Ranma, Akane, and the crew took a bus from the Okayama train station to the Masaki shrine. The road went through hills and mountains, with colored leaves still on the trees. The sky was blue, with clouds drifting above, so there were times of light, and times of shadow. The air was crisp but not cold – a perfect day in mid-October.
They took a footpath into the woods, and after a short while were in a large clearing with a circular lake, and a large tree in the center of the lake. It was girded about with sacred shimenawa ropes and dangling strips of gohei papers.
The tree had green leaves, and enormous presence. Ranma stopped and bowed to it. He'd told Akane about the vision he'd had, and how much this tree had meant when he and Tatewaki came here to mend their relationship. She also bowed humbly. Soun had enough ki sense to note the life-force of the tree was greater than he'd ever seen. Mao whispered in Bjorn's ear that this was a holy place, and he inclined his head. And Nodoka bowed, because that was the custom.
Then they turned from the tree and the lake, and began climbing the neatly-swept stairs to the shrine. The dry leaves rustled in the breeze, but none fell onto the steps. They had to rest on the landings, because Mao was older and didn't have as much endurance, but they made it to the top in good time. The old priest Katsuhito was waiting there, the red roof of the shrine at his back.
"A good day to you," Katsuhito said, smiling at Ranma. Then he looked at Bjorn. "I am Masaki Katsuhito, the priest of this shrine. And you are Bjorn-sensei?"
Mao said, "He is, good priest," and translated for Bjorn. Then she relayed Bjorn's reply; "We are training Ranma and Akane, and these," (she nodded to Nodoka and Soun) "are his mother and her father. She bears the clan honor sword, and he is a teacher of martial arts. Since you, Masaki-dono, are a swordmaster of great repute, we thought they should meet you."
Katsuhito nodded. "It is good to involve parents in the training of youth." Then he turned to Nodoka. "Your bundle has the shape of a sword, Saotome-san. Might this be the sword Bjorn-sensei mentioned?"
Nodoka blushed and nodded.
"May I see it?" Katsuhito took the bundle when Nodoka gave it to him, unwrapped it, and withdrew the sword from its scabbard. Then he stepped back a ways, and began a strange but simple sword kata. The blade flashed in the sunlight as it flew through arcs and circles in his hands.
Soun and Nodoka were watching Katsuhito. Ranma and Akane quietly moved to the background, and disappeared around the corner of the shrine.
The kata was not long. Katsuhito stopped in its final posture. "Good balance," he murmured to himself. Then he pushed back his sleeve, and drew the sword parallel to his forearm. It left a bare swathe among his arm-hairs. "And I see it has been both well-used and well-maintained. It appears to be of the early shinshinto period. Would you know the maker?"
"Our sword was made by Kato Tsunahide himself, though we were not the first owners."
Katsuhito's look became reverent. "He was an excellent swordsmith, and the school he founded had many more." His eyes lost focus for a moment. "He sought to combine the virtues of the old with the virtues of the new. A good man."
Soun cocked his head to one side. "You sound almost as if you knew him."
"He made a pilgrimage to our shrine, later in his career, to see the sword of Yosho. Our records praise him." Katsuhito looked at his audience, and saw interest. "Our shrine was founded seven hundred years ago. A great demon came, pursued by the samurai Yosho. There was a terrible battle – do you notice the roundness of our valley? It was not always a valley, but in their rage, Yosho and the demon destroyed the mountain that had been here before they arrived.
"Yosho finally defeated the demon, and sealed her in a cave with many wards. Then he founded this shrine to keep watch over the cave. And we preserve the sword against any future need. Would you care to see it?"
Everybody was very eager.
Katsuhito led them to the water basin. "The sword is holy, and kept in the shrine, so we should first purify ourselves." They all washed their hands, then their mouths, and again their hands, Bjorn following Mao's lead. Then Katsuhito preceded them to the shrine entrance, and opened wide the doors.
Nodoka and Soun were stunned. Akane was there, dressed in wedding white; Ranma was dressed in sober black and grey. Their friends and family were beside them, and they beckoned Nodoka and Soun in.
The two stood for a moment, mouths open; then Nodoka fainted, and Soun began to cry. Every wedding needs somebody crying, and Soun was a world-class tear-smith. Sasami, dressed as a miko, brought out Katsuhito's robes. He vested himself while waiting for Nodoka to recover.
Two women had come to the foot of the stairs leading up to the shrine. One was a dignified woman with purple hair, wearing formal robes. She said, "Sasami was using her Tsunami voice when she told us to make sure nobody went up the stairs to interrupt the wedding. I wonder what was going through her head?"
"Well, princess, she seemed awful definite. 'No guys in tiger-stripe bandannas with packs on their back. No small black pigs.' I'm not sure what she meant by the 'pig' part, but the rest is pretty straightforward. We're dealing with some kind of vision here." This woman seemed older, and was dressed informally. Her hair was pale blue, and spiked. A black tail waved behind her.
"Where on Earth am I now?" said a male voice. A guy in a tiger-striped bandanna, with a pack on his back, came out from behind a nearby bush.
Ryoko looked at him in mild surprise. His fangs were even more prominent than hers. Sasami hadn't mentioned fangs.
Ayeka spoke. "You are on the grounds of the Masaki shrine, pilgrim. But the shrine is in use for a wedding; you must wait a while before you visit it."
"I heard you guys talking about me. Ranma's behind all this, isn't he?"
Ryoko was itching for a bit of a fight. The princess had been behaving herself lately, and she needed some action. "It's his wedding," she growled. "And you aren't gonna disrupt it." She stood in front of the steps with her arms crossed, staring him down.
Ryoga didn't pay much attention to being stared down. He leapt over Ryoko, and began to rush up the stairs. "I'm coming, Akane! I'll save you!"
Ryoko grinned to herself, and took off after him. He was fast, she was faster. Soon she had him by the straps of his pack, lifted him up with a grunt, whirled him about, and began to frogmarch him down the stairs. Ayeka was running up towards them, holding the hem of her robe to give her legs more freedom.
It proved no easier to frogmarch Ryoga than to stare him down. He slipped out of the straps, whipped around, snatched his umbrella, and glared. "I could use a good fight, but there's no time for it." He clouted Ryoko over the head with the umbrella, stepped in with a right cross as she dropped the pack, then grabbed her by the ankles and threw her into the woods. He began to run up the stairs again, but was lifted into the air in a cloud of spinning wooden cylinders instead.
"Azaka! Kamidake! Attend me!" Ayeka snapped. Then she turned to frown at Ryoga. "We'll have no more misbehavior from you," she said as he fumed in midair. With two giant logs on either side, and a swarm of smaller wooden cylinders, he was completely unable to gain purchase for a blow or a leap.
Instead, he began to glow a sickly green.
A pearly sphere snapped into place around Ryoga just in time to hold in the Shi Shi Hokodan. As Ayeka's vision cleared from the green flash, she saw a blackened and rather crispy figure slumped to the bottom of the sphere.
A voice came from her side. "Don't worry, princess, he'll recover. And I got the shield up in time to protect the rest of us." A young girl with enormous, spiky red hair was by her side, sitting in midair before a translucent computer keyboard and screen.
"Thank you, Washuu-chan. Sasami gave Ryoko and myself a larger task than we realized."
A moan came from the woods. "Did Mihoshi crash her ship on me again?" Ryoko staggered out with her clothes torn and the beginnings of a black eye. There were twigs in her hair, and tree-bark on her back. She was missing one shoe.
Washuu-chan put her index finger to her right cheek. "My, an ordinary Earth human did that to you? That shouldn't happen." She turned to look at Ryoga, who was beginning to sit up in the force sphere. "This must be investigated!"
A chibi-Washuu appeared on each of her shoulders, waving flags and dancing. "Guinea pig! Guinea pig!" they chanted happily.
Ryoga slumped back down. He didn't like the sound of those – whatevers – singing "pig". He was trapped, with no way to escape. And he'd completely failed to rescue Akane from that dishonorable Ranma.
Depressed, he began to glow green again. Washuu immediately bent to her keyboard. Ryoko was giving him the red-eye (with the one he hadn't blackened). Ayeka just sniffed, and turned her back. She didn't want to be flash-blind again.
The wedding was over. Everybody'd had the ceremonial sake. Soun and Nodoka, arm in arm, were dancing in circles and singing. The lyrics were disjointed; Nodoka was singing of grandbabies, while Soun harmonized on the joining of the schools. They alternated verses, so it worked in its own strange little way. Ranma and Akane were hugging people all around. Katsuhito and Sasami, side by side, were smiling.
Mao turned to Bjorn. "Our work here is done."
He returned her smile. "Let's invite them to Minnesota, next summer. Wayland could teach Akane a lot about hammering."
They settled in beside Katsuhito. "Bjorn would still like to talk swords," Mao said quietly in his ear. He nodded.
Exhausted, Soun and Nodoka settled onto a bench. After they'd had a while to catch their breaths, Tatewaki and Kasumi approached. Tatewaki bowed formally. "Tendo-sensei, I know you are busied at the moment; but this is a proper time.
"I would like your permission to court your daughter Kasumi."
Kasumi joined hands with Tatewaki, and took her father's hand as well. "I too would like that, father."
This time, it was Soun's turn to faint.
Ranma and Akane Saotome were already down the stairs. (Everybody else thought they were still changing clothes.) They only had a day and a half for a honeymoon, and then it was back to school. The others could surely do without them for a while.…
As they walked, Ranma heard a faint 'bwee' coming from the house they were passing. Fortunately, his cat-ears were much sharper than Akane's; she heard nothing. They continued on towards the bus-stop.
In class the following Monday, Ukyo looked at them with a question on her face. They smiled two sleepy, satisfied smiles back at her, smiles full of a fresh and wondrous knowledge.
Ukyo bent over towards them. "The two of you are coming over to Ucchan's after the Art Club. Right?" They smiled their agreement. Then, as the sensei began to speak of the Meiji Restoration, first Ranma, then Akane, bowed their heads in sleep.
After they get out of detention, Ukyo thought as an eraser whizzed past her head on its way to Ranma's.
This is the last chapter of Different Colors. It all started out as a short story, "A Horse of a Different Color". Then I followed it with another, and another, and here I am at almost a hundred thousand words. It's become plain that this is only the first book of a trilogy. The second book would deal with matters in Azabu-Juuban, while the third would move to Okayama and take up the Great Freeze.
I don't think I want to write a trilogy. I have other books to write, books that I might be able to sell. (One is started. Visit my web site, go to The Lab, then head off to History to see a few samples.) At the same time, Different Colors has obvious dangling plot threads. Genma; Ryoga; Shampoo; the Senshi and the Death Busters; the Outer Senshi; the cats. With luck, and a little discipline, I can deal with these subjects in short stories; and if I foolishly decide to do the trilogy after all, I can tuck them in there as chapters. Ah, decisions! Still, it beats dead fish and the Meiji Restoration.
I'll be away for a while, working on other things; but I do have another, related, story. Bjorn went back to the US, only to find himself in the most overwrought period of an overwrought election. And that, in a corkscrew way, leads to another story of the Outlook.
So if you want to keep up with further events, I suggest setting your alerts to 'author' instead of 'story'; because any followup stories will be one-shots. And if you comment on this particular chapter, try to mention any plot threads you think need to be tied off.
Write well, and prosper.