Oyu no Ranma

~~~~~Chapter 21: The Fundamental Scales~~~~~

~~~~~#~~~~~

It is nighttime, and the air is cold and wet near Jusenkyo. It's eerily quiet save for the trudging of Prince Herb's two burly companions, Mint and Lime. Prince Herb himself makes little noise on the discarded needles and leaves of the forest floor, and Grandmother Shiratori, known in this place as the master elder Sage, is riding on Mint's back. Lime carries a large cage in his arms. Inside the cage, a monkey sits, wide-eyed and nervous. The monkey was chittering earlier, but the creature is silent now. Most creatures know to avoid this place. Only the desperate go here. The desperate and foolhardy.

And which are you? Here you are, riding Sage's mind as surely as she rides Mint's back. And what do you hope to accomplish here? Is anything you do here going to bring Kirika back? Will it bring back your husband? So weak, so giving… You only barely loved him, but in his quiet, unassuming way he changed your life. He changed Oka Kosuke's life, and yours...and now he's dead. Killed by a rat cursed into the body of a headstrong teenaged girl. And you played a role in that, didn't you? You set these dominoes up to fall. Desperate or foolhardy?

Why not both?

"Is this really completely necessary, Grandmother?" Herb asks. "I'm still young. And I will live longer than most. Surely we can wait a few years at least."

Sage doesn't think like a human. Her thoughts are cold blooded, slower at first, and then too quick to catch. She has emotions, but they squirm away from scrutiny. Like shadows under torchlight. She is your ally, but only for now. She could defeat you with much greater ease than that girl Ranma could muster. But she doesn't. As near as you can tell, it's because all of this amuses her.

"It must be tonight," Sage lies. "We must ensure a proper heir." Of course Sage already has an heir. Shiratori Azusa. But it's true that the girl isn't exactly "proper." You wonder what became of the egg you stole from her. Will Ranma find it and use it? Will it just be lost forever? How is Nabiki doing? It's such a shame. If you...no...if Oka Kosuke and Kirika had ever had a child together, it would have probably been a lot like Nabiki. She has been your ally even though she hasn't realized it. But would she see you as such? No. She would kill you, given the chance. It's almost a pity you can't really die.

You have a choice coming up. You could let it all go. You could go to the Amazon village. You could hug your son daughter. You could live another life.

"If you say so, honored master elder, but I would prefer the monkey stay a monkey. Better than some insipid girl."

The haughty little Prince makes it difficult though, doesn't he?

Sage cackles. "I am a woman, am I not interesting?"

Herb snorts. "You're an exception I suppose, Grandmother, but I would still prefer you as a dragon."

"Soon this body will die, and I will be only my true self. You will have your wish, my dear, but if you ask me, I will be more boring, not less." Sage turns herself around on Mint's neck so she hangs upside down by her legs. You can feel her arthritic joints creak under the strain. You get the impression she seeks out pain now. Like a child wiggling a loose tooth. She rights herself. There is a sharp pain in her chest. Did she just break a rib?

Herb and his company have reached the springs now. Through spirit vision you can see your brethren glowing expectantly. So much potential. Herb, Mint, and Lime could all be victims tonight. You and Sage have your plan, but Jusenkyo has a way of subverting plans.

Sage jumps off Mint's back and Lime unlocks the monkey's cage. Sage grabs the monkey by the neck in a swift movement. The creature chitters angrily and flails against the old woman's limbs. Red scratches soon appear on her arms, but she doesn't release her grip. She goes directly to your spring. The spring of Nyannichuan. She is unaffected by the water, cursed as she is already. She holds the monkey under the surface.

The monkey is a more intelligent creature than many, but still it is fairly simple. Its life until now has been one of basic pleasures and fears. It never once during its life wondered why it should go on living. It never questioned whether what it did was right or wrong. On the other hand, never did it really know love. Affection yes. A sort of proto-love. It was capable of a tinge of empathy, but it never wept for joy or sorrow. It has no idea what to do with human thoughts and emotions. Left on it's own, the newly made girl would eventually figure out how to live her new life. But out of her depth as she is, she is all too happy to let you take over.

You rise from your spring, and you smile down at Sage, who smiles back. You walk out of the spring, your feet slipping a bit on the wet stone.

Herb readies the Chisuiton, as you approach. He flings the water at you and you let it hit you without flinching. You also don't stop, but rush forward. You wrest the ladle from Herb's startled hands. You run back to your spring and you toss the ladle to Sage.

Herb, idiot that he is, has followed you in pursuit. You run back toward Nyannichuan. You pause, waiting for just the right moment. Herb lunges at you with all the circumspection of a stampeding bull, and, of course, you dodge, and he splashes into the water. Herb's body softens, shrinks, expands. Sage, in a move practiced over months and years, dips the ladle into the water and flings it at him. It arcs beautifully in the moonlight before splashing exuberantly against Herb's newly expanded chest.

And now here is your choice. Herb's will is strong. Much stronger than the monkey's. Likely stronger than even Ranma's. It will take all your concentration to subdue him

You start to try, but your heart, or whatever passes for a heart for a being such as you, is not in it. You go back to the monkey girl's body. You snatch the ladle from Sage and run into the forest. Toward the village of Nyuchezu. Toward your child. You saw your new body through Herb's eyes, though, and it disturbs you. You're pretty sure your skin is darker, and your hair is brown with shocks of white. Still, you could be Ranma's sister.

Trying to take your mind off what this implies, you try to focus on other things. You wonder how long it will take Shiratori Sage to get what she wants. She is a patient creature. She waited this long for an heir, but her human body is dying and with it her ability to manipulate people directly. You wonder if Herb has any idea what's in store for her. You wonder if the prince turned princess even knows that dragons are hermaphroditic...and not beyond a little incest.

~~~~~Ranma~~~~~

Her eyes snap open and she's disoriented for a while. "Where?" She swallows. She...swallowed.

It was a dream. Ranma took a breath. She wasn't in Jusenkyo anymore. It was just a dream. But what did it mean? The ladle lady? The prince? A ladle that locked curses? And in the dream she had a child? She shook her head free of the images. Maybe it meant something, Maybe it was just her subconscious trying to make sense of the craziness of her life lately. It wasn't important now though.

The young woman laying in the bed in front of her was. Kasumi Tendo. She was a sort of enemy once. But that was before Ranma knew what she was fighting. She had even seemed evil for a time. But that was before Ranma had come to terms with her own darkness. She felt it within her still, a seething, spiky, acid ball of hate. Something she hadn't let her boy self feel. Something she had protected him from. And now he was dead. And maybe he had protected her in turn somehow. Keeping it from him gave her suffering purpose and now... Now she wasn't sure what to do with it. It was a massive tangle of barbed wire, but at the center of it all was her heart. And that was something she missed. Something she needed.

"You're up. Good. You can take over." Tofu stood beside Ranma. He handed her a cup of something hot. "It's coffee. Don't spit it out. You'll need the caffeine."

Ranma felt a flash of anger. She raised her hand, glowing claws almost touching Tofu's arm. He had given her an order. He was trying to tell her what to do! Who she should be!...

Then she blinked and calmed herself. She nodded and sat up, taking the cup and sipping from it gingerly.

"The doctors say she'll pull through. But they like to lie a lot." Tofu leaned against the door frame. "I should know." He smiled, but then immediately let his expression fall into stony seriousness again. "Akane came by."

Ranma tried not to tense up too much.

"I tried to wake you then, but you were completely out of it. I tried shaking you, but you just mumbled something in Mandarin and kept sleeping."

"Mandarin?" Ranma asked.

"Yes. You must have spent a long time in China. I didn't realize you were fluent."

"I worked in a restaurant in China. I picked it up pretty fast. But…" It was strange, she remembered speaking Mandarin numerous times in China, but never as a boy. It was almost as if she just assumed she didn't know it when she was male. "I lost part of myself recently. The part that was a boy. I don't think he knew Mandarin."

Tofu nodded slowly. "Or, you're a spirit of Jusenkyo using Ranma's body like a puppet. I can't really be sure. I'm not sure it matters."

"No, that was...Kasumi took care of that! I…" Ranma looked down into the brown coffee in her hand. "Maybe it doesn't matter." Ranma took another sip of the bitter beverage.

Tofu sighed. "She's going to make it. She's not a normal girl. If she was a normal girl she would have been in trouble. Ruptured spleen, broken ribs, internal bleeding...but she's using her ki to heal herself. She'll probably be fine in a few hours." Tofu let out a long breath. "I love her, Ranma. Even with what she did. With what I let her do. Hypnosis lowers inhibitions, but you have to be willing... I could have stopped myself. But this...This was a little too real for me."

Ranma nodded. "She'll really be okay?"

Tofu frowned. "Ranma, I don't know for sure. Using ki to heal is tricky. It helps to know some anatomy. Your body has to remember the way it was. I don't know how skilled Kasumi is. There's so much I don't know about her... I'm still upset at you, but...well, I'm upset at her too. I feel like I don't even know who she is."

"Nabiki says she has three hearts," Ranma said.

Tofu walked to Kasumi and stood over her. "She could be right. Do you think any of them care for me?"

"I think," Ranma said softly. "She might be up for it. As long as she can find a way to keep punishing herself."

"To...keep...punishing herself?" Tofu repeated.

"Yeah," Ranma said. "Well, it'd be nice if she could forgive herself but…" Ranma just let her words drift off and looked out the window giving a small shrug.

"Ranma... what happened?" Tofu asked.

"I got turned into a fucking demon, didn't I?" Ranma snapped. She closed her eyes. Took a few breaths, got up and stretched. "I need to get out for a bit, is that okay?"

Tofu nodded absently as he brushed hair off of Kasumi's forehead.

Ranma left the room, her leg thumping awkwardly in its bone setting shoe. Frowning, she undid the velcro and took it off. She put weight on the foot. She smiled slightly. Being a demon had its perks. She set the shoe back in Kasumi's room through the still-open door and looked for some fresh air.

~~~~~Nabiki~~~~~

My name is Tendo Nabiki, she thought, and I...am a pig.

She was being carried by Azusa who was skipping happily home from the skating rink, her skates secure in an absolutely precious pink and blue satchel that made Nabiki want to retch.

Things weren't always this way, Nabiki thought. I had a good life. I had a loving family. Two sisters, a father...a mother. Then some asshole from mom's past came to our home and murdered her.

Azusa entered the gate of her property and was greeted by two very affectionate and naked girls. Azusa cocked her head and blinked two, maybe three times. Then she smiled. "Why, Lestat! Loup Garou! You've become human!"

The two girls sat on their haunches and looked at each other, smiling with their mouths open. They looked just like Ranma.

Azusa set her bag down, but maintained a firm grip on Nabiki. She pointed at each of the girls. "Now, you two should know better than to run around naked outside when you're human! Azusa is a human, and she doesn't run around naked, does she?"

"S-sorry mistress," one of them said, "We were just turned human a little while ago."

"You can talk?" the other one asked. "Hey! I can talk too! We're talking! I'm a good boy because I'm talking. Except I'm a girl, I guess. Can a girl be a good boy? Why am I suddenly filled with anxiety over the specifics of my identity?" She put her head on the ground and covered her face with her hands.

"You're both very good boys. But you're human girls now, so you have to dress up, okay?"

"Okay!"

"Let's go inside, and Azusa will find you some pretty things to wear, okay?"

"Okay! Okay!" Lestat and Loup Garou said. "Okay! Okay! Okay!...Okay!"

Azusa picked up her satchel and the two girls bounded into the house in front of her as soon as she opened the door.

This was exactly the sort of thing Nabiki would have advised against if she were babysitting. Having two dogs in a house full of antiques was not a good idea. Even if they were recently turned human due to mysterious circumstances. Maybe especially then.

This is my life now, Nabiki thought, How did I get here? Grandmother Shiratori? Yes, she helped me after mom died. Helped our whole family really. She taught me how to use my natural intellect even when no one took me seriously as a prepubescent girl. I got to highschool and I started going out, squeezing money out of boys...sometimes just squeezing them for the fun of it. I got a bit of a reputation for being a...what's the girl word for womanizer? Manizer? Oh no, that's right. Slut. But I was an executive slut. A high maintenance slut. I got more out of every relationship than any boy got out of it. Then I started pursuing Kuno Tatewaki. I was making progress all that summer, and then the second year of high school hit, Kuno started going after Akane...and it went bad. I had to cut it off.

There were five things that were knocked over within the first second of Lestat and Loup Garou being let loose in the house. Three things shattered into pieces. One of the knocked over things was a modern art sculpture that consisted of a man bent over with a butcher knife sticking out of his ass and another sticking out of his mouth. The butt knife was now embedded in the floor. Nabiki found this position more poignant. One knife in the ground. One knife pointed toward the heavens, the man, meanwhile, getting fucked by his vindictiveness.

"Oh, you knocked over Albert!" Azusa cried. "Bad dog! Bad dog!"

"Sorry!" One of the girls said, cowering on the ground. "So sorry! I won't ever do it again! Never ever ever!"

"Okay, I forgive you. Now, stand up, like Azusa stands. Can you do that?"

The newly human creature did so, a little unsteady. Then the other one ran past, knocking over a lamp on her way to the kitchen. The standing one chased after her. "Hey! Hey! Stop knocking things over!"

Azusa put down Nabiki and her satchel and chased after the ex-dogs, but she tripped over the lamp and stumbled into another sculpture, this one an actual prop sculpture from the movie Beetlejuice. It teetered a little before falling over with a heavy thud.

Nabiki turned to go back outside, but it looked like Azusa closed the door behind her. Either that or the door Nabiki was looking at was the one to the closet. She wasn't entirely sure. Either way, it was shut, and she was too small to reach the knob.

"Azusa is getting angry!" Nabiki heard from the kitchen. "Now you two behave or you won't get any treats!"

Nabiki settled on her haunches. Was she really any better than those dogs? I didn't cut it off with Kuno, did I? First I tried making him jealous, going out with other boys. And when that didn't work...When that didn't work she started taking pictures of her sister and selling them to Kuno. Why? Was it for the money? Or was it just to feel like she was on a date with him?

Nabiki blinked. She was in love with Ryoga now. But back then, not too long ago… Shit, I was still crushing on Kuno. But he's an idiot! Of course Ryoga isn't exactly Einstein either, come to to think of of it. Yeah, Nabiki, face it. You have a type.

And then Ranma had the nerve to catch Kuno's attention too. And that after calling her out on the picture taking. And then there was that punch in the eye that brought Mom back into her life, but only as a feeling. Something less than a spirit. Just a remembered sense of love…

How could Nabiki have forgotten her? How could she have gotten so far away from what she would have wanted her to be? She was going to make it right. She was going to make up for it somehow but then…

Then Akane betrayed her.

No, that wasn't it.

It wasn't that Akane ruined her chances to bring mom back. Part of it was losing mom again, yes, but the other part, the part that kept gnawing at Nabiki, was the idea that maybe, possibly...Akane had been right.

And so now Nabiki was lost. Now she was a pig. Now she was in the center of the mess, so tangled up she was never getting free. Well, wasn't this exactly what she wanted?

Azusa had both ex-dogs standing and walking and now she was guiding them to her room. "Oh Charlotte! You should come too!" She picked up Nabiki and brought her into her room.

Azusa's room always impressed Nabiki. Something about the sheer magnitude of stuff, as well as how varied and peculiar it all was. She wanted to think of it all as junk, because really that's all it was. But somehow...there was something beautiful about it all. Like each thing reflected a moment of joy.

Nabiki felt a little of that whenever she counted her money, but it wasn't the same. Not for the first time, Nabiki thought that she should start collecting something, but she could never figure out what her thing was. Photographs maybe? Jewelry? Music? Certainly not cutesy junk like what Azusa had, even if there was a charming eclecticism to it. The Garfield phone next to the Mickey Mouse statue was a nice touch.

"Hello, my special friends!" Azusa exclaimed. "Did you all miss Azusa? Azusa missed you!"

Azusa started greeting each object in turn. The giant stuffed bear was Harold. The Tokyo tower snowglobe was Herve. The toupee that rested on top of the snowglobe was Allison. Nabiki had seen this before, but she was seeing something different now. There was some kind of...energy coming from each of the objects. It reminded Nabiki of hair standing on end from static electricity.

"...And my most special friend... Eggbert! Where are you, Eggbert?" Azusa looked over her bed. "Eggbert! Don't hide from Azusa!" Azusa looked through all the stuffed animals on her bed. Then she started throwing them off her bed. Then she threw off her pillows the comforter. The sheets. "Eggbert? Eggbert!" There was an odd desperation to Azusa's voice now. She lifted up her bed. It slammed back down on the floor. She lifted her night stands. Her dresser. All as if they weighed nothing more than cardboard. She pulled out every drawer looking for Eggbert. "Eggbert, you aren't here. Why did you leave me, Eggbert? Did someone steal you from me?"

There was an inhuman light coming out of Azusa's eyes.

Lestat and Loup Garou were cowering in the far corner of the room, next to a Jack-in-the-box and a hat you could sip beer from.

Nabiki's eyes darted from this impressive scene to the Garfield phone.

Phone.

Nabiki closed her eyes. She opened her mind, feeling for Ryoga. There!

~~~~~Ryoga~~~~~

He didn't know where he was, but he knew where Nabiki was, which was something. The pull was taking him through the city, and he didn't much care for urban areas. He liked the countryside, where he could find a heading and move in that direction heedless of the terrain. Here there were buildings, walls, and fences always in his way, and he couldn't just break through all of them unless he wanted to deal with police as well. So he moved forward and along whatever barriers he found until there was an opening that seemed to go more or less toward Nabiki. It was frustrating work, and the direction of the pull never seemed right. It always seemed like it was back the way he had come or that it was in a different direction than before. It was a constant test of a newly found faith. How much could he trust this beacon?

How much could he trust Nabiki?

Ryoga had seen her mind. He knew she wouldn't betray him. Except the reason she wouldn't betray him was because he was the only one she knew that believed in her. And she kept closing herself off. Doubts kept getting in his way like unwary pedestrians. Like inconsiderate motorists.

~Ryoga,~ Nabiki spoke through the mental link, and he had to stop in the middle of the road as the rush of words and emotions hit him. A car honked at him. The driver poked their head out of the window and shouted. He blinked and moved out of the line of traffic. ~Sorry. Can you get to a phone?~

Ryoga looked around. He was on the edge of a river of people. Cars stopped and started behind him. Beyond the people river was the sheer wall of a mountain-sized office building. Office buildings had phones, right? Ryoga had never been in an office building, but it seemed like a reasonable assumption.~Maybe?~ Ryoga answered Nabiki. ~How are you doing? You've been closed off…~

Ryoga felt a wave of embarrassment, of sadness and self pity, and then a silver ribbon of resolve, cutting through the dark and muddy emotions. ~I had some things to work out for myself.~

~We're supposed to help each other with that crap! You're not the only one having a bad day, you know!~

Ryoga felt a bristling of anger from Nabiki that quieted into one or two barbs of annoyance and guilt. ~I've been a bit distracted, Ryoga baby. Do you have anything urgent going on? It's just that I think Azusa might be some kind of energy vampire and I'm not sure what's going to happen if she tries to drain me. But maybe your thing is more important.~

Nabiki's sarcasm brought a smile to Ryoga's lips.~More important, probably. Urgent...probably not?.~ Ryoga took a breath and looked up at the blue in the sky past the tops of the skyscrapers around him. ~Kasumi's back and she's in the hospital. She was fighting the spirit of Nyannichuan who had taken over Ranma's body. I think she won, actually, because Ranma is...well she's different, but she's not evil. I was going to get you so you could be there.~

There was a pause ~That...actually explains a few things. Did Ranma mention anything about an...Eggbert?~

~No,~ Ryoga projected ~I'm pretty sure I would have remembered if she did. She did say something about Grandmother Shiratori being a dragon, but she was kind of talking about something else and I didn't get a chance to ask her about it.~

~Shit.~ Nabiki's said with her mind. ~Okay, thanks for telling me, that is important. I still need you to find a phone though. Can you do that?~

Ryoga looked around again. A block or so away there was a man in a business suit arguing with a black brick with an antenna he had next to his ear. ~There's a salaryman nearby,~ Ryoga told Nabiki, ~I think he has one of those mobile phones~

~Okay, ask him if you can borrow it. But bat your eyelids a bit. Try to accentuate your breasts.~

~I'm a guy right now, Nabiki.~ Ryoga said.

~Right...and you don't have any money, do you?~

~I've never really had much use for it, really. I'd just show up at a town, there'd be some monster terrorizing people, I'd defeat it and everyone would just feed me and let me stay a few nights in gratitude.~ Ryoga could feel Nabiki banging her head against something in frustration. ~Ah...no I don't have any money. And there aren't any monsters around either.~

~Can you just...knock him out, or threaten him or something?~ Nabiki asked.

~I'm surrounded by people. That's not going to go over too well. Look, I'll just ask in one of these office buildings.~

Ryoga moved toward the wall of the nearest building and, keeping one hand on the wall, he was able to get to a glass door. Ryoga opened the door to a spacious lobby with a statue of some guy with a clipboard and eyeglasses in the center with a bunch of couches and tables around it. To the left, there was a desk that had a sign on it that read "Information." Keeping his eyes locked on it, Ryoga walked to the desk until he was in speaking distance of the lady that worked behind it.

"Hello, honored sir, my name is Maika, please take care of me. how may I help you?" the lady asked.

"Uh… hello. Nice to meet you. Please take care of me too. May I please use your phone?" Ryoga wasn't used to being this polite with people. He hoped he got it right.

"I'm afraid it's against company policy for us to let people use our business phones for personal use, but we have some pay phones available next to the restroom."

"Um.. okay where is the restroom?"

"Oh it's gibble gabble and paduka plotz, and then you sardy sark over to the orangutan. You can't miss it." Maika smiled.

Ryoga nodded slowly. "Thank you so much," he said, "You've been a real help." He turned away from the information desk and walked a few paces before stopping and looking around. Was he outside? He didn't remember leaving the building. He saw the doors, but was that the way out, or would he be going back in? He didn't see any signs for restrooms, but there was a sign that said "Stop." Yes, and there were cars. He was definitely outside. Probably.

~Nabiki?~ Ryoga projected, ~I think you're on your own. I'm heading toward you, just try to figure something out, okay?~

~Yeah, okay. Be safe~

~You too.~

Ryoga started heading toward Nabiki again pushing through the crowds of people, most of whom seemed to be going the other way. Crap, he thought to himself, Now I have to pee.

~~~~Ranma~~~~

She meditated.

The sun was hidden behind clouds. It was going to rain soon. The breezes were starting to become more excited, like schoolboys gathering to watch a fight. Even so it was warm. Ranma felt sweat trickle down her neck..

Her eyes were closed, but she heard the roof door open easily enough. She could hear the crush of gravel under the teenaged girl's feet as she walked toward her, letting the door spring shut.

"Hey, Akane" Ranma said through a sigh, still not opening her eyes.

"Hey Ranma," Akane greeted in turn.

There were several moments of silence.

Ranma thought she was ready to open her eyes and see her friend… but she was wrong.

When she saw Akane standing below her in her boy's uniform and short haircut, her hands balled into fists. She could feel the glowing claws come out. The colors of her vision desaturated. She breathed in and out several times through her nose.

"Do you want to talk about it?" Akane asked.

"No." Ranma replied hoarsely. She hopped off of the small ledge the AC vents were housed on and onto the gravel with Akane. "Let's have a little match!" She said it in a sing song voice. A deliberate mockery of how Akane had said it to her all those weeks ago.

"Okay…" Akane put her hands up. "Ranma, I don't like how you've been acting since...what we did. I mean, we were just experimenting. It's natural for people our age to...And anyway you were the man so I don't know why…"

Ranma smiled. She rushed forward and kicked Akane in the solar plexus.

Akane fell to the ground wheezing as she tried to take in air. "Not fair," she croaked "I wasn't…"

Ranma round house kicked her in the head. From the feel of it, Akane's jaw was dislocated now.

"Ah!" Akane got up, taking the fight seriously finally. "Ah!" she yelled again, this time infusing the syllable with ki while simultaneously making small vacuum blades in her hand.

Ranma felt the ki pass through her, forcing her to be rigid and unmoving as the vaccuum blades headed toward her. The two blades made thin but deep cuts on her left arm and right leg. Ranma sucked in breath at the pain.

Then Akane lunged forward with a punch, overextending herself.

So Ranma took the proffered fist in her hands pulled Akane off balance. Then she dislocated her shoulder.

"ARRRGH!" Akane screamed.

Ranma took her pinky into her hand. She paused. Then she broke it.

"Yaaow Yaop!" Akane yelled.

For a moment Ranma was tempted to keep going. But Akane was obviously trying to say "Stop." So Ranma released her.

"I've been a terrible sensei," Ranma said, feeling disgust for the whole situation. "I want that to change starting now. Consider this your first true lesson. When someone asks you to stop...You FUCKING STOP!" She let her ki infuse the sound paralyzing Akane for a moment.

She felt a shadow of her former self protest that this was wrong. Silly boy. He didn't even know what rules he was following, did he? Ranma licked the blood off her hand as she walked away. She hopped on to the upper roof...but then she didn't have anywhere to go did she? It wasn't like she was wiser now or anything. She watched Akane get up, holding her jaw, tears coming out of her eyes. Akane glared at her before walking through the hospital door beneath her.

This girl was her best friend. Perhaps her only friend, and she had just maimed her. Ranma licked more of the blood off her hand. It felt good though. The sun was warm, but not overbearing. Ranma stretched her arms out and yawned widely. Then she took a nap.

~~~~~Nabiki~~~~~

Dragons.

Fucking dragons.

She sat on on her haunches watching Azusa's increasingly alarming tantrum. There was literal steam coming out of the girl's nostrils now. Her teeth seemed longer, sharper. Then there was the pink, frilly lamp that seemed to shimmer and fade into Azusa's dress. The electrical cord came out of the wall as she moved and it retracted, became thicker. It twitched every now and then, not merely dragged around, but somehow imbued with some of Azusa mercurial will.

Nabiki blinked. Her mind felt sluggish, but she had a vague feeling that she should be doing something. You are not a spectator, she told herself, you are in this mess. You are in danger.

Still, she found she couldn't move. Should she run? But there was something stopping her. Something she knew at some level, but couldn't quite grasp.

A white teddy bear was pulled as if by magnets onto Azusa's back spreading and flattening into a hide. The head of the bear rose over Azusa's hair on top of her head. The beady eyes began to glow pink.

Azusa was a dragon. And this was her horde. The quicker parts of Nabiki's brain were trying to get the slower parts on the same page. Okay, okay. Dragons are real. Azusa is one. That means…

Azusa was dangerous. Azusa could kill her. She was trespassing on her horde.

No.

She was part of Azusa's horde.

Nabiki heard a whimper, and was surprised to find that the sound wasn't coming from herself, but from one of the dogs turned girl. She was cowering near the door. Eyes wet with tears. "Mistress, please! I'll be a good boy."

"Did you steal my Eggbert?" Azusa asked, and along with her usual soprano voice there was an unnerving guttural bass component.

"No! No!" The dog girl howled. "What's an eggbert?" She asked tilting her head in a moment of confusion before howling again "No!"

Nabiki closed her eyes. She could half see half feel her connection to Ryoga spooling out into the distance. There were other connections though. Paler, colder connections. And Azusa was a frigid fire, right before her.

"Yes, you are a good boy, aren't you, Loup Garou? You'll help me find my Eggbert, won't you?"

Nabiki's eyes snapped open. She could still see the little pale blue ice flames in everything around her. In the two dog girls. Raging in Azusa. They were superimposed on her usual vision, and if she looked directly at Azusa, her usual vision darkened so it was difficult to see past the fire. But she could still see Azusa's hand reaching out to the head of Loup Garou. The fingers elongating a bit. Entering into Loup Garou's hair, her scalp, her...skull?

"BWEEE!"

Azusa turned and regarded Nabiki. "Charlotte? Do you know where my Eggbert is?"

Nabiki did know where Eggbert was. She could see it, farther away, dim but discernible. More importantly, for the first time since bonding with Ryoga, she knew where she was. "Bwee," she said.

Azusa understood her. She and Nabiki shared a connection after all. Nabiki didn't like the implications of that, but she wasn't going to ignore her one chance at leverage.

Suddenly the Teddy bear and the lamp fell to Azusa's feet and she looked human again. She picked Nabiki up, "Yay!" She cried. "Yay for Charlotte!"

"Bwee! Squeal snort squeal squeal bwee bwee snort snort squeal." Nabiki said.

"You want something in return?" Azusa asked. "But what could a precious little baby piglet want from Azusa?"

"Snort bwee bwee bwee."

Azusa laughed. "What could a piglet want with that? But okay, Azusa agrees." Azusa found her purse and a pink, wide-brimmed hat with flowers and frills. So equipped, and with Nabiki in in her arm, she opened the door. She turned to Loup Garou and Lestat. "You two behave okay?"

Lestat smiled "Yes!" she said, "I will behave!"

Loup Garou only whimpered. The dog girl's hair had been brown like Lestat's, but now it was bright pink.

Nabiki shivered. She hoped her plan worked. Maybe Loup Garou had been a dog before, but she was a human being now. What Azusa was about to do...and even if Loup Garou had been a dog...Nabiki shut her eyes. It was sickening. Even a pet isn't simply a possession. And yet Azusa had been about to absorb Loup Garou into herself like cheap hand lotion.

Animals had souls, and souls were precious. You couldn't just...

No. Nabiki wasn't prepared to face that yet. She could compartmentalize that much. All she needed to know right now was that she was relatively safe. Azusa wouldn't absorb her like one of her horde items. And her plan had a good chance of working too. How her plan would work, and how fragile this "safety" truly was...those were things she could deal with later.

~~~~~Ranma~~~~~

The air cooled around Ranma. And she frowned. She woke, just as a spatter of rain hit her face. She looked around. It was a light rain. The air was still clear. The hospital roof wasn't the tallest building in this area of Tokyo, but she could still see a good bit around her. She saw into streets and alleys and on the roofs of other buildings, the windows of apartments…

She realized she was smiling. And that was a bit odd wasn't it? Usually whenever she woke up it would be from a nightmare. Or from getting thrown into a pond. Or from some other emergency. But while she was on top of a building full of emergencies, none of them required her direct attention. No one even knew she was up here. And she couldn't even remember having a dream.

And here she was standing in the rain, starting to get a bit damp. But the drops of rain were hitting her head, her shoulders, her hands. Her body. This is my body, she thought, This is me.

She took in a breath. It seemed like some of the weight she had been carrying was somehow gone now. Naps were awesome, she decided. She resolved to take them more often.

She dropped down to the lower roof and entered the hospital. She asked a nurse if there was a girl around being treated for a broken jaw. There were apologies and words to the effect that the nurse didn't know who Ranma was and couldn't tell her about a patient for security reasons. Ranma smiled and nodded. Partly out of human politeness, but also in part because she had just caught a whiff of Akane's scent— a mix of blood, sweat, oranges, and cherry blossoms— through the usual hospital smells of antiseptic and death.

Ranma followed the smell down the corridor, into an elevator. The selection of buttons gave her pause for a moment, but then she selected the ground floor since that was where the emergency room was.

She picked up Akane's scent again as soon as she got out of the elevator. She walked briskly to the room in the ER where she was. The door was closed, but she opened it without any hesitation.

Akane was sitting up in a hospital bed. The bed was much more rudimentary than Kasumi's. It didn't have any electronics on it. Akane's face was bandaged and her finger had a splint on it. Ranma climbed on the bed next to Akane and sat cross legged there, the warmth of Akane's leg on her lower back.

"Wah ah ya do heh?!" Akane protested. The words were probably "What are you doing here?"

Ranma smiled at her. She touched Akane's nose with her forefinger. "I love you, Jackass. I wanted to see how you were doing."

"Buh...wah ih wroh wih you? You juh…"

"Buh? Wuh?" Ranma mocked in a silly voice. "Come on, get up, we should check on your sister."

Akane let out a frustrated noise and pointed to her jaw with a wide eyed expression.

Ranma frowned. "Just heal yourself with ki. It's not hard. You can't expect to be a martial artist if you can't take a hit."

"I doh know how!" Akane whined.

"I swear, you are such a boy sometimes," Ranma said giving Akane's shoulder a playful slap. "Just do what you do when you Yamasenken only instead of throwing it out, keep it near you and move it to the place that you need to heal. And maybe use a softer emotion. I always just thought I would heal fast because I was awesome, but I don't know if that will work for you."

Ranma tilted her head slightly as she considered Akane. Such a beautiful girl. What kind of boy would she be? Maybe she'd find a way to get cursed. Maybe she'd be handsome like Kuno. Or Ryoga. That would be delicious. Ranma wasn't sure Akane was really a boy, or if it was just an effect of her soul getting torn to pieces by a malevolent demonic force bent on world domination...but she hoped she would get to see boykane some time. It was going to be tough; Akane was currently immune to Jusenkyo since she was a Jusenkyo spirit herself. She was stuck in her current form until she could claim her soul back or found some other way around the problem. She would figure it out though, Ranma thought. If she was anything, it was stubborn.

"Op ih!" Akane yelled. Probably saying "Stop it!" Ranma had been staring into her eyes rather intently.

Ranma got up. "Sorry I was just remembering how hopeless you are. You'll probably never figure out how to heal yourself with ki. I mean, your older sister figured it out, but I guess it's not something you can do."

"I ca ooh!" Akane protested.

"I'm sorry, I can't understand you," Ranma smirked.

Akane let out a scream of frustration. Her eyes glaring at Ranma she lit up the room with her battle aura. Then it condensed. Like mercury collecting into a bead, it fell together and moved toward her face. Then it faded into her skin.

"I said,' Akane spoke slowly. "I can too."

"Ha!" Ranma laughed. "I knew you could do it!" She hugged Akane as best she could, putting her head on the other girl's upper chest and wrapping an arm around her shoulder.

"Dammit Ranma! You're such a…"

Ranma felt a hand stroke her hair lightly. She settled herself on top of Akane and started to purr.

"I love you too, Ranma. I've been kind of a bully lately haven't I? Don't ever let me get away with that again, okay?"

Ranma jumped off Akane abruptly and her hand was at the girl's throat. "You do not control me!"

Ranma blinked, and she retracted her hand. Her claws had made holes in the mattress next to Akane's head. "I know you didn't mean it like that. But please try not to give me orders. Even nice ones. I'm just a tad sensitive about it since you raped me."

"God, Ranma I didn't… I mean… I…"

Ranma smiled. "I don't hold grudges, Akane, but it is what it is." She shrugged. "And my Dad's been raping me my entire life, so it's not like it's a big deal. Just I'm through with it is all."

Akane sat on the edge of the bed and took off the bandage around her head. It was a little awkward with the splint. "Ranma, I don't know what your Dad did, but I don't think…"

Ranma laughed. "Akane, you have no idea how little I care about what you think on this topic. You're missing the part of you that would understand. I'm not sure you would get it even if you were whole. I am still your friend, but I am also your sensei, and I want you to hear this and I want it to echo through your pretty head. You are a sexual idiot. You were bad about sex before, but then you got yourself lobotomized. I don't know much about it either, but Akane, compared to you I'm a fucking genius. You will get better at it. I know you will. Even if you don't get your soul fragment back I know you'll figure out something. But you're not even at square one, Akane. You're at square negative ten."

"I don't think I'm that bad…"Akane laughed nervously.

Ranma slapped Akane lightly on the face. "You don't even realize how bad you are, Akane. That's what I'm saying. You're like a space alien doing research for the mothership. But you aren't even taking it seriously."

"I don't think it's a game, I'm just allowing myself to be open…"

"And how's that working out for you?" Ranma snapped.

Akane looked up at her, a frown of confusion on her face.

"I wasn't the only one who got raped," Ranma said quietly. "You weren't in your right mind that night. You aren't now. You might not realize what happened until you get the missing part of your soul back. But I think you feel it even now. Something died in us both that night. Something we should have done more to protect."

Akane was silent for a while. "Maybe," she said eventually, "Maybe it needed to die."

"Maybe," Ranma allowed, "But that doesn't make it right."

Akane nodded. She reached out for Ranma's hand. "I'm sorry, Ranma. Part of me still thinks it's all silly, but...I've been feeling this dread...like there's a big test coming that I completely forgot about and haven't done any studying for...only worse. And there's this awful depression. Why do I feel so awful? I thought I would be happier, more free, but I just...And I do feel worse since we had sex. Mostly because I hurt you, but… How was it supposed to go? What's it supposed to look like?"

Ranma held Akane's hand and sat on the bed again. "It would have started with dinner. We would be a little older. We would have had a few dates. We would have kissed and cuddled a bit in other times. And after dinner I would have taken you home and you would have invited me to your room. And then we would have undressed, slowly, taking our clothes off a little at a time each time sensing the others desire, knowing that we both wanted the same thing. And we would have kissed, naked, one last time before we joined together on the bed."

Ranma looked up. Akane's eyes were closed. A tear fell from one of them.

Ranma looked away. She let go of Akane's hand and stood. "We should go see your sister."

"It could still happen, couldn't it?" Akane asked.

"No," Ranma said, shaking her head. "We killed that dream. I love you, Akane, but only as a friend. For what it's worth...I'm sorry too." The dream wasn't exactly dead, but the reason why Ranma was able to recount it was that in the dream….she was the girl. The man had a face that kept changing. But trying to imagine herself as the man…Akane screaming….the blood, trying to figure out what to do with the sheets...the nausea...and in the furo the realization of what was done…

Ranma was a girl. She was not a man. She would never be a man again.

Not if she could help it.

Akane got up and Ranma followed her out of the room. They walked down the corridor, and just as they turned a corner they ran right into Genma Saotome walking with a familiar looking woman.

Ranma tensed. Her claws were out. She fell to all fours. She started to yowl in a low pitch. It wasn't ten years ago. She wasn't a weak little boy anymore. She was female. She was feline. She would murder this man who tortured her.

She would rip him into shreds.

~~~~~Nabiki~~~~~

Being made aware that you were a pawn manipulated by a dark inhuman intelligence, wasn't so bad, Nabiki reflected. It was actually kind of liberating. Even flattering. "Bwee." Nabiki said absently. "Squee bwee snort."

Azusa dutifully followed Nabiki's directions. "Are we getting close, Charlotte? Azusa's arm is cramping!"

"Bwee," Nabiki responded. She wasn't entirely sure, but they seemed to be closer to Eggbert, than the rest of the hoard.

The situation was really simple. Azusa wanted something. Nabiki wanted something else. This was a classic brokerage scenario. Communication was key though. Communication and leverage. Nabiki had a possible lead on where Eggbert was, but it was weak, and she couldn't let Azusa get to it some other way and cut out the middle man. Nabiki was the middle man. She was the broker. She was used to being in the middle. Not the cute one, not the mature one. Nabiki normally liked being the middle sister. She liked being ignored, taken for granted. She liked the look of surprise she saw when people suddenly realized she was a the moment, though, it all seemed kind of petty and bitter. A piece of chocolate on a queasy stomach

She tried to shake her head free of the dark thoughts. There was something about being a pig that made her moody. Maybe it was something about a pig's physiology. Maybe all pigs were actually pretty depressed compared to humans. Maybe they didn't wallow in mud because they enjoyed it, but because they didn't give a crap..

But there was still the thrill of the deal.

They were a block away. "Bwee snort!" Nabiki said.

Azusa stopped. "Are we close?" Azusa asked.

"Bwee" Nabiki affirmed.

"Where is Eggbert! Show me, Charlotte!"

"Bwee." Nabiki said resolutely. She jumped out of Azusa hands. She sat on her haunches in front of the gargantuan girl. She held out a paw. "Bwee," she said again.

"I'll give it to you, Charlotte, but I want to see my Eggbert first." Azusa said, and there was a glimmer of the cold intelligence lurking beneath the frilly exterior. What was Azusa's story, Nabiki wondered for a moment. Why was she the way she was? But she had been babysitting the girl from the time she was in diapers and she'd always been this way as far as she could tell.

Nabiki trotted over to where Eggbert lay, at the corner of a building covered in bits of trash. She pulled it out, grabbing it with her teeth. She sat in front of Azusa again and stuck her paw out.

"Yay! You found Eggbert! Alright Azusa will give you what you want now." She dug in her purse for a good minute. "Though Azusa is still very confused. What would a pig want with a one yen coin?" She found a coin. It was dark and cruddy with age. Azusa bent down and gave it to her.

Nabiki held out a front limb and balanced the coin on it as she gently lowered the egg to the ground and released it.

Azusa snatched the egg up and cradled it to her chest.

Then she frowned. "Eggbert?" she looked at the egg. "Eggbert?" She cried again. "You look like Eggbert, but…" Azusa blinked.

If Nabiki had been human in that moment, she would have laughed. Poor Azusa had no inkling of how fickle markets could be. One instant a Faberge egg was the most precious thing in the world, and the next...it was only worth a single yen coin.

All that energy had to go somewhere though. Nabiki drank it in. She let it infuse her body, thrilling her with a frisson of arcing power. The coin shed its dark patina, growing shiny. And then it melted into her body. Nabiki found her connection to Jusenkyo. She shoved the pig body through the bond to Heitonichuan and she grew, becoming a young woman again. Naked, except for a metallic bikini of very fine mesh. And maybe Nabiki's ears were slightly pointed now. And maybe her teeth were a little sharper.

"Azusa," Nabiki spoke and her voice had an odd little deep echo of rumbling infrasound. "Go home."

And Azusa, jaw set and primed for a tantrum, stood for only a moment before turning tail and running toward her house.

I could have stayed on the outskirts. Nabiki thought to herself. I could have just stayed the Ice Queen of Furinkan. She walked down the street toward the nearest shop. It was a pawn shop, but it also sold illegal firearms in a back room. Nabiki could sense all the items inside, little flames that glowed brighter the more valuable they were. She walked into the store, smiling at the gawking onlookers. She selected some acceptable clothes from the dismal clothing section they had and put them on.

"Excuse me? What do you think you're doing!" a man was rushing at her behind the counter.

"I will pay you back," Nabiki told him.

"No, you will pay me now, or I will call the cops!"

"Go ahead," Nabiki said, smiling. "Maybe have them enter through the back room? I'm sure they'd find that area very interesting."

The man grimly shut his mouth looking for anyone in earshot, but Nabiki had been quiet. "You say you'll pay for the clothes later?" he said.

"Absolutely." She said, and she meant it.

"Fine." The man grumbled, "But if you cross me again, girlie, you may find yourself on the wrong end of...what I have in the back room, you understand?"

Nabiki nodded and the man left her alone. She took her time after that. Finding a few things that weren't entirely awful to wear. She normally didn't care for sundresses so much, but the combat boots that she found rounded out the ensemble nicely. She gave the rest of the shop a long look. She was hit by a sudden craving. She wanted to take everything. Just somehow put it all into a ball and...but no. The value was in the effort. As Kuno would say, too light winning would make the prize light. She would pay this man back, and eventually she would find enough wealth to buy this place outright if she wanted. This was her way.

She was about to leave the shop when she saw that it was starting to rain. She picked up an umbrella on her way out, gave the storekeeper a little salute, and then left the store. Yeah, I could've been queen, she thought, opening up the umbrella, But in my own way, I am queen.

Later on, she'd deal with the various bowel shaking earthquakes of revelation that everything she had just done hinted at, but for now, she was going to take the win.

~~~~~Sage Shiratori~~~~~

Once Herb was stuck in her female form, Sage had made herself scarce. She heated up some water with her spirit energy and used it to become a dragon again. She flew through the air buoyed by updrafts and guided by wind currents until she came to her cave. Vacant for more than a hundred years, it was still here on the side of this lonely mountain. She was the last of her kind. Forced to be some idiot's wife. But being a wife meant having children. And children were a blessing.

Those she had with the Musk were somewhat disappointing. Most of them died in various battles before they could realize their potential. But there was some promise with Herb. He had the right level of obsessiveness. She hadn't been able to stand being subservient to idiots, so she had left with the others to go to Japan. She had a daughter and son there. The son, Taro Shiratori, was a nobody. A bit ruthless in his job as a stockbroker, but otherwise no dragon in him at all. The daughter Ayeka Shiratori had more promise, but she married an overbearing asshole and eventually died of a heart condition. Taro had a son who carried the Shiratori name and who, in turn, went on to have a daughter himself, Azusa. Ayeka meanwhile, had managed to give birth to a son as well before dying, but the son carried his father's name and didn't even know who Sage was.

Sage knew though.

She had watched Tendo Soun and his daughters for many years, looking for signs that their dragon blood would awaken. Nabiki had shown such great promise….

But no matter. Sage had been in her dragon form too long. She would have to murder someone soon or she would start to get weak. She growled a bit in frustration. It was kind of nice being human where the urge wasn't so great. There were worse hobbies than murder, she supposed, but it could get so tedious! She tried to remember back to the first time. So new, so exciting, so charged with sex and power...She looked over at the human face, locked in a perpetual scream of horror and surprise, incorporated into her hide a little over her left flank. It could never be as good as that first time. But, she thought as she launched herself out of her cave, you've got to keep trying...

~~~~~End Chapter 21~~~~~

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~~~~Author note~~~~

Not much to say. A lot of inspiration for this chapter came from the Rick and Morty pickle Rick episode. And Army of Darkness of course. Thanks for reading, and I hope you enjoyed. I always appreciate your reviews and follows.