Identity, by Muphrid. A tribe of Chinese sorcerers captures Ranma to purge emotions from the hearts of men. A continuation story, set after the end of the manga.
What's going on here? The Sorcerers have come to Nerima, their presence shattering the fragile respite Ranma and his companions once knew. In dead of night, Shampoo has surprised the Sorcerers outside the Tendō home, and a battle for Hibiki's effects begins.
Chapter Eight Finale
During the last year with Ranma as a guest in the Tendō home, he and Akane had fought over a vast array of issues and slights. They competed in cooking when Ranma insisted on watching over kitchen, lest Akane, in her haste and enthusiasm, damage it beyond repair. When Akane grew incredibly strong thanks to an empowering bowl of soup, she outright disbelieved Ranma when he came after her, trying to nullify the powerup before certain hairy side-effects kicked in. Their three-way badminton match went well beyond the court and was talked about for weeks.
Nevertheless, despite the breadth of flimsy justifications that had fueled their spats before, never had they, to either's recollection, fought over a simple cardboard box.
"It's simple," said Ranma, placing the box of Hibiki family souvenirs onto his futon with a thud. "Ryōga and I will do some figuring, look through everything else here, get some books to identify the really weird stuff, and we'll see if we can guess where Ryōga's old man might be headed to next. You know, if that means anything about where he'll actually be, anyway."
"And three heads are better than two," said Akane, arguing with Ranma from the hallway. "Or better yet, Kohl-kun might be able to help understand what Ryōga-kun's father would be trying to do."
"Is that so." Ranma peered outside, finding the Sorcerer captain to be near. "Hey, Wuya, you can read Japanese?"
"No," said Kohl.
Ranma shot a look Akane's way. "Then I doubt she's going to be much help, huh."
"Don't dismiss me out of hand, Outsider." Kohl stepped forward to Akane's side. "I've met the man. I know how he thinks. I need access to that box."
"Well, you ain't getting any!" cried Ranma. "The only ones going in this room are me and Ryōga, and it's going to stay that way until after dark, got it?"
Akane fumed. "But Ranma—"
"Why not let them be?" Sipping from a juice box, Nabiki passed by, weaving through the maze of bodies. "If Ranma-kun and Ryōga-kun are happy spending so much time together alone in the same room, why not let them be? Or take photos. That could be profitable, yes?"
Akane made a face. "Sister, that is not helping."
"It helps me just fine thinking about it."
Looking out from the Saotome guest room, Hibiki Ryōga backed away a step, giving Ranma more than enough personal space. "Maybe it wouldn't be so bad if Akane-san helped again," he argued. "We spent so much time on Father's journals—we're basically starting from scratch here. We could use the help; There's no reason to make her upset."
"When the Sorcerers come back," said Ranma, "and you know they'll come back, they'll go after anyone who had anything to do with trying to solve this puzzle. You know what they did to your house."
"They didn't bother trying to hurt me specifically, if that's what you mean."
"Ryōga-kun's right," said Akane. "If they come back, how are they going to know who looked through the box, anyway? How they going to know it's here?"
Rubbing his forehead, Ranma muttered to himself incoherently. "Everybody, get out of here for a second. Give us the room."
Shooting Ranma a wary look, Ryōga departed, and Kohl shuffled off down the hallway. Akane stepped inside the guest room, shutting the door behind her. None of this argument had made any sense to her. Trying to get something reasonable out of Ranma could be like pulling teeth if he were stubborn enough about the issue. Nevertheless, he did invite her inside to talk. For that, she was hopeful, if also still sensitive about the matter. "Well?" she began. "What is it you have to say?"
Ranma turned away, pacing. "This is nothing Ryōga and I can't handle. You know that. Go up to your room; work on school or something. You don't need to be down here."
"I want to be. I want to feel like I'm doing something important instead of sitting around helplessly, watching from the outside!"
"I know that! You don't think I know that? But what I need is to protect what's important to me. You understand that, don't you?"
Akane's gaze softened. At last, there'd been a break. He'd told her something meaningful, something she could understand, but it was also something she already knew. Never once did she doubt that Ranma hoped to protect her, but this level of caution—this paranoia—was totally unjustified. "No matter what happened earlier, it's just a little box, Ranma. Nothing bad will happen for me looking through it."
He shook his head, pacing faster. "I can't take that chance."
"Why not? You're being unreasonable!"
"I know that, too! That's why you shouldn't be here. In times like this, I can't think clearly when you're around, and I need to be at my best and in control. Go upstairs, Akane. Please."
He didn't want her there. He couldn't have her there. And though Akane understood, thinking that in the past, Ranma wouldn't have bothered to explain himself at all, leading to an even bigger argument. That didn't mean she knew how to respond. "I see," she said weakly, and she opened the door in a daze. Ranma called Ryōga inside, and Akane wandered upstairs without another word.
Truly, it was progress, wasn't it? Ranma talked to her, and she understood. At times, his presence and scrutinizing gaze had compelled her to do irrational things, too, but that didn't change the gulf that occupied the space between them. What Ranma felt, he felt keenly, too keenly to dismiss on his own. Though now and again the two of them had grown closer, fear and anxiety had driven them apart more times than Akane could count, and even after saving each other's lives, little had changed. They were still the same awkward, uncertain teenagers.
Akane pondered these failings for the rest of the afternoon and went to bed wondering if she and Ranma could ever overcome their hesitations at all. If only she could assure Ranma nothing ill would happen for her being there, perhaps then he would overcome his anxieties. Akane didn't know how to say that, how best to get through to him, but she believed it with all her heart.
The shattering of glass roused Akane from her slumber. Night had long since fallen over the Tendō home, but faint flashes of airborne lightning lit up the ground. Akane kicked off her covers, awake and alert, but aside from the slow, strobe-like pattern outside, she could see nothing wrong.
"Ranma!" came a muffled cry.
Shampoo? Putting on her slippers, Akane trotted out of her room. She flipped on the hallway light and headed downstairs to the thuds and snaps of metal fighting wood. She made for the kitchen, hoping to peer through the window there.
She found a bicycle with both wheels sticking through the frame instead.
BOOM! Fragments of asphalt showered over the compound walls, lit intermittently from the electrical arcs in the sky.
Sorcerers—they're here! She darted to the kitchen door, cupping her hands around her mouth. "Ranma! Father! Everyone, wake up; there's trouble! Wake up!"
"YAAH!" Shampoo's cream pierced the night, and Akane knew she could hesitate no longer. She kicked off her slippers and ran out the front door. Her eyes scanned the darkness, adjusting to the lack of light once again. The main gate was still shut, and not wishing to open it for enemies, she jumped instead, catching the ledge of the compound wall with her fingertips. She pulled herself over, and there she glimpsed the situation at hand:
Shampoo was alone. As Sorcerers shot fireballs and ice spikes at their single foe, Shampoo wove between her enemies, using their bodies as protection and cover. Though she was nimble, Shampoo's movements lacked some fluidity and prowess, for she nursed a wound, favoring her left side. Akane couldn't see how Shampoo was injured, but it was enough to take half of the Amazon's arsenal out of battle—she used her left hand and mace defensively, and even then, only when she needed to.
Akane rushed in. Shampoo needed the help, outnumbered at least six to one as far as Akane could see. The other Sorcerers were content to stand back and snipe at Shampoo from a distance, getting clear shots whenever her hand-to-hand target backed off a step or two. Akane ran along the compound wall and leapt into the first clump of Sorcerers she could find.
Step, step, WHAM! Her foot caught a Sorcerer in the back, propelling him forward to skid along the pavement. An engagement against multiple foes? Akane was surely used to that. It had been many months since she'd had to contend against dozens of boys just to get to class, but the sum of those experiences came back to her readily. It wasn't about focusing on one foe. Once she put in a hit on an enemy, she had to check the others and decide whether to attack or retreat. When outnumbered, your foes are aggressive more often than not. Because they constantly press the attack, you can use their overconfidence against them. Against a single opponent, the need to balance offense and defense is greater, and your foe tends to be more cautious and guarded. Perhaps that's what put Akane at a disadvantage whenever she sparred with Ranma. Accustomed to opponents who always attacked first and defended second, she wasn't used to finding herself the aggressor instead, and for that, Ranma cut her to pieces every time.
But standing toe-to-toe with three Sorcerers wasn't anything like fighting off the horde of boys in the schoolyard. More Sorcerers stood on adjacent rooftops, shooting lightning and spawning patches of ice on the ground, making the street increasingly hazardous and slick. In her socks and pajamas, Akane wasn't in her best fighting clothes, either. A loose sleeve was easy for an enemy Sorcerer to grab on to and use to hurl her headlong into the compound wall.
Her ears rang. She collapsed at the base of the wall and cradled her head, groaning. Without a doubt, all this trauma to the head wasn't good for her memory.
There was a crinkling sound. Sorcerers gathered around her, one in the lead forming snowflakes at his fingertips—the preparation for a kill shot, just as Ranma was wont to do.
The crinkling ceased. The Sorcerers looked to the voice, and another magic-wielder in black appeared. She was tall and attractive, with small eyes and dark hair in a ponytail behind her. She looked upon Akane with a penetrating gaze and a sly smirk.
"The Sieve's favorite cannot be killed," she said, in Japanese so both her men and Akane would understand. "Not yet."
CRUNCH! The metal sphere of Shampoo's chúi pounded a Sorcerer's ribs. "Akane, you no should be here!" she cried. "Shampoo need no help!"
Shampoo talked tough, but Akane saw clearly the damage she'd incurred. The left side of Shampoo's pajama shirt was charred and tattered, and that didn't even begin to cover the burns underneath. As much as the proud Amazon wouldn't admit it, her movements were becoming increasingly labored and weakened. There was no telling how long she'd been there, fighting off the Sorcerers, but she'd done her part. For that effort, it was only fair that Akane pay her back in kind.
Akane scrambled to her feet, throwing herself to the defense of Shampoo's vulnerable side. If Shampoo questioned this deed or felt unsafe with Akane by her back, she didn't argue. They only needed to hold out for a short time—for seconds, really, against deafening percussive blasts of wind and the thundering smashes of magic-imbued battle staves. All they had to do was survive until Akane's alarm traveled through the whole of the house and reinforcements came.
Shink! From atop the compound wall, a column of ice shot through a Sorcerer's gut and stuck in the ground, leaving the victim to stand dead on his feet. Akane and Shampoo looked up, knowing who they'd find there.
"Ranma!" they cried.
Though ill-dressed for the cold night, not even an icy northern breeze could make Ranma flinch in his muscle shirt and boxers. Late to the party, Ryōga joined him on the wall, dressed in more appropriate attire and spinning a razor-sharp bandana in one hand, ready to fling it at the first Sorcerer to cross him. Finally, the defector Kohl, in the body of the former captain, stood beside Ranma with his staff upright and at ease, but no less prepared to strike.
"You know," said Ranma, "you bastards have terrible timing. Here I was, having a peaceful dream about pastel-colored teenage ponies living an idyllic existence in Horselandia thanks to the power of friendship. And now you guys make a fuss and wake me up for this bullshit?"
All eyes turned to Ranma in a mix of amused and puzzled expressions.
"What? It's okay to like ponies! It—all right, forget it. You there, with the beachball boobs and the ponytail. You're the one giving orders. I take it you're the new captain?"
Akane twitched. "The first thing you notice about her is her chest?"
"It's true, isn't it?" Ranma jerked a thumb at Kohl. "Besides, Wuya's taken the title of Flatty Queen of the Flat People now."
Kohl buried his face in his palm.
"The Sieve is correct," said the girl with the ponytail. "I am Liesun, Captain of the Guard, and the Lady has bestowed upon me the power to—"
A line of frost shimmered in the moonlight, from Ranma's fingers to the new captain's heart.
THWA-PAM! A pressure wave shattered the ice spike in mid-air and scattered Akane, Shampoo, and the new captain's comrades around her.
"You attack me in the middle of a sentence?" cried Captain Liesun.
"Well, yeah," said Ranma. "The only thing more annoying than you guys being here is the way you Sorcerers talk, talk, and talk. I'm not interested in your babbling. You want something, don't you?"
"Hibiki's effects," said Liesun. She gripped her staff tightly. "But I expect the Sieve will fight and live up to his reputation."
"Nope, you can have them!"
Kohl looked at Ranma like he'd turned into a tentacle monster.
"See? Here you go." Ranma jumped down, hidden on the interior of the compound, and leapt back to the top of the wall, a heavy cardboard box in hand, the flaps sealed in duct tape. "Catch!"
He tossed the box upward, on a lazy parabolic arc, and Liesun caught it with both hands.
"Now, scram!" THWAP-THWAP! Ranma showered the Sorcerers in a volley of ice spikes, and the dumbfounded new captain, clearly at a loss in this situation, ordered a her men to retreat. The Sorcerers pulled back, fleeing down side streets and over rooftops, until not a battle staff could be seen, save for Kohl's.
Akane dusted herself off, her pulse slowing as the rush of adrenaline faded. It didn't make sense. One minute, they were fighting, and the next, Ranma had given the Sorcerers everything they wanted? Like it was a joke, a game? He wouldn't betray Ryōga's father so easily, would he?
No, absolutely not. Akane didn't have to think about that any harder to understand. Ranma's intense stare, following the Sorcerers as they fled, told her so. He had a plan.
"Inside," Ranma commanded those who remained. "Everybody, right now."
Despite a twitch as Akane wrapped around her, Shampoo accepted support as she hobbled through the Tendō family gate. The exterior lights revealed the full extent of Shampoo's injuries—a mild, pink, grazing burn, but it was sore and sensitive to the touch. The whole household had awakened, and the bright lights of the kitchen were painful to bear. With a draft pouring through the broken window, Kasumi ran the sink, dousing a rag in cold water, but Shampoo would have none of it. "No water," she said.
Plastic bags of ice it was, then, and Kasumi bound the pack in place with masking tape.
"That'll have to do," said Ranma. "It's not going to hold in a fight, but there's no other way about it. How's it feel, Shampoo? Not too bad?"
Shampoo shook her head, beaming.
"Good, so now you can explain what you were doing here?"
The Amazon looked at him like a deer standing cluelessly in the middle of a street. "Uh…."
"Outsider!" Kohl interrupted, taking hold of Ranma's arm. "Explain yourself. You're not so arrogant and foolish to give your enemies what they want without a fight."
"Glad to see you're recognizing my greatness," said Ranma. "And don't you mean our enemies?"
Kohl narrowed his eyes.
"Fine, whatever. Ryōga, get the stuff from my room—ah, actually, Akane, make sure he doesn't get lost. This ain't over yet; Beachballs and goons will be back."
Though Akane twitched a little bit to think Ranma might start referring to the new captain as Beachballs for good, much more profound thoughts occupied most of her attention. When she and Ryōga ventured into the Saotome guest room once more, she saw the truth of things. All over the floor there was junk—a miniature, wood-carved boat; a piece of stone jewelry, probably something Ainu in origin; a flyer for a dojo in Nagoya. Akane recognized some of the pieces—they were the contents of the box Ryōga's father had sent back home.
"Ranma saw it coming," said Ryōga, rounding up the souvenirs. "He thought the Sorcerers would be back, sooner rather than later. He had a bag full of worthless papers and photos and quickly stuffed it into Father's box. If the Sorcerers don't even look inside and just decide to burn it instead, they may never even know. Ranma didn't think they'd be that stupid, though. More likely than not, they'll be back here."
That was Ranma all right; it was too fitting that he would have some kind of deception up his sleeve to maintain the advantage. If Ranma wanted something badly enough, he wouldn't balk at a little trickery or subterfuge. He was clever. He made up new tricks his opponents didn't expect on the fly. And if he hadn't, Akane could imagine the alternative: being forced to defend her home and her family with nothing but her own fists, and in pajamas at that. Ranma knew better. He knew that they could buy a little time if he just scared off the Sorcerers with a simple maneuver.
It was an expression of his control—just as Ranma had said.
Perhaps stability and the capacity to guide a situation meant more to Ranma than he'd ever let on. Her presence affected him, and in ways he wanted to avoid. That much was clear, and while she'd found it frustrating and difficult to understand, seeing Ranma's process in action granted Akane new insight. As much as she might resent it when Ranma treated her like a glass vase to cushion and protect, it was better not to push him on it, not when Sorcerers had stood just meters outside her family's front gate.
If only she could keep herself contained, reasonable and logical, she could keep herself from reacting badly to an ill-posed suggestion, then it wouldn't be difficult.
An easy thing to say with foresight. Akane knew it was much more difficult in practice.
Akane and Ryōga gathered the souvenirs in a backpack and joined the group by the dinner table in the main room. The rest of the Tendō and Saotome families had snuck out by mutual agreement. Ranma had suggested Ukyō's restaurant as a safe haven, somewhere no Sorcerer had been, present company included. Abandoning the estate was the only reasonable play, for the Sorcerers would return in force once they realized they'd been had, and sending two not-particularly-heroic old men to protect their wives or daughters was the most agreeable solution, just in case Captain Liesun had eyes on the house already.
"She's not that cautious," said Kohl. "I've known Liesun for six years. Though she is far from stupid, she prefers direct maneuvers and tactics. Her preference for manipulating the winds gives her special control over the weather, but she lacks the raw power that someone who wields fire, ice, or lightning. To her, magic is a tool to supplement her physical prowess with the staff. She likes to be up-close, and so when she returns, she won't bother with skirmishing outside the walls. She'll bring overwhelming force if she can spare it."
"Glad you could share that and make yourself useful," said Ranma. "Now, maybe you can tell me why there was a crazy light show above this house to show all your Sorcerer friends the way down the yellow-brick road?"
Kohl raised an eyebrow. "I had nothing to do with it."
"Oh, no?" A spike of ice formed in Ranma's hand, and he shoved Kohl to the wall, holding the spike like a dagger to the defector's neck. "You want to try that again, old buddy, old pal? Because you know, that didn't sound very convincing. It almost sounded like you were lying to me, like you were trying to tell a joke, except you've never been funny, Wuya! That's your biggest problem, get me? You have zero sense of humor, so I know—I know—that you didn't lead Sindoor's goons here as a joke, and even if you had, I don't like the idea of people who like to blow things up, or bury them in them in the ground or turn them to ash, on my doorstep! Explain it to me. Now!"
With his pinky finger, Kohl nudged the point of the spike away from his neck, ignoring the superficial cut Ranma had made and the slow seeping of blood from the wound. "I had nothing to do with it," he insisted. "I don't know how they found you. If one of Rimmel's men betrayed us, betrayed her, they could've followed you back here and pointed the way. That's the only explanation I can think of. If they searched blindly through the flows of ki, I don't know that they could've found you."
Ranma squinted, studying Kohl. What either of them were thinking Akane couldn't say, but Ranma shoved Kohl into the wall once more and held the spike raised, trembling with the strength he channeled into his arm. Kohl, for his part, neither flinched nor looked away. He looked Ranma in the eye, paying no heed to the spike or where it might land, how it would slice through his body if Ranma decided to attack. Akane averted her gaze, not wanting to see the carnage if Ranma deemed Kohl a liar. She knew he could be vicious and merciless. It seldom came out, but when they'd fought Kohl and Tilaka in Saffron's bedchambers, Ranma held nothing back. It was about more than their safety, their freedom. It was for revenge. It was payback, and if Kohl had betrayed them here, Ranma would have much to pay him back for.
"Heh." Ranma laughed to himself, smirking, and cast the spike aside. "You've got balls, Wuya; I'll give you that, and we don't have enough people to be doing this right now. Here's what we're doing—the old ghoul is coming over with Mousse and the rope-maker. Apparently, they've been meeting to try to form an alliance or whatever. Shampoo, Wuya, and I will stay here, and we'll meet Loose Chest or whatever her name was when she comes back looking for what was inside the box. Ryōga, take Akane to Ucchan's—yeah, I know you'll have to actually show the way, Akane, but you know what I mean. Take that pack of supplies with you; okonomiyaki's great, but you probably don't want to be eating that and that alone until it's safe. Do you understand me?"
Akane fingered the strap of the backpack, meeting Ranma's gaze. He knew full well what was inside, and it wasn't supplies. Perhaps he was still suspicious of Kohl, but looking at Shampoo, it was clear she didn't realize the significance of what Ranma's said, either. She was all too happy to be at his side to care, and though Akane resented that, she reminded herself of the truth:
Ranma wanted her to get out with the treasure the Sorcerers were after. Though he wouldn't say it aloud, he'd entrusted that duty to her. It would take her out of the action, yes, but it was a critical task. He hadn't asked Ryōga to carry the load. He saw it on Akane's back and approved.
"All right, come on," he said, clapping his hands. "Let's go already. Wuya, Shampoo, let's see what we can do to board up the doors and windows. Better not to give those guys any chance of seeing inside if we can help it…."
Ryōga leaned over Akane's shoulder, whispering in her ear. "We should go quickly, before anyone else realizes what you have there, Akane-san."
Akane nodded, understanding, and made for the exit at the front of the house. Before she left the dining room, however, she stopped and looked back. "Ranma? Thanks."
Checking the seal on the double sliding doors as the closed, Ranma nodded absentmindedly. "I ain't done nothing. Go on; get out of here. Be with your family."
It was a small sentiment, and given how he wouldn't look at her as he said it, some might mistake it as no sentiment at all, but Akane didn't see it that way. She could choose to believe it meant nothing, sure. Instead, she felt it was the most Ranma thought he could say while still focusing on the task at hand. In that view, it meant more than he could reasonably express. Perhaps no one but Ranma could know for sure what he meant, but regardless of the true meaning, Akane took strength from it as she and Ryōga went out the door.
In darkness, the two of them set out—Akane leading Ryōga by the hand with little more than the glow of streetlamps to guide them. The clouds above rolled and thickened, blocking out more and more of the moon's light. It was no great bother, however. Akane knew the way to Ukyō's restaurant well enough. The route was no problem, but staying out of sight was Akane's concern. Especially as they left the Tendō home, Akane shied away from bright lights and tried to hide when the occasional car passed by, headlights blazing. Who knew where the Sorcerers were or if they'd spot her in transit and follow her or attack on sight. Ranma was sure they'd come back. Ryōga felt the same. But how did they know where to look for Ranma? Or how to find Ryōga's home? Could it be Kohl had betrayed them after all?
"Ranma might be too suspicious," said Ryōga. "Wuya doesn't know where I live, yet the Sorcerers were there. They could be homing in on something Father sent me, some powerful object or the like. Ranma has to know that there are too many ways this could've happened, that he can't pin it all on Wuya and wrap it in a bow. He has to know that. Why else would he let her live if he didn't think so?"
Ranma had his own reasons for the way he did things, and while Akane embraced this assignment from him, she knew she'd only begun to really find some insight into him. There was a vast part of his mindset and thinking she still found mysterious, but that was something she could learn to follow when all this mess was over.
At last, Ryōga and Akane approached the restaurant, confident that they hadn't been followed. The door to Ucchan's had been left a hair open, and it was Ryōga who peered inside first, cautiously.
A flash! A sudden light bathed the inside of the restaurant, and Ryōga recoiled, covering his eyes.
"Are you mad?" cried Kuonji Ukyō, one hand on the light switch and the other on a pair of throwing spatulas. "Knock first next time! We could've killed you!"
Ryōga narrowed his eyes.
"Well, maybe not killed you, seeing how you're halfway to indestructible." Ukyō beckoned the two inside and to shut the door behind them. Beside her, the other defenders of the restaurant relaxed. Saotome Genma sat back down on a stool, rubbing his eyes. Sōun Tendō come forth to hug his daughter, going on about her bravery and fawning over every little scratch and cut she'd earned.
And a gruff, bearded man presided over the lot of them with a stern stare.
"Ah, Ryōga, Akane-chan, you haven't met my father yet, have you?" asked Ukyō.
Akane winced. "Ah, your father…."
"Yes, that's right," said Kuonji. "The one who promised his daughter to Saotome Ranma, in agreement with this fraud!" He smacked Genma on the back of the head with a cooking spatula. "I never should've listened to you!"
"It's not my fault!" Genma claimed. "I gave Ranma the fair choice; it's not my fault five-year-old boys like food more than girls!"
"All right, all right," said Ukyō, separating the men with the blade of her battle spatula. "Let's worry about the batter—I mean, the matter at hand. Akane-chan, your sisters are upstairs with Konatsu to watch over them. Ranchan said on the phone that you had something important with you?"
Slinging the backpack off her shoulder, Akane set the pack on an empty stool
and opened it, showing the contents to all involved. "The souvenirs Ryōga-kun's father sent back, along with papers from when Ranma and Ryōga-kun were trying to figure out where everything came from and when. The Sorcerers think Ranma still has these knick-knacks with him at our house, so they'll be going back there to find them. That's why I have to go back to help, too."
"What?" cried Sōun. "My little girl, you can't!"
"It's what I'm doing, and that's that!" she roared. "None of you are Ranma; you can't tell me to do anything else. Now, who's with me?"
Ryōga stepped forward. "I'm always at your side, Akane-san," he said, bowing.
"If Ranchan needs the help, I'm not going to deny him," said Ukyō.
Kuonji shook his head. "My daughter, you don't need to do this. It's bad enough we've been roped into giving shelter without even being asked for it. That boy's affairs are nothing you have to involve yourself in."
"Oh!" cried Sōun. "So you don't want your daughter to marry Ranma-kun after all?"
With a death glare, Kuonji scowled. Sōun bolted beneath the counter with a yelp.
"Even if Ranchan had nothing to do with it, these Sorcerers are bad, bad guys," said Ukyō. "Giving them free reign to do as they please in this country, in this town, isn't good for business. It isn't good for anybody."
Sōun nudged the stool on which Genma sat. "Well, Saotome-kun? Will you go to defend your son and my future son-in-law this time? Or would you prefer to sit here and eat?"
"Someone has to stay with the girls," said Genma. "Besides, it's your daughter who's going, and you're an upstanding member of the community. I'm just staying at your place."
"For a year!"
"Ahem." Kuonji cleared his throat. "If both of you are intent on staying here, I do not mind cooking a few meals to pass the time."
Ukyō gaped. "Father!"
"Of course," he continued, "as the chef, I have total control over the ingredients, and given the late hour, I may forget to exclude some items with particularly nasty side-effects. Vomiting, diarrhea, indigestion, cold sweats—it's really amazing how easy it is to disrupt the gastrointestinal tract. Of course, I'm a good host. It's not like I have a grudge to either of you. Isn't that right, gentlemen?"
Sōun and Genma glanced at one another. "On second thought," said Genma, "perhaps a bit of a light workout would be good at this time of night."
Nodding, Sōun agreed. "That's right! I've always wanted to fight off an enemy horde before breakfast!"
The two fathers laughed together, looking as sick and unhappy with the decision as could be.
"Then we're off," said Akane, leading from the door. "Let's hurry!"
The others nodded in agreement, and the journey back to the Tendō home began.
I know this isn't what you want, Ranma, thought Akane. You probably meant for me to stay at Ukyō's restaurant and sit this one out, but that's your problem. You think—you insist—that you can do everything alone, that you can spare others from getting hurt if it means enough to you. You might be right, but it means you shoulder all the burden, all the risk. I choose to be here, Ranma, so you don't have to do that, and if you think I alone can't make that much of a difference, that's fine.
She looked to the others, who walked in step with her.
This time, it's not just me, and maybe, after this is all over, we can talk without barriers or divisions between us.
That hope Akane held in her heart, but with the growing cloud cover as they ventured back to the Tendō home, it grew a little fainter with each passing step.
From the roof of the Tendō home, Ranma saw it too—the darkening of the sky as the clouds thickened. This would not be clean and pleasant business. It would be messy. Those willing to fight had to be prepared to shower in blood and dirt, and for that, he was more than ready. With the house emptied but for him, the defector Kohl, and Shampoo, he had no misgivings about the battle to come.
Perched on the rooftop, sitting with his legs over the side, he looked out, watching and waiting. His mother, Akane, and her family were safe, and that was the most important thing. In that, Ryōga had proved surprisingly cooperative. He'd objected at first to Ranma's plot, but he too wanted to see Akane safe. Giving her a meaningful task, one worthy of her attention and care, appeased Ryōga's concerns, and indeed, it was a moving sight to see Akane so grateful, even as she was being sent away.
No matter. It was for the best that she was gone. He could devote his mind solely to the questions of the battle at hand. Would the Sorcerers approach from one direction and concentrate their forces, or would they prefer to surround the compound and attack from all sides? When they realized only the three of them were still present, would they send in overwhelming numbers to finish the job, or would they prefer a distant attack from safety outside? For all his doubts about Kohl, Ranma had to heed the traitor's advice. Ranma was the Sieve in the Sorcerers' eyes. That afforded him a certain level of protection, an unwillingness to maim him, but that benefit didn't extend to his allies. Indeed, the results of the first skirmish had told him that.
Grunting with effort, a lone girl pulled herself over the edge of the roof, nursing a wound to her side. Shampoo found her feet and stepped gingerly to Ranma's side, gazing over the horizon with him.
"Will be glorious for us," she said. "Shampoo not fail you, Airen. Is promise."
Ranma let out a sigh, shaking his head. On one level, he understood her dedication, her fervor. Had he lost to someone—a stranger, a nobody—he might seek them to the ends of the earth, too, and try to prove himself the better martial artist after all, but this girl who wished to fight for him had other motives. A stupid law compelled her to make him her husband, an obligation that was archaic and pointless in his eyes. Though he'd argued with her, though he'd been violent beyond what his own good sense told him to do, nothing he'd done had dissuaded the girl from pursuing him. He could start one of those arguments again, try to speak the truth as plainly and simply as he could, but would that do any good when an army would come for his home? Not a chance. To her pledge of warrior's honor, he said the only thing that made sense.
"Thanks, Shampoo. I appreciate it. Why don't you go check on Wuya? Make sure she's not doing anything sneaky."
Shampoo clapped her hands, beaming. "Right away!" she said, and she jumped from the rooftop to Akane's balcony with a definite spring in her step.
Sorry, thought Ranma. I ain't got a choice but to use you right now. Maybe someday you'll understand what I've been saying and come to terms with it. Being bound by some bullshit law is stupid. Can't you realize that, for your own sake?
Not that day she wouldn't, so for the moment, he would accept her strength, her warrior's prowess and wield it as if it were his own. It was the best thing to do, the smart thing to do, and if it led her on, well, that was the risk.
There's no point in trying to keep things simple later if you're dead now.
He pulled his legs back from the edge, sitting cross-legged on the roof. He closed his eyes to meditate—nay, to reach out, for like the Sorcerers, he'd begun to see without using his eyes, to hear without using his ears, to feel the waves and ripples of ki on his skin as surely as the wind. The Sorcerers relied on this magic, and he would use it as much as he wanted. He fought fire with fire, magic with magic, and ice with ice.
And when he sensed the Sorcerers massing on a cross-street, tip-toeing and holding their staves low, he smirked. For once, he was the one springing a trap on a foe, subjecting them to the panic and horror of an unexpected, deadly game. He curled his fingers in a circle, and in the open space, he formed a long, slender rod of ice. With one end sharpened to a tip, it grew into an icy javelin, with a notch in the middle for his hand so that it wouldn't slip. He pumped the weapon overhand a couple times, glanced down the road, and with one tremendous hurl, he let the javelin fly.
There was nothing to hear of the impact, but a single Sorcerer staff tumbled forward, into the spot of a streetlamp.
"Wuya, Shampoo!" called Ranma over the edge of the rooftop. "Up here, now!"
The Sorcerers scattered, a few staying on the street, others leaping to the tops of nearby houses. Others still went straight up, preferring to come at Ranma from above. With a magic-assisted jump, Kohl was at Ranma's side, and Shampoo followed just a step behind.
"What are you doing?" asked Kohl. "Attacking from a distance?"
"I'd rather pick them off and make them improvise," said Ranma, hurling another ice javelin through the air. "You see where they're coming from—the north, right? What do you think of that?"
Sparks coming off his hand, Kohl zapped three Sorcerers in a chain, but the trio continued down the road, shielding themselves in ice. A volley of fireballs zipped over Ranma's head and blasted the eaves, lighting small fires on the rooftop. Ranma touched his finger to the shingles, and a film of frost extinguished the embers wherever they burned. Nevertheless, Kohl looked to Ranma skeptically.
"Do you really think you can hold them off from this perch, Outsider? They will get inside the house. How will you keep them from Hibiki's belongings then?"
"Not your concern, Wuya."
"It is my concern!"
"Your concern should be keeping me protected," said Ranma, hurling another icy javelin down the road. "Beachballs and her goons will eventually make it up here, yes. When they get into the house, they'll search it up down and sideways before they find anything. That'll keep some of them busy while the rest try to take us out. It'll keep them divided. Right now, they can't get to us right away, so let's just keep chipping away at them until they do. This right here?" He tossed another javelin. "It's like picking off ducks with a shotgun. Nothing to it."
Kohl scowled. "That doesn't mean your attacks are any less lethal. Killing from a distance is still killing. You just don't feel the life come out of a man as you do it."
Ranma rolled his eyes, but when he checked the street below them once more, he muttered to himself with an entirely serious tone. "Really, Wuya, you don't think I know that…?"
With Kohl to intercept and block the Sorcerers' retaliatory attacks, Ranma kept up his ranged assault on the invading forces of Captain Liesun and her Guardsmen. Ice and wind proved Ranma's best protection, as he shielded his body in a rounded shell of frost that stuck to the roof, and Kohl shot down any incoming projectiles with pressurized bursts of wind.
Nevertheless, as Kohl had predicted, it was inevitable that the Guard would come over the walls to the Tendō compound to breach the house, but Ranma paid them no heed. When more Sorcerers came from above and landed on the rooftop, Shampoo was the first to greet them, and her pair of maces batted a Sorcerer off the roof, back to the street below. It was the perfect setup, really. Ranma could thin the Sorcerers' numbers from afar and distract them with a whole house full of belongings that was a total decoy. Kohl and Shampoo didn't need to know that—in fact, it was better that they didn't, so long as they did what they were told. Shampoo had her hands full defending the rooftop; she wouldn't ask questions. Kohl was beginning to doubt him, to question Ranma's plans, but it was better to keep the defector off-balance anyway. Akane trusted Kohl, but that didn't mean Ranma had to.
And really, all this makeshift plan had been conceived to do was buy time and ensure relative safety while reinforcements could arrive, and arrive they did. As the streets cleared of enemy Sorcerers, all of whom had begun to ransack the Tendō house, a shrill whistle pierced the night. From atop one of the compound walls, Cologne waved her walking stick at Ranma. With her stood Mousse, Surma, a handful of rebel Sorcerers, and another Amazon whom Ranma didn't yet recognize. Strange allies they would make—Cologne who'd tried for so long to make him marry Shampoo, along with Sorcerers who'd fought him not two weeks before—but Ranma welcomed them.
"Inside!" he called down to them. "You start at the bottom; we'll go from the top, got it?"
Cologne made no answer, but those around her made immediately for the front door. Kohl and Shampoo fought off the Sorcerers on the rooftop, with a blow from Kohl's staff sending a foe sliding and prying shingles away. Looks, not words, were all the communication the three of them needed, and Kohl and Shampoo followed Ranma over the side to Akane's balcony. Inside, two Sorcerers rifled through the bed and the closet, scattering a sundress and mattress material about the room.
Kohl cupped his hand, and a burst of compressed air shattered the glass door, firing shards at the Sorcerers like shot from a cannon. From that moment, the time for sniping at enemies from range was over, and Ranma felt familiar instincts take over. A string of snowflakes bound him to his foe, and from that, a column of ice crystallized and widened, impaling a Sorcerer and pinning him to the wall over the bed. Drops of blood stained the walls as the Sorcerer flailed futilely to free himself, but his breath expired faster than he could bash and claw at the ice.
What a mess, thought Ranma, watching the blood run down the wall. Sorry, Akane, but I don't think we'll have time to clean this up right now.
The second Sorcerer in the room backpedaled, fleeing out the door and freezing it over with ice, but that was hardly a barrier to Ranma, Kohl, or especially…
"Shampoo." Ranma jerked his head to toward the wall. "If you would."
Eagerly, Shampoo kicked through the solid wall, showering the escaping Sorcerer in wood and rubble. She dispatched of him easily, adding another victory to her name.
Ranma signalled to Kohl and Shampoo, having them follow his lead. Hallways were dangerous, for they negated superiority in firepower or numbers. Every match would be head-on, one-on-one, and though Ranma had tried to avoid direct combat before, the Sorcerers had come to him this time. He'd do what was necessary and feel no regrets for it.
He treated lightly over a discarded comb and mirror, past strewn undergarments and stockings. Nabiki's and Kasumi's bedrooms were fair game to these Sorcerers, too, and like with Akane's room, they'd made a royal mess violating the girls' belongings and privacy. It was an invasion.
And the only thing worse about it was the inevitable spilling of blood on the floor, the shattering of mirrors, the exposed wood and metal that stuck out when Kohl blasted a Sorcerer through an exterior wall, propelling him into the pond. The Sorcerers had turned the Tendō house into a warzone, but bedsheets could be cleaned. Clothes could be patched together or replaced. With just Kohl and Shampoo watching his back, Ranma felt no special urgency or danger. He dictated the terms of battle, and to him, the Sorcerers were little more than pawns on a chessboard for a rampaging queen.
I'd rather be a king, but the queen's the most powerful piece, so I guess we have to go with that.
The last Sorcerer in Kasumi's room collapsed as Ranma's ice-covered fist made contact with his cheek.
"Downstairs," Ranma ordered his two companions, and they barged back to the hall, wary and watchful as they reached the stair.
BOOM-BOOM! A fireball blasted the hallway wall, its searing flame singing Ranma's eyebrows as he shielded his face from the heat.
WHACK! A polished metal ball smashed the Sorcerer's knee. It bounded back on an elastic hemp rope and shot out again, coiling around the Sorcerer and wrapping him up. A quick blow to the head from Kohl's staff finished the last enemy off, and the owner of the ball on the string—Marula with her meteor hammer—stepped past the downed Sorcerer, bowing before Ranma with unintelligible words of Chinese.
"Ah…I remember you, I think," said Ranma. "Maple Syrup or something, right?"
"Not quite," said Cologne, who called to the four of them from the base of the staircase. "Come down, Ranma. The ground floor appears to be clear."
Descending the stair, Ranma saw the full extent of the damage. The main room was in no better shape than the upstairs bedrooms. The dinner table had split in two. The television screen had cracked, exposing the cathode-ray tube inside. Lighting was erratic, flickering even as Elder Surma tried to tighten the bulb.
And four corpses were strewn between there and the doors to the pond.
"The rest have fled, I should think," said Cologne, tapping a dead Sorcerer with her walking stick. "But we can only hope they haven't made off with the items they were after."
"They haven't," said Ranma, barely concealing his smirk. "The stuff wasn't here in the first place."
"Not here?" cried Kohl, incredulous. "What is the meaning of this, Outsider?"
"I had them smuggled out. You didn't really think I'd let them get into the whole house if the Hibiki family's precious box of useless trinkets were still here, did you?"
"Then where are they?"
"Not important. They're safe. That's all you need to know."
"I see," said Kohl, nodding. "You sent them away."
"That's right." Ranma looked around. "Where's the rope-maker? She didn't want to come play? I'm so disappointed I won't see her face."
"She didn't want to risk herself in battle," said one of the rebels. "She sent us in her stead."
Ranma rolled his eyes. "Ah, the deeds of cowards. Come on, let's make sure the coast is clear. We don't want to let those guys get away."
The combined forces of Amazons, rebel Sorcerers, Kohl, and Ranma split up to scour the surrounding area, watching from the tops of the compound walls to walking the streets, looking for hidden threats. By the groups's best count, there were fifteen dead Sorcerers—three on the street outside the gate, from when Shampoo disrupted their sneak attack; three more further down the road that Ranma had killed from afar; the rest had died within the house or near it. For all their efforts, one of the rebels had taken a chunk of wood to the gut, but in whole, the trap had worked as Ranma planned it. The Sorcerers didn't know the house like he did, nor how to fight in a confined space when they hoped uncover something and confirm its destruction. The battle had been a victory on all counts, but as Ranma circled the house one last time, something nagged at him.
Fifteen Sorcerers was a harsh blow. The Guard wouldn't lightly absorb it—their numbers were small—but where was their captain?
Ranma asked around for Kohl, and hearing that the defector had returned to his makeshift abode to search for any lingering survivors, Ranma headed to the dojo.
He found the former captain wandering the interior of the dojo unsteadily. Kohl staggered to a wall, bracing himself, and two fingers to a bloody nostril.
"Hey," said Ranma. "What the hell happened to you?"
"I'm not well, Outsider," Kohl grunted. "There's a great buildup of magic here, in the earth around us. It's disorienting. It nearly overwhelmed me."
"And so you did what—ran into a door?"
"It was not a door; it was a wall."
Ranma sighed in frustration. This time, Kohl was just uncultured enough that he might not appreciate the significance of what he'd said. "Forget it; I'm not interested in your clumsiness. Tell me what Liesun is trying to do. She ain't here. Does that make sense to you?"
"No…" Feeling for the wall, Kohl lowered himself to the floor, sitting with his palms against his forehead as if to cushion himself against a massive headache. He his eyes were bloodshot and red, and he soon closed them tightly, grimacing and holding his breath.
"Look, I don't care about your magic migraines. Is everyone in the Guard other than you so cowardly that they won't walk into battle with the men they lead?"
"You tricked her once before," said Kohl weakly. "Liesun would want to know where the objects are before committing her forces fully again."
"So what then? They're going to come back?"
A breeze picked up, whipping through the dojo—gently at first, then increasing to a roar. Ranma poked his head out the doors, studying the night sky. The clouds had darkened, swelling with moisture, but over the Tendō home, the formation morphed and twisted. It dipped downward, curling into a gray funnel.
"Come on, Wuya," Ranma called back. "I think we ought to go."
"Hey, come on, moron!" Ranma snatched Kohl's wrist and dragged the former captain out of the dojo. The whipping wind roared, unrelenting, and as Ranma and Kohl jumped over the estate wall, the twister ripped tiles from the rooftop.
Though the first raindrops of the evening fell, Akane let the water seep into her nightgown, for the earth-shaking rumble of the tornado demanded all her attention. The party of five had ventured from Ucchan's Okonomiyaki, but when the winds picked up, they halted in their tracks and took cover. Perhaps they were safer out in the open than in a building that could splinter and fracture around them, but in the din of the storm, standing on an empty street surely didn't feel safer. The Tendō house was but a block away, and despite the battle that they believed to be taking place there, Ryōga suggested they press on.
"It can't be worse going into a fight than sitting here!" he reasoned, taking cover under his heavy umbrella and shouting over the tornado's roar. "We'll get picked up and thrown around like frogs from a pond at this rate!"
Ukyō pointed at the storm with a throwing spatula. "Use your eyes, Ryōga! Where do you think that tornado is hitting?"
"My house!" cried Sōun. "My beautiful house! It's been in my family for fifteen generations!"
Genma raised an eyebrow. "I thought you won it from a Public Works official in a card game."
"Well, it's been in someone's family for fifteen generations!"
Akane looked on the scene of destruction in horror. Even as far away as they were, pieces of wood and plaster rained from the sky, clattering on the street. If that was the level of mayhem happening around them, what was Ranma going through?
"We have to go," said Akane. "They could still be fighting right now!"
"Where?" Ukyō put an arm over her face, looking into the wind. "Even Sorcerers aren't stupid enough to put a tornado right on top of where they're fighting. They must be trying to soften Ranchan up, to keep him busy—but as long as that tornado is there, there's no fighting at the house. They're out here somewhere. Stay put. I'll go find Ranchan and let him know we've arrived."
"You're going by yourself?" asked Ryōga.
"You're glued to Akane-chan," she reasoned, "and these old fools aren't too keen on walking into a windstorm, are they?"
Handing over her battle spatula to Ryōga, lest it act like a sail in the wind, Ukyō jogged down the road, into the swirling storm.
"Akane-san." Ryōga motioned to her from around the corner of the cross-street, shielded from the wind. "Come back this way; it's better if we're not seen until we know what the situation is."
Better for their safety, perhaps, but not for Ranma's. Akane saw clearly the damage further battle had done. Down the road, icy spears stuck in the bodies of dead Sorcerers. Surely that was Ranma's doing. He'd killed because it was necessary; he had the courage to do so when, on occasion, Akane might waver instead, but Ranma hadn't wanted her around. Part of that was to protect her, yes, but was the carnage something he wanted to shield her from, too?
Well that was a silly thought. It wasn't like Akane hadn't seen her share of fighting or of Ranma himself in the heat of battle. For all any of them knew, Ranma and the Sorcerers were fighting as the rest of them stood around staring dumbly at the tornado.
Though the wind stung her eyes, Akane looked closely at her surroundings. She trotted further into the street. She squinted, scanning the rooftops.
I can't stay back, cowering behind cover just because it's the best thing for me.
The rain intensified, from scattered droplets to a definite shower, but Akane kept searching, for she followed her gut instincts. If they were trying to flush Ranma out, they'd hold still until the tornado abated, and there was nothing to worry about, but if they were trying to distract and delay him instead, they would be going somewhere, and there was one place they absolutely couldn't allow the Sorcerers to go. Akane turned back, running through the rain toward Ukyō's restaurant, but truly, in such a tumult of sights and sounds—rain falling in the dark, a tornado shredding the only home she'd ever known—she had little chance of finding anyone. She couldn't feel waves and ripples of ki.
To catch even a trace of Sorcerers, she'd need help.
THUD! A single Sorcerer slipped on a slick rooftop and fell, shedding singles from a neighbor's home. His companions stopped briefly to pick him up and jump the roofs once more.
Akane pointed. "Ryōga-kun, there! After them!"
Under his heavy red umbrella, Hibiki Ryōga looked back at her, horrified. He put a hand out from the cover of his umbrella, feeling the rain. "You—you—you want me to do what?"
The Sorcerers jumped another roof, fading behind the ever-thickening curtain of rain.
"Never mind!" she told Ryōga. "Go back to my father and Uncle; I'll handle this!"
She dashed down the sidewalk, fighting the rainwater that splashed into her eyes. She ran around lampposts, hoping not to make herself visible to the Sorcerers above. All she needed to reach them was a few stepping stones—a wall that she could jump atop, a shed with an angled roof to give her a boost in height. Until then, she kept up with her foes. The Sorcerers moved together, jumping from roof to roof with inhuman grace. No doubt their magic allowed them to float like swans. Why they didn't want to fly out of Akane's reach she couldn't know. Did it save their energy? Did they not want to be buffeted and blown around by the natural winds of the storm? In the end, Akane counted herself lucky either way. Normally, she was a distance runner, but for this, she drew upon every last drop of energy she could muster. The Sorcerers were limited by the speed of their slowest member; she wasn't. That's what gave her the chance, however slim, to catch up to them. All she had to do was keep them in her sights, catch up one step at a time, and then keep pace until she found an opportunity.
And opportunity came. At last she outpaced them, and she leapfrogged from a set of tall plastic trash bins to a neighbor's balcony to the roof proper. With the narrow peak at the top, she had to grab and hold to steady herself. She slipped, banging a knee, but her grip on the rooftop held.
The Sorcerers heard her clamoring. They paused momentarily to understand the source of the noise, and then they took off with greater urgency. They hadn't flown before, but the contingent of Sorcerers soared from the rooftop one by one, the force of their takeoffs pushing back the rain, but in their confusion, one Sorcerer leapt from the rooftop a hair later than the others, and Akane knew that was her only chance. After the last Sorcerer's dangling legs and feet Akane jumped. She stretched her arms and reached blindly into the rain and the night, hoping to catch even a thread of the Sorcerer's pantleg.
Come on, just a little further; come on!
She expected to get a fleeting piece of damp cloth; she got a whole foot instead. Like a wounded bird, the Sorcerer fell, Akane weighing him down. They crashed into the rooftop and tumbled back to the earth, to a sand garden that had turned caked and sticky in the storm. Wiping her face clean, Akane scrambled to her feet.
And a sharp, stabbing jolt went through her ankle. She let out a sudden groan and worked lamely to her feet. A household flood light came on—no doubt as the owners wondered what had just crashed into their home—and Akane shaded her eyes, assessing the situation. The Sorcerer she'd gone down with had fared little better. Stunned and confused, he crawled on all fours, his movements aimless and undirected.
The movements of his Sorcerer Guard brethren, however, were anything but aimless. They descended around their fallen comrade, helping him to his feet. The leader—the girl with dark hair and a tremendous chest—marched up to Akane with a furious gaze and narrowed eyes.
"You're lucky you're the Sieve's beloved, or I would kill you where you stand,"
Akane's first slammed against the captain's cheekbone, and though her blow had been weakened due to one lame foot, the new captain staggered and backpedaled all the same.
That's right. It doesn't matter what you do to me; I've already stopped you. One little girl stopped all of you, even if it's only for a minute.
Captain Liesun's men drew their staves, but she raised a hand to stay their weapons.
"That doesn't mean I won't cause you pain." The captain cupped her hand, and—
PAM! A sphere of pressurized air blasted Akane backward. She careened through a surrounding wall and into the street. Her skin scraped against the asphalt. Her nightgown caught and tore. The dense air pushed painfully on her eardrums and enveloped the whole world in naught but a high-pitched ring. She saw raindrops but couldn't hear them, and there was a faint, distant cry.
Bold and furious, Ryōga came after Akane's attackers, balancing his umbrella delicately to hold off the rain, but the Sorcerers were ready for him. Together, they channeled a great fireball and hurled it at their foe, and though Ryōga easily dodged it, the blast when it hit ground and exploded was more difficult to expect. The umbrella slipped from his hands; the light was a blinding contrast against the darkness. It bored through Akane's pupils and made her shut her eyes to keep it out, and when all was told, nothing remained of Ryōga that she could see except his clothes.
But there were others still behind him. "How dare you treat my daughter that way!" cried Sōun, and he laid into the nearest Sorcerer with a dropkick from above. His partner, Saotome Genma in panda form, chose to be far less acrobatic, rampaging through the yard like a wrecking ball. The Sorcerers fought back with wind and lightning, but they weren't the only ones to wield the elements. Rebel Sorcerers joined the fray, fighting their old comrades. As she lay on the street, cradling her scuffed flesh, Akane thought she heard a rabid duck flying over the fray as it pelted the Sorcerers with knives, their metal glinting in the light.
Akane sat upright and examined her wounds. Her arms had taken most of the impact on the street, so the skin just before her elbows had been rubbed raw and bloodied. Her ankle still throbbing, it was all she could do to stand and drag one leg as dead weight. She had to get to safety if she couldn't fight—and as much as it stung her pride to admit it, she'd done all she could do for that evening. With phantom ringing in her ears overwhelming her, she staggered away from the battle, making for the opposite side of the street, but a firm hand grasped her shoulder, and a jolt of adrenaline came back to her, dulling her pain, sharpening her senses just enough to hear clearly. She turned to face the foe—
And found her fiancé, Saotome Ranma, instead.
He was a girl at the time, already dripping with rainwater. He struck a defensive stance, likely startled from her sudden movement, but his palms were out, facing her, and held up to calm her down.
"Easy," he said. "Easy now."
Akane relaxed, and indeed, with the burst of energy fading quickly, her legs buckled, and she collapsed in Ranma's arms.
He grabbed an arm to steady her, but his hand touched her scrapes, and she cringed.
"The hell…?" He turned her arm over, seeing the wounds for the first time. "You look like you've been through a meat grinder."
Akane laughed weakly. That wasn't far from the truth.
"Geez, why couldn't you have just stayed at Ucchan's?"
"There was no way," said Akane. "There was no way I could leave you to fight them. Even if I could only do something small, no matter how much it hurt…"
Ranma's expression darkened. He looked to the battle under the floodlight while a booming explosion kicked up sand and dirt. "How?" he asked her, beginning to tremble. "Which one of them did this to you?"
A twinge struck Akane's stomach. That was a familiar question. Ranma had asked it before. The intensity of his gaze, even when it wasn't on her—how he shook just to see her wounded—it was just like the way he'd acted when they'd met inside Mount Phoenix. Even then, as he held her on that rainy street, he was thinking about who to take out his anger on, who to punish for her injuries, and it wasn't any kind of objective, reasoned thought.
He needed to exact revenge, for it wounded him to see her hurt and suffering, and he knew not what else to do. This Akane realized as Ranma held her, trembling with rage and anxiety and fear, and she knew then, in that instant, the best way to answer his questions.
This Ranma didn't expect, for his eyes snapped back, onto her, and she shook her lightly, as if to wake her up. "Hey, I'm talking to you; stay with me. Who did this?"
She shook her head. "This isn't for me, Ranma. Go out there. Do what you came to do, but not only for my sake."
His mouth opened slightly, and he blinked, at loss. "How can you say that?"
"Because I know now what I'm doing to you," she said. "Just by being here. I'm trying to change that, and I know you are, too. For right now, we have to keep fighting to make ourselves into the people we want to be. I know going out and getting revenge every time I scrape a knee isn't what you look forward to. That's not who you want to be."
He stared her, digesting what she'd said. He looked to the floodlight and back again. "You gonna be okay?"
Akane nodded solemnly.
"All right." He glanced down, at his chest, and touched his lips, feeling the water between his finger and thumb. Nodding, he put her down, on the sidewalk, made two fists, and marched across the road.
Limping, Akane followed him to bear witness to his response. Indeed, though the battle raged around him, manifest in brilliant sparks and dashes of flame, Ranma walked through it calmly, like a young lady on a midnight stroll.
Sorcerer staves parried one another as their users—both Guardsmen and rebels alike—shed bubbles of waterproof soap.
The panda stopped chewing on a staff, and the sounds of battle ceased. Only then could they assess the damage battle had done. One more Sorcerer had been sidelined, cradling his knee. Elder Surma breathed heavily, and even Cologne had had blood drawn from her, for she nursed a cut on her cheek.
"Beachballs, over here," said Ranma, wagging a finger at Captain Liesun. "Look, you've got two guys wounded; you're not getting what you came for here. This is the only chance I'll give you. Go home to Sindoor and tell her you failed because you were too enamored with your own rack to think like a real leader—like Wuya, say."
Ranma pointed out the former captain, who—lacking soap—stood as the more imposing yet powerless Kohl.
"On second thought, maybe she's not the best example," he went on. "But if you know what's good for you, you'll scram. You've got too many wounded. Dead men can't fight another day."
"If the Lady demands it of us, we will gladly stake our lives on our task," said Liesun. "We are not defeated yet."
Ranma sighed, shaking his head. "Hey, Akane? How's that? Good enough?"
Akane stepped into the light, nodding, but she didn't say a word.
"Dandy," said Ranma, wiggling his fingers. "In that case…"
A string of snowflakes tethered him and the captain.
PAM! A pressure wave kicked up sand, propelling Ranma backward, into the air. He flipped end-over-end but stuck a landing on a wall separating the house they were fighting outside of from the street.
"All right," he said, "take two then." He held his arm up, the point of his elbow shielding his face, and a conical sheet of ice formed before him. Leading with the point of the cone, he leapt forward like a missile.
PAM-PAM! Bolts of pressure blasted Ranma's improvised shield, yet though the ice cracked, the cone as a whole held, and only when panic flashed in Liesun's eyes did Ranma dare lower it to deliver his strike.
And deliver it he did, with all the momentum of a knight on his prized steed.
A column of ice stuck through Liesun's gut. Ranma's speed carried him further, and he bowled Liesun over, the both of them tumbling in the sand. Ranma rose right away, but for Liesun, the process was slower. With the diameter of a fifty-yen piece, the spike hadn't been instantly lethal, but its size and weight would deter any attempt to fight with it. The spike stuck halfway through her body, dispelling any notion of taking it out on the spot.
As Liesun flailed, Ranma addressed the rest of her Sorcerers—what few were left of them. "Now you've got three men down. Do yourselves a favor. Sindoor doesn't want to have to train a new captain. Actually, I don't want to see a new one either. I prefer fighting the idiot I know over someone I don't, so I won't be terribly sad to see Beachballs permanently deflated here. Your choice, then, is to decide who you want to piss off—me and Sindoor, or neither of us. You decide. You want to see her live? Or will I go home having taken fifty of you instead of forty-nine?"
Wisely, the remaining Sorcerers retreated, carrying Liesun and the other two wounded on their backs as they flew.
And Ranma, for his part, opened and closed his fist several times, letting out labored breath.
The Sorcerers made no more attacks that night, and in the morning, the first order of business was finishing the analysis of Hibiki's souvenirs. Though his travels were many and varied, from Hokkaidō to Okinawa in the south, one location cropped up in his gifts for home more than any other:
Xining, the capital of Qinghai Province in China, but why Hibiki would've visited that place no one, not even Ryōga, could say.
While Cologne and the Amazons made arrangements for an expanded party to visit the mainland, the Tendō and Saotome families scoured the wreckage of the house and dojo for traces of their belongings. Though Ranma, Genma, and Nodoka had few belongings of consequence, the Tendō clan felt the loss much more keenly. For Akane, it meant photos of her mother utterly shredded in the wind or damaged in the rain. Clothes were of no consequence to her; they could be replaced, but the loss of treasured mementos was a permanent, indelible wound. The koi pond had drained, with only a few centimeters of water left after the tornado had emptied it. Pots and pans lay bent and twisted and scattered across the whole block. It was the only home Akane had ever known, and though Nodoka had offered to put up both families in her rebuilt home, the Saotome residence could be called cozy only in the most polite sense, and the cramped feelings from that arrangement would no doubt act as a constant reminder of the home that had gone.
This was the damage the Sorcerers had done, and though the home and dojo would be rebuilt, it wasn't enough. With every piece of rubble, of splintered wood and crumbling plaster, Akane vowed not to let the Sorcerers do such a thing again. What she'd endured—what her family had endured—was too much to ask of anyone, even if it only through inaction.
As for Ranma, he supported her vow completely and helped pick through the ruins of the Tendō home for precious objects, jewelry, and supplies. For that, Akane felt relief. After the battle, Ranma hadn't dwelt on the Sorcerers he'd killed or Akane's wounds. Truly, Ranma had controlled himself that day, but Akane realized his struggle. How much had he wanted to kill Liesun on the spot for what she'd done? If Akane hadn't helped him realize it, would he have been able to resist the temptation, the unstable emotions frothing within him?
Fifty. That's what Liesun would've been to him—just a number. Ranma had made it sound like he took pride in it, but that wasn't so. Even over the bodies of dead Sorcerers, he'd shaken his head silently, pitying them, trying to comprehend the senselessness of their deaths. The lives he'd been forced to take had affected him more than he could know, more than Akane had realized before that day.
And worrying about her well-being wasn't doing him any favors. How deathly afraid he must've been to keep her away from Ryōga's home for no other reason than Sorcerers no one could've expected. Sending her away with the Hibiki souvenirs served to protect her as much as give her something meaningful to do, but there would always be danger involved when Sorcerers were near. More than once she'd fought Sorcerers and come out battered, beaten, and bruised for it. She'd resolved to change that, but she knew it wouldn't happen overnight, which meant Ranma would still worry over her. Nevertheless, she knew one thing—the closer they stood, the more painful it would be to see the other in danger.
As storm clouds brewed once again the next day, the Tendō and Saotome families decided to leave the rubble of the Tendō home, having recovered as much as they could. With imminent preparations to go to China, further efforts would have to wait. Under a precession of umbrellas, the families headed to Nodoka's small home, newly rebuilt and waiting for them. Ranma and Akane walked together under a single parasol to bring up the rear. It was Akane who held the umbrella, and her pace slowed to distance them from the others.
"What's wrong?" asked Ranma. "Getting tired?"
She shook her head and looked away to muster the nerve. "It's not that. Ranma, I think we should stop."
"Us, for a little while." She held up one arm, showing the scabs and discolored skin of her scrape with the asphalt. "It really gets to you. I can see it. When you realized I was hurt, the look in your eyes was like when you saved me from Shampoo. You were ready to kill someone for it."
"I wouldn't have—"
Akane shot him a look, and he averted his gaze, unable to defend the thought. He pressed his lips together grimly, and in a lower, more serious tone, he continued.
"It's like getting stabbed in the heart with a knife, over and over," he said. "Even a simple scratch on your face, the way you have to wince when you touch a wound—some of it is because it takes me back to Saffron, yeah, but I think the rest of it is all me. I don't know why, but that's the way it is."
Akane nodded. "That's why I think we should take a break. Until I can make sure I'm not in those situations anymore, until you can find a way so it doesn't trouble so much if I do end up in one—it seems like the only thing to do."
"Yeah, I guess that's the smart thing to do," he agreed, eyes still looking to the rain.
"I'm glad. I'm really glad about that because, honestly? You're my closest friend now, Ranma. What's happened over the last month, between Saffron and the Sorcerers—it's something we share that not many people would understand. Ryōga-kun's a part of it, sure, but in a different way. I don't want anything to damage our friendship."
"Me neither," said Ranma, his brow creasing.
"Good." Akane stopped before the path from the street to the Saotome home. "We can go back to the way we always were—ah, I mean, better than that, since we understand each other a little better now. And besides, we won't have time for dates or anything like that while in China, so it only makes sense."
Ranma's eyes locked with hers. He closed his hand around the umbrella handle, touching her fingers, too. "But is that what you want?"
"What I want?" Akane flushed. "No, but we should do the best thing—"
"Forget that," said Ranma. "You figured something out today, right? That whatever we're going towards, it's painful and tough. You're right about that. You're absolutely right, but what I've known, I've known for a long time—that I don't want to have to bank on a miracle of a third chance if I lose you again."
"You're not going to lose me, Ranma."
He tapped his temple. "I know that up here, but I think the only way I'm going to really convince myself of it is if I have no regrets." With his free hand, he reached out to her, brushing a lock of hair from her face. "Really, Akane. You mean the world to me. I'm not going to chicken out and pretend it ain't so."
Ranma's hand moved lightly to the back of her head, and against her better judgment, against the reasons she'd so carefully thought out, Akane allowed him to pull her closer. She shut her eyes, their lips touched, and when it was over, Akane put all those meticulously justified ideas out of her mind. To go back from the precipice after having seen bottom would be to deny oneself the panic, the thrill, the anxiety, the pure rush of emotions one felt when parachuting from the top. Perhaps it was false confidence, but as she and Ranma walked inside, hand in hand, Akane believed all her worries from the day before to be hasty—the wayward thoughts of a girl afraid to love. With Ranma at her side that afternoon, she feared nothing and thought all obstacles surmountable in time.
But what she failed to notice was an obstacle just down the road. At the corner of a nearby street, a visitor with a steaming pot in one hand and an umbrella in the other witnessed this display, and she stormed off as soon as it was done, careful to keep the battle spatula on her back in place. She went instead to a small restaurant—not her own, but a competitor's of sorts, though with a notice that it would close temporarily while the owners were out of town. Inside the Cat Café, the tables were largely empty. Cologne held a corded phone to her ear, bickering with the person on the other end in Chinese, but her great-granddaughter sat in a booth and had a pleasant cup of tea. Hibiki Ryōga gladly shared in her refreshment, and they talked in low whispers, only just looking up as Ukyō arrived.
"They were kissing," the okonomiyakki chef announced, laying her steaming pot to rest on an adjacent table. "Ranchan and Akane-chan—in the open, for everyone to see."
Ryōga looked appalled, but Shampoo sat back, determination on her face. "Is not unexpected," she said. "That what lovers do, after all—even ones whose love is meant to fail."
Fighting down the sick feeling in her stomach, Ukyō motioned for Ryōga to scoot over and sat across from Shampoo in the booth. "And just how would you do that? How would you make them see it won't work, I mean?"
"That what Ryōga and I just discuss right now." Shampoo slid an empty up Ukyō's way and fingered the handle of a tea kettle. "Perhaps the three of us would do better?"
"You're not killing her," said Ukyō, "or doing anything that's too violent. I expect Ryōga's holding you to that much."
"I wouldn't be here if I weren't," he said. "And if what you say is true, this may be the only way."
Shampoo set up to pour Ukyō's drink, and only with a reluctant nod from the chef did the Amazon fill the porcelain cup to the brim with hot jasmine tea. "Then it decided," said Shampoo. "The three of us join together to keep Ranma and Akane apart. We do all that the group find…reasonable to make them see how bad for each other they are."
Eying a small trace of leaf matter in her tea, Ukyō took the cup, pondering the significance of the deed. Ryōga looked solemn and stern, but Shampoo bore a wide grin, watching eagerly as Ukyō raised the tea to her lips.
I'm not as desperate as her, am I? It's reasonable, isn't it, to recognize this may be the only chance I have left?
Not know the answers to her own questions, Ukyō downed every last drop of the tea and silently bore the burn of the hot fluid as it made its way down her throat. Though Shampoo wanted it to mean commitment to the task, Ukyō considered it her own resolution—to keep the dangerous Amazon in front of her restrained, for some of that girl's need rested in her own heart, too, and Ukyō couldn't afford to be blind to it.
"So it is," said Shampoo. "The three of us work together from now on. Tomorrow, we go to China."
"And after that?" asked Ukyō.
"After that," said the Amazon, "we break Ranma and Akane up for good."
Her tea finished, Ukyō set the porcelain cup on the table, and it clinked on the plastic covering with the finality of a judge's gavel.
And so, the denizens of Nerima ward set out on new paths—some hoping to explore joy, others trying desperately to reclaim it. For all, however, these journeys consisted of continual struggles.
For Ukyō, it was the precarious balance between seeking her heart's desires and living with what she'd need to do to claim it, between becoming the good chef her father wanted her to be and the wife she thought she could make herself into for Ranma.
For Shampoo, it was the need to find satisfaction, to do worthy deeds, even when her tribe and beloved had turned their backs on her.
For Kohl, the duty to serve stranded him from the only home he'd ever known, and thus he found himself in a world foreign and alien—intriguing, yet nothing he could imagine partaking of. He stood alone as a representative of his people, surrounded by temptation and holding fast against it, at least for a time.
For Akane, the only way she could be happy to was to show trust—even when that trust might not be returned. Only by suppressing her insecurities could she preserve the fledgling relationship she'd built, and in moments of indecision and worry, that was no easy task.
Finally, Ranma faced the steepest path of all. Few men know the security of someone who can accept their darkest thoughts and impulses. Fewer still are brave enough to reveal them. In truth, there is no perfect lover, no absolute and unconditional counselor to take in these volatile feelings, but people do the best they can. The challenge for Ranma was to admit those drives he feared to someone else and to become comfortable doing so. Though he faced his inner demons on that rain-soaked night, the war against these drives is everlasting. The temptation to close in and hide our vulnerabilities is an instinct we all share.
That's why, even in Japan, there could be no place of sanctuary, whether from the Sorcerers or—most of all—from the weaknesses that lie within our hearts.
Identity 08 End
With the conclusion of this chapter, I have an announcement to make. Returning to this piece has been a fantastic experience, and I feel I've learned much over the last three years of working on it. In fact, I've learned enough to realize that the piece as a whole could benefit from a significant facelift. To that end, I am rewriting Identity in the hopes of making the reading experience and quality more uniform, to make this story everything it can be.
To my readers, thank you, and I hope the new version of this story will be an even better read.
June 20, 2012
Further information on the Identity rewrite is available at westofarcturus dot blogspot dot com