Kazanari Genjūrō breathed a small sigh of relief as the teleconference ended. Ever since the “Lunar Attack,” as it was now called, Section Two had been busy doing what clean-up it could, and that meant teleconference after teleconference for the only man able to even remotely clean up the mess Finé had left behind. It wore him out.
It could have been worse, he supposed. The Americans who had been appearing in some of these “high-level planning meetings” always looked like these conferences physically pained them. Genjūrō had heard it said that Americans had been “teleconferenced out” from growing up with the coronavirus pandemic, but he’d never thought they would look so uncomfortable in them. Well, orders were orders for them as much as they were for Genjūrō, he supposed.
Genjūrō glanced at his watch to check for any other upcoming meetings and, seeing none on his schedule, set his computer to sleep before heading out to check on the command bridge. Preparations for the transfer of Solomon’s Cane to the Americans were well underway, and, as head of Section Two, Genjūrō was committed to ensuring that it happened without a hitch. Granted, Tomosato and Fujitaka were more than capable of arranging the details of the transfer on their own, but someone had to give status reports on those damned teleconferences.
Upon returning to the bridge, Genjūrō took his seat at the console just behind his second- and third-in-command. “Have you two made any more progress on the contingency plans for Operation Tongue-Cut Sparrow?”
Fujitaka Sakuya, third-in-command, was first to respond. “I’ve almost completed the report laying out the contingency plans for your review, and it’s still looking a little tight on options if something goes wrong while we’re at sea. Are you sure we can’t rely on Tsubasa for the operation, commander?”
Tomosato Aoi, second-in-command, agreed. “Her abilities would be helpful on the battlefield. Aerial combat has been a weak spot for Hibiki, especially given that she’s lacking an Armed Gear...”
Genjūrō shook his head. “Hibiki did volunteer, after all, and I’m not about to revoke Tsubasa’s leave. As you know, she does have a concert scheduled that evening, and I am not going to disrupt those girls’ lives any more than they already have been. Speaking of which...”
Suddenly an alarm klaxon sounded and a clattering of keyboards soon followed. The main view screen at the front of the bridge soon lit up with the words “CODE RED: WAVE PATTERN DETECTED” emblazoned across it in bright bold red lettering. As ever, Genjūrō immediately sprang into crisis management mode. “Tomosato, Fujitaka. What’s going on? Give me a status report.”
It was Tomosato who responded first, her hands clacking away at her keyboard as she panned through several maps on her display. A digital oscilloscope-like display fluctuated away in a corner of her screen, its contents gradually coming into focus.
“We just detected an unexpected energy spike in... Nerima? Yes, looks like it’s in Area 137...” said Tomosato, throwing the contents of her display on the main view screen, including the now-fully-focused oscilloscope display. “And it looks like it’s an Aufwachen waveform!”
“What‽ And it’s not one of the girls?” As far as Genjūrō knew, they were still following their orders to remain on board the Altamaha-ha until the hand-off to the Americans was complete, the day of Tsubasa’s concert.
Aoi shook her head. “No, sir. The system is still looking for a match... Hold on a minute, it just found one! It’s... Bājiāoshàn?”
“Bājiāoshàn...‽” exclaimed Genjūrō.
This time it was Fujitaka who responded, pushing an image from his station onto the main screen next to Tomosato’s map. “It’s actually from a record we found in Dr. Sakurai’s... or rather, Finé’s personal files that we got access to after the Lunar Attack, sir. Based on the files that accompanied the signal pattern, Bājiāoshàn appears to be a Chinese relic associated with a project Finé’d been secretly collaborating with Beijing on at the same time as she’d been working with the Americans.”
“Damn. Finé sure worked everyone, didn’t she?”
Fujitaka nodded. “The thing is... the last project log entry associated with that project seemed to strongly imply that Bājiāoshàn and its wielder had gone missing about a month before the Lunar Attack, after another Symphogear in the same project had also gone missing. Finé wrote the project off as a result.”
Genjūrō furrowed his brows. Another Symphogear user could prove to be trouble, especially someplace like Nerima, less than twenty kilometers from downtown Tokyo. Section Two would need to act fast. Thank goodness the girls were still here while they waited for things to calm down.
“Tomosato, can you tell me which of the girls are currently aboard?”
Genjūrō’s second-in-command quickly clicked over to some ship logs. “Hmm... Looks like Tsubasa and Chris were granted leave to go ashore for personal supplies several hours ago, sir. Hibiki’s still aboard, though.”
“Can you patch me through to her communicator?”
“Already on it.”
Before long, the image of the heroine of the Lunar Attack had popped up on the main display, followed shortly by a quick “Hello, Hibiki here!”
“We’ve got an issue and we need your help while Tsubasa and Chris are still ashore. How quickly can you get to the helipad?”
“It’s just upstairs from my cabin, isn’t it? I can be there in a sec.”
“Great. We’ll fill you in on the way...”
__ ,--,/' / 戦姫絶唱 / //_,' ,--,`-' ,----, ,--------, ,---` '--, ,----------, /____/ ,--, ,-----, /_____ / ,--, /___ ___/ /_______ / ,----, / / /____./ / / ,-----` `-, ,---' '--, ,--,/ / /____/ / / / / /__ _ _/ /___ ___/ / / `-' / / __.-, ,--` / ,-` _// / / / / / .------'` / .----` __/ /___,-' /_,-` /__/ / / .---'` / /_______,-'` /___,--` /__/ /____,-'` S Y M P H O G E A R _,.._ ,.. ,.. ,^` `^. _,---,__ | \ / | | ,---. |'` ____ `.\ \ / / | '---` | ',_ `-.' \ x / | ,, ,.-``-. `-._ / \ | | \ \ ``-., './ /^\ \ | | \ `-,--.__./ / / \ \ `-.-` `-..',_ ,.'._./ '._.' `''^'' MAYBE ONLY THE NEVERENDING WAVES WOULD KNOW WHAT'S BEEN DECIDED IN MY HEART...
“I may not have a clue what’s going on here, but I, Tachibana Hibiki, am not going to let you two ruin any more kids’ playdates!” The voice of the girl in the orange and white colored Symphogear rang out loudly as she pushed Ranma’s naginata back from Shampoo using only her two hands. Staring into the determination that was fixed in the girl’s face, Ranma was shocked to see a girl who wasn’t much older than herself or Shampoo.
With her attack blocked, Ranma could only pull back, allowing Hibiki to push her away from Shampoo, before entering a ready stance in case she needed to re-engage.
“I don’t know what yer thinkin’ but I ain’t the one causing the problem here... That Chinese girl attacked me first!” Ranma explained, gesturing to the purple-haired girl crouching behind Hibiki. Hibiki turned around to look at the girl behind her, only to find herself unceremoniously swatted by one of Shampoo’s razor-bladed fans, straight into a tree.
“Hah! Ranma hides behind orange girl for protection? Should just die like an honorable female warrior!” yelled Shampoo, who began to once again press Ranma offensively with a series of swipes with her fans now that Hibiki was out of the way.
Carefully dodging each slash from Shampoo’s fan blades, Ranma began to back out of the playground, in hopes that she might find a little more room to maneuver again, even if that meant giving Shampoo more space to attack as well. Ranma therefore allowed Shampoo to continue to press her advantage until the two had backed into the middle of an athletic field. Now able to swing freely enough with her naginata to push back on Shampoo, Ranma proceeded to unleash a series of swipes with her own weapon to once again create some space between the two of them.
Clearly depleted of fight, both combatants took a moment to breathe.
“Impressed Ranma still has fight in her!” Shampoo said. “It is shameful such a warrior must die. Must end this quickly, then...”
Shampoo braced herself in a ready stance before once again flinging herself towards Ranma, swinging her bladed fans wide towards Ranma’s side. Just as they were about to strike Ranma, however, Shampoo felt her arm unexpectedly bounce off hard armor, before feeling a forceful blow to her chest plate push her back a few meters.
“Stop fighting!” came the mousy voice of Hibiki, who had once again interposed herself between the two combatants. “What’s so important that you need to fight? Can’t you two talk it out?”
Shampoo snorted. “Ah, One-Punch Girl has fight! Maybe she does not know Ranma’s crime?”
“Crime?” Hibiki glanced at Ranma, the suspicion in her eyes hinting at a suddenly growing unease with the red-head.
Ranma sighed. “I beat her inna tournament just once and she’s had it out for me ever since...”
“You... Beat her in a tournament?” asked Hibiki, her quizzical look swiveling back towards Shampoo.
“It is a great honor to win Nǚjié-zú martial arts tournament. It is a great shame for its winner to be defeated by outsider girl. Honor can only be regained with death. Hers.” replied Shampoo, flicking her fans at Ranma. “One-Punch Girl would stay safest if she lets this go.”
Hibiki gritted her teeth as a scowl crossed her face. “You can’t kill someone for that! I... I won’t let you!”
Shampoo laughed, taking a ready stance. “Well, if One-Punch Girl wants to fight...”
“If it means you won’t kill her, then I guess I have no choice...” said Hibiki, raising her fists in response.
Ranma watched as Shampoo made the first move, dashing towards Hibiki in an attempt to quickly do away with her in one strike of her bladed fans, only for Hibiki to deftly deflect that strike and each increasingly frustrated strike thereafter using the orange bracers on her wrists. Hibiki then began to drop back slowly towards a large building across the street that ran along the south side of the field. Surprisingly, the girl who had been readily swatted into a tree mere minutes earlier seemed to almost hold her own against the Chinese girl. It was impressive, really.
Even so, something had to be done about Shampoo. Ranma had now managed to somehow involve this oddly credulous Tachibana girl in what should have been her battle alone, and so it was on Ranma to figure out how to end it. Friend or foe, Hibiki and Ranma were on the same side, for now.
This, however, gave Ranma an idea. With Shampoo focused on Hibiki as she was, she left herself open to being flanked by Ranma. Perhaps if Hibiki were to play along, they might be able to corner Shampoo against the building Hibiki was falling back towards and end this once and for all. With this plan in mind, Ranma moved swiftly to close the distance between herself and Shampoo without the Chinese girl noticing.
Before long, Ranma had gotten within striking range of Shampoo, at which point Ranma began to push forward with her ishizuki, putting pressure on Shampoo to slowly pivot to do her best to defend against what had become a two-on-one fight. Frustrated by the position she found herself in, Shampoo began focusing her remaining efforts on Ranma, only to receive a crashing blow from Hibiki, plowing her into the side of the building that she’d been pushed up against.
The silence from the crater into which Shampoo had been punched soon gave way to the sudden rushing of blood in Ranma’s ears. A momentary lull had turned into a pregnant pause... A small respite... And then...
A fracture which had worked its way up the side of the building groaned for a moment before giving way to a cascade of falling concrete and tiles, steam and... hot water‽ As Ranma felt the water hit him, pushing him to the ground, he felt the spell break, the Symphogear around her shattering into nothingness as if it had been willed away.
Except it hadn’t been willed away.
Ranma pushed his black hair out of his face as the water flowed past, the occasional gap in the fog revealing tiling and the shapes of bodies that suggested that the three had just brought down the wall of a sentō. Peering through the slowly clearing steam towards where Shampoo had been, Ranma was shocked to see her staring right back at him.
“Female Ranma is... Male Ranma?”
“I... Well...” Ranma stuttered, suddenly flush with strange, awkward feelings.
“This...” Shampoo looked at Ranma with a strange look of apprehension, a pained sigh held close to the chest. “Must... talk to great-grandmother.”
As a final cloud of steam wafted by, Ranma lost sight of Shampoo, hearing only the sound of footsteps fading away in the dissipating fog. With the air gradually clearing, Ranma stood up and prepared to leave himself, swinging his arms back and forth to loosen them up...
Only to feel a pair of cuffs biting coldly into his outstretched wrists.
“I’m really sorry but we’ve just been asked to detain you... sir?” An unsteady mousy voice echoed awkwardly behind him.
Ranma turned around in shock, only to find Hibiki, who was now flanked by two additional Symphogear, one in blue and white, featuring a sword wielded by a stern-faced, blue-haired girl perhaps only a little older than Nabiki, the other red and white, wielded as a gun by a girl with long silver twin-tails and a grin on her face.
So much for making it back to the Tendōs’ for dinner.
Following his arrest, Ranma had been forced to hand the pink crystal, the relic, from which his Symphogear power was derived to Hibiki. While Ranma had objected, the Symphogear user with white hair and a red Symphogear had made it clear that he would be parted from the relic at the cost of his life if it came down to it. Faced with a Symphogear fight without a Symphogear, Ranma reluctantly relented.
Soon after, Hibiki and the two other Symphogear led Ranma in virtual silence to a small scene beginning to unfold down the street. A brown-haired man in a business suit seemed to be directing a small throng of people in suits towards the wrecked sentō, gesturing to a handful of old men who had been watching the scene unfold from what had been the former male half of the facility. As he did so, several of the suits with him peeled off with pens and clipboards, making a beeline for those men, apparently to talk to them about something. Ranma could hardly say what that was, but given the appearance of the suits and the fact that he was being ushered directly towards what he could only assume was the “man in charge,” Ranma could hazard a guess.
“Is this him?” the man asked.
“Hibiki confirmed she was fighting him before arresting him, yes,” came the stony voice of the blue Symphogear wielder.
“Hmm... Okay, we’re going to start collecting your after-action statements. Chris, Tsubasa, would you follow me? Our detainee is going to need a guard while I do so, so Hibiki, you can give your statement later. Please keep an eye on him over there until Commander Kazanari gets here.” The man gestured to a nearby alleyway.
“Really? You flew us all the way out here on a helicopter just to make us give you a statement?” came the voice of the white-haired girl in the red Symphogear. “What kind of a outfit is this, anyway, making high school girls stay up late like this?”
“Now, Chris, we’ve got procedures...” responded the blue-haired girl in the similarly-colored Symphogear.
The girl named Chris stomped in a huff. “Tsubasa! Don’t tell me you like doing this sort of thing...”
The blue-haired girl who must have been Tsubasa scoffed. “A sword goes where it’s needed, Chris. Come along.”
As the two Symphogear followed the neatly-dressed man away to give their statements, Hibiki gestured for Ranma to lead the way to the alleyway the man had gestured to a moment earlier, presumably the better to keep an eye on him, he figured.
Having lost access to his Symphogear, Ranma had little choice but to acquiesce and see how the situation played out in the off chance he might be able to get away as Shampoo had. While his father might have welched on a promise or two to get out of a thorny situation he’d brought on himself, even Genma was wary and played it safe when government officials were involved, leading Ranma to do the same.
“Uh, you don’t have to stand on my account, haha!” The sudden chirping of Hibiki’s voice broke Ranma’s train of thought, causing his attention to turn toward the girl clad in orange and saffron.
Uncertain of his captors’ intent, Ranma kept a close eye on Hibiki as he staked out a seat next to a nearby wall. The light brunette could clearly pack a punch with Symphogear; that much was clear from what Ranma had observed of her during their fight with Shampoo. The last thing Ranma needed was being caught off guard by someone who was easily twice as strong as Ryōga had been when he had first shown up to challenge Ranma some weeks back.
“I’m really sorry for putting you through all this... This is probably a real pain for you, I’m sure... I hope we can still be friends.” Hibiki’s unsteady voice gave Ranma the impression of someone who was still relatively new to whatever she was doing with her Symphogear. The earnestness was... actually rather refreshing, he had to admit.
Ranma found himself speaking almost as if unbidden.
Hibiki waved him off with what stuck him as mild embarrassment. “You don’t have to say anything now if you don’t like! I’m not trying to butter you up or anything, I promise!”
Turning her face to the ground, she continued.
“I dunno. I just... I don’t know how a girl like you got involved in this but... I hope we don’t have to fight again.”
Hibiki’s casual use of the word “shōjo” to describe Ranma, as if this male body of his was a simple illusion, got caught in his heart in a strange, unfamiliar way. It felt warm, almost inviting to hold onto that word: shōjo. Ranma could almost have forgiven her even if it turned out to be a haphazard mistake on her part.
“What’s that about a girl getting involved in this?”
Apparently the two other Symphogear users had finished their after-action reports and returned to the alley while Ranma and Hibiki had been sharing their strange moment.
Hibiki was quick to respond. “I was fighting alongside a red-haired girl who disappeared when the wall came down. This guy was where she had been standing so I feel like maybe...”
The white-haired girl named Chris laughed. “So you think he’s our Symphogear? Are you sure your head’s on straight, Hibiki?”
Hibiki nodded. “I know what I saw! I don’t know how it happened, but he’s got to be her!”
Chris looked over at Ranma and then back at Hibiki, waving her arms frantically towards the martial artist in confusion. “But look at him! He’s a guy! Didn’t you say that Finé told you that only girls could be Symphogear users? Because I’m pretty sure she told me something like that once...”
“W... Well...” Hibiki stuttered. “Maybe he’s not a Symphogear then... but then why did he have this relic, huh?”
Watching Hibiki wave the pink crystal around, Ranma found himself absent-mindedly reaching towards his now-bare neck. It felt strange not to be wearing it for the first time in what must have been months. It might have just been a mere thing to him now in a way it didn’t quite feel when he’d been in his female body, but it still itched at him in a way few other things did. “Other things” like what Hibiki had said to him only moments earlier...
Eventually Chris responded. “Maybe he stole it.”
“Chris!” came the voice of the blue-haired Symphogear user named Tsubasa. “You should know better than to make such unsavory assumptions in front of the person in question!”
“Do you have a better idea?”
Tsubasa shook her head. “No, but Commander Kazanari wouldn’t have asked us to arrest him if he didn’t have a reason.”
“Ladies...” came a new voice. Ranma turned to look at who had said that, only to find a blue-haired woman in her late 20s who appeared to be wearing a more formal uniform a military officer might wear. She was accompanied by a larger, middle-aged red-haired man wearing a red button-down shirt and khaki pants.
“Commander Kazanari will take it from here,” continued the blue-haired woman, gesturing to the three Symphogear. “I’ll take care of getting you back to HQ.”
Relieved of duty, the three Symphogear users finally released their Symphogear and allowed it to go... wherever it went after battle. Ranma wasn’t quite sure himself. As they proceeded to follow the blue-haired woman, Ranma found himself left alone with the older, red-haired man, to whom Hibiki had handed off Ranma’s relic just before departing, at the man’s request.
“I take it you must be Saotome Ranma. Wielder of the relic Maltet, if I understand correctly.”
Ranma eyed the man carefully. His body hid its strength poorly, as its stout arms and large torso clearly belonged to a man who had been well-versed in martial arts of some kind or other. Ranma would need to be careful in dealing with this man if he wanted any chance of getting Maltet back.
“What’s it to you?”
“The name’s Kazanari Genjūrō, head of Irregular Threat Response, Section Two. We make it our business to know things. The better to keep a lid on things like what your friend did here tonight...” The red-haired man then gestured to the gaping hole in the side of the sentō.
“She ain’t my friend,” Ranma spat.
Genjūrō chuckled. “Fair enough. I suppose you two were already fighting when Hibiki showed up.”
“You gettin’ to somethin’ here? How do you know for sure it was me anyway?”
“Well, perhaps that would be better discussed on our own way back to headquarters,” said Genjūrō as he unlocked Ranma’s cuffs and gestured for Ranma to take a walk with him.
Ranma could only hope Kasumi and the others weren’t going to keep the light on for him.
Before long, Ranma found himself bundled into the passenger side of a black SUV, while Genjūrō climbed into the driver’s seat. A few minutes of quiet road navigation later, the two had made their way onto one of Tokyo’s expressways.
Then, at long last, Genjūrō’s deep voice uttered a single name.
“Dr. Sakurai Ryōko...”
Ranma’s stunned silence must have spoken volumes to Genjūrō, for he soon continued.
“On September 13^th^, 2040, Dr. Sakurai Ryōko, chief scientist of Section Two and developer of the Sakurai Theory which describes the principles of how Symphogear work, was approached at a conference by Chinese intelligence assets interested in acquiring Symphogear technology. While she had reported such contact in a timely manner and cooperated with an internal investigation on the matter, unbeknownst to us she surreptitiously began to collaborate with a team of Chinese scientists. This resulted in the opening of a research facility some thirty kilometers outside of Xining in Qinghai province in the winter of 2041--2.
“This facility was utilized for the design and construction of two irregularly produced Symphogear using two ancient relics held by the Communist Party of China on behalf of the Chinese people: Bājiāoshàn, purported to be the great leafy fan encountered by Sun Wukong, and Maltet, a relic of disputed provenance that had been passed down by the British Royal Family before being gifted to China as part of a deal that secured a major economic rescue package for the United Kingdom in the late 2020s.
“Upon completion of the two Symphogear in late 2042, Dr. Sakurai began to search for candidates within China who might be able to wield them for formal testing. It was only by pure chance that she happened to almost immediately stumble on two perfect candidates following a domestic security operation in the Bayankala mountain range, including one Saotome Ranma, age 16, Japanese national. That would be you.”
A pregnant pause turned into an extended silence as Ranma found himself staring uncomfortably out the side window.
“L... Look. You accusin’ me of being a spy or sumthin’? Because going to that damned village wasn’t my idea.”
Genjūrō burst into laughter as he carefully pulled onto a offramp towards Yokohama. “No, no. I should say not. We know you weren’t there of your own free will. We know you were an involuntary test subject...”
“Test subject! Hah!” Ranma’s sudden interjection took both driver and himself by surprise. “You call what that Dr. Sakurai woman did ‘tests’? Did what happen this evening look like a test to you or those girls of yours? Are you testing them, too‽”
“No,” came Genjūrō’s immediate response.
“What they’ve gone through is all too real. And the same goes for you,” he continued. “I’m sorry if I’ve come off as a little cold and clinical here. Dr. Sakurai’s notes were fairly vague about what, exactly, she had you do before you went missing late this spring. About the only thing she was unusually clear about your so-called ‘curse’ though.”
Well, that certainly explained why Genjūrō seemed to have no qualms with asking for Ranma to be held despite being in his guy form.
“In any case, I’m not here to talk about Dr. Sakurai or your curse, Ranma. I’m here to talk about you and the future, particularly as relates to that relic of yours, and trying to avoid an international incident in the process. If the Chinese were to learn that both Bājiāoshàn and Maltet were fighting on Japanese soil, well...”
Ranma grumbled. “Look, if you want me to never use the damned thing again, just say so. It’s not like I wanna spend my Sunday evenings fightin’ a Symphogear in a public park.”
After a few moments of silence, Genjūrō posed a question to Ranma. “Ranma, what do you know about Symphogear?”
“Only what that Dr. Sakurai told me. Supernatural armor and weapons that certain girls can summon and wield through song...”
“And the Noise?”
Ranma scratched his head, baffled by the sudden change in topic. “Uh... That’s the weird aliens who killed all those people at that one concert a few years back, right? ‘The irregular threat,’ I think they were called. But that’s all from what I remember from school right after that thing happened. I don’t see how that’s related to the Symphogear though...”
“Ah, perhaps she didn’t tell you...” Genjūrō replied. “Though they can be used against each other like how you and your friend went at it this evening, Symphogear are primarily utilized for their role as humanity’s only known defense against the Noise. That’s why we could do with your help.”
“Why should I? You want to ‘test’ me like your Dr. Sakurai did?”
Genjūrō shook his head. “No, but I’d rather have someone wield Maltet on our side than it not be on the field at all. We might be good at ‘information management’ like you saw tonight, but it helps a lot more when we know what information needs to be managed.”
Ranma eyed Genjūrō suspiciously. “Sounds like a deal I can’t refuse, then.”
“No, nothing quite like that. We can’t force you to do anything, other than detain you for up to 24 hours without cause. And I don’t think you’ll need to spend nearly that much time with us, either.
“No, Ranma, this deal’s as square as I can make it. Being the bearer of a Symphogear is no joke. If you help us out, we’ll try to help you deal with that burden as best we can. I don’t know what you and that other girl have going on between each other, but you can be sure that we’ll be on your side if she comes back.
“Conversely, you don’t have to join us, but if so, you’re on your own. Our job is to control the flows of information related to Symphogear, and if we find that you’re continuing to get in the way of that control by attracting unwanted attention, we will not hesitate to interfere as we see fit, including, but not limited to, taking possession of a military-grade weapon illegally imported without an accompanying formal declaration with customs,” said Genjūrō as he gestured with his left hand to the pink crystal that was Maltet. “But I don’t think it will come to that.”
“And why not?” Ranma’s words dripped with skepticism.
“Because I think you’ll find that it’s really not so bad, working with us. Because I think you’ll find that doing so means protecting those you love. Because I think you’ll find that in doing so you’ll be able to learn something about yourself, free of the obligations and burdens of family and friends, even if that’s sometimes on the frontline of the war against the Noise.”
“If you say so,” replied Ranma.
With nothing left for either to add, driver and passenger sat silent for a time, the highway lights quietly drifting behind the SUV, one after the other.
Still pondering Genjūrō’s words, Ranma soon found himself standing amongst a sea of government vehicles in a parking garage on the waterfront somewhere south of Yokohama. The garage itself appeared to be inside what must have been some sort of security perimeter, given the checkpoint that Genjūrō had been waved through just before turning into the garage.
“Sorry I’ve had to drag you so far away from home,” said Genjūrō as he locked the car doors behind them and gestured for Ranma to follow. “I know we aren’t exactly the easiest place to get to from Tōkyō.”
Genjūrō proceeded to lead Ranma out of the garage towards the waterfront, eventually crossing a gangplank and board a large submarine that had docked alongside the quay. Once on board, they then descended into the submarine itself.
“Welcome to the Altamaha-ha, the mobile headquarters of Section Two. Aside from where you’ll be questioned for our official report on the matter of your scuffle...,” said Genjūro, stopping in front of one of the doors that lined the hallway they now stood in. After a quick badge swipe, the doors slid open and revealed a brightly lit room with a variety of machinery inside, as Genjūrō continued. “... it features a medical bay well-equipped for evaluating the health of Symphogear users such as yourself. As such, we’d appreciate your cooperation with a simple health screening before your questioning, just to make sure that it isn’t taking too hard a toll on your body.”
“If you have to...” Ranma shrugged and began to undress, only for Genjūrō to stop him.
“You don’t need a place to change, do you? We’ll need to run this checkup in your girl form, since our baseline medical simulation models assume Symphogear users are one...”
Ranma paused for a moment before slipping his shirt back on. It still felt strange for someone to be as blasé about Ranma’s curse as Genjūrō was. “I... Nah, it’s fine. All I need ’s some cold water.”
Genjūrō nodded. “There’s a break room two doors down to the right. There should be a faucet in there.”
As Ranma stepped back into the hallway, he glanced towards the way he’d been led in and considered it briefly before turning to his right. For all that he’d known the man, Genjūrō struck Ranma as trustworthy enough; there was no way he was going to be made to do any fighting in a relatively tight space like this sub was, and something about the way Genjūrō had mentioned Dr. Sakurai made it seem like there was no love lost between her and Section Two.
Finding the second door already open to the break room, Ranma headed for the sink where he quickly poured a glass of cold water to dump on himself.
“You’d think they could do without the medical check,” she mumbled to herself. “Would make this a whole lot easier if they did...”
After placing the glass in the sink and drying her hair as best she could with some paper towels, Ranma turned to head back out into the corridor, only to bump into someone holding a mug of hot water, splashing Ranma with its contents in the process.
“Whoa! I was right! You are a girl! Well... were a girl?” It was Hibiki.
Ranma sighed and went back to the sink to begin filling another glass of water. “Boy, really. I’m Saotome Ranma. Sorry ‘bout this.”
“It’s no problem, really. I’m sorry about spilling hot water on you! I was just coming down here because I left my instant hot chocolate mix here on the counter and didn’t expect to run into anyone. But... If you’re here, does that mean... You’re going to be joining us??” Hibiki’s eyes seemed to light up at the thought.
“Couldn’t tell ya...” replied Ranma, as he once again tipped a glass full of cold water over his head, re-taking her shorter, red-haired form.
“Oh! You can change back!”
Ranma nodded. “Yeah, this curse of mine means I turn into a girl with cold water, and back with hot water. And uh... your commander needs me to be a girl for some medical screening or other, so...”
“Medical screening? So they’re doing it to you too, huh?”
Ranma raised an eyebrow. “Doin’ what t’ me?”
Hibiki laughed. “Oh, I’m just remembering how, after I first met the Commander when he’d thrown a welcoming party here, they threw me into a medical bay for a bunch of tests right afterward. Though I guess this isn’t much of a welcoming party, is it?”
Ranma shrugged. “I’ve had worse. Coulda been like when I first met Shampoo.”
“Hmm?” Hibiki cocked her head, curiosity apparently getting the better of her. “Is that the girl you were fighting tonight?”
“Yeah. Pops and I turned up at her Chinese village a little bit after I picked up this curse. Apparently there was some sorta tournament the villagers were havin’ that day and Pops and I... Well, we ate some of the food that’d been prepared as the prize. One thing led to another and, after I beat her in a sparrin’ match, she vowed to kill me to regain her honor.”
Hibiki was shocked. “Kill you? For beating her in a sparring match? I can’t believe she’d do such a thing!”
Ranma let off a begrudging, almost bitter, laugh. “You’d think so. But then... You saw her tonight, didn’t ya? That girl will not take ‘buzz off’ for an answer. Been chasin’ me ever since.”
“And now she knows where this fiancée my father pawned off on me lives...” Ranma continued.
Ranma could tell that Hibiki was about as incredulous as he’d been when he’d first heard the news from his father a few months previously. “Yeah, our dads sorta just forced us into an arranged marriage because we’re both from the same martial arts school... Neither of us likes it much since neither one of us had a choice in it, but... that doesn’t mean I want her hurt just because Shampoo has a bone t’ pick with me!”
Hibiki nodded slowly as she stared into her mug. “I... I sorta understand, to be honest. I have this one close friend who I care about very deeply. I can’t even begin to think how horrible it would be if she’d gotten hurt because of this Symphogear stuff when I first got involved. We’d normally room together at school but I can’t because we’re still supposed to be on lockdown on this ship for a couple more days. I was actually making this hot chocolate mix because it reminds me of the times we’d always do that during sleepovers. It reminds me of her and helps me sleep a little easier.”
“It must be hard not seeing her then...”
Hibiki nodded again. “I want to stay by her side, always. It’s... hard not to be. I’m sure you feel the same way about your fiancée...”
A vision of Akane’s smile suddenly came to Ranma’s mind, followed shortly thereafter by images of Akane from earlier that afternoon, snubbing Ranma after hearing his explanation for Shampoo’s sudden appearance.
“It’s... It’s complicated.”
Hibiki patted Ranma on the back. “It’s alright! I’m sure you’ll sort things out with her eventually!”
“I hope so...” Ranma sighed.
Hibiki eyed the packets of desiccated hot beverages on the counter top and grabbed one. “Anyway, you should probably get back to that check-up, I guess. Don’t let me keep you any longer than you need. I hope you’ll end up joining us, though!”
Ranma nodded and excused herself, making her way back to the medical bay, where Genjūrō and a nurse of some kind or other were standing by, ready to begin.
Following a slew of medical tests that Ranma barely understood and a lengthy questioning by a young uniformed man about what, exactly, had led to the fight in Hikarigaoka Park, Ranma finally found himself ushered back into a corridor where Genjūrō stood waiting with yet another man, this time the suited man from before, when Ranma and the Symphogear had just finished fighting.
“Well, that’s all we need right now, Ranma. I hope you’ll give what we discussed on the ride down here some thought. Ogawa here will take you back home. Oh, and here.” Genjūrō handed Ranma a strange hand-held device. “It’s a communicator, in case you have a need to reach us.”
“Thanks. I’ll think about it,” replied Ranma, more than happy to finally be on his way back to the Tendōs’ place.
Following a short walk back to the garage, Ranma again found herself on the road. Though the man named Ogawa had made some pleasantries soon after getting on the highway, the hum of the pavement thrumming beneath the two of them soon lulled Ranma to sleep. By the time she’d arrived in Nerima and Ogawa woke her up by opening her car door, the sky had lightened significantly. Dawn would come soon.
After thanking and waving the man off, Ranma walked through the front gates and slipped her shoes off at the front of the house. Once safely inside, Ranma quietly made her way down the engawa that ran alongside it and back towards the dōjō. Ranma rounded the last corner before the room she shared with her father, thinking about how she was going to somehow squeeze eight hours of sleep into 90 minutes, only to find Ryōga leaning up against the wall just outside her room.
Ryōga smirked. “I figured you’d be foolish enough to come back after that. I was right.”
“Who are ya callin’ a fool?”
“Akane was so upset after you left that only the presence of ‘P-chan’ could comfort her as she fell to sleep last night. Just think: her so-called ‘fiancée’ is fleeing from a girl who wants to kill her, going so far as to use magic armor or whatever that was to do so. And you’re telling Akane it’s just about beating this girl in a tournament? You and I both know that’s a cock and bull story, Ranma!”
Ranma sighed. “Why does no one believe me about this?” she lamented.
“Maybe because there are very few things in the world that might lead a girl to want to kill someone,” replied Ryōga. “And most of them amount to ‘that guy’s a good-for-nothing ass.’ Like you, Ranma, running from whatever terrible thing it was that you actually did to this Shampoo girl! It’s people like you that make me ashamed to be a man.”
“That why you were waitin’ all night for me, then? To tell me I’m an asshole who doesn’t deserve Akane but you somehow do?”
“That and to let you know that Akane will be mine for the taking if you keep this up. So honestly, Ranma? Thanks. Thanks for making it easier for me to take Akane for myself when the time comes. But until then, I’ve got training to do up in the mountains.”
Brusquely turning his back on Ranma, Ryōga grabbed the backpack of camping gear that had been sitting on the ground next to him before promptly proceeding to proudly plod away from Ranma.
As she watched Ryōga stomp away, Ranma briefly considered telling him that the street was the other direction, back where Ranma had just come from.
“Ah, what’s the point?” she muttered to herself.