"Okay," one of the figures said, his voice filtered by his mask, "so, if anyone thinks that they're getting in through this storm, they've got another thing coming!"
"Think," the other figure replied, his visor's focus whipping from the streaking snow to his partner.
"I am thinking! What are you talking about?"
"You've got it wrong. It's, 'they've got another think coming'. Not thing."
"What the hell? I've never heard it that way. Look, logically, it's 'thing'. 'Think' isn't grammatically appropriate in the second half of that statement. You're the one who's got another 'think' coming."
"Hey, don't complain to me about your improper nomenclature! It's quite obvious that the first clause indicates thinking, and so should the second!"
"It's not nomenclature, and don't pretend to correct my terminology when we're clearly discussing an anecdote! Look, it makes perfect sense that in the first instance one is 'think'ing, but in the second, they've conceived an event that's clearly not going to happen - thus, thing. Like an event. Not 'think'."
A third, much larger, though identically dressed figure burst through the snow and grabbed both of the smaller figures by their collars, hefting them from the ground. This voice was much harsher, still modulated through a mask as it demanded, "What's going on here? What do you think you're doing?"
"S...sir," the first figure managed, "w...we were just discussing proper use of the word 'think' versus 'thing!"
"Yeah," the second chimed in, "he's got his terminology all wrong!"
"It's an idiom," the third figure snarled. "Now keep an eye on the perimeter!"
The two smaller figures were unceremoniously thrown to the ground, while the larger whirled and stalked away.
"Heh, he called you an idiot."
Diamonds in the Rough - Chapter Eighteen - Villains and Heroes
Disclaimer: Paints in this story are from Rumiko Takahashi, Viz (Ranma 1/2), TV Tokyo and Ken Akamatsu (Love Hina), Tatsuya Egawa (Goldenboy), and Jackson Publick (Venture Brothers). The easel is mine. That's all.
Note: So, this probably comes across as a big-lipped alligator moment, but I've actually been plotting this since before the island arc. Seriously. If it's too much, pretend that only the final scene is real. :)
Stalking back towards his camp, deep in the heart of Hokkaido, the fur-suited figure adjusted a button that flipped the view screen up, allowing angry, shadowed eyes to study his surroundings. They narrowed as they fixed on a path through the trees. Footsteps had been placed very carefully, and were almost impossible to spot, but there was no mistaking the trees and bushes that had been disturbed, shedding some of their snowy buildup.
"That's just great," he growled into one fist, raising a cigarette to his lips and igniting it. After taking a deep draw, he turned his head first to one side, and then the other, cracking his neck loudly twice.
He expelled a long plume of dark smoke, then flipped his visor back down, following the new trail. "Stupid pain in the..."
It had seemed when they first set out, that Seta had been very capable. Ukyou felt that it was a reasonable assumption, anyway - Ranma had thought highly of the man, and his 'Guild' contacts certainly seemed to provide a wealth of information. Where it had gotten sketchy was after the last village, once they had passed what Ukyou was starting to think was far beyond the reasonable range of civilization, he'd produced a number maps.
Varying resolutions of satellite pictures, for whatever reason. He picked a route down the mountain, leading Motoko and Ukyou from wind-break to wind-break, speaking very little except to note the likely existence of the 'enemy camp'. What exactly had she gotten involved in, where her employee had been kidnapped by people living out in some remote corner of Japan? This seemed somehow inexplicable even for the peripheral chaos in Ranma's life before.
So, she did her best to hide her steps in the snow. She and Motoko were of very similar skill levels at that. Seta was much better, and Ukyou was beginning to wonder what precisely it was that the 'archaeologist's guild' did.
After an hour of scrambling down the base of the mountain, they broke in a small hollow of snow-capped boulders, stopping to warm up and double-check Seta's maps. While he pored over the papers one at a time, cautious of losing them in the high wind, Ukyou retrieved a thermos she had thought to fill with hot tea before setting out from the last village.
At this point, it was only warm tea, but in the biting cold, that was intensely welcome. No sense saving it, since it would only get colder, too... That left the trio somewhat restored - enough for Seta to decide on a specific course. They left their cover as the storm picked up, briskly moving from tree-to-tree, avoiding places he termed likely to contain 'sentries'.
Motoko looked grimly determined most of the time, but Ukyou was starting to suspect that the kendoka was just as bewildered as she was. It was Motoko who finally asked the question that Ukyou had been puzzling over in her head:
"If we are avoiding sentries, what is the plan when we reach the center of their fortifications?"
Seta paused at that, then turned around. At that time, they were in a small copse of evergreens, walls of whirling white drifting over the trees around them. He looked unhappy before saying, "If these are grave robbers or tomb raiders, then naturally we would need to notify the Guild."
"What about Minami?" Ukyou pressed, scowling. "I'm sorry, Noriyasu-san, but I'm not really concerned so much about the 'guild business' part."
The man seemed slightly startled for a moment, looking up from the map. "N...no, that's entirely fair, Kuonji-san," he agreed. "I do believe that these people either have Minami, or will know where she is. In the unlikely circumstances that they're not related to her disappearance, they will know about local nefarious activities."
"The low elements band together?" Motoko asked, pulling her coat about her more tightly, looking between the two older martial artists curiously.
"I don't know about banding together, but aware of each other, absolutely," Seta agreed. "I'll admit, I erred towards confronting rival archaeologists because I'm in my element. This is something I've done many times before."
"Alright," Ukyou grudgingly agreed. Like it or not, the man was the only guide they had... "What's the plan, then?"
"We'll break into their central camp," Seta said, jabbing a finger at the map, indicating a cluster of hollows. "It's going to be in one of these three locations - this one specifically, if they've got an airship."
"Right," the okonomiyaki chef agreed doubtfully. "So ... we find their base, beat up some guys, and then make them tell us where Minami is?"
"That will be the plan," Seta agreed, rolling up his paper. "On the off chance that these are the abductors, I'll make a distraction, and you two should search the place. If Minami's not there, then we can start asking questions."
"Good," Motoko said, shivering.
"In the meantime, this cold won't do us any good - so let's hurry, alright?"
"You ever get the sensation that you're missing something really important?" Mitsune mused, hurrying through the streets, frantically looking around for some sign of Ranma.
"More often than not, lately," Naru muttered. "Hey, what do you suppose is going on with Motoko and Seta-san?"
"I dunno, I get the feeling that they're dealing with the real decoy," Mitsune grumbled, before looking up sharply. Tamago circled overhead, chirping excitedly and pointing down the street ahead of him. For just a heartbeat, both girls caught a glimpse of Ranma's signature braid as he rounded a corner.
Looking back down the street, she spotted Keitaro, Shinobu, and Mutsumi rushing to meet them.
"Onward!" Mitsune crowed, grabbing Naru's wrist and hauling her towards the one glimpse she'd gotten.
Though he wasn't really happy about how things had gone, Seta was pointedly loyal to the Archaeologist's Guild. The idea of some non-guild archaeologist finding cultural or historical treasures, and then keeping them for themselves bothered him greatly. He wondered if, just maybe, he was trying to put Guild business ahead of the safety of Ukyou's friend...
...but he couldn't help but come back to the idea that he had to be confronting these people. That sense, finely honed from his own venerable teacher, didn't like to be ignored. In Seta's experience, much like his mentor's, ignoring it had never resulted in anything good.
His hunch that the unknowns had an airship had turned out to be correct - which he especially hadn't liked. The thing was massive, probably the third or fourth largest that he'd ever seen, not counting OSI headquarters or the Gretta Garbo. He thought it should be familiar, and at that size he should have recognized it ... but it was large enough he couldn't make out many details in the snow.
The airship suggested that they didn't have a camp at all ... and why would they? The ship was a mobile fortress.
Ukyou had been stymied by the appearance of the large craft, muttering about contacting the JSDF instead of taking care of it themselves. While Seta wouldn't have minded the backup, it was a given any large force would be detected, and then the mobile base would simply move away - spiriting off any chances of finding out what had been done with Minami.
Motoko furrowed her brow as they reached one side of the ugly metal construct - a wall of yellow-painted steel, with drifts of snow piled high against it. "I assume that this type of thing isn't that unusual?" she asked, turning to the other two.
"This is more Ranchan's field than mine," Ukyou answered, pulling a rope from her bag of supplies and securing it to one of her throwing spatulas. After tossing it out of sight into the white mystery, they listened cautiously for the sound of metal striking metal, but heard nothing. She tugged cautiously on the line, verifying that she'd somehow caught it on something.
Seta took the line and held it taught, before anyone could climb it. He stared up and frowned, where the rope vanished overhead. "I've seen larger airships, but I can't place this one," he apologized. "Let's hurry, though."
Ukyou nodded, gesturing him up the rope first. He pulled himself up against the battering wind, grunting as he crossed the lip of the craft, where the rope was digging deep into the snow covering the vehicle. As he rolled to his feet, he blinked, seeing the telltale cherry red glow not far away in the snow - not far from where the end of the rope had been secured.
"So," a voice grated out from behind the cigarette in irritable English. "You know there's a door?"
Seta hesitated, considering. "Listen," he called over the wind, "my name is Noriyasu Seta - and I am here to represent the Guild."
"Wrong answer!" the unseen smoker replied, releasing the rope he had been holding, letting the glittering steel of Ukyou's throwing weapon of choice snap back into the darkness, presumably sending the young women crashing to the snowbank below. Seta cursed, rolling through the snow and narrowly evading a spray of gunfire.
Much to her embarrassment, after the cord was cut, Motoko fell four meters in an unceremonious, surprised heap - or would have, had Ukyou not been there to catch her, only grunting slightly. "Crap," she swore, setting the kendoka down. "We've got to get in, or up."
Motoko swallowed, then pointed at a tree, not far away. "It's a jump," she called, "but it's high enough - probably."
Ukyou glanced over at the tree, then nodded her agreement, the two quickly struggling through the blinding wind until they reached the fir tree's icy trunk. The okonomiyaki chef was better prepared to deal with the unfriendly surface, simply driving her small throwing spatulas into the tree at regular intervals, swiftly creating a makeshift ladder. Shortly after that, the okonomiyaki chef made a determination, waiting until the wind was just right - then leaping into the snow.
It was impossible to tell if she made it - Motoko could only just make out the bulk of the enemy fortress through the blinding white swirls. Hoping for the best, Motoko waited until the wind matched the conditions when Ukyou had leaped, and released herself, praying that it would work. For a timeless heartbeat, she was isolated, alone in the wind and snow, unable to see the earth below, the tree behind, or the landing platform ahead.
That heartbeat faded with a gust of wind swirling enough loose powder away for her to see the edge of the airship's deck, canting at a curious angle. With desperation, she drove her sword into the side of the ship, a spray of blinding sparks strangely echoed from below. A roaring rumble filled the valley, echoing from the nearby mountains, and the kendoka had just enough time to realize that the airship was attempting to lift off before the sound of gunfire and loud cursing echoed from above.
Someone was screaming something in unfamiliar English while she struggled to swing herself up to the deck, fighting for hand-holds on the smooth, freezing metal as the ship began to ponderously rise.
Ukyou landed on her feet, ducking into a roll and narrowly evading a spray of gunfire. She released an involuntary yelp, unlimbering her spatula from her back and turning to one side. The next spray of bullets reflected off the bulky metal of her chosen weapon - not the intended design function, but a welcome discovery. Her attacker began shrieking furiously in English, too quickly for her to follow.
Not really wanting to leave herself exposed, she shifted to try and charge the man, realizing as she approached that the visored, armored figure was bleeding from the thigh. She swung her spatula around, cracking him over the head sharply. His helmet protected him - somewhat - so instead of being knocked unconscious, she just slammed him to the snow-covered deck.
This time, she could follow his English, as he screamed, "That did not just happen!"
Too much time wasted dealing with him, Ukyou determined, kicking his firearm off the edge of the ship's deck. He should be harmless, so she decided to turn her attention to Ranma's student. He'd never forgive her if she carelessly got Motoko injured! Driving her larger combat spatula into the deck of the ship, near the edge, she made herself a handhold, leaning over to look for the kendoka.
Motoko was just below, stuck to the side of the pitching ship by virtue of driving her own weapon into the side of the craft. Heaving a sigh of relief, Ukyou reached down to help the kendoka up, grabbing her hand. She was tensing to swing the girl up just as the man she was ignoring found a better use for his helmet as a makeshift club, and smashed it against the hand gripping onto her spatula.
She fell, eyes wide, but Motoko kept her grip, letting Ukyou swing down below her, then - with a grunt of exertion, swinging the older girl around, flinging her back up towards the deck. Ukyou turned with the girl's motion, recognizing Ranma's favored momentum-redirection-trick. A heartbeat later, she lit back on the deck of the ship, one strong tug hauling Motoko up after her.
The kendoka came up swinging, feet first, and kicked the still-cursing figure in the chest, sending him sliding back across the deck of the ship. Ukyou tore her weapon free from the deck, casting about as a trio of additional figures began to emerge from the swirling snow. "Can this get any worse?" Ukyou asked, just as the craft rose into the clouds, and visibility became even more limited.
Deflecting bullets with a sword was technically possible, Seta knew. He'd even done it a few times, but in the grand scheme of things, it was significantly harder than just not being in the line of fire when the trigger was pulled. Auto-fire weapons were an entirely different ballgame, though - and Japanese swords specifically were designed to cut, not block. In point of fact, a blow to the flat of a katana was likely to shatter the weapon.
So he stuck with evasions for the most-part, changing direction mid-roll, and sticking to the ground. After a trio of bursts, all of them striking the snow too close to him for his own comfort, he managed to close with his opponent, realizing that the man was huge - unreasonably large. His visor was flipped up, revealing shadowed, glaring eyes, and a shaggy mane of blond hair. "You're the best the Guild could send?" the huge man snarled, driving one fist towards Seta's face.
He narrowly evaded - for his size, the blond man was fast - but managed to slash his sword across the man's gun-hand, deflected by the armor. The blow was strong, though, and knocked the gun free from the larger man's hands. "Let's be reasonable," Seta declared, landing in a crouch, sheathing his blade.
The blond man's eyes narrowed even more sharply. "Yeah, you've got such a great history of that!" he retorted. "Seriously-" He cut off, both men looking towards the prow of the ship as a stream of incredibly loud swearing was heard.
"Yeah!" the unfamiliar voice cried out, the curses gone for the moment. "That just happened! Two for the price of one! Too many cartoons, little Japanese-" He suddenly cut off with a retching sound, and then a limp body burst from the snow around them, sliding between the two of them.
"So," Seta said, frowning as he looked down at the unconscious, mustached form at his feet, "I suppose that means negotiation is out?"
The right-hook he received in response was unexpected, throwing him to the edge of the deck, just as a wall of fog covered the area.
He was dazed, out of his element ... and judging by the fact that someone had beaten up the large man's friend, the girls had made it aboard. That made them his responsibility, so he staggered to his feet, pulling the back of his wrist across his lip to wipe away the blood. "Hey," he called, slipping to one side as a fist emerged from the fog, to replace the space his head had just occupied.
He drove a fierce knife-hand into the exposed muscle of a bicep, catching a stunning backhand that threw him across the deck the other direction.
"Hey, what?" the blond growled.
"There are two girls here with me," Seta said insistently. He dove into the mists, making an educated guess based on the blond's voice. He guessed wrong; the blond man had expected the tactic, and when he landed, he was greeted with a punishing kick to the ribcage, sending him rolling across the deck of the ship again.
The blond man chuckled. "You're something else," he remarked. "Really, you think that girls are going to make us look the other way?"
In as much pain as he was, that was enough for him to locate the burly blond hulk. He said nothing, moving to position, then charged, launching his knee into the giant's kidney from behind, then hooking one arm over the larger figure's shoulder. When the hulk spun, roaring in rage, Seta managed to pull his sword out in a single smooth motion, freezing the larger figure as the edge touched against his throat.
"They aren't with the Guild," Seta warned, knowing the standoff wouldn't last.
The only answer the blond man gave was a grunt of acknowledgement.
"Let's settle this between the two of us, and leave them out of it," Seta suggested.
The blond snorted, and Seta realized to his dismay, the point of an unfriendly combat-knife was already pressed against his side. "Alright; you're an entirely new flavor of crazy, but not outright evil," he growled. The two exploded apart simultaneously, ending their deadlock and sending the two into the fog.
Motoko kept with Ukyou, unable to tell where they were going, or what the ship was doing. The whirling snow seemed to have vanished, but the blinding mists were not helping matters. The okonomiyaki chef either had a better idea of where she was going, or was just not stopping. Considering the one deranged gunman they'd faced, and the sounds of Seta and someone else fighting - and yelling in English - that was probably a good idea.
They found other gunmen, too, but after the harrowing encounters so far, they didn't bother with anything other than quick take-downs. A sheathed blade made an excellent blunt instrument, and Ukyou's large spatula flicked discarded guns off the edge of the ship. They had taken down fifteen figures - all men, as far as Motoko could determine - when a blinding flash lit from above.
Used to the blinding dimness, the fog - everything but suddenly clear skies and unfiltered sunlight - Motoko had to squint, realizing that more should be clear, but unable to force her eyes to adjust. More importantly, if the deck was clear, then any other dangerous men with guns would have uncovered line of fire.
Ukyou's curse suggested that she had realized this, too. She snapped a pair of tinted snow goggles out of her supply bag and pushed it into Motoko's hands. She eagerly pulled them on, adjusting to this change much more quickly. Once she could see, she surveyed the deck, realizing that the entire thing was clear, except for the prone forms of the men they had knocked down - and the distant, still fighting forms of Seta and another hulking figure in the same strange uniform.
The okonomiyaki chef charged towards the battle, and Motoko followed a half-step behind, momentarily boggled by the revealed bulk of the airship. The deck they had been standing on was flat, any variations hidden in the layer of snow that had settled on it. The massive face of the airship's bridge - an ominous structure that spanned the entire width of the deck - was capped with what Motoko was certain was an Egyptian feature. A sphinx's face, if she recalled correctly.
The absurdity was overshadowed by the fact that the meters-wide steel face was attached to a multi-ton flying machine, covered with psychotic gun nuts. Judging by the completely empty horizon - save the endless sea of clouds beneath the ship - they were going to need to find some way to get back down safely, too.
More importantly, Seta was involved in a losing fight against a man slightly taller, but at least three times as wide at the shoulder. A distant memory of the man's costume and the icon on the ship's unseemly bridge clicked into place. Motoko realized with grim horror that somehow - somehow - they were dealing with a terrorist organization that had supposedly been destroyed years ago.
Fine, then, she decided, pulling ahead of Ukyou in her charge. Ranma may have been good at fixing things, but her role was to fight evil. The huge man before her was that, if anything was. Seta's face was bloodied, one eye promising to swell shut soon. The blond giant's nose streamed blood as well, and his left arm hung, seeming to move sluggishly. That was the mark of a pressure point strike ... but all of the pressure points in the world wouldn't help if the blond hulk knocked Seta out.
Just as the titan wrapped his arms around Seta's throat, Motoko entered striking distance, launching into the last attack her sister had taught her - and one that Ranma had helped her perfect.
There was a time and a place for everything ... and for once, she felt that she was in the right to use the technique. "Zanganken!" she declared, beginning her attack.
"No!" Ukyou cried, as Motoko's blade swept out, just as the titan swung Seta's body around to intercept the weapon.
Once visibility had cleared up, Seta found himself in the looming shadow of the airship that he wished he had recognized sooner. Certainly, he should have remembered SPHINX well enough from the time he spent in Bashtarl, working with the Big Nine to recover the last cultural records and artifacts from a civilization that might otherwise have been well and truly lost. He'd thought them stopped a long time ago ... but evidently, he was mistaken.
Worse, the blond titan was an unstoppable juggernaut, growling and gritting his teeth through whatever punishment Seta managed to land on him. Ultimately, the repayment in kind was too much for Seta, and the blond giant's rough hands wrapped around his throat. His vision had begun to grow hazy when he realized that Motoko and Ukyou were charging for him ... and he'd wanted to try and keep them out of trouble, too. Why would these terrorists resent the Archaeologist's Guild so much?
Before he could really wonder why, he felt his body being swung around, towards Motoko's oncoming attack. Unable to do much else he waited for the inevitable.
"...Ni-no-Tachi!" the kendoka concluded.
Despite the situation, Seta couldn't help but crack a smile at the technique - which passed through him harmlessly, before all of the chi reconvened, striking the blond titan with enough force to launch him through the air, breaking the pair apart. Seta rolled, unable to muster the strength to do much more than heave for breath. Ukyou quickly reached him, helping him sit up, but her gaze went to the giant.
The blast from Motoko's blade had launched the brute a dozen meters to slam into the steel structure of the bridge, beneath the massive, glowering sphinx's face. His clothing was shredded from the force, leaving him bare chested and clad in tattered, ragged pants. A steel plate, scarred with recent, still-glowing slashes, was secured to the center of his chest - seemingly with nothing more than a quartet of bulky rivets.
Despite being embedded in the side of the craft, the figure seemed - if anything - more animated, shadowed eyes glowing with malevolence. "Alright," he snarled, wrenching himself free, dropping to the deck with a heavy thud, then drawing his knife from his belt. "No more friendly-" He cut off, eyes widening slightly as his gaze surveyed his fallen men.
"What the hell!" he roared, incensed. Seta's smile widened slightly, but he remained where he was, conserving his strength. There was that, at least ... hopefully the large man was the most capable combatant present. If Seta and the girls could defeat him, he wasn't sure how much fight he'd have left in him for any reinforcements. "Seriously? Seriously? I believe that Shore Leave's down, and watching him get his sorry hide handed to him by a schoolgirl is kinda funny - but the rest of you, come on!"
Grudgingly, about half of the prone forms struggled to crouching positions, most of them pulling sidearms from their belts, while the others searched around across the deck for their weapons.
Seta's smile began to fade. "I say again," he called out, "these girls have nothing to do with Guild business - I don't know why you hate archeology so much, but-"
"Wait," the blond titan growled, eyes narrowing. "Which Guild are you with?"
"The Archaeologist's Guild," Seta clarified, not reaching for his sword, while Ukyou and Motoko uncertainly regarded the armed men. "I'm an archaeologist."
The blond giant looked incredulous, but no less furious. "Well, fu-"
The rest of his complaint was blasted from audibility as the giant metal Sphinx's mouth opened a meter, exposing a massive speaker. A vaguely familiar voice blared, "Sampson! Stop screwing around! A cluster-" then a squeal of feedback, "of this proportion- Hold the deck, I'm coming down!"
"Oh, come on!" Sampson snarled, one eyebrow twitching.
Brock Sampson was not having a good day. Bad enough that he'd detected someone inside the perimeter, the forces he recalled hadn't convened in time to leave before the intruders reached the deck. That meant they'd been compromised, and a week-long hideout in the mountains, hunting down less desirable elements that had escaped even Guild control.
He'd been itching for a good fight, and the tether that had made it onto the airship's deck - mid-launch, no less - had seemed the ideal opportunity. So, he waited, and when the first attacker appeared, he initially fit the profile. Competent, intelligent, and not wearing a stupid costume. He'd asked the man to identify himself, and counter to the profile, he said he was from the Guild.
That was enough for him. So, a fistfight - occasionally breaking down into a knife/sword fight - on the deck of a rising airship fit the bill. It seemed dramatically appropriate, and he'd thrown down the rope, leaving any reinforcements behind on the ground. At least, that was the hope, anyway.
When the clouds cleared and he could see, his opponent was an unreasonably fit, skilled fighter. Insultingly enough, the man even seemed to be going out of his way not to kill Brock in exchange. This annoyance, mostly because Brock couldn't fathom why someone would come so far only to back down at the last second, was undoubtedly the worst.
As angry as it was making him, he did hold back.
He'd even found a way to seriously injure his opponent - using his allies for it - but that plan had quite literally exploded in his face.
Well, more his chest, but nothing pissed him off more than the steel plate in his chest saving his life. It wasn't a weak point - it was his most armored point. He'd always prided himself on being a skilled, competent combatant ... having to rely on a piece of steel that did nothing more than hold him together was insulting, too. It wasn't the first time it had happened - that plate had stopped bullets, knives, an unexpected and very lucky punch, and now, strange attacks possessed only by Japanese schoolgirls.
That wouldn't have been too much of a problem. Man or woman, enemies were enemies, and the fight was the fight. The girl made a more obviously lethal foe...
...and that was when his superior officer demanded a ceasefire.
The plan was off schedule, they hadn't gotten anywhere, and now he was out a good fight. The only high point was the fact that Shore Leave really had gotten beaten up by girls, something he would be bitter and whiny about for weeks. Those would be very entertaining weeks, but did it make up for being robbed of a fight?
He turned his dark, angry glare to the door to the bridge.
The lean, eternally cross visage of Hunter S. Gathers emerged from the portal as it opened, his shaded eyes sweeping across the scene, then fixing on the man Brock had been fighting. The stem of his cigarette holder swung to one side as his lips pursed together in a sour grimace. "Sampson!" he barked, turning to face the man. "This is a member of the Archaeologist's Guild! Do you realize how close you've come to violating the Jones Clause?"
"What, is that," Brock wondered aloud, "some crazy version of 'Rusty's Law' for international terrorism?"
"Yes!" Gathers snapped. "That's precisely what it is! Worse, this isn't just any archaeologist - this is Seta Noriyasu!"
The man - Seta - blinked at this, seeming to absorb the situation. "Yes!" he said in realization, nodding. "I recall that incident - I was still training under my mentor! Gathers-sa- Er, Mr. Gathers, it's good to see you again!" Helped by the two girls - who now looked far too innocent and nervous, considering the beatings they had administered - Seta climbed to his feet.
"That's the same incident where the clause was formed," Gathers agreed, shaking his head in disgust. "But never mind that now - incident is still classified - should be forgotten by everyone involved!"
"I've done my best," Seta answered, before both men gave an eerily synchronized shudder. Brock grumbled and checked his pockets, unsurprised to find his cigarettes shredded by the blast he had taken.
"Alright, let's get to the point, civilian," the leader of SPHINX barked, crossing his arms over his chest. "What the hell are you doing assaulting our base of operations?"
"We're trying to find a girl who was kidnapped recently," Seta said apologetically, frowning. "We had no idea that there was a terrorist base hidden there."
"Counter-terrorist," Gathers returned, spreading his arms and making a gesture with one hand. "Strictly below radar. You're going to need to forget about this, in any case, and so is your Guild."
"Maybe we can work together," Seta offered. "If you're not interfering with business from my association, we might be able to exchange information."
"You've got worthwhile intel?" Brock asked doubtfully, raising an eyebrow.
Gathers shot him a glance, but ignored the question, turning his attention back to Seta. "You think we know about your kidnap victim?" he asked.
"It's a slim chance, but better than none," Seta said. "I do happen to have extensive knowledge of the geographical features of this area."
"Is there really a reason to trust this guy?" Brock grumbled.
Seta squinted at Brock for a moment, then fumbled in his coat, giving a lopsided grin as he produced a pack of cigarettes from one pocket. The girls on either side of him looked confused and dubious as he made a gesture, flipping the pack across the distance to Brock, snaring a pair for himself in the same motion. He absently tucked the pair of brands back into his pocket and turned to regard Gathers. "If we talk fast enough, neither of these girls can understand our English," he said quickly. "So, tell me who you're after - or what they're looking for in the way of geographical and cultural details."
"It's got a name they'll know," Gathers countered, shaking his head. "Native to China - part of the ... 'large flame' association. Considered to be UN-killable - worked for a certain dazzling gentleman conductor who died at the last battle of Bashtarl."
Brock raised an eyebrow and found his lighter, still intact from the punishment. He would be somewhat surprised if an archaeologist could put together the identity of their target - but judging by his look of alarm, he did recognize those clues.
"O...oh," Seta said shakily, frowning. After a moment of thought, he said, "There are eighteen nearby sites that would match the specific requirements, and all but one are within the auspices of Interpol jurisdiction. Ah ... in a sensitive area for my Guild, this is ostensibly concealed from international awareness as a site of cultural import."
"Spare me the red tape - would this place also be a suitable cover where victims could be retained for extended periods of time?" Gathers pressed. "Because if it is, there is a very good possibility your friend is there." Brock inhaled, giving Seta a skeptical, expectant look.
Seta hesitated uncomfortably, then acknowledged, "A highly exclusive resort - deep in the mountains, all but inaccessible this time of year. However ... if this is who I think this is - you can't do much more than scare him away, without her help." He nodded at the darker haired of the two girls - the one with a real sword, instead of the weird club that reminded Brock of an over sized child's beach shovel.
"Hot damn!" Gathers declared, clapping his hands together and giving an unpleasant smile. "Shinmei-ryu? Two-for-one special!" The swordswoman flinched, looking very confused, but recognizing some of what Gathers said. He turned to Brock. "Get some damn clothes on - we're crashing in uninvited within ten minutes! Interpol and the Gretta Garbo will be here within hours, and that's not a fight we want."
Eying the smaller man, Brock gave a small grin of his own, drawing deeply on his cigarette. "Alright," he answered. Turning to the surrounding men, he added, "Someone drag Shore Leave's sorry hide down to medical, and let's get this party started!"
Minami was trying to make the most of her situation, but it was difficult to really be happy. She was comfortable, but she was very worried about her sister. Worse, while everyone was very polite to her, they wouldn't let her leave!
It wasn't until the middle of her second day, sitting in a relatively comfortable lounge, when someone else - another prisoner like herself, wearing the same very soft pink robes - made a gasp, her eyes widening. "Wow!" the other prisoner - not much older than herself - chirped upon seeing her. "I know you!"
"Y...you do?" Minami asked, mystified. The attendant-like 'wardens' didn't seem interested in eavesdropping. "T...that's..." After a heartbeat, the other girl's identity registered, and Minami forced down a gasp of her own surprise. "Oh! Y...you're... I've seen you in the television adaptation of Bridge of Birds! Didn't you play Jade Pearl?"
"Yeah," the girl replied, her smile slipping slightly. "Well ... I lost the role, actually... But I was in the original pilot! I heard they're actually redoing it because the new girl they found is supposed to be really good... Never mind that, now! You're Zaizen Mai, from ENOZ!"
"N...no," Minami whimpered. "My name is-"
"Ah, got it," the other girl giggled, grinning widely, before giving an overemphasized wink. "Incognito, right? Yeah - checking into rehab at this stage would be terrible for your career, wouldn't it? Your secret is safe with me, Zaizen-san!"
Minami managed to shape a few words, but not spit them out, as things suddenly clicked together. Well ... it would explain how Tendo Nabiki arranged to get her out of the way. The attendants thought she had agreed to this ... which did explain why it was both confining and comfortable.
But who was taking care of her sister? Worse, what did Ukyou, her boss think of her suddenly vanishing?
The twitching young starlet, still under the impression that she was a member of some band that Minami barely even recognized, continued to yammer on about something that the woman honestly couldn't care less about. No matter what, she was confident that no one was having a day as bad as hers. That thought in mind, and realizing where she was, she managed to get into an absolutely amazing outdoor bath. Well ... actually, it was all glassed in, allowing an inspiring view of the ongoing snowstorm. So, technically, an indoor bath.
There were a handful of other girls there, of varying ages, most of them avoiding eye contact. She didn't fit in much better, though. She could tell them she didn't belong, but the other prisoners - guests, she supposed - gave her very knowing looks and shook their heads. Soaking in the water, she looked up at the swirling snow, a random break in the storm giving her all the warning she got. Glimpses of dark brown, or orange-suited figures, descending from the skies.
She shrieked in what she thought was entirely justified terror and dove in the bath, finding a heavy submerged boulder and clinging to it, cringing away from the shards of glass that exploded into the water around her. When she came up, gasping for breath, the bath had transformed into a battlefield - armored figures shouting as they collided with the security forces of the 'resort'.
Directly before her, the water exploded upwards in a giant column, revealing a towering cloaked figure, steaming in the frigid air, and emanating a palpable aura of menace. Her eyes widened as she began to scramble backwards, away from the form. Beneath the cloak, a pair of horrifyingly eager eyes stared about - the only visible human part of the thing. A blood-red steel mask covered its face, and a samurai helm concealed the rest of its head, capped with a plume of red that matched the mask and cloak. The rest of its torso was wrapped in gray and gold armor, a grinning golden skull prominent in the center.
A long, naked blade was in one hand, and the mask - for one heart-stopping, terrifying moment - turned to regard her. The eyes did not blink, only pausing to register her, then - evidently - determine that she didn't matter. Her heart hammered unsteadily once the gaze moved on.
She continued her blind scramble backwards and away, cringing at the sound of someone crying out - her voice cutting through all the other yells and shouts. "Raimeiken Ni-no-Tachi!" the voice called. A flurry of golden crescents lashed through the space over her head, striking the cloaked, masked figure.
The armored form staggered, then adjusted its stance. "Oh, yeah!" a rough, excited voice bellowed from behind her. "Free ride's over, karma Houdini! You're mortal now!" Those same eyes widened, registering improbable fear of their own as a titanic figure charged past her, throwing a gun to one side with obvious disdain.
Just when things couldn't get any stranger, a pair of arms wrapped around her, hauling her completely out of the water and into the freezing air - and then, a second later, yanking her even further up, through the swirling snow and into the skies itself. "You're going to be okay!" her boss's voice came, yelled into her ear, barely audible over the whipping wind.
Okay, she forced herself to admit, naked, freezing, and falling into space, evidently she was going into some terrible kind of withdrawal. Maybe these people did know what they were talking about.
For once, Ukyou's patience had won out. She had no idea what Seta had gotten them into, only that Seta seemed to have a faint idea. As far as she could tell, she had bribed the crazy people that Motoko was muttering were terrorists with a pack of cigarettes. That and an excuse to break some windows seemed to motivate the entire crew into assisting her find Minami - something alarming, but ... well, she'd seen stranger.
Their unreasonable airship maintained a steady course, and the blond titan who had seemed intent on killing Seta abruptly became unreasonably friendly. He showed them into the airship's interior, where she and Motoko were offered seats in a meeting room of some kind, at a long, rectangular table. Seta translated, explaining that the strange men were secret agents of justice.
Motoko and Ukyou found this very unlikely, but if pretending to be fooled meant survival, they decided to play along - that much better if they could find Minami, too. The group of men were looking for some person, a criminal, they insisted, who was evil. And then they named a terrorist - someone from history that Ukyou couldn't convince herself to believe was possibly in some place as innocuous as Hokkaido.
Despite her obvious, growing discomfort, Motoko agreed that she would help fight the figure... Except, the men didn't really want Motoko to fight him, just use one technique. At that point, Ukyou had mentally checked out of the conversation, just worried about Minami.
Shortly enough, they were in the hangar bay of the unreasonably huge flying fortress, along with dozens of armored figures, all listening to orders from the huge man - Sampson. He'd stopped to put on a new set of armor, and Motoko was confused that he seemed to dismiss her earlier attack on him so easily. After that, she and Motoko had gone down with the second wave of attackers, rappelling down an insanely long tow-line with a harness, and directions on how to use it.
Swinging in over the hot-springs where she hoped to find Minami, she coordinated her landing - touching down on a boulder just behind Minami a few seconds after Motoko. The kendoka was staring, aghast, at the thing she had just attacked - frozen by its gaze. Unmindful of her paralysis, the hulking form of Sampson charged forward, cheerfully entering battle with...
Not letting herself think about it, Ukyou reached over to Motoko's harness and yanked the emergency recall cord, then seized Minami with one arm and pulled her own cord. Shortly after that, they were back in the hangar, Seta wrapping Minami's shocked, trembling form in his coat before helping her and Motoko out of their harnesses.
All of them shaking nervously, except for Seta, they went back to the meeting room - and suddenly, it was quiet.
"Mission successful?" Seta asked hopefully, his eye done blackening.
Blinking, the kendoka haltingly began, "I ... I think I just attacked-"
"Don't say his name," Seta warned, shaking his head sharply. "Try not to think about him, either."
"O...oh," Motoko said, frowning. "I...is he going to come back?"
Glancing at the door, Seta explained, "The name is attached to the armor, and there have been many hosts... I doubt this will be the last, but the next will have no memory of you."
"You've run into ... that ... before?" Ukyou asked, aghast. "How the hell did this happen?"
"It's my fault!" Minami abruptly began to bawl. "I'm a terrible person! I'm so sorry - but I needed the money!"
This, somehow, was even more shocking than everything else. "You? How!"
Sobbing uncontrollably, Minami seized the lapels of Ukyou's coat. "She said she wouldn't hurt you!" she cried. "I didn't know she was going to kidnap me!"
"Who?" Ukyou asked, baffled.
"H...her name is Tendo Nabiki!" Minami wailed. "I'm so sorry!"
That, Ukyou could hang onto. A Tendo, she could beat up for causing her these strange problems. She turned to glare at Seta. "This base has a phone, right? I need to call someone!"
Seta looked uncomfortable, but nodded. "I'll see what I can do," he agreed.
Given some time to think about it, Akane had calmed down a little. At least, to the point where she could acknowledge that she was in a bad mood. Her father and Genma realized how irate she was, at least - the only real good she could see in the situation was that her father had completely shut up about an heir for the dojo.
However, her irritation was not assuaged by Nabiki's continued absence. Kasumi, the same gentle soul she had always been, was over again, this time teaching Akane a new recipe.
She had finally come to acknowledge that she would never be as good in the kitchen as her older sister. It was not her favorite lesson... Once she'd started to think of herself as an only mediocre cook, her skill actually had rocketed up ... and then plateaued at adequate. She especially didn't like to think what it might mean for other things ... but at least she'd learned not to force issues as much. A lesson that still evidently escaped her father.
"Let's see," Kasumi mused, poring over her cookbook. The one she had written for herself, much like the one their mother had left behind for them... Akane doubted she'd ever get to write such a book, but consoled herself in the fact that she at least was capable of carrying on the dojo. "How about dumplings?"
"That sounds good," Akane agreed. "Um ... thanks for keeping me company lately, Kasumi."
"We're family; we should stick together," her elder sister remarked, smiling gently. She looked up in surprise as the phone rang, and Akane shook her head.
"I'll get it - don't wait up for me," Akane insisted. Kasumi nodded as Akane stepped into the hall, answering the phone with her now practiced greeting: "You've reached the Tendo Dojo, this is Tendo Akane speaking."
"Akane, you bitch!" someone snarled, before a fortunate hiss in static censored further complaints. When it faded, Akane heard an accusatory, "How could you?"
Not really in the mood to be harassed, Akane sighed, raising one hand to her temple. "I'm sorry," she said with forced patience, "this connection seems to be breaking up - I'm not sure I'm hearing you very well. Who am I speaking to?"
The static increased briefly, then abruptly cut out, leaving the channel sounding miraculously clear. "This is Kuonji Ukyou," the other voice yelled at her. "Now why in the hell did your sister kidnap Minami!"
Akane blinked, too perplexed to be insulted. "What did Nabiki do?" she asked. "Who's Minami?"
"I- You-" Ukyou cut off for a moment, obviously thinking about things. "Y...your sister didn't tell you she was going to kidnap my employee for some crazy revenge scheme against Ranchan?"
"No, she- R...Ranma?" How had this resurfaced again? "I...is..." Revenge against Ranma... Akane didn't really wish him ill, though. She'd been mad, but they'd all been mad. That was different from wanting revenge - not even Kasumi actually resented Ranma... "Ukyou," she said, as earnestly as she could, "I don't know where Nabiki is - I haven't talked to her in days! I'll call her to find out what's going on, but this is the first I've heard about any of this!"
"I... Oh... W...well..." Ukyou's confident fury had melted into confusion.
Akane actually had a lot of sympathy for the girl - she just wished it wasn't the first time they'd spoken since everything had gone wrong in the first place. "If Nabiki's done what you say, she needs to answer for that," Akane promised. "Now, I'll give you her cell phone number, but I'm going to be calling her first - and if I have to, I'll stop her myself!"
"O...okay, um ... thanks ... er, tell Kasumi I said hi?" Ukyou ventured, after taking the number.
"We really should talk," Akane agreed. "Take care-" Then she hung up without waiting to hear Ukyou's answer, and furiously dialed Nabiki.
Her sister answered on the fifth ring, just as Akane was beginning to give up hope. "Akane!" Nabiki greeted her excitedly, though her voice was pitched worrisomely low. "What great timing- Listen! I'm about to do something amazing!"
"Amaz- Nabiki, Ukyou just called me to say you kidnapped one of her employees! Something about Ranma?"
"Oh, damn," Nabiki swore. "I wanted you to be surprised!"
"What?" Akane screeched, horrified. "You thought- Nabiki, are you out of your mind? Now, you listen! Just a bit ago, I found out that P-chan was Ryouga!"
"Oh," Nabiki's response came, sounding strangely annoyed and disinterested. "Um ... well, I imagine that's upset you, but just you sit tight, and I'll bring back some good news."
"No!" Akane yelled. "This is stupid - Nabiki, you don't understand-"
"You don't understand!" Nabiki snarled back. "That jerk ruined our entire family, and now, we're going to ruin him - if you want to get closure, like I do, then come down to Sakuragoka park - and hurry." At that, the phone disconnected.
Akane furiously redialed, but it went straight to voice mail. She swore, hanging it up, and spun, realizing that the entire household had turned up to watch and listen in. Not that they had much choice, with all the yelling, she realized belatedly. She shot her father and Genma dark glares.
"We're going to Sakuragoka park right now," she barked at them, glaring.
"A...Akane, what's this about?" Kasumi asked nervously, standing in the entrance to the kitchen.
Drawing in a deep breath, Akane answered, "Ranma's there - and he's in trouble." She turned to the door, ready to grab her shoes, and froze, cursing herself inwardly. Of all the days...
As the years went by, she'd visited less and less ... but on occasion, she still came by. It wasn't much talked about, but it had become obvious enough even to her that she wasn't going to find the one she wanted. More and more, when she did come by, it wasn't to ask after her son, but the supposed cousin of the Tendo sisters. Not that she'd been seen since the same time, naturally.
Hearing so much of a commotion, Akane could easily imagine the proper woman waiting uncomfortably, trying to pretend she heard nothing ... until the name of the son she had been waiting to meet for over a decade had been shouted by an angry Tendo Akane.
With a speed and skill that Akane couldn't help but think the old man should have been embarrassed by, Saotome Genma had splashed himself with a convenient bucket. Judging by how far away Nodoka's eyes were at the moment, it may not have mattered. "Y...you know where my son is?" she asked with quiet, desperate hope.
"Y...yeah," Akane admitted, ignoring the screaming warning in the back of her head that this was a bad idea. "I...it's... I have to go!" She fled past the woman; this was just too much to deal with. One thing at a time.
Author's Notes: YES, I have been planning that for a very long time - since I first introduced the Archaeologist's Guild. For those who were wondering about the 'terrorist', because it's totally not plot relevant, he is Ko-Enshaku, of the Bigfire Group, from Giant Robo. Many other references in the background are to Giant Robo, due to me realizing that it's actually just part of the world that DitR takes place in.
Go figure, huh? Now, there should be one, MAYBE two more chapters.