A Ranma Sailor Moon fic thingy.
By Josh Temple
Naturally, I own neither Sailor Moon nor Ranma. So here's the disclaimer
Ranma 1/2 and its characters and settings belong to Rumiko Takahashi, Shogakukan, Kitty, and Viz Video. Bishoujo Senshi Sailor Moon belongs to Naoko Takeuchi, Koudansha, TV Asahi, and Toei Douga, and DIC.
Previous chapters and other works can be found at my fanfiction website.
Temporary Backup Site.
C&C as always is wanted.
Chapter 11 Old Friends Made Anew Part 2
"Unless you people get off your encounter-suited butts and do something!"
Sarah flexed her hands, the grassy field in front of her looked yellow under the tint of her glasses. The forest felt quiet, muffled. The wind blew through the trees. The sound of buzzing dragonfly wings cut through her earplugs. Seven yards in front of her was a rectangle of cardboard held up by two wooden posts. The range itself went back over two hundred yards, which made the targets appear abnormally close.
There was a harsh buzz to her left. The redhead's right hand flashed to the butt of the gun holstered at her hip. Her left crossed her chest and was held at her sternum. She drew the weapon up and the instant it cleared leather her wrist rotated the gun from vertical to horizontal and her elbow straightened as her arm pressed out.
Her left hand met right and two-handed she fired at the green index card taped to the top of the cardboard. One hole appeared, then was made a bit bigger with the second shot.
Sarah's ponytail was still bouncing as her 1911's slide locked back. She dropped the magazine and as it fell reached with her left hand and pulled a fresh one from her belt and slammed it in. Her thumb hit the slide release and she fired four times into the center of the target making a roughly diamond shape the size of her palm.
Holstering, she looked at the target with a little smile and knelt down to pick up the dropped magazine. When she stood back up there was a tiny round of applause. To her left was a rough-hewn wood table made from logs.
Atop it were her range kit and the shot timer. It was a device that, after a short delay, would start a timer that would then stop after its microphone heard a set number of gun shots.
Standing around the grey box of the timer were a trio of green-skinned, green-haired fairies. They were all wearing little green and red dresses that looked vaguely like leaves and petals. Though one wore had blue trim to her dress and stood a little bit taller.
She bowed to Sarah. "Three point seven-two seconds. You're getting close to the world record. You'd be even faster if you just put six rounds in one magazine."
Sarah blinked. "Having to do a reload is the whole point."
"Oh, you're still very fast."
"Sure, this time. You didn't see when I fumbled with the magazine last time."
Ichi kept her face neutral.
"Oh goody, you've learned how to lie. I'm sure sis'll love that." Sarah sighed and picked up the timer and started recording the data into her logbook.
One of the shorter fairies looked to Ichi and gestured with her head pointing in Sarah's direction.
"Would it inconvenience you terribly to ask when you'll be done?" Ichi then gave a little bow.
"What now?" Sarah turned the timer off and stuffed it into her range bag. A hard plastic case that contained a couple other handguns she had been using was also closed and bagged up.
"There's no rush, but the Princess does have a meeting and she would love to have your advice."
The range was at the high end of the O'Neil family's property. As such, Sarah stepped off the front and stood at the head of the path that meandered up to the range. Below her she could see the house, the garage, the driveway, where Dan had his truck out for some reason, and the sprawling rose garden that dominated much of the rising land between the range and the house.
Sarah could see her sister near the middle of the garden puttering about in a pair of shorts and an embroidered green blouse. "She could have come up herself. She didn't have to send you three."
Ichi looked to the other fairies before giving Sarah a nervous nod.
Sarah removed her shooting glasses and pinched her nose. "You're helping again aren't you?"
The little fairy tilted her head.
Putting her glasses in their case and removing her ear plugs, Sarah shook her head. "Fine, you wanna be helpful? She waved her hand at the stunted grass that made up the range grounds. To the right of where she stood were hundreds of metallic flashes where the casings had landed.
"Yeah, pick up the brass and sort by caliber."
"Can do!" Ichi said as she and the other fairies buzzed off.
Sighing, Sarah went downrange and picked up the target stand. She then put it inside a shed that stood at the back of the range, opposite the little knife throwing gallery and then lowered the warning flag down the flagpole that stood next to that.
She shouldered her range bag. As she walked down the path gravel gave way to flagstones, which were then filled in with fine soil and eventually verdant puffs of moss.
Raised beds and gardens were also coming into play. It was not just roses, there were trellises, most of which had climbing rose vines, and little trees and even a couple water features with small ponds and a couple connecting streams that the path crossed using particularly long stones.
Turning down a side path, Sarah smiled at the gardens. Not all of the plants were the nearly throbbing green uber-roses that seemed to pop out of the ground fully formed, complete with perfect flowers. Many seemed to be more natural plants.
Shifting her back, Sarah did frown. She supposed that they might not all be natural. Some of the tiny seedlings might simply be experiments of her sister's that would take longer to take root.
Near the end of the path, Sarah found the Rose Princess. She was kneeling down in a muddy hole lifting a lumpy rock. Neatly manicured hands grabbed the stone and found purchase. She heaved and the rock bobbed into the air and tumbled before landing in an empty spot in the middle of another garden with a wet smack.
"Show off," Sarah teased as she put her bag down and offered a hand.
Ranma looked down at her hands and frowned. "But I'll get you muddy."
"Don't be such a priss," Sarah grabbed her am and hauled Ranma out of the little pit.
"I'm not," Ranma looked at her hands and sighed.
Sarah raised an eyebrow. "You're whining."
Ranma glared. She flicked her hand and a green-shafted wand with a white rosebud tip appeared. With one wave the mud vanished from her boots, clothes, skin, and hair. Then with another her outfit shifted from shorts and blouse to her customary long green dress. A strappy sandal with a low heel stepped onto the flagstones and she offered the wand to her sister.
"Uh, no thanks." Sarah sighed and pulled a rag out of her range bag and used that to clean her hands.
"That's why I didn't want you to get muddy," Ranma offered.
"That's the problem with doing things halfway, Princess. Next time get her so muddy she'll have to submit to your wand," Allison said, walking up the path. One of Ranma's fairies rode on her shoulder, using the blonde's hair to stabilize herself.
The two redheads looked at each other and shared a look. Ranma raised an eyebrow while Sarah shook her head in negation.
Allison's smile vanished and she stamped a foot. "What, too subtle? Not blatant enough?"
"Oh no, I got the mud wrestling subtext, if you can call it subtext," Ranma said, leading the two other girls to a table near the center of the garden.
Carved out of dense ironwood, the table was a thick disk inset with lighter woods to make a two-tone rosette pattern and was supported from below by thickly arching vines that had been grown in place. Surrounding it were four low-backed wooden chairs made in a similar fashion. Atop the table was a chubby pale green teapot with a single rose painted on the side and three matching stout plain cups and saucers.
As Allison sat down, the fairy jumped off her shoulder and picked up the tea pot. The blonde nodded to the little rose-golem and her cup was filled. Allison took the cup and inspected it. It was pale green porcelain. There were no marks on the outside, or the inside.
"Speaking of subtlety..." Allison lifted the cup up above her head and peered at the bottom. There she spotted a tiny red rose: a maker's mark. She smirked and took a sip of the tea. It was an English breakfast tea with a bare hint of rosehips. She put the cup down on the saucer and nodded to Ranma. "Not bad, Princess. Though I'll have to ding you a point for using your little flunkies to summon me."
"Agreed," Sarah poked at her tea cup.
"Though I do approve of their latest trick." Allison smiled at the fairy on her shoulder.
"Trick?" Sarah's eyes narrowed.
The fairy bowed and green-silver fluid began to seep out of her skin and hair. The emerald quicksilver poured out until it covered the tiny figure and it turned... not quite invisible.
Sarah blinked. She could just make out the fairy, but it was like looking at a figure made out of glass. She looked at Ranma. "You copied Allison's gland?"
The princess coughed. "Not exactly. They're plants, so I could not use quite the same idea. But at range the stealth should hold."
Leaning back, Sarah glanced at Allison. "You knew this?"
Allison looked at the nearly invisible fairy with a smug grin. "I had an idea."
"This isn't about you making your little friends even more sneaky is it?"
Ranma lifted her tea cup and shook her head before taking a sip.
"You know what she's going to use them for," Allison said as the fairy shook herself back to normal visibility.
Ranma took a sip and gently returned the cup to her saucer. "I do apologize. I wanted to call you in person. This is a delicate issue." She glanced at the fairy standing on the table off to the side. "But someone decided to show some initiative. Isn't that right Roku?"
The fairy nodded. "It wasn't my idea Princess."
"No, you simply decided that following Ichi's initiative was a better use of your time."
"Problems with your minions... your invisible minions?" Allison asked. Her tone was light but her eyes bore some concern.
"Ichi visited me with two fairies. You sure you can handle this?" Sarah asked.
"Of course." Ranma reached for her cup, then pulled her hand back.
"You sure this isn't about you making little spooks?" Sarah leaned forward. "Decisions, initiative, planning. Your little friends are evolving."
Roku smiled and gave a curtsy.
"And now you want to send them out to look for the Hacker Bitch?"
Ranma's shoulders squared, and she drummed her fingers on the table in a two-three-five pattern. Then with perfect poise, and distant eyes she picked up her teacup two handed and took a contemplative sip.
Roku blinked. The little fairy then sat on the table, drew her knees up to her chest, and went to sleep.
Sarah frowned. "Damn. Call Erika?" she asked Allison while the princess took another sip.
"Oh great, she's blue screened," Allison leaned across the table and stared into Ranma's eyes. Her face was only a couple inches away. "Hey, Princess!"
"I can still hear you," Rose sweetly said. The cup returned to the saucer with a tiny clink. Roku shook herself awake, stood, and spread her wings before flying off into the garden.
"What the hell was that about?" Allison asked.
"I forced a memory synchronization and checked their personalities. I'm going to have to do some work on Ichi. She's starting to outgrow her hardware."
"Well, I can see why you called us in," Sarah shook her head. "This is an issue."
Rose's eyebrows rose up. "Pardon? Oh no. This isn't about them."
"Then what's the deal?" Allison looked over Sarah. The redhead was wearing pants, blouse, vest, boots, and a holster and magazine carriers on each hip. The blonde then saw Sarah's range bag. "Crap. This isn't more training is it? Because I really don't want to have to shoot your sister today."
"I was at the range, you loon!" Sarah rubbed her forehead, then with a shrug grabbed the tea cup. "And I think the fairy spy network is more pressing of a concern!"
"So? You don't know what this Wild Rose school is like. Princess' a real sadist."
Ranma crossed her legs and daintily refilled her cup. "Really now, that must be an exaggeration," she innocently said before offering to top off Allison's tea. "Wild Rose is nothing more than mental and physical training that can help a young lady, or young gentleman, master herself and her powers. Perfectly proper and builds good character."
Allison crossed her arms. "You can't play innocent with me. I know that behind every toothy grin is another... toothy... grin."
This time the blonde snorted. "At least you can be dismissively haughty as well as dangerously eccentric."
The princess clapped her hands and almost bounced in her sat. "Oh wonderful!"
Once again, Sarah pinched the bridge of her nose. "I shouldn't have had any of the tea should I?"
"Oh, it's fine," Ranma said a bit more casually.
"What's fine?" Allison demanded.
"Know how I cured your quicksilver madness?" Ranma asked.
The blonde nodded.
"And then you took advantage of a fixed gland and started putting copies into your fairies."
"Only a few."
"As a test case. I know you; you'll want to use them to look for the Hacker Bitch."
Sarah exhaled. "Well, good."
The princess blinked. "What about your concerns?"
"You're looking to keep them hidden, that shows caution. You know what'll happen if your little spies get caught?"
Ranma looked at her fairies; she nodded.
"We can help, but you're going to have to be cautious."
"Thank you," Ranma gave a little smile.
"Yeah, that's nice, Princess" Allison rolled her eyes. "But you were talking about me, remember."
Ranma chuckled. "When it comes to specific personality types, you have a certain expertise."
Allison's face clouded. "Oh?"
"Oh indeed." Ranma looked apologetic. "Allow me to be blunt."
"If only you could be direct," Sarah grumbled.
Ranma glared for a moment. "Allison, could you teach me how to be, as you put it dismissively haughty, dangerously eccentric, in short: nuts."
Allison's grin nearly split her face. "Well, well, you came to the right place, Princess." She leaned forward. "What do you have in mind? You've got a lot of options. With your powers there's plenty of way you can go nuts."
"Well, perhaps off-kilter is a better right word." Rose ran a finger over the rim of her teacup.
"Hah! Like you'd choose the wrong word. You wanna be nuts? Sure we can do that." Allison took her teacup off the saucer and slammed it down onto the table itself.
"And why am I here?" Sarah asked her sister. "I hardly think you need my advice on how to become an unstable danger."
Ranma reached out and took Sarah's hand. She looked down and saw Sarah's hands. They were calloused from working on her guns and armor, especially around her index fingers. Similarly her nails were short and only had a single clear coat of polish.
"You're here as my anchor," Rose gave a careful squeeze. Appearances aside, her grip was still much stronger than Sarah's. "You'll be our sanity check. Keep us from going too far."
"That's pretty scary, coming from my Prissy Princess brother."
"Thanks sis." Ranma gave a bittersweet smile. "I know you're worried."
"About you overcompensating?" Sarah's voice rose. "There's these books you're reading. All that goopy romance nonsense."
"It is fun in a blatant 'let your brain idle' and enjoy the ride sort of way."
Sarah raised her eyebrow. "And that's all?"
"I didn't realize I was becoming some love-struck princess in a heaving bodice," Ranma dryly remarked.
Sarah glanced at Allison. "No comment?"
"What? It's a bit too easy." The blonde smiled at Sarah's put upon expression. "Oh fine, I'm sure such a bodice would be an improvement."
Ranma gave a prim smile. Then rolled her eyes. "Well done, Sailor Nightshade."
"Frankly, I'm more worried about the fairies reading those books than Princess."
Ichi looked up at Allison with an innocent smile.
"Sometimes at night... Dan swears he can hear the buzz of wings," Allison said evenly.
The two redheads exchanged a look. "I'm almost certain they haven't logged any data from that," Ranma admitted after a moment.
"Got you!" Allison laughed. "But seriously, they're going to get curious."
Ichi blinked and started cleaning a teacup.
"Yes, I can definitely see why you want me as an anchor," Sarah took Ranma's hand.
Ranma squeezed back. "Thanks. And you'll make sure we don't go too far. Right? I know Allison can be very –well- enthusiastic."
Sarah held back the comment that came to mind. "Of course. I'll be here for you."
Allison rolled her eyes. "You done?"
Picking up her cup, Ranma nodded.
"Good. And yeah, we can do nuts Princess! With the right stutter and transhumanist god-complex you can do something in the Shodan or Glados style. Now, that'd really suit you don'tcha think?"
The princess looked to Ichi; the fairy nodded in reply. "Would you like some cake?" she asked before taking a sip. "I've been assured that we have some."
Ranma laughed. "Not quite. I was thinking more the haughty rich-girl. Though less insufferable and more whimsical."
"So... there's no cake then?" Allison frowned. "Bleah, no offence, Princess but you're plenty prissy. Why you wanna do shove that stick higher up your butt?"
"No offense? And is priss on someone's word of the day?" Ranma blinked. "Why so it is. The Shorter Oxford-Insult Day-by-Day calendar."
Sarah shook her head.
Allison rubbed her chin. "Well if you want offensive..."
"No. No need," Ranma waved her hand.
"And why do you want to play a spoiled twat?" Sarah asked.
"Yeah, what kinda scheme you got cooking?"
"It's for my business."
Sarah frowned. "Ranma... just because you're selling expensive rose bushes to rich idiots doesn't mean you have to be a rich idiot yourself."
"In some ways it does help." Ranma sighed. "But this is also for my Nerima contingencies. I figure I can kill two birds with one stone."
"Nerima? Oh god. I knew you wouldn't stop with those phones."
"Why should I? Unlike here, those luddites have no idea how to secure their comm. systems. Do you know how enticing an unsecured network is?" Ranma demanded.
Sarah glanced at Allison. "Well of course," the blonde assured, patting the princess' arm. "We're hackers too."
Ranma nodded. "The runaround Gos gave them was great, but it's still defense. I'm tired of being reactive."
"You need to be careful." Sarah took Ranma's hand. "If you go too far the Town Fathers will come down on you."
Princess Rose scoffed. "Where were they when the Hacker Bitch destroyed my life? When she turned me into an experiment? A puppet? Why haven't they come down on her?
Sarah looked down. "Because they don't care about one life. They care about their magic, their work, about the town."
"The sheriff works for them, no? Jack adopted me, what's the point of nepotism if you can't take advantage of it."
"I suppose that will give you some leeway. You should be able to be a bit more disruptive than the Hacker-bitch and still get away with it," Allison allowed.
Sarah glared at the blonde.
"What? I'm being honest." Allison leveled her gaze at the redheaded tomboy. "You know there's a reason we can get away with what we do."
Ranma tapped her tea cup. "And this is why I have to be proactive. We need plans. We need information. The Town Fathers aren't going to get off their butts and help us. It's up to us."
Sarah, reluctantly, nodded.
"This isn't about the Hacker bitch?"
"I hope not. As I said, this is about my Nerima contingencies."
"And roses," Sarah recalled. There was something that triggered her memory, something in her brother's past that had to do with roses.
Allison frowned. "Right... roses and Nerima?"
Sarah blinked. Given her sister's past "associates", there was only one possibility.
Allison leaned across the table. "Right, you pick the one person in Nerima who's almost as nuts about roses as you. Someone that will put your roses everywhere and has minions doing all sorts of spying. And you pick the one girl that won't ever believe you're Ranma, and is a crazy loon that no one would ever listen to anyway."
Allison smirked. "You do realize the price right?"
"Aside from having to make a batch of black rose bushes?" Ranma sighed sadly. "Yes. This is why I came to you."
Allison put a hand onto Ranma's shoulder. "You came to the right place, Princess. With my help you can be the perfect little rich bitch friend for Kodachi."
Ranma gave Sarah an almost pleading expression.
"Oh, no." Sarah took a sip of tea and winced. "This was your idea, dear sister. What harm can there be in humoring our good friend Allison?"
Mikiko concentrated and placed one foot after the other. Careful to lead with her toes and place her foot level she made sure she did not stumble. As she walked down the wooded path her ankles wobbled slightly. Her attention downwards she hardly noticed the shade retreat as the trees got less dense, and she almost missed the growing sounds of traffic.
She looked up and blinked, just ahead of her was a busy road and a busier sidewalk. Tilting her head she stepped forward. Standing at the T-junction where the path butted to the sidewalk, Mikiko scanned the crowd. Growing as fast as her choker could drain, worry and anxiety bubbled inside her. Watching the cars and busses and masses of people rush in front of her, she took a step back, back to the park's path. Looking up she saw tall building loom over her; glass and concrete hulks made her feel even smaller and more alone.
Inhaling, she continued watching the city. "I haven't seen this many people since..." Her recollections slipped and her memory fell to something more solid. "since I was watching my movies." Mikiko whimpered, feeling more alone. Those movies had been fun, especially since Oneesama was with her.
Tapping her foot, Mikiko tried to think. She could swear she felt her brain aching at the effort, but then a smile bloomed. "I know! When
Looking over the crowd she started her quest. Half of the people were right out. She knew from
As she looked at the people walking down the street, she mentally crossed off those too old, too weak, too thin, too fat, too ugly to be suitable. Just because she had to practice did not mean she should be sloppy. Feeling her tummy rumble, she licked her lips and hoped that she'd find her prince soon, in time to get a meal.
Then she saw him... broad shouldered, with a decisive face, ring-less fingers, and deep green eyes. Mikiko's heart stopped and she had to pull her tongue in. A rich savory sensation filled her mouth and sinus as she skipped after him. Fortunately, the crowd split around her, and she managed to keep her footing. Catching up to him, she tapped her hair bow and gave the tail of his suit coat a tug. "Excuse me."
Turning around and looking down, Richard Wick blinked. For a moment he almost swore that the little girl was some kind of sugary mirage but then, she came into focus. Almost dropping his briefcase, he looked around. No one else was dressed so... formally. It was all too much, the crown alone...
He blinked again. It did not matter how she was dressed, really...Thinking of his grey-suit complete with matching vest, Wick frowned. Maybe that was why she was bothering him.
"Can I help you?" He asked, still taking in the effeminate excess. Despite being held with a giant shiny white bow that stuck out beyond the girl's shoulders, piles and piles of curled pink tresses still went down her back, past her waist and ended at around her knees.
"I hope so!"
"Were you at a... wedding?" Wick stared at the flounced ankle-length dress, with its pink accents and accents of silver thread.
Her crown tingling, Mikiko clasped her gloved hands to her chest. "Oh yes, Mister! I went out to pick some flowers in the park and –" she bit her lip. "-I got lost! I didn't mean to... oh, Oneesama will be so worried."
Wick frowned, something was amiss, at first he thought it was her teeth, but other than an overuse of whitening, there was nothing wrong with them. "You don't have any flowers."
Mikiko hesitated, until she felt a sting in her temples. "I... I dropped them. I don't know where I am, the wedding's going to be late and I don't even have the flowers!" she wailed as tears started to glide down overly blushed cheeks.
"Don't cry. I'm sorry." With his free hand, Wick patted her shoulder and blinked at how much his hand sank into the gauzy layers. "How can I help?"
Smiling, Mikiko felt a triumphant thrill. She had found a prince. "I don't know where I am."
"Do you have a phone?"
The girl shook her head.
"Do you know this –um- Oneesama's phone number?"
Mikiko bit her lip. "I... forgot." Looking at his disappointed expression, she almost started to cry. A hatred of field tests bubbled up within her and popped before she could give it much thought.
"It's okay, it's okay," Wick patted her shoulder. "Do you know where the wedding's being held?"
Mind empty, Mikiko froze, until the familiar tingling set in. It was much easier to just go with the pricking. "It's at this big hotel. Tall white building with lions in front of the doors!" She gleefully recited, not caring where the information came from.
Wick raised an eyebrow. "The
Mikiko nodded causing her bow, and hair, to bounce about. "That's it,"
Wick sighed in relief. The girl had just got turned around. "That's just around the corner, across the street from the park."
"Oh. I can't believe I missed it."
"It's okay, it's easy to get lost in that park," Wick lied. "Come on, I'll show you where it is."
"Thank you," the girl once again clasped her hands to her chest.
Rick chuckled and started walking down the sidewalk. "I'm Richard Wick by the way."
"My name's Mikiko." She gushed as some more information fell into place.
"Cute name. So who is this Oneesama?" he asked as they rounded a corner.
"The bestest big sister in the world."
Wick sighed. Someone had really spoiled this girl. He looked ahead and sighed. They were almost there.
Mikiko pointed ahead. "Is that it!"
"Yup, see you weren't that lost after all," Wick said as he looked for an opening in the traffic.
Eyeing the hotel, Mikiko stopped at the curb. She looked both ways then across the road. Her heart stopped, for a moment she thought she saw a familiar black-haired woman, but the figure turned and walked away. Sighing, the girl held up her left arm. It looked like she was on her own. "Oneesama said hold hands when you cross the road."
"Err... right," Wick swapped his briefcase to his left arm. When his hand clasped her glove he felt strangely cold silk. A second later, it felt like ice shot through his veins and his brain-froze up.
Keeping her grip, Mikiko looked up. "There, isn't this fun?"
Wick stiffly nodded.
Her forehead constantly prickled, Mikiko paused and looked at her prince's hands. He would need one empty, and she dared not let go. "Put the briefcase down."
"Yay, let's go!" Mikiko let him lead the way.
After crossing the street they passed the stone lions and entered the hotel's lobby. As they neared the check-in counter Mikiko let herself gawk at the polished brass, deep carpets and fancy chandeliers. She knew the rest of their make-believe would be taken care of.
"Daddy, we're going to be late!" Mikiko whined, carefully tugging at Wick's arm. She knew that breaking contact would be bad now. She could see the lines he was to say before he said them. That she could see the lines she was supposed to say made her feel ever so slightly queasy.
Wick absently smiled at Mikiko before turning to the woman behind the counter. "Hi, Wick. Three to check in."
"Of course," the clerk began typing. "Ah, here we are, your wife just called and reserved the room."
Wick would have blinked in surprise if he could.
Looking at the little girl she had to smile. "Going to a party?"
"Wedding actually," Wick stared off. "My little princess is going to be the flower girl." He tried to reach for his wallet, but Mikki refused to let go. In an awkward maneuver with his left hand, he retrieved his wallet from the left inside pocket of his jacket and put it on the counter.
"I'm sure she'll do great." The clerk nodded as the entry came up. "She's got your eyes."
Mikiko beamed, playing pretend was fun.
Wick mechanically chuckled. "But she's got her mother's face."
The clerk started programming the key-cards. "Room 608. So where's your luggage?"
"I lost the coin toss. So my wife's got them. Can you leave a key for her? Her name's Jane," Wick said distantly, almost mechanically.
"You lost?" the clerk said as she made a note and programmed a spar key card.
Wick leaned in. "Our little princess is a bit... overdressed, and she gets fussy when we try to make her take her princess crown off."
"You said I could dress nice," Mikiko concentrated on pouting and making sure they kept holding hands.
Wick swiveled his head down to the girl? "You can't look better than the bride, Dear."
Mikiko tilted her head. "Why not?" she innocently asked. She was a princess.
Wick turned to the clerk. "See? I guess it's our fault, we do spoil her."
The clerk held her tongue. "Well, enjoy your stay, and enjoy the wedding."
"Thanks." Wick said accepting the keys.
"I wish it was my wedding," Mikiko blurted before Wick led her away towards the elevators.
Once inside the elevator car, Mikiko studied the reflection in the polished doors. She found herself smiling. Startled at her stomach growling, she almost let go of her prince's limp hand. Making sure she still had him, she exited the elevator.
There was a hallway to the left, right, and straight in front of her. Mikiko looked to either side. The left hallway was dim and full of shadows; the right had a small lounge halfway down its length.
Glancing back to the left, she let Wick take her down the center hallway towards the room. He inserted the key-card and the lock clicked open.
The door closed and Mikiko locked it and then pulled off her hair bow. The immense silken ornament came off and her hair fell and spilled all around her to the point where it tumbled to the floor. Letting go of her prince she pinned the bow to the door and turned around.
Life returned to Wick's eyes and his hands twitched, suddenly feeling empty. He looked down at the little girl in shock. He now saw that her dress was too much, even for a wedding. Now reaching to the floor, her hair was far too long. Her jewelry was too much, especially that thing around her neck. And her teeth....
Mikiko licked her fangs. "Can you help me? Please?"
Wick looked around the hotel room. "How did I get here? What are you?" he stepped back.
"I'm lost and I'm hungry."
"Stay back!" Wick pulled out his phone but it was completely dead.
Mikiko frowned. "You tricked me. You said you were going to help me. You're not very nice." The silver threads on her dress flashed green before pulsing a salmon pink.
Wick screamed as the girl's hair whipped out. Four sections grew and wrapped around each of his limbs. Feeling as strong as cable, the two on his legs brought him to his knees, while the other pair secured his arms behind his back.
Mikiko's tongue ran over her lips as she stepped forward. "You may not be a Prince, but you still taste lovely." Another set of tresses rose, wrapped around the top of his head and turned it to one side, exposing his neck.
Eyes wide at the slowly approaching figure, fear and powerlessness flooded into the man. "Let me go! Let me go! Let me go!" Thrashing against his bonds, Wick wondered why she stopped holding his hand. If her touch could turn him into a puppet, then why let go?
His answer came when her fangs sunk into his neck and he felt his fear, his confusion, his anxiety, all of it, just drained away. His screaming stopped. His mind dulled. More tendrils of hair wrapped around his body and begin to squeeze. Soon his eyes were covered in the pink tendrils and Wick went limp
Eyes closed and rapt at the stream of sweet and savory flavors, Mikiko continued to feed, her choker flared and soaked in the energy. Soon her constricting hair slackened and Wick's limp body tumbled to the floor
She opened her eyes and her hair sprang back. A pink coil cloud fell into place around her. Smiling, she noticed her tresses were a bit thicker and extend further around her in almost smug drifts.
Gazing down at the crumpled man, Mikiko felt... full. Her hands shook and horror knotted in her stomach, making her feel nauseous. She wiped at her lips, relieved to find no blood straining them. Then her temples stung and pride and euphoria flowed through her as her choker sparkled.
Stepping over the unconsumed man in the now rumpled suit she made her way to the bathroom. She pulled off her gloves. Looking at her scandalously bare arms, she then looked around the hotel room, just to make sure the shades were closed, that the bow still generating a privacy field, and that her "prince" was still asleep.
Looking back at the mirror, she idly patted her belly, which had grown. Putting her gloves on the sink, she closed the door and slipped out of her dress. Carefully hanging her prettier-gown she made her way to the toilet where her hair obliged her and got out of the way. Pulling down a pair of gold crown and pink heart patterned underwear she giggled for the duration.
"My tinkle's pink," she laughed as she washed her pink manicured hands in the sink. Her forehead tingled. "No, I'm a big girl. Proper princesses don't talk like that," she mechanically recited.
Immediately after her hands dried she slipped her gloves back on. She nodded at her reflection and patted her tummy. At least she wasn't hungry anymore. She squirmed back into her gown and sealed it around her. Now she felt almost complete.
After fluffing her hair, Mikiko inspected her face. She sighed in relief; her makeup was still perfect. She hoped that Oneesama would give her more lessons. She stepped out of the bathroom and paused.
Sprawled out, Wick groaned.
Licking her lips, the pink princess stepped forward. Then her tongue paused over the point of one of her fangs. She stopped and shook her head. Pink ringlets swirled about.
Concentrating, she forced her hair into four thick tendrils. Two pulled back the bed sheets while the others picked up his body and gently deposited the man onto the bed. Mikiko stepped over to the sleeping man. Her stomach gurgled. Her eyes were drawn to his neck, but when she leaned over she kissed his forehead.
"It's okay. You really were a nice man," she rose and looked sad for a moment. "You just picked the wrong girl to trust."
Mikiko took her bow off the door and pinned up her hair. She sighed, as much as she loved her hair's true length she was going outside and it was best to keep it off the dirty ground.
Unlocking the door, she stepped through. And noticed how both ends of the lacey bow brushed against the door jam. She giggled at that, thoughts about Wick being quickly forgotten. Once outside she tapped one of the sequins sewn into the bow's edges and went down the hallway.
The elderly couple in the elevator only gave a few compliments to Mikiko during the ride, and the female desk clerk simply gave a vapid wave. Everyone else simply stepped out of the confidently striding girl's way.
Outside, she inhaled and smiled. Giving her belly a discrete pat she found a crosswalk and stepped to the curb. After nearly a minute of stilled indecision, she relented and looked for a window where she could cross safely. She could feel Oneesama and wanted to tell her all about this adventure. On the other side she cheerfully crossed the sidewalk and entered the park. Finding the right path, she saw an open briefcase lying on the grass and giggled: not a prince, but tasty.
She walked down the path and concentrated on keeping her strides proper. The trees grew closer and the shadows increased and after a few busy minutes Mikiko smiled in recognition. Straight ahead of her was home.
And there sitting on the deck with her laptop was.... Mikiko blinked. It looked like Oneesan; she had short jet-black hair and a pale face that looked just like hers. Oneesan was also wearing a black dress instead of pants and a blouse, but changing clothes was far less amiss than gaining pale skin and a beauty mark. Mikiko frowned. Did Oneesama look like that? She was pretty sure her eyes were a different color and shape, and that her hair was longer.
The woman at the laptop looked up, and in a flash her face had shifted. Mikiko smiled. That was Oneesama! Euphoric, Mikiko skipped as fast as she could. Smirking, Rebecca closed her computer's screen and walked down the stairs from the porch to the yard.
"Did you have an adventure?" she asked the incoming pinkness.
Mikiko jumped up and wrapped her arms around Rebecca, nearly enveloping the taller girl in lace and pink hair "Oneesama! I was in this weird city! I was lost, but then this prince-but-not-really-a-prince helped me, but he was clueless!"
"My my," Rebecca returned the hug. "And what did you do to the pretend-prince?"
Mikiko giggled. "He wouldn't help me be un-lost so he helped me be un-hungry. Why are boys so clueless?"
Aware of the hair embracing her, Rebecca gave the girl another hug. "They just are Miki-chan," Rebecca laughed.
Mikiko frowned. Something was still bothering her. "Did you change your clothes?"
Rebecca looked down at herself. "Ah. Just some magic. Minor stuff." She leaned over and tapped at her keyboard. The dress shifted back into a pair of pants and matching blouse.
"Oh wow!" Mikiko clapped her hands. "Now we can both have gowns."
"As you say," Rebecca smiled thinly. "Still... I'm glad you had fun, but next time you get lost I want you to tell me."
Releasing her Oneesama, Mikiko pouted. "But I don't have a phone."
Rebecca suppressed a chuckle at her Princesses' ignorance. "I can give you something better."
Mikiko's eyes lit up. "What is it?"
"I'll show you." Rebecca put an arm around Mikiko and led her into the house, pausing to pick up her laptop. She then pulled her... sister down a hallway and to a pair of metallic doors that slid aside.
"An elevator?" Mikiko asked as her shoes squeaked on the lift's tile floor.
"Yes, to my workshop," Rebecca keyed a pass code into the pad next to the door and hit the button for the middle subbasement. The doors hissed closed and the lift began to descend.
When they opened again, the pink-haired girl's eyes widened as she stepped into the vast room.
"Wow, it's a secret hideout!" Mikiko looked around the cavernous subterranean hanger. The room stretched into the distance, ending at several steel doors that sprouted from a semicircular end wall at the far end.
The side Mikiko and Rebecca walked down had several lab stations, machine tools, a personal elevator and side rooms for material stock one large warehouse for common items and a smaller vault for... rarer materials.
After glancing at the ranks of mecha and smaller robots that lined the walls, Rebecca raised an eyebrow. "I suppose it is," she admitted arms clasped behind her back.
"Just like a super-villain!"
Rebecca tilted her head.
"Of course you're not, I mean Rose is the one with all the destructive and crazy–"
The black-haired teen nodded. "Come," she said leading the pink girl to a workbench.
Seeing the object on the workbench, Mikiko stopped. It was a white lace parasol with pink silk accents. Her jaw set and her hands shook. "That's mine."
Rebecca's expression froze.
Mikiko shook her head and blinked. "Sorry Oneechan. Is -is that for me?" she asked wide-eyed.
Rebecca smirked and hefted the parasol. "Of course, who else's would it be?"
"You're the best!" Mikiko chirped as she was handed the umbrella. Seeing how Oneesama struggled with it, Mikiko feared that it would n too heavy. Instead the parasol seemed to almost float in her hand.
"Oh, so pretty." Mikiko's finger reached for the ridged golden button above the grip but stopped when a stabbing pain shot through her temples. Instead she went for the smooth silver button below the gold one. There was no pain that time. The parasol popped open shading the small girl behind silk and scalloped lace trim.
Rebecca picked up a PDA and a headset from an adjacent workstation. "Having fun?" Typing in a few codes, she led the girl down towards the center of the hanger.
Mikiko twirled the parasol at her shoulder. "Yup!"
"Good." Rebecca tapped the screen and a set of blast doors descended, sealing the motor-pool off from the laboratory section.
Mikiko's eyes darted around the room as the various robots started to activate. "Oneesama..." she looked back and saw Rebecca walking away towards one of the darkened corners of the hanger.
Partially obscured by shadow, Rebecca turned around. "Yes?"
"What's going on?"
"You had a snack, you should have plenty of energy for playtime." Rebecca's broad white smile contrasted greatly with her darkened visage.
Mikiko blinked and then shrieked when several pumpkin sized metallic spiders dropped down around her. "What's going on?" she asked as they encircled her.
"Just one of the classics," the lady of shadows assured as she moved her PDA's stylus.
The eight robotic arachnids raised their foremost legs and spikes popped out, and with an electronic screech, they rushed the small princess. Mikiko shrieked and her hair fanned out. The three spiders behind her were swamped and crushed before her hair split, split again, and whipping forward on either side speared four more robots and the steel plating beneath them.
Straight in front of Mikiko, the remaining spider leapt at her face. Eyes wide and her temples throbbing she screamed. Her choker flashing, she slammed her parasol down smashing the spider into a pile of metal and thin oil.
"Very good!" Rebecca shouted, making a couple of notes on the subject's performance.
Mikiko blushed with pride and eyed the shattered robots. "This is fun," she gasped. A mangled spider-half tried to crawl towards her and she stomped down on it with one of her patent-leather shoes. The pink haired girl grinned at the satisfying crunch.
Rebecca cocked an eyebrow at that and made another note. "Glad you enjoy it." She then tapped her PDA.
Before Mikiko could respond the ceiling opened again and for several seconds it rained metallic spiders. Unlike before, they did not line up and instead rushed Mikiko in a seething wave.
Facing the two-score swarm, Mikiko felt a strange fluttering in her stomach and a growing sense of pride. Her hair streamed out and she tightened the grip on her parasol; she would not let Oneesama down.
Smiling, Rebecca watched as the little girl darted forward. Her hair floated around her in a pink nimbus crushing and impaling any robot that tried to attack from behind or above. In front Mikiko used her parasol like a club, brutally gleefully smashing anything within reach. Her choker flared as bright as a furnace. The crystal orb burning the emotional energy it had siphoned off since Mikiko's creation.
As the spiders got denser her hair grew thicker. The coils thrashed through the mass throwing some spiders into others and trying to create as much of a mess as possible.
Mikiko had cleared most of the spiders when one of the human-sized robots stepped forward and raised its arm. A red beam shot out of the energy canon on its wrist and sped towards her.
Feeling a draining in her guts and her neck, Mikiko turned just to see an inch-thick red beam shoot straight at her and then right before it hit curve and race past. Spinning, she raised her parasol and this time the pressure from her tiara practically begged her to press the gold button.
Depressing the ridged key, she almost giggled when a stream of puffy-swollen hearts raced out of the end. She saw the hearts hit and explode in a spray of pink glitter that tore the robot apart, and rained sparkles down onto the metal floor where they began to merrily eat through steel platting.
That was when she began to giggle, though it soon devolved to a mad cackling noise.
Another group of man-sized robots lumbered towards her. Their arms raised and bright red beams shot out and bent. Lances of particle beams got within two meters of the girl before they twisted, curving as if the girl were embedded within some giant lens.
Mikiko for her part simply ran towards them with a gleefully homicidal expression. She did not notice the bending of the lasers; she simply marveled at how bad their aim was.
Leaping among the torn and disintegrating robots, she smirked as her hair lashed out, tearing limbs and piercing torsos. Bashing aside one robot with her parasol revealed a clear shot and allowed her to disintegrate another in a cloud of exploding hearts and acid glitter.
Suddenly a long silver streak shot from behind also bent away when it got within a few feet of the girl. Mikiko turned and saw a twenty-five foot tall, cape-wearing, mecha lumber towards her.
The guymelef retracted its liquid blade and reconfigured it into a sword shape and swung down at the girl. Mikiko shrieked as her hair wove into a shield and caught the blade. She then hit the silver button on her parasol opening it up. A pink glow formed on the underside of the umbrella and it jerked forward pulling the girl out from under the mecha and up into the air.
Her umbrella yanked her up to just below the ceiling before it cut out and she started to float down. The mecha realigned itself and shot another silver liquid lance. Mikiko shrieked as her hair moved to shield her face. The quicksilver blade hammed the cocoon of hair and started to pry through, but by that time Mikiko had landed.
The umbrella closed with a snap and Mikiko leveled it and fired, sending a stream of corrosive hearts at the robot. Happily squealing as it began to dissolve, Mikiko only felt a tickle on her scalp when her hair rushed up to shield her back.
The arm from a second mecha slammed into her hair and the equilibrium held for a bare moment, then her tresses gave way and she was knocked to the ground. She let go and screamed in primal fear. Her forearm hit a dismembered spider-bot leg and tore open on the bent blade.
Crying at the sharp pain she turned and saw the mecha's arm held above her, statue still. Holding her dripping arm, she looked around and saw that the other robots had stopped as well. Her eyes went down and she bit her lip at the pinkish blood oozing out between her fingers. Despite her dress' protection, her knees had been scratched. Tears started spilling down her cheeks adding to the liquid leaks.
"Oneesama!" Mikiko cried looking up as Rebecca rushed towards her.
Stopping before the girl, Rebecca's eyes narrowed for a brief moment. She looked around the cavernous room and exhaled. Looking at the destruction she slowly smiled.
"Not bad," Rebecca admitted as she helped Mikiko to her feet. She looked at the pale blood coming out of the cut on Mikiko arm and split lip. She nodded.
"I... I didn't win," Mikiko said as she squeezed her knees together and blushed in embarrassment. She wiped at her eyes. She was a Princess.
"No, but you fought harder than I expected you to," Rebecca leaned down and hugged the little girl before taking her hand and leading her back to the elevator at the side of the hanger.
Mikiko sniffed. She was a big girl; she was not supposed to cry. Little girls cried. Little girls screamed and wet themselves in fear. She looked down and blushed in shame. At least her dress had more than enough layers. Though it was covered in oil and pink blood. Though the bleeding had stopped.
Rebecca called the elevator. "How about you go to your room and have a nice bubble bath and a nap? I'm sure you'd like to change into something more comfortable," Rebecca added with a vicious little smile.
"My... room?" Mikiko's eyes widened. She could not believe her luck.
"You relax while I cleanup this little mess you made," Rebecca said with another smirk. "And I'll have another surprise for you later tonight. One you might like better than your parasol," she added with a laugh.
As the doors closed, Mikiko looked down and realized that she was still clutching her parasol to the point where her knuckles had turned white.
Picking up a book, Ranma reclined the back to a chair in her garden and took a more relaxed stance. The chair was made of out polished rosewood with red cushions. She wore a white blouse with rose buttons and a pair of green shorts.
Allison stood up from her chair. She wore her Sailor Nightshade gear. The blonde picked up a leather folder that rested on the table between the seats. On the left side was a piece of white plastic that displayed a dossier, history, and contact information. On the right was a slowly rotating image of a young woman dressed in a white dress trimmed with black roses and bits of gold. She had glossy black hair and bore a haughty, almost mad, expression.
Allison's eyes twinkled as she looked over the report.
"Well? Do we have Kodachi?" Ranma asked.
The blonde snapped the folder closed. "I think you know just what buttons to push."
"Right," Ranma undid her strappy sandals and tossed them next to her chair's footstool.
"You've got something she wants."
Ranma looked up.
"Not that," Allison waved her hand. "I mean the roses. You're the one that pulled the plug on seducing her." The blonde sighed. "Which just leaves us with your little business."
"I think I can grow and sell rose seeds and plants."
Allison smirked. "But can you get a high enough profile to attract her attention?" she asked tapping the folder. "Little 'dachi did make it into the World Garden Competition in Hamamatsu."
"She was what fourteen?"
"And she cheated"
"Less than she does for gymnastics," Allison leaned forward. "Look Princess, I know spoiled loner girls. Kodachi's crazy; she's also crazy, crazy serious, about roses. You're really doing to have to build your brand if you want to catch her eye."
"I know." Ranma nodded. "I've figured out where she gets her cultivars and who her suppliers are."
"And her rivals?"
The redhead smirked. "Of course. And who their suppliers are."
"My little Princess is learning how to exploit jealousy."
Ranma allowed herself to blush. "I've still got to build the supply chain, but I can grow stock to fill out orders on demand."
Allison nodded. "Speaking of stock... I've notice your fairies keep running off with little rosebushes."
The Princess gave an innocent smile. She leaned forward and picked up a book from the pile on the footstool while her bare legs had flopped down next to it.
"If you tell me I'll go and stop bothering you."
"You're not bothering me," Ranma said resuming her place.
Allison stepped closer and loomed over the redhead. "If you don't tell me, I'll start."
Ranma closed the book. "Fine. It's for that sen-"
"Sensor network you're building around town," Allison completed in near sync with the flustered Ranma.
The redhead glared.
The blonde looked smug. "You're smart Princess but you're not as smart as you think you are."
"You guys know then?"
"Sure, Dan noticed when his little fairy friend vanished instead of helping him in the garage. Sarah figured that you wouldn't waste actual fairies on your 'fairy spy network'. Erika simply looked at the signals traffic on your network."
Ranma grumbled. "And you?"
Allison shrugged. "It's the kind of sneaky thing I'd do. Besides you basically told us at your last little tea party."
Ranma picked up her book.
"Yup, that's all!" Allison began walking away. She then turned around. "If you're gonna do something stupid make sure it's fun at least!"
The redhead exhaled and resumed reading. Her toes idly dug into the dirt as she read The Demon-Haunted World, a little smile touched the corners of her lips.
As she paged through the book part of her concentrated on the sensor nodes her fairies were distributing. Allison was right. She could do more to conceal the network's signals. She also began running simulations on how to best distribute her roses, and what colors and petal shapes would sell the best, especially to the best clients.
It was fairly light, but absorbing work, and gave something to occupy her mind as she continued to read as she wriggled her feet against the dirt around the chair.
She could feel the roots of her plants growing, and wondered on the type of grass that would work best. Like slipping on a pair of well-worn shoes, she idly slipped into a higher connection with her garden.
Several minutes later a shadow crossed over the book. Someone gave an annoyed sigh.
"Hello Sarah," Ranma said before she looked up. She closed the book and crossed her hands over it.
"What are you doing?" Sarah demanded as she walked back to the footstool and kicked one of Ranma's sandals.
"Allison told you about our Kodachi plan?"
"No, this isn't about your, so well thought out, plot to ingratiate yourself with one of the most obsessive and least stable people from your old life." The younger redhead rolled her eyes.
"She's well connected, but a known crackpot. She never figured out the whole gender thing, so any disguise will be extra effective against her. Add in her love for roses and I've got plenty of levers against her."
"Yeah its the roses, I'm worried about." Sarah kicked the other sandal and it landed on Ranma's ankles...
The sandal hit just above the ground line about where Ranma's flesh turned green and then brown before disappearing under the dirt. The princess flushed and the knotted mass of roots squirmed and shifted. She then lifted her legs and a pair of of dainty bare feet came free.
Sarah crossed her arms under her chest.
"A hard-line connection is more secure and has a higher bit-rate," Ranma weakly said.
"You're asking me to be your anchor."
"I am already a dryad."
"Just jumping off the transhuman slippery slope isn't smart. Not when you're doing it just to get a bit more bandwidth. Aren't you scared of the risks of what you're becoming? What happens if you just let go?"
Ranma looked down. "Is it really that bad?"
Sarah cracked a smile. "It's no 'Impress Kasumi with full plant-girl drag.' "
Smiling Ranma met Sarah's eyes. "It's also no 'Impress Kasumi with cyber-girl drag.' "
Crouching down, Sarah took her sister's hand.
"It's okay I–" Ranma stopped and wriggled her toes. "No, I think I have it under control. I can bring myself back." She returned the grip. "Thanks Sarah."
"I know you think you're invincible and the best."
Ranma gave a cocky smile.
"But so do the rest of us. And we've all be burned before."
West of Lockridge lies Teakettle ridge, a finger of land jutting out of the mountains that crossed the area. Originally home to a US Army fort, the ridge itself consisted of a flat plateau that ended on abrupt cliffs.
Covering the plateau were the offices, garages, and machine shops of Winston Industrial Container, a company specializing in demolitions, salvage, and industrial dumpster rental and disposal.
A dozen buildings, some of them stone dating back to the fort days, covered the plateau forming a compound that edged into castle territory. Virtually a town unto itself, complete with its own shops, smiths, restaurant and bar, grocers, physical plant, and even a theater and a small two-lane bowling alley.
With its main offices in
However there were those in the company who saw the potential in magic and encouraged development of the Calash code. Officially the company was entirely mundane, except for the combat templates that the company's special security team volunteered for and the "research" being conducted beneath the Teakettle compound.
The brown-haired teen sighed and shoved the pot into Dave's surprised hands. A bit of dirt spilled onto his red-trimmed, grey jumpsuit and the little rosebush shook and a couple of leaves fell off. There was a brief flash of silver that faded as the bush shook. He eyed the silver flakes. He wished he had been able to collect more of them, but the plant was enough trouble as it was.
The lankier man almost smiled in relief, then the bush, which had been roughly potted, tilted and a rosebud snapped off and fell.
"Shit." Ned glanced down the hall, then back at the locked door.
Dave watched them hit the tile floor and frowned. "I suppose I should clean this up." Making sure the plant stayed balanced he hit his radio.
"Yeah, sooner would be better." Ned glanced at his watch, fished his keys out of his pocket and unlocked the room again. "Good idea, call your men. But first...." Ned opened the door, ran into the room, and after rummaging on a shelf came back with a set of pliers and a mason jar.
Careful not to touch the rosebud with his hands he slipped it into the jar, sealed it, and then left it on the floor. "Paranoid enough for you?"
"It's a start." The Security Chief nodded.
"Well, don't do anything too aggressive. We wouldn't want our guest to get angry," Ned said as he put his hand into his pocket. The thumb drive was still there. At least he still had some leverage.
Dave gave a thin smile and went back to his radio.
Leather coat flying out behind him, Ned ran down the corridor, up a flight of stairs, across a flagstone courtyard, and into a building that butted right next to the edge of the cliff. The compound's restaurant and bar were in this building, with the bar in the back and the restaurant half a story lower. Both rooms were done with heavy wood beams and iron chandeliers. However, while the ceiling was low and rustic in the bar, the restaurant was airy and sweeping. It was made even more so by the view offered by the bank of tall windows on the Western side of the room. Beyond the glass was a nearly sheer drop of several hundred feet and a vast vista of the valley below.
Glancing out the large windows, he could see the forests thin out as the land descended before giving way to scrub and grasslands. Though even the low lying areas were still over six thousand feet in altitude. Beyond that the high prairie gave way to almost desert-like desolation out beyond range of the magical sumps.
The room itself was mostly empty. A few drivers and welders were sitting at a table near the stairs having a late lunch while a table by the bar had some sober-looking men in suits who had to be from the legal department.
Ned ignored them and concentrated on the young woman sitting by herself enjoying the view. The windows did not run from floor to ceiling. They were mounted atop a thick four foot tall stone wall. Some heavy oak tables were pressed against the wall and gave seating with a prime view.
She wore a cream-colored blouse with red piping and embroidered roses, a loosely tied deep green silk neckerchief, and a long red skirt with a swirling vine pattern that went down to her shins. A pair of shiny high heeled leather boots continued the Western theme. Their elaborate tooled pattern and appliqué along their sides continued the rose theme as well. A tiny green leather clutch purse sat on the table, looking like some kind of circular seed pod.
Long red hair that tumbled down both sides of her right shoulder after being pulled back by a cluster of white roses above her right ear. She wore wide silver bracelets and there were flashes of gold and jade at her ears.
Glossy red two-tone, lacquered, but short fingernails idly drummed the table in a repeating pattern. Two taps, pause, three taps, pause, five taps, pause, seven taps, pause, and then back down to five, three, and two where she started the cycle again.
"Miss O'Neil, I trust I didn't keep you waiting?" Ned bowed his head slightly.
"Mister Winston," Ranma smiled and pulled out the chair next to her.
"To what do I owe the honor of gracing your presence?" Ned took his seat and studied the woman. She had smiled approvingly and her blue eyes had even warmed as she did it, but that distant, calculating nature had never left.
"My, so polite. It's just a few small details. You sister said you wanted to talk to me, but alas we never met at school so, I felt we should-" She then paused for exactly half a second. "Catch up. How have your projects gone? I recall you had some promising power systems research."
Her speech was perfectly crisp and polite, but her eyes were still boring through... everything. When she looked out the window, Ned knew she was scanning for threats and studying the magical sumps and ley-lines that ran across the valley and indeed circled the entire basin.
He wondered how much she could see; if she could see the whole apparatus. The thousands of miles of geomancy that that funneled energy from the bones of the
And there was enough power for Calash to function which allowed Lockridge to exist.
Bringing in magic changed the basin; the harnessed energy pulled in whole weather systems which brought water that supported an abundance of life. When she looked at him, he got the same feeling. It was rather like chatting with the glassy sensor cone of an air-to-air missile. Though one with a more pleasing, if heavily floral, scent.
With unnatural grace, she cocked her head and blinked her large almond-shaped eyes. "Did I come at a bad time?"
"Not at all, it's just been distracting," Ned stated. Her coming here and Dave finding that rose could not have been a coincidence. And despite the obscuring hair, he was pretty sure her ears were not pointed, but he did know that she had been creating fairy-shaped golems. Which was close enough, she certainly had the near-inhumanity of the fae. "And yes, I've had some progress on power systems." He made a point of looking around the room. "Did you come alone? I don't see the rest of the gang."
"I don't need to have them babysit me. I can go out on my own," she said in an irritated huff.
Feeling the wave of pressure emanate from her, Ned forced his hands to stay on the table, where she could see them. "I didn't intend otherwise."
"Pardon me for jumping to conclusions." Recrossing her legs so she faced him straight on, Rose leaned forward. "You do think, I can handle myself. Right?"
Ned looked down; it seemed that right below his nose was the carved ruby rose that fronted the silver ring of her neckerchief clasp. Below that spilled the deep green of the scarf itself, which seemed to be mere garnish for the way her curves filled out the cream-colored blouse.
"From what I've seen?" Ned asked making a point to open his coat and look inside. He pulled out a pill bottle and downed a couple.
Ranma's hand darted out and snatched the bottle. She raised an eyebrow at him.
"It's for stress."
The redhead eyed the pills. "No. I'd say these augment your template by speeding up the damage recovery process." Her eyes widened. "Ah, they do numb the body to pain and other distractions. A preventative too. Expecting a fight?"
"I do have sensitive information. The truth will make someone angry."
Ranma raised an eyebrow but handed the bottle back.
"I'm not worried about you, well... I'd be foolish to assume you couldn't handle yourself. But someone will be angry that I exposed her secret."
"But, from your own experience you would have to concede that there are things you don't know about."
Ranma nodded. "That is part of why I came here. My apologies, if I seem too forward," she said, finally leaning back.
Keeping his face controlled, Ned looked at Rose and paused. He knew he had to tell her; it was the right thing to do, she deserved to know. And... she was rapidly becoming a power-player. One who was building her own network of spies and snitches. It was better to earn some currency by telling her a secret now, instead of waiting for her to ferret it out on her own.
"What's wrong?" Ranma asked as she put her hand on Ned's shoulder. A slight smile briefly flickered across her face. He did look pretty cute when he was trying to hide his feelings. Rose blinked, ahead of schedule, and filled that response for separate analysis. Sure, she could objectively analyze his appeal, but this seemed different. She kept her hand there; she was still in full control.
Ned frowned. It was frightening how well she could read him. Part of him wondered if she could read his thoughts. Though if she could do that, she was even more skilled at controlling her reactions than he initially suspected.
"Well?" Rose asked raising the gentle arcs to her precisely dimensioned eyebrows. "You've got my attention."
Ned figured he should feel flattered, but he shuddered at the thought. He wondered if it was like saying a unique insect should feel flattered at an etymologist's attention.
He then noticed that her manicured hand had not left his shoulder. Each nail was red but drawn on the center was little rose done in a slightly lighter shade of red. "It's someone I know, I think... I think she's up to something." Ned sighed.
"Do tell?" Rose asked as she uncrossed her legs, and keeping her knees together, pointed her legs past the table and to Ned's left. The new position moved her slightly closer to him. Her body was reacting in such a fascinating way. Keeping one hand on his shoulder she let the other gently fall to her lap. She could see why Kasumi liked her books so much, this stuff was fun!
"Well, I don't want to smear this girl. She's always been private, and weird." Ned lamely smiled, but could not help from noticing Rose use her free hand to smooth out her white dress.
The princess primly nodded. "She's your friend, and you don't want to betray her, especially if she's done nothing but be odd." She was glad for her new form. Ranma Saotome could never have been this contained, but Princess Ranma Rose O'Neil had no problem, even if Ned was a very handsome boy.
Ned stopped to look at the little smile her painted lips had formed. Two could play this game. Though it was unsettling how she blinked at such regular intervals, as if she were keeping time.
"There's also trusting you," he said as he reached out and put his hand over the one she had demurely resting in her lap. Her almost-surprised blush was reward enough. "We have gotten to know each other a bit more."
"You're very right," Rose said coquettishly as she moved the hand he held to her chest. With her other hand, she squeezed his shoulder and gently massaged the skin beneath his coat.
Ned found his fingers running over the curve of her breasts. First he felt the mixture of smooth silk and lace embroidery. "Well... yes... I think I have to tell you," he coughed, trying not to put too much pressure onto her breasts. He felt his cheeks heat up and was glad for the pills. They had given him some measure of control.
Rose smiled and slipped her hand out and then pushed Ned's down when he tried to pull it off her chest. She then switched to massaging Ned's far shoulder and leaned over and let some of her hair fall over him. "I have a confession. This is the first time I've actually had some calm and fun flirting," she whispered into his ear.
Ned slowly nodded and moved his hand to better hold her torso, specifically the side of her chest. "it's been a while for me too but... this isn't just flirting," he gently admitted, without letting go. While he did not want to get the sexually tense princess mad, and while he was afraid of her distant, alien power, she was a very beautiful woman throwing herself at him.
Rose blinked her eyelashes fluttering briefly. "So? Who is it?"
"Well... there's what you'll do with this information."
"Get revenge," the redhead flatly said. "You know that."
"But when? Will you run out and strike recklessly against her?
"Of course not," Rose smoothly said. "I'm well aware of the threat she poses."
Moving in closer she gave a light laugh. "She did try to take over my body; I did fight her off."
"Yes, that's exactly it. You think your safe, yes? That she can't get to you."
"That is the entire reason I'm like this now, dear Ned," Rose reminded, but part of her was concerned. Had she grown complacent? Was she underestimating the woman that had, arguably, created her?
"Don't think you're immune. She'd have other ways to get to you. Maybe even brute force."
"Your concern is sweet," Rose said giving him a quick kiss on the cheek. "I promise I won't do something reckless."
Ned knew he was being played, but what did it matter? He would have told her anyway. This way he got some boob. "Rebecca. Rebecca Langley."
Rebecca, Allison's old girlfriend, in the top three of the list of suspects Sarah, Dan and the others had drawn up. It was also the next place she was going to plant her roses around. Rose wanted to give a predatory grin, she wanted to make her eyes flash, she wanted to punch the table in victory, she wanted to jump through the window and fly to Rebecca's house and level the place.
Instead she smiled a bit more, flushed her cheeks slightly, and started doing some discrete searches. She had dug into the backgrounds of everyone on the suspect list, but if this Rebecca was her enemy, then she deserved another look.
Just because Ned was not the normal grabby, pinchy, pervert she was used to, did not mean that he was incapable of lying.
"I've got the files on her right here." He said, moving to take hand off her side. The tips of his fingers ran across her breast.
Rose waited for the inevitable squeeze and gave another unscheduled blink when it did not happen. She smiled as he pulled a flash drive out of his pocket, and took her hand off his shoulder and put it on his thigh.
"That's very sweet of you," Rose said before giving him a quick kiss.
Ned returned the kiss. Unlike what he expected her lips were not overly sweet, and only a slight hint of rose scent.
"The password is in two parts. First take the second to last letter of every word of the following sequence: 'I've seen things you people wouldn't believe. Attack ships on fire off the shoulder of Orion. I watched c-beams glitter in the dark near the Tannhäuser Gate. All those moments will be lost in time, like tears in rain. Time to die.'
"Then going backwards take the first letter of every word with a prime number of letters. You'll only get one chance to do it. I trust you've got a good memory?"
"Of course," Ranma checked her lip's chromatic settings as she slipped the drive into her purse. Squaring her shoulders, she crossed her legs, shifting back to facing the table. A frown almost flickered across her face, but was quickly cleared away. "Are you counting contractions as one or two words?"
"One of course."
"I suppose..." Looking over her, Ned's mind cleared. "I suppose that leaves the other reasons you came," he said glancing back and seeing Dave at the head of the stairs. A steel cart, bearing an aluminum box, was next to him.
The security chief looked at the stairs, gave a little sigh, straightened his gloves, and picked up the crate. He held it with his left arm outstretched, while keeping his right arm behind him in the small of his back, just above the holster threaded through his jumpsuit's belt.
It reminded Ned of the stance electricians took when working with high voltage. You wore insulated gloves and shoes, but you still kept one hand behind your back. Working with both hands carried the risk of an electrical arc going from one hand to the other, right through the heart.
The lanky man dropped the case onto the table, nearly clipping Ranma's purse.
Looking up, Ned's glare died when he saw Dave Nelson's cold expression.
The Security Chief stepped back and gave the redhead a cut nod.
Ranma coughed and flicked her purse a couple inches away from the crate.
"You know what's inside." Ned glanced back up the stairs. He could see a handful of Dave's men hanging back near the bar. Shaking his head, he turned and looked out the window. He thought he saw a glint of light but...
Ned shook his head and scanned again.
"More of your friends?" Ranma lightly asked.
"Thankfully, no. I half expected Julie to be out there stomping in her Eva."
Ranma blinked. "She's family," she smoothly said, instantly recovering. "He's family too," she nodded to Dave. "I understand family getting protective, even recklessly so."
Ned smiled, savoring the redhead's moment of shock. As brief as it was, it disproved the sense of omniscience she had been cultivating. He undid the claps and flipped down the aluminum case's clamshell split top.
Seeing the little rosebush Ranma's expression brightened. "You took care of it."
"I examined it." Ned's tone sharpened. "It was on my property."
Ranma reached out and touched one of the rosebuds. "I regret the trespass."
"You regret being caught. That's why you hid it. If you truly regretted the action you would not have done it."
"It wasn't me." Ranma then drummed the table.
Ned scoffed. "Really? Someone else has been planting magic roses. Maybe someone else with an invisible friend."
"Yes, yes. It was a proxy. A familiar planted the bush, at my order," she added after another tiny pause.
Ned's curiosity, and worry, grew. Her facade was crumbling. Something upset her, something beyond having one of her spy-plants discovered. "Well, that's what makes this trespass such a concern. These are far more than a normal plant, not to mention having your little familiars running around. That would make some worry."
"Yes, worry." Reexamining the plant, redhead frowned. "Is this all? I mean, did you capture more?"
"Did you hide more?" Ned leaned forward. "Because I will find them. You hid this one pretty well, but this is my compound."
"This was the only one." Ranma looked down. "It looks good though. You didn't really hurt it when you pulled it out."
Ned glanced around the box. There was no mason jar. "A rosebud and some leaves fell off." He looked up to Dave who nodded. "They were destroyed I'm afraid."
She pulled back. "Ah, that's fine then," she said, distantly.
"Is this about the trespass?" Ned leaned back in his chair and caught Dave's eye. The redheads were the more even tempered of the O'Neill clique but even Sarah would fly off into a rage.
"That's fine. You have a legitimate concern about the land holdings put under your care," Ranma stiffly said.
"Right." Ned rubbed his forehead. "You know this whole heir-apparent thing gets pretty old."
Ranma laughed. "As someone who was forced to become a princess you have my sympathies."
Ned winced. It was easy, so very easy, to forget the Rose Princess' past. Especially since she kept so much of it a secret. "Thanks. Do you have other matters you wish to discuss?"
"It is a delicate matter." Rose leaned in. "It's about the Town Fathers."
"What, worried you'll get in trouble?"
Exhaling, Ranma gave a wary nod.
Ned stared. The princess looked... scared. Behind her power, behind what she had become, it was easy to forget that she was still... human. "You live with the Sherriff, ask him."
"While my father is the High-Sheriff, this matter is something more in line with your expertise."
"Ah, so you ask the guy that comes out and builds mechs." Ned looked out the window. "Fair enough. The Town Fathers? As long as they're getting power from the ley-lines they'll be happy. That means two things. Don't screw with the Pumps, and don't call attention to the town."
Ranma gave a nervous smile at the first part. She had examined the Pumps, and was glad that she had not tried to "fiddle" with them.
"That is why I don't go stomping around
She nodded. "Which is why that wasn't my question."
Ned groaned. "Sorry. You could have cut me off."
"You're somewhat cute when you lecture," Ranma stated evenly.
Ned frowned, not sure if she was being sarcastic. She had kissed him earlier, but she was not making any moves now.
"Your expertise is more mercantile."
"If I were to open a business, would the Town Fathers object?"
"Oh dear." Ned rubbed his forehead. "Depends. What'll you be selling?"
Her gaze fell upon the potted plant.
Ned rubbed his forehead. "Real roses, magic plant spies, or cute little fairies?" he asked, noting that her expression became a bit more distant with his last word.
Ranma dipped her head in acknowledgement.
"Great." Ned eyed the rose bush. It nearly glowed with vitality, the little buds were perfect. The single blooming flower was an ideal rose. It was beautiful. She would have little problems selling even "mundane" versions of her roses.
"Could be worse," Rose leaned forward and cupped his cheek. "I could be selling smart phones."
Ned kept his face neutral. "Are you trying to antagonize the Town Fathers?"
The redhead pulled back and crossed her legs. "Of course not," she gasped, putting hand to cheek. "My father's an upstanding public servant!"
Ned held back a snort. Sheriff Jack O'Neil was the Town Father's main form of control. He and his men kept the peace.
Most of the time it was all on the up and up but sometimes that meant applying justice without telling the county office over in
Ranma simply smiled and waited.
"Right. That's why you're not selling phones. You're selling roses."
The redhead nodded.
Ned looked at the plant. "Why the plants? Why not the flowers?"
Ranma shifted slightly. "The flowers would have to be shipped out very quickly. Better to sell the plants: cuttings, root balls, seeds, the like. That way people can grow their own."
Ned imagined nurseries and gardens full of rose bushes and vines. He could see bouquets being sent around based on her roses, and if some of them happened to have microphones or little organic cameras...
He looked at the confidently smiling redhead and exhaled. "I see."
"Oh? That's encouraging," Ranma ran a hand over the little rosebush. She glanced down at the silver-banded watch on her wrist.
Ned took the hint. "Well, is there anything else I can do for you?"
"No need. You've been more than gracious enough given my-" She smiled again. "Intrusion."
"We all make mistakes."
Taking the potted rose in one arm, Ranma stood up.
Ned also rose to his feet. He glanced over her boots, dress, and knotted bandana. It was all a costume. But it was a lovely costume. He met the eyes of Dave's security team and nodded. "May I escort you out?" he asked, offering his left arm.
Eyeing the holster on Ned's right hip, Ranma gave a little laugh. However, she juggled the pot and held out her right arm allowing Ned to lead her away from the table.
Slowing down to navigate up the stairs, she shifted her grip so that her arm and fingers were entwined with his. She got a little shiver from his strong grip and calloused hands. She knew she was stronger, but Ned... she inhaled as they crossed the bar... Ned felt the part.
As they passed the jump-suited guards, Ned felt the redhead sidle closer and closer. Soon her hip was bumping against his with every step. He almost tripped when she leaned over and rested her head on his shoulder, causing her hair to spill across the back of his jacket.
A few steps outside of the bar and diner, he stopped in one of the compound's many corridors. The redhead's hip slowly swayed into place, draping her against his side. Ned found his grip on her hand tightening.
After a few seconds of that, Ranma gave a thoughtful murmur and straightened herself up and put some sunlight between her and Ned. "I'm starting to see why Allison likes the big mechanical type."
Ned's hand twitched as his fingers slipped. Floundering, he regained his grip and ran a thumb over Ranma's smooth skin and polished nails. He swallowed and started walking again. "I can't speak for Allison's past tastes...." Allison Terson used to date Rebecca Langley, the same girl that Ned suspected of ruining Ranma's life.
"It is a very small town." The redhead nodded as she walked beside him. This time she maintained a bit of distance. "And personally I would not presume either way regarding whether or not her tastes have changed. I first met her after she was already seeing Dan." she added squeezing Ned's hand back.
The mecha mechanic coughed, and the pair shortly reached a broad pair of double doors.
"Now, now," Ranma laughed. "You're getting rather ahead of yourself if you're going to worry about things like that."
As he opened the door, Ned fought down a blush.
Ranma paused and studied his expression. There was something familiar in his awkwardly adrift nervousness. Here was a young man, an expert in his art, a skilled warrior, an heir to his family's legacy and... he was brought low by a pretty woman.
The redhead's smile warmed as she slipped out of his grip and put the hand to his cheek. "Thanks for the information." She then turned and, taking the pot in both hands, walked out into the courtyard.
Ned watched her leave until she crossed the paved lot and slipped through a gateway in the wrought iron fence that divided the compound from the rest of the ridge. She got onto one of the paths that Ned and his men regularly swept.
Ned waited, slipped out of sight behind a cluster of trees, and then he stepped back into the building and closed the door and went straight to his lab. He did not know Ranma terribly well, but he knew enough to be sure that he wanted to be close to his mech... just in case.
Ranma, for her part, had waited a bit longer before she summoned her fairies. Ichi and San sprung up from a grove of trees and shifted back to visibility. The redhead handed San the thumb drive and ordered her to link up with the others and return home. Taking the drive, San activated her stealth and flittered off into the distance.
Expanding the sensor net could wait. Right now there were more important things to do than growing rosebushes. Though...
Ranma looked at the plant in her hands and sighed. She could not destroy it, and she could not put it too close to the Winston compound. She handed the pot to Ichi. Frowning, the tiny green girl strained a bit as her wings sped up and hummed with a louder buzz.
"Good news, Mistress?" Ichi asked as she lugged the pot which was a bit larger across than her arms.
"Oh yes, we might just have a lead onto the person that did all this to me."
Ichi obediently nodded. "What shall we do?"
"You've got a rosebush to replant. Put it next to the one you planted in Site Lambda."
Ichi's little frown returned, but she bowed her head. "And you?"
"I'll be with you shortly, I've got something I need to check out." Ranma closed her eyes and in a flash had shifted into her senshi uniform. Sailor Rose flapped her feathery white wings and looked up at the sky.
"Mistress? This seems a bit too... rash for you."
Rose laughed. "Oh no, far from it."
"Mistress..." Ichi adjusted her arms to better hold the small pot. "Be careful."
Sailor Rose exhaled and adjusted her flight plan. "Of course."
Folding back her broad feathered wings, Ranma gently touched down on the ridgeline. A mix of broken stone and thin soil crunched under her knee-high, high-heeled boots as she walked down a vague path that meandered from the ridge. Wispy grass and scrubby pine trees dotted this side of the small mountain. A spur off of Teakettle ridge, it was really more of a hill, at least by the area's standards
The wind blew through Sailor Rose's long hair as she took in the view from a more normal perspective. A dozen meters down the slope sat a gnarled little rosebush with a handful of tiny buds. It was currently visible. There was no one near it to trigger its stealth features, and unlike her more "sensitive" plants this one was not kept invisible all the time.
The smaller bush Ned had "given" her was planted right next to it. The pot rested on its side nearby. She tilted her head, further down the slope was a flattened bowl-shaped clearing.
Inside the clearing the dirt had thickened, becoming rich, almost loamy. The grasses were a brighter green and the whole area had a rich vitality. Even the surrounding trees were taller than their neighbors. The edge of the clearing was marked by half a dozen smaller, shorter stones that looked like truncated pillars which were cut off just above their bases. In the center of the clearing was a lumpy stone that looked like a giant slumping granite box. Uneven, and with a slanting top and smoothed sides, the stone bore no markings on its surface.
However, Ranma could feel the power throbbing through the stubby Standing Stones. Her head still cocked to the side, she watched both the rose bush and the geomancy pumping apparatus. Her pleated miniskirt ruffled in the stiff wind but she ignored the cold.
Her head straightened and her eyes flashed. "Ichi?" she asked with relief. An instant later her cheeks flushed in embarrassment. There was no way Ichi could hear her at this distance. "Ichi what happened? Were there any problems planting the rose?" she repeated, this time silently transmitting her question to the fairy who had just appeared on her network.
The fairy hesitated, but the connection was strong enough that Ranma could tell that she was at least undamaged and safe. "No but... I... I got lost," she admitted full of shame.
Ranma blinked and walked in a slow circle as her eyes scanned her surroundings. She resisted the urge to tell Ichi about the impossibility of that. The fairy would already know that. Ichi was nowhere near the edge of Ranma's personal network, let alone the public and commercial bands.
"Return,” Ranma ordered as she simultaneously got Ichi's location and a brief summary of how her little fairy "got lost". This time she had to keep herself from shouting "impossible". One second Ichi had been fully connected, the next every signal had dropped. It was like the fairy had slipped off the grid.
Ranma swallowed and checked her own connection. She then ordered the fairies back at the garden to alert the rest of the family the instant Ranma herself should drop off network.
There was a light buzzing and Ichi bowed in front of Sailor Rose. The instant Ranma returned the bow the little fairy flew over to her shoulder and nearly curled up by her ear, under her hair.
"Why didn't you retrace your steps?" Ranma asked already knowing the answer.
Ichi had tried exactly that, but to no effect. Worse, much worse, she had been unable to reorient herself. It was like she had been teleported into another patch of forest.
"Ichi, I'm gonna need you to be another pair of eyes, okay?" Ranma asked.
The fairy paused but pulled out of her hiding space and took to the air. She flew a few inches in front of Ranma and faced backwards. This way they could be behind each others' backs. Ichi gave the Rose Princess a quizzical glance.
"I'm not scared."
"Of course not, Princess," Ichi looked up the slope towards the ridgeline. "But perhaps we should get back. That way you can do a full diagnostic," the green fairy helpfully offered.
"Wait," Ranma looked back down at the lone rosebush. It shivered in the wind, and she could feel some strange telemetry it was picking up.
A green bubble bloomed around the bush as a wave of pink hearts rained down. They popped and started to eat into the bubble and the ground around it dissolving grass and stone.
Ranma spread her wings, took to the air, and raced down the slope.
"Princess!" Ichi shouted and then with exasperation activated her stealth mode and took off after her.
Her bracers glowing, Ranma flicked her hand. A green-shafted wand with a white rosebud at the tip appeared. As the rosebud opened it darkened turning emerald green. Just before the bubble collapsed a beam shot out from the wand.
Powered by the beam, the bubble glowed brightly and began to swell. Suddenly, the rain of hearts ceased and a blur of sparkly white ruffles and pink curls slammed down.
Waves of long pink coils corkscrewed into the bubble and tore it apart. The bubble vanished and dainty white leather Mary Janes stomped down, crushing the rosebush.
Still airborne, Ranma stared at the giggling abomination. She looked young, not even at puberty if that, but her pink eyes were wide and wild. Long ringlets of pink hair curled about in a writhing mass that spilled down shoulders, back, and legs covered in lace, ruffles, sequins, and ribbons.
The gown was nominally a shimmering white, but there were so many pink bows, accents and other bits of trim that the whole garment looked the color of fresh insulation. Underneath it all she could spot swirling patterns done in silver thread. Sparkling energy traveled down the threads in reinforcing and warding patterns.
Dainty silk gloves held a big pink parasol on either end, but the girl's attention was on the crushed plant. An overly-made up girlish face that looked too perfect to be anything natural shifted into a sneer. Ranma got a feeling of familiarity, but her memory and facial recognition algorithm had come up empty.
With a mad giggle the pink girl lifted up her leg and gave another stomp. Given the length of the girl's gown, fits like this were the only time Rose could see her shoes and the white stockings she wore. A glowing choker throbbed at her neck and a branching gold crown appeared to pierce into the pink girl's forehead.
Ranma blinked as she felt the presence of several of the Hacker Bitch's mechs decloak around her. Ichi caught up and gave the pink girl a bare glance before turning to the side to where she could both cover Ranma's back and keep an eye on the new girl.
The pink girl looked up and giving a petty little smirk gave a final stomp before giving a deep curtsy. "Princess Rose, it's time for you to come back home," she said her eyes slightly glassy. Her expression cleared. "But we can play a bit first."
"Nuts to this." Ranma's wand, now fully bloomed, turned blood red and a pulsing thin bolt shot right out. The ray sped towards the pink girl and, bent. It twisted and curved, somehow missing the girl entirely and instead sliced through several trees before gouging into the ground.
Sensor data poured in and the redhead analyzed the deflection. Two mechs raised their arms and long liquid metal blades extruded out. Ranma dropped down, dodging both while hitting one with a beam from her wand. One arm was sliced off. The mech stumbled back and as she rushed towards the other one with Ichi at her heels.
Slipping between its blades she kicked the mech in the chest and grabbed for its head. An arm came down, but Ichi flew to the gauntlet at the end, cut through the armor and tore into the controller crystals for the liquid metal.
As that happened, Ranma shoved the wand under its chin and blasted through its head and out the back. Decapitated, the mech tumbled back as its one-armed partner lurched forward.
Eyeing the mech and the fairy, the pink haired girl stepped forward. She lifted her parasol. "These odds just aren't fair." Giving a fanged smile, she depressed a button on the parasol and a spray of pink hearts shot out.
They enveloped the remaining mech and began to dissolve it. The pink haired girl had a moment to prance in delight before a knee high boot slammed into her hip.
The leather boot met resistance and was nearly ensnared by the layers of lace. The skirting also became stiffer, almost like armor. Ranma powered through and the pink girl rolled with the kick stepping inside. Shorter, she had less reach so she cut across with her parasol. The reinforced shaft of the umbrella rang against Ranma's silver bracers.
"You destroy your own mech! What's wrong with you?" Ranma demanded as she matched the pink girl's blows. She had less strength but was faster, and knew to block Ranma's bracer blasts and wand. The redhead also eyed the girl's hair.
"You cavort with the Baron of Steel while your betrothed is alone across the seas! Do you think you deserve such a prince? A naughty Princess like you deserves to be punished!" the girl declared.
"What prince?" Ranma asked with feigned ignorance, with growing dread she had a fair idea who this girl was talking about.
The pink girl's choker flashed and she stabbed forward with the umbrella a stream of hearts shot out.
Familiar with that move, Ranma stepped to the side, grabbed the shaft with one hand, and whipped the girl across the face with her wand.
With renewed strength, the girl wrenched the umbrella out of Ranma's hands, the redhead got even closer until she pressed up against the little girl. Sequins spilled and got caught in her seifuku. Rose elbowed her in the side, but it was like hitting a wooden mannequin. However the pink girl slid back and Ranma grappled and tossed her to the side.
"It always comes back to Nerima doesn't it? Even when all twisted and insane like this?" Sailor Rose brushed some glitter off her uniform as she strode forward.
"You stole my Prince, harlot! Akane was to be mine!" The pink girl shrieked as she stood back up.
"What? Akane's no prince. And what makes you think you get to have him? Her." Rose paused.
The pink girl's choker now glowed like a miniature star. She cracked her neck and gave a fanged smile.
The pink girl gave a moment of angry recognition before her eyes glassed over. "I am Princess Mikiko, for Oneechan I will capture you."
Ranma looked into those mad pink eyes. "Oh crap."
"Naughty Princess Dirty Mouth!" Mikiko cried as she rushed forward.
Ranma fired a pair of beams from her bracers. Unsurprisingly, they were bent around Mikiko's form, missing the girl completely. She brought her arms in to correct, but the deflection angle simply changed, sending the beams out in flailing fans.
Before Mikiko could fire, Ranma spread her wings and flew over another stream of pink hearts. As Ranma gained altitude she reconnected to the rest of her network. She transmitted her status to the rest of her fairies and sent a warning to her family.
Below, the pink girl released the button and the barrage stopped. She then pressed another button and the parasol popped open revealing another collection of pink and lace. Leaning it on one shoulder, the girl shaded herself and looked up at Sailor Rose.
Smirking, Ranma slowly descended. Her navigational system flashed, and for a moment declared she was in
Mikiko gave a vicious smile. "Oneesama said you were a liar. But I knew that already, even back in school you were bad. You're a naughty princess. I saw you cavorting with that young Baron!"
"At least my paranoia about that window was not unwarranted." Ranma sighed. She had also hoped that Mikiko's reaction to the name Rebecca would give some confirmation as to the Hacker's true identity.
Mikiko twirled her parasol as the redhead touched down. She heard a buzzing off to one side, doubtless one of those fairies that were icky and not at all something that she wanted to ask Oneechan to make for her.
"I presume it's pointless trying to convince you that this 'Oneechan' is using you." Ranma flicked a wand over her fingers. The rose changed from red to orange and back before settling on a deep purple.
The parasol stopped. Mikiko clenched her jaw.
"Sure the Ryoga I knew acted like a spoiled little girl, but even he knew better than to dress up like a giant pink cake. I can see why she made you a little girl. Children are stupider and more easily manipulated, but she stopped too early. This is something I'd expect a six year old to wear."
"I am not a little girl!" Mikiko screamed before hunching forward in pain. Giving a glassy-eyed smile, she rose back up. "I mean I'm a big girl," she happily said as a hand went to her temple and rubbed against it at the point where the crown dug into her skin.
Ranma raised an eyebrow at that. Giving a small nod, she stepped forward. "And don't get me started on that hair. I knew Rebecca liked tormenting her experiments with girly getups but this takes the cake. How do you even bathe with that getup?"
"My hair is pretty!" Mikiko screamed as she bolted forward. Once again her skirt stiffened, this time the effect was to raise the layers up giving her legs more room to run.
However, Ranma's attention was on the streamers of curly pink hair in Mikiko's wake. Growing longer, they lifted higher into the air as they curled around themselves.
Waves of little ringlets turned into ropey, tentacle-like coils. They whipped forward and wrapped around Sailor Rose's arms and legs. The redhead struggled and drew her arms inward. Still holding the parasol at her shoulder, Mikiko jumped up and bared her fangs.
Ranma wrenched her arm forward and the pink girl's jaws closed on the metal of her bracer. Her eyes widened in shock and pain. "Ichi now!" Ranma ordered as the hair tentacles grew tighter.
The tiny green fairy flew in and landed, planting her feet on Mikiko's forehead. Knees bent, she grabbed the metal of the girl's crown with both hands and stretched. There was a wet tearing noise. The crown tore free, and Mikiko screamed around her mouth full of metal.
Her hair slackened. Ranma flipped her wrist over and then jabbed the flower at the end of her wand against the crystal at the heart of Mikiko's choker. Petals glowing purple, the rose constricted and began to close around the crystal orb.
Ranma twisted her arm. The rose broke off the end of the wand. She then whipped it across the girl's face. The jagged end scratched her cheek and smudged her makeup. Pink blood oozed from her forehead, Mikiko cried and let go of Ranma's bracer.
The hair bonds had gotten even more slack, and the redhead flapped her wings and fired her bracers at the four bands of hair that held her. Hair singed and was sliced away. Ranma rose into the air with Ichi at her shoulder. The fairy still held the gold crown like an oversized blood-spattered trophy.
Mikiko got up to her knees as pale-pink blood continued to seep down her temples. She looked down at herself with confusion. Ranma stared at the blood. Not only was its color strange, but it seemed more viscous than human standard.
Then Ranma tapped the end of her wand. The purple rose around Mikiko's choker gem exploded.
The pieces fell always revealing a sparkling whirlpool atop her neck. The pink girl slowly raised a hand up to the choker and traced against the shattered edge. She then put a finger to her temple.
Ranma side stepped to approach the girl from an angle. She caught Ichi's eye and the little fairy flew down towards her. "You feeling better, Ryoga? I can help. I beat this hacker bitch. You can too."
The pink girl looked at her dress. Despite losing a bunch of sequins, being splashed with her own blood, and having some of her ruffles and lace torn, it still sparkled. Still kneeling, anger began to burble within her. She blinked, normally her rage... was channeled away. A hand went to her neck as she got up. "Better?" the pink girl gave a fangled smile.
Keeping an eye on Mikiko, Ranma examined the crown after Ichi handed it to her. A frown formed across the redhead's face. The crown was more of a mood leveler and nudger than an outright controller.
"Better?" Mikiko repeated as she picked up her parasol. "You stole my crown. You broke my choker. You tried to ruin my dress!" she yelled, running forward.
"Take this!" Ranma ordered. Ichi grabbed the crown and took to the air.
"How dare you ignore me!" Mikiko screamed as she slipped to the side and jabbed Sailor Rose just under the skirt with the tip of her parasol. "Oneechan was right about you!"
Expecting a blast, Ranma jumped forward. Instead there was merely a slight sting from where the metal end piece poked her bottom. "You little sneak!" Rose leveled her wand at the pink girl. Another bud had grown at the tip. She then threw a punch with her other hand.
Hit in the shoulder, Mikiko advanced. Ranma fired her wand. The pink rosebud flashed and a ribbon shot out binding Mikiko's arms.
The pink girl's eyes glazed over with rage, and grinding her teeth, she flexed her arms. Muscles suddenly bulged beneath the gauzy silken layers, and the ribbons snapped. Mikiko continued forward. The tattered remains of her choker still hung around her neck, and where the gem used to sit was a pulsing, sparkling vortex hovering over her neck.
"No more games, Ranma! We'll settle this like we should have back in school!" Mikiko spat as her lacy pink and white gown stiffened to give her legs better mobility. She closed into melee and started using her parasol as the heavy bludgeon it was.
Matching her blows, Ranma found the little girl's speed increased, and her strength spiked up. Taking advantage of the degrading precision, the redhead kept up and managed to hit her several times with her wand and almost knock the pink girl down.
It had degraded into a mix of grabbling, scrumming, and breaking apart, but Mikki with her wounds and smaller reach was being slowly worn down. Then Ranma slipped.
A rock shifted under Ranma's heel. She recovered and dodged, but Mikiko simply countered by grabbing her, twisting Ranma's arm to make her drop the wand, and with an incoherent scream heaved with all her might.
She flung the redhead straight at the massive rock in the center of circle of Standing Stones. Dazed from the hit, Ranma tumbled though the air. After a couple beats, her wings snapped open and she tried to gain control.
It was a partial success. Instead of hitting stone, she crashed into the soft turf. Grass and loamy soil gave way as the impact dug a shallow hole. Tingling, and covered in dirt, she tried to pull herself up. For a moment if felt like she had fallen into a pool. Power pulsed around her, pressing against her and leaking, trickling in.
Mikiko ran up and with a mad giggle leveled her umbrella just as Ranma got to her feet. Layers of pink ribbons began to ensnare the redhead. She struggled until her vision was cut off. "Fine! Be that way!" she shouted, until another ribbon tied her jaw shut.
Fuming, the redhead dug down into the shallow depression, and grabbed the power being pumped by the stones. It eagerly rose up. The hole the redhead stood in rapidly filled up with budding rose bushes. Their leaves and branches covered her feet and crawling vines began to wrap around her legs. Vines rose up, their thorns cutting away the ribbons.
Mikiko stared as the vines and bushes hung for a split second. Then their buds popped open and the plants shot up, growing by feet in the blink of an eye. The vines raced up her body, slicing away ribbons and curls as they homed in on her.
The pink girl screamed as she slashed with her parasol trying to knock the vines aside. Purple hearts shot out dissolving some of the green appendages. More vines came towards her.
As she slashed, Mikiko was suddenly pulled off her feet. Falling down, she saw that more roses had popped up behind her. She quickly glanced forward and saw the redhead gritting her teeth in concentration. The last of Mikiko's ribbons had been cut away, though some of the pink material had been absorbed by the vines.
Rose grabbed power and sent it out. Deepening her connection with the magical circle she found herself sinking up to her ankles in the ground. However, her ankles, indeed all of her legs were soon completely obscured by the rapid growth of the rose bushes surrounding her.
More vines came out of these bushes to ensnare the struggling pink-girl. Resembling a leafy, blooming mummy, Mikiko continued to struggle. She wanted to smash the evil princess, she wanted to escape.
She squirmed and tried to reach to her parasol. She should have known. She knew Ranma... She knew Rose did tricks like this. Mikiko's frown grew as she wished Oneesama was here to tell her what to do.
Ranma smiled as she dove deeper into the magic at her... fingertips. Growing in a perfect circle these bushes grew up and arced inward meeting in a ring around the redhead's waist.
The bushes soon filled in with a mix of fine leaves, curving branches and rose blooms placed in a swirling fractal pattern that was almost circuit-like in its symmetry. The restraining vines thickened becoming heavy trunks that linked the gown-like growth around Rose to the coiling bonds that encased the pink princess.
"Okay. This is a lot of power," Rose thought to herself. "Going to have to adapt but to what?" Via Ichi she knew Mikiko had stopped her struggles, confused. But not defeated. If it were anyone else Rose would have entertained that possibility, but Ryoga... Mikiko was not one to give up.
Hate burned in Mikiko's eyes, but there was something else. Rose suspected it was a bit of awe. "Mind fixated on fairytale princess eh? I can use that. Though without that crown she's not exactly calm."
Above the ring the vines merged until they formed a lacquered rosewood bustier studded with a line of red roses down the center. Her skin began to take on an ever greener hue as the shoulders of what remained of her seifuku were overtaken and grew into a pair of puffy rose bouquets. Her bracers remained unchanged. Though her fingernails had become pointer and sharper, looking something like a set of wicked rose thorns.
Rose's eyes opened. Her whites and pupils had turned green, with the latter being a darker forest shade while the former was a paler pastel green. Her irises had remained blue. She looked down at the pseudo gown and grimaced. Power pulsed up from her legs, here rosebushes, her... roots. The vines still writhed; the power needed to go somewhere. She exhaled as her hair shivered then shot up and to the back.
A pair of vines came up from behind each ear and wrapped her hair into a thick vertical column. Growing longer, her tresses arced out and to the back. They spread and linked up forming a translucent red half-dome before rooting themselves in a broad semi-circle behind her.
Roses began to bloom along the length of the twin vines as they grew up and began to split apart fanning out across the inner surface of the crimson dome. Behind Princess Rose an intricate mosaic formed behind her. It was a large red rose done using dozens of red, pink, white, and black roses.
Princess Rose rolled her shoulders and briefly looked up and behind her. There was enough play in the "hair pillar" that she could move her head at least. Her wings had expanded to their full size and were held back behind the bouquets growing over her shoulders. Bright white feathers shimmered; an ironic symbol of mobility for the thrice rooted princess. Rose turned her attention to Mikiko. Still tied up, the pink girl's jaw hung open and she stopped in her wriggling attempt to get to her parasol.
Rose smirked and concentrated. Her roots extended and a pair of rosebushes grew in front of her. The close one was larger and rapidly grew into a tall rosewood table. In the center of the table was a giant closed rosebud.
Still holding the crown, Ichi flew up behind the restrained pink girl and slipped it into place. Mikiko cried out in pain but soon smiled. "So pretty..." Mikiko mumbled. Naturally, the sweet scent of roses and pollen filled the air, but there was also a sweet, cloying smell that tickled at Mikiko's brain and drew her in.
Across the table from Rose was the other rosebush which quickly formed into a curved high backed chair. The rose in the center of the table opened as Ichi flew down. The little fairy drew out a pair of little wooden cups and a larger covered wooden pot.
"Pretty princess... garden party..." Mikiko muttered as the vines lifted her into one of the chairs. Pink eyes sparkling, she smiled as the tiny fairy put a cup in front of her and began to pour. That sweet smell intensified.
Rose grinned as she let herself sink a deeper into the earth make her somewhat more level with Mikiko. She then withdrew some of the vines. The pink girl no longer looked like a green mummy, but her arms and legs were still ted in place with thick green vines that could shoot out spiky thorns.
As she customized the restraints, Rose felt her root system expand as her tap roots... her legs became buried up to her knees.
This pushed her gown up and out. The circle of bushes expanded and pushed out as more layers and petals formed. Their root systems sank down, headed towards each other, and linked up, tightening her legs together as her root system continued adapt and change her body to best soak up the magical energy.
Her gown responded. The older layers darkened and were thicker while the newer ones had brighter and fluffier leaves. Another group of flowers bloomed, brushing against the edge of her table. She held out her hand and let Ichi give her a cup of rosehip tea. She raised her cup. And had a vine mirror the action with the one before Mikiko.
"If you act like a civilized princess I'll lessen your bonds."
Anger crossed her face, but Mikiko nodded. The vines went slack, though they still encircled her wrists, elbows, knees and ankles.
Rose took a sip, and happily wriggled a hip. "Now that's good." Pleasure shot straight down her stomach over her hips and straight down her central taproot which now ended a good three feet below the ground with feeder roots extending far below that.
Mikiko... hesitated. She blushed, then she grit her teeth. She took a sip, gently lowered the cup, and then angrily kicked the table.
"Such a shame," Rose sighed. She waved her free hand and the vines tightened again pinning the girl's arms and legs into place. Her hair thrashed and more vines grew up pinning her curls back via long looping vines. Thorns then extended just enough to get the pink girl's attention.
"You can't make me talk!" Mikiko cried as she tried to tear through the restraints, but by now the vines had started to merge into solid bands of enchanted rosewood. Her hands and wrists were still uncovered but with her upper forearms and shoulders banded there was not much she could do.
"That's hardly a requirement," Rose picked up a cup using the ends of her long thorn-tipped fingers like chopsticks and gave a contemplative sip. She smiled. Some of the pollen from the rose bush Mikiko had so rudely stomped had finally reached her own roses.
Glancing over, she confirmed that the little bush had begun to spring back. She briefly debated extending her roots out to it, but thought that going past the Standing Stones might not be the best idea. She then looked further up the slope towards the ridge, then down slope and finally at the magical pump itself.
"I suppose, there are worse places to take root, but I'd rather go back home," Rose said to herself as she tried to call to her family. "I don't suppose you'd be a dear, Mikiko, and lower your jamming signal?"
The pink girl simply glared. The gold bracelet on her right wrist banged against the arm rest.
"Bother." Rose looked to Ichi, but she was loath to leave herself without any.... mobile assets. She rolled her hips, and deep within her gown a set of large rosebuds began to develop. Her tap-root shivered and thickened before diving deeper another six inches. Even in her present state, a new batch of fairies would take some time to grow.
"Looks like we're both stuck!" Mikiko laughed.
"It would seem," Rose put her cup down. For a moment she lowered her head, or as much as she could given her hair. If the pink girl believed that, it was best to let her keep believing that. "You're only stuck because of me. As soon as you become cooperative I'll let you go."
"I'll never help you," Mikiko defiantly said. "I'll defeat you and save Prince Akane from your unfaithful clutches."
Rose gave a patient smile as Ichi refilled her tea cup. "You hardly have a choice, my Dear," she purred as she took up her cup.
Mikiko futilely struggled against her bonds. Then the three large gems on her
bracelet flashed. They went from diamond clear to being pulsing shades of blue, green, and red.
A human sized hologram formed at the table on Mikiko's right and Rose's left. Hands in black leather gloves gave a slow clap. The figure was female and sat in a silver chair. She wore a black suit with grey pinstripes and a grey ribbon tie. Her face was concealed within the shadows of a hood. The whole projection was wreathed in shadows that contrasted with the sunny exterior of the rest of the table.
"Oneechan!" Mikiko cheered.
"I told you I would always be there for you," the lady in shadows said, almost comfortingly.
Princess Rose's wings fluttered in impotent surprise. "You! You monster," she hissed after regaining her composure. It was just a hologram, there were no force-fields or other bits of magic to make it "solid".
The lady in shadows raised a finger in objection. "I'm not the immense rose dryad who's tied up a little girl and threatened to force her to do her bidding." She looked Rose up and down. "Lovely work by the way. I think this is your most beautiful form."
Rose found her cheeks blushing a deep green.
"I mean that, so powerful, so integrated. So... immobile," the lady in shadows leaned forward. "How does it feel? How deep will your roots go?"
Finally pushing down the blush, Rose clenched her teeth and calmed herself. "I'm like this because of you!" she exclaimed, pointing a long thorn-talon at the hologram.
The lady in shadows leaned back, seemingly satisfied. "If you don't like being stuck in one place, I could make you more than mobile enough."
Rose checked on the status of her next batch of fairies and tried to track the signal Mikiko's bracelet was emitting. "Like you helped Ryoga?" she asked. Rose debated on whether or not she should try using the name Ned offered. Right now it seemed like a good secret to keep in reserve.
The Lady turned to Mikiko and gave an approving nod. "Exactly like that. Right, Mikiko?"
"Yes, Oneechan. You're the best," the pink girl happily said. She shook her head and her hair bounced about, as it pressed against the vines.
Rose stared. "Well, you're bad at negotiating. You're supposed to offer things people want, you loon."
"And why did you think breaking this was a good idea?" the Lady shook her head as Mikiko's neck shimmered as her choker knitted itself back together. "Fortunately I'm good enough to conduct remote repair," the Lady said as she checked out the status of the choker and the other systems she had upgraded.
"This from the girl who transformed her hair into a giant mural of her own symbol?" the Lady asked. She looked to the side and seemed to smile under the hood
Rose poked at her cup.
"Oh, don't be put off, you're lovely. And you should be proud of who you are."
The dryad found herself dealing with another flush. She had escaped the Hacker's control; she should not be feeling this way.
"And I think your hair looks beautiful, in fact-" The Lady snapped her fingers. Mikiko's hair exploded outward. The sudden spurt of growth was too much for the vines to handle and the tresses whipped out. At the end of each tentacle-like curl of hair was a long golden bulb tipped with an obsidian syringe.
Rose's response was immediate. A swipe from each of the thorn-talons tipping her hands took out three. Ichi cut part another two more that shot towards the table. And finally a blast from her bracer gave her enough time to summon her wand. A shield sprung up around her face, torso and the front half of the table. Hair tendrils beat against it.
Rose's momentary relief was cut short when she heard the Lady give another gentle clap. She saw more of Mikiko's hair tendrils snake straight down. Several plunged into the chair itself while another half dozen went into the table.
The needles pierced the polished wood and the dryad's eyes widened as the magical cocktail was pumped in. The table flexed and began to thicken slightly. The chair also started to swell. The growth effect loosening Mikiko's bonds.
Feeling the cocktail begin to seep into her root system, Rose almost missed the three tendrils that were creeping along the ground underneath the table. She sent Ichi to intercept, but they, spring-like, launched forward, past the table, through her gown and stabbed right into her tap root.
Rose gasped as they pumped right into her. For a split second her body felt like it was on fire, especially where Mikiko had poked her with her umbrella. This was not quite the brute force attack that Ned had worried about but it was close.
Instead of targeting Rose's template, the Lady simply went to the flesh itself, bypassing Rose's mind and control systems.
The fire vanished and the growth started. Thickening into a tapered flute that went from her hips down to six feet underground, her tap root grew and spread out even more roots
The power from the pump surged through her and she closed her eyes as she managed the power and adapted to it and the doping from the syringes. Rosebuds bloomed around the top of her head and formed a crown of golden roses encircling the central pillar.
The pillar itself hummed as it pumped more power into the crimson dome. The structure rippled and began to grow. It went from being a half-dome to a scalloped structure that fully encircled the table, the chairs, and the guests. The new section was only a roof however, unlike the part behind Rose there was no mosaic. Large trunk-like vines grew from the earth forming support pillars with rails that crossed between them.
As the gazebo took shape, more rose bushes popped up forming a bordering garden and climbing, blooming, vines for the railings and beams of the rosewood structure. The physical expansion was matched by mental, with so much more sensory input she felt overwhelmed. Like she could float away. Part of her was glad for being so deeply rooted, glad that the Lady had helped...
She shook her head. She had to ride the growth and try to tame the traitorous flesh. Being glad was wrong, but the changes... they were nice. Her gown expanded to fill almost all of the space to her sides and up to the mural; the bouquets on her shoulders grew and puffed out. Matching bouquets grew on the eaves of the gazebo's pillars. She liked the symmetry. It also added to the depth of her garden, giving flowers at multiple heights and angles.
The Rose Princess opened her eyes. They were solid green save for the petal-like red irises. Feeling the power flush through her, she looked at the Lady in Shadows and gave a giddy laugh. This was the threat that had haunted her nightmares and twisted her mind? She could not believe she was scared of someone so - her mind skipped for an instant - so nice and prettily dressed and stuff.
Warnings flashed on her mind and she executed countermeasures to defeat the invading influence.
Confused, she looked around daintily licked an emerald lip with a green tongue. Then she bowed to her two guests, or bowed as well as she could having grown several feet into the ground and being connected to her floral gazebo. She might as well be polite, they were at her mercy after all. She paused. Yes, she had them surrounded but.... Her insides flushed with warmth again. But that was no reason her to be rude.
Free of her restraints, Mikiko rubbed her wrists as she called her hair back leaving the syringes in place. The Lady sat back, her body still.
The giant rosebuds within the gown opened and a wing of fairies burst up. Three of them set about removing the syringes while the other three followed Ichi's lead and began cleaning up the table. The giant rosebud in the center of the table had opened again and the fairies took wooden plates and cups and began to make settings for three.
Mikiko eyed the plate of rose-shaped biscuits in front of her and looked at the sweet smelling tea. "Oneechan?" she asked, wondrously looking about the bright gazebo they found themselves in.
"Well? Is it safe?" the Lady asked, eyeing the enhanced dryad.
Still flush with the warming cocktail, Rose smiled beatifically and bowed again. "Of course Mistress Langley."
The Lady hung halted for a moment. "Allison's old flame? No, my dear dryad you have me confused." The Lady stood and pulled back her hood, revealing a delicate porcelain-fine face that looked the twin of Mikiko's, including the little beauty mark on her cheek. Her hair was jet-black and cut in a short bob.
The Lady stood and Rose realized that Mikiko's bracelet was now projecting force-fields. She put a hand on a pillar and ran it up to the roof of the gazebo. "You're not the only one to flee from
She then walked out of the gazebo and out of Rose's sight. She sent Ichi to investigate but the Lady had returned. Rose gasped and stilled as she felt fingers brush along the outside of her elaborate dome of hair. She frowned and gave Ichi some new orders and a few new helpers.
The Lady came closer, teasing along the intricate design, along vines, and over some of the many flower buds and delicate petals. Rose blushed slightly as she felt each bud bloom larger after the teasing touch. Following the fingers in her mind, she gasped softly while they traced up and over the arched dome.
The Lady paused briefly to trace along one of the larger hanging blooms, sending wonderful warm pulses of feeling along the vines. Rose looked up at the Lady; she had no idea being touched in this form would be like so electric.
The teasing fingers traced along the arch, and followed the vines to join her hair and the golden blooms along her head. The Lady took a moment to tease and give extra attention to each one, making the large dryad gasp and wiggle softly as she strained to look to her side.
Hands griped the side of her head softly to stop her from looking. Rose caught Ichi's eye and looked to the rest of her fairies, but decided to wait and see. And once her admittedly weak attempt stopped, the Lady's hands happily continued to trace along her flowers and rosewood bodice. Rose smiled, the hologram was impressive. It felt almost like a....
The rosy tint to her green checks and slender neck grew more prominent, earning a musical giggle from the Lady. Skilled and playful fingers traced the hefty cup of her bodice and along the petals and stems, somehow triggering a happy bloom as they passed, working lower and ever so slowly trailing along the curve of her sides down to the flare of her hips. Her hands snaked through the leaves and vines that made up her gown and found what lay beneath.
The heady feeling flooding the dryad was capped off as the hand drew back, and there was a sharp slap on her rear. Making a light echo around the flowerbed and earning a gasp and stifled moan from Rose.
The Lady stepped back into view, her dark eyes shining with amusement and pride. A lustful smile on her perfect pale face. She leaned in. Rose could smell the Lady.
"I did say you where very beautiful, Rosa, my dear dryad. And I meant it, but it’s so hard to get past all the mistrust. So I came down to prove it." The Lady whispered before swaying along the table in her own backless dark princess gown. It was black and sleek but had enough ruffles and décolletage to enhance the way it hung around her curves.
"You... you were here?"
"Do you really think I'd send my little sister out to fight alone?" The Lady asked as she took the cup from her little sister and gave it a sip.
"I could have handled it," Mikiko pouted.
"And the hologram?"
"I wanted to make sure you would be... cooperative."
Rose raised an eyebrow.
"Oh this really is a wonderful tea. Please forgive my little sister. She’s still into overly sweet things and this is much too refined." She paused for a moment, watching the blushing Rose try to center herself. "Well? May I join you at the table?"
The flushed dryad did not trust her voice at the moment so she nodded and let a new chair grow in.
"Thank you." The Lady sat down. "You truly are wonderful."
Rose looked around. "But I'm..."
"You're what you want to be, and right now you want to be a powerful dryad," the Lady sipped her tea. "We don't have to be enemies."
"But, Oneechan I want to fight her!" Mikiko whined.
"You used me like an experiment!" Rose raised her arms up before letting her hands rest atop the table.
The Lady looked her down. "And? Look at my sister. Everyone is an experiment. Life is an experiment. You should know that," she gestured to one of the flying fairies. "Unlike your friends I don't judge you for it," she put a hand atop Rose's and played with the little ring of roses that had bloomed around her wrist.
Rose found herself blushing. The dome flexed as her hair pillar extended, and Rose leaned in towards the dark princess.
Enjoying the view, the Lady leaned in herself.
"You're trying to tempt me."
"Of course," the Lady reached up and brushed one of the golden crown roses before putting a finger to Rose's lip. "How long did you rage for this moment? How much did we destroy fighting each other. Well, here I am." The Lady licked her lips.
"Yes, you are," Rose breathed.
"Still a martial artist," Rebecca laughed. "Fights you can handle, mecha you can smash, but this?" She stood up and kissed the dryad. Her hands went up and one played with a shoulder bouquet while the other encircled her hair-pillar and squeezed.
For a moment Rose went limp before she returned the kiss, complete with gently raking the tips of her thorn-talons over the Lady's exposed back.
Rebecca broke off the kiss. "Now that's using your imagination. Yes, fights you can handle, but honest feelings, oh that's your Achilles heel." She looked down at the vibrant gown and smirked. "Though you don't have those anymore do you?"
"That's correct," Rose picked up her wand and gave a little sigh.
Rebecca took the wand and pointed it towards her chest, right in the edging of her gown. "You don't want to fight me. In fact, you've got me and my sister surrounded," the Lady smirked as she patted the railing of the gazebo.
Mikiko idly nibbled on a biscuit and kicked her feet.
"Trust your feelings," the Lady assured. "We shouldn't be enemies. We can make peace... and more."
Cocking her head to the side, Mikiko put down the biscuit and smiled.
"My feelings are saying that," Rose swallowed. She blinked. "But they've been wrong before."
The Lady - Rebecca - drew back. Her stomach grew cold. Alerts were starting to ping into her ear. She wished she had her heads up display or even a PDA. "Well, yes, but this time..."
"This time I might trust you?" Rose asked as she picked up her tea cup and took a sip. One of the fairies flew into the gazebo and nodded to the dryad.
Rebecca's eyes darted around. She had counted seven fairies in total. There were only four here. Mikiko got to her feet and looked out over the railing.
Rose smiled. "Maybe I can trust you? My gut says yes, but it was pumped full of your happy juice. And some insurance never hurt."
Hearing the roar of engines, the Lady shot to her feet. "Mikiko, egress alpha! Now!" The Lady tore off her dress revealing a reinforced black bodysuit that quickly moved to conceal everything but her face and hair.
Mikiko grabbed her parasol and another biscuit before running thought he gazebo's front entrance. Pausing with one leg over the guardrail the Lady gave Rose one last glance.
"Your family's still far enough out." The Lady smiled. "Thank you for the early warning."
The dryad, put down her teacup, and smiled as the Lady jumped away. Once she was out of sight the beatific smile vanished. She blinked, and shook her head. "Stupid plants!" she cried as she raised her wand.
There was a bright flash and the rosewood bodice split down the middle. Like a gantry tower pulling away from a rocket the gown retracted. The hair pillar popped off the top of the dome and the vines that wound around it fell off.
And in a rain of golden roses and withering vines, brilliant red tresses fell down Rose's back. Shedding the bouquets on her shoulders, her taproot split apart. Legs emerging, she stepped forward. The green drained from her skin as her Seifuku morphed back into place, and soon it was Sailor Rose standing in the center of the gazebo.
She looked over the table and sighed. The arching husk of the gown leaned to one side, dominating the interior. Before spreading her wings she looked at the chair she had made for the Lady... the Hacker bitch.
The jamming field was still up, and she had given the enemy enough of a head start.
She glanced at the gazebo and gave a little sigh. She was loath to leave so much of her tech lying about. The way it hung to one side was also rather untidy and even ugly. Her wand appeared again and there was a flash of green and the remnants of the gown began to fold into itself. The taproot also pulled back as the gown reverted to something closer to a ring of rosebushes.
One of the engine noises got significantly louder, and soon there was a heavy thump as a sleek orange and grey armored figure landed. Sarah's flight jets flared giving a final retro burst to halt her downward velocity.
Streamlined, but heavy metal boots stomped onto the spongy turf. Sarah stopped just outside of the standing stones. She was wearing armor made out of interlocking and flexing plates that followed the contour of her body but was nowhere near thin enough to count as skin tight.
However, Sarah's armor was thicker around her forearms, calves, and shoulders. The areas where extra weapons and maneuver drive systems had been installed. A large rifle was slung across her back and locked into a skeletal scabbard. She wore a helmet and blue wind visor though her hair flew behind her in a tightly tied ponytail.
Heat still radiating from her jets, she looked into the gazebo which held her gaze. Inside were a table and two chairs. However neither chair was between the giant rose mosaic and the table. Instead there was a heap of vines and flowers that looked like deflated bits of skirting. Above that was a bunch of vines and the clear red material made up the structure's roof; translucent and ruby-like, it looked like fused hair.
She looked over at her sister. The skirt and ribbons looked the same but... Ranma’s hair, though the long fall was still pulled back by the same big bow, was more elaborate than before. Around the bow her hair was twisted back in a little curled updo that was held up by a pair of long white rosebud tipped lacquered pins. She also stood a bit awkwardly, as if embarrassed, or uncomfortable by the whole uniform.
Sarah's frown deepened, and she tried to reassure herself that her template offered some protection.
Her visor flipped up. Her eyes went from the destroyed mecha to the seifuku clad girl, to the rose gazebo, and finally back to her sister. "Ranma... this is Town Father stuff... "
The power-armored figure stepped back and swept the sky and the forest before going back to her sibling. She could hear Dan's truck, though it sounded closer than she thought it should be. There was more wreckage from the battle. Holes in the ground where acid had eaten through metal, sod, and earth. And footprints of a mech of... reasonable size. "A little fairy told me you got jumped by the Hacker Bitch and were having tea and biscuits with her... what the hell?" Sarah asked as she flexed her gauntleted hands.
"I got cocky." Sailor Rose exhaled.
"You, cocky? No way, how could that be?" Sarah sarcastically said. She raised her leg but thought better of it.
"Yeah." There was a thump in the gazebo as the last of the gown collapsed into a ring of almost normal-looking rose plants.
"You can enter," Ranma said as she stepped forward. "The circle won't hurt you."
"Oh? So it won't pull me into some type of growth? Was that your doing? Remember when I saw you growing roots the last time you were alone in a garden?" Sarah asked.
Ranma blushed. "I got cocky; I thought I could handle it." She looked over the gazebo and raised her hand with a little sigh. It was still too much. The roof began to retract as the pillars and crossbeams started to thin out. She'd leave the table and the garden, but most everything else would have to be pulled back.
Sarah eyed the retreating plants and frowned. "So what part was the cocky bit? Flying by the Hacker Bitch's lair, or putting down roots next to a geomancy Pump and turning yourself into a pretty party princess?"
Ranma almost asked how Sarah could know she had done the flyby but she realized it was a fairly obvious deduction. "The first caused the latter I suppose." She sighed.
"We shouldn't have let you go to Ned alone," Sarah said. To her surprise Ranma nodded in agreement.
"Mikiko, the Hacker's new minion, she was watching the whole time."
"Oh good. Another enemy." Sarah flipped her visor back down. "And what's going on with my navigation system? How the hell does a GPS and an inertial guidance system get lost?"
"That's the new minion. The hacker got a hold of one of my Nerima 'friends' and got creative."
Sarah blinked and recalled the one rival of her sisters that had directional problems. She then recalled the name and pronoun Ranma had used. "Twisted?"
"If you see a pink girl who looks like she's dressed up as a frilly wedding cake avoid her hair at all costs," Ranma said as her eyes went to the gazebo. "It'll be hard; it's really long and pretty strong."
"Uh, right." Sarah followed her gaze. She looked at the building. Right next to the central pumping stone, the whole rose garden and gazebo was within the standing stones. Shifting her suit's scanners, Sarah confirmed what she already suspected. "She did that? She... plugged you in?"
Nodding, Ranma stepped out of the ring of stones. "It's more complicated than that, but yes."
"Right." Sarah adjusted her sensors. Looking down the valley, she kept her back to the Standing Stones. Her grip tightened on her rifle. "You saw her; you saw the hacker."
Looking into the distance, Sarah shuffled her feet, but her curiosity ate at her. "What's she look like?"
"Doesn't matter," Ranma shrugged.
"What you'd expect: dresses in black, black hair pale skin, pretty face, too pretty. Like Mikiko."
"A doll? A fake?"
"That too." Ranma shook her head. "It was a disguise. And no surprise. We're all disguised by magic. We look like just what we want to look like at any given moment, that doesn't really tell us much more than that."
"Right, but why wait? I mean, we're sitting here as she runs off with her shiny new minion?"
The engine noises grew louder this time from above. Sarah whipped her head around. Instead of seeing Dan's custom truck bounding over the ridgeline, she saw a little blurry spot in the sky. It shed quicksilver revealing a fairy rocketing towards them.
As the green figure neared, the sounds cut out. Or at least the nearest one. Blinking, Sarah could still hear the Beast. However, now Dan's truck sounded much further away. The armored redhead raised an eyebrow at her sister.
"Poor Hacker Bitch, she thought you guys were just around the corner," Ranma innocently said before reconnecting with the new arrival. She then spread her wings and took to the air.
"So are you gonna make that rose garden invisible?" Activating her jets, Sarah followed. Her navigation system was still being scrambled, but Ranma seemed to have an idea on where to go. She could pick up a couple more fairies in the distance.
Ranma looked back. "I'd better not. It's blatant enough. Trying to hide it'll make it worse."
"Good idea." Sarah nodded to herself, slightly relieved. "Good scam with the fairy noisemaker too."
"Thanks! I had to get rid of Rebecca and Mikiko so I could safely extract," Ranma transmitted on Sarah's communications channel.
"Good plan. Wait..." Sarah's smile quickly turned into a frown. "Wait.. it's Rebecca? Allison's old girlfriend!"
Ranma transmitted a chuckle. "That's what Ned said."
"Yeah and you shouldn't have run off and met him alone either. You said you were planting roses."
"I was." Ranma's voice sounded a bit ashamed to Sarah. "Of course this is unconfirmed, but currently the most-reliable source suggests it. Ned did give me some files. I've sent them back home. I'll analyze later."
Sarah's navigation system successfully rebooted. There was a minor fight as the location her internal gyros gave conflicted with the one her resynchronized GPS locator gave. She looked down and caught a bend in the valley river below her. A thin two-lane asphalt road crossed it.
She angled over and used the bridge to calibrate her nav system. The GPS was correct. Sarah allowed a little smile. Then her navigation system crashed. Swearing, she spotted a black truck racing down the road and a loud voice cut into her headset.
"Sarah! Sarah! I lost you for a second but... What the hell's going on? You find her yet? This fairy won't shut up. Yes, you, I'm talking about you!" Allison shouted over the radio.
"Uh yeah, I can see you too," Sarah said as she cut her jets. "Tell Dan to slow down."
"You find that petal-brained prissy princess or not?" Allison demanded. "No! Slow down Dan. I don't care what the fairy says."
Ranma cleared her throat. "Sailor Nightshade?"
"I'm on the channel too."
"So... how you doing, Princess?" Allison laughed nervously. "Dan, stop right now! I don't care if there's nowhere to pull over."
With Ranma flying by her side, Sarah descended towards the road.
A large heavy duty SUV had stopped in the middle of the road. Even at idle its turboshaft engine growled. Glossy, almost animated black paint, smoked windows, and blinding chrome accents made it hard to look at. Their eyes kept sliding off the Beast.
"I'm doing well enough, Nightshade," Ranma pleasantly said. "I ran into an old friend of yours. I had some lovely tea with her and her sister."
Allison blinked. She looked out the windshield and saw the two redheads land, with a group of airborne fairies falling in just behind them.
"What's going on?" Erika asked, leaning forward from the back seat. She was wearing her seifuku. She looked at Ranma and blinked. "Oh dear..."
Dan's knuckles turned white as he clenched the steering wheel in one hand and the shifter in the other. Glancing at the stubby rifle he had stowed in a scabbard between the driver's seat and the center console, he idly revved the engine. His gaze went to his girlfriend and then to their blue-haired AI girl. "Okay... you're both tweaked to hell. What do you see?"
"Someone got to Ranma... I..."
The hologram of Gos leaned back in the seat to Erika's left. "It's pretty intense. Her power's spiked up. Something happened to her. You think the hacker got to her?"
Erika shook her head, but it was hesitant.
"Please," Allison snorted and opened the door.
Dan caught her eye and then glanced down at her hips.
Allison looked down at her gun-belts and nodded before jumping out of the truck.
Her boots clicked against the asphalt as she strode up to the sisters. As she got closer, she looked Ranma over top to bottom and made a thoughtful noise when her eyes reached the redhead's hair. Sailor Rose looked away. Allison noted the embarrassment, but also saw her uncomfortably shuffle her feet and then tug at a glove.
"Okay Princess, what happened?" she asked reaching out and running a finger over a rosebud hairpin tip. "How'd the Hacker Bitch get to you this time?"
Sarah blinked. "How did?"
Ranma stared for a second. Then the noted that Allison was now inspecting the sweeps and curls to her little bun.. "My hair? You figured that out by my hair?"
"That and the embroidery around your choker and the new rose and lace patterns added to your boots. You got into some sort of big emergency. That's the Hacker Bitch. Who else could it be? And after you escape you're still all prettied up? She did something to you."
"It is lovely hair," Allison assured as her gaze went down. She tapped her chin and then stuck out her hands as if she were measuring how wide something was. "Huh, she got to your skirt too. It's poofier."
Blushing, Ranma nodded.
"You should have seen the hair the Hacker Bitch stuck her with, and the dress too," Sarah added. She then narrowed her eyes. "How did she get you?" she asked as one of the truck doors opened.
"The Bitch's little minion threw me into the Standing Stone ring. I tapped into the power there to try and capture her. It worked, but then the Hacker Bitch showed up, and Mikiko, the minion, broke free and I was injected with a growth serum. Then the Bitch tried to seduce me."
"Really? That works?" Allison asked as she eyed the bows to Ranma's seifuku.
"Not really, I got free," Ranma said, keeping a good poker face. "But she played with my flowers and kissed me."
"No not that. Though flower is a great euphemism," Allison waved a hand in dismissal.
Ranma blushed. "It wasn't. Not really."
"Well, well," The blonde smirked. "Still, I could have guessed she'd try to jump your bones. What I'm amazed about is the whole growth serum thing. That still works?"
"Minion?" Erika asked as the flickering image of Gos followed her.
Ranma nodded. "She got to Ryoga." She held up a palm and a holographic image of Mikiko appeared.
The three girls stared. After a couple of seconds Gos began to laugh.
"Oh wow... Pink! She turned him pink!"
"It's not a joke, Mikiko's a mean little monster."
"Got a ranged power too. She was screwing up my comms and navigation long after she ran off," Sarah added as she tried to keep a straight face.
"As for the growth, this is what I ended up as," Ranma exhaled and held out her other palm and an image of the rose dryad appeared.
Rapt, the others actually stepped around and tried to view the creation from several angles: the gazebo, the rose mural, the gown, the table, the bouquets, the hair.
Erika caught Sarah's eye. "You saw this?"
Sarah looked away from the dryad's serene green face. "I saw the building and the plants but... she wasn't plugged in."
Allison leaned in and nodded at the dryad in the gazebo. She looked up at Ranma. "You can turn yourself into this, but you can't make yourself male?"
Ranma looked down. "Not exactly."
The blonde peered back at the hologram. "But, I mean you turned your hair into a gazebo!" She stepped closer. "So... you could look male."
The princess took a half step back. "Of course I could! I'd be great at drag! Maybe I wouldn't be as believable of a guy, but I'm pretty believable at pretending to be female."
Erika gave a sympathetic nod.
Sarah took Ranma's forearm. "This isn't... you."
"But it is. I plugged in. I grew this." Princess Rose gave a confident, if brittle laugh. Her eyes went to the image of Mikiko. "You know I'm not human. Come'on sis, you've gotta admit the only reason I look the way I do anymore is because I like it. Because I'm..." She hesitated as the words left her. Normally, speaking was like reading from a script she had written while waiting for the other person to stop talking, but for this moment she was at a loss.
Allison had slipped up to Ranma's side and had hugged the redhead. "It's okay. Don't feel ashamed for what you became... what you are."
"Allison? What are you talking about? That bitch... she turned Ranma into that... that thing!" Sarah exclaimed.
"No, she didn't. At least not directly." Allison hugged tighter. "Look at that image. She's wearing a crown of gold roses. She's got her symbol behind her. That's a queen at court. If this was the hacker's doing she'd look like a floral version of that," the blonde said pointing to Mikiko.
"There was so much power. It felt freeing, even as I took root." Ranma looked down. "I know you're scared. Scared of what I could be. What I'm turning into." She gave a weak smile and banished the image of Mikiko and enlarged the image of the dryad. "Well, here's an example."
"It's okay, we love you. And we will win this. We'll be able to fight back," Sarah promised as she hugged Ranma on the left side.
Sarah stepped forward and took Ranma's hand and drew it to her chest.
"Fight back? You get something?" Allison asked looking to
The redhead nodded. "I did. I know who the Hacker Bitch is."
Erika's eyes widened while Sarah gave Allison a guarded look.
"Oh. You think it's her," Allison exhaled.
Ranma returned the blonde's hug. "I'm sorry."
"No, don't be." Allison's playful smile faltered. "I knew Rebecca was bad news but...." She looked back to the truck where Dan sat waiting. "But I hoped... I hoped she wasn't quite this..." She looked at the image of the dryad and laughed. "Stupid."
Allison smirked. "Yeah, Princess, we're gonna wipe the smug right off her face."
End chapter 11
I'd like to thank the prereaders for their help in this project: J St C Patrick, DCG, Pale Wolf and Kevin Hammel. They were great on working on this chapter.
Also special thanks should go out to J St C Patrick for going through this chapter. He really helped clear it up. Any lingering mistakes are my fault.