[FFML] [Fanfic][Ranma / X-COM] The Road to Cydonia Chapter 32

Justin Wagner jbraveboy at gmail.com
Sat Jun 13 22:34:24 PDT 2009


As always, Previous chapters of TRTC can be found on FFN
http://www.fanfiction.net/s/2314624/1/The_Road_to_Cydonia

or on my site (which also hosts a UFOpedia and Character Info)
http://www.wagnergrp.com/JBW_Website/Fanfiction/TRTC.htm


-----

For six years, mankind has waged a Secret War against an enemy from
Beyond the Stars. In late December of 2006, the two newly formed martial
arts assault squads, India and Juliet, participated in the elimination
of the last major alien base on Earth. With this bastion removed, the
Sirius Conspiracy crushed, and the loss of the Joketsuzoku village
avenged, only one great obstacle remains: the alien command center on
Cydonia, Mars. Only then can Earth be safe. With that great battle
looming ahead of them, India and Juliet also look inward to their
individual hopes and dreams. This is their story.

-----

From: Lt. Saotome Ranma [mailto: rsaotome at unetco.org]
Sent: Wednesday, December 22, 2006, 06:05
To: Lt. Hibiki Ryouga [mailto: rhibiki at unetco.org]
Subject: Re: Akane

You gotta be kidding man! You're seriously going to do this now?

Fine. Go ahead. Your funeral.

Actually maybe this is for the best. She'll only get madder the more we
put this off. Thanks for at least giving me a little warning. I'll be
sure to be otherwise occupied this afternoon, if ya know what I mean.
Avoidance is also one of a martial artist's skills! I got some stuff of
my own to see to this afternoon anyway.

-RS

Oh, and what's this about some new technique that we can all use? Been
working on something special behind my back, huh? Sounds interesting!
Keep me in the loop, man!

-----

"Martial Arts Calligraphy?"

Cologne reflected on her new guest this morning. Shampoo was not the
only visitor she received in her humble containment cell. Both of her
male students, and even that blind fool, Mousse, had come to check in on
her before. This was Ryouga's first visit that was entirely
professional. The young man sat on the floor across from her, three
folders of documents and research material strewn around him.

He had just finished retelling his story: the story of the Mark of the
Gods.

"Is it familiar to you, Granny?" he asked, using the overly familiar
nickname. Cologne smiled at it; the lost boy was more respectful than
Ranma and Mousse tended to be. 'Granny' was a kinder familiarity than
'old ghoul' by a fair margin. He wore the same basic type of uniform
Cologne had seen Shampoo and the others in so often, except with a
different western-style rank symbol.

"The hermit's name," she spoke up, taking a deep breath. "What was it?"

"Shigenosuke of the Kimen School. I never learned much more than that."

"I thought so," Cologne replied, pouring herself a cup of tea. It had
been very kind of the lost boy to bring some. The amenities in Alien
Confinement did leave much to be desired, especially for an old woman of
her age and delicacy.

"You already know some of his story," she continued. "Our village never
had contact with any actual martial arts calligraphy masters. Contrary
to what you may think, all of us old folks don't necessarily know each
other from back in the day. I never met this Shigenosuke myself."

Ryouga's expression darkened a bit with dejection.

"I do know of him, however," the Amazon elder added, bolstering his
spirits somewhat. "When I was young, I heard of a Japanese man who
caused a schism within his strange school of martial arts. As you know,
martial arts calligraphy is a style that means to infuse the spirit and
body with strength and discipline through precise, ordered, and artistic
forms. These were expressed externally and strictly practiced through
the art of calligraphy itself."

The concept was not as farfetched as it first appeared. Masterful
calligraphy even under ideal conditions required fine motor control,
much preparation, and mental focus. These were all traits shared with
martial arts. When the object was to disrupt another's technique,
successful application of martial arts calligraphy required
resourcefulness, the ability to plan steps ahead, the speed and precise
control to make strokes under adverse conditions, and the creativity to
attack and defend at the same time, all while accomplishing an
objective.

In other words, calligraphy became an allegory for war.

"Shigenosuke was a radical. He believed that the art of calligraphy
could be used more directly. He traveled the world, studying foreign
arts: tribal tattoos from the South Seas, war paint from ancient Europe
and Africa, and the writings of the Near East. He refined his art and
returned to Japan, only to be deemed an outcast and a heretic by his
school."

Sadly, it was a common story. Cologne knew all too well how old masters
became entrenched in their ways and resistant to change, especially when
it directly challenged the worldview they had devoted so many decades of
their lives to. It was the inevitable fate of true geniuses to forge
their own destinies and to go against the proverbial grain. Cologne knew
first hand that many suffered for it.

As Perfume had, years ago.

"After that, the story is vague."

"The others," Ryouga filled in from there. "The ones I contacted in the
surviving school say that he tried to create a branch of the art, but
something went wrong. Shigenosuke went into self imposed exile. No one
heard from him in half a century."

"Until you stumbled into him in the mountains," Cologne said, nodding
sagely at the twist of fate, "No doubt an example of your rather unique
direction sense at work."

Ryouga let out a loud 'hrumph' He obviously saw it differently. Cologne
almost reproached the young man. How many strange martial arts masters
had he just 'bumped into' at just the right moment over the last couple
years? How many unusual techniques had he picked up? How often had he
appeared just in time to save someone, or alternatively, to thwart
someone else? If he truly simply "got lost" then the chances of these
things occurring would be miniscule. Cologne, old as she was, did not
believe in simple coincidence.

Was the Hibiki sense of direction drawn to danger?

Or was it drawn to opportunity?

The two were very easily mistaken.

"Which brings us to the Mark of the Gods and your little adventure with
Ranma in removing it," Cologne said, skipping to the main point of her
guest's visit. He wasn't here to sip tea and reminisce, after all.

"From your description, it worked as advertised," she added. "You became
quite formidable."

"Ranma was nothing to me," he answered, but his voice was tinged with
regret of his own. For another man, it would probably have been a proud
moment: standing untouched, invincible, with one's hated rival beaten
and at the mercy of his better. Many people - like Pantyhose Taro, Herb,
Saffron, even Mousse or Shampoo - would have probably used their great
power to destroy their enemy then and there.

"You could have killed him," Cologne stated.

"Yes. I suppose I could have," Ryouga admitted, settling his chin into
his right hand, elbow propped against his knee. "Not that there would
have been any point. Beating Ranma like that wasn't... isn't what I
want."

"You gave up this power..." The ancient Amazon took another sip of hot
tea. "It isn't something many would do."

"Hm." Ryouga made another depreciating huff. "Wouldn't you?"

Cologne smiled brightly at the compliment. "I'm flattered that you think
I would. In truth, no one can answer that question honestly. The allure
of power is hard to resist, even for the best of us."

"It didn't help that the thing looked so stupid," Ryouga replied,
deadpan and serious, tapping his fingers against his brow line, "I mean,
couldn't it have been a dragon or something? Like a dragon coiling
around a skull - a flaming skull! - with a tiger in its mouth? Something
like that?"

Cologne just stared at him.

"What?" he asked suddenly self conscious.

"I'll take your word for it, sonny."

"It was just an example..."

"Regardless," Cologne interrupted and raised her one remaining hand to
signal their moving on. "It seems that you have not entirely turned your
back on this Mark of the Gods. Tell me: do you really intend to use it
now, after all this time?"

"I... do," Ryouga replied, but he sounded far from certain. "I just want
to be sure it works. I've tried to recreate it based on what the old man
used on me and the notes UNETCO acquired from the other calligraphy
school. I think I've got it, but... I just want to be sure."

"It seems your uncertainty is rooted in more than just your ability to
execute this technique."

The lost one ran a hand through his hair.

"This isn't just for me," he tried to explain his rationale. "Konatsu is
hurt, and people died because we weren't strong enough. What if someone
else dies in the next mission? Or the one after that? We all have to
become more than we currently are, and this is the surest way to do it!
If we all had this Mark, Granny, we'd be unstoppable!"

"Would you?" she asked, rhetorically. "Were you unstoppable when you had
it?"

"Mostly," was his answer, "I mean, it had a weakness, but..."

Cologne cocked her head, silently asking him to go on.

Instead, he lowered his head. When he continued, his voice was more
subdued, "One little weakness. But you can't deny we'd be stronger than
we are now."

Cologne put down her tea cup and folded her hand over her lap.

"A long time ago in China, one of our Elders, Bra Shu, created a
powerful artifact. She was a powerful woman with a great deal of
potential, and in her hands, the artifact made her almost invincible.
She picked fights that she knew she could win, and even led a campaign
against the Musk. She won many battles and duels and with each one her
acclaim grew."

Cologne continued, "In each one, she used her artifact, which she took
to calling Bra Shu's Glory. Finally, she confronted the Lord of the Musk
himself. This was the great, great grandfather of the Herb you know.
Like all his line, he was also named Herb. He found a way to counter Bra
Shu's Glory after watching her use it, and when he took it from her, Bra
Shu became helpless before him. Herb's guards seized her and took her
away as they did many of our sisters in that battle. The Musk still have
her artifact, though it may or may not still work without its maker.
Their name for it, which we soon also adopted, was not Bra Shu's Glory."

Cologne could see that her guest already guessed the point of this
story.

"It was Bra Shu's Folly," she concluded.

When Ryouga didn't reply, she explained her thoughts on the matter.

"As Matriarch, I know much of the artifacts our people created or
collected over our long history. A seat on the Nyuchezu Council of
Elders was always reserved for one who could preside over the Forbidden
Arsenal. Fa Nu, 'Fan,' was our last Elder to hold that position. She
believed, as I do, that it was best for some techniques and some
artifacts to remain Forbidden, not just because of their danger, but
because they encouraged spiritual apathy and decay."

"As martial artists, we use tools in our Art," she pointed out,
lecturing now. "That young okonomiyaki chef uses her spatulas; Shampoo
is similarly capable of using a great many weapons. You have your Iron
Cloth, and Mousse's entire fighting style depends on the various things
hidden on his person. These weapons all have advantages and handicaps,
but there is a difference between them and what you have here."

She jabbed a bony finger at the carefully outlined smiley face on the
paper before her.

"You know exactly what I mean," she remarked, setting her hand back down
on her leg. "Even Mousse can throw his weapons away and fight with
something else. However, the man or woman who uses this tattoo will be
bound to it. Physically, they may become the strongest and fastest
martial artist alive, but spiritually, they will be empty. This
strength, potent as it may be, is false and hollow to the core. It is a
short cut that provides power now and nothing later."

Having finished to her satisfaction, she watched the lost boy carefully.
She knew he had to feel the same way. He had rejected the Mark for just
that reason. Deep down, he understood that it wasn't how a true martial
artist gained power. This particular technique was taboo for good
reason.

A Mark that gave you the power of a God?

Cologne was disgusted by the very idea. One could not mass produce art!
One could not engineer a masterpiece on a factory floor or on a copy
machine. True mastery, true power, came from the eternal uphill struggle
for superiority and survival. It was a long, virtually endless staircase
to the top of a mountain, to a peak that no man or woman could reach.
Perfection was a meaningless word. What was it worth, balanced against
adversity and determination?

Ryouga sat opposite her, taciturn and surrounded by his taboo research.
He said nothing, and even his face was hidden by his dark black hair.
Cologne could see past that, into his very aura. He knew full well what
this technique was, and he wanted an excuse not to use it. She only
hoped that she'd given him what he wanted from this meeting.

"That," he finally said. "That's irrelevant. Will it work?"

He slid the paper forward.

"Will it work, Granny?" he asked again.

Cologne sighed.

No one could say she hadn't tried.

-----

The Road to Cydonia
Chapter XXXII
New Beginnings

-----

Written by:
Capn Chryssalid
jbraveboy at gmail.com

-----

"Working hard?"

Shampoo turned her head to see an unexpected guest. Of course, Kasumi
had every right to be in the base's medical areas - she worked there
after all, so really it was Shampoo who was the unexpected guest in the
older girl's domain. Still, Shampoo knew she had probably spent at least
four or five hours in here over the last two days working on Konatsu's
situation and she hadn't probably only seen a couple glances of the
Tendo sister in that time.

Now, she stood next to Konatsu, carefully looking over his body. The
"legendary kunoichi" was out of stasis and lying flat on a reinforced
medical bed hooked up to general life support. Additionally, a series of
needles now stuck out from an assortment of pressure points on his body.
Shampoo knew there were currently twenty one in all; she was the one who
had put them there after all. Many also had small paper tags attached
with her personal hand written notes on them describing the point, its
significance, and the series of pressure points it was a part of.

"I wonder if he's dreaming," Kasumi said, gently running a finger by the
needle sticking out just behind and above the zygomatic arch, above the
right cheek. A nearby electrode fed into a silent EEG machine.

"He isn't," Shampoo corrected her. Not for the first time, she was glad
to be able to converse intelligently in English. Japanese was just so...
hard! It still frustrated her that she spoke like an idiot in that
language; especially since Mousse had picked it up so readily.

"Technically, he's in a state of very light sleep," she explained. "The
technique used on him was... well, it's complicated."

Kasumi nodded sadly.

"It... it was Doctor Tofu," she asked. "Wasn't it?"

Shampoo sat uncomfortably in her chair. While she wasn't a regular in
that affair back in Nerima, she knew about Kasumi and the good doctor.
She had worked under Tofu for over a month at his clinic, and she had
seen the way he lost his senses when Kasumi dropped by. Even the mention
of the Tendo sister could drive the man into mushy incoherence. His
feelings on the matter were obvious, but Kasumi's were more mysterious.
Were they reciprocated, or did she just see him as a good friend?

Either way, Kasumi probably deserved an answer.

"It was," Shampoo confirmed. It didn't matter how Kasumi had figured
that out, or if she had simply guessed. Who else could do this to a man?
Shampoo suddenly wondered if it would have been more polite to tack on
an apology after telling the other girl that her old friend was the
enemy who had nearly killed one of their own?

"I know something happened to him, when those creatures... took him.
He's probably so confused and hurt that he doesn't know what he's doing
anymore," Kasumi thought out loud.

Shampoo had to bite back a retort. To her, Tofu's current nature was
anything but "hurt and confused."

"At least," Kasumi continued. "That's what I tell myself. I just can't
bear the thought of him as one of them."

"They are as close to evil as I've ever seen," Shampoo replied, hoping
she sounded at least a little sympathetic. This sort of stuff wasn't her
forte. "They take the best of us and they twist it. That's all they do.
That's all they are."

"Shampoo," Kasumi began, taking a few seconds to compose her thoughts.
"Do you think... that next time... you could bring him back? That he
could be saved, like your great grandmother?"

The Amazon wanted to tell her 'yes' - that he could be saved and that he
would be. She wanted to even though she knew it would be a lie. Cologne
was a special case, since her mind had been copied at the moment she
broke under the alien's will. Tofu was probably as irredeemable as
either Cologne's clone or that Ayabe man. Shampoo had seen with her own
eyes how far-gone the man's transformation was. There wasn't much human
left in him anymore.

"Maybe," she half-lied. It was unlikely, but there was always hope.

Kasumi seemed to already know what that answer really meant.

"Thank you, Shampoo," Kasumi politely responded.

"Were you..." The younger girl hesitated for a second, but pressed
forward with the question. It felt like the time, and she was curious.
"Were you two... together?"

Kasumi sighed softly and sat down in a chair opposite Shampoo, with
Konatsu between them. The elder Tendo sister always wore a contented or
at least forbearing smile; Shampoo couldn't remember ever seeing her
frown or scowl or even look distressed. At the worst, she was
uncomfortable, but even then only under truly trying conditions. Even
now, Kasumi wore a forlorn expression replete with the barest hint of a
smile. Perhaps, Shampoo guessed, she was remembering better times?

"I know he felt very strongly for me," Kasumi admitted, an inkling of
guilt to her voice. "He was always very kind, and I had known him since
I was a little girl. He was a good man, but... very private. When I was
your age, I thought he would approach father about arranging something,
but he never did. I don't know why."

"Men are stupid," Shampoo explained with sage-like advice. "Who knows
why they do anything?" Then she gave the still unconscious Konatsu a
strange look. "This one, too. He wouldn't be in this mess if he hadn't
acted like such a dumb male."

Kasumi also looked over at the poor boy. "Do you mind if I ask what
happened?"

"There isn't much to say," Shampoo began, but told her anyway.

--

Doctor Tofu wasn't breathing. It was eerie to watch him, even after so
much dodging and counterattacking, stand there and not even be short of
breath. Just the opposite; if he was breathing, it was calmly and
through his nose. A long tear in his alien habit revealed a collection
of coarse almost-blue flesh of the sort one would see on a frostbitten
corpse dug up after an avalanche. He had taken a bad hit there from one
of Ryu's attacks but no more than a few drops of dark red blood stained
his clothes.

With a thunderous crash, Lime landed, wielding a massive weapon in one
hand. The Musk was inhumanly strong, even by the standards of superhuman
martial artists. His armor was heavier than that of anyone else in the
hangar, and his current weapon of choice was truly a Big Fucking Gun.
Someone had apparently had the smart idea of equipping the man with a
refitted plasma cannon of the sort normally reserved for HWPs. Unlike
the Gatling gun, Lime had been more sparing with his shots implying that
even he only carried a limited supply of ammunition for the beast.

"Quit moving around!" The Musk warrior roared, immediately opening fire.
A green lance of plasma erupted with the fury and force of a solar
flare, slashing into the spot where Tofu had just been standing. Alien
alloys, under such extreme heat, didn't properly melt. Instead they
shattered like a glass, spraying superheated gas and crystal in every
direction.

Tofu moved like a ghost, appearing behind the large Musk fighter, only
to have to duck and flip out of the way as Ryu defended the bigger man's
flank. India Squad's demolitions man slashed his arms, unleashing a fan
of vacuum blades and following up with a half of clip of weapons fire
from his sidearm. From the side, Konatsu joined in, dashing at speeds an
Olympic runner would envy while unloading from another salvo from his
plasma pistol.

"Got ya!" Ukyou yelled, swinging her battle spatula just as Tofu jumped,
trying to avoid the barrage. It was only the briefest of moments, but he
was helpless and unable to dodge. The one time chef twisted the weapon
in her hands, aiming to drive the sharpened edge of the blade into the
Doctor's belly.

Tofu's arm snaked out at an odd angle, palm facing the incoming blade.

Ukyou let out a surprised squeak as a telekinetic push sent it flying
off course with her still holding on. She spun wildly through the air,
managing to only get off a trio of thrown spatulas. Tofu caught them in
midair with one hand as he used another telekinetic push to shoot
himself out of the way of another incoming wave of green plasmatic
death.

He landed and immediately twirled around, throwing Ukyou's weapons at
Shampoo. The Amazon barely dodged; she had been trying to line up a
clean shot, but Tofu was so fast and erratic. One of the secrets had
been revealed in the flurry of combat: he had something like an
Ethereal's telekinesis, allowing him unnatural mobility in the air. This
meant that he could maneuver without respect to momentum, balance or
general inertia.

"We need to pin him down!" Shampoo heard Ryu over the team-com.

"I volunteer," Konatsu immediately replied. "I'm the only one who can
use replacements in close combat."

"You're not going in alone. We'll both do it," Ryu decided for them. No
one argued. "Lime: cover us! Shampoo, Ukyou, take the shot."

"Right!" "Yes!"

"Go!"

The two boys charged in towards the corrupted Doctor Tofu. Flushed out
of one position by Lime's plasma cannon fire, Tofu abruptly changed
direction, heading towards the two incoming martial artists. Shampoo
observed the clash carefully: watching, waiting, knowing Ukyou was still
getting into position. Ryu and Konatsu dashed back and forth, their
paths crisscrossing and using the other to hide their attacks.

A plasma blast nicked Tofu, blasting a chunk out of his shoulder that
sent bits of blood and flesh burning in the air. Shampoo caught her
breath - that one had been so close! Konatsu closed first, pirouetting
around Tofu as his hands, both of them, unleashed a torrent of paper.
Ryu flipping over the melee, arms and legs slashing as he fired vacuum
blades down and into the storm.

Tofu had a very small window of escape, but rather than take it,
something struck up and into the air. It seemed impossible, but it was a
foot. A human foot. With blinding speed, it tagged Ryu on the leg in two
spots. The Yamasenken master cursed and painfully crashed to the ground,
unable to land on just one leg from the angle he'd been on.

Konatsu, meanwhile, disappeared in a cloud of smoke. Shampoo could see
the real him emerged from it, roll out to the side, and jab up with a
bladed weapon. He was fast, but still not fast enough. The foot came
down, and Konatsu tried to block. The limb abruptly stopped, and a
second later Konatsu was in the air. As the smoke cleared, Shampoo could
see Tofu, his leg at a strange angle, but his body was still a blur.

"I won't fail!" Konatsu yelled, and they all heard him. It was then that
he did it: instead of jumping away and trying again, he dove right for
Tofu. Grabbing the man's outstretched leg, and wrapping one of his arms
in wire, the ninja boy finally managed to pin their elusive quarry and
spin him around so the shinobi was at his back. It should have been a
safe enough place.

But then Tofu's other hand, his entire other arm, twisted around in its
socket. Like a disjoined contortionist, Tofu's left arm literally spun
around in its joints, the hand jabbing at Konatsu. Still, he held on,
and a second later, Tofu's body jerked. Shampoo cursed; she had been
aiming for his head, but the doctor had warped his body enough to get a
hand up and in the way. The laser tore through flesh and bone and even
cut into part of the alien fabric around Tofu's head.

But it just barely missed.

Ukyou's battle spatula flew in, landing between Konatsu and his
opponent. Ukyou was already standing on the hilt, and as it fell to the
side she spread one arm down and fired a point blank hinode. A blinding
flask of light engulfed Tofu, but a moment later, the okonomiyaki chef
found herself on the ground. Tofu stood, smoking and missing most of his
right hand, his foot on her chest.

What he would have done from there, Shampoo could only guess. Her next
shot just hit his back, and then Lime was in the mix, howling as he
tossed a giant plate of alien alloy like a discus. It sliced through the
air just above Ukyou's prone form, forcing Tofu to jump to avoid being
cut in half. It had an effect on the girl it had saved, too.

"Holy shit!" Ukyou cursed, flattened out against the ground.

"Where is he?!" Shampoo yelled, searching with the sights of her rifle.

"You shot off my hand."

Behind her!

Shampoo spun around, fired, and jumped away just as she felt something
hard and sharp - like a pinprick - jab into the skin of her arm. Even
through the armor, Tofu was somehow able to use pressure point strikes.
He was... he was a monster! Landing on her feet, Shampoo could see him,
just standing there.

His face was inhuman; the blackened, scarred eye sockets looked almost
like he had gouged out his eyes with his own hands. The fingers on his
one remaining arm seemed unnaturally long, more like claws than
anything. The ripped, burned, and blasted Ethereal's robe he wore curled
and roiled around him like a cloak of orange and red flame.

"Well," he continued. "One hand isn't so bad. Five fingers and ten toes
are more than enough to deal with you children."

--

Kasumi could see Shampoo's face whiten as she finished describing the
fight. It was... graphic. The older girl knew she probably didn't look
much better. The Tofu that Shampoo described was nothing like the kind
man she knew. In all her years knowing him, Kasumi had never seen him
even raise his voice in anger.

She knew he wasn't perfect. Tofu, like many men, worked so hard to prove
himself... and to prove that his practice was legitimate. She knew how
silently frustrated and unhappy he could sometimes be when he talked
about how he only had elderly patients to look after, and how his peers
in the medical community thought so little of his brand of holistic and
alternative medicine. At those times, he said, he was always happiest
that she came by to brighten his day.

"Kasumi!" she remembered him saying, his face lighting up even as his
glasses misted over. "How nice to see you!"

How could her dear friend have become the monster Shampoo described?

"It... it isn't him anymore," Shampoo concluded, voice grave. "There's
too much of them inside him."

Kasumi's pained silence spoke volumes.

Shampoo noticed, and adjusted her tone to sound more conciliatory.
"Sorry, I... I probably just made you feel worse."

"No," Kasumi replied, even though it was true: she did feel worse.
"Thank you... for telling me."

Shampoo looked away from the older girl, unsure what to say.

"Konatsu," Kasumi said, changing the topic for both their sakes. "I
think what he did was very brave."

"Very stupid," Shampoo grumbled. "He knew he couldn't fight that man in
close. Not for very long."

Between them, Konatsu breathed quietly, his chest rising and falling
with a steady rhythm. Kasumi appraised the boy: he did seem physically
fine. The problem was inside, under the surface, where no one could see.
She thought back to the others she had seen in similar fates, those poor
men and women who had been on the losing end of psionic attacks. With
all her heart, she hoped something, anything, could be done to help
them.

"Do you think you can bring him back?" Kasumi dared to ask. It was the
question more than a few skeptical doctors had been asking in the
medical center of Seiran Mountain.

Shampoo slowly nodded. "I think so."

Kasumi's mood lightened considerably. "Really!"

"With great grandmother's help we identified the problem," Shampoo said,
now giving the unconscious Konatsu her full attention. "But fixing it is
harder. I think I've found a way, but... but I'm not sure. I'll need
some help to do it, and if something goes wrong..."

"What?"

Shampoo bit her lower lip. "If anything goes wrong, he'll die."

Kasumi touched the Amazon's shoulder, offering comfort and assurance.

"I have faith in you," she said, simply. "We all do."

The older woman could see Shampoo took the praise but didn't let any of
it go to her head. She had been through a lot, but it was good to see
her working so hard to help someone she hadn't even met until they came
here. The fact of the matter was that they - the people under this
mountain - were all they had left now. Shampoo had never had anyone
except her village, Cologne, Mousse and Ranma. Kasumi had sometimes
worried about how the Chinese girl was doing in Japan, especially with
that atrocious speech problem she had and her somewhat anti-social
demeanor.

"I can do it," the younger girl spoke with determination. "I won't let a
comrade die!"

Kasumi forced a smile on her face, buoyed by Shampoo's words. They had
lost so much; lost precious people they would never forget but they had
found new ones, too. Shampoo would save her friend.

Kasumi was sure of it.

-----

Doctor Tofu glared at the three missing fingers of his right hand: most
of the hand itself had been burned clean off leaving him with a
shriveled husk and a barely functional thumb and index finger. But it
was of little consequence in the long run. The body was, by its nature,
frail and weak. In time he would overcome all those inherited frailties.
This little injury would not inconvenience him for long.

In the meantime, he basked in the glow of The Mind.

Yes: this was what he had yearned for, to be a part of something so much
greater than himself, so much greater than the limitations of human
science and society. All was well in the totality of The Mind. Human
trappings like love, joy, shame and sorrow were not anathema. They
simply paled in comparison to the purpose that suffused and guided him.
Neither Cologne nor Ayabe truly understood how fortunate they both were
to be among the select few.

The other Trenchards were more like him: they understood.

Finally, he was where he truly belonged.

Floating nearby, Hollow Eyes and another Ethereal said nothing. When not
active, Ethereals entered a form of suspended animation that could last
for centuries. They did not sleep. They merely chose to efficiently
function as either active or inactive. It was... admirable. Humans could
achieve such a state as well, if they worked hard enough. Other
Trenchards had come close, but Tofu would become perfect. He would
become everything that was expected of him and more.

Sitting on the floor, Cologne grumpily worked on fixing her skin so
reflect the flawless complexion she so adored. When would she learn, he
wondered? Ayabe, meanwhile, relaxed against a wall, legs crossed and
tapping his index finger against his knee. That one was simply ignorant,
Tofu decided, but he would cease clinging to human affections and
mannerisms in time. Cydonia would be what they both needed to finally
cast aside the remnants of their anachronistic vanity.

In the mean time, they waited.

The long walk along the ocean floor had been a unique experience. The
darkness of the night had nothing on the lightless depths of the sea.
Sea creatures had naturally shied away from them, making the trip
uneventful in that respect, but the experience of going hours without a
breath had been truly invigorating. Only the perfect vacuum of space
could be more refreshing! Truly, this was what it meant to surpass the
limitations of a "human!"

Secure now in the long submerged large scout, they had only to bide
their time. Very soon, they would have their opportunity to scoot off
planet, shooting up from the depths of the ocean and into space. Their
pilot had suspended himself here, just in case of emergency, for almost
a year. Compared to that, a little patience on their part was hardly a
lot to ask for. Still.

Soon.

Very soon!

-----

"I see only a few familiar strokes in this one. These look like two
Yangqin Hooks. The inverted Pecking Slants on the sides act as focusing
points for the abdominal chakra points. These three points look like
they create a triangular nexus around the Manipura. What I don't
understand is why the Mark would redirect energy from the Muladhara and
Svadisthana to the sides like this."

Cologne examined the calligraphy diagram carefully. It was very strange,
now that she had taken the time to look at it in depth. Naturally,
martial arts calligraphy was very different in approach than the arts
she was familiar with from the village, but there seemed to be a few
theoretical similarities. It shouldn't have seemed so foreign, so alien,
to her sensibilities. She and her wayward pupil had been reviewing much
what he had learned and worked on over the last month in the subject,
but this last diagram, the third and newest version of his "Mark of the
Gods," was truly a strange.

"I think it has something to do with maintaining a yin/yang state,"
Ryouga theorized, discretely interrupting her and pointing to two
notations on the side of the page. "Tsewang used a similar principle to
isolate yin and yang around the Manipura using deep meditation."

"Tsewang used circles. Circular motion," Cologne corrected him, and
pointed to the two extremes of the stupid looking smiley face. "This
Mark is designed around an oval. It must be using four overlapping
circles, here, here, here and here."

"I don't think it's an oval, though." Ryouga looked up at her, a hint of
mischief in his eyes at knowing something she didn't. "I think it's an
ellipse."

For once, Cologne was a bit stumped. While a knowledge of geometry was
important for the sort of sealing techniques the Amazons used, like the
Demon Seal, it was an art based on perfect circles, triangles, and the
symmetry of the human body. She had never heard of an ellipse based
chakra or ki seal. It was as foreign as... making wontons out of turkey
or building a house out of paper. Sure, it could be done, but it just
wasn't.

"When I did the math, the exact center of the... of the eyes... were
also the focus points of the ellipse, and where the two circles
intersected with the major axis they formed another ellipse!"

He pulled out another piece of paper and superimposed it over the other
one of the Mark of the Gods version III. This paper displayed an ellipse
on an axis with two circles centered on the foci; these were the two
points on either side of the center where the sum of the distances from
any point was constant and equal to the major diameter. Over that were
added two more ellipses, one connected from the inner facing of the left
circle and the outer facing of the right where they intersected with the
major axis. The other ellipse was its opposite, bound by the outer
facing of the left circle and the inner facing of the right.

It matched the 'face' of the Mark of the Gods perfectly.

"When I discovered that he had to be using ellipses as the base of the
design instead of circles or triangles, I was baffled. No one else used
ellipses like this in any school I knew of. Everyone I contacted about
it told me that I had to be wrong and that the design needed to use
circles or it would become unstable." Ryouga snapped his fingers, as if
the flash of insight had come to him now instead of then.

"That's when I asked some of the tech heads around here," he said, and
Cologne knew he had to be referring to some of the western educated
scientists on the base. "I had a friend run the diagram through a
computer simulation, and it proved that the basic seal in the Mark of
the Gods wasn't a circle."

The lost boy traced his fingers along the inner ellipses, index fingers
moving in a rough orbit opposite each other.

"It resembled something called a 'two body rotation' with two equal
masses orbiting a common point. That point, a barycenter or center of
mass, is right on top of the Manipura. I think the Mark converts yin and
yang from the typical circular motion into a two body rotation around
the Manipura chakra point."

Cologne pondered this; it was a peculiar concept. It was generally
accepted within the village's martial art tradition that the rotation of
yin and yang within the body, generated at different chakra points,
produced usable qi (or ki). It was like a dynamo, or for a less
technical example, it was akin to a crank. The perfect rotation of the
two opposing forces (the yin and yang) turned the crank (representing
the balance of the chakra points), producing a force that could then be
used (the ki). This was generally thought to be like two circles moving
around a central point.

If Ryouga was right, then the Mark of the Gods...

"I see," Cologne said, studying the diagrams intently. "No wonder
Shigenosuke was rejected by his school. No wonder he was called a
heretic! It wasn't just his techniques. If the Mark works like you
describe, if this man was correct... then the elliptical circulation of
energy around a point may well be the more efficient state! It may even
be the natural state of circulation in the body! The entire philosophy
of circular generation of ki could be wrong!"

"But that... that can't be!" She suddenly felt dizzy and had to steady
herself with her hand. "The circular generation of ki has been with us
for three thousand years! It can't be wrong!"

'Destroy the papers!' The thought came with all the force and speed of a
freight train. 'Destroy the papers! No one has to know!'

Cologne closed her eyes.

No: that was foolish. Not only because Ryouga knew it, and not because
the boy probably had copies of everything he wrote, but because what was
the point? Even if, even if, all that she had learned had been...
incomplete or incomprehensive, what good would trying to uphold it by
force be? It was that same thought that you don't have to be wrong; that
you don't have to admit that you made a mistake, which had driven
Shigenosuke and his theories into exile in the first place.

Change.

Change was hard to accept.

"I think the Mark will work," Ryouga spoke up, bringing her back to the
here and now.

Slowly, hesitantly, Cologne nodded in agreement.

"The theory has some merits," she conceded. "And it already worked on
you before. But can you use it on yourself? Or on others? It takes years
to master normal calligraphy."

"I don't suppose you could learn it?" he asked, already knowing the
answer.

"This art is very different from the sealing techniques known to our
village," Cologne replied. "I would guess that you are already more
proficient in it than I am. However, even if you can make the strokes
with absolute accuracy, can you seal the ink in place properly? I can
see without trying that your aura is still conflicted and your mind is
in turmoil, no matter how much you try and hide it."

He frowned. "It isn't that bad."

"In your state of mind," the old woman answered, inclining her head
towards the diagrams they had just looked over, "This..." referring to
the technique with some disapproval in her tone, "Could have potentially
devastating results, improperly applied. You could easily cripple
yourself or others."

Ryouga was without a reply for a few seconds.

"Some," he finally said, "Would say that power always comes with risks
attached."

"That is very true," Cologne agreed. "But don't forget why you want that
power in the first place. You've learned a great deal, you've improved,
simply by learning the nature of this technique. Don't throw all that
away by actually using it. I'd place good money on Shigenosuke's tragedy
being the same as Bra Shu's."

The lost boy's eyes tightened in thought.

"Learn from the mistakes of us old folks," she added with a wry smile.
"It's why we're here, after all."

-----

Genma found his son to be in a foul mood, even before Ryu arrived. They
were using the Tendo Dojo for the night's special business, and the
elder Saotome arrived with his wife only to find his heir and only
son... pouting. Naturally, he'd responded by reproaching the boy for
being so surly and unmanly in the presence of his esteemed mother and
promptly gotten punted across the room.

The boy never did have respect for his elders.

"Ranma, son," Nodoka spoke up, stepping between the two martial artists
to mediate before a one sided fight broke out. "What's wrong?"

Ranma, for all his age and new found maturity, huffed irritably.

"Nothin," he replied, though the sound of his voice and the frown on his
face made it clear that it was anything but. Genma watched his son with
disapproval; it wasn't like the boy to be touchy like this. He was
usually carefree, even in the face of danger and difficulty. About the
only things that really depressed him were losing in front of others
and... ah! That had to be it, then. Girl trouble.

What a foolish thing to let get to him, though.

"Ranma," Nodoka said, motherly tone daring him to be evasive.

The pigtailed fighter glowered at his father. "Just cleaning up this
stupid old panda's mess, as usual. That's all."

Nodoka plainly hadn't guessed what the trouble was, but she stood by her
son, waiting for him to explain. Genma rather regretted bringing her.
They were here on family business, and she was here as a wife of the
Saotome Clan, solely to bear witness to the goings on of the family
style. Ever since she had caught up with her son a few months ago,
Nodoka had been trying hard to play catch-up for the years she'd been
away from her boy. Except he wasn't her boy.

He was Genma's heir.

Ranma was a master of the Saotome School of the Strongest Martial Art on
Earth. He did not need to be coddled or babied. Nodoka had to understand
that: that the Art came first before all else! Unfortunately, her
reunion with her son and her decision that he had indeed grown to be a
'man among men' paradoxically threatened to make their son soft. As
usual, it would be up to the boy's father to keep him on course.

"It's Ucchan," he said, eventually yielding to his mother's concern and
curiosity.

"Did you two have a fight?" Nodoka asked before Genma could speak up.

"No. It wasn't like that," Ranma answered, head bowed. "A while back she
said that she wanted to put off the engagement... but today she said she
wants to see other people. She wanted to make sure I was ok with it. I
think she dumped me! For real!"

"I'm so sorry, son," his mother gently placed a hand on his crossed
arms. "But maybe this is for the best. Ukyou seemed like a nice girl,
but the engagement was made under unusual circumstances. Besides, aren't
you going to marry Akane?"

"I dunno," Ranma sounded unsure. "Maybe. Probably."

"The schools must be united," Genma interrupted, standing tall with his
hands resting on his belt, thumbs curled under the heavy black fabric.
"It is your responsibility to secure the foundation of a new generation
of Anything Goes Martial Arts! Out of all of us, Ranma, only you have
the potential to surpass The Master."

Ranma's brows knitted up in frustration.

"I ain't gonna marry someone just 'cause you say so!" The pigtailed boy
pointed at his father. "Akane and I are gonna take it slow and see how
things work out. Don't start thinking ya can pull another wedding out
under us without warning!"

Genma glowered back, not budging an inch on the subject.

"Which reminds me," Ranma continued to grill his old man. His Japanese,
much less formal than his English, betrayed his vexation. "Ucchan says
her father wants the dowry back that ya stole. She said ya can expect an
invoice soon and that ya better pay up if ya know what's good for ya!"

Genma had already spoken to Ukyou's father about the situation with the
dowry he'd "misplaced" a decade ago. In fact, they had spoken at length.
Kazuo still had one heck of a right hook, and the Saotome patriarch had
sported a shiner for several days. With Ranma almost certain to marry
Akane, Genma had been willing to compromise on the issue. The problem
was that Kazou had an inflated sense of how much that little food cart
had been worth.

He could buy a car with the money Kazuo expected him to pay!

"Hrumph!" was Genma's dismissive response to that matter.

"Great," Ranma snorted in open disgust. "Meaning I'll probably have to
foot most of the bill."

"You never intended to settle down with that girl anyway," Genma
reminded his ungrateful heir. "I don't see why breaking things off would
make you bawl your eyes out. Act like the man you are!"

"I...!" Ranma bit back his initial response, sucking on his lower lip
and looking away. "Yeah, maybe not. But that don't mean I have to be
happy about it. Ucchan's one of my oldest friends. It's like... like she
doesn't want me anymore."

"I'm sure that isn't it at all," Nodoka tried to be supportive.

"I know that ain't it! She even said she wanted to be best friends. I
just," Ranma shook his head, cutting short what he had almost said. "It
was like she was always there for me before."

"You just wanted attention and free food." Genma jumped back in. "That's
fine. If I had pretty girls fawning over me like they used to..."

"Genma, dear..."

He coughed self-consciously at his wife's warning tone.

"What I meant to say, boy, is that you have a healthy appreciation for
the attentions of the opposite sex. This is perfectly fine; however, you
are a man now. That means one woman. The others need to know you've
decided to honor the commitments of your family and your Art."

"There ya go again!" Ranma growled. "Treatin' it like I don't have a
choice."

"You...!"

"You do, of course," Nodoka cut off her husband, calm brown eyes daring
him to not let her handle their son.

"Now ya just sound like yer humoring me," the young man grumbled, arms
still tightly crossed. "Look, I know I should probably be happy I don't
gotta worry about Ukyou botherin' me anymore, but I'm still pissed off
about it anyway. Whatever. At least I'm in a fighting mood now."

"Can you still use the Umisenken?" Genma asked, pointedly.

The younger man leaned casually against the wall of the Dojo. "It isn't
gonna be a problem, pops."

"Ranma," Nodoka said. "You know we will support you, no matter what you
do."

It was something that the disrespectful boy had his father to thank for,
if Genma had anything to say about it. Nodoka hadn't so much as touched
her katana since they moved into Seiran, so impressed was she with her
son and all he had accomplished. In her own words, he was fighting 'for
the good of mankind' and a perfect example of a 'true man.' It was a far
cry from how she had been before, lugging that blade around to enforce
their seppuku promise on the off chance Ranma had grown up to be a fairy
or crossdresser or whatever else she found lacking in manhood.

They had only gotten this far, father and son, through Genma's wisdom
and foresight. He was the one who had worked hard to keep their
Jyusenkyou curses under wraps! He was the one who had worked to keep
Nodoka from her son until he was ready to prove how manly he was. If
Ranma had had his way, he would have strode out to meet his mother at
the first opportunity and promptly gotten splashed and turned into a
girl. What the Hell would the boy have done then?

It was only because of Genma's caution that they could stand together
now as a family, with Nodoka so proud and sure of her son that she could
say things like, 'we will support you no matter what you do.' Not that
Genma expected his son to demonstrate his gratitude and appreciation,
but the least he could do was show some modicum of proper respect. Genma
grumbled at the injustice of it (conveniently forgetting all the times
he nearly exposed their curses when he needed it as leverage).

But all that was in the past anyway!

More to the point: it was about time the boy started to shed his fiances
and focus on the more pressing matters in life. Maybe when Ranma became
a father himself he would understand all that his dear father had done
for him. One could only hope.

Meanwhile, the young man's composure melted slightly at his mother's
words.

"Thanks," he replied, but before he could say more, his head perked up
and he turned to the door. Genma did the same, and a second later, the
Dojo entrance opened wide. Another young man stepped inside, wearing a
black gi and a white belt. With a fist cupped in his left hand, Kumon
Ryu bowed respectfully.

"Let's get this started," Ranma said, pushing off the wall with his
shoulders.

Only a few minutes later Ryu and Ranma sat across from each other in the
Dojo's heavy combat chamber. The latter had exchanged his clothes for a
white gi and red belt. For the moment Nodoka joined Genma in the chamber
itself, seated at the sidelines, but it had been agreed beforehand that
she would leave when the fighting started. Genma would remain, putting
no barrier between himself and what was to come.

"Kumon Ryu," Genma spoke with authority, sitting up straight and
comporting himself with uncharacteristic dignity. "You have passed the
two tests set before you, proving your knowledge of the Yamasenken and
your understanding of the principles underlying the Art. You have
demonstrated the ability to adapt and improve on the techniques you have
been given. I, Saotome Genma, recognize you."

Ranma idly picked his ear with his pinkie. "Yeah, yeah."

Ryu bowed deeply. "Thank you, Saotome-sensei. You, too, Ranma."

The pigtailed boy smirked.

"One test remains. Only then shall we decide whether to allow you to
form a branch of the Art practicing the forbidden style of the
Yamasenken." Genma, at least, took his role seriously. "By your honor,
you have agreed to abide by our decision."

"I have," Ryu replied without hesitation.

Genma nodded twice as a courtesy.

"As you know, the Umisenken was designed to counter and defeat the
Yamsenken. To prove that your Yamasenken is worthy of being taught, it
must surpass the original. It must defeat the Umisenken."

Ryu stoically waited, body coiled like a spring ready to snap.

"Nodoka." Genma turned to his wife. "For your own safety, I'd ask that
you please leave the room and watch from outside."

"Yes, husband," the auburn haired woman bowed her head demurely. When
she felt like it, she could very convincingly play the role of dutiful
and submissive wife. Nodoka was of a very conservative upbringing; she
knew when to let her husband have his way and went to put her foot down.
Or, in some cases, when to use a heavy blunt object rather than a foot.
Genma reflected on that fact that it was a minor miracle that he had
managed to get Ranma out of the house and on that training trip without
being bludgeoned to death by his blushing young bride.

Nodoka took a little time making her exit, drawing it out to show
respect to both her son and his opponent. She had met Ryu before, Genma
knew, and at the time she had even thought that the powerful young man
had been her long lost son. She had a soft spot for the motherless boy
due to the experience, and she had urged both Ranma and Genma to be open
to the possibility of un-sealing the Yamasenken for Ryu's sake.

But that was in his hands, not hers.

"The rules of the fight are the following," Genma spoke up once Nodoka
was safely out of the room. "Ranma, you are only to use the proper
Umisenken techniques you have been taught. Ryu, you may use any
techniques related to or derived from the Yamasenken. As I created both
styles, I will be watching to ensure this rule is not broken or bent.
You will fight for thirty minutes or until one of you is knocked
unconscious for more than ten seconds."

"Agreed," Ranma and Ryu replied as one, standing up and assuming combat
forms. The Saotome heir was relaxed, his arms held almost limply at hi
sides. Ryu's stance was hard and direct, fists clenched and legs set.
Ranma craned his neck, working the kinks out with a few barely audible
pops and cracks.

Genma raised his hand.

"We begin..." And then slashed it down. "Now!"

-----

Tracking him down wasn't as hard as people always said.

"So, P-chan, huh?"

"Nabiki," his greeting was a little sour, but she'd expected that. She
ignored him at first, whistling sharply and calling Shirokuro over to
her side. Nabiki knew he wouldn't dare to go anywhere without his
faithful companion. Luckily Shirokuro was a smart dog; she couldn't have
been keen on letting her master outside in his state of mind in the
first place. He may have been the proverbial lost boy, but he was a
creature of very predictable habits. Where else would he have gone after
that little talk with Nabiki's sister?

He wanted to get lost.

"Well, I'm not surprised you heard so quickly," he said, hanging his
head. He appeared unhurt. Untouched even. Akane hadn't so much as laid a
hand on him, or so Nabiki had heard. It looked to her, though, like he
would have preferred to take a few shots to the chops rather than stew
in the juices of his own guilt.

"Of course I heard," Nabiki said, taking a few steps towards him,
Shirokuro alongside her. "Akane thought I knew."

"Huh," was his only response.

Nabiki frowned, but her mouth was still quirked in an amused smile.

"I simply must have known, right? And not told her because you slipped
me a little something on the side?" She rolled her eyes. "But I'm
impressed, Hibiki. You're more perverted than I thought!"

"I'm not perverted!" He stood up and all but yelled it. Slowly, he
turned towards the two door guards and grinned weakly. Facing Nabiki
again, he repeated his affirmation, "It was entirely innocent."

"Really?"

"Absolutely!" He paused, flinching a bit at the look she gave him. "Ok,
it wasn't intentionally perverted."

"I suppose that's probably true. A shy guy like you probably wouldn't
know what to do with his hands anyway, even if he got them on a girl."
She jabbed him a little sharply by adding. "Or hooves, as the case may
be."

"I... I'm not even going to answer that!" he huffed, sitting back down.
Nabiki seemed to want to say more, but not in front of prying ears. She
waited a few seconds, lavishing attention on the Hibiki's unnaturally
intelligent canine companion.

"Sir," one of the guards spoke up, holding out an ID card to the seated
lieutenant of India Squad. "You're cleared to head outside."

"Thanks," Ryouga said, taking back his ID and tucking it back into its
plastic sheath and then into his shirt pocket. The guards were part of
some of the new security arrangements. Internal security had been
tightened recently on Commander Yasuda's orders, and that included
detailing some of the base MPs to new duties. Only the outermost door
was fully automated now, the inner one requiring logged clearance and a
second passcode that only the guards knew. Any attempt to leave without
their code would probably trigger a silent alarm.

He glanced up at Nabiki, confirming that she was dressed for an outside
excursion. He knew her well enough by this point just what that meant.
She wanted to go outside with him where they could talk freely. Or, more
likely, where she could grill him freely about the whole bloody P-chan
thing.

"Come here, girl," he said, calling to Shirokuro and snapping his
fingers. "Let's go for a little walk."

"I'll be coming along, too. I could use some fresh air." Nabiki handed
her ID to the guard with a charming (others would call it disarming)
smile.

"Ma'am." He took her card and quickly processed it. In fact, he was much
more prompt about it than he had been with Ryouga's, a fact that the
lost boy obviously noticed. He waited by the massive blast doors with a
suspicious look.

"Here you go. Watch yourself out there, Miss Tendo. It's pretty icy."

"I will. Thank you!"

Exchanging pleasantries with the guard, she stood next to Ryouga and
faced the door. He crossed his arms and waited. Soon enough, the blast
shields started to unlock. They separated into two halves, massive
metallic screws retracting from the space between them. Shirokuro
watched it with calm familiarity before barking and jumping happy onto
the waiting tram car.

Boarding it, Nabiki reached into her coat pockets and withdrew a pair of
white and pink gloves. The guard hadn't been kidding when he had
mentioned that it was icy (and rather cold) outside. To no one's
surprise, Nabiki had come dressed and prepared. Ryouga felt no need to
put on more than a simple jacket. It bore the worn out logo of a college
he had visited a few years ago, and it had seen him through a great many
long, cold nights.

"You were a little friendly with that guard," he said, feeling the need
to just up and admit it. "You know him or something?"

"Nope," Nabiki replied with a casual shrug. "I'm just naturally
endearing!"

Before he could say anything else, she cut him off.

"But, as I was saying before, I am a little impressed."

"What? By me being, in your words, 'perverted?'"

"Well, a little," she said with a breezy laugh. "Some of the girls at
Furinkan did wonder about you."

"Hilarious."

"You did chase after a guy for years and constantly show up just to
fight him."

"Oh, and that makes me gay. I guess I should have just screamed, 'marry
me pigtailed girl' and set everyone straight."

"No. That would have just been weird," Nabiki said, correcting him. "I
mean more, that it was impressive how you managed to keep your secret
for so long. I can appreciate something like that."

Ryouga stared at her like she'd grown a second head. Or, given the fact
that he'd seen weirder things in his life than a person with multiple
heads, he stared at her like he had seen something really outlandish and
shocking.

"Are you serious?" he asked.

"Let me put it this way," she replied. "When I first found out, I
laughed... for maybe a solid minute."

His response was wooden, "Well, I'm glad you found it so amusing."

"To put one over on not just Akane, but me, too? Me!" Nabiki crossed her
arms in a mock imitation of being deep in thought. "All those times P-
chan wandered in with stuff from you; all those times he ran out of the
room and like five seconds later you barged in; all those times you
looked nervous about cold water and how P-chan wouldn't take a bath with
anyone but Ranma? And then there were all the hints he dropped!"

Ryouga's expression didn't betray any particular amusement at the
situation.

"You only think it's funny because it happened to Akane," he dared to
say. Boldness from already alienating one Tendo sister had obviously
loosened his tongue. "If I'd done that to you, how would you feel?"

"Hmm," Nabiki pretended to think it over. "I'd probably be pretty
angry."

He held out his hands, as if to imply she should have some kind of
revelation.

"See? There you go!"

"Ryouga," she replied, closing her eyes. "I'm not my sister's keeper. At
one point she had half the male students in the school attacking her
every morning to try and get a date. I let her handle that problem and
I'll let her handle this one, too. As far as I'm concerned, it really
doesn't have much of anything to do with me."

At that, he seemed put aback. "R... really?"

"Of course, pretending to be someone's pet is pretty pathetic," as she
spoke, her body language and expression becoming less playful and more
serious. "Even as far as unrequited love goes. But even I could see that
P-chan had been showing up less and less frequently this last year. I
guess that had to do with Akari, didn't it?"

He stared at her with wide eyes.

"You're kind of scary," he admitted, but quickly recovered and composed
himself. "But you're right. Akari was part of it, but... but it was
degrading for me, too. The first couple times it was, Hell... I was a
lonely guy. It felt good to be loved by someone without having to
actually do anything to earn it, you know? Whenever things didn't turn
out my way, I'd turn into P-chan for a day or two."

"But," he continued, staring up at the ceiling of the tram car. "But by
the time I knew I had to stop, by the time I knew it wasn't helping, I
couldn't. Akane would ask if I had seen P-chan, or she'd blow me off
and..." he shook his head. "Doesn't excuse it, what I did was my fault,
but it's the truth."

The tram car came to a stop at the mountain exit.

The two silently left, and Ryouga swiped his card at the smaller
external blast door. It retracted with a hiss, and a wave of cold air
blew into the small and unadorned concourse. Outside, the familiar faux
weather outpost greeted them, along with a few light flurries. Up above,
the sky was slightly overcast. It was likely to snow again tonight.

"Answer me honestly, Hibiki," Nabiki then asked, "Do you regret it?"

He walked ahead a few paces, Shirokuro leading them on.

"It ruined my relationship with a friend," he finally said. "Two
friends, actually. Do I regret it? Yeah. But... I also think it kept me
going a few times when I would have otherwise just given in and died.
The will to live... for a long time, I clung to life for pretty nasty
reasons: Revenge. Hate. Spite. The thought of having someone waiting for
me, even as a pet pig, was a beacon in an otherwise shitty existence."

Nabiki followed close behind him, her boots making soft crunching noises
in the un-groomed and undisturbed snow.

"Did you tell Akane that?"

Ahead of her, he shook his head.

"Maybe you should when you get back," she said, taking a few long
strides to catch up to him. "You know, instead of just sulking out here
in the wilderness."

To her unspoken relief, he laughed a bit.

"Is that how it looks?" he asked rhetorically, running a hand through
his hair.

"If Akane is like me, and she actually is in a few ways, then she's
probably more angry that you kept the secret from her, rather than being
disgusted with what you did. You didn't actually do anything bad as P-
chan, did you?"

"No!" he protested his innocence. "Really! You know me!"

"I guess I do," she relented with a hidden smile. "So you're going to go
back there and work this out?"

Hr grunted in what passed for acquiescence.

"Good to hear it," Nabiki said, pausing to crouch low and scoop up a
handful of snow. Seeing her, Ryouga stopped and pivoted, curious as to
what she was up to.

"What...?"

BAF!

"So why didn't you tell me, huh?" Nabiki growled. "After all that stuff
I told you! All that time you had this secret and didn't tell me?"

The lost boy wiped the cold snow from his face. "Geez! I'm sorry!"

"You told Kasumi but not me! You didn't trust me, did you?" she leveled
the question at him like a heavy plasma rifle. She stood back up,
watching him intently. Ryouga finished brushing the last bit of slush
from his hair and at least had the presence of mind to look sheepish.

"It, it," he stammered. "It wasn't like that."

"Then what was it like?" she asked, finally letting some anger and
disappointment into her tone. "Because from where I'm standing it looks
like I bared my worst secret to you, like I trusted you completely,
while you didn't feel the same!"

Ryouga swallowed his next sentence before it came out, preferring to
stand in silence for a few pregnant seconds. He was clearly thinking,
and very carefully too, before he spoke. One hand reached up to
anxiously rub the back of his neck. A dusting of snow still clung to his
hair and his tiger striped bandanna. Still glaring at him, Nabiki knew
what she wanted to hear. It was only one thing.

Honesty.

"I..." he finally ventured to say. "I was ashamed."

And, for some irrational reason, Nabiki felt bad for him.

"You idiot," she spoke up, not wanting to see him debase himself by
saying any more. Nabiki wasn't really sure when, but at some point over
the last few months she'd actually started to like the easily depressed,
easily enraged, mercurial and often times stupid young man standing in
front of her. He wasn't the pretty, well cultured rich guy she had
sometimes imagined she would fall for. Instead, he was a meathead
fighter like her father had once been. It was probably pretty sad.

"Sorry?" he offered.

"Alright, Hibiki," she said, walking up to him. "Apology accepted. In
the future, let's be honest with each other. I'll let you know my
secrets, and you let me know yours. We'll make this a serious
partnership."

He visible brightened.

"Right!" he agreed, but added the caveat, "Though I don't think you'll
like a lot of what I have to tell you."

"That's perfect!" she replied, reaching into her coat pocket. "Because I
know you won't like pretty much all of my secrets!"

A nervous sweat drop trickled down his brow.

"Well, that's kind of ominous..." he slowly said.

With a wide, bright smile Nabiki retrieved something from her coat's
inner pocket and held it out for him. Taking it, the lost boy could see
that it was a picture: a picture of her. The little freeze frame was the
same size as the ones he had bought from her before, and just the size
to fit snugly into a wallet. It was a simple photo of her smiling
prettily and hugging Shirokuro, but the slightly smug expression on her
face almost seemed to imply that she had planned the whole thing out
before hand.

He looked up at her and saw that exact same look but in the flesh.

"Two thousand yen," she said happily. "If you want it, that is."

Ryouga wasn't completely dumbstruck; just mostly.

"... You're going to be an expensive girlfriend, aren't you?"

"Very!"

He looked down at the picture for a few seconds.

"Well?" Nabiki prompted, sounding for the first time a bit nervous
herself. "You aren't going to try and haggle, are you?" Still no
response. "Sixteen thousand yen then. Cheapskate!"

"I'll pay you when we get back to the base," he decided, and took out
his wallet. His old one had been destroyed at Phoenix Mountain, and that
seemed almost like a lifetime ago now. This one still had a single
picture in it; of a girl he missed and still cared for deeply. The sight
of Akari instantly dampened his mood, and he found the idea of replacing
her picture unbearable.

At the same time... he knew she wouldn't have wanted him to use her
memory like he had been. Akari was a gentle girl who disliked violence.
She would never have wanted him to embark on a crusade in her name or
wanted her memories to feed a lust for vengeance. He knew this, he had
since the beginning, but he had gone forward anyway, using that drive
because he found it useful. Now, staring at her picture, he wondered if
she would finally approve.

Sliding out her picture, he put Nabiki's in its place, tucking the
painful photograph into one of the other plastic jackets. He would never
forget Akari or how he had failed to protect her. He would never forgive
those that had taken her life. She would always be there, no matter what
else changed in his life. Closing his wallet, he let out a breath he
just realized he had been holding. Tucking the wallet away, Ryouga was
surprised when a hand reached out and grasped his own.

"Nabiki?" He looked down at her gloved hand, held freely in his.

"Life's too short and unpredictable, Hibiki." She gave his hand a
squeeze. "Let's make it interesting while it lasts."

Mindful of his strength, he carefully squeezed back.

Together, they walked through the snow, following Shirokuro away from
the base along a familiar forest path. There would be time later to deal
with all the troubles waiting back in Seiran; out here, alone, they only
had each other and the bond they has unexpectedly grown to share.

"You know, Ranma has a picture of his girl self in his wallet."

"Hahaha! Why am I not surprised?"

-----

From: Tendo Nabiki [mailto: nabiki10do at unetco.org]
Sent: Wednesday, December 22, 2006, 20:42
To: Sqd. 2ndclass. Kuonji Ukyou [mailto: kuonji at unetco.org]
Subject: An opportunity

I was just thinking back to the old days in Nerima and remembering how
close you and a certain directionless member of India Squad used to
appear to be. Those were the days, weren't they? I'm sure everything is
nice and platonic between you and your drinking buddies, but just
because you aren't going to buy a pair of shoes doesn't mean you can't
look at them, now does it? If you find yourself with an itch, no matter
what or who it may be, I'm sure I can help you scratch it so to speak.

You know how to find me and you know my usual rates.

---

"Supreme excellence is found in breaking the enemy's resistance without
fighting." Sun Tzu

---

Nabiki Tendo General Intelligence and Communication Far East Asia Branch
United Nations Extraterrestrial Combat Organization Ext. 6022 - phone
Ext. 8434 - fax

-----

From: Sqd. 2ndclass. Kuonji Ukyou [mailto: kuonji at unetco.org]
Sent: Wednesday, December 22, 2006, 21:03
To: Tendo Nabiki [mailto: nabiki10do at unetco.org]
Subject: Re: An opportunity

You're terrible.

> You know how to find me, and you know my usual rates.

I'll think about it.

- Ukyou

-----

Genma narrowed his eyes at the oncoming vacuum blade, tilting his head
to the side as it thundered past to impact harmlessly into the exotic
alloy wall behind him. The fight was more than half way into its imposed
time limit and so far the two boys had done little more than test each
other's defenses. They'd exchanged a few very basic opening moves of the
Yama and Umisenken, and then fallen into a predictable back and forth of
conventional blows. Normally, such a routine would have quickly fallen
into Ranma's court, but with both of them fighting under a technique
restriction the result was a stalemate.

Ranma was faster than Ryu and just about as strong, but the Kumon heir
took the blows easily and came back for more. It was essentially
irrelevant to the fight itself, but it did show that Ryu could fight
effectively in hand to hand even without using Yamasenken techniques.
Genma watched as the boy made another flat palmed strike, arms slashing
like swords as Ranma ducked and dodged with superhuman speed. Ryu could
cut a steel bar in half with the edge of his hand or easily tear out a
man's heart through his rib cage. No one had ever implied that he
couldn't fight.

The question was: had his Yamasenken surpassed the original?

Ryu and Ranma broke off their exchange, jumping away from each other in
tandem. Neither looked particularly exerted. In fact, they looked very
lively, energized even. Ranma slowly lifted his arms back into the limp,
unusual stance of the Umisenken while Ryu rolled his arms around,
warming up his muscles. By unspoken agreement, the two fighters started
to become a bit more serious.

Genma recognized it a half second before it happened.

"Akane!?" Ryu's startled yell actually succeeded in distracting his
opponent.

'Sloppy,' Genma thought, watching as his distracted son barely managed
to block a snap kick to the side of the neck. Ranma should have known
better. The Yamasenken relied on verbal distractions to stun an
opponent. Usually it was just a simple 'don't move!' but anything that
drew an opponent's attention and broke his focus would work. The
auditory assault would then act to momentarily paralyze the target
leaving him open for a deadly blow.

Ranma used the force of Ryu's kick to gain distance. He then brought out
a large bath towel and seemingly disappeared in midair. Genma watched
carefully. The invisibility of the Umisenken was counterpart to the
Yamasenken's verbal attacks. It allowed the way of the silent thief to
dictate the terms of a fight, to attack from an unexpected angle, or to
simply make an easy escape. The stance of the Umisenken itself and the
mentality of its user made it naturally impossible to read or anticipate
its attacks, but the Goshin Dai Ryuusei Fu (Self-Protection Big Falling
Star Cloth) also hid the user from sight itself.

'What will you do now, Ryu?' he thought. 'You can't see him. You can't
sense his intent. He won't listen to your taunts. What will you do?'

Standing by himself, Ryu straightened his stance, took a deep breath,
and lowered his arms. Genma was initially surprised by the response, but
quickly came to see the strategy. Ryu had to know that the point of the
Umisenken's stealth was to attack from an undefended point. He was
attempting to counter this not by preventing that attack, but instead
concentrating totally on a counterattack.

'Interesting,' Genma thought with some hint of respect. 'That stance.
The concentration. He's putting all his energy and focus into a
counterattack. By abandoning even the thought of defense, he's counting
on his durability and reflexes to respond instantly to any attack. The
Umisenken itself relies on redirecting the enemy's strength. It is weak
when it comes to direct attacks!'

Ranma's stealth vanished as he attacked, materializing out of thin air
right behind Ryu. His hands blurred as he began the Hakuda Toshin Shou,
the White Snake Spitting True Palm. Genma nodded in agreement. Despite
the fact that Ryu knew this move, it was still the most appropriate
attack the Umisenken had. Since any attack can render the user visible,
the idea is to strike from within the closest possible distance.

The pigtailed martial artist only got in the first five strikes, though,
before Ryu's body reacted. His stance lowered as his legs parted,
preventing the use of the Shichuu Rakuchi Sei (Brace Falling Down
Strength), and his right arm swung back. Ryu's whole body then turned
via only the muscles in his calves and feet. His right arm burst
upwards, interrupting Ranma's Hakuda Toshin Shou.

'Not bad.'

Ryu then responded with a Geimon Tetsu Sen Shi (Welcome Gates Fan
Finger): a flat palmed strike aimed for Ranma's midsection. Genma
remembered when he had first developed that move and had practiced by
removing the ribs from a frozen side of beef at a slaughterhouse. One
strike, one rib. Against the human body, it was devastating.
Predictably, Ranma used the appropriate Umisenken counter: the Gaito
Retsuga Dan (Armored Door Splitting Fang Failure).

Except, at that moment, Ryu curled his hand into a fist.

'What is he doing?' Genma saw Ranma pull back at the last second; having
realized that biting Ryu's hand to immobilize it wouldn't work as it
was. 'The Yamasenken relies on the power of cutting blows and the
special conditioning of the hands. It is similar to Shitojutsu, except
even more specialized. What is he doing forming a fist like that?'

Ranma flipped his protection cloth around his body, rolling it into a
whip and blocking Ryu's Kinshi Kinbakusho (Gold Cord Tight Binding
Soar). While they dueled, Ranma aligned his feet to land just as Ryu's
right hand lashed out with a Kijin Raishu Dan (Demon God Assault Bomb)
vacuum blade. However, his aim was not at Ranma himself, but rather his
feet. Ryu jumped up and ran towards his opponent, repeating the move.

Genma tapped his finger against his bicep, his arms still tightly
crossed.

'He's keeping Ranma off balance to prevent him from disappearing again.
Such precise strikes! To think that anyone could use the Kijin Raishu
Dan with such accuracy...!"

"Kijin Raishu Tekidan!" (Demon God Assault Grenade)

Ryu continued his assault, striking at Ranma's feet to make it harder to
block the blades with his protective cloth. For a few seconds, it looked
like Ryu had the other boy on the defensive. Ranma was backing up
towards a wall... but then Ranma picked up speed, running back and up to
the wall. Genma's eyes widened just a fraction as he saw Ranma run along
the wall itself, intercepting three of Ryu's desperate vacuum blades.

'Good move, boy. Use your surroundings! By running along the wall, with
your opponent now above you, you make it impossible for him to attack
below your center of gravity. In other words, you changed the
perspective between yourself and your enemy to your advantage!'

"Damn!" Ryu cursed as Ranma disappeared again. The Kumon heir turned
around, eyes darting back the forth. Taking another resigned breath, he
lowered his arms, ready to focus on counterattacking the inevitable
attack.

'Ranma,' Genma thought also waiting for the strike, 'Won't make the same
mistake twice. The greatest strength of the Yamasenken is in the arms
and hands. The next attack will be below the belt.'

Sure enough, a moment later Ranma appeared, aiming to disorient Ryu by
sweeping his legs. This was the Shichuu Rakuchi Sei (Brace Falling Down
Strength) that the Kumon fighter had wanted to avoid before. With his
stance broken or disrupted, the Yamasenken itself would have its
effectiveness cut by two thirds. Or that was what should have happened.

Instead, Ryu went with the fall, leaned forward, and landed on his
hands. Fingers trailing along the tatami mats that covered the floor, he
attacked from that position with his legs. Ranma barely had time to
scoot away before the first leg-fired Kijin Raishu Dan descended with
the speed of a bullet. Ryu spun like a top, legs snapping loud enough to
hear, his strikes precise - though less so than when he used his hands
and arms.

'As expected, his skill with the Kijin Raishu Dan exceeds my own," Genma
thought with amazement.

Ranma jumped straight up, correctly gauging that the one angle that Ryu
couldn't attack him from was directly above. It made sense: from where
he was, the Yamasenken master didn't have enough range of movement with
his legs alone to 'shoot' a vacuum blade straight up. Ryu started to
reverse his stance, but Ranma rushed down, pushing physically off the
ceiling and bringing out his protective cloth, ready to use it to choke
and bind.

"Haizan Tokai Tai! Inverted!" (High Mountain Fall-to-Sea Posture
Inverted)

"Kijin Raishu Sateraito!"
(Demon God Assault Satellite)

The two exploded in motion and went flying. Even Genma's trained eyes
hadn't followed all of what had happened just then. He could see that
Ranma had been diving, intent on using the High Mountain Fall-to-Sea
Posture to clamp Ryu's legs shut and then blind and choke him with the
Falling Star Cloth. For a moment, it had looked like Ryu would actually
use the Kijin Dai Ran Bu (Demon God Big Mad Dance) - a wild attack that
sent vacuum blades in random directions.

'No. This was different.'

Ranma barely landed on his feet, arms over his face in a warding
gesture. They had cuts and welts on them in a series of straight lines.
Lowering his arms a bit, he stared at Ryu, who was just now getting to
his feet. The Kumon heir had a number of small, thin vacuum blades...
spinning around him.

"Kijin Raishu Sateraito," Ryu said again, breathing heavily. "No one
knows better than I do that the Yamasenken is weak on defense. That's
why I tried to toughen my body to compensate, but I knew it wouldn't be
enough. This is the first purely defensive technique of the new
Yamasenken."

"Boy!" Genma spoke up, and both youths turned to face him. "That move
has nothing to do with the principle of the Yamasenken."

"You mean it has nothing to do with breaking into a house to rob it?"
Ryu asked facetiously, finishing the sentence with a dismissive snort.
"You're right. It doesn't. But during our last fight, you two said
something to me. You said that the Yamasenken and Umisenken were arts
'to live' and that they were of no use to me as they were."

He smirked. "Of course, at first I thought you were just blowing smoke
in my face. Martial arts based in thievery? But then I began to wonder
if that was really any worse than an art based on destruction. Was the
Yamasenken impossible to divorce from the intentions it had been based
on? What does it mean to have an art that wants you 'to live?'"

"It is true that the Yamasenken likens one's opponent to a house and
that you then break into it," Ryu continued. "However, that means that
the reverse is also true!" He held up his hands. "On defense, my hands
are my gates. My arms are my walls. My legs are my foundation. Each one
of these has its own defenses. This is why my Yamasenken is different!"

He pointed directly at Genma.

"Get it now?" Ryu asked, but didn't wait for an answer. "I haven't been
attacking Ranma! I've been defending my home from the Umisenken!"

As he finished, the now-faint vacuum blades orbiting his body lost
cohesion and dispersed. Off to the side, Ranma sighed and scratched a
spot hidden by his hair, tucking the Falling Star Cloth into his belt
with his other hand. Genma stood stony silent for a couple seconds
before nodding stoically.

"I think I've seen enough," he said, heading for the door. "Come on,
boy. Let's talk this over. Ryu, you stay here."

"Yeah, yeah," Ranma grumbled but complied.

Ryu merely sat down, cross legged, his hands in his lap.

--

"The boy has made great progress," Genma conceded. "But I'm still not
inclined to permanently unseal the Yamasenken. In any form."

"Genma, dear..."

"Now, wife, I know you have some affection for the boy, but he is not a
Saotome. Even if he were, I would not let him use those techniques."

"Except you didn't so much as mumble when I started usin' the Umisenken
again," Ranma interrupted.

"These are special circumstances," Genma responded, looking over to his
son. Ranma was seated, like they all were, but with his back to one of
the walls. He had been mostly silent since the fight had ended. Genma
had assumed it was because he hadn't definitively won.

"Hey, pops, you remember the Family Treasure?" Ranma unexpectedly asked.

"Ah, yes," Genma replied, remembering. "What of it?"

His sharp eyed son gave him a knowing look. "I bet that box was empty,
wasn't it?"

"Sadly yes," the elder Saotome remembered his shock and disappointment
when, in trying to sell the so called treasure, he had found the lacquer
box to be empty with a pawn ticket inside. "I suspect your grandfather
pawned it without me knowing! He always was a crafty bastard!"

"Dear, that was not one of your more dignified moments," Nodoka
chastised him, but not too sharply. She seemed used to it. "All that
fuss over a little trinket. Wouldn't you have been happier not opening
the case in the first place?"

"Eh? Well..."

"The point is," Ranma said, redirecting the conversation. "That maybe
the biggest problem with the Yamasenken isn't the art itself but the old
fart who developed it."

"Show some respect boy!" Genma barked, trying to regain his dignity.
"You're the last person who should complain about my ways. Who made you
a man among men? Who made you as strong as you are?"

"You," Ranma hastily added, "And a bunch of others, too. But you and
Mister Tendo learned a lot from Happosai, right? You didn't respect him,
did ya?"

"Different circumstances," Genma protested.

Ranma glanced over to the inner Dojo door, where Ryu was waiting for
their decision. The pigtailed martial artist held out his hand and
looked down at the parallel marks he'd gotten from the other fighter's
vacuum blades.

"He's different from before," Ranma said, closing his hand into a fist.
"He's learned a lot since I beat him and sealed up the Yamasenken.
Fightin' him this time was totally different from before. He was
different."

"What are you saying, boy?"

"I saw it with my own fists." The younger Saotome's eyes fell on his
father. "You saw it too. You just don't want to create a new, rival
school for when I inherit the dojo."

Genma gritted his teeth.

"Not gonna deny it?" Ranma's smirk faded. "I don't have a problem with
rivals. Not at all. I say we let him have the Yamasenken."

"Ranma!" Nodoka said, voice and smile bursting with pride.

His father growled, unconvinced. "You're both being sentimental. I won't
change my mind. The Yamasenken must remain sealed... for the good of the
world. Who's to say that boy won't teach those evil arts to someone who
will use them... less altruistically?"

"You could say that about anyone here," Ranma replied, and gradually got
to his feet. "My decision's been made."

"No it hasn't!"

"Who's inheriting that Tendo Dojo again?" Ranma asked, pretending to
think and tapping his chin with his finger. "Is it you, old man? Oh
wait: it's me. And who's the only one with a steady job that's
supporting the family right now? Oh, right, that's also me."

"I'm your father!" Genma snarled, also standing up.

"Genma," Nodoka warned, reaching for him to calm him down. Ranma seemed
to have had enough, though. He ignored his father and headed for the
door.

"You are my father, pops," he said while walking. "And you know what,
I'll look out for ya so you and Mister Tendo can retire and play shogi
and drink and talk about the old days. I'm fine with that. But in
return, ya gotta let me do what I gotta do. You said it yourself: I'm
the future of Anything Goes Martial Arts. Or is that a problem for ya?"

For once, Genma was at a loss for words.

"Is it?" Ranma asked again.

"If you don't wish to listen to your father's advice, then that's your
loss," he finally said. "I suspect you'll come to regret the decision
you made here."

"I might," the younger man admitted. "But at least I'll be regretting my
decision and not yours."

Ranma opened the inner Dojo door and walked inside. A second later, the
door closed behind him.

"Cheeky boy," Genma grumbled, glaring daggers at the door in lieu of his
missing son. But, gradually, his frown transformed into a smirk.

"Like father like son," Nodoka said, standing close to him. She then
poked him in the stomach. "At least in some ways."

Genma laughed at that.

--

"The Yamasenken is yours now," Ranma said, not mincing words. "Don't
mess it up."

Still seated, Ryu bowed his head respectfully.

Ranma turned to leave, but stopped with his hand on the door.

"I've been thinking," he added, speaking over his shoulder. "Maybe,
someday, I'll have a new Umisenken to show you, too."

And then, having said what he wanted to, he left.

He didn't hear Ryu's whoop of triumph fill the room.

-----


From: Sqd. 2ndclass. Shan Pu [mailto: chineseamazon at unetco.org]
Sent: Wednesday, December 22, 2006, 21:32
To: Lt. Saotome Ranma [mailto: rsaotome at unetco.org]; Lt. Hibiki
Ryouga [mailto: rhibiki at unetco.org]; Sqd. 2ndclass. Mu Tzu
[mailto: mutzu at unetco.org]; ActSrg. Kumon Ryu [mailto:
rkumon at unetco.org]; Sqd. 2ndclass. Kuno Tatewaki [mailto:
bluethunder at unetco.org]; Sqd. 2ndclass. Kuonji Ukyou [mailto:
kuonji at unetco.org]
Cc: Medical Science Oversight Committee [medscioc at unetco.org]
Subject: Konatsu
Attached: Konatsu_Procedure_12.22.06.pdf

As you know, I've been working on helping Konatsu.

I have identified the basic problem with some help from my great
grandmother. Put simply, he has several blocked chakras. Most of you
have some experience with pressure points and know that even a blocked
point usually resets itself naturally over time. Konatsu's chakras
aren't resetting, and I think the problem is a sort of self-reinforcing
psionic block. His body doesn't recognize that it has a problem so it
isn't correcting it.

To fix this problem, I will need several volunteers to help me. We will
need to re-activate sixteen pressure points and four chakras by hand.
The process should take anywhere between three and four hours. I should
also tell you that there is some risk involved in the procedure, both to
Konatsu and to those helping me. Each volunteer will need to help me
synchronize with a chakra point and there may be some backlash if things
go wrong.

I've attached a file with some information on what I plan to do.

Please read it and get back to me if you want to participate.

Shan Pu
Squaddie 2nd Class
Juliet Squad

-----

Shampoo returned to her room, a hot cup of coffee in hand. It would be a
couple minutes before it had cooled enough to drink, but the caffeine
injection would help keep her alert for another hour or so. It would be
her last drink for the night; she intended to get a good night's sleep
before tomorrow. She'd spent all day working on Konatsu's problem, aware
of the fact that every day's delay only made the problem worse for the
ninja boy.

It had gotten to the point where she went over the procedure in her head
even when she ate and relaxed. It was always there but it wasn't a
hindrance. It felt good. Cologne had set her on the path and then left
her to develop a solution that would work. Despite being a bit unsure at
first, she had quickly reignited the passion she'd had when she first
started to work in pressure points, years ago.

It was different from when she had been handed down some forbidden
techniques by Sink. What she was doing now was new and totally
unprecedented in the history of the Amazon village (or what was left of
it anyway). Some of the work was based on some research conducted over
in America by some other UNETCO scientists and doctors, but much of it
came from the Amazon archives regarding pressure points and chakras.
Through X-Com, she literally had access to the knowledge of the entire
world on demand.

She'd even gotten some interested emails from researchers in other
bases.

Back in her room, Shampoo sighed softly and put the still-too-hot cup of
roasted coffee down next to a full body diagram she had printed out
earlier. Sitting down in front of her personal computer, she took a
moment to tear open a pair of sugar packets. Emptying the artificial
sweetener into the cup and stirring it with a tiny plastic spoon she
used her left hand to pop open her internal email client. Maybe she'd
gotten a few bites regarding that email she'd sent out before.

Sure enough, a number of new responses came up.

"Ryu..." she read the name, and clicked it.

The violent boy was new to their little martial arts clique, but he
seemed strong; she smiled a bit to see that he had volunteered. The next
email was from the local annoying okonomiyaki chef. Ukyou was also in.
So was Ranma, which came as no surprise. The next email was from Mousse,
who also wanted to come. By the time she finished reading them, she had
even more responses. Kuno wanted to help if he could. So did the lost
boy.

Everyone wanted in. Why wasn't she surprised?

--

From: Sqd. 2ndclass. Shan Pu [mailto: chineseamazon at unetco.org]
Sent: Wednesday, December 22, 2006, 21:51
To: Lt. Saotome Ranma [mailto: rsaotome at unetco.org]; Lt. Hibiki
Ryouga [mailto: rhibiki at unetco.org]; Sqd. 2ndclass. Mu Tzu
[mailto: mutzu at unetco.org]; ActSrg. Kumon Ryu [mailto:
rkumon at unetco.org]; Sqd. 2ndclass. Kuno Tatewaki [mailto:
bluethunder at unetco.org]; Sqd. 2ndclass. Kuonji Ukyou [mailto:
kuonji at unetco.org]
Subject: Re: Konatsu

Since everyone wants to help I guess you can all come.

We'll practice for the first time tomorrow at 13:00 hours. I've reserved
Wing Three of the Medical center. If things go well, we can try the
procedure for real on Friday. I know we all want Konatsu up and active
as soon as possible.

Shan Pu
Squaddie 2nd Class
Juliet Squad

-----

Akane opened her door knowing full well who was waiting on the other
side.

"I didn't expect to see you back here," she said, tone icier and colder
than the snowstorm outside.

"Yeah, well..." Ryouga mumbled, but coughed and straightened up a bit.
"Well, I wanted to talk a bit."

She didn't seem pleased by the prospect.

"Haven't you said enough already today?" she asked.

Fighting back the urge to just vanish back into the comfort of the
hallway, he took a deep breath. He stopped playing with his hands and
instead forced them to his sides. With some difficulty, Ryouga looked
her straight in the eyes.

"Please just hear me out," he struggled to say. "I... I don't want
things to end like they did before."

For a while, it looked like she was going to slam the door on his face.

Again.

It would be an understatement to say that she was still mad at him. Just
a few hours ago, right after she got off active duty, he had walked up
to her door and confessed everything: that he had been her pet P-chan,
that he had a Jyusenkyou curse, and that he was sorry for deceiving her.
The words had hardly left his mouth before she realized just how much of
a fool he had made her into. And for how long. Years. Years! How stupid
she had to look to everyone not to have put two and two together! So
she'd asked him to leave and he had done so without complaint.

"Please," he asked again. "Please, Akane-san."

But, for all that, he had been more than just some stranger pretending
to be her pet. He had been a friend who helped her out (in both forms,
she now realized) whenever she had been in need. He had even put aside
his enmity with Ranma when she asked him to. He had risked his life for
her and been the first male friend she had trusted in a long time. It
was just that reason why finding out about this had hurt so much. She
had trusted him...

"Ok," she said, finally relenting and stepping aside. "Come on in."

He stepped inside, and Akane found herself hoping she could truly
forgive her friend. It hurt that he'd lied to her all this time, that
even Kasumi had somehow known, but she'd hear him out. Maybe, just
maybe, they could be friends for real this time. Akane wanted that and
she was sure he did, too.

-----

UNETCO Facility B9
Codename "Wyndham"

23:20 hours

Jan Regulski didn't particularly mind late night monitor shifts at the
communication partition of the base's command facility. It was usually
pretty quiet, and he could take some time to catch up on his reading.
He'd recently gotten word from back home that his younger brother had
finally proposed to the girl he'd been dating on and off for two years.
It was good news, and Jan fully intended to try and rearrange his off-
base relief rotation to coincide with the wedding day. Pity the flight
to Europe from Australia, was so damn long.

At least for conventional planes anyway.

Looking up at the vast expanse of screens and monitors that lined the
walls, Jan briefly wondered when he'd become so de-sensitized to it all.
Here he was, in the heart of a room, with the sum totality of Australia
and New Zealand's entire military and civilian radar infrastructure at
his fingertips (that wasn't even counting the Indonesian, Malayan, and
other allied systems). There was all that hanging above him, and he
wasn't even that awed by it anymore. Impressed, yes, but awed? No. It
had all become rather routine.

The sky over the southwestern hemisphere was a pretty crowded place, no
matter the hour, with hundreds of planes making local and international
flights, both military and civilian. From the Wyndham Facility, UNETCO
could monitor it all. Automated systems searched through the routine
(thankfully, that was all handled to local radar operators), filtering
it for the unexpected and the anomalous.

For the most part, things in Wyndham were pretty laid back. Aside from a
stint of activity three years ago centered on Antarctica (which had seen
the base expand dramatically) the aliens didn't run many major ops in
this part of the world any more. The exception had been A-18, a small
alien base on the far side of the South Pole used mostly for UFO
resupply, but now even that was gone. X-Com had raided it a week ago and
finally cleared out that last little infestation (netting a large store
of Elerium in the process).

Even before A-18 had been taken out, though; the most they saw in the
region were minor incursions here and there broken by the occasional
Abductor or Harvester. Compared to all the activity in Europe in '01,
and then Africa in '04, and recently Asia in '06, Wyndham was a pretty
damn cushy assignment. They still maintained a large compliment of
troops on base, but they didn't even have a single active duty Avenger
since B9 had a pretty low priority compared to the other heavy combat
facilities.

It wasn't seen as any sort of liability. Interception duties here had
been light over the last two years, plus they naturally only had a small
amount of land to really cover. If worse came to worse, they could just
call for help from their brothers up north or in the Americas. Those two
areas were among the most heavily patrolled and defended, and along with
Europe's Andermatt, they had the heaviest and most experienced combat
squads. Not that Jan was particularly worried. Command was certain that
the aliens didn't even know Wyndham existed in the first place, tucked
safe and sound near the northern coast in a little visited wildlife
preserve.

Leaning back in his chair, Jan saw one of his late night shift comrades
stretch out his arms with a groan. He was about to lean over and check
see if Menzies had any news or if he had heard anything interesting
lately when his personal screen beeped. The computer had found an
anomaly and was patiently requesting that he investigate and confirm it.
Ninety percent of the time the so called "anomaly" was literally nothing
at all, or at least nothing noteworthy, but Jan turned back to the
monitor and quickly checked it anyway.

One could never be too sure.

"Huh. What's this?" He double checked the information on the altitude of
the contact, routing the powerful radar systems built near Wyndham
(explicitly for base use). Sure enough, it confirmed the altitude of the
contact, as well as its speed. There was no doubt: 46 kilometers above
sea level; almost 10,000 kilometers per hour...

It was a UFO.

"I've got something here," he called out, and forwarded the report up
the chain to the boys in Hyperwave Transmissions. The room started to
buzz as other technicians and operators also turned their attentions
towards the sky.

"Hyperwave alignment complete," a voice announced on the intercom. A
second later, Colonel Alphonse Brune emerged from his office. He was a
rough old Frenchman and always eager to deal a blow to the enemy. Middle
aged, but still as fit as a fighting man half his age, Brune stroked his
short beard as he took in the situation, sharp blue eyes moving from one
towering display to the next.

On the other side of the base, the Hyperwave Engineers finished
calibrating the Decoder. It was basically a gigantic, high powered mind
probe with a range of over two thousand nautical miles. When an anomaly
was detected (unlike in the old days), they could use the Hyperwave
Decoder to scan the area and confirm the existence of a UFO. The alien
ships utilized a sort of radar jamming or cloaking by virtue of their
gravity engines, but the Decoder was unaffected by any of that. It
scanned an area psionically, instantly revealing any alien craft.

"Contacts!" Someone announced. "UFO confirmed! Three... four..."

'Multiple craft?' Jan wondered, checking his screen.

"Nine contacts! Delta formation."

"Decoding underway!" the Hyperwave team reported, transmitting their
findings back to Command. Jan glanced up at the main display, now
entirely taken up by a close up of the nine UFOs. They were just
formless blips right now. Probably medium scouts. This wouldn't be the
first time the aliens used a formation of them to buzz a city or cause
some other mischief.

The Decoder continued its work, sampling and sorting the aliens onboard
those craft, the general number of them, their species, and eventually
their mission and its location. It was not an exaggeration to say that
the invention, development, and widespread use of Hyperwave Decoders had
saved innumerable lives over the last four and a half years of fighting.
Some could even go so far as to attribute UNETCO's present existence to
their use. All the Avengers and Firestorms in the world were useless
without the ability to properly track and identify the enemy.

After a few seconds, the Decoder calculated the make up of the enemy
craft.

Jan's mouth opened, but no words came out.

Even old Colonel Brune seemed stunned into silence.

"Jesus..." someone muttered. Jan almost felt like crossing himself, too,
just to be safe. There in the screen above them, the results of the
Decoder's initial analysis hung in bold letters for all to see. This
wasn't a formation of medium scouts coming to buzz Brisbane or Darwin.

Six Battleships and Three Terror Craft.

"Gentlemen," Colonel Brune spoke up, raising his voice for all to hear.
"Bring us to combat readiness. Activate all ground forces and put us on
Code Four general alert. Inform Command that we have a situation."

The room burst into activity.

"Two of the craft are changing course! The others are heading north...
northwest. They're heading over the Indian Ocean. Ten thousand
kilometers per second."

"Seven of them have hit a cruising altitude of forty kilometers. The
other two are descending."

"Are they headed for India? Or Al Rustaq?"

"Duiwelskloof just picked up... four large scouts... and six Abductors!
They're headed northeast over Madagascar!"

"Sir, should we scramble Iota 1, 2 and 3?"

"No. Not yet." To his credit, Colonel Burne didn't sound as worried as
he had to be. "Not until we know where those bastards are headed."

"Decoding complete!"

Jan checked the results and felt his whole body deflate. As if all those
battleships and terror craft weren't bad enough, their occupants had
also just been calculated by the boys in Decoding. One of the terror
craft and two of the battleships were identified as majority Ethereal.
The other two terror craft were piloted by Snakemen, and the remaining
battleships were crewed by Mutons. The Decoder also identified their
mission profile with cool, detached recognition.

The letters flashed on the screen, multiplied by nine.

Objectives: Alien Terror

-----

Author's notes: I don't usually make notes before or after a chapter,
but I felt I should here. I suppose mostly because I think of this as a
pretty big benchmark chapter. By the time this is online, it will bring
"The Road to Cydonia" to about the 500,000 word mark. Half a million.
Not bad! The whole adventure has turned out to run much longer than I
originally thought. And I still have to finish it!

But it isn't just a benchmark in terms of length. I'm finally tying up
the last few loose ends, including the stamp of approval on the is-
it/isn't-it Ryouga/Nabiki pairing. I hope that that scene in particular
shows just how far the two characters, especially Ryouga himself, have
come over the course of those 500,000 words and 32 Chapters of TRTC.

I've tried to take the Ryo/Nabs thing slow and handle it in a believable
way with the two gradually becoming fonder of the other, and seeing some
of themselves in someone they had previously had only a passing or
professional interest in. I treated both characters like they needed
someone to really confide in; someone to accept their quirks. I'll admit
that I had to soften up Nabiki a good deal over the course of the fic to
make that work, but I think she still maintains a lot of what many like
in the character: her intelligence, insight, wit and, of course, her
manipulative tendencies and avaricious greed. Ha. But I've tried not to
make her into a Suffering Saint Nabiki like a lot of fics tend to do.

Ryouga, as really the central character of the fanfic, has undergone the
most development up to this point. Even before that, I used the post-
manga Ryouga who was already developing a relationship with Akari, and
I'll admit that this made things a bit easier for me. Takahashi actually
develops the lost boy more than his rival in many respects, and he is
the only person who actually seems to move on from the Nerima
entanglements by the end of the story.

The story of TRTC is in many ways the story of how the NWC members come
together in a time of extreme crisis and form bonds of camaraderie that
"save them" in some way, or that at least allow them room to grow. Ukyou
rediscovers her commitment to her Art and what it means (a theme already
touched on in the manga); Ryu reforms the Yamasenken; Shampoo and Mousse
have to correct the mistakes of their Elders, and carry on their
heritage where Cologne and the others failed, learning in the process
that they are a part of a broader society of like minded individuals -
their friends; Akane proves herself by making it into an XCOM squad
without being a tag-along or a burden, and she does it through hard work
and against Ranma's own attempts to keep her out of danger; Konatsu
finds a place where he feels he both belongs and where he can put his
skills to use in a way that brings him dignity; Nabiki likewise realizes
that she had to grow up some and clean up her act if she wants to make
something of herself, and she works hard to prove that she's worth that
karmic second chance. Ranma takes control of his life, bit by bit, and
even against his own inclinations. Even Kuno... well, Kuno doesn't learn
much, but he has a grand adventure that any samurai would be envious of!

Ryouga... he goes from practically suicidal and almost psychotically
obsessed with revenge to finally learning to move on with his life and
live - not for revenge - but because he genuinely wants to. All of the
above, his friends and their trials and ambitions, are what really pull
him back from becoming the monster he could easily have turned into. In
the end, even the worst of all mind-fucks and the return of all his
worst memories didn't change that he knew he had friends and a reason to
keep living and fighting.

So we've come a long way, and we're heading into the home stretch!

I hope my readers have enjoyed TRTC, that they feel that the characters
developed in interesting and realistic ways, and are looking for more.
(cracks his knuckles) Well, guess I better get back to work, eh?

I also hope people aren’t too disappointed that I didn’t write the
P-chan confession like many were expecting. Truth be told, as I
approached this chapter, I came to think that the confession itself had
been done virtually to death and from pretty much every angle. Sometimes
it seems a fanfic is unusual if it doesn’t have a P-chan confession of
some sort. Instead, I decided to focus on how the confession and
discovery affects the characters rather than the event itself… and
ultimately, how pretty much everyone involved makes less of it than
the Great Drama some assume it would be. Given how much has changed
over the course of TRTC, I think this is doubly true.


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