Kasumi Tendo stood up abruptly from the Tower's main computer terminal that she had been using as an impromptu mission control. She paced as she worried about, well, everything. Kasumi was overjoyed that Starfire was returning home, but her concern over her use of the Titan credit card, public debut as Tower and upcoming appearance at the Women's Electrical Engineer Association convention dampened down any exuberance she was feeling.
And looming like a dark cloud over Kasumi's mental landscape was the prospective journey to Japan to settle Ranma's fiancée situation. Breaking the news to Ranma would be bad enough, but the eldest Tendo shuddered when she thought about how her sister would react. At best, Nabiki would be angry and frustrated. The middle Tendo had fought and schemed for months only for Ranma to end up right back where he started. Worse actually, since with his mother back in his life, Ranma would be forced to marry as soon the fiancée tangle was resolved.
And Kasumi had been so happy when her communicator chirped in the student union, informing her that Victor and the Titans had cleared the asteroid belt and were in radio contact with Earth. She had almost skipped back to the Tower and did, in fact, squeal when she first heard Victor's voice and again when she heard the amazing news that Starfire was returning home still unmarried.
But now the Titan's ship was in reentry, cut off from radio contact and Kasumi had time to fret. She kept right on worrying until the roar of the Titan spaceship's engines overcame the Top Room's sound proofing. Rousing herself, Kasumi made her way down to the landing stage to greet her friends, happy yet worried.
All of those concerns disappeared when the central canopy popped open and Cyborg began climbing down. Kasumi ran to him and threw her arms around the big man as he hopped down the last six feet. Cyborg returned the brunette's embrace, spinning her around as they both laughed. The sight of a pink faced and giggling Kasumi warmed the other six teens as they dismounted the spacecraft.
Breaking away from her beau, Kasumi sobered as she bowed to Robin. "I am afraid I may have abused-" The eldest Tendo's mea culpa was interrupted by a horrified scream and all eyes turned to Tara. The blonde had one foot still on the ladder, but her right leg above the hip was stone. A yellow circle of energy was zooming up towards Tara's waist, splitting as it reached her groin, one ring going down her left leg and the other ascending her torso. Both left smooth gray stone behind.
Ranma dove towards the rapidly petrifying girl, but even with his speed all he managed to do was grab Tara's hand as it solidified. The energy ring reached her neck and quickly encompassed Tara's head, capturing her look of horror in stone. With a curse, Ranma shifted to girl to extract her hand, as Beast Boy began to react.
"Wha- what? Tara, what, what happened!?" the green shape shifter yelled, turning brimming eyes to Ranma, who shook her head helplessly. "Tara! Tara!"
"Keep it together Beast Boy," Raven commanded. Spreading her hands, a black glow encompassed the statue of Tara. "Something is still active there. Ranma?" The red headed Titan closed her eyes, placing her hands on Tara's chest.
"I can feel something," she reported. "Her Ki is still active, I think she's still alive. But Ki depends on breathing and…"
"Right, let's get her down to the med lab," Robin ordered. "Maybe we can still save her! Cyborg, go prep the lab. Raven, move her up safely as quick as you can. We have to find out what happened to Tara and reverse it." Both teens nodded as Cyborg raced for the elevator and Raven began levitating Tara's rocky form. With careful jiggling, Raven disengaged Tara from the ladder and brought her up a foot off the tarmac.
As Raven followed Cyborg towards the elevator, she almost dropped Tara when yellow energy again engulfed the stricken girl. A ring formed around her waist, instantly splitting in two, one moving up her body and the other moving down. Within seconds, Tara reverted to flesh and blood. With a great gasp, she began crying as Beast Boy hugged the floating girl.
"What happened?" the blonde girl whimpered. "I couldn't move or see or hear anything, I thought I was dead."
"Y-you turned to stone Tara! How could that happen?" Beast Boy cried.
"Are you feeling all right girlfriend?" Raven asked as she lowered Tara. "Let's get you down to the med bay-" As soon as Tara's feet touched the tarmac, the yellow energy rings began zooming up her legs, again leaving stone behind. Raven instantly levitated the blonde again and the energy subsided.
"Did you see that?" Raven asked, "As soon as her feet touched the floor-"
"She began turning to stone again," Robin finished. Pondering, he turned to Raven. "Raven, get Tara to the med bay, don't let her touch the floor. Anyone have any ideas?
"I have to check the monitor tapes," Raven replied. "I might have an idea, but let me check it out."
"Let's see if we can get some answers," Robin said, moving towards the elevator.
As the door to the archives opened, both Nabiki and Robin looked up expectantly. When only Ranma came through, both teens arched an eyebrow, but only Robin spoke. "Where's the rest of the team?"
"Cy is tinkering with the floaty apartment he made for Tara, something about an independent power supply?" Ranma reported. "Kasumi's helping him of course. Starfire and Gar are with Tara trying to cheer her up. When I looked in on them though, it seemed the other way around. You guys got anything?"
"Nabiki thought that the energy we saw today was the same as the energy Tara used for her geokinesis," Robin told him. "The match looks exact."
"You know I've been helping her get her powers back," Nabiki put in. "Ranma's Ki training has been helping with that, it may be the only reason she's still alive. I contacted Gleason at S.T.A.R. Labs to ask for assistance."
"Gleason?" Robin asked.
"Doctor Sharon Gleason, the last real expert on the human metagene on the West Coast," Nabiki explained, "And before you ask, she can't help us directly with Tara, she's a theoretician not a clinician, but she gave me a few interesting ideas."
"Like what, Nabs?" Ranma drawled,
"It seems that most super-powered types with earth-related powers are tied to the actual planet," Nabiki explained. "Did you know that the greatest hero of them all, Superman, was probably tied to the Earth? He had powers that were not explained by the yellow sun and lower gravity. Anyway, Gleason thinks that Tara's abilities are tied to the Earth in some way. With our project to restore her powers along with your Ki training and the trip off planet, well, I think that Tara's powers rebooted and turned inwards instead of outwards. Gleason thinks that a strong working hypothesis."
"So her power is the ability to turn to stone and kill herself?" Ranma asked. "Man, I thought my power was lame."
"Not everyone can be Superman or the Flash," Robin shrugged. "If Dr. Gleason's theory is right, then Tara might be able to get control of her power the same way as you did Ranma. That way, she could at least lead a normal life."
"Maybe better than that," Nabiki mused. "I remember you telling me about Ki-infused objects being really strong, Ranma. When she turns to stone, Tara essentially became just that, a Ki-infused statue, right?"
"Unh, yeah, pretty much, I guess," allowed Ranma.
"Then she might be the next best thing to invulnerable. If she can control the transformation, that has uses in a fight," Nabiki said.
"Let's not get ahead of ourselves," Robin cautioned. "First let's see if Tara can control the transformation. Then we'll explore any other possibilities."
"Right, of course you're right, Robin," Nabiki agreed. "I might be a little more rattled by this then I thought. Let's go visiting." The two boys followed her into the elevator, making a silent trip down to the residential area. The doors opened to reveal Cyborg closing up a panel, while Kasumi was running a diagnostic on the control circuits. She smiled as they approached.
"It is all set up," Kasumi reported happily. "Tara is showing no signs of transforming to stone and Victor has set up a capacitor system so that even if the power goes out and our emergency generators fail, the room will continue to be isolated for 48 hours. Tara is as safe as we can make her."
"I even set up an induction power lead, so there is no connection to the outside at all," Cyborg supplied gruffly. "Nothing's going to happen to our favorite rock and roller on my watch."
"How do we get in?" Ranma wondered, peering at the door.
"There is only a small gap around the apartment," Kasumi explained. "Eighteen point six centimeters, you can just step across when both doors are open."
"That's an awfully specific number," Robin noted dryly.
"It guarantees that the walls around the apartment won't contact the enclosure due to building sway, even in a maximum hurricane," Cyborg said. "I've given this some thought."
"How'd you come up with this so quickly?" wondered Nabiki. "I'll stipulate you're a genius Cy, but this seems a lot even for you." Kasumi and Cyborg exchanged glances.
"Well, I mostly had it set up already," Cyborg said, rubbing the back of his neck. "I figured we might need an isolation cell, especially after…" He looked at Kasumi again before taking a deep breath and resuming. "Especially after Terra went rogue." There was a short pause before Nabiki replied with a smirk.
"Smart. No earth for her to work with, even by conduction. Probably would be our best chance of holding evil twin Terra."
"Does she know about this?" Robin asked, voice flat.
"Oh my yes," Kasumi answered cheerfully. "She thought it was very funny and very impressive." Grabbing Cyborg's hand, she made for the door. Her expression sobered. "Shall we join the others? I fear I have much to report and we have much to discuss." Cyborg moved to open the outer door as Robin gave the elder Tendo a quizzical look.
As the inner door opened, Tara was saying, "Look this isn't all bad, or even mostly! At least I have a power again, no matter how crappy. I mean look at the Ran Man. People would laugh at his power but does he make it work! I just have to put in the work with him and Nabs and especially you Garfield and I'll be in control and back on the team in no time."
"That's the spirit, Tara-chan!" Ranma exclaimed as he bounded into the room. "We'll beat this thing and make it work for you. That's the central idea of Anything Goes!" He exchanged a fist bump with Tara.
"Do you really think so, Rini?" a woebegone Beast Boy asked. Ranma gave his surrogate little brother a confident smile.
"I know so. Titans don't lose."
"If the Titans can free my home- my birth world from the clutches of my evil sister, I am sure we can help friend Tara," Starfire beamed, instantly cheering up.
"Although I have to say, you mostly did that yourself Star," Nabiki said. "But Ranma is right, we CAN beat this and we will."
"I agree," Kasumi put in. "But we have other problems as well, I am afraid, both professional and personal." She took a deep breath. "First the professional. Ryoga found me in my dorm a few days ago-"
"What!" shouted Cyborg. "Did he do any-" Kasumi quelled his outburst with a Look.
"He did nothing you need be concerned with, Victor-kun," Kasumi said. "He was a perfect gentleman and is only trying to help the Titans any way he can. Ryoga-kun has always been a gentleman, even when he was betraying my little sister. He brings news, more specifically, a warning."
"And that would be?" Robin inquired.
"You know that Ryoga is attending the Academy where Jinx and her team train. He is determined to save her."
"Jinx," muttered Nabiki darkly.
"Yes," agreed Kasumi. "It seems the head master of the school, Brother Blood, is very interested in Jusenkyo and has been interrogating Ryoga about the Pools, their effects and Jusenkyo's location. Ryoga is convinced that Blood-san is hatching some plot concerning the Pools."
"Whoopee," scoffed Beast Boy. "I mean, no offense, but how dangerous will it be that people can turn into ducks, or piglets or housecats?"
"Ranma?" Robin asked.
"If that's all there to Jusenkyo, it'd no problem," Ranma began. "But that ain't all there is to the Pools, there's some really nasty stuff according to the Guide. My Pop and me spent a night with the Guide and he told us some stories."
"Like what?" Tara asked skeptically.
"Big cats, giant apes and other big animals," Ranma replied immediately. "Nothing that Gar can't do, but still trouble since they keep their human minds. But the Guide said that there are even worse things like the combo Pools, where more than one animal fell in. He told us of this one crazy Pool, Spring of Drowned Yeti-riding-Bull-carrying-Crane-and-Eel. The Guide said his father saw a kid bathed in it and the guy turned into a six meter tall bull-man with an eel tail and little wings that allowed him to fly."
"It gets worse," Nabiki interjected. "I'm not sure if a person's powers carry over, but I would bet they do. Ranma kept his conditioning and Ki when he changed to a girl and Ryoga is an incredible fighter as a small pig. Could you imagine someone like Blackfire or Slade with that kind of power added to their own?"
"Point taken," Robin replied grimly.
"Worse, the Guide talked about Pools where legendary creatures drowned, a dragon and a Hindu warrior goddess," Ranma said.
"So it would seem the matter is dangerous," Kasumi said. "The only thing stopping Blood-san from going to the Pools is Ryoga-kun's terrible sense of direction. I doubt he could voluntarily lead Blood–san to within 1000 kilometers of Jusenkyo, but Blood-san is clever. Ryoga-kun told me Blood-san is questioning him about landmarks, languages and any towns that are nearby. It is only a matter of time."
"Then we'll to be there to stop him!" Robin exclaimed, pounding a fist into his hand. "You can get us there, Ranma?" The pig-tailed Titan nodded. "And Ryoga can get word to us when Blood makes his move?" Kasumi looked troubled but nodded as well.
"He will try his best," she told them. "But his direction sense can always cause Ryoga-kun problems, even now. And it is possible Blood-san may try to hide his expedition from Ryoga-kun."
"Still, it's a better chance than we normally have," Robin assured her. "And chances are, Blood would take his best team, the one Jinx leads and she would tip off Ryoga if only to tell him goodbye." The Titan leader paused. "You said there was something personal?
"Yes," Kasumi replied, glancing at Ranma and Nabiki, unable to meet the latter's inquiring gaze. "I fear that Ranma's fiancée problems are back in force. Ukyo Kuonji demanded a meeting with Auntie Saotome. I attended as the Tendo representative and Matriarch Cologne was there as well." She looked over at Robin "I wanted to gain an advantage, so I used the Titan Wayne Corp credit card to book a room to hold the meeting. I hope I have not overstepped my bounds?"
"No that's fine Kasumi," Robin reassured her. "But what happened?"
"Kuonji-san came prepared with two arguments on why she was Ranma's only legitimate fiancée. In both, Shampoo's claim was dismissed since she is not Japanese. The first line of reasoning came from Kuonji-san's father. Nabiki forfeited the duel when she used magic to defeat Kuonji-san. Auntie Saotome demolished this when it was pointed out that magic was not prohibited. In fact, the only participant who violated the terms of the duel was Kuonji-san, when she tried to use lethal force. I may have played some small part in pointing that out."
"I bet you did," Tara murmured.
"The second argument was more troubling and was thought of by Kuonji-san herself. She stated that there was no Tendo claim, since by agreeing to the engagement and accepting the Kuonji cart as dowry, Uncle Genma canceled the Tendo agreement. Auntie found this very troubling and when Cologne-sama mentioned the Amazon training she has given Ranma was a more valuable dowry, Auntie said she could not settle the competing honor claims."
"So Shampoo is back in this as well," Nabiki ground out.
"Yes, I fear so. Auntie is going back to Japan to lay this problem before a holy man. I will be returning to Japan as the Tendo representative." Kasumi finally met her sister's eyes. "I am so sorry for my failure, sister."
"It's not your fault, Kasumi," Nabiki growled as the apartment began to shake. Ranma bumped his fiancée's shoulder.
"Stay frosty Nabs, this ain't Tara's fault neither." The pale girl nodded and brought herself under control.
"Then I guess our first mission to talk to Nodoka Saotome and find out what the hell she's playing at," Nabiki said. "I thought she was good with Ranma's current life."
"I think she is," Kasumi said. "It is just, well, she so traditional."
"We'll see," Nabiki said. "Come on Ranma."
"Hey wait, what about Tara!?" Beast Boy protested. Tara grabbed one flailing arm.
"It's fine, Garfield," the blonde reassured him. "It really is fine. This is important to Nabs and Ranma and I'm in good shape. We can start working on controlling my new power and when Nabiki gets back we can go into high gear."
"And practice your Ki exercises," Ranma cautioned. "It was your strong Ki that kept you alive. I'll pass along some scrolls I have. I think you're ready."
"You see?" Tara said "I'll be back on the team in no time."
"It would be great if you were," Robin observed. "But don't push yourself or put yourself in danger. Take as long as you need, Tara, but do it safe." The blonde saluted.
"Let's get going Saotome, I want to set things straight with your mother."
Nabiki fumed as she waited outside Nodoka's small apartment while Ranma spent all of his energy looking nervous. The middle Tendo was about to knock again, when the door opened, revealing a miserable Nodoka Saotome. The older woman took one look at Nabiki's expression and threw herself into younger woman's arms. Nodoka wasn't weeping but her voice was a strangled whisper.
"Nabiki-chan, I'm so, so sorry," she got out. "I thought it would be easy to put paid to the Kuonji's girl's claims and safeguard you and my son. Instead I was out maneuvered by a girl half my age and when the Matriarch reasserted Shampoo's claim, I panicked" Nabiki's expression softened.
"So you were trying to help Ranma, and got twisted around by Genma's stupidity and Cologne's cleverness." Nabiki patted her back. "Better women than you and I have been tripped up by both of them."
"Aw, don't feel bad Mama," Ranma implored, washing her hands in worry. "This fiancée thing has a life of its own, like a curse. It always messes stuff up."
"I hadn't realized my husband had actually accepted a dowry from the Kuonji clan. It gives Ukyo a real claim, although I think her staking her claim against yours, Nabiki-chan, and losing will still cancel it. No, the real problem is the renewed Amazon claim."
"I wonder why Cologne changed her mind about Shampoo and Ranma marrying," Nabiki mused. "I thought we had all agreed on some face-saving plan that would get Shampoo off the hook, but leave Ranma free."
"I can't say for sure," Nodoka replied, regaining her calm demeanor. "It could be that she discovered that formulating such a plan would be far more difficult than she thought. It could also be that she was greatly irritated by the Kuonjis' casual dismissal of Shampoo as 'merely Chinese'."
"Yeah, I could see either or even both being true," Ranma said. "The Old Ghoul is really proud of the whole 3000 years of Amazon history thing."
"So, Kuonji's last string for her bow is the dowry and Cologne is claiming the Amazon training she's given Ranma as a dowry of equal or greater value," Nabiki recapped. "Huh. Maybe things aren't as bad as I thought, I have an angle on the whole dowry thing, but a lot depends on the priest. Watanabe of Sword Hill?"
"Yes, he is famed for his wisdom, but he is also a martial artist of considerable note and understands the demands of honor," Nodoka said. "I have written him explaining the situation and asked for a mediation. If he accepts, we three must go to Japan and present our case. No doubt Kasumi-chan will want to go as well."
"So we have time, that's actually good," Nabiki said. "Tara has a major problem with her powers coming back weird and Ranma and I could use some time helping her out."
"Oh my," Nodoka said. "That sounds dreadful. Why don't you two come in and you can tell me all about it over some red bean cakes and tea."
"You had me at red bean cakes," Ranma joked.
Tara's expression was serene as she floated in a nimbus of black energy. Her eyes opened slowly and she smiled at her fellow Titans, all of whom were in various states of nervous anticipation. "Okay, Rae, I'm ready."
"You're sure?" Raven asked but looked at Robin.
"It's only been two weeks, Tara," Robin said.
"BB thinks I've made progress and that it would be helpful to see where I stand," Tara replied. "I've been working with Ty to increase and control my Ki, so even if I go rocky, I'll be good for at least ten minutes, probably more. Let's do this." Robin studied the blonde before nodding at Raven. The nimbus around Tara faded and for the first time in 15 days, Tara Markov stood on terra firma.
For a split second, nothing happened and Starfire and Kasumi gasped. Then a flash of yellow energy bloomed at Tara's feet and two rings of yellow energy sped up her legs, leaving stone in their wake. The blonde did not panic as she concentrated fiercely, as the rings slowed and then slowed again as they reached her trunk. As the two rings joined at her waist, the single ring stopped, wavering up and down for several seconds. With a loud exhalation, Tara sagged and the energy ring resumed rising rapidly and in short order a stone statue stood where the girl had. Raven stepped forward, hands already glowing when Beast Boy put out an arm.
"Wait Rae, Tara isn't in any danger and I need to see something," the green Titan said with uncharacteristic seriousness. The Titans waited and were rewarded with a glimmer of yellow energy manifesting at the crown of Tara's head. Stone softened into blonde hair before returning to its stony state. Beast Boy sighed but did not look displeased. "Okay, Rae, pick her up."
As Tara's form floated upwards, she resumed her human seeming. Shaking her head, she looked to her boyfriend/teacher. "I couldn't do it," she said simply.
"I didn't expect you to," Beast Boy replied. "You did do a lot better than I hoped."
"More progress than I made early on," Typhoon confessed. "You controlled your powers before, you know you can do it again."
The first one to reach Tara for a hug was Kasumi, but the rest of the Titans joined in for a group embrace. Raven broke away when her communicator began chiming and as the rest the team congratulated Tara, Raven's expression showed a myriad of emotions. When the hug broke up, she looked at her fiancé. "That was your mother, Typhoon. The meeting with the holy man is in a week."
Despite all of Nabiki's planning, powers and resources, the four travelers were still exhausted by the time they reached the Tendo dojo after a grueling 12 hour flight. Even so, Kasumi insisted that she would prepare a small meal to help with jet lag. To everyone's surprise, an appealing aroma was wafting from the Tendo homestead.
"Did they order take-out?" Ranma asked before turning to his fiancée . "Or can your dad cook? Mine sure can't except for some camp cooking."
"Daddy? No way, he's worse than Akane," Nabiki replied, looking over at Kasumi. The older girl grimaced but gave a slight nod. "I did send them our flight times, so they knew when we would be arriving." Catching Nodoka's frown, she continued. "Don't worry Auntie, I specifically told Daddy not to meet us at the airport. I hired the car service to speed things up here in Tokyo."
"Well, instead of guessing, why don't we go in and find out?" Ranma said. Suiting actions to words, he walked up to the front door and slid it open. "Hello, we're here!"
"Ranma!" came Akane's cry from the kitchen. "Is everyone here?" The youngest Tendo exited the kitchen, holding a stirring spoon. "You are! Sit down, you must be tired after such a long flight." The black-haired girl laughed as Ranma licked his lips. "Or would you rather eat? Dinner is ready and just staying warm on the stove."
"Did you cook, Akane?" Ranma asked incredulously. "Oh man, if it tastes half as good as it smells it'll be great."
"I think we should wash up before eating," Nodoka said and the other three travelers nodded.
"That's fine," Akane agreed. "It'll give Uncle Genma a chance to make the rice. He's has to cook it outside over a fire, but he makes really good rice and I still haven't gotten the knack." She went back into the kitchen calling for Genma. The travelers made for the washroom but were intercepted by Soun Tendo, whose tears at seeing his daughters almost obviated the need to wash.
Despite the Tendo patriarch's antics, in short order the Tendos and Saotomes were sitting down around the low dining table as Akane bustled in with various side dishes ending with the main dish, a rich beef curry. After everyone was served, Ranma dug in, his eyes popping in disbelief. "This is fantastic!" Turning to his ex-fiancé he asked in mock seriousness, "All right, who are you and what did you do with Akane Tendo?"
"Ranma!" chided Kasumi. "But he is right, this is excellent curry."
"Okay, spill sis, when did you learn to cook?" demanded Nabiki. Akane tried to hide a pleased smile.
"It's mostly due to Starfire-sempai" she explained. "She got me to see my temper had become dangerous, so I started trying to control myself. Did you know there's a councilor at Furinken? Almost nobody knows about her, but I stumbled across her office and Tomiko-sensei has been really helping me."
"And that explains the cooking how?" Nabiki asked.
"Well, I'd get frustrated and make stupid mistakes," Akane explained. "That made me angry, so I'd get impatient and make more mistakes and get more frustrated and so on. I got better as I got calmer, but the real break through was when the Home Ec class made curry. It just clicked."
"Well, this is delicious Akane," Nodoka said approvingly.
"Thank you Auntie. So speaking of impossible successes, Kasumi wrote me that you finally got a cure Ranma?" Both fathers peered intently at the boy.
"Well, not really cured, but I learned to control the curse with Nabiki and Beast Boy's help," Ranma replied. He switched to girl and continued. "Water doesn't bother me anymore and I can switch at will."
"Boy! You have a cure and you didn't tell your father!? Have you no honor?" Genma bellowed. Ranma sighed.
"I'll tell you the same thing I told Shampoo, it ain't no good to you Pops. Just to start, you have to accept the curse, I mean completely accept it. I had to come to terms with not just looking like a girl, but being a girl."
"You can see, Saotome-san, that for any animal based curse, the cure is worse than the disease," Nabiki broke in. "You would have to become an animal, a panda, in mind and body." Genma looked crestfallen.
"You're a real girl, Ranma?" Akane asked. "Isn't that kind of perverse?"
"Only humans think so Akane," Ranma said. "The rest of galaxy thinks dual-genders are really advanced spiritually. Starfire was going on and on about it."
"Starfire-sempai thinks it's all right?" Akane wondered. "Well, I guess it isn't too bad."
"So, now that you're cured, when is the wedding?" Soun asked heartily. "The Schools must be united!"
"Well, that brings us to why we came back to Japan," Nabiki snapped. "Thanks to Genma's questionable decisions, Ranma is still engaged to three girls. And the matter has passed out of our control. A neutral arbiter will decide the correct honorable course. I explained all this in the letter."
"But the Schools must be joined!" wailed Soun.
"Let's just enjoy this delicious meal without any worries, Soun-kun," recommended Nodoka. "Time enough after to discuss matters."
The rest of the meal passed in silence.
The silence from the homecoming meal continued for the rest of the week. Nabiki was furious with Genma and irritated by her father's inability to grasp the situation. Kasumi nursed her nerves and Nodoka was still blaming herself for fumbling the meeting with Ukyo and Cologne. So it was that the quiet group arrived in front of the Sword Hill Shrine fifteen minutes before the appointed time.
They were met by a dignified shrine maiden and guided to the room where the meeting would take place. The first unpleasant surprise was unveiled as they entered the austere meditation chamber. The Amazons, Ukyo and her father Ishino were expected. The Kuno siblings were not. Ranma was the first to find his voice.
"What the hell are you two doing here?" he demanded before turning to the bemused priest who had just entered as the shrine maiden withdrew. "Why did you let these nutcases in?
"Oh Ranma-darling, I am here to claim my rightful place at your side as your wedded wife!" Kodachi trilled. "Send away these foul harridans and let us be wed this very hour!"
"My twisted sister may believe what she wishes," Tatewaki declaimed. "But I am here to save my Fierce Tigress from your vile clutches. Prepare yourself sorcerer." Ranma groaned and rubbed the bridge of his nose.
"Look, Kuno, I've been engaged to Nabiki for months now. I haven't even been in Japan. Akane is her own woman, I have no claim on her," Ranma ground out. He turned to Akane. "Sorry about that, Akane, I don't mean nothing by that."
"No it's fine Ranma," Akane assured him. "I moved on a while ago. I'm glad you have too."
"Liar!" Tatewaki shouted, leveling his practice sword at Ranma, ignoring Akane's words as usual. "This is your underhanded scheme to put aside the grasping mercenary and claim the fair Akane. I will not allow it! Have at you, cur! Strike! Strike! Strike!"
The elder Kuno was a blur of motion, showing great skill as he attacked in the confines of the room. As expected, Kodachi latched onto a different part of Ranma's statement. "Ohohohoho, so this low born, unskilled wench seeks my Ranma-darling? I will show her the error of coveting what is the Black Rose's!"
"Good luck with that," Ukyo muttered.
Ranma immediately discovered a difficulty in his fight with Tatewaki. His time with the Titans had increased his strength and especially speed to the point where he had to be careful when fighting a normal human. Tatewaki was skilled enough that Ranma couldn't afford to take it too easy on the older boy, but too much could injure him or worse. Nabiki had no such impediments as she took control of Kodachi's ribbon and trussed her up like a Christmas turkey, maintaining her energy to reinforce the ribbon. The Black Rose was reduced to verbal attacks, something she employed at the top of her lungs.
"What in the name of the Nine Hells is going on here!?" came a shout from behind the group. After a short pause, the man continued, "Stop this at once my children." Ranma felt his fighting spirit diminish and Tatewaki slumped to the floor. Nabiki's energy field vanished, but Kodachi became docile. All turned to the bald older man in priest's robes.
"Who the heck are you old man?" Ranma demanded, taking a defensive stance. The old priest's eyebrows rose a notch.
"You can still fight even under a Tranquility Sutra? Impressive. To answer your question, young master, I am Watanabe of Sword Hill."
"Don't be alarmed young master," the old priest said, chuckling. "I take no offense, but I would like to know why a fight broke out in this sacred shrine."
"These two arrived a few minutes before the petitioners you were expecting Holy One," the younger priest explained. "The boy maintained he was the rightful intended of Akane Tendo while the girl said the same of Ranma Saotome. I knew the group seeking your wisdom included both family names, so I bid them enter. I had no idea they would resort to violence."
"The lad's practice sword might have been a clue," Watanabe said drily. "So why don't you introduce yourselves and let's clear up this mess." He paused, "This first mess." Names were exchanged and then the old priest turned to the Kuno siblings who still lay propped up against a bench, all energy drained.
"So, we will begin with the eldest. What claim do you have on Akane Tendo that you'd attack another man in a shrine?"
"My Fierce Tigress has captured my heart and we have exchanged words of love many times in our sparring," Tatewaki explained, ignoring Akane's outraged snort. "I only seek to free her from the snares of the dishonorable sorcerer, Saotome. I apologize for disturbing your harmony, but my quest has been ordained by Heaven itself."
"Akane-san, is this true?"
"Humph, no of course not," Akane replied, brown eyes snapping with outrage. "Kuno has been stalking me since I entered high school. He told the entire school that to date me, a boy would have to defeat me in combat. Within days I was fighting off dozens of 'suitors' followed up by Kuno." The priest looked to the rest of the group.
"Both are telling the truth, at least as they know it," Watanabe told them. "Is there any proof?"
"I have video of Kuno-baby's speech and several of the fights, including footage of Kuno attacking Akane after she fought off the other boys. He was always armed with his stick," Nabiki said, shaking off some of her lassitude.
"And the sorcerer?" Watanabe asked. Akane snorted.
"Kuno has a very high opinion of himself. Any boy who could defeat him must using dark magic and Ranma has beaten him plenty of times," Akane said, ignoring Tatewaki's cry of protest.
"Just like any girl who resisted his, and I use the word loosely, charms, must be enchanted," Nabiki finished.
"I see. I have heard of the infamous Tatewaki Kuno, but it's good you have proof." Watanabe directed his attention to the junior priest. "Take him to one of the small rooms and see that a counselor speaks with him." The priest left to get help moving Tatewaki. "And what's your story young lady?"
"I do not have to answer to any peasant," Kodachi sniffed. "Ranma is my lover and I will see him free from all these clinging wenches and in my arms as it should be." Watanabe looked at Ranma, who sighed."
"I saved her from a nasty fall before I knew who she was." Ranma explained. "It was love at first sight for her I guess." He stood before Kodachi. "Look Kodachi, I ain't interested in you, never have been, never will be. And you know the red-haired harridan you're always attacking? She's me, okay."
"Those wicked girls are making you say that, I know you love me," Kodachi pleaded. "And I don't believe that nonsense about you being a girl."
"Even seeing ain't believing, but here we go." Ranma morphed, her clothes altering to fit her smaller frame.
"S- some kind of trick," Kodachi protested. Ranma knelt down and whispered something in her ear. The girl stiffened in shock and then began to cry. "But only Ranma-darling and I know what happened th- then." She began weeping in earnest. Watanabe sighed. Stepping to the door, he called out and two more junior priests arrived.
"Please take Kuno-san to a meditation chamber and have Reiko speak with her, she has just suffered a grave disappointment." As the priest bustled out, Watanabe turned to the assembled group. "Now, please tell me the full story as you know it, one at a time."
Over the next two hours, the whole sordid tale was laid out, starting with the seppuku contract and the training journey up to the Tendo engagement being transferred to Nabiki and her duel with Ukyo. There were many contradictions and several times Genma was corrected by the rest of the group. Finally the tale was done.
"Quite an amazing story," Watanabe finally remarked. "Your encounter with the Kuno siblings is just a quiet day at the office, eh Ranma-kun?" The boy nodded. "Before I go on, I will ask, do all here accept my judgment?" He gazed at the five adults. "I will give my rede on the situation, but all must accept or the conflict will continue." One by one, Nodoka, Cologne, Ishino Kuonji and Soun nodded. Genma scowled and muttered, but finally nodded assent.
"As I see it, the question in play is the matter of the dowries," the old priest began. "Genma has dishonorably promised his son to two different families, while Ranma seems to have run afoul of some unique marriage laws in China. He cannot honor all three pledges. However, Genma did accept a dowry from the Kuonjis and I must agree that the training Cologne-sama has supplied is certainly a valuable dowry as well. Only the Tendos have offered but not proffered a dowry." Ukyo and Shampoo brightened considerably. The reactions of Soun and Genma were less positive.
"No!" Soun cried. "It was a sacred pledge! The Schools must be joined!"
"I knew you couldn't trust a priest," Genma growled. "Come on boy, the Saotome Special Technique."
"Husband!" Nodoka shouted. "Is your sworn word meaningless? Such a dishonorable act could only be atoned for in blood!"
"Father, you promised," Kasumi reminded her father. Both men subsided as Nabiki arose with a smirk.
"I think you will find Watanabe-sama, that the Tendos have supplied a dowry of great worth already. This in addition to the dojo, I might add." She had the room's full attention. "I have given Ranma-kun a unique gift, control over his Jusenkyo Curse. Cures are extremely rare, but turning the Curse into a controlled ability? That is unique, is it not Elder?"
Cologne scowled at the pale girl, but nodded. "Honesty compels me to admit I have never heard of such a thing in all of Amazon history."
"If the Amazons' training suffices for a dowry, then I would think something unique in the annals of Jusenkyo would at least carry equal weight," Nabiki purred.
"So it would, if freely given," Watanabe replied. "A demon's gifts, even a half-demon, frequently have some strings attached."
"Hey, Nabs didn't charge me nothing, old man!" Ranma exclaimed. Nabiki's grin widened. The priest studied Ranma for a long moment before nodding.
"Very well. That simplifies-," Watanabe stopped. "Well, not simplifies, but does make this case at least solvable. Ukyo Kuonji, your claim was as strong as the other two families." Nodoka drew in a breath through her teeth. "But the wager you and father made against the Tendo claim was valid and you lost." Ukyo made a quiet noise full of despair.
"Now wait a minute!" yelled Ishino, jumping to his feet. "There is no way that duel was fair! And what about my vendor cart?" The rough featured man subsided at the cold stare from the priest.
"Fair? You agreed to that duel thinking your daughter would pummel a defenseless girl and gain an easy win. I am certain if the Tendos were complaining about the results of the duel as you assumed it would be fought and demanding it be set aside as unfair, you would be outraged." The younger man would not meet the priest's eyes. "The only participant who violated the terms of the duel was your daughter, when she used lethal force. Ranma-kun should have stopped the fight right there and ruled your daughter forfeited."
"I figured it needed to be a clean win, otherwise the loser would come back with some excuse," Ranma muttered. "Didn't know it didn't matter, but I should of."
"Kuonji-san, my official ruling by the tenets of Bushido is that your daughter, with your permission, staked her claim of marriage and lost to the Tendo champion. This annuls the claim." Genma and Soun jumped to their feet to celebrate but were halted by Watanabe's next sentence. "However, the Kuonjis still have claims on the Saotome family."
"Genma-san, it is clear to me that you took the Kuonji food cart as a dowry without the slightest intention of honoring the marriage pact you entered into. You owe Kuonji-san compensation for the cart. Likewise, Ranma-kun abused Ukyo-san's trust by scamming free food based on his fiancé status, a status he never intended to honor."
While Genma gabbled incoherent protests, Ranma thought about it for a moment and then nodded. "Yeah, that's probably fair. I'm sorry U-chan, I think with my stomach too much and I do things I ain't proud of. What can I do to make it up to you?"
"Marry me," came the instant response. Ranma sighed.
"You don't get it, do you Kuonji?" Nabiki interjected, shaking her head. "Ranma literally can't choose you, he hasn't had the right to choose his wife since before birth." She looked at Genma and Nodoka. "At least if he wants to stay a Saotome. This is being decided for him, without his consent or input, first by his father, then his mother and now this priest."
"I'm afraid that's essentially correct," Watanabe agreed. Genma harrumphed.
"It's for the boy's own good."
"You're free, you silly girl," Nabiki continued. "Free of all this insanity. Take some compensation, find someone you can marry and live your life. Ranma doesn't have that option and neither do I. Treasure it." Ukyo stared at the pale girl for a long minute and then turned to Ranma.
"Did you ever want to marry me?: she asked quietly. Ranma rubbed the back of his neck.
"Heck, U-chan, I didn't want to marry anybody. I was sixteen for god's sake, I mean I'd never even been on date." He met her eyes. "But I do know this. I never wanted anybody hurt That worked out well." Ukyo bowed her head.
"It's okay Ran-chan," she said, with eyes clear of hate if not sorrow. "I guess I want two things. Stay my friend okay?" Ranma nodded with a big smile. "And second, take care of him, will you Nabiki-chan?"
"For as long as I can," the middle Tendo promised.
"Come on Pop," the younger Kuonji ordered. "You can work out a nice big bill for Ran-chan's fat bastard father and dream about sticking it to the lousy panda. And maybe not be so quick to try to marry me to passing martial artists. Okay?" She bowed to Watanabe, hugged Ranma and dragged her father out.
"So, it is just the Tendos and the Amazons," Cologne remarked.
"Yes it is, Cologne-san. However, we both know your great granddaughter's claim is sketchy at best. Also I believe there are complicating factors?"
"Saotome is a true woman as well as a man," Mousse said, with great satisfaction. "With her skills and the backing of the half-demon, Saotome could be on the Council in a decade and Matriarch in two. Things don't look so good for the old biddies af- OW!"
"Show some respect Part-Timer," Cologne ordered. "But the boy is not wrong. The Council holds that Ranma is Shampoo's husband, but the boy is not amenable. Moreover, even if he did come, Mr. Part Time is right, Ranma could destroy a culture that has served us well for three millennia."
"And Shampoo herself is in grave peril if she does not return with Ranma-kun?" Watanabe asked as if he knew the answer. Cologne nodded.
"And it's not as if just the three of us can force Ranma to China," the old woman admitted. "Son-in-law has grown strong and Nabiki-chan would be a fearful opponent."
"It is clear to me that by the tenets of Bushido, the Tendo claim is the strongest," Watanabe said after a long moment. The two fathers began dancing about. "However, I would say that Ranma-kun owes an obligation to Shampoo and your family, Cologne-san."
"I wouldn't want anything bad to happen to Shamps," Ranma said as Nabiki snorted, "It ain't really her fault and you're right old man, the Old Ghoul played a big part in my training. OW!"
"Then show some respect for your teacher, Son-in-law," Cologne said. She peered at Watanabe. "Or should that be Sonny Boy?"
"Probably," the old priest said with a smile. "Ranma-kun must wed a Tendo to remain honorable, but he must wed Shampoo to save her. Or does he?"
"What do mean you old fossil? OW!" Mousse demanded. Watanabe handed Cologne her staff back.
"What I mean is what your Council wants is Ranma's blood, not Ranma, I think."
"You mean to have Shampoo fight Ranma?" Cologne asked skeptically. "She couldn't defeat him on her best day now. Once, perhaps, but not anymore."
"Not at all, Cologne-san. What I propose is that Shampoo bear Ranma-kun's child and return with his bloodline. I think that would satisfy everyone, including Shampoo."
"WHAT!?" Mousse, Genma, Soun and Ranma bellowed. Cologne was a blur and Mousse, Genma and Soun collapsed unconscious.
"That is not a bad thought priest," Cologne allowed. "But is Sonny Boy willing and able? I know Shampoo will have no objections." The Amazon girl smiled.
"Shampoo think Ranma and she have good time making baby. Horse at least learn to whisper, neh, Airen?"
"Oh, the pervert would love that," Akane sniffed. "Ow!" Nabiki floated Cologne's staff back to her.
"That's the old insecurity talking, little sister," Nabiki said. "You know Ranma's faithful. He was faithful to you and now he's faithful to me."
"Nabiki, I- I couldn't, I-" Ranma protested.
"Shhhh, it's okay Ranma-kun," Nabiki soothed. "I'm not happy with it but I can easily live with it. You're not betraying me, I give my blessing. I may not like Shampoo, but I have come to respect her a bit and I wouldn't want to see her suffer from her village's ridiculous laws." She smirked at Shampoo. "Besides, with Amazon alchemy, I'm sure you'll only have to do the deed once, am I right, Elder?"
"I think this is an excellent solution as well," Nodoka said. "We came to an agreement that if Shampoo dropped her claim on my son, we would find some way to save her. Honor demands this, my son, not forbids it.
"Then it is settled," Watanabe intoned. "Not as hard as I feared."
"One thing," Ranma said. "Ain't no way I- I'm going to have a kid and not be part of his life. You tell him about me and I'll visit when I can. I ain't Pop."
"You would be most welcome in the village, Ranma," Cologne assured him. "We would even tolerate your wife."
"Shampoo happy see father of child," Shampoo said. "Maybe even make friend with Demon Girl. We have Airen in common, neh?"
"Just don't get it in your head that you're going to be Ranma's first," Nabiki purred. She floated up to the Amazon girl and whispered in her ear, "I'm not sure I can even have children. So we'll take good care of you."
"There is no particular rush now," Cologne said. "We can set up a tryst in Jump City. I think Sonny Boy will be more comfortable there anyway." Ranma shrugged and nodded.
"Thank you for your wisdom Holy One," Nodoka said with a deep bow. We will make a gift to the shrine in gratitude. Daughter, if you could levitate the fallen, we will take our leave."
"If you don't mind, I would like a word with Ranma-kun alone," Watanabe said, returning Nodoka's bow. As the assembled left the chamber, the old priest beckoned Ranma over. "I'll be honest Ranma-kun, I don't like to speak ill of anyone, but young Nabiki is dangerous. Doom follows her."
"She's saved my life and I've saved hers," Ranma said a little hotly. "I know she has a dark side but so do I, so do most people. She does good in spite of who her father is, just like me." The old priest smiled sadly.
"She is a half-demon, but she seems to have that under control. No, it is the doom I see on her. Ask her about it, help her Ranma-kun. She may try to handle it herself, but my feeling is that she will need you."
"Heck, as if she could ditch me, old man," Ranma laughed. "I'll be there for her."
"Then go in the light, warrior. I feel better already."
The autumn breeze was heartening to Kasumi as she struggled with packing and a bit of homesickness. She loved Jump City, but Nerima was her home and she missed the seasons. Such thoughts were occupying her mind when there was a knock at her door. Her closet door. With a gasp she hurried over and flung the door open. "Ryoga-kun, are you all right?"
"I'm okay, I guess," he said, a frantic look on his face. "But you have to get the Titans, Kasumi-san. Blood's making his move and he took Jinx with him."
AUTHORS NOTE: A long wait, I know. It has been 17 months since Chapter 12, but it has been even longer for me. I have been staring at Chapter 13 for two years. What got me unstuck? I'm not sure, it could have been my stopping watching Teen Titan Go! which allowed me to rediscover the voices of the Titans. I do know what got me writing again. I was rereading the first couple of pages of Chapter 13 and came up Tara's new hero name. Boom, just like that I wrote 15 pages in three weeks. Weird, I know. Hopefully it won't take me two years for Chapter 14