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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 6: Interlude — The Calm Before…

He walked along in the gentle glow of the afternoon sun, enjoying the calm weather, the uncrowded streets, and the pleasant ache of recent exertion. Ucchan had really given it her all in their sparring session, resulting in a very good workout indeed. 'Kinda made for a nice change after all that time in the harness,' he thought, grimacing at the memory of the frustrating initial Air Style exercise. 'Sometimes seems like the more powerful the lesson you're learning, the less fun the training is. But of course, it also means there's more satisfaction at the end when you've accomplished something that big.'

The sparring he'd recently finished with Ukyo had been fun, but the only thing he'd actually learned from it was that his oldest friend had come up with a killer new recipe for gunpowder and black pepper okonomiyaki. She'd caught him utterly by surprise with the attack and reduced him to coughing, sputtering tears. 'Man, I'm glad she took it as well as she did when I talked to her about Shampoo. If she really had been as ticked as I thought she might be, she could've squashed me flat right then. But all she did was back off and brag a bit.' He'd take hearing Ukyo crow with triumph any day, at least if the alternative was her patented spatula slam.

'Not that Ucchan would hold back like that in a real fight, of course,' he mused. She hadn't come right out and said it, back when he'd first showed up at her place and she'd asked him to train with her, but Ranma was nearly certain that his oldest friend was thinking about getting some payback for the Instant Maoniichuan. He wasn't sure what he thought about that. In all honesty, part of him wanted to just ignore the question and enjoy the calm, peaceful moment free of troubling thoughts.

On the other hand, that part of his psyche had done him precious little long-term good. With a mental grimace, Ranma opted to ignore its advice this time. 'Should I worry about it at all? It ain't like Ucchan and Shampoo haven't had plenty of scuffles before. Nothing ever really comes of it,' he thought. 'Sure, things might've changed a little recently, but that don't seem like such a big deal. Ukyo used Shampoo's curse against her when she never has before, and Shampoo paid her back by doing something she hasn't either. Ucchan told me she won't do that any more, and Shampoo said she'll only use the Instant water as payback for people who splash her first. That pretty much puts things back like they were, right? So is there any reason for me to care if they have another fight down the road?'

When he phrased the question like that, it became a little easier to see what had been nagging at the back of his mind. 'Then again, guess I really shouldn't say it'll be just like it was before. Ucchan always put up a pretty good fight in the past, at least the times I was there to watch.' He considered that thought for a minute, then amended, 'Well, out of the times they didn't lose their tempers, forget about their training and discipline, and get into a straight-out catfight.'

However, unless he was radically mistaken, those days were drawing swiftly to a close. Ukyo hadn't exactly slacked off since coming to Nerima; her skills were better now than they had been then, and in its own way, this might be more impressive than anything Shampoo had done. The chef didn't have anyone to guide her training and also had the fiercest demands on her time out of all his circle of friends and rivals. Taken in that sense, Ukyo might already have achieved more than Shampoo would for years to come.

'And all of that's well and good,' he thought, 'but how much comfort is it gonna be to Ucchan if she tries to go up against Shampoo in another month or so and gets squashed by the Air style?' The playing field wasn't terribly uneven yet; Shampoo definitely had a few new tricks up her sleeve, but at her present level of mastery, use of them drained her reserves very quickly indeed. Heck, if she tried to use them too exclusively in a fight, Ranma would place his money on Ukyo emerging the victor rather than the Amazon.

From what Shampoo and Cologne had said, though, that wouldn't be true for much longer. Another couple of weeks' work would likely see Shampoo able to use the lowest-level techniques with impunity. Ranma didn't know for sure, but he suspected that by that time Cologne would also have taught her at least one newer and stronger move. In another month, she could probably take Ukyo as easily as Ucchan could handle Akane.

'Wonder how Ucchan's gonna take that when it happens,' Ranma mused. 'I know how ticked off Ryoga was when I first mastered the Chestnut Fist and outclassed him so bad.' Mad enough to try to use the Breaking Point against him without knowing it only worked on stone. He didn't think Ukyo would react anywhere near that badly, but the fact remained that she surely wouldn't like it much when Shampoo took uncontestable first place. 'Guess we'll just have to see how she deals with it and whether Shampoo grinds her face into the dirt with it,' he thought. He didn't think the Amazon would go that far, but she might not have to. Even if Shampoo didn't flaunt her new level of mastery at all, he doubted Ukyo would be too happy about never again being able to face her on equal footing.

'Not like there's much I could do about that, though,' he thought uncomfortably. 'Hmm… it'd be funny if somebody randomly turned up who could teach her the Water style, assuming there is such a thing. After all, she spent so much time battling it out against the waves of the ocean. Ucchan with water, me an' Shampoo with air, Ryoga's got earth nailed down pretty good… Heh, guess that leaves fire for Akane.'

After spending a few moments thinking about that, and having his amusement turn to trepidation at the thought of an Akane who could back up her strikes with angry, burning chi, Ranma pushed those thoughts away. He had more immediate things to focus on. The Tendo dojo was just a block away now, and there was an important conversation not to put off any longer. Akane's training session with Genma probably hadn't ended yet, but once it did, he needed to have the same talk with her that he'd had with Ukyo. 'I should be so lucky that it'll go as well this time as it did with her,' he thought. 'Still, Akane oughta be wiped out after training this long. I don't know what Pop's got her doing, but whatever it is, it sure pushes her to her limits. Maybe she'll be tired enough to actually stop and think instead of just losing her temper.' If there was anything he could say, any way to soften the blow of explaining that he'd talked to Shampoo, accepted why she did what she did, and agreed that Ukyo and Akane needed to hold back from their own water attacks, Ranma doubted he would see it in time to do any good.

Nonetheless, he spent the remaining time walking slowly and contemplating, hoping for an inspiration. As he passed through the gate and into the Tendo yard, he found at least a measure of success. 'You know, I bet it would be a good idea to leave out the part Shampoo told me about Akane already trying to use her new curse against her. The whole point here is to get Akane not to do that from now on. Throwing it in her face that she already tried once and failed… that won't accomplish anything except making her feel bad. No, I'll just keep quiet on that detail unless she says something to change my mind.' He couldn't think of what she might say to do that, but the year he'd lived in Nerima had taught him to expect the unexpected from girls.

"Well, well, Ranma. I was beginning to wonder when you'd wing your way back." This was Nabiki, who had just appeared in the doorway as if to greet him. 'It's already been a good forty-five minutes since I tricked Ryoga into charging away into the sunset.'

"You were?" Ranma asked. "I've only been gone about four and a half hours, Nabiki. You've seen me take longer than that when I go out to… fly…." He paled and twitched, realizing suddenly that he'd forgotten something rather important. That had indeed been his cover story for the afternoon — that he was leaving for some flying time. How to explain his return now, in human form and fully clothed, when he'd left home in neither condition? 'Maybe she won't notice? …Who the heck do I think I'm kidding?'

'Good, he's off-balance,' Nabiki thought. This would be a perfect opportunity for her to push a little, completely destroy the feeble remnants of his poise, and drag from him the truth of his whereabouts for the afternoon… except for the fact that she already knew he'd cut his flight short to visit Ukyo. A week ago she'd spread the word among the students who were deepest in debt to her, that if anyone saw Ranma spending time with Shampoo or Ukyo when Nabiki herself didn't know about it, they would receive a five percent reduction on their outstanding balance. She'd gotten a phone call fifty minutes ago from one of her minions, reporting that Ranma was roughhousing with Ukyo in a vacant lot.

Under more pleasant circumstances this would be a great chance to get him to blurt out everything, then purchase her silence. However, as things stood now that would be a mistake. There was more important information to drag out of him while his defenses were down. "That's true," she said. "But never on a day like today, when you already got out on both the previous days for your little romps through the clouds."

"Huh?" he said feebly, more confused than ever. Both days? He quickly ran the events of Friday and Saturday back through his mind. "What're you talking about, Nabiki? Yesterday, sure, but I didn't do that at all on Friday." Just as importantly, he hadn't led the Tendos to believe that was what he was doing and then proceeded to take care of other business.

"You didn't?" she repeated, giving him a stare that made the back of his neck prickle. "I know it wasn't for very long, Ranma, but surely you haven't forgotten already? You ditched Ukyo and my sister on the way home from school, didn't even wait to get home to change and kiss the sky." Her tone sharpening ever so slightly, she continued, "Now that I think about it, though, I do seem to recall Akane saying something about how you weren't flying so much as heading straight to the Cat Café to spend time with Shampoo."

Ranma snorted, forcibly pushing aside his uneasiness. He didn't have anything to be ashamed of, and the only thing he had to hide from that day had nothing to do with why he'd originally gone to the Amazon stronghold. "Well, that's actually pretty close to what did happen, Nabiki. If by 'spend time' you mean 'ask her why she did that to Ucchan, and find out it was 'cause she'd already used Shampoo's new curse against her in a fight'. It ain't like I'm trying to keep that a secret from Akane or nothing, she just didn't ask me."

"And what would you have said if she did?" Nabiki wanted to know.

Ranma blinked. "Um, I just told you that."

"Why don't we see if we can dig a little deeper here," the middle Tendo suggested. "Shampoo used Instant Jusenkyo water on Ukyo, striking out of ambush without any warning at all, because Miss Kuonji grabbed for an advantage during one of their fights. Am I right so far?"

"Um… well…."

"Not only did she do that, she picked the absolute worst curse imaginable," Nabiki continued. "No danger of Ukyo not understanding the lesson our favorite Amazon was trying to teach."

"Nope, that ain't true at all." Ranma took a deep breath, focusing on the conversation as if it were the kind of battle he knew how to fight. 'Think strategy, think sacrificing stuff you don't need, think preemptive strikes.' "From what she said, she thought that's how it was, but Shampoo really didn't get her point across like she meant to."

Nabiki raised one eyebrow. "From what Akane told me, Ukyo was panicking, desperate, just about on the edge of a breakdown. How much farther did Shampoo mean to go than that?"

"She wasn't tryin' to crush her, she just wanted to teach her a lesson!" Ranma snapped back. "Teach her how it feels when someone takes advantage of your Jusenkyo curse like that. And yeah, she screwed up by not explaining it anywhere near good enough, which is why she asked me to talk to Ucchan and tell her that's how it really is!" He hesitated just one moment longer, then made his decision. Surely it was better to confront a potential problem than hope it never turned into a real one. "That's why I cut my flying time short today. Went by Ucchan's to talk to her about that. To tell her why Shampoo did what she did, an' that she won't do it again if Ukyo doesn't try an' hit her in her own weak spot first."

"I'm sure she just loved that," Nabiki murmured, concealing her disquiet at Ranma actually volunteering information he should have wanted to keep hidden. "It must have been a great follow-up to Friday, to have her fiancé come by and take Shampoo's side over hers."

"Look, I ain't taking sides here at all! I'm trying to make sure they both understand what's really happening, and I'm hoping that they can work it out on their own once they do. It's not like Ukyo or Akane could know what it's like to have a curse, not without something like this. It's really about the least painful way they could find out for themselves, if you stop and think about it."

Nabiki's gaze was flat and stony as she replied, "So not only did she resort to that, she fully intends to do it again. Not only did she drop that bomb on Ukyo, she has every intention of including my sister in the fun as well. And you're just going to stand back, shake your head, and say 'Not gonna get involved', Saotome? Your father would be proud."

"Well, I don't think anybody would be proud of me if I just went blindly along with what somebody else told me to do!" he snarled back at her, a little too angry now to be cautious. "Happy, sure. I know there's loads of people who'd cheer themselves hoarse if I just knuckled under to whatever it is they want. Well, that may have happened sometimes, but it damn well isn't again!"

"And yet you say no word of protest when Shampoo proposes to punish the members of her competition by changing them into the stuff of your worst nightmares. Hey, do you think she's already planned out the eight times she's got coming, to balance out the times Akane used her old curse against her? The times she's never said a word of protest for?"

"It was more than eight times," Ranma stated flatly. "And no. I thought I already said that Shampoo asked me to make sure they know this is what's gonna happen from now on, if they go for the cheap win against her."

"And here I thought you took that stuff seriously, those things you martial artists always spout about protecting people from things they can't protect themselves from," Nabiki observed coolly. "Pray tell, how could Ukyo have defended herself from this? What could my little sister do?"

He just stared at her, anger subsiding in the face of lack of understanding. "Are you even listening to me, Nabiki? What kinda sense is that supposed to make? Yeah, Ukyo wasn't exactly able to stop Shampoo on Friday, but it's not like I could've made any kind of difference then. Whaddaya think I'm doing now if not what I can to keep it from happening again? In case you didn't realize it, it wasn't easy to have that talk with Ucchan, and if you think it won't be worse than that with Akane then you're really losing your touch!"

With a great deal of effort Nabiki maintained her control in the face of this. She couldn't decide which was worse — Ranma's attitude, or the fact that he hadn't made even one unthinking response to her attempts to push his hot-buttons. She didn't allow any of her true feelings or thoughts to show as she replied, "Well, Saotome, if you're that concerned about doing a good job of it, perhaps you ought to subcontract out?"


"I mean, I certainly don't want my little sister getting a close encounter with the Maoniichuan, even if it is the Instant type. And while I'm sure you could tell her what you told me and even convince her," she said this in a tone that indicated she was anything but sure, "it would probably go a lot smoother if you passed the message on to me and let me make the final delivery. How about it? I'll even slash my usual fee down to a paltry two thousand yen."

"W-would you?! …Wait." He stared back at her for what felt like a long time, seeming to debate something. Nabiki could tell that he was trying to decide whether to take her up on her offer, but she couldn't understand why, couldn't see any reason for him to hesitate like that. This didn't do much to help her mood.

In point of fact, Ranma was weighing the need to get Akane to see reason (which he was all but certain Nabiki could accomplish better than he could) against the fact that he'd committed himself to being the one to do it. Would it be right to pass the task off to Nabiki? Or would that be running from a hard thing that needed doing?

"Lemme think about, Nabiki," he eventually said, pushing past the highly dissatisfied Tendo daughter and disappearing into the house.

Nabiki remained where she'd been for several moments longer, seething in silence and secret. 'Damn it, I really don't like the direction things have been taking lately.' She had already committed not to set Akane directly against the Amazons, determined that doing so simply wasn't safe. Now Ranma was breaking away from his old patterns, the ones that had been so helpful for so long? 'Okay, Nabiki, just get some space, let him have his head for a day or a week or whatever. If he's not going to listen to me — or even worse, if he's going to listen close enough not to be hoodwinked by the usual BS — then I'll just have to work through other people. At least for now,' she thought darkly. 'But that's not how it's going to be forever, Ranma. Let's see how confident you are after I get something huge to blow up in your face.'

Ryoga stared forward over the smooth, unbroken, pristine soil of the lot. The terrain showed none of the common signs of his training, no craters from the Breaking Point, no half-submerged objects from the Graveyard Shift. Certainly none of the massive blasted excavations caused by the Chain of Despair combo. "Would you be proud, Akane?" he murmured. "I haven't used the Shi Shi Hokodan at all since we talked. I'm not sure it's helping me feel better, at least, not that part. But knowing you care so much — that does help. I promise, I won't fail you again."

With a deep breath and a frown of concentration, he dropped once more to his knees and braced his palms against the ground. For a long moment, nothing discernable happened. Then, with a grumble and a growl, the earth shuddered, convulsed, and disgorged a large, ragged chunk of concrete. Ryoga stayed where he was for another minute, recovering from the exertion of this twist on the Graveyard Shift. Making the ground swallow that thing whole had been easy enough. Operating the technique in reverse… Well, he didn't think he'd have it ready to unleash in a match any time soon.

Especially not with what he could see of his target even at this distance. Ryoga stood and walked over to the chunk of cement, taking in all the details that hadn't been discernable from far away. The black coating he'd applied to the entire surface of the object was still the predominant color, but there were numerous areas of bright gray showing, some in huge patches, others in scratches or streaks. Each one of those places represented damage done to the concrete from the disgorgement technique, an overall level of damage that would translate to critical injury if this were used against a person. Ryoga snorted and shook his head. "If I wanted that, I'd just use the original like it was designed for." And he certainly wouldn't be using this variant to give himself unlimited passage through the earth anytime soon. His overall toughness might protect him, but he had no intention of popping out of the earth without his pants in the middle of a challenge match.

The Lost Boy let out a sigh. He could see lots of possibilities for this variation, but so far all the good ones required a level of control that remained very far off. It didn't help that this training seemed to exhaust him more quickly than anything he'd done in years. Ryoga wasn't used to limiting his training to less than three hours a day. Heck, he hadn't caved like that during either the Shi Shi Hokodan or the Bakkusai Tenketsu regimens, no matter how much suffering either had entailed.

Those memories, particularly the second set, led his thoughts circling back to something he'd been trying to avoid. Ryoga shook his head, pulled out his black permanent marker, and began coloring over the fresh gouges on his target. Better to focus on what was before him right now, rather than brood about Amazons and their threats against Akane. He couldn't do anything about that right now, so he needed to focus on what he could do. He needed to train, train hard and improve himself and reach true mastery and understanding of these principles as quickly as possible. It was still a long ways down the road, but the ultimate goal he'd set his sights on deserved every ounce of effort he could put toward it.

With the concrete once again completely blacked out, Ryoga retreated half the length of the vacant lot and concentrated again. By now it was becoming a strain even to make the ground perform the initial, unaltered Graveyard Shift. Then again, perhaps having less energy could work in his favor. Perhaps it would be easier to reach the level of control he needed when he wasn't working with his full strength. Once the rock was completely submerged to the six inches he'd chosen for a target depth and the ground was once more smooth and unblemished, Ryoga took a moment to rest. He didn't let his concentration falter, but for the moment he wasn't expending any of his flagging reserves.

"I suggest you leave it there, boy."

The unexpected voice, as dry as the air of a long-sealed tomb and about as welcome, shattered Ryoga's focus. He lurched to his feet and spun around, gaping in dismay at the sight before him. Less than ten feet away, standing — at least, he guessed she was standing — on the boundary wall of the lot was Cologne. Blast it all, he thought he'd be safe here from any prying eyes that knew him and would report his progress back to Ranma! "Old woman, what are you doing in Osaka?!"

Cologne didn't bother to roll her eyes, chuckle, sigh, or in any other way make light of the usual confusion. "This is Nerima, boy. What's your third mistake?"

"What? My third…?" Ryoga let the question trail away into meaninglessness. No doubt she was just trying to mess with his head. "Never mind your questions, I've got one of my own! Is it true that you and Shampoo had some kind of potion delivered out here from China, that'll turn Akane or Ukyo into cats just like a one-use Jusenkyo curse?!"

"It's a powder, not a potion; a one-use curse is exactly what it is; my great-granddaughter did it without consulting me; she intends to use the Instant Sloth variety on Akane rather than Instant Cat; she will only go to such a length if it proves necessary; and she chose this as a deterrent from either of them using her own curse against her. Ukyo Kuonji resorted to that tactic in a battle with my Shampoo, and received her repayment four days ago. Akane Tendo has not yet done so, at least not since Shampoo exchanged curses, and therefore remains unchanged."

Ryoga's hands clenched into fists. His teeth glinted in the morning sunlight as he snarled, "You tell your Shampoo to stay away from Akane!"

In the blink of an eye Cologne crossed the distance separating them and gave him a painful thwap. "Weren't you listening, boy? I said as plainly as day that Akane is only at risk if she first engages in dishonorable, unfair, unworthy tactics! Or do you think it's perfectly all right for someone to win a victory through such a method, as long as it's Akane Tendo who is doing it?"

"Like Shampoo wouldn't provoke her into it if she wanted to get justification to do it afterward," he grumbled back, forcing himself to use a milder tone. He wasn't mollified in the slightest, but for now it seemed wise to let discretion prove the better part of valor.

"Bah. Surely even a love-blinded fool like you can give my great-granddaughter the barest minimum of credit. Even if you think she would resort to such tactics in a heartbeat if it were only a question of her own desires, you must know that she doesn't want to look bad to her beloved husband."

The Lost Boy snorted. "Like he'd care. That jerk has never once let himself see how great Akane really is, how she deserves to be treated. He'd probably just laugh if Shampoo did that, at least if she used the Sloth stuff rather than the Cat." He forced the glare away from his face, replacing it with a mask of determination. "But I'm not like that; I won't just sit back and let Shampoo or Ranma or anyone treat her like that! I'll fight your great-granddaughter if it comes to that, old woman. I'm sure you'll see her again before I will, so make sure she knows."

Cologne's eyes narrowed. "Are you sure you want that, boy? Want me to tell my great-granddaughter that Ryoga Hibiki has declared she can't even defend herself from those who would turn her curse against her? Excuse me, not everyone, merely the one person who's always been willing to do just that?" She hesitated for a moment, teetering on the edge of two very different rebukes. It would be easy enough to let her anger rise into flames, the anger Ryoga's unthinking Akane-can-do-no-wrong attitude had sparked even in one as controlled as her. Easy enough to remind him that taking this tone was a very bad idea when they hadn't yet received, let alone passed along, the Nannichuan that Shampoo had ordered for him.

Ryoga took a half step backward, feeling a surge of anxiety mix with his anger as for a second the Matriarch's eyes seemed to burn. Then, in the instant of an eyeblink, that was gone, and suddenly the ancient figure in front of him was more recognizably an old woman than he could ever remember seeing. A woman old almost beyond his concept of the term, worn and shrunken and weary.

"Do you really believe that, Ryoga Hibiki?" the Matriarch asked quietly, staring at him with a gaze that Ryoga found it impossible to hold for long. "That Akane Tendo can do no wrong? That no matter what she does, it's okay because she's the one doing it? That she must always be shielded from the consequences of her actions? That my great-granddaughter's plan, one designed to teach empathy and understanding of what a curse victim goes through, is such a horrible travesty? That Akane must never, ever suffer any such inconvenience, no matter how many times she takes advantage of the true curse Shampoo bears?" She paused for a few moments, regarding him. "Well, do you?" she snapped.

"…no," Ryoga was forced to admit, in a small, grudging voice. "But that doesn't mean it's all right for Shampoo to just drop something like that on her out of the blue! At least she needs to tell Akane why she would do it, heck, even give Akane the chance to deliberately use one of those powders herself to figure out what it's like!"

"She has already requested that my son-in-law give all those details to Akane Tendo, that she would have fair warning." Cologne paused for another moment, scrutinizing Ryoga even more closely. He seemed to be experiencing a mixture of relief, doubt, and concern. If there was any anger at the thought that Ukyo Kuonji had received no such consideration, she couldn't find it. Truth be told, she wasn't surprised. At least this reaction was better than some he might have made. "Perhaps if Miss Tendo is so kind and sweet, such an all-around treasure as you believe, she'll come up with the idea herself to try out a curse."

Ryoga was already shaking his head. "Yeah, right, like Ranma will manage to explain any of this good enough for her to really understand. She'll be lucky if he only insults her enough to ruin half her day." That thought sparked another. "Um… Granny?" he asked tentatively. "I'd do a much better job than Ranma, I'm sure of it. Do you think you could lead me back to the Tendo dojo?"

"Perhaps. Right now I have more important things to discuss with you," she replied. Besides, if Ranma knew what was good for him, he would already have communicated these things to Akane.

"Can't they wait?" he asked piteously. "I haven't seen her in so long… I finally made it back to her home the other day, but she was in the dojo training and I missed her then! When I heard about what Shampoo was going to do, I got so mad I ran out to find her and warn her to back off, and of course I got lost right away…." he stumbled to a halt as he realized that, although it certainly was a tragic story designed to raise pity in the heart of the average listener, he might have been better off omitting certain details when he was telling it to Cologne. "Er… I mean…."

"So you learned of this at the Tendo home," Cologne said, giving him a long, careful look. It sent chills running up and down Ryoga's spine, even though somehow the fear didn't seem to be directed toward himself. "Do you think Nabiki Tendo was deliberately trying to run you off, by using such a distraction?"

Ryoga made a disgusted sound. "If she didn't want me around, all she'd have to do is splash me, grab me, and throw me up into the sky. It'd take me another week just to find hot water, probably." At least, without the soap Kasumi had given him. "I figure she was just getting a few more kicks by hitting me where it hurt." He waited a few moments, seeing if Cologne would reply. She remained thoughtfully silent, showing no signs of ire at his previous unfortunate choice of words. He gulped, and asked again, "So… could you please lead me over to the Tendo place? We can talk afterward, if you want."

"Ryoga, it's ten a.m. on a Tuesday," the Matriarch stated flatly. "Akane is in the middle of class right now. Trust me, boy, you've got nothing better to do right now than listen to one last lesson from me."

The Lost Boy glared up at the sun, as if it were one of the long line of conspirators who'd worked against him over the years. It declined to shift through an eighty degree arc to suit his convenience, and so he sighed and said, "All right. What did you want to talk about?" His brow creasing ever so slightly, he added, "And what did you mean, the last lesson?"

Cologne opted to open with actions rather than words. She turned away from Ryoga to gaze across the expanse of the lot. Extending her staff and placing the knobby end on the ground, the Matriarch closed her eyes and concentrated. For a long moment nothing visible happened… and then, slowly and smoothly, the blackened chunk of concrete rose from the depths of the earth.

"You're actually going to help me with this?" Ryoga breathed, uncertain as to why he'd receive such a stroke of fortune. Even from this distance, he could see that this time the concrete hadn't suffered any large gouges or scrapes. "I… I would really appreciate it."

"Don't misunderstand me," Cologne returned in a tone that brooked no argument. "And don't jump the gun either, boy. Take a closer look." Ryoga's eyes bulged as the broken slab suddenly levitated into the air and floated over toward them. The sight was in no way comparable to what the Tendo family had witnessed when Cologne unleashed the Fist of the Ice Bear, but Ryoga had been in Sapporo at the time. To him, the sight of eighty pounds of solid mass floating through the air was daunting enough. As the concrete settled down at his feet and Cologne gestured for him to examine it, he pushed aside his trepidation and complied.

From this distance, he could see that the chunk hadn't come through undamaged after all. There were numerous small scratches and nicks speckled over the block, though none were large enough to detect at the original distance. "Um, what did you want me to see?" he asked, unsure what the old woman's point could be. "That's about a dozen times better than I was doing."

"It's also the best I can do with three centuries of experience under my belt," Cologne retorted. "My personal style is Air, not Earth. In my youth I knew a master of that school, and he could have brought that thing out of the ground larger and stronger than when it went in, by mixing the soil and stone of the earth itself into the concrete."

"Whoa," Ryoga breathed, glimpsing vistas he hadn't yet dreamed of.

Cologne's staff against his head brought him back to reality, though the Matriarch used just enough force to regain his attention, not to actually dish out pain. "As Matriarch of the Chinese Amazons, I have at least heard of all major techniques and styles that our people collected or developed over three thousand years. I've learned as many as my personal limits allow. But with the elemental styles, it is impossible for anyone to master more than one of them, because of the nature of chi in general and the human aura in particular."

"So you know some stuff about what I'm trying to learn, but you can't teach me anything really big," Ryoga said. "I still don't get why you thought that was so important. Even whatever you do know and can pass on to me would be a lot of help!"

"Boy, what we have here is a failure to communicate," Cologne pronounced. "I want you to think back to the one lesson I taught you directly."

"The Breaking Point," he said. "That's an earth technique, isn't it?" It was something he'd been suspecting lately, a suspicion that had moved closer and closer to certainty with all his recent training in the Graveyard Shift and its potential variations. Cologne certainly hadn't taught it like that, hadn't said any of the things he'd learned for the Graveyard Shift about focusing his own strength and self into the rock he was trying to affect. Then again, he could understand why the Amazons taught the Bakkusai Tenketsu like they did; his training for the Graveyard Shift hadn't had any kind of secondary physical benefit.

"Ah, you do remember. Now draw your mind back just a bit… not quite as far back as the training itself, think of your battle with my son-in-law and its aftermath. I haven't forgotten," Cologne said quietly, ominously, dangerously. "I remember all too well the image of you charging him with your finger outstretched, as if to trigger his own bloody exploding death. I recall a piglet squealing in fury when I revealed that the earth's body is the only one the technique affects."

Ryoga said nothing in reply. Cologne didn't allow him to get away with silence forever, though. "Have you forgotten, Ryoga? Do you still resent that the move doesn't do everything you assumed it did?"

"No," he muttered, and fell silent once more.

"Do you hold a grudge at me for letting you think what you did?"

"No. But…." he struggled for a few more moments, not sure that what he was about to say was true. Cologne merely stared at him, letting the silence stretch until he continued, "But I would like to know why."

"Certainly," Cologne returned in a silky smooth voice that immediately made Ryoga certain he shouldn't have asked. "It was a test. Much like the one I set for my son-in-law, when I shared with him the secret of the Kachu Tenshin Amaguriken. That is, those two situations are similar in my motivations and goals, that each time I was laying a challenge before a talented young warrior to see how he fared." She pinned him with the most intense stare Ryoga had experienced in a long time. "Ranma passed. You failed."

Ryoga hung his head. "Yeah, I guess I can see that," he said quietly. The mistakes that Ranma had forced him to acknowledge weren't the only ones he'd faced up to since that fight. "For what it's worth, I'm sorry. I am still glad of the gift you gave me, though."

"It is the last such gift you will receive from the Chinese Amazons," Cologne pronounced. In the privacy of her own mind, she continued, 'Unless you go to truly heroic lengths to overcome the poor start you made.' Frankly, his reaction to the most recent twist of this conversation was more than she'd hoped for, offering the barest glimmer of light to Cologne that he might be redeemable for her purposes after all, that a few years of work might see him worthy of the kind of trust she'd like to be able to place in him.

Perhaps she could lay a little more groundwork for that possible redemption now. "Remember what I said a while ago about my people collecting styles, secrets, and techniques? It's one of the most honorable positions in our society. We greatly value the ones who carry out that task, who travel over the world seeking new or forgotten elements of the Art, arcane lore, treasures too dangerous to allow ordinary people to get their hands on them, that sort of thing. I believed it would be a good fit for you, Ryoga. That it would work well for everyone to take you back to the village, give you a few years of stability to grow and find a girl or two who were a good match for you, then let you go forth as a family to stumble over knowledge and artifacts for a greater, worthwhile purpose."

Ryoga wasn't sure just what to think of that. No end to his journeys… but companionship along them? He shook his head, forcefully discarding the idea since it obviously wasn't an option any longer. Wanting to change the subject to one less painful, not to mention less personal, he replied, "You said you tested me and Ranma both. Is that what you're planning for him and Shampoo?"

"I'm not making any plans that detailed for their future together," Cologne replied. "If you want to know whether I think it's a good choice for them, then the answer is yes. But they will find their own way together as they learn new things and grow stronger, whether that's in our home village, abroad as they journey, here in Japan if we decide to found a new outpost of the Joketsuzoku in Nerima, or perhaps some path that they'll chart all on their own."

"Maybe you ought to tell Ranma that," Ryoga suggested. Anything that got the pigtailed paragon of pride away from Akane for good sounded good to him. "If he's really got that kind of freedom and choices waiting for him with Shampoo, I don't think he knows it yet."

"All in good time," Cologne replied. "That's something that should develop naturally, as he and Shampoo talk about their hopes and dreams for the future. Too much interference on my part will only be counterproductive."

Ryoga blinked in mild disorientation, caught off-guard by this attitude. 'Maybe I've spent too much time around Akane's and Ranma's dads.'

"I generally only step in when I know there's something real to be gained," the Matriarch continued briskly, moving the conversation back to the point she'd originally intended to make. "Such as not allowing my son-in-law to lose a valuable rival and sometime-ally to a preventable training accident."

"Huh? What's that supposed to mean, Granny?"

Cologne gestured first toward the block of concrete, then to the ground in general. "I mean I may not have any real strength in the Earth style, which you must know by now is what you're stumbling and groping toward, but I know enough of the secrets of chi and the human body's use of it to know just how close to the edge you were walking." She braced the tip of her staff against the ground and vaulted to its head, the better to look him in the eye. "Without proper training, without the oversight of a true master of the style, you can injure or kill yourself by pushing too far, too fast. It's true of all four elemental schools, and in fact it's the case for any set of techniques at this level. You're taking your first true steps up to the next stage of mastery, when you begin to understand the force of life itself, when you learn things that can extend your lifespan immeasurably and give you strength enough to shake the world around you."

Impossibly the Matriarch's gaze intensified. Ryoga would have taken a step back if he wasn't paralyzed like a bird by the gaze of a snake (with the small but crucial difference that this 'snake' was working in the bird's best interests). "Do you understand me now? For your own sake, don't rush into this. There's no one to guide you, Ryoga. By Chinese Amazon law and the choices you yourself made, I can't give you more than this. You're on your own, winding your way over treacherous ground indeed. In a situation like that, there's no shame in taking baby steps. Quite the opposite in fact; it would be a terrible shame if Ranma lost one of his most valuable comrades." Cologne paused for emphasis, then said, "If Akane lost her most faithful friend."

"A-Akane," he managed through a mouth dry as cotton. "I… I wanted to teach her these things too, once I mastered them enough… it's why I was working so hard."

"If you're willing to hear an old woman's words of wisdom, then let me suggest you hold off on that for at least five years," Cologne returned. "That should give you time enough to learn what you need, let you teach her without putting her at risk." 'Hopefully it will also be long enough for her to get over losing Ranma to Shampoo, move past the bitterness and sorrow, and grow to be a better person because of it.'

Kodachi Kuno, the Black Rose of St. Hebereke, the rising young star of the Rhythmic Gymnastics world, and the destined bride of Ranma Saotome, was in quite a good mood. Her position on top of this four-story building afforded her an excellent view of the streets and the people beneath her. A gentle, balmy breeze ruffled her hair and slipped around her leotard-clad form like a caress. The sun was sinking toward the far horizon behind her, its position perfect for hiding her form in its glare. Her darling Ranma would never see her coming.

'Oh, yes, my sweet, it's been too long and we have so much to make up for! Should we hurry back to my private rooms and all the luxury that awaits us there? Or would even that be too much of a delay? Shall we renew and strengthen the ties that bind us in the very den of iniquity upon which I stand?' Her scouting had only been thorough enough to establish that this building, the one perfectly situated for her ambu— grand entrance, was a love hotel. The Black Rose had no idea where it ranked on the quality scale, and she wasn't about to leave her post to investigate the building's interior. Ranma darling's school had already let out for the day, and she knew for a fact that today one Kuno at least would not be delaying her love's departure.

Kodachi glanced over her shoulder, sending a smirk at the roof's other occupant. "Brother dear, please do stop struggling. You brought this on yourself, you know."

Tatewaki only increased the fury of his struggles and muffled cries. Neither had much effect on the double-length octuple-strength gymnastic ribbon gagging him and binding him from head to toe. Kodachi wondered idly whether the strangled utterances were threats directed against her or entreaties to the heavens to give him strength. "You of all people should know how pointless that is. My ribbons are strong enough to restrain even my darling Ranma." For a moment she lost herself in a starry-eyed fantasy.

Tatewaki did pause in his struggles this time, while his face acquired a faint tinge of green. How the heavens must weep, not only that the Blue Thunder should be brought to such a state as this, but even more so that he was able to follow his twisted sister's line of thought so clearly. It was a mental picture the kendoist could well have done without.

Blinking away the pleasant thoughts, Kodachi continued, "And since the material is rated with half again enough strength to subdue such a specimen of manhood as Ranma sweetums, there's no way on earth you'll do anything more than get yourself tangled up worse."

Kuno resumed his struggles and muffled invective.

"Fine, be that way," Kodachi snapped. "Don't blame me if you end up cutting off the flow of blood to something important. Not your head, obviously," she quipped, then dismissed her brother from her thoughts. While it might be true that he was responsible for her choosing this day and way to greet her beloved, that didn't mean she wanted to waste time thinking about him, or the other pointless objects she had dragged up to this rooftop.

Blocking out Tatewaki's presence and struggles with the ease of long practice, Kodachi resumed watching the street below. "Anticipation certainly does make the heart grow fonder, Ranma darling. My own heart beats in my lonely schoolgirl chest like the thunder of drums. I can only dare to dream how your own heart must long for me. But fear not, my sweet, we shall soon be together."

Kodachi fell momentarily silent. The soliloquy was enjoyable, but somehow not fully satisfying. "Oh, yes, darling, yes — mere words simply aren't enough of their own. I feel like I could almost… sing…."

Clearing her throat, searching her memory for the right song, and switching languages as only one who had received a hideously expensive private education could, the Black Rose gave wing to the words and emotions surging within her. "Oh, it's a beautiful day in the neighborhood, a beautiful day in the neighborhood… hm hmm hm hmm hm hmmm hmmm hm… a beautiful day to catch a friend, a beautiful day to seduce your man…."

She broke off suddenly, sensing impending trouble. Her brother's struggles, the frenzy of which had redoubled during her happy little tune, had brought him dangerously near the cargo she had brought to the rooftop. Well, perhaps 'dangerously' wasn't the right word; if Tatewaki should crash into the items and wreck that part of the Black Rose's afternoon agenda, the only danger would be that her brother would continue boring her to tears with his ridiculous claims.

That thought was unpleasant enough for Kodachi to abandon her post with all haste, zipping over to her brother's side, tightening her grip on the end of the ribbon, and giving him a gentle, ladylike nudge with one foot that sent him halfway across the rooftop. He was brought up short only when he'd exhausted all the slack of the fabric. "Brother dear, please do not knock those over." She nodded toward the ugly iron buckets full of water. "I am well and truly tired of hearing you spout this ridiculous nonsense about Ranma darling and dark sorcery and the efficacy of these toys in washing away the deception. Today is the day your dear little sister forces you to face the folly of your fantasies. And then," her eyes becoming starry again, "I shall join him in a hot bath to make up for the indignity of the unexpected cold shower, and then…."

'She couldn't have been merciful enough to twist this blasted ribbon over my ears as well, could she?' Kuno grumbled mentally.

'All quiet on the western front,' Ranma thought, sneaking a glance over his shoulder at Akane. He wasn't sure what the phrase meant, couldn't remember more about it than that it was something he'd heard in English class, but it seemed to fit the moment. Their current position was due west of the Tendo dojo, their course bearing directly east as they headed for home… and Akane was unusually quiet.

'She hasn't been all that talkative in general these last couple of days,' he mused. 'Dang, I'm still not sure whether I did the right thing or not.' He'd given it a lot of thought, and had decided that the 'don't splash Shampoo or she'll splash you back' talk would be better handed off to Nabiki. She was much more likely to succeed in getting the message across to her sister. Ranma had decided that his part would be to take care of any follow-up that was needed, such as if Akane had confronted him over just what he thought of all this. The thought of such a conversation wasn't very pleasant, but it was better than the idea of skipping out on the matter entirely just because it was a difficult one.

'Sure thought she would've had something to say to me about it by now. I mean, it was Monday morning that I decided to pay Nabiki to do it, and Monday evening when she told me she'd done it and gotten Akane to agree not to go for the water attacks any more. That was two days ago, or a day and a half at least. I'd almost rather have Akane bring it up and get it out in the open. Does it really not matter to her at all? Huh, I should be so lucky.'

Well, if she wouldn't bring it up, maybe he had better. Ranma spent the next few minutes trying to think of a good way to ease into the subject. 'Or then again, maybe the best thing to do is just get her talking about other stuff, and see where that leads.'

It was easy enough to think of a good topic to open the conversation. He might not have been a part of the encounter after class today between Akane, Sayuri, Yuka, and those other girls who weren't in their club, but he'd still overheard most of it. "You look kinda disappointed, Akane," he ventured.

"What?" she said, dragging her attention back to the present and focusing it on Ranma. "Did you say something, Ranma?"

"Said you looked kinda disappointed," he repeated. "That you couldn't go hang out with all those girls this afternoon."

"It happens," Akane said. "It would have been nice if they'd wanted to do it tomorrow, instead of today. With some warning like that, I might have been able to go too."

"I can't see the appeal myself," Ranma admitted. "I mean, karaoke? What's the point to singin' a song and doing a worse job of it than whoever it was that recorded it?"

She shook her head. "It's just fun, Ranma. A fun time to go and hang out with your friends." Her expressionless look cracked a bit. "It's been a long time since I was able to make it to something like that."

"So you shoulda gone to this one," he replied.

"Excuse me, have you forgotten that I'm training with your father in the afternoons?" Akane asked, the barest hint of an edge in her voice.

"Course not," Ranma answered. "But today was the only chance you had for something you wanted to get out and do, right? You shoulda asked me to tell Pop you weren't gonna make it home on time this once. If he's got a problem with it, you know you can count on me to kick his butt and get him back in line."

"You mean, I should know I can count on you to blow off my training and encourage me to do it too?" The edge was no longer merely a hint.

"Jeez, I try to do something nice and this is the thanks I get?" Ranma complained. "I wasn't talking about blowing off your training. Heck, you could even say I'm helping it, cause if Pop ain't taught you yet that Anything Goes is about flexibility and adapting to stuff, then he's really falling down on the job."

That was something Genma had taken a good bit of pain to communicate to her, actually. She still didn't understand what Ranma was trying to say here, but she decided to get clarification before passing any more judgment. "So how does that fit into you telling me I should've just skipped my afternoon training?"

"Simple — you don't skip the session, you put it off until after you get back. It ain't gonna hurt my old man to get his exercise in the evening instead of the afternoon. And like I said, if he complains about it when I tell him, I can just ask him to use the unexpected free time to 'spar' with me."

"That wouldn't leave me any time to do my homework," Akane pointed out. The edge was gone from her tone, though, now that she knew Ranma hadn't meant it the way she'd first thought.

"And that, Grasshopper, is what you blow off."

Akane rolled her eyes. "Thanks but no thanks, Ranma. Not even if I didn't have any homework. Mr. Saotome deserves better than something like that. He didn't have to train me, after all." Genma would have snorted loudly at that last sentence, remembering just what it had been like when Akane 'requested' his aid.

He wasn't here to give that snort, but his son filled in for him. However, Ranma's exhalation of disbelief was triggered by a different sentence. "Don't tell me you haven't seen through that one yet."

"Huh? What's that supposed to mean?"

"Sure, be glad he's training you, but don't let him pull the wool over your eyes or nothing, Akane. You're doing him a favor by learning too." 'At least, if you're serious about it,' Ranma amended. "Think about it. What's Pop, or any sensei, got to show for his life if he's not learning new things and still growing in the Art? The only thing left for somebody like that is to help new people down the path. If you're lettin' him teach you real stuff," with Herculean effort he kept any hint of doubt out of his voice as he said this, "then you're giving him one more way to justify his life, one more reason to stand up and be proud of himself. He oughta be the one thanking you for going to him for training. It's not like you don't have other choices, after all."

The duo walked in silence for a little while. At last, in a stunned tone, Akane stated, "That may be the proudest, most overconfident, egotistical thing I've heard in my entire life, Ranma."

"You think so? Huh." Ranma turned and faced up toward the sky. "MOKO TAKABISHA!" The teens watched the chi blast as it shot away into the distance. "Didn't look any bigger than usual to me," he said, turning back to Akane as the two began walking again. "I think you're just confused cause it's something you never thought of before."

"What I think—!" Only with a great deal of effort did Akane clamp her lips shut around the traitorous exclamation. Oh, how she wanted to hit him with the news of what she and Genma were really working on! Oh, how she longed to force him to face the fact that his father knew such a powerful technique, was training her in secrets that were still a mystery to Ranma himself! But that wasn't what her sensei wanted, and Akane herself wasn't quite worked up enough to disregard her own goal, or forget how satisfying it would be to reveal these things in the right way. Better to keep quiet now, and eventually enlighten Ranma by demonstrating the moves on his hide.

"Well? What do you think?" he prompted her after the silence had stretched a few seconds.

Akane stuck out her tongue at him in the most childish pose she could manage. Tauntingly rather than with any real heat, she said, "I think you're an overconfident jerk."

"Feh. Whatever. Blow me off when I'm trying to teach you something," Ranma grumbled, turning away.

The youngest Tendo stood stock-still for the next several moments, caught totally off-guard by this unexpected and out-of-character response. Eventually regaining some self-possession, she hurried across the distance that had opened up between them. "What's that supposed to— LOOK OUT!!"

Even if she hadn't seen him coming, the chi blast would have been enough to alert Kodachi to Ranma's approach. As it was, it merely made her more excited to be reminded of her beloved's strength and skill. She watched, waiting for the perfect moment, smiling ever more broadly at the sight of the squabble between her darling Ranma and that Tendo harridan.

As if to underscore how wrong for each other those two were, how perfect was the harmony between herself and Ranma sweetums, the moment when he moved into position was the one in which the distance between himself and the peasant was at its greatest. Holding in her laughter for just a few seconds more, Kodachi snapped her wrist then pulled sharply back. The first motion whipped her brother, still bound inextricably in the ribbon, from horizontal on the roof to more or less upright. Before he could fall, the second move sent him spinning furiously in place like an oversized top.

Even as the ribbon released the last of its hold on him, she sent it snaking forth to grasp the framework connecting the handles of the dozen 'cold iron' buckets. "Do pay attention now, brother dear," Kodachi commanded, managing to overlook the fact that the dizziness which prevented him from interfering must surely prevent him from really being aware of what was about to happen. "I don't want to hear any more nonsense about this washing dearest Ranma's humanity away." Exerting all her skill, strength, and control, the Black Rose whipped the buckets into the air and over the street without spilling a single drop of water— at least, not until the moment when she wanted those drops to be spilled. Then, with her peals of triumphant glee no longer restrained, she hauled the empty buckets back on an intercept course with Tatewaki, leapt to the fire escape, and hurried down to greet her beloved.

On hearing Akane's cry of warning, Ranma took one instant to see where she was looking, then spun to face the threat. It was Kodachi Kuno, halfway down the fire escape of a nearby building and descending at a speed Ranma himself would have been hard pressed to exceed. Making a split-second decision that the best way to deal with this would be to lead the Black Rose away from Akane over the rooftops, then lose her once he had a moment to duck out of her sight and trigger his transformation, Ranma gave a mighty leap backward. If all had gone as planned, the move would have set him firmly on the rooftop of the building across the street from Kodachi — a distance he knew Kodachi could cover in pursuit of him, but Akane couldn't.

Of course, his plan failed to take into account the unseen shower descending toward the street. Kodachi had flung the buckets even higher into the air before upending them, a last-second inspiration that the Black Rose had hoped would allow her to beat the water down to the ground. After all, why should Ranma be the only one to suffer a drenching? And certainly the love of her life would better enjoy the sight of her leotard after the water did its work.

Kodachi was fast, but she wasn't quite that fast. Girl, boy, and water all reached the same height above the street at roughly the same time, Kodachi descending at her best controlled speed, gravity drawing down the water just that little bit faster, and Ranma jumping up, up, and away. Time seemed to slow as his eyes locked with those of the gymnast, as he stared grimly at her while she smirked in pleasure, welcome, anticipation, and triumph. Even as the water caught up and molded itself around their forms, Kodachi pushed away from the fire escape, summoning every bit of leg strength she could muster, transforming her descent into a lateral jump toward the object of her desire.

Her arms locked around the waist of an empty shirt, as a feathered blur burst past her.

She hadn't even begun to recover by the time she slammed directly into the wall. It was ingrained reflex alone that allowed her to regain control of her fall, kicking against a windowsill three quarters of the way to the ground and losing enough speed to land safely. For all that her body was undamaged, though, the youngest Kuno staggered away from her landing site. The shirt still clenched absently in one hand, she wove her way over to the middle of the street where his pants had landed. "Ranma…?" she breathed, running one disbelieving hand over their empty length.

"Kodachi, he's there." This was Akane, pointing up to Ranma's circling form, hoping against hope that this wasn't somehow going to make things worse. Ranma had only tried once to make Tatewaki see reason about his original curse, an effort which had failed utterly. As far as she knew, no-one had ever attempted anything like that with Kodachi. Maybe, just possibly maybe, it wouldn't blow up in their faces. "He's right there! Look up!"

"Be SILENT!" the Black Rose raged, spinning faster than Akane would have dreamed possible and striking directly toward her face with a club pulled from parts unknown. It would have been a more impressive attack if Akane had been close enough for it to connect, though; Kodachi in her distraction had noticed only that Akane spoke, not that the youngest Tendo hadn't first crossed any of the distance separating the two girls. Her attack hit empty air, leaving her overextended and stumbling.

Ranma's skreeling descent put a halt to any further hostilities. 'This ain't good. Where's the Air style when I really need it?' he thought frantically. He'd known from the first moment he laid eyes on Shampoo's new cursed form that a falcon was nowhere near as helpless as Akane seemed to think, but there was no way in the world he wanted to prove the tomboy wrong by lighting into somebody with talons and beak. 'Why couldn't this have happened just two damn weeks from now? I ain't even mastered the training exercise yet, let alone learned something that'd let me attack her without hurting her for real!'

Hoping against hope that it would prevent any more attacks, Ranma managed to grab the club on his fly-by and wrench it from Kodachi's grasp. Flinging it away down an alley, he banked sharply and came in for a landing on the street between the two girls, though in the interests of Akane's safety he settled down much closer to Kodachi.

"Ranma!" Akane exclaimed, hurrying protectively forward as if to negate that consideration.

"Ranma?" the Black Rose breathed, falling to her knees and staring desperately down.

He met her gaze, though it was much harder than he'd expected it to be — unbelievably hard, considering that Kodachi's gaze held no anger, rage, or remnant of fighting fury. All the blood had drained from her face, leaving her violet eyes looking like smudged bruises in a mask as pale as bone. Kodachi continued, choking on the words, getting them out only as a whisper, "Is… is it… you?"

Even more troubled now, he gathered his strength and gave a bob of his head; up, down, an unquestionable yes.

Kodachi stared for one moment longer, her face now showing a cacophony of emotions. Shock… disbelief… terror… agony… Just as Ranma felt like he must break eye contact or snap himself, she wrenched her gaze away. The motion begun by her eyes continued to her head, then her whole body, as the Black Rose spun and darted away, his forgotten shirt still clutched in one white-knuckled hand.

Ranma and Akane stared after her, and could find nothing to say. Even if there hadn't been a language barrier in place.

"The vengeance of heaven is slow but sure." Clearly the same limitation didn't apply to Tatewaki. Both Anything Goes students turned to stare at the fire escape down which Kuno was descending. He was still feeling a little dizzy, and he was bruised from the buckets' return to the rooftop, but as he passed below the one-story mark he was able to jump the rest of the way and land safely. "I saw her face, Saotome. At last it seems that the dark sorceries you have used to bind my sister to you have met their timely end. And if my twisted sister has finally found freedom from her chains, can even greater liberties be far behind?"

Ranma glared darkly at the kendoist, tuning out his continued ranting. 'I am so gonna flatten you in this body once I've learned how to do it without scarring, crippling, or killing you.' The thought wasn't nearly enough to satisfy him. 'Maybe I could scratch him up just a little right now? Just a few tiny cuts on the arm…? Nah, that wouldn't be enough to give me any kind of satisfaction.'

Wishing he could form a sinister grin, Ranma fluttered away to what even the most overprotective person would consider a safe spot — sheltered by a ledge at second story height, visible only if he leaned forward. He did just that, gave a loud screech to make sure he had Akane's attention, then gestured toward Kuno with one wing. "~Don't worry about me, tomboy. Go ahead, give him his own flying lesson.~"

It started as an itch on the back of her neck. Junko ignored it for several minutes, focusing on the homework spread out before her at the café table. However, as the conviction grew more and more pronounced, she found it increasingly difficult to concentrate on the task. At last, frowning and sighing, she twisted around in her seat. From this new vantage point, it was easy to see that her suspicion had been correct. "Hey, Manami," she said as she turned back to face the girl sharing the table with her. "I think the café owner is getting a little angry."

"My heart bleeds," Manami grumbled. "Like either of us wanted to be stuck here so long."

"Well, I wouldn't really mind," Junko confessed. Better to do her work here than in a bedroom shared with two younger sisters. "But I know you'd rather be with Gosunkugi right now."

"Sure, that would be my first choice, but it's not just that. I'd rather be doing anything interesting, with him or with you or Nabiki or all by myself. Not just sitting here waiting to finally get the call to move."

Junko turned around in her chair again, uncomfortably aware that the intensity of the proprietor's stare continued to mount. It wasn't surprising, really; she and Manami had been at their table for three quarters of an hour now, and in all that time they'd each only purchased one fruit drink. "Maybe I should go buy something else for while we're waiting," she proposed. "What would you like?"

"Oh, no you don't!" Manami said crisply. "In case you forgot, we're going to need our appetites available before too much longer." She pulled out her cell phone and gave it a glare, then shoved it away again and glanced around the open-air café. Only two other tables were occupied, outnumbered five-to-one by the vacant stands. "So mister Cool Refreshing Beverage Pusher doesn't like it that we're taking up his space? It's not like we're keeping paying customers away. If he's frustrated at how little business he's getting, he ought to blame himself or Ukyo Kuonji, not us. It's not our fault he set up shop here."

"Still, maybe I should go buy a couple more drinks. We don't have to actually drink them," Junko pointed out.

Manami rolled her eyes. "Whatever. You're paying— Ah-HAH!" This as the long-silent cell phone finally began to buzz. She pulled it out and answered, hoping this was indeed the call they were waiting for and not a random wrong number. "Hello, Manami speaking."

"Come on over," said the voice on the other end of the phone. Manami didn't recognize his identity, other than in the most basic way. It was doubtless some random freshman that had gotten a little too deep in debt to the boss. She could tell by the nervous tremor in the voice that this was a first-timer. Nabiki's usual modus operandi in situations like that was to give out an easy job, but accompany it with a glimpse of just how badly things could go for the trainee if he or she screwed it up. "There hasn't been more than five people here at a time for the last fifteen minutes, and I got out into the street and checked up and down and it doesn't look like too many more are on their way, so—"

"Right, right, stop babbling. We're on our way. We'll see soon enough whether you picked a good moment or not." Smirking, Manami ended the call and stood up. "Come on, Junko, let's blow this popsicle stand."

A brisk two minutes' walk took them to their real destination for the afternoon: Ucchan's Okonomiyaki. The two girls passed through the door and took a minute to size up the interior of the restaurant. Not because it was their first time — rare indeed was the Furinkan student who hadn't visited Ucchan's at least once — but to decide on their next move.

At least, Manami was doing this. Junko just followed her lead as the other girl strode forward and selected a vacant seat three spaces down from Ukyo's grill. Her body language made it apparent that Junko should take the seat on her left, closer to Ukyo, rather than farther away on her right. Junko sat down and waited for her cue.

"What'll it be, ladies?" This was Ukyo, giving the generic greeting after taking a moment to check the girls out. The chef was fairly sure she'd seen them before, but they weren't common enough customers to let her put names, or more importantly okonomiyaki preferences, to the faces.

"One seafood deluxe, please," Manami answered.

"Two of the daily special for me," Junko requested.

'What I wouldn't give for her metabolism,' Nabiki's second-in-command brooded darkly, distracted for a moment from their mission. It wasn't like they could get started right away anyway; they needed to wait for Ukyo to finish cooking their order and pass it along to them. Once the conversation got started, it shouldn't be interrupted… at least not until the interruption was Ukyo dealing herself in.

"So, did you hear the latest?" she asked Junko once they'd received their food and eaten some.

Junko shook her head, finished her first okonomiyaki, and started on her second. "What is it?" she asked.

"Shampoo brought Ranma lunch at school today."

"Huh?" Junko blinked. "Since when is that news?"

"Because she didn't do it like she usually does, apparently. At least, if this is true," Manami demurred. "I only heard it second-hand, and my source said that almost nobody was around to see it happen." She winced slightly at the unpleasant metallic scrape of Ukyo's small spatula across the grill, as the chef fumbled the preparation of her current okonomiyaki. "She didn't drop by at lunch to try and snuggle with him while he eats. She didn't break through classroom walls until she found the one he was in. She didn't even chase after him at all! She just came by the office in midmorning and dropped off the lunch for him, told the secretary that she wanted to give it to him but she was going to be busy during the actual lunch period."

"Wow, that is different," Junko said, wide-eyed. Different enough from Shampoo's usual methods that she wondered what it all meant. It wasn't something Manami had made up just for the purposes of this conversation, she could tell that much. Her friend was good enough to hide what she was thinking if she kept silent, but Nabiki was the only one Junko knew who could speak to her and remain a sealed book while doing so.

"Yeah," Manami agreed. She'd spent quite a bit of time pondering the implications ever since she'd heard the news, from one of the lower-rank girls in Nabiki's network who'd happened to be in the office when the incident happened. Ultimately, it was the boss who'd decide what to do about this new twist on affairs, but that didn't mean Manami ought not to give it some thought as well.

(Later that evening, she would learn that the whole story was nothing but a fabrication, something Nabiki had made up and passed along to her via third party so that she'd believe it when she in turn shared it with Junko. Nabiki and Manami both knew that the other girl wasn't good enough at thinking on her feet to go along naturally with something she knew was a lie. That Nabiki had used her own second-in-command as that much of a cat's-paw… it would be the source of half an hour's pleasant nostalgia for Manami, as the memories of her freshman year and her initial recruitment by the boss came surging back.)

That was still a ways off, however. At the moment Manami had no clue that she'd been used like a two-dollar pair of chopsticks, but she did know she had better things to do than think too much about what she'd heard. Discussing this Amazon antic was only meant to lead into more important things. "Never thought we'd see her showing a little discretion," she continued. "Usually her idea of subtle is to ask him to go out with her, rather than latching onto him and trying to strip them both down to the buff." From the corner of her eye she noted that her genial host was currently anything but. Ukyo's back was ramrod straight, one eye was twitching like crazy, and her face was twisted into a dark scowl. A party of five students that had just come through the door took one look and headed right back outside again. Manami thanked her lucky stars that Ukyo didn't appear to notice; if she had, the chef would surely have exploded right here and now. And that wouldn't do. Not at all.

Giving a deep sigh, she said, "It's so sad, don't you think?" Another truth; the matter she was discussing didn't actually tug her heart-strings, but within her own mind Manami regarded it as sad indeed. Not to mention pathetic.

Junko nodded soberly. She didn't know whether Nabiki had given Manami any private instructions for this skirmish, but when the two of them were receiving their orders together the middle Tendo had been straightforward and forthright. They were free to use their own judgment in how to lead up to it, Nabiki had said, but there was one point they needed to make absolutely sure Ukyo Kuonji overheard. She had then gone on to illuminate said point, revealing something that Junko honestly hadn't thought of before. It was all too obvious once Nabiki had pointed it out, though, and Manami was right — it was sad. "It really is. Shampoo tries so hard, pushes and pushes, keeps on trying to get close to him and honestly believing she's got a chance, and she doesn't. She never had, and she never will."

'Perfect,' Manami thought admiringly while finishing the last bites of her okonomiyaki. It would be even more admirable if this was something Junko could control, if she could elicit at will the kind of response they were counting on. If she could do it even when she wasn't honestly saying something she believed, it would be a truly fearsome talent. However, that wasn't the way of things. Her comrade in arms meant every word she had said, and every one she was going to say. That she would get to speak the rest of her message was all too obvious, as Ukyo's anger became blunted with confusion. The chef hesitated just a few moments longer, to which Manami mentally shook her head in reproof. 'Please, Miss Kuonji. As if there's any way you can resist.'

Sure enough, Ukyo stepped away from the grill and closer to Junko. "Why's that?" she asked, although 'demanded' might have been a better word. "Why do you say that, and why would it be sad if it was true?"

"Isn't it sad?" Junko answered, switching conversational partners without a hitch. "That she tries so hard for something that's totally out of her reach, something she never had any chance of getting and never will? Bad enough if that was just some random goal she wanted, but it's even worse that we're talking about a thing as important as love! She loves him, even if she doesn't have a clue how to show it here in Japan, and she'd have a better chance at getting him to love her back if she was that crazy Kuno girl!"

Ukyo stared wide-eyed at her. The chef wondered for an instant whether this was some kind of joke, but just as quickly dismissed the idea. The other girl's words carried complete and total conviction; she really believed what she'd said about Shampoo never having had a chance to begin with, and she believed as well that this truth was a tragic one. Ukyo stood in silence for a bit, turning these thoughts over in her mind, trying to make sense of them. 'I guess maybe I could see that as kind of sad,' she mentally conceded. 'If there really was some reason why everything Shampoo ever did or said to try to get close to Ranma honey was just a moot point.'

"But that's not how it is!" she burst out. "What are you, blind? Or are you the only girl in school who doesn't know about their new 'his and hers' curses?! Have you really not seen how she's been sneaking closer and closer to him, just… stealing more and more of his time these days?!"

"It doesn't matter," Junko said firmly. "It's not doing her any good."

Ukyo ran her hand across her brow, then down over her eyes. "I honestly think you believe that, and I also honestly think you're talking out your butt," she stated. "Go away."

"No, you don't get it! I'm not saying Shampoo hasn't gotten any closer to him, but that's all she'll ever manage! To be a friend to him, maybe a close friend even, but he'll never take her up on more. Not with what comes along for the ride if he does make a choice like that!"

Despite herself, Ukyo could feel her conviction being worn away by the waves of the other girl's certainty. "What's that supposed to mean?"

"I mean, she calls herself his wife. Why is that? Because it's how Amazons do things." Junko fired off a meaning-filled look. "And what's another thing Amazons do? How did Ranma's first few encounters with her go?"

"He was running for his life. So what?" Ukyo snapped. "You obviously have no idea how much of a 'forgive and forget' kind of guy Ranma honey is. She's had plenty of time to write over that earlier image with her little sex kitten routine."

"I'm not talking about Ranma's feelings for her," Junko explained patiently. "Sure, he's had worse stuff than that, probably even worse stuff that was just misunderstandings if half the rumors at school are true." Ukyo nodded involuntarily. "I wasn't saying anything about Ranma still holding a grudge against her. That's the kind of thing a girl as pretty as Shampoo could work her way past for sure. I'm talking about the future, and what marrying her would mean." She paused, giving Ukyo a sad but reassuring smile. It was sad news for the Amazon, all right, but Ukyo Kuonji should be only too relieved to hear this. "You don't think he'd really be okay with that, do you? Bringing up his children under a bunch of fossilized laws that say they have to kill or marry someone for defeating them? No matter how much he likes her, you don't honestly think he'd go for that, do you?"

All the breath left Ukyo's lungs in a rush. She actually had to catch hold of the counter with one arm to steady herself. "Not… not the past, and not the junk that's going on now… but the future. I can't believe it! You're right, you're absolutely right! I never even once stopped to think about it like that!"

"Ranma probably hasn't either." This was Manami, deeming it safe at last to join the conversation. Junko's people skills had done their work; Ukyo was stunned and reeling, overcome by the realization that she simply hadn't thought far enough ahead, and wide open for reasonable suggestions. "I'm sure you know him better than I do, but that doesn't seem like his kind of thing. There is one thing I wonder, though…." Again, this was something she honestly meant.

Junko picked up on it. "What's that, Manami?"

"Whether Shampoo, or at least her great-grandmother, has seen it all along. It could be that they're gambling Ranma won't pick up on it until it's too late. Hoping he'd be too honorable to just walk away afterward, if they did get him to marry her and he only realized too late what he'd really set himself up for."

There was silence for a moment as all three girls contemplated this. Ukyo was the first to come out of her fugue. "It's been fun, girls, but I can't spare more time to talk. I think I need to close up shop for a little…." Her voice trailed off as she remembered something. Ranma had told her during today's astronomy club meeting that he was planning to spend the afternoon in the air. He wasn't going to be available anytime soon. "No, wait, never mind. That's going to have to wait," she said, speaking the last sentence more to herself than to her two customers. Tomorrow would be soon enough. Heaving a frustrated, but ultimately hopeful sigh, she walked back behind the grill. "Can I get you anything else? On the house."

"Well, we really need to be going ourselves," Manami temporized.

"So can you put a pork deluxe and a vegetarian special in a box for me?" Junko asked eagerly.

'I wouldn't just kill for her metabolism,' Manami decided, suppressing a grimace with great difficulty. 'I'd sell each and every airheaded clueless cheerleader or cheerleader-wannabe at school into slavery.'

Ukyo smiled, whipped up the requested order, boxed it up, and handed it over. "My pleasure," she said cheerfully. Then, her gaze shifting from the girls to some vision hidden in the middle distance, she repeated softly, "My pleasure…."

Ranma cast a nervous glance up the stairwell. From where he stood he could only catch a glimpse of the sky, but it was enough to set off the warning bells. "Huh. That don't look so good."

After a few seconds, the reply came. "What? Did you say something, Ranchan?"

"Yeah. Look at the sky." By now the two had moved far enough up the stairs to get a better view of the clouds. Ranma instinctively slowed down and Ukyo unconsciously adjusted her pace to match his. "Sure looks like it's gonna rain. Wonder what that'll mean for the meeting."

He and Ukyo had officially joined the astronomy club after school on Monday, with Tuesday's meeting the first they attended. Ranma and Ukyo both had been surprised to find out what the astronomy club actually did when they got together. "Yeah, me too," she agreed, thankful for the moment's distraction. She'd spent enough time over the past sixteen hours pondering something, and was frankly ready for a break. "So why is everyone still heading to the roof? They better not have set the equipment up anyway. I doubt even the Kunos could scrape up enough yen to replace it if it gets rained on."

"Nah, it's no big deal," said a straggling fellow club member as he passed them on the way up. Neither Ranma nor Ukyo had any idea of his name; this was only their fourth meeting, and so far they'd been too busy adjusting to the general strangeness to worry about social niceties. "Rainy days aren't a problem for us. Not even for you and your curse, Saotome. Come on, this is something you don't wanna miss." He headed away, out of the stairwell and onto the roof.

Ranma and Ukyo were now the only club members still sheltered inside. They exchanged dubious looks, simultaneous shrugs, and started walking again. "Maybe they've got Plexiglas minibooths set up over the telescopes or something," Ukyo speculated. "After all, the crazy things work just fine during the daylight. Once you get the right filter settings, anyway, which still blows my mind to think about."

He snorted. "You think that's impressive? Yesterday I zoomed in for a close-up of that big red storm on Jupiter, and I hit a few random keys, and managed to filter it out too. It was really weird seeing the ground underneath it all churning up like that."

"Well, that beats anything I've gotten these bad boys to do for me," Ukyo said as they stepped out onto the roof. "Speaking of which, I see they don't have cover for them after all. And it looks like they've got a lot more of them set up than usual." Although the extra telescopes all seemed to be concentrated in one big clump on the other side of the roof, in the middle of which stood their illustrious captain, upperclassman Kaito.

"Jeez, you wouldn't think they'd get out even more of them if there was any kind of risk," Ranma commented. "Maybe they're so advanced, they're actually waterproof?"

"Don't know how that would figure in with what that guy said, about your curse not being a problem," she answered. "Well, if it does start raining, I'll ditch the club with you and go back home so you've got a place to change."

"It will not be necessary," said a soft-spoken voice that sent chills down Ranma's spine. He turned and confirmed that Kaito — he didn't know the upperclassman's last name — was still where he'd been a moment ago. The other boy was as thin as Gosunkugi, but creepy in a way that the voodoo student had never managed. There wasn't anything threatening about him, per se, but somehow he always managed to exude a nagging sense of wrongness… and it didn't much help to hear him speak this softly and yet have the words clearly understandable at this distance.

"The telescopes are indeed waterproof," he continued, "but why should our fellow students suffer a drenching to use them?" He gestured at the cluster of instruments around him. "I have switched these over to radar mode, boosted the output by several thousand percent, made the necessary adjustment to the filtration system, and slaved them all to the same control panel. And now…" He pressed a series of buttons on the controls of the nearest scope. The instruments began to hum with the noise of active use. Ranma thought he caught the hint of a glow at the skyward end of the nearest one.

Then, with no further ado, it began to rain. Hard.

Ukyo stood in silence for she didn't know how long. Eventually, though, she said, "Ranma honey?"


"Is it just my imagination… or is the rain shoving itself to the side so as not to share the roof with us?"

"The radar waves resonate with the moisture in the clouds and force them to dump it now," Kaito explained, still standing fifteen meters away, still speaking in his usual soft tones, still clearly audible even over the hiss of the downpour. "And the shape formed by the projected waves causes the rain to bend as well."

Five hundred feet higher and two miles to the west, Shampoo checked her airspeed and tried to concentrate harder. '<Am I imagining this?>' she wondered. '<Something feels… weird. But it's so faint… is it just in my head?>'

It had seemed like a good idea at the time. Her great-grandmother had kept a close eye on Ranma's progress in the *snicker* Flight of the Plucked Chicken. Her husband had not quite mastered it yet, but Cologne had told her that she fully expected him to do so during their next training session. If that was so, then he would beat Shampoo's own time by one day. The majority of Shampoo was pleased at the thought, happy for her beloved's triumph, but there had been one little nagging corner wishing she could have at least tied with him in this one arena.

That voice had been silenced quite effectively when the Matriarch broke the news to her about how well Shampoo's own learning time stood up against that of Amazons past. Learning that not only would the Air style help her in her cursed form, but that her cursed form helped her with the style, had come under the heading of serious good news. Ranma would think so too, she was sure of it. Now flying wasn't just a great way to enjoy oneself, it was actually highly effective training to boot! Take that, Tendos, if you ever try to complain about him getting away from you for the day!

She had devoted this afternoon to expanding on the idea, had gone into this flight focusing as much of her conscious thought and attention as she could on the air itself. Shampoo had hoped that doing so might teach her new things, might lead to greater understanding of her chosen element. She knew there were heights she hadn't even glimpsed yet, understood far better than Ranma how far the style could take its devotees. The Matriarch had made this clear to her after she'd mastered the Buzzing Fist, shown her how small a first step it really was, but at the same time filled her full of determination to learn more.

Right now she was wondering whether the lesson to learn today was that she just didn't know enough yet. She felt, or thought she felt, the barest hint of wrongness, of oddity, of something out of place. It wasn't very far away (at least, as a falcon reckons air distance), but it seemed to be coming from an area with unpleasant flying conditions. The wind wasn't blowing hard and there was no hint of thunder, but the clouds were heavy with rain. 'I don't want to fly through that,' Shampoo thought, although at the same time the avian Amazon had already curved her flight to bring her around in the direction of the anomaly. Maybe she would just go far enough to figure out whether she was really feeling anything, then turn aside before she actually had to go through any rain.

By the time she'd covered a mile, her suspicion had deepened to near-certainty. The sensation was stronger now, and beginning to tickle the back of her mind with a tantalizing hint of familiarity. This was something she'd felt before, the Amazon thought. At least it felt like it. It was becoming hard to focus on it, though, since she had flown far enough to reach the fringes of rainfall. She could easily fly even with the water that beaded and slid over her feathers, but the immediacy of that sensation was making it hard to concentrate on the distant hint of discord.

Nodding decisively, Shampoo climbed for greater altitude. No need to endure the rain when she could fly over it.

Ranma shrugged and moved toward a telescope. He'd seen plenty of weirdness since coming to Nerima, but this club was taking the cake — at least as far as the nonthreatening stuff went. It was probably best to go with the flow. "Pretty convenient," he offered in Kaito's general direction. "You said the radar's what made it start raining now, instead of holding off until later? You think you could kick it up a few notches, enough to make sure the clouds rain themselves out completely by the time class is over?"

"Sorry, not enough telescopes," Kaito murmured. Raising his voice by at least half a decibel, the captain addressed everyone in the club. "I've already calibrated the remaining telescopes to filter out the falling rain, and put an administrative lock on that particular part of the setting. Tatsuki, please do not waste the period trying to reverse that."

"Aw, come on, Kaito," protested one of the freshman club members. "You have no idea how cool it is to filter out everything but the rain when it's pouring down like this. It's like… I don't know, like you're falling through a tunnel that's made up of a million different tunnels all going almost the same direction but they're not quite, and… and…." Words failed him for a moment, before he remembered a phrase from his Conversational English class. "It's just… 'out of this world'! And we are the astronomy club, after all!"

Kaito turned to stare directly at the underclassman. Even in the dimness his eyes were obscured by a dull gleam of light. Ranma suppressed a shiver. It wasn't so bad to see that effect on somebody wearing glasses, but Kaito's face was as bare as the surface of the moon.

"Man, I bet it takes real skill to do that with contact lenses," remarked a nearby girl.

"No kidding," replied her friend. "Even those freaky tinted ones he wears."

Ranma blinked as the words filtered through his mind. He shook his head and turned away from Kaito's flat stare and Tatsuki's continued whining. "Let's see," he mumbled as he peered into the telescope's viewfinder. "What do I want to look at today?" It was a rhetorical question; the telescopes were by far the most advanced technology he'd ever come in contact with, and ease-of-use was not one of their strong suits. There was a keypad that allowed you to enter all kinds of instructions, each of which was conveniently displayed as he typed it out, the glowing translucent characters popping up within the field of vision inside the viewfinder… but whatever language it was, it was nothing he'd ever seen before, each character consisting not only of multiple curves and angles, but different colors as well. Kaito had merely said that figuring things out for himself was part of his duties as a member of the astronomy club. Ranma personally suspected Kaito had developed and programmed the code himself, after watching one sci-fi anime too many.

"Time to go with the old standby, I guess," he muttered, pointing the scope up at the nearest section of sky and beginning to enter commands at random. Black sky studded with stars… black sky studded with slightly brighter stars… comet blazing a streak across the emptiness, that was pretty cool but over too soon… giant red ball devouring a blackened cinder of a world, how depressing was that… whoa, two comets, headed straight for each other… man, that explosion was even more impressive than the old freak's Happo Fire Bombs… falling through a tunnel made of a million different tunnels all going nearly the same direction….

"Please step away from the telescope, Ranma," Kaito said from six inches to his right.

Ranma jumped backwards, blurring as he covered ten feet in half a second. 'Jeez, it's even creepier when he sneaks up on you like that.'

Kaito, meanwhile, had taken Ranma's place at the telescope, peering through the viewfinder and entering commands with a swift familiarity that Ranma doubted he'd ever match, Amaguriken or no Amaguriken. "Well, Saotome, somehow you managed to not only turn off the rain filter, you completely disabled my ability to lock down any features on this telescope." Kaito gave him the flat, contact-lenses-gleaming stare. Ranma fought an urge to race to the roof's edge for transformation, flight, and freedom. Kaito kept up the stare for a moment longer, then pulled out a permanent marker and scrawled the kanji for 'Wild Horse' on the telescope. "From now on, you use this one. The last thing this club needs is for you to unlock all the features on every one of our scopes. We would never get anything done if the students found out the equipment can filter through building walls into bath houses and locker rooms."

Ranma stared back at him for a long moment, then turned and regarded the rest of the rooftop. Judging by the number of students looking up through their telescopes, i.e. none, as opposed to the number currently staring wide-eyed at Kaito, which was to say everyone, the captain had forgotten how well his voice carried. "Well, I'd hate to be responsible for that," the pigtailed boy said sarcastically, stepping back to the telescope as Kaito walked away.

"Man, how'd I pull that off anyway?" he continued, muttering to himself softly enough that not even Ukyo, who was standing closest to him, was able to hear. Hopefully Kaito would be able to fix it when he had more time free to work on the problem. Being asked to pay for something as expensive as this thing surely was… Somebody up there watching his life might get a nice cruel laugh out of it, but the joke didn't strike Ranma as funny. "It shouldn't even be possible to mess it up just by pushing random buttons. What kinda super-secret stolen alien technology is this supposed to be anyway?" Heh, that was a better joke.

The remaining students blinked as Kaito crashed to the roof in a perfectly executed facefault.

Shampoo stared thoughtfully down. She had covered the two miles of sky originally separating her from the disturbance she'd sensed. It was below her now, though not directly below her; she had more sense than to fly into an unknown air disturbance, especially one she'd sensed from so far away. The sense of familiarity was stronger now. She flew in circles for a while, puzzling it out.

Eventually she made the connection. What she thought she felt was the effects of forced vibration, similar in many ways to the Buzzing Fist. Far more powerful, obviously, since she'd felt it from so far away, and there seemed to be other differences as well… but the Amazon was pretty certain of her conclusion nonetheless.

It wasn't hard to figure out a possible explanation, either. She had told her great-grandmother what she intended for this flight, and the Matriarch had given the idea her wholehearted approval. It was a very short step from that to Cologne setting out something like this as a test. No, Shampoo wouldn't be surprised in the slightest if it was Cologne, hidden away at ground level, producing this strange, penetrating vibration.

Well, if this was one of the Matriarch's tests, Shampoo wasn't about to fail it. She began her descent through the clouds, ignoring the rain as best she could. It would be nice to surround herself with a shell of dry air, but Shampoo knew she wasn't ready for something like that. Tamper with the very thing that was keeping her from falling? Maybe with a few years practice under her belt. She was reasonably confident that she could create a pocket of vibrating air around her body large enough to keep away the rain… but what that might do to her wings was best not contemplated. Rain was only a metaphorical pain.

As she sank lower, the vibration became more pronounced, and eventually she was able to determine its effect. There was a ring of rain, far more dense than what she was flying through. The vibration seemed to be concentrated on the inner edge of that ring, extending further inward. Shampoo flew as close as she felt was safe, straining fledgling senses. The rain was extremely concentrated there… but inside the ring there wasn't any…? That was what the vibrating of the air was accomplishing… and now that she was this close, and had spent this much time studying the vibration, it felt wrong. Too regular, too even, too mechanical to be the result of Cologne's mastery. Her great-grandmother was powerful and controlled beyond Shampoo's understanding, but at the core of a master's skills were the pulse, the beat, the chaotic strength of life. She couldn't feel any trace of that here.

'<Maybe I should give this up,>' Shampoo thought, even as she continued her slow descent. '<If this isn't something great-grandmother set up for me, then I probably should go back and get her to investigate. That has to be the smartest thing to do—>'

Further rational thought was wiped out in an instant. Shampoo had finally flown low enough to make out what was on the other side of the hyperdense rain curtain. It was Furinkan! Was this some new threat after her Airen's hide?!

Throwing caution to the winds, Shampoo dived to gain airspeed, then twisted and zipped through the wall of rain. She took an instant of unpleasant pounding and then she was through, regaining control of her flight and reorienting herself. Even though she'd expected the air to be rain-free, it was still bizarre to experience it.

Then she caught sight of Ranma. He seemed all right, no sign of turmoil or threats, no chance to stand by his side in battle. He was just staring into a strange mechanical tube pointed at the sky. So were all the other students on the roof, Shampoo quickly noted, and it seemed that because of this none of them had seen her.

Wait, there was one student who wasn't looking into her tube anymore. Shampoo's eyes narrowed as she watched Ukyo Kuonji turn away from the bizarre contraption and take a hesitant step toward her husband. Shampoo was sorely tempted to bank in a hard turn, come in for a dive, maybe trim the girl's hair a bit with her beak. At the very least she could 'accidentally' shake enough water onto Ranma while flying overhead to defeat whatever the spatula girl was planning.

The only thing that held her back was the presence of all the other students. Not that Shampoo cared about them or would let them dictate her idea of acceptable action, but she knew Ukyo was much more inhibited (or as the Amazon thought of it, 'more like stupid Japanese way of never showing your real feelings'). Whatever the girl intended now with Ranma, surely it wouldn't be anything Shampoo needed to stop at all costs. And so, still undetected, the Amazon turned and came in for a landing atop the roof of the stairwell, crept to the edge, and watched.

'Damn moral dilemmas,' Ukyo thought. That one hesitant step toward Ranma seemed to have used up all her reserves of decisiveness. 'Ranchan, why'd you have to go out flying yesterday anyway? It was all so easy then, so clear and bright and uncomplicated. I'd go to you, I'd point out just what those Amazon laws really mean, you'd do the right thing and not keep Shampoo hanging any longer. She goes away, not happy but at least she can get on with her life, and things get better around here too.'

All of that was still true; an evening, morning, and early afternoon of reflection hadn't picked any holes in it. No, the problem Ukyo was facing now was with something outside of those nice, simple, straightforward, 'it's for Shampoo's own good to get this out of the way now' issues. 'It's like that girl said… with her handicap, Shampoo won't ever be able to snag Ranma honey for real. At least, not by his choice,' Ukyo thought with a glower. 'But that doesn't mean it won't have any effect at all, when she tries and tries so hard to get close to him. Hell, I've seen it already in just the last few weeks! She is getting closer… and that doesn't just affect her and Ranchan.'

She hadn't forgotten it yet, what Ranma had said to her when talking about not going for the win by using Shampoo's curse. The words still echoed in her mind: '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. 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…'.

No, Ukyo didn't think she'd forget those words anytime soon, or Ranma's follow-up statement that he didn't want things between the two of them to proceed down that same path. Part of Ukyo felt guilty, to be so thankful that Shampoo's gambit had resulted in a greater distance between Ranma and Akane, but that part was dwarfed by the chef's practical side. Those two simply weren't right for each other. Sure, it was sad that Shampoo should pull them apart when the hopes driving her to do it were destined to be crushed, but that didn't make it any less in Ranma's own best interests. The sooner he and Akane realized they didn't have a future together, the sooner everyone could move on with their lives. And if that meant keeping quiet for a while longer, letting Shampoo believe she still had a chance so that the Amazon would continue prying her 'airen' away from her rival… Well, if it was a question of what was good for Ranma versus what was good for Shampoo, Ukyo knew which side she'd stand on.

That was what she told herself, but it didn't quite want to stick. A little voice in the back of her head continued to whisper that Shampoo had already opened significant distance between Ranma and Akane, that the Amazon must surely be happily treasuring the increased closeness to him she'd gained. It might be good for Ranma to end things with Akane as speedily as possible, that voice agreed, but the bigger issue wasn't really in doubt, was it? It was only a matter of time, likely of much less time now than Ukyo would have dreamed six weeks ago. Not because of anything Ukyo had done, but because of Shampoo's actions combined with Akane's unquenchable jealousy. 'Humph. She never had to put up with her fiancé staying under another girl's roof,' Ukyo thought, her train of thought taking a minor detour. 'Except for that one time with the Gambling King, of course.'

Forcing away the infuriating memory of finding Genma and the Tendos camped out in her home, Ukyo refocused on the issue at hand. She stood there, pondering, questioning, searching, and seeking for a good five minutes. The sound of a falcon yawning was completely inaudible over the rain.

Eventually, though, she reached the point of decision. 'If I keep quiet and let things go on as they are, it's only going to be worse for Shampoo. A lot worse. She's finally making what she's gotta think is real progress. So yeah, I could let it go on like that, watch as she works her way farther in between Ranma and Akane, and wait to say anything until Akane's out of the picture for good. That might help Ranchan out a little… but it would mean dumping a truckload of pain and hurt on Shampoo. Wait to hit her when she's sitting on top of the world, thinking she's finally got everything going her way? Hurt her that much to maybe spare Ranma a little bit of pain?'

With a determined shake of her head, Ukyo lurched into motion once more, crossing the remaining distance to Ranma and laying one hand on his shoulder. "Ranma honey, we… we need to talk."

'<That's it? Just talk?>' Shampoo thought, blinking the boredom out of her eyes. '<She stood there that long, working up her courage just for that? What's she going to say to him? No way will it be anything too personal. There's no way the spatula girl could pull that off with so many people around, even if they are all staring up through those things.>'

She settled down again, focusing, trying to make out everything Ukyo was saying. It wasn't easy. The force with which the chef spoke her initial phrase had carried it clearly to Shampoo's ears, but Ukyo had shifted to a lower tone to continue. Between the noise of the rain and the distance separating Ukyo from Shampoo's perch, the Amazon was having serious difficulty catching her words.

By the time she grasped the gist of what Ukyo was saying, it was much too late to intervene.

Unable or unwilling to believe what she had heard, eyes staring grimly forward, her whole body trembling with tension, Shampoo watched the conversation proceed. She only caught bits and pieces — questions, discomfort, sputtered half-denials from Ranma. From Ukyo, clarifications, grim repetitions, and above all the careful insistence that she wasn't telling him who he could and couldn't spend time with, wasn't trying to get Ranma to drop Shampoo out of his life for good. She just wanted him to see what was really at stake here, Ukyo said so earnestly, so honestly, so innocently. She didn't want Shampoo to get any more hurt than she had to, for thinking things were different from how they really were.

With that last line, the urge to take flight and shred the treacherous backstabbing witch left her, replaced by a much better plan. 'You not want Shampoo hurt for think things not how they really are?' she mentally sneered in her rival's language. 'I follow you example. Is past time somebody learn how some things was for true.'

A tiny hitch of breath caught in Shampoo's throat as she finally spotted her target. '<You're late, Ranma,>' she thought distantly, watching from her higher vantage point as he leapt from the street to the top of a one-story building. '<I was beginning to wonder whether you were coming at all.>'

She waited and watched, tracking his progress as he moved over the rooftops. Her beloved was moving much slower than usual. Normally when he arrived at the Cat Café for a new bout of training, eagerness and determination practically radiated from him. This time, his features were an open book of uncertainty, confusion, and bitterness. 'You happy, Ukyo?' Shampoo thought darkly, pretending she was speaking the words directly to the girl. 'Glad to see what you do to him? Too bad you not here to enjoy it while it last.'

Forcing away the curdled sneer that those thoughts had brought with them, Shampoo took several deep breaths, chose her moment, and leapt down. She dropped to the roof tiles only five feet away from Ranma, landing as lightly as her former cursed form. "Nihao, Ranma," she said evenly as she closed the distance between them. "What is wrong? You not look happy to be coming for train with Shampoo."

Despite himself Ranma had taken a step backward, caught off-guard by her arrival. He'd known he wasn't ready for the encounter he was heading towards, and only the knowledge that skipping out on it would make things worse had kept him on his path. "That ain't it," he said after a long moment spent trying to scrounge up some opening remarks. Would it have been so hard for fate to have let him have those last few minutes to try and come up with what he was going to say?! "Why'd you come looking for me? I'm only a few minutes late."

"Just wanted to talk, before you get to Cat Café and focus on training. Great-grandmother say we can take as long as need."

Ranma blinked, a suspicion beginning to gnaw at the back of his mind. "Talk? About something important enough for that?" He supposed it could be a coincidence, that this was happening less than twenty-four hours after that talk with Ukyo, but it didn't seem likely. 'At least if that's it, it'll make it easier to get started talking about it.' "What did ya want to talk about?"

"Many thing," Shampoo said. "Start with school. How was it today? No stupid people try take advantage of curse? You glad is Saturday, only have half-day of class?"

Ranma shrugged, hiding the fact that — for the first time ever — the answer to that last question would be 'no'. He would have preferred a lot more time to think about the questions and issues Ukyo had raised the previous day. "Nobody tried nothing. I guess that's good."

"Shampoo glad." The Amazon scraped up a small, fake smile. "So, was better day than yesterday, yes? Better than yesterday late afternoon?"

He drew a deep breath, released it, then took another. "You already know about that, huh. How?"

"Felt something strange in the air while I flying, go to check it out, find rain making curtain around school but not falling on roof. Also find roof was where you were, Ranma, other students too." Shampoo's eyes narrowed. "And Spatula Girl. She not see me on top of roof over stairs, for sure she not hear me. I hear everything she say to you, though."

"Everything?" he echoed. "Why didn't you fly down and stop her?"

"What good that do?" Shampoo countered bitterly. "Sure, I could have fly down, slash her with beak or claws, could even have knock her off roof with full power Wind Strike. That really solve problem, yes? Stop her from talking about how horrible Amazons is, how they nothing but honorless bunch of bloodthirsty backward barbarian peoples who no belong in world of today. Stop her from saying that, no matter how far Shampoo have to go — that would really be smart thing to do."

"Well, I'm glad you didn't," Ranma said wearily. "What are ya gonna do instead?"

Shampoo held silent for a long moment, then gave a tiny shake of the head. This was too important to rush. Though her heart urged her to push forward as quickly as possible with the truth he needed to hear, her mind remembered the advice Cologne had given her so many weeks ago. Simply racing as fast as possible down the obvious path probably wasn't the best thing to do. Much better to talk things out more thoroughly than that, to learn more about what her beloved was really thinking and feeling. "That is question I ask you," she murmured. "She say all those things, she tell you throw Shampoo away as soon as can. I ask you what you going to do."

Ranma took even longer to answer her question than she had his. "If you heard everything she said, then that makes this easier on me," he said at last. He wasn't looking directly at Shampoo at the moment, and thus missed the way she paled and began trembling. "I heard Ucchan's opinion. I know what her take on things is. On the other hand, she's saying that based on what she knows… and she doesn't know everything. Neither do I, for that matter. So that's where I am, Shampoo. I need more information before I can make any kind of decision."

The Amazon released the breath she hadn't even realized she was holding. Her hand twitched toward an item secured within her blouse, stopping only once the specter of Cologne and her counsel rose up again. "I am glad you think right thing is listen to Shampoo before decide," she said quietly.

"Well, I've learned a few lessons, even if it took longer than it should've," he replied, speaking no louder. "You know what I've done so far about all this fiancée mess, Shampoo?"

"Seems like nothing," the Amazon admitted. "Can not do that forever, but is better than making too quick, bad choice."

"Damn straight," he replied, letting out a sardonic chuckle. "That's been my approach to anything outside of martial arts. I dealt with whatever crisis was in my face, and if there wasn't anything I just focused on the moment instead of what was down the road. And you know what's really crazy? That was actually the right thing to do; I just didn't carry it far enough. Didn't take advantage of the opportunities it gave me."

Shampoo blinked, thought about it, and nodded decisively. "Is true," she declared. "Should have take me on dates when I ask, and I guess Ukyo too, and you should have ask Akane. That way you have good time with Shampoo, have good time but just as friend with Spatula Girl, and recover from bruise from Akane eventually. You learn who is good choice for the future."

"Sounds like you already know something it took me a long time to figure out. I ain't saying anything about specifics, mind you," Ranma clarified. "But you're right… I shoulda been using this time to get more information, to learn the stuff I needed for when I was finally gonna decide something for real." He sighed. "It actually worked out pretty good like that with Pop, you know?"

"Huh? With father? No, Shampoo not know what you talking," she confessed.

"It goes all the way back to when we first moved in with the Tendos. As I'm sure you know, Pop was all for me an' Akane getting together right away, pushed us as much as he could. If I'd said I wanted it, he woulda been thrilled to have a priest there to marry us in less than a half-hour's time." Noting the dark clouds gathering on Shampoo's brow, Ranma picked up the pace of his explanation. "And you gotta know I didn't want that. Hell, I wouldn't have been ready for a step like that even with the best girl in the world. Pop and me spent so much time on the road, almost never making close friends or anything. How he coulda thought I was going to be ready for a fiancée, I'll never know."

"Ranma, Shampoo not know your father so well as you, but it not seem to me like he worry if you ready or not," she pointed out.

"Yeah, well, the point is he wanted it, I didn't. But…" Ranma paused to gather his thoughts and his courage, then said, "If he'd pushed hard enough… if he'd said, 'Do this or you're no son of mine'… I woulda caved in. I couldn't have sacrificed that much just to have my own way, even if it meant getting married to someone I barely knew who couldn't go half a day without pounding on me."

"No worry about that!" Shampoo said, more sharply than she intended. The last thing she wanted was for Ranma to give Genma that kind of hold over him. "He never do that for true, Airen. Prove that for sure when you wear Red Thread of Fate."

"Did he?" Ranma mused. "I still don't remember what happened while you had that stupid thing on me, and nobody ever gave me a real good explanation. I know I was determined to marry you. So Pop caved in then, showed he didn't have the guts to fight what I really wanted?"

"Is so," she declared. Then, thinking back over his tone, she wondered, "You not sound surprise. Already know that last part was true?"

"I figured it out during that business with those two girls who thought Mr. Tendo was their dad. Pop might not've realized it, but he basically admitted that I could break my engagement to Akane and he wouldn't fight it to the bitter end, or leave me afterward." Ranma dredged up the barest hint of a smile. "So that's one place where waiting, holding on to the status quo, was the right thing to do. It took a while, but now I know that no matter what choices I make, I ain't gonna lose my father because of them.

"I'd like to think that same strategy could work again," he continued. "If I thought it'd help, I could stall until your granny and the old freak both started acting their ages. But if that's only gonna make things worse, I gotta find another way."

"So kind of Spatula Girl to tell you just that," Shampoo said with a frown. "Say to you that you only hurting Shampoo, should tell me 'bie liao' right away. Say that is obvious I never give up being Amazon for you, and is just as obvious you never be happy to be part of such terrible, evil peoples."

"That's what she said," Ranma echoed. He wasn't sure what to make of it, that Shampoo was taking so long to begin countering it. That she had taken the time to hear more of what was on his mind, that she didn't seem desperate at all… was it a good sign? "What've you got to say?"

'<Surely that's enough about what's really on his heart right now, how he really took it when someone challenged him like that.>' Regardless of whether or not her great-grandmother would agree, Shampoo wasn't waiting any longer to chase those dark clouds away. "Not say anything," she replied. At the same time she whisked a sheaf of papers out of her blouse and held it out to him.

'Huh? She wrote it down instead? Why bother?' He took them and unfolded them, struck once again by the odd neatness of Shampoo's handwriting. Ever since that ridiculous Martial Arts Calligraphy challenge he'd been aware that Cologne was working on Shampoo's written Japanese, that Shampoo could write the language much better than she spoke it. If this was something she wanted to communicate clearly to him, using the written word would work… but it seemed like a lot of wasted effort when they could just assume their cursed forms and get rid of the language barrier that way.

Ranma pushed the questions out of his mind as he began reading the missive. Shampoo watched, her face an impassive mask, her posture steady and confident, her tight-clenched white-knuckled hands hidden behind her back. It took several minutes for him to read the document all the way through. Then even longer for him to read it again, more slowly and carefully than before. Then there was the time it took for him to just stand there, blank-faced, staring off into the distance as if struck by lightning.

She waited for him to show signs of life before she made her next move. Once he did, once he began to stir out of his shocked trance, she leaned over and retrieved the papers from his hand. He blinked and twitched when she did so, but that was all the response he managed.

Not until she had pulled out a cigarette lighter and reduced the first page to ash did he truly come back to life. "W-wait a minute! I need… I can't… Shampoo, that wasn't anywhere near enough information!" He growled as she paid no apparent attention, merely reduced the next page to ash. "Would you please forget that for now and give me a real explanation?!"

Shampoo cleared her throat loudly and emphatically, quickly sorted through the unburned pages, found the appropriate block of text, tore it out of the page, and handed it back to him. Ranma glanced over the sentence, then rolled his eyes. "Yeah, yeah, I read it already. 'The truth of this—' " Her hand over his mouth cut him off. She stared into his eyes with a Cheshire Cat grin to hide her own nervousness, waved a reproving finger, then pulled back and continued burning the papers. Ranma rolled his eyes. 'Okay, fine. I can't even say 'the truth of this matter must never be spoken of outside Amazon lands'? You don't want it talked about even that much? Fine, we won't 'talk' about it at all.'

He waited until she had consigned the last page to the flames. Then, dropping the scrap of paper, his hand shot out at Amaguriken speed to Shampoo's side, grasping the canteen dangling there. Ranma supposed it was a security measure to give her a quick escape if she got into a situation that called for it, but here and now it would serve a different purpose.

Pulling the canteen away and up between them, his other hand came around and down to smash through the plastic, sending cold water spraying in a three-sixty degree arc. The Amazon had just enough time to shift from surprised to exasperated before their human forms melted away. It was Shampoo's turn to roll her eyes, once she had extricated herself from her clothing. "~If you'd waited all of five seconds longer, I would have changed us without needing to buy a new flask afterwards. Was that too much to ask?~"

"~Well, maybe if you'd told me to wait for that instead of just shutting me up manually,~" he grumbled back.

Shampoo gave him a hooded stare. In her human form, it would have been sultry enough to have Ranma gulping nervously, but on a falcon it just looked odd. "~I could have covered your lips with something else, you know. Something that would have left both my hands free.~" Her tone more than made up for the deficiency in her expression.

"~Um… I… that is….~" Ranma gave his head a quick forceful shake. "~Look, never mind about teasing and kissing and stuff like that!~"

"~Kissing?~" Shampoo interjected, quick as a wink. "~I didn't say that. Nice to know that's what you're thinking, though… husband.~"

Ranma stammered futilely for several more moments, before regaining enough composure to make a semi-coherent comeback. "~The heck you didn't. Isn't this whole thing about a kiss?!~"

This should have been the point where Shampoo knocked him off balance once again with the biggest, naughtiest smile she'd ever managed. She certainly tried. However, due to the restrictions posed by a beak, all she achieved was a minor facial muscle cramp.

Ranma continued, picking up speed in the face of Shampoo's unexpected temperance. "~Do you seriously expect to just drop a thunderbolt like that on me out of the blue, hand me something like that to read over a couple of times and then that's the end of it?!~"

"~No, I don't, and when did I say that anyway?~"

"~Uh, maybe when you took the papers back and started burning them, without answering questions or even letting me ask them?~"

"~What was I supposed to do, let you carry something like that back to the Tendo home?~" Shampoo rolled her eyes. "~Silly Ranma. You did read all of it, didn't you?~"

"~Of course I did! But that doesn't mean I can believe it!~"

Shampoo froze, staring wide-eyed at him, unable to keep up her good cheer in the face of this. No words came for several seconds, and when they did shock and hurt were equally plain to be heard. "~You… you don't… you think I'm lying to you? About something as big as this?~"

"~Arrgh! No! That's not what I meant!~" Ranma squawked, wishing there was some kind of impassioned gesture he could make that wouldn't just look stupid in his current form. Shampoo's posture thawed a little, becoming more open as she waited for him to continue. It was his turn to spend several moments searching for words.

"~Look,~" he said cautiously at last. "~Think about when you came back last month, when we went off alone so you could show me your new curse. I was surprised, right?~"

"~Of course you were,~" Shampoo replied, wondering where he was going with this.

"~It took me awhile to really get it through my head, just how much things had changed. Right?~"

"~Of course it did.~"

"~Right.~" Ranma took a deep breath. "~And you just hit me with something that's about twenty times bigger, and I'm supposed to smile and accept it just like that?~"

Shampoo blinked. "~That's what you meant by 'can't believe it'?"

Ranma nodded. "~You got it.~"

"~Okay, fine, my mistake. Stupid curse, you're supposed to prevent these kinds of misunderstandings,~" she grumbled under her breath.

"~I don't even see why we needed to change,~" he said. "~Well, okay, the translation thing ought to make it easier to talk about this stuff. But would it really have been such a big deal in our normal bodies? I understand that it's a big secret and all, but it's not like there's anybody around to overhear.~"

"~Humor me, okay?~" Shampoo said. "~This is just about the biggest, most important Amazon secret of all. If there are others that are more important, I don't know them. This one… we learn from birth to keep quiet about it. It's worked for I don't know how many thousand years, but it's only good as long as the rest of the world doesn't know what the Kiss of Death really is. Even if great-grandmother gave me permission to tell you about this… even though you mean more to me than every Amazon law on the books… and even in our cursed bodies… it's still not easy to talk about.~"

"~I, I understand, I guess… but I still need more than what you've given me so far.~" The words were little more than a whisper, and apologetic as well, but he meant every one.

"~All right. It's too late anyway to start refusing you anything,~" Shampoo joked feebly.

"~Uh… yeah.~" That was all he said for the next ninety seconds.

"~Ranma?~" Shampoo eventually asked, breaking the silence for him. "~Didn't you want to talk about this?~"

"~I did. I do. I'm just trying to find where to start.~"

"~Okay. Take your time.~" Shampoo settled down and began humming the Amazon version of One Hundred Bottles Of Beer On The Wall, wondering whether the Jusenkyo translation effect extended far enough for Ranma to pick up on the joke.

Twenty-nine swords had been forged and broken in battle by the time Ranma spoke again. "~…I guess I really just need to hear you tell me this. Seeing it written down… Yeah, sure, it explains the rule, but that isn't enough to really connect it to me. To you. To us. Whatever.~"

This was actually easier than it might have been; basically, he was asking for a conversation that she'd fantasized about many times in the past. Of course, those fantasies had included the two of them safely back in the Amazon village and Ranma fully accepting and happy in their marriage, so many of the specifics were going to have to be tweaked now. Ruthlessly, Shampoo pushed away the last twinges of guilt at breaking yet another law for Ranma, and began. "~Back in China, did you notice how I never attacked without any warning at all? That I never came out of nowhere to hit you when you weren't ready? Didn't you wonder why I only caught up with you during the daytime? Did you ever stop and think about just what the law said, and what I was doing, and how those things didn't really go together at all?~"

"~Wait. What?~" Ranma interrupted. "~Those first questions at least made sense, even if it'd be nice to have a minute to stop and think about them. But that last thing? What's that supposed to mean?~"

'<I guess it's only in my dreams that he understands right away what I'm saying,>' Shampoo thought with a mental sigh. Aloud, she said, "~Okay, let's take it slow. What was the law, according to what the Jusenkyo guide told you?~"

"~He didn't actually say anything about a law. He just said Amazons give the Kiss of Death to an outsider girl who beats them, and then track her down and kill her.~"

Shampoo waved one wing in an airy gesture. "~Fine, close enough, think about the book of Amazon Law I showed you in Japan.~"

"~Um… that's the same thing. Well, okay, almost the same thing. It's saying an Amazon has to do that, the guide just said that's what you do. What's the difference?~"

"~You're getting bogged down in unimportant details, Ranma. Think about it this way. An outsider defeats an Amazon. Who's the better fighter?~"

"~That would be me,~" Ranma said, still waiting for Shampoo to start making some sense.

"~Let's use a real girl for this example. We don't need this getting confused.~"

"~Too late,~" he interjected with a whistling sigh.

"~No, it's not. It's perfectly simple! Look, an Amazon gets defeated by an outsider because the outsider was better or stronger than her, or at least roughly equal. And then, right in the middle of Amazon home territory, the defeated warrior tells the outsider that she's going to kill her… and then lets the woman run off? So that she can wait and fight her again… this woman who already defeated her once… on unfamiliar ground when the other one is fighting for her life? Tell me, Ranma, just how much sense does that make?~"

"~Not as much as what was written on those papers, I guess,~" he admitted after several thoughtful moments had passed. "~But it's still hard to push out the old idea and replace it with this new one. I mean… it was just a test? All of it? Each time I ran away from you again, I was just failing worse and worse?~"

"~If you really had been a woman, yes. But that's not true, so it wasn't a good test. A man in a woman's body, who's only just been cursed with that body… of course he's not going to relate to women the same as they do to themselves. You weren't being a coward when you ran from me instead of standing your ground and facing me like a woman.~"

"~Thanks, I think,~" he said dryly. "~And it's not like I knew that at the time. What if I hadn't run, all the way back at the village? Or at least if I'd stood up to you that first time you caught up with Pop and me?~"

"~Then you'd have learned that the Kiss of Death really was just a test, and I'd have welcomed you in as a new Amazon sister, and gotten the biggest shock of my life several weeks earlier,~" Shampoo said. Her tone shifted from humorous to wistful as she continued, "~And we might even have a child by now….~"

"~Uh, yeah, getting back to the law….~" Ranma squawked.

"~What more do you need to hear? Isn't it plain enough now? It's no dishonor to lose to a worthy foe stronger than yourself. In fact, it's even a source of pride when it leads to the tribe getting a strong new sister.~"

"~And if it's some kind of fluke and you get beaten by a coward who got lucky or something, you chase her down 'to the ends of the earth', push her and push her until she finally breaks down, stops running, and begs for her life. Then you can take payment out of her hide for your loss, use the Xi Fang Gao to keep her from spreading the word that she got a Kiss of Death but the Amazon didn't follow through on it, and head back home with your honor restored. Or if you think she showed enough potential even in the middle of running like a rabbit, you can drag her back to the village as a slave for a year and let the elders try to hammer her spirit into shape to where she can join the tribe anyway.~" Ranma finished his summary of the law he'd read, and frowned. "~Obviously that's better than what I originally thought, but it still seems kinda ugly.~"

"~What, the 'taking it out of her hide' part?~"

"~No, the slavery bit.~"

Shampoo shrugged. "~The choice is up to the Amazon, so it's not as if the law itself is harsh. Keep in mind that in this situation, 'slavery' is just another word for 'training'. Plus, if she does take the outsider back, that's as good as telling all her sisters that she thinks this is a warrior who can become a credit to the tribe with enough work. She's putting her own honor back on the line to do it.~"

"~So that's what you were planning for me, right?~" Ranma said, unsure how to feel about it. With Shampoo's clarification the Amazon response no longer seemed so very unreasonable, as long as it really was being dealt out to some talented coward who went around pretending to be a martial artist. On the other hand, given that he himself had been on the wrong end of a Kiss of Death, it was hard not to take it a little personally.

"~Um… no. Not once you made it all the way to Japan. You were just too good at running away,~" Shampoo admitted. "~I figured you'd give me the slip on the way back and disappear again.~"

"~So you were gonna corner me, make me beg, and give me a good beating to finish things off.~"

"~Just the first two. If the Amazon doesn't take the outsider back, what she does instead to settle the personal debt is completely up to her. I was planning to wait until you were on your knees in tears, pleading with me to spare you, then thump your nose and say 'Okay'. I'd even bought a disposable camera so I could show the look on your face to everyone back at the village.~"

"~Very funny,~" he groused.

"~No, it really isn't,~" she replied quietly. "~Not that we had such a big misunderstanding right at the start. Not that so many unfair things have dropped on you and me so often. But it's better to try to laugh than scream or cry, isn't it? To take happiness where you can find it.~"

"~Maybe. Yeah, actually that does sound right. But you know what's even better?~"

"~Better?~" she echoed. "~No, what?~"

"~Getting rid of the misunderstandings and the confusion and the stuff that keeps tripping us over and over.~" Ranma arched his back, spread his wings, and flapped them as if to emphasize his point. "~Like you started when you went back to Jusenkyo so we could switch out our curses. Like I've been trying to do, trying to think things through and make better choices than I have before. Like we're doing right here and now, talking about what your laws really mean. There's been times when I've worried that some three thousand year old thing I didn't know about was gonna sneak up and bite me in the butt.~"

"~Well, what would you like to know? Great-grandmother told me I could take as much time for this talk as I needed, that she could get back to your training tomorrow if we don't have time for it today. But we'd need a lot longer than an afternoon for me to tell you everything about Amazon life. So probably you should just ask me whatever questions you have.~"

'Okay,' he realized, 'this has gotta be the best chance I'll ever get. All that stuff I was wondering about ever since yesterday, all that time I spent worrying what Amazon Law would do to Shampoo if I didn't marry her after all, I can get those answers now. Heck, I don't even have to make it that personal, I can just ask it like a general question. All right, time to finally find out some stuff I should have learned right at the start.'

He opened his mouth, and was distantly surprised to hear himself say, "~Is there anything else weird about the real meaning of the Kiss of Death?~"

"~Actually, yes,~" Shampoo answered after her own pause. "~Not weird, just different. It's optional outside of Amazon lands.~" Noting the surprised look on Ranma's face, she explained, "~After all, the whole point is to test the spirit of the outsider woman who just defeated an Amazon. Suppose the outsider was in her late twenties, the Amazon was in town to celebrate her fifteenth birthday, and they were in the middle of Beijing where the only people who really know to fear the Chinese Amazons are the top-level communist dogs. Not running after you get a kiss and a death threat from a hung-over girl half your age isn't the biggest proof of courage.~"

'Well, that's interesting, but it's not that important right now.' "~What if the Amazon did it anyway? Would the woman still officially be an Amazon even if the test wasn't worth much?~"

"~Yes, providing she was willing to come live in our lands for awhile. People older and wiser than our hypothetical fluff-brained girl would check her out, and if her spirit wasn't good enough they'd give her hell until she shaped up or renounced her place in the tribe.~" Shampoo giggled. "~Although I shouldn't say hypothetical. That actually happened with a girl I knew, except that the outsider Mei Ling turned out to be a wonderful new sister right from the start. That didn't stop us from teasing Lotion for a solid year, of course.~"

Ranma chuckled as well at the story, though at the same time he was inwardly berating himself. 'Quit chickening out! It's kinda funny and interesting to hear these things, but they can wait for later. There's no reason to put it off any longer, just spit it out already! 'What'll happen to you if we don't get married after all?' How hard is that to say?'

Clearing his throat, he said, "~And, uh… Shampoo.~"


Another moment of silence, pushing himself to the moment of truth, and then he asked, "~What about the Kiss of Marriage?~"

Shampoo blinked. "~What about it? What are you asking, exactly?~"

Ranma opened his beak to answer. The words wouldn't come.

"~…Ranma?~" she asked after several silent seconds.

'I can't say it… I actually cannot get the words out… What's going on here?' he wondered, confused and slightly afraid. 'It shouldn't be that hard. Okay, maybe it is gonna hurt her to bring it up, but isn't that better than to just go on letting it slide? It ain't like I'm trying to tell her flat-out that I won't, I just need to know what would happen. Just like a little while ago, she won't understand at first, she'll be hurt, and I'll have to explain what I really meant…'

Understanding replaced confusion and fear. 'The heck with that. I can ask Cologne next time the Tendos call for a ramen insurance delivery when I'm at the restaurant training.' He'd never expected to feel thankful that Soun had started checking up to make sure Shampoo wasn't meeting him when he told them he was going out to fly. Monday, Wednesday, and Thursday had seen his training interrupted when Soun called the Cat Café for a delivery order. Each time Shampoo had delivered the ramen with all due speed and spent several minutes afterward poking around, pretending to check whether Ranma was really out or the Tendos were just hiding him.

He didn't doubt that the Tendo patriarch would keep it up, which meant there would be time soon enough to ask the Matriarch that question without hurting Shampoo in the process. "~Yeah, the Kiss of Marriage. Is the same thing true for it? Is it also optional outside of Amazon lands?~"

Shampoo opened her mouth to respond, only to contract her own case of sudden silence. "~Uh, I didn't think it was a hard question,~" Ranma said, conveniently ignoring how long it had taken him to spit it out.

The avian Amazon's beak closed with a click. She blinked twice before her gaze refocused on him. Ranma stirred uneasily, wondering whether her eyes were really gleaming so much brighter than before. Surely it was just a trick of the light. "~Yes?~" he prompted. "~No? Maybe? Only on Tuesdays and Thursdays?~"

"~Tell you what, Ranma. I'll answer that question…~" and now the tone of her voice made it very clear — he wasn't imagining that mischievous gleam at all. "~If you can catch me!~"

With no further ado, the pink-and-purple peregrine blasted into the air. The wind of her passage from roof to sky sent Ranma tumbling backwards, dizzily aware that she must have invoked an Air technique to get such a massive response. By the time he'd cleared his head enough to take to the air himself, Shampoo was five hundred feet higher and soaring in lazy mocking circles.

"~You'll have to do better than that!~" she called as he closed the distance. Suddenly the air was filled with unpredictable cross-breezes and downdrafts, none powerful enough to threaten him, but the whole more than sufficient to slow his progress to a crawl. "~Last time we flew together you might have been able to keep up with me, but that was then and this is now! I've got a lot of new tricks up my sleeve!~"

"~Tricks up your sleeve? What, are you stealing Mousse's lines now?~" Ranma called back. He watched with immense satisfaction as the taunt reduced Shampoo's smooth flight to a shocked, floundering struggle. More importantly, the mischievous winds fighting his progress instantly disappeared. Ranma sped up to maximum, nearly closing the gap completely before Shampoo rallied enough to catch him off-guard with a massive rising gust.

Even as he rocketed up, toward, then past her, he was laughing with exhilaration. He'd been braced for a return of the downdrafts, of winds that would have tried to keep him from getting any closer to his target, and she'd caught him off-guard by using the exact opposite tactic. This was just what he needed after that roller-coaster ride of a conversation. "~Challenge accepted, Shampoo!~" he called out, banking into a dive. "~I can use a good flight after that much heavy stuff. Try not to lose too fast!~"

Shampoo breathed in deeply, savoring the scents of the forest. She settled herself a little more comfortably on the branch. It wasn't the same thing as being home again in the Bayankhala Mountains of China, but it was a nice diversion from the teeming masses of Tokyo.

"~Stop stalling, Shampoo,~" Ranma teased. "~I won fair and square. Ain't there a question you're supposed to be answering?~"

The company was nice, too.

Shampoo cocked her head to the side and gave him the most innocent look she could manage. "~Question? What question? You're not still talking about the Kiss of Marriage and whether it's required or optional, are you?~"

"~Uh, yes, I am. You said you'd tell me if I caught you, and I did.~" Even if it had taken him two hours to do it. Shampoo's flying skills were almost as good as his, and her ability to influence the winds had put the advantage decidedly in her court. He hadn't been able to catch her until their flight took them all the way to this forest, but once there were enough trees obscuring things he'd been able to take her by surprise, brush the knuckles of his talons against the top of her head, and emerge triumphant in the face of yet another challenge.

'<I wonder if he even suspects that I took it into the forest to let him win,>' Shampoo mused. '<Probably not. Although it is true I was running low on strength.>' It took a lot less energy to whip up a wind that could disrupt a falcon's flight, as opposed to the kind of force needed to stop a human opponent in combat, but three hours of evading Ranma had taken their toll just the same. The Amazon had decided it would be better to let him win on her terms, rather than pushing it farther and leaving the both of them utterly exhausted. Aloud, she said, "~Oh, yeah, that. I didn't think I needed to say anything; you already guessed the answers.~"

"~Well, which one was it? Wait, 'answers'?"

"~Mm-hm. Yes and no.~"

From his perch one branch over, Ranma gave her a flat stare. Then, pushing away his own weariness, he fluttered into the air once more, lightly bonked her with one set of closed talons, and settled down a few inches away from her. "~Tag. I got you again. Could you maybe answer the question for real now?~"

"~Oh, all right,~" Shampoo said with a mock pout. "~Anyway, like I said, yes and no. If an outsider male defeats an Amazon outside of Amazon lands, there can be some room for her not to give him the Kiss. It all depends on the situation. If it was an honest defeat, a real test of skill and strength for both fighters, then she is definitely expected to do it.~" She cleared her throat. "~On the other hand, if an Amazon was busy intimidating someone else and the outsider male took her by surprise, she would be free to use her own judgment.~"

"~Um… right.~" Ranma thought that one over for awhile. At last, he tentatively asked, "~Did you ever regret it?~"

"~Yes, of course, with all my heart,~" Shampoo said as matter-of-factly as she could. She waited just long enough for Ranma to give a strangled "~Urk!~", stagger back off the branch, and struggle to land and stabilize himself on another perch farther down. "~Just that one time when I was wearing the Reversal Jewel, though.~"

"~Oh, yeah… that,~" Ranma said, as flustered as Shampoo had seen in a long time. She snickered as she watched him resettle his ruffled feathers.

After that a thoughtful, companionable silence stretched between them for a long time. Each was tired enough to welcome a peaceful moment to rest, and both had plenty to think about.

It was Ranma who eventually broke the silence, after flying back to her branch. "~Thanks for telling me all this, Shampoo. It… it's really good to hear, you know? Because up until yesterday, I was pretty confident that I was finally making real progress in my life, moving things along to something better than before. Ukyo kind of kicked that theory's butt, but now I guess I can pick it up, dust it off, and take it back to the bank. Things are getting better for real.~"

"~I'm glad you think so too,~" she answered. Then, her eyes narrowing as her gaze shifted away from him toward the general direction of Nerima, she muttered, "~Speaking of kicking butts…~"

"~Hold on, there,~" Ranma requested. "~I know you were mad. I woulda been too, in your place. That doesn't make it all right for you to take it out of Ucchan's hide, though.~"

"~Why not?~" Shampoo wanted to know, her eyes still narrowed dangerously and now staring straight at him.

"~Because it wasn't as bad as you're making it out to be,~" he declared. "~Yeah, the stuff she said must have hurt you to hear it, but that wasn't what she was trying to do. She really believed what she was telling me, and part of that was that doing what she said would hurt you less. It's not her fault she got it all wrong.~"

Shampoo opened her mouth to reply, then stopped and considered what he had just said. Considered as well the nature of much of Ukyo's message, the things that her husband had just admitted were simply not true. '<Everything she said was wrong? Even the parts about how we weren't right for each other at all? Are you finally ready to say it out loud, even just a little?>' "~Do you really mean that, beloved?~" she asked, tenderly, wistfully, hopefully.

'Why's she saying it like that?' he wondered, hearing those emotions loud and clear in her tone. 'Oh well, at least she ain't angry or hurt or nothing.' "~Yeah, I do. So don't go squash her with a Hurricane Haymaker or nothing, Shampoo,~" he said as firmly as he could. "~It's going to be enough of a pain trying to tell her why I'm not doing anything she suggested, since I can't explain how she was working with bad information. Unless you could maybe see your way clear to writing one of those notes for Ucchan too…?~"

"~Did you just ask me to threaten a three thousand year old secret… something that we count on for bringing in new sisters… just to make things more convenient with the spatula girl?~"

"~A simple 'no' would have done just fine there,~" Ranma grumbled back. "~Okay, I got you, but that doesn't make it any easier for me to know what I'm supposed to say to her.~"

Shampoo flapped her wings in an approximate shrug. "~Just tell her that if she trusts you, she won't push you on it.~" Ukyo probably would do just that, but Shampoo doubted such a tactic would silence the questions even out of the chef's mind. '<Hmmph. Let her wonder and worry why Ranma didn't throw me away even after she told him to. That will be enough for now.>'

"~Maybe. Guess I just need to take some time to think about it.~" Speaking of thought, and the best opportunities he had to indulge in it… "~It's getting late, Shampoo. You ready to head back now?~"

"~All right,~" she agreed. The two took to the skies, flying slowly and letting the winds do all the work. Neither said anything until they'd left the forest behind. When Shampoo did speak again, it was in thoughtful tones with just a hint of underlying mischief. "~I'm glad we got this time together, Ranma. To talk about important things, and to fly together without talking at all. Do you think it was worth it too? Even though you had to miss your training for today?~"

"~Yeah, it was nice,~" he agreed. "~It was worth it. Even though I bet I would have finally beaten that stupid harness and its disintegrating feathers today.~"

"~I'm sure you would have,~" she agreed. "~But tomorrow's training will be soon enough for that.~" Mischievous good cheer had completely replaced thoughtfulness now. "~Especially since it will mean you took the same number of days to do it as I did, instead of one less.~"

"Today's gonna be the day," Ranma said to no one in particular as he vaulted through the air. "The day I master that stupid training exercise and move on to some real stuff." He landed, paused, shook his head. "Eight days from start to finish, same as Shampoo from what she said. Bet she won't let me forget that anytime soon."

His words might be rueful, but his tone and smile put the lie to them. Unlike Shampoo, he'd had to sneak over for a few hours of training at a time, and he hadn't even been able to do that every day. He might end up taking the same number of days to master the Flight of the Plucked Chicken as she had, but Ranma knew his total hours were well under hers. He'd just remind her of that if she ever crowed too much.

As good as he was feeling right now, though, Ranma didn't particularly want to burst her bubble. Yesterday he had walked slowly and somberly toward the Cat Café, taking to the rooftops only when he had to. Today he hadn't bothered with the street at all, and he definitely wasn't dragging his heels. 'No need for Shampoo to come looking for me today,' he thought. 'Though it might be kind of funny if she did anyway, to try and delay me for one more day. Bet she'd really like to say she took one less day to master something than I did, hold that over my head for who knows how many years. Well, sorry, Shampoo, ain't gonna happen.'

The very instant that he finished the thought, he caught a glimpse of an approaching figure, descending through the air toward his current rooftop. Even though only visible in his peripheral vision, the curves beneath the skin-tight clothing were obviously female. 'Okay, am I suddenly developing a sixth sense— Oh, crap.' This last came as Ranma skidded to a stop and focused fully on the newcomer, whose final leap had brought her down to share the rooftop with him.

Tight, skimpy clothing… check. Lithe form… check. Excellent figure… check. Raven-black hair, violet eyes, face much more composed than the last time he'd seen her… most definitely not Shampoo, and it was suddenly looking possible that the Amazon's record might stand after all. 'How the heck did she catch me anyway?' Ranma thought desperately, freezing at the sight of Kodachi.

She was standing just as still as he was. Her landing had set her down ten feet away from him, and the Black Rose seemed in no hurry to close the distance. She was just standing there, staring at him, leaning slightly forward with her hands behind her back. Her face was a smooth, impersonal mask, showing no emotion. Ranma suspected his own was fairly screaming uneasiness, not that he supposed Kodachi was likely to notice. "Kodachi," he ventured after thirty silent seconds had passed. "Did ya want something?"

"Did I want something… did I want one thing," she murmured, pulling back to a straight-upright pose and bringing one hand around and up, the heel resting against her chin, her forefinger extended thoughtfully up toward her temple. "Yes, one thing, but I don't think you can give it to me, Ranma."

"Uh, okay." Ranma thought for a minute about what that could be. Simple enough to think of something Kodachi wanted from him that he wasn't about to give, but it wasn't quite so easy to imagine her realizing that last part was true. "…What is it?" he asked after letting the silence stretch for another uncomfortably long time.

"Wednesday. Today needs to be Wednesday," Kodachi answered, looking away from him to stare at an electric billboard displaying the time. "It needs to be last Wednesday."

"Last Wednesday?" he echoed. 'Let's see, that was… yeah, that was when she saw me change.' "Why then?"

"Today should be Wednesday, and I should still be waiting for you on top of that building, and my dear, deluded brother should still be gagged and bound. The water should still be in the buckets." Kodachi began trembling. "You should… you should still be… everything should still be…."

"Kodachi…." he began, trying to find more words.

"I WILL NOT DO THIS!!" Kodachi reared her head back and screamed the words, all her poise vanishing in an instant. Ranma jumped reflexively back, almost going over the side of the roof. "It happened! It was real! It shouldn't have been, shouldn't be, but I saw it and I will not hide or lie or turn my face away!"

With those words she made eye-contact with Ranma once more and began stalking toward him. "Tell me, Ranma. Tell me what I saw, what really happened. Tell me what you are." The trembling strengthened, to the point where she had to stumble to a halt. "Tell me," she said, the words now more plea than command. "My brother has called you a foul sorcerer since before you and I met, I think." She gave a bitter laugh, one that grated less against Ranma's nerves than her usual one, but the pain in it was almost worse. "He lives his life bounded by his dreams of an old, dead code, that even when it still breathed wasn't what he imagines. I have pitied and despised him since he was old enough to begin blinding himself so. I have stared coldly into the face of his delusions of superiority, mocked his claims that only magic could explain your victories over him. And now… this…."

"I ain't any kind of sorcerer, Kodachi," Ranma said, finding at least enough guts to begin his explanation here. "I earned every one of my wins, over your brother or anybody, whether it was skill or seein' my chance and grabbing it."

"Yes, I've seen that. Seen both of those. I believed you were just like me." She had been staring desperately into his eyes, but at this point she dropped her gaze and sank to her knees on the rooftop, one hand curled around her abdomen and the other clenching and unclenching against the shingles of the roof. "Tatewaki immured himself within a set of rules, saying that they were all he needed and never seeing them for the chains they were. But I… I chose the rules to be a cage, and I was on the outside, not trapped within.

"Whenever I pursued you, I would change the rules to suit my whim, watch you flail about and scramble to adjust. Each time it gave me great pleasure to watch you try, and even greater pleasure when you succeeded. To see you learn and grow and change, to watch and look toward the day when you finally saw the chains for what they were and joined me on the outside… they were some of my fondest dreams."

She fell momentarily silent. Before Ranma could say anything, though, she spoke again. "That's exactly what they were. DREAMS!" She shouted the word, bringing her left hand up from the roof, clenching it into a fist, then smashing it down. Ranma flinched at the gesture, even though Kodachi hadn't struck with force enough to damage herself or the roof. "I believed it, Ranma! Saw it as a surety on par with the sunrise! I was certain down to the very marrow of my bones that I knew what the future held. That as we walked farther and farther down our paths yours would draw closer and closer to mine, that the love I was so certain I saw hiding within you would finally burn free."

The Black Rose screwed her eyes closed, stifling a sob. Ranma began edging to the side, to get more of the roof behind him rather than empty air. "I was so proud, so confident, so convinced that I understood things far better than the petty fools around me. Such a tall, gleaming, beautiful tower of glass, broken in an instant by a thrown stone of reality, a reality that I never would have dreamed possible.

"It shouldn't be possible!" She surged to her feet in the blink of an eye, striding toward him once more, her gaze angry and desperate. "What force could there possibly be in an ugly lumpy bucket of pig-iron, or water thrown from such a pail? How could it possibly defy all laws of reality, wash so much mass away to nothing, transform you or anyone in such a manner? It should not be possible!"

"It's magic, Kodachi," Ranma ventured to say. "It don't worry much about the rules. Ain't that kinda what you were just talking about?"

Her eyes widened and she stumbled to a halt. All the fire seemed to go out of her at once, as she fell back to the rooftop. "You have certainly learned well enough the lesson of striking someone in her weakness," she said bitterly.

The faint, reassuring smile that he'd managed to form vanished at that. "What's that supposed to mean?!" Ranma protested.

"Look at me!" She found the strength to yell once more, but not to stand. "My self! My belief! My knowledge of how things work, of how things are. All broken! You stand there and look down upon me, riven to pieces and cast down to the dust, forced to see that I understand nothing, and you merely smile? Smile as you cast back into my face the truth of the illusions, the delusions that shaped my life for so long?!"

"Th-that's not what I meant!" Ranma cried, waving his arms helplessly, unhappily aware that this response was no better than any he'd made countless times in the past.

Kodachi's eyes narrowed dangerously, sensing the familiarity of the situation like a shark does blood in the water. Just so had he floundered before her those many times before when she changed the rules. "No?" Uncoiling with a speed she usually only managed with her ribbon, the Black Rose darted forward, wrapping her arms around him, her nails clenching in the back of his neck tightly enough to draw blood. In the same motion she drew his head toward hers with all her strength, fighting his instinctive resistance through sheer manic energy.

Then the compound painted on her nails took effect, and Ranma could no longer stop her from crushing his mouth against her own.

He wasn't sure how long she held him there. Pain, dizziness, confusion, anger, and shame all warred within him, blunting the worst of the moment but at the same time seeming to make it stretch interminably. At last Kodachi ended the kiss, laying his paralyzed form out flat on the roof, the Black Rose kneeling atop his torso, staring down at him for another eternity.

"I don't know you," she whispered at last, softly, mournfully. "I don't know myself. I don't even know the world I live in, and small comfort that apparently no one else does either. Pouring water on you out of an iron bucket shatters at least four laws of nature, and it does so every time if my brother can be believed. What reason did I have to think my kiss would not change you as well, perhaps transform you into a great black panther to pay my daring back tenfold in pain?"

Not even the paralytic agent could block the shiver that ran through Ranma at the idea of that kind of transformation. Kodachi noticed it, and evoked another by running one finger down his neck to the first tie on his shirt. "I could be dancing along the edge of the abyss, stepping ever closer to a senseless, bloody, unpredictable death. There is no way to know. There can be no understanding if even the world doesn't have rules," the Black Rose mused. "Why then should I not live as I wish, die if I must, take this moment to do as I please and damn the consequences?

"Can you tell me, Ranma darling?" she asked. Ranma was in no position to say for sure, but he thought he heard nothing but honesty in the final word. "The world is not what I thought it was. Is there any place at all to stand? Can you tell me, can you help me, can you give me even a little ray of light to find my way to some truth?"

She leaned down far enough to tickle his lips with the hiss of her breath. "Can you give me any reason to hope for tomorrow or the days that might follow it?" She pulled back again, bringing one hand around into his field of vision, displaying an innocuous tube of lipstick. "Or are there no answers, no truths, nothing but chaos and whatever pleasures we may wring from the moment? Shall I paint my lips with this extract and kiss you again, dearest one? Shall I turn your blood to fire within you and change your paralysis into passion, steal from you all thought other than the pleasures of the flesh? Shall we take this rooftop and let it serve in place of the first night I always believed would come for us, back when I believed in anything?"

Summoning all his strength, Ranma barely managed to twitch his head first to the right, then to the left, finally back to center. If Kodachi noticed this desperate negative, she apparently saw no reason to respect it. With deliberate, agonizing slowness, the Black Rose applied the chemically-enhanced cosmetic to her lips. She paused, staring down at Ranma, holding motionless just long enough for him to begin to hope… then leaned down and kissed him once more.

It was nothing like her previous brutal attack. This time Kodachi's lips were warm and gentle against his, teasing him, pulling back as if satisfied, then pressing softly in for more. The unfamiliarity and intensity of the sensations were enough to scramble Ranma's brain almost to insensibility.

The warmth spreading through his body and displacing the numbness from her previous attack, along with his rapidly rising heart rate, shocked him back to clarity. Ranma tensed for a moment, judging how quickly he was recovering conscious motor control… then convulsed, throwing Kodachi off him. The Black Rose didn't even try to control her fall, merely landing where her momentum took her and skidding rather than rolling to disperse the impact. Ranma pulled himself up into a crouch, attempting to push away the rest of the paralysis without giving an opening to the other effects Kodachi had promised. "Gimme the antidote! NOW!" he demanded, forcing the words through lips still stiff and clumsy.

"What antidote?" she asked, drawing her legs up so that her knees rested under her chin.

At another time Ranma might have felt guilty at the sight of the large, bloody scrape on her calf, which stopped just short of her leotard. Here and now, there was no time for such niceties. "The one to the damn drug you just forced on me!" he spat.

Kodachi ducked her head, so that all he could see above her knees was the fringe of her bangs. "I lied, Ranma. I do that sometimes."

Part of him wanted to dart forward and choke some sense out of her. He ignored the impulse, though he wasn't sure whether this was due to decency or unwillingness to risk getting that close. "What?! What the hell is that supposed to mean?"

"The lipstick itself was nothing more than an antidote to the paralytic agent from earlier. Anything you felt after that, it was all your own."

Ranma's mouth gaped feebly open and closed for several moments, as he processed this. Sure enough, his heartrate was sinking back to normal in the absence of any immediate threat. The warmth he felt, was only unusual by contrast to his previous numbness. The only desire he knew as he looked toward Kodachi's curled-up, bleeding form was a fervent wish to bring this encounter to an end.

"So what would you have of me, Ranma darling?" In another blurring motion, Kodachi went from hiding behind her knees to balanced on them, then stalking slowly toward him on all fours. "I won't fight, unless that's what you want. Shall we pretend the cure was what I said at first? Will you take your pleasure upon me? Or would you rather answer pain for pain?"

Staring at her, watching her slink forward, Ranma felt all remaining anger and ferocity drain away. "No," he said tiredly. "No, I ain't gonna do… that. No, I don't want to hurt you. Just… just stop this, Kodachi."

She did stop, halting in mid-slink and staring toward him with clouded eyes. "I don't know what else to do, Ranma," she whispered. "I told you already, I don't know anything. The world isn't what I thought it was. All the pieces have broken free, spinning and glittering so beautifully, but there's nothing fixed and no place to stand. Can you tell me? Can you show me?"

"No, I can't! I can't even understand the question!" he shot back. "So magic is real. So what? You're actin' like it's the end of the world or something. Like just because strange things can happen, that means you can't trust nothing to ever happen the way it did before? What the hell kinda idea is that? Even with magic, there's rules! Just cause they override the normal stuff of the ordinary world, you think nothing in your life makes any sense at all? That's just… crazy…." He gulped, then pushed past the unfortunate choice of words. "Look, Kodachi. I've had a Jusenkyo curse for more than a year now, and that ain't the only time I've had to deal with supernatural junk. Magic can be a big fat pain in the ass… but no way on earth is it the worst one I've ever experienced. And finding out that it's real, that some stuff you thought was wrong, that ain't any kind of stone to shatter someone's whole life to nothing."

"Those are just words, Ranma," she murmured, still on hands and knees looking up at him. "You can say this shouldn't have such an effect, but why should that change things? Why should I listen to you?"

"You said you'd do what I wanted," Ranma shot back, infusing as much bravado into his voice as he could, doing his best to ignore the fundamental flaw in what he was saying. She was a Kuno after all; it was hardly surprising that making sense might not work, but perhaps making demands would. He knelt down to better look her in the eye. "Fine. Do it. I'm telling you flat out— quit cryin' to the world about how it didn't turn out to be what you thought it was, and start trying to learn what it really is."

Kodachi didn't say anything right away, but she did pull back into a relatively normal seated position. Ranma wasn't sure whether that was a good sign or not. "Can you tell me that there's anything to learn?" she said plaintively at last. "Your… you said it was a curse? You said there were other things you've seen as well?"

"A Jusenkyo curse." 'Maybe the explanation will help her, to hear how this really works.' For a moment Ranma paused, considering the oddity, that someone who'd claimed to place so much value on her status outside the rules should be hit so hard to find that there were exceptions to natural laws. Maybe it was different when you were talking about the restrictions people made for themselves, rather than the rules of the world that almost everybody believed immutable. "It's a valley in China, the valley of cursed springs. There's a whole bunch of different pools of water there. Each one has had something drown there over the last who knows how many thousand years, and anybody who falls into a pool gets changed into whatever drowned. After that, hot water changes you back to your original form, and cold water brings the curse back again. Oh, and just for the record, your brother's lame-brained idea about cold iron buckets doesn't make a bit of difference. It's just the water an' whether it's cold or hot."

"And with such a small thing, the impossible becomes a part of your life," Kodachi murmured.

"It ain't the only time I've seen stuff that ought to be impossible," Ranma muttered. "Heck, even your brother's been there for some of it. Of course, he just took it in stride, fitting it into whatever fantasy he's got of living a legend."

"Indeed." Kodachi's eyes narrowed to venomous slits, which would have made Ranma more nervous if she had been looking at him rather than gazing off into the distance. "If you can see that, then perhaps you can understand a little better of why this should strike me so hard. That is exactly what he does with his life. He sees only what he wants to see. He cares deeply about the world and how it perceives him, and in any place where he cannot accept the truth of that, he merely embraces a fantasy. I never wanted to be like that, Ranma."

He regarded her in silence for a few moments. 'Well, that at least makes sense. I wonder how much of this is really just backlash against Tatewaki turning out to be right about something big.' Forcing himself to ignore the irony, Ranma replied, "Right. You don't wanna just look at things and take them to be the way you want them. You need to understand what's really going on."

The Black Rose nodded slowly. "To learn the truth of things, not the convenient fantasy. And…." as uncertainty began bleeding back into her voice and eyes, "…if there is no truth, no stable, solid ground…?" Before Ranma could answer, she shook her head. Her eyes hardened like steel. "But how would anyone ever know, without searching? Right!" she said, snapping the word off. "You are quite right, Ranma. I shall not cower from this challenge, nor turn a blind eye to what I have seen. I shall travel to this place called Jusenkyo and learn of its mysteries myself!"

"That's great, Kodachi… Huh?!" Ranma boggled. "I wasn't tryin' to suggest you should go grab your own curse!"

"Perhaps you didn't say it in so many words, darling. However, you did counsel me to face down the mysteries that lurk behind the obvious world I have lived in for so long. You were quite right to do that. I do need to learn these things, to experience the deeper currents of life, to come face to unflinching face with the unknown. This Jusenkyo shall be my starting point."

"You really don't need to go that far!" he declared. "Kodachi, just stick around here and keep your eyes open. Don't just blow Kuno off when he starts babbling about something that don't sound possible. Enough crazy stuff happens in this town to give you all the exposure you could ever want…." His voice trailed off as he saw Kodachi shake her head emphatically. "Why not?"

"I can't stay here." Kodachi spoke the words as firmly as she could, but there was more than a hint of desperation, and something darker, lurking behind them. "Four days have passed since I saw you transformed, and each one has been worse. This place… Its very familiarity has made it all the darker. Everything I believed I know so well, all the people and places, rules and routines… every piece of it has grown more and more to seem like a mocking, leering mask, stretched paper-thin over a hungry abyss."

She paused to take several deep breaths. "I cannot stay here. Every familiar thing scrapes against my mind like nails on a chalkboard. Even…" she hesitated, staring wide-eyed at him "…even you, Ranma dearest. Especially you. You were the hammer-blow that shattered all the mirrors and windows. Looking at you, the sensation is strongest of all — that I'm staring into something I only pretend to understand, something that could rise up and devour me at any moment." She tilted her head to the side, breaking into a wide, sharp-edged smile. "Though it is also true, with you that sensation is rather more pleasant than otherwise."

Ranma gulped. Kodachi held the grin for a moment longer, then let it trickle away. "No, I must go. But Ranma…." She broke eye-contact for a moment, looking down at her clenched fists. Then, with a jerk, she forced her head straight up again, staring directly into his eyes as she said, "Will you come with me?"

Now he was the one fighting not to look away, to get distance, to remove himself from the intensity of the moment. It took all his courage and strength to return her stare, and say, "No. I can't." He let the words lie there like a stone for a moment, before some unfathomable impulse forced him to continue. "I won't."

Curiously enough, Kodachi didn't so much as flinch. The Black Rose merely exhaled a long, quiet sigh. "As I admitted before," she returned. "I don't know you. Not truly, not deeply. All the things I believed for so long… how much of it is true? Is any? Will any of what I saw as the future come to pass? I don't know, I cannot know. Understand this, Ranma…" Now he could see pain in her eyes, but it was dwarfed by the certainty with which she spoke the next words. "If you mean that, and hold to it, at least that will be stability of a sort. At least it will be some kind of truth. Perhaps the time we spend apart will only draw us back together, perhaps enough of what I believed all along will show itself as truth. Whether that proves true or false, I can accept it… so long as there truly is proof, answers and not just circling questions."

"If you think Jusenkyo will give you those, then I hope you're right," Ranma replied, no longer forcing himself to look directly at her. "Just… don't jump in a random spring or nothing. If you feel like you gotta get a curse of your own, talk to the guide there, find out what all choices you've got. Some of 'em are a lot worse than others."

"I thank you for your concern, and your advice… even, even if they are all you can give me…." Kodachi's voice had sunk to near inaudibility by the end of the statement. She paused to recover her composure, then said, "I don't see any reason to prolong this leavetaking. I will say farewell to you now, dearest Ranma… and hope that it shall be the French 'au revoir'."

"Good luck, Kodachi," he said as evenly as he could. As if on cue, both rose to their feet. "I hope you—" He broke off, staring wide-eyed at something his changing posture had revealed behind her.

"Ranma? What…?" She didn't bother to finish, turning instead to follow his line of sight. She blinked, then glared, to find she was no longer sharing the roof only with her darling. "You," she growled, recognizing the shriveled form of Shampoo's ancient ancestor. "What are you doing here? Can you not allow a tender moment of parting to pass in private?"

"I didn't want you to run off before I had a chance to talk to you," Cologne replied evenly. "Since it's an old woman's prerogative to imagine everyone is interested to hear her thoughts and advice, let me share a little with you."

"Do not try to talk me out of this. My mind is quite made up already!"

Cologne paused for a moment, attempting to fathom why Kodachi would jump to such a conclusion. "I actually agree with your plan," she said mildly. "In fact, I wanted to help you along with it."

"You do…? Ah, yes, I was forgetting. When I am gone from here, things will be easier for your dutiful little descendent."

"What you're forgetting is that I am the Matriarch of the Chinese Amazons, an entire people who revere the strength of warrior women." Cologne's eyes bored into Kodachi. "I swear on the mantle of my leadership, and on the honor of my family, I am here to offer you help in finding the very things you're searching for. You are stumbling blindly, lost, trying to find your way. I'll offer you what aid I can."

With some effort, Kodachi tore her gaze away from Cologne, looking to Ranma for a hint on how to respond. No help there; he seemed frozen in uncertainty. "And what aid is that?"

"You spoke to Ranma about how hard it was to learn that there are more things in heaven and earth than were dreamt of in your philosophy," Cologne said. "My people know many of those secrets, have held onto mysteries long forgotten by the more 'civilized' world. You can experience them there, safely and on your own terms. That is what I'm offering you, Miss Kuno — the right to visit my people for a time, and learn the very things that you are so desperate for." The Matriarch cracked a smile. "Also, they can give you better directions to the location of Jusenkyo than Ranma's vague revelation that it's somewhere in China."

The Black Rose contemplated this for awhile. "Ranma?" she asked, turning to him once again. "How much of what she says is true?"

"As far as I can tell, all of it," he said with a shrug. "And besides, Cologne ain't the kind to lie about something big. She might mess with your head when she's bored and there's nothing real on the line… but for something like this?" Slowly he nodded. "Yeah, I believe her. If she says you can visit the Amazons, learn what you need, and not get into trouble while you do it…." Ranma looked away from Kodachi to Cologne, giving her his best probing stare. "Then I'd say that's prob'ly the way it is."

The Matriarch nodded. "If you wish, I will give you a letter of introduction, as well as directions on how to reach our lands."

"I… I am not ready to make such a decision," Kodachi admitted. "But if you give me the documents, I'll consider it."

"Very well." Cologne produced a pen, then several sheets of parchment which she filled with tight, angular script. "May these serve you well," she murmured as Kodachi took the finished products.

The Black Rose merely offered a slight nod, then turned back to face Ranma. "We have already said… I have… Ranma, I, I hope…" She gulped, blinked a tear out of one eye, choked a few words of farewell, and dashed away.

The silence left behind her stretched for nearly two minutes. It quickly became apparent that Cologne was waiting for Ranma to break it. Eventually he obliged. "Granny, I only want to know one thing."

"And what is that?"

"How long were you just hanging back and watching?"

Cologne allowed the placid look to slip away from her features, replaced by a tired look of guilt. "When you didn't arrive on time for your training, I waited longer than I should have before I set out to look for you. For that, I apologize. I found you and Miss Kuno just as you broke the kiss and threw her off you. After that, I judged that the best thing to do was watch and wait, rather than stick my nose in as quickly as possible." She gave him a slight smile. "I must say, you handled things extremely well, Son-in-law. Even if it probably was more luck than anything else."

Ranma snorted, rubbing absently at the back of his neck. The scratches Kodachi had inflicted had already healed, and the dried, crusted blood was irritating him. "Yeah, that's me, the luckiest guy in all Tokyo."

'Bah, fully half the stress in your life comes from mishandled good fortune, rather than sheer bad luck.' Cologne opted not to give voice to this opinion just now. "Nonetheless, you faced Miss Kuno in a most dangerous state, and helped her find her way back to as much stability as we've ever seen from her. I could not have done better myself," she admitted. "At least, not without resorting to something more powerful than simply listening and talking."

"Xi Fang Gao?" Ranma guessed. He hadn't forgotten what Shampoo said, about how expensive the formula was and how it should only be used in a crisis situation. However, surely when it was a Kuno receiving a new lease on mental health, the Amazons could count on adequate compensation afterward. "Could you cure her for real with that? Is that maybe the real reason you invited her to drop in at the Amazon village?"

The Matriarch inclined her head. "If she accepts my offer, she will find another, much better one laid out before her in our lands."

"An offer?" he pressed. "That's what it'll be? Her choice?"

Cologne paused, considering how best to answer. "I cannot say for sure. It won't be my decision to make. As you saw, I left the choice of whether to visit our lands entirely up to her. If she does choose to go, and if she's still as stable then as she was when she left us, then I can assure you nothing will be forced on her. However, if she has become a danger to others, or to herself, the acting Matriarch may make the decision that Miss Kuno herself would not be capable of." She paused again, giving him time to mull over her response. "What do you think about that, Son-in-law?"

Ranma heaved a sigh. "That in something like this, there's no easy answers. I guess the best thing to do now is hope. Hope she goes there, hope she wants what you're offering, hope whoever's on the other end of the bottle of shampoo really can give her the help she needs."

"For what it's worth, I think she has a good chance," Cologne said soberly. "And that never would have been true without your place in her life, Ranma. I don't suppose you enjoyed that meeting, but your stressful encounter could be Miss Kuno's lifeline to redemption. I have not kept very close tabs on her during my stay in this town, but from what I have seen she's never been so ready to change, so open to the fact that she needs to."

"And that happened after she saw my curse, and I told her about it," he mused. "What if… What if I'd told her a long time ago?"

"Impossible to answer," Cologne said briskly. "Don't beat yourself up, boy. She reacted as she did after learning you turn into a falcon. Don't think for a moment that the response would be identical if she had learned the man she loved and the girl she hated were truly both Ranma Saotome."

"Guess you're right," Ranma murmured. He sat in silence for awhile longer, then got to his feet. "All right, we've lost enough time. Let's get going, I've got a chicken to pluck. Or not to pluck. Whatever."

"Are you sure you want to proceed to the training? You've had a very stressful time already today. If you'd rather go flying for real, it might do more to improve your state of mind."

"Forget that! No way am I lettin' Shampoo beat me in the time it takes to master that stupid thing!" Ranma declared, clenching his fist and scowling the scowl of Righteous Martial Determination. Then he blinked. "Speaking of Shampoo, why isn't she here instead of you? Not that I'm saying I'd want her to see any of that junk with Kodachi!" he hastened to add.

Cologne snorted. "Soun Tendo decided to put in his order early today."

Ranma shook his head. "Jeez, how quick was that? He musta called while I was still in the bathhouse to change back to human. You'd think he'd clue in sooner or later to the fact that doing this is as good as tipping Shampoo off that I'm away from their place right now. He's basically inviting her to go look for me after the delivery."

"Bah. That's one man who couldn't find a clue if it were branded on his backside," the Matriarch pronounced. "I strongly suspect Nabiki Tendo was switched at birth. In any case, Shampoo will no doubt make it back soon if she hasn't already, so we should get moving as well."

"Sure, let's go— Hang on, one more question," he said.


"You told me you set up some kinda illusion to keep me from getting spotted at the restaurant for training, or even while I'm heading toward it. You told me I needed to come in over the rooftops, and that I needed to get off the street no later than six blocks away from your place." Ranma waited for the Matriarch to nod, then said, "So what gives with the Black Petunia? How come she caught me? We're less than four blocks away right now."

Cologne chuckled ruefully. "I never said you'd be hidden at the six-block line, and that wouldn't work well anyway. What if someone were watching you, and they saw you simply fade from sight? No, sonny boy, the illusion does nothing until you cross a certain ring of rooftops. Then anyone who's watching loses sight of the real you, instead seeing a false image continue off into the distance toward some other destination than Shampoo's and my home."

"Uh-huh," Ranma said dubiously. "So tell me, Granny. Just out of curiosity…" He gestured toward the rooftop that would have been his next stepping stone, had Kodachi not dropped in when she did. "Is that rooftop part of the ring?"


"Luckiest guy in Tokyo," Ranma groused. "Yeah. That's me."

Soun took a long last drag on his cigarette, held the smoke within for a moment, then exhaled it in a stream. The smoke drifted out and away on the breeze, thinning to invisibility as it passed beyond the porch into the backyard. He stared in its wake, his eyes resting on the dojo. Akane was inside there, training; she had been for four hours now. Three and a half hours past, Shampoo had come and gone without disturbing his daughter, which was one more bright spot on this Sunday afternoon. He stubbed out the cancer stick in an ashtray and remarked, "She's coming along well, isn't she, Saotome?"

Seated across the shogi table from his friend, Genma nodded. "Once she knew what I was training her toward, she did everything I wanted, pushed as hard as I asked her to. Far as I can tell, she's still just as determined as when she started."

"That's what it looked like to me," Soun agreed, still not facing his friend. Genma had roped him into helping with Akane's training several times now, with the most recent instance occurring the previous day. "If that's the kind of effort she puts forth all the time, I'm not surprised that her reserves have grown as much as they have."

"Mm-hm." Genma nodded sagely. "I think she'll be ready soon to start learning to use her aura. I'm planning to begin teaching her those principles in another week, probably start with—"

"Excuse me?" Soun interrupted, swiveling to stare directly at Genma. "What was that, Saotome?"

Genma stumbled to a halt, nonplused by this response. "What? You saw for yourself that she's almost got enough energy to begin with the minor tricks."

"That's exactly the problem!" Soun declared. "We discussed this before you even began training her, remember? I don't want my precious little girl to get overconfident and go challenge someone she can't handle! You're not supposed to be teaching her anything that might lead to that. Just keep on working on the exercises to build her aura."

Genma frowned. "I don't remember either one of us saying that. I seem to recall telling you that I had a plan to do what Akane asked, give her some real teaching, and that I'd do it without making things worse between her and Shampoo. I also told you I had an idea of how it could help bring our children together. Lying to her and telling her I was teaching something when I really wasn't, doesn't fit into any of that."

"And showing her a few tricks that nobody else her age knows isn't going to cause a disaster?!" Soun retorted. "That isn't going to encourage her to challenge Shampoo?!"

"I already told you, she won't do that as long as I tell her she's not ready." Genma frowned. "You do realize that will only stay true as long as she respects me as a teacher and believes what I tell her, don't you? And if I just keep doing the same old thing over and over again, sooner or later she'll figure out that she's being fooled." 'Probably later,' he conceded within the privacy of his own mind, 'especially if I keep making every session different. But it won't work forever.'

"Well, that's still better than asking for trouble right away! Saotome, you're only supposed to be buying time until Akane gets over this temper tantrum and goes back to her sweet, kind, forgiving, normal self. Not encouraging her to think she can take on girls who've trained for real their whole lives!" Soun paused, taking a few deep breaths to regain his composure.

"That's not what I'm doing," Genma growled. "And if her normal self is so sweet, kind, and forgiving, why do you think getting stronger would just mean she'd try to beat her competition to a pulp?"

"SAAOOOTOOOMEEE…" The flare and growl of Soun's Demon Head sent Genma diving straight into the Crouch of the Wild Tiger. The Tendo patriarch let his oldest friend bow and scrape piteously for several moments before releasing the technique. He sat quietly, letting Genma gather up the shreds of his composure.

"Look, old friend," Soun said with a sigh. He was calmer now, having burned away all immediate anger and frustration with the chi attack. "You and I both know how harsh is the path of the true martial artist. You've led your son along it, and created a priceless treasure, a man who is already better than either of us. How hard did you have to push him to make that happen? You worked him every bit as hard as the Master ever did us, didn't you?"

Genma growled, decidedly unamused at the comparison. "I never tied my boy to a tree and ate in front of him while he went hungry. And I damn well never sent him into a woman's bathhouse to create a ruckus so I could peep without getting caught! I challenged him, Tendo, but I didn't humiliate him. Even the insults were only to make him stronger, to give him one more weapon against opponents and one less weapon they could use against him!" It had worked, too, or almost. There was a time when Ranma had truly been impervious to all insults anyone could throw at him. It wasn't Genma's fault that he'd become unable to shrug off slurs against his manhood.

Well, it wasn't Genma's intentional fault.

"Yes, yes," Soun placated. "My point is that you drove him as hard you could, to make him the martial artist he is today. If I'd had a son, I would have done the same thing, at least as much as I could without abandoning my girls to go on a training journey. But I could never treat my precious Akane like that!"

"And I'm not doing that either!" Genma snapped, still upset at the implied comparison to Happosai. "I've been pushing her only about half as hard as I would Ranma if I were teaching him these things."

"Part of me thinks that's still too much. I haven't forgotten what this training was like when we went through it. How the Master would lecture us about pushing past our limits, pressing on through harder and harder tasks that we never were given time to master. I haven't forgotten what came after that, either! How he would beat the two of us black and blue, then force us to train through the pain! Telling us that that was our new limit, the new foe we had to fight in order to keep our strength growing as quickly as possible." Soun grimaced, almost on the verge of tears at the idea of his dear little Akane enduring such horrors.

"You can't think I'd ever do that!" Genma protested. "Even the Master wouldn't do something like that to a girl!"

"Of course I don't," Soun said briskly. "Now, did it ever occur to you that since you won't be taking Akane to that next level of the training, you're already lying to her about what you're really teaching? She's shown fine chi growth so far, but it can't last, not when you just keep throwing new physical challenges at her. She's probably strong enough now to pull off minor, low-power tricks, but her chi growth is about to slow to a crawl. It'll be years before she's strong enough to do anything real."

"I thought of a way around that," Genma said, hurrying quickly on before Soun could ask what that way was. "If I picked the right sequence of exercises, each new one would force her to move in ways that the last few haven't left her ready to. Sore muscles won't be a great substitute, but they should still be better than nothing."

"Absolutely not!" Soun thundered. "You're talking about deliberately risking permanent joint and ligament damage! I won't allow it, not to my precious little girl!"

"That would only happen if I pushed her too hard, which I won't!" Genma countered, beginning to feel the first hint of desperation. Blast it all, was Soun just going to ignore what he'd said about this course of action also bringing Akane and Ranma closer together? He shouldn't be kicking up this much fuss, not from the little Genma had let him see about Akane's training.

"I'm sorry, Saotome. My mind is made up," the Tendo patriarch stated flatly.

"Fine," Genma growled, "I won't do that." 'Let's just let the conversation end here. He's obviously not ready to hear any of what's really going on.'

"Fine then." The two sat in silence for awhile, before Soun suggested a game of shogi.

They were still setting up the pieces when Kasumi entered the room. "Hello, Kasumi," Soun said, looking up from the board. Through sheer force of habit, Genma swapped the pieces around to a more advantageous position for himself. "Back from the market and Dr. Tofu's?"

"Yes, Father," Kasumi replied. Her brow wrinkled thoughtfully. "Dr. Tofu was as silly as ever, so I'm not sure whether this was a joke or not. But he said he had something I was supposed to take home with me. It looks like a martial arts scroll of some kind." Before Genma could say anything, she produced it and handed it to her father. "Did you ask him for this?"

"No," Soun said absently, opening the scroll and beginning to study its contents.

"Oh my," Kasumi said, her attention drifting away from her father to rest on his friend. "Mr. Saotome, are you all right? You're pale, sweaty, and trembling. Did you eat something that didn't agree with you? I didn't think Akane had been in the kitchen lately."

Genma didn't even hear her. 'Dammit, Tofu, you were supposed to hold onto that until I came to get it! Please don't have written anything in there that points to me… please don't have written anything in there that points to me…'.

Soun's interest grew as he read over the scroll. It appeared to be freshly written by the good doctor, who Soun suspected had compiled it from multiple sources. It showed many different shiatsu points and how to trigger them, some with simple pressure from a fingertip, others with acupuncture, still more with moxibustion. All the points seemed to be related in one way, however— each created physical pain without doing harm to the body. 'Hmm, perhaps this could be used against the Master,' Soun speculated as he read farther down the scroll. 'Most of these look like they only have minor effects, but I bet they'd reinforce each other and build up to extreme levels if you hit enough of them in the right order. Of course, we'd best never let him get his hands on this….' Fighting off a shudder, Soun glanced further down the page. Toward the bottom, the illustrations were replaced by a large block of the doctor's writing. Soun skipped down to that, wondering whether it would shed any additional light.

Genma watched as his oldest friend's eyes widened, then narrowed. As his skin paled, then slowly began to flush an alarming red. As his hands began to tremble, then clenched tightly enough to damage the paper that had miraculously escaped a Kasumi-dazed Tofu unharmed. 'Well, damn,' he thought bitterly.

"Kasumi, would you please go take care of something in the kitchen?" Soun rasped, his tone startling the girl out of her concern over Genma.

"Something?" she echoed. "Did you want some tea or snacks, Father?"

"Please. Just. Go." The words and tone sent her quickly moving toward the safety of her refuge. Soun waited until the door was shut behind her before saying, "Well, Saotome. It appears that Tofu was right, even if he was out of his mind. He did mean for this scroll to be delivered here, since this note is addressed to you. All the instruction you could want on how to use the points, which combinations are safe and which aren't. Easy enough to start someone out with low levels of pain and work your way steadily higher over a few weeks." His hand closed convulsively, crumpling the scroll. "But you could also use this knowledge to dish out crippling or even killing pain. So I'm going to give you exactly one chance to tell me you got this to use against the Master. Not in your training of my little girl."

Genma said nothing in response, too busy trying to make sense of the thoughts whirling in his head. Akane's determination, and the respect she'd given him… his own pride in seeing her improve, in knowing that he was succeeding at a very different challenge than training Ranma had been… thoughts of Akane and Ranma, and how he was almost ready to begin the part of the plan that ought to bring them closer together… the hope he had, of how Ranma would react when he finally saw the full power and glory of what his father was trying to teach Akane, Genma's last, best chance to win back first place in his son's respect…

"Well?!" Soun barked.

"Your little girl asked me to make her into a real martial artist." Genma's tone could have chewed its way through solid steel. "That's exactly what I'm going to do."

Soun was almost angry enough to forgo the Demon Head and go straight into physical attacks. Only the faint awareness that Genma could squash him in that arena held him back. Instead, he poured all his anger and outrage into his aura, intent on calling up a manifestation greater than Genma had ever seen.

The chi surged up, rising from the burning pit of anger deep within his gut, clawing its way toward freedom… and found itself smothered under a stifling foreign blanket.

"Damn you, Saotome!" he growled, realizing the red haze in the air before him wasn't just a veil birthed from his anger. Genma's own aura was out, pushing his down, suppressing it, preventing his ultimate expression of authority. Well, Genma might be able to fight directly against his chi, but he couldn't touch Soun's emotions… and this was only making him angrier.

Both men sweated and strained, faces screwed up in terrible grimaces. Genma gritted his teeth as he felt Soun's aura strain ever higher toward roaring, malevolent release. He had to win this, for both their sakes, and for their children as well. 'Please let this work,' he begged any higher power that might care to listen. Then, bracing himself, he thinned the force of his counter ever so slightly.

A deep growl of triumph rattled in Soun's throat as he felt his adversary's defense give way. Summoning all his strength to bear, he forced his aura upward and outward to freedom.

Only once in his youth had Soun used the Demon Head against Happosai. He had extrapolated from principles the ancient lecher had taught him, but had developed the trick all on his own. He'd hoped it would be enough to affect Happosai, and indeed the Demon Master had been affected — he'd gotten a good, delighted laugh out of the spectacle. As far as his disciples had ever been able to tell, Happi was pleased as punch to see Soun develop such a thing on his own. He'd even played along as a joke in more recent days, pretending to be scared by the move while he was living under Soun's roof. In the quiet times afterward, though, he would always subtly remind Soun that it was just that — an act. Something his disciples knew all too well.

Neither Soun nor Genma had forgotten the demonstration he'd given that first time, of how a master could defeat the move.

Soun's rising aura surged through the weakened patch in Genma's. By the time he recognized the sensation he'd felt once before, it was too late. Genma clamped down hard again, forming his own aura into a projection of himself for greater control, wrestling Soun's uprushing spirit out of the alignment needed for the desired effect. He twisted and heaved, burning a significant portion of his own strength in the process… and completely emptying Soun's reserves in a heartbeat.

'Hot damn, it worked,' Genma thought, drawing his energy back inside himself. 'I'll have to thank the Master for explaining what he did in such detail, all those years ago.' He stared grimly forward at Soun, now pale, trembling, braced on his hands and knees and gasping for breath. He took a few deep breaths of his own, then said, "I'm through tip-toeing around here. Anything Goes is about winning no matter what. Out-fight your opponent, out-trick them, out-sneak them… take away any of those, and you don't deserve to call yourself a student of the school. Akane's got a long, hard road in front of her, but she asked me for this and I'm going to take her as far as she's willing to go!"

"Please… no…" Soun muttered, looking piteously up. With no strength left, he couldn't sustain anger, but pathos was well within his scope. "I can't bear it… can't lose my precious baby girl…."

"Tendo, she's seventeen years old," Genma snapped. "She'd already be married to Ranma if those two weren't so stubborn. She's nobody's baby any more." He took a few deep breaths, then continued, "And what do you mean, 'lose her'? The more I teach her, the less likely that will happen! Why the hell are you so afraid of her learning to stand up for herself against someone other than my boy?!"

"That's not it… she's got so far to go, and it would hurt her so much along the way to get there…." Soun pulled back into a seated position, his arms clenched around his belly as if he'd swallowed something terribly bitter. "She shouldn't have to. Ranma is more than strong enough to protect her. That should be his responsibility, not hers."

"And what if something happens when he's not there to deal with it?" Genma countered. "Or what if Ranma rescuing her ends up costing us in another way? I know Akane's not the only daughter you care about, she's just the one that gets in the most trouble. But that's not always how it works around here! You remember Kirin, I'm sure. What if some other nut had come by while we were all gone after him, and stolen Kasumi for himself?"

"Please, don't say such things," Soun begged, tears flowing as freely now as they ever had.

"Somebody's got to, apparently," Genma declared. "Akane used that very example the last time I talked to her, when I asked her how determined she was to continue with this. She almost seemed to think I was insulting her by asking." He fired off a glare that Soun didn't even see, as he was still hunched over in tears. "That was three days ago — when I told her about the next phase of the training."

"You mean… you mean she already…?"

"That's right. I'd heard back from Tofu that he was almost ready with the pressure point information I needed. That was my plan all along, how we could do the next phase of the training without me having to strike her hard enough to hurt." Genma snorted. "Or push her hard enough that she hurt herself.

"I told her that this was what she'd be facing, and made sure she really understood it. It took her a while to come to grips with it. But by the end of the session, she was back to herself again, still determined to tough it out and learn the whole of what I'd promised her."

"Genma, please, not my little Akane…."

"Are you even listening to me?! Who do you think I'm doing this for, if not her!" Genma took a few seconds to breathe deeply and remind himself that this was just an area where Soun wasn't quite rational. He suspected the loss of his friend's wife had crippled something inside him, twisted it to the point where perhaps no amount of argument would let him see straight on certain issues.

Still, Genma tried. "And it's not just for her, either. You know what I'm doing, Tendo— I'm teaching her a series of advanced techniques, even though her basics are still so shoddy and full of holes. How can I claim to be making her a true martial artist if I don't even address that problem?" he declared grandiosely, then waited for Soun to ask for an answer.

When the man just sat there and stared mournfully at him, he sighed and said, "That's where my boy comes in. Someday soon, I'll 'let it slip' to Ranma that I'm working with Akane on a special technique, rather than teaching her general things. He'll get in my face, telling me that that's the exact opposite of what she needs, and I can get him to volunteer to be the one training her in the essentials. It'll give them the togetherness and common ground they need, and maybe even get Ranma to spend more time at home again." Genma was getting a little worried at how his son so often spent hours away from home while he was busy with Akane. "After all, I'll have to cut back on the training I'm giving her, to let her have time to spend with him."

"If you were planning that all along, why didn't you do it a long time ago?" Soun asked. "Why can't you just use your training as an excuse to get the two of them working together like that, then let it go?"

He didn't have any more arguments left, and his patience was running low too. "Enough," Genma growled. "You'll demand that I stop training her, and you'll beg me to stop training her, and you won't listen to me when I tell you why I won't stop training her. But you won't even think about asking her yourself?" He paused a few moments for emphasis, then said, "All right, Tendo, maybe we can meet halfway on this after all. Let's head out to the dojo right now, and you can try to convince Akane to give up. If she asks me, I'll stop training her."

"I-I can't do that."

Soun barely whispered the words, but as Genma had halfway been expecting them, he had no trouble hearing. 'No, of course not, you couldn't possibly hold back anything from her that she wanted,' he thought. 'Still, I shouldn't be so harsh on him. If it was my own daughter, who knows? I might be just as pathetic.' "If you won't ask her to quit training with me, don't ask me to quit training her," he pronounced. "Or to pretend that I'm training her when I'm really just going through the motions."

Hours seemed to pass before Soun finally managed a small, trembling, "All right."

Genma allowed himself a smile. Far too many times, people had ignored or interfered with his wishes instead of listening and going along with them. At least this once he'd been able to come out on top. He wished it had been against someone other than his closest friend, and especially that he hadn't had to force Soun to capitulate, but in the end it was for the man's own benefit, as well as that of the very daughter he was so desperate to keep from ever knowing an instant's pain. 'Bah, obviously daughters have to be handled different than sons, but that's going way too far. He'll eventually realize it for himself, once he sees how far Akane has come.'

As if finding some strength and dignity in the moment of defeat, Soun spoke again. "But I want you to promise me something, Saotome. Promise me that if she ever changes her mind, that if she says she needs to take a break, or that she's had enough and doesn't want to be pushed like this any more, that you'll stop. That you won't try to shove her back onto the road and drive her down it again."

Genma shrugged. It was a simple enough request. "All right, fine," he lied through his teeth.

The first thing Akane noticed was that Genma wasn't waiting for her. It was unusual, but not unprecedented. Almost all of her afternoon training sessions had started with him waiting for her in the dojo, but there had been a couple of times when her sensei had run late trying to scrounge up the equipment for whatever the new task would be. Sure enough, not only was Genma missing, so was the crate of training aids that the Saotome master inevitably brought to these sessions. She shrugged and began her warm-up stretches. He'd get here before long, she was confident.

The door to the dojo slid open as she completed her fourth set of exercises. "Hello, Mr. Saot…." The greeting died in Akane's throat, and she gaped at the sight before her. It was Genma, but a Genma with a bandage around his head, one arm in a sling and a crutch under the other, his ankle taped and the leg above it splinted, and Akane was almost sure some of the padding under his gi was additional bandages.

"I'm sorry, Akane, but I'm not up to working with you this afternoon," Genma said, the words emerging in a pained grumble that sounded just as bad as he looked. "We're—"

"What happened?!" Akane burst out. "You were fine this morning!" At least he had been when he met with her to give her the morning's task. As usual, he'd gotten her started on it, watched her progress for a while, then left for his morning sparring with Ranma. Akane blinked. Come to think of it, they had been much noisier than usual, disturbing her several times when she normally didn't hear them at all over her concentration on her own task… and she hadn't seen him in the short interval between ending her training, grabbing a quick bath and a quicker bite of breakfast, and racing off toward school. That jerk Ranma had even left without her!

"I landed wrong from a jump this morning while I was training Ranma," Genma said gruffly. "So like I was saying, we're going to have to try something different." The elder Saotome hobbled a few steps into the building, then carefully turned to fire a glare back behind him to something outside the dojo. "Well? Get a move on, boy."

"Yeah, yeah." Ranma slouched his way into the dojo. " 'Landed wrong', he says. I flattened you, old man. You didn't put up even half the fight you normally do." He sent his own glare sizzling through the air toward his father. "An' I think we both know why."

"Ranma, you JERK!" Akane blazed across the difference between them, getting between the two Saotomes and staring the younger one dead in the eyes. "That's not what sparring is supposed to be about! How can you do something like that to your own father?!"

"Gimme a break, he'll be fine by tomorrow morning," Ranma said, waving one hand as if to dismiss her accusations. "Why don'tcha ask him why I was able to squash him so bad?"

"That would be because you were fighting like a tiger out for blood," Genma snapped, putting enough emphasis on one word to make Ranma blanch and take a step back. The Saotome master was beginning to regret taking things as far as he had. He'd thought at the time that letting Ranma trounce him so thoroughly would make his son more amenable to what his father wanted from him, that if he let Ranma think he was weighted down by his guilty conscience, then the boy would be all the more eager to correct what he'd proclaimed as his father's failing. By now, though, Genma was beginning to wonder whether the ploy was more trouble than it was worth.

"An' that's because you told me that all this time you haven't been working on what she really needs!" Ranma retorted. Turning away from Genma, he said, "Akane, my old man still ain't said exactly what you two are doing, but what I got out of him made it sound like it's some special move or something. Not the basics, not general stuff, not patching up the holes in your foundation. Is that right?"

Akane glared at that last item listed in the series. "I don't see how that's any of your business. And thanks a lot for stealing one day of training from me!"

"I'm not stealing anything. I'm here to give you what you really need," Ranma declared. "And that's the kind of training Pop should've been doing all along."

She could find no immediate reply to this. Looking away from son to father, Akane caught what was unmistakably a look of approval on Genma's face. 'Why? How can this possibly do any good? Mr. Saotome is only out of commission for one afternoon. What can training with Ranma possibly do in just that little bit of time?' she wondered. 'It doesn't fit in at all with the stuff he's been teaching me. I have to move on to new stuff each time, I have to keep on trying unfamiliar things, because struggling against that is what's going to make me get stronger. Working on the basics? That's taking stuff I already know and making it better, it's nothing like what I'm supposed to be doing. Why would he want that? I can't even ask him, not any of this! Ranma's standing right there and there's no way in the world I'm letting him find out yet about what his dad's really teaching me.'

"Ranma, go away!" she said decisively, seeing a way out of the impasse. "I want to ask your dad some questions about this without you hanging around."

The younger Saotome blinked, too surprised by this to feel other emotions just yet. "Excuse me, tomboy?" Another couple of blinks, and the majority of the shock was replaced by anger. "Where do you think you get off ordering me out like that?! In case you didn't notice, I'm here to do you a favor!"

"It's not a favor if I didn't ask for it!" Akane shot back. "And where do you get off, trying to butt in on a private matter between a teacher and student?"

Through the sinking feeling in the pit of his stomach, Genma broke into the conversation. This was supposed to bring the children together, not push them further apart. "Akane, he's here to help you. That definitely makes it a favor. And he can help you. I guarantee you, it will be a challenge," he said those five words with enough emphasis to bring her up short, "but Ranma will definitely be able to make you a stronger martial artist."

Ranma frowned, but now it was an expression of puzzlement as he stared at Akane. Every trace of anger had vanished from her. She was standing as if poleaxed, her muscles gone flaccid, her mouth gaping open, her eyes blinking at irregular intervals. For the life of him he couldn't see what his father had said to elicit this kind of reaction. For that matter, he couldn't even see anything in those words that Akane ought not to have known all along.

After a few moments, Akane had recovered enough for at least a little annoyance. 'Stupid, stupid, STUPID! I can't believe I didn't figure it out for myself! 'It will be a challenge', all right. Every time Ranma has tried to help me train, or just pretended to, it hasn't been any help at all. He's always just danced around me and acted like my skills were nothing to someone so great as him. And it always made me so mad I couldn't even think straight! Fighting against that… that's got to be the real challenge!

'Well, at least it's better than starting with the pain pressure points…' She paused for a moment longer, wondering whether that was really true, then gave a quick bow to both Saotomes. "All right, Mr. Saotome. Ranma, thank you for doing me this favor."

No matter how hard he strained his ears, Ranma couldn't quite make out the notes of the Twilight Zone theme song. He knew it was playing somewhere, though. "Uh, yeah, you're welcome I guess," he said awkwardly.

"Well, if that's settled, I'll be heading back to my room to lie down again," Genma said, hoping it was the right decision to make. Part of him wanted to stay and supervise, and part of him wanted to remain so that Akane would have another chance to express respect and trust for him and his teachings. However, the sensei in him knew that as Akane's primary teacher, if he stayed to watch he'd be undermining his son's authority, probably to the point of uselessness. "Akane, do your best. Ranma, do your best for her."

An awkward silence stretched between the teens as Genma limped out and closed the door behind him. Akane was the first to break it. "So where do you want to start?"

Ranma pondered this, running his mind over the various shortcomings in Akane's skill. "Lemme think. You're slow, you're clumsy, you overcommit, you got a hair-trigger temper, your defense sucks, you got no stamina…" He continued in this vein as long as he could. Eventually he stumbled to a halt, not quite out of material but no longer able to suppress his disbelief. Akane was still just standing there, and though her fists were clenched and she sported a murderous glare, that hair-trigger temper — which he believed to be her worst weakness — hadn't gone off. "Akane?" he asked feebly.

'The pain pressure points would definitely have been better.' After taking and releasing another dozen deep breaths, she asked, "So what you're really saying is, you don't have what it takes to help someone who actually needs help?"

Ranma's face hit the floor with nearly enough force to splinter the wood.

It was some time before he could pull himself up from the facefault. He finally did, though, and uttered a half-choked, half-whispered, "Say that again."

"I said, so what you're really saying is you don't have… what it… takes…." Akane's righteous anger ran down as she realized something. It wasn't anger choking her fiancé's voice, but a mixture of surprise and pleasure. He wore an awestruck, trembling smile that threw her emotions for yet another loop. 'Mr. Saotome, you weren't kidding about this being a challenge,' she thought feebly. 'And I haven't even gotten to the part where I'm doing martial arts while I try to keep him from driving me crazy.' Finding her voice again, she stammered, "R-Ranma…?"

"I don't believe it! You finally did it! And shrugging off something as bad as that? Way to go, Akane!" he exclaimed. "I was just using that as an upper level marker, thought for sure it'd make you blow all your fuses at once. I thought I was gonna have to work my way down to find out what you could stand, figured it'd be something a six-year-old could ignore. And you just took something like that and fired off your own halfway-decent comeback? I musta been wrong, my old man has got to have done some good for you after all!"

Akane closed her eyes and sighed. "That's nice, Ranma. Could we maybe start on some Anything Goes, now?"

"But you still got quite a ways to go," he continued without missing a beat. "Akane, this is Anything Goes. It's getting rid of what I figure is your worst weak spot."

"Oh, that's right, my 'hair-trigger temper'. Well, in case you forgot, you also mentioned a bunch of other problems. Do you think we could get in some actual fighting practice while you try to melt my ears off with insults?"

Ranma shrugged. "Maybe." 'Let's see, probably her second biggest problem is how bad her defense is, and her third is how she just tries to straight-out overpower whatever she's fighting. I ain't about to hit her, but maybe I could fire off the insults and dodge all her attacks while I sneak through her guard with a permanent marker? Wonder how many times I could fit 'uncute' or 'tomboy' onto her?'

He snickered at the thought, before reluctantly dismissing it. Although she seemed to have made progress while he wasn't looking, he would need a lot more evidence before he'd believe her temper wasn't still her worst problem. That triathlon of humiliation would just be too much, too fast. "Okay, Akane." He gave a clipped half-bow, then shifted into his favorite relaxed stance. "Try and hit me." He grinned as he slid to one side, lazily avoiding Akane's first driving strike. "And please don't let yer ears melt. You'd look even weirder without them than you do now."

Forty-five minutes later, Ranma shook his head. "Well, whatever Pop's been doing really has helped your temper, but it ain't done nothing for your physical skills." He paused, considering this fact. 'Come to think of it… doesn't that kinda fit with what Shampoo described to me?' Part of her pretense of checking for Ranma, each time when the Tendos had called for a ramen delivery to make sure she wasn't off flying with him, had been to peek into the dojo. She hadn't been able to spend much time observing Akane's training, but the details she had gathered hadn't made much sense either to her or to Ranma when she reported them. 'Shampoo said she's been doing different stuff each time. Maybe Pop did that on purpose, trying to knock the worst edges off her temper. Doing different stuff all the time, never spending enough time on any one thing to learn a real lesson from it… that would be frustrating for anybody. If Pop could keep her at it long enough, it'd have to do some good for her temper. Not to mention helping her endurance.' He casually flicked Akane's incoming haymaker aside, using just the first two fingers on his left hand. 'She ain't any more skilled than she ever was, but at least she's got more staying power.'

Akane launched three more strikes, all effortlessly dodged or blocked, while she put together her response. " 'Ain't done nothing'? Well, at least that makes him better than your teachers at Furinkan! They haven't done you any good at all!"

Ranma shook his head in melodramatic despair. "Akane, Akane, Akane… the whole point of an insult is to hit yer opponent where it hurts. Talking to me about my school record…? Try again, Grasshopper."

"Fine, I'll try!" And try she did, charging in with all the speed and skill and coordination she could muster, trying her absolute hardest to connect even once.

Ranma wove throughout the strikes, yawning ostentatiously, checking the watch he wasn't wearing, and casually twisting one arm behind his back to scratch a spot normal people couldn't even reach. "Even for you, this is too slow and clumsy to be natural. You didn't taste-test your own cooking in Home Ec or nothing, did you?"

"Just for that I'm making your dinner tonight!" she retorted immediately, launching a fierce thrust kick.

Both shots struck home, the threat affecting Ranma where an insult wouldn't have, leaving him unable to completely dodge the kick. Akane's heel clipped his hip, sending him spinning toward the ground. He had already recovered control before reaching the floor, though, zipping back upright faster than he'd moved so far in the session.

He needn't have bothered; Akane had ceased all hostilities. She was just standing there with a smug smile of triumph. "Got you."

"Cheap shot, Akane," he grumbled. "In the kitchen at least, your hands really are deadly weapons. You might as well pull a gun in the middle of a fight as say something like that."

Akane flushed, fought down the anger, and stuck out her tongue. "Anything Goes, remember?"

"Yeah, yeah." Ranma heaved one more put-upon sigh, then said, "Seriously, though, congratulations. I never expected to see you do so well."

"Th-thanks," she said, looking down and hoping she wasn't blushing. "I know I've still got a long way to go."

"Yeah," he said slowly. "About that…."

"Huh? About what?" she asked, looking back at him again.

'Should I say it or shouldn't I?' he wondered. 'I never thought Pop would've helped her make this much progress already.' He frowned slightly. 'Working with her on a special technique, my eye! That may've been what he let me think he was doing, and it may be what he told Akane he was doing, but he was really just helping her with her worst problem and he did it without even letting her realize.' A feeling of mingled exasperation and respect for Genma rose up within him. 'You could've at least been straight with me, old man. If I don't know what's really going on here, how am I supposed to do the best I can to help her?'

"Ranma?" she queried.

"Just thinking about some stuff," he replied. "You wanna take a break from training for a little bit?"

Akane hesitated. Part of her wanted to keep fighting as long and hard as she could, didn't want to waste this opportunity. On the other hand, she'd been going all out against Ranma for three quarters of an hour now, and that burned her energy much faster than her usual training with Genma. Without taking judicious breaks she might not even last two hours, let alone the four Genma had her budgeting for a typical schoolday afternoon. "All right," she said, following behind Ranma as he walked over to the wall. The teens sat down. "So what were you thinking about?" she asked.

Ranma waved one hand in a circular gesture. "This. All this. Pop training you, the progress you've made, me tryin' to help you out too…" He sneaked a glance over toward her. "What you really want to get out of it all…."

Akane blinked. "What do you mean?"

"I mean we both know why you started training like this," he replied. "Cause you wanted to be better than Shampoo."

"So what?"

"Whaddaya mean, 'so what'? It's fine to train harder than normal cause you've got a goal in front of you, but that shouldn't be the only reason for doing real training."

"Look, Ranma, don't start with me on that!" Akane snapped, feeling anger mix with sadness at the loss of the earlier pleasant moment. "I have always done real training, because the training I did was real to me. It's not my fault nobody ever helped me fix the things I didn't know needed fixing!"

Ranma just frowned and shook his head. "Don't give me that! You had me for an example, you got to see how Pop and me trained together, you saw plenty of stuff with Ryoga, heck, you were there when Cologne trained me in the Amaguriken and the Hiryu Shoten Ha! An' every time up until now when I gave you a challenge, you just lost your temper and walked away. Don't act like there hasn't been all the help you coulda asked for, Akane."

"Get off your high horse," she growled. "Every time you gave me a challenge? You mean every time you made fun of my skills and treated me like I was a joke, and never said anything that would have let anyone know what you really meant. If that really was it any of those times."

"Well, excuse me for not making every little thing absolutely crystal clear, your highness! Ever stop and think that there's things I can't tell you cause I know you won't listen, you'll just blow up, beat me down, or start cryin' your eyes out?!"

Akane's fists clenched. She shot to her feet, moving forward and around to stand in front of him glaring down. "Like WHAT?" she demanded.

Ranma, meanwhile, was already mentally cursing himself. 'Stupid, stupid, stupid. I was supposed to be trying to figure out whether she was ready to hear this, not get her all riled up and demanding it!'

"If you've got something to say to me, then say it!" she continued, filling the gap left by his silence. She calmed slightly. "And if you were just shooting off your mouth, or if you were trying to see if you could get me mad, tell me."

'That could be a good sign… she needs to know this, but does she need to know it now? Is it the right time? Should I give Pop more of a chance to work on her?' Ranma continued to sit, stare up at her, and think furiously.

Akane took a firm grasp on her temper and fell silent as well, finding it easier than expected since he wasn't continuing to get in her face. She could wait at least for a little while. She didn't know what he was thinking about, but he seemed to be putting a lot of effort into it.

Ranma took a deep breath. 'I'll let her decide for herself.' "There's something, Akane," he said slowly. "Something you aren't gonna want to hear. Something that you're gonna have to accept. If all this stuff you've been doing with Pop, and with me today, means anything more to you than just pulling ahead of Shampoo, if you really want to take it farther than that and be a martial artist for real, then you're gonna have to face it sooner or later. So you tell me. Do you want me to say anything, or shut my mouth until I know you're ready?"

"I already said," Akane replied immediately. "If you've got something to say to me, then say it."

He took another few breaths, and thought of Kodachi. Later he would muse on the irony of this, that he should seek comfort and strength by remembering the Black Rose. But the fact of the matter was, he was very proud of how well he'd handled that encounter of two days past, and hopeful that what he'd done would turn out to be exactly what she needed. If he'd done so well with that girl, why couldn't he repeat the performance with one who had the added advantage of not being a Kuno? "Okay, Akane. Here goes." He stood up, carefully sidestepped so his back wasn't against the wall, and looked her square in the eye. "No matter how hard you train, you will never beat Shampoo in a fair fight."

Akane stared back at him, her eyes wide, her voice silent. Ranma waited a few seconds to see if she would say anything, then forged uneasily ahead. "I know it ain't what you want to hear, but it's just the way things are. She's trained for real her whole life, and I mean really for real, not just what she thought was okay. An' on top of that, she's an Amazon, and that means she's got access to high-powered techniques that you won't ever even have the chance to learn. There's just too big of a gap between the two of you, Akane, and she's already far enough along that it's only getting wider as time goes by. I know you don't—"

"Get out." She barely spoke the words above a whisper, but they cut through Ranma's rambling like a knife through hot butter.

He flinched, took a few steps backward, then said, "Look, I know—"

"I said get out!" No whisper this time, Akane shouted the words. "I don't need to hear this from you, Ranma. How dare you start this out by saying it was something I needed to hear if I was going to be a real martial artist? When did you ever give up and say someone was too strong for you?!" She paused to take a breath, then bulldozed along before he could muster any real reply. "I've watched you defeat stronger and stronger people, over and over. You don't give up, you don't quit, you don't stop believing in yourself. But you'll stand there and tell me that's what I have to do?!"

"It's not like that!" he protested, trying to find the words to explain further.

"It's exactly like that!" Akane blinked hot tears out of her eyes. "I don't need help from some stupid, perverted jerk who'll believe in Shampoo instead of me."

The words he'd almost mustered, to tell her he hadn't said she couldn't beat Shampoo, just that she couldn't do it on skill alone, scattered like leaves in the wind. "Bull! That's exactly what you need!" Ranma shouted back. "Someone who can tell it to you like it is, who ain't afraid to tell you stuff you don't want to hear!"

"Just, just go," she choked, turning away from him, hunching over with her face buried in her hands.

Once again he ignored the command, hesitating for a long moment, then stepping uneasily around and toward her. "Akane, come on, this ain't— YAAHH!" This last as the youngest Tendo uncoiled from her pose with the force of a striking snake. Ranma barely managed to dodge the blow that would have caught him square on the chin. "Very funny!" he spat back at her, staring angrily into her now-revealed visage. Yeah, he could see signs of sadness there, but the majority by far of her emotions were blistering fury. That pose had been nothing but a trap to lure him into arm's reach. "Fine, Akane, I'm gone!"

Putting actions to words, he strode over to the door, whipped it open, stalked through, and slammed it shut, all the while keeping careful note of Akane's position relative to him. She stood there, apparently content to let him leave under his own power. Ranma headed away from the dojo toward the house, but changed his mind before he'd taken his fifth step. "No way am I gonna waste my time just sitting around while I think about this," he muttered, turning and heading toward the koi pond.

He bent down to trigger his transformation… and paused, staring at his face reflected back at him. The image was surprisingly calm, he thought, but even as he did so he realized the anger was swiftly fading. He knelt there, lost in thought as the rest of it drained away.

"Guess that was a mistake," he decided. "She needed to hear it sometime, but now wasn't the time. Way to jump the gun, Ranma. I should've just kept my big mouth shut. Heck, I guess maybe I should've left it all up to Pop." He shook his head in mild disorientation. "I cannot believe I just said that. But… but then again, is it really so hard to figure? Akane's basically like a beginner, in all the ways that really count. I may've nearly outgrown Pop's teaching now, but he was the one who got me a lot of the way to where I am now. Why should it be so hard to think he could help Akane too?"

Giving this thought due consideration, he decided that there was no reason at all. "Okay, Pop. For now I guess I really will leave it up to you," he murmured. The words still felt odd on his tongue, but Ranma shrugged it off. He turned away from the pond and started walking toward the house. There was no need to transform and fly away as quickly as possible, no point in leaving his clothes lying at the edge of the pond for Kasumi to bring inside. The sky would wait long enough for him to head inside and change in privacy.

"I'm sorry, Akane," he muttered as he went. "Didn't mean to get you that upset. But it's true and the sooner you realize it, the better off you'll be." He still regretted having hurt her feelings, but at least this time there wasn't that sick sense of panic, confusion, and utter shame that he'd felt in the past when he'd done that. 'Progress for me, anyway,' he thought. 'I mean, obviously it'd be better not to hurt her, but at least if I do screw up it shouldn't make me feel like I've gotta move heaven and earth to try and fix it. Especially not in a situation like this, when she's the one not facing up to reality.' He nodded to himself as he passed through the door into the house, thinking about better ways to explain to Akane what he'd been trying to say, and how to make her see that her accusations had been totally wrong.

Unnoticed behind him, standing against the dojo wall five feet from the door he'd passed through, Nabiki watched with narrowed eyes.

'And away he goes,' Nabiki thought bitterly as she stared out her window. Ranma's feathered form was visible for a moment longer, before he climbed high enough to be lost from view. She had waited outside for a few moments longer before heading inside after him, intending to time it so that he'd be flying away as she passed through the living room. No chance of him observing her or realizing she had already paid him the same favor.

However, Ranma had been delayed, stopping in the room the Saotomes shared to have a quick conversation with his father. Nabiki hadn't managed to overhear all of it, but what she had had been bad enough. 'You insulted her that badly, got her that ticked off, and you weren't even a little upset yourself? Not guilty, not panicked, not defensive, not angry? Just impressed that your father could be so sneaky and effective in training my little sister? And that from now on you 'weren't going to stick your nose into it'?' The middle Tendo grimaced. 'I'd like to think he was just clueless about this being something real, instead of another one of their childish little lovers' quarrels. But that's not it, not this time. He wouldn't have been so angry when he came out of the dojo if none of what happened inside it had been serious for him.'

He had been angry, he had been caught up in what had happened between Akane and himself… but even as Nabiki had watched, he'd shrugged his way out of it. Had even done so unconsciously, unless she missed her guess. He hadn't had to make any kind of effort to put the encounter behind him. The knowledge weighted down Nabiki's chest as if some malevolent trickster had slipped a load of frozen, rusted lug nuts into her stomach.

"How dare you do this, Ranma," she growled, one fist clenching, her face twisting into a scowl more fearsome than any her little sister had ever worn. "How dare you just… just spread your damn wings and fly away! How dare you—" Abruptly she clamped her lips shut, only realizing then that she'd been speaking the thoughts out loud. She spent the next minute taking long, deep breaths, relaxing her muscles and restoring the outward image of carelessness. 'So this is how far you've pushed me? No farther, Ranma. It ends now. I'm not losing control, not of myself, not of you, not of anything in my world!'

She took an even longer time after that to continue the relaxation process, calming herself, letting go of the wistful fantasy of engineering something truly horrendous, something that would shatter his newfound confidence and happiness with his altered curse. Perhaps it could still be done in the future, but as things stood now it probably wouldn't accomplish what she wanted — the risk was simply too great that Shampoo and Cologne would expend a few more resources of their own to make things better for him again.

Bad enough that her careful manipulation of Ukyo hadn't worked like it should. Oh, sure, the chef had played her part perfectly, as Nabiki had known she would; nobody could resist Junko if they didn't know ahead of time that they would need to. Ukyo had performed as well as Nabiki could have hoped, making an appeal that certainly should have had more results than it did. After everything the chef told him, everything Nabiki's underling in the Astronomy club had managed to overhear, Ranma's trust and comfort level with the Amazons ought to have been shattered. As far as Nabiki could tell, though, he'd only been gloomy, depressed, and worried for less than a day, flying back from one of his hours-long absences with all such emotions banished.

There was no real evidence that he hadn't been alone on that flight, that Shampoo had met him and somehow managed to quiet those fears. But after the things he'd said to her sister this afternoon, Nabiki wouldn't bet a bent yen piece against it. She supposed she'd know for certain when and if another, worse thunderbolt of Amazon retribution descended upon Ukyo.

She forced those thoughts away, focusing on something more productive: the course of action that seemed like the only reasonable one left. Even that fact left a sour taste that threatened to draw her lips back into a frown — it would have been better by far to have freely chosen this course, back when there had still seemed to be other viable options. None of her previous plans had worked, though… mostly because things were just moving too quickly. Nabiki was confident down to the deepest depths of her soul that she could still have turned this situation around, if only things hadn't changed so damnably rapidly. It hadn't even been a full six weeks since Shampoo came back to town!

She cursed the Amazons, their schemes, their resources, and above all the learning curve of one Ranma Saotome. Things had gone for so long without the central player in this tragicomedy changing in any meaningful way, and then one hammer-blow from Shampoo shattered that comfortable paradigm. Worse yet that Shampoo — and, Nabiki privately suspected, Cologne from the shadows behind her — had continued shuffling the pieces around faster than anyone could put them back together. Nabiki still wasn't sure of how far things had progressed between Amazon and 'airen', didn't know the exact lengths Shampoo had already gone to, but one thing had become painfully obvious: Ranma himself was convinced that things needed to change. With the speed at which he learned when he saw there was reason to, Nabiki knew that was one genie she simply couldn't stuff back into its bottle.

'So it's time for me to be the one taking advantage of who Ranma Saotome is,' Nabiki thought grimly, allowing no trace of the emotion to appear on her face. She was calm, collected, in control. This might be her move of last resort, but it would certainly do the job. 'You had your chance, Shampoo. Time for me to be the one swinging the sledgehammer.'

Ten minutes of silent preparation later, Nabiki activated her cell phone and entered a number she had memorized long ago, though she'd never once dialed it before now. A few moments later, a pleasant female voice greeted her politely. "Good afternoon, Mrs. Saotome," she said, interjecting just the right note of suppressed enthusiasm into her voice. "This is Nabiki Tendo speaking. Is there some place we can meet? I've got good news about Ranma."


To be continued.

Author's notes: This chapter has been a long time in coming. I hope you all found it worth the wait. Since it has been so long, I should probably remind you that in an earlier chapter Nabiki had decided to try hooking up Gosunkugi and Manami. If anyone was wondering where Junko's "I know you'd probably rather be with Gosunkugi" line came from, there's your answer. The original outline for this chapter included a scene that would have refreshed everyone's memory about this, but as you can probably guess, it was removed due to length issues. Sixty pages are quite long enough to be going on with, I think.

Another important acknowledgement: in the Astronomy Club scene, Ranma describes filtering out the red storm of Jupiter and viewing the ground below. Those of you sufficiently versed in astronomy will realize that as Jupiter is a gas giant, it doesn't really have 'ground'. However, considering who Ranma Saotome is, I think he'd still use this quick and easy way to describe what he was looking at, even if it was really just denser atmosphere.

Things in this chapter borrowed from other sources: Some of the imagery from Kodachi's final scene was influenced by Richard Lawson's Roses of Shadow. Also, someone else already came up with the 'in the kitchen Akane's hands are deadly weapons' joke, though I can't remember who or what story.

Thanks to everyone at the Refuge who gave C&C. Thank you for reading, and I hope I haven't strained your patience too badly… because the next chapter may take even longer. Much longer. I'll go ahead and reveal here that the next two chapters will cover the same span of time, showing events through the eyes of a different set of characters in the different chapters. I've got them both outlined, but I haven't decided yet whether I'll write them simultaneously or not. If I do, obviously you're going to be waiting a long time for chapter 7, but then again there won't be almost any wait at all between 7 and 8.

Chapter 7
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