After a short while, the trio arrived at Ucchans, without much notice or fanfare. Ranma was surprised, seeing as the three of them were easily some of the most famous people in the country at that moment. But, as they approached Ucchan's, they noticed something else.
The restaurant was packed. Obviously, the fame had rubbed off on Ukyou's business. Nevertheless, the three walked in, and gawked at the inside.
It was almost standing room only.
"Wow," Akane said. "Ukyou said business was going great, but I never expected this."
"Excuse me, there's a three hour waiting period for a table," Konatsu said, not looking at them yet. "If you'll give me your names now, I'll make sure to remember you if you return later." And saying that, he looked up at them. "Oh! Ranma! Miss Akane! Ryouga! Pay no attention to me. There's always a seat reserved for you three!"
Ranma smiled. "Thanks, Konatsu. Can you tell Ukyou we're here, if she's not too busy?"
"Oh, she's busy," Konatsu said. "But the new kitchen staff can take care of it for her for a little while. I'll tell her you've arrived." He then showed them to the entrance for Ukyou's living area. "It's the only place we can put you," he explained. "I'll bring some food up later, okay?"
The three nodded and sat down at a table. "Insane," Ranma said. "I haven't been back here for a while."
"It's nice to see something's happening in Ukyou's life."
"It would also explain why she seemed so tired at school," Akane said.
There was a brief noise at the door, and it swung open.
"Hi guys!" Ukyou exclaimed as she entered the room. "It's been a while, Ryouga."
"It's been a while yourself," Ranma said. "We barely get to see you outside of school. Now I guess I know why."
"Yeah, it's been insane. I had to hire a fully decked kitchen staff, and I'm in the middle of a deal to open a second restaurant in Shinjuku."
"The red light district?"
"It's well frequented," Ukyou said. "Besides, Nabiki said it would be the perfect place for a successful restaurant."
Akane nodded. "Understandable."
"So, Ryouga," Ukyou said. "What brings you back this way?"
"Just visiting," he explained.
"How's it going with Akari? I heard you made it there okay."
Ryouga nodded. "I did. She was really excited to see me, especially after what she saw in the news."
"So, when's the wedding?" Ukyou asked, smiling.
Ryouga blushed. "We... really haven't gotten that far yet."
"Sure, sure," Ukyou said.
"So, business seems to be pretty good," Ryouga said. "How's the area doing?"
"Better than ever," she said. "Now that the Nekohanten is gone, I also picked up all of their old customers."
"I thought the Kuno's bought that," Ranma said. "They run it into the ground yet?"
"Actually, no. It's weird," Ukyou said. "They're doing fine. Probably because they've turned into the local fancy restaurant. Kodachi handles the kitchen and Kuno handles the entertainment. The entertainment is usually him or some other kendoists duking it out. To be honest, I don't think he's even aware that he's the entertainment, but it still seems to work. They get a lot of the older business-type people, and Kodachi charges wild prices. I think she's also putting drugs into the food. I dunno. Some kind of addictive. I wouldn't eat there, personally."
Ryouga nodded. "Sounds interesting."
"How long do you have?" Akane asked. "I mean, we've got nobody else to see, really."
Ukyou smiled. "I was hoping you'd say that. Hold on," she said, and reached over for the phone.
"Konatsu?" she asked. "Hey, tell the guys they're on their own until closing time. Oh, and can you bring up the sake and wine I've got under the front counter?" She looked back at her guests. "You guys hungry?"
They all nodded. "And bring up a griddle," she said.
The afternoon gave way to evening, and evening gave way to night. The four of them conversed, drank, ate, and were merry. Which is to say that as they stumbled home, at nearly midnight, Akane was incredibly drunk, and the other two only moderately.
"Holy shit," Ryouga said, laughing, helping Ranma to hold Akane up. "I can't believe she polished off the bottle."
"I'll have you know I'm a very good drunk," Akane stated, punctuating her comment by touching her finger to her nose and going cross-eyed.
Ranma couldn't help but laugh. "I think you overdid it, Akane."
"Overdid it. P-shaaa," she slurred. "I'm not as drink as you thunk I am. I'm just as shober as you two." She pointed two fingers in the air and wiggled them about.
During their drunken conversation, they had reached the entrance to the Dojo.
"I'm gonna leave you two to it," Ryouga said. "I should get some sleep."
Ranma nodded, and let himself hold Akane's full weight. It wasn't that she was heavy, just that she had poor balance, and Ranma had to constantly hold her up.
"Come on, Akane," he said. "I think it's time you go to bed."
"Right," she said, pushing herself away from Ranma. She pointed straight ahead, towards the door, and took a few stiff, experimental steps before she began to lose her balance again. Ranma ran up behind her and caught her.
"I think I might need shome help, Ranma," she said.
Ranma laughed, and swept her up into his arms, and brought her inside.
"Shoes off," he said. Akane complied to the best of her abilities, pushing her shoes off with her feet. Ranma then began to ascend the stairs.
"Ranma?" Akane asked on the way up the stairs.
"Yeah?" he replied.
"Are you happy?" she asked.
"Of course. What do you mean?"
"I mean, are you happy? Here. With me."
"Of course I am," he said, finally reaching the top of the stairs.
"That's good," she replied.
"Why would you think otherwise?"
Akane gave a drunk sigh and pouted. "I worried about you when you left school this morning," she said. "I thought you were going to take off again like you did before."
Ranma remained silent, unsure of what to say.
"But it's okay," she continued, hugging him. "You're here now, that's all that matters to me."
Finally, Ranma reached Akane's bedroom door. He nudged it open with his foot, and walked in. He approached her bed and let her down. She giggled as she landed on her bed, and lay down on it.
"Comfy," she commented.
Ranma smiled. "Okay, Akane," he said softly. "I'm gonna go to bed now."
Akane sat up in her bed. Or, at least, she tried to. She stumbled back down onto the bed after a moment.
"No," she said from her position. "I want you to stay in here."
Ranma's eyes popped open. To... stay in here? With her? His heart started to pound.
"What do you mean?"
"I don't want to be lonely," she said. "I want you to stay with me for a while." She patted the bed next to her, gesturing for him to sit.
Ranma thought for a moment, and ventured a look at the clock. Twelve-thirty. They'd have to leave in three hours.
"I dunno, Akane," he said. "I'm pretty tired."
"No!" she said. "You can sleep in here, then. I don't want you to go," she continued to whine.
Ranma's heart started further. "Okay, fine," he said. "Just let me go get my futon, okay?"
Akane looked up at him. "You... can sleep in my bed. With me." Her face suddenly got very intense, looking up at Ranma.
Ranma swallowed. "Akane," he said, trying not to betray his feelings. "I... you're drunk. I don't think this is such a good idea."
"I want you to be with me, Ranma," she said. "Here."
"But, I... your dad... I..."
"I'm a grown woman, Ranma," she argued. "And we're going to be married anyway. It shouldn't matter."
Ranma thought for a few moments, and looked over towards the open door. He took a step towards it.
"Ranma?" Akane asked, looking up into his eyes. Ranma blinked, then took another step towards the door... and closed it. He turned back to Akane.
"Are you sure about this?" he asked. "I mean... tomorrow you aren't going to freak out about this?"
Akane shook her head. "I've wanted this for a while," she said. "I want to..." she paused for a moment. "Share myself."
Ranma swallowed a lump again, and then walked towards Akane's bed.
Ranma lay next to Akane, silently stroking her hair while she slept. They had... done it. Something so unexpected to Ranma that he still questioned whether or not it had actually happened. But here she lay, snuggled up against him, completely nude.
Ranma, of course, lay completely nude as well. He looked over Akane's shoulder at the time. Twenty minutes. Twenty minutes he had to leave.
Damn, he swore to himself. He wished it didn't have to be this way. He wished that he could stay behind with her. He wished...
It didn't matter what he wished. It was over now. It was done. Maybe she wouldn't remember, but Ranma hoped she would.
He wrestled with his conscience for a minute before making the decision. What he had to do was more important than his feelings, and what's done is done. Stealthily, knowing she was drunk, he climbed over her, careful not to disturb her slumber. She looked so sweet, so peaceful. The night was passionate, and Ranma again felt a twang of guilt as he dressed himself. Slowly, he tiptoed out of the room.
"Took you long enough," Nabiki said.
Ranma jumped in shock. "Nabiki!" he said. "What are you doing up?"
"I should ask you the same thing," she said, looking behind Ranma into Akane's room. "She must have worn you out pretty well. Even Daddy could hear you two."
Ranma blushed. "Listen, uhh--"
"And Ryouga's downstairs with your dad. They're waiting for you, but before you go, you're going to tell me where you're going," she said.
"Nabiki, listen, I can't--"
"Can't what? Fuck my sister and run off without an explanation? Oh, I know you can't. So let's hear it."
"Or I could wake her up and you could explain why it is that all your things were packed by your father and are now sitting in the foyer. That not even he will tell us where you guys are going, or when you'll be back."
"Nabiki, I don't want Akane following. It could be dangerous."
"Fuck that, Saotome," she said. "She was there with you every step of the way since Jusenkyo. She found you when you were working for those terrorists. She helped you and Ryouga save a little girls life. You can't tell me---"
"I'm going to Jusenkyo," he said.
Nabiki cocked her head to one side. "Why?"
"Listen, you can't tell Akane," he said.
"I'll reserve my answer on that till I hear the whole story," she said.
"Nabiki, please. It's too dangerous."
"Who is it? The Phoenix?"
"Worse," Ranma said. "It's Herb."
Nabiki's eyes popped open. "You mean that other He-She? The one from... where was it?"
"The Musk Dynasty," he said. "He's been... He nearly destroyed the Phoenix, the Joketsuzoku, and he's working his way here."
"For what? You?"
"And Ryouga," he said. "And my father, and Shampoo and Mousse, and a collection of other cursees."
"Shampoo and Mousse? They're here?"
Ranma nodded. "So is Kiima," he said.
Nabiki stayed silent for a moment. "You took him out before--"
"Luck," Ranma said. "Now he's a lot more dangerous. He's got an army."
Nabiki's jaw dropped. "So, what? You're going to fight in a war? Why not let soldiers handle it?!"
"We are the soldiers," he said. "Listen, this needs to be dealt with. Can you do me a favour?"
"Don't tell Akane?"
"Right. I'm going to write her a note before I leave. Can you leave it on her desk for me?"
"You're gonna owe me big for this one, Saotome," she said. "And I warn you now, if you ditch us, and take off or die, you'll be paying out your ass in the afterlife."
Ranma nodded. "I promise I'll be back," he said. With that, he was gone.
"What's the matter, boy?" Genma asked, slapping his son on the back. "Not what you expected?" He beamed with pride.
"Shut it, Old Man."
Ryouga merely blushed whenever he looked over at Ranma, apparently, everyone had heard.
"Why so shy, boy? It's a grand day. And besides, it's always tradition for the wife to bed with the husband the night before a journey!"
"Just shut it, Old Man," Ranma said. "I don't want to talk about it right now."
"He's right," Ryouga said, getting over his shyness. "We need to focus on what's coming."
As if on cue, a black van arrived, and let the three martial artists inside. To their surprise, they noticed that Alice Porter, the American Agent was in the passenger seat, and they were also joined by Doctor Edwards.
Edwards was a tall man, but as skinny as they come. He smiled as he greeted the three of them. "Ranma Saotome," he said, extending his hand. Ranma shook it, acknowledging him. He also shook Genma and Ryouga's hands. The van started to drive away soon after.
"I can't tell you what a pleasure it is to meet you three in person. I was following the news reports quite carefully when you took out the Paved Future. Quite ingenious, I might say."
"Thank you," Ranma said. "But I didn't do it alone."
"I'm quite aware," he said, acknowledging Ryouga. "That ki-blast of yours was some spectacle."
"You saw that?" Ryouga asked.
"Well, of course. It was plastered all over CNN. I'd only seen it once before. CNN said it was some kind of weapon, but once you see one blast, you learn to recognize them quickly."
"Doctor Edwards has a keen interest in martial arts mysticism," Porter explained. "It's what led him to studying Jusenkyo."
"Yes, well," he started. "I've never really had the constitution for studying the arts physically, but the mysticism had always interested me. But when I learned of Jusenkyo, I made that my main focus. I daresay there's no one man in the world that knows as much as I do about Jusenkyo."
"Really?" Ranma asked. "So... is there a cure?"
Edwards sighed. "Alas, no. I myself was cursed several years ago to turn into a bear, due to a mishap in the lab. Since then, I've experimented with many different cures, and it's turned out to be quite disastrous."
Ryouga gave a shudder. "Disastrous seems to be the right word for that," he said.
"What is it exactly that you turn into, Doctor?" Genma asked.
Edwards smiled. "I'm sure you'll find out in due time, Mr. Saotome."
"You speak very good Japanese, I notice," Genma mentioned. "Could it be that you spent some time in your youth here?"
"You're very perceptive," Edwards said. "My parents were missionaries in Ube for most of my youth. I learned a near-perfect dialect and could speak fluently for as long as I can remember."
"We're going to stop by to pick up some others," Porter said. "It won't be long before we're at the airport."
Sure enough, the van stopped, and three more people climbed in. Ranma's eyes popped wide, but then let them settle.
"Do you have to be so casual about that?" he asked Kiima.
Kiima looked down at herself. "What? This?" She laughed. "Couldn't be helped Saotome. We were asked to maintain a low profile." She brushed off her outfit, a schoolgirl number she had been given to wear during her overnight stay in Japan. Along with her were Kuruma and Masara, looking just as uncomfortable as Kiima, sitting in the van. Something they had never been inside before.
"Fine, but as soon as we're in the air, you're changing to normal," he said.
"Gladly," Kiima said. "I'm actually interested in how this airplane device works. I've seen them fly around before, but never truly understood the mechanics behind it."
"Kiima, Kuruma and Masara of the Phoenix Tribe. It is good to see you under more... friendly circumstances," Edwards said.
Kiima nodded. "As with you, Doctor."
"Wait, you know each other?" Ryouga asked.
Kiima nodded. "Doctor Edwards found himself at odds with us on a few different occasions."
"Not on purpose, my dear," he said. "The things I do in search for knowledge, I do for the good of all."
"But some knowledge is best kept secret, you understand," Kiima said.
"And I haven't told another living soul," Edwards said, broadening his smile.
"We're coming to the airport now," Porter said. "Cut the small talk, we're going through a checkpoint."
They did so, as the van drove through the checkpoint, the driver gave a sheet of paper to the posted guard. He shone his flashlight into the vehicle, made a head count, and then nodded to let them through.
The van pulled right into the tarmac, and parked not far away from a plane that was already beginning to launch. They left the vehicle, and started to look about.
It seemed as though all the others had already arrive. Ranma scanned the crowd. He noticed some of the people he had recognized from the day before were present, as well as twelve other men and women. Ranma assumed them to be the special forces group that was to accompany them.
"Ranma?" Shampoo called. "You come here now. Meet Shampoo new friend."
Ranma looked around carefully, and then looked to Alice. She looked back at him. "You should probably get to know everyone," she suggested. "It'd be good to know your allies on this little jaunt."
Ranma nodded and walked up to meet Shampoo.
"Natalya, this Ranma. Ranma, this Natalya."
Natalya Heliskov was a tall woman of red hair and green eyes. She smiled at Ranma and put forth her hand. Ranma took it an shook it.
"So, you are Ranma Saotome," Natalya said, with a thick Russian accent. "It is pleasure to meet you."
Ranma nodded. "Likewise," he said.
"Your reputation precedes you, Ranma," she said. "Even in my backwards country, we know your name. Many think you are no more than... how do you say.... hot air, but it is obvious from meeting you that you are a man of many abilities."
Ranma nodded. "Yeah. So I understand you're a judo champion."
"Da," she said. "In fact, it is reason for my curse."
Ranma cocked his head to one side. "So, you're cursed too."
"Da," she said. "We all are, except for them." She pointed at the special forces, who seemed to be keeping to themselves.
"Don't monopolize the hero, Natalya," another voice interrupted from nearby. A blonde haired girl, no older than Ranma walked up to them.
"Ah," Natalya said. "Ranma Saotome, Shampoo, this is Alexis Trepe."
Ranma shook Alexis' hand, and narrowed his eyes at her. "You... look familiar," he said.
Alexis smiled. "Television," she said.
Ranma blinked for a moment, then his eyes popped open. "You're that American pop idol!"
"Canadian," Alexis continued. "Everyone thinks I'm American, dammit."
"Alexis is also known as Rex, in many cases."
"Rex?" Ranma asked. "Wait... Rex Ebert? Nabiki has a poster of that guy up on her wall."
"Actually, Rex is me. We're both... well, each other."
Ranma blinked. "Spring of Drowned Man?" he asked. "It exists?"
"Don't get your hopes up," she said. "You don't wanna know what happens if you jump in there."
Ranma looked at the two of them separately, then at Shampoo. "How uhh... did you--"
"Shampoo know Natalya long time," Shampoo said. "She once hunted by Shampoo."
"Da," Natalya said, laughing. "My airplane seemed to have a problem staying aloft during a trip to a tournament in Shanghai. It crashed in the mountains not far from Jusenkyo."
"She fall in spring of drowned tiger. Two days later, Shampoo hunting her."
"It was sheer luck that I fell into a hot spring," she said. "And turned human. Shampoo brought me back to her village, where I was soon on my way back home."
"Mine wasn't so momentous," Alexis said. "My grandfather was an adventurer. Back before the second world war, he travelled through Qinghai, and did some trading with a tribe called the Musk. He came back with a jar of magic water that he kept in his attic... until my fourteenth birthday."
"What happened?" Ranma asked.
"It's weird when you're fourteen years old, and find an interesting jar in your grandfather's attic that says 'Do Not Open', and how that makes absolutely no difference. Needless to say, my Grandfather was less than thrilled."
"I wouldn't doubt it," Ranma said.
"It's okay, the old fart is dead," she said.
"Hey, Ranma," Ryouga called, trying to attract his attention to elsewhere. "Come here for a minute."
"You'll excuse me," Ranma said. With a nod, he was excused, and went over to talk to Ryouga.
"This is Peter," Ryouga said. "He was on a training trip when he discovered Jusenkyo."
Ranma smirked. "Sounds familiar," he extended his hand and shook Peter's.
"Great, just great to meet you, kid," Peter said, a wide smile on his face. "I can recognize your skills. We need to spar sometime."
"Spar?" Ranma asked, then smiled. "Sure. I'd like that."
"So, the question I've gotta ask-- as I've asked Ryouga here, is just what exactly is your curse?"
"Drowned Girl," Ranma said. "You?"
"Drowned Boy," he said, laughing. "Little boy, actually. It can be useful when it needs to be."
Ranma smiled. "Yeah, we used to know someone with the same curse. Lukkosai."
Peter shook his head. "Can't say as I've ever met him, but it would sure be a pleasure to. I'd love to have a curse-mate, so to speak."
Ranma nodded. "Yeah, well. The guys a little more trouble than he's worth, if ya ask me."
"You know that stuff rots your brain, right?" a voice asked from nearby.
Peter looked over for a moment. "Yeah, well... I don't see you winning and purity contests."
Ranma and Ryouga looked over to see a girl standing alone against the stairwell of the airplane. She was young, and most definitely gothic.
"Who are you supposed to be, anyway?" Peter asked. "Bloody Mary?"
"She is Marcia Stiles," a man with a french accent said, stepping into the conversation. "And, like me, she is a mystic. So I suggest you drop ze attitude and show ze proper respect."
"You're not a mystic, Dugaulle," Marcia replied. "You're a mindfucker."
Dugaulle made a face, but then let it slide. "A crude, American term for my... shall we say... particular skills. Always like ze American to take a beautiful gift and demean it so."
"Aren't you that guy who talked to the ghost of Jim Morrison?" Peter asked. "I think I saw you in one of those tabloids..."
"I am Gerard Dugaulle, speaker of ze dead," he said.
"So, what'd the man have to say?"
"He said to leave him alone," he replied.
"Wait," Ranma said, looking at Dugaulle. "You.. can talk to dead people?"
"I can," Dugaulle said. "But it is not my only skill. I can also read your thoughts."
"You only wish you can," Marcia said. "All you can do is run through emotional responses. Otherwise you never woulda had your little accident."
Gerard looked like he was about to explode. "You... you are a bitch and a whore!" he then stormed off.
"Smart," Peter said. "Sounds like you two get along real well."
"He's a stuck up jerk," Marcia said.
"So, what's your game?" Peter asked.
Marcia shrugged. "I dunno. What do you think it is?" she made a subtle motion with her head, and, to everyone's surprise, she started to change in front of them. The change had only been noticeable to Ranma, Ryouga and Peter, though. She changed from Marcia Stiles, into... Ryouga Hibiki.
Ryouga promptly squealed.
"Illusions," Peter said. "Nice. So, what's your curse?"
Marcia reverted back in a split second. "Crow," she said, simply.
"He's messed," she said. "He turns into a half-human, half- dragon."
"There's a spring for that?" Ranma asked.
Marcia shook her head. "Nah, that one dried up a while back. Gerard is as least unique. Get him to tell you the story sometime," she said.
"Ladies and Gentlemen!" Alice called from the center of the crowd. "In five minutes, at Oh-Four-Hundred, we will be setting off. I suggest you take care of baggage now, and board the aircraft. There is no need to worry about passports or customs, we'll be overlooked once we arrive. Am I understood?"
There was a flurry of nods.
"Very well," she said. "Then let's board."
The alarm clock went off at the stroke of six-thirty, and Akane's hand was swift in turning off the offending noise, knocking it to the side of her bed. Grumbling to herself, Akane sat up in bed and swung her legs to the floor. She yawned, and promptly covered her head with her hands.
Damn, she thought to herself. She must have drank a little too much. In fact, she still felt quite drunk.
Slowly, she opened her eyes. Oh yes, today would be a fun day at school. Great fun. Amazing fun. Oh well, Ranma would have to--
Oh God, she almost forgot! But how could she forget? It had happened only hours earlier. She spun her head around. Ranma was absent from her bed. She assumed he had gone to his own bed after... their brief jaunt through happy-making-land.
No matter. She smiled to herself. Hangover or not, last night was a night to remember. The night it finally happened. The night she finally gave herself to Ranma.
That's when she noticed the white piece of paper sitting on her nightstand that hadn't been there the night before. Had someone been in her room?
She picked up the paper and looked at it. It was a letter.
Dear Akane, it read.
Akane could already feel her stomach sink.
I'm sorry, but Ryouga, Pop and me are gone. I'm sorry we didn't tell you. I'm sorry I can't be there when you wake up. It's the place I want to be more than anywhere else... but I need to take care of something. It's better that you don't know where we're going, I don't want you following us, for your own safety. All you need to know is that something came up, and it needs our immediate attention. I will be back, I promise.
Akane stared in disbelief at the letter. Again? She dropped to her knees, and felt tears start to well up in her eyes.
Akane, the letter continued. I love you. Ranma.
Shuddering, she dropped the letter to the floor, put her face into her hands, and began to cry.