Converging Series: A Crossover of Unexpected Dimensions.

Act 8


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                                Written by
             RpM, Mike Loader, Ross McKenzie, Chris Willmore,
              David Tai, Kevin Eav and Caroline Seawright
             http://www.thekeep.org/~rpm/converging_series

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                                  Act VIII
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The story so far... 

ACT I: 

     In an alternate reality where Ranma married Shampoo,
their daughter had somehow obtained a magic locket that
allowed her to cross dimensions.  A few accidents later,
several of Ranma's 'children' from various realities ended
up in one reality, where Ranma was still a teen-age youth.
One among them, Ryo Saotome (son of Ranma and Ukyou) managed
to get a hold of the locket before Cologne was about to do
something devious with it.  Following his victory, Ryo sent
all the children of Ranma & company to their proper
realities, and then prepared to go home himself. Something,
however, went wrong.  He ended up in a bizarre version of
Tokyo in 2096 and accidentally dragged along Ratiko Hibiki
and Childra Jansen in his attempt to fix this mistake.  That
attempt dragged him to two other realities with amazing
speed.  From them, he accidentally brought Miyabi, daughter
of Ranma and Akane, and Ishido, a mysterious amnesiac hunted
by a shadowy organization. Finally, they stopped in a
reality where Ranma & co.  were still teens, but had never
met them before.

ACT II: 

     Childra, curious as to what caused their
dimensional/reality shift, watched Ryo Saotome closely, and
discovered that the locket is the source of their troubles. 
She tried, and succeeded, in stealing the locket from him
without his noticing. Ratiko schemed to make sure that the
history of his world took place, and began a plan to kill
Ranma and frame Miyabi for the murder. He succeeded in
getting a blood sample from her and a torn piece of her
clothing, but was interrupted before he could go through
with his plan. In a talk with Ishido, he found out about a
certain umbrella-wielding maniac threatening to kill Ryouga
in Ishido's reality.  In a panic, Ratiko rushed to Childra,
and accidentally triggered the locket. The three of them
found themselves on a bridge somewhere.  Before they left,
they accidentally dragged along Ryo Muhoshin, a person that
looked amazingly like Hikaru Gosunkugi, but in truth was a
bit more devious. Bringing him along, the four crossed
several realities, narrowly escaping danger, capture, and
death. Then they returned to the Nerima they had left from,
with an irate Ryo Saotome waiting for them. Meanwhile,
Miyabi had put up with the antics of her grandparents (Soun
and Genma) who were overjoyed at her existence, distressed
at the way her parents were fighting, greatly annoyed at her
trans-dimensional half brother Ryo Saotome, and had decided
that a talk with Grandmother Nodoka was in order. 

ACT III: 

     Miyabi went to Nodoka's to talk, unaware that Ranma's
life was in danger due to the promise Genma made to Nodoka
regarding manliness and Ranma's upbringing.  The end result
was that Nodoka was invited to dinner, expecting to see her
son, daughter-in-law, and granddaughter.  Miyabi's age,
almost that of Ranma, was, unfortunately, not foreseen as a
major problem by Miyabi. Upon returning from her accidental
trip through time, Childra surrendered the locket to Ryo
Saotome once again.  Meanwhile, the extra passenger they
picked up, Ryo Muhoshin, passed himself off as 'Ryo
Gosunkugi, son of Gosunkugi and Ukyou' and had everyone
fooled. Nabiki got a hold of the material Ratiko was
planning to frame Miyabi with and used it to blackmail him
into buying her dinner, among other things.  They end up at
Ucchan's, where he washed dishes to pay for things.  He
eventually got drunk, hit on Ukyou, and was knocked out by a
blow to the head. Childra and Ishido became more... 
intimately attached.  When his guard was down, Ryo Saotome
was knocked out by Ryo Muhoshin, who then accidentally
triggered the locket and disappeared into times and places
unknown. 

    Ryo Saotome woke up much later to find the locket gone,
an image of it burned in his hand, and discovered what was
inside the locket:

     A picture of him and Bell-chan, his fiancee.

ACT IV:

     Ryo Saotome began making plans to assemble the locket
that he was apparently destined to create (the photo from
the locket being proof of that).  Meanwhile, Ratiko spent
the day with Nabiki, buying her food and treats while also
beginning to feel somewhat attracted to her.  Ishido and
Childra sorted through their fears and anxieties, but in the
end came together in a happy reunion within the local
graveyard.  Miyabi & the Tendo household held a dinner for
Nodoka, who was expecting to see her son at last.  What
happened instead was that she had an interesting experience
with a time traveler (Happosai) and realized that Miyabi
was, in fact, Ranma's daughter from the future.  She also
assumed that 'Ranko' was Genma's daughter from an affair.
Soun briefly assumed Akane was Genma's child from an affair
with his deceased wife.  Things got ugly, but got better
again as they usually did (although Nodoka still thinks
Ranko is Genma's illegitimate child).  Meanwhile, Under the
distrustful eyes of Childra and Ishido, Ryo Saotome used the
arcane resources within Happosai's room to create the
locket.

ACT V:

    Ryo Muhoshin, having borrowed the locket from Ryo
Saotome by means of an umbrella applied to the back of the
head, found himself whisked away to a post-modern,
futuristic world populated by thousands of Kasumis, Ryougas,
and other familiar faces (Ministry of Confusion). After
losing the locket in a fall, he settled in and tried to make
the best of it, striking up a friendship with a Kasumi
extender named Ami. The relationship progressed to the point
of a date, at the end of which Ami was murdered by a berserk
Ryouga extender. Muhoshin killed him in retaliation, and
began a slow but methodical hunt for Ryougas across the
city.

    Ryo Saotome, having remade the locket with some help
from three goddesses of time, arrived in this world just as
Muhoshin killed a Ryouga to recover his own locket. The two
fought inconclusively, with Muhoshin escaping.

    Leaving 'Ministry of Confusion' in a hurried fashion,
Muhoshin rescued one world's Kasumi from a group of
terrorists intent on beating her to death. A veteran
time-jumper already, she took the name Kaeri to distinguish
herself from the more serene person she had been. The two
stayed together for a few weeks, with Kaeri recovering and
picking up some of Muhoshin's skills.  Still obsessed with
the need to protect her family, Kaeri prevailed upon
Muhoshin to take her to Nerima - and off they went.

ACT VI

   Nabiki unwisely allowed Ratiko to take the lead in a
brisk walk through Nerima.  As a result, she found herself
lost in Africa.

   Obeying her wishes, Ryo Muhoshin brought Kaeri to Nerima,
the version of Nerima that just happened to be the resting
place for Ishido, Childra, and the others...

   Miyabi hatches a plan to use Nabiki's tape recording
equipment to make a fake conversation between Ranma and
Akane, so as to discourage the other rivals and possibly
nudge the two closer together.

   Ratiko, after having just one of those days, hunted for
Ranma.  Instead of finding him, he had another one of those
days.

   Ryo Saotome chased Ryo Muhoshin across the worlds,
stumbling through across strange realities, and learning
that he has more power over the locket than he knew.

   Ryo Muhoshin and Saotome confronted each other once more,
with the end result being dozens of injuries and a destroyed
building.  This convinced Ryo Saotome that bringing in
Muhoshin would require a team effort.

   Kaeri spied upon the Tendo household, finding out (much
to her distress) about the fate of her family in Ratiko and
Childra's world and causing much confusion among them until
Ryo Saotome, returning from other worlds, runs into her.
She tells him her tale, leaving out her involvement with Ryo
Muhoshin, and asks for his help in putting an end to the
timeline that creates Ratiko and Childra's world.

   Ryo said no.

   Kaeri hit him when he wasn't looking and took the locket.

   Just before she disappeared, Ryo Saotome, Ishido, and
Ratiko jumped into the fading afterglow of the locket and
all disappeared.


ACT VII:

    Kaeri traveled through time and realities to prevent the
tragedy that gave birth to the reality of Ranma 2096, and
succeeded in doing so.  However, doing so did not change
history as she expected it to, but only split the timeline
into a reality where it did happen and where it didn't.

    Shattered by this fact, Kaeri went into a catatonic
state.  Ryo Saotome and his party of time trippers arrived
just as she collapsed and brought her back.

    With the locket once more in his possession, Ryo Saotome
went with Ishido and Childra to once again stop Ryo
Muhoshin's cross-dimensional murdering spree, leaving Miyabi
to care for Kaeri.

    Ratiko, believing Kaeri's intent to eliminate his
timeline made her too dangerous to live, scheemed to kill
her.

    After a battle in a mysterious deserted city, Ryo
Muhoshin was defeated, but only after he had an odd
epileptic fit which seemed to be linked to the locket which
was now imbedded in his chest and poisoning his body.

    Miyabi walked into Kaeri's room, only to find Ratiko
just about to kill the unconscious girl.


And now...

 Converging Series
 Act VIII

============================================================
                     Converging Series
                           Act 8
============================================================

    For a moment, there was a deadly silence in Kaeri
Tendo's room.

    Ratiko Hibiki stood frozen, holding a pillow, hovering
over Kaeri's head.  He gave a very loud audible gulp.  Maybe
this assassination wouldn't go too smoothly.
 
    Miyabi Tendo was slowly emitting a large red aura which
looked remarkably like that of her mother, the indomitable
Akane Tendo.  "Wh-what do you think you're doing?"  she
managed to squeeze through clenched teeth.
 
    Ratiko gave a nervous smile.  "Aheh, er, fluffing
pillows!  Yeah, that's it!"  He began fluffing the pillow a
lot. "See? Fluffing, right, I'm fluffing, don't want her to
get uncomfortable, right?"
 
    Miyabi slowly approached, her demeanor suddenly going
from psychotic to smiling. "Oh re-ally...?"
 
    Ratiko laughed nervously, then covered his mouth.  Every
fiber of his being was screaming at him to get out of there,
but...
 
    "Ooooo, Ratiko..." Miyabi cooed, coming up close to him. 
"That's sweet of you." 
 
    "Aheh.  Ah..." Ratiko mumbled, trying to back away from
her slowly.  At least until a wall came up behind him.  And
all the while, Miyabi was slowly coming up quite close to
him, a seductive smile on her face, fluttering her
eyelashes.
 
    "And what were you doing with Kaeri, Ratty-chan?" Miyabi
murmured, quite close now.
 
    "Well... aheh... y'know... kill her... and..." 
 
    She moved her lips next to his ear, her breath tickling
his skin.
 
    Then she yelled. 
 
    "RATIKO NO BAKAAAAAAAAAAAAA!" 
 
    And suddenly, a fist entered his field of vision. 
 
    And another. 
 
    And another. 
 
    Miyabi displayed the speed and skill inherited from her
father in a dazzling array of elbows, knees, punches, and
kicks that battered Ratiko like a tornado in a matter of
seconds.
 
    And then, displaying the might of her mother's side, she
pulled out a giant mallet and sent him on the aerial tour of
Nerima. 
 
    -WHAM-

                         * * * * *
 
    Sighing, Miyabi turned back to Kaeri, sitting down by
her bedside and reaching out to brush back a few loose
strands.  Poor Auntie Kasumi... 

    Her eyes fell across the scar, and for a moment, she
thought back to what Ryo Saotome had said about Kaeri.

    Which was practically nothing. 

    She frowned.  Ryo... the big dummy!  Why did she have to
listen to him?  Just because he thought he knew
everything... he had to order everyone around.  And he had
to be so secretive too, like anyone cared about him and his
troubles...  Well, she'd show him!  She'd show him... and
everyone else that she could be just as good!  Just because
she had been spending her time trying to get Mum and Dad
together... 

    She sobered quickly.  No.  Didn't want to think about
that. 

    She missed her family. 

    And looking down at Kaeri, she began to feel that this
Kasumi who was not Kasumi, felt the same way. 

    She reached down to squeeze Kaeri's unconscious fingers. 

    "I guess it's just you and me, right, Auntie...?" 

    There was no answer. 

                         * * * * *

    Flying. 

    It was a wonderful sensation, thought Ratiko, something
to enjoy.

    Normally he enjoyed it when he was in his cursed form,
i.e.  female fruit bat.  Today, however, there was a
problem.  He wasn't a bat, and yet he was airborne. 

    This kinda feels nice, he thought to himself.  Wonder
how I'm gonna land.

    Oh. 

    Uh oh. 

    *WHAM*

    Grey concrete and blue sky swirled around him, along
with a mix of stars.  Fortunately for him, Hibikis are
generally sturdy, and even this, the most cowardly scion of
that family, had a fair amount of endurance to him.

    Which is why, after landing on his face, he suffered
only a sore neck and a broken nose.

    "Ow." 

    Ratiko stood up slowly, wobbling on his feet.  He gently
touched his nose, which reacted by sending a fresh wave of
pain straight to his brain.

    "Ow!" 

    Yes, it was definitely broken.  He ripped off his
bandanna and covered his nose with it, but it was too late
to keep his face clean.  Streaks of blood had already run
down his face, giving him the appearance of being far more
hurt than he really was.

    That appearance didn't get any better when he tripped
and fell flat on his face. 

    "Ow!" 

    Which is where the passing ambulance came in. 

    He'd managed to fall right in front of it as he tripped
and fell.  By the time he managed to stand up again, they
finally saw him.

    And they hit him. 

    *WHAM*

    It was an accident, really. 

    "Hey, Taki, we just hit a guy?" 

    "I think we did, Koji." 

    "Oh man." 

    "Quick! Get'em in the ambulance and tranq'em!  If we
drug him up enough, he might not rememeber!"

    "Good idea!" 

    Before Ratiko could get up again, he found himself
picked up, dropped on a stretcher, and slid into the back of
the ambulance.

    He tried to say something, but the world was still
spinning entirely too much for him to get some proper
sentances arranged for vocalization.

    Instead, he just said, "aag." 

    And then he felt a slight pricking sensation on his arm
and the world went black...


                         * * * * *


    Miyabi was fuming.  It'd been a few hours and she was
STILL waiting for Ryo!  It would have been so much easier if
she knew what she was waiting for, but...

    She turned to look at Kaeri, who was still quiet and
motionless. Sighing, Miyabi sat down at Kaeri's bedside,
tilting her head to watch her silently.  Her attention was
drawn to the large pink scar across Kaeri's face. 

    She shuddered slightly.  No one she knew in her universe
ever got hurt, or angry... well, not for long. 

    She sighed.  Bored.  No use sulking like this.  What
would Mum do?  Wait.  Fight with Dad.  No. 

    Auntie Nabiki would go earn money, but she didn't think
it was a big deal.

    Auntie Kasumi?  She'd tell stories. 

    Stories. 

    She looked at Kaeri. 

                         * * * * *

    The last thing Ratiko remembered was hitting the ground. 
Or was that being hit to the ground?  He wasn't entirely
sure.  The world was a warm and fuzzy place, literally. 
Everything was so... not focused, and everything had a weird
echo too. 

    "Echo echo echo echo whee whee whee whee!" 

    Something felt odd, not quite right.  He felt around
with clumsy fingers and realized that there was something on
his nose.  It was hard, and cold, and didn't seem to be
removable. 

    A part of him wondered if he'd been drugged up.  This,
however, was the common sense area, and Ratiko rarely paid
attention to that. 

    He stood up from the bed (yes, it seemed to be a bed) 
and stumbled around until he found himself before a mirror.
Being a Hibiki, that was a fairly impressive accomplishment
done considering it was done under ten minutes. 

    The mirror seemed blurry. 

    He tried wiping it down a few times, but that didn't
seem to help. 

    Then he wiped his eyes a bit, and that made everything
clearer. 

    "Oh." 

    He had, it seemed, a cast on his nose. 

    "Ah..." 

    And it made him look... sort of... 

    "Aheheh..." 

    ... sort of funny, actually. 

    "Ahehehehehehheeh, looka me!  Clown!  Hehehee!" 

    Ratiko stumbled and bumbled all around his room, giddy
with laughter but not entirely sure what he was laughing at
any more.  It didn't matter.  He was feeling groovy, so
everything was groovy. 

    And with that in mind, he continued to happily groove
about the place, not heeding what or who he ran into. 

                         * * * * *

    Hibikis are known for several things.  One of them is
the talent to get spectacularly lost.  Another is their
above average strength. 

    Hibikis also were always good at generating spectacular
amounts of ki when under emotional stress.

    Finding himself in the hospital, bandaged, and with
various drugs circulating in his system, Ratiko was a time
bomb just waiting to blow.

    And it did.

                         * * * * *

    "Auntie, can you hear me?" asked Miyabi softly, kneeling
by Kaeri's side.  "Auntie Ka... er.. Auntie Kaeri?" 

    Miyabi frowned.  It would take some time to get used to
that name. 

    "I... I don't know if you can hear me," continued Miyabi
hesitantly, "but I hope you can.  You used to take care of
me a lot when I wasn't feeling well, so I guess this is my
chance to do the same for you." 

    Miyabi pulled the blanket around Kaeri, making sure she
was tucked in nicely, then gently caressed her forehead with
her hand.  It didn't seem to ease Kaeri's pained, haunted
face. 

    "When I was sick, hurt, or just feeling sad, I remember
you always used to tell me these stories.  I really don't
know what's wrong with you, but I hope it'll help." 

    Miyabi took a small moment to curse Ryo Saotome for not
telling her what was wrong with Kas... Kaeri.  Then she
closed her eyes, took a deep breath, and tried to remember
the first tale Kasumi had ever told. 

                         * * * * *

    If one could peer into the mind of Kaeri, formerly
Kasumi Tendo, one would see absolute darkness.  The horrific
realization that her entire family was damned, no matter
what she did, was devastating beyond words and brought her
mind collapsing down into nothingness. 

    After all, there was nothing left to hope for. 

    Somehow, through the void of darkness, she heard
something... 

    A faint echo of a familiar voice, a comforting presence
in a time of need. 

    "Ka... Kasumi, can you hear me?" 

    Mother? 

    Her long dormant mind slowly stirred, straining to hear
the faint voice, so near yet oh so far away. 

    Mother, is that you? 

    She felt the gentle caress of a warm hand across her
brow, and a soothing voice drifting softly along.  Through
the haze of her mind, she heard the words that mother once
told her, words of comfort in times of distress. 

    And somewhere in Kaeri's mind, she remembered... 

    The last story. 

                         * * * * *

    She didn't like hospitals. 

    They were so solemn, and quiet, and her mother had been
stuck in one for weeks now and she didn't understand why
mother hadn't come home yet. 

    "Kasumi," said her mother (for she was still Kasumi in
that time), "come hear, dear." 

    "Mother?"  Kasumi found herself at a loss for words, as
the feeling of impending death in the air robbed her of her
voice. 

    "Kasumi," said her mother, in a voice far too weak and
far too tired, "you remember all the stories I used to tell
you." 

    "Y-yes, mother." 

    Mother managed a weak, but still comforting smile as she
took Kasumi's hand in hers.  "I know times have been hard on
you lately, dear, and I'm sorry I couldn't be there for you. 
There's... one more story, my dear Kasumi, that I must
tell." 

    Kasumi noddded slowly, and then her mother told the last
story... 

"Once upon a time in ancient Japan, when a trip between
 cities took days, there was a man and his wife. They lived
 in a remote part of Japan, and were blessed with a little
 girl who was sweet and good and dutiful. 

"One day, the man was called away on business to faraway
 Kyoto.  Before he went he told his daughter that if she
 were good and dutiful to her mother he would bring her back
 a present she would prize very highly.  He kissed his wife,
 and took his leave, as mother and daughter watched him go. 

"Weeks passed, and the mother and daughter kept the cottage
 clean, and played games and laughed with each other, while
 missing the good man very much. 

"At last he returned to his home, and after his wife and
 child had taken off his large hat and sandals, he sat down
 upon the white mats and opened a bamboo basket, watching
 the eager gaze of his little child.  He took out a
 wonderful doll and a lacquer box of cakes and put them into
 her outstretched hands. The daughter laughed and cried for
 joy, and the good wife smiled at her husband.  The man
 a wrapped gift, and bade her to be careful with it.  The
 good wife unwrapped the gift, and exclaimed in surprise. 
 For in it, there was an object with a human face looking
 out at her!  Its convex surface shone brightly, while upon
 its back, there was a design of pine trees and storks. 

"The good man's wife had never seen a mirror before, and on
 gazing into it she was under the impression that another
 woman looked out upon her as she gazed with growing wonder. 
 Her husband laughed, and explained what the object was, and
 bade her to take great care of the mirror. 

"And they were happy for many more years.  But all good
 things come to and end.  One day, the woman became very
 ill. Just before she died, she called to her little
 daughter, and said, "Dear child, when I am dead, take care
 of your father. One day, your father will remarry.  I want
 you to love your new mother as much as you love me." 

""Don't talk like that, mother!  You will get better!" the
 daughter cried.  The mother shook her head.  "I must leave
 you. But..." and here she drew out a wrapped object, and
 bade her daughter to unwrap it. 

""Why, that is the mirror Father got when he went to Kyoto
 many years ago!" the girl said. 

""Yes.  I know you will miss me when I have left you.  But
 take this mirror, and when you feel most lonely, look into
 it and you will always see me.  I may not talk, but I will
 be there for you."  And with these words, the mother
 sighed, and passed away. 

"After mourning the loss of his good wife, in due time the
 man married again.  His new wife was not kind at all to her
 stepdaughter.  And often the daughter found herself lonely,
 and missing her mother.  And then one day, she remembered
 her mother's words, and drew out the mirror in the privacy
 of her room.  And lo, her mother looked out at her from the
 mirror's surface.  Not the sickly pained face of her dying
 days, but the young and beautiful beloved face. 

"After that, whenever her stepmother's unkindness grew too
 much for her, the daughter would retreat into her room and
 gaze into the mirror.  And in this manner, she was able to
 remain calm and gentle and good-natured, for her mother's
 smile and gentle look reassured her. 

"One day the girl's stepmother chanced to see her crouching
 in a corner over an object she could not quite see,
 murmuring to herself.  This ignorant woman, who detested
 the child and believed that her stepdaughter detested her
 in return, was frightened, for she thought that the girl
 was performing some strange magical art --perhaps making an
 image and sticking pins into it.  Full of these notions,
 the stepmother went to her husband and told him that his
 wicked child was doing her best to kill her by witchcraft. 

"When the good man had listened to this incredible tale, he
 went straight to his daughter's room.  The good man knew
 that there was friction between his loving daughter and his
 wife, and felt that time would work it out, but he thought
 it wise to talk to his loving little girl.  He had meant to
 be gentle, but when the girl saw him, she slipped an object
 into her sleeve.  For the first time her doting father grew
 angry, and he feared that there was, after all, truth in
 what his wife had told him, and he repeated her tale
 forthwith. 

"When his daughter had heard this unjust accusation she was
 amazed at her father's words, and she told him that she
 loved him far too well ever to attempt or wish to kill his
 wife, who she knew was dear to him. ""What have you hidden
 in your sleeve, then?" said her father, only half convinced
 and still much puzzled over his daughter's strange
 behavior. 

"Then the daughter took out the object.  "The mirror you
 gave my mother, and which she on her deathbed gave to me. 
 Every time I look into its
 shining surface, I see the face of my dear mother, young
 and beautiful.  When my heart aches--and oh! it has ached
 so much lately--I take out the mirror, and mother's face,
 with her sweet, kind smile, brings me peace, and helps me
 to bear hard words and cross looks." 

"And the man did not understand, so his daughter took out
 the mirror, and looked at it.  And then she looked up at
 her father with a simple innocent joyful expression. "Look,
 Father!  Do you see Mother?" 

"And the man looked, and understanding broke out on his
 face.  "Oh, how wise your mother was!  Like two halves of a
 melon, you and your mother shared the same face, and thus,
 in your innocence, you have grown up to be the loving
 person your mother was!"  And he hugged his daughter, and
 loved her more for her filial piety. 

"The girl's stepmother, who had snuck up and listened at the
 doorway, suddenly burst in, crying and kowtowing to her
 stepdaughter.  "I did not know!  I did not know!  I had
 thought that you hated me, and so I, in turn, hated you. 
 But having heard the tale of you and your mother, I am
 ashamed.  From this day forth, I will cast out my old
 heart, and put in a new one, and love you as my daughter,
 and I hope you will love me as you
 loved your mother."  And she cried. 

"And this dutiful daughter, who believed she had seen her
 mother's face in the mirror, forgave her stepmother.  From
 then on, her home was again a happy one, and the family was
 never troubled again. 

There was a moment of silence as Kasumi held her mother's
hand like a lifeline.  She never wanted to let go, never,
not ever, it wasn't fair... 

"Kasumi," said her mother gently, "do you understand what
I'm trying to say?" 

"Y-yes, mother, I do." 

                         * * * * *

    Miyabi paused in her storytelling as she saw, at last,
the first sign of life from her comatose aunt. 

    A single tear. 

    Miyabi clasped her aunt's hand tightly. "Auntie
Kasumi...?" 

    A voice answered. "No. Not Kasumi... 

    "Kaeri." 

                         * * * * *

    "Hello?" 

    Ratiko Hibiki wasn't quite sure what was going on.  The
last thing he remembered clearly was falling down on the
road.  The details were murky, but there was definitely a
road and he'd definitely hit it face first. 

    From that point, his memories were murky to the point of
being unreliable.  Something about clown noses and flames,
but that didn't seem right. 

    As to where he was now... it was a bed, in very cramp
quarters, surrounded by lots of medical equipment.  It
seemed to be... an ambulance? 

    Slowly, he stood up, and immediately noticed something
was wrong.  There was something on his nose and one of his
arms was wrapped in bandages. 

    What, he wondered, just happened. 

    With that in mind, he opened the door. 

    And then he quickly closed it again as the wail of
sirens and the sight of a hospital ablaze greeted him. 

    Oh, so that's what happened. 

    "Oh boy." 

    And then, without warning, the ambulance roared to life,
sirens wailing, and sped away. 

    "H-hey!  Waitaminute!" 

    Ratiko made his way to the front of the ambulance, where
two very stressed medics sat. 

    "Um, hello?" he asked nervously. 

    Both of the medics groaned. 

    "I knew we forgot something," said one of them. 

    "Sorry about this sir," said the other to Ratiko.  "But
we've got an emergency call to get to and we can't turn back
now.  Just.... ah... sit back and relax.  I think we've got
a few magazines there for you to kill time with." 

    Ratiko blinked.  "Oh.  Um, okay." 

                         * * * * *

    Kaeri slowly sat up, looking up, a dull, impassive
expression on her face.  She slowly tilted her head to look
at an anxious Miyabi.

    "... Auntie Kaeri?" 

    There was no response. 

    "Auntie Kaeri?  ... Are you okay?" 

    A pause for thought, then Kaeri slowly shook her head,
remaining sullen.

    Miyabi sat down nervously next to Kaeri.  She reached
out to touch her aunt's hand. 

    Kaeri flinched, backing away.  Miyabi let go quickly,
then looked down.  "I'm sorry, Auntie."  And she stood up
quickly, leaving the room. 

    Outside the room, Miyabi sighed.  Great.  Just
greaaaaaaaat. Ryo Saotome was going to pay for this.  But
until she came back... 

    "Auntie, are you hungry?" 

    Kaeri shook her head. 

    Miyabi frowned.  "You haven't had anything since you
came here.  Are you sure?" 

    With that eerily blank look on still haunting her face,
Kaeri nodded. 

    With a sigh, Miyabi walked quietly out the door, closing
it slowly on her way out.  A moment later, she peeked back
into the room.  "Tell ya what, I'll just bring you a little
something... just in case, you know?" 

    Kaeri didn't respond. 

    "Right.  Back in a while." 

                         * * * * *

    Entering the kitchen, Miyabi was greeted with awkward
silence.  Kasumi was there, chopping vegetables and watching
over boiling pots as she prepared the next meal.  However,
she just didn't seem... herself. 

    "Auntie Kasumi?  Are you okay?" 

    Kasumi twitched, as if startled, then turned to Miyabi
with a warm smile that didn't quite reach her eyes.  "I'm
fine, Miyabi-chan.  You?" 

    "Um, okay, I guess." 

    "And how is..."  Kasumi's expression wavered for a
moment. "How is... our guest."

    "She's... okay, I guess.  I'm gonna bring some food to
her, I don't think she's eaten anything at all yet."

    Kasumi nodded.  "That's... nice." 

    And then the eldest Tendo resumed chopping vegetables. 
Chop chop chop chop.

    Miyabi looked at Kasumi with concern.  She couldn't
imagine how her auntie felt, seeing a deranged, scarred
version of herself.  Whatever she was feeling, Miyabi hoped
she could handle it, becuase she'd be busy enough with
Kaeri.

    Humming to herself, Miyabi gathered some fruit, chips,
and other miscellaneous snacks, along with a canned drink,
placed them all neatly on a tray, and carried it out.

    And then her grandfather walked by. 

    "Ah, Miyabi-chan, how thoughtful of you." 

    With speed born of being a horrible glutton, Genma
reached for the food on the tray.  With speed born of eating
countless meals with Genma and Ranma, Miyabi pulled the tray
out from his reach.

    "Grandfather, no!  This is for Auntie Kaeri." 

    "Who?" 

    "The other Kasumi, the one that... you know..." 

    Genma's expression turned very solemn.  "Oh, I see. 
Very good, granddaughter, tending to the weak is a martial
artist's duty.  Go on, dear." 

    "Thanks, Grampa." 

    As Miyabi walked away, Genma shook his head.  The worlds
were mysterious places indeed.  What kind of world would
produce such a shatttered version of their dear Kasumi? 

    Ah, well, the mysteries of life. 

    He watched his granddaughter depart upstairs, then went
over to the old reliable shogi board to kill some time with
Soun. 

    "Ready to face defeat again, Tend... o?" 

    Soun Tendo, in full glistening and sharp samurai armor
was not what he was expecting.

    "Hello, Saotome."  The metal scraped and whined as Soun
took a sat at the Shogi board.  "Shall we?" 

    "Ah... sure." 

    "Last time I went first, I believe.  So you're up
today." 

    Genma nodded.  He moved a piece. 

    Soun studied the move carefully.  Then he
*SCREECH*GROAN*SQUEEK*SCREECH* moved a piece.

    Genma took five seconds to recover, then another minute
to contemplate his next step.  And then he moved another
piece. 

    Soun nodded approvingly, as if seeing wisdom in Genma's
strategy.  He then took a full minute to contemplate the
next step, then he *TREENK*SCRUONKK*TREEENK*SCRRRK* moved
another piece.

    Genma blinked and shook his head, trying to stop the
world from reverberating.  "Tendo, my friend, may I ask a
question?" 

    "What is it, Saotome?" 

    "Why do you have that armor on?" 

    "Saotome.... that girl... that other Kasumi... before
tonight I had thought it impossible that such harm could
befall my first child.  Now I know the world is in fact a
far more dangerous place, and so long as Kasumi is under my
roof I shall _never_ allow her to suffer such a fate."

    Genma nodded approvingly.  "Very noble, Tendo." 

    Akane walked into the room at this time, looking
puzzled. "Daddy?  Mr.  Saotome?  Did you hear that noise?" 

    Soun turned *SCREEECH*SCROONK*WHRRR*SCREEK* to face her
youngest daughter.  "What noise, Akane?" 

    After her ears finally stabalized, Akane sighed.  "Ah... 
never mind."  She turned to walk away, muttering something
about crazy parents, then paused.  "Say, have any of you
seen Nabiki?"

    Genma shook his head.  "Not I." 

    "Probably out with her friends," said Soun.  "You know
how she is."

                         * * * * *

    Meanwhile, in Ethiopia... 

    Nabiki sighed in relief, watching the ground zoom by and
below her.  She was currently passenger in a VTOL combat jet
she'd come into possession of after a long and complicated
series of transactions that made even her head spin. 

    At long last, back to Japan. 

    It was a real experience, these past few days, but she'd
survived.  Oh yes, through thick and thin, through endless
negociations, corrupt government officials, corrupt rebels,
and noisy tourists, she'd survived and come out on top. 

    And in a matter of hours... she'd return home
triumphant.

    *BOOM*

    Or not. 

    ("What was that?!") she yelled to the pilot. 

    ("Rebel gunfire, Miss Tendo.  They took out one of our
engines!")

    And as her newly acquired VTOL plane spiraled back down
to earth, Nabiki cursed and cursed and cursed and cursed...

    And, again, she swore vengence on Ratiko Hibiki. 

                         * * * * *

    Night and day came and went, and for the second day in a
row, Ryo Saotome had not come back.  Miyabi felt a bit of
worry but a large amount of irritation.  Kasu- Kaeri needed
to be someplace more peaceful, where she'd belong, and not
this place.  Kaeri didn't belong there, and neither did
Miyabi.  Until then, the future Saotome tried to make life
as comfortable as possible for them both. 

    "Good morning!" 

    Miyabi carried the tray laden with breakfast items to
Kaeri's side.  The former Kasumi acknowledged Miyabi with a
glance, but nothing more. 

    "Feeling any better?" asked Miyabi softly. 

    Kaeri shook her head, negative. 

    "Don't you want any breakfast?" 

    Again, Kaeri shook her head. 

    "Won't you at least give it a try?  I made it myself,
y'know."  She gave Kaeri a ressuring smile. 

    No response. 

    "Just a little?  For me?  Please?" 

    No response, again.  Kaeri merely looked blankly at the
wall. 

    With a sigh, Miyabi took a seat on the floor, opposite
of Kaeri, and rested her hand in her head.  What to do to
get her to talk?

    Hrm. 

    "Tell you what," said Miyabi.  "I'll tell you all about
me, then you tell me all about you, okay?  That only seems
fair, ne?" 

    The underwhelming response was not inspiring. 

    "I'll... take that as a yes."  Miyabi shifted for a
moment, settling down to tell her tale.  With a deep breath,
she began.

    Or, she was about to, when she realized she'd forgotten
something very basic. 

    "Oh, I never introduced myself!" she said with much
embarrassment.  "I'm Miyabi Saotome, sorry I didn't say so
earlier, but I guess I was just kinda caught up in things." 

    Kaeri's gaze shifted towards her, until she was looking
directly into Miyabi's.  The girl found the dead stare a bit
unnerving, but pressed on and told her tale... 

    "Ranma and Akane, they're my parents.  I'm told I have a
lot of them in me.  I dunno.  Grownups say that a lot about
kids."  Miyabi shrugged. 

    "I was born, um, will be born, in a few years.  I'm the
first baby they had.  My little brother was born a few years
later, but that's another story." 

    "They say I was born kicking and screaming, and haven't
stopped since."  Miyabi thought about how that sounded, then
laughed.  "No, I'm not bad like that, I guess I'm just a
little stubborn sometimes." 

    Her frace brightened, a proud grin making its way to her
lips.  "And I'm good at martial arts." 

    "I'm the heir to the Tendo Dojo, and proud of it. 
Father says I'm every bit as good as he was, and I've heard
how good he was so hearing that from him means a lot to me." 
Miyabi glanced quickly, checking on Kaeri's expression.  Was
that a faint smile she saw flickering?  Maybe this was
working.

    She thought of what to say next, then had a profound
insight on her life situation. 

    "I just realized.  If I'm the heir, they're probably
gonna try to engage me to someone.  I just hope mother and
father don't make the same mistakes grandfather made."  She
frowned and bit a nail.  "Say, waitasec, they don't
necessarily need ME to have children to get an heir.  They
could always engage Masao to Saeko!  Yeah, that's a plan!" 
She grinned proudly, feeling good about her plan. 

    "Oh, that's right, you don't know them.  Masao is my
brother, and Saeko is Uncle Ryouga and Auntie Ukyou's
daughter.  Saeko's okay, but Masao's a brat." 

    "You used to babysit us a lot, I remember.  You always
told me I was such a tomboy, just like mum was when she was
a kid.  Seeing her now, I still don't know what they're
talking about.  Do you?"  She looked at Kaeri curiously. 

    No response.  However, she was either imagining things
or Kaeri actually looked like she was listening.

    "Well, we...." Miyabi hesitated, then frowned. 

    "I'm rambling, aren't I." 

    Kaeri blinked.  It was better than nothing. 

    "Well... hold on... lemme think of something."  Miyabi
hummed for a bit, eyes rolled upward, deep in thought. 

    "Ah, I know!  I remember when you taught me to cook." 
That seemed like a good place to start.  She remembered it
well, and it involved auntie Kae... Kasu... her.

    "Well, you didn't start teaching me until mum and dad
asked you to.  I guess it was because of the way I started
cooking..."

                         * * * * *

    It was six in the morning and Miyabi was hungry. 

    Mommy and daddy... were still asleep. 

    Granpa Soun was... still asleep. 

    Granpa Panda was... still asleep. 

    Miyabi was very hungry. 

    Being the independent sort, much like her mother, Miyabi
decided that making her own breakfast should be just fine.
Obviously, the really neat stuff was too hard for her. 

    But that instant ramen... now that looked easy. 

    Hot water, noodles, mix.  Right. 

    Now how did mum heat water? 

                         * * * * *

    "Dear, what's that sound?" 

    Ranma yawned and groaned.  "Nnng, more sleep." 

    "Will you go check?" 

    "Right, okay, hold on..." 

    And so Ranma Saotome, Martial Artist, trudged down
half-asleep through his abode.  He may have been
half-asleep, but he was still an alert martial artist.  The
sound of metal clanging on metal could be heard from the
kitchen. 

    A burglar? 

    He carefully made his way to the kitchen, silently,
slowly... 

    "Hi daddy!" 

    "Miyabi-chan?"  Ranma looked around the kitchen,
puzzled. "What's going on?"

    "Cookin' breakfast!" 

    Oh, thought Ranma, that would explain the bits of dry
ramen splattered on the floor, along with the bowl full of
smashed up ramen bits.

    "Instant ramen, Miyabi-chan?" 

    "Mm-hm!" said the girl, nodding enthusiastically. 

    The sound of the microwave humming along got Ranma's
attention.  He looked inside, where a cup of water was
already steaming.  Ranma looked at the heating time. 

    999 minutes, 32 seconds. 

    Oh boy. 

    Ranma chuckled.  "Heh, just like your mom." 

    "And what do you mean by that?" asked Akane's voice. 

    "Er... nothing, love." 

                         * * * * *

    Kaeri blinked, again, but otherwise didn't react much. 
Miyabi didn't notice, too wrapped up in her own tale. 

    "After that, they kinda told the whole family.  Everyone
laughed about it, which made me kinda confused.  But you... 
you took me seriously." 

                         * * * * *

    With Ranma and Akane gone on yet another adventure,
Miyabi found herself in Auntie Kasumi's care once more.  The
little girl didn't mind much, since Auntie Kasumi was nice.

    "Miyabi-chan, I heard you were trying to learn how to
cook?" 

    Miyabi nodded. "But daddy won't let me unless him'n mum
is watching."

    Kasumi smiled and ruffled the girl's hair.  "That's
good, Miyabi-chan. You know, I learned how to cook at your
age." 

    That seemed to get Miyabi's attention.  "You did?" 

    Kasumi smiled wistfully.  "Mm-hm.  I tried on my own,
just like you, but I accidentally started a fire." 

    Miyabi gasped.  "Did the house burn down?" 

    The eldest Tendo daughter laughed.  "Oh, no, everything
was okay.  But after that, mother taught me how to cook." 

    "Oooh." 

    Kasumi appeared contemplative for a moment, then knelt
down to be at eye level with Miyabi.  "Miyabi-chan, do you
want me to help you learn how to cook?"

    The little girl's eyes widened.  "You would?" 

    "I'd love to." 

    "Yaaaay!" 

    "Now, you'll have to promise to do exactly what I say." 

    "Haiii!" 

    "Now, the first thing mother taught me is how to boil
water." 

    "Water?  How'bout okonomiyaki?" 

    "First things first, Miyabi-chan.  You have to learn the
basics before you try bigger things." 

    "Okaaaay." 

                         * * * * *

    "I'm still not as good as you," said Miyabi.  "Don't
know if I ever will be, but I'm told that I'm a better cook
than mom was when she was my age."

    She stretched and yawned, feeling the effects of sitting
in one position for too long. 

    "I'm gonna go take a quick jog around the neighborhood,
okay?  I'll be back later." 

    Kaeri blinked, which wasn't much more than she'd been
doing before.  With a sigh, Miyabi rose and went to the
door. 

    She paused, however, when she heard the faintest of
sounds, a few softly spoken words from the silent Kaeri. 

    "Come back." 

    Miyabi stared at Kaeri in surprise, though Kaeri was
still staring at the wall across from her.  Well, she wasn't
normal, but progress was progress.  As her father once told
her, one step at a time. 

    "Don't worry, auntie.  I will.  I promise." 

                         * * * * *

    As promised, Miyabi had returned later that day and told
more stories of her eventful youth.  She spoke of birthdays
and picnics, rivalries and friendships, a youth spent
amongst some of the most formidable martial artists in the
world.

    And as she spun her tales, Kaeri listened.  Silently, as
she listened to the girl, her eyes became just a little less
haunted, her gaze a little less blank, and a little more
human.

    However, Kaeri still remained mostly silent, except for
the occasional "no", "yes", "bye", and other monosylable
words.

    There was one exception. 

    "Come back." 

    Two words spoken with a certain sadness and need,
whenever it appeared Miyabi would leave the room.  The girl
would always assure her that she'd return, and when she did
she thought she sensed relief from the scarred and shattered
woman that was once Kasumi Tendo. 

    Three days passed in this manner, and Miyabi found them
to be more pleasant than any time spent with her parents and
grandparents so far.  >From Kaeri, there was no nagging, no
arguing, no denial.  She listened, and maybe, though Miyabi
admitted it might have been wishful thinking on her part,
maybe she cared. 

    However, it wasn't until the fourth day that there was a
change. 

                         * * * * *

    "So the first time I tried making sauce for the egg fu
yung, I thought it'd be easy," said Miyabi.  "I mean, gravy
is just water, seasonings, and flour, right?" 

    "Corn starch," mumbled Kaeri. 

    "Yeah, I-" 

    "Corn starch, beef stock, salt," continued Kaeri. 

    Miyabi stared at Kaeri, surprised.  This was more words
than she'd ever said before in a row.  She watched Kaeri
intently, waiting to see if she would open up further. 

    She didn't disappoint. 

    "Use a sauce pan, medium heat.  Stir and mix, be sure
not to leave any lumps, until thick and bubbly."

    "Auntie... you're talking." 

    Kaeri nodded.  "Good cooking," she said in a hoarse
voice, "is important."

    It was, admittedly, a bit of a letdown. 

    But at least she was talking. 

    "Go on," said Kaeri. 

    "Huh?" 

    "Your story." 

    "Oh!" Miyabi laughed nervously and scratched the back of
her head.  "Well, anyway, I mixed beef stock, flour, and
water, then put it in the microwave.  A minute later, I got
a muffin."

    "A muffin?" asked Kaeri. 

    "Yeah, it was neat!  Firm on the outside with a gooey,
salty middle.  Daddy called it a 'Chinese muffin'." 

    Kaeri smiled. 

                         * * * * *

    "What... happened?" 

    "Why you..." Miyabi searched for the words, not entirely
sure how to put the question.  "Why... who... who hurt you?" 

    Kaeri looked away, closing her eyes.  Miyabi could feel
her hand trembling, and held it more firmly.

    "It's okay, you don't have to-" 

    "Knives," Kaeri whispered. "They used knives. And
needles."

    Her fingers, those that remained, clamped tightly around
Miyabi's hand.

    "Auntie..." 

    "They killed them. All of them.  Akane, Nabiki, Ranma,
Daddy, all of them dead, but they DIDN'T KILL ME!" Kaeri's
voice went from whisper to shriek in an instant, and Miyabi
shrank away from the fires that suddenly danced behind her
eyes.

    "Killed them! Left me all alone... all alone.." The
shriek faded into choking half-sobs, and Miyabi began to
open her mouth, a comforting phrase floating up through her
horrified mind. 

    "But I wouldn't let them, no, I wouldn't! The mirror! I
took the mirror, and I went back, and I found them, and I
took the bomb, the bomb that killed them, and I found the
monsters and they... they hurt... it doesn't matter, I don't
matter, the Work is everything... but they hurt me..." 

    "Auntie... Auntie, please, it's okay..." 

    "And there's more Akanes and Nabikis and they die and I
can't save them all," Kaeri mumbled, a hurt, confused look
moving over her scarred face. "They can't die. They're all
I've ever had. It's all my fault. My fault..." 

    Dropping her face into her maimed hands, she wept. 
Miyabi tightly hugged her, tears running down her own
cheeks. Now, at least, she knew what had happened. 

    She remembered her own tears at seeing this alternate
version of her parents constantly fighting. How much worse,
then, must it have been for Kaeri? Her real family killed,
alternate families apparently dead as well... physical
torture, emotional torture, survivor's guilt, and the loss
of everything she had built her life around...

    The only wonder, Miyabi thought sadly, was that she was
as relatively sane as she was.

    "Sssh. Ssssh. It's okay..." 

    "All gone... all dead..." 

    "Let me tell you about my world again. Mum and Dad were
so pleased when the Hibikis had their first child..."

    "Burned to ashes..." 

    "...there was a big celebration..." 

    "Dead. All dead..." 

                         * * * * *

    Half an hour later, Miyabi emerged, her legs a little
unsteady. Kaeri was asleep... or dozing, or just more
unresponsive than usual. It was hard to tell, sometimes.

    Stories of her world seemed to help. Apparantly she must
have grown up in a virtual paradise by the standards of the
universes Kaeri had seen, as if some kindly power had
watched over Miyabi and her extended family, giving them
happiness.

    The scarred Tendo has rambled on for a good fifteen
minutes, sometimes about knives and needles and stoves, and
sometimes about surreal-sounding lands, but mostly the same
mournful lament that 'they' were all dead. 

    It did give Miyabi a bit of a queasy feeling.
Intellectually she supposed that there were worlds where her
parents died, or she died... but there was a big difference
between mental supposition and actually seeing it happen. A
very big difference. 

    Possibily the difference between madness and sanity. 

                         * * * * *

    Even with someone like Kaeri, there were only so many
times one could go over the same family gossip and recipes. 
The scarred woman had a blissful expression on her face; she
looked like she could go on hearing about mum and dad all
day long, but Miyabi felt that SHE'D be the one lying on a
couch soon if she didn't change the subject.  So she did. 

    "...and after that we had to bathe my brother in alcohol
to clean it all off.  Auntie Kaeri..."  A muffled 'hrmph?'
came from the woman.  Not quite a 'Yes?', but it was a
response.  "Have I ever told you about how I got here?"

	Kaeri shook her head ever so slightly, bit her lip
and stuck her right hand in the crack between the seat and
back cushions. 

    Miyabi decided to risk it, and began to narrate the
adventures of Ryo Saotome and the Locketeers - the G-rated
version.  She could tell when her story was getting too
troublesome for her audience, because her eyebrows would
knot themselves up and she'd reach deeper into the sofa
crack.  Whenever that happened, she'd backtrack a bit, skip
over events, or patch up the narrative with attractive
little white lies.  "...and then Rat poked me with a nee...
with his finger, to check for bruises.  Hey, wait!  Where
are you going?" 

    "It's a lovely... Miyabi..." Kaeri stood up slowly and
carefully, using the sofa's armrests as supports.  "I'll
just be a minute. I need to..." She pointed at the washroom. 

    "Need help?" 

    Kaeri shook her head. 

    Miyabi sat on the edge of the sofa and watched her as
she walked.  She stumbled a few times, but never actually
fell.  The washroom door opened, then shut with a click. 

    Miyabi looked at the sofa.  Auntie'd lain there so long
that there was a slight Kaeri-shaped depression on the
cushions, and a distortion where she'd stuck her hand
between the cushions.  What'd she been doing that for,
anyway? She reached in.

    Was that a broomstick?  That made sense.  For Auntie, a
mop would be as good as a security blanket.  But it was so
cold and hard, and it must be carved... She grabbed the rod
and yanked it out. 

    Nope. Definitely not a broomstick. Nuh-uh. 

    A flush from the washroom. 

    Miyabi didn't know what it was that she was holding, but
she guessed that anything with that kind of symbol on it
couldn't be entirely harmless.  On an impulse, she stuck it
in the broom closet.  Kaeri stepped out of the bathroom only
moments after she'd closed the door. 

    "Um... All done?" 

    A small nod.  Her mouth was a straight line, neither
happy nor sad.

    "Yeah, so... I was telling you about Rat and his bl...
his bruise test, wasn't I?" Kaeri laid herself back on the
sofa and closed her eyes.  As Miyabi went on with her story,
her cheekbones rose slightly, and one could almost say she
smiled. 

    "...and then that PERVERT of a half-brother of mine
jumps in,

    shouting-" 

    "It's GONE!" 

    "Yeah, but... how did you- Auntie?" 

    "It's... it's GONE!" Kaeri's voice and body were
shaking.  She'd stood up and was running her hand along the
entire length of the sofa crack. 

    "What's gone?" asked Miyabi.  Maybe now she'd be able to
figure out why Auntie carried something that nasty-looking
around. 

    "It's my... my..." Her adam's apple rose and fell.  She
stopped shaking.  It wasn't gradual; it was an abrupt stop. 
She was repressing it.  "It's nothing," she said. "Go on
with your story."  Miyabi spoke, but her audience was no
longer listening. 

                         * * * * *

	The sirens of the ambulance blared as it sped through
the night.  In the back of it, a very bored Reiraku Hibiki
thumbed through a dog-eared copy of Shonen Sunday while
wedged between a stretcher and a machine that went ping, and
wondered, somewhere in the drugged and microchip-affected
recesses of his brain, just how long it was supposed to take
to get to an emergency call. 

	At least he had plenty of entertainment for the trip. 
Reiraku thanked his medical training and injected another
dose of morphine into his IV.  It made the manga a lot more
interesting.

    Up front, Taki and Koji tried to contact the hospital by
radio to find out the address of the emergency they were
supposed to be attending to.  As said hospital was last seen
busily burning to the ground, there was little success. 

    "I thought YOU remembered the address!" Taki shouted. 

    "I thought YOU did!" Koji replied. 
	
	"Oh, sure, blame ME for it.  YOU'RE the one who got us
into the middle of that desert!"

	"At least the pyramids were nice.  And don't tell me you
didn't like the camel."

	Taki considered this, and nodded.
	
	"The camel was cute.  But... since when are there
pyramids in Tokyo?"

	"I dunno.  Since when is there a rainforest, small brown
guys with blowguns and colonies full of fat people wearing
fur hats?"

	"Good point."  A pause. "Taki?"
	
	"Yes?"
	
	"Do ya... Do ya think our patient's still alive?"
	
	"How long's it been?"
	
	"Dunno.  My watch got fried right about when we passed
that flag stuck in the snow."
	
	"Mine too."  A pause.  "Koji?"
	
	"Yes?"
	
	"Do ya... Do ya think WE'RE still alive?"
	
	"Whaddya mean?"
	
	"Well... all the different people, an' places an' stuff. 
We could be on the highway to the heavens, you know.  Died,
and are going through the places where all the other dead
folk live while searching for our own... our own..."  

	Koji scratched his chin.
	
	"Could be... could be...  Hey, look! There's a dead man
now!"

    Later, both would claim the other was driving when they
hit the boy with the umbrella.  In truth, it was not so much
they hit him as he hit them.	

    Ryouga simply wasn't paying attention.  All his thoughts
for the last while had been about great-grandsons from the
future, getting married to Ukyou, and a whole
bushel-and-a-peck of other topics too diverse to enter into
at this point. 

    So when he looked up in the middle of the formerly-empty
intersection in a dilapidated section of the harbour
district filled with empty warehouses, and saw the
ambulance, sirens blazing, bearing down on him, he did what
came naturally. 

    He hit it.  With his umbrella.  The front of the vehicle
crumpled into a variety of interesting shapes around the
invincible red-bamboo frame.  Ryouga held his arm rigid,
thinking he could stop the ambulance as if it were simply a
charging wild boar.  As it turned out, however, it didn't
end up stopping until reached out and put his other hand on
the bumper.  He had to dig his feet in too. 

    Taki and Koji looked out at the lost boy, who was
dressed very much like the one in the back of the ambulance.
Their attention was somewhat distracted by the jagged pieces
of metal which had entered the cab (miraculously missing any
vital or non-vital parts of their body) when Ryouga had hit
the ambulance. 

    "Uhh," said Koji. 

    "Mm," said Taki. 

    The siren gave a last piercing wail, and died out. 

    Ryouga came over and knocked on the driver's-side window
with his umbrella.  Koji (or Taki - it was never made really
clear who had been driving) rolled it down. 

    "Watch," Ryouga said.  "Where you are going, please." 
He casually tossed the front bumper of the ambulance to the
road and walked away. 

    Koji looked to Taki. 

    "Coffee break?" 

    "Coffee break." 

    Considering they were going to lose their jobs, and
weren't entirely sure that they were alive to go back to
them should they miraculously keep them, it wasn't too big a
deal to them at that point.  The pair absconded from the
ruined ambulance and walked off in search of someplace
entirely absent from people capable of stopping speeding
ambulances using umbrellas and their bare hands. 

	"Looks like we bumped into the soldiers' section.  Let's
go try to find the furry bunny heaven."
	
	"Or the Playboy bunny heaven."
	
	"Good thinking, Koji."

    In the back of the ambulance, Rat yanked out the IV feed
and worked to untangle himself from the defibrillator pads
(managing to receive only five large jolts of electricity in
the process) that he'd gotten worked into when Ryouga had
stopped the ambulance.  With a hard shove, he pushed open
the doors and staggered out onto the street to see a
familiar figure with bandanna and umbrella heading away
around the corner. 

    "Hey!  Great-granddad!  Wait up!" 

    Ryouga turned and looked at Rat, his umbrella resting
lightly on one shoulder.  "Oh.  Hiya, Ratiko.  How's it
going?" 

    "Not good," Ratiko said.  For some reason, he giggled. 
"The plan, the plan."  He shook his finger at Ryouga.  "The
plan, you see, is not unfolding quite as well as was hoped."
Another manic titter escaped him.  "You see, you see...
there are _powerful forces_ conspiring against me!" Ryouga
blinked as his future descendant grabbed him by the
shoulders in a death-grip.  "They want to see me wiped from
the face of the earth, great-grandfather!" 

    A pat on the back did little to calm Ratiko down. 
"Umm... who?"  Ryouga asked after a hesitant moment. 

    "_They_!" Ratiko snarled.  "They're all against me! 
Every one of them!" 

    "Err..." Ryouga searched for something
great-grandfatherly to say.  He fixed upon the splint and
bandage upon Rat's nose.  "Who did that to you?" 

    Ratiko went from manic to depressive in an eyeblink. 
"One of _them_," he said glumly. 

    "Err... who?" 

    "Miyabi," he muttered.  "Ranma's little spawn." 

    "Is it not enough that you torment my kin and I,
Saotome?" Ryouga said mournfully.  "Must your descendants do
the same?" 

    "There's only one thing to do, of course," Ratiko said,
rubbing his hands together gleefully.  "Get them first.  Get
'em all.  Every single one!  Ranma first!" 

    "Uhh..." Ryouga felt distinctly uncomfortable suddenly.
Talk and action were two different things.  And Ratiko
sounded frighteningly serious.  The lost boy might himself
have shouted 'Ranma, prepare to die' any number of times,
but he'd never actually carried through.  "Why Ranma?  I
mean, well... he has admittedly made your life a living
hell, just like mine, and, uhh..." 

    "Oh, it's not that."  Ratiko let out another giggle. 

    "Then what?" 

    It is probably good to note for readers at this moment
that Rat is suffering from: 

    a) A slight concussion (from being run over by an
    ambulance after falling facefirst into concrete from a
    great height) 

    b) The lingering effects of enough morphine to kill a
    horse

    c) The brain-twiddlings of the Onocorp O.P.I.M. chip in
    his head

    d) Impromptu electroshock therapy from the defibrillator
    pads

    e) A mild case of genetically inherited stupidity
	
    Let us now step back into the action as if we had never
left it: 

    "Well," Ratiko explained with all the clinical
detachment of a doctor describing how the progress of a
patient's terminal cancer had reached their brain and would
soon be causing them to be reduced to a pathetic drooling
heap of humanity. "Ranma has to die, you see.  When Ranma
dies, Akane will commit suicide after murdering Happosai.
After that, you and Ukyou will get married.  Ukyou will get
consigned to a mental institution, and you'll end up
sleeping with Nabiki. Then Nabiki will accidentally kill
Kasumi while blowing up the Tendo house.  Then she'll kill
herself too."  He scratched his head.  "And, uhh... no,
wait.  Kasumi doesn't die right away.  Her daughter kills
her by lethal injection as she lies like a vegetable in a
hospital bed.  And Doctor Tofu goes insane, I think." 

    Ryouga stared. 

    "So you see," Ratiko concluded.  "Ranma's got to die so
everyone else will either die, go insane, or suffer
horribly.  Except Kuno, I guess; he kinda gets to rule the
world.  Wanna help out?" 

    "Akane... dead?" Ryouga murmured. 

    "Yeah," Ratiko said, and beamed as only someone
completely and utterly unaware of the true gravity of a
situation can. "And it's all so _I_ can come into existence.
Ain't it great?" 

    Ryouga thought for a split second, and then quite calmly
and efficiently broke Ratiko's nose again. 

                         * * * * *

    Miyabi moved the staff into her room the moment she had
a chance, and since then, Kaeri had seemed more at peace.
There was less trembling, less shifting of eyes... She'd
tried to go look for it once or twice, but Miyabi had
managed to stop that.  Now she just lay back and listened to
her gossip and asked and bothered and-

    "Miyabi-chan, come back! You haven't finished your
story!" 

    "I've told it to you a HUNDRED TIMES! Geeze! They're
just my PARENTS; it's not like they're... they're some movie
stars or something." 

    "But you told me..." 

    "Look; I have a headache, my legs are cramped and I'm
sick of spending all my days telling my life story to you
hopin' that MAYBE, just MAYBE you'll actually get up and DO
something." Was she crying? Cripes, talk about frail... 
"Stop that! I'm just going out for a WALK, okay? Why don't
you just.. go talk to yourself, or something? She's in the
kitchen."

    "But... the stairs... I thought you were..." 

    "I'm goin' out the window. Hey, I'm my father's
daughter, right?" 

    If Kaeri answered, Miyabi didn't hear it. 

                         * * * * *

    Night. 

    The Tendo household was wrapped in darkness as it came,
eventually surrendering to the darkness one room at a time
as the people of the household went to sleep.

    Not all of them rested. 

    In the darkness, Kaeri slowly crept through the house. 
Sometimes she would stumble, but always she would remain
silent.  Through empty halls she crept, her footfalls soft
against the wooden floors, down the stairs, to the dining
room.

    After peeking into the room to make sure it was empty,
she entered the room crawling on hands and knees.  She
looked under the television, under the furniture, underneath
anything that could be moved.

    And then she moved to the kitchen and did it again,
searching through cabinets, shelves and cupboards.

    After a few minutes of this, she sighed and moved on to
the tea room, relentlessly searching through there in the
same obsessive and driven manner.  After every room, her
eyes grew wilder, more desperate, her movement less subtle,
more noisy. 

    It had to be here, she whispered to herself. 

    It simply had to. 

    She entered the dojo, though this time she entered
caring not about stealth at all.  Kaeri tossed aside
training equipment carelessly in her search, her hands
beginning to shake.  She bit back a scream of frustration
after more minutes of searching bore no fruit. 

    Kaeri ran outside, dropping to her knees and crawling in
the dirt, not caring that her clothes became filthy in the
process.  Her hands sifted through dirt and grass, seeking
relentlessly. 

    Ten minutes later, she emerged from underneath the dojo,
a wild and desperate look in her eyes.  She wandered to the
middle of the courtyard, trembling, then saw the pond.

    She ran to the pond, kneeling at its edge.  She reached
in with both hands, first searching slowly, then
frantically, splashing the waters to a froth.  A moment
later, she entered the pond entirely and dove underneath,
groping blindly in the dark waters.

    She rose for air, gasping, then dove down and searched
again.

    WHERE IS IT her mind screamed. 

    She crawled out of the pond, dripping wet and trembling
badly now, and stared at the cloudy skies above, wet,
smeared with dirt, trembling.

    Where could it have gone? 

                         * * * * *

	The ships of many nations dock at the harbours of Tokyo.
Great tankers, massive transport ships, importers of illegal
arms.  Their crews drink in the bars near the harbour, and
occasionally fight with each other.  Sometimes, they even go
to sleep, in the cabins and quarters of the great ships. The
ships bob slowly at the docks, rocked by the subtle motions
of the waves.  The crews slumber, soothed by the rhythms of
the sea, dreaming dreams of far-off homelands, perhaps of
families left behind.  When the sun rises, some of them will
leave the shelter of the harbour and sail out across the
ocean to other ports.  The lives of seamen are short and
fast-paced.  They spend their entire existence running with
the tide, trying to get up a nest egg.  Most of them will
die unfulfilled. 

    Thus, the seamen need their rest. 
     
	"Ach! Verdammtes Scheiss! Wir schlafen hier, Arschloch!" 

    They're not getting it tonight. 
     
	"Callense! Quedos, bobos! Estou tentando dormir!
Schweigen-sie!" 

    As they watch sleepily from the decks of their ships, a
dockside warehouse (it is probably an unecessary detail to
tell the reader that it was used to store insulin for
distribution to needy diabetics, but we'll do it anyway)
goes up in an cacophonous explosion of yellow light. 

    "Quien hace ese maldito ruido?!? Les voy a sacar la
mugre!" 

    Faintly, over the sounds of things blowing up, someone
can be heard screaming. 

    "Cor!  Shut the bloody 'ell up, you lot!" 

    Screaming in mortal terror. 

    "Silence! Vous etes ein par de betes!" 

    There is another voice too.  It is screaming in rage. 
What it is screaming is this: 

    "RATIKO HIBIKI, PREPARE TO DIE!" 


                         * * * * *

    Miyabi lay flat against the floor, frantically running
her arm under her sleeping mat. 

    "It's GON..." She stopped herself before she brought the
whole house to the door with her shouting.  Where WAS it?
Could Kaeri have stolen it from her? Maybe Ryo'd popped in
and...

    Her fingers touched the cold carvings on the staff, and
she sighed with relief.  Miyabi gently slid it from under
the mat.  She could have LIFTED her bed, but the staff liked
the dark, and it wouldn't be nice to bring in all that light
all of a sudden, without warning it or anything... 

    Geeze. Now she was pampering broomsticks. 

    She used the staff to prop herself up and admired the
figures carved on it.  At first she'd thought they might be
stylised animals or people, but now... Now when she squinted
at them, they almost seemed like words.  Like stories.  Or
maybe laws.  Every time she thought she understood them, her
mind would move to something else...

    Miyabi ran her hand along the staff's length.  She had a
vague feeling that if she only fingered the symbols for long
enough, the meanings would come to her head, like blind
people and Braille.  All that it gave her was a rush.  But
that was enough. 

    She smiled. 

    "Sorry for takin' you out like this.  I just had to
check on you, you know? Well... Now I'll put you back.  I
have to go for a walk." Miyabi lifted the edge of the mat
and replaced the staff beneath it.  "Before I leave," she
said, still holding a corner up, "if Kaeri or either of the
Ryos comes, you... you... just stay put, you hear? I'll be
right back." 

    It was silly, she knew, but it almost felt as if the
staff understood her. 

                         * * * * *

	Feet, do your stuff, Ratiko commanded.  The feet did.
Behind him, the warehouse collapsed in on itself in a pile
of broken timber and rended metal.  The attack had been
aimed at the precise point where Rat had landed after his
great-grandfather broke his nose again with a
perfectly-placed blow of his fist.  The searing beam of
yellow light had torn through the wall, the warehouse
interior, and the opposite wall.  All the windows of the
dockside warehouse had blown out from the resulting
shockwave, spraying the streets with glinting patterns of
glass. 

    Blood flowed copiously down Rat's chin as he ran down
the street, chest heaving as he passed in and out of the
circles of light weakly cast by the skeletal shapes of the
streetlamps.  The pounding of Ryouga's footsteps on the
street followed him like the march of doom. 

    The pain of his rebroken nose was almost godlike in its
purity.  Every step drove needles of pain straight back into
his brain.  Ryouga was screaming something about it being
time for him to die.  As that didn't fit into Rat's plans at
this point, he declined to, and simply kept on running.  The
exquisiteness of agony can do a lot to drive the fog out of
one's brain sometimes, and Rat right now was no exception.
Once Ryouga had laid into him, he started to figure out what
he'd done wrong.  Telling his great-grandfather the precise
details of the future he needed to bring about had been a
very, very bad idea. 

    The telltale sun-bright glow from behind alerted him to
Ryouga's building-up of another ki attack, and he threw
himself sideways through the conveniently open door of the
warehouse he was passing.  In his haste, he never looked at
the sign over the door: 

    Mottomokutsu Industries:  If It's Sharp, We Make It!
    
	It is events such as these that cause people to think
that there quite possibly _is_ someone in charge of the
universe, and that He or She has a very nasty sense of
humour. 


                         * * * * *

    "Kas... Kaeri?  What are you doing out here?" 

    The girl formerly known as Kasumi spared a glance at
Akane and flashed a brief smile.

    "Kaeri, what are you doing here?" asked Akane.  "We were
all worred about you!"

    The elder Tendo frowned.  "Everyone?" she said quietly. 

    "How'd you get up here, anyway?  Usually, we all have to
jump up here to-"

    "I climbed." 

    Looking again, Akane saw that there wer small cuts and
scrapes on Kaeri's face, hands, and knees.  Some of the
tiles leading to the guest room were also out of place,
clearly where she pulled herself up. 

    Akane nodded.  "Is there... is there something on your
mind?"

    Kaeri nodded. 

    "Do... you want to talk about it?" 

    Kaeri shook her head. 

    "Do you... do you need time alone?" 

    "No." 

    Akane blinked.  "No?" 

    "No.  Please stay," said Kaeri softly.  There was a
desperation in her voice, so severe it touched Akane deeply.

    The youngest Tendo nodded, taking Kaeri's hand in hers. 
It had been a while since 'Kaeri' had arrived at the dojo. 
During that time, it was a great relief to Akane and the
others, seeing Kaeri imrpove from a mad, shivering wreck to
a stronger, more composed woman.  She was still jittery in
some respects, avoiding Kasumi like the plague, and looking
lost and in a daze at times, but she no longer was quick to
flee or cry.  A lot of that was thanks to Miyabi, who'd
spent a lot of time with the alternate Kasumi.  But
lately...

    "Kaeri?" 

    "Hm?" 

    "Where did Miyabi go?" 

    "Out." 

    "She didn't say where?" 

    Kaeri shook her head and sighed.  Thinking of Miyabi
used to cheer her up, but now it saddened her.  The girl was
becoming harsher, more sneer in her voice than usual and
more snap in her answers.  Each insult was a slap, each
snide remark a stab to the heart.

    Oh yes, her mind was clearer now.  She could clearly see
how Miyabi was slowly beginning to hate her.

    Below, the sound of a broom scraping on brick caught
Kaeri's attention.  She looked down below and saw her other
self, Kasumi, the one that hadn't had her life torn down in
flames and ashes.  She felt mixed emotions, looking at her
alternate self.

    Oh, how much she hated Kasumi.  Blind, obvlivious,
stupid girl. Doesn't know what's happening around her AT
ALL.  Stupid stupid girl, letting her family die. 

    Oh, how much she envied Kasumi.  Carefree, innocent and
happy.  Where every day was a good day, making everyone
happy with the little things she did around the house. 
Happy happy happy.

    Sweeping. 

    For some reason the sight of the broomstick in Kasumi's
hand caught Kaeri's eye.

    The staff. 

    Missing. 

    Long unused mental gears began to creak.  Kaeri wondered
where Miyabi was indeed.

    Akane, finally noticing Kaeri staring at Kasumi with a
frightening intensity, squeezed her hand.  "Kaeri?" 

    "I'm okay, Akane.  Everything's okay." 

                         * * * * *

	As Rat's body concentrated on the task of running the
hell away from Ryouga, Rat's brain was currently going
through what might be described as one major bitch of an
identity crisis. 

    The Onocorp O.P.I.M. chip was designed to preserve the
existence of its host above all else.  Unfortunately, its
designers had neglected to consider such scenarios as the
host being pursued by a homicidal ancestor intent on
reducing him to a fine paste.  Computers, even extremely
sophisticated and intricately tiny ones, do not like
contradictions such as this. 

    The quick-thinking but limited 'brain' of the O.P.I.M.
chip ran through the situation in a fraction of the eyeblink
of a split second: 

     1)  Attacker is fixated upon host and has capacity to
     injure fatally or severely enough to make future
     survival difficult. 
         
     2)  Attacker is unlikely to cease attempting to kill
     host unless injured fatally or severely enough to make
     future survival difficult. 
     
     3)  Attacker's anger will not dissipate with time,
     making flight futile and dangerous. 
         
     4)  Attacker is ancestor of host.  Must live for host
     to come into being. 

     5)  Host must survive at all costs. 
     
     6)  Host will not come into existence without survival
     of attacker. 
         
     7)  Host will not survive without fatal or crippling
     injury of attacker. 
         
     8)  Fatal or crippling injury of ancestor of host is
     forbidden. 
         
	The O.P.I.M. programming did what any other decent
software would do when faced with an internal contradiction.
It went absolutely haywire. 

                         * * * * *

	Ryouga stalked into the dim warehouse like a
bandanna-clad angel of death.  Shadows lay thick like swamp
murk throughout the building, the dim wash of light from
outside that pierced through the dusty and high-set windows
the only source of illumination.  Wooden crates as tall as
he was lay eveywhere, in many places stacked haphazardly
atop each other as a child's building blocks.
     
	"Come on out, little Rat," he snarled. 
"Great-grandfather wants to have a talk with you."

    "Abort, retry, fail?" 

    Ryouga blinked.  "Huh?" 

    "Runtime error." 

    As his eyes adjusted to the dim light, the Lost Boy cast
his gaze about in search of his descendant.  What horrible
repercussions Ranma's death would have, he thought sickly.
All that monstrosity and pain come about because of one
untimely end.

    And Ratiko wanted to bring it all about just so he could
exist.

    The selfish little worm.  He wasn't _worthy_ to be born
of Ryouga's line.

    "Must be from Ukyou's side," Ryouga muttered.  "He _did_
say she ended up in a mental institute."

    Ratiko had gone oddly silent after his strange words of
before.  Ryouga crept deeper into the warehouse, tensed and
ready.

    "Fatal error great-grand abort father rebooting don't
running hurt corneredrat ME!"

    Ryouga spun.  Ten feet behind him, Rat's eyes glowed in
the darkness, a swirl of white and black that merged into a
grey so intense it hurt to look upon.  Air writhed in agony
around Ratiko's cupped hands.

    Then the world turned white as new snow.  Ryouga flew
through the air, clipped a precarious stack of crates, and
yelled out in surprise as they collapsed atop him and buried
him.  The ki blast had been achingly cold, a solid hammer of
ice. 

    Ratiko walked disjointedly towards the fallen crates,
synapses randomly firing like firecrackers on New Year's
Day.  Within his brain, the O.P.I.M. chip pulled him one way
and then the other like a deranged puppet master.  Base
insticts of fight and flight were stimulated simultaneously,
and Rat's body jerkily tried to follow both at once.

    "BAKUSAI TEN-KETSU!" 

    The crates exploded outward, and hurled their inventory
of pins, needles and nails through the air in a hurricane of
steely death. 

    "Processing HOLY response SHIT!" 

    Rat's left leg went one way, and his right went the
other. The end result made him sprawl to the floor, and let
the scything wave of sharp implements pass overhead. 

    Ryouga shoved the remains of the crates off himself and
strode over to where the prone Ratiko lay twitching and
writhing as the Onocorp device merrily turned upon itself.

    "He's completely insane," Ryouga said as he watched a
thin stream of drool slide from Rat's mouth.  He almost
pitied the boy, but then...

    If Rat had his way, Akane would die. 

    Ryouga reached down to pick Rat up by the head, in
preparation to embedding him several feet into the concrete
floor.  Somewhere amidst the spasms of malfunctioning
software, the chip made Rat swing a foot up and catch Ryouga
squarely between the legs.

    Ryouga gasped softly, and fell over in the way that only
a solid and unexpected kick in the jewels can make a man
fall.

    A wild chance made the chip come to a coherent decision.
Ratiko sprang up onto his feet and ran.

    Ryouga staggered to his feet a moment later to see Rat
darting around the edge of a crate stack.  Lost from sight.
He might never find him in this darkness.  Ratiko would get
away, and he'd kill Ranma, and Akane would kill herself, and
it would be all his fault...

    Those thoughts were depressing enough.  The throbbing
pain from the good kick Rat had given him in his softest
bits just pushed it over the edge.

    "AAAAAAAAHHHHH!" 

    The column of searing yellow light shot through the roof
of the warehouse, a bolt hurled at the heavens.  Like a
pillar dividing earth from sky, it hung for all of a second
in a flaring glory of power against the stars.  On the
boats, the seamen panicked, blinded by the intensity of the
light.

    Then it fell.  There was no distinct sound of the
half-dozen warehouses within the radius of the blast being
smashed into flinders; everything was lost to the enormous
muffled whump of the blast touching down.

    When the light cleared from the eyes of the seamen,
there was an enormous crater filled with debris.  Broken
lamp posts threw clouds of sparks like fireflies against the
night, and tangles of overhead power lines sizzled and
cracked amidst the ruins.  In the wreckage of an entire two
blocks of the harbour district, two figures stood.

    One had his fists clenched at his sides.  The air around
him still blurred and shimmered from the force of the blast
he had just unleashed.

    The other had his arms flying out to his sides.  His
legs were pumping frantically.  The blast had laid him flat
out on the ground, but now he was running as if... as if...

    Well, as if his homicidal and pissed-off ancestor was
trying to kill him.  Sometimes a metaphor just isn't more
appropriate than the genuine reality.

	Needless to say, with two Hibikis in a high-speed chase,
it didn't take them long to leave Tokyo.  Or Asia, for that
matter.

                         * * * * *

    "The... birds. They're singing, aren't they?" Kaeri
whispered. She looked up towards Miyabi with eyes that were
flat and dull, but had a spark of interest.  Miyabi grinned,
nodding. 

    "Mmm, hmm. Are you done with that soup, or not? I've got
to get the bowl back into the kitchen before Kasumi starts
the di... Aaaack!  I'm sorry!  I'm sorry! Don't start with
the sobbing again! Geez! I meant-" 

    "Miyabi, could we talk for a minute?" It was Akane. 

    Miyabi took the occasion to retreat, leaving Kaeri be. 
"Sure.  What's up, Mum?" 

    "I meant..." Akane rubbed the knuckles of her left hand
with the palm of her right. "Not here." 

    "What, don't wanna offend Scarface's sensibilities? 
Don't worry 'bout it. She's gettin' tougher. Aren't ya,
auntie?" Miyabi punched Kaeri's shoulder playfully and paid
no attention to the ensuing gasp and hiss.

    "She's not the only one getting tougher." 

    "Oh, yeah? What's on your mind, Mum?" 

    "You're changing." 

    "That'd be neat trick, considering the amount of
clothes around here that fits me.  I've got to scramble just
to keep myself with fresh undies." 

    "Are you..." Kaeri was trying to speak again. "Do
you... help your parents with the laundry?"

    "Why do you wanna know?" 

    "Miyabi..." Akane looked at her daughter sternly. 

    "Okay! Okay! I get the point! Geeze... Yeah, sure, I
help when they ask me, but I don't like it or anything. I'm
tidy, but I'm not a clean freak like your twin sister back
there." She jerked a thumb at the kitchen.  "Oh? Was that
the last of the soup?" It wasn't, but she grabbed the bowl
from Kaeri's hands anyway.  "I'll just take that to the
kitchen for you, then I'm going out for a while." 

    "But I..." Kaeri's hands still held an ethereal bowl. 
Her fingers began to open and close.  "I want to hear..." 

    "Cheer up.  Mum can tell you stories.  Catch you later!"

    There was silence for a while after Miyabi left the
room, then Akane sat on the edge of the couch and began to
gossip.  She couldn't go on for long, though. 

    "Go on," said Kaeri. "You were saying, about Ranma and
Tatewaki..." 

    "I'm sorry, I just... I'm worried about Miyabi. 
She's...  different." 

    "Yes." 

    "Not herself." 

    "No, she isn't." 

    "All this anger, and her snappy comments... Do you think
it's because Ranma and I... I mean... We're engaged, but it
was kind of against our wills, and we never KNEW it could
work out before she came, so we still fight so much...  Do
you think THAT'S what has her... like this?" 

    Kaeri shook her head. 

    "You and Ranma... you shouldn't fight.  But
Miyabi... I think she has a new friend." 

    "A new friend?" 

    "Yes. One of mine." 

    And with that Kaeri fell silent. 

                         * * * * *
						 
	The O.P.I.M. chip liked running.  Yeah.  It had finally
figured it out.  Definitely.  Definitely running.  As long
as Rat kept on running, Ryouga couldn't kill him.
Definitely.  Definitely good. 

	And the change in scenery was nice, too.  Fresh air, the
Champs Elysee, the Kremlin... Maybe it'd allow Rat to make a
pit stop in Brussels before lunch.  Its programmers had
always wanted to see Brussels.
						 
    All it had to do was keep Rat running forever, and he'd
be fine.  Definitely.  Keep him running through everything.
Through anything.

	Rat slammed through an electric fence, flooding the chip
with more juice than it'd ever tasted before.
						 
    Yeah.  That was the ticket. 
	
	The herd of... O.P.I.M. made Rat's head turn and read
the sign above the proper entrance to the corral,
'Entrada prohibida: Toros reservados para la corrida de
Pamplona'.  Ah. Yes.  The herd of Spanish bulls was most
definitely NOT the ticket.

                         * * * * *

    Miyabi held the staff down on the ground before her, on
its upper end with both hands.  She closed her eyes.  It was
trying to speak to her;  she knew that... maybe she just
wasn't concentrating enough. 

    "I know you want to tell me something... but can't you
just...  speak up?"  Symbols that she'd never seen before
floated across her mind's eye.  They felt...  familiar,
somehow.  "What... what are these? Are they...  letters?
What-"  The figures began to dance, and twirl; they were
trying to arrange themselves in a way she could understand,
they were trying to...  She gripped the staff at midlength,
now, and brought her hands against her chest.  "You're too
far... too... If only we could melt, or...  or bind
together, I..."  The symbols were transforming, now.  Their
edges were dissolving and reshaping themselves into contours
well-known to Miyabi.  "You're... That's it! I..."  She
could feel her brain being picked for her native tongue. It
felt like a kiss or a caress, and she helped it along. "Only
a bit more, now..." Gold and black swirled and twisted,
fading into brown, then flashing into- "AAAAAARGH!" 

    "Miyabi-chan, thank-you for taking care of this for me.
Now I need it back."  The girl didn't answer Kaeri.  She was
too busy clutching her head and moaning.  "You really," 
said the woman, wiping the rod with the edge of her smock,
"should dust more often.  Where were you keeping it? It
likes the dark." Some hissing from Miyabi.  Kaeri didn't
heed it, but only frowned and looked ahead with a blank
look.  "It likes you, too," she concluded.  "I've told it
that it can't have you.  It's mine." 

    The staff flared red for a moment, and with it Miyabi
writhed in pain.  And then they both fell silent. 

    Kaeri gazed at the staff one more time, sternly. 

    "You're mine." 

    There were further curses and shouts, but these came
from below.

                         * * * * *

    Ryo Saotome fell to earth, azure flames clinging to his
body.  His mind was burning as well, hit with a massive
nausea and throbbing migrane. He was vaguely aware of the
others landing roughly with grunts of pain and cries of
anger, but his own pain made them far less of a priority.

    He staggered to his feet and looked around. 

    "It's blue," he muttered, clutching his head with a
hand.

    He was vaguely aware of steadying hands helping him to
his feet.

    Mother? 

    "Ow... man, y'gotta work on those landings." 

    No, father. That's right, he was a girl at the moment. 

    "Pop?" Ryo asked weakly.  "Some... something went wrong. 
Is everyone okay?"

    "Sorta." 

    "Sorta?" 

    "We all kinda got burned by some weird blue flame too. 
Childra's unconscious, Ishido's kinda awake, and Muhoshin's
still out."

    "N'you?" 

    "Been better.  You okay?" 

    "Yeah, pop, Just fine.  But why's everything blue?" 

    "Blue?" 

    "Ohboy."  Ryo's stomach churned and he fell to his
knees.  He fought the urge to throw up and lost, wretching
up dark blue bile.

    Ryo shakily wiped his mouth and stared at the azure pool
below him. "This... is not good."

    "Oh man," said Ranma quietly.  "C'mon, Ryo.  Let's get
the doc to look at ya."

    "No, I know what's wrong."  He slipped the lockets into
Ranma's hands. "Pop, s'important.  Hide'em, but not in the
same place.  Don't... tell....  anynnn..."  His eyes sealed
shut, and Ryo Saotome slumped unconscious in his father's
arms. 

                         * * * * *

	"Oww!" 
	
	Burma had blurred into Bangkok, which morphed into an
industrial area in the suburbs of Berlin.  The Hibikis
continued their chase along a bleak landscape of girders and
piles of sand, eventually, inevitably entering a dimly-lit
warehouse full of hazardous materials.

	The sign above the door?
	
         Mottomokutsu Industrien, Deutscher Zweig:
         Leben-drohende Substanzen eine Spezialitt

	Rat kept on running, trying frantically to unwrap
several coils of American razor wire from his legs as he
did. He had to keep on running, or Ryouga was going to catch
him.  For some reason, it the razor wire didn't actually
_hurt_; he only removed it because it inconvenienced the
fastest running possible.  His nose didn't hurt anymore
either.  Nothing had for ages.  It was as if some kind god
had filled his entire system with so many amphetamines and
pain-killers that he could have run through a pool of
electrified acid and not felt a thing.

    Speaking of that... 

    It seemed almost contrived, but what the hey?  One of
the many suspiciously fragile containers in the building
had broken open, and the industrial-strength acid it held
had just happened to spread across the floor in such a way
that the stripped wires of the conveniently fallen power
lines had dropped into the edge.

    Somehow, it made absolutely perfect sense to run through
it. It was, after all, the quickest route away from the
pursuing Ryouga. 

    "Oww,oww,oww,oww,oww." 

    Funny.  He kept on screaming.  It was as if his _body_
were aware that this hurt, but something were keeping the
pain signals from reaching his _brain_.  What a stupid
notion. He promptly forgot it.  In fact, he couldn't even
remember what he'd been thinking about in the first place.
Except running.

    "Hey, wow," he said as he noticed something sharp pierce
the sole of his shoe.  "More caltrops."  Obviously,
Mottomokutsu Industries believed in sharing products among
its branches.  "Groovy."  He giggled. 

                         * * * * *

    Darkness. 

    Ryo Saotome found himself enshrouded in it, his head
still spinning, though more slowly than it had been when
they first landed.

    In the distance, he saw a shimmering blue light.  From
past experiences, he was already wary of it but had no other
direction to go. Cautiously, he approached it, and found
that it wasn't one light, but many.

    He found himself surrounded by infinite shimmering
points of light, and as his eyes passed them he saw brief
visions of people and places, some familiar, some alien.

    Alternate realities, he realized.  This is what he was
looking at.

    But... how did he get here? 

                         * * * * *

    It felt an awful lot like a hangover for Childra Jansen. 
Headache, dizzy feeling, all the other usual symptoms.

    "Not fair," she mumbled.  "I don't remember a party." 

    "Miss Jansen?" 

    "Mrr?" 

    She slowly opened her eyes.  A blurry, bespecled face
gazed down at her.

    "Ishido, s'at you?" 

    "Sorry, miss.  Just me, Dr. Tofu.  You're here at my
clinic."

    Childra rubbed her eyes, then tried to sit up.  A gentle
hand on her shoulder pushed her back down. 

    "Don't," said Tofu.  "You need your rest." 

    "What happened?" asked Childra, closing her eyes and
resting on the bed once more.  "Where's Ishido?" 

    "He's resting, like you.  You're all are suffering
exposure to some strange energy.  With time and some rest
you should all recover." 

    "Mm.  Good." 

    Tofu watched as Childra closed her eyes and rested
again, then pulled the curtain around her bed and left.  A
few seconds passed, then Childra slowly rose from her bed
and pulled aside the curtain around her bed.  Around her,
several other curtains were drawn, no doubt the other beds.
She walked quiety across the room to the other curtains,
peeking inside at every one. 

    Curtain number one... Ranma. 

    Curtain number two... his son, Ryo.  Odd, thought
Childra, were his eyes glowing blue?

    She moved on to the next curtain and nearly gasped.  The
other Ryo was there, eyes wide open but lifeless.  He laid
limp on the medical table, an empty shell.  She particularly
noted the straitjacket that held him tightly, as well as the
handcuff that kept him attached to the bed.  Strange, that
such a weak looking boy could be so dangerous.

    Well then, curtain number four must be it.  With a
smile, she parted the curtains and at last spied her dear
Ishido.  He looked awfully cute, asleep like that.  Like a
shark through water, she easily slid into the sheets,
embracing his unconscious form. 

    A few minutes later, she joined him in rest. 

                         * * * * *

	Ryouga raced after Rat.  Up ahead, the floor was covered
in a glinting sea of spiky metal.  Ryouga tried to guess by
Rat's posture which way he would go around it, but he hid
his intentions perfectly. 

    Then he ran through the caltrops, screaming all the way. 
     
	Ryouga blinked, and went left around them.  This meant
that Ratiko got further ahead than him, but by the sounds
Rat made as he stepped on the caltrops, Rat could take the
lead that way if he wanted. 

    Sizzle.  Hiss.  Crackle. 

    "AIEEEEEEEEEEE!" 

    Surprised did not begin to describe Ryouga's reaction as
he watched Rat splash, howling in agony, through an
ankle-deep pool of electrified acid. 

    "How is he still moving?" Ryouga murmured as he skirted
around the acid.  Rat got even further ahead.  He seemed to
simply be running in a straight line away from Ryouga. 

    "AURGGGHHHH!" 

    Ryouga winced in mutual sympathy and took the long way
around the second bed of caltrops that had been laid down in
the rubbling of the warehouses. 

    Ryouga gulped.

    Rat was going to get away if he kept on running like
this. 

    "For you, Akane!" 

    Good thing his boots were tough. 

    "Oww,oww,oww,oww,oww..." 

                         * * * * *

    "Feeling better?" asked Akane.

    Miyabi nodded, sipping the tea afterwards very slowly.

    "What happened to you anyway?" asked Akane.  "I found
you unconscious and on the floor, and you looked like you
were in pain."

    "Guess I just fell asleep and had a nightmare," answered
Miyabi, laughing nervously.

    "You'll be glad to hear your dad's back."

    Miyabi perked up.  "He's okay?"

    Akane nodded.

    Miyabi frowned.  "Wait, that means _he_'s back."

    "Who?"

    "My so-called half-brother.  Did he manage to bring that
other guy back?"

    Akane nodded.

    Miyabi sighed.  "Maybe we'll be able to go home now."

    The girl missed the slight sadness in Akane's voice when
she replied, "Yes, I guess you will."

    "Y'know, this really is good tea.  You really made it?"
Miyabi asked her mother teasingly.

    Akane played along, swatting Miyabi's arm.  "Oh!  I'm
not bad at -everything!-"

    They laughed, and Miyabi closed her eyes, savoring the
moment.

    Suddenly, it all came rushing back to her.

    The staff.  Her.  What she did.

    How she treated Kaeri.

    "Oh no!"

    "What?" asked Akane.  "What is it?"

    "Where's Kaeri?  Oh God, I messed up, mum.   I really
did, and now I've gotta go find her.  Oh no-"

    Akane tried to calm Miyabi down, putting a hand on her
arm.  "Kaeri's okay.  She just said she was going to take a
walk."

    "Did you see if she was holding a stick?" asked Miyabi
frantically.

    "Um, I think so..."

    "Oh no!  I've gotta go save her!  Thanks, mum!"  Before
Akane could say another word, Miyabi sprang up and ran like
the wind.

    She rushed through the house, looking in every room,
around the yard, then hit the streets.  That stick...
whatever it was... she had to get rid of it.

    Over rooftops she ran, frantic in her search, speeding
across fences, hopping across boulderes in the waterways.
She searched all the places Kaeri might've gone to: the
markets, the malls, the parks, even Furinkan High.

    And still she did not find her.

    Where, thought Miyabi, just where would I go if I was a
scared, scarred Kasumi with a stick that radiates evil?

    She snapped her fingers.

    "Dr. Tofu's!"

    Miyabi ran again, hoping she wasn't too late, hoping
Kaeri wouldn't do anything crazy, hoping she wouldn't arrive
just in time to witness the tail end of a bloody killing
spree winding down.

    She ran into Dr. Tofu's clinic hectically, bursting
through the door. "Dr Tofu!  Dr. Tofu!  I-yeeeagh!" 

    She turned around quickly, blushing deep red as the
naked man in front of Tofu scrambled to cover up.

    Naked man.  And Tofu.  

    And the hand.  Tofu's hand.

    Whoa.  Eep.  Yikes.

    Oh my.

    "Um, Miyabi-chan," said Tofu.  "We can talk after I'm
through with this rectal exam."

    "Right!  Okay!  Leaving now!  Sorry about that!"

    Blushing redder than any human should, Miyabi quickly
stepped out of the office and closed the door, taking care
to NOT turn back.

    "This is something I think we won't be telling mum," she
mutterd to herself.

    With many deep breaths and thoughts about mundane
things, Miyabi finally got the blush off of her face.  She
decided a walk around the block would be good.  She'd rather
not look Dr. Tofu's patient in the face when he was done.

    As she walked around one side of the building, her
senses began nagging her.  Her father called it 'battle
sense' and her mother called it 'intuition'.  Whatever it
was, it was usually right.  She looked around slowly,
cautiously, then saw what was bothering her.

    Kaeri.

    She was perched in a tree overlooking the Tendo clinic,
peering into one of the windows intensely, the strange stick
clutched in her hands.

    She approached Kaeri cautiously.  "Auntie?" 

    Kaeri looked down, an eerie sort of calm in her eyes.
"Hello, Miyabi-chan," she said evenly.

    "Auntie, I'm sorry!"

    Kaeri tilted her head slightly, looking puzzled.
"Sorry?"

    "I was being a real jerk before and I didn't even know
it and I really don't hate you and-"

    "That's okay, Miyabi-chan.  I understand."

    "You do?"

    Kaeri nodded, a light smile gracing her lips.

    "Auntie... if you do understand, you know you have to
let go of the stick."  Miyabi held a hand out, looking at
Kaeri with hopeful eyes.

    Kaeri shook her head.  "I have everything under control,
Miyabi-chan."

    "That thing twisted me," argued Miyabi.  "And it'll
twist you too.  Please, auntie, before it's too late?"

    Kaeri shook her head again.  "You're not strong enough
to have it.  I am."

    "But when you came here you were a wreck!  The staff-"

    Kaeri closed her eyes, turning away.  "The staff... was
not the problem."

    "But-"

    The expression on Kaeri's face when she looked into
Miyabi's eyes took her entirely by surprise.  It wasn't the
troubled, haunted look that so dominated her, but a look of
utter calm and tranquility.  It was a face you could only
find on Kasumi.

    "Everything's fine now, Miyabi-chan.  I promise."

    And then it was gone, replaced by the more vulnerable
expression that usually was kept on Kaeri's face.

    But she smiled.  A little.

    "Um, auntie," said Miyabi slowly.  "Why are you here?
Is it because of... Dr. Tofu?"

    Kaeri's troubled face darkened a little more.  "No... I
don't think I should see him... not anymore."  She
brightened, a little smile on her face.  "I'm here to visit
someone else."

    Someone else?  But who else...

    The image of Dr. Tofu's patient immediately slammed into
her head, causing Miyabi to blush badly again.

    Nonono, can't be that, she mentally berated herself.

    "Who?" she finally asked.

    Kaeri pointed to the window.  Standing on the ground,
Miyabi couldn't see, so she leapt up to join Kaeri, then
peered down.

    Behind the window was a boy, pale, skinny, and
unconscious.  His expression was entirely blank, devoid of
expression, and he was bound by a straitjacket.

    "Him?" asked Miyabi.

    Kaeri nodded, the small smile still evident. 

    Miyabi looked again.  "Him?" 

    "Muhoshin-san," said Kaeri quietly.  Miyabi could hear
the care in her voice. 

    "Isn't he the guy they were chasing after?  Ryo and the
others?" asked Miyabi. 

    "Muhoshin-san is just... misunderstood.  He was hurt,
like me." 

    "I don't know..." 

    "I do," Kaeri told her firmly. "He... he saved me. From
them." A slight tremor developed in her hand, quickly
stilled.  "He helped me to get better, and he sat up with me
like you did, and... well... he was very nice."

    Miyabi could see her cheeks color slightly. 

    "But Ryo's been chasing the guy..."

    "Ryo hasn't done anything for me lately," Kaeri said,
her voice turning slightly cool. "Or for my family." She
frowned slightly. "He doesn't care, Miyabi-chan. Watch him. 
He'll do what he thinks is the right thing, no matter how it
hurts..." She voice fell to a whisper. "And he's not right. 
He shouldn't be here. You now how it's supposed to be.  You
know Akane and Ranma love each other. So whose son is he? 
What happened to have him born?" Kaeri smiled slightly, a
cold, empty thing. "Does he want things to be like that
here?"

    Miyabi swallowed slightly. "He's a jerk, but I don't
think he'd..." 

    "Why not?" Kaeri pressed. "You tried to make things just
like home. The way they should be. What has this Ryo been
telling Ukyou, hmm? What has he been doing?" 

    "You don't think..." Miyabi trailed off, aghast. What if
he had? He disappeared and reappeared mysteriously, she knew
he'd spoken to Ukyou at least more than once, and she was
beginning to think that he'd MADE the locket in the first
place... what for? 

    "Would he?" she weakly finished. 

    Kaeri shrugged. "I don't know. But don't trust him. You
can trust Muhoshin-san, but don't trust him." 

    Miyabi glanced through the window once again, and
frowned. This was the terrible menace Ryo had been chasing?
The deadly martial artist and killer? He didn't look like he
could get through a set of push-ups, let alone take on Ryo
Saotome. 

    The frown deepened. If he'd taken care of Kaeri, he
couldn't be that bad. Certainly he had to be better than her
half-brother, who had apparently first ignored and then
dragged back a terribly hurt, traumatized woman. 

                         * * * * *

	The pursuit ended several hours later, in a blind alley
that backed up against a ten-story building only blocks from
the Tokyo dock where they'd started.  Ryouga and Ratiko had
left a meandering trail of destruction throughout the
harbour district, which had only lessened a little after
the O.P.I.M. chip had let Rat move out of a straight line to
use doors rather than running straight through walls. 

    Both of them were bloody, bruised and nearly dead from
exhaustion.  Rat staggered into the dark alley, and slumped
against a wall.  Soon enough the sun would rise, but right
now the narrow space between buildings was filled with deep
shadows. 

    Even the greatest craftsman is only as good as his
tools. The O.P.I.M. chip had given its best, but Ryouga's
pursuit had been absolutely relentless.  Now the host was so
exhausted that making him further exert himself could likely
lead to a heart attack or respiratory failure.  Even the
continued manipulation of the chemical levels in his brain
and body was becoming dangerous.  In response, the
beleaguered chip shut down all functions but the monitoring
of its host to await a time when it could safely affect his
actions to preserve his life. 

    Rat looked blearily up as his great-grandfather came
panting into the opening of the alleyway.  The only way in
which the bone-tired Ryouga would have been able to kill Rat
right now would probably have been by falling on him from a
great height. 

    He was damn well going to try, however. 

    "C'mere, you little sociopath," he muttered.
"Great-grandfather wants to talk to you." 

    Rat backed further away into the depths of the alley,
and gulped as he realized there were no doors concealed
behind the rotting mounds of garbage, or some other means of
escape.  It wasn't like he had the energy to run further
anyway.  Once he came down from the effects of the chemical
stimulation the O.P.I.M. had done to him to keep him
running, he'd likely simply collapse. 

    Ryouga came closer, using his umbrella like a walking
stick. He giggled.  "End of the line." 

    In one of those non-coincidental coincidences that
happened to Jusenkyou victims, someone poured a bucket of
mopping water out their apartment window on top of his head. 

    P-chan squealed. 

    Ratiko laughed hysterically.  "The gods are on my side!"
he cried, and shook a fist at the sky. 

    Then P-chan bit Rat on the foot. 

    Rat screamed. 

    In the back of the alleyway, something shifted.  Many
somethings.  Feral eyes glowed redly as lean and hungry
shapes padded out on four limbs from their nest amidst the
garbage. 

    Rat stared at the wild dogs.  "Shit," he muttered. 

    The wild dogs stared at Rat and P-chan, and said, "Arf." 

    This translated in their crude but ugly language as
'breakfast'. 

    Being threatened by a hungry pack of dogs can do wonders
for making you feel invigorated again.  Rat and P-chan
paused for a split second, and then took off as if... as
if... 

    Well, as if they were both being chased by an enormous
pack of savage wild dogs.  Once again, reality takes over
where metaphor fails. 

                         * * * * *

    It used to be quiet.

    "Muhoshin-san?"

    Until the voice.

    "Muhoshin-san, can you hear me?"

    He felt slightly irritated at the voice, interrupting
the peace and quiet that the absolute void held for him.
After bearing witness to infinity, some time spent in
absolute nothingness was what his mind desperately needed.

    "Muhoshin-san?"

    The voice seemed familiar, and it stirred something
within him.  A memory of something.

    Her.

    Slowly, he opened his eyes.

    The world was draped in shadows, yet what little
illumination there was showed enough to warm his heart.

    "Kas..."  He said, his voice barely audible and his
throat stining dry.  "Kaeri."

    "Muhoshin-san!"

    He felt soft arms surround him, and the scent that only
a woman's hair could carry filled his nose.

    "Where... where am I?"

    "You're in Dr. Tofu's clinic."

    "I... see.  And... the others?"

    "They're here too, sleeping."

    Muhoshin nodded slightly, then closed his eyes again.
It felt good, being there, with her like this.  He could get
used to it, certainly.

    Though something... something was missing.

    Muhoshin narrowed his eyes.

    "Where... where is... where is my locket?" he hissed.

    "I don't know, Muhoshin-san.  I didn't see it when you
came back and the other Ryo didn't have it, but-"

    "I need that locket," he hissed, his voice becoming
angrier.  "I need the locket.  I need it now."

    "Muhoshin-san, please, you need to rest."

    "I do not need to rest, I need that loc-"  Muhoshin's
next words were lost as he coughed and wheezed, what little
energy he had left quickly drained by it.

    "Muhoshin-san, please rest," said Kaeri softly.  She
gave him a gentle kiss on the cheek, then tucked him in.
"I'll look for the locket.  Don't worry."

    "Kaeri... don't tell..."

    "Hm?"

    "Don't tell them... I'm awake."

    "I won't."

    And with that reassurance, Muhoshin closed his eyes and
returned to oblivion.

                         * * * * *

    Miyabi waited patiently outside while Kaeri snuck inside
and talked with Muhoshin.  While she didn't mean to, she
watched from the window as Kaeri spoke to the boy.

    She was surprised when she saw Kaeri suddenly embrace
him, and couldn't help but feel happy for her when she saw
how happy Kaeri was at that moment.

    A moment later, Kaeri returned, looking much better than
before.  Not normal, not Kasumi-normal, but not so much on
edge anymore.

    "Let's go home," she said with a smile.

    "Um, okay."  As the two walked, Miyabi eyed Kaeri
curiously.  "So... he's okay?"

    Kaeri nodded happily, then frowned.  "Oh, Miyabi-chan,
please don't tell anyone I talked to him.  It's very
important, please?"

    A strange request, but Miyabi didn't see the harm in it.
"Well, okay."

    "Thank you, Miyabi-chan."

                         * * * * *

    As one day passed to the next, the various members of
Ryo Saotome's transdimensional team eventually recovered
from their illnesses.

    Ranma, with his natural toughness and high constitution, 
was first to recover and return home.  Ishido was released
soon after, but remained at the clinic until Childra was
declared healthy enough the day after.

    Only two people remained: the two Ryos.

    Ryo Saotome tossed and turned, uneasy in his slumber. 
Sometimes Ranma would visit, mixed emotions brought forth as
he watched his possible future son's troubled sleep.
Sometimes Ukyou would visit, motherly worry obvious on her
face as she tended to her 'son' with care.

    Ryo Muhoshin on the other hand, was absolutely comatose
and unmoving.  He was still seemingly comatose and left
unguarded while the others recovered from their illness,
though that changed when Ishido found out.  After he raised
an uproar about how careless it was to leave him unguarded,
a constant vigil was kept on Muhoshin. 

    Sometimes it was Ishido himself, with a suspicious
glare.  Sometimes it was Childra with a baleful stare.  Two
Nerima 'regulars' also took turns, Ranma with a lazy
demeanor, though his attention was far sharper than it
appeared to be, and Ukyou, who watched over Muhoshin with
the diligence of a prison warden.  And sometimes it was
Miyabi on guard duty, looking curiously at the so-called
menace that was Ryo Muhoshin. 

    Ryo Saotome remained unconscious for quite some time.

    Ryo Muhoshin, despite all appearances, was far more
alert than he appeared to be.

                         * * * * *

    "Hello."

    Childra nearly had a heart attack, being used to nothing
but silence while on guard duty.  She immediately whirled
around, her bo whipping out just short of his head.

    He stared at her blankly with dead eyes.

    "Hello," he said again.

    "Yeah, hello to you too," she replied sarcastically.  He
merely blinked at her.

    "Hello," he said again, still looking mostly blank.

    "Ah, a few marbles short I see."

    "Maybe."

    She stared at him, gripping her bo, as he simply went to
sleep.

                         * * * * *

    Ishido glared at him.

    Ryo stared back, though with a fairly blank expression.

    "You're not fooling anyone, Muhoshin," grumbled Ishido.

    "No, I'm not," replied Muhoshin casually.  He closed his
eyes and relaxed on the bed, a slightly smug grin on his
lips.  "Tell me," he said calmly.  "You love that Jansen
girl, yes?"

    "And if you EVER lay a hand on her again-"

    "I'm not the one," he interrupted calmly, "that you
should worry about."

    "Huh?"

    "You.  Her.  Different worlds," purred Muhoshin.  "You
know he won't let this situation continue."

    "What?  What are you talking about?"

    "Isn't... isn't that other Ryo so keen on 'setting
things right'?  Hm?"

    "What does that have to do with anything?"

    Muhoshin sighed.  "Think about it.  I'm feeling tired."

    And with no further words, Muhoshin went to sleep.

                         * * * * *

    Night came to pass over Nerima, once more bringing rest
to most of her children.

    In Tofu's clinic, Ryo Saotome spent another night in
restless sleep, unknown visions plaguing his dreams.  Ryo
Muhoshin slept just as uneasily, his hand over a
heart-shaped hole in his chest where his locket once burned.
Sitting by him, Ishido slept lightly, awakened by the
slightest sound.  His sleep was far from relaxed. 

    In Ucchan's, Ukyou dreamed of a future with her Ranma,
and their son Ryo.  It was a happy dream, filled with a
sweet kisses and promises of happy tomorrows.

    All was dark in the Tendo home, with her inhabitants at
rest once more.

    Except for one, and she'd done this before.

    Kaeri wandered the grounds in darkness once more, this
time with slow and methodical searching instead of the
desperate scrabbling she'd done last time.

    There were so many places to hide a locket.

    Oh, so many.

                         * * * * *

    And on the next day, Ryo Saotome rose from his sleep.

    "Ah, I see you're finally awake," said Dr. Tofu.

    Ryo groaned.

    "How are you feelling?"

    "Tired," said Ryo.  "The others?"

    "They're all fine," Tofu assured him.

    "How... how long have I been out?"

    "A couple of days," said Tofu.

    Ryo's eyes widened.  "DAYS?!"  He suddenly stood up,
only to slump back into bed.  "Damn... still weak."

    "Hey, don't rush things," said Tofu.  "You'll only make
yourself more sick."  Seeing Ryo settling back into bed,
Tofu relaxed.

    "Think I know... why," said Ryo weakly.

    "Why?" asked Tofu.

    "Lockets... was holding both lockets... must've been...
some sorta feedback."

    Tofu nodded.  "That might explain the disruption in your
aura.  I'll let Ranma know you're awake now.  You just get
your rest."

    Ryo nodded and sunk lower into the blankets.  More rest
was definitely needed.

    Everything was still blue.

                         * * * * *

    "Hello," said Muhoshin, still as wooden and unemotional
as he was the day before.  Childra found his gaze eerie,
despite its lack of malice.

    "Hello to you too," said Childra in a fairly unfriendly
manner.

    "He's awake," said Muhoshin.

    "The other Ryo?  Yeah, he's awake," said Childra,
keeping a hand on her bo.

    "You said goodbye to Ishido, I guess."

    Childra glared at him for a moment, then laughed.  "And
why would I do that?  You're in no position to do anything
to us."

    Muhoshin raised an eyebrow.  "All I have to do is
watch."

    "And what's that mean?"

    "Other Ryo."

    "You're talking nonsense," said Childra.

    "He's all for setting things... ah... in order."
Muhoshin gazed at her flatly for a moment, then closed his
eyes and sighed.  "Ishido doesn't belong in your world.  You
don't belong in his."

    "That doesn't matter," she replied, sounding a little
bitter.

    They stayed there in silence for a while, Muhoshin
looking very relaxed while Childra seemed disturbed.

    Finally, Muhoshin spoke again.  "Help me stop him."

    "Why should I?  You tried to kill us last time."

    "You... *yawn* you were trying to take my precious away
from me."  Muhoshin stretched and scratched his side, eyes
still closed.  "Help me.  You'll stay together."

    "You've lied before."

    Muhoshin opened one eye and peered at her.  "Take your
chances with the boy scout, then."

                         * * * * *

    Kaeri strode through the upper hall, grinding her mental
gears in time to her footsteps.  She ran through her
checklist again.  Nothing seemed to be missing, and there
was little left to do.  Everything was almost right; she was
almost ready to leave this place with Muhoshin-san. 

    Almost.
    
    They both had Work to do. Maybe this time they could do
it together.  Now, wouldn't that be nice?

    She decided that it would be.  A task shared is a task
enjoyed, and Kaeri hadn't realised how lonely she'd become
until meeting Miyabi.  She had needed this. Just... a rest.
A break. To pull herself together. To sort things out.

    To claw herself upwards through the slime with her
fingernails, away from the the blazing depths of the pit of
insanity - but it had already singed her.

    That worried her. She couldn't afford to go mad. Or
madder. She suspected that she wasn't completely sane... 
but then, who was? Who cared? As long as it didn't
interfere with the Work, as long as it didn't get too bad,
as long as the shadows stayed out of sight...

    And then there was her staff.

    It was lying on her bed, at the moment.

    She could feel it.

    Miyabi was too weak, too easily snared. She didn't have
the will to deal with it. Perhaps being a little insane
wasn't so bad after all. Kaeri was many things, but weak
was not one of them. Now that she knew exactly what the
staff was, she could deal with it. Not master it, but deal
with it.

    It wanted to kill things. That was fine with her;
certain things needed to be killed. But only certain things.
She would make the decisions, not it, but it would take
effort.  A lot of it.  The staff was strong, and cunning...
it waited for just the right moment, subtly trying to color
her emotions and mind in the process.

    Now that she knew what to look for, it would have a
harder time of things.  But even with her added knowledge,
what lay ahead was still rather worrying. 

    In fact, Kaeri was so     caught up in her brooding that
she utterly forgot to keep one of her major goals in mind;
namely, avoiding Kasumi and, with the inevitability of such
events, she turned the corner and nearly ran straight into
the eldest Tendo sister.

    Kasumi blinked, tried for a smile, faltered, and then
managed a brightly polite beam. "Oh dear. Hello."

    Kaeri favored her with the sort of polite look one gives
a friendly mangy dog. "Hello."

    There was an awkward pause, and then Kaeri began to walk
past her double.

    "Why do you hate me?"

    Kaeri stopped, slowly turned. The smile on Kasumi's face
was as immutable as the pyramids.

    She shrugged. "Because you're blind."
    
    Kasumi smiled in silence.
    
    "Because you're stupid."
    
    The smile seemed to twitch a little.  It must, Kaeri
thought, have been her imagination.
    
    "Because..."  The word she needed was one that had lain
long unused in her vocabulary.  "Because you're happy."
    
    This last dissolved the sugary lipcurve so that the
human vegetable could ask a question.

    "Aren't you any of those?"

    Kaeri sighed. "No. Not anymore."  Her double was a
potato.  Or a turnip.  Probably not as advanced as a leek,
and radishes had too much character.

    "Who are you?"

    "I was you."

    Kasumi nodded slowly. "Why would I hate myself? I don't
really hate anything."

    "You can learn."

    "Oh dear. I'd really rather not."

    Kaeri almost laughed.  "You'd rather not.  You'd. 
rather.  not.  You think... I CHOSE?  The fire came.  I
didn't know it could burn more than trash and cookies. But
now I do.  You can learn.  I've learned.  And sometimes,
'I'd rather not' just isn't good enough.  Life doesn't work
like that. I tried it, once, and it all ended."
    
    "What happened?"

    "I went to a seminar in Osaka. I came back, and they
were all dead." She poked her double lightly in the chest.
"People think they take you for granted, but it's really the
other way around. What would you do without them? Who would
you cook for? What would you clean?" Again she poked Kasumi,
this time not so gently. "Stupid girl. What would you do
when your reason for living dies? All you do is take care of
them. What happens when they're gone?"

    "They're not going any..."

    Her hand came around hard, catching Kasumi on the side
of the cheek with a echoing slap. "That's what I thought,
you stupid girl! That's exactly what I thought, and then
they were DEAD! So I had a choice, you see... I had fallen
out of heaven, and landed in hell, and I could either stay
there or use the Nanban Mirror to fix things..." She
chuckled, watching as Kasumi rubbed at the side of her
cheek, a nervous look in her eyes. "I did. I fixed things.
But you can never go home again. I fixed things for some
other Kasumi, who had never had anyone cut off her fingers,
or put her face to a hot grill. The same blind, stupid,
worthless Kasumi as always. Not me. So I had left hell, and
you can't ever go back to heaven, and that just leaves
purgatory."

    "Envy is a very bad reason to hate someone," Kasumi said
softly.

    Kaeri stared at her for a moment, and then slumped.
"Maybe. But it's not just that. You just take care of the
easy things, girl. The things you enjoy. You ignore the
rest, and they can't afford that. Open your eyes and pay
attention."

    "But..."

    "No buts. I know you. Don't think you can hide from me.
I know you think that if you just do what Mother did,
everything will be okay. That's a lie. It won't."

    Kasumi flinched. "It has been, though. It really..."

    The second slap actually sent her sprawling. "IDIOT! It
was 'all right' because _I_ made it so! Because _I_ went
back and was cut and burned! So they could live, and so you
could be stupid and happy! It could have been you, you
stupid little girl! It should have been! I just want to go
home and have things the way they were, but I can't because
you're in my place!"

    Kasumi slowly climbed to her feet. "Don't... don't you
hit me. I won't..."

    Kaeri laughed. "You can't stop me. You're weak. You
don't have the will. But you could have. And maybe you will,
because I'm going to tell you a secret."

    "A secret?"

    Kaeri winked with her one good eye. "A secret. You see,
my seminar? It hasn't happened yet. This place is a year
behind my timeline."

    Kasumi stared at her. "What does that..."

    Kaeri giggled. "It means that what happened to me hasn't
occured her yet. If it occurs. I'm not sure whether it will
or not. The locket is funny; some places are so alike, and
some are so different... who knows? You might be the eariler
me. Or maybe you'll be weaker than I was, and will just kill
yourself after your entire world is destroyed. Or maybe
you'll just rot in your empty little apartment. Who knows?
Maybe nothing will happen at all."

    She turned, and continued down the hallway. "But don't
bet on it, Kasumi."

                         * * * * *

    It felt good to be back on his feet, mused Ryo Saotome.
Though he wasn't on his feet at the moment, he was at least
finally out of bed.

    Though Ranma had argued against it, Ryo took guard duty
over Muhoshin.  He was hoping to talk some sense into his
adversary, even though all previous attempts had failed
miseraby.

    Never giving up was something he liked to think he'd
gotten from his father.

    "Hello, Muhoshin."

    His adversary, on the other hand, seemed to have lost
his fight.  He laid passively on his bed, not struggling to
get out of his straitjacket at all.  According to the
others, he hadn't made any attempt to escape at all.

    Even now, Muhoshin seemed eerily passive.

    "Hello," said Muhoshin, taking a moment to open his eyes
and glance briefly at his nemesis.  After that, he settled
back into silence, closing his eyes.

    While Ryo was generally a good speaker, Muhoshin's
passive attitude left him speechless.

    And so they passed an hour this way, Ryo watching over
Muhoshin in peace and quiet.

    "Saotome," said Muhoshin, suddenly breaking the silence.

    "Yeah?"

    "If you're up and about, why aren't we all home yet?"
asked Muhoshin, suspicion in his voice. 

    "I'm still not feeling entirely well."

    "Ah.  Everything still a nice shade of blue?"  There was
a hint of a sneer in his voice.

    Ryo ignored it.

    "Saotome," said Muhoshin.  "If I asked you to give me my
locket back... you would say no, wouldn't you?" 

    "I would."

    "And if I were to get it back, you'd chase me again."

    "Yeah.  Muhoshin, you're not we-"

    "That's all I needed to know."

    "But-"

    "Quiet.  I'd like to rest.  Things are still a nice
shade of blue.  I'm sure you know the feeling."

    Once more, they fell into silence.  And once more
Muhoshin broke it.

    "Saotome?"

    "Yeah?"

    "You're a lot like me."

    Ryo frowned.  "What's that supposed to mean?"  Whatever
it meant, Muhoshin declined to say.

                         * * * * *

    Miyabi peered cautiously around her, making sure there
would be none to overhear her conversation.

    "Hey, Muhoshin, you awake?"

    He lazily lifted an eyelid.  "Hmm?"

    "I've been thinking about what Kaeri said about you
and... did you really save her life?"

    Muhoshin's expression darkened.  "Yes, yes I did."

    She looked him sternly in the eye.  "So what would you
do if I set you free?"

    "If I'm what they made me out to be, I guess I'd sneak
up on them and slit their throats.  But of course, I'm not
like that.  Instead, I'll just take my locket and leave."

    "You're not gonna hurt anyone?"

    He remained silent for a while, then finally replied.
"I only bite when bitten."

    "Okay, then.  I'm gonna let you go, but-"

    "Not yet."

    "Hm?"

    "Don't release me yet.  Kas... Kaeri hasn't found my
locket yet.  No sense in alarming the others too early."

    "Um... okay."

                         * * * * *

    Irritated by his lack of progress with Muhoshin, and
feeling restless in general, Muhoshin took a walk once
Miyabi came in to take over the watch.

    No sense delaying returning them home, right?  The
longer he put it off, the more he ran the risk of something
going wrong again.

    Everything was in place for him to go home again.  No
sense in putting it off, right?

    He found himself at the Tendo residence and hesitated as
he stood at its gate.  Before, he'd always felt good when he
saw this place.  Now, however, there was no doubt as to the
slightly unpleasant undercurrent that he represented.

    Ranma was supposed to marry Akane, not Ukyou.

    Not his mom.

    His very presence there was a reminder that Soun Tendo's
dreams would not come to pass.  They probably didn't think
he noticed it, but he did, when Soun cast a wary glance at
him, or Akane frowned as he talked about how his mother and
father were... would be... will be...

    "Argh."

    He didn't like this feeling.  The Tendo home was
supposed to be Bell-chan's, a place where he'd always be
welcome.

    Well it was about time he went back to that place, blue
specks in his eyes or not.

    Feeling full of purpose once more, he walked to the door
calmly, and asked to see Ranma.  Kasumi lead him through the
house, feeling the awkwardness the other Tendos felt when he
was around, as he passed her, to the dojo, where Ranma was
keeping himself busy doing katas.

    Ryo waved.  "Hey pop."

    "Oh, hey Ryo.  Feelin' better, huh?"

    "Good enough," said Ryo.  "Hey, listen, pop, you hid the
lockets, right?"

    "'course I did."

    "Well, I think it's time... y'know?"

    "Time?"  Ranma blinked and looked at Ryo cluelessly.

    "Time I went home," said Ryo.  "Time everyone else went
home too."

    "Oh."  Ranma nodded.  "Well, I hid one of them behind
the shrine," he said, tilting his head at the shrine on the
dojo wall.

    Ryo immediately went to it and searched blindly with his
hand.

    "Um, pop?  You sure it's here?"

    "Yeah I'm sure," said Ranma.  "Move aside, lemme see."
He reached behind the shrine... and blinked.

    "Oh boy."

    Ryo gave him a haggard, wearly look.  "What do you mean,
'oh boy'?"

    A pair of silhouettes appeared at the doorway.  "Hey,
Ryo," said a stern female voice.  "There's something we need
to straighten out."

    Ryo turned around.  "Childra..."

    The woman didn't look happy, and Ishido looked even less
so.  "You aren't taking Childra away from me," said Ishido.
His battle aura flickered slightly.

    Ryo sighed.  "Oh boy."

                         * * * * *

    A gentle knock on the door turned Miyabi's head.  Kaeri
entered, giving Miyabi a smile and a gentle squeeze on the
shoulder, then stood by Muhoshin's side.

    "I found it," she said, then pulled a shining silver
locket from her pocket.

    Muhoshin smiled.  The straitjacket holding him
dissappeared with an azure flash.  He took the locket from
her hand, held it high, then suddenly pressed it to his
chest.  Azure flames blazed from beneath his hand and a
whirlwind seemed to rush through the room.

    And then all was quiet.

    "What... what did you do?" asked Miyabi.

    Muhoshin didn't stand so much as he slithered up to a
standing position.  From under his shirt, Miyabi noticed a
pulsating azure glow.

    "Just took my heart back," mumbled Muhoshin.  Another
flash of blue engulfed him and he suddenly had on a new grey
suit, tailored and pressed to perfection.  "You couldn't
find the other one?" he asked Kaeri.

    She shook her head.  "I'm sorry, Muhoshin-san."

    "No need to apologize.  This one will do."

    Miyabi suddenly had a bad feeling about this, but she
couldn't leave now.  As Kaeri rushed up to Muhoshin's side
and embraced him, Miyabi knew the scarred girl might be
blind to Muhoshin's faults.

    Someone had to watch out for her.

    For better or worse, she was with them.

    "Pardon me, ladies, but I've errands to run," said
Muhoshin.

    "Errands?" asked Miyabi.  "What kind of er... hey!"
Suddenly, she found herself bathed in azure flames and
fading into nothing.  "What's going on here?!"

    Muhoshin gave her a reassuring smile.  "Just sending you
and Kaeri ahead.  Don't worry, I'll be with you soon."

    Miyabi yelled in protest, but her words were lost as she
and Kaeri vanished in flashes of bright blue.

    Alone once more, Ryo Muhoshin's grin lost all warmth.

    "Suddenly, I'm in the mood for okonomiyaki."

                         * * * * *

    Ranma moved into a fighting stance, ready to defend his
son.  Ryo, however, had other ideas.

    "Dad, it's okay.  Listen, guys," said Ryo Saotome
wearily. "Let's talk about this." 

    "We're just a little worried," said Childra, not
relaxing a bit.  "You seem to be very keen on 'setting
everything right', and that would mean sending Ishido back
to where he came from."

    "I don't want to go back," said Ishido firmly.  "I am
_not_ going back.  I'm staying with Childra."

    Ryo held his hands up in submission.  "Okay, okay, you
guys want to stay together.  I understand that.  Fine."  He
hesitated a moment, thinking of the words to say to diffuse
the situation.

    "Right, okay, I'll let you stay together," lied Ryo.

    Muhoshin's last words nagged at him.

    'You're just like me.'

    No, he said to himself, no I'm not.

    "And where are the lockets, anyway?" asked Childra.

    "Well, one was right here," said Ryo.  "You sure, pop?"

    "Yeah I'm sure!" said Ranma.  "It was right-"

    Suddenly, flames of blue erupted in the air an arm's
length in front of Ryo and faded away to reveal an
okonomiyaki takeout box.  Reflexively, Ryo caught it before
it fell to the ground.

    Ryo's sinking feeling sunk even lower as he opened the
box.  Written in sauce were the words 'HELP ME', and
scribbled inside the box lid were the following lines:

             Hear the loud alarum bells-
                    Brazen bells!
  What a tale of terror now, their turbulency tells!
             In the startled ear of night
        How they scream out their affright!
             Too much horrified to speak,
             They can only shriek, shriek,
                     Out of tune,
  In a clamorous appealing to the mercy of the fire,
      In a mad expostulation with the deaf and
                     frantic fire,
             Leaping higher, higher, higher,
                With a desperate desire,
                And a resolute endeavor,
               Now- now to sit or never,
           By the side of the pale-faced moon.
              Oh, the bells, bells, bells!

                    catchy, isn't it?
                      - Muhoshin
                  p.s. Got your mom too

Ryo dropped the box, his arms trembling.

"Oh no... Bell-chan."

============================================================
                         END ACT 8
============================================================

- end act 8 -