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A Ranma fanfic by Aondehafka

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

Chapter 3: A Season of Storms, Part 2

The Matriarch watched impassively through the window of the terminal, tracking the progress of the white-robed figure across the tarmac. She concentrated, focusing her chi senses sharply enough to pierce all barriers between them. He passed from her sight into the airplane, but Cologne didn't allow herself to relax. She focused all the more sharply, tracking Mousse's position by his aura, making sure that he didn't decide at the last minute to conveniently delay following her order. Although not with her ears, she heard the click of his seatbelt as it fastened, along with the faint disheartened sigh that he gave a moment later.

Cologne maintained her watch, allowing herself to relax only once the plane was finally airborne. She closed her eyes and bowed her head, reflecting on one of the more sobering truths she'd learned in her three hundred years: one sure way to lose everything was to be unwilling to sacrifice anything.

Opening her eyes once more and putting such gloomy thoughts behind her, the Matriarch left the terminal and took to the rooftops, bouncing back toward the Cat Café at a leisurely pace. It would be better to give Shampoo some time alone, to see how well she adapted on her own to the training exercise her great-grandmother had left her with. Cologne had deliberately skipped almost all of the starting details that she ought to have shared with Shampoo, and conventional wisdom stated that her great-granddaughter could only be failing miserable at the task. However, Cologne privately had a suspicion that her great-granddaughter's experiences in her new cursed form might make up for the lack of proper instruction.

The only way to know for sure, of course, was to see how far Shampoo would get on her own. Accordingly, Cologne stopped on a high-rise rooftop only a mile from the airport, settled herself down, pulled out her pipe, and enjoyed a long, pleasant interval of relaxation. This also gave her a chance to recover the chi she'd expended in tracking Mousse so closely, no small task when they were separated by that much distance and that many solid obstacles.

Eventually, when she estimated that Shampoo would have been working on the training exercise for at least an hour, Cologne got to her feet once more and prepared to resume her journey home. She paused, considering something. "If Shampoo has succeeded, she'll be in a good mood, open and receptive. And if she has failed, she'll be frustrated and should appreciate something to increase her motivation," Cologne mused. In either case it would be good to show her the ultimate fruit that would be borne from her training efforts.

"On the other hand, that technique is anything but subtle. Do I really want to make such a spectacle out of myself, give everyone a glimpse of what I can really do?" The Matriarch pondered that question for several more minutes. Eventually she decided that such a glimpse would more likely work in her favor than not. If Ranma learned of it, he might well be impressed, but that ought to be all. Depending on how it was employed, the Chariot of the Storm technique could be more terrible than anything her son-in-law had yet experienced, but simply using it as she had in mind shouldn't do more than inspire him in the same way she intended for Shampoo.

Conveniently enough, she was already on the tallest building in the immediate vicinity. Cologne gave a great leap, soaring nearly five stories higher into the air. As she slowed, approaching the point where gravity would overcome her jump, she aligned her aura, infused her staff with chi, and began spinning the weapon. In a matter of seconds, the air around her went from calmness to a maelstrom of roaring power, a thirty-foot tornado tightly centered around the Matriarch, and as tightly controlled. Cologne guided the vortex several hundred feet higher into the air, then set off for home with a smile on her face. Unlike the last time she'd used this technique, there were no panicked redheads grabbing her in terribly inappropriate places to disrupt her concentration.

As she approached the Cat Café, the smile dropped from her lips. Shampoo was nowhere to be seen, though Cologne's sharp-eyed gaze did spot the bag of balsa wood strips lying abandoned and forgotten next to the restaurant. Dropping her technique, the Matriarch descended to a perfect one-point-landing on the roof, directly above the room she shared with Shampoo. With her senses no longer surrounded by the swirling, chi-laden winds, she was able to sense her great-granddaughter's presence directly below her — and make out the faint sound of sobs.

Another descent brought her to the front door. She opened it, passed through, and closed it behind her, deliberately making enough noise to warn Shampoo of her arrival. Continuing up the stairs and into the bedroom, she found Shampoo waiting for her. The girl's tears were now under control, but she was making no effort to hide her misery.

There were times Cologne hated the shortness of stature age had wreaked upon her. This was one of them. She would have given much to be able to hug her youngest descendent and offer her the kind of comfort she needed, but all she could do was shuffle over and lay a gentle hand on Shampoo's arm. "<What has happened, Great-Granddaughter?>" she asked in as kindly a tone as she could manage, her use of Mandarin an indication that for this conversation Shampoo need not try to express herself in Japanese.

"<It's R-Ranma,>" Shampoo replied. "<I… I just… he….>" She stopped, closed her eyes tightly. A few more tears squeezed out. "<I love him so much, Great-Grandmother. But it, it seems like it doesn't even matter to him… I don't matter to him at all….>"

"<That isn't true,>" Cologne replied, lightly rubbing her hand along her youngest descendant's arm, subtly infusing the gesture with one of the few varieties of emotion-based chi the Matriarch ever allowed herself to use.

"<Then why does he treat me like this?!>" Shampoo demanded. She could feel a deep sense of compassion and care radiating from her great-grandmother, but it wasn't enough to displace her sadness and pain. "<I've done so much for him, given up so much for him. I was even breaking the law again for him, or at least I would have been if you hadn't changed it! And now this… n-now this… I did what he asked, and he just changes the rules again and yells at me… H-he still doesn't trust me at all….>"

"<What did he yell at you for, Shampoo?>"

The young Amazon took a deep breath. "<On Friday, Ranma came to me and asked me if I had any of the Falcon water left. When I told him I did, he wanted me to use it on Ryoga.>"

Cologne's eyes widened in pained understanding, and spared one instant to wish Shampoo's command of Japanese were better. No doubt she really had thought that was what her Airen meant. "<And that is why you wanted the next day off?>"

"<Yes. I found Ryoga, told him about the water, and when he turned it down I splashed him anyway.>" Shampoo closed her eyes and hung her head. "<And for that I get my husband yelling at me and accusing me that I would have done the same thing to him if he'd said he didn't want his gift,>" she whispered.

The Matriarch sighed. "<Child, I find it hard to believe that Ranma would directly ask you to curse Ryoga. Offer him the choice, yes. I can even see Ranma challenging him and beating him senseless as motivation to accept it. But not asking you to go directly to that extreme.>"

Shampoo's gaze locked with Cologne's. "When talking about Ryoga, him exact words was, 'It needs to stop! You want share something special with me, Shampoo? Then fix that for me! You give me gift like that, I'll be grateful for the rest of my life!' "

Cologne blinked, finding herself momentarily at a loss for words. Shampoo continued, "<He was talking about his honor, and how Ryoga abused it. It is true that when he first asked me, he said he wanted to offer the water to Ryoga. But I didn't just say yes to that; we talked more, he acted like it really was a big deal to him what was happening. He used those words and that was what I said yes to.>" She closed her eyes once more. "<And now he's just pretending all he ever meant was offer it to Ryoga. Maybe he just wants to blame everything on me so stupid Akane and Ryoga don't cause so much trouble for him. Maybe that's all I am to him, a girl stupid enough to let him use her for nothing….>"

"<That's not true, Shampoo.>" Best to derail this train of thought as quickly as possible. If Shampoo ever really did fall out of love with Ranma, things could get very ugly very quickly. "<And you should be ashamed of yourself, forgetting so easily that you're the one Ranma faced his worst fear to save.>" As Shampoo raised her head and gave her a teary-eyed questioning look, Cologne continued, "<That damnable Ghost Cat. Or have you forgotten?>"

"Shampoo did forget," the Amazon murmured. "<But, does that really…?>" she let the question trail off uncompleted.

"<It is enough for now,>" Cologne said with iron-hard certainty. "<And if it weren't, there's that business with the Reversal Jewel as well.>" She fell silent for a few minutes, pondering her own course while allowing Shampoo time to process this. When she felt enough time had passed, she continued, "<You talked earlier about the many things you've given him, Great-Granddaughter. And certainly you have sacrificed much for him, far more than anyone else. But there are still two things you need to give.>"

Shampoo actually found the backbone to glare at her elder. "<And what would they be?>" she asked, her tone making it very clear how far she was from convinced of this truth.

"<Understanding and time,>" Cologne returned, unfazed by this response. As Shampoo's defiance melted into confusion, Cologne continued the verbal offensive. "<You need to understand the effects his life has had on him. To know what his faults really are, and what he really means by what he says. The two meetings you had with him this morning and two days ago are a perfect example of that.>"

"<Well, I don't understand,>" Shampoo confessed. "<What are you trying to say?>"

"<You said yourself that Ranma's first request was for you to offer the water to Ryoga. That is how he would have been thinking of it afterward.>"

"<But—!>" With some difficulty, Shampoo cut her protest short as Cologne held up her palm.

"<Child, you are not the one at fault here. Ranma is. Those words of his that you quoted to me are proof enough of that.>" At least as long as Shampoo had gotten the quote right. Cologne hoped for both their sakes that she had; the Matriarch personally would not have thought Ranma would be willing to go to such an extreme so quickly. "<You say he said them in the heat of emotion, to persuade you to do what he'd asked. That shows how he really feels, and it means just what you took it to mean. Ranma wanted his rival's old cursed form gone, with or without his permission. But it is easier for your husband to feel good about himself if he thinks he just meant for you to make the offer.>"

"<So he is using me as a scapegoat?>" Shampoo asked indignantly.

"<Not deliberately, I'd wager. Give him time to face up to himself,>" Cologne replied. "<It's not easy to swallow an unpleasant truth just like that. And it's not easy to make big changes either, or to get used to them after they've been made. That is why I said you needed to give him understanding and time.>"

"<…Okay,>" Shampoo said after a long pause. "<I didn't do anything wrong, but I still have to wait for Ranma to admit that to himself.>" She sighed. "<Well, it's not like I don't have practice waiting for him.>"

Cologne narrowed her eyes. "<I didn't say that, Great-Granddaughter. You most certainly did do something wrong.>"

Shampoo blinked, then gulped against a sudden rising feeling of dread. "<What do you mean, Honored Elder?>"

"<Oh, suddenly it's 'Honored Elder'?>" Cologne remarked dryly. "<I wasn't talking about official Amazon business, Shampoo, but let me just touch on that anyway. I and my fellow Elders revised the law to allow Amazons to use Jusenkyo on themselves, with a few restrictions on which springs were acceptable. But with open access to the Cursed Springs, we had to address the issue of using cursed water on someone else.>" She paused for a moment, regarding her sweating descendent. "<Had you cursed anyone other than Ryoga Hibiki against his or her will, you would be liable for serious punishment under the amended law. Much worse than it used to be.>"

"<W-what? Why Ryoga?>"

"<Because he was using his old curse to take sexual advantage of a woman, even if she didn't know. As Akane Tendo is no member of the Joketsuzoku, we are not obligated to defend her, but there are those on the Council who would have done so anyway. If it had been one of them here in Nerima in my stead, Ryoga would long since have been put him to death, or his lie exposed to Miss Tendo's dubious mercies.>" Cologne paused for a moment, pinning her youngest descendent with her most intense stare. "<Neither of those was a suggestion, by the way.>"

"<I didn't think they were,>" Shampoo assured her great-grandmother.

"<In any case, your cursing of Ryoga slips nicely through one of the exceptions in the amended law. But his was the only such situation I'm aware of in Japan, so don't get any bright ideas about a repeat performance.>"

Shampoo shrugged. "<I dumped all the rest of the water on him anyway.>" Then, thinking back to a little earlier in the conversation, she asked, "<Did you say there was something else I did wrong?>"

"<Yes, I did,>" Cologne stated flatly. "<It's a question of responsibility and of pride. And again, the fault is as much Ranma's as yours. It's certainly understandable that he would want to end Ryoga's slight against his honor.>" Although the more she thought about it, the more it bothered her that he had been so quick to jump to the extreme of forcing Ryoga to take the new curse. Cologne had long been of the opinion that Ranma's life was too stressful for him to bear forever, but she had always kept a fairly close eye on the situation and she had believed he still had quite a large amount of tolerance left. The water would certainly have retained its power for another ten weeks; surely that was enough time to at least try convincing Ryoga to accept it of his own free will. That Ranma hadn't even felt it worth bothering with such a course was unpleasant news, and could mean that he was far closer to some sort of breaking point than Cologne had budgeted for.

Pushing those thoughts aside to be dealt with later, she returned to the issue at hand. "<However, even though Ranma did ask you to 'fix it', that was not what you should have done. The responsibility was his, and the water had been your gift to him anyway. You should have given it to him to use.>"

"<What?! Are you crazy?!>" Shampoo burst out. "<Let him take the Falcon water back to the Tendo Lunatic House?! It would've been splashed over Akane within half an hour! No way was I going to have that happen!>"

Cologne blinked, realizing with some chagrin that her great-granddaughter had raised a very valid point. That was just the sort of thing that always happened, wasn't it? "<Ah… let me correct myself. You should have gone along with Ranma to talk to Ryoga, but it should have been him doing the talking. And him deciding how to respond when Ryoga refused.>"

Shampoo gave the Matriarch a hooded stare. "Great-Grandmother so much wiser and more smart than Shampoo, much, much more experience. If her first idea was wrong one, why she get onto Shampoo if Shampoo's was too?"

The ancient Amazon lightly swatted her descendant's head. "<Saying it in that too-too cute dialect doesn't make it any less disrespectful, Great-Granddaughter. But I suppose you have a point.>"

Rubbing her head even though it didn't really hurt, Shampoo gave a nod of acknowledgement. "Thank you for cheer me up, Great-Grandmother. I go train more now, yes?"

"Certainly." Cologne hesitated, wondering whether she should accompany her great-granddaughter and watch the performance, or whether it would be better to slip by the Tendo home and perhaps get a better idea of Ranma's current mood. "I just wish I knew why he was in such a hurry," she murmured to herself.

"What you say?" Shampoo asked. She had been thinking about the training, or more specifically, Ranma training alongside her after he came back and apologized for snapping at her and blaming her unfairly. As a result she'd only caught the fact that Cologne had spoken; that the Matriarch hadn't been addressing her was a fact she'd missed.

"It's nothing, Child. I was just a little concerned over Son-in-law. Wondering why he wouldn't give Ryoga more of a chance to walk away from his mistakes on his own." Cologne fired off another piercing stare. "Are you sure about what you told me? You said that Ranma showed strong emotion at the way Ryoga was acting dishonorably, and that he asked you to fix it. Is there anything else you aren't bothering to mention? Something that would explain why he would be so quick to act?"

Shampoo blinked in clear incomprehension. "Why he need more? Ryoga hurt his honor, why he need more reason than that to end it right away?"

Cologne sighed, and once again thanked the ancestors that she had a far better heir to the Matriarchy than Shampoo back in the village. Her youngest descendent was almost as bad as Ranma himself in thinking abstract things through. "Because he's borne it this long without snapping Ryoga's neck?" she asked with a mixture of patience and sarcasm. "Because there are debts he owes to Ryoga as well? Because he did first say he wanted you to offer this to Ryoga? It would be different if what he meant was for you to convince Ryoga to accept the gift, or even if he meant to do the convincing himself if Ryoga turned you down. I would have expected Son-in-law to be willing to take at least a few weeks to try to work through Ryoga's stubborn foolishness, rather than deciding at the beginning that his decision didn't matter. Are you sure of what you've related to me, Shampoo?" She stopped there, taking a good look at her descendent. Shampoo was nervous. Very nervous. Nor was she trying to hide it.

"Um… well… Honored Elder…." Shampoo gulped, and switched to Mandarin. "<What if he thought there wasn't much time?>"


The clipped tone of Cologne's command did nothing to settle Shampoo's nerves. "<I… When I first offered him the water, I told him how it would run out of power eventually… but I made it sound like it would happen in only a few more days.>"

"<What?!>" Cologne snarled, her fingers tightening around her staff until the wood flexed. "<Why on earth did you do such a foolish thing, Shampoo?!>"

"<Because of what you said!>" Shampoo wailed. "<Said not to use guilt on him. So how could I tell him I was going to get in trouble for giving this gift to him? How could I tell him the 'one or two days' thing was because that's how much longer I thought I might be able to keep it a secret from you….>"

All the tension drained out of the Matriarch at those words. Her grip on the staff relaxed and her shoulders slumped. She stood like that in silence for quite a while.

"<Great-Grandmother?>" Shampoo eventually ventured to ask.

"<Sometimes I wonder if the very gods fight against us,>" Cologne said quietly. "<Certainly fate has favored Miss Tendo time and time again. I wonder if her departed ancestors traded all their wisdom for power, in order to so strongly support her when a match between her and Son-in-law would ultimately be so bad for them both.>"

"W-what you say?" Shampoo whispered.

"<An Amazon never surrenders,>" Cologne declared, still more to herself than anything else. In the past she'd always dismissed these coincidences as just more random fluctuations of the general chaos of Nerima. But Shampoo's aunt, the aforementioned heir to the Matriarchy, was a fully-fledged mage, and she could certainly determine whether the lines of chance and fate themselves were struggling to cast down all of Ranma's other suitors and promote Akane Tendo. And if they were, Cologne wouldn't hesitate to invoke her own supernatural countermeasures.

But that was a matter for another time. "<Shampoo, forgive me for my failure,>" the Matriarch said with a sigh. "<I should have told you from the beginning about the change to the law. Instead I allowed you to think you were making a true sacrifice for your Airen, and gave you the good news afterward. It seems to have been a mistake.>"

"<I wondered about that,>" Shampoo confessed, "<why you didn't just tell me from the start.>"

"<It is because of what you believed. You honestly thought it would cost you a lot to give that gift to him, and that belief made the act more meaningful. Not as much as if the sacrifice had been real, but I thought it was still worth doing. And because of that, it seems your husband believed it wasn't an option to take the time to convince Ryoga to make the choice of his own free will.

"<I could be wrong here, Great-Granddaughter. I will admit that freely. But if Ranma believed there was only that little time, if the water had to be used on Ryoga immediately or not at all, then I can see him deciding it was better to take the chance than lose it. But when he learns otherwise….>"

It still didn't make complete sense to Shampoo. After everything Ranma had said about his honor, and how Ryoga was abusing it, would it really make such a big difference to him? Did her Airen truly feel that Ryoga deserved that much of a chance, time to make the decision for himself as long as that delay didn't destroy the possibility for the future? Weeks or months in which the Lost Boy could continue sneaking into Akane's bed? Was her husband really that forgiving?

'<He hasn't killed or crippled Mousse or Stupid Stick Boy yet even after all they've done, and he doesn't owe either of them anything,>' Shampoo thought with a sudden surge of cold fear. '<Maybe… maybe he really is that generous….>'

Swallowing, she took a deep breath, then asked, "Great-Grandmother… what should I do?"

The front door slammed. He didn't really notice.

Running steps shook the stairs in an approaching crescendo. He paid them no heed.

The door behind him whipped open so quickly it blurred. He didn't look around.

Even as Akane stormed across the room toward him, Ranma continued to stare down into the gap beneath the floor. The sound of his fiancée's voice washed around him like so much air, no more meaningful than the whistling of the wind. He didn't respond in any way — at least, not until Akane grabbed his shoulder and whirled him around to face her.

Then, at least, the glaze began to fade from his eyes.

"You're not even listening to me!" Akane yelled, her face flushed an alarming shade of red. She'd only just seen him out of the corner of her eye as she walked along with Kasumi, hadn't even been sure it was her transformed fiancé streaking toward the Tendo home. But she had been in no mood to risk missing her chance to catch him, and so she had abandoned Kasumi without hesitation, cutting her sister off mid-sentence without a trace of reluctance and racing back home. After all that, there was no way she was going to let Ranma just sit there and stare stupidly up at her.

"What?" Ranma finally managed, his tone sounding unpleasantly like a growl to Akane. She swelled further in indignation and righteous anger. If he thought he was going to make her fold as easily as last night, he had a very painful lesson coming!

"What do you mean, 'what'?! This is all your fault, Ranma! I told you this was all just another scheme of Shampoo's. But no, you didn't believe me, did you? You never listen at all when somebody tries to show you just how wrong you are! If you hadn't gone along with this in the first place, poor Ryoga would be just fine right now!"

"What? Akane, that doesn't make any sense at all," he protested, finally standing up to face her directly.

"Of course it makes sense! You did just what Shampoo wanted, that was her plan's first step. And once it worked she went on to the next one, cursing poor Ryoga like that! And all you care about is what you told me yesterday, that this curse is 'the best thing anyone's done for you in a long time'. Well, how about Ryoga, you jerk?!" Akane demanded, tears of anger and pain gathering in the corners of her eyes. "Was it worth it to give him a horrible curse like that, just so you could fly the friendly skies with Shampoo?! And even if you don't care about that, who do you think she'll pull it on next? Kuno, maybe? What about Ukyo?! Or maybe even me?!"

"Yeah, right," Ranma retorted disgustedly. "Jeez, you don't understand anything at all." The force with which he spoke those words only made the youngest Tendo angrier. Before she could say anything in return, he continued, "Y'know, it only makes you sound dumber each time you call this a 'horrible curse'. I've told you over and over again that it's a good thing. That's why Shampoo gave it to me. And the last time I talked to her, she made it real clear that she wanted this to be something special for her an' me to share. Offering it to you or Ucchan is the last thing she's gonna do."

"So you are still sneaking around with her behind my back," Akane said with a sort of frozen calm.

"Give it a rest, would ya?" Despite the relatively mild words, Ranma's tone and expression were anything but meek or plaintive. "Where I go or who I spend time with ain't things you get to dictate, Akane. You might as well accept that now, because it's sure as hell the truth."

"Oh, I guess you'd rather go hang out with Shampoo, maybe take her on a nice date, thank her for what she did," Akane retorted bitterly. She could feel something darker and more painful gnawing away dangerously quickly at the core of the anger sustaining her. It just wasn't fair! Ranma was wrong here, he was the one at fault and he didn't even care! Didn't care about Ryoga, didn't care about her, all he cared about was himself… and Shampoo…

Ranma winced at the reminder of the sort of things he was going to need to say to Shampoo at their next meeting, but quickly pushed those thoughts aside. "I sure am going to need to see her again pretty soon," he said — defiantly, angrily, disgustedly, bitterly. "Check this out." He skipped backward and to the side, gesturing down into the now-obvious gap in the flooring.

'Check what out, that he's now damaging our home even when there's not somebody else to fight with?' Nevertheless, Akane did as instructed, leaning forward and looking down into the empty gap. "What?"

"It's where I was keepin' the soap Shampoo gave me," he growled. "Don't see any of that now, do ya?" His hand jabbed down into the space, then retracted with a delicate white feather clenched between two fingers. "This was the only thing there."

It took her several heartbeats to process the information — but when she did, it was like hitting a brick wall, the confusion she'd been feeling amplified a paralyzing thousandfold. The soap was gone? The very thing she'd come here to demand he share with Ryoga? The… the only thing that had saved him from Mousse's earlier trap….

Akane sat there gaping at the feather, her mouth opening and closing feebly, the color slowly draining from her cheeks. Ranma, watching the reaction, felt at least a little of his own stress drain away. Good to know the tomboy could still get concerned for him if it was something big enough.

"He… he did… Mousse did?" she breathed. Inside her, all her emotions tumbled and swirled in a senseless chaotic vortex. In this moment Akane didn't know what to think or how to feel. She'd experienced nothing but pain in the aftermath of the earlier "battle" with Mousse, pain at how effortlessly Ranma's alliance with Shampoo had brought him the victory. But with the soap gone, what would happen if the half-blind boy tried that very same tactic again?

Her emotions were still cascading around and around one another, but they seemed to be slowing and solidifying as well. She could almost put a name to some of what she was feeling, could almost understand some of the directions her heart was being tugged… and then, in a moment of greater clarity than Akane often managed, she recognized one emotion and grabbed it with all her strength.

Despite himself Ranma took a flinching step backward as pure fear filled Akane's eyes. But then the misunderstanding vanished as quickly as it had arrived. Later he would wonder just why he'd jumped to the conclusion that she was afraid of him; he'd seen this several times before, and they were some of his better memories. Akane was afraid, all right… but the fear was for his sake. Concern for him, especially such strong concern, was much better than getting hammered, mistrusted, or put down in favor of some other guy.

The girl in question gulped, then said, "You're right, Ranma. You do need to talk to her again for that. Even…" she swallowed again, gathering her strength, then admitted, "even if she makes you take her on a date for more soap, it would be worth it." A slight measure of fire returned to her eyes as she made her next statement. "But you better not just offer right away! That's no way to negotiate. Try and make her see it as something she owes you, because it was Mousse who did this."

"You ain't got to tell me anything about putting the blame on Mousse," Ranma said quietly.

'I hope it's not too early.'

The morning dew glistened on windowpanes as Ranma passed through the streets of Nerima. Furinkan's gate wouldn't even be unlocked yet, he knew, and the first bell wouldn't sound for more than two hours. Around him, the noise of the city was still muted, and the streets were all but empty of fellow pedestrians. Those that were present reminded him somewhat of Nabiki right after she awoke; they might have to be up at this hour of morning to attend to whatever their affairs were, but they didn't like it. Ranma could sympathize. Long years of early morning practices with his father meant that he could start his day this early with no real trouble, but he still preferred not to. Just like the vast majority of everyone else.

But he hadn't been thinking about the time of day.

'It hasn't even been a whole day yet. Sure, Shampoo's had time to sleep on it, but is this really enough time for her to get over the worst of it?' Ranma grimaced involuntarily, recalling the accusations he'd leveled against her and the strength of her response. 'Still can't believe I blew it like that. She probably still is pretty ticked.' He just hoped the Amazon's ire had faded sufficiently that his apology would restore her to her usual cheerful, happy, eager-to-please self.

'Damn Mousse anyway,' he thought bitterly. 'If it weren't for him, all I'd have to worry about now would be apologizing. That's bad enough, but how's it gonna sound when right after I get through with that I wind up asking her for more soap?' Ranma knew he wasn't the most sensitive guy around, and his only real skill with words was as another weapon in battle. When he tried to use them for other, softer applications, more often than not it seemed like his few successes had happened in spite of himself.

He kept trying to push one particular set of memories out his mind: the long ago "date" with Shampoo for what had turned out to be a packet of Instant Nannichuan. Several times through that outing he'd told the Amazon what she wanted to hear, and had honestly believed he'd tricked her — and each time he'd been completely wrong. Shampoo had proven much less gullible than he'd given her credit for. 'Wouldn't it be just my luck now, if she thought I was only going through with this because I wanted to get more soap out of her?' Ranma thought glumly. If even he could see that it looked suspicious for him to come up with the apology and follow hard on its heels with the news of his need for something else, something only she could give him, he supposed it would take a minor miracle for her not to make a similar connection. Shampoo was a lot better than some people about not jumping to negative conclusions about him, but he knew very well that there were limits.

'It'd be a lot better if I just apologized this morning and waited a few days to tell her about the soap. But that ain't an option,' he reminded himself. 'This isn't just about me. Ryoga needs his own share of soap.' The Lost Boy had lived up to his name, had already been long gone by the time Ranma had gotten back to the Tendo home yesterday, but in a situation like this Ranma suspected Ryoga could resurface at any time. And when he did, Ranma wanted to be able to make his peace offering right then and there. 'If it weren't for that, I could just tell Shampoo I'm sorry and leave everything else until later. That way at least she'd know I meant it.'

He walked in silence for a few minutes, pondering this, feeling like there was some logical extension of the thought that he needed to make, some connection he just wasn't quite getting. Eventually it came to him. 'Hang on… she never actually said she didn't leave Ryoga any soap.' Not that Ranma had any real uncertainty regarding this point, but that didn't mean he couldn't ask anyway. 'I can just tell her what Mousse did, and then ask her if she actually did give Ryoga any. When she says no, I can ask her to pass along at least one bar to him. She'll ask me too, I'm sure, and maybe she'll be a bit suspicious, but if I tell her I don't want any right now, that I'm gonna try getting by without it, that should be enough to set her mind at ease. She won't think I'm just going there to get something out of her with an apology I don't really mean.'

Ranma considered this new plan as he covered the next several blocks' distance, looking for downsides. 'Hmmm. If I do it like that, starting out asking her if she gave Ryoga any soap, she might think I was thinking about stealing some from him.' He considered this. 'Eh, I could live with that kind of misunderstanding.'

The fact that he'd be sacrificing his own chance at protection for awhile required more thought. The more he considered it, though, the better he felt about it. Going without the soap for a few days or a week or even longer didn't ultimately seem like that big a hardship. Mousse had certainly showed he viewed the Falcon curse as just another exploitable opening, and considering how far he was willing to go in his quest to end Ranma's "threat" to Shampoo that could mean a real danger someday. But Duckboy was out of the country for who knew how long. Ryoga might make a nuisance of himself, but when the rubber met the road Ranma trusted him not to really see his rival's new curse as a chance to make good on his frequent cries of "Ranma, prepare to die!" The Lost Bird might possibly trigger Ranma's curse in the middle of combat and proclaim himself the winner of the fight, but that was as far as Ranma believed he would go. And there was apparently some unwritten law that said Ranma Saotome would never be splashed when within the direct line of sight of a Kuno, so that was one more threat marginalized.

'Really, that soap doesn't matter all that much to me, when you get right down to it,' he thought with a mingled sense of surprise and gratification. It certainly hadn't felt that way yesterday when he'd stared down into the empty hole, but now that he was thinking about it things didn't seem nearly as bad anymore. 'I mean, what good would having a whole crateload of the stuff do me? Sure, then I could take a bath with the stuff every day and maybe go half a year without changing.' He snorted loud enough to draw a couple of stares from random passersby. 'Yeah, right. Go that long stuck here on the ground, without stretching my wings? Not a chance.

'So if that's out, all the stuff is really good for is protecting me from specific things. Like with Mousse. It was real handy then, but the deal was I knew I needed to be prepared. And fights like that are actually pretty rare.' If you excluded the missives sent by Ryoga, which after all were useless in telling him what time the battle would really take place, Ranma could count the number of challenge letters he'd received in Nerima on his fingers. The kind of situations in which he'd have enough warning to actually use the waterproof soap ahead of time were rare enough that it should be no problem at all to hold off on asking Shampoo if she could provide him with more.

In significantly higher spirits now, he covered the rest of the distance to the Cat Café rather more quickly. One good thing about Shampoo being an Amazon — he knew she would already be awake at this hour, getting in some early morning training before the restaurant opened its doors. 'Maybe I'll even get a chance to ask her about that weird routine she was doing yesterday.'

However, as he rounded the final corner and caught sight of Shampoo, he saw she was engaged in a more normal training exercise. The lavender-haired girl glided slowly and gracefully along, her body moving through a form that looked like it might be a distant cousin of Tai Chi. Those kata were intended to teach patience, control, and harmony with oneself, or so he'd always understood. They weren't something he or Genma had ever found particularly appealing.

He was still too far away to make out many details of the Amazon's expression. He could see her eyes were closed, but that was the biggest thing he could say for certain. She didn't look particularly happy, but he couldn't say whether the mask she wore was of concentration, or just subdued unhappiness remaining from yesterday. 'Well, if that's what it is, she oughta be glad to hear what I've got to say.'

Ranma trotted over to the mouth of the alleyway in which Shampoo was conducting her practice. He paused for a few moments, wondering how easily she could sense his presence. After several seconds ticked by and Shampoo remained unaware, he cleared his throat loudly, then followed up with a more subdued, "Hey, Shampoo."

The Amazon stumbled to a halt, whirling around to face him, her eyes opening wide. In that one unguarded moment Ranma saw surprise and a flicker of something else, and then her expression closed again. He wasn't quite sure what he'd seen, but it hadn't seemed very happy or welcoming. 'But that really isn't a surprise, is it?' he reminded himself. 'She needs to hear what you need to tell her before she'll be all smiles again.'

"You're… uh, you're probably kinda surprised to see me this early in the morning," Ranma said awkwardly. "Ah… can we talk?"

"Yes, Ranma. Shampoo need talk to you," the Amazon murmured.

"Okay, yeah, same here." He turned and jumped, landing lightly on the roof of the Cat Café. Even as Shampoo touched down a few feet away, he turned and seated himself on the edge, legs dangling over the side. It felt less awkward to sit than stand, and in a situation like this he could use every bit of reduced awkwardness he could get. As Shampoo followed his example, he twisted to face her, noting that her expression seemed even more closed than before. Taking a deep breath and screwing his courage to the sticking place, he blurted out, "I'm sorry."

She blinked, met his gaze for a few seconds longer, then dropped her eyes. Truth be told, he'd hoped for a more effusive response than that, but Ranma hadn't really expected it. He'd known he was going to have to go into a bit more detail than just those two words. "You were right. I did tell you how much it bothered me what Ryoga was doing, and I did ask you to fix it." He sighed, using the moment to buy time while he searched for the right words. "You did… what you did… because I asked it. There's no way in hell I shoulda jumped on you afterward or thought it might have meant you'd've cursed me against my own will. It was stupid and… and I'm sorry."

"So you believe in Shampoo now?" The Amazon didn't look up, nor had the look on her face brightened at all. A more adept listener than Ranma would have clearly heard a note of real pain in the question. Ranma himself wasn't so perceptive, but nonetheless his sense of foreboding grew.

"Y-yeah." He fell silent, searching for more words, trying to figure out what was wrong here and how to fix it. Somehow, this really didn't seem like the right point to introduce the "need for more soap" motif, even if just for Ryoga and not himself.

Shampoo still wasn't looking at him. The Amazon took a deep breath, then said, "Ranma… Shampoo m-make mistake."

"Mistake?" he repeated, thinking back to the last thing she'd said to him yesterday, hoping she didn't mean what he suspected she did, wondering why the thought was causing such a cold ache. Sure, Shampoo had declared that maybe she shouldn't have given even Ranma himself this new curse, but it wasn't like she could undo it now that it was done. Why should this thought hurt?

"Y-yes. Was mistake. Shampoo tell you water would lose real power in few more days," the Amazon said, ending his misinterpretation. "Would actually have taken few more months before that happen." And with this, she steeled her soul, lifted her head, and made eye contact with him once more.

She'd expected to see anger or some equally negative emotion. The utter absence of that was so reassuring that what she actually was seeing didn't even register at first.

"You mean…?" Ranma's voice trailed off, as his confusion rose ever higher. Now, all of a sudden, Shampoo was looking so much happier? Why?

After a few moments of silent wondering, he pushed it aside for now, returning to the question he'd started to ask. "You mean you didn't know how long it would really last? Getting that wrong was your mistake?" His confusion only grew higher as this innocent question caused all of Shampoo's newly-regained happiness to transform to shock. Why would she… hang on….

Shampoo wasn't sure she was even breathing. Her pulse hammered in her ears. '<That's what he thought I meant? I never thought of… I could… I could….

'<No, I can't.>' Closing her eyes once more, she answered, in a voice not far above a whisper, "No. Shampoo knew whole time water would really last that long. But no—" She stopped, sensing the sudden change in her companion's position.

Forcing her eyes open once more took a serious effort. When she did, she was rewarded with the sight of Ranma, standing, facing away from her. Tension was plainly evident in his posture and the tightly-clenched muscles of his arms, neck, and back. The silence stretched and stretched, Ranma holding voiceless and motionless, Shampoo finding no breath to continue with the explanation she desperately wanted to give, the explanation Cologne had warned her he'd probably not be ready to hear in the heat of the moment.

Ranma himself wasn't really aware of his surroundings just now. The message he'd just received hurtled round and round through his mind like a brick swung on a string, smashing through the pre-established constructions and leaving only messy ruin in its wake. Everything he'd believed… all the careful thought he'd worked his way through… the conclusions he'd so painstakingly reached… damn it all, what good was any of this? Why did something like this always have to happen, every single time it looked like things might finally be starting to look up in his life…

Eventually, the tension in her Airen's posture eased away. Shampoo firmly quashed the hope that tried to flutter to life, which was just as well for her. When Ranma turned around, there was no real sign of anger present in his eyes or his voice, but that didn't come as any kind of good news. Frankly, Shampoo would rather have had at least some anger than seeing her beloved look so cold, tired, disillusioned, and discouraged as he stared straight into her eyes.

"You told me Mousse is gone." Ranma's voice rasped across the early morning stillness, like sandpaper against Shampoo's heart. "He packed at least one thing for the trip that I guess you probably didn't know. That being my three bars of waterproof soap. He did leave one duck feather in their place, but it don't seem like a very good trade to me. I guess maybe that's just par for the course with Amazons."

He paused, maybe giving her a chance to respond, maybe just gauging the effects of his words. Shampoo hung her head and turned away, silent as the tears began to fall to the rooftop below. Ranma found no more words as well, so he turned, dropped to the street below, and walked steadily away.

Despite the walls between the two of them, Cologne's eyes shifted in tandem with her target's movements, arcing across one hundred and forty degrees as he dropped from the rooftop above her to the street one story below. Her gaze narrowed, tracking his progress away from the restaurant. It might well be a natural human response to hurt someone back when you yourself were hurt, but her reluctant son-in-law had pushed a little too far this time. Slandering all Amazons for the actions of two of them, one of whom would certainly throw aside all her Amazon heritage for his sake, was the act of a fool. Someday she would have to make that crystal clear to him.

But such was a matter for the future, specifically a future quite far off. Ranma still had some maturing to do before he would be ready to accept discipline and freely learn from it, rather than balking and fighting like his namesake. For now, the important thing to do was give Shampoo renewed comfort, and help her understand that this wasn't nearly the disaster that it seemed to her youth and inexperience.

Deciding not to wait until Shampoo came to her, Cologne opened the window of the bedroom she shared with her great-granddaughter, then slipped out through it and up onto the roof to join her great-granddaughter. Shampoo had pulled back a little from the edge, and was now seated with her legs drawn up against her, arms curled around her upper shins and head resting against her knees. The Matriarch crossed the distance to her youngest descendent, and once again laid a comforting hand on the girl's arm.

"<Y-you heard him leave, huh, Great-Grandmother?>" Shampoo asked, raising her head and turning to meet Cologne's gaze. She was under better control this time than the previous morning, but tears were still leaking out of her eyes.

"In Japanese, child," Cologne said, gently but firmly. Shampoo's need to learn her husband's language was just as great as it ever had been. Best to let her know that now, which would only reinforce the point Cologne would shortly be making — that this last encounter with Ranma was not any sort of ending.

Shampoo blinked at the apparent non sequitur. "O-okay," she said, then fell silent, not finding any more words just then.

"I didn't just hear him leave, Great-Granddaughter," Cologne said. "I heard his reaction as well. He really didn't take it any worse than I'd expected." Or at least, he hadn't been angrier or more bitter. Once again Cologne reminded herself never to underestimate the Saotome ability to say the wrong thing.

This, Shampoo hadn't expected. Such was clear from her wide-eyed, disbelieving stare. "But… but… what he say… Great-Grandmother, you no s-see his face…"

The Matriarch suppressed a snort. Like she'd needed to see it when she could just read his aura. "Oh, to be young again, when everything is fresh and new and a minor squabble with your loved one seems like the end of the road," she said sarcastically. "Shampoo, I told you to expect him to be unhappy. You deceived him about something that was a big factor in several important decisions he had to make. Of course he was going to resent that. But you certainly should have seen enough by now to realize how forgiving Son-in-law really is. Give him a few days to get over the worst of it, and then…."

"Then?" Shampoo prompted after a few seconds of silence.

Cologne's eyes glittered. "Then you tell him just why you originally said there were only a few days to make use of the water. You think this morning's apology was nice? You won't have seen anything yet."

"Shampoo hope you right," the lavender-haired girl said quietly. "Not able to enjoy this apology much. Too worried about what I have to tell him. But… but he do come today, less than whole day after last time he hurt me, came to say he sorry without anybody push him." Maybe her great-grandmother's take on the situation really was accurate. She was certain that Ranma had at least meant this morning's original apology — if he hadn't, if he'd just come here to weasel more soap out of her because of Mousse's theft, surely he would have demanded it from her after hearing her confession.

With some effort, she pushed aside the confusing mix of pain and hopefulness that was her thoughts of Ranma, concentrating on a less personally difficult but no less important topic. "Great-Grandmother, you say you hear what he say. Whole thing, right? You hear what he say about stupid Mousse?"

Cologne sighed. "Yes, child, I did," she replied, suddenly looking older and more weary than Shampoo had seen in a long time. "I suppose I shouldn't be surprised. We should probably count ourselves lucky he didn't leave some sort of exploding boobytrap behind when he took the soap."

"When he get back, I pound him flat!" Shampoo growled. Mousse had been a friend for a long time, a good friend once, but there were limits to her affection and patience. How dare he keep making things harder for her and her Airen! "Knock some sense into him."

"Do you honestly think that will do any good?" Cologne demanded, staring at her great-granddaughter with an intensity that thoroughly shocked and unnerved the girl.

The response was unsettling enough that Shampoo stopped, and really thought through her answer. "Should," she said at last, speaking a bit hesitantly. "Great-Grandmother, you know I not do more than give him medium smack almost ever. If Shampoo treat him for few days like Akane treat Ranma, he crumple like tinfoil."

"You have a point, although I believe you're underestimating his resolve," Cologne returned. "But it is true that if you hurt him seriously and thoroughly enough, you could crush his spirit and drive him away for good. Is that what you want?"

This time Shampoo took even longer to respond. "Shampoo… I want him to give up. Just be friend, not try for more. Not challenge Airen for anything other than grow as warrior, not try push him away from me, not try hurt him because he have what Mousse never ever get. That… that is what I want."

"And if you put Mousse down, broke his limbs and damaged him enough to require a long recovery time, made it utterly clear that you'd rather kill him than give yourself to him," Cologne paused for emphasis, staring directly into her great-granddaughter's eyes, "…do you think that would happen?"

Shampoo shook her head. "No," she whispered. "That maybe good as kill him." In a scenario such as that, she could far more readily envision her blind pursuer ending his own life rather than facing up to the mistakes he'd made. Louder, and with a little desperation leaking into her voice, she asked, "But what Shampoo do instead?"

The sight of Cologne sighing and shaking her head wasn't particularly reassuring. "The best thing to do is continue as you have been. Keep him at a distance, don't encourage him, but don't destroy him either. If things get worse, and matters reach a state that requires drastic steps, I'll take care of it. It's my responsibility anyway."

Shampoo blinked, and stared at her great-grandmother for what seemed like quite a long time. "How you responsible, Great-Grandmother? Ow!"

Cologne retracted her staff and leveled a glare at her youngest descendent. "Just how many lessons on our laws did you sleep through, Great-Granddaughter? In the first place, he had no right to leave the village and come here without permission. In the second, his entire purpose for this trip was to make you his bride, when by our law you were already bound to Son-in-law. You did at least know that his interfering with your own honor-bound course was itself a violation of the law, didn't you?"

Shampoo nodded, refraining from pointing out that Mousse only obeyed Amazon law as long as it didn't run counter to what he really wanted. She wasn't quite sure why, but it didn't seem like the kind of comment she ought to make.

"And he's piled act upon honorless act on himself ever since," the Matriarch continued. "It was my decision to allow him to stay here rather than sending him back to the village in the first place. It's been my decision to look the other way and allow him to make mistakes. I've cut him slack time and time again," her shoulders slumped, ever so slightly, and she let out another sigh, "and it may just turn out to be enough rope to hang him."

"What… what you mean, Great-Grandmother?"

"What do you think I mean, child? Think back over all the things Mousse has done here, especially when he thought I wasn't around to see. And then imagine what would happen to him if Mo Hwaran," she named the strictest, harshest, most hidebound member of the Council of Elders, "were to know of his record."

"Um… she want to come down hard on him, other, nicer Elders would fight her, argument go back and forth, and Mousse end up with few years of hard chores to do, no freedom to leave village and make pest of self. That not sound too bad to me," Shampoo said, brightening as she followed the thought along. "Is true reason you send him back to China?" Taking note of the Matriarch's glare, Shampoo stumbled to a halt.

"I didn't say, 'What if the Council as a whole found out'. And in any case you're being far too optimistic." Although Cologne couldn't really blame her. As the descendent of the Matriarch, Shampoo had all her life been held to a higher standard of adherence to the law than most people her age, and it was only natural that this would breed the assumption in her that other people could get away with even more than they really could. "If all of them were aware of the depths he's sunk to here in Japan, he would face exile or Xi Fang Gao personality rearrangement at the least."

Shampoo paled, gulped, and managed to stammer, "S-so bad?"

Cologne answered the question with a question. "How far do you trust Mousse?"

Her youngest descendent blinked. "Trust for what? He never give up fighting for Shampoo, can trust him to ends of earth, or at least ends of his own self, for that. No can trust him for anything else at all."

"And that is the root and heart of the problem. Mousse has great potential. Not as high as your husband's, but he is a treasure unequalled by anyone else born in his generation in our village. But how can we accept that kind of power from someone who consistently acts as honorlessly and selfishly as he does? Without trustworthiness, without responsibility, he ultimately represents a terrible threat."

Shampoo blinked, having missed the last part of that passage due to getting stuck on an earlier statement. "You mean, he unequalled other mans. Right?"

"No, Shampoo. His potential is even higher than your own."

"<The hell you say!>" Shampoo protested, more shocked than angry. "<I can wipe the floor with the blind idiot!>"

"That is because of his personal flaws and lack of dedication and understanding," Cologne snapped back. "If he were to turn away from this damnable fool's quest to make you his own, and instead take a good, long look at who he is, he might actually start to learn some truly important lessons." Seeing Shampoo still frowning rebelliously, the Matriarch added, "Just how much chi do you think it takes to pull off those Hidden Weapons tricks anyway?"

Shampoo's scowl only deepened. "Level of chi is not near important as control and skill."

"Exactly," Cologne agreed. "And those things require balance and understanding. Which would Mousse rather do — train his own skills, or stare dreamily out the window and watch while you train? Respectfully ask me to teach him something new, or stew in resentment that I never gave him my blessing to pursue you? Go on a journey to seek new techniques, or stay right here in Nerima to make sure Son-in-law doesn't get too close to you?"

None of those questions were very hard to answer. Shampoo nodded, conceding that point, but unwilling to give up the argument yet. "But how that say he better potential than me?"

"None of that does, it merely explains why you could 'wipe the floor with him'," Cologne replied. "If you aren't willing to take my word for this, there's really no way to convince you. The skills you'd need to evaluate someone's absolute potential on your own only come after many decades of growth and learning. If you like, just don't bother with who has the better upper limit. Think about Mousse, that you knew already that he was dangerous and skilled, and that you also knew how poorly he goes about trying to become better."

Shampoo nodded. That made a lot more sense, and didn't raise the annoying uncertainty as to whether her great-grandmother really meant that Mousse's potential eclipsed hers, or whether this was just a tactic to ensure she put forth maximum effort in her own training. "Can understand that, I guess. Mousse is maybe, how they say it, diamond in the rough?"

"More like a brilliant gem that is deeply flawed," Cologne said grimly. "He could reach such heights and shine so brightly, but it would take him learning and accepting some very painful lessons. The hardest of them all is something that it's critical to accept, something he has never accepted — that some goals cannot be attained, and others shouldn't. That there comes a time to turn away from something no matter how badly you want it, and that there are lengths to which it is wrong to go.

"That was why I allowed him to stay here, even when he came without permission and for a purpose that went directly in the face of the law. If I'd given him a flat order to stay in the village away from you, he might never have faced up to the reality of his own problems. He would have simply blamed his failure on the 'interference' of others, and never grown past his own flaws. He had to be allowed to freely try and freely fail, to watch with his own eyes as you walk away and out of his life." Cologne ended the impromptu lecture as she got a good look at her youngest descendant's face. Shampoo was looking just a tad bit overwhelmed.

"That… that kind of stuff Great-Grandmother have to think through all the time?" Shampoo eventually asked. "Try to follow all that make me dizzy. Very glad is not my job to be next Matriarch."

'<You're not the only one,>' Cologne thought. Choosing a kinder, gentler message to actually speak aloud, she replied, "If you were suited to the role, this sort of thing wouldn't seem so bad."

"Mmmm," was Shampoo's neutral response. "So… about Mousse. Shampoo understand, at least think so, about why we do what we do until now. But… is really working? Should change be made?"

Once more the Matriarch sighed. "I just don't know, Great-Granddaughter. It may be that helping Mousse grow beyond his flaws is our own goal that's beyond our grasp. Or it may be that trying to do so will cost us too much. I guarantee you this — if it ever seriously threatens your chances with Son-in-law, I'll throw Mousse to the wolves in a heartbeat. Ranma has endured far worse in his life than has Mr. Part-Time, and has come out far better. He's a treasure greater than Mousse in his potential and his current level of mastery…" here the Matriarch summoned up a small, but warm smile, "…and my great-granddaughter loves him very much."

"Is so," Shampoo said firmly. Then, a little of the firmness deserting her, she continued, "You really think it come to that? Have to let Mousse fall to own demons in order to be with Ranma?"

"I hope not, child. But only time will tell."

'There he is, by the tree.' Hikaru Gosunkugi's face twitched, but failed to solidify into a new expression. He couldn't quite decide whether to smile or sneer. The boy underneath the spreading foliage was one of Gosunkugi's least favorite people at Furinkan, which an impartial observer might think was odd. This person, at least, had never beaten up the scrawny voodoo student. In fact, Hikaru would be surprised if the other boy even knew his name.

No, it wasn't his personal treatment at the hands of Tatewaki Kuno that made him despise the upperclassman. A large part of it was disgust at all the blessings Fate had seen fit to dump on him; it was brutally unfair for someone to be born with both Kuno's physical talents and his bankroll. Gosunkugi snorted bitterly, his eyes taking in the cut of Kuno's kendo outfit, the richness of the cloth and the obvious lack of wear. He'd heard that Tatewaki had used to wear the standard school uniform at least occasionally, but Kuno had stopped bothering with that before Gosunkugi had enrolled in Furinkan. Given his position, disposition, and physique, no teachers bothered even to try enforcing those rules with the elder scion of the House of Kuno.

But even more than the unfair largesse Tatewaki had received from life, it was the kendoist's treatment of Akane Tendo that caused Hikaru's stomach to clench in bitter, futile knots. He'd seen the older boy hound and annoy the object of his affection time and time again, treating her in a way that surely would have got a less fortunate pervert hospitalized or incarcerated. Gosunkugi supposed he ought to be thankful that Kuno's obsession was directed against a girl strong and capable enough to handle it, rather than one of the nameless rabble of uninteresting ordinary girls that cluttered the halls of Furinkan, but that was a little more altruism than he was capable of. As far as he was concerned, the only true redeeming feature of Tatewaki Kuno was his ability to harass, annoy, and perhaps even threaten Ranma Saotome.

The scrawny boy gritted his teeth, forcibly restraining his mind from running down that track. No matter how infuriating Ranma was, no matter that he treated Akane even worse than did Kuno (comparatively speaking, of course, since Saotome didn't have the excuse of Kuno's obvious mental eccentricities to keep him from seeing just what he was really doing), no matter that Gosunkugi estimated at least three quarters of the school's female population (a figure which most definitely included some teachers) would go after the boy in a heartbeat if he weren't already pursued by girls that could squash them like flies, no matter that Ranma himself was as fast as a viper, strong as a rhino, and indestructible as a cockroach — this was no time to let himself get caught up in black thoughts of the unfairness of it all. He couldn't afford to miss this opportunity. It was quite rare for Tatewaki Kuno to appear in the open at this time; the kendoist usually spent his lunch hour in the school's training hall, dining on fine French cuisine while overseeing the training of the rest of the club members.

He still wasn't quite able to dredge up a smile, but as Gosunkugi hurried over he at least managed to put on an obsequious look. Kuno was looking around as he approached, rather impatiently Hikaru thought, as if perhaps the kendoist were waiting for someone. The older boy's eyes slid over him without pausing. It wasn't like there was anyone else at Furinkan for whom Gosunkugi could be mistaken, after all.

"Greetings, Upperclassman," Gosunkugi said as he came up beside Kuno.

"I don't really have time to talk right now, ah… whoever you are," the kendoist replied dismissively. "And despite the fact that today is the final day in which our illustrious kendo team is accepting new applicants, I don't think joining is a fitting endeavor for one such as you."

'No, really? Did you figure that out all by yourself?' Gosunkugi kept any hint of that reaction out of his voice as he replied, "I didn't come here to talk to Tatewaki Kuno the leader of the kendo club, but to Tatewaki Kuno, the Blue Thunder of Furinkan High."

Kuno raised one eyebrow, politely hiding his real reaction. 'Does the fool not realize that that is my title as captain of the team? Truly, it is sad to see one so deluded.' Glancing quickly around and still seeing no sign of the person he was waiting for, he asked, "And what is the reason for this distinction, Underclassman?"

"Captain of the team is something that will last less than one more year. But the Blue Thunder is the warrior who will fight on, never giving up, never admitting defeat, never ceasing to strive until he finally defeats that bastard Ranma Saotome. Right?"

Tatewaki smirked, inclining his head in a gracious gesture. "Truly, you are far more perceptive than I first gave you credit for. Is it in regards to Saotome's villainy that you seek my aid?"

"Yes, that's right. Or rather, I wanted to give you information that may be of benefit to you. Information that I don't think Ranma wants anyone to know."

"…Very well, speak on." Kuno spoke the words with what was, for him at least, remarkable hesitance. On the one hand, the thought of finding some secret that would at last expose a true weakness of the fiend Saotome was quite appealing. On the other, no matter how hard he tried he'd never be able to forget what had happened when he tried to exploit the "opening" his ninja servant Sasuke had told to him. The only bright spot in that entire debacle had been the fact that Tatewaki had forced his enemy to openly display his insidious and infernal powers. Only the blackest of fiends would bind a demonic cat totem spirit to himself like that. 'I should have known better than to put such faith in an incompetent like Sasuke. Hopefully this boy is a little more reliable.' Then he took a good long look at Hikaru. 'Perhaps it would be better to have someone else act on whatever information he provides,' the kendoist thought dubiously.

"It's about what he is. What I heard you realized about him before anyone else did." 'For obvious reasons.' "What I mean is, that he's a dark, foul sorcerer." Even in the cause of creating trouble for Ranma and hopefully giving Akane some Saotome-free time, it pained Hikaru to use such a ploy as this. Giving Ranma credit for mastering magic really grated on him, considering how his own efforts to plumb the mysteries always failed so abysmally. But it was too good a plan to pass up, and anyway he had his orders and couldn't afford to make an alteration as significant as that. Swallowing the last of his reluctance, he spit it out. "And from the fables and tales I've read, two things can really harm dark magics."

"And those are?" Kuno asked, feeling a bit more hopeful in spite of himself. Just as long as neither one of them involved cats.

"Flowing water, and cold iron."

The kendoist blinked, a sort of awestruck expression of enlightenment slowly spreading across his face. 'Water… as all know, cats hate water. And iron… the first collars were certainly made out of iron, and all know that cats utterly loathe being so bound. This sounds like it could actually work!'

Encouraged by the manic grin spreading across his companion's face, Hikaru continued, "And I believe I know how the two things could best be combined, as well."

"You do? Please, tell me!" Kuno blinked, cleared his throat, then said, "I mean, by all means share your knowledge that might aid in Saotome's downfall."

"Use water that has stood for a night and a day in a bucket of cold iron. Fling such water over him, and I'm sure it would negate all his magical abilities, even if only for a little while." Gosunkugi just barely managed to keep the smirk off his face. Then, an instant later, it dawned on him that there was no reason for such restraint. He grinned widely, knowing that Kuno would just think he was enjoying the thought of their foe's defeat, when in reality it was another thought that was giving him such pleasure. Specifically, Gosunkugi was finding a huge amount of satisfaction in what would follow once Tatewaki Kuno learned how to summon his Pigtailed girl whenever he so desired.

"Water… cast forth from a bucket of iron." The expression of joyous awe returned fivefold to Tatewaki's face. "The very thing which by chance… nay, which the gods themselves led me to use against him on the first day of our long struggle! The wretch dodged with alacrity and with panic, but I failed to understand the true significance! You have done me — no, you have done all of Furinkan a great service this day!" Kuno reared his head back and laughed loud, long, and hard. Gosunkugi shrunk further back into the shadow of the tree, hoping that his natural ability to lurk unseen would stand him in good stead here. He didn't want word getting back to Ranma that it was he who had put this idea in Kuno's head. Frankly, if it had been up to him, Gosunkugi would have done this whole thing via anonymous letter to the Blue Thunder of Furinkan High.

His attention was drawn back to said student, as Tatewaki finished his peal of triumphant mirth. "Know that all good and decent men, as well as Tatewaki Kuno himself, thank you, Underclassman," Kuno said, speaking with a greater measure of respect than he'd afforded anyone in at least six months. "I go now to finally cast down the foul sorcerer."

Gosunkugi blinked. "What? Now?! You can't!!" Before Kuno could do much more than blink in surprise, he swiftly amended, "That is, I think the water needs to have sat in the bucket for a full twenty-four hours, or as the tales put it, a night and a day. Anything less might not be enough to fully strike down Saotome's evil." Noting Kuno still looking reluctant, his body language clearly showing a desire to hurry off in search of a bucket, Gosunkugi wracked his brains. 'Come on, think! There's got to be some stupid quote from Sun Tzu or Shakespeare or somebody, about waiting to attack at the proper time. That at least would get through to him!'

Before Hikaru could scrounge up an appropriate quote (or craft a sufficiently authentic-sounding counterfeit), Tatewaki sighed and let the tension bleed out of his stance. "Once again you are correct," he said regretfully. " 'At Christmas I no more desire a rose, Than wish a snow in May's newfangled mirth; But like of each thing that in season grows.' The time for attack shall be the time that I attack. And anyway, I am expecting company now, and it would not be wise to abandon her or keep her waiting." Having spotted the approach of the girl he'd been awaiting all this while, Kuno continued, "And here she comes. I must ask you to take your leave now, but know this: tomorrow after school you shall see your aid carry the Blue Thunder on to glorious, majestic, final victory."

Hikaru bowed, and said his first entirely truthful sentence of the conversation. "I'll be looking forward to it." He turned and hurried away, not bothering to make eye contact with the approaching senior, but allowing her to see his smile as each passed the other.

"You are late, Nabiki Tendo." Kuno spoke the words far more cordially than he usually would have, as that very uncharacteristic tardiness had allowed him to have the fortuitous conversation that had just concluded. Had Nabiki not asked to meet him out here at the beginning of lunch, he would have been in his usual place overseeing the training of those placed under his command. Had she arrived on time, such an unfortunately ill-favored youth as his recent benefactor would never have dared to approach. Rare indeed was the Furinkan student who would cross its Ice Queen by interrupting her during a business deal — particularly one that would be so critical to her as his own illustrious patronage. No, all things considered, it was truly fortunate that Nabiki Tendo had arranged to meet him here on this Thursday lunch period and not kept her own half of the bargain in timeliness.

"Sorry, Kuno-baby, but you know how it is. Every now and then someone starts thinking he can get away with too much, and I have to deal out a reminder of how things really are. Arranging for that was what kept me from being here on time," Nabiki said with sarcastic honesty.

"Very well. You said you had obtained more photos of Akane Tendo and the Pigtailed Girl for me?"

"That's right. Ten thousand yen for each set of five," Nabiki replied, holding out four envelopes.

Kuno quickly took the offered packages, ripped them open, and scrutinized the contents. "Ten thousand yen for each set?! Surely you jest!"

"You ought to know by now I don't 'jest', Kuno-baby," Nabiki replied in a bored tone.

"But such a fee is ridiculously exorbitant! And these photos aren't even of particularly high quality!" Tatewaki protested all the louder. After waiting this long for his next fix, he frankly felt he deserved the very best the mercenary wench staring impassively at him could offer. At times in the past she'd procured photos for him that were much better at showing off the beauty, fire, and strength of his twin loves. And those had gone for a significantly lower price!

"Yes, about that." Nabiki sighed, and whipped up a convincing appearance of mingled sorrow, frustration, and remorse. "Ranma has been unusually harsh and suspicious lately, Tatewaki. That's the reason this batch isn't as high quality as I've managed in the past. You did know I have to evade his detection for every single photo I get for you, whether it's the pigtailed girl or Akane. Right?"

"O-of course I knew!" 'Damn that fiend! Is there no end to his vile interference, his twisted need for control over the beautiful Akane and the fiery pigtailed girl? Does his lechery know no bounds?!'

"So then you understand that if someone were to start making things a little more generally difficult for Ranma, I might be able to acquire better specimens for you," Nabiki stated.

"Of a certainty!" Kuno declared, drawing his bokken and holding it high. To Nabiki's amused eye, it looked rather like he was pledging his service to her. "And Nabiki Tendo…."


"I know that you and your henchwomen often offer bets on the various epic struggles that so regularly flare up within these grounds." Kuno smiled at her, mixing grimness and magnanimity in equal parts into the expression. "Tomorrow, after school, shall see the final battle between Saotome and myself. I finally have the key to unlocking the chains of his dark magic."

"Thanks for the hot tip, Kuno-baby," Nabiki said in immense satisfaction. 'Good job, Gosunkugi. You've earned every bit of that ten thousand yen reduction on your debt. And as for you, Ranma…' Her satisfaction only deepened. Even with what he would learn tomorrow, Kuno still wouldn't be competent enough to pose a truly life-threatening danger to her wayward resource, but he certainly ought to become enough of an annoyance to kill any lingering goodwill in Ranma toward his "gift" from Shampoo. And Tatewaki wasn't the only one who'd jump at the chance; the same went for Gosunkugi, today's choice of cat's-paw, as well as Principal Kuno and probably other guys as well. There were a few hotshot freshman martial artists who were nowhere near Ranma's league but would likely be eager to rack up a few victories over him any way they could. 'Time for you to get what you earned.'

It was the final half hour of the final class of the day. Had Furinkan been a normal Japanese school, Akane would have been in the same classroom and in the same seat as she'd occupied since the beginning of the day, focusing on the last of a series of teachers with most of her mind while part of her watched in irritation as Ranma blew the lesson off. Had Furinkan been typical, any club Akane wanted to attend would have required her to stay late after school, arrive early, or perhaps sacrifice her lunch hour.

However, Furinkan was anything but ordinary, and although most clubs still held to the Japanese standard schedule, there were four with special dispensation from Principal Kuno. The members of these clubs were allowed to skip what would have been their last class of the day and meet during that time instead. These included the kendo club, for reasons that were obvious to everyone; the Taoist club, due to the fact that its members were uniformly male with shaved heads; and the astronomy club, for reasons that were a mystery to the general student body.

The fourth organization whose members were allowed to skip their final class was the first club Akane had joined in her high school career — the flower arrangement club. Yuka and Sayuri had been members since their freshman year, and they'd wanted her to join then as well, but at that time Principal Kuno had still been in Hawaii and all the clubs had had to meet outside of normal school hours. She hadn't had enough interest in the intricacies of flower arranging to get to school an hour early for the meetings. And then Kuno started up the "defeat Akane Tendo to date her" challenge, and Akane was all the more thankful she'd made the decision she did. If she'd gotten to school an hour early for the club meeting, she would have had to deal with the mob when she left school, anticipating it and stewing about it all day long instead of getting it out of the way first thing. That would definitely have been worse.

But at the beginning of this year, the club had received a new captain, and she'd arranged the new hours with Principal Kuno. It felt a little odd to Akane; in her junior year she was attending a club whose captain was a newly-arrived freshman. She was sure it was even stranger for the seniors. But Miyuki was the heir to the school of Martial Arts Floristry, and nobody was contesting that she was the best girl for the job. Not after the way she'd whipped together that fifteen-by-thirty foot arrangement of palm trees, loa flowers, and other native Hawaiian vegetation, and presented it to Furinkan's headmaster. Akane had heard that it brought actual tears to his eyes. Whether or not that was true, she knew for a fact that it had been enough to not only get the club its preferred schedule, but also reward each member with three miniature ukulele-shaped "get out of haircut free" passes. Akane had earned quite a bit of yen allowing Nabiki to auction hers off to students who couldn't defend themselves.

Even with all those things in the new captain's favor, Akane had still been a little nervous, at first, thinking that with Miyuki's background the other girl would probably turn out to be as much of a slavedriver with her club as Kuno was with his fellow kendoists. But Miyuki had pleasantly surprised her there too; the other girl had quickly identified how serious each club member was about their common subject matter, and she focused most of her attention and effort on working with the girls who were really motivated. She only enforced discipline when necessary to prevent the serious students from being hindered in their learning and practicing, which basically meant that Akane herself could use the club meeting to do homework or chat quietly with Yuka and Sayuri.

Her interest today in the club's official purpose had been desultory at best. She'd put a few token dahlias in a vase, surrounded them with sprigs of baby's breath, then slid a morning glory into the center of the arrangement. It had taken all of two minutes. Yuka and Sayuri were focused intently on their own work today, though, so instead of talking Akane had simply sat back and brooded, her eyes resting absently on her arrangement while her thoughts roamed over everything that had happened lately.

Five minutes ago, her confused, tangling thoughts had finally worked their way to a decent conclusion. It wasn't a perfect, flawless solution by any stretch of the imagination, but to Akane's eyes the drawbacks were more than made up for by what she'd gain. And so now she smiled broadly, and glanced over toward Sayuri and Yuka. If her friends were still caught up in their own work, she'd try making a few more arrangements of her own. But if not, it would be nice to talk things over.

Both girls appeared to be finished, Akane saw, not really noticing that Sayuri was gazing down at her arrangement of pussywillows and tiger lilies with a murderous expression and Yuka was staring at the other girl with a mixture of sympathy and concern. "Hey, guys," Akane whispered. "Are you done?"

"Huh?" Sayuri said, blinking and looking around as if coming out of a waking dream. "Did you say something, Akane?"

"I asked if you wanted to talk now. I've got a lot of stuff to tell you," Akane whispered back. "Some really big stuff has happened. You have to promise not to tell anyone else what I'm about to tell you, okay?" Akane would certainly never expose Ranma's change of curses to the student body as a whole, but he had never actually asked her not to tell anybody and she frankly felt her friends deserved to know.

"Okay, we promise," Yuka murmured curiously. "What's up, Akane?"

The youngest Tendo took a deep breath. "It all started a little over a week ago…" Telling the whole thing took some time. It was enjoyable to watch Sayuri's eyes widen in stunned disbelief, and quite gratifying to see Yuka's expression of righteous anger as she heard of Shampoo's dirty tricks.

"I don't believe it," Yuka eventually gasped. "What… what are you going to do?"

Akane smiled even wider. "Well, it took a lot of thinking, but I finally figured out what the best thing to do is. We've got to get more waterproof soap. At first he was going to just get more from Shampoo, even though that Amazon," she invested enough venom in the word that both Yuka and Sayuri thought she might as well have gone ahead and used one that was officially dirty, "probably would have squeezed him for one date for each bar. And he needed to get at least four, two for him and two for Ryoga."

"Were you just gonna let him get away with that?" Yuka wanted to know. Akane had said "at first", which seemed to indicate that the plan had changed. She wasn't quite sure where this fit in with what Akane had just gotten through telling her, about Ranma finding out that Shampoo had lied to him about how long he had to think things through. If she had to guess, she'd estimate that Ranma learning that had put a stop to any plans to go back to the Amazons and ask for more help.

"I wasn't exactly happy about it," Akane retorted. "But come on! Ranma may be too stubborn to admit it, but you guys aren't as idiotic as he is. You can see it for yourself, right? This stupid 'gift' from Shampoo could really get him hurt, or even killed! He can't do anything to defend himself anymore, not in his new cursed form. Thanks to Shampoo tricking him, he's now basically helpless whenever he gets splashed!" Akane wasn't quite aware that she had taken several leftover flowers between her hands and was now anxiously shredding the various blooms. "Can't you imagine how terrible that is for him? And for Ryoga too, of course, but at least for him there's not a bunch of guys ready to attack him. Ryoga's a nice guy who doesn't make enemies, and falcons are a protected species anyway, so he should be okay for awhile. But Ranma's living on borrowed time until we can get some more soap!"

"Then… you are going to tell him to go back to the Amazons?" Sayuri asked.

Akane's jaw set mulishly. "No. Not anymore. That's what I was telling him, and I tried again at lunchtime today. I even volunteered to be the one to do it, but that jerk just told me to quit sticking my nose into it, and said something even stupider than usual about Shampoo knowing that Mousse took his old stash of soap and he wants to see if she'll admit she was wrong and make up for everything on her own." At another time the thought of Ranma deliberately staying away from Shampoo would have felt quite nice, but under these circumstances he shouldn't have even been thinking about an apology! He ought to have gone to her and gotten more soap from her because she owed it to him, and not let her pressure him into forgiving her as part of the package! But, Akane reminded herself with a mental grumble, there was no way Ranma would be that decisive. She was lucky enough that he was willing to walk away from the Amazons even to this extent.

"No, I had a better idea just a little while ago." Akane pushed aside the remnants of her anger, focused again on the inspiration she'd had, and smiled. It was a much more satisfactory solution than going to the Cat Café anyway behind Ranma's back, which was what she'd been more or less planning on. "As soon as I get home, I'm going to talk to Nabiki and get her to find out how to order the waterproof soap from China."

"What?!" Sayuri exclaimed, only just holding the outburst to a whisper. "Akane, won't that be way too expensive?" She well remembered the times throughout her years of friendship with Akane that the Tendo finances had temporarily hit rock bottom.

"What, you think I've got something better to spend my money on than keeping Ranma and Ryoga from getting hurt? Or killed?!" Akane shot back. "Yeah, it'll probably be pretty expensive, but it'll be worth it. And there's the other side of it too — this way, he won't have to go crawling back to Shampoo. It'll definitely be worth it to show that bimbo that someone else can give Ranma a real present. All she's ever done is give him stuff that turns out to be more tricks and traps and ends up hurting him. If this finally makes Ranma realize it, it would be worth it just for that."

"Ordering something all the way from China…" Yuka looked worried. "Expensive is one thing, but what about how long that'll take? Nabiki still needs to find out how to do it, even. You think Ranma can wait that long?"

"It should be okay," Akane replied. "Even if an accident happens once, it won't be the end of the world. I can jump in and save him for a change if it comes to that," she said in tones of suppressed satisfaction. Since Ranma had eventually remembered to tell her that Mousse was out of the country right now, Akane felt much better about that prospect. She could handle anyone at Furinkan, after all. "And if it did get out to the whole school, he would just have to skip until we can get him protected again. But right now nobody at Furinkan knows, and considering how long he was able to keep the secret about his original curse, he ought to make it through okay.

"Even if he is too big of an idiot to think things through," she continued, speaking in a bit of a huff as she recalled something else. "Believe it or not, two days after Ranma got rid of his old curse, I asked Nabiki whether he'd gotten her to promise not to tell anyone at school. And of course he hadn't even bothered. Honestly, he's so helpless in anything outside of a fight."

"Maybe he just needs the right person to take care of him in things like that," Yuka said slyly.

"He needs to start listening to me and using his brain is what he needs," Akane retorted. "But at least this time worked out pretty well. Nabiki promised me that she wouldn't tell anyone, and she didn't even charge me. If Ranma had been the one asking, he might have racked up a whole year's worth of debt for that."

"Don't worry, Akane," Sayuri murmured, laying the innuendo on even thicker than had her friend. "Sooner or later he'll open his eyes and realize who's really been there for him the whole time, always looking out for him and treating him better than he deserves. It'll all pay off sooner or later, I'm guessing sooner with all the—"

"HEY!" Akane exclaimed, the outburst coinciding nicely with the end-of-day bell. "It's not like that, you guys! I… it's just… he… Oh, was that the bell? Gotta go, see you tomorrow!"

Yuka snickered as she watched Akane stuff various books and papers into her satchel, then hurry out of the room without even remembering her flower arrangement. She cast another long look at hers. It was nice, and she'd had an enjoyable time creating it, but she didn't think she would bother with taking it home.

Then her attention shifted to her remaining friend, now staring back at her own creation with a renewed glare. "Going to take this one home and burn it too?" Yuka asked lightly.

"No. I thought I'd find a really tall building and drop it off the top," Sayuri growled.

"That doesn't sound like a very good idea," Yuka replied, letting her worry come through loud and clear. "What if it lands on someone? Shouldn't you just throw it into the canal or something?"

"Yeah, that's a good idea. Cats hate water, right?" Sayuri said, glaring all the more intensely at the unfortunate bunch of tiger lilies and pussy willows. "Drop it into the canal, from the top of the tallest building I can find…."

"Um… Sayuri, don't you think you're taking this a little too hard?" Yuka ventured to ask. "I know it must have been traumatic and all, but Ranma rescued you from the Ghost Cat before anything really bad could happen."

Sayuri made a truly disgusted noise in the back of her throat. "Excuse me, Yuka. I think that having my first kiss stolen by a giant undead cat easily qualifies as 'really bad'." The schoolgirl's gaze sharpened, as if she were trying to bore a hole through her flower-arrangement-as-effigy. Then, some tension leaving her, she sighed and said, "A first kiss is special, you know? It doesn't have to be with the guy you're gonna spend the rest of your life with, it doesn't even have to be with a guy who's special to you, but it darn well should be with a special guy! And I don't mean 'Ghost Cat' kind of special!"

"Well, it could be worse," Yuka said sympathetically. "Akane could have overheard you telling me that you always kind of hoped you'd be able to get your first kiss from Ranma when he was under a random love spell."

Sayuri involuntarily shivered. That had been a close call. "Yeah, you're right," she admitted as she got to her feet and gathered her own schoolbooks. "I need to move on past this." She hesitated a moment as Yuka followed suit, then deliberately walked away leaving her arrangement behind.

"Miyuki will be happy, anyway," Yuka joked. "You've used those same flowers for your last four bouquets. I think the monotony was starting to get to her."

Ranma moved through the halls, uncomfortably aware that something in his immediate surroundings was amiss. He couldn't quite put his finger on the wrong note, but it was definitely there. It wasn't the absence of Akane; she'd spent her last period in that silly club for the past several weeks, and by now he'd gotten used to meeting up with her at the front gate of Furinkan to walk home.

"Hey, Ranma!" The boy in question turned, to find Hiroshi coming up behind him. "I hear Kuno's waiting in the courtyard to challenge you. Word is he's really gonna go all out this time."

The pigtailed teen blinked, and shot a searching glance at the other students in the hall. Now that he was looking for it, he could easily make out the speculative glances and the thrill of anticipated vicarious combat. Ranma supposed that if it had been a real threat, rather than the Blue Thunder, his danger sense would have been tripped, but as it was he'd just vaguely been aware that something was different.

He turned back to Hiroshi and grinned. "Thanks, man. Not that I need the warning or nothin' to deal with him."

"I dunno, Ranma." Hiroshi lowered his voice. "Nabiki's stacking the odds a little differently this time. She's giving out a better payout on you than she usually does, by a pretty fair margin."

Ranma stared at his friend, nonplused. "What's that mean, exactly?"

"Means she's encouraging people to bet on you, offering more money than usual if you win. And I think we all know Nabiki doesn't like to let large sums of yen get away from her." It had taken Hiroshi three solid years of getting fleeced by Nabiki in her betting games, as well as a blistering lecture on financial responsibility from his mother, but he'd finally started to wise up to some of her tricks. "It seems to me like she's expecting something different than the usual this time."

"And that's not all," Daisuke piped in from behind Ranma's current position. "I hurried on ahead just now and got a good look outside. Kuno's waiting by the front gate, and he's got something pretty big sitting beside him. It's covered with a tarp, so I couldn't tell what it really was, but it looked about the size of four okonomiyaki carts like Ukyo's clumped together in a square."

"The tarp wasn't moving around or nothing, was it?" Ranma asked nervously. Somewhere in the back of his mind lurked the nagging fear that one day Kuno would decide to try another cat trap at school. Sure, the last one had turned out pretty badly for the kendoist, but it wasn't like he seemed to learn any lessons from the standard beatings he got. "You hear any yowls or hisses or anything?"

"Fraid not. Looking for an excuse to give Akane a little more action?" Daisuke said slyly, elbowing his ladykiller friend in the ribs.

"Get real, Daisuke," Ranma said with a snort. "I got better things to think about than that on the worst day of my life. Which this better not be," he muttered darkly and strode away toward the waiting confrontation.

Another couple of minutes brought him out through the front gate and into sight of Kuno. As Daisuke had said, the kendoist was standing beside a bulky object covered with a tarpaulin. Ranma didn't have long to wonder about its true nature though, for as soon as Kuno caught sight of him, the older boy turned and whipped the covering off in one blinding motion.

"Face your long-awaited and richly deserved doom, Saotome!" Tatewaki proclaimed, turning back to face his nemesis. "Today is the day you — what?" His lower jaw dangling slightly and his eyes bugging out, Tatewaki stared at the space that had held the foul sorcerer only an instant before. But there was no sign to be seen of Ranma there now.

From his new position, clinging to a windowsill two stories up, Ranma studied the situation. It grated on his pride a little, to have retreated so quickly before even seeing what Kuno's "secret weapon" was, but he didn't let that bother him too much. If there was even the slightest chance that this was another cat-themed ploy, he wanted to get out of the line of fire and to a place of relative safety before deciding on his next move.

As it turned out, though, Kuno hadn't yet opted to repeat his earlier mistake. The tarpaulin had been covering a large, low-slung flatbed trailer sort of thing, and said trailer was filled full of what any Jusenkyo-cursed victim could instantly identify as buckets of cold water. 'Why's he got those? Did someone finally tip him off about how he could summon his pigtailed girl?' For a second he wondered whether Nabiki might have been the guilty party, then recalled what Hiroshi had said — she'd been structuring her bets to encourage people to bet on him to win. And Nabiki had to be smart enough to know that even if Kuno did splash him, that wouldn't mean he'd lose to the likes of the Blue Thunder. He'd just fly away, flipping his opponent the bird with a pinfeather as he left, and she'd have to cancel all her bets.

No, Nabiki probably just heard Kuno say something about having a new surprise in store for this fight, and in that kind of situation — a rival coming up with a new move or tactic — Ranma usually did have to lose the preliminary match before coming back and winning the real one. But the fact that those practice fights weren't the real thing wouldn't matter to Nabiki; she would collect her winnings anyway.

Well, she was gonna be disappointed this time, Ranma thought with some satisfaction. Kuno finally getting some idea of splashing him wasn't nearly enough to pose a threat, although he suspected it could prove to be a serious irritation.

With that in mind, he decided he'd better get a better idea of just what his opponent knew, didn't know, and was expecting from this ploy. "Yo, Kuno! Up here!"

Tatewaki looked around, then up, and located the target of his ire. "Curse you, Saotome! Think you to escape beyond the reach of my righteous vengeance?!"

"Actually I was just checking out the view from up here," Ranma retorted, putting on his best "bored" expression. "Whatcha got in those buckets, anyway?"

"As if you didn't know, and did not flee from this very weapon!" Kuno pivoted, in one smooth motion drawing his bokken with one hand while reaching into the trailer and grasping a bucket with the other. "As all know, water cast forth from a bucket of cold iron is a weapon feared like no other by the wielders of dark magics! With this, I shall finally smite thee once and for all!"

"Huh?" was Ranma's eloquent response. 'He thinks that… where the heck would he…?' His eyes widened in pained realization. Unconsciously shifting his weight and tightening the grip of his feet, Ranma brought both hands forward and up and began massaging his forehead. Taking a two story fall would have hurt less than this anyway. "Kuno, I can't believe even you are this dumb," he said disgustedly. "That was a gaijin fantasy movie. Ain't no way I'm gonna melt down into nothing when you throw that over me." He'd never had a high opinion of Kuno's mental prowess, but taking a cue from The Wizard of Oz was even lower than he had thought the kendoist would sink.

"Silence, wretch! I attack!" With this proclamation Kuno leaped, rising into the air with bokken and bucket aimed directly at his foe.

"Yeah, whatever," Ranma retorted, pushing away at a sharp downward angle from the window, the force of his move sending him shooting down through the air much faster than a standard fall. He was safely on the ground before Kuno had covered even a quarter of the distance of his own jump. With no target waiting for him, and unwilling to drop either bokken or bucket, Kuno didn't quite know how to handle the endpoint of his leap. Ranma got a good smirk out of seeing the kendoist smack awkwardly into the side of the building, even as he felt the tiniest measure of respect at the skill Kuno had showed in altering his trajectory that much. The upperclassman's original path would have sent him crashing through the glass of the window, but he'd managed to avoid that. 'Guess I've actually been a good influence on this moron,' Ranma thought with equal parts surprise and smugness.

"I fight on!" Kuno roared, landing from his fall and sprinting back to the trailer. "You can't dodge forever!"

"I can sure dodge long enough for you to make a fool out of yourself by wasting all that water," Ranma replied, retreating from the now charging Kuno in a series of backflips. As his hands touched the ground for the final move, he clenched his hand and pulled up a clod of dirt. Coming back to his feet, he chucked this straight at the bucket Kuno carried.

The kendoist turned his charging attack into a whirl, bringing his sword around and deflecting the missile. "Not this time, Saotome!"

"You just spilled about three quarters of the water when you did that. You do know that, right?"

Kuno snarled and tossed the bucket with its remaining water at his hated foe, then raced back to get another one. For Ranma's part, it wasn't too hard to dodge the relatively small amount of water remaining in the container. "Hey, Kuno, see if you can spill the next one into the flower beds. That way at least you can say you accomplished something at school this year."

"Jest if you will, but today shall be your downfall!" Having learned a lesson about moving too swiftly while carrying his precious anti-sorcery liquid, Kuno settled for a measured stalking tread of doom rather than a charge. "Today is the day I finally put an end to your evil!"

"NO!!" The cry came from above, and was followed immediately by the splintering crash of breaking glass and the crunch of destroyed masonry. Ranma and Tatewaki both looked up, gaping at the sight as a desk was forcibly ejected through a second story window (and a bit of the wall around it), streaking down to smash with brutal force into the midst of Kuno's collection of liquid ammunition. The trailer buckled, both ends coming up as the middle was forced down, and in an instant the only water left to Kuno was what was contained in the bucket he held.

"Who… what… why…?" Tatewaki wasn't left to wonder long. As the dust cleared from what had formerly been a standard Furinkan window, he saw his raven-haired love standing there, looking faint, swaying dangerously on her feet. "Akane Tendo! Step back, or you may fall!"

"Upp… upperclassman Kuno…" The words escaped Akane's lips only just loudly enough to be heard across the distance. "Please… catch me…" And with that she tilted far enough forward to make a descent inevitable.

Casting both weapons aside, and displaying greater speed than he had in the fight, Tatewaki raced across the distance. Ranma, meanwhile, though tense, held back. He had seen clearly enough that Akane was still in control of her actions. Sure enough, it was with a deliberate motion that she stepped forward and angled herself toward the spot toward which Kuno was streaking. The kendoist was there in plenty of time to break her fall, staring up with a look of mingled desperation and resolve, his arms stretched wide to catch her prostrate form. Ranma just watched, feeling rather ambivalent about the interference, as Akane angled herself so that her landing was knees-first on Kuno's forehead, followed up by a rebound to the ground, an elbow to the solar plexus, and an uppercut that sent him flying in the general direction of home.

From her third floor vantage point, Nabiki pondered the events she'd just witnessed. That wasn't how it was supposed to happen. 'Oh well. Kuno will try again soon enough, I'm sure. And if I recall the spread correctly, almost nobody bet on Akane being the one to end the fight. We profited about as much as we would have if Kuno forced Ranma to retreat.' Nobody who was at all familiar with the two boys in question ever bet on that option.

But Akane's interference was a little troublesome. Nabiki had wanted Ranma to get a good bit more fed up with things in general before Akane started being nice and helping him out again. This act had clashed with both parts of that. It might get Ranma thinking more positively of her sister, but Nabiki doubted it would have anywhere near as big of an impact as something like this would have had in another week or two. 'I swear, little sister. Your cooking isn't the only thing you sabotage.'

"You didn't have to do that, you know."

Akane's only response was a noncommittal sort of sound, one which nonetheless managed to convey the impression that she was both humoring him and quite pleased with herself. Ranma's frown became a degree more pronounced.

"I'm serious, Akane. I had everything under control."

"I'm sure you did, Ranma."

The boy in question gritted his teeth. If Akane had been talking to Kuno or Ryoga, she would have a right to expect them to miss the patronizing way she'd said that. But Ranma Saotome wasn't anywhere near that clueless. "So that's why you decided to drop out of a second story window, huh? A clumsy chick like you ought to know better than to take a risk like that for nothing."

"Excuse me, Ranma." The self-satisfied note in Akane's tone was suddenly conspicuous by its absence. "I can handle jumps like that just fine, thank you very much!"

Ranma snorted disdainfully. "Yeah, you sure proved it during that mess with Kuno and the Phoenix, didn't ya? Shampoo had to dive and save your butt from that fall, if I recall correctly."

"I would have been just fine!" Akane snarled, hands tightening into fists at the memory. This really wasn't a good time to hear Ranma putting her down and showering more praise on Shampoo.

"I'm sure you would, Akane." He managed to duplicate her earlier tone with near-flawless exactitude.

"I'd have been a lot better than you would have if Kuno had gotten that water on you!" Akane exclaimed. "He was about to show everyone in the school what's happened to you! Everybody there would have found out your secret. Can't you even thank me for saving you?!"

"Saving me? From Kuno?!" Curiously enough, Ranma felt his irritation diminishing. If Akane really was that clueless, he felt like maybe he ought to be pitying her rather than chewing her out. "Akane, I could take that moron with both hands tied behind my back. I can certainly manage to dodge a few random splashes from him."

"Whatever," Akane said, making it clear that she didn't believe a word of it. "You're always getting splashed at the worst possible moment. Like you could really manage to dodge forever when someone's trying to get you wet."

"Oh, you mean like what happened when Mousse was tryin' to stick me with a Yazuniichuan curse… no, wait, that ain't right. I seem to recall avoiding the worst he could throw at me, even when he had you as a hostage."

Akane felt her temper slide just that much closer toward a breaking point. "Ranma! Could you please stop bringing up the Amazons already!"

"Well, excuse me for the fact that my example wasn't something you wanted to hear!" Ranma took a few moments after this to breathe and calm down, then said, "Look. Thanks for thinking about me and worrying about me and all that, but don't expect me to act like I needed help from you with Kuno. If I had to get someone to save my butt from somebody like him, Pop would turn over in his grave."

"ACHOO!!" The sneeze couldn't have come at a worse time for Genma, as it caused him to break his stride. And when you're carrying a hundred pounds of various stolen foodstuffs on your shoulders, racing along half a step ahead of your best friend (similarly encumbered), who is in turn three steps in front of a mob of angry townsfolk, the last thing you want to do is break your stride. The elder Saotome stumbled, feeling Soun smack into him from behind an instant later. He used the last second he had before the arrival of the mob to fire off the most vicious glare he could manage at Happosai's distant backside, wishing that the murderous voices of the villagers were loud enough to drown out the Master's obnoxious chortles. How much longer was this damnable trip going to last?

"Fine!" Akane screeched. "Next time I'll just leave you alone!"

"Good!" he retorted. "Then I wouldn't have to worry about you breakin' your neck from trying a move you don't have what it takes to pull off! If Kuno hadn't've been there you woulda wiped out completely on the landing!"

"If he hadn't been there I wouldn't have jumped in the first place! Or angled myself like that!" At this point only the desire to win the verbal argument was holding Akane back from belting her ungrateful betrothed. Already quite a large part of her mind was wondering whether the restraint was worth it. "That's like saying that you shouldn't walk on the fence because if you jumped up to it and it wasn't there you'd fall in the canal!"

"Unlike some people I know, I wouldn't do something that dumb."

"How dare you!"

Ranma blinked. 'Wait a minute. That wasn't Akane.'

He whirled, his gaze leaving the fuming tomboy and arcing around to settle on the fuming Lost Boy. His rival was standing about ten feet down the road at the mouth of an offshooting alley, clutching a map in one hand and glaring furiously toward him. "Ryoga," he said blankly. "What are you doing here?"

Ryoga swelled further in rage. "How can you say that, you bastard! Today was the day I set down in your challenge letter. Or were you planning to run away again?"

"Yeah, it was today, which means the actual fight will happen in another week when you finally find your way back…." Ranma let the sentence fade away as he realized that the impossible had actually happened. Ryoga wasn't going to be late for a preset battle? But then again, the time for the match was still two hours off, and this street certainly wasn't the place where Ryoga had said he'd meet him. If his rival hadn't randomly run into them now, Ranma didn't suppose the odds were very good that the other boy would have been able to keep the appointment.

Feeling somewhat better now that the universe didn't seem to be falling to pieces around him, Ranma spoke again. "Heh. You're early, Ryoga, but I guess I don't mind about that."

"You should!" Ryoga declared, shucking off his backpack and assuming a ready stance with his umbrella. "It just means you had less time to live! I'm going to pay you back now for all of it, Ranma! Tricking and cheating me — getting me this curse — tormenting Akane — I'm going to serve you everything you've earned for all these honorless acts!"

Meanwhile, Akane herself was beginning to feel a little dizzy, not only from her attention switching back and forth between Ranma and Ryoga, but from vacillating between two courses of action. Should she try to stop this? If it had been anyone else making this challenge, the answer would be an emphatic "yes". But this was Ryoga! The guy who'd been screwed over the worst by Shampoo's latest scheme! And it was partly Ranma's fault that that had happened. Didn't he deserve a chance to work out some of that injustice? He was the only guy who Akane would trust not to take unfair advantage of Ranma's new curse in a battle like this, but she did trust him. But what if an accident happened? Things like that were always possible, even with fighters as skilled as these two. But could it just make things worse if she tried to put a stop to it? Frozen in uncharacteristic indecision, Akane held silent as the focus shifted from words to actions.

Realizing that Ryoga was about to charge, Ranma jumped back in a long graceful leap that touched him down on top of a light post. Ryoga's words almost didn't register at all. There wasn't much there he hadn't heard before, really, although Ryoga referring to his Jusenkyo curse plainly, clearly, and without fear while in Akane's earshot was of course new. Still, that ultimately didn't mean much; certainly it didn't mean this fight couldn't follow the old familiar pattern.

But even as Ranma was putting the finishing touches on his retaliatory round of smack-talking, a thought struck him. 'Doesn't this fit in with some of the stuff I've been thinking about lately? Even if Shampoo lied through her teeth to me, that don't change why I decided to take this new curse. I wanted to stop doing all the same old stuff, make some real changes for the better….'

With that in mind, he ran the other boy's words back through his head, paying more attention than he usually did to the actual contents of the trash talk. As he did so, a frown spread over his face, one darker than any he'd worn when speaking to Akane. "Ryoga…." he growled.

"What do you think you're doing!" the Lost Boy demanded, scowling furiously up at him. Did Ranma think retreating to the top of that pole and then just standing there staring off into space was going to save him? With a growl, Ryoga shot forward, smashing cleanly through the base of the light post with his umbrella.

As his former perch toppled toward the ground, Ranma reacted quickly enough to bounce away from it to the top of a one story building. Immediately he jumped again, going two stories higher. He landed on this new high ground and turned back to face Ryoga. "Hey, Porkbrain! If you want a fight, you're gonna have to catch up with me!"

"Damn you, Ranma! You're not getting away!" Ryoga left the ground behind as well, being sure to keep one eye on Ranma to avoid losing his way as he jumped to the rooftops. The coward was already fleeing higher!

Back on the ground, and all too aware that she couldn't manage the second jump she'd need to follow the two, Akane screeched out, "You guys! Don't… wait…." She fell silent, realizing the utter futility of it all, remained silent for a few tense moments, then stomped off toward home. There were pigtailed practice dummies there in need of a good pounding.

'Okay, this should be far enough.' They'd covered the length of three city blocks, taking a path that Ranma knew his shorthaired fiancée couldn't follow, and would now be well outside of said girl's hearing. It had been a pain, too, making sure to stay far enough ahead of Ryoga that the other boy didn't try to launch any ranged attacks — Ranma really didn't want to think about what could happen if those bandanas whipped through someone's window after he dodged them — but not so far that Ryoga might lose sight of him.

But the time for his retreat was done. Ranma braced himself, both physically and mentally, as Ryoga touched down on the opposite side of the rooftop that would be their battleground. It was the highest nearby, which meant that he could say what he needed to say without having to worry about anyone overhearing.

"Finally ready to stand and fight?" Ryoga snarled, driving forward with his arm cocked back for a punch.

"Yes and no," Ranma snarled right back, slipping to one side and using his greater speed to launch a quick kick that bounced off Ryoga's hip. The move didn't do any damage, but it did knock the Lost Boy off balance while giving Ranma the traction he needed to push away in a leap. The upshot of the exchange was that each boy ended up more or less where the other had started out.

That had been Ranma's intention in more ways than one. "So what about you, Ryoga? You ready to yell a whole bunch more lies about just which one of us really doesn't have any honor?"

"I'll tell the world what I've always said!" Ryoga roared, coming in for the attack again, striking harder and faster than Ranma was quite prepared for. The pigtailed teen quickly found himself forced on the defensive, without a chance to unleash the arguments he'd wanted to make. "That you don't have any! That you torment people for your own sick fun! Me… the other guys out for your head… the girls who're blind enough to want you… Akane…" His voice trembled a bit on that last word, but his attacks never faltered. If anything they increased in intensity. "And you were doing it again just a few minutes ago! Yelling at her and treating her like she's worthless, when she's about a million times too good for you!" With that battlecry, he launched his most furious combination of strikes yet.

Under normal circumstances, Ranma could have handled the attack easily. Ryoga's anger lent him power, but the Lost Boy's focus was suffering ever so slightly. It was only by a small percentage, but it was enough that if Ranma had kept his cool and perfectly maintained his own focus, he could have weathered the storm without trouble. However, the sheer utter gall Ryoga had shown in the focus of his latest verbal attack managed to get to Ranma, striking a chord of anger within his own heart, and as a result he made a slight mistake. In looking for a chance to work in an attack of his own, he misjudged the direction of Ryoga's offensive and was clipped by a low kick that took his feet right out from under him.

Time seemed to slow as he tumbled toward the rooftop, hearing Ryoga's harsh cry of triumph and sensing the followup punch blaze down toward him. Ranma threw everything he had into a defensive measure, snaking out one leg and awkwardly bracing one ankle against Ryoga's shin, giving him the purchase he needed while still tumbling down through the air to push away in a barely-controlled corkscrewing roll. He was three feet away from Ryoga by the time he actually hit the rooftop and cannoned across most of its length before rising back to his feet, both palms skinned and stinging, and angrier than ever.

"Still good at running away," Ryoga grunted harshly, striding forward with hands clenched.

"And you're still good at lyin' through your teeth and blaming me for your own garbage!" Ranma shot back. "You wanna talk to me about Akane, P-chan? Where the hell do you think you've got the right?! I only know one guy in her life that she really, honestly trusts — and it's you." The content of this admission brought Ryoga up short with a snort of surprise, his eyes blinking as he tried to process this twist. "You know it and I know it. Whenever there's any question of you an' me fighting about something, Akane always takes your side, believes in you, calls me a liar, and blasts me for 'picking on you'." He spat the last three words.

"That just goes to show she knows who her real friends are!" Ryoga declared, still angry, still intending to reduce his opponent to a bloody pulp, but content for the moment to fight the battle that he knew he could win easily. Ranma might have saved Akane from a few people even more depraved than he was, but he never gave her the kind of support, care, and affection that Ryoga tried so hard to provide. But trust Ranma to get his panties in a twist because Akane didn't just roll over and accept the torment and belittling that he had for her!

"Real friends?" Ranma sneered, unconsciously tensing toward a stance designed for maximum offense. "You know something, Ryoga? There's only one guy in Akane's life that she really trusts, and by a strange coincidence, there's also only one guy who's all the time betraying her and takin' advantage of her. And you know what?" His eyes narrowed to blazing squints. "They're the same guy. Ryoga P. Hibiki, the only guy ever to trick Akane into posing nude for him."

"SHUT UP!" Ryoga's cry shook the heavens, but was almost covered by the thunder of his approaching charge. He held his umbrella out as if to impale Ranma. "It's not like that at all!"

Now more than ever his opponent's focus was lacking. Ranma found no real difficulty in flowing back and away, circling in retreat without getting too near the edge of the roof, avoiding Ryoga's strikes while still maintaining his verbal offensive. "Oh, no?" he asked, disgust dripping from his tone. "How would you put it then, P-chan? Care to explain what I missed? Want to tell me how it really wasn't bad for Akane at all, the girl who hates perverts and whose worst nightmare is getting taken advantage of like that?" Admittedly this was more of a guess than actual knowledge on his part, but considering the way she always harped on that issue Ranma was pretty certain of his conclusion.

"I said shut up!" was Ryoga's tortured reply. The Lost Boy increased the fervor of his attacks, but was unable to increase the skill and control with which he applied them. "I'd never hurt her!"

"You were hurting her every time you crawled into the damn bed with her!" Ranma yelled. "You think it was okay because she didn't know what was happening? Did you think that made it all right to do just what you wanted? Akane an' me may fight, but I never took anything from her that she didn't want to give! An' that's exactly what you did. You know damn well Akane would never have done anything she did if she knew who her pwecious wittle piggy really was!"

"Damn it, it wasn't my fault!" Ryoga screamed. "I never asked for that curse, Ranma! It was your fault. And that wasn't enough for you, was it?!" Ranma dodged a particularly vicious but sloppy punch, allowing his scowl of contempt to grow ever deeper. At this point Ryoga wasn't fighting with much more skill than Akane might show. "Not enough for you that I turned into something small, and weak, and helpless. You had to take away the one bright spot in my dark, cold, lonely life! Maybe…" he faltered both physically and verbally, his gaze falling to the rooftop below him, his attack grinding to a halt as anger was displaced by sorrow and desperate confusion, "maybe I wasn't… maybe it was…" He fell silent, unable to verbalize or even really think the words. Gulping a few times, he found a thought that could be spoken. "But at least being P-chan gave Akane some comfort, you bastard! I suppose that just made it even worse for you, that she had something to care for that cared for her. She'll never see her pet again, and I bet you don't even care that that's gonna hurt her. I bet it even makes you happier!"

"You hypocrite," Ranma spat back, only angrier at this accusation. If Ryoga believed it was so freaking therapeutic for Akane to have a pet, then why didn't the jerk just buy her a puppy or something? That way she'd have it around whenever she wanted it, not just the small amount of time "P-chan" had been able to be there. No, this was just another example of Ryoga deciding his own tiny point of view was the be-all and end-all of truth.

He didn't have a chance to say any of this, though; his first two words were enough to break Ryoga's immobility.

The Lost Boy snarled, blasting into motion again. He charged, discarding the umbrella and wrenching a double fistful of bandanas off his forehead as he came. "I'm not taking any more of this from you!" he yelled, sending them storming toward Ranma in a blizzard of yellow and black.

"Moko Takabisha!" Ranma's chi blast hit the cloud of cloth and was shredded, in the process dispersing enough of the swarm to allow him to slip through unscathed. There was nothing he could do about the remainder, but at least there weren't any buildings over five stories high in the direction the missiles had flown. Since they had originated at a point twice that height, the projectiles would probably lose their chi charge before hitting anything other than empty air.

'Did the best I could in moving us up here, but he's still pulling out stuff that could be a threat to other people. Looks like it's always gotta be me who does all the work of keeping innocent people from gettin' hurt in our fights,' Ranma thought bitterly. 'Well, fine. I'll do just that. And whether he likes it or not he's damn well going to listen to what I've got to say.'

Ryoga was already preparing for a new attack, a replacement set of bandanas spinning in one hand as he charged them with chi. Before he could complete the process, Ranma exploded forward at top speed. "FIST OF DIVINE RETRIBUTION!" he yelled, arm cocked back and trembling with restrained force, poised for a brutal power blow.

The Lost Boy snarled and released the bandanas early, before they'd been empowered enough to do real damage. Ranma barely slowed down as he blew through the screen, rushing inexorably toward the focal point of his attack. However, that slight delay was enough to let Ryoga brace himself to meet his opponent's offensive. He didn't know whether to cheer or sneer at the mistake. Ranma coming at him with brute force? Sure, the jerk was strong, but he'd never beat Ryoga Hibiki that way!

It dawned on Ryoga at the worst possible instant that Ranma knew that, and also that his opponent certainly wasn't in the habit of telegraphing his moves so badly. Ryoga scrambled to adjust his defenses, but the last-second awkwardness only made things worse. As he closed in on Ryoga's personal space, Ranma pushed his skill to the limit, snapping his arm down and cutting the speed of his run in an instant with a half-turning skipping misstep. The maneuver nearly sent him into an uncontrolled fall. But his reflexes and control were equal to the task, and instead of falling he twisted, bent, and unleashed a high kick that arced nearly straight up, brushing past Ryoga's Adam's apple and catching him under the chin. His head was snapped back by the force of the blow, his entire body launched briefly into the air.

None of the various regimes Ryoga had undergone to build toughness helped very much against a blow from that direction. The Lost Boy crashed to the ground and curled instinctively toward the fetal position, holding his head and moaning.

Ranma stared grimly down at him, thankful that the strike had been a decisive one. He'd held back enough to be sure that he wouldn't do permanent damage from the attack, but hadn't been very confident that Ryoga's sheer endurance and resilience wouldn't be enough to allow him to shrug off the weakened kick. But evidently he'd judged his offensive perfectly; Ryoga was down but not out, temporarily floored with no option but to listen to what he had to say.

"Maybe you remember Mikado Sanzenin," he started out. "Maybe you remember that he wanted to get a kiss from Akane? That's all she was to him, just a pretty girl to take what he wanted from. What she wanted didn't matter to him. And I don't think you were there to hear it, but there was something I said to that scumbag. You know what it was?" He paused for just an instant, then quoted himself: " 'Akane is my fiancée. You touch her, and I'll kill you!'

"You know why I said that? It wasn't cause I wanted her as a fiancée. They stuck her an' me together without bothering about what either one of us wanted or thought or felt. But that meant it was my responsibility to protect her, and for damn sure I was gonna get pissed when I saw somebody treat her like she was just a piece of meat. Something to take what he wanted from without caring how that made her feel afterwards.

"And then there's you!" He paused for a moment, rebuilding the control that had threatened to slip away from him. There were things he'd never been able to see clearly about his rival's actions with Akane, things that he just had not been able to fully understand until the situation had changed and he spent so much time thinking about those changes. He saw it all now, though, understood all too well what it really had meant for Ryoga to do what he did. What Ranma had let him do.

Nor was that new clarity of sight the only reason for his anger. Some corner of his mind sensed that this had been building for a much longer time. Every occasion when Akane had misunderstood something and defended Ryoga in either form from him, every instance when his rival had taunted him from his position of safety, every time he'd tried and failed to protect Akane from the one guy who was really betraying her trust — all of it was boiling up now, with venomous interest accrued. Ranma took a deep breath and resumed the attack. "I cut you a lot of slack because it ain't exactly the same thing. I know you really do care about her. But that ain't the same thing as respecting her, and every time you slunk into her bed, stared at her while she changed, or cuddled your head against her chest you showed the same kinda respect to Akane as you would to a streetwalker.

"And you think you got some kinda right to get pissed at me for what finally happened to put a stop to all that? You came strutting over to the Tendos and told 'em all that Shampoo gave you this new curse to make you weaker! To keep you from having an advantage over me! You lying jerk, you're a heck of a lot less helpless in your cursed form now!" he yelled, feeling his anger threaten to rise up to billowing flames. "I'll say this straight out, Ryoga… I didn't tell Shampoo to splash you even if you didn't want it, but right now I wish I had!"

Somewhere in this diatribe Ryoga had uncurled and risen at least as far as his knees. He flinched visibly at Ranma's final proclamation, but almost as quickly he stood to his feet. His head was still bowed, though, preventing Ranma from seeing his face. He spoke quietly, so quietly that with Ryoga's current posture Ranma almost couldn't make out the words. "It's never enough for you, is it?" The despair in the other boy's voice was perhaps the most effective deterrent to Ranma's anger yet. He gave his own nearly-imperceptible flinch. Unseeing, Ryoga continued. "My bread, my humanity, my happiness, my pride, and now even my self-respect. How much more do you want to take from me?"

"I'm sick and damn tired of people blaming me for stuff that's their own fault, Ryoga." But he said it without rancor, more weary than anything else.

"Oh, of course, the great Ranma Saotome could never be part of the problem." Suddenly Ryoga's head snapped up. Ranma flinched again, more sharply than before, at the look of boundless pain and emptiness in the other boy's eyes. "I've got news for you, Ranma. Me being wrong doesn't make you right. And at least I know what I can do about that."

The slightest of edges had reappeared in Ryoga's voice. That, along with the distinctly familiar sense of heavy oppression that was suddenly filling the air, was more than enough to clue Ranma in. 'Shi Shi Hokodan,' he instantly realized, preparing to dodge. But almost as quickly, this realization was followed hard by another. 'It's no problem if he just fires off the standard move. But if he uses the Perfect form, here on top of this building…'

He wanted to think better of Ryoga than that, and certainly the Lost Boy wouldn't do something like that deliberately. But from some of the things Ranma had heard during the conclusion of his first battle against Ryoga's strongest move, he suspected that when the despair reached too high a level his rival's conscious control over his actions faded to negligible levels. Right now Ryoga might literally be incapable of that kind of abstract thought, unable to realize the consequences of unleashing his ultimate move in this particular setting.

'But at least he'll know how to handle this,' Ranma thought grimly, turning in the next heartbeat and racing away.

As he crossed the second rooftop he heard Ryoga's cry of rage echo behind him. It was encouraging more than anything else, since anger, while it might be as negative as depression, would certainly impede the use of the Perfect Shi Shi Hokodan. Ranma grinned mirthlessly and just kept running, sneaking a glance back over his shoulder every now and then. Truth be told, he wasn't sure whether he'd rather have this out with Ryoga here and now, or give his rival the slip and let him cool off for a while.

His inability to make up his mind made the decision for him. Only concerted effort on Ranma's part would have allowed him to elude Ryoga's pursuit now, and without quite being able to decide on such a measure, Ranma found his shadow sticking faithfully with him over the next half mile. At the end of this time, Ranma decide they might as well get it all over with, and changed from random flight to a directed course.

Five minutes later found the two boys in the very vacant lot that Ryoga had said would be the site of his challenge. Ranma stood in the center, poised on the balls of his feet, ready to run again if Ryoga loosed a Perfect Shi Shi Hokodan, ready to dodge and counterattack if the Lost Boy tried any lesser tactic.

For the moment, though, Ryoga seemed content to stand at the edge of the lot and stare balefully at him, not moving to launch any new attacks. "I'm sick of you running away," he growled thickly, hands clenching tight. Ranma just summoned a thin smile in response. Ryoga angry was a lot less dangerous than Ryoga supremely depressed.

"I mean it, Ranma! You think you can just waltz away and get out of sight, and my direction sense will get me lost and that'll be it for me for the next month! Don't you think I wish I could be around all the time?! Don't you think I wish I could do better?! Don't you think I wish I could be there for Akane as more than her pet P-chan?!"

At this Ranma did flinch. "Shut up, you moron!" he half-demanded, half-pled. "We ain't on top of a building anymore. You want someone to hear you blabbing about that?!" Deciding that a change of subject might work more reliably, he continued, "And for the record I only ran because I didn't want you to fire off your stupid depression bomb and maybe take out that building."

"I wasn't going to do that," Ryoga growled hatefully. "I was going to force you over the edge, and take care of you once we were on the ground below."

"Yeah, whatever, Porky." Ranma made a come-hither gesture, putting on an insulting smirk. "We're on the ground now. Go ahead and 'take care of me'."

Ryoga acquired his own twisted, painful grin. "Since you ask so nicely…" With no further warning, he dropped to one knee and slammed both his palms flat against the ground. "GRAVEYARD SHIFT!"

Ranma gaped. "Wha—" His incredulity morphed into horror in the span of one second flat — all the time it took for him to sink up to his waist in the suddenly liquid earth. "What the hell?!" He tried to jump free, but could find no purchase. Remembering his father's advanced swimming practice, and the quicksand in which the training had been carried out, he tried to work his way toward the closest edge of road, which would hopefully be safe. The ground seemed to mock his efforts, shifting randomly and rapidly from thicker to thinner consistencies. All his movements managed to accomplish was to sink him deeper.

"Ryoga, damn it!" he shouted as the earth rose to the level of his armpits. "Are you really tryin' to kill me?!"

"No, Ranma," the Lost Boy replied quietly. "I'm better than that. But I am going to give you what you deserve." He gave one last grimace of concentration. Ranma felt the ground around him harden to the consistency of thick, gluey, nearly-cooled fudge. But at the same time it solidified further under his feet, giving him at least a little reassurance that he was no longer in danger of live burial.

"So what do you think of my new technique?" The anger seemed to be gone from Ryoga's voice now. He straightened up to his feet, brushing away the dust from his hands. "It's the reason I was back in town, you know. Just wanted it to be another challenge, like we've had so many times before. I learn something new and kick your butt, then you come back and pull off a cheap win with some kind of trick. Same old same old, right? Instead I get Shampoo dumping your little gift over me, and then I get you ripping apart every bit of my self-respect. And through it all the great Ranma Saotome just dances along without ever being touched, laughing at everybody and doing just what he wants. Well, not this time."

"I'm trying to do what I think is right, you bastard!" Harder words than he'd ever used with Ryoga, but Ranma was really not doing too well just then. As if being three-quarters buried wasn't enough, the familiar heavy chi of depression was poisoning the air around him… and if he could feel it this strongly with Ryoga standing so far away, that could only mean his opponent was going to go all out with the attack. Ranma could at least try to block a horizontal blast with his Moko Takabisha, but there was no way Ryoga was going to limit himself to such half measures in his current state.

"Right? Right for you, maybe. Best for you, sure. But don't try and play the hero, Ranma — you never said any of that stuff to me before." Ryoga's eyes locked with Ranma's. The pigtailed teen would have stepped backward, had that been any sort of option. "If you… if you'd even tried… I never did see it, maybe I never let myself see it. But you only bother to show it to me when you're trying to justify what Shampoo did to me for you. Don't give me any kind of crap about you doing what's right."

"It's not like that," Ranma protested weakly, unable to find the words that could explain how everything really was, and knowing in the back of his mind that no words would have reached Ryoga in this state.

Ryoga didn't dignify that with a response. Instead, he slowly and steadily walked forward, stopping once he was five feet away from Ranma's sunken form. He knelt down again to better look his opponent in the eye. "I could kill you right now, just like that. This technique is an assassin's weapon, or so the old man said. But I wanted to take it and make it better, use it for something more noble than that. And at least you won't take that away from me.

"This isn't a request. I'm not asking this time. I'm telling you, I'm demanding it. You have to start treating Akane better. No more treating her like she's worthless, no more putting her down and pushing her around and making her cry in the night." There had only been a few occasions when he'd seen those silent tears, and none of them had been all that recent, but each one was engraved indelibly in Ryoga's mind. "I won't ever be there to help her feel better again. I won't ever feel her hold me, see her smile at me, know that I'm doing something for her that nobody else bothers to. And I won't ever be able to forgive myself for what doing those things in the past also did."

The heavy aura of despair was only growing thicker with each word. Desperately Ranma focused, tuning out the remainder of the rambling account of pain. 'For sure he's gonna drop a Perfect Shi Shi Hokodan down on us. Except it won't affect him, cause that jerk is already full up of despair. It'll wash over him like water off a duck's back and hit me with everything. And with just my head sticking up out of the ground like this, not only am I gonna take the initial hit I'll get blasted with the backlash too!' Hard to believe that Ryoga had managed to trap him in an even worse bind than had been the case in his first clash with the final form of the move. 'Come on, think! There's gotta be some way out of this!'

"Shi Shi Hokodan…" The words were a choked gasp of pain, rather than a battle cry. Ranma's eyes widened in fear at the sight of an even larger blast than he'd seen in the past. The massive pulse of heavy chi shot up into the air, rising higher and higher, heading inevitably toward the point where its velocity would reverse and it would begin its crushing descent. Ryoga, meanwhile, stood with head downcast and eyes closed.

'Dammit, if only he wasn't immune to the move. He's standing close enough that if it did affect him, I'd be shielded from the worst of it by him…' Now the chi had reached its apex, and now it was falling again, its hue discoloring the air like sunlight filtered through stagnant scummy pond water.

"Ryoga!" The words seemed to rip themselves out of his mouth. "That water Shampoo used on you was just temporary! It'll wear off in a few more days!"

His rival's eyes shot wide open as the significance of that statement hit him. "You… you mean…."

Ranma felt his own soul shrivel at the look in those eyes. Impossible though it was to believe, Ryoga's depression had only deepened.

"So now Akane will be expecting me to have a Jusenkyo curse. And even though I can be P-chan for her, I can't ever be P-chan for her. All the curses and none of the blessings. I was wrong, Ranma," Ryoga whispered, his words somehow audible even as the Perfect Shi Shi Hokodan thundered down. "You did manage to take one more thing from me."

Consciousness arrived slowly, and pain came with it hand-in-hand.

"Easy there, Ranma." Who was that? The voice was one that didn't raise any alarms in his mind — which, considering how vulnerable he was right now, eliminated all but a couple of possibilities.

Groaning, Ranma forced his eyes to open and to focus. Brown hair, spectacles, a concerned face older than most people he knew and younger than the rest… "Dr. Tofu," he murmured. He didn't quite feel ready to attempt sitting up yet, but he found the energy to move his neck. Shifting his gaze away from the doctor and over what he could see of the general surroundings, he could tell he was in the chiropractor's clinic. "How'd I get here?"

"Hmm. That's a lot better response than most people make," Tofu said cheerfully. "Usually when someone wakes up from a knockout like this, the first thing they say is 'Where am I?' "

The compliment brought the barest echo of a cocky grin to Ranma's lips. "Heh. You know me, Doc. Always gotta do the unexpected." As if to prove his words, he sat up in the bed. The next instant his grin was gone as if it had never been, his teeth clenching in pain instead. The feeling of security from being here, a reasonably safe haven as long as Kasumi Tendo was elsewhere, combined with the cheerfulness from Tofu's bedside manner, had apparently been a bit too encouraging. The movement had sapped every bit of the strength he'd felt return to him, and had left his entire body wracked with pain.

It wasn't as bad as that time he and Genma had been caught in the avalanche, but it was a fairly close second.

"Please, Ranma, take it easy. There's no permanent damage, but you took a terrible beating." Tofu had gone over his unconscious patient's chi flows three times to be sure, each time feeling just a little more awestruck that Ranma had weathered such abuse without debilitating injury.

"No joke," Ranma muttered. "Jeez, this ain't fair. I was stuck in the ground up to my armpits when I got blasted with Ryoga's stupid Perfect Shi Shi Hokodan. I can see having a headache and my arms giving me grief, but the rest of my body shouldn't be hurting too. That stupid new move oughta have been worth some protection at least!"

"From what I heard, that's not how it worked out," Tofu said gravely.


"I didn't see the fight myself, you understand. But apparently there were some girls from your school who saw it, or the end of it at least."

Ranma blinked, then stared in horror. 'No… no! There wasn't anybody else around, was there? Dammit, did they hear Ryoga spouting off about being P-chan?!'

Unaware of his patient's sudden anxiety attack, Tofu continued. "They told me they got a pretty good view of what happened in the fight, but they were standing too far back to see all the details."

The pigtailed teen exhaled a sigh of relief. That meant they'd have been too far back to hear Ryoga's unfortunate admissions.

"They got there just in time to see him trap you in the ground like that, they watched him finish the fight, and then they brought you here." Tofu repressed the urge to frown at the memory. Living in Nerima was never dull, it kept his mother's visits to a minimum, and it allowed him proximity to a certain gentle goddess, but there were times when he despaired at the general cluelessness and recklessness that ran rampant throughout the district. It was one of the most basic lessons of first aid: do not move a heavily injured person, as this could make their injuries worse. Certainly those girls had to have been taught that in the past. But faced with the chance to get their hands on the most desired boy at Furinkan, any thought of such things had flown right out the window. Tofu supposed he should be thankful that the girls had brought Ranma here, rather than taking him to one of their houses to recover.

"From what they told me about how it ended, the reason you're hurting all over is that the Shi Shi Hokodan interfered with whatever Ryoga did to the ground to trap you like that. It's not surprising, really. Chi attacks don't mix well if you don't know what you're doing, and it sounds like Ryoga didn't have any idea of what would happen. When the Shi Shi Hokodan landed, it caused the ground to explode upward and outward. That's why your whole body feels like it took a beating."

"Cause it did," Ranma agreed with a grimace. "Well, I guess it's better than him just using the first move to bury me all the way. But he sure wasn't holding back any more than that. The regular Shi Shi Hokodan woulda been more than enough." As low as his confidence had been at that moment, Ranma knew the Moko Takabisha wouldn't have been enough to stave off a horizontal blast aimed at his head. But a relatively painless knockout like that couldn't have been enough for Ryoga, could it?

"I don't think Ryoga knew the ground would explode," the doctor corrected. "The students said it caught him completely by surprise when it blew up, that it threw him into the air and well out of sight. Still, you have a point. It sounds like this fight was a lot worse than the usual around here. Ranma… what happened?"

The teenaged martial artist didn't reply for several moments. Eventually, he started out with, "I can't tell ya everything, Doc. Not the stuff about Ryoga. But a lot has changed lately."

As he listened to the ensuing explanation, Dr. Tofu fought a strong sense of disbelief. It was true that he'd seen many examples of the sort of wild chaos that swirled throughout his current patient's life, but that hadn't really prepared him now for this. The Full-Body Cat Tongue, the Ultimate Weakness Moxibustion, treating Ranma after his first loss to Ryoga's Shi Shi Hokodan… all of those had fit the pattern that Tofu had come to recognize and expect. Something new and exciting would happen in Ranma's life, and there would be frantic activity as a result — and then, after a bit of time had passed, things would go back to more or less how they were before. The most that ever changed permanently was that Ranma might pick up another rival or fiancée, and those changes didn't really make a dent in the overall dynamic of life at the Tendo home.

But this… this was real. This was permanent. Ranma successfully casting aside his old cursed form was far and away the most dramatic change Tofu had seen the boy make in his life, a change that would certainly have repercussions throughout the lives of the family that had been Tofu's friends for so long. The doctor felt a qualm of uneasiness form in the pit of his gut at the thought. Whether it was caused by an unconscious fear of something in particular, or just the natural human instinct to mistrust rapid change, he could not have said.

On the other hand, at least he no longer felt guilty about never advising Ranma to get a gynecological exam.

"And that's pretty much all I can tell ya." Ranma's face was scowling as he finished recounting everything.

It certainly wasn't difficult to see reasons for him to wear such an expression, Tofu mused. Ranma was not at all happy about Shampoo having lied to him about the water's time limit, and he was even more galled at Ryoga's recent actions. But other questions of motivation weren't quite as clear. "Are you sorry now that you changed your curse?" he asked.

"Nah, I'm not," Ranma replied, so obviously not even bothering to give it a moment's thought that Tofu had to suppress a sigh.

"Are you sure about that? How much have you really thought about it?" the doctor prodded gently. "When you were talking to me about Shampoo, it was obvious that you were unhappy about her telling you you only had a day to decide. Should it really bother you that much, if you're so sure you made the right decision?"

This question, at least, Ranma thought over long and hard. At last, speaking hesitantly, he answered. "First of all, Doc, things woulda been different with Ryoga if I knew how much time we had. But that ain't the biggest part of it. It was Shampoo who made the decision to splash Ryoga after he said he didn't want it, Shampoo who didn't give him any of the time that she knew was still left. Ryoga blamin' me for it instead is just the same old junk he always pulls.

"And that… that's kinda what I'm talking about. I think. I didn't really talk to you a lot about why I took Shampoo up on her offer in the first place. Some of it's stuff I'm not comfortable talking about here," specifically the situation with his mother, "and a lot of it I'm sure you can guess for yourself. No more idiots chasin' after my girl half. Those are the real reasons I decided to go with this new curse. Sure, back when she was makin' the offer Shampoo gave a nice sales pitch about how great it was to fly, but that really wasn't a huge factor in why I made the decision. My biggest reason, my only real reason, was to get rid of the Nyannichuan curse.

"But after that…" He fell silent again for a while, searching for the words. "What she said about being a falcon… about flying… that stuff was all true," he eventually continued. "In fact, it was better than she'd been able to say. Same thing here, for me. I can't do justice to it, or really even describe how it is."

"It's one of Man's oldest dreams," Tofu supplied quietly, seeing that his patient was once again struggling to find speech. "And it may be the oldest and most powerful of the dreams that have always gone unfulfilled. No matter how hard we try, no matter what machines we invent, the best we can manage are things that don't come close to the kind of freedom and power that we see in the birds of the air."

"Yeah," Ranma said, speaking in the same quiet tone that Tofu had used. "You hit it right on the head when you said 'freedom'. I know you've lived in Nerima a long time, Doctor Tofu. It prob'ly ain't the same for you at all. But for me… I grew up on the road. This place was really starting to feel small and cramped. But then I get this, and suddenly everything's different. It's not a cage any longer — it's a landing pad."

The two martial artists heaved simultaneous sighs. Ranma's spoke of wonder and happiness, of an awe that had yet to fade. Tofu's was far more wistful in nature, as the older man considered this glimpse from the life of the younger, this sight of something that he personally would never experience.

Then the doctor blinked. "Wait… how does any of that tie into being angry about what Shampoo did?"

Ranma blinked as well, experiencing a moment of disorientation as his thoughts were dragged back to less pleasant matters. "Oh. Yeah. Where was I… right." His mouth thinned into a grim line. "I basically already told you that I'd've still done this even if she'd been honest about how much time there was," he explained. "She coulda told me the truth, but it's like that's too much to ask for. You know? In a way, it even makes it worse that this was such a good gift. It's…" he paused again, struggling once more for the right way to explain his confused thoughts. "It's like everything I ever get, no matter how good it is, has always got some kinda string attached or knife buried in it or something. Is that how you're supposed to act to somebody you care about?"

Tofu hesitated for a moment, then replied, "Did Akane tie any kind of string on when she helped you out, that time I paralyzed your legs so long ago?" Part of the doctor felt a little guilty, as if he were playing favorites by promoting Akane once more. But the larger part responded that reminding Ranma of what had happened then would be for the best. It was a true counterexample to the argument he'd just made, a time when Akane had done just what Ranma said nobody ever did for him. Bringing it back to his attention wasn't unfairly supporting the young man's Tendo fiancée. Any credit that occasion gave to her, she'd earned for herself.

"I don't know what to think about that time," Ranma replied slowly, causing Tofu quite a bit of surprise. "Yeah, she didn't hesitate to help me home. But she also didn't hesitate to splash me an' turn me into a girl. It didn't seem like a big deal at the time, so maybe I shouldn't harp on it now. But she didn't ask me either. So no strings attached? I don't think I can totally go along with that, Doc."

"And this gift from Shampoo — this change that you've said was such a good thing for you — you thought it was different?" Tofu guessed. "One truly great thing someone did for you, and then you find out part of it was a lie?" At Ranma's nod and sullen grimace, the doctor sighed. "I suppose I understand why you feel so badly about it."

"I… I wanted to make some changes. Change things for good." Ranma snorted. "And I mean that both ways you can take it. Change things for the better, and make them changes that would actually last. And you know what? A big part of why I was thinking about that was because it looked like here was something already like that! Shampoo offered this to me, and the only thing she wanted back from it was for me to be happier and for us to share that new curse between us. It felt pretty good, Doc. But then it all turns out to be another dose of the same old same-old." His eyes hardened as he spoke the next words. "I'm not willing to settle for that anymore. It'd be nice if I didn't have to fight everybody for it, if even one person would at least go along with it for me. But it looks like the chances of that are pretty slim. Shampoo… Akane… Ryoga… seems like they've all decided whose side they're on. Same as it always was."

"Have you really talked to Akane about this?" Dr. Tofu persisted. "I don't believe she'd be against you so harshly."

"Ain't you listening? Yeah, I've 'talked' to Akane. We've been round and round about this thing. I'm not even saying I haven't made some progress with her on it. But that wasn't what I said!" Ranma complained. "What if I didn't have to hammer it out with her? What if she just listened to me explain it all, heard how cool it was to have this new curse instead of my old one, and could really honestly say she was happy for me? What if Shampoo had just been honest with me at first? What if Ryoga didn't take out all his frustrations on me, cause Shampoo fixed it so he couldn't keep on doing what he was doing? What if the jerk didn't actually get in my face and chew me out for not stopping him sooner?!" He practically spat those final words out of his mouth.

'I really would like to help get him in a better mood than this,' Tofu thought sadly. He ran the story Ranma had given him back through his mind, trying to piece it all together into a coherent whole. The younger Saotome's talents as a raconteur were somewhat lacking; he'd backtracked, left out important things, interrupted himself, and struggled to talk around, without actually revealing, whatever dishonorable thing Shampoo had ended by inflicting a falcon curse on Ryoga.

"One thing I still don't understand is just why Shampoo told you the water only had a few days left," he wondered. "You never did explain that."

"Ain't it obvious?" Ranma demanded. "She wanted to pressure me into grabbing it!"

"That could be… but doesn't it bother you a little? I mean, you've said yourself how good it is to have this curse. You also said that Shampoo tried to tell you just that," Tofu mused. He wasn't quite sure himself where he was going with this line of thought, but something definitely seemed off. "What if she had told you how long you really had? That just means more time for her to convince you of what she already knew was the truth." Noting the stubbornness of Ranma's expression increasing exponentially as he spoke the last sentence, Tofu hurried past the unfortunate choice of words. "I mean, it seems like it was more of a risk for her to only give you a couple of days."

"Maybe you're right." The admission didn't seem to have improved Ranma's mood — quite the opposite in fact. The reason for this was made clear as he continued. "Maybe that's just how it happened. When she admitted to me that she lied about how long the water would last, she said it was a 'mistake'. She prob'ly thought like I thought she did at first, that pushing it would be more likely to get me to go along with it. And afterward she realized she'd been wrong, and that's why she said what she did."

Dr. Tofu sighed. Something still bugged him ever so slightly about that explanation, but he had to admit that it was quite possible. From what he'd observed of Shampoo while providing her with shelter during her first stay in Nerima, the girl could be too impulsive for her own good. He didn't think continuing along this line of conversation was going to do anything to raise his patient's spirits, and so he sought for other possible silver linings.

"What about Ukyo?" the chiropractor asked suddenly. He had heard about the girl from both Ranma and Akane, but hadn't ever met her. Because of this, she wasn't more than a vague awareness in the back of his mind that there were multiple girls with official Japanese honor claims to Ranma Saotome. "How has she taken all this?"

"I don't know," Ranma replied, an answer which did not in itself make much sense. Before Tofu could point this out, he continued, "She's outta town right now. But she's supposed to get back in time for school on Monday, so I guess we'll find out before too much longer." He fell silent for a little while, his expression now thoughtful rather than stony or bitter — which gave Tofu a bit of satisfaction. "It might go pretty well there," Ranma murmured at last, speaking more to himself than the room's other occupant. "She's probably got the blue ribbon for 'best first reaction to seeing a Jusenkyo curse'. Maybe she'll stick to her record this time too." He grinned ever so slightly. "That's one piece of history I wouldn't mind repeating itself."

'I knew Dr Tofu was being too careful when he said I oughta stay home from Furinkan today. But I'm glad he did,' Ranma thought with quite a bit of satisfaction. The sharp pains of yesterday had faded overnight to a faint aching echo. It was nothing that would have kept him from doing something that he wanted to, but attending class at Furinkan, even for only a Saturday half day, wasn't about to fall into that category. Ranma was perfectly content to use the doctor's orders as an excuse to stay away from the school today. 'Probably oughta drop by his place this afternoon and thank him,' he decided. 'But I think I'll keep quiet about what I actually did with the free morning he bought me.'

He flexed the tips of his wings down through a two-degree arc, altering his flight to avoid an imminent downdraft.

For quite a long time after that, all deliberate thought stayed well clear of his mind. The lingering pain from yesterday was nowhere near enough to distract him from the fierce rush of joy and freedom. Ranma rode the wind, now higher, now lower, feeling the sun caress his feathers and the air carry him along.

Still, he eventually had to face the fact that Dr Tofu's caution had been wiser than he'd first thought. His stamina was significantly less than it usually was, and the joyful aeronautics he'd been doing were draining it quickly. Feeling himself tire so much more rapidly than normal was a bit aggravating, but Ranma simply adjusted his flight into a long slow restful glide. It was probably just as well, he realized. These times of flight were proving to be the best opportunities he had — the best he'd ever had — for thinking things over. And with all the things that had happened recently, he could certainly use some time to contemplate it all.

His thoughts settled first on Akane. He wondered whether she'd have been glad for him or aggravated, had she known what he was up to right now. She had seemed more relieved than anything else that Ranma wasn't going to accompany her to Furinkan today, even happy to take the note Dr Tofu had given him to be delivered to the school nurse. 'Can't believe she's still so worried about Kuno and his latest stupid idea,' Ranma thought to himself. It was aggravating, but truth be told it felt kind of nice too, that she should be so concerned for him. It'd be even better if the tomboy could start applying a reaction like that when it really counted — for example, feeling sorry for him instead of flattening him when a new fiancée showed up — but Ranma wasn't going to hold his breath.

He still wasn't sure what to make of the events of late yesterday, when Akane had learned the outcome of his battle with Ryoga. This was mostly due to the fact that at the time he'd been in no condition to concentrate on her and really get a feel for how she had taken it. She'd been quiet, not saying much to him either, although Ranma thought he'd detected some sympathy for him, and perhaps just a little bit of worry. 'Figures she'd be more worried about Kuno having it in for me than Ryoga, though,' he thought sourly. 'That tomboy wouldn't think Ryoga was a real threat if he was coming at me from inside a tank.'

Of course, Ryoga inside a tank would actually be less dangerous than Ryoga armed with his latest and greatest new move. 'How the heck does he keep stumbling over these things anyway? He wanders off on a stupid training journey, just trying to polish up his usual skills, and he blunders right into somebody ready and willing to teach him dangerous new techniques? There's no justice,' Ranma grumbled to himself. 'With his direction sense, he oughta be the last person on the threat list, not right at the top of it.'

Thinking of how things ought to be didn't do anything to change how they actually were. Ryoga was still out there, still armed with a technique that it would be extremely hard to counter, and still undoubtedly angry enough to use it. In fact, by the time the Lost Boy found his way back again, he would probably be angrier and more ready for battle than ever. Ranma considered that fact for a while, his thoughts circling round and round one particular reason to believe his rival's enmity would have worsened. He hadn't let himself touch directly on it yet, but here and now, eighteen hours after the fact, he finally decided it was time to face it head-on.

'I wish I hadn't said it.' It was barely a mental whisper. 'It only made things worse. I thought it would shock him out of that funk, but all it did was push him farther down. Ryoga you dummy, can't you make up your mind about anything? Are you mad about getting the new curse instead of your old one or ain't you?

'But… ' Ranma closed his eyes for a moment. 'But what if it had worked just like I thought it would? What if telling him that really had made him all happy again, so that the Shi Shi Hokodan would've blasted him worse than me? It wouldn't have made any difference in the fight. That thing hitting him wouldn't've helped me after all; the ground still would've exploded when the chi from the two attacks got mixed up. I still would've been knocked out. So maybe he would have too?'

"~What the heck kinda difference is that supposed to make?~" Ranma demanded of the heavens, opening his eyes and his beak at the same time. "~So I might've been able to get a draw in the fight, instead of losing. Is that supposed to make it all right?~"

Wind whistled around him. Sunlight glinted off clouds. The heavens didn't bother to answer.

Nor had he wanted them to, nor had he needed it. Ranma exhaled a sigh, inaudible to his ears over the breath of the wind. 'No. It wasn't all right. It wouldn't've been all right even if it worked just like I thought it would, if Ryoga getting hit had been enough for me to pull off the win. It wasn't right at all.' He couldn't grit his teeth or clench his fists at the moment, so he settled for screwing his eyes shut again. 'What's gonna happen now? Is he ever even gonna try out his new cursed form? He thinks it's not permanent, so why would he? Heck, he might even think of what Shampoo told me back when all this started, and be scared that if his new curse wore off while he was flying and he got rained on, he'd turn back into P-chan to fall a mile and splatter on the ground.

'But it seems like now he did realize the new one is better than the old one. I just don't think he knows how much better. And with things the way they are now, is he ever gonna be able to figure it out? Why'd I have to say that anyway? Dammit, Shampoo, if you hadn't lied to me in the first place about the water turning temporary I wouldn't even have thought of it!'

Ranma flew in bitter silence for a while, but eventually remorse replaced the anger. 'No. That ain't right. Well, it's probably right that I wouldn't've thought of it without her, but it ain't right to blame her. I was the one who made the mistake this time. I was the one who busted out with a lie when I thought it was gonna do me some good.' This time his sigh was loud enough for him to hear it. 'Ryoga talked a lot of junk back then in the fight, but this time I can't just push it all away as garbage. He did say one thing that I guess is kinda true: him being wrong didn't make me right. What I did… that final 'Saotome desperation technique'… it was wrong. I shoulda just taken the hit like a man, and kicked his butt in the rematch.

'Damn, this isn't going to be much fun, facing him again. I'm going to have to eat a lot of crow. And knowing Ryoga, it may not make any difference at all.' It made a particularly unappealing mental image, but one that he could picture all too easily — himself approaching in honest remorse, making an apology as best he could, and Ryoga throwing the offering back in his face. Chances were that was exactly how it would happen, even if he was able to approach Ryoga with a peace token of more waterproof soap—

A sudden shudder of realization jolted through him. Ranma lost nearly a hundred feet of altitude before he could make his frozen muscles work again.

He knew now why it was so easy to imagine Ryoga sneering and turning away from his offered words of regret.

The second period bell had rung, but Nabiki Tendo's desk was empty. She had waited in class just long enough for the teacher to arrive, given him her best predatory smile, informed him that she and her friends were not to be marked absent today, and then left with Manami and Junko trailing behind her. Junko had paused to give Mr. Itokimoshi a cheerful wave, secure in the knowledge that even if the sensei knew it was she who had obtained the photos that provided such wonderful leverage over him, he'd never dare to do anything about it.

Nabiki's smile had been nothing more than a mask worn for her victim's sake, one that she discarded the second she was out of the room. In silence she led the way through the halls, up the stairs, and onto the roof, and once both girls had joined her she locked the door behind them.

"So, Nabiki. What's up?" Manami asked. Her boss wasn't nearly as closed off or as intense as she had been a week and a day ago, when she'd first told Manami and Junko about Ranma Saotome's lifestyle change. That was good, as far as it went, but this occasion had one less-than-optimum thing in common with that previous time: Nabiki wasn't showing any signs of satisfaction whatsoever. Given the fact that she had felt it necessary to throw her weight around with a teacher — something the Boss only did in exceptional circumstances — Manami figured that whatever this was, it wasn't going to qualify as tidings of great joy. What seemed most likely was that something had changed, and Nabiki didn't know yet whether it was a good or a bad change.

The middle Tendo opened her bookbag, fished out a package wrapped in brown paper, and dropped the satchel to the ground. "This arrived today," she began without preamble. "Daddy usually gets the mail, but since he's gone right now I volunteered to do it so Kasumi wouldn't have yet another chore dumped on her. I think I'll keep the job even after he gets back; it makes it a lot easier to intercept interesting things."

Moving a few steps closer and craning her neck around, Junko made out the addressing of the paper. "To Ranma, from Shampoo. Hoo boy. Be careful when you open that, Nabiki."

"Careful?" Nabiki repeated, giving Junko an ironic look. "This is definitely Shampoo's handwriting, Junko, not Mousse trying to disguise his as hers. And anyway I already told you he's out of the country right now. Left last weekend." A curious expression of annoyance flitted briefly across her face as she said that. Before either subordinate could remark on this, Nabiki continued. "There's certainly not a bomb in there."

"That isn't what I meant," Junko explained. "You told us Ranma got really mad at Shampoo. She's got to want to get back on his good side; what if that's rigged to spray a love potion or something as soon as he opens it?"

Nabiki stared down at the package in her hands in sudden alarm. Manami, who was standing a safe distance away, just snorted. "What possible reason would Shampoo have to do that? It's not like she was going to be there to catch his eye when he opened the thing."

"And besides," Nabiki said briskly, her composure recovered, "if she had access to love potions she would have used them by now. No, I'm willing to bet that this is just an apology and more waterproof soap to replace the bars he lost earlier. But you were right in a different way, Junko," she said magnanimously, settling down on the rooftop and flipping the parcel over. It was sealed with clear tape, which made things easier than it might have been. "Depending on what's in here, it may be that the best thing to do is pass it all along to Ranma unharmed. But we can't say for sure until we know exactly what she sent, so I'd better not make it obvious that it's already been opened."

Several minutes of careful work later, Nabiki lifted the edge of the paper and pulled out a letter. Setting this aside for the moment, she peered through the opening at the remaining contents of the package. "Looks like two bars of waterproof soap, all right," the middle Tendo said in tones of self-satisfaction.

"Well, you certainly don't want that to get to him," Junko replied.

"Yes, but that doesn't mean it'll be safe to sit on it," Manami explained, saving Nabiki the trouble. "Shampoo put this in the mail, and she's lived around here long enough to know how serious the Nerima Postal Service is about completing all deliveries." Ever since the position of Postmaster General had been taken over by the grandmaster of Martial Arts Mail Delivery, and it had become a matter of honor and pride as well as of duty. "If this doesn't get through to Ranma, she'll know about it, and want to know why. Especially since she'll be able to find out that it was delivered to the Tendo home at least."

"Exactly," Nabiki said, her eyes fastened on the letter as she carefully unfolded it. "I can delay it a little while, pick just the right time to pass it along to Ranma. If Ryoga shows up again soon enough, I may even be able to rig things so that it gets destroyed in a way that looks innocent. But I'm not about to risk pushing too far and exposing myself to the Amazons."

"I still worry about that a little," Manami admitted, speaking in a low voice despite the impossibility of anyone being near enough to overhear. During the minutes Nabiki had taken in opening the package Manami had been thinking things over, and she had realized just why Nabiki had seemed irritated earlier at the fact that Mousse was out of town. "Didn't you already risk that? When you took Ranma's soap and left that feather behind to frame Mousse. He couldn't be guilty if he'd already left town."

Nabiki just shook her head. "I cut it a lot closer than I'd have ever done by choice, but it's okay. He still had a short window of opportunity, and even if he would have had to bust his butt to pull it off, there's no way in the world anybody is going to believe him when he says he didn't do it." She exhaled a sigh of mingled relief and aggravation. "I'm just glad he didn't leave a day earlier than he did. If that had happened it would have been obvious that he couldn't have been the one responsible, and it's possible I would have been caught. I think you can see why I'm being more careful now."

Junko nodded her head. "And the more information we have, the better plans we can make. What's the letter say?"

"I haven't started reading it yet. I've been scanning over it, getting first impressions. It's obviously something Shampoo put a lot of effort into," Nabiki replied absently, finally beginning the task of actually reading the letter's contents. "Didn't think she could manage Japanese this good even if it was written rather than spoken… it probably took her at least a couple of days to compose this…."

The middle Tendo fell silent then. Manami and Junko watched as she worked her way through the missive, queasiness growing in the pits of their stomachs as Nabiki's face grew more and more to resemble the mask of a corpse. Eventually she finished, wordlessly extending the letter for Manami and Junko to read.

The girls did so, Junko peering over Manami's shoulder. They took as long to finish as Nabiki had, giving the same careful consideration to the letter, chewing over its contents and considering the implications of everything Shampoo had revealed there.

"This is bad, Boss," Manami said at last.

"Bad?" Nabiki gave a hacking laugh. "Quite a gift for understatement you've got there."

"No kidding," Junko breathed. "This… all this…" She gestured helplessly at the letter, still clutched in Manami's hand. "She put so much into there, so much about how she feels for him, how sorry she is for the mistakes she's made and what she's willing to do to make up for them… if Ranma sees this, it's bound to make him start feeling a lot better about her!"

"Who gives a damn about Ranma's feelings?!" Nabiki snapped. "That's nowhere near the real threat here, Junko!"

"It's not?" Junko's shoulders slumped ever so slightly. Often she wished she had Nabiki's or Manami's quick wit, sometimes even to the point where she would be willing to give up the skills she possessed and they didn't if that was what it took to get it.

"I'm not seeing it, Boss," Manami confessed. "I just thought the same as Junko did." The other girl perked up noticeably, or at least it would have been noticeable if Nabiki and Manami hadn't been too preoccupied to see.

"Read between the lines, why don't you," Nabiki growled. "Shampoo originally told Ranma he only had a couple of days to use the water. Why?" She stalked over to Manami and her finger lashed out, pointing to the relevant passage in the letter. "Because she believed it was true! Because what she did had been against Amazon law, and she figured the old woman would eventually figure it out and take the water away if Ranma still hadn't used it by then.

"But note that tense. 'Had been' — past perfect." Nabiki gave another humorless laugh. "Perfect for their plans, I guess. This very same trip home, Cologne forces through a change in the law. A change that I suspect will get her lots and lots of goodwill among the young Amazons, a change that made it perfectly okay to do what Shampoo did."

"I see it now," Manami stated. "The most important thing this says isn't about Shampoo at all. It's her great-grandmother. A big change like that, with this particular timing… I guess it shows how serious she is this time. Shampoo by herself is no big deal, but if Cologne is backing her for real and is ready to go all out in supporting her…."

"I'm very glad Ukyo will be back in town on Monday," Nabiki replied. "It'll be much safer to use her to disrupt the Amazons' plans. I don't think I can afford to try that with Akane anymore. Not after this." Sometime yesterday her little sister had finally put together the pieces of the puzzle that Nabiki had oh-so-casually introduced to her over the course of four careful conversations. Akane genuinely believed it was her own idea to have Nabiki procure more soap for her fiancé, but it had been the middle Tendo's inspiration from the very day she'd "acquired" Ranma's first stash. Akane was going to pay for, receive, and pass along four bars of soap, but Nabiki was only going to have to send away for one. It had been quite a satisfying thought; she would be able to dispose of the hot commodity perfectly safely, in the most amusing and profitable way possible.

That plan should still work, but Nabiki no longer felt like it was safe to try using Akane in any sort of offensive strategy. Little sister's utility from now on would have to be to provide a choice more attractive than anything the Amazons could scrounge up, to act generously and above all consistently for Ranma's comfort, support, and happiness. Nabiki tried not to think about the difficulty of pruning a bonsai with hedge clippers.

Meanwhile, Junko was speaking. "It sure was a bad time for Ukyo to go out of town on that visit," she observed ruefully. "The Amazons got back just a couple of days after she left."

"Please, Junko, you're making the mirror image of a mistake my little sister already made." Junko blanched at the thought of being as muddleheaded as Nabiki had always described her sister, and resolved not to say anything else in this conversation without being absolutely sure of herself. "Way back when all this started, Akane was positively certain that Shampoo timed this all to mesh with Daddy and Mr. Saotome being out of town, even though the reason they were gone was Happosai dragged them away on a spur-of-the-moment training trip. The Amazons were long gone before he did that, but that didn't even occur to her.

"But it's exactly the other way around with Ukyo. She told Ranma weeks ahead of time that she was going to be going on this family visit. I'll be very surprised if that wasn't the reason for Shampoo, or should I say Cologne, setting her own timetable."

Silence fell, and stretched for several minutes. Eventually, Manami broke it, gesturing with the letter toward the package that still held its cargo of genuine protective magic. "What are we going to do now? With this, with everything?"

"Give me time," Nabiki returned. "I'm thinking."

There were many good things about Mousse being gone just now, Shampoo reminded herself. Had he still been there, he would undoubtedly have made this situation with Ranma even worse, either by confronting him for "hurting my Shampoo, you bastard!", or by trying to seize the opportunity and crowd her even more than he usually did. Either one would have been a wholly unnecessary added level of pain, and Shampoo frankly felt she was already suffering more than enough of that.

But maybe it wouldn't last too much longer. Writing that letter had been one of the most arduous things she'd ever done, a labor so different from the usual focus of her life. It had taken so much time and effort to get it right, and it had been so much of a relief to finally drop the parcel into the mailbox. She would not have believed that waiting for results would prove an even greater strain, but less than six hours later she had been forced to recognize this as truth.

Today was the earliest day the precious package might be delivered to her Airen, and Shampoo forced herself to recall Cologne's warning that Ranma probably wouldn't react immediately to it anyway. Ranma wasn't one to hasten in matters of the heart, the Matriarch had pointed out in that dry tone that always gave Shampoo flashbacks to the endless lectures of her early childhood. The boy would surely take some time after reading the letter to process what it had said, a matter of time more likely measurable in days rather than hours. Her great-grandmother's warning wasn't enough to shred the wistful fantasy she held of Ranma reading the letter and immediately rushing over to reciprocate the feelings she'd poured onto its pages, but it was enough to keep it tamped down in the back of Shampoo's mind.

In a way, Mousse being gone helped with that as well. Without him around to take a share of the work, running the restaurant became a task arduous enough to keep most of her mind focused solely on the tasks of the immediate present, especially during the always-hectic lunch rush.

Speaking of which, Shampoo reminded herself, today's was almost upon her. The lunch crowd on Saturday tended to be less intense than the five days before it, but more than made up for this by lasting much longer. It would not do to get too behind in her tasks, certainly not through inattentiveness caused by wistful, wishful thoughts. Great-Grandmother would have many things to say about that, none of them pleasant.

On that note she slipped quickly into the kitchen, mindful of the fact that there were trash bags needing to be taken out for disposal. Cologne gave her a barely perceptible nod, signifying that the Matriarch agreed with her that now was a good time for this and would cover anything that happened in the dining room while Shampoo was outside. She tied off and gathered up the various bags, passed outside, dumped them into the receptacle two blocks down the street, and hurried back toward the restaurant.

The water balloon that splashed down on her caught her completely by surprise.

This time there was no graceful, apparently effortless extrication from her clothes for the transformed Amazon. She flapped, floundered, and struggled her way out of the pantsuit, shock turning quickly to outrage. So the neighborhood kids had moved up from water pistols, had they? Damn the way water was attracted to you when you had a Jusenkyo curse, and double-damn the reduced situational awareness of incoming liquid. If there was a way to keep all aspects of her curse except those, she'd go for it in a heartbeat. It was so humiliating to be caught unawares by city-bred Japanese brats with no training and even less potential.

The avian Amazon was shaken from these thoughts by the sound of another splash — once you'd already been transformed, it was easy enough to be aware of any additional cold water — one that, oddly enough, had come from above her. She craned her head up, peering to the rooftop of the Cat Café.

A storm-blue and steel-grey head peeked back at her. With a shock exponentially greater than that of her sudden transformation, Shampoo recognized her wayward husband.

Neither transformed teen spoke immediately. At last, though, Ranma cleared his throat and said, "~Hey, Shampoo. Back when you first gave me this, I… I said we oughta fly together sometime.~" Another pause, another oddly human-sounding noise of hesitation, then he continued, "~You wanna do that now?~"


To be continued.

Author's notes: If it's not obvious by now, I disapprove very strongly of Ryoga's masquerade as P-chan. That doesn't mean I condemn him as soundly as many other authors do; Ranma is speaking with my voice when he says Ryoga's actions weren't the same as Mikado Sanzenin's, that he knows the Lost Boy really does care about Akane. But Ryoga's feelings for Akane, and the fact that I don't believe he realizes how wrong what he's doing really is, in no way justify him using his cursed form to trick her into letting him cuddle up with her in bed.

The P-chan situation is one in which everyone involved is in the wrong to one extent or another. If I had to pick one person as worthy of the most censure and scorn, it would be Soun Tendo. What kind of father lets his daughter be taken advantage of like that? And if Soun is under the impression that Akane knows the truth about P-chan and is having a fling with him, where then is the honor of his pledge to see her and Ranma married? Although I have seen one person use the perspective that Soun had been drinking when he saw Ryoga change those two time, and thought it was just a dream inspired by the sake. If that's true, and only if that's true, I would let him off the hook.

If Ranma ½ were a different genre, more of a drama and less of a comedy, these are issues that would have to have been explored at some point (and I'd like to give a nod here to Nemesis Zero, who in his fic Into Every Life A Little Rain Must Fall made the observation that events which seem funny to outside observers can be far more painful for those actually living through them). Because the original series is a comedy, we have running gags of things that never get resolved, never even get faced squarely. Here in my story that is not how things will go. Ranma is beginning to see the problem with not facing down his problems, and is changing the way he approaches his life. Hence his poignant declaration to Tofu (at least, it was supposed to be poignant): "I wanted to make some changes. Change things for good."

Speaking of changes, I hope people aren't too disappointed in the level of character development, or rather of character growth, exhibited by Akane in this chapter. I know I basically promised big stuff with the scenes in the previous chapter, and all I can say is that it will take time for me to work through everything I have planned to do with, for, and to her.

Acknowledgements for this chapter: thanks to Beer-Monster, Nemesis Zero, and Ed Simons for prereading. Kuno's Shakespearean quote is, once again, from Love's Labor's Lost courtesy of the bartleby.com website for famous quotations. Two things in this chapter are inspired from other fanfics I've read; the first is the idea of Kuno using The Wizard of Oz as inspiration to splash Ranma (although in that story that really was why he did it, not just what Ranma thought was his reason). Can't remember which story it was where I read this. And the idea that Ranma considers it a "practice fight" when he loses due to being caught off guard by something was fleshed out more thoroughly by D. B. Sommer in The Things We Wish For… (and I should probably acknowledge that Ranma's "Fist of Divine Retribution" attack bears some resemblance to one Kachiko used against Ranma in that story, though I only realized it awhile after I wrote my scene).

Chapter 4
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