Amor Fati

Chapter 17: A Carol for the Lonely

Ryoga didn't like to think of himself as particularly superstitious; but he knew an omen when he saw one. His journey had taken him to a small grotto wreathed around an ornate public fountain. It reminded him of those roadside curio wishing wells he'd come across on his wanderings. Fumbling, he found a few small coins in his pocket.

18 yen…not enough to be worth keeping. But it was all the pocket change he had. He pursed his lips pensively, then cast the coins into the fountain. He clapped his hands together and wondered what to ask of the spirit of this fountain.

I don't know who I'm asking, and whoever it is I probably don't deserve your help. But please, help me do the right thing, no matter how hard it is, he said silently. The trees rustled in the wind. The park remained empty and quiet. Shrugging his shoulders, Ryoga said his thanks.

Ryoga glumly trudged forward, watching the morning sun rise low on the horizon. Hiroshima reminded him of home; the trees and canals stirred up aching memories of Nerima as he wandered. He shoved those thoughts aside. If I just keep heading west, I should be able to make it to Osaka by sundown.

He'd had dinner at Ucchan's Sapporo branch last night. That girl sure travelled a lot for her business. She had taken pity on him, giving him one of the super deluxes (minus pork) on the house. It had been delicious, but he hadn't eaten since. His stomach protested, but right now he felt like he deserved the punishment. Ukyo had caught him up on the most recent happenings. The knot of worry in his chest hadn't receded.

He had continued to keep a terrible secret from Akane. Hearing how her life had been threatened had lit a fire under him. I have to tell her. No matter what. If I don't, then I really am a pig.

That fire had sustained him during the night's long march. It was just embers now, but he carefully stoked them, putting one weary foot in front of the other.

At around noon, the exhaustion overtook him. He fell on hard pavement. So weary, so alone. Japan was so huge and he was so lost he might as well have been on the moon. Here was the journey's end, leagues away from his destination.

Her voice cut through the black funk in his head like a razor. "Oh hey Ryoga," Akane chirped. "Whacha doin' lyin' in the road in front of my house?"

The lost boy turned over to see Akane, decked out in spandex and legwarmers, panting lightly as she jogged in place. Providence smiled down at him. "Oh, you know, just resting a bit," he said, laughing uneasily.

"Well get up, silly. I'm glad to see you back in the neighborhood. P-chan's been gone too, so I haven't had anyone to talk to about the rough patch I've been going through with Ranma. Both Ranmas, actually."

His breath hitched with the talk of 'P-chan', and he remembered why he needed to be here. He found strength he didn't know he had and sprung to his feet. "Akane…I."

She beamed at him. "Yes Ryoga?"

"There's something I have to tell you. It's something that I've been shamefully keeping a secret for too long. And if I don't do it now, I'll never forgive myself."

Akane patted him on the shoulder. "Oh silly, I already know."

Oh no, I'm a dead man, he said to himself. Those Tendo girls didn't play around when it came to vengeance. She was just waiting for him to trip up and real himself. Or maybe Ranma ratted him out, that cur!

"I mean, it took me a while. Ranma thought I was a bit thick for not realizing it sooner, but I don't have a lot of experience in those things."

Well she hadn't killed him yet. So Ryoga stood there, sweating bullets.

"But I guess it was obvious, really. The way you acted, how jealous Ranma got. Ryoga, I don't hate you for having a crush on me, so let your heart go free and unburdened."

Ryoga picked himself back up, his thumping heart slowing down. "Um, that wasn't the secret I had in mind…but you knew?"

"Yup. It was during the wedding disaster when I finally put two and two together."

If you're going to retreat, Hibiki, you've got your chance, said Ryoga's traitorous inner voice. "That's a mild relief, but like I said, that wasn't the secret I was ashamed of."

"Oh? What else could there be? Wait, is Nabiki compensated-dating you? If she is, I'll kill her! She shouldn't play with your fragile glass heart. Or was she blackmailing you about something else? I know she's trying to turn over a new leaf—"

"—I'm P-chan!" he erupted. He'd felt the words building in him, as he searched for a better way to let it out. But it was no use. It had to be said, and there would be no way to soften the blow.


"P-chan, your pet pig…that's my Jusenkyo curse. I've been hiding it from you out of shame. I know I don't deserve your forgiveness, but I am sorry."

Akane's face was blank, but he could see the gears whirring internally as she processed it. As the seconds ticked away, the dread mounted. He prepared for retribution that would never come. "I'm disgusted," she said, her eyes narrowing.

Akane jogged off. The first few strides were like nothing had happened. But then she broke out into a flat-out sprint, to put as much distance between herself and her betrayer.

He wandered away, wishing the world would disappear. Or maybe he'd find a nice hole to crawl into and die. Either way, he'd leave it all miles away behind him. It was nearing nightfall when the rolling thunder woke him from his trance. He could feel the first few drops strike his clothes, but he no longer cared.

He heard Ranma cry "Oi, Ryoga! I've been looking everywhere for you."

He turned to find the redhead running up to him. She looked relieved to see him. She still punched him square in the shoulder, hard enough to make his hand numb and tingly. "Oh…Ranma," said Ryoga.

"Jeesh, I get home and Kasumi-chan says I need to run off looking for you. It scared me, they wouldn't explain why, just said I needed to find you."

"Oh. It's probably because I told Akane that I'm P-chan. I guess pork is the menu tonight."

She slapped him. "Don't say that! We were worried about you. Sure Akane's angry, but you know her…if you did the right thing then eventually she'll forgive you. It's gonna take some time, but hey, you did the right thing."

"I just need to be away."

"Away from Akane? Absolutely. Away from your friends? Absolutely not."

"Who needs me? I'm useless. Useless as a rival to you. Useless as a friend to Akane."

"I need you! Not as my rival, but as my friend."

It was enough of a shock to pull him momentarily out of his funk. He remembered all the times Ranma would get angry that he'd been gone for too long. Or his frustration at the lost boy's fervent desire for vengeance.

The rain came pouring down, and soon he'd be the pig that Ranma was always jealous of. He closed his eyes, accepting the pounding baptism.

After a few seconds, his clothes were soaked through. And he was still human. He opened his eyes. Ranma seemed a little surprised, but she shrugged it off. "Waterproof soap, right?"

"I kinda forgot that was even a thing," he said, trying to laugh it off. But the day just couldn't get worse. Not like this, he protested, Don't answer my prayers like this. But it was no use to ask kami for takebacks. His curse was cured in front of the last person in the world that should have to have salt rubbed in her open wounds.

She let out a low chuckle. "Magic huh…I guess Jusenkyo works in mysterious ways. Good thing it's raining…I'd hate for you to see me cryin'."

"Ranma, I'm—"

She shoved her finger over his lips, silencing him. "No, don't apologize." She hugged him so fiercely he swore his ribs were going to crack. "I'm happy for you, Ryoga. I really am."

Once the shock receded, he patted her back gently.

"This is what you need, Ryoga. I learned too late that a cure wasn't what I needed. Or even really wanted."

The trees rustled in the wind, like a low and earthy chuckle.

The Tendo house was eerily quiet; girlRanma couldn't remember the last time it had been this quiet in the middle of the day. The house had always been alive with energy during the day. Now it was hollowed out by a tomblike silence.

The day had slowed to a crawl after the Tendo family hauled off on their trip with her male half. Soun, for all his faults, at least saw the problem coming, and gave her a way to save face by asking her to look after the house while they were away.

It would be just her and Nabiki here for the better part of two weeks. Two weeks away from Akane. Two weeks for her to spend in the arms of her other lover. Ranma let out a heavy sigh as she rummaged through the kitchen for something easy to make.

Things were just getting easier with her other half, and then this had to happen. He hadn't seemed very jealous when Akane told him that she'd slept with his other half. But the redhead knew herself better than that. Of course he was jealous. If he was okay with this, it was because he was confident he would win in the end.

She smiled when she found a large bento front and center in the fridge. Kasumi had left a cute little note attached to it. As she sat down to dig into Kasumi's delicious homecooked food, she heard a knock on the front door. Grumbling, she got up.

Shampoo was waiting when she opened the door. The girl smiled at her, presenting two piping hot deluxe ramen bowls.

"You knocked. I'm impressed," Ranma said with a smile.

"You hungry?" asked Shampoo.

"Always. Was just sitting down to eat. Kasumi left me a bento for today. I'll split it with you."

The Amazon beamed back at her. She ushered Shampoo in, trying to forget the terror she'd felt in their last fight. The cuts and bruises had healed by now, but she still remembered seeing Shampoo broken in both body and spirit, begging her to end it. Ranma followed the Amazon, guilt gnawing at her bones for feeling on edge around Shampoo.

As they sat at the kotatsu, Ranma noticed that Shampoo's usual mane was pulled up into two tight buns. How did she get it pulled up like that? Ranma said to herself. Shouldn't be possible, unless she cut—

"Shampoo," said Ranma, voice trembling, "you cut your hair?"

"No longer Nujiezu. No need for warrior's hair." Shampoo forced a smile as she dished out the ramen. "No worry airen, eat before it get cold. Didn't want to make you worry."

A word kept running through her head: selfish. She remembered why she'd kept the indecisive juggling up for so long. But there was no escaping the consequences anymore. "Shampoo…I'm so sorry." She fought back the tears welling up in her eyes.

"It's alright. My choice. Great-grandmother say she would figure a way to save face. But when Mousse attack you…well, boy-type Ranma, Shampoo decided to end it. Shampoo renounce warrior oath, cut hair in penance."

Ranma slurped at her tea to fill the silence. She didn't know what to say, so she twiddled away the moments. But when she looked back up at Shampoo's melancholy smile, the worlds finally came. It hurt to say them. "So our engagement is over then?"

A year ago, it would have brought her such relief to hear that. But right now, there was nothing but a sour pang of regret. Maybe she just liked being the center of attention, but at the very least she couldn't deny she'd grown quite fond of all of them.

"Amazon betrothal, yes. No kiss of death, no kiss of marriage. But Shampoo…I haven't given up yet."

Welp, time to 'fess up. "Shampoo…I'm—"

"—lovers with violent girl? I already know."

"Bwah…you do?"

"News travel fast. Spatula girl not happy, but strangely it give me hope. Maybe not out of the running yet."

"Well…I don't know what to say." The deep red flush on her cheeks had said enough though. Ranma's heart thumped as Shampoo batted her eyelashes. At me, not at him, she noted. It was exhilarating.

"I know it not be simple. And you might not be ready. And…I'm surprised to say this, I not want to hurt Akane's feelings. Shampoo been at the bottom of a pit, not want to wish that on anyone."

"Are you doing alright?" blurted Ranma, "I mean, do you need anything? A place to stay."

Shampoo shook her head. "Great-grandmother accept my choice. She say she decide it time to retire anyway. Still have Cat-Café, been taking Japanese classes; want to go to school with airen for last year."

The panic had gone. The uncharted territory, of just being normal friends with her romantic entanglements, was proving quite alluring. "You know, I'd like that."

"I'm glad. Now, eat your ramen before I do."

"You wouldn't dare!"

Kenzan Konatsu perched herself atop the telephone pole, watching the minutes tick by. This cozy suburban neighborhood had concealed evil in its midst. And while the request had ultimately come from Ranma, Lady Ukyo had given her this task, so she set aside her loathing for Ranma and did as her liege asked.

Dusk had fallen hours ago. The gentle night winds combed through her long ponytail. Konatsu glanced again at her watch. 02:58. It's time.

Finding the archfiend Gosunkugi's house had not been difficult. In the masque of a humble pizza delivery girl, she'd found his place through the Kenzan Clan Secret Technique: Asking Directions. And picked up a few phone numbers along the way, though she didn't know why these young men had given them to her or what she was supposed to do with them.

She dashed through the neighborhood, silent as the night winds. She took her perch atop her target's house, surveying for traps. Completely defenseless, not even a yappy little dog to sound the alarm. A dim blue light emanated from Gosunkugi's room. Hmm…a nightlight? At his age. Bizarre. She said to herself. Wait, don't feel sorry for him, you've got a mission to do!

She took a bundle of thin silk rope from her belt, tying one end around the cinderblock chimney. With a deep breath, she began her inverted rappel.

The window was shut. The room beyond was concealed by Venetian blinds. A lesser ninja would be daunted by such defenses, but not Konatsu. She drew a kunai from her belt and silently pried loose the mosquito screen. Then ever so gently, she dug the point into the crevice and slowly levered the window open. Once the gap was large enough to fit a finger in, she tucked the knife into her teeth and inched the window open.

After taking a quick peek, she slithered her way into the room, leaving the line dangling for her retreat. With the sleeping fiend unawares, she would now plunder his room and force it to divulge his darkest secrets.

At least, that was the plan. When she turned from the window, she found Gosunkugi sitting cross-legged in front of a television, staring back at her with sunken, sleep-deprived eyes. She froze in panic. The seconds ticked by silently, neither moving a muscle.

Gosunkugi rubbed the delirium from his eyes. "A girl…in my room. My prayers have been answered!"

Konatsu sprang into action, tackling the frail boy and muzzling his cries. He felt slimy and fishlike to touch, and smelled like stale sweat, but the kunoichi put aside her revulsion as she forced him into a submission hold. He had judo skills on par with a wet noodle, so in mere moments she had him tied up like a proper prisoner of war, trussed into a kneeling position with his arms bound behind his back.

As she admired her handiwork, Gosunkugi seemed strangely nonplussed. He struggled against the bindings for a moment before saying, "You know, this isn't quite how I imagined my first time but now that it's here I am actually digging this."

Konatsu blinked. "Um…what?"

"Wait…you're not here to…you know?"

"I know what?"

"Well…this is awkward."

This was not how she imagined her first interrogation taking place. So she went back to basics. First principal of interrogation: establish the stakes, she quoted from memory. She drew the flat of her kunai across the voodoo nut's cheek. "You have secrets, Gosunkugi Hikaru," she said, her voice like a razor. "You will tell them to me."

Gosunkugi shuddered, but not with fear. His face went red with embarrassment.

Konatsu sighed, recalling some of those strange comics Ukyo pretended weren't hers. After a pregnant pause, she said "You know, you're making this hard."

"I'm sorry, it's doing that on its own." After she groaned audibly, he said, "Oh, you meant the general situation…right. I'm pretty sure I know why you're here."

"Good, then let's cut to the chase. Tell me who you're working with."


Konatsu blinked. "Um, this isn't how things are supposed to work. I'm supposed to threaten you, and then you're supposed to tell me what I want."

"You're not very good at this interrogation thing, are you? Threaten me all you want, I'll never give up my crusade against Saotome!"

Curses! My bluff has been called, she thought. She could bring herself to actually hurt someone who was defenseless, and he seemed to be enjoying being tied up and humiliated. Gosunkugi's gaze flitted between her and the TV. A comically underdressed girl with a sword was fighting against some demons on the TV. Chance!

Konatsu ejected the tape from the VCR. In the pale blue light, she could just barely make out the title, Legend of Lemnear.

"Um, I was watching that…" said Gosunkugi.

"Mhm. Looks expensive. How much did you pay for it?"

"Oh, are you into anime too? This one is by Urushihara Satoshi, very high demand. I got it for a very good price, only ten thousand yen. I could hook you up, you know."

She flipped the protective hatch back, exposing the thing reel of magnetic tape. She ran the flat of edge of her kunai under the tape, unspooling a few centimeters. "It would be a shame if something were to happen to it."

"Do your worst! I'll never tell you—"

She unreeled a few more centimeters. "You sure about that?"

"—that my contact is the Kuno family retainer Sasuke. But I'll never tell you anything more."

A few more centimeters.

"Except that he didn't know what I was supposed to do with the photos, or he would have never cooperated. The boss was very clear about that. Strict secrecy, which is why I will not tell you—"

Konatsu glared at him.

"—that she's one of Nabiki's crew."

"A name. Or else."

"She didn't tell me her name. I'm not exactly well liked here, and I barely know the names of the girls in my own class."

Konatsu cocked an eyebrow, placing the edge of the kunai against the tape.

"What more do you want? Sasuke provides me with the photos, I distribute them and give the blackmail copies to her for safekeeping. I swear that's all that I know!"

Konatsu slipped the knife back into its sheath. "I believe you. Which is why I'm going to let you go. You're going to go on about your life like nothing ever happened."

Gosunkugi nodded vigoriously. "Yes mistress!"

Konatsu blinked. "Um…I'm going to untie you now. Try not to make this any weirder."

A strange sort of pity welled up in the kunoichi. She meticulously unknotted the ropes from his body and gently inspected each patch of skin for bruises and rashes. Voodoo Spike cooed under her touch. She felt the veins popping in her forehead. "You're making it weird again," she grumbled.

"I can't help it. You're so feminine and sweet while being so utterly ruthless. Say, what's your number?"

"You do realize I was born a boy, right?" she said, hoping to deter him.

Gosunkugi rubbed his stiff shoulders and shrugged. "Eh, cute is cute."

Konatsu snickered softly. "You know, Hikaru-kun, if you hadn't been so awful and vindictive about your last crush, I might have even said 'yes.' But you've got a lot of growing up to do."

The kunoichi left as quickly as she had come, leaving the boy alone with his jealousy and trashy anime. But when the mirth of validation from an unexpected source receded, her thoughts turned to Ukyo. Dashing from rooftop to rooftop, she felt sore at herself for whining about helping Ranma. Lady Ukyo had asked this of her though, and she couldn't refuse.

She stopped on a clocktower, letting out a heavy sigh. Maybe Ukyo would never think of her as a lover. Her heart ached as she clutched at her chest. But it wasn't Ranma's fault. Stewing in bitterness would just mean going down the same path as Kuno or Gosunkugi.

Lonely are the night winds keeping her company. It was time to let go of the old grievances and let them be carried off like leaves in the wind.

Half a world away, it was hot, sunny afternoon at a quaint old abbey nested in the Spanish Pyrenees. An old priest knelt in the gardens, dutifully picking the weeds away from the Peonies. He stood up, stretching his old muscles. He pulled his flat cap off, using it to dab the sweat away from his eyes. The short white hair wreathed his balding head like laurels; the sun pricked uncomfortably at the now exposed skin.

Soon, he'd break for some Darjeeling tea, and he could cool off inside.

A stranger approached, wearing the rough clothes of one of the mountain shepherds. He might have looked the part, were it not for the prominent silver pendant that hung from his neck. The silver was knotted into four trefoils, joined together in the shape of a cross.

The pilgrim took off his broad brimmed hat. "Excuse me, I was told to ask for Father Manuel. Are you he?"

The priest slipped his cap back on. "I am. How may I be of service, Mister…?"

"Just Carolus, if you please."

"Well, Carolus, what brings you to La Brecha de Rolando?"

"I'm something of an archeologist, actually. My organization received word that a priceless artifact was unearthed nearby, and that it might be in your possession."

"Speak plainly, friend. You've come in search of the sword Durandal. It was supposed to be in our possession. But I'm afraid the man who found it could not be convinced otherwise. In his words, 'Finders, keepers.'"

"More's the pity. Would you happen to know this gentleman's address, and where I might call upon him?"

Something writhed in Manuel's gut. This pilgrim might as well have had a forked tongue to go along with his slithery words. "I'm afraid I can't tell you."

"Can't? Or won't?"

"Both, actually. Truly sorry I cannot be more help."

"Oh, more's the pity. That just won't do," said the stranger.

Notes: To everyone who was worried that the initial promise of the prologue would never be paid off, fear not: IT'S HAPPENING. We've taken a while to get there, there's been a few meanders, but now it's finally here.

I'm going to try to continue my previous pattern of alternating between working on HMSIE and Amor Fati, though I'm probably going to do another chapter for this next to properly kick things off. In the meantime, enjoy this omake:

Konatsu blinked. "Um…I'm going to untie you now. Try not to make this any weirder."

A strange sort of pity welled up in the kunoichi. She meticulously unknotted the ropes from his body and gently inspected each patch of skin for bruises and rashes. Voodoo Spike cooed under her touch. She felt the veins popping in her forehead. "You're making it weird again," she grumbled.

"Don't kinkshame me!" cried Gosukugi.

Konatsu glared menacingly. "Kinkshaming is my kink!"

And thus Konatsu became queen of the BDSM ninjas.