The grating as the match is lit comes as a surprise. With a guttering sound, the light flares into being; it is insufficient to dispel the darkness. Instead, with a barely audible hiss, it struggles to hold the darkness back from a tiny little circle, its flickering existence only sufficient to illuminate the hand which holds it, and the sheaf of papers held above it. And even when the dull silence is broken by a women's sobs, still the hissing of that struggle persists.
"Please." The woman's voice is unsteady, hiccuping. It is the voice of a person well into adulthood, who has seen more than her share of joy, and is now tasting new depths of despair.
"So you'll do it?" This voice is that of a man, nasal, dull in tone. It is the voice of a person to fear, because for him, reality has passed into the irrelevant.
The sobs intensify, and as they rise, so too does the match. The crying breaks off in a sharp inhalation, and then resume with even greater force. "No, please! That's the culmination of my life's work! You can't..."
"I can." The interruption is delivered in the same monotone. "I will. You know the only thing that will stop me."
The crying resumes for long minutes, uninterrupted. When they trail off into ragged sniffles, the woman musters the strength to speak again. "You win. I'll do it."
"It's on your desk."
There is a rustle, and the match moves away from the sheaf of papers to hover above the neatly-ordered piles on the drawing desk. A new pair of hands is now seen, delicate and graceful, with the signs of age only showing in finely lined knuckles and the hints of pale brown liver spots. Trembling, they press a single piece of paper flat, and then reach for a stamp. There is a long pause, and then the final thud as the document is sealed.
The man's hand reappears, setting down the stack it has been holding. The passionate and reciprocated romancing of a shifty-eyed schoolboy by a dog-eared half-demon is briefly illuminated before the art is dropped and the notarized declaration is quickly removed from the woman's reach.
The match, held high, reflects off the mirror-like glasses of the man and reveals the woman, who is tenderly caressing her masterpiece as quiet tears run down her face. And then she is lost to the darkness, as the man turns and heads to the door.
The door is open, and the hall is dimly lit by starlight. There is not enough light to ease the match's struggle, but just enough to outline the doorway, and give the barest hints as to the nature of the figure standing there.
"You've got it?" This is a new voice, a rapid machine-gun of a voice chattering the words like confident bullets.
The match-holder does not speak, but instead holds out the tear-stained sheet. As the man in the doorway reaches out to take it, the dying light glints off his massive afro. Impatiently, he gestures, and after a short pause, the match is also passed over.
These are the last few breaths of the match's struggles, and the darkness, seeing advantage, surges in. But its last, dying throes are just enough for us to read, stamped with red seals, and written in bold, authoritative characters, the prophetic words:
"I, Takahashi Rumiko, hereby give permission to Rikudo Koshi to make this episode of Excel Saga into a Ranma 1/2 cross-over."
The afroed man's teeth gleam, and he whispers, "Excellent." And then all noise is swallowed up as the match, with a sigh, is extinguished.
And Nabeshin pronounces, "Shit. I burnt my fingers."
an Excel Saga / Ranma 1/2 Cross-over
by Bjorn 1/2 is copyright Takahashi Rumiko. Excel Saga is copyright Rikudo Koshi and J.C. Staff. This work is not intended to infringe those rights, and is done without knowledge or consent of the rights holders.
That wasn't Takahashi in the prologue, just an unauthorized stunt double. After all, everyone knows that Takahashi's masterpiece is not a passionate romance between Ataru and Inu-Yasha; it is a Akane/Sister Angela bondage special.
Comments and criticism can be sent to and will be greatly appreciated.
This is not a room, but a great hall. The darkness is banished from the center, where the eye is drawn to an imposing dais; instead, the shadows lurk and cling to the walls, which ponderously rise up to meet the vaulting ceiling. It is a place of the sort where kings and emperors address the cheering masses, but at this time, the silver-haired lord serenely regards only a single, dark-haired beauty. Pushing his tiny wire-framed glasses up with a delicate finger, he says, "Hyatt. Where is Excel?"
The object of his regard comes to attention, carefully, as if afraid her bones might break, and raises a hand in salute. "Miss Excel was going..." The high, whispering voice trails off as Hyatt's golden eyes roll back into her head, and then she collapses, blood spilling freely from her mouth over her pale skin and ornate purple uniform.
There is a short pause, which the author uses to change the verb tense.
No more than a litre of blood spilled out over the granite floor before a blonde burst through the door and ran up to the master of the hall, waving her hand madly above her head. "Hail Lord Il-Palazzo! Excel has come to... oh, sorry, Ha-chan, didn't see you lying dead there, just let me get off you..."
"Yes, Lord Il-Palazzo?"
"You will explain to me why you were late." Pausing, he adjusted the hang of his ornate robe. "My intuition is that your answer to that question will also answer why I am sitting on a barstool."
Excel's green eyes looked at the floor shiftily, and muttered, "Well, yesterday, you promoted Ha-chan to Director of Forward Planning, made your throne the Director of Security, and made me sub-janitor in charge of toilets." She began to push her index fingers together. "And of course this was a good idea, because all your ideas are very good! But I wanted to make sure that the throne had not lied on its resume, and that it was actually qualified for the incredible honour of serving under you!" Beaming wildly, she thrust one fist into the air in an enthusiastic salute. "So I decided to see if it could deal with the possibility of arson from one of the many enemies who oppose you and your ideals!" She crossed her arms over her chest, shaking her head sadly. "Unfortunately, it couldn't, and in fact, made a bad situation worse by burning a very long time, but I highly recommend making it into Director of Food Operations, because the fire was the perfect temperature for cooking sweet potatoes, not that I had any..."
Il-Palazzo tugged on the tasseled cord which had descended from the ceiling during the continuing rant, and Excel was sent plummeting into the deep shaft that opened beneath her feet. A distant splash was immediately followed, faintly, by, "Snakes! Why does it always have to be snakes!"
Lifting her head from the ground, Hyatt coughed once to clear her mouth, and weakly asked, "Why did you call us here today, Lord Il-Palazzo?"
Pulling his robes around him as he settled back onto the barstool, Il-Palazzo intoned, "I have called you here for a mission of utmost importance. For in these times of despair and degradation, when the world sinks deeper into sin and villainy, it is all the more important that we, as members of the Ideal Organization ACROSS, conquer and subjugate the city. It has come to my attention, however, that there is a powerful man who arises to present a possible obstacle to ACROSS and its goals."
Hanging from her fingers off the mouth of the pit, Excel gasped, and threw herself out and to her feet. "Someone dares to defy you, Lord Il-Palazzo?" She paused to wring some of the worst of the water from her blue shorts and massively-shouldered jacket. "Tell me who, and I'll defeat him! I'll kill him! I'll step on his dog, and cancel his newspaper subscriptions, and put frogs in his mailbox, and give him really bad pedicures, and..."
"Yes, Lord Il-Palazzo?"
"Yes, Lord Il-Palazzo!"
"This man is a martial artist, a very powerful one. If he acts to challenge ACROSS, he may very well thwart our plans. We must prevent this."
"Ah, of course! Yes!" Excel pumped her fist enthusiastically in the air. "So you want us to seek him out, and challenge him to fair and honourable single combat, and fight him, and lose, and go off and learn powerful techniques in far-off, long-lost lands, and eat really good Korean, the sort you can only get in Los Angeles, and then return, stronger than ever, and..."
From the ground, Hyatt coughed through her blood, "So we should assassinate him, Lord Il-Palazzo?"
Excel screeched, and began frantically pawing at the air.
"Yes, Lord Il-Palazzo?"
"What are you doing?"
"I'm trying desperately not to fall into the pit-trap, even though it's futile, because you were right to open it up, as you're right to do everything and I was very silly to say such a silly thing but I REALLYREALLYdon'twanttofallandswimand bebittenbyrabidsharkswithteflonteeth..."
"Yes, Lord Il-Palazzo?"
"I didn't activate the pit trap."
"You are not about to fall. As you suggested, the plan is that you shall challenge this martial artist to single combat."
Excel nodded sagely. "Yes, yes, of course. We will challenge him, and fight him, and defeat him, which will crush his spirit and his hopes and his dreams," her eyes took on a manic gleam, and hints of slaver dripped from her fang-like incisors, "and then, to avenge his ruined honour, he will train harder than ever and devote himself to one day defeating ACROSS and all it stands for..." She ground to a sudden stop, one finger pressed to her forehead in laboured consideration. "No, wait. This is a stupid idea."
A gentle tug of the gloved hand opened another pit-trap. Excel had time only to blink before she fell again, shouting, "Never mind, Lord Il-Palazzo, I'll get right on it, thank you for sending me out the fast way..."
Shampoo hovered over Cologne's shoulder. "What is it, Great-grandmother?"
"A bad omen, dear." She perused the letter carefully for the third time. "A very bad omen."
"Tell Shampoo. She tough amazon warrior, she can take it."
"No roles in this episode."
With Hyatt close behind, Excel strutted down the street, singing, "Gonna find a martial arrrrrrist! Gonna kill a martial arrrrrrrist! Gonna crush his bones and pulp his skull and step on his spleen all for the greater glory of the hunky Lord Il-Palazzo and his Ideal Organization AAAA-KUUUUU-ROOOOO-SUUUUU!" She stopped skipping and scratched her head. "Hey, Ha-chan, how are we supposed to find this guy, anyways?"
Hyatt tilted her head. "Well, Lord Il-Palazzo said he was in the Nerima district, which is in Tokyo."
"Yeah, but Nerima's kind of big. Do we have his address?"
"Um... I think Lord Il-Palazzo mentioned that, but I was dead at the time."
Exhaustion sapped his muscles and blurred his mind, but Ryoga paid it no heed. Hunger gnawed at his insides, bidding him remember the time four days past when he had last eaten, but he had no money which which to get more food. None of it mattered, anyways. Nothing mattered at all, but the three shining stars of Ryoga's life: a cure for his curse, revenge against Ranma, and the love of Akane. The first was beyond him, at least at the moment. But for the last two...
He stepped around a puddle lying, unexplained, in the middle of the street, and flexed the fingers of his right hand, grinning savagely. It had taken him time to find the Master, time and hardships as he had fought his way through the barren steppes, and then the steaming rain forest. When, finally, he had fought his way free of the last raging beast and found himself in downtown Kyoto, it had taken even longer yet to persuade the Master to train him.
Now, though, he thought, idly hopping over a careening car as he crossed the intersection, he had mastered the Five Swallows Fighting And/Or Mating Over Two White Oaks And An Elm With Dutch Elm Disease Fist. He caught a glimpse of his madly-grinning reflection in the display window of an electronics shop, and could not help but laugh. Now, Ranma would pay.
He sobered quickly. Ryoga had to find Ranma, first. Feeling no less a fool for the many times he'd done this before, he bobbed a bow to a passing couple of strangely-dressed girls. "Um, excuse me. Could you tell me the way to Furinkan High?"
When he straightened, he was met by their blank stares, and couldn't help but flush in embarrassment. The dark-haired girl lifted a hand to her cheek in lady-like confusion, and asked, "Furinkan?"
"Furinkan. In Nerima?" They continued to look at him, and his blush deepened. "Um, aheh, could you tell me where I am?"
The blonde one shook off her confusion and thrust a finger trembling with emotion underneath Ryoga's nose. "I will tell you where you are! You are in F Prefecture, in F City, in F Neighbourhood, on F Street, in front of the..." She peered uncertainly at the sign beside them. "G Building?"
A gust of wind blew tumbleweed down the street, bouncing along until it fell down an open manhole, from which screams of agony ensued.
"Anyways, most importantly, you are in the future domain of the Ideal Organization ACROSS! We will conquer it and subjugate it and stamp out all the filth and depravity and dirty bits and convenience stores that close at eight P.M.! Here is a brochure that outlines our domination plans and schedule, as well as current hiring opportunities, but please don't read it because it's top secret!"
Ryoga stared at the glossy eight-page leaflet that she had pressed into his hands, and felt the dark depression creep upon him.
"Um, Miss Excel..."
F City? He'd never even heard of it before. Was it even in Japan? Convulsively, his fist clenched on the pamphlet, crushing the high-quality paper.
It might take him weeks to find Nerima at this rate. Weeks, while Ranma trained, and teased and hurt Akane. Weeks, while the advantages of his new training were diminished.
"He mentioned Nerima, Miss Excel."
"Damn you," he snarled quietly, and then his voice rose to a roar. "Ranma! Damn you, this is all your fault!" He snapped his fist in a sweeping roundhouse, which sheared through a nearby lightpost. When someone tapped his shoulder, he whipped around and snarled. "What?"
It was the blonde. "Hey, did you say you wanted to go to Nerima?"
He blinked. Beside him, the streetlamp slowly toppled and crushed a parked Honda. "Yes?"
She grinned broadly. "And you're a martial artist?"
His chest puffed out slightly. "Yes." A tire, bouncing away from the wreck, fell down the manhole. Another piercing scream was chased out by a muffled explosion.
"Do you live in Nerima?"
Ryoga was beginning to get confused. "Um, no. My sworn enemy does." He blushed, and pushed his fingers together. "And there's this, um, girl, you see..." A motorcycle skidded out trying to avoid the flaming hulk in the road, and slid down the open manhole. Dull squishing noises, like watermelons being run through printing presses, echoed up, along with a sodden, resounding "clank".
The grin on the blonde's face was threatening to eat her ears, and she nodded enthusiastically at her friend before draping a companionable arm around Ryoga's shoulder. "And this enemy... Ranma? He's a martial artist? Powerful one? Strong? Confident? Kind of sexy? Definite protagonist or antagonist material?"
Ryoga snorted. "He thinks so, at least. Um, why are you asking?"
"Oh, no reason," the girl sing-songed in a innocent voice, and pointed behind him. "Hey, look! A semi-plausible distraction like a water main exploding to disorient you while I knock you out and tie you up to take you as a prisoner and interrogate you later!"
Ryoga finished the "wh" in "what" before a massive geyser exploded out through the manhole, soaking the street.
Dripping wet, the dark-haired girl clasped her hands in front of her chest. "That was very clever, Miss Excel."
"Hah!" She proudly put her hands on her hips. "The old 'semi-plausible distraction like a water main exploding to disorient them while I knock them out and tie them up to take them as a prisoner and interrogate them later' trick never fails." Peering about, she added, "Except that he seems to have vanished, so I never got to the 'knock them out and tie them up to take them as a prisoner and interrogate them later' part. Well, not that it matters anyway!"
"Oh, look, Miss Excel. A cute little pig..."
P-chan, still stunned by the sudden change, could do nothing as a hand reached out to snag his collar. "Yeah, he is cute, isn't he, Ha-chan?" The blonde looked at him thoughtfully, and then snuggled him into her arms. "You know, Ha-chan, I think we should keep him."
P-chan bwee'd a little hmmph, and then relaxed. They seemed to be going to Nerima anyways, and there were worse ways to travel than cradled in the arms of a girl.
"Sure, Menchi would like the company. Besides, you can never go wrong with two emergency food supplies, and I like pork better than dog anyways!"
In the gloomy, echoing headquarters of ACROSS, Il-Palazzo ascends his dais. He stops to consider the stool that represents the seat of honour, his robes swirling to rest around him, and then reaches to retrieve a cell phone from an inner pocket. Unfolding it, he presses a single button, and raises the phone to his ear. There is a pause, and then he speaks, in a calm, level voice.
"Hello. Ikea Shop-by-Phone? I would like to order a throne."
There is a soft muttering on the other end.
"Yes, that would be fine."
Another murmur, and Il-Palazzo's eyes harden. Rising to his feet, he takes the phone away from his ear to glare at it, and then brings it back, and in a cold voice, states, "My address is a secret."
There is another pause. The author realizes that the episode is again in the present tense, and changes it back.
Il-Palazzo sat down on the barstool. "Yes, I'll hold."
"It's amazing how fast we got to Nerima, isn't it, Miss Excel?"
"Yes, Ha-chan. What a wonderful country we live in, where we have public transportation available to us that is so efficient that it is easily mistaken for a plot contrivance!" Excel lifted the piglet high in the air with both hands and smiled gently at it. "Of course, Gyoza, it'll be even more wonderful when all has been ground under the heel of Lord Il-Palazzo!" She ignored the pig's frantic struggles. "So we need to find this Ranma person quickly and defeat him." She peered around, one hand shading her eyes. "Well, this is Furinkan High. Boy, there's a lot of people here. How to find this Ranma? Maybe we should build a dojo right here, and develop a reputation for brutally crushing challengers," she posed, starry-eyed, snuggling Gyoza under her chin, "or be kidnapped as a bride by megalomaniacal chopstick-wielding villains," she wrapped herself in a deep, heavy cloak, "or offer to teach an amazing martial art based on using pressure points to make people's heads explode," she threw away the cloak and hefted a round crystal in which was trapped three stars, "or set out on a quest to collect the other six..."
Hyatt stepped into the school's courtyard and bowed to the nearest passing student. "Excuse me, sir, but could you tell me where I could find Ranma?"
"Ah, fair flower," the boy said mournfully. He turned to face her, hakama swirling, and bokken coming to rest on his shoulder. "Why should such a sweet damsel such as yourself be seeking out the miscreant knave Saotome? I see! You must be yet another maiden that he has enslaved with his dark magics and bound to his will! Fear not, for I am Kuno Tatewaki, Blue Thunder of Furinkan High, and a peerless warrior! I shall war for your freedom, even though my heart is bound up in another, and verily, my mighty wooden shaft shall strike with..."
Hyatt wandered back. "Miss Excel," she whispered, "he says he is a martial artist too."
Chewing on her lip, Excel stared at him. "Two martial artists in Nerima?" She closed her eyes and ground her knuckles into her temples. "Tricky, tricky, very tricky. How do make sure we fight the right one? Lord Il-Palazzo will be very unhappy if we defeat the wrong one, and I don't want him to be unhappy with me, I want him to smile at me and praise me and promote me and rip off all my clothes with a feather duster and throw me over an over-sized marshmallow and... I know! Hey, you!" She pointed at Kuno. "Go fight Ranma!"
Without skipping a beat, Kuno thrust his bokken skywards and switched rants. "Indeed! I, Kuno Tatewaki, Defender of the Fairer Sex, sally forth! The sorcerer Saotome has seen his last English class!"
Hyatt and Excel stood, watching him run off with his bokken held high overhead. "That was very easy, Miss Excel."
Excel crossed her arms and nodded decisively. "Indeed. He has excellent taste to be swayed so easily by my feminine charms." She broke into a sprint. "C'mon, Ha-chan! He'll lead us right to Ranma, and then we can fight the winner, because that will be the incredibly powerful martial artist Lord Il-Palazzo told us to deal with!"
Her only answer was a spray of wetness across her back. When she looked back, she stumbled to a stop, slumped, and then slapped Gyoza against her forehead. "Ooops," she muttered. "I forgot that Ha-chan dies when she tries to run."
When she finally rounded the school, Hyatt slung over one shoulder and Gyoza tucked into the other elbow, there was a ring of slightly-bored onlookers, and no sign of Kuno. "Excuse me," she said, lashing out with her feet at the crowd, "beautiful delicate girl coming through! Get out of the way or you'll be cleaning toilets in the new regime!"
Once she'd reached the front row, she could see that the inside of the ring was occupied by a young, handsome pig-tailed boy dressed in Chinese clothes, rather than the uniform, and a short-haired girl. Watching the boy warily, Excel set the pig down on the ground. "You stay here, Gyoza," she whispered.
P-chan blinked at her, and then started to scamper for safety. No sooner had he gotten his trotters under him then he was crushed to the turf by a heavy, if soft, weight.
"Keep an eye on Ha-chan," Excel added, before dusting off her hands and stepping away from the corpse-pinned pig.
Ranma was mildly irritated. Being attacked by Kuno was not new, getting boring, and not particularly challenging. Moreover, the accusation of having "enslaved the porcelain doll" was new, and Ranma had no clue as to what it meant, other than it probably represented yet another headache.
Ranma was mildly pleased. He had used the sack he'd been carrying to belt Kuno into the sky, and then thrown it like a sling to land another hit on the mid-air kendoka. Conservatively, he guessed that he'd been able to double his usual distance.
Ranma was mildly worried. The sack, he just remembered, had been carrying Akane's homework.
And so Ranma was mildly grateful when the strangely-dressed blonde girl stepped forth. "Excuse me, have you seen a tall talkative guy wearing a hakama?"
"Yeah." Ranma smirked and crossed his arms behind his head. "I beat him up." He grunted when Akane planted a short sharp jab in his ribs.
The girl pointed at him. "Are you Ranma?"
"Yeah. What's it to you?"
Looking impressed, the girl said, "You know, you speak Japanese really well for a Chinese guy."
"What?" Ranma sputtered. "I'm Japanese!"
"What?" the girl echoed. "But you're wearing Chinese clothes!"
"So why are you wearing Chinese clothes if you're not Chinese?"
"What, I gotta be a Chinese to wear Chinese clothes? What about you?" He studied her tight-fitting brown and black shirt under a pale blue, dome-shouldered vest, with fingerless gloves and combat boots to round things out. "You look like... like..."
"A member of a secret revolutionary society led by a cool and mysterious mastermind?" she supplied helpfully.
"An anime character!"
"What?" she spat. "Japanimation? You take that back!"
"Heh." He crossed his arms, smug in his victory. "An' I thought those sailor suits looked stupid."
The girl seethed with righteous indignation. "For this insult -- no, because I was told to by Lord Il-Palazzo, I never put personal considerations ahead of duty, Lord Il-Palazzo, but that insult sure didn't help his case -- I will challenge you! I," she frowned suddenly, "wait, who am I? My given name is Excel, my surname is Excel, my code name is Excel, that is to say, my name is Excel, but if this is a secret mission, I shouldn't say that, but this isn't a part-time job, so I can't be Dosukoi Hanako, but I need a name to challenge him," she straightened and thrust her fist in the air, "I, Celexay, challenge you!"
Ranma snorted and turned his back. "Feh. I don't fight girls." Akane stared at him, wide-eyed and sputtering, but he ignored her. Geez, just because he'd hit Shampoo, and Ukyo, and Kodachi, and the take-out girl, and the lady at the post office, and that old granny, and...
"Really?" he heard from behind him, and he smirked. He almost felt sorry for her... And then, "Great!"
Eyes widening in sudden panic, he spun on one foot...
To take a metal baseball bat in the stomach.
Doubling over, gasping, he straightened himself, grimacing, and the Louisville CB303 TPX Omaha Scandium XS bat soared from below to catch him on the chin, slamming him up into the air and dropping him in a heap. Shaking his head to clear it, he turned towards the patter of running feet, snarling and arms out to block the next swing. Instead, a jump-kick caught him in the forehead, driving him back through the air to plow through the turf.
As he lay there, face down and fingers barely twitching, the girl walked confidently up to him, nattering, "I don't know what Il-Palazzo was worried about. I mean, this fight is really easy!"
She lifted the bat up high to deliver the finishing blow, and suddenly Ranma was uncoiling from his feigned immobility, landing a powerful uppercut that sent her slamming into a tree.
As she slid to the ground, leaves tumbling about her, Ranma rocked his head from side to side, and then cracked his knuckles, grinning ferally. "Normally I don't fight girls," he repeated, advancing on his stunned foe while the bat clattered to the ground behind him. "But for you, I'll make an exception."
The blonde remained slumped against the torn bark of the trunk; when he finally closed on her, she looked up weakly, blood trailing from one corner of her mouth. "A good hit," she said hoarsely. "You're a strong opponent. I have to respect such strength, such power. You could defeat me. But I won't let you." She pulled something from out of her jacket. "I can't let you." Wavering, she presented her hand, and Ranma inhaled sharply.
"Um, Miss Excel..."
Yanking the pin out, the blonde let it drop, and then slumped back against the tree. "Sorry it has to be this way, Ranma. But if I have to lose... we both have to. Hail, Lord Il-Palazzo..."
"Um, Miss Excel..."
Excel looked over irritably. "What is it, Ha-chan? I'm busy trying to have a dramatic final death scene."
Ranma watched as the pale-skinned girl raised her head from the immense pool of blood that surrounded her. "Miss Excel, Lord Il-Palazzo said we were supposed to defeat him in a martial arts challenge."
"I don't think grenades count as martial arts, Miss Excel."
"Sure they do! It's part of the East Uruguayan School of Don't-Hold-On Grenade-Jutsu!"
"Actually," Ranma interjected, "Don't-Hold-On Grenade-Jutsu only works with the German Model 24 'Potato-masher' Stielhandgranate. What you're using is a US Army-issue Mk II HE grenade."
"Oh, yeah," Excel exclaimed. She laughed, scratching the back of her neck with her free hand. "Completely slipped my mind. I was wondering why it felt so strange!"
Ranma laughed along. "Yeah, I did that once, too. Throws you right off, the balance is so wrong."
"Anyways." Excel dropped the grenade and got to her feet, dusting off her shorts. "You win this round, Ranma, but I will be back. Train hard, because I will be! Training hard, I mean, though in retrospect, maybe you shouldn't train hard, or at least not as hard as me. In fact, it might be best if you slacked off a lot, took up professional ice-cream-eating, maybe, which I hear is a very lucrative career, but slack off or not, I will be back, and we will fight again, and I will win, or at the very least I'll lose and go and train some more and do you know any good Korean restaurants and hey!" She looked around in confusion. "Why is everyone running away?"
Grenades are military hardware. Specifically, they are simple military hardware, and thus they are designed to be low-maintenance and highly reliable. Each undergoes thorough quality assurance, a careful examination, and a randomly selected few from every batch are actually tested in the factory, though not, at least after the first batch or two, on the factory floor itself.
Thus, all jokes about fifteen thousand dollar wrenches notwithstanding, the point is that it is unlikely that any given grenade will be a dud. Extremely unlikely. The odds of a grenade not exploding are, in fact, roughly the odds of getting two people together in the same place and finding out that they both have trained in East Uruguayan Don't-Hold-On Grenade-Jutsu. Such things, as they say, happen only in Hollywood.
So when they make a movie out of this, they'll have to edit out that explosion.
The student body lay strewn around the blast crater, moaning and covered in blood. All of the blood belonged to Hyatt, though, so that was okay.
"Are you okay? Can you get up?"
"I'm fine." Akane shook her head groggily, and reached out to take the proffered hand. "Thanks," she said woozily, and then froze as she looked at the person helping her.
It was a nun.
Nuns wore wimples, as did this girl. Nuns also wore high, white collars, often with a cross pendant, so that was okay too. Leather high-heeled boots seemed a bit off, but then, Akane hadn't seen many nuns as young as this girl, so maybe that was just an age thing. Fishnet stockings were definitely iffy, though. Akane was quite sure that even if they were okay, they should be hidden under a skirt, rather than rising up to grasp a pair of garters that left only a few inches of bare skin before a pair of skin-tight latex bikini briefs took over the job of providing a semblance of decency. Nuns were also to wear habits, rather than black silk and velvet corsets, and form-fitting shoulder-length gloves, even fingerless ones, didn't seem very ecclesiastic.
And nuns never carried bullwhips.
"Hurry," said the hypothetical nun, as she pulled strongly and brought Akane to her feet.
"Wh-what?" She looks a lot like me, Akane thought dazedly. Except for the clothes.
"You're Tendo Akane, right?" She turned to quickly survey the area, and then held out her hand again to Akane. "Come with me if you want to live."
"Hurry!" She broke into a run, and Akane, still stunned, found herself running behind as they fled the school grounds.
"Wh-what?" In her confusion, Akane realized she sounded like a broken record, but could do nothing to stop it. Even from behind, she could feel the nun's grimace.
"I'll try to explain. Years ago, I fell in love with a boxer. It was a forbidden romance, of course, since I was already a nun, but he was kind, and sweet, and with every match he fought, I could feel my resolve wavering." She sighed mistily, and then pulled Akane after her down an alley. "And then I learned the truth. Or, at least, a possible truth."
She came to a stop so suddenly that Akane almost ran into her, and then picked her up bodily and threw her sideways into a nearby dumpster. "Stay low! Anyways, what I discovered that was if I had left the order and married him, we would have had two children. And the older child, a daughter, would have grown up to be powerful in magic, the reincarnation of some ancient malevolent spirit from ancient history. With that power, she would enslave the world, bending it into a dictatorial, inflexible regime in which she would rule every thought and emotion and enforce her idea of perfection."
Thrashing about in the muck at the bottom of the garbage can, Akane found herself seized by the scruff of the neck and heaved out. The daring nun quickly brushed off the worst of the coffee grounds, and then set her down again. "Okay, the coast is clear. Follow me!" She set off at a sprint down the deserted street, Akane at her heels.
"Of course, knowing this, I had no choice to not only spurn him, but run away; if I had stayed, sooner or later he would have won me over. I thought that was the end of it."
Akane said nothing as tried to puzzle out how the nun could keep up this brutal pace on six-inch heels.
"But my daughter-to-be wasn't out of tricks. She sent back her enforcer -- a heartless, evil witch with a mastery of time travel -- to make sure that everything went the way she wanted. I've been on the run ever since." The nun skidded to a stop, grimly staring up at the rooftops ahead. "Damn! There she is now!" she growled, shaking out her whip.
Squinting up into the setting sun, Akane could just make out an undeniably female silhouette, holding a massive key-shaped staff, before her collar was seized and she was yanked off her feet.
"No chance of fighting her now, we have to run!" the nun barked, running full-speed for the nearest alley with Akane flapping behind her like a flag.
Akane found herself on the verge of wailing. "But what does all this have to do with me?"
Surprised, the nun glanced back over her shoulder. "Isn't it obvious? C'mon, let's go!"
A single sneeze brought Ranma back to consciousness, and he struggled groggily to his feet. "Where'd she go?"
Glancing quickly around, he realized that the girl... Excel... had fled the scene, along with her really sick friend. He grinned. It didn't matter. She would be back, and they'd fight again. He was looking forward to it. That had been a decent fight. Plus she was pretty cute.
"Ranma," someone said, tugging on his sleeve.
Ranma shook his head ferociously. No way! He had enough girl troubles already, foisted on him by circumstance. He didn't need to go looking for another girl. Even a real pretty one.
"Ranma," the voice said more urgently.
But she knew Don't-Hold-On Grenade-Jutsu, a voice whispered to him. None of his fiancees knew Don't-Hold-On Grenade-Jutsu. No-one he had ever met, in all his travels, knew Don't-Hold-On Grenade-Jutsu.
Except Ranma, and...
Someone hit him across the back of the head. "What?" he shouted, annoyed.
It was Akane's friend, Sayuri, who seemed to be the only other student awake. "Akane's gone."
Ranma stared at her. "What?"
Sayuri wrung her hands, tears beginning to cut tracks through the grime crusting her face. "Some weird girl hauled her off! I don't know where they went!"
"Oh." Ranma went back to staring at the crater.
Sayuri waited impatiently, while others caught in the blast slowly began to shift and stir. Finally, she prodded him irritably. "Aren't you going to go after her?"
"Why?" Ranma sounded puzzled. "She's going to come back when she's ready."
"What?" Sayuri gaped.
"Well, she challenged me, right?"
Stamping her foot, Sayuri shouted, "Akane! Are you going to go after Akane?"
"Oh." Ranma waved his hand dismissively. "Nah."
There was a silent, terrible moment while the entire student body froze. Then Sayuri stammered, "Wh-wh-what?"
"I gotta train. Besides..."
Besides, Ranma thought, staring up at the afternoon sun, Excel knows Don't-Hold-On Grenade-Jutsu.
Kodachi hated her English class. She had a natural aptitude for Physics, so that wasn't bad at all, and Literature was filled with stories of heroic manly men sweeping beautiful damsels off their feet. It was in Gym class that she demonstrated how her lofty status in the ranks of the school had been earned, and, of course, Cooking and Chemistry were tied for her favourite subjects, even if she sometimes got confused as to which one she was actually in at any given time. But on the second day of school, she'd learned how to say, "I love you, Ranma!" in English, and that, as far as she was concerned, was the end of English's usefulness. And so, when her desk was crushed by a kendoka flying through the window, she was rather more charitably inclined than she might have been. "Hello, brother dear. How is my darling Ranma?"
"I fight on!" Kuno explained, as he got to his feet and dislodged plywood shards from his hair.
Kodachi stifled a yawn. "Oh, that's nice."
"But needs must I elsewhere to continue my fight," Kuno observed, "as my dishonourable foe would seem to have fled." He ran a dispassionate eye over Kodachi's classmates, who seemed to have gotten over their shock and gotten on to the ogling state. "Most likely he has taken the fair porcelain doll off to bind her further with his vile sorcery!"
Snapping to her feet, Kodachi demanded, "What? Some new foolish girl is trying to put her hooks in my darling Ranma?"
Kuno nodded gravely. "Indeed, though it pains me to admit it." His eyes narrowed as he drew a new bokken. "I cannot allow the foul cur to perpetuate this travesty!"
"Indeed." Kodachi reached to the lace at the top of her blouse, and with a sharp tug, tore her uniform into shreds. She posed in her leotard, casually flicking her gymnastic ribbon about. "I will go with you, brother dear, and my love will rescue my darling Ranma from the schemes of this witch!"
He studied her with serene eyes, and then abruptly nodded, a slow, secretive smile appearing on his lips. "Indeed," he echoed, and then seized her about the the waist and leapt out the shattered window.
Startled, Kodachi recovered her wits just as he set her gently down on the grass of the school's courtyard. Staggering for a second, she busied herself making unneeded adjustments to her leotard. "Buffoon," she muttered, though her heart wasn't really in it.
Regardless, he ignored her, and hefted his bokken, grinning all the more broadly. "Indeed," he repeated, "we shall hunt together, sister. Now, follow me, as we seek the vile sorcerer!"
Kodachi watched with a flat gaze as her brother charged from the school grounds, and then turned to look up at the second floor, where her classmates hung, gaping in astonishment, out the window. A smile tugged at the corners of her lips, and she gave them a mocking bow. "My pardon, teacher and friends, but I have business elsewhere!" Bounding after Kuno, she left a soft storm of rose petals and a pealing laugh floating behind her.
"Kodachi Kuno leaving early?" Still standing in front of the chalkboard, the teacher shook his head sadly as he surveyed the wreckage. "Yet another disciple who could not take the magnificence of Great Teacher Largo! Ph34r m3!"
"Where are you going, Ranchan?" Ukyo's breathless voice held a note of urgency. She had been on the fringe of the explosion, and was the only one, other than Sayuri, that had made it to their feet.
Ranma looked back, one hand resting on the gate pillar of Furinkan high. "To train," he said levelly. "That was a close match. I just about lost, and Saotome Ranma doesn't lose."
Ukyo looked at him oddly, hands on her knees as she caught her breath. "Ranchan, you cleaned her clock. Were you standing too close to the blast or something?"
Grimacing, Ranma snarled, "Don't try an' make me feel better! I gotta get better -- a lot better -- or I won't be so lucky the next time." He turned to go. "I'm gonna go ask Cologne ta help me; she's gotta have some good tricks left." She had to; Ranma won all his fights, even though a not insignificant part of him cringed at the thought of possibly hurting Excel.
As one, Ranma and Ukyo turned. The sun had almost set, hanging low to blind them with reddish beams, but as the barely-distinguishable silhouette took another step towards, he moved into sharp focus when his massive, incongruous afro produced a solar eclipse. "Who are you?" Ranma gasped.
The man tightened his yellow tie, and re-adjusted the collar on his red sports jacket. "My name is Nabeshin." He grinned at them, light glinting from his teeth, and then his face hardened. "Cologne is powerful, true, but she doesn't know anything that will be strong enough to help you against this foe. I can help you, though."
Not entirely trusting him, Ranma asked cautiously, "Help me? Do I know you? Why..." He cut off suddenly, feeling the ominous chill of a terrible presence.
"Hotcha!" Happosai came bounding over from the direction of the recent fight, a bag almost twice the normal size bouncing on his shoulder. "Wotta haul! Stunned insensible and flat on their backs -- just the way I like 'em!" He caught sight of the small party near the street and changed course, waving enthusiastically. "Ranma! And... Nabeshin!"
Staring over Ranma's shoulder, Nabeshin's eyes held the distant glaze of a man seeing time lost past. "You are the heir to Anything Goes Martial Arts, Ranma, and I once knew -- and owe a great debt to -- the founder of your school. A man named Happosai." His far-off look did not fade as Happosai came to a stop, perched on top of his afro.
"Nabeshin! Long time no see."
"We were comrades-in-arms -- no, we were friends. We fought together, we trained together, we drank together, we chased girls together. Well, he chased them; they just came to me, but he never held the fact that I was far sexier and more charming than him against me. Ah, I miss those care-free days!"
Puffing on his pipe, Happosai frowned down from his perch. "Hey, I'm right here."
"And then we took that final mission. We never should have, but how could we refuse the heir to the de facto ex-Shogun in exile? We set off for Guatemala with nothing but three pounds of rice and a bottle of glue, never expecting what was in store."
"Nabeshin?" Happosai used his pipe to tap Nabeshin on the forehead, gently at first, but rapidly becoming more forceful. "Yoo-hoo, Nabeshin!"
Still ignoring him, Nabeshin wiped a tear from his eye. "When the cannibal cybernetic Marxist psychiatrists from JANERIKU had us surrounded, I was sure it was all over. But Happosai made me run, telling me that someone had to take the news back, that someone had to let them know that Grasscutter had been found!" His fists clenched, knuckles cracking. "I watched as he fought on, despite four mortal wounds and having his head cut off. His death bought me the time to escape, which is the only reason the world is still here today."
By this time, Happosai had crawled down Nabeshin's front, and was holding his collar in one hand, slapping him repeatedly across the jaw with the other. "Nabeshin! Speak to me! Speak to... errrk!"
Nabeshin held the diminutive man dangling in one hand, and roared, "Shut up!" Punting Happosai into the far distance, he turned to Ranma, dusting his hand clean. "Anyways, that's why I'm going to train you."
"Fair enough." Ranma crossed his arms over his chest and smirked. "But why should I let ya train me? How do I know yer any good?"
Reaching his hand into his coat, Nabeshin nodded. "Good question." Shrugging, he turned and tossed a dark lump lightly to Ukyo, who, taken by surprise, fumbled after the catch. "Here."
Finally getting a good grip on it, Ukyo took a close look and blinked.
"Don't hold on," Nabeshin suggested.
"But...," was all Ukyo managed to get out.
Ranma gaped as the dust from the focused explosion swirled around him. Coughing, he whirled and stared at Nabeshin. "That... that... that was..."
Utterly unfazed by the blast, Nabeshin returned Ranma's previous smirk with compound interest. "Don't-Hold-On Grenade-Jutsu Ultimate Attack: Reverse Psychology Hot Potato."
Ranma prostrated himself before Nabeshin. "Master! I beg you to teach me!" He had never seen that attack done before, only heard descriptions of it; never in a million years would he have believed that any man could master Don't-Hold-On Grenade-Jutsu to the point where they could deliver it with such grace and perfection.
"ranchan..." Weakly, Ukyo's arm struggled free from the detritus to tug at Ranchan's shirt. "hurts so much, ranchan..."
Such a martial artist could take him to his limits and beyond, Ranma knew. Only then could he be a match, a true match, for the beautiful Excel.
"ranchan? 'sall getting dark..."
Nabeshin pulled Ranma to his feet; neither paid any heed to the grating noise as Ranma's sleeve was pulled free. "Come. For the memory of Happosai, I will train you, but we have to start now. Come!" He took off a run, Ranma close on his heels.
"can't feel my legs, ranchan... come back... please..." Ukyo's hand groped briefly at the air, and then, with a shudder, fell back to the bloodied mud. Ravens cawed into the now-full darkness.
Excel and Hyatt, seated opposite each other, stared glumly at the glass of water they were sharing.
"So what do we do now, Miss Excel?"
Excel pursed her face in contemplation. "Well, what I said to Lord Il-Palazzo was, 'So you want us to seek him out, and challenge him to fair and honourable single combat, and fight him, and lose, and go off and learn powerful techniques in far-off, long-lost lands, and eat really good Korean, the sort you can only get in Los Angeles, and then return, stronger than ever,' and he said I was right, and that's a moment I'll treasure for ever and ever, for it shows that our heart and souls are truly as one, and one day he'll profess his love for beautiful Excel openly, and then take out a tube of cake icing, and... ah, Lord Il-Palazzo, you're so dreamy! You're all that a simple, innocent, yet stunningly beautiful and incredibly sexy girl like me could ever hope for!"
She looked at her fingers and starting ticking items off. "Anyways, so far we've sought Ranma out, and challenged him, and fought him, and lost." She started counting on her other hand. "So now we have to go off and learn powerful techniques in far-off, long-lost lands, eat Korean, and then return." She stared at her hands in surprise. "Hey, Ha-chan, we're half finished already!"
"That's wonderful! But, Miss Excel, how are we supposed to travel anywhere, or eat good Korean? We don't even have enough money to afford a soda." Hyatt sighed.
"Good point, Ha-chan."
"Don't Koreans eat dog?"
"Hey, yeah, they do!" No sooner did Excel speak than she wilted again, resting her jaw on her fist. "But we left Menchi at home." Excel's eyes fell on Gyoza, who she was affectionately pinning to the table with one hand. "What about pork?" she asked over his frantic squeals. Her stomach rumbled loudly, and her grip slowly tightened.
Hyatt considered that, reaching out with a delicate finger to playfully tap Gyoza's flailing trotter. "I think so, Miss Excel, but do we want to use our emergency food supply already? It's not really an emergency yet."
Excel scrunched up her brow. "Good point. After all, we have a glass of water, so we won't starve to death, and we still have to," she quickly counted off her fingers again, "go off and learn powerful techniques in far-off, long-lost lands."
"You wish to be trained?"
In perfect unison, Hyatt and Excel's heads snapped around. Beside the table, a pillar of cold, white fire rose halfway to the ceiling, swaying to and fro in the steady droning breeze of the air conditioner. Gaping, Excel leapt on top of the chair back, hands slamming together as she bent her head in reverent prayer. "Ah! It is a fire spirit come from the Heavens, to give us divine inspiration so that we may develop a powerful school of martial arts based on the theory that the fist can be treated as the flint, and the enemy's tonsils, the steel, which when brought together, strike the sparks of pain, which will catch on the tinder of the teeth, which will eventually ignite the logs of I'm not really sure yet but probably something to do with pressure points or massage therapy or high colonics or something, which when fanned by the breeze of shouting loudly will birth the fire of being kicked repeatedly, which will end only in the ashes of victory!"
The chair she was standing on suddenly vanished, and Excel swan-dove to the floor, feet in the air and her nose nicely cushioning the blow. The rasping, gravelly voice said, "Over here."
With a ratcheting, cracking noise, Excel's head rotated up to face straight ahead, while her body gently levered down to rest on the floor behind her. Her slitted eyes stared at the base of the flames, which seemed to be on top of the head of a... Excel's right arm snaked forward to point. "You look like a tiny little foot-high wizened ugly horrid troll or probably leprechaun dressed in green clover-leaf-patterned leiderhosen with incredibly tall almost-fire-like white hair but I think this is supposed to be a martial arts episode which generally don't have any leprechauns so I'm thinking instead that I've been hit hard enough on the head that I have a concussion which is weird because normally I don't get a concussion as that really is Hyatt's role and when the characters overlap too much they don't play off well against each other."
"Who are you calling a leprechaun?" The tiny little figure heaved the chair she had confiscated threateningly.
Excel blinked. "You?"
The shriveled old lady tried to smash the chair down on Excel's head, but the legs had gotten tangled in the twisting locks of her massive shock of hair. Struggling briefly to try and free it, she gave up, left it dangling, and crossed her arms in a dignified fashion. "I'm not a leprechaun."
"You look like a leprechaun," Excel pointed out.
The not-leprechaun shook her head vigourously, which launched the chair lodged in her tresses off the side with cannon-like force to explode through the restaurant window. "I am not a leprechaun! I am a martial arts master!" A thundering impact from the street outside was followed by faint screams of, "Kobayashi is bleeding!"
"Really?" Excel jumped to her feet. "That's nice." As she brushed herself, she glanced over the table, and her eyes widened in shock. Dancing a jig of righteous outrage, she shouted, "Ah! Ha-chan, don't hog all the water!"
The entirely-not-a-leprechaun master sighed deeply, and bowed her head as if to summon patience. The act caused her massive coiffure to drive Excel deep into the floor with a ringing gong noise. When she looked up again, the eyebrow over one bulging eye twitching, the two were on eye-level. "I said, I am a martial arts master."
"Yes." Excel nodded firmly. "I heard you say that, when you were saying you were not a leprechaun, which I said you were, but I still say you look like one, and is it possible that when you said..."
"I am a martial arts master," she patiently interrupted, "who can train people."
"Mmm-hmmm." Excel's brow furrowed.
"Who can train people in secret, powerful techniques."
"Secret, powerful techniques, like the ones you wanted to learn."
"Right!" Excel burst from the floor, and pointed triumphantly at the crone. "Ha-chan! We can be trained in secret, powerful techniques by this leprechaun in order to fulfill the wishes of Lord Il-Palazzo and defeat Ranma! Ha-chan? Ha-chan? Oh." Her shoulders slumped as she watched the disputed glass of water turn crimson. "Ha-chan is dead."
With a sudden, sharp blurring sensation, Excel found herself face-first on the ground again. The little woman, still holding on to her ankle, said evenly, "I am not a leprechaun."
When she let go, though, Excel did not stand up. Instead, she sat cross-legged, rubbing her brow in worry. "Wait. We might have a problem." She peered suspiciously at the woman, who was blinking in consternation. "Where are you going to train us?"
The shriveled master tilted her head in confusion, which caused her towering tresses to rend a gaping slash in the wall. "At my house?"
"Is that far-off?"
"It's next door."
"Is it long-lost?"
"I forgot my keys yesterday. Does that count?"
"Do you have any Korean food?"
Excel smacked her fists together. "Close enough! Don't worry, Lord Il-Palazzo, we're getting closer and closer to our victory!"
"A cunning foe," Il-Palazzo murmurs. He stares, unseeing, at the floor where his agents would stand to deliver their reports and receive their commands, and then slowly turns around.
Where once his throne stood, and the stool later followed, is an immense pile of wood, plastic, upholstery, and screws. Hundreds of screws.
"A cunning foe indeed." The episode has again reverted to present tense, and the author has no idea why. He changes it back, and then goes to consult the manual or the warranty or something.
Il-Palazzo opened his clenched hand and stared down at a half-dozen hex wrenches. None of them, he knew, were the right size.
Slowly, he let them drop from his hand, one-by-one, each one bouncing and ringing off the granite floor. And over the chiming clatter, his voice could be heard: "Hello. Ikea Shop-by-Phone?"
Toting Hyatt on her back, Excel suddenly stopped in her steps. "Hey, leprechaun, what should I call you?" Her head rocked back with a clanking noise as a projectile took her between the eyes.
The woman reached down to retrieve her house keys from where they had landed between Excel's feet, and when she straightened again, she had a cold, vicious smile on her face. "I'm not a leprechaun, child. You can call me..."
Excel leant forward.
Gy... no! Ryoga knew that it was time to escape; time to make Ranma pay. It was always time to make Ranma pay, of course, but now was a time to make Ranma pay even more.
A long time with his curse had left him no stranger to people trying to eat him. Heck, for the first few weeks after Jusenkyo, he'd drooled whenever he'd caught his reflection in a mirror. This Excel girl, though... it was like being with a twisted version of Akane. She cuddled him, and kept him close, and spoke to him in gentling and soothing tones, and every time her stomach rumbled, her eyes flashed butcher knives and her fingers reached for a cutting board and drool dripped down her fangs. Those fangs were pretty damn disturbing.
They had dumped him in the room that the leprechaun crone had set aside for her new students, and then gone off to start training. The room was stark, with nothing but a couple of futons, a tiny, high window, and a Western-style door. More than enough to hold any ordinary pig, but -- he grinned crookedly -- he was no ordinary pig.
The Bakusai Tenketsu would be more than enough to free him, but it would make a great deal of noise, and he might not be able to find his way out of the home before his captors came running. Besides, he admitted sheepishly to himself, he really wanted to try out the Five Swallows Fighting And/Or Mating Over Two White Oaks And An Elm With Dutch Elm Disease Fist. He drew himself up onto his rear feet, staring intently at the locked door, flexed his fingers, and... tried to flex his fingers again. Staring in consternation at his hooves, he counted, then blinked and counted a second time. He didn't seem to have Five Swallows at the moment. Which made it all the more vital to make Ranma pay, since it was Ranma's fault that Ryoga couldn't make Ranma pay.
Before he could work up to a Shishi Hokoudan, the door flew open, and the other girl -- Hyatt -- stood there, in an immaculate new karate gi. The tableau was frozen for a moment, as Hyatt stared, and Ryoga was uncomfortably aware of the fact that he was on his hind feet and crouched in a combat stance; behaviour no true self-respecting pig would ever consider.
"What are you doing, Gyoza?" Hyatt asked, head cocked to one side.
Bolting between her legs and trying to make a break for it was an option. So was squatting and doing his "cute little piglet" routine, but Ryoga was also fighting an urge to scratch the back of his head and laugh nervously. Faced with too many alternatives, Ryoga followed his heart, and tried to choose all of them at once.
Hyatt watched the piglet writhe and spasm across the floor, scratching frantically at his entire body, and then smiled faintly as she clapped her hands together. "Oh, I see. You have fleas, so you want to take a bath." She scooped up the near-epileptic Ryoga before the words had a chance to sink in, and headed down the heart-stoppingly short walk to the nearest bathroom. "Don't worry, Gyoza. We'll have you clean soon."
About to squirm free, Ryoga paused. For once in his life, he realized, he didn't have to fear having his curse revealed. He would be dunked in hot water, he would be human, he would apologize profusely, he would leave. Once it was established that he was not, in fact, a pig and hence a food source, they would have no more use for him.
Slavering jaws danced across his mind. Well, he amended, Hyatt would have no use for him.
And so, when they reached the furo, Ryoga eagerly leapt from Hyatt's arms and into the tub, creating a splash that was greatly magnified as he grew to his human form. Sloshing about in the tub to face the entrance, he was careful to keep himself as decent as possible as he bowed towards the dark-haired girl. "Ah, I'm really sorry about this..."
Making the mistake of looking up, Ryoga froze. Hyatt, who had been in the midst of kneeling down when he had dove into the water, sat there, stunned, her thin karate gi soaked to translucence. The white fabric, steaming slightly in the warm humidity, caressed her curves eagerly, sweeping up from the flare of her hips to cup the outer swells of round breasts, pulling away just enough to reveal a deep, enticing valley...
'Oh, damn,' thought Ryoga fuzzily, as blood sprayed forth. Then he realized that it wasn't his nose that was bleeding, and befuddled, he could only stare as Hyatt's eyes rolled back into her head, and she toppled, shuddering, to the side.
Ryoga couldn't help but preen; Ranma only wished he was man enough to get that reaction! But Hyatt wasn't blushing, he noticed after a moment, and the blood wasn't just coming from her nose. In a sudden panic, he leapt from the tub, uncaring of his nudity, and cradled the comatose girl in his arms. Checking with trembling fingers, he found no pulse.
"Oh, no," he whispered. His face hardened, and he swept her into his arms. "Don't worry, Hyatt. I'll get you to a hospital!" Smashing open the wall with a single kick, he leapt out onto the street, and ran off in search of medical aid.
The street outside was mostly empty, save for O'Callahan, who craned her neck to stare admiringly after the fleeing pair around the shopping bags she was cradling. "Girl's got ambition."
O'Callahan's backyard was incredibly spacious for an urban Tokyo dwelling, filled with rock gardens, koi ponds, little bridges and gates, a half-size electrified barbed-wire deathmatch cage, and a plaster lawn banshee.
"Tomorrow morning we will start your real training," the diminutive master had announced. "For tonight, you will work on hardening your hands. Take this stick, and practice striking this oak tree, both on the left and on the right. Do this until you can't do it any more, and then keep doing it until you can, and repeat."
"Right!" Excel grabbed the stick in both hands and gave the inoffensive oak tree a hearty swat. "I will do this!" Spinning it over her head, she struck again. "I will become stronger!" Strike. "For Lord Il-Palazzo!" A deft parry to cut a flying piece of bark out of the air, and then another cut. "You can count on me, Lord Il-Palazzo!" Pulling off a triple combo, she added, "Excel will always do her best for you!" A blurred flurry of blows. "This will make my hands tougher, so I will be tougher, so I will be stronger so I can fight Ranma and defeat him and stomach the really spicy Korean food and then ACROSS will face no obstacles and I will crush the world under my boot and smear it flat with a rolling pin and wrap it up in pleasing yet not effeminate ribbons and deliver it to you for Valentine's Day because," she held the stick up as a microphone, "Iiiiiiiii, ye-iiiiiii, will always love youuuuuuuuuuu..."
The tree, groaning its indignation, toppled over onto her head.
"That," Excel pronounced flatly, "was not my hands."
Just before dawn breaks, the night takes on a luminous appearance: a darkness by which you can see. In this not-light, Moira O'Callahan carefully studied her lined visage in the bottom-most part of a full-length mirror. "I can do this," she muttered, and then fell silent again. Abruptly, she nodded, her tresses leaning out to push against the mirror until the glass bulged inwards and cracked. "Because I'm old enough, I'm withered enough, and doggone it, people fear me."
Ignoring the glass shards cascading down around her, she strode out through the door and down the hall. Without pausing, she smashed into the guest room and violently attacked the empty futon.
"What are you doing, Teacher?"
Surrounded by drifting wads of padding and cloth, O'Callahan turned to stare with slitted eyes at Excel, who was blinking at her inquisitively from just outside the room. "I was waking you up so that you could begin your training in earnest," she said, and stepped closer. Her hair raked across the roof, and dislodged the "Caravan Kidd Babo Exclusive Special Edition With Extra Bean-Induced Airbag" light fixture. "But you were not sleeping. Why not?"
"There was a reason... let me see..." Excel slumped, her jaw slack as she scratched at an eyebrow with one finger. O'Callahan leaned in, drawn towards the soft hum of painful contemplation, and did not quite suppress a jump as Excel suddenly slammed a fist into her palm, her face first brightening, and then collapsing into a face of misery as she fell onto her knees, grabbed O'Callahan's collar, and sobbed down at her face. "Oh, it's terrible, you have to... This is not working." She leapt to her feet, and ripped up the flooring that had been underneath her. Settling herself down into the newly made gap with a grunt, she fell onto her knees again, seized O'Callahan's collar again, and sobbed up at her face. "Oh, it's terrible! Ha-chan is dead and has dissolved into nothing but a pool of horrible blood in the furo and I spent all night using ice and liquid hydrogen to try and get her to re-freeze into human form and it didn't work and you have to help me though if you could arrange for her to be maybe be just a cup-size smaller I wouldn't complain not that I think Lord Il-Palazzo has eyes for..."
O'Callahan quieted Excel by the simple expedient of stuffing a third of a futon in her mouth. "Your friend is not dead," she sighed.
"Well, maybe she is," O'Callahan amended, "but no more than usual. My training and intuition tell me that she has simply left you for a while, to pursue another form of stamina training."
Excel gurgled again and tried to swallow.
"Don't rush your meal, student. You won't get to eat again for a while."
Ranma stood sweating, the sound of his racing heartbeat echoing off the silent, watching trees. Without closing his eyes, he immersed himself in his other senses, feeling the pollen-laden air as it swept past the trees in bloom and on to him, the whisper of wind caressing the blades of grass, the smell of sunlight slowly baking the earth dry, the rumbling of an idiot pounding through the woods, the imperceptible buzz of gnats buzzing about his head...
"Ranma! This is all your fault, but I'm willing to forget that for just a moment, because you have to help me!"
Senses hyper-sensitive from the meditative exercise, Ranma could feel every ripple of Ryoga's muscles as he was engulfed in a desperate hug, and the still-minuscule damp spot where Ryoga's tears of frustration and desperation were just barely beginning to soak into his shirt. He was also fully aware that Ryoga was stark raving nude. Ranma was, at this point, almost an expert in being involuntarily seized by undressed individuals, and, all told, he would rate this particular experience as one of the worst. Besides, Ryoga didn't know Don't-Hold-On Grenade-Jutsu.
Smiling grimly, Ranma recalled one of Genma's earliest lessons, imparted in a rumbling voice over a campfire to a wide-eyed boy, shivering through his first winter spent outdoors. "Son," the burly man had said, staring contemplatively at his hands held out to the flames, "a martial artist trains to be strong, both for himself and for those weaker than him. We learn to fight to protect those who cannot fight for themselves, and to defeat those who use their skills for gain at the expense of others. But the reason we learn special techniques, Son, the really fancy flashy stuff, is to beat the hell out of mentally deranged men who run around naked and try to molest us. I don't expect you to understand that, not today; but someday, in the future, you'll look back on what I just told you, and what I had to do today, and you'll understand."
Ranma hadn't understood, until now. And, just coincidentally, that enlightenment had come just as he finished learning his newest attack; one so powerful that, the deepest, darkest part of his mind confessed, it scared even him. Summoning his strength, he followed Genma's advice and prepared to unleash the Way Of The Heavenly Mist on his foe.
"Ryoga," he said, in a calm, almost sweet voice.
The lost boy froze, and his grip loosened.
"I really don't think you should be touching me like that," Ranma continued, his tone a blissful hymn.
Ryoga backed further off, his eyes wide and face pale.
"Oh, my!" Ranma cheerfully exclaimed, putting one hand to his cheek. "Imagine if Akane had seen us! She almost certainly would reached the wrong conclusion." Without losing his tiny smile, Ranma leaned in towards Ryoga, finger extended. His target, frozen like a rabbit in the depths of a polar ice floe, could only watch as the tip of the finger slowly drifted in until it rested on his forehead.
"You've been very naughty, Ryoga," Ranma chirped.
Ryoga closed his eyes as the pressure increased slightly.
The finger withdrew. He opened his eyes again.
"There!" Ranma beamed at him. "Now, be good!"
Ryoga screamed in rage and fear, and leapt back, hands before him in a ready stance. "Ranma! This is no time for us to be fighting! You have to help me get Hyatt to a hospital!"
Ranma let the Way Of The Heavenly Mist dissipate and stared at Ryoga in befuddlement. "Hyatt?"
"Yes, Hyatt!" Ryoga crossed his arms and glared at his foe. "She collapsed and she has no pulse! I tried to take her to Nerima General Hospital, but it's not in Osaka anymore!"
Ranma waved a hand at him. "Wait, wait. Hold up. Who's this Hyatt girl, anyways?"
"Hyatt? Well, um, she's this girl who caught me in pig-form," Ryoga stammered, pushing his fingertips against each other, "and she was going to eat me, but she was actually kind of nice about it, and she was really pretty, and she had purplish hair and really pale skin..."
"Oh, wait." Ranma snapped his fingers. "Ya mean the girl who was with Excel and spouting blood and is standing behind ya now scopin' out yer ass?"
"Right!" Ryoga exclaimed, relieved. "Wait, what?"
"Oh, I'm very sorry, Mr. Ryoga," Hyatt said. "I thought it would be all right, seeing as it was out in public."
"Nah, I don't think he minds." Ranma smirked, and leaned a little towards Hyatt, reaching over the frantically blushing and curled-up Ryoga to whisper confidentially. "Tell ya the truth, I think he's an exhibitionist."
"Really?" Hyatt blinked slowly, and then carefully scrutinized Ryoga's fundamental attributes. "Well, I suppose I can understand that. Mr. Ryoga has a lot to exhibit."
Ranma twitched slightly.
Surging to his feet, Ryoga seized Ranma's throat and set about methodically strangling him. "RANMA! How dare you say such things! What if Akane heard you?" Blinking, he stared around the clearing for a few minutes, until a faint gurgling caught his attention. "Oh. Sorry." He let Ranma down a little. "Where is Akane, anyways?"
"Akane?" Ranma echoed stupidly. "I dunno. Around somewhere, I guess."
"Um, Sister?" Akane whispered into the stifling, sultry darkness.
"I can't, um, move." Akane twisted uncomfortably against the silk ropes. Spread-eagled, it wasn't easy.
"I don't know!" she hissed. "The knots are too tight. And they're really starting to chafe." At least the bed was nice and soft.
"Nonono, that's not what I meant! C'mon, please untie me... hey!"
A long series of wet, muffled noises followed, throbbing in the musky air, until they were interrupted by Akane's muffled, broken whimper.
"Now, then." The not-leprechaun paced back and forth before Excel, hands crossed behind her back and her hair gently swaying to and fro. "Today, we begin your serious training in the Pot of Martial Arts Tricks School of Martial Arts. The fundamental precept of this school is that fighting, being a natural thing, arises from the things that we consider to be natural. And so, the serious practitioner will find that mastery of the arts will arise through devoting herself to the relentless study and pursuit of everyday activities."
Standing stiffly at attention, Excel raised a hand up high and began making enthusiastic little noises.
"What?" O'Callahan snapped.
"So we're going to eat and breathe and sleep all day?"
"What? No. You're going to deliver newspapers."
Excel grunted sagely as she nodded her head. "Ah, yes. Delivering newspapers, the ultimate expression of man's struggle for divine perfection in a mortal and flawed world."
O'Callahan nodded gravely, and handed Excel a bulging canvas satchel. "Here are the newspapers. Over there on the curb are the advertising supplements." She watched for a second. "Lift with your legs, student, not with your back."
After a few minutes of experiments, Excel deduced that if she took off the newspaper satchel and hung it on a corner of the massive pillbox of advertising, she could, just barely, manage to heave the entire mess on to her shoulders, and that with great straining effort, she could stop her knees from bowing completely out when they got to about right angles. "I'm ready, Teacher! Well, when I say ready, I mean, I'm ready if all of these newspapers need to be delivered just next door, but I think that they probably need to be delivered all over this neighbourhood, so my 'ready' is really just youthful optimism and gung-ho can-do attitude!"
"Ah, no." O'Callahan smiled indulgently. "No, they don't have to be delivered all over this neighbourhood."
Hollywood will also have to insert a sigh of relief here.
"They have to be delivered all over Shinjuku."
"Shinjuku!" Excel exclaimed with starry eyes. "You mean Shinjuku, located exactly 180 degrees opposite Tokyo Eki both physically and psychologically, which is where the metropolis unabashedly flexes its bulging 21st-century muscles? Over two million commuters scurry through its turnstiles every working day, either heading for other parts of Tokyo or into one of Shinjuku's skyscrapers! These towers of steel and glass defy the tail of the mythical catfish that lies under the archipelago, and whose agitated rustlings cause the tsunami and earthquakes so feared throughout the land.
"Shinjuku," Excel continued, waving a cheery little tourist group flag as she pointed at the slideshow projected on O'Callahan's front door, "at the time a mere rice-paddy village, was one of the only areas of Tokyo left functioning after the devastating earthquake of 1923, when it began to enjoy an accelerated rise in commerce. What emerged are two distinct Shinjuku personalities: the west side of Shinjuku Eki is prim and proper, dedicated to business and commerce and emerging as the new financial center of the city; the east side is raucous and bawdy, bursting with stand-up restaurants, discount shops crammed into underground passageways, street musicians, and Kabuki-cho, a constantly humming nightlife quarter."
The last slide clicked out of the projector, leaving a blank white field shining out as Excel cutely cocked her head and kept reciting. "Shinjuku is best known for..." She ground to a halt and gaped, slit-eyed, at O'Callahan. "Being very, very, very far away from Nerima."
"Not by subway."
"Are we taking the subway?"
"So it is very far away."
"Are we walking?"
"As in, tra-la-la-lally, here down in the valley, tra-la, jumping about like fairies, skipping?"
"Ah, you know the song already!"
Sighing, Excel hitched her load a little higher, forcing the concrete under her feet to groan and buckled under the stress. "I do this for you, Lord Il-Palazzo!" And then, mumbling, "I just hope you never find out."
Kodachi turned her head just enough to see Kuno while she continued to pace gracefully down the footpath twisting between the solemn oaks. "What is it, brother?"
"There is a disturbance to the side of us," he explained in a low voice. "I will investigate it ere it involves us unaware."
Slowing to a stop, Kodachi turned about to glare at her brother. "Brother dear, Ranma darling is just ahead. I have no intentions of letting some new harlot have her hooks in him any longer than necessary."
"Your words wound my soul," Kuno intoned gravely, "but, truly, guaranteeing your well-being and, perhaps, protecting other innocents are duties that I find I must hold as dear as vanquishing the sorcerer Saotome." With a short, sharp bow, he darted off into the woods.
Before she could think, Kodachi followed on his heels. Fast as she was, though, she was surprised to find her brother even faster, and shortly was following his trail rather than his fluttering hakama. Breaking into a full sprint, she broke through a thick bush to almost trip over Kuno, who was kneeling before a tree. Gathering herself, Kodachi stepped closer and stifled a gasp.
Slumped against the trunk was a young man, beaten and bruised, with blood dripping down over his eyes. For a long minute, the tableau froze, and then, slowly, the man lifted his head, wheezing with the effort. "Please." His hand fumbled up towards Kuno's collar, but fell back to the ground before reaching it, spent. "Please. Save my brother... save my village... with my dying breath, I beg you..."
A single tear tracked its way down down Kuno's grim face. "Your words still my soul, and I, the Blue Thunder, hearby swear that I will not rest until vengeance and surcease is found for your kin." He paused. "However, honour compels me to note that I do not believe that running into a tree will cause your life's blood to cease."
The villager had the grace to look embarrassed.
Kodachi prodded the villager with the haft of her gymnastics ribbon. "And what, pray tell, are we protecting your ever-so-humble abode from?"
The villager's eyes went wide, and his hands were trembling as he prostrated himself before the Kuno siblings. "Oh, it's terrible, terrible," he wailed. "They came from nowhere, and ground us under their heels. I'm the only one left who even dares to run away -- the spirits of all the others have been crushed, entirely. They don't dare to fight back, or disobey in the least."
Shaking his head sadly, Kuno inquired, "And how long have you and yours suffered under this withering blight? How can the authorities have allowed this to come to pass, with nary a struggle nor even a harsh word that has come to the attention of those of us outside?"
Staring up at the sky for, the villager counted on his bloodied fingers. "About... one day. They're very oppressive," he added defensively.
Eyes hard and face blank, Kuno turned to levelly regard his sister. "This peasant's story compels me, sister, and needs must I temporarily suspend pursuit of our most rightful vengeance upon the demon that I may act upon the wishes of the gods and take up this quest of justice." He hesitated slightly. "It may well be that the angels of duty that ride upon both our shoulders may compel you to pursue Saotome before the scourging of any other evils, but e'en though your aid would likely be of no small import, I must not tarry in my mission, nay, nor waste my breath upon a single unneeded word."
The burning intensity of his gaze knocked Kodachi's breath away, and it was a shaky laugh that she muffled with the back of her hand. "Oh, no, brother dear, you won't get rid of me that easily!" Collecting herself, she graciously doused the stunned villager in rose petals and sprang away. "Follow me, and we will unleash the vengeance of the Kunos!"
"Ah, this is the start of your route. Not bad running time, but you'll need to be faster tomorrow. People are going to get their papers late!" O'Callahan frowned at Excel. "You can stop skipping now."
"Hweeeeeeeeeeeeez," Excel agreed.
"As good as skipping is for your legs, back, ki, and feminine deportment, the rest of the training will be different."
Excel pondered that. "Hrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrk."
Crossing her minuscule arms across her withered chest, the leprechaun-like master shook her head, hair twisting and writhing. "You're pathetic. Look at me! Do I look anywhere near as winded as you? No! That's because I train!"
"Weren't... carrying... any newspapers," Excel gasped.
"Well, true. But even if I were, my training..."
"And," Excel said a little more smoothly, "you rode on my back for a while."
Brows beetling, O'Callahan explained, "That was part of your conditioning..."
"Then you hailed a cab."
"Time's wasting!" scolded O'Callahan. "You must focus on your training!"
Excel jumped atop a nearby mailbox, popped a party cracker, and pointed dramatically down the street. "Yes! By delivering newspapers, I will achieve my full martial potential!"
Mail boxes in Japan are large, bulky red things, clearly visible to even the casual passer-by. Normally, they have two slots; one on the right for the letters of ordinary size and local destination, and the other for packages of more unusual dimensions and for international destinations. While these mail boxes are considerably more convenient than those to be found in the West, it would be a mistake to consider them "complete" in any sense of the word; a trip to the postal office is required for any truly over-sized packages, or to send registered mail, or if any assistance was required in navigating the often Byzantine rate tables.
Those fees were well-earned by the Postal Service, though, since it was devoted to going beyond the recognized call of duty for postal services in serving the general populace. For example, when Mount Oyama had erupted, and the government had ordered an evacuation, the Postal Service had kept no less than five offices open until the evacuation had completed four days later, and had exempted the residents from postage and fees for registered mail containing monetary contribution as well as parcels containing materials for disaster relief. They had also, as was their standard practice, exempted them from postage for letter-post items and presented them with complimentary items: as many as five postcards and one postal letter per household!
To facilitate this high quality of service, the Postal Service had recently been reorganized as part of an overall streamlining of governmental functions. The Ministry responsible had been changed from the now-defunct Ministry of Posts and Telecommunication to the newly created Ministry of Public Management, Home Affairs, Posts and Telecommunications. It had also been divided into two separate organizations; the Postal Services Policy and Planning Bureau was an internal Ministry bureau devoted to overall management of the Postal Service, while the Postal Service Agency was a state-run corporation that would actually implement mail services. This scheme would allow for flexible, independent management and detailed accounting and financing which did not require direct involvement of the Diet, leading to a reduction in waste.
Enough with the elaborate exposition to impart an air of authenticity to the story, thought Excel. On with the plot!
Wiping a few streamers with "Happy 45th Anniversary" written on them from her face, O'Callahan muttered, "Yes, that's the basic idea. So..."
"So I will attack the delivering of the newspapers as if it was an attack! An attack of newspapers attacking!"
A look of alarm purchased some real estate on O'Callahan's face. "Err, yes. Through the process of delivering newspapers, the mind and body are strengthened..."
"I will move from customer to customer like a ninja! I will launch the newspapers like an archer! I will collect my dues like a yakuza! I will strike down dogs that dare to nip at my feet like a person striking down dogs nipping at their feet!"
"That's not quite the way it's supposed to..."
"Take that, training obstacle!" With a deadly eye, Excel hurled a newspaper through the display window of a camera shop, and followed it by a barrage of four-colour fold-out grocery coupons. With great, reverent care, she withdrew a white bandanna, emblazoned with a rising sun, from her backpack, and knotted it snugly about her forehead. Still standing atop the mail box, she drew one foot to waist-height and began slowly waving her arms about as the proprietor of the camera shop charged out, screaming.
This would have been the moment at which O'Callahan pointed at Excel and feigned innocence, had she not already been halfway down the street peering intently at a display of plastic noodles and whistling in an overly-cheerful manner.
"So! You are to be my first opponent! I will punch you and kick you and noogie you and tie you up and beat you down and steal your merchandise to take photographic evidence of my overwhelming victory and then move on and overcome all of your compatriots and your acquaintances and people who you've never met but are also part of this training exercise so that I and therefore ACROSS which I represent though unofficially of course it being a secret organization so please forget that I mentioned it will become stronger and accomplish our short-term initiatives that lead to our mid-range goals and from there on to our global objectives and hello Mr. Policeman what can I do for you OUCH ah so YOU are the next..."
The mansion ahead, closely crowded about by forest, was barely deserving of the name. With a low roof, walls of rough-hewn logs, and a cobble-stone chimney spewing dark smoke over a thatched roof, it was the imperial palace of crude shacks, possessed of a barbaric and primeval dignity.
Standing concealed behind a broad and spreading oak, Kuno mused, "It is passing odd that I can see no signs of guards."
Even a bare handful of hours ago, Kodachi would have assumed that Kuno's ability to maintain his equanimity in the face of the horrors they had witnessed in the village below was a direct result of his intolerable idiocy. He had, however, been surprisingly even-keeled since they had begun looking for her darling Ranma, and his actions in the village below... well. He had been, perhaps, a bit foolish, but heroically so.
"A trap, do you think?" She wished that caution was the only thing keeping her voice low.
"Perhaps," Kuno said, as he stepped out and began to stride towards the house, bokken hanging freely in one hand. "More likely it is the mark of a man who thrives so on fear in the hearts of others that he has lost the need to feel fear himself."
Kodachi followed him down to the door, which stood open. Before she could contemplate a course of action, from the smothering blackness within came a hoarse, torn voice. "Come in, my uninvited guests. It's far too late to be shy."
While she was still stalling, sure now that an ambush lay within, Kuno stepped straight in. Muttering to herself, Kodachi steeled herself to show no weakness and plunged into the shadows.
The windows had all been shuttered, and the only source of illumination was a brazier of smoldering coals in the middle of the vast room. There were no furnishings, and the starkness of decoration drew Kodachi's eyes directly to a rough-hewn slab directly opposite the door, over which a thick and presumably expensive rug had been carelessly spread. Kneeling on the dais was a slender young girl of breathtaking beauty and grace, dressed in an elaborate kimono patterned with a yellow phoenix chasing orange clouds over a crimson landscape. She paid no attention to the Kunos as they drew near the fire-pit, though, as her attention was clearly preoccupied by selecting choice morsels from the tray beside her and delicately presenting them to...
Despite herself, Kodachi could not repress a shudder of revulsion. The man who sprawled on the heaped cushions was lean and muscled, and likely would have been handsome by any standards if his entire body had not been swathed in tight-fitting bandages. The only exposed skin was the flesh about his lips, which even in the murky half-light was grey and heavily scarred. All he wore was a tattered piece of black cloth, wrapped about him toga-fashion, almost as if he gloried in the wrappings which hinted at his disfigurement.
But what made Kodachi gasp was none of this, but his eyes: brown, laughing eyes that had seen a joke no others had shared, the humour of which had burnt away morals and ethics and cares and replaced them all with a scorching resolve to share the punchline with all others, whether they wanted it or not.
"You are," Kuno asked urbanely, "the cur who is responsible for the abominations perpetrated upon those poor peons in the village below?"
"I suppose I am," said the bandaged man indifferently. The woman offered him another tidbit, but he waved the chopsticks aside while never taking his gaze from Kuno.
Kodachi frowned. Something in the tone...
Whatever it was, it showed no sign of affecting Kuno. "Then," he said almost amiably, "I find myself honour-bound to do battle with you. Do you care to explain your motives? Though it seems a distant chance, perhaps in them I might find some extenuating circumstance that will persuade me to use something less than my full might in chastising you."
"My motives?" Beneath the wrappings, Kodachi could make out the brow of the man lifting. "It's really quite straightforward. This village is placed within convenient striking distance of every major commercial transport route in the Kanto region. When the appropriate time comes, my forces will issue forth from this base to shut them all down, plunging the entire nation overnight into a disarray that will make it easy plucking for the revolution."
Kodachi laughed shrilly. "Fool! Do you really think we will allow you to perpetuate such a diabolical plan?"
The man smiled. "No, not really. That's why I was just joking."
Neither of the Kunos could immediately think of a response.
Settling a little deeper, he continued, "Neither of you have any sense of humour. Actually, I took this place because they have the best okonomiyaki ingredients."
Something in Kodachi's mind clicked. "You're the okonomiyaki slut!"
"That's right." Ukyo nodded affably. "And you're Kuno Kodachi, and he's Kuno Tatewaki, and you're both chasing after Saotome Ranma. I'm afraid, however, I'm going to get him first." She grinned mirthlessly. "But because I just made possibly the best pork-and-shrimp deluxe with extra sauce in my entire career, I'm feeling rather generous, so I'll tell you what. You can have his corpse after I'm done."
For the first time, Kuno sounded startled. "You mean to kill him? Are you not one of those maidens which he has ensorcelled with his demonic magicks?"
"Don't I love him, you mean?" Ukyo smiled coldly. "Oh, yes. Twice, in fact. When we were young, he scarred my heart, and so I bound my chest and sought revenge, forsaking love. My darling Ranchan turned me aside with a single kind word, and I loved him again. This time he scarred my body, and so I wrap myself with bandages, and seek revenge again. And this time, nothing but his life blood will assuage me!"
She rose to her feet, and her wild, roaring eyes pinned Kodachi in place. "I will grind his bones to meal, and grill the batter it will make on a fire of his fat; his tendons I will make into noodles, and his hair into bonito shavings. And the finest okonomiyaki sauce ever will be his blood, squeezed from his still-beating heart. Then I'll kill my father, so that I can lay that okonomiyaki of revenge upon his grave as an offering to the dead, and then?" She grinned, suddenly, sunnily. "Well, then, I think I'll open an okonomiyaki shop that everyone will eat at." The grin stayed; the humour vanished. "Everyone."
Kuno took another step forward, and drew his bokken up into a ready stance. "You will seek to deny me my French cuisine?" His voice was tight and his eyes tense, Kodachi noticed with sudden alarm.
The girl, who had not shifted from her sitting position throughout except to sigh with hearts throbbing in her eyes at Ukyo, made to rise, but Ukyo kept her down with a gentle hand atop her head. "No, Konatsu. I'll take care of this."
For a second, it looked like the girl would protest, but without a word she bowed her head. Nodding in return, Ukyo turned to face Kuno again; to her chagrin, Kodachi seemed to be ignored. "Deny you? In a sense. For, you see, I'm afraid that I'll have to dispose of you here and now." Reaching behind her, she produced a massive, frightening spatula, fire-scarred and saw-toothed. "It will probably be hard enough to dispose of Saotome without the likes of you running about."
"Stay back, Kodachi."
Startled yet again, she stared at her brother. "What?"
"This is a fearsome opponent," her brother intoned gravely, his eyes not breaking from Ukyo's gaze. "Fear not. I will keep you safe."
And then he was dashing towards Ukyo, bokken held high, while she was charging towards him with the spatula held behind her, and their expressions by the flickering embers caught Kodachi's breath in her lungs, and she could not help but scream...
"It is important," announced Moira O'Callahan, "that your training include techniques to counter strengths of your opponent. In the case of Saotome Ranma, that means developing means to deal with one of his most fearsome abilities: the Cat-Fist."
Cinching her belt about her waist, Excel brightened. "So that's why you've been hitting me in the head with little porcelain kittens!" Another one, bright green and with a textured ball of pink yarn, smashed against her forehead.
"No, I do that because you won't shut up. Look here." O'Callahan dragged a blackboard over and began ferociously sketching. "The Cat-Fist is a fearsome technique which, when unlocked with the presence of a cat, allows the Cat-Fist master to access his inner feline, giving him strength, speed, and reflexes beyond your imagining, as well as the ability to wield his amplified ki as a weapon, natural extensions of his body just as the claws are to a cat."
"Wow." Excel stared at the blackboard. "That's impressive."
"Indeed." O'Callahan nodded grimly.
"I don't think I've ever seen such a realistic pot of gold before," Excel bubbled. "And the way the light glints off it, and makes a rainbow... what a work of art!"
Blushing, the crone mumbled bashfully, "Well, you know, I've seen... Shut up!" She broke the chalkboard over Excel's knee. "You must focus!"
"Yes, Teacher!" Excel snapped off a salute. "So to defeat the Cat-Fist, you are going to train me in the art of Having A Pack of Ferocious Starving Cat-Eating Rottweilers Around?"
Excel looked again at the back of the yard. "So why is there a pack of ferocious starving cat-eating rottweilers?"
"Follow me." As they walked over to the pen and the adjacent covered pit, O'Callahan began to explain. "To understand what we are about to do, you must know that the Cat-Fist is trained by wrapping the student in fish sausages and throwing them into a pit filled with starving cats. The trauma of the experience is the key to the Cat-Fist." She rested one hand on the plywood sheet over the pit and looked at Excel, who blinked uncertainly for a few seconds, and then smiled.
"I see," she said thoughtfully.
O'Callahan nodded. "The obvious counter, then, is to wrap you in those ferocious starving cat-eating rottweilers, and then throw you into this pit," she threw away the cover dramatically, "of Cat-Fist masters!"
Excel leaned over the pit and looked down. Below was a throng of dozens of men and women, all shapes, sizes and ages, but all fit and dangerous looking. A few of them looked up at her; one, red-haired and cradling a sword in his arms, waved cheerfully back at her.
Reaching into her hair, Moira O'Callahan produced a cage with a massive, grey, one-eyed tabby. "Then, when I poke this cat to make him meow, you will be swarmed under by the Cat-Fist masters! And with this," her eyes glinted in the sudden shadows as thunderheads swept across the sky, "you will become the master of the Cat-Fist-Fist! The mere presence of the Cat-Fist will allow you to access your inner Cat-Fist master!"
Laughing triumphantly, Excel gloated, "Yes! The Cat-Fist-Fist! There is no way I can fail Lord Il-Palazzo when I have the Cat-Fist-Fist! Who could even dream of withstanding the incredibly awesome power that is the Cat-Fist-Fist!" She frowned suddenly. "But, Teacher, since the obvious counter to the Cat-Fist is the Cat-Fist-Fist, isn't Ranma going to train in the Cat-Fist-Fist-Fist?"
"Never mind that!" She waved dismissively, already strapping the rottweilers to her student. "We have no time to waste!" Stepping back to admire her handiwork, she addressed the one finger protruding from the canine hill. "Are you ready, Excel?"
"Ow! Um, yes, Master! Ow! Nice doggies, stop biting me, I'll have you know that I'm the best of friends with a wonderful dog named Menchi ow! ow! let that go, I think we ought to get this over with soon, Master, I think they might think that I'm a cat..."
O'Callahan nodded sharply, and her writhing column of hair knocked Excel into the pit. From its depths, there was a sudden murmur of concerned voices. "Are you okay, miss? Here, let me help you..."
A sardine held up in front of the cage prompted a sharp, demanding yowl from the tomcat, and the voices cut off for a sharp, breathless instant. Then the air was rent by a choral scream of "C-C-C-C-C-CAT!" The ensuing noises of frantic struggle were cut off as O'Callahan slammed the cover back into place, and then tugged herself up to sit on top of it contentedly.
"Soon," she chuckled. "Soon, you will be more than a match for Ranma." Watching the petals float down from the cherry tree, she laughed again, entirely mirthlessly. "And my revenge will be at hand."
"What revenge was that, again?" Excel chirped.
Inscrutably staring at her student, Moira O'Callahan slowly reached behind herself to pat at the indisputably intact cover. "How," she asked evenly, "did you get out?"
Proudly, Excel beat one fist against her chest. "Lord Il-Palazzo is always dumping me into deep, dark pits filled with horrid dangers! But not until now did I realize that he was actually training me in the secret long-lost art of Pit-Fu! Oh, Lord Il-Palazzo," she sighed dreamily, "this is surely a sign of how you care for me! That you would carefully prepare me for this, the most trying trials that I should every try to face! Oooooohh!" She clasped her hands to her face and wiggled. "You musn't, Lord Il-Palazzo! Not there! Not here! Not with basketball gear! Okay, let's do it! I've got the..."
Sighing, Moira O'Callahan reached for a porcelain cat.
Ryoga stood at the treeline beside Nabeshin, Hyatt to his other side and just behind him. She'd been spending a lot of time behind him lately, which probably wouldn't have bothered Ryoga so much if he hadn't kept feeling like his underwear was riding up. At the moment, though, he couldn't be bothered with that, because he was watching Ranma train.
Ranma stood in the valley just below, slowly circling under a hailstorm of nine-inch nails. There were dozens in the air above him, each perfectly perpendicular to the ground, and as each fell past him, Ranma would flick it back into the air with hand or foot. On occasion, one would make it past, and without breaking step, Ranma would sweep his head down to the earth and snatch the nail up between his teeth and spit it skywards to rejoin its mates.
This had been going on for half an hour now.
"Impressive," Ryoga said grudgingly, and meant it. The speed, the focus, the control required to keep all of the nails in the air and perfectly aligned... He'd find it incredibly easy to do, of course, if he felt like trying. It was just impressive to see Ranma managing such a feat.
Nabeshin grunted. "He's not doing bad at all."
Ryoga watched some more, until he found his muscles twitching along after Ranma's. When he started looking for shapes in the clouds, though, he became uncomfortably aware of a burning sensation on his backside. Shifting uncomfortably, he turned towards Nabeshin. "So, what is he supposed to learn from this technique, anyways?" Out of the corner of his eye, he saw Hyatt shift to stand behind him again just as he was about to inconspicuously reach back and adjust his underwear, and stopped himself.
Nabeshin kept staring at Ranma, hands in his pockets and eyes narrowed against the bright sun. "I dunno. He's bright. He'll figure something out." Turning, he adjusted his tie and strode off into the woods. "I'm hungry. Let's get takoyaki."
It is a great irony of life that some of the most brutal and horrific of battles in human history have been fought on days bright, clear, and sunny. So it would come as no great surprise to the connoisseur of planned butchery that the day of the appointed challenge was cold and overcast with a heavy promise of rain later to come, because the gods often delight in ironically violating people's expectations of irony, until someone points out just how paradoxical that is, at which point the gods go back to their primary occupation of smiting wise-asses with lightning bolts.
"Where is Ranma, anyways?" Excel wondered. "We've been waiting for a few hours. Ah! Perhaps the reason that Hyatt has been gone so long is that she took the initiative to undertake a secret ninja mission to tie his underwear into secret ninja knots..."
"Is that the challenge in your pocket?" O'Callahan had learned by now it was better to cut Excel off sooner rather than later.
"Ah, yes. Is that bad?"
O'Callahan sighed. "Well, I suppose we'll just go interrupt them at their training camp." She looked around. "Probably a bad idea to fight in a supermarket, anyways."
Stuffing the egg-carton behind her back, Excel looked as innocent as you can manage with yolk running down your face.
It was getting close to noon, and Ranma had done no training. Nabeshin had mysteriously suggested that he relax, citing "directorial foreknowledge," which Ranma gathered was a bit like danger-sense. And so he was, for lack of a better word, moping, though he would violently have denied it.
Where was Excel? When would the challenge be? Ranma longed to test his skills against her again, she who had given him the most formidable challenge of his career. It was not, he hastened to assure himself, anything else, certainly not a desire to hear her dulcet voice calling his name, or the feel of her calloused yet gentle hand upon his shoulder, or her repeatedly shaking him while shouting at him irritatedly, or, or, having her scream in frustration while hitting him on the top of the head, oh, gods, yes!
Nabeshin belted him across the chin. "What the hell do you think you're doing? This is no time for manly comradely embraces!"
Ranma let him go and wiped his bottom lip dry, grinning sheepishly. "Um, sorry. Was thinking of something else."
"Never mind. Look down there." Nabeshin pointed down the mountain slope, where two shapes could be seen making their way through the sparse trees. "They're coming."
Snapping to full attention, Ranma shaded his eyes with one hand. Excel was immediately recognizable to Ranma, tromping delicately through the underbrush while singing some song about polishing a palace's pillars, apparently. Squinting harder, he could just make out...
"Hey, Nabeshin," he asked, "who's the leprechaun with fire for hair with Excel?"
"I'm not sure," Nabeshin said shortly. "Excel's teacher, probably. Must be very strong."
Ranma nodded grimly. "Yeah. Only the greatest martial arts masters look that stupid."
"Miss Excel!" Hyatt sighed cheerfully. Ranma started slightly; engrossed in studying his opponent, he hadn't noticed her and Ryoga coming up behind them. "Oh, look, Mr. Ryoga, Miss Excel is here! Isn't that wonderful?"
"Uh, yeah," Ryoga muttered. "Great." Not only was he still hitching at his pants when he thought no one was looking, Ranma noticed, but he'd gone pale. Strange. He'd never seen Ryoga sick before.
"Saotome! I challenge you!" Excel did not say.
"Kuno?" Ranma whirled. Approaching from behind was, indeed, the Blue Thunder of Furinkan High, as well as his sister. Both looked worn, and their clothes were tattered, but nonetheless, Kuno's head was held high and his eyes were narrowed, burning with danger and confidence.
"That is correct, foul cur. For the evils you have perpetrated on the proud tigress, on the pig-tailed girl, on the porcelain goddess, on the..." Kuno ground to a halt, and, the slightest flicker of embarrassment across his face, pulled a list from his sleeve. Mouthing silently as he quickly perused it, he nodded sharply. "And on the porcelain goddess, I challenge you!"
"Hey, you can't challenge him!" Excel protested as she closed the last of the distance. "I challenged him first, and I have to fight him, because Il-Palazzo said so!"
The leprechaun shook her head sadly as she trotted up behind Excel, the whipping of her hair stirring up a gust of wind that flattened Ranma's shirt across his chest. "Hush, student. You'll get your chance to fight Ranma, but there are other matters to deal with, first." She grinned toothily. "Hello, Nabeshin." Her voice was suddenly filled with a cold contempt.
Nabeshin jerked uneasily and tugged at the collar of his shirt. "Do I know you?"
The wizened hag-thing chuckled nastily. "As Moira O'Callahan? Certainly not. I've had many a face and name before." As she spoke, the harridan's hair had twisted and writhed upon itself, fanned by a windstorm none other could feel. "But you should certainly recognize me as..."
With a rustling noise, the pillar of white hair split in two. As it slumped to the side, a man was revealed, wearing the style of red coat and blue shirt that Nabeshin favoured, face dwarfed by a massive brown afro cut the same way as Nabeshin, adjusting a yellow tie that might have been the mate of Nabeshin's, kicking the remains of a leprechaun body costume off his left foot in the exact same way that Nabeshin wasn't but probably would if Nabeshin had the remains of a leprechaun body on his left foot, and, in general, looking like the spitting image of...
"Nabeshin!" The new Nabeshin pronounced. "That's right! I am the true Nabeshin, come to unmask you as the impostor you are and take vengeance on you, in the names of Happosai, the Space Butler, Pedro, my newspaper delivery boy, and a character to be revealed in the sequel, 'Samurai Excel,' coming soon to a mailing list near you! ('Soon' is defined on a geological time scale; warranty void where prohibited by law; this is prohibited by law.)"
Ranma stared at Nabeshin II, and then turned to cock an eyebrow at Nabeshin I, who looked back at him indignantly. "He's lying! I am the real Nabeshin!"
"Oh, yeah?" Nabeshin II challenged.
Propping his bokken upon his shoulder, Kuno snorted derisively. "Come, now, Saotome. Even one of such a low intellect as yours should not be confused by this!"
"Actually," Excel piped up, raising a hand, "I'm pretty confused too. I mean, my teacher who was not a leprechaun but looked a great deal like one and never gave any hints at being someone else other than a leprechaun in hiding is now claiming to be Nabeshin, which strikes me as just the sort of contrived and implausible plot twist I've come to expect... Okay, I'm not confused."
Ryoga, who had been nodding as Excel spoke, stopped and started scratching his head, and then jumped slightly and edged away from an ever-serene Hyatt.
"Here we have," Kuno elaborated, "a man who has presented himself as 'Nabeshin' from, yea, the very beginning, and proffered credentials to that name which you found impeccable. Then, now, at this most critical of junctures, someone else, who has until now concealed themselves in both identity and visage, steps forward to claim that name for themselves, and denounces the first as an impostor."
"How the hell do ya know all that?" Ranma asked in bemusement.
Kuno waved a hand negligently. "I purchased the information from Tendo Nabiki, who, I believe, obtained it from the listening devices she had surgically implanted in your spleen, for the sum of forty-five billion yen, which is negligible to a scion of the Kuno house. That, however, is unimportant; it was simply a means by which to obtain the facts from which only one inevitable conclusion can be drawn."
He crossed his arms proudly over his chest.
After a few minutes, Ranma threw a tiny pebble at his head. "Oi! Ya gonna tell us what that is?"
Kuno blinked. "Why, they are both impostors, of course," he said condescendingly.
There were another few minutes of silence, and then Hyatt raised her hand tentatively. "Excuse me..."
"Yes, porcelain doll," Kuno said encouragingly. "You wish to confess your love to me?"
"Actually, sir, I'm afraid I don't understand why you know that they are impostors." Hyatt blushed a bit demurely and lowered her hand again, which made Ryoga twitch.
"Ah! Well, for you, one of the most privileged of women to be part of the trinity of my beloved, shall I explain my peerless logic, though I do not doubt it shall still escape the grasp of those uncultured barbarians." Smiling a secretive little smile that seemed almost out of place on his grave features, he raised one finger into the air, took a breath, and ripped off his face.
Despite the fact that Ranma found he wasn't entirely surprised, he still had no words to say when Nabeshin III threw aside his bokken and thrust both hands above his head, making victory signs. "I am the real Nabeshin! And neither of you two imitators will walk away from here!"
The tableau was devoid of motion for a long time; a triangle of Nabeshins glaring at each other, Ranma and Ryoga behind Nabeshin I, with looks of confusion matched only, Ranma was sure, by the frown furrowing Kodachi's brow from where she stood behind Nabeshin III. Excel, on the other hand, had plopped down to sit cross-legged behind Nabeshin II, plowing through a bucket of popcorn and following the drama with an avid fascination. Looking around in sudden panic, Ranma found Hyatt standing a few paces behind he and Ryoga, her attention clearly elsewhere.
Oh, good, Ranma thought. She ain't a Nabeshin.
"Well," Nabeshin II said abruptly, "this isn't getting us anywhere. I will confess; Nabeshin, too, is just another mask I wear." Reaching up, he seized his afro, and rotated it ninety degrees. With a click, steam began to hiss from the hairline, and with a ratcheting noise, ex-Nabeshin II lifted the hairdo. As it cleared the skull, vast clouds of fog surged out to obscure everything.
What was revealed, when the wind finally whipped the cloud, was a short and statuesque woman, dressed in a long white Chinese dress. Her black hair was cut in a page-boy bob about her round, pert face, and her eyes, green and cheery, glittered out behind large round glasses, over which lights from no apparent source flickered.
The Nabeshins gasped in unison. "Hashirumi!"
"That's right!" she chirped, pointing at Nabeshin I. A flicker of uncertainty, then she switched to point at Nabeshin III. "Naughty Nabeshin. I suppose I would just let you walk all over me and defile my dreams and works?" Another flicker, and her finger wandered over towards Nabeshin I, and then slowly oscillated between the two before she, with a charming maidenly snort, put her finger away and propped her fists on her hips. "I might be a very nice person, but even very nice people have their limits! And so I trained Excel to make sure that she would defeat Ranma, ruining your 'experiment'! And now I'll make you... err, you... Nabeshin pay!"
"What are you talking about?" Nabeshin I snapped.
"What she's talking about," Nabeshin III smirked, "is how my plans are working perfectly." Reaching into his blazer pocket, he pulled out a ballpoint pen and shoved it into his afro. "GORGEOUS RONIN WOMAN ASTEROID HEALING DISGUISE OFF CONFIRM DISGUISE OFF (y/N) Y!"
A shower of pink translucent sparkles engulfed Nabeshin III and spun him into the sky, stripping away his clothes in a storm of twinkling ribbons.
When Ranma had gotten his stomach back under control and could stand to steal another peek, wiping bile from his mouth, Nabeshin III had been replaced by a bear of man, a solid thick column from shoulders to knees. He brushed at his immaculately pressed red flannel plaid dress shirt and took off his fur cap to scrub at deep-set eyes. "I always hate that. Why do all the good disguise pens have to come from shoujo shows?"
Nabeshin I and Hashirumi gasped in unison. "...!"
"Ansonbi!" he barked.
Nabeshin I and Hashirumi gasped in unison. "Ansonbi!" They looked at each other, and chorused, "Who the hell is Ansonbi?"
The mystery man chuckled darkly. "Who am I? I am the one that set this trap, to lure you both in. And now that I have you, I will kill you, and take your power for myself!" He clenched his fist. "With the power of Nabeshin and Hashirumi, as well as my own, I will reign unchallenged!"
He stopped, and with the perfect synchronicity of public restroom toilets running out of toilet paper simultaneously, all eyes turned to stare at Nabeshin I.
"What?" he demanded. "I'm the real Nabeshin!"
The stares did not diminish.
"Well," said Hashirumi tactfully, "assuming for a minute that you have brought both Nabeshin and I here..."
"He did!" Nabeshin stomped his foot. "I'm Nabeshin!"
"Do you really think," Hashirumi persisted, "that you're up to the task of taking us both out?" She gave Ansonbi a small smile with the edges of razors lurking in the corners of her lips.
"That's right," Nabeshin said, stepping forward and cracking his knuckles. "Do you think you can play with the big boys?"
"Let's find out," Ansonbi replied.
And the world vanished in a blank inferno.
Stillness. The light/not-light fades, leaving a wind of power, of ki, of the fuel of life, winding about the three. There are others who are not of the three, but they are here only in place, not in time.
Battles are fought with weapons. Weapons are manifestations of battles.
There is no battle yet. No weapons have been shown.
A squirrel hides an acorn in a tree that will be cut down next week for firewood that will be used to roast sweet potatoes.
"Must we battle?" Spinner of tales.
"We must." Thief of mind.
"It was foretold." Master of dreams.
Faint buzzing fills the silence. An insect, most likely drosophila melanogaster at the terminus of the fertile stage.
A frown, unplanned. "Foretold? By who?"
The head jerks. "Him."
"He doesn't count."
"What do you mean, I don't count?" Offended. Is the destiny challenged?
"If I announce that I'm going to the supermarket to buy some milk, I can't exactly claim that my dairy purchases were 'foretold', now, can I?" Logic must prevail. Reason provides order.
"That's exactly my point." A satisfied grin.
The drosophila melanogaster goes out of the fertile cycle, revealed by the dance of chemical compounds in the pheromones that none of the three can detect. Being outside its normal habitat, it has not bred. Idly, the drosophila melanogaster is swatted. The cycle of life continues.
"Pretty much, yes."
"I thought it sounded out of character for you."
Another pause. Deep insights are weighed. Paradigm shift.
"Wait. Who am I?"
Bemusement passes to scorn. "Master of dreams, of course."
Scorn fumbles and is intercepted by counter-contempt. "That's pretty damn useless, moron. I mean, am I Nabeshin, Hashirumi, or..."
"You can't use names!" Scandalized. "It ruins the... the..."
A sigh of deep ages. "Look, can we just go and beat each other up and get this over with?"
"And stop talking like cryptic clowns, too? Please?"
Consideration. During battle it is a hindrance, and after battle is the pause before the next battle. Wisdom after the battle is then also wisdom before the battle, except that it is for the battle immediately succeeding it and not applicable to the preceding battle, that is, the battle chosen as a reference point. But what are references, but arbitrary coordinates? References are nothing to the unmated dead displaced drosophila melanogaster.
"We cannot fight here."
"This world does not go deep enough to take our full might."
"No, talking like normal civilized humans was probably too much to ask."
"What about some Harry Potter fanfic?"
"No one reads them anyways."
Gone, like a distracted author pursuing a subplot during the climax at the expense of dramatic tension.
Akane sighed in relief as she smoothed the floral print dress across her hips. It really wasn't the style she'd prefer, and it was made for a woman a fair bit taller than her, but it was definitely better than both the rags that had been left of her school uniform and the... get-up... that the Sister had given her. Most things would be better. She wasn't sure which of those two options had been worse, even if, technically, the latter had covered her whole body. Turning, she smiled at her rescuer. "Thank you, Pedro."
The tall Brazilian adjusted his purple undershirt, flushing in embarrassment. "Oh, it's no problem!" he stammered. "I deal with that sort of thing all the time."
Her smile broadened. Pedro was so cute, eager and innocent, just like a puppy. Mind you, most puppies didn't have broad, cut shoulders, and a musical accent... She gave herself a mental shake. She was engaged already. Even if she didn't want to be. And her fiance hadn't done anything to help her. Turning away to give him a chance to compose himself, she looked around the green, rolling hills. "So this is your home?"
"That's right." He stepped up behind her and put one hand on her shoulder, gently turning her and pointing. "Over there is where I grew up... you can just see it if you squint."
"Oh?" Akane found her hand creeping towards her leg to scratch it, and firmly stopped herself. She hated to admit it, but cotton seemed so... itchy, now. Vaguely, she wondered if silk would feel any smoother. Pushing the thought out of her mind, she leaned back against Pedro -- all the better to sight along his arm, of course. "I don't quite see it..."
Abruptly, Akane found herself dumped indelicately on her rear as Pedro stepped hastily away, hands carefully raised above his head. "I-I-Ish-chan! It's not what it looks like! I swear!" For some reason, his tone brought equal tides of hurt and anger rising up in Akane, and she twisted to stare at the newcomer. Mouth opened for a biting remark, she let it fall the rest of the way open in shock.
Standing -- no, floating -- there was a... hole in the very fabric of space, a round portal looking out onto a starry expanse of chilling void and swirling galaxies; somehow, Akane knew that the window was, at the same time, the entirety of creation. A pair of slender, feminine arms hung off the sharp boundaries, hands resting on a pair of quasars where an ordinary woman's hips might be.
A delicate alto snort emerged from the dying throes of a supernova. "Oh, of course it isn't!" One hand made a gesture both dismissive and imperious. "Men! Leave them alone for a minute, and they go off and defeat crystalline minions and rescue some pretty little vixen to fall head-over-heels for!"
In unison, Akane and Pedro blushed and stammered, "No, it's..."
They were ignored, except that the stars within began to spin even faster. "Well, I'll deal with you later, Pedro dear. But first," she turned, arms spreading wide like the wings of a bird of prey, "I need to show this tramp what happens to girls who mess with the boyfriend of the Great Will of the Universe..."
Akane shrank back as the star-flecked darkness began to sweep towards her. As it grew far faster than mere speed could account for, she whimpered, "Pedro..." Out of the corner of her eye, she could see his hands raised in futile supplication, and then the emptiness engulfed her.
Excel yawned hugely. "Hey, Ranma, can we fight now?"
Blinking again to clear his eyes, Ranma looked around. Nabeshin and the ex-Nabeshins had disappeared in the sudden flash, leaving him more than a little confused. Why the hell hadn't Nabeshin taught him that trick? "Yeah, okay."
"Pardon me, Ranma darling," Kodachi interrupted. "Might I quickly clarify something before you begin?"
Ranma and Excel blinked at the gymnast.
"Did I just truly see my brother reveal himself to be, in fact, someone by the name of Ansonbi? That is, not my brother at all, but someone merely posing as him by means of a ruse to cruelly deceive and trap those others who have vanished along with him?"
Exchanging looks with Excel, Ranma scratched his head. "Ah, yeah. Looks that way."
Visibly, Kodachi slumped in relief. "Oh, good," she sighed. "I was rather getting worried about myself." With a maniacal laugh, she leapt into the treetops and bounded off down the mountain. "Lord Ansonbiiiiiiii! Come back to your darling Kodachi!"
Strange, Ranma thought, but neither here nor now. Focusing his attention on Excel, who had struggled to her feet and was now scratching sleepily at her hair while cleaning out one ear, his heart began to race. "Let's get your losing over with," he smirked, dropping into a relaxed ready stance.
Taking up a cat stance, Excel snorted. "You think I shall lose? I fight for the powerful, wise, strong, grade A man-meat Il-Palazzo, and I can't lose!"
"Actually, Miss Excel..."
"Don't bring that up, Ha-chan."
"Yes, Miss Excel."
Mind quickly racing through the possibilities, Ranma countered Excel by shifting to a horse stance. "Il-Palazzo, huh? Sounds like the sort of wimp I could beat one-handed."
In a crane stance, Excel screeched in indignation. "What? A mere boy like you can't even dream of approaching the glory of the Lord of ACROSS!"
Ranma's eyes narrowed. "Oh, yeah? Then prove it!" He assumed an ox stance and waited.
"I will!" Excel snarled.
She had switched to an elk stance, Ranma noted with mild alarm. Assuming the opposing emu stance, he inquired nastily, "You really think you can take me?"
Now a giraffe stance. "I think I can take you, fold you in half, wrap you up, include a self-addressed stamped envelope, and mail you to Santa Claus, except that he is an old outdated myth that has no place in the rational, reasoned regime that is the dream of the Ideal Organization ACROSS and hence my dream because of that being the organization to which I belong!"
Millipede stance. "Gotta bark! Can you bite?"
"How are you doing that?"
"I'm... not really sure."
"Doesn't it hurt?"
"Yeah. What about you?"
"A little, now that you mention it."
Unfolding themselves, Ranma and Excel stared at each other, taking no note of the spectators that had long since backed away. And then a leaf hit the ground, and they raced at each other.
The battle was fast and furious. Ranma observed, in a detached way, that Excel's style was one he had never seen before, which seemed to be based by running past your opponent at top speeds while launching attacks sideways while never slowing down.
(Pretty effective, doncha think?)
A sudden blink cost Ranma a one-knuckle thrust to the tricep. (Who the hell are you?)
(I'm you, of course. Guess the stress we've been going through has made your mind split.)
(Stress? What stress?)
(Dunno. Work with me here.)
(So, what, you're my girl side or something?)
Ranma simultaneously took a kick to the side of the kneecap and a mental slap across the head. (You don't got a girl side, dumbass. You're a guy, remember? Cheez, next you'll be having homoerotic fantasies about Ryoga and blaming 'em on me and hormones or something.)
(So you're exactly the same as me?)
(But you're gonna help me by helping me develop strategies and tactics that I couldn't come up with by myself, right?)
(Actually, I was just going to go off there in the corner and cuddle with your Don't-Hold-On Grenade-Jutsu fantasies. Pretty sexy for a figment. See ya around!)
"Stupid jerk," Ranma muttered to himself as he grabbed Excel in mid-air pass and threw her to the ground.
She twisted around and landed lightly on her feet, one hand at her hip and the other arm held across her body. She studied him carefully, her face serene. "You've trained hard."
"You too," Ranma acknowledged, standing across from her. "Now, let's get serious."
No language has been birthed that can describe the experience of two powerful warriors engaging each other in battle. There are no words that mean, "completely surrendering oneself to death while simultaneously struggling with full might to keep oneself alive and strike down the opponent," or, "scared into empty bowels and flailing around frantically with whatever is at hand to desperately try to keep everyone and anyone at arm's reach," and even if there were, they would do no justice to the heart-racing, blood-chilling, adrenaline-filled, kettle-cold, calculated, burningly dispassionate reality.
The option, then, is to use analogies and metaphors, to liken punches to lightning bolts, and describe attacks as the rushing charge of wolves, and compare tactical decisions to precise and painstaking ballistics computations done by custom written FORTRAN 77 software compiled with Watcom F77 that tax the floating point epsilon of a five-hundred and twelve MIPS processor SGI Origin 3000 server with Irix 6.5 ASE. These, however, cannot come close to capturing the full essence of the warrior's existence, any more than a meticulous, lifeless accounting of strikes, parries, and health insurance deductions.
So, why bother trying?
They broke apart again, wordlessly agreeing to a temporary truce. The clearing in which they had started was long departed; the clearing in which they stood now was one they had made themselves. Out of the corner of his eye, Ranma could see Ryoga and Hyatt watching, huddled behind an improvised firebreak.
"Ready to give up, Ranma?" Excel gloated. She was bruised, but nowhere near as badly as Ranma. "You fought well, and hard, and long, and in a way that would have made me be absolutely starving if I wasn't already very very hungry so that instead I've now moved on to being so hungry that I'm not really feeling hungry now, but you had no real chance of defeating Lord Il-Palazzo, who isn't here, but is the master of ACROSS, which also isn't here, being a sort of non-physical ideal organization thing, but of which I am the agent and representative, and I am most definitely here, as if I wasn't here, I couldn't be kicking your ass as thoroughly as am I now!"
"Yer pretty strong," Ranma conceded, wiping a track of blood from his lip, and then laughed. "But I've been only using a fur... flak... farc... ummmm..." He snapped his fingers in consternation. "A, um, small bit of my full power! Now, I'm going to use a, uh, less small bit of my power, which will be more than enough to defeat you even though it's still only a small bit of my full power!" Clenching his fists, he reached deep inside of himself, to his pride, his grace, his superiority, his mercurial moods, his appetite, his laziness, his disdain for all people not currently feeding him, brought them all forth...
... And unleashed the Cat.
Not the Cat-Fist, with its phobia-induced animalistic mind, but the power it had given him. His battle aura burst forth, snarling and surging about him like a hunting leopard, lashing at the air and the ground until they began to swirl up around him to reach towards the sky. He opened his eyes and was barely aware of the not-prey being forced backwards by the sheer pressure of his ki; instead, his full intensity rested on Excel, who froze like the mouse before the fangs of the panther.
"This," Ranma purred, "is the result of a lifetime of training." Casually, he flexed his aura and tore a boulder protruding from the ground free to float in the air between them; with an equally nonchalant wave, he tore it into sand. "This is what you challenged." He leered at her ferally. "Now, shall we start to play again?"
A shudder rippled Excel's shoulders as his gaze forced her to drop her eyes. Ranma did not bother to conceal his smile; first, she would admit that he was the better man, and then...
And then her eyes came up, flashing defiance, and she raised her fists, and she pronounced, her voice leaden with final certainty, "I will not lose." Ranma could feel her summon her full ki as she raised her face to the heavens and screamed, "For ACROSS, Lord Il-Palazzo, and really good Korean food!"
The mountain exploded.
"I'd say that I was sorry it had to come to this," said Ukyo, her ponytail sweeping across the linen bandages covering her skull as she sauntered forwards, "but that would be a lie. I don't really care about you one way or the other, actually."
The nun struggled against her manacles, causing her to rotate slowly about on the chain suspending her from the distant, smoky ceiling. "Why are you doing this to me?" she demanded, the strain of her voice causing her leather corset to creak.
"Why?" Ukyo chuckled, and made a beckoning motion with her hand. As Konatsu came forward from the door of the cell, Ukyo answered, "Just like you, I don't want to see your unborn daughter enslaving the world, and disrupting my own plans. It's just that I'm prepared to take more direct measures. You see, the weak are okonomiyaki, and the strong eat. And I," she said indulgently, taking the little control box from Konatsu, "am very strong. Good-bye, Sister."
Nothing happened when she pushed the button.
"What..." Ukyo stared at it for a long moment. "Ah. This is the detonator to blow up Ranma's training camp." She sighed, and took the other box that Konatsu hastily produced. "I hate doing things out of order. No big loss, though. Now then, Sister, where were we?"
Crouching in the depths of age-old bracken, stoically ignoring the scrapes and scratches, Ansonbi clutched at the sucking wound above his floating ribs. Staunching the bleeding while keeping his breathing even and quiet was difficult, but he did his best.
He could feel them out there, their dark cloaks sweeping across the moor, hidden faces snuffling at the air, bloodless and scabby hands poking at the sod to find the faintest of tracks. They were dogged, and persistent, with no souls to make them question their mission; they would be as nothing to Ansonbi... normally.
One bone shard slipped past another, and Ansonbi winced. The pain slightly lessened, he began worming his way towards the best safety he could hope for. "Well," he muttered to himself as he slid through the muck, "today's experiment... failed." Under the moonless skies, only his grinning feral teeth reflected the starlight. "But they haven't seen the last of me."
ACROSS Headquarters is still dark, still quiet. The throne is still missing. The episode is still in present tense, which according to the manual is a known bug linked to appearances by Il-Palazzo, who is still in the hall, so the author gives up and pretends that the reader will not care, this being the end and all.
Nestled within the depths of a new Laz-E-Boy, Il-Palazzo surveys his domain, and then regards the plush blue armrest on which he is leaning. "Comfortable," he pronounces, "but lacking in a certain dignity. It will need to go back."
Picking up his Gameboy, he plays for a few minutes more, pausing only to activate the built-in leg rest.
"In a bit."
-- Author's Notes --
Numerous works have provided inspirations and references for this piece. I have decided to follow the lead of the production staff of Excel Saga in not providing credits for these secondary sources, and let the reader find what they may. To the creators of all those things that in some way found their way into "Across Honour", my profoundest gratitude and apologies.
Excel's Shinjuku speech is taken with minor modifications from the Japanese National Tourist Organization website, at http/www.jnto.go.jp. No infringement of copyright is meant; it is included here without knowledge or permission of the copyright holder for purpose of parody.