A Midsummer Night's Beauty, Part II: Queen of Extreme
by rkOujirou

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.

Chapter 20

*tweet tweet...*

*chirp chirp chirp...*

Beneath the late afternoon sky, birds sitting atop tree branches and other perches around Kolhotz High School were happily singing the day away. Clouds had moved in throughout the past few hours, leaving overcast conditions hanging over the Nerima Ward of Tokyo, but it did little to put a damper on the moods of the birds. It was only a shame that their state of bliss couldn't be shared by other creatures nearby.

Within the nurse's office at Kolhotz High were both of the siblings Kuno.

Tatewaki Kuno sat cross-legged on a chair next to one of two beds. His hands rested on the hilt of his wooden sword before him, the tip of which was balancing on the floor below. Opening his eyes, he cast a glance over at the bed, studying the vision of his sister who remained quiet and still in a state of rest.

Kodachi had a small bag of ice sitting on her swollen left cheek, as well as a cold pack laying underneath her head to reduce the swelling in the area where the gymnasium's light had fallen on her. Her brother had washed away the last traces of Kiriko's green mist from her face, but it was an act of little significance considering her other ailments, and Tatewaki was well aware of that fact. After looking Kodachi over, medics employed by the Extreme Gymnastics Federation believed she had sustained no serious physical injury apart from some nasty contusions. They did, however, recommend to Tatewaki that he arrange a trip to the hospital for his sister to have x-rays taken if she experienced an unusually high level of pain in her ribs or left arm over the next few days. Given the ferocity of Kiriko's chain whips, a fracture in either area couldn't be completely ruled out.

The physical pain, though, wasn't what Tatewaki Kuno was concerned about. Far more than that, it was his sister's mental anguish. Strangely enough, it wasn't so long ago that he never had to worry about such things. Kodachi was always strong, never in need of her brother's support. Even after losing to Kiriko three years ago, she coped with it on her own, and life moved on. Thus, it was quite the surprise for Tatewaki when he returned home a month ago and found Kodachi looking such a dismal, defeated mess.

On that day one month ago, Tatewaki had urged his sister to leave the confinement of their estate. When she came back, she had a fire in her eyes once more. She had a goal. She had purpose. She had...Ringo. The former pigtailed girl, now sporting a ponytail, provided Kodachi an unexpected wealth of support from that day forward. Their personalities clashed and they had their quarrels, but as time passed, they became able to understand each other. Together, they were excited, determined, and full of confidence.

...And then today happened.

Tatewaki Kuno looked over his sister's face—a face showing little sign that her slumber was a peaceful one. What cruel fate had caused this to happen, he wondered? What had led to Kiriko defeating Kodachi for a second time? What had taken that red-haired girl, who was cheering Kodachi on with more passion than anyone else that day, and made her walk out on her own partner? Had something transpired between them that Tatewaki hadn't known about? Surely it must have, because he could think of no other logical explanation for what he had witnessed.

Those eyes of his sister, closed shut...Tatewaki was dreading the moment they opened. At that time, reality would truly set in for the Black Rose of St. Hebereke.


Tatewaki's heart jumped in his chest. A light groan had just come from Kodachi's throat. That could only mean one thing: she was awakening.

Kodachi's eyelids began to move, and then, very slowly, they opened up. As everything came into focus, she found herself staring up at a white ceiling. For whatever reason, the room she was in wasn't very bright.

"Sister?" the elder Kuno inched closer to the bed. "How do you feel?"

"Brother...dear?" Kodachi wearily uttered, recognizing the voice. Once she turned her head to the side, she could see his face, as well. She tried moving her extremities. Fingers, check. Toes, check. Legs, check. Arms...check, though her left one wasn't responding very well. Moving her body any more proved to be difficult. "I...cannot move well. Brother dear, where...where am I?"

"You are in the infirmary of Kolhotz High School," Tatewaki told her.

Bringing her right arm out from underneath the bed's sheet, Kodachi plopped her hand over her face. "I see. I must have collapsed from exhaustion after defeating Kiriko. How shameful of me."

Tatewaki batted his eyes at his sister, surprised by her words. Why did she just insinuate that she had won the match? Did she not remember what had happened?

In the midst of her brother's confusion, Kodachi surveyed the room. There was something...missing. "Ringo? Where is Ringo?" she asked. Tatewaki replied only with a look of pity as he realized that she was unaware of her second's actions. "Is she waiting outside because she cannot bear to see me like this? Really, such a fragile girl she is," Kodachi smiled ever so slightly. "Ringo, just come in here!"

Tatewaki Kuno said nothing.

"Ringo!" Kodachi called out for the redhead again. She waited for some sort of response, but there was none. "Has she gone to the restroom? Brother dear, please go urge her to hurry, would you?"

Unable to bear it any longer, Tatewaki stood up. He faced his sister with a demeanor of the utmost seriousness. "Ringo...is not here."

"Not...here?" Kodachi blinked. That didn't make any sense; Ringo would definitely be with her after the match, right? "If not here, then where is she? When is she coming?"

"Do you truly not remember?" her brother asked. As much as he would rather not do it, he had to let her in on the awful truth. "Sister...you did not emerge victorious in today's match."

One look at Kodachi showed that she clearly didn't understand what she'd just heard. "What do you mean?"

"I am saying you were defeated by Kiriko," Tatewaki clarified for her, gripping tightly the hilt of his sword.

Kodachi's breathing began to escalate. Surely she was misunderstanding what her brother was trying to tell her. Right? But, somehow, she had a terrible feeling growing in her chest right now. "No, that cannot be," she insisted, shaking her head. "Ringo! Ringo, where are you?"

"She abandoned you, sister!" Tatewaki bellowed all of a sudden. As Kodachi's expression went blank, her brother clenched his fist, silently cursing whatever had brought about this scenario where he would have to explain such a thing to his younger sibling. "She left you to fend for yourself before the match's end. I wish my eyes were merely deceiving me, but that is most certainly what happened."

"Oh...ohoho...ohohohoho...!" Kodachi let out a nervous laugh. Of course, her brother was joking! It was all a joke, but a cruel one at that. There was no way Ringo would...

"Ringo? What are you doing?"

Kodachi bolted up to a sitting position. The pain in her ribs was immense, but that was the furthest thing from her mind right now. She grabbed her forehead. Something was coming back to her. She could hear it.

"Ringo! Were we not going to win this together? Then why?"

Her screams...she heard them. Her left eye, peeking out from between her fingers, opened wide. It wasn't just the sounds; she could see it, too. Walking away from her. Those hateful eyes staring back at her. It was...it was...Ringo?

"No! Ringo would not...she...she-!" Kodachi mouthed, her body trembling. Then, the worst of it came back to her—that one vision of Ringo literally turning her back on her as she walked past the tank and toward the gymnasium's exit. It had happened. It was real. And with that realization, Kodachi's hand fell down to her lap. Tears that had formed in her eyes began streaming down her cheeks. "She...betrayed me. She betrayed...me. Aaahh...aaaaaaaahhhh!"

Tatewaki felt greatly a brother's pain as he stood before the sobbing Kodachi. "Sister..."

Outside, at that very moment, an unusual scene unfolded. Hundreds of birds, all of which had previously been going about their business on the grounds of Kolhotz High, took to the air. There were echoed cries warning of danger as they all hurried away from the school. Squirrels and rabbits followed, the squirrels scampering into trees and then over the walls surrounding the grounds, while the rabbits made their escape through the open school gate. Every animal near the school was fleeing in fright. Something had terrified them right down to their very cores.

"Aaaaaahhhh...aaaahhhh...aaaahhhaha...ahahahahaha. .."

Tatewaki started to notice something different coming from his sibling. Her sniffles and choked sobs...were his ears mistaken, or had they started to turn to laughter? "Sister?"

Kodachi's laughter became even more pronounced, and soon, she was howling with it. It was loud, and it wasn't an amused laughter, either. It was dark. It was...deranged.


His mouth agape, Tatewaki Kuno instinctively backed away from his sister. "This...this is-!"

Meanwhile, outside the room and down the hallway, Sasuke, carrying a white box in his hands, was walking alongside the school nurse, who had met him at the building's entrance. After spending the afternoon purchasing a new rickshaw—billed to one Tatewaki Kuno, of course—he had come here with the gift that Kodachi had gotten for Ringo, knowing well that his Mistress planned on giving it to her second after the match. Now that he had arrived, however, he had just learned the result of that match.

"Mistress Kodachi lost to that Kiriko again? How terrible. She must be so very disappointed," Sasuke said with worry.

"Even our own students weren't happy about it," the nurse, who was only there today because of the match, told him. "Who would be? Watching Kodachi's second walk out on her like that..."

Sasuke froze up, stopping in his tracks. He knew Kodachi had lost, but...Ringo had done what? It couldn't be... "Wh-what did you say?"

The school's nurse would never get the chance to answer Sasuke. Out of nowhere, a thunderous explosion rocked the building. The lights flickered, and the floor, the walls, and everything else shook violently. The nurse lost her footing and fell, prompting Sasuke to move over the woman to protect her.

Once everything had settled, Sasuke and the nurse cautiously raised their heads. Luckily, everything had held together enough to not shower the two of them with debris, but the building hadn't escaped unscathed by any means. And, to Sasuke's horror, most of the damage seemed centered around the nurse's office at the end of the hall. Around that one room, the wall was crumbling, the floor and ceiling were cracked, and the door had been blown clear off its tracks and out into the hall.

"M-Mistress Kodachi! Master Kuno!" Sasuke cried, rushing over to check on the son and daughter of the Kuno estate. The school nurse would follow soon thereafter.

What Sasuke found when he reached the office left him aghast. The entire outside wall of the room had been completely blown away, and the office itself was in ruins. The bed was overturned, the medicine cabinet flattened, and a stool was embedded into the wall by its legs, among other things. Elsewhere, Tatewaki Kuno lay unconscious on the floor, his body's figure imprinted into the wall next to him. Kodachi, though...was nowhere to be seen.

"M-...my office!" the nurse shrieked. "What happened here? It's like a bomb went off!"

In front of her, Sasuke suddenly dropped to his knees. His face drained of color. This destructive force...he recognized it. He'd believed it a nightmare from long ago that he'd never have to experience again. But, if Ringo had really done what the nurse had said she'd done...that just might do it, he thought.

"Oh, no. Oh, this is bad. This is very bad!" Sasuke, panicking, turned to the nurse. "You must get everyone away from here! Far away! Far away to safety!"

With the bewildered school nurse looking on, Sasuke bounded out the hole in the building where the office wall used to be, leaving Tatewaki Kuno behind. Doing so went against his duty as the guardian of the Kuno estate, but right now, there was something much more concerning that needed to be attended to.

Later on in the day, as evening approached, the inside of the Cat Café restaurant held a very somber atmosphere.

Ringo Saotome was seated on the floor with her back against the counter and her face pressed up against her knees. Shampoo sat next to her, one arm wrapped around the distraught girl. Ranma stood leaning back against a wall nearby with his hands in his pockets, his mind still trying to comprehend what had gone on today.

When Ranma explained to Ringo what she'd done at the end of Kodachi's match, she took the news just as harshly as both Ranma and Shampoo expected. At that time, they both decided it was best to get Ringo away from Kolhotz High as quickly as possible, lest she face the wrath of a very unhappy Sakura Army that was about to exit the gym. Thus, they hurried her out of harm's way and brought her to the restaurant.

Ranma had learned some important details regarding certain things on the way back. Ringo told him she had felt that chill again—the same kind she'd felt while working around a month ago. And, as Ranma now knew, it had happened a second time between then and today while Ringo was looking after Kodachi at the Kuno estate. Ringo had never told anyone about the second time because she didn't want to worry those close to her, but after today's events, Ranma wished he'd heard about it sooner.

As he briefly glanced down at the girls, Ranma saw Shampoo staring back at him. Even without speaking, he could read that look she had in her eyes. They were silently asking him, "What should we do?"

Ranma started to shift around the wooden cube in his pocket as he mulled over the situation. When Jynn left the cube in his care, the male Amazon mentioned that a revived Sorceress Jusenkyo may be after it. Today, the cube began to glow at the exact same time that Ringo changed. And even more troubling was the other piece of information that Ringo had let Ranma in on—that she'd heard a voice in her head both today and when the chilling feeling struck at the Kuno residence.

It couldn't have all just been a coincidence, Ranma thought. There had to be some connection. What could it be, though? He really didn't know what to make of it all, and the more he saw the pain Ringo was enduring, the less he was sure he wanted to know.

The attention of both Ranma and Shampoo was suddenly drawn to the restaurant door as it forcefully slid open. Any potential customers since they'd returned from the match had been deterred by the "Closed" sign outside the door. This person, however, was no customer. Rather, it was the troubled-looking guardian of the Kuno family, Sasuke.

"Sasuke?" Ranma blinked. He couldn't remember the ninja ever coming to the Cat Café before.

At the mention of the visitor, Ringo raised her head, looking toward Sasuke with her eyes that had become red from crying.

Sasuke, still holding that thin, white box in one hand, was out of breath after rushing to the restaurant. That didn't stop him from expressing his rage at the one who had walked out on his Mistress, though. The instant he set his sights on Ringo, he let the box fall from his hand and charged straight for her. "What have you DONE?" he shouted.

Shampoo quickly sprung to her feet. When Sasuke approached, she kicked him away, sending him flying into the opposite wall. "What you doing?" she snarled at him.

Though the kick hurt quite a bit, Sasuke never once looked at Shampoo. Even as he slowly pulled himself up after he'd dropped down from the wall, he stayed fixated on Ringo. "How could you? How...how could you do that to Mistress Kodachi?"

Ringo hung her head, shying away from Sasuke's rage-filled glare. She didn't speak a word. She could have told him the truth—that it wasn't truly her that had walked out on Kodachi. What good would it have done, though? Even if he believed her, it wouldn't erase what had happened. It wouldn't change the result of the match. It wouldn't do anything.

"Lay off, man," Ranma stepped in front of Sasuke to defend Ringo. "You don't know what's been goin' on."

Seemingly incited by Ranma's words, Sasuke finally removed his gaze from Ringo. Instead, he jumped up and latched himself onto the collar of Ranma's shirt. "Oh, I don't, huh? Let me tell you what is going on, then! Mistress Kodachi has gone missing, and you need to help me find her before people are badly hurt!"

"Before people...get hurt?" Ranma asked, raising an eyebrow at him. "The heck are you talkin' about?"

Sasuke pointed an accusing finger in Ringo's direction. "That double-crossing girl has pushed Mistress Kodachi into the depths of darkness!" he exclaimed. "If she is not stopped, there is no telling how many will suffer!"

"Huh? That's all you're worried about?" Ranma scoffed at the warning. "Come on, man. What's she gonna do, whip someone with a ribbon a few times?"

Sasuke, with beads of sweat rolling down his face, eyed Ranma sharply. "You weren't here the last time! You haven't seen what she is capable of!" he shook the pigtailed boy by the collar. Sasuke's head faced downward for the moment as he looked to be overcome by the gravity of the issue. "She was so much younger then. At her current age, what must she be like? I...I cannot even..."

Despite the severity of Sasuke's tone, Ranma wasn't buying into his big talk. "Would you relax? It's just Kodachi, for cryin' out loud," he muttered.

"Just Kodachi? Just Kodachi?" Sasuke lit up with anger. He let go of Ranma, dropping back down to the floor. "Fine! Stay here and do nothing! See if I care! But should you happen to run into 'just' Kodachi, don't say I didn't warn you!"

Sasuke had had enough of putting up with Ranma's attitude. Ready to leave and resume the search for his Mistress, he turned toward the doorway. That was when he spotted the white box he'd dropped. Fuming, he picked it up again and looked back at Ringo.

"And you...!" Sasuke growled, throwing the box Ringo's way. It slid across the floor and came to a stop when it bumped into the tips of Ringo's shoes. "Not that you deserve it, but Mistress Kodachi had that made for you. She wanted to give it to you after today's match."

Ringo looked down at the box for several seconds, and then, hesitantly, she reached forward and picked it up. Sasuke was right, she didn't deserve it. She didn't even want to see what was inside out of fear that it would only make her feel worse. Sasuke wanted her to open it, though. She had no right to refuse after what she'd done to Kodachi earlier.

The young waitress lifted off the top of the box, and there, sitting amongst some sheets of tissue paper, was her gift. Ringo grabbed it with both hands, lifted it out, and held it up to see it clearly. It was a leotard—custom-made to look like the very one Kodachi had worn for her match today. The only differences were that the roses on this piece of attire were red as opposed to black, and rather than Kodachi's nickname, the front-left side of the leotard instead bore Ringo's name.

It struck Ringo as soon as she looked upon the gift. She'd always worn her school gym clothes during her training sessions with Kodachi because she didn't own a leotard. That small detail must have always been on Kodachi's mind. That was why Kodachi had gotten this for her.

"She trusted you," Sasuke said to her, turning away to calm himself. "Though she would never admit it, I truly believe she considered you her friend—her only friend."

Sasuke walked out of the restaurant, slamming the door shut behind him.

Just when Ringo thought she couldn't cry anymore, tears rolled down her face as she stared at the leotard Kodachi had planned to give her. It was beautiful. It really was beautiful. "Kodachi..." she whimpered.

Looking to provide the upset girl some comfort, Shampoo sat back down next to her, and Ringo buried her face into Shampoo's shoulder. Shampoo pulled her closer, giving Ranma another of those sad looks he'd seen all too often today.

Ranma rubbed his forehead as he leaned back against the wall again. He had no idea what Sasuke was going on about; Kodachi wasn't that dangerous. If she showed up at the restaurant for some reason, he and Shampoo could handle her easily. Yeah, she wouldn't be a problem at all. The real problem, Ranma thought, was figuring out just what was going on with Ringo...and how they were going to deal with it.

That evening, after the sun had set, Kiriko Nakajima, along with her second, Yuki, were out celebrating their day's victory at an ice cream parlor.

"Another bite! Hurry it up!" Kiriko demanded of a third guest sitting beside her.

That guest, who was being treated more like a slave, was one of the shirtless men who had carried Kiriko's throne to the ring earlier in the day. Or, to be more precise, he was the first of the men to drop the throne and run when faced with the danger of Kodachi's approaching tank. "Yes, ma'am," he replied in a resigned manner. Digging a spoon into the contents of a parfait sitting before Kiriko, he brought it up to the gymnast's mouth and fed her a dose of sugary goodness.

Much like Kodachi, Kiriko's cheek was red and swollen as a result of repeated hits sustained during the match. In addition, her nose was bandaged up, and her entire body reeked of ointment that had been applied to soothe her pain. After the match, she had slipped into some very loose-fitting clothes—a light-colored, long-sleeved t-shirt and some gray sweatpants—that would both hide her bruises and minimize any rubbing of fabric against her skin.

While savoring the spoonful of her parfait, Kiriko began chuckling to herself, as she'd been doing regularly today. "That Kodachi really thought she could beat me. What an idiot," she proudly gloated.

Seated across from the other two, Yuki looked downright tired. The only time Kiriko had gone even two minutes without bragging about her victory in the hours since the match ended had been when she was screaming in agony as her leotard was peeled off, ripping the countless grass burrs out of her skin along with it. As happy as Yuki was about Kiriko's win, even she was getting sick of hearing about it.

"So," Yuki began, looking to change the subject, "...we have three weeks until your title match against Priscilla. We really should start coming up with a strategy."

As if her parfait had suddenly soured, Kiriko stopped enjoying the sugary substance and swallowed it as she turned an unfriendly leer on her second. "Strategy? We need a strategy?" she asked incredulously. "What, you don't think I can beat her?"

Faced with her partner's indomitable ego, Yuki backed down from her suggestion. "N-no, nothing like that. You'll defeat her this time, of course."

"You're damn right I will," Kiriko snorted. "Strategy. Please. The only thing you need to worry about is scheduling me a photo shoot with my new championship belt after I embarrass that foreign bitch like I did Kodachi."

Yuki promptly picked up her clipboard and scribbled down a memo to do just that. "I'll get right on it."

Though Kiriko had set her second straight, the very mention of her next match had dampened her celebratory mood. "I'm tired," she sighed, looking to the shirtless man. "You, Grunt, go pay for the parfait. We're leaving."

"What? Me?" the grunt, as Kiriko so affectionately deemed him, gestured to himself. "But, I-"

"Who was it that left my throne in the path of that tank earlier? Hmm?" Kiriko interrupted him, getting up in his face. "You owe me, remember?"

The grunt didn't argue. He merely hung his head, defeated, as he got up and fished his wallet out of his pocket.

"And get ready to carry me home, too!" Kiriko added to her servant's list of duties. "Don't think I'm walking anywhere with these poor, aching muscles of mine!"

When the three of them left the parlor, there weren't many others out and about on the streets. The grunt was carrying Kiriko in his arms, just as she'd ordered. Not far off in the distance there were lightning flashes in the sky, which may have explained the lack of pedestrians. The air had a scent of rain to it, as well.

"It looks like a storm is coming," Yuki pointed out.

"Great. That's just great," Kiriko grumbled. Annoyed, she kicked her servant in his upper arm. "Get a move on, Grunt! I don't want to get rained on!"

"Right away, ma'am," the shirtless man dejectedly replied.

Both Yuki and the grunt picked up their pace, hoping to reach Kiriko's home before the rains came. From the business district, they made it into the residential area, went all the way past one block, and then took a right around a corner.

That was all either Yuki or the grunt would remember.

Moments after they took that turn, a flash of violet-colored light exploded against their bodies. Concrete walls cracked and the pavement split open from the force of the blast. A nearby light post, bent so badly that it couldn't stay upright, crashed down into the street seconds later.

While panicked residents took cover in their homes or called police, the sound of footsteps moved closer to the three individuals who had been thrown outward by the explosion. There was a crunching noise as Yuki's glasses were stepped on by the attacker, crushing them beneath their foot. Yuki herself wasn't moving, nor was the grunt.

Kiriko, the only one of the three still conscious, lay flat on her side. Her body had been badly rattled by the attack, leaving her senses out of whack. Her vision was blurry, and there was a persistent ringing in her ears. She was just barely aware enough to notice when someone walked up next to her and stopped within the darkness of the night.

Trembling, Kiriko looked upward. As a flash of lightning lit the sky, the gymnast got only a glimpse of a malicious pair of eyes staring down at her. After that, she blacked out.




Kiriko's eyebrow twitched. The back of her neck was wet. She could hear the sound of rain outside, and some of that rain was evidently dripping down onto her. Where was she, though? She was on her way home when something hit her. Then...nothing. And why did she have such an awful headache?

Starting to wake up, Kiriko managed to open her eyes a little bit at a time. At first, she wondered if she was dreaming, because wherever she was, it didn't look like any place she knew. There were two candles—one on each side of a cramped room—that provided only a little light, and the walls were made of stone. From what she could see, there weren't any windows. There were some objects cluttering the room, possibly made of wood, but she couldn't make out what they were.

Kiriko tried moving...but couldn't. Her arms, her legs...they wouldn't budge at all. She was definitely upright, so why? As she tried harder, she heard the distinct sound of chains rattling. The reason she couldn't move was because her limbs had been shackled to the wall.

"Wake up, wake up, little birdy," a voice came from within the shadows.

As Kiriko turned her attention straight ahead to the location of the voice, a third candle lit up. That candle would illuminate the face...of a crazed-looking Kodachi Kuno.

"You!" Kiriko hissed, grimacing from the sharp pain in her head. "Where the hell is this?"

"Why, this is my playroom, of course! Filled with all of my precious toys," Kodachi threw her arms out to each side, a gesture to the now-better-lit objects that filled the room. "Well, more correctly, I 'borrowed' them from a museum, but that is a minor detail. Would you not agree?"

More than what Kodachi was saying, Kiriko had taken an interest in a large object that her old nemesis appeared to be sitting on. Wooden frame, leather straps hanging off the sides...it looked suspiciously like a medieval torture rack she'd seen in textbooks. She looked more closely at the other contents of the room. Over in the far right corner...it looked like...no, it definitely was an iron maiden. The other things that she could see...she didn't know what they were called, but they all looked just as ominous, if not more so.

"You...what are you going to do? You let me out of here! Unchain me right now!" Kiriko demanded. There was a growing concern in her voice.

Setting down her candle, Kodachi hopped to her feet. "Oh, that will not do! I must give you a congratulatory gift for your victory today," she insisted. Kodachi wandered over to one of the other devices and began inspecting it. "I thought long and hard about it, you know. What could I give you as a suitable gift? What could possibly suffice? Then, it struck me! I would give you...a night you would never, ever forget. Does that not sound wonderful?"

Something was very different about Kodachi. Kiriko could hear it in her voice; she could see it in her eyes. Whatever it was, it was unnerving. Quickly becoming very worried for her well-being, Kolhotz High's diva again attempted to free herself from the shackles. "You're insane! Get me out of these, you crazy b-mmmph!"

Before Kiriko could finish her insult, Kodachi swooped forward and slapped her hand over the other girl's mouth, forcing her head back into the stone wall.

Kodachi licked around her lips, taking pleasure in the gruesome thoughts running through her mind, while Kiriko winced from the pressure being put on her head. "Tonight, Kiriko...you are going to scream. You are going to cry. You are going to beg me for mercy. And I...I am going to cherish every morsel of it."

Shaken by Kodachi's declaration, a horrified look came over Kiriko's face.

"Oh, no, no, it is okay. I promise, you will survive this. After all, I want you to remember this night for a very long, long time, do I not?" Kodachi caressed Kiriko's cheek with her own, trying to ease her mind in some twisted way. "And just to show you I am not without a heart, I intend to give you something. I shall give you...a comforting thought, one that you can repeat to yourself any time the pain becomes unbearable for you. Would you like to hear it?"

Kiriko ignored the question, instead struggling with everything she could muster to try to free herself.

Kodachi didn't like this. Incensed that she was ignored, she clamped down on Kiriko's mouth and this time slammed her head back into the wall. "I SAID WOULD YOU LIKE TO HEAR IT!" she yelled at the top of her lungs.

Shaking with fright at the outburst, Kiriko finally relented, nodding her head.

Just as fast as Kodachi's temper had erupted, it subsided. Again, she became relaxed, showing a wicked smile. "Then listen well, for I will only say it once," she said, moving her mouth up by the girl's ear. Her comforting words would be spoken in a whisper. "No matter what happens to you tonight, rest assured, it is nothing compared to what I plan on doing...to my dear...traitorous...second."

Night rolled over into morning, and, with the rise of the sun over the eastern horizon, it was a new day.

The new day was a Monday, which also made it the beginning of a new school week. Hence, Ranma and Ringo both set out early to make their usual trek to Furinkan High. Today's walk, however, was anything but common.

Ringo, with dark bags under her eyes, was sluggishly dragging her feet across the pavement as she walked. She was showing the effects of what had been a mostly sleepless night. Nobody would have blamed her for skipping out on classes after the kind of day she'd had yesterday, but she just couldn't bring herself to do it. She wasn't that kind of person.

"You feelin' any better?" Ranma asked her. He knew it was a stupid question.

Ringo offered only a slow shake of her head. It may have been a new day, but what little sleep she'd gotten last night did nothing to clear away the black cloud that was hanging over her.

"Look, try not to worry 'bout it so much," Ranma tried to console her. "Kodachi's probably gone home by now. After we get outta school, you and me can go over to Kuno's house and get this whole thing straightened out. 'Kay?"

The redhead peeked over at him through her weary eyes. "Do you...think Kodachi will understand?"

"C'mon, she's gotta know you ain't got no reason to ditch her like that," Ranma suggested. "Might have to explain it a few times, but we'll get through to her."

Quietly, Ringo turned back to the road in front of her. She hoped Ranma was right.

The two of them reached Furinkan High in good time. As they walked along the school's outer wall and neared the entrance, though, they found an unusual sight awaiting them. For whatever reason, a crowd of students had gathered around the gate.

"Huh? What's all this?" Ranma looked curiously upon the strange scene. As they approached the group of students, Ranma spotted Ukyo on the outer edge. "Yo, Ucchan! What's up?" he called out to her.

Ukyo seemed oddly disturbed as she looked toward her childhood friend. "Ran-chan," she acknowledged him. Then, noticing the other person drawing closer, she cast a worried look at her female classmate. "R-...Ringo..."

When the red-haired girl's name was spoken, every single one of the other students turned their attention toward her. The looks on their faces were difficult to discern. Were they of fear? Concern? Pity? Ranma couldn't tell.

Some students began moving back to one side or the other, and soon, the rest followed. Without going in any further themselves, they had opened up a path for Ranma and Ringo to enter through the gate.

Ranma was clueless as to what this was all about, but something was going on, that much was clear. Stepping forth, he turned into the school gate with Ringo following right behind him.

The pigtailed martial artist's eyes immediately turned upward. His feet stopped moving, and his jaw dropped. "What...the..."

As Ringo caught sight of what Ranma had seen, her fingers loosened their grip on her schoolbag, allowing it to fall to the ground.

There, bound at the wrists by an exceptionally long ribbon that stretched around the entire central clock tower, hung the body of Kiriko Nakajima. Her clothes were shredded and stained with blood. Her skin was discolored, covered with bruises and other marks. She wasn't moving an inch, nor was she making a sound. In her hair, the petals of a lone black rose shifted as a light wind blew by.

As if that wasn't enough of a message, there was also another, much clearer one. Below Kiriko's body, slashed into the remaining length of Furinkan's clock tower, was a single name: "Ringo."

End of Chapter 20