The heat of the tiles was comforting to Ranma. It was something real, something solid. The heat burned through his thin clothes, scorched his skin, hurt him in a reassuringly realistic way. There was no ghost pain about the tile's heat, no creeping sensation of fur and blood, no tangy taste left in his mouth, no imagined grating of bone and puncturing of flesh. This was the real world, this was beyond the dream, beyond the vividness of his sleeping mind.
This wasn't the first time that he'd ever had the Dream. They often came to him, stealing past what mental defenses he had, to disturb his sleep and disorient him when he awoke. The subject varied often; though a majority were of his death, there were times when they were of hunting, or fighting. Sometimes--and these were the most disturbing--they were even about making love to his dream form's mate, and loving every second of it. Those types of the Dream were often very vivid, and Ranma would awake, panting and aching, clothes and sheets stained with his semen. He usually burned the cloth after such dreams, too ashamed to suffer them to be washed.
Yet, no matter how much they varied in subject, the players were inevitably the same. He was always a man-beast, surrounded by monsters just like him, mated to another male, whom his dream persona loved with all his being. There were normal people in the dream too--or as normal as they could be, dressed in clothing of a time long past, if it ever had existed to begin with. They looked almost feudal in appearance, with armor and war and death all around them. He rarely understood the Dream. He just lived it.
Lately, though, the nights where he was held in thrall to the Dream had been increasing. Particularly the ones of the end. He had had them every night for the past week, each time growing more and more detailed, more and more frightening. The pain he felt in them became more real, and he half expected to see the bloody wounds that decorated his body in the Dream, half expected to be able to shift from man to dog to something in between.
Last night had been the clearest he could ever remember, and even now, hours after he awoke right after dying, he could still remember every aspect, every detail. He could remember the way Chame looked as he called down the Dark--whatever that was--upon the keep, could still see the six year old's vacant eyes and puppet like posture. He could still feel the loss of his mate, still feel the bones sliding and then snapping as he killed the mad magi, feel his ribs break and splinter, puncturing the flesh within until it bled as much as the flesh without.
He shuddered and closed his eyes, turned his face toward the sun. Its rays helped chase the nightmare's lingering effects away, helped restore his calm, his focus, returned him to the present. He forced himself to listen to the noises that came from the yard below. It was better than thinking about...well, whatever exactly was wrong with him.
Strange how such disharmony could bring peace. The mixture of Akane's frenzied clattering in the kitchen, Kasumi's barely audible humming, the click of keys as Nabiki worked on her computer--even the noise of his father and Soun playing Go--were all so very soothing to his ears. There was nothing in them that could remind him of his dream, nothing that struck a frightening resonance within his soul--save for the toxic sludge that Akane kept trying to pass off as food. These were the sounds of reality, not some delusion created by his restless mind.
He rolled over, felt the bite of the tiles against his stomach, wondered vaguely over where his...friends were today. Ranma seldom had the chance to have a moment of peace that lasted this long; the chance for quiet contemplation was so rare as to be called non-existent. In a way, it was almost like it had been when he had first moved to Nerima, before his rivals, before his fiancees, before the ghoul and the old pervert and the chaos that ruled over him now. It brought back to mind the old days, those days when it had just been him and his father against the world, where his life revolved solely around the Art and even the Dreams hadn't come more than once or twice a year. Life was better then, in its own way; more simplistic. There had only been the goal of being the best to concentrate on, only the pressure of his father to contend with. Now...now there was too much; there were fiancees and curses, enemies that he didn't even know, challenges that he couldn't turn down, sensations he couldn't explore, pressure from every side that kept him from the Art, from his one love. The only love that he had ever had.
His life was too complicated now, seemingly filled with action every second of every minute; he had no life, now, nothing that could be called his own. Everything he was belonged to someone else, everything that he did was dictated by someone else. He was a puppet, a marionette whose strings were fouled by those that fought to control him.
"Get back here, you jerk!"
Ranma's head popped up and he slid down to the edge of the roof, peering over the edge and searching for the source of the shout. To hear someone else be addressed so was...surprising to say the least.
"No way. Get away from me, you psycho." A dark shadow bounded over the wall that surrounded the Tendo dojo, features blocked by the glare from the sun. Ranma watched with vague amusement as the stranger's head whipped back and forth in search of something.
"Oh Umoreru!" The stranger stiffened at the sing-song voice, shadowy form trembling slightly.
"Kuso." The stranger focused in on the dojo, eyed the dark gap between the earth and the floor.
"Umoreru, I'm coming for you!" Another form appeared, female this time, perched atop the wall with a predatory playfulness. "Umo-chan, why don't you just stay still?"
"And let you get your claws on me? No way!" The first shadow--the beleaguered Umoreru, Ranma supposed--jumped up into a nearby tree as the second shadow pounced. "You're never going to catch me, Shinobu."
Umoreru leapt from his lofty perch, hit the dew slick ground at a run. He pounded toward the dojo, looking as though he were going to run straight through it. Ranma tensed slightly, prepared to leap down and stop the stranger from wrecking more damage upon the oft-patched house. Fingers tingling from the heat of the roof, Ranma watched as Umoreru continued his breakneck charge.
'He's crazy. Absolutely bonkers. How does he hope to avoid that girl by charging into the house?'
Closer and closer Umoreru came, eyes intently focused on the wooden home, feet leaving a trail in the slick grass. Then, suddenly, he dove forward, stomach landing on the wet lawn, momentum sending him sliding forward, until, snake like, he disappeared into the gap between earth and home. Ranma gaped down at the spot where the boy had disappeared, wondering at what he had just witnessed.
'No. He couldn't have. There isn't enough room under there for someone his size! Man, wish I knew how he got under there so quickly. Be a nice way to escape from Akane and the others...'
"Oh Saisai, why do you always have to pull something like that?" The girl--Shinobu--sighed and stalked forward, shaking her head in disappointment. "It never works, you know. No matter how many times you try to burrow under the earth, you never escape me." Bending down, Shinobu reached into the gap, tongue tucked into the corner of her mouth as she groped in the darkness. "I always find you, Umoreru. Ah ha! Gotcha."
Pulling hard, Shinobu began to back away, one hand clutched around Umoreru's ankle. The boy--he couldn't have been much older than eighteen--scrabbled at the ground, clutching fingers leaving deep furrows in the ground. "No! Let me go! Stop it, Shinobu!"
"Then stop running from me," Shinobu replied calmly. She released Umoreru's ankle, turning around to glare at him with her hands on her hips. "No Umo-chan, you are being a very bad kareshi. Why don't you want to be with me?"
"Ahh Shinobu, stop it. You're making a scene." Umoreru stood, dusted himself off and glared at the girl. His mane of chestnut hair fell into his eyes, ruining the effect somewhat, but the determined stance of his lean, tight form more than made up for the screen of hair that covered his blazing eyes. He seemed to be made up entirely of wiry muscle, all sharp lines and thin body. It couldn't be healthy to be so thin, muscles wiry and small. He was built for speed, for moving faster than the eye could follow and so quickly that momentum alone defeated his opponents strength. His thin hands brushed the dirt from his well worn jeans and faded blue t-shirt, moving at an almost spasmatic speed.
The girl, on the other hand, was beautiful. Stunning, even. She seemed to glow with an inner light, triangular face and wide, intelligent eyes giving her an almost ethereal quality. It probably didn't hurt any to see the way her loose skirt and shirt flowed about her body, swirling slightly with each movement in a captivating, tantalizing combination of white skin and teasing cloth. Still, it was the way that she moved that captured the attention most, the way that her lithe body seemed to flow across the ground, sending shivers up and down her observers spine. Even now, as she seemed to almost pour herself over Umoreru, she moved with such poised grace that it was almost otherworldly. She moved with a feline quality, the lazy, smooth, fluid movements that disguised the true power of her cat counterparts. The patient, stalking, swift, violent motions that left their prey unaware until it was too late. Ranma was afraid of her, suddenly, filled with a cold chill that sent shivers down his spine and turned the hot sunshine into a subzero freeze.
"Damn it, Umoreru, if you'd stop running away we wouldn't have scenes!" Shinobu stomped one foot daintily on the ground, frowning prettily before coyly draping herself over her boyfriend, tracing sensual patterns on the smooth cloth of his shirt. "I know you like me, Umo-chan. So why are you so scared of me?"
Umoreru grabbed her hands roughly, thrust her away. "Shinobu. Leave me alone. I'll bite you."
"Ooh, Umo-chan, you know I like it when you play rough." Shinobu grinned toothily as Umoreru suddenly blushed, face a flaming red.
"Tch. I can't take you two anywhere." A third shadow appeared on the wall, silhouetted against the bright blue sky. "Have you forgotten why we're here?"
This new stranger delicately hopped off of the wall and landed lightly in the garden. He was younger than the two--younger than any of the youths gathered in the courtyard--perhaps thirteen at the most. His body was lanky and unfinished, lacking in the smooth strength of his two older companions. But he carried himself with a maturity that shouldn't have been present in someone of his limited years. He had an air of command to him, a stony impenetrability that kept his young shoulders straight and his youthful back stiff. His still rounded face was impassive as he gazed upon his companions, bearing regal and refined. He seemed to embody conservation, from the perfectly trimmed spikes of black hair that adorned his head to the neatly tailored long sleeved shirt and pants. There was nothing wasted about him, every movement carefully calculated, every word and action considered before use. He held himself still and serene as his hard green eyes--an unusual hue to be found in Japan to say the least--gazed coolly on his two companions.
"Sorry, Enkaku," Shinobu said contritely, looking down. "We just wanted to have a little fun."
"Yeah, c'mon, lighten up, En-kun." Umoreru playfully hit his young companions shoulder, his camaraderie fading only slightly at the icy glare shot his way.
Enkaku turned from the older two, took in those who sat inside the house and Ranma who was still perched on the roof. Nodding briskly to himself, he stepped back and tilted his head up to peer at Ranma, shading his eyes from the reflected glare of the sun on the black tiles. "Saotome Ranma?"
"Hai." Ranma dropped down to the courtyard, warily eying the threesome. "What d'you want?"
"We have business with many people in Nerima--most of whom I have been told you know." Enkaku handed him a neatly penned letter. "Do you know how we may reach them?"
Ranma glanced down at the names listed on the sheet, brow furrowing as he read them. 'Hibiki Ryoga, Kuno Kodachi, Kuno Tatewaki, Kuonji Ukyo, Tendo Akane, Tendo Nabiki...Why is everyone I know on this list? If it were just of my rivals and love interests, it'd make sense. But Nabiki? Pops? Kasumi? What the hell is going on here?'
Ranma sighed. "Oh, if you just wait, I'm sure they'll turn up. They always do."
Enkaku frowned. "We can't afford to wait. Are you certain there is no way to reach them faster? We have a...gift to give them."
"A gift?" Ranma swallowed slightly, tensed himself for that strange phenomenon that occurred at even the slightest mention of a potential free ride. Already he could feel the tensing in the air, the tingling that signaled the soon-to-be appearance of the seven people currently absent from the house and its environs. "What sort of gift?"
"It is a rare gift, one that I can give but once, accepted only by the most worthy." Enkaku's tone was cryptic and mysterious, meant to impress the older boy. But all it did was warn Ranma to find some high ground before the stampede appeared. "It is a most precious gift, whose value is inestimable--"
'One.' Ranma grinned ruefully and started to edge away.
"--and one that only the bravest--"
'Two.' The ground began to tremble imperceptibly, faint tremors that heralded the imminent stampede.
'Three.' The air grew still in anticipation.
'Four.' Ranma could hear the pounding footsteps in the distance, their thundering pace growing ever louder.
"--and most worthy of all may appreciate fully."
'Five.' Ranma jumped, body a black silhouette in the sky as Ryoga, Mousse, Shampoo, Cologne and Ukyo suddenly appeared in the small courtyard in a mass of dust and limbs and demanding, insistent voices. Ranma landed gently some distance away, the slightest smirk on his face. It was really quite absurd the way the mention of free anything could get the attention of those who were connected to him, the way they would converge on the helpless victim, drown them under their demands. He almost felt sorry for Enkaku--but not sorry enough to help.
Whistling softly to himself, Ranma headed into the house to wait.
The three strangers were sporting more than a few bumps by the time the ruckus had died down and the assorted Nerimians had migrated into the house to join Ranma. The blue-eyed martial artist couldn't help but smile into his tea as he regarded the mixed expressions on his companion's faces. The disgruntled, slightly confused frowns on the three strangers struck him as strangely humorous, though there really shouldn't have been that much humor in the situation at all. After all, how often had the mass mobbing that had occurred to the three strangers happened to him? Surely he should have felt more than the small remorse that nibbled at his soul, more than just a vague irritation that held nothing of particular noteworthiness. But he couldn't feel sorry for the strangers; and that worried him. He had been in Nerima for too long.
He waited politely for Kasumi to finish serving the various guests and take her place at the table next to her family, before addressing the assembled mass.
"So. What business did you have with us?"
Enkaku rubbed the bump on his head, cleared his throat and took a sip of the strong oolong tea Kasumi had placed before him. "As I said I bring a gift from my ma--from my employer. It is a gift that I present to all of you."
Head inclining slightly, Enkaku reached into his pants pocket, pulled out something small and white that flashed briefly in the light. He whispered over the object in a voice so quiet that none of the words he spoke could be heard. Involuntarily the room grew quiet, as silent as a mausoleum, the silence of the dead. The air took on a dry, cold quality, the chill of air trapped beneath the earth, trapped for years and undisturbed by any being's breath; the lights dimmed, slowly fading to a pale, flickering shadow of its former self, a harsh, empty light of a day with no sun. Out of the corner of his eye, Ranma could see white shadows swirling about the room, ephemeral, misty shapes that couldn't be caught properly, couldn't be truly seen but were felt in the chill touch they laid upon his shoulders, in every ghostly breath that stirred his hair and caused his skin to prickle and tighten in fear. Barely heard were voices whispering words, spoken in a foreign tongue, a tongue that had never been uttered on Earth; they whispered in his ears with a dry, clicking sound like a thousand hungry spiders converging on a feast, and Ranma wanted to call out, to stop this strange, frightening proceeding. But his very bones were filled with a strange chill, his all too earthen flesh held captive by whatever spell the boy was weaving.
The whispering, clicking voices grew louder, invaded everything, brought on by the steadily growing voice of Enkaku. Ranma felt his breath come faster, felt his heart speed up as adrenaline flooded his system and send his pulse thrumming and strumming and hammering through his skin. Eyes wild, muscles trembling with the effort to keep in a soul that wished to flee, Ranma sat and watched, a helpless and unwilling observer. He watched the misty spirits spiral closer, drawn in by Enkaku's foreign commands, watched them swirl around the boy, be sucked down into the object held cupped in his hands, faster and faster and faster until they became a solid stream that poured into the boy's hands, a glowing white river that continued to flow until there was nothing left. And the white glow expanded from the youth's hands, surrounded his limbs and coated him in that gleaming whiteness, until the green of his eyes were gone, replaced by the bright crackle of the white energy, so he had no eyes and no window which the soul could peer through.
And from there the white energy spread, consumed the boy, until he was nothing but the vaguest shape of a man molded from a pure, white light, a light that kept moving, altering, as if fighting with itself until, with an anguished cry, Enkaku threw the object over which he had chanted into the air, away from himself and with it went the light. The small orb--a marble, really--hung for long moments, swirling the light around itself, gathering the light up until it had grown to the size of a volley ball, a pulsating sphere of pure energy. Then, with a suddenness that still managed to startle though it had been unconsciously expected, the white light dispersed, streamed through the air in short pulses, each streamer arrowing toward one of the people sitting at the table, gaining on a tinge of blue as it neared its target, hovering for one, brief moment, no more tangible than a mist before being breathed in with a soft "haaa".
And then the wisp of smoke approached him, played about his mouth, tickled his skin until he wanted to take it in, breathe in deeply the white mist if only to stop the sensation. But something deep within him stopped him, something that held more power over him than his own soul; something that was his soul, was his origin, was the one who forced the dreams upon him. That part of himself barred the smoke from entering his mouth, kept him from breathing deep this strange magic. This part of him that didn't want this invasion, didn't want this spirit mist to take him over. The thing that had slumbered all this while wanted to sleep still, wanted to leave the mortal world to the mortals and continue its restless suspension of life. And, frankly, Ranma was glad. There was a feeling that if he breathed in the mist, he would be gone and then there would be nothing left to him--he would be the slumberer in his own form, locked away in his own mind. And there were enough cages already that one more was to be avoided with all the strength possible.
Ranma watched as his friends, his family breathed in the white mist, watched as their bodies tightened, trembled, then relaxed, slumping forward; but they weren't their bodies anymore, they weren't the corporeal form of people who had been the closest things to friends that his closed and barred heart would allow. They were different, strangers taking on the shape of ones who had, for a time, been familiar. He watched, silent and unable to do anything but watch, as the light grew back, sound returned, the cold, dry, stale air was replaced by something different, something alive. He watched as his once-aquaintances stirred, blinked as though blinded, gazing about in confusion, slow comprehension dawning on their faces--those faces that were shaped the same as the ones he had lived with, but whose edges were shaped by a different personality, defined by a different thought.
The light returned, and with the light noise and movement and life. For one long moment all was silent, then that moment was broken, and all was chaos once more. But this was a different sort of chaos, this was a chaos of an older time, a chaos of renewal as enemies embraced and friends spurned each other. It was as though this convening of hostile rivals had turned instead to the reunion of old friends--perhaps even lovers from the intimate way certain members were touching each other. Ranma stared for a moment as Ukyo and Akane kissed, then turned away, face a brilliant red. He felt the outsider here, the unwanted guest who watches but does nothing, because to do something would only invite embarrassment on all parties involved. And so, he said nothing, did nothing, shrank back into the shadows that seemed to suddenly surround him, left the light and life for these born again souls.
However, what frightened him more was that the names they called each other were familiar to him. Dogou, Kigakiku, Jaken, Kigai--they were the names of his dream, and they shouldn't even be there. They shouldn't be part of his real life. Or was this a dream, a nightmare induced by some event in his life that he probably wouldn't even remember tomorrow, and sanity waited only a breath away?
But even as vain hope fluttered, he knew it was a lost cause. This was too real. This was to present.
"I can see...I can see! Ranmyaku! Where is my mate?"
The name of his dreamself stirred his attention, and he looked up to see Ryoga stand, gazing at that which was around him as if it was being seen for the first time--and for some reason knowing that Ryoga was different hurt more than anything else Ranma had seen today. The bandanad boy cast about, deep brown eyes suddenly alighting on Ranma's shadowed form. A broad, almost manic grin spread across his handsome face, over-large fangs bared suddenly before being hidden once more, and he slowly approached the still seated boy.
"Oh, Koibito. Even my wildest fantasies pale beside your true beauty."
And then, he bent down, captured Ranma's face between his large hands, and kissed him deeply.
At first, Ranma was startled. No, he was more than startled, he was shocked. Ryoga--his enemy, his rival in all things--kissing him so, touching his body in such familiarity; no, it couldn't be comprehended now. It was even worse than when Mikado had kissed him, for there was no girl-form to hide behind, and this was a violation of another kind. This was a violation of a trust that had been built upon hate; this was a violation of an unspoken agreement between them; this was a reversal of everything and it threw Ranma completely off-balance.
Which was probably why he hit Ryoga so hard, he reflected later. He really shouldn't have punched quite like that, shouldn't have put everything into that one, single punch. Even when they fought for real he didn't punch that hard.
But he was afraid. And he was confused. And it was the most natural thing in the world for him.
The swearing was just an after thought.
"What the fuck! What the fuck did you just do?" Scrubbing at his mouth, trying to get the taste of Ryoga out from between his lips, even though it was such a sweet taste--the taste that his deepest, deepest, heart knew it would be like. Unfortunately for both of them, it wasn't his most secret heart, but rather his most public persona reacting and that was a Bad Thing. "Jesus fucking Christ! What kind of goddamned pervert are you, Ryoga?"
"Wh-what?" Ryoga was clutching at his cheek and looking unbelievably vulnerable. More so than normal, and if the kiss had come without that strange sense of wrongness that the very contact of lip to lip had caused, Ranma may have been quick to apologize and present a kiss of his own. But there was something deep in his soul that told him this was wrong, something that stirred up warnings deep within that had nothing to do with being 'unmanly'. This wasn't Ryoga. This wasn't right. This wasn't his world.
"Jesus Fucking Christ!" Ranma punched Ryoga again, knowing as he did that he reacted out of relief at being able to move, at the unholy joy that came from his release from Enkaku's strange spell. "You goddamned pervert!"
"B-but Ranmyaku," Ryoga protested feebly, holding his hands up to ward off the blows, "Koibito, I-I thought that--"
"Shut up, faggot."
The conversation around them had stopped at Ranma's outburst, but the martial artist didn't care. Betrayal soured his soul, made his stomach writhe, and suddenly all Ranma cared about was hurting the one who had betrayed him--even though it hadn't been Ryoga's fault, even though Ryoga hadn't been the sole transgressor.
"'Myaku--stop it! Ow! You're hurting me!"
"The name is Ranma. Ranma. Not 'Ranmyaku'. Not 'Myaku'. And definitely not 'Koibito'!" Ranma was bristling now, a deep, hurt, frightened rage burning in his eyes.
"Ranmyaku!" Akane's voice held a subtle tone of command, but Ranma wouldn't listen to it. "What in the Nine Hells do you think you're doing?"
"What am I doing?" Ranma whirled, suddenly. "I'm not the one kissing a girl, Akane. I'm not the one who's gone insane!"
A heavy hand cuffed him hard on the side of the head, and Ranma turned, ready for a fight. "You will not talk to Lord Dogou in such a disrespectful tone, cur," Genma growled out. "I see that the long rest of our souls hasn't improved your virtue any."
"Pop! Snap out of it!" Ranma grabbed Genma's gi, tried to shake the heavy-set older man.
"Get your mangy paws off of me," Genma roared out in an almost panic. He broke Ranma's hold and sent him flying back to slam into the table. Ranma stared up at his father in utter disbelief. There was anger in his father's eyes. Yes Ranma had seen Genma's anger before, but never to this extent. And never mixed with such a deep disgust.
"W-what? What's going on?" The angry walls were beginning to crumble, quickly disintegrating under fear's intrusive probes.
"What do you think you're doing, Jaken?" Ryoga growled out, low and harsh, as he stood toe to toe, eye to eye with Genma.
Genma lashed out, slapping Ryoga hard on the cheek. "Don't think that you can talk to me so, Kigai. I may not have my whip, but I can beat you just as well without it."
"Peace! Peace!" Ukyo stood, holding her hands out between the two men. "Jaken, Kigai, don't fight. We're all a little snappish, a little disoriented from our long sleep. Don't let your short tempers get the best of you."
"Yes, Lady Kigakiku," the two murmured, almost sounding contrite. They shot each other murderous glances, but did nothing more. Ryoga walked over to Ranma's prone form, offered a hand to help him up.
Ranma scrambled away, jumping to his feet and backing off even further until the thin wooden wall stopped him. He was drowning in his panic, consumed by a fear that made the world around him warp and twist in a sickening, gruesome fashion. The faces before him undulated, shifted between those that he knew and the nightmare of the Dream.
"Who are you," he whimpered. "What are you?"
"Koi..." Concerned marked the voice, but Ranma could no longer tell whether the person before him was his Ryoga or the strange Kigai of his dreamself's world. A large, calloused hand caressed his face and Ranma moaned, suddenly caught by another nightmare, a nightmare of this life whose reality was even worse than the blessedly vague dreams.
He turned his head, feeling drugged, full of fear, trying to find something he could connect to, something that he could hold onto, something that would ground himself in reality. But he saw nothing, for everything was distorted. And then the light glinted off of glass and drew his eye to the marble, the horrible marble that had started all of this and--Oh God! There was an eye, a perfect, detached eye preserved in the glass, a blind orb, whose iris was the same blue-grey as his own. And as he stared at the marble, at the disembodied eye, the pupil seemed to expand, seemed to grow until it was an oily black portal to somewhere unknown, somewhere unthought of and Ranma watched it grow bigger and bigger, blacker and blacker until it was large enough to consume him, a huge, shimmering, undulating oval of impenetrable darkness that pulled at him, sucked at his clothing, his mind, his soul, until, suddenly, he toppled forward in a dead faint and floated into the oblivion.
Cologne was waiting for the three strangers when they came back downstairs after depositing Ranma in his room. She looked at them, as they were heading down the stairs, really looked at them. It was obvious now that she thought about it--they had the same look as all the reborn genken before them, that same vaguely predatory feel about them. Even Ranma had it, and his Past was so far gone as to have never been reborn at all.
Cologne smiled to herself. Strange how easily the new names had replaced the old.
"Hold, Shukuzento," she called out as the young boy approached her. "I would have words with you."
Shukuzento--Enkaku in this life--paused, regarded the old woman carefully. "What sort of words, Nekoin-jin?"
"About the Past. You have unleashed something powerful here. Something that wasn't ready to come."
"And what wisdom would you impart, old one? You have just Awoken; surely there is nothing that you can add to the complexities of this issue." Shunsoku--Umoreru--growled out. Cologne sighed, softly, as she placed this one. He had always been more a dog than a man, and her clan's links to the felines made the courser treat them with great hostility. She felt Shampoo bristle, aura spiking up and brushing against her finely tuned senses. Projecting a calm back to her great-granddaughter, Cologne laughed at the arrogance of the young boy.
"Please, genken. I am an Amazon; we have long memories." The mocking laugh gentled. "Besides, you cannot live for three hundred years without learning something about your soul."
"So, how long have you been Awake?" Shinobu asked with curiosity. Cologne frowned as she tried to place this reborn member of their shared Past.
"Since before coming to Japan. You is much remembered, Toraneko. Shampoo remember Past form of genken," Shampoo replied in her broken Japanese--a habit that would need to be remedied quickly, now that the need for secrecy was over. Mousse glared at her, shook his head sharply.
"There is no need for that now, Hikyuu," he said softly, already slipping back into his old role. "We need not hide anymore."
"Says the Master of Hiding," Shampoo replied sharply, Japanese suddenly much better as the pretense at stupidity was dropped. "Masurao, we may not be newly Awoken, but I still can't forget what you acted like when we were half-asleep. Your sniveling obsession shames me, shames our clan."
Mousse smiled, somewhat bitterly. "And what would you have had me done, Shampoo? Let them take my life because I was born before, born strong and proud? No, thank you. I enjoy breathing."
"Children." Cologne's voice stopped their bickering, snapped them into a semblance of militaristic attention. "We don't have time for this." Her ancient eyes rested on the three strangers that stood silent before the reborn Nekoin. "Well, I don't suppose we can remedy what damage you have done already, but let's see if we can't help inform you a little better about the viper's nest that you've stumbled into. Come. We shall go to the dojo--I doubt that we shall be disturbed."
Enkaku nodded, let Cologne lead the way before following, flanked by his strangely silent companions. "What happened to your counterpart, Keigo? Sentetsu-san, if I remember correctly."
Cologne sighed. "Ahh. Happosai. I think that he is probably running for his life, now. He took the Sleep the hardest; I fear, sometimes, for his sanity." Cologne chuckled. "But, living here I fear for all our sanity."
"I see." Enkaku nodded to himself. "Tell me, Kenbo-san, why do you use these new names?"
"I apologize, Enkaku, but the Past is very far away for me now. I have grown too used to using the reborn name."
"Understandable. You are...Cologne now, Kenbo-san?"
"Yes. I would prefer it if you called me that now. Though you have successfully Awoken the old, it is better if you become familiar with the new now, so that when the enchantment--" Cologne paused and frowned. "Tell me, how long does this spell last?"
Enkaku looked down at his feet. "Honestly? I don't know. Shikisha and Saeru Awoke first, placed the spell upon us first. But we are a different case; we are used to being reborn to be the Guardians, to stem the Dark's encroaches. But for the rest--well, Shikisha was very vague about that."
"Yes. I remember. The legend of the Knights Templar still lives on today. You have performed admirably at your task." Mousse smiled, slightly and guarded.
"Thank you." Umoreru inclined his head, a slightly prideful smirk playing about his face. The sextet passed through the door to the dojo and sat in the center of the hardwood floor, arranging themselves not in a circle, but two distinct lines. This was not an alliance of choice, but one of necessity.
"So. What has happened that you feel so important to call this parlance?" Enkaku questioned.
"Much. For one, Ranmyaku is not as you once knew him. He has become hard--twisted even--from the noble warrior that he once was. I blame Jaken and the fates; it is cruel irony that foul man is Ranma--that is, Ranmyaku's--father. Genma is every bit as loathsome as Jaken was--I'm sure that you noticed that for yourself. As for Kigai, he and Ranma are most fearsome rivals. Poor Ryoga, the name Kigai goes by now, still has that fragile strength to him and it does not serve him well now. Worse, his gift of sight was augmented by the removal of his much vaunted directional sense. There is very little love lost between Ranma and Ryoga, competing as they do for Akane's heart." Cologne chuckled, softly. "The Fates are exacting their revenge quite well. Akane, once proud Dogou, is now an ill-tempered brute of a girl. She has much of her old self in her yet; and Dogou's beloved Kigakiku is Akane's rival for the affections of Ranma. I wonder, now, what will happen once the spell grows slack. Will Akane and Ukyo be once more in competition, or will the two find their way together as they did in the Past...
"As for Tekiji, Nabiki now, the girl with the mercenary smile, not much has changed. She still seeks gold, and in this life is quite adept at it. I wonder, though, what purpose the Fates had for making her blood-relation to Dogou. They were not particularly close before. Kuno Tatewaki, whom you would remember as Jiman, has been Dark-tainted. His wits were most surely addled by whatever brief contact he had. He spouts poetry now, and is a brash and dense man--hopefully that has changed. His sister is even worse, though, for Kodachi--Omoi--is most surely insane. Her potions of healing, her gift for creating tales of wonder and stories to enchant have been perverted by the Dark until all she can concoct are poisons and delusions.
"Ruijaku has become Akane and Nabiki's father. I never met Soun--Ruijaku--before the death of his wife, but he is every bit as week and manipulative now as he was then. Kyuukai is female now, the eldest daughter of Soun. Very different is Kasumi from Kyuukai. She is almost...meek. Almost odiously helpful, but it is not my place to judge. I would wager, though, that beneath that unwavering, placating smile and serene bearing is perhaps the strongest person here.
"As for Chame...I have heard nothing of him, and hoped that I would never hear a thing. But, that is a vain hope now. So, what purpose is there in this Awakening, Enkaku? For you could not have come at a worse time."
"It is most urgent. The Dark Forces are building again. The Past is happening again. The Kingdom is arising and those old servants are required once more. Believe me when I say that if I could change this I would. But the Past walks once more and the players are demanded."
Cologne chuckled, softly and ruefully. "I should have known. I felt the Dark pressure of late, but assumed that it was merely the chaos of this place." She sighed and suddenly seemed even older than her ancient form. "And Ranmyaku will not stand and fight again. Though considering what you used to call his spirit back, I would not be surprised. That is his eye, is it not?"
Enkaku nodded, stiffly. "So. What do you suggest?"
"I don't know. I wish I could say that we let things run their natural course, but I doubt we have time for that. Besides, Ranma is too far in the present."
"Pervert!" The shout was audible despite the distance from the dojo to Ranma's room. The sounds of a scuffle in the floor above echoed through out the oddly silent house, and Enkaku swallowed in sudden apprehension.
"So," he sighed. "It begins."