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A Ranma ½ fanfic by Aondehafka

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

Chapter 4: After the Rain Has Fallen

Akane's breath slid easily in and out of her lungs, a slower rhythm than the beat her legs pounded against the sidewalk. She breathed in the Sunday morning air, pleasantly cool and refreshing against the light sweat raised by her jog. These were one of the few stretches of quiet time the youngest Tendo had, and she usually enjoyed them quite a bit.

Today's run had proved less enjoyable than some, but Akane wasn't complaining; she was still in a better mood than had been usual lately. She thought back over the various good things that had happened in the past few days. Best of all was the fact that Ranma hadn't gone crawling back to Shampoo, nor had the Amazon come by the Tendo home to press her suit and herself on him again. Then there was the inspiration Akane had had, to get Nabiki to acquire more waterproof soap for Ranma and Ryoga, a plan to which her older sister had agreed the day before yesterday. Then again there was the fact that Ranma had showed enough sense not to go back to school yesterday. Akane still felt a little surprised when she thought about it; she had fully expected him to go charging back to face Kuno, completely ignoring how doing so would be asking for disaster.

Of course, it appeared that the reason he'd refrained was so he could do a different stupid thing, and go out flying when Dr. Tofu had declared him too injured to attend school. When Akane had gotten home from the Saturday half-day of classes and heard the news from Kasumi, she had been more worried than she'd ever admit. But Ranma had eventually winged his way home, safe and sound even if he was stiff, sore, and weary from the exertion. So even though it had been a stupid thing to do, there apparently hadn't been any permanent consequences. Which certainly wouldn't have been the case if he had gone back to Furinkan and been splashed in full view of everybody.

There was another reason Akane was happy and relieved — the outcome of the fight between Ranma and Ryoga. On Friday, after the two had disappeared over the rooftops, she had stomped back home and unleashed all her aggravation on various unfortunate training dummies and sets of bricks. The anger at being left behind unable to follow them, as well as at herself for the stupid indecision that had held her frozen silent and missing any chance to intervene, had taken quite a while to work out. And once she'd done so, Akane realized her mistake. Once the anger was gone, there was nothing left to distract her from fear and uncertainty. Not just one, but both of the boys fighting had a terrible handicap, and that meant the chances were either doubled or four times greater (she wasn't quite sure which, that was one mathematical principal she'd never mastered) that a mistake would leave someone terribly hurt or worse.

But it hadn't happened. As it turned out, keeping silent and letting everything proceed as it did had been the right thing to do, which was an enormous relief to Akane. Ranma had been pummeled to submission, battered to unconsciousness, but that was all. Ryoga hadn't even been hurt, from what details she'd been able to get from Dr. Tofu. He'd helped Ranma home the evening before last, and stayed behind to discuss things after Ranma limped off toward his room. Akane had been able to get a good bit of the story from him before Kasumi showed up and left the good doctor more debilitated than the patient he'd so recently treated.

Akane let her thoughts shift away from Ranma to Ryoga. She was glad that he hadn't won by triggering Ranma's curse, although truth be told she would have been very surprised if he had. It would have been much easier to credit Ranma with resorting to such means to secure the win. He hadn't either, and that also made her feel happy. The youngest Tendo found herself hoping that this fight would have cleared the air between the two rivals, at least somewhat. In all honesty, somewhere along the line she'd found herself forced to admit that Ranma had a point, and that she shouldn't blame him nearly as much as she did Shampoo for inflicting that curse on Ryoga. Part of Akane still felt like the blame should be split fifty/fifty, but by now the majority of her was considering seventy-five/twenty-five a more reasonable conclusion. And since it wasn't nearly as much Ranma's fault as Shampoo's, maybe this victory would be enough to work out the worst of whatever resentment Ryoga felt for Ranma over this.

'I hope so,' she thought to herself, feeling a sudden dimming of her mood. 'Poor Ryoga. How is he going to cope with this anyway? It's different for Ranma. He has a home, a place to live and people to look out for him. Ryoga doesn't have any of that. I'd help him if I could, but he gets lost so often it almost isn't even possible. It wouldn't surprise me if he hasn't even showed up again by the time Ranma's worked his way through both bars of soap I asked Nabiki to get for him. I better make sure she knows not to let Ranma know there's another two bars waiting for Ryoga. It'd be terrible if it was already gone by the time he finally finds his way back here.'

Akane's mood continued to darken with each step she took, leaving behind the happiness and satisfaction she'd felt only moments before and sliding quickly into sadness and melancholy. 'It just isn't fair. Ryoga's a nice guy, probably the nicest one I know, and life just keeps on dumping on him. It isn't enough that he spends so much time lost. Now he gets stuck with a horrible curse like that, turning into something small and weak and defenseless. All because Shampoo didn't want him to have an advantage over Ranma!'

That last thought should have sparked a comfortable rising surge of anger. Instead, it felt like the spark winked out before it could ignite, swallowed up in the ever-increasing levels of sadness. 'Why does it have to be like this…? Why can't there be a way to make things right…?' As the feeling of burden grew, Akane stumbled to a stop, seating herself on a convenient bench. It felt like the weight of the entire world was pressing on her. Sitting brought no relief, either; if anything, the oppressive sensation just continued to build.

And then, with an earsplitting crack, it lessened noticeably.

The shock was enough to bring her to her feet and whirl her around. There was a wall there, a wall with a locked gate in it a little ways down the street. Akane hurried to this and looked through the gap, finding that the wall enclosed an abandoned lot. Inside she could see the remains of a long-ruined building, probably one that been destroyed in her father's youth (perhaps even by him, if the few stories he'd told were true, and Nerima really always had been a proving ground for crazy high-powered martial arts battles).

Of much more importance to her, though, was the sight of the lot's lone occupant. He was standing only a few feet away from her, head downcast, shoulders slumped, radiating such misery that Akane didn't hesitate a moment before breaking the lock on the gate and hurrying through it. "Ryoga?" she said tentatively as she came up behind him. "What's wrong?"

On another day, the Lost Boy might have jumped, spun around, laughed nervously, and stuttered a reply with half-frozen vocal chords. Here and now, he just turned slowly and deliberately. "Akane," he murmured on catching sight of her. "So I'm still in Nerima. Or back in Nerima. Or something like that."

"What's wrong?" Akane repeated, her concern and worry for him replacing her mysterious early sadness. "Why are you so down? You beat Ranma, right? Shouldn't you be a little happy about that?"

"That's right. I did." He said it with no trace of satisfaction at all. "Want to see how?"

"Um… okay," Akane replied hesitantly, already at a loss for words. Why was Ryoga reacting like this? More importantly, how was she supposed to handle the situation?

"It goes like this." Ryoga turned thirty degrees away from her and got down on one knee, placing his hands on the ground and staring forward to a point all the way on the other side of the lot, targeting a chunk of broken concrete about the size of Genma's cursed form. Akane stared in awe as the ground beneath it suddenly slurped the thing down, swallowing ninety-five percent of it in what seemed like the blink of an eye.

Her sense of wonder faded swiftly, though, and she could feel her concern and worry for him beginning to fade as well, buried under another rising wave of sorrow. As Ryoga straightened up the feeling increased, leaving Akane trembling and weak and on the verge of tears. Then his hands snapped forward, chi coalescing between then and shooting out. The Shi Shi Hokodan impacted the ground right before the submerged iceberg of concrete. Immediately the earth shattered with a roar and disgorged a cloud of dust, rubble, and debris, leaving nothing of his original target larger than fist-sized chunks.

"Two new moves for the price of one," Ryoga muttered, not bothering to turn back and look at her. "The Graveyard Shift makes the earth open its mouth like the grave, to swallow something whole. Cut it off before you've actually got your target all the way under and hit it with a Shi Shi Hokodan, and the chi of the two attacks blows up a whole lot better than the Bakusai Tenketsu ever could. I think I'll call the combo Chain of Despair."

"Ryoga." About a minute back, Akane had finally figured something out. Ryoga's most powerful chi ability was based on depression, and he was apparently feeling it strongly enough to radiate it outward. That was why she had been feeling such inexplicable sadness. It had lessened once again after the release of Ryoga's chi blast, but it hadn't disappeared entirely. Still, her fear was strong enough to displace this reduced level of sorrow. "Why are you hurting like this? You beat Ranma! You're supposed to be happy right now!"

"Should I be? What good did it do?" Ryoga turned to face her, moving as if the effort required was almost more than the remains of his strength could bear. "So I beat him. So what? It was so easy, it didn't mean anything. I could do it again, no problem at all. What would be the point?"

"What do you mean?" Akane asked, disbelief obvious in her voice and her eyes. "Maybe it was more Shampoo's fault, but Ranma still deserves some of the blame for getting you this curse. You challenged him because of that, and you beat him better than almost anyone ever has! Didn't you do that to make up for getting cursed?"

Ryoga just shrugged. "Ranma said it wasn't permanent after all. That the water Shampoo used would wear off in a few more days." Later, he would realize that that had been a truly stupid admission. But at the moment such clarity of foresight was beyond him.

The shock from this statement was so great that for a moment Akane couldn't think, speak, or even sense the oppressive sorrow that pervaded the air. 'But… that's… why would she… why wouldn't he…?' As if deciding that some mysteries were too profound to be solved, and that it was better not to waste time trying, Akane pushed all consideration of this unbelievable revelation out of her mind. "But even so. How can you say it doesn't matter that you beat him?" she asked, returning to her previous track. "It matters to me!"

"It does?" Ryoga said quietly. "I'm sorry, Akane."

"Sorry for what? Ryoga, I'm glad you won!"

Akane had spoken the words with no idea that they would serve as powerfully as they did. Like a shot from a cannon, the communication screamed through the air and smashed a hole in the despair surrounding Ryoga. That emotion was certainly not banished, but for the first time in more than a day he was able to feel something else reasonably strongly: surprise. "Y-you are?" he stammered.

"Mm-hm." Akane nodded her head firmly. "You deserved to win! You've worked so hard trying to get better, and you never descend to the kind of cheap tricks he uses sometimes." The words tumbled forth, spilling out from behind a door she usually kept locked and barred. "I get so sick of the way he always wins, time after time, no matter what. No matter what he has to do to win, either. And it just makes it worse that I can't ever wish for Mousse or Kuno or somebody like that to put one over on him! They might really hurt him, or even kill him! But you're better than that, Ryoga. I know I can trust you not to do more than just beat him. That's another reason I'm glad you did."

"Do you really think so?" The words emerged as not much more than a whisper. Now Ryoga could feel a veritable hurricane of emotions, all struggling with each other. Confusion, hope, remorse, regret, happiness, tenderness, fear, and of course the sorrow from before. Already that one was increasing again, as memories from the fight and after surged out of the dark corners of his mind. "But… but Akane… I could have killed him. I didn't mean to, I deliberately chose not to! The Graveyard Shift was meant to use to kill, not just pin someone, but I promised myself I'd never, ever do that. But I didn't know what would happen when I combined it with the Shi Shi Hokodan! If I'd used the normal form instead of the Perfect one, it might have been enough to kill Ranma anyway!"

"W-what?" Akane gasped.

"That's right." The despair was rising again, winning the battle for Ryoga's psyche. "The blast from the ground isn't nearly as powerful when I set it off with the Perfect Shi Shi Hokodan. I think it's because the second move overpowers the first, or something. That was what I did to beat Ranma, but that was the first time I ever combined the moves and I didn't even know there'd be an explosion. If I'd just used the normal version, I could have killed him by accident after all."

Akane's brow wrinkled. "Oh. So what?"

Once again, shock battered its way through Ryoga's malaise. "What did you say?"

"Well, really, why are you letting that bother you so much?" the youngest Tendo counter-queried. Considering the number of times she'd seen highly skilled fighters do their deliberate, futile best to wreak permanent harm on Ranma, it just didn't seem all that important to hear Ryoga angsting about a harmless mistake he wouldn't ever repeat. Honestly, her friend was too sensitive for his own good. If only he could donate some of his excess to Ranma or something. "I mean, that didn't happen, and you didn't mean for it to happen, and now that you know you'll never actually do that. The reason you're practicing here is to make sure you know what's safe and what isn't, right?"

"Um, yeah, that's right…"

She smiled at him. "So why are you letting that get you down? Ryoga, the future is more important than the past, but they're both way more important than an accident that could have happened and didn't."

"M-maybe you're right…." But after all, it was thoughts of both the past and the future that were the real source of Ryoga's depression. What might have happened in the fight with Ranma wasn't a truly significant source of pain; it was just the one that he'd thought safest to tell her. After what Ranma had forced him to see, there was no way he could go back to being P-chan in the future once Shampoo's trick wore off, and it would be even worse to tell Akane of what he'd done in the past. Whatever wrong he'd done to her through his masquerade, at least he hadn't hurt her consciously — either in his conscious awareness or hers. But if Akane ever learned the true identity of her pet, that would change. And that he absolutely could not bear.

"So, are you feeling better now?" Akane asked anxiously. To her eyes, it looked like he'd made a little improvement, but nowhere near enough yet.

"I…." He wanted to reassure her, to make her feel better, but here and now the lie stuck in his throat. Ryoga just looked at her helplessly for a moment, then gulped, and said, "Akane, I… I just don't know…."

'Oh, Ryoga. Why isn't this working?' Akane thought, anxiety rising a bit higher. 'There's no good reason for him to be feeling this bad.' She considered things for a few seconds, before the obvious answer hit her. Ryoga had been using the Shi Shi Hokodan just now, and she had actually been able to feel the depression from it from twenty feet away and on the other side of a wall. That had never happened before. It must be that he had been overusing the move, and it was starting to feed back the despair into him and the area around him.

Her voice firm with conviction, Akane said, "Then maybe you'd better not use the Shi Shi Hokodan again for awhile. I think it's starting to really get you down, Ryoga. You don't want to be depressed all the time, do you?"

"I don't want to be lost all the time either, wandering around with no idea where I am or where anybody is who knows my name," Ryoga said quietly. 'I don't want to have hurt you or taken advantage of you or be even less worthy of you than Kuno.' "But that's how it is. The Shi Shi Hokodan doesn't make me depressed; I use it because I already am."

"Then why can I feel it so strongly now, when I never have before?" Akane challenged.

"Huh? Feel it?" Ryoga gave her a look of surprise, which gradually shifted into thoughtfulness and then concentration. Suddenly the oppressive sensation was gone, and the only clue Akane had remaining to Ryoga's state of mind was the look in his eyes. "I'm sorry, Akane, I didn't realize you were. It's not the Shi Shi Hokodan. It's part of the Graveyard Shift, a trick for extending my aura pretty far out away from me."

Despite all the time he'd spent around Akane, and the various intimate confessions he'd heard from her, Ryoga never had quite grasped the depth of her ability to run with a first impression. 'Whatever,' she thought to herself. 'He's probably just using the aura thing to block me from feeling it now so I don't hurt too.' Aloud, she said, "Please, Ryoga. Do it for me. I… I hate seeing you hurt like this… it hurts me too…."

"Really?" Ryoga whispered.

"Yes, really!" Akane said emphatically. "Ryoga, I know you don't get to come by as often as you want to. I know you hate how you get lost so often. I do too. But even if you can't be here all the time, you're still my friend. A good, important friend. You do know that, right?" she asked anxiously, memories resurfacing of the confused state of affairs that had been Ranma's first clash with Ryoga's Perfect Shi Shi Hokodan. Ryoga had wanted to have fuel for the fires of depression, and to that end he had asked her to tell him that she hated him. Akane had certainly not been able to say it convincingly, but even the lackluster performance she had managed had been enough to drop her friend into the depths of despair. Surely that must mean he valued her friendship at least as much as she did his!

Ryoga, meanwhile, was standing stock still, plunged into the deepest maelstrom of confused emotions yet. He'd hurt her, the one he'd never wanted to hurt… but she didn't know about it… he wasn't worthy of her… he had helped her before… and if not him, who would…? she still did care about him… she thought he was an important friend….

He closed his eyes, perhaps hoping the darkness behind them would be less confusing than Akane's caring, concerned stare. But it was just as tumultuous there — no, even more so! His thoughts were screaming in circles like a banshee conga line, whirling around and around with no sense or resolution in sight.

'Why does everything have to be so hard?' he thought feebly. 'Being P-chan was wrong… but there was some good in the bad too, just like I told Ranma… why couldn't it have been the good without the bad? What would that have meant anyway?'

Ranma's main rival wasn't as prone to sudden flashes of brilliant insight as was the pigtailed boy. But Ryoga experienced one now, a sudden burst of understanding that in that moment he was sure was the most important one he'd ever had in his life. It seemed to blossom forth out of a dozen thoughts combined: Akane's words about the future being more important than the past, the bitter accusations Ranma had hurled at him two days ago, the desperate consideration he'd given to the matter since then, his futile wish that he could have had the good aspects of being P-chan without the bad, the cold inescapable awareness that Akane deserved better than him… all of these together lent him strength for the epiphany.

'I can still be her friend. I should still be her friend. She said it herself, I'm important to her. If I do what I was planning, leave and never come back, it would hurt her. And that's the last thing I ever want to do.' Despite the season of the year and the general stillness of the air, it felt like a cold, bracing wind was swirling around him. Things would be different. They had to be different. But he didn't have to lose everything he had left. It wouldn't be right to let go, because that wasn't the right thing for Akane. She needed someone who would really be there for her, would care more for her than for himself, would listen to her and support her and value her as much as she deserved to be valued. He couldn't do any of that as P-chan anymore… but if he didn't stay, if he wasn't there for her as much as he could be, if he didn't tell her just how important her friendship was to him, he'd be failing her far worse than he had before. He'd be hurting her with his eyes wide open. And that was unacceptable.

He took one more deep breath, his eyes still closed. Something else was unacceptable as well, which was funny, because less than a week ago he'd have said letting go of it was unthinkable. He remembered the times when he'd thought about Akane, called out to the stars as if speaking to her, declared to the world that if she ever said to him that she didn't love him, that her heart was for someone else, then his own heart of glass would shatter forever. All those memories seemed so distant now, and so unimportant.

Strange, how everything was so much simpler now. He loved her. But he didn't deserve her. He didn't deserve her friendship, but she didn't deserve to have a friend abandon her. It all worked out to a very simple principle: he was going to be her friend, and nothing else.

Just for a second, he felt an unexpectedly strong pang of resistance to this idea, the old dreams trying to struggle back to life. They were quickly buried in a tide of furious anger. How dare any part of him keep on like this! Those desires, that aching belief that the care Akane showed her friend and her pet ought to mean she'd someday love him as a man — that was just the sort of thing that had led him to crawl as P-chan into her bed! To do the very things Ranma had so painfully hurled back in his face, the failures his rival had illuminated once it was too late for Ryoga to walk away from them on his own!

The anger went as quickly as it had come, a brief intense flash that had burned out that last stubborn remnant of the old him. Once before, Akane had told him she didn't hate him after all, had done it in the middle of the battle in which he'd tried to use his Perfect Shi Shi Hokodan to put the final seal on his victory over Ranma. Hearing those words from her had shattered his depression, but she'd immediately followed them up with the reassurance that he was a good friend. Hearing that that was how she saw him — as a friend, and nothing more — had sent him plunging back down to the nadir of despair.

But here and now, that message from her felt like rain on ground too long parched and broken and desolate.

Ryoga's eyes opened. This time, the look in them was nothing painful for Akane to see. "Akane… thank you," he said, swallowing a lump in his throat. "Hearing that… it really does make me feel better. You're a good friend too, and a good person. Probably the best of both that I know."

"Oh… I'm sure that's not true," Akane said diffidently. "I'm really glad to hear you say it, though. But do promise me not to use the Shi Shi Hokodan again soon, okay?"

"I promise, Akane." An easy enough promise to make. She'd said it hurt her if he was depressed, and he had to be depressed to use the move in the first place. And although there was certainly enough stuff in his past to make depression easy to come by, he would do as she had suggested and keep his eyes on the future instead.

And speaking of the future… Ryoga's eyes widened suddenly. It seemed as if whatever jolt of enlightenment had sped his brain up to unusual heights of brilliance hadn't worn off yet, because he suddenly saw something else very important. Akane now knew to expect his falcon curse to wear off soon. Before the most recent changes she'd never had a reason to think of him in combination with Jusenkyo, which had to help explain why she'd never suspected the truth about P-chan. But that wasn't true any longer, and if Akane should see him panic as he dodged incoming cold water when he was supposed to be free and clear of the temporary curse, she might start thinking along a track that would really hurt her if she went too far down it.

What could he do? There was only one solution — fly to Jusenkyo while he still had the wings to do it, locate the Spring of Drowned Falcon, and immerse himself in it for real. The Spring of Drowned Man would be even better, except that without wings it would surely take much longer, unacceptably longer, to get back to Akane. This way when the curse never wore off Akane would think Shampoo had been wrong about that happening, or Ranma had lied when he said it, or something like that.

"Ryoga…." Akane said hesitantly. She'd been silent for the last couple of minutes, brooding about something. Ryoga hadn't noticed, as he had been too busy considering the implications of his epiphany. But she was ready now to talk about it. "I've been thinking about something, and it doesn't make any sense. Ranma told you that Shampoo just gave you a curse that'll wear off in a few days, right?" He nodded, a little nervous as to where she might be going with this. "Well, why would she? What would be the point? It doesn't do any good at all, and it doesn't fit with what you told me. You know, that she cursed you in the first place because she didn't want you to have an advantage over Ranma."

Ryoga held back a sigh and a grimace as he remembered the morning when she had been introduced to that idea. 'Dammit, I should have thought it through better. Maybe there's some things I can't tell her, but I shouldn't ever lie to her. And I didn't even stop to think about it then… No, I shouldn't beat myself up about it now. That's no different from the other stuff I used to pull, and that's the old me. The future, and being Akane's friend, not the past and how I failed her — that's what I've got to focus on.' "I… I don't know, Akane," he answered. That, at least, was true; he had no idea how giving him a temporary curse would fit in with what Shampoo had really said, back when she'd first "offered" it to him.

"I don't know either! Don't know why she would even bother doing that, if it was just for a few days. I can sure see her giving you a real one so you wouldn't be so much stronger than her precious 'Airen', but what good would that little bit of time do?" More confused than ever, Akane sought further clarification. "What exactly did Ranma say? Could it have been a mistake? Are you sure you heard him right?"

"I don't know about a mistake, but I know what I heard. He yelled loud enough for me to hear him clearly over the Perfect Shi Shi Hokodan."

Akane blinked, as a vision of memory danced through her head. "Say that again."

"Say what?"

"Are you telling me he told you that at the very end? When the Perfect Shi Shi Hokodan was coming down?! Ryoga, were you standing close enough to be affected too?"

"Yeah, but you know the move doesn't affect me. Well, by itself it doesn't," Ryoga corrected. "I got thrown clear when the ground exploded, but the chi just washed past me."

'Why am I the only one who sees things clearly around here?!' Akane silently exclaimed. Taking a deep breath for calmness, she explained. "Ryoga, don't you remember what happened before? Ranma figured that out too, and he said some stuff to make you even more depressed. That jerk said he'd been taking advantage of me, and of course that was going to hurt one of my good friends even worse. But then at the last minute he let you know he was lying through his teeth, and hearing that made you happy again. And so you took the full blow just like he did, or even worse since you weren't ready for it. Don't you see? He had to be trying to do the same thing again this time!"

Ryoga stood like a statue, frozen motionless with yet another great shock. "I… I don't believe it… you're right… you have to be…."

"Of course I'm right," Akane growled. "It's just what that jerk always does, pulling any cheap trick he can think of to get the win, not even caring about how far he has to go to do it. You must have known it too, Ryoga, that's why you weren't any happier when you heard him say it, or afterward. You must have known in the back of your mind that it wasn't true."

"That… that honorless scumbag…." A battleaura, starting out small but quickly growing, sprang to life around Ryoga. "I'm gonna kick his butt all the way to the gates of hell and back! How dare he do this!"

"Just don't use the Shi Shi Hokodan, okay?" Akane said, concern rising again. "And don't do anything that could get either of you hurt in your cursed forms."

"Right, right, sure." Ryoga took a deep breath, then let loose a cry that felt long overdue. "RANMA! PREPARE TO DIE!!"

Akane watched with little to no surprise as he dashed away in a straight line for his backpack, grabbed it up and swung it into place without breaking his stride, and continued to accelerate. Not even bothering to alter his course to use the gate, the Lost Boy instead barreled through the wall and kept going in that same straight line — a line one hundred and sixty-three degrees away from the path that would have led him back toward her home. "Well, okay, see you later then," she said with a snort, a shake of the head, and a small smile. At least some things didn't change.

The morning sunlight glinted in Ranma's eyes and burnished his shirt a deep fiery red. His pigtail whipped and crackled in the breeze as he spun through a kata. Normally he would perform those inside the dojo, and save the outdoor practice for sparring with his father. But Genma had been gone these past eleven days, and although Ranma wasn't about to admit missing the old man, he could at least concede that it felt good to be training out here. Even if there was a nagging sense of anticipation, a feeling in the back of his mind that any minute now a furry arm would grab him from behind and sling him toward the koi pond.

He finished his current pattern and stopped to rest, regarding that body of water with veiled eyes. 'Wonder what the old man's gonna say about this,' he mused. 'Knowing him, he'll probably just squawk his fool head off without even thinking things through. That's Pop all right — go for the knee-jerk reaction no matter how much better it'd be to stop and think things through a bit.'

Ranma smiled as he contemplated this. He was looking forward to it, anticipating with a good deal of pleasure the shock and discomfiture that Genma was sure to experience. The more his father blustered and complained, the more fun it was going to be. 'Guess I just didn't handle it right with Akane,' he mused. 'She's still an idiot for not even listening when I explained it, but at least that gave me an idea of what not to do with Pop. I'll let him yell and raise a ruckus, and once he finally gets the first shock out of his system, then I'll remind him about Mom.'

It was a thought that had never been very far from Ranma's mind of late — that he had finally gotten back on the right side of the promise his father had saddled him with so long ago. Nodoka could meet her son at last without any risk of disappointment, no chance of finding out that the man-among-men she'd dreamed of was half the time only as manly as a tomboy could be. She would never learn the truth of "Ranko Tendo", would never be forced to face the fear and failure that her son and husband had endured. The Saotome family would finally be able to come back together once Genma made his way back to the Tendo home.

Ranma's eyes widened and he smacked his fist into his palm in sudden realization. Suddenly it was a lot easier to admit that yes, he really was feeling anxious for his father to return.

'Hope it won't be too much longer,' he thought. 'Man, don't it just figure that the old freak would pick the worst possible time to pull something like this. We could have gone to see Mom already if Pop hadn't been dragged off on that stupid training trip. Yeah, right, like there's really gonna be any training going on.' He could count on the fingers of one foot the number of times he'd seen Happosai work to improve his father's skills, or Soun's, or… come to think of it, the only real memories he could bring to mind were of the old lech powering up Ranma's own opponents. 'Sure hope that's not what this is all about,' Ranma thought dubiously. 'Pop better not come back knowing how to do the Demon Head.'

Hopefully this trip would just be another of the jaunts that his father had described to him a few months back. Genma had been drunk enough to talk freely about a topic that he usually avoided like the plague, and Ranma had been annoyed enough at Happosai to listen in the hopes that more information might help him better fight the ancient lecher. It had been revealing, in a way, but it hadn't exactly been information that helped him with any of his day-to-day struggles. Well, that wasn't quite true; some of the mental pictures that Genma's tales had painted were at least funny enough to reduce his stress level.

And Ranma supposed it was a little gratifying, to understand the difference between Happosai's training methods and his father's. Genma had made his share of boneheaded mistakes, but throughout it all he had been there guiding Ranma directly, and deliberately seeking out the new sources of knowledge that would help his son grow in the Art. Happosai's philosophy seemed to be more along "do-it-yourself" lines, where his part as the Master was to put the pupils into situations where they would have to bust their own butts trying to come up with new strengths and tricks. That might even be a decent training method if you didn't have anything specific left to teach your pupil… but considering the number of special techniques the old freak knew and his disciples didn't, Ranma supposed Happosai was just expressing his lazy, sadistic side.

Deciding he'd had enough of a rest break, Ranma chose a new kata and whipped into motion. For the next twenty minutes he glided around the yard, bounced from the ground to the wall to the roof, and generally put forth a performance that would leave special effects technicians with their mouths gaping open. He ended with a flurry of midair punches and kicks, his trajectory taking him from the far side of the yard to the near, passing directly over the koi pond. He settled down on the porch and regarded that body of water with a smug smile. "You ain't got much left in the way of bad news, have ya?" he jeered.

The koi jumped into the air and fell back beneath the water. The spray from its splash shone like jewels in the morning light. Ranma just grinned at the pleasant spectacle; he was much too far away for the water to hit him, and even if it had, the random transformations just weren't that irritating anymore. "Nope. You got nothing left to hold over my head."

"Talking to yourself, Saotome?" This was Nabiki, speaking from the other side of the doorway that led into the house. "Why don't you do something useful, like coming inside and getting cleaned up and ready for breakfast?"

Ranma just shrugged. "Don't feel like it just yet. It's not like anybody's waiting on me. Akane's the one who ain't back from jogging."

"Still, wouldn't it be better to only have to wait on one person to get ready instead of two?" Nabiki prodded. "You're a Saotome, aren't you? That means you're always supposed to be eager for your next meal."

"Hey, don't lump me in with Pop like that!" Ranma protested, completely and utterly without justification. On seeing Nabiki roll her eyes, he continued, "Besides, I already went flying earlier this morning and caught a couple of pigeons. Kasumi's breakfast can wait."

Nabiki made a truly disgusted face. "Ranma, that is barbaric even for you."

He smirked back at her. "You know something, Nabiki? You're kinda gullible in the morning."

"Oh, so that was just a joke, was it?" Nabiki's eyes narrowed ever so slightly, but that was the only evidence she allowed herself to show of her reaction. 'I'll get you for that, Ranma. Just you wait.' Then she shoved those thoughts to the back burner, as she sensed an opportunity more important than planning minor payback — namely, the chance to gather additional information. "Wouldn't surprise me if you really had, ahem, stooped to that level." She watched in a total lack of surprise as the pun flew well over Ranma's head. "Just how far does being in that shape go? Do you have instincts like that?"

"Eh, not really," Ranma said. "I mean, yeah, there was one day when I spent a long time flying, and got pretty hungry cause I'd skipped lunch. I kinda had the thought in the back of my mind, but I never actually did it. Come on, Nabiki, you gotta know I was kidding; Kasumi's cooking is way better than something like that."

"Of course it is. I was just curious as to how much of a role your falcon instincts play, as opposed to your usual intellect."

He shrugged. "I'm the same guy no matter what shape I'm in. Jusenkyo lets me know how to use the body, it don't reduce me to that level for real."

"Hmm," Nabiki responded, her tone dubious enough to ruffle Ranma's feathers. He frowned, but before he could say anything, she replied, "That's all well and good, Saotome, but there's at least one issue of basic biology that concerns me. That ought to concern you too."

"What's that?" he asked warily. Biology wasn't as bad as some subjects, but anything over a certain level of academia was nothing he wanted to think about now.

"Oh, nothing really," Nabiki murmured. "Just some harmless speculation on my part."

When Nabiki started out with something ominous and then beat around the bush instead of saying what she meant, it could only mean one thing. "In case you forgot, you took the last of my allowance yesterday," Ranma stated. "I ain't gonna have anything else to pay you until Pop gets back."

"What the heck, I suppose even I can give a freebie once in awhile." Especially when giving the information in question worked directly toward an important goal. "Are you aware of how female animals' fertility cycles work, Saotome? It's the same principle for almost all animals, including peregrine falcons."


Noting Ranma's eyes were already beginning to glaze over, Nabiki stepped up the pace and intensity of her explanation. "When the time is right, a female will go into heat. That means she's fertile, ready to get pregnant. She signals this by giving off pheromones, special chemicals that drive the males of the species wild when they smell them. It's Nature's own Love Potion Number Nine, Ranma — and I hope for your sake that you're as good at resisting your cursed form's instincts as you say."

This, he hadn't expected. Now that she mentioned it, Ranma did remember learning that particular lesson at Furinkan. It had stuck in his mind better than most because he hadn't been able to decide whether animals had it better or worse than he did. He'd never expected to possibly have a chance to find out firsthand.

The pigtailed teen chewed his lip in anxious thought. Then, brightening, he said, "But hang on, Nabiki. If that was gonna happen with me and Shampoo, there's no way she also would've cursed Ryoga."

"Oh?" Nabiki countered with a raised eyebrow. "No way she would curse Ryoga, who's almost never around and who she could just dodge once or twice until he got lost again?"

Ranma's own brow wrinkled in concentration. "But ain't that going against what you were suggesting in the first place? If it was just instinct, she wouldn't think to dodge him. And now that you mention it, wouldn't this kind of stuff have been a problem for her back when she had the, uh, her old curse? That can't be how it is."

'Damn, this isn't going well,' Nabiki thought, keeping her true emotions off her face. Ranma shouldn't be thinking it through to such an extent, and he sure shouldn't be giving Shampoo the benefit of the doubt. Had something else changed recently when she wasn't aware? Blast it all, she needed more information! Maybe she should look into bugging the house and dojo for real.

Before Nabiki could decide what to say or do next, the rear gate swung open and Akane passed through. "Hey, Akane, glad you made it back," Ranma called, rising to his feet. "Nabiki's so hungry she ain't even thinking straight. Let's get some breakfast."

"Let's not yet," Akane snapped, striding over toward him with her hands balled into fists at her sides. "Let's talk about the fight between you and Ryoga."

Ranma frowned, not having even the slightest inclination to remember that debacle. He vaguely noticed Nabiki scurrying away deeper into the house, and half turned to follow her. Breakfast sounded a lot better than this. "How about not," he retorted. "I ain't in the mood to think about Ryoga beating me with a cheap trick."

"Cheap trick?! Oh, that's great coming from you! I ran into him while I was jogging just now, and I got the whole story. You jerk, did you even think about how cruel you were being to him? Telling him that it wasn't a permanent curse after all, lying to him just so you could beat him! And it didn't even work!"

"Look, that's between me and him," Ranma snapped after recovering from his flinch, all the angrier and more defensive because he knew that for once Akane was completely right. She'd chewed him out many times in the past, but always there was some crucial bit of information she was missing or something she'd originally misunderstood and refused to reconsider. Situations like that were par for the course, but here and now Ranma was discovering that being castigated by an Akane who he knew was truly in the right was much less pleasant. He'd never expected her words could resonate so strongly and painfully with his own conscience.

Forcibly reminding himself that even if she was right it wasn't her place to be doing this, he continued, "Just drop it, Akane. Unless you can tell me where he is right now, so I can go see him, I don't want to hear anything about this."

"Well, that's just too bad, Ranma! You're going to hear it anyway!"

"Excuse me, sis." Nabiki's cool, dry, clipped tones somehow managed to cut through Akane's tirade. Both Ranma and Akane turned, to see the middle Tendo standing only a few feet away and holding a nondescript brown paper parcel. "Ranma and I were in the middle of an important discussion."

Ranma blinked. "We were?"

Nabiki sighed. "Yes, Ranma, although apparently you weren't paying enough attention to realize it."

"Nabiki, this is important too!" Akane protested.

'I'm sure Shampoo would agree,' Nabiki thought acidly. 'I'm sure she'd just love for me to keep silent and let you rake him over the coals some more. Screw that, little sister, I'm not letting your temper and shortsightedness shoot us all in the foot.' Nabiki just hoped that the ploy she was about to execute would be enough to derail this mistake-in-the-making. "As important as a care package from the Cat Café? I think not," she quipped, then handed the parcel to Ranma. "This came in the mail for you, Saotome. Unfortunately, there was a bit of an accident involving the koi pond."

Ranma took the offering, turning it over in his hands and noting that whatever the accident had been, it had apparently involved enough contact with water to make the ink run to complete illegibility. He shot one disparaging glance toward the pond, muttering, "That's low even for you," under his breath. Opening up the package, he extracted several sheets of paper — noting without any surprise that they, too, couldn't be read — and two bars of replacement waterproof soap.

"Well? What does it say?" Akane wanted to know.

"It got too wet. I can't read a word of it." Ranma shrugged. "Eh, it's probably just the same basic stuff Shampoo told me yesterday."

"What did you say?" the youngest Tendo replied, in a tone caught somewhere between a gasp, a choke, and a snarl.

Ranma steeled himself, knowing that the admission wasn't going to go over well, but determined to say it anyway. "I met up with Shampoo while I was flying yesterday. She told me about why she'd said the water was only good for a couple of days; it was cause she really had believed that was how much time we had, just for a different reason." He decided not to bother with the full-fledged explanation, figuring it was a pretty safe bet that Akane didn't want to hear it. "She also told me she'd already sent me this letter with more soap, all that she had left except for one bar for herself." The Amazon had been a little odd when talking about the letter, rather coy and hesitant… maybe even shy, if such an adjective could be applied to the girl who thought nothing of jumping into the bathtub with him. He wondered if there had been anything else of significance in the letter. Oh well, whatever it was, it couldn't be as important as the explanation she'd already given him.

Neither Ranma nor Akane noticed it, but just for a moment, Nabiki lost her fabled composure. A scowl darker than anything Ranma had ever seen from Akane covered her face as she furiously processed this revelation. Apparently it had been a mistake to choose this moment to pass along the package; the soap should have been Akane's cue to reveal that she had ordered twice that much, and the watermarked letter should have just muddied the waters further, not led to such damnable news as this. So Ranma had met up with Shampoo yesterday? So he had apparently already forgiven her? So her hard work in obliterating the contents of that letter had all been wasted? What was she supposed to do now?

Akane, meanwhile, was teetering somewhere between furious anger and tears. It wasn't ever going to end, was it? Ranma was never going to change… the most he'd ever do would be to give Shampoo the cold shoulder for a few days and then he'd go back to being just as big a pervert with her as ever….

Her eyes, which had widened and then slammed shut at Ranma's communication, opened again. Most of her body trembled with the effort to control herself, but her hand was rock-steady as it shot out and grabbed one bar of soap from her fiancé.

"What was that for?!" he demanded.

"For Ryoga, you idiot!" Akane spat back. "He shouldn't have to suffer like this just because you and Shampoo are a couple of heartless jerks! If it wasn't for Kuno getting this idea to splash you, I wouldn't even let you keep one bar!"

Two days ago, Akane had stood frozen, unable to decide what to do as events swirled around and past her. Here and now, it was her sister's turn. Nabiki felt nothing but a cold frozen lump of queasiness in the wake of Akane's declaration, knowing with sick certainty that her sister was making a mistake, but unable to find any shred of inspiration on how to begin damage control. All she could do was remain still and watch events unfold before her, feeling the sensation of powerlessness that she loathed above all others.

Ranma, meanwhile, was holding motionless as well, although in his case it was due to shock and rising anger. Him, heartless? After all he'd done for her and for everybody, how hard he'd tried and how much he'd sacrificed in doing the best he could? No forgiveness for the mistakes he'd made and no credit for the good he'd done?

She wouldn't let him keep a bar?!

He opened his mouth, ready to tell Akane exactly what he thought of her ultimatum and her attitude. But then a scene came rising out of recent memory, one cold enough to bank the fires of his anger. He seemed again to see Ryoga's despairing face, heard the determination and sorrow in his voice as he demanded that his rival start treating Akane better. It was enough to draw Ranma back from his first furious impulsive response.

Here and now he wasn't wrong, Akane was. But that didn't change the fact that Ranma had gone way too far when he faced Ryoga last time, that he owed the Lost Boy. 'Maybe I can pay a little of that debt now,' he thought grimly. Taking a deep breath and focusing all his will, Ranma swallowed his anger, leaving only the intensity behind. He would speak civilly and carefully to Akane, letting her know what was what without being hard on her at all.

Akane blinked and gasped as her hands were suddenly empty, her fingers buzzing and stinging. She hadn't even seen Ranma move, but suddenly both bars were back in his possession. "Ranma—!" she started.

"No, you listen to me." Ranma spoke the words as calmly as he ever had, satisfied that there was no hint of anger in his tone, and more than satisfied that the strength of it seemed to have gotten through to Akane. The hot flush of fury was already draining out of her expression. "You're right that one of these bars is goin' to Ryoga. But it's my decision to make and it's my job to give it to him. Not yours, not either one of those. You understand me? Shampoo gave the soap to me, and I was the one who screwed things up with Ryoga. That means it's my responsibility to fix it. I don't need you telling me what to do and I sure don't need you trying to take matters into your own hands. Okay?"

Akane swayed like a reed in the wind, fighting a horrible feeling of emptiness inside. Not again! She'd promised herself she wouldn't fold like this again! But she could feel it happening, could see it right before her very eyes. She didn't want to be someone who would give way under pressure like this! Damn it all, she'd even been making some progress recently! But here and now, staring helplessly at the fire of pure force burning in Ranma's eyes, it was as if that had all been a dream. Why was this so much harder to stand up to than anger from him would have been? Gathering all the strength she could muster, she protested, "But, Ranma…."

"But nothing!" he declared. "Akane, this is my business. I gotta be the one to make it right. It wouldn't be right for you to get involved. Do you understand?"

Knowing that she would hate herself for it later, but unable to manage any other response, Akane nodded her head, turned, and walked inside.

'This is pretty strange,' Ranma mused as he sat at his desk awaiting the arrival of the teacher. 'Today's been a lot more peaceful than I expected.' It was the first school day of the week, his first day back at Furinkan since the interrupted battle with Tatewaki Kuno. He and Akane had arrived at school to find no sign of the kendoist. Ranma had been surprised at this, as he was fully expecting to have to dodge an aqueous assault in order to make it inside the building. Failing at that, he'd at least expected Kuno to show up for lunch, but the hour came and went with no sign of the Blue Thunder. 'Maybe he's waiting till after class because that's what he did last time and he's too stubborn to change tactics. Or then again, maybe he's out sick. Considering how disappointed he must've been on Friday, and then Saturday when I wasn't here, he could've shot his mouth off once too often around Kodachi about what he was gonna do to me.'

Ranma paused to fight off a minor case of the chills. 'Ain't like I want to waste time fighting him this afternoon, but it'd be better than that alternative. Kodachi really mad at someone, mad enough to really get creative in punishing them… I'd be okay with that for Happosai, and maybe Panty—' he cut himself off with a mental snicker, 'that is, Rebel Leader Taro, but it's not something I'd wish on Tatewaki 'Mostly Harmless' Kuno.' At least not now, with his girl form nothing but an unpleasant memory.

Still, it would be nice if Kuno didn't challenge him this afternoon. Ranma didn't want to hang around Furinkan too long. 'Akane didn't get into anything like the kind of snit I expected today. It's Ucchan's first day back, she's making sure I know she missed me and wished she hadn't had to be gone that long on the family visit, she even whips up some okonomiyaki for my lunch — and Akane just stays calm and quiet throughout it all. That's way luckier than I usually get.' But he didn't want to push his luck even further, and so Ranma had not said anything yet to his oldest friend about the recent changes in his life, hadn't brought up the sore subject while Akane was in earshot. He'd made plans with Ukyo in a private moment to go to her place this afternoon, which was when he would break the news. Of course, that plan required Akane to be elsewhere at the time, which really meant he needed to get after school while the getting was good, take advantage of her having joined that silly club and make tracks before she caught up to him.

On the other hand, it grated against his pride to run from a fight, especially a fight with Kuno. And there was the fact that the plan he'd made for dealing with Tatewaki's latest and greatest inspiration required him to have one real fight with the kendoist. He intended to spend one challenge doing just what he'd told Kuno he would do, dodging the best his opponent could throw at him with no outside interference. Then, when Kuno inevitably tried again on the next day, Ranma would give a dramatic speech about just how deluded the Blue Thunder really was to think this would melt him down to nothing — and stand there and take the splashing full on.

The key, of course, was the soap that had accompanied Shampoo's ill-fated letter. He hadn't used it today, since he was going to need to demonstrate the change to Ukyo. And before he put that part of the plan into action, he really needed to talk to Shampoo again and find out if she knew exactly how long the soap's protection lasted after a single application. It would be easy enough to be waterproofed when he arrived at school, but from the few times he'd used the soap so far he couldn't be certain its magic would last the whole day. No, the shield would need to be refreshed at some point. It would be a lot easier to pull off everything if he could just soap up after gym class and still be good at the end of the day, rather than trying to get in a quick lathering right before he left the building.

But, Ranma reminded himself, those were thoughts for another day. The only question for today was, 'Assuming Kuno is here and planning to challenge me after school, should I skip out with Ucchan too quick for him to catch us? Or should I take the time to get that first, dry fight out of the way?'

"Hey, Ranma honey. What's the deal with Akane?"

Ranma blinked, focusing on reality around him instead of his thoughts. Ukyo had left the classroom when Akane and the last teacher did, but she was back now. "What'd you say, Ucchan?"

"I asked what the deal was with Akane. I was on my way back from the ladies' room just now, and I saw her out the window in front of Furinkan. There was some kind of cart thing full of buckets of water, and she was ripping it to pieces." Ukyo's brow wrinkled. "It was violent even for her. Don't tell me she finally lost it while I was gone?"

Feeling less ambivalent about this round of interference than the last, he replied, "Nah. That stuff she was destroying belonged to Kuno."

Ranma had meant to go into more detail, but at this the chef relaxed noticeably. "Oh. Say no more."

There wasn't much time to say anything else anyway, as at that moment their final teacher of the day arrived. Ranma shot a quick whisper to Ukyo reminding her that he wanted to get to her restaurant as quickly as possible after school, then concentrated on making it through the last hour of boredom.

Ukyo, who had missed class for two weeks and would have been far better off paying strict attention to the sensei, spent that hour running his words back through her mind and blushing at the connotations.

"So how've you been these past coupla weeks?" Ranma asked. He and Ukyo had made it back to her place without incident, and the two of them were seated next to the long counter where the customers watched her work her magic. It was time now to break the biggest news of the year to her. He just hoped the method he'd chosen would work better this time than it had before. Back when he'd first told Akane and her sisters, he'd led up to the news gradually and deliberately, choosing what he'd thought was a good pace as he built his case step-by-step. That seemed like a much better thing to do with a friend than just dropping the bombshell straight out.

His efforts had apparently been wasted as far as Akane was concerned, but hopefully Ucchan would be better. And so Ranma once again did his best to gently lead up to the news. "Anything cool, new, and interesting happen for you? Did ya solve any huge problems while you were gone?"

"Um, Ranchan, this was just a Kuonji clan get-together. I wouldn't even have gone, at least not for the whole time, if they wouldn't have thought skipping out was a crime against humanity. I never would have heard the end of it. Might even have had some of the relatives decide to come on over and set up shop here in town, to keep a closer eye on me." Ukyo grimaced at the thought. That was not something she wanted to happen until she'd made a bit more progress with her fiancé (i.e. buried the competition and walked off into the sunset with his arm around her shoulders). "Trust me, family reunions aren't that exciting or life-changing."

Ranma gave a long series of coughs, amidst which could be made out the words, "Nodoka Saotome."

"Don't even joke about that!" the chef exclaimed, not wanting any reminder of the threat hanging over Ranma's head if he ever revealed himself to his mother. "A seppuku promise is not the kind of excitement or life-change I want to think about!"

"Yeah, me neither," Ranma said with a huge grin.

"Huh? What's with the smile, Ranma honey?" Ukyo asked, puzzled. He didn't talk about his mother with her very often, but each time he had his mood had been much sadder and more pained than this. A possible solution presented itself, and before she could tell herself not to get her hopes up too far the chef blurted, "Did you meet her for real while I was gone, and get off the hook?!"

"Nope, not yet. But soon," he promised.

"But soon?" she echoed. "What about the curse?"

"Oh, yeah. That." Ranma's smile only widened. "Tell me something, Ucchan. If you had to have a Jusenkyo curse, what kind would you get? Don't just pick outta the springs you know about, imagine that if it exists there's a spring for it. What curse would you be okay with?"

Ukyo was more confused than ever at the turn the conversation had taken, but that didn't really impede her from answering. "That's something I had thought about before. Gave it a good bit of thought actually. I'm pretty sure that if I had to have a Jusenkyo curse, and assuming there is such a thing, I'd take a dip in the Spring of Drowned Wolf."

"Why's that, exactly? What do ya like about that form?"

"Well, for starters, I absolutely wouldn't want any spring that messed with my head." Like the Spring of Drowned Priest that he'd told her about, from that time the Jusenkyo Preservation Society had come after the various Nerima curse victims. "And I'd hate to be helpless in my other form. With that curse I'd be a big bad predator that nobody in their right mind would mess with. It's close enough to a dog that people wouldn't freak out or call animal control if I acted harmless, but it's not close enough that anybody would see me as something to put on the menu at their restaurant.

"But the real reason was for you, Ranma honey."

Ranma blinked. "Huh?"

"Think about it, Sugar." Ukyo's eyes twinkled merrily. "If I had to have a curse, it might as well be one that would make it only natural for me to chase a certain other type of animal away. A certain furry little, evil little animal that you really don't like getting close to." She was referring to one cat in particular, but Ukyo didn't see any need to be that specific.

"Heh. Thanks for the thought," he said with a grin. 'And thanks for talking around it like that instead of naming them straight out.' "So, you would've picked your curse based on it working for me, huh? No thoughts of you getting a guy curse to kinda match the one Jusenkyo stuck me with?"

"Not on your life," the chef said decisively. "I spent too much time as it is pretending I was a boy. That's not who I am, and it damn sure isn't who I want to be. Er, the guy's uniform I wear to Furinkan notwithstanding."

"Like I'm gonna say anything about somebody wearing what they're comfortable with instead of stickin' to the rules." Realizing that the conversation was drifting off subject, Ranma reeled it back in. "Did you know that Shampoo and Cologne got back from that trip to China? They came back just a coupla days after you left."

Ukyo blinked. She had just been about to bring up the issue of his mother again; where the heck had this new subject change come from? "No, I didn't know, although I kind of suspected we wouldn't be lucky enough for them to stay away much longer. Why does it matter?"

"Cause of where they went in China, and what they did. You asked me why I'm not scared ta meet with Mom anymore? You wanna know why I asked you about Jusenkyo curses that wouldn't be so bad after all?" Ranma paused for just a second, then continued. "Shampoo got rid of her old curse back at Jusenkyo. She turns into a falcon now. And she brought back water from that spring and let me use it too."

Ukyo met his words with silence, and a stare as blank as parchment. Ranma let the silence stretch for awhile, sure that his oldest friend would have something to say in response. Eventually, though, beginning to get a little worried, he asked, "Ucchan? You okay?"

"A-are you serious?!" the chef managed to gasp.

Ranma nodded. "Yeah. No more 'Ranko Tendo', no more curvy little redheaded body spitting in the face of that 'man among men' promise. Nothing for Mom to be disappointed about, nothing for me to be scared of."

'Wish I could say the same.' The thought whispered through Ukyo's mind, weaving through the echoes that still resounded from two previous sentences. Ranma had said it so casually, that he wasn't the only one who'd taken on this new curse, that it was a package deal for him and Shampoo. How could this happen?! It was wrong, so completely and utterly wrong that the Amazon got to share something so private and intimate with Ranma!

And the thought was very, very frightening too. Ukyo took a deep breath and managed to push most of that emotion aside for now. "I… I think… Ranma, this is more of a shock than I was ready for… I was only gone for two weeks! And things change this much in that little bit of time?!" Realizing that she hadn't achieved as good a grip on her emotions as she'd first thought, Ukyo took another couple of deep breaths. "Can… can you show me this new curse?"

"Okay, yeah, sure," Ranma replied, a little nervously too. While not a terrible reaction, Ukyo so far had not taken this as well as he'd hoped. Maybe it would get better once she got past her initial shock. Best to move on toward that point as quickly as possible.

He'd brought along a modified hot water dispenser, twin to the one currently set up in the Tendo dojo. He fished this out of his pack now, walked over to the sink, filled it up and began the heating cycle. "This is rigged so I can use it myself in my cursed form. I brought it here so I'd have another safe place to change back to a guy when I need to. Uh, if that's all right with you." He set it down a few feet away on the floor, then returned to the sink and ran a little cold water into a cup. "Don't freak out on me now, Ucchan," he requested, then threw the cup's contents in his face.

Ukyo continued to stare as her fiancé shrunk down to a sleek bundle of feathers half-hidden by the clothing that he no longer really wore. She watched as Ranma slipped out of the shirt and peered up at her, craning his head in what one distant corner of her mind labeled a very cute gesture. He then gave a hop, skip, and flap that brought him up to the long counter next to her. She hesitated a moment longer, then reached out and gingerly ran one fingertip down his back. 'Less painful than pinching myself, and just as conclusive I guess. This really isn't a dream.'

Ranma was still studying her intently, Ukyo noted, surprised at how much human expression she could make out in her transformed fiancé's feathered face. He gave a cheep that clearly sounded both questioning and a little worried. 'But then, considering how Akane must've taken this news and the kind of stuff she has to have said about it, I suppose it's only natural he'd be a little concerned right now. Even if Ranchan might not think of it by himself, what it means for him to get the same curse as Shampoo, Akane has to have pointed it out. He's gotta know the Shampoo half of this wouldn't be good news for any of us.'

Once again Ukyo reached out to stroke the transformed teen. This time she used her entire hand, moving slowly and gently, but deliberately enough that Ranma would know she wasn't angry at him. She looked him in the eyes, blanked all thoughts of Shampoo from her mind while focusing on what Ranma had said this meant for him, and managed a smile. At this, Ranma closed his eyes and sagged a little, evidencing clear relief as the tension leaked away.

As a result, he really wasn't prepared for the heated water that cascaded down on him.

The next several seconds would form some of Ukyo's more vivid memories. Later, the chef would berate herself for not thinking things through, for forgetting that although she'd switched her fiancé between forms many times in the past, there were certain critical differences now. But she never would be able to scrape up a true sense of remorse over the mishap.

Once his pants were safely back in place, Ranma was at least able to manage coherent thought. 'What was that I said to Shampoo? Oh, yeah, 'You only got yourself to blame if Ucchan decides to grab these same kinda opportunities you've been having so much fun with.' Jeez, I was more right than I knew,' he grumbled to himself as he fastened the ties on his shirt. 'But this is partly my own fault too. Shoulda been as prepared as I was when I explained everything to the Tendos. I shouldn't've just assumed she'd understand I was gonna use the hot water myself to change back after she left the room and it was safe.'

He risked a glance back at Ukyo. Her blush was slowly fading, but still was one of the most impressive he'd ever seen. Ranma wondered what it must have looked like in its first full flush. He'd been a little too busy scrambling to recover to take note of Ukyo's face; the most attention he'd been able to spare her was to make sure she wasn't going for her mega-spatula. He'd been on the receiving end of that a few times in the past when he'd embarrassed her, but evidently this time he was going to get a break.

"S-so, Ranma honey!" Ukyo said. The words managed to be as bright and cheerful as she'd wanted, but she failed utterly to achieve "carefree". "You said you brought that hot water gizmo over to leave here, in case you needed to fly by and change back? That's nice."

"Yeah, so if you could find a safer place for it than the middle of the common room, I'd appreciate it."

"Will do, Sugar." Of course, the small size of her building meant that if Ranma said the dining area was out, that pretty much just left the bedroom. "Hey, you'll need to leave some clothes over here too, right? So you'd have something to change back into." No sooner had the words escaped Ukyo's mouth than she gave herself a mental smack upside the head. 'Idiot! You didn't need to remind him of that! It wouldn't have hurt anything to let him make that particular mistake once. You jackass, it's supposed to be Akane that says the first thing that pops into her mind without thinking it through at all!'

"Thanks for the reminder, Ucchan," Ranma said, unintentionally rubbing salt in her wounds. "I'll sneak a shirt and pair of pants over here as soon as I can do it without getting caught."

"Without getting caught, huh? You mean you don't want Akane knowing you're moving some of your stuff over to my place," Ukyo noted sagely. "Yeah, I guess I can see how painful that might be."

"Well, let's just say I don't need things to get any more stressful around there than they already have been," Ranma muttered. "I suppose you can guess that she ain't taking most of this too well." He hesitated for a moment, weighing his options, then continued, "What about you? I'm sure it was a big surprise to hear all of this. You gettin' over the first shock now?"

Ukyo gave him a hooded stare. "I don't think that's what you really meant to ask, Ranchan. I think you meant, am I going to throw a hissy fit about this. Am I right?"

"I dunno. Are you?" Ranma asked, grinning ever so faintly. If Ukyo had so much as glanced over to the wall where her battle spatula was standing, he probably wouldn't have been so sanguine about the question. But as it was, her tone and her expression were enough to put him back toward his ease.

The chef grimaced at the wordplay. "Let me ask you another question. Ranma… how do you feel about this curse? Forget the stuff about your mom for a minute, because that doesn't apply for what I'm asking. If Shampoo went to Jusenkyo, then she could have brought back an honest-to-gosh cure for you. She didn't do that, all she did was give you the chance to take the same new curse she had. So tell me how you feel about turning into a bird when you get splashed now."

Ranma took a deep breath, marshaled his thoughts, and did just that. "If Jusenkyo was here in Japan instead of buried in the middle of China, if it was easy for us to get to, I'd tell all you guys that you ought to give it a try too. Bein' able to fly… Ucchan, it's just not something I can describe for real. It's better than words can say, so much excitement and freedom, nothing to tie you down, nothing to limit you or say, 'this is the only choice you can make'… I… I'd rather have this than a cure. At least for now, with everything still so new and exciting. Shampoo did the right thing, bringing this back instead of a cure."

He even surprised himself a little when he spoke those words. It was the first time he'd stated this so plainly, whether to someone else or to himself. Of course, two days ago when he and Shampoo flew together he'd learned that a cure hadn't even been an option, since she had believed it was vital to keep her activities a secret from Cologne. It had been all she could do to get her hands on water from the same spring she had used. Finding and acquiring Nannichuan had simply been a shot that was not on the board.

He didn't think Ukyo particularly wanted to hear that much detail about the Amazons' actions, though. "And if I ever change my mind about it, I can fly back to Jusenkyo and get cured in my own good time. Prob'ly wouldn't take more than a couple of days to get there."

"Although getting back might be a bit of a pain," Ukyo replied. Mentally, she added, 'Seems like that applies in more ways than one. Damn you, Shampoo! How could you snag such a huge advantage, manage to make such a big change around here in such a short time?!' The chef fought down a strong urge to find whichever heads of her family had been responsible for the timing of this reunion and flatten them with their own spatulas.

"So… I told you how nice this all works out for me, how glad I am for what's happened. What about you? What do you think?" Ranma asked, a bit hesitantly. He wasn't sure, but it almost felt like he'd sensed the beginnings of a battle aura around Ukyo for a second there.

"I…." Ukyo paused for a long moment, then sighed. "Since you're this happy about the change and it means such good things for you, then I'm happy too. Happy for you, that is," she clarified. "You cannot possibly expect me to be happy for Shampoo."

The sun was beginning to ride low in the sky, its color deepening into orange away from the yellow of day. Traffic on the streets was picking up, the tide of pedestrians rising as the first wave of people finished their day's work and left for home. A gentle east wind was blowing, carrying the delicious scent of Cologne's special seven-flavor ramen from the box on Shampoo's handlebars back to her nose.

The hairs on the back of her neck were standing on end, as she stared at the endpoint of her journey.

As it turned out, the address for this particular delivery order was a vacant lot. Such places were much more common in Nerima than in Tokyo as a whole; Shampoo had even heard a rumor once that the town council deliberately kept certain lots undeveloped, so that there were places for martial artists to brawl while doing minimal property damage. Whether or not that was true, the Amazon knew one thing for certain: every time she'd been summoned to a deserted place like this for a ramen delivery, it had turned out to be a trap. And frankly the lavender-haired girl was getting a little tired of it.

She was still too far away to make out much detail, plus the property wall of the occupied house next door blocked her view of nearly half of the lot. Her eyes narrowed, and she pulled three items from storage. The bonbori she gripped in either hand as she strode forward to confront whoever had decided to challenge Amazon might. The small pouch of cold water was slung at her side, where it could be quickly smashed if she found retreat the better option than facing whoever… or whatever… was waiting for her.

After securing her bike against a bench, and leaving the ramen behind for now, Shampoo stalked cautiously forward. She set her path in a long arc that brought her around into the empty portion of the lot that she'd been able to see at first. Sure enough, in the remainder that had originally been hidden from her stood a lean, tautly-muscled figure scowling darkly at her.

"Oh, is just you. Hello, Spatula Girl," Shampoo said after breathing a sigh of relief. While it had been nice to be rescued by Ranma from the Ghost Cat, that whole episode had been a little hairier than she wanted to repeat. "Shampoo understand why you get tired of okonomiyaki and want something better, but why you place order to get way out here? Too ashamed to let customers know you want better food?"

"Cut the crap!" Ukyo snarled, her hands tightening around her battle spatula. "I think you know damn well why I'm here!"

"Hmm, let Shampoo think. Airen probably tell you about what he and me now share, and you—" Belatedly, Shampoo's mouth clicked shut, trapping the remainder of the sentence. She had been going to say "And you want to pitch fit about it" and go on to inform Ukyo that the Japanese girl would only feel worse after pushing too far and getting flattened like one of her own okonomiyaki.

It had slipped her mind at first that she had very specific instructions from Cologne on how to handle this confrontation.

Making a face and heaving a sigh, Shampoo returned her bonbori to storage. "Okay, you have something to say? Talk."

Ukyo blinked, knocked off-balance just for a second by this unexpected shift in attitude. She regained her focus almost immediately, though. "I want to know where you think you get off doing something like that with Ranma honey," she declared. "Ranchan may be too innocent to think it through, but I know better. No matter how much he says he likes his new form, that doesn't say anything about what you were thinking. If you really cared about him and what he wanted, instead of just chaining him to you, you would've brought back Falcon water and Drowned Guy water and let him pick for himself!"

Shampoo shrugged. "Was not an option. And Shampoo tell him that if he want, she guide him to Jusenkyo for real cure. Not to mention curse Ranma now have would let him go there on own."

'That's just what Ranma honey said to me earlier! Dammit, just how much has she been messing with his head?!' "What do you mean, not an option?" Ukyo demanded.

"Is none your business," Shampoo replied curtly. "Any more than is your business to say Shampoo could not share this with Airen."

"Keep your claws out of him, Shampoo! I damn well do have the right to object, when some Chinese floozy tries to move in on my fiancé!"

The Amazon's eyes narrowed. "You mean, Shampoo cannot do something nice for Ranma, because is Shampoo doing it? Way too late to say that, stupid. Even before this I already do more for him than you and Akane put together — more nice thing, anyway." Realizing that she was failing miserably to follow Cologne's "advice", Shampoo forced her hackles down. "Look, we not going anywhere other than usual, and is time to get past that." Although she knew very well that Ukyo wouldn't agree with the changes that she intended to replace the status quo. "We fight right now, nothing get changed. So Shampoo going to ask you for serious talking. What you feel for Ranma? What you want with him? Um… what are your hopes and dreams and plans for the future?" she asked, quoting Cologne directly for the conclusive question.

"W-what?" Ukyo spluttered, once again caught off-balance. Could Shampoo possibly be acting any more out-of-character?

"Was simple questions, Shampoo thought," the Amazon challenged. "You need example? I love Ranma, whole heart. I ready to spend whole life with him, walk down beside him always, learn from him and teach new things to him, bring his children into the world when time is right. Would do that tonight if he ask — well, would start it," she amended. If there was anything in Amazon lore that would really allow her to bring a child into the world in the space of one night, Shampoo wasn't sure she wanted to know.

"Didn't hear anything in there about chaining him down to the life of an Amazon male," Ukyo growled. "If you think Ranma honey's just gonna roll over and be a slave for anyone, you've got another think coming!"

"Stupid, where you get that?" Shampoo demanded. "Stupid Japanese think because Amazons is m… ma… um… matriarchal, that mans is slave? What that say about womans in Japan? Is maybe real reason Spatula Girl dress like Spatula Boy?"

The girl in question gripped the utensil in question a bit tighter, raising it into a more threatening position. "I'm talking about Mousse, and the way you and the old woman walk over him like a doormat!"

Shampoo just sighed. "If you have see enough to say that, then you have also see enough to know Mousse throw him down in front of Shampoo to be walk on." Her tone sharpened, and she continued, "Have also seen him act without honor, defy Matriarch — whole leader of Amazon tribe! — and not get more than mild punishment! All this time we let him stay even though he break law, make trouble with Airen, go his own way no thought of what Shampoo or Great-Grandmother want! And you say Mousse is slave?! Always thought you have at least half a brain more than Akane, but now Shampoo not so sure."

Noting that Ukyo was speechless with anger, Shampoo seized the opportunity to continue. "Seem like you like Akane Tendo in other way too. You going to answer question Shampoo ask or not?"

"Fine, dammit!" Ukyo hollered. "I LOVE HIM!!" As if the force of her exclamation had carried away most of her anger, the chef quieted down and assumed a less battle-ready stance. "I love him," she repeated softly, finding that for whatever reason, in this moment the admissions were coming much easier than they usually did. "I know I want to spend the rest of my life with him. Share everything with him, the good times and the bad. Raise a family, grow old together."

"Specifics, Spatula Girl. So far you just echo some of what Shampoo say."

"You want specifics? I'll give you specifics," Ukyo retorted. "I put my restaurant on the line for him, when he was going up against the Gambling King. I was ready to lose it and be left with just him and me to make our way in the world with nothing but an okonomiyaki cart. And when that jackass Happosai sealed Ranchan's strength, I was ready to stand behind him there too. He'd be no good to the Tendos, who just want him to take over their stupid dojo, and considering how much effort your granny put into helping him I guess he wouldn't have been much of an Amazon trophy husband either. But it didn't make any difference to me, I would've been just as happy to have him like that for the rest of my life. For better or for worse."

Keeping quiet through the latter half of that had been quite a struggle for Shampoo, especially the utterly infuriating "trophy husband" remark, but she had done so anyway. She had hoped that Ukyo would be a little more specific about one particular aspect of her hopes and dreams, would give her the opening Shampoo wanted. Apparently it was not to be, though. The Amazon settled for forcing the issue rather than waiting until her opponent set herself up. "Back up little bit. You talk about him and you go out in world 'with nothing but okonomiyaki cart'. That not happen, so where you see future now? Those dreams have Ranma and kids beside you in restaurant?"

"Uh, yeah," Ukyo said, her tone making it clear that she didn't understand why Shampoo had even thought it necessary to ask the question. "That is kinda what I meant when I said share everything with him, you know."

Just like Cologne had explained to her. "Just like Shampoo thought." The Amazon could no longer suppress her sneer. "Spatula Girl think he be happy with little house in suburb, two and one-half kids, day job in restaurant? Where you fit in Ranma love for fighting and learning in there?"

"Oh, that's rich coming from you!" Ukyo exclaimed, feeling the quiet moment of honest contemplation shatter. "You want to drag him back to the boonies of China, whether or not he wants it!"

"Is too much to ask you not turn off brain while we have this talk?" Shampoo wanted to know. "If we want to drag him back, Great-Grandmother would have do! That not plan, never was, never will be!" Her eyes narrowed. "Will be what Ranma want when he and Shampoo come together for good and forever."

"I've got news for you, Shampoo. Just because you say it doesn't make it so!"

"Back at own self! You think you best person for him?! Shampoo hope so, hope you care that much for him at least. But you is wrong. Is Shampoo who match best to Ranma, is Amazons who have to offer what he really do want from life! Genma have raise him to be someone who not fit at all in normal Japanese life, but Amazon way is perfect for him!"

"Not on your life, Miss Kitty. Er, ahem, Miss Kitty-Hawk. Go dream your fantasies somewhere else. And while you're at it quit trying to make all of Ranchan's decisions for him!"

"<Well, Great-Grandmother, this was a total waste of time,>" Shampoo muttered disgustedly. "<I knew she wouldn't listen to something she didn't want to hear, no matter how true it is.>" Switching back to Japanese, she retorted, "You is one living in dream world! Ranma already beginning to see, really beginning to understand what Shampoo know all along. Is me who love him most, who is best match for him, is me who can give him life he want and deserve! Ranma has been husband by Amazon law for long time now, but by this time next year he be husband by own laws too!"

"Enough," Ukyo spat, bringing her combat spatula into guard position and moving toward Shampoo. "I shouldn't've wasted my time. I knew from the start that this is what it would take to get it through your thick skull."

Shampoo made a wordless sound of menace and disgust, and pulled out her own tools of destruction. "You not catch me without weapons this time, Spatula Girl. And Airen not around to see me beat up his oldest nothing-but-friend. You start this, Shampoo finish it."

"Shut up and fight!" With that cry, Ukyo increased her pace from a stalk to a dash. Shampoo braced herself to meet the initial attack, catching it on one bonbori. Ukyo took advantage of the round shape of the mace by twisting her spatula, sending its blade sliding around the arc toward Shampoo again. The Amazon was forced to employ her second weapon, forming a scissors-style cross that trapped Ukyo's attack.

The Amazon grinned nastily, braced herself, and took a powerful step forward. Ukyo blanched as she was pushed back by the sheer force of the move, reminded unpleasantly once again of the vast gulf that existed between her and the Chinese girl in terms of pure physical strength.

But of course, skill and speed could more than make up that gap. Ukyo altered her grip on the spatula with her right hand, shifting so that she could brace it along the length of her arm. This gave her the leverage she needed to hold it one-handed against Shampoo's strength for one critical instant. In that instant her left hand whipped from her main weapon to the bandoleer that held her alternates, grabbing a single mini-spatula and throwing it directly toward Shampoo's elbow.

The direction of the incoming attack forced Shampoo to disengage and skip backwards to one side. Just as quickly she reversed the direction, charging in again toward Ukyo. The chef backpedaled, deflecting the bonbori blows with the flat of her own weapon, allowing the energy Shampoo was expending to push her backward while she spent just enough of her own reserves to maintain control. 'It'd be damn satisfying to finally outlast the witch,' she thought between parries.

Unfortunately, it quickly became apparent to Ukyo that Shampoo wasn't going to let that kind of endurance decide the course of battle. The Chinese girl's blows were coming harder and harder. She wasn't increasing the tempo of her attacks, in fact it seemed to Ukyo as if their speed had decreased slightly, but Shampoo was using much more force behind each blow. Ukyo quickly realized that if this continued, she was going to be in trouble. Constantly deflecting so many powerful blows was beginning to take a harsh toll on her own hands and forearms — and if even one strike slipped through her guard and landed squarely, it was going to put her down and out of the fight.

Accordingly, she switched tactics. Instead of letting Shampoo's force push her backward to conserve her own strength, the chef quickly jumped backward, darted to one side, then drove in from an angle. The next few minutes saw a very impressive struggle as the two girls surged back and forth, defensive and offensive roles switching between them over and over. Their weapons clanged and crashed together, filling the air with clamor and the occasional spark struck from the contact.

The stalemate ended as one of those sparks happened to fly toward Shampoo's face. She blinked, jerking back, and the rhythm of her offense was broken. Ukyo had a split second to decide how to take advantage of the opening. She could have jumped backward, gotten enough distance to make the attack feasible, and launched a flight of mini-spatulas. But the chef instead opted to make one decisive attack with her trusty main weapon, slamming it forward and knocking Shampoo's right-hand bonbori clean out of her grasp.

Only too late did the Amazon's smirk register.

Ukyo had an instant to realize what she'd done, a heartbeat to understand what it meant that she'd maneuvered her combat spatula to its current position. Just enough time to brace herself in the best defense she could summon, subconsciously pouring as much chi into her weapon as instinct, natural talent, and a total lack of that kind of training could manage.

And then Shampoo's other bonbori screamed in, a strike made with as much power as the Amazon's off-hand could bring to bear, smashing forward with Ukyo's weapon, not her person, as the target. This blow wasn't deflected, but blocked squarely — and the force involved left Ukyo's forearms aching, her wrists screaming, and her hands numb and unresponsive, completely unable to maintain their grip on her combat spatula.

Even as it spun from her grasp Ukyo was frantically retreating, dashing away and hopping the wall that separated their battleground from the house next door. Shampoo hesitated, uncertain despite her earlier proclamation as to whether it would really be a good idea to follow her opponent and finish the battle decisively. Finally she decided to let Ukyo make the call herself. The lavender-haired girl retrieved her fallen bonbori, gave the chef's own lost weapon a precision kick that sent it shooting out of the lot, across the street, and underneath a mailbox, then called out, "Ready or not, here I come!" If Ukyo had kept on running, she wouldn't have been within range to hear the cry. And if the chef were still nearby, ready to resume battle, well, who was Shampoo to deny her what she deserved?

The Amazon strode forward along the path Ukyo had taken, save that instead of jumping the wall, she smashed her way through it. As the last of the stone fell away from her and left the path clear, she saw that Ukyo had indeed chosen not to run. And that she was no longer unarmed.

It was Shampoo's turn to receive a terrible shock, and an attack that left her unable to hold her weapons.

Ukyo switched off the hose, staring grimly down at the furiously skreeling pink-and-purple falcon struggling in the clothes that had been form-fitting a second ago. "Take that, you Amazon bitch. I never used your old curse against you because of how Ranma honey feels about cats. I wouldn't do that to him. But now… you're fair game." Shampoo just screamed all the louder, her furious efforts to extricate herself only tangling the material worse. Ukyo shook her head and took her leave, picking up the pace ever so slightly when she heard behind her the sound of cloth beginning to tear. 'Kind of a two-edged sword,' the chef grumbled. 'If I change her like that, she's a lot less powerful, but there's not much I can do to defend myself afterward without seriously risking hurting or killing her. Even with how things are now, that's going way too far. Maybe I should start carrying a net with me or something.'

It was Tuesday afternoon, and the streets of Nerima were filled with students making their way to various after-school destinations. As always, the boys and girls of Furinkan High were particularly glad this time had come, since for most of them it meant an escape from the craziness that choked their school like crabgrass in the lawn of life. Even those students for whom "home" was stranger than "school" were usually thankful to see the end of the day.

"That was some pretty impressive dodging, Ranma," Akane said quietly. "I guess you were right after all."

"Course I was," he replied with a satisfied smirk. "Told ya I could deal with the best Kuno could come up with on my own. Man, was he frustrated or what?"

"He sure didn't have a good time this afternoon." True to her word, given yesterday evening at her fiancé's request, Akane hadn't interfered today in Kuno's challenge to Ranma. True to his word, Ranma had dodged everything the kendoist threw at him. Watching the battle had been unpleasant, but Akane had done it anyway, stood at the window and stared down with her stomach clenching in knots at each arcing stream of water. Even though Akane had gotten him to use the waterproof soap before this fight, it had still been all too easy for her to imagine its protection failing at a critical moment. No other "cure" had worked properly for Ranma, after all. But whether or not the soap's magic was still in effect, Ranma hadn't needed its power to remain bone dry. Not until all of Kuno's buckets were empty had he administered the knockout blow.

"Hey, it's Kuno. By now he'll have woken back up and hallucinated his way into thinking it was at least a draw, or prob'ly that he forced me to run away." Ranma shook his head. "The guy's stubborn even for this town, and that's saying something. I just hope tomorrow will be enough to get it through to him."

She hoped so too, but considering how so many of Ranma's plans had turned out in the past, Akane felt compelled to say, "It probably won't be enough, Ranma. Make sure you use the soap on Thursday too, because no matter what happens tomorrow he probably won't give up that quickly."

"Yeah, all right," Ranma replied. "But jeez, I'd like to think even Kuno wouldn't be dense enough to keep thinking a bucket full of water would melt me down ta nothing after he's seen it not work at all."

"I wonder how he came up with the idea," Akane murmured. "It doesn't seem like Kuno to watch gaijin movies. He's more like somebody who'd reject anything that wasn't one hundred percent pure Japanese."

Ranma shrugged. "He probably saw it before he got all whacked out on his samurai trip, and it took him this long to remember."

"Maybe so." Akane fell silent as they made the final turn onto the street which held the Tendo residence. A minute later both teens had passed through the outer gate, stepped out of their shoes, and entered the house. "We're home," Akane called out.

"Oh, Akane! My precious little girl! It's so good to see you again!"

The youngest Tendo blinked, gasped, and would have stepped backward in surprise, except that her father already had her in a hug. "D-Dad? You and Mr. Saotome are back now?" she asked. "What about Grandfather Happosai?"

A reflexive full-body shudder shook Soun out of the embrace. He stepped back, recovered his composure with visible effort, then said, "The Master decided to extend his own travels awhile longer. There were several sites he wanted to visit, but he decided he would enjoy them more without us dragging along at his heels."

"He didn't mind it too much whenever a brawl got big enough to destroy the bar it happened in," Genma said grimly. The elder Saotome had followed more slowly in the wake of his friend's frantic rush. "But when that brothel got torn apart—"

"Excuse me?!" Akane interjected with a mixture of rage and disbelief. "Dad, did Mr. Saotome just say you were at a… a… one of those places?!"

"Akane, it wasn't our fault! It was the Master, you know how he is! Well, no, you've never experienced anything like his full terror, but at least you should have an idea. We had no choice!"

"And anyway, what part of 'the place got torn apart in a brawl' wasn't clear?" Genma asked sourly. "You can rest assured, Akane, if the Master takes your father and me someplace, it's not so that anyone other than him can have fun. We hadn't even been there two minutes before he'd stirred up a firestorm that we were expected to put out or lead away. And when we couldn't manage it, he kicked the both of us halfway back to Nerima. Considering that we were on another island at the time…." Genma fought off his own shudder. "But all things considered, it was worth it. May the Master enjoy himself now that he's not burdened with us."

"Yes, may he enjoy himself so much we won't see him again for a year," Soun said fervently, knowing deep in his heart that it wouldn't be twelve months before Happosai returned. Still, a man could dream, couldn't he? Or better yet, take his mind off such unpleasant matters to focus on better things? "It's so good to be home. So good to see you again, Ranma and Akane, the two of you coming in together just like a real couple."

"So good to be away from angry salarymen and furious women," Genma sighed, completely overriding his son's reflexive protest and not even noticing Akane's uncharacteristic silence. "So good to be back here, where if anyone comes raging after me it'll be because of something I did of my own free will."

Ranma snorted. "Yeah, and where you've got me to push forward to deal with those people for ya." Then he gave an evil grin. "And where Mom could come by at any time. As a matter of fact, I think she's due for a visit tomorrow."

It was a measure of Genma's fatigue that he didn't immediately splash himself and hold up a sign relating to cuddly pandas and their cuteness and innocence. "One damn thing after another," he muttered bitterly. "All right, son, why don't you and I go on a short but real training trip?"

"How's it real if we're just goin' so you can keep hiding from Mom?"

"Because we'd be doing real training, of course. Don't ask such foolish questions, just go pack." Genma sighed. After what had happened last time, he was in no mood to risk staying around in disguise while his wife visited. Hitting the road again with Ranma would be much better than "Mr. Panda" being forced to eat the result of Akane's failed culinary endeavors. "Meanwhile, I'm going to enjoy at least one hot bath before we go."

"Nah. I've got a better idea, old man." Ranma had no idea why there was a bucket full of water sitting conveniently there in the Tendo entryway, but such things turned up so often around here that he didn't even think it worth wondering about anymore. "I gotta confess, I actually meant we would want to see Mom." And with that he gave the bucket one swift kick, upending it and sending its contents flying through the air to drench him.

Genma stared in awe for one trembling second, then blurred as he shot forward and grabbed his untransformed son by the arms. "You're cured? You're cured! How did you do it? How long ago did it happen? How soon can we hold the wedding?!"

"Idiot," muttered Akane. Not having her own Jusenkyo curse, she had barely been able to avoid the water that her thoughtless fiancé had sent flying and which was now lying in an inconvenient puddle right in the middle of the floor of her home. Louder, loud enough to bulldoze over Soun's and Genma's joyous cries of impending matrimony, she said, "Did you forget something, Ranma? Something about soap, I think?"

"Yeah, yeah, wait here and keep them from tryin' to tie up our whole future while I'm gone," he replied. The pigtailed teen hurried off to the bathroom, ran a little hot water into the tub, and sat down beside it to scrub and soak with cold water. Once the remaining protection of the waterproof soap was washed away, he changed back, dried off, filled one bath bucket with cold water and another with hot, and headed for the living room.

Soun and Genma were seated there waiting for him, though Akane was nowhere to be seen. The two fathers were looking remarkably composed and quiet, certainly more so than Ranma had expected. He set down the two buckets, considering how to begin. Before he could say anything, Soun spoke up.

"Son, Akane tells me that despite appearances, you haven't been cured. She said it was just waterproof soap. And she, she also…." The Tendo patriarch's mustaches drooped, his eyes moistened, his shoulders slumped, and his lower lip began to tremble. "She said she didn't want to hear anything about wedding plans for this weekend."

'Jeez, like it's ever not been like that? Like she and I both haven't said that kinda stuff since day one?' Ranma thought disgustedly. Before he could say any of this out loud, Soun reclaimed the floor.

"WHAT HAVE YOU DONE TO MY LITTLE GIRL?!" The demonic chi-projection filled the entirety of the living room, and blasted every thought not related to sheer terror right out of Ranma's mind.

Rescue came from a very unlikely quarter. "Tendo, give it a rest!" Genma barked, his tone authoritative enough that sheer surprise disrupted Soun's technique. The demon head shifted from outrage to blankness for one instant, and then it was gone. Breathing a silent prayer of thanks that this tactic had worked, rather than drawing Soun's ire from his son to himself, Genma turned his attention to Ranma. "Akane said things had changed, but that was all she told us. And you said something earlier about the two of us deliberately going to see Nodoka." Despite the fact that he hadn't moved his head at all, suddenly light flashed across Genma's glasses, obscuring his eyes as he made his next pronouncement. "I seriously hope that wasn't just some kind of joke, boy."

Ranma spared a moment to wonder whether his old man was deliberately trying to look like Gendo Ikari, and, if so, what that would say about his character. "Heh. No joke, Pop. Like Akane said, things really have changed around here. For the better. Now — let's try this again." And with that he gave another kick, upending one bath bucket and sending its cold water contents flying over him.

"Would you stop making more work for Kasumi?!" Akane screeched from somewhere in the back yard, proving that even if she wasn't present in the room she was still watching the proceedings.

"~Give it a rest, tomboy!~" Ranma reflexively screeched right back as he slipped out of his shirt. The motion was coming pretty easily by now, at least as long as he had been expecting and was ready for the transformation. Once he was free of the garment he took a few steps forward, fluffed water out of his feathers, and focused his attention on the two older men. Both were staring at him with jaws gaping and eyes opened wide.

Acting on a mercurial impulse, Ranma took to the air and zipped around the room a couple of times. At one point he did a swift swooping feint toward his father, feeling slight disappointment that the old man didn't even flinch. Then again, he was probably too shell-shocked for that much response just now.

Deciding that this was as good a point as any to change back — in fact, he probably needed to get it over with before Nabiki and her camera should make it back from school — Ranma swooped down and made a perfect one-point landing in the basin of hot water, his right leg stretched down, his left still cocked upward in the flight position. There was a blur as feathers morphed to flesh, a creak of wood suddenly supporting much more weight, and a splash as his increasing mass displaced some of the water in the bucket.

Then, as he put his left foot down and stepped out in the direction of his clothes, and Kasumi stepped into the room carrying a tray with tea and cookies, there was a gasp and a crash, a hastily-uttered curse, a scream of "PERVERT! How dare you flash Kasumi like that!!", and the slamming of the dojo door so hard the wood splintered.

Ranma continued cursing in the privacy of his own mind as he quickly donned his clothes. "Kasumi, I'm real sorry about that, but next time could ya call out, 'Would anyone like some tea?' or something?" he asked plaintively. "You know, give me a little warning?

"Oh… oh my… I'm sorry too, Ranma," the eldest Tendo daughter said. Quickly and efficiently, Kasumi cleaned up the mess she'd made of the tea, mopped up the rest of the spilled water, and retreated to the safety of her kitchen.

Her departure left a rather awkward silence. After a couple of false starts, Ranma ended it. "Okay, you guys saw that I finally managed to get rid of the stupid girl curse. Pop, that's what I meant when I said we can go see Mom now. We don't haveta worry anymore about that stupid promise a certain furry beach ball made about me being a 'man among men'."

"And you think turning into a bird fits in with that?" Genma queried, finding the beginnings of coherent thought and speech.

"You better believe I do!" Ranma looked his father dead in the eye. "A man among men, that's what someone promised he'd turn me into. What's that supposed to mean, exactly? I know it sure doesn't mean somebody who has ta spend half his time as a girl. So what does Mom want? Well?"

Genma's mouth gaped open and closed several times while he tried to get his mind into a sufficiently high gear. At last, speaking rather hesitantly, he replied, "She wants a strong, honorable, upstanding son, a man who's enough of a man to lead and inspire those who are less fortunate, less able, less manly than him."

Yeah, that was the impression he'd gotten as well, during his masquerades as "Ranko Tendo". "Well, that sounds like it fits really well with this curse!" Ranma declared. "It's just like Doc Tofu said when I talked with him about all this. People have been dreaming about flying and wanting to fly for real ever since there've been people and birds and dreams. And now… I can. And it's every bit as good as anybody ever guessed it would be. How's that for a man among men, huh, Pop? I reached out and grabbed hold of that dream that everybody else had to just look at and wish for!"

"It… it sounds like it might be…." Genma gulped a couple of times, then, speaking in tones not far above a whisper, continued, "Sounds like it might be music to Nodoka's ears. Boy… I think you're right. You really are!" Color and vitality flooded into his face, and a broad smile curved across his lips. "You've really gotten rid of the old curse for good? How did you do it, anyway?"

"Oh, yeah." Feeling a bit of the wind fade out of his sails, Ranma admitted, "You know Shampoo and her granny went to China awhile ago? They got back just a day after you guys left with the freak."

Soun snorted, interrupting Ranma's explanation. "You mean, when he dragged us away from the loving embrace of our family."

"Yeah, whatever. Anyway, while they were in China Shampoo changed out her old curse for a falcon body, and she brought back water from that spring for me." Ranma paused, pinned both men with a fierce stare, then lowered his voice. "Brought back more water than she needed for just me, as it turned out. So I asked her to give a dose to Ryoga too. That jerk came by a while back, showed everyone the new curse, said how Shampoo did it to him against his will, and told Akane it was because she hadn't wanted him to be stronger than me. It's a bunch of bull, but Akane believes it, she's basically already gotten over that particular temper tantrum, so you probably oughta just go along with it too."

Both men blinked as they processed these revelations. The dramatic flush of good humor had faded from Genma's face, leaving him looking more thoughtful than anything else, though a really good observer might also have detected something closely related to worry.

Soun, on the other hand, was more straightforward. Ranma had noted and wondered just why the Tendo patriarch was looking disappointed, but he wasn't left to wonder long. "Son, I'm glad you finally decided to take action there, but I'll confess I was hoping for something different. Something a little more along the lines of telling Akane how you really feel, rather than just shoving Ryoga out of the way and keeping up this tired old act."

In the interests of not ripping the household harmony to hell and gone, Ranma opted not to respond to that little statement with any of a dozen particularly biting remarks. 'Just remember your old man ain't the only one who had Happosai screwing around with his moral compass for years,' the pigtailed teen reminded himself. 'Ain't any good to try to get through to Mr. Tendo anyway. If he can say something like that, then he's too old to change, too stubborn to try, and too blind to even see why he might want to. But… but I guess I oughta keep in mind that it took me a real long time to start making some real changes, and the whole thing only started when someone else did first and offered me a chance to get in on the action.'

Feeling less judgmental and more sorrowful now toward the man who'd let Ryoga crawl into the bed of his own daughter — the daughter he was determined to see married to Ranma — the Saotome heir spoke up. "None of that stuff is anywhere near as important as Pop and me finally going back to Mom. How about it, old man? You feel recovered enough to make one more trip tonight? Or should we wait until tomorrow to go over to her place?"

"Ranma…" Genma spoke very hesitantly indeed. "I don't know… we need to think this through some more…."

"What the hell is there to think through?!" his son demanded. "I've been waiting and waiting for you to get back, so you can tell me where Mom lives! I think I'm being pretty darn considerate to wait even until tomorrow just so you can recover from Happosai kicking you around for a change instead of me!"

"Look, it's not that simple!" The pieces were tumbling into place more quickly now, as Genma's precision-tuned survival instinct kicked into high gear. "Yes, Ranma, I believe you're right. Your mother probably won't be anything other than proud of you, even with the curse you've got now. At the absolute outside she might possibly want you to get rid of it, which I suppose would be easy enough to do. She certainly wouldn't call in the penalty for anything you have to show her now.

"But it's different for me. Or have you forgotten I've still got my curse?" Genma growled. "Have you forgotten all the times Nodoka saw 'Ranko' playing with 'Mr. Panda', especially when the two of them had obviously just gotten wet? What do you think will happen if we do go back to her like this, and my own curse inevitably gets triggered?"

"Fine, then just tell me where she lives and I'll go by myself!"

"And you'll tell her what?" Genma wanted to know. "Where am I supposed to be in this picture? How do you explain that it's just you and not me going back to her? And after you've done it, what are you going to do then?"

"I… I'll just spend some time with her, and then tell her I've got to get back to you for more training…." Even to Ranma's ears it sounded lame.

Genma's snort rattled the windowpanes. "You don't seriously believe you'll be able to do that, do you boy? She's been waiting so long for both of us. You'll never be able to hurt her like that, to drag yourself away again. I couldn't do it, and that means there's no way in the world you'll be able to. If I thought we could get away with just visits, I'd have gotten my hands on some of that waterproof soap Ryoga had that one time and taken you to meet her right away."

The thought of Nodoka, so near and yet so far, brought a sudden, strong pang to Genma's heart. If she could be brought back into his and Ranma's lives, everything would be wonderful. He could get reacquainted with the wife he'd missed, Ranma could spend time with the mother he'd never really known, and she could have everything she'd dreamed of for so long. All his and Ranma's hard work and sacrifices would finally pay off. For a moment he lost himself in the glorious vision, one which, though still tantalizingly far off, seemed closer than it had in a long time: Genma and Nodoka together again, Nodoka smiling tenderly and telling him how wise he'd been to chart such a difficult but ultimately rewarding course. Ranma and Akane, happy together, raising children of their own. Ranma running the Tendo dojo, lifting it out of obscurity to prominence and then dominance in the world of martial arts, supporting the elder generations of both families in the comfort they deserved.

"Then what do you suggest?!" His son's snarl broke him out of the golden daydream. "Let me make one thing absolutely crystal clear, Pop. The bottom line is, I took this new curse after I realized it would let me meet up with Mom again. I damn well am not waiting much longer to do it!"

Genma stared at the barely-contained fury in Ranma's eyes and was unpleasantly reminded of one particular detail of his perfect dream: Ranma and Akane raising children of their own, children who would one day surpass Ranma even as Ranma had truly already surpassed him. It was the goal of the sensei and the goal of the father as well, and something in which Genma normally took great pride. But here and now the elder Saotome found himself wishing he still had the edge over Ranma in more than guile and body mass.

One of those wasn't going to be worth anything in settling this question. Genma quickly sped his brain up as fast as it would go, focusing on the need to keep his and his son's hides in one piece. That definitely wouldn't happen if the truth behind Akane's country cousin and her big black-and-white pet ever made its way to Nodoka's awareness.

A moment's desperate thought allowed him to find the significance in something that he'd earlier dismissed as unimportant. The fact that Ryoga no longer turned into P-chan hadn't made much of an impact on him; he'd been too busy examining, and not particularly liking, the way the Amazons had strengthened their position. He really didn't like the idea of Ranma going further into debt to them, but in this case it was definitely the lesser of two evils. "Does Shampoo have more Falcon water left? I'll use it to replace my old curse too," he offered. "That will get rid of the last danger, and then we could go to her."

"I… I don't know…." Ranma pulled himself together and zipped out of the room in search of a telephone.

The silence left in the wake of his departure didn't last long. "Saotome, I don't like this," Soun uttered in a harsh whisper. "It's bad enough that Ranma got tangled this deeply with the Amazons while we were gone. We should be working on pulling him away from Shampoo, not encouraging more contact and more debt!"

"You've got a point, Tendo, but you're not thinking things through." Genma lowered his voice even further, to be sure no unintended ears would hear this next bit of dialogue. "You know what kind of a woman Nodoka is. Traditionalist to the very core. She'll never support Ukyo over Akane; your family's samurai ancestry will mean far more to her than some scruffy jumped-up merchant clan's claim. She'll never support Kodachi over Akane; even if the Kuno money and ancestry might be enough to make her overlook their mental kinks, there isn't an honor tie there. And there's no way in all the world that she'll support a gaijin over an honor-bound Japanese marriage pledge. No, old friend, if Nodoka finds out about all the girls after my boy she'll be deliriously happy at how manly he is, but it won't shake any of the support she already has for Akane. If Ranma and I can get back to my wife, you and I will have the best ally we could hope for in making our dreams come true."

"I… that sounds good. I just hope you're right."

"Of course I'm right. You think I'd take a risk with something like this?"

Before Soun could respond, Ranma rejoined them. He strode back into the room with his face as dark as a thundercloud, disappointment and anger plain to be seen. The anger was largely directed toward himself — how could he have thought to spare some Falcon water for Ryoga, but missed this obvious need?! — with a good bit left over for the fate that evidently still enjoyed jerking him around. "Shampoo used up all the rest of the water on Ryoga," he announced. "Try again, Pop."

Ranma wasn't the only one feeling disappointed. Explaining all that out loud to Soun had made the picture crystallize in Genma's mind, and it was one he found himself quite reluctant to relinquish. On the other hand, no more easy answers seemed to be forthcoming.

After nearly a minute of silent thought, Genma answered, "I think the best thing to do would be wait until winter break, and then you and I take another quick trip to Jusenkyo. I'll take on a falcon curse too, and we can even bring back a casket of Nannichuan if Nodoka decides she would rather us not be cursed at all."

"Winter break, huh? Well, that's not so very far away," Ranma mused. Genma relaxed, all too prematurely. "Only about FOUR MONTHS TOO LONG!! How's about trying this idea on for size, Pop — you and me leave for Jusenkyo tomorrow, and Furinkan can kiss my pigtail!"

"You know, if the principal heard you say that, he'd claim you were offering to let him cut your hair," Genma said, trying and failing to lighten the mood with humor.

"Cut the comedy! If you think we oughta wait that long then you'd better give me a really good reason why!"

"Because that's how Nodoka would want it." Being reasonably confident of this allowed Genma to look his son in the eye and say it with conviction. "I know you didn't spend a lot of time in class while we were on the road. That couldn't be helped. The Art was, is, and always will be more important, and I needed the time to get you far enough along in it. But now you are, and there's no risk that spending time regularly going to school is going to threaten your dedication to Anything Goes. And so it's your duty to go to Furinkan too, and learn those less-important things. Believe me, boy… it's what your mother would want."

Thinking back to the times Nodoka had been eager to teach Akane or "Ranko" something, especially that last encounter with his mother, Ranma was forced to concede that point. "Okay, you're probably right. No escape from boredom for me." His eyes narrowed and his stare tightened to near-laser intensity. "But this ain't directly about me, is it, Pop? There's only one of us who needs to go change his curse. So let me ask another question. Is there any reason why you ought not to set out for China tomorrow?"

Once again Genma did his impression of a dead fish, mouth gaping open as a hundred useless thoughts ran through his head. 'Because I just got back from thirteen days of hell.' 'Because I shouldn't have to go away by myself for so long.' 'Because I can't afford to leave you unsupervised around the Amazons anymore.' All true, all good reasons… but not a one of them that his son would accept.

Having spent a few moments studying and not much liking the expression on his oldest friend's face, Soun reentered the conversation. He knew Genma well enough to pick up on at least some of the other's train of thought. Genma didn't want to do this, but couldn't think of anything to say to convince his son otherwise. Probably he was worried about leaving Ranma alone when the Amazons were on the prowl, but saying that would just make things worse. "Son, that just won't work," the Tendo patriarch stated. "You and your father are guests in our home. You can't expect him to leave for an unknown amount of time while you stay here alone. It's simply not appropriate."

"Didn't seem to be inappropriate those times you kicked me out while he stayed here," Ranma retorted, once again beating down the urge to say something worse. Staring into the older man's eyes with defiant challenge, he realized something — however reluctantly he might admit it, he had missed his father during the latter's absence… but there hadn't been any part of him at all that missed the presence of Soun Tendo.

"That's completely different. In any case, think of your mother. Think of what Genma just said, about how traditional and concerned with honor she is."

"Huh? When did he say that?"

"Oh, right, you were out of the room. Well, that's the way it is, son. You and Genma and Akane can make the trip during the winter holidays. Just think of it as the best not-too-long-after-Christmas present your mother will ever receive."

Ranma's face set like stone. "Mr. Tendo, this is between my father and me—"

"YES, IT IS, AND YOU WILL HONOR YOUR FATHER AND MOTHER BY WAITING UNTIL THE WINTER BREAK TO TRAVEL BACK TO CHINA!!" Once again Soun's demonic visage filled the room as it roared its message. Once again Ranma shrank back in utter, abject terror, shaking and quaking as he squeaked an agreement to those terms.

"Good." Suddenly the room was free of any chi-fueled psychotropic phantasms. "I'm glad that's settled then," Soun continued amicably.

Ranma spent the next few seconds gasping, panting, and getting himself back together. Once this had been well enough accomplished, he fired off the bitterest look Soun had ever seen on him. "Mr. Tendo, you know what? You really know how to make me think havin' you as a father-in-law would be a good thing." The sarcasm was still sizzling in the air as he turned on his heel and stalked from the room.

Genma eventually broke the long ensuing silence. "Tendo, I appreciate the save. But I think you'd best not use that tactic on the boy again anytime soon."

Nabiki moved silently through the halls of the Furinkan library, ignoring the ominous nature of the books on these particular shelves. She was after quarry rather more useful than moldering old tomes written by men with unpleasantly twisted minds. Catching sight of the back of his head on the far side of one line of books, she continued to the end of her row, and headed up the next lane.

"I've got another little favor you can do for me, Gosunkugi."

The young man in question stiffened, as a quick battle of conflicting emotions played across his face. When he turned to meet her gaze he moved as jerkily as a puppet, trepidation and prudence and reluctance falling to remorseless need. "Um. Hello, Nabiki. How much would I have to pay to find out just how the hell Ranma pulled this one off?!"

"You mean this morning's little drama?" It was actually a bit of a stretch for Nabiki to say it as carelessly as she did. 'It was a better plan than I expected, Saotome. I'll give you full credit for that. I figured you'd think that yesterday was all you needed to do, when you dodged every one of his attacks. Following that up today with letting him splash you… Well, I'll admit it was a nice try.'

But it wasn't going to be nice enough. "He used waterproof soap," she replied, causing Gosunkugi to gulp and turn pale. "It's one of Jusenkyo's little amenities. Wash with it and for awhile you're protected from transforming. Ranma has a small supply of it right now, which he'll use when he knows ahead of time that he'll need it."

After taking a few deep breaths, he managed to fight off the worst of the chill. That Nabiki had just handed out such significant information, without even mentioning payment… he really didn't want to wait for her to drop the other shoe herself. "So that's how he did it. You know, Nabiki, I was really looking forward to seeing Kuno's face when he finally learned how to get his pigtailed girl whenever he wanted her. I don't think he ought to be this disappointed, do you?"

Despite the surge of ire as Gosunkugi unconsciously rubbed salt in the wounds left by Ranma's change of curses, Nabiki gave him an approving look. "I'd have to say I agree with you. Kuno-baby has worked so hard. It would be a shame to let it all go to waste, now wouldn't it?"

"Absolutely," he said firmly. "He needs to try again when Ranma's not expecting it." He paused for a desperate moment, scrambling with everything he had for a nice, safe way to arrange this while still garnering more goodwill from Nabiki. "I might just have to drop a note in his locker, pointing out that it looked like he was using buckets of high-quality steel, which isn't the same as cold iron."

"I'm not so sure I like the timing of that," she demurred. "Since Ranma had enough foresight to pull today's stunt, then he might just be wary enough to use the soap tomorrow too. If Kuno tries in the morning with new buckets and fails again, it's not going to do anybody any good."

'Except Ranma Saotome, of course,' Gosunkugi thought vengefully. "Don't worry, Nabiki. This time I'll spell out what 'cold iron' really means. Not even his family's money could let him prepare another attack like today's or yesterday's with only twenty-four hours to do it."

The middle Tendo blinked, evidencing honest curiosity. "No? What exactly do you mean by 'cold iron' then?"

"It hasn't been worked by machinery or melted down and refined," he explained. "Iron ore dug straight out of the ground and pounded out the old-fashioned way, by hand on a blacksmith's anvil."

Nabiki considered this for a bit, then laughed right out loud. "Knowing Kuno-baby, he'll try to do all that work himself. At least at first," she amended. "And then he'll probably pay a hundred people to finish it up quickly. Sounds like a plan, Gosunkugi." She gave the scrawny boy another approving look. 'He's actually got a decent brain when he's not directly obsessing about my little sister,' she mused. 'Maybe I should set him up with Manami.' One of her friend's biggest gripes was the horrible lack of intelligent guys at Furinkan, something that Nabiki herself had always considered a mixture of blessing and curse. But judging from recent events, Gosunkugi might be a worthwhile fixer-upper for her best friend and second-in-command. Plus, if the match worked, not only would she get a better hold on someone who was proving to be quite a decent resource, but it would mean a bit less stress for Akane — definitely a useful thing as matters currently stood.

"Guess I ain't the only one who thought two weeks with none of Ucchan's okonomiyaki was too long," Ranma muttered, casting a glance back over his shoulder as he walked away from the restaurant. This might be the busiest Wednesday afternoon Ukyo had ever had. Ranma himself had dropped in expecting to get a nice relaxing visit along with his meal. Unfortunately, the sheer number of customers present meant that all Ukyo had really been able to do was serve him ahead of everybody else, not spare the time to talk. Ranma suspected that if he'd asked her, she probably would have closed early, but he hadn't wanted to go that far. Not when she hadn't made any money for the past fortnight and now had such a good opportunity to recoup some of those losses.

"What do I want to do now?" he mused. "Suppose I could hit the sky for a few hours…." The thought was as appealing as ever, but on the other hand he felt like a little extra training might also be a good idea. Happosai's methods might be lazy and sadistic, but it was undeniably true that Genma had come back from the trip tougher, stronger, faster, and sneakier. It hadn't been enough to give him the victory in either of the sparring sessions father and son had had since then, but those contests had been a lot closer than usual. Frankly, Ranma preferred the gap to be a bit wider in his favor. "Yep. Training it is." Deciding that speed and endurance were better things to work on than balance, he bounced to the roof of a nearby two-story building and began racing toward home.

-Ding Ding!- -Wham!-

"Shoulda picked a higher roof," Ranma mumbled into the shingles he was kissing.

Shampoo peered downward, blinking at the sight before her. "Aiyah! Ranma, what you do under bike?" Leaning to one side allowed her to put one foot against the ground and pull back, drawing her faithful steed off her beloved's prone form.

Ranma got to his knees and then to his feet, brushed himself off, and gave bicycle and Amazon an equally disparaging look. He supposed that innocent act she pulled every time she ran him down was just one of her little quirks, but who did she think she was fooling? "Why do you do that anyway?"

"Huh? What Ranma mean?"

"I mean pretend like you don't have a clue how I happened to wind up flattened under the Bike of Pain. It ain't like you could possibly nail me without meaning to, you know. And in case you didn't realize it, it don't exactly feel good."

Shampoo allowed the look of wide-eyed innocence to drain away. "Humph. It no hurt so much this time as first time, yes?"

Ranma frowned. "Is that supposed ta make it all right?"

"Of course it is! You no figure it out even with clue Shampoo just give you?" The Amazon allowed herself a faint reproving smile. "Silly Ranma. Is training. Low-impact endurance training. Take much longer than Bakusai Tenketsu, but more fun."

"Fun for who, exactly?" he asked dryly. Shampoo put on the wide-eyed innocent look again, fooling absolutely no one. Ranma snorted, but could not quite manage a glare. "You know, that was what really bugged me the most about it — the way you acted like it was all some accident and you didn't know how it happened."

"Would rather Shampoo say, 'Pinned you again'?" the Amazon wanted to know. "Or maybe 'Shampoo seventeen, Ranma nothing'?"

"How about, 'I'll make up for this by letting you have all you can eat at the restaurant tonight'?"

Shampoo's brow wrinkled. "How that any different from any day? Ranma could have that any time he come by."

He shrugged. "Yeah, but it's still nice to hear it." There was just something about those four little words….

"You very strange, Airen," the Amazon pronounced. "But Shampoo love you anyway."

That statement accomplished far more, discomfort-wise, than being slammed to the roof underneath her bike had done. Ranma was about to make a remark about getting back to training and take his leave, when Shampoo took control of the conversation again. "Oh, that right, was question I want to ask. Why you call yesterday and ask for more Falcon water, Ranma? You not give any details over phone, and voice sound little strange, too. Why you want more?" The barest hint of a warning edge entering her voice, she continued, "Shampoo know is not because you ask to offer it to Spatula Girl Ukyo who just get back in town."

This was a little uncomfortable as well, but Ranma no longer felt the need to retreat. "No. Not for her, for someone else who just got back. My old man," he explained.

Shampoo blinked. "Really? That is surprise. Always seem to Shampoo that he like curse he have, to be lazy and lie around like rug. Flying is wonderful, but does not fit for lazy man."

"Nah, it's not that. It's the curse he's got now, there's someone who's seen him when he's like that and didn't know it wasn't a real panda. Someone neither one of us can afford to have find out who that panda hanging around the Tendo place really was." He hesitated for a long moment, wondering whether he really wanted to go into this much detail. If he went ahead and told Shampoo just who that person was, who couldn't be allowed to know of Genma's current curse, he was going to have to come out with the whole story. Ukyo already knew about his mother, and of course Akane had been there when he first found out himself, but until four days ago the times he'd spent with Shampoo had never really included much talking, certainly not about such deep, personal matters.

"Who is person who no can find out?" she asked, interrupting his consideration.

Taking a deep breath, he resigned himself to not getting back to training for a while. Ranma sank down to a more comfortable sitting position on the roof. Once Shampoo had followed suit, he answered, "My mom."

Shampoo's flabbergasted, eyes-popping, jaw-dropping, hair-toinging response would have been good for a laugh if his own mood had been less somber. As it was, though, he just waited quietly for her to recover.

"Is you for real?" she eventually exclaimed. "You sure this not like last time?"

Ranma blinked. "Last time?" he echoed.

"Remember stupid lady we thought was Ranma long-lost mother, turn out just to be circus master who want handsome man can turn into beautiful woman?"

He grimaced. "Actually, that's one of those stupid-even-for-my-life things I try not to think about too often."

"You and Shampoo both," the Amazon muttered, remembering the way she'd competed with Ukyo and Kodachi to show herself as the best potential wife for Ranma. Only stupid Akane hadn't cared enough to make the effort, and so hadn't earned nearly as much humiliation when the truth came out.

Forcibly pushing the unwelcome memories aside, she continued, "You sure is not another mistake like that one?"

"Yeah," Ranma said quietly. "This time it's for real." He went on to tell the whole story, of Nodoka's first visit to the Tendo home, of Genma's panic and of the role his father had begged him to play, of the explanation he'd later received and the promise his father had so foolishly, so infuriatingly, made for the both of them, explaining how even with his own curse changed he and Genma weren't off the hook yet.

There was silence for a few minutes after Ranma concluded his explanation. Eventually, speaking in a choked whisper, Shampoo said, "But… but… is not real, right? She is own mother! For sure she not really call in something like that, right? Not for something like a curse, Shampoo mean. Is just penalty she put in, in case you turn out worse than Genma, not way better like you is. Right?"

"Uh, I wasn't clear enough I guess. Mom didn't ask for that at all; it was Pop's idea. He set the terms and she agreed to them," he replied. "That gives her a lot less leeway than if she was the one who'd done the whole thing. Would she go through with it, if she decided I wasn't a 'man among men'? Pop thinks so. And I've seen her havin' nightmares about doing just that." He paused for several moments, thinking about what to say next, and wishing that he had left after all back when he'd had the chance. Talking about this stuff hurt.

"Even… even if she didn't call in the promise, that ain't all I care about," he eventually continued. "She's been waiting so long, and it's so important to her that when I come back I'm a real man… I don't wanna disappoint her, Shampoo. I don't think I could bear that even if Pop hadn't made the stupid seppuku oath."

"You always real man to Shampoo, Ranma," the Amazon replied. "Curse not change that."

"Oh, really?" he said dubiously, giving the lavender-haired girl a piercing stare. "Didn't you once tell Akane the reason you were helpin' me go after a cure was because you wanted a real man on your honeymoon?"

The stare Shampoo sent back his way seemed to indicate that if she'd ever heard anything stupider than this in her life, she'd suppressed the memories. "You take serious what I say to tease Pervert Girl Akane? That just crazy! How many time I hug you whether you in real body or curse body, Ranma? I try help you get cure because you want it so much! How you even wonder otherwise for one minute?" Not contenting herself with this response, the Amazon leaned forward and placed one hand on his forehead. "You no have fever, do you?"

Ranma frowned, and waited semi-patiently for her to withdraw her hand. Shampoo did so once she'd gotten in enough caresses to be sure he wasn't feverish and showed no evidence of recent cranial trauma. "Okay, maybe you got a point there. But think all the way back to when you first found out about my curse, Shampoo. Don't say you weren't disappointed then."

Shampoo drew back as sharply as if he'd struck her. "Yes, Shampoo felt very bad then," she confirmed. "But that not same thing, is it? At then I not know about Jusenkyo. You show me curse and say it was real body. After Shampoo go home, learn truth about Jusenkyo, and realize what it mean about who Ranma really is, felt much happiness and relief."

He inclined his head, closing his eyes as he replied, "And that's the other side of it. The curse is the biggest problem, gotta be the biggest thing that would hurt Mom if she found out about it. But it ain't the whole story. I… I've made mistakes. A lot of them, some of them small, some of them big. Like with you back then," he admitted. "It was a bad mistake, and I'm sorry."

The Amazon's expression softened. "Is okay, Airen. If you had not do what you do, things would for sure be different. But is no way to know whether would be better or worse. What if Great-Grandmother never had come here to help? What if you had never learn Kachu Tenshin Amaguriken or Hiryu Shoten Ha? Where would we be now?"

"You could be right, but that don't change the fact that I've made some stupid decisions. This is something I spent a lot of time thinking about yesterday, flying way up there where nobody could interrupt me. Even before then I'd pretty much realized that there've been a bunch of mistakes I've made since coming to Nerima," he said. "I don't think it could've been avoided; this kinda life is so different from the one Pop and I had for so long. There's a lot of stuff I haven't known how to deal with. That business with Ryoga is maybe the best proof of that. I made the same stupid mistake for so long. And once I finally got past that one, I made another! It's just… I just…" He heaved a sigh. "Pop was supposed to bring me back to Mom when I was ready, when I was a son she could really be proud of. I've got a lot of stuff that I know would make her proud, but there's still some things I need to work out before the end. That was what I figured out yesterday."

Shampoo was silent for a couple of minutes as she turned all this over in her mind. Maybe it would be a good thing for that reunion to get delayed just a little longer. If nothing else, it would give her beloved time to finally understand which of the girls chasing him was the one worth sharing his life with. "So when you call, you want to get rid of panda curse and go to mother right away, but after Shampoo tell you is not possible you think about it and decide to wait?"

"Not exactly," Ranma said with a grimace. "My first plan was for Pop to leave today and haul his butt back to Jusenkyo to get a cure or a new curse. But Mr. Tendo kinda decided otherwise."

"He make you agree when you not want to?" she asked dubiously. Even if the weepy old fool had that much influence with Genma, Ranma himself could still have come to her and taken her up on her offer to guide him to the Cursed Springs. It would be just as quick for Ranma himself to fetch back a barrel full of water as wait for his father to go and return. Well, Shampoo amended, almost as quick. She doubted she could have resisted the temptation to extend the trip a little. Pulling her mind away from what might have been, she confessed, "Shampoo not see how he do that."

"Then I guess you've never been on the receiving end of that Demon Head trick of his," Ranma retorted. "It ain't just a scary sight, at least not when he's serious. I've been hit by the thing often enough to realize it screws directly with your aura, flipping a switch so that you can't help being scared. He made me agree to wait until winter break to go back to Jusenkyo with Pop." He gave a short, mirthless laugh. "Kinda ironic, really. Now that I've thought about it, waiting a little longer does seem like a good idea. I'm finally starting to make some changes that I shoulda made a long time ago, fix problems that I just ignored up until now — if I even saw them at all. He was just doing his usual throw-a-tantrum-to-get-his-way thing, not even bothering to really think about it, and it actually turned out to be the right thing for the wrong reasons. But I guess we've seen plenty of crazy things like that around here."

"Sometimes seem like more of town is upside-down than rightside-up," Shampoo agreed. "Especially at house of Tendos, where girl who is worst choice for Ranma get to spend most time with him, get most advantages, get most everybody telling you you have to go to her. Is so stupid, they think they can make it happen just because they want, because they say so."

Ranma gave her a flat stare. "How's that any different from your granny when she first showed up?"

"What, you mean when Great-Grandmother test you? And you pass? And she not try force you after that?" Shampoo countered snippily.

"…Well, anyway, that's how things are now," he replied after a moment. "Pop and I are gonna head back to China over the winter vacation." Ranma also had a sneaking suspicion that Mr. Tendo would manage to get Akane along on the trip as well. That was another thing he'd thought about long and hard yesterday, and the only conclusion he'd reached was that he needed a lot more time to think about the implications. A trip where it was just him and Akane was one thing, since there would be nobody around to try and stir up anything. But himself and Akane and his father… Ranma wasn't sure yet, but he suspected that he might be better off if he invited a couple more people along as well. At least he still had plenty of time to think about it. "I may have ta take you up on that offer you made to guide me back there."

"Aiyah! Shampoo will look forward to it!" the Amazon declared. "Thank you, Airen!"

Ranma gave himself a mental kick. He ought to have realized that saying that would be considered a carved-in-stone invitation as far as Shampoo was concerned. 'Yeah, I really do need to get a little more practice thinking things through and making the right call before I get back to Mom,' he concluded.

Cologne's ancient ears pricked up, as she caught the approaching roar of a bicycle pushed well beyond normal limits. She listened to the screech that was her great-granddaughter's braking, and estimated that Shampoo had just used up at least two millimeters' worth of tire tread. The sound of the front door opening came almost simultaneous with the clunk of the bicycle falling forgotten over on its side. 'She didn't even bother to secure the thing. Whatever has gotten my great-granddaughter into such a state, it must be big.'

Pogoing down the stairs, Cologne was relieved to see no trace of despondency on her youngest descendant's face. No, Shampoo's visage shone with excitement, mixed with a bit of happiness. "Hello, Great-Granddaughter," the Matriarch said as she settled herself down at a table. "Something seems to have stirred you up."

"Is so!" Shampoo declared, joining the elder. "Great-Grandmother, Shampoo just come from talk with Ranma! Big news, very, very big!"

"Slow down, child, you're butchering the language as badly as if we'd been here only a week instead of a year. <Or if it's that important, just go ahead in our own tongue,>" Cologne offered.

"<It's Ranma's mother! Great-Grandmother, she's alive!>" Although she felt nearly full to bursting with the momentous news, Shampoo did pause then, partly out of a desire to see the Matriarch finally caught off-guard, partly just to catch her breath.

One of those hopes was doomed to disappointment. Cologne stirred not so much as a hair, merely regarded her great-granddaughter with a calm, thoughtful mien. Eventually, just when Shampoo was on the verge of another excited explosion, the Matriarch replied, "<Oh, you finally found that out, did you?>"

"<W… Wha…?>" Shampoo managed, her jaw dangling feebly.

"<Child, I already knew about Nodoka Saotome. You ought to know I make it my business to be aware of serious changes in Son-in-law's life.>"

"<But… but… When did you find out?>"

"<During her first visit to the Tendo home,>" Cologne admitted placidly.

After taking several deep breaths, Shampoo let out a screech that carried distinct echoes of her cursed form. "<And you NEVER TOLD ME?!>"

"<Should I have?>" Cologne paused just for an instant, letting Shampoo begin to formulate her indignant reply, but not letting her actually make it. "<Should it have been me that you heard this news from, instead of Ranma himself?>"

"<I… but… he… that….>" Frowning darkly, Shampoo clamped her stammering mouth shut and concentrated on sorting herself out. After a bit, she said, "<Why didn't you tell me to ask him? You know, give me a hint about the huge, enormous news you'd just learned? How long ago was this, anyway?!>"

"<A few months have passed,>" Cologne returned. While Shampoo processed this response, growling softly, the Matriarch allowed her inscrutable expression to shift into something more serious. "<Why do you think Son-in-law hadn't told you himself before this?>"

"<Because I didn't know to ask!>" Shampoo snapped, holding back with some effort from pointing out that that was the point she'd just been trying to make, thank you very much!

Cologne gave her a long, silent stare, then quietly said, "<Didn't you? Wasn't there some confusion quite awhile back over another woman, one who wasn't Ranma's mother after all?>"

Shampoo just nodded, feeling even more confused, angry, and upset. If Cologne hadn't forgotten that time either, then that made it even worse. She ought to have been all the more aware that Shampoo would have had no reason to bring up questions of maternity with Ranma. Not without the prompting her great-grandmother hadn't seen fit to give her, anyway.

"<Tell me something, Great-Granddaughter. In the wake of that silly business, once it was explained just who that woman was and what she wanted with Ranma, how much time did you spend talking with him about it?>" Cologne narrowed her eyes. "<Did it raise questions in your mind about what the truth of his family really was? Did you sit down with him and ask him about these matters, or other things out of his past? Did you ever give him any reason to believe you'd be interested in knowing these pieces of who he is?>"

Shampoo jerked backward before recovering herself. "<He knows!>"

In the privacy of her own mind, Cologne acknowledged that that was almost surely true. If someone had asked him outright, 'Ranma, do you think Shampoo would be interested to know that your mother is still alive?' he would undoubtedly have been able to answer 'Yes'. But the fact remained that he hadn't sought her out and told her the news.

The fact also remained that Shampoo had never encouraged him to do so, had never arranged for opportunities that would make it easy or natural for him to share such things with her.

"<That wasn't what I asked, Great-Granddaughter. I asked if you have ever once met with your husband to talk quietly, nothing more. To learn the details that don't seem to matter as much. To ask him about the little things, to fill in the edges and corners of the picture that is his life.>" Cologne spoke as gently as she could without sacrificing firmness. "<If you had done that, if you had been interested in him that way, he would have told you about this long ago, on his own.>"

"<Don't say it like that!>" Shampoo cried, too upset to tone her words down to a more respectful level. "<That's not how it is! I do care, I do want to know those things about him!>"

"<But it hasn't been a priority,>" Cologne replied. "<Your focus has been to show him how you feel, and you've driven forward with great zeal and energy to do just that. And in doing so you have almost completely ignored the softer, gentler approach — even though it would have served you far better sometimes.>"

"<Then, then why haven't you ever said anything…?>"

"<It is not my responsibility to take you by the hand and lead you step-by-step through your relationship with your husband.>" Cologne spoke the words softly and gently, but they still stung Shampoo to the core.

"<I don't understand any of this, Great-Grandmother,>" she retorted bitterly. "<Why do you only help me sometimes, and not others? Why do you help me on small things, and leave me to mess up the big ones like this?>"

"<Many reasons, not the least of which is to allow you to freely make mistakes and learn from them. But I think the root and heart of the matter is something you've never understood, maybe never even wondered about." Cologne gave her great-granddaughter a piercing stare. "<If we're going to be honest, then let's be honest. Why do you want Ranma to marry you?>"

The use of such a simple, seemingly-pointless question was a big, fat, red flag. Shampoo would have preferred straightforward, easy-to-understand answers from Cologne, but if Great-Grandmother was using this method of discussion then there was nothing to do but play along. Carefully considering exactly what the Matriarch had said, not just the question but the command hidden in the sentence before it, Shampoo eventually answered, "<Because I love him.>"

"<I couldn't help but notice you didn't even mention the law,>" Cologne remarked.

"<You said you wanted honesty. The law would be satisfied if he only spent enough time with me each year to give me another child. I'm the one who would never settle for that.>"

Cologne made a dismissive gesture. "<Nor will you have to. But that doesn't mean you should spend so little time thinking about honor or its ties of obligation.>"

"<I think about it a lot more than I want to!>" Shampoo declared. "<That stuff is why Ranma has to stay at the stupid Tendo home!>"

"<It's not the only reason, but you are correct. Ranma's honor does tie him to the Tendos. To Akane.>" After a short but significant pause, Cologne continued, "<Do you think you can fight that with love alone? Get Ranma so enamored of you that he'll ignore any and all questions of honor, turn away from them forever as the two of you walk side-by-side into the rest of your shared life?>"

Shampoo closed her eyes. "<If he loves me enough, he'll care more about my honor than stupid Akane's. Or even Ukyo's, even if she has lost more because of him than Akane ever did.>"

"<You have a point, but you haven't considered one important angle: he would have to love you very, very much to throw away his own honor as well as everyone else's just to be with you.>"

"<That's not how it would be!>" Shampoo protested.

Cologne just shrugged. "<Whether or not that is true doesn't matter at all, if Ranma himself doesn't see the truth of it. You need to understand this, Shampoo, so please listen to me very carefully. Love alone is not going to settle this tangle anytime soon unless it's inflicted by magic. If you expect him to choose you based on feelings alone, then you need to get a lot closer to him than you already are. The two of you will need to grow together, to come to understand each other better, to share more of who you are and get past the misconceptions that still linger to this day. All of that will take time.>"

"<I still don't understand why you haven't said anything about this before.>" With near-superhuman effort, Shampoo kept her tone level, excluding any hint of bitterness, accusation, or complaint.

"<Then let me say it bluntly: love, or at least that degree of it, isn't needed now. It can come after he's willingly married you. That has been my plan from the beginning.>"


Cologne silenced Shampoo with her most piercing stare. "<I'm talking about my role here, not yours. By all means, continue as you have been. Ranma might not love you enough to throw everyone else in his life away for you, but he does care… even more than he himself realizes yet.

"<But even if you were to suddenly start making every decision perfectly, without any mistakes at all, it wouldn't resolve everything. What if he did love you enough to walk away from everyone to be with you? Do you want to tear him away from the father who's been his only companion for most of his life? From the mother who hasn't even gotten to know him yet?>"

Shampoo shook her head, the motion only detectible if one was looking for it.

"<Of course not. Happy endings require more than luck and good intentions and desire, Great-Granddaughter. They need us to understand and work toward what we really want, and above all to know what we're fighting for and against.>"

"<I know I love him,>" Shampoo said quietly. "<And I know I don't want to wait that long for him to love me like that.>"

"<Well and good,>" Cologne returned. "<But that is your goal, the battle you have chosen. You have to fight it yourself. I already told you that as far as I'm concerned, things will work out just as well or better if he marries you first and gives you all his heart afterward. Don't expect me to step in unless it looks like something will threaten my definition of victory.>"

"<Great-Grandmother… will you please just tell me clearly what you mean to do?>" Shampoo asked, hearing the ragged edge of desperation in her voice but ignoring it. This was more important than pride. "<Why wouldn't it help you to help me get him to love me more?>" Surely the closer she and Ranma were, the easier Cologne's self-proclaimed task would be!

"<That last question held no good sense at all, child.>" Cologne retorted. "<Or have you forgotten the reason why I kept quiet and let you think you were making a true sacrifice to give him his new curse? I have helped you at times to grow closer to him, and I'm certain I will again. It's just not my main priority, nor should it be.

"<I intend to do what it takes to get him to choose you. Whether that means working with his honor, or helping him realize what you have to offer him, or nudging him to finally see what he'd have to give up in order to be with any of the other girls — it doesn't matter to me. Any one or all three of those together is something I can do in time, as Ranma finally learns the things Genma didn't teach him before. But if you want every beat of his heart to be for you, you need to take care of that yourself.>"

"Hey, Sis. Wait up!"

Akane blinked, turning away from the conversation between Yuka and Sayuri. Was that Nabiki calling to her? At this time of day? It was almost unheard-of. The middle Tendo's extracurricular activities meant that she was the first to leave home for Furinkan in the morning and the last to get home in the afternoon. The school day had just ended, Akane and her friends were walking away from the flower arrangement club, and Nabiki should have had other things on her mind than a rendezvous.

The trio of second-year girls stopped, waiting for Nabiki to catch up with them. "Did you want something, big sister?" Akane queried.

"Just wanted to talk to you for a little," Nabiki replied, making brief eye-contact with the two non-Tendos present. In what seemed to Akane to be the blink of an eye, Yuka and Sayuri had said their goodbyes and were hurrying away. Nabiki allowed herself a tiny satisfied smile, there and gone too quickly for anyone else to notice, then strolled away in the opposite direction.

"Talk about what?" Akane demanded as she fell in beside her sister. "And couldn't this have waited until we were home? I want to go catch up to Ranma!"

"You mean, you want to make sure he wasn't planning to head off to Ukyo's place, or catch some air time with Shampoo. Right?" Nabiki drawled. Akane's mouth thinned in a bitter grimace, but she didn't reply verbally. "You know, Akane, that's pretty much a wasted effort. Going to that club of yours means if he wants to ditch you after school, he's got all the time he needs to do it. Spending a few minutes talking to me isn't going to make or break anything as far as that's concerned."

"That still doesn't answer my question," Akane snapped back. "Why'd you want to talk to me now?"

"Because it's the best time of day to catch you when Ranma isn't around," Nabiki answered. "In case you were wondering, that's why I just led us up the stairs to the third floor instead of down toward the bottom where we might run into him." She'd also chosen a route that shouldn't be in use by anyone else at this time of day, since it led to a corridor of storage rooms rather than classrooms. The middle Tendo didn't want to have to interrupt this discussion every few seconds to scare off another random student.

"So you want to talk to me about Ranma." Akane's tone and expression made it clear that she was none too thrilled with this prospect.

"Among other things," Nabiki replied flippantly. Then, as if a switch had been thrown, the carefree expression of mild amusement vanished from her face. "Akane, you haven't been your usual self lately. Not at all. You've been quiet and distant and all closed-off. I don't think Ranma has actually noticed anything other than the fact that you haven't been chewing him out for hanging out with Ukyo or Shampoo, but your dearly beloved older sister is a bit sharper than that. You're hurting, Akane, and I think we need to talk about it."

"There's nothing to talk about." Akane spoke the words bitterly enough to curdle milk. "It's just like you said — there really isn't anything I can do to stop him, if he wants to run off with Shampoo or Ukyo. And it's just like he said — I don't have any real right to interfere in his business anyway, do I?"

"The hell you don't," Nabiki snapped back. "Who do you think you're fooling? You don't believe any of that. You're just saying it because you think you have to go along with it. The Akane Tendo I know is more of a fighter than that!"

"Maybe… maybe I'm tired of some of the fights…." But Akane spoke the words hesitantly, reluctantly enough that Nabiki knew her earlier accusation had been right on the mark.

Nonetheless, the middle Tendo seized hold of the line, skipping quickly ahead to a point that she'd expected to need more time to reach. "Maybe you should be… but that's just because you pick the wrong ones sometimes. If you're finally starting to realize that, then I can see how it would make you want to do something different. But sitting back and letting things happen no matter how wrong they are is not the answer!"

"Nabiki…" She hesitated for several moments, but finally could not help but continue, "What do you mean?"

"Come on, Sis. No matter what Shampoo or Ukyo say, our engagement is the only one that really has honor at stake in it. You have every right to object when those two drag Ranma off, or trick him into spending time with them!"

"But… I… Nabiki, he… that's…."

"That's what? Something you've been trying to fight since day one, and it's still not doing any good? That's just what I'm talking about, when I say you're fighting the wrong battles. If for whatever reason Ranma ends up neglecting you so he can lose a few hours of his time to Shampoo, you've usually done your best to make him pay for it. And that, my dear sister, is the problem. The one you ought to be taking everything out on in a situation like that is Shampoo. Or Kodachi, or Ukyo, or whoever. Not Ranma."

"Why should I?" Akane snarled. "Why should I do it like that? He's the one who went off behind my back to be with someone else. I'm supposed to just let that slide? Is that what you're saying?!" It was bad enough that Ranma had basically declared that to her. Had he paid Nabiki to back him up?

"No, I'm trying to point out that neither Shampoo nor Ukyo fight fair. Either one of them will let him get away with anything he likes. How do you think that contrast is going to play out, if he hangs around with them for a couple of hours and then comes back home to a disciplinary session?" Nabiki's eyes narrowed dangerously. "What message is that really sending, little sister? That the pain is for doing stuff with Shampoo — or for coming back to our place afterward?"

Akane flinched back at the harsh words. Immediately modulating her tone and expression, Nabiki spoke again. "Of course I'm not telling you to back down. That's not what a martial artist does. But a martial artist should also pick her battles carefully, and fight the right opponent."

There was silence as Nabiki finished this proclamation, a long, straining, trembling silence possessing a curious overstretched quality, as if it had lasted far longer than the moments since Nabiki had spoken, as though it had endured well beyond the point when it should have perished utterly.

At last it was broken by Akane's near-whispered, "I'm not strong enough to beat either of them."

'Great day in the morning, she actually admitted it? To herself and out loud to someone else?' Nabiki was barely able to keep the shock from registering on her face. 'This isn't good. Of course little sister couldn't take either of them in a fair fight, but that isn't exactly important. If Ranma sees her come home bruised and battered from a fight with Ukyo or Shampoo, she's not the one who really lost. Quite the opposite, in fact. But I don't think telling her that is going to achieve desirable results.'

Choosing a more persuasive response, Nabiki said, "You don't know that. The last time you fought either of them, it was both of them at once. And that was before you trained hard enough to get the dojo back from our so-called sisters, Natsume and Kurumi. If you can go head-to-head with girls who've lived their whole lives on the road, training to one day take over the Tendo dojo, I think you shouldn't sell yourself so short against a couple of part-time waitresses."

Akane's mouth gaped open and closed for several moments, but she could manage no better reply. Once she judged enough time had passed, Nabiki continued, "And if you did lose a match or two, so what? It would still get you a better idea of what you needed to work toward, give you a chance to figure out the gaps in their defenses while you work on closing your own." 'Who knows? Maybe it would even kick enough holes in your pride for you to let Ranma train you. I'm sure it's not fun, learning under the only methods he knows to use, but it would certainly give you something with him that neither of the others have.'

At that point, a quick glance from Akane to the window behind her revealed something to Nabiki — this discussion had gone on long enough. Despite what she'd said earlier to her sister, the real reason she'd chosen this time for the conversation was in order to close a vulnerability in one of her own plans.

But from what she could see in the courtyard below, it was too late now for Akane to screw things up one last time. "Oh, crap," she muttered in her best 'that's not good news' voice. That and her expression were more than enough to send Akane whirling around to stare down as well.

Ranma gazed disgustedly forward, blinking and blinking as if to dissolve the sight before him. "Man, how much more is it gonna take to get it through your thick skull, Kuno?" He'd thought he had finally settled this five days ago, when he'd let Kuno douse him to no effect. After that, Thursday, Friday, and Saturday had passed at Furinkan without incident. Why was Kuno trying this again now?

This time at least there was no cart standing behind the kendoist. He carried only a single bucket full of water. A particularly ugly bucket too, Ranma noted. It looked as primitive as if somebody with one year of metal shop experience had had to start with raw ore and produce the entire finished product by himself.

"Silence, fiend! It was a deception truly worthy of you," Kuno admitted with a sneer. "But know that the Blue Thunder is not so easily fooled! With this vessel, forged in truth out of the iron that is your doom, I shall finally defeat you once and for all!"

"For cryin' out loud, where are you getting this stuff?!" Ranma exclaimed. "The bucket in the movie didn't even look like that! Did Kodachi slip somethin' really exotic into your breakfast today or what?!"

"I have no idea what you are talking about, and therefore reject your ploy. You will not confuse me with your twisted, senseless words."

"Fine, whatever. Let's just get this over with." Ranma heaved a long, weary sigh and began walking towards Kuno. Once he'd covered half the distance separating him from the kendoist, he stopped. "But you know, there's no reason for me to let you get my bookbag wet this time. Last Wednesday was enough of a pain." With no further ado, he dropped the satchel that he'd been carrying in his left hand… then, in one smooth motion, pivoted in a turning crouch that allowed him to catch it in his right. Continuing the motion through the remainder of a three-sixty degree spin, he rose again and released the bookbag. With the velocity of his revolution behind it, the missile screamed across the intervening distance to smash Kuno's one bucket out of his hands. "Moron. I already gave you your free shot, and it didn't teach you anything at all. You think maybe one of these days you could manage to learn something?"

Despite the anger clouding his face like a thunderhead, Kuno still wore a smile. Akane Tendo had just appeared at a window several stories above him, and would witness his glorious triumph. If only the pigtailed girl could be here as well. "NOW, MY MINIONS!"

And every competent ninja employed by the House of Kuno soared into the air, abandoning their places of concealment on the far side of the Furinkan boundary wall.

Ranma just had time enough to notice that all of them were carrying the same ugly iron buckets before those buckets were upended. He had time to realize that there was simply too much water to dodge, but not enough to begin a futile effort at dodging anyway. He had time enough to brace himself and be ready for the transformation, but not to snap off the string of blistering curses he really would have liked to unleash while Kuno could still understand him.

And then the water struck the earth, among other targets.

As the remaining mist from his attack cleared, Kuno stared forward in awe, disbelief, and terrible joy. "By the gods!" he proclaimed at last, ignoring the furious screeching of his hated foe. "Last time you were able to draw on the power of a cat, and you managed to keep your human form. To see you brought so low now is a joy's crown of joys, Saotome. And know this — it does not end here! I shall continue my struggle against your dark magics until you are finally reduced to the worm you truly are!" And with that Tatewaki Kuno reared back his head and laughed loud, long, and hard.

Only the fact that he'd visited the restroom on his way out of the building prevented Ranma from flying overhead and dropping a rather unpleasant response onto the Blue Thunder. He settled for one enraged scream loud enough to cause Kuno to wince and grab his ears in pain, then tore into the sky and away, with each furious beat of his wings pushing out his anger and disgust at this turn of events.

Once she judged her little sister had recovered enough from the sight to hear her say it, Nabiki let out a quiet, regretful murmur of "That's just great." Heaving a tired sigh, the middle Tendo continued, "You know, I'd just as soon not have had such a good example to back up what I was talking about."

"What you were talking about?" Akane echoed, in a voice that indicated she was only sparing half her attention at most for her sister's words. Her face was white as a sheet, and her grip on the windowsill had already done noticeable damage.

"Yeah, you know — blaming the right person instead of Ranma when something bad happens."

Nabiki actually savored the irony of that statement quite a bit as she heard her sister bitterly whisper, "Right. God damn you, Shampoo."

Before her sister could rush off, though, the middle Tendo spoke again. "There's no hiding it now, Akane. All of Furinkan is going to come to me, wanting an explanation for this. If you let me off the hook on the promise I made not to tell anyone anything, I'll be sure to explain whose fault this really is. How Ranma got stuck with a curse so much more dangerous to him. Who it was who wanted him to have it, and why."

"Go right ahead," Akane snarled, stepping back from the window and hurrying away.

Kasumi listened as the front door slid open and one person stepped through it. She sighed a little as the aura of the household adjusted itself to the newcomer. Akane had come home alone, and in a particularly bad mood. Little sister hadn't even bothered to call out, "I'm home," or any other sort of greeting. Resolving to do her best to help her sibling recover a little peace of mind, Kasumi headed toward the entryway.

"Is Ranma here?" Akane asked as soon as she caught sight of Kasumi.

"I'm afraid not, Akane. How was your day at school?"

"Fine up until the end. But I can't talk now, big sister. I need to go find Ranma."

"Akane, stop." Kasumi spoke the words as firmly as she could, arresting her youngest sister's motion. Nabiki wasn't the only one who had noticed her sister's recent silence and despondency. Akane seemed to have left that behind now, but that didn't mean Kasumi felt it right to let her go right back to her old patterns. Maybe it wouldn't do any good, but this time she felt like she simply had to try and help.

Once Akane had turned impatiently back to face her, Kasumi continued, "If Ranma had other things he wanted to do this afternoon, isn't that his business? Why should you go find him and drag him back?"

"It's not like that!" Akane declared. "He could be in trouble, and I need to go help him!"

"Just because he didn't come directly home?"

"No, because that idiot Kuno finally got lucky after class today, and managed to show Ranma's new curse to everyone at school!" She'd given the kendoist her fiercest pummeling yet on her way out from Furinkan, though Akane didn't have any real hope that it would change anything. Kuno was the kind of person who only saw what he wanted to see, after all. But he certainly wasn't going to forget one lesson he'd learned today. "Ranma was shrieking at him loud enough for me to hear it inside the building on the third floor. He was really mad, Kasumi, and he had to just fly away, run away from Kuno! Now I need to go find him!"

"No, you don't." Despite the concern Akane's revelation had raised in her heart, Kasumi spoke steadily and firmly.

"Why not?!"

"Well, Akane, just how are you going to look for him?" the eldest Tendo countered. "You can't search the skies yourself. That's where he'll be right now. And you know what Ranma has said to us, about how nice it is to fly. How it lets him feel so free, so relaxed. Since you say he was in such a bad mood after what happened at school, I think the best thing to do is let him spend a few hours doing something that will make him happy again." Seeing her sister still look torn and indecisive, Kasumi gently added, "You don't need to be so afraid for him, Akane. Who could follow him where he is now, to make more trouble for him?"

Akane grimaced bitterly, and turned back toward the door. "That's the real question, isn't it?"

'On a delivery, she says. Yeah, right. I'm so sure.' Akane seethed as she walked away from the Amazon stronghold. True, the restaurant had had a "closed for general business — delivery orders only" sign in the window, but who did Cologne think she was fooling? Ranma wasn't at his home, and Shampoo wasn't at hers… the absolute best that she could think, and Akane considered this a wildly optimistic assessment, was that Shampoo was looking for him but hadn't found him yet.

-Ding Ding!- -Screeeech!-

"Akane Tendo? What you do here?" Shampoo queried once her bike had come to a complete stop.

Akane stared up at the Amazon, feeling a huge surge of relief at the sight. Or maybe Cologne had been honest with her after all.

The evidence of Shampoo's recent activities was plain to see, in the large number of empty delivery boxes bundled on her bike. Akane felt a twinge of the old, familiar slow burn as she gazed up at Shampoo, perched on top of a one-story building as if using such a bike route was utterly normal and unremarkable, but this was far overshadowed by the relief that the Amazon wasn't chasing Ranma through the skies in her own cursed falcon form. "Nothing much," Akane said, turning to head for home, or perhaps Ucchan's Okonomiyaki.

Behind her, she heard a snort, a clatter, and a soft impact. Footsteps sounded, and then Shampoo was walking beside her. "Why Shampoo not believe that?" the Amazon said conversationally. "You here, walk away from Cat Café, big scowl on face, and Ranma not here. Not here with Great-Grandmother, not here with you. You come to see if first one of those was true, yes?"

"No, I didn't," Akane retorted, picking up the pace a bit.

"Oh, right, Shampoo did not phrase it right. Not with Great-Grandmother, with Shampoo. So you feel better now? Green-eyed monster not claw at stomach? Or just tell you go check out Spatula Girl's place next?"

The mocking tone with which the Amazon had spoken almost didn't register at all with Akane. She was too caught up in a sudden realization — that the relief of finding Ranma not here and Shampoo not elsewhere had completely made her forget something else that needed to be done. Coming to a sudden stop, and whirling to face the Amazon, Akane snapped, "I'm getting pretty sick of your attitude, Shampoo. And your tricks, and the way you treat Ranma, and just about everything else too!"

"Big words from someone who not have what it take to back them up," Shampoo retorted flatly. "And way Shampoo treat Ranma? I already know you too jealous to be happy for him when someone else give him something nice. You no have to admit it."

"Something nice?! Do you know what happened to him at school today? Do you even care?! No, wait, of course you don't," Akane declared. "If you did know he was out flying to try and get in a better mood, you'd ruin it for sure by chasing after him!"

"Show how much you know, stupid. Week ago Saturday, Ranma actually come to me and offer for us both to fly together." It had been one of the most joyful times the Amazon could remember, marred only by her beloved's lingering stiffness and soreness from his battle with Ryoga. Still, even that had had its up-side — instead of wild aerobatics and chases across the sky, the two of them had spent most of their time flying calmly along and talking. It wouldn't have been Shampoo's first choice for an itinerary, or Ranma's either, she believed, but it had been quite enjoyable nonetheless. All the more reason to take to heart the lessons Cologne had finally decided to pass along.

But now wasn't the time to think about such things. "What happen to Airen at school today?" Shampoo asked. Since whatever it was had ended with him flying safely away, it couldn't have been too devastating.

"What happened? I'll tell you what happened! Kuno splashed him and showed off his new curse to everybody there! That's what happened!" Akane yelled. "Thanks to you and your stupid selfish trick, everybody knows Ranma's got a huge new weak spot!"

"Humph. One more thing Ranma and me have in common," the Amazon muttered darkly, thinking about Ukyo. There would be a reckoning for that soon, oh yes….

"Is that all you've got to say?! Then fine, just shut up and listen to me!" Akane demanded, her hands clenched into fists and tears gathering in her eyes. "Stay away from Ranma! You've done enough to hurt him, back with your old curse and this new one too! I better not ever see you at my home again, Shampoo — or with my fiancé!"

Shampoo stared wide-eyed at Akane… then burst into laughter. Recovering herself, she said "You… you think you…" one more quick interlude of giggles, "you tell Shampoo what to do? Wake up from dream world, Akane."

"I'm warning you, Shampoo," Akane snarled. "Stay away."

"Hmm… let Shampoo think about it…." The Amazon's thoughtful look morphed instantly into a scowl. "No. I will not stay away from own husband, from man I love who is coming to love me too. For sure I not listen to stupid spoiled Japanese brat who think because she always get her way before, it keep on happening." Shampoo met Akane's gaze with a piercing stare that could have come straight from her cursed form. "Only reason you can hurt Ranma is he think he have to let you. Only reason he stay near you is he think he have to do that too. But Shampoo show him better, Violent Girl." The Amazon smiled, a hard, grim, dangerous grin. "Show him how much better Shampoo is than stupid, hurtful weakling like you."

Akane's face was a mask of livid white, her anger too great for blood to flush her skin. It had fled instead, as if fearing the intensity of the emotion. "Weak, am I?" she grated out. Then, as Shampoo blinked in surprise, the youngest Tendo turned and darted away through the gate to the yard of one of the houses situated near the Cat Café.

Shampoo's surprise ended with a bang as Akane returned a moment later, following unknowingly in Ukyo's footsteps. "Which one of us is really weak here?" Akane demanded, pointing the hose straight toward Shampoo. "It isn't so funny now, is it? Thanks to you, Ranma's in trouble every time he gets splashed — but he's not the only one!"

Recovering her self-possession, Shampoo gauged the distance between herself and Akane. About ten feet. If the girl switched on the hose, Shampoo might or might not be able to dodge in time. It all depended on the attachment that was on the hose, how quickly and over what range it would spray, and there was no way to determine that in her current position. Better to go with a different ploy.

Shifting her eyes up to meet Akane's, the Amazon projected every shred of menace she could muster as she said quietly, "You think that make Shampoo helpless? Show you different, Violent Girl, and it be the last thing you see. You switch that on and change Shampoo, and I will tear out your eyes!"

Despite Akane's righteous anger, this threat was more than enough to cause her to flinch back.

It was all the opening Shampoo needed.

Sunlight gleamed on metal as the Amazon whipped a scimitar out of nowhere. In the same motion she brought it whirling forward, hastily charging and releasing an attack she had only managed for the first time yesterday. The resultant blast of wind lifted Akane and slammed her backward into the property wall of the house behind her. Her head struck the stone, the hose slipped from her hands, and she dropped to her hands and knees on the pavement and tried to fight off the encroaching blackness.

After a few moments spent in desperate recovery, she managed to open her eyes and look up. Something still seemed wrong with her vision — it was blurry, swimming in and out of focus… and not only was Shampoo not standing threateningly over her, the Amazon was on one knee as well, pale and gasping for breath, braced against the sword as if it was the only thing allowing her to stay even that much upright.

As Akane's vision and thoughts continued to clear, she realized that she wasn't hallucinating this. Shampoo's attack really had drained her that badly. Even though the lavender-haired girl had just managed to stand all the way up again, she was swaying like a willow in the wind.

Feeling the adrenaline rush burn away the worst of her remaining disorientation, Akane got to her feet and charged. So Shampoo didn't want to lose by having her curse triggered? Fine! This way would be much better anyway!

She was only five steps away when Shampoo yanked the sword up, around, and across in a move that sent Akane jerking wildly to the side, tumbling and falling to the ground, offense discarded in an instant as she desperately twisted to avoid the blade. If the stroke had fallen it would have smashed into her head just above her hairline, Akane sensed through a surge of horror — surely a fatal blow even if Shampoo hadn't recovered enough to put her usual strength behind it.

"Stupid. You call yourself warrior?" Shampoo growled, though in truth the anger and the question were directed toward herself as much as Akane. She'd messed up badly on her first attack, spending far more strength than should have been necessary for such an effect. She should have had all the energy she needed to follow up immediately on her enemy's vulnerability. Definitely more practice was in order. But for now, first things first. "Ranma never make such stupid mistake as that. And only idiot would think I do something that he never forgive." The Amazon opened her eyes wide and blinked them at Akane, then deliberately ran one finger down the edge of the sword that had nearly struck her, pressing down hard and yet not drawing blood. It was the unsharpened edge, Akane realized.

"Don't talk to me about Ranma!" she yelled as she stood again, finding enough anger to ignore the fear.

"You think you stop me? You think anything you say cut any ice with Shampoo? Let me give you the clue you need for so long, Akane — world and life is bigger than you and what you want." Shampoo didn't really need to stall for more time at this point; her strength was still returning, but she had already recovered enough to be able to defeat the other girl with no tricks or special techniques needed. But she still wanted to say this. "I going to do exactly what Ranma and me want. Now go home, or Shampoo will make you wish you did."

"You wanted me to let go of the hose, and I did," Akane snarled back. "Why don't you let go of that sword and fight me fair and square?"

The Amazon shook her head, allowing herself a mocking smile. "Okay." And with that, Shampoo returned the weapon to storage and charged.

As Soun and Genma weaved their way toward home, the stockier of the two was congratulating himself. It had been an enjoyable afternoon at the bar, but Genma himself had consumed only enough alcohol to be pleasantly buzzed while pretending to keep pace with Soun drink-for-drink. Old distraction techniques that Soun would have been expecting, and never would have fallen for, at the Go table had worked perfectly in the unusual setting. As a result, the Tendo patriarch was, if not three sheets to the wind, definitely at least one and five-eighths. Outwardly Genma matched his friend's stumbling, weaving path, giving enough evidence to satisfy Soun that his friend was just as plastered as he was, while inwardly the Saotome master gloated and rubbed his hands.

He was going to absolutely slaughter Soun at Shogi today! Anything Goes Drunken Gaming Fu, where the unpredictability factor works the other way around!

As they entered the front gate of the Tendo homestead, Soun warbling an old love song and Genma wondering whether an adaptation of this new Saotome Secret Technique might let him get a few sparring victories over Ranma, they were intercepted by the eldest and youngest Tendo daughters. Kasumi gently but firmly took control of Soun, leading him into the house toward bed and a nice nap.

However, before Genma could protest the loss of his afternoon of effortless victories, Akane had grabbed hold of his gi and was dragging him around to the dojo. Once they were inside she released him, coming around to stand directly in front of him and stare at him with anger and determination burning in her eyes.

Wondering with more than a little dread just what he'd done now — or what old mistake had come back to haunt him — Genma asked, "What is it, Akane? Did you want something?" Even as he spoke the words, though, something clicked. The anger Akane was registering didn't seem to be directed at him.

She didn't answer at first, just stood there breathing deeply, clenching and unclenching her fists. Genma took the opportunity for a more probing study of the youngest Tendo. She was wearing her typical yellow gi, freshly laundered. One of her palms was skinned, but that was the extent of any injuries Genma could sense. Whatever had left her in this mood, it hadn't had any impact on her physical well-being.

Genma's inspection ended with a grunt, as Akane snapped out her explanation. "I want you to train me. Make me good enough to beat Shampoo for real."


To be continued.

Author's notes: One of the big issues in this chapter, as I see it, is the characterization I'm using for Akane. Considering that these are deep-seated psychological issues that none of the characters know themselves or each other well enough to truly understand, there's only so much I can do within the context of the story itself to state clearly how I see her. So let me take this moment to speak directly to you the readers, and clear up some potential misunderstandings.

I'm not trying to say Akane cares more for Ryoga than for Ranma. Quite the opposite, in fact. The reason she treats Ryoga and other guys better than Ranma is due to something I believe to be an integral part of her character: Akane Tendo makes an excellent friend, and a horrible love interest.

Consider her actions throughout the series. Akane is loyal, kind, and supportive — also clueless, but oh well — to Ryoga and to Shinnosuke (although there's more than just friendship at work there; there's also the debt she owes him). There are times in which the same is true between Akane and Ranma, but that is by no means a constant state. If Akane's relationship with Ryoga has any examples of the insecurity, misunderstanding, jealousy, mistrust, denial, paranoia, rigid attempts at controlling, and unfair blame that mark her dealings with Ranma, I cannot think of them now. But those things are in her relationship with Ranma because she does care that strongly about him — and is utterly unready for those kinds of feelings.

Although in a way those things are also there because, as strongly as she does care for Ranma, it isn't strong enough yet. The Reversal Jewel episode shows this. Not until Akane wears the jewel right-side up, the position to strengthen feelings of love, is she able to forget jealousy and speak kindly, openly, and fearlessly to Ranma. And as soon as the artifact comes off, she smacks him through the window and into the trash.

Hope nobody was too put off by how quickly Akane's horror at the thought of Ranma dying in battle vanished during her talk with Ryoga. I'm taking the view that the life she's lived for the past year and more has to have had a profound impact on her (even if the original series often short-changes us on character growth and change -_-). She has seen Ranma put himself in harm's way time and time again, going up against people who are seriously out for his blood. A possible accident — that didn't happen and now never will — from the guy she considers a good friend and really does trust… Something like that just doesn't stack up to the kind of stuff that really will get her worried for Ranma's safety.

I'll make another character apology here, regarding Ukyo's willingness to use Shampoo's new curse against her when she never (as far as I can recall) exploited the old one. I do not believe Ukyo would have been willing to go that far if Shampoo had brought back 1) no water at all from Jusenkyo, 2) a cure for Ranma, or 3) water from both Man and Falcon springs and let Ranma choose. It is what Ukyo sees as a despicable — and threatening — act in trying to tie Ranma to the Amazon that gives her the necessary outrage to take that step. Inspiration for this development came from a fan fiction forum thread by Ed Simons, concerning which Jusenkyo curses Ukyo knew about in the original series.

Another couple of acknowledgements relating to Ukyo: her dialogue with Ranma about what Jusenkyo curse she'd choose if she had to take one was inspired by the Altered Destinies tale A Scary Thought, in which Ukyo actually does have a Jusenkyo Wolf curse. And please, for goodness' sake, don't think you're reading my personal opinions of Ukyo in Shampoo's derogatory speech. That was the attitude I thought she would have, not my own. It's actually more of a mark against Shampoo that she would so easily dismiss someone as "stupid" for not seeing things just because they're so obvious to the Amazon. But let's face it — the vast majority of the characters are self-centered to one degree or another.

Thanks to Beer-Monster, Nemesis Zero, and Ed Simons for prereading. Hope everyone has enjoyed this chapter, and I'll see you next time.

Chapter 5
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