*** Earth 0.000, 0.000

Soun Tendo sat in the car in front of his house and carefully adjusted his mirrors as the sun rose over the horizon. If it had been any other day, he would have requested one of his usual drivers to attend to such a mundane task, having one of them take him to his destination to avoid arousing suspicions. Secretly, he was very glad to have this chance to indulge himself. Driving was a novel experience for him, something he had never learned how to do in his old life.

Today was a very special one for him. It was finally time for his appointment to visit the Mobius Institute and have his mind scanned for any issues that might impact his loyalty to the Empire and the Emperor. He had been putting off thinking about what could happen to him while he was there, keeping himself busy with other tasks and spending most of his evenings with Genma, carousing and talking over various schemes on getting their children together. He had not admitted his concerns about today to his friend, not wanting to worry him.

The government of the Empire, in order to police those serving within its ranks, utilized the resources of the Mobius Institute to perform telepathic probes of select individuals, those in positions of the highest authority. Not the Emperor, of course, for that would be a sacrilegious act, to subject the Son of Heaven to such a thing as a loyalty test. He was above reproach, of course.

Adjusting his mirrors after taking a quick look behind him, Soun noted absently that the back seats and floor areas were vacant, recalling instances in the past when someone wanting to kill his other self had secreted themselves in such places. Satisfied that he was safely alone in the car, he leaned forward and programmed his destination into the GPS on the dashboard, wanting to avoid morning traffic. When he looked up again, a woman in a blue kimono could be seen seated in the back seat, grimly meeting his gaze in the mirror.

"What the-?"

Tendrils of Bernkastel's power caught her prey in a gentle but solid grip. Reflexively, Soun grasped at the one that had swiftly wrapped itself around his throat, feeling it pressing down inexorably on his carotid artery. He tried to yank it free, but it was stronger than steel. Two sets of instincts immediately began warring within him. One wanted to attack the strange woman with his unarmed fighting skills in an attempt to get her to let him go, and the other wanted to draw the gun in his shoulder holster and empty the magazine into her torso through the seat.

To quiet him even more quickly and avoid attracting unwanted attention due to their struggle, the tip of one tendril suddenly lanced into Soun's skull, and his eyes reflexively rolled back into his head from the surge of agony that resulted. A single droplet of blood leaked from a nostril as he began convulsing. Gradually, he ceased resisting her as she calmly leaned forward and made gentle shushing sounds into his ear, like she was his mother putting him to bed.

When Soun finally stopped struggling and fell unconscious, she kept him propped upright to maintain an appearance of normalcy. The witch knew she needed to work quickly and make the appropriate adjustments before his meeting happened today at the Mobius Institute. After all, it just would not do to have him fail his scan.

Today was far too important a day in the life of Soun Tendo. If he did not become the next leader of the Empire's Ministry of Security, it would derail her plans for this world too far to easily correct for. So such direct action was necessary.

She had to be extremely careful though, and delicate in her alterations to him. Increasing the difficulty of her task, some of the revisions she was now making could not be lasting ones, only remaining long enough to get him past his upcoming scans. While she was altering his memories of some recent events permanently, she needed his personality to revert back to the state he had been in when she had first arrived. Then he could continue with his meddlesome parenting hijinks that she found so very amusing, interfering with Ranma and Nabiki's nascent relationship and plotting with Genma. In order to accomplish this goal, she needed to establish a trigger in his mind that would eventually undo that portion of her detailed work.

From outside the car, brief flashes of light were suddenly seen within it, and several birds took flight, startled from their perches.

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Quantum Destinies

A Ranma 1/2 Fanfic

By S. Thesken aka Jurai Knight

Ranma 1/2 and its characters are owned by Rumiko Takahashi. This story is inspired by her works and the stories from some of my fellow fanfic authors. Among these are D.B. Sommer's "Shampoo 1/2", Jim Bader's "A Very Scary Thought -aka- Nabiki 1/2", and John Biles' Elseworlds series. All C&C is welcome.

The list of worlds reoccurring in this chapter:

Earth 0.000, 0.000 - The world of Scholar Ranma (Baseline cluster)

What has gone before in this story (or at least what will help you understand what is going on):

On a parallel Earth that diverged from the standard Ranma timeline over five hundred years ago, the Empire of Japan rules almost half the world and has done so for almost a century. Theorizing that one could travel to alternate timelines by possessing counterparts in them, a young scientist named Ranma Saotome, through use of a device of his own invention, accidentally obtained the skills and memories of a martial artist version of himself.

Revelations about Imperial Earth's version of Nodoka Saotome were shown, how the witch Bernkastel took a direct hand in ensuring Ranma's birth there. The Shogun of the Dark began implementing the next stage of his plans and taking some time to revel in the death and destruction he has caused throughout the universe in his current iteration. On the home timeline of the Musk Dynasty, the other Nabiki Tendo schemed, after having enjoyed carnal relations with her male analog. Meanwhile, Kaneda was revealed to be plotting to destroy the Matriarchy, and it was also revealed that the Ranma Saotome of that world was a servant of the Shogun. Then a long look at Mina Li's past occurred, revealing her origins. Finally, Emperor Herb of the Musk Dynasty plotted the downfall of the Solnoids.

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Chapter 34 – A Tapestry Of Lies

Jessup: "You want answers?!"

Kaffee: "I want the truth!"

Jessup: "You can't handle the truth!"

-A Few Good Men

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*** Earth 0.000, 0.000

With a gasp, Rika Furude, age sixteen, came awake with a start and sat up on her futon. She clapped her hand over her mouth, feeling her gorge rising in horror at what she had just dreamt about, witnessing what was happening to that poor man. Several long moments passed before the images blissfully faded.

The witch was back again.

Rika had been about eight years old when the visions suddenly started, when Bernkastel's thoughts and memories began impinging on her mind. At first, they had been indistinct, transitory flashes during her sleep, nightmares that woke her up crying. As time went on the scary visions sometimes began affecting her even while she was awake, making her wonder if she was losing her mind, that 'Bernkastel' was just some figment of her imagination, a psychotic delusion of some kind.

However, she soon learned through certain other means available to her that the witch was someone all too real. That was only a partial relief, knowing she was not actually going insane. It meant the things she saw the witch doing were really happening somewhere, that this 'Bernkastel' person was hurting people, even killing them sometimes.

To this day, the visions were still horrifying, sometimes almost painful, feeling the witch's cynical disdain for others pouring into her young mind and witnessing the casual cruelties the woman would inflict as she made her subtle adjustments to history, attempting to orchestrate her grand scheme to destroy the Shogun of the Dark once and for all. Fortunately for her sanity, over time Rika had managed to become somewhat used to the experiences, but they still took a toll upon her. She had learned over time that drinking wine would help her sleep better, muting the nightmares that their connection afflicted her with. While doing so had given her a startling tolerance for alcohol consumption for someone her age, she knew it wasn't good for a young girl to drink herself into a stupor to get a peaceful night's sleep.

The witch was either unaware of Rika's unintended spying or just didn't care, going about her grim business with an air of supreme arrogance, as if she was the only one who truly mattered in the world. She would up and vanish for days, sometimes even weeks at a time, then return just as suddenly, tampering with various people's lives and sometimes coldly arranging their deaths. The recent scenes in Roanapur had been particularly grim affairs in this regard. Several people who had come into contact with the Chinese woman now named Ginseng, admittedly rogues and base villains themselves, had later died in various violent ways engineered by the witch to bury the woman's past.

Rika was uncertain why she had this link to Bernkastel, but she had developed a few theories over the years. As she grew older, she had even become somewhat able to access the other woman's memories, but this only worked when they were both present at the same moment in time. It was how she had learned what little she knew of the witch's origins in another version of history, a world where the Empire had never risen to be the great power it was here.

Seeing such horrific things done to others over the years had caused Rika to grow up faster than others around her, but she had worked hard to carefully hide this fact from her peers and the adults she dealt with. Knowing she was different would have placed an invisible barrier between her and those around her who noticed her aberrant maturity, so she had made strenuous efforts to conceal it from the awareness of others by adopting cutesy mannerisms that were more appropriate for someone her age. It was only in private that she dropped them, acting more like the adult she was mentally.

Her access to Bernkastel allowed her some limited knowledge of the future, and she had occasionally used this to her own benefit, giving her a reputation in the village as a prophetess and causing many of the villagers to think of her as a reincarnation of their village's god: Oyashiro-sama. Unlike her, the witch lived her life out of synch with time, experiencing the unfolding of this world's history in a nonlinear fashion, able to skip around within its flows and revise past events to suit her needs. Bernkastel would travel to the future to see the result of a change she made and then reappear back in Rika's present to make additional revisions.

Perhaps the most disconcerting aspect of their link was when Rika found herself suddenly knowing a different version of history than what she had known only a moment before, her memories rippling like a still pond after a pebble was dropped into it and then revising themselves. It was an unnerving effect resulting from alterations the witch made to the past. This sometimes confused Rika as to what was real. Fortunately, such changes to her memories had gradually lessened in frequency and severity as she grew older.

These revisions were often not profound, but were frequently quite small and subtle instead. Some might even say artful. A certain person lived instead of died, made a different choice than they otherwise would have done without Bernkastel's interference in their lives, and so forth. When taken all together, these minor changes slowly added up, delicately shifting history into a different configuration, as if the witch was shaping and polishing a gemstone.

Even a remote corner of the Empire like Hinamizawa was not unaffected by Bernkastel's machinations within history. In some dark corner of her blighted soul, the witch appeared to hold a grudging affection towards this place, but Rika wasn't sure why that would be. Knowing what she did of the ordeals the other woman had gone through during her origins in that other version of history, it seemed far more likely she should hate it and wish the village expunged from all worlds.

As an example of the witch's more benevolent acts, several years ago the Empire had once planned to build a dam here, an action that would have resulted in enormous strife and mirrored events that had occurred on other worlds. Apparently not liking that outcome, Bernkastel had then made a few careful alterations to the past which had resulted in the Empire choosing to build a fusion plant instead. There had still been a bit of trouble and even some unsolved deaths and disappearances like had occurred on other worlds, but things were not nearly as bad when compared to the aftermath of the 'Dam Wars' that had happened on other worlds.

While Rika remembered both versions of how things had played out, the one where a dam had been planned to take place had gradually become less real to her over time, fading away to little more than a gauzy, half-remembered dream, one she had to struggle to recall anymore. Since the completion of the fusion plant, Hinamizawa had begun prospering, becoming more prominent in the region as well as providing gainful employment to many people in town and even some from nearby Okinomiya and other places. As a result, while the village's traditionally very insular nature still remained in place, it was gradually becoming less stringent due to the influx of outsiders that had since moved here to be closer to their work once the plant became operational. Over time they had even been accepted as fellow Hinamizawans.

The lone peaceforcer for their village, Keiichi Maebara, was one such addition, having been assigned here several weeks ago as the Empire's representative of law and order in the area. Rika thought he was very dashing in his uniform, and the few unattached young women in town had already begun eyeing him as a prime catch. There was something quite familiar about Keiichi to her, a familiarity formed from glimpses she had gotten of him in Bernkastel's memories. It was a strange form of déjà vu, although that wasn't exactly the right description for it either.

It helped that Keiichi was a well-spoken young man, a factor which had started to earn him favor in his dealings with the town council. He was certainly much better liked than their last peaceforcer had been. That one had been especially annoying to the Sonozakis, suspecting their hand in the series of murders and disappearances that had happened several years ago. Because of the inability of Keiichi's predecessor to get along with them, the town council had strongly resisted getting a replacement for him going on almost four years after his retirement. They had rejected numerous candidates for the position until the prefectural governor had finally had enough of their recalcitrance and just sent their new peaceforcer to them.

Since his arrival, Keiichi had begun making inroads against the village's lingering dislike for his predecessor. It helped him a bit that the village's young schoolteacher, Reina Ryugu, had quickly become his friend. Reina's predecessor had left for Okinomiya to start a family with her husband about a year ago, leaving the former assistant teacher with the job. Reina and Keiichi had been seen eating lunch together a few times for the past several weeks. Scandalous gossip about the young couple's relationship had begun making the rounds to Reina's consternation.

Of course, it helped the case for his acceptance quite a bit more that Mion Sonozaki, the acting head of the family while her grandmother was in the hospital undergoing a lengthy treatment of chemotherapy, seemed quite taken with him. In addition to seeing her at the town council meetings, he had also been out to visit the family's large compound for tea on several occasions. The two had even been seen walking around the village together, talking and joking with each other, accompanied at a respectful distance by Mion's two intimidating bodyguards. As Reina and Mion were good friends with each other, having known each other for many years, the gossipmongers were not sure what to make of the trio, so there was rampant speculation going on, some of it quite salacious as both young women had been previously unattached and Keiichi was a handsome bachelor.

The young peaceforcer's appearance in the village, something that Rika strongly suspected the witch's hand in causing to happen given the odd feelings of déjà vu he gave her, demonstrated an aspect of Rika's connection to Bernkastel that often frustrated her, all the things she didn't know about the witch's doings and her reasons for taking action. She had numerous blind spots, knowing some things that Bernkastel had planned while being maddeningly unable to access the other woman's reasoning enough to understand why they would happen. It was like trying to visualize multiple jigsaw puzzles, each of them with a large number of their pieces missing.

That being said, one thing she did know was that a significant piece of one puzzle was coming to the village soon. In the near future, right before the next Watanagashi (Cotton Drifting) Festival occurred later this month, a young man named Ranma Saotome would be arriving in Hinamizawa for a rest at the house his parents owned in the village. But before that, he had some sort of terrible ordeal lying ahead of him, one that would begin tempering him to become the weapon that Bernkastel sought to create. Unfortunately, Rika was uncertain of the details of what would be happening, so she couldn't even try to warn him. The witch's memories of that future event were frustratingly obscured from her knowledge.

Although she had never been the type to get giddy over a boy like her peers at school, she did feel a stirring of anticipation at the thought of meeting someone who stood out so prominently in Bernkastel's plans for the future. Because of his great importance to the witch, Ranma intrigued Rika on several levels. Truly, he was quite unlike any other boy she had ever known in her life, especially due to the curse he was now dealing with, transforming into a girl whenever struck with cold water.

However, as fascinating as the Saotome boy was, she would have to be very careful and avoid attracting Bernkastel's ire in any interactions she might have with him. Rika would not put it past the witch to erase her from the world should she ever become a threat to Bernkastel's schemes. It would be as if she had never been, and no one would even remember that she had ever existed.

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Soun started, unsure where he was for several moments as he suddenly became aware of his surroundings once again. He quickly realized he must have dozed off briefly for some reason. His momentary faint was most likely due to the lack of sleep he had been suffering because of his recent trip to fetch Ryoga's mother, Shizuko. His tea was still warm when he picked it up, so his lapse was a minor one and of no consequence.

He took a sip, savoring the sweetened beverage, mentally calibrating himself for what was ahead of him. His scan was scheduled for this morning at the Mobius Institute, but he was not concerned. His loyalty to the Empire was absolute, and he could think of nothing he had done in his life that would ever contradict that. Other than his plans for wedding his daughter Nabiki to Ranma, Akane to Ryoga and his own marriage to the Hibiki boy's mother, he had nothing distracting him from doing his duty to the Empire.

His sense of duty and personal code of honor were what defined him, as they had ever since he was a young man. The Institute's probes into the darkest recesses of his mind would show nothing else, of that he felt certain. He was unquestionably loyal to the Empire and his Emperor.

That being said, it was strange to think he would soon be a married man again, and he hoped his three daughters accepted their new stepmother without fuss. While he could not recall exactly when he had decided to expand his original plan from engaging Akane to Ryoga into also asking the boy's mother into becoming his wife, he was certain he had made a good choice in asking the Hibiki woman to marry him. Shizuko was a lovely paragon of Japanese femininity from a good family, attractive for a woman her age and nicely well-built. He would actually consider her to be on a par with Professor Saotome's wife, and he felt she was a woman who could be counted upon to provide the proper ambiance whenever he had to host important guests at his home. As much as he had loved his first wife, Kimiko had just never been comfortable being a hostess and acting properly subservient, and his new position would require him to do more schmoozing with politicians and noblemen.

His getting married again had also brought up another matter for him to consider. It had been a long time since he was last intimately involved with a woman, and he did not want to disappoint his intended bride on their wedding night. There had been no one else for him since Kimiko, so he was concerned about satisfying Shizuko as a point of male pride.

Fortunately, while out drinking with Professor Saotome, he had recently made the acquaintance of an attractive, thirtyish woman who he felt certain would be ideal to help him refresh his abilities at such carnal activities before his marriage to Shizuko occurred. Akemi Roppongi, a lovely bar hostess he had come to know over the past several weeks while out carousing with the professor (and occasionally Lord Kuno), seemed well-suited for his needs. He had done some quiet digging into her background, finding that she was a licensed bar hostess without any past troubles with the law. What had surprised him to discover during his research was that she was a widow, formerly married to a military man like Shizuko had been. However, Akemi's husband had died in combat about ten years ago while fighting against insurgents in China. She had no children or even any close relatives.

As being a licensed bar hostess required having quarterly physical checkups to test for incidents of social diseases, her medical records showed that she was clean of any infections and was quite healthy despite the regular drinking she did as part of her occupation and a smoking habit, not that he was anyone to judge that last part. It also showed that her anti-fertility implant was current. She was apparently somewhat picky when it came to accepting male companionship, flirting and drinking with men while she was working, but her last boyfriend had been over a year ago and she apparently didn't prostitute herself with her clientele.

She lived only a short distance away, at the same boarding house that Lt. Godai had been living at before coming to stay with his family. Despite the heavy damage done to the young lieutenant's room from the Mara entity's fireball, the rest of the place had been deemed livable. The building was currently being renovated with the repair money given the owner by his insurance company, apparently having had the foresight to add a supernatural damage rider on to his policy. Such a rider was cheap, as the odds of anything supernatural happening to a given location in the city was vanishingly small, but most people didn't bother with it.

Soun made a mental note to speak with Lt. Godai sometime about Akemi, to see what he thought of the woman. After all, they had been living together in the same building for a while, so the young lieutenant should have some knowledge of what she was like. He wanted to get a sense of what Akemi was like privately, apart from her work persona.

It was entirely possible that her flirtations with him had merely been part of her professional guise. She might not actually be interested in having any sort of a relationship with him outside of her work, so he would need to subtly feel her out to see if she was indeed attracted to him before he made his intentions towards her known and embarrassed himself. After his scan was completed at the Institute, he intended to drop by Akemi's workplace later for a drink or two and some pleasant conversation with her. That decided, he then turned his attention back to his new fiancée.

Due to Shizuko's difficulties with direction, a common Hibiki trait he had experienced to some consternation while escorting her to his home, he realized he would need to keep Kyoko Otonashi on as housekeeper for a while. He would have to speak with her about this later. As she had recently begun a relationship with a promising young officer, he should ask about their plans for the future. Hopefully, she wasn't intending to get married right away and leave their household.

If Kyoko was planning to leave soon, his developing a relationship with Akemi might come in handy another way, since she was a commoner. If things ended up going well between them, after his marriage to Shizuko he might ask Akemi if she would be willing to join his household instead of hiring a new housekeeper to help Shizuko get around. While it would not be a good idea for a man of his social station to marry a commoner, not to mention Shizuko's ability to forbid it as First Wife, it was not at all uncommon for a man of his financial position to have a concubine in addition to a wife.

With that thought, he set down his tea, started the engine with a low rumble and began his drive to the Institute. His own future awaited him, and he was looking forward to serving the Empire in an even greater capacity than he ever had before. And once he was securely ensconced in his new position, it would then finally be time to settle accounts on a few lingering problems in his life that he had been putting off.

Dealing with the matter of Hinako Ninomiya would be one of the first items he needed to attend to on that agenda. It was obvious to him that the treacherous woman could not be left in her current position at the Directorate, as it would allow her far too many opportunities to cause him trouble, but it would also arouse too much suspicion should she just suddenly expire or disappear. Fortunately, he was aware of a spot opening up soon at the Imperial Academy, a staff position that would allow him to manage the scheming woman by placing her there where she could do him little harm. Nabiki could also be counted upon to be his eyes and ears on campus, keeping him informed about any intrigues Hinako might attempt.

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"Time to wake up, sleepyhead."

Yui Ikari grumbled ominously and was tempted to slug her roommate, Miyuki Kobayakawa, even as the other woman leaned over her and shook her awake a second time. Giving into that temptation, she missed, like she did every time she tried. That part of the morning ritual complete, Yui struggled up into a sitting position as she emerged from underneath the covers of her futon, yawning as she stretched out her arms. She was clad only in panties and a worn Mobius Institute T-shirt, the chest region straining a bit due to the ample swell of her breasts as she arched her back while stretching.

When she was done with that, her usual death glare at being woken up (as she was not a morning person at all) did not occur today when she realized that Miyuki had apparently gone out and bought fresh pastries for them all. The pleasant smell of the fruit preserves used in making them assailed her nostrils, along with other delicious food aromas. Her stomach rumbled demandingly, anxious to be filled.

The human eating machine (and the third roommate of their shared apartment), Natsumi Tsujimoto, was already busily wolfing down food. She gave a friendly wave to Yui. Then she went back to consuming her morning meal, an astonishing mountain of food compared to what the rest of them usually ate, washing it down with numerous glasses of orange juice.

"You should hurry to the table, Yui-chan," said Miyuki with a bemused look. "Or there might not be anything left." She stood and gave Natsumi a harder gaze. "Manners, Natsumi-chan. I swear you eat like a teenaged boy."

Shrugging, Natsumi slowed but did not stop her astonishing consumption of food. She loved Miyuki's cooking, and her prodigious metabolism kept her from ever gaining any weight, even eating as incredible an amount of food as she was doing. As that same metabolism was the source of her tremendous physical strength, she considered having to regularly eat the quantities of food she needed to in order to sustain her body in good health to be a fair tradeoff. It was wonderful to be back in their familiar apartment, no longer having to live out of tacky motel rooms and eating whatever fast food could be found as she and Miyuki had been tracking down the wayward Ryoga Hibiki.

Thinking about him caused her eye to twitch uncontrollably for a few moments. She quickly covered herself by increasing her rate of consumption of food, quickly emptying her rice bowl. Her roommates did not appear to notice anything out of the ordinary.

Yui headed grumpily to the table, scratching absently under one armpit before she slumped down at her usual place. Miyuki managed to arouse her to a greater level of wakefulness by simply slipping in front of her a plate holding a fresh pastry. A ham and cheese omelet accompanied it, steaming gently. She grunted and nodded once in gratitude before beginning to gnaw the pastry, grunting and nodding again appreciatively when a full glass of orange juice arrived in front of her.

Her rather rotund pet cat, Jingoro, emerged from his little bed in the corner of Yui's room and ambled out to the main area to see if he could scrounge any food, yawning widely during his short trek. A questioning sound rumbled from his throat at the three women when he arrived at the table, wondering if there was anything for him. He was quickly given some scraps of scrambled egg, ham and a little bit of tuna on his own plate near the table by Miyuki, and he meowed once in what seemed appreciation before starting to gobble it all down.

For a while, Yui had been the only one in the apartment, and she had hated being alone with only her cat for company. It was so much better having her friends back. For one thing, getting herself out of bed each morning without Miyuki's sunny greetings and the smell of breakfast had been almost impossible.

Yui listened absently to the two women as she ate as they chattered away about what they had ahead of them for work today, mainly watching over their new charge, Ryoga Hibiki, and making sure he didn't wander out of town again. As her stomach gradually filled with pastry, she became more aware. Yui then drank down a few swallows of her orange juice and started in on her omelet, a savory one made with a mix of cheeses and ham chunks as only Miyuki could do.

Someone had emailed her a rather startling audio file over the weekend, and Yui was still pondering what to do about it. Tracking it back to its source had been a dead end, not surprisingly. The email had been sent from a throwaway address accessed through a datanet account paid for in cash at a sketchy operation across town. Nobody there could even remember anything about the purchaser, not even if it was a man or a woman, and the security camera had been non-operational. The person who sent her the email had covered their tracks well, the mark of a careful sort.

The recording attached to the email was a confession made by her boss, Hinako Ninomiya, openly admitting that she had been the one to sabotage Yui's relationship with Colonel Gendo Rokubungi. Her voice was very recognizable, but the other speaker's speech was warped, sounding artificial. Hinako had apparently done what she did to keep Gendo for herself. The two of them had been carrying on an affair for many months, one that he had wanted to break off to be with Yui instead, and so Hinako had sabotaged his relationship with Yui to prevent this. The audio recording had detailed how it was done and also why.

Hearing that confession had left her confused about what she should feel towards Gendo now, and angry for other reasons. She was still very much annoyed with him over his being involved with other women while dating her, but she also hated the thought that she had been fooled by someone she had come to trust, a trust that was now destroyed. That it was her superior at the Directorate who was one of the other women made it all even more sordid and disgusting in her eyes.

But was she any better? She too was living a lie, aided in her ruse by the Mobius Institute. Making the whole situation even worse was that she had gotten her two best friends tangled up in that web of lies as well.

She should never have eaten that mushroom when it had been offered to her. If she had refused it, she would still be her proper age, a girl of twelve instead of the adult woman who looked to be around twenty or so that faced her in the bathroom mirror each morning now. But no, she had let herself be seduced by the notion that she could skip all the messy teenage years that had been ahead of her, as well as being able to escape from the hellhole of an orphanage she had been condemned to for three years, ever since the deaths of her parents in a car crash, an accident leaving her as the only survivor.

Bernkastel, a mysterious woman in a blue kimono, had given her the mushroom to eat well over a year ago, claiming to be her 'fairy godmother' of all things. After eventually convincing Yui that she was like an enchantress out of a fairy tale by performing a few tricks, Bernkastel had gone on to tell her that consuming the mushroom would magically age Yui to adulthood and change her life. Like a fool, she never considered the downsides until it was too late, suddenly losing her childhood and eight years of her life, even a miserable one spent in an orphanage run by the government. It hadn't taken very long before the situation had gotten even further out of hand.

Upon her immediate transformation after eating the mushroom, Yui had been quite impressed and pleased by her new adult physique, gazing at her figure in the bathroom mirror. Unfortunately, the sudden change had caused her clothing to rip in numerous places, leaving her outfit mostly in tatters. What had been most embarrassing about that was that she had not been wearing a bra at the time, not yet needing one due to her age and her scrawny frame, and her breasts had expanded greatly. Smirking at her plight, the witch had waved her hand, causing tendrils of light to shoot out and remake the shreds of Yui's outfit into something that fit her properly, even adding a bra of the proper size to support the sizable breasts she now had on her chest.

Her two best friends at the orphanage, Miyuki and Natsumi, would not believe her story at first, that the young woman standing before them was actually her. It had taken a fair bit of convincing on her part, telling the duo things that only the real Yui Ikari would know. At the end, she had shown them her two remaining mushrooms. Bernkastel had given them to her in case she wanted to share her new life with anyone. Perhaps the witch had somehow known what would happen next.

Things had quickly snowballed even further out of control when Natsumi had immediately grabbed one mushroom and swallowed it, wanting to see what she would look like as an adult. Miyuki had not wanted to be left out, so pretty soon all three of them had been transformed into young women of the same age. They had then spent some time admiring their new figures, the other two girls becoming a bit envious of Yui's physique, as she turned out to possess the best set of measurements out of the three of them.

The Mobius Institute had found them soon after that, apparently aided by an anonymous tip from someone, a suspiciously convenient tip, but the organization was unable to undo what had been done to the trio by the magic mushrooms after performing some tests. It was finally decided to give them new identities by rewriting their official records with revised birth dates and other data before putting them to work for the Security Directorate where they could be monitored. They each received new memories that enabled them to do their assigned jobs, the skills being implanted telepathically, copied from other Mobius Institute agents.

Assigned to oversee them was Ayaka Kisaragi, the former advisor to the Empire's famed Miko Task Force, a collection of female superpowered youths ranging in age from ten to sixteen. As the redheaded Ghost Sweeper was experienced in dealing with issues involving girls transformed into more mature forms, she had been deemed to be the ideal advisor for the trio. It hadn't taken very long for Ayaka's mentor relationship with them to grow into a friendship, the four women going out together socially as Ayaka helped them become acclimated to adulthood. And despite being well under half of the Ghost Sweeper's chronological age, Yui had gradually developed a close relationship with her, one almost like they were sisters instead of Ayaka being her mentor.

Because of the redhead's inclinations, choosing to show them what adult forms of fun were like by frequenting bars and karaoke places instead of more wholesome pursuits, the quartet had quickly become known as the 'Fearsome Foursome' of the Security Directorate. It was at one such bar that Ayaka had introduced them to, an establishment frequented by younger military types of an 'officer and a gentleman' sort, where Yui had met Gendo Rokubungi. He had possessed a thrilling air of danger about him that had greatly attracted her, an attraction aided by his also being a remarkably intelligent man. Of course, it was his sharp mind and tactical brilliance that had likely been what had gained him his high rank despite his being only in his early twenties.

Through the course of their initial adaptation, Natsumi and Miyuki had embraced their revised lives quite eagerly, the duo diving into their cover identities and enjoying their new vocations as peaceforcers, especially Natsumi. But then she had always been the toughest one among the three of them, frequently getting into scraps with boys when they had been at the orphanage and beating them up. Yui, disliking the idea of doing such rough and tumble police work like her two friends, had instead opted for a bureaucratic position, becoming the personal assistant to Hinako Ninomiya.

Her new boss had been told the truth, that Yui was really only twelve, and apparently she had never let on to anyone in the Directorate that there was anything odd about her new assistant. As far as Yui knew, Hinako had only slipped up once, when Yui had mentioned her breakup with Gendo to the other woman a while ago. Hinako had commented that their breakup was just as well, since he was too old for her. As Yui looked twenty and Gendo was in his early twenties, this could have caused questions to arise. Fortunately, no one else had been around to hear it.

While continuing to eat her breakfast, Yui considered what she was going to do now. She and Gendo had dated for a while before their breakup, and things had gradually gotten pretty serious between them. When Yui had asked about what to expect, Ayaka had advised her that it was common for a couple who had been together in a relationship for a while to start getting more physical with each other. When asked what she had meant by that, Ayaka had explained in almost graphic detail, although she tried to be as delicate as she could while describing the mechanics and the feelings Yui could expect to experience. Even so, by the time the talk was over, her face had been crimson.

Being a preteen girl in an adult body, Yui hadn't felt ready then to do such things despite the urges in favor of performing such activities that her new form often kept giving her. The farthest she had ever let Gendo get with her had been to kiss and cuddle with him a bit, which had then led to necking on a few occasions. While she had really liked how it felt to be fondled by a man while kissing, the notion of going further and doing more had just been too overwhelming for her.

While she had been furious at the time, the revelation of Gendo's cheating on her had actually been a bit of a relief in some ways. She wasn't sure how much longer she could have kept deferring doing more romantically intense things with him. Learning of another woman in his life had allowed her to end their relationship on a moral high ground.

Following Gendo, several other men had asked her out, but she hadn't felt very interested in them and things never progressed beyond a single date. Then she had met Keiichi Morisato, a nice young man who worked as a designer at Mishima. He was very kind, pleasantly shy, and they had gone out for a while without any pressure on his part for things to become intimate between them. In fact, they never even kissed, so things had simply remained peacefully at the friendship stage rather than becoming anything more serious she had to worry about.

While it had felt comfortable and safe dating him, she began suffering increasing guiltiness that her feelings for Keiichi never grew into love. In her heart, he remained just a friend to her, nothing more. He didn't arouse the kind of passion inside her like Gendo had done.

Her building angst over deceiving Keiichi as to her true feelings had finally driven her to confess to him where things truly stood between them while Miyuki and Natsumi had been out tracking down Ryoga Hibiki. She had told him that she only thought of him as a friend and was sorry she couldn't offer him anything more. Fortunately, while clearly a bit saddened by this, he had taken the revelation rather maturely in her view. They had made promises to keep in touch, but Yui didn't think either of them would. She had not spoken to him since their breakup, and he had not tried to call her.

It was just as well, or so she had rationalized after they said their last goodbyes to each other. She had been using him, enjoying having him around as a safe person for her to date without having to deal with fending off a boyfriend's carnal desires. She had probably led him on, and that had not been a very nice thing for her to do. The fact that she had recognized that she was doing something wrong was a hopeful sign that she was growing up inside and emotionally maturing to a similar level as where her body was at physically. She had cried a little bit after getting home that night, but she was all over the breakup by the time her roommates finally returned home.

Because her first two adult relationships had ended in failure, she had decided to remain single for a while. Dealing with men was troublesome and confusing as an adult, so taking a break from romance seemed best until she could figure a few things out. Instead of dating, she would just go out with her friends to blow off steam from work or satisfy her needs for socializing.

Drinking with other women was safer too, since a man might consider taking advantage of her if she was in an intoxicated state around him. She was well aware that her adult body was a tempting target based on the lingering stares she frequently got from men whenever she was out in public. This was especially true whenever she borrowed something sexy from Ayaka's wardrobe and dolled herself up a bit for fun to go out with her friends for a night on the town. Men practically drooled at the sight of her then, not that Ayaka and her other friends didn't get their share of attention too.

Fortunately, she had never let herself get drunk around Gendo, and so her virginity was safely intact. Although she wasn't sure if he would have actually attempted to take advantage of her sexually while she was inebriated, it was possible such a thing could have happened. Hinako's recorded confession, while quite disheartening on several levels, had revealed to her a side of Gendo that showed her he really wasn't the sort of man she wanted to spend her life with, even if being with him had been kind of exciting.

As Ayaka was getting pretty focused on her latest boyfriend, a history teacher over at Furinkan Military Academy who seemed quite nice, she hadn't been around as much to give her any relationship advice lately. Yui was thinking about talking with Kasumi Ono over beers after work instead. Kasumi was a very pleasant young woman who had recently joined their department and been out with her and her friends a few times.

Since Kasumi was recently married, Yui hoped that she would be a good resource to use for advice as to what she should do regarding being in a mature, satisfying relationship with a man. Although outwardly they appeared to be about the same physical age, Yui had come to regard Kasumi as an older sister, likely due to the difference in their actual chronological ages. While she was Kasumi's senior at work, Yui secretly felt that the other woman should have that role. It made for occasional confusion on her part as to how she should act and speak around Kasumi.

Yui knew there had to be a middle ground between feeling safe with a man and also feeling passionate towards him, but she lacked experience at understanding adult relationships and what men wanted from a woman. Hopefully Kasumi could give her some advice that would lead her to finally having a successful relationship with a man. Over the course of her first year as an adult woman, she had dated two men who were practically opposites of each other.

Both relationships had ended in failure, and the first breakup had been quite emotionally painful. While the second had been much less so, she didn't want to hurt anyone else as she had hurt Keiichi. She hoped Kasumi could give her insights as to what she should look for in a relationship with a man to find that point of equilibrium.

As to the matter of the revelation about Hinako's disgusting activities with Gendo, she had already come up with a plan to deal with the whole sordid situation. Since continuing to work with her present boss was not a pleasant option, over the weekend she had investigated what the alternatives available to her were. The very best one appeared to be a teaching position that had recently opened up at the Imperial Academy, so she was going to interview for it with the school's headmaster. Since Ayaka already worked there undercover, Yui felt that her getting a job there too might give them the ability to spend a bit more time together again.

She hoped she made a good impression on Professor Fuyutsuki when she had her interview with him. Getting this job would give a new direction to her life. With any luck, that teaching position would soon be hers.

xxxxxxxxxxxxxxx

Ryoko grinned as she loitered outside the Battledome, waiting for it to open up to the public for the day. She was trying out a new look for herself: a pair of snug, 'Daisy Duke'-style cutoff denim shorts that she felt would show off her shapely legs and callipygian derriere in an enticing way to a boy, athletic shoes and a tight T-shirt for one of the rock bands she liked listening to. Her teal-colored hair was pulled back into a loose ponytail, giving her a sporty look. She hoped Ranma liked what he saw when she finally found him. While she waited, she was slurping a cup of iced lemonade through a straw and being careful to not spill any of it on herself and trigger her Jusenkyo curse once again.

She was really looking forward to surprising Ranma by coming out to see him like this. It would show him how interested she was in him and also that she was willing to break the rules to help out or just give him moral support and skip school. The thought of him feasting his eyes on her taut body in the revealing clothes she was wearing was also a bit exciting to her, something she had never thought about doing for any other guy before. Well, except maybe for Ryoga, she quickly amended. She couldn't imagine a girl like Nabiki Tendo would ever dress this way for a boy, not with her tight-assed reputation, one that had earned her the sobriquet of 'The Iron Bitch' at the Imperial Academy.

While waiting, Ryoko had been amusing herself by beating up any punks who thought she must be trolling for men from the way she was dressed. One gang of local toughs had foolishly tried to molest her as they had crowded around her. She had shown them the error of their ways.

Her bout with them had not lasted very long, and she had left their battered, bleeding and crumpled bodies scattered around in various states of disarray. She had then leisurely finished off the gang's muscular leader before tossing him away. He had flown unceremoniously about forty feet, ending up landing in a fountain that she was keeping a safe distance from. Then, as all that fighting had made her quite thirsty, she had bought some iced lemonade to drink and cool off.

A number of tourists who witnessed her impromptu battle royale had thought it was all a staged performance of some kind, possibly due to her unusual hair color and also since it had taken place outside the Battledome, which was known for putting on such performances. A crowd of them applauded her at the end as her last erstwhile attacker had passed out. She had even posed for pictures with a few couples and families, flashing a victory sign at the camera with her right hand.

While she was here enjoying herself, her duplicate was substituting for her at school, a little trick she sometimes pulled whenever she felt like playing hooky. It irritated the prune-faced old nuns who ran St. Hebereke to no end, since she could satisfy her requisite attendance and yet not be there at the same time. Unfortunately, she was unable to sustain her duplicate over extended periods of time, since her other self vanished if her real body was ever knocked unconscious. That limitation also meant she couldn't substitute her duplicate to go take a little nap after eating lunch.

Unlike her days spent being truant, her occasional training trips were actually excused absences that were approved by both her parents and Balalaika. The scarred-face Russian woman who enforced discipline at St. Hebereke, being a former Arena champion herself, understood the need to take such trips by a martial artist seeking to improve her abilities. So long as her studies did not suffer much from her absences, Ryoko was allowed to take time off here and there during the school year and train. Setting aside the fact that Balalaika was quite capable of putting her down in about a minute or so despite her advancing age, thirtyish, the fearsome Russian woman generally treated her as a pupil she was mentoring instead of the discipline problem Ryoko's prior schools had viewed her as, sometimes even teaching her techniques she had picked up during her Arena career.

The crowd suddenly shifted and someone bumped into Ryoko from behind while she was distracted by her musings, causing her to drop the plastic cup of lemonade she had been drinking from to the pavement. Fortunately, none of the resulting spill touched her body. She whirled on the person who had done it, furious, realizing how close she had come to becoming a cat again.

"What's the big idea?!" She tried to grab the one responsible. The girl easily evaded her attempt, weaving to one side.

Having avoided the clumsy attack, Perfume eyed the trashy-looking bimbo in front of her dismissively, already irritated due to the press of the milling crowds around them and the June morning heat. She really didn't want to deal with some Japanese punk girl on top of that, especially one who clearly possessed so little self-respect, proven by dressing in such a provocative outfit. No proper Joketsuzoku girl their age would ever flaunt her body so, except for Shampoo, but her rival had been freely prostituting herself in the Arena for many months now. This girl did not appear to care that many men in the crowd were hungrily eyeing her, even after demonstrating her skill at combat.

The gates to the Battledome would be opening soon, and she needed to get inside to hunt down her prey. Her companion on her long journey here, Mousse, had managed to get himself lost in the crowd, useless male that he was. She would punish him for that later.

"Beg pardon," said Perfume, bowing her head slightly, playing up her accent and speaking more poorly at Japanese than she was truly able.

Ryoko blinked, surprised to see that the other girl was Chinese. She was wearing a comfortable-looking outfit typical of a Kung Fu fighter over what appeared to be a shapely frame to rival her own. The clothes were all in darker hues of pink than the girl's hair color. There was also the fighting ability that she had just displayed to consider, having evaded the grab so easily.

As a few minutes remained before the gates opened, Ryoko decided to teach the foreign girl a lesson for making her spill her drink. A grin displayed her fangs. She was rewarded with seeing the other girl gaze at her more warily and then settle into a loose stance, making no efforts to reach over her shoulders for the pair of cloth-covered objects riding on her back, which Ryoko suspected were weapons of some kind.

Over in another area, Cologne took her ease in a shady spot, balancing easily on the end of her staff as she smoked her pipe, watching the crowds flowing around her with mild interest. She was patiently waiting for Shampoo to emerge, so that they could head off to begin the girl's training today. Her great-granddaughter was probably eating breakfast with Ranma again, so she would be along soon.

To one side, an enormous electronic billboard was currently advertising Shampoo's upcoming rematch against the Saotome boy, displaying dramatic pictures of them side by side. As she sat waiting, a sudden commotion erupted across the courtyard. The crowd began shifting, opening up a hole around two young women fighting each other, apparently some sort of combat demonstration being put on by the Battledome from the excited comments she heard around her.

From a distance, all she could see was that a girl with teal-colored hair was dueling with a pink-haired one. Having some free time, Cologne pogoed in that direction in order to get a closer look at the action. When she drew near, she blinked in surprise. She recognized both girls, one of them a fellow villager she was quite familiar with. The two seemed to be fairly evenly matched, judging by their exchanges of blows.

Ryoko launched a kick at Perfume, frustrated that all of her attacks so far had been deflected or dodged. It was a bit like fighting against Nabiki, only her current foe was a tad faster than the Tendo girl. Her foot impacted against Perfume's crossed arms, using both of them to block her attack. The blow caused the pink-haired girl to skid back several feet along the ground.

Irritated at having to contend with a better opponent than expected, Perfume wondered if she should draw her swords after all. She had decided against it when the fight broke out, confident she didn't need a weapon against some Japanese bimbo. There was also the fact that it would probably be a pretty bad idea for her to attract attention from the police by spilling blood in public. The girl she was fighting had turned out to have a monstrously powerful physique as well as a decent command of the martial arts, normally the sort of opponent she would enjoy battling against, but they were causing too much of a commotion for her tastes. She needed to end this fast before things got even more out of hand and someone thought to call the authorities.

Perfume launched a rapid series of attacks composed of both kicks and punches, managing to slip several solid blows past Ryoko's guard, a few of them impacting hard into her foe. However, the girl proved to be more resilient and faster than expected, her teal-haired foe responding with a combination that Perfume was just a split-second too slow in deflecting, and Ryoko's uppercut managed to tag her. It was only a glancing blow, but Perfume's head still snapped up from the sheer force behind it, her teeth crunching together, and she saw stars for a few moments. She managed to dodge away from the next few strikes as she shook her head to clear it, knowing she needed to regain the upper hand she had possessed earlier in the fight.

Her adrenaline surge masking the pain of the blows the pink-haired girl had managed to land into her, Ryoko pressed her attack as hard as she could, pushing forward relentlessly. Balalaika had regularly drilled into her that whenever she held the advantage, however slight or brief, that she was to ruthlessly exploit it for all it was worth and not let up. The other girl, slowed by the uppercut she had managed to get in, missed another block. Ryoko's spin kick slammed hard into Perfume's face, the Masaki girl torqueing her hips behind it to maximize the power.

Stunned by the blow, for the next several moments Perfume was like a sandbag as Ryoko unloaded several heavy punches into her, grunts of pain driven past her lips with each brutal strike to her torso. But she refused to fall, not to some outsider girl. She finally staggered back, rebuilding her defenses, panting, waiting for Ryoko's savage fury to expend itself.

She had been saving this special technique for Shampoo but now realized she had no choice except to bring it out if she was going to win. Her grandmother had given her the scroll detailing it, and she was grateful to have this weapon in her arsenal for her eventual revenge against her rival. If she hadn't, this girl she was fighting against might have already dropped her due to the freakish strength powering her blows. Focusing, Perfume suddenly drove her finger into the ground a foot away from where Ryoko stood.

"BAKUSAI TENKETSU!"

Cologne cursed under her breath when the explosion occurred, sending a torrent of paving stone chunks flying, much of it angled towards Ryoko and the crowd behind the girl. The matriarch managed to get into the path of the flying rubble, blocking and deflecting the more sizable chunks, batting them down with her staff. Only bits of gravel managed to get through, stinging the people standing behind her. Fortunately, no one was harmed by Perfume's ill-considered attack, to Cologne's relief.

Ryoko was not so lucky, caught point-blank at the epicenter of the blast, chunks of granite paving stones slamming into her body and face with tremendous force, far too many of them to dodge. A few sharp ones slashed her flesh, leaving behind shallow wounds. When it was over, she collapsed to her knees, her ears ringing from shock, shaking her head to try and clear it. Droplets of her blood began falling to the ground, speckling it with crimson.

The crowd, thinking it was another combat demonstration that Ryoko was part of, burst into applause once the audience realized none of them had been hurt by the explosion. Claps and cheers for the two girls' efforts were heard. A few wolf whistles sounded as well. Ryoko's tight T-shirt had been ripped, revealing the undersides of her well-rounded breasts.

"That's enough!"

Perfume, about to finish the fight and send Ryoko into unconsciousness, stopped her fist inches away from the other girl's face, freezing at the familiar sound of Cologne's voice. This couldn't be happening! How had the matriarch gotten here from their village so quickly? She would have had to leave immediately after Perfume and Mousse had, and Perfume didn't think her absence could have been deemed to be so important.

Normally, Cologne would not interfere with a duel between relative equals, but harming bystanders would arouse too much attention. That would be bad for all of them. She glared at Perfume, narrowing her gaze menacingly.

Meanwhile, Ryoko staggered back to her feet, dripping blood from several places and nursing several sore ribs. She scowled at Perfume, who glowered back. The two would have come to blows again had Cologne not immediately interposed herself between them.

"What's your name?" Ryoko asked, absently wiping at some blood on her cheek with the back of her hand, leaving a smear behind.

"Peh Fum." The girl's response was curt.

"I'm going to remember you, Perfume." Ryoko continued to glower at the Chinese girl who glared back at her, infuriated at hearing her name be mangled by the outsider.

"We should go," Cologne said, noting a pair of peaceforcers arriving on the scene. "We can continue this conversation another time and place, Ryoko Masaki."

"All right." After glowering one last time at Perfume, Ryoko leaped away. Her planned encounter with Ranma had been ruined, along with one of her favorite T-shirts. If the pink-haired floozy knew what was best for her, they would never cross paths again. She had underestimated the other girl's abilities as a fighter. It would not happen again.

The two Chinese women leaped away together. Reluctantly, Perfume kept up with Cologne as they fled the scene. Her mind was a whirl as they leapt over rooftops and power poles.

After a while, they stopped on the roof of a small office building. Cologne whirled to look at Perfume and said, "Explain yourself, now."

"I was going to see Shampoo," the pink-haired girl averred. "She and I have unfinished business with each other."

"That can wait." Cologne eyed the girl. "Until I say otherwise, you are hereby ordered to stay away from Shampoo."

"But-"

"You heard me. I also don't want you going near the boy Shampoo has gotten tangled up with: Ranma Saotome." Cologne glared at Perfume. "The two of them are far too important for our people's future. Nothing must interfere with their upcoming battle."

"But-"

"Nothing, I said!" Cologne said angrily. "Now, is anyone else from our village with you?"

"Mu Tse accompanied me." Perfume's tone had grown sullen.

"Of course he did," sighed the old woman. "So, he has finally returned from his quest. He has walked the Path of the Outsider, so he is beyond my control now. I have no authority over him anymore." There was a pause. "But you must still obey me."

Perfume cursed her luck. If it had not been for that Japanese bimbo with green hair, she would have escaped Cologne's notice and dealt with Ranma Saotome. Her plans gone up in smoke, she mentally vowed to finish the fight with the other girl the next time she saw her. There would be no mercy when it happened.

At least she could still hunt for her future husband. That at least had not been forbidden. Hopefully, she would have better luck in finding him than she had received in her quest to prevent Shampoo from covering herself in glory. Until she could somehow find a way around Cologne's edict, she would refocus her efforts into finding Ryoga Hibiki and making him hers. Hopefully there would be no complications awaiting her in finishing that task.

xxxxxxxxxxxxxxx

Blinking her eyes, Shizuko was uncertain where she was for a moment, finding herself in a strange bedroom, but that was not so odd for one of Hibiki blood. The children had already departed for school, and she had been pleased to observe how well-mannered Ryoga was while he was interacting with the two girls who were going to be his stepsisters. She had been somewhat worried, knowing how shy he had always been with the girls at home.

Although the two children were not yet aware of the arrangement, she was also quite pleased at how well he seemed to be getting along with his new fiancée: Akane Tendo. She was clearly the sort of young lady her darling little boy needed in his life, someone of indomitable will who could stand by his side and guide him into becoming a proper husband and, someday, a parent. With any luck, Ryoga would become the same sort of fine man that his father had been. She had patiently raised her son in expectation of this day eventually coming, when she would hand him over to a girl of good family to become her husband and let her buff out the remaining rough spots in his character that a mother could not.

It was pleasing to learn that Akane was a practicing martial artist of notable skill and strong of body. While she was not as physically powerful as a girl of Hibiki blood her age would be, she still reminded Shizuko much of herself when she had been that young. As it was quite common among Hibiki men to be rather thick-headed and stubborn, they required the occasional solid blow to the head or body to get their attention and make then behave more properly, so they were best matched with a girl able to pound a bit of sense into them whenever needed. She felt confident that Akane would come to learn how to wisely apply her strength to Ryoga, correcting him whenever she deemed it to be proper. That would keep her little boy firmly on the path his mother had set him upon, towards becoming a good man like his father had been.

Once the children had all gotten a chance to get used to each other, she and Soun planned to share with them the wonderful news of Ryoga's engagement to Akane. Shizuko smiled as she pondered her son's possible reactions. After all, he would be engaged to marry his new stepsister, a notion which did have a slightly naughty feel to it. Perhaps living together with the girl would even inspire him to be a bit bolder with Akane than he otherwise might have been. He had always been painfully shy and rather oblivious when it came to girls.

As their home village had been somewhat insular and maidens with Hibiki blood were not as well-liked by boys due to their fearsome strength, Ryoga's female cousins had spent their youth playing with him rather than being around other boys their age. As those youthful days of childhood innocence had gradually given way to the throes of adolescence, the girls had begun awkwardly flirting with him, without much success. Such relationships were not considered uncommon in their village, although Ryoga had apparently been extraordinarily unaware of their interest in him as a potential husband someday.

While others might think it strange to wed a relative, Ryoga's father had been her own second cousin, the two of them put together through an arranged marriage when his engagement to Yumi Kuonji had failed. After a few rough spots during their courtship, they had eventually been quite happy together. Because of her Hibiki blood and the formidable strength it bestowed upon her, after the tragic loss of her husband, she had resigned herself to a very long widowhood, knowing that none of the village men were willing to take her on, and she was not interested in becoming a second wife. The women in their village were quite possessive of their men, especially those of Hibiki blood. Having a stranger from outside so suddenly offer to wed her had been like a gift from the gods.

One thing she would have to be very careful of with Soun would be to restrain her responses whenever they were being intimate together. She never wanted to hurt him while in the throes of passion, which was admittedly a risk for a normal man when being intimate with a woman of Hibiki blood. It would be a challenge for her, since Hibikis were very frequently rather passionate sorts, but she believed she would be able to hold back just enough to avoid harming him.

Fortunately, she was still young enough to have more children, one of the reasons she was so excited at the opportunity to marry again. She knew she would have to ask Soun how he felt about it, but she was sure she could convince him to father a child or two upon her. It would be so nice to hear the pattering of little feet again. Hopefully she could give Ryoga a baby brother.

She began making a mental list of the tasks she had ahead of her in the next few weeks and hoped that the housekeeper, Kyoko, she recalled was the woman's name, would be staying on for a while. As summer break was coming up soon, the girls would have much more free time, so it would be an excellent opportunity to see how capable they were at performing various household chores. The house could use a proper scrubbing from top to bottom.

Since she would be living here now, it would be nice to make some new friends in the area. Soun had mentioned to her that Nabiki was engaged to a young man named Ranma Saotome. Perhaps making the acquaintance of the boy's mother would be a good start to her putting down roots in her new home. Hopefully they could eventually become good friends.

When she had learned that Akane and Nabiki practiced the martial arts, Shizuko had been pleased to also discover that the household maintained a small dojo. It would be wonderful to get some training time in today and work up some sweat while things were quiet, to burn off some of her nervous energy. Towards that end, she began changing clothes, getting out her well-worn gi from her suitcase, looking forward to a rigorous workout.

Off in the corner, cloaked by her witchcrafts, Bernkastel nodded in satisfaction. The changes to Shizuko had proven to be quite modest when compared to most of those that she had previously done to others in this world, simply adding in a few additional memories to the Hibiki woman's rather uncomplicated personality. The signed marriage contract involving Akane and Ryoga that substantiated Shizuko's and Soun's revised memories had been taken from another reality and secreted into her luggage already.

Nobody in its original world would even miss it, for reasons better left unexplained for the faint of heart.

With a wicked grin, the witch vanished.

xxxxxxxxxxxxxxx

The ride down in the elevator was quiet, each member of the trio keeping their thoughts to themselves. Shishio Makoto in his guise as Cardinal Synn stood alone in back, and the two young novitiates were arrayed in front of him, standing near the elevator doors. Revy kept fidgeting slightly, hoping she could smoke a cigarette soon to calm her nerves, agitated about meeting Ranma for reasons she preferred to not consider too deeply. Roberta stood solemnly next to her.

"So, what did you think of him, ladies?"

Revy snorted and muttered, "Like it matters what the hell we think." More loudly she said, "I guess he's not so bad. I'll do as I'm told and let him do me." There was a pause. "Sir."

It was inaudible, but the man at the back of the elevator might have sighed. He had hoped for a bit more enthusiasm to seduce Ranma from the girl, but Revy was notorious for being a difficult sort. It didn't help matters that she was crude and ill-tempered due to a rough upbringing with poor role models, but maybe the Saotome boy could help smooth her rough edges. Hopefully Ranma was thoughtful before speaking, or Revy would quickly be at his throat with intent to inflict great bodily harm.

Adjusting her glasses briefly, Roberta struck a more thoughtful pose than her partner. "I thought he was handsome, sir. I'll follow your orders regarding him, but I'd like to spend some time with him and see what he's like before anything intimate happens between us."

Revy muttered a jibe under her breath, something about Roberta looking for a hero to spread her legs for. With difficulty, the other girl managed to restrain herself from attempting to throttle Revy. Both of them were tense for several moments, eyeing each other lethally, and Shishio wondered if a fight was about to break out between them in the enclosed space, idly considering his tactical options if it happened. The two were now working together in an enforced détente, but it was uncertain how long the peace between them would last. Even the threat of Balalaika's wrath only carried so far with these two rather volatile and violent young women.

The elevator stopped, and the trio went silent. When the doors opened, Shenhua was seen standing there, waiting to go up to her room. She eyed the occupants of the elevator, her normal expression of boredom on her face, but it began fading after a couple of moments, her gaze subtly narrowing in a menacing fashion.

Revy felt a sudden wariness strike her a few moments after the doors had opened, similar to the irritating feelings that Roberta and Eda always gave her, and, more recently, Shampoo, although Eda was somehow a friend despite that. She eyed the Taiwanese Arena fighter with a deadly gaze, her hands flexing closed once, her knuckles cracking softly. Despite her inner turmoil, her previously visible agitation seemed to abruptly vanish, and she became ominously still.

At her side, Roberta eyed Shenhua with a calm regard. She could sense Revy's sudden solemnity, a warning sign that her companion was readying herself for a fight. Feelings of irritation and wariness washed over her mind as she studied the stranger in front of her, but she refrained from giving off any hostile vibes like Revy was currently radiating despite her stillness.

Cardinal Synn, standing behind the two novitiates in his charge, had not noticed anything out of the ordinary concerning Shenhua. Behind the dark mask of his cardinal's guise, Shishio Makoto casually studied the girl's appearance, quickly noting her beauty and the attractive length of her legs. He could sense the responses of the two novitiates towards the third girl, both clearly eager for conflict.

"You coming out?" Shenhua inquired calmly, her gaze narrowing a bit more, her nostrils flaring slightly. She and Revy had locked eyes with each other, so it was possible the question was only being addressed at her.

Revy growled briefly in response, but she remained still. She started slightly when Shishio suddenly gripped her shoulder with one hand, although his grasp was light. His touch reassured her as he stepped past the two girls, one of the very few people in her life she actually respected.

"Pardon us, young lady," said Shishio politely in flawless Taiwanese, one of numerous languages he spoke fluently. He recognized the girl from photographs, a new arrival to the Battledome. What was unexpected to him was the tingle of awareness he suddenly felt awake within him when he drew closer to her, a sign that she was like the two girls accompanying him. Behind his mask, he smiled wolfishly.

Many years ago, the Church had taken a quantity of his blood to extract samples of the symbiote organism from it, injecting the reconstituted serum they created into orphans of varying ages that they had selected as candidates for the procedure. The intent was to create their own cadre of augmented humans, and they were relatively successful. Among several other things he had done, it was a part of the price he had willingly paid them for their aid in establishing his 'Cardinal Synn' cover identity. A few of those children given the serum had been misplaced over the years, but it appeared that he had unintentionally located one such foundling.

Shenhua was startled to feel a sudden tingling of arousal as the dark figure in cassock and robes loomed before her, his face hidden by a full facemask. He radiated masculine power, awakening a visceral response within her. Before now, only her boyfriend, Ryu Kumon, had ever given her such profound stirrings. The sensations running through her body distracted her from her previous urges to attack Revy.

"If you have a few moments," Shishio intoned calmly. "I'd like to make you a proposal, young woman."

"Proposal?" Shenhua blushed suddenly, a girlish response that both surprised and deeply irritated her. She considered herself to be far too worldly to do such a thing.

Revy smirked. When the cardinal had rescued her from a life sentence in prison, he had said to her almost exactly the same phrase. She had been incarcerated for killing a peaceforcer, a man who had attempted to rape her while she was in custody on charges of vagrancy and petty theft. Her first experience with the boost had enabled her to twist his head halfway around with her bare hands before he could manage to violate her. Cardinal Synn had not only somehow made all the charges go away, but he had even completely erased her criminal records from the system, giving her a clean slate.

She turned and caught Roberta's eye.

"You think we're getting a new classmate?" Revy's need for a cigarette had been momentarily overcome by the fading surge of adrenaline caused by the possibility of a fight with Shenhua. She studied the Taiwanese girl, wondering how she would get along with the likes of Balalaika.

"It's possible," Roberta mused, taking out one of her balisong knives and flipping it open and closed idly in her right hand, a habit she had that kept her hands limber. She eyed the Taiwanese girl speculatively as the blade clattered lightly in her grip, absently recalling how her own first meeting with Cardinal Synn had gone. "She gives me the same sort of vibes that you and Eda do. She must be like us; one of God's chosen few."

The quartet quickly found a quiet corner, and Shenhua heard out Shishio on the terms of his offer. It did not take long.

"I think I understand," Shenhua said at the end, speaking carefully in Japanese as she focused on the core aspects of the bargain being held out to her. "I join program, go to school like them, fight people you want me to fight, and you give me Church-sponsored citizenship in Empire?"

"Indeed." Shishio was solemn behind his mask. He was pondering the ways that fate worked so neatly sometimes. If Ranma had not fought Shampoo, the boy would likely not have come to his attention. If that had not happened, he would never have met Shenhua this morning.

"I have boyfriend," the Taiwanese girl said thoughtfully. "Japanese boy. Fought Shampoo but lost, so stuck six months here."

"What's his name?"

"Ryu Kumon. You help Ryu, pay his penalty, I join. Maybe he join school too?" Shenhua was hoping that getting Ryu away from Shampoo would help him focus more on her, but the two girls with the dark-robed man were giving her a bad vibe, especially the one named Revy. She suspected that her boyfriend liked the look of Chinese girls more than Japanese ones. This pair might develop an interest in Ryu, so she would have to keep a very close watch on them and forcefully discourage them should it become necessary.

The boy's name was vaguely familiar to Shishio, taking him a few moments to place it. He then suddenly recalled where he had heard it. Ryu Kumon was a promising young street fighter in the Nerima region of Tokyo, a champion at it, him and a girl named Sakura Kasugano.

Shenhua's offer was not unreasonable, if this was the same Ryu.

"I shall consider it."

Shenhua nodded, pleased. She could not wait to tell Ryu about this. After bowing, she departed.

Once she was gone, Shishio stared after her thoughtfully. Events were moving in intriguing ways. He was more pleased than ever now that he had taken an interest in Ranma. The boy was leading him to unexpected treasures. He wondered what else he might eventually discover by his keeping a closer watch on the pigtailed youth.

xxxxxxxxxxxxxxx

Slowly returning to consciousness from a very pleasant dream involving Kodachi, several feathers and a few gallons of whipped cream, Mikado at first thought it was her lying cuddled up against him and giving him such warm and enjoyable sensations to greet his emergence from slumber. When he instead saw tousled, pale hair rather than Kodachi's raven locks and realized it was Asuka's athletic pulchritude pressed so warmly against him and not the girl he yearned for, he frowned darkly. He suddenly felt immensely irritated at his body's rather obvious betrayal of his true feelings for his bedmate, expressing its carnal desires for the cruel, villainous girl sleeping next to him.

After glancing at the clock on the wall, he did not stir from his position. Classes would be starting soon, but he had no interest in showing up today. Fortunately, attendance on Mondays was normally a bit lighter, many of his peers recovering from their weekend activities. The teachers knew better than to say anything, not if they wanted to stay employed.

He took solace in the knowledge that his physical response was only due to the feel of Asuka's magnificent physique lying pressed up against him and the enticing scent of her delicate, natural musk tickling his nose. He had absolutely no desires for her beyond her admittedly gorgeous physical charms, none whatsoever. Despite his dismay at discovering himself lying once again in the warm embrace of this treacherous young woman, his memories of their ardent bedroom antics somewhat mollified how he felt about it, as well as the other events of last night.

After suffering through another arduous and painful training session with the enigmatic Nanashi at the Saginomiya family's large estate, diligently continuing to improve his skills to higher levels after his ignoble failure to crush the contemptible Saotome wretch at their last encounter at Ohtori, Asuka's father had surprised him as he was about to depart for dinner with his family. Unexpectedly, Lord Saginomiya had extended an invitation for him to have dinner here instead, the man even generously providing him with a fine suit of clothing and the use of their superb household baths to freshen up before the meal. If the man wasn't such a stupid, whimsical fop prone to outrageous acts at the drop of a hat, the offer would have aroused Mikado's suspicions.

To the Sanzenin boy, Lord Saginomiya exemplified the many annoyingly vacuous dimwits that seemed to infest the various echelons of the Empire's aristocracy. Such weak stock needed to be torn out and replaced with men possessed of far greater vision than merely seeking to gratify their own jaded desires, if the Empire was ever to finally complete its conquest of the Earth and fulfill its grand destiny to unify mankind under the Son of Heaven's rule. Instead of such majestic goals, Lord Saginomiya only seemed interested in enjoying trysts with his gorgeous wife, a sultry woman who seemed just as mindless and inane as he was. This was especially true whenever she laughed, or, perhaps more accurately described, snorted like some lowly commoner wench.

She was actually Lord Saginomiya's second wife, wedded soon after the unfortunate death of Asuka's mother some time ago. As he recalled, the circumstances of the former Lady Saginomiya's end had involved some sort of a riding accident that left her comatose, eventually expiring late one night under suspicious circumstances that were never really investigated. His Lordship then married his new bride a few weeks after he laid his first to rest, evoking a scandal at its rapidity and the woman's questionable origins.

It was Mikado who had consoled Asuka over the tragic loss of her dear mother, in exchange for her virginity. He had thought it an equitable transaction at the time, an event happening about two years ago. Being a much less malicious girl then, because of her great beauty Asuka had been granted the singular honor of being chosen as his very first conquest of a virginal young lady of the peerage. Seducing her had required him bringing to bear all he had learned from his many nights spent practicing such skills by conquering the hearts of the comely young serving girls who labored at his family's household.

Despite his dislike of acknowledging it, being with Asuka that night had been an unforgettable occasion for him, one he was never quite able to equal with any other girl, although not for lack of trying. Since that night, she had gradually grown in her abilities from the demure virgin she once was into becoming a superlative partner at such erotic activities, doubtless due to her trysts with her many would-be suitors, or so he had heard. Strangely, the thought of her being intimate with other young men aroused an unexpected feeling of outrage within him.

It could not possibly be jealousy though. He knew that was an utterly ridiculous notion. The White Lily was simply a convenient, admittedly pleasurable outlet for his recurring needs for a woman. She meant absolutely nothing to him on an emotional level. No girl other than Kodachi Kuno held such value for him. She was the pristine ideal that no other could compare to.

Knowing Asuka as well as he did, he was certain the presence of Lord Saginomiya's second wife vexed her greatly, judging by the many subtle tensions that had kept appearing in the White Lily's otherwise flawless jawline whenever the current Lady Saginomiya addressed her as "Dearest Stepdaughter" or something similar during their meal together. The grinding of her back teeth had been almost audible to him even from across the spacious table; although Asuka's well-practiced poise had concealed all other signs of her acute displeasure. If he didn't loathe her inimical personality so very much, Mikado would have found it quite captivating that she managed to maintain such excellent composure in the face of clearly trying circumstances.

During the intervening years since he had seduced her (starting right after his breakup with her the day after he claimed her maidenhead), she had developed into an amazingly vicious, heartless bitch. However, despite that one glaring flaw in her character that only a few ever had to deal with, in other respects she remained an aristocratic young lady possessed of superlative manners that had made her the envy of other young women of the peerage. Many girls looked up to her as an exemplar of what a lady of the nobility should be like.

If they only knew the truth about what a shrew she truly was, he mused sardonically. Because it was widely known that he and the White Lily utterly despised each other, he had sometimes found it easier seducing girls that Asuka held enmity with. In turn, she would entice young men into her boudoir that he disliked. It was part of the unspoken game they had been playing against each other ever since their breakup.

Just before the first course was served, his parents had then suddenly arrived at the table. Looking back upon that moment in his memories, he realized he should have attempted to abscond then. Unfortunately, by then it was already far too late. The rest of the evening then went pretty much as he had dreaded it would from that point.

Apparently, his many repeated visits to the Saginomiyas had been noted and dutifully reported back to his parents, who had not seen fit to discuss the matter with him and learn why he was spending so much time with Asuka before embarking on their course of action. Since he had long made it a firm point to avoid any kind of prolonged relationships with girls, only spending enough time with them to gain their trust in order to seduce them, his many visits here had sent an unintended message. The additional revelation of his frequent, recurrent trysts with the White Lily, all dutifully reported by the household servants, had inspired both fathers to begin serious negotiations for marrying their two young offspring together. Mikado's sire had been enthusiastic to close the deal, especially upon learning that Asuka was currently the sole heir to the Saginomiya family's fortune, barring her father's second wife someday giving him a boy who would then inherit it all instead.

Oh, both of them had protested, Mikado quite vehemently, and Asuka even let her mask of studied politeness slip a bit during the discussion that ensued. The two of them had presented a surprisingly united front, supporting each other's arguments against the combined will of their obtuse parents, trying to make them see reason as to why such a union could never possibly work. Mikado thought he had been quite eloquent in his protests, each line of reasoning carefully presented in such a way as to avoid insulting Asuka and causing himself other difficulties down the line should he fail to prevail.

She had done the same, arguing her case without demeaning him in the process, which was a bit of a shock to him to experience. He had never known before that she possessed such an astute intellect. It was also a surprise to him that she could be quite well-spoken and articulate when she set her mind to it.

Alas, it had all been to no avail. The papers had already been drawn up and signed, and the meeting between their two families had simply been a formality demanded by legal protocols at that point. Mikado Sanzenin and Asuka Saginomiya were now officially engaged against their will. The pair could do nothing about it at that point except to seethe at the rank injustice of it, grumble under their breaths and find someone to scapegoat for their misfortunes (and physically take out their frustrations upon with extreme prejudice).

With a wink and a nod, his treacherous father had abandoned him there to deal with a seething Asuka while he had absconded home with Mikado's esteemed mother in tow, leaving the young nobleman to suffer through the aftermath of their distressing actions. Before her departure, his mother, benevolent, gentle and kind-hearted paragon of virtuous womanhood that she was in Mikado's view, had then expressed her sincere hopes that the two of them would find common ground and learn to work together, since they were going to be married someday. Then, in order to further improve the odds of his brutal murder at Asuka's hands in the near future, his mother then said she was looking forward to seeing several grandchildren from them after their wedding.

Following that, she had a surprisingly long talk with Asuka in private while the two fathers drank together in celebration. He had been very tempted to join them. A condemned man was entitled to a drink before going to the gallows, wasn't he?

Unfortunately, his father had refused to let him drink, the bastard. He had contented himself with brooding in a corner while waiting for Asuka to reemerge. It was something he was becoming quite good at, what with his curse and the unfortunate way his love life had been going lately. He felt almost Byronic at times.

It had been an astonishingly quiet and sober-faced White Lily that returned to him after that dialogue, leaving him to wonder just what it was his saintly mother could have possibly said to the haughty girl to leave her in such a solemn state. When they were alone once again, Asuka didn't even scream at him as she sometimes felt the need to, let alone cast her usual, hateful aspersions upon his character for their unexpected predicament together. He had actually found her unrelenting calmness in the face of his polite inquiries into her state of mind extremely chilling, knowing she was at her most dangerous whenever she was being congenial.

He knew very well that such a cordial mien was how she hid her true, vicious nature until she had lulled her intended victim into foolish complacency, allowing her to strike without mercy and wound deeply. During the foreseeable future, he realized he would need to remain exceedingly careful around her whenever sharp objects were left within her reach. And no blades of any kind would ever be allowed in the bedchamber.

This exasperating, condescending bitch was to be his bride. Even more horrific, she would be his First Wife, frustrating his intended goal of placing Kodachi Kuno into that prestigious position (as well as the many other sorts of positions he so yearned to put her in). Instead of having a sweet, demure, pliable young woman of the peerage like the beauteous Kuno girl to marry and take his proud family name, his bride was going to be this razor-tongued, spiteful, venomous harpy birthed from the deepest pits of hell, who would likely carve out his guts with a rusty spoon should he ever turn his back on her.

Admittedly, Asuka Saginomiya was trimly athletic, stunningly gorgeous, an unrivaled bedmate and a girl possessed of impeccable manners. But only three things were really required of Sanzenin women: be beautiful, be fertile and, the most important thing, always remain quietly in the background and let the men attend to business. As it was Sanzenin men who did all the scheming and acquiring, the women of the family were expected to know their places within the household and be supportive of their husband's efforts. Unfortunately, Asuka did not fit that mold at all, being aggravatingly independent-minded and outspoken with her thoughts, much like how his annoying youngest sister comported herself around him lately, to his vast displeasure with that particular sibling. At least his other sister acted more appropriately, like a good Sanzenin girl should.

What were his parents thinking? Engaging him to someone so completely unsuitable to ever becoming a proper Sanzenin woman was an unimaginable hardship for him to have to endure. They should have known what he demanded in a bride by now. In order for a girl to become a part of the illustrious Sanzenin family, any prospective bride of his had to be a gorgeous exemplar of womanly pulchritude, an ardor-filled temptress in bed whenever he felt the need, a statuesque trophy that other men would covet and envy him for possessing whenever they beheld her on his arm, and a woman who would someday demonstrate her fertility by providing the family with the children he would father upon her to carry on the proud Sanzenin name. She should not be a twisted, hate-filled, malicious and utterly vindictive witch who would challenge him at each and every turn in life and cause his future daily existence to be an even worse living hell than his Jusenkyo curse had already made of it.

Perhaps this was all his dear father's revenge for his rejecting Azusa Shiratori as a bridal candidate, one of Asuka's coterie of cronies and the latest in the long queue of unsuitable girls he had been forced to reject after squandering some of his precious lifespan with them. While that particular young maiden was gorgeous enough to entice him into enjoying a sensuous liaison with her, she was far too irritatingly vacuous of mind and annoying of personality for him to ever be able to deal with on a long-term basis. She had proven herself well beneath his minimum standards for a wife after only a few minutes of his life were wastefully spent in having to endure her inane presence.

Once their fury over this horrible situation had cooled a bit, he and Asuka had eventually reached their own conclusions as to who to blame for this dreadful calamity. Fortunately for their families, it was not each other.

Mikado laid all the blame for his sorrows at the feet of Ranma Saotome. In his view, the young scholar was personally responsible for this quite unbearable dilemma he now found himself in. Mikado's reasoning was that he had been forced by sheer necessity to find a teacher like Nanashi in order to compete with Ranma's annoyingly powerful combat skills, so his unwanted engagement to such a shrewish bitch as Asuka Saginomiya was clearly all Ranma's fault.

Using a similarly tortured form of logic, Asuka chose to blame Kodachi for her horrid situation, and her hatred for the other girl ascended to a new zenith of animosity. After all, dealing with Kodachi's quite unexpected (and rather frustratingly formidable) skills at combat had been what drove her into accepting tutelage from the enigmatic Nanashi as her master to improve her own self-admittedly quite impressive abilities to even greater heights. However, the entirely unwanted outcome of becoming the fiancée of such a lecherous cad as the infamous Mikado Sanzenin had then directly resulted from that one ill-fated decision. So Asuka's engagement to the lascivious beast named Mikado Sanzenin was clearly all Kodachi's fault.

The two had privately renewed their vows to utterly crush their respective nemeses and make their suffering before their defeats both legendary and enduring. Then they had slept together.

They were blazingly passionate and fervent with each other throughout much of the night, sublimating their seething fury at their awful situation into an incredible ardor for each other. It had made for a spectacular ending to the day, taking the pair many hours before they were finally finished with each other, only stopping when both of them were far too spent to continue on.

Their bodies still damp with sweat from their animal activities, they had then fallen asleep together. Disturbing imagery had populated their slumbers. Each of them had tossed and turned for much of the night.

Mikado's dreams had been a mixture of horror and triumph. In one victorious fantasy, he had broken Ranma's neck after a particularly satisfying, brutal struggle and then just left the other boy's dying carcass in a field for the crows to consume at their leisure. However, other dreams involved him suffering humiliating defeats instead. They had put him through a long string of degrading losses at the Saotome boy's hands, each one worse than the last.

Intermixed with his nightmares about Ranma, he had also experienced a few extremely lurid sexual fantasies, many of them starring the little redheaded she-devil he planned to someday find and punish. His sleeping mind had conjured up numerous awful things he would do to her as part of his revenge. The final dream involving that much loathed girl, the details of which were better left unsaid, had then segued into the one involving Kodachi he had been enjoying immensely just before waking up.

He nudged Asuka to move off his deadened arm, provoking only a sleepy protest at first. A second nudge, less gentle than the first, yielded better results. She blinked and sat up suddenly, gloriously naked, not even bothering to attempt covering herself with the sheet.

The blazing fury of her gaze threatened to render him into so much smoldering ash, but Mikado Sanzenin was not one to be cowed by the fierce glares of enraged teenaged girls, having endured so many of them already in his young life. He gave her a lazy smile instead. A feeling of pins and needles began engulfing his arm as sensation returned to the limb his unwanted fiancée had been sleeping upon.

"Asuka-chan, my sweet," he said, his tones holding its usual low-key sarcasm as he addressed her. "Good morning to you."

"Mikado-kun." Her voice was a seductive purr, but a subtle undertone of malice was present, as it always was whenever she addressed him. "It appears last night's horrifying events were not just a nightmare after all."

She suppressed an involuntary shudder at the horrible visions she had experienced during the night. The most vivid one she could recall involved her wedding Mikado in a grand ceremony, with even the Emperor in attendance, the bride and groom both dressed in pristine white. She remembered feeling quite ecstatic in that dream, and that disturbed her to recall now that she was awake, disliking what it might mean about her true feelings towards a certain lewd beast in her bed. Fortunately, dreams were not reality.

Glancing at her clock, Asuka quickly realized she must have been more fatigued from training and her carnal activities last night than usual. She suspected her additional need for rest must be due to her emotional stress at becoming engaged so unexpectedly, and to whom. Classes were becoming dreary affairs as Blackhall's finals approached, so she quickly decided to skip, uninterested in hearing any of her instructors drone today. After all, she did not need to worry about her grades. Besides, as it was Monday, several of her classmates were likely out as well, the poor dears recovering from too much fun over the weekend.

"If you refer to our promised nuptials, my dear fiancée," Mikado said with a dismissive wave, seemingly unaware of her tremor of revulsion at being reminded of their engagement. "That is a concern for another day. Today we shall instead devote ourselves anew to the defeat of our chosen foes, avenging ourselves upon them with all of our righteous fury."

"Agreed." Asuka's gaze regarded him solemnly. "I intend to inflict an agonizing retribution upon Kodachi Kuno for her many heinous misdeeds against me." There was a brief pause. "Being forced to become your fiancée is something I am adding to the top of the list of grave offenses that I shall someday hold her accountable for."

Mikado's gaze narrowed dangerously, and he smiled coldly. "You wound me, my darling Asuka-chan," he said in chilly tones. "However, so long as dear Kodachi-chan is not permanently marred, you are completely free to indulge your innate viciousness upon her. I shall not stop you." He eyed her, his gaze growing more pitiless.

"After seeing her with that melancholic Kaoru whelp with the stopwatch fetish at the dance at Ohtori, not to mention having to endure the company of that pretentious girl I was escorting in order to attend, I find myself growing extremely displeased with Kodachi-chan's continuing deficient choices in men. I desire to see her sorely chastened for all of them. First it was her becoming inexplicably involved with that upstart Saotome, a mere yeoman, little better than some filth-stained peasant, and now she spends time with a weak-chinned fop like Miki Kaoru. Neither of them are worthy of her magnificence."

"Jealousy ill becomes you, Mikado-kun." Asuka laid down on her right side, facing him. Idly, her hand moved to his groin, fondling him there. She found his rage, mixed with the heady, musky scent he always seemed to give off ever so faintly, to be an arousing combination. The giddy sensations his presence never failed to ignite within her only made it more intoxicating. These were things she had never made him aware of, stubbornly refusing to ever admit that she found a loathsome lecher like him to be so damnably attractive to her.

She felt him respond to her efforts immediately and smirked, her tones becoming coquettish. "Kaoru-san is quite a fetching young man, enough to attract any girl's more prurient interests. However, I had heard he was fascinated with the so-called Prince of Ohtori." Leaning her head forward, she began doing more intimate things to him.

He grunted at her comment, allowing her to continue her ministrations upon his flesh, closing his eyes and relishing the blissful sensations she was giving him. "She's a handsome enough girl, I suppose. Too mannish and baseborn for my tastes though. Saotome is welcome to have her. She was certainly all over him at the dance whenever she had the chance, the little pink-haired harlot."

Asuka drew back and gazed upwards at him, leaving one hand resting on his hip. "My sources inform me that the Saotome boy proved himself to be an exceptional dancer." She smiled coyly at his discomfiture, seeing his eyes snap open and glare down at her, meeting her gaze icily. "Your jealousy is showing again, Mikado-kun." She leaned forward and went back to what she had been doing, her hand caressing his outer thigh.

He smiled thinly, unwilling to let her comment pass despite how very delightful her current actions were. "Kodachi Kuno was glorious on the dance floor as well, Asuka-chan. Every male eye was fixated upon her whenever she danced. The flocks of pretentious girls at Ohtori were clearly envious of the natural grace and charm she exuded."

Asuka immediately stopped what she was doing. "I am a far better dancer than that lumbering cow," she huffed. Sitting up, she moved away from him, her gaze chill and filled with its usual haughtiness as she looked him in the eyes, and her tones turned imperious. "Take me dancing, and I'll prove it to you."

He smirked. "Challenge accepted, Asuka-chan. Wear something new. Bold."

"I shall," she sneered. "You won't be able to take your eyes off of me all night, you lecherous, vile beast. Every man who sees us together will covet me and wish I was on their arm. Perhaps I'll be lucky, and one of my many suitors will challenge you to a duel and kill you."

He let her remarks pass without dispute, merely raising one eyebrow. Among all the girls he had ever known in his young life, he had always been a bit intrigued by her supreme confidence in her attractiveness. He was also secretly relieved that she was back to her normal mode of speaking to him, lacing her sentences with their usual barbs and caustic insults. Maybe she wouldn't brutally murder him in his sleep after all.

Maybe.

"We'll make a night of it, you and I," he said with a smirk. "You'll come with me as my date to the Battledome when Ranma Saotome has his little rematch against that Chinese wench. Then we'll go out dancing afterwards."

"A date?" She was initially aghast at the idea, but there existed a part of her that was pleased at the notion of going out with him to be shown off to their peers like the prize she knew she was. Her vanity warred fiercely with her pride, and vanity won in the end. A cunning smile lit her face.

"My family owns a private viewing room at the Battledome that they never use," Mikado stated casually, unwilling to comment on the reason why they did not. "I'd like to be there watching if this little Chinese helot hands Saotome his head during their rematch. I've heard she's killed someone, quite brutally in fact, and there might be an encore involving him, if I'm lucky enough.

The sight of the upstart wretch expiring at this barbarian girl's hands would be a wonderful thing, almost as good as if I was the one doing it. There are several excellent nightclubs in the area that we could then favor with our presence afterwards. After all, we might as well get out ahead of the gossip that our engagement will surely cause among the peerage and make a good showing of it."

He had considered inviting along Tatewaki Kuno and Juri Arisugawa, his best friend's gorgeous new love interest, in order to make a foursome of the evening, but he finally decided against it. Tatewaki was acting unusually besotted of late with the girl, quite understandably so as she was rather magnificent. The two of them had been busy attending a whirlwind of social functions together, and so he had not seen much of Tatewaki lately outside of school.

However, having the latest young lovely who had swept her way so deeply into the Kuno boy's heart around Asuka might drive the White Lily into an attempt at bloodshed, and that would just put a damper on the whole evening, not to mention seriously jeopardizing his close friendship with Tatewaki. He knew Asuka was still quite irritated at the Kuno boy's stated preference for the two Tendo girls over her, and it was certain she was planning something violent on one or both of them soon to assuage her infamous temper.

"Very well," Asuka agreed. Inwardly, she continued to seethe a bit, but she gave no further outward signs of it.

She did have a new dress by Muramaki she had been searching for the perfect venue to wear it to. A night out with Mikado Sanzenin at the Tokyo Battledome for what was being advertised as the biggest event of the fight season before the Emperor's Tournament began just might do. And then there were also the exclusive nightclubs in the area they could patronize afterwards.

Mikado Sanzenin was a lecherous pervert with few peers in that ignoble status, but he was also an exceedingly handsome and charming young man. She would be the object of envy of every aristo girl and commoner wench who saw her on his arm that night. The thought of that mollified her wounded pride over Mikado saying Kodachi was a sublime dancer when it was quite clear to her that was untrue. She could dance circles around the Kuno bitch, if it ever came to a test.

Among her many other concerns, Asuka was still processing the rather startling secret about the Sanzenin family that Mikado's mother had let her in on last night, now that she was contracted to join their ranks. Sanzenin women were famed across the Empire for their great beauty, charm and gentleness of manner, publicly being seen on their husband's arm like a gorgeous trinket, remaining quietly in the background as the men took care of amassing ever more immense levels of wealth for their clan. The women of the other noble families often looked down their noses at those of the Sanzenin clan, calling them stupid peacocks who only cared about their appearance, brainless little dolls wrapped up in beautiful, expensive outfits, courtesans no better than high-class pleasure replicants and other such epithets.

In another world, they would have fit in very well in a town called Stepford.

However, that was all an elaborate illusion, a ruse. Asuka, like other women of the peerage, had bought into a mirage, never suspecting the reality that existed behind the beautiful mask. She had thus been quite astonished to learn the truth when it was presented to her.

When they were alone, Mikado's mother had quite abruptly abandoned her polished pose of pleasant poise, suddenly gazing at her with exactly the same sort of hardened, calculating look that any Sanzenin man possessed. The transformation had been quite astounding to behold and more than a little frightening due to its suddenness. Asuka recalled actually feeling a bit intimidated, not that she would have ever admitted it.

It turned out that the women of the Sanzenin family viewed themselves as the true power of the clan, preferring to work behind the scenes. Its daughters were raised to uphold and sustain this illusion of being nothing more than 'pretty peacocks' in public. In each generation, they were then carefully married off to other influential families to men who thought them merely ornaments to grace an arm without a thought in their gorgeous heads. And so the tendrils of Sanzenin influence had slowly spread for generations.

Mikado's younger sister, Hiroki, a girl of fourteen, was blessed with a full measure of their mother's great beauty. She had long, silken hair and a delicate, refined manner. Their father had recently managed to secure a pledge to wed her into a branch of the Imperial Family. This was understandably deemed to be quite a coup among the aristocracy, and it was a clear sign that the Sanzenins were becoming a power to be reckoned with in the Empire. The wedding would take place after she turned sixteen.

However, some Sanzenin girls did not fit this mold and were allowed to follow other paths. Mikado's youngest sister Minato was one such individual, a pugnacious girl who had just turned ten this month, far too tomboyish and prideful to ever let herself be seen as just some man's beautiful trinket. To their mother's dismay, the girl had even announced her intentions to join the Security Directorate, to labor like some mere commoner.

Promising young women from other noble families who wed Sanzenin sons were quietly approached before the marriage and offered the opportunity to join this secret sorority. This was done by one of the matriarchs of the family, such as Mikado's mother. It wasn't mentioned what happened to those who refused the offer or proved unsuitable at maintaining the facade of a Sanzenin Wife, but Asuka could fill in those blanks for herself, recalling the occasional sudden and mysterious deaths of young brides occurring in the family's past.

That was where the White Lily came in. She had been offered the chance to have real power in her future family, one of the most influential and wealthiest in the Empire. Becoming a Sanzenin would endow her with enormous influence and the opportunity to enjoy luxuries and sybaritic pleasures bought by the family's immense fortune, but her control needed to be wielded deftly and wisely.

She would have to be able to subtly guide her future husband without ever letting him realize he was being controlled. Was Asuka capable of shepherding Mikado with that supreme level of subtlety? Could she sustain such a ruse against him over her entire life without faltering?

Those were the questions she had been pondering when she returned to her new fiancé; only to then have to endure his tiresome inquiries. However, during that discussion, she had suddenly seen Mikado in an entirely new light, noting how reverently he referred to his mother as he asked about their conversation. Loathsome lecher and foul ravisher of virgins that he was, she had never known him to hold any woman in such a high esteem as he did his mother, until now. Mikado's father had treated the woman the same way, like she was his most precious treasure in the world.

For some reason, the thought of Mikado someday putting her up on a pedestal as high and regarding her with the same sort of reverence held a surprisingly powerful appeal. She wasn't sure why it even mattered to her, but she found herself yearning for it, that she would someday be viewed by him as something to be treasured. The trick to getting to that point would be in carefully managing her transformation into a 'proper' Sanzenin woman, to do it subtly over a period of time so as not to arouse Mikado's suspicions.

Successfully doing so would lead him into believing he had 'tamed the shrew' with his manly charms. It would appeal to his vanity and help her sustain the illusion she would be crafting. She would then comport herself in a way that was indistinguishable from any other Sanzenin woman.

She still had much to think about, but she felt a bit less annoyed with the notion of becoming Mikado's bride now. Actually, she found herself looking forward to the notion of mastering him without his ever even realizing it. It promised to be a very pleasant project, shepherding him, proving that she was smarter than he was. Turning him into her unknowing puppet would likely be a life-long task, one that would require her to refine her skills at managing a man, but she felt quite confident she would succeed. She realized she would have to begin her gradual transformation into a Sanzenin woman by relenting a bit on him for his past heinous misdeeds against her, starting with their upcoming date.

A few hours spent viewing the skilled brutality at the Battledome would be an excellent appetizer to whet her passions for the rest of the evening's events. It had been too long since she had last attended the fights. Despite her stated hopes that one of her would-be suitors would challenge Mikado to a duel and kill him, the night at least promised to not be nearly as dreary as so many other dreadful dates she had been on.

The truth of the matter was that she was long past being wearied of fine dining in expensive restaurants and attending high society functions with callow young noblemen. Even more boring was enduring the exchange of insipid small talk with them, knowing their only interest in her was sleeping with her. She longed for more thrilling activities to do on dates to battle the ennui that such intimate socializing often gave her now.

Perhaps it was this great tedium she felt at the notion of bedding yet another love-struck young man of the peerage that had allowed her to grow so comfortable with being regularly intimate with Mikado. While her past lovers had taught her that she had a strong libido requiring regular intimacy to satisfy, not just any partner would do for her. Her emotions needed to be as involved as her body, but few were able to engage her on that level. Mikado, despite how much she hated him now, had been her first lover and their union had been a uniquely rapturous experience, awakening her younger, virgin self to the power of her own sexuality.

The problem for her was that their tryst had somehow spoiled her ability to fully enjoy other lovers, and she had never been able to equal her time spent with the loathsome lothario with anyone else. No matter how many different partners she had tried being with after he had so callously broken up with her once he had gotten what he wanted, they had all left her feeling unfulfilled. Boys, girls, even one of her cousins a few times, none of them could truly satisfy her like Mikado Sanzenin could.

As much as she loathed him for what he had put her through in the past, she could not deny he slaked her libido in ways that other partners just did not. Not even her occasional forays into the more illicit forms of pleasure available to one of her social station had ever made her feel as satiated as Mikado was able to make her, even as otherwise gratifying and enjoyable as those experiences had sometimes been. For the most part, they had just left her feeling ever more world-weary and jaded after it was over.

With Mikado it was not like that at all. She felt alive and vital when she was with him, even invigorated. Perhaps it was because they hated each other so passionately, jousting with each other verbally whenever they came across each other in public and brutalizing each other's bodies during their private sparring matches. Fighting with him was almost as equally thrilling to her as the sex was, as if pain and pleasure were equivalently exciting for her so long as it involved Mikado as her opponent.

Could it be that she held some kind of twisted, romantic fixation on the cad? That inquiry immediately prompted a reflexive denial in her thoughts. But it had oftentimes puzzled her why she felt such powerful pangs of jealousy over his oft-stated desires for Kodachi.

While she was now engaged to marry him, it was not a requirement for two people in an arranged marriage to ever love each other, only to produce children together. She was certain she loathed Mikado to the very core of her being, not loved him. These occasional, strangely tender feelings she had towards him now and then could only be due to her profound physical attraction to him, nothing more.

With that decided, she went back to pondering the events planned for their upcoming date. She had always enjoyed seeing a bit of blood spilled in the Arena, a secret pleasure of hers she occasionally indulged in, convincing one of the besotted playthings she had in her collection of would-be suitors to take her there. Her mother had even directly bequeathed to her a company that was heavily invested in the Arena subculture upon her death, one retaining numerous contracts of fighters in the various venues located throughout the Empire.

While her mother was still alive, the two of them had often gone to the Battledome to watch the matches, so the place held a unique place in Asuka's heart. It had been their special, shared thing to do together, as Lord Saginomiya had no interest in such bloody spectacles. After her mother died, she had continued her visits, finding the sights and sounds of the brutal violence to be found there were quite soothing to her grief.

Perhaps while she was there with Mikado she would take him and pay a call on one of the younger fighters that her company owned that had managed to reach the Battledome's rarefied ranks. It would be diverting to see how Mina Li was doing, and perhaps it would even scandalize her new fiancé when he learned that she knew such a vicious, dangerous girl. It would serve him right, a tiny bit of payback.

Mina Li was a lowly peasant a year older than her, born fatherless in a filthy hovel in some stinking back alley of a miserable Korean slum and orphaned at a young age. She had managed to claw her way up from that wretched state of abject misery through sheer animal cunning and raw determination, arising from the filth and mire of her birthplace to achieve her current vantage as one of the contenders for the coveted prize of citizenship in the Empire. It was actually quite a triumphant story in Asuka's view, showing just how far one girl's grit and sheer determination could carry her in a man's world.

The Korean fighter was an almost preternaturally-skilled combatant, extremely lethal and wily, and one of the very finest martial artists now fighting in the Battledome. The Korean girl was also beautiful, albeit in a hard-edged sort of way, but practically all high-level female Arena fighters were attractive sorts, such as the Joketsuzoku barbarian that currently held the Battledome's spotlight. It helped them win the fickle favor of the jaded crowds.

Even if Mina didn't win the Emperor's Tournament this year but placed well in her final ranking, Asuka planned to offer the deadly Korean girl a high-paying position as her personal companion/bodyguard as a reward for her efforts, replacing the Mitsui girl in her entourage. The thought of Mina Li's curvaceous, athletic form wrapped snugly into an expensive cheongsam-style dress, accompanying her to social functions like her own personal attack dog, was a thrilling notion. It would be so amusing to unleash Mina on someone that displeased her and then watch the resulting carnage.

Even though they came from very different backgrounds and upbringings, there was something in the Korean girl's pugnacious demeanor that seemed to resonate with Asuka's. While she would never possibly consider such a violent, blood-stained street rat like Mina a friend, she was an intriguing sort of individual to spend time with, having a certain refreshing directness in her views on life that strongly appealed to the Saginomiya girl. Over the few months they had known each other, rather than developing a relationship that either one would call friendship, they had instead achieved a sort of respectful rapport in their dealings with each other, perhaps being due to each of them recognizing a kindred spirit in the other. Asuka knew her peers would be utterly scandalized to learn of her dealings with the Korean girl, but it was a relief to be able to interact with someone who was so unencumbered by the expectations of Japan's overly polite society.

Besides, Asuka felt she deserved some amusement before she had to begin her dreary training regimen over the summer months to prepare for this year's upcoming Martial Arts Rhythmic Gymnastics tournaments that were approaching in the autumn, supplementing the intensive training she was now already undergoing with Nanashi. Disappointingly, based on the pitifully weak showings of the current year's crop of contenders that her spies had informed her of, she doubted there was anyone who would be able to truly challenge her this year, especially after Nanashi's improvements to her fighting abilities.

That was a shame. Despite her fearsome reputation in the sport as a vicious contender, it just wasn't very much fun beating up on weaklings who couldn't provide her with at least a little sport before she fed them their teeth and left some crippled for life. Where was the thrill in that?

Was there no one out there that could challenge her? Someone who could provide her with a few minutes of entertainment in a match? There had to be at least one fresh-faced, hope-filled contender seeking to unseat her as reigning champion before she inevitably broke them and claimed yet another trophy over their mangled remains. As this year would be her third straight victory after she won it, she was looking forward to seeing the proud smile her father would give her when she showed him her trophy.

At least that would briefly tear his attention away from that tittering bimbo he had married: Ritsuko Mamiya. Now she was Ritsuko Saginomiya, although she preferred being called by the irritating diminutive of Rina. She was a painted harlot who came from some backwoods region of the Empire. The cunning woman had managed to sleazily wend her way into Lord Saginomiya's heart by using her tawdry charms to ensnare him.

Why were men always so weak when dealing with an attractive woman? Did they all only think with what they had swinging between their legs? It was her hatred of this propensity of the male gender that had caused her to so despise Mikado Sanzenin, the boy who had destroyed the last shreds of her trust in others when she had been at her most vulnerable to his blandishments, taking advantage of her temporary weakness after the death of her mother. He had broken up with her soon after taking her virginity, and that had been the lowest point in her life.

Now she was to be his bride. For that past betrayal of her trust, she planned to exact a slow revenge upon him with a thousand tiny cuts before she began her planned retreat into her 'Sanzenin Wife' persona. She was already feeling oddly mollified in having prevented him from attaining his oft-stated goal of having that harridan Kodachi Kuno as his First Wife. If she had anything to say about it (and she would), he would have no other wives or concubines to ever distract his attention from her. Any foolish girls who did so would earn her wrath, like those two Tendo wenches had already done with regards to the fickle Tatewaki Kuno.

Over time, she would school Mikado into obeying her every whim, and she would study at the feet of older Sanzenin women, learning from them how to accomplish this feat with exquisite subtlety, to become so devious and artful in her control over him that he would never even think to resist her will. That would finalize her revenge upon him, turning him into a mere plaything for her amusement, a puppet serving her desires. And with the Sanzenins' enormous resources at her disposal, she would also finally be able to do something appropriately nasty about her horrible excuse for a stepmother, something bloody, dreadful and fatal.

Asuka seethed at the thought of her 'dear' stepmother, the awful woman living in the Saginomiya's ancestral home who had finagled her way into the family after Asuka's real mother passed away. It enraged the girl to see such a tawdry strumpet clinging like a limpet to her besotted father, a tittering bimbo whose only purpose seemed to be draining the Saginomiyas' coffers, spending their money on hosting lavish parties for the entertainment of jaded nobles that Asuka wouldn't even spit upon. She was nothing like the strong and beautiful woman her mother had been, merely a base pretender to the role of being Lady Saginomiya.

She would never admit it aloud, but Asuka's present situation was one of the many reasons she loathed Kodachi Kuno so much. Her nemesis had been blessed with having a mighty prodigy for a mother in Kenseiko Kuno, a legend in the realm of Martial Arts Rhythmic Gymnastics when she had been a mere slip of a girl still bearing her maiden name. But rather than following in the footsteps of such a transcendent goddess of victory, a champion who had left behind records in the sport that still remained standing to this day, Kodachi had cravenly trained in regular gymnastics instead. It was such a horrendous waste of combat talent that it set the Saginomiya girl's teeth on edge every time she mused about it.

Asuka's mother had always stood in the long shadows cast by Kenseiko, losing to her year after year at the championship matches, and those bitter experiences had forged an undying grudge in the woman. After her daughter was born, she had instilled within Asuka the burning desire to strive towards an unyielding standard of supreme excellence, to become the champion she never was. She had even secretly enrolled Asuka in Project Phoenix to give the girl an extra edge she had never enjoyed.

Her daughter would become a winner. Nothing less would be accepted.

The only real regret Asuka's mother had before the accident that ended up claiming her life was that she had never been able to witness her daughter pitted against Kenseiko's in a match. She had long fantasized about the day that her beautiful, perfect child crushed Kenseiko's foul spawn and avenged those miserable losses from her childhood. But such was not to be.

Inexplicably to Asuka's mother, even though Kenseiko had a daughter about Asuka's age, the two had never appeared at any of the rhythmic gymnastics tournaments. When Asuka had won her first championship, it was a hollow victory to her mother, denied the pleasure of being able to rub it into Kenseiko's face. The sheer cowardice Asuka's mother perceived in her old rival due to Kodachi's absence in competition had galled her deeply.

Cheated of her prize, she had taken out her intense frustrations on Asuka, training the girl even harder than before. Taken past the breaking point of flesh and bone more than once, she had spent many nights fighting back her tears and refusing to use any painkillers, determined to show her mother how tough she was. Fortunately, Asuka had always healed quickly without any scars after such incidents, thanks to her symbiote.

Because she idolized her mother so much and wanted her to be proud of her, Asuka had willingly accepted all the abuse and absorbed every bit of the accumulated vitriol the woman held simmering within her. She grew to loathe Kodachi just as much as her mother abhorred Kenseiko and had gleefully bullied the young Kuno girl every chance she got. It gave her great pleasure to do so.

When she wasn't actively making Kodachi's life at Blackhall miserable, she ruled over the student body with an iron fist concealed inside fine silk gloves, and her chosen cohorts assisted her in enforcing her will upon their peers. None dared oppose them, not even members of the faculty. Among that elite clique were the two girls she viewed as her allies and only one of them as something more.

Azusa Shiratori was arguably Asuka's only real friend, being one of the few that she would deem a social equal. She was an adorable girl who cherished all things cute and enjoyed having a cult-like following of worshipful boys who venerated her. Although she was a fellow Eve and a Newtype like Asuka, she had always deferred to the Saginomiya girl's leadership and had never sought to challenge her for dominance of their clique. They actually got along well, going on shopping excursions and taking vacations at exotic locations together, along with the remaining member of their elite clique.

The third part of this all-female triumvirate of terror was Ayako Mitsui, identical in appearance to her cousin Yohko Mano and the young Devil Hunter's sworn enemy. Although born to a much lower station than either Asuka or Azusa, Ayako was a respected part of the Saginomiya household, dealing with the occasional supernatural entity that tried to disrupt the premise's tranquility. Her other duties involved acting as a shrine maiden at the temple located on the household's grounds. She also enjoyed the prestige she had on campus at Blackhall as Asuka's primary enforcer.

At first, it had been amusing for Asuka to torment Kodachi, inflicting petty indignities upon her, occasionally even beating the other girl up whenever she had felt so inclined. Apparently unable to fight back against her overpowering might and skill, Kodachi had been easy prey. But as time went on, tormenting the other girl had become boring, then eventually devolved into a dreary chore.

Why didn't Kodachi ever fight back? This was the daughter of a powerful champion like the great Kenseiko Kuno? Disappointment in Kodachi began fueling Asuka's ever-simmering hatred of the other girl.

When Tatewaki began his laughable attempts at courting her, she had almost ended it right then, crushing his pathetic hopes in a single blow. But she had stayed her hand, finding there was something rather appealing about his earnestness, so she had allowed him to continue his attempts at wooing her. It stroked her ego to have the son of the great Kenseiko Kuno seeking her out to try and win her heart, and she had even entertained fantasies of the mighty offspring she might have with him someday.

It helped that he gave her quite similar feelings to those that Mikado aroused within her, an electrifying tingling she experienced while in his presence. Despite that connection between them, she had remained aloof and cool to him, giving him nothing but very brief fragments of encouragement in his courtship, discovering that granting him even such meager scraps of her attention only seemed to spur him on to ever more intensive efforts to win her favor. It quickly became quite an amusing game to her.

Then, one day not long ago, she had apparently pushed Kodachi too far, and her meek prey had finally shoved back. Oh, it had been glorious to learn she was right about the other girl all along. She was another predator after all, not some mewling sniveler like so many weakling girls of the peerage were when facing physical confrontation. Her games with Kodachi began moving into exciting new territory.

Even though she lost every time they had contested against each other in savage battle, the newfound challenge Kodachi offered invigorated her spirit, purging her of her ennui. She felt an enhanced zest for life and discovered a new purpose: to crush the Kuno girl utterly, to break her, to succeed where her mother had failed versus Kenseiko. At long last she truly understood what had motivated the woman's rage against Kodachi's mother, finding an unexpectedly intense passion within, a driving need to conquer Kodachi Kuno and grind the mangled remains of the other girl beneath her booted heel.

Their battles had continued, but her frustrations mounted. She could never seem to overcome the Kuno girl, and her failures had begun eating at her. The game became a far less amusing experience as time went on. It grew to be galling for her to keep losing in such ignominious fashion to a girl who used to be such a shy, timid little mouse, someone she had frequently pushed around with utter temerity.

When Tatewaki had then announced his loss of interest in her, the rage within her bosom swelled. She had barely managed to hold it contained behind her well-mannered façade, her voice expressing her withering contempt. How _dare_ he abandon his quest for her to pursue some lowborn wench named Akane Tendo instead? And then she had learned that there was also another, Akane's older sister Nabiki.

Who the hell were these upstarts to ever be compared to the beauteous White Lily? Men vied for her attentions, and she doled them out at her pleasure. No man cast her aside, not since Mikado's ill treatment of her. She had learned from that mistake. None of her other suitors would dare repeat his treatment of her, and she would exact a bloody revenge on these vile Tendo wenches for making her endure this awful indignity.

As Nabiki was the elder sister, she would, of course, be given the honor of being the first to fall to the White Lily's righteous fury. Asuka planned to make it a bloody and ugly beating before she finally relented. The younger Tendo could then be tormented by the dread of knowing what was coming for her next, seeing the grim example of her comatose sister hooked up to wires and tubes in a hospital bed. Then, after stewing in stark terror for a sufficient length of time, the younger Tendo would then receive the same. Asuka felt that would be a proper punishment for stealing Tatewaki Kuno's interest away from her.

When Kodachi had left Blackhall, at first she had been angered, but when she learned of Kodachi's fiancé, she then became intrigued. The idea of her nemesis rutting around with some mere yeoman's son, a youth barely one step removed from being a filthy commoner, unexpectedly fascinated her. What was he like? Just what could the Kuno girl see in such a lowborn?

However, seeing Ranma Saotome had been an epiphany to her. He was not some weak-chinned popinjay like so depressingly many young men of the peerage unfortunately were, but a real man. His body clearly possessed the greater physical vitality inherent to the less refined lower classes. Doubtless his virility was an equally mighty thing, one she had sometimes found herself yearning to experience in her quieter, more brooding moments.

Unlike so many boys of the peerage, except for a rare few like Mikado and Tatewaki, Ranma Saotome quite obviously possessed great physical prowess. She had heard several thrilling accounts of how he had defeated those who challenged him, including the aforementioned Sanzenin and Kuno youths. His skills at combat were quite intriguing, even alluring.

Taking him away from that harridan Kodachi would prove that she was the better woman between them. After all, how could the Saotome boy ever resist her? She was the White Lily, the reigning queen of the Martial Arts Rhythmic Gymnastics world. Doubtless, the pigtailed scholar would be quite impressed upon their first meeting when she announced to him who she was.

Perhaps he would even be able to break the curse that Mikado had unwittingly cast upon her. That alone would be worth her taking Ranma for herself, but there was so much more that intrigued her about him. She looked forward to seducing him, confident that he would be unable to resist her elegant beauty and refined poise.

She looked at him, and her face took on a sultry cast. Lying back down on one side, she rested her head on her hand, gazing up at him. Her foot caressed his leg softly.

"I don't feel like attending classes today, Mikado-kun. Be a dear and entertain me."

Mikado smirked and moved in beside her. So long as he had to put up with her as his fiancée, he figured he might as well enjoy the perks of the situation. He placed his hand on her hip and pulled her even closer to him. Leaning his face in, he saw her eyes close in anticipation of a kiss.

"As you wish, Asuka-chan."

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Sweat streaming down his body, Tarou took a break from driving his fists into the punching bag he had been abusing since dawn. Sand leaked from several small holes in its sides, piling up beneath it. He began removing his hand wrappings as he suddenly turned and walked away from it. Seconds after he did so, it finally gave up the ghost and dumped its remaining contents on to the floor of the workout area.

People quickly got out of his way as he stalked over to get some water. They could sense his simmering rage and no one wanted to become a target for it. Even his most dedicated cronies wisely kept their distance from him.

He could not seem to get thoughts of Ranma Saotome out of his head this morning. It utterly infuriated him that the Japanese boy had drawn so much attention to himself so quickly, as if he was anything special. Even Tarou's most recent victory in the Battledome and a night spent enjoying Mina Li's delectable charms had not proven able to soothe his angst for long. He had left his girlfriend sound asleep in her bed this morning to do some training. She was obviously still exhausted from his efforts last night.

Tarou paused, thinking of the vicious Korean beauty with extreme fondness. An erotic fantasy briefly passed across his mind, recalling their night spent together in amorous frenzy, and how good she could make him feel. Despite the frequency and loudness of their arguments over her extracurricular activities with her clientele, he knew theirs was a special relationship, that she loved him.

Then again, how could she not? Setting aside his preeminent fighting abilities, his prowess in the bedroom was unmatched, and he was certain his talents at such activities was what kept bringing Mina back to his side every time, after she had cooled off from her anger over their latest spat. Fortunately for her, that unyielding independence she had was extremely attractive to him, or he would have replaced her with another girl by now. Only Shampoo could compare when it came to sheer willfulness, part of why he desired the Chinese warrior.

As he stood there and sipped from the bottle of water he held, the Arena Director's personal assistant, Mai Shiranui, strolled by overhead carrying a small sheaf of paperwork of some kind. She was visible to him through the thick glass that allowed special visitors to the Battledome to observe the fighters training without disturbing them. As usual, she was dressed in one of her professional outfits that never quite succeeded in hiding the lush body he knew she had to have: a tailored jacket and knee-length skirt in blue over a white blouse with black, matching heels and flesh-colored stockings, her hair pulled back into a tight bun. A pair of wire-rimmed glasses completed her ensemble.

Tarou frequently wondered why Mai bothered with the dowdy 'librarian look' she always sported, although he found it to be quite a turn-on. Of course, she could wear a potato sack over her body and still be gorgeous, but she never actively flaunted her femininity and always acted a bit shy and even rather prim around the men here in the Battledome. Perhaps it was the thought of getting past those walls she had and discovering the real woman behind them that intrigued him so much about her.

As he watched, she paused briefly and began shuffling through the sheaf of papers in her hands, rearranging them into a different order. He continued sipping his water and admiring what he could see of her figure, contenting himself with his view of her shapely legs and firm derriere encased in her skirt, fantasizing about those legs someday being wrapped around his waist. It was only a matter of time until he would finally break her resistance to having a date with him. He was certain of it.

She suddenly noticed him watching her and hurried on, adjusting her glasses prudishly, a frown appearing on her lips. A grin split his face when she stumbled briefly in her rush to escape his view, one of her heels apparently catching briefly on the carpeting. She managed to avoid dropping her paperwork and passed quickly out of sight once she had regained her balance.

He adored girls with a certain amount of heft to their chest, and Mai gave all the indications of being well-gifted in that area, despite her heroic attempts to conceal all that the gods had blessed her with. Mina was another such girl, but then so was Shampoo. And there was also the newest mystery of the Arena, the gorgeous little redhead who had begun appearing and vanishing around the Battledome complex recently like some kind of phantom. While she was a bit short for his tastes, she had displayed a magnificent physique, and she hadn't been wearing a bra the one time he had seen her clearly, giving him quite an eyeful of her bounteous bosom. Her unabashed beauty had inflamed his desires, and he looked forward to learning her name and bedding her someday soon, not necessarily in that order.

After all, how could she resist him? He was confident that all women wanted the delights he could offer them in coitus, even if they didn't know it yet. His manhood (that he had named "Tarou's Root") had already satisfied many a woman in his young life, and he was sure it was also what kept Mina returning to his side.

Tossing the empty water bottle into the bin with a clatter, he went back to his training. Thoughts of Mai and the mysterious redhead kept him distracted for a brief time from his broodings about Ranma. With any luck, he would be able to catch the new girl alone and introduce himself soon. Who knew what might happen then?

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Pausing in her brief flight, Mai Shiranui stood alone in the empty hallway she found herself in and struggled to regain her composure, setting down her stack of paperwork on a nearby bench. She shuddered momentarily with revulsion, feeling violated by the animalistic lust for her that had been so evident in Tarou's gaze as he leered at her a few moments ago, the hungry way he always looked at her whenever she was around him. She hated it when men regarded her like that, as if she wasn't really a person. It was why she dressed as plainly as she could for her job, to deflect male attention away from her generous feminine assets and try to get them to treat her as something other than a fleshly object they could use to satisfy their lust.

Her boss, the Arena Director, was nearly as bad as Tarou. Fortunately, he maintained a more genteel pose because of his position. Anna and Uni, the two statuesque liliths who served as his enforcers, were frequently dressed in immodest versions of Arena security uniforms that displayed their deep cleavage to whoever cared to look at them and did little to hide their well-proportioned figures. Yet despite their more blatant presence around him, Mai had still occasionally caught the Director eyeing her speculatively more than once. If her job did not pay as well as it did, she would have sought out other employment elsewhere, but her family needed the money she brought in to help pay for her grandfather's medical bills.

It had been this way for her ever since she entered puberty, when her body began developing so prominently. Boys had begun gawking at her physique like idiots, and girls had been jealous of her endowments. She was sure her remaining years of school would have been more of the same, likely even worse, so one year over break she had transferred to a new school and then deflected unwanted attention there by dressing as dowdily as she could, hunching her shoulders forward a bit and even putting on a pair of non-prescription glasses. Her disguise had worked, allowing her a measure of peace, so she had maintained it in public ever since.

She smoothed a few stray locks of hair back into place and straightened her skirt and jacket with a few brief tugs, restoring her appearance back to its proper look. Her breathing calmed as she took a few moments to collect herself with the aid of some mental disciplines taught to her by her grandfather. The flickers of fire that had flared up deep within her gaze began fading. She idly tamped out a bit of smoldering that had spontaneously started up on one corner of her sheaf of reports.

If Tarou wasn't careful, the egotistical lecher would finally cross a line and make her forget that she was a lady, and then she would do something extremely unpleasant to him. The thought of that erased the frown on her face, leaving a wolfish smile in its place. Despite how good it would likely feel to beat the Chinese boy senseless or grab his face between her palms and boil his leering eyes within their sockets, she knew she had to remain careful and keep her pyrokinetic abilities under tight wraps, or she might receive a less than friendly visit from agents of the Mobius Institute.

As a daughter of the Shiranui Ninja Clan, once powerful but fallen on hard times, she had been taught all of the necessary skills to be a top-notch kunoichi. While she trained diligently every night, it was mainly to keep ready in case she had to deal with a would-be mugger or rapist. Due to her shyness with men, she actually had little practical experience at seduction and even less at physical intimacy, mostly the theoretical knowledge of how such things worked gained from studying old scrolls.

Her control over her pyrokinetic abilities, described as a gift from the gods by her aged grandfather, had been refined by her martial disciplines. If needed, she could use them to enhance her unarmed combat techniques, sheathing her fists and feet in searing flame. She could also launch blasts of fire from her hands or even send waves of flame coruscating outwards from her body in all directions.

"You shouldn't let that boy get to you," said a calm voice behind her.

Whirling in surprise, Mai was startled by the sudden presence of the man behind her. He was a foreigner, judging by the darkness of his skin and his accent, although his Japanese was excellent. A pair of mirrored sunglasses hid his eyes from view, an odd affectation for indoors. He was wearing a standard visitor's pass, so she assumed he was part of some tour group.

"I'm all right," she said, uncertain what else to say. She picked up her papers hastily and bowed briefly. Her departure was interrupted when he spoke again.

"Not all men are like him. In fact, you've recently met a boy that was quite different from the others you've known, haven't you?"

"How did you know that?" Mai asked, whirling to face him again. She clutched her reports tightly in front of her chest. Her cheeks flushed a bit with embarrassment.

"Let's just say I'm something of a fortune teller."

The Seer regarded the young woman in front of him casually, although at nineteen she was barely out of girlhood, viewing the many possibilities that branched out ahead of her with his Sight. It would only take the proper nudge from him to send her off on the correct course for his needs. He walked over and took a seat on the bench where her paperwork had sat, patting the area next to him before regarding the far wall with his blind eyes.

"Sit, child."

Mai hesitantly did as she was bid. She took a seat a short distance from him, her knees pressed primly together in a demure pose. Her hands were folded and rested in her lap on top of her reports. As she waited, she began to fidget a bit, her knees bouncing a little.

The Seer briefly pondered what he would say to her. He knew he was in dangerous territory once again, acting covertly against both the Shogun and the witch, but what he had witnessed through his Sight had left him no choice. The warring pair was too blinded by their struggles against each other to consider the bigger picture resulting from their actions, and their exploits had disrupted the natural flows of history across a multitude of worlds, twisting them into aberrant configurations and spawning innumerable, dead-end variants.

Pathways he had hoped would remain open for this world kept closing off one by one through their actions, choking off promising avenues to the future from happening. A yawning abyss of oblivion awaited this world if things went badly, the possibility hovering like a gruesome wraith in his Sight. Matters needed to be steered delicately to avoid it, the burden falling upon him as the Seer.

The Shogun had been laboring at his schemes for millennia, but he was more easily predictable in his actions, eliminating individuals that had frustrated him in prior iterations of history before they could oppose him and altering select events, causing them to transpire in ways that he felt would better serve his needs. Similarly, as she had previously done upon other worlds, the witch's strategy in this one was to create new actors or reweave history in ways that would frustrate her ancient enemy's schemes. She had grown quite subtle at such things over the centuries as her pool of available pawns had changed.

Countless individuals had suffered and died between them, and even entire worlds had been ravaged in their struggles. While the Shogun was the far greater threat, intent on burning down everything in order to recreate all of reality to satisfy his megalomania, the witch had sewn her own share of misery and death across a myriad of worlds, sometimes just for her mere amusement. Both of them were far too dangerous to be allowed to continue their activities.

What most people did not know was that time was made up of fragments, like a gemstone that was shattered into an ever-expanding kaleidoscope of possibilities, the result creating a vast multiverse composed of myriad timeline tangents that replicated and mutated with every passing moment. History played out within each of its multitudinous facets in an infinite variety of ways, a grand tapestry weaving fate and free will together in countless forms. However, the Shogun's manipulations and the witch's opposition to him threatened to destroy this supple structure.

With each universe they fought in, the damage grew worse. The barriers holding realities apart had been gradually becoming more brittle and sclerotic from their presence. This had eased travel between the myriad worlds, as tiny cracks had opened within the framework of reality, but such travels compounded the problem. If matters continued on their present course, eventually there would be a critical failure in some facet of reality and then the multiverse would begin collapsing inwards upon itself like a falling house of cards.

If that should happen, different universes would begin commingling with each other at first. People and places would vanish from one world only to reappear in another, the different realities rewriting their own histories to try and compensate for the changes. But eventually such stresses would become far too great for the multiverse to absorb. Time itself would be rent asunder, and then oblivion would be unleashed to feast upon reality's rotting corpse. When the horror was finally over, it would be as if existence had never been, leaving behind an unending darkness and an ever-present silence. It would be an infinite void of nothingness that would never be refilled.

They had to be stopped.

Fortunately for the Seer's scheme, the Shogun still believed he was playing alone, merely pitting his unyielding will against what he saw as an obstinate and defiant universe, his gaze fixated upon achieving his desired apotheosis. Meanwhile, the witch was focused on the Shogun, thwarting him at every turn, acting quietly in the background through her pool of pawns. Unknown to either of them, the unwilling third player in their game was him, forced to work covertly against them both, although the witch believed him to be her nominal ally, and he had helped her on occasion to earn her goodwill.

"Ranma Saotome made quite a splash when he arrived at the Battledome, didn't he?"

"Yes." Mai kept her gaze demurely averted. Why was this stranger talking about the Saotome boy with her? Was he a reporter? Her heart seemed to thud quite loudly within her chest at the thought of Ranma, and she hastened to redirect her mind away from thinking about his face and his pleasing build.

"I suspect he could use a friend in this place. He's not like the other young men in here."

Mai blushed again. The stranger's words echoed her own unspoken views of the pigtailed boy. Spending time with Ranma the other day, giving him a tour of the Battledome, had been almost like a date, and he had never once looked at her like men typically did. Instead, there had been something in his eyes she had never seen before whenever he had gazed at her. It had left her feeling confused inside.

While she could tell he was aware of her femininity, occasionally noting him glancing at her body appreciatively, his attention had always remained firmly upon her face whenever they had spoken to each other, and he had never leered at her at any time. She had been so impressed by his gentlemanliness that she had given him her card after the tour was over. It had been an act of uncharacteristic boldness on her part, especially since she had impulsively gone even farther and scribbled her private cellphone number on the back of it. She felt embarrassed thinking about it, but she also wondered if he would ever call her. Maybe he didn't like girls who acted so forward with him.

Unsure what to say to the stranger's comment, Mai nodded. A lump of nervousness was forming in her throat. She struggled to not think about Ranma, a part of her mind rationalizing that she was older than he was, so she was being silly. She was nineteen, and he was sixteen. What boy his age would ever be romantically interested in an older woman like her?

The Seer smiled. Planting a seed was all that was needed. She just needed one more nudge for it to take root.

"I wonder what kind of girl he might like. What do you think?"

Mai shot to her feet, her cheeks flaming with mortification at where her thoughts suddenly swerved at that simple question. Images from the scrolls she had studied, ways to seduce and share pleasure with a man, swiftly rose unbidden within her mind. She whirled to the Seer and snapped a quick bow.

"I have to go now!"

The Seer nodded sagely as she turned and fled from him, smiling slightly until she was around the corner. Then his expression became more solemn. He leaned back on the bench and relaxed, removing his sunglasses and massaging the bridge of his nose.

Like with the pink-haired Joketsuzoku girl, he had just set into motion a sequence of events that would begin gradually altering the future into a direction of his choosing, inducing subtle changes. Mai's future actions could be masked as the product of her free will, so he should not receive another visit from Bernkastel over this. Fortunately, that was the advantage he held over the other two, a greater flexibility. It was about the only one he had against a pair of time travellers.

The reason why the Shogun was more easily predictable was because he could only jump back once, and then he would plot his course through history based on his knowledge of prior versions of it, guided in his actions by what he knew of how things had played out before. Through replaying history as many times as he had, he had painstakingly learned what threads he needed to pull and reweave during his plodding through the centuries again and again. To a large extent, the present shape of the world was the result of eons of experimentation the Shogun had done in countless previous iterations of history.

In contrast, Bernkastel was far more of a dilettante when it came to history, slipping in and out of its flows according to her whims. While she was unbound by time in most ways, she still possessed limits to her abilities. Her observations and manipulations of events eventually 'hardened' them against her ability to affect them further, creating what were essentially fixed points in time, somehow due to her powers interacting with the Shogun's presence in a world. During the interval that existed between his arrival in that desert long ago and the time when his attempted apotheosis could occur in the coming months, events would slowly develop an increasing inertia to the witch changing them, resisting her revisions more and more.

Part of the reason for this was that Bernkastel's abilities appeared to be somehow linked to those of the Shogun. In all of the Seer's viewings of the future, his Sight had never once shown her visiting a point past any of the Shogun's apotheosis attempts, even on timelines where he had long since been destroyed. While she could merrily hop around as she liked within a span of time lasting several millennia, she seemed bound in every world by the maximum duration of the Shogun's existence within time.

In addition, as the moment of his apotheosis approached, the more difficult it became for the witch to change things, especially if she attempted to revise what she had previously altered. Eventually she would reach a point when she could make no further adjustments to a world. At that point she could only observe, waiting for an opportunity to destroy the Shogun.

As Seer, he had no such limitations, perhaps because, from his perspective of events, things had not yet happened. He was merely looking forward at possibilities gamboling about like shadow puppets on a distant wall. His observations of future events did not irrevocably lock them into place, or else the role of Seer would be pointless, rendering his role into something like that of the woman Cassandra from Greek mythology, unable to affect what was to come, only to helplessly observe it.

He replaced his sunglasses and stood up. While there was always more for him to do, he could take a break for a brief time, maybe have some breakfast at the charming bistro he had passed on his journey to the Battledome. He strolled down the hallway, whistling a jaunty tune from a popular movie that had not yet been made in this world, feeling suddenly thirsty for some iced lemonade.

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To be continued...

A special thank you note: I don't think I would have restarted my writing of Quantum Destinies if it wasn't for the Higurashi/When They Cry anime series. After watching it all the way through fifty episodes and the OVAs, it left me inspired with new ideas and ways to tie the story together that was better than what I had planned originally.

Help me get Quantum Destinies set up on tvtropes and feel free to add any tropes you've seen in the story.