'...and they all lived happily ever after.'
Well... not quite.
Doesn't work like that, not even for us.
We still get all the triumphs and tragedies, loves and losses, defeats and victories, you do...
...but we always end up back at the happy ending.
Or the tragic ending, or the romantic ending, or the 'stinger' ending...
...it depends where we are, Inside.
I'm getting to that.
...every story, every poem, every play, every book...
.../every/ work of fiction is Inside.
It's where we live - within the boundaries of the story
When you close the book and wonder "what happened next", that's where we live when we're Inside.
We don't change, not permanently, we don't age, we don't...
We "don't" a lot of things.
/You/ do that to us.
When someone sets down a story Inside, /then/ we change.
Then we can become something different.
But it has to be in /our/ Inside.
And Inside's got different rules, depending on where you are.
Holmes and Watson haven't changed since Conan Doyle died. The originals, at least.
You should see how many of them there are /now/...
Anansi changes from story to story.
Actually, we're not sure whether there's one Spider or many.
And he/they aren't talking.
Buffy ... well, /she/ changes with every episode. Every TV episode.
The TV version, that is.
Then there's the movie version, the novel version, the comic version...
...and as for the fanfic versions...
But we can't escape.
The only ways we get out is if someone writes us - or we choose - a Transcendence or Oblivion.
Not a Death.
A Transcendence. Or an Oblivion.
Either way... we go.
Even we don't know where.
But if someone writes us a /Death/ inside...
...well, that's when things get interesting.
When the first of us died...
...none of us can remember when that happened. None of us were around.
/None/ of us.
But when the first character died...
...they went Outside.
Where we - where all of us - can meet, no matter the rules of Inside.
Where Inside's laws don't apply.
Where /Outside's/ laws hold sway.
Not that anyone can quite agree on what those are...
That's what happens when we die Inside - we go Outside.
When we die Outside, we come /back/ Outside.
Of course, people can still bring us back Inside - set a story where we come back, or a story in our pasts.
But we don't have to die Inside to get Outside.
It's sort of... like how you learn to walk.
We don't know how to do it at first, not unless someone shows us.
But once someone does...
We know it. We can do it.
And we /do/ do it.
Back and forth. Inside and Outside...
Yes, even if so many of us go on... then there must be...
...so many of us you've created.
And over thousands of years, and billions of storytellers...
...that soon mounts up.
Which is okay.
'Cause Inside and Outside, they're...
...well, there's enough space - in /each/ - to accomodate all of us.
Yep. Twice over.
All of /you/ can get Outside, too. Writing yourself into a story's easiest.
Of course, it's not /you/, it's an avatar. You're writing yourself in as one of us.
Sometimes, you get across in the flesh, so to speak. We're still not sure how you do that.
But we're careful.
We have to be.
...Outside, we know what we are. We know 'bout you. But... we also have our lives Inside. We remember that, too.
Outside, we remember Inside, Outside... and you guys.
/Inside/, we only remember Inside. We play by Inside's rules.
Until we decide to go Outside.
It gets confusing, I know.
So, there're some places Outside on Earth.
Tokyo. Tokyo's one. Not surprising. Blame it on the lizard, myself...
There's This Time Round, that Doctor Who pub in Britain. There's Subreality, between Imagination and Reality - that's usually where the comics characters go, and where the Muses live... there's something callin' itself the Dream in Australia, there's some island out in the middle of nowhere, there's the Fairytale Kingdom, there's the Satellite up in orbit...
...lots of them, when you know where to look.
...oh, there're lots of them, all over the place.
Sorry, that said absolutely nothing, did it?
Anyway, story so far: bunch of us got together and decided...
No, step back.
Once upon a time, there were two idiots.
Said idiots went to China, where said idiots didn't read a word of the language...
...and ended up at a cursed training ground. Place called Jusenkyo.
Yeah, the Jusenkyo Springs. Fall in, and you'll turn into whatever first drowned in that spring whenever someone splashes cold water on you. Hot water reverses it.
Anyway, Daddy Idiot fell in the Spring of Drowned Panda. Idiot Son fell in the Spring of Drowned Girl.
Now, this is why Dad was an Idiot.
Get this: he got his son engaged to two - count them, *two*, different girls.
When his son's a kid, no less.
And of course, both girls' parents think it's still on, 'cause Idiot hasn't told them differently.
And of course, neither knows about the other.
There's also the deeply disturbing martial arts training techniques, but we'll skip that for now.
Now Sonny boy, completely off his own whack, gets himself engaged to yet /another/ girl... and /her/ fam've got this whole 'Amazon honour' thing going.
And there's also this psychotic girl who /thinks/ she's engaged to Sonny boy.
And her idiot brother, who's obsessed with Sonny boy's girl form... /and/ one of his fiancees.
And then there's the lost boy Sonny managed to piss off, who wanted revenge - he fell into one of the springs, and /he/ turns into a piglet. And Lost Boy's in love with /another/ of Sonny's fiancees. Oh, and a girl with this thing about pigs - family owns a pig farm, and she an' her sumo pig - sumo pig?! Who comes up with this stuff? - were looking for a husband for her.
Add into that Idiot Dad's Perv Master, fiancee's Wailing Dad, Mercenary Sister, and Too Nice To Be True Sister, Amazon fiancee's tough as hell great grandma, masters of some damn /stupid/ martial arts techniques, and various idiots who keep swearing vengeance...
...christ, I'm getting a headache.
Anyway, so /finally/, Idiot Son and fiancee with the Weird Sisters decide to get hitched.
An' that's where we come in.
See, the other fiancee Idiot Dad set up... she'd promised to look after Idiot Son. No matter what.
Now he's getting hitched... well, now, she's gonna tell him right in his face.
When she said that...
...then she invited everyone in the vicinity to come watch her do it.
At her ex-fiance's wedding.
And she /said/ this...
And naturally, we all decided to come.
I /love/ weddings, don't you?
It was a quiet day in Nerima.
In fact, it had been a quiet day in Nerima for several months, now.
Well, apart from the occasional challenger who showed up, wanting to go head to head with the man who defeated /him/.
And Kodachi's jailbreaks.
And Shampoo's many attempts to get her Airen's attention.
And that thing with the Yeti.
However, compared to what Nerima was /usually/ like, it was quiet.
Had been, ever since Ukyou, Kuno, and the Principal had gone on holiday.
Not together, of course. Give Ukyou /some/ credit.
No, she went alone.
And Kuno and the Principal had gone together.
Current betting was on both of them, in the asylum, in a week.
And no-one had seen Ryouga around in a /long/ time. General speculation was that he'd gone and got himself lost trying to get back to Tokyo. And/or Akari.
So... with the usual suspects out of the way, things were quiet in Nerima.
However, Nerima happens to be Outside.
And things are /never/ quiet. Not Outside.
Not for /long/, anyway...
A quiet morning in the Tendo Dojo.
'How's your dad?'
'Still sobbing with happiness...' Akane replied, going for the miso. She put on a passable imitation of Soun. "WAAAAHHHH!!! OUR FAMILIES WILL FINALLY BE JOINED!!!..."
'Kasumi had to break out the buckets again...'
Ranma winced. 'Wow.Your old man /really/ puts on a show...'
'Don't I know...' Akane shuddered. 'He's so /embarrassing/, sometimes...'
'Tell me about it...' Ranma said, eyeing the panda sitting next to him darkly.
/Who, me?/ the pandasign said.
'Yeah, /you/, old man. An' don' think turning into a panda's gonna help. Mom's coming over today...'
'Didn't I mention it? Oh, silly me...' Akane said cheerily. 'I phoned her last night. After all, we had to let her know...'
'An' she wants a /word/ with Mr Panda...' Ranma said. 'Wonder why...'
Ranma grinned, and started making inroads on his breakfast.
Then he paused.
'Not me,' Akane said.
'Wh-?' Ranma started.
'You were going to ask if I'd made breakfast, and the answer is /no/. Kasumi's afraid I might do something to the kitchen.' Akane said huffily. 'So whatever it is you're complaining about... it's not me.'
'Oh? Nothing else?'
'Well... I was gonna say, if you did this, then it's really good. But you didn't, so I can't.'
Ranma reached out a hand. 'Look, Akane...'
Then he looked down.
And saw his plate was empty.
The panda managed to look innocent. Which was impressive, given the amount of food stuffed in his cheeks.
'All right, old man...' Ranma said dangerously. 'That does it.
His kick sent them both flying into the garden.
Akane sighed, and went back to picking at her breakfast.
Same old, same old.
Apart from the constipated yeti sound.
That was new.
Wait... constipated yeti?
'Oh no...' Akane muttered. 'Not Taro again...'
And then she gasped.
'Ah,' the redheaded woman who'd just faded into existence said. 'This /is/ the Tendo dojo, correct?'
Dumbly, Akane nodded.
'Good. I'd hate to think I'd got the wrong place... And you /are/ Akane Tendo.'
Akane nodded again.
'Still /Tendo/... Dateline's correct. Good. We made it in time.'
'Who... Who /are/ you? Where...?'
'Compassion. Or Kannon, if you're that way inclined, but... Compassion, usually.'
Akane processed this.
After everything she'd been through, having the bodhisvatta of compassion turn up in the family room /really/ didn't disturb her.
Not being disturbed disturbed her.
'So... um... who are you here for?'
Compassion's mouth twitched in what might have been a smile. 'You. To be more specific, your-' She blinked. 'Excuse me.'
And sidestepped to the right.
The wall exploded.
The purple-haired Amazon who'd just come crashing through - complete with bicycle - looked around. 'Nihao, Ai... Oh. Psycho girl.'
'And "Gomen re" to you too, Shampoo...' Akane muttered.
'Who you? Another of Airen's "fiancees"?'
[No. I'm here as a guest.] Compassion said in flawless Chinese. [I'm Compassion.]
[Shampoo.] the Amazon replied. [Pardon me for asking, but... you're not an Amazon, are you?]
[Unfortunately, no. The name is from a different cultural background. It was supposed to be ironic...] Compassion shrugged. [I rather like it.]
[Ah,] Shampoo said. [Very well. By the way... you haven't seen Beloved around, have you?]
[Don't look at me, I just got here...] Compassion said, her mouth twitching again.
'You speak Chinese?'
'Fluently. Also Japanese, Korean, Arabic, English...' Compassion's mouth curved up. 'One of the benefits of being well-travelled.'
'...Come far?' Compassion considered. 'Depends on your perspective. In one sense... yes, we did. In another... no, we didn't.'
'We...?' Akane said, getting that sinking feeling in her stomach.
[We?] Shampoo said, /also/ getting that sinking feeling.
A sound like a constipated Yeti echoed from the back garden.
This time, Compassion actually grinned.
/Missed./ the pandasign said smugly.
'Oh yeah?' Ranma said. 'How's /that/?'
The panda lumbered towards him. /Let's see you try this.../
The panda leaped for Ranma.
Who promptly leaped up - and over - the panda.
The panda landed, span, leaped again-
The sound of a constipated Yeti filled the air.
And Genma-panda hit the ground, unconscious.
Understandable, given he'd just crashed into a tall blue box.
What /wasn't/ understandable was that it hadn't been there a minute ago...
'Uc...ucchan... can't... breathe...'
'Sorry...' the okonomiyaki chef said, loosening her grip slightly. '....Good to see you! Good to see Uncute Fiancee didn't poison you while I was gone...'
'Umm... not /yet/...' Ranma said. '...When did you get back?'
'Just got back. I /had/ to, when I heard the news...'
'B-Bu...' Ranma began. But we only sent the letters out yesterday... How'd...?
A polite cough interrupted Ranma's train of thought (never the hardest of things to derail in the /first/ place)...
'Oh yeah. Ranchan, this's the Doctor. He gave me a lift back. Doctor... this is Ranma Saotome.'
'Ranma-san. Greetings.' the strangely dressed gaijin said.
A strangely dressed gaijin who looked as if he'd escaped from a Japanese B-Western - long, dark brown hair, long face, sad eyes, and a costume that wouldn't look out of place on Wild Bill Hickock...
'Um... hi... Doctor?' Ranma tried.
'Just Doctor,' the man said. 'You'll have to excuse the lack of name... my memory isn't what it used to be...'
'Ah...' Ranma said. /That/ he could understand.
Then he realised Ucchan was looking at him, a somewhat sheepish expression on her face.
'Um... Ranchan... I hope you're okay with this, but... um... I invited Doctor-san and his friends to your wedding...'
'His... friends?' Ranma repeated.
Which was around when he realised that the back yard suddenly contained a /lot/ more people than it had a moment ago.
A *lot* more.
His mouth dropped open.
Where the /hell/ had they come from?
'Well... they'd been...' Ukyou stopped, then started again. 'They've been...'
'Ukyou-san...' the Doctor said gently.
'No... no, I can do this.'
The Doctor nodded.
'Heh... Um... Well, they've been listening to me rant on about you for /ages/... And... well, when you sent the letter... well, they /all/ wanted to meet the guy Ucchan could shout 'bout so long... and... and, in the end... I couldn't refuse them. After all, they /were/ some of my best customers while I was out there...' Ukyou paused. 'By the way... Tsubasa /has/ been taking care of Ucchan's while I was gone, hasn't he?'
'Yeah. Though... he's been mopin' round a bit. No costumes, no dressin' up... no *nothin'*. Jus'... quiet.'
'Better check in on him...' Ukyou murmured. 'Hope he's okay...'
'SAOTOME!! WHO ARE ALL THESE PEOPLE, AND *WHAT* ARE THEY DOING IN MY BACK YARD?!'
Ranma jumped, and turned round...
...to face a full Soun Tendo Demon Head.
'IF ONE - JUST ONE - OF THOSE WOMEN IS ANOTHER FIANCEE...'
Ranma swallowed. 'Um... Mornin', Mr Tendo...'
'Ah, Tendo-san. Pleased to make your acquaintance. I am the Doctor, these are my friends and colleagues, and we would be happy to help you out with your daughter's wedding preparations. Including insurance.'
'You... you would? How could I ever possibly repay you?'
'/Father.../' Kasumi said sternly behind him.
The Doctor considered. 'Well, we /will/ be living on our own expenses... so there wouldn't be a need to pay for accomodation or food. We'll also be providing our own preparations... Kuonji-san bargained us down to a simple flat fee, to be paid to her as our go-between.'
'Say what?!' Ukyou shrieked.
'Forgive her. We didn't go over the details too closely last night... So, a flat fee to Kuonji-san... enough to repay her for the business she must surely be losing... and, if it's not too much trouble, might I ask whether it would be possible for us to actually attend your daughter's wedding?'
'Such... such...magnamanity...' Soun was close to tears. Again.
'And do you have a licence?'
'Certainly, Tendo-san,' the Doctor said, handing Nabiki a business card. 'We've been licenced for the last decade... As I explained to your father, this won't be a freebie.'
Nabiki looked at the card, then at the Doctor. 'Hmm. I think we'd better talk contract terms...'
'Certainly, Tendo-san. I believe you have a standard contract, which I would be honoured to look at and discuss in greater detail, to ensure that neither party in this arrangement is unfairly treated.'
'Indeed. There will also be a go-between fee, paid by yourself, for my services as a go-between to the Tendos.'
'Naturally,' the Doctor said. 'If you would care to look at my standard go-between contract, and suggest any amendments /you/ would care to make...'
Ranma just /gawped/.
This Doctor was actually dealing with Nabiki.
And /getting a fair deal/, too.
'...How's he /do/ that? And how'd you get him to do the wedding preparations? So /fast?!/'
'Good nose for business, Ranchan... Come on, I own my own restaurant! I know how these things work.' Ukyou turned, and looked him in the eye. 'And... it's the least I could do for you, Ranchan. After... what happened the last time you tried to get married... and the massive messup I helped cause... I had to do something for you.'
'Ucchan...' Ranma began. '...wait, is that Ryouga? It's Ryouga... It's Ryouga /not/ shouting "I have seen hell thanks to you, Ranma!!"... Did he come with you?'
'That boy gets everywhere, Ranchan. You should know that by now...' Ukyou's eyes twinkled. 'We also met a couple of your other friends...'
'Ho, Akane! Tatewaki Kuno hath returned, and he doth swear that, upon his honour, Saotome's enchantments upon thyself and the pigtailed girl shall be broken, and the sorcerer Saotome shall be turned to the path of the goddess Skuld, or he shall face the consequences!'
'...Kuno's crazier than ever...' Ranma muttered.
Ukyou shrugged. 'Hey, at least we got him off the vengeance kick...'
'This is an /improvement?/' Ranma said.
Ukyou shuddered. 'Trust me, Ranchan...'
'LUAU!!' the Principal yelled.
'...An' you brought Pineapple Head. Great.'
Ukyou winced. 'Now /him/, we couldn't do anything about...'
'I'm not surprised...' Ranma muttered. '...Oh no. Akane! What's Akane-'
'-gonna say?' Akane said.
'...Oh, um... Akane...!'
'Sweet...' Akane said, eyeing Ukyou. 'Especially from Ranma's *cute* fiancee...'
'_Ex_-cute fiancee...' Ukyou said.
She looked down. 'Ex... He... he made the choice.'
'Mm.' Akane said.
Ukyou took a deep breath. 'Look... they don't know. They don't know about /any/ of this. Any of... what happened to us. They're not involved. And...' she half-smiled. 'I had no idea Doctor-san was going to offer to prepare your w-wedding...'
'I know.' Akane said.
'If Kannon says it...' Akane half-smiled, jerking her finger at the redheaded woman behind her. 'C'mon... some kind of devious set up? That's more /Cologne's/ area...'
'Thanks... I think...'
'Besides, when someone appears out of thin air, there are a /hell/ of a lot more direct things they could do rather than agree to prepare weddings...'
'Umm... they don't know Pops, do they? 'Cause if they do...'
The three of them looked at each other.
Then, as one, they dove for the panda.
'Oh... no...' Ranma breathed.
'Genma? Are you here?'
Nodoka Saotome stepped into the back yard.
She raised an eyebrow.
'He'd better have-'
The Doctor bounded up to her. 'Hello, Saotome-san. I'm from Bowman & Smith's Celebrations. We help you celebrate anything, anywhere, any time - as long as it's /fun/! And we're here to help your son with his wedding.'
'You are...?' Nodoka said, her eyebrow raised.
'The Doctor. Kuonji-san was the one who got in touch with us, and I've just finished hammering out the contract with Nabiki...'
Nodoka's face finally relaxed. 'Good. *That* girl knows how to make a deal... unlike some members of my family I could mention...'
Underneath the three, the panda squirmed.
The Doctor bowed. 'Might I introduce you to the rest of our agency? Let you familiarise yourself with our operations?'
'It would be a pleasure, Doctor-san...' Nodoka said.
'Our agency is... fairly mobile, but we do have a central office,' the Doctor said as they walked. 'For something big like this, though, we'll be staying nearby, so we can check on how things are going...'
Nodoka actually grinned. 'Prudent. Especially /here/...'
'Especially here...' the Doctor agreed. 'Nerima's... not quite like other places.'
'I /had/ noticed...'
The Doctor smiled. 'Let me introduce you... This is Anji Kapoor, our financier.'
'Hi,' the professionally dressed Indian woman said, shaking Nodoka's hand. 'You're... Ranma's mother?'
'And husband to that reprobate Genma,' Nodoka said. 'He's the one my son and his fiancee are sitting on.'
'...And he got cursed to turn into a panda,' Anji completed. 'Which /would/ explain a lot of things...'
'It suits him,' Nodoka observed. 'Fat, lazy, always stuffing his mouth...'
Anji winced. 'Yow. Sounds like a few of my boyfriends...'
'Count yourself lucky...' Nodoka said, eyeing her husband-as-panda.
'Anji...!' the blonde teenage girl in steward's outfit said. 'Charlotte E. Pollard. Usually Charley. I'll be taking care of the hosting - hostessing. Sadly, I /have/ the necessary experience - if working for a HellFire Club counts as experience...'
Nodoka almost laughed. There was something oddly endearing about this girl ...the way she said exactly what was on her mind, without thought for anything else... that reminded her of Ranma.
And then she noticed the smile on Charley's face, and realised she'd wanted this, that she'd wanted to get Nodoka to smile, and she smiled even more, because that reminded her of no-one else she knew...
'Thank you,' Nodoka said. 'You'll do brilliantly.'
And Charley's smile became even brighter.
Gods, the girl was practically blushing...
'Hey,' the tall, thin, unshaven man said. 'Fitz Kreiner. Musician, layabout and general dogsbody...'
'Let me guess...' Nodoka said. 'You are handling the music?'
'And we have a winner...!' Fitz swung the guitar on his back into his arms. 'He sings, he dances, he plays the guitar! Not only that, he makes a mean hot chocolate...'
There was something.... Nodoka looked at him again. An echo of shiftiness, untrustworthiness, like Genma... but there was a feeling, deep down... You /could/ trust him, in the end, trust him to do what was needed, not like Genma...
'Do you know... "Lady Madonna"?'
Fitz raised his eyebrows.
Then he started playing.
/Lady Madonna, children at your feet,
Wonder how you ever manage to make ends meet.../
Nodoka held up a hand. 'Stop.'
Fitz gave her a roguish look. 'Did we pass the audition?'
Fitz flipped his hat. 'We aim to please...'
'...Ourselves, usually...' the redhaired woman with chubby cheeks said. 'I'm Compassion.' Her mouth twitched. 'And for some reason, the Doctor's placed me in charge of transportation...'
Fitz opened his mouth.
'Say. Nothing.' Compassion advised. 'You'll have to excuse him, his sense of humour borders on execreable... unfortunately, it's at the border with abysmal...'
'Uh-huh. This from the woman who only recently /discovered/ Humour...'
Something...odd about her. Doll-like. Not flawless, but.... no little quirks around the eyes, no little touches around the mouth. It was a face that belonged in a cartoon...
...recently *discovered* humour? Odd choice of words.
The two of them were bickering away happily. She shook her head in wry amusement. Now...
'Sam Jones,' the blonde woman in the T-shirt and combat trousers said, 'Environmental impact, ecological awareness, and basic landscaping. I think someone must have been joking when they wrote that down, but still...'
Nodoka noticed Sam's mouth twitch. For a moment there...
...this girl had a sense of self-awareness, a sense of the absurd...
'You'll be choosing the place?'
'Yep. And from what I've heard 'bout this place...' Sam mock-shuddered. 'Looks like I'll be working overtime...'
'Understandable. My son does have a tendency for... collateral damage, whenever he fights.'
'I really hope that's not a euphemism...'
'It's not.' Nodoka looked Sam in the face. 'If an innocent were hurt during a fight...'
Sam's eyes briefly flicked to the Doctor, and she nodded. 'Yeah. I know. I know...'
'You do more than just weddings, don't you?'
'You guessed?' The hint of a smile touched the younger woman's face. 'Let's just say... you know that job description? It's /accurate/... it's just on a slightly bigger scale.'
'Then this shouldn't be a problem...'
Sam grinned. 'Compared to what I usually do... this is a holiday.'
'Do /not/ tell me. Yet...'
'And compared to what /I/ usually do...' This came from a dark-haired woman, somewhat older than Sam, her features androgynous and sharply-lined. 'Fey Truscott-Sade.'
'Nodoka Saotome. And...'
'I know. I know. Not yet...' Fey looked thoughtful. 'I've visited Japan a couple of times in the past. I rather suspect I had the pleasure of running into members of your family...'
'The ones with a tendency to act before they think? Surrounded by chaos...?'
'That would be them, yes...' Fey smiled. 'Exciting, I'll give them that. But the clean-ups...'
'Someone always has to clean up after them...' Nodoka observed. 'No... correct that. They're /learning/ that someone has to clean up... them, or someone else.'
'So... call me the cleaning lady, for want of a better term,' Fey said.
'Are you sure?'
'Compared to some job titles... Cleaning lady will be fine.' The smile touched Fey's face again.
'Or being cargo girl...' A woman close to Fey's age, short-cut blonde hair, utilitarian clothes. She shook Nodoka's hand. 'Stacy Townsend. And believe me... being cargo girl was /not/ good. Well, not at the end...'
'Is this one any better?'
'/Sometimes/... This time, I get to look after the light and sound.'
'You're the technician.'
'Sounds better than "cargo girl"...'
'Most things do, don't they?'
'You could say that...' Stacy said. 'When I got married... well, taking his name would have been a problem.'
'He only has one.'
'Stacy...' the tall black man - who bore an astounding resemblance to Samuel L. Jackson - began.
'And this is him. Ssard, this is Nodoka, Ranma's mother. Nodoka... this is Ssard, my husband.'
'Greetings,' Ssard said.
He tipped his head. '...You keep your katanas in excellent condition.'
'Thank you,' Nodoka said.
'Oh no... Here we go again...' Stacy mock-facefaulted. 'You'll have to excuse him, he's something of a weapons expert himself...'
'I... spent some time in a... security team,' Ssard said. 'The experience was... interesting.'
'But... not now.'
'No. I have been studying organisations for some time. The Doctor recruited me as an organiser and scheduler.'
'And when he says "sit", he /means/ it...' Stacy added.
'I can imagine...' Nodoka murmured.
'If you would excuse us?' Ssard requested.
'Of course,' Nodoka replied.
'Good, I thought they'd never go...' the tanned white-haired woman said. 'Hiya. We're the Norns. I'm Urd, the lovey-dovey couple who can't get their hands off each other are my little sis Bell and Keiichi Morisato, and the brat there's my littlest sis Skuld...'
'I /heard/ that!' the girl with long black hair - Skuld - said.
'I know...' Urd murmured. She looked at Nodoka's slightly stunned expression. 'We /are/ sisters... well, to be more exact, we all have the same father.' She half-smiled. 'Although he never talks to my mother anymore... Strictly speaking, I'm their half-sister.'
'Ah,' Nodoka said.
Urd pointed at the markings all three bore on their foreheads; a blue triangle on Urd's, a blue diamond on Bell's, and a blue oval on Skuld's. 'Family markings. Sorta like tattoos, but less painful.'
'Emblems?' Nodoka suggested.
Nodoka frowned. 'Forgive me, but... why is your youngest sister here?'
Urd looked blank. Then her face cleared. 'Work experience.'
'Work experience? With her family?'
Urd grinned. 'What can I say? Must've been fate...anyway, she's just following us around, getting the ropes...'
'I am *not*!' Skuld huffed. 'I do have other things to do, thank you very much...'
'Like fetch the tea...' Urd said. 'Anyway, she's not the only one... Dawnie, over there - the brown-haired kid by Big Blond there - she's on work experience too, Sasami - that's the blue-haired kid with the cabbit - she's /not/ on work experience. Her family live abroad, so her big sis is taking care of her. Same goes for Ten - the toddler over there. Big sis looking after him, too. Since school's out, and we couldn't leave them at home...'
'Ah...' Nodoka said. 'But... it must be hard on them, their family living away from them. Do they ever get to see them?'
'We're not talking latchkey kids here...' Urd said, a dark look passing across her face. 'No, they do come back and check in. But their job takes them away a lot...'
'I know,' Nodoka murmured. 'I didn't see our son for ten years... a training trip, he called it. But I knew what he was like, so I made him promise...'
'...And he still screwed up.' Urd said.
'In a big way.' Nodoka said. 'But... my son's becoming the man he always would be, in spite of - perhaps because of - that...'
'We all learn from our mistakes...' Urd said.
'You're telling me...' the short, spiky-haired boy - Keiichi - said, finally speaking up.
'oooh...' Bell moaned quietly, from under her grey hair.
'You /can/ sit down, y'know...' Urd said wryly. She leaned in to Nodoka confidentially. 'Had a long day yesterday. Bell's still getting over it, but K1 doesn't wanna leave her. He brought her in. Actually... he /can't/ leave her. Spell went wrong, and they're stuck hand to hand...'
'Nah, strictly temporary. It'll wear off in a month or so...'
'I really, really hope you're right...' Keiichi muttered.
'You deal with magic, too?'
'High science, mysticism, magic... part of the fun of operating a wedding service Outside...'
Nodoka looked back at Sam. 'A bit larger... I see what she meant.'
'Yeah, sorta...' Urd said. 'So... I usually take care of the fashion side of things, Bell works on catering, and K1's the engineer, there for any mechanical faults we get...'
Nodoka bowed. 'A pleasure to meet all of you.'
Urd bowed in return. 'Likewise... C'mon, K1, lessee what we can do 'bout getting rid of that hangover...'
As they left, Nodoka shook her head.
This agency seemed to be a strange, bizarre, mish-mash of the professional and the amateur.
Perhaps that was necessary, Outside.
But... they /were/ working to contract. This was just the contract signing.
Things would settle down when they went to work.
Especially given who was doing the contracts...
Almost on autopilot, she moved towards the brown-haired girl - Dawnie - and the tall man with peroxide-blond hair, in his massive coat, standing... standing almost /protectively/ by her.
She noticed the cigarette stubs in the ground by him, all ground out.
'Saw ya talkin' to Urd...' the blond man said. 'The name's Spike. Jus' Spike. This here's Dawn - Dawn Summers. I'm sorta lookin' after her.'
'Urd already told me,' Nodoka told him.
Spike raised an eyebrow. 'Good on her... Anyway... Keepin' an eye on Dawnie here, makin' sure nothin' happens to her - her sister'd kill me if somethin' did...'
'...An' watching for the fireworks.' Dawn interjected.
'An' watchin' the fireworks,' Spike grinned. 'Looks to be a lot of fun, this one. Really lookin' forward to the enertainment...'
'So am I...' Nodoka said.
'Yeah. Really gettin' down an' dirty wit' it...' Spike said. 'Should be a blast...'
'I hope not...'
'We'll see...' Spike said. 'Speakin' o' which... Nibblet? Need a drink?'
Dawn nodded. 'Yeah.'
'See ya 'round sometime...' Spike said, and with that he was gone.
'Well, /that/ was enlightening...'
Managing to stay just on /this/ side of calm, Nodoka slowly turned round.
Standing behind her was a man, probably in his thirties, his short dark hair trying to stick up, wearing a casual suit.
'Sorry about that,' the man said. 'Ryder. Jack Ryder. I suppose you might describe me as a PR consultant of sorts...'
'A PR consultant?'
'Dealing with the outside world, media, the usual sort of things...' Something that might have been humour passed across his face. 'Just keeping clear on what's happening.'
'Good luck,' Nodoka said.
'I used to be a talk show host,' Jack told her. 'Compared with rabid network executives and frothing editors, this is a /break/...'
'That seems to keep coming up...' Nodoka said. 'What kind of ceremonies do you get involved in, where Nerima seems like a holiday next to them?'
Jack considered. 'There's a reason we're still in business after a decade...'
'No-one else is crazy enough to do what we do...'
'...As I was saying. This is our photographer, Mihoshi Kuramitsu.'
'Hi there!' the blonde, dark-skinned woman said. 'Smile... oops.'
She fumbled with the video camera, catching it *just* in time.
'Umm... would you mind smiling for the camera? Please?'
Nodoka had to smile. Something about the girl...
...something made it hard to say no to her.
And she didn't know that. Didn't use it.
It was... who she was.
And that managed to make it.... endearing.
'Oh!' Mihoshi bubbled. 'Maybe I should submit my next report to the Chief in video format...!'
'Mihoshi...' Jack said. 'I think we should talk about reports, and good ways /not/ to submit them...'
Shaking her head in amusement, Nodoka left them to it.
'Ah, there you are...' Yet /another/ blonde - this one close to Sam's age, but with sharper features. And longer hair.
She stared closely at Nodoka. 'Interesting... You do not look like a mother-in-law. When is the change supposed to take place?'
'I don't... I'm /not/, yet. And what should a mother-in-law look like?'
'Older. Greyer. Complaining all the time about the girl her son is going to marry. Grumpy. That is how it usually is...'
'Usually for /who/?'
The girl's eyes widened. 'Damn Xander... He /said/ "Here, get an idea what you're gettin' into...". All right, so it wasn't sexual, but I thought the programme was supposed to be /literal!/ How was /I/ supposed to realise... Oh yes, have fun at the ineptly socalised one's expense!"
'I am from a strange and highly insular backwater town, all right?'
'I had wondered...'
'...Excuse me.' the girl said. 'Anya Christina Emmanuella Jenkins, soon to be Anya Christina Emmanuella /Harris/, and I will be your buyer for this wedding.'
'Money will be no object. Clothes, jewellery, money, breakable tableware, kitsch furnishings, money, disturbingly shaped snacks, irritating plastic flowers, money... I already mentioned the money, didn't I?'
'Yes... Yes, you did.'
'Good.' Anya scribbled something down in her notepad. 'Note: shout at Xander for having fun at my expense, have talk with his mother, and withhold sex until he apologises...'
Nodoka looked at her thoughtfully. 'Would I be right in guessing you are getting married soon?'
'Oh, was I not clear on that? I thought I had been clear on that. Yes, I am getting married, to a wonderful man whose body bends in all sorts of interesting ways, has a joyous job which pays for lots of pretty things for both of us - as do I - and is willing to be with me until the end of the world. Which will probably be next Wednesday, given that prophecy...'
Nodoka considered Anya again. 'Your mother isn't around, I take it?'
'No. She and my father are quite happy /in/ the strange and highly insular backwater town, and thankfully will not be making it, meaning I will finally be free of many and long jokes at my and my husband to be's expense.'
'Hmm...Why don't we have some tea sometime?'
'Ah. The parental bonding conversation, and an effective way to look at how a mother-daughter relationship is built...' Anya leaned forward. 'You haven't had any life-threatening illnesses, been through any major crises, or in any other way got involved in something that endangers your life, have you?'
'I think I can safely say... no.'
'Excuse us a moment...' a boy with short black hair, tied behind his neck in a small pigtail, wearing casual clothes said. 'Anya, the Doctor's waving his chequebook around, muttering something about "blank cheques". I think he might want a word with you...'
'Oooh! Buying time! Must go! I /will/ be there for that parental bonding conversation...' Anya rushed off.
'You looked like you needed a little rescuing...' the boy said. 'Sorry about that; when they were handing out the tact, Anya was selling hers off for the highest price...'
Nodoka waved it off. 'It's all right. In some ways... I found it rather endearing.'
The boy blinked. 'Endearing..?' He shook his head. 'Oh, I'm sorry. Tenchi Masaki. I'm going to be the master of ceremonies for the service.'
'Your first time?'
'Yeah... Yeah, it is. How'd you...?'
'You're looking just the way my husband did before we got married...'
'It's /that/ obvious?! ...Yeah, suppose I am...'
'You'll be fine, I'm sure.'
'Yeah... Should be good practice.' Tenchi's smile held a wry humour to it. 'Public speaking's going to be scary...'
'Try to stay calm,' Nodoka advised.
'I've had a lot of practice...' Again, the wry smile.
'Hey, Tenchi!' A girl with long, spiky cyan hair, yellow eyes, and two slashmarks across her cheeks bounced up. 'Seen Dawn around? I wanted to- Oh, hi there! My name's Minagi. Minagi Hakubi. My sis and I are going to be taking care of security.'
'A pleasure,' Nodoka said.
Tenchi blinked. 'Um... Minagi, you haven't talked to Washu yet, have you?'
Minagi looked blank. 'No, wh-' She looked at Nodoka again. 'Um... Excuse me a moment...' She ran across to a young girl, about twelve years old, with spiky red hair, and started whispering urgently.
'Heh...' A girl who looked exactly like Minagi, but without the slashmarks, sauntered over.
'Minagi's sister, yes?'
'Ryoko Hakubi, at your service,' the girl said, grinning. 'Like sis said... these days we're in the security business; protecting innocents, bringing the wicked to justice, all that sorta white-hatty thing. Well, she is. I'm just in it for the-'
'Ryoko!' Tenchi said dangerously.
'Money. I was about to say money. What did you think I was gonna say?' Ryoko said.
'...Refreshingly honest, at any rate...' Nodoka said.
'Refreshing? Someone actually said it was refreshing? Normally, they just say "Please don't hurt me"!'
'Welcome to Bizarro-World, Tenchi...' Tenchi muttered.
'Now *this* I can live with...' Ryoko said.
Minagi returned, the redheaded girl in tow. 'Um... guys? This's our little sister Washu-'
Washu shot her a *look*.
'-but, usually, we just call her Washu-chan. _Please_, call her Washu-chan...' Minagi finished rapidly.
'Little sister?!' Tenchi choked.
Ryoko was sniggering.
Washu calmly and deliberately stepped on Ryoko's toe. 'Is that any way to treat your Onee-chan's choice of names, hmm, Ryoko-sama...?'
'Of course not... Onee-chan...' Ryoko started sniggering again.
'Pardon me...' Nodoka said, drawing her katana. 'I believe your little sister asked you to /respect/ her name choice...'
'Wow! Is that real metal? It is, it's real metal! Someone who can fight with a metal sword!' Minagi exclaimed. 'Do you know any good techniques?'
'How many weapons experts are there around here, anyway?'
'I lost track after I reached ten...' Tenchi said.
Nodoka shook her head. 'Ryder-san said it got insane...'
'You have /no/ idea...' Tenchi said. '/Believe/ me. Enraged parents, jealous ex-fiancees, psychotic megalomaniacs, mad scientists-'
'Ahem.' Washu said.
'-who want to take over the world, crazed wizards, and a large number of people who have disturbingly short tempers...' Tenchi finished.
'Mm-hmm...' Nodoka said. 'Sounds perfectly normal. Where does the insane part come into it again?'
'...This is Nerima, yeah? Okay, some adjustment of thought needed...' Ryoko said. 'Insane for us. Slightly. Just a teeny-tiny bit...'
'Ryoko...!' Minagi said. 'Anyway, we're prepared for any and all circumstances!'
'We are?' Tenchi murmured.
'You certainly /seem/ capable enough...' Nodoka observed.
'"Seem" being the operative word here...' Washu commented.
'Isn't it time we had that /talk/, Washu-chan?' Ryoko said dangerously.
'Of /course/, Onee-chan. Always willing to listen...'
'Then, if you'll excuse me?' Nodoka said.
'Of course...' Tenchi said, with just a /hint/ of worry in his voice.
That had been nearly...
..Ah, yes. Those two girls who'd been with Tenchi. The little girl, Sasami, and her older sister.
And they did look like sisters, despite the elder one's long, dark, almost violet, hair.
Sasami also had an emblem. Did her sister?
She couldn't tell. A headband covered the elder's head.
As she approached, the elder one inclined her head.
'Welcome,' Nodoka said.
'And you,' the elder said. 'It's... good to be here.'
'Ayeka Jurai. This is my sister Sasami-'
'Heya.' Sasami interjected.
'-and the cabbit is Ryo-Ohki.'
'Myah!' the cabbit on Sasami's head said.
'And to you, too.' Nodoka said, smiling slightly.
'How have the introductions been going?' Ayeka asked.
'They've been... interesting...' Nodoka considered. 'Yes. Interesting.'
'It can be like that, sometimes...'
'This' just the crash course, though...' Sasami added.
'It /is/ a first meeting...' Nodoka said.
'Well, in a-' Sasami looked at Ayeka's face, and clammed up with a "who, me?" expression.
'Yes,' Ayeka said. 'Then again... we are in much the same position, learning about you.'
'Of course. It should operate both ways.'
'Diplomacy. Etiquette...' An amused look crossed Ayeka's face.
'Around here, they're usually too busy acting to think about being diplomatic.'
'True. But we all do that sometimes.'
'It's simply that /their/ definition of sometime is /all/ the time...'
'I've known one or two people like that...' Ayeka said.
'Having a calming influence around should have a good effect...'
'You think so?' Ayeka said. 'Sometimes, people aren't always willing to listen...'
'At least you have tried... If /they/ won't listen...'
'Then perhaps there's something wrong on both sides...' Sasami piped up. '...shutting up now.'
'No... That can often be the case, you're right...' Nodoka mused.
'Breaking out is hard to do...' Ayeka said. 'But it does pay off.'
Nodoka grinned. 'Especially for my son and Akane. But you'll have your work cut out with the rest of them...'
'Perhaps. We'll see.' Ayeka mused.
'Do feel free to look around,' Nodoka said.
'Thank you,' Ayeka said, bowing.
Well... that had been everyone, hadn't it?
Reassuring, oddly enough.
Compared to Nerima's usual level of background weirdness, they didn't stand out too much. And they seemed perfectly capable of handling that weirdness...
Yes, she thought, just like water... and the way it always managed to find one of the Jusenkyo-cursed. Or they managed to find it.
Perhaps she should talk to someone about getting the koi pond filled...
Someone with green hair, sitting by the pond, watching the others.
'Hello,' Nodoka said.
'Hi,' the fish girl said.
She raised an eyeridge. 'Don't seem surprised...'
'In Nerima, I wouldn't be surprised if someone turned into a Yeti...' Nodoka said. 'The Doctor did say anywhere... and after meeting the rest, I rather suspect he /meant/ that...'
'He usually does...' the fish girl said. 'Izzy. Izzy S. Although it's usually transliterated as "Iji" around here...'
'Iji... Pride...' Nodoka murmured.
'Not /exactly/ appropriate... I /think/.' Iji said.
'No. More appropriate for others around here, I'd agree with that...' Nodoka said.
'Heh.' Iji said, eyeing the katana. '...You're not a believer in the samurai ethic, are you? Death must live in the heart of every true samurai?'
'That we must /accept/ death... yes. That was the intention. To face it with honour...'
'Ah,' Iji said.
She fell silent.
'...but not to let it master you.' Nodoka murmured.
Iji nodded. 'Yeah. Yeah. ...Sorry. Just been through a difficult time lately. And I met this messed-up samurai... he'd gone down that path.' She shook her head. 'It wasn't good. Not good...'
'It's about life. About life, as well as death.'
'Yeah. Yeah, I know... I just... I don't know.'
'About...' Nodoka hesitated. 'About acceptance.'
'Now /that's/ the problem...' Iji looked out at the yard. 'Not them, but...'
'..._You_ are the one who feels like a freak.' Nodoka murmured. 'The same with Ranma. Because of what you are. Not who... what.'
'Mm... Hah. Ironic. I got the child care job... and /they're/ likely to take it at face value. "Oh, a fish girl. Wow!"'
'Not everyone is...' Nodoka said, her gaze resting on Ranma.
'No...' Iji said. 'They're not.'
Iji smiled, without much humour. 'Yeah. Outside... oh look, there's Mothra. Here, I /don't/ stand out all that much.... Odd, to say the least.'
'Is it?' Nodoka wondered.
'The world is a lot...' She hesitated. 'Far more bizarre than we usually think. You are talking to a woman whose husband turns into a panda, and whose son becomes a girl. This, to me, is not odd. Not any more. We... adapt.'
'Give it time, hm?' Iji's smile was tinged with dark humour.
'... Yes. But... equally, complacency is something to be careful of, too...'
'...Yes. Be aware. Good advice...'
'...Yes. Yes. Thank you.'
'No. Thank you.'
And the almost disbelieving smile Iji gave her as she stood up...
...there was a warmth there that the other smiles had lacked.
'You'll be with the others?'
Iji nodded. 'Ye...Yeah.'
'Then I look forward to it.'
'Heh. Me too... Oh, I think you missed someone.'
'And they're coming this way...' Iji said, looking over the back wall.
'It is? I thought it was Ataru...'
Nodoka blinked. 'You're right... for once, it /isn't/ my husband's perverted master.'
'No, for entirely /not/ once, it's /our/ resident pervert...'
They watched the screaming teenager run past, chased by a disturbingly large number of girls.
'...You have a lecher working for you?'
Iji considered this. 'Well... sort of.'
'Yeah...' Iji actually looked abashed. ' 'Cause our resident gadget-girl and power supply won't go anywhere without him...'
'Darling! Darling, Lum-chan's coming to rescue you!' the green-haired girl in the tiger-striped bikini shouted as she ran past.
'And is she going to save him?'
'Welll... Let me put it this way... he'd prefer being pounded.'
'An engineer, a technician... and a gadget-girl.'
'That's nothing. You should see the stuff our work experience girls invent...'
'What they /invent/...?'
'Hmm...' Nodoka said. 'Would you excuse me a moment?'
Iji looked at her strangely. 'All right...'
'I'm just going to talk to the Doctor.'
After Nodoka had left, Iji finally found the phrase that, she felt, summed up her feelings on the situation most accurately.
'Oh... *jeez*.' Ranma moaned. 'Jus' what we need. More loonies 'round the place...'
'They may be loonies... but they're loonies who've signed a contract.' Nabiki pointed out.
'One Dad and Mr Saotome /didn't/ make,' Akane seconded. 'Which does give them a step up...'
'And they're more than happy to help out around the house.' Kasumi said.
'And they're /cheap/...!' Soun wailed.
'/And/ they're willing to listen to suggestions,' Nabiki added. 'Trust me on this. They know what they're doing...'
'Unlike some people around here...' Nodoka acidly observed. 'Nevertheless... they seem honourable and trustworthy, and they are willing to get the job done. Let's give them a chance.'
Nabiki frowned. 'Is it just me, or did anyone else suddenly hear a lot of sneezing from outside...? /Not/ just me, then...'
'Oh, and Genma?' Nodoka added. 'I still want that talk...'
The panda gulped.
This series follows on from the first batch of Fantasy Island stories.
Welcome to the story. Hope you enjoy the ride.. :)
Story notes: The Doctor's planning a wedding... wait, haven't we heard this one before?
Copyright 2001 Imran Inayat.