A Time Apart
The Silver Millennium died. An empire that had once spanned a dozens of star systems across hundreds of light years of space ceased to exist in less than forty eight hours, as its host worlds were literally consumed by the demonic horde summoned forth by the Arch Queen Beryl. She enslaved her own populace, sacrificed them and then turned her unholy horde upon the heart of the empire itself, that silver jewel known as the Moon.
It was from there, Ranma watched atop a hillside. A beautiful day, a lethargic portion of her consciousness noted as fluffy white clouds drifted across the bluish-purple sky. A forest laced the grassy clearing she stood in while the countryside seem to stretch on forever; rolling green plains and a city of pure crystal spires sprawled across the landscape; the earth hung on the horizon as if painted their by a master artisan. It was the picture of peace, perfect in every way until her eye caught a disturbing change in the place she called home. The dominate blue hue of her home world began to bleed away, muddying until leeched away by the growing splotch of crimson. Red curdled into the orb until the entire planet was consumed by it, and then…
Off to the right. A hillside literally disappear beneath a blinding burst of light, and by the time her eyes adjusted, had been transformed into an apocalyptic fireball that tore its way into the heavens. A village nestled in the shadowy protection of the former hill was seared from existence in that single moment, and whatever the sudden inferno hadn't consumed, the monstrous shockwave mercilessly crushed. Green earth charred into black and another flash blazed across the blue sky, whiting it out for a split second before giving birth to another cauldron of fire. The first matured into a boiling mushroom cloud that tainted the sky red for miles; red as the Earth now was, and it wasn't long before the pair were joined by a third and forth.
Fire bathed the plains now and one of the apocalyptic torches final found the great crystal city. A single burst wasn't enough to destroy the beautiful monument of humanity outright, but it stabbed into its very heart; a bonfire roaring amidst crystalline logs.
And then there was the screaming.
By all rights, she should have been too far away from it all to hear anything except the thunder of nuclear annihilation, but that thunder was silent, and the cool breeze began to whisper to her ears… A multitude of voices, screaming in horror. She put her hands to her ears, but it did little to block out the wailing as another crescendo of fire bloomed within city. And then another. And more. The wind was shrieking with terror now as chunks of the great crystal metropolis were gutted, pieces at a time. Entire suburbs simply ceased to exist and the tidal wave of flame washed out into the surrounding countryside. More towns were devoured by the hungry blaze as it raced up toward her own vantage point, eating away the forests stretching out before her.
There was movement in that forest; movement besides the dancing orange dervishes that consumed it. Ranma's blue eyes swept along the fire line in an attempt to pick out the new flurry of activity when it exploded. Life and death simultaneously erupted from the tree line as animals surrendered their sanctuary to the flame, each and every single one of them in some state of conflagration. Deer burned as they stumbled out, while rabbits and smaller creatures attempted to escape the same fate. Flocks of birds were caught up in the inferno, spontaneously combusting and fluttering to the ground in deadly spirals that in turn sparked off their own fires. A bear lumbered out of the blaze, already full engulfed and managing a good ten meters before simply falling over to fuel its own pyre.
And still the fire spread toward her. Up the hillside, racing unnaturally toward her and yet her muscles refused to obey the instinct to flee. Meters now. The screaming was now a deafening pitch, as if it had ridden the cresting wave of wildfire.
The wave of heat caressed her like a blacksmith's furnace.
The fire encircled her. Danced enticingly around her…
…Inviting her to join in the celebration…
"Send me back."
"Why not?" Ranma demanded, propping himself up upon the bed that had been his residence for nearly three days now; residence that had been, for the most part the unconscious sort. Now, he was awake, however... Awake and looking for answers.
"I can't..." Setsuna shook her head, and a subtle change of posture overtook her frame. The wounds had been opened once more with the martial artist's trip to the past, and she felt fatigue... fifteen thousand years worth of it; and the temptation sang to her like a siren. "No... Rather, I won't."
It wasn't even a question this time; closer to a threat, Setsuna noted silently. Almost amusing considering the person who had issued it was bedridden and was barely able to walk. Almost, she knew. The Queen didn't anoint guardians on a whim, and that was impressive enough. That, and his position was an easy one to rationalize. Seductively easy, Setsuna knew from experience. After all, what was to stop them from taking a jaunt back to past? Kill some youma, assassinate Beryl and have some tea with the Queen afterward, right? The Silver Millennium would continue in all its glory with no one the wiser. Friends would live, family restored…
…Save the fact that that such an action had the very real possibility of instigating a critical temporal paradox, destroying reality as mankind knew it. Or maybe simply wiping out the countless other billions that had survived and thrived after The Fall. Surely they had an equal right to life? Even her Queen's direct order to not interfere in the past paled in comparison to those facts when it was all said and done, but there was still a single overriding reason that prevent her from stepping into the past to right those wrongs…
And now she had to explain to another soul why they could never, ever step foot into the past to change the here and now. The Guardian of Time took a deep breath and prepared to open some old, old wounds.
"Sixteen thousand years ago," The emerald haired woman found a plush stitch chair next to the bed and settled in for the long haul. "Three sisters were born amid an era of chaos and strife. War raged around them and people died. Family… Friends… Billions. Yet somehow they came through it unscathed, even as their loved ones died around them and the chaos continued."
The young man in the bed next to her looked as if he were ready to argue the relevance of her tale, but held his tongue as she continued. "During those days, there was no authority, no centralized government to keep the peace. Just leaders were rare and even those that managed to survive the other warlords would make little headway; ultimately becoming too busy watching their own backs and defending their own star systems to make any contribution toward a lasting peace."
"A dire time," The guardian shook her head with what Ranma interpreted as first hand reminiscence, as impossible as the fact seemed. Of course, everything about the last few days fell under that header, so the martial artist remained silent, allowing her to continue.
"Yet the sisters survived, due in no small part to their exceptional gifts. One possessed unparalleled magical potential, the other an affinity for time. The last sister could influence the very strands of fate itself and the three together took it upon themselves to set things right. With these three tools at their disposal, they altered the very destiny of this galaxy, moving it from a machine of violence to one of peace and prosperity. It was this radical, unnatural shift that gave rise to the Silver Millennium."
A small, bitter smile found its way to her face. "It was also an arrogance that may have been overlooked, save the fact that their project was much more ambitious in nature. They didn't seek to simply predestine those events alone… No, they sought to alter those of everywhere and everywhen. The Silver Millennium would exist in every reality the sisters could touch, and they succeeded with disastrous consequences."
Ranma's eyes had lost their edge of disbelief now, completely engrossed in the events long since passed to dust. "And you were…?"
"Yes, I was," Setsuna sighed. "And moreover, we had warning. Our sister, the one tied to fate itself could feel it… feel the retribution coming. As I have been reminded recently, Hitsuzen does not like to be toyed with and would regain its balance by whatever means necessary. She tried to warn us, but we knew better. We had come so far and it was unfathomable that something could come along and destroy the peace we had worked so hard for…"
"The invasion," She confirmed, letting her head roll back to stare at the ceiling without actually seeing anything. "Hitsuzen brought itself back into alignment, but the cost was catastrophically high. And like our own meddling, that balance was exact everywhere and everywhen we had touched…" A single tear rolled Setsuna's cheek. "Billions died that day- in this reality alone –to bring Hitsuzen back into balance."
"Shit…" Ranma whispered, fully aware of how completely inadequate the revelation was in light of recent events.
"And thus the reason why I have not already done what you now desire to do now," The Princess of Pluto pulled her head back from its vertical orientation, wiping away the single tear. "To defy Hitsuzen its balance further…" She shook her head. "I will not... I dare not do so, nor can I allow you to so in my stead."
"Then why the hell did you send me back in the first place!?" Ranma exploded after a moment of silent contemplation, bolting upright with renewed purpose. "I had her! I was about to shove a tornado of ice up that bitch's ass!"
"How you actually escaped the temporal bubble is honestly beyond me," She shook her head, feeling the teen's anger as if it were her own. "Your expedition to the past should have taken no more than twenty minutes subjectively. You were never supposed to talk to anybody."
"Yeah, well, I talked to a lot of people," Ranma returned testily. "And aren't you supposed to be dead?"
"I'm surprised that wasn't your first question, actually," Setsuna chuckled mirthlessly, leaving the chair and angling for the doorway. "I need a drink."
The pigtailed boy watched with an arched eyebrow as the green haired Senshi depart the room, only to return minutes later with a decanter full of potent looking brown fluid and two smaller crystal glasses. She set the crystal trio on the nightstand next to Ranma's head and pulled the rosebud stopper from the container, setting it aside. One glass was poured, then the other, and Setsuna push the second his way.
"To lost friends." She raised the glass somberly, stared at if for a moment before pulling it back, downing the entire quarter of liquid in a single breath.
Ranma held the woman with widened eyes but shrugged. He hadn't been back in the past for more than two days, nor did he usually indulge in alcohol, but he had made friends and it was a sentiment that he could whole heartedly agree with.
"Lost friends." He agreed, raising the glass and tipping it back in kind. He barely drained half the glass before the beverage began to strip his throat of flesh, forcing him to desperately keep the coughing fit within to save face.
If Setsuna found the scene even remotely amusing, if failed to reflect in her face or body language as she poured herself another glass. She stared at it in silent contemplation for another minute before beginning anew. "I am alive simply because that was not me."
"Not you." Ranma stared levelly at her and the green haired shrugged it off with another drink.
"Correct." She confirmed. "I won't bore you with the mechanism behind it, but suffice to say this isn't my Earth, so what happened to her doesn't affect me from a causality standpoint."
"So there are… were… two of you?" Ranma squinted, attempting work the logic out himself with the limited theory at his disposal. The martial artist shook his head and pushed the bed's covers off, testing his left arm with a flex.
"Effectively, yes," She nodded, somewhat pleased that he was grasping the basics.
"And where you're from…" Ranma continued to wade through the treacherous waters of temporal mechanics tepidly. "…did it go as bad as it did here?"
"Almost," She admitted with little emotion. "On my Earth, the Silver Millennium still fell, but my Queen had enough left after sealing Beryl to reincarnate the Senshi in the here and now to protect the last remnant of humanity in the present."
"Then what happened…?" A key fact in her explanation clicked, and Ranma's focus narrow sharply. "Wait. Sealed?"
"My sister opted to spare Beryl in her final moments in my when," The Princess of Pluto detailed softly, sipping her drink. Ranma was out of bed now, testing his range of motion. He felt a bit weak, but otherwise okay considering his ki was ebbing at an all time low. "I'd like to think it was in the hopes of the Arch Queen's redemption… Sadly, that hope was intrinsically flawed. Beryl had let too much of her soul slip into the abyss, and she escaped later to challenge the Queen's daughter—"
"Moon Serenity," Ranma supplied, clearly remembering the girl she had the honor to fight alongside.
"Correct…" Setsuna stated with the slightest edge of awe. It was literally the first time in over fifteen millennia that she had heard the name spoken aloud by anybody other than herself.
"Cuz, that's really weird," Ranma had stopped any self assessment, concentrating on the matter fully. "Last I checked, we were about ready to hand that woman's ass to her."
"I… She…" Setsuna Meiou lapsed into a confused silence, staring at the unlikely guardian. Finally, she was able to rationalize her thoughts coherently, and for the first time since his awakening, smiled thoughtfully. She set her drink aside and took Ranma's hand gently. "For being there for her… Thank you."
With that, Setsuna turned away, leaving Ranma alone in the room and closing the door behind her.
"London, to be exact," Setsuna barely suppressed the smile that threatened to break out upon detailing the news. "Your trip to the past changed things, for the better and for worse."
"Woulda done even better if you had let me stay five seconds more," Ranma Saotome stared at the emerald haired woman who lounged back in the comfort of a curved black leather seat. The light jingle of Champaign glasses filled the air of their spacious compartment while sunlight attempted to pierce the vehicle's dark tinting with limited success.
She was driving him to the dojo in a limo. A goddamn limo.
"And in doing so more than likely instigated a catastrophe magnitudes worse than the fall itself," She inserted patiently, clearly recognizing just how fresh his wounds were. "Think of it this way… Let's say you did the job and killed Beryl. What would have happened?"
Ranma leaned forward on the edge of his leather seat opposite of Setsuna, considering the question. "Well… She wouldn't be around to cause trouble, I guess."
"Exactly," The Guardian confirmed. "She would have died, her soul consumed and the infernal army with her. The Queen would not have had to resort to her final attack, or in my case, the sealing. It would be safe to assume she could have recovered the survivors on Earth and rebuilt anew."
"So what's wrong with that?" Ranma shrugged, not seeing anything bad in the logical progression of events.
"Well, you probably would cease to exist, for one," Setsuna began to tick the points off on her hand, causing Ranma to blink. "Secondly, everybody on the earth at this very moment would suffer the same fate. After all, the events leading to the birth of their parents and ancestors didn't transpire."
"Oh, sure, statistically speaking you would have a straggler here and there, but even then, they wouldn't be the same person up here," She tapped her own left temple to emphasis the point. "And that's not even taking into account how Hitsuzen may balance itself out after the fact."
"Maybe," The pigtailed teen admitted grudgingly. "But what's this all have to do with England?"
"As I mentioned, your visit still changed a few things," She continued, gazing out the closest tinted window and out into the traffic passing beyond. "And England has become a nexus of activity for those changes."
"Figures," The martial artists huffed. "You realize I'm gonna catch all sorts of hell for this, right?"
"Would your decision change?"
"Nah," The answer wasn't even a question in Ranma's eyes. "I'll just tell 'em it's a training trip or something."
The woman turned back to face him, nodding. "Please keep our destination in the strictest of confidence. The threats we may encounter could very well rival those you encountered during the Fall. I have little doubt in your abilities- especially given your Guardianship by my sister -but the interference of amateurs is the last thing we need at this juncture."
"Got plenty of those in my life," Ranma chuckled, eliciting a slight smile from Setsuna.
"Indeed," The limousine rocked slightly as its mass rounded a corner and rolled to a stop. Ranma instantly recognized the gate of the Tendo Dojo from his vantage point. "I'll send the limo by at around midnight tonight. From there, we'll take JAL first class to London, Heathrow where we'll investigate the leads I've managed to acquire. Pack light."
As if the limo isn't enough, Ranma snorted mentally as he considered the travel arrangements. While he only had the vaguest of notions of what first class entailed, he knew it couldn't be cheap. The left door clicked open, piercing their spacious compartment with a beam of pure white light. Beyond that, their friendly chauffeur waited patiently for his departure.
Ranma gave the woman a final nod before stepping out onto the day lit sidewalk and stretched. The door shut behind him and the long car drove off, leaving him alone at the foot of the dojo gates.
"Nice ride, Saotome."
Ranma froze, knowing the characteristic drawl of the female speaker's voice instantly. Her turned to his right and confirmed the last person he really wanted to see watch him step out of a limousine.
"Nothing at the bridge, either," Nora reported evenly, keeping astride Nabiki's pace as the senior jotted down notes into a little brown book. "It's like he's dropped off the face of the Earth, sempai."
"With Saotome, I almost wouldn't doubt it," The middle Tendo rolled her eyes as the two continued to walk down the sidewalk discussing business. Today was day three and there was still no sign of the martial artist since his "interview" with the woman claiming to be a professor at Tokyo University. "How about this supposed teacher?"
"Seiya says she checks out," the black haired girl next to her replied. "Fully accredited history professor for the last four years, lives in lower Juuban, single."
"Bullshit," Nabiki shook her head, scratching something out of the notebook. "If she's a history professor, I'm engaged to Kuno. Computer records, right?"
Nabiki nodded as they turned onto the next street, gaining sight of the dojo gates of her family's namesake. "Too much trouble to get hard copies... Looks like we'll just have to grill him for the information when he gets back."
Nora nodded as she followed her superior across the street. Even as they did so, a jet black limo rounded the corner opposite of their position, pulling up to a smooth stop next to the dojo gates.
"Expecting company, Boss?" The girl asked with an appreciative glance as the driver's side door opened and a chauffeur exited the vehicle. Both girls had stopped, watching while the driver circled around the front and opened the passenger door. "Kuno, maybe?"
"Doesn't look like one of his," Nabiki shook her head, waiting to for the passenger to depart. That, and it would be the Sasuke playing chauffeur, she added mentally. They didn't have long to wait either way as the black haired occupant stepped out of the blacked out limousine into daylight.
Nora cheek twitched, her voice elevating to a wheezing hiss. "Sa…Sa… Saotome?!"
"Oh, I can't wait to hear this one," Nabiki's face manifested a predatory grin, then turned to her subordinate. "You know what to do."
"Already on it." The black haired girl's head bobbed, leaving the middle Tendo to walk across the street and wait for the martial artist to notice her. The limo drove off and Nabiki smiled.
"Nice ride, Saotome."
"Nabiki," he returned warily upon finding the person he least want to see at the moment. His blue eyes darted from her person to the girl walking down the street in the opposite direction. His face turned bland. "How long do I got?"
"About as long as it takes for her to find the nearest payphone," Nabiki probed, leading the martial artist through the property gate and along the stone path to the household's front door. "So, three days, Saotome... Anything you would like to tell me?"
"Nothin' you won't be finding out with everybody else in a minute," Ranma returned dryly, following the middle Tendo into the house. The comment incited the sister to chuckle.
"But it's so much more fun to—"
"BOY!" Genma Saotome lurched into the hallway, nearly plowing over Nabiki in order to grab his son and shake him furiously. "Where the hell have you been!?"
The rest of the family was now gathered around, watching Ranma extricate himself from his father's throttling with a deft elbow to the top of his head, sending him hard to the floor.
"Oh my," Kasumi tilted her head, watching the violence play out as if it were a fact of life. Sadly, it was. "We were beginning to wonder if you had eloped with that nice history teacher."
"ELOPED?!" Akane yelped, an angry red aura fueled by assumption snapping into place. Nor was she the only one. Even as she took her step forward, Soun's own aura had twisted into a horrid visage, towering over the martial artist.
"RANMA, HOW COULD—!"
His rant was cut off- sliced off, as a matter of fact –as a null pressure blade carved through the demonic visage and into the roof with a lethal hiss. Soun Tendo froze instantly, recognizing the technique clearly. Akane was still moving forward with her fist, only to have her wrist caught, twisted and rotated 180', flipping her hard to the ground.
A meter's length of sunlight now shown overhead; a thin line that light that opened out into sky and crossed the Tendo patriarch's forehead like a dividing razor.
Nor was the symbolism lost on anybody else, who had likewise frozen. Even Nabiki stared down at the martial artist, who held his crouch and the knife edge of his hand off to the right. His eyes… So cold… She couldn't remember the last time he had taken to physical violence toward any member of the family, let alone Akane and Daddy. His own father, sure, but the fat panda was fair game. And the attack! It wasn't the standard Saotome beat down.
"Eh, sorry 'bout that…" Ranma blinked and the business end of martial artist's personality faded away like water. Akane lay off to the side, flat on her back and completely unmoving as she stared at the line carved into the ceiling above her. He favored the family with an apologetic look. "…been a rough couple of days."
"I'll put it on your tab, Saotome," Nabiki shrugged indifferently, pulling the stunned younger sister up. The fact that he had even flipped Akane to the ground was nearly unprecedented, let alone nearly decapitated their father. All in all, indifference was definitely not something she was feeling at the moment.
"Uh, yeah," Ranma nodded passively, extracting himself from the group slowly by walking around the still frozen Soun Tendo and back toward the guest room. "Just deduct it from what you owe me. But later. Gotta pack."
"Pack?!" Akane blurted, now upright and staring at her part-time fiancé. "You just got back!"
Nabiki blinked. 'What you owe me?' What I owe HIM? "As if, Saotome. What's really going on?"
"And if I hear the word fiancée, I'm going to beat you first, then your moron father," The family turned, finding Ukyo in the door, hefting her combat spatula. The look on her face indicated that her words were a joke… Mostly.
"Stupid Panda need too-too good beat down for so many engagements," Shampoo quipped from behind her, flashing Genma her own look that promised less joking and more violence should further fiancées come to pass. The man squirmed under her gaze.
"Look, it's… a training mission. Leaving tomorrow." Smiles bloomed on two of the three fiancées present, the remaining one staring him down with thinly veiled suspicion.
Nor was Akane alone. Nabiki scrutinized the pigtailed boy's features, but her suspicion was not born out of natural distrust for gender changing martial artist with a propensity for inadvertently collecting woman like one would collect coins or butterflies. No, Nabiki was a business woman, and Ranma Saotome was a large amount of her business these days. There had been just a little too much hesitation in his explanation to take at face value, and she resolved to watch him more closely even as she collected her fee from the fiancées present.
Genma was the other party not buying his son's 'training mission', and not simply for the fact that Ranma couldn't lie worth a damn. The boy had used a vacuum blade on his old friend, and while Ranma could have been accused of many things, lethal excess was not one of them. Three days, the Saotome mused, studying his son covertly. Something had happened in those three days, and it wasn't likely a fiancée.
Or at least he didn't think it had been.
One couldn't be too careful.
"Well, you'll definitely need somebody to cook for you," Ukyo effused smugly, ensuring her place on the training mission. Shampoo's head whipped around on the black-haired Okanomiyaki artist, taking issue with the statement.
"Is no need pizza girl go!" The purple haired Amazon leaned into the girl's face, eyes flashing with challenge. "Needs fiancée who cook and fight good."
Nabiki rolled her eyes. The result was just too predictable.
"You saying I can't fight, Sugar?" The pair was nose to nose now, a bright blue and purple spark dancing between the space of their foreheads.
"Hey! I'm a good cook too!" Akane blistered at the unintended slight of being excluded, and both girls looked at the youngest Tendo condescendingly. Akane snarled. "I'll prove it! I'm going along too!"
"Oh hohohohohohooo!" A new girl bounced into the doorway, black rose peddles dancing in the wind around her. All eyes turned to the leotard clad girl. "You peasants are not worthy to cook for my Ranma-sama!"
Ranma let out a sigh from the back of the group, turning away from the growing horde of fiancées unnoticed. He leaned over to Kasumi with tired look. "When they're done, tell 'em I'm going alone. Be in the room packing."
The eldest Tendo nodded with an oblivious smile, turning away from the growing commotion in the doorway as well, leaving Genma and Soun to watch the boy's retreat. Soun was the first to finally speak.
"Genma, old friend… that technique…"
"I know, buddy, I know…" the balding man adjusted his glasses, watching Ranma turn the corner to the guestroom and out of sight. "I'll have a word with the boy."
That's the day he had told them. Ranma shoved another set of tangs into his backpack, then pulled the rolled up tent out of the closet to inspect its condition. Something crashed down stairs and the martial artist winced with the secondary impacts. That was why he had told them tomorrow… And why he was secretly leaving tonight. He didn't like lying to them, but he'd probably never get out the door; at least not without the entire circus following him all the way to England.
Last thing I need is for them to walk into that shit-storm's fall out, he groused, absently noting the aged tent canvas was on its last leg, but still had a few days of life in it. He shoved the would be shelter into the backpack as well, continuing down his mental checklist of supplies and necessities. Can pick up food on the way out… canteen…
Ranma turned to the voice of his father with an arched eyebrow. There was little doubt in his mind as to what the topic was going to be, so he preempted the balding martial artist. "Save it Pop. Nobody's goin' along on this one, not even you."
He found another silk shirt and began to fold it, studiously ignoring the old man staring at him from the guest room doorway. Genma remained there, watching silently. After another minute, Ranma turned back to him.
"I said ya ain't goin', so take a hike," The staring continued, now accompanied by a serious visage. Finally, Ranma put the pack aside. "Alright, fine. I'll beat the notion out of you if that's what ya want."
Ranma stared at his father, who stared back unperturbed. Another full minute passed of complete inactivity before Genma nodded, stepping into the room fully. "Were you planning on telling your mother?"
Ranma blinked. Where was the outrage? The scheming? 'Operation: Marry Akane or Die Trying'? Was this all another elaborate ruse to knock him off his guard? "Yeah…" the pigtailed boy continued hesitantly. "…Yeah I was."
"Good," Genma nodded, walking past Ranma. He glanced at the pack momentarily, then gazed out the window. "She'll worry less that way."
"Uh, sure…" Ranma was completely befuddled now. If this was part of some master plan, it was on a higher order than his old man had demonstrated to date. "Needed to pick up a few things anyway."
"A little advice," Genma continued to stare out the window, then turned on him with the ever so slightest of smiles. "If she objects to not toting the girls along, just tell her that your training mission of manly importance."
"She'll go along with anything you say." Genma nodded and walked back to the doorway, affecting a stretch. "Weather's supposed to be nice tonight," he mentioned in a seemingly wistful, self absorbed tone. "I'll probably sleep pretty soundly tonight."
With that, the Saotome patriarch was gone, leaving a stunned Ranma blinking in his wake.
Did the old man just give me a pass?
Half an hour later, Ranma Saotome walked down the street with an entourage that would have left most men a jealous, drooling puddle of hormonal goo. Bouncing along side him was the perky and occasionally homicidal Amazon known as Shampoo. While known to use various hair care products in battle, she was not one herself in spite of her namesake. She was, however, a bombshell and the colorful, generally tight fitting silks she wore regularly caused no small amount of envy among the male populous of Nerima as she passed by.
Beside the Chinese hottie and consequently vying for the martial artists attention was Ukyo Kounji. Unlike Shampoo, she was not a product of China and was every bit the consummate chef, if not more-so. A smallish okanomiyaki danced in her hand as she attempted to ply it to her fiancé, while her blue on white obi and dark blue leg warmer tights left nothing to the imagination in terms of her physic. Had the innocent male bystander thoughts become manifest, Ranma would have been rendered lifeless on the spot as they took his place. In fact, his body would have been found impaled by numerous blunt objects, all rusty and sure to have induced great pain before his death.
Leaping to a fro around the group was a sight that would have inspired no small amount of fear- and lust -in those anonymous male pedestrians. To some, that fear was a bonus. A ribbon certain to ensnare the martial artist twirled behind her as she danced happily, at times wrapping around her well toned physic and sole garment of clothing; a skin tight leotard.
Akane and Nabiki Tendo brought up the rear of the group. Neither were quite as animate as the trio in front of them, though that reflected little on their own considerable physical attributes. Nabiki herself favored tighter clothing. She had a body and knew how to use it, carrying herself with calm, cool indifference as she watched the commotion play out before her. She herself wasn't a Saotome fan per se, but he was an investment and she kept track of her investments. Akane watched the commotion from the other end of the of the spectrum, boiling with malcontent that gave her a hot, fierce beauty if one could overlook the potential outbreak of imminent violence.
Many men would have died to be in the martial artist's position.
Those men didn't have a clue.
"Why you're all taggin' along is beyond me," Ranma shook his head, eyeing the energetic females around him warily as they proceeded through the prefecture. The attention they were gathering was becoming disconcerting. "It's just my Mom's house."
"I'm just making sure the Amazon bimbo there doesn't take advantage of you, Ranchan," Ukyo smiled sweetly before shooting a glare over to Shampoo, who in turn wrapped around Ranma's arm possessively.
"Is spatula girl who take advantage," Shampoo retorted, turning her nose up at Ukyo. "Beside. How good is girl who can only cook one thing?"
Shampoo's hand now glowed a rosy red and Ranma favored his stinging elbow as Kodachi gazed at the Amazon with unflinching superiority. "You shall refrain from pawing my Ranma-sama, low born vagrant."
The trio stopped on the sidewalk to stare one another down and Ranma kept walking. Nabiki and Akane likewise walked around the group, catching up to the Saotome.
"Honestly, why do you keep stringing them along?" Akane grumped, keeping pace with the martial artist while Nabiki tag teamed, fishing for information.
"And what's so important at your Mom's house, anyway?" She all but sneered, likewise sure she smelled blood in the waters of profit… The only question now was where.
"Just picking up some food and stuff for tomorrow's trip," Ranma answered nonchalantly. Too nonchalantly for Nabiki's tastes, so she dug.
"Food and stuff, hmm?" She remarked innocently. "How long will this training mission last?"
For the first time, Ranma turned his full attention on the girl, his usually immersive blue eyes having cooled several degrees.
"As long as it takes."
Nabiki nearly stumbled with the point blank delivery, sending her mind awhirl as she considered the implications of his body language and tone. Something serious was going down, but what? Saotome finally grew a spine and made his own choice of fiancée? The Tendo glanced back at the squabbling trio in their wake, who were only now realizing they had been left behind. Not any of them, that's for sure. The teacher? Saotome doesn't move that fast. Something else then. Perhaps it really is a training mission, but something about the pretext is entirely too serious…
"Aiyah, Airen get away!"
So much for pressing him for more information, she decided as the fiancées closed back in on the martial artist. Not that it would matter. They'd be at his mother's house in five minutes anyway and their conversation was sure to be quite enlightening.
Inane fiancée chatter filled that five minutes as the girls took their own turns plying the martial artist for more information on the trip with about as much success, following him all the way to the house door where his mother greeted them all with a maternal smile.
"Come in Ranma! And your friends too!" She smiled knowingly at him and the girls. Nodoka stepped aside and her son stepped in, who in turn closed the door immediately behind him. Protests immediately sounded through the closed door as the denied fiancee's objected to the action. The Saotome matriarch blinked, staring at the door, then him. "Are you sure you wouldn't rather invite those lovely ladies inside?"
"Nah," Ranma shrugged, stepping out of the hallway. "Just coming by to pick up a few things for a training mission tomorrow."
His mother considered him thoughtfully, then nodded. "Of course. I'm sure I can make some sandwiches for you." Ranma followed her into the kitchen where she began to pull a loaf of bread from a side cabinet. "So is there anybody else going along on your training mission?"
A female somebody, right? Ranma sighed mentally, but stayed the course. "Nope, just me."
"Oh, I'm sure one of those lovely girls would be quite willing to help along the way," The admission didn't faze his mother one bit. "Especially Akane. Of course, that nice okanomiyaki girl would—"
"Alone, Mom," Ranma shook his head, deciding to fall back on his father's advice. "It's of manly importance."
Nodoka stilled suddenly, as if considering the onion she had just been about to slice. The moment passed and she turned back Ranma with a gentle smile. "Of course it is. The girls will just have to be patient then."
Just like that? Ranma fought to keep the shock from his face. Old man had actually steered him in the right direction for once? Almost too easy…
"How many do you think you'll need, Son?"
"How many… Oh," he realized she had been refereeing to one of the assembled sandwiches on the cutting board in front of her. "Uh, not sure. Might be gone a little bit."
"I see," She commented amiably, starting another. "Not ten years, I hope."
The question caught him off guard and he couldn't help but to chuckle. "Not a chance."
"Good," She replied, amusement clearly evident in her voice now. "I don't think I would approve of those antics a second time."
"Heh," Ranma snorted. As nice as it was to have a normal conversation with his mother, there was one final point to address. "Um, Mom… Need a favor…"
"Of course, son," She continued with her sandwich assembly, petitioning her attention between it and the request.
"Mom…" Ranma took a deep breath. Here we go… "I need the katana."
Nodoka stilled once more. This time she turned back to him with a completely serious expression.
"So… that kind of training mission."
Ranma was captivated by her knowing gaze, and in that moment he knew there was no hope in hiding behind the pretext of training any longer. "Yeah… Yeah it is."
"I see." She abandoned the knife to cutting board and walked out of the kitchen for the living room, finding the sheathed blade hanging from a pair of simple dark stained wall mounts. She lifted the brown sheathed blade away, examining it and the blue wrapped hilt thoughtfully. "It has been in our family for six generations, the work of a master," She smiled, handing it to Ranma. "And I am proud that I may finally relinquish it to my manly son."
"Thanks… Thanks Mom." Ranma replied solemnly, taking the blade from her hand. It wasn't the fanciest blade he had ever laid eyes on, but he could tell by the construction and heft alone that his mother was right, and it would serve him well. "I wish I could tell you…"
"Hush," She shushed him absently. "Whatever it is, I'm sure that it is quite manly and you will tell your mother all about it upon your return."
Ranma stared at the woman as she transited back to the kitchen, as if seeing her in a new light for the first time, while outside, each girl had their own piece of the Saotome property staked out; independently straining to eavesdrop on the Mother and Son while spinning their own plans in order to secure their place on a training mission that was sounding less and less like one with each passing moment.
At eleven fifteen PM, a pair of blue eyes snapped open. At first their owner didn't move, opting to get a feel for the environment around him first before committing to action. His aura flashed out subtly like radar, sensing the immediate area.
Shampoo, Ukyo or Kodachi on the roof, Ranma surmised as he tasted the female ki floating away lazily overhead. Probably asleep like Akane in the room upstairs. Another aura whispered to him, this one below and centered near the house hold's living room. Male… Sasuke? Would leave Shampoo or Ukyo on the roof then…
Next to him, the Panda snored loudly, all but assuring the martial artist that his father was dead to the world. He pushed the blanket aside and rose to his feet quietly, finding his silks hanging from a hook on the closet. He slipped them on and retrieved his pack from the corner, thankful for once as his old man's snoring masked his movement further. Still, couldn't be too careful.
Ranma concentrated, reversing his own aura with a technique that would make him all but invisible to the outside world. Invisible wasn't quite right, he amended, stepping up onto the already open windowsill. People were simply encouraged not to notice him now and he made full use of the technique, hopping out into the warm night's air. He stepped silently across the dojo property and leapt up to the wall, noticing for the first time which female had taken to the rooftop outpost. On the wooden slats sat Shampoo, dipping in and out of her sleeping state.
That left Ukyo and Nabiki.
He scanned the area from his wall borne vantage point now, searching for the other players that would be tracking him. Ukyo he wasn't certain about. His childhood friend was nowhere about. Nabiki however, was damn predictable as evidenced by the slightly conspicuous female jogger trotting by the Tendo compound along the street. He was willing to bet that same girl had already jogged by several times tonight, studiously taking notes of any suspicious activity.
Headlights flashed onto the street and a limo turned the corner, pulling to a stop right beside the gate below his person. Ranma frowned.
Activity like that.
Ranma shrugged to himself, assessing the damage. Nabiki's gonna know I left, but that's not a surprise. Shampoo's still waking up. Ukyo's nowhere in sight, Sasuke's probably trying to crawl out from under the house… Deciding the getaway was still salvageable, Ranma hopped down to the sidewalk where the chauffer was opening the door; nearly giving the man a heart attack as he dropped the Umi Sen Ken cloak behind him.
"Eh, Sorry about that," Ranma apologized sheepishly and the suit nodded.
"Of course," He replied, having regained his composure quickly enough to impress the martial artist. "Miss Meiou is waiting inside."
The man beckoned Ranma inside and Ranma peered within, finding the emerald haired woman within, smiling back mysteriously. Unlike the lavender before, she now wore a black business suit and skirt and beneath it, a white business shirt and purple neckerchief tied into a bow. She shifted a shapely leg, moving aside for him.
"Welcome back, Saotome-san," She brushed a lock of green hair away from those red eyes. Even though he knew they were bad thoughts, the woman was beautiful. "Shall we?"
"Uh, yeah," He agreed, sliding into the limo and onto the leather seat next to her. He pushed the backpack off onto another spacious seat. "Need to get going before the rest notice I'm gone."
The door closed and the driver reentered at the wheel. Setsuna's smile turned mischievous. "Ah yes, quite the ladies man if I recall. Even so, you are quite correct. Ours is not their business. Driver?"
"The airport, Miss Meiou?"
"Please." The limo lurched to a soft roll and began to pick up speed. Setsuna turned back to Ranma, but the man spoke again.
"Ma'am, the rear view if you please."
The guardian pressed a button and a flat screen slid out of the velvet roof, captivating Ranma until the picture snapped on. It was an image of Shampoo. Running. Behind them? Ranma stared, then twisted around to look out the rear tinted window. Sure enough, the purple haired Amazon had given chase at her best speed.
"My, isn't she a tenacious one," Setsuna chuckled, watching the girl stay with them through the next turn.
"Shall I lose her on the express, Miss?" the chauffer asked calmly.
"I think it would be for the best," Setsuna nodded, looking at Ranma. "The Amazons tend to be poor losers after all."
Ranma couldn't help but to chuckle now as well. "You could say that."
The vehicle continued out of the suburb at an easy pace, while Shampoo trailed behind until the driver found his turn to the express way. Ranma sighed as he watched the girl lose ground for a few minutes, then hopped atop a truck passing by her in the same direction. It was a great idea until her newly acquired transportation took the next exit five minutes later. Without further midnight traffic to bridge the gap, both watched as the misrouted girl disappeared.
"I'm sure I mentioned to pack light," Setsuna broke the silence causing Ranma to turn and find her gesturing to his overstuffed backpack.
"Yeah, well, didn't know what to expect when we got there, so…"
"We'll be staying at the Mandarin Oriental, Hyde Park," She remarked casually. Her hands found a sleek, stylish violet purse and opened it, pulling out a brochure. "It should suffice until we find somewhere more permanent."
Ranma opened the glossy pamphlet and nearly choked. 'Extravagant' only began to describe the place he was looking at. "Um, I hate to say this, but…"
"I've already taken care of it," Setsuna waived away the teen's monetary concerns as if they were completely inconsequential. "We'll budget for new clothing as well. Get whatever you need out of that, because it won't be coming with us."
Ranma frowned at the thought. The pack itself was a veteran of many of his travels. Sure, it was still quite expendable, but it felt almost criminal to toss it to the wayside as such. "I already got what I need."
"Good," She nodded. "I'll have the chauffer drop it back at my apartment."
"Fair enough, I guess," Ranma decided. Parting with the pack wasn't what he had set out to do, but if the woman was just going to replace everything once they got to London…
"These," She pulled another document from her purse and Ranma's eyes tracked two small, obnoxiously red booklets. "Are your passport. In it, it says you've been to China, India and Korea."
"But I have been to those places," Ranma took the book, examining the various stamps posted to each page. A picture of him smiling in a dress shirt and tie stood out on the first page. A look at the other booklet revealed his female aspect with an equally cheesy smile. When did she manage to get these? Even better, how?
"Of course, but this creates an official paper trail." She elaborated patiently. "Arriving for international travel without the proper documentation would attract unwanted attention."
"Was wondering why you weren't just zapping us over to England," Ranma returned thoughtfully, pocketing the document.
"Very astute," Setsuna complimented, less surprised than before with how quickly the teen was able to assimilate complex topics. "Popping to and fro without rhyme or reason also tends to raise eyebrows, especially when it involves traveling thousands of miles in mere seconds."
"Kinda like some of the stuff that goes on back at the dojo," Ranma nodded, easily relating. "But people around there are used to it and the police are pretty hands off."
"I'd imagine so," The Princess of Pluto returned with a chuckle. "See no evil, hear no evil?"
"And since we're on the topic, how good is your English?" Setsuna returned to business, but the friendly smile remained.
"Decent," He replied vaguely. "better than Shampoo sounds speakin' Japanese."
The Guardian nodded. "One less worry then."
The light conversation ensured their thirty minute trip passed quickly and both bid their limo and Ranma's pack goodbye upon their arrival at Narita's terminal two for their flight. Check in consisted of being ushered off to a special line apart from the normal travelers. Without any baggage to speak of, they were ticketed and through security with minimal of hassle.
For Ranma who had never stepped foot in a proper airport, let alone aboard an airliner, the experience was an adventure in and of itself. Sure, nobody was screaming 'Die Ranma, Die," but it was a world never seen in person and he soaked in the detail eagerly as they passed by the various shops and lounges enroute to their gate. The Saotome was in the process of staring at one of the fancy Sushi restaurants when something tickled his senses. Ranma looked around and found…
Shit, he grumbled and turned his full attention on the student he clearly recognized from Nabiki's circle of friends, if one were to use the term 'friends' generously. She was trying not to appear too overt in her spying, but once he turned toward her, the girl looked away, angling toward a payphone.
How the Tendo had even divined that there was even the possibility that he would eventually arrive at the airport was beyond him, but the depth of her activities just to keep track of him spoke volumes. Scary volumes.
"Problem?" The emerald haired guardian stopped beside him, noticing his attention directed at the girl across the breezeway.
"One of Nabiki's," Ranma commented derisively. "She couldn't have followed us, which means…"
"…She was instructed to wait here," Setsuna finished, drawing on the most logical conclusion available. On one hand, Ranma's Nabiki was impressive, having actually devised a contingency that would track him in the unlikely event that he fled to an airport. On the other hand...
"Piece of work, that child," She sniffed with an edge of contempt. "Follow me, please."
Ranma watched as Setsuna took the lead and shrugged, following her across the breezeway and over to the girl whose back was facing them while she dialed on the payphone. The Mistress of Time walked up behind her and pushed a single, seemingly delicate finger into the rocker, disconnecting the call that had only begun to ring.
The girl turned around, finding Setsuna's red eyes first, then Ranma's blue. It took a moment for her to comprehend the situation and when her mouth finally caught up to her brain, she only managed a single syllable before being interrupted.
"Yes, you," Setsuna agreed haughtily, her gaze holding the girl with unflinching superiority. "How much does the Tendo pay you for such menial work?"
"She, um…Twenty five thousand," The girl lied, purposely inflating the number as her brain scrambled for a way to extricate herself from the situation.
"Seriously?" The emerald haired woman laughed, turning back to Ranma. "You're right, Ranma-kun. Tendo is cheap."
"Been saying that for the last two years." Ranma shrugged without care, falling in line with the act.
"You… I…" Again, she barely managed to start the sentence before being cut off.
"Yes, you again," Setsuna continued in her similarly arrogant manner. "Personally, I would not consider such a pittance fitting compensation for being dragged out of bed in the middle of the night to stalk a world class martial artist. In fact…" She tugged at her purse, pulling out a small pocket book and sheets of yen from within. "I would say your time would be worth… double that?"
The girl was blinking rapidly now at the turn of events and even Ranma couldn't help but to stare.
"Perhaps you're right," Setsuna frowned to herself as if thinking the matter over, then added another sheet to the fan of cash. "I would be a tad grumpy for being kept awake at this ungodly hour as well. Let's round it up to sixty thousand."
"Okay?" The stupefied girl reached for the funds in an almost mechanically manner. She pulled on the light tan sheets, only to find them rooted in place. She stared at the woman almost pitifully as a second tug at the cash failed as well.
"Of course, this never happened." The guardian smiled sweetly. The girl nodded. "And you never saw us." The girl nodded again. "And I should hate to think what would happen if you did." Setsuna cast a lazy glance off to Ranma, who bore a steely blue gaze into the girl. She nodded with slightly more enthusiasm.
"Good!" The guardian of time effused, pushing the money forward. This time the girl hesitated for the merest moment before snatching the yen from Pluto's grasp. "Now be on your way."
The anonymous girl glanced at the cash in hand once more, as if to verify it was in fact real before turning on a heel. Just as she was about to dismiss herself, she looked back at Ranma with an almost confused, apologetic look on her face.
"Um… Ah…" She stumbled clearly ill-equipped for the situation at hand. "Uh, good luck with you new fiancée, Saotome!"
She turned and fled, leaving Ranma to eat the carpet of Narita's terminal two.
Ranma turned over in the plush recliner to face his Emerald haired counterpart, who was reading through a smallish pink paperback book. Setsuna was leaning back in her own chair, blanket over her legs with a reading light illuminating her area. Aside from the rumble of the aircraft around them, they were effectively alone in their own cabin aboard a Boeing 747 cruising somewhere over South Korea.
The martial artist propped himself up, considering the question. "It's the plane… first time and all that. Usually I'd work it off with a kata, but…"
His gesture to the cabin around them said all that needed to be said. Sure, it was the most expensive seat on the plane, partitioned off from the rest of the passengers and equipped state of the art audio, video, a small library of literature and, of course, an on-call attendant ready to service their every need. Even considering all that, there was only so much you could fit into a plane and as luxurious as the compartment was, it was hardly a dojo and he didn't like the thought of scaring anybody, especially thirty thousand feet up.
"Guess I should be asking you what we should be expectin' in England," He shrugged, and Setsuna put her book down.
"A pertinent question," She nodded with a mysterious smile. "One I cannot fully answer. The time gates had nearly finished mapping the previous timeline when you altered things in the past, forcing a restart of the entire process." Ranma stared with an uncomprehending look and the Guardian elaborated patiently. "Meaning that while I know England is a critical nexus of activity for the near future, I'm only getting bits and pieces at the moment. The longer the gates chew on the issue, the more info we'll have."
"What sort of bits and pieces?" Ranma leaned over the cushy arm rest, interested in just what he was about to potentially step into.
"Magical activity has spiked in the area," She continued. "I'm still fleshing out just who we have to work with in the area, but wizards, demons and vampires don't look out of the question at this point."
"All because I went back to the past?" He frowned, not realizing just how far his own actions had resonated through time. "Heck, I didn't even get a clean shot off at that woman and things are still messed up."
"Beryl wasn't the decisive factor in this, Ranma-kun," The Mistress of Time continued softly. "Beryl was effectively removed from the equation in both of our timeframes. The only major difference between the two was that there was somebody in this timeframe that delayed the youma long enough for over four hundred and seventy eight people to be moved to safety.
Ranma cocked his head, clearly intrigued now. "Yeah? And who was that?"
Her smile reappeared. Some considered such naivety a curse. After shepherding Usagi Tsukino to her destiny, Setsuna Meiou could only see it as a gift; one that Ranma possessed in spite of the incessant attempts to mold him into either a weapon or breeding stock.
"You, Guardian Saotome."
"Me?" The martial artist blinked. "Nah. All I did was uphold the code. Same as those other poor shmucks."
"And in the process bought the time necessary for those refugees to escape," He was about to protest, but she held up a silent finger, bringing his objections to a gentle halt. "No. You. The only difference between my history and yours is how Beryl died. Here she died instantly. In mine, she lingered for several millennia before the Princess finished her. Beryl died, the Queen died, and so did all those people… And now they're alive. Not only did they live, but their descendants are thriving by all accounts."
"Go figure," Ranma shrugged, as if the fact that an entire populace springing as a results of his actions was merely interesting. "And speakin' of that, what's a guardian anyway?"
"A Guardian of the Realm," Setsuna began, closing her book entirely to focus on the telling, "Is the Queen's hand. They are not simply the military or armed forces, they were protectors of all that was just and right about the Silver Millennium, answerable only to the Serenity herself." Ranma stared at the woman with an edge of disbelief. "Not only were they protectors, but judge, jury and executioners if need be."
"That's… a lot of authority…" Ranma murmured, somewhat in awe that somebody had seen fit to trust him with such broad reaching power. Trust wasn't exactly something many people invested in him to date.
"Necessary authority," She elaborated. "The Silver Millennium controlled a vast amount of space and Guardians couldn't simply wait for the Queen's approval to defend a world or exact justice upon an enemy."
"I, um… I mean… Wow," Ranma blinked at the scope of his new title. "She couldn't have been serious about that… It's just…"
"My sister does not give Guardianships out on a whim, Ranma-kun," Setsuna shook her head. "If the Silver Millennium would have survived, you would more than likely been awarded a duchy and annual allowance at the Crown's expense."
"What the hell is a duchy?" Ranma asked as the explanation spiraled well beyond his experience.
"In your case, a small moon more than likely," Setsuna commented off hand, causing Ranma to nearly choke. "Given the fact that my sister also saw you as an emissary to the Starlights, Serenity would probably name you a prince- or in your case back then –princess to strengthen ties between the empires."
"But…" The martial artists brain was verging on meltdown now as it wrestled with the concepts of being awarded a small moon and a promotion to royalty. "That's… But I'm not a prince! Or even a princess, for that matter! I don't even know what a Starlight is!"
Setsuna blinked, then smiled, mischief glittering in her crimson eyes. Ranma frowned, knowing he wasn't going to like this one bit.
All the text books she had ever seen of England illustrated London to be an odd fusion of medieval Europe and modern suburbia; Ancient clock towers and bridges interspersed between palaces and office building. All in all, Ranma decided the bustling metropolis was a place Kuno would be right at home in, if only to fuel his swords and sorcery fantasies. Ranma Saotome, heir to the Anything Goes School of Martial Arts simply found it wet, courtesy of the overcast sky and incessant rain falling from it. Normally, the change from male to female was an annoyance at best. Now it wasn't simply an annoyance... It was an annoyance accompanied by a single word.
The Novis Lumina. An entire race of people with the ability to change genders at will. And not simply change… It was a part of their daily lives, according to Setsuna. To change with the mood, the situation or- Ranma shivered slightly at the thought –just for fun. An entire race of people… like me? She shook her head, boggling with the thought. Not exactly like me, she amended, still considering the implications. They could change at will. She needed water to do the job. The martial artist suddenly snickered from her side of Setsuna's new limo, causing the woman to turn her attention from the London streets just beyond to the red head.
"Find something amusing?"
"Kinda," Ranma grinned slightly with a last chuckle. "Just imagining what you said about the Starlights and what Akane would say about them…"
Setsuna studied the girl curiously. "Oh?"
Ranma cracked a somewhat sarcastic smile now. "Yeah, she'd go nuts. An entire planet of perverts."
"Now is that what she would say?" The Emerald haired woman's expression turned bland. "Though that would seem to fall in line with my initial impressions of the girl. While they tended to be hedonistic for obvious reasons, I would hardly call them perverts. In fact, they were fairly well regarded among the other space fairing races."
"They… were?" Ranma could scarcely believe her own ears. Her curse, the bane of her existence at times… was popular? "And nobody looked at them funny?"
"Oh sure, they'd get some odd looks occasionally," Setsuna waved the girls concern aside. "But by and large, other races found the ability to be quite novel. Minako always found Starlights supremely convenient at parties, if my recollections are accurate."
"Sailor Venus," Setsuna supplied, enjoying watching the girl's cheek twitch.
"Ah, right. Figures." She returned with uncharacteristic tact, not willing to insult the guardian she had fought beside with an ill placed comment. Instead, Ranma decided a tactical change in subject was in order. "So what happened to 'em all?"
"No idea," Setsuna leaned back in her seat. "Beryl's attack was a multi-pronged assault, sacrificing several worlds in neighboring star systems to fuel her demonic campaign. Even if there was anything left of the Novis Lumina by the time the Silver Millennium fell, there wasn't much left back here to receive it."
"Well, shit," Ranma cursed, once again revisiting the vision of impaling a certain megalomaniacal witch with a tornado made of frost.
"Something I've said on many, many occasions," The Guardian of Time shook her head with recollection. "Too bad, too. That home world of theirs was a work of art."
"It was?" Ranma leaned forward, finding herself unexpectedly interested in the race that so closely mirrored her own condition so.
"Indeed," The red eyed woman nodded, immersed in memory. "It was an organic Coronade if you can believe it. I believe they call them 'Dyson Rings' these days."
"Think of how the Earth travels around the sun," Setsuna illustrated patiently, recognizing the girl's knowledge gap. "Now make that path a solid ring… All the advantages of a planet but spanning a truly massive surface area; literally the entirety of Earth's orbit. Instead of using artificial materials, however, they grew the entire thing like a plant."
"A plant?" Ranma asked, somewhat skeptically, not even pretending to understand exactly what would go into the creation of such a feat. Setsuna nodded. "In space?"
She nodded again. "Like I said, a work of art."
Ranma opened her mouth, ready to cite how unbelievable it all was, then closed it with a dry look. "Hangin' around you can't be good for my sanity, you know."
"I'm fairly certain your life was already on that road before meeting me."
Ranma blinked, then chuckled softly. "Point taken."
Setsuna returned the smile politely and turned back to the passing traffic beyond the limo. Oddly enough, it was a smile that was reflected within as well, she realized, looking back upon their casual banter. Her duties through the millennia had been a decidedly lonely affair, and while she had taken lovers- many lovers –in the interim, none of them could relate to her experience. Seventeen millennia young female seeks ideal soul mate, must have experience in time travel, galactic empires and dance, the guardian snorted to herself with an edge of regret.
And strangely enough, she had more in common with this seventeen year old sitting next to her than half the men and women she had bedded over the many years. Which is pretty convenient, since he's both, part of her psyche quipped with wry amusement. It also made his- currently her –fascination with the Starlights quite understandable.... An entire race with her condition not simply living their lives, but enjoying them.
It was nice, she decided. Nice to relive the good memories instead of the bad for a change, and nice to have somebody around that could a least relate to them in some small degree. Ranma had probably seen more of her life and times than anybody else in over fifteen thousand years, and that was including her own reincarnated Senshi. Even Usagi herself barely remembered the Fall, she mused soberly. Give the girl another decade or so and she might have something better than swiss cheese for her previous incarnation's memories, but…
"Whoa." The single word broke Setsuna from her thoughts and she found Ranma plastered against the opposite window, staring at the building they were pulling up to.
"The Mandarin, Ladies," The chauffer supplied deferentially as he angled the limousine through the parkway and up to the lobby of the grand structure, pulling to a smooth stop. Ranma completely missed the gender reference she normally might have balked at in favor of staring. Sure, the bellhops in the tacky red uniforms were humorous, but never in her life had she considered staying in such grandeur. The place was a goddamn castle sandwiched across several city blocks, she noted, and she stepped out of the open limo door with more than a slight edge of awe.
Setsuna walked around the back of the vehicle with a bemused expression. "Stop gawking, Ranma-kun. The Queen would have given you a bigger one." The comment produced another twitch and she turned back to the driver, switching to English. "Please remain on call as we will be in dire need of replenishing our wardrobe once we freshen up."
"Of course, Madam," The chauffeur bowed, closing the doors behind them. The emerald haired woman led the way, forcing Ranma to trail behind her. The martial artists head was on a swivel now as she took in the opulent luxury of their future accommodations. One of the bellhops opened the heavy oak doors and both women walked, Setsuna leading Ranma straight to the front desk.
"Miss Meiou, Miss Saotome, so good to meet you in person," The polite brunette smiled from behind the check in counter and Ranma's ears twanged with the sharp edge of her British accent. "I do have two Royal suites at your disposal for the duration of your stay. If I may, will we be expecting your brother in the near future, Miss Saotome?"
"Eh, yeah," Ranma recovered from the mental stumble, speaking in English now herself and still somewhat surprised at how familiar this woman was with them. "He should be along shortly."
"Very well then," She smiled warmly. "I'll just need both of your passports and I'll have you personal butler show you your rooms and amenities."
Setsuna already had her out, sliding the requisite document across the counter while Ranma fumbled for hers, eventually doing likewise. The receptionist key'd the first passport into the terminal, then continued on to the second, but stopped with an apologetic look. "It would seem that you've acquired your brother's passport by mistake, Miss Saotome."
Ranma froze for a moment, then dug out the second passport. She handed it to the taller receptionist with a syrupy smile, taking the other one back. "I was holding on to it for him."
"Of course," She smiled politely, opening the second passport. "I've already taken the liberty of adding his information, though he might not want to run around London proper without it."
"Heh," The redhead chuckled weakly. "I'll give it to him the moment I see him."
"Right then," The woman nodded, swiping three keys through a reader on the desk. "One for you Miss Meiou and two for your associate." Her already pleasant smile brightened. "Enjoy your stay in London. Edward will show you to your rooms."
Both women turned to their right to find an aging, sixty-ish white bearded man adjusting his round spectacles. His black and white uniform was immaculate and he bowed deeply to the women. "Konnichi wa, hajimemashite Saotome-dono, Meiou-dono. Please allow me to show you to your rooms."
The butler turned smartly, leading the way as Setsuna stood to the side, ushering Ranma forth. "Ladies first."
Ranma rolled her eyes but took the lead anyway. "Smart ass."
Five minutes later, Ranma Saotome one again found herself at a loss for words as their personal butler showed them their rooms. First, having a personal butler was just wrong according to the martial artist's world view, but not jaw dropping wrong. She had always been a hands on, do it yourself type; a work ethic ruthlessly programmed into him since childhood. All things considered, she could ignore a butler. What she wouldn't be ignoring was the dojo sized living room that composed her suite. Nor would she be ignoring the crystal lamps, expensive dark oak furniture and huge padded couches. The view would likewise be tough to ignore, overlooking half of the overcast blanketed city from her new vantage point. She had seen luxury before, but normally never had time to partake in it and usually under some sort of martial arts duress in the process. This place…
…Her accommodations weren't just rich, they were stupid rich.
"A fresh change of clothes has been provided courtesy of the Mandarin, Madam Saotome," The butler stated, lingering behind as she poked her head into the bathroom. Inside she found granite wrapped tub with brass fixtures that wasn't a furo, but then again, it didn't need to be; its mass alone promised to swallow her whole. Beside it was a free standing shower with five massage heads separated from the remainder of the space by a simple sheet of glass.
"Should you need my further services," The butler interrupted her mounting incredulity, allowing her to extricate herself from the bathroom before it swallowed her whole. "Simply lift the receiver. No request is too outlandish."
"Um, yeah," Ranma nodded with more confidence than she felt at the moment. It didn't help she was fighting to keep her words from coming out in Japanese. "Sure thing."
With that, the butler was gone, leaving Ranma all alone in the in the luxurious suite that, in her opinion, was many times too large for her needs. Could move the furniture around for katas, she mused, eyeing the space critically but dismissing the thought as quickly as it had manifest. Last thing I need to do is piss off the nice old man…
She shrugged, discarding the idea and moving on to the first and foremost priority on her list, a bath. She looked back into the enormous bathroom and sighed, resigning herself to a fate of luxurious bathing.
White light punched through a void of blackness, allowing the Mistress of Time to step from Earth and out into the Time Gates plane, four billion miles from her point of origin in under a second. The Princess cleared the blinding white rectangle of inter-dimensional fold travel and it collapsed; first in width, then in length before disappearing entirely. The Time Gates AI materialized next to the woman as she walked toward the gate, adjusting her pastel blue silk robe as she did so. The fact that it wrapped around her every curve was wasted on her present audience, who launched into her own report with her Mistress' arrival.
"Temporal mapping of the new timeline is proceeding nominally, concentrating on key events per your instructions," The child avatar detailed, prompting said timeline to appear in the air above them in holographic form. "I have compiled a visual log for your reference, though it should be noted that such spot checking renders the information marginal at best. A full mapping of the new timeline is highly recommended at this point."
Several blue squares popped into existence along the timeline with the explanation, causing Setsuna to eye them critically. "No time. Hitsuzen waits for no woman and it's not as if I can stay a-temporal indefinitely." She thought on the matter, staring at the gates looming overhead before coming to a decision. "Obviously I haven't come to my own aid yet, so it looks like we're on our own. Gate, did you nail down the refugee's initial landing site?"
"Affirmative," The silver haired girl nodded, and a map of Great Britain materialized in the space above the Guardian. A small dot blinked along the western coast of Scotland. "The site is exactly as specified by the Mercury archives; a zone ninety degrees out of phase from the local reality and thus rendered undetectable by normal means. Temporal mapping also indicates considerable expansion into the surrounding area and even London itself, though a school appears to have been built upon the original site."
"A school," The guardian paused, thinking upon the matter. "How quaint... What do we have for entry?"
"Only one specific method has been located," The AI elaborated, zooming in on Great Britain's capitol. A single blue dots sprang to life along it's wire frame streets. "A railway allowing for direct transit to the refugee site. Other methods presumably exist, such as direct site to site teleportation."
"Which would be a rude surprise were we to simply appear amongst them, and that's assuming the place isn't heavily warded," Setsuna shook her head, more to herself than to the AI. "I'll need to sort through contacts. Upload the relevant details onto the staff. Any information on this timeline's threats?"
"Critical events are still being mapped out," The child spot calmly, motioning to the holographic timeline appearing over head. "Vampiritic activity has spiked over the last two years, coinciding with the manifestation of negative energy wraiths. Despite being crushed in--"
"Wait," Setsuna frowned, realizing a key piece of information. "We have Dementor activity?"
"Affirmative," The Serenity avatar confirmed. The map of London pulsated with half a dozen red dots now. "The manifestations appear to be sporadic at the moment, but are steadily increasing."
"Shit." The guardian mumbled watching the red dots pulsate. Vampires were nasty, but had critical weaknesses to be exploited. Dementors... They would require special hardware to deal with. Her Key was one such piece of hardware, but she couldn't be everywhere at once. Another reason to pay the refugees a visit, she decided. "Then how about the Nazis?"
"The timeline indicates that they have been gathering in strength since their defeat in world war two..." The AI reported. "Analysis also indicates some correlation between the vampire activities and the Nazi buildup, but I have yet to uncover any critical link through our temporal spot check."
"Right," The Mistress of Time nodded to herself, sorting through the seemingly divergent fact. In her timeline, Hitler had pushed his own super natural agenda even in the last days of the Third Reich, but little had come of it. And once the outcome of the war had become a foregone conclusion, she had stepped in personally to keep it from dragging out with a dead scream. Of course, I wasn't here, She noted quietly. But was her own absences enough to alter the timeline this much? Or was there some other catalyst triggering this particular rise of events? "What about the Dementors?"
"They appear to be related to the refugees."
"Then we continue to concentrate on the refugees," She decided after the limited information and her resources to acquire it had been weighed. "We need allies in this timeframe and the appearance of Dementors are a bad sign. We'll take the Vampires and Nazis as they come."
"Confirmed," The AI nodded. "I will continue to update the Key as information becomes available."
"Very well," She acknowledged. "Gate me back."
Black space was torn open quietly as the two-dimensional gate of white light opened behind her, allowing the guardian instant access to her Earth-side hotel room. Fifteen minutes later she was dressed, somewhat casually by her standards, in the hotel Mandarin provided clothing that fit her perfectly. While the neutral tan slacks and smooth, light green blouse weren't her normal taste, they'd do until she could acquire her own.
Speaking of which, Setsuna mused, fussing with her green mane one last time before turning to the room door. She grabbed her small buckled handbag from the end table along the way, exiting her accommodations and walking the short distance to Ranma's own. She rapped politely on the door and waited. No answer. A second attempt yielded the same result and she applied a more forceful hand to the task. Surely he would have heard that… She groused with irritation before her more paranoid nature took over. Unless we've been compromised. The guardian knocked harder, resolving to force entry unless her next effort—
The door was pulled open even as she readied her knuckles for a final salvo, revealing… Yum. Warring between paranoia and relief, Setsuna's thought process defaulted to an entirely unexpected vector as a nearly naked, fully male Ranma Saotome appeared in the doorway wrapped in little more than a fuzzy white towel and water droplets. For that singular moment, her red eyes traced the contours of the muscle packed within every square inch of his lean frame.
Sure, she was a guardian of the realm and the Mistress of Time… But she was also woman. In short, Setsuna Meiou liked what she saw. No, she chided herself, shutting down the train of thought. Mission first. She pulled her eyes off the martial artist's water moistened skin, noting the scars as an afterthought. The fact that she was even prioritizing what would come first was a bit disconcerting, especially since it left the door open for what may come later.
"Jeez, Meiou-san," the boy shook his head upon positively identifying the visitor. Red eyes snapped back up to his blue. "Just say somethin' next time. Was loungin' in that monster furo back there."
"Of course," the emerald haired woman nodded, silently thanking that her lapse had gone unnoticed and her reactions were quick enough to cover for them. "I was concerned that our location had been compromised." And thank God for the truth... "That aside, we have some shopping to do."
Ranma seemed to weigh the necessary evil for moment before shrugging, turning back into the apartment. Much as he'd like to protest, neither one of them had exactly brought anything with them and the polo/slacks combo provided by the hotel wouldn't last him very long. Especially once the fightin' starts... He acknowledged, and resigned himself to his fate.
Setsuna watched the boy retreat from the doorway, allowing her a clear, unobstructed view of the martial artists body from his neck, all the way down to the small of his back, where the rest was hidden by the towel wrapped around his person. More scars were visible, several claw like scratches. Those, however, didn't even phase her; her eyes drinking in the buffet of toned skin and muscle. On any other day she would have considered a certain amount of debauchery concerning the young man. Sure he was about seventeen, but age wasn't exactly a hang up for her, nor had it been for the last ten thousand years. It also helped that that her new ally was built like a machine, which was sure to translate into... other activities. The guardian chewed on her lip, forcing herself back to business. Mission. First. She scolded her brain firmly and took the still open room door as an invitation to admit herself.
The pigtailed boy had transversed back to the bathroom, closing the door just enough to block her view further observations concerning his physique and causing her minor disappointment in the process. Still, it helped take her mind off the martial artist as she turned her attention to more mundane affairs, such as studying the décor of his room.
"Can't say I'm lookin' forward to this."
Setsuna arched an eyebrow, turning back to the nearly closed bathroom door. "And why is that?"
"Not so good at shopping," He commented back through the door, which he pushed back open seconds later. Ranma stepped into the living room wearing the hotel dress shirt and navy blue slacks. "'Course, that's probably because I'm always roped into it somehow."
No, I don't see you as the shopping type either, Saotome, Setsuna smiled inwardly. "While I certainly sympathize, I'm going to have to ask you to trigger the curse." Ranma's nonchalant expression quickly adopted a frown, so she elaborated. "You came in as a girl, and in case you have not yet noticed, the hotel staff is very attentive."
Ranma was about to open his mouth in protest, but settled a put-out look, stepping back into the bathroom. The guardian heard a facet run less than fifteen seconds before a busty redhead stepped back out wearing the same clothes, spackled with water and a grumpy pout. "Happy?"
Setsuna almost let the grin break out onto her face. The pout did little to convey Ranma's irritation. In fact, it only made the girl look cuter than before, and she idly wondered if the redhead knew it. In either case, Ranma was still wearing the same slacks and shirt. The pants now looked slightly baggy, but curved around her hips enticingly, while the shirt... That particular garment now strained against her ample charms, and it was quite oblivious that the martial artist had opted not to wear the hotel supplied bra. While she was tempted to point the fact out, another part of her brain unbiddingly answered the Saotome's question for her.
Yes... that would do just fine.
Though you have to know by now what those will do to men, she thought absently, attempting to push the errant psychological analysis aside. Combined with her innate, exotic beauty.... Mission, mission, mission... Setsuna chanted, scrubbing the naughty thoughts from her brain. "Then let us depart. Our limo awaits down stairs and as grateful as I am for the hotel's consideration, I'll happy when I can get into something more practical."
"Wonder if they have my tangs...?" Ranma mused, following the Senshi out the door.
As it turned out, Selfridges did have Ranma's tangs. Not only did they have his tangs, but they were by Ralph Lauren and priced at a two hundred and fifty percent markup beyond what he had bought his for. They were also embroidered and fairly embellished, normally featuring a dragon, phoenix, or the Chinese character depictions of fire. Between sticker shock and the aura of high fashion permeating the place, it was all Ranma could do not to fidget, let alone touch the clothing before him. In fact, the only thing that kept him from bolting outright was watching Setsuna walk right in like she owned the place. If she could do it, he sure as hell wasn't going to be the one to be intimidated by a fancy department store...
...Or the conveniently stationed attendants, eagerly waiting to address his every need.
Thus, it was with some trepidation that Ranma Saotome, heir to the Anything Goes school of Martial Arts assembled his wardrobe. The men's section was easy. A few button down shirts with somewhat solid color schemes, some t-shirts, boxers and he was set. In reality, all he had done was lift his fashion from the store mannequins. The women's section, however... Well, there wasn't any reason to go over there anyway, at least there wasn't until Setsuna finished her circuit and rendezvoused with the pig tailed boy.
"Aren't you going to get anything for your female aspect?"
Ranma looked up from the meager pile of assorted sweatpants and garments, casting a bland look back at his escort. "This is for my girl type."
Setsuna Meiou arched skeptical eyebrow, studying the teen and his acquisitions. While she could almost understand his point of view, it didn't make it any less of a criminal offense to hide that female body under clothing that could be called unisex at best. Instead of the outright objection begging to spill from her lips, she sighed, choosing her next words carefully and for maximum effect. "For a Starlight, you have a surprisingly narrow definition of fashion."
"Huh?" Ranma's head jerked up, momentarily forgetting the racks of clothing he had been sifting through. From anybody else and at any other time, the remark would have met with a wall of indifference. Fashion was hardly a concern to the martial artist, doubly so when one led a life that would see said articles of clothing rendered into useless bits of fabric on a regular basis... Except for the fact that it was this particular woman saying it, and she had employed the race that had become such an intriguing topic for the teen.
"Life wasn't always convenient for them either," She absently picked through a rack of skirts conveniently beside her, playing their conversation off as if it were merely chit chat. "In some ways they had it worse than you."
"Oh yeah?" The pig tailed martial artist had ceased his activities entirely, focusing intently on the guardian as the topic that had intrigued him for the last few days came to the surface of their conversation.
"MMmhmm," Setsuna nodded, glancing at the boy before returning to her search through the rack. "Most couldn't control that aspect of their biology until after eighteen. Until then, they were pretty much at the whim of their mood and hormones." She paused to allow the statement to fully sink in before following up with her next salvo. "Of course, it doesn't take much imagination to realize some of the awkward situations they found themselves in."
"No it doesn't..." Ranma murmured thoughtfully, so low that most would have missed the response entirely. It was also the response the Mistress of Time had hoped to achieve. It's not much, she admitted silently, studying his reactions out of the corner of her eye as she plucked a random skirt from its hanger. But if he's been through even half of what I suspect he's been through... That, and the less baggage he had to carry into this fight, the better.
"Anyway, no need to draw this out longer than necessary," She replaced the skirt. "Get whatever you want and let the attendant--"
"Um, yeah... About that..." Ranma drawled, looking from her to the clothing and back uncertainly. "Maybe you can... I mean...maybe... Since you actually knew a Starlight or two..."
Setsuna Meiou cocked her head as if trying to divine his request, though she knew exactly what he was asking. And it's probably like pulling teeth for him too. She kept her puzzled mask a moment longer before letting comprehension creep onto her face and shrugged. "I don't see why not."
"And I don't wanna be looking girlie," Ranma followed up quickly as the emerald haired woman made her way over to the Saotome's rack and inspected his initial selections.
"There's a difference between girlie," She picked up a black pair of trousers, putting it back aside. "And looking good. That's the constant we'll strive for regardless of which gender you wear."
Wear? It was the first time Ranma had hear anybody refer to his curse as little more than clothing, which in it's own unlikely way made absolute sense to him. After all, he was still Ranma no matter what body he was in, something too many people in his life seemed to overlook. Looking good, however, was not a new concept, even if he did little to indulge in it except in times of necessity. If he was going to commit to the task in either form, he was going to get it done right and thus followed Setsuna eagerly as she began to pick through his selections.
Fifteen minutes later, a female Ranma stepped out of the dressing in a neutral beige button down shirt and slacks, staring at herself in the mirror while Setsuna examined her counterpart from behind. Ranma herself didn't know what to think, staring at the image before her. The khaki wasn't exactly her favorite color, but... The redhead turned slightly taking herself in from another angle. "I'm not so sure..."
"I am," Setsuna nodded certainly, stepping around the martial artist while pulling at a shoulder seam to straighten the shirt. "Now watch..."
Setsuna stepped in front of the mirror and pulled at Ranma's collar, propping it up and buttoning up a single button to her neck. She stepped away, allowing Ranma access to her visage.
"See? Were i to splash you right now, you would easily pass as nothing more than a trendy guy." Ranma blinked, and it was obvious that redhead was visualizing her very words. The guardian gave her a moment then stepped back in front of her. The girl stared curiously as Setsuna smoothed back the collar and dropped two buttons, exposing more of Ranma's ample chest before taking one step back. She eyed the girl critically for a moment before stepping back in and pulling the shirt tails from the slacks, allowing them to hang free. Her last act before stepping aside for the final time was to pull the twine from Ranma's pigtail, allowing the crop of red hair to flow freely The emerald haired woman walked around her, smiling. "There. Instant femme fatale."
Ranma simply stared, barely aware of the self satisfied guardian off to her right. It was the exact same clothing, yet the end product was completely different. She could pass it off in either gender. Sure, the style was iffy and it tended to drift against her smaller form, but...
"...I swear it's her," A hissed whisper interrupted her thoughts and both women turned to the source, a circular clothes rack two aisles down. Couching behind its cover in a vein attempt to conceal himself. "No! Roger, how many red headed Japanese girls can there possibly be? ...With blue eyes?"
Setsuna's paranoia clicked and she shot the well dressed redhead a look, who gave her a slight nod in turn, lowering into a crouch. She took a flanking vector across the aisle while Setsuna took her own route, setting up for the cross fire. She seriously doubted it would be necessary to employ any serious firepower since the guy read as a normal bystander, but if she had a yen for every time she'd seen an innocent bystander turn into a life force devouring youma...
"No, no... Some green haired woman... A looker herself," Ranma crossed another aisle and gained a clear line of sight on her victim. he was twenty something with sandy blonde hair, dressed in a expensive tan sports jacket and hunching over a largish cell phone. "How the hell should I know? And bloody fine with her hair down, too. Yes... Yes..."
The red head in question now stood less than a meter behind the man who continued to fail epically at his covert surveillance activities; so much so that Ranma was beginning to get bored watching the man argue with his unseen associate. A quick glance across the aisle found Setsuna also beginning to emote similar skepticism. An agent of the forces of darkness this guy wasn't.
"Yes, well I've got the same bloody picture you do," The blond's voice began to take on an irritated tinge. "You'd have to be blind not--"
And suddenly, the phone was gone from his grasp and he whirled around with the offending act. Sure, the man hadn't seen the movement that had liberated the phone from his person, but that didn't lessen his ire one iota and he prepared to take such rudeness to task when--
"He'll call ya back, Roger." The blond blinked, finding his target suddenly in back of him and staring down at him malevolently. The redheaded beauty pulled the phone away from her face and tossed it off to the right, where it was caught by her partner who in turn disconnected the call. He looked at the pair, then back to the dressing area he'd been spying upon, then back, adopting a weak, guilty smile.
"I can explain this..."
"Sure you can," The teen returned mildly; too mildly by the man's estimation. She folded her arms, conveying unspoken menace in the process. "First ya explain on why yer pervin' at the women's dressing room. Better yet, explain just how you're knowing me?"
"Uh, um..." The man dissembled, glancing around at the staring patrons who had heard the girls. "It's um... Complicated?"
"As I am sure the situation will become once we explain to the management that your questionable tendencies have cost them two very well paying clients," The second woman frowned. As if on cue, one of the store attendants walked over to them with an easy smile.
"Is there something I can be of assistance with? Mister Buckle? Miss Meiou? Miss Saotome?"
"Not sure..." Ranma glanced from the clerk, back to the man. "Is there... Buckle-san?"
Ranma's honorific for the newly identified man held enough edge to cause the blond to redouble his plastic smile. "Of course not. A simple misunderstanding."
Setsuna nodded pleasantly for the girl, who smiled and went about her way without a question and as if the disturbance never occurred. The guardian's red eyes fell back to the Buckle with a mischievous glint therein. "So... what is to keep us from coming to the most likely conclusion available to us?"
The man in question slumped, but reached into his jacket, proffering his card to the women. "Hopefully my position... Nori J Buckle, co-editor in chief of Flange Fashion."
Ranma snatched at the card and studied the embossed English. She could read it well enough, but there was little in the way of content for her, so she passed it on to Setsuna. The green haired woman glanced at it, calling up the relevant facts from memory. "Flange... cutting edge, high fashion magazine."
"The very same," Nori straightened up with the recognition, regaining a bit of his confidence. "Published in nineteen countries, with well over two million monthly readers worldwide."
The statistics didn't even faze Ranma, who instead eyed Setsuna. "You read this stuff?"
"Fashion tends to be a hobby of min as well," Setsuna shrugged. "Though it tells us little of your intentions, Mister Nori Buckle."
"Of course," He smiled genuinely, brushing his styled blond part from his eyes with more confidence now that he was back in his element. "I'd be more than happy to... If I may be so bold, over dinner?"
The stranger said the magic word, and the redhead took interest for the first time since their initial meeting. "You buying?"
As it turned out, the stranger did buy, and less than fifteen minutes into the meal, Ranma wished he hadn't. The pigtailed girl was now a boy, wearing the same khaki outfit out the door of the department store and nestled in the reclining leather of Setsuna's limo with a dour expression across his face. The Mistress of Time watched as a streetlamp casted its light across him briefly before fading as the vehicle continued its progress back to the hotel.
Very awkward, Setsuna mused darkly, reflecting on the meal's topic and the newly acquainted Mister Buckle's foreknowledge of Ranma. Now, it was a pensive silence that filled the limo, and it was quite obvious that her partner had a lot on his mind... Such as what to do about the few thousand handkerchiefs in circulation prominently displaying his- rather her -nude bust. But you knew... After the editor dropped that bombshell, it was nothing but small talk for Ranma, and Setsuna shouldered the majority of the conversation from that point forward. All things considered, Buckle got away off pretty light with Ranma's lose of appetite, especially after discovering the handkerchief was but the tip of the iceberg.
So who took those pictures...? She wondered idly, knowing that the question was as rhetorical as they came. Ranma didn't have that sort of confidence in his female aspect. While it was obvious he held a certain amout of pride in it, she was betting that didn't include posing nude for glamour shots to be distributed internationally. "Nabiki..."
Blue eyes flicked up with a grade of hostility she instinctively knew wasn't meant for her person, while simultaneously confirming her guess. Seeing a response beyond protective silence, the Mistress of Time decided to press for a more meaningful dialogue.
"So... For how long?"
Ranma considered the question for a moment, mentally debating just how much he wanted to open up to this new woman. After all, women in general had never exactly been the harbingers of good fortune before... Though maybe this one had earned at a chance, however, he mused silently. In the end, it came down a nonchalant shrug. "Damn near the day I set foot in Nerima."
"And you agreed to it?" Setsuna asked softly, avoiding anything that would even sound like an accusation.
"As if," The martial artist rolled his eyes. "Hell, half tonight is my fault for letting her pull this crap to begin with. I could get pissed at her, but then I'd get half a dozen fingers pointin' right back at me."
"Why then?" She asked, genuinely curious.
"Bunch of reasons I guess," Ranma elaborated, less reluctantly as Setsuna drew him out of his shell. "At first it was the fact that me and my old man were guests. She wasn't puttin' the money to upkeep, that's for damn sure, but I felt obligated. Not as if I could hold down a job between all the crap around there, either. That, and she always had an angle. Havin' to tip toe around Akane, Mister Tendo and my old man was a huge advantage and she knew it."
"So you went along with it," Setsuna forwarded the most obvious conclusion available. "Biding your time until your position firmed up?"
"Exactly," Ranma nodded, then sighed. "Except it never did. The fiancées kept arriving and rivals just kept coming, givin' her a nonstop supply of crap to use against me. Much as I hate to admit it, I'm kinda glad you came along when you did."
"Something big enough to allow you to justify blowing them off for the immediate future?" Ranma nodded. "So the fall of the Silver Millennium and upcoming potential for apocalypse is your idea of a vacation."
"Yeah, kinda... No, wait! That's not--" The pigtailed boy notice the impish smile on her face, and snorted lightly himself. "Funny woman."
"Glad somebody thinks so," She chuckled before moving on to the next topic. "What about Buckle's offer?"
Any trace of humor instantly evaporated from Ranma's face. "Now that, you have to be kidding me."
Ranma held her with an incredulous look. "Gee, don't know... Maybe it has something to do with modeling women's clothing."
"True, but..." She cocked her head, as if to think, then shook her head. "No, best we keep a low profile."
The martial artist knew he should take his victory and ran, but he couldn't help himself and asked anyway. "'But' what?"
"I... its..." Those red eyes studied him for a moment, then nodded, as if coming to a decision. "I am a meddler by nature, Ranma-kun. It has been my hobby for the last fourteen thousand years in matters grand and mundane. My thoughts on the matter… I doubt you are ready to entertain."
The Guardian of Time had meant to convey information concerning her nature. After fourteen thousand years ensuring a earth's nominal survival, privacy meant very little to the woman. Setsuna Meiou stuck her nose in places it didn't belong through sheer habit alone now, and her words were to serve as a warning to the person across from her. To the Mistress of Time, it was simple… Ranma was afflicted with a curse, with no cure in sight and a severe case of gender dysphoria. Her natural inclination was to fix that potential weakness as she had so many of her allies before, a fix this new ally was almost certainly not ready for. Clothing was one thing. Psychological manipulation, however... Sadly, she didn't know the martial artist as well as she thought and the teen crooked an easy smile, rising to the perceived challenge.
"I'm all ears."
So much for taking a hint, She frowned mentally, keeping the emotion from reaching her face. Now she had two choices: Alienate him with silence or alienate his manhood. Simply wonderful.
"Perhaps our Mister Buckle's proposal isn't completely without merit," She threw caution to the wind and watched the humor drain from his face. What was left was an emotional void and… Did the driver turn on the air conditioning?
The remainder of the limo ride was spent in uncomfortable silence as the pigtailed boy steadily refused to make eye contact, opting instead to watch the blur of sights passing through the rain spackled night. Damn, she fumed, replaying the events leading up to this. She had been doing so well too… Oh well. I seriously doubt he'll hold me—
"What'd ya have in mind?"
The words came from Ranma as they pulled up to the lobby of the Mandarin, and Setsuna looked at him curiously for a moment before conceding her mildly surprise. "I must sa,y I wasn't expecting you to open yourself to the possibility so soon…"
…If at all, she added mentally and Ranma shrugged as if it were a minor point to acknowledge.
"You don't seem to be playin' games, which is a damn sight better than most of the people in my life," Ranma leaned back into his seat, his face not exactly happy, but somewhere closer to room temperature. "That, and ya got a little bit more invested than just yankin' my chain."
"Indeed," Setsuna nodded as her door was pulled open by the waiting chauffer. "Despite my… inclinations, I truly am attempting to be as transparent as possible concerning my motives."
The martial artist thumbed his own door handle, opting not to wait for the chauffer to cross to his side and stepping out into the light sprinkle of rain. Sprinkle was too generous a term, he decided, revising his description of the participation to that of the consistency of spittle; Just enough to annoy him, but not enough to tote an umbrella or even activate the curse.
"Fair enough, I guess," Ranma acknowledge easily as the emerald haired guardian joined his side, both entering through the double doors being held open for them by the hotel's attendants… Still wearin' those fruity red uniforms, Ranma chuckled internally, then turned back to business. "Still ain't guaranteeing I'll go along with whatever it is you got in mind, though."
"As you say, fair enough," The pair crossed the grand lobby to a waiting elevator, already called down by a bellhop for their convenience. Back at the curb their shopping continued to be unloaded with the promise to join them in their rooms shortly. "With what I know of you and that which you have confided in me, I think it presents us… you with a unique opportunity."
"I get plenty of those as it is... Most of 'em bad," Ranma chuckled dryly as the elevator doors closed upon them. Setsuna touched the button labeled fourteen, setting it a-glow. "So what's so special about this one?"
"First, my motivations are hardly altruistic," Setsuna elaborated, taking the path of brutal honesty. "We are allies and I see these thorns in your side as potential weakness to be exploited and its something neither you or I can afford be distracted by at this juncture."
"By modeling," Ranma arched his eyebrow skeptically and Setsuna nodded.
"A means to an end," She corrected, the elevator wobbled ever so slightly as it approached the target floor. Doors slid open, admitting them into a well adorned hallway. "For several reasons actually; One part therapy one part liber-"
"I don't need therapy." Ranma scowled.
"You don't?" Setsuna asked rhetorically, pushing through the martial artist's bluster as if it were non-existent. "Anybody that can be blackmailed through their gender can be manipulated in other ways by a more capable adversary. I will be frank with you, Ranma-kun, I do not see your condition as curable and I have been around long enough to know. In fact, the only artifact I know of that would have a chance to do so doesn't exist here. Your aversion to your female aspect is a critical fault running through you mental state, one that will eventially comprimise other parts of your life and potentially our mission."
"I'm the best," Ranma rolled his eyes. "And I ain't gonna compromise anything."
"You do not know the opponents we potentially face," She explained, pulled her room's keycard from the hand bag in her possession and swiping it. The door clicked open and Ranma followed her in. "I have seen allies manipulated into dark acts by enemies that would ruthlessly exploit secret longings for friends and family via magical corruption; People that wouldn't otherwise hurt a fly, Ranma. Trust me when I say that it does not take much imagination to realize what some of my- our -would-be adversaries could do with a gender insecurity such as your own."
"--Proving my point," She admonished gently and Ranma's mouth snapped shut, as if part of him was aware of just how pointedly his objections had been turned against him. The Saotome found a plush velvet chair in Setsuna's living room and plopped into it, his body happily molding itself to the cushioning after a long, long day. "In any case, the main purpose behind accepting the offer is to acclimate you to your condition and thereby remove a potential tool from the enemy's arsenal."
Ranma heated her with a leaded glare for a moment before relenting into strained calm. "And there ain't no other way to do that besides modeling?"
"Oh, there are a number of ways," The Mistress of Time remarked. "Thought this particular one ties up so many loose ends, and I'm quite a fan of efficiency."
"Sure ya are," Ranma deadpanned rhetorically. "And what are these 'loose ends'?"
"Among others," Setsuna continued, evidently oblivious to Ranma's dry tone. She found the bourbon on the center table and poured herself a small glass of the rich brown liquid before offering Ranma one. He declined, and she continued between sips. "This opportunity can also represent your independence, financially more than anything else. While I am not exactly sure what photos Buckle has of you, it would appear that he and his associates were rather… impressed."
Of course they'd be impressed, Ranma pinkened slightly. He could very well guess which photos they had seen… handkerchiefs and otherwise.
"Now granted, you could choose to continue live at the dojo if you desired, but that's the entire point… You will have a choice not to be bound financially to their whims. Second and less obvious," She sipped her bourbon with an amused countenance now. "Is that it breaks that particular monopoly Nabiki has by default."
Setsuna watched as Ranma's attention suddenly found a sharp focus. "It would?"
"Legitimate agencies and publications frown on that sort of sniping, and have a vested interest in protecting your personal image… Physical and otherwise." She outlined, setting the glass down and sitting on the edge of the grand oak table. "Any reputable agency would set the dogs out on a privateer selling candid photos of a model that has signed with them. Long story short, it puts you in nominal control of that aspect of your life. And then there are the fringe benefits, of course."
"Fringe benefits?" Ranma cocked his head. The martial artist was still wary of the whole enterprise, but sticking it to Nabiki was no small token in his book, either.
"Travel of course. Fame," She ticked off on her fingers, "A social life beyond the dojo. It's not the cure all to your problems, admittedly, but it is something that I think you would benefit from."
The martial aritst bristled a bit with the comment but forced it down. His first reaction was to deny the fact and that he was fine, nor did he need a social life, but then, he wasn't exactly in a place called 'fine' back in Nerima. In fact, it was named 'suck' and for very good reason, though whether a social life was the cure to that was up for debate, in his opinion.
The Mistress of Time could almost see the gears grind as her partner considered the proposal, and she couldn't help but to be intrigued. The teen obviously had deep seated issues with his gender. On one hand there was the defensive streak concerning his manhood that ran a mile deep. On the other, he seemed to at least be able to stand his time in female form. Let alone produce alluring pictures, she added silently, wondering which way the divergent forces within would pull him. Would the deep seated masculinity overpower reason? Best back off a little in either case, she decided, framing her next thoughts. "In any case, it's certainly not a decision you need make tonight. I suspect we will become very busy in the weeks to come and that sort of visibility would only serve to alert your acquaintances of our location."
Blue eyes considered her seriously for a moment, coming to a shrug a moment later. "Whatever. No guarantees, though I gotta admit I've done the modeling thing for--"
The words were left hanging as a curious expression leaked into his facial features; as if the pig tailed teen had suddenly realized something. His head swiveled, attention abruptly focusing on the room's window and Setsuna came to the most obvious conclusion available.
"Not sure," Ranma advised, stalking over to the window while the Senshi stood by warily. Something was bugging his ki, brushing up against his aura ever so slightly and it was outside the window. The martial artist attempted resolve the feeling for another moment before simply pulling the curtains open to the twelfth story view and throwing open the latch, opening the window. Setsuna watched as he leaned out into the night, then heard a disappointed groan. "Oh, you have got to be kidding me!"
The red eyed woman watched as Ranma pulled back, dragging... a girl? A kunoichi, she corrected herself, somewhat doubtingly as she watching the Saotome pull a soaked female ninja into their living room by the scruff of her collar; as if such occurrences happened every day. The ninja herself was clad in pastels: A faded pink shozoko that had obviously seen considerable use and wear. Certainly attractive enough, Setsuna decided as Ranma left the woman sitting to shiver in the middle of her room while he fetched a towel from the restroom. The Saotome returned moments later, tossing it to the frail looking creature with little fanfare. One of the fiancées, maybe?
"Thank you mister Ranma!" She effused, wrapping the towel around her person as the martial artist stood aside with a put out look. "It was very cold out there!"
"Well that's what you get for spyin' on us," He retorted with little sympathy, and Setsuna couldn't help but to feel a bit left out now. The girl obviously wasn't a threat, judging by her partner's reaction and somehow she wasn't getting the fiancée vibe, either.
"Ranma," She inserted, studying the wet ninja. "Your friend...?"
"Ah, yeah... Say 'hi' to Konatsu," Ranma shook his head in a slightly disappointed manner. "And what the hell are you doing here anyway?"
"I'm so very sorry, mister Ranma," the kunoichi lowered her eyes guiltily. "Miss Ukyo asked me to keep an eye on you."
"But..." Setsuna stared at the girl curiously, shaking her head. "...I was all but certain we weren't followed."
"I saw your limo arrive at the dojo, Miss... Meiou, I believe?"
"Setsuna," She corrected, and the ninja nodded cheerfully.
"Miss Setsuna, then." The girl continued, pulling herself off the floor, but still wrapped in the towel for warmth. "I clung to the undercarriage of your vehicle until you arrived at the airport. After that, it was a simple matter to slip past security and stow away in your flight's baggage compartment." Konatsu paused with a pathetic frown that would fill anybody of lesser mental constitution with guilt. "It was very cold in there too."
The emerald haired woman blinked, her thoughts barely holding off disbelief. She turned to Ranma for confirmation. "And you didn't notice her, either?"
"Genius kunoichi," Ranma confirmed, shrugging as if the matter was no longer his concern. "One in a few hundred generations or something. Hate to admit it, but if anybody could..."
"Thank you, Mister Ranma!" Konatsu exclaimed cheerfully with the roundabout compliment.
"Yeah," The martial artist shook his head, attempting to head off her good mood with his own displeasure. "Still ain't happy about you bein' here. I know you're just keepin' tabs on me for Ucchan, but we're here on business. Savin' the world shit, understand?"
"Ranma..." Setsuna injected, her tone one part warning, two parts concern. The last thing they needed at the moment was for Ranma's entire entourage looking to play hero.
"I understand," The Kunoichi nodded solemnly. "Then if I may lend my assistance, the Mistress would be quite dismayed if I were to let anything happen to you."
"No," The Guardian of Pluto stepped in decisively this time. "We do not have time to---"
"This ain't a game, 'Natsu." Ranma held the kunoichi's gaze, completely overriding Setsuna's objections. "Not like Nerima. When it hits the fan it's gonna hit it hard. If you can't handle that, best ya forget all about this and head on out."
Konatsu stared back at the martial artist, clearly weighing his words and their intent. After a moment, the bubbly smile that she had worn on and off since their introduction faded into a determined countenance. "I am the last kunoichi of the Nokata-Ryu Clan. My blade is yours to command."
"Good enough," Ranma nodded, seriousness fading. "Look, you can--"
"Saotome, we need to talk," Setsuna stated softly, her tone boarding on a serious hiss. "She cannot accompany us. You of all people have seen what we'll be potentially facing. We cannot afford to have a virtual unknown at our backs."
"Konatsu's not an unknown, Meiou-san." Ranma shook his head, failing to engage her seriousness himself. "You said it yourself, we need allies and Konatsu's damn near the only one back home that can fight me to a standstill, and I know for a fact I still haven't seen her go all out." She turned back to the ninja, who was smiling pleasantly now. "You good with vampires, sorcerers and magical bullshit?"
"Of course, mister Ranma," She nodded, then gained a far away look. "Though perhaps I should warn Mistress Ukyo..."
"Warn her?" Ranma perked up, feeling dread with the words. Ukyo isn't here, so... "Why would ya do that?"
The kunoichi suddenly found other parts of the room to look at, avoiding his gaze. All in all, she looked guilty as hell; a fact confirmed by her next words. "Because I have already sent off a postcard advising her of your presence in London."
Setsuna ground her teeth down in irritation, looking from the cursing of her fellow guardian to the girl. "Did you advise her of our present location?"
"Um, no," Konatsu shook her head, adopting her pathetic, apologetic look once more. "I sent it off as soon as we landed."
"Regular mail?" The guardian pressed.
"It was all I had money for."
"That gives us some breathing room, at least." Setsuna frowned, taking in just how badly current events had turned before returning to Ranma. "Are you sure about this? Her?"
"She gave me her word," Ranma nodded. "That's good enough for me."
"You're not the one I'm worried about," she added darkly, but relented. "What's done is done, I guess."
A polite rap at their door gained the trio's attention, prompting Setsuna to cast a suspicious glance over at the kunoichi, who in turned shrugged ignorance. "Yes?"
"Edward, Miss Meiou," The muffled voice issued through the door. "We have retrieved yours and Miss Saotome's shopping. Would you like it brought in?"
Setsuna shot a look over to Ranma, who in turn tilted his head with indifference. "Gonna find out sooner or later, I guess."
"Yes, please," The guardian decided, agreeing with her counterpart. "Come in."
The door clicked open and several bellhops bearing packages filed in, followed shortly by the butler himself. His brethren found a clear space next to the sitting table to deposit their loads while Edward himself addressed the occupants, noting the new faces. "Ah, Mister Saotome, I presume?" Ranma nodded. "Very good. I've already taken the liberty of depositing your sister's shopping in your mutual room. Can we expect her later tonight?"
"...A party girl," Setsuna finished through his momentary lapse with an easy smile, resulting in an opposite expression from Ranma. "Perhaps she will be in, perhaps not."
"I see," The personal butler took the information in stride. "Then is there anything we can do for you... or your guest?"
Their guest was the quintessential ninja, dressed in pink and Setsuna wasn't sure how to explain her presence for the life of her. The fact couldn't have gone unnoticed by the butler, which would--
"Yeah, as a matter of fact," Ranma stepped in as the lesser bellhops completed their duties and exited the room silently. "Konatsu is gonna need a place to sleep in my room. Can we work somethin' out?"
"Of course, master Saotome," The butler nodded without questioning the request. "I can arrange to have a single moved in, if that will suffice? Otherwise, I will endeavor to open up another room...?"
"Nah, the bed will be fine," The martial artist decided. "Thanks, Edward-san!"
The aging man bowed deeply. "It is my pleasure, Master Saotome. By your leave?"
Ranma nodded and the butler departed, door clicking closed behind him. In his wake stood a disgruntled kunoichi. "Mister Ranma, I must protest! A bed is much too extravagant for a humble kunoichi such as myself."
"Stuff it, 'Natsu-chan," Ranma rolled his eyes, well familiar with the ninjas subservient antics. "You're gonna sleep in a bed and you're gonna like it."
"I..." Konatsu looked like a lost puppy, suddenly unsure of her fate. "...If I must."
She can't be for real, Setsuna checked herself mentally, staring at the pair as they bantered back and forth. Somebody with enough skill for Ranma to respect, but completely passive in nature... Setsuna shook her head but sniffed with amusement. "Work it out amongst yourselves... or are you planning to add another fiancée to your growing harem?"
Instead of the subtle needling she had expected to inflict upon Ranma, all she for her received for the effort was indifference from Ranma and a horrified look from ninja.
"Something you should know about Konatsu," He advised, looking over to the kunoichi, who gave her permission with a subtle nod. "She's a guy."
"She... that's..." Setsuna was left blinking, trying to rationalize how the feminine looking creature before her was, in fact, male. She... he's good. Damn good if Ranma was to be believed, and his smirk plus the kunoichi's lack of protest all but confirmed the fact. I can give as good as get, however, she decided and fixed her own amused smile.
"Then it's a good thing you're a Starlight, hmmm?" She watched victoriously as the pigtailed boy's smirk suddenly failed, Konatsu turning to him curiously.
"Mister Ranma... What's a Starlight?"
Fifteen minutes later, and several conversational evasions later, Konatsu was marveling at his own single bed. Edward had done a fine job at rearranging the room, Ranma noted, rearranging the the twin to accommodate the extra bulk. In any other hotel, the new mass probably would have made for cramped living conditions within the bedroom... Within the Mandarin and the luxury suite housing them, however, it was still a stupid amount of room and promised to accommodate them with ease.
"So Miss Setsuna really isn't- yawn -a fiancée?" Konatsu had since changed into a pastel blue silk robe- the one meant for Ranma's "sister" and was barely maintain consciousness; buried beneath the scrumptiously warm covers of his new bed.
"Not a chance," Ranma shook his head, buttoning the final eye of his own black silk pajamas. They were one of his selections from their shopping excursion, and damn fine ones at that, he decided. "Nothin' more than allies. She's the Princess of Pluto, if you can believe it."
"A Princess? How- yawn -exotic..." Konatsu's eyes fluttered for a moment before settling closed. "Wish I were... a princess..."
"I'll bet you do." Ranma crooked a friendly smile at the transgendered kunoichi who was safely on the express train to a sound night's sleep. He was about to thumb the lights when a new thought struck him. I don't got a clue what we're doing tomorrow. No schedule, no clue what to expect....
The Saotome sighed and slipped out of the room, padding across the living room and to the door itself. Could just call her I guess... Feels kinda stupid bein' right next door though. Ranma exited the room and walked the meager distance across the hall to her room, pausing just before rapping his knuckles on the door. His aura strobbed out softly, finding the female presence beyond; awake and active. Knowing that his presence wouldn't be overly disruptive, he knocked softly. "Yo, Meiou-san... Quick question."
The door clicked open and Ranma Saotome, heir to the Anything Goes School of Martial Arts was nearly blinded. Setsuna Meiou was wearing the hotel's own fuzzy white robe, that while oversized, clung to her every generous curve. The deep V neck she had allowed the garment to sink into did little to help matters, and it was as if gravity itself was conspiring to keep his eyes from meeting hers. When they finally snapped to her red orbs, he was surprised to find an amused twinkle, not hostile irritation.
"See something you like, Ranma-kun?" She smirked herself, waiting for the teen to recover. Unlike herself, he wasn't managing nearly as well as she had during her visit to his room, but it was nice to know he approved.
"Uh, yes... I mean no! I mean...!"
Approves a great deal, She grinned mentally with the unintended compliment, but decided to let him off the hook regardless. "What can I do for you Ranma-kun?"
"It's... I..." He stumbled, desperate not to take a second look at anything below the neck. A lesser man would have failed miserably, but those lesser men hadn't Ranma's exposure to the feminine wiles of no less than three women throwing their collective bodies at him at any given time, nor were they female half the time. It took an unholy effort to keep his eyes from drifting back down, but two years of pavlovian induced pain at the mere trespass of even associating with another female other than Akane helped assist in the endeavor. "I mean... I'm wonderin' what's on tomorrow's schedule."
"A good question," The Mistress of Time nodded, brushing a lock of green hair from her face. It was all she could do not to adopt a purely unintentional and coincidentally provocative pose with which to tease the boy, and only a nagging conscious calling her to duty prevented such shenanigans from taking place. "Tomorrow is Diagon Alley. We will be meeting up with a contact in order to arrange a meeting with the descendants of the Moon survivors."
"About what time?" The business nature of their conversation helped Ranma focus, though it still took conscious effort. The woman before him was by no means a teenage fiancée and had the looks and body to prove it.
"Our window is one fifteen PM local time," She advised him. "I don't expect any problems, but I'm not operating with all the information I usually would, so it should go without saying..."
"...Keep an eye out, right," Ranma nodded. "Alright, thanks for the info. Night Meiou-san."
"And call me Setsuna," she smiled warmly, the slightest purr edging into her voice. "Good night, Ranma-kun."
With that, the door closed with a soft click, leaving on nearly sweating, pajama clad martial arts heir standing in the hallway.
"And here we are," The Guardian of Time stated as their limo slowed along Charing Cross road. Her companions looked out from the tinted windows, specifically looking for anything out of the ordinary or magical in nature. What they found as the chauffer opened their doors was a mom and pop book store and second hand music retailer, causing Ranma to frown. He had been expecting something a bit more...exotic.
"Is the person we're meeting in one of these stores, Miss Setsuna?" Konatsu scrutinized the storefronts curiously. Neither appeared very busy and there was a likewise minimal amount of foot traffic along their sidewalks. In fact, the only thing notable along the street was themselves and the longm attention getting limosine. Setsuna herself wore a casual, one piece dress-sleeveless petticaot combination that alternated between purple and fuche, while Ranma wore a pair of recently aquired tan cargo pants and a button up blain white shirt; left untucked upon Setsuna's advisement. Konatsu had been the most trouble to dress for wanting to cling to her old garments, but his objections quickly faded upon digging into the remainder of Ranma's wardrobe. He wore lighter blue t-shirt that showed off the curvature of his breasts and straight pants to exentuated his figure.
All things considered, they were far more noticable than anything the trio had arrived for.
"We'll be here about an hour, Joesph," The Guardian nodded to the chauffer, who returned to the vehicle with the advisement. It pulled away silently, leaving the trio to stare at two distinctly plain looking establishments, separated by a plain red brick wall. Setsuna took a brief glance in both directions, scanning for witnesses before flexing her hand. The Garnet Rod flashed into existence with a soft pink flash, dropping into her grasp. The action prompted curiosity from both teens. "Credentials," She explained cryptically, pointing the heart tip of the stave in their direction. "Touch the garnet gem, please."
Ranma looked at the dull red orb at the center of the alloy heart and shrugged, poking the orb's cool surface. It glowed briefly then faded. The martial artist looked at his hand, expecting... Well, he didn't know what to expect, and it looked as if nothing whatsoever had occurred. Konatsu looked at his hand as well, tilting her head before touching the orb. The orb glowed once more, but otherwise produced no discernable reaction to his touch.
"Okay...?" Ranma waited, watching Setsuna expectantly. The woman favored both with a patient smile, nodding her head back to the store fronts.
The martial artist and kunoichi turned and blinked. Where a once solid brick wall front had filled the space between the two stores now stood... A pub. Ranma boggled, staring into the cramped establishment. "You gotta be kidding me."
"It is a compound spell," Setsuna elaborated, motioning to the watering hole that now stood before them. "One part illusionary glamour, one part to divert attention away from the patrons; functioning much like my armor's wards in that way."
"Oooh! 'The Leaky Cauldron'?" Konatsu gazed with wonder upon the new discovery. The venerable establishment bustled with activity and only now was it obvious that people were actively coming and going from the pub's blackened store front.
"Follow me," She motioned, stepping up to the door herself. "If anybody inquires, I am a Chrono Mage and you are both my apprentices. Under no circumstances are you to admit that you cannot use magic, otherwise known as a 'muggle'."
Ranma shrugged with the little idea as to what a chrono mage was while Konatsu nodded agreeably, following Setsuna into the bar. The trio was instantly engulfed in a carcinogenic haze of smoke, mingling tobaccos, herbs and food mix together into a barely tolerable atmosphere that tasted nearly as bad as it smelled. The guardian tipped her staff back over her shoulder and moved through the cramped quarters, arrogantly oblivious to the occasional stares they were drew. Ranma wore his own cloak of arrogance, though his projected closer to uncaring indifference than aloof superiority. Konatsu trailed behind without pretense, eagerly drinking in the sights as they continued through to the back, through a swinging door and out into a covered courtyard where they came to stop next to... Ranma frowned.
Another brick wall, this one accompanied by several ancient looking barrels and several deteriorating crates
"Like the last one?" The pigtailed boy asked, watching the emerald haired woman step up to the barrier.
"No," she corrected, silently counting up three bricks from the center, then over two. "This one is real, save the fact that is less a wall and more of a doorway keyed to a simple combination lock. Please stand back."
The pair of teens complied and Setsuna used the heart tip of her staff to tap the brick she had targeted once, twice, then a third time. Satisfied, she too stepped away from the wall and waited. She didn't have long, and the trio watched as the bricks twisted and slid aside one by one like tiled shutters, exposing a narrow hallway that opened into a blind corner and the noisy din of commotion beyond. The Guardian of Time nodded to herself and stepped through, motioning the boys to follow her. What Ranma found on the other side of the passage was completely unexpected.
"Whoa," The martial artist stopped dead in his tracks, marveling as the space opened up into an back street market place on par with any that he had seen, and he had seen a number of them growing up on the road. The open air corridor was clogged with people and carts, hawking their goods and services to both the interested and uninterested alike. "Now this, I wasn't expecting."
"Oh, such an exciting place!" Konatsu's eyes glittered as the kunoichi's head swung around on a permantent swivel to take it all in. "If only Miss Ukyo's travel allowance allowed for shopping..."
"Funds are not an issue," Setsuna remarked, taking her first steps into Diagon Alley proper. "The local currency is gold, specifically the Galleon. If I recall correctly, a major bank that will exchange yen is located nearby."
"Thank you, Miss Setsuna!"
The woman chuckled. "Don't thank me. This is coming out of Ranma-kun's pay."
The martial artist favored Setsuna with a dry look. "I'm getting paid?"
"Details, details," She retorted smugly. "Come, we have about a half an hour before our contact arrives."
Both teens followed the woman as she began to weave through the winding marketplace, dodging hawkers and their customers alike in the tight confines of the alleyway. For Ranma, it wasn't anything he hadn't seen before a dozen times in a dozen places throughout his travels. Animals, food, clothing, tools... Konatsu, however continued to gawk, bringing up the rear as the trio transversed the length of the street which finally opened up into larger crossing and a three story building of white leaning off to an angle. Above the entrance, the words 'Gringotts Bank' were engraved, leaving little doubt to the structure's purpose. The interior was completely at odds with the unkempt chaos of the street, and if either teens hadn't already seen the Mandarin, probably would have let out an appreciative whistle at the vaulted ceilings, intricate chandeliers and customers conducting their monetary business.
Setsuna targeted the nearest free teller set up behind an expensive brass lined granite counter, noting both boy's curious expressions as they closed on the station and preempting the inevitable question. "Goblins. Subterraining species loosely related to Gnomes, but with a grumpier disposition and affinity for all things gold." She paused in the explanation, taking her own measure of the pasty white, beady eyed creature awaiting his next customer. "Pretty much extinct in my timeline, I might add."
Any other teenage boy would have gawked at the sight of the needle toothed, pointy eared specimen in a offical banking regalia; a full suit, bow tie and a single monocle poised in its right eye. Those teenage boys, however weren't Konatsu and Ranma, both veterans of the strange an unusual in their own rights. As such, the only point of interest beyond the idle curiosity the creature represented was the business they were their to conduct, and Ranma mentally noted the creature look a lot like Happosai in some respects.
"Yeess?" the creature looked up from whatever work it was penning into a leaf of parchment with a feather quill, his gravelly tone clearly advising that the interruption was ill advised to waste his time as the Emerald haired woman stepped up to the counter.
"Money change," Setsuna stated in a equally business like tone. "Yen to Galleon."
The bleach skinned creature eyed his customer with the monocle eye and sniffed. "Account?"
Setsuna pulled a small business card from her purse and pushed it across the counter for the creatures long, spindly fingers to acquire. He studied it for a moment with a squint before turning his gaze back on the three. "Uhhhg... No account. Direct transfer fees will apply."
Ranma arched an eyebrow at what sounded like a veiled threat, though Setsuna continued on as if it were all standard practice. "Of course. Twenty thousand should be sufficient."
"Hnnnn." Was the Goblin's only response was a disdainful look as it reacquired the business card with her Japanese bank account number and typed it into an old early eighteenth century looking type writer. No sooner had he keyed the account and routing information in then an equally antique stock ticker came to life, dutifully clacking out the requested data along a thin strip of paper, which was in turn snapped up and scrutinized by the temperamental humanoid. Squinting eyes traced the line of paper, then nodded with approval. "This is... Acceptable. One moment."
The squat humanoid hobbled off his seat, removing himself from sight before waddling to back room where a door was opened and closed.
"Such a disagreeable creature," Konatsu frowned, peering after the small humanoid and his exit. "Very unpleasant."
"Reminds me of Nabiki." Ranma nodded. "But uglier."
Setsuna simply waited patiently. It took nearly five minutes for the goblin to return, scaling his seat up to the trio's level and dropping a palm sized black bag onto the counter before them, then turned back to the typewriter.
"Twenty thousand Galleons from Yen, conversion rate 1165.33 to the galleon plus the standard direct transfer fee of fifteen percent. Total withdrawn, 13,401,295 yen." A sickly smile radiating avarice curled about his lip as he pushed the tied pouch across the counter. It was accompanied by a sheet of parchment and already inked quill. "The pouch of holding is complimentary. Please sign."
The Guardian of Time favored the shorter creature with her own arrogant frost, marking the paper with a simple 'X' before pushing it back. The Goblin studied what barely passed as a signature with the monacle eye and scowled, but failed to pursue the matter further. Instead, he simply turned back to the stack of paper he had been attending to before their arrival as if they were no longer worthy of his notice. Setsuna scooped the black velvet back into her hands and turned away, her charges following in tow. Once outside the bank and in the clear, she pulled open the drawstrings and started to dole out money to the pair. Ranma watched the gold clink into his hand with vague fascination, whereas Konatsu seemed utterly entranced by her golden coins. It was quite literally more money than she had ever seen in his entire life.
"Okay, we still have about ten minutes until we meet our contact." Setsuna closed the coin purse and let its meager weight drop into her own handbag. She turned to the street scanning for her target. "His name is Rubeus Hagrid and you won't be able to miss him, being nearly three meters tall. You two just nod, I'll do the talking. If he asks a question, let me answer and..."
Setsuna blinked, noting the complete and utter silence at her back. She turned about, only to find she had been talking to herself the entire time and no sign of the two martial artists. The Mistress of Time sighed.
"Wonderful. Simply wonderful."
Bart Gobbleman paused with the light sound of the door's bell, setting aside the straight blade of his stiletto and the accompanying whet stone to watch his newest potential customer enter. He smiled, turning back to the counter and hopefully a sale in the process. "Welcome to the Keenin' Edge! What can aye a get fer--"
The shop's purveyor's greeting died on his lips as his sight acquired his newest walk in, a girl in her teens wearing a tight shirt and tight bluejeans, her jet black hair tied back into a single pony tail and smile on her face. Bart arched an eyebrow at the improbable sight, but fixed his own smile. Clueless tourist were always welcome in his shop, after all; Especially ones as pretty as the lass wandering around the racks of weaponry. With any luck he could sell her one of the pricier wall hangers and send her about her way. Any more luck than that would require a bar and several drinks, maybe an enchantment of two. The store keep watched her eyes wander from the heavier iron to the lighter blades, where they lingered for a moment before turning to the daggers residing in the display case. His smile widened.
"What can I git fer ye, me beautiful oriental lass?"
Her head snapped up, as if she hadn't even realized he had been standing no less then four meters away from her. She blinked curiously then favored him with a dazzlingly cute smile. "Ohayou gozaimasu! Kyoo wa ii otenki desu ne?"
Bart blinked, his face enveloping in a quizzled expression. "Er, I didn'ta quite get that."
The girl's smile faded likewise, cocking her head curiously. It lasted for a moment before being replaced by one of inspiration. The bald owner watched as she placed her hands together- fist to palm -and closed her eyes to concentrate. Bart arched an eyebrow then watched as her hands began to glow. He shuffled back a step as her eyes suddenly opened with fierce determination.
"Kunoichi hahaku gikou!" The stranger shouted suddenly, a slight breeze wafting around her, and her fingers flashed through a number of signs. "Iti! Ni! San! Toransure-to!"
The glow in her hands flared slightly, forcing the owner to turn away or risk the unnatural glare. It subsided as quickly as it was manifest, and Bart looked back to the smiling ninja with slightly annoyance. "Now look lass, ye be cute and all but ye be takin' yer magiks outside the premises', hear?"
"Oh, I am very, very sorry Mister Shop keeper!" The girl gushed, instantly breaking the owners irritation through a combination of surprise English and pathetic cuteness. "I couldn't understand you properly so I just had to use a translation justu!"
Justu? Bart Gobbleman's forehead wrinkled. Never hear of no jutsu magic before. He gave it another thought then shrugged. It was tough to stay mad at somebody as cute as the girl in front of him. "Ye be meanin no harm, missy, but some of the weapons here be magic sensitive, understand?"
"Definitely, kind Mister Arms man!" Konatsu nodded happily.
"Very well then!" The owner smiled himself at the girl's politeness. "What can I get for ye today?"
"A blade," The girl's eyes began to wander the weapons racks again. "Do you have carry wakizashi or kodachi?"
Now she was speaking a language he recognized, but shook his head. "Bit far away from home, me lass. Perhaps a dagger for ye? A nice kriss, perchance?"
Gobbleman slid open the display case on his side and pulled out a waving blade, adorned with red crystals and silver plate; basically everything that would attract the eye of a tourist. The Asian girl looked at uncertainly, but took the proffered item anyway, testing its heft as the owner continued. "A fine silvered blade it be, favorite of wizards everywhere, donchaknow?"
Konatsu cocked her head and began to roll the blade through her seemingly delicate fingers, much to the alarm of the watching purveyor. "I don't think ye should be--"
The girl ignored him, spinning the blade expertly in one hand before tossing it across to the other in a blur, where it spun in an open palm before being tossed into the air, twirling. It was caught by the tip a moment later, balanced at point's end and hopped to each remaining finger one by one without breaking skin until it reached her thumb was caught again by the point. She smiled sweetly at the gaping owner, handing it back to him, leather wrapped handle first.
"It certainly is a pretty blade," Konatsu nodded amiably. "Decorative, but the balance is too far forward to actually fight with. Do you have anything that would be useful against, say... a vampire? Ghosts?" Bart blinked. "Maybe even werewolves, though mister Ranma didn't say anything about werewolves. But they would naturally be associated with Vampires, wouldn't you agree?"
The shop owner simply nodded dumbly, trying to gather his wits. The girl was skilled. Damn skilled, which meant that despite the cheery attitude, she was probably serious. It also meant that he wasn't about to try and liquor her up later. Hung over women with knives never made for a pleasant wakeup call the next morning, in his experience.
"I... I think I might have something for ye," He decided, taking her seriously for the first time. "What's your budget if you don't mind me askin', Lass?"
Konatsu put a finger to her lip indecisively, then reached behind her back, pulling out a fist full of coins and dropping them on the counter. "Um, this much?"
Bart Gobbleman's cheek twitch visibly this time as the coins jingled onto the counter. He looked up at her, then back down to the coins and back up at the smiling girl. She can't be for real. "Eh.. Ye mentioned a wakizashi... Will a short sword do ya?"
"Oh definitely." She nodded cheerfully. "As long as it is light and can slay vampires and ghosts. Oh, and werewolves too."
"I think I may have somethin'. Wait here, girlie."
Konatsu nodded and the man was gone from the counter, digging though a pile of boxes and shuffling through several layers until he came upon a battered wooden one with a hinged lid. He blew the dust away with a huff and sat it gently down on the counter before the girl, unclasping the two latches. Opening it, the girl's eyes fell on pure silver steel with a flowing wave of symbols engraved up the spine.
"One of the few survivin' relics from end of the Third Age," Bart detailed, untying the leather that held it firmly ensconced within the box. He flicked the straps aside to pull the hour glass shaped blade away, allowing the girl to take its full measure. "She's Elven steel, said to have been present at the Fall of Mordor and the destruction of the one ring. Now whether ye take salt in that is another matter entirely, but it be a fine blade regardless, rated plus three and documented with the wizardry registry to prove it."
The black haired Asian girl took the sword by the intricately crafted steel and leather hilt, testing its balance first, then giving it a few good swings before sending it ablaze through several high speed arcs faster than the eye could follow. Bart stepped back once more as she put the blade through its paces. After another minute of blurring arcs, she bought the silver blade to halt, considering it with expert eyes but seemingly on the fence concerning its purchase. "Are you sure you don't have a wakizashi?"
"Eh... um..." Bart looked at her innocent expression, then the pile of galleons. Shit, shit, shit! Need to close the deal... think Gobbleman! What's cute girl like this lookin' for in a weapon like that?! His expression lit up as sudden inspiration hit. "Did aye a-mention it glows the prettiest sky blue when in the presence of Orcs and other minor evil?"
Konatsu's expression lit up likewise, and she enthusiastically push the coins fully toward him.
"I'll take it!"
Ranma Saotome popped another bean into his mouth, savoring the moment just before pure random bliss hit his taste buds, wallowing in the sensation as his tongue was bathed in the taste of mango. He didn't know the first thing about these people, but the martial artist had already decided that any society that could come up with a snack like this couldn't be all that bad. He dug his free hand back into the bag of Bertie Botts Every Flavor Bean as he took in the sights of the alley way, looking for other culinary victims. His first impression of the place had indeed been pretty close to correct... Diagon Alley was little more than a bazaar, catering to nearly every form of business one could find like any other back alley market place this side of the world. Where that impression erred, however, was in the details, specifically the goods and services being peddled. Ranma popped the next bean into his mouth and smiled. Barbeque pork flavored.
One thing that had become crystal clear was the fact that Diagon was no ordinary market place. The clientele were obviously magic users on closer observation, and while most looked to be fairly normal, their clothing on average wasn't. They were clad in robes, pointy hats and other exotic garb that looked to have had a home in an eighteenth century history lesson. The goods they were partaking of were equally odd, ranging from supposedly magic brooms, magical tomes and exotic reagents of all sorts. Not that any of it came anywhere close to fazing him. Even before he had stepped foot in Nerima, his education had been rather worldly in nature and at almost seventeen years of age, the martial artist had seen and done the impossible. Ranma soaked it all in curiously, popping another bean and--
The immediately crowd around him stopped and turned upon the gagging boy, who was fighting for a breath in the face of the most god-awful flavors he had ever tasted. He spit the half chewed bean out, and then all the remaining saliva tainted with its foul passing. The crowd of onlookers grimaced as the boy recovered his senses and noticed his audience. Ranma shook the after effects off and smiled apologetically for them. "Eh... Akane's cooking flavor..."
The crowd nodded sympathetically, most knowing the unpleasant experience of stumbling across their own putride tasting beans and went about their business while Ranma turned his search from good eats to a simple glass of water to wash down the vile flavor. His eyes founded the closest shop to him, the rounded entrance adorned with the name 'Ollivander's, and the pig tailed martial artist took one last look at the bean he had spit out, noting that it was smoldering on the alley's cobblestone before making for the shop at best possible speed. The light jingle of chimes signaled his entry and he stopped short, finding stacks upon stacks of worn, dusty shoe boxes, but no shop keeper in sight.
Maybe they just use this place for storage, Ranma thought with a frown. "Uh, anybody here? Just looking for--"
"A wand, of course!" An elderly man stepped out from the back, sighting his newest customer with an appraising eye. "Busy today, very busy, so let's get started."
"Er, I'm not sure..."
"Of course you are not, lad." The old man finished, walking up to him with a slight hobble in his step. Ranma could plainly see the intelligent spark in his eye in spite of the frail body. "That is my job. Your wand hand."
My wand hand? Ranma blinked at him cluelessly, and Ollivander waited expectantly. "I'm...ah... Ambidextrous?"
"Ah, your left hand then." The aging shop keeper interpreted Ranma's response and pulled out a measuring tape, unfurling along the length of the martial artist's arm. "Arm length... Mmm, fifty nine centimeters." Ollviander stepped back, studying his new customer once more. "Asian, blue eyes... Most unusual. Japanese?"
Ranma simply nodded, unsure how to extricate himself from the old man's clutches at this point. He didn't want to be rude, but he didn't need to be sized for a new suit either. "Um, look Grandpa..."
"An interesting mix, I must admit... Intriguing," The old man adjusted his spectacles, circling Ranma slowly. "And your magic has a distinct taste of... Transfiguration. A specialty of yours perchance?"
"You could say that," Ranma adopted a dry expression, to which the shop owner paid no heed.
"Fascinating, fascinating," Ollivander nodded. "I believe I have just the wand, then!"
Ranma watched as the man was back among the stacks of shoe boxes with a vigor that belied his age. He shuffled several of them off to the side, before finding a particular box buried eight deep amongst a stack. He untied the box before Ranma, opening the lid carefully so that Ranma's eyes fell upon...
"Cherry wood, twelve and a half," Ollivander detailed proudly, through Ranma still had no idea of what he was detailing or even why for that matter. He was looking at a stick; a gnarled reddish brown stick. And what that has to do with anything is beyond me, the martial artist groused as the elder continued. "Phoenix feather core and... durable." Ranma looked at the stick, then to Ollivander warily. Something was telling him not to-- "Well go on, try it out."
The Saotome plucked the wand from the box gently, as if the stick were liable to explode in his very hand. In fact, it practically squirmed in his hand from his perspective. "I ain't sure this is such a good idea..."
"Hurry now, no dawdling. Give it a good flick." The elder stated imperviously, and Ranma shrugged, cocking his wrist for the aforementioned flick. Before he could execute, the wand was promptly snatched away, much to the pigtailed teen's annoyance. "No, perhaps not."
He replaced the wand and set it aside, turning back to the stacks from which it came. The searching began a new as he dove back into the stacks, finally pulling a shoe box out at seeming random. "Hungarian oak, ten even and cored with dragons scale... Slightly springy."
This particular wand's curves were more refined than the last, with a gold ring to bind the twine of its base. Ranma stared it it warily before the shop keeper pushed it upon him expectantly. Ranma took the wand in hand gingerly and stared at it, feeling none of the sensations from the last one. He glanced at the elder, who gave him a flicking motion. Ranma sighed and gave the wand a half hearted snap. Both watched for a few moments with little in the way of results. Ranma was about to hand it back when the wand started to eminate a dull glow, prompting Ollivander to tilt his head in curiosity.
Whole thing is odd all the way around, Ranma watched as the wand continued to brighten into a fierce orange. "Uh, old man...?"
"Yes, yes," he continued to stare, clearly absorbed in the event. "Very interesting!"
By the time he had finished his sentence, it was glowing like a light bulb filament, distorting the very air around it with waves of heat. The gold ring bound at the base had also began to glow and it wasn't another minute before sagged away, dropping molten onto the wooden floor with an angry hiss. The wand itself failed a second later, eating itself away into carbon and falling to the shop floor as ash. Both stared at the burn remains Ranma now held between his fingers.
"I... I see." Ollivander arched an eyebrow, studying the matchstick and the now cooled metal spatters at his feet. "Did you know gold melts at 1064 degrees Celsius?"
"Can't say that I did," Ranma deadpanned, letting the last of the wand fall to the ground.
"A most difficult conundrum you present me with, young man." The shop keeper shook his head, scratching the side of his fizzy white head of hair. "A challenge, indeed."
"Yeah, probably time to call it a day, right, Grandpa?"
"Nonsense!" The proprietor returned with renewed vigor, already shuffling stacks of boxes aside. "I know it's around here somewhere.... Ah!" The wand maker spun around with more agility than his frame seemed capable of, thrusting a new box in Ranma's direction. The top came off to reveal yet another innocent looking twig, this one sporting an number of fragile looking interlocking stalks. "Supple Crossvine! Thirteen and a quarter with Cat hair!"
Ranma's cheek twitched with the mention of felines, knowing no good could possibly come of handling the thing in the box. "Look, you really don't want me touchin' that."
"Cobbleposh, lad." Ollivander snorted, placing the wand in his hands directly. "Crossvine is one of the most stable bases for a wand. There's nothing to fret over. Give it wave. Nothing fancy."
Fret, Ranma sniffed mentally, and raised the stick chest high. Another word for scared. "Don't day I didn't warn ya."
Ranma flicked the wand easily and both waited expectantly for something to happen. Seconds passed and the wand declined to explode, glow white hot or produce any other discernable effect, whatsoever. The aged wizard stared at Ranma, then the wand and back to Ranma with a piercing gaze before taking the wand and placing it back into the box. He closed the lid and set it aside before commencing to pace. "Highly perplexing. Most unusual. Perhaps something in the spruce--"
The lid popped off the box he had just handled, and both teen and wizard found their attentions inexorably drawn to it. Ranma stepped back. Ollivander stood his ground, peering into the cardboard enclosure.
"Oh my." Peeking out of the box was a small green bulb, sprouting from a spindly leaved vine growing directly out of the wand itself. For Ranma, the problem wasn't the bulb itself, but the tiny teeth sprouting from the green sprout's lip. Ollivander began to chuckle, turning back to Ranma. "It would seem you have a green thumb, lad."
"You got no idea," the martial artist shook his head, taking another step back. Not that he could blame the proprietor's attempt at humor. He didn't know. he didn't know about the bean plant. Or Toma's giant, creeping vine. Or Pink and Link's own monstrous creation. They were all very bad precedents in Ranma's opinion, and this one was bound to be no exception. As if bidden by his very thoughts, the bulb opened up as if to loose a toothy yawn.
"Utterly fascinating," Ollivander shook his head, leaning in for a closer look. The yawn ceased abruptly and the tiny set of jaws made a snap for his nose. "Testy little--"
The wand maker never got a chance to finish. A single root-like vine slithered up and over the edge of the shoe box, and then another; both growing out from the wand itself, which had also sprouted its own white lily white flowers. His distraction was such that the wizard hadn't noticed the bulb's growth as well until another lunge almost latched onto his prominent nose once again. Ollivander jerked back, glaring at the creature as it continued to expand its root system from the very wand he had created.
"This won't do at all," He frowned, and Ranma watched as the old man pulled his own wand from his belt and took aim. "Petrus Arcanus!"
The stick produced a blue flash with his wave, sending out an anemic bolt that impacted upon the plant like a splash of water. The energy dispersed immediately along its length, leaving a trail of stone marble as it did so and turning the plant into a statuette within seconds. Ollivander was about to congratulate himself when the stone trembled, flaking away as the bulb and vines shook itself free with renewed growth. This time, the store owner opted to take a step back to join his former customer.
Ranma nodded, feeling the exact same way. "Told ya so."
"...Born born December 6, 1928 of Fridwulfa and Samuel. Your half brother Gwarp is your only surviving family, though you have had numerous pets; Including a boarhound, Acromantula, Hippogriff, dragon and a Hellhound named... Fluffy."
Rubeus Hagrid stared down at the Emerald haired woman that had cornered him, thoroughly confused at the unlikely meeting that was now taking place just outside the reagent shop he had just been about to enter. In the end, he resolved the discrepancy with a simple shrug. "Most people would have yelled something like, 'Hey Hagrid!' to get my attention, y'know?"
"My apologies," The red eyed beauty smiled cordially. "How are you doing today, Mister Hagrid?"
The burley giant nodded, stroking his wild bushel of black facial hair as he considered the question. "Just Hagrid is fine and I'm doing pretty fair if I do say. Just stoppin' in to make the monthly tweedle-newt run..." He paused, as if remembering something. "Have we met? You seem to knowin' an awful lot about me, Miss...?"
"Meiou," The woman supplied, but shook her head. "Not before this moment, though I am here specifically to meet you."
"Me? Not sure what you would want with a humble groundskeeper such as myself," Hagrid arched an equally bushy eyebrow, cocking his head curiously. "Unless ya be needing puppies?"
"Puppies?" Setsuna blinked then shook her head. "No, no puppies. More along the lines that you share a unique relationship with Albus Dumbledore."
The oblivious manner evaporated with the name and the half giant peered down at her with slight wariness now. "That I may, but what business is that of yours?"
"I need to arrange a meeting," The Guardian replied easily. "And to deliver a warning. You are in a unique position to do both, of course."
"Eh, of course." Hagrid looked at the woman dubiously. "Perhaps you should be tellin' me some of the details of this--"
"It's getting out!"
"What is it!?"
Both pairs of eyes turn back down the ally as pedestrians scattered in panic, attempting to put as much distance between themselves and a monstrous plant that appeared to be growing out the side of one of the smaller shops. A larger vine shattered one of the windows and began to creep up the side of the wall, while a number of its smaller brethren took root into the cobblestone street.
"Fire spells!" An anonymous voice called out from the crowd. "Kill it with fire!"
The advisement seem to bring some order to the chaos as a number of wizards pulled their wands out and began to fling smallish bolts at the engulfed store, checking the plant's growth. Setsuna could only stare at the improbable sight, then outright frowned as a certain pigtailed martial artist cleared the milling bystanders. The martial artist smiled easily enough, favoring a cellophane bag from which he occasionally extracted a morsel to be popped into his mouth.
It didn't take much to put two and two together, and Setsuna's gaze narrowed on the Saotome, pulling him aside in the process. "Tell me you weren't the cause of that."
Ranma blinked, not even bothering to look back at what 'that' was and all but confirming his guilt in the process. "Uh, cause what?"
The Mistress of Time's eyes clenched shut and she massaged the bridge of her nose, shaking her head before mentally keying an open channel to the time gates. Gate, prepare for emergency extraction.
Affirmative, came the reply and she favored the martial artist with another malevolent glare before turning back to Hagrid. "As i was saying, the specifics of the warnin-- Oh, for God's sakes."
The half giant stared, attempting to parse the sentence until noticing that the emerald haired woman's attention was no longer on him, but somebody behind him. He turned, his eyes widening. "Oh my..."
She was perhaps one of the most beautiful creatures he had ever seen; a lithe Asian goddess swathed in a light blue pastel jump suit of sorts. Her midnight black hair was tied up into a pony tail and a navy blue cape swirled in her wake as she approached, entrancing Hagrid with her graceful gait. She flashed them a bright smile upon joining them, and the imposing man couldn't help but to smile himself.
"Mister Ranma! Miss Meiou!"
"Welcome back, Konatsu," The Guardian ground out, her voice tinted with clear irritation. Her dry gaze walked up and down the male kunoichi's new wardrobe. "My, what interesting clothes you have."
"Aren't they?!" The nin gushed, dazzling Hagrid with a pirouette. "A nice man at one of the clothing stores showed me this beautiful blue shozoko that matches the glow of my new blade! He says it enhances my armor class or something, and once I saw how good it look, just had to get the pretty cape!"
"I'll bet it does something special too?" Setsuna asked dryly, and Konatsu nodded eagerly at the rhetorical question.
"It enhances my stealth abilities!" The kunoichi fingered the felt cape lovingly.
"It does?" Ranma perked up, suddenly interested in her wardrobe. "Hey, which shop did you get that again?"
"You aren't going anywhere." The Guardian wheeled about, fixing the pigtailed boy with an menacing look. Ranma affected disappointed and the half giant stepped in to fill the gap.
"Um, eh, hello... Name's Hagrid," The towering grounds keeper inserted hopefully, sporting a nervous grin. The chipper girl immediately dropped into a respectful bow.
"Hello Mister Hagrid!" The half giant's heart jumped with her notice and he found himself captivated by her warm countenance. "Are you a friend of Miss Meiou?"
"Ah, yes. Sure," Hagrid nodded eagerly, the cast an unsure glance over to Setsuna. "At least I think so?"
"Of course we are," The emerald haired woman inclined her head graciously, then made a tactical decision to throw the giant under the gender bus. "Aren't we Konatsu?"
"Oh yes, definitely!"
Hagrid was all but dazed by her cheer, trying hard to keep his eyes from wandering the teens shapely form. "Ahem! A message didja say?"
"A simple one," The Guardian of Pluto nodded and pulled a folded sheet of paper from her purse, handing it to the man. "At your earliest convenience, of course. Perhaps we'll see one another again." Implicit in the innocent remark was the fact that Hagrid would be seeing Konatsu again, a fact that she played to her own ruthless advantage. Once again, Hagrid nodded amiably and Setsuna smiled. "Then we've taken up enough of your time. It was a pleasure meeting you."
"Pleasure here too," The half giant nodded with Setsuna's polite bow, though his attentions were entirely for the kunoichi to her right. "Um, see you soon!"
Setsuna shook her head as she made for the street, Ranma in tow and Konatsu trailing behind, waving back at monolithic man. "Honestly, Saotome, I thought you said she was a guy?"
"As straight as you and me," Ranma quipped, smirking. "But then you've never seen him at work. Konatsu can wrap a guy around his finger just as well as I can."
'Just as well as I can...' The Guardian of Time repeated the statement mentally to see if it sounded nearly as bad upon review. When coupled with the fact that she herself hadn't been straight for the last ten thousand years... Setsuna just shook her head, feeling the impending migraine work its way through her brain.
"Let's just go."
Konatsu paused in his brush stroke, looking up from the small rectangular parchment and ink, over to the sound's source at the hotel room's window. Ranma paused as well, though his activities consisted of simply staring the room's phone and the accompanying business card next to it in silent contemplation. The sound itself was that of a small object striking glass and Konatsu being the closest, rose to find out exactly what was causing it. The pseudo kunoichi stepped over to the window in question and pulled the crimson drapes aside, finding the view largely clear save a large bird perched on the sill. Both martial artist and ninja watched as it leaned forward, tapping the glass delicately.
"I think it wants in..." The nin stared curiously, then noted something tied to its right talon. "A messenger bird?"
Ranma shrugged and Konatsu unlatched the window, letting the bird gust its wings slightly to hop in and onto the backrest of the nearest chair with no fear of the humans around it. Both stared at what was plainly an owl, completely black except for the white splotched plum on its forehead. Its head rotated from one boy to the other, eyeing the pair with large yellow eyes. It bobbed its head once and proffered the scroll laden talon to the kunoichi.
"Why thank you mister Owl!" Konatsu smiled courteously, untying the leather strap that held the scroll in place to free the bird from its bondage. The owl bobbed its head again and oriented itself to the window, taking flight on black wings into the overcast London sky.
"Well that was different." Ranma watched it leave for a moment, then shook his head. He turned back to Konatsu, who was unfurling the scroll. Three gold leaf tickets slid away from the bundle ,falling to the carpeted floor where they were retrieved by the martial artist. He studied one side of a ticket then flipped it over for the other, arching an eyebrow. "Hogwarts Express?"
"In response to your communication, I, Albus Dumbledore, Headmaster of Hogwarts School of Wizardry and Witchcraft cordially accept your request to meet concerning the dire situation you allude to," The Kunoichi read, clearly enthralled by the flowing cursive script. "Please find accompanying tickets for the Hogwarts Express departing from King's Cross station, platform nine and three quarters--"
"Nine and three quarters?" The pigtailed boy blinked, pulling away from the gold leaf tickets in hand and focusing on the nin. Half streets he had heard of... But three quarter streets? From a train station platform?
Konatsu simply shrugged, and continued reading, "Tomorrow, September first at 11am. Please keep your intentions in the strictest confidence given the subject matter you have broached. Sincerely..."
"It's unlocked, Meiou-san," Ranma answered the closed door, finding the Guardian's distinctive ki out in the hallway beyond.
"That's Setsuna to you," The emerald haired woman smiled as she stepped in, inserting a fractional amount of heat into her words and causing the martial artist to pinken slightly with summoned memory. "I take it the tickets have arrived?"
"Oh, that was a very good guess!" Konatsu smiled, proffering the scroll to her as she walked up to the kunoichi.
"Guess, my ass," Ranma rolled his eyes, only to prompt another warm, teasing smile. Ranma's mouth snapped shut immediately and watched as her attention turned to the scroll now in hand.
The Mistress of Time gave it a cursory study and rerolled it as if it had been exactly as she expected. "The tickets will gain us access to the only means of secure transport, aside from direct site to site teleportation."
"The Hogwarts Express?"
"Exactly," She answered Konatsu directly. "A magical construct- in this case a train and its tracks -rotated ninety degrees..."
"...Outta phase with reality," Ranma finished with a faraway look. He snapped out of it almost as quickly, and shrugged at Setsuna's wondering gaze. "Venus was sayin' somethin' like that back there too. Same place?"
"Exactly the same place," The Mistress of Time confirmed, experiencing yet another moment of deja'vu with her guardian counterpart. Normally she was the only one in the know, holding all the cards as it were. Having somebody around to shoulder the responsibility with her was... gratifying. Even in the presence of the other Senshi, she alone still bore the brunt of destiny. They fought side by side, but they did not have a grasp of what was truly at stake or what had gone before. In time they would but, until then, she was alone in her mission... alone in her destiny... But... She contemplated the teen next her silently... Maybe not.
"Apparently the refugee site became the foundation for what is a present day academy of wizardry, with civilization spreading outward once it was clear that the enemy had been more or less obliterated," She continued, brushing past the familiarity that was rapidly tying up her thoughts more and more as of late. "Returning to the moon was an impossibility by then, of course."
Ranma's face went grim while Konatsu glanced from Ranma's darkening mood to Setsuna's subdued one. He raised his hand tepidly, as if in class. "Excuse me, but what does the moon have anything to do with Hogwarts?"
Setsuna stood in contemplative silence for a moment, trying to determine just what to tell the Kunoichi. Ranma snorted softly. The sound contained no humor, falling into the silence like mere punctuation. "You wanna tell him or should I?"
"Be my guest."
"Told ya this was serious stuff, right?" The nin nodded and Ranma continued. "Used to be people of there, 'Natsu. Lots of 'em until a war. It was so bad that nearly everybody got wiped out, except for a few survivors who escaped down here."
Konatsu absorbed the information with a tilted head, while the mild expression on his face didn't make it clear as to whether he believed the tale or not. "Who won, then?"
"We did." The Guardian of Pluto replied softly. "If you can call the destruction of an entire civilization winning."
"I... See..." The Kunoichi picked over the terse history carefully, weighing it before forwarding his own hypothesis. "Would it be fair to assume that the forces arrayed against us are those of the tale?"
"Leftovers," Ranma nodded. Setsuna shook her head at his the completely inadequate descriptive of the forces potentially arrayed against them.
"And left unchecked, spell certain doom for those in the here and now," The guardian added soberly. "It is not to late to back out."
Konatsu shook his head emphatically. "Goodness, I wouldn't think of doing such a thing! It is a ninja's solemn duty to combat demonic forces and evil spirits!"
Damn, Setsuna groused mentally but schooled an even expression. "Then gather up everything you need. We head out tomorrow."
Ukyo Kuonji yawned, dressed, but still wallowing lethargically as she walked down the stairs that connected her second story apartment to her restaurant on the ground floor. Rays of sunlight pierced the vacant space as she walked across the small area and around the counter, frowning. Getting lazy, she noted mentally, half expecting Konatsu to already be up and preparing the kitchen for the lunchtime opening. Still, oversleeping by a half hour was still something well within her ability to compensate for. After all, she had been raised around cooks most of her life, and kitchen prep was second nature to the Okanomiyaki master. Flour, batter, eggs, oil... Her brain began to run down the initial checklist until stopped by something out of place in her usual routine; specifically a postcard lying on the floor, having been slipped through the door mail slot sometime during the night.
She paused and steeped around the counter and stools, instantly recognizing Konatsu's flowing script as she bent down to snatch the correspondence up. A slight smile crossed her face as she studed the glossy picture of Big Ben on the front, then the message on the back.
Per your instructions, I have followed Mister Ranma in order to determine his final destination. He has flown to London, England in the company of Professor Meiou. I will send another letter once I determine the exact location of their stay.
Your devoted servant,
London? Ukyo's grip began to crinkle the edge of the postcard as she attempted to find either rhyme or reason as to the sudden relocation, while the glossy photo on the correspondence face all but confirmed the fact. The obvious cause was the green haired "history professor", not that she bought that into that for a second. The Meiou woman was as much a history teacher as Kuno was a Samurai. The fact that she was good looking and alone with her Ran-chan was disconcerting enough, let alone apparently had the resources to spirit him away half way around the world from beneath their very noses. In fact, the only good news was that she was now in possession of the sole piece of information indicating Ranma's whereabouts. A mischievous grin crossed face and she spun on a heel, racing back upstairs to pack.
Unbeknownst to scheming fiancée, others fiancées had been scheming before her. Konatsu's postcard had actually reached Nerima yesterday morning. The mail carrier delivering it was promptly intercepted by a purple haired female Amazon teen who had been staking out all of her challengers for just such an occurrence. She liberated Konatsu's notice by force, copied the contents and erased the postman's memory through the use of berry fresh formula 411. With little recollection of what had just happened, the civil service employee continued along his way, managing only a few more blocks before being intercepted Tatewaki and Kodachi Kuno, both of which took turns plying the postman with money and drugs until his resistance broke; surrendering the correspondence between hallucinatory episodes.
An hour later he woke up slumped over on a nearby bench with only hazy memories as to how he had come to be thirty thousand yen richer. Midday found him with a splitting headache, but marginally closer to the completion of his delivery route until being beset upon by none other than the Ice Queen herself, Nabiki Tendo. After some choice examples of indiscretions on the job- namely drug use and bouts of senility -he reluctantly surrendered the postcard to Nabiki and was subsequently thirty thousand yen lighter for having spoken to the girl to begin with.
In the end, Konatsu's postcard did get to its recipient as intended, save the fact that Ukyo Kuonji, Master Okanomiyaki Chef, was the very last to become aware of Ranma Saotome's whereabouts.
"You should. I would!"
"Well not everybody's you," Ranma frowned as Kunoichi and martial artist trailed behind Setsuna Meiou, who in turn led them through the expanse of the King Cross rail station and on to their appointed rounds. Ranma cast an irritated sidelong glance at the transvestite kunoichi, swathed in her new blue shozoko. "Look, I wasn't raised as a girl and playing dress up ain't exactly tops on my things to do."
"You do it so well, though!" Konatsu pointed out eagerly to Ranma, who wore a simple pair of blue jeans and dark red dress shirt. Setsuna had tried to ply a bra to the girl, who had obstantly refused under objection she wasn't about to change who she was just because people percieved the body differently. The Guardian of Time had surprisingly little to say on the matter and departed Ranma with a smirk, leaving the thin shirt fabric to do the job. "Remember when we helped Mistress Ukyo? We couldn't have stayed open nearly as long as we did if not for you!"
"Oh?" Setsuna glanced back over her shoulder, clad in her own business suit-skirt combination that merely pretended to be conservative in nature. In reality, the gray near knee length skirt hugged every generous curve of her hips and legs, while the button down rayon blouse reflected silver-pink in the light and consequently tended to draw attention to her ample chest... Attention Ranma was desperately trying not to induldge in. The guardian turned back to the pair, clearly interested in the direction of the conversation now. "What's this?"
"That ain't--" Ranma attempted to interrupt before the telling could continue, but Konatsu was already launching into the details.
"Yes, Mister Ranma had the serving room packed, and they lined up down the block. I think every guy in Nerima was waiting to see her that day."
A slight smile escaped Setsuna's casual demeanor. "Is that right?"
"Well, yeah, but that doesn't mean I'm looking to make a career out of it," Ranma shook his head, his psyche warring between pride and gender prejudice. "Hell, most of the time I'm roped into that crap."
"But your so lucky!" Konatus gushed, fingering the business card labeled 'Flange Fashion'. "Travelling around the world... Meeting new and exciting people... And as a real girl, too! It's so not fair."
Her last words ended as a pout and the redhead couldn't help but to quirk a slight smile, but dispelled it with her next words. "I'm a martial artist, 'Natsu. What's this gonna do for me besides cause trouble?"
"But you should try it!" Konatsu persuaded eagerly. "I didn't know there was something better waiting for me until I met you and Miss Ukyo, either!
Me? Something better? Ranma frowned once more. The reference the nin was drawing to his own past was obvious enough... Pretty much shit on by those tea house weirdoes. Hell, I'd be jumpin' at the chance to get... out... from... The martial artist's through process ground to a halt, staring warily at the taller neo-girl. Konatsu noticed the attention and blinked; a completely innocently look inhabiting his face.
"Did I say something wrong, Miss Ranma?"
Only that I should be pickin' my 'better something' before life picks it for me, Ranma's psyche grumbled. And that my situation's apparently bad enough that even you drew the parallel.
"So then how I know what my somethin' better is, then?" Ranma pressed, wondering if there was yet more depth to the nin's insightful observations or if that was it for the day. Instead, Setsuna glanced back with a smile.
"It hands you their business card and offers you a chance at a life, independence and a whole lot of money in the process," She mentioned easily. "But then again, that could be just me."
The dry look he sent back at her in no way negated the validity of her statement, unfortunately, and the Saotome was forced to chew on the fact once more. Was it worth the occasional fashion shoot in his female aspect? Just to have the option of not dealing with the same tired path everyday? Hell, an entire race got along just fine the way I am...
Setsuna Meiou suddenly stopped, digging into her purse. Ranma watched curiously until she withdrew a cellular phone, keying a button on its surface. She pressed it into the redhead's hand before turning back down her path of travel while mentioning over her shoulder, "You can always say no later."
Ranma glanced over at Konatsu, who nodded eagerly, offering the business card back. She eyed both parties before taking the card and absently dialed up the number on its face. "Don't suppose this has anything to do with you asking me to take this trip as a girl, does it, Setsuna-san?"
"While I am a fan of efficiency, no," She shook her head, guiding both girls back along their path as Ranma pushed the phone to her ear. "Events today specifically require your female aspect in order to achieve the most optimal results."
Ranma shrugged, filing the detail away for future scrutiny as the phone rang in her ear. It picked up after three repetitions with a polite secretary greeting her. "Yeah, Saotome, Ranma. Buckle is... Uh, okay. Sure, yeah. Tell him I accept. Okay... Okay... Yeah, bye."
Konatsu stared at the red head expectantly as they walked. Even the Guardian of Time took a glance back and Ranma rolled her eyes, finding the indulgence of their curiosity a necessary evil. "Secretary knew who I was... Says the Buckle guy already scheduled a photo shoot next week, Wednesday."
"My, how presumptuous of him," Setsuna smirked as the trio stepped out of the main hall and onto a rail platform, where a crowd awaited their train's arrival. "And quite eager, unless I missed my guess. I would think he has a lot riding on this."
"If you say so," Ranma shrugged as Setsuna stopped next to one of the platform pillars. "Says he'll send a limo... The shoot's somewhere near a town called Axbridge."
"Congratulations Miss Ranma!" Konatus bubbled beside her, earning a leaded glare that did nothing to dampen her spirits. "Can I come along? Please?"
"Feh, whatever," The glare faded as the martial artist found it impossible to hold any sort of real grudge against the Kunoichi. Instead she attempted to affect indifference. "Just don't make me regret it."
"Thank you, Miss Ranma!"
Ranma simply shook her head, turning back to Setsuna. "So we waitin' on a train?"
"Of sorts," The emerald haired woman nodded, motioning over to the next station pillar nearly ten meters away. "Watch the support and those around it carefully."
Ranma and Konatsu watched, noting little out of the ordinary about the pillar until what appeared to be an adult accompanying several kids aligned themselves with the front of the structure, and took to walking toward it at a brisk clip. Suddenly, it became very hard to focus on them, as if a sixth sense was insisting something else around their person required immediate attention.
"Focus," Setsuna murmured and both martial artist and Kunoichi redoubled their efforts to ignore the mental itch, and were reward as one adult and two children promptly walked into the pillar and vanished.
"Well that was weird," Ranma blinked. With the disappearance of the people, the itch had vanished. Konatsu likewise stared, then looked around just to ensure the mental compulsion wasn't a more tangible threat.
"Platform Nine and Three Quarters," The Mistress of Time nodded. "A portal through phased reality, protected by spell that compels any who turn their attention on it or those passing through away from the act." Setsuna outstretched her hand and the Time Key materialized with a slight puff, falling into her hand. "Since it is specially tuned to those with magical potential, it only affects those without, increasing in strength with proximity. The Garnet Rod's magical signature should mask you both until we're safely through."
Both teens nodded. Stealth and misdirection were tactics both were well familiar with, and they followed Setsuna as she lined up with the pillar herself. Ranma cocked her head thoughtfully, staring at the pillar they were walking toward. "How's that work anyway? Does it know we're here?"
"No," Setsuna shook her head, stepping up to what appeared to be solid matter supporting the bulk of the train station's structure. "It reads as an area of effect spell that simply latches on to any living thing without a magical signature. You are aware of how opposites attract?" Both of her charges nodded. "The spell is drawn to those opposites as soon as they enter its radius. The only way to avoid it is to be magically charged and thus repel the spell."
Ranma grunted her understanding and Setsuna paused before testing the threshold of the porthole with the tip of her staff. Her ally was contemplating something concerning the topic of conversation and she wasn't sure if that was a good or bad thing. The guardian mentally shrugged and tapped the portals event horizon, watching as it passed through with little resistance. "Let's go."
Setsuna lead and the two teens followed, instantly stopping as their senses came to terms with what was on the other side. Even Setsuna arched an eyebrow as she took in the difference between what had only seconds before been an covered modern station, suddenly becoming a throwback to the nineteen hundreds. A crowd milled around the now largely outdoor platforms, waiting to board what looked to be a classic steam engine; wisps of white smoke drifted away from its black steel hull.
"This our ride?" Ranma jabbed a thumb back at the locomotive and what appeared to be a predominantly teenage crowd boarding it, and the Mistress of Time began to distribute their tickets.
"Indeed," Konatsu took his ticket, then Ranma hers. "Most of those here are students. If anybody asks, we'll be using the same cover as the last time."
"The Chrono Mage thing."
"Correct," She affirmed Ranma's supposition. "You, on the other hand, might have to endure some more pointed questions."
"Me?" Ranma eyes the woman warily. "And why's that?"
A smile met the inquiry, and it was easy to note the playful edge inhabiting her lips. "You look exactly the same as the day you left the Silver Millennium, Guardian Saotome. Trust me when I say you made quite an impression."
Ranma frowned. "Normally when I leave that sort of impression people want to either marry me or kill me."
"If one didn't know any better, that statement might be thought of as bragging," Setsuna teased, causing Ranma to roll his eyes.
"You got no idea."
"It's true," Konatsu chimed in pleasantly. "I tried to kill Ranma when I first met him, too."
The woman returned skeptically, trading looks between the smiling kunoichi who looked anything but homicidal and Ranma, who simply shrugged at the facts of life. "Charmed life you lead, Ranma-kun."
"Hey, I'm with you, aren't I?" the redhead quipped back, returning her humor in full. Setsuna shook her head with a slightly troubled expression.
"Hitsuzen is certainly a bothersome thing," Setsuna shook her head with mock irritation. "Once I'm able to divert its resources, I will simply have to snoop into both of your lives."
"Not much to know," Ranma admitted, shaking her head. "Just martial arts, a training trip, a couple curses, a dozen rivals and just as many fiancées. Heck, 'Natsu is the only one out of that group not tryin' to beat the hell out of me on sight, come to think of it."
"Of course not!" Konatsu shook his head readily, clearly aghast at the notion. The kunoichi gained a thoughtful look after a moment of reconsideration. "Well, that is unless Miss Ukyo ordered me to."
Ranma shrugged and Setsuna shook her head, turning back toward the throng of students.
"ALL ABOARD!" A sharp steam whistle accompanied the ordered, sending a plume of pure white smoke into the air. A dapper suited man hanging from the side of the black and green trimmed engine continued to shout out advisements. "The 11am Express, London to Hogwarts School of Wizardry and Witchcraft will be departing in ten minutes! Please stow all baggage and secure your familiars for the trip! See Mister Mortimer in car two for special accommodations! Again, the Hogwarts Express departs in ten minutes! Please have tickets in hand before boarding!"
"Familiars?" Konatsu perked up, looking around with the question while trying to ascertain just what a familiar was.
"Animal companions," Setsuna explained. "Magically enhanced intelligence. The owl that delivered our tickets was undoubtedly one. In fact, the Lunar Court was fond of using Moon Cats in an advisory capacity."
The woman picked up the note of trepidation in Ranma's voice and studied his suddenly up tight demeanor. A phobia? "Yes, cats. Is there something I should perhaps know about cats?"
"Oh yes! Ranma is deathly afraid of cats!" The redhead opened her mouth, only to have her protest cheerily preempted by her kunoichi counterpart.
"I ain't afraid of 'em, dammit," Ranma snapped, causing Konatsu to cringe slightly and attracting the attention of the closer students. Even Setsuna arched an eyebrow. "I just don't want to be in the same--"
"Miss Ukyo says you lapse into something called the Neko-Ken," He volunteered further, earning a withering glare from the girl.
The Mistress of Time frowned with the revelation. "This wouldn't fall under the header of 'exploitable weaknesses,' would it?"
"Good luck on that," Ranma mumbled, then flashed a last glare at Konatsu before sighing. "I don't feel like tellin' the long version, so the short one is that my old man botched an unbeatable martial arts technique when I was kid. The result is that I really don't like cats..."
"...And that if it gets bad enough, I black out and go cat myself." The martial artist shook her head as Setsuna drew the answer out of her. The question was plainly visible in her eyes, so Ranma elaborated. "It's a berserker state, completely instinct driven. Anything perceived as a threat gets shredded."
"Shredded?" Konatsu tilted his head curiously.
"Shredded. As in sliced apart by half meter ki talons," Ranma nodded solemnly. Konatsu blinked, taken back by the answer and even Setsuna's eyes widened. Ranma noted the reaction, letting a terse chuckle out herself. "Yeah, like that."
"What is your... tolerance?" The Guardian of Time asked, carefully probing the width and breadth of her companions psychological impediment.
"Some days I can stand a few dozen, others... just one," Ranma picked her words carefully. "It ain't just seeing one, though. Takes more than that."
"Then we'll just have to work around it," The emerald haired woman nodded seriously. "But just as a precautionary note, Hogwarts will have cats. Will that be a problem?"
Ranma's cheek twitched. "As long as nobody--"
"Tickets please," An elderly man in a double breasted red suit requested, and the tickets were relinquished one by one, allowing all three stepped aboard the train with only the most cursory inspection of their person. The trio boarded the car, threading their way through the bustle of students stowing their gear in the various compartments until final coming to their own compartment, retreating from the bustle of the car's public walkway. The windowed door closed with a click and the noise beyond subsided, sealing the travelers within.
The red head looked around expectantly, sitting down. "That's it?"
"You were expecting something more?" Setsuna asked, sinking into one of the padded sofa seats.
Ranma continued to soak in their accommodations. Their section was as antique as the exterior of the train, but might as well have only been commissioned to service yesterday. Brass railing and wood adorned the modest compartment and the sofa lounges were well padded. "Well, yeah. All this talk about stuff being outta phase... Thought we were boarding a ghost train or something."
"Hardly, though I can see where the misconception would stem from," Setsuna shook her head, patiently explaining the concept to both Ranma and Konatsu. "The easiest way to think of phased reality is to liken it to a multi-lane highway. The station we just walked out of is in one lane while this train and its platform are in another lane, all existing side by side."
"But wouldn't we crash by switchin' lanes?" Ranma asked, tenuously feeling his way through space-time theory. "I mean, if another car were in the lane?"
"The lanes exist transparent to the other lanes," Setsuna continued. "You can pass from lane to lane regardless of the traffic without crashing, nor can one lane see the other in most cases."
"Is that why we can't see the other train station?" Konatsu asked, staring out the car window. Another steam whistle sounded and the last of the passengers beyond rushed to keep up with the imminent departure. The Mistress of Time nodded, affirming the observation while Ranma cocked her head, working through the logic herself.
"So Serenity-chan was sendin' people down here out of phase so they couldn't be seen?" Ranma theorized, watching a group of students carry on as they passed through the hallway beyond the windowed compartment.
"Exactly," Setsuna rewarded her with a smile; a smile that lost energy with her next words. "It was a gamble, however. Phased reality would protect the refugees from lesser threats, but had Beryl survived..."
"It wouldn't have made a damn bit of difference," Ranma concluded with the obvious point. The whistle screamed again and the world lurched beneath their feet as if to punctuate his statement. The engine rumbled as its iron wheels gained purchase on the tracks below, slowly pulling its mass forward. Steam poured away from the engine car's chimney with the strained effort, clearing the station at a labored crawl.
Ranma sat back and relaxed, already a veteran of numerous train rides herself. Konatsu, on the other hand, was all but plastered against their window, watching as the scenery passed and lethargically picked up speed. Setsuna had already tuned the window out, having pulled a book out to read. The redhead peered over at the emerald haired woman, now forcibly reminded that she hadn't brought along anything to do... Not even a deck of cards, she groused, looking around the compartment until spying a rack of magazines at the end of her couch. She slid over to it, picking one out at random. Good as anything else, I guess.
Her hand reached into the stack and happened upon a newspaper first. Without a particular care as to what she had grabbed, Ranma pulled it out with little fanfare and unfolded the crinkled parchment. As expected, the block headlines were in English, which she stood some reasonable hope of translating. What wasn't expect were the pictures, specifically fully animated black and white photos that quite literally moved across the paper. The redhead stared, entranced by what was effectively a short reel movie before moving on to the headline.
'Azkaban's Sirius Black Still at Large!' She translated slowly, and began to skim the article. The most she could discern was that it was something concerning an escapee from some prison, but that was as much detail as the martial artist cared to glean without thoroughly committing herself to the task of a full translation. The picture began to move again and this time Ranma took note of the details as it showed some man- obviously a prisoner as indicated by the wrist and leg chains -being led out of a room. Sucks to be you, Ranma snorted mentally and flipped the page, already eager to watch more of the animated headlines. The next page all but leapt out at her as ads began to animate wildly with the main headlines, all vying for her attention.
She blinked and turned attention to the window that Konatsu was still watched, noting the scenery moving along at a nice pace now. The kunoichi turned away from his view for a moment, glancing back at Setsuna. "How long will this trip take, Miss Setsuna?"
"Exactly six hours, thirty eight minutes, fifty one seconds..." She paused, noticing both neo-girls staring. "Um, about six hours. Sorry. Force of habit."
Konatsu smiled kindly, dismissing the quirk outright while Ranma shrugged. Six hours until more magical shenanigans, she noted, returning the paper back to the bin where it had been retrieved from. With that, she spread out into her side of the sofa and laid down, putting a convenient pillow over her head in order to get some rest. "Don't wake me unless monsters attack the train."
Setsuna smirked with the monster comment but otherwise let the redhead lapse into slumber. After all, they would all be very busy once they reached Hogwarts.
The car rolled with the rough patch, bouncing the pillow from Ranma face and jarring her awake with the movement. A cursorily glance over at his emerald haired companion revealed the woman still reading, one leg cross around the other. The view allowed Ranma the full advantage of the woman's exquisite legs before they disappeared into the modest cut of the gray skirt she wore. When the redhead finally drew her focus away from those works of art, he found an amused pair of red eyes simply staring at him.
Setsuna cocked her head as if she didn't quite understand.
"Eh..." Ranma struggled, knowing beyond a shadow of a doubt that her eyes had been caught looking where they shouldn't have been looking. A violent demise was likely to follow if she didn't think of something, quick. "It's, um..."
"What was that Ranma-kun?" The Guardian of Time's lips took on an amused edge.
Ranma gulped. "Eh... Good book?"
Setsuna simply smiled at her. It was a smile whose owner knew they had caught somebody dead to rights, but what confused Ranma was that it didn't hold the promise of pain its recipient had expected. After another full minute under the knowing smile, a slight blush began to heat the girl's cheeks and the woman relented. "Actually yes."
"Erm, think I would like it?" Ranma asked, under no illusions that she was actually distracting the woman and her smile from her observations, but still hoped to cover for her gaff regardless.
"I think there are many things you would like, Ranma," Setsuna persisted in that all but leering smile, deciding to countermand her more serious nature in favor of a little mischief for once. "That aside, you don't seem like the romance novel type.... Though it does contain ninjas, magic and a bit of action every now and then."
"Sounds like one of those TV shows Kasumi always watches," Ranma fought through the suggestive lilt and the heated blush it produced. She propped herself upright and took a look over at Konatsu, who was slumped sound asleep in the couch corner of the sofa. Beyond him was the window with little more than gray mists and shadows of the world beyond passing by at a blur.
"Still about two hours until we arrive," The emerald haired guardian supplied, and Ranma's stomach grumbled in response.
"Damn, don't think I'm going to last that long," The martial artist commented, looking around for a something to snack on. She cocked her head, suddenly remembering something. "Oh yeah, forgot about that."
A quick flick of the hand revealed a shiny cellophane wrapped rectangle, and she eyed it greedily, already poised to rip it open. Setsuna arched an eyebrow. "Now I haven't seen one of those in nearly fourteen thousand years. What flavor is it?"
"Venusian cherry? Some poor sap tossed it to me while I was back there," Ranma read the label while wondering just what Venusian cherry tasted like. Something scraped against their door and her attention was drawn to the entrance window where a woman passed, pushing a cart laden with all sorts of food and snacks. "Then again, I'm thinkin' somethin' off the cart looks pretty good too. Want anything?"
"I don't see why not," The guardian shrugged, returning to her book. "Whatever is convenient... Just try not to destroy the locomotive in the process."
"Ain't my fault the olive guy gave me those screwy things," Ranma grumbled as she pulled the windowed door open, sliding out with the reminder of a certain wand maker's devastated store at her back. The guardian simply smiled as the martial artist stalked after their food.
...Woman is strange, Ranma decided as she stepped out onto the narrow hallway and dodged a couple of student walking in the opposite direction. She noted the curious glances they sent her way but ignored them for the most part, content on taking the edge off her appetite and chewing on the mystery that was Setsuna Meiou. She clearly wasn't a fiancée, but after nearly a dozen of them, Ranma Saotome knew teasing and flirting. Setsuna teased. Setsuna even flirted unless she was totally misreading the woman, but emerald haired woman held none of the pretense the others did in their activities. Shampoo, Ukyo, Kodachi... They all expected something. They teased and flirted, expecting the target of their affections to respond.
Like I'm going to dip a toe into that disaster waiting to happen, Ranma appended mentally while idly noting the snack cart had moved to the next train car. She pulled the car door open and wind buffeted her slightly as she followed, the noise spiking sharply as metal shrieked and groaned around her. She was through and into the next car seconds later, where a group of students had already descended upon the elderly woman and her foodstuffs. She qued behind one of the waiting students, her thoughts returning to Setsuna. Her flirting and teasing held none of those ulterior motives. She wasn't expecting a date. She wasn't expecting commitment. She's just having fun? Ranma wondered, rolling the foreign concept around in his mind. She was also secure in herself, something the martial artist knew was lacking in the girls. Sure, the attention was great, but at the end of the day, Ranma knew they all had something riding on her and--
The train suddenly lurched, and Ranma could feel the their momentum bleed away a until the cars rumbled to a not so gentle stop, forcing Ranma to grab a nearby brass railing for support. The students did likewise and even the cart of snacks rolled a meter before finally being brought back under control.
Good question, Ranma replied silently as the boys and girls around the cart dispersed, walking back to their compartments; all wondering aloud what had just happened. To her knowledge, they still had the good portion of two hours left and she was relatively certain that Setsuna would have advised them of any changes in the schedule. Maybe go back and ask her---
Ranma stopped mid-turn. Something was wrong. Something... cold, she attempted to put a description to the feeling of ill ease emanating from beyond in the next car. The train's lighting flickered, giving substance to the misgiving. Ranma removed herself from the crowd of lingering students and moved though the breeze way, slowly opening the door to the next car where the disquieting feeling gained intensity. She glanced back, noting that nobody harbored the inclination to follow her, let alone seemed to sense the blanket of evil themselves. What the hell? Ranma wondered mentally, priming her ki on reflex as she passed one of the private compartments, then another. The first was empty; the second, a pair of students staring out the window completely oblivious to her presence. Both seemed to have the windows almost completely frosted over. The evil gained pressure and depth as she passed two more empty compartments. One was open and a cloaked darkness seemed to be leaning into the doorway.
The sight along produced a wellspring of terror in her gut. It was a shadow, a rolling blanket of blackness. Somehow it wasn't solid, but she could see it and through it. Whatever it was doing, there was no way something that evil could be up to any sort of good whatsoever. Ranma let her ki strobe out and she sensed what her eyes couldn't see... four focal points of chi with the thing itself registered as a nothingness, as if life force couldn't exist in the same space it-- One of the spikes of ki began to falter and Ranma already knew what that meant from her interaction with the Pluto of Silver Millennium past. Whoever it was, he was dying, and that was her cue.
"Hey, ugly!" The demon hissed with coarse greeting, turning back towards what had interrupted its feeding. Socketless eyes fell upon Ranma and the roiling terror suddenly seized her completely, forcing her to take and involuntary step back. She tried to form a coherent thought... Tried to draw on her ki, but simply having it focus on her seemed to dissolve any will power she could bring forth. In its place, terror. Mindless, irrational terror. It considered her for a moment before dismissing her as a threat and turned back to the compartment. The wave of all consuming terror dropped to something more manageable for Ranma and she snarled, beating back the fear with memories of impossible victories that in turn helped to consolidating all her ki and confidence into a cohesive barrier that glowed bright blue around her.
"I don't think so."
The black cloak of shadows twisted around just in time to watch a blue sphere of absolutely perfect emotional confidence form in the interlopers hand, only to have it released into its mass at point blank range. It detonate against the shadow, flashing a brilliant blue while the Moko Takabisha's concussive wave destroyed everything behind it. The car's frame opened like aluminum foil against a typhoon, blowing the wraith and chunk of the wall out into dense fog beyond. Ranma paused at the compartment just long enough to ensure the occupants were okay. A girl and boy stared incredulously back at her while the other with glasses was comatose.
But alive, she noted. The forth occupant was an older, mustachioed man that looked like he could have been Soun Tendo had he been born Caucasian. He lowered the wand that he had been aiming directly into the space the wraith had occupied while staring at her, questions were all but radiating from him... Questions Ranma had little time for them and even fewer answers. "Get everybody out of this car."
The martial artist didn't wait for a response to her ultimatum, but watched the shadow ghost tumble through the fog laden air for a moment before righting itself, gliding alongside the train for a moment before arcing back in. Ranma took the action as a an invitation and joined it outside, flipping up through the breach and onto the roof of the car. The martial artist stabilized her flip and unleashed two vacuum blades into her target, catching it completely unaware and slicing its headlong advance in half, then quarters. She landed lightly on the car roof and was nearly ready to congratulate herself when the faltering shadowy clumps began to reform.
Just once I'd like this to go easy, Ranma frowned and sighted her arms on the reforming target. "Moko Takabisha Double!"
The wraith snarled as it reformed into a cohesive, singular element, dodging the first ball of confidence ki but failing to miss the second. Another detonation of life energy sent it tumbling, but only momentarily. Tenacity was evidently one thing the shadow didn't lack and Ranma watched it circle around along the train's length. At five cars distance she sent another bolt of ki downrange, only to watch the monstrosity twist around and evade it completely, closing into four car lengths. Three. Every instinct told her that going hand to hand with the thing was real bad idea, and the vacuum blades only served to inconvenience it.
Close in it is then, Ranma decided, allowing the wraith to close to within two car lengths. Terror continued to pound at her shield of confidence and she ignored it as the thing planted itself on her car and made the lunge. Ranma rolled back as boney claws sought her, strobbing her very muscles with near paralytic terror as they passed within striking distance. Still, the thing was slow by any standard she had seen over the last two years and the redhead was down and around, along i's open flank faster than it could react. She pushed another Moko Takabisha into it and profiled through the resulting blast wave. This time the roof of the car lost a couple of surface layers, but the creature took most of the intended damage, cart wheeling through the air chaotically before righting itself while hissing and chittering furiously.
"Yeah, yeah. Talk's cheap," The redhead quipped, smirking at the shadowy creature in spite of the torrent of fear trying to find a gap through her own shield of confidence. Inwardly, however, she was beginning to harbor doubts. Moko Takabishas weren't doing anything more than smack the thing around. There would have been the possibility of a reverse Hiryu Shoten Ha with as much cold as it put out, but the bridge they had stopped on made that not only impossible, but dangerous to everybody on board. It snarled and dove in once more, shadowy blackness trailing behind it like a cloak of doom. Ranma slid into her next stance as it skimmed the car's roof, readied to reengage when the area around it suddenly sprouted kunai. The wraith twisted upward through the staccato of thumps and it was only then Ranma noted tiny slips of paper burning down on each.
The redhead braced as four explosions ripped the front third of the car open, showering the area with flaming debris and leaving the roof's framework torn open like a makeshift skylight. Seconds later a kunoichi landed in a crouch before her, her glowing short sword glowing bright blue and held in reserve to strike.
"Nice entrance, 'Natsu," Ranma complimented, tracking the wraith as it circled their train. "Don't think the fireworks are gonna hurt it, though."
"Thank you, Miss Ranma," The neo girl returned in a polite, but subdued tone. "Though I must confess that I am having a hard time tracking your assailant."
That brought the martial artist short as she watched the fiend circle left, obvioulsy uncertain of the new arrival while Konatsu scanned the sky, her gaze passing right by it. "You can't see it."
"Unfortunately," Konatsu admitted, still looking around. "I could only sense the complete absence of life force when I was right on top of it."
Thus the shotgun spread of explosive kunai, Ranma reasoned internally, though she could sense the sucking hole of chi clearly, even from this distance. "Left; your three o'clock. About twenty meters out."
The nin's head swiveled into the correct parcel of sky, but the redhead could tell he still wasn't seeing anything. "And you can see it? It has a most disconcerting aura about it..."
"Mister doom and gloom? Oh yeah, can't miss that," She commented watching warily as the creature lined back up on the train for another pass. "Get ready, it's makin' another run. I'll call out the cars for ya."
Konatsu simply nodded, closing his eyes while pulling a slip of paper from the folds of his breast with his free hand, while the blue sword's glow in the other gained intensity. "Four cars... Three... Two... Here he comes!"
The kunoichi was instantly on the move, sprinting forward into what appeared to be a clear path. Ranma knew it to be otherwise and watched as the shadowy claw shot forth, into the nin and--
The neo-girl disappeared in a puff of smoke, and the black wraith reached through a cut of wood even as Konatsu reappeared above and behind it, her blade already on its downward stroke. The blade fell into apparent nothingness for the kunoichi then flared bright blue. From Ranma's perspective, the ghost suddenly screamed, hissing in agony as the blade passed though its back and down what should have been it's spine, but the ninja wasn't done. Konatsu hit the ground lightly even as it spun around and threw the seal in before rolling out and away. The result was spectacular, and Konatsu's eyes widened as the twisting mass of shadows became visible for the first time, writhing in agony before him. It hiss and snapped at its tormentor for a moment before reaching around and ripping the seal away, letting it burned to ashes in the breeze. The cloaked creature gave Konatsu a final hateful look before washing away back into invisibility, but he knew it wasn't gone. The void of life force was still there and so was the fear attempting to break through. He readied for its renewed assault and-
The wraith tumbled off into open air as it took both of Ranma's Moko Takabisha full on across the back. Wishful thinking would have had the black monstrosity fall off into the foggy abyss that the bridge sat suspended over. Wishful thinking was, unfortunately exactly that and the creature hissed and chittered madly as it righted itself and began circling the Hogwarts Express once more. Students were hanging out the windows of the other cars now, either watching the creature circle fearfully or watching the two females on the battle damaged train as they held it off.
"Any ideas?" Ranma glanced over to Konatsu as the thing continued its orbit around them. "I'm just pissin' it off with the moko takabishas."
The kunoichi shook her head, eyes searching the sky in a fruitless effort to ascertain its position. "The seals appear to cause it pain. My wonderful, blue enchanted blade as well, but apparently not enough to deter it from its purpose here."
"Nothing short of an artifact from the Silver Millennium will kill a Dementor."
Life force flared at Ranma's back and he turned around to find what his senses already told him, though the sight filled him with no small amount of deja'vu. The last time he had seen her in the black fuku and ribbon she wore now was soaked in blood a good twenty thousand years in the past. Dead or not, she was certainly a sight in the outfit, Ranma decided, her attention moving onto the weapon she now held. It was, in fact, the very one she herself had used to split multi armed demon in half. "Fortunately, I have just such an artifact."
"Had one just like it," Ranma sniffed with amusement, the slightest smirk edging its way across her face in spite of the dire situation; then added. "Mine was better."
"And didn't I specifically tell you not to destroy the train?" The guardian of Pluto quipped back, causing the pigtailed girl to roll her eyes.
"It was like this when I got here."
"What a beautiful uniform!" Konatsu suddenly perked up, admiring Setsuna's fuku battle armor. "You didn't tell me you were a magical girl! Can I be a pretty defender of love and justice too??"
"Must have slipped my mind," Setsuna Meiou cast a dry look at the Kunoichi before turning back to their sky born adversary. "I'll need you both to get the Dementor down here and keep it occupied until I can seal it, understand?"
"Good as anything I got," Ranma shrugged, allowing a bright blue ball of ki to coalesce in her hand. "You, 'Natsu?" The neo girl shook her head. Ranma nodded and looked skyward. "Hey, ugly!, Got somethin' for you!"
It was like a dead scream, The Princess of Pluto noted as she watched Ranma form his signature attack for the first time in person and sent it lancing out through fifty meters of altitude and up into the Dementor. No, it wasn't nearly as powerful, but the fact that it was composed of a sphere of pure life force all but made up for the fact. Its flight time, however, gave the wraith plenty of warning and it looped away to allow it passage. It seemed content to ignore the attack until the ki began to loose cohesion with range, whereupon it dove into the ball readily.
"What the hell?" Ranma stared, as did Konatsu and Pluto. The martial artist had expected to provoke it into attacking them, not the moko takabisha....
Konatsu cocked his head. While he couldn't see the wraith for himself, he could see its effects on the ball of fading ki as it seemed to implode unnaturally. "What is it doing?"
"Ranma," Setsuna asked, never taking her eyes off the Dementor as it swooped into the nebulous ball of ki and began to absorb it. "What exactly is that attack comprised of?"
"Um, just ki... Confidence amplified ki," He replied, glancing at his guardian counterpart and then back up to the nearly devoured sphere. "And why the heck is it eating my Moko Takabisha? Better yet, why didn't it do that earlier?"
"Dementors consume positive emotion," Setsuna explained quickly now that the ki had disappeared entirely and the Dementor was tracking on them more aggressively than before. "Once the victim is mentally broken, their very soul can then be... extracted."
"Then perhaps the technique is too potent at close range?" Konatsu theorized as she slipped another set of wards from the breast of her shozoko, looking for her target. "And I still cannot see the creature. Why can everybody else see it but me?l?"
"Sailor or Guardian Pluto when I don this aspect, please," She correct the despondent kunoichi, but nodded regardless. "Traditionally, only those who have been touched by magic can see them, though everybody can feel their...effects. Near paralytic terror, unless one is properly warded."
"Well that'd explain me, I guess," Ranma retorted. "Been touched by magic so many times-- Ah shit, here it comes. Dead ahead 'Natsu, just droppin' along the engine car."
The seals slid into her fingers and she broke into her charge even as Ranma powered up another moko takabisha, setting one blazing left of the nin. The ki flashed by and then another to the right in an attempt to keep the Dementor down the same predictable line of advance. It hissed at the effort, declining to attempt their consumption and instead charged into Konatsu, who promptly split into three separate versions of himself. A claw swiped at one, promptly reducing the clone into a exploding puff of smoke. The wraith snarled, racking the other with the same claw and took to the final remaining with the same ferocity, no longer charging but fully intent with killing everything around it. The final clone exploded predictably, but the process had effectively triangulated Konatsu's invisible target, slipping in a seal before dying.
The creature shrieked as the ward dumped its full potential into the Dementor, then another as the real Konatsu wavered back into existence and a second one along its now visible back. The specter writhed in agony as Konatsu rolled clear to allow his partners a clear line to the target. It didn't go to waste, and another moko takabisha slammed into it, detonating violently even as the thing attempted to rip the seals from its person.
"If you're gonna do somethin', better do it now!" Ranma hollered, straining with the release of another bolt of ki and sweat beading from the girl's head. Sailor Pluto nodded, spun the stave through a graceful arc and was in behind the last moko takabisha at a dead run. She flipped the implement around, bringing the heart tip to bear as she closed on her target.
"Garnet Rod, Set Up!"
"Stand by, Ready. Setup." Her stave intoned and the heart tip suddenly parted with the command, breaking away down the center and extending out to form a inward curved 'V'. The moko takabisha detonated several seconds ahead of her assault, but it was all the time she needed as the crystal orb within the now broken heart pulsed bright pink, and she fed in the next command sequence. "Shard Seal!"
"Sealing mode, set up," It acknowledged vocally as the script from an eons dead language flowed across the orb. The shaft of her key sprang to life as she took the final leap through the blast wave of condensed air and ki, while the shaft itself unfolded into a series of notched keys that rotated out and locked into position. By the time the Dementor was able to perceive the new threat, it was far too late and watched in its own version of horror as The Princess of Pluto descended through the wave of pressure and plunged the radiant orb directly into its chest. The creature hissed agony with the impalement and Setsuna smiled grimly as she uttered the final command to her weapon.
"Garnet Rod... SEAL!"
The raging Dementor suddenly stiffened, its form arching as if it had suddenly been subjected to a few thousand volts of power. In reality, it wasn't far from the truth as rays of pink energy pierced the creature's shadowy veil, exploding outward brilliantly. Ranma and Konatsu watched from outside melee range as the Guardian of Pluto struggled with the staff as it bucked in hand, a quarter of its length imbedded in thrashing creature that was rapidly losing its own mass to the smoldering pink orb in its chest. It hissed, it screamed, and then it began to implode upon itself. The bony hand that had been attempting to unsuccessfully grasp the shaft of Pluto's weapon abruptly buckled, coinciding with the collapse of what should have been its shoulder. Both disappeared into what was rapidly becoming a whirlpool of shadow and the Dementor continued to lose density. Fifteen seconds in found the wraith to be a struggling ball of shadow, one arm desperately clinging to the outside world while the rest of it had been emulsified into a cloud of darkness from which a grotesque shadow rotten face would occasionally struggle upward, before being sucked back into the garnet gem's clouded event horizon.
The face surfaced for the last time, hissing defiance before being consumed entirely, the arm flaying wildly before becoming completely involved itself. The staff ceased its bucking and all three watched the cloud of shadows coalesce along the orbs foremost point and form into a faceted pink gem, its shaft no larger than that of a hand's span. The gem solidified, pulsed pink, then fell to the battle damaged train roof with a slight 'tink!'
"Soul Shard XXI... Sealed." The staff reported in a vaguely feminine voice, and the keyed teeth along its length rotated back into position, snapping flush with the silver shaft as the heart tip locked back in to complete itself.
The trio gathered around the shard and Setsuna picked gem up, holding it to catch whatever meager light was able to penetrate the fog around them. She tipped the staff back over her shoulder in satisfaction. "And that's how we dealt with Dementors in the Silver Millennium."
The half giant known as Hagrid waited. By and large he was a patient man. After all, one had to be patient in raising some of the creatures he had tended to over the year. Fluffy's chewing stages, for example, required a great deal of patience. At the moment, however, patience was wearing thin and he pulled out a beat-up pocket watch from his coat, eyeing it dubiously, as if it might actually not be telling him the correct time.
But it was.
The Hogwarts express was a full hour and fifteen minutes behind schedule. He of all people knew that it did not bode well for anybody involved, since the Express was never late. And not only did the express carry the students- protected only by a small compliment of practiced wizards -but it held them... Professor Dumbledore's guests. And that beautiful Asian siren, the back of his mind added, and a slight smile crept across his bearded face for a moment before being physically shaken off, replaced by a more serious expression. He checked the watch again and stared down the tracks; out of beyond the Hogsmead station tunnel and into the night. Nothing but... A light, the ground's keeper's chubby face suddenly animated, and the faintest chug of steam pistons carried on the wind.
"About damn time if you ask me," Hagrid grumbled to himself, all but ready to fetch the attendants when he was joined on the platform by two men and a woman. He blinked, recognizing the black man in sky blue and purple robes immediately. Next to him was a comely young woman with purple hair and a maroon leather jacket, while bringing up the rear, a pasty white skinned man in a trench coat. The half giant blinked, but greeted the new arrivals warmly nonetheless. "Last person I'd be expectin' around here, Mister Shacklebolt. Mister Dawlish as well if my eyes not be mistaken, but I'm not recognizing miss...?"
"Tonks," She answered simply, and the head of the wizard group nodded in kind. The trench coated mage glanced down the platform where the details of the train were just beginning to take shape in the inky night.
"Good to see you again, Groundskeeper," The black man nodded, but like his counterpart, continued to glance down the tracks himself.
Even the girl seemed a bit distracted, so he leaned in to get their attention. "Is there something I can be doin' for you? Expectin' it to get fairly busy once the train pulls in, of course."
"There has been... an incident," The head mage glanced back, his face a serious mask. The engine was just now entering the station's threshold, its churning steam cycles winding down with the reduction in speed.
"An incident that requires Auror attention," the wizard named John Dawlish supplied, before turning back to the his partner. "Wands perhaps?"
"No, let us not provoke them," Kinglsly Shacklebolt shook his head, his eyes never leaving the train as it passed. First the engine, then the first red car. "Grounds keeper, please stand back. Tonks, ensure our flank is clear."
The woman nodded, taking her position alongside the two Aurors and the second car rolled by. Hagrid's jaw dropped as the third rolled by. Something had blown a hole clear out of the front left side of the compartment, resulting in twisted, mangled steel. Mangled, yes, but almost completely circular. His eyes traced along the roof of the car, which had nearly been sheered away in some places, while suffering high temperature scoring in others. Little of car number three's structure had been left untouched, and it looked as if half the siding was simply going to peel away. His large head tracked the locomotive as it slowed, grinding to a halt, and it wasn't until then he noticed the occupants. Unlike the other cars, this one wasn't crowded with students. It held exactly three individuals, plainly visible through one of the unshattered windows.
He recognized them as well.
"Oh, dear," he murmured. Auror attention indeed, Hagrid realized, just now comprehending how deep he had stepped in it. He had invited them. He had passed the message on to the Professor. And now, his guests had apparently destroyed part of the Hogwarts' Express. Not that it couldn't be repaired with the wave of a wand, just that it looked bad... very bad for him at the moment. The train finally lurched to a stop and the attendants were out, shepherding awed students young and old from the cars, but maintaining a clear corridor away from the third. The students tried to linger to find out just who had eliminated the Dementor and destroyed in the process when a redhead teenage girl popped her head from the compartment's largest breach, looking around the station before locking onto Hagrid and his newly acquired escort.
She hung out of the hole, hopping lightly onto the Hogsmead platform with the Asian ninja goddess behind her, followed shortly by the Senshi of Pluto in fuku armor. The diminutive girl was the first to pipe up.
"Uh, yeah... One of you guys named Dumbledore?"
Um, so... 38kw. Not much to say here except... Well, not much :) Hope you liked it and will try to keep them coming semi regularly. Of course, maintaining this build size means an extended time frames and I make no guarantees as to my schedule, but I'll try my best.
The nekoken: In spite of claims otherwise, there is no exact predictor of what triggers the phobia, as RT illustrates Ranma in the presence of dozens of cats without mental collapse and then in other scenes where it takes only one to do it. As such, I will attribute it to other psychological factors, such as ambient mental stress at the time that determines the number it takes to trigger the phobia.
Kasumi Konatsu: I've really enjoyed evolving 'Natsu into a main character and in doing so have noted a peculiar item. Konatsu's canon character actually reads the way most fics portray fanon kasumi; airheaded, unconcerned and oblivious. Of course, there isn't a whole lot of depth invested into kasumi's character as it is, but I would consider her the more down to earth of the pair.
Konatsu no justsu: No Naruto crossovers will be found, but i found it a fun way to extend his abilities beyond what we see in canon. Likewise it meshes well with his demonstrated techniques.
Hogwarts Express: Travel times were a little iffy but scheduling does indicate a solid 8 hour trip by normal IRL rail London to Edinburgh, where Hogwarts castle is roundabouts located. Being a magical train, I've defaulted the Hogwarts Express travel time to about 6 hours.
Ranma/Konatsu vs Dementors: Believe it or not, there are things Ranma cannot kill and after some review, I've decided one of those things would be dementors... In most cases. That's not to say neither can hurt them, as I've scripted Ranma's confidence based attacks as being able to at least inconvenience it, while Konatsu's blade and seals do likewise. In most cases, an artifact of the silver millennium would be required to dispatch one of these vile creatures.
Nabiki!Syndicated: Normally there is a fine line in casting Nabiki's sphere of influence and I've admittedly embellished therein. One thing that can be solidly laid at her feet in canon is the international distribution of hankerchiefs featuring a topless Ranma-chan to international clientelle, featured in Book 35, "Nabiki's Revenge". From there it's pretty easy justification to include pictures and other activities in her actions as well.
Ranma!English: Just roll with it. He doesn't seem to have too much issue with it in class and I'm also crediting pre-canon training trip exposure as well. Setsuna would obviously know English and Konatsu rolled 1d6 save vs plot jutsu.
Special Thanks; Materia Blade, TriMatter, DT, Slade13, Mark, Yasuhei, DCG and of course all the suggestions from the people at F3. If I missed anybody, I still love you, just am impatient to get this out.