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A Ranma ½ fan fiction story
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 5: After the Rain Has Fallen, Part 2

It had taken him nearly three hours to find the thunderstorm. Beneath him the clouds boiled and raged, lashing the sea with wind and rain. Lightning whistled from cloud to cloud, powerfully enough that at times he not only heard the crash of thunder, he felt the barest hint of a discharge, the slightest static echo across his feathers. It wouldn't have been perceptible if he was in human form (of course, if he had been in human form in his current position he'd have had much bigger things to worry about), but from the very beginning Ranma had known how much more sensitive to weather and the sky in general his new body was.

He flew now at what that form's instincts told him was nearly the lowest possible safe height above the storm. High enough to escape any dangerous winds, and certainly out of reach of the rain, hail, and lightning, but low enough, close enough, that the furor seemed close at hand. The violence of the storm was comforting at this distance, so near, and yet too far away to reach out and break over him.

It made a welcome contrast to the events of the morning. Most of Ranma's first blistering anger was gone by now, leeched away by the impersonal fury of the elements below him, but some still remained. He didn't think that was likely to change anytime soon either, no matter how exhilarating and enjoyable it was to roam the skies. "~Kuno, you idiot. Why the heck did you have to get this stupid idea anyway?~" he demanded of the air. "~And couldn't you have once, just once, listened when somebody showed you you weren't on the right track?!~"

Even as he asked these questions, though, another part of his mind was calling himself seventeen different kinds of an idiot. To think that he'd expected Tatewaki Kuno to give up an idea he'd gotten firmly in his head, no matter how logical or reasonable a counterargument was supplied… especially an idea that would result in Ranma Saotome getting doused with cold water? He sighed as best he could in his current body. "~Talk about ignoring the lessons I should've already learned, from how things have happened before now.~"

He brooded on that for awhile, in the meantime deciding that he'd followed the storm for long enough. Bending one wing and tilting the arc of his body, Ranma swung in a long lazy curve that set him flying back toward the Japanese mainland. The irony did not escape him that he was leaving behind a storm that couldn't touch him, in order to sail back toward troubles that could. Furinkan in general and Tatewaki in particular were certain to become a bigger nuisance after this. Akane would undoubtedly become even more worried and overprotective — not that that one was wholly unpleasant, but still… and Ranma didn't even want to think about how his father might react. Outsmarted by a Kuno… he could almost hear the lamentations now.

"~Maybe I can keep him from finding out…~" Ranma mused dubiously. "~Akane might worry for me, but that don't mean she'd feel like she has to tell my old man about this. And with Pop and Mr. Tendo back in town I'm getting an allowance again, so that oughta help out with Nabiki. Let's just hope nobody says anything before I make it back home…~" With that in mind, he poured on the speed, going from letting the wind do the work to actively exerting himself.

He'd covered roughly a quarter mile of sky before his pace slowed again, slowed even further than it had been before. His thoughts weren't exactly racing either, but they were progressing at a steady, unhindered pace. Ranma thought back over many of the things that had happened in his life, continuing a line of thought that he'd followed for quite a long way six days ago. Back then he'd been thinking about his mother, and how much it sucked that she wasn't yet going to be able to see the family she'd been awaiting for so long. She would have to go on worrying and hoping and praying that her son would be someone she could be proud of, and he had cursed the fact. It had taken several dozen miles of sky, but he had eventually begun thinking about his past and some of the mistakes he'd made, and realized that maybe there were a few more things that he ought to work through before reuniting with Nodoka. After all, it wouldn't do much good to hurry back to her if it was only going to end up causing her more pain.

As he'd told Shampoo, that was something he'd come to terms with. He had made mistakes in the past, he knew he hadn't handled many of the crazy situations as well as he should have. He'd ignored some problems, misunderstood others, and tried to wing his way through yet more of them without anything more than optimism and a shortsighted desire to fight or squirm his way past whatever the latest irritation was. And so many things had gone unresolved because of it!

Ranma couldn't really form a frown of stony determination in his current form, but he tried anyway. Forget begging Akane and bribing Nabiki into silence! Let his father find out what had happened at Furinkan today! If the old man got too obnoxious, Ranma would just take it out of his hide in their next ten sparring sessions, reminding Genma as forcefully as he had to that one Jusenkyo-influenced fluke victory by Kuno didn't make Ranma Saotome any less of a man among men!

He gave out a long, fiery screech and deliberately jumped into another air current, abandoning his previous Nerima-bound course. No need or reason to hurry back home. What would happen, would happen. For now, he was going to stay out here awhile longer, and enjoy to the fullest the best gift anybody had ever given him. Stressful meetings could wait.


His body was moving in automatic evasion before the fourth pseudo-syllable had succeeded the third. Not until he'd sideslipped across and down seventy feet of sky did the curious nature of the battlecry dawn on him. It had been Ryoga, that had been immediately apparent even though this was the first time he'd heard his rival's new cursed form's voice. But what was equally clear, through the translation effect of Jusenkyo's magic, was that the Lost Bird's threat had gone from furious to halfhearted to forgotten even before it could be completed.

Confused and wary, Ranma nonetheless flapped his way closer to Ryoga's revealed location, stopping just far enough away that he could still pretend it wasn't obvious Ryoga's cursed form was larger than his. "~Hey, Ryoga. What's with letting the death-threat die out like that? You didn't chicken out, did ya?~"

"~HOW DARE YOU — huh?~" Ryoga's renewed fury was sidetracked as he watched his rival make some bizarre motion with his right wing, utterly destroying the balance of his flight and causing him to spill down through several yards of air.

'Will you get a grip, moron?!' Ranma demanded of himself. 'For crying out loud, I was just thinking about how much of a mistake it is to keep on doing the same stuff over and over again without thinking! And as soon as Ryoga shows up I shoot off the old Saotome Get 'Em Good And Riled technique? With what I owe him?! Nuh-uh, no way, not today.' Resolving that once he was back in human form he'd give himself the smack upside the head that he couldn't quite manage just now, Ranma flapped back to his previous position relative to Ryoga.

"~Uh… sorry, man. Force of habit,~" Ranma explained, trying to find the words to express what he really needed to. "~That ain't what I meant to say.~"

"~Go on,~" Ryoga replied, doing his best to hide reluctance with righteous indignation. Inside, though, he was already regretting this meeting. He had every intention of beating his rival to a pulp, but he couldn't do that in the current circumstances. 'It's too bad Jusenkyo makes us understand each other when we're like this,' he grumbled to himself. 'He wasn't even really saying anything, but I still knew that screech was him as clear as day. And I just HAD to go ahead and let him know I was here, when all I can do right now is either listen to more of his insults or run away.' Ryoga was still trying to decide which of those was the lesser of two evils.

Uncertain as to why Ryoga was holding back like this, but unwilling to push his luck, Ranma quickly said, "~About our fight. You know, when I told you that this new curse would wear off after awhile?~"

"~You mean when you lied through your teeth just so you could try to take me down with you?~"

"~For the record, I figured it would be me winning when you took the worst of the attack, not a double KO,~" Ranma snapped. "~But… yeah. Even if it'd worked out like I thought, it was going too far. I'm sorry.~"

It was more of an apology than Ryoga had ever expected to get. That was not to say that it had gone far enough. "~And?~"

"~And what?~"

"~Is that all you've got to say?~" Ryoga demanded. "~All you've got to apologize for? That was a low blow, Ranma, but at least it was just the same kind of thing you've pulled before. Just trying to win a fight. That's nothing compared to the other stuff you dumped on me!~"

Ranma's eyes narrowed. "~You mean, the stuff I pointed out to you about what you were doing and what it really meant? Exactly what kind of apology are you looking for there?~"

"~Damn you, I told you before!~" Ryoga shouted. "~You didn't even bother to say any of that stuff until it was already too late for me to fix it myself! You just waited until after you and Shampoo had already fixed things up nice and neat between you. Would it have been so hard to let me be the one to make the decision?!~"

"~Kinda seems like the answer there is 'Yes'. Or are you forgetting that Shampoo only dumped the water on you after she offered it and you turned her down?~"

"~What kind of difference is that supposed to make?! She didn't say anything about that. All she said was, 'Now you no have to worry about Akane find out you secret, turn you into bad excuse for sweet and sour pork.' That's a pretty far cry from the stuff you could have said to me, Ranma!~"

"~No, I couldn't have,~" Ranma snapped back. "~You know, it's kind of flattering in a way, you thinking that all along I've seen all this stuff crystal clear. It's also insulting as hell in another, and it's just plain stupid to boot. Since it's obvious I cared about what you were doing with, and to, Akane, if I did understand all that stuff since day one why wouldn't I have said it before now?~"

"~I don't know! Why didn't you?~

"~For crying out loud, will you stop yelling and start thinking?~" Ranma shouted. "~I didn't see it any better than you did. Don't try to hand me any bull, Ryoga — you knew all along that what you were doing as P-chan wasn't right. I know there's times you felt guilty about it. But you didn't see how bad it really was, and neither did I. Not until Shampoo finally put a stop to it. Yeah, I had asked her to offer you the rest of the water, cause I could see at least clearly enough to know the P-chan stuff needed to stop. But that was really as far as I thought about it until afterward. She busted up the old pattern, went farther than I thought I'd meant for her to go, and that was what got me thinking about it. That was when I figured out all the stuff I said to you. I guess it was easier to see once I was looking back on it afterward, rather than having it right up in my face.~"

After finishing the last sentence, Ranma paused for a few seconds, partly to recover his breath, partly to judge his rival's reaction. "~You know, I am both surprised and impressed that you let me finish all that without butting in, Ryoga.~"

Ryoga snorted, although the sound didn't carry across the yards of sky separating him from Ranma. "~Far be it from me to interrupt when Ranma Saotome is admitting he made a mistake.~"

"~You want to return the favor now, P-chan?~" Ranma retorted. "~In case you didn't realize, it wasn't a lot of fun to have you throw all that in my face back then. Like I knew all that stuff from the beginning and just sat on it, not caring about anything except hitting you with it at the worst possible moment. It wasn't like that and you should've known it all along.~"

"~You're right, Ranma. Sorry for overestimating you.~"

"~Oh, hardy har har. Laugh it up, Chuckles, but don't forget I owe you a rematch. You wouldn't want me to ask for it right here and now, would you? It's pretty obvious which one of us has got more flying experience.~" Ryoga's passage through the air wasn't exactly ungainly, but it was clear to Ranma that he had attained much more familiarity with his cursed form than had his rival.

"~Shut up! This is just my second long flight, and I wouldn't even be doing it if my pack hadn't disappeared between the sprinkler hitting me and when I finally got out of my shirt!~"

Ranma stared at the other transformed teen for several moments, then swept his gaze to the ocean below, to the clouds beyond, and to the landmass of Japan still a half hour's flight away. "~You're up here because you're trying to find your way back to your backpack?~"

"~Laugh and die,~" Ryoga grated. Then, qualifying the statement, he said, "~Once we're back to our normal selves, at least.~"

Forcefully swallowing a remark about Ryoga, 'normal', and paradox, Ranma said, "~Okay. So… this is your second real flight. Are you starting to see how much better this is than your old curse, even aside from the whole Akane issue?~"

"~Better?~" Ryoga echoed incredulously. "~How's it supposed to be better?! Okay, maybe nobody's going to put me on their lunch menu anymore, but it's not like this curse didn't come with its own huge problem!~"

"~Huge problem?~" It was Ranma's turn to repeat something in clear disbelief. "~What're you talking about?~"

"~Are you out of your tiny little mind?! You know how hard it is for me to find my way anywhere, Ranma. Do you have any idea how much worse it is when you've got the whole sky to get lost in?!~"

"~You mean…~" Ranma almost couldn't believe he was saying this, "~you don't like to fly?~"

This time, Ryoga's snort was loud enough that both transformed teens heard it. "~What's there to like?! Do you have any idea how much of my life I've spent on the road, wandering around with no idea where I am? Do you know what it feels like not to have any idea where I can find anybody I know? Let me tell you, Ranma, it's a lot worse than any of the wimpy little problems you complain about!~"

With serious effort, the Saotome heir kept his response to that within the silence of his own thoughts. Ryoga blowing off Ranma's problems was irritating and unjustified, but it didn't diminish the other's own complaint.

Meanwhile, the Lost Boy was still speaking. "~This is like somebody took a good long look at my life, figured out what the worst parts of it were… at least, the parts that weren't my own fault…~" he mumbled the amendment, then his voice returned to normal volume, "and deliberately extended them and made them worse!~" Ryoga still remembered the incredible naiveté with which he had thought of flying quickly to Jusenkyo in order to keep his old curse from ever returning. At the time of that half-formed, half-baked plan, he had not yet experienced just what flight was like for a Hibiki. "~The last time this happened, it took me three days to find my way back to my campsite. And there's no reason to think it won't be that bad or worse each time. Days spent all alone, not even human, trying to find my way back to somewhere I can recognize. Without even being able to stop and get bad directions from somebody! Damn it all, Ranma, I'm tired of being so alone!~"

"~I… Ryoga, I'm sorry… I, I never thought this new curse could be as bad as your old one. Not in a different way anyway,~" Ranma amended.

"~It… it's not. Not quite as bad,~" Ryoga said, the words sounding as if he'd had to extract them with heavy machinery. "~This way hurts me. The other way, I was hurting someone else.~" As if to hurry past that thought, he quickly said, "~And of course I always had to worry about that nutcase klepto skater stumbling across 'Charlotte' again, or getting cooked for somebody's dinner…~"

"~You know, Shampoo actually did that once, and you lived through it just fine,~" Ranma pointed out.

"~Do you think I want to be reminded of that?!~" Ryoga raged, completely trampling his rival's follow-up sentence. "~If you're trying to make me feel better about having this curse instead of the pig, that's not the way to do it!~"

Although within the privacy of his own mind Ranma wondered why the heck not, what he said was, "~Actually, I was trying to lead up to something better.~"

"~Better, huh? This isn't another stupid joke, is it?~" Ryoga asked dubiously.

"~No. What I meant was, you could probably say Shampoo owes you for that time, and I guess she and I together owe you something too now. Even if it was because of something that was mostly your fault.~" Ranma quickly continued speaking, before Ryoga's growl could transform into outright abuse. Based on what Shampoo had told him, about how the Jusenkyo laws used to be and how they had changed, his idea shouldn't be a problem now. "~I'll get with her and ask her to have someone at home mail some Nannichuan out here for you.~"

Ryoga's entire body shuddered to frozen immobility, which of course sent him dropping like a stone. Ranma zipped down after him, glad to see that the shock of the fall quickly restored his rival to motion. In fact, once he recovered Ryoga was flying noticeably more smoothly than before, and Ranma deduced that the other was now operating on pure instinct. 'Lord knows it's not that hard to overload his mind,' the Saotome heir thought cynically.

"~A-are you serious?!~" Ryoga eventually gasped.

"~Yep.~" In fact, he could have her order enough water to also remove his father's Panda curse, and even have some left over if Ranma himself ever had drastic need to get rid of his own. The water's magic wouldn't last forever, of course, but for Genma and Ryoga it wouldn't have to.

"~You'd do that? She'd do that?!~"

"~For you, no, probably she wouldn't. I'm sure I can get her to agree, though,~" Ranma assured, trying not to picture the number of dates he was surely going to have to agree on. For a request of this magnitude, it wouldn't just be Shampoo he was asking, he'd have to go through Cologne as well. For that matter, since this would be eliminating Shampoo's potential winter break trip to China with him, the lavender-haired girl herself would certainly take more convincing than normal.

But it was the right thing to do. And although she could never hear about it, Ranma believed it was something that his mother would be proud of — at least, as long as one didn't factor in the earlier, less-than-optimal actions that had led to this moment of decision.

"~I… I don't know what to say…~"

"~That's easy enough,~" Ranma retorted. "~Say that after this we're both free and clear of anything and everything related to you going to Jusenkyo. No more 'Ranma, because of you I've seen hell!', no more blamin' me for that stuff or dragging it back out as a reason to attack me. You and I both got better reasons to challenge each other than that, and I want it to finally lie down in the past and die.~"

Ryoga paused for a moment, thinking of all the other ways his rival had managed to irritate the crap out of him in times past. Even without this one, there would definitely be no shortage of reasons to give Ranma a good thrashing. "~Yeah, okay. When and if you get Shampoo to do that for me, I accept.~"

"~Sounds good to me.~" They flew in silence for awhile, before Ranma oh-so-innocently asked, "~You sure you don't want to have just one challenge match like this? I bet I can kick your tail feathers all the way to the Arctic Circle.~"

"~No way.~"

"~Come on, you big chicken. Don't be such a scaredy-bat. Are you a man or a grouse?~"

"~Forget it, Ranma! Akane asked me to promise that I wouldn't do anything that could get either of us hurt in our cursed forms, and I'm going to keep my word no matter how many stupid insults you try! And those were pretty darn stupid, let me tell you.~"

Ranma blinked, not really even hearing the slur against his combat incitement technique. "~Because Akane asked you to be careful, you're not going to attack me?~"

"~That's right.~"

"Is that why you pulled back from the whole 'Ranma, prepare to die' thing earlier? That's why you've listened to everything I've said?~"

"~You got it.~"

"~Hot damn, the tomboy finally got overprotective at exactly the right time,~" Ranma marveled.

"~Ranma, you jerk! I might not be able to fight you, and I might be willing to swallow insults against me, but I won't listen to you talk bad about Akane!~" And with that, Ryoga made a sharp right turn into a dive, quickly picking up airspeed and disappearing inside a cloud.

"~Wait, you moron!~" Ranma squawked, following quickly in Ryoga's wake. "~Don't ya want me to lead you back to the dojo? You didn't even let me tell you about the soap I've got for you! Ryoga!! Where are you?!~"

He spent the next hour searching the skies for the other boy, achieving exactly nothing.

Kasumi paused on the threshold of the dojo, her hand outstretched to the frame but not yet sliding the door open. She listened, hearing the sound of her sister's kiais and the crunch of shattered brick. Akane's mood was plain to tell even from this distance.

The eldest Tendo daughter waited, listening as her little sister worked her way through more stacks of bricks. Each new batch of materials destroyed took just a little more of the edge off Akane's anger. By the time she'd heard ten more stacks bite the dust, Kasumi judged that she ought not to wait any longer. By no means had Akane recovered her good spirits, but at least she ought to be calm enough to listen to what Kasumi had to say.

Taking a deep breath to fortify herself, and pushing away thoughts of the last time she'd confronted Akane about something that happened in the dojo, Kasumi slid the door open and entered. "Akane, are you in here?" she called, not as a serious question but rather to announce her presence.

"What is it, Kasumi? HIII-YA!" Another stack of bricks went to that great construction site in the sky.

"I need to talk with you about what happened today," Kasumi answered.

Akane heaved a bitter, disgusted sigh. She would rather not have had to remember those events just now. However, though she would have thrown Ranma out in a heartbeat if he were the one asking, she wouldn't blow off either of her sisters — and besides, as sweet and gentle as Kasumi was, maybe talking about this with her would help Akane feel a little better. Surely she could at least count on sympathy. "Okay," she said, heading over to the wall and sitting down with her back against it.

Kasumi joined her there, kneeling down and looking her sister in the eye. "What happened after you left the house?" She didn't think it would make any difference in what she'd come here to say, but it would be better to hear Akane out first.

"I went to make sure Shampoo wasn't chasing after Ranma," Akane said with a scowl. "He's already had a bad enough time today, he didn't need that to make it worse."

"She wasn't, was she?" It was a guess on Kasumi's part. Certainly Akane had met up with someone and the encounter had progressed poorly, but Kasumi didn't know just who. She could picture Akane's actions and attitude resulting from a confrontation with either Shampoo or Cologne, albeit for different reasons. Shampoo seemed more likely, though; Cologne might have had a few things to say that little sister wouldn't want to hear, but the old woman didn't usually push anyone as far as this.

"No, she was just getting back from a delivery. Too late to bug Ranma, but she was just in time to dump on me and treat me like I'm nothing next to her," Akane seethed. "Maybe I can't beat her now, but that's not how it's going to be forever!"

So her suspicions were correct — it had been Shampoo. "Are you sure you're all right, little sister?" She well remembered the mood Akane had been in when she left for the Cat Café. Kasumi wasn't optimistic enough to think that it hadn't come down to a fight with Ranma's Amazon friend. Akane didn't seem physically hurt, but… "She didn't use any other trick like that special shampoo, did she?"

"No, she didn't. I'm fine, Kasumi. Please just leave it," Akane said tightly, attempting through sheer force of will to block the recent memories. She'd given it her all, striking at Shampoo with all the speed and skill and strength she could muster, and the Amazon just danced around her like a ghost, blocking and dodging with no apparent effort, Shampoo's own blows striking her at will. That the Amazon had just brushed the heel of her hand against Akane had only made it worse, the feather-light mocking touch stinging worse than an actual punch would have. "It wasn't even a real fight anyway." That last sentence cost her quite a bit to utter, and only in the hope of relieving the concern on Kasumi's face did Akane make the sacrifice.

"Is fighting her for real so important to you?" Kasumi asked sadly.

"Of course it is!" Akane yelled. "There's no way I'm going to take this anymore!"

"And so you came back home and waited for Father and Mr. Saotome to return. And once they did you went straight to Mr. Saotome and asked him to train you." Kasumi gave her sister the most sorrowful gaze she could muster. "Akane, do you realize what you've done?"

Akane gave her sister the most confused gaze she muster. "Um, yes. Ranma is good enough to beat Shampoo easily, and I'm asking the sensei who trained him to do the same thing for me."

"And what about your own father?" Kasumi hinted.

For one moment longer the confusion remained on Akane's face, and then it began to drain away. Kasumi watched, suppressing a sigh as the previous emotion transformed into a look of stubbornness mixed with the barest tinge of worry. She continued, speaking gently but firmly, "I know it's been a while since he trained you—"

"A while?! Try over a year!"

"But that doesn't change what's important here. You are Akane Tendo, the heir to the Tendo School of Anything Goes, and Father is still the school's head. How can you just turn away to study under someone else? Don't you think that's why Mr. Saotome didn't want to agree to this?"

"He didn't say he wouldn't train me, Kasumi, and he didn't say he didn't want to. He just said he needed some time to think about it. Considering that he and Dad had just gotten back from the bar and you had to put Dad to bed to sleep it off, I don't think that's any big deal." Although in all honesty, part of Akane's anger did stem from the fact that Genma hadn't given immediate assent and started working right away on teaching her a technique powerful enough to take down Shampoo. Still, she could give him the rest of the day to recover from his carousing. "He just needs some time to think about what he's going to teach me."

"Or perhaps he's giving you time to think this over, to see for yourself that it isn't as simple as you first thought. Little sister, think about what you're doing. You haven't even talked to Father about this, haven't spoken with him at all about learning from someone else. What would it say about the school, your family, and your place in both of them?"

"What does it say that Dad quit training me right after the Saotomes got here?" Akane countered. "You're looking at things that aren't really in the picture, Kasumi. I need to get better. That's all there is to say."

"No, it isn't! Akane, this is wrong. Are you even stopping to think about how this might hurt Father?"

"How about how Shampoo could hurt me any time she wants?!" Akane said, biting the words off. "What about what Dad did?! Does he think I'm good enough already? Because I'm not! Does it mean there's nothing left for him to teach me? Then I need to go to someone who can! You know how the Saotomes did it, big sister. Mr. Saotome took Ranma on the road, hitting a lot of different places. That wasn't just training grounds, Ranma studied under different sensei, a bunch of them. It didn't make him any less of a student of Saotome Anything Goes, it just meant he was pulling in new bits and pieces to work into the style! That's what Anything Goes is supposed to be about. Adaptability and growth and learning new things." Although she couldn't remember her father ever saying it outright like that, both Genma and Happosai had in the past. Always to Ranma, though, never directly to her… Akane paused, taking several deep breaths, then continued, "Maybe I haven't done so good at that, maybe…" her fists clenched tightly in her lap, "maybe you could even say I stank at it before now. I've tried to learn new stuff when I practice on my own, but that's obviously not good enough. I'm not good enough. And I'm not putting up with it any longer!"

"Akane, you keep talking about yourself, and only focusing on the martial arts side of this. I'm talking about honor and respect, not just for a sensei, but for your father!"

"If this isn't about martial arts, why are we even talking right now?!" Akane retorted. "Kasumi, not only are you not a martial artist, you're too nice to think about fighting someone. You even treat Shampoo like she's a perfectly nice, reasonable person who there's no reason for anyone not to want around! This really isn't something you can understand, big sister." Akane's expression softened, and she quickly dipped her head in a bow. "Please don't take offense."

"I'm certainly not going to get offended by any of that," Kasumi said quietly. "And you're right, I don't see this the same way you do. But since we see different things here, don't you think maybe you should consider what I've said? Are you so sure you aren't missing or misunderstanding anything here?"

"I'm sure I have to do this." Akane's tone informed her older sister in no uncertain terms that, though the conversation might continue, the debate was over. "If Dad has a problem with it, then let him come to me and tell me why I shouldn't do it. But I'm not backing down anymore. Not for him, not for Ranma, not for anyone."

"A warrior's path:
To rise to all challenges.
Furinkan awaits."

Soun Tendo stood in the light of morning, staring off into the distance. There were far too many buildings in the way for him to actually see the high school from here, but he pictured it in his mind's eye. Pictured too the challenges that might be there, the battles and the trials that would likely be the result of what had happened yesterday. He had heard the news late last evening, how the end of the school day had shown Ranma's new curse to all of Furinkan. "Hardly surprising the boy was none too enthusiastic about returning there today," Soun muttered sagely. He wondered whether Ranma would have left in a better mood if Soun had been able to finish the haiku and share it before his daughter and son-in-law-to-be had left. "But this too is a martial artist's duty."

"Indeed it is, Tendo," Genma said solemnly, appearing unannounced behind him.

"It stirs the soul, doesn't it? Brings the mind back to our own younger days, and the challenges we faced. It does the heart good in a way," Soun mused. "To know that the new generation has picked up where the old left off, fighting their own battles and walking the path of martial righteousness with their own feet."

"Mm-hm. I'm sure Ranma won't much like some of what will happen at Furinkan, now that everybody knows about his new curse. But it should lead to many new chances for the boy to learn new skills and grow as a fighter." Genma paused, searching for just the right words to lead the conversation away from Ranma to another member of the new generation of Anything Goes martial artists.

"After all, what does not kill us makes us stronger. Right, Saotome?"

"Yes, that's true. If we let it, anyway."

"Well, I think we both know there's no need to worry about that!" Soun let out a long, hearty laugh. "That's one lesson you taught Ranma very well indeed."

Sighing and bracing himself, Genma replied, "True. But I wasn't talking about my boy there, Tendo. I was more concerned about Akane."

"Akane? What do you mean?"

"Did you know she had a fight with Shampoo yesterday?" Before Soun could do more than blanch at this news, Genma's hand shot out and clenched reassuringly on the Tendo patriarch's shoulder. "Remember, you saw her for yourself this morning, and she's fine. Shampoo didn't even hit her once, from the little bit of description I was able to get out of her." He had received the strong impression he'd be better off pulling teeth from a crocodile than trying to pry more details of the fight out of Akane.

Soun heaved a sigh of relief. "Thank goodness. Did she win then? Perhaps by triggering Shampoo's curse?"

"I don't know. I don't think so. Not considering the mood she was in when we got back yesterday," Genma said. "She was as angry as I've ever seen her, Tendo. And she was hating the fact that she couldn't fight Shampoo on her own level and win."

"On her own level?!" the Tendo patriarch repeated indignantly. "That Amazon comes from a culture where getting in a fight could mean your life whether you win or lose! If you're an outsider, anyway. I'll have to talk to Akane and remind her about that. My precious little girl needs to know she's already better than Shampoo where it really counts."

"Tell her that if you want, but I don't think it's going to make any difference this time. There's only one thing she wants to hear from us, and it isn't 'Give Shampoo one look of disgust and then just walk away.' She made that very clear in the dojo yesterday."

"In the dojo?" Soun echoed. A fuzzy memory swam up from the depths of his mind. "You mean, that was where she dragged you off to when we got home yesterday?"

"Yes, that's right."

"And that's when you heard about this fight and Akane being in a bad mood? She was quiet at breakfast this morning, but she didn't seem particularly unhappy." It should be stated here that Soun's eyes had been on his newspaper at the moment when Akane had sent a fierce, don't-think-I'm-going-to-wait-much-longer look Genma's way. "Come now, Saotome, you're being too much of a worrywart over this. It's not like you to take such a dark outlook, especially over something you can't really remember anyway. You were just as pickled as I was yesterday afternoon."

"No, I wasn't." Genma had hoped not to have to reveal this. He didn't want to spoil this wonderful new stratagem before it could win him at least one afternoon's worth of shogi. Thinking frantically for a few seconds, he was rewarded with an inspiration. "I only pretended to be as far gone as you. That way, Ranma would have underestimated me when I asked him for a sparring match."

Soun blinked. "Then why didn't you let me in on the scheme?"

"Um… um… in order to fool your enemies, er, your opponents, you must first fool your friends. Or something like that."

"Well, all right then."

"In any case, that's not important. What is important is that my judgment was perfectly unimpaired when Akane stood there and asked me to train her to defeat Shampoo."

"She… you… what… that's…" Soun gaped for a few moments, then recovered. "And since your judgment was, as you say, unimpaired, you told her that you couldn't do such a thing. Correct, Saotome?"

Noting the flickering hints of chi in the angles and lines of Soun's face, and recognizing all too easily the traces of a Demon Head ready to form at a moment's notice, Genma chose his words with care. "Considering how peeved she was, I didn't think it was a good idea to tell her anything outright. I told her I'd need some time to think about it."

"Even better," Soun conceded. The chi faded back to invisibility. "Give her some time to cool down and realize that competing with Shampoo like that is a terrible idea."

"Mmmm." Genma packed as much skepticism into the monosyllable as he could. Soun didn't seem to notice. Deciding that subtlety just wasn't going to cut it here, he continued, "You do know how Shampoo and Akane got into the fight yesterday, don't you? Akane went to Shampoo. Not the other way around."

"And once we make it clear how bad an idea that is, she'll—"

"Tendo, will you please listen to me?!" Silently Genma cursed Akane for forcing him into a position like this, Shampoo for the recent changes that had his son's real fiancée in such turmoil, and Ranma for not giving the Amazons the heave-ho long ago. For that matter, the Jusenkyo Guide really ought to have known better than to guide two hungry, unfortunate strangers to such a perilous place as the Amazon village. Perhaps he ought to send a scathing letter to the Jusenkyo society… postage due, if they allowed that sort of thing on international mail.

"Listen to what?" Soun's voice broke into Genma's mental ramblings of just who was really at fault here.

"Akane isn't going to take 'no' for an answer. Not this time," he said quietly. "Now, I agree with you that it would be better for her not to fight Shampoo. But she isn't going to let go of the idea anytime soon. I think the best thing to do is go along with what she asked."

"Excuse me?" Soun said sharply, in a tone Genma hadn't heard since the one time the Tendo patriarch had thrown him out as well as his son. The traces of chi were back, more pronounced than before. "Did you just say you want to encourage my daughter in this? To seriously fight a girl who's trained to kill?!"

"No, it's not like that!" 'Actually, it's exactly like that.' But Genma knew better than to say that out loud. This was no time to try to convince Soun that, win or lose, Akane could fight Shampoo safely. He himself didn't much care for the idea, but since he wasn't an overprotective paranoiac of a parent, he could see clearly enough that Akane going against Shampoo for real wouldn't have such terrible repercussions. Soun, on the other hand… let him have time to get used to the idea of Akane training seriously before Genma tried to convince him that just because Shampoo could put Akane down for good, didn't mean she would make such a stupid blunder. In fact, if the girls only fought one another in formal challenge matches with plenty of witnesses, that would probably be safer than the way things were now.

He still would have been happier if Akane had never made her request, but Genma was going to do the best he could with the hand he had been dealt plus whatever cards he might find up his sleeve. "Think about it this way, Tendo. Akane came to me to learn how to get better than Shampoo. That means I get to set the pace, pick the training. She'll be waiting for me to tell her she's good enough before she tries to take her enemy down!"

"Hmmm… so we're really just buying time for her to get over the worst of her temper…" Soun mused. "Well, that's good, as far as it goes. But this business with Shampoo isn't the only thing I'm concerned about here."

"It's not? What else is there?"

"What happens after you've spent a few weeks teaching her some new tricks? She'll be proud of what she's learned, plus Ranma probably won't miss the chance to tease her about how far behind him she still is. She'll want to prove herself, and that means she might go out looking for trouble! Maybe not Shampoo, maybe she will wait for you to tell her she's ready for that fight. But what if my precious little girl decides she's learned enough to go up against Kodachi Kuno?!" Soun still woke up in a cold sweat some nights, remembering the vicious tricks the youngest Kuno had unleashed against Ranma-chan so long ago. What if Akane hadn't twisted her ankle the night before that match? What if she thought she still had something to prove there, and a few weeks of Genma's proposed training prompted her to go after it?! It had been hard enough to watch Akane battle it out with Natsume and Kurumi. Only the knowledge that his true daughter's life wasn't on the line, combined with the certainty that Ranma would keep coming back until victory was his, had allowed Soun to handle that crisis as well as he had. "I thought we were agreed that Ranma would handle the serious challenges around here!"

"Maybe I could teach her something that wouldn't have that kind of effect," Genma mused. He had spent a good bit of time yesterday thinking about Akane's request, and pondering how it might impact the bigger picture of his life. There was one last real card he had to play in the game of that bigger picture, a trump he'd held back for a long time now. By no means had he made up his mind on the subject yet, but if he took that route it should be easy to prevent the situation that had Soun so worried. If he handled it right, it might go much further than that. "I need some more time to think about this, old friend. For now, how about this: I'll agree to train Akane, but I'll tell her I need a few days to consider what we'll be working on, where to start and what exercises to use, that sort of thing. That'll give you and me both time to think and talk about what I'll really be showing to her."

"…I guess that's good enough for now," Soun conceded. "But remember, Saotome. If it looks like this is actually going to put Akane in more danger instead of getting her out of it, I'll put a stop to it right away."

"Believe me, that's just the way I want it. I'm not about to let this threaten our promise to unite the schools," Genma reassured him. "In fact, maybe it'll even help out with that." It was by no means a fully-fledged idea yet, but the elder Saotome thought he could sense the beginnings of inspiration fluttering at the edges of his consciousness. If he really did teach that to Akane, surely there was a way to use it to bring her and her fiancé closer together….

"Really? How?"

"Give me more time to think it through," Genma repeated. "Neither one of us wants to think about it, but we both know the Amazons came up with a great plan this time and carried it through perfectly. We need a real counterattack, something better than just putting an engagement ring in a box for Ranma to give to Akane." Curse Shampoo and Cologne anyway for posing this much of a threat, and making him work so hard on something that should have been in the bag long ago. Genma didn't mind putting forth whatever effort he needed to help his son grow to mastery of the Art, but with all the dues he'd paid before now in his life, that ought to be the only real concern left to him. Unfortunately, someone seemed not to have delivered that memo to the universe at large.

The breeze whistled through Ranma's hair as he leapt from rooftop to rooftop. The streets below weren't particularly crowded, were certainly less bustling than they would be in another forty-five minutes, but he didn't feel like limiting himself to them just now.

Part of him was still a little on edge, expecting trouble to jump out and hit him when he least expected it. The feeling had been with him all day at Furinkan, and had only heightened as each class passed without the anticipated furor rearing its head. He'd fully expected to spend the entire day answering questions and dodging water from disbelieving students. Instead most people had kept their distance, though he had gotten plenty of stares.

Hiroshi and Daisuke had been the two biggest exceptions, cornering him at lunch, dragging him away before he could even think about eating with Akane or Ukyo, pulling him off to a secluded area and demanding to know the whole story. Ranma still couldn't make up his mind whether he was ticked off about that conversation or not. The part where they'd lambasted him for willingly giving up something that — according to them — most guys would kill to have… that hadn't left too pleasant a taste in his mouth. On the other hand, despite their initial vehemence the duo had actually listened to his counterargument, and even conceded that having Tatewaki Kuno chase after your "better half" might be too high a price for a self-respecting guy to pay after all.

He'd also learned from them that Nabiki was selling all the details of this latest change in his life, raking in wads of yen that Ranma knew he'd never see. That was irritating, if not much of a surprise. On the other hand, he'd been surprised and pleased to hear why Kuno hadn't yet put in an appearance today — apparently, Akane had injured him enough to keep him away from class for a day or two. Considering the kind of abuse the kendoist regularly shrugged off, Ranma decided that this unexpected bonus more than outweighed Nabiki's usual profiteering.

Once he'd learned of said profiteering, the general lack of questions had made more sense. Everyone was still buying what Nabiki had to sell. Sooner or later that would wind down, and then he fully expected he'd be receiving more direct attention and interrogation. In fact, it probably would have happened by the end of the day today.

Ranma paused as he landed from his latest jump, and sent one smug glance back over his shoulder. Furinkan was just visible in the distance. Everyone else was still cooped up inside, but he had cut his last class period entirely. Avoiding the paparazzi populace of his school was nice, although Ranma realized he was only delaying the inevitable. Respite for today just meant tomorrow would see him playing catch-up. But since it had to be faced sooner or later, and since there was a very good unrelated reason to skip out early, he might as well enjoy the freedom he had right now.

'Nope, I don't think Akane would be too happy if I told her I was gonna head to the Amazons' place and talk to Shampoo.' At the very least she'd undoubtedly insist on coming along with him, and for what he had to say that was absolutely not acceptable. 'Yeah, that'd be just great. I can see it now — me trying to convince Shampoo to get some Nannichuan shipped here for Ryoga, Akane standing there listening to it all.' Once again Ranma found himself grateful that he no longer shared his final class of the day with the youngest Tendo.

At least this way he could speak frankly with Shampoo, discussing the issue of Ryoga and curses without any need for deception or guarding his words. All Akane needed to know was stuff she could hear after the fact: that he'd arranged for Shampoo to wash away what she had done to the Lost Boy. She would certainly be happy to hear that, Ranma knew. Hopefully she'd be happy enough to let slide whatever he'd be promising Shampoo within the next half hour. Ranma knew this wasn't going to come cheap. He hoped she wouldn't hold out for something exorbitant like ten dates. He knew he'd pay even that price if he had to, in order to do this one last thing for Ryoga, but he didn't want to think about the kind of suffering it would entail. 'Akane might be willing to cut me some slack, but all the slack in the world wouldn't let her swallow something like that. I'd just as soon avoid getting flattened like an okonomiyaki.'

*Ding Ding!* *Wham!*

"Please tell me this ain't the same roof as last time," he mumbled into the shingles.

"Shampoo eighteen, Ranma nothing." By contrast to Ranma's barely-audible complaint, Shampoo's comment fairly glowed with satisfaction, cheerfulness, and good-natured mischief. Wide-eyed innocence was nowhere to be seen. "I make up for this by let you have all you can eat at restaurant whenever you come by this week." Touching down with one leg, she shifted her bike from Ranma to the roof. "You know, Airen, there one other part of this training I not mention last time."

"Which is?" Ranma inquired as he got to his feet and dusted himself off, wondering whether this impact really had hurt less than the last. Maybe he was just imagining it, but it did kind of seem that way.

"To be aware of incoming attack." Shampoo's expression shifted toward pensiveness. "Ranma make good progress on endurance part, but not seem so good on this one. Not in this training, not in other times when girl is attacking you. Is blind spot, maybe?"

Poor social skills notwithstanding, Ranma knew better than to discuss the concept of guys holding back against girls with an Amazon. 'Okay, change the subject, change the subject quick…' "Actually I'm glad I ran into you now, Shampoo. Or is it the other way around?" he asked wryly. "I was on my way to your place to talk to you about something."

Shampoo blinked. "Really?" A smile lit up her face like a sunrise, and with ruthless abandon she pushed away all thoughts of the customers waiting for their delivery orders.

"Yep." Ranma paused, taking a look around the general surroundings. This wasn't the highest rooftop in the general vicinity, but it seemed secure enough. He sat down, Shampoo following suit a moment later. "It's about Ryoga. I was hoping you could do something about his curse."

Shampoo blinked again. "We not already have this talking?"

"Not the pig curse. Believe it or not, he found me yesterday when both of us were flying, and we talked for a while. And when I say 'believe it or not'…" Ranma shook his head, still marveling at what he was about to say. "He doesn't like his new curse. He actually doesn't like it, not even a little bit."

The Amazon shrugged. "Ranma expect something else? I did not. Knew all along he would hate this change. You think he just going to shrug and forget about not be able to play as Akane's pet no more?"

"No, it's not that. And it took a lot to pound it through his thick skull, but Ryoga finally agreed that what he'd been doing as P-chan was wrong."

Shampoo gave him one heck of a skeptical stare. She'd seen her beloved do some amazing things, but none quite on the order of the claim he'd just made.

"This isn't about losin' the old curse," Ranma continued. "It's about the new one, and how well it fits him and his life. Or doesn't, I mean. He… I guess I can kinda understand it, the way he explained it, but Shampoo… he really doesn't like to fly. At all."

The Amazon mulled that thought over. It was surprising, though she didn't feel nearly as much shock as Ranma had. Then again, this was primarily because Ranma had fully expected Ryoga to get over his initial fury once he found out what his new form allowed him to do, whereas Shampoo hadn't bothered to give it that much thought. She'd saved her musings for how this action would make things better for Ranma.

Still, it was strange to hear that Ryoga really hadn't found any sort of satisfaction in his new ability. "Why not?" she asked.

"From what he said, it's kind of like it makes his bad sense of direction go into overdrive. Put Ryoga in the sky and give him freedom to go anywhere he chooses, and that's the last time he'll see anybody or anyplace he recognizes for who knows how long." Ranma spoke quietly, still feeling a curious sense of discontinuity. On the one hand, he did feel sorry for Ryoga, especially considering the pain with which the Lost Boy had spoken. On the other, it was still hard to attach such negative concepts to something that was so beneficial in his life. "He told me he's tired of being so alone."

Shampoo considered this in silence for awhile. "Maybe Shampoo understand. Is strange to hear, though," she said. "For what flying like for you and me, strange to think it so bad for Ryoga."

"Yeah, well, you know ol' Bacon Breath. He kinda gets a lot of things backwards," Ranma said. "Guess this is just another one of those."

"Maybe…" Shampoo said. "Now that Ranma say it like that, though, it make me wonder…."

"Huh? Wonder what?"

"Wonder how many other people would think like that, if they got Falcon curse too. Even without stupid Ryoga problem with getting lost in sky. Maybe many people would not like at all, maybe even most would not see it as such good thing," Shampoo mused. It was kind of a nice thought, to consider that she and Ranma might have even more in common through their reaction to this curse, tempting to believe that it was even stronger proof of how right they were for each other. Then, remembering something Cologne had mentioned, she amended, "No, wait. That not right. Great-Grandmother say that now Jusenkyo open to Amazons to use, many of them also learning to fly."

"I kinda suspect it's just Ryoga who'd have a problem with it," Ranma said. "Well, maybe Akane too. Stubborn as she is and as ticked as she's been about all this stuff, I don't think she could admit a Falcon curse was a good thing even if having one saved her life."

"Hmmph. Shampoo not so sure about that," the Amazon grumbled. "Akane would probably jump for chance to take own curse. That way she could follow after Ranma whenever you go to fly, stay right beside you and make sure you not doing anything she not like."

"Do not go there," Ranma commanded, fighting off a brief chill.

"You not like the idea, right?"

"Gee, let me think," he said, with sarcasm thick enough to spread on toast. "What's the best part of flying? It's being up there where nobody's gonna dump any of that stuff on me, nobody's gonna try and tell me what I gotta do and what I can't. It's making my own way and my own choices, without Akane or Pop or anybody tryin' to cut them down to just the ones they're happy with. It's the best time to myself I ever get."

"Is kind of the same for me," Shampoo replied quietly. "Japan is so different from home village, so full of people, choked full it seem. Sometimes feel like Shampoo is choking too. But to get up there, alone, away from all that… is freedom and recovery. Medicine even better than anything Great-Grandmother keep in her cabinet."

A moment of wistful silence stretched between both teens. Shampoo eventually broke it. "Ranma?"

Somewhat concerned by the tentative way she'd spoken, he replied, "Yeah?"

"Shampoo hear what you just say about how is good to get time to own self while you fly. Was going to ask if we do that together again soon, but if it really not any good for you… should Shampoo just forget it?" It cost her a good bit to say that, but the last thing she wanted to do was cut down on the advantage giving him this gift had gained her. There would be plenty of time for togetherness in the future, Shampoo reminded herself once again. It was the thought that allowed her to stomach the fact that Ranma had to stay at the Tendos' place for the present, and it would let her accept it if he didn't want to share more flights with her anytime soon.

"I don't mind the company once in a while," Ranma said. Then, with a grin, he added, "Better you than Ryoga." Shampoo giggled, breaking out in a big smile. Ranma held his grin for a moment, then sobered. "But gettin' back to him. I know this is kind of a pain, Shampoo, but I wanted to finally settle things there once and for all. I figured giving him a Falcon curse would actually be handin' him a huge blessing, but it really didn't work out that way after all. So I was hoping you could maybe have some of the Amazons at home mail a cask of Nannichuan out here."

Shampoo regarded him with a hooded stare. "Was you also hoping to use leftover on Genma, instead of having to wait for winter and take trip to Jusenkyo?"

'Dang, I knew she'd catch it right off the bat.' So much for the faint hope Shampoo would agree and set the price for her aid before realizing that she'd be losing that trip with him. "Now that you mention it…."

"Not sure if I can do this at all," the Amazon replied shortly. "Will have to talk to Great-Grandmother, about what new rules is for use Jusenkyo on someone else."

"I'd be really grateful if you could do it, Shampoo…" That was as subtle as he felt capable of being. It still felt better than going the 'blatantly obvious' route; Ranma didn't want to come right out and say, 'I'll throw in a few dates to sweeten the deal.'

"Is good, because something like this not come cheap." Shampoo stated this as firmly as she could, desperately hoping that Ranma wouldn't pick this moment to think back over all the things she'd done for him in the past and realize that if he just stretched his arms around her and gave her a real kiss, she'd be helpless to resist agreeing to just about anything.

"Um. Yeah, I kinda figured that. What exactly would you like from me?" 'Please don't say ten dates… please don't say ten dates….'

'<I wonder if I could get as many as ten dates….>' As tempting as that thought was, though, there was another that was very appealing too. '<Should I ask him to train with me instead? It might be a good idea to go ahead and fix that up now, instead of waiting.>' She had always intended to get him to join her in the lessons Cologne was now teaching her, but the previous plan had been 'wait until I've learned enough, then kick Airen's butt as motivation to get him to accept the offer.' But considering what had happened at Furinkan recently, it might be better to have him start learning these techniques right away.

On the other hand, she already had a good plan for getting him to train with her, and it would be awfully nice to get a bunch of honest-to-goodness dates with him on top of that…

"Shampoo not know," the Amazon eventually answered. "Need time to think about it. And anyway need to talk to Great-Grandmother and see if can even do what Ranma ask."

"Thanks, Shampoo. So… you know, last time we flew together I wasn't in good enough shape to show ya how much I really like this curse. You wanna meet up on top of the Tokyo Tower in about an hour and see just who can fly rings around who?" That ought to help her get over any disappointment over losing out on the China trip.

'<Subtle he isn't.>' But that was just the way Shampoo liked it. She gave him her best predatory grin, and said, "Is a date."

"Been a while since we did something like this, Pop." Ranma spared only the barest minimum of attention necessary to form the sentence. The rest of his mind was focused squarely on the familiar figure sharing the Tendo back yard with him, standing roughly ten feet away. Both father and son were keeping their distance at the moment, but that didn't mean either was motionless. They were slowly circling each other like a pair of tomcats (though at least one of them would have violently denied the comparison), each waiting for the other's guard to slip.

"I hope you're not backing down, boy." At that very moment, Genma's maneuvering brought him into the perfect position for the early morning sunlight to gleam menacingly off his glasses. "A student of Anything Goes must be ready to rise to any and all challenges."

"Yeah, I'd say that's words to live by," Ranma retorted with a smirk. "Especially the challenge of kicking his lazy old man's tired butt."

"Bah, I may have taught you all you know, but I haven't taught you all I know, Ranma."

While he would have been able to shrug off any insult, this particular verbal gambit of Genma's caught him off-guard. "You— what?!" Ranma stumbled ever so slightly, unable to suppress the instinctive gape at Genma's claim to having taught all his son knew.

In an instant Genma abandoned the circling for position, blasting forward to strike in the moment of his son's weakness. With a mental curse, Ranma gave a tremendous leap backward, thankful that his current position relative to the nearest structure gave him plenty of space and time to recover in midair. Genma was following an instant later, but age and guile and experience couldn't match the sheer physical advantage Ranma's youth and — let's face it — superior physique allowed. Genma's own leap would have been equally impressive to almost any spectator, but it was just enough slower than Ranma's that the younger Saotome had enough time to prepare himself, land on the top of the Tendo boundary wall, and bounce away again toward the roof.

By contrast, Genma stopped on the wall, turning to face his son but not following. "You know, the whole point of this exercise is to brush up on skills you don't use that often," he rebuked.

"So what? You're saying you wanted me to smack these into your head as I passed over ya?" Ranma shot back, gesturing with the nunchaku he held in either hand. His father was similarly armed. Both kept their weapons spinning at a constant, steady hum, necessitating them to speak their verbal banter a little louder than normal. "Sure thing, Pop!" He had the advantage of the high ground now, and had no intention of letting the fight continue as it had begun. It was annoying enough to be the first to be forced into retreat. Time to settle the score. With a fierce kiai, Ranma pushed away from the roof, zooming toward his father with the power and ferocity of his cursed form diving toward its next meal.

"Next time don't announce it like that!" Genma shouted, declining to be reduced to a grease smear. Slower than his son he might be, but Ranma's pause and taunt had given him enough time to prepare. Even as Ranma left the roof and the first word left Genma's mouth his legs were tensing for his own jump, and a split second later the older Saotome was airborne in a high forward flip.

Ranma adjusted his own plan on the fly, paying no heed to what Genma was saying, realizing that his father's maneuver would bring the old man just high enough above him that Genma could bounce a nunchaku off his son's back. It took every ounce of skill he had, but he twisted himself through an incredibly fast one-eighty degree turn, ending with his back facing toward the ground and both his weapons coming up to block Genma's descending attack. The older Saotome had only struck with one of his own nunchaku, and the one in his left hand at that. The right was held off to the side in what wasn't even a decent guarding position. Ranma didn't exactly have the time to verbalize the complete thought, 'If he thinks he's gonna hold back on me like that and not get pounded to a pulp he's got another think coming,' but that was more or less the concept that flashed across his mind.

In the next instant, as Genma somehow managed to first tangle both Ranma's nunchaku with his left, then spin the one in his right hand so fiercely as to alter both Saotomes' midair flight, Ranma was forced to abandon it. Instead of less than a second's remaining air time until impact with the boundary wall, the two were now describing a long, high, lazy arc toward the Tendo rooftop. The kick that the younger Saotome was already bending around to deliver missed entirely, due to the unexpected shift. Genma himself managed to land a blow squarely, bouncing his right nunchaku off his son's head. The blow lacked any significant force, due to the awkwardness of shifting his focus so quickly, but both Saotomes knew well that it was the thought that counted.

Ranma bit off a curse, and kicked into a higher gear than he usually used when sparring with his father. Releasing one nunchaku entirely, and trusting in the tangled state of the weapons combined with his remaining grip to avoid complete disarmament, he struck toward Genma's left hand with Amaguriken speed. Excessive force was neither needed nor desired; the unexpected high-speed pokes to his knuckles had Genma's hand spasming open and releasing his hold on the three tangled pairs of chained sticks.

Pulling back hard with both hands bought Ranma enough rotational velocity to transform his flight from "parallel with Genma's" to "angled toward the ground". The move forcefully untangled the nunchaku, sending the two not currently clenched in someone's grip flying in different directions. Landing only for an instant, he bounced back into the air, catching the nearest weapon, noting with some disgust that the other was flying toward a spot only four feet away from his father's landing zone. The old man wouldn't have had to exert himself to catch it even if he'd been in panda form, for cryin' out loud!

Ranma's latest flight touched down on top of the dojo. "Not bad so far, Pop," he said with his best taunting smirk. "When do you want me stop holding back so much?"

"Bah, I'm the one going easy on you for your sake," Genma shot back. "Now get off there, I don't want you disturbing Akane."

The smirk disappeared, replaced by a grimace. Ranma would just as soon not have been reminded that the tomboy was in there right now, and had been since before his father woke him up this morning. "Jeez, you think you didn't already make that clear?" he asked, suppressing the impulse to charge in for another attack. He could wait a few seconds in the interest of ignoring Genma's command. "What's this big, important, mysterious training you got going on with Akane, that I can't help out with or even watch?" The smirk was back now. "It ain't like she's ever gonna manage something like this!" And now he leapt, jumping not toward Genma but rather directly into the empty air above the koi pond. A second later, however, he had twisted around to face his father, his body angled like a torpedo, his arms bent slightly down and the nunchaku spinning for all they were worth. It was considerably harder than he'd expected it to be, but Ranma managed to alter his flight path as radically as his father had just a handful of moments ago, curving around to zoom straight toward Genma.

The elder Saotome gave three quick skips backward, traversing from one end of the roof to the other. "That's not what I'm teaching her, Ranma, but you of all people ought to respect someone trying to learn new skills!"

"Yeah, whatever," Ranma said as he landed at the spot his father had abandoned, unable to come up with a snappy comeback for a remark he recognized as basically true. It might have more of an impact if Akane had ever once tried to learn any of the advanced skills she'd watched him or Ryoga training in, though. Not bothering to say that, he drove forward on the attack again, this time staying grounded on the roof. Genma charged forward to meet him "All I'm saying," he jinked his head to one side as Genma's attack forced his own left weapon's course dangerously close, "is that Akane ain't never," he forced a tiny opening in Genma's guard, and bounced a glancing blow off his father's ribs, "trained anything like seriously." A furious exchange between father and son took all the concentration he could spare for the next several moments, leaving nothing for speech.

Once the storm of spinning sticks quieted a bit, both Saotomes jumped back and away to recuperate. Genma had received more hits, but none of them had been at full power and the elder Saotome's natural padding absorbed much of the impact. By contrast Ranma had taken only one blow directly, but it had landed right on his crazy bone and he was more than happy to get some time to recover.

"Well, maybe she wants to change that," Genma pronounced. "I know you don't think much of your fiancée's skills, boy, but at least you ought to be able to respect and help her once she gets serious about improving them."

"That'd cut a lot more ice if she really was trying to improve for her own sake," Ranma snapped back. "Instead of just wanting to take Shampoo down."

"That's funny," Genma challenged. "It seems to me that each major technique you've learned here, you learned because you needed to beat someone. Did that somehow slip your mind, boy?"

Ranma gave his father a flat stare. "What exactly is your point? Those are the only times I've had the opportunity. Unless you're sayin' I shoulda gone to the old freak and asked him really, really nicely if he'd maybe teach me one of those things he's unloaded every so often. You really want me to drop a Happo Fire Bomb on your head during one of these matches, Pop?"

Genma shuddered at the thought, not only of that but at what the Master would probably have asked of his son before teaching any really powerful secrets. He'd never have been able to see Nodoka again, that was for sure… either Ranma would be disqualified forever from passing her standard of manliness, or he'd have learned something that would put him a little too far over the finish line. Even Nodoka would consider it too much of a good thing if her son ended up seducing the female half of Furinkan.

"And what about it anyway?" Ranma continued. "Special techniques are great and all, but for where I am in the Art right now they ain't the most important thing. The basics are still where I need to make sure I'm always growing. Speed, accuracy, balance, strength, control, stamina, endurance…." he paused for a moment, zoning out while picturing himself flattened under an Amazon and her bicycle. Genma decided not to blast forward and take advantage of the opening, since this discussion was ultimately more important than the sparring itself. It was a very close thing, though.

"And I've been working on all those things all this time," his son continued. "You think Akane can say the same thing? Not a chance in the world, old man. The best you could say for her is she's got a lot of strength, and she's kept on building it a little higher." Kind of sad that Shampoo was still much stronger by his estimation, but that was what being born in a culture that had bred for stuff like that for three thousand years would do for you. Not exactly fair, but neither was the world in general.

"Bah. That was then and this is now," Genma grumbled. "Though I will say that it's good to see you so focused on what Akane needs for optimal improvement. When the two of you are married, it will be you helping her to grow as best she needs to."

"Give me a break," Ranma snapped. "Or better yet, just give me a straight answer." His eyes narrowed dangerously. "You and I both know why she's doing this. She wants to be better than Shampoo, wants to be able to beat the girl — the Amazon who'd just won her village championship tournament on the day we met her. And you and I also both know that it would take years of serious work before Akane could even get to where Shampoo is now, and Shampoo herself ain't exactly gonna stop trainin' and growin' during that time. Kinda hard to do that when you're living under the rooftop of the leader of the entire tribe, you know? So it ain't like Akane's gonna get an advantage cause of her getting better and Shampoo slacking off. You know this just as well as I do. So tell me, Pop… have you spelled this out for her?" Realizing that might be a bit much to ask, especially considering that his father hadn't suffered any severe beat-downs lately, he amended, "Or at least, have ya kept quiet on any stupid promises? All I really want to hear from you is that ya haven't told Akane she'll be able to beat Shampoo with whatever mysterious training this is you've got her doing."

"Those are fair enough questions," Genma allowed. Unfortunately, there was no way he was ready to answer them truthfully, not now, not to Ranma at least. "The fact of the matter is, son — AN OPENING!!" And with that, the elder Saotome drove forward, initiating a renewal of hostilities with all the ferocity and power he could muster.

Several chaotic minutes later, an aching, battered, panting, bruised Ranma stood in the middle of the back yard, with one foot poised triumphantly atop his father's flattened form. Several dozen shingles were missing from the roof, a fact which would certainly not reduce Nabiki's recent animosity, but Ranma was cheerfully oblivious to both these truths. "Yeah, that's what you get, Pop. Now, getting back to our discussion…?"

It was a seriously painful method of gaining victory, Genma conceded in the privacy of his own thoughts, but Anything Goes stressed that if that was the only kind you could get, you took it and were thankful for it. His voice was more of a groan than speech, his body was as limp as a filleted slab of swordfish, and his face was flat against the ground with his eyes closed. As such, it was impossible for Ranma to pick up on any sign of dishonesty as he answered, "Of course I haven't told her she'll be able to defeat Shampoo. She might or might not think it, but I haven't ever told her anything that would let her believe that. I'm just trying to help her improve her skills. And please don't butt in yet, boy. You know how it makes her get all edgy and defensive when she has to face how much better you are."

"Yeah, whatever," Ranma answered. Truth be told, it didn't feel all that great to get excluded from these mysterious meetings Genma was having with Akane in the dojo, but today's sparring session had worked wonders for letting out the worst of that irritation. The unusual nature of today's training had been the best challenge his father had provided in months, and he'd even learned something new. Despite the aches and bruises in his body, his spirit was feeling more than generous enough to agree. "I'll let you walk her through whatever baby steps you've got her on. But, Pop…" Here he bent down, grasped his father's shoulder, and lifted the older man up enough to look him in the eye. He wasn't quite generous enough not to get one last bit of smack-talking in, as well as a reminder of just who had won today's little match. "If I see ya digging a pit and gettin' Kasumi to round up a bunch of strays, I'm gonna make you think this morning was a nice relaxin' massage."

"I'd like to think I learned my lesson about that particular technique," Genma protested. "At least, after the sixth time going back only made things worse for you."

Ranma's eyes gleamed, and his lips curved into an involuntary snarl. "Don't remind me," he growled, rather unfairly considering just who had brought the topic up. "If you weren't already flattened like a smashed slug, I'd give you a few good licks right now!"

"Ranma! Mr. Saotome! Breakfast!" Kasumi called from the porch.

There was a blur, a whoosh, and a wind which whipped the eldest Tendo daughter's hair in a cascade of brown. Once it was no longer blocking her vision, she turned and saw both Saotomes perched eagerly at the table. "Mmm, smells great, Kasumi," Genma pronounced, salivating with anticipation.

Akane slid the door shut behind her and tossed her bookbag onto her bed without a second thought. She had homework to do, but it would wait. She headed to her closet, and proceeded to exchange her schoolday clothing for a crisp, freshly-laundered gi. She tied the belt around her waist, pulling the knot as tight as her facial expression.

Today was Tuesday, the sixth day of her training under Genma. It hadn't taken long for him to establish her routine; each morning, she would train for two hours, partly supervised by Genma, partly on her own when he went to spar with Ranma. The morning session meant she couldn't get in weekday jogging any longer, but when she'd pointed that out to Genma he had stated flatly that for where she was now, that kind of exercise was worse than nothing at all. Akane didn't know how that was supposed to work, but since she was the one asking for favors here, she hadn't been willing to push too hard.

The morning session was the lighter portion of her workload. Her sensei expected her to come straight home after school and proceed directly to the dojo, where she would spend the next four hours under his full-time supervision.

It was hard.

It was harder by far than any training she'd done in her life.

And she'd be damned if she went to this much trouble without getting what she wanted. What Genma had promised he would give her.

"One more chance," Akane muttered grimly as she headed down the stairs. "He was the one who trained Ranma, after all." She passed through the back door and headed toward the dojo. "He knows what he's doing a lot better than I do." But while Akane knew that was true, it wasn't necessarily true in a good way.

She opened the dojo door and entered the building. As expected, Genma was already there waiting for her, positioned in his best "wise old sensei" stance. Also as expected, there was a large crate resting against the wall, a short distance away from the Saotome master. "Hello, Akane," he said.

"Hello, Mr. Saotome," she returned. In their very first session she had offered the full formality due to a sensei. Genma had snorted louder and more obnoxiously than she could even remember from his son, and replied in no uncertain terms that they weren't going to be wasting their time with those kinds of frills and obsolete old traditions. She was Akane and he was Mr. Saotome — unless, he'd added, she wanted to call him Father-in-law.

Since it was their first session, she had still been riding the emotional high from imagining herself overtaking Shampoo and finally giving the Amazon what she deserved. As a result, Akane had only replied with a thin-lipped, vaguely tolerant smile.

Neither said anything more for the moment, as Akane began her warm-up stretches. Genma watched, and Akane kept one eye on him in turn. Two days ago, the old panda had proved he wasn't above launching an attack even in this preliminary period. This time, however, Genma just waited patiently for her to conclude.

"All right, I'm ready," she pronounced when she was confident that she'd put in enough preparation.

"Very well. Come over here." Genma closed the distance to the crate, with Akane following right behind him. He opened the lid to reveal the largest quantity of marbles Akane had seen in her entire life. "This afternoon's exercise will be—"

"Stop. Right. There." Akane gritted the words out with some difficulty, as most of her focus was taken up in keeping her temper. Genma complied, shifting his posture away from the crate to face her directly with a mild, inquisitive look on his face. It didn't quite reach his eyes, but Akane was in no mood to take note of the gleam that the Saotome master couldn't quite suppress.

"Right now, it's marbles," she said, the words starting slowly but picking up steam. "This morning you made me practice ten different katas with the ceiling rigged to randomly shoot me with Super Soakers. Yesterday afternoon you had me blindfolded and my hands tied behind my back while I tried to stop you smacking me with pillows. Yesterday morning it was golf balls dropping out of the ceiling and I had to catch them and throw them at a training dummy with my hands covered in grease! The afternoon before that, you—"

"Is this going somewhere?" Genma asked mildly. "If you want a few more minutes before the training starts," he took his first casual step backward as Akane began walking toward him, her eye twitching and her fingers clenching and unclenching, "just go back to stretching."

"Every day, no, every stupid time we meet for you to train me it's something different!" Akane yelled. "Twelve sessions now, and each one was something totally different! I kept quiet at first, because after I thought about each one I could see something it could teach me. But I haven't learned them yet! I haven't mastered any of these things yet, and you just keep jumping on to the next one! You're supposed to be helping me learn to do better, not just keep dreaming that I'm okay the way I am! Are you even going to try teaching me, or do you just want to humor me until I give up and quit bothering you?!"

She paused for a moment, struggling for breath and composure, then said, "So help me, if you don't start taking this seriously, taking me seriously, I'll… I'll…" She knew there was one place she could hit him where it hurt, and though it wouldn't feel very good to her either, Akane Tendo was more than ready to make some sacrifices in the name of what she'd committed to. "I'll tell Kasumi not to cook you anything anymore. I'll be the one fixing all your meals, and for you I won't even try to make them good ones."

Genma just snorted, unfazed by the threat. "Only six days and you already know what I need to do to train you better than I do myself. Congratulations, Akane," he said, sarcasm dripping off the words. "If Ranma had learned that quickly, by now I'd have him taking on the Master and the Amazon Matriarch at the same time and winning." Akane's fists clenched tighter, and an even more murderous expression settled on her face. "Or maybe you just need an explanation? Better yet, how about a demonstration. Pick out one of those marbles to throw at me, if you would be so kind."

The box's size and position against the wall made it just a little too difficult to simply hurl all its contents at him at once. Akane did as requested, jamming her hand into the mass of marbles and rummaging around before pulling out a large, steel shooter. "Okay. Are you ready now, oh wise and gracious teacher?" she growled, trying and nearly succeeding to match Genma's level of sarcasm.

"One moment." Saying this, Genma took one step to the side and turned so that he was facing her straight on. He then took one slow step backward, leaving a gap of about three feet between the two of them. From some of the things they had done in their previous sessions, Akane was bitterly aware that he undoubtedly knew some trick or technique for dodging even with such a slight distance between them. So far it was looking like the same pattern she'd seen before: she would throw and he would dodge or otherwise negate the attack, she would be impressed at his performance or at least acknowledge that she couldn't manage it, he would have her spend the rest of their time trying to match his feat, she would make some progress by the end of the session but by no means would she have learned everything she could, and next time he would jump to something else.

'Well, not this time,' she thought bitterly, feeling the comfortably solid weight of the second, hidden shooter she had palmed while retrieving the obvious first one. 'If he can't try something new, I will.'

"All right, Akane. Try to hit me with the marble."

Akane swung her hand back then brought it sharply forward, releasing the marble to fly straight and true to Genma's forehead. She had to sacrifice most of the power she could have put into the throw, due to the second marble still hiding in her hand. She would hit him with that one at full force while he was focused on whatever he was planning to do about the first one.

She hadn't expected him to stand there and take the hit directly. She certainly hadn't expected the marble to strike and sink completely beneath his skin.

She barely had time to gasp, drop the other marble, and begin to stumble feebly forward before the image of Genma vanished. The marble dropped to the ground with a thunk of steel on wood, echoing a second after the impact from the one she hadn't thrown. Genma himself was revealed as his decoy disappeared; the elder Saotome was standing four feet behind his previous apparent position. "M… Mr. Saotome… how?" Akane managed.

"You've seen this before, Akane. Not the same application," Genma admitted, "but the same principle. Think about it."

"The same thing? Seen it before?" Akane blinked several times, all other emotions now buried under a slew of befuddlement. "I don't remember ever seeing anything like that from Grandmaster Happosai."

A rather louder thunk resounded through the dojo now, as Genma's face collided with the floor. "Not him, me!" he bellowed as he picked himself up. "And DON'T SAY HIS NAME!"

"You?" Akane said dubiously. A second later, her mind cleared enough to realize that doubt wasn't really an appropriate response here, since they were talking about something Genma had just clearly demonstrated he was capable of doing. And there was one time she could think of that the old panda had pulled off something even more impressive than this… and one time when he almost had… "Is this something to do with that trick to make a big illusion of yourself?" she asked.

"Illusion, my hairy panda butt," Genma snapped, still disgruntled at her response. "Just because it's not a flesh and blood body doesn't make it any less real. Your aura is as important a part of you as your skin is… at least, that's true for a real martial artist."

"And you're going to teach me how to use that?" Akane asked, excitement at the sheer possibilities overriding the response she might otherwise have made to his last little comment.

"Yes, I am," Genma affirmed. "Now do you see the point of all the exercises I've had you doing?"

"No. I haven't got a clue," she admitted.

He gave a satisfied smile. "I'm glad to hear you admit it, Akane. Stubborn pride can be a terrible hindrance in your quest for the Art." Of course, if she'd had Ranma's sheer talent, then stubborn pride could become an asset. During his and Ranma's long years on the road, there had been more times than Genma could remember when Ranma had refused to admit difficulty or ask for help with a task Genma had set him. Usually this led to the boy pushing forward with everything he had and learning whatever lesson was being taught solely on his own resources. Genma believed this was one of the key factors in his son's superb ability to solve problems, at least within the realm of the Art, not to mention the levels of confidence it took to fire off a Moko Takabisha.

On the other hand, it had been a long, long time since Ranma had looked at him with the expression Akane was wearing now.

Hopefully that wouldn't be true much longer.

"The reason each exercise is different is because you're not trying to learn any physical lessons from them," the Saotome master explained in his best "wise old sensei" voice. "You're performing unfamiliar tasks, striving to overcome your limits, fighting your body's awkwardness and the frustration that would choke your mind. The only constants are struggle and change. That, Akane, is Anything Goes in its heart and soul!"

Akane's eyes were wide now. It might have taken longer to get here than she would have liked, and the road might have been rockier, but it felt very good to be hearing this. To be treated like this. To receive the respect she'd wanted for so long, and no one had given her. "You haven't even taught Ranma these lessons, have you?" She couldn't believe that show-off could have something like this in his bag of tricks without ever using it.

"No, I haven't," Genma replied. "And that's part of the reason I'm not letting him watch you train. I want him to stay ignorant of what I'm working on with you until you've reached a decent level of mastery in the technique. Once you've done that, once you can show it to him and impress him as much as he needs to be impressed, I'll let him in on the training as well. You can help him get up to speed while I oversee the both of you." It was a good plan, Genma thought. It would mean more time that Ranma was spending with his real fiancée, growing to respect her more even as she became better able to understand him.

It would also show a certain boy that his father was more than what he seemed to think, wasn't just a washed-up old panda with nothing real left to teach. Genma still remembered the cold hurt and fear he'd felt so long ago, that day in the Tendo backyard when his son-turned-daughter had been struggling to learn the Amaguriken, struggling even to maintain her fighting spirit, and had looked to him for help. Genma had winged it as best he could, focusing his chi to boost his speed. He'd failed, completely and utterly, and riding hard on the heels of his failure had come the Beast from China, Matriarch Cologne herself, dropping in to effortlessly demonstrate the move to everyone. The Tendos had ooh'd and ahh'd. Ranma-chan had found new reserves of determination. And Genma-panda had turned away and closed his eyes, his slumping posture leaving everything but his upper head hidden in the waters of the pond.

The very next day he'd begun working on exercises similar to the ones he was now giving Akane — similar in their goal, at least.

"But I need to warn you, Akane. Don't expect a quick and easy road to mastery," Genma cautioned. "I suppose you've already seen enough not to think it would be easy, but it's also true that there's no quick way to do this. It will take you a long time. It will take Ranma a long time." It would take him a very long time to get back the whole of what he'd once had while training under Happosai, what he hadn't bothered to maintain during his years on the road with Ranma. He hadn't realized until far too late that letting this particular set of abilities atrophy would be such a mistake. Getting his son established in the Art had been Genma's greatest priority by far during that time, and it had seemed like a perfectly reasonable exchange to make, to trade his own power for the time, energy, and focus he needed to mold Ranma into someone who would one day surpass him.

And now his son had, and Genma wasn't sure how to handle it. There was pride, certainly, but there were other, far less pleasant feelings involved when he tried to help his boy in a trial, only to have Ranma barely acknowledge his attempts and proceed to solve the problem on his own . Just as bad or worse were the times when someone else stepped in and put his own attempts to shame. He and Ranma had had plenty of troubles on the road, but none of those kinds of circumstances. Where had all the days and years gone?

"How long?" Akane asked, breaking through his fugue. Judging by the look on her face, the first bloom of elation at what she was going to learn had now passed. "How long until I've learned enough to defeat Shampoo?"

Genma gave her a long, cold stare. "That depends on you." It also depended on her answer to his next question. "Are you planning to just stop once you manage to accomplish that goal?"

"No, I'm not that stupid," Akane snapped back. "It's not like she won't go running to her great-grandmother and ask for a technique of her own. And even if she didn't I'm tired of depending on Ranma to rescue me. You can count on it, Mr. Saotome — I'll keep on training and learning too."

"Good. Because this particular path is one you should never stop walking down."

"I just said I understood that," Akane pointed out.

"No, that's not what I mean. I'm not talking about martial arts in general," he clarified. "I mean the things we're working on now. These exercises I'm giving you are designed for one specific goal, which is to build your chi reserves as quickly and powerfully as possible."

"My reserves…?" she echoed, thinking back to what she'd seen that one night at the carnival when demons had escaped from scribble drawings. Happosai, Genma, and even her father had formed huge chi-projections to fight them off. And then she thought back further, to a day many months before that one, when Genma had tried to use that same technique to face down Happosai. He had only been able to hold it for a few seconds then, as tired and weary as he was. "I guess it would take a lot to make a huge copy of yourself like that," she mused.

"Don't expect to be pulling that one off before your next birthday has come and gone," Genma stated flatly. There was no way he could put her through the same level of training the Master had used on him. Genma estimated that it would take at least twice as long for Akane to build up that level of power as it originally had for Soun and himself, and that wasn't even considering the time it would take for her to learn how to use the techniques. "At least not if you want it to be solid enough to do anything."

"So what else can I do with this technique?"

"The heart of what I'll be teaching you is to project and control your aura. It becomes stronger in two ways: as you learn to control it better, and as your reserves grow wider and deeper. As for what you can do with it…" Genma gave his best "wise old sensei" shrug. "You were there when the Master and the old woman went at it with dueling battle auras. That's one application you've seen for yourself — projecting energy that hits harder than a chi blast like Ranma's or Ryoga's, and is far more controllable. And of course," he gave a smirk that could have come straight from Ranma, except that it didn't make any portion of Akane's heart beat faster, "you can project a separate image of yourself to take a hit for you, and even hide behind it if it's directly between you and your opponent. It took me a long time to work out how, but I developed that trick from seeing the Splitting Cat Hairs.

"You can also keep the energy insubstantial, rather than making it solid or semisolid. There are at least as many possible uses for that approach, and maybe more." Genma frowned thoughtfully. "I think the Master's Now You See Me, Now You Don't is an aura trick of some kind. To be able to actually turn invisible in the middle of a fight… even if you can't attack like that, it would be an amazing advantage. I still haven't worked that one out, but maybe one day Ranma will. Or perhaps you'll beat him to it, Akane." He smiled jovially, masking his certainty that the only way that would happen was if no one ever gave Ranma the idea to try.

"So what can the energy do by itself? That you know for sure and can teach me, I mean?"

"Well, the more images you project the easier it is to confuse whoever you're fighting. If you don't make them solid enough to hit, they don't take as much power and you can pull it off easier." That wasn't what Cologne had done; Genma had watched closely enough to be sure that it hadn't always been the same copy of the old woman bonking his son over the head. "But you don't even have to make it something as organized as that. You can let your aura flood out from you and fill the area around you. When you're fighting in a convenient enclosed space, like this dojo, it's easier to build up the concentration high enough to really throw your opponent off. It will hinder their own chi techniques, and even make them dizzy and disoriented if you can pump out enough power and they don't know how to cope."

"Because… it's like they're trying to swim right through my spirit? But wouldn't that affect me too?"

"Not at any level I can bring you to," Genma admitted. "I suppose it might be possible to have that much control, to keep that much awareness and connection to every bit of your aura while you use it to fill the room. But for me, the only way I can pull off that kind of link is when I'm forming a bigger version of myself with my real body at the center. Like that time at the carnival."

"Or the time you and Dad tried to learn to defeat Grandfather Happ— oh, all right, the Master with ninja tricks," Akane sniped back playfully. "Ranma and I were pretty impressed for that one second. You'll teach me to do a better job than that, right?"

"That's exactly what I'm doing," he replied in all sobriety. "Akane, I already said what we have to focus on now is building up your reserves. That's something you can't ever afford to stop doing once you get to a certain level. If you don't at least maintain them, if you allow them to waste away… like I did… it's much harder to get them back. That is why I did so poorly that one time, and it's why I was able to make a better job of it the next time I had to use the technique. It's taken me the better part of a year to get my power levels back to where they were after only three months."

She blinked. "Huh? After a year you got them to where they were after three months? That doesn't make sense."

"I meant after three months of this training when the Master first put me and Soun through it." It was one of the few times Happosai had buckled down and really acted like a sensei, directly teaching his students and guiding them every step of the way toward understanding and mastery.

"So… what about Dad?" Akane asked, her brow wrinkling thoughtfully. "Has he been rebuilding his training like that too? He did just as well as you did that night at the carnival."

Genma snorted. "No, he didn't. He had to stay in bed and rest for the next four days."

"So did you!"

"Actually, no. I just grabbed the chance to take a break." Plus, he'd seen the gleam in Happosai's eye after the dust had settled that night. If he and Soun hadn't acted that pathetic, chances were excellent that the Master would have dragged them off on a training trip. It was never a good idea to show too much potential around Happosai — witness the things he did to Ranma.

Akane rolled her eyes. "Whatever. But still, how could he have done that well without the kind of practice you've been doing? He may have been wiped out afterward, but he kept up with you and Grandfather H—," she cut herself off, sighing at Genma's frantic expression and gestures of negation. "With both of you."

"That's because his Demon Head technique is based on these same aura principles." Genma smiled. "Soun might not have kept himself at the level he and I reached back in our youth, but he'd never let himself get too out of shape to use that. And with the extra practice he's gotten since we came here…."

"You mean that's also part of this? I can learn to do that one too?" Akane gasped, her cheeks flushing and her eyes sparkling. 'I guess I know what I'll use for my second win against Shampoo.'

"Perhaps," Genma cautioned. "But I'm going to have to ask you not to use it on Ranma."

"Okay," Akane said cheerfully. Genma breathed a sigh of relief, failing to realize that by that she had meant, 'Okay, you can ask me.'

It was the final full schoolday of the week and the single busiest time for the Furinkan courtyard, the hour when it saw its greatest concentration of students. In the morning boys and girls alike would straggle in at different times, some coming quite early, others waiting until the last minute, and the rest covering the spectrum between. But in the afternoon, almost everybody left at the same time. It was therefore slightly unusual that Akane was able to immediately catch sight of Ranma as she passed through the final door of Furinkan, a random gap in the crowd opening at just the right time to show him waiting for her in his usual spot. He was standing on the edge of the courtyard, right next to the gate itself.

'At least, it's his usual spot when he's there at all,' Akane thought with a mixture of concern and irritation. In the month since Shampoo had come back from China and turned far too many things upside down, there had been several times when Ranma hadn't waited for her, had left her behind for reasons of his own. She might agree somewhat with some of the things he'd done in those times — like his meeting with Shampoo ten days ago to arrange for her to undo her dirty trick against Ryoga — but it still rankled to find him not waiting there for her no matter what the reason.

Of course, thanks to Tatewaki Kuno, there were now more reasons for him not to be there to meet her than just Ranma wanting to gallivant off on his own. Those other reasons were potentially even worse, making Akane's relief all the sharper at seeing her fiancé waiting for her today.

"Looks like Ranma made it through okay." This was Sayuri, partly teasing, partly congratulating her friend.

"Mm-hm." Yuka nodded. "Tomorrow's just a half-day of classes, and then there's no school at all. You and he won't have to worry about any of this then."

Akane snorted. "For a day, anyway. Then Monday rolls around, and the same old thing starts all over again." Then, thinking ahead to the training she'd be doing with Genma in less than an hour, Akane forcibly reminded herself that it wasn't true, things didn't always stay the same forever. She didn't have to put up with tired old worn-out circumstances that should've gone away of their own accord long ago. Things were frustrating and troublesome right now, both at Furinkan and outside of it, but she wasn't going to stand it forever.

Bidding a quick goodbye to her friends, Akane hurried through the courtyard over to the pigtailed boy. "So nothing happened during your last class of the day, Ranma?"

At another time Ranma might have been annoyed at the question, insulted at the implication that he needed Akane's help to meet the daily challenges of life. However, given what actually had happened in the interval between Akane leaving for her club and the final class of the day starting… "Eh, nothing much," he said as he left his pose against the wall and turned to head through the gate, making certain to have his back to Akane as he spoke a carefully-edited version of the truth. "Some of the members of the falconry club stopped by again, to beg me about usin' my cursed form to help them stomp all their competition."

"Oh, honestly," Akane muttered. "Why can't those guys just give it up and decide to play fair? Just tell them next time to chip in all their allowances and send one of them to Jusenkyo, if they want an intelligent falcon so much!"

Ranma blinked. "Hey… that's actually a pretty good idea! Thanks, Akane!" Maybe it would even work. It would sure be better than having the four prettiest girls in the club trying to get his help by making him offers more blatant than Kodachi ever had. 'Jeez, at least the Black Petunia wants me for the long haul, and she's got the excuse of being a Kuno. I'd've rather had her crash the party this afternoon instead of what really happened.' It was the first time he'd felt true, deep regret that Akane had joined the flower arrangement club. Had she still been in the classroom with him, those other girls would have kept their distance.

Of course, the same was true for Ukyo. His oldest friend had been absent from class today, and Ranma had already decided to pay her a visit and see how she was feeling, as soon as Akane disappeared into the dojo for her afternoon training. 'Hope Ucchan's not too sick. Heck, I could tell her most of what happened today, just editing out the worst stuff, and let her take care of warning off those chicks from the falconry club.' He knew better than to give any of those details to Akane, but Ucchan was a lot better at not blaming him for stuff that wasn't his fault. As long as he edited out the worst of it, his oldest friend ought to save all her righteous anger for the appropriate target and give him nothing but free okonomiyaki and sympathy.

However, as it turned out, he wasn't going to have to wait that long before seeing her. As Ranma and Akane passed through the gate of Furinkan, they caught sight of a rather odd spectacle. Despite the cloudless state of the sky above, there was a figure a little ways down the sidewalk heading toward the school while garbed in the most complete set of rain gear Ranma had ever seen. Galoshes, rubber gloves, a hooded raincoat that reached the person's ankles (and which bulged oddly to the back, as if hiding a large, long, flat object), a snorkel mask covering the face, and to top it all off an umbrella twice the diameter of Ryoga's. It was that fact, plus the other's slim build, that made Ranma dismiss the possibility that this really was the Lost Boy. True, he'd never seen Ryoga go to quite this extreme to avoid a dousing, but it didn't seem too out of character.

It wasn't Ryoga, but someone even more familiar. "Ranchan, thank goodness it's you!" The voice was distorted a bit by the various rubber layers, but it was clearly recognizable as Ukyo's. The distress with which she'd spoken was equally obvious.

"Ucchan?" he queried. "What the heck? Why're you dressed like that?"

"Are you all right, Ukyo?" Akane asked, following hard on his heels. She hoped so. Bizarre behavior by any of their close acquaintances was never a good sign.

"I… I don't know… Ranma honey, I need you to tell me everything you know about Jusenkyo curses."

Ranma blinked. "Huh? Jusenkyo…?" An awful, nameless suspicion beginning to gnaw at the back of his mind, he said, "Why are you askin'? The way you're dressed… it's almost like you're worried—"

"Why do you think?!" Ukyo snapped, interrupting him. "You think I'm just dolled up like this for my health?!" Then, with a half-hysterical laugh, the chef qualified, "Wait, that actually does describe it pretty well, I guess. Ever since I was walking to school this morning, and that," here followed a long string of words that had Ranma blanching, while Akane winced and took a few steps backward, "Amazon dropped a bucket full of water on me. Except normal water wouldn't have shrunk me down and left me swallowed up inside my own uniform."

"Shampoo did… she did…?" This was Akane. Ranma couldn't quite bring himself to the point of speech yet.

"Oh, yeah." Ukyo laughed bitterly. "One minute I'm walking toward class, carefree as ever. The next I'm getting my unexpected shower, then I'm tangled up in the dark, no clue what happened and fighting tooth and claw to get out. Then the world's lifting up and tumbling over — that would be Shampoo picking up the clothes and fishing me out of them — and then she's got me by the scruff of the neck, holding me up to stare her in the eyes, just far enough away that I can't reach out and scratch her, telling me 'Now you know what it feel like.' Not that I did, not that I had even begun to understand yet." Ukyo stopped, took a few deep, ragged breaths, then continued, "The world blurred and started jumping around again then, which was her running from where she'd ambushed me over to that big fancy outdoor-bath place on Kushimoto Street. She pitched me and my clothes in there and high-tailed it away." Or at least Ukyo's pride hoped Shampoo had beat a hurried retreat, rather than sauntering casually away. It had been at least an hour before her shock had abated enough to even begin to think about anything other than the immediate present.

"She gave you a Jusenkyo curse?" Akane whispered, horrified. "I-I thought she'd used up the last of the Falcon water… Ranma! You told me she'd used up the last of the Falcon water, you jerk!!"

Any attempt Ranma might have made at a reply was cut off by an even more bitter peal of laughter from Ukyo. "Falcon? Yeah, right. Guess again, Sugar. Which curse do you think she'd give me, which one would be the absolute worst for me and Ranma honey? Which curse did she originally have?" the chef clarified.

'She gave Ucchan a cat curse….' Curiously enough, the only thing Ranma felt was despair. He suspected the anger would follow soon enough, but for now the impact of this new development had robbed him of all the strength he would need to feel such an emotion. 'No matter what I do or how hard I try, worse and worse junk just keeps on happening… How could I have let this happen? But how could I have avoided it?'

He didn't know the answer to either question. All he could think, all he could speak, was a near-whispered "Ucchan… I'm sorry… I'm so sorry…."

"Never mind the apologies, Ranchan, it's damn well not your fault! Just tell me, what is it about Jusenkyo curses I'm missing here? Once I finished freaking out from seeing my reflection and changed back in a hot-water pool, I tried every single cold-water one there and didn't trigger the curse again. Does chlorine block it or something?"

This latest communication hit him with at least as much of an impact as her previous revelation of Shampoo's actions. However, instead of adding to his despair or sparking it into anger, this one felt like it smashed a hole in the pit of his gut and let all that horror and sorrow start draining out. "You… couldn't… change… back…?" he whispered, first in blankness, then in the barest beginning of hope.

For someone who'd been raised since birth to prefer actions over words, Ranma's next move was entirely sensible. Ukyo blinked as her fiancé dashed away, crossing the street into the yard of a nearby house. Then she let out a shriek of surprise as he reappeared just as quickly, blurring across the street with a hose in one hand, and with the other proceeded to whisk her right out of the rain gear before spraying her from head to toe.

This action had several immediate results. For one, it revealed Ukyo had been wearing her Furinkan uniform under the rain gear. It was slightly the worse for wear, due to her initial panicky clawing attempts to escape. The pants were still in perfect condition, but the top was frayed in a couple of fortunately-not-too-indiscreet places. And her usual chest binding was gone entirely, consigned to a garbage bin after she discovered how severely she'd torn it during her struggle with the enveloping fabric.

The actual dousing had no mystical effect of any kind on the chef. Certainly she didn't shrink down into a cute little bundle of fur and claws and horror (at least, from Ranma's perspective), leaving him to breathe a huge sigh of relief and not even notice that he was looking straight at a girl in a soaking wet top.

"PERVERT!!" Akane remedied that situation by smashing her lecherous excuse for a fiancé to the ground. Naturally enough, this ripped the hose from his grasp, causing water to be sent flying in numerous directions. Akane became slightly damp and even more ticked off, whereas Ranma found his birth species washed away.

"Jeez, will you give it a rest?!" Ukyo snarled, tempted to give the other girl a good hard slap. She had spent the whole day at the baths, trying more and more frantically to figure out the particulars of the curse Shampoo had so casually saddled her with, but now she was seriously regretting not leaving earlier to meet Ranma for the final, and more importantly Akane-free class of the day. "That wasn't him trying anything perverted, Akane! He just wanted to make sure I wasn't going to turn into a cat!" The worst of her anger expended, her worry rose up again to dominance. "Ranma honey, did you really know that would happen?" It seemed likely, as surely her fiancé wouldn't have so cavalierly risked exposing himself to his worst fear.

Ranma nodded, giving an encouraging cheep. Truth be told, he didn't absolutely know for sure, but he had a suspicion strong enough that he'd have backed it in a bet with Nabiki.

Akane had made the connection too. "Oh, that's right! That must be it." Relief was far and away her greatest emotion, but the youngest Tendo still managed to speak with the faintest hint of cattiness as she continued, "Guess Ranma never told you about that time, right Ukyo? His and Shampoo's first date, I mean."

"Akane, I am not in the mood to—" With some effort, Ukyo swallowed her first choice of words, "—jack around here. If you know what's going on, please tell me."

"It's got to be Instant Maoniichuan," Akane replied. Off to the side, Ranma nodded his head in agreement. "That's a powdered form of Jusenkyo water. If you mix it into normal water, then anything you splash will change into whatever type of spring the powder was for. But it's a one-use-only thing; as soon as you transform again, the Instant Curse is gone." She supposed it was the same whether you changed back with hot water, or had a preexisting true curse and got hit again with normal cold water.

"You… you mean… I'm not…" There was a tiny part of Ukyo that had dared to hope this ever since her trembling immersion into the first cold-water pool so many hours ago. That part was suddenly growing by leaps and bounds. "I'm really not cursed? Not for real?"

"I'm sure of it," Akane said. "Believe me, as much time as I've spent around Ranma and Mr. Saotome, I can tell you one thing. With a real Jusenkyo curse, any cold water will change you."

Ukyo held silent for a few moments, then heaved a long, ragged sigh. "Thank goodness for that." Another period of silence, as the flood of relief crested and began to ebb down from its all-consuming high mark. Once it had receded enough, the chef found herself with the beginnings of curious uncertainty. "But then… if it was just a one-use thing… why'd she do it?"

Akane made a wordless noise of disgust. "You have to ask? She wanted to mess with your head, of course! Or… no, wait…" the youngest Tendo's eyes widened as a rather worse picture dawned on her. "It's a warning, Ukyo. It's got to be!"

"A warning, huh?" Ukyo snorted. "If she thinks she can scare me away from Ranma honey with this, she's got another think coming!"

"No, that's not it! Ukyo, listen to me!" Akane declared. "Last week, Ranma asked Shampoo to get some Nannichuan sent from China, for Ryoga and Mr. Saotome. The next day she called and said Cologne said it was all right, and she'd written the letter back home asking them to send it."

Ukyo blinked. "And this applies how?"

"Don't you get it? If they're sending Nannichuan, real Nannichuan instead of the Instant stuff she used to trick Ranma that one time, they can send real Drowned Cat water as well!" The words tumbled out of Akane's mouth, surging as if on the waves of the sea of creeping horror she felt. "This is Shampoo's warning of what she's gonna do to you, to us, if she doesn't get what she wants!"

The chef bit her lip, feeling worry begin to erode the relief she was feeling. She didn't want to believe that, but didn't think it safe to dismiss the idea outright either. "Akane, are you sure?"

"Of course I'm sure! This is exactly the kind of thing that worthless bitch would do!" Far stronger language than Akane almost ever used, but remembering poor Ryoga and how Shampoo had heartlessly cursed him just so he wouldn't have an advantage over Ranma, the rage and contempt and fear rose up like a seething pool of bile. She also remembered that Shampoo had only agreed to reverse Ryoga's curse after Ranma had asked her to, a meeting he hadn't allowed Akane to be present for… and that the Amazon hadn't yet specified what she wanted as payment…

"I don't know," Ukyo continued. She was aware that she was trying to convince herself of something she really, really wanted to believe. All the same, she couldn't find a flaw in the logic of what she was saying. "Why wouldn't she have done that a long time ago if she was going to do it? For that matter, why give a warning at all? And if she did decide to warn us, why not actually tell me that's what she meant? Her Japanese still sucks, but it's good enough to get something like that across."

"I don't know!" Akane's tone made it clear enough that she didn't think that was any sort of substantial problem with her hypothesis. "She's a Chinese Amazon. Who knows what she's really thinking… other than 'obstacles is for killing', of course."

'Considering that you're still alive and she could put you down in three seconds flat…' Ukyo mused, more dubious than ever. And of course there was one thing she couldn't afford to bring up now; unlike Akane, Ranma had told her the truth about how Ryoga had acquired his new curse. 'Sure, Shampoo replaced Bacon-boy's old one without his agreeing to it, but that was only because Ranchan more or less asked her to. It's not like either Akane or I have to worry about that.' Her train of thought was broken as an irate older woman walked up, gave her the evil eye, switched off the still-gushing hose, and dragged it back into her yard. The slam of the gate behind her expressed her emotions as well or better than the words she opted not to say to members of the infamous Nerima Wrecking Crew.

The action served to remind Ukyo that, out-of-sight-out-of-mind notwithstanding, it wasn't just her and Akane at this little meeting. "My place is closer than yours. Let's go back there and talk this out some more. Ranchan, I'll get your stuff… Ranchan?" she repeated, looking down to the last known location of her feathered fiancé. His clothes were still there, but Ranma was conspicuous only by his absence.

Akane, acting on basic instinct, swiveled to face the general direction of the Cat Café. Scanning the skies, she quickly spotted a number of black specks, any one of which could be the missing boy. For a very long moment she teetered on the verge of racing toward the restaurant herself on an intercept course. But then, remembering that Genma was waiting for her, and more importantly so was the training that would let her put the Amazon in her place once and for all, she sighed and turned away. "I've got to go, Ukyo. I'll see you in class tomorrow, and we can talk more about this then." She gathered up Ranma's clothes and schoolbag, and walked away toward home. After a few uncertain seconds staring at Akane's retreating back, Ukyo turned and began walking away as well.

"Where are you going?" Akane called sharply a minute later, having checked backward over her shoulder. Ukyo stopped, turned, and stared blankly back at her. Akane jerked her head, indicating a different path than the one the chef was taking. "The Cat Café is that way. If you're looking for Ranma, don't you think you should start there?"

Akane whipped the door open with a bang. Striding into the dojo and seizing eye contact with Genma, she barked out a question he wasn't exactly prepared for. "How quickly is this training going to give me good results?"

Genma hesitated, buying time to observe her and consider his words before replying. Akane's face was flushed with the clear evidence of fury, but it almost seemed like the tremble in her lips and her clenched fists was from some other emotion. "Only you can answer that, Akane," he said slowly. "What you get out of the training depends on how much you put into it. Did something happen today that makes it more important to you?"

"You could say that," she snarled. "Ukyo wasn't at school today, but she caught up with me and Ranma as we were walking home. And it turned out that Shampoo was the reason she wasn't there!"

"And…?" her sensei prompted.

"And that… that… that Amazon ambushed her on her own way to school! You remember that time Ranma thought he was getting a real cure for dating her? Remember how that powder let you and him get in our koi pond and not change?" Akane waited for Genma to grimace and nod, then continued, "Well, she used something like that on Ukyo this morning. Except it was the Instant Spring of Drowned Cat!"

Genma blinked, but didn't show any more emotion than puzzlement. "So what? It's not like a one-use thing really matters," he grumbled.

"Well, I think what it was really saying matters a lot," Akane retorted bitterly. "We've still got about two weeks before the real Jusenkyo water Shampoo ordered for you and Ryoga gets here. I need to know if that's enough time for me to be able to settle things with her once and for all. Because it's obvious what she really meant by doing this to Ukyo."

A bit of exasperation entering Genma's voice, he asked, "And what is that, oh wise teacher?"

Well, it wasn't like she hadn't known where Ranma got his brains from. "What kind of question is that?! It's a warning to give up now, because when the real Nannichuan water is coming, so is the real stuff from her old spring!" Akane glared at Genma as strongly as he could, but her expression was not enough in and of itself to mask the fear she was feeling. Only the elder Saotome's shock kept him from noticing that. "So tell me, Mr. Saotome. Are you going to be able to help me finish things before it comes to that?"

"I… I don't…" Genma's mouth gaped feebly open and closed for a few silent seconds, before he managed to pull himself together. "Where's Ranma? This is more important than your training, Akane!"

"He flew straight on to the Cat Café," Akane shot back. "And what do you mean, more important than my training?! I came back here instead of going after Ranma because you're supposed to help me finally be able to take Shampoo down for good!"

"Yes, of course, but it's not going to happen in two weeks!" Genma barked back. "Come on, we need to get Soun and go after that foolish boy of mine!"

"Hold it." The words were spoken in tones of cold, careful control, but were no less intense for that. Nabiki stepped into the dojo doorway, left conveniently open by her sister's earlier entry. "This is no time for running off without a plan."

"Nabiki, what are you even doing here?" Akane demanded. "And why should we wait?!"

"I noticed your mood almost the second you came in the front door," the middle Tendo replied. "You hurried through the house so fast I didn't get a chance to stop you and ask what was wrong. So I followed you out here and overheard this little tragedy in three acts." Her eyes narrowed. "Or at least, that's what it looks like it's shaping up to be. Mr. Saotome, I want you to take several deep breaths, count to twenty in Sanskrit, and calm down."

"What? I don't know Sanskrit," Genma objected, knocked off-balance even through his previous emotional state by the bizarre nature of the request.

"Well, that just means you'll have a little longer to recover yourself, right?" Nabiki asked with a smirk.

"Young lady, this is no time to be standing around talking!" the elder Saotome growled. "My boy's heading straight into the lion's den, his real fiancée just let him go off alone, and you're only making things worse! Get out of the doorway or I'll make my own!"

All traces of humor vanished from Nabiki's mien as she did just that: stepped forward out of the doorway and strode briskly toward Genma. "Now you listen to me and you listen good," she grated, summoning forth every ounce of authority she could muster, and silently thanking Happosai for the conditioning he'd given his disciples. Genma was already taking his first step backward before she'd taken her fourth toward him. "Mr. Saotome, you are a good martial artist, and an excellent teacher. The results you got with Ranma are more than enough evidence of that. But I'd like you to take this moment, think long and hard, and tell me this: when was the last time you planned something that didn't have to do with martial arts and it worked out like you were thinking?

"Oh, yes, there's one other caveat," she continued. "Something that didn't involve getting Ranma to clean up a mess you'd made." Nabiki finished her request and allowed herself one quick knife-edged smile. It didn't relieve any of the pressure she was putting on the elder Saotome, though.

"Nabiki, standing around and doing nothing isn't any better!" Akane protested.

"No, but standing around and talking and thinking are about ten billion times better," her sister riposted, not taking her eyes away from her current target.

"Urrrgh! Fine!" Akane shouted once it became clear to her that Genma wasn't going to say anything. "I'll go get Dad and we can talk about this some more. I didn't really want to face Shampoo anyway until it was for real."

"Hold it!" the middle Tendo barked before her sister could take even one step. "Let's leave Daddy out of this. You know how emotional he gets, Akane. How do you think he'd react to the thought that his precious little girl might be in danger of getting her own Jusenkyo curse before long? Why, I'm amazed he's agreed to let you train to seriously fight Shampoo at all!" She said this last in a tone thick with meaning, keeping a careful eye on Genma. It had been a shot in the dark, one backed up by nothing but her instincts, and it was thus all the more satisfying to see the part-time panda flinch. 'I thought so. Daddy at least doesn't want this training to be used for what is supposedly its very purpose. Now I wonder, Mr. Saotome… just who are you fooling? Daddy? Akane? Yourself? Or all of the above?'

Akane, meanwhile, had only paid attention to Nabiki's question. She had to agree that her sister had a point, sarcastic and cynical though she might be. Nonetheless, she felt a little uneasy about complying with Nabiki's request. Perhaps it was residual guilt at how she'd gone straight over Soun's head to arrange the training with Genma and how her father hadn't said so much as a cross word to her about it afterward, but she wasn't comfortable now with leaving him out again just for her convenience. "But even so…" she started.

"I said leave it, Akane!" Nabiki snapped. An instant later she realized the mistake. She'd dedicated too much of her attention to processing the input she'd just gained from Genma's reaction, and not enough to handling her sister. Akane could be forced into things, but it invariably hurt her. Far better to lead her gently and subtly along, even if the success rate wasn't quite as high.

"Oh, really. When did you get so bossy, Nabiki?" her little sister snapped right back.

"When did you get so impulsive?" Nabiki countered lightly, all traces of impatience and ill temper now vanished. "Sorry about that, it really didn't come out like I meant it to. But think it through, little sister — it's only going to hurt Daddy to hear something like that. Who in this family is that going to help? Though I will say it might help somebody," she continued, allowing some anger, directed away from her sister, to seep back into her voice. "If Ranma comes winging his way back home today and gets met at the door by a Demon Head to end all Demon Heads, it's not going to make the Amazon alternative look any less appealing to him."

"…Maybe you're right," Akane conceded, convinced by that argument as she hadn't been by Nabiki's earlier reasoning.

"I usually am," Nabiki said, buffing her nails against her shirt and inspecting them with hooded gaze.

"Bah. I still haven't heard anything to keep me here!" This was Genma, more or less recovered from the vision of Nabiki-as-authority-figure.

"Then let me ask a few questions. This first one's for you, Mr. Saotome, since you're the martial arts expert here." Nabiki paused just long enough for her flattery, her carefree tone, and her innocent expression to begin disarming Genma. "Suppose you, Akane, and Daddy were to hurry off to the Cat Café and catch Ranma there. Suppose Shampoo had spun him some kind of song-and-dance about her really having a good, innocent reason for doing what she did, and now the two of them are enjoying a bowl of ramen that might or might not have a few… shall we say, exotic ingredients added. Suppose the three of you bust into the place and demand for Ranma to leave and for Shampoo to finally pull her claws out of him once and for all. What do you suppose happens then?"

Genma blinked, wishing there were more time to think things through. Rapid intelligent response in noncombat areas just wasn't his forte. "What does that have to do with me being a martial arts expert?"

"I mean, what happens when the inevitable brawl starts up and Cologne joins into the fray?" Nabiki was still using the carefree tone and innocent expression, though they were more a cruelty than a reassurance now. "Even if you did get Ranma on your side, do you think it would matter? The only one in our corner who can really match her is Happosai."

"DON'T SAY HIS NAME!" Under the current circumstances, this response came straight from Genma's brainstem without needing to wait on his higher order functions. After the horror of his and Soun's recent training trip, the last thing they wanted was to summon the Master back.

Nabiki glared, inflated her lungs, and yelled, "Happosai! Happosai! Happosai! Happosai! HAPPOSAI!!" She took quite a bit of pleasure in Genma's panicking response, though she would have been happier if what the old man feared really had happened. "Mr. Saotome, this is exactly what I'm talking about when I say you need to think before you act," she rebuked. "If you're really worried about the Amazons finally getting a serious claim on Ranma, don't you think you ought to be hoping the one player we have that can stand up to Cologne makes it back sometime soon?"

Genma took a minute to process this. Then, the strain of the paradox proving too much, his eyes rolled up in the back of his head and he fainted dead away.

"Oh, honestly," Akane muttered. "Grandfather Happosai may be a pain in the neck, but I don't see why they're so afraid of him."

"That's my point exactly, little sister."

"Huh? What is?" Akane asked, confused by Nabiki's words and seizing on another potential distraction. If they weren't going to head to the Cat Café and Ranma, she would at least have liked to spend the time until he came back training as hard as possible. Maybe she wasn't going to be able to beat Shampoo before the real water got here in another couple of weeks, but at least practicing would keep her thoughts away from anxiety over it. "What are you talking about?"

"It's something that doesn't make sense because we don't have all the facts. Just like another matter I could name," Nabiki answered. "So now I'm going to ask you some more things about this business with Ukyo, Shampoo, and the Instant Maoniichuan."

"I don't really know anything else," Akane pointed out. "We'll have to wait for Ranma to get home and ask him." Her expression darkened. "And try to figure out what's true in what he tells us, what's his BS, and what's lies that Shampoo fed him and he didn't see through."

"I didn't mean those kinds of questions," Nabiki returned, suppressing a sigh. "Here's the first one: if Shampoo is really planning to use real Maoniichuan on you or Ukyo, why would she tip her hand ahead of time with the Instant stuff?"

Akane stared blankly back at her. "You're asking me that too? So did Ukyo. Is it really that hard to figure out?"

"Humor me, little sister."

"It's a warning! She's telling us what's going to happen for real if we don't give up and let her have everything her way!"

"So now you're an expert on how Shampoo thinks, are you?" Nabiki asked lightly. That contrasted enough to an admission Akane had made to Ukyo not an hour before that it brought the youngest Tendo up short. "Akane, here's some food for thought: people do not act randomly. Even crazy people who do crazy things, do them because those things make sense in their own fractured view of the world. So, next question: Does Shampoo have any reason to believe you or Ukyo would back off due to intimidation? Or has she seen with her own two eyes that it doesn't work at all?"

Shampoo had certainly tried those very tactics against her in the early days, Akane remembered. But Nabiki was right; it hadn't worked and the Amazon hadn't kept repeating the failed tactic. At least not seriously. "Um…."

"And here's another one. Have you forgotten that by all our evidence Shampoo needs to clear it through Cologne first when she gets real Jusenkyo water shipped out here?"

"What does that have to do with anything?!"

"Think it through, Akane." This time Nabiki failed to suppress her sigh. "Shampoo might be impulsive enough to think dropping a permanent curse, especially that one, on you or Ukyo might make her own chances better. But Cologne is too smart not to see how Ranma would really react. Count on it, Akane — she'd put the executive veto on it."

"Ranma didn't seem too terribly upset with Shampoo for what she did to Ryoga!" Akane made the protest, but even to her own ears it was weak. Ranma hadn't been happy about it either, he had promised to share his waterproof soap with Ryoga, and he'd even arranged for Shampoo to undo what she did.

Nabiki shrugged. "Since he honestly thinks he himself is better off with a Falcon curse than with none at all, that had to have an impact on how much Ryoga getting one would bother him."

'Okay, okay, she's right. This is another one of those times when I shouldn't be thinking about Ranma or blaming him for stuff. It's all Shampoo's fault and that's what I need to be focusing on.' Even if it was scarier to contemplate going against someone who wouldn't hold back from hurting her. Aloud, she said, "So what are you really saying here, Nabiki? I should just kick back and relax? There's no danger after all?" Akane's tone and expression conveyed the meaning that her words by themselves didn't. Chances were less than zero that she would agree to such propositions.

"No. I'm saying that the biggest danger here is if you or somebody else," she glanced disparagingly at the now-snoring Genma, "go blundering off without any idea of what's really going on. And yes, you should kick back and relax, at least for the next few days. Give me time to do what I do best, collect the facts and put them together."

"Nabiki… I don't know…." She knew full well that her sister was cleverer than she was, and especially that Nabiki's mind worked more quickly. That didn't mean Akane was willing to acquiesce completely now, just on her middle sister's say-so.

"Please, Akane." It was time for a tactic she very rarely used in dealing with Akane, or anyone else for that matter. Nabiki braced herself, and let her mask slip just a little, showing true emotions and speaking with utter honesty as she said, "I sincerely believe that if you light into Ranma when he gets home, demanding to know what really happened with him at the Cat Café and yelling at him and calling him names if he says Shampoo had her reasons, that you'll be playing right into Cologne's hands. Please give me time to do what I can first."

"…Okay," Akane agreed. It would be hard, but surely she could afford that much time if this mattered so much to her sister. "Five days, Nabiki. Until then I'll listen to what Ranma has to tell me if he volunteers anything, but I won't press him. And I definitely won't go after Shampoo yet."

Nabiki breathed a genuine sigh of weary relief. One more crisis averted. "Thank you, Akane."

"No charge for family," Akane said with a half-hearted smile. "Is there anything else you wanted, big sister?"

"Nope, I'm good."

"Okay. I need to get back to training then."

Nabiki nodded absently, barely hearing her younger sister's comment. 'That went easier than I expected,' she congratulated herself as she allowed the tension to drain out of her. 'I've always been able to nudge Akane into something when it's really important, but it's almost never been that easy to get her to actually see reason. Could it be… could it be she's finally starting to grow up? To move past this phase of just seeing things how she wants to? Could my baby sister finally be learning to let go of the old, stupid patterns that have chained her down and put her whole family at risk before?'

"HIII-YA!" Akane's strike smashed the stack of bricks to so much rubble.

'Yeah, right, Nabiki,' the middle Tendo thought mockingly to herself. 'Dream on.'

At top speed he could have covered the distance to his ultimate destination in minutes, no matter which form he wore. Instead, Ranma chose to fly slowly and lazily along, buying the time he would need for contemplation. He spent the first few minutes of the flight climbing higher in a long looping circle, while keeping one eye focused on the ground below. He breathed one sigh of relief when Akane walked away toward home, another when Ukyo turned to do the same, and then a third after his oldest friend ignored what had sure looked to him like an order to head toward the Cat Café instead of her own restaurant. If either of the girls had chosen to rush off and confront Shampoo, Ranma would have poured on the speed to get there first, get Shampoo transformed, and fly away with her to talk this over without the kind of nuclear meltdown a confrontation between the fiancées might have created.

He was thankful that hadn't been necessary. He wanted more time to think things through before facing Shampoo about this morning's antics. And so Ranma flew in ever-widening circles, finally satisfying himself that neither Akane nor Ukyo was going to change her mind about heading to the Amazon stronghold. 'I swear, it looked like Akane was more eager to go for Shampoo's throat than Ucchan was,' he thought. After considering that for a few minutes, though, it no longer seemed so strange. 'But I guess I can understand that. Ucchan had to still be off-balance. What with something like that happening to her, or rather what she thought happened, and then spending the whole day panicking and trying to figure out what was really going on… and then getting good news like that… Yeah, it's not that surprising that she'd want to take some time to settle down before making her reply.' In fact it was kind of like the Saotome Secret Technique — Run, Think, Attack. He just hoped Ukyo's inevitable counterattack didn't make things worse. Ranma knew he would be tempted to go way too far if someone ever hit him with Maonichuan, whether it was Instant or not.

Of course, something like that wasn't as bad for his oldest friend as it would be for him. Nonetheless, Ranma still felt quite a bit of irritation as he considered Shampoo's action. 'Where the heck does she think she gets off doing that anyway? Shampoo knows what it's like to get changed against her will. She oughta have enough sympathy not to push it onto other people! At least, not Ucchan,' he amended. He wouldn't have liked it, but at least he could have understood it a lot better if she'd targeted Akane for this morning's dousing. His shorthaired fiancée had used Shampoo's old curse against her far more times than he wanted to think about. But Ukyo had never done so, to the best of his knowledge.

Thinking of these things was causing his levels of anger and irritation to rise. With a mental grunt, Ranma turned his thoughts to the other side of the coin, from Ukyo to Akane. 'Man, she sure didn't hold back from thinking the worst,' he thought. 'Made up her mind right away, too, set it in stone quicker than Ryoga could blow a hole in the ground. Who knows? Maybe she was right about some of it, like thinking Shampoo did this to mess with Ucchan's head. But it ain't like she's got any kind of right to just decide that and treat it like some kind of holy, self-evident truth or something.' Just like he had done, just like he had regretted, when Shampoo had told him how long the magic of the Falcon water would really have lasted. 'Don't want to make that mistake again.'

These thoughts weren't as effective at reducing his anger as the earlier ones had been at stoking it, but they were enough to convince Ranma that he had better not just rush off riding the surge of his emotions. Maybe he would have to get tough with Shampoo over this — or as tough as he could manage, anyway — but he was going to listen to her first and act after he'd heard her side of the story. At the very least, if Shampoo cheerfully related something that proved Akane's first guess was more or less right, it ought to be more effective to chew her out using the ammunition the Amazon herself had provided.

With this thought, he altered the curve of his flight, turning toward the Cat Café. He covered the remaining distance quickly, concentrating on what he was going to say, and managing for once to realize ahead of time that if he wasn't careful he was going to end up getting a hot shower and giving Shampoo a free show. That realization and the plans to avoid it were distracting enough to keep one particularly unwelcome thought buried in the back of his mind.

After all, he didn't even want to dream that Akane's second "inspiration" regarding Shampoo's motives might be correct.

Finding Shampoo turned out to be easier than he'd expected. There was no need to actually enter the building; Shampoo herself was on top of the roof, moving through a slow, gentle, controlled kata. It wasn't a pattern Ranma had seen before, but he didn't have much time for analysis. As he descended the wind picked up around him, not with anywhere near the strength of the fiercest gusts he'd ridden in the past, but with oddly unpredictable cross-breezes that took much more concentration than usual to navigate. He was mildly proud that he still managed a perfectly-controlled landing ten feet in front of Shampoo. He gave a loud squawk to attract her attention, though the Amazon's kata was already gliding to a halt in response to his arrival.

"Airen? What you do here?" Shampoo asked once she'd come to a stop. She sounded oddly winded for someone who'd been doing such a low-impact exercise. Ranma wondered briefly if she'd been using it to cool down after a more strenuous workout.

Not that the question was important, compared to the one she had asked. Of course, he couldn't exactly give her the response she'd requested. Cocking his head to one side, he gave her the best reproving look he could manage, as if to say 'How am I supposed to answer that now? Hurry up and change too, and get rid of the language barrier.'

"Oh, right, you no can answer. Here, let Shampoo fix." The Amazon repeated the trick she'd performed a month ago when all this had started, pulling from nowhere two kettles and a small stove, and setting one of the former on top of the latter to heat.

Ranma skipped forward, cheeping negatively and shaking his head. Shampoo gave him a blank stare, which morphed into a smile of mingled surprise and happiness as he gestured emphatically toward the kettle, then toward her. "You want to fly again? Okay, is good!" She didn't quite resist the temptation to slip out of her tunic and pants before using the unheated kettle to trigger her change, amused to no end by the way her transformed husband's eyes still managed to bulge so noticeably at the sight. "~Hey, it's better than getting my clothes all wet,~" she said as she fluffed the water out of her feathers.

'Uh huh. The same clothes she was wearing for practice, that she'd already been sweating in. Right.' Pushing those thoughts, and images, out of his mind, Ranma replied, "~Listen, Shampoo. I need to talk to you about something.~"

"~About what?~" Why was he using that tone?

"~About Ukyo,~" Ranma said, frowning as best he could.

Shampoo's expression curved to match, and she grumbled, "~So she told you what I did? Did she tell you all of it, Ranma?~"

"~Huh? All of it? What do you mean?~"

"~I mean, did she bother to tell you that I didn't just leave her to find hot water as best she could, but carried her to a place where she could change back without any trouble? Even without any embarrassment?~" In truth, Shampoo hadn't much cared about that last one. She'd only been concerned that she wouldn't be putting her husband's oldest friend in any true physical danger, and the bathing gardens had been the nearest and easiest method of ensuring that. But then again, Shampoo reminded herself, she hadn't had to carry Ukyo's clothes along with her and leave them for the chef. It was fair enough to point out how her actions had been suited to spare Ukyo's feelings, even if it hadn't technically been much of a concern.

"~Yeah, she did say that.~" It was another reason Ranma hadn't been comfortable with letting his natural irritation at the attack on Ucchan get out of hand.

Shampoo blinked. "~Then… what's the problem?~"

"~What do you mean, 'What's the problem'? Just cause you could have done stuff a lot worse than you did doesn't make what you did do all right!~"

"~If you thought that was my reason, then Ukyo obviously didn't tell you everything,~" Shampoo snapped back. "~I told her why I did this. You of all people would surely agree with it. Guess that's why she kept quiet and just made me out to be in the wrong.~"

Ranma cocked his head to the side, pondering that reply. He didn't think Ucchan would have deliberately left out something like that. Probably Shampoo had said her piece while the chef had been too shell-shocked to hear it. "~So why did you do it?~"

"~So that she would know what it feels like,~" Shampoo said, kicking a hole in the theory Ranma had just finished forming. Before he could say anything else, she was continuing. "~She needed to know what it's like to actually lose your body, to have your humanity washed away without anything you can say or do about it. She deserves to know exactly how it feels to get turned into something small and weak and fragile.~"

"~Needs? Deserves? How do you figure that?~" Ranma demanded.

"~Because of how she won our last fight, that's how! It should have been a clean victory for me, I had her on the ropes fair and square! She ran out on the fight, left her stupid spatula behind even, and when I followed after her she caught me right in the face with a blast from a hose!~"

Ranma blinked. "~Oh.~" It was all he could find breath or strength to say.

Shampoo, by sharp contrast, was only picking up speed. "~I can understand it if you're surprised, Ranma. I sure was. After all, she never used my old curse against me, right? Not like stupid Akane. Ukyo wasn't as strong as me, but she always fought fairly and with honor. And I respected that about her, respected that she wouldn't go for the cheap, easy win. And it was all a damn lie! This time she told me to my face that the only reason she'd held back from doing that was because of how bad it was for you to be around a cat. And she said flat out that since that wasn't a problem anymore, from now on she was going to use this little tactic anytime she felt like it!~"

The Amazon paused to take a few deep breaths and regain some semblance of calmness. "~That's why I did what I did. I gave her a chance to see for herself what it was like, and I'm also giving her a chance to do the right thing and take back what she said about using my curse to win any fight she wants. If she doesn't, if she keeps on stooping that low, well, I ordered a whole crate full of Instant Drowned Cat Water, not just one packet. Next time maybe I'll let her find out for herself how much trouble it can be to find hot water on your own!~" 'And if she still doesn't learn her lesson, we'll just have to take it from there….'

Ranma took his own deep breath, and said, "~There won't be a next time.~" He realized a second later that he'd said that a little too forcefully for something that ultimately wasn't his to command. He didn't have the right to simply declare that Ukyo would never try this trick again after he asked her not to, even if he believed that would be true. He amended, "~At least, I hope not. I'll talk to Ucchan, Shampoo. I'll spell all that stuff out for her and ask her not to do it again.~" He paused, then said, "And, uh, about Akane….~"

"~Don't worry, Ranma.~" She was all too aware of what he was about to ask. Back before all this started, when she and Cologne had been discussing the idea of changing her curse, the Matriarch had finally managed to get it through her head just how traumatic it really was for her husband when she latched onto him in cat form. "~I wouldn't do that to Akane. Not if you were anywhere nearby, that is. No, I thought of something better for her,~" the Amazon continued, killing Ranma's sense of relief as quickly as it had been birthed.

"~And that would be?~" he asked, reminding himself to hear her out before making any decisions or jumping to any conclusions.

"~A different crate of Instant powders. One that would fit her even better,~" Shampoo said, her tone making Ranma think that if she had currently had a mouth instead of a beak, it would have curved in a wicked grin. "~Spring of Drowned Sloth.~"

He blinked. "~Spring of Drowned Sloth? If you've got that, why didn't you use it in the first place with Ucchan? That woulda been better than that horrible, evil… well, you know.~"

"~No, I don't know,~" Shampoo countered. "~I couldn't exactly have carried Ukyo to the bathing gardens if I'd used the other powder. Sloths may be slow, but they're not that slow. I would have had to leave her to fend for herself.~"

"~Yeah, but still…~"

"~But still nothing! She might have been a little late for her first class, but if I'd used the sloth curse how much of the day do you think she would have missed?~"

Ranma stared back at her. "~What're you talking about? She spent the whole day at the bath place, trying to figure out why she wasn't turning back into a cat with more cold water!~"

She blinked. "~What?~"

"~What do you mean, 'what'? She thought it was a real curse, and she spent all that time trying to find out how it really did work, since it wasn't doing what she thought it would!~"

"~Well, that wasn't what I expected. But it's not like there's any reason for me to feel guilty about this!~" Shampoo said guiltily. "~If it really did hit her that hard, that just means she'll have a better idea of what it's really like for you and me!~"

"~Yeah, well, for future reference, Shampoo… you really need to make yourself clearer. Your Japanese may be a lot better than any of us are at Mandarin, but Ucchan sure didn't get the point you were trying to make.~" Part of him still felt unhappy about how much more his friend had suffered than Shampoo had meant, but considering how many of his own problems and mistakes he'd finally begun facing and trying to fix, he wasn't about to come down too hard on the Amazon for making a misstep when she attempted the same thing. If even Ranma Saotome couldn't get everything right the first time around, what right did he have to expect it from other people?

"~Fine. Please tell her just what I meant,~" Shampoo requested. "~And Akane too. Especially Akane,~" she said with a glower. "~I can't even remember how many times she used my old curse against me. Make sure she understands that the time of no consequences is over for good.~"

"~Okay, I'll tell her. But give me a chance to, okay? Don't go ambushing her and giving her a bath unless she uses your curse against you first. Let me have a chance to talk with her about not doing that any more.~"

Shampoo rolled her eyes. "~She already tried once, picked a fight and tried to win it like that, but she wasn't good enough to pull it off. You think she'll listen to you?~"

"~I… I don't know. I hope so. Because you're right; doing something like that is going too far to win.~" Even in the darkest moments when he'd been most desperate to figure out a way to defeat Ryoga's Shi Shi Hokodan, that was one tactic he'd never seriously considered using. Now that he had his own nonhuman curse, this was something he was even more proud of. "~I can sure say that, with everything that's been going on at Furinkan lately.~"

"~Going on at Furinkan?~" Shampoo echoed. "~Is this about what Akane told me a couple of weeks ago, about Stupid Stick Boy managing to trigger your curse while the whole school was watching?~"

"~Oh, yeah,~" Ranma grumbled. "~I'm not regretting making the switch, but I sure do wish the jerks at school wouldn't see it as such a golden opportunity.~" Shampoo made a concerned, inquisitive, "go on" noise, which was more than enough encouragement for him to do just that. "~I've had girls splash me a few times, acting like it was an accident, and of course they just so happen to have hot water right there to fix the 'mistake'.~"

"~And how many free shows have you given out like that, dear?~" Shampoo asked, her eyes narrowing dangerously.

"~That'd be none, I'm proud to say,~" Ranma retorted, leaving out the fact that this wasn't entirely his doing. The first few times it had happened it had caught him totally off-guard, but each time the girl in question had been just as unprepared, in a different way, as he was. None had waited for him to get clear of his shirt before unleashing the "apology" and hot water. He suspected they thought the reversed transformation would tear him right out of the garments, rather than having him expand to fill them as decently and normally as he had before the cold water.

"~Congratulations, Ranma. Maybe you're getting better about avoiding attacks from girls after all,~" Shampoo said, deliberately not looking over at her remaining kettle, still sitting innocently atop a low-burning stove.

"~Then of course there's the jerks from the falconry club. They want me to help them rip their competition to itty bitty pieces, and even after I've turned 'em down over and over they keep on begging and pleading with me to join the airborne half of the club.~" 'Better not go into more detail than that, though. Having Ucchan get onto those girls for this afternoon… that's one thing. But I think I'd just as soon not set Shampoo onto them.' And if it led to the guys in the club giving up on him and approaching Shampoo instead once they learned she had a Falcon curse too… that felt even less appealing, somehow.

"~You mean, they keep asking and keep asking and keep on asking for you to do what they want, even after you've told them 'no' a thousand times?~" Shampoo nodded. "~I can see how that would be a pain.~" 'That reminds me, I ought to check with Great-Grandmother, find out of there's any word of Mousse coming back anytime soon.'

"And let's not forget the so-called martial artists in the class below me, who think using my curse would be a great way to get a victory over someone who could normally flatten them with one hand tied behind his back. Not that any of them have managed it yet,~" Ranma said, preening ever so slightly. "~But it's still a big fat waste of my time, dealing with challenges from these putzes who'd otherwise know better than to take me on.~" He knew they were trying to outlast his stash of waterproof soap. It was slightly worrisome that he'd used up most of the one bar that he had for his own use, but according to Akane the bars she'd had Nabiki order ought to arrive any day now.

"~You say this is happening with the younger martial artists? What about Bokken-Boy Kuno?~"

Ranma heaved an aggravated sigh. "~Things are both better and worse there than I expected. I seriously do not know where he gets his delusions, but he figures this is all part and parcel of me being a big, bad, dark, evil sorcerer. And he also apparently thinks it's some kind of sign that my powers are wearing out, or turning against me, or whatever. I think it's got something to do with him seeing me in the, uh, the… intheCatFistonetime,~" he screeched through the words as fast as possible, "~and now knowing that I turn into a bird with cold water. I think he thinks that if he just splashes me enough, I'll move down another rank on the scale or something.~"

"~But he's not attacking you? Not taking advantage of the opening? Weird,~" Shampoo opined. "~But I'm not complaining.~"

"~Well, I am,~" Ranma said. "~Not about the 'not attacking when I'm a falcon' part, but the 'getting his stupid ninja peons to hide all over the school and try to catch me off-guard all the time'.~" At least it made for good awareness and response training, but as far as Ranma was concerned even that silver lining had already reached 'too much of a good thing' status. He couldn't dodge them all the time, and he sure couldn't stay protected all the time with waterproof soap. He'd even had to default on one challenge match when one particularly sneaky ninja had caught him in the shower just before he could apply his layer of protection.

"~Hmmm… you know, husband, this might be a good time to finally quit wasting your time at that stupid school,~" Shampoo said oh-so-innocently. "~I know it's given you some good challenges before, but I really think you've outgrown it now.~"

"~That's not an option,~" Ranma stated. Before Shampoo could argue further, he elaborated. "~Yeah, the stuff they go on and on about in class isn't much fun, but I've still got to put up with it. My mom would be disappointed if I just ditched school.~"

"~Oh,~" Shampoo said, deflating noticeably. That put paid to pretty much any argument she might otherwise have made.

Both teens were silent for a few moments, thinking over the various things that had been said. Eventually, coming to a decision, Shampoo broke the silence. "~Ranma… hearing all this, about everything that's going on at Furinkan… I've decided something. There's something I need to show you. Come over here.~"

Confused, but seeing no reason not to comply, Ranma fluttered across most of the three feet that had separated him from the Amazon. Incidentally, this left the kettle and stove a little too far behind him to be visible in his peripheral vision. "~What is it?~" He interrupted himself with a screech of surprise, a cry that morphed midway into a more human exclamation as hot water cascaded down over both him and Shampoo.

Shampoo smirked, then giggled, then laughed out loud as she watched Ranma freeze, recover, and scramble desperately to find his clothes. This time, of course, they were several miles away. "Here, silly," she said, taking pity on him and holding out her own pants.

Ranma grabbed them and slipped them on, thankful that this particular outfit had been a relatively loose one Shampoo had chosen for maximum mobility in her training, not one of the skin-tight ensembles she'd occasionally worn when she was the one looking for him. The pants were a little tight on him, and they were more than a little pink, but they were a good bit better than some of the things the Tendo sisters had forced him into in the past. They would do for the short amount of time it would take him to find a source of cold water. "Was there something you wanted to say?" he asked Shampoo, his voice heavy with sarcasm, and only shaking a little at the sight of the Amazon clad in just the remaining half of her outfit. At least the top was barely long enough to leave her R- rather than X-rated. "Or did ya just want to see?"

"Was both," the lavender-haired girl said with a completely unrepentant grin. "Shampoo get what she want to see, now is Ranma turn. Please pass Shampoo a kettle."

Ranma did as requested, locating and picking up the nearest empty kettle. It had come to rest a few inches behind him, and he wondered just how it had been induced to leave its previous perch on top of the stove. 'Maybe the old ghoul snuck up behind me and threw it when she knew Shampoo was ready?' There was no sign of Cologne to be seen now, but that didn't mean much. Pushing the thought aside, he tossed the object to Shampoo, who caught it in her left hand.

In her right she suddenly held the last item she'd had with her in storage, a single bonbori. "Watch close now," she said with a wink. Then, dropping all hints of playfulness in the interest of absolute focus, she tossed the kettle into the air and swung the mace. The air hummed with the force of the blow, which sent the now-badly-dented container soaring up, up, and away.

It was only impressive because the weapon missed its target by a good three inches.

Ranma blinked, rubbed his eyes, and mentally replayed the scene. Sure, he'd seen Kuno do significant damage from air pressure alone, but that had been the slowly-mounting result of a storm of thrusting strikes, not a single attack. And a swing at that! No, this went far beyond anything he'd seen the Blue Thunder pull off.

"Is secret of advanced style Great-Grandmother teaching Shampoo," the Amazon explained. "Special techniques work with element of air, lets you do things that make Hiryu Shoten Ha look like move for beginner." Although Cologne had warned her that it would take a long time to work her way up to those pinnacles of the Air style.

"Well, that's kinda cool, I guess," Ranma said, putting up as carefree and unconcerned a façade as he could manage. "Not like a weapons technique like that is really my thing, though."

Shampoo stuck out her tongue, furrowed her brow, and managed to levitate the bonbori two inches above her palm on a cushion of solid air. "So who say is just weapons? Ranma should be thankful," she said as she let the technique lapse. "Thankful Shampoo choose to show it this way. First plan was to wait until I had learn enough, then use it to kick you butt. Get you to join in training with Shampoo that way."

"Wait a minute," Ranma said. "Are you offering… I mean, asking me to…?"

She nodded. "Great-Grandmother say this style very, very good for curse Shampoo have now," the Amazon explained. "Say once I far enough along, these techniques let me fight and win no problem even in falcon body. Same thing must be true for Ranma too, right?" Noting her husband's stunned-but-intrigued expression, the gaping jaw contrasting with the gleam in his eyes, Shampoo gave another big smile and continued. "Is good news with what is happen at school, yes?"

"I… yeah, that might be true…." Certainly it was an appealing thought. He wasn't forgetting the things he'd told his father a few days ago about what was most important right now in his study of the Art, but all that stuff only applied to his birth body. A set of special techniques that he could use to fight even in his cursed form — that was a trump card worth quite a lot these days.

A bit of caution reared its ugly head then, as Ranma envisioned some of the responses he'd likely face back at the Tendo home if he waltzed back there and announced he was going to be spending as much time training with Shampoo as Akane was with his father. "But…."

Shampoo quickly interjected, before he could take that any farther. "Remember, sooner you start, sooner stupid boys and girls at school not cause any more problem. And," she hesitated just one moment longer, delaying the decision for one last second, then said, "and remember we never talk about how Ranma repay me for get more Jusenkyo water for Ryoga and father? This will cover it. Ranma train with Shampoo, learn with Shampoo and help with my own learning, I will call it even." Though she did hate the thought of losing all the dates that debt could have bought her.

That was more than enough for him. Ranma's face set like flint. His fists clenched with determination. His eyes shone with strength and resolve. His borrowed pink pants gleamed in the sunlight. "When can we start?"

"I still don't see why we had to wait so long to start this," Ranma grumbled.

Cologne gave him a flat stare. "It's been less than twenty-four hours, Son-in-law." And so it had. It was Saturday now, and the half-day of class at Furinkan had ended an hour ago. Ranma and Akane had headed home as usual, Akane to retire to the dojo, Ranma to tell everyone else he was going out to fly. And so he had, although the flight this time had only been as far as the bathhouse where Shampoo had washed his girl curse away. The repairs had been completed and the place was open for business once more, but Ranma still figured it was a good idea to keep one change of clothes there. After quickly exchanging feathers for cloth, he'd headed to the roof of the Cat Café to keep the appointment he'd made yesterday. That was where he stood now, with Shampoo about seven feet away on his left and Cologne roughly an equal distance straight ahead. Several crates were placed just behind the Matriarch, one large one with a stack of three smaller ones beside it.

"School today was okay?" This was the younger Amazon. Judging from Ranma's mood, she thought it probably hadn't been too bad. That grumble had sounded awfully familiar to her, carrying tones she'd heard in her own voice in the past when she'd pressed her great-grandmother about including more advanced techniques in her training. She could certainly sympathize with how eager he must be now to get started.

That didn't mean she wasn't going to enjoy watching him suffer through the first part of the training, of course.

"Yeah, it was fine. Only a few of Kuno's ninjas to waste my time. And speaking of wasting time…." Ranma said significantly.

Cologne had let him have the earlier remark for free. This time, though, she slung her staff in a move that had it boomeranging through the air to bonk her reluctant son-in-law's overly hard head, then return to her grasp. "It was hardly wasting time," she snapped at him. "What do you suppose would have happened if we had started right then and there, right after Shampoo led you down into the restaurant to ask and I said I'd teach you as well? Akane at least had to have believed that when you left her yesterday afternoon it was to seek out Shampoo. And if you hadn't come back from that meeting until many hours had passed? Do you want them jumping on your back right from the very beginning?"

"Well, no," Ranma was forced to admit, glaring as he rubbed his head. Truth be told, the hit had barely stung, but the gesture in and of itself had been plenty irritating — not the least of which because Cologne had moved so fast he wouldn't have been able to block even if he'd been expecting the attack. "And I'll admit I didn't tell them what I was really going to do this afternoon. But I'm not so sure I feel like sneaking along for weeks, or months, or however long this takes, hiding it from them the whole time. As a matter of fact, I'm sure I don't want to."

"Good," Cologne returned, giving him a toothy grin. "Sounds like you're giving this more thought than you would have in the past. So tell me, Son-in-law, what do you think is the best thing to do?"

"I'm not sure yet. Can't make that call without knowing how much time we're talking about," Ranma explained. "Like, how long will each training session last, how many different techniques are there for me to learn, are you gonna use the same kinda methods you did for the Chestnut Fist, all that stuff. But if I had to give an answer right off the bat, I'd say I'd like to keep this between us until I've learned at least one decently impressive move. That way when I let it slip to Pop and the Tendos what I'm really doing and they all start screaming their heads off, I can whip out the Wind Slash to give 'em a good example of just why it's worth it to let me keep up the training."

"My, my, I am impressed. I'd say that's a very good approach to take. A very well thought-out plan," Cologne said generously. It was nice to know she hadn't wasted the hours she'd spent cooking up enough illusions to prevent anyone watching from realizing Ranma was here. "Just to warn you, it will take you a little while longer than you might be expecting. The first training exercise in this style is just that — a training exercise. It doesn't directly teach any of the techniques. Those come later. And for the record, there's nothing in this arsenal called the Wind Slash."

Ranma shrugged. "Just made that up as something that sounded like it fit."

"Well, if you manage to master this style to the point where you're coming up with your own revisions, feel free to use it. Now then." Cologne cleared her throat. "As much as I'm sure you'd rather just jump right into the training, I want to take a moment now to talk about the style and the things you'll be learning."

"Why's that?"

'Wonderful. Only one sentence in and already he's interrupting me,' Cologne thought sourly. "Because although we'll be starting with moves that are much less powerful than the Hiryu Shoten Ha, we will end up with techniques that put it to shame. But this goes beyond techniques and individual moves, sonny boy. You'll be learning principles, basic foundational truths about chi and how to align it with air… the single most important element in almost any place a human is likely to go."

"Is power, Airen," Shampoo said solemnly. "Shampoo was not kidding when I say if I had wait longer, learn more of style, could have kick you butt with it."

"A-HEM!" Cologne gave her great-granddaughter the evil eye. "If I could continue without more interruptions from either of you…" Shampoo gave a sheepish grin. Ranma nodded, unsure as to whether he should be thoughtful or annoyed at the lavender-haired girl's message. "My great-granddaughter is correct, but she's also understating things. At the highest level of mastery, the principles of the Air style will allow you to disrupt a fully-fledged tornado." Cologne paused just for a minute, then added, "Or cause one."

"Okay, I get you," Ranma said quietly. He and Genma had seen one once, much closer than they would have liked, and so he knew how much more powerful the real thing was than the imitation he could pull off. He knew just what would happen to the neighborhood if he unleashed something like that in one of his typical challenge matches. If he'd thought the old ghoul might be implying that he'd do something like that, he would have been much less polite in his response.

That wasn't, couldn't be, what she had meant. It was a lesson that he'd already learned, one the Matriarch must know anyone at his level had already received, about respecting the extraordinary abilities that his training gave him. If she didn't think he knew that already, she wouldn't have taught him the Chestnut Fist, let alone the second Amazon secret she'd revealed. "So where does this style start? And is it gonna help or hurt me that I already know the Hiryu Shoten Ha?" Judging from what she'd said, it couldn't be one of the basics of the style.

"Neither. I can understand why you might think otherwise, but the Hiryu Shoten Ha is actually classified as aura-based. The effect happens because of your aura's contrast to that of the enemy or enemies you lead into the spiral. And while it's true the effect manifests itself in the air, that doesn't mean it's an Air technique in the real sense of the word." Noting the subtle signs of restlessness from her great-granddaughter, the twitching that wasn't quite managing to make it all the way to an eager squirm, Cologne decided to be generous. "Shampoo will explain why that is."

"For Air technique, Ranma must learn to do what Great-Grandmother already say. To make his chi line up with the air around him, make them work together. Is like you extend own self into the air, make it do things directly because it is like part of you. That is heart of Air style. Each new lesson is just how to take it further, how to control more power at once for new effect, how to get same effect without spend so much of own strength, how to balance energies to bring off something you not know how to before."

Ranma considered that for a little while. It still felt really odd to think that a move like the Hiryu Shoten Ha wasn't considered part of the Air style, but from what Shampoo had described he could kind of see the reasoning. When he performed that technique, almost all his energy and concentration were focused inward, keeping his soul like ice and executing the spiral. The attention that wasn't tied up in those tasks was allocated to his opponent or opponents. Whereas Shampoo's description sounded like he'd be extending himself outward, making himself part of the air around him, or the air part of him, or both at the same time. It was a big difference from just projecting his own energy, be it confidence or cold.

"So…" he said slowly, after pausing long enough to be sure that Cologne wasn't about to jump back into her narrative. "If I learn enough of the style, would it actually let me fly?"

Shampoo gave him the strangest look he'd received all week. "Ranma already know how to fly, remember?"

He rolled his eyes. "What I meant was, as a human. Like, if something ever came up and I had absolutely no choice other than getting rid of the falcon curse."

"The answer is yes and no," Cologne replied. "Yes, you can fly, if by 'flight' you mean 'controlled passage through the air'. The Chariot of the Storm technique will carry you as far through the sky as you like, so long as you have strength and control enough to maintain it. But the concentration required means it will never be as enjoyable as what you have now. There's no substitute for natural flight in a form designed for it."

'Well, I'll just have to hope Mom agrees with me when I tell her all that stuff about how cool it is. Grabbing hold of the dream ordinary guys can't even touch really ought to count towards being a man among men,' Ranma thought, mentally crossing his fingers while knocking on wood.

"And anyway Shampoo already tell you these secrets let you fight and win even in falcon body against stupid fighters at Furinkan," the lavender-haired girl said. "Ranma should not be thinking about giving body up to make that place easier. Would be better to change schools if come to that." Although, if they really were giving him that much of a hard time, maybe the best thing of all would be for her to enroll at Furinkan to stand by her beloved's side.

"Would you mind not jumpin' to conclusions, Shampoo?" Ranma grumbled. "I get enough of that from Akane." Feeling guilty at the way the Amazon suddenly paled and looked stricken to the core, he added in a milder tone, "I wasn't thinking about giving it up. I was thinking about what could happen if I had no choice but to give it up."

Judging from Shampoo's expression, she didn't exactly appreciate the distinction but was unwilling to push her luck further. Cologne regained control of the conversation. "In any case, before we actually begin your training I will have Shampoo demonstrate the techniques she has been learning. But before that, Ranma, I would like you to give your word." She vaulted to the top of her staff and bounced forward five feet, to better look him in the eye. "I know how observant you are when it comes to the Art, how much detail you can notice and retain from simply watching something done once. You won't catch all of what you're seeing, but you will doubtless get some of it. I need you to promise that you won't try to train for these on your own. Not until you have finished the first exercise to my satisfaction, that is. Once you've accomplished that, practicing on your own will be safe enough."

"Safe?" Ranma echoed. "Okay, you got my promise. Now could ya tell me why I needed to give it?"

"It goes back to what my great-granddaughter already told you about the heart and soul of the Air style. The primary training exercise is what teaches you to align your chi with the air around you. You need that as your foundation before you even begin to think seriously about replicating the effects Shampoo will demonstrate. Your own question about the Hiryu Shoten Ha should be enough of a clue," the Matriarch explained. "The truth is, you can create similar or even nearly-identical effects to the beginning techniques in other ways. And if you did learn, oh, let's say to imitate the Wind Strike through chi projection alone, rather than truly combining your chi with the air, you would end up with a useful skill… and it would be much harder to learn the things that cannot be faked like that."

"Got it. I ain't gonna promise not to think about it, but I won't try to learn any of these moves Shampoo's gonna show me until you say I'm ready."

"Thank you, Son-in-law. Shampoo, if you would, please demonstrate and explain the Buzzing Fist."

"Is what I already show you, Ranma," Shampoo said. "First real move of Air style is called Buzzing Fist." She held out her right arm, fingers curled loosely into a fist. "Concentrate air very very tight around own hand and make vibrate." The hum sounded again that Ranma had heard two times before, once when her bonbori hadn't made contact with the kettle, once when the weapon had floated over her hand. Now that he was looking for such detail, he was able to make out a rippling distortion effect around her hand, similar in appearance to heat waves but not identical. "Forms a shield around hand, extends reach a little, gives extra force to punch and also protects when you hit or block. And the buzzing is also good to blast through loose stuff like sand, or shake away water before it can splash you." The Amazon snorted. "Have to be careful with that last one, though, have to control the direction of how the air moves. Jusenkyo mean if you just let it go random, for sure some will splash back on you."

"And yes, there will be a training exercise where I send cold water your way and you have to deflect it with this skill," Cologne added.

'Great, more chances for me to give Shampoo a few more free shows,' Ranma thought. 'Well, that training won't happen until after I've finished whatever the first exercise is, and it also sounds like it won't happen until I get the basic training for the Buzzing Fist. That means I can train on my own to nail down that particular trick to it first.' Out loud he said, "So what's the next move? Is that the very first thing you showed me, with the bonbori? Adaptin' these same principles to work with a weapon instead of your own body?"

"Is exactly right!" Shampoo said enthusiastically. "Ranma, you such good warrior, so quick to learn! Each time you do something like this it only make Shampoo happier to be you wife!"

"If we could move from pillow talk back to martial arts…" Cologne said as dryly as the desert sands, speaking before Ranma could make any kind of response.

"Oh, okay, right." Shampoo produced her scimitar. A similar buzz and ripple emanated from it. Ranma noted that the ripple extended down over the hand with which Shampoo held the weapon, though it was just barely visible there. "Similar technique have similar name. This is called Buzzing Strike. Is second technique Shampoo learn, but Great-Grandmother tell me that might not be same for you. To focus like this mean you has to have weapon you is very good with, very comfortable with. Even then is harder than just using own hand as focus."

"So if it's harder to do, why do it? Just for the lesson that learning it teaches? I mean, is there any advantage ta having a weapons variation instead of just the basic one?" Ranma wanted to know. "Other than the added range, I guess."

Shampoo nodded, suppressing an evil grin. 'Stupid Akane could tell you that one.' "Yes. Is one very good advantage. Great-Grandmother, you ready with paper cranes?"

"Yes." The Matriarch bounced to the top of the largest wooden crate, and used the tip of her staff to pop the lid off the topmost box in the adjacent stack of smaller ones. Inside the crate were a multitude of crisp, white origami cranes. Cologne reversed her grip on the staff, bringing the knobby end down into the box and then pulling it out, sending a blizzard of paper birds fluttering toward Shampoo.

With a loud cry, Shampoo brought the sword around in a glittering arc. The closest of the birds was still a good three feet away, much too far removed for the rippling around the sword to affect it. However, as the sword reached the point of its arc closest to the blizzard of birds, the buzzing sound escalated to a roar, the ripple disappeared, and a massive gust of wind lifted the flock and sent them careening away into the wilds of Nerima.

"Is controlled loss of control," Shampoo said, doing her best to repeat the terms Cologne had used when explaining this to her, and wishing idly that she could perform the techniques for Ranma while they were in human form, then have the two switch to falcons to get rid of the stupid language barrier. And of course the switches back to human would be a nice added bonus… Forcibly reminding herself that Cologne had counseled her before this session not to come on too strong to Ranma during it, and feeling a bit of uneasiness that she might already have crossed that line, Shampoo continued, "With good hard steel as focus rather than flesh of own body, is safe to do. Let all the power you built up in shield of air blast out all at once, to give big gust of wind in direction Ranma choose. Enough to pick up opponent, especially if they too clumsy and slow and weak to be ready, and throw them back into a wall."

"Or into a koi pond," Ranma mused, thinking ahead to the time when he'd need to break the news of this training to his father. "So what's the name of this variation?"

"It doesn't actually have a name," Cologne said. "There are numerous techniques in this style to generate winds in one way or another. Since this one is basically a loss of control in a true technique, it isn't dignified with its own name."

"Name of move is Wind Slash," Shampoo said with a grin, pushing her luck once more. She was rewarded when Ranma chuckled and returned the smile.

Cologne smiled as well, though it was a sight less inherently appealing than her youngest descendant's expression. "Anyway, moving right along… Shampoo, demonstrate the technique Ranma really meant when he came up with that idea for a name."

Shampoo blinked, wondering whether her great-grandmother thought that instruction had been at all clear. Shrugging it off, she returned the sword to storage and proceeded to the next technique in the style. Hopefully that was what the Matriarch had meant. "Next one is called Wind Strike." She paused, wracking her brain for the right words in Japanese. "Is the first one that lets you control the air currents directly." She gave him a wink. "Like, maybe to pick up small kettle of hot water and dump it over two falcons."

'Well, that' s one mystery solved,' he reflected.

Meanwhile, Shampoo had asked for another batch of cranes. Cologne had somehow shifted the empty crate from the top of the stack to the bottom while neither of them was looking, and now had the new topmost crate open. This time, instead of flinging them all toward Shampoo at once, Cologne sent the birds winging along one at a time, with about five seconds as an interlude between each.

Shampoo's brow furrowed in intense concentration. Ranma watched as the neat line that was the birds' journey was broken, each crane departing in a different direction once it hit a certain point in the air. He watched, bemused, as the cranes settled into a sloppy but still recognizable kanji scrawl for 'Ranma'. "Not bad, not bad at all," he said to her, not even really trying to keep the 'yes, I'm impressed' note out of his tone.

"Although she just spent most of the rest of her reserves in that bit of grandstanding," Cologne added. That little touch had not been something they discussed when planning out Ranma's introductory session. "Still, perhaps it's just as well. There is one other technique Shampoo could have demonstrated for you, but she has only begun to make good progress on it and it is the most energy-intensive one I've taught her yet."

"So what is it, Shampoo?" Ranma asked.

"Name is Wind Ward," she answered. "Build on Wind Strike, except you not control or direct air currents. Is wide-area effect, causes strong, unpredictable gusts of wind that have lots of chi in them. Will mess up almost any long-range attack." It made for a particularly pleasing mental picture, too… Ranma learning this with her help, and utterly defeating Mousse's typical attacks once the half-blind boy finally managed to escape Jusenkyo's grasp and return to Nerima without a curse. It had to happen sooner or later, Shampoo knew, but the later the better. And the farther along she and Ranma were able to get, the closer they were able to come without one of the usual most persistent interferences around to cause trouble, the better.

"How would that stand up to a Moko Takabisha?" Ranma wanted to know.

Cologne answered the question that her youngest descendent didn't have anywhere near enough experience to handle. "At full strength, it would disrupt the blast utterly, and even weaken a typical Perfect Shi Shi Hokodan to near-uselessness."

"Cool," Ranma pronounced. "So that's the stuff Shampoo's been working on so far? How many more techniques are there?"

"Why don't we let that wait for another time," Cologne responded. Then, yielding to the temptation to mess with her son-in-law's head, she added, "I will say that you've seen me use two of them before. See if you can think back over the past during the next few days and figure it out for yourself."

Ranma put on a smirk. "That almost sounds like a challenge, Granny."

Cologne returned a bloodcurdling smile. "You want a challenge, Son-in-law? I challenge you to complete the first step of the training faster than anyone has ever done before." She kept quiet for now that that record had been set by Shampoo, as far as she knew; Cologne's theory that her youngest descendant's cursed form might help her learn the basics had proven correct beyond her wildest dreams. In all likelihood Ranma's own experience with a falcon body would serve him just as well or better, but if Cologne actually told him that Shampoo had been the one to set the record he would probably figure out ahead of time that flight experience was the key. No need to make it even easier on the boy than it already would be.

Yes, even after nearly three centuries she remembered taking two months to master the training that Shampoo had completed in a week and a day. But she wasn't bitter. Not at all.

"How fast is that?" Ranma asked.

"I'll tell you once you've mastered the exercise."

"Great-Grandmother, that not fair."

"Neither is life, Shampoo." Cologne had not yet told Shampoo how extraordinary her time to complete the first step had been. Time enough for that later, after Ranma did even better. The Matriarch judged that it would be better overall for Shampoo to learn that yes, she was second to Ranma in this area, but that was second place out of all Amazons, rather than knowing from the start she held the gold medal and then getting displaced from her throne.

Ranma made a disgruntled sound in the back of his throat. "Well, okay, then what that really boils down to is you're challenging me to do the best I can. You got it, old… girl." He might not be fast enough to stop the Matriarch if she was really determined, but at least he could catch sight of her fingers tightening on the wood of her staff!

"Glad to hear it, Son-in-law." Cologne hopped from the large crate to the topmost smaller one, and flipped the lid of her previous perch. "The gear you will need is in here."

Ranma trotted over, finding that he wasn't really surprised at the sight before him. A coiled-up leather harness with lots of wooden bars, gears, and pulleys rested within, sitting on top of what Ranma would be willing to bet were sacks of balsa wood strips. "So that was what she was doing," he murmured.

"Yes, Ranma have already see Shampoo work on this part of training," the younger Amazon confirmed as she moved up behind him. "The method is called Flight of the Plucked Chicken." She didn't even try to keep a straight face as she said it. It hadn't been particularly amusing while she was struggling with that cursed harness and its accouterments, but now that she had passed that trial and got to watch someone else suffer, Shampoo was able to see the humor.

"The heck?!" Ranma said. "How's…" His voice trailed off as he stopped and really thought about it, casting his mind back to what he'd watched Shampoo doing that one time, putting it together with what the Amazons had said was the heart of this style, what the training would teach him to do. "Okay," he said after a minute or two of silent thought. "I think I see where this is going. You put on the harness… and attach the balsa wood strips, or should I say 'feathers'… and jump through the air as hard as you can. The idea is to get where you're going without having the wind rip any of the feathers off the outfit. And the suit's built like it is so that you can rearrange it after each jump, so that you're not just figuring out the one perfect way to twist your body to keep the feathers intact. The only thing that'll work every time is doing what you said — getting your chi to align with the air itself."

"Very well reasoned, sonny boy. You are correct." 'So help me, if he masters this in just three days, I'll… I'll…' She didn't quite know what she'd do. Perhaps she would wait until he finally accepted Shampoo as his wife, then slip one of the more powerful Amazon fertility potions into her great-granddaughter's tea. The thought of Ranma dealing with four or five children, each of whom was as gifted — and as much of a handful — as he was… there was quite a bit of satisfaction in that.

Ranma paused in his roof-hopping and checked the angle of the sun. Yes, he still ought to have time for this visit. He'd just finished with three hours of training, but today was Sunday and Genma's training session with Akane would last at least another two hours. Akane might later hear from Kasumi that he had been gone for such a large stretch of the day and she might ask him where he'd been, but at least he didn't have to worry about her busting in on him when he was talking things over with Ukyo.

Conversation, civil persuasion, and other such social skills were an area Ranma knew full well to be one of his weakest, but even he could see ahead of time that this discussion with Ukyo would be a lot less trouble without Akane present. Personally he would have preferred to let it wait a little longer, think a bit more about what he was going to say, but he supposed Shampoo had had a point twenty minutes ago. Cologne had signaled that it was time for both teens to end their training for the day, Shampoo because her reserves were running on empty, Ranma because he'd worked his way through ninety-five percent of the balsa wood feathers she had prepared. Shampoo had been happy to shift from training to talking with him, and he hadn't exactly minded the segue away from what he had already mentally christened the Flight of the Stupid, Spastic, Crippled, Diseased, Plucked Chicken. Although he hadn't exactly been prepared for Shampoo to ask him whether he'd followed through yet on what he'd said he would do, to ask Ukyo not to use her curse against her again. After he'd admitted he hadn't, she had spent the last of her chi in grabbing a bucket of water from somewhere outside his field of vision and dumping it over the both of them, and had then proceeded to give him an earful once the language barrier was down.

'But, it could've been worse,' he allowed generously. 'She could've been screeching stuff at me that wasn't basically right. I knew for a fact that Ucchan didn't understand just why Shampoo did what she did, and I'd figured out myself that she probably wasn't going to take it lying down. I really shouldn't even have put it off this long, to get with her and ask her to call a truce on using people's Falcon curses against them.' A vision danced through his head then of how that could apply to someone other than Shampoo, how it already had once at Ucchan's Okonomiyaki. 'She prob'ly wouldn't do that to me, though,' he thought. 'Not on purpose, anyway.' He knew Ukyo cared, in fact he knew she cared deeply enough that he wasn't entirely comfortable thinking about it, but she had never been as ready, open, eager, and, ahem, uninhibited as Shampoo in showing it.

'At least today Shampoo didn't manage to get the both of us in a skin scene,' Ranma thought. 'Didn't even try, actually. She was probably just too tired out from practice.' It was the fourth time he'd run that thought back through his mind since beginning this journey from Shampoo's restaurant to Ukyo's, and each time he'd felt just a little more uneasy about it. Not because Shampoo had shown that much restraint — but because he didn't feel more than a tiny twinge of relief that she had.

"Am I actually getting used to that kind of stuff?" he wondered, putting words to the thought as he came to a stop. Ucchan's was just four blocks ahead, but he felt like he had better get this resolved, or at least pushed out of his head, before seeing her. "I always hate it when Akane calls me a pervert, but what else would you call someone who's all casual about being around Shampoo when she really gets going like that?" Not a very reassuring thought… and it led straightaway into Ranma deliberately thinking back to some of the times the Amazon had shown just how much she was willing to give to him, with a clarity and focus that he usually used in suppressing such thoughts. "Whoa, okay, guess I don't have to worry about that after all," he muttered as his pulse began to race.

It still left the question of why he wasn't more relieved that today hadn't been a repeat performance. A little more thought suggested an answer. "Guess I'm just getting less scared of that stuff because there's been such a long string of it without Akane finding out and going ballistic. That sure hasn't ever happened before." On the whole, though, he thought it was a change he could get used to. Get even more used to, anyway.

Giving a satisfied nod, and forcing out the lingering image of Shampoo wearing a big smile and nothing else, he resumed his trek toward Ucchan's.

He arrived at a good time, at least for the purpose of private conversation. The lunch rush had ended, and Ucchan's was closed to the general public for the next few hours. As Ranma jumped down into the street and peered through the window, he saw Ukyo give the grill a last loving wipe, then cover it up and toss the rag aside. He took another two steps and knocked on the door.

"Hey, Ranchan!" Ukyo exclaimed a few seconds later, opening the door and giving him a sunny smile. "Come in, come in! Would you like some late lunch?"

Well, if she was offering then there was no way he was going to feel guilty about making her get everything dirtied up again. Especially not with his stomach rumbling its own answer to her offer; breakfast had been a long time ago. "Yeah, that sounds great! Thanks!"

Ukyo fired up the grill, pulled out the various ingredients, and quickly fixed him three of her best. She knew for a fact that a serving of that size would only put a dent in Ranma's appetite, not subdue it entirely, but for what she was about to ask him she didn't want him stuffed to the gills with food. "Ranchan?"


The chef giggled at the sight. He didn't scarf her food down nearly as quickly as meals she'd seen him eat in the Tendo home, since of course there were no overweight pandas here to try and steal from his plate, but Ranchan still showed the infamous Saotome Table Etiquette in other ways. "Are you free for about an hour?"

"Yeah, I can manage that," Ranma allowed, hoping that he wasn't setting himself up for trouble. Oh well, if this was a date he could at least count on Ucchan not to make it too frilly and girly, and it should leave her in a good enough mood to go along with what he would be asking her.

"Great!" Ukyo said enthusiastically. "I was gonna go train in the vacant lot a couple of blocks over. It'd be a lot more helpful, and a lot more fun too, if you'd be my sparring partner."

"Uh…" Now he was on the horns of a dilemma. Ranma's brain sped up to maximum as he pondered the choices. On the one hand, it didn't seem like such a good idea to ask her what he was going to while they were already on the battlefield and she had her mega-spatula right there in hand. Also this would be the first time he'd even tried helping Ucchan with her training; there was no inherent reason to think she'd take it as badly as Akane always did, but then again there was no certainty she wouldn't.

Then again, if Ukyo did react badly to his request, it might actually be safer to weather her reaction in the middle of a match. He could just pretend it was a more intense sparring session than expected from his oldest friend, and put all his effort into dodging and blocking until her initial response ran down. He never quite knew how to deal with an incoming angry female under normal circumstances, but surely he could handle himself in the context of a challenge under the Art!

Less than a second had passed as he pondered these options. "Sure, Ucchan. I'll be glad to help you out," Ranma said.

"Thanks, Sugar, I really appreciate it." Ukyo quickly put away the okonomiyaki ingredients, turned off the grill and gave it a hasty rub-down, then grabbed her combat spatula and enough miniatures to fill her bandoleer. The two of them left the restaurant and headed down the street.

"So do you usually train this time on Sundays?" Ranma asked as they reached the first intersection, keeping the conversation to safe topics for now.

"Yes and no," Ukyo replied. "Basically I train when I can, Ranchan. Between going to Furinkan and running my own restaurant, it's pretty much impossible to just find time to train. I have to make it, and even that's hard. Like right now, for instance," she continued. "Frankly, I'd rather be back at the restaurant with you, fixing you more okonomiyaki and talking about life in general and nothing in particular. But this is important too, so I'm just glad you're there to help me out."

"Uh, if you're not really fired up about the idea of training, why're you showing a battle aura?" It was just the barest flicker, but Ranma could still sense it. It had become perceptible during Ukyo's 'this is important too' line.

"Like I said, it's important." Ukyo grimaced, and subconsciously began walking a little faster. "I went head-to-head with Shampoo a little while back, and nearly got the crap beaten out of me for my troubles. Not because she's so much better than me, just because I made one stupid mistake that left me open. Don't want that happening again."

"Whoa. You fought her? You almost got flattened?" Ranma said in his best 'method actor' voice… which is to say, if Ukyo's mind hadn't been focused on the past, she would have sensed immediately that he was faking the queries. "How'd you get out of it?"

The chef wasn't paying enough attention for his tone to register, but she at least caught and comprehended the question. She held silent for the rest of the current block, before admitting, "I used her curse against her. Not something I'm really proud of, and definitely not something I want to have to count on to save my butt."

"Especially when you consider how ticked off it made her."

"No joke…" Ukyo blinked and came to a dead stop, only ten feet away from the entrance to their destination. Ranma kept walking for a few steps before realizing he was leaving her behind. He stopped as well, turned back to face her, and developed a sweatdrop at the look of suspicion on his oldest friend's face. "Ranma honey?" she asked. "That sounded a little funny, somehow. Are you just talking about what she did to get me back? Or is there some other reason you'd know for a fact that Shampoo was really pissed at me?"

'Oh well, it's not like there was really gonna be a good way to do this.' With that cheerful thought for encouragement, Ranma braced himself. "Uh, no. I mean, yeah. I mean… Hey, you said it yourself — you ain't proud of doing this. Gettin' your own curse, just for a little bit, that shows you even more how she felt. How it feels to have someone else snatch away all your strength and skills and even your own human body. So… I guess what I'm trying to say is…"

"Is that Shampoo told you to tell me to back the hell off?!" Ukyo demanded, her fists clenched at her sides and her face like a thundercloud.

"Well, yeah… I mean, no…" Ranma experienced a rather curious phenomenon then. One corner of his mind somehow managed to present to his greater consciousness a reasonably clear, impartial view of just how pathetic he must look to an outside observer. Slamming his eyes shut and drawing on every iota of determination he could muster, he declared, "No! That's not how it is at all! I volunteered to do it, that is, to ask you not to use her curse against her again. You've seen the kind of crap those jerks at Furinkan try to pull on me. I can tell you first-hand how Shampoo musta felt when you did that, and it sucks! No way am I just gonna sit still and say it's okay if it's happening to somebody other than me!"

"So you're just gonna take her side then, and dump something on me too?! I guess Shampoo's little payback hit harder at the time, but this damn well hurts too, Ranma! And could you please at least look at me?!"

"No, I can't," Ranma admitted in a tone containing notable self-disgust. "I'll lose every bit of my cool and control if I do. Hell, I can't even handle it when Kodachi starts fake-crying, how am I supposed to deal with my oldest friend gettin' all choked up for real?" He paused, gulped, and continued. "I ain't trying to say you were wrong and Shampoo was right. She made a stupid mistake too. When I talked to her I realized she honestly thought she'd explained to you why she did what she did, she figured you'd understand everything just from that little 'Now you know what it feels like' line you told me an' Akane about.

"But that ain't the whole of it at all, Ucchan. It's like I said already — once you really understand what it's like to lose so much, to have somebody take so much away from you because it makes it easier for them, once you know how it feels… then you won't treat it like it's no big deal anymore. You won't think it's a perfectly good way to win any fight you want," he said quietly. "At least, I hope not. Shampoo said you'd said something like that, but I figure that could've just been another one of those deals where her Japanese didn't quite cut it."

Ukyo had forced herself to listen to all of that, though doing so felt like Shampoo had regained her previous curse and was now trying to claw her way out of the chef's gut. Maybe the things Ranma was saying were justified, but that didn't make it feel any better to hear her fiancé sticking up for the damnable Amazon at Ukyo's own expense.

However, the flipside was also true — the pain she was feeling didn't make Ranma's request any less reasonable and honorable. 'Honorable, hah,' Ukyo thought bitterly. 'Ranma, sure, but Shampoo? HELL no! But I don't think trying to make him see that right now is gonna work too well. And anyway… anyway, I was feeling guilty about what I did…' Such feelings were conspicuous by their absence now, but Ukyo supposed they might well return after the present fire in her belly had had a chance to die down. 'Choose your battles carefully, and you can even turn a loss into something that helps you to ultimate victory… at least, I really hope so….'

Out loud, the chef sighed then said, "I guess I understand where you're coming from, Ranchan. All right, tell Shampoo she's got a truce, not a water war."

Ranma breathed his own sigh, one longer, louder, deeper, and far more relieved than Ukyo's had been. "Will do. I'll make sure she promises not to use any more of that Instant junk on you as long as you don't nail her first. Sound good?" he asked, daring to open his eyes.

"I'm not quite sure," Ukyo said, her own eyes narrowing. Ranma gulped. "That answer brings me to my next question, Ranchan. Exactly what happened day before yesterday? Is that even when you talked to Shampoo about this, or was it sometime later?"

He frowned in puzzlement. "Yeah, it was then. What'd you think I was doing, when I flew off after hearing everything you said to me an' Akane? Of course I was gonna go confront Shampoo about it!"

"I wasn't sure," Ukyo countered. "But you know, I kind of thought you might not want to go over there all by yourself, especially since you weren't wearing any clothes at the time!" Ranma flinched at the comeback, which wasn't very reassuring. "And maybe you don't realize it, Sugar, but you don't exactly have a great track record in standing up to girls. So no, I wasn't convinced at all that you were going to the Cat Café. I thought you might just be taking some time to fly and think things over, since you've told me how much you like doing that."

"That was part of it," Ranma said quietly. "But you oughta know me better than to think I'd just let something like what you described slide entirely."

"And when did I say that? But for the record, Ranma, I almost think I'd rather you let it slide than deal with it without including me! What I thought… what I hoped that afternoon was that you'd come by my place, turn back to human and grab the change of clothes I'm keeping for you, and then we could go face Shampoo about this together! I waited and waited, didn't even open the shop until the dinner rush was crowding outside my doors staring in with puppy-dog eyes, and I never even saw you!" Ukyo glared furiously at him, her expression almost managing to mask the hints of tears in her eyes. "So you flew directly on to her restaurant instead? I guess you never said it outright, but back when you were asking me about using my place as a safe spot to change back to human, I sure didn't think you'd offered Shampoo the same kind of trust!"

Ranma couldn't find any words to answer that right away. It was true that he hadn't made the same arrangement at the Cat Café that he had with Ukyo and Dr. Tofu, and it was even true that Ukyo's reason had been a big part of why. But hearing it spoken out loud right now somehow felt wrong.

In any case, part of what she'd said was definitely wrong. "So who says I had to change back at all?" he wanted to know.

"What the hell kind of stupid question is that?!" Ukyo demanded. "What, you flew around her head in circles screeching in Morse code? You scratched a bunch of kanji onto the wall with your beak?!"

"Uh…" 'This would not be a good time to laugh, even if I'd be doing it at my own stupid self.' "Did I never mention one particular piece of this curse, Ucchan?" he asked, resisting an urge to put his hand behind his head and give a feeble, shamefaced grin. "It lets me understand Shampoo or Ryoga when we're both in our Falcon forms. That's how come I could fly straight to her place to talk to her about what she'd done. I just had to get her to change too."

Ukyo stared back at him in shock. "You… you can… the curse actually goes that far?"

"Yeah, it even lets her talk normally instead of that whole 'Japanese as a second language' thing."

The chef clenched her eyes shut for a moment, fighting off her initial reaction to this news. 'It's really that much of a connection, that much in common? This crap just keeps getting worse and worse!'

She took several deep breaths, struggling for composure and courage, then said, "Well, guess that's pretty convenient. So you didn't have to change at all when you went to talk to her about this? It didn't matter at all that Akane had already carried your clothes home?" She paused for a moment, long enough for Ranma to begin looking extremely uncomfortable but not long enough for him to actually figure out how to respond. "Let me ask you something… just how much time have you been spending with Shampoo lately? You sure didn't hesitate to commit to seeing her again after our little talk."

Ranma shrugged. The gesture might have been more convincing if he wasn't sweating like crazy. "Eh, I don't know. Yeah, I guess I have been seeing a lot more of her than usual, ever since we both got the upgrade to our curses. But… I mean… that's only natural, right?"

"Ranchan… far be it from me to sound like Akane…" Ukyo said through gritted teeth, "but do you seriously not see that she's just trying to snag you for herself again?"

He frowned. "I don't know, Ucchan, but I will tell you one thing I haven't seen. I haven't seen her try an' tell me which of my friends I could and could not spend time with." He closed his eyes again, and said, speaking now with more tiredness than determination, "Akane does that a lot. You've seen it yourself, I know, and it just ends up with me going out behind her back. I'm even startin' to be glad that it's easier to do that now… I'd really rather not have things be like that with you, Ucchan…"

"I'm not trying to say what you can and can't do," she replied carefully. "Just wanted you to watch out, that's all. If someone had told you three months ago that Shampoo would dump Instant Drowned Cat Water on someone you knew and cared about, and two days later you wouldn't even be a little mad at her for it, would you have believed them?"

"I…" He gulped. "I don't know…."

"Just think about it, okay?" Ukyo requested. "That's what I'm doing. Just trying to look out for… for the one who matters most to me in this whole crazy town… that's what fiancées and best friends do, isn't it?"

"Yeah, all the time, in a better world than this," Ranma said, his tone taking any sting out of the words. It was clear, both from that tone and from his expression as he opened his eyes once more, that he was feeling quite grateful for her response. Not leaving it to chance, though, he continued, "Thanks, Ucchan."

"You're welcome. But I-I will say that I'd like something a little more for myself," she said, calling on all her courage. "To see you a little more than I get to already, that is. I've been thinking about this for awhile now, Ranchan, and I was wondering… would you like to join the astronomy club with me?"

Ranma blinked, not having expected that. He turned the thought over in his mind a few times. The astronomy club… Yeah, that was one of the four whose members were able to skip their last class of the day. It did sound kind of nice. "But can we even join up this late in the game? School started up a long time ago. We may not be halfway through the semester yet, but I'm pretty sure all the clubs stopped takin' applications awhile back."

Ukyo rolled her eyes. "You mean, I was hallucinating? The falconry club hasn't been trying to get you to join?"

"Well, no, not as a student anyway," he pointed out, remembering that he needed to tell Ucchan about the club's latest persuasion tactic but deciding that this probably wasn't the best time.

"Doesn't really affect my point, Sugar." Ukyo closed the distance between them with two quick steps, then bounced the back of her hand off his shirt. The same, absolutely-nothing-to-do-with-regulations shirt that he wore all the time to Furinkan. "You know the normal rules don't apply to people like us. Any club would bend over backwards to get you and me as members. If nothing else, we're insurance against the next time Principal Kuno hatches one of his plans."

"Well, maybe. It wouldn't hurt to try, right?" Ranma said, giving her a grin. "Sure, I'm up for it."

"Great!" Ukyo said, returning his smile. In all honesty, she wasn't sure just how much of a concrete gain this was; she had already been spending her last class of the day with Ranma and without Akane there to interfere. But at least the principle involved here — Ranma agreeing to do this because it would let them spend time together — felt very nice.

Of course, that wasn't the only thing he'd agreed today to do with her. Her smile curved just a bit wider and showed a few more teeth as she said, "And now I believe you owe me an hour of sparring practice?"

Kasumi was mildly surprised when the falcon zipped in through the window, alighted on the counter, and began flapping its wings and cheeping imploringly. "Hello, Ryoga," she said with a smile. "Would you like some hot water?"

The falcon that was Ryoga Hibiki nodded, settling down with what Kasumi thought must be a sigh of relief. She turned to the sink and began running hot water into a pan. "Here you go," she said, putting the water on the floor. Then she blinked, picked it back up and dumped it into the sink. Ryoga let out a squawk of protest. Kasumi gave him a quick, apologetic bow and smile. "Let me bring a towel and bathrobe for you first, all right?" she asked. Ryoga's eyes widened in realization, and Kasumi could almost imagine she saw a hint of red suffusing the darkness of his feathers. "I'll be right back, so please don't go anywhere," she called over her shoulder as she slipped through the doorway.

It took her longer than she'd expected to fetch those items and return, due to the fact that halfway through the process she realized there was something else she really ought to deliver to Ryoga as well. She made a quick side-trip to the room Ranma shared with his father, then headed for the living room where the only other occupant of the home could currently be found. "Hello, Nabiki," she said.

"Hey, Sis." Nabiki looked up from her manga with a mildly inquisitive look. The expression sharpened and became more interested as she noted one particular item her elder sister was carrying. "Isn't that Ranma's last full bar of waterproof soap?"

"Yes. Well, it isn't really Ranma's, remember? He's been waiting until he could give it to Ryoga."

"Well, that's what he says, at least," Nabiki murmured. "So what are you doing with it?" She blinked, hearing slight sounds of movement from the kitchen. "Don't tell me — ol' What's-his-name dropped in for one of his fly-by-night visits?"

"Ryoga's in the kitchen, if that's what you mean." A wrinkle of puzzlement creased Kasumi's brow. " 'Ol' What's-his-name'?"

Nabiki shrugged. "It seems appropriate, considering how little time he actually spends around town."

"Well, we shouldn't waste this opportunity to give him his own protective soap," Kasumi said briskly. "Where are the bars you ordered from China?"

"Urglplk!" Nabiki was able to keep her eyes from widening noticeably, and stifle the gurgle before it could escape the back of her throat, but she was still as surprised as she had been in a long time. "Ah… what do you mean, Kasumi?"

The eldest Tendo daughter blinked. "I mean the four bars of waterproof soap Akane paid you to order from the Jusenkyo Products company," she said, clearly puzzled at Nabiki's response. "Two for Ranma and two for Ryoga. They did arrive this morning while I was out shopping, right?"

"Yes, they did," Nabiki said slowly. "While you were out shopping, and Akane was out jogging, and Ranma was soaring in the wild blue yonder, and Daddy was at that town council meeting, and Mr. Saotome was off scrounging up more supplies for Akane's training."

"Oh, that's good!" Kasumi said, relieved at Nabiki's answer and utterly oblivious to the question behind it.

Nabiki started to say something else, then visibly thought better of it. "Okay, I'll go fetch Ryoga's share of the soap. Assuming he hasn't wandered out of the kitchen and into the sunset yet."

Kasumi looked down at the towel and bathrobe in her hands. "Oh my, I hope not."

The Tendo sisters vacated the room, one looking mildly concerned and hopeful, the other doing her best not to register uneasiness. "Ryoga, I'm back," Kasumi said as she stepped through the doorway.

"Thanks, Kasumi, but you really didn't need to go to that much trouble."

The eldest Tendo daughter's eyes widened. Ryoga was standing before her, looking very sheepish. The transformation in and of itself wasn't too surprising, since Kasumi could easily believe that his talons would be able to manipulate the sink handles, but he was also dressed in his trademark yellow shirt, black pants, and black-and-yellow bandana. As the bandana was the only piece of that ensemble he'd had on him when he arrived, Kasumi was understandably confused. "How did you do that, Ryoga?" Smiling as she recovered her equilibrium, she guessed, "Did Shampoo's friend Mousse teach you how to carry around spare clothes and things even when you're a bird?"

"No, I just hid a bunch of changes of clothing in important places," Ryoga said, leaving out exactly how far back he'd done this.

"Hmmm, 'be prepared'. The Boy Scout motto. I never knew you'd joined, Ryoga." This was Nabiki, appearing behind Kasumi. "So how far along in the ranks are you?" She smirked at him. "Eagle Scout? Or maybe something a little humbler, cuter, and more down-to-earth?"

"Whatever," he said. "Um… Kasumi? Is Akane around? I've got some souvenirs I'd like to give her."

"Akane's busy training right now," Nabiki said helpfully, answering before Kasumi could. "You can give them to me and I'll pass them along to her." Or rather, she would evaluate them in case Ryoga had managed to once again get his hands on some exotic goods that were commonplace where he'd picked them up, but very valuable in the local markets. She'd made several hundred thousand yen by acting as the middleman for Ryoga to her little sister, selling the actual items he had intended for Akane and providing her with locally-produced variants that looked nearly identical to what she would have gotten. Nabiki knew there was no chance in the world Ryoga would ever notice the difference, and even if he did it wasn't like he could say anything.

"No, thanks," Ryoga said. "I'd really like to stay and talk to her — if that's all right, I mean." Kasumi gave him a cheerful smile and nod, and Ryoga returned his own grin of thanks. "I'll give them to her myself."

Nabiki gave him a long, measuring look. He didn't seem at all nervous at that prospect, and that was cause for contemplation. Given that in the past she'd seen Ryoga destroy the better part of a load-bearing wall simply by nervous fidgeting while trying to present his latest batch of gifts to Akane, it didn't make much sense now for him to face the prospect entirely free of doubt or anxiety. Unless, of course, he was under one of the random mind-altering effects that popped up every so often in the district.

"I'm sure Akane will appreciate that," Kasumi said. "She'll be glad to see you again."

"I'll be glad to see her," Ryoga replied. "You said she was training? I wonder if she'd like me to help her. Or… is Ranma with her?" His face clouded over as he asked the question, but not to the degree that Nabiki had expected. Her sense of something being out of place ratcheted up another notch.

"No, she's working with Ranma's father lately," Nabiki said. "Mr. Saotome doesn't allow anyone else to watch while he does whatever he's doing with Akane." She speculated idly for a moment, wondering whether she ought to drop a few hints that training might not be the only thing on Genma's mind during these meetings with Akane. Quickly she realized it would be mostly pointless. She could undoubtedly get Ryoga all fired up and send him charging out there to confront Genma, but the old panda would just deny everything and divert Ryoga toward his son, probably managing to stoke the Lost Boy's anger even higher in the process. It would be good for a laugh for her, but it probably wouldn't accomplish anything concrete.

There were better methods at her disposal. "Even Ranma gets shut out, no matter how much he complains about it."

"Good for Akane," Ryoga pronounced. "She's much better off without him. Especially in something like that."

Kasumi blinked. "Why do you say that, Ryoga? Why would Akane be better off with just Mr. Saotome and not Ranma there while she trains?"

"Urk!" Ryoga paled. He hadn't quite thought of it that way. Half a loaf might be better than none, but he wasn't sure the saying applied in this particular situation. Sure, Ranma was a jerk, but where had he learned it from?

"Oh, I don't know, Kasumi," Nabiki said casually, watching Ryoga from the corner of one eye. "Maybe because Ranma always makes fun of our baby sister's skills in the Art, points out how far she has to go, and rubs her face in the fact that, compared to everyone else around here, she's not a real martial artist at all."

"Excuse me, Nabiki," Ryoga said coldly. "Just because she's not as good as Ranma or me doesn't make her not a real martial artist."

"No, but only training when she feels like it, and only feeling like it when someone bruises her pride, does," Nabiki shot back with a smirk.

"What do you know about it, anyway?" Ryoga demanded. "It wasn't that long ago that I helped her train to take down those girls who thought they were your sisters. You weren't there to see her, how much spirit and dedication she had!"

"And you weren't around for the month before those two showed up," Nabiki said in a voice like honey over a razor blade, "when the only 'training' she did was her daily jog. You also weren't around a couple of days after the fight, when I talked to little sister and got the details of just what kind of training you gave her."

"What's that supposed to mean? I gave her just what she needed! She came back just fine to win the rematch!"

Nabiki's eyes flashed. "Ryoga… I suggest you stop being so pigheaded about this." The threat in her tone was unmistakable, at least to someone who knew what the middle Tendo was talking about.

Kasumi, meanwhile, was looking lost and uncertain. She could sense the mood behind the two teenagers' words, but didn't really understand the how or why. Particularly she didn't understand why Nabiki's choice of words in that final sentence should have Ryoga paling and flinching back. "Um… well… Ryoga, here," she interjected, breaking the hard cold silence and handing a small square package to Ryoga. "It's a bar of waterproof soap. Nabiki has two more for you. Ranma wanted you to have half of his stock, so that you could have your own protection."

"Yeah, yeah, here you go Hibiki." Nabiki handed over her two bars as well. 'Feel free to sell them or pitch them once you don't need them any more. At the very least don't just give them back to Ranma.'

"He… he did? Wait a minute, did Akane ask him to?"

"Yes, that's right," Kasumi said. "They were both thinking of you."

'Yeah, right,' Ryoga thought. 'I guess the price of being as nice as Kasumi is that you don't see the world how it really is. No way Ranma would have done this for me without Akane saying anything. At least not when he had already got Shampoo to get a real cure shipped here for me…' Blinking in sudden alarm, Ryoga realized that although Ranma had told him he would make the request, he hadn't seen or heard from his rival since then. For all he knew, it might have proved impossible for some reason or another and these bars of soap were Ranma's apology for not being able to finally free him from Jusenkyo's embrace. "What about the Nannichuan?" he asked desperately.

"Should get here in another couple of weeks," Nabiki drawled. "Ranma said he figured even a klutz like you could keep protected between now and then with this much soap."

"Oh, he did, did he?" Ryoga growled.

"And I hope you appreciate how much trouble he's had to go to, to do this for you," the middle Tendo continued. "Whatever Shampoo wanted from him in return for doing this, it's got to be big. He hasn't even had the guts yet to tell us what it is."

Kasumi spoke up before Ryoga could. "But, Nabiki… that isn't right. She hasn't asked anything from him."

"Oh, please, Sis. You don't honestly believe that, do you?" Nabiki rolled her eyes. "I suppose it's just a coincidence how much time he spends away from home these days, and how the Cat Café is only taking delivery orders anymore."

"So that jerk is only getting worse as time goes by, huh?" Ryoga growled. "Akane would be better off if she'd never met him. She'd be better off if he'd never been born!"

Nabiki gave him a hooded stare. "I suppose you could suggest someone to take her current fiancé's place, hmmm?"

He shook his head, not quite angry enough to miss the implication. "Forget replacing him. She'd be better off without anyone in his place at all. She doesn't need someone so much better than her that he thinks her skills are worthless, someone with so many bimbos after him that he doesn't recognize a real treasure because it doesn't fall all over him. She sure doesn't need idiots like Ranma's dad or yours trying to pick out someone for her to spend the rest of her life with."

Kasumi frowned unhappily. "Ryoga, that's… not very nice."

He started stonily back at her, a little too focused on Akane and her situation to realize just how bad it would be to hurt her sweet, gentle sister. "It's still true."

The eldest Tendo drew back, but didn't have time to give any other reaction. Nabiki's hand was already on her arm, in a gentle but firm grip. "Hey, Kasumi, don't you have some laundry to sort up in your room?" she asked lightly. "Some dusting to do?" She winked. "Or maybe that romance novel and box of chocolate covered cherries I picked up for you yesterday?"

"I… yes, Nabiki, I think that might be a good idea. It's still a while before I need to start work on supper." Kasumi slipped away from Ryoga and out of the kitchen, not exactly hurrying, but certainly not dawdling either.

Ryoga started to follow at least as far as the back porch, meaning to wait there for Akane, but Nabiki took hold of him with the hand that hadn't given Kasumi gentle encouragement a moment ago. Her older sister was no longer present, Ranma was off heaven-knew-where, and most importantly of all Akane was in the dojo with Soun and Genma. She wasn't about to waste this opportunity. "You're not going anywhere, P-chan," she hissed, a venomous sound that easily cut through Ryoga's smoldering anger at the unfairnesses in Akane's life.

"Is there something you wanted to say?" Ryoga growled in return a few seconds later, once he was sure Kasumi was out of earshot. "And don't call me P-chan!"

"I'll call you what I please," Nabiki said coldly. "P-chan, opportunist, liar… this is the first time we've talked since you dropped by and showed us your new curse, isn't it? I'll admit I was impressed at the time. That explanation you gave Akane for why Ranma and Shampoo would give you a Falcon curse too… why, I couldn't have come up with something better myself! How's that feel, Ryoga-baby?" she asked sweetly. "Even a 'heartless, honorless, ice-cold bitch' like me was impressed by your performance!"

Ryoga jerked his arm free from her grasp, though he retained enough presence of mind not to use anything like full strength. "Don't bother to throw that in my face, Nabiki," he advised. "Ranma already beat you to it, and he did a better job than you managed. Don't know who you're trying to hurt by dredging that little phrase up, either. I think it was a great way for me to describe someone who'd take money in exchange for keeping quiet about who and what her little sister's pet really was." In fact, with what Ranma had forced him to face about how bad his actions had really been, he now wished he could think of stronger words than those. 'Maybe some kind of Yakuza reference? No, she'd probably take it as a compliment.'

"You seem to be forgetting the nonmonetary part of the transaction," Nabiki spat. "Freudian slip, maybe? I'll refresh your memory. As long as you didn't do anything to Akane and she didn't find out the truth, you weren't actually hurting her. I could let my silence be for sale as long as that was true. But I meant every word I said when I warned you what would happen if you really did hurt Akane, or any of my family, Ryoga baby. You may not have the Pig curse any more, but it wouldn't be all that hard for me to get my hands on some Instant powder. I can still take 'P-chan' to a shelter and have him fixed. Or put down."

"Are you finished?" Ryoga demanded bitterly. "I didn't forget any of it. And you don't need to threaten me to keep me from hurting Akane."

Nabiki gave an exclamation of disgust. "Bullshit. You've been trying to do it since day one, and the only thing that's saved you is that you haven't managed it yet. In fact, more often than not you've helped when you were trying to hurt."

"What the hell are you talking about?!"

"I'm talking about Ranma Saotome." Nabiki gave him her coldest, most sardonic grin. "I have no idea how many times you proclaimed he wasn't good enough for her. Akane was always too clueless to catch it, but of course each time there was the implication that you would be a much better choice. The fact of the matter is, if I'd ever thought you had a chance to shove him out from between you and Akane, I'd have taken you out of the picture first."

"I'd be a dozen times better choice for her than Ranma is," Ryoga said in a voice thick with fury. "I'm not trying for that anymore, I know I'm not good enough for her. But that doesn't make him somehow better!"

"Get real, or get a surgeon to work on your eyes," Nabiki advised. "If it weren't for Ranma, this family would have been torn apart a long time ago. At least five things crash-landed on us in the past year that had nothing to do with him, and that we simply could not have survived without his help." Even her skills had their limits, most particularly that she needed time to develop and execute a plan, and all too often the kind of menaces that had now become part of their lives attacked swiftly and without advance warning. It galled her to the very bone to know that the only control she could exert over such situations was keeping Ranma in place as insurance. Watching her little sister continue to ignore the lessons she should have learned wasn't exactly pleasant either. "And you want to kick him out for daring to mouth off to Akane from time to time?"

"Is that what you call it?" Ryoga said, anger now vying with weariness. "You're the one fooling yourself, Nabiki. Or trying to fool me, anyway. You talk like you actually care about Akane, about your family, but all I see is you worrying that things won't go exactly the way you want them to. Akane, your father, Kasumi… well, maybe not Kasumi… they're just pieces on the board to you. Having Ranma around to exploit is all you care about. It doesn't matter at all how he hurts her."

"He treats the brat better than she deserves, most of the time," Nabiki stated in her most matter-of-fact tone of voice. Despite the charge Ryoga had just leveled against her, this still managed to send him stumbling a step backward in shock. "And I don't suppose there's a snowball's chance in hell you'll really understand what I mean when I say that."

"I'd guess it means you want this conversation to be over," Ryoga said tightly. "Because I'm sure not going to stick around and—"

The resounding crack of Nabiki's slap cut him off. The gesture had been every bit as controlled as her previous words, designed to silence Ryoga and get his attention rather than physically hurt him (which Nabiki was fairly sure she couldn't have done anyway). "It means that I actually understand what my precious little princess of a sister really needs," she spat. "She needs someone as strong and skilled and dependable as Ranma to pull her out when she gets in over her head. She needs someone as clueless about girls as Ranma, because she sucks at all things feminine and can't even admit there's a problem. She needs someone to knock her off her high horse now, while he's there to catch her, because the world for damn sure doesn't care about Akane Tendo's delusions of adequacy!"

"Dammit, Nabiki, I don't want to listen to this!" Ryoga barely held back from yelling the words loud enough to reach all the way to the dojo.

"Of course not. You're part of the problem. For example, you chow down on the culinary catastrophes she calls food, and tell her it's great. Tell me, Ryoga, exactly how is that going to help her get better? Or do you think it'll really be okay for her to someday feed glop like that to children?"

"Um… I… she won't…." He couldn't manage a better reply than that.

"Or how about her martial arts skills, since you seem to think it's such a crime for Ranma to criticize them? Enlighten me, oh wise one, just what would happen if Akane were to get in a serious fight with Shampoo — especially if our favorite Amazon knew about it ahead of time and prepared with her own waterproof soap?"

"Shampoo wouldn't even be here if it weren't for Ranma!"

Nabiki just shook her head. "Pathetic. Okay, I'll humor you. Forget the soap and replace 'Shampoo' with 'Kodachi'." It was one of the few areas where Nabiki wholeheartedly agreed with her father. Like Soun, she wasn't terribly concerned about the idea of Akane in general challenge matches. Like Soun, she absolutely did not want to see the Black Rose fight her sister when Kodachi was out for blood. "In case you've forgotten, when Miss Kuno first came into our lives it had nothing to do with Ranma."

"She… she could…" Ryoga did his best to shake away memories of the long-ago match between Kodachi and Ranma-chan. "If it were a serious fight and Akane didn't have to use gymnastics tools, she could win. As strong as she is, all it would take is one hit!"

"I believe it wouldn't take more than one hit from Kodachi either, for reasons that have nothing to do with brute strength," Nabiki returned. "Ryoga, for Akane's sake, please pinch yourself and wake up from this dreamworld. She's not good enough. She does need to grow up. The things Ranma says to her are totally justified more often than not, and if I thought it would really get through to her, I'd arrange for him to be even harsher and more critical." A vicious frown splitting her face, she added, "And the last thing my little sister needs is for so-called friends to feed her delusions instead of helping wean her off of them!"

"What she really needs is for people to believe in her," he fired back. "If you think Ranma is such a great asset, why don't you marry him instead of sticking it to Akane?!"

"You aren't listening to a word I'm saying, are you," Nabiki accused. "Guess I'm wasting my breath. But I will say this, Hibiki. I spent a lot of time talking to little sister after that business with Natsume and Kurumi. I got her to describe just what kind of training you had been doing with her." Her eyes narrowed. "You didn't hit back. You didn't do any work on her evasion. All you did was help her recover her conditioning, get back what she'd lost during that month little Miss 'I'm a martial artist too!' spent without training at all. And don't think I missed the way you were talking earlier, about Akane winning the rematch. I was there, and I'll tell you to your face that it was Ranma who won it. Akane was just along for the ride."

"I don't have to listen to this," Ryoga snarled. "Akane deserves a better fiancé than Ranma, she deserves a better friend than me, and she sure as hell deserves a better sister than you!"

Nabiki barked a quick, bitter laugh. "She's got one, remember? Kasumi? Closest thing to an angel on earth, and you were about this close to really hurting her with what you were saying. Did you even stop to wonder why we were having this conversation, Ryoga-baby?" Although Nabiki was honest enough to admit to herself that it wasn't just sisterly outrage; there was another, more important reason as well. Shampoo had never been anywhere near as threatening as she was nowadays, and the middle Tendo just was no longer certain she could afford to ignore Ryoga's fumbling, previously-ineffective attempts to alter the status quo.

"That-that isn't what I meant!" he protested.

"I don't give a damn what you meant. As if you even know yourself." Nabiki stepped forward, getting right in his personal space, and growled, "I suggest you go right on thinking of me as a 'heartless, honorless, ice-cold bitch'. Because you're right about at least part of it — I don't care about you, or Ranma, or his father, or any of his would-be harem, except for what you can do for me and my family. And what I have to make sure you don't do. You might get off on thinking you're some kind of knight in shining armor for Akane, but I assure you, Ryoga, if you screw things up for me or mine, I will leave you wishing you had never been born."

Ryoga stood in relative silence for a few moments, broken only by his labored breathing. "That's a really great attitude, Nabiki," he eventually said, biting the words off. "I hope someday you meet someone else who thinks like that."


To be continued.

Author's notes: Based on the prereader feedback, there are two issues that I'd like to elaborate on here. The first is Akane and my treatment of her — specifically the way I have Nabiki speaking and thinking about her in this chapter. This was something that was very hard to bring off; it was necessary for how I want to depict Nabiki in this fanfic, but at the same time I don't want the readers thinking I put that in to have her speak with my voice as she derides her sister. If I wanted to choose one of the characters as my direct mouthpiece, you'd better believe I'd pick someone better than this story's Nabiki Tendo. ^_^

So why are those parts in there? Like I already indicated, it is mostly for the readers to get a better idea of the character of Nabiki, not Akane — because at the end of the day no one character has got a monopoly on the truth or sees everything with perfect clarity. There is justice to some of what Nabiki says, but it is for each reader to decide for himself where the line falls between "Nabiki is right about this" and "Nabiki is wrong about that"; the real value of these scenes is insight into the middle Tendo. Or at least that's what I wrote them for, anyway.

The second issue is Ranma's willingness to accept Shampoo dishing out a temporary Jusenkyo curse. Some readers probably feel he should have been harsher, more critical, more angry at Shampoo for what she did, and certainly not keeping quiet when she stated she was fully prepared and ready to give Akane her own one-shot transformation if the youngest Tendo ever again uses her curse against her.

This, however, is not how I see Ranma Saotome in general, and certainly not in this story. For the first time now he has experience with bearing a nonhuman curse and has had people see it as just another opening to exploit. This has not made him regret taking his Falcon curse, but it has been very frustrating nonetheless. I cannot but think that his sympathies would rest with Shampoo once he got all the information, because she is the one who is vulnerable to this tactic anytime, anyplace. A plan that didn't harm Ukyo, that did teach the chef to really understand how it felt when someone pulled something like this on you, something that could make Ukyo choose to hold back out of empathy or morality rather than just fear of retaliation… like I already said, I just don't see it as bothering Ranma too much.

One last thing on this: in the original series, Ranma himself has never deliberately used people's curses against them to win a fight (or at least, I couldn't remember any examples and neither could my prereaders). However, he has shown himself to be willing to trigger someone's curse under other circumstances (twice with Ryoga that I can recall, and of course there's the times Genma is giving a speech that Ranma doesn't want to listen to ^_^). It seems to me that the best, most consistent explanation here is that he considers winning a battle with a trick like that to be too far beyond the pale, too low-down and dirty to qualify as victory at all. Because he never even considered using it to take down Ryoga in either the Breaking Point or the Shi Shi Hokodan arcs, despite how much was at stake.

Thanks to Ed Simons, Nemesis Zero, and Beer-Monster for prereading. Thanks to Judah for permission to use the 'Buzzing Fist' technique from his story Right Moments (although I just kept the name and completely changed the nature of the move). Thank you for reading, and I hope you enjoyed the chapter.

Chapter 6
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