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They're all still in there, arguing. The fools.
It's been three days with no sign of him. A few of them went out and looked in all the usual places, but there wasn't a trace. Nabiki has all her contacts on alert, with instructions to immediately call her the instant they spot him. If he's got any sense at all, he's already left the country. For some of them, even that may not help.
I can't believe it's come to this. From where I'm standing on the porch, I can hear them behind me, shouting, complaining, moaning and bitching. The only common thread is they all blame him, and they all want him. All those different claims on him, all mutually exclusive. None of them his fault, none of them anything he wants. But he's trapped, by his own sense of honour as much as anything else. He knows full well that he could stop most if not all of the ongoing problems by simply picking one of them, but also knows that this will hurt the others.
He's far too decent a person to do that. That's his biggest problem, his damnable sense of honour. For all his family, his rivals, and his fiancées talk about it, the only one who truly understands what it means is him. If he simply said yes to one of them, the problems would stop. For that matter, if he simply said no to all of them, his problems would stop. But that would leave some or all of them in a bad position, even if it is pretty much entirely their own fault. Or that of his bastard of a father. Or his insane bitch of a mother.
Yes, he can be arrogant, and pig-headed. He opens his mouth when he shouldn't, and doesn't when he should, but bearing in mind his upbringing I consider it the nearest thing to a miracle I've ever seen that he's as socialised as he is. By all rights he should be a sociopath at best. None of them seem to realise that, of course. He's far more stable than my own sister, and she's has as loving an upbringing as I could manage. I always felt I did a decent job under the circumstances, but the last few months, never mind the last three days, have shown I was mistaken.
How he could go through so much in his short life and end up someone who will always put another person before his own well being, even if he heartily dislikes that person, I will never understand. He has every right to be selfish, to take care of himself first, but he never does. It astounds me, and gives me hope that people aren't all bad. You'd never know it from the actions of almost everyone around him.
Even me. I try, I really do. For over a decade I've been the loving mother-substitute, the pseudo housewife, the calm centre of the household. I've put my entire life on the back burner, all my hopes and dreams and aspirations, just to look after people who don't even notice. Except him. And despite the fact that since he and his father arrived here, he has constantly done whatever he could to help me, to offset the extra work he and his father have caused by living here, I still blamed him for all the chaos that follows him.
I know it's not his fault. You can see in his eyes how sorry he is that all this trouble follows him home, but his pride makes it difficult for him to apologise. Despite that, on more than one occasion he has done so, to me at least. And still, when this last situation blew up on us, I blamed him for it. I was furious, inside at least. Years of habit made me able to keep a calm exterior, to appear the slightly dim housewife, a façade I've practised to nearly the same level he has his martial arts. But inside, I was so angry.
How dare he cause all this damage, cause so many people to destroy part of my home, the home I've lived in my entire life, the home my mother died in. If I'd seen him that night, I might have asked him to leave and never come back.
Thank god I didn't see him. I couldn't have lived with myself. Since that night, I have looked back on the events that led up to it, and I can't see how any of it was his fault, unless you blame him for simply existing. My little sister seems to, but it is completely unfair. I was wrong to blame him, wrong to believe any of this was his fault, any of this was in any way something he wanted. I know that now, as I think back on it.
Whose fault is it? That's difficult to pin down to any one cause. Once again, it's situational chaos at it's best.
My idiot father, his idiot father. They are the most obvious candidates. The whole fiasco was the result of their obsessive demands that he marry my sister, that he sacrifice his future happiness and possibly his life just to keep a weak man and a lazy man in a situation where they wouldn't have to change their ways. If they had succeeded in their plans, the only thing I know for sure is that he would have a life of horror. More so than the one he already has.
My youngest sister is a nightmare. I've come to reluctantly realise over the last few months that there is something deeply wrong with her, some inner demon that's made her an unstable, unreliable, incredibly violent person. She is the sociopath that by rights he should be. Irony at it's best.
The only good thing about this whole engagement is that by concentrating her violence on him, she has spared everyone else. He is probably the only person she could have picked that would allow her to act the way she does and not end up a murderer. Even there, I'm not convinced it would have worked forever.
He is tough, unbelievably so. The strongest person I have ever met, physically, mentally, and ethically. But even he has his limits. Sooner or later she would push him to them, and beyond, and I can't bring myself to think what the end result of that would be. Simply killing himself would be the kindest option, and I can't even believe I can think that. If there's anyone who deserves to live his life to the fullest, it's him.
But if he ever truly got angry, to the point that his feelings overwhelmed the iron self-control he has, the outcome would be beyond belief. I genuinely think that none of those about him really understand what they're toying with. If they did, they would be walking around with the care you would use in the vicinity of an armed nuclear weapon. The damage he could cause if he properly cut loose in anger is probably on a par with that.
He killed Saffron, a being so powerful that demi-god is as good a word for it as any, for heavens sake! None of them seem to understand what that means. There are so many improbably powerful martial artists wandering around this area, they seem to take things like a mere human being able to generate energy blasts from thin air as normal. For a mere human to be able to jump off the roof of a five story building and just walk away, or even more unlikely, to be able to jump onto the roof of that building from a standing start.
I may not have gone to university, but I took math and physics in school, and I was good at it. I have calculated the energy required for such feats, and it is horrifying. Where they get it from I have no real idea, it flies in the face of reason, but there is no denying the evidence when reality shoves it in your face. All of these people, my sister included, do things on a daily basis that shouldn't even be possible. And of them all, he is the pinnacle in power. None of them really seem to realise it, but he is a blowtorch to their candles.
Ryoga for example, has a level of physical strength that is simply impossible. Human muscle and bone should splinter and tear under a tiny fraction of the power I have seen him exert with my own eyes. It's not possible for a human fist to survive punching through a reinforced concrete wall, even if it was possible for the human to apply that much force. Yet I have seen him do it without even trying very hard.
His breaking point technique produces a stream of shrapnel that carries at least the same energy as a bullet, yet it bounces off him without effect other than minor bruising. I don't know if any of them realise it, or have even though about it, but many of these people are undoubtedly bulletproof. A marble sized bit of rock travelling at hundreds of meters per second is no different from a bullet moving at the same velocity.
Such an incredible thing, but they take it for granted. Yet, they consistently underestimate him, and I fear that one day that will be the cause of a disaster unlike anything that has come before it. If he was less of a person, it would already have happened.
He is a genius. Possibly not in pure mental ability, although even there I have my suspicions, but in martial arts, in combat techniques, certainly. His ability to design and evolve new defences and attacks against his opponents is unparalleled. I have read a number of books on the martial arts, ones I mostly borrowed from him, trying to understand his life a bit better, and I have a decent working knowledge of just how good he is. If he ever had time to simply relax and learn something in a field other than combat, who knows what he could do? But his life, starting with his father and mother, and ending with my sister, have pushed him steadily towards becoming a weapon, something that I know he doesn't want to be.
His art means everything to him, and I can respect that. His abilities have been achieved through immense work and great hardship, something my sister will never understand I'm afraid. She has no idea what it takes to become that good at anything. He does. I do, although to nothing approaching his level.
The worst mistake I ever made in my life was allowing him to become her fiancée. For his sake if nothing else.
Yet if that situation hadn't come about, what of Akane? The most likely outcome is that she would be either in jail or a mental institution. I wish neither of those fates on her, but neither do I wish a loveless, abusive marriage on him. She desperately requires professional help but I have no idea how to arrange it. Leaving aside the cost, how could she even be restrained? Once she becomes angry, she is almost unstoppable without someone like him.
Ryoga could stop her, in fact marrying him would quite possibly be the only real alternative to official intervention. But, even there, he has by his own actions made something he obviously would dearly like almost impossible. Eventually, even her wilful blindness to his curse would fail, and she would discover that her little pet pig she intimately cuddles was also a seventeen year old boy. The outcome of that would be interesting to watch, but only from a safe distance. Possibly orbit.
Those curses. Again, something that is impossible. Yet I see it every day. Magic. Growing up, it was literally a fairy-tale, but in the last couple of years it has been pushed into our lives on a daily basis.
I don't know why I found the idea of a well-developed young man instantly turning into an even more well-developed young woman when in contact with cold water more difficult to handle than such a young man becoming a small piglet, but even now in some ways I do. Leaving aside the purely scientific issues, such as where does the extra mass go, or for that matter come from, the social transformation is extraordinary.
He is clearly still the same person when he is a she, yet almost everyone treats her differently than they do him. When I first saw it happen, to my shame I did the same. It made me deeply uncomfortable, but within a week I saw through the physical changes, as incredible as they are, and saw the person within. It was the same outwardly upbeat, but inwardly astoundingly lonely young man, despite what the outside looks like. He was made even more isolated by that curse. I have done what I could, but I am restrained by my own, self-imposed curse, that of the permanently happy housewife, to never be able to truly help. Oh, how I wish I could.
Over the last year and more, I have helped him come to terms with being both male and female as much as I could, but it isn't enough. None of the others have any real idea what it puts him through. His mother, and his father, have both tried to force him into a completely unrealistic mould of macho masculinity, one that is almost impossible, and one that if they succeeded would produce the most monstrous person imaginable. Despite their efforts they have largely failed, yet the damage they have done makes it much more difficult for him to accept his curse.
He has to accept it. From what I have learned it is almost certain that there is no cure for it, despite all the blind alleys he has gone down trying to find one. Even the water from the opposite spring that the little deviant gnome drank at the wedding would most likely not have had the result he wanted. I fear that if he had successfully acquired it he would have been horrified by the results, and find myself glad about that outcome of the whole abortive mess, if nothing else.
In the few unguarded moments I have seen when he has been female, it has become obvious that he no longer truly worries about the change itself, but fears the random nature of it, the humiliation, the jeering from his so called family and fiancée. Even that would be much easier to bear if not for the psychological programming his parents inflicted upon him from a young age. I have no doubt he could, given time to think about it, and someone to help, get past that, and integrate both halves of his nature into a whole that would be remarkable. But the chances of him getting either of those things while he stays here are essentially nil.
If only I could help him, atone for my own family's honour, honour which is stained by the actions of my father and my sisters.
Akane beats him on an almost daily basis, but in some ways Nabiki is worse. To sell intimate photographs of a legal child to an older man, one who is a confirmed stalker, is beyond reprehensible. It is undoubtedly illegal, and if it was not for the fact that she is my sister, I would have turned her in to the police a long time ago. Her other actions are barely legal at the best of times, and morally and ethically suspect, but to my shame I have let it continue, for the simple fact that she brings in a significant amount of the money that keeps the household going. Father's council payments are nowhere near enough. Even though I know damn well she keeps most of what she gets, she still helps out enormously.
She is a mercenary, pure and simple. She would sell almost anything to almost anyone, and I am thankful that she has never turned her attentions to me, after that one time. I made it clear then that I had my own methods to deal with such threats, and to her credit she is smart enough to realise I wasn't bluffing. Not as smart as she sometimes likes to think she is, though.
I am fairly sure she has no idea that he has allowed her to take those photographs in the first place. There is no way she could sneak up on him and force the gender change, not only once but twice, over and over while he sleeps. Even a person not trained in martial arts would notice someone pouring cold water on them in their sleep, never mind someone with the reflexes and abilities he has. I have no doubt that he is aware of her before she even enters his room, yet he has allowed this situation to continue.
And all to make some restitution for the burden he and his good for nothing father have placed on the household by living here. He has allowed himself to be publicly humiliated over and over again, on a scale I can hardly believe, just to help pay the bills. Yet she has never worked it out. He has, in his own way, played her to perfection, but she still thinks him to be nothing more than a gifted jock, as I understand she has put it in the past. He is so much more than that.
Neither does she know about the money he has slipped me on many occasions. Money he has earned doing jobs he often dislikes. Every time, he gives me at least a third of it. Without his contributions, the bills would have become unmanageable some time ago, but my dear sister still believes she is the sole breadwinner of the house. How I have wished I could tell her otherwise, rub her face in how badly she has misjudged him, but I can't. I can see no way in which that knowledge would improve his situation, so I reluctantly keep it to myself.
I am going to miss him so much.
It's finally stopped raining, at least. The clouds are clearing, and I can see the first stars of evening coming out, as behind the house the sun sets. The darkening rose and orange of the sky is beautiful, and I have a sudden wish I could watch it from the roof, one of his favourite spots. Looking at the wrecked Dojo, I once more feel tears come to my eyes. It's barely standing, huge holes in the walls and roof, a large pile of soaking wet rubble stretching out into the garden. No one has even begun to clear up the mess, they've all been arguing about finding him instead.
Stepping down onto the grass I walk slowly across the garden, and stop in the middle, looking around at the destruction. I suppose in some ways I should merely be grateful that only the Dojo has been destroyed, leaving the house and outbuildings unscathed. But my mother's shrine is in there, which makes things worse. I can feel a tear in my eye, and I try to restrain the flood of sadness that wells up.
Behind me I can hear the argument spill out into the garden. The entire collection of idiots has come outside, still shouting at each other, now the sky is clear. The two Amazon children and Ryoga wouldn't risk their curses activating, which at least gave me a little peace while it was raining. Looking at them I find myself rolling my eyes momentarily. Shampoo and Mousse. I wish their mispronounced Chinese names were reality, as I could wash them both away. Watching them bicker is almost funny at times, neither one of them can see that Mousse acts towards Shampoo in exactly the way she acts towards her 'Airen'. Stupid bitch.
She has absolutely no concept of personal space, and pushes him away further each time she squeezes herself up against him. Yet she has no idea about this. She is beautiful, yes, and despite my own thoughts probably quite intelligent. Of all of the 'fiancées' she is the one closest to him in skill, and if she had the common sense of a bedbug she would have stood back and let him draw his own conclusions. But she forces herself on him every time she sees him, and as a result has alienated him from her permanently.
Ukyo. Now there's an interesting situation. Undoubtedly the sanest, and probably smartest one of the women after him. Yet even there her own fixation with making him a house husband has blinded her to the fact that this is something completely incompatible with his personality. She has no give in her wishes, if she did she would have stood a very good chance. She desperately wants to marry him, for her own family honour as well as personal choice, but can't see that her own rigidity makes it impossible. Like Shampoo, she pushes him away every time she tried to pull him closer.
I can see it, why can't they? Possibly you have to be on the outside looking in.
I wonder where he is, and if I'll ever see him again? In one way, I almost hope not. At least that would probably mean he managed to escape this entire fiasco.
In another way, one I cling to, I fear not seeing him again more than I fear almost anything.
It's only been in the last couple of days that I finally realised the depths of my feelings for him. Now it's far, far too late to do anything about it.
Akane is still bitching, blaming everyone but herself for everything that happened. True, the wedding was thrust on her, and true, she was not the primary reason it all went to hell, but once things started to slide, she certainly gave them a damn good push. Yet she'll never see that, I'm sure.
She just won't stop shouting. All the time, moan moan moan. It's all his fault. He's a pervert. He leads all those women on. Even when it's clear to anyone with half a brain that having all these females throwing themselves at him is the last thing he wants, she blames him for it. Then she hits him. And he lets her. His bloody honour again, and reluctance to hit a woman. Such a well meant ideal, corrupted by the situation into something to be used against him.
I can't stand it. Not once has she honestly asked him what happened, not once has she apologised to him when she was shown to be in the wrong. Not once has she ever realised the damage she's causing, and what she's going to lose by doing so.
If I was more like her, I'd hit her myself.
She and Nabiki are talking, Akane complaining while Nabiki is suggesting places to look. Oh, I hope and pray he isn't in any of those places. Please let him escape.
Dear little sister is glowing a dull red, her own aura visible proof of her anger. Anger that is always present, and grows more destructive by the day. They walk towards me, still with her blaming him for the entire thing. I turn my back on them and stare at the Dojo, trying to block them out, trying to ignore them. But it's so difficult. The things she's saying. All untrue, and so very unfair. I'm finding it very hard indeed to maintain the façade, harder than it's ever been.
All the fiancées are now shouting at each other. My father and the Saotomes are screaming at the wizened Amazon he so rightly calls 'old ghoul', and she is waving that stupid staff she hops around on at them. The little perverted gnome is oddly the only one not engaged in the whole thing, and is simply standing off to one side smoking his pipe with an unusually thoughtful expression on his ancient features. I look at him, wondering what he's thinking, and he gives me a strange look back. I can't work it out, but smile vacantly at him.
He winks at me.
Involuntarily I feel my smile change briefly, I have no idea why. Then Akane says something particularly stupid and self-serving, and I find my attention drawn back to her despite myself. I can't believe she said that. Does she genuinely feel that way, or is her own bravado and pride, at least as great as his, pushing her to say such stupid things? I look into her eyes and my heart sinks. I can't see any sign of uncertainty, of self-doubt. She really believes what she's saying.
The noise of the slap echoes around a suddenly quiet garden. Everyone is looking at me for some reason, the oddest expressions I have ever seen on their faces.
My hand hurts. I wonder why?
I look at it in mild wonder, as Akane sputters. She gets half a dozen words out, and I watch my hand strike her again. It's like I'm watching a movie. There was no conscious thought, no intent, merely action.
The look in her eyes is abruptly one I have seen many times before, but never directed at me. I can hear screams and shouts coming from the others in the garden as the mallet that appears in her hand arcs in slow motion toward me, and close my eyes. I know my sister has murdered me, and just before my eyes shut I see horror cross her face as she realises the same thing, far too late to stop it from happening.
I hope it will at least be quick and painless.
The wave of heat on my face is unexpected, as is the noise. Not what I thought having your head crushed would sound or feel like, although the sensation of my back hitting the ground is about right. Oddly, I can hear echoes die away across the night. Everything is completely silent once again.
Is this death? Seems a bit odd if so.
I open my eyes, surprised I can. Very strange. I appear to still be alive. How did that happen? My face stings like I've got sunburn, and there is a smell of burnt hair. Looking up I can see Akane standing three meters away, slightly blackened and her hair smoking a little. It looks like she's just managed to stand up, and she's staring at me with terror and amazement in her eyes, for once not angry.
There is a noise, and I turn my head toward it. Everyone else is looking in the same direction. The pile of rubble near the Dojo has a smoking hole in it, and as we watch, shifts. Wooden beams and chunks of stone move, a blue glow showing from between them. No one can speak as a figure slowly rises from the pile, pushing tons of detritus away as if it was sand at the beach. Her hand is still outstretched, towards Akane. Muddy, wet, covered in little bits of debris with her red hair a tangled mess, the nearly nude young woman steps out of the pile.
She, he, was under there the entire time. Not one of us thought to look for her. Him. We simply assumed he had run. She had run. As if such a thing was even possible for someone like that. I am more ashamed than I have ever been in my entire life.
She clears the pile, and looks around, her burning glare making every person present quail. Reaching down with her hand she places it on a long sharp fragment of wood that I suddenly realise with horror is piercing her side, blood leaking around it. She grimaces a little and pulls it out slowly, more blood running down her side, her leg, pooling on the ground. Finally freeing it she drops it to the ground. Every eye in the garden is on her. I can't begin to imagine the amount of force that would be required to make that happen to her.
Placing her hand on the gaping wound in her side she winces, and a much brighter light flares around her fingers, washing out the dim blue aura she has covering her. After a few seconds it dies away and she removes her hand, allowing us to see the wound is mostly gone. None of us can make a sound.
She walks forward, gracefully but with deadly intent. There is a look in her eyes like nothing I have ever seen. Locking them on Akane she moves closer, and I can see my sister trembling. The red-headed woman, so small and delicate looking, stops half a meter from my sister and simply looks at her for a long moment. She searches her fiancées face with her eyes, looking for something. I don't know whether she finds it, or the lack of it, but after a few seconds she sighs a little and turns away. Everyone watches as she walks to the house and goes inside.
Less than two minutes later she comes back out, carrying her pack. She has put new clothes on, but is still covered in blood and debris. I try to stand up, and am surprised to find someone helping. Looking down it is Happosai. He smiles at me, then turns to watch the woman as she walks across the lawn, carefully inspecting each person she passes. Everyone is still frozen in place, and has trouble meeting her eyes. When she looks towards me my heart falls, there is a look of such pain and desperation in them I can't stand it.
She glances at Akane once more, then visibly dismisses her as worthless when she turns her head. My sister stares at her, then at me, then looks at Ryoga. This seems to spark something in him and he walks over to the petite woman, and starts to speak.
Without hesitation, she backhands him with appalling force, knocking him ten metres away and into the garden wall. There is a flash of light as her hand contacts his jaw, you don't have to be a martial artist to realise he was unconscious before he landed.
The looks given to her are now a mix of horror and dawning realisation at just what has been unleashed. Shampoo takes a step forward and begins to call out her normal silly greeting in a trembling voice. The woman, him, looks at her and her voice dies with a gurgle. Cologne raises her staff, using it to gently restrain the girl.
She looks around at everyone in the garden, almost all the main people in her life, then shakes her head slightly. Looking back at me, then at Happosai who is still standing next to me, she walks slowly over. Stopping in front of us she gazes at the ancient little man for a long time. Something seems to pass between them, and he bows. She nods, and looks back at me, raising her head to meet my eyes.
Oh, god. The pain. I feel tears come, and for once I can't smile. Oddly, she does.
She holds out her hand, and I look at it. Then I look around the garden. Everyone is watching me, I can't interpret any of their expressions at all. Looking down at Happosai he smiles at me more genuinely and warmly than I can ever remember him doing before.
I take her hand.
For the first time in years, my smile is real.