“That is quite alright, sir,” Mori replied, unfazed. “Shall I prepare your breakfast? You have been asleep for quite a while.”
“Really? How long?” He sat up on the bed and stretched languidly, arms up over his head. He felt weak, but more rested than he had in months. He threw his legs over the edge and made his way to the bathroom.
“About three days, sir.”
“And you let me sleep for so long?”
“But you looked so peaceful.”
Mousse wondered if Mori had actually cracked a joke when he got a good look at himself in the mirror. He was still pale, though not as much as before, and his bones and muscles still stood out in ghastly relief. His hair had faded to the color of an overcast sky, with cloudy patches of light and dark gray running through it. It looked cleaner with the black flecks gone, but he still didn’t like it.
“I’ll have my breakfast now,” he said, still examining his new look. Even his eyebrows had changed color. “Tell the chef to make me something more filling this time around. Something western.”
“Will that be all, sir?” asked Mori.
“Schedule me an appointment with a hairdresser,” said Mousse, now running a brush through his hair. “I don’t like this color.”
“Very well, sir. One more thing, however.”
Mousse turned from his preening. Mori was holding out a picture to him. “Yohei took a picture of this man leaving the Tendo residence. I thought you might find it interesting.”
The man in the photo didn’t look special. Handsome, mid-twenties perhaps, glasses, caught in the act of lighting a cigarette. He wore a long black coat reaching down almost to his calves. Mousse frowned. He didn’t look like anyone he knew. Certainly not a member of his family, though he had the look. Then again, the whole ‘desperado in the black trench coat’ look was popular among certain circles these days, especially among those who had no business wearing them. But the more he looked at the photo, the feeling that he somehow knew this man became stronger. He remembered hearing rumors when he was younger about family members that left the fold and wandered the world on their own. He flicked his wrist contemptuously and the photo disappeared. It wasn’t anyone he knew. Besides, there was no way the man in the photo was one of the rumored renegade brothers. A brother would not have allowed any pictures to be taken of him without his notice.
“It’s not anyone I know, but reward Yohei for a job well done anyway.”
Mori bowed slightly. “Very well, sir.”
Mousse was still staring at the mirror as Mori left. Three days. For three days he had been unconscious. Three days was a long time. His thoughts turned to his old mentor, Yeosol, the brother who at the same time was not a brother, who had taught him so much and would probably rebuke him if he were there right now for letting his chance slip. Mousse’s body ached with the memory; Yeosol’s rebukes were always sharp and every one of his scars had a story to tell. Of course, he could never be as utterly cold as his mentor. He wouldn’t hesitate in laying down his life to kill those who had wronged him, but only if it was his last alternative. He still wanted to be alive when justice was dispensed. Not that any of that mattered at the moment. Yeosol was not here, and if Cologne fled, he would follow. Justice was slow in coming, but it would come. In the meantime, he would gather his strength in preparation for that moment.
He stripped down and stepped into the shower. He turned on the cold water and closed his eyes as it washed over him. These periods of rest were usually tedious, but this time there was the matter of a certain girl he promised to take to dinner one fine evening. She might be a little apprehensive about associating with someone who only three days ago kidnapped her sister, but that was to be expected. He smiled. It never hurt to try.
It took three days for the letter to arrive, and Cologne was in a foul mood over it.
“Arrogant half-male bastard!” she growled, crumpling up the fine paper in her hands. Not wanting to dredge up old wounds indeed. That damn lizard prince would probably enjoy watching us get wiped out of existence. Herb, the last surviving member of the royal Musk dynasty family, had politely refused her request for help. Yes, he was aware that Mousse was the son of the man who had killed the Dragon King, his father, but the War was long over. But the boy’s father himself had died in his assault on the Dragon King during the Battle of the Burning Glade, so there was no desire for any sort of retribution. Besides, this was an internal matter for the Amazon people and he had no right to intervene on anyone’s behalf.
She made a disgusted sound and tossed the note aside. There was a second letter in the envelope, this time from the twins themselves. She skimmed over the writing quickly at first, and then backtracked to read it more thoroughly. When she was finished, she leaned back on her staff. She was surprised, a little at the twin’s luck and foresight, but mostly at what they were bringing with them. They had found a peddler selling various powdered essences of the Jusenkyou Springs that had dried up after the Phoenix Mountain debacle. The twins had picked out the most harmless creature they could find out of the packets. It was a duck.
Cologne shuddered. Bad karma. But for whom?
“Is everything alright, Great-Grandmother?” said Shampoo from behind her. She was peering over her shoulder, trying to get a good look at the letter.
Cologne swiftly tucked the letter into a sleeve. “Yes child, everything is well. Just word from Lin-lin and Lan-lan. They’re home, helping to prepare defenses.” It wasn’t that Cologne suspected her granddaughter, but Shampoo had been acting strangely over the past few days. Ever since she came back that night from following Mousse. Got lost indeed. Cologne was certain she was hiding something, but she wasn’t going to press the issue. As much as she wanted to kill the boy, she wasn’t willing to sacrifice her granddaughter’s trust to reach that end. As a future Matriarch, Shampoo will be vital in rebuilding the shattered village. It would be best to keep her in the dark about what was done to the boy until he has been dealt with. If she ever found out she’d most likely try something foolish, like try to calm the boy down before he destroyed them all. She wasn’t stupid, just far too sentimental for her own good.
A relieved look passed over Shampoo’s face. “That’s good. It’s far too dangerous here.” The relieved look turned troubled. “And what about the other letter? Is Herb…?” She let the question hang in the air, half hopeful, half afraid.
“Prince Herb will not be coming to our aid,” Cologne replied. “Apparently he has little taste for others’ ‘internal’ disputes.” She grimaced at Shampoo as once again relief washed over her face. She put up an admirable effort to keep it from showing, but it was there. “Now go on, I have other things to do.”
Shampoo bowed slightly and made her way to the back of the closed restaurant. She had a spring in her step that hadn’t been there before. Cologne sighed. She couldn’t understand it. Shampoo and Mousse had been good friends long ago, but when he started getting a little too zealous of their friendship she couldn’t stand him. And now she wants him to remember her now that he’s a psychotic murderer? She bowed her head and put her fingers to her temples. The beginnings of a headache had started to form just thinking about it. It was going to be a long wait for Lin-lin and Lan-lan to get back.
The Tendo household was abnormally quiet with Ranma still unconscious, but Nabiki was far from idle. From the information she had been able to gather, whatever vendetta Mousse and the Amazons had with each other was quickly involving just about every martial artist in Nerima. Ukyo was on the warpath, going so far as to close down her restaurant in order to train for the next time she should meet Mousse. Needless to say, Konatsu was preparing alongside his mistress. Kuno had recovered and was still as arrogant as ever, vowing to smite the tricksome cur the next he should meet him, and his sister was after Mousse for harming her dear Ranma darling. Even Nabiki’s own father was training along with Genma. For protection, they said, since Ranma is out of commission. The only ones missing were Ryoga and Happosai, but they’d come about eventually.
Nabiki scowled and set aside the thick book she had been poring over for the past two hours. It was a study on Chinese Amazon culture and society, but as fascinating as it was, it was not the sort of information she needed. She needed first-hand knowledge, not rumors or dry dissertations. The only bit of information she had that might actually be useful she got from Ukyo, and it just raised more questions without answering any. Apparently Mousse and the good doctor Tofu are family. Which was funny, since she couldn’t exactly see the resemblance. She chewed her bottom lip thoughtfully. Unless family meant something else? She heard organized crime syndicates in America often referred to themselves as ‘family.’ It was hard for her to imagine Tofu mixed up with something like that. Every time she tried to see him as some sort of criminal or hitman, her mind kept coming up with an image of the gentle, humorous young doctor she had known since she was a child.
She sighed heavily and rolled over on her back. She stared at the ceiling tiles. Above her, Akane was tending the unconscious Ranma. There was absolute amazement when she came back and plenty of questions for her, how did you escape, did he hurt you, are you all right, but she had her mind set on Ranma. She had missed school and had all her meals brought to her so she could stay by his side. She even slept beside him. All this because someone put Ranma into a coma, she mused. Amazing. Then again, perhaps it wasn’t so amazing. With Ranma, life in Nerima followed a pattern. There was a method to the madness, now that she thought about it, and it never changed. Ukyo, Shampoo, and Kodachi would chase him, Akane would mallet him, Kuno and Ryoga would try to kill him, and he would turn into a girl or back into a boy at the most inopportune times. He would fight and he would win. It was an oversimplification of the pattern, but it was true. And now someone had broken the pattern by not only beating him, but almost killing him. Everyone was affected by it, as can be seen by their reactions. Even Kasumi, the mildest person in Japan, perhaps even the entire world, seemed troubled lately.
All because of you, Mousse, she thought to herself. You’ve already disrupted the natural order of things. So what now? She was vaguely aware of the phone ringing as she mulled over these thoughts.
“Nabiki,” Kasumi called. “It’s for you.”
Nabiki took the phone from Kasumi, noting the strange statement on her face. “Hello?” she said into the receiver.
“Hello, Nabiki,” replied a voice from the other end.
Nabiki froze for a split second, before turning to Kasumi with her hand placed over the receiver. “Could you excuse me, Kasumi? I need to take this.”
Nabiki waited for a moment for her sister to leave and turned back to the phone. “Mousse?” she whispered. She was annoyed to realize her heartbeat had quickened, whether from fear or something else.
“That’s my name,” came a cheerful reply. She could hear the grin on his face.
“What are you doing?” she whispered fiercely, sweeping her eyes around the house to be sure no one was listening. She didn’t even want to think how her family would react if they found out who she was talking to.
“Well I seem to remember a time when I asked a very lovely girl out to dinner one night. As it turned out, I wasn’t able to take her out at the appointed time, so now I want to make it up to her. The offer still stands, that is, if she still wants it…”
Nabiki stood there in stark disbelief. What the hell is wrong with this guy? Is he crazy? She quickly regained her composure. This could be a chance to gather information. “Yes,” she answered carefully. “She would love to go to dinner with you.”
“Sure,” she answered after a moment of thought. She could probably make an excuse to her father. “Where are we going?”
Nabiki could almost see his grin grow wider. “To Bed.”
The limousine pulled up in front of a dark, nondescript building and the driver opened the car door for Nabiki to step out. A line of young people stood in front of the entrance, well dressed and many looking bored or impatient. An equally well dressed bouncer stood off to the side, monitoring the crowd, while another one by the door checked off names and let people through. Nabiki caught flashes of a dimly lit interior and bits of music as the door opened and closed. Written in neon wires directly above the entrance was ‘Bed.’ Bed was a chain of trendy restaurants that started in Europe about a year ago, and spread from there. They usually catered to wealthy young men and women, though none were as young as her. She always knew, (not hoped, knew) she would be going to restaurants just like these sooner or later, but wouldn’t have believed it would be this soon.
The bouncer by the door, seeing her step out of the limo, walked over quickly to greet her. “Miss Tendo?”
“Yes?” she replied, questioning.
The relief was visible on his face. “If you would follow me,” he said, turning back. He seemed anxious to get her inside. Nabiki smiled. It seems Mousse had a word with this one.
Nabiki ignored the stares, some disbelieving and some baleful, she got from the line as she was led past them into the restaurant. She followed the bouncer down a wide aisle through the regular dining area where people ate at tables and through a door in the back. The aisle became more and more dim the farther she went along, the only source of light coming from softly glowing spheres suspended far above them. To either side people lounged in booths. But instead of tables, the booths had circular beds with flat, hard areas set in the center for dining. Almost all of the booths were filled, as many of them filled with people eating and talking as there were with people actually sleeping.
The bouncer led her farther and farther back into restaurant until stopping at a door, which Nabiki assumed to be the end. He opened the door with one hand and stepped to the side, beckoning her to go in.
Nabiki’s breath caught as she stepped into the room. The room was small, meant for private meetings, but lavishly adorned in an Arabic style. Intricate geometric patterns in soft blues and greens covered the walls, which were set with arches that reached up to a domed roof. The sound of running water drew her awed gaze to the side, where a small stream flowed from an outlet set in the wall. She watched as dishes laden with food began drifting out of the hole, until stopping in the center of the room where they floated serenely in a pool. The pool was surrounded by plush, jewel-colored pillows, and sleeping on the pillows was her date.
Mousse lay on his back, hands tucked behind his head, and didn’t awaken as Nabiki crept closer. She could see from his gaunt face that he was much thinner than the last time she saw him, as though he were sick for a long time. His breathing was deep and even, however, so she didn’t think he was weak. She made to wake him up when she saw something that made her eyes widen. He had a strip of black silk tied around his throat, but it was loose, revealing a hideous scar. She hadn’t seen this before, even during that moment in the bathroom, and it made her wonder what could have done that to him. It was as though he had been hung and instead of killing him, it left him with a scar. Before she could stop herself, she was reaching out with one hand to pull the cloth down further to see the rest of the scar. She was barely touching the silk when a slender hand came up and gently grasped hers around the wrist.
She didn’t jump back, reflexively jerking her hand away, but looked down on Mousse’s smiling face. “Hello, Nabiki.”
Mousse had only meant to relax while waiting for his date to arrive, but sleep had stealthily crept up on him and robbed him of consciousness. It was the smell of perfume that woke him up, and he opened his eyes to see Nabiki reaching over to his throat. He suppressed his initial reaction, which was to knock her away violently and put as much distance between his throat and her, and instead gently stopped her before she could see the rest of his scar. He even managed to smile.
He released her hand and sat up, readjusting the strip of black silk he had tied around his throat until his scar was no longer visible before turning around to face her. She stood there silently, coolly appraising him. He gestured for her to relax and sit down. She did, moving to the side of the pool opposite from him and lay on her side on a large crimson pillow.
They studied each other silently for a moment. Mousse took in her appearance with a slight smile. She wore a form-fitting dress with a dark red rose pattern, cut so that it left her arms bare and left slits down both sides of the dress, revealing a pair of long, shapely legs. He felt himself being studied in a similar way by her, but it didn’t bother him. If anything, it made things more interesting.
Nabiki spoke first. “You’re looking well, Mousse,” she said, taking a pair of exceedingly long porcelain chopsticks from a nearby floating tray. She reached out and delicately plucked a piece of sushi from another tray. “Better than I’d expect from someone who looked like they caught on fire and came away looking like a pile of ashes. Nice job with the hair dye by the way.”
Mousse started, and then his grin grew wider. This was going to be fun. “Well I was always resilient. How did you know I colored my hair?”
Nabiki picked up a cup filled with a dark red liquid from another tray and took a sip. “Your eyebrows are still gray. Is this wine?”
He brought his hand up to feel at his eyebrows, as though he would be able to check the color through touch. He suddenly felt very foolish. “A chardonnay, I think.”
“I see,” she said, putting the cup back. She grinned impishly at him. “Are you trying to get me drunk?”
“Am I so transparent?” he asked, half joking. “I can get you something else if you want.”
“Don’t trouble yourself. I’m not very thirsty anyway,” she said. She leaned forward slightly. “Before we start, can we get our business out of the way so we can enjoy ourselves?”
Mousse blinked, making a good show of looking startled. “Business? The only reason I invited you here was to enjoy each others’ company.”
She gave him a flat look. “Come on, Mousse. I know you want information from me, and it would be so much easier if I just told you rather than both of us playing word games with each other.”
He looked at her a moment before laughing. “You saw right through me. I guess it would be kind of awkward not talking directly about the issue at hand. Kind of like the elephant in the living room that nobody mentions.”
They both laughed at that, and Mousse asked, “So what do I have to do for this information?”
“How about this,” Nabiki said. “I ask a question and then you ask a question. That way we both get what we want.”
He grinned. “Quid pro quo. Sounds good to me. After you.”
“Thank you,” Nabiki said. “Why do you want to kill Cologne and Shampoo?”
Right off the bat. She probably has a list of questions planned out. He waited, appearing to think carefully about his answer. “Cologne killed my parents and tried to kill me. Shampoo is just the wrong person in the wrong place at the wrong time. Are you angry with me?”
Nabiki looked taken aback, whether with the casual abruptness of his answer or with his question, he couldn’t tell. “Why would I be angry with you?”
“I did kidnap your sister and almost killed her fiancé. Most people would at least be a little upset with me.”
Nabiki shrugged. “I know, but it happens so often. And unlike the others, you did give her back, so Ranma won’t have to rescue her. Not that he’s in any shape to do anything like that now.”
Now it was Mousse’s turn to be taken aback. “So this happens often?”
She smiled. “With alarming frequency. Where did you get that scar?”
The slight smile he wore faded as he brought his hand up to his throat. “A little something the Amazons gave me as a reminder of the time we spent together.”
Her smile faded along with his. “What did they do to you?” she asked quietly.
His statement brightened suddenly. “I think it’s my turn to ask a question now,” he said. “Now, what can you tell me about Ranma?”
She looked as though she was going to press her question, then just sighed. “Where to start?”
He leaned forward, eager for a good story. “From the beginning. I’m not going anywhere.”
“If you say so. It all started when Ranma came to live with us last year…”
Tofu watched from the top of the apartment as Nabiki walked into the restaurant. To meet her date for the night, who, judging from his past actions, might be utterly charming or leave her gutted corpse nailed to the ceiling depending on his mood. Then again, she wasn’t an Amazon, so he didn’t think he needed to worry. But he still wondered if she knew what she was getting into.
He stepped off the edge of the roof and dropped silently to the ground. Following that man with the camera was too easy, and led him to where his quarry was hiding. It was so easy he almost thought it was a trap, but this opportunity was simply too good to pass up. He lit a cigarette as he strolled down the sidewalk, toward where his quarry had made his residence. He knew he should not have started smoking again, but it seemed as though he had never stopped. Recent experience taught him that old habits are never really dropped; they just submerge themselves and wait for the right time to come back up.
He paused on the sidewalk to take one last drag on the cigarette before tossing the butt away. He exhaled the smoke in a heavy sigh. He always turned philosophical when he smoked. He shrugged. “C’est la vie,” he said, and continued on his way to his quarry’s, his brother’s, lair. It was time to end this.
Four hours and a fine bottle of chardonnay later found Mousse and Nabiki doubled over laughing at her stories of Ranma. “So his dad actually ties fish sausage on him and drops him into a pit full of stray cats?” asked Mousse, managing a question between fits of laughter.
“Yeah,” Nabiki said, wiping a tear from her eye. “So now he’s totally afraid of cats. The thing is he turns into a cat in his mind when the fear overwhelms him. But I guess you found that out already.”
“I sure did.” He smiled ruefully. “If I’d known he’d turn into a cat I wouldn’t have told him to ‘play with the kitty.’”
They both looked at each other for a moment before again collapsing into fits of laughter. They knew that shouldn’t have been funny, both Ranma and Mousse almost died in that fight, but they couldn’t stop laughing. “So what about Nodoka? She seems pretty normal.”
Nabiki accidentally put down the wine flute in the water, but that was the farthest thing from her mind. “Okay, get this,” she said, gesturing with her hands for emphasis. “When Ranma was still a baby, like one or two, Genma took him away on a training trip until he was sixteen. He promised Nodoka that Ranma would come back as a ‘man among men’ or,” she leaned forward and whispered conspiratorially, “they would both commit seppuku.” Then she fell back on the pillows, laughing.
Mousse was grinning in anticipation of yet another Ranma brand hijinks courtesy of his father. It seemed as though all of Ranma’s dilemmas stemmed in one way or another from his old man, usually resulting in hilarious consequences for them both; he couldn’t help thinking that someone should make a TV show based on their life. But as soon as he heard about Ranma being taken from his mother, the grin began to slip. He reclined back against the pillows, a shadow over his face.
Nabiki noticed this change in demeanor immediately, even with the warm haze of alcohol clouding her mind. “What’s wrong?” she asked, genuinely worried for him. And for herself as well. He had been a perfect gentleman the entire evening, but she couldn’t shake the feeling that he was somehow… unstable.
There was no reply from him for a moment. “I think it’s wrong for any child to be taken away from his mother,” he finally answered, not looking at her but at the tiny stream before them with melancholy look on his face.
Realization sobered her quickly. “I’m sorry Mousse, I shouldn’t have said that,” she said, remembering what he said about the Amazons killing his parents. Judging from his reaction, Ranma’s situation with his mother must be at least somewhat similar to his own. She filed that bit of information away in her mind.
He shrugged. “You have no reason to be sorry. It happened, and nothing can change that,” he said softly. His statement hardened. “But that doesn’t mean I can’t do anything about it.”
Nabiki looked at him sadly. She had always been a skeptic, always taking everyone’s story with a grain of salt. However, with Mousse she knew he was telling the truth. He was certainly hiding something, maybe a lot of somethings; the ambiguous answers he gave her were enough proof of that. But she knew too well what it was like to lose a parent, and she couldn’t imagine what she would do if someone had killed both her mother and father and then tried to kill her. Probably something like what Mousse had been doing. And that scar around his neck, who knew what they did to him? Nabiki decided to steer the course of this evening away from its current direction.
“Come on, let’s go,” she said, standing up suddenly. She immediately swooned, however, and would have fallen forward if Mousse had not suddenly appeared, holding her arms to steady her. She looked up at him with some amazement. She hadn’t even seen him move.
“You drank a little too much,” he said, concern tingeing his voice. “I should take you home.”
And suddenly she realized how close she was to him, close enough to feel warmth from his body. She flushed suddenly, and it grew deeper when she saw that his face had turned red, whether from the alcohol or something else. He has such beautiful eyes… What am I doing? She berated herself mentally. I’m worse than Akane.
“Um, we’re standing in the water,” he said quietly. Nabiki looked up at him in surprise and then down at her feet. Indeed, they were both standing ankle deep in the small pool. They looked at each other and broke out into laughter, even if it was a little subdued. Although the tension was broken, neither of them could deny what happened, or what almost happened.
She moved around to his side and hooked an arm in his. “Let’s go to your place.”
“What?” he asked as she pulled him toward the door.
“I want to go to your place.” She grinned as he turned red in the face again. Come one.”
“Nabiki… I… this is kind of fast, being the first…” he choked as she continued dragging him out of the pool and to the door.
She pulled up in front of him. “I thought you knew better than that, Mousse-baby. I don’t know what you’re thinking but I’m just not that kind of girl,” she said sternly, and laughed at his wide-eyed, stammered apologies. She patted him on the cheek. “Don’t worry about it, Mousse-baby. I just want to see where you live, that’s all.”
He looked confused at first, and then resigned, as she started to pull
him again, encouraging him the entire way.