DARKNESS RETURNS

Chapter 12

Somehow, Kasumi had managed to make it through her classes without falling asleep but it had been a near thing. Now for a quick bite to eat and some studying until she did fall asleep so she could get her self back on schedule. This plan of action took a slight detour when her book bag began squirming. Even a Nerimite could be pardoned for thinking this odd.

A muffled bwee immediately allowed the older Tendo to put two and two together. Opening her bag, she removed the black piglet. "How on earth did you manage to get in my bag Ryoga-kun? Come on, I'll get you some hot water."

Returning to her dorm room, Kasumi soon had Ryoga human and decent in a set of workout clothes Cyborg had left to disguise himself when visiting. The fanged boy rubbed the back of his neck. "Sorry about that Kasumi-san. I was trying to find your college, got frustrated and there I was."

"Why did you need to find me, Ryoga-kun?"

"I just wanted to let Ranma and Robin know that I'm on Jinx's team and I'll try to help out as much as I can. The Headmaster, Brother Blood is working on something, and I think it might have to do with Jusenkyo. At least he's been asking me a lot about it."

"Oh my, that could be very dangerous. I'll tell Robin as soon as I can. Will you be all right, getting back to the H.I.V.E.?" Kasumi asked.

"No problem, Kasumi-san. Maybe I better store some clothes here, It looks like I'm finding you like I used to find Ranma. I better be getting back, they gave me a phone number and entrance location for when I get lost, so I don't have as much leeway as I used to."

"Before you go Ryoga-kun, could you write down the address of the entrance? And do be careful. All of the Titans are worried about you."

"Even Ranma?"

"Especially Ranma, Ryoga-kun. He thinks of you as a friend."

"Huh. Well here's the location," Ryoga said, handing Kasumi a slip of paper "I better get going. Thanks for the help."

As soon as she saw the fanged boy on his way, Kasumi left to catch a cross town bus for the sea shore and the Tower.

Kasumi arrived at a Tower in tumult. Unsurprisingly, it was Cyborg who noticed her. "Kas, glad you stopped by, I could really use your help."

"Of course, Victor. What's the problem?" Kasumi asked.

"I'm converting the T-jet into a spaceship and the connections with the interstellar engine we have are really tricky," Cyborg explained quickly as he led the two of them down to the work bay. "I could really use another set of hands that know what their doing."

"Ano, why do you need to turn the Titan-jet into a spacecraft?" Kasumi wondered in a lost little voice.

"Starfire is going back home to get married and we're taking her back to Tamaran," Cyborg explained and then stopped. "We, er, just found out today. I guess I should have let you know, but I was so busy-"

"No, that's all right," Kasumi replied with a worried little frown. "I will meet you in the workshop, but I would like to talk to Starfire first if I may."

"Sure," Cyborg said. "I think she's on the roof with the Ran-man." Nodding her thanks, the eldest Tendo silently made her way to the elevator. She found Starfire and Ranma sitting on the roof's edge, watching the ocean. Kasumi cleared her throat.

"I heard you were getting married, Starfire. My congratulations," Kasumi said.

"It's an arranged marriage," Ranma growled. "She's never even met the clown. Sound familiar?" Kasumi looked over at the alien girl, who nodded.

"It is the custom of my people," she explained simply.

"Ranma, not all arrangements are bad," Kasumi ventured. "Even yours worked out, neh?"

"Eventually," Ranma growled. "After a lot of grief and people getting hurt and that's only because I had some freedom. Star ain't got none of that, she's locked in. And that ain't right. Not to mention what'll to do to the Boss."

The two girls exchanged bewildered glances. Gritting his teeth, Ranma stalked away as Kasumi put a friendly arm around Starfire. "Is this what you want?"

"What I want is not important," the alien girl replied wistfully. "This is what must be. I will be glad to see Tamaran again, I have been having a bit of the sick home feeling lately." Kasumi hugged her tight.

"I had better go help Victor then," the eldest Tendo said weakly. She left Starfire staring at the ocean.

Cyborg and an overall-clad Kasumi stood in front of the converted T-jet. The hatch was open and its modest cargo hold was filled with Starfire's baggage. "All right, we all got a little problem," Cyborg explained. "There are eight Titans, counting Tara and Kasumi, and the T-jet will only be able to carry five. Obviously Star has to be one and I have to go to pilot the jet. That leaves three spaces open for six Titans." The teens looked at one another, Starfire's eyes were huge.

"Is it a matter of space, thrust or life support?" Nabiki finally asked.

"All three really," Kasumi replied. "Also, there are only five capsules, which limits the distribution of oxygen throughout the ship."

"Okay, I can see a way to get seven of us there," Nabiki said, glancing over at Robin, who still seemed in a state of shock. "Beast Boy can make the ride as a housefly or something, use almost zero oxygen and weighing nothing." Cyborg rubbed his chin.

"That should work," he allowed. "And the seventh?"

"Ranma can ride with me," Nabiki said. Both Cyborg and Kasumi shook their head.

"That won't work, little sister," the latter said. "Ranma may be small, but she would still overload the system."

"I guess I'm not explaining myself very well," Nabiki replied with a smirk. "Ranma will literally ride with me, in my Darkness."

"You can do such a thing, friend Ranma?" Starfire asked, curiosity overcoming her melancholy. "I thought all who entered Raven's Darkness suffered as Doctor Light did unless the stay was very short." The pigtailed boy shrugged.

"It ain't so bad, just boring," Ranma said.

"Ranma is attuned to my power so he doesn't take any harm," Nabiki explained. "It shouldn't be any problem. So that just leaves who stays behind."

"Oh my, that should be me," Kasumi answered before anyone else could speak. "I'm not really a Titan and Tara is, so it would be unacceptable for me to take her place. And of course Robin must go."

"Kasumi-" Cyborg began. Kasumi put a finger to his lips.

"Hush, Victor. It's decided." She looked meaningfully at the Titan leader. "Before that, I need to give you Ryoga's latest report."

The journey had been quiet for the most part. Cyborg was missing Kasumi and once Raven saw the lay of the land, she retreated into internal conversation with her fiancé. Robin had been reduced to a one line doll, repeating whenever possible "You're getting married!?" Tara and Starfire talked quietly for a while, but the impending separation weighed heavily on both girls. It was only at the end, when a squadron of ships attacked them that the atmosphere livened up.

The battle, while sharp, was short and the squadron's destruction allowed the Titans to reach their destination. As they flew over the harsh terrain, Starfire peered out the cockpit with a delighted expression. "Is it not the most beautiful place your eyes have ever observed?" Starfire gushed.

"Uh, sure?" Tara replied. Starfire managed to contain her enthusiasm enough to direct the damaged T-Jet towards the large castle built into a spire of rock. Touching down on a landing pad, the seven Titans debarked, Typhoon yawning and stretching, seemingly none the worse for his sojourn within Raven's Darkness.

As the seven Titans walked towards the large gate at the far end of the landing pad, it opened, revealing four human-sized warriors and a fifth of tremendous girth and height. Starfire's eyes lit up as a green glow appeared around her hands. The giant barked at Starfire and the tall girl responded in the same tongue. The giant warrior roared and took a step forward as Starfire squeaked.

"Titans-" began Robin.

"Hey, it's cool Boss," Typhoon interrupted casually. "They're just playing around." The pigtailed Titan was proved correct as the giant warrior tickled their friend mercilessly.

"Friends, I wish you to meet my Kinorfka, Galfore," Starfire said, beaming after the tickling session ended. "He raised me from the time I was very small." Beast Boy began snickering.

"You mean he's your nan-" The green Titan was cut off by a scarlet glove over his mouth. Typhoon smiled apologetically at Galfore.

"Sorry man, Beast Boy don't mean nothing by it, he just don't think much." The two warriors sized each other up. Typhoon grinned slowly. "Hey, maybe we can spar sometime?"

"I think that would be an interesting match," the giant rumbled. Starfire clapped her hands.

"Oh, Galfore, this is my friend Typhoon. He is Gnepnord Silmpalast!" The tall girl looked expectantly at Typhoon who rolled his eyes a little, but shifted to her female form. Galfore looked a little awestruck.

"It is a great honor to meet you and I thank you for befriending my little bungorf," the huge man said, bowing slightly but looking fondly at Starfire. "I see even a Great Spirit such as yourself cannot avoid our new enemies," as he waved a hand at the damaged T-Jet.

"You mean you know who attacked us?" Robin asked. Galfore stepped to the edge of the platform, gesturing at the broad plain below. There were parked ships as far as the eye could see.

"The great Drenthrax army," the giant warrior explained. "They threaten to overthrow our planet, our way of life. And if I were the Grand Ruler, I would…" He sighed. "Well, I am not. Let us just say much has changed since you departed."

"I have missed you, Galfore," Starfire said sadly, hugging him gently.

"And I have missed you," Galfore replied, bowing slightly, "Princess Starfire." He knelt. The Titans reaction was predictable as they chorused "Princess!?"

"Oh yes, I am second in line for the throne," Starfire said, hugging herself in embarrassment. "Perhaps I forgot to mention?" She giggled nervously as she swept up the other Tamaranians and beat a hasty retreat into the castle. The Titans followed.

As the Terrans caught up, Robin said, "Look Starfire, about this wedding-" As he laid a concerned hand on her shoulder, the guards and Galfore's reaction pinned the Titan leader against the wall.

"It is forbidden for outworlders to touch the Princess," the giant roared. Starfire floated above him.

"Please do not harm my friend," she requested. Without another word, the Tamaranians turned and continued down the hall.

"Remind you of anything, Ranma?" Raven asked. "Say like Amazons?"

"Yeah," the pigtailed Titan agreed wearily. "Strange rules they don't tell you about and a chip the size of Tokyo on their shoulder. I'd be extra careful dealing with these guys Boss." Robin nodded and followed their hosts deeper into the castle.

The less said about the welcome home feast the better. A discordant fanfare brought a premature end to the dubious festivities. All of the assembled Tamaranians knelt as the large double doors at the end of the hall swung open and a backlit figure strode out. The Titans hastily copied their hosts.

"All hail the Grand Ruler of Tamara, the Empress," intoned Galfore in a great voice. Blackfire smirked at her people and the Titans.

"Blackfire?" asked a stunned Starfire.

"Surprised to see me, little sister?" the armored girl asked mockingly.

"I am surprised… to see you out of prison!" the tall girl exclaimed, eyes glowing.

"Oh that," Blackfire said dismissively. "After you had me thrown in jail, I got bored. So I broke out and took over Tamaran for kicks. But enough about me. I'm sure you'll be eager to see who you'll be spending the rest of your life with." The Empress gestured behind her. A handsome Tamaranian made Starfire's eyes spark with hope until he pulled back a curtain to reveal a green, vaguely elephantine creature with multiple trunks.

"Starfire, meet your groom, Glyrdschlechhh," managed Blackfire, who then grinned triumphantly. The tentacled alien expelled mucus out of most of his orifices upon seeing Starfire.

"My… groom?" Starfire asked in disbelief. "But he is- I cannot-"

"You can and you will," Blackfire contradicted confidently. "You see, sister dear, this darling creature is the exalted Sklerch of the swamp moons of Drenthax Four. And since his invasion army is parked outside our castle, I arranged your marriage to save our beloved Tamaran from annihilation. If your groom can't kiss his bride, we can all kiss Tamaran goodbye."

Glyrdschlechhh floated beside Starfire with an air of expectation. The tall girl patted the exalted Sklerch, covering her hand with mucus. "I am sure we will be…very…happy…together." Glyrdschlechhh gave a great grunting belch.

"He says he can't wait to take you to his swamp planet, far from the castle," Blackfire translated. "We celebrate my sister's wedding at moonset… tonight!" The hall erupted in cheers. Robin took a step forward.

"Tonight? Starfire, you don't-" The Titan leader broke off when he caught a glimpse of Typhoon out of the corner of his eye. The speedster was emitting a visible aura. "Calm down, Ty," he whispered. "This isn't the time or the place." Controlling himself, Typhoon gave a slight nod as Raven hugged an arm.

"Take the princess to her quarters so that she can prepare," Blackfire ordered. "And keep an eye on her friends." The empress met Typhoon's hooded gaze. "I have been told that you are Gnepnord Silmpalast?" Not trusting himself to answer, Typhoon nodded. "Marvelous! You will accompany me to my chambers, handsome one."

Typhoon sighed as Raven's eyes blazed. "Please play it cool Raven," Robin whispered. The pale girl ground her teeth as Ranma stepped up to the Tamaranian leader.

"This better not be fiancée number seven," Raven called out in Japanese. Blackfire scowled.

"What did she say?"

"Just congratulating me," Typhoon answered shortly. Blackfire smirked at the indigo-haired girl as she took the pigtailed Titan by the arm. There was a slight tremor throughout the hall as the two left.

The remaining Titans sat gloomily about the spacious room they had been shown to. Robin was pacing around, struggling for calm. Everybody avoided Raven, who was giving off waves of angry, frustrated jealousy. Tara cleared her throat, instantly gaining everyone's attention.

"Is it just me, or does this seem like a set up to anyone else?" the blonde ventured. Robin took in a deep breath before replying.

"That's what I thought, we can't let Starfire go through with this," Robin declared, smacking his fist into his palm.

"Are you sure, man?" Cyborg said, grinning. "Are you sure you're just not… jealous?"

"Of that, that mucus factory? You saw her face, Cyborg, she doesn't even like him," the spiky-haired boy retorted.

"I'll admit I am jealous," Raven said in low tones. "The fact that Blackfire just whisked Ranma away like that does not fill me with an inclination to trust her motives. I've been working my rear off making sure Ranma doesn't end up married against his will back on Earth. I'm sure not going to let some jumped up thief take away his freedom."

"All right!" cheered Tara. "So what do we do?" Robin considered for a moment.

"We need to see if any of this is even real. Tara's right, this is too convenient. Cyborg, you and Tara check out the Drenthrax fleet. Beast Boy, see what you can find out about the creature Star is marrying." The Boy Wonder gave Raven a wry smile. "I know better than to tell you to do anything except find Typhoon, Raven."

"And you?" Cyborg asked.

"I need to speak to Starfire. Let's go"

The plain that held the Drenthrax armada was suspiciously free of guards and Cyborg and Tara easily reached the first line of ships. As Cyborg deployed a finger-mounted cutting torch, Tara sighed. "It's times like this I really miss my powers. I feel like such a drag on the team."

"Don't fret, you're still my favorite rock and roller," Cyborg said as he began cutting an improvised hatchway into the ship. "I know Raven can help you out. Look what she did for Typhoon. Jusenkyo is supposed to be unbeatable, but they beat it." He caught the two yard disk so it didn't make much noise.

"I think Robin is on to something," whispered Tara. "Look at this place, there's nothing here but a bunch of cables. Where's the crew?" Cyborg stalked up to the open cockpit. Grabbing the pilot's chair, he swung it around to reveal a robotic canister, connected up to all of the cables.

"Remote control," the metal-clad Titan said. "They've got a fleet of ships but no crew."

"No wonder we were able to beat them so easily coming in," Tara said. The sound of steel being drawn behind them made the two Titans turn. Three Tamaranian guards glared at them with drawn weapons.

"And Blackfire doesn't want anyone to know," Cyborg guessed.

The green millipede slipped under the door of Glyrdschlechhh's quarters and then resumed human shape. Beast Boy examined the room, avoiding slime as best he could. An ornate box drew his attention. Opening it filled the room with a brilliant light. The sound of the door opening made him close it hastily and a housefly flew up to the ceiling.

"Yes, my plan was brilliant wasn't it Glyrdschlechhh," Blackfire gloated. "I give you my pesky little sister and you give me the Jewel of Charta." Glyrdschlechhh picked up and opened the box, displaying the Jewel. "With its powers enhancing my own, I can rule Tamaran with an iron fist." Glyrdschlechhh issued a series of grunts and belches.

"Yes, and I will have a fitting consort by my side," crooned the black-haired girl. "I don't know how my sister came across a Gnepnord Silmpalast on that primitive mud ball she dotes on, but my prestige will soar having one as my mate. If you are settled here, I will go talk to my groom. Who knows, perhaps it will be a double wedding." Laughing, Blackfire took her leave, followed discreetly by a humble housefly.

Once out of the room, the fly made a beeline for the Titan's quarters.

Starfire stared wistfully into the full length mirror in her opulent suite. Her eyes strayed to the Titan communicator sitting on a table nearby, before she resolutely turned away, picking up her wedding dress and holding it in front of her. Her gaze returned to the communicator as she put down the dress. Once again turning away, she stepped out onto the large balcony adjoining her rooms. Far below, a small figure climbed the sheer wall towards her.

The view of her home planet brought her no joy, but a harsh whisper filled her with gladness. "Starfire," Robin hissed.

"Robin! Thank Zal you… " Starfire folded up her happiness and put it away. "That is, I trust you are enjoying your stay?"

"Come on Star, we're getting out of here," Robin said, extending one hand.

"Oh, Robin, I am sorry," the tall girl said sadly.

"You don't want to marry him," protested the Titan leader.

"Marrying him will bring peace to my planet," Starfire said forlornly. "It is good for everyone."

"It's not good for you," Robin said intensely.

"Robin, if you cannot be happy for me, then perhaps you should not attend my wedding," Starfire replied.

"Starfire-" Robin began, only to be cut off by a strong hand over his mouth. Starfire turned, but the Boy Wonder was gone. The tall girl trailed listlessly back into her room.

It had been child's play for Raven to find Blackfire's quarters. Just look for the gaudiest, most ornate door and there you are. Keeping to the shadows, the pale girl avoided the two guards and phased through the walls. She smiled at the scene of her fiancé calmly going through Tai Chi katas.

"So, Saotome, it never occurred to you to escape?" Raven asked sardonically. Ranma never missed a beat.

"Hey, Akane never made it when she tried and everything always worked out, so I figured I might as well sit tight," Ranma said, his kata turning him around to face Raven. "Besides, escape to where? Cyborg said the ship needed repairs."

"So what about tall, orange and skanky? She put the moves on you yet?"

"I'll say this for the Empress, Grand High Ruler of all Tamaran, most beautiful creature in the galaxy," Ranma said, sitting down and grinning. "She has a talent I didn't think existed. She makes Kuno look humble."

"You memorized her title? Should I be jealous?" Raven asked with a smirk, "Maybe I should just leave you here, if you like it so much."

"No please, Rae," Ranma mock pleaded. "They cook worse then Akane and are bigger slobs than my Pop. You've got to get me out here."

"It's good that you have a sense of humor, my handsome Gnepnord, I do so like a man who can make me laugh," Blackfire informed them, leaning against the door. "I suppose you know what this means don't you."

"I'm guessing a hearty handshake and some lovely parting gifts are out of the question?" Raven asked hopefully. Blackfire's smirk and a glare of light was her only answer.

The four Titans stood uncomfortably in their force field cage and watched as two Tamaranian guards dragged Beast Boy into the prison and threw him in through the cage, the force field obviously being one way. Tara caught him before he hit the floor.

"I didn't think they would have caught you, BB," the blonde remarked, steadying the green Titan. Beast Boy shrugged.

"They didn't really," he replied. "I made it back to our room and was waiting for you guys when the guards came in, grabbed me and here I am. I found out what Blackfire is after, though. She set up this whole thing to marry off Star to get some power up gem from Sluggo."

"Thanks Beast Boy, that was the last bit of information we needed," Robin said, punching his palm with a fist. "Cyborg and Tara already found out the fleet is fake, now we know why Blackfire went to this much trouble. We have to warn Starfire before it's too late."

"Blackfire's already made a fatal mistake," Raven drawled. "She's talking about marrying Ranma against his will. If that doesn't mess things up, I don't know what will. I can't believe wedding and Ranma go well together."

"Then we better get going for both of our redheads," Cyborg said.

In Starfire's chambers, the tall girl stared at image in the mirror, the wedding dress was almost as beautiful as the girl wearing it, but Starfire's expression was pensive. Galfore approached the melancholy princess, the Talmarian warrior's vaguely M-shaped facial ornament small in his massive hands.

"I have never seen a more beautiful bride," he said proudly as he affixed the ornament. "Something troubles you my little bumgorf?" Starfire looked away.

"Nothing on my account, but I am worried by my sister's intentions towards my friend, Typhoon. His hand is much sought after on his world and I fear this is one more attempt to force his affections."

"Do not try to fool an old klorfker," the huge warrior rumbled. "I raised you. It is not the Gnepnord Silmpalast's fate that concerns you, I think. I have always expected great things from you my princess and tonight is no exception. I would not fear for your friend, there is much fire in him."

"Yes," agreed Starfire, smiling in spite of herself. "He is a fierce warrior." She looked down. "I- I will do what is right, right for Tamaran."

"You must do what is right in your heart," Galfore told her. The moment was interrupted by the doors grinding open.

"Are you ready sister dear?" mocked Blackfire. Behind her, Typhoon rolled his eyes.

It was a simple matter to blow a hole in the floor and slip down to the next level. Free of their prison, the Titans began fighting their way through the corridors towards their teammate. Tara liberated a glaive early on and demonstrated that she had been training with Typhoon. The other Titans made short work of the Tamaranian opposition.

In the main hall, the wedding had started. A very reluctant Galfore walked Starfire before the dais where Blackfire and Glyrdschlechhh waited. Starfire looked around. "Where are my friends?" Typhoon waved a hand at the tall girl. "Aside from Typhoon."

"I guess they had better things to do," Blackfire said derisively. "Now smile pretty for your new hubby." After Starfire managed a tremulous smile, Blackfire continued. "My humble servants, we meet at moonset to bind my sister to this handsome young sklerch in joyous marriage. Can any among us offer a reason why these two lovebirds should not be together forever?" The black-haired girl paused. "I didn't-"

"Yeah, I can," Typhoon said casually. "She doesn't love him and you're just using her to save your own butt. If it's so important, why don't you marry the ooze factory?" Blackfire whirled around eyes blazing.

"You dare!?" she demanded. A wave of whispers swept the hall. "Silence! Silence, I say!" She glared at the nonchalant Typhoon. "You will learn your place, Gnepnord Silmpalast though you may be!" Blackfire's eyes blazed with red energy before a bolt lanced out at the pigtailed Titan. He dodged easily.

"Wow, maybe next time you should send me a card, it would be faster," observed Typhoon. "I mean Kasumi could have dodged that. Or were you just going easy on me?" The smirk would have driven Gandhi to violence, so it was no surprise when Blackfire went incandescent. With an inarticulate roar, the black-haired empress let loose a volley of red starbolts. The main result was to force Typhoon to her female aspect as she dodged with appropriate commentary. "Getting closer." "Nice try!" "Was that aimed at me?" Did a guy named Mousse train you?" The fusillade ended with a panting Blackfire, a mock-concerned Typhoon and a stunned wedding hall. Oh and a Starfire rapidly trending towards furious. With perfect timing, the Titans fought their way onto the landing above the hall.

Engaged by three guards, Robin nevertheless caught sight of his teammate and friend. He gave a tremendous bellow of, "Starfire!" Looking up, Starfire gasped as guards attacked the Titan leader. Her eyes glowing, the alien Titan turned back to her sister.

"Typhoon is correct, sister," she said in a measured voice. "If matters are so grave, why do you not marry G- Gler- the alien yourself? I will not sacrifice myself, if the so-called Grand Ruler of Tamaran will not do what is right for her people."

"Treason!" screeched Blackfire, the red energy coruscating up her arm. With a yell, the empress discharged a starbolt into her sister gut knocking her backwards. "You WILL do your duty, little sister," Blackfire sneered. "You WILL marry the sklerch."

Starfire stood defiantly before her sister. "I think you will do YOUR duty sister. You are not best for Tamaran!" The doors to the hall flew open and the remaining Titans charged in.

"Starfire it's a trick, all of it! Blackfire's been lying to everyone! The fleet is robot ships, there is no invading army!" Robin yelled. Starfire ripped off the outer dress, leaving her clad in her normal purple ensemble.

"So are you challenging me, little sister?" Blackfire ground out. "Are you challenging the Grand Ruler of Tamaran?"

"I am challenging my sister… for the crown!"

The two royal Tamaranians shot up into the air, both glowing with energy. Blackfire drew first blood, tagging her sister with a powerful blast of red energy. Robin sprang forward as Starfire dodged the follow up blows. Two hands, one large and one small, restrained him.

"Hold," Galfore commanded, "If anyone interferes, the challenge is void. The princess will lose."

"This is her fight, Boss," a shaky Typhoon added quietly. Dodging the close range volley had taken more out of her than she wanted to admit. "It's an honor challenge, honorably issued and accepted. We shouldn't interfere any more than you guys did with Mousse."

"Besides," Cyborg said with a fierce smile, "our girl can handle herself." Starfire nimbly dodged the next few starbolts, proving the big man right.

"You've been working with her, haven't you Ty." Tara said admiringly as Starfire avoided a mid-air roundhouse and opened up some distance from her foe. Blackfire tried to follow her flight with a sustained eyebeam attack, but the Titan kept far enough ahead to launch several starbolts, forcing the empress to cease her attack and erect a force shield.

"Maybe," admitted Typhoon. "The soccer really helps." She pointed to Blackfire. "Turtling was a mistake." This proved to be the case as Starfire followed her bolts in, closing to hand to hand and delivering a right cross, knocking her sister into the wall. Starfire kept up the pressure, staying on the offensive while Blackfire dodged frantically.

Gaining some breathing space, Blackfire flipped on her back and managed to hit her opponent with a starbolt., blowing the Titan through a wall. But as the black-haired warrior stepped though the hole, Starfire unleashed a volley of starbolts. As the smoke cleared, Starfire gasped in dismay as her sister was unharmed.

"The Jewel of Charta," Blackfire said smugly, tapping the red gem. "I'm invincible." Energy crackled out of the gem as the black-haired warrior charged her sister, slamming Starfire into the wall, smashing decorations. The beleaguered Titan dodged the heavy furniture Blackfire threw, closing the distance only to catch a pillar in the face, smashing more furniture with her fall. Blackfire paused to gloat.

"Besides, you'll always be my little sister," the empress crooned.

"I am not so little anymore," Starfire shouted, catching her sister in the chest with an eye blast. Leaping into the air, the Titan drove her opponent through the floor into the room below. The sisters flew around a huge tree exchanging starbolts, until Blackfire gained the upper hand, driving Starfire into another wall. Grabbing Starfire's arms, Blackfire began slamming her sister back and forth into the wall.

"Earth has changed you, Starfire," she told the stunned girl. Flying upward, the older sister crashed through the ceiling and back into the main hall. Flinging the Titan away from her, Blackfire hovered above her opponent, who was on hands and knees. "That's right. Bow down before your Grand Ruler."

"You may be the ruler of this planet, but you are not the ruler of me!" Dodging an impressive starbolt, Starfire again closed with her foe, this time grabbing the Jewel of Charta. A massive energy discharge obscured the combatants and when it cleared, Blackfire's chest was gem-free. Starfire allow the shattered gem to dribble out of her hand before smashing her sister with an impressive eye beam. She saturated her sister with starbolts and as the smoke cleared, Blackfire again seemed unharmed. The illusion held for a second until black-haired girl slumped to the floor unconscious. Her badge of office skittered across the floor to rest at Starfire's feet.

"Instant power ups," Typhoon remarked, shaking her head. "They never seem to work out." Starfire scooped the M-shaped badge and placed it on her brow.

"The challenge is complete," she intoned, her voice ringing in the now quiet halls. "Tamaran has a new grand ruler." The assembled Tamaranians began cheering as Glyrdschlechhh drifted into view. He gave an inquiring snort. "I am sorry Gilder-" she began, her words suffused with compassion but no regret. "Glurgle… You. But there shall be no wedding." The sklerch gave a dispirited raspberry. The alien girl's voice became laced with steel as she pointed at he sister. "And henceforth, my sister Blackfire shall be banished from Tamaran."

"Banished!?" objected the recovering girl. "Are you joking? Where am I supposed to live?" Glyrdschlechhh burbled hopefully at her. "You wish," she replied. Two guards grabbed her and began strong arming her out of the hall. "I won't forget this sister dear."

The now male Typhoon sidled up to the black-haired Tamranian with a tragic expression that fooled no one. "I'm sorry Blockfail, but I'm going to have to call things off as well. It would never work between us, we're too different. I'm fast and you're slower than mud," he explained, changing genders. "I'm beautiful and you're, well, yeah," she said, rubbing the back of her head. "Um, very special to someone I'm sure. At least your looks take away attention from your personality. Anyway, have a life!" If looks could kill, the redhead would have died her forty seventh death from that very cause, but the universe once again proved intractable in that regard.

Robin joined Starfire as she watched Typhoon make another mortal enemy. The redhead was enjoying herself so much, she paced the guards as new thoughts occurred to her. Robin shook his head before turning to Starfire. "So now that you rule the planet," he said in a quiet but clear voice, "I guess you'll be staying here?"

"I must do what is right for Tamaran," the newly crowned empress declared. Robin's shoulders slumped, but Raven beamed as Starfire left the hall.

"I wonder if she has a minster of finance?" the pale girl mused. "An entire planet! If I skimmed just one percent…" Raven trailed off, lost in dreams of wealth beyond avarice. Beast Boy looked appalled but Tara rolled her eyes.

"Always trying to play the bad girl Rae."

The next day found an ebullient throng around the palace, come to see their new ruler. The cheering crescendoed as Galfore and Starfire appeared on the balcony and the old warrior bellowed "All hail Empress Starfire!" The Titan girl let the tumult subside before speaking.

"A wise person once told me to follow my heart. So I did and I challenged my sister, because she was not the best for Tamaran." This precipitated more cheering. "And now I must tell you my people, I am not best for Tamaran either." Outraged and puzzled muttering followed this. "My heart and my duty belong to Earth now and I would not do justice to my birth planet. But I know one who would." The tall girl removed the royal face piece and floated up to Galfore's head, placing it on his brow. "My people, I give you Emperor Galfore!"

As the crowd chanted Galfore's name, Starfire unobtrusively returned to her teammates and friends with a tremulous smile. "Please, I feel the sickness for home and would like to return."

"Are you sure?" Raven asked with a big smile of her own. "We could make a lot of money here."

"I am sure," the tall redhead replied. "Among other lacks, there is no mall of shopping. What would we do with this money?"

"Ouch, good point," the pale girl admitted.

"Are we done here?" demanded a dancing Beast Boy. "I still haven't figured out what the bathrooms are!"

"I don't think anyone would mind if you went au natural," Raven remarked, waving her arm at the rugged landscape.

"Let's go home," Robin said, putting an arm across Starfire's shoulders. Behind them, Raven and Typhoon grinned.

The stillness of the room was disturbed only by the hum of the air conditioner and the clink of porcelain on china as the three women sipped their tea, waiting for the fourth. Their public faces were a study in contrast. Cologne of the Joketsuzoku might have been a stone for all of the emotion she showed. Nodoka sat with a gentle, dignified smile that told almost as little about her state of mind as Cologne's stoicism.

Kasumi Tendo, on the other hand, was nervous enough to have kittens and with just cause she felt. For starters, she had used the Titan's Wayne Financials credit card to rent this conference room in the Jump Hilton for a neutral site. Aside from herself, only Robin-sama and Nabiki were authorized to use the card and she hoped she hadn't abused the privilege. In order to use the card, Kasumi had to dress in her 'Tower' costume and go out in public, a mortifying happenstance for a Japanese Rose like the eldest Tendo.

At least she had managed to tone the costume down. When Victor and Tara had first unveiled it, the costume's electric blue and bright silver colors and radio antenna earpieces had almost made her faint. And Ranma and Nabiki were urging her to model the gaudy thing for Victor! She insisted on muting the colors and losing the aerials entirely, but even then it was shocking how form fitting the costume was.

To her baffled amazement, Kasumi was recognized in her Tower persona on the way to the hotel. She had fans. Fans! She got away signing a few autographs but had been guilted into appearing at an open house for the Women's Electrical Engineer Association. She was a role model for women in engineering, she had been told. Thank the Ancestors for the mask.

All this paled before the prospect of representing the Tendo family in this meeting. Neither Cologne nor Auntie Saotome would be on her side, she was entirely on her own. Cologne would of course be pressing for Shampoo's interests while Auntie would be the neutral adjudicator. Just the thought of Nabiki's expression if she messed this up had Kasumi fidgeting. It was almost a relief when the door opened precisely at two and Ukyo Kuonji walked in. All three women rose.

"Welcome Kuonji-san," Nodoka said, still smiling. "Your punctuality honors me."

"Good afternoon Mother Saotome," Ukyo replied. "What are Cologne and Kasumi-chan doing here? I thought we would be discussing the wedding." Cologne snorted and Kasumi rolled her eyes before realizing how rude that must look. Tara was a bad influence in some ways. Nodoka's smile did not change.

"And what wedding would that be?" the auburn-haired women asked.

"Me and Ranma," Ukyo told her, a flicker in her eye contact showing her nervousness.

"I'm afraid there is the matter of the Tendo and Joketsuzoku claims, dear. Especially given that you challenged Nabiki Tendo over your claim and lost."

"Shampoo would be happy to fight you on that basis as well, child," Cologne put in, restraining her trademark cackle.

"M- my father has determined that Nabiki forfeited the duel and that the Tendo claim is canceled because of that," Ukyo said firmly, a trickle of sweat running down the side of her head. "Of course he does not recognize the Amazon claim as they are not Japanese."

"Tendo-san?" Nodoka asked, looking at Kasumi.

"That is a very extraordinary claim, Ukyo-san, and very convenient for you," Kasumi said, willing her shaking hands to be still. "In what way did my sister cheat? She did not disguise a griddle as a fighting ring, or attempt to use lethal force when she agreed not to or even hide her gender." Ukyo looked stunned and hurt for a moment as she stared at Kasumi. Shaking her head, the chef collected her wits.

"She did not reveal that she had magical powers until the bout began. That's… my father says that was cheating and meant Nabiki forfeited."

"Was the use of magic prohibited in the rules you laid down?" Nodoka asked mildly. Ukyo looked away before shaking her head. "And did not my so- child state that this was an Anything Goes match that barred lethal attacks only?" The chef nodded. "Then I'm afraid I would have to reject your father's conclusion." Ukyo nodded grimly.

"I told him that was how people would react, but those were his instructions," the chef said calmly, her demeanor ringing alarm bells in Kasumi's head. "After listening to my father's story about the engagement I realized something. There was no Tendo claim to contest, so losing to Nabiki was meaningless." Ukyo grimaced. "Well except for being humiliated in front of the entire school."

"That is another most extraordinary assertion, Ukyo-san," Kasumi finally replied carefully. "Would you please explain your reasoning?" The chef nodded.

"When my Dad first brought up the notion of an arranged marriage between Ran-chan and me, the fat bas- er, Ran-chan's father told Dad that Ran-chan was spoken for. My Dad was all disappointed and mentioned that he was going to offer our food cart as my dowry. The next words out of Genma's fat face were, 'Just call her Ukyo Saotome!' So you see, Genma cancelled the Tendo arrangement in favor of mine," Ukyo finished triumphantly. The three older women stared at the chef until Cologne started chuckling.

"And yet the useless male abandoned you on the roadside and brought Ranma to the Tendos." The old Amazon pointed out. "Since then the old fool has been adamant that Ranma must marry a Tendo. By your reasoning, he canceled the Kuonji agreement in favor of the Tendos."

"Did he ever take a dowry from the Tendos?" Ukyo asked shrewdly. Cologne shrugged.

"We certainly offered one in the form of the dojo," Kasumi replied, although she looked troubled.

"For that matter, the Amazons have supplied a dowry with teaching him our ancient techniques," Cologne put in. "Of far more worth than either or both." The old woman paused. "Not that Amazons believe in having to bribe a man to wed a warrior."

"So you are once again pressing Shampoo's claim Elder?" Nodoka wondered. Cologne shrugged again.

"If such a specious argument presented by Kuonji is acceptable, I think Shampoo's claim is far more legitimate."

"So Ranma-kun is right back where he started, the fiancé of three different women, all of whom contend that theirs is the only legitimate claim," Kasumi said sadly.

"No!" protested Ukyo. "He just has to choose m-, one of us and this mess is resolved and the other girls can get on with their lives." Kasumi sighed as Nodoka shook her head.

"Is your understanding of this matter really so feeble, Kuonji-san?" Nodoka asked gently. "As you have stated, this a matter of honor. Ranma's preferences are of no consequence, he must marry the girl that honor demands. Given the competing nature of the claims, it could be that my son's only recourse will be suicide." Ukyo blanched, as Nodoka tapped her chin in thought." "Well, I suppose if my husband committed suicide to answer the Tendo and Kounji claims and Ranma married Shampoo, that might resolve things." The Saotome matriarch smiled at Cologne. "Of course that has its own problems, does it not Elder?"

"H- How can you talk so casually about Ran-chan killing himself!? What kind of mother are you?" Ukyo demanded.

"A poor one, obviously," Nodoka said, still calm. "I came here for the expressed purpose of having my son kill himself to fulfill a contract he 'signed' with finger painting when he was three. I was shown the error of my thinking. Now my husband's foolishness returns, with its conflicting honor claims." The auburn-haired woman sighed. "I do not see the proper resolution for all this, but there are wiser minds than mine in Japan. I feel it best to bring the circumstances and the rival claimants before a scholar of Bushido and let him make the final determination. Will this meet with your approval, Elder, Kuonji-san, Tendo-san?"

"Who are you going to choose?" Ukyo asked, suspicion plain in her voice.

"The Holy Watanabe of Sword Hill. He is a Shinto monk of great learning who was a Kendo champion in his youth," Nodoka replied. "Come now child, if I wanted to sway the outcome, I just would have declared the outcome I wanted." Ukyo blushed and nodded.

"Very well Saotome-san, I will abide by this priest's counsel," Cologne said. "I can't see how he could make things worse for Shampoo."

"The Tendos will abide by his Holiness' wisdom," Kasumi pledged. "But I can't speak for how Nabiki will react." The three women all looked at Ukyo, who shrugged and nodded.

"Very well then, I will inform you of when I will have arranged matters," Nodoka told them. "For now, let us enjoy the tea."

The arena/training center was raucous with the cheers and catcalls of most of the students of the H.I.V.E Academy as they watched the school's number one team negotiate a particularly difficult course. As had become his habit in recent weeks Headmaster Brother Blood was present as well in his private box.

Jinx's team had always been the elite of the academy, the only team he considered operational, although not really able to take on the Titans without the element of surprise. Now they could only be considered formidable. Jinx had settled down, displaying much less of her manic side and much more leadership. Mammoth had made tremendous strides in the use of his strength and toughness. The only team member who had shown no improvement was Gizmo. All three situations had a common link: the fourth and newest team member Ryoga Hibiki.

The boy was an amazing fighter, intense, focused and supremely skilled. Brother Blood had never seen the like. Why even his own purely physical prowess was overshadowed by the wanderer. The boy could teach as well, taking the clumsy Mammoth and turning him into a skilled fighter. Jinx had become more proficient as well, though far more important was her change in attitude that had made her much more of a team player. The youngest member of the team, Gizmo, was the only one who had not increased his fighting skills. Given his arrogant attitude and contempt for Hibiki, the youngest H.I.V.E member had refused to train with the martial artist.

Blood applauded as the team reached their goal without really paying attention, still musing on his newest student. In spite of his talents of fighting and teaching, it was his past that excited the Headmaster. While Ryoga's own 'curse' was mundane, the potential of the Pools of Sorrows drew Blood to them like the proverbial moth to a flame. Some of the curses promised enormous power, not to mention the possibility of mixing the transformations.

But Brother Blood was a cautious man and he wanted to experiment with these cursed springs before committing. For instance, Hibiki seemed resistant to his control. Was that innate or a product of his curse? Of course, it was Hibiki's unbelievable lack of any sense of direction that was the Headmaster's chief obstacle. The most the boy could tell him was that the valley was in the mountains of China. The wanderer's thought that it was near Kyoto was not helpful.

So for now, Blood watched and waited and searched. Once he found Jusenkyo, then his gambit could begin.