Subject: [FFML] [fanfic][Ranma]Thyself Known Ch.10: Possessions
From: Zorknot
Date: 2/3/2007, 4:12 AM
To: ffml@anifics.com

I apologize in advance for any faux pas I might commit in the process of submitting this chapter. I'd greatly appreciate any feedback. 
Thanks,

-Z

~~~~*~~~~~

Thyself Known
    
A Ranma 1/2 fanfic by Zorknot

Chapter 10: Possessions
Previous chapters can be found at 
    http://www.geocities.com/zorukonotsu/TK.html
    DISCLAIMER: The thunder crashed and the wind howled outside the hospital window. The machines blipped and whirred, keeping the young woman in the bed alive. Her husband sat beside her, holding her hand. The doctor came in with his stainless steel clipboard, a serious expression on his wizened face. The husband stood up, a hopeful look in his eyes. But the doctor shook his head. "I'm sorry," he said, "but the characters in this fanfiction are not the property of the author. They belong to Rumiko Takahashi and various other copyright holders. I'm afraid there's nothing we can do."
    THE STORY SO FAR: Things are a little quieter now that Copycat Ken,having gone a murderous rampage, has been killed by Ranma. Ranma and Nabiki have been through a lot, though, including a mind meld that has caused them to share each other's experiences to an extent. They've also bonded with the nekoken, and have the shared experience of having killed someone they viewed as being an innocent. Akane is on a weekend vacation with Sayuri and Yuka at the ryokan (Japanese 
style inn) owned by Yuka's grandparents which is only a short walk away from the beach. Akane was recently released from the lingering effects of Shampoo's shiatsu technique, meaning she can now learnfrom her mistakes, something she was previously incapable of doing:-)As we begin this chapter, Hiro Kawagami, a police officer who had been trapped in the body of Nabiki's best friend, Hoko Tomo, is just waking up in his proper form. Copycat had taken Hoko's body after killing her and had forced Hiro to assume her form, however, because Copycat's camera took Hoko's soul as she died, and perhaps because Hiro is a fledgeling Necromancer, once Copycat died both Hoko's and Hiro's forms were returned to them, along with the memories of what Copycat had done while using their bodies. And now for the next chapter of Thyself Known:
  ~~~~~ch. 10 possessions~~~~
    "Possession requires both control and intention. It is obtained from the first moment that both those conditions exist simultaneously. Usually, intention precedes control, as when you see a coin on the ground and reach down to pick it up. Nevertheless, it is conceivable that a person might obtain control of a thing before forming the intention to possess it."
  -Wikipedia
  ~~~~~morgue~~~~~~
    ~Please! Please! You have to tell them my name! Tell them my name!~
  ~I want him dead! Kill him! Kill him!~
  ~Is it over yet? Please tell me it's over. I'm so lonely.~
  ~He's gonna get all the money! He's getting away scott free while I'm rotting here!~
  ~I don�t understand. I gave him everything in my purse. Why did he shoot me?~
    Hiro woke up with a gasp. All around him, shadowy figures were trying to grab at him, begging him to help them. As quickly as he could, Hiro reached into his breast pocket, pulled out his sunglasses and put them on. The spirits seemed to disappear, their voices fading with their forms. The sunglasses were a message. I am not going to let myself be affected. I am not going to care.
    Hiro remembered his parents saying he used to scream all the time as a child. That he'd have terrible nightmares that would have him running from his room in fright. They stopped when he was about five years old. Hiro's first real memory was when he was five and just starting preschool. Everything before that was a blank. 
    Aside from a few encounters with violent death, working in the homicide division in his old precinct, Hiro had never seen ghosts before. Even in those cases he could blow it off as an over active imagination playing with his uncomfortably acute ability to empathize with victims.  Except for the last one. The girl. He hadn't ever quite been able to rationalize that one away. Something had changed when he saw her. Since he saw what she had seen, knew what she had known. She had broken through his defenses, walls in his psyche he hadn't even realized were there, and she had left them weakened. 
    Ever since then, if Hiro listened, he could hear the whispering of spirits. He had tried to ignore it. He couldn't do that any more. 
    Some door he had held shut for more than twenty years was open now except for what amounted to a metaphorical security chain. His sunglasses�a symbol of cool...of a cavalier care-free philosophy. When he had them on it helped somehow. It helped to pretend he didn't care.  Hiro wondered if he would ever be able take them off again.
    ~My babies! They're all alone! My babies! Please!~
  ~It's so cold. Why is it so cold?~
  ~Kaori? Where are you Kaori? I can't see, there's too much smoke. Call out your name, honey, so I can find you. Kaori!~
    "I've got to get out of here." He said, rising to his feet from the tile floor. 
    "Hey, you're up!" Hoko's voice, a real voice now coming from a pretty girl standing next to him, noted. " How's it feel to be in your own body again?"
    "You're alive." Hiro said, confused.
    "Yep! Apparently Ranma killed Copycat, and we got our bodies back! I'm trying not to think too much about how that's possible exactly."
    Hiro nodded, "I remember this mist or something coming towards me and then it's a blank."
    Hoko grimaced, "When it hit me, I got all the memories of what he did while using my body. It wasn't fun the first time. The second time...I'm just glad it was quick. I kind of wish we could resurrect the bastard just so I could kill him personally, but I'll work with what I've got."
    A vivid memory of falling on his severed spinal chord gripped Hiro for a second before fading. "Okay...starting to come back to me now."
    ~Is it over? Am I dead yet? I'm so lonely.~
  ~Someone please help me find her!~
  ~My babies! Please! Please! My babies!~
    Hiro shivered. Some of the spirits were getting past his defenses. "I really have to get out of here." He said, and started walking hurriedly toward the door. 
    Hoko followed him. "Uncle Inamura said it'd be better not to move you in case you had a concussion. It's only been a few minutes. He's in his office at the department talking to Mrs. Saotome."
    "Screw that! This place is freaky." Hiro burst through the door like a drowning man coming up for air. 
    Out of the morgue and in the relative warmth (and silence) of the hallway, Hiro asked, "Inamura is your uncle?"
    "He's not my REAL uncle, no. Nabiki and I used to hang around his house a lot. We're friends with his daughter, Ami, though lately she's been acting like a bitch."
    They reached the elevator and Hiro punched the up button. "Mrs. Saotome...that's Ranma's mother?"
    Hoko smirked up at him. "You want the full soap opera version or the plain facts?"
    The doors to the elevator opened and Hiro moved quickly inside. He wasn't sure if it was a real feeling or just nerves, but he had a sense of something chasing him. He greatly needed a distraction. He pressed the close door button several times and when they closed he let out a breath. "Soap opera version, I guess"
    "Well," Hoko paused as she pressed the button for the ground floor, which Hiro had forgotten to do. Her long hair held a slight scent of lavender. "For about a year now, Mrs. Saotome, Ranma's mother, has been visiting at the Tendos. Thing is, she doesn't know about Ranma's curse, and she made Ranma and his father sign a pact stating that they'd commit seppuku if Ranma wasn't a 'man among men' ... whatever that means. Now from what I got from the inside of Copycat's head, Ranma's curse has changed recently, but up until about a day ago it was triggered by water. Cold water made him female and hot water made him male again. Since it's easier to find cold water than hot usually, the best way for him to hide the curse was to pretend to be Ranko Tendo, Nabiki's cousin."
    The elevator reached the ground floor and the doors opened. Hoko continued talking as they walked out. "The first I found out about this was the day girl Ranma came to school wearing a girl's uniform. That was about a month after Mrs. Saotome started visiting. About half the school still thinks female Ranma and male Ranma are two different people, but I and other students who pay attention to things know differently. A lot of people called him a pervert and a cross dresser and some things which weren't so nice, but he just took it. Nabiki's sister Akane tried to get them to stop, but she doesn't handle crowds well. It wasn't until Nabiki started telling people the story and hinting that he would get back at anybody who made fun of him while he was Ranko, that the teasing eased off. Since then about once a month Mrs. Saotome will stay at the Tendos for a few days and Ranma will come to school as a girl. "
    They exited the hospital doors and walked across the parking lot to the police department. It was dark out, but the street lights were bright enough that Hiro could see even with his sunglasses. Hoko kept up her narrative. "The thing is, because Mrs. Saotome thinks 'Ranko' is a girl she gets concerned when 'Ranko' acts like Ranma. You know, wearing boy's clothes, fighting people all the time et cetera.  She feels there's not enough of a parental influence, which is why she shows up every month or so, and why when she does, she makes sure Ranko goes to school dressed properly in a uniform. The last couple months she's stayed longer, like for a week."
    "Must be rough for him," Hiro said. He had only been in a girl's body for a few hours and he was barely able to stand it. The idea of being like that for a week...
    "Yeah the first couple times she was real depressed. She still gets moody from time to time but Ranma's adaptable. Lately when he's a she, she seems, I don't know, a little more relaxed. She's more approachable when she's a girl, I think. She has friends that male Ranma doesn't have. It's almost like she really is a different person. Funny thing is there have been more accidents at the school recently. Ranma was always a water magnet, but now even when he shows up as a guy about half the time he'll leave school as a girl. I was talking to Yuka Hakimune, she's friends with Akane and she'll hang out with female Ranma during lunch sometimes, her dad is a psychoanalyst and she thinks there might be a psychological element to the curse. That some how Ranma is more apt to turn into a girl when he wants to be a girl, on, like, a subconscious level. I guess since the curse changed maybe he doesn't even need water. I still don't know how Nabiki turned male though. The past few
 days have been a real jumble, what with me getting killed and coming back to life and all. I think I need a few days to digest everything."
    "I need at least a week for this freak fest," Hiro concurred. They reached the doors to the police department and went inside. They almost ran head on with Detective Inamura, Sergeant Suzuki, and a kimono-clad woman carrying a sword who Hiro assumed was Mrs. Saotome. 
    "Ah, Kawagami, good you're up. Do you mind taking Hoko home? I've got paperwork to fill out and Suzuki's taking Mrs. Saotome to see her...ah step niece?"
    "I suppose that's an accurate term for our relationship even if it's not technically correct," Mrs. Saotome allowed. Addressing Hiro she explained, "I'm worried about her. I know she's skilled at martial arts, I've heard she's almost as good as my son, but fighting a serial killer? Even if she did best him, it's just too dangerous for a girl her age."
    Inamura shook his head. "She didn't just 'best' him, Mrs. Saotome, she killed him. If it weren't for the allowances we make for martial artists and for Sergeant Suzuki's surveillance tracking the killer from the department, she'd be in serious trouble. As it is, I want her to come in for a statement tomorrow."
    Mrs. Saotome nodded. "I'll see that she does that."
      "Now if you'll excuse me," Inamura gave a slight bow, "I've got to make all this seem normal and put a nice little bow on it before I report it to the main office." With that, he turned and left 
  "Well, I guess I'm taking you home then," Hiro said to Hoko. Turning to Mrs. Saotome he bowed deeply. "It's a pleasure to meet you Saotome-san."
    Mrs. Saotome bowed politely, and having given his farewell, Hiro turned and left. 
    Hoko followed him until they were outside again. Then she stopped Hiro with a hand on his forearm. "Just what are these 'allowances' anyway?" she asked.
    "Well, I'm still new here, but as I understand it any violent act committed between two martial artists is deemed strictly self defense. If Copycat had killed only martial artists, there wouldn't be much we could do without knowing more about how they were killed. Our job is to protect those who cannot protect themselves. Beyond that we do not interfere."
    "Makes your job kinda easy then doesn't it? I mean the martial artists here kind of police the area themselves." 
    Hiro shook his head. "That's what I thought. I transferred over here partially because of the low crime rate, but if the last day or so is any indication, when things go bad here, they go REAL bad."
    Hoko nodded somberly. "I'm glad you guys are here. I..." Hoko looked up taking a breath and closing her eyes. "Damn. It's so good to be alive!"
    Without warning, Hoko opened her eyes and broke in a light run toward the parking lot. "I'm driving," she declared over her shoulder at Hiro.
    "I'm not sure if that's going to work," He said attempting mach her pace I'm bigger than you and..."
    "I don't give a rat's ass if you're bigger than me, if you're older than me or if you're a guy or a cop or a necromancer or whatever the hell else you want to be. I don't even care if you saved my life. I am driving my own fucking bike. If you don't like it you can walk." She increased her speed as she said this to the point that she was almost at a light jog when she stopped suddenly, finding her bike in a pool of light from a parking lot street lamp. 
    Hiro hadn't really noticed it before, having been preoccupied with being in the wrong body when he first rode on it. It was beautifully stylized with metallic red orange yellow and silver in a brilliant flame design. The exhaust pipes were all custom designed chrome with a nested flute pattern that, in the glare of light, looked like white hot plumes of fire. It seemed in direct contrast with what Hoko looked like, a rather conservative girl with straight black hair, but it spoke volumes of the fierce independence Hiro had seen in her in only a short span of time. 
    This was not a normal bike. This was something that was loved, cherished. Copycat knew that when he rode it. The memory came unwanted now into Hiro's brain. Copycat took as his the product of years of work and sacrifice. He did so without any kind of respect or reverence as if it was his by default. 
      Hiro looked up and saw tears in Hoko's eyes as she touched the seat of the bike. He understood. Stuck in Hoko's body, he had felt completely violated, demeaned, helpless, but Hoko hadn't just had her body taken away. When Copycat had driven the motorcycle he wasn't just stealing a possession, he had stolen a part of Hoko's soul. 
  Hiro whirled away from the bike, his eyes and fists clenched at the injustice of it all. What the hell was the point of doing anything if it could be taken away so easily? Why go through the hassles, the pains,  and the drudgeries that surround life if the only reward was to have the things you cared about, the things that helped make you who you were, stolen in the blink of an eye? Was it all a waste of time? Was there some memo Hiro didn't get saying, "Please include weather conditions in all traffic tickets, and by the way this is all a big joke, life is meaningless."? 
    Hiro wanted to hit something. Something hard that would cause a lot of pain. He actually opened his eyes and looked for something he could hit, when he heard Hoko release the kickstand.
    He saw her mount the motorcycle quickly, as if finally coming to a decision and concluding the time for deliberations was over. She gripped the handles of the bike and paused a moment, a look of determination in her eyes. She was reclaiming it. It was hers again. 
    "You getting on, or are you going to watch my dust?" she called out brashly, her bravado only slightly marred by the crack in her voice.
    Hiro got on and Hoko keyed the engine, kicking it to life and revving it with the handle. Hiro tentatively put his hand on either side of Hoko's slight frame. As he suspected it was awkward. Then Hoko took his arms and wrapped them around her torso. She leaned back into his chest, her silky lavender-scented hair touching his lower cheek. 
    Suddenly, it wasn't so awkward. 
    Hiro heard an odd sound behind him and craned his neck to see what it was. Two tapered cylinders painted in the same metallic fire pattern as the rest of the bike were moving out of a concealed compartment. They looked almost like miniature jet engines, but of course that was impossible.
    "They're miniature jet engines," Hoko explained, yelling slightly to be heard over the motor. 
    Once they were in position, on either side of the bike connected by a short, flat sheet of painted metal, they looked a little like wings. Inscribed on them were two Chinese characters. They were the characters Hou and Ko. Together they made up Hoko's name. The one on the left meant "Phoenix".
    Hiro turned his head back and squeezed the phoenix girl to him as she flew out of the parking lot and into the street, completely ignoring every speed limit.
~~~~~ patrol car~~~~~
    The city seemed different at night. Nodoka looked up at the passing streetlights through her warped and ghostly reflection on the car window. The fat, eye patched form of police sergeant Masaki Suzuki was driving beside her with the dome lights on, mumbling something about not being able to find "it".  The "it" was apparently the tracking device that he had put on the serial killer that her "step niece" bested in combat, though why he should be so keen on retrieving it was beyond her.
    Nodoka tried to be proud of her son, but the feeling was as warped and ethereal as her reflection in the window. She had seen the news report. Ranma had chosen a bride most dramatically, and there was little doubt he was the manliest man in all of Japan... except she knew there was a problem. Genma had said that something had gone wrong with Ranma's bond with Ranko. Nodoka knew the two were close friends and that they shared everything, but there was something secret about their connection. Something that had to remain secret if the Saotomes were to become a full family again. Genma said something was agitating Ranma and Ranko, that maybe the only way to keep both of them from mental breakdown would be to adopt Ranko and banish Ranma. 
    Nodoka knew about Jusenkyo. She had seen her husband change first on accident, and then she had confirmed it.  Some part of her even knew about Ranma, but she couldn't allow herself to acknowledge the true nature of Ranma's bond with Ranko. There was too much at stake.
    But was it worth it? Yes the contract required that Ranma be a man among men, but what if the pressure caused two children to be lost instead of merely one? This rash of manliness on Ranma's part... was it as good a sign as it seemed, or was a light burning brighter just before going dark forever? 
    The patrol car pulled over behind a couple walking on the sidewalk. The man had an odd helmet-shaped hair cut and wore a black t-shirt with brown dogi pants--- an odd fashion choice to say the least. The girl was fairly short and had fiery red hair in a pigtail. Ranko of course, no one else had that hair color, but she was wearing an orange shirt with the shoulders cut out and white shorts, which seemed more like something Nabiki would wear. Both of them walked barefooted and when they turned around, shielding their eyes against the glare from the headlights, it seemed as though there were a bullet hole in the man's t-shirt. Nodoka had the familiar sense of something having happened that she was not likely to ever completely understand.
    Sergeant Suzuki opened his door and grumbled out of his seat, his rotundity making it difficult for him to get past the steering wheel. Genma was anorexic compared to this character. Nodoka got out as well, wishing to greet Ranko and try to find out first hand some version of what happened, even if it wasn't the truth.
    Nodoka smiled when she saw Ranko's face. She loved the girl. She loved her spunk and the way she cared for others. She was real too, not some vague form that she could only catch in fleeting glimpses and, more recently, on news reports. Nodoka didn't know the precise reason Ranma couldn't live with Ranko. Maybe if she adopted Ranko they could find some way to live together? But even if they couldn't, when it came down to it Nodoka, didn't really know Ranma. And, worries aside, he seemed to be okay, mostly. Ranko needed her.
    The family sword vibrated in its sheath. Nodoka gripped the handle tightly. Patience, Hayama, she thought, though it had the feeling of a prayer. You will be released soon, but it must be done the proper way. 
    Nodoka felt a wash of guilt. She had been thinking of giving up on her son. Gods help her, but she had been thinking of it.
    ~~~~~nabiki and ranko: shisuki-cho~~~~~
    Nabiki and Ranko had walked in silence for about fifteen minutes before the patrol car pulled up behind them. Nabiki could have started up the motorcycle again, but it would have been too loud...too agitating. He and Ranko needed calm. Something had happened to them and they weren't sure what. Nabiki knew Ranko felt the same way. He and she were connected to such a degree they were practically the same person. They had differences, yes, but it was like they were one brain with four hemispheres instead of two. When they embraced they felt more complete, but at the same time it was like one's right hand clasping one's left. 
    This feeling they felt, Nabiki knew he felt it differently than Ranko, but he knew exactly how Ranko felt about it. Ranko was a little scared. She felt out of control and unsure of herself. It was the reason she wanted to be a girl at the moment, because men weren't supposed to feel that way. Nabiki would have chided her except he now knew the extent of the brainwashing Ranma had endured over the years. Men weren't supposed to feel, period. Even as Ranma, Ranko had been a bit more sensitive than most. But Ranma had severe stoicism beat into him at an early age. Ranko relished her feelings having escaped through a loophole in her conditioning, but she also feared them. 
    Nabiki, by contrast, was a stoic by choice. No one had forced him to mask his emotions, or play on the emotions of others, he came about it naturally. He had good reasons not to trust his emotions, and that was why he was male. For whatever reason, it was easier to block emotions in the male form. Maybe it was the residual male ego from Ranma's exchange in the bathroom, though a great deal of that had been evened out with the apple technique. At any rate, it was a little like all his life, Nabiki had been playing with a handicap that he hadn't even been aware of, and now it wasn't there. On one hand it was easier to not feel what he was feeling. At the same time, it wasn't as satisfying. There wasn't as much skill involved. 
    What Nabiki felt was cold, yet resolute. He would get them through this, whatever it was. He would let Ranko worry, because she needed to worry. And she would let him pretend to ignore his own doubts, because he needed to do that. They both felt different things, but knew that they were really feeling the same thing, and their minds repeated the same message over and over in varying iterations:
    They had crossed a line. They had killed and felt no remorse. They had passed a threshold. They had murdered. They had changed. They ended a life. They were no longer human. They did not know what they were.
    And as they walked, this mercurial mantra winding through their heads like the ticker tape from some tireless outdated machine, they drew closer together, as they drew further apart from the world around them, until the headlights of the patrol car grew at their backs and they turned around, shielding their eyes against the brightness.
    "Alright, you chuckleheads," growled a short, fat man in a uniform after clambering out of his vehicle. "Where the hell's my eye?"
    Nabiki and Ranko blinked a bit. They recognized Sergeant Suzuki from the police station, but they looked at him differently now. He didn't have much of an aura. It was dark brown and seemed to appear almost accidentally around his body as if it were embarrassed to be there, and there was a thin red filament that came out of his eye patch and continued above the buildings and toward the east.
    Nabiki absently pointed in the direction the filament seemed to go.
    "Could you be a bit more specific? Not that I don't mind searching through every god cursed alley this side of Nerima, mind you. I do that sort of thing for kicks, really. Every third fucking Tuesday."
    Nabiki's eyes thinned. Beside him, Ranko piped up. "About how much money do you think that information's worth, Fly?" 
    Nabiki smiled, "I'd say at least a couple thousand yen." Then he saw Nodoka exit the patrol car. 
    Even though Nodoka was wearing a kimono, and her hair was in her usual short, matronly cut, she was still Uma Thurman to Sergeant Suzuki's Danny DeVito. Nodoka was approaching middle age, but still looked in her twenties. She was practically a taller Ranko with short, darker hair. The resemblance was unmistakable, and yet Nodoka repeatedly mistook it. 
    There had been times when the lady seemed quite sharp though. As if hidden in her silken kimono was an iron determination, and her predilection toward tradition was really a well played ruse. 
    She had a strong aura that stayed mostly in the blue, but shifted smoothly from light to dark and sometimes into green. She was hard to read. What was oddest though, was the sword she carried. It almost seemed like it had its own aura. A blue and white vortex that seemed to whip around it impatiently. 
    Nabiki noticed Nodoka tighten her grip on the handle of the sword and moved between her and Ranko. He felt his ki claws come out. Was Nodoka a threat? 
    Ranko's hand on his shoulder mollified him. This is my battle, Ranko was saying, let me handle it.
    Coming from behind Nabiki, Ranko called out to Nodoka, "Auntie Saotome!" She rushed to woman in the kimono and the two figures embraced, at first almost like strangers, and then like vampires feeding off each other through their hearts, and then, for a moment, like mother and child. The moment passed like the shine of a silverfish and the two released each other, but it was enough for Nabiki to suspect that regardless of what played out on the surface, neither Saotome held any illusions as to who the other really was. But then why...?
    "Saotome Nodoka?" Ranko interrupted Nabiki's analysis, "I want you to meet...er...Miyazaki Hotaru, my boyfriend." 
    Nabiki cringed at the name. Not so much Hotaru, he was used to being called "Firefly" by now and even though it had some unfortunate connections to Sailor Moon manga, it was still mostly gender neutral and probably the best choice. Miyazaki, though, immediately brought Grave of the Fireflies (Hotaru no Haka) to mind. Nabiki had hated that movie. Still, this was improv. It wouldn't do to negate the premise.
    "Pleased to meet you." Nodoka bowed slightly.
    "Take it easy on me," Nabiki smiled and bowed slightly deeper.
    After the introduction, Nodoka seemed to go distant for awhile, thoughts apparently lost on some tangent.
    "What the hell you trying to pull?" Sergeant Suzuki snapped, reminding everyone of his presence. "I was at the precinct. I know you two are really Ranma and Nabiki. You only have one alternate form and you haven't even bothered to change clothes. Why do you shapeshifters always have to make out like you're masters of espionage or something?"
    "I'm sorry," said Ranko with a saccharine smile, "You must have been confused. I like to pretend I'm Ranma sometimes. We're very close you see, and it's sort of a weird game we've developed. Hotaru here had such a weird haircut, and it reminded me of Nabiki's style, so I thought he could join in on the act. We really didn't mean to be so deceptive." 
    Ranma lying so easily...that didn't use to be the case. Part of it was from their bond, Nabiki knew, but he also knew that part of it was from practice. When you're sure your mother would literally kill you if she knew the truth, you learn to lie pretty quick.
    "Listen, Red," Sergeant Suzuki pointed an angry finger at Ranko, "I may not look like much, but I'm an officer of the l-"
    Nodoka put a hand on Sergeant Suzuki's shoulder, restraining him. "What she says is correct, officer. It's an odd habit and I've scolded her about it, but she still persists. She's getting a little old for these games, but I can't do that much about it. I'm not even really her aunt, and besides, children grow up so fast these days. I say let them be innocent a little longer."
    Nabiki felt a shiver run through his body. "Innocent" was no longer a word that described him and Ranko. Not in any sense. "We'll help you find your eye," Nabiki volunteered hoping to distract himself from the thought, "just as soon as we take care of payment."
    "I'm not going to pay you!" Suzuki said incredulous, "I only have two eyes, damn it, and thanks to you and your psychotic sidekick one of them is lost somewhere in the dark streets of Tokyo."
    Nabiki blinked. Suzuki was seriously mistaken if he thought Ranko was his sidekick. 
    "I'll give you a side kick up your ass, Cyclops. I don't care if you are a cop," Ranko shot back. Her ki claws extended a centimeter from her fists.  
    Nabiki touched Ranko lightly on her arm. Easy there, Sunshine. 
    Ranko calmed herself.
    "Yeah, go ahead and threaten me, Ninja Girl. I don't know why Inamura puts up with you clowns, but when the head of the department gets back from America we'll see how..." Suzuki trailed off. "Wait. How the hell did it get over there? Shit. It's too close to the water." Suzuki moved quicker than Nabiki might have guessed possible for someone so rotund into his patrol car. "Sorry!" he yelled out of his window in an insincere tone, "I got to get there before aw hell someone's getting closer. Look, you'll have to walk home. Tell whatever idiots try to mug you I said 'Hi'!" With that, Suzuki engaged the engine, squealed his tires and left. 
    "What a rude person," Nodoka said. 
    Nabiki was inclined to agree.
    ~~~~~night beach~~~~~
    It had a different name, but that's what Yuka and her family had always called it, and so Sayuri and Akane took to calling it that too. Night Beach. The reason was that it only seemed like a beach at night, when it was colder and when most of the people were gone. Yuka's grandparents still worked at the ryokan where they were all staying tonight. All day they would have to deal with the demands of the crazy gaijin tourists who wanted hamburgers with their sake and demanded a "real" mattress instead of a futon even after their wives tried to explain to them that it's not that type of hotel and that if they wanted that they could have gone to the Marriot... The couple that stormed out a few hours earlier still had Sayuri miffed. Sometimes knowing English was a curse. 
    Yuka's grandparent's had to deal with that crap all day, and they didn't get a break until the night. Then the two of them would walk about half a kilometer out to the Night Beach and sit, watching the tide come in to wash away all the madness. 
    Sayuri thought Yuka's grandparents were too nice. Family was one thing, but letting her and Akane impinge on their alone time was taking hospitality too far. 
    But despite feeling a little guilty she wouldn't say anything. The moon was shining on the waves as they crashed upon the shore and everything was crisp, cold, still, and beautiful. Tonight they were all sitting on the cool sand, her, Akane, Yuka,  and Yuka's parents, uncle, and grandparents. They were silent as they sipped the tea from the thermoses they had brought. This was a precious gift, this moment, and Sayuri didn't have the heart to return it.
    Sayuri's mom was the stereotypical office lady. Divorced and harried. Her mom tried, but the simple fact was that in order to be there for your kids, you have to be there, and Mom couldn't do that. Sayuri was used to feeling lonely, but it was times like this when she could see what she was really missing. Times like this, when she felt the bond that the Hakimune family had, that Sayuri loved them more than even her own mother. 
    Beside her, Akane sighed. "I needed this," she said, seeming to put Sayuri's feelings into words.
    "We all did," Yuka said, surprising her. Sayuri gave her a questioning glance. Yuka never seemed to have any problems. In response, Yuka grimaced slightly and got up. "I'm going for a walk. You guys want to come?"
    It was the kind of request you don't say no to, and at any rate, the mood was broken with the silence. Sayuri and Akane got up to follow her.
    "We'll probably head back soon," Yuka's father said, "don't stay out too late okay?"
    "Okay, Daddy, we won't." Yuka said and started walking to the edge of the surf. When they were out of earshot Yuka said, "Guys, I need your opinion on something."
    "What is it?" Akane asked, concerned. 
    "Yeah, usually we're the ones asking for advice." Sayuri nodded.
    "I know, but this... I can't think about this clearly." Yuka looked back toward her family, then she looked down, crossing her arms as if hugging herself. They were all dressed for the cool night temperatures, but every now and then a cool breeze would cut through and cause one of them to shiver. Yuka seemed to be suffering from a different chill though. "I'm thinking of maybe not going to a university when I graduate."
    "But you're going to be a psychotherapist!" Akane protested, "How can you do that without a university degree?"
    "I know, but... It's Grandma and Grandpa. They're getting old, and grandpa...he's starting to forget things. We're not sure how long they can keep running the ryokan."
    "Can't they hire more people or something?" Akane asked.
    Yuka shook her head. "Grandma and Grandpa are very traditional. They hire people from time to time to help with repairs and the like, but otherwise they do everything themselves. The ryokan's been in the family for generations and they don't want it leaving the family. Daddy was supposed to take over after them but he went into psychology instead. So now..."
    "Why can't you do both. Be a psychotherapist AND help with the ryokan?" Sayuri asked.
    "Even if I had enough time to do that after classes and studying for exams and homework it wouldn't work out. Dad tried that. What Grandma and Grandpa do, its like they're monks or something. It�s a way of life. You can't just do it on the weekends."
    "Maybe your mom or dad could retire and help out?" Akane suggested.
    "Mom and Dad are both very dedicated to their jobs. Daddy almost has a complex about his work and Mom's a teacher who actually cares about what she does. Asking her to retire would be like... I don't know. It'd be like asking Grandma and Grandpa to give up the ryokan."
    They walked in silence for a while by the water. The beach would always be here regardless of what happened to the ryokan. But without the Hakimunes it wouldn't be Night Beach anymore. It'd only be one of the many beaches of Japan. If the Hakimunes didn't own the ryokan, it would be some business man or woman, hoping to make as much money as they could. They might even tear down the ryokan and build another Marriot or Hilton. The beach would still be a beach, but it would lose its soul.
    Yuka's grandparents were like monks. Even during the day the ryokan seemed so peaceful. People staying there were treated to something almost sacred. It was why people like Mr. Hamburger upset Sayuri so much. Here was this wonderful experience they could have and instead they want what they could have anywhere. But there were also people who appreciated the gift, who came away having been subtly changed by the experience. Without the ryokan...nothing. It'd be nothing. Just a beach and another boring hotel room.
    Sayuri suddenly had an idea. "Maybe...I could do it!"
    "Huh?" Yuka asked.
    "Listen, you and Akane know what you want to do right? Well I don't. I'm not a martial artist, I'm not good at reading people like you are Yuka, and really I'm not much good at anything. Maybe I just need a calling though, maybe this is it." Sayuri started to get excited, "I mean I love it here. I could learn from your Grandparents and start helping during the day. It's not like I'm doing that well in school anyway, and so I could just work here full time. Then I could keep it going when your grandparents aren't able to." 
    "Um...Sayuri," Yuka held up her hand in a stop gesture, "You're forgetting the main problem here. You're not a Hakimune, no matter how often you hang around the house." 
    Sayuri deflated. It was a stupid idea, and she was stupid for saying it. 
    "Sayuri, that was supposed to be a joke," Yuka explained with a slight smile.
    "I know. Sorry. I guess you're in a tight spot." Sayuri looked up at the moon as she kicked at the sand. It was none of her business what happened to the ryokan or to Yuka for that matter. It wasn't her family. It wasn't her problem. 
    "Honestly, I don't know what to tell you," Akane said. "But my sister Kasumi took care of the house after Mom died and Dad became a wreck. She was going to be a doctor, but she seems happy enough now, maybe it isn't so bad?" 
    Sayuri shook her head. Yuka wasn't like Kasumi. She had too much ambition. Her dreams were too powerful. 
    Sayuri saw something out of the corner of her eye. She turned her head for a better look. Oh it's just a gigantic flying flat segmented thingy with a circular mouth and teeth. She turned her head back to the sand beneath her. Wait a minute... Sayuri looked again and the giant... thing seemed to fly into the sand where they had been walking. 
    "Whatever you choose to do, Yuka, we're behind you," Akane said. "Right, Sayuri?"
    "Did either of you see that?" Sayuri asked.
    "See what?" Yuka looked around.
    "I don't know what it was, but it was big and looked like it went straight into the sand over there."
    "Hold on," Akane said with a tinge of martial arts bravado, "I'll go check it out."
    Sayuri waited with Yuka as Akane stalked up to something, and nudged it with her foot. 
    "It's okay I think!" She called out. "Somebody left their towel and a camera, that's all it is!"
    Sayuri started toward it but Yuka stopped her. "Hold it," she whispered, "Remember this is the same girl who said that the bomb the principal left in our classroom a few weeks ago was 'just a pineapple'."
    "Noted," Sayuri said, but she went ahead anyway. She felt Yuka was being a little unfair. It had looked an awful lot like a pineapple. The fuse was barely visible. 
      The camera and the green cloth, not really a towel in Sayuri's estimation but more of a thin blanket, seemed to be just that. The blanket was folded neatly into a square. The camera rested on top. The words around the lens read "Made in Japan". Now if it had said "Made in the USA" Sayuri might have been suspicious. But if it was made in Japan it was reasonable to assume it wasn't going to blow up. Sayuri moved to pick it and the blanket up. 
  "Wait," Akane said, "I'm sorry. I think I may have called you over too soon."
    "What's wrong?" Sayuri asked.
    "I don't know. It's...it's too... normal looking."
    "That's bad?"
    Akane looked like she was having some sort of epiphany. She'd been getting the look a lot since she showed up at Yuka's earlier this evening. Sayuri had asked her about it, but she said she'd explain later. Akane swallowed. "I think, yes. I've been through a lot the past year and something happened yesterday...it's like I'm seeing everything I went through for the first time. Look, we didn't see this the first time we passed this point, right?"
    Sayuri nodded. She glanced over a Yuka who was looking a mix of impatient, concerned, and uncomfortably curious. "But maybe we just didn't see the blanket and camera, because we were talking with Yuka."
    "But you saw something 'big' hit this spot right?"
    "I don't know what I saw. It could have been anything."
    "But...it's not anything. If something big landed here there should BE something."
    Sayuri frowned. "What, you mean like a giant crater, or a giant bug monster or something?"
    Akane was silent for a while. She seemed to mull over the idea in her head for a moment before she said. "Yes. It's not so much that there's nothing here. There is something, but its completely normal looking. I mean before today, I might just think 'no problem' and pick it up but...Sayuri, honestly, something that falls out of the sky has no business being this normal."
    "Akane, I just said, I don't know what I saw. Maybe nothing fell out of the sky. We have to be rational here. Someone just forgot their camera and their blanket. We have to bring them to the lost and found."
    Akane just looked concerned at her. 
    Sayuri shook her head. "Look, if you won't take them I will." She picked up the blanket with both arms, letting the camera rest on top. The blanket was a little rough, probably made of cheap wool, or maybe a polyester mix. Other than that there was no sensation. "See? No problem. Now let's just get going, shall we?"
    If anything, Akane looked even more concerned. "Sayuri, I'm sorry. I should have picked that up the moment I thought something was wrong. Maybe everything's okay. I hope so. But I've had to deal with curses and magic and demonic possessions, and I'm getting major d�j� vu here. You've got to promise me that the MOMENT anything strange happens you'll tell me okay?"
    "Akane, it's just a blanket and a camera, I don't see-"
    "Promise me!"
    "Okay okay, I promise, yeesh. What's gotten into you lately?"
    "It's a long story. I tell you all about it when we get back to Yuka. Just remember, Yuka and I are your friends. We're here if you need us okay?"
    "Thanks, Akane, but I don't understand why you're so worried."
 
  "You want to make me feel better?" Akane asked suddenly shifting gears.
    "Um... sure."
 
 
  "Give me the blanket and camera."
 
  "No!" Sayuri snapped, "Why should I? Because of some superstition you have about normal things?" 
    "Just drop them then. You can pick them up right after. Just humor me."
    Sayuri almost did just that. She thought about opening her arms and letting the blanket and camera fall, the idea made her nervous though...She laughed off the tension. "Come on, Akane that�s just silly."
    Akane sighed. "If you can't even do that...Sayuri go ahead and call me crazy. I've been called worse things. But you're acting like I did before today. I think this thing is already playing with your mind. And the way you picked it up, it was like you were drawn to it. Like it chose you."
    "Akane, you're crazy. This is a camera and a blanket, not some demonic 'thing'."
    "I already know you're not going to listen to me, Sayuri. Just remember I'm here if you need me, and Yuka's here for you too." Akane nodded toward the space behind Sayuri. 
    Yuka had come over while Sayuri wasn't looking, "Something wrong?" she asked.
 
  "No," Sayuri responded, "nothing much. Apparently Akane thinks I've been cursed by an infernal camera and blanket demon duo. I think she needs to get some sleep or something."
    To Sayuri's exasperation Yuka did not laugh. Instead, she asked Akane: "We aren't in Nerima right now, you really think something like that could happen out here?"
 
  Akane shrugged. "There are gigantic duck-billed platypuses living in Ryugenzawa. Nerima doesn't exactly have the weird market cornered." 
    Sayuri let out a small scream. "Am I the only rational person here?"
    Yuka put a hand on Sayuri's shoulder. "Yes, Sa-chan. And I'm afraid that's a strong indicator that you've completely dissociated yourself from reality."
    "Hey, guys," Akane said, "someone's coming this way." 
    Sayuri looked where Akane indicated and saw a very fat man in a police uniform bumbling toward them from the beach parking lot. The moonlight was enough to see him with, but he was using a flashlight to scan the ground in front of him, and Sayuri was temporarily blinded when he directed it at her.
    "Oi!" The officer called out "Any of you girls see an eye?"
    "An...eye?" Akane asked, her hand shielding her own eyes from the glare of the flashlight. "No...uh...sorry."
    "You." The officer directed the beam to Sayuri. She had to squeeze her eyes shut against the light. "Is that your blanket?"
    "No, officer, we found it just a little while ago with the camera."
    The police man lowered the light and walked closer to her, saying "I suppose you thought you'd put it in the lost and found, huh?"
    "Yes, we were just going over there now."
    The police man was the same height as Sayuri, short for a man. The patch made him look like a pirate. A very round pirate. He walked up to her, inspected her with the flashlight for a moment or two then, looking at the blanket he smiled. "Aha! I found you, you little bastard."  He plucked something off the blanket.
    It was an eye.
    Sayuri stared wide-eyed as the man took off his patch and lifted his head to place the eye, with its dangling optic nerve, into his empty socket. He blinked a few times, looking for all the world like he had just put in a contact lens. Then he addressed Sayuri casually. "I don't suppose you'll let me take that blanket and camera? It's sort of evidence in a murder investigation."
    "What do you mean, 'sort of'?" Yuka asked.
    "We're done investigating. The murderer was killed. Open and shut case. I had my eye on him the whole time. It's just that he owned that blanket and camera that you're carrying, and after he died they both flew over here some how. It's a bit curious."
    A blanket and camera flying ANYWHERE was more than curious. Besides, murder? "Take it," Sayuri said quickly, holding the blanket and camera out to the officer. She no longer wanted anything to do with the two items. Strangely, though, she felt as if she was betraying them somehow. 
    The officer moved to accept them. She tried to keep her arms out, but she felt a wave of panic and brought the blanket close to her again. The more she tried to release her grip the more tightly she squeezed it until, like sand slipping through her fingers the blanket was gone. 
    "Psh." The officer rolled his eyes. "That's what I thought. Fucking demons. Ah well. It's yours now. Try not to kill anybody." With that he walked off, grumbling about something.
    "Wait!" Sayuri yelled after a few moments spent coming to grips with the idea that the blanket and camera she had been holding were now apparently gone. The next moment, as the officer stopped, she realized something else. The blanket and camera weren't gone. She could feel them. She backpedaled mentally, changing the question she was going to ask from "What the hell just happened?" to "What do you mean demons?" 
    Hearing the question, the officer turned around. His eye was glowing a dark red. "I mean," he said, his voice taking on a growl and a tone that was at once both angry and condescending, "spiritual parasites that invade your body, feed off your soul and force you to do bad things. Ask your parents about it. Or your friend there," the officer nodded toward Akane, "she has a demon of her own. Me, I've had enough stupidity for one night. I'm off duty and late for my beer appointment. I hope I never see you again, but I probably will." He waved her off lazily as he turned back around and trudged through the loose sand to his car. 
    "What a rude person," Yuka noted.
    "Akane?" Sayuri asked.
    "Yes?"
    "You know how you said to tell you the moment anything strange happened to me?"
    "Yeah?"
    "I'm pretty sure this qualifies."
    ~~~~~shisuki-cho: two blocks down~~~~~
    "Hey there," the gangly man with the pistols said, "How are you good folks doing tonight? I'll be your mugger for the evening. I'm going to want you to give me all you money and valuable possessions. My friends here," at this point the man nodded to the toughs on either side of him, "are here in case any of you are feeling active. I'm hoping they won't be needed."
    The man and his compatriots were wearing octopus masks. Pistols was apparently the "brains" of the outfit. Chain guy and Bat-with-nails-in-it dude looked as if all their skill was in their muscles. Anywhere else this might be impressive, but this was Nerima. And Ranko Saotome was involved. 
    Nabiki knew all of Ranko's weaknesses as well as her strengths. Even before the bond she had seen her fight countless times. There was absolutely positively no way in hell these guys even stood a chance. Nabiki almost felt sorry for them. 
    "Do you have any idea where you are?" Nabiki asked.
    "Yeah," Pistols responded. "We're in Nerima, the safest part of the city. Lowest crime rate for five years now. Maybe not so safe now, eh boys?" Bat boy and Chains gave their leader a deferential guffaw.
    "It's okay," Nodoka said, "I've got some money in my kimono. Let me get it." 
    "No." Ranko put a hand on Nodoka's arm. "You are not going to pay them. I forbid it."
    "Ranko! You have no right to talk to me that way! I'm your elder. Now this is hardly the time to start a scuffle, that man has guns." Oddly, despite the referring to the danger, Nodoka didn't seem afraid at all. 
    Ranko shook her head. "They're vermin. Rats. If you feed them they'll just come back in greater numbers. They must be exterminated."
    Nabiki found himself agreeing with Ranma. Furthermore he felt an excitement rise within himself. A battle was coming. It felt...delicious.
    "What's gotten into you, Ranko?" Nodoka asked, concerned. She didn't understand. She was human. 
    "Okay, obviously you people aren't opting for the easy way." Pistols drawled. "Time for plan 'B'" 
    The next part happened extremely quickly, and it might have ended badly except this time, Nabiki was ready for it. Pistols lowered his two firearms and fired. One bullet came toward Nabiki, the other toward Nodoka. There was a WHUMP and a CLANG and then Pistols was bleeding profusely out of the stumps where his hands used to be and Chains was coming after Nabiki. Chains swung the heavy links he wielded in an arc toward Nabiki's head. Nabiki caught the chain. Then he made the chain wrap tighter around the man's wrist. Tighter still, and then even more tighter until he heard the bone crack and the man scream in agony. Turning to his right, Nabiki saw something that broke the odd focus he was in for those first few seconds. 
    Nodoka's sword was levitating out of its sheath. It cut the third assailant's nail studded bat into pieces. Then it cut off the assailant's leg. "Hayama, NO!" Nodoka screamed, but of course the damage was already done.
    The three would-be muggers were laying on the pavement wailing at their injuries. Nabiki finally pieced together what had happened.
    The CLANG was Hayama, apparently the name of Nodoka's sword, protecting Nodoka. The WHUMP was...well there was no getting around it, it was a force field. Nabiki had made a force field that stopped the bullet coming toward her. Then that thing he did with the chain. He had known almost instinctively that he could stop it and control it. The chain and the bullet were metal. Like the motorcycle. 
    Great, Nabiki thought, apparently I'm Magneto. Except Nabiki's range wasn't that good. He had to be almost touching something metal before he could control it and...
    A wave of dizziness brought Nabiki to his knees. Ranko was at his side immediately and Nabiki latched on to her arm. The spots in his vision cleared gradually, but he still felt weak. He stood up shakily and surveyed the scene again. Yes, it was self defense, but these were out of towners and they didn't know martial arts. Nabiki could barely see their auras they were so weak. This would look bad unless it was handled correctly.
    "We passed a pay phone a block back next to that convenience store," Ranko said. "I'll call the ambulance."
 
 Nabiki nodded. "Get a camera too. Just in case they try to make themselves look innocent later."
    Ranko shuddered. An image flashed in Nabiki's mind of Copycat's camera rising and bonding with the blanket like some chimerical serpent. "Yes, by all means get a camera that's NOT possessed." With that, Ranko left.
    They were different parts of the same brain. Left and right hands of the same body. Ranko was only going a block away but all of a sudden Nabiki felt horribly incomplete. Ignoring the feeling as best he could, Nabiki walked over to Pistols, whose hands had fallen pray to Ranma's nekoken claws. He was crying incoherently about bitches and how they cut off his fucking hands and how could they cut off his fucking hands. Nabiki crouched down and grabbed the unhanded former pistol wielder's hair, pulling his head up to his. "Welcome to Nerima, baby. When you get back to whatever hole you crawled out of make sure you tell your fellow vermin the reason this place has a low crime rate. Oh and Sergeant Suzuki from the Nerima Prefecture Police Department says 'Hi'."
    "Fucking faggot" Pistols spat out at Nabiki. 
    "On the contrary," Nabiki said, sotto voce so Nodoka wouldn't hear, "I really am a woman stuck in a man's body."
    ~~~~~mall of nerima~~~~~
    Ami Inamura was popular. She wasn't rich. She wasn't a martial artist. Despite being at the center of any gossip pool she was not herself any great source of information. She knew everything the students knew; it was Nabiki and sometimes Hoko that knew everything else. Ami was fairly smart: she was third in line for valedictorian after Nabiki and some foreigner named Sanjay Balasubramanian, but that didn't mean much. No one even knew who Sanjay was. Ami was the daughter of a police detective, that was a little impressive, but still that was not the reason for her popularity. 
    The reason for Ami's popularity was that she worked at the Gap. 
    She was good at her job. She knew all the fashions, could give tips to anyone coming in, and gave all her friends discounts, which she took out of her commission, but that didn't matter because so many people started wanting to buy from her that she made the money back and then some. Of course she wasn't technically supposed to do that but again so many people started coming into the store the management turned a blind eye. 
    Ami loved fashion. She was a clothes hound and knew the latest craze before it became a craze. And the weird thing was how people started coming to her for advice about other things, like whether to dump their boyfriends or what they should do about their friends who betrayed them and whatnot. Ami had been going steady with her boyfriend for more than a year now, which probably was why everyone thought she knew something they didn't. The truth was Masa, her boyfriend, had a apprenticeship at a design firm and what with her work and school and his job she rarely saw him except on the weekend. But still she gave what advice she could and it seemed to help more often than not. 
    So Ami was popular. It wasn't really her fault. And if she seemed aloof every now and again or arrogant, it wasn't because she was being purposefully snooty, it was just that she was so busy helping people she didn't care about with their problems she didn't have any time for her friends. 
    Ami sighed as she folded the last sweater on the display she was working on. She wasn't even sure who her friends were anymore. She hadn't talked to Nabiki or Hoko in months and everyone else she could think of couldn't really be depended on for anything. Like Aki her coworker. She was supposed to come in early tonight so she could go out with Masa on this big dinner he had planned. But she still hadn't shown up. And this was not the first time she had let Ami down either. 
    Ami was starting to get frustrated with everyone asking her things. And the truth was she had started to be short with people without good reasons. She was beginning to develop a reputation as a bit of a bitch. 
    Ami just wanted a vacation. Just to leave the whole mess of high school behind for a while and wig out somewhere where there weren't any people. Instead she had another display to set up and there were three more customers coming in the back door. The martial artist entrance.
    The three customers had blood all over them and a distinct lack of fashion sense. Except for the older woman. Her kimono was simple yet elegant. It was not the garment itself but how it was carried. Still, it was far better fashion than the orange shirt and white shorts that the short red-head was wearing, and certainly better than the black shirt and brown dogi pants the man had on. 
    The redhead was Ranma Saotome. Ami knew all about Ranma. She was practically a celebrity around Furinkan and yet somehow this was different from being "popular". Even though she was a boy half the time Ranma still had friends. And by the way she was acting around the man that came in with her she seemed to have a boyfriend now to. Ami smiled slightly. She had always thought Ranma was more girl than boy. 
    There was something eerily familiar about the man. Or maybe just eerie. His haircut was the weirdest thing Ami had ever seen.
    The blood Ranma and his companions were covered in wasn't all that surprising. Ami had seen that a lot since she started working here. "Someone try to mug you?" She guessed.
    The customers nodded. 
    "Go on to the dressing rooms I'll get something for you to wear while you shop. Don't let anyone else see you. Bad for business you know."
    As they went to the dressing rooms Ami wondered if she could sell this information to Nabiki. Ranma with a boyfriend...It was juicy. Nabiki probably already knew though. Wait a minute, didn't Nabiki and Ranma...?
    Of course Ami had a television, so she had seen what had happened yesterday on the news, but the reality of it hadn't really registered. Ami's eyes went wide as a hand came to her mouth. That haircut...could that man be Nabiki? "Oh my god, is it contagious?!"
    ~~~~~~tendo residence~~~~~~
    Kasumi poured tea first into Tofu's cup and then her own. Sitting down, she blew some of the heat off the tea and sipped slowly, closing her eyes and letting the warmth fill her. There was a slight chill this evening, a pernicious shiver that she couldn't quite quell with warmer clothing. Turning the heater on would be overkill and would waste energy, especially with her and Tofu being the only ones inside. It was a little too early for the furo. This was the best thing.
    "Thanks, Kasumi," Tofu said needlessly. Still Kasumi smiled and nodded her appreciation.
    Kasumi let her thoughts drift. She had been so happy too nights ago, now... It wasn't fair. That's what it came down to. Kasumi realized it was a rather petulant argument, but that was it. She had given up on being a doctor. That dream seemed so far away now. She had decided her family was more important and she did not regret the decision. But then, with Auntie Saotome coming so often and Tofu opening up to her, it made her think she could have more.
    "Do you think we should talk about it?" Tofu asked.
    Kasumi nodded.
    Tofu and she each took a sip of tea before Tofu started. "We don't know exactly what it means. It could just mean that we'll get married. That would be nice wouldn't it?"
    Kasumi shook her head. "The words came with the vision. 'The two will become one' doesn't mean we'll be joined. We'll actually become one person. Either one of us will die, or we'll merge somehow. Either way, we'll be alone again."
    "What happened eleven years ago? Why can't I remember all of it? What's this awakening?" 
    "Who knows?" Kasumi riposted. "I know what it seems like. Armageddon, judgment day, the apocalypse." 
    Tofu gave a small laugh, "That would make Ranma the antichrist."
    Kasumi didn't laugh. "I'm a Christian, Tofu, so I use Christian metaphors. But God's plan for us is often mysterious, and he gave all of us, including any possible antichrists, free will. Regardless of the situation, we have to try to make the right decisions and help others do the same."
    "We're home!" Ranma-chan called out from the side entrance.
    "Speak of the devil," Tofu quipped.
    Kasumi smiled as she got up to answer the door. Tofu was a perpetual goof, but that was one of the reasons she loved him. "Come in!" she called out as she walked past the steps to the doorway.
    Ranma was accompanied by her mother and Nabiki in her boy form. Ranko was wearing a thin blue sweater and a black...no it wasn't a skirt, it was a pair of pants but it was loose enough in the leg and of soft enough material to make the difference academic. "That's a lovely outfit, Ranko." Kasumi noted. 
    "Yeah, we went shopping." Ranma lifted up her bag and Nabiki nodded lifting up his. Nabiki wore a dark green dress shirt over an orange t-shirt tucked into black jeans. He was lanky and attractive despite the haircut, which on a boy made one think of a foppish prince in a period film. Kasumi wondered how Nabiki withstood the experience of shopping as a boy. It had to have at least been different. 
    Nabiki nudged Ranma and she spoke again, "Oh yeah, uh, Nabiki said she was going to stay at Ami's house tonight. This is Hotaru, my er...boyfriend. Is it all right if sh...he stays over?"
    Kasumi couldn't help raising an eyebrow. Even if it was part of a ruse, Ranma claiming someone as his boyfriend was a bit alarming. Kasumi recovered, smiling and playing the game she usually played when someone close to her wanted her to lie. She just pretended it was the truth. This wasn't Nabiki and Ranma, her sister and future brother-in-law, this was her cousin Ranko and her boyfriend. "That's fine, Ranko-chan, but I don't think it would be proper for you to stay in the same room. The house is a little empty right now anyway. You can sleep in Akane's room if you want, and Hotaru-kun can sleep in Nabiki's room, just as long as he doesn't disturb anything. I'm afraid Nabiki-chan is a little fussy about her possessions."
    "Actually..." Ranko grimaced, "Akane and me aren't on the best of terms right now. I think I'll sleep with Auntie Saotome. By the way, if Akane comes back for some odd reason, could you tell her I said sorry?"
    "Of course, Ranko," Kasumi smiled. Ranko usually slept with Akane when Auntie Saotome came to visit. What with the nature of their respective nightmares, Ranko and her mother simply weren't compatible sleep mates. "I think there's still some rope in Grandfather Happosai's room if you need help tucking yourself in."
    "Thanks, Kasumi-oneechan. I'll show Hotaru where Nabiki's room is. Are you okay, Auntie Saotome?"
    "I'm fine, dear, thank you," Nodoka nodded, "I know my way around." 
    Ranko gave her mother one of her sad little looks, the one that showed how much she wished she could hug her mother, and be her child rather than simply some pseudo relative. The look was only there for a second and then it was gone, Ranma replaced it with a polite smile and bowed slightly herself before escorting "Hotaru" upstairs.
    "Tofu and I are having tea, would you care to join us?" Kasumi offered.
    "I wouldn't want to intrude..." Auntie Saotome said putting a hand up.
    "You're a guest, and you look tired. I have enough." Kasumi insisted.
    "No thank you, I am tired and I'd like to get every thing ready for bed early."
    Kasumi smiled. Nodoka was a true Japanese. Wait to be offered three times before accepting any kindness. "If you don't accept, it will just go to waste. Please." Kasumi motioned to the kitchen.
    Nodoka bowed, "Alright, maybe I will have some. There's a chill in the air tonight. Something hot might do me good."
    Kasumi's conversation with Tofu had ended the moment the other's had arrived, but Kasumi hadn't liked the seriousness of it anyway. Paradoxically, having Nodoka there allowed her to be closer to Tofu. She sat next to him, leaning into him and clasping his warm, strong hand in hers. Tofu's most impressive feature were his hands. Strong enough to set a misaligned spine, delicate enough to make the most perfect of stitches. 
    Nodoka asked how things were going, if she and Tofu had set a date, whether Kasumi wanted children. All wonderful questions. Hopeful questions. Maybe there was no hope, but it was nice to pretend, and Kasumi was good at pretending.
    All too soon, the tea ran out, Tofu went back to the clinic, and Nodoka left to get ready for bed. Kasumi was just putting away the dishes when Ranko entered the kitchen. 
    "Kasumi-oneechan," she said, "do you have a minute? I need to talk with you about something."
    "Certainly, Ranma-chan," Kasumi said, figuring there was enough privacy that she could drop the "Ranko".
    Ranma looked at the water heater, the one that broke during one of Nodoka's first visits. "Did mom tell you anything about what happened tonight?" 
    "No, I'm afraid Tofu and I took up most of the conversation. Why? Did something happen?"
    Ranma looked into her eyes now. "We were mugged."
    "Oh my!" Kasumi said. "Are they all right?"
    Ranma grimaced. "I sliced one guy's hands off. Mom's sword got another guy's leg, and Nabiki crushed the third guy's wrist somehow."
    Kasumi was silent. Each injury was a surprise. Ranma's because what with his dislike of weapons it was strange for him to slice anything, and he rarely did something so gruesome to another person before. Nodoka showed almost no talent as far as Kasumi could tell, and Nabiki knew a few self defense moves but she simply lacked the strength to crush anybody's wrist. 
    "Yeah. It's weird, right?"
    Kasumi nodded. "How did this happen?"
    "Mom, I don't know about. Her sword just sort of hovered around and sliced through the guy. But Nabiki and me...we've changed, Kasumi. We've killed. I don't think we're even human anymore."
    "You've killed?"
    Ranma nodded. "I killed Copycat Ken. He killed Hoko and several other people, but he was being controlled by a demon or something. It escaped after I killed him. It was this huge segmented worm thingy with a circular mouth. I sliced through a couple of segments and there was this blue mist. It gave Nabiki the memory of killing Hoko. Copycat used her body to do it you see and now even though she knows she didn't do it, it doesn't matter. It still feels real."
    "You two have gotten really close." Kasumi noted, concentrating on the positive aspect of what she was hearing, rather than attempting to understand it all.
    Ranma nodded. "We're practically the same person. We're just specialized now. She's put all her emotions into me and I've put all my...whatever the opposite of emotions are, I put that into her. That's why she's a guy now and I'm a girl. I couldn't deal with this stuff as a guy."
    "Is there more?"
    "Yes. You know I'm fighting myself just to be here? Part of me wants to escape. Part of me thinks you're just a nice human who'll nonetheless try to trap me. I've joined with the Nekoken. I have control over it now, but in some ways it's worse than before. What I did to that guy... he was an idiot, but he didn't deserve that. I know who I am now, Kasumi, but I�m not Ranma, and Nabiki's not Nabiki. We're something different. It scares both of us." Ranma's eyes were brimming with tears. It was strange, but it was so clear that this fragile, deadly creature had been a part of both Ranma and Nabiki, and yet neither of them would have ever acted this way before.
    Kasumi embraced the red-headed girl. "It's okay," she said, "It's okay."
    "I love you, Kasumi-oneechan. You saved my life...when I was Nabiki. When I was Ranma all I had was a kind stranger to give me comfort, to keep me from going over the edge. I'm afraid, Kasumi. I'm so afraid I'll do something terrible."
    Kasumi wasn't completely sure what Ranma was talking about now, but she held the sobbing girl close to her. "I love you too imoto-chan," she said, because it felt right. "It will be okay, little sister."
    She could feel the girl relax in her embrace as her sobs began to gradually subside. They rocked back and forth in their embrace. Something clicked in Kasumi's head and she said, "No matter what happens, no matter whether you're Ranma, Ranko, Nabiki, or Hotaru, we'll always be family."
    "Thank you, Kasumi-oneesama," Ranma whispered. "Thank you."
    ~~~~~tendo dojo~~~~~
    Hotaru fell on his ass for the third time, cursing out loud. It was so frustrating. He had the kata right there in his mind, but he just couldn't execute it. He didn't have the flexibility or the power, or the muscle memory. It just wasn't there. 
    He didn't have any misconceptions. It was pure luck that got him through that last battle. If the guy with the chains had held out a moment or two more, Hotaru would have run out of energy and gone as limp as a rag doll. His ki didn't work like Ranko's. For some reason he couldn't just let it flow out of him all the time. It was either on full blast or not at all. And after he used it, it took a good minute to recover. 
    He had to get better. He had to or next time...
    Next time he might kill someone...again.
    He felt everything Ranko felt, but it was all oddly warped. He couldn't just let the feeling wash over him like she could. He had to do something. His pain converted direct into anger, and that was something else that was keeping him from performing the kata correctly. Even before Ranma received the curse it was the more feminine, for want of a better term, aspect of him that allowed him to be so graceful and to achieve the peace he attained when performing his katas. Hotaru didn't have even that now, which annoyed him even further. He had given most of his femininity to Ranko once they had gotten back so she could talk with Kasumi. He hoped it worked, and he hoped Ranko was quick about it.
    Hotaru enjoyed being a man more than he had expected, but he kept running into surprising deficiencies.  People just didn't realize how much they needed a balance of masculine and feminine to even function in the world. 
    Hotaru adopted a horse stance and punched the air to work out some frustration. He hated thinking of it as masculine and feminine energy, it seemed so sexist, but what else could he call it? If you had too much of one you were a mad person, all action and no emotion, if you had too much of the other you were a blubbering mess, all emotion and no action. It wasn't good and evil, light and dark. One wasn't better than the other. It was less yin and yang and more like the Korean symbol of umyong. Blue and red embracing in a circle instead of black and white.
    The punching wasn't doing anything for him. He was about to try kicking when he heard a knock at the dojo entrance. He turned to find Shampoo and Ukyo standing in the doorway.
    "What do you want?" He asked, not able to stop himself from being rude. He was a bit upset at Shampoo for trying to steal his...well that was weird wasn't it? It was the cat in him that had the problem. But while he was upset about almost losing his mate the quarrel had been between two female cats over a male. Now Hotaru was the male and Shampoo was still female. The antagonism just didn't have any place to go. Hotaru sucked in air. If he wasn't careful he would start to be attracted to Shampoo. She was still in heat, though she was almost out of it now.
    "Who you?" Shampoo asked a little more breathily than she had probably intended.
    "That depends," Hotaru hedged, "on what your intentions are."
    Ukyo spoke up. "We're here to issue a challenge to Ranma Saotome and Nabiki Tendo."
    "They aren't here," Hotaru snapped. "I'm not sure if they're ever coming back." The words stunned him a bit after he said them, because they seemed true. Unless some other life changing event happened, he didn't see himself becoming Nabiki Tendo again anytime soon. And as for Ranma...Hotaru couldn't even think of Ranko as a guy any more. The concept gave him the willies.
    Ukyo looked at Shampoo, who was rather fixated on Hotaru, then she looked back. "You have a cat curse or something?" She asked.
    "Something like that," Hotaru allowed. 
    "You free tomorrow? I make too too good ramen for you. I learn to make Okanomiyaki too if like..."
    Shampoo made an enticing offer. Her...assets were considerable. Not to mention her huge...tracts of land. And she had the nekoken inside her. And she was in heat. It also didn't help that Shampoo's new short hairstyle and the tight okonomiyaki chef uniform appealed to the libido Hotaru had inherited from Ranma. 
    "Easy, sugar." Ukyo admonished Shampoo. "Remember, it's all pheromones."
    "I like fair moan." Shampoo said in what was almost a trance. She stepped closer. "I want more fair moan."
    Hotaru clenched his eyes shut. Get it together. I have to control this situation. This isn't right. I'm really a girl. I'm Nabiki Tendo, this is just a short term thing and besides I'm with Ranko now and...Hotaru shook his head, Why the hell am I even entertaining this. Just get control of the situation...just. Hotaru opened his eyes. "I'll let you know how to reach Ranma and Nabiki...for a small fee."
    Ukyo's eyebrow arched up. "Ah...I see. So how did you turn male, Nabiki?"
    Damn them. Damn their feminine whiles, Hotaru thought sourly.
    "This...Nabiki?" Shampoo looked disgusted, but not quite disgusted enough.
    Hotaru sighed. "Look, Auntie Saotome is here, so Ranma has to be Ranko, if you remember Ranma's curse changed with his thoughts? We had to do something to keep him from changing. This," Hotaru gestured to himself, "Is the result. By the way, my name's Hotaru Miyazaki while Auntie is here. I'm 'Ranko's' 'boyfriend'." Hotaru made quotation mark hand signs on both "Ranko" and "boyfriend."
    Ukyo nodded slowly. Then a smirk appeared on her face and she finally erupted into laughter. 
"What so funny?" Shampoo asked.
    "Oh..." Ukyo said between guffaws, "how... the mighty...have fallen! Tendo Nabiki, the great manipulator of men forced to be Ranchan's boyfriend!"
    "I wasn't exactly 'forced'" Hotaru grumbled.
    "You used him for a year, but then he ended up beating you at your own game, didn't he? Ranchan never loses! 'Oh please, Nabiki, you big stud you, please help me hide from my mother, won't you?'" Ukyo put on the act, batting her eyes impressively.
    When she stopped, though, Ukyo was serious. "Nabiki, or Hotaru or whoever you want to be. You, are a jackass. You had this whole mystique going, like you knew everything. But you didn't did you? The only thing you had going was that you didn't get involved. You were Switzerland, and you held everybody's bank accounts. Well the bank's closed, now, sugar. You're going to war."
    "Ranko loves me, and I love her. There's no war going on. It's all been decided already" Hotaru countered, but it sounded weak even before Ukyo responded.
    "Funny. That's what I said just before Ranchan and his father ran off with my dowry. You know he never paid me back for that? And all those free okanomiyakis... that adds up, you know. But it was all okay, because he loved me and I loved him. And then one night I see him fucking Miss Switzerland on the evening news. Well I think I'm owed a little vengeance. And Shampoo over here, who's going gaga over you because she got punished with a curse, punished because she didn't want to kill Ranma, because she loved him, even when she thought he was a girl, she's got a nice little score to settle too."
    Ukyo took a paper out of the flap of her uniform and stuck it to the side of the dojo entrance with a throwing spatula. "So, if you happen to see Tendo Nabiki or Saotome Ranma, you tell them to meet us in two weeks at the abandoned lot, in their correct forms, or else they'll be revealed as the honorless, jackass, shitfaced, bastard fucks they are."
    Ukyo turned and left, dragging Shampoo along with her. She had walked almost out of eyesight in the night before Hotaru snapped out of his daze. "Oh...Oh yeah?" he called out, "Well, I never liked your okonomiyaki anyway!" Not quite satisfied with this he cupped his hands around his mouth and yelled "It tastes like paper mache!"
    After she and Shampoo were gone. Ukyo's words remained in the air. Nabiki would have been able to handle that situation so much better. But Hotaru wasn't Nabiki anymore. He looked around the dojo. Why am I here? This isn't me. 
    He looked at his hand, wider, less graceful than his normal one, and felt a surge of panic. He tried turning female, but he couldn't. Ranko took too much. The room seemed to spin. Unconsciously Hotaru sent bright green tendrils of ki away from him. They grasped at walls, but found no purchase, they pulled on the metal of light fixtures of wires, they levitated him a foot away from the floor as he tried to center himself, to gain some sort of control...
    "Control," Hotaru wheezed, eyes clenched as his ki tendrils sputtered out and he began to drift back toward the floor. In the last instant of consciousness before passing out, his ki reserves dangerously low, he said the word once more in an almost inaudible whisper: "Control." 
    ~~~~~author's note~~~~~
    1/18/07- Got this one done a little faster. I was going to put more in this chapter but 31 pages is already getting a bit long for me and this seemed as good a place as any to end. Finally got Nodoka in. Nodoka doesn't seem to be a swordswoman, and yet she carries a sword around with her all the time. Odd. And it seems to get unsheathed at the most convenient times. So I say it's possessed. There's a little more to than that, but it's going to be at least five chapters before I get to the big reveal on that arc. If I'm good I might be able to end this series in 15 chapters. I have a pretty good idea of what's going to happen, at least the major points. 
    It gets weirder.
   


   
   
   
  



 
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