by Jared Ornstead
In a downpour in Nerima five hazy figures walked into focus.
"Well, I still say this whole thing sucks! Picking my fiancee without even asking!" A small, redhaired girl wearing Chinese silks complained.
"Silly, Ranko." Nodoka chided her daughter lovingly. "This isn't about that at all."
"Yeah, Ranko-honey, chill out," Ukyo added tenderly to her best friend.
Ranko blinked several times. "You mean, this big meeting isn't about springing some arranged marriages on us?"
This earned general laughs.
"Oh course not, Ranko-Darling," Kodachi chided her friend.
"Oh," the redhaired girl felt abashed at jumping to conclusions like that.
"Yeah. Who do you take your father for, Genma?" Ukyo teased.
"Don't even JOKE about THAT!" Ranko yelled, before shivering in terror at the thought.
This earned general laughter once more.
Once again, all five girls began to peaceably resume their walk through the rain.
"That's strange." Soun Tendo put down the third postcard, and picked up the next one, out of a pile of what looked to be a dozen, but could be twenty. "Why would Genma Saotome be coming? And... why would he send so many cards saying so?"
He looked up. "Kurumi? Natsume? Do you know anything about this?"
Both girls shook their heads, hair flying. The taller one leaned through the door to the kitchen to ask, "Mom? Do you know why Genma Saotome would be coming over?"
Kimiko Tendo came out drying a dish with a towel. "No, dear. Why do you ask?"
"Cause he sent about twenty cards to Dad saying so."
Kurumi got to her feet, heading toward the dojo where two of her sisters were practicing before they had to teach class that evening. "Oh, well. I guess I'll go ask if Nabiki or Kasumi has heard anything."
"I'll go ask Akane," Natsume volunteered. "Swim club should be out now. Maybe one of her friends can think of why someone would send a dozen cards with the same message."
"It must be important to him," Soun said, examining the cards. "But... why does each card have a different name of who he says he is bringing?"
"Girls, don't take too long. Honey, don't forget the big meeting in an hour," Kimiko's voice called out from the kitchen.
"Right," five girls and one man's voice replied.
In the downpouring rain a short, redhaired girl ran before a giant panda.
"As usual, your hypothesis is flawed, your evidence missing and your theories are highly questionable!" the short girl declared as she dodged the large paw strikes of the giant bear.
The bear held up a sign. [Shut up!]
Hopping over a sweep and delivering a spin kick to the bear's head, the little girl sped on to alight on top of a stop sign. "Your intellectual capacity leaves so much to be desired that one wonders if you aren't smarter as a dumb animal."
The bear leaped up to attack, and the little girl just grinned as she shifted her weight slightly and fell directly off the sign downwards, slashing it with an arm movement as she did so, cutting off the top of the pole so it came to a sharp, jagged point.
The bear, which had been about to steal her perch for its own since it could no longer divert its momentum by battling her in mid-air, saw that it was about to land on a tall, sharp, metal spike and flailed its arms about for purchase, finding a last moment rescue when it caught hold on a telephone pole and clung there like a koala.
"And that's a wrap," the girl declared smugly.
The giant panda slid mindlessly off the pole to thud, unconscious, to the ground, all of it's attention having been on the girl, it failed to notice the person with the tranq dart pistol until it was already far too late.
"Doc?" Xander asked, as Willow lowered the pistol.
"Yep! That's me!" The short, redhaired girl identified herself with a thumb thrust towards her own bosom. "So, what did we learn? Was the experiment a success?"
Cologne appeared out of the rain beside her to answer the question. "Amazing. You truly do travel through time."
"You *ought* to believe it!" Doc declared abruptly. "Especially after we'd presented you all those receipts we got from you and your family every time we entered your life to prevent a major disaster *you* had warned us about."
"Yes, well hopefully you'll forgive a little skepticism on an old woman's part. Anyway, to answer your question, yes, I did observe your training under this imbecile, and I can tell you the last half of your journey was wasted. You'd learned everything he had to teach in the first five years. After that, it was just a repeat, him using his greater body mass and dirty tricks to seem like a challenge, even when he had no more techniques to offer."
"So, we only need five years under this guy?" Doc double-blinked up into the rain, thinking. "Well, that's something to know, I guess. But if we cut the training trips short what are we going to do with all of the other Genmas?"
"You'll figure something out, I'm sure," Cologne chuckled darkly.
The short redhead cocked her head, observing the much older crone. "So, you observed my training. Counting yourself as an A-List, and your great-granddaughter as a B rank, what would you say I was? Would I rank a C in your eyes?"
"Oh, easily," the old crone replied. "Middle to high C, even showing some potential to move up to B with a little encouragement and the right training."
"YES!" Doc pumped a fist with enough energy droplets of water sprang off her body. Then she raised her arms high to the air, "Experiment a success!" she crowed. "That ten year training trip was *totally* worth it!"
"Why should you be surprised?" Willow shook her head, wiping rain out of her eyes. "That was the goal, wasn't it?"
"Well, yeah." Doc admitted. "But just because you want something, doesn't always mean that you'll get it. I found out not long into this that a few memories of being Ranma Saotome, martial arts prodigy, and the hazy recollections of all the things he'd learned that brought with it, provided an amazing amount of support to my attempts to equal his talents and learn his skills as my very own. But, it turned out to be only enough advantage to offset how brilliant the actual guy is at learning martial arts. Ranma, before we altered time, ended this trip as a solid C. So I count myself lucky to have done as well as he did."
"Hmm, luck might not have much to do with it," Cologne growled. "Remember, I've been watching this fool, and the simple fact of the matter is, C-List is as high as Genma knows how to train anyone."
Doc touched her chin in thought. "You know, that makes a certain amount of sense. Genma himself almost certainly capped out at C-List in his prime, before going to seed and sliding down to a mediocre D. He might have achieved more, he *did* invent two devastating styles, but he sealed both schools he'd invented, and never really got much use out of them. If he had fully incorporated them into his own style, he might've gained B-List, or even more. It's difficult to say, because the man's appetite for laziness and pleasures rivals that of his master's desire for panties, so it was probably inevitable at some point that Genma would let himself slide down to mediocrity again, no matter what he'd invented."
Doc shrugged her dripping wet shoulders. "As had, indeed, occurred."
Xander cocked his head, shedding drops in the rain. "If he's so lazy, why did he go on this training trip?"
"Easier than working for a living," Doc spurned the bear with her foot, then sat on him. "After all that training under his Master, he was an expert on how to survive by theft and begging. What makes you think he liked the idea of giving that up to go honest? Can you really picture this guy in a suit and tie, showing up for work like an average salaryman?"
Xander shook his head. No, he couldn't.
"Wait," Willow questioned. "If Genma himself is only D-List, how did he train you to C-List? I don't get how that works."
"Hmm," Cologne considered. "The fact that he can train a student to be slightly better than himself is likely due to two factors: he starts when they are still very young, when he has a huge advantage for size, and he used that extra reach and mass and strength for all it was worth, thus forcing his students to learn greater skill to compensate for those physical advantages, and making them better than he is. Also, Genma has a talent for memorizing the weak points of his students, then using those against them at every opportunity."
Cologne narrowed her eyes at the sleeping panda. "Now this is not a good thing: a good teacher, on recognizing a student's weak points, will point those out and work with the child to help eliminate them. Genma just hits them with every dirty trick he has, in a considerable arsenal of dirty tricks, in order to stay in control. Basically, he steals every unfair advantage he can get. In this way he compensates for having less skill than his students. But it puts an absolute limit on him and them, so long as he is the sole teacher."
Cologne sighed. "Sadly, you'll probably need another ten years under a real instructor to train out of you all of those bad habits he deliberately trained into you."
Doc cocked her head, looking disturbingly like Willow, actually. "But if we'd cut it off at five years, then it would only take five years under another teacher to lose those bad habits?"
"Probably," Cologne conceded.
"Well, that's a plan, then." Doc nodded decisively, water droplets flying from her hair.
"I will say one thing, though," the crone allowed. "Presuming Genma is just following the tenets of his master, the Anything Goes style does overcome one of the most significant barriers to teaching students - just not in a way that I would have allowed."
"Oh?" Both Xander and Willow perked up, despite the rain.
"Yes," Cologne confirmed. "You see, no one can teach a student who is unwilling to learn. No one, that is, except a master of Anything Goes. It appears to be part of the style that the teacher will irritate the student until striking back is all the poor child can think of, and then they spar endlessly, with the instructor relying on his superior ability to remain unharmed, even while he annoys his pupil to new heights of effort in attempts to get back at him for being the source of near-constant aggravation. So, by being petty, annoying pests, they can force any student to become motivated to learn - if only to shut them up."
Doc laughed, forcing the others to look at her, before she wiped a tear from one eye. "So I guess Ranma *was* trying to teach Akane after all! He just wasn't able to carry through on it - probably because of their dads defending her stopping it from being effective."
"Hmm," Cologne filed that information away for later. "Well, anyway, as per our agreement, I observed this fat fool teach you, and really that's all he did. When he wanted you to learn a new skill, or refine your technique, he took you to one of those dojos and temples or other places to let the masters there do the actual instruction. His only contribution was to give you the motivation to use, adapt, and incorporate what they taught you into your style by being so blindingly annoying that you'd do anything, reach into the very depths of your soul, to get back at him. But I'm really not sure of the value of a school that forces the students to hate their teachers."
Doc stopped laughing and scowled. "Yeah. I guess I never thought about it before, but if you love your kids, and want them to love you, you'd never be able to teach them this way. Maybe that's why Soun's daughters never got much skill in his school - he couldn't bear for them to hate him for it. Brrr! That's a scary thought."
Cologne smiled. "Perhaps their master had different ways, and this is just the only technique for teaching Genma picked up."
Doc stood up. "If so, he probably only used it on little kids. Everything I know about how he trained these bozos is exactly like Genma did for me - cause trouble, and force the pupil to deal with it, then like you said be so annoying they'd do anything to beat your face in."
"That does seem to be the core of the Anything Goes teaching style in a nutshell," Cologne agreed.
"So what happens now?" Willow leaned forward to ask.
"We go ahead with the plan," Doc shrugged her shoulders. "As far as I'm concerned, hating Genma should be one way to certify mental health. It proves you're able to think clearly. So we can afford to have all those students we've lined up despise him. We just cut short the trips we had planned from ten years back down to five, then find some other teachers."
"And what is your plan?" Cologne inquired.
Doc toed Genma with her foot. "Only what you agreed to. We force-feed this moron a mushroom we've grown that makes him ten years younger than he is now. You shampoo him so he forgets three things: me, the fact that he's already been on the training trip we just finished, but that he was always going to take to train up an heir, and anything he did on it. Then we dump his ass ten years in the past and hypnotize him to believe that someone else is his student, and get him to train them up to speed."
"So the ten men I agreed to shampoo are all him?" Cologne poked the slumbering panda with her staff. "Interesting. But erasing the last ten years of a man's life is only possible if you have already fed him a fixative. Basically, you feed a man a pill, then you can cause him to forget everything back to the moment he took that pill. It's too late for that now."
"Nah, we'll just go ten years in the past, and feed it to him there," Doc confidently stated. "I know just the moment, too. Right before the training journey. Provided I shrink myself back down to six, I can even walk right up to him and hand it to him. He'd asked for headache pills, this'll just be one more in the bunch. Say, can you do anything that will help convince him that different people each time are his student and heir?"
"Yes, I could do that," the old crone scratched out.
"Good," Doc touched her lip and gazed upwards in thought. "So, let's see. Anything left out? We already convinced this guy he was married to Nodoka - with the only result that he'll do anything to avoid her. But since that's just his delusion, she's free to marry whoever she wants. We still have to pair her up with someone, though, so she can have Ranma. But we were going to do that in the past anyway. I dunno, can you guys think of anything else?"
Both Xander and Willow shook their heads.
"Okay then." Doc lifted up the giant, sleeping panda and threw him over one shoulder. "Let's get to it! Who wants to go next?"
"I'll do it," Xander volunteered, amazed at the ease with which Doc moved and fought, but also slightly envious, and eagerly anticipating being that good himself.
Willow interrupted. "If we're going to have him do the training journey again and again, won't Genma run into himself?"
The action stopped.
"I can take care of that," Cologne volunteered. "We've got a False Face curse, used as a prank among us, but that prevents a person from recognizing himself in a mirror, or anything like it. So this fool could run into himself, and neither one would know the other was him. You'll probably also want me to convince him that turning into a panda is a curse he got from raiding some temple or other," Cologne advised as she followed the trio into the rain.
"Oh, that's right." Doc's voice drifted through the rain as the group departed. "Thanks for protecting me from the Cat Fist, by the way. So it worked shampooing him to forget that?"
"Not as well as you might think," the crone voice came drifting back through the storm. "He just kept getting into other harebrained training schemes just as bad. Apparently, that one colossal failure taught him the only vestige of caution he'd ever known. So I had to give him a false memory of it in order to keep him from creating more trouble."
"Yeah, that's the old panda, all right," Doc's voice drifted off as the group disappeared off into the rain.
Xander's training trip was a success.
Willow's was not.
"So there *are* different teaching techniques for use on girls," Cologne observed as they all watched the pre-locked-in-a-cave (the first time) Happosai in one of his kinder moments teaching the orphans Kurumi and Natsume - all the while pretending to be Soun Tendo, of course. No point in wasting an opportunity to dump problems on his students later, even if all that trouble was a pair of girls who'd show up out of nowhere and love him dearly (then, of course, because they were older and more skilled, displace his actual daughters as heirs to the dojo - all par for the course around here).
"Meow, isn't that surprising."
The group all collectively glanced down to where Willow, only seven years old at present, was wearing a pair of fake cat ears and playing with a ball of string, apparently unconcerned with the action going on below.
They'd had to pull her out of Genma's training trip early after she'd suffered a nervous breakdown. She'd never taken well to being teased in the first place, and Genma made Cordelia, her ancient, childhood nemesis, look like a saint. The end result? She'd run away several times, until she'd finally gotten good enough at it to evade the panda. Then she'd spent a year on the run, supporting herself as an absolutely phenomenal thief, until they'd made their scheduled check-in in the time machine.
Cologne had first postulated that Genma had somehow slipped through his shampooing enough to remember the Cat Fist, but Xander and Doc knew better. Willow, in desperation to escape the much superior martial artist teasing, belittling and insulting her, had gotten the same type of hopeless desperation that had awoken Doc to his costume memories as the inventor of a time machine, and in her this brought out her recollection of Catwoman. She'd then had nearly a year to practice those skills, and seemed almost as fond of the personality quirks as she was of the very profitable cat burglar abilities - and she'd become an all but unstoppable thief, in the absence of a Caper Crusader to halt her crimes. Fortunately, she was still Willow, so preferred to steal only from bad people.
"That's certainly not how his disciple taught me," Willow posed cutely, content to play harmless and adorable, quite aware the Yakuza had placed a billion yen bounty on her pretty, masked head. Or, would in two years after she'd skipped out on Genma's training journey and started helping herself to their ill-gotten gains.
"Right," Doc agreed, guilt flooding through him at what had been done to Willow. He'd once thought yearly check-ups to be plenty. It had been for Xander.
But not Willow.
Of course, having broken through whatever barrier prevented most people from recalling their costumes once, that opened the very real and distinct possibility that she could now gain the full benefit any of them had from having dressed as Ranma, so it became important to find out how to get her trained up so she could use those abilities, too.
Genma's training journey with Ranma had only begun once his master had been safely disposed of, locked in that cave. On discovering how badly Genma had messed Willow up, their team had come back in time to find out how Happosai taught girls, in hopes of learning how to fix what his student had done to their Willow-shaped friend.
All focus returned to study of the action going on below, except Willow, who began to play kittenish little games with a round ball, taking joy in exaggerating her assumed feline traits.
"He's actually being *tender* with them?" Xander blurted, currently eleven years old after having been shrunk down to six, then had five years of training journey. He could not begin to adequately express his disbelief. He didn't take his eyes off those binoculars, though.
"Reasonable," Cologne remarked, still watching the scene develop herself. "Little boys are more physical, while girls are more social. Engaging the combative instincts of a boy child is easy. Girls, on the other hand, respond better to different treatment."
Nobody mentioned Willow currently drinking from a bottle of cream.
The matriarch sighed, lowering the glasses. "What I wouldn't give for a recording of this. We know from what you said of the future that this short contact engages those girls in more than ten years of devotion. How anyone could get two students to master a martial art in just a few weeks of instruction, before abandoning them to self-practice, is beyond me. But it could revolutionize teaching the young people of our tribe if we knew how."
Doc, still sixteen and female as she hadn't done much but make a couple of time jumps since concluding her own training journey, not even affording time for a bath yet, spoke calmly, "I'll go back in time a few weeks and set up recorders, keyed to a remote. Provided I use equipment from the future the microphones and cameras can be a couple of blocks away, and so long as they are focused on the right spots, we'll have more than adequate recordings of everything he does with them."
"How will you know the right spots?" Xander asked.
"By taking a wide-angle long distance recording first," Doc answered calmly. "That will show all of the locations that need to be covered by the more focused recording equipment."
Cologne shook her head. "It never ceases to amaze me how casually you go through time. I hope you don't mind satisfying an old woman's curiosity, but why did you trust me with your secret? You could easily have ruled the world with that device of yours."
"I trust you because you are trustworthy," Doc replied. "Besides, we had only half of the necessary abilities to pull this off, the time travel and future knowledge parts. You had those memory-altering shampoos that really make the whole situation work. So we couldn't have done this alone. Beside, what type of moron wants to rule the Earth? That only means you get blamed for everything that goes wrong!"
Cologne chuckled. "I like your attitude, child."
While this short exchange had been going on Willow had already stolen off and joined the two girls currently being taught by Happosai, with all of the self-assurance of a cat, simply walking up and taking part in the instruction as though no one had any right to refuse her.
And Happosai, amused by this, received her.
The three others watching freaked out when they looked back through their binoculars, but couldn't do anything about it.
The next day Willow had Soun's three real daughters involved.
Nobody asked how.
Happosai didn't even seem to notice that he had Soun's actual daughters involved, and just went on happily, including the new girls in his training.
Doc got excellent recordings of the whole thing.
Willow didn't see fit to mention for a couple of years that she'd arranged a few weeks after he'd finished with this group for Happosai to train another half-dozen girls.
A six-year-old Nodoka, the girl who was one day to be Ranma's mother was one of those girls. As was Kimiko Tendo, the mother of Soun's daughters. Willow playfully pointed out that it didn't seem fair that all of the rest of their familys' members were these impressive martial artists, when they didn't get to play, too.
It also became plain that Ukyo and Kodachi's mothers had been another two girls in that later group. They found that out when they ran into them on planned intercessions meant to save their lives so they could be there to raise their daughters as happy, healthy people.
Willow seemed to take a playful delight in not telling anyone who was involved in that second group of girls, content to let them figure it out for themselves.
Needless to say, this made certain of their planned adjustments... interesting.
"One question I don't get," Xander offered one moment between time trips. "We've got everything rigged to get Genma to mass-produce martial artists. So, who are we going to get to teach girls?"
"Oh, I've already taken care of that," Willow drawled lazily, almost purring.
All attention focused on her.
She delighted in it, and preened. "Well, it struck me that as one of the worst misogynists in the whole series, he could use to learn the same lessons Ranma did about the fairer sex, and so I stole the time machine, grabbed Genma when he was six, dunked him in the Spring of Drowned Twins, then dunked his twin in the Spring of Drowned Girl, locked them both, then delivered the young girl Genko to Happosai to get trained along with the other mothers of our martial arts friends."
A cold breeze blew by as everything stayed perfectly still.
"How did you lock in those curses?" Cologne asked at last. "The only way I know of..."
Willow held up a familiar wooden ladle. "Oh, I had to go steal the Locking Ladle from the Musk to do it, of course. But then, since I didn't want anything to go wrong with that event in the future, I went ahead and locked their leader as a girl at the same time. Guy deserved it. Would you believe Herb was even more of a sexist than Genma?"
Another moment of stunned silence came and passed.
"Wait. 'Other mothers'?" Cologne's scratchy voice sounded horrified.
Willow giggled. "Yes. It turns out Kodachi's mother had too much self-respect after her martial arts lessons to grow up to marry Kodachi's father. So, *somebody* had to marry Principal Kuno, just cause you never know for certain what mischief rich folks would get up to if they don't have an heir. Plus there was the remote chance he'd actually still have those kids he did originally, and if so they needed a mother. So I watched as he hooked up with Genko. Genma has always wanted to be filthy rich, never wanted to work for it, and his girl side had grown up and *thought* she was a girl. So it seemed a natural match-up."
This was the sound of everyone, except Willow, vomiting.
"Genko is still obsessed about martial arts, and she does go on training trips, just this time without the seppuku pledge. So it shouldn't be too hard to snag her into taking our students just as we've done to her boy side." Willow said, lounging around comfortably, playing at being totally unconcerned about their reaction to this bit of news. "What does 'Man among men' mean, anyway?"
"It's a Japanese proverb," Doc wiped vomit off his chin. "It goes 'The flower of flowers is the cherry blossom - the samurai is the man among men.' Basically, what she was asking for was a cultured man with a broad range of skills. Genma, of course, delivered the opposite: a boy whose focus was so narrow he had virtually no ability to solve common, everyday cultural problems like simple, interpersonal relations, and had few if any skills outside of martial arts. But those cannot be considered Ranma's fault. They were entirely Genma's doing."
"Oh," Willow chirruped. "Well, on the plus side, Kodachi and Tatewaki were both born to their original mother, not to Genko or their original father."
"I have no idea what we could've done to the timestream that would have caused this," Doc declared, seeing Nodoka in a hospital bed, cuddling twins to her arms, the babies identical in all things save that one was a boy, and one was a girl, and the girl had tufts of red hair.
Nodoka gave a tired giggle. "That's not the usual reaction of men to becoming fathers. Here, now give your son and daughter a kiss. And I think your wife deserves one, too."
Bearing a big grin, Doc complied, kissing both Nodoka and her babies.
"What shall we call them?" Nodoka beamed down at her children in the way that only new mothers can.
"You married Ranma's mother?" came the shouts.
"Yes, and I am now Ranma's father, as well as his twin Ranko, and God willing there will be more on the way. That is what married couples do. I don't understand what is so hard to grasp about all of this." Doc was genuinely puzzled by their reactions to this bit of news.
"We just didn't expect you to get married," Xander stated dully.
"Especially not to a main character's mother," Willow was, for the moment, entirely too shocked to play around with cat mannerisms.
"Well, she had to marry *somebody!*" Doc declared. "As you know, part of our pay-off to Cologne for her participation was to arrange for some of these young girls to be trained among the amazons for a while, just to see if they'd like to join. You also know I was there myself accepting instruction both to overcome the faults Genma trained into my style, and to pick up the invaluable Hidden Weapons techniques. We were both sixteen at the time. We met, we fell in love, and married. How should any of this seem unusual?"
Xander got a thoughtful look to his face. But it was Willow who blurted out in concern. "I... I always thought eventually you'd go home and marry your Willow."
Doc smiled and gave her a hug, before declaring proudly. "You, my dear, are Willow. That other person is Rosenberg, because she is the only one who did those things that earned my lasting resentment. I can't go on blaming you for them."
Willow melted into the hug.
For a project they'd started just to get themselves training, this had certainly bloomed out of control. By their original contract with Cologne, her price for modifying one person's memory was them performing the same task as she required for shampooing three or ten people.
So, they'd chosen ten, figuring they'd find some use for those extra uses.
By choosing Genma, and looping him through time to create additional teachers, they'd figured to get themselves and a few of their favorite characters on the sidelines trained up to an acceptable standard before leaving this reality. But then it turned out, once they'd had everything arranged, Genma needed only five years to teach his students all he knew (or was willing to impart, anyway). That mean instead of training ten people for ten years each, they could arrange for him to teach twenty by the same trips they'd already paid for, if Cologne was willing to shampoo him just a few more times.
She was, if she could select some of those new students. There were some boys among her tribe that came from good stock and had natural talents for martial arts, they just knew no way to motivate them to learn, and Genma's training style was perfect for that. That man could have annoyed a saint into taking a swing at him.
Then, of course, there was that complication where Genma proved entirely unable to train girls effectively, and could have scarred Willow's psyche permanently if not for her costume. That was bad, since most of those they'd targeted for this teaching program were girls, and that man was patently unable, leading to Willow's act of revenge opening up that option again, from a slightly different angle.
Genma having a permanent and independent girl side meant they could put her under the same program, and turn out those female martial artists they'd been hoping for (Willow among them, who never stopped giggling over Genko being just as sexist in favor of girls, and the boy-side Genma was against them). But having two versions of Genma produce twenty martial arts students each meant their final total was forty C-List martial artists.
As Nodoka led her daughter and her friends in out of the rain, placing their umbrellas in the bucket-like stand meant for them, their entrance marked the first time all forty had been in one building, under one roof.
Cologne was there to greet them. As her final payoff for all of her help, she had received an eighteen centimeter mushroom, and now the former crone had recaptured her youth again, looking only slightly younger than Nodoka, who'd decided to take advantage of her favorite makeup in the world, and where other women only pretended not to get older, she would be fine spending the remainder of her life a healthy twenty-one.
Her husband did control the source of those mushrooms, after all. There was no point in not taking advantage of that. Actually, Doc had built an entire estate, on as grand a scale as the Kuno's, around the site of what remained of the Forest of Time, sheltering it against harm or accident. You just had to know what secret door led out to the right courtyard.
That, and the right passcodes to bypass all of the traps and autofiring miniguns.
Walking out into the main auditorium area of the rented hall, they were just in time to catch Doc stepping up to the podium. He proclaimed, "In this room are gathered the best practitioners of the Anything Goes School who now walk the Earth. In fact, in this room are currently gathered ALL practitioners of the Anything Goes style, save the founder himself, who is currently indisposed." He smiled, as though at a secret joke.
It wasn't a secret. Everybody laughed.
"We are all here roughly C-List martial artists," Doc declared, and received cheering. "The problem facing us, is that several times in the upcoming year a number of A-List martial artists are due to come and cause problems. Most of these are good enough that even several B-List martial artists teamed together are no threat to them. That is why I propose we hold a number of tournaments, honing our skills in hopes of increasing our general capabilities. Who knows? Maybe in this room, someone of our own number has the potential to reach A-List themselves!"
"So, what was all that about, Doc?" Xander asked once the meeting was over, but before the doctor went and excused himself to spend time with his family. "You sound like you are planning to stay a while."
"Why would I leave?" Doc spread his arms joyously. "Here I have love, family, children and friends. I have success both in finance and intellectual pursuits, but also in martial arts! Here I have everything I've ever wanted, but had always been denied! As far as I'm concerned this is as good as anything gets, why would I want to leave it behind?"
Xander and Willow's jaws fell open.
"Have fun," Doc lifted Xander's hand then dropped the time vehicle keys in his open palm, before rushing off, "Don't forget to write!"
Xander was stunned speechless as they left the party, walking out to the garage. "I can't believe he won't leave!"
Xander slumped down into the driver's seat, staring at the slider button.
Willow instead reached for the time controls.
"What?" Xander, freaked out already, assumed, "You're going to go back and make it so he changes his mind?"
"No." Willow typed in a number ten years in the future. "We're going to make sure he gets his happy ending. And, if not, warn him about it."
"Local Physicist Killed by Chinese Warlord?" Doc clutched his hair in distress as he read the headline on a newspaper the teens had brought back with them. He checked the date, before reading more. "Why, that's this year! Only five months from now! Let's see."
Doc collapsed into an armchair moments later, staring up at his two time traveling friends. "Great Scott! From what this says it sounds like Herb of the Musk appears with thirty of his warriors and levels the place." He began to page through the paper, reading, "it says here, many of us were killed, our women and children carried off... this is a first-rate disaster! What have we done that could've caused this? Prince Herb wasn't nearly so violent in the series!"
"I dunno, Doc," Xander offered, feeling helpless.
But Doc wasn't listening, his eyes fixed on the mantelpiece. "Great Scott," he exclaimed, standing up to reverently cross over the room to where the Locking Ladle and Unlocking Kettle stood on display. "This! These are the answer! How could I have been so careless? After Willow brought back the ladle I just went after the kettle to have a matching set! They have been on display here in my living room for years! Hundreds of people have seen them as I've invited guests to the mansion! What are we going to do?"
"Couldn't you just get rid of them?" Xander offered, while Willow stood by silent.
Doc was already shaking his head. "This would still be the last place these items had been seen, and therefore the natural place to start a search for them. And before you ask, merely returning the items would not be enough. If that worked, it would've saved us the first time. I'm sure I would have offered. The items don't mean all that much to me."
"Couldn't you just replace them with fakes?" Xander asked.
Doc weakly shook his head. "Remember, we live here. It would be no use replacing them in the past, because any fakes convincing enough to have fooled us would also have drawn whatever attention brought us to his notice in the first place. And replacing them now would still leave us as the last point of contact on his search for them."
Doc got up and started pacing around, like a haunted man. "And if our tournament worked to produce an A-List fighter, we would not have been destroyed in the first place. I guess the controlled environment of an organized competition is just not motivating enough to turn any of us into that good a fighter in so short a space of time."
His pacing came to a halt as Willow dangled a set of keys before his eyes.
"Have you worked out where we're going, Doc?" Willow asked gently.
Doc stood silent for a long time, before he smiled back at her. "Well, it looks like we are back to the original mission: canvas the multiverse searching for a cure for our problems."
He grabbed a suitcase and began to pack, although in his inattention nothing went in the case, he just kept stuffing the items into the sleeves of his robes, storing them in Hidden Weapon space. "We can treat the whole thing as a training journey. Exposure to new situations and high amounts of stress are the best ways to train in Anything Goes. My fear is, if we go back to what we were doing, picking up where we left off and just taking a minor adjustment to our last coordinates, we'd end up in another machine-haunted apocalyptic future much like the Matrix and Terminator worlds, and while that wouldn't be the problem it once was, thanks to our newfound abilities, it doesn't get us any closer to where we want to be. So, I did some thinking. We like this Ranma universe rather a lot. So, what would happen if I were to take the mathematical value of the last place we were, that Matrix world, and averaged them with the stats for here? What do you think? Do you feel like trying it?"
Nodoka poked her head into the room. "A training trip?"
The woman was shoved aside by her two oldest children bursting in. "Hurray!"
Home is where the heart is. And Doc had already confessed he didn't have many (or any) good memories of his birth dimension.
So why wouldn't he go native?