"Justice, child? Justice is a flawed ideology arbitrarily assigned to sate the bloodlust of society. Who deems what retribution is fit and what is not? I do. The girl down there has struck against my blood and this is my retribution, Ranma-chan. My justice."
Hell is a Martial Artist
The mirror he stared at was a work of art, framed in bold leaf and inset with a dragon motif that coiled and swirled along its frame. It was a masterpiece that stood nearly two meters tall off an armoire that was its artistic equal. Where the mirror was the mythical Chinese dragon of legends, the dresser itself was blossoms and clouds trimmed with similar gold appointments. Hundreds of artisan man hours had undoubtedly gone into the individual creations, yet for all their intricacies and detail, neither were what held Ranma's attention at the moment. It was what lay in the reflection of the mirror that had him captivated.
For the most part, it was the same face he had grown used to over the years; a rugged handsomeness that would always ensure a second look from any lady that passed without falling on the rocks of the pretty boy stereotype. That wasn't the martial artist's concern, however, and he willed a transformation to take place. The pigtailed teen in the reflection melted into a redheaded girl. Ranma stared at those features with similar interest. Again, no major changes had taken place beyond the ones she had expected. Her face was now one of exotic Japanese beauty set atop curves that were nothing short of a visual delight despite her petite stature. It had taken her two long years to get inured to that fact, but doing so was the bedrock of Anything Goes.
Martial Arts had only taken that acceptance so far, however. Ranma had then met Hild and in doing so turned grudging acceptance into a fact of life to be enjoyed and indulged in. All of that was present in the mirror now, but Ranma shifted again; his clothing tightening to accommodate a more masculine frame once more. This time the martial artist leaned forward to scrutinize the single change that persisted across both forms.
And at the same time, not so, he decided. The last twelve hours had been a roller coaster of betrayal and revelation, and it was with an odd sense of calm that Ranma studied the only change wrought upon his person by one of the most powerful forces in the universe. In his male aspect, his eyes were a grayish blue and the only evidence of his family's more exotic genetics. In his female aspect, they took on a crystal blue hue that contrasted against her red hair and porcelain skin. That was the past, much like the last two years in Nerima. The blue eyes were gone now as if they had been plucked out and replaced with jeweled amethyst. Ranma cocked his head, staring into the mirror from a different angle, then willed the shift into his female form once more. The amethyst remained.
'Like Hild-san,' she noted, then mentally corrected herself as a fond smile found her lips. 'But not a -san anymore.'
It also went a long ways in explaining the eyes, Ranma supposed as she tilted her head to get a better view. They now held the same iridescent shade as her mother's own and if the blue of yesterday was striking, the glittering lavender of today only enhanced her already exotic heritage. The redhead hesitantly tore her attention away from the alteration to take the rest of the room in, only to find it as amazing as she last left it. The bed alone took up a full quarter of the space and promised enough decadent cushioning to consume her outright should she attempt to lay upon it and its four pillow accompaniment. Wood and brass gave the bed further structure that angled into almost a dozen hand carved drawers that featured its own naturalistic scroll work covering every inch.
Her eyes flicked across the room to a door that remained half ajar. She was almost afraid to look into the master bathroom.
"Hey, 'fridge is fully stocked too!" A coarse female voice called out from beyond the bedroom itself and the topic of food was more than enough to entice Ranma from the grandeur of the suite itself...
...And back out into the grandeur that was the living room and kitchen.
It was all obnoxiously extravagant and it was all apparently hers, from the entertainment center that would require an engineering degree to operate to the spacious master chef's kitchen that would require a master chef to fully appreciate. Even now, Ranma watched as a familiar blond clad in a fire truck red leather mini skirt and similar leather jacket dig around in the stainless steel refrigerator nearly the size of a closet. In fact, if the woman leaned any further into it, she could all but climb in.
"Got it!" Mara proclaimed and leaned back out having retrieved a silver cylinder which she promptly cracked open with a sharp hiss. The demoness grinned, winking at Ranma. "A beer a day keeps the angels away!"
The woman then proceeded to tilt the entire contents of the can back, chugging it for nearly fifteen seconds before depleting the alcoholic beverage while Ranma watched. Mara let out a satisfied 'ah' then turned back to Ranma. "Sapporo's pretty good in a pinch. Want one?"
"Nah, think I'm good," The red head decided and made her way to the kitchen to join the demoness. Plush golden-tan carpeting gave way to slate tile and Ranma likewise leaned into the refrigerator. It was every bit the closet on the inside, packing everything from meat to poultry and eggs to milk. The beer waited upon the bottom most shelf, but her eyes caught the red of an apple instead and she plucked it out as her stomach growled its discontent. It wouldn't be nearly enough, but it would do for now.
Ranma's head swiveled toward the sound, but Mara had already turned to address the knock on the door. "Whatdya want?"
"Delivery for Testarossa, Ranma?" A male voice pleasantly inquired through the closed apartment door. "Asakusa Boutique sends its regards."
'Testarossa?' Ranma was mouthing to herself even Mara was moving around the kitchen's island counter top to engage their mutual visitor.
"About time," The demoness quipped, but allowed the door to open with a mere thought. It clicked open to reveal a man already dipped in a low bow. Behind the white collared executive were similarly dressed women baring a number of carefully wrapped boxes. Mara arched an eyebrow at their subservient antics. "Yeah, yeah," She rolled her eyes and waved them in with little fanfare. "Over there by the couch."
The martial artist watched as the young manager and his entourage filed past with the white packages, each bound by black and silver ribbon bows. Ranma's confused study flicked from Mara, to their guests and back. "Um, Mara-chan?"
"Boss figured you would need a new wardrobe." The blond supplied as the sale representatives retreated back out to the hallway for a second load. The perplexed look persisted until Mara elaborated. "Your stuff back at the dojo got nuked the moment Hild-san made you official."
The second wave of boxes were being deposited at the redhead's feet as she stared. "So all of this is clothing?"
"Miss Testarossa, if you could sign here?" The younger manager stepped towards Ranma in a half bow, presenting her with a small clipboard. He noticed her persisting confusion and added, "The receipt of delivery, of course."
"Ah, sure." Ranma blinked, shooting a sidelong glance at Mara who merely grinned back as if everything were going according to plan. The redhead had little choice but to play along and scrawled the sloppy equivalent of her new family name across the statement.
"Very well." The manager bowed lower as he retrieved the clipboard with both hands. Behind him the girls also bowed and the group filed back out without a word. Mara watched them go until the manager was outside bowing once more at which point the demoness promptly slammed the door in his face.
"And that's the end of today's lesson." She brushed her hands off as if her good deed for the day had been discharged.
Ranma arched an eyebrow at her antics, but had more pressing concerns now besides either her behavior or the white boxes strewn around her. "Testarossa?"
"Ask your mom," Mara shrugged indifferently. "My guess is that all your crap Earth-side here still needs a family name for the records and that's what she gave the Nidhogg... That is unless you actually still want to be a Saotome?"
While her tone held enough skeptical doubt, the very question caused Ranma no small pause. She had been a Saotome since birth. The name was very much a part of her, like an arm or a leg. And now its gone, Ranma took a deep mental breath. An arm or a leg it might have been, but it was a cancer ridden appendage and it ultimately came down to which was more painful: Living out her life as a Saotome or lopping it off at the joint to begin anew?
"Gonna be weird, but Testarossa is doable." The martial artist decided with a firm nod that belied the separation anxiety the decision had created.
Mara stared at her for a moment longer, as if seeing through the facade. Finally it passed and her grin reappeared. "Good. Would have been a bitch to back out the change and guess who would have had to do that?"
Ranma smirked as she made her own peace with the topic. "There's more beer in the fridge."
"I knew there was a reason I liked you, kid!" The blond proclaimed and stalked back toward the mammoth refrigerator. The beer was acquired seconds later, and with it a smug look on her face. "In fact, I've got an even better idea." Ranma stared, waiting for the woman's smug countenance to bare fruit. Mara motioned into the living room with her beer. "I say we find out how to work that."
Ranma's attention was brought to bear on 'that', a fifty-five inch television surrounded by speakers and flanked by a chocolate brown suede couch that could have been mistaken for a modest sedan in terms of size. Below the TV sat several consoles nestled in the entertainment center. A couple could be identified as game consoles while others were beyond her ability to discern.
"Oooh! controllers!" Mara was already digging into the glass cabinet of electronics, pulling out two game pads, then dumped several compact discs across the floor to be sort through as Ranma looked on. "No. No. No. Gay. Urd might like that one. No. Ah-ha!"
A single disk in particular was clutched in triumph and the demoness pulled one of the consoles out from the entertainment center to be accessed, plunking the CD in and slamming the lid back shut. Mara waved Ranma over and promptly handed the martial artist a controller as she turned on the TV and hunted for the auxiliary channel.
Ranma looked from her to the ribbon clad boxes until a sofa cushion bounced off her head, causing her to blink at the blond as she got comfortable on her own cushion. "Don't just stand there all brain dead. Let's rock this!"
Half an hour later the Daimakaicho of hell itself paused outside the apartment she had acquired for her child. The last time she had been in a similar situation, it was a heart breaking sound that could be heard through the closed door of her office twelve short hours ago. Now it was anything but. Hild smiled to herself as she opened the door softly and was greeted to the sounds of battle in progress.
"I don't think so!"
"No! You can't-!"
"Ha ha! Suck it!"
Hild stepped in silently, sliding behind the sofa as she watched the pair battle it out by proxy. On screen, red, blue, green and yellow colored gems fell on each side then promptly exploded as sufficient density was achieved. The grand demoness grinned evilly.
"Did you just tell my daughter to 'Suck it', Mara-chan?"
"ACK!" Mara twitched violently, throwing the game pad aside as if it were suddenly burning her hands. The improbable contortion of her body brought the Queen of the Damned into sight. She stared down upon the pair in mirth even as Ranma tiled her head back to view at a somewhat upside down angle, but with a smile none the less. "Was just getting ready to kick her ass."
"As you should," Hild nodded patiently, beckoning her over. Ranma hopped up and joined Hild's side curiously, only to be surprised by a kiss on the forehead that left the redhead blinking with application of motherly attention. It was... Ranma struggled for the appropriate word and only found one. Nice. Hild was already surveying the apartment and the unopened boxes around it. "I see Asakusa has made their timely delivery."
"Yep. Miss Testarossa signed for it," Ranma quipped with an inquiring look. The white haired woman turned an amused one back at her.
"I will admit to being displeased with the Saotome clan at the time and your activities on Midgard will all but require a family name regardless," Hild explained. Her expression took on a slightly more serious note, as if she understood the potential ramifications her child faced. "I can, of course, have Mara back that particular change out of the Nidhogg."
"I... Nah." Ranma hesitated as she mulled over the matter once more before shaking her head. Amusement returned to her face "Does that make you Hild Testarossa then?"
"In any matter concerning your legal guardianship, yes." The Grand Demoness nodded, her pleasant demeanor returning.
"Could be worse," The redhead shrugged with the explanation. She glanced at the her blond gaming partner, who was finishing her task of storing their source of entertainment back into the cabinet. The demon's activity reminded her that she had her own cleaning up to do. Ranma took in the white boxes stacked strategically across the apartment. "Guess I better get these put away."
"And while I help you do so, we will discuss the more salient details of your new life," Hild nodded, accompanying Ranma to the nearest pile.
"Such as?" The martial artist asked as she picked up a box. The answer she received was foreboding in spite of her new mother's pleasant tone.
"Oh, just life. The universe. Everything."
Police Officer Tsubiki Kiba sighed for perhaps the twentieth time since his followup visit to the Tendo Dojo. On one hand the man before him was a respected member of the community; one he knew by name. On the other hand, the events over the last twenty four hours had deeply shaken the Tendo, and the Tsubiki was beginning to fear for the man's sanity.
'Hasn't been the same since his wife passed on,' The forty year old officer thought to himself sadly. 'And now his middle daughter.'
"But you have to believe me, Kiba-san!" The pleading demand met his ears again, forcing Tsubiki to address the here and now.
"Calm down Tendo-san," He urged, hoping to spare the the man his dignity while throwing him a token of understanding. "Of course strange things happen around here. That's why-"
"We need to find the woman who did this! " Soun Tendo trembled with simultaneous grief and anger as he clutched the frame of the doorway he stood within. "I gave the description to the police last night!"
"Which is why I'm here, Tendo-san." Officer Kiba attempted to placate the martial artist. "Still, you have to understand what we found last night isn't-"
"She was murdered!" Soun interrupted, as if he already knew what the officer was going to say. Tsubiki took another sigh and fished the notepad from his breast pocket. A pen accompanied it and he clicked the point.
"Alright, she was murdered." The police officer agreed reluctantly, hoping to take the situation from a different angle. "Let's go over what happened last night one more time. What did she look like?"
"White hair. Tan," The Tendo patriarch stated definitively. "Nearly 180 centimeters." He leaned back through the doorway and into the house. "Kasumi! Akane! Join us at the front door!"
Officer Tsubiki watched over the father's shoulder as the girls approached. The younger one had a blank expression on her face. The other had red eyes that bore the only evidence of crying. They joined their father and he in turn wrapped his arms protectively around them. "Officer Kiba has a few questions for us. Kasumi, do you remember the woman's eye color?"
"B-Blue I think." The eldest Tendo sister stuttered slightly.
"Almost purple." The youngest corrected firmly. Soun nodded.
"Akane-chan did get the best look." He reported to the officer, who in turn scribbled into his notebook.
"Tan, white hair, approximately 180 centimeters and purple eyes." Tsubiki repeated back, to which the trio in the doorway nodded. He glanced up with the slightest edge of skepticism. "I would imagine such a woman running around Tokyo would stick out like a sore thumb."
"Exactly!" Soun nodded fiercely. "She should be easy to apprehend!"
'Not exactly what I'm getting at,' Tsubiki mused but kept his thoughts to himself. "Have you seen her before this?"
Akane nodded instantly. "She challenged us. Two months ago."
"Alright," The officer continued patiently, hoping her testimony would lead somewhere. "Us? She challenged other people? What was the challenge over?"
"There were four of us: Myself, Ukyo, Kodachi and Shampoo." Akane nodded again, ticking the names off on her fingers then paused as if remembering something. "Wait, there was a blond woman there watching us fight."
'The Kuno girl as well?' Tsubiki noted with a mental frown. Any incident involving the insanely wealthy, emphasis on insane, would be problematic. Any incident involving a Kuno known to dabble in exotic opiates and potential narcotics would be even worse. 'And for Soun's youngest to associate with her?' The Officer suppressed his disappointment.
"Another foreigner," Akane supplied. "About the same height, I think. Pale skin, blond hair."
"Eye color?" Tsubiki prompted and this time Akane shook her head.
"I don't remember." She admitted. The police officer waved the oversight away as inconsequential.
"It's alright, Akane-chan." He returned easily. "What was this particular challenge over?"
The girls expression hardened. "She was trying to be another fiancee."
"Another...?" Officer Kiba turned his perplexed look from Akane to her father.
"One of Ranma's problems." Soun supplied as if the statement explained everything, but the confusion persisted.
"Was this Ranma at the challenge?" The officer's gaze flicked back and forth. The girl's sudden irritation was completely out of place for the situation they were discussing and he made a note to probe it further.
"No." She huffed. Her expression turned downright sour. "He wasn't here last night either. He could have stopped this whole thing."
'Stranger and stranger,' Tsubiki noted and pressed deeper. "Should he have been here last night?"
"Of course he should have!" Akane exploded, balling her fists. "He lives here! He should have been here to stop this! Hell, he causes it half the-"
"Akane-chan, calm down." The Tendo patriarch pulled the daughter closer to him. The angry look persisted, but the daughter lapsed into silence. Tsubiki stared at the girl, then Soun Tendo. He glanced back down to his notepad to consult its information.
"Did you take in a boarder recently?" Tsubiki cocked his head thoughtfully, trying to make sense of the increasingly odd conversation.
"Of course not." Soun merely shook his head. "Even with Genma making peace with his wife, that still doesn't leave much room with the spare bedroom occupied."
"Occupied by who?" This time the police officer put a fine point on the question, causing Soun to stare at him oddly. Genma and his wife he was familiar with. But the other name...
"By Ranma, of course." Soun answered as he tried to figure out where the conversational disconnect was occurring.
Tsubiki Kiba scrunched his eyes as frustration began to get the better of him. "Alright, I'll need a full name and description of this Ranma."
"Ah, ha ha ha." Soun laughed nervously, eyeing the officer strangely now. "Funny, perhaps, though I'm not sure this is the best time to be joking, Kiba-san."
"You're claiming there was a murder in this house." Officer Kiba's tone dropped any pretense of familiarity. "I assure you, Tendo-san, I'm not joking."
Soun Tendo stared silently at the man before him. "But... You know... Black hair? Blue eyes? 160 centimeters? Engaged to marry my Akane here?"
The description did nothing to incite understanding in the officer's expression. Instead the man dutifully took down the information, glancing up as he did. "Well I supposed congratulations are in order for the young lady, though I'm sure it could have come at a better time than now."
He watched as Soun Tendo gaped at him and struggled for the right words. "You... You know Ranma. He lives here and you..."
Tsubiki shook his head. "First I've heard of it or him, I assure you."
"I... I... Ridiculous." Soun's tone finally firmed up. "You'll recognize him on sight. Kasumi?"
"Fetch a photo from the wedding. The one with Ranma and Akane." The Tendo patriarch specified and his daughter ducked back inside the house to fetch the requested photo. She knew exactly which one he was talking about because it was the only good one to have emerged from the entire wedding debacle. Every other picture had scenes of fiancees fighting, rivals fighting, Akane and Ranma... arguing?
She came up to the shelf the picture was perched on and her step faltered even before she had come into arms reach of it. She stared as she hesitantly took it in hand. After a wide eyed moment she returned with it, thoughts whirling even as her father glanced back at her. The police officer waited beyond patiently. Kasumi held the photo out for him with reservation.
"Um, f-father... There's something-"
"Ah, here it is, officer." Soun took the silver framed photo from her thoughtlessly and transferred it to Tsubiki's possession. He looked at it for a moment, nodding.
"She'll make a fine bride one day," Officer Kiba stated evenly, handing it back. "Where is the one with this Ranma in it?"
Soun stared, then looked down at the frame handed back to him. It was Akane in all her bridal glory. The white wedding dress alone had cost a small fortune to rent, but it had been worth it to see her on the cusp of womanhood. There was only one problem.
It was only Akane in the photo.
Soun Tendo's eyes widened. He shot a glance to Kasumi, who shrugged helplessness, then to Akane. The girl was utterly clueless and attempted to get a better view of the picture. The sudden, audible gasp told him she had seen exactly the same thing.
"Tendo-san, look..." Officer Kiba began wearily. "It's been a trying time. You know that and I know that."
"I'll get Genma on the phone right now. He can confirm-"
"I also know what the first responders found last night," The man held up a patient hand, interrupting Soun. "Some storm damage, certainly, but no evidence of a break in. No evidence of a struggle. No fingerprints beyond those of your family. No-"
"My baby girl did not die of a heart attack!" The father erupted suddenly and began to encroach on the police officer's personal space with righteous indignation. "That witch killed her!"
Tsubiki's eyes flicked from him to the two daughters who nodded with the proclamation. Another tired sigh escaped his lips. This time he shook his head reluctantly. "Alright Tendo. Stranger things have happened. I'll submit the report, but-"
"Thank you officer!"
But," Kiba interrupted his enthusiasm before it could gain any further steam. "I want you to carefully consider what you're telling me. I'll be back by tomorrow. If you want to change it in any way, I would suggest you do it then."
"Why would I-"
"I feel for your loss, Tendo-san." Officer Tsubiki Kiba simply shook his head, then bowed. "Good day."
Two daughters and their father watched as the police officer turned and walked off. They were locked in their staring until Akane pulled the photo out of her father's hands to stare at it instead. The youngest Tendo sister boggled. It was as if she had taken a solo glamor photo in her wedding dress. That was strange by itself; eccentric even, but not nearly as strange as the fact that the man she called her fiance was completely missing from the photo they had taken together.
By the time Akane had scrambled back into the house for further confirmation, another drama was unfolding four kilometers to the south as the school day started anew at the last bastion of educational hope known as Furinkan High. An eight year old old girl with long brown hair yawned obnoxiously as she hopped up into her chair and shuffled paperwork across her teacher's desk until finding one document in particular. She eyed the list for a moment and nodded to herself before returning her attention to the class.
"Attention class!" Her preadolescent voice piped. While there wasn't much authority to be found in its tone, the promise of a Five Yen ki draining technique ensured the pre-class gossip subsided with the girl's announcement. She waited a moment longer before reading from the paper in hand. "As some of you may have heard, the Tendo household has suffered a tragedy; thus Akane will not be in attendance for the next few days. I will be available to forward any sympathies you may have for her and her deceased sister, upperclassman Tendo, Nabiki."
She allowed the murmur of discussion to permeate the room for another moment before beginning the roll call. "Koyasu, Daisuke!"
The boy in question stopped his side discussion with the student across the aisle from him and raised his hand promptly for the eight year old rather than risk a his ki being drained so early in the school day. "Present."
Miss Hinako glanced up to confirm her student's presence before moving to the next name. "Jinnai, Tatsuyuki!"
"Present!" Another voice replied briskly, his presence discarded by the diminutive educator as quickly as it had been brought to her attention.
"Kounji, Ukyo," Miss Hinako continued without even looking up as she checked the requisite names off the attendance sheet.
"Sensei." The okonomiyaki chef raised her hand absently as she considered the empty seat representing Akane's absence. Ranma was likewise absent, though that made sense. 'Maybe duck out at lunch to see how things are back at the dojo,' Ukyo decided silently as the child educator continued her role call.
Miss Hinako had moved on in that moment, checking off several names in the meantime.
Silence. Miss Hinako sighed with an edge of annoyance and looked up for the first time since starting the morning ritual. 'No Ranma,' she immediately noted, though that in itself was hardly a surprise. Punctuality was not the martial artist's defining trait, even if that punctuality was normally handicapped by external circumstance more often than not. Even though the very though annoyed her, today she was willing to let it go due extenuating circumstances.
"Miss Kuonji," The girl behind the desk snapped, jarring the teenager from her thoughts. "Ensure Saotome and Tendo receive their homework."
Ukyo nodded dutifully but smiled internally at the perfect valid excuse to visit the dojo. Off to her left, Daisuke raised his hand.
"Um, Sensei?" The teenage boy asked somewhat tentatively, looking around the room as if distracted. Miss Hinako nodded her permission and the student cocked his head with a befuddled look, asking his question. "Who's Saotome, Ranma?"
Ukyo blinked. Miss Hinako stared, equally perplexed as she considered the unlikely question. 'Who's Saotome, Ra-?'
"Yeah, I was wondering that too," Another girl piped up, and both Ukyo and Ninomiya's increasingly bug-eyed staring tracked to her now. "Is he a new student?"
"Is he cute?" Another girl wondered aloud.
"Just what we need, more competition for Akane!" A boy to the right groaned, finally causing Ukyo's dam of incredulity to burst.
"What do you mean 'is he a new student?'" She stood up from her desk abruptly, favoring her fellow classmates with rising ire. She pointed blindly to the row behind her. "He sits right there!"
Silence held the class as they stared at the agitated girl until finally another spoke up. "Um, that's Suki-chan."
The chef blinked, whirling around to the seat whose location she knew by heart to find... Ukyo's head lolled to the side in befuddlement. There was no empty seat belonging to Ranma Saotome. It was, in fact, occupied by Suki Makato, who in turn stared back in uncertainty. Ukyo Kuonji's mouth hung open for a moment, at least until the gibbering began.
"But that's... He's... You're not supposed to be..."
Even Miss Hinako was standing up now, but she wasn't merely focused on the single out of place student. Now that Ukyo had drawn attention to it, she could see that the entire classroom's desk layout was subtly different. Something told her that Suki was supposed to be in exactly the spot she sat, something that directly conflicted with over a year's worth of memories. It was either one supremely odd practical joke to be playing, or... The part time child began to shift through her paperwork even as Ukyo began to interrogate her classmates.
'Last week's tests.'The girl confirmed and began to shuffle through the manila folder that held them. Her frown grew the deeper into the thirty page stack she progressed until she reached the bottom. Miss Hinako stared at the stack, tuning out the somewhat heated conversation that was brewing beyond her desk and slid open the bottom left drawer of the desk. Detentions slips. Seating chart. She rifled through the small stack quickly, then shoved the drawer shut. The brunette hopped from her seat and produced a key from her dress, quickly stepping over to a filing cabinet that was almost as tall as she was in her current form. A squawk of alarm caused her pause and she turned to find the teen chef bodily lifting Daisuke from the ground by the collar with threats of physical violence to which the panicked boy continued to plead his innocence.
Some of the class looked for their mentor's intervention, only to watch her shrug and return to the cabinet. She unlocked the middle drawer at eye level open and stood up on her tiptoes to actually see, let alone reach, inside in order to access the student files. After another five minutes and a second pass through them, the girl slid the cabinet shut. An uncharacteristically serious expression fell upon Ukyo Kuonji, who now had the same wheezing boy pinned against the south wall with the edge of her battle spatula.
"Miss Kuonji!" Fiancee number two stiffened, as if she had just realized her method of interrogation left a bit to be desired. Even as the apology left the black haired teen's lips, Miss Hinako cut her off. "Come with me. The rest of you will study chapter twelve until I return."
"Now, Miss Kuonji." The brunette girl demanded impatiently, prompting irritation to play across Ukyo's face. She cast a glare back at her victim, causing the boy to flinch before finally relenting with a contemptuous sniff. Ukyo turned on the ball of her foot and slung the spatula back across her back as she followed Miss Hinako from the room and into the central hall where it took a just under a dozen steps for the girl to find her voice again without care of reprisal.
"Sensei, what the hell is going-!" The okonomiyaki mistress blurted, only to be silenced once more by Hinako's chiding tone.
"Language, Miss Kuonji!" She glanced back over her shoulder with a no-nonsense look that would have looked completely out of place on any other child. This one could back it up, however, forcing Ukyo to merely stare back expectantly. The girl seemed to take a moment to compose her own thoughts until she stopped completely, favoring her student with a serious countenance.
"You remember Ranma-kun. I remember Ranma-kun. The rest of our class does not," The eight year old girl explained, point back toward the classroom. "Nor is he in my records. Not on the seating chart. Nor the tests. No detention slips. Nothing."
"But that's..." Ukyo blinked, likewise turning back to the class room as a feeling of dread and wonder began to settle in her stomach. She turned back to Miss Hinako. "It's a joke?"
"An incredibly stupid one," The girl huffed her annoyance and returned back to her path of travel. The chef fell in step behind her as she continued to voice her annoyance. "Not to mention easily disproved."
The pair rounded a corner and Miss Hinako was suddenly all smiles as another teacher approached from the opposite end of the hallway. The girl became quite animated before Ukyo's very eyes, all but leaping for the other teacher's attention. "Miss Ginko! Miss Ginko!"
The slender black haired woman's attention was pulled away from the book she had been engrossed in as she walked and onto the girl. The physically older woman adjusted her glasses as teacher and student approached. "Miss Hinako? Shouldn't you be-"
"You've heard about Akane Tendo?" The child didn't let her finish and the woman's face was suddenly filled with emotion, indicating she obviously had.
"That poor girl," Miss Gino shook her head sympathetically and chose the wording of her condolences carefully. "Granted, her sister wasn't the most... popular student in school, but a tragedy is a tragedy none the less. I take it Akane-chan has taken leave?"
"Of course." Miss Hinako made her own token show of sympathy before moving onto the the real focus of her chat. "How do you think it will affect Saotome-san?"
The teach blinked. "Saotome-san?"
Any expression remaining on Ukyo's face vanished into a complete emotional void as the conversation descended deeper into the rabbit hole. The brunette child's smile remained, now plastered on in spite of the worrying confirmation she was receiving. "Yes, I wonder how he's taking the death of Akane's sister?"
'Cheering and lighting off fireworks, probably,' Ukyo thought sarcastically, but watched the drama before her continue to play out as a confused expression enveloped the older woman's face.
"Are they related?" Miss Ginko asked. Cocking her head without seemingly any clue as to who Ninomiya was speaking of. The brunette helpfully filled in the details.
"Oh, he's her fiance." Miss Hinako replied easily, causing a minor gasp from the woman.
"But so young!" The teacher shook her head as if it were the very first time she had heard the news. The girl, however, knew otherwise. Everybody teacher in Furinkan knew of the tumultuous relationship between Ranma and Akane as well as the mutual entanglements it created. It was regular teacher's lounge gossip as a matter of fact, but the eight year old humored the woman's knowledge gap regardless.
"Arranged marriage." Miss Hinako nodded, prompting wider eyes from the woman. "I mean, who does that now-a-days anyway?"
"Ridiculous if you ask me," The black haired woman shook her head in amazement. "Some parents-"
"Good chat! Gotta go!" Hinako suddenly effused, drawing the conversation to an abrupt close. She gave the woman a wave and turned back to Ukyo. "Come along, Miss Kuonji!"
Miss Ginko blinked at the sudden abandonment, watching as Ninomiya began to pull her student down the hallway. She shook her head again, contemplating the juicy tidbit of gossip that had landed in her lap until stumbling upon another piece of realization...
...Like shouldn't the girl be teaching a class right now?
"Lunch is ready!"
The announcement was unnecessary for the most part, since all but one of the meal's participants were present and accounted for. Belldandy's gaze flicked across the table she had set the tan bamboo tray of turkey sandwich rolls upon, then across to those gathered. Keichii was present, of course, sitting at the head of the table; waiting like the patient soul he was. The Goddess of the Present smiled lovingly for him and it was returned in equal measure. Skuld, on the other hand, was animated impatience. The black haired girl leaned away from the table to stare down the hall in the hopes that the forth person would have heard her elder sister.
Belldandy too watched the hallway expectantly; expectations that fell on the rocks after another solid minute of inactivity. A perturbed sigh erupted from the Goddess of the Future, and she see sent a pleading look up to her brunette sister.
"Can we just eat without her, onee-chan?" Skuld cast another glance down the hall, then returned to her sister with another sour look of annoyance.
Belldandy simply shook her head, favoring the girl with that same gentle smile. "Patience, imoutu. I'm sure she'll be right out."
"But we've been waiting ten minutes already!" The little goddess complained, staring longingly at the lunchtime meal that was every bit an artistic creation as it was actual sustenance. The older sister considered the argument and couldn't help but to find some merit residing therein.
"Perhaps," She assuaged patiently, reassessing the situation for herself. "I'll go and check on her."
"That means I can start in, then?" Skuld eyed her sister hopefully. Belldandy's shake of head dashed her hopes.
"Patience." The brunette reiterated. "It won't take but a moment."
The Goddess of the Present untied her white ruffled apron and laid across her own chair's backrest and smoothed out her light pink dress before proceeding into the empty hallway herself. Two doors later she came upon the third, partially cracked open. Belldandy cocked her head as the murmurs of conversation drifted to her ears from the room.
"Maybe it all ties into the that insane gymnastics girl?"
"No, I don't think so. I mean look over here... There's her brother who he met first."
"Okay, so they're both insane."
"Well, sure, but what does it all have to do with Mom?"
"She could have driven them insane."
"What, insanity through association?"
"Well, they're both after him, right?"
"Well yeah... But... No, let's keep it simple. We're missing-"
"Urd-chan?" Conversation ceased as Belldandy pushed open the door, finding the white haired goddess sitting cross-legged on her bed talking to the modest sized rat next to her. Both turned back to the newly arrived goddess, who in turn stared.
"Oh, hi, Bell-chan." Urd waved nonchalantly and watched as her sisters gaze flicked back and forth across the room. In any other household, it would have been the white haired supermodel conversing with a rodent that would have attracted the wide eyed stare. Not so here. This household was the residence of one mortal and three Norn goddesses, routinely visited by infernal agents, spirits of all sorts and occasionally family and friends.
No, it wasn't her sister talking to a rat that held Belldandy's undivided attention now. It was the pictures. Boys. Girls. Adults scattered here and there across the wall. There were easily two dozen of the 3x4 glossy photos pinned to the wall, every last one of them interconnected by a red strand of string that ended up criss-crossing every available surface. The goddess of the present's study flicked from photo to photo, following the thread that invariably intersected with three larger pictures of the center. Two were of Ranma Saotome as a black haired male and redheaded female. The other was of the Daimakaicho herself.
"I... This is..." Belldandy blinked, still tracing the thread across its endless circuit from one photo to the next. She finally shook her head, focusing back upon her white haired sister. "What is this?"
"Piece of work, isn't it?" Urd swung two shapely legs to the beds edge and bounced up before stepping over to her sibling. She turned back to the wall, gesturing to it. "Thisis the life of the genderjock."
"Okay," The brunette hesitated, her eyes once more tracing the string. "But what is it doing in your room?"
"We're trying to find out where the involvement between the Daimakaicho and Ranma stems," The gray rat answered back. He shook his his furry head in an almost sympathetic manner. "The kid's life is an absolute train wreck."
"We were hoping we could untangle some of the mess and see where it led," Urd continued the explanation as her finger began to unconsciously trace the red string. Belldandy watched with moving finger with slight concern but let her sister finish. "But Gan-chan's right. It isn't just a train wreck. It's a train wreck with wings and fire juggling clowns on rocket engines." The finger paused an the Goddess of the Past paused with the thought and an introspective look. "Say, maybe we should get Keichii in here to take a look at it."
"Ah, perhaps you should take a break for lunch," Belldandy forced a smile withe the attempt to divert her sister from enlisting Keichii engineering expertise for the project. "I've made sandwich rolls?"
Urd seemed indecisive, her attention wavering between the door and the thread strewn wall. She turned back to Belldandy. "And sake?"
The brunette nodded all too readily. "Of course!"
The elder sister took a final look back at the wall, but nodded. "Yeah, I think we could use a break. Come on, Gan-chan."
The scruffy rat likewise nodded, jumping onto the tanned hand Urd had lowered for him. He ran up her arm and found a perch onto her shoulder and both followed Belldandy from the room and out to the table. Skuld caught sight of her sisters rolled her eyes.
"About time!" She huffed, her hands already moving to intersect with the sandwich roll. "I thought we were going to starve out here!"
"Stuff it, squirt," Urd rolled her eyes, pulling out a chair even as Belldandy circled around to sit next to Keichii. "Besides, Kami-sama doesn't lock time lines down without a reason."
"So?" The black haired teen eyed her sister. "Figure it out yet?"
"And just what do you think I was working on?" Urd snorted sarcastically, but shook her head. "But seriously, if you're not part of the solution-"
"I'll get it," The only male of the group stated easily, pushing away from the table with thoughts mainly geared toward not wanting to be at the table when the bickering between Urd and Skuld finally came to a head. And it would, Keichii reassured himself, and abandoned ship for the doorway.
"Well it's not my fault you're mother is a meanie!" The conversation continued as Skuld returned fire between bites.
"Scaredy cat." Urd stated simply, prompting another glare, while Belldandy ate peacefully. She could interfere but there was still a chance- A shuffling attracted her attention and she turned to find Keichii stumbling backing back into the dining room.
"Ah, ha ha... just calm down with that!"
The bickering stopped as all eyes turned upon Belldandy's fiancee. He wasn't alone. A teenage girl with long dark brown hair followed, no, stalkedhim as he retreated. Nor was she alone. The length of a long, flat edged weapon followed threateningly in hand and behind her was someone everybody at the table recognized. All three women stood up as Keichii scurried behind them.
"That's her alright." The black haired girl sized up the three women, focusing on the white haired woman instantly. She gave the stainless steel weapon a twirl as a twenty something adult woman in a pale yellow mini joined her and nodded.
"So it is."
"Then lets get this over with," Ukyo Kuonji frowned at the trio of women and the man behind them. "I'll ask this one time and one time only: Where's Ran-chan?"
"You can't just barge in here!" Skuld stamped her feet, pointing indiscriminately at the pair. "And youagain!"
"Yes, me again," Miss Hinako leveled a cool gaze on the girl. "Since your delinquency apparently knows no bounds, I have returned."
"Cool it kiddo, I got this." The Goddess of the Past stepped forward with a smirk for the woman. "You really want to try this again? Because I can guarantee the result will be the same as before."
"Urd, please, not this time." Belldandy advised, stepping up along side her sister. She placed a restraining hand on her shoulder, gently pulling her back as she decided a more active role on her part would be necessary if property damage was to be avoided. She studied both women for herself and could all but taste the hostility rolling off them in waves. "Perhaps you can tell us what is troubling you?"
Ukyo's grip on the shaft of her combat spatula flexed impatiently, though Miss Hinako placed a similarly restraining hand on the girl's shoulder and took up the negotiations for herself. "A student of mine is missing. You are likely to know where he is."
"So call the police already," Urd rolled her eyes, then stopped short with sudden realization. "Wait, let me guess. The kid, right?"
"His name is Ranma." Ukyo stressed, her voice laden with threat.
"But what makes you think we know where he is?" Belldandy worked the situation patiently, trying to figure out what had agitated the mortals so badly.
"Because of the way he disappeared," Ninomiya Hinako advised with cool accusation. "Some would say 'magically'."
"What does that have to-" Urd's rebuttal stalled as she turned the matter over in her mind, chaining several facts and the boy's association with her own mother into the equation. She reset her train of thought. "Magically how so?"
Miss Hinako eyed the tanned woman, weighing the pros and cons of humoring her tanned adversary further verses outright attacking. Their last confrontation hadn't gone so well in her favor, making Ninomiya a fraction more amiable towards furthering the conversation. "Records have disappeared. People have forgotten he even exists."
"Not to mention the little voice in the back of our heads insisting that its all normal," Ukyo huffed, tapping the side of her skull with an index finger.
"Little voice in-" Urd blinked, then turned to Belldandy with a concerned look. "That almost sounds like..."
"I think I'll go check on it." Belldandy nodded hastily and turned to depart from the dining room. Skuld and Keichii stared after her while the two antagonistic mortal females refocused on Urd.
"More delinquency?" Miss Hinako arched an eyebrow, this time inciting a very serious reaction from the white haired goddess.
"Much as I love mine, no." Urd shook her head, her attitude all business now. "My sister is going to check on something that might be helpful."
"So you're saying you didn't kidnap Ranma?" Ukyo eyed the tanned woman warily. The near accusation was met with an exasperated sigh.
"How many times can I say it?" The eldest goddess placed her hands on her hips imperviously. "What the heck would we do with him anyway?"
"Marry him." Ukyo stated blandly. Urd merely rolled her eyes.
"As if." She rolled her eyes. "Not my type and definitely not my-"
"Urd, come quickly." Belldandy was back in the hallway with a grave look on her face beckoning the woman over. The white haired goddess looked at her, then to mortals and back, abandoning the standoff to come to her sister's aid.
"Bell-chan?" She eyed her younger sister, who actually seemed pale.
"I... It's...You won't believe..." Belldandy stammered uncharacteristically through her concern. Urd stared at the woman's wide eyed eyes. "She... She did it... She did it..."
"Who did what?" Urd pressed. Belldandy hesitated for a moment before leaning in to whisper in her ear. The tanned goddesses' blue eyes widened with the hushed whisper. Her mouth opened but nothing came out as her brain promptly ran out of mental bandwidth.
Ukyo and Miss Hinako watched their adversary faint dead away.
"Aw, come on. It can't be that bad." Ranma eyed his mother as she watched him fuss over the sleeve of his newest clothing acquisition. It was a black silk Chinese shirt custom tailored to fit. Not only was it custom tailored to fit him, it was custom tailored to fit heras Hild had advised early in the session. Every single item in the black and silver boxes had been magically imbued to resize itself in order to accommodate his body... No matter which he found himself in at the time.
The former Saotome fussed with the sleeve one more time, watching himself in the mirror as he did so. He gave his own trigger a mental push and the boy in the mirror shrunk into a redhead girl. The shirt and black silk pants continued to fit perfectly and she smirked with slight satisfaction. Of course, that wouldn't work with the mini she had tried on just a few moments before without some embarrassing explanation involved, but she was no longer at the beck and call of a water based curse. It was his now. And hers.
"Might makes right in most of hell and many will ask you to demonstrate your dominion over their person." Hild explained, simultaneously enjoying the dress up session she had engaged her daughter in while explaining the infernal facts of life. "While I am all but assured you are in the upper bracket of that right of way, the minions I employ would smear your greatest adversary to date across the landscape. You remember Neltharion, perhaps?"
That caused the martial artist pause. Neltharion. The giant black dragon. The one that actually could gobble up Saffron, the guy she barely eked out a victory against, in one bite without suffering from Phoenix King heartburn.
"Thus, much as I would like you to run around hell proper without escort, it would be ill advised until you choose to ascend." The Daimakaicho explained nonchalantly. She rocked herself up off of the bed and circled Ranma with an appraising look, picking at the black silk in order to straighten out any imperfections. "Marvelous. Simply Marvelous."
"Well, I guess if..." Ranma began, then paused, turning back toward Hild. "Wait. Ascend?"
"Of course, silly girl. You're my daughter now." The grand demoness held the redhead with a bemused smile. "The mortal shell you reside in is hardly fit for a celestial being, let alone my progeny. It simply waits to be discarded."
Ranma blinked at the white haired woman before her several times as her brain abandoned dwelling on the bitterness of being outclassed in an attempt to parse her mother's statement. Mortal shell. Celestial being. Discarded. The redhead opened her mouth, then closed it, shaking her head. "I still ain't sure what that means."
"It's quite simple." Hild offered patiently. "Twenty four hours ago you were a mortal. You would live, die and be judged in the fullness of time. Now you are my lineage. You are still mortal after a fashion, but it is a transient state. As my child, your destiny is now that of a celestial being."
"I... I guess?" Ranma cocked her head, trying to get a handle on the concept. She shook her head and hazarded a guess. "So I'm gonna die and be like you?"
"Or you could simply choose discard your mortality here and now," The white haired demoness shrugged. "Neither is without consequence of course. As a mortal you virtually have a free hand in your interaction throughout Midgard, though your influence in the celestial realms are limited. You could quite literally live out your days doing whatever it is mortals do until you died of old age."
"Or I could just chuck it and ascend." Ranma finished, failing to see a down side to the whole celestial thing. Hild simply nodded her own confirmation, but had a bit more to add.
"But not without consequence." She warned carefully, ensuring she had the young girl's undivided attention now. "Being my daughter would grant you power. Influence. Awareness.You would literally be reshaped for a higher state of being, but for everything you gain you would loose such here on Midgard." The woman held her purple gaze on Ranma , then absently picked at a stray thread she had found on her silks before continuing. "It is not a choice to be made lightly, as you would be bound by the very same accords I would; especially since you would be less of a demon and more of an heir."
Her heir? She hadn't thought about it from that angle and Ranma was suddenly reminded of the jewelry that cloaked her mother's person and her inability to directly interfere in the Saffron battle. A frown enveloped her face. "Well that sucks."
"Some days more than others," Hild merely chuckled. "Though it is certainly not without its-"
"MOTHER!" Whatever the demoness was about to say was left hanging on her tongue as a series of sharp reverberating thuds cut through the atmosphere. Both mother and daughter turned toward the open bedroom door as another heavy handed salvo was heard, followed again by the harsh female screech."WE KNOW YOU'RE IN THERE! YOU HAD BETTER LET US IN OR ELSE!"
"Or else what, my impetuous offspring?" Hild sighed to herself, shaking her head. She cast a patient smile over to Ranma. "Whatever do you so suppose she wants?"
"A swift kick in the ass?" Ranma smirked back, causing the Queen of the Damned a chuckle. "Barrin' that, I'm thinkin' she caught wind of last night."
"As do I." The Daimakaicho nodded, proffering her hand to the redhead. Ranma took it and Hild gave it a tender squeeze. "Shall we introduce Urd-chan to her new family?"
"Do we gotta?" Ranma hesitated and Hild responded by gently pulling her on behind.
"You of all people should know that sooner is better than later." The tanned woman responded, noting that Mara was already leaning against the doorframe, rolling her eyes as the yelling continued from the other side. Ranma nodded reluctantly. Best deal with the fallout now as opposed to letting it pile up. Like last time, she noted sourly.
"Should I let her in, boss?"
Hild put an inquiring finger to her chin, cocking her head slightly as if still trying to decided on the merits of letting her other daughter in. "Perhaps we should let her stew for another moment longer."
"Hild-sama, we would request that you see us immediately," A gentler voice followed from beyond the door, prompting Mara to look at it, then the Daimakaicho.
"Sounds like they brought the entire gang along." The blond observed and Hild merely nodded. The demoness eyed Ranma as well. "What do you wanna bet that the squirt's out there too?"
"And her tin can robot?" Ranma speculated with mild amusement.
"Quite the party." Hild chuckled agreeably and nodded to Mara. "Best let let them in. Besides, Belldandy is much more fun to tease in person."
Mara grasped the doorknob and turned. She had barely opened the door open a crack before nearly being bowled over as it was forced, admitting no less than five new women. Ranma watched the females rush in, recognizing every last one. The most animated was undoubtedly Urd, who had a crazed look in her eyes as she waded directly into the apartment's living room. Following her was the brunette she had come to know as Belldandy, who, in spite of her surreally calm nature seemed visibly agitated. Skuld followed, though her gaze was solidly transfixed on Hild and held more than its share of trepidation.
It was the last two women that caused the redhead's eyes to widen in surprise, however.
'Ukyo? Miss Hin-'
"WHAT IN THE WORLD IS WRONG WITH YOU!" Urd exploded, stepping up to her mother to confront her directly. Hild merely arched a single doubting eyebrow as her estranged daughter's meltdown continued at full steam. "Taking the middle Tendo girl was bad enough, but accessing the supreme force at the root level just for you stupid games? At first I thought you were just a self serving nihilist. But this... Him! Her!"
"Now now, don't spoil the surprise, Urd-chan," Hild tisked, having noted Ranma's suddenly focused attention. She winked for the redhead, favoring her with a mysterious smile before turning back to her other daughter. "Perhaps we should continue this discussion when you have calmed-"
"I will not calm down!" Urd stomped on the plush carpet. The action seemed to ramp up the amperage around her person and the Goddess of the past began to crackle with electricity. "Are you actually trying to tear reality apart just for your amusement?"
Hild opened her mouth to respond once more only to be interrupted again. This time the source of the interruption was mortal and armed with a combat spatula nearly her height. "And what the hell are you doing kidnapping my Ran-chan!"
This time Ranma opened her mouth to answer the charge against Hild, but like her mother, didn't get very far. "Look, it's not like-"
"This behavior is irresponsible at the highest level, Hild-sama," Belldandy admonished sternly, drawing the Daimakaicho's attention now with a bemused look. "Heaven cannot and will not overlook such abuse of the system. Release the child so that we may-"
"And who's sayin' I need saving?" Ranma spoke up, stepping in front of Hild as he confronted the trio of Goddesses directly. The brunette favored him with a sympathetic look.
"This for your own good, Saotome-kun," The woman took the redhead's hand gently into her with a charitable smile. "Please come with us and we can straighten this out."
Ranma stared at the hand for a moment before a dead chuckle escaped her lips. She raised her gaze to the well meaning goddess, favoring her with a cool amethyst gaze just before brushing the woman's hand off completely, breaking contact. Belldandy's smile slipped into uncertainty as she the girl's stare bore into her. "I already got enough people thinkin' they know what's 'for my own good' withoutyour help."
Belldandy very nearly flinched at the measure venom in the redhead's tone, knowing in that moment that they had made a dire miscalculation somewhere concerning the the pair's relationship. The words were one thing. The eyes were something else entirely; a disturbing something else, and the goddess couldn't help but to look upon the Daimakaicho with a dawning realization that ran the borderline between awe and horror.
"Hild-sama, what have you done...?"The hushed whisper escaped unbidden from Belldandy's lips and a secretive smile was her only response from the tan demoness. She was about to press the issue when Ukyo stepped up next to her to take up her case.
"She's done something to you Ran-chan," The chef motioned over to the white haired woman behind her fiance, favoring her with a glare in the process. "A potion, a spell, I don't know, but she's erased you from everything!"
Ukyo opened her mouth to throw her weight behind another argument, but stopped as the full portent of the girl's words was processed and comprehended. She blinked at Ranma, staring at her as if she had just grown a second head. "You do?"
"Then what the heck is wrong with you, kid?" Urd blurted, all but ready to smack the martial artist upside the head. "You still don't get it! She's using you! These are games to her! She's the Queen of Ruin and Damnation!"
"She's my mother," Ranma stepped forward with growing irritation driving into her tone. The redhead invaded Urd's space directly, flexing her right hand into a fist as she continued the verbal rebuke. "And yours too if you pull your head out of your ass long enough to appreciate the fact."
"Oh, hey Urd," Mara waved from the sidelines with a cheeky smile in spite of the growing tension. The platinum goddess glanced at the blond demoness with a scowl, which Mara gleefully ignored. "That makes you sisters now, doesn't it?"
"IT DOES NOT!" Urd nearly screeched back, only to be diverted by a tug on her robe. She turned back only to find the cutest little redhead with puppydog eyes all but bouncing at her feet.
"Onee-chan! Onee-chan!" Ranma tugged incessantly, adopting the role of cute but supremely annoying little sister with uncanny ease. She stopped her hyperactive prancing and cocked her head innocently. "Can we go to the movies after we're done?"
"STOP THAT!" The goddess snatched her sleeve away, but couldn't quite keep the tick from her cheek as the redhead's personna posture faded back into cool arrogence. The smirk and conceited hand on her hip only irritated Urd further and she pointed an accusing finger at both mother and daughter. "You're not my sister and she's not my mother!"
"If you ain't family, then maybe its about time you haul ass." Ranma snorted, jabbing a thumb to the apartment door. "Don't let it hit you on the way out."
"Why you little ingrate...!"
"Dear, please stop antagonizing your sister." Hild smiled sweetly as she gave the girl an affectionate pat on the head. The twitching on Urd's left cheek only increased. "She merely needs time to adjust."
"When hell freezes-" A gentle hand on her shoulder stalled her rebuke, and Urd watched Belldandy curiously as she stepped back to the fore to confront Hild directly.
The brunette goddess stared at the embodiment of all known evil, then the girl standing in close proximity to her. Something was very off. The master-servant relationship she had expected the Daimakaicho to be grooming the Saotome child for was completely absent. It was almost if... Memories flashed unbidden through her mind's eye as an unlikely thought began to congeal.
"The general consensus from above is that you are toying with her for your own amusement. It cannot continue, nor shall we allow it."
"Toying, hmmm? Like how you toy with the Morisato boy?"
"She knows you and Keiichi, and she knows you wouldn't play games with him like that. Of course, there's the distinct possibility that she's just indulging in her version of fun, but..."
A silent 'oh' formed on Belldandy's lips, eliciting a more pronounced smirk from the Queen of the Damned. The brunette glanced back to Ranma and watched as Hild pulled the girl into a comforting embrace. The Goddess of the Present blinked several times as several thoughts collided into a jumbled mass, forming into something slightly more coherent, but no less believable.
"My, my. Such effort," The woman opposite of her merely chuckled at her realization. "Are you finally getting it, Bell-chan?"
Belldandy stared for another full moment before producing a simple nod. "I believe I am, Hild-sama."
"And here I was hoping for a few more days of worth of doubt and uncertainty to stew in that pretty little head of your's," Hild sighed, as if somebody had just revealed the punchline to a joke before its time.
The goddess ignored the implied insult and focused on Ranma instead. "You do realize there is no going back from this?"
Ranma's face scrunched with annoyance, as if the redhead had just perceived another insult. "I pushed the button."
And allowed the child direct access to Hild's own personal node within the Nidhogg,Belldandy summarized the path from 'A' to 'B' and the implications directly supporting her own theory. There would be no reason to let an underling within arms length of that access point, and that was because Ranma wasn't an underling.
Ranma Saotome was familynow.
Hild's daughter. Urd's half sister. And now with the backing of the Ultimate Force, all of creation would acknowledge the fact.
"Going back from what?" Ukyo finally cut in, unable to bear being so far out of the loop as to not even comprehend what was going on. She focused her helplessness squarely on Ranma. "What button? What in the world is going on here?"
Ranma eyed the person that was perhaps his oldest childhood friend, debating how to explain something she herself wasn't quite yet ready to put into words, let alone explain. the redhead sighed; the action seemingly affecting her very gender as the girl was reshaped into a man before her very eyes. The chef stifled a slight gasp as she realized that apparently a cure was amongst the other mysteries as yet to be explained. She sough an explanation in his blue gray eyes she had known for so long and found something else entirely.
Like the woman's behind him. her gaze flicked back and forth warily and Ukyo gripped the shaft of her battle spatula with more purpose. "Ran-chan, what's going on? Your eyes..."
"I... I'm out, Uc-chan." Ranma stumbled at first but gained a measure of confidence as Hild gave the boy's shoulder a supportive squeeze. He shook his head, his tone becoming more forceful with each word. "I'm done with the Panda. I'm done with my mo-that woman. I'm done bein' whored out like a piece of meat."
Ukyo stared. It was probably the most substantive thought Ranma had ever shared with her... Possibly even with anybody she knew in Nerima, but there was still the question. "But what does that have to do with... her? This?"
Ranma took a deep breath, steeling himself for the explanation that could break either way with the girl. He had considered this moment for a long time and still wasn't looking forward to it. 'Goddamn mummy was easier than this,' the martial artist groused mentally as he took every last second available to him to decide on how to break the news. Another light squeeze on the shoulder simultaneously comforted him and prodded him forward...
...Into the breech.
"I disowned 'em, Ukyo." The black haired boy shook his head as the reminiscence of a wound only twenty four hours old played through his mind's eye. Anguish raked across his psyche, though the only outward evidence of its passing was a heavy sigh as he continued. "I got family, but it ain't a Saotome and it sure as hell won't be a Tendo."
Ukyo stared as her synapses took to rapid fire through the shock, breaking down the terse explanation. 'He disowned them!' It was a shock, but at some level, not so. She knew first hand his old man was a piece of work. She suspected his mother was one thing short of another, but was willing to humor the woman if it got her closer to Ranma. 'He disowned them!' the thought thundered through her brain again and with it more cascading revelation. Not only were his mother and father no longer a factor, but the Tendo's were out. Gone.
It was almost too much for the chef to hope for. The single biggest barrier to any relationship with Ranma had just been removed. There was still Shampoo, of course, but that well had been poisoned a long time ago by her estimation. It was all she could do to restrain the victorious shout welling up from her soul, but there was one thing preventing its escape. Ukyo's eyes flicked up to the woman backing him. It was her.The woman from that night in her own restaurant. It was the way she stared down her, her amethyst gaze consuming her like an insect waiting to be dissected. It was her thin, cryptic smile and how it seemed to hold the punchline to a joke; a joke that undoubtedly promised to be on her.
'Their eyes are the same...!'
Several unlikely thoughts vectored through and around one another, giving rise to a singular moment of inspiration as their very last meeting in the restaurant was recalled with vivid clarity. The hows and why's were still a huge unknown, but he had disowned his parents. The Tendos were out. 'And this woman, his friend...?'
'Fortune favors the brave,'she decided, taking a gamble far larger than the one she had as a little girl in some backwater betting hall. She squared up her shoulders and took a deep breath, ensuring that the woman's attention was completely on her before dropping into a formal bow. "If it would be considered proper, I would like to formally request to be considered as Ranma-kun's fiancee."
The enigmatic smile remained when she finally recovered from the bow, but Hild had arched an eyebrow now, as if she hadn't expected this particular outcome. Ukyo watched as the woman seemed to cock her head slightly and consider the the question even as Ranma himself was left stunned and blinking. The chef had her answer seconds later.
Ukyo opened her mouth to shore up her case, but was instantly overridden by Ranma. The fact that he had shrunken into the form of teenage girl was almost a footnote compared to the verbal torrent she released.
"Dammit, Uc-chan, I ain't a piece of meat!" The redheaded martial artist blurted a fraction of a second later, pinching her nose in frustration. Ukyo recoiled physically as the words hit her. "I didn't flush it all just ta jump right back into it! I'm done bein' everybody's fiancee. Done with the Panda sellin' me off. Done bein' some violent chick's punching bag."
"But... but..." The Okonomiyaki master reached out to take Ranma's hand or simply touch him, but he backed further into the tanned woman's embrace, retreating to her the comfort.
"I'm off the market." The girl shook her head emphatically as her agitation slowly seemed to wind down. Hild merely stroked her daughter's red hair as the scene unfolded. "That includes Akane, Shampoo, Kodachi and... And it includes you too."
"But... I... Me and you..." Ukyo faltered as the very words she had never wanted to hear were voiced aloud. She stumbled back a step, using the shaft of her spatula for support as she shook her head in denial. "No. No, no, no no..."
The thought had just formed in Ranma's brain to reach out to her on instinct when the dark haired teen's head snapped up, her eyes full of fury. "WHAT ABOUT MY HAPPINESS, DAMMIT?"
"AND WHAT ABOUT MINE?" Any sympathy instantly evaporated with the girl's challenge, prompting Ranma to respond in kind. "I sure as hell didn't ask for this!"
"Your fat-ass father-!"
"That fat-ass ain't my father!" Ranma cut her off again, this time disengaging from the Daimakaicho's embrace to make the point as her ire rose. "If you got some beef with the Saotomes, take it up with a Saotome because I ain't one of them."
"He's your blood!" Ukyo insisted as her own her own ability to cope with the situation began to exceed any measure of goodwill she had for Ranma. Her mouth opened when the white haired woman stepped to the redhead's side with a malevolent look.
"No. He is not." Hild advised gravely. The very space around her began to darken as an blanket of despair wound itself around the occupants of the room. The woman's gaze lingered on her as if she were no longer just a bug, but a bug to be stepped on. Squashed. 'Eliminated,' the word came to mind, effectively curbing any rash statements from being spoken without substantial consideration as to her own well being. The tanned woman stepped past Ranma to confront Ukyo directly, circling her person like a shark.
"Hild-sama, you will not-"
"You are in myabode, little goddess." The Queen of the Damned warned, largely ignoring the brunette stepping up in support of the Ukyo. She stopped after contemplating her prey, then lifted the chef's chin with a single tanned finger so that her eyes stared directly into Hild's amethyst gaze. The teenage girl trembled as the mischievous grin faded away, leaving something distinctly unpleasant and quite predatory with its passing. The battle spatula slipped from her grasp and dropped to the floor unnoticed.
"She is my daughter and I am her mother, little one, no one else," The woman's smooth melodic tone harbored a fatal note as she explained the situation in detail. "Your pacts, your history, your very existence are irrelevant here. What is relevant is that you have asked and received your answer. My child holds too much regard concerning your well being for her own good. I do not."
Ukyo Kuonji swallowed. Hard. The lump was clearly visible, transversing down her throat from the point Hild held her chin up. She wanted to tear her gaze away from the woman. Hell, she wanted to run, but seemed completely unable to communicate that fact to her frozen body as the lavender jewels threatened to consume her very soul.
"I suggest you think long and hard on this development, Miss Kuonji," The daimakaicho advised with surreal and deadly calm. "Else our next meeting may be less... congenial."
Hild removed that single finger from the girl's chin and she staggered back, gasping for breath. The light seemed to return to the room as the white haired woman, 'Witch!' Ukyo mentally amended, sauntered back to Ranma's side. She stared after her perfect form with no small wellspring of residual panic, then to Ranma, hoping to find... something in the redhead's eyes. An apology. Reprieve. Anything.The redhead stared back, then shook her head solemnly, lowering her eyes to the carpet.
"That... That's it, then." Ukyo's voice faltered, audible only due to the silence of the room. When Ranma didn't look up, she knew. There were still huge gaps in her knowledge concerning what exactly had transpired between the pair, but one thing was now crystal clear. "I'll... I'll see my self out."
The okonomiyaki chef filed through the assembly of women and reached the door only a few steps later, where Mara opened it without a word. Ukyo gave one last look back to the still downcast redhead, then turned her back on her oldest friend, stepping across the threshold and out of sight into the hallway.
Silence hung about the room until Mara broke it with sarcasm, eyeing the remainder of the women as she held the door open. "Well? Anybody else?"
Urd cast a glare at the blond and the demoness threw a cheeky smile back. Belldandy merely nodded. "We will be going as well."
"Bell-chan, we can't possibly-" Urd attempted to sway her sister to continue the fight, only to watch her sister shake her head.
"The situation has become... complex," Belldandy overrode her older sibling, glancing back to Hild and her charge in study. "There is much to discuss."
"Please, Urd-chan." Belldandy took her sister's hand's hand and began to gently lead her to the door. She gave one last look to the pair behind her. "We will be in touch, Hild-sama."
"I do so enjoy our little chats, Bell-chan." The daimakaicho smiled charitably for the goddess; too charitably and waved her hand. "Drop by anytime."
Belldandy frowned, but led the withdrawal of the Norns; leaving one person nearly forgotten in the commotion. Hild cocked her head at their last guest. She had entered an adult but now held the form of an eight year old child; reverting back unnoticed at some point during the tense standoff. Ranma watched her as she in turn watched the pair themselves until Ranma finally tired of her teacher's study.
"I'm suppose you got somethin' ta say about all this too?" Ranma asked with heavy emotion, already steeling herself for another confrontation. Miss Hinako stared for another moment before stepping forward with a neutral expression, stopping just before entering the redhead's personal space. The martial artist stood by warily and the moment hung between the two for a moment before the long haired child held out her hand with a smile.
"My name is Hinako, Ninomiya ," She chirped cheerfully, as if the past half an hour had never happened. Ranma boggled at the girl as she asked a completely unexpected question. "Would you like to be friends?"
Ranma blinked, now finding it impossible not to stare at either the girl or the hand outstretched to her. The idea stewed for a moment before a slow, friendly smile began to spread across the redhead's features. She took the brunette's hand in kind.
"Ah, yeah, Testrossa, Ranma. I think I'd really like that."
Author's notes; Merry Christmas! This is, of course, your main Christmas Present. If you can't find the other one, you'll have to set the story filter to 'M' or add me to your alerts next time :) 3am comes too damn early, so no comprehensive notes this time. I know this chapter seems a bit shorter, though that's probably due to the more focused subject matter. Hope you enjoyed it nonetheless.
Testarossa; Meaning redhead in Italian. Japanese naming conventions just weren't doing it for me (ex; Ranma Misaki) and Shioran can be blamed for putting me on the westernized naming kick. Any fail in choosing Tesstrossa is purely mine. No relation to Nanoha or any other anime.
Name Game; This could have gone several ways; anywhere from Ranma keeping the Saotome name and simply disassociating himself from the family to dropping the last name completely and going by just 'Ranma'. First, I considered that if the Ranma I have built to this point is disgusted enough to tell his family and reality to screw off, he's capable and quite possibly even willing to ditch the family name entirely. Second, Japanese societies place emphasis on family names with those without being at a distinct disadvantage.
Game On; Initially I was going to portray Ranma as somewhat clueless concerning video games (growing up on the road and all) until Slade seemed to remember this not being the case. I did some research and sure enough you can find Ranma playing video games with Miss Hinako in book 30.
Special Thanks. The regulars. Yo know who they are by now, right? DCG, Slade, Trimatter, DeltaTheta and of course, Dragon Dagger. This partticular chapter may have been rougher than usual since I didn't help her spank it completely like I normally do, but the sleep meds are kicking in and I want you to get this in time for Christmas :)