This story is set in the same world as “Change of Phases”, starting roughly a year before the beginning of “Change of Phases”. This is also based on the premise brought up in Gregg Sharp's “The Bet: Crippled”, and it is recommended the former be read to understand the setup. The characters involved, save for “Paladin”, are the creations of either Rumiko Takahashi, Naoko Takeuchi, and Marvel Entertainment Co.
Chapter 02 – A Light In the Darkness
Ranma dangled from a pull up bar he and Nabiki set up the other day, his legs dead weight as he pulled his chin to the bar, before lowering it. Simple quiet physical activity punctuated by a seemingly one sided conversation. “So, Pal, what can we do?”
( We are capable of enhancing our host's physical strength, as well as modify our material substance to provide an armor, as we demonstrated the other night. That armor can also take other forms. )
“Fifty seven... can you show me?” Ranma requested as he returned to a dangle.
( Certainly, ) Ranma sensed as the silvery material flowed from his skin, covering all but his hands and his head, before creating his usual clothing. ( You usually wear this so I thought it a good example. )
Ranma blinked. “Very nice... this could really come in handy. Especially considering the curse.”
( Ahh yes, this 'curse'... we do not think it so negative... We know you dislike how it has affected your life, but we see it as very useful. As useful as our changing ability, ) the symbiote commented.
Ranma paused and sighed. “It caused us problems. Ruined our life in certain ways... Though with your ability to be whatever, at least I don't have to worry about being dressed wrong when I change,” he said, trying, pointlessly, to stifle a hint of bitterness.
( We know of the problems it has caused. The amazon murderess, the tomboy traitor. We will help, we promise, ) the symbiote assured.
At that moment, the door opened, and Nabiki walked in. “Did you finish your homework, Ranma?”
“Just had a little – sixty eight – problem with the quadratics, Nabiki,” Ranma replied. “It seems so weird.”
Nabiki nodded as she looked over his homework. “You're doing pretty good... You actually got these all down except this one.. It should be -5x squared minus 5. See how-”
Ranma nodded. “Ok, See what went wrong there. Thanks, Nabiki,” He said softly. He stopped, and then turned on the bar. “Nabiki? Thanks a lot for the help. Don't know how w – I could have managed without you.”
Nabiki smiled. “Hey, if we can be friends, we'll call it even, ok?”
Ranma nodded quietly. “Gotcha, Nabiki.”
Nabiki yawned. “I'm going to check my budget and then get some sleep. You going to bed soon?”
Ranma shrugged. “I think I'm going to do some more exercise before I hit the sack.”
“Alright, Ranma, just be careful, ok?” Nabiki said with another yawn before heading to bed.
After Nabiki closed the door, Ranma finished his set. “There we go. So Pal, what else can we do?”
The alien within him replied ( Well, we have considered your injury. We might be able to do something to help mitigate it, at least for a time, though in time we may be able to alleviate it completely. )
Ranma nodded quietly. “Yeah, you mentioned that. Really hope you can though I'm not keeping my hopes up.”
Paladin paused, before replying ( Hope is very important, but we understand your hesitance, considering all of your experiences. We will do everything we can to help you. You are our host, and we will not let you down. ) the symbiote paused, then asked, ( What do you think of the traitor's sibling? )
Ranma paused. “Think she's a... well, she's trying. I don't know if I've ever had one, but I do think she's a friend.”
The symbiote replied, ( Nothing like the traitor. We agree. We are glad you have another friend. The healer is also a good person. )
Ranma nodded softly. “Yeah he is. We owe him big.”
The alien replied, ( Allow us to try something. ) With Ranma's agreement, the clothing subtly tightened around Ranma's legs. ( Let go of the bar, ) the creature asked.
Ranma blinked, then hesitantly let go, expecting to collapse in a heap, only to land upon his feet. He blinked as he watched his legs move, almost like a horror movie zombie or Frankenstein's monster. Ranma smiled for a moment. “Well, it's not pretty but it'll work.”
Paladin replied, ( It will get better with practice. It is also, as the healer said, 'therapy' for your legs... making sure they will be in shape if we can ever restore them. )
Ranma nodded. “Thanks, Pal,” he said softly. He paused. “How old are you?”
( Interesting question. By the way you reckon time, over five thousand years. I have had over two hundred hosts in that time,. ) Paladin explained.
“Whoa. That's a lot,” Ranma remarked.
( That it is. It is surprising as well. Very few of my kind have reached this age. )
Ranma nodded. “Well, then at least we've got plenty of experience.”
( That we do. And speaking of experience, we should probably work on your studies more. The trai.. your friend is right. )
Ranma sighed as he rolled toward the books, starting to work once more.
School was just as frustrating, but as Ranma's grades increased, the teachers' general attitudes improved, the more insulting professors moving on to 'more worthy' targets, while the kinder teachers complimenting him on his progress. His newly gained ability to walk, as clumsy as it was, helped him through the hard nights, though he did not show this ability to anyone except Tofu, who was pleased with the enhanced mobility. The doctor also began to become less suspicious of the symbiote, as Paladin and Ranma discussed things with the doctor.
Akane continued to overtly ignore Ranma, though even Ranma couldn't ignore the covert shameful glances she gave him. Glances that Ranma and Paladin felt a guilty sort of satisfaction from. Ranma refused to outwardly acknowledge the glances, however.
On the other hand, Nabiki had it a bit rougher, as Akane often came to ask her to come home and away from Ranma. It was never 'the pervert' as it used to be, just 'Ranma'. There were no threats or the like, but Akane was persistently stubborn as usual, driving Nabiki to wits' end at times.
And each night, after Nabiki went to sleep, Ranma pushed himself. His mobility became smoother, more fluid, almost to the point where one would be hard pressed to tell the difference in his walking. He was no where near his former athleticism, but he was quite satisfied with just being able to walk, and urged himself onward to improve.
One cold morning, after an odd storm front came by, Ranma wheeled his way to class, Nabiki at his side, grumbling at the weatherman under frosted breath. Ranma, on the other hand, was bundled up in clothing imitated by Paladin and ignored the cold for the most part.
Nabiki noticed a strange peace as of late in the paraplegic martial artist. The gloom and depression were still there at times, but for the most part, he seemed to have mentally recovered from his injuries. Nabiki didn't buy it for a moment. Ranma was hiding his pain, and nothing she could do could help him out of it. Even Tofu was concerned at Ranma's calm. Calm like this was to be applauded, but he had also seen calm like this from people hours before their death at their own hands. He had to wonder how much of this was Ranma, and how much of this was Ranma's alien companion.
A slight frown crossed Ranma's face as he wheeled in view of the gate, seeing a very tedious annoyance to both Ranma and Paladin. The delusional kendo-kook held his bokken in a firm grasp, eyes blazing with... well, zeal was not quite the word for it, but probably a reasonably un-insulting term for it. Insanity was closer and more apt, but zeal will do in this case.
He started to pontificate on his greatness and superiority over the fallen demon, making, in his own mind, a speech that rivaled the great generals of the past. In about everyone else's, it was such a load of self-congratulatory bullcrap that most wondered how Kunou recovered so quickly from the constant breaks and dislocations that must have been necessary to pat himself on the back.
“Kunou, shut up,” Ranma said simply. “Do we /really/ have to listen to your voice every morning? It's getting motonous.”
“Monotonous, Ranma,” Nabiki muttered under her breath.
“What she said,” Ranma said with a shrug.
Kunou stared in fury. “You mock a true son of heaven, fallen one? I strike!” And with a cry, he brought his sword high, planning to bring it down in a strike intended to split the foul knave's head. Almost every time before, Ranma caught the blade between his hands and then drove his fist into Kunou's face.
This was not every time before. The palm of his symbiote-encased hand suddenly glistened with a clear liquid sheen as he grasped Kunou's hand. He intended to squeeze his hand, but before he could do so, Kunou stiffened, twitched, and then collapsed. Ranma blinked as he looked at the collapsed kendoist.
Nabiki rushed to Kunou's side, fumbling at his neck for a pulse. “Huh. Must have just overdone it or something. I'm sure he'll get up soon,” Nabiki said before standing. “Come on, Ranma, let's go.”
Ranma nodded, though he tried to stifle an amused grin. ( Pal, that was priceless. )
The symbiote sounded entirely too smug as Pal replied, ( That was a paralytic neurotoxin. It's nothing directly harmful in ninety-nine point nine nine four percent of all cases, but does wonders for disabling a target for capture. And in this case, it also makes as a wonderful gag for those who tend to talk too much. )
Ranma barely stifled a chuckle. (Very wonderful indeed. How long does it last? )
( According to my analysis, ) the alien replied, (Roughly three hours on one of your species. )
( He's going to love that, ) Ranma commented. ( Will have to keep that stuff in mind. Thanks. )
( I'm sure Leurias M'kiex would thank you for your appreciation were he still alive today. A host who died years ago and from who I assimilated this ability, ) Paladin explained.
Ranma wheeled into the elevator, relaxing as Nabiki hit the button for the third floor. ( So... you learn abilities from hosts? )
Paladin explained, ( Yes. We adapt to assimilate whatever useful abilities we can from previous hosts. In this case, the ancestors of Leurias's species secreted this toxin to hunt prey. It was later adapted for combat. These adaptations would have to be inherent, not learned. )
Ranma hums softly to himself. ( So a possible next host would get whatever abilities I was... born with? But not the Art? )
( That is correct, Ranma. ) Paladin replied.
( That's a relief, ) Ranma replied before he wheeled himself to the classroom. “I'll see you after class, Nabiki?” He asked aloud.
Nabiki nodded, a hint disturbed, before walking toward her class.
( How is that a relief? ) Paladin inquired.
( The Art requires discipline. I worry about both the Art and innocent people getting hurt because someone knows as much as I do, and doesn't care who gets hurt. ) Ranma replied.
( Like Ryouga, ) Paladin guessed.
( Right, Pal. Ok, class time. ) Ranma bowed in his seat when the teacher entered, and began to take notes.
Nabiki left to run some errands the next night, making her way to the grocery, and to her favorite photo supply shop, before making her way back home. She knew she shouldn't have put it off, but there were rumors of a pop quiz and both of them wanted to make sure they were properly prepared, just in case.
Unfortunately, the justification for said feelings were slowly surrounding her, as a group of local toughs were starting to follow her. She knew they were there, and also knew that she had little chance of avoiding them. A bus would be nice about now, but she still had roughly ten minutes until the next bus arrived.
Nabiki frowned as she set her bag on the bench. “Ok, what is it?” She growls out.
“Huh. A lady who knows what she wants, huh?” One of the thugs leered.
“Come on baby, don't be stupid,” another replied. “We just wanna have some fun...”
Nabiki looked around. Four. Just what she did not need. She knew enough to be able to take maybe two. But four? This is not going to be easy.
“/Fun, huh?/” a voice spoke, sounding utterly hideous. Some disturbing blend of grinding metal, acid sizzling, and manic amusement. “/Perhaps we should have fun with you?/”
The thugs blinked and looked around. “What was that?” The largest of them snapped.
“Nothing, boss,” One of the others said, though he seemed a bit nervous.
“/Nothing? Oh my. How insulting.../” The inhuman voice spoke out. “/Of course, not as insulting as attacking someone in my territory.../”
“Who said that!?” The boss yelled, looking around. “Someone muscling into my turf?”
“Boss, calm down! Has to be someone screwing with us,” another said sceptically. He walked toward the alley, as Nabiki started to edge away.
“Where do you think you're going, bitch?” The last thug growled at Nabiki, pulling a knife.
A scream was heard as the alley-bound thug was suddenly drawn into the shadowy alley. The screams continued, moving from surprise to pain, then a sudden sharp snap was heard, followed by a thump.
“Come on, boss, I don't like this,” a thug said, backing off. “Let's get out of here.”
“/Oh come now,/” the voice spoke. “/You want to interrupt my fun?/”
“Come on, boss!” the thug repeated. “Let's get outta here!”
Suddenly a figure landed between the knife-wielding thug and Nabiki, causing the pavement to crater beneath it. The figure, silvery and covered in barbs and blades, hissed at the knife-wielder, blood dripping from the blades protruding from its palms. “/If you must... but if you ever return, you are lunchmeat.../” it hissed, as it swelled, looming over even the boss, seeming like every inch of its arms were coated in serrated blades.
The stench of urine could be noticed as the knife-wielding thug promptly lost bladder control and the knife he carried. A scream escaped him as the silver figure seemed to ooze and wash over the man, enveloping him, before leaping into the air, disappearing. The voice spoke again, “/Two little piggies chopped into lunch, who else do you think should eat now?/”
The more cowardly, or perhaps wiser, thug began to run, not caring if the boss listened to him anymore. The boss's eyes widened, shaking. “Who are you?!”
“/An avenger of the just... a guardian of the innocent.../” the voice announced, before the boss felt a sharp tap on the man's shoulder, causing the large man to turn around, as the figure's previously smooth structure that seemed like a head suddenly seemed to turn into a giant mouth full of razor sharp fangs. “/And the one who will consume you.../”
The man suddenly followed the lead of many of his victims before... he screamed, then collapsed onto his face as the shock became too much.
Nabiki huddled against a lamp post, utterly terrified. The silvery figure suddenly smoothed out, and the inhuman voice suddenly became far more human, and amused. “Oh kami, that was great!” the silvery figure chortled, sounding almost familiar and yet not, and infinitely more gentle than the terrifying voice. “Are you alright, ma'am?” the figure asked, offering a hand to stand.
Nabiki asked in a terrified voice, “Who are you?”
“A friend. A guardian. Call us Paladin,” it spoke. There was no mouth, but the body language was both amused and kind. “They did not hurt you, did they?”
Nabiki calmed a little, still nervous, as the figure picked up her grocery bags and offered them to her. “No... I'm fine,” she replied, taking the bags. “What are you?” she asked.
“Long story. Your bus is here,” the figure said, gesturing toward the approaching vehicle. Nabiki turned toward it.
“Uh, yeah, it is...” she said, looking back, seeing nothing. The figure was gone. Nabiki blinked and shook her head as she moved to get onto the bus. A still shaking hand gave the fare to the driver, before taking a seat and checking the bag. Nothing smashed... and a wad of worn bills was at the bottom of one bag. She blinked as she examined them, and inside was a note, “A gift, for your troubles. - P.”
Nabiki sat back in her seat, shaking her head as she held the bag tightly, hoping she could make it back soon before she broke down.
Paladin grinned as he stacked up the third thug in the alley. “Hrm. No broken bones... a few cuts... Beautiful.”
( We thought so ourselves, ) Paladin replied.
Ranma grinned behind the silvery mask. “You know, that was kind of fun. Don't like picking on the weak, but we like even less people who pick on others, especially our friends.”
( Besides, no one really got hurt, and if we understand humans right, it will be a very long time, if ever, that these decide to do the wrong thing, ) the symbiote replied.
Ranma looked around, then leapt for the roof. “We'd better get home before Nabiki gets there. We should have about twenty minutes if we push it.”
Paladin replied, ( Then let us go. Perhaps we should talk to the healer tomorrow. )
Ranma nodded. “Good idea. He might have some ideas.”
Nabiki fumbled with the keys to unlock the door. Before she could unlock it, the door swung open. “Nabiki?” Onna-Ranma spoke, wheeling out of the way, a little damp. Nabiki stumbled into the door, then hugged Ranma tightly, shaking. “Whoa, Nabiki, what's wrong?”
Nabiki shuddered as she held Ranma tightly. “Just... hold me, please..” She whispered.
Ranma blinked, startled. “Nabiki, what's wrong?”
“I... I was almost jumped by some thugs,” she stammered. “They were going to hurt me, and then this thing came out, tore them apart!”
Ranma held her gently. “Nabiki, it's ok.. no one's going to hurt you here.”
Nabiki looked into Ranma's eyes, shaking. “Can... you stay in my room tonight? I... I don't want to be alone. I just... watch me, please?”
Ranma nodded quietly. “Alright, Nabiki. Just relax. It will be alright...” She whispered. ( She's taking it hard. Perhaps we should have done this better. )
( Perhaps you're right. )
Ranma rocked Nabiki as she conversed with the symbiote. ( At least we stopped them. It could have been worse. )
Ranma pulled Nabiki into her lap, then grabbed the groceries and wheeled into the kitchen. “Come on, we should get to work on dinner if we're going to eat tonight.”
Nabiki chuckled, though it was rather hysterical. “Sure, Saotome... always thinking with your stomach.”
Ranma smiled weakly. “Someone has to,” she joked before setting Nabiki in a chair and starting to cook.
“So how do we look, doc?” Ranma said to Tofu as he looked back over his shoulder.
Tofu replied, “Well, you're looking alright for the most part,” he said as he helped Ranma back into his chair.
“Doc,” Ranma looked at him. “Pal and I did something last night... something that felt right, though I'm sort of worried about what happened.”
Tofu looked at him and gestured for him to continue. Ranma began to explain last night's events. “I don't think the thugs will ever commit crimes anymore, but I'm worried about Nabiki. She was really freaked last night... but I don't know whether she was more scared of them, or of me.”
Tofu looked at him, concerned as he checked the door. “Can you show me what you looked like?”
Ranma nodded as Paladin encased him in its silvery substance, before he stood. “Brace yourself, doc,” he said, before his voice changed to the demonic sound from the night before, “/It's not going to be pretty./”
Tofu shuddered at the sound of the voice, before gasping as Ranma took the nightmarish form donned when he confronted the thug. “I see... That would terrify anyone,” he admitted.
Ranma quickly sat down and let the form fade. “And we're worried that we scared Nabiki... and that she'll leave us if she finds out.” Ranma looked down, concerned.
Tofu raised an eyebrow, pulling himself together, before he said, “She's a strong person. And next time, I'd take it easy on the creep show, ok?” he asked.
Ranma nodded emphatically. “Yeah, good idea,” he said quickly. “We'll be more careful next time.”
The doctor led Ranma out, to meet with Nabiki, who was flipping through the channels. The flipping stopped on the news, however, as a familiar street corner was seen.
“And in local news, three people were found unconscious in this street corner, with several knife wounds. The police identified them as members of a local gang, and arrested them on charges of rape, theft and assault in previous cases. It was assumed that the thugs fought with one another, until this symbol was found above them.” The camera shifted to a symbol that looked like a shield with an ankh upon it.
Tofu looked at Ranma who was giving a silent, innocent-seeming whistle that didn't fool him one bit. Nabiki didn't look up from the picture, stunned as Ranma mouthed, “it felt right” to the doctor.
Nabiki stared and then said, “Ranma, that's-” before he was interrupted.
“It's ok, Nabiki, it's over with and they've been arrested.” He took her hand. “I'm done now, so we can head back.”
Nabiki nodded quietly as she took Ranma's hand.