Disclaimer: Ranma and The Melancholy of Suzumiya Haruhi are not mine.

Friendly reminder: Knowing Ranma One-half is the only requirement for understanding this fic. I'll be giving all the necessary information about The Melancholy of Suzumiya Haruhi as needed.

Update: 29 July 29, 2012 like with every new chapter update I've done, the previous chapters are cleaned up a little more so that they read better. Content is still the same.

Demiglace Graffiti: Chapter 6

By ToastedPine

"What happened?" Haruhi asked as she reached us, glancing at the shattered glass of the store behind us. There were blade marks all over the store's front display almost as if the attackers were trying to hack the whole store apart from the outside in.

I turned to the man. "Where's the inn?"

"Follow me." Jiro turned on the cobble stone and lead the pace at a brisk walk. Despite being in his late fifties, the man was in top condition. The well-toned muscles on his shoulders and back were the product of hard work. I could tell that he was slightly favoring his left side, but thought better of asking since it didn't seem to bother him that much.

"I'm Ranma and this is Haruhi." I said, catching up. "Haruhi, this is Jiro Tatsura."

Haruhi looked at me in surprise. "Tatsura, as in Kana Tatsura?"

"He was my father," Jiro answered.

Haruhi looked like she wanted to say more, but I put a hand on her shoulder.

"We have to hurry. Those guys who attacked him might be coming after us too." I paused. "Sorry for getting us into this mess."

"You did the right thing." Haruhi made a thumb's up. "I guarantee it!"

123123

The inn stood on a hill at the end of a long, S-curved path beyond the reach of the tree's glass foliage. A sign hung beside the main gate, "Tatsura Inn". Western stonework harmonized with Japanese decorative elements and doorways reminiscent of Taishou era architecture. Missing were the raccoon statues, vines, and other elements that blended the rest of the arcade with nature.

Jiro unlocked the heavy iron gate. For an inn, it definitely looked secure.

By the time we reached the inn's dining hall, Jiro was pale and covered in sweat. He stumbled towards a chair, but his legs gave out before he could make it.

"Jiro!" I caught him. My right hand came away wet with blood.

Peeling away his leather jacket, I found a gash on his right side about three inches long. The blood was black and smelled like rotting fruit. I tore the shirt so I could get a better look.

Haruhi gasped behind me.

"Hot water, towels, and the strongest alcohol you can find!" I ordered.

"Got it." She ran off.

While examining the wound further, I heard Jiro groan.

"You should have said something."

"No point. We… would have needed to come here anyway."

The wound wasn't deep, but it was definitely infected. I needed to get him strong enough to talk so I could figure out what to do next. I got up and found a linen napkin on the table, then rolled the cloth up to wedge between his teeth.

"Jiro! Jiro!" I snapped my fingers in front of his eyes. "I'm going to try a healing technique. It's going to hurt a lot. Bite on this, and get ready."

He was barely conscious so I wasn't sure he heard. Taking a deep breath, I channeled some ki into my left hand while holding him steady with my right.

"Here we go."

The flesh around the wound turned an angry red, swelling and then oozing black blood. Jiro's body rigidly convulsed as he tried to scream around the linen gag. Excruciating seconds passed before the blood finally shifted to a healthier color. He had passed out from the pain, but his breathing was relaxed. I sat back on the floor, emotionally drained.

A moment later, Haruhi zipped through the door on the far side of the room. "Here's the stuff you asked for!" The wash basin she carried held a steaming kettle, towels, and a large bottle of sake.

"Thanks," I said, taking the items from her.

I cleaned Jiro's injury with hot water and sake then bandaged it with towels. The gash on his side wasn't closed. I'd have to get a needle in a minute.

Haruhi stared.

"He looks better now. What did you do?"

"There were some toxins in his blood so I helped his body get rid of it. If you'd kept up with your training-" I stopped abruptly.

"You used martial arts?" Haruhi's eyes were shining as she nearly throttled me. "How? Teach me!"

How was I supposed to get out of this? Whatever, I may as well go with the truth. It wasn't like I was revealing the secret to the Mokou Takabisha.

"Even if I told you, you'd never be able to use it."

"Why not?" Haruhi looked annoyed.

"I used ki"

"Life energy?"

"Yes. You know, that stuff I told you needed years of intense meditation and physical training to develop?"

"But training is boring!" Haruhi complained.

"Nothing worthwhile is ever easy."

"If you have ki, how come you're not throwing around fireballs?"

"Everyone has ki," I corrected. "And fireballs? I'm not a sorcerer."

"Fine!" Haruhi said, before moving to clean up the mess. I was impressed at how little she minded the blood.

"…Haruhi?"

"Yeah?"

"Could you leave the bottle?"

"Idiot."

123123

A couple of hours had passed since we arrived at the inn. I was upstairs in one of the rooms. Jiro was on the bed. Haruhi was asleep in the room across the hall.

Jiro shifted slightly, his eyes blinking. "Ngh, how long was I out?"

"A couple of hours."

"I was sick for days the last time those damned things got me," Jiro said, surprised. "How?"

"An old healing technique, but that doesn't matter at the moment."

Jiro nodded. "You probably already guessed that they're not human."

I replayed the attack in my head. Those things moved more like birds than people.

"You're in way over your head," Jiro said. "Daybreak isn't that far off. Rest here. In a few hours, you can leave with your daughter. As long as you both avoid reentering the bridge between worlds, they won't be able to follow you."

"Bridge between worlds?"

Jiro lifted his gaze and looked at me as though I'd grown a second head. "You should have seen the bridge across the mist. No one can enter without passing that."

"I remember the bridge, but what's this about 'worlds'?"

Jiro buried his face in his hands. "For the love of…. You didn't notice?"

"The entire arcade is a sealed reality," he said exasperated. "It's not part of the normal world."

"That's ridiculous, sealed realities are-"

"Impossible?" Jiro asked "You just fought birdmen that vanish into piles of feathers. What about the arcade? Did nothing about it seem even a little strange to you?"

Well, since he put it that way…

"You'd be surprised what's out there." I said weakly.

"Why are you trying so hard to explain all this away?"

"I'm not! I'll admit you're right. This is another world. Happy?"

"No," he said. "All I'm concerned about is getting you and your daughter safely out of the arcade."

This wasn't good. "Haruhi comes here regularly. How is she able to get here in the first place?"

"I don't really know. The arcade was just like any other arcade when I left for university. One day, I got a letter from my mother. A lot of what she wrote didn't make sense. The only thing I understood was that something horrible had happened. I came back as soon as I could, but the entrance to the arcade had disappeared."

"I wandered the area for years, trying to find a trace of home. People thought I had gone insane. No one remembered the arcade at all. Then, when I had lost of hope, the bridge appeared in front of me."

"There are other people who've come. Everyone I've talked to found the bridge a different way. The only thing they have in common is that they've thought of leaving the normal world in one way or another."

My horror mounted at the implications. Could Haruhi have….

"Suicide?"

A bitter smile formed on Jiro's lips. "Sometimes, thankfully, there are other reasons. The most common is a feeling of alienation—like there's no place for them in the normal world."

"Can't they come here by accident?" I asked. Ryuoga could have wandered here at some point. Then again, Ryouga wasn't exactly the poster child for mental health.

"Not as far as I can tell. I've been here a very long time. There's always a story."

"What about me? My daughter dragged me here."

"What about you?" Jiro asked rhetorically. "You healed my infection in a fraction of the time it would have taken me to do it with the right medicines, fight like a seasoned veteran, and try so hard to be logical that you miss the obvious."

"…" I glared.

"Don't give me that look. You know I'm right."

He was right. I had my problems, and Haruhi had hers. "There has to be more. This place wouldn't be so empty if all it took was a death wish or loneliness."

"Maybe. If there is another element to this, I couldn't tell you- nor can I tell you why some people like your daughter can return."

And that was the fly in my soup. Haruhi could come back. I couldn't stop her—not when a magic bridge can poof into existence anywhere. Alright. Enough! If the gods wanted to play, I'll play.

"Is there a way to get rid of them?"

Jiro sat bolt upright, wincing at the sudden movement. "You can't be serious."

"Try me."

"You can take on two crows, but there are hundreds!"

I looked into Jiro's eyes, letting him taste the anger and frustration boiling violently beneath the surface. I was almost looking forward to it. Finally, an opponent I could punch. "Birdmen, crows- whatever they are—I'll hunt them to the last if that's what it takes."

"I knew you were crazy," Jiro said, shaking his head. "But I'm even crazier for believing you can actually help. There might be a way to stop the crows once and for all without killing ourselves in the process."

"I'm all ears."

Jiro got up from the bed. "Give me a few more stitches, and a change of bandages, then we can go to the study, and I'll show you."

123123

Jiro's study wasn't really a study. He had a shelf of books, but the rest of the room was more a workshop. Tools on racks and pegs covered almost every inch of available wall. Wood and stone of different varieties sat in neat piles on the corner. Raccoon statues in various states of completion sat on a long workbench.

The map of the arcade that Jiro had laid out easily covered the large table in the center of the room.

I whistled. "This is nice work." While the map was flat, it rendered the arcade in three dimensions by using different colors. The lower parts of the arcade were in dark brown ink, while the more elevated parts like the canopy were done in a light green.

"Thanks," Jiro said with a proprietary air.

"What are these red blocks?" I asked. Highlighted rectangles were scattered all over the maps outer perimeter.

"The red blocks are areas where the crows have taken over."

"All of that?" I asked surprised. "How come the crows hadn't attacked Haruhi and I as soon as we entered the arcade?"

"They don't attack everyone, just the ones who get in the way."

I glared. "Stop being so darn cryptic."

"Sorry." Jiro shook his head. "I'm so used to playing everything close to the chest. Getting others involved would only put them in danger." He slipped a hammer from his tool belt and started rolling the handle in his hands. "The crows want to take over this arcade."

"Makes sense." I nodded. "Why do they follow rules about not attacking visitors? If anyone who enters the arcade is a potential ally to you, getting rid of them before you even meet would be the easiest way to win."

"It's not that they choose to follow the rules. Crows are incapable of original thought. They're not really alive. Think of them more as robots, only instead of motors and gears, they're made of…." Jiro waved his hammer in small circular motions, looking for the right term. "Malign energy. They're physical manifestations of evil."

"Whatever they're made of, it's a good thing we can hurt them," I said.

"As far as I can tell, the crows appeared when the arcade became a separate world. They started destroying as much of Funaho no Ko as they could get their claws on. Fortunately, the tree had changed to the form we see today. It did something to keep the crows at bay long enough for me to arrive. However, it wasn't able to eliminate the crows for altogether. Where there are no traces of Funaho no Ko, a dark taint seeps from the ground."

"'Funaho's child'? I thought your father built the arcade."

"Yes, and don't ask me how it got its name. I've looked, and I haven't found records of Funaho in books of legend or history. My father did build the arcade, or at least a majority of the buildings including this inn."

Did Kana build the arcade including the artificial tree or didn't he? This whole story was giving me a headache so I focused on what I did understand. "If Funaho no Ko protects the arcade, then why hasn't it grown to the point where the crows are gone?"

"Because Funaho doesn't grow. I've tried." Jiro rubbed his forehead. "I know it takes in water and light. The sacred tree has to be alive since there are places in the arcade where sap is produced."

"Like the fermentation room? Haruhi brought me there earlier today. That wine is incredible."

"While Funaho is alive, it either doesn't grow or grows so slowly it that it may as well be stunted. That means every time the crows destroy more of Funaho no Ko's roots or the buildings in the arcade constructed with sacred lumber, the dark taint finds more land to spread. The taint is getting larger. I'm only one man, and Funaho no Ko's power cannot repel all attacks."

"How do we stop it?"

Jiro tapped his hammer against the eastern part of the map. "Here, where the taint is largest, is where I saw a giant nest. The place is full of crows. Nowhere else have I seen that many of them gathered. I think that nest is their source."

"How were you able to get close enough to see this?" I asked. "I'm guessing you have a way to reach there undetected."

"Beneath the arcade, Funaho no Ko has a network of roots. Some of them have carved tunnels large enough for a man to pass. I managed to find the nest early, back when the taint in the area hadn't been that large. While the roots there may have died due to the concentration of taint in the ground, I'm pretty sure the tunnels are still intact."

"Old Man, you there?" Haruhi's voice came from the hall.

"Okay, I think I understand the plan." I grimaced. "Now for the hard part."

123123

"Why can't I go with you?" Haruhi stomped the ground. "I'm good enough at sneaking. They won't even know where I am."

"I know you are, Haruhi." I placated, "But we're facing live blades and who knows what else." I placed a hand on her head. "Even if the odds are close to nothing, any risk of losing you is too much."

"Then why not call the police?"

"Because the police aren't equipped to handle this," Jiro stepped in, "And before the authorities escalate it to the people who do, a lot of policemen will have lost their lives. I've seen your father fight. He's proven that he can survive. If you get hurt, how will I face your father? Making amends would be impossible." Just before we went to meet Haruhi, I asked Jiro to keep the arcade's mystic nature a secret. He didn't seem too happy, but he played along.

Haruhi's eyes shimmered with building tears as she glared at Jiro. "Do what you want!" She whipped a finger at me, "You better come back alive, or it's the death penalty! You hear me? Death penalty!" She yelled as she ran up the stairs.

"Haruhi…." I said, leaning against the wall.

"If you die, I will tell her the truth. She deserves that much."

I looked up at him. "What's so wrong about wanting a normal life for her?"

"What's so wrong about including her in yours?" He countered, the grip on his hammer tightening. Catching himself, he turned away. "Sorry, it was not my intention to tell you your business."

I got up. "I'll go talk to her."

123123

Haruhi lay on the bed, her face buried in a pillow.

"Haruhi?

Something muffled came through the pillow.

"Could you say that again?"

Haruhi flipped over and locked eyes. "I said, 'Interesting people don't die!'"

I blinked. Surprised.

"What are you smiling for, you jerk?"

She was actually worried, like any regular person should have been. I felt a pang of guilt. Maybe Jiro was a little right.

Sitting on the bed beside her, I brought her close. "Haruhi, I'm not gonna die. Yes, what I'm about to do is really dangerous, which is why I want you to stay here where it's safe, but I promise that I would never risk disappearing forever. I love you too much for that."

I kissed the top of her head.

"And… I think…." I grasped at the words. "I think I need to do this—as a martial artist," and as soon as the words came out, I realized their truth. I'd been holding back for so long, I never even noticed a weight had been pressing down on my shoulders.

Haruhi looked up at me, surprise evident in her eyes. Then she smiled that thousand-watt smile of hers.

"Give them hell, Old Man."

123123

Gripping the strap of my carrying rack, I said, "Alright."

Jiro nodded his assent, and walked ahead. He had an identical carrying rack on his back. Fastened to the rack were wooden casks around ten liters each. The difference between his carrying rack and mine was that his also had a tap and pump mechanism strapped to the side. I opted to go without the machinery, and instead replaced the weight with two extra casks.

We walked to the back of the inn where there was a cellar door that opened to a network of tunnels formed long ago by the sacred tree's roots.

Jiro shut the cellar door above us. I squinted. Somehow, it wasn't completely dark inside.

"Funaho no Ko emits a dim light. We'll be able to see once our eyes adjust. I do have a couple of lanterns in case of emergency, but the crows can see in the dark so it's best that our night vision isn't hampered. He rested his carrying rack on the ground. "Ten minutes should be enough time to get used to the dark."

I stared at the tunnel wall. Little by little, the faint yellow light became more noticeable. The roots themselves glowed from the inside. "Don't you find it strange that the roots form tunnels large enough for us to walk?"

"Funaho no Ko is a sacred Tree, one with real power. I wouldn't be surprised if it has a plan for all of us. All I know is that Funaho no Ko does provide for our needs." He tapped on one of the casks. Inside was a wine called the Water of Life, which was made from the fermented sap of Funaho no Ko. It was the same wine that Haruhi and I shared earlier with a mysterious Ryoko.

Aside from tasting great, the Water of Life had another property that made it useful—the power to purify. "How effective is this wine?"

"It'll burn through like acid, producing smoky, black wisps. Out in the open, that's nothing to worry about. The problem comes when you fight crows with the Water of Life in an enclosed area."

"Don't tell me," I grimaced. "Those black wisps are poisonous."

"We'll have to knock crows down the hard way," Jiro confirmed. "I have a collapsible short staff, but I'll be relying on you for the bulk of the fighting- at least until we get out in the open." He re-shouldered his carrying rack, and waited for me to pick up my own.

"Let's get going."

123123

The network of underground tunnels seemed to spread in every direction. Jiro and I marched on with him in the lead. "How far do these tunnels go?" I asked.

"Even I haven't explored everything," he answered. "I can tell you that the area these tunnels cover is at least as large as the arcade above. Pipes for water, electricity, and other utilities run through here. Over the years, I've maintained and added to the arcade. This place is no exception."

We stopped at a fork. Jiro moved his hands over the plate that was just visible in the dim light. Embossed on those metal plates were patterns that were equivalent to their counterparts on the surface. "Third to the right," he said.

Our footsteps echoed in the distance. The silence was so complete I could hear my own heart beating. "Why do you do it?" I asked.

"Do what?"

I played with the collar of my shirt. "Defend this arcade. Don't you miss the outside world?"

"My father built this arcade with his own two hands. The arcade was more than a collection of buildings to him. It was part of his soul. Don't get me wrong, he loved my mother and I, but he kept any business related to the arcade very private. Whenever I'm here retracing his actions, doing the work he's done before… I feel like I can tell what was going through his mind. The incident happened so suddenly. Mother and I never got our answers. While I have my suspicions, that's all they are."

"So you're searching for closure?"

"I don't know. We could have shared his burden," Jiro said, balling his fists. "The regret I carry everyday… no innocent should bear that."

I hesitated. "He was only trying to protect you and your mother, I think."

Shaking his head, Jiro continued walking. "Whatever his reasons, the one thing my mother and I needed more than protection was his trust."

Jiro's back retreated further into the darkness. Who was right in the end? I didn't have the answer. Kana's actions had spared his wife and son from some pain and left them wide open to others. Was that all Kana's effort had led to?

123123

Eventually, we reached a point where there were no metal plates to guide the way. The omnipresent yellow faded away, replaced by dingy gray starlight that squeezed in from cracks above.

"It's not much further," Jiro announced. We stopped at another fork, which lead three separate directions.

Barely audible scuttling echoed through the underground.

"Do you hear that?" I whispered.

As though woken by my whisper, dozens of glistening ruby pinpricks winked into existence.

"Well, crap." I said. The tide of dark cloaks surged as one.

123123

Crunch went another beak as my elbow smashed with deadly accuracy. Just the shock from the impact should have been good enough to put an average man down. We were dealing as much damage as we could to keep the crows at bay while slowly backing towards our destination.

Jiro brought his short staff in a shallow arc to parry a set of razor claws, and then followed with an overhead strike that broke through an arm bone. We were dealing our fair share of punishment, but the Crows proved to be incredibly resilient, attacking even though they sustained what should have been crippling injuries. Snapping a set of claws with a well-placed flick of the wrist, I considered my options.

I could hear my companion's breath getting heavier. A quick glance at his side revealed a slowly spreading patch of red through his white shirt. Jiro swung again, but this time his strike was slow and the crow dodged. Another crow stabbed its beak forward causing Jiro to stumbled back, barely avoiding getting skewered.

In a few minutes, Jiro would be too tired. I kicked a spray of stones at our attackers to give him time to get back up. I could tell that we were losing a battle of attrition. We needed something drastic.

"Jiro," I yelled, twisting to the side so I could knee a crow that had committed too much momentum to a forward thrust. "Which way?"

Miraculously, Jiro heard me over the din. "Left!" He said, whipping his short staff across another crow's head.

"Get behind me. NOW!"

Thankfully, Jiro obeyed immediately, diving into a role. Using both hands, I drove a finger each into two of the casks, then folded patterns of ki derived from a half-formed technique onto the surface before slamming them onto the tunnel ceiling. Just like the eggs, the casks wobbled on the ceiling for a split second and then snapped in place. The Water of Life began streaming out from the holes where my fingers had pierced the wood.

Jiro barely had enough time to realize the horror of what I had done when I unleashed the attack. "Saotome School of Anything Goes Martial Arts Indiscriminate Combo, Drunken Dragon's Wrath!"

With the Chestnut Fist's blistering speeds, I struck, sending fists of wine into the melee. Crows were thrown back violently as they burned in mid fall, and the Water of Life did its work, savaging their bodies with burning holes.

True to Jiro's description, the black smoke from fallen crows expanded violently, producing a loud, pressure-changing 'WUMP', as it surged towards us.

"Shiiiiiiiiitttttt!" Jiro's screamed in terror.

While gathering the hot ki of battle, I focused on the Soul of Ice.

"Hiryuu." Crows were thrown about like ragdolls by drastic changes in pressure.

"Shoten." Some had tried to attack, but met with a frigid barrier that froze lethally on contact.

"HA!" I thrust out a cold fist, igniting a reaction that was as familiar to me as the back of my hand. The opposing forces of ki twisted together into a tornado that ripped apart everything that entered its gaping maw.

The left-most tunnel had cleared, but not for long. More were coming.

"We gotta go!" I said.

Jiro got to his feet, dashing despite his injuries. We reached the end of the tunnel, crows slashing and pecking at our heels. I grabbed one of the crows and threw it back against the others, preparing to make a stand, but the builder's son took something out of his tool belt and threw it along the ground. The crows that were about to attack stopped suddenly, tilted their heads, and then, as though seeing nothing, turned back the way they came.

I crouched down to get a better look at what Jiro had thrown. They were small pieces of sacred lumber.

"Tanuki carvings," Jiro explained. "They don't last very long, but they have a limited power to transform, disguise, or fool. The crows aren't very smart to begin with so I fooled their senses into believing that the tunnel had ended. That… that was some trick you did there. I thought we were done for." His expression sobered. "Who are you really?"

I closed my eyes and rested against the tunnel wall. "I'm just a father trying to make the world a safer place for his daughter."

123123

At tunnel's end, a set of roots had pushed the ground up enough to breach the surface. It let us view the surroundings without getting spotted by eyes from above. We rested there long enough for me to look after Jiro's stitches.

Unfortunately, that's where our luck ended. True to Kana's earlier description there was a giant nest. Signs were present that this section of the arcade had originally been semi-circular, but the concrete and stone had been reduced to rubble, leaving only twisted rebar. The crows had then woven other pieces of rebar, wire, strips of tarp, and anything else they could find to complete their nest.

Old lawn chairs, stop signs, and even traffic lights were somehow worked together to form precarious spires that jutted out from the nest like demonic fingers clawing at the sky. On these spires perched lines of crows, their eyes unblinking scarlet stars in the anemic evening light.

"There are residential areas on the second floor," Jiro said, "The nest hadn't been as large the last time I saw it. I hadn't thought that they would add to the structure this much."

"Residential areas?" I said, before remembering the legend. "Kana's blood kin. You think they're the source."

Jiro's expression darkened. "Yes. I'm sure that the arcade will heal once I stop them."

"Footing on that is going to be tricky at best. We won't be able to fight." I frowned. "That's not the worst part. You didn't tell me your darned crows could fly!"

"I thought calling them 'crows' would be self-explanatory," Jiro responded dryly. "Those black capes can morph into wings when this much taint is in the air."

Biting my lower lip, I considered the Bakusai Tenketsu, but I lacked the level of mastery required to form tunnels like Ryouga could. Charging at the nest and blowing a hole through it was also more than likely going to bring the whole structure down on our heads. Then there was Jiro's injuries- if I were alone, getting in would be a snap. However, this wasn't my fight. What we needed was a clear window to reach the second floor without getting attacked. This was going to suck.

"Remember when I said I would hunt the crows to extinction?"

The Tatsura heir mechanically turned his head in my direction.

I gave him a sickly grin. "Looks like that's not going to be much of an exaggeration."

"…" said Jiro.

"Here's the plan," I said, "I'll go out first, kick ass, then collapse from exhaustion. Your job will be to come after and make sure that any crows I miss don't peck the brain from out my ears."

"…" said Jiro a second time.

"I know it sounds like certain death, but don't worry, as a trained martial artist, I know what I'm doing."

"Don't forget to come after me," I said one last time, levering myself through the opening.

123123

Once outside, I hit the ground running, looking for a place with a clear line of sight to the sky above. I would be fighting hundreds of crows- each one maneuverable enough to change direction. Firing Mokou Takabisha would cost too much energy, the Hiyuu Shoten Ha would not be nearly as damaging out in the open, and going hand to hand would take too long. In this situation, there was only one technique I could use.

Decades had passed since my final duel with Shampoo, but the memory of that fight had not faded into the void. While I wasn't as strong as I could have been, I was no slouch. More importantly, I possessed far more mental discipline than I had as that fledgling in Nerima.

Fine dust rose as I slid to a stop. The crows, finally noticing my presence, took to the air, forming a large, roiling cloud of squawking demons.

Kneeling on one leg, I placed my right hand against the ground and concentrated. The ki poured from my reserves, flowing down into the ground before emerging as motes of light that softly phased in and out of existence.

Sweat poured from my brow. "50…75…100…150…200," I counted, trying to form as many orbs as I could before the crows attacked.

As though reading my mind, one of the larger crows cawed loudly, signaling the others to dive. In quick succession, the crows pitched their wings to catch the wind, and then fell like deadly obsidian rain.

The orbs, which had been floating lazily off the ground, sprang to life, forming a galaxy of tiny orbiting stars with me as its center.

"Saotome School Final Attack, Dance of the Fireflies."

Thrusting my left hand up, I let the orbs flash into the sky where they would welcome the oncoming crows. Each glowing orb had only an eighth the power of a regular Mokou Takabisha, but compressed to explosive effect.

And as the first orbs met their target, brain-jarring shockwaves transformed the sky into a cage of devastation. Crows were blown to bits either by a direct hit or by being in between two opposing detonations. Black feathers fell like volcanic ash, heavy and thick.

I hadn't gotten all of them, but with the main force destroyed, the stragglers were either hit by the last of my fireflies or had flown away. The dumber crows that did try their luck were quickly reduced to smoke by Jiro's high-pressure wine tap.

123123

With the crows whittled down, we were able to scale the nest. Inside the courtyard lay piles of junk. Dropping the pair of carrying racks that I had been shouldering, I idly picked up a cracked mirror before tossing it back. "You'd think that evil magical birds would pick up better stuff."

"They have to be here somewhere." Jiro scanned the courtyard. "There!" he said, charging forward.

"Hey, wait up!"

On the far side of the courtyard was a building of sorts. It was hard to tell beneath the confusing tangle of wreckage. As I got closer, it became more apparent that someone had built a patchwork house from different pieces of the arcade. Windows were made of wooden frames and bits of stained glass, and the roof was a mix of multihued shingles. The house's façade had come from several store fronts and even one side of a phone booth.

"Open up!" Jiro pounded on a door that looked like it could use a new coat. "I know someone's in there!"

I glanced at the rain gutters made of splintering bamboo, and wondered if there really was anyone home.

I opened my mouth. "Maybe they-"

The door opened. On the other side, holding the latch, stood a tall woman with her hair done up in a bun. She was in her thirties, and wore a lily patterned white bound tight with a dark brown obi.

"Aunt Sanae?" Jiro said in surprise before his face twisted into pure hatred. "Die!"

Pure reflex took over. My hand caught Jiro's before the chisel gave the woman a new breathing hole.

"Let go!" Jiro struggled, putting his other arm into the effort of pushing the chisel forward.

"What the hell do you think you're doing? I'm not going to stand by and let you murder someone in front of me."

All the while, the woman who answered the door hadn't moved an inch. She stared down at us, brown eyes dispassionate. A drop of blood trickled from the needle-sharp point to the place where my hand met the chisel's shaft.

It was cold.

"Don't waste your time," she said in a voice like iron. "I'm already dead."

123123

The inside of the house was unexpected compared to the exterior. Tatami covered the floor. Washi paper was used on the walls to conceal the less uniform aspects of construction. There were also decorative pieces like calligraphy scrolls and a katana on a stand- although, if Nabiki had taught me anything, that sword was a 'showato' or non-traditionally made military sword.

Sitting across the short-legged tea table were two women. The first was the one who had met us at the door; the other was taller but younger. She wore her hair shoulder length, and was dressed in a pinstripe business suit and skirt of fine cut. Her eyes were sharp, but they weren't trained on me or anyone else in particular. The way she smiled held a trace of grim humor, like the gods had made everything into a joke at her expense.

"I'll begin with the introductions for the benefit of everyone," the woman in the kimono said. "My name is Sanae Tatsura, eldest of the four Tatsura sisters." She motioned to the woman beside her. "This is Yayoi, the second."

Sanae then said "You may come in."

The door to the adjoining room slid open. Another two women were kneeling on the other side, each one holding trays of tea. They entered and proceeded to serve us.

"Our youngest with the twin tails is Uzuki" The short girl in a yellow sundress bowed as she put the tea in front of me. In a breach of manners, she had avoided going over to Jiro in order to serve him, instead opting to place the cup as close as possible to her nephew from my side of the table.

"And the last is Hazuki." The final Tatsura sister was clearly the most beautiful of the bunch, with hair that fell in loose curls around her face. What stood out was that she was the least formal, wearing a loose yukata as though she were out for a summer stroll in the family estate. She stood behind Sanae and Yayoi after finishing, and was soon joined by Uzuki.

"Sisters, this is Ranma Suzumiya, and our nephew Jiro."

I sipped the tea and did my best not to make a face. It tasted like mummified sawdust. After I managed to calm Jiro to the point where he wouldn't fly off into a homicidal rage, I was able to pay attention to what my senses were telling me. None of the Tatsura women had any ki.

On the table was a glass oil lamp filled with a golden liquid. It was identical to the one that Hazuki and Uzuki shared behind the two elder sisters. As I watched the two younger sisters, I noticed that they were actually huddling closer to the flame as though they were getting warmth from a camp fire even though I could feel no heat.

"Why are we sitting through this farce?" Jiro asked acidly.

"Do they look alive to you? They're white as sheets, and I told you I can't feel even a trace of life energy from them. How about that they look like they haven't aged in thirty years?"

Jiro bristled, glaring daggers at his aunts.

Sanae stood. "I see now that we will not move forward unless your aggression is satisfied, I would request that you make do with killing only me."

"This is justice, you witch!"

"If I were still alive, I would call it murder."

I put an arm out to stop Jiro from launching himself at her. "Hey lady, are you trying to get yourself killed?"

"I'm already dead, remember?" Her eyes met mine, revealing a bone deep weariness at odds with her actions.

I grabbed the soul of ice and sent a pulse of cold ki into Jiro. "Cool off." The pulse was enough to disrupt his body's response to anger. It wasn't a fool proof method, but changing the conditions of the body could affect the mind.

Jiro lost his balance from his sitting position and fell on his back. He looked at me surprised, and then blinked before getting back up. He was still angry, but at least his blind rage had subsided.

"Ms. Sanae, please." I motioned to the cushion.

She bowed before taking a seat.

"Jiro, will you let me do the talking?" I asked.

Pressing his lips together tightly, he nodded.

"Now we're getting somewhere." I addressed Sanae, "Could we start with how you ended up in your err… current living conditions?"

The eldest Tatsura smiled slightly. "To gain a full understanding of the situation, we will have to go into the Tatsura family history."

I took a second to realize that she was indirectly asking for my permission because the story was long— a courtesy offered by only the most aristocratic ladies or geisha. It was hard to believe Jiro was even related to them.

"Our parents were second generation machine factory owners. They weren't descended from Samurai or any noble lineage. What they did have was a tenacity of spirit that could rival any feudal lord. During the industrialization of Japan, we Tatsuras amassed so much wealth and power that we were well on our way to establishing a dynasty."

Sanae sipped her tea. Did the dead need to drink or was it habit? I looked around furtively and could find no sign of food either.

"Times were hard during the economic downturn following the Second World War, but our parents had the foresight to secure their wealth against such eventualities. In a period when lower noble houses were reduced to selling their heirlooms and fineries, our parents were able to obtain betrothals for us sisters to men of excellent families. They died satisfied in the knowledge that all their children would be influential and well provided for."

A long tempered rage crept into her voice. She spoke directly to Jiro, "…that was, until your father, the Holy Man Kana brought it all tumbling down."

I felt Jiro tense. Squeezing his shoulder, I wordlessly urged him to be patient.

"He was first born and only son. Tradition dictated that he become the heir. For years after the Second World War, he was the perfect custodian of the Tatsura legacy, gaining impressive ground in the market. Then something changed. He met an orphan, and fell in love with a common seamstress."

"Yes, Jiro, that was you."

I turned to Kana's son, "Then that woman at the cloth shop?"

"My mother," he confirmed.

He glared at Sanae. "He married for love, so what? Better than being some social climber!"

"You may not think much of us, but even then, do you think your father had any right at all to ruin our lives?"

"You were all provided with generous dowries. I know that for a fact!"

The bitterness of Sanae's laugh sent chills down my spine. "If you truly regard us as 'social climbers' then you'll have to consider our position. The agreement of marriage could not stand on mere dowry."

"You should be familiar with the rest of the tale, Jiro. Kana found a poverty stricken district, and used the family fortune to bail it out. He built this arcade at the district's heart as his own personal playground. Naturally, our husbands shunned us, and their families treated us like complete outcasts. Divorce would bring dishonor to them, so they stomached our existence."

"That can't be possible…" Jiro said. "Funaho no Ko-"

"You mean your cursed sacred tree? We'll accept that it is magical. After all, its magic is responsible for dooming us to this hell. One might ask this question, however: If Funaho no Ko were solely responsible for reviving the district and this arcade, then where did all the money go?"

Jiro was trying his best to deny it, but even he couldn't ignore how much the story fit. "Father… he never told me."

It was Sanae's turn to be surprised. Then, in a self-deprecating tone, she said "I should have known. Kana was always such a fool. Even in the middle of the ugliest battle of his life, he wanted you to think that we were all one big happy family. When we met, I thought that the show you put on with your mother was all an act. Now it all makes sense."

Hazuki and Uzuki, who had been huddled by the lamp suddenly didn't look so comfortable.

"What makes sense?" I prodded.

"Mr. Suzumiya, we shall get to that shortly." She exchanged a glance with Yayoi. "When I learned of what Kana had done, I rallied us here. The Tatsura name was lost, but the wealth could still be recovered, at least enough that all of us could repair our lives. Within the arcade, there is a council that serves and administrative function. It is composed of representatives whose voting power equaled the amount of property and tenants under them. Using our connections and the wealth of our husbands, we bought property in the district and arcade in order to enter that council. Upon membership, we did whatever it took to eliminate legitimate members or bring then to heel. Our husbands' families pooled their resources to create a shadow development firm that would buy the district at severely undervalued prices."

As an architect, I had heard what would likely follow from people in supporting industries. The company would plant cabbages and claim that the land was for agricultural purposes in order to avoid residential property tax rates. This gave them time to consolidate their holdings while people went homeless because the pseudo-agricultural land would artificially increase land prices to unreasonable highs.

"However, on the eve of the settlement agreement's signing, the entire arcade was sealed. The document we used was made from paper derived from the wood of your sacred tree. In our pride, that was the greatest of follies. Black smoke leaked from the agreement's pages, and coalesced into crows.

When my sisters and I regained consciousness, everyone was dead. We exist as meat to feed the crows- to die and come back in a twisted cycle. The agreement that holds our names binds us here. Destroy that agreement and you will destroy the crows."

"You mean those crows have been eating you alive for almost forty years?" I wanted to hate them for what they did to Kana and the arcade, but what happened—what was still happening to them was too much. A quick glance at Uzuki latching in white knuckled terror to Hazuki was enough to confirm the truth.

Sanae stood. Looking at Jiro, she said, "I will not ask for forgiveness. Whatever punishment we had earned from our sins had been paid in full long ago. If you want us to suffer further, then that blood is on your hands."

She stood and bowed. "If you'll excuse me, I have matters to attend. Yayoi will handle the rest."

123123

As I watched the door Sanae closed, I wondered what other matters an undead woman in a prison of ruin could possibly have.

"She's very proud," Yayoi said, guessing my question. "Speaking of the past has taken a lot out of her. To top everything, what Jiro said about Kana keeping the council and inheritance a secret means that elder brother was still hoping for reconciliation, and confirms something that we had suspected for a while."

While Yayoi spoke, Hazuki and Uzuki had loosened one of the wall panels and together uncovering the door to a shop.

Yayoi had taken the lamp from the table. "Gentlemen, if you would follow me."

Inside the shop was as rundown as I expected. Shelves were covered in dust and debris, and lose bits of building material littered the floor. The strange part was that I couldn't tell what kind of shop it used to be. Nothing was left displayed. There were only three of us in the shop, the other two sisters opting to stay behind.

As we walked to the back of the shop, Yayoi spoke. "Unlike Sanae, I have no interest in family honor or prestige. To me, the bottom yen is precisely the bottom yen. I supported her because I saw an opportunity to take back the money that Kana had so carelessly spent."

"Father helped a lot of people with that money," Jiro defended.

She waved him off. "He probably contributed to the happiness of many, and a fat lot of good a fat wad is going to do me in the afterlife. If I were still alive, maybe we'd be having a different conversation, but that's how the market crumbles."

Positioning the lamp, she illuminated a set of earthen steps going downwards. "I dedicated my life to study, getting a double economics and business major. The district deal was even going to be a case study in my master's thesis—heavily edited of course," she said, smiling crookedly at her own joke.

We followed the steps down to a tunnel. Besides the lantern light, the faint yellow glow was back. Jiro had noticed it too.

"How can Funako no Ko be here?" he asked. "Taint has killed all the roots outside the nest."

The tunnel brightened as we got deeper. There was another source of light.

"That is a mystery that you're better qualified to solve than anyone else." Yayoi stopped. "And here's your clue." Stepping aside, she allowed us to get a clear view of a glowing fountain. It was flowing with the same golden liquid that burned in Yayoi's lamp.

I dipped in a finger. It was lukewarm, and slid off the skin like mercury.

Jiro felt the stone. "This is Taishou era stonework." He looked at Yayoi skeptically, "You built this?"

Yayoi rolled her eyes. "Please, the house upstairs was the best us four sisters could do in four decades. Even if we had the skill, we don't have the tools. Look harder."

The fountain was a basin type with a spout shooting up the middle. The stonework was sharp, and the outlines more prominent. Because light was coming off the strange liquid, and the roots, lighting was uneven and hid a lot in shadow. Borrowing the lamp from Yayoi, I illuminated the fountain's base.

"Jiro," I said, "look at this."

On the stone, carved in intricately fine detail were places in the arcade. I recognized the tanuki gathered on the first walkway that Haruhi and I had explored, and a carving of Tatsura Inn. More amazing was how Funaho no Ko grew into the carvings, its roots highlighting aspects of the stonework.

Jiro went to his knees, stunned. "Human hands couldn't have created this… but I know my father's work when I see it. The ways he textures his carvings is unique. If it were only one or two elements, then I could say that it was a brilliant forge or something I made, but everything from the fur on the tanuki to the line patterns on the leaves match his other carvings perfectly."

"So Kana decided to throw us a lifeline- even after everything," Yayoi said. "The liquid you see in the fountain is actually enchanted gold, or to be more precise, the spirit of value.

We used to live on the second floor of this shop, and we ran here when the arcade was sealed. The light from the gold warms our spirits in the most literal way. Without it, we would have lost ourselves to madness, reduced to our basest desires. We know this to be true because of what my sisters and I feel whenever we're away from the light for too long. The taint corrupts by sucking away the value in our souls."

She checked her watch. "An hour and a half before midnight- that's when the agreement and its guardian will appear. You have a choice to make, Jiro: Help us destroy the settlement agreement, and free us, or gather your mother and leave the arcade. Whichever you choose, please hurry, you don't have much time."

She turned around and left us to ourselves.

123123

Jiro sat at the fountains lip, hands clasped as though in prayer. "After all these years, I finally get some answers. Can't the world wait? Just for a day?" The Tatsura heir rested his forehead against his knuckles. "I need time to understand, to accept… to grieve."

I stayed quiet. Rushing would only waste time. What would I do in Jiro's place? The differences between us were too large for me to make a fair decision.

"You know the saddest part?" he said with a trace of bitter humor. "I already know what must be done. But I hate them so much. A few eloquent words won't change that. They took away my home, and cost my mother her sanity."

Running his fingers across the fountain's golden pool, he asked, "Do you know where the spirit of value comes from, Ranma? I just figured it out."

I shook my head.

"Everything in the arcade is a balance. The crows formed because there was an excess of greed in this reality. My father would not have allowed that evil to leak into the real world, which left them one other alternative—create a good that can dispel evil.

On the first week of every summer, fermentation of the Water of Life is completed, and a procession forms. Other-worldly beings put aside their differences and proffer gold as payment for a taste of divine wine. In this arcade, even gods and demons walk the same street and share the same cup without a hint of enmity. These are the sentiments enchanting every ounce of gold that disappear into wooden bowls all over the arcade. I didn't know where all that money was going, until today."

"This fountain is my father's kindness. While Funaho no Ko is locked in a stalemate against the heart of the taint, his will made it possible for my aunts to survive their torment with souls intact."

I blinked as comprehension dawned. "So the gold is why the roots glow. Funaho no Ko has been trying to purify the taint."

"If he loved them so much that even in death, he would protect them. Why would my father have liquidated the Tatsura fortune and ruin their lives?

Right now, what I hate my aunts for the most is bearing witness to Kana Tatsura's imperfections. I've idolized him for most of my life. He saved me from the streets, healed the wounds that couldn't be seen, and benefited countless people in the district he saved, but he was mortal. He could also be short-sighted, distant, and the cause of indescribable pain to the people he loved the most."

I could tell that he wasn't speaking only of his aunts. For all the hate and anger he possessed, and the suffering he endured, Jiro had made the decision I was hoping for.

"Maybe sometimes, it's okay to do the right thing for the wrong reasons," I said. My words would not resolve his issues, but at least this way he could have the time that he so desperately needed.

123123

The four sisters sat at the table, silently sharing the remaining lamp. Reflections of the flame danced against their eyes like the dull shine of the moon on a shallow pool. They stood as I approached.

"Where's Jiro?" Yayoi asked.

"Still at the fountain," I said. "He needed to be alone."

"I never wanted this," the youngest whispered.

"Uzuki…" Sanae warned, stepping towards her.

The youngest sister hid behind Hazuki, who covered her further. "She's only said what we're all thinking. This is our first real hope in decades, and it's in the hands of a nephew who would sooner put a chisel through our throats than save us."

"Why did you have to tell him about how Kana screwed up?" Uzuki asked, grabbing at the collar of her own kimono to restrain herself. "We could have begged for his help. Is your damned pride worth an eternity in this hell?"

Sanae's posture straightened, adding a couple of inches to her height. "My pride- our pride let us stand among the men and women who would move the country."

Uzuki sneered at her sister in disgust. Seeming to decide that it was a lost cause, she shifted her attention to me. "Mr. Suzumiya, he seems to listen to you, isn't there anything you could do to convince him?"

"That won't be necessary."

Everyone turned towards the shop door. Jiro stepped from the shadows into the room.

"Then…" A smile began to form on Hazuki and Uzuki's face, but Jiro's glared stopped them short.

"Sanae," he said, purposefully leaving out her honorific as her aunt. "You said that you will not ask for forgiveness. That suits me just fine. I will not- cannot give it. Though if for some reason, that twisted heart of yours decides to be grateful, then thank father. It was only his love for you all that kept me from deciding to leave."

That wasn't strictly true, but I wasn't going to begrudge Jiro his white lie.

He faced Yayoi. "You said that the agreement would have a guardian. How much time do we have left? And tell us everything you know. All this garbage will be an even bigger waste of life if we don't defeat whatever it is."

"Looks like I'll be asking for one last favor," he said to me apologetically.

I smirked. "And miss all the fun?"

123123

It was a quarter hour 'til midnight. An eerie stillness filled the courtyard outside the house. The piles of junk that Jiro and I had passed earlier marked the ground like the outlines of fresh burial mounds.

"The crows have disappeared," Yayoi said. "They're gathering."

"Are you sure about this?" Jiro asked, referring to the plan for what seemed like the tenth time in the last ten minutes.

"No sweat," I said with confidence I didn't have. My reserves were still low and we had no idea what our opponent could do. I shook my head free of thoughts. At times like this, the best thing to do is give it your and hang the consequences.

Yayoi had called it the Raven King because it was bigger and smarter than a regular crow. As a matter of fact, it was a combination of several crows.

Yayoi crossed her arms over her stomach, hugging herself. "When the Raven King appears, so will the settlement agreement. You will have to draw the King away from the agreement so that Jiro can destroy it. My sisters and I will stay inside the house. Are you sure that you don't want our help?"

I nodded. "I'll need the room. Having more people on the field will make it harder." The courtyard was the size of two high school gyms, and I would need every square meter.

Flapping. Crows flew in from every direction, the sounds of their flight mixing into a loud thrum.

"Good Luck," Yayoi said before retreating into the house.

A writhing red fog seeped from the mounds of junk, creating ribbons of scarlet that coalesced in the middle of the courtyard. Soon the fog had gathered so thickly that it was impossible to tell what was happening within.

The red fog rolled and twisted violently, and then broke apart and faded into nothing. At the center of where the fog had concentrated was a giant throne where a stack of papers an inch thick rested. The agreement!

I started to move, but before I could get close enough, speeding crows diving faster than I'd ever seen them dive before struck the agreement, dissolving into a viscous dark liquid on contact. The ball of black floated an inch above the paper, rippling and churning as more and more crows were swallowed into its dark depths.

The crows ran out in seconds, but the black ball had expanded to the size of a small two room townhouse. And then it took shape, producing talons and a serrated beak as large as the nosecone to a bullet train.

It wasn't the largest enemy I've ever faced, Happosai had died years ago, but I still remember his supersize technique. It was really more for show than anything else considering the massive amounts of ki used. This malevolent energy, however, was another pit of cats entirely.

The black ooze solidified, absorbing itself as the form of a humungous bird with misshapen wings that closely resembled human arms separated from the sticky sphere. When the transformation was complete, the result was a cross between a Neanderthal and a crow. The sloping forehead and beady eyes matched the tiny crown resting on a disproportionately large head.

What made the whole thing more surreal was that the Raven king was wearing clothes- the undersized tatters of a prince's costume complete with a demonic silver epaulet encrusted with human skulls, and a suit that could not hide a large, round belly.

Jiro and I stood transfixed as the Raven King's rotated its head until its eyes stopped on us, what smelled like rancid oil dripped in copious, foamy globs from its open beak while a thin tongue danced among the serrations. I watched as its brow came together like the collision of glaciers.

It roared.

"I think it knows who we are. Run!"

We ran in opposite directions, following the perimeter of the courtyard. As I ran, I noticed that the Raven King was moving after Jiro.

Picking up as many hard and pointy objects as I could from the ground, I started hurling them at the monster.

"Hey, you buzzard, I'm over here!" I said, punctuating my insult with a tarnished brass candle holder to the back of the head.

The crow swung around, and roared again, then charged, junk launching into the air as the bird plowed through the piles.

Good. I got its attention. Now to make sure it's nice and busy….

"STOP" I held out a hand with such supreme bravado that the crow backpedalled to a halt. Yayoi had been right- it was smart enough to understand language.

Arms to me side help parallel to the ground, I stomped, kicking up an impressive cloud of dust.

"HaaaaaaAAAAaaaaaaAAaaaaa," the earth beneath my feet shook, and a visible corona of faint blue ki enveloped my body.

"Saotome School of Anything Goes Martial Arts Final Attack!" I shot out like a speeding bullet towards my gigantic opponent.

The Raven King reacted by sending a fist-like wing hurtling in my direction. I pressed on, fearless and determined.

"Duck," I said, crouching just enough to feel its feathers as the massive wing harmlessly passed overhead.

"Turn," pivoting smoothly on one foot, my back was to the raven before it could even stop its punch.

"Runaway!" I withdrew like the wind.

The Raven King paused, blinked, and bellowed in anger with such force that the windows around the nest cracked further.

Large furrows were ripped into the dirt as the Raven King's talons pushed for greater speed. I jumped over another punch.

"You call that a punch? I've seen better punches at a charity dinner!"

I bounced a few rocks off its beak for good measure. That's it Kingy, get distracted.

The plan was simple: Since I didn't have the energy to take the Raven King down outright, I would draw it away while Jiro slipped in and destroyed the agreement from right under its beak.

The only living Tatsura heir had gotten down, and had been crawling out of sight towards his goal. He was only a few meters away.

The Raven King must have noticed that I had been distracted because it swung around, and followed my line of sight right towards Jiro. Crap! It really was a lot smarter!

With a large breath, the Raven King's chest expanded like an airbag. Oh no, not that move!

"Take cover!" I yelled desperately, knowing that it was useless, but right before the shockwave was released, someone shoved him out of the way.

A body blurred as it was blown back like a plastic bag in a tornado, cartwheeling until it was stopped by an impact against the courtyard's inside ring.

The Raven King saw that it missed, and it was going to create another shockwave. I was about to run towards it when my foot hit a set of familiar barrels. The Water of Life!

"Do it!" I yelled at Jiro.

The Tatsura heir, who had been turning in the direction of his savior, regained his bearings, and pulled a glass lamp from his tool belt. Lighting the wick with a match, he prepared to throw.

I heard the Raven King draw another breath.

"Oh no you don't!" I kicked six barrels of purifying wine at the Raven King's neck. The flying barrels shattered on impact, eating through enough of the monster to prevent the attack. At the same time, Jiro hit his mark, the lamp smashed against the throne, engulfing the agreement in flames.

With the source of its magic purified in fires fueled by the spirit of value, the Raven King slowly melted into a mix of black ooze and dying crows.

But there would be no celebration. At one end of the courtyard, Yayoi, Hazuki, and Uzuki watched as Jiro cradled a badly broken Sanae in his arms.

"Why did you save me?" he asked, angrily. "Why couldn't you have stayed in the house?"

"Because only I should bear the cost of my pride," she said, her eyes filling with one final spark of determination before fading completely.

As the last of the agreement burned to nothing, the four sisters lost form, their bodies glowing gold like the light that had sustained them for so long.

"If we meet your father, we'll tell him of how you saved us," Yayoi said before she and her sisters disappeared in the coming daylight.

123123

Jiro and I walked to the inn, his left arm slung over my shoulder. We were exhausted after an entire night battling crows. On the bright side, the air was fresh, and the arcade was beautiful. Light, unadulterated by taint, gently touched our surroundings, revealing infinite hues of green and brown that soothed my tired eyes.

"So… what are you going to do now?" I asked.

"I haven't fully decided yet," he answered, looking into the distance. "Maybe I'll stay and continue this arcade. Perhaps I'll even find a way to join this place back to the real world."

"Don't you already have your answers?" He had spent the better part of his life chasing after his father's shadow. I wished that he would finally live for his own sake.

He shook his head. "Even now, there are still questions. I'll never know what spurred my father to spend all his family's wealth to save the district and its people. You may find this laughable, but until this happened, I believed that my father was simply born a good man."

"There's nothing wrong with having dreams," I said.

"There are dreams, and then there are illusions. My aunt's account was of a normal man, as prone to mistakes as the rest of us. I may come to terms given time, but it's not a process I'd recommend to anyone, especially when it can be avoided," Jiro said.

I remembered his objection to how I treated Haruhi. "What exactly do you want me to do?" I asked, "Tell her that magic and monsters are real? I want her to have a life where she doesn't have to be constantly on guard for the next insane rival, random curse, or demonic summon. When you stepped into this arcade, Jiro, the crows entered your life. Are you saying that you want something that dangerous to happen to her too?"

He shook his head. "I had to save my mother. But what I do want you to see is that I stayed because I needed to find the truth about my father. Maybe I don't know either of you that well. However, I can tell that Haruhi cares for you. You can't predict the future, Ranma. If Haruhi finds another mysterious place after seeing a hint of this side of you, she might go looking for answers on her own."

We continued walking in silence. Jiro was right, but not in the way he expected. I may have protected Haruhi from too much, leaving her open to other dangers just as Kana had.

123123

Haruhi stood at the inn's front gate, switching between folding her arms, and glancing impatiently at her watch.

"LATE!" she proclaimed, stomping towards us.

Seeing us up close, her eyes widened in surprise. Jiro and I must have looked pretty bad, covered in torn cloths, scrapes, and dirt. She plastered her frown back on.

"Super late! If you're going on a crusade against bad guys, you should finish things quickly and immediately!"

"Uh, okay." I agreed, not really sure how to react.

Haruhi walked up and pushed her face against my chest so only the top of her head was in view.

"Oof," I flinched reflexively at the punch to the gut. It didn't really hurt, she had been holding back. Haruhi held her fist in place. Jiro stepped away under his own power, and was heading inside to give us privacy. "Fool…" she said, hiding herself in my dirty shirt.

Haruhi was wearing a pair of strapped sandals. Her heels had become mildly swollen. Putting a gentle hand on her back, I guided her to a nearby bench. "C'mon, let's go sit over there."

"How long were you out here?" I asked, concerned. There was a chill in the air.

"Humph, like I'd stay out here waiting for you! I just woke up," she said, turning her back to me.

The sudden change made me blink. Which one was it? Was she worried or not? I lowered my head in resignation, daughters….

"How did it go?" Haruhi asked.

I blinked. "Well, I guess. The bad guys are gone."

Haruhi grabbed the front of my shirt. "Fighting that armed gang was hard and dangerous right? You did something special. Be more proud of yourself!"

"How am I supposed to find a moment to brag when I'm too busy figuring out my confusing daughter?" I said lightly.

Haruhi let go, distancing herself. I think I put my foot in it again.

"Do I really get in the way?" She asked, hurt plainly in her voice.

"No, Haruhi, I was…" I trailed off, realizing the absurdity of it all. She really was afraid. Nabiki and I had insulated her from our true selves so much that Haruhi had formed her own answers based on insecurity. Even her philosophy about boring people was derived from the fact that she was largely unaware of what had caused the difficulties between Nabiki and I. Little by little; I was beginning to understand how my daughter thought.

To Haruhi, people were not 'boring' because they had dull and uninteresting personalities. She considered them boring because they forced themselves to blend in. They followed the rules, acted happy even though they weren't, and were miserable for it. Boring people were chained down by the opinions of others, too afraid to think and act for themselves. Nabiki was brilliant and fascinating, but that didn't save her from becoming a boring person in Haruhi's eyes.

Interesting people, on the other hand, didn't necessarily have to be strange or quirky in some way. What Interesting people possessed was the courage to break the chains of common expectation, and do what they needed to make themselves happy. When I asked Haruhi for her permission to help Jiro, Haruhi had accepted because it aligned with how she thought an interesting person would act. All in all, it was a good way to look at the world. The only aspect Haruhi had trouble accepting was that even boring people mattered.

"I owe you an apology, Haruhi."

She stared, puzzled. "For what?"

"All this time, I've been so busy considering what I want for you that I'd completely neglected providing what you need."

Gently taking her hands in mine, I looked into her eyes. "No matter what happens, please believe that you're the best thing in my life."

"You… really mean that?"

"Martial Artist's honor," I swore.

Haruhi responded with a smile. I turned her hands over, examining them- so soft, so small, and yet so capable. "I didn't want you to feel any pain, so I hid what's happening between your mother and me from you. I know now that's wrong. There's so much I want to tell you, but I'm not really ready yet, and I don't even know where to start, so I'll tell you about what's happening in three days."

"Remember that blueprint that you found me working on late two nights ago?"

"Yeah," Haruhi said, "Why were you working at home?"

"It's because that blueprint is like a personal project… for you mother's new boyfriend."

"I see," Haruhi said, looking at the cobbles under her feet. After a moment, she asked, "What's he like?"

"Big, powerful, rich," I said. "A corporate suit type. I'm not going to go into the details—they're too long and complicated. What's important is that I can tell he loves you mother, and he's gone through a lot of trouble to ask for my help so that it works out."

"You're okay with that?" Haruhi asked, stunned.

The question caught me off guard. I forced myself to dig deep. Haruhi and I lived together, but we weren't alone. We had people who cared about us like Mom, Kasumi, Mikuru and Kyoko, heck even my jerk of a boss Yamazaki. At that realization, I smiled. "I think I am," I said, "how about you?"

Haruhi was frozen for a moment. Two wet tracks formed down her cheeks. "I'm not," she said honestly. "Mother left us. She betrayed us, and now I hate her for what she's done." She looked at me, the pain and anger in her eyes as clear as daylight. "But I still love her."

"I still love her too."

Unable to say anything more, I brought her into a hug. Haruhi cried long and hard. I cried too, shedding the tears that I'd been holding back since the day Nabiki walked out on our family.

We sat there for a while, holding each other until all the hurt washed away. I knew this wouldn't be the end, but at least it was a beginning. After cleaning up, we said our goodbyes to Jiro, who gave me a cask of the Water of Life, and an invitation to come again. We crossed the bridge without incident, and after calling the school so that Haruhi could take the day off, had brunch before spending an easy day around town.

That night, happier than I had been in a long time, I sat in front of the drafting table to work. I finally had my answer. Leaning towards a clean sheet, I worked with certainty, the lines almost drawings themselves. For it was a place that I'd never forget- every tile, every board, and every nail an old friend.

123123

Two blocks away from the apartment was a small community garden. The lot had been donated by a wealthy motorcycle designer whose wife loved gardening. She was foreign and extremely beautiful. The trees and flowers under her care grew strong and vibrant. Her open secret was a singing voice so divine that it was said to make even angels weep. Dressed in coveralls and a wide straw hat, she would sing as she worked, weaving the kind of magic you couldn't get through arcane means.

The couple had moved away long ago, but there were still people who remembered them fondly.

I had volunteered a few times when the soil needed turning. As a result, I learned what time of year the lemon tree bore fruit.

Humming tunelessly, I strolled home carrying a paper bag of my pickings. The afternoons were getting hotter, and I thought that making a pitcher of ice-cold Saotome Honey Lemon Drink would hit the spot for Haruhi and Mikuru.

How does one make Saotome Honey Lemon Drink you ask? Well, first you cut the lemons into half centimeter thin slices, and then dump all the slices into a giant water-tight container. Cover the slices in honey, and leave in the fridge for six to eight hours, making sure to flip the container midway through so that the honey can draw juice from all the lemons.

Eventually, juice will rise to the top, and you can add that to water. After mixing thoroughly, we can finally add the hidden secret that completes the most refreshing drink in town- chill with Soul of Ice!

"…"

Leave me alone, I invented this a long time ago.

Continuing home, I paid little attention to the rustling of leaves and the rumble of cars. It was as perfect and peaceful as a day could get: All my work was done, Haruhi was more or less happy, and there were no pressing emergencies on any front.

Yup, sunshine and roses all around….

I should have known that today would be too good to last.

The world came to a stop. There was a total absence of sound and movement, as though a higher power had pressed the pause button on the universal remote control of the… err… universe before a blinding light caused me to shield my eyes.

When I could see again, I was in the middle of a desert. Sand stretched out in every direction with nothing marking the landscape except dunes. Above was an endless expanse of cloudless blue sky.

"Next! Try! Again!" a male voice called out.

I threw my body into a series of back-flips, barely getting clear as three rapid impacts hit the ground where I had been moment ago. My hands sank into a loose patch of sand, robbing me of control before a solid wall of force blasted me into the air.

Wincing, I rolled with the shockwave, and landed on my feet, arms raised in a defensive stance. My attackers had appeared- a boy and girl about Haruhi's age.

"As expected of Ms. Suzumiya's father, not a scratch," the boy said in a smooth and easy-going voice with looks to match. He had long brown bangs that fell rakishly over piercing walnut eyes. His clothing was nothing special, sporting a white collared short-sleeve, pink tie, and brown pants, but he still looked like he just stepped out of a teen fashion magazine.

The girl beside him stood a silent opposite to her partner, barely radiating any presence. Her pale lilac hair was cut short, complementing her complexion. She was wearing a girl's sailor uniform in the North High colors of aquamarine trimmed with red. She seemed average except the overwhelming aura of stillness that she projected.

"Who are you?" I asked, trying to puzzle out their identities. Could they be Haruhi's classmates? I'd never met them before. A memory bubbled to the surface. These two were in some of the photographs in Mikuru's room!

"The Brigade…" I said to myself.

The boy tilted his head. "Did your daughter speak of us?" Holding a palm up, he summoned a beach ball sized sun. I could feel heat radiating from the floating sphere, about the intensity of a small campfire, but couldn't detect any ki. I had heard of elemental users who could manipulate their chosen medium at will. Unlike martial arts, this type of ability was purely a mental process that didn't require life energy.

"My Name is Itsuki Koizumi, and my stoic friend is Yuki Nagato. As you have deduced, we are in fact members of your daughter's brigade, the SOSdan."

"Somehow, I don't think Haruhi put you up to this."

"Correct again," the boy named Koizumi said. "Your daughter's brilliance must have come from your side of the family."

I sweated, unused to an opponent who attacked and flattered at the same time.

"As for why we're here, I'd like to say that Ms. Nagato and I are moving of the same accord. Unfortunately that would be patently false. For now, let us say that our interests are parallel, but not identical."

Floating the mini sun between his hands, he pulled it apart into two smaller ones. "Death and Rebirth!" He sent the twin shots rocketing. They were the same attack that had struck before, but he used an entirely different set of names. Maybe it was a condition of his ability.

I leaned lazily to one side, letting the fireballs pass harmlessly. He had surprised me before, but a full frontal attack was laughably easy to evade. Koizumi did look like he had some training, but it wasn't for the type of fighting that suited his ability. If I were to guess, he probably took Taekwondo, but the movements he used to fire off his attacks were more similar to volleyball spikes.

"Fighting me isn't a very good idea," I said while cracking my neck, "You have no idea who you're up against." Beating up on two high school students wasn't exactly high on my list of things to accomplish.

Koizumi's smile was sickeningly charming. "Ranma Suzumiya, formerly Ranma Saotome, son of Genma and Nodoka Saotome. Records are sparse because the schools attended were usually on the lower end of the rankings. You travelled extensively in your youth through Japan and China. Some say you did it for the mastery of the martial arts. However, no evidence of your prowess has ever been recorded save for a brief stint with the Hitotsubashi University Judo team where you remained undefeated until your resignation six months later."

This guy really liked the sound of his own voice. He had just revealed that he had absolutely nothing on me.

"Give up. I don't want to hurt either of you," I said.

"Perhaps you should worry about yourself."

I sighed. No choice. Dashing in, I aimed a knife-hand at the back of Koizumi's neck for a quick and painless knockout.

"What the-" my hand met a translucent white rippling dome. Again, no ki. This was getting annoying. They should have given me a list of abilities.

"Cadenza!" The high school boy launched another fireball at point blank- this time as large as a beanbag chair.

Reinforcing my legs with ki, I pushed off the attacks surface before it struck the ground. The resulting explosion swallowed a ten meter diameter sphere of desert, producing a noticeable rush of wind as the air moved reacted to the dramatic change in pressure.

When the sand settled, Koizumi and the girl Nagato were standing on a small circular floating island in the middle of the crater. Nagato's mouth moved rapidly, and the sand that had been blown away slammed into existence- all at once like it denied being gone in the first place.

During my travels with Pop, we would visit Shinto temples. One of my favorite pastimes was to listen to priests tell tales of the legendary heroes of their religion, the true onmyouji. The most spiritually gifted of these individuals could bend objects to their will.

My eyes narrowed. I had been focusing on the boy when the key to the battle was acting as his support. Nagato's ability to summon this desert and manipulate the environment was similar to some of the stories I had heard.

Koizumi hadn't even been able to follow my last attack so the shield was either a passive ability or a spell cast by Nagato.

Running sideways, I scooped a surviving lemon out of the sand and slung it at my target like an outfielder with a baseball. The throw was telegraphed so that Koizumi would dodge. As planned, the high school boy bobbed, letting the yellow projectile zip towards its intended target. Instead of making contact, the citrus hung in the air, surrounded by a translucent ripple before being ejected. Separate shields were cast over both. There was still no way to tell for sure who the source was, but I was willing to bet it was the girl.

Hand-to-hand wasn't going to take them down. That shield was making them untouchable. I had to do something about that.

I ran in for another close attack. Koizumi was waiting with fireballs in hand.

He split his attack into ten smaller suns, one hovering over each finger, and sent it towards me in rapid succession. Unlike my Dance of Fireflies, the fireballs lacked the ability to change direction. Sand erupted like geysers around me as I sped towards the pair.

I vaulted over the boy, taking advantage of his shield's effect to launch myself at towards Nagato. Maybe a more direct method could get the job done.

"Kachu Tenshin Amaguriken!" I unleashed a hail of punches at the shield. The ripples spread and overlapped changing translucent white to opaque. Unable to get through, I channeled more ki, and cracks appeared spreading through the shield as though it were made of brittle stone.

I was about to land the finishing blow when my danger sense warned me to disengage. A man-sized red comet missed by a hair as it flashed through the space where I had been only seconds ago.

The red energy dissipated, revealing Koizumi. Green lightning wrapped around his body, writhing like electricity come alive.

"I apologize for using such a dangerous form, but I had to prevent you from interrupting Ms. Nagato," he said amiably. He hadn't said a thing to trigger the attack. To make things more complicated, Koizumi seemed to have more than one affinity.

Nagato's voice was soft and emotionless. "Phase two sampling of Subject Ranma Saotome complete: Confirmed small-scale unrestricted data generation. Accessing data marker sample." She cupped her hands, and an object was imposed layer by layer into existence. When it was complete, a familiar looking mallet with a red band hovered in the air." It was probably the same one that I had seen in Mikuru's possession.

"Unpacking sample." The mallet's red strip leapt off the surface and then disappeared into an invisible hole in the space above it.

Whatever she was doing, I had to stop her.

I flung a high-speed Mokou Takabisha at Koizumi. To my surprise, his shield was gone and the lightning around his body did nothing to stop the attack. It must have disappeared when he activated his ability, which was further proof that Nagato had been casting the shields. The high school boy, not expecting the attack, was hit square in the chest, thrown back like a puppet with its strings cut.

Nagato's eyes suddenly went into sharp focus. Throughout the battle, she had been staring out in the space almost ignoring the exchanges I had been having with Koizumi. Another round of inaudible lip movement, and then, "Calling data jurisdiction functions."

The space between us suddenly felt heavy and turned monochromatic, and I stumbled. The split-second misstep delayed me long enough for Koizumi to get back into the fight with a lightning laced high kick.

I leaned back, barely saving my eyebrows as the air singled inches from my face.

Koizumi swung his leg to follow. I arched my back, not daring to block. If the sand blackening under his feet was any indication, I didn't want to get hit dead on. I could use a ki reinforcement technique on my arms, but the lightning was a lot more concentrated than his fireballs. I might end up missing appendages.

Slamming a palm on the patch of sand near his feet, performed a modified Bakusai Tenketsu with five fingers. The energy lanced into the ground, and transformed the sand found his leg into a loose patch, similar to what had happened to my arm at the beginning of the fight.

With his other leg in the air, Koizumi fell on his rear, one leg buried knee deep in sand.

I was considering burying the rest of him, when Koizumi summoned another fireball, and kicked it with his free leg. The kick was awkward, but the fireball sped towards me at four times its normal speed.

Using my hands, I pushed hard, corkscrewing feet first into the air. More sand was sent flying. I pressed my lips together tightly to avoid getting any of it in my mouth.

Squinting, I saw Koizumi pulling out his trapped leg. Building the ki into a crescendo, I concentrated them between my palms. He was going down.

"Mokou Takabisha!" Unlike the previous energy ball, this one was fully charged with enough power to pulverize building supports.

It was, quite honestly, overkill. That lightning was scary though, and there was one other factor…

The sound of two powers colliding roared as a white shield materialized around Koizumi once more. Nagato was diverting her full attention to protecting her companion.

But I was ready. Timing a second weaker Mokou Takabisha, I launched it just as the shield was going through the motions of ejecting my first attack. The spell, unable to compensate for the unexpected extra load, buckled and inverted. Fortunately for Koizumi, I had aimed slightly to the left so that he would be spared a direct hit.

While the boy was busy tumbling like a load of laundry, I landed. I dashed towards Nagato, chestnut at the ready. The fight would be over soon- I already had the trick to breaking through her shield.

Nagato calmly turned her to me, and I felt it, an almost imperceptible tug. My muscles tensed, but my body had completely frozen. I couldn't even open my mouth. There was a presence, something alien had latched onto my ki, preventing my body from moving. She must have finished casting the spell!

A minute passed before Koizumi came into view, dusting himself off. "I take it you succeeded, Nagato. What's next?"

"Searching for data fragments originating from Haruhi Suzumiya. Detecting high concentrations of conflicting data. Analysis has encountered unexpected resistance, switching base algorithms."

I was trapped. From what I could tell they were trying to find something. The alien presence in my ki was squirming, trying to work its way in. I had to break free.

Onmyouji techniques relied on a resonance with objects and nature, but it seemed like Nagato was trying to go further by creating resonance with my body. The mallet must have acted like some sort of conduit- a lot like the way a voodoo doll worked. I wasn't about to stand there and let her take control.

There was one technique that might help. For a while now, I'd been searching for a way to make the things around me tougher so I could train with more freedom. Martial artists had the ability to make their clothes more durable simply by training in them and letting the pattern of their life energy soak through. My idea was to accelerate the process and spread the pattern through an entire area, allowing training in more devastating arts while minimizing or eliminating collateral damage altogether. It was a technique that would have never belonged to Ranma Saotome.

I focused on the core of my body, and then readied the modified patterns I needed. As a child, I had tried to learn the ways of onmyoudo, but quickly found that I had no talent for harmonizing with my surroundings. However, that didn't mean I took nothing away from the experience. The talent I possessed was my stubbornness. An onmyouji required no ki, though he did have the ability to harmonize with existing ki and shape it for his ends. What developed was a system to saturate objects with my ego and use that as a lever to get the properties I want.

Since it was already the source of my ki, I didn't have much work to do unlike with an egg or a cask of wine. In theory, reinforcing the pattern of my body would make me more 'permanent' by increasing its natural resistance to external influences.

With a mental push, I sent energy down my entire body. Nagato suddenly lurched as though struck by a punch to the face. The alien presence was gone. I was free.

"All right wise guys, this stops NOW," I said summoning a Mokou Takabisha.

Koizumi had caught Nagato and was already waving a white handkerchief. "You've won, Mr. Suzumiya. We surrender unconditionally."

"…eh?"

123123

Nagato, Koizumi and I sat in the kitchen. The rules of propriety dictated that they would be given drinks so I served lemonade, but I made sure what they got was lukewarm.

After they surrendered, Nagato had dispelled the desert. The only onmyouji who could summon alternate spaces were also hunters who used the technique to seal demons. I mentally shuddered and counted myself lucky that she hadn't attempted to do the same to me.

"Well," I said leaning back on my chair, arms crossed. "You two have some explaining to do."

Koizumi placed a finger on his chin in mock thought. "I suppose we do owe you an explanation. The subject matter is a little complicated, however, so I beg your patience in this regard."

I waved him along, "Yeah, get on with it."

"Are you familiar with Schrodinger?" He asked.

"I've heard the name before in school, but not much else. Is this going to be long?"

"I'll try to simplify as much as possible. Schrodinger developed a thought experiment, which involves putting an animal in a box with a mechanism that would randomly determine whether or not the animal would die within the hour. By the end of the hour, we could say that the animal is either alive or dead, but likely not some phase in between."

This guy was seriously getting on my nerves. "If you want to know whether or not the animal is alive, why don't you open the box?"

Koizumi tapped the table. "Precisely, Mr. Suzumiya. We should just open the box, and see for ourselves!"

Knock!

The high school boy was now the proud owner of a brand new lump. Koizumi rubbed at his head. "I suppose I deserved that."

"So you're telling me that the reason you attacked me was to make sure of something," I said impatiently. "What?"

Nagato spoke. "The series of small-scale unrestricted data flares originating from the rooftop of this apartment complex was determined to be of moderate interest, but did not result in significant data. Low intrusion surveillance was judged to be the optimum course of action. Recent events in Ashiadori thirty-six hours prior resulted in spikes of unrestricted offensive data. A more direct reevaluation was deemed essential."

"Ashiadori? The arcade…." Things were starting to make sense. Those 'data flares' she mentioned were probably related to my use of ki. Great, I was being watched because of my training. I'll have to deal with that later.

"Yes, a mysterious shopping arcade from what we could puzzle together," Koizumi took over. "Nagato and I were unable to pass through the dimensional gap that was the entrance. However, from outside, we detected several energy bursts matching your unique signature. We were concerned that an incident may have occurred."

I sighed. "In other words, you were worried something happened to Haruhi and decided to find out if everything was alright for yourselves. You could have just asked- and that still doesn't explain why you decided to attack me."

Koizumi shrugged. "We were afraid that the arcade may have affected your mind in some way. This isn't the first such event we've encountered. Besides, there are things one can only learn in the heat of battle."

I blinked, trying to make sense of a cold-blooded pretty boy making a hot-blooded statement. This was giving me a headache… stupid kids.

"Where does Mikuru fit in all this?" I asked, remembering the hammer. I figured Mikuru would have gone along with these two if for no other reason than to fit in.

"As Nagato mentioned earlier, you are the subject of 'moderate interest'. Ms. Asahina cooperated because she too believes that your daughter's safety is paramount."

"One last question—though I think I already know your answer."

"I'm happy to oblige."

"Does Haruhi know that you and Nagato?"

"I will assume you mean our abilities? No, she doesn't, and we prefer to keep that to ourselves. As charming as your daughter is, I think you will agree that is the most prudent action." After glancing at the wall clock, he said, "Ms. Suzumiya should be arriving shortly."

"Alright, go, but no more attacking people!"

I took their cups to the sink for washing. They found their own way out. There were inconsistencies in Koizumi's statements, and that strange Nagato girl was searching for traces of Haruhi in me while we were fighting. I also didn't like the slightly conspiratorial way Koizumi had spoken of keeping his and Nagato's powers a secret. On the other hand, I hadn't detected any hostile intent from them, not even while we were fighting. Knowledge gained from battle indeed….

In any case, they didn't seem harmful, and they really did seem to be looking out for Haruhi- as sketchy as their true motives were. If they went too far though, I'd be around to lay down the law.

You heard me right. I was definitely going to call their parents.

Haruhi arrived fifteen minutes after Nagato and Koizumi left. "Hey Pop, I won't be here for dinner!" She said tossing her school case by the door.

I turned off the TV. "Where you going?"

"Tutoring. They offered dinner too."

"You took the job!" I cheered.

"Well," she said, scratching the bridge of her nose. "I needed some extra money."

This was great. Haruhi was sure to see that teaching could be rewarding in its own right. I had fun whenever I visited Kyoko's kindergarten.

"Hey Pop…"

"Yeah?"

"Why did you become an architect?"

The question caught me a little off guard. Haruhi had never shown an interest in my work before. I took a moment to consider my answer.

"I wanted a job where I could make homes for people," I answered. It had been a dream of mine to see families living happily in a house of my design. "Somewhere along the line, I guess I forgot that. There's less money in houses than there are in office buildings and sky scrapers. They're enjoyable in their own way though."

"Maybe," Haruhi hesitated, playing with her hands behind her back. "Maybe you can start designing the things you like again—like Kana did."

Almost immediately, I could feel the words denying the possibility rush up my throat, but I stopped them. We were pretty well off, and it's not like I couldn't make room in my schedule to work on something fulfilling.

"You know what, Haruhi? I think I will."

Haruhi smiled brilliantly. "Good!" she said before heading out the door.

Patting the imaginary dust from my pants, I started off to my work table. "Okay, strike while the iron is hot!"

I already knew what my first project would be: A small two story house with a modest yard. The master bedroom would be downstairs. More ideas came to mind.

Today was shaping up to be a good day after all.

Author's Notes:

Hopefully, this chapter has shown how the plot threads come together. I realize that I should have built in mini-arcs that were better paced, but I wasn't skilled enough to write those while still maintaining the long-term vision. I will try to improve on that front.

Has anyone figured out what Ranma drew for Nabiki's house? If you have, I wonder why he would do such a thing….

I'd like to thank Fallacy for being my plot and editor monkey. He's spectacular.

Thank you also to TFF reviewer Inverted Helix for clearing up and observation. Spacebattles forum reviewers Old Soul for helping me improve the Nagato & Koizumi vs Ranma battle scene, and Cataquack Warri for forum help.