A Midsummer Night's Beauty, Part II: Queen of Extreme
Author's note: This story is a continuation on the Ranma 1/2 anime, including the OVA's and movies. Therefore, keep in mind that anything exclusive to the manga hasn't happened in this story.
Disclaimer: Ranma 1/2 is not my idea, it was created by a very talented manga artist named Rumiko Takahashi. The only characters I'll claim are my own original characters that I've added into this story. Just so you know.
"ETA to Cursed Springs of Jusenkyo is five minutes. I repeat, ETA to to Cursed Springs of Jusenkyo is five minutes. Do you copy?"
On a warm summer day in mainland China, a black helicopter belonging to the Chinese military soared over the Qinghai Province toward its assigned destination while carrying two special operatives who had orders to conduct an investigation.
"Commander, did you hear me? ETA to the Cursed Springs of Jusenkyo is-"
The pilot's body jerked forward as the white-haired young woman seated behind him irritably slammed her foot into the back of his seat.
"I heard you the first two times! Give it a rest!" Meilin chided him in Mandarin.
"Y-yes ma'am!" the pilot quickly apologized.
While shining up the blades of her snake sword, Meilin took a moment to peer over at her excited looking partner. "You sure seem happy."
Sitting across from her, Ryoga Hibiki felt so elated that his hands were shaking.
"I've never been so happy in my life!" he exclaimed with tears in his eyes. "What are the odds that they'd send us to Jusenkyo?! Now I can finally get rid of this curse! It's perfect!"
Meilin wasn't sharing his enthusiasm about the trip.
"Oh, come on. You know I like the little piggy..." she pouted. "Doesn't my opinion matter at all?"
"On everything except this, yes! But the pig's gotta go!" Ryoga declared.
It had been over three months now since Ryoga and Meilin had a bad string of luck that ended with them being arrested. They'd been heading to the eastern coast of China with the intention of catching a ride aboard a ship and traveling to Japan. Unfortunately, a local officer recognized Meilin when she and Ryoga stopped in a town for food, and proceeded to phone for some backup. Later that night, with close to a hundred military personnel gathered, they moved in on the pair while they were sleeping and were able to subdue them after a short battle.
Meilin was confronted with a list of charges too long to name, while Ryoga was charged with being an accomplice to a wanted criminal. But, in what may or may not have been a lucky break for the two, it wasn't a jail cell that awaited them. Due to the extent of their fighting abilities, they were instead fitted with position locators on their legs and enlisted in a ragtag squad of the military's special operations unit known internally as the Orange Team. This squad was entirely made up of criminals who were ordered to work for the military instead of spending their prison sentences rotting away in jail, and they were treated as such. The Orange Team was largely dysfunctional and were commonly used as guinea pigs, being sent into potentially dangerous situations to assess things while not putting the non-criminal portion of the military at risk. They were never assigned a leader and members usually acted independently while carrying out their orders. Things would change with the injection of their two new comrades though.
On the Orange Team's first mission with Ryoga and Meilin in their ranks, they found themselves outnumbered and under siege by a hostile rebel faction of militants. After a number of their fellow team members had already gone down with severe injuries, Meilin and Ryoga took it upon themselves to execute a strategy and began to turn the tide of the battle in their favor. With their lives at stake, Meilin began shouting orders to the remaining members of the team, and, after watching how effective she and Ryoga had been, they followed her orders with little complaint. In the end they were able to overcome the rebels without taking any further casualties on their side, and Meilin would be regarded as the unofficial commander of the Orange Team from that point forward. Ryoga was regarded just as highly, but Meilin was the only one deemed the commander since Ryoga couldn't communicate in Mandarin with the rest of the team. That, and because Ryoga outright refused to take the lives of enemies.
Since then, the once ridiculed Orange Team had flourished under the command of Ryoga and Meilin and had gained a fair amount of regard amongst the rest of the special operations unit. It was a noteworthy feat, but one that the two of them didn't care about in the least. They were simply making the best of a bad situation. Once they'd paid their dues, they looked forward to leaving the country as soon as possible and living freely once again.
"We have a visual on the Cursed Springs of Jusenkyo, Commander. Please get ready to deploy," the pilot informed Meilin.
The white-haired rogue, who was outfitted in a simple black tank top and camouflage pants with a number of small packs and a gourd tied around her waist, slid her sword into the sheath strapped to her back and brushed the bangs away from her face as she looked out the window of the aircraft.
"Well...that's different," Meilin calmly noted.
Ryoga, who was wearing his usual tattered yellow shirt and bandana along with a pair of camouflage pants to match his partner, joined Meilin at the window and was taken aback by the startling sight. The entire grounds of the Cursed Springs of Jusenkyo were covered in a mist so thick that it couldn't be seen through in the least.
"What...what happened to this place...?" he wondered aloud.
"Good question," Meilin shrugged. "The guide stationed there hasn't been heard from in two weeks, and locals are saying that mist has been there the entire time. They're too scared to go near it, so now it's our job to go see what the hell happened."
"That's fine. As long as the springs are still there, I don't care what we run into," Ryoga told her, sliding his umbrella in-between a couple loops of leather strap on his lower back. "Hey, I think we should get out here instead of just dropping right down into that cloud."
"You're right," Meilin agreed, turning her attention to the pilot again. "Hey, this is far enough. We're going in."
With the helicopter's forward progress coming to a halt, Ryoga slid the door open and dropped a rope ladder out the side. "I'll head down first."
"Listen," Meilin instructed the pilot, "re-fuel this bird and make sure everyone's on standby when you get back to camp. I doubt there's anything to worry about down there, but you never know. Understood?"
Her orders conveyed, Meilin hopped out the door and followed her partner down the rope ladder toward the edge of the springs.
Once they'd both reached ground, Meilin gave the ladder a couple of tugs, signaling another member of her squad to pull it up. The helicopter then headed back to camp, leaving the two most regarded members of the Orange Team staring at the large wall of mist in front of them.
"I don't hear anything coming from in there," Ryoga noted. "Do yo-h-hey...!"
Ryoga's face turned red as Meilin wrapped her arms around him and kissed the side of his neck.
"Mmm...we haven't gotten much time to ourselves lately, have we, honey?" she giggled seductively. "Let's play a little, hmm?"
"What?! We just...you know, this morning!" an embarrassed Ryoga pointed out.
Meilin smiled as she brushed her finger against her partner's chin. "I'm a very needy woman, you know. I can't settle for just once a day."
"Are you crazy?! Something could jump out of that cloud and kill us both!" Ryoga frantically told her. "Let's go see what happened in there first, and then we can do anything you want when we get back to camp!"
The intrigued white-haired woman raised an eyebrow at her lover. "Anything?"
"A-anything..." Ryoga repeated, his voice tapering off as he realized the kind of night he was probably in for.
After looking back and forth from the mist to her man several times, Meilin let out a disappointed sigh and unhanded her partner. "You're lucky I'm such an understanding woman. I'm holding you to that promise though."
"Fine. You ready?" Ryoga asked her.
Meilin nodded her head and promptly grabbed hold of his hand. "Let's go."
Feeling confused, the directionally-challenged martial artist pointed down at their interlocked hands and gave Meilin an odd look. "What's this?"
"So you don't get lost," she casually replied.
Ryoga narrowed his eyes at the woman in annoyance. "My sense of direction is not that bad..."
"Ha! I have souvenirs from 12 different countries that say otherwise!" Meilin chortled at the response. "You know I love you, but you get lost just going to the bathroom, honeybuns. If I let you walk into this fog without holding your hand, I won't see you for weeks."
"Okay! I get the point!" Ryoga grumbled, reluctantly conceding the dispute. "If we get attacked, we're letting go, though!"
"Fair enough," Meilin smiled, turning her attention back to the concentrated mist. "Off we go."
Hand-in-hand, the temporary special operations agents cautiously stepped into the mysterious cloud and made their way toward the location of the springs.
"This stuff is really thick," Ryoga said.
"It's too thick. I can't even see your face clearly," Meilin complained, taking a moment to sniff the air. "Oh yuck, and what's that putrid smell?!"
Ryoga could smell it too, and it only got stronger as they closed in on the springs. It wasn't long before they both caught a first glimpse of the cursed pools.
"Hey, there they are!" Ryoga pointed out excitedly, tugging his partner forward. "Come on, let's go find the Spring of Drowned Man!"
"How can you still be thinking about that with this nasty stink in the air?!" Meilin groaned, keeping her free hand over her nose.
"One little stink won't stop me from ending my years of torment the pig...caused..." Ryoga began to say, but a closer look at the spring near his feet drastically changed his train of thought. "H-hey...am I seeing things...?"
Moving in for a closer look, Meilin knelt down by the spring and squinted as she peered down inside. "It's...just an empty pit."
"NO! This isn't real!" Ryoga cried out. In a panic, he began running from spring to spring while pulling his partner behind him. "Empty...empty...empty...they're all empty! What is this?! Where...where's my cure?!"
Meilin grimaced as she looked at the ground a short distance away from them. "I don't know about your cure, but I think I found where that stench is coming from..."
Raising his head, Ryoga placed his hand over his mouth in disgust when he saw what she was referring to. Though it wasn't totally clear through the mist, there looked to be a human corpse sitting next to one of the springs.
Unpleasant though it was, the pair approached the spring and had their suspicions confirmed when they got a close-up look of a badly burnt human body.
"This...this is terrible..." Ryoga's voice shook.
"Seems like it's been here for a while. Look, all the grass is burned around it. You can see the burns on their clothes too," Meilin pointed out.
Looking around at the nearby area, Ryoga's eyes widened as he suddenly spotted a burnt cap lying near the body. It was dark green in color with a yellow star on the front, and Ryoga recognized it the instant he picked it up.
"What is it?" Meilin asked him.
Her partner swallowed hard. "This is the cap he wore. The guide for this place..."
Meilin looked down at the body with pity in her eyes and let out a deep breath. "Guess that answers what happened to him."
"I don't get it..." Ryoga said in disbelief. "Who would do this?"
While scanning the nearby area for anything else worth looking into, Meilin noticed something else lying on the ground not too far from where they were. "Come on, there's something over there."
What the two of them would find was even more startling than their first discovery. Lying on the ground next to a gigantic boulder were several more bodies draped in black cloaks, and they looked to have been sitting there as long as the Jusenkyo guide had been.
"More?! What is this?!" Ryoga said, sounding horrified as he backed away.
"One, two, three, four...and five," Meilin counted. "But look...these ones aren't all burned, and neither is the grass around them."
Kicking it with her foot, the unusually calm woman flipped one of the bodies so that it was face-up, and quickly spotted what she was looking for. "There's our cause of death."
Ryoga had to look twice at what he saw. The body had an entry wound the size of a fist on the front of its chest. "It...almost looks like someone punched right through him..."
"Maybe, but we'll let the coroners decide that," Meilin replied as she stood up and grabbed a communicator out of her pocket. "Attention base, this is Meilin. Do you read me? Over."
"This is base. Go ahead. Over," someone replied on the other end.
"We have six deceased bodies over here, including one believed to be Jusenkyo's guide," Meilin said into the communicator. "No sign of any danger yet. We'll check out the rest of the area first, but get ready to send a recovery team for the bodies. Over."
After putting the communicator away, Meilin continued staring at the grim scene alongside her disturbed lover.
"Well, what do you make of all this, hon'?" she glanced over at him.
Ryoga could only shake his head as he peered around at the air filled with mist again.
"I'm not sure...but I've got a real bad feeling about it for some reason..."
Meanwhile, on the other side of the Sea of Japan, Tatewaki Kuno was strolling around the outside of the Kuno Estate for the first time in months with his faithful servant Sasuke at his side.
"Master Kuno, I can't tell you what a relief it is to see you again!" Sasuke wept with joy.
The elder Kuno sibling, who was dressed in a navy blue business suit with a silver tie, seemed unsurprised at his servant's emotional reaction to his presence.
"Of course. One would be truly misguided to not feel the sadness that my absence surely brings about," he boasted, brushing his hair away from his face. "I take it things have gone smoothly while I was away?"
"Well...with the estate, yes..." Sasuke replied, though still appearing troubled.
"Indeed, I can see you've been keeping up with your cleaning duties," Kuno nodded. "And what of my dear sister?"
Sasuke's demeanor turned gloomy as his body hunched over with dismay. "Y-you see...Mistress Kodachi has been in very poor shape for a while now, I'm afraid to say..."
"What?!" the ninja's master snapped, picking him up by his clothing. "For a while now?! Why did you not tell me this sooner?!"
"Because we have no way of getting in contact with you!" Sasuke angrily retorted. "You're always moving from place to place and you never even bother to call!"
"No excuses!" the stubborn Kuno reprimanded his servant. "Now tell me, what has happened to my sister?!"
While brushing his clothing off, Sasuke shot a dismal look toward the estate's rose garden. "One night just over two months ago, Mistress Kodachi wandered home in a daze. Ever since then, she's been like an empty shell. She never leaves the estate, not even to go to school, and she barely eats. She just spends all day sitting in the rose garden with that distant expression on her face. I've brought a number of doctors here to take a look at her, but they all say she's perfectly healthy. Whatever it is that ails her appears to be in her mind."
Kuno felt a rare bout of legitimate concern for his sister as he, too, eyed the rose garden. "How terrible. Have you found out what drove her into this state?"
"Not exactly," Sasuke told him, "but I did find out that Ranma Saotome started living with that Shampoo girl around the same time. Mistress Kodachi was certainly fond of Saotome, so...maybe..."
"Ranma Saotome is at fault! That swine! I should have known!" the eldest Kuno sibling shouted, restraining his anger as he tried to focus on the most important issue at hand. "I...I shall have to deal with that cretin later. For now, let us go visit with my ill sister."
"Y-yes, Master Kuno," his servant answered.
Sasuke quietly led the way to the Kuno Estate's rose garden, where he and his master found a very subdued Kodachi Kuno sitting in a black dress next to a bush of black roses. Despite the sound of her brother and servant approaching, the once energetic and twisted gymnast acted as though she didn't hear them while leaning forward to smell the fragrance of one of her roses.
"Wonderful news, Mistress! Your brother has come to see you!" Sasuke told her, hoping that the elder Kuno's return may shake Kodachi out of her present state.
With worry in his heart, Tatewaki Kuno knelt down on the ground with one knee and placed a hand upon his sister's shoulder. "Kodachi...look at me."
Ever so slowly, the woman once deemed the Black Rose of St. Hebereke turned and glanced at her brother. A weak smile began to cross her face as she looked at him, but, just as Sasuke had said, her expression felt very distant.
"Kodachi," Tatewaki looked at his sister with pity, "what has happened? What did that scoundrel Saotome do to you?"
The name "Saotome" appeared to strike a chord with the dark-haired gymnast, who folded her hands and meekly stared down at her lap. "Ranma darling...chose another. He did not love me..."
"So, that is it," her brother said. "Sasuke tells me that you do not leave the estate anymore. Why, my dear sister? Is it because of that?"
Kodachi gently nodded her head, completely devoid of the pride and arrogance she so often displayed.
"I was utterly defeated, brother dear," she replied sadly. "To show my face outside any longer would be...humiliating."
"No!" Tatewaki suddenly shouted.
"Brother dear...?" Kodachi faintly mouthed.
Moved to tears, the elder Kuno sibling wrapped his arms around his sister from behind and embraced her. "You mustn't think like that, dear sister! I have met defeat at the hands of Ranma Saotome many times before, yet I continue fighting and still live my life with the pride of a Kuno! Sulking and cowering within these gates is beneath us! I beg you, you must go beyond the gates of our home and live your life once more!"
"Go...outside?" her voice shook. "I...I cannot..."
"Please, my dear sister," Kuno pleaded with her, "I know we have clashed with one another at times...and even fired rocket launchers at each other, but it pains me so to see you like this! I cannot imagine what our dear parents would think of me if I let you waste away here. You are a Kuno! You can overcome any defeat and still rise again to shine brightly!"
Though Kodachi had seen her brother show his passion toward many things in her life, she'd never had him direct it at her before. She was touched by his genuine emotion to the point that she didn't want him to worry about her anymore.
"If...if I go outside the gates...then will you feel better, brother dear?" she asked.
Tatewaki nodded his head affirmingly. "That is all I ask."
Once her brother let go of her, Kodachi nervously got to her feet and looked back at him. "Very well. Then, I suppose...I shall go for a walk..."
To Sasuke's amazement, he stood and watched as the woman he'd seen languish for over two months walked out beyond the gate and stepped into the world once again.
"Master Kuno...I-I had no idea you were so attached to Mistress Kodachi! You actually got through to her!" he cried.
His servant may have been making a big deal out of it, but Tatewaki Kuno found nothing remarkable about what he'd done.
"My sister is a Kuno. It would be a waste for a member of our family to not show our magnificence to the world," he said arrogantly. "In any case, I have other matters to attend to, the first of which shall be my darling Akane Tendo. No doubt she must be terribly lonesome after my long absence."
Sasuke quirked an eyebrow in the direction of the elder Kuno sibling. "Um...Akane Tendo ran away from home right around the same time that Mistress Kodachi began having problems. I'm afraid she hasn't been seen since..."
"Oh, I see, she...WHAT?!" Kuno exploded. "What do you mean she ran away?! Speak, you fool!"
"Wh-what?! Didn't Nabiki Tendo tell you?" Sasuke asked his master.
"Of course not! That woman never tells me anything!" Kuno shouted angrily, clenching his fists tightly. "This must be Ranma's fault as well! Curse you, Ranma! This is absolutely unforgivable!"
Tatewaki Kuno ran off in a fit of rage, leaving his perplexed servant standing alone in their rose garden.
"I suppose some things never change..." Sasuke muttered.
There was a tense quiet inside the Cat Café restaurant where, despite there still being four individuals inside the business after a busy lunch hour on this Sunday afternoon, a mere pin drop could be heard as Ranma Saotome and his girlfriend, Shampoo, stared at each other from across the dining area without blinking even once.
"Ranma ready?" the lavender-haired teen asked.
With a dirtied white apron draped over his clothes and a large plastic bucket on the table in front of him, Ranma rolled up the sleeves of his shirt and prepared himself. "Yeah, bring it on."
Reaching down to the table next to her, Shampoo swiftly grabbed hold of two dirty plates and flung them at blazing speed toward the pigtailed martial artist.
Using his quickness and some intense concentration, Ranma shot his arms forward and managed to snatch the plates out of the air before they could embed themselves into his chest. He then placed them down into his bucket as fast as he could, only to see several more plates whirling toward him.
Since moving out of the Tendo home, Ranma had gotten into the habit of meeting up with his father every morning for training at various areas, but he would also do things like this with Shampoo to sharpen his skills. Ryoga, Kuno, and Mousse may have been gone, but there were still other people out there to challenge him. One in particular was the Chinese soldier who called himself Jukai. He hadn't been heard from since being called away for work shortly after appearing for the first time, but his declaration that he would return never left Ranma's mind. He wanted to fight Jukai in the worst way, especially now that his broken arm had healed, and he was taking every step to make sure he was prepared when the dangerous-looking soldier came back.
Currently at a point out of harm's way, the restaurant's premier waitress sat alongside their most regular customer, both of them watching with interest as Shampoo sped around the dining area like a bolt of lightning while throwing plates at her busboy.
"Those two are monsters..." Alysse quietly commented to her redheaded friend. "They sure do put on a show though."
"They...like to find unconventional ways to train," Ringo chuckled to herself.
Shampoo vaulted around the dining area throwing every remaining plate and drinking glass left on the tables at Ranma, who had to keep a sharp focus to not just grab them all, but also avoid breaking any of them. Yet, despite the challenge, the quick-handed Saotome was performing flawlessly.
With only one plate left, the energetic Amazon girl planted her feet on the floor and flung it through the air at full power. After setting a glass down in his bucket, Ranma had only a split second to react before the plate made impact. He quickly leaned his head back to get a few extra inches of room and whipped his hand in front of him, snapping the speeding plate out of the air with only an inch between it and the tip of his nose.
"Whoa, close one," he smirked, standing up straight again.
"Ooooh," Ringo and Alysse cooed, giving the pigtailed boy a small round of applause.
Ranma took a deep breath as he placed the final plate in his bucket and turned to Shampoo for approval. "Well, how was that?"
Strutting over to her busboy, the Cat Café's manager cracked a smile as she reached out and plucked a grain of rice from Ranma's cheek.
"You need train more," she teased.
"What?!" Ranma groaned with disappointment. "C'mon, it's one stupid grain of rice!"
"You know rules. No can let any food hit you," Shampoo playfully wagged her finger at him. "Better luck next time."
Grumbling to himself, Ranma solemnly grabbed his bucket full of dirty dishes and headed for the kitchen. "Man...stupid rice..."
Ringo, who'd only stuck around to watch the plate-tossing display after her shift ended, stood up from her seat shortly after and said goodbye to her friend with the long, blonde hair.
"I guess I'll head home, then," she smiled down at Alysse. "See you tomorrow?"
"Of course, I'll be here," Alysse told her. "Take care."
"I will. See you, then," the redheaded waitress said before turning her attention to Ranma and Shampoo. "Bye, you guys!"
"See ya, Ringo!"
After Ringo had left, Shampoo made sure to go check in on her one remaining customer.
"You want refill for water?' she asked Alysse.
"Oh, no thank you," the girl in the navy blue jogging suit shook her head. "I'll be going pretty soon."
"That fine, then," the lavender-haired girl replied. "You mind if Shampoo ask question?"
Alysse blinked her eyelids once, curious about what the restaurant manager wanted. "Not at all. What is it?"
Shampoo nonchalantly sat down in the seat next to her customer and crossed her legs as she leaned back. "Is nothing really. Just...you is good friends with Ringo, yes? So why you no go have fun together?"
"Have fun together?" the blonde girl raised an eyebrow at her. "We talk all the time when I come here..."
"I no mean here," Shampoo pointed out. "You could go shopping, or go to movie together, or just go for walk."
"Oh..." Alysse replied, looking a bit uncomfortable. "No...I'm sure she's busy once she leaves here..."
"Busy? We find out about that," Shampoo grinned, turning her head toward the kitchen area. "Ranma! What Ringo do when she no is working?!"
"Huh?! Ringo?! Not much!" the pigtailed martial artist shouted back. "Unless somethin's changed a lot in the last couple months, she just does her homework and helps Kasumi with chores!"
Shampoo seemed pleased with herself as she turned to face her lone customer again. "You see? Ringo have plenty free time."
Alysse, who'd always had a somewhat mysterious nature about her from Shampoo's point of view, appeared to be contemplating to herself while staring down at her drinking glass.
"What you worry about? Shampoo sure Ringo have fun if you go do things together," the Amazon girl urged her.
Clearly feeling troubled, Alysse stood up from her seat and grabbed her gym bag from the floor. "I...need to get going. Thank you for the meal."
The blonde girl didn't look back as she closed the restaurant door behind her, leaving Shampoo to let out a loud sigh.
"What that all about?" she wondered aloud.
Ranma was diligently scrubbing away at the dishes in the kitchen when he noticed Shampoo walking in. "Hey. What were you talkin' about out there?"
"Just try find out why Alysse never go do things with Ringo," Shampoo explained, sounding frustrated as she wrapped her arms around the pigtailed boy's neck from behind and rested her chin on his shoulder. "No understand that Alysse sometimes. She and Ringo get along very good too..."
"Well, yeah...it ain't really our problem though," Ranma told her. "Just leave 'em be. You've been gettin' way too worried about Ringo since she had them chills a couple weeks ago."
As she peered over at her busboy, a sly smirk crossed Shampoo's face.
When Ranma first expressed interest in becoming more than friends with Shampoo over two months ago, he stated that he wanted to take things slowly in their relationship. The sometimes overwhelmingly affectionate Shampoo was quick to agree, happy just to have finally worked her way into Ranma's heart, but things may have been moving even more slowly than she'd expected. They'd gone on the occasional date when they had time, and Ranma had grown more comfortable with the idea of actually acting like a couple in public. Shampoo could even get a kiss out of him just about any time they were alone if she was adamant enough about it. That was the extent of their relationship thus far, though. Ranma was still set on things moving along slowly, and Shampoo was accepting of it. But that didn't mean that she couldn't try to coerce him otherwise every now and then.
"You right. Maybe Shampoo have too much stress," she said, grazing Ranma's shoulder with the tip of her finger.
"Uh...yeah," Ranma replied, nervously looking into her scheming eyes. "What're you up to?"
Shampoo giggled as she put her mouth next to his ear. "You know what is good way for get rid of stress?"
Feeling the warm breath on his ear, Ranma jerked his head away and began to blush. "H-hey...you know I ain't...y'know...ready..."
"But is what all couple do!" Shampoo continued to goad him. "You no even have to-"
The pair of martial artists were startled when a booming voice suddenly resonated throughout the area. Both went wide-eyed as the door to their restaurant then went flying through the dining section, and behind it entered an enraged Tatewaki Kuno.
"...Kuno?" Ranma blinked.
"YOU!" the former Furinkan upperclassman shouted, nimbly leaping over the restaurant's counter and into the kitchen area. Still dressed in his business suit, Kuno threateningly pointed his wooden sword at his old nemesis.
Not too concerned about Kuno's bad attitude, Ranma seemed happy to see one of his old rivals for the first time in months. "Yo, Kuno! Long time no see!"
"Silence! You...you vile cretin! Because of you, my dear Akane Tendo has vanished!" the elder Kuno sibling snarled angrily.
"W-what?! Hey, get your facts straight, moron!" Ranma shot back at him. "First of all, that wasn't totally my fault! And why are you just findin' out about it now?! It's been months since then!"
"Enough! The time for words is over, Saotome!" Kuno declared, gripping his sword with both hands. "You shall duel me this instant!"
In his rage, Tatewaki Kuno didn't notice that Shampoo was stomping toward him from his left side. Already annoyed that her moment with Ranma had been interrupted and that her restaurant's door was going to need repairs, she grabbed hold of Kuno's ear and screamed into it as loudly as she could.
"WHAT YOU THINK YOU DOING?!"
"Augh!" Kuno cried, holding his hand over the side of his head as he backed away. "The ears, woman!"
"You shut up!" Shampoo chided him. "You already break door, you stupid! If you want fight then go outside!"
The confused Kuno glanced briefly at the door he'd kicked in before looking back at his nemesis.
"She's got a point, man," Ranma shrugged.
"Very well then!" Kuno declared. "Meet me under the sun, Saotome, and we shall settle this like men!"
While Kuno hopped back over the counter and rushed outside, Ranma appeared overjoyed at the prospect of fighting him again.
"Man, this is great!" he exclaimed happily. "I ain't got to fight anyone but Pop since my arm finished healin' up. I can't wait for this!"
Still steaming, Shampoo folded her arms and gave Ranma a stern look. "You go teach that stupid boy lesson!"
"Don't worry, I'll take care of him," he smiled back at her. "I'll be back."
After the pigtailed boy had left, Shampoo shook her head as she stared down at the broken door.
"That boy show up at worst time...hmph!"
Walking around in her pink waitress outfit, Ringo took a short detour through a nearby park on her way home to the Tendo household. Although she didn't mention it to anyone, her incident of collapsing after getting chills at the Cat Café a couple of weeks ago had frayed her nerves a bit. A quick visit to Dr. Tofu confirmed that there was nothing physically wrong with her, but she still couldn't shake an eerie feeling she had about the whole ordeal. Taking a stroll through the park and sitting by its pond had a way of calming her down, which was just what she needed at the moment.
"It sure is nice today," she smiled as she looked up at the trees.
But then, as the redheaded girl looked ahead again, she saw something that made her yelp and freeze with fear. Strolling toward her in a black dress, an all too familiar raven-haired girl filled Ringo's heart with a familiar feeling of concern that she hadn't had to deal with in a long while.
"K-K-Kodachi..." the waitress' voice shook.
Back when Ranma was still missing, Kodachi had launched a relentless series of attacks on Ringo that were always thwarted thanks to the protection of Akane and Ukyo. This time, however, Ringo was alone, and there was no telling what kind of mood Kodachi was in.
As the Black Rose of St. Hebereke came closer, Ringo quickly readied herself to evade any sudden attacks that may come her way. But, much to her surprise, those attacks never came. Ringo nervously watched as Kodachi approached her without even turning a glance her way. Then, before she knew it, Kodachi had already passed her by and continued walking off in the other direction.
"She...ignored me?" Ringo said aloud. "Wow, that's different...thank goodness."
Before she headed over to the pond, the girl with the red ponytail looked back one more time at the direction where Kodachi had gone. She wasn't sure how she felt about being ignored, but she figured it was all for the best. Better that than being attacked, after all.
Meanwhile, as Kodachi walked along the park path, memories from earlier that year began to flood back into her mind.
"That woman...was the pigtailed girl..." she said aloud, taking a deep breath as she placed a hand over her face. "I...I never should have come here. I did not want to see that woman agai-oof!"
Without warning, Kodachi abruptly collided with someone and was knocked onto her backside.
"Hey, watch where you're going!" a girl screamed down at her. "What if my sunglasses broke?! Do you have any idea how much these cost?!"
Agitated by the attitude of the girl, Kodachi raised her head to see who was berating her.
"Oh? Well...look what we have here," the girl smirked. "It's the most over-hyped gymnast in history."
Kodachi's expression turned to one of shock as she became aware of just who she'd run into. The girl, who had medium-length brown hair with short bangs in front, was wearing some sleek sunglasses with a silver frame along with a white t-shirt and shorts. The way she looked and spoke exuded a condescending attitude that would put even that of the Kuno family to the test.
"...Kiriko...Nakajima..." Kodachi slowly mouthed.
"The one, the only, the greatest and most beautiful creature ever to walk the planet," Kiriko said, striking an arrogant pose. "Oh, Kodachi, it's been such a long time. I still remember the day I shocked the world by beating you. Honestly, I don't know why everyone was shocked though. I mean, it's obvious that it was the natural outcome."
Running into Ringo was one thing, but running into this woman was the worst thing possible for Kodachi's mindset as she remained on the ground taking a verbal lashing.
"I guess it was just because you were supposed to be the next big thing in the Extreme Gymnastics Federation," Kiriko laughed at her. "What a joke that was! You didn't even make it to the semifinals of the tournament!"
Tired of Kiriko running her mouth, Kodachi shot her a nasty look. "What...what do you want with me?!"
"What do I want? I don't want anything from a failure like you," the brown-haired gymnast scoffed, brushing her hair back. "The Queen of Extreme Tournament, Kodachi. In three days I'm going to qualify for it, and easily I might add. Then, once it's all over and I'm the last one standing, I'll be the champion! Imagine a vision of beauty like myself with that gorgeous gold belt around my waist...oh, it's going to be perfect! Not that a loser like you would know anything about that."
With another slew of insults being thrown her way, Kodachi was beginning to shake from the anger welling up inside her. "Do not...speak down to me like that..."
"Why not? I think it suits you perfectly," Kiriko said with a devious smile. "All that hype, and you ran away from the EGF like a scared little kitty after one loss."
"Your trainer must be so disappointed in you..."
Kiriko's last jab finally pushed Kodachi over the edge. Furious at the remark, the Black Rose shot to her feet and reached into her dress to pull out a ribbon.
But, with a wicked smirk on her face, Kiriko pulled her own ribbon out from her back in a flash and whipped Kodachi directly in the eye before she could even wield her own weapon.
"Ahhh-!" Kodachi cried, falling to her knees while grasping at her eye. "How...how dare you-!"
Seeming quite pleased with what she'd just done, the egotistic Kiriko put her ribbon away and shook her head as she looked down at her fallen opponent.
"Oh, how the overrated have fallen..." she grinned. "Just think, Kodachi, I'm going to be a huge star someday. But you...when everything's said and done, no one will ever remember your name."
Her point made, Kiriko proudly jogged by the once dominant gymnast, leaving her wounded both physically and mentally.
The injured Kodachi, with her mind in a state of disarray, stumbled over to a large tree and leaned up against it for a brief moment before collapsing to the ground in tears. Losing to Kiriko Nakajima during her brief stint in the Extreme Gymnastics Federation had hurt her ego. Losing her love interest, Ranma Saotome, to Shampoo had hurt it even more. But being not only ridiculed and talked down to, but defeated by Kiriko yet again on this day had crushed her spirit completely.
Holding her hands over her aching eye, Kodachi wept uncontrollably into the ground.
"Why?! Why has this happened to me?! What have I done to deserve this?!" she cried.
Overwhelmed with frustration, both at herself and at Kiriko, the Black Rose of St. Hebereke let out a bloodcurdling scream, startling humans and animals alike as her pain echoed throughout the Nerima Ward of Tokyo.
After her trip through the park, Ringo made her way back to the Tendo household and slipped her shoes off as she closed the door behind her.
From over by the television, Nabiki peeked over her shoulder to greet the redheaded girl. "Hey there. Welcome home."
"Nabiki!" Ringo beamed excitedly. "I didn't know you were coming home today."
"I thought I'd surprise everyone," Nabiki smiled. "Besides, you can never take too many breaks away from Kuno baby."
"Isn't it nice? You should have seen how happy Father was," Kasumi laughed as she walked in from the kitchen. "Welcome home, Ringo."
"Thanks, Kasumi," the waitress happily replied.
Kasumi and Dr. Tofu had originally planned on holding their wedding this summer, but things changed with the unexpected departure of Akane. While Kasumi had told everyone that she wanted to put off the wedding so that Akane could be there to see it, she also didn't want to leave Ringo to take care of Soun all by herself. Thus, the wedding was indefinitely on hold until Akane returned, and while Dr. Tofu was disappointed, he was also very understanding of the situation.
"Ooh, you'll never guess who I saw on my way home!" Ringo said.
Overhearing the conversation, an emotional Soun Tendo burst into the room and directed his attention toward Ringo. "Please tell me it was Akane!"
"Umm...no, it wasn't. Sorry, Mr. Tendo," Ringo said with a nervous laugh.
"Come on now, Daddy. She said she'd be back eventually," Nabiki told her father. "You know how she is. I'm sure she's just fine."
"I know, but I get so lonely without Akane here..." Soun wept into his sleeve.
"Nabiki's right, Father. She'll be back before you know it," Kasumi consoled him. "Besides, Ringo seems to have gained some of Akane's traits from her, don't you think?"
Nabiki nodded her head in agreement. "Remember how shy and quiet she used to be when she first came here? Then she started being friends with Akane and picked up some of her 'tude. Now she's a lot more energetic, and she even complains about things. It's almost like Akane never left."
Ringo's cheeks turned red with embarrassment at the assessment. "I'm so sorry! Do I come off as being rude?!"
"No no, Ringo. It actually makes you seem much more normal," Kasumi giggled at the redhead. "So, who was it that you saw today?"
"Oh! While I was walking through the park, I saw Kodachi!" Ringo explained.
"That nutcase gymnast that used to attack you? I haven't seen her in forever," Nabiki thought aloud. "Did she go all crazy on you again?"
"No, that's the thing," the waitress scratched her head, "she didn't even seem to notice me, even though we walked right past each other..."
Kasumi placed a finger on her cheek as she pondered the gymnast's actions. "Well, she stopped attacking you when Ranma came back, right? She's probably just moved on with her life since then."
"That's good to hear," Soun said with a smile, apparently over his concern for Akane for the moment. "One less worry for you. Right, Ringo?"
"Yes, I suppose so," Ringo replied halfheartedly.
Nabiki had a sly grin on her face as she glanced over at the girl with the ponytail. "Or maybe...you're upset that she didn't pay any attention to you?"
"What?! Of course not!" Ringo shot back at her. "Why would you say that?"
The middle Tendo daughter shrugged her shoulders in response. "Just curious is all."
"It was really stressful having her ambush me all the time!" Ringo pouted. "I'm glad it's over..."
"That's right. Now you can worry about more important things, like school," Soun said in agreement.
"Ringo, I was about to start making dinner. Why don't you go take a bath?" Kasumi suggested. "Dinner should be ready by the time you're finished."
"Ahh, that's a good idea," the redhead said as she stood up. "I'll go get cleaned up, then."
Once Ringo had gone upstairs, Nabiki had a brief chuckle at her expense. "You know, she might have picked up some of Akane's attitude, but Ringo has her own unique charm. Don't you think?"
"Yes, she certainly does," Kasumi laughed as she walked into the kitchen.
Soun simply nodded his head as he picked up the newspaper and began reading, at least until he heard the sound of a man's scream coming from outside.
"Hmm...I wonder who that is," he said, turning his head toward the garden.
Nabiki, along with her father, watched as none other than Tatewaki Kuno came soaring through the sky and plunged into their koi pond with a loud splash.
While the swordsman floated to the pond's surface, his business partner could only shake her head in annoyance.
"Good grief, Kuno baby," Nabiki sighed as she got up to go fish him out. "Even on my break I can't get away from you..."
"Ahh, that was good..."
After taking her bath and eating dinner with the Tendo family, the cheerful Ringo, who had changed into a pink t-shirt and a blue pair of jean shorts, headed upstairs to her room to finish up some homework that needed to be completed by tomorrow.
Although she didn't think much of it at first, the comment Nabiki had made earlier about being disappointed over Kodachi ignoring her seemed to stick in the redhead's mind. She was certainly glad that the conniving gymnast had stopped launching surprise attacks on her, but maybe, just maybe, being ignored by Kodachi was a bit of a letdown.
"I don't know why a thing like that would bother me," Ringo thought to herself, lightly shrugging her shoulders. "Oh well, it's all over anyway. Time to forget about it and move on."
Once Ringo got to her room and opened the door, she immediately noticed that something was out of place from earlier.
"That's weird. Did I leave the window open?" she asked herself, feeling confused.
Not too concerned about it, the girl with the red ponytail quietly slid the door shut behind her and started walking over toward the window to close it.
Then, from out of nowhere, a small object flew right by Ringo's nose and embedded itself into the wall, drawing a gasp from the startled waitress. Quickly checking to see what almost hit her, she was alarmed to find a single black rose sticking out of the wall.
"A...a black...rose..." her voice trembled.
Taking a loud gulp, Ringo nervously turned her head to the other side of the room to see where the rose came from. With one glance, her greatest fear was confirmed.
There, with only one side of her face visible from the way she was standing, was Kodachi Kuno. Still wearing her black dress, which was now dirtied from her breakdown earlier, the disheveled gymnast looked none too happy as she glared at the redhead. Shocked and horrified to see Kodachi standing in her room, Ringo's first instinct was to hurry to the door and run away. But, just as she turned to escape, another black rose soared by the tip of her nose and planted itself into the wall, stopping her in her tracks.
Panicked, Ringo tried to run again, but her dark-haired attacker had already closed in on her. As Ringo quickly covered her head to protect herself, Kodachi slammed her palms against the wall on both sides of the frightened waitress to trap her.
After a few nerve-wracking, but quiet seconds, Ringo, surprised that she hadn't been struck yet, slowly opened one eye and peeked out from behind her arms. Kodachi, she noticed, had her head lowered so that her face wasn't visible. She wouldn't remain in that position for long, though. Her body shaking, the Black Rose raised her head to look at the red-haired girl, and gave her a glimpse of what she'd gone through earlier in the process.
A look of concern replaced the scared expression on Ringo's face as she saw that the area around Kodachi's right eye was extremely red and swollen. So swollen, in fact, that she had no doubt Kodachi could barely see out of it. Ringo had no idea what was going on, but what she did know was that the dark-haired woman looked to be hurt, and, so far at least, she hadn't laid a hand on her.
Kodachi narrowed her gaze as she continued staring at the redheaded girl. "I sneak in here and come after you...and you are worried about my eye?"
"Well...it looks like it hurts," Ringo cautiously told her.
Lowering her head again, a pained-looking Kodachi let her hands slip down from the wall, gradually backing up until she was in the middle of the room.
"My eye is not your concern," she said angrily.
Now with some breathing room between Kodachi and herself, Ringo lowered her guard slightly and blinked as she tried to figure out her intruder's motive.
"Okay...then why are you here?"
"I-" Kodachi began to speak, clenching her fists tightly as she hesitated to spit out what she wanted to say. "I...I need...a favor..."
"What?!" Ringo said, perturbed by the woman's audacity. "You spent all those months attacking me, you break into my room and throw roses into my wall, and now you're asking me for a favor?!"
"I did not want to come to you, of all people, but you are the only one who can possibly help me!" Kodachi snapped back at her. "Do not make this more difficult for me than it already is, you contemptible girl!"
Starting to show her seldom-seen irritated side, Ringo folded her arms and shot Kodachi a cross look. "Calling me contemptible isn't helping!"
The Black Rose, trying to keep focused on her goal, reluctantly swallowed her pride and backed off from her words.
"My...apologies," she grudgingly replied. "Will you hear my request?"
Ringo couldn't believe her ears. She never thought in a million years that Kodachi would apologize to her for anything. She was still a bit angry, but the apology had lightened her mood considerably. Besides which, it just wasn't in her nature to be angry with people.
"Fine. What is it?" Ringo finally asked.
"There...is a martial arts rhythmic gymnastics tournament occurring soon," Kodachi calmly explained. "I have an old score I wish to settle at this tournament with someone I despise with every fiber of my being, but I am ill-prepared to compete. I am poorly conditioned, and...I have no second to aid me."
The perplexed redhead was starting to understand where this was going. "Are you...asking me to be your second?"
"That is...correct," Kodachi confirmed.
"That's crazy!" Ringo quickly protested. "I'm not a gymnast...!"
Kodachi, unfortunately, wasn't buying the excuse. "Do not play dumb with me! Were you not the one who once defeated me in a match?! You are perfectly capable and you know it, girl!"
"But that wasn't me!" Ringo tried to explain, but it then occurred to her that she was technically still a part of Ranma at the time of the match. "Well...I guess it was, in a way, but still...wouldn't someone from your school's club be better?!"
"No," the determined gymnast quickly answered. "I have not spoken to my team members in quite some time, and I have no doubt they have even chosen a new captain in my absence. As I said, you are, regrettably, the only one who can aid me."
Ringo gently leaned back against the wall of her room as she began pondering what she should do.
"P-...please..." Kodachi very uncharacteristically pleaded, again forgoing her pride to attain the help she needed.
The plea came as even more of a shock to the young redhead than the earlier apology had. And, as it turned out, it made a difference in Ringo making up her mind.
"Ringo," she said, drawing a curious look from the Black Rose. "My name is Ringo, not girl. If you call me by my name, then...I'll...help you."
After taking a few moments to ponder the terms laid upon her, Kodachi slowly pulled a rose out from her dress and flicked it over to the waiting hands of the Cat Café's waitress.
"I shall accept those conditions...Ringo."
With the single rose landing in her palms, Ringo watched as the younger Kuno sibling wasted no time hopping up onto the windowsill to take her leave.
"I assume you have classes tomorrow," Kodachi said, looking back at her new second. "Sasuke will be waiting outside your school to bring you to the estate once you are dismissed. The qualifying event for the tournament is a mere three days from now, so we must prepare with haste."
"Wait, right after school?!" Ringo shrieked. "But I have to-!"
"I will not accept anything less than complete devotion!" Kodachi quickly interrupted, a newly found fire burning in her eyes.
Without allowing the red-haired girl to get in another word, Kodachi Kuno then leaped out the window and disappeared into the night.
All by herself again, Ringo leaned back against the wall and slid down until she came to a sitting position. Staring at the black rose resting in her hands, she could only wonder just what kind of trouble she'd brought upon herself.
"Me? Kodachi's second? What in the world are you thinking, Ringo...?"
End of Chapter 1