko, the closest they had to an authority on witches.

"She's a witch? Burn her!" said Minako.

"Are you doing that Monty Python thing again?" asked Ami. "Just because you watched it all the time while you were Sailor V in England…"

"It helped me practice my English!" Minako said, throwing her hands up and out. "It was cultural understanding!"

"It was the best you could find without any anime on the BBC," Rei said tartly.

"Oh look, this isn't an argument!"

"Yes it is!"

"No it isn't!"

"Is too!"

"It's just contradiction!"

"No it isn't!"

"It is!"

"I don't know what you're talking about. I was looking for the being-hit-on-the-head lessons."

"Oh, tomorrow's daimohn will be handling that class. You should come back then." Mina, who had been carrying both sides of the argument, gave herself a high-five, then subsided with a grin.

"Refreshing as this has been," said Cologne, "we still have to decide what to do about the witches. Whatever it is, it shouldn't give them a chance to learn more about us."

"Shampoo followed both Luna and those new Sailor girls back to their bases," Ranma said. "We should probably start by followin' a witch home."

"I can see that," Cologne said. "First of all, we should keep Sailor Moon and Akane focussed on daimohns. We know they can finish them off. Artemis and Luna aren't trained as ninjas yet, and that's the most important thing for them. I'd rather have Shampoo at the Cat Café to help train Ami. Ranma is probably the sneakiest of the humans, and the best fighter. She'd be best at following the witch, and stands a good chance of getting back even if the witches catch on to her."

Ami and Makoto looked at Ranma. "You can fight like that, and you're sneaky too?" they asked.

Ranma stood for a moment, calming herself into the proper frame of mind for the umisenken, slowly vanished, then faded back into view on the other side of the room after a few seconds. Artemis looked at her with head tilted to one side. "I could still smell you while you were doing that," he said.

Luna laughed. "She caught me that way, Artemis. Lets hope these Death Buster people don't have any cats."

"I guess I'll have to improve the technique," Ranma said. "A cat can be a dangerous enemy." Rhett Butler nodded firmly, once.

And then the ice cream was brought out, and everybody had a cheerful time getting to know each other. They were starting to get a grip on their problems, and had battle plans for the future. Oh, plans never survived contact with the enemy – but the enemies' plans had the same problem. In the meanwhile, there was vanilla ice cream and chocolate syrup to eat. Rei even had a bottle of cherries.

oOo

In the valley of Jusenkyo, Genma watched the Musk warriors dip the leopard into one of the springs. A leopard went in, but a girl came out. The Musk used a ladle to pour permanence water on her, then released her from the net. Two warriors took her to the side, despite her uncoordinated attempts to escape. The rest picked up the portion of the net with Genma in it. He howled and raged and struggled, but they carried him over and dipped him in.

When the Musk pulled Genma out, there was a burst of excitement in Mandarin. The warriors gathered together in an arguing circle, though they were careful to hang on to the leopard-girl. After a minute or two, the largest of the Musk barked out an order, and the others untied the net. They didn't use the permanence water.

Instead, they stood there, some of them glaring at Genma and others laughing. Genma wasn't at all sure what was happening, and when some of the Musk made shooing gestures, Genma took off running.

By the spring, the warriors were pointing. "Look at that panda go!" one of them shouted. Genma didn't understand Mandarin, and put on more speed just in case. Soon, a black-and-white blur had disappeared over the hills. The Musk wrapped a blanket around the leopard-girl – she was naked, and the air was cold – and headed back for their citadel.