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Act 1, Scene 4: The Masks We Don't Really Have to Wear

A Ranma ½/Avengers fusion by DB Sommer

Disclaimer: Ranma ½ owned by Rumiko Takahashi and whomever she sold the rights to. The Avengers are owned by Marvel Comics. Yes, the superheroes, not the British TV Series.

As always, all C&C appreciated. You can contact me at: sommer@3rdm.net

Avenging is also being kept on DB's page at: http://angcobra.jumpfun.com/dbsommer.html

What's gone on before (or what you need to know to follow this fic): As a small child, an inept Ranma imbibed the supersoldier serum. Now his parents want him to become 'an icon of superheroism' for Japan. (An idea he cares for not at all), and Genma took him on a journey to become such. In his youth Ranma ran into a young okonomiyaki chef who had a penchant for arrows rather than spatulas, but still ended up with familiar results when they departed. At about the same time, a young Mousse and Shampoo fled alone from their burned out village and ended up in Japan, Shampoo disappearing and Mousse being blinded by chemical which have also given him a radar-like sense. In recent months, Akane Tendou, injured in her youth and forced to live with a limp, visited Norway and stumbled upon a cave in which she found a walking stick which has since given her the power of the Goddess (yes, Goddess) of Thunder, Thor. Kodachi Kunou, daughter to the owner of Kunou Enterprises, ended up kidnapped by terrorists, was wounded, and forced to don a suit of powered armor to save her life, at the same time becoming a superhero called the Iron Rose. And Ryouga stumbled onto the grounds of a testing base in New Mexico and got to be at ground zero for the testing of a Gamma Bomb, since becoming an emerald-hued behemoth now known as the Hulk.

What happened last chapter: Mousse/Daredevil was introduced as he defeated his self-proclaimed arch-nemesis, Stuntmaster (AKA: Speed Racer) Ranma at last arrived at the Tendou household, he and the girls being informed of their engagement just as they met one another. Each girl has decided to try to foist Ranma upon another of her sisters, while Ranma, (convinced that each of the girls actually want to marry him) is trying to figure a way of getting out of being engaged to any of them.

And here we go:

Again Ranma had to ask exactly how he had allowed himself to get roped into the whole fiancée mess. It hadn't taken long, that was for certain. After only one night in the Tendou household, his stress level had tripled, and it was not as though he had been all that laid back since acquiring his annoying curse. Having two fathers breathing down his neck, trying to force him into making a decision he was never going to make, only added to it. And then there was the additional problem with his father trying to exert even more pressure on him to become some kind of ridiculous superhero. It was all so stupid. A lesser man probably would have broken down under such a tremendous strain, but not Ranma Saotome. He was made of far sterner stuff.

Even five near splashes of cold water in or around the house weren't enough to make him panic. Circumstances had forced him to use his still wrapped up shield to block most of the thrown of water, and that led to Nabiki eventually asking what the item he had under wraps was. Now that had been temporarily taken care of, although somehow he had a feeling she wasn't going to buy the 'lucky hubcap' story he had made up on the spur of the moment. Admittedly he should have had a cover story planned in advance for such situations, but he wasn't as devious as his father. That meant there was now something else he had to worry about, especially since Nabiki had seemed to have taken an unhealthy interest in his shield since then. He was going to have to keep a closer eye on her, lest she discover the embarrassing connection between himself and the short-lived heroic 'partnership' of Captain Japan and Bucky.

And to top it all off, he was being forced to go to school once again. Not only had he always disliked such places, but he had to leave his shield behind as well.

"I feel like I lost my best friend," Ranma sighed as he stared mournfully at the arm that usually bore his metallic protector.

"What was that?" Akane asked.

Ranma looked down from the top of the fence he was walking on. His father had informed him earlier that Nabiki and Akane were in the same school that Ranma was going to, emphasizing how Akane was even in the same grade and that meant the two of them had something in common. That led to both the girls being elected to escort him to and from school. It was something of a mess. When they were leaving that morning, Ranma had overheard the two sisters fighting over who got to take him. The matter was quickly settled by Soun, who that it was only fair that both should accompany him. With that settled, things had led to their current situation.

Ranma had to sigh to himself. Not even under their roof for more than twenty-four hours and his presence was already causing arguments in the household. He only hoped no one would hold it against him when he figured out a way to duck out of the engagement. The longer the girls fought over him, the more resentment they'd probably have towards him when things inevitably ended as they would. He would have to give the matter some more thought. Maybe in the middle of his classes. That was always a good time to think about things.

"Well?" Akane asked again.

That brought Ranma back to the present. "I said can't wait to get home," he lied. He was a bit irked that he had to slow down for Akane and her bad leg, but even at his worst he wasn't insensitive enough to complain out loud about it. And it wasn't as though Akane had any choice in the matter. But whether it was her fault or not, it was still annoying.

Akane shrugged, then looked over at the scowling Nabiki. That seemed to be a permanent feature on the middle sister's face since the announcement about the engagement. Tough luck. Akane wasn't taking the bullet for Nabiki no matter what. It would be best to simply get Nabiki engaged to Ranma quickly. The sooner the matter was settled, the sooner Akane's older sister could accept her fate and get on with her life. Perhaps there was something Akane could do to draw the two of them closer together. Some common ground that they shared. It only took her a moment to come up with something.

"Hey, Nabiki. When are you and Ranma going to spar to find out who's the best?"

Talk of martial arts perked Ranma up. He was mildly curious to discover how good Nabiki was. There was no chance she could win, of course, but there was an outside possibility she might have a move or two in her repertoire that could hold his interest for a moment.

"Depends on how much he pays me," Nabiki answered. "I don't fight for free."

"Pay?!" Ranma snorted in both disbelief and disgust. "I don't think so. I get into plenty enough fights without having to pay for them."

"And how often do you win?" Nabiki asked.

"Always." Ranma's previous incredulity was replaced with a smirk. He brought his hands around the back of his head and began to whistle casually as he continued to stroll along the top of the fence. He failed to notice the calculating gleam Nabiki's eyes had gained with his boast.

Looking around as he whistled, Ranma made a closer examination of the neighborhood they were traveling through. There was definitely something different about it. "Is this the same way we took to go to school?"

"No." Akane confirmed his suspicions as she moved closer to the fence. "I have a job as a nurse at a small private practice out here. I go there right after school. Nabiki usually tags along. It isn't that much longer than going directly from home to school."

"Oh." So Akane had a job on top of going to school while dealing with her disability the entire time. That was commendable. Ranma figured he would probably drop dead from boredom if he had to go through all of that.

The trio continued along in silence, Akane not knowing what further to say, Nabiki calculating, and Ranma… well Ranma just had Ranma-like thoughts, which fell into a unique category all of their own. Eventually Ranma was forced to jump off the fence as their path left the main street and cut through an open area that was once a playground, though it was currently devoid of any children. A close look revealed to Ranma that the remaining playing structures showed a fair amount of deterioration from being left to fall prey to the elements. Reddish blankets of rust had formed on the jungle gyms, the paint on wooden planks of the teeter-totters was peeling, and a host of other small signs on the rest of the equipment revealed their current dilapidated state. It was no wonder the lot was deserted with the decaying feel that seemed to emanate from it. It reminded Ranma of a dead carcass washed up on the ocean shore.

The trio was halfway across the lot when they noticed a group of people moving towards them from the opposite direction. As the two groups got closer, the trio of students counted five men in matching outfits that identified them as attending a different school. More noticeable was their headgear. Each one of them wore a plain-looking animal mask on his face. The trio stopped as they allowed the masked men to approach, curiosity winning out over caution. It took only a moment for the quintet to size up the trio. At a nod from the man in the oni mask, the group broke apart and encircled the trio, effectively surrounding them and cutting off any avenue of escape.

A man wearing a snake mask stepped forward. "Give us all your precious metals, and you won't get hurt," he said from behind the cheap plastic face.

Ranma cracked his knuckles in anticipation. What a wonderful opportunity had presented itself before him. This was going to be the perfect way to relieve the boredom that had been plaguing him all day. Besides, these thugs were the lowest of the low. It was obvious that Akane had a handicap, yet they were going to rob her anyway. They deserved to have the stuffing beat out of them.

Ranma only managed one step forward before Nabiki darted past him, giving out a cry of anger as she hurled herself directly into the midst of the gang. The first one she targeted was the man in the snake mask. He didn't even have time to react as he crumpled under a single blow to the jaw. The second was a man in a wolf mask, who received a kick to the stomach that doubled him over. Flowing flawlessly from one move to another, Nabiki leaped up into the air and elbowed the one wearing an oni mask, on the top of his head. He was still in the process of falling limply to the ground as she decided to get flashy and executed a double leap kick, knocking out the men in a goat mask and raven's mask respectively.

With all of the others unconscious, she turned her full attention to the only member of the gang left standing: the man in the wolf mask.

Wolf Mask was still trying to catch his breath, and failing, when Nabiki came up to him and shot him a contemptuous glare. "When you and your buddies wake up, remember that this is Nabiki Tendou's turf." She finished him off with a fist to the head.

Not counting the little speech at the end, the fight had taken less than five seconds. Ranma was almost impressed, though he could have taken care of the whole lot of them in less than three. Still, Nabiki did show some degree of skill.

"I thought you only fought when someone paid you?" Ranma pointed out.

"If people in my neighborhood get ripped off, then they won't have the money they need to pay me for my services. Besides, these guys are going to pay me." She bent down and began rifling through the pockets of the unconscious men.

"Nabiki!" Akane cried out in shock when she realized what her sister was up to. "You can't go looting people. It's… it's wrong."

Nabiki fished a handful of yen out of the first gang member's wallet, then moved on to the next, tossing the worn piece of leather on his chest. "Of course I can. Think of it as an object lesson for them. Since they're suffering the anguish of being robbed, maybe that'll make them think twice before trying to rob someone else again."

Akane rolled her eyes and without another word headed for Dr. Tofu's. Her sister was perverting the art to make a quick buck yet again. No amount of talk would persuade Nabiki to do otherwise, and Akane didn't have the energy to try to argue the point. There were better things to do. Besides, it would give Ranma a chance to learn more about one of his two potential fiancées.

The Mask Gang recovered consciousness at the same time, long after Nabiki and the others had left the playground. A series of groans and joints cracking greeted them as they regained their feet and tried to assess the damage they had suffered.

"Damn that Tendou bitch," Oni Mask moaned as he felt the top of his head. A large lump had already formed and was threatening to get bigger.

"If she hadn't caught us off-guard, we'd have had her." Snake Mask's bluster lacked any real emotion; everyone knew it was nothing more than an effort to save face. Even if they had been completely prepared for her and had a month to train, the result still would have been the same. They knew Nabiki Tendou by reputation and would never have been stupid enough to challenge her had they realized who she was in advance. There was no way five street punks like them could take her on and hope to come close to victory. The only saving grace was that no one had seen them lose so easily.

"You boys look like you didn't fare to well. Why don't I give you a helping hand?"

All five members turned in surprise in the direction of the sound of the voice. Where there had been nothing but air a moment ago, there was now a man leaning easily against a nearby jungle gym. Given that the whole area was nothing but open ground for a hundred feet in each direction, there was no way he could have sneaked up without someone seeing him. But none of them had, and he was there all the same.

The quintet examined the man carefully, not so much concerned that he might be potential prey, but to make sure he wasn't going to attack them too. He appeared Japanese and wore a very nice, formal-looking black business suit. The fit was impeccable and helped to accentuate the man's figure. His hair was plain black, and hung past his shoulders. His eyes almost appeared closed, though they all knew the man was watching them as close as a hawk does a field mouse spotted from high above. There was a smile plastered on his face, a soft, almost mocking grin, one that seemed to be permanently there, as though he knew the punch line to a joke that no one else in the world knew. He had an odd looking staff with him, held lazily in his arms, though none of the gang believed for a moment they would be able to take it from him. There was something about it that told them instinctively it was as much a part of him as his arm.

"What can you do for us, mister…?" Goat Mask trailed off.

"You may call me Xellos, if you must use a name. Just Xellos." The man bowed formally, and for just a second, they thought they saw his eyes open wide towards them, half hidden by his bangs.

Then the strange man smiled, and all of the members of the gang suddenly felt afraid. However, it was a momentary fear, one that passed as quickly as it came. "AS to what I can do for you, oh I can do so much for you. So very, very much. How would you like to defeat that young upstart that so unceremoniously defeated you?"

"She's too tough," Raven mask complained in a nasally whine.

The strange man gave a toss of his head, then gave a smile directly towards the speaker that did nothing to put the man at ease. "With the right sort of help, you'll be able to defeat her as easily as you would a child. You'd like that, wouldn't you?"

"Yeah," Snake Mask said slowly. Instinctively, he knew he shouldn't trust the stranger, but the lure of possible power, and regaining their lost pride, was too much. Besides, they needed to put the impudent bitch in her proper place. If the stranger had a way of doing that, then so be it. It would be worth any risk.

"Then we have a deal." Xellos stepped forward and held out his hand. It took a moment for the group to figure out what the man wanted: a handshake. They were a bit taken aback by the foreign gesture, but did as Xellos wanted. Each of them took a turn shaking his hand. Once the last member had done so, Xellos stepped back so that all could see him clearly.

Xellos began to give his orders. As he spoke, the gang stares of suspicion became those of reverence as they began to hang onto his every word. "Here is what you will do. Come this time tomorrow, you will ambush Nabiki Tendou and hurt her as badly as you want. I personally don't care what you do with her. Maim her. Rape her. Kill her. Just make certain it all happens in the presence of her younger sister."

"Who's her sister?" Raven Mask asked, his thoughts becoming cloudy as he found himself trusting Xellos increasingly by the second. How could he have ever thought the odd man intended to do anything but assist them on their holy quest for vengeance? He was their salvation. Almost like a god, when one thought about it.

"The girl with the cane," Xellos explained, his Japanese features shifting slightly, not that any members of the gang were capable of noticing it any longer. The only thing they remained aware of was the need to obey their leader.

"How?" Oni Mask asked. "Tendou's tougher than us."

Xellos smile now nearly took up half of his face. "With these." He held out five masks for the gang members so that they could see them. Curiously, there was a version of each animal or demon that the Mask Gang already had, although the newer masks were far more intricately detailed than the cheap plastic faces they used to scare people. The craftsmanship was far beyond anything the group had ever seen. As Xellos drew nearer with the masks, the gang members could tell the items were carved out of wood and seemed to radiate an aura that beckoned them closer. Each man took the mask that corresponded with his own. As one they took off their old masks and placed the new ones on their faces.

Xellos' laughter echoed across the entirety of Nerima.

Silence reigned supreme in the empty boardroom. Empty save, for one person.

Kodachi Kunou allowed her fingers to play along the wooden pineapple inlays that adorned the plush chairman's seat at the head of the mahogany table that was the centerpiece of the main boardroom of Kunou Enterprises. It was a chair she had never been allowed to sit in; that honor had been reserved exclusively for her father and Tatewaki. Just the way they both had wanted since 'women had no place in the deliberations of a financial empire'. But now both were gone, and she was the one left in charge. In charge of a corporation whose vastness few truly comprehended, and fewer still appreciated. It was something Kodachi was only just now starting to learn.

A datapad -of Kodachi's own design- was built into the armrest of the chair. In its electronic memory were lists of phone numbers of anyone of importance. Actually it was closer to everyone of importance. With a single call she could have politicians, famous movie stars, or other industrial leaders jump at the snap of her fingers. The Japanese government itself would go out of their way to help her, considering Kunou Enterprises manufactured almost eighty percent of the JSDF's equipment. And that wasn't including some of the more exotic weapons the special government divisions sometimes used.

In one of their rare moments together, her father had stroked the keypad and told Kodachi that that was the key to true power. It was not so much what you could do, but what you could get others to do for you. And he was right, to a degree. There was power there. So very much power, and all of it resided at her fingertips. And yet it felt like nothing compared to the personal power she possessed when encased in her Iron Rose armor.

Oh, how Kodachi wanted to soar through the clouds once more, to fight another green monster or strange flying vehicle, to feel the exhilaration as she personally took care of matters in a way that only she could. Her father was so terribly wrong. Wrong about that as well as so many other things. That was what true power was all about. Sitting behind a chair and ordering others was something only those that lacked inner power would do. Perhaps on a subconscious level she had realized this, which was why she never felt envy at the 'power' her father and brother had as the heads of the company. All Kodachi had ever really wanted was freedom, and now she had it.

Or almost had it, as Kodachi now found herself in another cage of a different kind. Here she was, sitting in a chair that was designed for the comfort of one who ruled over his subjects, yet it might as well have been a throne made of thorns. She wanted nothing to do with running the company, but there was no other choice. No one else could be trusted with the all-important job of controlling the corporation, and her subordinates relied upon her to ensure they could still make their living. As a Kunou she was better than them, but that superiority meant that she also had a responsibility to make certain the lesser people had the opportunity to better themselves.

And now she damned her responsibilities towards others. It turned out she had not escaped her cage after all. She simply found herself bound by a different set of chains. Chains that were less restrictive, but there all the same.

Kodachi was still scowling at the inlays when her father's personal secretary (or perhaps that was her personal secretary now) buzzed her and announced that Misuharu Ohama had returned and wanted to talk to Kodachi personally. She immediately told the secretary to allow him to enter. Ohama was one of the few members of the board that Kodachi had trusted enough to investigate if someone was preparing a takeover of the company. He was the ideal choice. Not only was he completely trustworthy, but he had always possessed a curious nature. If anyone could get to the source of the problem, it was him.

The elaborate doors to the room opened and Misuharu entered, making certain to close the doors behind him. Curiously, Kodachi could have sworn she heard the telltale 'click' of Misuharu locking them. She wasn't certain if it she had heard it or not, and even if they had been, Misuharu undoubtedly had good reason for it. Perhaps he simply wanted to ensure they were not interrupted.

As Misuharu moved to stand at the far end of the boardroom table, Kodachi swiveled the chair, facing forward so that it was obvious to Misuharu that he had her undivided attention. "What have you uncovered?"

Rather than answering right away, Misuharu spun in a slow circle, taking the entirety of the room in with a sweeping gaze. Kodachi was about to say something about his unusual behavior when he at last turned his full attention to her. "I have some bad news for you."

Kodachi let out a gentle sigh. It was as she feared. "So it is a hostile takeover."

Misuharu nodded. "Very hostile." His hand went into his pocket, and he pulled out a gun. He aimed it directly at Kodachi.

Time seemed to slow, as Kodachi found herself staring directly at her own death. She seemed to see everything at once, from the burned out light in the fixture directly above Misuharu, to the glazed look in his eyes as he seemed to be not so much looking at Kodachi, but past her. There was a brief flash from the muzzle of the gun, followed by the loud report of the bullet leaving it.

There was no time for regrets as the bullet cut through to the air, true to its target, and struck exactly where it had been aimed: the center of Kodachi's chest.

There was a loud ring, confusing Kodachi for a moment before she realized that it was the sound of the bullet hitting her chestplate. It was followed by a high pitched whistle as the projectile ricocheted off the thick metal and embedded itself in the wall located to Kodachi's right.

With his eyes still focused in the distance, Misuharu fired two more times. Kodachi finally reacted by shielding her face with her arms, hoping that he didn't realize his bullets had no effect and that he would try to aim higher.

Surprisingly, there was no fourth shot, but rather a dull thud as what sounded like a bag hit the floor. Daring to lower her arms, Kodachi looked over them and saw that Misuharu now lay facedown on the floor. The gun had fallen from his grasp and was on the ground beside him. A gentle wisp of smoke come from the barrel, curling in the air.

It took several moments for Kodachi to recover her wits after the assassination attempt. She might have been a superhero, and at those times prepared for the worst, but in her civilian guise she should have been safe. Why on earth would Misuharu of all people try to kill her? He was one of her father's most trusted friends and had always been gentle and compassionate, as well as loyal to her family. His were among the nicest presents Kodachi received on her birthday. He even had a daughter that was Kodachi's age.

What had just happened?

Slowly Kodachi rose from her chair, fearful Misuharu would suddenly awaken and try to kill her once more. Cautiously and with carefully measured steps, she walked across the tawny-colored carpet and made her way to his fallen form, taking note of the chairs and perhaps a table she could duck behind should Misuharu rise. But there was no movement as she approached him, at last getting near enough to kick the gun away. Still he remained motionless in spite of the activity around him. Kodachi bent low and dared to turn him over. On the white of his shirt, underneath the black vest he wore, there was a blood stain growing in the center of his chest.

It took Kodachi a moment to realize what had happened. A ricochet had bounced off her chestplate and struck him instead. What irony. That was why there had been no fourth shot.

A mixture of relief that he wasn't going to try to kill her again, and sadness that she had inadvertently killed one of the few people that had treated her nicely in her life, made Kodachi recoil slightly. It seemed she was losing everyone who she cared about, almost as though she had some kind of curse.

She was still lamenting both her and Misuharu's fate when she saw his chest rise. It was faint, but watching closely for it, she saw it rise a second time. Kodachi was on her feet in an instant and crossed the room to the speakerphone next to her chair. Her ring finger hit a button that paged her through to her secretary, "Miss… whatever your name is! I need you to call an ambulance right now! Mr. Ohama has been shot in the chest and needs medical attention immediately!" She clicked off the speakerphone, uncertain with what else to say. Death was known to her -Professor Yinsen had all but died before her eyes, died so that she might live- but at least in Chu's camp it had been expected. But this attempt had come out of nowhere, and she wanted, no, needed to know why.

It was difficult, but she pushed the panic from her mind and calmed down. Logic was the tool needed now to determine exactly what had just happened. Misuharu had been ordered to find out if someone was trying to force a hostile takeover of Kunou Industries. He had come back saying that that was indeed the case and then tried to kill her. Why? Was he working for the other competitor? That made no sense. There was no way he could have shot Kodachi and gotten away with it. Everyone would have known he was the only one in the room with her and was guilty of the murder. So why would he throw his life away just to murder his employer?

Blackmail? A possibility. But wouldn't he have shown some measure of regret before trying to gun her down, or at least offered some sort of explanation? He had not done either of those things. On the contrary, he had simply come in and tried to shoot her. Almost mechanically, now that she had thought about it.

Yes. Mechanically. Could someone have done something to his mind and made him act like a robot and try to kill her? It made sense. Kunou Industries might not have had dealings with any sort of brainwashing techniques or equipment, but she knew there were others that manufactured those sort of devices under the table for all sorts of disreputable organizations. Could one of them have sent Misuharu to kill her, leaving the company ripe for a takeover?

The more she thought about it, the more it made sense. Perhaps her father's and brother's disappearances were connected. And now, whomever had removed them was intent on taking care of Kodachi too. If that were the case, she would simply have to turn the tables on her would-be attackers. And the best way to do that might be to show the opposition what they would be up against. Namely, one armored bodyguard that the mysterious figure would have to dispose of first in order to get Kodachi Kunou. Ironically it would mean putting herself in danger in order to provide the illusion of greater protection, but at least she would have a better chance of taking on the opposition directly rather than having some other person she cared about turned against her.

The emergency medical staff barged into the room and went to help the fallen man. Security followed hot on their heels, making certain Kodachi was all right and protecting her from any further attacks. The fuss over her was extreme, but despite the activity, the precise details of her plan began to form in her mind.

"School still stinks," Ranma stated as fact more than complaint as he made his way across the top of the chain link fence. He was already beginning to fall into a rut, and it was only the second day of school. The way things were going, he was halfway tempted to strike a deal with his father to become a full time superhero if it meant never going to school again. Almost.

Akane and Nabiki were being quiet too, and he found himself wondering if they were feeling any pressure on their end from their father. Yesterday had found Ranma arriving home and his father waiting with an eager gleam in his eye. "Have you chosen yet?" was the first thing his old man had asked, even before a "How did school go for you today?"

Ranma evaded the question as well as he could, but his father kept harping on about it all the way into the night until the older man fell asleep. Well, actually he had stopped after he falling unconscious since Ranma clubbed him in the head with his shield. Really, four hours on the subject of fiancées was more than any man could be expected to take. On the bright side, none of the girls had been arguing over him for a change. If they began trying to get him to choose too, he wasn't sure if he was going to be able to take it. He just hoped things would remain as they were until he figured a way out of this particular dilemma.

The events of the previous day had Ranma so wrapped up in his thoughts that he failed to notice the dark clouds that had gathered high overhead. It was only as the clouds gave off a deep rumble that he looked skyward and realized the danger he was in. The telltale signs of tiny droplets began hitting the street, first stages of the watery assault from above.

Overcoming his panic, Ranma spotted a wide yellow awning that hung over a nearby storefront. Without another thought he held his school bag over his head and leaped from the chain link fence to rush towards the protection of the awning. Several larger drops splattered on the knuckles of his hands. Not enough to trigger the change, but more than enough motivation to make him run faster.

In three long leaps Ranma found himself under the awning. As he paused to catch his breath, he noticed that Nabiki arrived at his side, half doubled over and panting far harder than him. He looked back in the street to see the sprinkle had changed to a full downpour. Much to his surprise, Akane not only remained where she was, but, rather than running for cover, held her hands out from her sides and tilted her head back so that she could receive the full force of the shower.

Akane remained in that pose for several moments before turning her attention to her two compatriots who had sought cover. She looked at them oddly, as though confused as to why they were not still at her side. Ranma noticed the curious look, as well as the smile that preceded it.

"How can you enjoy getting wet like that?" Ranma asked.

"How can you not enjoy it? Akane asked in return as rivulets of water ran down through her hair and over her face. "There's nothing like being out in the rain. It washes you free of your cares and leaves you fresh and rejuvenated." She spun gleefully around in a circle, her bad leg not hindering her in the least.

"Don't pay any attention to her," Nabiki said in a stage whisper at Ranma's side. "She's been like this for months, standing out in thunderstorms and stuff. She never used to do it either. I mean, it's really-" Nabiki reconsidered what she was going to say. 'Weird' was the sort of word that might alienate Ranma from one of his two potential fiancées. And having two choices was so much better than just having one. "-kind of neat, her enjoying nature and all. It says a lot about her character," Nabiki finished.

"I hate the rain," Ranma mumbled.

The retort Akane was about to say died on hher lips. She wasn't sure why, but there was an odd, tingly sensation coming from somewhere around her. Slowly the sensation became more focused and seemed to come from somewhere behind her. Turning around, she witnessed five figures slip from the concealing shadows of an alleyway across the street from Ranma and Nabiki. Five very familiar figures.

"Didn't you guys learn your lesson yesterday?" Nabiki shouted across the street. She really did not want to have to haul herself out into the rain and kick their butts again. She hated getting wet almost as much as Ranma did.

Next to her, Ranma tensed up ever so slightly as he watched the masked gang from the safety of the awning. The heavy cloud cover had obscured the sun badly enough that it was almost as dark as night. But even with his vision partially affected, Ranma could still see that there was something different about the Mask Gang. The difference was primarily in their postures. The day before, they had moved lazily and with little in the way of the control most fighters possessed. Now there was a noticeable difference. There was a sort of confidence that implied not only did they have more determination, but that they held some sort of power and possessed the skill to use it.

As they drew closer to Akane, she able to make out some of the differences as well. For her it was not so much in their movements, but in their faces. The masks they now wore were far more elaborate and fearsome in appearance. Still they drew nearer, and for the briefest of moments Akane felt afraid. It took her several moments before she forced out, "Getting new masks isn't going to make you tougher."

The head of Oni Mask jerked quizzically in Akane's direction. "What masks?"

The mouth of the masked youth opened wider than a set of human jaws possibly could, showing a set of sharp six-inch dagger-like teeth. Red eyes blazed in fury as the face of the mask contorted, moving as though it were real skin and with a musculature of its own rather than the motionless piece of wood it was supposed to be.

Oni Mask was not alone as the other four members began to move forward as well, matching their strides. The sounds of bones breaking and reforming came from under their blue outfits as their bodies seemed to expand and their limbs shifted, taking on more bulk. Like Oni Mask, their facial gear too now seemed alive. Wolf Mask howled with the sound more like that of an animal instead of a man. As the howl reached their ears, all trio of youths felt a wave of terror sweep over them.

Ranma was momentarily confused at his reaction. In spite of the circumstances, there was no way he should have been afraid of a little howling, no matter how bestial it sounded. Yet the cry seemed to reach inside and touch something primal within him, screamed at him that he should flee from the scene.

After her momentary jolt of panic, Akane calmed down only to find herself with a problem. No matter how demonic their appearance was, she could take care of the lot of with one blow as Thor. However, that would mean revealing her heroic identity to her sister and Ranma, as well as the gang. But there was something deep inside her that screamed out for her to change and deal with these seeming inhuman monsters, and it went deeper than the need to defend her self. There was a sense of familiarity about them that made her want to lash out, as though they were her enemies and they deserved to be smited. She was temporarily at a loss for what to do. While she was wracked with indecision, the Mask Gang drew closer.

Ranma made a motion to go out into the street and save Akane from the bizarre foes. Two steps brought him to the edge of the awning before he stopped himself. He couldn't do it. It was the damned curse again. To go out into the downpour would forever ruin any chance he had of maintaining the secret. Everyone would think he was a weirdo, and people would bother him about the whole superhero thing. But the alternative would be to allow Akane to be attacked by the gang. Could his need for secrecy outweigh the blow to his honor and conscience and allow Akane to be victimized?

A decision was made. Ranma took another hesitant step forward when a blur shot out from next to him. Nabiki moved quickly, charging into the middle of the group of masked men and scattering them in one move just as she had the previous day. A satisfied look, capable of being recognized even with their now inhuman faces, passed over each member's visage as they switched their attentions from Akane to Nabiki.

Nabiki leaped clear of the group, striking Goat Mask with a kick to the jaw. Unlike yesterday, his head only snapped back for a moment before he gave her a monstrous grin and lashed out at her. A high leap and she evaded the swing. This also had the result of taking the fight further away from Akane. As Nabiki had hoped, the rest of the gang followed both her and Goat Mask, leaving Akane alone in the middle of the street. The youngest Tendou girl now had a clear path to the awning.

"Take my sister and get out of here!" Nabiki shouted to Ranma as she began working on Wolf Mask while evading multiple strikes from the others.

Ranma remained where he was because of the rain. Akane was only slowly making her way towards him. For some unknown reason she stared longingly at the fray, her desire to join her sister evident even for Ranma to see. He wondered what she could possibly be thinking about; all she could do was get in the way. Matters were further complicated now that Nabiki was in danger, although Akane was still too close to the action and needed to get out of harm's way first. But helping Nabiki would mean revealing his identity just as well. What was he going to do?

An answer presented itself as a huge form, dressed in an oversized trench coat with the collar pulled high, and a low, wide brimmed hat, ran up to Ranma and forced an umbrella into his hands. The mysterious figure ran off just as quickly as it had arrived.

Opening the umbrella, Ranma was out in the street in a flash. Without waiting for her consent, he grabbed Akane and tucked her under the arm. There was an initial verbal protest from her that he promptly ignored and leaped off. As he jumped from rooftop to rooftop, he somehow managed to keep the rain from hitting him in sufficient quantities to trigger his curse, despite carrying his burden.

"What are you doing?!" Akane shouted.

"Keeping you out of harm's way." Ranma leaped across a second rooftop and focused on a third near at hand.

"You have to help Nabiki!" The next comment about the gang having become some kind of monsters didn't make it out as she nearly lost her hold on her walking stick. She reaffirmed her slippery grip on the stick and held it as close to her body as she could. Akane decided to keep her mouth shut. Maybe Ranma taking her away from the scene was actually a blessing in disguise.

"I will once you're safe." Ranma's plan was simple. He would take Akane a few blocks away, making certain the bad guys couldn't get her. Then he would go back and help Nabiki in her fight with those creatures. There was no way she could handle them on her own; it would be up to him to save the day. Hopefully, she had enough sense to stay out of their way until he made it back to the fight and took care of the monsters. Fighting with an umbrella was going to be difficult, but a red-haired girl dressed in a Furinkan boy's school uniform was too likely to ruin his secret identity. He was just going to have to tough it out. Lucky he was tough.

They landed on a deserted side street a couple blocks away from the fight. That suited Akane just fine. Once Ranma left, she would duck out of sight and turn into Thor then save her sister. Ranma may or may not have been a decent martial artist, but there was no way two normal people could take on a group of monsters like that. It was up to a hero, no, a goddess, like her to save the day. She just hoped Nabiki had enough sense to stay out of harm's way until Akane could get there. Their relationship might not have been the best between sisters, but if anything happened to Nabiki…

Akane shook herself free of such thoughts and limped off out of casual sight so she could change. She would make it in time. She had to.

Ranma was almost there. There was only one more roof for him to clear when the trench coated form that had assisted him earlier leaped up in front of him and prevented Ranma from going further.

"Thanks for the help, pop, but I can take it from here," Ranma said. He would have kept on going, but his panda-father remained in front of him and prevented him from moving forward. "What are you doing?! I gotta help Nabiki."

A sign appeared in Genma-panda's hands. *It's wonderful to see you taking your role as a fiancé seriously, but there's one thing you're forgetting.* He held out a red, white, and blue shield and rising sun outfit.

"I'm not a superhero!" Ranma swung at his father, who leaped out of the way.

Genma-panda waved his sign at Ranma, trying to prevent further attacks. *Think about it, boy. You'd be able to fight a lot better with a shield instead of an umbrella. And you won't have to worry about revealing your curse if you're wearing a mask. Besides, those monsters looked pretty tough. You'll need every edge you can get.*

As much as Ranma hated to admit it, his father had made several valid points. He certainly didn't want to wear the damned costume, and he most definitely was not a superhero, but he did like fighting with the shield and that was the only way he could use it. Not getting wet had a lot going for it too. With his teeth gnashing, Ranma nodded his head in agreement. There was only one other problem. "I can't leave Nabiki alone while I'm changing."

Genma-panda gave a little jig. Ranma was going to be a superhero again. *I'll save her until you get there.* Without another written word he tossed Ranma's shield and costume to him and ran off to help one of his possible future daughter-in-laws. Apparently following his son and carrying the shield and costume around in the hopes that an opportunity would present itself for Ranma to take up his proper role as a superhero was paying off. And as a bonus Ranma would be saving his possible fiancée. At last, his son was living up to his expectations. Life was finally turning out for the best.

Nabiki found herself forced completely on the defensive. Whatever changes the Mask Gang had undergone, it had changed them from a bunch of pathetic nobodies to a serious threat. They were more powerful, more durable, and were displaying a wide variety of inhuman powers. Goat Mask had nearly broke her in half when he had lowered his ram's head and charged her. She had narrowly avoided being hit by leaping over him. The follow through on his charge shattered the wall Nabiki had been in front of and sent bricks flying everywhere. Much to Nabiki's dismay, Goat Mask appeared unhurt as he picked himself out of the rubble and began attacking again.

And then there were Snake Mask's arms, which had elongated as though they were real snakes instead of limbs. The first time he had done the trick he had nearly managed to wrap Nabiki up in those long appendages. Wolf Mask's ear splitting howls still set off every one of her nerves and made her want to freeze up in panic. It was taking everything she had to keep her manic pace of ducking and dodging, but even with her considerable skills, she was wearing down. It would be only a matter of time before one of her opponents connected with a telling blow and the fight would be over.

Nabiki was looking for an opening in which to flee when her foot a hit wet patch of pavement and she slipped. She had only made it halfway up to her knees when she saw Raven Mask bear down upon her. He kicked out, knocking the hand she was using to regain her footing out from under her and sent her back to the ground. Before she could react, she saw that Raven Mask had drawn his head back and prepared to gouge her eyes out with the long beak that now seemed to actually be his mouth instead of merely being part of his mask. Sending a prayer to the heavens above, she closed her eyes and brought her hand before her face, hoping it would be enough to ward off the blow.

There was a loud thud of something heavy landing in front of her and then silence. Since the expected blow was late in coming, she dared to open her eyes and peek through her fingers to see what was going on.

Before her was a large panda in a trench coat, sitting quit firmly on the back of Raven Mask. The gang member had been hit so hard his beak was now fully embedded in the concrete.

*I've here to save the day.* The panda waved a sign before Nabiki.

The best Nabiki could manage was an, "Uh, okay," at the bizarre sight.

The appearance of the panda seemed to throw the masked monsters off long enough to buy Nabiki the time she needed to recover. Along with the panda, she got to her feet and took up a defensive posture. So far, she had been attacked by a pack of animal men and now had a sign writing panda helping her. It had to be some sort of karmic thing to balance out all of the times she had lamented about her life being boring.

Genma-panda held up a sign before the masked men. *All right. Who's next?!*

Wolf Mask stepped forward and howled.

Nabiki watched as all of the hair on the panda's head stood up and his eyes widened so that she was certain they would pop out of his head. In an instant he was running away, holding a sign over his back saying, *Don't worry. Additional reinforcements are on the way.*

"Great," Nabiki said in familiar dry tones as she returned her attention to her remaining four opponents. At least the panda had taken out one of the bad guys and bought her some time to catch her breath. She probably wasn't going to win, but at least she could hold out a little longer and let her opponents know they had been in a fight.

Goat mask lowered his head and charged again while Oni Mask and Wolf Mask tried to flank her. Nabiki was still trying to come up with a defensive strategy to the trio of attackers when a circular disc crashed into Goat Mask's legs, knocking him off his feet and drawing everyone else's attention.

Seeing the shield circle her way, Nabiki held up her arms in a defensive posture once again. Before it arrived, a masked figure wearing a white and red costume done up with a rising sun across the torso landed next to Nabiki. The figure casually snatched the shield out of mid-air.

"I'm here to save the day."

Nabiki looked her unusual savior over. It was a red-haired girl who stood a good four centimeters shorter than her self. The costume the girl wore seemed a bit loose, and even with the overly large shield on her arm she did not appear all that imposing.

"Who are you?" Nabiki asked.

"I'm Ra-" No. That wouldn't do. Ranma-chan corrected herself. "I'm Cap-" No. That wouldn't do either. It looked like she was going to have to use that ridiculous name. "I'm Bucky," she sighed in semi-embarrassment.

"Lousy name. What did you do, lose a bet?"

Before Bucky had a chance to answer, she brought her shield up and deflected the attack Oni Mask unleashed upon her with his nine-inch nails. The sound of screeching as the claws scraped across the shield made Nabiki cover her ears.

"The name wasn't my idea!" Bucky protested as she saw an opening and kicked Oni Mask in the gut. The blow sent the demon skidding across the water-slicked asphalt. "Anyway, we got more important things to worry about than my name. These guys ain't human."

"No kidding," Nabiki said as she ducked under a swipe by Wolf Mask and came up under his guard, connecting with his jaw. She was inclined to leave all the heroics to her impromptu savior -after all, as a superhero it was Bucky's job- but there was something about ducking out on the red-haired girl that rubbed Nabiki wrong. It was an unusual feeling for her, since ordinarily she had no problems with avoiding matters that where the risk outweighed the potential gain.

Whereas before Nabiki had her hands full trying to stay alive under the masked creatures' assault, Bucky was proving herself a far better fighter as she laid into the monsters. Her shield constantly deflecting attacks directed at her as she punched kicked and tossed her opponents around. Though, despite her superior skills, and the fact she was going full out against them, the creatures continued to return to their feet and come back for more. There wasn't the slightest hesitation or trace of fear in them as they continued to throw themselves at Bucky and Nabiki with a variety of attacks that served to keep the duo off balance. Nabiki more so than her partner.

After several minutes of the stalemate, Bucky realized she needed to change tactics. It appeared the creatures were slowing down a little, but it was hard to say. Even if they were, at the rate they were going it would take another ten minutes or so to wear them all down. Personally she was at no risk and could defeat them out easy enough, but judging by Nabiki's rasping breaths, the middle Tendou sister was not going to last that long, martial arts or not.

That meant taking a chance as a plan formed in Bucky's mind. She singled out Oni Mask, who continued to slash away at her with his claws. It was hard to admit that her father had been right; trying to go into this fight without her shield would have been made things much more difficult. At least as long as she had to help protect Nabiki.

Bucky faked an opening, hoping her opponent would take the bait and lunge forward with his claws. She was rewarded as Oni Mask charged forward, intent on running Bucky through. His talons were a hairsbreadth away from his opponent's throat when Bucky leaped up and out of the path of the claws. Twisting in mid-air, she not only evaded the attack, but ended up straddling Oni Mask's neck. Locking her legs around the throat to maintain her perch, her fingers quickly grabbed the bottom of the monster's jaw, right at the yellow flesh of where the mask should have started, and pulled. At first it felt like skin rather than a mask, but Bucky continued pulling upward. Oni Mask was in such pain that he didn't to use his claws, instead trying to remove her hands from his skin while being careful not to accidentally slit his own throat.

Bucky doubled her efforts and, just as she was about to give up for fear of killing her opponent, she felt the skin take on a wooden texture as all resistance suddenly gave way and the mask came off the gang member as though it had never been attached at all. The abrupt absence of resistance found Bucky unexpectedly thrown from her perch and went flying backwards, landing solidly on her back. The blow wasn't enough to wind her, but it had still hurt. As she returned to her feet, she took a closer look at what she now held in her hands. The mask had gone from a fearsome, living oni visage to that of simple wood. A quick look at her fallen opponent showed that he, too, had reverted to his human form, showing no sign of ever having been a monster.

"I got one!" Bucky shouted over the storm, managing to catch Nabiki's attention. Nabiki took her eyes off her opponent, Wolf Mask, for the briefest of seconds as she felt a surge of relief pass through her. Their inhuman opponents could be beaten.

But not by Nabiki Tendou as it turned out, since, in allowing her attention to drift from Goat Mask, she had left herself open for a charge by him. He connected solidly with her ribs, sending her head crashing against the same wall he had earlier damaged when Nabiki had dodged his first charge.

"Nabiki!" Bucky cried out, making the same mistake Nabiki did in leaving herself open to an attack as well. Wolf Mask was upon the smaller girl, ripping through her outfit and sinking his jaws into her left shoulder. Reflexively, Bucky brought her shield up and the edge of it met Wolf Mask between the eyes, sending him reeling back and whining in pain just like a real dog.

As Nabiki lost consciousness, she wondered how Bucky knew her name, since she couldn't recall mentioning it to the shorter girl. It mattered little, as the last thought that went through Nabiki's mind was that the pavement felt really chilly and wet.

A kick met the spot right between Wolf Mask's eyes, and he went reeling back further under Bucky's assault. Snake Mask tried to attack, but was thrown into a wall for his troubles as well. Just as she was about to launch another attack, the world was suddenly reeling, as her very blood seemed to grow hotter. Her hand went to her shoulder, and she saw that the skin around the area that Wolf Mask had bitten her was now a bright shade of crimson.

She returned her attention to Wolf Mask, who was joined by the remaining two members as well as Raven Mask, who had at last recovered enough to pry his beak out of the ground. The quartet looked at each other, then advanced. Bucky tried to come up with some sort of defense, but it was becoming harder by the second to focus on her opponents. They were even starting to blur, much to her dismay. And if that wasn't bad enough, the storm suddenly seemed to pick up in intensity.

Wolf Mask said something in a language that Bucky didn't understand. The redhead tried to throw some acidic insult in his direction, but nothing came to her fever stricken mind. Staggering backward several steps, she saw the group begin to spread out, undoubtedly so they could fall on her at the same time. She was about to risk throwing her shield at one of the men and hope for the best, when a hammer flew from the sky and landed in the midst of the group, sending them flying in all directions.

"Not her again," was all Bucky got out before darkness fell.

In the alcove of a nearby building, magically concealed by darkness, Xellos smiled at the arrival of the newcomer from above. "All you need to do is summon the thunder but once, fool," he mumbled under his breath.

Thor looked down at the scene of carnage below. There were three people lying unconscious on the ground. One of them was obviously a gang member, now rendered into human form, the other was her sister, and the third was the harlot that had saved the Iron Rose, the emerald hued monster, and herself from that strange attack craft. Seeing the girl triggered Thor's temper once again. That she had to have been saved by a mortal and was now in her debt was infuriating. The only saving grace upon seeing the harlot again was that Thor now had a chance to return the favor and restore her honor.

"It's the Son of Odin!" Wolf Mask cried out as he saw Thor's hammer return to her as she landed on the ground.

Thor looked at them in surprise. Her guise was still relatively unknown to the general populace of Japan. And now that she stared at the group intently, she realized there was something about their faces that was familiar. She took a moment to examine them more intently as she moved closer towards them. "Who are you that speaks with such familiarity towards the God of Thunder?"

The remaining four masked creatures seemed to recover from their surprise and spread out, preventing Thor from hitting them all it once again. Snake Mask spoke before the others. "Surely you remember me, Thunderer. Though my form is somewhat changed, my essence remains pure. I am, after all, your death."

That threat sounded hauntingly familiar. Now that Thor was closer, she could definitely sense the presence of magic on them. Asgardian magic. Still, she tried to associate a name with the faces. They were vaguely familiar…

"The Masques of Hagalla!" Thor cried out. Now she remembered them. They were artifacts of power, ancient even by Asgardian standards, which contained the essence of several of the creatures of Asgard. The Midgard Serpent had been the snake mask's representative, and Fenris was the wolf's. The others escaped her recollection at the moment.

It had been long in the past when they had been employed against him. He had been in Nifflheim and was traveling with Hogun the Grim and Baldur the Brave in order to locate the White Pearl of the Queen of Algarond. It was on the Plains of Saggoth that he and his two companions were attacked by the five masked beings that had been possessed by the essences in the masks. Later, they had learned that it had been a plan to prevent them from recovering the White Pearl, and the instigator of that scheme was-

A lancing pain shot through Thor's mind as she staggered backward a few steps. It had happened again. She had thought of herself in male terms, though she was a quite obviously a woman and not a man. And why couldn't she remember her past, or at least enough of it?

Further thoughts on the matter were cut off as she was jumped from behind. Ropy things wrapped themselves around her legs and arms, trying to bind her where she stood. The assault on her mind had proved to be enough of a distraction to prevent her from bringing her full power to bear. It took Thor a moment to shake off the effects from the headache and focus on the matter at hand.

Looking down, she saw that it was the Midgard Serpent's host that was attacking her. The limbs of the possessed young man had elongated and wrapped around her, just like a real snake's would. The others seemed content to stay back and allow their friend to fight her one-on-one.

"And now, Son of Odin, it is time to die." The head bent backwards impossibly far, just like his limbs. The jaw dropped and large fangs came into view, black poison dripping from them. Convinced Thor was securely in his grasp, he stopped taking his head back and brought it forward, intent upon sinking his fangs into her neck. Even if he wasn't the real Midgard Serpent, the poison should prove sufficient to kill Thor. And if it wasn't, then he and the others could tear her apart by more conventional means.

Snake Mask brought his head forward and, just as he was about to bite Thor, stopped. Immediately, he began gasping for air as a hand tightened around his throat. Its power was so great that, even as shifty as Snake Mask was, he could not squirm out of it.

Thor continued grasping Snake Mask by the throat as she flexed her muscles, nearly breaking Snake Mask's coiled limbs as he was forced to release his hold on her. "Thou art mistaken if thou believe it takes but an essence of my doom to finish me." She hurled him away, sending his body into a wall. Her chance to catch her breath was brief as she found herself set upon by the remaining three attackers who hurled themselves upon her like the collective pack of beasts that they represented.

Snake Mask returned to his feet, an ache deep in his bones. Thor had not lost any of his strength with the passage of the centuries. Still, the outcome would be different this time. All he had to do was-"

A shield narrowly missed Snake Mask's head. He turned to see the oddly garbed red-haired warrior trying to attack him once again.

"Won't… let… you," Bucky got out as she tried to stay on her feet, though found herself failing as her legs gave out and she sank to the wet pavement once again.

"Very impressive, mortal. There are few that could withstand Fenris's black bite. Allow me to put you out of your misery." Snake Mask wondered about the connection the mortal had to Thor. Who knew? Since the God of Thunder had come to her aid once, perhaps the mortal meant something to her. That the death of the mortal might pain Thor was all the encouragement needed to convince Snake Mask to take the time out to finish the girl.

Snake Mask half slithered/half walked towards the crawling Bucky, unmindful of the punishment his comrades were suffering at Thor's hands. He extended his head and neck once again, bearing his fangs. The mortal's throat simply looked too appealing to pass up. She was going to suffer as few mortals could before she died at the hands of a god.

"Yo! Scaleface! Looky here!"

Darting his extended head around to see who had spoken, Snake-Mask turned just in time to see a warrior, armed with a bow and dressed in a purple costume, launch an arrow at him. The arrow struck Snake Mask right between the eyes. As the projectile hit, it released some kind of gooey substance that engulfed his entire face. He recoiled backward as he tried to remove the tar-like substance enough to free his jaws.

"Sucker," Hawkeye said as she notched another arrow and shot it at Snake Mask. Again it hit right on target, the impact arrow taking him in the gut and bowling him over so that he was motionless on the ground. Hawkeye congratulated herself. It had only taken her three outings before she ran into a genuine supervillain, and it had taken only two arrows to defeat him. Of course, from what the archer had gathered, Snake Mask had been hit pretty hard by the hammer-wielding chick. But still, it had fallen to Hawkeye to save the red-haired girl in the odd costume from such a grisly fate.

The purple garbed archer turned her attention to the 'hammer-wielding chick'. She debated notching another arrow; the blonde seemed to have the situation under control, what with her bowling all three of the masked men over as though they were tumbleweeds in the middle of a sandstorm.

Thor turned her fury to the trio of masked men. The damned Fenris masked one had actually bitten her, though her Asgardian physiology handled the toxin in the bite far better than Bucky's mortal form had. For her it was nothing more than a minor irritation, but one that added to her anger at the foolish creatures for harming her older sister. It was time to teach the Mask Gang a lesson, possessed or not.

As the trio of masked men began to recover, the memory of what she had done the last time to release the possessed people came back to Thor. She went over and grabbed the unconscious Snake Mask and hurled him at the others. Her throw was on target as the unusual projectile had the effect of knocking all of her opponents over and into a rough pile. Thor took a moment to make certain they weren't near either Nabiki's or the harlot's unconscious forms. Convinced the duo were well out of the area of effect, Thor went into action.

"Now, beasts. Feel the wrath of the Goddess of Thunder!"

Thor brought her hammer down on the ground. An instant later, a tremendous lighting bolt crashed down from the heavens and struck the group of masked men.

And off in the magically concealing shadows, Xellos began to laugh, barely reminding himself to cast a globe of silence in time to prevent his joyous roar from being heard by the Goddess of Thunder.

Caught fully by the unexpected flash, Hawkeye blinked repeatedly until her eyes cleared and she could see once again. The rain was still coming down and splashing on the now fallen figures that had been struck by the lightning. Hesitantly, the archer approached the Thor. "Ah, excuse me," Hawkeye said slowly, making certain not to offend someone that could most likely fry her where she stood. "You didn't kill them, did you?" Hawkeye sincerely hoped not. She would be honor bound to try to bring the woman to justice if that was the case. She wondered which trick arrow she had in her inventory that could take out a goddess.

Thor stared at Hawkeye. She hadn't even been aware of the stranger until he had said something. She looked over the newcomer thoroughly. "Thou needest not worry, sir. They are unharmed. I did use but enough lightning to loosen the enchanted items' hold upon their hosts, who, though far from innocent, did not deserve to be possessed by the beasts so." Thor pointed at the masks, which had fallen to the ground, blackened along the edges from the lightning.

Sir? It took Hawkeye a moment to remember that, as part of her own secret identity, she had bound her chest down and wore a padded costume so as to conceal what sex she was. If people did not realize she was a girl, how much harder would it be for them to uncover her secret identity? Not that it was all that much of a sacrifice for her. She had all but sworn off her femininity after that whole sordid incident with that lying, worthless jackass fiancé that dumped her at the side of the road. It was one of the reasons she had decided to come to Nerima. Rumors placed her 'Ranchan' somewhere in the area. Eventually she'd get around to hunting him down. Eventually.

There were other matters to take care of first. Shaking herself clear of those feelings, she began acting in her 'studly hero' persona. It was easy to do. She just acted the way guys always did. Unleashing the brightest smile she could, she made certain to walk up to Thor the way a man would when confronted with an attractive gaijin goddess. "Nice job there. You handled them like a pro."

Thor was moved a bit by Hawkeye's endorsement. His praise was nice to hear, even if it was well deserved. As to the man himself, his voice was somewhat high, but appealing, in a way. And he filled out his costume quite nicely, especially in the-

Thor wondered where that had come from. She usually didn't think of men in quite that manner. At least she never did as Akane. "My thanks for your praise. In truth, I had fought them before, and though they did catch mineself off guard, th-"

The rest of her speech was cut off as a lightning bolt, ten times the size of the one Thor had summoned earlier, struck the ground nearby. Hawkeye was knocked off her feet, and Thor herself barely braced for the shock in time.

"What was that for?!" Hawkeye shouted, unable to even hear herself as she got back to her feet.

"I didst not summon that bolt." Thor blinked her eyes clear as she saw something had been left behind from the lightning bolt. Tiny lances of electricity began to spark off from the center of where the large bolt had struck, long after all such things should have ceased to be. It took only another moment before a being emerged from the center of the area of impact. He wore ancient style Japanese clothing, light blue and white in color and with what appeared to be a yellowish padded chest piece on his torso. A wide brimmed straw hat rested on his head, temporarily hiding his features. As he raised his head, his face was revealed. He was clearly Japanese, appearing to be in his late twenties, and handsome. However, the most unusual characteristic about him was his eyes; they glowed blue with small veins of electricity flowing from them

He leveled an accusing finger at Thor. "So, the message left for me was correct. I did not want to believe it, but when I felt you summon the lightning, I knew it to be true! You are indeed in my lands, Thor, with neither my permission, nor even a request to be here! Let it be known that the penalty for an Asgardian God of Thunder daring to trespass on my domain, is death!"

The archer felt a sinking feeling in the pit of her stomach as she at last recognized the figure that had appeared in the flash of lightning. Clearly it could only be one person, straight out of her own people's mythology, that was challenging the blonde, hammer wielding woman.

Hawkeye suddenly felt very scared as Raiden, the Japanese God of Thunder, prepared himself for a battle of the gods.


To be continued.

Act 1-5
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