Hell is a Martial Artist
Few people would have mistaken Genma Saotome for a crime scene investigator, yet it was one of the many eccentric skills a martial artist of his caliber had been forced to pick up along the way. It meant the difference between knowing who was using what against him during a fight or even after the fact. From there, tactics were revised. Contingencies drafted. New techniques created. These were all skills he employed in the here and now as the bald martial artist scrutinized the gate of the Tendo property and the damage inflicted upon it.
"Definitely wind stressing. Fractures all up and down the frame," Genma commented aloud as his fingers traced the splintered wood where a hinge used to bear the load of a heavy wooden gate. Techniques had signatures and those signatures were invariably left on whatever or whomever they were inflicted upon, much like fingerprints. The problem here was that he wasn't finding any of those proverbial fingerprints whatsoever. The Saotome patriarch glanced back up to Soun Tendo who waited patiently for his friend's analysis. "Same as the inside. No organization to the damage, though. If I didn't know any better I'd say it were simply caused by the storm..."
The mustachioed man looked as if were about to balk at the possibility, prompting Genma to preempt the man's objection. "...If I didn't know any better. Fortunately I do because the same thing that's affecting the police is affecting my wife as well."
"But why only us, old friend?" Soun calmed with his partner's reassurance and tried to tackle the anomaly from a different angle. "I've tried talking to some of the neighbors as well and they have no recollection of your son, let alone any of happenings around him. They just think I've gone off the deep end with Nabiki's murder!"
"I had to pull a quick dodge with Nodoka-chan myself," The larger of the pair agreed, then shifted mental gears. "Your description of how the police found her is the only inconsistency I can find and even then..."
"How so?" Soun pressed, eager to find some thread of logic throughout this entire illogical endeavor.
"Heart failure and cardiac arrest would have induced unconsciousness," Genma explained, staring at his house and the upper floor window where the now deceased girl had resided less than forty eight hours ago. "Without intervention, a body would normally fall backwards and by all accounts your daughter was found face down, sprawled out next to her bed." He turned back to scratching his head with uncertainty. "It's a thin straw to grasp at, admittedly."
"More than the police could find, old friend," Soun patted Genma on the shoulder gratefully with a sigh. "I take it there's been no headway with your son, then?"
"None," The jusenkyo cursed man admitted gravely. "Like yourself, I talked to a few people on the way over. Nobody remembers a damn thing. I'm thinking about taking a trip over to the Neko Han Ten later today to have a chat with a certain older-than-dirt Amazon. If she's not the perpetrator, she has to know who is. Want to tag along?"
Soun nodded as his own resolve firmed up. "I would like nothing better than to-"
"Panda man no bother. Is same."
Both men turned as a teenage girl clad in formal lavender silks rounded the gate entrance, stepping onto their property. The pair recognized Ranma's self-proclaimed Amazonian fiancée... And the hilt of a jian sheathed at her back, rising just above her left shoulder. Genma Saotome considered the girl and the no nonsense air about her, his next question all but sounded like a threat. "What do you know, girl?"
"Great grandmother afflicted same, remember nothing," The purple haired girl admitted, peering around the property with focused curiosity. She eye both parents suspiciously. "Is no new fiancée?"
"None," The bald martial artist confirmed, frowning at the girl's train of thought. The Amazon obviously wasn't here just on a fact finding mission. "Are you suggesting that there might be one behind all this?"
"White haired witch, Spatula girl confirm," Shampoo relaxed slightly as she indirectly confirmed that they were all in the same boat.
"The witch!" Soun gasped at the girl who represented the very first independent confirmation of her existence beyond his own encounter. He turned and hollered back to the house. "Akane-chan! Join us out front!"
The dark blue haired girl peeked out of the dojo itself, sighting the trio before stepping full out and sliding the door closed behind her. Akane continued to eye Shampoo suspiciously as she joined the trio, wiping the sweat off her brow from the recent kata. She tightened the belt of her gi, readying for the inevitable confrontation. "What's she doing here?"
There was no mistaking the slight note of disdain in her voice, but the purple haired teen largely ignored it in favor of their larger problem. "Too-mad girl have same enemy as this one."
"She's referring to the white haired woman, Akane-chan," Soun added, hoping to connect the dots for her. "Shampoo-chan thinks she took Ranma as well."
Akane's fists balled and the girl ground her teeth, her body language indicating that she was fully ready for a fight. "Then we're going after her, right?!"
"Not so easy," Shampoo interjected and the other three wondered at her meaning. "Pizza-girl say Ranma go willingly. Shampoo think just party pity, but not so sure."
"As if," Genma huffed, shaking his head. "If he was spirited away, it had to have been by force or some spell. I still think we should pay a visit to your great grandmother, however. Memories or not, she's still the best shot we have at unraveling this. It's either her or... him."
The shiver alone communicated his thoughts exactly and Soun placed a sympathetic hand on Genma's shoulder. "Quite right, old friend. Maybe all of us together can convince her."
"Then let's go!" Akane demanded and the four started back to the Cat Cafe.
The smell of cooking drifted across Ranma's nose. Aside from imminent danger in the form of fiancées, rivals and megalomaniacal challengers, few things were known to be as effective in rousing the martial artist from his slumber as the smell of food drifting through the air, promising culinary delight…
…Except when they didn't.
The slumbering boy's nose twitched. The acidic, carbon laced scent didn't smell like food per se. Certainly the air harbored the components of food, but that food had long since died a fiery death and reduced to component cinders. It was enough to pull the martial artist free from his slumber, cracking an eye as his consciousness awoke to the smell of burnt food. Burnt food didn't constitute an immediate emergency, but it was a definite anomaly when contrasted to the environment he was waking up in—That was to say the lap of luxury.
It took the martial artist a few moments to regain his mental footing, realizing once again that the spacious accommodations were now his home. Another moment was spared, noting that he had fallen asleep in those clothes on the couch, which might as well have been a bed unto itself for as spacious and roomy as it was. As to why he was waking up on the couch…?
The previous night was recalled from the lethargy of memory. She had cried. He had comforted her and let her have the bed while he took to the sofa. And now his apartment smelled like burnt food. The train of logic was lacking in continuity and so Ranma greeted the world with a yawn and rolled up off the couch, scanning his residence for the missing piece of the puzzle. And found it. The kitchen was imminently visible from his location and just past the breakfast bar was the former Tendo herself. She was busy, tending to a stove and pan with a carton of eggs on one side and a splattered bowl of batter on the other.
She was apparently busy creating a cloud of smoke.
"Almost… Come on..." The damned teen urged, as if trying to coax something edible from the pan before outright cursing as the contents burst into flames. The pan clattered to the glass stovetop as Nabiki leapt back, her proto foodstuffs turning into an angry orange pyre before her very eyes.
"Ah, whatcha doing?" Ranma asked tepidly as he slowly closed upon the scene of culinary destruction, startling the girl. She whipped around with an alarmed look on her face; one that promptly turned to embarrassment as the fire raged behind her. She wore the same black cheongsam from last night and the figure it cut did little to hide the carnage around her. The martial artist's eyes swept across the scene, marveling that he hadn't woken to it sooner.
Nabiki looked away, averting eye contact with a mumble and drawing Ranma's attention back to her. His intellect made another pass at trying to decipher her words but failed, prompting his next question. "What was that?"
A sour look enveloped her face at the prospect of repeating herself, but she answered regardless. "Cooking."
"Cooking… what?" Ranma pressed, his lavender eyes still wandering the scene of destruction.
She still refused to look at him or his suddenly perplexed expression, and after several long minutes of staring he coughed. It seemed to be a polite cough at first, but soon turned into a muffled, choking fit. When the Ice Queen finally turned back to him, she frowned upon noticing the stifled smile on his face.
"What so funny?" She asked frostily as the pigtailed boy continue to choke on some private joke.
"You're… You're just as bad as… You're…" Ranma continued in gasps that increasingly sounded like giggles. Nabiki watched with irritation as the teenage boy before her melted into the curvy redhead before her very eyes, her giggles continuing in spite of the demonic mercenaries rising ire. "It must… It must run in the familybwhahahah!"
Nabiki continued to favor the bemused girl with a malevolent frown as her gaze narrowed. After a moment, she crossed her arms around her chest, tapping a high heeled toe in irritation. "Done yet?"
The redhead continued to snicker back at her, trying to recompose herself. "I think so. What… what was in the pan anyway?"
The former Tendo's frown deepened. "Water."
Ranma's eyes widened. Her neutral expression began to buckle anew. "You… you… you burned… burned… BWAHAHAHAHAHAH!"
The cheongsam clad demoness watched the girl double over onto the nearby kitchen bar counter and completely lose herself to laughter, causing Nabiki's left eye to twitch. She endured it for a solid thirty more seconds before growling through her teeth. "
"Payback's a bitch, Saotome." She huffed indignantly, if only to vent some her own frustration. She knew all too well, however, that their new social dynamic precluded payback of any sort. That fact had been burned into whatever was left of her soul like searing brand, but the advisement seemed to reign in some of the redhead's humor nonetheless… If not for the reason she was expecting.
"Testarossa." Ranma corrected, wiping a tear from her eye. She saw the questioning look in Nabiki's countenance and elaborated in a slightly more serious tone. "Mom will hand you your ass if she hears you say that name and I don't want that on me."
Whatever irritation Nabiki was holding on to was flash vaporized from existence as a prime example of just how much had changed was laid bare before her. There was no slipping back into the old dynamic of old, even for the sake of irritation or humor. The consequences would be much, much worse than Ranma's summation of events and far more than her ass would be handed to her when it was all said and done.
The new demoness ruthlessly suppressed the shiver that threatened to wrack her body and instead indicated her understanding with a dutiful nod, then motioned to the destroyed kitchen. "It was going to be for you, Master."
Ranma's mouth opened, staying that way for several moments as she cocked her head with curiosity at the unlikely act of… The redhead turned a critical eye back at the girl.
'Kindness? Gratitude…?' She thought, trying to put a label to Nabiki's ulterior motive. It certainly wasn't behavior she would assign to the girl and her attempts to please. The martial artist frowned mentally as another alternative came to mind with the uncomfortable title of 'Master'.
Any and all were a distinct possibility considering where her mother had stashed the former ice queen. Without a clearly path through the minefield of awkwardness she now faced, Ranma substituted humor in place of emotional depth as she sidled past the former mortal. She smirked at the girl, taking up the pan for herself. "Let me show you how it's done."
Nabiki arched an eyebrow skeptically but ceded her stake in the preparation of breakfast to the redhead. She watched as the girl took to kitchen preparation with an expert hand while not entirely sure where she stood in all of this. There was, of course, the fact that the neo-girl was perhaps the best cook of their former residence behind Kasumi, and the demoness somehow knew even that lofty position could fall to Ranma if the girl put her mind to it. On the other hand, Nabiki was painfully aware of her own status: That of a servant. Her master was effectively doing her job for her.
It struck the former mercenary as a good way to swan dive right back on to Hild's shit list.
She watched the martial artist toss five eggs into the air at once with her left hand, then marveled as her right hand caressed their shells in a blur, relieving them of the white exteriors midair. Raw yoke fell into the pan with a 'plop' and began to sizzle on impact. Nabiki rolled her eyes at the grandiose and completely unnecessary display of skill even as her troubled intellect chewed over just when she should nudge the redhead aside and resume her role before something unfortunate—
"Damn, that smells good!" A callous feminine voice chimed in as the front door clicked open. The sharp angles of her face and blond hair made her immediately recognizable to Ranma, if not Nabiki. She glanced back at the doorway with a fanged grin. "Oh, yeah. Knock-knock."
"What's up, Mara?" Ranma threw a token wave in the blond's direction before returning to the stripps of bacon she had salvaged from another pan. The demoness grinned back as she shed the red leather studded jacket. Mara tossed it to the sofa without fanfare, leaving only a similarly studded black leather brazier and denim to advertise her assets.
"Babysitting." The woman sniffed, rolling her eyes. "I just got saddled with some snot-nose noob demon that needs broken in."
Ranma merely nodded, her attention having moved on to a bowl of batter while the bacon and eggs cooked on the burner. The blond demon stepped around Nabiki, sniffing at frying bacon greedy. A dainty tanned hand reached out to pluck at one of the more crisp pieces.
"That looks pretty damn goo—OW!" The spoon end of the wooden ladle Ranma bore smacked her hand with a barely visible blur, causing the woman to pull it back hastily. She sent an accusing gaze back at the girl. "Whattdya do that for?!"
"Ain't finished." Ranma sniffed with an edge of humor as she returned the wooden spoon to the batter she had been whipping. She glanced back with a playful grin. "Next time I'll feed you to Oggdruh."
"Bitch." Mara snarked, removing herself from the neo-girl's proximity with a roll of her red eyes. She sauntered back to the counter, scrutinizing the former Tendo. "Besides, shouldn't she be the one doing all this crap?"
Nabiki's second worst case scenario had suddenly been realized, and her response was caught up in her throat. Her first worst case scenario being realize involved Hild stepping through the door and noticing her culinary impotence. Instead, her number one minion just happened to do so, leaving her stumbling to justify herself. "I, uh… It's… I'm…"
"Nabs burned the first batch." Ranma outed the new demoness as she launched two pancakes in the air along a ballistic flightpath. "She tried, but it was already dead by the time I stepped in."
The former mortal frowned at the accurate summation of her attempt, torn between the satisfaction of Ranma stepping up for her versus the demeaning way by which she did so. It was also the best she could expect knowing Ranma and thus bit her tongue lest her situation in Mara's presence became more precarious.
"That's what magic is for, moron." Mara began to dress Nabiki down as Ranma put the finishing touches on the eggs, sliding them from the semi-scortched pan and on to fine china. "I know for a fact Hild-sama gave you some to use and I'm sure as hell not going to play nurse maid to some wet behind the ears newbie demon."
"She's taking magic lessons too?" The redhead glanced curiously from Nabiki to Mara as she slid their respective plates across the breakfast bar and to them directly. A strip of bacon instantly met its demise at the hands of the blond demoness.
"Celestial magic." Mara correct between bites, gesturing to her new apprentice with the next crispy strip between her fingers. "Doesn't have to get converted through the prime material plane for use."
"And I'll just pretend I actually understood what you just said." Ranma deadpanned, reaching for the syrup in order to top her own pancakes.
"It's intuitive. Will-based. Doesn't require fancy words of power or hand signs or any of that other ritualistic crap." Her friend correct causing Ranma cock her head in curiosity as she compared it to her own experience.
"Well that would be pretty damn convenient." The martial artist decided thoughtfully. "All these words and gestures McDowell-san has me learning are a pain in the ass."
"Wait." To this point, Nabiki had been more than happy to let the conversation flow around her and especially without her, but that new tidbit of information required clarification. "You're learning magic?"
"Furo-to." Ranma snapped her fingers nonchalantly and a kettle of hot tea that had been left to simmer on the stovetop spontaneously drifted into the air. The reflective silver container floated lazily over to their position and drifted down onto the countertop with the slight twist of her finger. Nabiki's wide eyes devoured the feat in disbelief. Ranma grinned. "Levitation's pretty damn handy."
"The Anything Goes Magical Martial Artist, eh Saoto—" The former Ice Queen bit her tongue and hastily corrected herself with Mara's own scrutiny of her person "Ah, I mean Testarossa? Mistress?"
"Something like that." Ranma shrugged, seeming to care little one way or another as she ate. It wasn't her that Nabiki was worried about and visions of dragon fire danced in her head. Instead of dwelling on the matter or allowing anybody else to, she opted for a tactical change of topic.
"So what's the plan for today, anyway?" The new demoness asked, finally partaking of breakfast herself.
The morsel of pancake paused at Ranma's lips as she considered the question. Nabiki watched somewhat perplexed as the redhead spontaneously grew back into a familiar black haired martial artist as she- now he –answered. "Got a date with Bunny today and—"
"A date. With…? Wait… You mean all that stuff that Shampoo told Akane about the new fiancées was true?" The former Tendo's eyes widened as random pieces of an incomplete picture fell into place. The fork Ranma was about to partake from drifted away from his mouth as his own expression became increasingly perplexed.
"More fiancées? You're kidding, right?" The black haired teen blinked, shaking his head. "Hell no. 'Sagi is a student and that's it. And… What about Shampoo, again?"
Nabiki nodded, falling into her role as the information broker like the second nature it was to her. "Dropped by a couple days before… Well, you know. Told Akane all about your meetings. Granted, she never said fiancées outright, but Shampoo all but implied it and you know my sister."
"Former sister." Mara corrected pointedly, causing the new demon to wince slightly with the reminder.
The explanation left Ranma all but gob smacked as Nabiki's puzzle pieces fell into place. The characterization of Akane… He didn't doubt it for one moment. It was one of the things that had poisoned the relationship well from day one. The names she had called him throughout the last two years stung him from the darkness of memory even now, but he pushed them aside as unimportant; especially considering the more relevant piece of information: Shampoo's contribution. Again, it fit the self-proclaimed fiancée's modus operandi to a tee. Between her manipulations, memory erasure and mind controlling tendencies, he had no trouble believing the explanation.
'And behind her, Cologne,' The pigtailed boy realized numbly.
Nabiki watched Ranma's face turn carefully neutral; an expression she had never seen him wear in her mortal life. If anything, the martial artist she knew was always animated emotionally to some degree, be it arrogance or indignation. Foreboding seemed to accompany this new visage like a tangible cloud, and even Mara eyed him with some measure of concern.
"Kid?" The blond asked, studying the teen carefully. It was as if the demon's missive took a moment to reach his brain and when it did, Ranma blinked, as if being awakened from a trance.
A nod and force pleasantness met her in response.
"Just got some things to think about." He replied after a moment of thought, his voice seemingly devoid of concern. Neither female in his presence was convinced. He got up from the bar and both pairs of demonic eyes followed him as he made his way back through the living room and to the door. "Just goin' out. Hold down the fort or somethin'."
Both women watched the pigtailed boy leave the apartment. Mara stared as the door closed, then turned to Nabiki. "What was that?"
The former Tendo tore her attention away from the door and back over to the half-eaten breakfast cooling where Ranma had sat. She glanced back at the door with a frown. "Unless I missed my guess, nothing good."
Several dimensions away, Urd, Goddess of the Past, Category Two felt the same foreboding feeling for different reasons. Part of the problem stemmed from the fact that she was on Cloud Nine; that was to say the cloud one waited upon when scheduled for an appointment with Kami-sama.
It was a nicely appointed cloud, featuring gold wrought furniture sculpted into curves and spirals woven around comfortable cushions. It featured several levitating plate glass surfaces replete with the latest in divine gossip, fashion, and current event magazines. Glistening spires of gold around the cloud itself wound skyward though other cumulonimbus layers where other business was taking place. A waterfall fell from one of the billowing clouds, disappearing into the lower strata while the dispersing moisture projected a grand rainbow across the horizon.
Unsurprisingly, Urd's thoughts were elsewhere.
She now had a sister. And a brother. The deity's eyebrows scrunched as she tried to apply the correct descriptive. 'A half sister-brother?'
The confused thought and its gender pronouns were only useful for splitting hairs, however. What mattered was that her very mother had accessed the Ultimate Force at the root level and rewrote reality to affect that particular change, nor did the Ultimate Force work in halves. For all intents and purposes, Ranma Saotome was truly her sister. Or brother.
'Depending on the time of day and weather.' Urd huffed sarcastically to herself in silence. The question as to why Hild had done so was also as mysterious as it was unlikely: She cared. The Goddess of the Past almost laughed out loud. 'Riiiiiiight she does.'
Not that Belldandy was entirely wrong, Urd decided as she sat on the artesian couch. It was entirely possible that Hild did care… After a fashion. Like a person cared about their pet or a rare vase. And if that possession were to outlive its usefulness, the Norn was certain she would discard it. Discard Ranma. Or even worse: Repurpose her, bending and twisting the mortal to favor whatever mood she was in to suit a new nefarious purpose.
That was all incidental now. Short of pulling a backup of reality from the archives and restoring the timelines of several million individuals, this was the new norm and Kami-sama wasn't keen on soft restorations anyway. His policy was to let it ride until the wheels fell off, and if the wheels fell off, well…
…The last time that happened, he had flooded the entire earth in a deluge of torrential rain.
Fortunately, the wheels were nowhere near falling off here, but Kami-sama's reaction to her mother's interference with the Ultimate Force still baffled the tanned goddess. The forces of Hell had not infiltrated their uplink or compromised security. Hild had gone through the most legitimate channel available and encountered the dual lockout protocols. All things being equal, the Asgard mainframes were programmed to auto-decline a request of that nature and the logs showed it had done exactly that. Without heavenly consent, the attempt was supposed to have failed.
'Did fail.' Urd corrected herself, having reviewed the data logs personally. That left the most inexplicable piece of the entire dilemma for her to puzzle over.
Father had overridden the decision himself.
If the 'how' was known, the question then became 'why'. The Goddess of the Past allowed a slight frown to manifest itself upon her lips with the thought. He was usually big on eternal salvation, but he was also just as big on personal choice. Urd's gaze turned up toward the shining sun as if it held the answers to her questions. Allowing Ranma the choice was one thing. Facilitating it was quite—
"Kami-sama will see you now."
Urd blinked, suddenly pulled from her introspective by the winged goddess now floating alongside her cloud. Aqua-blue hair floated behind the goddess as she smiled with the kind announcement. The woman handed her a crystal clipboard and the tanned goddess touched her finger to it, eliciting a polite chime. Urd returned it to the secretary with her own polite smile and the woman nodded her satisfaction with the record, then fell away from the cloud with outstretched wings toward her other duties.
Cloud Nine began to rise.
The view only became more spectacular as Urd's perch gained altitude, but her eyes were on the upper most tier of cumulonimbus above her and approaching rapidly. Her cloud joined with the larger mass, floating upward through its dense layers of vapor until finally breaking the surface. Wisps of fog flowed around the office furniture that had accompanied her ascent and now the view was gone, replaced by a flawless crystal blue sky above and the brilliant, shimmering throne ahead.
Urd, Goddess of the past Category Two walked toward the light.
The tanned goddess kneeled for the person sitting upon the throne. He was bathed in radiance, his very clothing and features glowing with the power of eternity. The being before was all knowing. All powerful. Yet he had allowed it to happen.
"You're troubled, child." Kami-sama's concerned voice flowed around her like a soothing blanket, simultaneously a statement and a question. Urd looked up, nodding as she retrieved back to height, straightening her flowing robe as she did so.
"It's… the Saotome child, Father." Urd looked away, not exactly eager to broach the topic herself. Still, she had to confirm it for herself. There was an ever-so infinitesimal chance that the authorization hadn't been his, so she turned back with a deep, centering breath. "Hild has taken him for her own using the Ultimate Force. The system lockout was… ineffective."
"And you seek to confirm its ineffectiveness." The creator of everything confirmed, watching Urd produce a tepid nod. Unstated was the fact that it was overridden into ineffectiveness, to which God himself nodded, speaking directly to the point. "It was I."
"But… But why?!" Urd's pensive attitude in the face of ultimate divinity suddenly vanished as she shook her head in disagreement. "The lock-outs had her and we could have saved Ranma!"
"If only it were so easy, daughter." The radiant being shook his head with soft remorse in his voice. "The override was only an affirmation of that which had already taken place."
Urd stared back with blue eyes whose shade bordered into that of indigo, unsure of the meaning behind his words. The God of Everything could see her confusion, so he elaborated. "What if we had stopped Ranma and your mother? What then? Would they have ceased being drawn to one another?"
That particular trend wasn't hard to divine. It also highlighted a disturbing chain of events as she followed the question's answer to its logical conclusion.
"I guess… No." She answered hesitantly and the Lord merely nodded his agreement.
"Just as your physical intervention proved ineffective, so too would more formal measures." He continued in a mentoring tone, explaining his decision in detail. "To strip them of that choice would only breed resentment and hatred. It would fester within and any hope of salvation would be lost."
Urd produced a sober nod. He was right. By the time the request came through, it was nothing more than a formality… She just hadn't realized it yet. For better or worse, she had a sibling whether she wanted one or not. Still, Father's answer… He was notorious for playing the long game, and if his explanation were any indication...
"All must find their own path, child." The One God admitted as if picking up on her thoughts. He sat up from his throne, stepping down to his daughter to cup her hand in his. "You, Mara, Ranma and yes, even Hild-chan. I can, on occasion, stack the deck, however."
The Goddess of the Past blinked, staring up into his brilliant features while wondering at his meaning. Kami-sama smiled for her.
"Just as Ranma is finding his own way, Hild will as well." He continued, turning his gaze out toward the pure blue of the horizon beyond for a moment, as if it held the future before turning back to Urd. "Now, they will find it together. I have not given up on either."
"I… I see." Urd stared, amazed at her father's conviction.
"I do not expect miracles in your dealings with them, daughter." Kami-sama admitted kindly. "Simply follow your heart. And in the process, you may very well find something for yourself."
The tanned goddess produced a slight nod, wondering exactly what the Creator of Everything expected her to find.
Cologne, Twelfth matriarch of the Joketsuzoku frowned.
It wasn't a pretty sight for those looking upon it and certainly not one that would increase the business of her restaurant. Its wrinkled countenance suggested some disapproval concerning the very composition of the recipient's soul and that remediation- likely the painful sort –would be soon forthcoming. Fortunately those in attendance of the frown only numbered five and all had witnessed it before, thus inoculating them to some degree.
That didn't make The Frown any less pleasant to look upon, however.
First, there was her great granddaughter. Though the girl was still somewhat flighty by nature, she was a diligent student concerning whatever she put her mind toward. Her lavender haired progeny was ruthless when necessary and skilled, having earned the right to accompany herself on this sojourn. Cologne sighed mentally with the here and now of that equation. Her great granddaughter's mind was also apparently addled, her memories altered. An illusion of romance had been constructed around a person that didn't exist and now she watched as the girl stared defiantly back at her from across the table, as if challenging her find fault in the conjured memories.
Worse yet, Shampoo had brought reinforcements.
Cologne's displeased gaze fell upon the man behind her. His ever present Japanese gi was all but the large, middle aged man's trademark, as was his glasses and bald head swathed in a plain white bandanna. He was Genma Saotome, one of the two apprenticed to her one-time love interest and lifelong adversary Happosai, though she would never admit to the former. The other stood next to him in his plain brown hakama and trimmed mustache, waiting.
Were they the perpetrators behind Shampoo's memory loss? The matriarch dismissed the possibility almost as quickly as it had been considered. The first was mired in sloth and the second wallowing in self-pity. Their relationship toward Happosai was likewise strained at best according to her own observations, which left the last person in their group: Akane Tendo.
She was her daughter's chief rival and though not as skilled, the girl wore a cloak of tenacity even she could respect. She just needed to grow up a little.
'A lot.' The Amazon elder correct herself even as she rolled the idea of poaching her for the tribe around in her thoughts. In time, perhaps, Cologne decided silently. For now she was her own worst enemy… And potentially everybody else's with her temper. Life would undoubtedly teach the girl some hard lesson and she would either learn from it be crushed beneath its merciless wheels.
'Now may be that very day,' She speculated as she wondered what life lesson was to be dispensed today. Manipulated or not, her great granddaughter had gathered an unlikely bunch of allies to her cause, which meant that either Shampoo had considerable powers of persuasion or that the three accompanying her were just as compromised as she.
Cologne was quite prepared to assume the worst.
"Somehow I do not believe the three of you are here for takeout." The old matriarch deadpanned, watching her humorous probe fall on deaf ears. Having failed to gain any conversational headway, Cologne got right to the point, her gaze returning to her great granddaughter. "And somehow, I do not believe you've quite given up on your foolhardy quest."
"Everything I've said was true, great grandmother!" Shampoo replied in sharp mandarin, then glanced back to her witnesses, switching back to Japanese. "She still no believe."
"This is stupid!" Akane balked, stepping up beside Shampoo to confront the old woman. "How can you just forget everything that happened?!"
"Am I the only one that has conveniently forgotten 'everything that happened'?" Cologne asked, her penetrating gaze sweeping across the four. Akane produced a sour look while Shampoo avoided eye contact. The two males behind them held their peace but the answer was clear enough to the Amazon. "No? I thought not."
"Most everybody." Genma admitted stoically and she watched Soun confirm the fact with a reluctant nod.
"Yet you feel the same as my great granddaughter." It was less a question and more a statement of fact, but Genma nodded again in confirmation.
"We need your help Matriarch!" Soun began desperately, all but pleading his case. "If we find him, we find my daughter's killer!"
Cologne watched the man quiver with real emotion and mentally reviewed the tale she had been told—Not simply a missing person, but a death in the family and a killer.
'And still all quite fabricated,' the old ghoul determined matter-of-factly. Just Genma Saotome's own testimony told her such and she decided it was time to confront that detail head on. Cologne took a sip of the tea she had been neglecting, finding it lukewarm. She blanched slightly, and set it down in favor of their conversation… And the Truth.
"So in other words you bring me a tale of a kidnapper and murderer that no one else believes, expecting my collaboration without the evidence to support your version of reality?" The old woman stated doubtfully, shaking her head. "Why just you four I have yet to determine, but the first step—"
"I have not been brainwashed great grandmother!"
"Ranma's real and so is his kidnapper!"
"She killed my daughter!"
Cologne sighed at the forceful interruption, her tired gaze sweeping over their defiant expressions one by one until finally coming to the one person that hadn't participated in the outburst. She eyed Genma blandly, hoping to get his out of the way before she moved to more substantive communication. "And you?"
Cologne opened her mouth in order to dispense the sarcastic remark she had cued up for his outburst, only to realize it hadn't been an outburst at all. It was instead a place; a place of lore and legend having seemingly little to do with the topic at hand. It was also a place very few foreigners would know, let alone realize the implications behind it. Instead of ineffectual buster, the disciple of Happosai had chosen to drop it instead, leading her to wonder why.
"Continue…?" Her gaze narrowed, wondering if there was further information to glean or simply a distraction from the topic at hand.
"You're right." The bald man began, adjusting his glasses before folding his arms to explain. "We have nothing factual that will sway you. Even pictures of my son have been erased from existence. But we do have our memories. But instead of trying to convince you of something we can't prove, let's talk about something we can both agree upon."
"Indeed." Cologne returned skeptically before nodding. "Then do tell me about Phoenix Mountain, male."
"It is the home of the Phoenix themselves; a mountain fortress." Genma explained, his foreboding tone certain in its conviction. "The interior is an extinct volcano whose lava chamber has been converted into a palace. Their leader is Saffron, formerly a child of eight years old destined to ascend to the throne of his people as their source of life and power."
Cologne's expression slowly began to form a frown as the martial artist continued. "When defeated in battle, the Phoenix are consumed in fire and revert back to an egg state. In order to come into their powers more quickly, they rely on the waters of Jusendo- the pure source of Jusenkyo –to age themselves into adults. Drinking the corrupted waters of Jusendo was also how the Phoenix originally gained their form millennia ago when—"
"Enough." Cologne held out her hand to bring his tale to a halt. "I believe your recount of lore to be well beyond that of the average layman. Now tell me what happened two months ago."
"Is the guide's daughter alright?" Genma answered her question with a question, causing the old woman to scrutinize him further.
"Negotiations were… tense." Cologne admitted, still eyeing the man warily. "And through Shampoo, you would know the same. Even so, it begs the question why you would broach the topic?"
"Shampoo not tell." The lavender haired Amazon grumped, but Genma answered none the less.
"Because it was the first point at which my son intervened in the affairs of the Phoenix." The Saotome patriarch explained in an uncharacteristically serious tone. "While I can't be certain where you remember her running to, I can tell you she sought us out here in Nerima for protection."
"Protection that we- yourself included –provided." The martial artist continued. "The Phoenix retaliated, of course. First, by kidnapping and brainwashing your great granddaughter, then Akane herself."
Both girls produced a resolute nod even as Cologne shook her head. "This did not happen. But assuming it did, what was the mechanism used to brainwash Shampoo?"
"Surikama Eggs." Genma stated, pushing his glasses back up his nose. He watched the old crone become unnaturally still, and continued to drive the tale home. "With Shampoo's kidnapping, Ranma pursued them back to China and Phoenix Mountain itself, where the Phoenix moved to occupy Jusendo. Maybe the Kinjakan and Gekkaja ring a bell as well?"
"They do." Cologne acknowledged reluctantly, now very concerned with just how easily the man before her was dropping privileged information that no outsider would know. The fact that this particular male was a disciple of Happosai was briefly considered, then discarded. Happosai was a skilled pervert. He didn't engage in subterfuge or planning. He indulged in theft when the mood struck him, no more no less. The fact that he would plan this level of subterfuge to get what he wanted was almost laughable.
Even so, she wasn't about to blindly accept that her reality had been altered any more than her great granddaughter had. The man had successfully seeded the doubt, however, and she pressed for more information. "And what have they to do with this tale?"
"My son wielded the latter against Saffron, a glaive of ice." The father continued. "It was with that and numerous high level techniques that he defeated the Phoenix King, reducing him back to his egg state."
The man looked almost proud of his nonexistent son. Cologne was almost sorry to crush that.
"And that is there your tale rings hollow." Cologne tisked with feigned sadness. "While your knowledge of obscure and legendary Chinese lore is certainly impressive, no mere boy would be able to defeat a fully ascended Phoenix King in his prime; even one of such impressive linage as you'd undoubtedly claim. Even one such as I would be reluctant to take on the task by myself, let alone commit a child my great granddaughter's age to what amounts to a death sentence."
The matriarch nodded, now completely certain of her position, and yet the dawning rays of realization had yet to appear in the man's expression. In fact, the slightest hint of insufferable superiority resided on his lips in its place, as if he knew something she didn't know.
"What do you suppose happens when you interrupt a hatching Phoenix King's renewal prematurely?" Genma asked, the lenses of his glasses flashing with foreboding.
"How…" Cologne frowned openly at him now, shaking her head in direct opposition to the point he was leading her to. The fact that he was citing a wartime contingency the council of elders had developed just in case The Phoenix decided to occupy Jusendo permanently was frightening enough. It was a first strike scenario: Interrupt his renewal and limit his wrath until the Phoenix King burned himself out. No outsider could possess such knowledge, but…
"…How can you possibly know about that?"
"His second in command's name is Kiima." Akane finally spoke up, adopting some of the man's confidence as her own in order to challenge her assertion of reality.
"Surikama trance broken by mirror of self when hatched." Her lavender haired counterpart nodded in kind.
Cologne's gaze flicked briefly over to Akane, Shampoo and then back to Genma. Even the Tendo father figure remained absolutely unmoved in his conviction that he- they –were right and the rest of the world was wrong.
"If I had to guess, things came to a head between you and the Phoenix without my boy." Genma continued conversationally, as if reality hadn't been twisted and bent on a whim. "The guide's daughter was kidnapped and reported to the Amazon, probably. How many warriors did you park at their doorstep?"
"Fifteen hundred." Cologne answered even as she considered the devilish situation she now found herself a-party to. "We were ready to lay siege to their damnable mountain if they overstayed their welcome."
"And sack it if they didn't return the girl." The bald martial artist nodded sagely, as if that were what he have done himself.
"Thus, we appear to be at an impasse." The old woman sighed, reluctantly forced to consider her great granddaughter's point of view. "While I may acknowledge that something has happened to the four of you, one overarching fact remains— The magic required to alter physical reality and the memories of those residing in it is exceedingly rare and requires-
"Is Nanban Mirror." Shampoo commented, prompting the matriarch to frown.
"Kuno's wishing sword." Akane added, inciting Cologne's cheek to twitch.
"And why all of these artifacts of power must congregate in Nerima I have little idea." The old woman shook her head in feigned exasperation, turning to Genma. "Am I to assume that your son played prominently in those events as well?"
Genma simply nodded, but Cologne shrugged regardless. "Either way, it matters not. The mirror is destroyed, Happosai be damned, and the Kuno boy wasted his wishes in an attempt to curry Shampoo's favor."
"Stick boy after this one now?" Shampoo's eyes widened in alarm only to have Akane snicker next to her.
"Better you than me." The youngest Tendo smirked. It was a smirk that died with the matriarch's next words.
"The both of you." Cologne adopted the same smirk as Akane's turned sour. "His Fiery Tigress and Chinese Lily, if I recall his outbursts correctly."
"Shampoo think sick." The Amazon admitted and Akane agreed with a nod.
"Even so, the white haired witch is the key." Soun finally spoke up and Cologne's curiosity turned upon him.
"The white haired witch?" The old woman blinked without comprehension, earning a fierce nod from the Tendo patriarch.
"Nabiki-chan's murderer and Ranma's kidnapper." The mustachioed man confirmed, elaborating. "Everything was fine until she showed up. I'm certain she's behind all of this."
More nods from his entourage accompanied the statement and Cologne pursued the conversational path forward. "My belief notwithstanding, a description of this witch would be helpful."
"White hair. Blueish eyes," Soun's daughter began with her father's prompting. "She's a foreigner but spoke fluent Japanese."
"Tan skin." Shampoo speculated next to her. "Is very powerful. Put all girls to sleep during challenge."
"She… She just threw me aside without physical contact." Soun's emotional testimony confirmed the girl's statement as Cologne listened. "Through several walls. I couldn't even stop her from… from…"
"As if by magic." The white haired woman finished for him and his head bobbled in agreement. Her attention turned to Genma. "And you?"
"Not… directly." Genma hesitated, his gaze flicking to the conversation's participants. It wasn't information he was eager to divulge, especially in current company. It represented not only weakness on his part, but betrayal. Regardless, he swallowed his pride. "Ranma was learning magic. It's obvious in retrospect, but it doesn't take a genius to realize he was learning it from somebody."
Akane blinked. "Magic…?"
Genma nodded, glancing at Soun to confirm his observations. "He also used it to levitate me. The outcome was the same."
"Interesting." Cologne observed, noting his trepidation… Nor had it gone away. A century of experience told her the man was still holding back. "And…?"
The bald martial artist's cheek twitched, but the man pushed through his hesitancy. "He cured the curse. I have no idea how, but he did."
"You mean that wasn't a joke?" Akane blinked, only to watch Genma shake his head. "I thought you said that to…?
"…Appease Nodoka-chan?" He finished, watching her nod with wide eyes. A sad laugh preface his next statement. "You're right, but it wasn't a lie. He had a cure."
"And he wasn't using it…?" Soun cocked his head, trying to fit the misshapen piece of the puzzle into the world view- and the Ranma Saotome -he thought knew. Akane likewise stared, but it was the elder's voice that broke her amazement.
"Am I to understand that your son, he whom was betrothed to my great granddaughter, used magic to remove Jusenkyo's curse?" Cologne asked carefully in order to ensure she had the facts correct. Genma nodded and the Amazon matriarch turned away from the group in silence. She stared down at her now room temperature tea, frowning. After another foreboding moment, she turned back to Genma with a grave look. "Your son is lost to you, assuming he even existed in the first place."
"Is no lost!"
"We'll find him!"
"It's our only chance to track down Nabiki's killer!"
Cologne weathered the storm of denial, waiting patiently for the objections to pass before beginning anew in a solemn tone. "To break Jusenkyo's magic is not simply a parlor trick. It is, in layman's terms, demonic magic. Even the cures tend to just as hazardous as the curse itself. The amount of blood spilled required to break Jusenkyo's hold completely either bodes ill of your son or…"
"…Or?" Genma pressed, determined to pursue every lead.
Silence found the elder once again as she stared upon the four, no long entirely certain that their tale was misguided illusion. A cold pit settled in her stomach as she considered the other possibility of the imaginary boy's fate, and she spoke it aloud. "The Amazons have stories. Myths. Legends. One such tells of a malevolent deity of white hair and golden skin. I dare not speak her name. If your son has found an association with her, then he too has likely passed into the realm of myth and legend beyond your reach."
"We'll find him." The bald martial artist stated imperviously, folding his arms.
"You, on the other hand, must abandon your quest for him." Cologne ignored Genma, turning instead to her great granddaughter.
"This one will not." Shampoo adopt a similar attitude of resolute determination, staring right back at her great grandmother. "Is Airen. Amazon law—"
"-Is abdicated as of this very moment." The Matriarch shook her head, cutting the girl off. "Real or imagined, the merest mention of She That Shalln't Be Named imperils the entire tribe. Courting her wrath by pursuing him is a folly that cannot be ignored. I say again—Abandon your quest."
"No." The lavender haired girl broke eye contact, still determined to see things through. Cologne sighed. The choice was no longer hers. The elder's next words came out in fluent mandarin.
"Xian Pu. As an Elder of the Joketsuzoku, I hereby renounce your birthright and strip you of your Amazon privilege. Your name shall be stricken from the roles and never again spoken by our sisters." Shampoo gasped, her eyes widening as the old ghoul continued relentlessly while the rest of the group watched without understanding. "Any attempt to maintain contact with the host will be received lethally."
"But… But great grandmother…!" The girl protested. Cologne turned her back upon her regardless, finally switching back to Japanese.
"I know you not. Be gone."
Akane Tendo simply stared, then voiced her wonder aloud. "What the heck just happened?"
"Shampoo… Shampoo no longer Amazon." The Chinese teen spoke, still in shock herself.
Genma studied the girl, then the white haired woman refusing to acknowledge their presence. He turned to his friend with a serious expression. "It looks like we no longer have a choice, Tendo."
"So it seems, old friend." Soun frowned, deriving the man's meaning well enough with the matriarch's dismissal. Regardless, there was nothing he wouldn't do to track down his daughter's murderer.
"Let's find him." Soun stated direly, turning toward the door.
Somewhere in another part of Nerima, Happosai hummed a snappy tune.
It has been said that in order to be successful in life, one should choose a job they love, and the old master counted himself lucky to have done just that. He was, in fact, one of the best martial artists to have ever walked the Earth and he lived his life to its fullest under that professional umbrella. He was his own man and answered to no one, but even somebody as powerful as himself realized that all good things would eventually come to an end. One day, he would get old. One day, he would no longer be the best. One day he would be beaten, become decrepit and perish.
Fortunately, Happosai had planned for retirement.
Deals were made and bargains were struck. There was give and there was take, and thus he became more than just a vagabond martial artist. He became a trouble maker. A corruptor. A purveyor of misdeeds when the mood struck him or when his patron requested it. Best of all, he loved his work and truth be told, he would have done it all for free… But why do what you love for nothing when you can do what you love for something?
Happosai was a hopeless pervert.
It was his hobby and his life's work, and he plied it to those around him. Those that knew him would have assumed that he were simply a panty thief and they would find themselves correct in that summation, save the simple part. He touched. He groped. He opened up the unwilling to experiences they would never before have considered for themselves in the course of their violation at his hands. A pressure point here. A caress there. Of course, the recipient was justifiably anger, but his work wasn't about instant gratification. It was about planting seeds. Hostility. Anger. Embarrassment. Thrill. Arousal. These were the tools which he plied to the unsuspecting and most danced like puppets with his manipulations…
…Like the cute thing in Apartment B-12.
Happosai smiled. It was the smile of an unabashed pervert as he considered the woman in her late twenties busy hanging a set of lacy panties from the clothes line. He had visited her before. More specifically, he had visited her clothes line before, ensuring the disappearance of every undergarment she owned and thus forcing Miss Yukou to do without through the course of her daily activities. Going to work with no panties? Check. Down to the marketplace without a bra? Check. Forcing thf embarrassing thrill upon her that went along with her daily exposure? Check.
And it was working too. This was his twelfth visit to liberate her silky darlings and the security camera she had mounted on the overhang was no more of a deterrent now than the previous eleven visits. The environment the old master was creating for her was a simple one: She was becoming accustomed to going without rather than to constantly renewing her supply. The pervert grinned as he watched her pin up her newest acquisitions, estimating only a handful more disappearances would be necessary before the beautiful Miss Yukou gave up maintaining her modesty.
And then the real fun would begin.
It wasn't always so easy, and Happosai's thoughts turned to one of his favorite subjects. She had bright red hair and curves in all the right places in spite of the fact that she had been born a he. Where the woman he was currently spying upon had only taken months to reach her current state of ambivalence, wearing down Ranma Saotome would likely take years. The boy had been his long term project; his side hobby, so to speak. It was a side hobby that wouldn't likely bear fruit until his twenties when she had grown into sexy adulthood, but Happosai was a patient man…
…Or at least he had been until Hild-dono's intervention.
Whether it was a game or not really didn't matter, save the fact that it was her game now, not his. If the Queen of Hell wanted a curvy redhead as her favorite chew toy, who was he to argue? In fact, it was already fun to watch her influence over Ranma take shape; and somehow far more effectively than his efforts to date. Sure, it had removed the martial artist from his sphere of influence, but something told the old pervert that the end would be the same regardless of the means.
"I've got better things to do if you're just going to sulk back there." He glanced behind him nonchalantly, speaking to the empty air across the seemingly vacant rooftop he was spying from. Little inhabited his post beyond ventilation and air conditioning units… And a Ranma Saotome with a put out expression on his face as he stepped out from behind the nearest AC block. Happosai projected a cheeky grin in his direction even as the boy wearing a white button down shirt and blue jeans moved to join him. "Gonna have to do better than that, boy-o!"
"Thought I had ya that time, too." Ranma grumped, looking down at the old man as he shoved his hands in his pockets. His eyes flicked briefly to the bag of lacy undergarments next to the pervert, prompting him to roll his eyes. "Seriously, what's the point?"
"Find something you love and you'll die a happy man," The old master piped, caressing his cheek with a pair of pink panties.
"Whatever." The teen rolled his eyes, knowing any attempt to shame the old man was a lost cause. Instead he turned their conversation to a more relevant topic. "How'd ya know I was there, anyway?"
"Old Genma isn't the only one with a few tricks up his sleeve." The gnome commented in amusement, then eyed the taller boy speculatively. "The Sen Ken's are great and all, but pretty exploitable if you know what to look for."
The pigtailed boy cocked his head curiously. "And what were you lookin' for?"
Happosai eyed the boy speculatively for a moment, sensing something had changed. What, he wasn't sure but he was willing to offer a breadcrumb in order to find out. "Most people look for what is there when they should be looking for what isn't there. The Umi Sen Ken masks everything, so you tell me the implications?"
The martial artist favored the old pervert with a searching look as he plied his intellect to the puzzle, thinking aloud. "The technique makes renders you invisible. Nobody hears or see's nothing' using an inverted chi envelope. Ya can't even detect the battle aura that's building up behind it because…"
"…Because?" Happosai prodded as he watched realization dawn across the boy's face.
"It's concealed behind the inverted chi…" Ranma blinked, reasoning it out for himself, directing the look of dawning enlightenment that the master had expected toward him. "Because there's nothing there… Literally. The chi ain't there to see."
"Exactly correct, m'boy." Happosai nodded as he pulled a kiseru from the breast pocket of his drab brown shozoku. He snapped his thumb, lighting the long stemmed pipe up. Smoked curled away from its embers as he continued their conversation. "As potent as your old man's technique is, it's a sucking hole in the world; a literal chi void."
"And chi is everywhere." The pigtailed boy confirmed with growing realization, earning another nod from the old pervert.
"Like casting a shadow in the sunlight. I may not be able to see you, but I saw the shadow." Happosai commented easily, gesturing to his own shadow on the ground. He watched the teen digest the facts for himself before moving the conversation along. "But now that I've satisfied your curiosity, how about you satisfy mine?"
"Like?" Ranma asked, his expression turning guarded.
"Like why you're using it in the first place?" Happosai, puffed on his pipe, watching as the young man frowned slightly. "I was pretty sure the old boy sealed the Sen Ken's or something."
"He did." The martial artist replied tersely, causing the master to arch an eyebrow.
"I see." The old man replied… Even though he didn't. Genma had sealed the technique and now Ranma was using it against his wishes apparently. Though the two had never been the epitome of a father-son relationship, outright disobedience wasn't usually one of the boy's traits toward Genma… At least not without good reason.
'So what is the reason…?' Happosai wondered to himself as the teen avoided eye contact. Regardless, Genma's son had sought him out for a reason, however reluctant the child appeared to be in voicing it aloud. It would apparently be up to him to push the conversation along in that direction.
"Kind of a waste if you ask me," Happosai shrugged, taking another puff from his pipe. Long trails of smoke wound their way into the sky along thin tendrils. He glanced up at the boy with a searching look. "Besides, I already know why you're here."
Ranma blinked, caught by surprise. "You do?"
"Of course!" The perverted gnome piped cheerfully as he reached into the brown cloth bag next to him. From it he pulled out an almost transparent blue demi-bra. "To model my silky darlings!"
"That's not why I'm here, ya letch!" Ranma snapped, lurching forward to snatch the bra away and throw it off the rooftop.
"HEY!" Happosai squawked as the bra drifted down from the ledge and into the street below. He turned back to the pigtailed boy with an annoyed look. "Well the reason better be good, then!"
The martial artist glared at Happosai before relenting, turning away with a frown. His next words came out hesitantly. "I… I need your help."
Now they were getting somewhere. The old master cocked his head, intrigued. Just the fact that the boy was turning to him for it said something. What, was still unclear. "Help with what, exactly?"
Whatever it was, it was obvious that Ranma was clearly uncomfortable in asking it, so Happosai waited, puffing on his pipe until the teen before him worked up the nerve to ask outright. His answer came shortly with Ranma's sidelong glance.
"You're always goin' on how you're the grand master of Anything Goes, right?" Ranma asked tepidly, gaining the gnome's undivided attention.
"Much as you bitch and moan about it." Happosai noted, nodding nonetheless. Ranma sighed.
"Yeah, yeah." The martial arts heir admitted reluctantly. "That bein' the case, I need your permission to train somebody I know in Anything Goes…"
"And now why the hell would I do that?" The old pervert eyed Ranma with rhetorical amusement, folding his arms imperiously.
"Right, don't suppose I could count on the goodness of you heart for that one." The martial arts heir rolled his blue eyes with the overly predictable response to his request.
"Exactly." The grand master confirmed matter-of-factly, still scrutinizing the black haired boy. "So my question is why not cut me out and go to your old man like you always try and do?"
Happosai watched something change in Ranma's eyes. He noticed the expression almost after the fact. Normally he could read the teen like an open book, but now that book was a guarded one. Ranma stood silent for a long moment before shaking his head.
"I disowned him."
"You... disowned him?" The pervert blinked repeating the statement word for word just to make sure he had heard it correctly. The fact that there wasn't a trace of humor in the boy's expression did more to confirm the fact than his nod. Happosai cocked his head. "And Nodoka-chan?"
"She's… part of the problem." Ranma advised reluctantly.
"Go figure." Happosai arched appraising eyebrow, still unsure of exactly what to make of the development. In the end, it was barely worth a shrug to him as were the reasons. "You do what you have to do, I guess."
"So?" Ranma pressed, apparently not eager to spend time on the subject.
"So make it worth my time." The old man took a toke from his kiseru, looking completely unmoved by Ranma's circumstance or request. A slightly malicious smile began to creep across his lips. "In fact, I want you to formally acknowledge me as your master."
The slightest of twitches found its way to Ranma's left cheek. Happosai's smile grew.
"Say my name."
"Fine." The martial artist replied dourly. "I acknowledge you, Grand Master Happosai as my sensei."
"Damn straight you do." Happosai confirmed as he mentally proclaimed victory. Nebulous associations with Hild or not, it was something the boy had freely given, thus legitimizing their pact. Ranma was effectively trapped.
'Trapped himself,' the pervert amended with glee. Why he had done so was unimportant, but his hobby was back… And he was going to leverage that for all it was worth. Happosai pointed his pipe at the martial artist with that thought. "As my heir you're going to do what I say, when I say it, how I say it. If I want sake, you get me sake. If I want you to iron my silky darlings, they had better not have a crease in them."
"Bein' a sensei is a two way street." Ranma countered with a frown. "If I'm gonna put up with this crap I expect some training. Not BS errands- real training."
"Fine, whatever." Happosai waved the request away as if it were a minor annoyance. He was getting the better end of the deal anyway. Though he would never admit it, the kid had lightyears more potential than his father did. Maybe even more than himself, but that was years down the road. Through Ranma, he could secure his legacy and enjoy his hobby of molding the teen into the perfect disciple. The evil smile returned.
"Speaking of which, where's my Ranma-chan?" The grand master wondered aloud as he reached into the bag of undergarments. A thin, pink thong was twirling around his index finger seconds later as he leered at the disgusted teen. "Come on. Don't got all day you know?"
"What the hell?! I thought you were serious!" Ranma balked angrily, receiving the intended innuendo loud and clear.
"I am." Happosai smiled sweetly, throwing the thong at his new apprentice. Ranma caught it on reflex and immediately wished he hadn't as the old goat continued to gloat. "But if you think I'm going to be looking at a guy's ass all day long, you're sadly mistaken… Unless you never plan on teaching the art ever again?"
He watched Ranma's jaw grind with satisfaction, knowing he had the boy. After a few more seconds of stewing the black haired boy melted into the curvy redhead martial artist he knew and loved. The white shirt instantly took on more feminine dimensions, wrapping around Ranma's bust without the benefit- or need –of a bra. Her jeans hugged the hips tightly, molding to her thighs as if tailor made for her body alone. Victory never tasted so sweet… Or looked so hot.
"Much better." He appraised, his gaze openly undressing her, already envisioning her practicing katas in the lingerie he supplied.
"My apprenticeship for your permission to teach." The bothered neo-girl confirmed, watching as Happosai's head bobbled eagerly. "Your word as a martial artist?"
"Most definitely!" Happosai chirped happily.
For the first time since their meeting, the slightest of smiles crossed Ranma Testerossa's own lips. While it caused her sensei only the slightest of pauses, her next words gained his undivided attention. It was the sinister hint they held more than the content that caused his jubilation to falter, and it was only then did he notice that his favorite redhead's eyes were no longer blue, but amethyst. They now stared down upon him, glittering with malevolent promise.
"Cause if you break it, I'll feed ya to Mom's giant sandworm myself."
The perverted master blinked, as if unsure that she had said exactly what she had said. Doubt was suddenly cast upon the ecchi plans Happosai was mentally conjuring for Ranma's apprenticeship, and last he checked, Nodoka Saotome didn't have a giant sandworm to feed anybody to.
'Or purple eyes,' Happosai frowned mentally, knowing that there was some ominous significance behind the shift from their liquid blue to an all-too-familiar shade of amethyst. The smirking redhead held his gaze in uncomfortable silence before slinging the lacy pink thong back at him. It sailed past the old pervert's head and floated gently over the edge of the rooftop as she turned, sauntering away.
"The trail leads this way, Saotome…"
"We can't be far behind him, Tendo."
Happosai's head snapped around, glancing down into the ally that two more martial artist traversed. His former apprentices were unmistakable and they appeared to be searching for something when what they were looking for apparently floated right down atop Soun Tendo's head. Happosai watched the man pause curiously, lifting the delicate undergarment back off of his head to be examined with an arched eyebrow, then followed its flightpath up from whence it came.
"He's up there!"
The old pervert watched curiously as the pair sighted him and began to scale the nearby fire escape, quickly ascending to his level. Happosai, in turn, glanced back to his new apprentice and found little more than an empty roof. This time he couldn't even sense the presence of a ki shadow.
'Clever girl,' Happosai acknowledged, giving the redhead her due even as his thoughts were interrupted by the uninvited guests.
"Master, help us!" His two former students had already prostrated themselves before him, groveling for his attention from a low bow.
"What do you want, imbeciles?" The grand master huffed irritably. "I'm busy here."
"It's Ranma! He's gone missing!" Genma exclaimed, pleading with the old man less than half his height. Happosai rolled his eyes derisively.
"Tell me something I don't know."
"He's been kidnapped!" Genma stated plaintively, finally divulging information worth the perverts time. "By a white haired witch!"
"She killed Nabiki!" Soun exclaimed desperately, almost sobbing. "We need your help to avenge my daughter's death and find Saotome's son!"
Happosai's mouth opened then closed as a plethora of sarcastic responses were considered and discarded in favor of the new information and their dire implications. There was only one white haired witch he knew of and her proximity to one Ranma Saotome was becoming entirely too uncomfortable for his continued health. Even worse, he had entered into a pact with the girl. The old man scrutinized Soun, cocking his head. "A witch killed your daughter?"
"Yes master!" The mustachioed man's head bobbled and Happosai puffed on his pipe, frowning. Something more had happened than just Ranma disowning his parents, and it appeared that the fools in front of him only knew half the story. Unfortunately, he was suffering the same deficit of information. Maybe through them he could get some answers.
"Alright you two," Happosai took a final puff from his kiseru, tapping its spent ash out on the rooftop ledge. "Start from the beginning. Tell me everything."
It had worked.
At least she thought it had worked. Ranma Testarossa breathed a sigh of relief as she release the technique once forbidden to her three blocks away, safely assured that that the old pervert would be too busy to track her down in a bid for more answers. More importantly, a deal had been made; a bargain struck. From it she had gained two very important things; three if she counted just the sheer pleasure of screwing the old pervert over.
A slight smile accompanied the thought as Ranma emerged from the alleyway, rejoining the sidewalk and the rest of the lunch time foot traffic. Of course, she could have just cut Happosai out of her plans as he had initially surmised, but now she had legitimacy. Now she could teach Anything Goes to the only student she had, not just basic martial arts. Even better, she had done it her mother's way.
"…Properly written contracts are a form a control; an avenue by which the damned are sentenced. A properly constructed pact will not only damn the signer in the end, but allow for multiple possibilities to forfeit his soul along the way much sooner."
Hild's words were fixed in Ranma's thoughts, and she paid them a mental nod as if they were part of a checklist. While she wouldn't be damning anybody anytime soon, her 'contract' would not only allow her to teach, but had secured her own advanced training in Anything Goes. Moreover, she was going to need it in order to tie up loose ends. The fact that it was through the old master wasn't so hot, but if her mother could deal with unsavory characters, so could she.
'Okay, so the worm was a little over the top,' The braless redhead collecting stares decided as she weaved in and out of the foot traffic, but allowed the thought a mental shrug. Happosai didn't play nice either and if she let him have his way, she'd be his lingerie model inside a week, performing nothing but useless errands with no training whatsoever.
In fact, the more she thought about it, the less guilty she felt. His ambivalence through the whole Weakness Moxibustion affair was recalled with absolutely clarity and suddenly, feeding the pervert to a giant sandworm didn't seem all that unfitting of a punishment if he broke his end of the agreement.
The question came down to whether she could enforce it or not.
Perverted or not, the old goat was still skilled enough to make any throw-down between them a dicey proposition at best, and if Happosai got really pissed, victory was not absolutely assured. It was an issue Ranma had chewed on at length, knowing that all she had to do was turn the matter over to her mother. In fact, she suspected Hild would eagerly sentence the pervert to eternal torture if she even so much as hinted at Happosai's misbehavior, and Ranma still shivered slightly at the thought and the terrifying excess behind it.
No, it was better for everybody if she handled it, the martial artist assured herself as she approached the Nerima train station. If she had to challenge Happosai, she would either win or lose on her own merits and if she lost, take her lumps like the martial artist she was. She would pick herself up, dust herself off and come back more skilled than before. The slight smile on Ranma's face turned malicious.
…And then she would feed him to a giant sandworm for breaking their contract.
She was scheming.
She was her daughter.
The Daimakaichō of Hell smiled fondly to herself as she watched over the confrontation between her progeny and the lesser minion known as Happosai through the veil of dimensions. While quite possibly not the most efficient way to have handled the mortal pervert, her daughter was still feeling out her new station, her new life. In fact, she could have just come to herself and asked to have Happosai capitulate or be crushed, but that wasn't her Ranma-chan's way. She would no more bother her mother with the inconsequential than she would allow somebody to take her place in a challenge.
She was learning.
Hild swelled with pride as bore witness her daughter's manipulations of the pervert atop the roof. She had received the report from Mara but found there little to be concerned with. Whatever it was that had bothered the girl, Ranma was handling it in her own way. More importantly, she was handling it properly and the Queen of the Damned saw no reason to intervene.
What the Daimakaichō was certain of, however, was that by the time her daughter was done, nothing of her old life would be left standing
Yep, it's been a long time in coming. Finally had some time after Thanksgiving Travel Hell and inspiration struck, so it's an early Christmas or something. Sorry if the chapter seems a hair light on length. I was struggling with a suitable break point and it was the best I could come up with. Unlike Miko, I don't have five hundred chapters of Girl's School squirreled away, awaiting release ;)
Forbidden techniques- It's only forbidden if you care or haven't disowned the original practitioner.
Shampoo- I seem to be on the ex-communication kick with her between this fic and The Bad Cut. It'll be fun. I promise.
Cologne—This particular scene could have gone any number of ways, but it's hard to see Cologne just jumping right back into the same mess knowing there's reality altering shenanigans in play and some powerful entity behind it. Legends of a white haired witch in Amazon history are just icing on the cake at that point.
Happosai – I wanted to give Happosai a substantial reason for stealing panties and not just for something silly like needing their female aura to survive. Seeing how he is an agent of hell, this worked rather well.
Adult—There's always been an adult theme running through this fic as Ranma explores the possibilities of another gender (is that an angry wail I hear?) but the next couple of chapters will be slightly more so than usual. No, this isn't your cue to jump ship because Ranma!chan since it deals with his male aspect as well. Just a friendly advisement for future chapters.
Seeing that it's taken nearly a year to finish this, there's a bunch of people that need thanking for plox details. The list is long and they're still awesome. For my readers, thanks again for enduring my rather spotty release schedule. This fic is nowhere close to dead. Editing was nominally done by myself as I have zero proof readers for hard grammar and spelling at the moment, or at least none that have patience for my schedule and inane ramblings :p