Ruroni Ranko
Chapter Five

by Skysaber
aka Jared Ornstead

During the mushroom incident events diverge from normal and enemies try to take advantage of our pigtailed hero. Unfortunately for them, attempts to get rid of him often go disastrously wrong.

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A gust of wind blew in Nabiki's window as she was changing into her school uniform for the day. Looking at it, she wondered, "That's odd. I didn't think I'd left that open."

That's when she was permitted to sense the person standing beside her.

"Hello, Nabiki." Ranma said. "You know, it stuck me, as I was wondering what my family and I would do for money, that I'd been earning a great deal already at a job I'd never wanted or asked for. And that I'd never been paid for my work. So I thought I'd just come here to collect my paycheck."

The middle Tendo was struck with cold and steely eyes. "Now you will give me ALL of the money you ever made off of me."

"Laugh it up, Saotome. That was a good joke," Nabiki chuckled humorlessly, not seriously thinking he was any more serious than usual as she ignored him and went about zipping on her skirt. She then fluttered a hand dismissively in his direction, deciding not to tell him about the sex drive thing for now. Not when he was acting uppity. She'd punish him in part by letting him languish in ignorance for now. "Now get going. I'll just add the price of this threat to your tab."

"No, Nabiki. You will pay me, or else."

The confident mercenary spun around, disdain and effrontery written on her features. "Or else what, Ranma? You were never able to do anything to me before, and that hasn't changed now that you've learned some new techniques. I can control you at my whim, and for daring to think otherwise I think I've got a few appointments for you to fill! Let's see what the rest of the fiancee brigade..."

The middle Tendo stuttered to a stop as she felt a sword enter smoothly into her abdomen, pinning her to the back of the chair she was sitting on to pull up her socks.

She finally realized that this wasn't the Saotome she was used to manipulating as she raised her eyes to meet the cold, hard gaze of the killer whose face she'd been ignoring until now.

The easily dominated person she was so used to taking for granted, shamelessly taking advantage of and utterly dismissing as any kind of threat wasn't there anymore. She was so used to these momentary crises passing quickly that she'd automatically failed to account for that. After all, if she'd spent her time accounting for each personality shift of her prey she'd never get any work done.

But she'd forgotten about the cursed sword, or whatever was possessing him. The limits still applied to Ranma, almost certainly, but the way she thought she understood what was happening, she suspected it wasn't Ranma in control right now.

Silently, she amended that priority as she struggled not to move, lest she make the stab worse by cutting herself up further on the still implanted blade.

"No, Nabiki," Ranma spoke softly. "You have no power over me. Why? Because I give you none, and you don't have the strength to take it. Now your life is forfeit unless you come up with ALL of the cash to cover ALL of the money you've ever made off of me. Is that clear? But first, let's have a look at your account books, Nabiki. Where are they?"

The skewered woman paused, frantically searching for an excuse, any excuse at all, to get out of this situation. Unluckily for her, her captor had been expecting such a reaction, and correctly interpreted the Ice Queen's expression as she sought for a delay.

A slight twitch on the handle and suddenly Nabiki's body registered the pain of the cut it had been happily interpreting as a strange pressure until that slight movement made it aware of the nature of her injury.

"You'll never get away with this," the mercenary gasped, trying to restrict herself to short breaths as her agony knotted muscles fought to force her to curl up in a ball - an unfortunate reaction that would slice her belly to ribbons on the sword still stuck through her.

There was no compassion or humor at all in her reply. "I can cut you in half with a flick of my wrist, and you'd bleed to death before you could crawl, pulling your legless torso across the floor, to a phone to beg for help. What I can or cannot get away with is no concern of yours. Now, where are the ledgers?"

Raising a trembling arm, Nabiki indicated a shelf.

Dutifully giving her the benefit of the doubt, Ranma stepped over to the shelf to leaf very quickly through the books. Dropping them carelessly on the bed, he returned to take the hilt of the sword he'd left sticking partway through the girl once again in his hands. "Very funny. I'm sure whoever you prepared those to fool would be very amused. Now, the real ledgers, if you please."

He twitched the sword just fractionally, and a wave of agony swept over the Ice Queen of Furinkan High through the two feet of sharp edged steel embedded in her guts.

"THOSE ARE THE REAL ONES!" Nabiki tried to shout without drawing any breath. "NOOOO!!" she sweated in terror as she saw the frown of disapproval appear on the face of her tormentor. "I'D JUST RENAMED EVERYTHING, I SWEAR I'M BEING HONEST! THE FLOWER SHOP ENTRIES ARE WHAT I'D BEEN MAKING OFF YOU!!"

Ranma was slowly shaking his head, hands still on the handle of his blade. "I'm sorry, Nabiki. I just wish I could believe you. But I did ask the gentleman who'd purchased the indecent print of Ranko I found, and the price he paid was nowhere in those books, as any entry. Now I can't bring myself to believe you'd let someone else whore her out like that, as they'd cut into your market. So I'm afraid I'm going to have to accept that you are lying."

"It's encoded. I dropped a decimal. The real prices are ten times what are listed in those books." The middle Tendo's face went pale as death and she sweated profusely as she saw the expression of disbelief cross her captor's features. "I SWEAR I AM NOT MAKING THIS UP! I USE THOSE BOOKS TO PAY OFF MY FACTORS! THERE IS A DIFFERENT ONE FOR EACH BUSINESS!"

"And what about the entries you do not want to pay a dividend to your people on?" The samurai asked calmly. " No, Nabiki, you're too good at lying for me to believe so obvious a trap. I am sure claiming to have encoded those books, allows you to convince your fellow yakuza that you're making whatever you want them to believe, and pocket their share of whatever you aren't paying them."

How did he know? she wondered about his accurate guess as to how she ran her business, specifically as to how she'd been cheating those who worked for her, even as she resented him for calling her a yakuza.

Nabiki at last realized that her life was worth more to her than a couple of yen. Head bowed, tears mingled with sweat, she admitted in a defeated whisper, "My real account book is under the desk, in a safe built into the floor. The false floorboard to reach it is under the stack of dirty magazines. The combination is Akane's three sizes, as she was my first real money maker. But there's also a key. You'll find it tucked inside of my shorts, taped in between my panties and my maxi-pad."

To her unending surprise, there was no pause as Ranma thrust a hand in to grab her key, though a slight corner of her mind was endlessly grateful that he'd done so without disturbing her wound or the jiggling the sword any more. Then her safe got opened.

"My, Nabiki, who would have dreamed you were such a naughty girl?" Ranma put the magazines aside, only having glanced at the titles. "And these," he'd removed the floor board and pulled out a set of male boxers underneath. "Happosai repellent, obviously. But this pair is mine? Interesting. Were these for your own enjoyment or to sell later?" the swordsman asked.

Nabiki didn't dare not answer him. "Mine." But she also didn't care to elaborate.

"Hmm, you've cemented this safe into the floor. Probably a wise idea. Now, you are aware if there are any traps, say a knockout powder bomb, that you'll be pinned to that chair perhaps for a very long time? That is, if you don't have so large a cloud that it knocks you out, too. That would be ugly, don't you think? Falling unconscious and slumping out of that chair? Just think what damage you'd do to yourself on your way down."

"There is powder. I got it from Kodachi. You disarm it by pulling on the combination dial after you've opened the lock but before you open the door." Nabiki pushed the rather disturbing image suggested out of her mind, even while marveling at the amount of cheer in Ranma's voice. It was as if he was playing a game!

"Good, you're learning. Now, what are Akane's three sizes? I've forgotten."

Nabiki told him.

Ranma took out the only book therein and began reading, flipping pages quickly. "Well, you are very greedy. Fortunately for you, you are also a miserly skinflint who rarely spends any of her ill-gotten gains, so you have more than enough money to return, with interest, all of what you'd made off of me. How very lucky for you. And a surprising fortune for me. It looks like I don't have to cut you in half after all."

Counting a large stack of money in one hand, the martial artist came around and smoothly removed the sword from Nabiki's belly with one motion of the other. "Since you've been a good girl you get to go without having this in your middle for now. Tell me, why store all of this money here? I should have thought you couldn't resist earning interest in a bank account."

Sick with fear over worries about herself, but otherwise feeling better, Nabiki gave him an honest answer right away, fearing what hesitation or fabrication would bring her. "I do have a bank account, but there's next to nothing in it. Since I am still a minor daddy can make withdrawals from any account I have, without even my permission. I only made that mistake once, but we almost had to hospitalize him after the week long drinking binge he went on using money he'd taken from me. I'd already tried to hide it, but he'd somehow found out about the account anyway. I've never kept money in there since."

Ranma calmly continued counting bills.

"Can't we do something about my bleeding?" Nabiki was getting desperate.

"What bleeding, Nabiki?" the samurai looked up at her, blinked, then down again and resumed counting. "Oh, I forgot. you're wearing a pad. Well, if you have to change it, go ahead."

"I was talking," the brunette hissed, trying not to sound too panicky or too angry as she labored to keep the lid on her fear, "about the wound you made in my stomach."

"What wound? There is no wound, Nabiki."

Startled, it was a fraction of a second before the middle Tendo first checked with her eyes, then started to inspect with her fingers. There was indeed a small hole in her shirt that matched up front and back. There was also one in the seat back behind her. Unable to quite believe her senses, she began poking and prodding to confirm the cut's absence.

"Don't go pushing too hard," Ranma interrupted her probing with a caution, even as he still counted bills. "You know that trick where the best of swordsmen with the best of blades can cut a radish in half, and those halves can be rejoined so completely that the cut seals and you'd never be able to tell it was damaged? That's what's at work here, only flesh is a bit more springy than radishes are, so you could reopen it if you go pushing too hard. It should be completely sealed over inside of a day. Then you'll never know it happened."

I'll never forget! Nabiki's fear reasserted itself, but she had to admit that even her body was readjusting just as fast as if the stab had been a figment of her imagination.

Then she caught sight of her open safe, and all of those photos of Ranma-chan and Ranma that she'd enjoyed so profitable a business on had been destroyed. Even her negatives were gone.

Ranma noticed her noticing. "Oh, you won't be allowed to continue using my image without my permission. As I don't choose to give that permission, you'll stop. The same goes for Ranko, of course." He finished counting out the money owed him, after paying himself the same ruinous interest rates that Nabiki charged everyone else, and stuck several fat stacks of cash inside of his robe. The much more pitiful remainder got dropped back into the hidden safe.

Just as Nabiki would have done had their roles been reversed.

Now, the smart thing to do, Nabiki knew, was to stay silent until she could arrange some decent protection, then make his life a living hell for doing this. However, she was less immune to pride than some would think, and she was too used to things going her way to really realize yet that her usual habits should bow to a different set of rules for a moment.

So, instead, she snarled. "You'll never get away with this, Saotome. That safe isn't my only stockpile of information. I have contacts. I know everything there is to know about you, and what you don't want others to find out about. All I have to do is go to the police and report this assault. I'll have you squealing for mercy inside a week!" She promised, her gaze narrowing toward her tormentor as she followed this with a dire prediction. "And I don't think I'll be in the mood to be merciful."

Ranma stopped recounting to confirm he had the proper amount of cash and gave Nabiki his full attention. After a moment of contemplation, he gave a reluctant nod. "Yes, Nabiki. You'd do exactly that, wouldn't you? I had heard that nothing offends a thief so much as being robbed. I guess that is the case after all." He stood up. Suddenly his bare katana lay across Nabiki's throat, blade resting against her jugular.

"Well, then Nabiki. I've dealt with Yakuza before. The simplest way is always to kill them before they carry out their threats. You don't look smart enough to accept warnings, so I won't bother boring you with them. Now get up."

Realizing too late that she should have kept her mouth shut, Nabiki stood.

The cold-eyed samurai facing her nodded solemnly. "If I felt there was any chance at all you'd keep your word, I'd accept your surrender and offer a truce: You leave my family alone and I don't hurt yours..."

"That's acceptab..." the mercenary blurted, only to get cut off by a sudden pressure at her throat causing her to stop speaking before the motion opened an artery.

Still glaring at her with cold eyes, Ranma soberly shook his head. "No, Miss Tendo. I said if. I don't actually believe you'd keep your word. Fighting for my life shook a certain amount of naivete out of me. I don't trust those I don't feel are trustworthy anymore. I can recall too many bad experiences to do otherwise. So, I am afraid we are going to be taking a different course of action with you. First, you will get the largest backpack you can find."

Staring into those eyes, Nabiki obeyed without question. She didn't bother to run or call for help. She knew that sword moved faster than that. Instead, she went to get the bag, heading off to the guest room to grab a spare pack that Mr. Saotome sometimes used, moving carefully until the edge at her jugular eased off, blade hovering near but no longer pressing as Ranma followed her with every step.

"Very good," the samurai told her, once he'd guided the Ice Queen back into her room. "Now Nabiki, I'm going to give you a chance, which is more than you'd give me. You are never coming back to this room again, so pack your belongings. Whatever you wish to take with you is fine. I won't object."

"You're going to kill me," Nabiki declared, face white with fear.

Her answer was a calm yet resolved single shake of a solemn head. "No, you would not learn anything. I don't want to send your soul to the beyond as it is right now, you are so unenlightened you'd probably come back as a tapeworm or other parasite. However, I can see to it that you come to a greater understanding of human suffering, so you are less casual about inflicting it on others."

Swallowing heavily, Nabiki packed her bag. Cash and her cell phone went in first, along with her book of phone numbers. Then, to cover that, she started to pack outfits as if going on a trip. She didn't believe she'd be gone long before she could arrange a rescue, but then a thought occurred and she began to pack more seriously, just in case she had to stay at a hotel someplace until police and her daddy had made sure it was safe to come home - hopefully by locking this maniac behind very strong bars!

"Is that all you're taking?" Ranma inquired with calm yet dangerous eyes.

"It's all I can reasonably carry," the mercenary responded, hefting the weight. It wasn't so bad. She could still run with this on her back, and that was good. She had no idea how she was going to escape and call for help, but grew fairly certain that some mobility would be nice. And, after all, she didn't want to carry everything she owned!

She still believed that she was coming back inside of a few days.

Such were her thoughts as Nabiki allowed herself to be led downstairs. However, to her shock, once she'd gone to the entry way for her shoes, the crazy sword-wielding guy led her back into the dining room!

To her shock and horror, she found herself standing in front of the Lo Pan still lying in that room where they'd left it. Before she could start worrying about transformation or object possession, the samurai at her back informed her, "That, Nabiki Tendo, is an enchanted time travel device, and it's last setting I know of sent me catapulting back to the Meiji Revolution, one of the most blood-thirsty periods of our history, and one where no one could care less about your usual threats or tricks. As far as I know, travel by this is a one-way trip. I used other means to return. I give you this information as a slight advantage. Knowing how much you pride yourself on being smarter than others, I'm sure you'll make the best of things."

"Wait!" Nabiki shouted. "You've got to let me repack my bag!" she pleaded for a delay, ANY delay, from what she felt sure he was about to do. "I had no idea you had this kind of a trip in mind!"

"I told you, 'pack as though you're never going to return'," a soft but inflexible voice answered her in slightly mocking tones. "That you can't obey instructions properly is no fault of mine. I hope you enjoy your trip, or at least find it educational. Goodbye, Nabiki. I hope you realize that you made it impossible to leave you here as you were, and that I showed all the mercy I could in not destroying you outright, which is the only other alternative I know of. I really can't beat you at your game. So I don't try. I'm forced to beat you at mine instead and that's a far more deadly sport where most players stop playing because they stop breathing. However, you did insist on playing. So, in a way, I consider this adequate justice for your ugly deeds."

"WHAT ugly deeds?!" Nabiki panicked, looking for any way out of this, even just to put it off for a few seconds more while she desperately sought for something. But that sword was just too quick for darting around, so she discarded that idea at once.

The swordsman watched her carefully, yet answered, "You took advantage of the fact that when I came here I wouldn't use my powers to hurt anyone who didn't have any martial arts skill. However, you failed to offer me anything like the same common courtesy, using all your powers against me, gloating in the fact that I had no way to respond to them and was completely helpless against your attacks. You dishonored Ranko, and shamed her image when you sold pictures of her, caring nothing for the harm you did. So, you are now going to an age where women are owned. They ARE property, they do not own it. They are objects that can be bought and sold and have no say in that fate whatsoever - which is exactly the way you've always treated her. I hope you enjoy it. They do say turn-about is fair play. They don't have photographs back then, but perhaps some kami will enjoy the poetic justice enough so that you'll end up in a brothel. After all, you did your very best to turn everyone around you into a whore."

Nabiki would have continued pleading, begging for her life this time instead of just a delay, but a hard shove came at her back, sending her stumbling forward and coming in contact with the compass even though she'd tried to avoid it.

With a flash, she was gone.

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Steeped in misery, the Eternal Lost Boy wandered along, he thought through the streets of Tokyo, but as he passed Tokyo Tower, it was on the side with the misspelled sign - the one that said Eiffle, and was written in French.

Really, Tokyo wasn't that hard to spell, was it? But every time he'd stopped to explain that to the strangely dressed people in the bad neighborhood on this side, or just be kind and repaint their sign for them, there was always a tour group of French speakers who threw a fit and got all upset about it.

Absently turning a corner, he walked through one of those really bad neighborhoods with the car bombs and gunfire, before changing his course, planning on making a stop at Tokyo's Big Ben. That was one of those things really odd about Japan, they had all of these monuments that no one else would talk about! The last time he'd tried to ask his way back to the pyramids of that desert in Hokkaido, people had laughed him to scorn!

It was appalling, sometimes, the rudeness of his countrymen. Take these, for an example, the ones presently shouting at him to get down and good God was he crazy?

Crazy wasn't a nice thing to call anybody.

Using his umbrella to shield himself from the shrapnel of an exploding bus, Ryoga walking in between the burning automobiles, smacking a few rioters absently out of his way as he continued wandering, deep in thought.

Ranma had really scared him. But that wasn't right, because Ranma wasn't very frightening. So what had happened?

Pausing in the midst of a group threatening him with a bomb, the Lost Boy suddenly stopped. Rearing back he laughed, a bit demented to be sure, at his relief over having solved it all, incidentally scaring the suicide bombers packing in unheeded fright.

That wasn't Ranma!

How stupid! How come he hadn't seen so simple an answer before? The woman who'd scared him so couldn't be Ranma! She had an entirely different hairstyle! And she was a shrine maiden. Ranma wasn't a shrine maiden, so that wasn't Ranma! Besides, none of the Tendos seemed to know her either. And anyway, Ranma was still five years old! Why, that was the age that mothers were still taking their sons to the potty.

He'd been drawn in by the simple coincidence that she'd appeared in the exact spot that he'd expected Ranma to be!

But then a horrible thought chilled Ryoga's soul.

So.. if that hadn't been Ranma... where was Ranma and what was he doing now?

A return to his earlier thought brought a fresh sense of revulsion to the pig-boy. Why that fiend! Doubtless he was getting attractive young mothers to lead him to the potty! The depths to which he'd sunk! How dare he go around peeping on innocent young ladies, using his youth as an excuse!?!

Ryoga concluded that nothing was stopping that pervert from molesting even Akane in his present form, and that he'd have to do something quickly! He began racing as fast as he could run, quickly leaving the run down area with the gunfire and explosions, as he considered the dire implications, picturing a devil-horned, chibi-Ranma standing over Akane's prone and defeated figure, raising his hand in a victory sign. He started dashing through a very dirty but still much less violent area, where he paused to ask for directions.

Of course, Fate chose that moment for him to get struck in the head by a water balloon thrown by a five-year old kid. On witnessing this transformation, the ghetto children then immediately proceeded to loot his stuff, and Ryoga found himself in a cage in a kitchen, watching someone chop vegetables. Two five-year olds were laughing over a joke he couldn't understand, while a teenaged girl wore his clothes out to a friend's shop to have her gang logo sequined on them.

Blinking and wide-eyed, Ryoga came to realize that he'd never admitted before just how evil kids could be!

Oh well, even if he couldn't understand the language, the mother was being nice and kind. And the language problem was soon going to be over, as he'd overheard her saying to someone over the phone that she was going to take him out to be tutored!

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Once one of the seven temporary Ranmas rejoined the others at the Mirror Mansion they had all of the money they knew how to use and then some. Miukyo wisely chose to advise them to save most of it, and counted out to each of the seven enough to go on a good but not lavish date.

Anyone he had to spend an unreasonable amount of money wooing probably wasn't going to fit in his lifestyle anyway. So if she wanted a rich date, even if he had the money for it now, it probably wasn't the best idea to spend it anyway.

Dinner and a movie, plus some other activity unique to the girl, was probably the best way to go.

When asked how she was adapting so well to modern life again after having spent twenty years back in the Meiji, the ninja kindly bonked the caretaker who'd been rude in the way he'd asked, then answered anyway - that the first strength of a ninja was information, and they had a phone book there at the mansion. She'd called around to various restaurants and movie places, asking about their prices. Then, to double-check that, she'd called a few of the girls she'd known at Furinkan on their cells phones and chatted up what were good dates, as opposed to bad.

Their numbers had been written down in her address book at the Ucchan.

Somewhat startled over how a touch of research could make a risky mission like this one so much easier, the seven dream-reflection Ranmas had humbly gone along with her plans, submitting themselves to shopping trips accompanied by Miranko and Miukyo to get appropriate clothes before each going out to pick up their various dates.

Proof of how stoic in the face of suffering the young samurai was, he stayed calm throughout the shopping experience and, by acting decisively, was able to limit it to merely the morning hours, and not the day-long experience those two girls wanted it to be. Neither could deny the justice of his insistence, however, that he was only getting these clothes to go on dates, and there would be small point in getting anything whatsoever if he was going to skip the dates out of shopping too long.

They'd pouted, but accepted that line of reasoning, especially when he'd suggested that two of him stay with them so they could continue shopping in place of their own dates, and those girls had suddenly become very interested in calling the shopping trip off early so they could go back and get ready so they could be picked up on time.

Odd, that.

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By virtue of being a Sailor Scout, Amy was, along with Rae, one of Serena's best friends. And, if there was one virtue that shone out above her rest, it was that Serena was unswervably loyal to her friends.

Well, in the case of Rae they might nag and tease each other alot, but that was the limit, and, considering the fact that either one would die for the other, it didn't seem to matter too much in the long run.

Because they were Scouts together, they were friends and close friends at that. But that stuck the bubbly blonde in an awkward position at school that day, as that put her in possession of one of the choicest and juiciest bits of gossip to hit school that week - maybe even that month! But because of a somewhat hurt glare Amy gave her when she was about to spill all to the eager ears of the students around her, Serena did not feel she was in a position to share this delectably juicy tidbit.

Secrets were secrets and they would be kept. But what made the whole situation awkward was that it was two others of her closest friends, Melvin and Molly, who were prying at her, trying to get her to tell.

How could she choose one friendship over another?

For Scout secrets that choice was easy. Anything life-threatening did not get shared, and that seemed to cover the whole business of being Sailor Scouts.

But when it was just a date?

In the end, Serena caved to the pressure, just as her two pre-Scout friends knew she would. But her loyalty to Amy did not allow her to be sold out, any more than she could keep denying the repeated requests from her other two friends.

So what happened was something else, a third option where she didn't have to choose one friendship over another.

She sold herself out.

"I'm sorry guys. Amy's just being nice, covering for me. The truth is, I am the one with a date today. She was just trying to remind me of that at the school gates." The blonde bowed her head, awaiting the explosions that were sure to follow.

Molly's response was a huge intake of breath. "Omigawd, really? Oh, Serena, that's so sweet! What's he like? Tell me all about him!"

Melvin adjusted his coke-bottle-bottom glasses. "Yah, I thought as much earlier. You should have told me sooner, Serena! Now I've wasted practically the whole day when I should have been out telling people! People depend on me, and this is going to be old news by tomorrow."

A warm glow of approval came from Amy's chair at this evidence of confession, and suddenly Serena didn't feel so bad. Touching a finger to her lips, she declared, "Actually, I don't know all that much about him. This is supposed to be a 'getting to know you' date."

"How can you be dating him if you don't know much about him?" Melvin demanded. "You've got friends and people much closer to you. You should go out with them!"

Pretending not to notice the nerd adjusting his hair in a pitiful attempt to look better on short notice, Molly and Serena focused on each other. "So, like, wow! You must have really fallen for him quick if you wanted to go out right away! Tell me, how did you meet him? Is he handsome?"

The unrevealed Moon Princess sighed, getting hearts in her eyes. "Oh, yeah! He is SO dreamy and handsome! If he were ice cream I would just gobble him up!" Then she lost her blush as she came to face the awful realization of the other question she had to answer. She glanced at the bell, hoping for a rescue, but it was still fifteen minutes before the final release from classes.

There was no way she was going to be able to stall them that long!

Pushing her two fingers together, ducking her head and resuming a soft pink blush, the unpowered Sailor Moon searched for what she could say - but looking inside a part of her heart had already selected a part of the truth.

"Well, you see, it's like this guys." She laughed nervously, putting an arm behind her head as she incidentally drew the attention of half the class. "Welll," she singsonged. "You know..." she took a deep breath, then noticed how many people were staring at her and froze up.

Grabbing her friends hands, she darted out of her desk and dragged them over the a more private corner of the room, where she blurted, "You see, his daddy arranged it. He and I met on the same day that his father decided that maybe I would make a good wife for his son, and so we are to be going on some dates to see if that should happen, or not."

"You mean, it's like an OMIAI!!??" Molly shouted so loud half of the school must have heard her.

Instant staring.

Serena blushed, rubbing the back of her head, eyes closed trying not to notice all of the stares she was getting. She answered in a normal tone of voice to enlighten a class that was already raptly listening, "Yah, you could say that. If this works out, marriage is the goal."

There is an Asian shrimp dish where life shrimp are tossed on a very hot plate to fry. At this pronouncement her class got about that active. There was an explosion of activity from all sides, all at once, and Serena nearly got washed away in the tide.

Trying to fend them off, she waved her hands while admitting more details, hoping that feeding those gossip-sharks would keep them away, or at least appeased and not crushing her. "Yah, he promised to pick me up after school today!"

"What does he look like?" Chorused what seemed like half a dozen female voices.

"So, would you say he looked like that?" Melvin pointed to a young samurai standing at the entrance to the school.

"Actually," said Serena, with a dumbfounded look on her face as the crowds parted around her. "That's him."

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The Kuno family was one of those fortunates, in that, while it did not come to them through direct descent, they had in their possession one of those original portraits done of the near-legendary flame-haired Ranko. This one was among the most rare, a battle scene. But what made it precious was that it was one of considerably less than half where her eyes were open. Most portraits had understandably been done while she was in repose, as she was far, far easier to paint while unconscious, and tended to disappear soon after waking up. A few minor errors had crept in to some as artists had been forced to finish their works by memory alone.

There were no less than four unfinished portraits, where the painter had died in her escape, usually after drawing a weapon to stop her (but, in one case, falling off of a balcony after having slipped on fresh blood during cleanup well after the maiden was gone).

Because they were so fortunate, the Kuno family had considerable pull with the other old families that had also held onto their portraits in private collections. Naturally, one of the first arrangements to be made was to permit those originals to be copied by suitably skilled artists, so that duplicates existed (all plainly labeled as such, so as not to reduce the value of the original artworks - but if you go by the Louvre, you can find art students selling close, extremely close, reproductions with a deliberate fault or two to avoid forgery laws).

Thus had the Kunos developed, though the years, a nearly complete collection of reproductions of those ancient paintings. They'd even reproduced their own a few times, so they could store the original under ideal conditions in a deeply buried vault, while still having an image to look at.

Tatewaki had made an unprecedented move. He'd obtained copies of both his family's collection and his private stock of photographs of the pigtailed girl (the more tasteful ones, of course - those taken by his faithful ninja servant, as a photo-history of her maidenly life, as opposed to the scandalous and indecent though still indecently interesting ones sold by Nabiki Tendo), and was arranging an art gallery, showing forth copies of all remaining flame-haired Ranko portraits, compared side-by-side with those pictures of the pigtailed girl, for a three-day special one-time showing at a shrine he'd rented for the occasion.

Nothing needed to be said. There was no text required. That simple comparison of pictures and portraits side by side alone was convincing enough. No further arguments had to be made. For a people who believed in reincarnation, the resemblance was too uncanny to take as a coincidence. It was plain to all who opened their eyes to see that the original flame-haired Ranko walked among them again.

Arguably one of the most convincing aspects to the whole arrangement was that it was plain the girl in those modern photographs wasn't trying to look like the historical figure. She'd deliberately avoided using the same clothes or hairstyle. She was laughing and smiling and playing at modern girl pursuits like eating ice cream. The fact that she was so convincingly similar in spite of no effort made to look or act the same was probably the most telling argument that could be made.

This, of course, interested several major parties as it was chiefly the wealthy or powerful that were able to use their influence to obtain opportunities to attend this invitation-only showing of some of the rarest and most valuable images in Japan.

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Author's Notes:
I don't know what to say, so should say nothing except to give my heartfelt thanks to all of those who reviewed.

So far more material for this keep upwelling as if there was no end to the flow. I think I've published more in these past two weeks than in my first six months of writing - and you know what? I'm glad, and very grateful that's its all coming so easily now.

Let's all hope that it continues to flow so well (or better!) in the future, okay?