A Grey and Quiet World
The table at the Cat Cafι was crowded, and covered with scraps of paper. Akane was cross-eyed from an excess of information, but Shampoo was paying attention and Ranma was positively lapping it up; they both were in battle-computer mode. Rhett Butler was asleep under a table at the far side of the room, with residues of liver and milk on his whiskers. Luna and Artemis were on the table, looking over details in the notes, and Cologne was talking with Sailor Moon by communicator.
That had been rough. Luna and Artemis hadn't enjoyed telling their Princess that security was completely blown, especially after they'd let Cologne and the others know Serenity didn't think highly of the Amazons' security. But at least it was blown by potential allies.
"You seem," Cologne said, "to have three levels of enemy daimohns, witches, and the mastermind behind them. And they call themselves 'Death Busters'. Not a pleasant name."
"I'm afraid so," Sailor Moon said, her voice more clear than such a small speaker should be able to handle.
"Find the mastermind."
"We've been trying," Sailor Moon said, with a look of annoyance.
Cologne snorted. "The daimohns are cannon fodder. They aren't alive, and they don't know much. That leaves the witches. Don't let the witches escape capture one. Question her."
Ranma got a warped look on his face. "The witches have all been female? Send Happosai." But then he began to smile. "He sure can distract me when I'm in girl mode. And I'm a better fighter than those witches, betcha!" He began to laugh. "Hey Moon, you could deal with worse. Happosai may not be reliable, but he's sure predictable! An' he's durable enough you can use your big guns on the witch he's attached to."
"Won't that hurt him?" Sailor Moon asked, with a look of concern.
Ranma smiled. "If you got Happosai on your team, you won't mind hurtin' him. No girl would."
"And you know this how?"
Ranma poured cold water over his arm, pulled down her eyelid, stuck out her tongue, and gave Sailor Moon the red-eye. "Biidahhhh! Didn't you believe the cats when they told you?"
Moon looked at Ranma in annoyance. "Are you related to my friend Rei?"
Ranma shuddered. "For the sake of the world, I sincerely hope my father has no other offspring."
Cologne smiled an evil smile. "Heh. You won't even have to use torture to make the witches talk just leave them in a room with Happosai."
Sailor Moon gulped. "What is he, some kind of tentacle monster?"
"Nah, the tentacle monster is named Taro. He wouldn't be any use, except maybe to chase Happy away." Ranma put her hand about a meter above the table. "Happosai is short, bald on top with curly white hair around the back and sides, and three hundred years old. He's a grandmaster dirty old man with an underwear fetish."
Cologne made a warding gesture. "Let's save him for emergencies." Then she turned to other matters. "We can't help each other until we know each other better. We have to get together. Akane, can we use the dojo for a meeting next Saturday?"
"I don't see why not."
"Then, Sailor Moon, this is what I suggest. Njalsson Bjorn, a master of the bear-claw, is coming to Nerima to evaluate our two berserks. Ranma and Akane have just joined with Shampoo as shield-sisters I will have to evaluate them for Amazon training. Could you send your best strategist, your best brawler, and at least one cat, to join in the evaluations? In return, Shampoo can be with the rest of you to help defend Juuban. She's an excellent strategist, brawler, and cat."
In the communicator, Sailor Moon was seen looking to either side. "Ami? Makoto? how does that sound to you?"
There was a murmur of agreement, and a slightly louder voice saying "Dojo? You bet!"
"Saturday morning, then, 9 a.m., at the Tendo Dojo in Nerima. And now," Cologne cackled, "I need all the beauty sleep I can get these days. If there's nothing else, we should adjourn. Tomorrow is Monday, and Monday is a hard day."
With that, everybody said goodnight, and started to move out. Luna held a leftover bit of tuna under Rhett Butler's nose to rouse him. She'd learned to wake a berserk gently.
Ranma and Akane walked home under stars with the moon at full, and a scud of cloud coming in. It was 11, and everybody had gone to sleep; but Kasumi had left a note. "Bjorn-sensei called, and talked with Nabiki. He and Mao should be arriving at Narita, 8 p.m. Wednesday."
They kissed quietly they didn't want to wake the rest of the household, it was none of their business and went to bed. And to sleep, without any difficulty. A productive evening can do that.
Kuonji Ukyo was back in class. School is meant to give knowledge but the two weeks she'd been away had given her knowledge in a whole new realm. Now she knew things most of her classmates would have given almost anything to know. Things for which they had spoken true words and false, honeyed and bitter, a lot of anxious and sleepless nights, and as much of their time and allowance as they could convince their intended to spend with them.
Ukyo knew what went on between married couples, behind closed doors. It sure beat studying the Meiji Restoration.
But now what? She dreaded the talk she should have with Ranchan and Akane, though from the way both were acting, it might not be as terrible as she feared. She looked out the window at the rain and the trees moving in the wind, appropriate weather for her first Monday back at school, and sighed. The rain might explain why Ranchan was a girl, but not the girls' uniform she was wearing. And while she usually felt tension between Ranma and Akane, today it seemed comfort.
Lunchtime would be interesting.
That rainy day, everybody ate indoors. Most of the seats in the classroom were full, so they took their bentos down to the lunchroom. They bought milk tea, and found a small table away from the crush. Ukyo cast her eyes unto the table as she opened her bento, and was surprised to look back up and see how close Ranchan and Akane were to her.
"How's married life suiting you?" Akane asked breathlessly. "How does it feel to have all the compl'cations behind you?" Ranma asked. Then they looked at one another. "Sorry for talkin' over you," they both said.
Ukyo laughed, blushed, and smiled all at once. "You two sound like you're starting to find out yourselves," she said.
"Nani?" Ranma and Akane said in unison.
"You're starting to talk in sync. And you're not fighting. But why are you a girl, Ranchan? Have you two decided it's easier to be sisters?"
"I mentioned savin' Shampoo in my letter? I'm her shield-sister now. Akane signed up too, so we are sisters, at least by Amazon Law. Been busy since then we took down a rampagin' mailbox in Shinjuku. Shampoo herded it, I sliced pieces off, and Akane hammered 'em. "
"You hadda be there. Wish I wuz, but I'd gone Cat."
"That's not all," Akane said. "But we shouldn't talk about the other reasons here. Can we come by Ucchan's after school? We can talk then, and we both want to to see you and Konatsu together."
"Got your weddin' pictures back yet?" Ranma added.
Ukyo raised her eyebrow at the two. "Do I detect interest? Do I detect plans being made?"
Ranma and Akane blushed, at which Ukyo said, "Yes, definitely come by. See our restaurant." Then she added, "Now, since the previous subject is tabled tell me about my father and Genma?"
"Oh, that was a good one!" Ranma and Akane harmonized, telling Ukyo about her father's little dustup with Genma; then Ranma went on to describe the next day. "An' now he's a panda, in quarantine at Animal Control, waitin' to be sent to a zoo in Beijing."
When Ukyo recovered her breath, she swore her father would die of a laughing fit to hear the story. "When is the panda being sent off? If father survives, we can go wave farewell."
"Dunno. Soon." But then Ranma saw Kuno coming into the lunchroom. "Akane, there's Tachi-kun. I wanna talk with him 'bout the next couple Saturdays. You know what I mean."
Akane waved Ranma to go, then turned back to Ukyo.
"Tachi-kun?" Ranma heard Ukyo ask as she headed over towards Tatewaki.
At the end of the school day, Ranma made a quick trip to the Art Club to pick up supplies, then met with Akane and Ukyo at the front entrance. The wind had died down and the rain was somewhere between mist and drizzle, so the three walked out into a grey and quiet world where the most frequent noise was the sound of wheels on wet pavement and the brightest lights were the reflections of car lights. They made a pretty picture together under their umbrellas, pigtailed red and short black hair over girls' uniforms and long brown hair over a boy's uniform. Most of the standing water had run off, so they didn't have to pay much attention to their footing; they were chattering happily together as they went.
Soon enough they reached Ucchan's, and moved into dim food-scented warmth. The restaurant wasn't open Ukyo and Konatsu had just returned the day before. They left their shoes, jackets, and umbrellas downstairs and went up to the living room.
"It's not much yet," Ukyo said as they interrupted Konatsu, who was wearing a house-dress instead of her usual kimono, at her cleaning. "But Konatsu moved into my room with me, and that frees this room up for visitors and conversation." She and Konatsu gave each other a warm hug. Konatsu's old futon was folded into a sofa against the wall, and there were cushions on the tatami mats.
Ukyo and Konatsu sat comfortably together on the futon, holding hands, while Ranma and Akane each adopted a cushion. There was a photo album on the low table, and to nobody's surprise, it was filled with pictures of the wedding and the honeymoon. They clustered around, made cooing noises, went "ahhh " at pictures of the cog railway on the mountain, and laughed at Ukyo and Konatsu mugging for the camera.
"It was a lovely wedding," Ukyo sighed. "I wish I'd been there." But Ukyo's father had plied her with strong liquors to get her in a cooperative mood, and she remembered the wedding no better than Ranma remembered the mailbox. Konatsu's memory was clearer, but she'd not needed as much persuasion.
"Okay," Ranma said, "this is gettin' complicated. Ukyo, you're the husband; Konatsu, you're the wife. The details are a bit otherwise for this particular marriage. But then, Akane and I will have that problem sometimes too. What do we call you?"
Ukyo and Konatsu looked at each other with a smile. "Go by the clothes we're wearing, honey. It doesn't confuse the spectators nearly as much." And Konatsu nodded, looking up at Ukyo through the lashes of her half-shut eyes.
Ranma agreed. "That's the way the Weres do it," she said. "Honor the form you're in."
At that point the room developed multiple conversations. Ukyo and Ranma were talking Weres and the neko-ken, while Akane and Konatsu were talking weddings and honeymoons. Soon everything converged on berserks, martial artists, and marriage.
"We're getting married too," Akane said, smiling at Konatsu. She and Ranma had already told Ukyo on the walk over. "We'll be legal a week from this Friday. But we don't want the parents to find out until it's a done deal, or they'll take over and make a mess of things. They get enthusiastic."
"So we're gonna sneak down to the registry that Friday and get a civil marriage," Ranma said. "But Akane wants a religious ceremony too. That's why I was talkin' with Tachi-kun this lunchtime. He knows a priest down near Okayama. We're gunna see if he can do it on such short notice."
"We can afford it," Akane smiled. "Nabiki got some money out of Genma before your father got to him. We put it in the bank before it could escape."
"You thought my 'interestin' times' was contagious? Looks like marriage is goin' 'round too. Ukyo, you're my oldest friend. I want you to stand up for me at the weddin'. An' I'm thinkin' Tatewaki for my other groomsman. Akane is makin' her own choices.
"Y'know romance and ceremony never go smooth in our lives. So we're gunna ask Shampoo and Cologne and Bjorn-sensei to stand guard over the wedding. Nobody is gunna cause trouble with a grizzly bear on duty. With Cologne there, even Happosai will behave if he shows. Not that we'll tell him, but that's no guarantee. An' Shampoo's our sister now, both of us, so we won't ask her to pick a side she'll be right in the center.
"O'course this depends on gettin' the priest an' all. Bjorn is comin' to Tokyo this Wednesday, an' Cologne and Bjorn are givin' us all kinds of evaluations, and a wedding less than two weeks off we're gunna haveta wing it."
"Kami-sama," Ukyo said with wide-open eyes. "Honey, I never thought I'd be standing next to Kuno Tatewaki at a wedding. Are you sure the Fierce Tigress and the Pig-Tailed Goddess will be safe with him in the wedding party?"
Akane shrugged. "He and Kasumi are turning into a couple it's hard to believe, but there it is. He won't misbehave around her."
"Not only that," Akane said, "they're working up some competition for you. Teppanyaki cooking. Kasumi's coaching him on the cooking, and he's teaching her knife-juggling."
Ukyo and Konatsu looked at each other. "Are you sure we're back in Nerima?" Ukyo said.
"You bought the tickets," Konatsu replied demurely. "And this is our restaurant. But are you sure these two are Ranma and Akane?"
Wednesday after school, Ranma and Akane came home and changed into good casual clothes, and the whole family headed off to Narita airport. This took perhaps an hour and a half by rail plus waiting and walking so they barely got to the international arrivals gate in time. At nearly two meters tall, Bjorn was easy to spot in the slow procession out of customs. They couldn't hustle over to him security would ask pointed questions but soon enough he came through the gate. Mao was following close behind, and Bjorn was hauling the luggage for both.
As soon as they got out of traffic, Ranma hugged them. "It good see you again!" Perhaps this was not very Japanese of her, but Bjorn wasn't very Japanese. Then she got down to the serious business of introducing them to her family. "This is Njalsson Bjorn, teacher and elder and Master of the Bear-claw. And this is Mao, who will help translate for him." Ranma bowed to Mao. "I am sorry, Mao-san, but I do not know your full name."
"I am Chang Mao," the slim woman said, bowing to Ranma and her family.
"This is my second family." Ranma motioned to Soun. "Tendo Soun, Master of the Tendo Dojo."
Mao bowed, and Bjorn followed suit a bit clumsily. "We are honored to meet you, Master," Mao said.
"This is Tendo Kasumi, eldest daughter and mistress of the house. This is Tendo Nabiki you spoke with her on the phone, Bjorn-sensei. And this is Tendo Akane, my fiancιe." Ranma gave Bjorn a stern look to remind him the wedding was to remain a secret. "My father, Saotome Genma, is tied up, and not available at the moment." Akane and Nabiki both snorted.
"As we were taxiing into the terminal," Bjorn said in English, "we saw a caged panda being loaded into a plane."
"It was a China Airlines cargo flight," Mao added.
"Don't talk about panda in Japanese," Ranma cautioned them in English. Nabiki was snickering, and whispering in Akane's ear.
With a certain amount of bowing and translating, the little procession got underway. Ranma, Soun, and Akane each took some luggage, so nobody was overburdened. "We booked two rooms at a hotel near our dojo, as you asked," Kasumi said; and Mao translated for Bjorn. "You must be tired after such a long flight."
Mao smiled. "The full moon is just past as Weres, we're used to staying up for long periods this time of month. And Bjorn-san booked us in first class, because he is too large for economy seating. We got a nice nap."
But then Mao brushed at her jacket. "It will be good to settle down, freshen up, and change clothes. A hotel will be very welcome."
The train came, and they got on. At this time of day it wasn't as crowded as rush hour, so they could see to the far end of the car. One of the riders there looked to be a sumo wrestler. He and Bjorn stared each other up-and-down, and decided it was better not to do anything about it. The train traveled on through the night.
In the hold of a China Airlines plane flying west over the Sea of Japan, an unhappy panda shivered in the chill dryness of the stratosphere. It was a cargo flight, and they weren't conditioning the air as comfortably as they would for passengers. He hadn't had any of Kasumi's cooking for the past week, and precious little bamboo and that, dried-out and stale. They'd been feeding him out of a bag of raccoon chow. For days now, there had been a tanuki in the next cage, and he was in the cargo hold with him. The wretched beast was nocturnal, and growled and whined all night long. Genma hadn't gotten more than an hour of uninterrupted sleep in days.
The panda sneezed. He wasn't sure if it was the chill, or somebody talking about him. But at least he managed to spray panda snot all over the tanuki.