Disclaimer: I don't own Ranma 1/2 or Sailor Moon in any way, shape or form. All associated characters, trademarks, etc. are the property of Rumiko Takahashi and Naoko Takeuchi. I'm just telling some stories about them.
Chapter Fifteen: Keeping Secrets
"Good morning, honey!"
Ami paused in eating her breakfast, a bit of rice halfway to her mouth, and glanced up from the book she had been reading. "Good morning, mother," she said, her face brightening. "Do you want me to make you something to eat while you're getting ready to go?"
The elder Mizuno leaned over as she passed by the table, giving her daughter a quick peck on the cheek. "Sorry, dear, I don't have time for breakfast today," she admitted. "I need to hurry back to the hospital."
Swallowing a sigh, and not allowing her smile to waver, Ami nodded. "It's been an extra busy week, hasn't it?"
"Yes, you can say that again..." This was all something of a ritual for them. In reality, it was weeks that weren't "extra busy" that were the rare exception, but by unspoken agreement neither of them acknowledged that fact aloud.
I shouldn't be selfish, Ami thought resolutely. The work she's doing is much more important. Lives depend on it. A missed breakfast or two doesn't compare.
"Well... just make sure you get something to eat soon," said Ami at last. "You won't do your best if you're starving."
Her mother smiled at the concerned urging. "Don't worry. I'll make sure to grab something out of a vending machine when I have a spare minute." She continued to bustle on her way, picking up her purse, her jacket, soon reaching the doorway.
She bent to reach for her shoes—then paused, looking back over at Ami. "Oh! I almost forgot. I called up Doctor Tofu like you asked, and he agreed to see you today. You can head over to his clinic after school; he'll be expecting you."
"Thank you!" was Ami's reply. "It really means a lot to me."
Her mother shook her head. "Oh, it's no trouble at all. Really, I enjoyed the chance to talk with him again. It's been years since we last crossed paths." Then she gave Ami a speculative look. "Though I am curious... you never mentioned what prompted this interest in acupressure therapy all of a sudden..."
Ami felt something seize up in her chest. "Oh... it's nothing in particular..." she lied. "I just... came across some interesting stories about the subject when I was studying, and I wanted to observe it for myself." The act of deception made her feel sick, even though she knew it was necessary. Good reasons or no, it still felt to her like a breach of trust between her and her mother.
The elder Mizuno, for her part, regarded her daughter for a moment, before her face slipped into a sly, teasing smile. "All right," she said airily. "And while you're there, you can also see about taking advantage of Tofu's other techniques. The man's massages are simply divine... and he's very good-looking on top of that." A wink closed off the none-to-subtle insinuation.
"Mother!" Ami's mortified voice went well with her suddenly beet-red face. "I... I am certainly not going to see him for... for... for that reason!"
Her mother laughed, then walked back over to Ami to ruffle her hair. "I know," she said. "My little doctor. Just... don't forget to have some fun too, while you're out there, all right? You're still too young to be focused only on serious things."
"I'll be meeting up with Usagi and Rei out there as well," Ami offered quickly. That part was even technically true—although "fun" was not likely what they would be facing.
"Good. Good!" her mother said—oblivious to the deadlier implications of such a group trip. "I'm glad to hear that. Those girls are very good for you, honey."
Ami nodded feelingly. "I know," she said. Then she looked over at the clock. "You'd... you'd better hurry, or else you'll be late."
"Yes, you're right." But her mother took one more moment to hold her daughter by the shoulders, looking her deep in the eye. "Ami... I'm very, very proud of you. You know that, right?"
A lump rose in Ami's throat, and she nodded wordlessly. Then, with one more squeeze, her mother turned and dashed hurriedly out the door, trying to make up for lost time.
The Darkmistress walked down the rocky passage, the sound of her footsteps echoing hollowly. It was an echo that she felt resonate in her chest as well, a feeling of inescapable dread as she drew closer and closer to the door at the end.
The corpse-like youma resisted the irrational urge to touch her face, to confirm that the makeup covering her burns was still there. It had been the best job that she could manage, but she was terrified that it might not be good enough. She pulled the hood of her robe as far down over her face as it would go, hoping to conceal and enshadow as much as she could. At any other time, of course, she would have simply used her illusions to cover herself.
To even attempt them in this meeting, however, would have meant certain death.
All too soon, she reached the door. She did not knock, merely stood there, hands clasped behind her, head bowed low, mouth dry. The youma used every ounce of willpower that she had to try and prevent her muscles from tensing up. If she wanted to have any hope of pulling this off, she could not afford to let the slightest hint of fear show through. She needed calm. She had to be calm.
Eventually, the door swung open, without any noise or sign of an opener. The Darkmistress stepped through, and immediately it closed behind her. The youma took a few steps into the darkened room, then knelt low. "I have come as ordered, your Majesty."
"Rise." Queen Beryl's voice was cold and imperious, a voice that expected absolute obedience.
The Darkmistress rose. The Queen looked at her from the chair in which she was sitting, and to the youma it felt as though those red eyes were spearing straight through her. The Queen's staff clasped in her hand, her red hair spilling down to below her waist. Looking at her, feeling the power in the air around her, the Darkmistress was very acutely aware that her ruler could end her existence with a mere gesture.
It's almost impossible to believe that she used to be human, once, the Darkmistress thought. Though that was long, long ago.
Around them, the youma could see the opulent furnishings of the Queen's private chambers. While Beryl conducted the majority of her governance from her throne room, in front of her court, some matters were too sensitive for such a setting. This included almost every matter that the Black Section touched.
"In what way may I serve you?" the Darkmistress asked. This was not one of her regular reports; the Queen had demanded her presence specifically and without warning. There were many possible reasons for a command like that, and beneath her emotionless exterior the youma's mind was racing, trying to figure out which it was. Could she have discovered what I'm hiding from her? The way the humans crushed my forces in our last battle? Could she be toying with me even now?
"I require an update on the intelligence you have been gathering," Beryl said. "Specifically... I wish to know whether your spies have learned anything unusual concerning General Jadeite."
Jadeite! The very thing I want to keep her from learning about! The Darkmistress's heart was hammering in her chest. How much can I afford to lie? If she catches me in something she knows is false... But how much does she already know?
"Ah yes, Jadeite..." the youma began. "As your Majesty doubtless knows, he has been keeping a low profile of late. He has not made an appearance in court for days, nor have his own troops seen him in person."
"Yes, hence my question," replied the Queen acidly. "I trust that you will be able to tell me more than common gossip among the line soldiers." There was nothing subtle about the threat in that statement.
"Of course." The Darkmistress decided to keep as close to the truth as she dared. "My sources indicate that he is in the midst of preparing for some kind of operation. There have been large troop movements on his orders, and rumors of special training exercises, but it has all been kept highly secret."
As she spoke, the youma had to fight her instinct to glance at the crystal ball on the end of the Queen's staff. That was the most terrifying part of all of this. Beryl's ability to use it was legendary; there were few barriers in existence that could shield a location from her sight if she chose to focus on it. Of course, she would hardly spend every waking moment doing so, nor could she look everywhere at once... but even so, you could never, ever be sure that she wasn't watching.
If she scries into my medical wing and finds Jadeite there, it will be the end of everything, the Darkmistress thought. I must not give her any cause to think that we are connected. "And to make such preparations without informing you, Majesty... Are you sure of his loyalty? If he is planning to send his forces against you..."
Beryl snorted contemptuously. "You suggest a coup d'etat? By my second-weakest General, using less than a fourth of the Dark Kingdom's army? I've warned you before about impugning his loyalty without evidence, youma. I will not have my time wasted by your petty feud with him."
It was all the Darkmistress could do not to let out a shudder of relief, as she bowed low. "I apologize, your Majesty. Then... perhaps he is planning to move against these new human enemies that have appeared recently. His secrecy could be because he wishes to show me up by destroying them while I am still studying them."
The Queen raised an eyebrow. "Perhaps," she said. "I am surprised that it has taken this long for you to deal with these new upstarts."
The youma's throat went dry. "They are... very interesting specimens, your Majesty," she said, praying that none of her fear carried through to her voice. "I see no reason to be hasty when careful consideration might benefit our cause even more."
"You did not seem to think so when you attacked them with the Hounds," observed Beryl mildly, her eyes flashing with a deadly look. "Or was it their response to that blunder that increased your opinion of them?"
"Your Majesty is correct, as always," the Darkmistress groveled. "In addition... their performance when I faced them myself—before they fled from me!—was of some note. In any case, rest assured that the next time I face them, they will not escape."
"I should most certainly hope so," was the Queen's dire pronouncement. "I am not accustomed to incompetence from you... nor will I tolerate it for much longer."
The Darkmistress could not hide the shudder that ran through her body at the threat. If she finds out the truth... No, I can't let that happen! I must rectify this quickly!
I must find them!
The shopping center was small but bustling, with a good-sized crowd of customers mixing back and forth between the stores, each intent on their own business, each paying only passing attention to the others.
That suited Lesp just fine.
As casually as she could manage, the youma swept the area with her gaze, looking for anything out of place. It made her skin crawl to be in an area so packed with humans as this. Weak little bags of flesh they might be individually, but Lesp was not so arrogant as to miss how utterly outnumbered she and her partner were in this situation. If their human disguise were seen through... If all those humans rose as one to swarm them en masse...
Then the youma shook her head. Stop it, she told herself. This is paranoid, even for me. The creatures aren't going to notice us, and even if they did, they'd probably just flee. The uneasiness diminished a little under her self-rebuke, though it did not vanish entirely.
Lesp glanced over at her partner. Cortheia was currently wearing the form of a short, wiry human woman, with her black hair cropped close around her head. It didn't do anything for Lesp's mood to see Cortheia's youma features wrapped in the ugliness of a human guise, but it was, of course, necessary. The only thing recognizable about her was her eyes; those still looked around her with the same restless energy that would mark her no matter which form she took.
"Anything?" Lesp murmured quietly, out of the side of her mouth.
Her partner glanced down into the human-style handbag she was carrying, where they had hidden their scanner. "Nothing," she said, sounding vexed. "No youma readings of any kind!"
"Don't worry." Lesp took another look around, though it was more for the sake of doing something than any expectation it would bear fruit. "It's a lot of ground we're trying to cover, even with all the youma we're throwing at it. This is going to take time."
"But we've already been so close today!" protested Cortheia in a frustrated undertone. "Team Five almost caught up with them that one time! But every time one of us detects the renegade, she slips away before we can reach her! It's like they know we're coming somehow!"
Lesp grimaced. Indeed, it was looking more and more like that might be the case—which raised troubling questions of its own. "Still, don't worry about it," she replied. "If even half the rumors are true, about the kind of power that these new enemies have, then we don't want to be the first ones to find them."
But of course Cortheia, being Cortheia, ignored Lesp's cautioning. "We have to find them," she insisted stubbornly. "I'm worried about Master Jadeite. Do you think he's gotten in trouble over this? No one's seen him in person in over a day, and I even heard someone say that this whole mission was somehow attracting the attention of the Black Sec—"
Lesp's hand shot out, grabbing Cortheia roughly by the arm. "Quiet!" she hissed. "That is not something to speak aloud!"
"But... if Master Jadeite really is in trouble with... them..."
The other youma let out a long sigh. She honestly didn't want any harm to come to Cortheia. Impulsiveness aside, she was one of the more... tolerable youma to be around. But she was also one of the most weak-minded youma that Lesp had ever met. The little fool absorbed absolutely everything that the Army's propaganda machine put out with wide, unblinking eyes, and Lesp knew that she really would charge instantly into danger to aid her General.
Just how were you supposed to keep someone like that from getting themselves killed?
"Listen to me," Lesp whispered harshly. "Those kind of games are played on levels that you and I are never going to reach. The more you get involved, the more likely it is that you'll get crushed like a bug. When you see that kind of infighting going on, you need to keep as far out of the way as you can, keep your eyes locked on the ground, and hope to hell that you don't see anything they don't want you to see. Understand?"
Cortheia shrank under her partner's rebuke. "I... I didn't mean... I just thought... If we could provide the Master with a big victory here, it would help out his standing."
Lesp swore under her breath, tiredly. "Yes, yes of course. We'll try to complete the mission we were given." Though they wouldn't try too hard, if she had anything to say about it. "But that's the best we can do. Trust me, the General is more than capable of taking care of himself. Even... they... would think twice before they crossed someone like him."
Her partner didn't seem to like the answer, but she slowly nodded in agreement. Lesp took yet another wary look out across their surroundings, wondering what dangers could be lurking out there, undetected. "Then let's hurry and finish our assigned sector. I don't want to spend any more time out here than necessary. All these humans just running around free... it's disgusting."
"We only need to have patience," recited Cortheia with pious conviction. "Once Queen Metallia awakens again, this will all be put right. The humans will become our food supply, and all resistance will be crushed under Her irresistible power."
"Well it can't happen soon enough for me," grumbled Lesp. Hopes like that were all well and good, but they didn't do much about their current situation—deep in hostile territory, searching for a powerful enemy that somehow, inexplicably, seemed aware of their every move.
Suddenly Cortheia turned around, craning her neck upward, a puzzled look on her face. Worried, Lesp spun as well, searching the sky. "What? What did you see?"
Cortheia paused... then shook her head. "It's nothing," she said. "Just a trick of the light." She lifted her hand to point at a rapidly-shrinking speck on the horizon. "For a second there, when that bird flew over us, it almost looked like it was wearing some kind of glasses..."
Mousse tilted the wings of his duck form, soaring a little lower, the rooftops shooting past underneath him. As he did so, he made a mental note of the position and direction of those latest two youma he had found. Beneda hadn't been kidding; the Dark Kingdom really were flooding Nerima Ward with search parties. And supposedly, these were just the ones that could transform.
The near-sighted waterfowl banked left, swooping around back toward Doctor Tofu's clinic. Using his Jusenkyo curse for long-range reconnaissance had been one of Cologne's ideas—though of course, he hadn't mentioned that when suggesting it. Using his aerial advantage, he could keep track of the enemy's movements over an extremely wide area.
Disguised, they were a bit difficult to pick out, but Mousse had the advantage of his previous encounter with the Darkmistress in her own disguise form. He knew exactly what to search for—that same sense of wrongness in their ki that even their disguises could not hide completely.
They're closing in again... he thought grimly, as he flapped his wings, propelling himself forward even faster. I wonder how much longer we can keep this up?
The wheels on Ryouga's sickbed squeaked slightly as Beneda pushed it down the hallway, trying hard not to jostle the boy laying on it. Doctor Tofu had said that there was something new he wanted to try out, and had asked her to bring Ryouga to one of the main treatment rooms.
She just hoped that it would help.
"Ah, there you are!" The bespectacled doctor looked up from his preparations as the youma wheeled his patient through the doorway. "Very good, just bring him right over here. How are you feeling, Ryouga?"
"I've felt better," allowed the lost boy, wincing a little as he spoke. "Nothing I can't handle, though. I'm sure I'll be up and around in no time!"
"Mmm-hmm." The doctor did not sound particularly convinced, but didn't make any counterarguments. Instead, he reached over and began undoing the bandage wrapped around Ryouga's back.
Which turned out to be about the best counterargument possible, since the action caused Ryouga to let out an undignified half-shriek, half-whimper of agony. Beneda flinched as well, the words my fault running through her mind once again.
Tofu, for his part, pursed his lips. "Yes, about what I thought," he said. "You're definitely going to want to sleep through this." With that, he stabbed with two fingers toward the base of Ryouga's neck, and his patient immediately slumped into unconsciousness.
Nor did the doctor stop there. He continued to work his way down Ryouga's back, lightly tapping pressure points as he went. Then, finally satisfied, he resumed the removal of the bandage, laying bare the wound beneath it.
Beneda gagged, nausea sweeping over her, but she forced herself not to look away. His flesh was still burnt and blistered all along his back. The youma took a step closer, swallowed hard, then turned to Doctor Tofu. "Will... will this be able to help him?"
Tofu seemed to regard her for a moment, and then he answered. "It should. I've spent the last few days searching my library of books and scrolls for every possible treatment I could think of... and this one seemed the most promising out of all of them. It's an ancient balm, originally from India, which is said to be particularly effective in treating injuries from spellfire. And, while I did have to substitute a few ingredients making it, overall I have high hopes."
The doctor proceeded to walk over to a small closet, opening it and taking out a large, sealed tub. Setting it down on a countertop by the lost boy's bed, he opened it, revealing it to be filled with a brownish, claylike substance. He then went over to a sink located next to one of the windows, washed his hands thoroughly, and returned to the bedside. "All right," he said, digging his hands deep into the tub. "Let's begin."
As Beneda watched, Tofu started to knead the salve into Ryouga's back, first around the boy's shoulder blades, then working his way down. His movements were gentle, graceful, possessing a surety and a focus that mesmerized the youma.
It was another fascinating difference between her old life and her life now. In the Dark Kingdom, healers were a lowly caste, filled with those dregs too weak to even think of making their mark in battle. But not so here. She knew full well the immense level of fighting ability that this man in front of her commanded, from his swift defeat of Tuxedo Kamen. And yet he chose to serve as a doctor... brining restoration to the harm that actions like hers had caused.
Suddenly, she realized that her rapt absorption had not gone unnoticed. Tofu was looking at her, another one of those long, appraising looks on his face. When he spoke, his words came as a complete shock. "Do you want to try?"
"M- me?" spluttered the youma, her eyebrows shooting up. "Are... are you sure? I mean, I'm not... I don't know how to..."
"This part isn't difficult," Tofu encouraged. "I'll give you any help that you need. If you want to do it, just wash your hands over there and we can get started."
Beneda's mouth hung open for another half-second. Then, shaking herself out of her surprise, she walked over, washed her hands as Tofu had indicated, and then walked back. She was honestly at a loss, but had decided to just go with the flow.
She dug her hands into the tub just as she had seen Tofu do, the balm feeling cold and slimy to the touch. Then she turned and began to tentatively rub the medicine across the afflicted areas.
"Good, good..." Tofu reached in from beside her, laying his hands on hers and guiding her in the same motions that he had been making. "Slow and steady, that's right. His skin will be particularly tender, so try very hard not to bump or jostle him in any way."
The youma followed his instructions, and soon her motions began to grow in confidence, becoming more and more her own as she grew accustomed to them. Soon, Tofu withdrew his hands altogether, allowing her to continue by herself.
As she worked the balm across the wound, she found that there was a small release in her own heart as well. Had the doctor known that playing a part in this healing herself could help to soothe the pain of her own guilt a little? Probably he had.
Beneda wasn't sure how long she spent at the task, but it was suddenly interrupted by a flutter of wings, as Mousse flew in through the window in duck form. He landed by the sink, used his beak to turn on the hot water, and soon his naked human form stood before them.
"The Dark Kingdom are getting close to this place again," he said urgently. "We need to move Beneda out of here before they detect her. If we hurry, I think we can slip her through a gap in their search pattern to the north."
The youma nodded. "I'll grab my coat and hat disguise and meet you out front with... is it Mr. Tendo's turn to accompany me?"
Doctor Tofu nodded. "I believe he's out behind the clinic, playing shogi with Mr. Saotome," he said. "You should be able to find him there."
"Hurry," said Mousse. Then, with a twist of the cold water tap, he was a duck again, and disappeared out the window.
The subway train pulled away from the station, leaving behind it the three girls and one feline that it had carried to this point. The remainder of the trip would be made on foot, to each of their four separate destinations.
Luna found herself worrying as they walked out of the station—and not just because of the immediate danger. Each of her charges seemed to still be troubled by the recent events, and none of them had spoken much on the ride over. That crippling uncertainty was, in some ways, the worst part of all this. The odds had always been against them in their fight, but now they weren't even sure which direction they should be striking.
She had gone to the Crown Arcade the previous night after Usagi had fallen asleep, and had contacted Mission Control through the transmitter hidden in the Sailor V game. However, the voice on the other end had been just as mystified as Luna. He could only agree with her that whoever these new players were, and whatever their reasons for throwing themselves into this conflict, the one thing that was clear about them was that they were a dangerous force to be reckoned with.
"All right," Ami said, as they came to a halt just outside the station. "Let's meet back here in a couple of hours. That should give us all enough time to make our investigations. Be careful, everyone."
Luna and the others nodded in reply. With that, Ami turned and walked off in the direction of her appointment. Rei, Usagi and the moon cat began to walk in the opposite direction; their three routes would keep them together for a bit longer.
After a few minutes of walking in silence, with Usagi's turn to branch off drawing nearer and nearer, Rei turned toward the blonde and started speaking insistently. "Now listen, meatball-head. When you get there, you need to be subtle when you ask around. Try to get people to tell you what they've heard about this 'Ranma' person without being obvious about it."
"I know, I know!" the girl insisted. "You don't need to keep—"
"And don't let your guard down!" Rei snapped over Usagi's objection. "You don't know who in there is going to be one of them, so don't trust anyone. And whatever you do, don't let on who you are!"
"I know! You've only been telling me this about a billion—"
"And I'll tell it to you a billion times more, until I actually think it got through that thick skull of yours!" Rei was certainly in rare form today, Luna reflected, as the two girls sniped back and forth. "Make sure you don't go anywhere that isn't public, especially with anyone who asks you to. Also, make sure you give a false name to anyone who asks. And don't—"
"Luuuna! Tell Rei to stop bossing me!"
"Well... here, we're at the point where you need to go your own way now..." said Luna hastily, trying to cut off the bickering. "Just be careful, and don't take any risks."
Usagi stuck her tongue out one last time at Rei, then turned and darted off at a right angle to the path of the other two. They watched her retreating back for a moment, and then Luna glanced up at the raven-haired girl beside her. She saw that Rei was still watching Usagi go, while chewing on her lip slightly, an anxious expression on her face.
"Don't worry," Luna said at last. "I'm sure she'll be fine."
Rei turned abruptly on her heel, continuing to walk in the direction that they had been going. "Who's worried?" she demanded, as she strode off, Luna following in her wake. "Stupid, clumsy meatball-head..."
"Hey, Gos! What about this stuff here?"
Gosunkugi watched, carefully bottling up his fuming resentment, as Saotome pranced around the aisles of the arts and crafts store that they were in. He had no appreciation for the subtle mystical nuances involved in a question like this, of course. Even if this ritual they were planning wasn't supposed to actually do anything, there were proprieties to be observed when dealing with such arcane subjects.
Not that you could tell it by looking at Saotome's approach to the whole thing. For him, one shade of paint was as good as another for drawing the sigils, one type of candle as good as another for the lighting... It was infuriating—almost as infuriating as being on a shopping trip with his greatest enemy in the first place.
Of course, it would all be worth it in the end. He would play along, help design Saotome's little scheme. After all, if it went as planned, it would give the Senshi a perfect chance to strike their overconfident foe down in the course of it.
And, just on the off-chance that they failed... Gosunkugi had his own plan to back them up. It had come to him in a flash of inspiration while looking at the blueprints he had obtained of Furinkan high school—a perfect opportunity that was surely the hand of destiny at work.
Now, he just had to make sure that Saotome and the others only ever saw his altered blueprints...
There was something fundamentally absurd, Cologne mused, about feeling irate over staffing issues for her restaurant when the end of the world was staring her in the face. Still, at this point in the waiting game there was little else to directly occupy her. Besides, she had long since come to terms with the absurdities and contradictions of human nature.
The old woman moved swiftly around the Nekohanten's kitchen, keeping a half-dozen meals cooking at the same time. When one finished, she would toss the bowl out through the open door, sending it spinning in an arc through the air to slide unerringly to a stop on the table in front of the one who had ordered it, without spilling a drop. She could hear the customers murmuring at the display of supernatural control, but for her doing this much was nothing.
No, what annoyed her about her current short-handedness was that she had been forced to suspend her delivery service without any warning. It was that sort of thing that lost customers!
But there was nothing for it; with the escalation of the conflict and the injuring of their two best fighters, both Mousse and Shampoo were devoting more time to bolstering the defenses of that little band, leaving her to keep the Nekohanten running.
She sighed, stirring multiple bowls of noodles as she reflected on what she had learned from Mousse about the most recent battle. Jadeite. It was a name known to her as a legend, not as a real man. To think that son-in-law and the lost boy had managed to bring low one of Beryl's four generals! Her heart warmed with pride at the monumental achievement.
Still, it had been a costly victory, and she knew that the situation would only get worse from here. The challenges still to come loomed darkly over her thoughts: the armies of youma, the more powerful generals, the Witch-Queen herself... and Metallia, the ravager of worlds.
How do we combat an evil of that scale? she asked herself. What technique should I use, that has a chance of harming something like that? Even the power of House Serenity only managed to imprison the abomination for a time, and it cost them their lives to do so.
And now the ancient demoness had returned, when even the memory of the foes that had defeated her was all but lost. The Queen, the Princess, the four Royal Guardians... all of them dead and buried for millennia. What Cologne would have given for their aid now! But there was no sense in wishing for the impossible, and she refused to indulge in it with so much at stake.
The sound of the Nekohanten's door sliding open cut into Cologne's brooding, and after ensuring that the meals currently cooking would keep for a bit, she used her cane to hop out into the main dining area. As she emerged, she caught her first glimpse of her latest customer.
It was immediately obvious to Cologne that this was no casual patron. The girl was young, with dark hair running down to her waist. She was trying to appear at ease, and doing a commendable job at that... but the old master could read the subtle nuances of her body language like a book. Beneath the calm exterior, the girl was tense, alert, wary.
She believes that she is in potentially hostile territory, Cologne thought. Very interesting. Particularly since the old woman could detect not the slightest hint of a youma's aura about her.
"Yes, child?" the old woman said, as the girl walked up to the counter. "How may I help you?"
The girl glanced around, looking a little uncertain. "Is Shampoo here?" she asked. "I was... hoping to talk with her."
Ah yes, thought Cologne. As I suspected. This girl was most likely a member of that youma hunting group from the Juuban area that had somehow gotten tangled up in son-in-law's mess. What was it Mousse had called them? The "Sailor Senshi"?
At any rate, it seemed that this girl had returned to try and fish for more information... and it also seemed that she considered Cologne a less likely mark than her great-granddaughter. Allowing herself a wry smile, the old woman answered. "Shampoo is out visiting some friends right now. However... if you're willing to wait for a bit, I may be able to help you when I have a free moment."
The girl hesitated for a moment, then nodded. "Good!" Cologne said. "Then let me get you something to eat while you wait. I highly recommend the miso ramen..."
Humming a happy little tune under her breath, Ukyo flipped the okonomiyaki on the grill in front of her. She was feeling good today; the bruising she had taken from her encounter with Jadeite had almost completely healed, leaving behind only the exuberance of having helped her Ranchan when he was in such a tight spot.
The added burst of confidence had prompted her to be little more daring in her style of dress. She wasn't hiding her femininity today—the breast-bindings had been forgone, and she had allowed her hair to flow freely down her back, unconstrained by its usual severe ponytail.
Now, if only Ranchan happens to drop by... she thought blissfully. This could be the perfect opportunity! I showed him before that I could help in dangerous situations, and now I can remind him that I'm his cute fiancée!
She flipped the okonomiyaki again, the last one from the current group of customers. Not to mention reminding him that I can cook, too.
The sound of the door sliding open caused the young businesswoman to glance up hopefully—but it seemed that her thoughts alone had not been enough to summon Ranchan. Instead, a girl with long blonde pigtails stood in the doorway, looking back and forth around the restaurant.
Shoving her personal disappointment to the side, Ukyo gave the girl a cheerful smile. "Welcome to Ucchan's!" she said. "What can I get for you?"
The girl jumped a little, as though startled by the question. Skittish little thing, isn't she? the chef thought, amused.
For a moment the girl eyed her warily, before stepping further into her establishment. "I'll have a shrimp okonomiyaki, please."
"Coming right up!" Ukyo told her, and immediately began preparing her order. The blonde girl just sat at the counter in silence, fidgeting uncomfortably, so after a little while Ukyo took it upon herself to try and make the kid feel more comfortable. "So what's your name, hon?"
"Usagi," was the girl's immediate response. Then she blanched. "I mean... uh... no, it's... Usami. Yeah, that's it."
A fake name? Ukyo thought, perplexed. Why would she want to... oh. Belatedly, she remembered what Shampoo had told them about the Senshi's investigation into the Nekohanten. Well, looks like it's my turn... Though this kid doesn't really strike me as much of a master spy.
"Well, nice to meet you, Usami," she said. "My name's Ukyo." Even as she spoke, she was pondering the situation. Was she one of the ones in the last fight? I don't recognize her, but Beneda said something about disguise magic...
"Um, nice to meet you too," said the girl who was definitely not named Usagi. Then, after a pause: "So, uh... what kind of things do you like to do, Ukyo? Has anything... interesting been happening lately?"
"Interesting? What do you mean?" Ukyo responded blankly—stalling while she tried to figure out how to respond to the girl's fishing for information. I can't tell her the whole truth or it'll ruin Ranchan's plan... but I don't want my restaurant to become a target either!
"Oh, you know, just... interesting..." was the answer, accompanied by a vague hand wave. "For example, um... oh, I heard that the Sailor Senshi were in the neighborhood the other day! Do you know anything about that?"
"I... did hear something about that, yes..." This conversation was not going in a direction that Ukyo liked. Does she already know that I was there at that fight? If this girl actually was there herself... But then, on the other hand, I didn't get close to any of them, just to Jadeite...and I was dressed as a boy then too. She breathed a silent prayer of thanks that she had chosen to turn on the charm for Ranma today.
So there might still be a chance to divert suspicion. But how? She was in a tricky situation, and she didn't even know how much this "Usami" knew, or what she was really trying to find by coming here. If Ukyo wanted to throw the girl off track without giving herself away, she would need a careful strategy, created with all the guile and cunning she could bring to bear.
"Oh, you did hear about it?" asked the girl. "Um... what do you think about stuff like that? The Senshi, I mean, and what they're doing?"
So... they're trying to figure out what our intentions toward them are... Ukyo thought. Well, a normal person would tell the truth, and an enemy would lie, so I'm safe either way. "Oh, I think they're doing a great job!" she said brightly. "Monster hunting is a really important duty, and I think it's great that they're helping out with it."
"Oh." The girl frowned in thought. "But... does everyone around here feel the same way? I heard something about this one guy named... Ranma...?"
Not good. Just the subject she wanted to avoid. She couldn't exactly claim she didn't know Ranma—it was common knowledge around here, and probably why the Senshi was here in the first place. But then just how should she respond? "Oh, here," the chef said, taking advantage of an opportunity to give herself some more time to think. "Your food's done."
"Thanks!" said the girl, preparing to eat it. "Anyway, I'm really interested in learning more about this 'Ranma' guy, so anything you could tell me would be mmmMMMM!"
The girl's sentence cut off as she took her first bite of the okonomiyaki. Her eyes went suddenly wide, her face melting into an expression of bliss as she began to scarf down the food with wolf-like intensity. "Ommm mmy gssh, Ummkyu," she somehow managed to say, even in the process of devouring it. "Thff ss smm guud! Thusus th bsst ommkyumi plss evr!"
Ukyo let out a delighted laugh. I think, she said to herself, that I've just found the path to this kid's heart. "Of course," she said aloud. "That's my family's secret recipe you're tasting. We've been perfecting it for generations; there's no way any normal chain restaurant could compare. Would you like another?"
"Usami" nodded furiously... only to freeze suddenly in mid-nod. Reaching down, she pulled out a small purse, opened it, and checked its contents. The result was a look of complete dismay. "I... I don't have enough to spare for another one..."
But the okonomiyaki chef just shook her head. "Ah, don't worry about it, kiddo. This one's on the house."
Like flicking on a light switch, the girl's face immediately brightened back up again into a beaming smile. "Really? You mean it?"
"Of course," Ukyo said, getting out the ingredients as she spoke. "You know, you remind me of someone I met, back when I was traveling around Japan searching for... well, searching for someone I had to settle things with. Her name was Kohana, and said the same sort of things about my okonomiyaki. Although... it was something a bit more dangerous than food that threw us together at first..."
"Dangerous?" The Senshi girl leaned closer in rapt attention, her previous line of questioning completely forgotten.
Ukyo smiled. "Oh yes," she said, relaxing as she felt her control over the conversation solidifying. "You see, she was a pretty girl—pretty, but as frail as can be—and unfortunately she'd caught the attention of a real jackass who was determined to make her his girlfriend..."
Shampoo sighed as she lounged against the wall of the clinic, arms crossed, drumming her fingers in boredom. She was supposed to be here as a reserve in case the youma managed to find this place, but the monsters hadn't been so obliging, and so she was left with nothing to do.
It wasn't a problem when Ranma was there, of course. Then it became a perfect opportunity to remind her Airen of the depth of her loyalty, to help him to admit to the deep bonds of passionate love that they had for each other. But at the moment he was gone, slipped out on an errand of some kind, and Shampoo was left at a loose end. Briefly she considered trying to find Akane and antagonize the other girl a bit, but dismissed the idea. She wasn't really in the mood.
The Joketsuzoku warrior's thoughts were interrupted by a knock on the clinic door. Maybe Airen back! she thought excitedly, as she began to hurry toward the source of the noise.
Up ahead she heard the door swing open, and heard Kasumi's voice speaking—evidently the older girl had already answered it. "Oh, hello! Are you a patient for Doctor Tofu?"
Disappointed, Shampoo slowed her pace. It wasn't Ranma after all. Meanwhile, the answer to Kasumi's question came in the voice of a young girl. "No, not really," she said. "I'm just here to talk to him, if he has time. He's a friend of my mother's, and she called earlier to make the appointment..."
"How nice!" was Kasumi's reply. "Follow me, I'll take you right to him."
Shampoo kept walking, albeit slower, still mildly curious about this visitor. She could hear them coming toward her as well, chatting amicably as they headed toward the stairs. The Joketsuzoku girl turned the corner that brought her into sight of the pair—
—and then she flung herself back the way she had come, with all the incredible speed of a martial artist, disappearing around the corner again in the blink of an eye. Her eyes were wide, her heart hammering in her chest as her mind raced desperately. What that girl doing here?
There was no mistaking it; the girl that was even now deep in conversation with Kasumi had been one of the girls that had visited the Nekohanten looking for information. The Sailor Senshi.
It seemed to Shampoo that her high-speed evasion had kept her from being noticed. But the footsteps were still approaching, and would round the corner themselves at any moment. Shampoo whirled to one of the nearby side doors and ducked through it, shutting it behind her.
The footsteps continued on past, but it was no cause for relief. Senshi-girl is going up to see doctor! If this was another investigation, meeting him would give away their new hiding place completely!
Even as the desperate thoughts ran through her head, she heard the two pairs of footsteps reach the stairs and begin their assent. No time! she thought. Shampoo need plan, Shampoo need plan, Shampoo need—
Sudden, crazed inspiration hit her. She charged back out into the hallway, hair flying behind her as she ran for the clinic's rear exit. The footsteps were almost at the top of the stairs now. She had only seconds left.
She burst through the door leading outside... and there he was. Sitting at a shogi board, staring at the game that had been halted in progress, no doubt trying to determine the best way to rearrange the pieces to his advantage without it being too obvious. Saotome Genma. "Ah, Sham—" he began.
But the Joketsuzoku girl cut him off. "Senshi-girl is here! Come now!" she hissed, then grabbed the startled Genma and made a leap toward the second-story window.
It was entirely unreasonable, Ami insisted to herself as she walked up the stairs, for her to be feeling nervous in this situation. She was just going to visit a friend of her mother's. It was perfectly normal. Nothing at all to get worked up about.
Yet she was nervous. Her mother had spoken so highly of this man, all the mysterious, ancient and nearly-forgotten secrets of medicine that he was said to have studied. Ami wanted desperately to make a good impression on someone as wise as that.
And on top of that, there was her mother's remark about how good-looking the doctor was. Ami blushed a little, trying not to think about that... but the butterflies in her stomach didn't quite go away.
She shook herself a little. This was ridiculous. She had no right whatsoever to be feeling so worried over such trivial matters. All her teammates were, at this very moment, following leads that might put them in very real danger. In fact, she was the only one who didn't have any reason to worry about the possibility of facing their new enemies during the course of her investigation.
Soon they reached the second floor, and they walked down the length of the hallway to the door on its far end. Kasumi turned toward her. "He's right in there," she said pleasantly.
Ami nodded in thanks, took a deep breath, and reached out her hand for the doorknob. Turning it, the door began to swing inward...
Suddenly there was the sound of a thump from inside, followed by a half-second of scuffling, fluttering, and a sound like a slamming door. But, by the time the door had opened enough so that she could see inside, there was nothing visible that could have caused such strange noises. There was a wheeled bed there with someone laying on it—a cloth seemed to have been thrown over his body for some reason. And, standing next to that bed...
"Are you... Doctor Tofu?" Ami asked, unable to keep a hint of disbelief out of her voice.
The man was heavyset and definitely well into middle age. A white bandanna covered a head that had obviously gone completely bald. He looked at her blankly, seemed to hesitate, then finally spoke. "Why... ah... yes..." he said at last. "Yes, I'm Doctor Tofu."
As she had hurtled through the window into the treatment room where Doctor Tofu was, Shampoo had dropped Genma to the floor. As soon as her feet hit the floor she spun, continuing her momentum to tackle the surprised doctor and push him toward the nearby closet. As their trajectory carried the two of them past where Ryouga lay, Shampoo reached out with her free hand, grabbing one of the sheets underneath the unconscious boy, and yanking it out from under him and flipping it over to cover him instead.
And then they were past him, careening toward the closet door. Tofu, evidently deciding to play along, reached back and opened it in mid-flight, allowing them to slip through. The force of Shampoo's charge slammed the two of them into the tiny space, and the Joketsuzoku warrior slammed the door shut the instant they were inside.
She had hardly done so when she heard the Senshi's disembodied voice coming from the room outside. "Are you... Doctor Tofu?"
Shampoo controlled her breathing, keeping as silent as possible as she and Doctor Tofu tried to adjust themselves into as comfortable a position as they could manage in such cramped confines. After a brief pause, she heard Genma's voice. "Why... ah... yes... Yes, I'm Doctor Tofu." He paused, then spoke again. "Is... something the matter?"
"Oh, no..." said the Senshi, sounding a little off-balance. "It's just that my mother said that you—" She broke off abruptly, as though just realizing what she was actually saying, and her voice became extremely flustered. "I mean, not that you aren't—! I mean... Um, that is, I mean..."
Then Kasumi's voice broke in. "But... what are you two talking about?" she asked, sounding puzzled. "Why are you calling yorsel—"
Behind her, Shampoo heard Tofu suck in a sharp breath as Kasumi began to speak. She looked over her shoulder, and saw that the doctor's glasses had completely fogged up, and a manic expression was growing on his face. He began to claw desperately for the handle of the closet door. "Kas—oof!"
Shampoo slammed an elbow back into his gut. In a normal situation, she knew that she wouldn't stand a chance against the more experienced master... but in his current state he was focused on only one thing... and it wasn't her.
She immediately followed the attack by reaching back and digging her fingers into Tofu's hair, driving his head down into her knee once, twice, three times. She then flung the groggy doctor back upright, finishing him off with a headbutt using the back of her head to his chin. His head snapped back, but without enough room in the tiny closet to actually fall, he simply rebounded off the back wall and slumped limply over Shampoo.
"What was that?" asked the Senshi in a startled voice.
Genma laughed. "Oh... just some supplies in the closet falling over. They do that every so often. It's... the rats, you see. Sometimes they knock things off the shelves."
"Rats?" echoed the Senshi, incredulously. "In a clinic? Why haven't you done anything about them?"
"Well... they're... well behaved for the most part..." The strain was starting to show a bit in Genma's voice. "Now! Kasumi. Why don't you run along and... fix up some dinner, please? Very, very quickly?"
There was a brief pause, followed by a puzzled, "All right. If you say so..." After that came the sound of departing footsteps, and Shampoo started breathing again.
Genma, for his part, addressed the Senshi once more. "So. What did you want to see me about, miss...?"
"Mizuno," supplied the girl. "Mizuno Ami. I... wanted to ask you about pressure point techniques—whether you know who might use something like that, or how they could be countered, or any other details."
So that why Sailor-girl here... realized Shampoo. That was a relief. Their secret seemed to be safe after all.
At least, for the moment. The immediate crisis had been averted, but the clinic was still filled with people that the Senshi could connect to their new opponents. Not just Tofu, but Ryogua, Akane, Shampoo herself... Thankfully, at least Ranma and Beneda were out of the picture.
"I see, I see..." she heard Genma respond, trying hard to affect a sage-like tone of voice. "Well, why don't you describe what you're trying to discover to me, and I'll see what I can do to help you."
Slowly, Shampoo eased the closet door open just a crack, peeking out into the room to see what was going on. The Senshi was standing over by Genma, with her back to the closet, as she began to describe in detail the kind of paralysis that the real Tofu had used in the last fight. Perfect. It meant that Shampoo could get out of here and warn Akane as well. All her efforts would be for nothing if the kitchen destroyer blundered in here unawares.
Inch by inch, as carefully as she could, she opened the closet door even wider. Soon she had reached the point where she could slip through the opening. There was a brief awkwardness where she had to prop the unconscious doctor against one of the walls to keep him from falling over and potentially making a noise, but she quickly cleared that and crept out into the room, shutting the door behind her.
Now stealth was everything. She held her breath as she slowly tiptoed across the floor, keeping her eyes locked on the Senshi's back for the slightest sign of her turning around. Her every nerve was strung tightly. The slightest noise, she knew, could betray her. Step by step, she worked her way out into the middle of the room, and began backing toward the door leading out to the hallway. Closer... Closer... At last, having almost reached it, the Joketsuzoku girl turned around—
—and just about ran straight into Akane as the other girl walked in through the doorway. "Shampoo, wha—mmfh!"
The young warrior's hand shot out like lightning, clamping over the other girl's mouth and tackling her, as Shampoo dove forward as fast as she could. She spun, grabbing the edge of the door with her free hand and swinging it all the way open, while twisting the two of them behind it, hidden from sight between it and the wall.
They stood there, clenched together behind the door, silent, for second after agonizing second—Akane's eyes wide with incredulity, Shampoo frantically mouthing an explanation of what was going on. At length, they heard Genma speak up. "What is it, Miss Mizuno? What are you looking at?"
They could almost hear the frown in the Senshi's voice. "I... I'm sure I heard something strange that time..."
"Really?" asked Genma. "I didn't hear a thing, and I didn't see anything that could have caused it..."
"Besides, even if it was something, I'm sure it's nothing," Genma continued over her protest. "Why don't you continue explaining the details of that fascinating technique you were telling me about?"
There was a moment of hesitation, and then Shampoo heard the Senshi girl resume her description where she had left off. The young warrior breathed a sigh of relief, and felt her rival next to her do likewise.
Is big mess in every direction... reflected Shampoo resignedly. The ones out to kill them had come for a social call, and with the unconscious Tofu in the closet, the unconscious Ryouga covered up on the bed, and herself and Akane hiding behind the door, they had managed to collect every single person in the clinic that the Senshi would recognize and put them in the exact same room as her, mere feet away from being revealed.
About the only good point to the whole debacle was that, with everybody already here, at least it couldn't get much worse.
Ranma jogged through the door to the clinic, a shopping bag in each hand. "Hey Kasumi!" he called out in greeting. Then he glanced around. "Where is everybody?"
"Oh, Ranma, you're back early!" the demure young woman said happily. "Everyone else seems to be upstairs in the treatment room. I'm... not quite sure what they're doing up there. But it seemed to be important."
"Huh. Didn't hear anything about that." Ranma stashed the bags in a corner, then jogged toward the stairs, calling back over his shoulder as he did so. "Well, thanks! Think I'll go see what they're up to..."
"...and you say that your great-granddaughter has been spending more and more time with this 'Ranma' person?"
Cologne nodded, hiding her amusement at how earnest and intent the child was in her investigation. She had passion, this one. It was still raw and undeveloped at the moment, but considering the conflict in which she was taking part that would soon change. Few knew better than Cologne the ability of the battlefield to harden and refine.
"That is correct," the ancient master said. A lag in the flow of customers had allowed them time to talk like this, and Cologne was taking the opportunity to subtly support the deception that her son-in-law was trying to achieve... as well as fulfilling some idle curiosity of her own about these young vigilantes. "Shampoo's behavior is almost entirely focused on him. It's begun to worry me of late. He seems to have an almost... unnatural hold on her."
"I see..." the girl frowned, and Cologne could practically see the gears turning in her head as she spoke. "Do you have any idea where she is now?"
"No, I'm afraid that I don't," the old woman sighed. "I've tried so very hard to separate the two of them, but she always manages to slip away. I fear she is with him even as we speak..."
The girl met Cologne's eyes, determination burning in her gaze. "Don't worry," she said reassuringly. "I'm sure your great-granddaughter will be safe. I... even heard that the Sailor Senshi got involved with this Ranma the other day. I'm sure they wouldn't let anything happen to her."
"Thank you, child. That's good of you to say." Then Cologne decided to examine her a little deeper. "But... this Ranma fellow... from everything I've heard he's extremely powerful himself. Even the Senshi might find themselves outmatched." Cologne's gaze narrowed imperceptibly in on the girl. "What would they do then? If they faced an enemy beyond anything they could hope to match, what would they do?"
"Fight," the girl replied, without missing a beat. Then she paused, grimacing. "Well, most of them would, anyway. Whatever would happen in the battle, it'd be much worse to just stand aside and turn a blind eye to evil."
A fine answer... thought Cologne approvingly. Such interesting people son-in-law picks his fights with. It never ceases to amaze me...
Shampoo waited in her hiding place behind the door, bored stiff, but not having many other options. This was the safest course of action now—even if it meant having to share the cramped space with her rival, while listening to an old panda try to pretend to be an acupressure master.
"Yes, yes, it sounds like you're describing an advanced technique..." she heard Genma say, his voice solemn. "It... probably disturbs the ki flow along the central meridians, and uses that to interfere with the limb movements. Very high-level."
The Joketsuzoku girl had to admit that—even though his own style was a mainly a striking art—the elder Saotome had apparently picked up enough knowledge on related subjects during his martial arts training to make what he said at least sound fairly impressive. She doubted the Senshi would be able to tell the difference, anyway. Apparently, she had made a good choice for her stand-in.
Then, without warning, the young warrior heard the soft patter of footsteps jogging down the hallway toward them.
Shampoo's eyes went wide, and she looked over at Akane, who looked back with a similar expression. Who could it be? Kasumi again? No, the gait was completely wrong. But if not her...
"Ummm... ah... Miss Mizuno, I..." from the rising panic in Genma's voice, Shampoo guessed that he could see who it was. If the Senshi was still in her original position it meant that she had her back to the door, but that would only buy them mere seconds...
The Joketsuzoku girl turned, looking across Akane's shoulder to where the door met the wall, staring through the tiny crack. To her dismay, she saw a red-and-black-clad figure pass through on the other side, even as Ranma's voice spoke up. "Hey, what's—"
Shampoo slammed the door shut with all her might, catching Ranma right in the face and sending him flying back down the hallway. In the same fraction of an instant, she and Akane both burst into blurs of desperate motion.
Akane made a headlong dive toward one of the nearby counters. She swung the door open in mid-flight, using it as the fulcrum to twist herself around it and tuck herself inside, curling up tightly into a ball and slamming the door shut behind her.
For her part, Shampoo dove behind the unconscious Ryogua's hospital bed, catching hold of the sheet that was draped over him and pulling it down so that one side of it hung over the edge of the bed, forming a makeshift curtain between her and the Senshi.
That, of course, meant that the other side of the sheet was now only barely covering the just-as-recognizable Ryouga.
"What was that?" asked the Senshi-girl, having turned around at the sudden noise to find, once again, nothing there.
"Just... the door slamming shut..." Genma said weakly. "It does that sometimes. Must be... the wind."
Shampoo winced at the terrible excuse, then paled at the girl's next words. "But... I didn't feel any... oh! Doctor Tofu, the sheet's almost fallen off your patient!" This was immediately followed by footsteps as the girl walked over, reaching out her hand toward the cloth that was just barely covering both Ryouga and Shampoo.
"Miss Mizuno! Miss Mizuno!" Genma called out, his voice panicky. "Please, please don't touch that! It's... it's part of a very delicate operation!"
The Senshi halted, one step shy of the bed Shampoo was hidden behind. However, anything she might have said in reply was interrupted by the sound of footsteps stomping back down the hallway. A moment later, a recovered Ranma flung the door open and stormed angrily into the room.
And into a perfectly-timed splash of water as well.
On hearing his son's approaching footsteps, Genma had rushed over to the sink and filled a nearby cup with cold water, as the Senshi watched his actions in puzzlement. Then, just before Ranma entered, Genma had hurled the contents of the cup off in that direction. The pigtailed martial artist was caught the instant he opened the door, turning from his male form to his female form.
If the Senshi girl had been puzzled before, now it sounded as though she were actively questioning someone's sanity—either theirs or hers. "Doctor Tofu?" she asked, sounding utterly lost. "Um... why did you just splash her with water?"
Ranma didn't know what was going on here, but it was becoming increasingly clear that something fishy was up. Knocking him back down the hall, then transforming him to a her when he tried to demand some answers... It looked like her dad was trying to keep her presence a secret from this blue-haired chick, and without any better ideas, the pigtailed fighter figured she'd better play along.
"The water? Oh that's just a little greeting the two of us have!" Genma was answering through a painfully wide smile. "Miss Mizuno, this is my daughter, named... um... Akane! Akane, this is Miss Mizuno Ami. She's here to research defenses against certain paralyzing chiropractic techniques."
"Oh," Ranma said. Then it clicked. "Oh. Right, yeah, well, you really couldn't have picked a better guy to teach you than good old dad. Seriously, he's the best teacher for that kind of stuff there is."
Ami glanced over at Ranma. "Oh, are you learning from him too, Akane?" she asked.
"Who, me?" Ranma answered, trying to adopt a girlish demeanor. "Oh, no! I'm way too much of a klutzy tomboy for that! I'd probably dislocate all my patients' limbs trying to fix 'em! Heck, if my medicines were as bad as my cooking is, I'd probably kill all my patients before they even..."
She trailed off, suddenly nervous for some reason. The hair on the back of her neck was prickling, and—although she couldn't quite explain it—she got the strange impression that there were silent waves of seething anger radiating out from a simple, unassuming cabinet behind her.
"...anyway, yeah," Ranma said hurriedly. "The point is, I don't know anything about any of that medicine or martial arts stuff. I'm just a completely normal girl, nothing out of the ordinary about m—"
She broke off, eyes widening, as a spectacled duck flew in through the window behind Ami. Oblivious to Ranma's panic, Mousse landed on the sink and turned on the hot water with his beak, resuming his human form. "Well, it looks like the danger is over for now," he announced. "So we decided to— hey, who's this?"
Ami turned around at the words... and promptly let out a shriek of shock and embarrassment at the sight of the stark naked boy standing there. She whirled instantly away, and began studying the far wall with furious intensity, her face a brilliant crimson. "D... doctor Tofu, who is...? Why is he...?"
Ranma and Genma looked at each other helplessly, until Genma finally blurted out an answer. "It's because... he's... Akane's fiancé, Ranma!"
It was fortunate that the Senshi was staring only at the wall, or she would have seen both Ranma and Mousse's faces turn green with revulsion at the thought. But the pigtailed girl gritted her teeth, and spoke up brightly. "Yes, you'll have to forgive my honey Ranma here... He just gets so... eager... when he's around me, you see..."
Impossibly, Ami's blush became even more pronounced, until Ranma was afraid the girl might spontaneously combust. Mousse, for his part, looked as though he were seconds away from throwing up, but he gritted his teeth too, and responded in kind. "I... see. Yes, I'm sorry for disturbing you, miss. I had thought that the only one here would be my... darling Akane."
"I... I understand!" Ami choked out. "Just... please, please put some clothes on!"
"Right!" Ranma said hurriedly. "I'll get something right away!" She turned and grabbed the first covering that caught her eye—a sheet lying haphazardly across the nearby bed. She frantically slammed it back down again, however, once she saw just who was underneath it.
That being a failure, she turned to her next best bet—that there might be something suitable in the nearby closet. She raced over to it, opened the door... and then her eyes bulged as Doctor Tofu's unconscious body toppled out of it. Hands blurring, Ranma stuffed the doctor back in as fast as she could, slamming the door shut again.
Finally, with nothing else in sight, she knelt down and reached for the door to one of the lower counters. She swung it open, then jerked back as the opening door revealed Akane's face, glaring directly at her. There was silence for a moment, and then Akane wordlessly handed her a white towel, before slamming the door closed again.
Ranma tossed the towel to Mousse, then turned back to Ami. "All right," she called out. "It's safe to look now."
Slowly, the Senshi turned around, and saw that Mousse was now at least somewhat clothed. "Ah. Th- thank you..." she said to the towel-wearing boy. Then she frowned. "...Ranma, was it? It's strange. I... met someone else named Ranma recently. But of course, he didn't look anything like you."
Mousse laughed harshly. "Oh yes. I've... heard of this other fellow around here with the same name as me. Truly a reprehensible character, without any morals or redeeming points. There's nothing that shames me more than being associated with him like that."
Ranma's smile didn't waver, although her right eye did twitch just a little. "That's nice, dear," she said.
"He's an enemy of all women, you know," Mousse continued with relish. "Has a whole harem of girls, stringing them along, keeping them from their true loves. He's even got some male lovers as well—and keeps all of them at the same time. He's an utter sexual maniac."
"Yes, dear," Ranma said, her tone fast becoming glacial. "I think she understands what you're saying already."
"In fact, he's so depraved that—"
"Oh look, Miss Mizuno!" Ranma cut in sweetly. "What's that behind you?" Puzzled, the Senshi turned around to see what she was talking about.
The instant she had turned far enough that they were out of her peripheral vision, Ranma and Mousse exploded into action with mind-boggling speed. Their arms vanished from sight as they each delivered and deflected an intricate storm of countless blows, battering away at each others' guard faster than the eye could hope to follow. It ended when Ranma slipped an elbow through into Mousse's stomach, then twisted that up into a backfist that caught the nearsighted martial artist right in the face.
A second later, when the Senshi turned back around, the two were standing together again, arm in arm, smiles painted across their faces. "I didn't see any—" she began, then broke off with a gasp. "Oh, Ranma, your nose is bleeding!"
Sure enough, a trail of blood was running down from Mousse's nose. Ranma let out a girlish giggle. "A nosebleed!" she tittered. "Oooh, I bet you were thinking about me again, weren't you?" She reached over and began to pinch his cheek. "Such a perrrverrrt..."
Ami had to immediately take a few hurried steps back, to distance herself from the sheer level of killing intent in the gaze that Mousse was fixing on Ranma.
"Anyway!" interjected Genma, trying his best to defuse the fast-deteriorating situation. "There was... something I wanted to do for you right away, Miss Mizuno, before this goes any further. It seems to me, just from what I've seen today, that you've been... suffering under some unfortunate afflictions. For example, hearing voices that aren't there, seeing unexplained movements out of the corner of your eye... All classic signs of stress, really. Have you been under any kind of unusual stress lately, Miss Mizuno?"
The girl blanched a little. "Uh, no! No, not at all!"
"I see." Then Genma shrugged. "Well, in any case, the power of acupressure is just what you need to deal with these symptoms. After this treatment, the cause of those problems will go away."
Ami raised her eyebrows a little, backing up a couple steps. "Really, I'm quite fine, Doctor Tofu. You don't need to—auugh!" Over her protests, Genma spun her around, bent her over, and held her there as he began to poke random spots on her back and neck. "Doctor Tofu! Doctor Tofu! What are you— stop that, please!"
With Genma holding her in that position, it was the chance Shampoo and Akane had been waiting for. They crept out of their hiding places, taking care to stay behind the Senshi, and proceeded to sneak safely out of the room.
As soon as they were gone, Genma let the spluttering girl back up. "There!" he said, satisfied. "You won't need to worry about that happening to you any more."
"I... ah... thank you..." the girl said, in a frosty voice that didn't sound thankful in the slightest. "In any case... I really think that there isn't much more I can learn here. So I'm afraid that I will have to take my leave. Right now."
Inside, Ranma let out a breath of relief. Finally. They had managed to get Akane, and especially Shampoo out of their precarious hiding places and into better ones elsewhere in the clinic. Better yet, it seemed that his pop's inappropriate way of handling it had been the final straw to convince her to leave as well. And since neither Mousse, nor her dad, nor her curse form were even recognizable to the Senshi, it was just a matter of hanging on for these last few minutes.
"It's been a... pleasure... meeting you," the girl continued valiantly. "Doctor Tofu, Akane, Ranma... thank you for all your hospitality."
"Don't mention it!" said Ranma. "Come back anytime!"
Ami's smile became slightly fixed. "I'll... see what I can do..." she managed. Then she gave each of them a bow. "Goodbye."
"See ya!" was Ranma's response. And with that, the girl turned and began to walk toward the door.
"Uhhhhnnnnggghh..." came a muffled, pain-filled groan. It halted the Senshi's exit, as she glanced over her shoulder toward the bed in the center of the room, where it had come from. As Ranma watched, horrified, Ryouga's sheet-covered form stirred, then began to pull himself upright. "Doctor Tofu? Is the treatment over?" the lost boy mumbled, as he grabbed hold of the sheet and began to pull it off his body.
The instant before Ryouga managed to reveal himself, Genma lunged forward and delivered a mighty kick to the bed he was laying on. Both it and the boy laying on it were launched through the air as though fired from a cannon, shooting right past the disbelieving Senshi with a blast of displaced air.
Ryouga's head clipped the top of the doorway on the way out, tearing a chunk out of it and sending him into a crazy spin as he and the bed crashed end over end down the length of the hallway... until he reached the stairway at the far end. The descending crunches and smashing sounds continued long after he had vanished from sight, until finally they came to a stop far below.
Everything was dead silent for a few seconds.
Ami's eyes were bulging in horror, her mouth hanging open. Eventually she tried to speak. "Wha...?" she somehow managed. "What was...? What did you just...?"
Genma drew himself upright, and cleared his throat. "That..." he said, with the utmost seriousness. "...was a highly advanced massage technique, very important to use just as the patient is waking up. By precisely controlling the initial kick, the massage is given by the various collisions along the way. This takes the principles of the traditional massage, and the principles of fung shui which describe the ki flow within a building... and combines them to result in twice the benefit to the patient!"
The Senshi said nothing in reply to that. Her mouth opened and shut a few times, as though she were trying to form words, but nothing quite managed to come out. Her eyes had a curious, glazed look to them, as though she had already half-decided that this was all one long, unpleasant dream that she would be waking up from at any moment.
Several minutes later, Ami found herself outside the clinic. Her memories of actually getting there were somewhat blurry, probably due to the daze she had been in. She had wanted to at least check on the poor patient who had been kicked down the stairs—kicked down the stairs!—but even in this she had been foiled. By the time she had gotten downstairs he had already been whisked away, with no sign of where he was or who had moved him.
The young girl's brain made a beleaguered attempt to try and twist everything she had seen into something resembling coherency, to discern some rhyme or reason to the bizarre behavior of her mother's friend. But she soon discovered that she didn't really want to find sense in such absurd actions. There was, in fact, a much simpler, much more straightforward answer, one which perfectly explained everything she had seen today.
They were all insane.
Clearly, that entire place was a madhouse. Whatever he had been when her mother had known him, the Doctor Tofu of today was, without question, completely unbalanced. She had seen the evidence with her own eyes. Perhaps, she thought, it had resulted from his experimentation into poorly-understood and mysticism-obscured ancient treatments, done without proper testing, safety precautions and scientific rigor.
Well, if Doctor Tofu wasn't going to be of any help, then they would have to defeat this new foe on their own. They would find a way to do it. They always did.
Right now, Ami just wanted to get back home, to her textbooks and her real medicine, where things made sense.
"I see..." the black-haired Senshi murmured. "So you think that this Ranma and his gang are lying low for the time being?"
"Almost certainly," was Cologne's reply. "Perhaps even somewhere outside the ward; it's difficult to say. But either way, I'm certain that they are preparing for something. Something of a very large scale."
The young girl frowned in thought for a while, then looked up. "Thank you very much," she said. "I need to go now, but I'm very grateful for everything you've told me."
"Think nothing of it," the ancient master said with a wave of her hand. "I only wish that I could do more to rescue my great granddaughter from the clutches of that Ranma fellow. But what could a frail old woman like me do against such a powerful opponent?"
"Don't worry," the girl assured her. "It'll all work out. I promise." And with that, she turned and hurried out of the Nekohanten.
Cologne watched her go, musing to herself over the brief, largely inconsequential encounter. Surprisingly, she found that her sprits had lifted quite a bit from their earlier state. The odds against them were still as bleak as before... but hearing the young girl's determination had been heartening.
We may not have the aid of the Moon Kingdom anymore... thought the old woman. But as long as we have brave souls like hers, I'll not give up hope just yet.
"...so instead, I just started hitting his hammers right out of the air with my spatulas," Ukyo said, as the girl who was absolutely not named Usagi listened with wide eyes. "And that's when the jerk really started to realize just how much trouble he was in."
"Wow!" exclaimed the blonde girl—in between bites on her third okonomiyaki. Ukyo was impressed; this kid could give Ranchan a run for his money when it came to packing away food. "So did you get the stolen photo back from him?"
"Of course," was Ukyo's confident answer. "And I made him apologize to the old woman on his hands and knees, too."
Ukyo smiled. While she hadn't been able to discuss any of the adventures she'd had since coming to Nerima, for obvious reasons, she still all kinds of stories from her time on the road, training and searching for Ranma. The incognito Senshi had proved an eager audience, and the chef had been able to steer completely clear of any undesirable topics as they chatted. It had been... fun.
Eventually, though, the girl sighed. "Actually... I think I need to be going now..." she said glumly. "I need to meet my friends, and one of them will be mad at me if I'm late. But it was really nice talking with you, Ukyo! And thanks so much for all the free food!"
"Don't mention it," replied the chef. "I had a good time too. You take care of yourself, kiddo."
"I will!" And with that, still waving behind her, the blonde exited the shop.
So that's a Sailor Senshi... Ukyo mused, as she watched her go. Heh. Not really what I would have expected, that's for sure...
When Ami finally arrived back at the rendezvous point, she found to her mild surprise that she was the last one there. Luna, Rei, and even Usagi were already standing there, waiting for her. Usagi perked up as the blue-haired girl approached.
"Hey, Ami!" she called out eagerly. "There you are! How did your investigation go?"
Ami sighed, still not quite sure what to say. "I learned some... interesting things about alternative medicine..." she told them. And about my mother's taste in men, she thought, though thankfully she managed not to say that part out loud. "None of it was really useful, though."
"It was the same for me," added Luna. "The building Shampoo described to us didn't have anyone there. They must have abandoned it."
"How about you, Usagi?" Ami asked. "What did you find out at Ucchan's?"
"All kinds of stuff!" answered the blonde girl excitedly. "I talked with the owner the whole time, and she's the nicest person in the whole world and there's no way she could possibly be evil!"
Rei gave a skeptical glance at the pronouncement, but didn't say anything against it. Instead, she spoke up on what she had learned. "I talked with the owner of the Nekohanten, and she told me some very troubling things. According to her, this Ranma really is trying to accomplish something malevolent. Worse, whatever is going on... it's all coming to a head soon."
The sobering news shook Ami out of her preoccupation with the mad antics she had witnessed at the clinic, and she chided herself for getting as distracted as she had. With stakes as high as these, there could be no room for error—as the Sailor Senshi stood alone at the crux of two terrifyingly powerful forces of evil.
Ryouga groaned, looking out through half-lidded eyes from his prone position at the others gathered in his room: Akane, Ukyo, Beneda, Shampoo, Mousse and Ranma. He was having a bit of trouble focusing on what they were saying. His trip down the stairs earlier that day had done such a number on his back that he was having to resort to the paltry handful of meditation techniques that he had managed to pick up on his travels in order to keep himself functional through the pain.
"...anyway, looks like we barely dodged the bullet this time." Ranma's voice. Ryouga tilted his head slightly to look at his rival, who continued. "But the secret's still safe, so we should be all right to go ahead with the plan."
"Are you sure that the Senshi who came here won't get suspicious?" asked Akane. "You weren't exactly acting normal when you were talking with her..."
"I don't think she will," answered Mousse. "If the girl really came here to learn from the doctor—simply because she'd heard he was an expert in such matters—then just seeing some strange behavior wouldn't give her any reason to actually connect it with her enemies."
Shampoo huffed. "Violent girl no worry. Next time, Shampoo is being ready for this. Will ask great-grandmother to make more Formula 411, and just use Xi Fa Xiang Gao if nosy Sailor girl come here again."
Akane grimaced, probably recalling her own time under the influence of the technique. "Shampoo, they're not really our enemies! We can't go around playing with their minds just to make things easier for us!"
The lost boy tilted his head, favoring Ranma with a baleful look. "Why is it so important that we keep all this a secret, anyway?" he growled. "Couldn't we avoid all this trouble by just explaining things to the Senshi, and asking for their help?"
Ranma shook his head. "No, this way is better," he said. "First of all, what about Beneda? Even if she was trying to trick us by saying it back then, she still had a point—they are youma hunters. We don't really know if they'd be willing to just let her be."
Ukyo raised a skeptical eyebrow at that. "I really think you're being too paranoid, Ranchan," she told him. "The one I talked to definitely seemed like a good kid. I couldn't imagine her being so bloodthirsty."
"I agree with Ukyo," put in Beneda herself. "That was the impression I got too, when I talked with them before the fight."
"Maybe." Ranma shrugged, looking unconvinced. "But if we do tell 'em, and we're wrong about that, then we're sunk. We can't exactly un-tell them, you know." Then he chuckled. "Besides, this way'll be more realistic."
"Realistic because they'll really be trying to kill you two!" said the youma, flabbergasted. "This can't be worth it!"
"No... Saotome has a point," responded Mousse, albeit very grudgingly. "If we told them the truth, and they did agree to go along with this, then when the time came they probably wouldn't attack us with a full intent to kill. And someone with enough combat experience would be able to pick up on that. They would know the Senshi were faking."
"Right," said Ranma. "And we don't know who exactly will end up seeing this. If I gotta bet the whole plan on something, I'd rather do it on my fighting skills than on those girls' acting skills."
"Fine, have it your way," Ryouga grumbled. "After all, what's a few more people trying to kill us?"
"That's the spirit!" Ranma told him. "Though you might want to sit out of it this time, man. I mean, you aren't exactly in the best shape for something like this. I could handle it myself."
Ryouga took a moment to reflect on what Ranma had said. Over the past week he had been pounded into the pavement by a giant monster, clawed up by a pack of dog-like creatures, electrocuted to within an inch of his life, took the full-force blast of a magical flamethrower, and had been kicked down the stairs while recovering from it. He felt more dead than alive at this point, and the coming confrontation might well prove to be the most dangerous one yet.
He met Ranma's eyes. "Just try and keep me away."
The pigtailed fighter laughed, rolling his eyes. "Should have figured. Anyway, this'll be it. In a couple days, we're going to get the same kind of advantage for fighting the Dark Kingdom that the Senshi have."
"Let's just hope it works..." muttered Mousse. "And don't forget... tomorrow, the Joketsuzoku arrive."
Ranma's face took on a determined look. "I know," he said. "I haven't forgotten."