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A Ranma ½ fanfic by Aondehafka

Disclaimer: Ranma ½ and its characters and settings belong to Rumiko Takahashi, Shogakukan, Kitty, and Viz Video. This story based on the anime, not the manga.

Chapter 2: A Season of Storms

Kasumi moved through the kitchen with the ease of long practice, her actions deceptively brief and understated. She adjusted the heat under the noodles, checked the broth and decided against adding more salt, and began chopping some freshly-washed vegetables. A casual observer would have walked away with a cheerful smile after viewing the sight, pleased and gratified by the image of the dutiful beautiful girl taking pride in caring for her family.

All of that was certainly true, but someone skilled at the art of observation would have seen further, understood more. Would have noted that the girl who moved along so carelessly did so at nearly the limits of human efficiency. A team of motion study experts brought in to study the eldest Tendo daughter's performance might have managed to find ways for her to shave a few seconds off her time while still accomplishing the same results, but that would be the limit of their success. Kasumi Tendo had spent many years at her tasks, had focused all her abilities toward them, and by now she was the undisputed Tendo Queen of the Kitchen.

Because of this, a performance such as tonight's took very little of her concentration. If she had been devoting her entire awareness to the tasks before her, those motion study experts would have thrown up their hands in defeat (that, or fought a duel for the privilege of courting her). But tonight there were other things which drew Kasumi's thoughts, other concerns weighing upon her. This was hardly an unusual occurrence; when the Saotomes first walked into their lives, they brought with them an endless parade of strange and thought-provoking events, and every one of the Tendo family had had to learn to cope.

Kasumi had watched all of them react in their own unique ways. She believed that her response had been the best and most sensible, which was just par for the course around here. Nabiki had shifted her games into overdrive with the new resources available to her, and Akane had grown far more ready to lash out in anger at whatever displeased her. Father alternated between emotional extremes, going much higher at the good times than his daughter could remember, and sinking lower in the bad. But Kasumi herself had stood like a rock, a smile on her face and a soft, welcoming word for anyone whose path she crossed. Despite all the changes and chaos, the floors still needed to be swept, the furo scrubbed, the laundry done, the food cooked, and a thousand other chores completed. All these things were where she found her peace and her center.

It was when she was engaged in those household duties that she felt most able to think about other things, the soothing, satisfying work forming a powerful counterpoint to what would otherwise have been some frightening, unpleasant developments. Kindness, service, and optimism were her shield, a guard that she often wished she could share with the others. Whenever Akane slapped Ranma and stalked away seething with anger, whenever he walked away from her with that tightness in the muscles of his jaw, neck, and back that was the only real clue to how hurt and angry he was, whenever Ryoga, Mousse, or another rival arrived to challenge Ranma and lose, whenever Shampoo, Ukyo, or Kodachi came by to hurt themselves again in trying to pull Akane's fiancé away for themselves, whenever any of a hundred hurtful things happened, Kasumi's own heart ached at seeing the needless pain and sorrow. If only they understood what she did! But there was no way she could teach them; such things could not be taught at all, only learned.

The eldest Tendo always did her best to comfort and care for those around her and serve as a positive example, in the hopes that some of them might learn for themselves. Seldom did she intervene more directly than that, and even when she did she'd seen precious few of those times accomplish anything worthwhile. Making Akane promise not to hit anyone in anger, chastising Nabiki for her actions when she played at being Ranma's fiancée — neither of these had ultimately done any good at all. Persuading Akane to accompany Ranma on that trip as a form of bridal training — from what she'd heard afterward, that had been worse than useless, as her little sister's presence had made the situation even more volatile between Ranma and Ryoga. Certainly Akane herself had been none too happy after it was all over and she was describing the debacle to her family.

With a track record like that, it was no wonder that Kasumi was reluctant to try to interject her own voice into the din of those shouting out at any given time, each clamoring for their own favored path to be the one taken. It was better to leave that strife and striving to others, be there when they needed her, and watch events from her place of peace on the sidelines.

The events she'd witnessed this afternoon certainly hadn't been very peaceful. Kasumi's long years of housekeeping meant that she didn't even hear the bubbling and steaming and hissing of the dishes cooking around her, at least not unless something started to go wrong. None of those sounds registered at all, but by contrast she could plainly hear the faint kiai and crunches of her little sister's practice in the dojo. Kasumi heaved a nearly undetectable sigh, as she noted that Akane's current battle cries carried a noticeably higher measure of anger than they had when she first went out there. Try though she might, Akane wasn't succeeding any longer in working off her temper, nor did Kasumi think there was any chance of that so long as Ranma stayed away.

She had overheard the discussion between Nabiki and Akane earlier, sighing a little at her baby sister's paranoia, and then the one they'd had an hour later when Akane's patience had reached its limit. To this day Kasumi had never decided just which of her sisters was the more possessive; since each chose such different sorts of things as the objects of that trait, it was difficult to make a comparison. It was one of the things Kasumi preferred not to think about, but she was very aware of how utterly unwilling Akane was to allow Ranma to spend time unsupervised with any other girl. That Shampoo had called him away and he'd gone, and especially that he was taking so long to return, these were things calculated to drive Akane's temper very high very quickly. Frankly, Kasumi was a little surprised it had taken Akane as long as an hour to approach Nabiki and ask her to turn out her lackeys to hunt Ranma down.

They'd failed utterly in that, but one of them had located Shampoo, staying well back and watching as the Amazon took on Pantyhose Taro. Nabiki's friend had watched long enough to be sure that Ranma was nowhere nearby, then reported this back to Nabiki, who had in turn relayed it to the youngest Tendo. The knowledge that wherever Ranma was, he wasn't with Shampoo was enough to placate Akane. Kasumi and Nabiki both had known that she was still irritated at him for staying away this long, and at Shampoo for having caused it by whatever she wanted to tell him, but she was content to remain home and try to burn off her anger through a workout.

It would even have worked, if Ranma hadn't taken so long to come back. Kasumi herself was feeling the mild regret that was the closest she ever really came to irritation. It was now well past their usual time for dinner. She'd deliberately started preparations much later than usual and worked slowly, not wanting Ranma to come home to find everyone had eaten without him. It would have been nice if he'd thought to call home and tell her when to expect his return. Nice, and completely unprecedented; so Kasumi hadn't gotten her hopes up. And fifteen minutes ago, when Nabiki entered the kitchen on her fifth snack run and gave her sister a wounded, betrayed look practically swimming in remorse, Kasumi had caved in. If Ranma didn't return in the next ten minutes, he was just going to have to accept whatever leftovers he could get.

"I'm home!" The call came from the front entranceway, accompanied by the closing of the door. Kasumi shook her head with a smile of self-reproof. She really should have known better. When push came to shove, her sister's fiancé could always be trusted not to miss out on the food.

Ranma took a few steps into the house, then paused and sucked in a long, deep breath. In its own way, Kasumi's cooking smelled just as wonderful as had the crisp, clean air high above the limits of the Tokyo smog. Some days it was just good to be alive.

He proceeded into the living room, where he found Nabiki reading a manga. "Hmmm, you're finally back," she observed.

The pigtailed teen grunted his assent. "When's dinner? I'm starving!"

"Oh, really. You are aware that it's well past dinner time, right Ranma?" Nabiki favored him with a stony glare. "A word to the wise, Saotome, and I suggest you listen in too. Next time you pull a stunt like this, we're eating it all before you bother to slink home."

Ranma smirked back at her. "You do, an' I'll ask Akane to cook dinner the next night to make up for it, and then I'll skip out again and leave the rest of ya holding the bag."

Nabiki's eyes bulged to a ridiculous degree, and she would have staggered if she weren't currently sitting on the couch. 'Did… did he just… did I just get verbally worsted by a Saotome?!' The Saotome in question gave her an odd look, wondering just why Nabiki's hair was all toinged out and her lower jaw was dangling loose, then walked past her and onward to the kitchen.

"Smells great, Kasumi!" Ranma said gleefully. If the fact that he'd nearly managed to destroy two individuals' worldviews today bothered him, he gave no sign of it. "Thanks for holding dinner for me."

"You're welcome, Ranma," the eldest Tendo daughter replied. "Akane's in the dojo practicing. Would you tell her that you're back now and dinner will be ready in a few minutes?"

"No prob," Ranma answered. Sticking his head out the window, he yelled, "HEY, AKANE!! QUIT SMASHING STUFF AND COME ON IN FOR DINNER!"

"Thank you very much," Kasumi said sweetly as he pulled his head back in. "Would you like to set the table for me?"

"If it means we get to eat sooner, then count me in!" Ranma quickly washed his hands, gathered up the necessary items, and retreated to the dining room, amusing himself by performing the requested task at Amaguriken speed. This of course didn't take long at all, and he spent the next few minutes in peace and quiet, except for the rumbling of his stomach.

"So where were you this afternoon, anyway? What took so long?" He turned to find that Akane had settled for the minimalist variety of cleaning up after her workout. She'd run a towel over her face and changed out of her sweaty gi, putting on a fresh one. Her hands were clenched unconsciously at her sides, and while her expression wasn't a full-blown scowl, she was definitely displeased. "What was Shampoo's 'big, important news'?"

"It's a long story, and I ain't gonna get into it until after dinner," he answered. 'No way am I gonna waste a perfectly good Kasumi-homecooked meal, and Akane's bound to pound me once she hears everything. No matter how good I try to tell it, Nabiki's gonna point out that there had to be a couple of skin scenes, what with Shampoo showing me her new curse and getting rid of my old one.' He'd known even as he did it that mouthing off to Nabiki would ultimately have its price, but as far as he was concerned the look on her face had been worth it.

"Why don't you tell us now, Saotome." Nabiki's tone made it clear this wasn't a request. He looked away from Akane's challenging glare, focusing instead on the middle Tendo. She had recovered almost completely from her bout with neural cascade failure. Several hairs were still sticking out from her pageboy cut, but otherwise she was back to normal, giving him that sharp, piercing stare he'd seen so many times. "Kasumi's dinners happen every day — or at least I wish they did," she mumbled under her breath, too low for a certain younger sibling to hear, "but it's certainly not every day that you drop everything and go off alone with the Queen of the Amazons for who knows how much private quality time."

"You really want to know, Nabiki?" Ranma asked, frowning back at her. It had not escaped his attention that every word of her last sentence had been making Akane angrier. "Okay, fine." His frown transformed into a hard-edged smirk as he held out his hand. "That'll be five thousand yen." His smile grew wider and happier as Nabiki's eyes bulged, her hair toinged, and her jaw dropped once more.

Akane had no real idea how to handle this. On the one hand, that was the exact sum Nabiki had taken off her for a certain request earlier this afternoon, which gave her a sense of satisfaction in watching this little bit of turnabout. On the other, witnessing Ranma stand up to Nabiki felt rather surreal, especially since he'd managed to give such a good account of himself. He was cheerful, confident, exuberant… and all these things had to have come from whatever happened with Shampoo.

For a moment that thought brought the beginnings of blistering anger, mixed in with something less pleasant from which Akane instinctively shied away. Then she reminded herself that Ranma hadn't spent anywhere near all his time with Shampoo this afternoon. Maybe Shampoo had actually been defeated by Pantyhose, she thought with a sudden surge of hope. If Ranma were no longer tied to her by Amazon law, that would certainly account for this happiness. He could still be just as perverted with her as before, Shampoo had made it clear to the meanest intelligence that as far as she was concerned that law was only an excuse to go after Akane's fiancé, but Three Thousand Years of Amazon History (i.e., Cologne) would no longer be a threat hanging over his head. 'I really, really hope that's it. Why shouldn't I get lucky for once?'

"Yo, Akane. You just doze off or something?" Ranma's query woke her from her musings.

"What? No. I was just wondering… seriously, though, Ranma, what—" she began, only to be cut off by Kasumi's cheerful "Dinner is ready!"

"Man, Kasumi, that was great!" The first to start eating and the last to finish, even Ranma had now had his fill. He'd concentrated wholeheartedly on devouring his dinner, and thus had been able to ignore Akane's fidgeting and Nabiki's hooded stares.

"I'm glad you enjoyed it, Ranma." The eldest Tendo beamed back at him. "Would you help me carry the dishes back to the kitchen?"

"No, he won't!" Akane proclaimed. "He's going to tell us what happened with Shampoo today!"

"Excuse me, tomboy," Ranma retorted. "Kasumi just asked for help with the dishes. Grab a few and help me out if you want it to mean less of a delay."

"The lunkhead has a point, Akane," Nabiki noted, distracted for the moment from her own annoyance at the pigtailed boy. Wasn't it just like her clueless baby sister to create more work for Kasumi, or Nabiki herself for that matter, without even thinking about it. "Let's all take our own stuff back to the kitchen."

"Fine, whatever," Akane grumbled, gathering up her fair share of the dishes and plates.

A few minutes later, Ranma, Akane, and Nabiki were in the living room. "Now spill it, Saotome," the middle Tendo requested.

"Waiting on Kasumi," he replied, just as the girl in question entered the room carrying the kettle and bathrobe he'd asked her to bring. "Thanks, Kasumi. Hmmm, where should I start?"

"Tell us what Shampoo wanted, dummy!" This was Akane. "Then you can tell what took you so long to get back here afterward." 'And why you've been in such a strange mood all this time…'

"Okay, yeah, start with Shampoo. You guys know that she an' the old ghoul have been outta town for the last couple of weeks." All the girls nodded, even Kasumi, which somehow didn't surprise Ranma. "Well, they went back to China to take care of some business. And while they were there, they made a pit stop at a certain cursed training ground."

He continued speaking after that, but one girl no longer heard his words. As that last sentence registered, Akane felt her heart constrict to a frozen lump in her chest. 'No… no… he can't… it can't be… please, no, it's not fair! Shampoo can't have cured her curse!'

It was the one and only advantage she had over the Amazon, a fact that Akane had always hated — until now, at least. This was what had made Ranma so happy?! The goddamned sex kitten didn't literally turn into the thing of his worst nightmares anymore?! Nothing more she could do now, when the Amazon grabbed onto her Ranma and started trying to seduce him in full view of the public?! No more ace in the hole if Shampoo ever attacked her for real?! And her worthless so-called fiancé thought all this was good news?!

She didn't want it to be true. She needed it not to be true, hoped with all her heart that it was just another of those frequent little misunderstandings. Maybe she was jumping to conclusions. Maybe, just maybe she was seeing the worst possible outcome when the truth was nowhere near that bad. Akane tried to focus, tried to pay attention to what Ranma was saying, but the roaring in her ears was just too loud. She gulped, deliberately closed her eyes, and searched for some measure of recovery.

After an uncertain amount of time, she felt at least a little composure return. Ranma was rambling on with something that didn't make much sense. It sounded like he was describing himself fighting half of Nerima. Typical overweening Saotome pride, Akane thought, shaking her head, but at least it wasn't a paean of joy over Shampoo no longer turning into a cat.

"…coulda been worse," Ranma said, in response to a sympathetic comment from Kasumi. "If it weren't for Shampoo watching out for me with her new curse, I'd've had to fight Pantyhose too."

She actually heard the entire final sentence before the significance of its first clause registered.

Once again, Ranma was speaking. She could see his lips moving, and the broad grin behind the words was painfully apparent. His speech was utterly lost on her, though, a cacophony of empty sounds so far removed from her current reality as to have no significance at all. Akane sat frozen, no emotions showing on her face, blocking out any hint of Ranma happily prattling on about the wonderful afternoon he'd had and how much better his life had suddenly become. The only coherent thought she could manage was perhaps the worst one possible: 'This cannot possibly get any worse.'

He was looking now at Kasumi, Akane noted, saying something else that didn't register at all. As if in response, Kasumi held out the kettle she'd brought, and the final puzzle piece clicked into place.

With that, the last remnants of her anger vanished, finally extinguished under a rising icy tide of sorrow, bitterness, and dread. It wasn't enough that the Amazon had done away with her own well-deserved curse, was it? Wasn't enough that she had probably gone through all the springs and picked one that would give her some incredibly unfair advantage. Wasn't enough that Shampoo presumably now turned into something that let her go head-to-head with Pantyhose and win. No, the lavender-haired witch had to grab yet another entry for her long list of utterly unfair, unearned advantages. She had to provide Ranma with the cure he'd sought for so long. 'There's no way I can compete with that,' Akane thought with a bitterness she'd never matched in her life.

Ranma was moving now, arising from his position on the floor and moving over to the sofa. As if in a dream, Akane watched, certain she knew what was coming next. Sure enough, he retrieved a bucket of water which had previously been hidden on the far side of the couch. As he lifted it with a grin, she felt the faint, vaguest echo of a desire to close her eyes, to refrain from watching this moment of triumph. He would douse himself with the cold water, then with the hot, and the result would be the same either way — absolutely nothing. She could avert her gaze, clench her eyes shut, deny it for one moment longer. But what was the point? It wouldn't change anything. He would still be free and clear, due to a gift from the girl Akane had never been able to match. She felt the cold leaden certainty that nothing mattered anymore settle into her gut, displacing even the pain from before. Wondering vaguely if this was what the Soul of Ice felt like and whether she'd be able to pull off a Hiryu Shoten Ha now, she kept Ranma fully in her sight as he hurled the water forward.

It came as an enormous shock when his form melted down and disappeared into his clothes.

It was almost enough to make her feel something again.

She continued to watch, no expression on her face as she took in the sight before her. Watched as the bird of prey that had been her fiancé struggled free of his shirt. Observed as her big sister scooped up the raptor and made some inane remark, probably an exclamation over how pretty he was. To Akane, the sight of the destruction of everything that mattered hardly qualified as 'pretty', but Kasumi was Kasumi and she would never change.

Her passionless stare tracked events as Kasumi traced a finger down Ranma's back, stared admiringly at him for a long, long moment, then reluctantly set him down and reached forward with the kettle. Ranma skipped backward, cheeping in a way that was clearly negative, and Kasumi halted with a questioning look on her face. A hop, skip, and a jump took the transformed teen over to the bathrobe Kasumi had brought; he slid partially into it, gave another squawk, and nodded his head. Kasumi tilted the kettle's contents over his head, and the Saotome heir swelled back into his birth form, the robe coming along for the ride and keeping him decent throughout.

"Ranma." It was a surprise to hear herself speak, one almost as great as the sight of what had really happened when he doused himself with the cold water. Akane had no idea where the energy or the interest to ask this question was coming from; she still couldn't feel anything other than a cold muted emptiness. The words emerged nonetheless. "What new curse did Shampoo get?"

"What? Weren't you listening at all, Akane?!" Clearly he hadn't expected a response like that. Akane just stared back at him, awaiting an answer to her question. "Like I already said, Shampoo changed out her old curse for a falcon one. That's why she brought back this water for me too. Jeez, what else didn't you bother to listen to?"

Quite a lot, she supposed, but it wasn't as if it mattered. Akane got to her feet. "Congratulations, Ranma. Good night, everybody. I'm going to bed."

"Huh?" Ranma just stood there blinking until Akane disappeared up the stairs. "Hey, Akane, wait!" He took a half step as if to follow her, then decided against it. "What's with her?"

Nabiki made her first contribution to the conversation. She'd sat as quietly as Akane throughout, with no more clue to her emotions present. This trend continued as she got to her feet and said, calmly and collectedly, "Saotome, no matter how much thought you put into this, I guarantee you it wasn't enough." She followed in the path taken by her little sister, vanishing up the stairs.

Ranma stared helplessly after both girls, then turned back to the one remaining Tendo. "Kasumi, what's going on?"

"Oh, Ranma," she sighed. "It's nothing serious. Akane and Nabiki just need some time to get used to this. People don't just adapt right away when a big change comes along, especially one this big."

"But, couldn't they at least have said 'Congratulations', Kasumi? I mean, said it like they meant it?" Ranma asked, still trying to recover his balance. "I explained all about why I did this, what it meant to me. Why'd Akane just walk off like that?"

"I already told you, Ranma. She was surprised and she needs some time to get used to the idea. That's all."

"Huh." Ranma's jaw set mulishly. "Just another sign that Akane don't know how dumb she sounds when she says that 'I'm a martial artist too!' stuff. A real Anything Goes martial artist is all about change and adaptin' to the best stuff that comes his way." He sighed. "I guess your father's probably not gonna give three rousing cheers either, huh?"

Kasumi shook her head, then decided at least one person should give Ranma the kind of reaction such good news deserved. She gave him a smile and said, "Three thousand dousing tears is more likely, I think." Ranma sniggered, and Kasumi giggled a bit herself. "But really, Ranma, I am happy for you. You may have to wait to hear it from Akane, but I'll say it now. Congratulations."

After a few minutes of uneasy silence, broken only by the sound of the morning breeze rustling her hair and skirt, Manami spoke up. "Why are we out here, Boss?"

Nabiki held silent. Indeed, there was nothing to indicate she'd heard the question at all. The middle Tendo didn't budge an inch from her position at the edge of the rooftop of Furinkan, staring down into the courtyard. Manami wondered just what her friend/ally/commander-in-chief was watching for with such intensity. The most obvious guess was the arrival of Ranma and/or Akane, but why she should care about that so much this morning, why she should have dragged both Manami and Junko up to the rooftop without so much as a by-your-leave, was a mystery that couldn't be solved without more information.

"Yeah, Nabiki. We're gonna miss an opportunity if we stay up here too much longer," Junko pointed out. "You can see Kuno down there waiting for them to arrive. If we're not back in class when it happens, we won't be able to take any bets." The Blue Thunder certainly didn't challenge Ranma every day, but it happened with regularity enough that there wasn't much money to be made anymore from bets on those fights. Certainly no one was foolish enough to bet on Kuno to win. Still, there were always a few people ready to try their luck on issues of timing, whether Ranma would win with a punch, a kick, a special technique, or whether Kuno's babble would anger Akane enough to jump in and deliver the knockout.

Manami gave a mental shake of the head. There was a reason Junko was third on the hierarchy, well below Manami herself. 'You still don't have the hang of big-picture thinking, Junko? The Boss behaving this oddly isn't enough to clue you in? For her to act like this, there has to be something serious on the horizon. And whatever it is, it's bigger than the chump change we could make back in our classroom.' Her gaze shifted from Junko to Nabiki. 'Wish she'd go ahead and tell us what it is.'

She waited a few moments more, watching Nabiki expectantly. Furinkan's Ice Queen paid no more attention to Junko than she had to Manami. Her gaze stayed fixed forward and below. Her face wore an expressionless mask, which in itself was a little worrisome to Manami. If this was a good kind of something big, Nabiki should be smirking.

Faced with only silence as a response, Junko heaved a loud, melodramatic sigh, and settled down for the wait. Nabiki would have a good reason for this, she supposed, but that didn't make the time pass any quicker until she should decide to unbutton her lips and share whatever was on her mind with her cohorts.

A minute later, just as Manami was about to strike up a conversation with the friend that wasn't impersonating an ice sculpture, Nabiki stiffened ever so slightly. In an instant both remaining girls' gazes shot forward in the direction their leader was staring, locating their target in the street heading toward Furinkan, finding — without much surprise — that the object of her attention was Ranma and Akane.

Manami studied them as intently as she could, soaking up all the detail possible before they should make it into Furinkan proper where the waiting bluster of Tatewaki Kuno would destroy any chance for observation of subtle nuances. There seemed to be a curious distance between the two teens this morning. Not so much a matter of physical distance, although they were walking several feet apart, but rather a metaphysical one. It was actually coming from Akane, Manami realized after another few seconds of intense scrutiny. Ranma's expression was as open as ever, showing a mixture of general good cheer and puzzlement. The latter emotion seemed to be directed toward Akane; she saw him cast a curious, clueless look forward to his fiancée. Akane herself couldn't see this, as she was walking in front of him. From the closed, shuttered, and barred expression on Akane's face, Manami didn't think it likely that the youngest Tendo would have cared if she had seen.

Even Junko had picked up on some of this. "What's up with her, Nabiki? Did she break the engagement again?"

Once again, Nabiki ignored her lackey's questions. Once again, Manami gave a mental head-shake of reproof. Junko either hadn't paid nearly enough attention to Ranma, or she just hadn't bothered to think through what his demeanor had to mean. Whatever the problem was here, it was still a mystery to the pigtailed martial artist. 'There's a surprise,' Manami thought with all the sarcasm an unusually intelligent, unathletic, not-very-popular high school senior could muster.

The three girls stared in silence as first Akane, then Ranma made their way through Furinkan's gate. Manami cocked one eyebrow in quizzical detachment as she watched Akane walk straight past Kuno, ignore his greeting entirely, and disappear into the school. Kuno blinked once or twice, then focused quickly enough on Ranma. He drew himself up into his usual posture of challenge and issued a round of blowhard bluster that made both Manami and Junko wish Furinkan stood several stories higher than it did. Listening to that sort of babble had already been old two years ago, well before Ranma himself arrived in Nerima.

The last remnants of puzzlement at Akane's unusual remoteness vanished from Ranma's face, replaced by battle-readiness. The good mood glowing underneath it all was still apparent, nor did that fade even slightly as Kuno charged forward in an attack. The girls watched as Ranma employed a rather unusual tactic in his battle with Furinkan's rising young star of kendo — instead of moving in for hand-to-hand, or employing a special technique to take Kuno down hard and fast, Ranma devoted everything to some of the flashiest dodging the trio had ever seen. He bounced around like a demented sentient superball, spending far more time in the air than on the ground, jumping higher than he almost ever did in casual combat. Through it all he teased and taunted Kuno, raising the boy's temper ever higher, until at last the kendoist gave a mighty yell of rage and employed his own super leap. Manami was quite impressed at the sight; it was one thing to see Ranma hop a couple of stories into the air, but that was a feat she'd not thought Tatewaki Kuno capable of matching.

Surprise her though he might with the height of his jump, Kuno's performance in the resulting midair duel was no shock at all. Ranma easily twisted around the kendoist's strike, grabbed hold of him, spun the both of them in midair, and then launched his prey on a flight far higher. Kuno sailed up, up, and away on a course that would certainly drop him at least a mile away from Furinkan. Manami imagined that if she'd been listening closely, she could have heard the *snap* as the rules of physics were broken once again.

Ranma dropped sedately to the ground, grinning and cheerful and utterly unconcerned at violating at least one law of motion. Whistling a carefree tune, he strode into the school building. Manami noticed Nabiki's hand clenching and unclenching at her side. It wasn't a very pronounced reaction, but as this was the first real break in the Ice Queen's silent unmoving façade, the gesture was as noticeable to Manami as if Nabiki had given a rebel yell and launched a water balloon over the edge at Ranma.

"You don't know how tempted I was to lob a water balloon at that idiot," Nabiki remarked.

"That would be funny," Junko replied. "Even if you don't have any training of your own, Mr. Big Bad Martial Artist probably wouldn't have been able to dodge it. He never does have much luck avoiding water, does he?"

"No, he doesn't. And his luck is even worse when it comes to avoiding attacks from angry girls," Nabiki said, biting the words off.

"Will you go ahead and tell us what Ranma's done now?" Manami asked, feeling fairly confident in at least that much of her deductions. "How big is it? How much of an impact is it going to have on us?"

"How big. How much impact." Nabiki gave one of those dry, sardonic laughs that let everyone in earshot know just how little amusement you're really feeling. "Hmmm. Where do I begin? How about… this!" From out of nowhere she produced an old poster for one of Ranma's long-ago challenge matches. The poster was emblazoned with a drawing of Ranma-chan in a very skimpy outfit. Nabiki gripped the paper and with one convulsive movement, ripped it clean in two.

Junko paled noticeably. "You don't mean he's cured his curse?!"

"No. That would be bad enough, but I wouldn't be this pissed," Nabiki growled. "After all, he's worked so long and fought so hard so many times for a cure, and they've all slipped just barely through his grasp. If one of them finally did land in his lap, there's no way in heaven or earth he wouldn't use it. That's just something I always looked at as one of those unavoidable long-shot risks, like a meteor hitting your house or something."

"Then what did happen?" Manami wanted to know, irked that Junko had made such a good guess before she could, and annoyed all the more that Nabiki's response hadn't made it clear to the real brain here just what was happening.

"He didn't cure it. The brainless hunk of beef changed it," Nabiki spat. "Shampoo and Cologne came back yesterday. Seems they went to China and Jusenkyo, and finally washed away Little Miss Lavender's greatest disadvantage. No more turning into a cat for her, no more terrifying her 'husband' with a splash of cold water. Shampoo now turns into a falcon, and according to Ranma she got such a kick out of being able to fly that she decided to offer a cask full of water from her new spring to him."

"He… He took her up on it?!" Manami could scarcely believe it. Sure, she knew that Ranma didn't much like his female form, but at least even when transformed she had still been an unstoppable juggernaut of martial arts fury. She'd never have thought he would give that up for a body that would make flight the only option if he got splashed in mid-battle. What was he going to do the next time a challenge came up with Ryoga, or Mousse, or Tatewaki, or… Heck, even Gosunkugi might have the advantage in hand-to-hand combat with Ranma's new cursed form!

"He did," Nabiki confirmed bitterly. "Came waltzing home last night and told us the whole sordid story."

"Wow… " Junko breathed, her eyes wide and her expression none too happy. "This changes… this changes everything. Fighting odds, dating odds, marriage odds, merchandise…"

"That's it, Junko. Rub it in," Nabiki snarled. "Pour salt in my wounds. Remind me that the last batch of 'pigtailed' photos I had developed is just that — the last. Throw it right back in my face that Shampoo just stole a huge march on the competition. Dangle that lovely little nightmare scenario right in front of my eyes, where Ranma finally wakes up and realizes that his other suitors have a hell of a lot more to offer than my sister does. Hey, why don't you go find Ranma and tell it to him straight up?! 'Oh, Ranma, it's about time you realized just how much the Amazons can do for you that the Tendos can't manage. Ditch them like last week's sashimi and shack up with Shampoo!' "

"You think it's gonna be harder to get him to toe the line from now on?" Manami asked, more out of a faint hope that her boss would deny this than anything else. At least to her, it looked to be as close to a certainty as you got in this life.

"What do you think?" Nabiki retorted bitterly. "Remember the Hiryu Shoten Ha? Cologne taught Ranma what he needed to confront Happosai even when he was weak as a kitten, she reassembled the torn pieces of the chart, and she applied the moxibustion cure herself. Even somebody as dense as Ranma was bound to start thinking a little differently after that. And he did, ever since then he's been more willing to go to the old hag for help and advice."

"But it could have been a lot worse, right?" Manami countered. "Remember what you told me yourself, Nabiki. Akane got involved, she was right there with him the whole time, and at the climax of it all she did her usual thing, got in over her head so Ranma had to go all out to save her. Thanks to him having that to remember and take up his attention, the Amazons didn't come out all that much better than they were before. And Ukyo was there all along too, which only muddied the waters further. I bet you can work the same kind of stuff out now," she continued encouragingly.

"Thanks for the vote of confidence, but I'm not a miracle worker. And quite frankly, right now I'm angry enough not to trust myself to take any action! How dare he do this!" Nabiki snarled. "How dare he jump headlong into this without thinking at all?! Did you enjoy dinner last night, Saotome, you brainless dolt?!" she demanded of the sky. "Do you know how many pictures I had to sell of your better half to pay for it? There won't be any more of that, now will there?! What the hell am I supposed to do from now on?! I don't suppose you've got answers for me, Ranma. Couldn't be bothered to think about anyone but yourself, could you? Couldn't care less about what happens when my supply runs out and Kuno-baby gets antsy for more."

"That is a problem," Junko agreed. "Maybe we could pay Sasuke to steal some of Kuno's collection and give it to us, and we could sell it back to him. He's got so many photos by now that there's no way he could possibly know them all."

"That's a good thought. Thanks, Junko," Nabiki said, although her tone and expression showed no trace of relief whatsoever. It was clear that Junko's help hadn't put even the slightest dent in her mood.

"This is really getting to you, isn't it, Boss," Manami asked quietly.

"You noticed?" Nabiki drawled. "Let me tell you just how it all went down yesterday, Manami. Shampoo caught up with him on the way home from school. Hustled him away from my sister, showed him her new curse, and made her sales pitch for joining her in the glory of the wild blue yonder. Ranma told her he needed time to think about it, went away, and spent a few hours doing that." Well, most of those three hours had been spent fighting, or so Nabiki had gathered from his story. She didn't suppose Ranma could manage three hours of uninterrupted thought if his miserable life depended on it. "At the end of that he went back to the Nekohanten and told her he wanted in." Her voice rose in an ever-sharper pitch of anger as she spoke the next sentence. "Not once in all that time did he come back home and talk about this with any of us!"

"It's not like he's ever been considerate," Manami pointed out. "At least, not if it took any real thought."

"No, but he should have known better than this," Nabiki growled. "I would have given him a hundred convincing reasons to just say no! He should have known to talk this over with people who actually know how to use their minds! Dammit, I've worked hard to build what I have today. All three of us have!" She lived her life based on the principle that brains, not a martial artist's brawn, were the real key to success. It had served her well, proving true time and time again. Nabiki Tendo had made the choices she wanted to make and done as she pleased, something just about nobody else she knew could honestly say. When she wanted to play, she played, and when she wanted the Nerima Wrecking Crew to pay, they paid. And they did it with a smile on their collective face if they knew what was good for them. This, even more than the lost opportunities, was what made Ranma's current transgression rankle so badly.

"Maybe he needs a refresher course in just how things work around here," Manami brooded. Few things in her life were as satisfying as calling the tune and forcing the various teen titans to dance as she wanted, or rather helping Nabiki to do so. She hoped her boss came up with something especially appropriate this time.

"Damn straight," the middle Tendo answered. "Striking out and making such a drastic change on his own, not even bothering to consider how inconvenient it would be for anyone else — I might have to put up with that junk from Cologne, but I'm not about to take it from him!"

"Cologne?" Junko echoed puzzledly. "What about her?"

Nabiki's mouth snapped shut, like the clap of a trap. "I don't want to talk about it," she said after a moment of bitter silence.

"Nabiki, this sounds like something we maybe should hear about," Manami said, carefully applying just as much pressure as she thought she could get away with. Her friend was showing more genuine emotion than Manami could ever remember witnessing in her before, and it was not a pretty sight. Anger, bitterness, hatred, frustration, and fear were all writ plain for the world to see across the Ice Queen's mien. Manami, for one, was very glad that the three of them were alone up here. "We're going to be doing something to pay Shampoo back for messing things up like this, right? And we're sure not going to let Ranma get away from your family without a fight. That means fighting the Amazons on that front too. If Cologne has been making threats lately, don't you think you'd better tell us?"

" 'Lately' isn't the word," Nabiki said. "This was well in the past, and by that I mean nearly a year ago. There's no reason to bring it up here. As long as we concentrate on Shampoo and don't cross the old bag of bones directly, we're in the clear."

"Umm, okay," Junko said hesitantly. "But don't you think it's not that clear-cut this time? Cologne had to have been involved in something like this. Who's to say that this whole idea wasn't hers to begin with? This could be the big push they're counting on to finally snag Ranma for good. If that's so, then fighting Shampoo might be as good as going up against the old woman too."

Nabiki said nothing in response for what seemed like quite a long time. At last, she heaved a bitter sigh, and admitted, "Like I said. Right now I'm too upset to think these things through as well as I usually do. That's why I called you up here to begin with, to tell you that for at least a couple of days we need to put a lockdown on business as usual. Things have just changed too much, too quickly, and we need to let them stabilize a bit so we can observe the situation before getting back to work."

"Shouldn't we even try to sell the news about what's happened to Ranma?" Junko protested. "That's safe enough, isn't it?"

"I really think that holding back and keeping a low profile while we plan our next move is better," Nabiki replied in tones of steel. "It's not like the best thing to do with information is always to sell it. Remember back when Ranma first arrived? I stung Kuno-baby for a measly little handful of yen before spilling the beans about Akane's engagement, and that was it. It was the biggest news Furinkan had had so far that year, and I let it go for a song. And believe me, it was the right thing to do."

"I never understood that," Manami confessed. "Just why did you do it like that, Boss?"

"It's a long story, too long to go into now," Nabiki replied. "Ask me again when things have settled down at least a little."

"Well, okay." Manami had had more than one purpose in asking her question now — Nabiki obviously believed she'd done the right thing back then for some mysterious, clever reason, so explaining the whole thing to her admiring cohorts ought to put her in a better mood. Unfortunately, her friend hadn't seen fit to rise to the bait. Manami would have preferred to get Nabiki in better spirits before asking this next question, but she didn't think she felt secure enough to postpone it. "So… what about Cologne?"

"You're not going to let this go, are you?" Nabiki returned.

"We can wait awhile if you really want us to," Junko replied. "But it sounds like something you do need to tell us before we start up operations again. Don't you think you might as well get it over with?"

"Probably. Not like my mood can get much worse," Nabiki muttered. Heaving another sigh, she spit it out. "It was back when the Amazons first set up shop here. It didn't take a lot of insight to see how much potential they had to shake things up. Only Happosai himself is worse, and back then he was still stuck in his cave.

"So anyway, I decided the smart thing to do was explore my options a bit. I dug into the legality of their being here, checked on just what measures Cologne had taken to justify her and Shampoo's settling down and opening shop. It took more than a week of research, and trips to several different places, and it all came down to one simple fact. The old woman had really done her job well. There was no way at all to attack their presence in Japan, at least within the letter of the law.

"So I'm in the library when I finally run the last lead to earth. I close the book, grumble a bit, turn in my seat — and there's Cologne right next to me, standing on top of the goddamn table looking as serene as a face like that can." Nabiki broke off, pausing for a moment to fight a fit of the shudders. "She didn't do anything so crude as threaten me. Oh, no, she just struck up an idle conversation, making pleasant chitchat about what Shampoo had been up to on her first trip to Japan.

"The old bat-out-of-hell was particularly eloquent about the Xi Fang Gao, and what a terrible technique it really was, how 'it ate holes in someone's memory, gnawing away at the one thing that a person should be able to call inviolably her own, riddling a trail of wormholes that the victim couldn't even comprehend. How terrible to have a vague awareness that something was wrong, but be completely unable to understand what', that's what she told me. I couldn't help but agree." The entire conversation was still etched indelibly into her brain, in perfect clarity. Sometimes Nabiki found herself wondering whether Cologne had snuck into her room one night and used a variation for enhancing that particular memory. She tried to fight off such suspicions, though — that way lay madness.

"That… that is terrible," Manami affirmed in a horrified whisper. Just thinking of that was bad enough, and what if the old crone's fingers should tremble ever so slightly at just the wrong moment? Her victim could end up permanently short a few dozen I.Q. points. "Thanks for warning us, Boss."

"Just so you understand the stakes here. I'm damn well not letting Ranma go without a fight," Nabiki replied bitterly. "He's too useful, too profitable — heck, he's the only thing standing between Akane and the next random kidnapper. I may not be able to go up against the Amazons directly, but I'm absolutely not going to let them just waltz away with everything they ever wanted."

"You know you can count on us," Junko said, putting as much loyalty into the words as she could muster. "It's not like we have to fight her directly, right? It's really all about Ranma and manipulating him. That's something you've got plenty of experience at."

"Thanks, Junko." Nabiki heaved a sigh, which coincided almost exactly with the buzzing of the warning bell. "Okay, ladies, I think we're done for now. Might as well head back in to class."

The teacher hadn't showed up yet by the time Nabiki made it to her desk. The room was filled with the muted buzz of students enjoying their last free moments to talk. Nabiki closed her eyes and tried to let that background noise distract her. Unfortunately, it simply was not enough to distance her from the darkness of her thoughts.

Trying a different tack, she deliberately cast her mind back to the one question she'd left unanswered, Manami's query as to why she'd handled the matter of Ranma's and Akane's engagement as she did. It was a bit of her best work, Nabiki had always thought. She'd let it slip out almost without asking any recompense at all, an act that was surely seen as out-of-character by many of her fellow students. She'd had good reason to do what she did, though. Even that far back, Nabiki had sensed that this newcomer, this Ranma Saotome, was going to be a red-hot commodity, a source of immense possibilities. She'd needed to demonstrate to Furinkan that she and she alone had the inside scoop on him, that he was as much hers to exploit as was Akane. As she'd expected, the freebie had more than paid for itself.

Nor was that the only reason that she'd spilled the beans so quickly about Ranma's engagement to her sister, a secret that she'd known he wanted kept. It had been a message to him, an implicit communication of the way things were going to be, the first deceptively solid strand in the web she'd woven. When she wanted him to jump through hoops, by all the kami Ranma Saotome did it. In the months and year since then she'd used the boy for her own amusement and the sustaining of her family's fragile finances; without a shred of remorse she'd exploited him for enough yen to cover the expenses caused by both him and his father. Ranma grumbled at times, but he always did as he was told in the end. And getting things off on the right foot had been a huge part of that.

There was yet another side to her decision to take the approach she had. Back then she had still been undecided on the matter of one Tatewaki Kuno. He was rich and handsome, after all, and of the right mindset that if she once gained his trust, she could thereafter get him to do anything she wanted. Not to mention the times his… unique worldview had given her a good sardonic laugh. These were assets, of course, but there were also serious disadvantages to a relationship with the Blue Thunder. Over time, Nabiki had finally decided that those cons outweighed the pros too significantly for her to bother with Kuno-baby, but back when Ranma had first arrived, the decision was nowhere near settled yet. And so she had tested just how serious Tatewaki's attachment was to Akane, by cheerfully destroying the secret little sister had so wanted kept. Served Akane right, too, for refusing Nabiki's offer to hold silent for the low, low price of ten thousand yen. Akane hadn't taken the request seriously at all, but after that day she knew better.

As she'd hoped, the memories of her well-played triumph did indeed improve her mood. The middle Tendo had enjoyed a minute of much-needed calmness when the door opened and Tatewaki finally made his entrance.

Although Nabiki had watched Ranma end the fight without ever once landing a directly-damaging blow against the Blue Thunder, she had been mildly curious as to whether he would survive the landing unscathed. Apparently all the times he'd flown via Akane's or Ranma-chan's punts had stood him in good stead today; Kuno strode into the classroom with no sign of pain or difficulty at all. In fact, there was even a smile on his face.

"Morning, Kuno-baby," she said as he sat down beside her, taking a bit of satisfaction as her pet name for him caused his expression to dim.

"It is indeed morning, a morn on which the gods and their chosen favored smile," Kuno replied, his own grin widening again midway through the sentence. "Did you witness my triumph, Nabiki Tendo?"

She blinked. "Your triumph? This morning? Are you feeling okay, Kuno-baby?"

"Never better. This morning I proved that the strength of Saotome's dark magics, though still fierce, finally begins to wane. He could not defeat me, and was forced to cast me through the upper air, in desperation removing himself from my august presence. And it didn't hurt at all, not even the landing!" Kuno reared back in his chair and let loose with a peal of laughter. "Not that it ever does hurt," he added, regaining his composure.

"Riiiight," Nabiki drawled. 'Okay, where's the sensei? I think I've had well over my recommended daily allowance of Kuno.'

Unfortunately, the kendoist in question wasn't yet surfeited of contact with her. Not, at least, while a certain question remained unanswered. "Pray tell, Nabiki Tendo. Do you have more photos of the lovely Akane and the fierce pigtailed girl today?" Surely she must; on such a glorious morning as this, everything was bound to go his way.

"I'm afraid not," Nabiki replied. She had a reasonably large batch of unsold photos of the late, extremely-lamented Ranma-chan back home, but since they were the last ones (at least unless Junko's idea proved workable), they would have to be hoarded, parceled out carefully and slowly for maximum profit. Tatewaki was just going to have to wait a few days, until his passions should rise to the point when he'd be eager to pay whatever price she asked. In the interest of putting him off for now, and laying what might prove to be necessary groundwork for the future, she asked, "I was wondering, Kuno-baby. Don't you ever feel guilty about chasing them both at the same time? It's not like you can give all of yourself to Akane and all of yourself to the pigtailed girl too. Won't you just end up disappointing them both?"

"Bah. What does a mercenary wench such as yourself know of it? Love is a many-splendored thing. Truly the immortal bard spoke wisely when he said, 'From women's eyes this doctrine I derive: They sparkle still the right Promethean fire; They are the books, the arts, the academes, That show, contain, and nourish all the world.' " Kuno heaved a sigh, staring away into the distance with sparkling eyes. Then, returning his attention to the present, he continued, "He said 'women's', Nabiki Tendo, not 'woman's'."

Nabiki snorted, remembering another, perhaps more appropriate line from that play. 'He draweth out the thread of his verbosity finer than the staple of his argument.'

"Hmm-hmmmm-hmm-hmmm-hm…" Shampoo hummed absently to herself as she zipped along the fence, the treads of her bike tires balanced securely despite the scant centimeters of purchase available. Before her, four empty delivery boxes nestled snugly between the handlebars. For an instant, Shampoo glanced down at them, favoring the containers with a strange inscrutable look. Then, her eyes snapping up and focusing once more on the terrain ahead of her, the Amazon leaned forward and began pumping harder at the pedals.

She was coming to the end of the long straight stretch of fence; a little ways down the road it angled upward, as the lane itself rose in an arc over the Nerima canal. Shampoo's increased speed as she hit the impromptu ramp sent her flying, riding her bicycle ever higher until she touched down in a perfect two-point landing on the rooftop of someone's house. She poured on the speed once more as she landed, zooming across the roof and soaring high into the air again at its far edge, Amazon muscle and skill and will somehow substituting for an actual ramp. This time she wasn't aiming to land on a higher level than before, which meant she could spare enough attention to look around below her at the height of her arc.

The streets beneath her weren't exactly choked with passersby, but there were enough pedestrians to make her current path far more efficient than riding at ground level would have been. Even as Shampoo peered down at them, she saw many of them staring back at her. A few did so in shock and awe, gaping at the realization that the stories they'd heard and dismissed as urban legends were true after all. By far the larger majority, however, were those who had been around long enough to see previous examples of Chinese Amazon superiority. These, nearly all males, stared up at her in pure unbridled admiration. Their opinions were gratifying, the lavender-haired girl thought as she touched down on another roof, even though she'd rather dismantle and eat her own bike than give herself to such weaklings.

Still, she would have traded every single one of those admiring stares for sight of her beloved Airen. Stupid delivery orders, coming in at just the time the schools let out. She'd actually been heading toward the door of the Cat Café, preparing to leave and intercept Ranma on his way home, when the Matriarch had ordered her to handle this task. Shampoo heaved a sigh of irritation at the memory, absentmindedly leaning to the side and twisting in such a way as to perform an eye-popping ninety-degree turn from her current position in midair. The move prompted more than a few gasps of awe from her street-level audience, along with the near-universal delusion that she'd performed that impossible feat just to show off for them.

'Why Great-Grandmother do this anyway?' Shampoo wondered, mindful of the Matriarch's admonition to think in Japanese no matter how much easier Mandarin was. 'Stupid restaurant is only excuse for be here. Why she make Shampoo work so hard there so many time? Be better to use time to train, learn new things, show Ranma who is best match for him.' Not to mention that it would be satisfying indeed to spar with him on an equal basis. Shampoo knew she wasn't there yet, and how was she ever to close the gap without serious training from someone better? But whenever she broached the subject with Cologne, she never seemed to get the response she wanted. If she asked about specific techniques, the Matriarch would just say something to the effect of "All in good time," and let the subject drop; if she made a more general request, she ended up getting saddled with extra chores. Sometimes she wondered what kind of effect it would have if she were to go to Genma Saotome and ask him for a little high-level training.

Each time that thought crossed her mind, she inevitably came to the same conclusion. 'Shampoo brave, but not foolhardy.' If it was just a question of enduring the kind of training that had made her husband the warrior he was, she probably would have gone for it. Not that she thought Genma could be trusted so easily; the sneaky old panda would probably love to hit her with stuff he said was training, but which were really just attempts to get her to drop out of the race for his son. Having Ranma right there with her would have been enough to prevent such a cheap trick, though, or at least to keep it from going too far. No, the true fatal flaw to this plan would be Cologne's likely reaction to her youngest descendent abandoning her tutelage for that of Genma 'Cat Fist' Saotome.

Shampoo was shaken out of these grim musings by a sudden shudder running through her bike, coupled with a loss of velocity and a drastically altered weight distribution. Only an instant later, she realized the source of the sensations. Against all odds and common sense, some fool had just dropped out of the sky and landed behind her on the vehicle! What's more, he had done it at the very height of her own jump, at the moment when she was most vulnerable! Wasting no further time, Shampoo kicked free of the bike, turning in midair and bringing out one bonbori in a defensive posture, a snarl on her face for whoever would dare attack her this way.

Then, as the sight of Ranma's bemused face registered, she slapped her forehead with her free hand. 'Stupid, not supposed to be jumpy as a cat no more.'

As if still suffering the lingering aftereffects of her old curse, the Amazon deftly twisted once again in midair, touching down lightly and easily on a rooftop. Ranma wasn't so lucky. Shampoo wasn't certain, but she thought it looked like her bike itself grabbed his pants leg and wove it into the chain at the moment of truth. In any case, as he tried to make his own jump to safety, the bike came along for the ride, its own inertia and imbalance spoiling his attempt completely. The Amazon winced as boy, bicycle, and boxes crashed down to the rooftop one building away from her.

Returning her weapon to storage, she dashed over to Ranma's side. "Ranma? Is you okay?"

"Aw, jeez," Ranma muttered, shaking his head and not really paying attention to her yet, "ain't that just my luck. I thought for sure this way I wouldn't get creamed by the stupid bike."

"Humph!" Shampoo retorted, satisfied now from her initial quick survey that neither he nor the machine were seriously hurt. "Is nobody fault but Ranma's own. Is bad idea to sneak up on womans of Amazon tribe."

"Yeah, yeah, whatever." Ranma got to his feet, shot the vehicle one last disparaging glance, then brushed himself off. "So how's it going, Shampoo?"

"Is good day, Airen," she said, smiling now. "You come looking for Shampoo, yes?" Her tone made it clear even to Ranma that those two statements were not in any way unrelated.

"Uh, yeah," he answered, modifying what he'd intended to start out with. He'd been planning to tell her just how right she'd been, that he really did like his new form as much as she had indicated he would. On the other hand, now that Shampoo was actually there before him, looking into his eyes and smiling softly, that felt like it might be a little too dangerous.

Before Ranma could decide how to proceed, Shampoo took the decision out of his hands. "Ranma try out new body already, yes? Got to see what is like to fly?"

"Yeah," Ranma confirmed, and despite himself his voice softened and his own smile appeared at the memories. "I understand what you meant, about it being hard to describe. Trying to tell Akane an' everybody back home," he wasn't paying nearly enough attention to see Shampoo's smile dim, "man, I know I didn't do justice to it. Flying so high, so free, getting up above and away from everything…"

"Am glad you like gift Shampoo go through so much to get for you," the Amazon replied, with what she honestly thought was a reasonable measure of subtlety. "Is piece of not-so-good news Shampoo have to tell you too, though."

"What's that?" Ranma asked warily.

"Is Mousse. Like Shampoo tell you yesterday, we no let him know what we go to China for. Not want him get in way, for sure not want him keep Shampoo from give this gift to you. But is not like secret could keep forever. Sooner or later he bound to find out. So Shampoo go ahead and tell him last night."

"Let me get this straight. You showed him your new curse, an' told him that I'd accepted the same thing to get rid of my girl side." Shampoo nodded, and Ranma sighed. "Knowing Mousse, that means one of two things. And since you said this was 'not-so-good' news, I take it he didn't run out of the restaurant on a straight line for the Spring of Drowned Falcon himself."

She nodded again. "Yes, Ranma. Expect new mix of temper tantrum and murder attempt disguise as challenge sometime soon."

"Great. Stupid duck-boy," Ranma grumbled. "Hey, you think you could do me a favor, Shampoo? I know you got no chance at all of keeping him from attacking, but could ya get him to agree not to do it when I'm at home? Akane's been all weird and quiet ever since I told her about this, like she's trying to get used to it or something, and gettin' her house torn up is only gonna–" *splash* "~Hey!~"

The transformed martial artist struggled free of his shirt, poking his head out just in time to see Shampoo dump the remainder of her flask of water on herself. Apparently the Amazon knew some trick he didn't, for despite the fact that she'd been dressed similarly to him in a pants-and-shirt combo, she didn't get tangled at all, slipping instead with effortless ease out of the neck of her blouse.

He'd been this close to Shampoo the previous evening when both were in their cursed forms, and the size difference had been noticeable then, but now, with her swelling in obvious anger, it seemed to Ranma's panicked eyes as if she'd grown to nearly double his height. 'Oh boy. What the heck did I say? Why's she this mad?' he spared one instant to wonder. Then he pushed the thoughts aside for later. Under normal circumstances, fighting Shampoo wouldn't be any big deal, but with the kind of advantages she'd just given herself, it was a mistake he had no intention of making. Ranma took a deep breath, and began subtly tensing his muscles, waiting for Shampoo to drive forward and commit herself to an attack. 'Saotome Anything Goes Final Attack Revised For New Cursed Form…'

The final two words 'Fly Away!' never came. Shampoo hadn't been thinking of either the mass disparity or her greater familiarity with falcon form; she'd had a very different reason for dousing the both of them. And now, taking a deep breath, she unleashed the full fury of her true, intended attack.

"What is that ungodly screeching?" Toshi wondered aloud.

"It sounds like it's coming from outside," his girlfriend Ayemi replied. She moved to the window and peered out. "Oh, wow! Come look!"

Dutifully he did so, despite feeling a very real preference to put more distance and a pair of earplugs between himself and the harsh, raucous sound. He moved up beside Ayemi and stared in the direction she indicated. "A couple of birds fighting?" he said. Then, watching for another few seconds, he amended, "Nah, that big one's just yelling at the little one. Heh. Looks like a henpecked husband or something."

"Those are peregrine falcons!" Ayemi declared. "I did a report on them last year. They're called 'peregrine' for the Latin for 'traveler', because in one year they can migrate all the way from up in the Northern Hemisphere to down in the Southern and back. They nearly went extinct because of pesticides, and they're just now starting to make a comeback after some serious work by wildlife preservation agents." She frowned, trying to recall the research she'd done. "But I didn't think they were native to Japan."

"Well, they wouldn't be in a city anyway, would they? Maybe that's somebody's pets."

"Shows how much you know," Ayemi retorted, giving her boyfriend a good old-fashioned red-eye. "They nest in cliffs and their main diet is other birds. With all the tall buildings and sparrows and pigeons and whatever, cities are a great place for them to live. It happens a lot in America. But I sure didn't think we'd ever see any migrate here."

"Maybe those agents did a really, really good job," he offered. "So, is the big one trying to scare the smaller one away from its territory or something?"

"I don't think that's how it works," she said dubiously. "I'm pretty sure that's a male and a female. The girls are the big, strong ones in the falcon world. I don't have a clue why she's carrying on like that."

"~…And if I want to hear you talk about stupid spoiled delusional abusive brat Akane Tendo, I'll damn well ASK about her!!~" Shampoo finally wound to a halt, closed her eyes, took several long deep breaths, and refocused her attention on Ranma. The five-minute tirade of blistering ire, unhindered by the usual language barrier, had clearly had an effect. He was standing there in a pose that could only be described as 'shell-shocked', his beak agape, his eyes wide, his feathers ruffled, and his entire body trembling ever so slightly. Shampoo let out one last "~HUMPH!~" for good measure, then fluttered off to her bike. Retrieving the thermos which Cologne had modified to be operable by her talons was a little difficult, given the tangled position in which Ranma had left her noble steed, and because of this it took several minutes to work the item free and return to human form.

When she had finished, Ranma was still standing where she'd left him. As far as she could tell he hadn't moved at all, though the change in perspective made it difficult to be certain. He continued unmoving as Shampoo slipped back into her clothing. The shock of his own transformation, as Shampoo took pity on him and dumped a measure of her remaining hot water over his head, at least induced him to blink. A few moments passed, as Ranma's gaze slowly refocused.

"Jeez, Shampoo, don't hold back or nothin'," he eventually grumbled. That had been one harrowing experience. "Tell me how you really feel."

"Okay." She was smiling now, a smirk that would have raised the hackles on his back if he weren't still recovering from his shock. The Amazon waited a few more appreciative moments before obeying her beloved husband. "Shampoo really feel happy to see you like this."

The wind chose that exact moment to pick up, gusting rather strongly across Ranma's nude form. With a squawk of renewed surprise, embarrassment, and rue, he made yet another desperate dive for his clothes. "Very funny," he gritted out. "I'm gettin' the feeling you didn't tell me all the reasons you wanted to offer me this wonderful new curse."

"Would Ranma believe Shampoo not even think about these benefit until see with own eyes?"

"Not a chance in the world," he said with a snort.

She stuck her tongue out at him. "Is still true."

"Yeah, whatever."

Silence stretched between them for nearly a moment as Shampoo nervously chewed her lower lip. "Ranma?" she essayed at last. "You not have second thought, right? Shampoo not mean to…" Her voice trailed off as she found herself unable to put words to the rest of her thoughts.

"What?" Ranma asked, blinking in surprise as the last of his blush faded. "Nah, don't be stupid. That ain't what I meant at all." Spotting a chance to get a little of his own back, Ranma added, "Just remember, you only got yourself to blame if Ucchan decides to grab these same kinda opportunities you've been having so much fun with."

'She try it, she find out what happen if fight Shampoo when I have not leave weapons at home,' Shampoo brooded. Aloud, she said, "If Ranma not able to take little bit of teasing, that just mean Shampoo need to work on building up resistance. Is principle of training, yes?"

"Ah, that's okay, I'm good," Ranma said, taking a half step back and making warding motions. "Okay, time to change the subject. You've still got plenty of the Falcon water left, right?" Last night his mind had obviously been on other things than just how much of the cask's contents Shampoo had been pouring over him, but he was pretty confident of this conclusion nonetheless. And with something that had occurred to him during school today, he was quite glad of that.

"Is so," Shampoo replied, puzzled at where he was going with this. "Why Ranma ask?"

"It's about somebody who could really use a dose for himself," Ranma replied. "Specifically, Mr. Pork Chop Express. I know he might not show up before the water runs out of real power, but if he does, I'd like to offer it to him too."

"To stupid pig-boy Ryoga?" Shampoo asked. "For sure falcon curse is million time better than pig body. But why Ranma care?"

The pigtailed boy squirmed. He'd known that Shampoo already knew about P-chan's secret identity — he was pretty confident that only Akane and Kasumi were still ignorant — but she apparently didn't know just how Ryoga had acquired his curse. He really hadn't wanted to get into these details. "Um… I kinda… knocked him into the spring."

"Shampoo know that," the Amazon replied with a shrug. "Get whole story from Great-Grandmother, after she get it from him during Bakusai Tenketsu training."

"Huh? Well, if you know that, then why'd you ask me why I wanted to fix things up for him?!"

"Will answer question with question. How it any different from stupid Mousse? Both them go to Jusenkyo of own free will. You not drag them there."

"Yeah, but that don't change the fact that I did knock Ryoga into the spring on my own." 'Well, Pop was involved too, but it ain't like he'd ever take any of the responsibility. I'm not gonna be like that.' "That's why."

"Ranma, is something you need to know about Jusenkyo," Shampoo replied. "Anyone what not have protection and get too close will get curse. Pools draw you in, is sneaky magic but very powerful. People in service to Jusenkyo not affected, but for anyone else only ones what very strong, like Great-Grandmother or old pervert Happosai, not get caught. If Ryoga close enough to Jusenkyo to get knock in pool, he was certain to get curse. Only thing is maybe you fault is just what curse he get."

"Huh." Ranma sat in silence, considering the implications for awhile. "Well, that does kinda take some guilt off me, I guess. Thanks for telling me. But it don't change the fact that Ryoga still turns into a cute, helpless little bundle of bacon. Ain't nobody else with a curse anywhere near that bad. That's reason enough to splash him." He paused, subjecting Shampoo to a close look. She was looking away and biting her lip. "Is something wrong?"

"Airen…" she replied slowly, "Shampoo bring that water back for you. Was gift for you because Shampoo had know just how great it was to fly. Want to share that with you, something special for just we two." She stared at him with intensity great enough to cause Ranma to gulp. "Spatula girl have child-time memories with you. Stupid Akane have even more stuff, she get to see you all the time, most everybody is telling you to go to her, and she one what care the least for you! Shampoo just wanted to share one special thing, just us two."

She fell silent then, staring forward at him. Her Airen seemed lost for words. Shampoo could see him visibly struggling to process this, to figure out some way to respond. As for herself, she felt a curious glimmer of relief. Sometimes Shampoo wondered just how effective her hugs and caresses really were in getting through to him. They were certainly enjoyable for her, but her efforts never seemed to bear any long-term fruit. But this time, she could see that her words had really had an impact.

More than a minute passed before Ranma could find a response. "O-okay," he said, in a voice that sounded none too sure of itself. "I guess I understand. But this is important too, Shampoo. Gettin' rid of Ryoga's pig body means a lot to me, personally, because that jerk is using my honor against me with it."

Shampoo blinked. "Huh? What you mean?"

"Well… this… you know he goes around pretendin' to be Akane's pet pig. Right? And that dumb chick is too dense to catch on, even though I've busted my butt giving her clues," Ranma growled. "I can't tell her the truth. I can't tell anybody who don't already know, because lettin' people know about a weakness like that goes against everything I've ever believed in. And bacon boy uses that to crawl into Akane's bed and hide behind her and get me in even more trouble… It needs to stop!" he snarled. "You wanna share something special with me, Shampoo? Then fix that for me! You give me a gift like that, an' I'll be grateful for the rest of my life!"

For a long silent moment the Amazon just looked at him, pain clearly evident in her eyes. "Shampoo?" he asked at last, his earlier forcefulness deserting him. "I don't wanna sound ungrateful, it's just that–"

She cut him off with an upraised hand. "That not problem, Airen," she said quietly. "Shampoo understand now. I just sorry I not see before." She knew how important and how prickly her beloved's sense of duty was — witness the abuse he put up with from Akane, simply because his stupid father had involved his honor there. No, Shampoo didn't need anyone to tell her how much Ranma would suffer for what he thought was right, but that didn't mean she particularly liked it when she had to witness some of that suffering. How long had stupid honorless Ryoga tormented her Airen like this? Far too long, and no longer. "Shampoo happy to do this for you."

The noonday sun shone down on Nerima, bathing its streets in a bright glow. It was Saturday, and the half-day of class had ended not thirty minutes ago. By now most students, released from another day's imprisonment, had scattered to the four corners of the ward, heading either for home or some other relaxing destination.

Ranma Saotome wasn't quite as relaxed as he would have liked. Once again he focused his gaze on his companion — or rather, his companion's back. Akane walked nearly ten paces ahead of him, with no indication that she even knew he was there. She'd been quiet like this ever since the night before last, when he revealed his new curse to her. It could be worse, of course; she could be actively getting in his face and yelling at him for daring to do something like this with Shampoo. Still, even though things could have been worse, Ranma was beginning to get tired of the silent treatment.

He sped up, closing most of the gap between the two of them. "Hey, Akane," he said.

"What?" she asked, not turning or slowing her pace.

"Uh…" he hesitated, caught a little off-guard by this reaction. He'd expected more silence, or failing that at least a bit of anger in her response. But if such an emotion lurked in his short-haired fiancée, he'd heard no evidence of it in the monosyllable. "Ah… Where d'you think Miss Hinako got that huge jar of Pocky?"

Akane just shrugged, and kept walking.

"I mean, that's gotta be the best way of dealing with her I've ever seen. It'd be nice to know where I could get one of those things for the next time she starts off on a delinquent hunt."

Akane didn't bother shrugging this time.

"So how do you think you did on that science test?" he persisted.


"Wish I could say the same," Ranma grumbled, although the irritation in his voice was due more to his companion's recalcitrance than his performance on the quiz. "I didn't get nearly as much studying done these past couple of days as I prob'ly should've. Of course, there was plenty of other new stuff to keep me busy…"

Despite his hopes, this provoked exactly as much of a reaction as all the rest. Akane's pace neither faltered nor quickened. He'd fallen several steps behind her again, which of course prevented him from gauging her expression, but he could see the back of her neck. It wasn't flushed or tense at all. Every indication that he could see said the same thing: she just didn't care.

Ranma glared at her. Ignore him, would she? "So did ya hear about Sayuri gettin' together with the Ghost Cat?"

This, at least, had an effect. Akane stumbled, whirled, and demanded, "W-What?!"

"Oh, so you're interested in one friend at least. That's good to know," he retorted. "Yeah, Akane, it happened day before yesterday. I was walkin' around thinking about what Shampoo had offered me, and I was in just the right place at the right time for Yuka to find me and get me to come save Sayuri's butt. That stupid Miao Moulin had snagged her with a magic necklace that made her get all lovey-dovey with him. If I hadn't'a been there, she'd have been the first girl in our class to get herself hitched."

"That… that's… I… you did, Ranma?" Akane stammered.

'Success!' "Yep. It had to have been pretty stressful for her and Yuka. That's probably why they've been absent these last coupla days."

Akane bit her lower lip in sudden dismay. She hadn't even noticed those absences.

"Just goes to show how weird this place really is," Ranma continued. "How fast things can change and how ya have to be ready to deal with it."

"Is that right," Akane said neutrally.

"Yep." He had been meaning to use that as a turning point for the conversation, bringing it from the past to the present, but at that point something occurred to Ranma. Something that really needed to be said first. "Listen, Akane, even though I kicked his furry butt and smashed the stupid necklace, he might still decide to try it again. The thing was made out of a bunch of those little bells, but it wasn't nearly as many as we saw he had with him that one time. He might be able to make another five necklaces for all I know. So if you see him with one, don't let him get near you with it, and if he dumps it on someone else get it off her and smash it. Otherwise…" He paused to fight off a fit of the shudders.

"Yeah, 'otherwise' wouldn't be good," the youngest Tendo agreed.

"Of course not! Who in their right mind would want to marry a cat? Brrrrrr!" Ranma said.

He would've done better to have left that last sentence unspoken, or at least reworded it. Akane's expression, which had largely opened up during the course of the conversation, slammed closed once more. Her mouth thinned into a short, curt line. She turned, and began walking away once more.

She'd taken all of three steps when the chain whirled around her, tightened, and jerked her airborne.

The shock was enough to break her mood once again. Akane let out a startled, choking scream as she flew through the air, helpless to control or even stabilize her flight. She turned two midair somersaults before landing on a rooftop. The youngest Tendo barely managed to keep her footing, staggering after the landing but not falling. An impressive feat considering the chain had bound both arms quite firmly to her sides.

"AKANE!" Ranma was unable to leap to her aid; he was too busy retreating from the sudden hail of chains, blades, and explosive eggs. The volley forced him back nearly half a block before it came to an end. He stared up in the direction from which the missiles had come, finding his attacker without any difficulty or surprise.

Mousse stood on a rooftop two buildings away from Akane's landing point, perched in the perfect position to be dramatically backlit by the setting sun. However, as the current hour was only a little past noon, all that potential drama was utterly wasted. He was garbed in a much heavier robe than usual, and his face and hair were covered by an oversized wrap-around Oni mask. Still, there was no doubt as to the figure's true identity. If nothing else, the glare he was currently leveling at a fire hydrant five steps away from Ranma made that perfectly clear.

"What do you think you're doing to her, Mousse?!" Ranma snarled. He didn't care how mad the half-blind boy was over Shampoo's actions and preference, Mousse had no right to involve an innocent bystander! "This ain't about Akane, it's about me and Shampoo! You leave her out of this!!"

"What do you think I just did, you… you homewrecker! HYAAAH!" Mousse tensed, then exploded forward and upward into a spectacular leap. At the height of his jump, he flung his arms open wide, causing dozens of small lines to shoot out of his sleeves. Ranma tensed, but didn't move yet; none of the attacks had been angled toward him, and none of them were even close enough to be a miss due to Mousse's nearsightedness. What was his opponent up to?

The answer came all too quickly. As Mousse began to drop, he brought his arms back to his chest in a quick, forceful sweep. The lines that still protruded from his sleeves were tugged as well… as were the other lines, previously concealed atop the surrounding buildings, to which they'd attached themselves. Still falling through the air, Mousse somehow found the purchase to spin in five complete circles, which drew the lines above him spiraling tight into one complete, coherent web.

Ranma spared an instant to study the trap. Mousse had now released the strands that were in his sleeves, leaving them to dangle uselessly from the web overhead. Said web was formed of a lattice of lines of uneven sizes; the majority were thin, made of metal, and were very tightly-packed, having only about enough space between them for a cricket to pass. They were interspersed with occasional rubber lines of about ten times the thickness of the metal threads. Wherever those thicker lines intersected with each other they widened into large bulbous bulges. It almost looked like two webs combined into one, and as far as Ranma could see its bottom edge lay flush everywhere against rooftops, side walls, and the street itself. At least for the moment, he was trapped in here with his opponent. On the other hand, a single Moko Takabisha would likely take care of that little annoyance, so Ranma wasn't too worried yet.

"Now do you see, Saotome?" Mousse gloated as he touched down on the street about half a block away. "I was making sure Akane Tendo didn't get caught in our crossfire. Unlike some people, I have enough honor not to put an innocent in danger!"

"Unlike who, exactly?" Ranma drawled, taking the steps necessary to bring him next to the fire hydrant. "Your evil twin?!" A quick axe kick knocked one plug off the hydrant, sending its water shooting forth to smash into Mousse.

The half-blind boy let out a shrill yelp as the water blasted him. The unusual thickness of his robes showed its utility here, as Mousse was able to roll out of the stream without having gotten wet enough to change. "Damn you, Ranma! Take this!!" With that Mousse hurled one last line into the net above him, one with a hook on the end which snagged the topmost rubber pocket. Mousse ripped back on the cord, dragging the piece of his trap out of its alignment.

With no further ado, every remaining bulbous protrusion released its payload of cold water.

From her position two roofs away, Akane gasped as the plan suddenly became clear. Ranma's earlier failed gambit with the hydrant had proved Mousse's current outfit was protective enough to keep his own Jusenkyo curse from activating. But Ranma had no such protection, and the net had no gap even a tenth of the size needed for Ranma's falcon form to slip out. "Oh no! RAN— huh?!"

"Ha ha ha! Vengeance is mine, Saoto— what the hell?!" Mousse's jaw dropped in utter disbelief and dismay. The last of the water in the trap was exhausted and the misty spray had cleared enough to make one thing brutally obvious: Ranma's form was completely drenched, and just as completely unchanged.

"Heh. Shampoo warned me yesterday to be expecting something like this," Ranma said with a smirk. "So I took advantage of the waterproof soap she gave me. You know, just in case some dishonorable jerk tried to use my curse against me."

"Th-that's cheating!" Mousse screamed.

"Bite me, bird-brain." Deciding enough time had been wasted, Ranma took the offensive, dashing forward and landing a punishing series of blows. Mousse had intended to shed his cumbersome waterproof outer robes once his foe was transformed into a less dangerous form, but the opportunity to do so was well and truly past now. With that handicapping the half-blind boy, Ranma finished the fight quickly and easily.

He gave his downed foe one last disparaging glance, then borrowed a sword Mousse hadn't managed to draw all the way. With that he cut his way out of the web and jumped up to the rooftop to free Akane from her bonds.

The chains were there. She wasn't.

Ranma stood blinking for awhile. It wasn't inconceivable that she could manage to free herself, and this roof was only one story; she could usually handle a jump down from that height. He knew for a fact that she wasn't comfortable with it, though. Why hadn't she waited for him to come up and help her down?

"AKANE? HEY, AKANE!" he yelled as loud as he could. No response. Ranma bounced to another, higher rooftop. From that vantage point he spotted Akane, several blocks away and walking steadily toward home.

He stared at the sight for a good solid minute. At last, his own expression hardening, Ranma turned away and headed for a particular abandoned bathhouse. Judging from the occasion when Ryoga had gotten his hands on a bar of waterproof soap, it might take awhile to wash off his protection, but it shouldn't be too difficult. And he'd already skipped flying the previous night, since he'd wanted to be ready for Mousse's inevitable attack. This seemed like a good chance to make up for lost time.

'Stupid Akane. If she can't even wait a couple minutes for me, let's try a few hours.'

By the time the front door was fully closed behind her, Nabiki sensed trouble brewing. She was nowhere near as attuned to the household wa as was Kasumi, but when the harmony was this badly damaged, even she could tell. The middle Tendo paused in the entryway, allowing herself one moment of unbridled frustration. This was no time for things to be sinking down into worse depths, Nabiki thought to herself. She was still trying to come to terms with the changes that had already taken place, to recover her balance and find the calm clarity she needed to get things moving her way again. And now, unless she seriously missed her guess, something new and unpleasant had happened, causing Akane to radiate displeasure strongly enough to infuse the whole house.

Whatever it was, Nabiki knew a certain sister's pigtailed fiancé had to be at the heart of it. 'Maybe I ought to splash him and keep him in a birdcage for the next few days,' she thought grimly. That would undoubtedly shake things up, though it would certainly be a risky prospect. If nothing else it would certainly damage Ranma's willingness to cooperate in the future, at least in the short term. 'On the other hand, doing something like that would also mess up everyone else's plans. If it turns out that whatever has Akane's panties in a twist was Shampoo working out the next item on her agenda, maybe it would be worth it to screw the rest of her timing up.'

Despite all this, Nabiki wasn't really considering the idea all that seriously. The thought was more valuable as stress relief than as an actual prospective plan. After spending a few more seconds envisioning Ranma the Unstoppable Force of Nature cooped up in a cage until she deigned to release him, Nabiki felt ready to head farther into the house and find out just what was causing her 'bad development' radar to go crazy.

As she approached the living room, the sound of the television reached her ears. 'That'll be Akane, then. Kasumi almost never takes time for something like that. Not that I suppose little sister is paying all that much attention to the tube.' She paused again on the threshold, taking a deep breath, then headed into the room. Sure enough, Akane was there, kneeling on a cushion and ostensibly watching the TV. Sure enough, her eyes weren't focused on the screen, and her closed, wounded, defensive posture made it brutally clear how she was really feeling.

With no further hesitation, Nabiki switched off the set and plopped down next to Akane. "So… Do you want to talk about it?" she asked without preamble.

Evidently at least a little preamble would have served her better. The powering down of the television and the query from her sister were enough to start her back toward focusing on the present, but several seconds passed before her gaze settled on Nabiki. "Did you say something, big sister?" Akane asked tentatively.

Nabiki heard the hidden tremor at the back of her sister's words and gave another mental frown. This really wasn't good. No matter what Ranma had done, Akane ought to be responding with at least a little temper. While a response like that was painful for Ranma, it wasn't anything too troublesome compared to how he'd grown up. Thanks to the job 'Uncle Saotome' had done raising his only child, Akane's anger and violence were nowhere near as repugnant to him as they'd be to a normal guy. In fact, on some level Ranma had to have an easier time dealing with the fights than he did with Shampoo's and Ukyo's more open, honest affection.

As long as Ranma didn't start catching up on the lessons he'd missed earlier in life, Nabiki knew the frequent fights between him and Akane weren't that likely to have a lasting negative impact. But she also knew that under the right circumstances Ranma could learn lessons dangerously swiftly and thoroughly. And the most common such circumstance was when things changed dramatically enough to force him to change as well.

This was no time for Akane to walk away from her old, successful pattern. No matter what had happened to make little sister this cold and withdrawn, Nabiki needed to nudge her back to a response Ranma would know how to handle.

But before she could do that, she needed information. "Hey, sis, you look a little down. Did Ranma pull something stupid again today?"

Akane shook her head, the motion ending with her face turned well away from her sister.

Nabiki declined to take the hint. "Really? He didn't? That's kind of hard to believe. I've never seen you this depressed when it wasn't his fault."

"Of course it's his fault," Akane's voice rasped. "But it's not like I can blame him, right? I mean, who wouldn't have said yes? Why shouldn't he take the waterproof soap when Shampoo offered it to him? She probably didn't even ask anything in return that he didn't already want to give…"

"Waterproof soap?!" Nabiki forced herself back to a state of reasonable composure. "I thought that stuff didn't really work."

Akane shrugged. "Worked well enough… Well enough for him to just laugh it off when Mousse attacked and splashed him… told him Sh-Shampoo had warned him to expect this, and gave him w-what he needed to be prepared…"

"And this happened on the way home from school?" Nabiki guessed, her mind shifting into overdrive. "Where's Ranma now?"

"Who knows… probably off with Shampoo, showing his appreciation…" Akane screwed her eyes shut, then opened them and got to her feet. "I'm going to my room."

'She can say all that, and not be angry? Just miserable? Oh, Akane,' Nabiki thought. 'Damn you, Saotome. I won't let this happen.' Standing as well, she said, "Sis, wait. Please don't go."

"N-Nabiki, I really don't want to t-talk any, anymore…"

"Really?" Nabiki asked, her voice sharpening and hardening. "You're just going to walk away and cry? Let her stroll off with everything she ever wanted? I'm ashamed of you, Akane. I never thought I'd see the day when my own sister rolled over and played dead for someone like Shampoo!"

"H-hey!" Despite the sudden hostility in Akane's reply, it was music to Nabiki's ears. That was the Akane she knew, the one who would bull ahead and fight for what she wanted, even if she couldn't admit to herself or anyone that she wanted it. Far better to trigger Akane's temper and let that wash away the despair that had been there earlier.

"What?" Nabiki replied in a tone that was just condescending enough. "Didn't like hearing the truth? Did I touch a nerve, little sister? Sorry for pointing out that you're doing just what Shampoo wants. You wouldn't give her a better present if you KO'd Ranma, wrapped him up and tied a bow on him, and left him in Shampoo's bed at the Cat Cafe."

"Nabiki, I sure didn't want to hear that!" Akane yelled, her fists balling at her sides.

"No? Why not? You're doing an excellent job of pushing things right straight toward something like that. You couldn't do it any more efficiently if Shampoo had got you to work with her for real." Nabiki arched one eyebrow. "Hey, is that it? Did she promise to teach you how to cook ramen and wear a skimpy little dress without getting embarrassed? Seems like a small price to sell Ranma out for, especially to someone like her. Or maybe you've forgotten Shampoo pushing those love pills into his mouth, or tying him to her with the Red Thread of Fate, or feeding him those mind-control mushrooms, or—"

"Enough! Okay?!" Akane shouted, loud enough to be heard three houses down. "It's not like that, Nabiki!"

"It's not? Does that mean you're not going to just lie back and watch her snare him for herself?" Nabiki asked. The question was really more rhetorical than anything else. Akane's anger had completely displaced her earlier apathy and pain. It was clear to the middle Tendo that her sibling had recovered her fighting spirit.

"Darn right I'm not!" Akane confirmed. "As soon as that jerk gets back here, he's going to get what's coming to him!"

"Good to hear. Just a word of advice, though, little sister. By all means punish him for making such an inconsiderate idiot of himself, but smacking him around isn't the answer. You need to remind him of what I just told you, refresh his memory as to just how far Shampoo can be trusted. Really get it through his thick skull how big of an idiot he'd have to be to give up his freedom and dignity for a bar of soap and a curse."

Akane nodded sharply. "Don't worry, Nabiki. When I get through with him, he'll know better than to go flying back to Shampoo."

The light of the setting sun glowed crimson on his feathers as Ranma swooped down for a landing. 'A few hours' had stretched much longer than he'd planned. It hadn't taken long at all to wash away the remaining protection of the soap, and ever since then he'd been enjoying himself blazing trails across the sky. He'd ridden the winds to incredible heights, rising until it seemed he could take in all of Japan with one glance. He'd stretched himself to speeds nearly unimaginable, screaming across the sky like a missile, puncturing clouds and scaring seagulls with equal enjoyment. He'd put his new body through all sorts of tests, diving deeply into things he'd only been able to fleetingly touch during his maiden flight. About the only thing he'd thought of but hadn't done was catch some unlucky smaller bird and make up for his missed lunch.

When that idea had started to seem dangerously attractive, Ranma knew it was time to head for home and the dinner table. His clothes were still waiting in the bathhouse, but he decided to leave them there for the night. Kasumi had set up a hot water dispenser in the dojo the previous day, but he hadn't been able to test it out yet in his cursed form. Keeping himself protected from Mousse's inevitable impending attack had been far higher on the list of priorities.

Yielding to the desire for one last bit of aerial whimsy, he turned a triple barrel roll as he entered Tendo airspace, coming out of the last roll just in time to swoop down through the doorway of the dojo. He could almost feel the hot water cascading over him, could nearly taste the food waiting for him. 'Good thing Pop ain't around to try and steal any from me tonight. The old man might lose a hand.'

With a snap and rustle of wind over feathers, he zipped through the door and angled his flight toward the far side of the dojo, where the hot water dispenser was situated in one corner and a spare change of clothing was stashed under the floorboards. His attention was quickly diverted from that goal, however. 'Uh-oh. Akane's here. Ain't it just my luck that she's practicing with those dumbbells instead of smashing bricks.' He'd have heard the latter and known to go elsewhere to change back.

"Ranma!" She'd seen him almost as quickly as he'd spotted her. Akane halted with one twenty-pound weight still held aloft, and favored him with a stormy scowl. At least, that was the impression Ranma got in the second he had for observation. His flight took him past her too quickly for any long, in-depth study.

Banking right, he swerved into a turn that brought him around in line for the door. "Oh, no you don't!" came the cry from behind him, followed by the whir of a weightier object's passage through the air. Akane's barbell sped faster than the transformed martial artist, zipping forward and crashing into its desired target. Ranma just had time for an instant of dismay as he saw the missile blast past him and smack against the door, knocking it closed. And then, with an audible *thud*, the Saotome heir smacked headlong into the unyielding door. He tumbled to the ground with visions of tomboys circling around his skull. Behind him he heard an unmistakably satisfied "Humph!" from Akane.

Groaning and shaking his head, Ranma recovered enough to pick himself up off the ground and turn indignantly to face her. "~What'd ya do that for?!~" he squawked, not really caring that Akane couldn't possibly understand him.

Perhaps she cared, though. Or maybe she just wanted to look him in the eye without straining her neck. In any case, Akane's reply to Ranma's indignant query was the very thing for which he'd come here. Though under the circumstances, the hot water was more of a curse than a blessing.

Ranma's falcon form blurred, shifted, and rose into something rather more impressive. He groaned, still fighting a bit of disorientation from his collision, made worse by the unexpected massive change in perspective.

Meanwhile, the modified kettle slipped from Akane's nerveless fingers. Her jaw dropped, and her face flushed bright red.

As luck would have it, the youngest Tendo was the first to recover the power of motion. "Y-you PERVERT!!" Ranma's head collided with the door again, this time knocked backward by the force of Akane's slap.

"Hey, give it a rest, would ya?!" he demanded a few seconds later, once the ringing in his ears had subsided to tolerable levels. Akane was facing directly away from him now, her back ramrod straight and her hands twitching as if ready to curl around one of the practice swords. Every exposed inch of her skin was flushed a bright red, whether from anger or embarrassment Ranma couldn't tell. "None of this is my fault!"

"Will you put some clothes on already?!" Akane screeched.

"You're kinda staring right at the place where my change of clothes is stored," he retorted. Akane stomped away to the other side of the dojo, keeping her eyes directed at the wall ahead of her and clearing the way for Ranma to retrieve the garments. He hurried over, pulled up the floorboards, grabbed his clothes, and scrambled into them as quickly as he ever had. "Okay, I'm gonna go wash up for dinner now."

"Oh, no you're not!" Akane declared, whirling around to face him. "You're not going anywhere until we talk about this!"

"Talk about what?" Ranma grumbled. "About you blaming me for stuff that's not my fault, and throwin' a hissy fit just because it was Shampoo who did all this for me?"

"About how stupid you're being!" she shot back. "Honestly, Ranma, how many times does something like this have to happen before you start to learn better?"

"Huh?" Ranma blinked at her, trying and failing to make sense of that. "How many times? Something like what?" It wasn't like anybody had previously offered him a gift as good as the one he'd so recently received. What kind of lesson did Akane think he needed lo learn, exactly?

Akane gritted her teeth. "How can you be such a big idiot," she said, not making it sound like a question at all. "I'm talking about Shampoo. What's it going to take to get the lesson through to you?"

"Would you care to explain that?" he retorted. "I already said how cool it is to be able to fly. Taking her up on her offer was the right thing to do. Just what are you trying to get at, Akane?"

"Explain?! What I'm trying to do is remind you that she can't be trusted any farther than Nabiki could throw her! Every time she comes up with one of these tricks you leap right into it, make a fool out of yourself and cause a lot of trouble for other people. You wind up getting burned, and for what? It always turns out to be just another stupid attempt to chain you down as Shampoo's tame little pet. Is that what you want, Ranma? Hey, maybe that nice new curse was just one of the gifts she's got for you. Bet there's a bright, shiny birdcage with your name on it waiting at the Cat Café!"

"Yeah, whatever. Guess that's why she gave me three bars of waterproof soap to go along with the Falcon water. Jeez, Akane, you don't have any confidence in me at all, do you?"

"Confidence? In you?! Oh, I'm confident all right, Ranma. Confident that you'll keep on making the same stupid mistakes you always do, and letting Shampoo, and Ukyo, and Kodachi, and any other girl who wants to walk all over you! You jerk, how do you think I feel when something like this happens?!" Akane spat. "Don't you even care a little about how much you're always embarrassing me and making me look bad? Shampoo goes all the way back to Jusenkyo and all she does is bring back a new curse for you, to match her new one. If it'd been me I'd have gotten water that would have cured you, and Mr. Saotome, and Mousse too! But that stupid selfish bimbo didn't even consider that for a minute, did she? No, she just decided to jerk your leash again, and you go along with it with a smile on your face!"

"Hey, that is not how it is!" Ranma growled back. "My leash? Where the heck do you think you get off talking like that? I'm the one who made this decision, Akane, and I don't appreciate you raggin' on me like I didn't have the right to do what I did! Jeez, if there's anyone in my life who tries to control me an' tell me what to do, it ain't Shampoo — it's you."

"H-how dare you say that!" she demanded. "I've rescued you from Shampoo over and over, and you just keep on going back to her!" She blinked tears of anger out of her eyes. "I ought to just let you take the fall this time, you jerk. Didn't have the right to do what you did?! No, you damn well didn't!"

She saw him frown more deeply and open his mouth to respond, and quickly overrode his budding protest. "You didn't even come back and discuss it with any of us, Ranma! You've lived in our house for more than a year now, whatever happens to you affects all the rest of us too, and you don't even care! You just think of yourself, do whatever you want, and don't care who else gets embarrassed or hurt because of it! If you were half as honorable as you like to pretend, you'd have told Shampoo just where she could stick that stupid water!"

Akane ran out of words then. She took a couple of deep, heaving breaths, then focused her gaze on Ranma in as fierce a stare as she could manage.

Silence stretched between the two of them for a timeless moment, as Ranma took his own deep breaths. And then, with a snarl, he shattered it.

"Now you listen to me and you listen good." The words were spoken, not shouted, but they carried enough force to literally knock Akane back a step. "I put up with the usual crap you dump on me without raising any kind of fuss. I let you call me a pervert and I don't say nothing about it anymore cause I've finally figured out you're too clueless to ever see things as they really are." Ranma matched her pace, advancing as she took two more steps backward, stopping again when she halted her own retreat. "Every time I tell you something that's the least little bit hard to believe, you call me a liar, and later on when you finally get it thrown in your face that I was tellin' the truth after all, I'm lucky to get more than a couple of quick words for apology. And I can handle that too. You blame me for what Shampoo or Ukyo or Kodachi or Ryoga or Mousse or anybody does, and you keep on doing it time after time, but it ain't like you're the only one who does that. No big deal there either."

Akane flinched as he took one more deliberate step toward her, but declined to give any more ground. Ranma continued speaking, his words and his expression carrying more anger and force than the youngest Tendo had ever seen him direct toward her. "But let me make one thing absolutely crystal clear, Akane. You don't ever try and take my honor away from me or make out like I don't have any. I've put my life on the line for you I don't know how many times. For Shampoo I had to face down the goddamn Ghost Cat on his home turf, and that was even worse! But I did it, faced up to something a hell of a lot worse than anything you've ever had to deal with. I did all those things for duty an' for honor.

"I fight people who wouldn't think twice about crippling or killing me if they ever managed to beat me. And what do I do? Knock all the fight out of them and that's it. Nothing more, nothing worse, no sinking down to Mousse's or Kuno's level even though it means they're gonna keep coming back time and time again with new honorless backstabbing tricks. Putting up with that is the price I pay for really being an honorable martial artist, when so many people around me are just pretending to be."

Very little at this point could have galvanized Akane to return to the attack, but that last sentence managed the feat. How dare he talk about her that way! How dare that jerk look down on her like everyone else did, just because she never got the training opportunities they had! Honor? If that was what Ranma Saotome thought honor was, then he was long overdue for a wake-up call. And Akane Tendo was just the one to give it to him!

Embracing the anger and using it to push away some of the uncertainty his retort had created in her, Akane yelled back, "Don't make me laugh, Ranma! I know you've got an ego bigger than Mt. Fuji, but if you're going to lie just do it to yourself. Don't make me sit through it too!"

"Dammit, Akane, listen to me—"

"No, you listen! You're no better than anyone else around here, and you're a lot worse than some of them! Where were you when I was trying to fight off a dojo destroyer? On a date with Shampoo… for a curse cure that didn't even work! Whenever she shows up with some new trick, you fall all over her trying to get your hands on it. I suppose in your world that's honorable?!"

"I have never promised anybody anything that I didn't deliver," Ranma grated out, glaring at her all the more fiercely. It was clear to Akane that these new accusations, rather than leaving him properly chastised, were only making him angrier. Even now he was swelling as he drew in more breath, ready to continue his counterattack. An attack she knew in her bones she wouldn't be able to withstand.

Realizing that she only had one chance left to win this argument, Akane unleashed the heaviest weapon in her artillery. "That's a lie and you know it, Ranma! You broke the most important promise you ever made, and you keep on breaking it every time Mrs. Saotome comes by. I'd give anything to be able to be with my mother again, but you—"

"That is it! You shut the hell up right now and listen to me!" Ranma speared her with the most vicious glare Akane had ever seen. "If you weren't a girl I'd beat the crap out of you for that, Akane. I don't know what's wrong with you, and right now I don't really care.

"You still don't get it, do you? You don't have a clue what really tipped the scales and made me decide to take Shampoo up on her offer. It was Mom, Akane. She's been waiting most of my life for me to come back as a son she could be proud of. How the HELL was she gonna be anything but crushed when little miss curvy redhead shows up on the doorstep and confesses just who she really is? Well?! You got anything to say to that?!"

Ranma paused for a bare handful of instants, perhaps to give her one chance to respond, perhaps just to shore up the walls of his temper. "But that ain't true any more," he continued in tones of quiet steel. "Thanks to Shampoo, I finally got a real chance to put that behind me. Mom might be a little weirded out by me turning into a bird, but it's nowhere near as bad as being a girl. As soon as Pop gets back and can tell me her address, my mother is finally gonna get to meet the son she's been waiting for.

"That was all I needed to see to make the decision. I sure as hell didn't need to come back here begging for advice, tell you Shampoo had offered me something so great and listen to you go nuts. You don't tell me what to do, Akane. Not now, not ever!"

Akane shivered, her eyes falling to the floor as she found herself unable to meet his burning, accusatory stare. "I… I didn't know…"

"That's a load of bull!" Ranma shouted, only made angrier by her statement. "I flat-out told you! Said this the same night I came back with my new curse. I explained every bit of what it meant to me and why I did it. And the only thing you apparently cared enough to listen to was that it was something I got from Shampoo!

"I've put up with your jealousy for a long time. Heck, when Shampoo first got here and I told you she was out to kill me, you just thought it was good for a laugh. But as soon as she started gettin' all affectionate, you went through the damn roof! You may not want to hear this, Akane, but sometimes you're no better than Kodachi — heck, sometimes you're even worse!!"

She'd held out as long as she could, clinging first to righteous anger, then to defiance, then at last to pride. But Ranma's final words shattered the last of that, and with a quavering cry of misery, Akane sank to her knees and began to weep.

The sight cut through Ranma's own anger more quickly than almost anything else could have. A quick surge of panic replaced his previous ire. 'Oh, crap. Now what do I do?!' Everything he'd said had been fully justified; furthermore, it was stuff his fiancée really needed to hear. But this wasn't what he'd wanted! He'd had no intention of reducing her to such a state of misery! All Ranma had desired was for Akane to once, just once, really listen to him, see things as they truly were, and give him a real apology.

"I'm sorry!" she choked out. "I'm so, so sorry, Ranma…"

"H-hey… okay, that, that's all I wanted to hear… Please, stop crying!" he implored, waving his arms ineffectively. "I didn't mean to be that hard on ya!"

After a few minutes that seemed like an eternity to the panicking pigtailed boy, Akane's sniffles eased and her tears quit flowing. "You okay?" he asked tentatively. Akane nodded, but didn't speak. Ranma let out a long, deep sigh. "Okay. I'm sorry too. I didn't mean to make you so upset," he explained. "I just needed to get through to you how things really are. This curse is the best thing anyone's done for me in I don't know how long. I know it bugs you that it was from Shampoo, but you need to grow up and get over it. Okay?"

"Okay," Akane said quietly. "You're right, Ranma. It's your life and I don't have any right to tell you how to live it."

"Ah… right," Ranma agreed, feeling none too certain about the tone in which she'd spoken that reply. Still, the words were true enough. That was the important thing, wasn't it? "Just so you know, I'm not stupid, Akane. I know part of why Shampoo did this was cause she wanted to get closer to me. It ain't like she's gonna catch me by surprise or nothing. So no more temper tantrums about any of this, okay?"

"Okay," Akane said quietly. "I'm sorry for how mean I've been about this."

"Hey, it ain't like you're the only person who's made mistakes," Ranma replied. "It's just… you gotta start learning from them. Heck, so do I. Let's both work on that, all right?"

"Okay," Akane said quietly. "Tell me if I start to get out of line again."

"Uh, yeah. Sure." Ranma gave her a long dubious look. The conversation was starting to feel a little too weird. "Come on, let's head back to the house. It's gotta be about time for dinner."

"Okay," Akane said quietly.

Every time the sound of whirring bike tires reached Mousse's sensitive ears, his heart rate kicked into a higher tempo. His hands clenched, sweat stood out on his brow, and he slid forward to the edge of his seat. Each time the bicycle passed fruitlessly by the Cat Café, he slumped back down and mumbled a curse on the general popularity of the vehicles. In a perfect world, the sound of an approaching bike should equate to the approach of Shampoo herself.

But then again, in a perfect world he wouldn't be sitting here waiting for her. Perhaps they would be out enjoying the night together, seeing the sights of the town. Or perhaps they'd be spending a quiet evening at home. He wasn't sure where home would be, in a perfect world, except that it would be with Shampoo and far away from Ranma Saotome.

Mousse closed his eyes and focused on that thought, drawing strength from the familiar vision. Someday it would be his. Someday he'd find a way to free Shampoo from the deplorable ties that chained her to that pigtailed vermin, he'd prove his worth to one and all so emphatically that Shampoo would finally be free to express the feelings she'd had deep in her heart all along. Someday, may it come quickly, he would be the one sharing everything with her, instead of just being there when he was allowed to be. Someday when she asked the old ghoul for a day off, it would be so that she could spend time with him.

At least Cologne had decided not to bother opening the restaurant today. Mousse supposed he should be thankful for small favors. However, he just was not in a thankful sort of mood — not after seeing his carefully-laid ambush fail so badly, and especially not after having Shampoo vanish in the morning and spend all the day away. He'd only seen her for a minute, just managing to overhear the old mummy grant Shampoo's request for a day of freedom from her usual chores. Whatever reason she'd given for wanting this, he hadn't heard it, and when he asked her she just brushed him off and continued toward the door. The bitterest irony of all was that he could have gone with her had it not been for the trap he'd had to finish setting up, the trap that was foiled by aid Shampoo herself had given to his foe.

"Oh, Shampoo. Why do you torture me like this?" he sighed. "Haven't I done enough to prove my love to you? Can't you fight your way free of that damn Casanova and come to someone who really deserves you? I'll love you with all my heart, forever. I would have given anything for you to decide to share a curse with me. I'd have given all that and more if the reason you gave Saotome this new curse was to make him weaker than he used to be. But then, why did you have to give him the soap too?! Oh, Shampoo, tell me why!"

With a sickening thud, Cologne's staff connected with the back of Mousse's head, and suddenly the pain in his heart wasn't quite so distracting. "Will you please quit your whining, Mr. Part-time?" the Matriarch snapped. "Leave the soliloquies to the playwrights. Shampoo is on her way back now. She'll be here in less than ten minutes. And I swear to you if you get on one more of my nerves between now and then, I'll send you on a shopping trip to the other side of Tokyo, and I'll give you a lift over the first ten miles of it with my staff!"

Mousse rubbed his head and kept silent, though he did fire off a withering glare in what he thought was Cologne's direction. Satisfied that she wouldn't have to endure any more melodramatic self-pity for the moment, the Matriarch headed back upstairs. Mousse spared a couple of moments' thought to wonder what she was up to up there. Probably working out the next phase of the latest scheme to force Shampoo and Ranma together, that would be his guess.

Cologne settled herself back onto the cushion, picked up her copy of Lust in the Dust, and quickly lost herself once more in the tale of passion, betrayal, and general hanky-panky.

'Far be it from me to interrupt her from something so important,' Mousse thought bitterly. 'By all means, Elder, let me just sit quietly while you come up with all sorts of new ways to make Shampoo's and my life miserable.'

With an effort, he pushed those grim thoughts aside. At least Shampoo should be back before too much longer. He wondered whether the old mummy had really sensed her great-granddaughter's approach even from so far away, or if he'd just missed hearing this morning when Shampoo and Cologne agreed on a time for the love of his life to return. Frankly, Mousse hoped it was the latter. He knew he stood no real chance against an Elder in a fight, let alone the Matriarch herself, but it would be nice to think that if worst came to worst he and Shampoo could at least run and hide together.

This segued into another familiar string of thoughts, which were enough to keep him reasonably happy until the front door swung open.

"Great-Grandmother, I home!" Shampoo strode into the Cat Café with a big smile on her face, practically radiating satisfaction and happiness. Even Mousse managed to pick up on a little of it.

"Sh-Shampoo!" He jerked to his feet, causing his chair to wobble precariously as he left it behind. "It's been a really long day without you. I'm glad to see you back now."

"Hmm. Whatever," Shampoo replied, continuing into the room and past him without even slowing down. "Bye-bye, Mousse."

"Wait! Don't go yet. I wanted to talk to you."

"Got no time." Shampoo passed into the kitchen, and then into the alley behind the building where she did most of her formal practicing, Mousse still trailing along behind her. "Shampoo not get to train any yet today. Need to do that now."

"So you didn't do any training while you had the day off? What did you do?" Mousse asked, still trying to strike up a conversation.

"Spent almost all day flying. Not that stupid Mousse should care," the Amazon retorted snippily. She paused at the natural moment of fullest extension in her first warm-up stretch, and gave Mousse a long dubious look. "You not know first thing about what is really like."

"Huh? Wh-what's that supposed to mean? I fly all the time!" Mousse protested.

"Just flap, flap from here to there, nothing else. Mosquito does same! Mousse have duck body all this time and never stop to see how much joy could be there for him." Shampoo's current warm-up exercise had her facing well away from her unwanted suitor. She waited until the routine brought her back within eyesight of him before remarking, "Ranma learn better right away."

"Don't talk to me about that scumbag!" Mousse half-demanded, half-pled. "Why'd you have to do this anyway, Shampoo? Why did you give him the same curse as yours? And why, why did you have to give him waterproof soap too?!"

"Hmmm, let Shampoo think." Having just finished one set of stretches, Shampoo paused before beginning the next, one finger on her chin in a particularly cute pose of contemplation. "Could maybe be because Shampoo love him, want to be with him, want to share good thing with him? And not want stupid no-honor fighters to take advantage of new curse? Mm-hm, that was it."

"I'd give anything for you to do something like that for me," Mousse declared bitterly. "I bet that honorless bastard hasn't even thanked you."

"Wrong. Mousse lose bet. Now please pay stakes by go away and let Shampoo train."

"Maybe I will go," he said. "And maybe you'll miss me when I'm gone."

Shampoo snorted as fiercely as she ever had in her life. "Go inside to own room, or go back to Jusenkyo to copycat curse, or go home to village and never come back. Shampoo not miss you either way." And with that she resolutely turned her eyes away and began her first kata.

Several long moments passed before he did as she'd asked, but Mousse finally scraped together the resolution to turn and trudge back into the restaurant. He paused in the main area for what seemed to him quite a long time, before beginning to move again. It hurt, hearing Shampoo talk like that, but at least this time her real meaning was clearer than usual. He paused once more at the top of the steps, staring up at the blur that was the trapdoor leading to his meager attic loft. "I don't want to leave you for so long, Shampoo," he whispered. "But if that's what you want, I'll… I'll do it. I'll prove myself to you. I'll go back to Jusenkyo and get my own curse to match yours." He grimaced. "And maybe I'll pick up another dose of Nyannichuan for Saotome while I'm at it."

"I don't think so."

At the sound of the unexpected voice behind him, Mousse whirled. "What?!" He brought one hand up to his glasses, adjusting them as he peered forward, trying to locate whoever had spoken.

"Oh, for the love of all humanity! I should think you ought to know my voice by now!" Cologne snapped, glaring up at him. She held her staff in one hand rather than balancing herself atop it, and was currently suppressing with difficulty the desire to reintroduce Mousse to its business end.

The half-blind boy grimaced. "Oh, it's you. Listen, ol— er, Honored Elder, I need to leave for awhile. I'll return as quickly as I can, but it will take a couple of weeks."

"I heard you quite clearly the first time." Cologne's eyes narrowed as she stared at him. "I'm afraid I'm going to have to make a few edits to your travel plan, Mousse."

"What? What are you talking about?"

"By all means return to Jusenkyo and do something about your curse," Cologne replied. "Unlike my great-granddaughter, there's never been anything stopping you from going back there and curing yourself. You knew I would have allowed you to seek out a cure even though you'd broken the law by going to Jusenkyo in the first place. You should have taken advantage of my goodwill a long time ago."

Mousse held back a frown. 'Isn't that just like the old mummy, thinking she's the be-all and end-all. Like her permission mattered to me when leaving would've given that Casanova free reign to move in on my Shampoo. Does she really not realize I'm doing this because it's what Shampoo wants?' "Um… what's your point?"

Cologne heaved a weary sigh, then said, "Never mind. I'm not going to waste my time or yours by trying to explain my reasons."

'Like that's new,' Mousse grumbled to himself, absently rubbing his arms against a sudden chill. He frowned, as the ominous feeling suddenly got quite a bit stronger. 'Where's this coming from?'

"Mousse." It was a single word, a single syllable — but it was spoken with import and strength enough to send the boy in question to his knees in automatic obedience. Cologne spared an instant to regard the gratifying response, so much better than Mousse usually managed, then stared directly into his eyes. "I am speaking to you now as the Matriarch of the Chinese Amazons. I've lost count of how many things I've let slide from you here in Japan, but you had better understand that what I say now is set in stone.

"Return to Jusenkyo. Cure your curse. Do not come back here with your own falcon form, or any other alternate body. Return as one untouched by Jusenkyo, or do not come back at all. And discard any idea you had of bringing back cursed water to use on Ranma, or on anyone."

A long, grim silence followed this pronouncement, broken at last by Mousse's harsh whisper. "Very well, Honored Elder."

Cologne turned and shuffled several paces away, then stopped and fired one last salvo over her shoulder. It might not do any ultimate good, but at least this tactic cost her nothing. "Understand me, boy. If you truly were worth Shampoo's consideration, I wouldn't have had to tell you any of this. You'd have seen as much and more for yourself a long time ago."

A gentle breeze blew through the open window, stirring the curtains and carrying the clean scent of morning into the room. Dust motes danced in the sunlight. It was quiet outside, atypically so to a family that had grown accustomed to their houseguests' frenetic morning routine. Every so often, as she had for the last three days, Akane caught herself straining to hear the sounds of a practice that would seem as much grudge match as sparring routine.

The stillness continued, broken only by far more normal sounds. As if bored by the calm, Akane's attention shifted from hearing to sight. There was a patch of sunlight sharing the bed with her, she noted distantly. When had that happened? Had she really sat here so long? The last time she'd looked, the light's leading edge had still been on the floor several inches away from her bed. Had all that time really passed, and nothing to show for it?

The youngest Tendo pulled her thoughts away from these distractions. She needed to find some sort of outlet for the deeper, darker concerns that were weighing her down. Letting her mind wander around the room, around the issue, wasn't helping at all. With a scowl of determination, she looked down once more on the blank, empty pages of her diary, lying open before her on her lap.

The sunlight crept across another inch of her comforter. The pages remained empty.

"Why can't I find the right words?" Akane whispered at last, the pen she'd held so long slipping unnoticed through her fingers. "I can't just keep this bottled up in me. I have to get it out!" She paused, noticed the pen lying on the comforter beside her, grabbed it again and brought it back to the stubborn, empty page. Again she froze, wanting to express her feelings, needing to get at least some of this out of her, but completely unable to transfer her thoughts to the paper.

At last Akane let both diary and pen drop. "I wish P-chan was here. It's easier to talk about some stuff than write it down." And it was better to have someone to talk to, rather than just speaking to the air or herself. Nevertheless, her pet wasn't here, and her diary had proved completely uncooperative, and beggars couldn't be choosers. Akane took a deep breath, closed her eyes, and began speaking softly.

"What was it Ranma said last night? Oh, yeah. 'I've put my life on the line for you I don't know how many times.' Like I didn't already know that. I still have dreams about some of them. Kirin…" Akane's eyes, already closed, clenched tighter. She shuddered. "I remember, Ranma. I remember when you got to the top of that tower, how you were roughed up, bruised, even a little bloody. But it didn't stop you, you just charged on in and fought him, harder and fiercer than ever. I remember how you used the Hiryu Shoten Ha to win. And it wasn't even that you defeated him, it was just that when the tornado came Kirin only cared about saving the scroll, and you rescued me."

Akane drew her knees up to her chest and curled her arms around them. "Would you think I was terrible if I told you I was disappointed? Once it was all over, you just gave him that usual 'all is forgiven' stuff. Maybe that was the right thing to do. That was what I told myself, and what I pretty much believed. Right then it wasn't a big deal anyway, I was just happy about being safe again. But part of me would really have liked to see you make him pay a little more than that, you know? He pulled me away from my family, my home, my life, was going to marry me just because of that stupid scroll. He couldn't have cared less about what I thought or wanted. And it, it would have been nice if that had made you a little angrier. If… seeing me there, like that, had hurt you a little more.

"And then there was Toma." She gave a mirthless laugh. "That one was even better. This time it's a twelve-year-old who's dragging me away to marry me. The leader of a whole island full of guys who think 'courtship' is finding the girl you want and taking her for yourself. And once again you come in and rescue me at the last minute." It had been an even closer call that time, with Ranma's strength, skill, and resolve the only things that had kept her from her own watery sex-change. "You even had to blow up the island's sacred water to save me. If it weren't for that, if it hadn't all come down to that fight between you and him, everything would be different. You would have been cured for real, and your father and Mousse too."

Akane drew a deep, shuddering breath. This approach seemed to be working. She was getting nearer to the heart of the matter now, circling in, coming ever closer with each new memory, allowing herself to work up to the deepest level of pain. It was hard, so hard, but now that she'd started she knew there was no way she could stop.

"Kirin… Toma… Both of them, just like Kuno, all those guys at school. Maybe it wasn't any big deal to you, Ranma, but it mattered to me. When has anyone ever tried to take control of your life away from you like that?" Akane asked bitterly. "Cologne was the only one who even came close, and she deliberately gave you a way to fight your way out. Nobody's ever been that considerate of me. They just reach out to take what they want. Even poor Ryoga, back when Shampoo first got her hands on that stupid soap, although that wasn't his fault." It had taken her a while, but eventually Akane had realized what must really have happened back then. Ryoga's actions of the time couldn't have been from his own choice. That just wasn't the kind of guy he was, and anyway he only saw her as a friend. It had to have been the direct result of Shampoo messing with his mind while trying to get her stupid soap back. For a moment Akane glowered in anger over the Amazon's heartless tactics, but then forced herself to push those thoughts away.

"All I could do was run from him. All I could do was wait for you. All I could do was sit there… like a coward… like a doll…"

She heaved a long series of breaths, clinging to another set of memories. Her own body had been stolen from her, and her spirit placed in the shell of a cursed hot springs doll. When it was all over, Akane had clung to Ranma and cried from relief, letting out a confession of how scared she'd been. An outside observer, contrasting that scene to the aftermath of Ranma's battle with Kirin, would certainly conclude that the affair of the cursed doll had been far harder on one Akane Tendo. "Maybe it was, in a way. But… but even though I can remember how scared I was, and how close I came to being killed or stuck forever out of my body, it's still a better memory than the other one.

"Do you know why, Ranma?" Akane's eyes snapped open. She stared out the window, glaring up into the sky as if imagining her wayward fiancé circling there in cursed form. "It was because I stood up for myself and fought. I didn't wait for you to come in like a hurricane and make everything all right again. Without me, you'd have been lost for sure! It was because I fought and tried so hard there that we both came out of it okay!

"I wish I could say the same thing more often." Akane's head fell, and her shoulders drooped. "I wish I was different. It… It’s weird, you know? I can fight, I can stand up for myself and for what I believe in, I take the lead all the time at school with my classmates and my friends. I always hated the idea that girls should be submissive just because they were girls. But… but… " Here she paused, fighting away a rising urge to cry. "When did it happen? Was it always really a lie? Why can't I hold on to what I believe when the going gets really tough? I tried just a little, each time. Kirin, Toma, whatever… I put up a bit of fight in the very beginning, and then I lost all heart. I let them dress me up… just like a doll, and, and bring me to Kirin… I… I would… if you hadn't gotten there, I would have even let them g-go ahead and m-marry me to him…"

The tears were flowing now, but Akane's control had not yet failed her utterly. "All, all I could do was wait… and hope… count on you to f-fight through everyone and save me. Why?" she whispered plaintively. "Why couldn't I do more? Why couldn't I stand up for myself? It, it's not right… What's wrong with me?

"And you." Akane blinked the tears out of her eyes, feeling the renewed slow burn of an emotion with which she was much more comfortable. "How can I be so stupid anyway? Before Shampoo tricked Ryoga, before we crashed on Toma's island, before that bastard Kirin came swooping down out of the clouds, there was someone else. Someone who decided to do what he wanted to do. Who ignored all my protests. Who didn't care how scared I was when some guy I'd never seen before grabbed me, slung me under his arm, and dashed away from my home. I didn't know you, thanks to Shampoo I couldn't remember you, all I knew was here was someone strong enough to throw me around without any trouble. You were even jumping two stories into the air with me under one arm like it was nothing! I couldn't fight back, I couldn't do anything, all I could find the courage to do was hang there and beg you to stop it!

"Do you know how much I hate that memory?!" Akane snarled, forgetting for the moment about keeping her voice down. "Do you know how hard I tried to bury it? To forget I was living with someone who could just decide to make me do something if he really felt like it?! I can't believe how stupid I was, how stupid I've been. How could I have ever trusted you to be the one to protect me from stuff like that?! Kirin, Toma… So you got me away from them. So what?! What the hell good is it if you're gonna treat me the same way?! What good is it… what good are you… what good… am I…"

Silence fell, and stretched for a long time. When Akane eventually broke it, she could only find enough strength to whisper. "That first time was a long time ago, Ranma, and anyway I wasn't in my right mind then. Afterwards I let myself think it was Shampoo's fault at least as much as yours. But last night showed me just how stupid I was being. It proved I couldn't trust you at all not to do that, not to force me to go along with whatever you wanted if you wanted it bad enough. I guess I should have known from the beginning, but I didn't want to think like that… I wanted to believe you'd protect me… wanted there to be someone to save me, even from myself I guess. Admitting that… it hurts even worse than what you did.

"I trusted you to take care of me. I can't be that stupid and careless again. And I can't live like this." Akane's eyes snapped open, and in one fluid motion she rolled out of her bed and to her feet. "Don't you ever dare try to force me into anything again, Ranma. I am nobody's doll — not even yours."

"Good morning, Nabiki," Kasumi said with a cheerful smile. "Did you sleep well?"

"Morning, Sis. Yeah, I did," the middle Tendo answered, following her reply with a satisfied yawn. Sundays were the only day Nabiki could afford to sleep until what she considered a reasonable hour, and were treasured for that. This particular Sunday was even better than most, since with her father, Genma, and Happosai gone she had been able last night to convince Kasumi to serve breakfast at this unusually late hour. Ranma had complained, but after the recent developments Nabiki had considered that just another benefit. "So when do we eat?"

"Well, Ranma has been up for quite awhile now, but Akane hasn't come downstairs yet. Could you go up and see if she's still… oh. Never mind, I hear her now."

"You do?" Nabiki asked, straining her own ears. Her senses still weren't at one hundred percent — they never were before her first sugar fix of the day — but she was just able to make out the sound of Akane's bedroom door opening. Kasumi headed back into the kitchen; meanwhile, the sounds of Akane's approach became more easily recognizable as she moved through the hall and down the stairs. 'Hmm, that sounds more like stomping than stepping. Did something happen already to set off her temper? I certainly wouldn't put it past Ranma to make an idiot of himself at any hour of the day, but didn't Kasumi say she hadn't been out of her room yet?' Nabiki grimaced as a new thought struck her. 'Maybe she looked out her window and saw him flying off with Shampoo.'

"Where's Ranma?" Akane demanded, rounding the corner and catching sight of Nabiki.

'Or maybe not.' "Haven't got a clue, sis. I only just woke all the way up."

"Ranma is out practicing in the dojo," Kasumi replied from inside the kitchen. "Would you please go and get him?"

"Right," Akane said, speaking the word through clenched teeth. Nabiki still wasn't operating on full, but enough of her curiosity was on-line to prompt her to follow Akane out into the yard. The youngest Tendo didn't notice at first, but by the time she'd covered half the distance to her destination her sister's presence registered. "Nabiki, what are you doing?"

"Moi? Just getting a bit of morning exercise, little sister."

"Well, stop it! I need to talk to Ranma about something, and I mean in private!" There was no way in heaven or hell that she was going to say everything she needed to with Nabiki in earshot. Bad enough that Ranma had pushed her so hard last night, hard enough to crush her spirit and her pride, but it would be even worse if someone else found out.

"Okay, fine. I'll just listen to the tape from the bugs in the dojo later on."

That was enough to knock Akane's anger aside for the moment. "W-what?!"

Nabiki raised one eyebrow. "Surely you knew that already. I've got microphones and cameras all over the place. Dojo, yard, house, you name it."


The middle Tendo could no longer maintain her impassive mien. She broke out into laughter. "Oh come on, Akane, you're so gullible sometimes! Of course I'm kidding!" She waved one hand, turned and began walking away, satisfied that she'd given her sister just a little more anger to work out on a certain rebellious resource. 'Hope you like today's little opening volley, Ranma baby, because there's plenty more where that came from.'

"Honestly!" Akane grumped, glaring at her sister's retreating back for a few seconds. She then turned on her heel and took another stomp toward the dojo.

The instant her foot hit the ground, a resounding, booming crash shattered the morning stillness.

Akane blinked, stopped dead in her tracks, stared down at the ground. After a few puzzled seconds, she took another step forward.

A second, louder roar split the air.

The youngest Tendo gulped, looked wildly around as if searching for help, then took a hesitant step backward.

This explosion of sound was the loudest yet.

As Akane began gauging the distance to the roof of the house and trying to screw up the nerve to attempt such a jump, Nabiki charged out to the middle of the yard. "RYOGA!" she screamed at the top of her lungs. "STOP RIGHT THERE!!"

"Huh?" came the reply, muffled a bit but clearly understandable. "Is that… Akane's sister?" The words were followed by the appearance of their speaker, as Ryoga vaulted into the air barely a foot away from the other side of the wall that bordered the Tendo property. It was clear that Nabiki's reaction had only just been in time to prevent him from going through the barrier instead of over it.

As his leap carried him above the obstruction, Ryoga caught sight of Akane. His jump didn't have much lateral motion, since he'd merely been trying to get a better field of view, but he was able to angle forward and touch down just on the other side of the wall. "I can't believe it," he said, eyes wide with amazement. "Can't believe I made it here so quickly."

"Well, hello Mr. P." This was Ranma, who'd just now appeared at the doorway of the dojo. He muttered the words too quietly for anyone to make out exactly what he'd said, and was momentarily surprised when Ryoga stiffened, flushed, and clenched his hands into fists anyway. Then he reminded himself that this was Ryoga, who occasionally seemed to get offended just because Ranma was breathing wrong. It wouldn't be that unusual for the Lost Boy to turn and charge him with a cry of "Ranma, prepare to die!"

Ryoga didn't do that, though, he just stood there in the same posture he'd had before, looking resolutely toward Akane and away from Ranma

"Hello, Ryoga," Akane replied. "We're going to have breakfast in a little while." 'Just as soon as I finish giving Ranma what he's got coming.' She paused, taking a good look at her newly-arrived friend. He certainly seemed to be tightly wound this morning. His eyes were bloodshot, he was breathing heavily, and his hands were clenched strongly enough to whiten the knuckles. 'The poor guy's probably been wandering for days without seeing anybody he knows or having a good home-cooked meal. Stupid Ranma, I could have cooked breakfast this morning if he hadn't been such a rotten jerk last night. Guess I'll just have to do the best I can to make Ryoga feel better.' "Would you like to join us?"

He didn't even seem to notice the question. "Akane, I have something for you!" Setting down his pack, he rooted in it for a moment, then straightened up and tossed a sealed letter over to her.

"For me?" Akane said, catching and looking down at the missive.

"This shtick again, Ryoga?" Ranma asked. "Oh well, at least it got you back here at a good time for once. I need to talk to you about something."

Ryoga ignored this, as did Akane. "Ryoga, this letter is addressed to Ranma," she said. "Did you give me the wrong one?"

"No, Akane. That's a challenge letter. I want you to give it to that honorless bastard for me."

"Hey, Pig-butt, I'm right here— YAAAH!" Ranma was caught by surprise as Ryoga, still without looking at him, wrenched a handful of bandanas off his forehead and sent them smashing toward the pigtailed teen. It was almost harder to evade the random spray than it would have been a focused attack.

"What did he do you now, Ryoga?" Akane asked, her expression a curious mixture of anger and sympathy.

"He… he… Akane, there's something I have to tell you!" Ryoga exclaimed, clenching his eyes shut. "I never thought I'd have to face a moment like this, but… Akane… I, I… " He gulped, struggling for words as tears streamed down his cheeks. "I'm not a whole man!"

"We did not need to hear that this early in the morning," Nabiki drawled. "Out of curiosity though, shouldn't your voice be an octave higher?"

Ryoga ignored the commentary, as he ignored all things — sign posts, directions, compasses — that didn't make any sense. He rummaged in his pack again, pulling out a kettle and a stove. He switched on the latter and set the former on top of it. "It… it's not fair… but I could never keep something like this from you!"

'I don't believe it… I absolutely don't believe it… he's gonna come clean to her about P-chan?! Just when I finally get a chance for him to be cured of the pig? This is nuts even for my life!' Ranma stared, stunned into immobility as Ryoga walked over to the koi pond, scooped up a pailful of water, and walked back to his stove. Only then, jolted by adrenaline at the sight of the disaster that was about to happen, did he unfreeze. "Wait, you idiot! Don't do it!"

As if that had been the signal he was waiting for, Ryoga dumped the water over his head.

Ranma was already moving toward him, even though a part of him knew it was too little, too late. As the muscular, fanged Japanese boy shrunk down into a small black bundle, he came to a resigned stop. 'Ryoga you moron, this is bad timing even for— what the hell?!'

"R-Ryoga?" Akane gasped, taking several tottering steps toward him. "What… how…?"

"Oh my!" Kasumi exclaimed.

"You said it, Sis," Nabiki commented. "Hey, Saotome? If this is contagious, your butt is going to be out on the street faster than your dad can cheat on a diet."

Ranma didn't even hear the remark. He was too busy staring at his transformed rival. 'My mistake. He ain't all black,' Ranma realized. 'There's some dark grey mixed in there too.' He stared at the falcon that had been Ryoga Hibiki, trying to fight a nagging suspicion that Ryoga's cursed form was also larger than his. 'Guess Shampoo found him pretty quick. Maybe that's why I didn't see her at all yesterday.' Given recent events, he'd been expecting to see the Amazon sooner or later. 'So she found Ryoga and he was smart enough to take her up on her offer too. Although…' A worried frown creased Ranma's brow. 'I don't get what the deal is with the attitude. The moron better have thought this through enough to realize Akane's gonna want to know why he'd want to take a Jusenkyo curse. Being able to fly is a plenty good enough reason, but he oughta be acting grateful to me to make it seem real. He better not blow it as soon as Akane manages to get herself together enough to ask him why he did this.'

"Ryoga…" Akane murmured, beginning to walk again. She reached the pile of clothes and knelt down, first sweeping her gaze over the bird still halfway shrouded in his shirt, then staring directly into his eyes. She opened her mouth as if to say something else, then, thinking better of it, reached over and grasped the kettle. Ranma noted with some disgust that Ryoga's transformation back to human caused his clothes to shift right back into their previous positions, leaving him perfectly clothed and perfectly decent. He suspected that even if there had been a wardrobe malfunction, Akane wouldn't have reacted nearly as badly as she did for him.

"Now you know," Ryoga choked out, turning his head away and clenching his eyes shut.

"But… but why? I know you and Ranma are rivals, but… just because he did…? Why would you do something as stupid as this?" Akane asked.

"You don't think it was my choice, do you?!" Ryoga demanded. "Shampoo did it to me! She said that since Ranma now had a curse that reduced his fighting power so much, I had to get one too. Because she wasn't going to let any of his rivals have that kind of advantage over him!"

"Oh… oh my… oh dear…" Kasumi was the only one immediately able to find words, and her reflexive response seemed more to underscore the thunderous silence than break it.

After perhaps fifty heartbeats, Ranma unfroze, at least enough for thought. 'I don't believe it… I damn well do not believe it. He actually found another way.' His mouth twisted into a grimace of bitter anger. 'An even more convincing reason for how he wound up turning into a bird, or at least Akane's sure gonna think so. And all he had to do was lie through his teeth. Guess for someone with a track record like P-chan's, that ain't too hard to do.'

Another dozen heartbeats later, he felt ready for more than just silent thought. "Ryoga…" He began a slow stalk toward the Lost Boy, cracking his knuckles as he went.

He'd covered only a quarter of the distance when Akane's head whipped round. As she made eye contact with him, Ranma's muscles froze again, and the only thought he could manage was 'Oh, crap.'

"Rannnmaaaa…" Akane growled, the word escaping in tones far quieter than her usual outrage, and yet somehow more threatening for all of that. Her battle aura writhed and danced around her, outshining the morning sun as she moved slowly and steadily toward her fiancé.

Later, he would think back to his father's training, and be grateful. The old man had slipped up many times, but at least he'd taught some important lessons very thoroughly and well. And so it was that when Akane was yet several feet away, Ranma, his conscious mind still frozen, whirled by reflex alone and ran for his life.

He stared down to the streets below.

'Stupid Ryoga.'

He looked to the skies above.

'Uncute tomboy.'

Back to the earth.

'This kinda stuff is really getting old.'

It was the heavens' turn now.

'Maybe I did say it was no big deal, how everybody always blames me for everything. But that don't make it all right!'

Ranma looked broodingly down into the crowds moving along the Nerima streets. Still no sign of Ryoga. It was of course a long-shot, but by no means was it impossible to imagine that Ryoga might get lost, wander away from the Tendo homestead, and stumble blindly into his rival's path. The pigtailed teen's mouth curved into a grim smile as he imagined it. Bacon boy here, with no Akane around to go ballistic over Ranma 'bullying the weak', no tomboy for Ryoga to lie to and hide behind. 'At least he didn't try and use his new cursed form to take up where P-chan left off. Probably figured even Akane would see through something like that, what with two other people also having a falcon curse.' Ranma snorted. He was none too certain that Akane should be given that much credit.

'I swear, it's like two steps forward, two steps back with her. Only last night she was admitting she was wrong and giving me a real apology, a better one than I've ever got from her. But this morning, Ryoga shows up and spews his usual 'It's all Ranma's fault!' junk, and she's right in my face ready to go for the kill. And what the heck am I supposed to do about it? Besides beat the crud out of Ryoga, anyway, but as satisfying as that's gonna be it won't solve anything in the long run. Akane's still gonna be thinking he was telling the truth about getting cursed for no good reason, and of course blaming me for it.

'Worst thing is I still can't tell her about P-chan. Yeah, it's not like it would be revealing Ryoga's weakness anymore, but if she found out that secret…' Ranma blanched at the thought, feeling the surge of creeping horror displace some of his anger. 'Yeah, that's it. Just gotta keep things in perspective. Sure, Akane's real mad at me, and the next few days are probably gonna be hell, but it could've been worse.'

He fixed that thought firmly in his mind, holding there and taking a long series of deep breaths. After a minute or so the remnants of his anger at the latest injustice faded down to ignorable levels. He stared down into the streets for several more seconds, scanning the crowds for any hint of Ryoga, then switched his attention once more to the clouds above him. They were still arrayed in what he privately thought of as Nerima Skyscape 22: It Could Start Raining At Any Moment, Or Stay Bone Dry All Day Long. Ranma shook his head wryly, unable to decide whether he really wanted to keep watching for Ryoga, or head to the sky for a few hours. He'd been leaving that decision up to the kami, and so far they seemed undecided as well. Either that or they were pulling his chain.

After another ten minutes passed, Ranma began feeling a bit restless. Sitting here and waiting for Ryoga to wander by so he could safely beat him to a pulp was all well and good, but there was one really big drawback — thanks to Nabiki and her sleeping habits, he hadn't had breakfast yet today. Ranma gave one long last look to the streets below, scanning all the ground he could from his current eight-story vantage point. Still seeing no sign of Ryoga, and hearing his stomach give what was more a snarl than a grumble, he began jumping from rooftop to rooftop, heading toward the nearest concentration of snack stands. There would be several open at this hour whose young male vendors were willing to provide a certain cute redhead with—

Ranma skidded to a stop on a rooftop three stories from street level, blinking in sudden realization. 'Huh. Can't do that anymore, now can I?' The Saotome heir chewed his lower lip in unhappy understanding. 'Dang, I never thought about that. About the only free meal this new curse is gonna get me is if I catch a pigeon or something. Ain't like Pop and I never did that on the road, but at least they were cooked then.' After a few more seconds of thought, and a couple of even louder protests from his stomach, Ranma squared his shoulders and began moving again. He didn't have any money, and without his old curse there wasn't any good way of getting free food from strangers. That left Ucchan's and the Cat Café.

Both had the advantage of superb food at no monetary cost, and although Akane got annoyed whenever he went to either she was already ticked enough to make that a moot point. Each place also had a serious disadvantage, though. At the Cat Café was Mousse, who knew about his new curse and had already proved how willing he was to exploit it, and waterproof protection was currently not available. Ranma knew that as soon as Mousse saw his face (or, more likely, heard Shampoo's welcoming cry of "Airen!"), the cold water and blades would be flying. If he wanted anything like a peaceful meal there, he'd have to either luck out and arrive when Mousse wasn't around — highly unlikely as the restaurant didn't make deliveries this early in the day — or knock the half-blind boy out hard and fast.

None of those problems applied to Ucchan's, but the fact that Ukyo herself was away on a trip was a pretty big drawback.

"What the heck. I could use a good fight anyway," Ranma remarked, adjusting his course toward the Amazon stronghold.

Several minutes and numerous city blocks later, he came within sight of the restaurant. It was a sight he had seen many times before, but this time there was a very unusual addition to the tableau. Ranma stopped and stared, taking in the view.

Shampoo stood in the lane behind the restaurant, out of sight of casual passersby. Ranma suspected this was deliberate, because her current attire was a far cry from her usual knock-'em-dead sexy appearance. In addition to her typical silk pantsuit, the Amazon wore a strange harness of leather straps that twined and twisted over her arms, legs, and torso at strange, asymmetrical angles. Wooden bars, some straight, others hinged in the middle, connected some straps to each other, along with several occurrences of gears and pulleys where others curved past each other. From his current distance, Ranma could also barely make out small wooden pieces fixed at irregular intervals into all the straps.

As he moved closer, he saw the purpose for those bits. There was a large sack next to the Amazon, and she was currently rummaging through this. Pulling out a large number of long, thin pieces of balsa wood shaped roughly like feathers, Shampoo began affixing these to the wooden fixtures in the straps, which Ranma was now close enough to see were slotted clamps.

When Shampoo had finished with this endeavor, she looked even more ridiculous than before. The balsa wood sticking out from her reminded him of a demented cross between a kiwi and a pufferfish. Ranma watched, more mystified than ever, as the Amazon stared up to the roof of the Cat Café with a scowl of concentration, tensed, and then sprang. Unsurprisingly, considering the flimsiness of balsa wood and the force of the jump, most of the 'feathers' were either shattered or torn completely from the harness by the wind of her passage. Frankly, Ranma considered it a bit surprising that she even retained seven of them.

Shampoo jumped back to the ground below, a move which divested her costume of all but two of its remaining accessories. The Amazon fiddled with several of the gears, causing the straps to slither and shift over her, settling into a completely new configuration. 'Wonder how it did that without messin' up her clothes,' Ranma mused. Of more interest, though, was the question of just what Shampoo was trying to accomplish here. To someone raised by Genma Saotome, it seemed pretty obvious that this was some sort of training regimen, probably one to build up your agility and ability in the air. Anything more specific than that, he'd have to get from Shampoo herself.

The thought of learning a new trick or technique momentarily pushed aside hunger, along with pretty much all other concerns. Ranma jumped down even as Shampoo was jumping up, timing his approach to land a few feet away from her at the same time she touched down. She actually caught sight of him almost in the same instant as she made her leap, and the surprise destroyed her focus along with every piece of balsa wood.

Not that the Amazon cared in the slightest. No sooner had she landed than she was darting forward, a huge welcoming smile on her face. "Airen! So good to see you!" Shampoo enthused, grabbing him in a huge hug.

"HHYYEARRHHH!" That was the sound of Ranma, trying to gasp for air as Shampoo drove it from his lungs, and at the same time cry out in pain as several splinters of balsa wood gouged him in uncomfortable places.

"Ranma?" Shampoo asked, pulling back just a little. "Why you make such weird face and turn pale? Did stupid Akane make poison for breakfast today? You need Amazon medicine and real meal?"

The pigtailed teen pulled back, plucked out various splinters at Amaguriken speed, then grumbled, "No, I need to not get turned into a pincushion by whatever crazy getup that is you're wearing!"

Shampoo blinked, looked down at herself, sweatdropped, and offered a feeble grin. "Um, sorry, Airen. Shampoo make you extra big order of ramen to make up for it." Then she brightened. "Oh! Have too, too good news to tell, too! Two thing!"

Ranma attempted to parse that last communication, and failed miserably to extract anything other than 'good news'. "Uh… what?"

'Shampoo start with less good news.' "Great-Grandmother send Mousse on trip back to China! Not know how long he be gone, Ranma, but is sure he be gone awhile. We not have to worry about stupid duck bother us for weeks, maybe months!"

"Back to China? For real this time?" Ranma asked dubiously. That certainly hadn't turned out like it was supposed to last time. On the other hand, on that occasion it had been Mousse who declared that he was going, and that he was going for good. Small wonder that hadn't panned out, but if Cologne had told him he had to do it, and that it wouldn't be forever… "What for?"

The Amazon shrugged. "Not know. Only thing what Shampoo care about was how long he be gone."

"So he's not there now." Excellent. That meant he could have a long, peaceful meal, and probably even take his time asking Shampoo about what she was trying to learn with that funky outfit.

"No." Shampoo let out a long, satisfied sigh. "Great-Grandmother see him off at airport, make sure he really leave." She paused for a few moments, just savoring the moment. Mousse was gone, Great-Grandmother was temporarily away, she had Ranma all to herself now, and he was going to be in an even better mood once she gave him the last piece of good news. "That is today's good fortune. Had big piece yesterday, too. Spent whole day flying high in sky, looking down, and Shampoo finally manage to find stupid lost boy Ryoga. Did just what you ask, Ranma! He not hide as Akane pet pig, not put strain on you honor no more."

Contrary to Shampoo's expectations, Ranma didn't jump with surprise and joy at this communication. "Yeah, I already know," he grumbled.

"H-huh? Why Ranma say like that?" Shampoo asked, feeling her own bubbly happiness begin to congeal. He certainly didn't look happy to hear that. "You change mind?"

The pigtailed boy grimaced. "Nah, that ain't it. Thanks for what you did. I'm just royally ticked off at that stupid Ryoga! You know what he did, Shampoo?! Believe it or not, he managed to find his way to the dojo this morning, and he told everybody about his new curse."

"But… that good, right?"

"It'd be real good if the moron had told them that he took a curse like that cause of how cool it is to be able to fly. Or said that it was to help him find his way by being able to see more landmarks. Or anything other that what he did! You know what that jerk actually did say was the reason? He said you cursed him on purpose so he wouldn't have an advantage over me in a fight!"

Shampoo made a sound remarkably like a disgusted cat. "Stupid Ryoga. Should have sucker-punch him harder yesterday."

Ranma blinked. "Huh? Sucker-punched him?"

"Mm-hm. Shampoo find him camp out, fly back to bathhouse and change, get water, run back there as fast as can so he not wander off in meantime, tell him everything while still trying to catch breath." The Amazon scowled at the memory. "After all that, he have nerve to say, 'No, thanks'! Say he rather have curse he already have. So Shampoo pretend she see Akane behind him, then when he turn, hit him hard enough to stun even stupid Ryoga, and dump water on him anyway." By now her scowl had morphed to a satisfied smile. "Was really funny, too. He still sitting there in shock by time I get bored and leave. Wonder how long he—"

"I don't believe this!" Ranma exploded, cutting her off. "You mean he was tellin' the truth? You did curse him even though he decided he didn't want it?!"

Shampoo blinked, looking much as would someone asked "The sky is blue?!" in such a tone. "Uh-huh. Why Ranma ask like that?"

"What kinda stupid question is that?!"

The Amazon frowned. "Is not stupid! Shampoo did just what Ranma ask, and want to know why he yell now!"

"What I…? Dammit, I wanted you to offer the water to him an' tell him how much better it would be to replace his old curse, and let him do it himself!"

"Did, did, and did," she retorted. "And then he no make right decision, so Shampoo had to do it for him."

"Is that right," Ranma gritted through clenched teeth. "So I guess that's what you woulda done for me too, huh? If I didn't 'make the right decisi—'"


His accusation was cut short by Shampoo's full-armed slap. Ranma staggered backward, caught between shock, anger, and discomfort at the sight of the tears leaking from the lavender-haired girl's eyes.

When she spoke, though, only the tiniest tremble could be heard in her words. "Ranma talk about his honor two day ago, how Ryoga spit on it, but not seem to care at all today. If, if that how much grateful Ranma feel, maybe Shampoo should no have brought water back at all!"

And then she was gone, disappearing over the side of the building. The slam of the door as Shampoo entered shook the restaurant from basement to rooftop. Ranma took one hesitant step in the direction in which she had vanished, then stopped.

He wasn't sure how long he stood there, motionless, directionless, and uncertain, before the rain finally began to fall.

Thunder shook the air, rumbling over his body like a living shell of sound. Winds gusted and swirled. Rain lashed down in sheets, pounding the earth below. The storm had started slowly, opening with the deceptively calm light rain that had transformed him. The wind had started as little more than a stiff breeze, which had actually been helpful at the time as he made his way into the sky. Gravity had been as negligible as ever, but the weight of the encounter with Shampoo had tugged far harder on him. The breeze had held steady for awhile, and the rain had only slowly grown in tempo. But eventually, around the time of the first clap of thunder, both had kicked up with a vengeance. It was far from the worst storm ever to lash the streets of Nerima, but it was certainly nothing safe to fly through.

Ranma stared absently down at the clouds below him. They were lit by another bolt of lightning, the flash visible even in the warm sunlight. 'Glad I'm not down in that.'

He shifted back to looking straight ahead of him, flying slowly along on autopilot. His hunger was more or less assuaged, as Ranma had taken the opportunity to grab a couple of octopus puffs from a vendor preoccupied with escaping the rain. With that distraction out of the way, it was time for some serious thought.

'What did Shampoo expect me to do, anyway? Thank her? She deliberately gave Ryoga a curse! All I wanted her to do was offer it to him, tell him all the stuff she told me, and let him finally cure himself of that stupid pig body!'

As if it were an echo, he heard the Amazon's voice echo in his memories. "Did, did, and did." 'No, you didn't!' he retorted. 'He was supposed to be the one to make the decision! You shoulda just left him alone to think about it, given him enough time to realize he'd made a stupid mistake! All you shoulda done to make his mind up was maybe splash him with normal water and punt that stupid pigskin into the sky! So what if he told you 'No' then. Even as big an idiot as Ryoga would eventually wake up an' realize he'd made a stupid mistake, take it back and take you up on the offer.

'And you didn't care about that, did you? Ryoga didn't tell you he needed time to think it over, he just gave a flat 'no', and that was all you needed to hear. Why shouldn't I think you'd've done the same thing to me?' Ranma asked himself.

He flew in dark, brooding silence for awhile. Akane wasn't the only case where it was two steps forward, two back. 'I really let myself think that maybe things were starting to change,' he lamented. 'Was this all just another trick? Like that stupid Instant Nannichuan that she used to get me to go out with her, or the red thread of fate? Damn it, Shampoo, I actually did think you meant something real this time. Guess that was pretty stupid, huh?'

That thought brought with it another wave of bitterness. Ranma let his thoughts lapse into silence as he flew along, the darkness of his emotions contrasting sharply to the bright glimmer of sunlight reflecting off the clouds below him. Eventually, though, the worst of it began to fade. The Saotome heir had plenty of practice putting bad experiences behind him, after all. He knew very well that brooding over all the injustices of his life wouldn't help him with anything except mastering the Shi Shi Hokodan. And he was quite satisfied with his current command of that little trick of the Art.

'Look on the bright side, Ranma. So what if Shampoo would've screwed me over on this. It don't change the fact that I did make the choice myself, and it sure don't change the fact that it was the right choice to make.' Ranma considered that for a few moments, and a slight sense of uneasiness began to grow at the back of his mind. Eventually it progressed far enough to be put into words: 'Since this was the right decision, what if she had made it for me? Would that really have been so bad? Is it really so terrible that she did it for Ryoga?'

A large part of him — unquestionably the majority — answered with an emphatic yes. Even if it was what was best for him, what right would Shampoo have had to decide that herself? What right had she had to actually do so for Ryoga?

But there was a part of him that wondered. Wondered whether being forced into this would really have been all that much worse than missing out on it entirely. Was it better always to decide for yourself, even when you made the wrong decision? As he considered that question, the sense of uneasiness grew. The most basic tenets of honor meant that you didn't make all decisions yourself, except for the decision as to whether or not to act honorably. There were choices that a decent person had to let be made for him.

'But that wasn't how it was here,' Ranma thought, shaking his head as if to cast aside the questions. 'She said she was doing this for me. That means she should've left the choice up to me. And there's no way to think she would have, not after what she did with Ryoga. She said it herself — she didn't even try to change his mind, or argue him out of it. Didn't give him any time at all to wake up and realize what a dumb mistake he'd made. She just went right ahead and stuck him with the new curse.'

"Water away from Jusenkyo will slowly lose permanent power… one more day is okay, two, probably okay… after that? Is pushing luck."

If Ranma hadn't currently been gliding, his wings would have skipped a beat along with his heart.

A few hundred feet of sky passed beneath/above/around him before he could think clearly again. 'Oh, crap. I forgot about that. Idiot!' He would have chewed his lower lip nervously, had he currently had one to chew. 'If she hadn't've done that chances are Ryoga woulda missed his chance. A dummy like him probably would've taken a week to see something so obvious.' Ranma gritted his beak as a mental picture of P-chan stumbling onto the Tendo grounds, being scooped up and cooed over by Akane, sitting in her lap, being fed from her plate, joining her for a night's repose. 'Maybe even longer… maybe…'

Ranma flew in silence both mental and physical for quite awhile longer. At last, though, when he could no longer hold back, he completed the thought. 'Maybe he never would have.'

Things were starting to look a good bit clearer now, and Ranma found himself only liking part of what he saw. 'Forget about your curse, just think about what happened with Ryoga. There ain't no more P-chan. No more chance for him to abuse my honor and Akane's cluelessness. I'm never gonna see that stupid reject from a sausage factory cuddle up against her chest, or hide behind her and get me in trouble. No more gritting my teeth wondering just what the hell I'm supposed to do about him taking advantage of Akane. All that's good.'

He heaved a thin, whistling sigh. Somehow, now that he was really focusing on Ryoga, and not himself, the question of whether Shampoo had the right to make such a big decision seemed less clear-cut. 'Okay, Ranma, let's think like this was a battle. What Ryoga was doing was wrong, the kinda stuff a martial artist ought to prevent. And I tried everything I could think of to prevent it. I couldn't tell Akane the truth, since that would mean exposing Ryoga's weakness, one that was partly my fault. And anyway once she learned it she'd probably snap and kill P-chan, whether she meant to or not.' As tough as the little porker was, Ranma doubted he could have survived a full-power Akane Tendo Haymaker of Rage.

'I gave plenty of hints, enough that a normal person coulda figured it out. It was never enough to make Akane understand, but it should have been enough to make Ryoga scared she would if he kept showing up.' Ranma snorted. 'Stupid me, thinking P-chan would have enough brains to put two and two together like that. Or maybe he just figured that if Akane hadn't clued in yet, she never was gonna make the connection.' He considered this, then rejected it. 'Nah. He nearly got busted wide open when he had that stupid Mark of the Gods. Still can't believe he managed to drink all that hot water instead of Akane getting it on him to wash him off.

'So Ryoga was too stubborn and Akane was too dumb for the hints to work. What else was I supposed to do? Just let it slide? That'd be wrong too. Give up a cure to him, if I ever got my hands on one? Maybe,' Ranma allowed, knowing all the while that there was no way in hell he'd have actually done so. 'But it ain't like I ever got the chance to. Challenge him to a real fight, tell him that if I won he'd stop playing at being P-chan, and beat the living daylights out of him? But what would I do after that when he went right back to doing it anyway?'

A few more minutes of thought later, Ranma finally, reluctantly, accepted the conclusion that had been lurking in the back of his mind for the last half mile of sky. 'Dammit all, this was the only way to fix the problem. Shampoo did the right thing, at least with Ryoga. And if I think that, if I say that for him giving him the curse anyway was the right thing to do but she oughta have let me decide for myself… ' He paused for a moment, wondering if he ought to feel guilty about reaching such a conclusion. A memory of P-chan nuzzling against Akane's chest quickly banished that uncertainty. 'If the right thing was different for Ryoga and me, why should I think that what Shampoo did with him shows anything about what she woulda done with me?'

Long moments of scrutiny failed to turn up even one reason. Moreover, they raised certain other suspicions that were rather less comfortable. 'Forget Ryoga. He don't matter for this part. It really does look like Shampoo let me make the call myself. She made her offer, and it sure looked like she expected me to take her up on it then and there.' Something which had slipped his mind in the immediacy of finding out that Shampoo truly had cursed Ryoga against his will. 'I didn't do that, though. Even though there wasn't much time left she let me take my time and decide… ' His eyes widened in further realization. 'Heck, they were both my decisions. I told her I did want what she'd offered, and I said how Ryoga was messing up my honor, asked her to fix it for me. And she did. And I threw it back in her face… yelled at her… made her cry…

'I gotta apologize.' It was none too palatable a thought, but Ranma faced it squarely. 'I can't believe how much I just screwed things up. I owe her — big time — and this is how I pay her back? No way. Ain't gonna happen. Not gonna be like Pop; I may make mistakes, but I'm darn well gonna fix them when I do.

'Still, it's probably not a good idea to go back there now. Better give Shampoo a little time to calm down.' His thoughts lapsed into silence for awhile. Eventually, though, they started again, bringing up another unpleasant matter that needed to be faced.

'One thing ain't changed — Ryoga's still cursed because of me, even if he does have a better curse now. Shampoo did what she did because I asked her to. And now that I've thought about it, and if I had to do it over again, I'd even tell her to splash him whether he wanted it or not.' Ranma frowned in thought. Maybe there was an element of responsibility there for him, but it was certainly larger for Ryoga. After all, this had all come about because of the Lost Boy's own dishonorable actions. Ryoga ought to consider himself lucky that Ranma had found such a painless way of dealing with his alter ego. 'Do I really owe him anything? I've covered for him I don't know how many times back when he was still P-chan. Ain't he the one that owes me? Why the heck should I give him any of my soap?

A few more moments of thought came up with a couple of convincing reasons. 'It really ain't like I owe the jerk anything. But if I do give him a bar, it'll have to help calm him down. Besides the fact that if I don't, he's bound to try and fight me for it once he learns Shampoo gave me the stuff. And if I make sure Akane's around to see me do it, she'll have to cool down a few degrees too.'

Decision made, Ranma banked in a wide, sweeping turn. He'd been more or less following the path of the storm, probably out of a subconscious desire to gloat at all the irritating weather that wasn't getting a chance to dump on him, and was well away from Nerima by now. Passage back to the ward was quick and peaceful, although the various concerns on his mind were a little too weighty to really enjoy the flight.

One thing he did enjoy, though, was the sight that greeted him as he passed through the streets a quarter mile away from the Tendo home: Kasumi and Akane moving through the newly rain-washed streets, obviously heading for the market on a shopping trip.

Satisfied that the coast back home was clear, Ranma poured on the speed. He soared down over the Tendo boundary wall, ironically enough at the exact same section that Ryoga hadn't smashed his way through, zipped into the dojo, made use of the hot water and clothes stashed there (and also made a mental note that there were now two sets of clothing he needed to retrieve from the wilds of greater Nerima), and hurried to his room. "Ryoga can have the bar I already opened," he decided as he moved to the floorboard where he'd stashed the prize. "It ain't like he didn't already get more than his fair share of the first bar — WHAT THE HELL?!"

The floorboard fell from his nerveless fingers. Ranma stared down into the cavity beneath it, searching desperately, fruitlessly. In sharp contrast to the conditions of yesterday morning, when he'd last checked, there was no trace of any soap at all. Neither waterproof or mundane, previously-used or pristine. For a second, Ranma hoped against hope that he'd just pulled up the wrong floorboard, but then his eyes caught sight of something else.

The only thing resting in the hiding place was a single white duck's feather.


To be continued.

Author's notes: Shakespearean snippets from Love's Labour's Lost, courtesy of the bartleby.com website for famous quotations. There is also a paraphrased quote from Jonathan Livingston Seagull in this chapter.

Two ideas in this chapter are ones I vaguely remember reading in other fanfics. The first is Nabiki musing with horror on the Xi Fang Gao, with that being presented as the sort of thing she would fear most. The second is the thought of Nabiki stealing back Ranma-chan photos from Kuno and selling them to him again. Don't remember which stories these came from, though.

One thing that puzzles me a little is how seldom fanfics take into account what is really a pretty significant facet of Akane's character. I am of course talking about her submissive streak. The anime shows clearly that when facing a guy who's forceful enough, all her supposed fire and independence fade silently away. My personal theory is that this is due to her father and the poor example of manhood he provided as she grew up.

Her fans ignore this aspect of Akane completely, in my experience; most of them exalt her as a paragon of female strength and power. Which is a load of garbage, at least in the anime. Maybe the manga is different, I don't know. But if you want an example of a strong, independent girl, you're far better off looking for it in Shampoo or Nabiki, or even Kodachi. Ukyo might be a possible choice as well, although the Ukyo's Skirt and Ukyo's Secret Sauce episodes muddy the waters. She's strong in some ways, but her confidence in herself as a woman doesn't seem to me to match her confidence and strength in other things.

Akane, however, is quite clearly not the icon of liberated women that so many seem to think. Of course, flawed characters are more interesting than ones without failings, and those very problems are fertile ground for further development and new stories of growth and loss.

Expect more of both those things in the chapters to come, and I'm certainly not just talking about Akane when I say that. Thanks to everyone at the Refuge who gave C&C.

Chapter 3
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