Chaos Lord Productions Brings You.
Stars in the Sky
Written by Chaos Lord
Disclaimer: All entities and devices in this story belong to their respective owners. For the purposes of this story those would be Rumiko Takahashi and Naoko Takeuchi.
WARNING: Extreme OOC ahead. If slavish adherence to the originals are your bag, read no further.
Chapter 11 - The Bull's Horns
It was quiet. There was a time when she wanted nothing more than to have all the noise die down to the peaceful levels she'd enjoyed before Ranma came into her life. Never in all those days of bemoaning the chaos he carried with him had she imagined that she would one day miss the raucous atmosphere. Yet here she was, walking through her own home feeling as if she was missing out on something.
Kasumi was gone, off sharing her life with Ranma. There wasn't a day that went by when one of them was on the news, their actions on behalf of the city being lauded by whoever could sing their praises. It was weird to see her sister idolized by a nation when just a short while ago that same woman was known for her cheerful smile and pleasant demeanor. Was this new Kasumi a creation of Ranma's? A more disturbing idea was that she'd always been there and events had conspired to keep her in her shell.
Speaking of people leaving there shells, the changes to Nabiki were simply astounding. At first she thought the brunette was trying out a new, rather elaborate, con. Putting on a kind face was, after all, something she was more than capable of in order to land a big score. But it was hard to tell what her plan could possibly be once Lime and Mint arrived. Watching Nabiki and Lime together, all their hesitant touches and furtive glances, made it painfully clear that the Ice Queen had thoroughly melted. They even went on dates, where she didn't make him pay for everything. Hell, the last one the went on they just stared at the stars for a few hours! Stars! That was a long way from lavish restaurants and fancy gifts.
The only one who seemed to stay the same was herself. She walked through the world and watched it move on without her. Once, the ward seemed to live and breathe for her. Now everyone was caught up in the patriotic fervor of the Incident. Instead of hanging out, her friends were going to soup kitchens and helping out with clothing drives. How could this happen to her? How had she gone from rising star to the one people asked to move aside? In the early days she'd blamed Ranma for her situation. It had been such an easy leap for her mind to take, the glory hog nearly got himself killed and now everyone worshiped him like the new Buddha or something.
Even her father, a man who was once obsessed with his moronic plans for the 'schools', seemed to have given up on her. He just drifted through his days in a stupor, the only one he ever really spent any energy on was Uncle Saotome. Once or twice she had asked him to restart her training, to make her the truest example of the Tendo School. Instead of answering, instead of even perking up, he merely grunted and went along playing that stupid game. How was she to be the best without further training? How could she regain her place in the sun if even her own father seemed content with allowing her to languish in Ranma's seemingly endless shadow?
Those questions, along with countless more, plagued her every waking moment. And with each unanswered question there seemed to arise yet another bout of fiery rage that soon gutted out into bitter depression. So, with rage and depression slowly killing her, Akane Tendo walked through her home as would a specter.
Suddenly a gentle knock at the door shook her, however temporarily, from her funk. Knowing there was no one willing or able to answer the visitor, Akane huffed irritably as she made her way towards the door. That was another thing which was changing as of late. Instead of there being someone else to answer doors or clean rooms, the tasks were increasingly falling onto her shoulders. Except for the cooking, no one seemed willing to let her do that no matter how good she may be.
It was with a lingering sense of hope that she opened the door to reveal a woman with long, luscious, dark hair. Wrapped loosely around her body were silks of a high quality. As Akane took in her strange garb she noted that it did little to cover a bust line far greater than her own. Even with the old inadequacy bubbling, Akane was delighted to see her as it was an injection of the old crazy of Nerima.
"Rouge? What are you doing here? If you're looking for Taro, we haven't seen him in a while."
Rouge shook her head, "No Akane Tendo. I'm not looking for him, yet. Right now I was hoping to find Ranma. He and I have some business we must discuss."
Akane's friendly mask faded and her sadness returned to the fore. Once again the outside world preferred Ranma to herself. "Oh. Him. He's not here right now. If you want to come in and stay for a while, Nabiki will be back from her date later and you can ask her where he is."
The foreign woman noticed her hostess' shift in mood and was immediately concerned. "What's wrong," she asked as she accepted Akane's invitation. "Has something happened between you and Ranma?"
As she closed the door Akane laughed bitterly. "I guess you could say that. We're not together anymore."
"Why not," asked Rouge with confusion and concern. "I thought you two were engaged."
"Believe me, it's a long story."
Sitting down in the Tendo's main room, Rouge looked up at her hostess with a helpful expression. "Well I seem to have plenty of time and you look like you need to talk. So why don't we both sit and have a chat."
For a few moments Akane felt her pride balk at the offer of help. She was Akane Tendo after all, she didn't need help from anyone. The sorrows of the last few weeks quickly doused those prideful fires with the cold waters of stark truth. "That . . . sounds good. I guess." Slowly she slid into her customary place at the table and began her tale.
To ensure her companion's comprehension Akane started at the very beginning. The Tendo family's early days were described in vivid, if not a tad sentimental, detail. Then came the passing of her mother and the downward turn their lives took in her absence. She detailed how radically different she and her sisters became, one a housewife, another a manipulative opportunist, and then there was herself, a young girl trying to live in the shadows cast by a dead mother and an emotionally absent father. And just when it seemed as if their family was doomed to slowly follow their deceased matriarch into tomorrow, a girl who was really a boy was carried into their lives. From that initial seed of chaos sprouted a vast tree of insanity which seemed impossible to fell.
As the story slowly came to a close all of the baggage she carried through her days was laid bare for Rouge to rummage through. All the pain and hate and oppressive bitterness was outlined with vivid detail. The telling hurt, it hurt more than Akane ever realized it would, yet paradoxically it also felt good. It was like a poison draining from her veins. In the passing it burned with an unimaginable heat only to be replaced by a soothing lightness unlike any she felt.
Sitting as inscrutable as a mountain, Rouge watched as Akane dried the last of her tears and, with shaking hands, sipped from a glass of water. She sat in silence for a long while just contemplating what advice she should give to the troubled woman. "Would you like to know what I think," she finally asked.
Having failed to conceive of a way out on her own, Akane nodded eagerly. "Yes, please."
"I warn you, you might not like what I have to say."
Akane's nodding head stopped abruptly. Rouge's warning seemed heartfelt and she could admit, at least to herself, that she didn't handle criticism well. Unbidden, her mind flashed back to the young woman walking through her own home like a ghost. More than criticism she couldn't handle that, not for much longer. The status quo was no longer what she desired, so perhaps this echo of prior insanity could push her into a new direction. "I don't care. Go ahead."
"Okay. My suggestion to you is to let go of the life you have planned for yourself." Seeing her companion's confusion Rouge explained. "Throughout your life, at least as you have told it to me, you have lived your life in the shadows of others. Your father casts his art and dreams of glory onto you. Your mother casts the ideal of femininity and motherhood. Meanwhile your sisters reinforce those ideals. Then came Ranma, he cast a shadow so great it consumed all around him. None of these people meant to influence you as they have yet they did so all the same. If you truly wish to live life as you want it then you need to get out from beneath the shadows of others and cast some of your own."
Listening to this relative stranger speak Akane felt as if she were standing at the edge of something grand. It was as frightening as it was compelling. "How," she asked, her voice laced with awe.
"Leave," said Rouge flatly. "By your own admission both Kasumi and Ranma have found great happiness beyond these walls and Nabiki looks to be following a similar path. If you desire your own life then you must leave this place and find it. It will be hard, maybe the hardest thing you have ever done, but so too are those things most worth doing."
Before she could voice her opinion on what this stranger suggested Akane heard the front door slide open followed shortly thereafter by Nabiki's delighted voice. "That's Nabiki," she informed her guest.
"Excellent," smiled Rouge. "Thank you, Akane, for your time and your company."
Akane smiled and bowed. "No, thank you. I think you've really helped me."
"Then our time was doubly well spent. I look forward to hearing how life treats you."
As Yori Alexander walked the halls of her family's home she noticed an odd, yet wholly welcome, warmth to the overall emotional temperature. Now warmth was not something new to these walls, she and her husband made sure that any who entered their home felt as safe and welcome as they did in their own homes, if not more so. This new development was like someone infused the air with an additional layer of happiness. Even Tami was behaving more refined and ladylike, a temporary development to be sure but it was a most welcome one all the same.
Soon the Alexander matriarch became aware of a gentle tune on the air, as if someone were humming happily. She followed that tune through her home until it led her to the kitchen. What she saw as she turned the corner was something the family had yet to really witness, Kasumi cooking. Oh she had not been a stranger in the space, the young woman's sense of pride would never allow such a thing, but never before was she alone in her efforts. So it was that the Alexanders had never seen Kasumi at her height.
Just as Ranma could take the deadliest of techniques and transform them into pure poetry, Kasumi did the same for cooking. Under her careful eye nearly a dozen tasks were underway, their subtle intricacies bowing under the superiority of a true master. Ever in motion was the oldest Tendo daughter yet her movements were neither hurried nor frantic. Were one willing to break the tableau they might have said that she had taken on a certain fairy tale quality. Kasumi certainly looked the part of some beautiful, yet common born, girl just waiting for her prince to come. That her prince had already swept her up into a new world was beside the point, as was the fact that the prince could also be a princess.
Ultimately it was Kasumi who broke the serenity when she stopped and turned to her audience. "Oh my. Is there something I can do for you, Yori?"
The intrusion of speech onto her thoughts was so jarring that the elder Alexander actually gasped. "No-nothing dear. I was just watching you cook. You know, you really don't have to do that." While she herself cooked all the time, the thought of someone else doing so for her rankled Yori fiercely,
Kasumi shook her head fervently, "Oh but I must. Today is very special day and it would be wrong of me not to."
In her mental calendar Yori sought something of importance scheduled for the day and quickly found nothing. "Important? How so?"
"It's our anniversary," she sighed happily. "Today marks three months of happiness we've shared." And they were happy times. Even with the monsters and the fate of Earth hanging in the balance, Kasumi would not trade these last months for anything on the world. Thanks to Ranma she was now part of a whole new world, that she helped him get there too made it all the more special.
"So that was why I saw him running out the front door earlier," she laughed. "He forgot, didn't he?" It was then that Yori saw something few ever encountered, Kasumi's frown. It wasn't the fiercest she ever saw but there something about the way it looked on her that was rather disconcerting.
"On the contrary," replied the young woman with a certain amount of ice. "Ranma is the one who reminded me."
"I'm sorry, Kasumi. I just assumed that Ranma, like many men, failed to remember. Even my Joseph forgets sometimes. I meant no offense." It was strange, seeing this girl so upset. Normally Kasumi was as tranquil as a noonday garden. This sudden spike of anger was as scary as it was troubling.
The brunette sighed, her shoulders slumping as the anger seemed to drain from her. "No, I'm sorry. Ranma . . . Ranma was not treated kindly by my family and the others. They often blamed him for things he never did. I'm not saying he was wholly blameless, but he received more blame than he deserved."
Yori released the breath she had been unconsciously holding. Smiling, she reached out and gently touched the younger woman on the arm. "I understand. Ranma is a lucky man to have a protector such as yourself."
Kasumi shook her head, "No, you're wrong. I'm the one who is lucky to have him."
"Either way, we are all lucky to have you both in our family."
With a happy bounce Ranma Alexander made his way through the busy byways of Juban. After quickly saying his goodbyes to a happy, and very satisfied, Kasumi, he had rushed from the Alexander home to fetch his anniversary present for her. Normally, thinking about what to get others was a skill that did not come naturally to him, his own desires having been suppressed for so long. This particular gift needed no real thought for its choosing. For months now a singular moment had lurked in the back of thoughts and today was the day he would banish it forever.
It was strange how it had stuck with him. Normally his memory could be a tad fuzzy yet the pain and betrayal that had flashed across Kasumi's face when he told her they weren't engaged still dogged him. He'd buried it deeply, a necessity given their current bond, but he was pretty sure she never suspected. The remedy to that moment was an even harder secret to maintain. That she hadn't said anything made him hopeful that his usual deficiencies with subterfuge were giving this one to him.
Keeping everyone else out of the loop had proven even more difficult. Rings, at least those that didn't have sort of stupid curse, were not something he was all that familiar with. In the early stages of his planning he'd entertained the idea of asking one of the Senshi for help, but given how they gossip he quickly nixed that plan. Luckily, that very same gossip gave him another avenue of thought to pursue, one Naru Osaka. A jeweler's daughter would know something about rings. Better yet, he could just go to the mother and bypass the potential leak of his secret.
Thinking about that initial encounter made him chuckle. In spite of the odd goings on in Juban, Miss Osaka looked upon his questions with some skepticism. It was, he admitted, an understandable position to take. Most boys weren't out to get a ring at his age and those that did, according to her, only did so to get into a girl's pants. After some tense conversations she finally understood how serious he was and became rather eager to help him with what he wanted. Of course to achieve what he wanted took time, luckily she finished her work yesterday so he could pick it up today.
It was with that singular object in mind, albeit hidden, that he made his way to Miss Osaka's shop. As he reached the building in question Ranma smiled at the open sign hanging in the door. With it showing that he was not, as he feared, too early, the pig-tailed teen strolled inside.
"Welcome to the . . . . oh, Ranma," exclaimed Miss Osaka with delight. "I wondered when you could come by."
Ranma scratched the base of his pigtail and smiled. "Yeah, I had to make sure Kasumi didn't know where I was going."
The older woman frowned somewhat. "So she knows you're out getting a present? With this sort of thing it's really better to surprise her."
"Oh she'll be surprised," he assured her with a smile. "But she would have been suspicious if I just left without saying something. Besides, if I hadn't said something she would have never let me leave." It was something new that had crept into his conversations, this innuendo thing. He wasn't quite sure how it kept coming up but since Kasumi had yet to complain so neither did he.
She noticed his meaning and shook her head. "Serious or no, aren't you both a little young to be doing such things?"
"Normally, I'd say yes," he replied with a blush. "But things are different between us. We . . . we both nearly died. It made us see things, see each other differently. Yes we're young and yes we should have waited but we both know that sometimes you can wait so long you miss what matters." There were those in Nerima who, had they heard him say such things, would have wondered just who had replaced Ranma. The ideas and emotions he expressed were clear and, as far as they were concerned, completely out of character. But time and events had changed him, for the better in his opinion.
"Oh," gasped the jeweler at the mention of his near-death experience. In her mind's eye she saw flashes of her daughter's own brushes with death and wondered if Naru and Umino had not also shared such close moments. "I-I see. I had no idea."
Ranma shrugged, "Don't worry about it. You're just tryin' to get some responsibility into me. Maybe what you made will help with that."
The not so subtle hint was not lost on the woman and, with the flair of a consummate professional, she withdrew a small, velvet-covered, box from behind the counter. "Here you go Ranma. I hope it is everything you wanted."
As the woman opened the box Ranma peered at the ring inside and could not help but gasp. Forged of gold and silver, two birds extended their wings to hold up a diamond cut to the shape of an egg. It was a beautiful and worthy token of his love for Kasumi and he couldn't imagine a more perfect ring to rest on her slim finger. "W-wow! That's amazing Miss Osaka. It looks exactly like I imagined."
"No, thank you Ranma. So many people these days just want a ring without any real thought put into it. It felt really good to put my skills to some major work."
"How much do I owe you," that was the part of this whole affair that really worried him. He was, by and large, broke. His grandfather gave him an allowance but that was a small sum and it was mostly used on dates with Kasumi. There was some money he managed to squirrel away but he wasn't sure it would be enough, not even with the contributions he'd already made to the ring's construction.
Whatever worries he had went away the moment she quoted the ring's price. "Are you sure about that," he asked with some confusion. For his own confirmation, he looked down into the display case and saw the rings there, each of which had far more value than the one in her hand.
She laughed happily. "Yes I'm sure."
"B-but it's so little."
"Normally you'd be right," she nodded. "But since you brought me everything all I needed to charge you for was the labor. I'm still curious as to where you got that stuff from though. Most people don't go around with gold and silver in their pockets, to say nothing of a diamond," this last was said with a healthy dose of suspicion. Even though Ranma had assured her five ways to Sunday that everything he had wouldn't be missed, she still had to wonder.
Ranma shrugged, "It's like I told you. When you've been to as many places as I have, you pick up a thing or two." The truth, as it often was with him, was far more unusual than the woman before him would believe. There was no way in hell that she'd believe that the diamond and silver came from a cursed broach that he managed to purify then break apart. Nor would she ever guess that the gold had been given to him by bird men from China. It was better for all that he just act as if he'd somehow come across things on his trips which was, from a certain point of view, wholly true.
The jeweler nodded, she had pretty much expected that sort of response. Still, it didn't hurt to ask. "Well since you've made a decent effort in proving to me that everything is on the level all you have to do is pay for my labor costs and make sure your girl gets her ring the right way."
"Can do," he beamed. From his pockets he pulled out the asked amount and readily slapped it onto the counter. While the amount was more than he'd ever spent on something, Ranma considered it money well spent. "I think that's everything."
She took the money and counted it with a professional eye. When everything came up right she smiled and nodded happily. "Yes sir, everything is right here. Just let me ring this up for you and then you can take it home with you."
"Sounds good to me."
"So tell me," she said while going over to the register, "have you planned how you're going to do it?"
"I've thought about it. Today's our three month anniversary and if I know Kasumi she's probably cooking up a storm as a celebration. I'll probably do it then."
"Well make sure it's special for the both of you. This is something you're going to remember for the rest of your lives, so make it a good memory."
"Don't worry, I'm planning on it," he said with a smile.
As Ranma walked back towards his new home he felt something prickling at the edge of his senses. For most people such nigglings would have been lost in the near constant buzz of activity inherent to the modern world. Ranma wasn't most people however. Living for over ten years in the woods and backstreets, to say nothing of his time in Nerima, had sharpened his danger senses to a near razor's edge. They told him in no uncertain terms that someone or something was following him and they had been since he left the Osa P.
He quickly began to run down a list of people he had pissed off and found, as he always did, that it was quite lengthy. Not as long as it once had been, but still long. "Hell," he thought with a sarcastic snort, "it could be another family the panda stiffed. Hadn't had one of those in a while."
The presence was getting closer now, its malice was positively palatable. Yet, while he was sure the approaching foe meant to harm him, when didn't they, there was none of the increases in aggression that normally heralded an attack. It was this incongruity that kept him from tensing up for a fight, though he was ready to do so at a moment's notice.
"Lovely weather we're having, eh Femboy?"
Ranma felt a shiver of apprehension run down his spine. There was only one person who belonged to that voice, only one person who called him that. It was the same person who, aside from Saffron and Cologne, routinely gave him his greatest challenge. "I don't know where the old freak is Taro."
The effeminate man in masculine garb smiled evilly, "Happosai? Why would I want him?"
"Um, to change your name," asked Ranma hesitantly. He didn't like this, not one bit. Taro was acting way too friendly for his liking. In his experience, when enemies suddenly became your friends it meant there was a fight approaching. Given the innocents walking past them both as they went about their daily lives, a fight was the last thing he wanted; especially given Taro's casual use of his cursed form.
Taro laughed, it was dark, hollow thing that carried none of the mirth it should have. "My name? Why the hell should I care about that stupid thing any more? After all, I've got one now that is so much better. I'm called Taurus now, perhaps you've heard of it."
The icy shiver now became a cascade. Indeed, he had heard of the name, it belonged to one of the constellations that had fallen pray to Draco's predations. That it had taken Taro made sense in a warped way. Everyone else, aside from Centauri, had been one of his old enemies why not this jackass.
"So what? You want to fight or something?"
"Fight? In the middle of all these people? Really Ranma, you should be ashamed," said Taurus with faux disappointment.
Ranma breathed an unconscious sigh of relief and relaxed somewhat. "Well what do you want then? Just to say hi?"
Taurus shrugged, "That. And to say thanks."
"Thanks," asked Ranma disbelievingly. That was a word he didn't often hear from the Nerima side of things. To hear Taro-Taurus say it made things all the more unusual.
"Yeah. Without you I wouldn't have all this new power," as he said this Taurus flexed his aura. Although it was still outside the range where normal people could see it, from the way Ranma's eyes widened he knew that the point had been made. "You know, when I saw that damn news report I was pissed. After doing what you did I knew there was no way I could ever hope to beat you and win me a new name. I guess I was angry enough that it attracted the right people's attention."
"And that's when you took Taro over?"
Taurus laughed heartily and this time it seemed genuine. "Take him over? Please. I took no one against their will, I didn't have to. Taro welcomed me and we, unlike some of the others you've faced, are one."
"He what," gasped Ranma, his eyes wide with surprise. "Why would he want somthin' stupid like that?!"
"Not to reinforce the delusions you probably have, but it was because of you. Don't give me that shocked look, I've been trying to kick your ass for a while now. Then I saw what you became. Even though I was in China at the time, I saw how you made yourself more powerful than I could ever hope to be. It really pissed me off, femboy, and just when I was looking for a way to kick your ass for good he came."
"Draco," said Ranma simply. What went unsaid but was heavily implied was how much he was wanting to show the mad constellation some professional, grade A, butt whooping.
"Yes. He offered me power beyond my wildest dreams, I just had to prove myself first."
There was something in the way Taro said those words that sent a shiver of dread through Ranma. "How?"
"By showing him that I have no further ties to this world and, instead, could be dedicated to a different cause. So I destroyed my village."
Ranma could feel the flames raging within him. They roiled away demanding freedom so they could avenge the innocents slaughtered in Taro's grab for power. It was only Kasumi's cooling presence in the back of his mind that kept him from transforming right then and there. That gentle place helped keep him focused on gathering information. "Why not just take you," he growled through gritted teeth.
"Jusenkyo," answered Taurus simply. "I'd already chosen Taro, his cursed form and personality matched my own so perfectly. Yet I couldn't take him as the others could, Jusenkyo had already done that. Once he devoted himself to the cause, once he showed Draco how pure he was, I was allowed to perform a joining."
"So he, you, chose this. You wanted this and you like it."
"Of course I do. Has turning into a girl made you dumber or something?"
"No," he growled. "Just making sure." With the flip of a mental switch Ranma called on Phoenix's power, his every inch ready to pounce.
Taurus, however, was unperturbed by the avatar's rising power. "Now, now. I wouldn't do that if I were you," he said with a certain genial menace.
"Why not you murderin' bastard?"
"Because I will start killing these insects you are so fond of."
Ranma swallowed hard. There was nothing in the monster he stared at that told him Taro was bluffing. As he thought about it, Ranma was pretty sure Taro would focus most of his attention in a fight on killing as any innocents as he could. With that understanding in place he pushed Phoenix's power away. "Okay. I won't do anything."
Taurus shook his head, "Disappointing. I had hoped you could push you ideals aside for the opportunity to exercise a measure of vengeance." He shrugged, "Oh well. Since it seems as if Cygnus and the others are on their way, I must bow out of this conversation. And to ensure you won't follow me, I will leave you all some friends to play with."
Ranma surged forward to stop Taro from doing anything to people. Before he took a second step however, the fiend had already sent out a wave of darkness to strike many of the people around them. That darkness surrounded the writhing and terrified people, coating each in a thick skin. Soon what had been a person was a cartoonish mockery with glowing yellow eyes and oversized metal armor. These were no cartoons however, they were Shades and from their appearance they were the strongest yet.
Those not affected by Taurus' beam ran from the monsters in a hurried rush. In another part of the city there might have been a surplus of screams as they made their escape. This was Juuban though and its people were long used to unexpected monster fights. Screaming could come later, for now they focused their energies on regular breathing in order to make a clean escape.
As soon as the first Shade appeared, Ranma was Phoenix once more. Even as he tried to follow Taurus, his progress was stymied by the dark horde around him. It was only after one of the horde grabbed hold of his uniform and began pulling him away that Phoenix turned the totality of attention on those who attacked.
Gripping the arm of one of his attackers, Phoenix whirled around to slam it into the one holding his other arm. Stunned, both creatures released him and staggered back, giving Phoenix the opportunity to strike a new target. The shade screamed horribly as he slammed a flaming fist into its side.
Three down, he thought with little emotion, only a million more to go.
Suddenly a comet fell from the sky, a comet surrounded by lightning, It crashed into a shade with fantastic speed only to leap up and strike another with a lightning-clad gauntlet. Never once did this woman, this warrior of light, flinch with her strikes. Like Phoenix, she tore through the Shades with a brutal fury. But whereas the man danced, she was more of a brawler. Hard and fast was her style, though hints of Phoenix's fluidity could be seen in the harsh punches and kicks.
Behind the white and green fighter came a creature unlike any found in nature. Moving on hind legs like a man, but possessing the fur and fury of a bear, it roared while raking its claws across the torsos of two shades. Where its claws landed there were deep gouges in the shades' hides, gouges that did not heal as they did with other attacks. In what appeared to be a blind swipe at several more of the creatures, warbling blades scythed away from its claws to strike the distant foes.
Phoenix looked at these additions to the fight and smiled. It was something of a novelty, having friends he could count on. Back in Nerima, the others could be counted on to gather to face a major opponent such as Saffron or Herb but their own internal feuds almost always got in the way. With the Senshi and the other Avatars however, there was always a certain professionalism that permeated their work. Such things made his job infinitely easier.
Moments later, an orange beam of energy scythed through the Shade's ranks, knocking many to ground. Phoenix looked up at the roofline and saw a white and orange clad woman standing there. Her finger pointed like a gun, she sent beam after beam into the enemy's ranks. When her eyes caught his she smiled and gave a jaunty salute before pouring more fire into the Shades. "Good," thought Phoenix with some satisfaction, "looks like they're starting to think tactically. Bout time too."
Bathing another Shade in fire, Phoenix turned to deal with another opponent and saw a rose sticking out of its shoulder. Two more roses followed in quick succession, causing the Shade the seize up and fall to the ground. Phoenix didn't have to look far for the source of those odd weapons, their wielder being only a short distance away. "Still with the roses?"
Endymion shrugged and batted away a shade with the flat end of his sword. "What can I say, the roses play."
"Don't you have something, you know, cooler," asked Phoenix as he leapt over a Shade and sent two fiery daggers into its back.
The armored man punched a Shade hard in the face. Where his gauntleted fist struck the shade there was a brief burst of light that seemed to give the punch more force than it otherwise would have. "Nothing that won't kill them. Besides, some people I know happen to like the roses."
"Yeah, but you could stand still giving speeches and Moon would still like you," grumbled Phoenix.
Endymion blushed at the reminder of his past actions, "Hey, it seemed like the right idea at the time."
"So did a lot of the stuff my old man did. That doesn't make it right."
"Who did this," asked Endymion, desperate for a change of discussion. "Were you able to see it?"
"It's a him, and yeah I was. Bastard changed all these people just to get away," he growled angrily. I"ll give you guys the full run down when this is all over."
He noticed the dark tension on his friend's body and wisely decided to keep his mouth shut. "I look forward to it."
The tides of battle pulled him away from Endymion and for that Phoenix was grateful. He could see the questions lurking in the other man's mind and did not want to answer them. Hell, he didn't even want to think about them. Aside from the whole Saffron thing, and maybe the Orochi fight, the Nerima adventures always had a certain safety built in. There were rules that everyone, to one degree or another, followed. One of those rules was always avoid non combatants. Sure, if one of the crew wasn't fighting they could get pulled in, but some random person off the street was off limits.
Taro broke that rule though. Not only had he turned all these people into Shades just to escape, he also killed his whole village just to gain some idiot's favor. Taro didn't even have the excuse of being under someone's control. He made it quite clear that he was in charge of his own actions and that he liked every minute of it. Such actions were not forgivable, even for someone as forgiving as Phoenix. The bastard was going down and, unlike Saffron, he wasn't going to get back up.
At his back, Phoenix could feel a welling up of vast energies. Needing no explanation, he leapt up and back to land next to a glowing Sailor Moon. It was with her that Phoenix held the most of his surprise and admiration. Although he didn't know why, something had changed with the normally-bubbly girl. At school and in training she had become an almost different person, displaying a focus that put her friends to shame. While still horribly uncoordinated, Moon had absorbed Saffron's magic training almost voraciously. In terms of theory and practice she was miles ahead of the others. The only reason Phoenix was not more concerned with this change in personality lay in the fact that, as soon as the pencils were down and the training concluded, she was quick to whine and ask for something sweet.
Right now she stared out at the mass of shades and held her crystal aloft with purpose. It was clear that she was in no way happy with what she was seeing and had every intention to wipe the sight from existence. More and more power swelled around her and Phoenix could feel huge stores of Silver Millennium energy being converted to something akin to Cygnus' own. Phoenix did not know enough about magic to understand the complexity of what she was doing. Nevertheless, what he could feel spoke volumes on Moon's skill and power.
She was yelling now, a defiant cry against the power filling her body and the air around her. It was a cry Phoenix knew well and he stepped back out her way. Sure enough, a stream of cleansing light poured over the street. Where it touched friends the light healed and invigorated, foes froze and squealed under its power. Light like the Sun filled a sizable chunk of Tokyo and, once again, Sailor Moon beat back the night.
Blinking spots from his vision, Phoenix looked at the road before him and smiled when he saw nothing but a sea of still people. Well, they were not fully still. Even from his position, he could see the gentle raising and lowering of breathing chests and smiled. "Good job."
Moon was bent over, her breath coming in great, heaving lungfulls. She did not answer him and, instead, preferred to nod tiredly. Phoenix laughed happily. "Maybe next time you should let Cygnus help you," he said with a grin. Like before she answered with a nod and he only laughed that much harder.
"Shoot," huffed Cygnus as she landed nearby. "I was hoping for some action today."
Although she was as radiant as ever, when Phoenix looked to his love he did so incredulously. "You wanted a fight?"
She smiled, a sight that was almost as blinding as Moon's attack, but did not look embarrassed in the least. "What can I say, you've rubbed off on me." Cygnus then turned her smile onto Moon, who was only now standing straight. "You did excellent Moon. I am glad to see your training taking off."
The blond fighter shrugged, "What can I say, I'm motivated." Changing the subject, she turned her blue eyes onto Phoenix, "So, who did this?"
Phoenix looked at the others who were drawing near, their faces each showing the same question burning inside. Sighing, he slumped down somewhat, "Why don't we get out of here? I'll tell you there."
"Can I come along?"
The voice was familiar to Phoenix but he could not place its owner until he looked up and saw the six-armed woman standing nearby. "What are you doing here," he asked incredulously. It was only after asking that he felt it, the certain unmistakable feeling he experienced around all the other Avatars.
"Who is she," asked Moon, "a friend?"
"She's another Avatar," he answered, his eyes never leaving the woman's smiling form. "What should we call you?" Although he knew well what she was called, Phoenix decided the ruse was necessary for his friend's sake.
The Sailor Senshi, their armor gone and civilian identities in place, sat together and nervously tried not to stare at the latest addition to their band. It was, as they would all later reflect, a rather harder prospect than one would expect. Although Hydra, or Rouge as she preferred, was in her uncursed state, there was not a Senshi present who could not see the multiple faces and tangle of arms she had previously possessed. For the Senshi, especially the Inners, such a thing screamed monster. That said monster was, just like all the women from Ranma's past, also insanely beautiful made them all the more uncomfortable.
Unlike their counterparts, the Avatars were wholly at ease with their newest teammate. Ranma and the rest sat around her and chatted amiably about past adventures. To the Senshi, their stories of epic fights and Nerimian insanity sounded incredibly strange, especially given their prior status as enemies.
"So," said Haruka, her gaze a little more focused on Rouge's obvious assets than was necessary, "how long have you been an Avatar?"
With a grace that many among the Senshi's ranks gnashed their teeth at, Rouge sat her cup down and looked at the assembled mass. "I was, you must understand, in the woods at the time. Therefor I do not have an accurate picture of the time involved. However, I would have to say that I accepted Hydra's offer around the same time as the others took theirs."
Ryu looked at his new teammate curiously, "Then why'd it take you so long to get here? I wasn't all that quick getting here myself but I've still been here for a while."
"I was in Nepal at the time of my acceptance," she said simply. "My condition, as Ranma and Kasumi can attest, left my other half slightly insane. The human mind was not meant to process information from two more faces and in Nepal I had hoped to find some mental exercises that would help keep everything in focus. What I found, however, was far more potent than mere concentration."
"You mean Hydra, don't you," asked Ami.
Rouge smiled, "Yes. Hydra knows how to handle so much information and offered that understanding to me in exchange for saving the world. So it is that I have a great debt to pay my constellation, a debt that I shall take great pride in fulfilling." Rouge paused a moment to drink deeply of her tea before continuing. "To answer your question, Ryu, my tardiness is due to my desire to reconnoiter our enemy's stronghold."
At the back of the room Lime, and a much refreshed Mint, perked up. "You have been to our homeland," asked the larger with a hint of hope. "Tell us, how do our people fair?"
"Yes, I have seen the Musk lands. It is my deepest of regrets to inform you that your once green and fertile home is but a shadow of its former self. Those Musk who were unable to make it to Amazon land and failed to die in the initial attack are now Shades. An army of them patrol the barren lands and tear into those they find."
The room was silent. Aside from a select few, Setsuna and Cologne being chief among them, no one in the group had ever heard of such total devastation. Even the Senshi who remembered the war somehow had managed to avoid such dread scenes in their recollections. Hardest hit were Ranma and Kasumi. Both were as white as ghosts and they held each other in an almost frantic grip.
First to break the silence, save for a sniffle or sob, was Cologne. Face grave, she stared at the grim messenger and looked for any sign of hope. "What of my people, child? Or the Phoenix? Do we still have a place from which we may enact our vengeance?"
Rouge nodded. "Yes, while I was there I managed to find the leadership of your lands. It took an invocation of Ranma's name before they would even see me and even then they were suspicious. Your people, Elder, have fled Joketsuzoku." There were a series of gasps from the younger Amazons present but still Rouge pressed on. "They, along with the Musk remnants, now occupy Mt. Phoenix. The three tribes now stand united under a single roof."
Cologne shook her head and laughed sadly, "To think, so much strife has finally come to an end. I only wish more of our peoples had lived to see it."
"Believe me, Elder," said Setsuna softly, "of the two options available to my sight, one path ends with all three tribes succumbing to eternal night. As for the other, the path we now walk down, the future is hidden from me. But isn't the death of a few preferable to a mass extermination?"
While the Elder appeared shaken she nevertheless nodded, "Yes. Although there have been times when I yearned for nothing more than the valley to flood with the blood of Musk and Phoenix, as I sit here now I accept your point."
The younger Senshi, those still partially in their dream world of how reality functions, stared at their teacher with horror. "How could you ever want something like that?"
Surprisingly it was not the Elder, or even Setsuna, who answered. Instead it was Usagi, her voice hollow and eyes distant, that spike. "When you see your friends killed and the love of your life lays in a pool of his own blood, it's really easy to want someone to pay. It's harder though to look past that and work for peace."
There was not a young woman among the Inners who did not know what their leader referred to. Against Beryl they had all lost their lives, all save for Usagi. Alone and cold she somehow managed to gather up the strength of will needed to carry on and defeat the dark queen for all time. One by one they reached out and laid a hand upon their friend's arms or shoulders, each hand was a silent thanks and show of support that words were so inadequate to say.
Rouge gave the friends some time to sit in silence before addressing the group once again. "It might please you to know that Hydra tells me I am the last Avatar, at least the last untainted one."
Knowing what that meant as well as anyone, Lime sat up eagerly. "Does that mean we can go back?"
Although he could see the excitement bubbling in his friend's eyes, Ranma shook his head. "We can't. At least not yet."
"Yes," said Kasumi, picking up his thread, "with Taro on the loose we cannot leave Tokyo."
"Who's Taro? Was he the guy that let loose all those shades," asked Mamoru.
Ranma sighed and drank greedily of his tea. Although the bitter brew was very good, it did little to soothe his nerves. "Pantyhose Taro," there was a round of sniggers at that and Ranma even joined in, if only for a moment, "is a monster. We used to fight every now and then, and even back then the guy was nuts. He'd change sides quicker than the old pervert at a bikini contest," that drew some blank stares from the Senshi and shudders from the Nerima crowd. "But I never thought he'd go as far as he said he did."
"Tell us, Son-in-Law, what exactly did he do?" Even asking the question, Cologne felt a cold shiver run down her spine. Over her time in Japan she had come to know Ranma well and what she was seeing of his demeanor was not encouraging. The boy was deep within the Soul of Ice yet his whole body vibrated with fury. To have both at the same time was the illest of omens.
Ranma shuddered, his every fiber shaking with the information he'd learned. "Taro . . . that murderin' bastard, he, he killed his whole village."
Gasps abounded throughout the room. The Senshi, being the most innocent of those present, relatively speaking, were pale and, in a few cases, green. Only Setsuna managed to maintain her composure and even then it was clear that the lost of life had not left her unaffected. "You mean the constellation in him, right?"
"No," he shook his head. "Jusekyo made it so Taurus couldn't just take him like Gemini took the Golden Idiots. Taro had to let him in and before Draco was goin' to have him as a follower he had to prove himself."
While it was clear that everyone was disgusted at with what they were hearing, it was the contingent of martial artists who seemed the most upset. Kiima, in her Akane guise, was vibrating with such rage that it was actually manifesting on the visible spectrum. "He murdered his own people just to seize power," she shrieked. As a Phoenix such a thing was utterly unthinkable. Yes, any one of their number would gladly lay down their life to further their Lord's power. To kill your own though? Never.
Before Kiima could go off a Akane style tirade her anger gutted out and her eyes rolled up into the back of her head. With a single groan she pitched forward to slam unconscious into the ground. Behind where her neck had been was the slowly retreating tip of Cologne's staff. As the others stared at her with alarm, the matriarch merely shrugged. "There are few things on this Earth more unproductive than an angry Akane Tendo. Right, Son-in-Law?"
The pig-tailed teen chuckled humorlessly, "Right. She'd probably end up calling me a pervert then hit me with the table." That got a few chuckles out of those who knew all the players involved but still the atmosphere was tense.
"So what should we do about Taro," asked Usagi softly.
Haruka was quick with an answer, "We hunt the bastard down and grind him up," she growled.
Even as the Senshi expressed their agreement with her plan, Ranma shook his head and slammed his hand against the table. The sound was deafening, like the angry retort of some grand cannon, and it quieted the disparate conversations. "No," he hissed, to the surprise of all who knew him. "This isn't like this others. Taro ain't yer fight. If you see the bastard then run and call us."
The girls looked at their friend and Sensei with varying degrees of hurt. Of them, only three; Setsuna, Haruka, and Makoto, appeared to understand. As for the rest, well they appeared largely like Usagi. "Why?"
Ranma opened his mouth to answer but Makoto held up a hand. She met his gaze and when he nodded she turned to face her princess. "Usagi. How would you feel if one of us willingly turned evil and killed all of Nagano? Would you want outsiders to stop us or would you want to keep it in the family?"
Usagi looked into her friend's eyes and sighed, "You're right. If one of you went rogue it would be my job to stop you."
"There is an additional danger to you all," added Cologne gravely. As all eyes fell on her she continued, "Although it is true that, magically, you are more powerful than the Avatars, when it comes to more physical means of fighting even your best are woefully inadequate against us. No offense meant, of course," she added with a look to Makoto and Haruka.
"None taken," replied the blonde. She knew all too well what it meant to tangle with one of the fighters. Although her Senshi form heightened her speed and durability, the martial artists knew of spots that could stop someone with a single touch.
While Makoto and Haruka were quick to agree with the Elder's position, Rei and Minako looked less willing. "Hey now," exclaimed the raven-haired teen. "We've saved the world three times already! Don't take that lightly."
Ranma looked at the fiery girl through slitted eyes. "And you did it all with luck," he hissed. "What'd you give up to win? Yeah, you died against Beryl, I'll give you that. But did you have to? Once you became Senshi, did you focus your lives to that mission? Did you train until you couldn't stand? Did you work every day to be better than the last? Hell no! You sat around and lived your little privileged lives and complained about the honor given to you."
With an angry finger, he pointed at Shampoo; who appeared startled to be at the center of attention. "Look at her! Every day she woke up and trained. She had her hands pushed into fire and her body hit with rocks just to be the best. And you know why she did it? Because she knew she had to be better than the Musk or Phoenix she might meet in some godforsaken mud hole."
That finger then turned on Ryu, "Ryu? He's lived on his own for years. While you were safe and warm he was on the road learning how to survive. You could drop him anywhere on the planet and he'd be runnin' the place in a week if he wanted. You know what stops him from doing that? What stops Shampoo from snapping your necks before you can say word one about make up? They're good damn people," he roared and such was his anger that even Cologne flinched at the sight of it.
"Taro? He's lived the same kind of life, only he's an asshole. You go out and fight him and he'll run. He'll run and follow you home and kill your whole damn family." The Senshi grew pale at what he suggested and Ranma nodded. "Yeah, that's right. Taro's the kind of person who'll bring a house down to kill a bug. So when I say stay the hell away from him, stay the hell away from him!"
The girls stared at Ranma with fear-filled surprise. Never had they thought their friend capable of such anger. Only their enemies had ever expressed this level of rage and always they were being attacked at the time. Now here was someone who yelled to protect them and none of them knew what to do. Even Rei, always eager to fight anger with anger, was quelled by him.
"O-okay Ranma," said Usagi with a voice filled with power. "We'll stay away. Won't we," she said to the others, without any hint of question. When the others nodded Usagi smiled, albeit with a certain amount of strain.
"Excellent," smiled Cologne bitterly. "Perhaps we should now end this meeting and retire to our homes to think."
Still flush with power, Usagi nodded. "Yes, that sounds like a good idea. But first we're all going for ice cream. I think we could use some right now."
Kasumi smiled. "I agree."
As the walked down the well trodden path between Furinkan High and her home Akane's thoughts were, as they had often been since her talk with Rouge, focused on her future. Over and over she pondered the road her life would take and wondered where it led. For so long it led back to the dojo, back to a life where she stood as a master and taught her art to all those who visited. Yet now that future did not see quite so grand. Spending so much time cooped up at home these past few months, having the world pass her by with nary a word, made her see just what sort of hell running the dojo could quickly become. She needed something more, something that would let her go out into the world and stretch her wings.
So caught up was she in her own thoughts that she never noticed the presence behind her. And when something struck her on the back of the head all she was able to do was think, "Damn. Not again."
Elsewhere in Nerima, Ukyo Kounji walked towards her home and business with a certain lightness to her step. While Akane might be questioning her future, Ukyo knew where hers lay. It rested in a building that would become an empire, it nestled in the arms of a man who made a better woman than she did. For a long while she ignored that beautiful man and every day she sought to make amends for that most egregious oversight.
Her business had certainly taken off since the incident with Tsubasa. More and more she was hearing from customers that her product quality had gone up considerably. Several times she had checked her supplies for any changes but she could find none. The only other option was one that she was far too manly to voice but it was one that often left her giggling happily. In fact, just thinking about it sent a trill of happiness running through her and spilled from her lips.
"Damn," she heard from behind her. "There must be something in that water here that makes everyone act like girls."
Turning to face the voice, Ukyo felt her spatula being jerked off her back. Squawking with indignation, she faced the bastard who dared steal her weapon only to stop and gasp, "You!" Anything else she might have said was lost when her weapon came crashing down.
Her arms loaded with supplies bound for the kitchen, Nabiki mentally ran through the day's take. So far, the numbers were looking good. The wall scrolls with Phoenix and Cygnus standing together were selling well, as was the one with Ursus standing beside his bear form. Although the latter had taken some fancy work to make it look right, both men and women were gobbling them up by the dozen. Already she had began leaking word of a new Avatar on the scene and had booked an appointment with Hydra for some choice pictures.
The money, of course, was not bound for her coffers. Initially there had been outraged cries when her schoolmates heard of her making money off the Avatar's likenesses. Those cries were silenced after she announced where all of the yen she made went, a brand new charity. Once people heard that the sale of every wall scroll, t-shirt, and button went to helping victims of violence get back on their feet, the money came flowing in.
Her thoughts about money came to an abrupt end when she caught sight of a school bag. Instantly she knew who it belonged to. Even in Nerima, there was only one person whose bag would look so war-torn, Akane. Dropping her own bags, Nabiki rushed over to the forgotten satchel. As she knelt to pluck it from the ground, she scanned her surroundings for any sign of her sister. Alas there was nary a crazed kendoist nor a cry of combat joined. With nothing but a silent street, she was left with a terrifying understanding. Akane had been kidnapped, again.
Thinking quickly, Nabiki grabbed the satchel and her own bags before rushing towards her home.
The Nekohanten was quiet. It was, as was true with many restaurants, in between the lunch and dinner rushes and there was always something of a lull. Yet still, as Cologne stirred stock in the kitchen she could not shake the feeling that there was an ill feeing on the air. Such feelings were well known to the elder and they always heralded dark events. What was truly worrisome about it all was how vague her feelings were. Normally she could glean some deeper meaning to her dread but now all she felt was that. Not even the quiet helped soothe her nerves, the silence just seemed to lend an air of menace to her surroundings.
Once source of comfort, albeit a cold one, was Shampoo. Like herself, the girl seemed to notice that some ill-defined danger lurked about. Every shadow drew her sharp stare and more than once Cologne spotted her granddaughter slipping into a ready stance. Although such displays were signs of an undisciplined youth, they did show that Shampoo had yet to stray from the path to becoming an Elder.
Even Mousse, that ever-troublesome male, looked more alert than ever. That he, someone who seemed painfully incapable of understanding how little Shampoo cared for him, was able to detect the threat spoke highly of him. It also made the threat infinitely more grave.
As she stirred the stock with a spoon that was nearly as old as she, Cologne felt the danger suddenly spike. A moment later the spoon she had held in her hand shattered but by then she was already in motion. In an eye-blink she had her staff and was making her way towards the main part of the restaurant. Before she could cross the threshold the entire front wall blew inwards as if detonated by some great bomb.
From her location Cologne was sparred from the brunt of the explosion. Her safety was a cold comfort though, it just gave her the opportunity to watch her beloved granddaughter slam into the far wall with a painful thud. Out of the smoke and dust stepped a form that made her ancient blood run cold, "Taro."
The pretty male sneered and turned to face the woman, "Taurus. Do not forget that, crone."
Although his power was so great that it was practically a physical presence, Cologne had seen such power before and was not easily cowed by it. "Why do you attack us, demon?"
"Because I can," he said simply. "And because I'm here to get a present for Fem-boy."
Cologne saw his leering eyes fall upon Shampoo's unconscious form and gripped her staff tightly. "You will not have her," she said with authority.
"And who will stop me?"
The tiny woman paused for a second to activate the device Setsuna had given her before vanishing from sight. Less than a heartbeat later her tiny mass slammed into Taurus' chest with jarring force. Even as he staggered back from the strike Cologne's hand blurred, her tiny fingers striking pressure points across the Dark Avatar's chest in rapid succession.
Taurus howled with rage and pain as his chest erupted in fire. Behind his ribs he felt his heart quake unstably and knew that he was mere moments away from it exploding. Before that could happen, however, he triggered his curse and felt the pain subside greatly. With dark glee he watched as the woman's already large eyes grew even wider, "That's right, bitch. Like this, your little tricks mean nothing to me," he growled.
Even as the thick paw came crashing towards her Cologne leapt off the beast. "We shall see," she said as she landed and her body blurred into an army.
From multiple angles blades came in to slice into his thick hide. Although the cuts were more like bee stings, they were still annoying. Before the next strike could come, Taurus slammed a cloven foot into the ground and suddenly a great circle around him exploded violently. As he predicted, the other women vanished as his target tried to avoid the rocks around her. "You're good, I'll give you that," he said with false respect. "Good enough that I want to see what kind of fight you'll give Phoenix." With that he unleashed a torrent of black energy towards Cologne.
The attack came in so fast that Cologne had no time to avoid it. As the dark magic flooded her system she felt as if her bones had been dipped in acid. Every nerve in her body screamed with agony as the magic sought to change and control her. But Cologne was not without tricks of her own. Wrapping her ki along paths most had never heard of, she fought back against the corruption with her very soul. The fight was the most exhausting thing of her life but after what seemed like hours the darkness was gone and all that was left was Taurus' surprised face.
"How? That's not possible!"
"There's more to being a matriarch than just living a long time, sonny," she gasped tiredly. Although she was free of the taint he had introduced into her body, the fight had taken everything from her. There was not even enough strength left to her to stand, something made painfully clear by the way she fell to her knees.
Growling with hatred, Taurus stomped up to the woman and glared down at her tiny form with contempt. "Yeah, but I'm still gonna kill you." With a dark sneer he raised his cloven foot and positioned it to crush the insect's head. As he brought it down Taurus roared with his anger. Until, that is, he felt his foot come to a sudden halt. Eyes wide, he looked down and saw a hand wrapped around his foot, a hand attached to a man looking not all that dissimilar to Ranma. Suddenly his eyes met those of Cologne's protector and Taurus felt a sliver of fear work its way down his spine. "Who the hell are you?"
"Don't you recognize the man that brought you into the world, Taro," asked the man coldly before shoving the hoof, and Taurus, far away.
Cologne stared up at the rather attractive young man with something akin to awe. She knew Taro's past well, as well as anyone else in Nerima that is, and knew who it was who helped usher the dark man into this world. "Happi?"
Brown eyes that burned with righteous fire looked down at her as he smiled widely. "Heya Cologne."
From within a bright Hawaiian shirt he pulled out a bomb, "I'll explain later!" Even as he hurled the explosive at the raging minotaur, Happosai charged in after his attack. Unlike Cologne, Happosai began tossing the monster around, never giving him the time to return any strikes. It was a tactic that had served him well in his old body and with his new one he found it to be even more effective.
For the fifth time in so few seconds, Taurus felt himself being hurtled into the air by the blast of a well-placed bomb. Even as its heat seared his flesh and the explosion's retort deafened him, Taurus could feel other Avatars closing in on his location. Growling, he let an explosion rock him high into the air before staying there with his comically small wings. "Later, freak," he called down to the no longer diminutive Happosai, "I'll be back."
By the time Phoenix landed outside the ruined front of the Nekohanten the battle seemed to be long over. Unlike in Jubaan, there wasn't a crowd lurking around, Nerimans were too hardened against such things to be so stupid. Although it looked as if there was no one left to fight, Phoenix did not turn back. With fear driving him as it had since he first got Nabiki's call, he ran inside and found Mousse and another teen cleaning up the rubble from whatever happened. From the way the former kept glancing at the latter Phoenix had to wonder about the man's status in the war.
"Where's the fight," he demanded worriedly. "I got the old ghoul's call."
"You're lucky Cologne's too tired to be down here, sonny," laughed the newcomer. "Otherwise she'd probably bash you for that."
"Do I know you?" It was, as he had come to accept, rather hard for him to put names to faces, especially when he hadn't seen someone in a while. This person, however, was not spiking his recognition at all.
"It's Happosai," replied Mousse with understandable contempt.
Phoenix stared at the man for several moments with open mouthed surprise. "How did you . . . you know what, I don't care right now. Where's Taro?" Although he was insanely curious at the moment, Phoenix could see what was really important.
Happosai smiled approvingly, "He was here a little while ago but ran off after I saved Cologne."
"How is she," asked the Avatar worriedly. "That bastard didn't hurt her too bad, did he?"
"She's upstairs asleep. I don't know what he did to her but her ki's practically gone." From his grave tone it was clear that he was as worried as his protege.
"I'll have Cygnus look in on her when she gets here," responded Phoenix without hesitation. "Where's Shampoo? Did Taro get her?"
"She's upstairs too," answered Mousse sadly. "My darling was hurt in the opening attack."
"She's unconscious but not too bad," added Happosai. "But if you have a healer on the way then you should have them double check."
"How did you get here so fast," asked Mousse. "The attack was only a few minutes ago."
"I was already on the way. Someone's taken Akane."
"Akane is not alone," added a feminine voice.
Phoenix turned towards the source of the voice. It was a woman of surprising beauty. That she wore men's clothing and was completely soaked meant only one thing. "Konatsu? Don't tell me Ukyo's missing too."
Although the tears pooling in her eyes spoke to the ninja's emotional state she nodded resolutely. "When Ukyo was late for our date I went looking for her and found this in the road." The this in question turned out to be Ukyo's battle spatula.
Walking up to the forlorn woman, Phoenix placed a gentle hand upon her shoulder. "Don't worry. I'll get her back."
Konatsu nodded, "Just promise me one thing. Kill the monster that did this."
While Mousse and Happosai looked at the teary-eyed girl with shock, Phoenix nodded. "That's the plan. Stay close and you might even be able to help kill him." Even as Konatsu bowed gratefully, the Avatar turned back to the two men who gaped at him. "Taro's gone off the deep end. He killed his village and who knows how many more."
Mouse might have grown pale with this revelation but Happosai's expression turned dark and cold. "If only I had known that before," he ground out, "I had the perfect opening."
Phoenix shook his head, "No offense, but he's an Avatar and that makes him my problem." The fiery man was gratified to see Happosai merely nod instead of arguing and to return the courtesy he bowed slightly. "Now if you'll excuse me, I've got to get to the Tendos and check in with them."
"I'll stay here in case Taro doubles back," replied the de-aged master. "But make sure my worthless students know that I'm back in town and will be checking in on them."
With less than three minutes until the Six o'clock news, the anchor room of the main JNN studios was swirling cauldron of controlled chaos. Men and women went about their assigned tasks with the wrote professionalism of people long used to their positions. Make-up was checked and rechecked, stories were confirmed, and cameras were prepared all for the night's dose of news.
Soon enough, the cameras were rolling and vital information from the day's events were transmitted throughout the island nation. In the midst a story on an earthquake in the Kanto region someone walked up behind one of the camera men and casually snapped his neck before throwing the lifeless body in front of the cameras. There were gasps and the anchors tried to keep with the stories while also looking around to see what was happening. They did not have to wait long for their answers however.
In quick order the man was behind the desk and had the female host's head held tightly in his grasp. "If you cut away from this, I will kill her." When the woman began to cry her captor seemed to get a gleeful thrill out of her terror. "Hear me Phoenix! I have the butch bitch and the cook. If you want them back alive meet me in front of the school in an hour. If you don't, then they'll end up like this woman." Before anyone could stop him the man casually snapped his prisoner's neck before walking off stage with a casual air.
As the Tendo's small television replayed the news events the only other sound in the entire house was that of Ranma's teeth grinding against each other. Finally, after he could stomach no more, he switched off the box with an angry flick. "God! It's like he doesn't care at all," he ground out.
Nearby, her hands holding onto Line's fiercely, Nabiki looked up at the towering pillar of righteous fury. "You're not going to let him hurt Akane, right?"
"I'll do my best," answered Ranma slowly. "But you saw what he did to that woman. I wouldn't put past him to do the same thing to Akane and Ukyo."
Although she grew increasingly paler, Nabiki nodded. "I understand. Just make sure he dies screaming. Okay?"
"I'll do my best," he repeated, this time with far more hatred than before. "Kasumi and the others are on their way here. They should be here before the deadline."
"Poor choice of words Ranma," glared the sole Tendo female.
"Ranma," said Genma gruffly. "Can I speak to you for a moment?"
Ranma stared at his father with suspicion. Ultimately, however, he nodded and began walking towards the dojo. As he moved through the house that had, for so long, been his home, Ranma tried to think of what his father was going to say to him. Already he expected yelling and pleas for his return. Neither of which was he going to entertain for long but since the man asked nicely he figured he'd treat niceness in kind.
When they finally reached the dojo and the doors closed behind them, Ranma turned on his old man and stared at him neutrally. "Okay. Talk."
Genma drew in a deep breath and, for the first time, Ranma was struck by how old his father seemed. "Ranma, son. I just wanted to say that . . . . I'm very proud of you."
The teen stared at his father for a moment before asking, "What?"
"You heard me," growled Genma before calming down once more. "I know I wasn't the easiest father to have. I'm just glad you've been able to get out and make something of yourself. Whatever you think of me, just remember that I'm happy to call you son."
His mouth locked open by surprise, Ranma watched as his father turned and slowly walked away. Never had he expected such words out of the man and now he wasn't quite sure of what to do. It was true what Genma said, he was far from the best father ever. In fact, the man sucked on any meaningful scale. Yet just when he had managed to write the panda off he went and did something completely off kilter. Before his father could get too far away a mental nudge from Kasumi got his mouth working again.
"Hey Pops!" The man stopped, his whole frame showing a barely restrained hope. "Um, thanks. And, uh, I guess you should know that the old freak's back in town. So, um, maybe you should hide for a bit."
Genma turned slightly to smile his son's way, "Thanks. I think I'll do that."
As consciousness slowly filled her being, the first thing Akane Tendo faced was pain. It radiated from the back of her skull in fearful waves that made her eyes water and her jaw clench. Although she was not unused to the sensation, experience had little affect on its agony.
Slowly she opened her eyes and, once the stars cleared from her vision, Akane was able to see where they were. "Great," she thought with a groan, "why do they always bring me to school?" Even as she cursed the hand fate had once again dealt her, Akane heard a groan from her right. Looking over turned out to be one of the most painful experiences of her life, but when she was done she saw Ukyo tied to a pole similarly to how she must be.
The chef looked, in her honest opinion, like hell. The girl's hair was disheveled and her clothes torn. What truly drew the eye, however, was the massive bruise forming along the entire left side of Ukyo's face. Even from her position, Akane could make out the indentation of the woman's battle spatula. From her reckoning, Ukyo had, at best, a broken jaw. There was, of course, the possibility of worse injuries lurking beneath that bruise but Akane was not willing to make too big of a guess.
Being someone with a large amount of experience with kidnappings, Akane slowly began to assess the situation. Most people assumed that escape was the thing she would look for first, but that was not so. After so many times as a hostage Akane had learned that it is more important to know who has you than how to escape. With some captors there was no need to fear. Others, like the man pacing nearby, made the experience worse just by being there.
Taro, she felt, was among the worse people to have as a captor. He was not the sort to treat others with kindness, nor was he quick to help. That he had taken them without cause could only mean something terrible was afoot. And, although it galled her to think it, she knew without a doubt that Ranma would soon be there to rescue her.
Suddenly Taro stopped and when he faced her Akane felt a fear unlike any she'd encountered, "So, you're awake."
"Y-yeah. It helps that you're not the first one to knock me out and kidnap me," she said with measured strength.
"Well I'm glad you're up," he sneered. "Otherwise I wouldn't be able to see your horror when I pull Fem-boy's spine out."
Akane stared at him and felt the depths of her fear grow. Never before had she heard one of their foes talk like that. Oh sure, Ryouga would often say he'd kill Ranma but that was because Ranma was picking on the poor thing. This, this was something completely different and Akane found herself wanting a rather large army between her and the man. "You're insane."
"Took the words right out of my mouth," replied a third, and familiar, voice.
For the first time since he left, Akane felt herself happy to hear her former fiancé's voice. It wasn't an army, to be sure, but one Ranma was better than nothing. "Watch out," she yelled. "He's got me and Ukyo and god knows how many more."
"That's right, freak," sneered Taro evilly as he made his way over to his prisoners. "You better watch out. Because if you're not careful I'll turn them both into Shades. Oh, and tell your friends to come out where I can see them. They've got three seconds before I start breaking bones."
Akane looked around with confusion for a moment before the Senshi leapt over the wall. Joining them were several people from her past, including one person she'd seen rather recently in fact. Every one of their faces stared at Taro with intense hatred. Even Sailor Moon, reportedly the kindest of the Senshi, looked ready to kill her captor.
"Good," nodded Taro as he nonchalantly eyed the men and women arrayed against him. "Good. Now, hand yourself over, Phoenix. You and the Crystal."
Even though the very idea made her head pound, Akane looked Phoenix in the eye and shook her head. As much as she may whine and pout about her place in the cosmos, she did know it well. There was no way she was going to let someone else sacrifice themselves for her, even if that person was Ranma. Despite her silent pleas, Phoenix seemed to be following Taro's commands.
Before the gallant idiot could go too far, a loud roar suddenly washed over the schoolyard only to grow to deafening proportions. All eyes turned to the sky and there they all saw a ball of fire rushing headlong towards them. Being somewhat used to falling objects, it did not take Akane long to figure out where it was heading and quickly she looked down at Taro. In the second before that meteor struck she saw Taro mouth, "Oh shit." After that all she knew was flight. Such was the power of the blast that both she and her pole were hurled high into the air only to slam into the school with bone jarring force.
Even as his ears were ringing and his vision blurred, Phoenix reached out for Cygnus through their link. Blessedly he found her in short order and, aside from being shaken by their ordeal, she appeared none the worse for wear. With his love safe, the Avatar busied himself with the wider world. Moving as quickly as the spinning world would allow, he stood and began to make his way over to the crater.
And crater it was. A massive chunk of the school grounds had been caved in by whatever it was that crashed into it. From the center of that depression he could just make out the ghostly form of a bull rising up into the air. Although he didn't know how, Phoenix knew that the bull was Taurus' true form. Raising his hand towards the corrupted constellation, Phoenix opened his mouth to call out a warning. Before he could say word one, however, a hand sheathed in a golden gauntlet burst out of the crater and wrapped itself around Taurus' spectral self.
"Not so fast," said a voice.
To Phoenix's ear it was a voice that was power. It washed over him and made every muscle freeze. In his mind he could hear layer after layer of age and authority all wrapped within a very pleasing feminine lilt. Though he did not know who this person was, the fighter in him knew that a new player had just entered the game.
"You, Avatar," spoke the still concealed voice. "Do you know of a way to cleanse this curse? Or shall I end its life before it causes any more grief?"
Phoenix felt the power receded from his vocal cords and quickly said, "Yes! Cygnus can cure him."
"So, she has involved herself too," asked the voice with a hint of surprise. "Things must be more dire than I once thought. You may start at any time, Cygnus."
As he had many times before, Phoenix felt the rapid rising of his love's power. Even without being the target of her cleansing, he felt his head clear and the ringing in his ears faded. Soon enough a beam of light so bright it turned all other lights into dark photo negatives burst across the ruined field and slammed into the spirit of Taurus. Without a host to help fight Cygnus' power, the darkness was quickly washed away, leaving only the glowing form of a proud bull.
"Thank you," it said into the minds of all present. "You have no idea how horrible it was to be bound to such a horrid creature. I had no idea the depths of Taro's ugliness. Even so corrupted as I was, it scared me. You have my eternal gratitude."
"Wait," said Cygnus. "You say you were bound to Taro. But I thought you joined with him willingly."
"I did. And once so joined the bond can only be broken by the death of one or both. Remember that Avatars." With that final statement, Taurus floated away to return to his rightful place in the heavens.
Deciding to dwell on Taurus' words later, Phoenix looked at the crater, "So, who are you then."
"I am known by many names across the breadth of my domain." As she spoke the dust and debris began to flow away on stiff breeze. In their wake they left the image of a woman garbed in golden armor not unlike the kind that the Senshi wore before they changed their outfits. Trailing behind her in a pseudo campaign cloak was a mane of reddish-orange hair. "But you may call me, Galaxia."
Once again, Akane found herself waking in a place that was not her bed. This time, however, she was not bound up and instead she was staring up into the kindly face of a paramedic. "What?"
Gentle hands pushed her back down, "Woah there. You took a bad fall. The Senshi said they patched you up but we're taking you in for observation. So just stay still and calm down, you're safe now."
Akane looked around. Out of the corner of her eye she saw Phoenix and the others jump away with a strangely armored woman with them. Their escape, however, mattered little to her. Instead, the bulk of her concentration was for her fellow prisoner. "Where," she rasped, "where's Ukyo?"
"Your friend is already on her way to the hospital. The Senshi were able to stabilize her, but some of her injuries were too delicate for them to heal all the way."
Although she was still worried about her once rival, Akane found herself admiring the woman working on her. Even though the situation was dire, the woman was going about her duties with a calm ease. It was like watching Ranma at work when he was in the zone and it made her think about things she never considered. "Hmm, maybe I can help people and still be something more than just me," she thought as the woman and her partner lifted her onto a stretcher.
Author's Notes: Well, it took over a year, but another chapter is finally done. I hope it was worth the wait. For you guys who are wondering how much further this story is going, know that I'm planning on one more chapter and then an epilogue. So we're in the home stretch now. That being said, the things that stalled this chapter for so long are still in play. Therefore, do not expect the next chapter for at least another year; probably more.
For you Akane fans, I hope you enjoyed how I handled her here. Originally I wasn't going to have her in the story at all, but I figured the Rouge intro made for a perfect device to see how Akane was doing after all this time. And then, after I had Akane at the first of the chapter, I realized later on that I was writing a Ranma fic and no one was getting kidnapped. So there you have it, the requisite kidnapping and save.
Some of you probably had questions about Konatsu's current gender. No, I did not make a mistake in saying she was a girl. All of that was explained in a sidestory I wrote called SitS: A Nerima-side Story.
Yes, I killed Taro rather fast, didn't I. Well, quite frankly, I didn't want to write a big fight scene. And I've known for a while that Galaxia was going to be in on this, so her dropping on the party, literally, seemed the most Ranma thing to do. In case there are any questions, yes Taro is dead.
Finally, tonight I would like to take a moment to thank you all. I know I have not been the most prompt author but knowing that there are people waiting for more has given me the extra oomph to finish a scene or line of dialogue. A special thanks goes out to you guys who gave written in the last few months. Because I do not know how such things will be affected by 's ever changing rules, I will refrain from saying your names here. Just know that I read your messages and appreciate your concern. Keep the faith guys, keep the faith.
King of the Wicker People