A Duet of Pigtails
By Libby Thomas
Based on characters and storylines in Ranma½ by Rumiko Takahashi
and Magic Knight Rayearth by CLAMP
Girl Talk and Pillow Conversations
The atmosphere at the Ucchan's was, as always, jovial and comfortable, with the smells of okonomiyaki cooking and takoyaki baking. Although the restaurant was closed for the day due to inventory, it forever had the same delightful scent, one that spoke of a love of cooking and a passion for the joys of life.
That combination had made Ukyo the moderate success she was. Although she could easily afford to open a few more restaurants, she never did; she wanted to make sure that the food was of the finest quality available, and the only way to ensure that was to personally oversee--and almost all the time, actually do--the cooking herself. Still, she'd expanded the place, and what had once been the residential section of the building was now the second floor of the Ucchan's; she'd moved into a small house across the street from Furinkan High.
The staff had changed as well, throughout the years. Konatsu had long since left to start his own clan; he and Ukyo kept in touch and were still friends, though he knew that she was destined to be alone so long as Saotome Ranma was unavailable. Tsubasa had not been seen in years, and for that, Ukyo thanked the kami daily. The people that worked with Ukyo now were a young woman who Ukyo didn't really associate with after hours, and a male waiter who flirted with her, but not more than that. Both had the night off, and had been spared the dreariness of inventory.
Still, romantic vacuum aside, all was not emptiness in her life; that void had been filled in part by the fame of the Ucchan's and that of Ranma's children. Akama was an absolute delight, and he seemed to act more and more like Akane each day; although Ranma and Hikaru felt she was absolutely spoiling him, she didn't agree. After all, he had been her only nephew until Hikama was born, and now she had a niece as well.
In short, life was a blessing for Kuonji Ukyo, and though shed yet to meet a man that measured up to her Ranchan, life was okay. She was only 27, with her long black hair, alluring ebony eyes, and a body that drove most men to distraction. Combine that with her bright and cheerful personality, and she could easily get a man; the one that ended up with her would be blessed, indeed. However, until that day to come (and if it would), she was content to be with her extended family, and there was nothing she wouldnt do for the Saotomes, the Tendo sisters, and the Hibikis. She was as much a part of their life as she was of theirs.
Right now, however, one of those in her life was hurting. All night, Hikaru had been near listless, as if shed just been through absolute hell and worse; she seemed oblivious to the world around her. She simply sat there in the booth, barely picking at her food, leaving it mostly untouched--Ukyo knew the redhead was not big on food, but this was over the top. Additionally, while she normally was a massive contributor to any conversation, tonight she uncharacteristically stayed in the background, saying little if anything. Clearly, Hikarus mind was somewhere else, but where exactly the okonomiyaki chef couldnt fathom--for all Ukyo knew, Hikarus mind could be on another world or something of that order.
Then, there was Ranmas response to the whole situation. He had a distinctly worried look in his eyes, though he tried hard to cover it up, trying his best to hide it behind his usual cheer. Shed seen that look once before--the day Akane died. That look originated during the fierce combat between his late wife and Shampoo, and it was the only time, his fear of cats excepted, that hed ever shown a look of true fear, and Ukyo had a hunch that this was worse. That fear had been followed by a depression so strong, it had taken them years to get him out of it, and only due to the determination of his loved ones and a second chance at love.
Now, after having survived such a pit of despair, for him to have that look again was clearly a harbinger of disaster. Seeing that look again on his face gave Ukyo pause, while she tried to contemplate as to why such a dark glance would have returned. Could they be fighting? That idea was dismissed immediately for the folly that it was. While the lives of Saotomes Ranma and Akane was that of a powerful love-hate relationship, all that was between Ranma and his second wife was that of a pure and eternal love. Even during their most vehement disagreements, such as the one the other day regarding that guy from France, they were able to overcome it with relative speed. No, there was no fighting here, and whatever it was, marital strife had nothing to do with it.
But the end result, no matter what, was that it was eating her--both of them--alive. Ukyo couldnt stand that, and decided to act. Having the fortune to sit next to the redhead, she leaned over and whispered, "Hikaru, are you okay?"
"Un," Hikaru replied in that monosyllabic phrase that usually passed for agreement. "Ah, yes." It was a completely automated and canned response, and so unlike Hikaru. Ukyo idly thought that she would have gotten a more animated response by calling the NTT operator and asking for the time.
Ranma, however, caught Ukyos loaded question, and flashed a message in a brief eye contact with her: I trust you, Ucchan, but do you really want to know? His following words, however, were different, but no less loaded than hers. "So, Ucchan, you seeing anyone lately?" It hurt him, even as he said it, for he knew the sad, sorry truth, one that hed inflicted on her though it was never meant: she loved him so much, and was so dedicated to him, that she would die alone before spending a minute with anyone else.
She flashed back, Yes, anything to help, Ranchan, although she replied, "Actually, I do. Tomorrow, Ill be out with Kunoji Ryoma. Nice guy, though not like you, Ranchan. However, guys got enough heart for four people." In truth, however, she would be helping the rest of the "Kunoji Ryoma" gang--namely Kuno, herself, Ryoga, and Ranma--get their parts ready for tomorrow. After all, it was Hikarus 26th birthday, and everyoned been planning their parts for a couple of weeks, now.
Idly, Ukyo thought that maybe that was why they had those looks. Ranma mightve been worried that his wife mightve found out what he was going to get her; admittedly, while the Tendo-Saotome dojo was no longer in debt, they werent on financial peaks, either. Hikaru, on the other hand, dived into others birthday plans with a cheerleaders fanaticism, and since theyd been on the quiet about their plans, maybe shed thought theyd all forgotten. Yeah, that would be it.
Hopefully, that was the reason. Although, Ukyo silently admitted, it probably wasnt.
Ranma, for his part, noted the pending conversation and realized it was his time to get scarce. He took note of the clock on the wall, then of his children, sleeping in the booths next to the adults. "Looks like the little ones are wiped out. Think its time we start heading back to the dojo," he commented, giving Ukyo a glance to indicate that the ball was in her court.
Ukyo took that ball and ran with it. "Hikaru, I hate to be a bother an all," she began, hoping that she sounded a bit flummoxed, "but I need a favor from you."
That at least brought a bit of the redheads normal personality out. "Sure, Ukyo. What can I do for you?" That was probably one of Hikarus best graces, Ukyo felt. Hikaru was always willing to put aside her problems to help others. It had been that very trait that had brought her into Ranmas life.
"Ah," Ukyo flustered, hoping that she was doing a credible enough imitation of a blush, "Ive, um, no idea of what to wear in my wardrobe, for tomorrow. Ysee, its been a...few...years...since Ive gone out on a date, and...." Ukyo genuinely blushed as she realized exactly how long it had been since she went on a date--it had been a month after Ranmas marriage to Akane, when Konatsu insisted he take her out to dinner just to get her mind off her depression. That had been nearly seven years past.
From her point of view, Hikaru smiled gladly. Ukyos life was so lonely at times, and if she really, finally met someone, Hikaru would only be more than blessed to help her out. "Of course. Id be honored." She looked over to Ranma. "Do you mind?"
"Not in the least, beautiful, especially when it comes to Ucchan. Ill take the kids home, and that should free you up." Checking the children again, he noticed that the twins were still peacefully asleep in their bassinets, while Akama turned, yawned, and began to doze again.
"Thanks, love." She leaned over, gently kissed her husband, and added, "I shouldnt be gone too long, sweetheart. Promise you try not to miss me too much while Im gone?"
Ranma chuckled. "You know I will." He stood up, stretched, then helped Hikaru to her feet. As Hikaru went to ready the children, Ranma went to Ukyos side, kissed her on the forehead, then commented, "Let me know how it goes tomorrow, ne?" To Hikarus ears, it would sound like he was referring to the supposed date.
Ukyo unsuccessfully repressed a shudder as she felt that tender brush on her skin. It was to Hikarus credit that she knew it for the innocent gesture that it was; Akane would have slammed Ranma halfway to Montana before realizing...if she did. However, at that moment, Ukyo felt her long-repressed desire for Ranma rise to the surface once more, as well as feelings of missing Akane. Things were so simple, back then, she thought, the irony clear in her mind. Sensing an awkward silence coming upon them, she replied, "Why bother? Hes nowhere as good as you, Ranchan." There, she thought idly, that should cover my tracks.
As Ukyo rose from her seat, Hikaru had just finished waking up Akama, instructing him to be on his best behavior. "You have to help your father watch the twins, ne, Akama-chan?"
"Hai, Okaasan," the young boy replied, rubbing the sleep from his eyes. Inside him, Akama was very quiet and still, trying his best not to burst with excitement. On the way home from Aunt Ukyos restaurant, he and his father could talk about Akamas plans for tomorrow. After all, he, his father, and Aunt Nabiki had been working on his plans for two whole days. It had been, simply, the longest the young boy had ever planned on things.
Hikaru saw the gleam in her sons eye...and fortunately misunderstood it. "Akama, and dont give your father a hard time with your bath, ne? You know how he dislikes to change."
Akama nodded. Otoosan had a magic spell on him that made him look an awful lot like Okaasan when he got wet. If Akama had the same problem, he wouldnt like it either, so he would help his father out.
So he initially went to hug his Aunt Ukyo, thanking her for dinner and everything. He then turned that hug on his mother, promising he would behave. He then grabbed his jacked and commented to his father, "Ready to go, Otoosan," while tugging on the tail of his fathers shirt.
Ranma turned around and smiled at his soon. "Good. Lets go then. Ucchan, thanks for dinner and take care, old friend. Hikaru, go easy on her wardrobe, ne?" He grinned, then gently took the bassinet from Hikarus hands and headed for the door. "Mata, ne," he said, and with another grin, four Saotomes exited the Ucchans.
Ukyo looked at Hikaru. "Ready to go, Hikaru-chan?"
Hikaru smiled as the pair headed for the door. "I guess. I just hope that your wardrobe survives my rearranging." The redhead and the brunette stepped out the door, heading in the opposite direction of Ranma and his entourage.
A man strolled through the Immigration room in Terminal One of New Tokyo International Airport, commonly referred to by the same name as the ward it was in, Narita. He was just over six feet tall, with short black hair and piercing brown eyes. His goatee gave his oriental features an elegant, Hong Kong-sophisticate look, though hed never been there. His suit was rumpled from the 7-hour flight from Honolulu, even though hed spent it relatively comfortably in the Business section of the aircraft. In his hand he carried a small duffel bag, while in the other, his passport.
He yawned, exhaustion creeping into his features for a second or two before he banished it back to where it usually belonged. He ignored the appreciative glance that the young Passport Control clerk was giving him. Although she was cute, he was certain that he wouldnt have any time to do any social activities; the company would want him back in Honolulu as soon as possible. Plus, she did kind of remind him of a girl he knew from a long time ago--although there werent many girls with short pink hair and green eyes that he knew of.
So instead of responding to her kawaii overtures, he simply gave her his passport. She noticed his rejection, pouted slightly, then turned on her professional demeanor, and looking that the blue-hued US passport, commented in English. "Business or leisure, Mr. Tseng?"
"Business." He sighed; shed used that kawaii voice, and hed always hated whenever women used that high-pitched, "my-brains-on-helium" vocal tone, even though he knew it was standard for any woman involved in customer services in Japan. "Im here for a meeting with my companys local subsidiary."
She nodded in that way Japanese do when they agree, then continued, "And youll be staying at?"
"Pacific Grande Meridien Hotel, Ariake Island." She nearly gasped when he said that; the man-made island just off the coast of Shinagawa ward was pretty expensive to visit, and any hotel on that island even more so, and the Pacific Grande Meridien was probably the most expensive in town, if not the country. Inwardly, he grunted; hed rather have stayed at the Prince Hotel in Ebisu, but the company wanted him at the PGM. Idiots, he mentally seethed. The travel department obviously never tried to ride the ever-faulty Shimbashi Monorail or the perpetually-crowded Tokyo Teleport. It was going to be hell getting off the island on a daily basis. Hed have to rent a car; itd been so long since hed driven on the left side of the road.
The girl began her kawaii overtures again. From his view, it was clear that she realized that although he wasn't near her age he was still in the zone, and with tons of cash--rich Amerikajin. Time to be rude, though he disliked it; he was enough of a punk when he was younger and he hated it when he had to be that way now. "If thats all, miss," he said in Japanese, rather brusquely.
She snapped out of whatever china setting she was picking for the wedding and came back to reality. "Oh yes, Mr. Tseng. Youre free to go." She wrote a few things down, date-stamped his passport, slipped a few customs documents into it then handed it back to him. As he walked off, she winked at him, blushed and said softly, "Welcome to Japan and enjoy your stay, Mr. Tseng."
Heading down the steps that would take him to the First Floor of Terminal One, the young man walked with an easy grace. The minute he was out of eyeshot, he opened up his passport, looking at the documents--and the business card shed slipped into it. He initially thought that was sweet of her, glancing at the name: NIJIRONO SHIKISAI. He might have to call her, after all. Any girl with a name that meant "Colors of the Rainbow" must be interesting...especially since she seemed so familiar.
He walked over to the Hertz Japan rental, when he was stopped by another person, a Caucasian, blonde about his size, and also dressed in a business suit. The man was about a decade or so older than him, but seemed cut from the same cloth as Michael. "Michael Tseng? Im Martin Aston. I was sent by the company to pick you up."
Michaels eyes hardened. "Oh really?"
Martin Aston nodded. "I was sent by Donovan. He told me to tell you that stocks are up for Namcot and SOJ." Michael nodded in response; only Donovan Cheng, his mentor, would comment on such a thing.
Nothing further to be said, Michael followed Aston to the car, a nondescript tan Nissan Infiniti G20--hed read in the papers that Nissan had finally begun to introduce the Infiniti brand in its native country in the hopes of boosting sales. Once settled in the passenger seat and his bags in the trunk, the pair were off. There was a soft beep of a cel phone, and Aston fished it out of his pocket, handing it to Michael without even greeting the caller. "Its for you."
Figures, Michael thought with disdain for usual company rules. Taking the the phone, opened it and answered in Japanese, "Moshi moshi. Tseng desu."
The voice on the other side sounded old and gruff. //Id forgotten that you spoke Japanese, Mike.//
Michael smiled. Only one person ever called him Mike, even though he didnt care for it. "Hell, Donovan," he commented in a warm voice as he switched back to English, "What souvenirs do you want from Tokyo?"
//Ha, ha, ha,// Donovan commented in a humorless voice. //Mike, I just called to see that you made it alright. But more important to call and tell you to keep on your toes, old friend. The Company thinks youve gone loose cannon on this, and Im doing my Goddamn utmost to make sure they dont find out what the details are. Are you sure you really want to do this?//
"No--no, Im not sure," Michael admitted. "Thats why I had to come. Thats the only way Ill know if I am sure."
//I understand. Just watch your back. Oh, and if you run into trouble, give Martin there a call. Hes also been in the same situation as you are, and Ive worked with him for a number of years. Hell watch your back.//
"Thanks, Donavan. Give my regards to your wife, and tell her Ill pick up that kimono she wanted."
//Im sure Juliell appreciate it. Thanks, Mike. Take care. See ya.//
"Thanks, Donovan." He hit the off switch on the cel phone, then handed it back to Aston.
Aston declined. "Thatll be yours while youre in town, Tseng."
"Michael, if you please. Donovan said I can trust you."
"Okay, then Im Martin. Well chat about old times later," the older man said, implying something. He reached to his side and handed Michael a large and fairly thick envelope. "Heres the information you requested. Some of it comes from local sources, some from HUMINT. When we get to your hotel room--which is a secure one, by the way--Ill brief you on what to expect."
Michael barely heard him. He instead tore open the envelope, and began to read the portfolio inside, some of it in Japanese, some of it in English, and all of it bearing the words TOP SECRET: CODE NAME--STAMPEDE. The cover of the portfolio bore the emblem of the United States Central Intelligence Agency, and was not surprising, since both people in the car were "washers"--assassins--for the "Company".
"Damn," Michael breathed after staring at the file for a minute or two.
"Something wrong?" Martin asked.
"No, nothing. Its just that my eyes get tired after a while and I have to resort to my glasses. I hate using them," he grumbled.
"Know the feeling," Martin admitted, "since I used em myself until I got contacts. Ever consider them?"
"Laser surgery," Michael commented, tapping his left temple with a finger. "Took care of most of my problem, but not all of it." He snapped his fingers once and out of nowhere, produced a pair of thin-lens glasses. Martin, somewhat familiar with Michaels dossier, didnt blink an eye.
"Thats better." Michael smiled; he had a grand appreciation for his improved eyesight--thin-lens or no lens--since it came with his total makeover, years ago. But that had been six years ago.
A lifetime ago.
Michael Tseng--once known as Mousse--began to read the STAMPEDE file once more, updating himself on his newest target, one that he chose himself, one that no one, save that of Donovan and this Aston guy, knew of:
A resident of Nerima known as Saotome Ranma.
"So, what do you think of this?" Ukyo said as she held out a simple blouse and skirt for Hikarus perusal. Ukyo was already at her wits end trying to find excuses on what to wear and why this wouldnt be good or that wouldnt suit her. She was also trying to find an opening that would allow her a chance to have that little discussion with the redhead. Half an hour had gone by so far, and she hadnt found one yet.
"Ukyo, that looks fine," Hikaru commented, her voice on the verge of boredom. It had been the umpteenth ensemble that Ukyo had asked about--then rejected. Hikaru knew something was up; Ukyo was tense, and Hikaru had never known her to be that way. "Ukyo," the redhead commented in her most controlled voice, "you dont have to play with me. I know why youre doing all this."
"You do?" Ukyo squeaked, surprised that she had been caught, even as a bead of sweat appeared on her forehead. I thought I was being careful about this! Ranmas gonna kill me for sure! "Listen, Hikaru, I can explain every--"
"Dont bother." Hikaru smiled, then added, "Im just surprised that after all these years, youre still trying to capture his heart. Ukyo, you already have it--he loves you dearly, and youre his best friend. You dont have to go out on dates that you dont want to just to get his attention. Im not trying to take away your friendship with him--I never have."
Ukyo sighed, relieved that Hikaru had not only misunderstood, but had also given her the opening that Ukyod wanted. "Oh, that--you misunderstand, Hikaru. Ive known you long enough, so thats not a concern. And Im going on this date not because Im trying to make Ranma jealous--" she fumbled with a valid reason--"but because I think this Ryoma guy is kinda nice, just like I said. Sides, Im not the one with problems at the moment."
Hikaru shut down her conversation, sensing a verbal snare. "What do you mean, Ukyo?"
Ukyo gave Hikaru a deadpan stare. Taking the verbal offensive, she ventured, "All night youve been acting like somethings on your mind, Hikaru. You probably dont want to bother me with it, but I can assure you its no trouble." She tossed her clothing back into the closet, and sat beside her friend. "You really look as though you need to talk to someone about it...and that you and Ranchan are having difficulties as a result."
Hikarus eyes became downcast. She wasnt sure of what to say. Ukyo was one of Ranmas closest friends, someone he considered as much family to him as his sisters and his parents. Plus, Ukyo did know a little about Hikarus pyromancy, but not where she learned it. "Its not something I like talking about, Ukyo," she confided, trying to think of a way on how to explain the whole Cephiro ordeal.
The truth was, there was no reasonable way that Hikaru could explain her time on Cephiro, and yet she couldnt bring herself to lie, since that was something she disliked as well. Still, there was an answer, a compromise of sorts: she could give Ukyo an edited story. It wasnt exactly lying, simply omitting parts that were...decidedly less believable than others, despite their veracity. Hikaru felt that under the circumstances, perhaps it was the only way to explain.
"Well," she began, "a long time ago, I had two other friends, as close to me as you and Ryoga are to Ranma. We were together through thick and thin, and there was nothing we wouldnt do for one another. However, years ago, they moved far away, to another kingdom.
"Well, earlier today, I received...a message...from one of them. Shes in trouble, and shes asked for my help. And I would gladly go to help Fuu, except...." Hikaru trailed off, not because of editing purposes, but a lance of pain that went through her heart.
Ukyo noticed it immediately, immediately commenting, "Except for what, Hikaru?"
"Except for Umi." Hikarus words were so quiet, that the brunette strained to hear them.
"Whos Umi?" Ukyo asked.
"Ryuuzaki Umi. She used to be my other best friend...until she stole my boyfriend," Hikaru said. "I loved Lantis, and she was on the verge of making a play for a guy named Ascot, when she ended up seducing Lantis and getting pregnant. She claimed that they were drunk, and that they never meant for it to happen, but Ive been thinking about it over the years. Umi had to have known what she was doing. She meant to take Lantis, I believe.
"I know that all of you refer to me constantly as perpetually innocent, sometimes on par with Kasumi. Believe me, any innocence that I had was lost long ago when I was betrayed by Umi. She did something totally inconceivable--she hurt me. And not just that simple I-made-a-mistake kind of hurt, it was the full, betraying type. For months, I hurt just as deeply as Ranma did after Akane died. And if it werent for each other, neither of us would have learned to love again.
"But I digress. Anyway, Umi lives near Fuu, and thats just one of the reasons why I dont want to go--Im not sure I want to deal with Umi and what she did to my life, even though Ive moved on. Theres another reason, but Id rather not talk about it." That reason, she admitted to herself, was that of her status as the Pillar, and what shaky ground that it was still on. "But the main thing is that Im torn between confronting Umi and helping Fuu."
"And Fuu wouldnt call you just frivolously, right?"
"No. She knows about the bad blood between Umi and I, and I know that she would do just about anything to spare me that pain. Also, I dont think that it would be a case of trying to make peace between us...its been years since I heard from her, and if she was trying peacemaking, she would have done it years ago."
"So this is serious, then? And if so, how far would you go to help your friend?" It was, Ukyo thought, an academic question. Shed known Hikaru for years, and knew exactly how far the redhead would go to help the common stranger, and that much more for her own kith and kin--she would do just about anything.
Hikaru nodded hesitantly. "Most likely. I just dont know what to do, Ukyo. Ill be going there, and while Id love to see Fuu again, and would do anything in my power to help her, I just dont know if I can face Umi and the child that she had with Lantis. A child, that under different circumstances, would have been mine.
"Then theres my feelings about Lantis. I havent seen him since the night of Fuus wedding. Dont get me wrong, Ukyo; I love Ranma with my heart and soul, and he and our children are the best things in my life. But I think that my feelings for Lantis are the same as yours for my husband. Id rather avoid that awkwardness--Im sure you can understand that."
The redhead looked at Ukyo, her eyes pleading and heart begging. " I just dont know what to do, Ukyo. I know Ranma doesnt want me to go. I know I dont want to go. But Fuu wouldnt call me unless she was really in trouble, and I was the only one who can help. Its a long way from here to where they are, and if they want me to come, then I really am Fuus last chance." She sighed, then reached over and took a large quaff from a glass of water, before asking the inevitable question. "Oh Ukyo, what should I do?"
Ukyo sighed; the whole mess was mind-boggling, to say the very least, and not even her wildest adventures with her friends and foes could equate to what the redhead was going through at the moment. She pursed her lips in thought, then looked at Hikaru and said, "Hikaru, I wish I knew what to say. Certainly anything that I can say to you will be of no help whatsoever. In the end, you can only make that choice that applies to you, and no one else--not even Ranma--can help you with that, though Im sure hell support your decision." She went over and hugged Hikaru. "And you can count on me being there, too."
"Thanks, Ukyo." Hikaru forced a smile to her face, knowing that although it would soothe Ukyo, it wouldnt soothe the turmoil that was within Hikaru. Shed hoped that this small conversation would have shed some light on her problems. Instead, it only made them worse.
"Look at the time," Hikaru commented as her eyes settled up on Ukyos clock on the nightstand. "Ive gotta go." She went up and hugged Ukyo, thanking her for the drink and the talk, and apologizing that she could not be of any more help in choosing what she was to wear for the next days date.
As Hikaru left the Kuonji household, a melancholy Ukyo whispered, "Im sorry that I cant be able to give you the help that you wanted." Ukyo continued to watch the redhead as she walked down the street, then eventually turned and disappeared from view.
"Damn," onna-Ranma swore under her breath. IT had happened again--IT meaning her ability to be a water magnet. While it didnt happen as much as in the past, when it did happen, it happened at the least likely times. Like now.
Akama looked up at his father and asked, "Does it hurt when you change, Otoosan?" A couple walking by them whispered that it was cute that the young boy should call what was clearly his mother "Father".
Ranma all but raised her hands to the heavens--and not that last gesture only due to the fact that she had the twins in her arms. Why me? Turning to her son, the redhead commented, "No, it doesnt hurt, Akama, but it does feel weird when I do change. I cant quite describe it," she admitted as she approached the grounds of the Saotome-Tendo dojo, then began fishing in her pockets for her keys. "Its like...well, its like--"
"Its like when youre taking snow," a new--and male--voice commented, "and making a snowball or a snowman out of it. Its still the same thing, but just different."
"Oooh, philosophy," Ranma crooned at the voice, her voice a mocking tone though it was meant in good nature. "Suddenly youre getting smart, Ryoga."
A man about Ranmas age stepped out of the shadows. Built a little more than Ranmas male form, he had long hair cascading down past his shoulders, green eyes that glittered like blazing emeralds, and a pair of long canines. He wore a black top and blue monpei pants and had a faded bandana around his forehead. On his back was a large red hikers-style backpack that was accompanied by a red bamboo umbrella. A change, however, was that he wore a smile on his face that was warm and genuine. "Got caught again by the sprinklers on Kanon-dori, right?"
"No, actually, it was by old Yamada-sans place. The birdhouse in his tree broke, and hit me on the head. It had just enough water...."
"Your kids alright?" Ryoga inquired, as a ghost of worry flitted across his features.
"Yeah, I turned in time to shield em."
"Uncle Ryoga!" Akama went up and latched himself onto Ryogas leg, who felt it instantly.
Looking down, he deadpanned, "youre getting stronger every day, Akama. Keep it up, and youll soon be able to beat your father and I."
"You maybe," the redhead teased. "I, for one, will probably remain unbeaten."
"Cmon, Ranma, Ive beat you more than a few times."
"Wrong. Youve defeated me. Ive never been beaten, cause I always bounce back." As Ryoga nodded from the sage wisdom, Ranma continued her conversation. "So, what brings you here so early, Ryoga? Hikarus birthday isnt until tomorrow, and the farms only in Odawara, so it aint that far away."
"Look, Ranma," he commented, "although my directions improved over the last few years or so, it still aint perfect. I thought it would be best if I got over here so I wouldnt miss a single bit while trying not to get lost in Ofuna." He pushed the hair out of his eyes, and added, "Sides, I was hoping to spend a little male bonding with my best friend," he snickered, "although that might be a problem at the moment."
"Oh gee, you think?" Ranma snapped back, her angry tones belying her sense of humor. "What would ever give you that idea?" She smiled, then said, "Cmon in. Lets get you a beer, me changed back into a guy, then well put the little ones to bed and catch the basho results. Well have to think of a reason why youre here when Hikaru shows up." Seeing his curious face, Ranma added, "Shes at Ukyos, having a little girl chat."
Ryoga couldnt resist the jab. "And you didnt join in?"
Ranma playfully slugged him with her free hand. "Just cause I change into a girl, doesnt mean I get free passes to the Secrets of Life as told by girls. Or did your change give you the lowdown on a pigs life?"
Ryoga grinned. "Im gonna get you for that," he said as he held the door open for Ranma and Akama. "After you, miss."
"Screw the beer and terebi," Ranma said over her shoulder. "After I change and take care of the kids, Im going to pound you into the floor for a few hours in the dojo. Its only 8:30, so that should give us a couple of hours or so, ne?"
"Id prefer that anyway," Ryoga replied smoothly. "Ah, nothing like a little male bonding." Both adults laughed softly as they entered the house.
On the way home from Ukyos house, Hikarus mind was a mess. Her conversation with Ukyo opened up more questions than gave answers to. All these years, while she missed Fuu, shed never really gave a thought about Umi--or Lantis. She was secure in her love for Ranma, and would never leave him, and she was sure he wouldnt be jealous, but she admitted to herself that her caged-away emotions from the past would be awkward, to say the least.
Turning the next street onto Kanon-dori, she was still a few blocks away from her house, and thus had plenty of time to sort things out for herself. With the hour quickly approaching midnight--shed stayed at Ukyos far longer than shed intended--the streets were empty, and crime was non-existent in Nerima, anyway. Besides, anyone who wished to take her on would have to deal with a fireball in his face--Hikaru still might be a bit out of shape due to her recent birth, but she was by no means unprotected.
That didnt matter much anyway; the main issue at hand was that of her problem. Did she still love Lantis? She wasnt sure how she felt about Umi. Those were the negatives. Then there were the positives. Fuu, Ferio, and the rest of her friends that shed left on that gorgeous world, so far away and long ago. Shed be more than happy to see them again, and she missed them so.
Then there were the other factors to consider: her family here, with Ranma, and her three children. The rest of them, her friends and family, all that which made Saotome Hikaru the person that she was, the successful mother, wife, sister, friend, and kendo instructor that everyone loved and cherished. If she left, who knew how long she would be gone--assuming she ever returned. There was a western saying that the third time was a charm, and that charm might be the one that would kill her. Ranma and their children might never know what happened to her.
Then on the other side, was her status in that world. She was the Fire Knight and the Knight Commander, but she was also the last Pillar. Though she abolished the system, the people of Cephiro might not think so. The PLANET itself might not think so. And what was a Pillar, anyway? Though shed never really been treated that way, she saw it in their eyes: messiah, archangel, goddess. Megamisama.
She was no goddess. She was Saotome Hikaru.
She stopped at a nearby soda machine in front of a closed newspaper stand, pumped 120 yen into it and tapped a button. The machine made a few clunking noises before it spit out a can of Aquarius for her. She took the can, took a sip, then realized that she needed someone to talk to. Not her husband or anyone in his family; not that she couldnt trust them, but it would be their level of worry that she wanted to avoid (well, that and her father-in-law). Likewise, for the same reason, she couldnt tell her brothers. It would be difficult, anyway, since most of the Shidou family lived so far apart now: While Satoru lived still in their old home; Masaru and his wife had been moved by his company to a job in America; Kakeru was an officer in the JASDF now, and lived up north in Misawa with his family.
So who could she talk to and bear everything, and get an objecti--
Wait. Theres one person that I can talk to, she realized. She took another sip of her drink, then set it down on the green NTT payphone next to the soda machine. She reached into her purse, and produced her phone card. Sliding it into the phone slot, she picked up the phone and dialed a few numbers. As the phone rang, Hikaru only hoped that her friend was home. She was the only person that she knew she could count on, under the circumstances--the only other person on Earth besides Ranma that shed ever told about her life in Cephiro.
The phone rang for a small eternity, before a sleepy voice answered, //Moshi moshi. Hououji Kuu desu.//
"Kuu-chan? Its Hikaru. Im sorry to be calling so late at night, but..."
//No, its okay,// the voice said, trying not to sound irritable. //You usually call earlier than this, Hikaru-chan. Are you okay? Did you and Ranma have a fight? Do you need a place to stay over?//
"Physically Im fine, and thank you but no, Im alright. But what I have to talk to you is extremely important. Its about Fuu."
She could hear some rustling in the background, immediately followed by, //Im up. Whats happened to her, is she alright? Has something happened in Cephiro?//
"I dont know," Hikaru admitted, before launching into a capsule version of the evenings events.
Kuu, on her end, sat quietly, listening to everything she the younger woman had to say before commenting, //It might be an overreaction, but I understand your fears, Hikaru-chan. Would you like me to come over tomorrow and we can talk about it? In fact, since I remember that tomorrows your birthday, we can discuss it over lunch and a museum showing or two, ne?//
Hikaru smiled on her end. "If you could, but lunch isnt necessary, Kuu-chan. Besides, what about your Flower shop?"
//Yes it is. I dont have my little sister to dote on anymore, and youve always been like one to me. And as for my Flower shop, I think Nae could use the extra day of work--she always she needs the extra money. So, Ill see you tomorrow, say about 8:00?//
"Un!" Hikaru felt a little better now. "Okay, then, its a deal. Im sorry for waking you up, Kuu-chan. Have a nice evening."
//Mata ne, bai-bai.// The phone went silent as Kuu hung up. As Hikaru replaced the handset in its cradle and retrieved her card, she smiled to herself. At least she would be able to talk to someone who wouldnt be panic-stricken about her or her sanity. Hikaru picked up her can of Aquarius, and continued on her way, heading the few remaining blocks before she got home.
On Cephiro, another summoning beacon lanced into the nighttime sky, destination unknown. Within the destroyed remnants of Hiace, Daimlers eyes followed the trajectory of the beam, inspecting it as he had done with the last beacon a few days ago. As it headed for the same spot it did last, where it made the sky ripple, he seemingly said to himself, "And so another prayer of hope is sent towards their mysterious benefactor. Are you so sure that youll be able to accomplish the task I have set before you, Citroen?"
A sultry, sexy voice echoed out from the darkness. "You are asking me to kill what could very well be a god. Not easy under the best of circumstances."
Daimlers eyes flashed with a sort of passive anger. "Speak our language, Citroen. We are not here amongst the local rabble, and thus may speak our true tongue."
The voice rang out of the ebon again, this time in a different speech. "If you insist, though I dont know why. Their language is elegant and musical, not like our own." There was a yawn that carried a bored, yet teasing quality to it, and the speaker continued. "In any event, slaying a god will be difficult."
He turned to face that darkness. "So, Citroen, my dear, you are saying that you cannot accomplish it?"
A woman stepped out from the shadows. Her skin was fair, flawless, and elegant, with the face of a woman who looked younger than she was, seeming to be a teenager, though her aqua eyes held an eternal, immortal quality to them that could not easily be described. Her hair was multi-colored, somehow reminding Daimler of a pet that he once had. Citroens hair strands were tan, brown, and orange, and as they turned with her movements, her whole mane seemed to shimmer with an earthy, mystical quality that was her norm. She seemed to be wearing nothing but a cloak, since the cloak was large enough to conceal most of what she was wearing, save for the tip of a sword scabbard that stuck out.
Citroen looked at him with eyes that were as cool and aloof as the color they showed, and commented simply, "I said it wasnt easy. I never said it was impossible." She strode over to him and got just close enough where her lips barely touched his. "You should know that nothing is impossible for me."
Daimler backed off, knowing that her advances were just part of the constant advantage that she tried to hold over everyone. Citroen was like that, the exact opposite of her twin brother Sharan. "Well, it may be the type of mission that you may never return from. Are you prepared to give your life?"
Citroen frowned, then saluted. "I pledged my life long ago to our cause, Daimler. Dont ever doubt my loyalty."
"I doubt everyones," he admitted matter-of-factly. "Until we have accomplished what The Leader has set here before us, we must do what we must do."
"So speaketh the great leader of the Vanden Plaz," Citroen said, moving closer and pressing her body to his, attempting to elicit a reaction.
It never happened; Daimlers control was either too good, or he was dead from the waist down. "Go and do your job, Citroen. The beam is near its zenith, and you dont have much time."
Citroen stepped back then bowed mockingly, commenting in Cephiran, "Your wish is my command, Daimler." As she bowed, her body began to glow with an unusual light. Finally, a shaft of light blasted up from where she was, and her body seemed to melt into the beam, becoming one with the shaft of light.
As he watched from his location, Citroens transport beam blasted on an intercept course with the beacon. His eyes scanned the beam as it continued to streak its way into the nocturne darkness, the white shaft headed on a collision course with the other band of light. A second later, Citroens transport intercepted the beam and the connection sparkled with magic force. The burst of light was so powerful that for a second, Daimler had to turn his eyes away from the light.
When he looked again on the beam, he noticed that Citroens beam had piggybacked onto the beacon, coiling around it like a spring over a tube--or like a Boa around its victim. Daimler watched as the beacon continued on for a few more meters before dissipating in that aerial ripple that was clearly inter-dimensional transit.
His minion on her mission, Daimler turned away from his watching, and to his next task at hand. The Water Knight had revived, and was not accepting her imprisonment with any sort of good grace. At the moment, she had been stripped of all her clothing, armor and weapons, and warded to prevent her spells.
Daimler went to see to her torture. There was something about her, something familiar that disturbed him, and if he were correct, he would have to let The Leader know immediately that his flank was exposed...
...and that he had traitors on his side.
Hikaru snuck quietly into the house just after 12:15. As she came in, the first thing she noted was an old, familiar umbrella and backpack. She grinned to herself; Ryoga must have went on a training trip and got lost...again. Well, he was always welcome, especially since he and Ranma loved sparring with one another. Ascending the stairs, she crept initially into Akamas room, checking on him, then into the twins room, checking on them and the baby monitor. Although she disliked raising them this way--the Japanese norm was for babies to sleep in the same bed as the parents until they were old enough for their own beds--both she and Ranma tossed and turned a lot in their sleep...and did a few other things on occasion, as well. A naughty gleam flickered in her sienna eyes, accompanied by a smile that appeared on the face of "oh-so-innocent" Hikaru. Silently pouting that Tofu had said no sexual activity until she was fully recovered, she left the twins room and went into hers.
On the futon, Ranma was already asleep. She shrugged out of her clothing, and into a negligee, then crawled into the soothing bed, cuddling next to his warm body. She turned, and laid a kiss on his cheek, trying to put aside her fears and concerns until the next day.
Without opening his eyes, Ranma commented, "So, I guess you and Ukyo talked for a long time, ne?" He opened his eyes, looking at her as she lay there, staring at the darkened ceiling. "Dont blame her. Shes just worried about you, same as me. You should have seen yourself at dinner. You looked a lot like I did when I originally had my curse."
"I wasnt aware I was that depressed," Hikaru replied.
Ranma nodded. "I know this is hard for you, but I want you to know that I love you and will support any decision you make, Hikaru."
"I know." She flashed a smile at him, then kissed him tenderly. The kiss lengthened in time, followed by hands roaming. Hikaru backed off, and commented smartly, "Remember what Tofu said."
Ranma tried not to sound too depressed. "Yeah, I know, but I--"
She tried to conceal the disappointment in her own tones. "Would you rather sleep the rest of the night in your cursed form?"
"Okay then." She turned around, then snuggled against him. "Good. We wouldnt want to injure me violating doctors orders, now would we?" She turned, then added playfully, "But lets get something straight, Saotome: once I am fully recovered...."
"I thought three kids was more than enough for you," he merrily countered.
She voiced a hmph of mock-indignation. "Hentai." She then looked at him dreamily adding, "And theres no other pervert Id rather be with." She snuggled against his chest, and then both fell asleep, dreaming of the love they shared and the hope that the next day would be better...
...and the fear that it probably wouldnt be.
Part Three: Gegege no Hikaru