The cave had small piles of shattered rock in various places, but was otherwise in fairly good shape considering the fact that six bunker busters had impacted the castle on the cliff above. Not that Clove knew what those were, but the devastation of her former home had made her fear her workroom had been likewise destroyed.
But the flat central space was relatively untouched, proof of the effectiveness of her warding spells. She waved a hand as a snakelike shadow darted towards her, the minor spirit pausing as it recognized her. Good, even with the new body, her essential essence was truly hers. She should have no problems with what she planned.
The first thing on her list she prayed had survived as well, or her plans would be for naught. The mere thought of returning to the Valley of Cursed Springs made her blood turn to ice. The memory of seeing Xi'an Chi's mask through the water as he held her pinned to the bottom swam before her eyes and she shuddered. The worst part was its lack of expression. No anger, no hatred, just the smooth implacable porcelain of a beautiful androgynous face that had twin slashes of red descending below its eyes like the bloody fangs of a tiger.
She had to support herself against a rock pillar as the memory robbed her legs of strength.
Why didn't you save me, Shi? Was Mu so much more valuable to you that you couldn't have spared a second to put an arrow through his skull? Even if it didn't slay him, it might have given me a chance to escape…
She gritted her teeth against the sob, and forced herself upright. NO! She wasn't going let them break her! So they had all betrayed her! She was whole again and her revenge would be terrible!
She looked back at the still figure floating behind her and grinned evilly. "You will pay for your lack of compassion, Shi. I could not take Mu from you, but I will take her mirror. And when she finds you in hell, I pray it will make you suffer like no other!"
She strode across the cave to a large iron chest, the black metal only lightly touched with spots of rust, and ordered it to open. Inside was a rack holding dozens of wax sealed glass bottles, each labeled in precise ideograms. She hunted through them before anxiously reaching for one, lifting it and sighing in relief to see it was still full.
She held it aloft to the comatose figure. "A present for you, my pet. We shall correct the seeming error of your body and soul, and then you shall be a perfect host for our little deception." A maniacal laugh issued from her lips.
There was no response from the beautiful feminine form, but far away from the remains of the Musk Fortress, two girls on the way to school shivered.
0 0 0 0 0
Ukyo and Zhu Shu looked at each other as the shiver ran down their spines.
"Eh, I hate it when that happens." Ukyo muttered.
"Zhu Shu too. Hear that mean someone think bad at you."
"Yeah. Just a superstition, sugar. So, you looking forward to Nabiki's opening tonight? Should be pretty busy."
Zhu Shu nodded. "Thought would wear practice dance dress. One no see through."
Ukyo grinned. "Yeah, we don't want to start a riot. I hear Nabiki's planning on having Akane in a playboy bunny and plans to dress Ranma up in dog ears. Should be called Club Hentai."
"Zhu Shu think draw many customers. Shan Pu even find big bell charms for odango. Help sister sew dress to let tail through."
Ukyo shook her head. "I hope Nabiki has plenty of tissue stocked. I even called in one of the better cooks from dad's restaurant chain just in case it gets really swamped, or I want to take a break. I'm thinking tonight might make up for the lost profits the last few days."
"Zhu Shu not worry. Not really have much use money anyway. Give most to Kasumi for house to use."
Ukyo blinked. "What, don't you have like, a CD collection or something?"
Zhu Shu shook her head. "Watch TV with Akane sometimes, or read manga. Have friend Lum who had videos of anime, but Zhu Shu no have player."
Ukyo shook her head. "We're going to have to correct that, Sugar. Don't you get bored?"
Zhu Shu shook her head. "No. Have plenty time meditate, or sometimes go out with girls to shop. Usually go school, teach girls and work, before do homework and sleep."
Ukyo gave her a disbelieving stare. "My god, girl, you've got to be kidding me? I have a business to run and I still take time out to go to the movies occasionally. Don't you do anything for fun?"
Zhu Shu blushed. "Um… not really think should say."
Ukyo blinked blankly for a minute, then nodded. "Oh…." She did a doubletake. "OH!" before she blushed a bright red too. "That's right, you and Rei have been…" she rolled her eyes. "I do remember her mentioning that."
"Ukyo is not upset that Zhu Shu and Rei have been together?"
"Huh? Why would I care– oh yeah, right." Ukyo shrugged. "I hadn't really thought about it. Things are weird enough as they are. And I really don't have the right to tell you not to see her or anything. I donno. The whole situation is still kinda brain bending with all this past life stuff. Rei says she was once your wife, and I remember being your wife… truthfully, it makes my head hurt to think about all of it, so I try not to."
Zhu Shu nodded. "Zhu Shu try hard to deny she empress too. No-one listen."
"That's because we know better, Zhu-chan." Lo Shen interjected from a few feet behind them. "And because those who still hunt the Song will not take your desires into account, only your lineage."
Zhu Shu sighed.
"So who exactly is after Zhu-chan? Besides this Clove girl." Ukyo asked. "I've gotten a few hints, but no really clear picture of what's going on."
Lo Shen looked at Zhu Shu with a raised eyebrow, and the little dragon-girl nodded.
"Alright, first, you mentioned you had a memory of being married to Lin Tzu, so I know you are aware that a thousand years ago, the world was much different than most people believe. The Earth was actually a loose federation of kingdoms under the rule of Prince Endymion's father, the High King. Empress Song ruled the Empire of the Dragon, which encompassed modern China, and the entire Indo-China area from Mongolia down to the Philippines, including Japan. She became Empress after her father died and named her his successor, because her older brother had proven himself an evil and corrupt ruler during a test as governor of a province. Xi'an Chi never forgave Lin Tzu for usurping what he saw as his divine right to rule."
Ukyo snorted. "Well, at least I can rest knowing there was no way he could have survived the wounds I gave him before he killed me."
Lo Shen gave her a long look. "Unfortunately, Xi'an Chi yet lives. He is a sorcerer, Ukyo. And he sold his soul to darkness. It was he who turned Queen Beryl from the devoted servant of the Earth Kingdom to the snake in the High King's bosom by manipulating her into a trap and making her a slave of the inhuman Metallia. When Lin Tzu won the heart of the Dragon, it infuriated him. She became his obsession, and he crippled her ability to aid Queen Serenity at a crucial time. When Beryl convinced the High King to begin his assault on the Moon Kingdom, the forces of the Song Empire were mired in a civil war with Xi'an Chi's traitors. Lin Tzu was barely spirited out of the Palace with her daughter before the palace was overrun. I fear we Amazons managed to rescue only her two other wives who were with child. The other eight sacrificed themselves to protect them as they fled."
Ukyo shook her head. "I remember almost cutting him in half. Damn."
Zhu Shu was looking at her in adoration, but Ukyo failed to see the dragon-girl's shining eyes.
"Anyway," Lo Shen continued. "Xi'an Chi vanished before the Silencing, when Saturn destroyed and remade the world. From what you say, it was no doubt due to the wounds he received at your hands. Until recently, we were unaware he had survived. Unfortunately, we discovered that he was behind more recent misfortunes for Clan Dragon. According to Zhu Shu's grandfather, he was behind the rift that started the war between Dragon and Musk, turning a once noble clan into a pack of arrogant brigands and scoundrels." Lo Shen sighed. "I suppose we had our own share of the blame, though. Clove was my rival under my master's tutelage, and she was the daughter of a black dragon, which made her arrogant and proud. I despised her, and Ke Lun loved humiliating her." She shrugged. "We were young and foolish. Perhaps had we not treated her so poorly, she would not have turned out as she did. She was much like your rival, Ai, Zhu Shu. I am glad to see you have not allowed her rivalry to fester the way Ke Lun and I did."
Zhu Shu shrugged. "Ai have problems with self image. She not so bad as she think is. Zhu Shu see small girl who cry inside. Ai like hedgehog."
Ukyo laughed while Lo Shen scratched her head. "Hedgehog?"
"The hedgehog's dilemma–" Ukyo said with a smile. "–is that while it might wish to get close to someone, it can't help that its spines will cause hurt to whoever tries."
Lo Shen blinked then nodded. "Ah, I see. Yes, Ai's personal tragedies have made her fearful of allowing herself to open her heart fully. In hindsight, I learned to see that Clove was much the same way. As she grew older, she grew more bitter, and selfish. She was utterly gorgeous, and had no compunctions about using her beauty to seduce whoever took her fancy, but she failed utterly with Shi. He only had eyes for Mu, and refused to marry Clove, even when she tried to pressure him with an old engagement agreement that had been stricken from the treaties then in force between their houses. Her father, Garlic, thought it would be more to his advantage to keep his daughter available for political alliance, and turned a blind eye to her lusts."
"Lusts?" Ukyo asked.
"Clove was a bit of a nymphet. In the arts of seduction, she had few equals and no superiors. Though she exercised her arts mainly on women, she could inflame the passions of men just by walking through the room, much like my niece here, but Clove always did so consciously. In part, I fear, that was one thing I hated her for." Lo Shen shrugged. "When I first looked as I do now, I knew little about feminine artistry. I was a tomboy, always digging under rocks for their secrets and experimenting with our master's chemicals. I was sixteen and she almost twenty, and I broke my heart over her beauty. She liked very feminine women, and I was, I have to admit, what you call a geek these days. I took my disappointment out on her, and Ke Lun saw her as a rival for Shi, before he meet and fell for Mu, and she married Happosai."
Zhu Shu spun and looked at her wide eyed. "Great-grandmother do what!"
Lo Shen cracked a smile. "Oh, yes. Happy was a handsome man in those days, and a smooth talker, though even then he was an utter letch. Ke Lun's always been quite a lusty girl herself and he swept her off her feet, then took off on their wedding day with the family heirlooms and quite a bit of the treasury. Why do you think his sealing away was of such importance to us? We have had blood feud against the demon master for nearly three hundred years, especially since he left Ke Lun with child."
"Who's Happosai?" Ukyo interjected.
Zhu Shu snorted. "Him Master of Genma and Soun. Big Hentai. Zhu Shu have to talk spirit to try find Kaisufuu. Him make her give panties to make tell he not know where was."
Lo Shen looked at her in alarm. "You did what? You did not mention this to us at council, Little Mouse."
The dragon-girl blushed, her ears drooping. "Zhu Shu too embarrassed."
"I wish you had told us. I will have to go and check the seals. He draws strength from such things."
Zhu Shu looked stricken. "Not know be so bad."
"One pair of panties probably would not be enough to enable him to break free, though it might be close. It is no matter. I will go reinforce the seals tomorrow."
"Zhu Shu hope no cause disaster."
"Hey, you heard her, Zhu-chan. She said it was nothing she couldn't fix." Ukyo looked at the worried dragon-girl and tried to think of something to distract her before she got morose. A bright idea hit and she dug into a pocket, pulling out her iPod. "Anyway, back to the subject of fun. Here, let's see what you think of this."
Zhu Shu followed her instructions about the earbuds, though they were a little trickier getting situated in Zhu Shu's dragon ears, but soon enough, she was dancing along to a catchy tune, a wide smile on her face. "Zhu Shu see many with little boxes. Now understand why!" she shouted.
Ukyo laughed and turned the volume down. "You have to be careful, sugar. You think you're talking normally and don't realize you're not."
Zhu Shu nodded. "Zhu Shu try remember. Can Ukyo show where to get little box?"
Ukyo laughed. "Keep that one, I was planning on getting a Nano anyway."
Zhu Shu smiled happily and lifted Ukyo off the ground in a twirling hug. "Thank you!"
"Easy, sugar!" Ukyo laughed. "I can't fly like you."
Zhu Shu giggled as she set the chef back down. "Zhu Shu like music. She hear before on show with big purple demon."
"Yes. Purple demon have boy ride in. Fight angels."
"Oh, Cruel Angel's Thesis. You like Neon Genesis Evangelion?"
Zhu Shu nodded. "Feel for poor white hair girl, Ayanami-san. She so lonely."
Ukyo grinned. "I like Asuka, she's got a sassy attitude. I should have guessed you'd watched Evangelion when you mentioned the hedgehog." She motioned to the iPod. "I got a ton of anime themes in there, and some American rock, and a bunch of odds and ends, like meditational stuff." She shrugged. "I like a weird mix."
"Zhu Shu like cute animals from shows. She have many stuffies."
Ukyo raised an eyebrow. "Somehow, I just don't see you going out and buying them."
Zhu Shu blushed. "No. Hentai boys give."
Ukyo laughed. "Before they found out you're a lesbian, I'll bet."
"No. Still give. Zhu Shu seem get more once school find out."
Ukyo broke out in giggles. "Sure, what am I thinking. A lot of guys like lesbians."
"Yes. Japan not seem mind girl-girl like in China. Zhu Shu have manga she given by Hentai boy about Melon and Non. Very funny and no one seem mind they lovers." She blushed. "But it also seem like instruction book for girl-girl sex."
Ukyo doubled over. "Oh gods, Zhu-chan. That has to the funniest thing I've heard in years. Vanity Angel is a boy's sex comic!"
Zhu Shu blinked. "No understand."
Ukyo blushed. "Umm. It's a masturbation manga… for boys."
Zhu Shu blinked, then turned nearly as crimson as her cheongsam as Lo Shen broke out in a roar of laughter.
"You'll have to pardon my niece, Ukyo. She's had little experience with such things."
Ukyo grinned. "No problem. I think it's cute, actually. I've got a collection of shojo ai and yuri manga at home that I've been given by girls who've chased me myself."
"Maybe Ukyo could help Zhu Shu with learn Kanji? She not very good reading yet." the dragon-girl said with a sidelong look.
Ukyo rolled her eyes. "Maybe. I'll think about it." She nodded to the iPod. "I'll show you how to work that with the computer too, and we'll fill it up with songs you like."
Zhu Shu nodded enthusiastically as Lo Shen smiled indulgently behind the pair. It was nice to see Zhu Shu happy.
0 0 0 0 0
Of course, the iPod ended up getting Zhu Shu sent to the hall when she failed to hear the teacher calling her name for attendance, but the little dragon-girl didn't mind. She was flittering halfway to the roof as she danced in mid-air, not realizing she was dripping water everywhere when the bell rang for the next class.
"Hey!" Nabiki had to poke Zhu Shu's hip to get the dragon-girl's attention over the music. "Put that away! You're gonna be late again if you don't pay attention."
Zhu Shu reluctantly pulled the earbuds out. "Ukyo give as gift."
Nabiki wrung the water out of her ears. "That's great… but you can't listen to it in school."
The dragon-girl pouted, but tucked it behind her back. "It like nothing Zhu Shu own before. Such small box make so many songs."
"Zhu-chan, honey. We could have gotten you one anytime. You've still got a small fortune setting in the bank after we sold your gold coins, and as soon as I get a buyer for a few of those oban you brought home, we're all going to be doing pretty well. You could pretty much get whatever you want." She looked around. "Hell, I'm really only still selling pics to keep up my contacts. Between Mr. Tsukino paying for the girls training, a couple of deals I've made online with the stocks, and now the share of the Musk treasure you gave us, I should have the mortgage paid off completely in a month, and be able to start paying Sandal to do some real renovations. Money really isn't much of a problem right now."
Zhu Shu shrugged. "Not know of anything need. Zhu Shu have everything necessary."
Nabiki blinked. "Zhu Shu, honey, we have got to educate you in the realities of modern life. You can never have too many toys."
Zhu Shu giggled as Nabiki pulled on her shoulder to set her feet on the ground. Nabiki looked around again as Zhu Shu made her way back to her seat, and she noted Ai a few classrooms away, looking at the dragon-girl with an odd expression on her face. As soon as the cheerleader saw Nabiki looking at her, she hurriedly turned away. Nabiki's eyebrow raised. If she didn't know better, she'd have almost said Ai looked sad.
Then their next periods teacher arrived, and she tucked a note in the back of her mind to think about it later as she headed back to her seat for their next class.
0 0 0 0 0
The rest of the day passed uneventfully, but the halls were filled with a buzz of conversation about the imminent opening of Club Nabiki, aided no doubt by the flyers Nabiki had had posted everywhere. Then again, she'd also released a whole slew of photos of all four of the waitresses in their various outfits.
The preparations went pretty smoothly as well, other than convincing Ranma to don her puppy eared hairband and wear the cute little sailor outfit with the puppy tail Nabiki had gotten her. Of course, there was curiosity as to exactly what Akane had whispered in the red-head's ear to make her go from protesting to enthusiastic.
Even Soun and Genma dressed in their rented tuxedos with very little protest, while Nodoka and Kasumi were wearing very pretty formal kimonos with geta, Nodoka's obi in a delicate shade of sky blue while Kasumi's was a rosy pink.
Nabiki had chosen to go in a midnight black evening gown, cut to dip below her tail, but with a large black bow tied just above the fluffy appendage to keep it from being too immodest. She was the owner after all, it wouldn't do to be mistaken as one of the waitresses.
Shan Pu had added two oversized cat's bells to her usual ball chimes, affixing them in the place of her normal odango behind her cat's ears, and she had even added two small bells to her collar and tag. The short cheongsam she had chosen was a deep midnight blue silk, with small embroidered bells in gold thread along the seams. She'd finished the outfit with a bell tied to the end of her tail.
Then there was Akane, wearing the fishnet stockings and body suit of a Playboy bunny, who was, surprisingly, looking forward to strutting around all night in the sexy outfit. She was putting everything she had learned from the link with Zhu Shu to use, and it showed. Even Ranma whistled as she came down the stairs.
For once, Tao-Ching showed up on time, probably due more to the chauffer than anything he was responsible for. The buff twenty year old looked very dashing in his tux as well, making Nabiki smile as he escorted her to the limo.
The Club already had a short line of people waiting as they arrived at the entrance, the two huge bouncers in muscle shirts and jeans giving the girls waiting with their dates their own eyecandy, while the boys were drooling in anticipation of what would await inside. Nabiki nodded. Once word got around that the club had beefcake as well as cheesecake, she had no doubt business would keep booming.
The inside had been done up in a tasteful style, reminiscent of the House of Blue Leaves from the American movie Kill Bill, but she had settled for a DJ instead of a band, and the lighting was far more subdued, having spots over the various tables rather than using the overheads. She'd set aside the upper level balcony for VIPs with a small catered bar solely for the adults, with men at both stairs to make sure the teens didn't try to sneak up in hopes of getting alcohol.
She got the girls set up pretty quickly, handing out checks and pens, then assigning tables and going over the menu choices. Zhu Shu fluttered over to help Ukyo check out the kitchen while Nabiki was briefing the others, and smiled happily when Ukyo said she planned on letting her helper start out while she supervised and helped the girls get the hang of waitressing.
Just before the doors were opened, Tao-Ching got a phone call, and announced that a special event would take place in a couple of hours or so. His investigators had unearthed the last survivor of the Hasai family, the true owners of the first sword he had to return. He asked Zhu Shu if she would bear witness for Lo Shen that he was trying to fulfill his vow when he arrived, and got an enthusiastic nod.
Then the doors opened, and the rush began.
0 0 0 0 0
Things were going very smoothly when Urd and her sisters arrived at the club. She and Mara had spent the day shopping and found a matching set of evening gowns. Both were black silk, with plunging necklines and were backless, but the billowy skirts with high slashed hips accented their legs beautifully. Except for the side on which the slash occurred, and their hair color, they could have been twins.
Belldandy had chosen a much more subdued off the shoulder dress in a delicate saffron, the large ruffle across her breasts and the fluffy skirt vaguely reminiscent of a southern belle from America's old south, the huge yellow silk bow at her back accenting the smaller bows in her hair. Keiichi was also resplendent in his tux, the crisp bow tie courtesy of Bell's clever fingers.
Skuld had elected to go with pink, and ribbons. Lots of ribbons. Her main dress would have been at home in a Shirley Temple movie or magic girl anime, but the ribbons wrapped around her upper torso made it something that verged on sexy when taken in combination with the ribbons wrapped around her arms and lower legs, and the small bows on her slippers.
Shan Pu spotted them almost the moment they arrived and bounced over to give the white haired goddess a hug. "Shan Pu want thank for her wish, nyah!"
Urd smiled at the enthusiastic cat-girl. "I'm not the only one you should thank, dear. I wouldn't have been able to work it out so smoothly without the help of your blood-sister and Ke Lun. And it's not quite done yet."
Shan Pu blinked. "No?"
Urd shook her head. "No. You specified everybody concerned. I still have quite a bit to do to tie up all the loose ends."
"Myah! Shan Pu not know she make such complicated wish."
Just then, Zhu Shu fluttered up. "Sister who is–" She broke off, staring at Mara.
Her swords were out in a flash and she flitted in front of Shan Pu. "You no hurt sister, Demon!"
Mara held up her hands. "Hey, whoa! I'm not a demon anymore!"
Zhu Shu blinked. "But you demon come Zhu Shu and give note where find Ranma!"
Mara nodded. "Yes, and I'm really sorry my imp got you killed. I really wasn't myself!" She pointed to her goddess marks. "Look, Legend claimed me for killing you. He broke the spells I was under!"
Zhu Shu's swords dropped to the floor in shock as her feet touched the ground. "You– you send monster?"
Shan Pu blinked and started to glow at the same time. "You one kill sister!"
Urd stepped in front of the ex-demoness. "Girls, please. She's not the same person she was then. The Dragon removed her from my mother's influence. She's not a demon any more, really. Legend forgave her…"
Zhu Shu was blinking at Urd now. "You? You storyteller send Zhu Shu Jusenkyo!"
Urd blinked. "I did?" then she remembered Legend's words, "Oh yeah. I did. I sent you there to meet Ranma, so that you could end up here now."
Shan Pu was looking back and forth between her sister and the still fearful Mara. "Shan Pu kill?"
"Please Shan Pu." Belldandy interjected. "Mara's really changed. And she was our friend long before she had to be our enemy. I know she's done some terrible things, but she really wasn't responsible for her actions. She was being manipulated."
The diminutive Chinese girl nodded and waved the cat-girl down "Is okay, Shan Pu. Zhu Shu must trust Dragon. See now much that was unclear before. Kasumi say she wonder if goddess make Zhu Shu and Akane merge chi. Dragon must have reason."
Belldandy colored prettily. "Well, actually, that was me. I was trying to help Urd, and I had planned to remove the portion on you after I had talked to Ranma and he told me how upset he was about it. But I never got the chance before Legend modified it himself after… um…"
Zhu Shu shook her head and had to laugh. "Is okay. Zhu Shu owe much to Goddess for link." She turned to the blonde goddess. "And Zhu Shu forgive for death. Not wish to make goddess who grant Shan Pu wish lose one who hold her heart."
Mara sighed in relief, then blinked. "Wow. Urd told me you were good at reading auras."
Zhu Shu shook her head. "Zhu Shu no see anything around goddesses. Aura and self are same. She see how Urd feel when she step in front of to protect."
0 0 0 0 0
With the potential hostilities defused, Shan Pu quickly warmed up to Mara, and led the group up to the balcony to mingle. When she left to return to her waitressing duties, Urd hunted down Ke Lun in order to ask her assistance with the real reason she had come to the opening party. After a conference in the bathroom, the bunny eared elder agreed to help with another small part of the wish.
Doctor Tofu couldn't remember the last time he had worn a tux, and he tugged at the stiff collar, wishing he didn't feel like a fool. At least he wasn't the only adult, and Nabiki's limitation on black ties and gowns for the opening night had ensured that the teens who had come were well behaved. Of course, that might also have had to do with her inviting their parents as well, so they could assure themselves that the club was a good place for their children to hang out at. The bouncers were very competent and isolated the more rambunctious boys in the arcade, and even though the waitresses were provocatively dressed, they kept enough covered that only a few of the mothers raised an eyebrow.
Ke Lun sauntered up to him holding two tall glasses of a pale amber liquid. "Hello Tofu. I brought you some apple juice, since I didn't think you would care for anything from the bar."
He gave her a small bow. "Thank you, elder. That was very thoughtful of you." He took a sip, licking his lips at the faint aftertastes of spices that lingered. "Very good."
Ke Lun smiled. "A special blend brewed up by a friend for tonight, for those of us who prefer not to lose our wits."
He took another sip. "I must get the recipe from you someday. It is very tasty."
"So what brings you here tonight?"
Tofu smiled. "Miss Kasumi invited me, though I haven't seen her yet."
"Ah yes. My great-granddaughter mentioned you have some affection for the eldest Tendo girl."
Tofu laughed. "I suppose, if you can call being utterly incapable of forming a coherent thought around her 'affection'." He shook his head ruefully. "I would give my soul to tell her I love her, but I fear she thinks of me as little more than a fool." He drained his glass.
"Have you ever told her of this?"
Tofu sighed. "I have tried, but every time I see her face, I just can't seem to find words to express how much joy her mere presence makes me feel. I just get tongue tied, and my brain refuses to work."
"Yes. I can remember feeling that way in my youth." She gave him a sidelong glance, holding up a finger behind him where he couldn't see. "So, if you could manage to overcome your nervousness, what do you think you would say to Kasumi?"
Tofu stared off into space with a sad smile. "I would tell her how I have always loved her, ever since I met her. I would tell her how special her smile is, and how I spend every minute listening for the sound of her voice. I would tell her how much I admire her courage, and the strength she has shown in taking care of her family. I would tell her of how I spend every day wishing I could ask her to spend our lives together, of how much I desire to be for her what she has been for others." He smiled and took a small box out of his pocket. "And most of all, I would ask her if she would consent to be my wife." He opened the box to reveal a simple silver ring set with a small, but perfectly cut diamond. He gazed at it for a long moment before chuckling ruefully.
And then, a delicate feminine hand reached from behind his shoulder and caressed his arm as the most beautiful voice in the world whispered softly in his ear.
"And she would tell you that she has been waiting for you to ask for far too long, and that she will say 'yes, with all her heart'."
He turned in surprise, to see Kasumi standing behind him.
But for once, even though his heart hammered and his glasses got steamy around the edges, the fear and nervousness were absent.
The faint traces of herbs lingered on his tongue, and he finally realized what Ke Lun had used. She'd hidden it under the apple juice and cinnamon, but it was a simple calmative he had prescribed hundreds of times for anxiety.
Amazing that he had never once thought to use it on himself.
A bubble of silence formed around them as he knelt and held out the ring. "Then I shall ask in truth. Will you be my wife, Kasumi?"
The look of joy in Kasumi's eyes as he slid the ring on her finger answered his question even as she shouted "YES!"
She pulled him to his feet with surprising strength and wrapped her arms around his neck as she whispered, "with all my heart."
Then she kissed him, and the world went away…
0 0 0 0 0
Urd smiled as she leaned over the balcony, observing the show on the far side of the club. "I have been waiting for an opportunity to do that for weeks."
Mara hung over her shoulder and smiled. "They certainly look happy enough."
"I hope he gets the hint. I left enough flavoring to the potion to make him think it's one of his herbal remedies, and now that he's gotten past the fear once, I think he'll have a much easier time from now on."
Mara nodded. "Looks like for once your potion worked perfectly."
Urd rolled her eyes. "Gee, thanks."
"Hey, you didn't almost get eaten by one of your potions gone wrong." Mara giggled. "So what else is on the agenda?"
"Nothing tonight. Phoenixmoon just said this was the best chance to finally get Tofu and Kasumi together. Kasumi has been doing a lot of thinking lately since her sisters have gotten engaged, and she's had her own crush on the doctor for years. She'd almost given up hope on him overcoming his anxiety attacks though. That's why I had to mix up that triple strength dose. He's going to be as calm as a rock for at least the next twenty four hours. And if she does what I think she'll do, the good doctor will be her devoted worshipper by morning, with nothing left to doubt as to whether Kasumi loves him or not. The Tendos might be doing without her for a few days."
Mara giggled. "Sounds like he's going to be one lucky man." She nodded down at the dance floor. "So now that work's over with, shall we dance?"
Urd smiled, knowing Mara's weakness for rock music. "Absolutely."
0 0 0 0 0
Urd and Mara weren't the only ones watching the surprise engagement. Even Ranma let out a cheer as the new couple kissed. And the DJ wasted no time finding a slow song as he called them down the dance floor.
Fortunately, Tofu danced divinely.
Midway through the dance, the Kuno's finally arrived, Tatewaki looking dashing in a traditional samurai outfit fit for an appearance at court, and Kodachi in a black crush velvet evening gown that had her trademark rose design shaved into the plush. Though she entered on Tatewaki's arm, she soon found a shadowy corner to alight in and sulk. Her eyes followed Akane in despair, but she made no effort to attract her attention. It was obvious she had only come because Tatewaki had brought her.
However, her arrival did prompt Usagi and Ami to take Makoto into the arcade and get her playing video games before the tall girl could henshin in front of everybody and blast the gymnast.
Tatewaki himself had nodded approvingly at the club and joined Tao-Ching at the bar to chat, though he seemed quite distracted watching the various girls moving around the club as well. He seemed to be behaving himself though, even accepting politely when Kyoko asked him to dance and not making a single attempt to glomp anyone. He seemed to be muttering something under his breath like a litany the entire time he was on the floor, and was as stiff and tense as anyone had ever seen him.
Ai and the other cheerleaders were there as well, with various boys they had made pay for their evening, but the boys didn't seem to mind too much. They were too busy ogling the waitresses to notice their "dates" spent more time gossiping among themselves then talking to them. Only Ayeka seemed to not be having fun, her dark eyes shifting between scowling at where Ai was begging Mina for an autograph and glowering at Zhu Shu.
Even Hiroshi and Daisuke had shown up, with Sayuri and Yuka as their dates.
Up on the balcony, Nabiki looked out over the crowd and smiled. It looked like the night was going to be a smashing success.
0 0 0 0 0
Far to the west of Nerima, thunder rumbled over the ruins of the Musk fortress.
The underground workroom had changed dramatically over the last twelve hours, the rock falls having vanished and the walls now covered with glowing arcane script. In the center of the cave, an octagonal hexagram burned with an inner light, the pale red glow illuminating the body hovering in the center starkly.
Clove finished the last stroke of her brush with a flourish, smiling as the ink sank into Konatsu's skin. The black ink seemed to soak in the light, looking almost like bottomless abysses in the kunoichi's body, yet paradoxally it also possessed a form of inner luminosity that made looking at them difficult. Clove's smile grew wicked.
"I made this spell just for you, Shi. But father moved before I was ready, before I could arrange to capture Mu, and he forced me to kill him and made this pointless." She laughed as she gestured and the still figure shifted to float upright. "It would have been her this spell was cast upon, and you would have never known that when you made love to her, you would have been loving me."
She looked over the figure before her critically and smiled. The results of her little correction had been satisfying. She ran her fingers over the smooth skin of the girl before her, admiring the pleasant weight of her full breasts in her cupped palm, the finely sculpted cleft between her legs. Konatsu's body was a work of art that easily matched her heartbreakingly beautiful face, marred at the moment only by the various ideograms and symbols Clove had painstakingly brushed over her entire body.
She stepped back from the silent figure to a spot she had painted within the hexagram. Only one last part of the spell to go.
A wind sprang up in the cave as she began the final words of the incantation. It swirled around the room, making the glowing symbols on the wall flicker like candle flames before finally seeming to blow them out one by one until only the hexagram still burned. Strange echoes reverberated from her words as the hexagram grew brighter and brighter and the ink on Konatsu's body ignited into blue fire. The light grew brighter still, soon obscuring both figures within the hexagram as Clove's voice reached a crescendo and the thunder shook the earth…
And then, the overwhelming brilliance died to reveal a solitary figure within the hexagram.
And as the light faded to just that provided by the single lamp still burning, Konatsu opened her eyes…
0 0 0 0 0
Tao-Ching waved to Kasumi and Tofu as they closed the limo door and left for the dinner at Tokyo's best steakhouse that he had arranged to help the newly engaged pair celebrate their evening with, and leaned against the door frame.
"I've been waiting for that to occur for almost four years now." Nabiki said dryly from next to him. "I have a feeling the good doctor might not be able to walk in the morning. Kasumi's got a lot of built up desire and I already know what kind of energy she has in bed. Tofu's gonna have one hell of a night."
Tao-Ching grinned. "So much the better. Nice to have such a good omen on your opening night."
"Yep." She raised her eyebrow as another limo pulled in. "I wonder who that is? Everybody I invited is here."
Tao-Ching grinned. "I think MY guest has finally arrived."
Indeed it was, the chauffer getting out to open the door for a very pretty nurse who helped an elderly Japanese gentleman out of the vehicle. Nabiki found herself admiring her curves and her unusual haircut, the short bob cut mixed with the long pony tail seeming to suit the woman very well, as did the diamond shaped tattoos on her cheeks and forehead. Tao-Ching noticed her gaze and grinned.
"Nice to see we have the same taste in women."
Nabiki elbowed him in the ribs before she stepped up to the elderly gentleman and welcomed him to the club.
Taking his age into consideration, she had Tao-Ching escort him to her office while she rounded up Zhu Shu, collecting Rei and Ukyo in the process. They arrived in the office to find Kuno had invited himself as well, and was busy attempting to impress the nurse with his flowery prose and descriptions of his prowess. The Nurse seemed to be amused more than angry, so Nabiki ignored him.
Tao-Ching waited till Nabiki had closed the office door, shutting out the noise from the dance floor before he knelt in front of the old gentleman he had settled into Nabiki's chair.
"Mr. Hasai, I thank you for coming on such short notice, and I hope that you will find my reason worth having you brought from your home."
The elder waved him down. "Never mind the bother. Any chance to get out of the nursing home is welcome, young man. It's not every day I get to ride in a limo with such a pretty young girl either."
The nurse moved up to his side and smiled down at him. "It was my pleasure, Mr. Hasai. I found your stories of your family history very entertaining."
The old man laughed. "I only wish it had a better ending."
Tao-Ching grinned. "Then I hope that possibly what I have for you will let you have that, Sir." He picked up the cloth wrapped bundle from the desk. "A short time ago, my associates and I acquired a large number of historical artifacts, and among them, we recovered this…"
He untied the cord and slowly drew the silk bag down to reveal the crest engraved on the scabbard just under the guard.
For a long moment, there was no sound except breathing as the old man stared at the sword. Then he looked to the hopeful expression on Tao-Ching's face, the smile on Nabiki's, even to where Zhu Shu gripped Rei's hand and Ukyo leaned forward expectantly. Even Kuno seemed to be holding his breath in anticipation.
Then slowly, he reached out his hand and accepted the sword reverently. His fingers traced down the silk wrapping, along the carved tsuba, and finally stopped touching the crest.
He looked up at Tao-Ching, tears bright in his eyes. "Son, this is a gift I could never have dreamed of. My family's sword was stolen from us nearly three hundred years ago, and we have suffered nothing but misfortune since. I can never thank you enough for its return." He hugged the blade to him and sighed. "I only wish you could have returned it when it might have truly saved us."
There was a hush, broken only by the whisper from the nurse of "Gotcha, Urd."
Then a wind began in the room as the diamonds on Peorth's face began to glow, and her nurse's outfit shredded to reveal her leather harness and black bikini. Everyone blinked as she lifted off the floor into the air, the diamonds growing brighter and brighter as small objects began to swirl around the room.
Zhu Shu blinked as she felt static electricity tingle across her skin, and realized she had felt a vortex like this before. She tried to shut off her channels and block out the flows, but she was helpless as a crystalline energy seemed to fill her and threatened to wash her away in a flood of raw power. She felt Rei's hand in hers as she dimly heard Nabiki scream "What's happening!"
Then a pulse of argent power sprang from Peorth's forehead to pierce the ceiling and the room seemed to fade and dissolve in the brilliant light.
The light faded as Peorth slowly settled to the ground and looked around the empty office.
She smiled. "Your wish has been approved."
And then a wave of impossible force exploded through the room and hurled her against the wall…
Author's Note: And so ends Book 3. Will Blackmoon prevail now that Rei has vanished? And will our heroes survive Peorth's little game? The answers await in The Tears of a Dragon: Book 4 Days of Future Past.